Something horrible was in the corners, and no one could see it but Pauline Hopper.
They slithered, snaking their way around the house, winding into the darkened spaces where the walls met, wet and wormy. When the clock ticked into the funerary silence of the living room after the sun went down, she heard them hissing and whispering. It never stopped, the constant whispering. It was almost as if–
“No. Best not to think of it,” Pauline interrupted her thoughts. Just remembering the sound of those horrible Things, for she had no other name for them, would make it real. She never dared look at one head on, and she never dared to allow herself to listen to their horrible sounds. Best to keep it that way. Pauline reached for the TV remote on its little wooden table next to her recliner and turned the volume up a notch. Jeopardy was on.
“God bless you, Alex Trebek.” The sight of that mustached face meant that in thirty minutes, the home healthcare nurse was due to arrive.
At first, Pauline had resented her daughter Libby’s decision to have a nurse come to the house. She wasn’t completely disabled, after all, just a little weak. But the nurses helped her get in and out of the bathtub, and they straightened up the house a bit. The best part was that when people came around, the Things kept quiet and still. More than once, she had asked the Hearts at Home nurses to stay for a Coke just for a few extra moments of quiet. Even more often, she invented some nit-picky chore for them to do. From time to time, she asked the nurse to help her make dinner, of which she was certainly still capable, though she didn’t much like going to the kitchen. It was too dark in there. Too many corners where the Things liked to hide. She also didn’t really care to have her toenails painted, but if playing pedicure kept someone around to keep the Things from bothering her, she would deal with having neon pink toenails. As soon as Pauline was alone again, it was TV time.
Day and night, the TV blared in the little house. Pauline told time, not by the large clock that hung on the wall too close to the corner, but by who was on the TV screen. Jared Smith from the Local 8 news, Kelly Ripa, Rachel Ray, those crazy girls on The View, and Steve Harvey kept her company before lunch. Then came the twisted, tangled soap opera love lives, and later, John Wayne or Gene Autry, and FOX news like a spoken lullaby.
If the volume was a little loud during the daytime, it was positively blaring by nighttime. Everyone just assumed that since she was pushing ninety years old, Pauline was going deaf. She wasn’t. Actually, the volume gave her a headache, but the headache was better than hearing what was waiting for her if she would just turn her head or move her eyes. It was a good thing that the neighbors made a lot of noise. She didn’t complain about Reggie’s loud, drunken parties or his engine revving friends; they didn’t complain about her TV blaring around the clock.
In the pauses between commercial breaks and the shows, Pauline shifted uneasily in her recliner. She mentally reviewed her mantra.
There’s nothing in the corners.
It’s just a shadow, or mold growing on the wall.
You’re just a batty old woman.
No one would believe you if you told them.
Ignore it though she might, Pauline could almost feel the slithering darkness pressed into the places where the walls met, waiting until the last visitor had gone away and left her home alone.
The paint near the door was bubbled where the walls met the ceiling. Cracks ran along the plaster walls at each corner, and a large crack ran down the middle of the living room ceiling. The cracks bothered Pauline, but she learned to ignore them so she would not be tempted to look.
“There’s nothing in the corner,” she repeated her mantra.
Alex Trebek recited his last words for the episode, and with that, Jeopardy was over. Pauline glanced expectantly at the door, which stood in the only corner that the Things did not inhabit, the brightest corner in the whole house. Maybe the light from its windows scared the Things away. Pauline turned the TV down a little to listen for the Hearts at Home car.
Commercials began and ended. The theme song for the next game show started, but the Hearts at Home nurse still wasn’t there. Where was that irresponsible girl? What was her name? Was it Amanda? Yes. Amanda. For the past month or so, Amanda had been her nurse three days a week. This girl seemed more responsible than most, spent less time on her phone than most, and seemed to know what to do without having to be told. Pauline genuinely liked her. But with every minute that passed, she found herself muttering, “Irresponsible girl. Just a kid. Why do they hire kids? So irresponsible! I would never be late to work like this!”
From the corner behind Pauline’s chair came a hiss.
“Go stand in the corner, Pauline.”
Pauline bowed her head and rose quietly from her seat, digging her fingernails into the palms of her hand to keep herself from crying. Her lower lip wobbled as she passed her classmates.
“Dunce!” someone whispered as she walked by. A tear escaped and made its way down her cheek.
“A good student is never late to school. A good student always finishes her homework, and a good student certainly always keeps her pencil in her desk instead of losing it. Put your nose to the wall, please.”
Pauline stood with her nose barely an inch away from the whitewashed walls, getting chalk dust up her nose. She sneezed. In doing so, her forehead and nose hit the wall. The class erupted into giggles. Her head smarted in two places, and there was a little bit of clear snot on the wall in front of her.
“For goodness sake, Pauline Stone, would you stop interrupting the class before I have to get out the ruler?” Miss Ableson was perhaps the meanest third grade teacher in the history of River Valley School. She handed out Fs like doctors handed out lollipops, and that ruler of hers gave many a little boy and girl welts across their legs or the backs of their hands. On top of all that, she constantly looked like she smelled something appalling. Maybe the old prune didn’t like the way third-graders smelled.
Pauline cried silently into the walls, letting the snot and tears mix on her face, not daring to wipe either away for fear of feeling the sting of that ruler across the backs of her legs. She had felt it on her hands just the day before, when she had been caught writing with her left hand. “Good students use their right hands to write legibly,” Miss Ableson often lectured her. Only Pauline’s right-handed writing was even messier than her left-handed writing.
Without warning, Pauline felt something small hit the back of her head. More giggles. Surely it was a spitwad. Tink! And another. She dared not even move to shake the little, wet balls of paper out of her hair. They would cling to her frizz and dry there. Oh, mother was going to have a fit if she showed up at home with welts on her legs and spitwads in her hair!
The other children’s stares burned into her like fireplace pokers. She stood in the dunce corner with spitwads flying in her direction and the boys laughing at her while the girls rolled their eyes and whispered. They always whispered about Pauline, with her too-short old skirts and her daydreaming and her frequent trips to the dunce corner. The whispering happened on the playground, in the street, in the classroom, even in church–the only place she was safe from the whispers was at home.
“You may go back to your seat now, Pauline,” Miss Ableson said at long last. “Irresponsible girl,” she tutted softly as Pauline wiped her tear-smeared face on her sweater sleeve and walked back to her desk.
“Go stand in the corner, Pauline. The corner, Pauliiiiiinnnnnne,” a rough whisper taunted her from behind. Pauline sat very still beneath her green granny square afghan. She pulled the end of it over her head. New voices joined the first one. Pauline peeked her head out of the afghan and chanced a glance upward. Shadowy forms slithered all around the ceiling, moving from one corner to the next. She pulled the afghan back over her head. She needed to use the bathroom, but it would have to wait.
At long last, the screen door slammed, and Pauline sat upright with a start. “Pauline? Are you alright? What’s wrong?” Amanda asked far louder than was necessary as she dropped down to one knee next to the recliner.
“What?” Pauline asked shakily. She sniffed loudly and was surprised to find that her nose was running.
“Why are you crying? Are you okay?” Amanda pulled a Kleenex out of the box on the side table and handed it to Pauline.
“I–I–” Pauline faltered, searching for words while trying to figure out where and when she was. Had she just been in third grade again? Maybe it was a dream. But she didn’t feel like she had been sleeping; her head still hurt from bumping it against the classroom wall. But she couldn’t tell Amanda that. She had heard Libby say the word “nursing home” far too many times lately, and she had an inkling that appearing to be a confused old woman would land her there even more quickly. Everyone seemed to be against her living in her home, the home she had raised her children in. So she lied, “Oh, it was nothing. Just something I saw on TV.”
“Really?” Amanda asked, turning to look at the TV screen. “On the Four O’Clock News?”
“The news is depressing,” Pauline retorted, regaining her composure without needing the tissue.
Amanda shrugged and said lightly, “Fair enough.” She began picking up the afghans and pillows that Pauline had pushed onto the floor when she had awakened that morning. “There are blankets everywhere. Have you been sleeping in your chair?”
“Yes, I have,” Pauline admitted.
“Why? You have a perfectly good bed in your room. Are you having trouble getting to your bed?”
“No, no, of course not,” Pauline said lightly. “It’s just that my mattress is old. The springs poke me when I try to sleep.” She started to glance toward her closed bedroom door, but out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something dark near the ceiling in the hallway, in that back corner. With a shudder, she quickly turned her attention back to her nurse.
“We need to tell your daughter, then, so she can help you get a new one.” Amanda pulled a pad of paper and pen out of her pocket and started to write a note.
“No, it’s all right,” Pauline wheedled. “You already do so much, helping this old lady out. You spoil me so much, I’m going to forget how to take care of myself. Leave the bed to me. Libby is coming over for dinner. I’ll tell her about it myself tonight.”
One of Amanda’s eyebrows went up.
“I promise,” Pauline swore with a firm nod of her head.
Amanda tore off the sticky note she had been using and crumpled it. “Well, okay. Are you ready for your bath?”
“Not just yet,” Pauline said, putting up a hand to stop Amanda, who was offering her hands to help her stand. “I was wondering if you could do me a small favor first.”
Lester Holt’s authoritative baritone voice boomed throughout the house, and Pauline was so distracted by the clamor of the NBC Nightly News that didn’t hear her screen door open.
“Ma?” The sound of her daughter’s voice made her jump. She knocked over her water bottle, but thankfully, the lid was closed, and it only flipped over and landed with a thud on the floor.
“Libby,” Pauline said, smiling and waving at her youngest daughter. “Come on in,” she said. Libby was big like her father, and her heavy footsteps sounded a little like Tom’s on the steps. Normally, Pauline could hear Libby coming a mile away.
Libby crossed the threshold hesitatingly, looking around the room like a tourist who wasn’t sure she had gotten off the train at the right station. Feeling a rush of glee at the presence of another person in her house, even if it was one who was overly opinionated and tried to control everything in her poor mother’s life, Pauline grabbed the remote and switched off the TV. She sat up eagerly and kept her eyes trained on Libby’s face, not the walls.
“Ma,” Libby began slowly and loudly, “What happened to your furniture?”
Pauline glanced around her at the living room furniture, which had been moved three feet away from the wall on all sides, and answered airily, “Oh, I did some rearranging.”
“Rearranging? All the furniture is crammed together in the middle of the room. You had that home healthcare nurse do this.”
“Yes, I did. And I like it this way. I can get to everything easily.”
“Yeah, well, you can also break your neck tripping over something.” Libby pushed a chair back a few feet, and Pauline felt her face redden.
“I may be old, but I’m not that wobbly,” Pauline declared, crossing her arms over her middle. Truthfully, with the furniture arranged in a tight rectangle at the center of the room, she had to hold onto the couch and chairs to squeeze through the openings so she could use the bathroom or get to the kitchen. The positive part was that if the television got any closer to her, she wouldn’t need the remote anymore. It was just about far enough away to put the foot of the recliner up without bumping anything. “It’s my furniture, and I will keep it how I like it.”
Libby took a long look at her mother, then shook her head and carried a paper shopping bag into the kitchen, flipping the light on as she went. Pauline sucked in a sharp breath when Libby passed a couple of inches away from a Thing, which was hanging upside down in the corner facing her. The Thing did not move or make a sound, and Libby did not look like she noticed it. With considerable effort, Pauline put down the leg rest of her recliner and stood up. It took a while to get the lever to work. It, like everything else in the house and in her body, was wearing out. She joined Libby in the kitchen and sat down in the chair that was pulled out for her.
“What do we have tonight?” Pauline asked. She especially liked Tuesday nights because Libby brought takeout from her favorite restaurants, either Kathy’s Corner or Applebee’s. It would have been nicer to go out to a restaurant, but those places were all the way across town, and Libby was able to order over the phone and to pick up dinner on her way back from work.
“How does chicken alfredo sound?” Libby asked.
“That sounds nice.” Pauline dug in almost ravenously, or at least ravenously for a petite, thin old woman. Many days, she barely felt hungry at all. And now that those horrible Things were lurking around the kitchen, she didn’t want to go into the kitchen to cook, even if she was hungry.
“Ma, I’m worried about you. You just don’t seem like yourself lately.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Just behind Libby’s shoulder, something moved against the wall. There was a barely audible chuckle. Pauline’s hands balled into fists so tight, the knuckles turned white. She looked directly at it for the first time.
“Libby, would you mind turning on the radio?” she asked.
“I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you for all my life,” The Turtles’ song warbled from the little radio on the counter. The same song was playing down the hall in Libby’s room. The girl hadn’t heard the doorbell. She hadn’t seen the man in uniform who showed up at the door.
“I am so sorry, ma’am,” the young man in the green army uniform said. He held his cap in his hands, passing it from one hand to the other. He had politely refused Pauline’s offer of coffee, which was probably for the best. Her hands were shaking so badly, she would have dropped the coffee. Pauline already knew why the man was there. Every mother dreaded this moment.
“No,” Pauline said simply. A firm refusal to accept what was going to come out of this man’s mouth, a desperate attempt to put off reality for a moment.
The soldier cleared his throat. Whatever he said next, Pauline barely heard and would never remember. She knew it was over, her Jimmy was dead, and it was Uncle Sam’s fault.
“Get out,” Pauline heard herself growl. “You get out of my house right now!”
“I am so sorry,” the man whispered, his voice failing him. His eyes were wet, their rims red. “Ma’am, I-”
“No! No! No! You’re lying! You get out! Just go!” She was on her feet, ready to throw him out the door. She would throw him and the couch and the entire living room out the door if she had to. Yes, she would. There was no way in the world that her Jimmy was dead. She couldn’t imagine Jimmy alone in some God-forsaken jungle, bleeding to death while the ground exploded all around him.
Jimmy, who showed up at dinnertime with his pockets full of toads and rocks and sticks of gum.
Jimmy, who had just started working at the foundry when he was drafted.
Jimmy, who was planning to marry Ellen and have sons and coach Little League.
Jimmy, who was due home at Christmas, just six months from now.
Jimmy, who was almost done fighting.
Jimmy, whose entire life, whose entire future was ruined by a man who pulled his name during a draft lottery.
The young soldier left quickly and quietly, and that was a good thing. He closed the door after himself, leaving Pauline digging her nails into her hands so hard they might actually pierce her skin. Her head hurt, and she felt faint, but she refused to collapse onto that couch and give in to the truth. Not yet. If she stayed right where she was for just a moment, she could pretend that Jimmy was still over there in some imaginary place across the ocean where everybody wore triangle hats, writing her letters all about the funny little kids in the town near where his platoon camped. For who knows how long, Pauline stayed put.
The smell of smoke snaking into the room brought her back to the moment. She turned and ran to the kitchen, throwing open the oven door and coughing as smoke billowed out. The tuna casserole was black, and the crushed potato chips on top were on fire. Pauline pulled the burning meal out of the oven, throwing the casserole dish and the oven mitts along with it into the sink. The glass cracked, and the casserole spilled out. She turned on the faucet to put out the fire, and then threw open the back door and pushed up the window over the sink to air out the room. Now Tom would not have any dinner when he got home from work. The faucet continued to run on the now-extinguished mess of cream sauce, tuna, and noodles.
“Ma? Ma.” Libby’s voice sounded thin and tinny. “Are you still there, ma?”
“What? Oh. Of course, I am.” Pauline shook her head, trying to both clear it and get some sense of where, of when she was. She was holding the phone to her ear. “I- ah, I was just saw something on the news, dear.”
“Well, I can barely hear you over it. You might want to turn that down.”
“Oh,” she said. She quickly pressed the minus sign on the remote. The TV ceased to roar, and she turned her attention to the phone. “There. Is that better?”
“Yep. Okay. Ma, I’ll be over at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning to pick you up for to go to the eye doctor.
“I don’t need an eye appointment.” Of course, Pauline knew that she did indeed need and even want a new pair of glasses. But her vision was just good enough to see that another Thing had taken up residence in the corner next to the door. She didn’t want to go anywhere near the door, even if it meant staying in that little house for the rest of her life.
“Yes, you do,” Libby said. “You’ve got that darn TV set so close to your face, you can hardly watch it without putting your nose against it.”
“I can see just fine,” Pauline snapped. “And I have my furniture the way I want it. This is my house, and I can put my TV on the– the— on the roof if I want to!”
Libby’s voice softened. “Okay, Ma. I’m not going to fight with you today. Look, I’ve gotta go. Talk to you soon. Love you.”
“I love you, too, Libby. But I’m not going.”
Pauline used the edge of the afghan over her legs to wipe the tears off her face. She smelled smoke. The toaster! Good heavens, the last thing she wanted was the smoke detector going off. She couldn’t reach it to turn it off. “No,” she whispered as she struggled out of her chair and hobbled across the kitchen.
“He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead,” the Thing in the corner sang. Pauline felt as though her bladder might give way and leave her with wet pants, but she had to get to the kitchen. Something other than toast was burning. In her slow motion hurry, she forgot to look away from the corner, and instead ended up looking it full in the face. By God, it had a face! That face looked oddly like her Jimmy. Nineteen-year-old Jimmy in his army hat, which he wore tilted jauntily to the side. Jimmy’s face was mouthing something, but she couldn’t guess what it was. Forgetting the toaster, she stepped closer to the wall.
The gray-brown Thing shaped like Jimmy’s face said, “I don’t wanna go, Ma. They can’t make me go over there, can they?”
Her first reaction was to reach out and touch her boy’s face. Her… She yanked her hand back. The Thing’s mouth opened into a grotesque, squirming smile. “You shut your mouth,” she screamed. “You just shut up! You’re not even real! You’re dead, Jimmy! You’re dead!”
The smoke detector gave an ear-splitting squeal. Pauline gasped, “The toaster!” The appliance made a buzzing and popping sound, and the TV went silent. The power was out, and now small fingers of flame began to wave back and forth inside the toaster.
“Ma? Ma! Are you there? Ma! Who’s there with you?” Libby was shouting into the phone, her voice rising in pitch.
In the silence without the TV, the Things in all the corners seemed to form a choir, singing, “He’s dead, Jimmy’s dead,” over and over. Pauline put her hands to her ears and screamed. The scream ended in a coughing fit. The smoke was getting thicker, and her lungs started to burn a little. The toaster now looked like it was shooting off fireworks. The bottom of the cupboard was turning black as the fire spread to its varnished surface. The box of cookies she kept next to the toaster was burning, too.
The front door banged open suddenly. She tried to turn around to leave the kitchen, but another coughing fit overtook her. She clutched the refrigerator door handle for support. Suddenly, strong arms were grabbing her around the middle and lifting her up, carrying her toward the door. Grayish forms reached toward her like fingers, grasping at her clothes, pulling at her hair. Her feet dangled helplessly, and she shouted, “Put me down! Don’t you take me!” Like it or not, she was being carried toward the Things. Above the smoke detector’s shrill warning, Pauline heard the Things in the corner singing, “He’s dead, Jimmy’s dead, oh my poor Jimmy!”
Then, bright light.
Blue sky above.
Cold grass beneath her, poking the back of her neck.
An oddly familiar face looking down over her. A man with a Confederate flag baseball cap over his long, stringy blond hair.
She sighed, “You got past them.”
“Are you all right? Mrs. Hopper? Pauline! Stay awake, okay? I called 9-1-1,” Reggie assured her. Reggie from next door with the loud parties and loud cars and loud friends. He said something else, but she wasn’t listening. All she could hear was the absence of the hissing, the break in the whispers. She had never realized how loud those Things were until she didn’t hear them. Her face lit up, and she reached up and took hold of Reggie’s shoulder, pulling his face down to him.
“Thank you,” Pauline whispered. “Thank you for getting me past the Things.”
“The what?” Reggie asked. His face was near hers, and his breath smelled like potato chips.
Pauline woke with a start to the sound of whispers. She was in a bed with railings and a curtain hanging around it. The walls were peach with green shapes on the wallpaper. The hospital. Tom had died here, back when the walls were painted yellow. Pauline squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think of why she was there, but she found herself listening to the whispers instead…
“She was screaming at my dead brother. He died in 1967.”
“She put bread in the toaster while it was still in the bag!”
“…A little smoke damage, and the cabinets and counter were burned.”
“…Smoke inhalation. She’ll be okay, but they want to keep her for a few more days.”
“If it hadn’t been for her neighbor Reggie, I don’t want to think about what could have happened.”
“Maybe they can figure out what’s happening to her. What if she’s got dementia?”
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“Can’t we move her into a nursing home?”
“It might be for the best, but she’s not going to like it. You see how she gets whenever I bring it up.”
Pauline tried to sit up, but her muscles wouldn’t cooperate. She coughed weakly.
“Ma?” Libby pulled back the curtain just enough to slip in closer to the bed.
“Yeah,” Pauline said.
“You’re gonna be okay, Ma. You breathed in some smoke. Do you remember the fire?” Libby spoke so loudly.
“You sure did give us a scare, give us a scare, give us, give us a scare, you did!” Her voice faded to a snarling whisper.
Pauline gasped, “What? What did you just say?” She gripped the bed rail tightly.
Libby gave her an odd look and said slowly, “You gave us a scare, Ma. I’m worried about you living alone. I don’t want to lose you.”
“Well, I’m not going anywhere just yet,” Pauline replied. The smoke must have gotten to her head. Libby wasn’t whispering.
“I’m just going to go chat with the doctor before he comes in to see you, okay? I’ll be out in the hall if you need anything.”
Pauline nodded. She just wanted to lie alone and listen to the quiet, even if it was peppered with other patients’ monitors and call lights. She lay back against the pillows and let herself doze. She didn’t know how long she slept, but she awoke after the sun had gone down. She sighed, happy to be somewhere other than home. She heard normal sounds. Everyday hospital sounds. Beeps, whispers, call lights, whispers, nurses’ conversations, people passing in the hallway, whispers. She dozed a while longer until someone came into the room. She turned her head, expecting to see the nurse fidgeting with her oxygen tank or checking her IV. Instead, a gray-brown face was looking down at her from the corner next to her bed. Pauline froze, horrified, mouth agape, breaths coming rapidly. The heart monitor burst into frantic drumbeats.
“I’m not going anywhere, going anywhere just yet. I’m not going,” whispered the Thing in the corner, staring back at her with a face that looked surprisingly like her own.