When Ambrose arrived his aunt’s doorstep, exhausted as usual, the sky started pouring rain, so he stood there upon the porch shivering and damp, and jetlagged of course, having recently flown a thousand miles to the reach the family manor in the darkest corner of Tallahassee.
As he stood there, he thought, this time surely. Surely this time Aunt Hagatha would take pity on him and tell him the family secret—the very secret that had haunted him so often during his childhood.
“You’re a fool, Ambrose.” Aunt Hagatha said when she opened the door. “You’re an insipid, unrepentant fool.”
She led Ambrose to the library, tossing a blanket on him and forcing him to pour his own brandy. The firelight cast a reddish gleam to her face. As she sat beside the fire, her eyebrows rose like sharp crows against a narrow grey sky—the same eyebrows that tormented him with their distain every family holiday.
Mother and Father often told him never mind Aunt Hagatha. She bears quite the burden. But Ambrose knew the secret she guarded was actually a treasure, a dark blessing.
“Give me the secret, Auntie,” Ambrose begged.
“Yet again, you ask the impossible. Such knowledge is beyond your understanding.”
“But please, Auntie, please.” Ambrose forced himself to keep a dry eye, but barely managed it. “You cannot possibly understand what torture I endure–day after day, hour after hour of lying about, staring at the ceiling. Even jet-lagged, sleep eludes me! If I could I only shut my eye for a few moments, one moment…”
“A moment, ha! You think the thing you seek is a simple plaything, an idle afternoon enterprise?” Hagatha scowled, “Such things are dark magic, a deep and hellish power. What do you think drove your dear Father to madness? Why do you think your dear Mother threw herself off the roof of that Woolworth’s in Sacramento?”
Ambrose had often wondered about that, really. Sacramento was such a horrid place.
“No, my idiot nephew. The secret our family guards is not dissimilar to the sweetest death, and those who trifle with it often find themselves removed entirely from existence.”
At that, her voice softened and trembled slightly.
“Can you possibly imagine,” she whispered, “What it’s like to sleep the sleep of Hell itself?”
“Oh, God,” Ambrose sighed, “That would be so great.”
One of the crowish eyebrows on Hagatha’s face lifted. The hard scorn returned to her eyes, so they gleamed like black stone in the firelight.
“Very well, then. It may be a tremendous disrespect to pay to your sainted parents, but I see I have no choice. I shall show you the secret, lest you hound me forever.”
At that, she stood slowly, the crinoline of her dress rustling, whispering against the floor. (Or, was something else whispering? Ambrose wondered.) Beside the fireplace, Hagatha tugged at a brass sconce, and it dropped with the sound of gears and pulleys.
Ambrose’s heart pounded as he watched a small, hidden cubbyhole open in the wall, riddled with cobwebs. A tiny grey moth flitted out, trembling and frantic. Ambrose stood, trembling himself, as Hagatha reached her bony hand into the hole. Now, Ambrose thought maddeningly, I shall finally lay eyes on the strange thing, with all its mystery…
Hagatha’s hand emerged, and Ambrose saw what she held. The blood fled from his face and his heart began to palpitate wildly. He had been lied to by those ghosts who had whispered to him as a child. It was not the softest cushion kissed by angels, nor was it a headrest of divine, heaven-colored silk. Instead, it was hard and small, strangely curved, and covered in a dusty, uncomfortable-looking felt.
“Wha–what is that?”
“The secret our family has guarded for generations,” Hagatha said softly, “The Neckpillow of the Demon Barbatos.”
At the sight of that awkward, cushiony cylinder, marred with centuries of dandruff, marked with spider-thin occult symbols, something within Ambrose shattered. Perhaps it was the delicate connection to sanity those of his bloodline could barely maintain; perhaps it was the fragile trust he’d once held in Aunt Hagatha. Perhaps it was just the jetlag.
Hagatha stepped towards him, her eyebrows sharp in the red glow. As she placed the thing softly around his neck, Ambrose felt a terrible scream welling up inside him—and yet, all he could manage was a weak, shuddering yawn.