Carlo left his office around eight-thiry in the evening. His wife had told him that she'd be late home because of a work dinner, so he stopped off for a pizza at the Chinese takeaway just downstairs from his flat. As soon as he opened the flat door, he smelt a strange odour like something had gone off- not too strong, but annoying. He turned on the lights, put his pizza down on the kitchen table and checked the fridge. Apart from a carton of milk that went off yesterday which didn't smell yet, he couldn't find anything worthy of emitting such a sharp stink. He threw open the windows to let in some fresh air and went into his bedroom to change clothes. He couldn't bear the shirt and tie that he'd had on since this morning any longer, and couldn't wait to chuck on a t-shirt and some track pants.
He was taking his tie off when his gaze fell onto his wife's side of the bed. He noticed that the covers were rumpled, as if someone had been lying on them. He and Giada had made the bed that morning and had left for work together. His wife was obsessed with pulling the sheets so tightly they left not so much as a single crease. Maybe she'd stopped off at home before going out to dinner and had lain down for a moments rest. While he was contemplating this, his mobile rang. It was Giada.
«Hi, honey! Are you at home?»
«Heya baby. Yeah, I've just got here. I was just about to have pizza. You?»
«We've just got to the restaurant...I don't really feel like this at all. I hope it won't last too long...Will you wait up for me?»
«Depends when you're getting back. I'm bloody tired and I don't know if I can stay up.»
«Well, if you fall asleep maybe I'll try and wake you.» That second, the landline rang.
«Giada, wait a sec, the other phone is ringing.»
Carlo looked around for the cordless -which was never in its place- following the ringing, he found it in the bathroom perched on the basin.
The voice at the other end made his blood run cold. It sounded like his wife, but trembling and slightly more penetrating. Often, Giada enjoyed playing the part of a little old grandma; or rather a “dopey” old woman, as she used to call it, and the voice on the phone sounded just like that. But what struck him more were her words: “Hellooo looove! Are you at hooome?”
Carlo looked at his cellphone in his other hand. The display showed the current call, “Giada mob – 1 min. and 6 seconds”. He heard his wife shouting in another direction:
«Hang on! I'm coming! Carlo? Carlo? Are you there? I've got to go!»
He quickly answered his mobile.
«Wait a minute Giada. Wait!» He put the house phone back to his ear.
«Hello, who is this? I believe you've got the wrong num...» The trembling voice interrupted him:
«Waaiiit fooor meee. I'm cooming...»
Then, he heard the caller hang up. Picking up his mobile, he quickly tried, «Giada, you still there?»
«Yeah, but not for long. They're calling me. Who was it?»
«No idea. Sounded like an old lady's voice. Like you when you do the voice of a dopey granny.»
«Like thiiiiissss vooooiiice? Loook, I'm nooot seeniiiillle.»
«Yeah, like that. Really similar.»
«Quit it, Giada!»
«Ok. I gotta go now. They're calling me over.»
«Did you come back home today?»
«Nothing. Thought not. G'night.»
«Enjoy your pizza! Night.»
«Night. See you later, if you can wake me.»
«I'll manage, I know how!»
Having ended the call he pulled off the bedcovers to fold them and could smell the strange odour once more. He put his nose down to the bed and a dry retch came upon him. The covers stank of rot.
“What the hell happened here?” he thought. He took the cover off and chucked it in the washing machine. Even the sheet had a strange smell, so he decided to change that, too. Finally, he sat down in front of the television with a couple of beers to eat his pizza.
He was watching the sports channel on pay TV: one of those channels that manages to talk about football 24 hours a day even if there weren't any matches, when the television suddenly turned itself off. Sometimes the remote got stuck between the couch cushions and some of the buttons got pushed by accident when someone moved, but the remote was right in front of him on the beanbag he used as a foot stool. He reached out to grab the remote when the stereo came on full blast tuned in to a rock station. Carlo's heart skipped a beat or two, and he spilled some beer onto the couch as he jumped.
He heard 'The Call Of Ktulu' (a Metallica instrumental inspired by Lovecraft) ripping through the air from his surround-sound Dolby speakers. At that volume, the bass made the windows in the living room vibrate. Carlo raced to the off switch. Less than two minutes later, the doorbell rang. Before opening it, he peered through the peephole. It was his neighbour, and he knew straight away that he had come to complain about the noise. Opening the door, Carlo forced a jolly smile onto his face.
«I'm sorry, Mr Pezzetti. The stereo turned on by mistake full blast.»
«By mistake? How can it turn itself on by mistake? You know we're not young anymore and we go to bed early! Put some headphones on, why don't you?»
«I'm really sorry, I said. You’ll be able to get to sleep, I promise”. Carlo shut the door and wiped the smile off his face. “What a pain in the arse!»
By 10, he was already in bed, and he fell asleep straight away. In his dream he relived everything that had just happened: the TV that had turned itself off, the radio that had switched itself on all of a sudden, the doorbell ringing… But when he looked through the peephole in the dream he saw nothing. The light on the landing was off, but he could feel a presence, the voice from the phone.
“IIIIIII've arriiiiived! I'm heeeere for youuu, Caarloo! Caaarlooo!”. In the dream Carlo started screaming.
He woke up in darkness drenched in sweat. The only thing giving off any light in the room was the LED of the alarm clock which read 12:30. His breathing came heavily, and in his mind he could still hear the voice calling his name. He was lying on his side, facing the wall, petrified by the terror of the dream he'd just had. Luckily he could hear his wife behind him. Her arm was wrapped around his chest. He hadn't heard her get into bed. He heard her exhaling somewhere between a snore and a deep breath. He took her hand between his and it felt icy. Giada always had cold hands and feet.
He was about to slip back into sleep when he heard a noise coming from the corridor. Their bedroom was next to the bathroom and had two long, thin windows on the top of the dividing wall. They had these two windows put in to get some light from the bedroom, since the bathroom had no window. From those very windows Carlo saw the bathroom light turning on. He was still in a state of semi-consciousness, having been abruptly woken by the nightmare.
“Am I still dreaming?”, Carlo thought. “Perhaps, I'm dreaming of having woken up, but instead I'm still in the middle of my nightmare, and now I'll hear that voice calling me from the bathroom”. He realised he was shivering. “But, if I'm not dreaming and I'm awake, it means there is someone in the house...I forgot, I left the living room window open! Maybe someone has broken in from there”.
His torpor had almost completely vanished, and he realised he was fully awake.
«Giada, Giada! wake up. There's someone here», he whispered to his wife.
But he could hear her still breathing deeply behind him, her cold hand still lying on his belly. He had to do something. He couldn't lay still anymore. He had to act. In certain situations, one is not able to reason, but acts instinctively.
“Perhaps if they hear me, they'll get scared and run away”, he thought, and then, gathering some courage he shouted: «Who's there? who's in the bathroom?»
When the answer arrived, Carlo fully grasped the difference between fear and terror. To see the bathroom light turning on made him feel fear. Fear of some burglar being in the next room. To hear the reply to his question made him burst into a state of pure terror. A terror of something that he didn't know who or what it was, apart from the fact that it was lying down next to him, holding his hand.
The reply which came from the next room was his wife's:
«Darling! It's me. Sorry, did I wake you?»
That was Giada's voice, without a doubt. She was in the bathroom. Who was lying next to him, then? The bathroom windows let some light into the bedroom. The heavy breathing had not ceased, and Carlo could not free his hands from the grip of the gelid hand. He slowly started to turn around, and as he was doing so, he recalled in his mind the voice he had heard on the phone: “Waiiit. I'm coooomiiing”, and the voice he had heard in the nightmare just a moment ago: “IIIIIII've arriiiiived! I'm heeeere for youuu, Caarloo! Caaarlooo!”
Suddenly, he understood. That voice was not the same as his wife's mimic of an old woman. It was like the voice of an old woman who was trying to mimic his wife's.
Time seemed to have stopped. It seemed to him to take an eternity to turn around. He recognised that rotten smell he had smelt when he first came home. The deep breathing behind him stopped, so did his heart, when he heard that voice next to him whispering his name: ”Caarloooo... Caaarloooo! I'm here for youuu...”
Even before seeing her face, he knew who was in his bed: the oldest woman in the world, The Crone. She has been given different names by different cultures around the world: Morta, Yama, Enma, Thanatos, Giltinè, Memitim, Azrael, but for us she has always been the woman whose takes living beings to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Giada was brushing her teeth, when she heard a dreadful scream coming from the bedroom. Her hair stood on end. She never heard Carlo scream like that. She had never heard anyone scream like that. She ran to the bedroom, and when she entered, she saw her husband lying on the bed, immobile, towards the middle, with an expression of sheer terror on his face that she would never forget. His eyes were wide open, fixed on her pillow. One hand was stretched, as if he was trying to push something or someone away.
She started crying; then called an ambulance, but she already knew there was nothing they could do.
Heart attack, the doctors said.
Giada could never explain two things: her side of the bed was creased, as if someone had slept there.
And Carlo's hair was completely white.
Bio: Aaron Scott, the pen name of Attilio Abbiezzi, was born in Milan in 1971. Educated in economics and business, he has always been an enthusiastic reader of horror books. In his free time, he delights in writing short stories in this genre.
"Dark Legends" (originally “Racconti Oscuri”), published in Italy in 2012 by Runde Taarn, is his first collection of short stories. A short film based on the story “La Vincitrice” (The Winner), produced by Argumental Productions and directed by Alessandro Concas, received a special mention for best actress (Sabrina Bissirri) at Dino De Laurentiis’ CortoDino Festival in 2012.