The Boarder Hoarder
By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 6 minutes
Scare Rating: 2/5 Ghosts
The traveler met the Widow Graybar on the front lawn of her large post-Victorian home. The heavy-set matron shuffled about, pulling weeds from beside the ankles of what must have been a couple hundred concrete garden gnomes of all shapes, sizes and affectations. A warm breeze made the dozens of wind chimes and light catchers hanging from the woman’s deep porch sing and dance, as if to welcome the man.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he called from the fence. “Heard from the stationmaster that you might have a room to rent?”
“I might, good sir!” replied the widow as she lifted her large frame to take a pause from her work. She looked the stranger up and down a full two times, then seemingly satisfied with his appearance and station, shuffled to open the gate and let her guest in.
“I haven’t taken anyone in yet, and haven’t really been sure until now that I would. But the house is awful big and quiet and empty since Jed went away,” she said. “I could use some company, even if temporary. And I could use some income. So I put word out that I’d take boarders.”
At the man’s tired, grateful smile, Mrs. Graybar opened the gate and led him in.
“We’re coming up on our lunch meal. Get yourself inside and washed up. We’ll feed you and the get you into your room,” she said.
As the man moved through the house, each room he passed through was stuffed to bursting with, well, stuff. The foyer featured what must have been every newspaper published since the invention of the Gutenberg press. From the conservatory, hundreds of beady glass eyes, set into the faces of innumerable porcelain-doll faces, seemed to watch him move past. The main hallway was stacked with wooden crates filled with bottles, jars and other glass artifacts. Clearly his hostess was an eccentric. For his peace of mind, the man sought to size up the exact nature of her eccentricities.
“You have a lot of … things,” he said. “You are a collector?”
Mrs. Graybar cackled a hearty laugh as she pulled a ham out of the oven. “You could say that,” she replied. “I collect lots of things. Picked up the habit from my husband. Now I collect my own things.”
The clear benignness of the woman’s eccentricities, combined with her hospitality and perhaps also the smell of the warm, rich lunch, reassured the man.
“Be a dear,” she called over her shoulder to him, as she started to carve into the meat. “Go into the cellar and grab a jar of pickles would you?”
The man complied: he strode to the other end of the kitchen. As he opened the cellar door, he felt a firm push on his backside. Losing balance, he tumbled down a flight of stiff, well-built wooden stairs and into a dark basement. As he came to a stop in a bruised heap on the dark, dirt floor, he heard the cellar door slam shut and the dull thud of a heavy bolt falling home, followed by a maniacal cackling sound.
Olaf Atchison found his way to the Graybar Boarding House as so many other traveling men had over the last two years. He stood patiently on the widow’s breeze-cooled porch for his interview as a boarder.
“I’ve been taking itinerants in ever since Mister Graybar passed on, rest his soul!” she said mournfully. “I’ll have you, and the rate’s by the week and in advance — $25 if it pleases you. Curfew’s at 11 and meals are served at 6, noon and 6.”
Weary from his travels and grateful for a temporary home, Olaf picked up his bag and obediently followed his hostess into the house.
“Don’t mind my collections,” said the widow as she led him into the kitchen. In the intervening years, she’d succeeded in filling up almost every remaining open space. In addition to newspapers, the foyer also now included dozens of cuckoo clocks. None was set to the right time and there were so many that at any given moment, one or a few birds would peep out to sing its alarm. In the next room were hundreds of bird cages — wire cages, gilt cages, fancy cages and bamboo cane cages.. Inside each was a stuffed mammal — a badger, a beaver, a number of squirrels, a couple prairie dogs.
The scene unsettled Olaf a bit. He considered whether he should move on to a new town — to a new boarding situation that might be a tad less odd. Something about the widow’s house made him feel unsafe. He noticed a faint scratching sound from under his feet that compounded his anxiety.
“What’s that? Did you hear that?” He asked his hostess.
“Yes, and I apologize. We have a bit of a mouse problem in the cellar,” she replied. “Need to get me a new mouser cat. They won’t harm you though — they can’t get to any of my food, seeing as it’s all stored in jars. Reckon they just want a cool place to rest in the summer. Can’t blame them for that.
“You can see for yourself,” she said. “I need a jar of olives from down there. Would you be a dear and fetch them for me?”
Olaf hesitated; he still didn’t have a good feeling about Mrs. Graybar or her peculiar habits. But he stifled his inner anxieties with mental rationalizations:
“She must just be a harmless — if somewhat touched — old woman. What could she do to harm a relatively young and strong man like me?” Having duly convinced himself, he moved toward the door that the widow pointed him.
He flipped the deadbolt and pulled the door open; but yet, there was something that bothered him still. He paused and turned, and was shocked to see the Widow rush toward him, arms stretched out in a push — at first — but a look of surprise quickly replaced her crazed expression as her momentum carried her past her guest and tumbling down the stairs.
Olaf stood in stoic awe at what just happened — at what almost happened to him. Then, he thought of his attacker; he peered down into the darkness, and heard movement — and voices. He reached into the darkness and found the pull string for the cellar light and snapped the single bulb to life. In the dim brightness, he saw crowded around the Widow’s body what must have been at least 20 gaunt, haggard-looking men. Each was bound with rope tied to the heavy stone wall. Each was gagged silent with dirty cloths.
Olaf immediately grasped the true nature of the scene, and ran down the steps, past the broken, still body of his hostess, to free the imprisoned men — the men whose fate he might have joined as a new addition to the hoarding Widow’s collection of boarders.