Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3,608 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

When Did It Get So Creepy?

by John Michael Flynn

There were always comforts to be had.

This was Louisa DeCorvo’s thought at the south end of America Street as she passed a tiny brick church. She stopped and put down the bag of groceries she’d been carrying. Her sister Davinia, known by all as Ro, had told her the church was built at the same time and of the same brick as the Catholic elementary school one block over. The school was still used, though year by year its student population had been shrinking and the diocese was going to shut it down. The church, on the other hand, had been boarded up for at least a decade. The plywood over its windows was tagged with graffiti.

Louisa felt a sad sense of wonder as she marveled at the church, small by Catholic standards, with a peak lower than many other rooftops on the street. At each corner of its roof stood little stone statues of men in cassocks and surplices. Louisa assumed they represented saints or maybe Bishops or Cardinals. Maybe Popes, but she wasn’t sure. Ro might be able to tell her. She’d have to remember to ask.

What Louisa liked most about these statues was that she hadn’t seen them during the other times she’d passed this church on foot during visits to Ro. As if they’d been waiting to be discovered, she thought. Waiting for me. As if she were the last one around that still believed.

She knew this wasn’t true. There were many believers. Her late father had never ceased to insist on this as he lamented the disappearance of so many Catholic schools in the city. Her mother had for years shared the same lament, but times had changed. Ever since the sex scandal, a dose of skepticism had entered her mother’s faith in the church and she no longer attended mass with the same loyal fervor.

Enough of God and church mourning, thought Louisa. She picked up the groceries and carried on, stopping at her next favorite spot along this walk, her birch tree.

This birch tree it seemed was also waiting, hardly any leaves left on its wiry branches. Louisa admired the stubbornness in its crooked, haggard posture. It stood like a bent nail rooted to one edge of a wide crack in the sidewalk. Its roots had created the crack in the first place. Not many birch trees in this city. Not many trees, in general. She heard her late father again sharing this lamentation as well.

Louisa put her hand on its bark. She saw initials carved there. She caught a strong whiff of urine and stepped back from the trunk and looked up to see sparse leaves dangling and twisting in breezes, one of them falling to join others and paper trash spinning over pavement. Watching the birch lean and wobble and scratch against the wind, she daydreamed about the countryside to the north where it was apple-picking season. She imagined biting into a Macintosh, tasting the smoky bitterness of its juice. She had a man with her and together they drank hot cider and ate cubes of sharp cheddar cheese. This man helped her pick out a pumpkin and a squash, and together bundled in sweaters and scarves they walked a grassy hill that looked down over a pasture lined with maple trees aflame in deep scarlet and gold.

She began talking to the tree. “No car, no man, no road trips, I guess.” She’d taken the bus into the city to visit her sister. It was easier that way. Besides, her car was in the shop, its transmission getting repaired. She picked up her groceries. “So don’t sweat it, I’ll be around,” she said to the tree. “I wouldn’t want you to miss me.”

Louisa believed the tree nodded back to her, bowing obediently, a servant to more than the wind.


Flat-roofed and two stories high, Ro’s vinyl-sided apartment building faced east to west while every other building on her side of the street stood taller and faced north to south. These other buildings were made of wood, and one of them had a faux brick front. It seemed to Louisa that her sister’s building was squeezed in and had been slapped together without any concern for quality. Thinking about this, she heard again her father. He’d griped about this all the time.

Ro lived on the first floor. Tenants lived upstairs. Her door was never open or unlocked, even though Ro seldom went out. Louisa had a key. Before entering, she thought to herself: I had a really good walk, the birch tree wished me luck and I need it—a blessing, really. Inside Ro’s kitchen an envelope with the word RENT lay on the table and Louisa saw it just as her sister exited the small bathroom—everything about the apartment was small and cramped—the sound of a toilet flushing behind her. It remained hard for Louisa to tell Ro’s age, and she envied this about her sister. When Ro’s husband Hilton had died, he’d left her the building. As sole owner and landlady, Ro had paid off what remained of the mortgage with the rent collected from her upstairs tenants.

Ro wore a white T-shirt under an over-sized flannel shirt and jeans. There were no hugs, no how-are-you, no formalities. Ro didn’t even stop as she headed to the basement door, opened it, and switched on a light that illuminated the wooden stairs. Louisa smelled sudden fumes of musty dampness.

“I gotta check them fuses again. We blew one in the bathroom,” said Ro, frowning. “I’ll be right back.”

Louisa moved to the top of the stairs, watching her sister labor to maintain her balance, the stairs shuddering under her weight.

“Can I help?”

“Fuses are always blowing,” cried Ro. “Windows are always breaking, and someone’s car is always getting robbed. No. I’ll be right up.”

Louisa, shrugging, moved back to the kitchen table and began to unpack the groceries. Having seen that her sister, already on the bulkier side, had gained more weight, she wished she hadn’t purchased as many groceries, especially the tins of cookies she’d been asked to bring. Talking to Ro about her weight had been annoying at first, but Louisa had learned to steel herself and to expect resistance. She’d grown accustomed to it. She liked to remind Ro she was concerned about her health, that they were both genetically disposed, after Dad, toward diabetes. Louisa sat a moment. It was Saturday. She’d been working long hard days all week at the leasing office and this was the first time it seemed in a month that she’d had a few moments of undisturbed quiet. Fine, she thought, let Ro get as big as a house, what do I care? I can’t live other people’s lives for them.

Blowing a mournful sigh, Louisa thought about her two daughters, both of them with Chuck for the weekend. One weekend a month Dad got the girls and for a change she hadn’t phoned to remind Chuck of things like buying tampons to keep in his house. Besides, Chuck was serious now with this new woman in his life—not the “other” woman who had led to their eventual divorce—and the girls liked her. This woman also had two daughters of her own from her first marriage. Maybe it was all for the better. Maybe Chuck would marry again, leave her be, and Louisa could start fresh with that other man she was so prone to imagining.

The main thing was that her daughters loved her. She took comfort in this, and even believed Chuck when he said she’d done a good job with them and that he was forever grateful.

Maybe. Maybe not. As if it was so easy and all the available men in the city were waiting in line to meet a 40-something Mom with two kids who lived in a crowded ranch in the suburbs with her daughters outgrowing their clothes, their bedrooms, and her wallet. Meanwhile, her Mom suffered arthritis and memory loss each day, and doctors had told Louisa dementia was starting to come into play. They told her she should be ready.

For what? And how? It wasn’t as if she could afford to check Mom into an institution for round-the-clock care as if it were a local hotel. Oh, all that talk about Obamacare and how it was going to change everything and she even went out and campaigned for him and he turned out to be such a disappointment. Something nobody liked to talk about. As if they were all ashamed. As if they’d been duped. Well, at least he’d been better than Bush. Or maybe not. They were still in wars. When did it all get so creepy? Even with the insurance she had through her job, the medical bills wiped out any chance of saving.

It was hellish when she thought about it. Maybe it was good she was so busy at work. She’d slit her wrists if she sat around and thought about the debt she owed, the state of the world, how much blood she squeezed out of Chuck so she could make ends meet, and how much they had to fight so he’d continue paying out alimony and child support—all the hopes she’d once had, the way things were, all the time she’d wasted, it seemed, living a fantasy.

“Earth to Louisa, come in Louisa. You all right?”

It was Ro. She was breathing and sweating heavily. A sweat stain spread across the collar of her white T-shirt. She’d lumbered up the stairs and Louisa hadn’t even heard her.

“You musta dozed off,” said Ro. “Good thing for these tenants I’m handy and things like fuses are easy to replace. They’re the old screw-in glass type, mostly 15 amps.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Louisa, dryly.

“Yeah, well, whatever. Plumbing and electrical problems are what I try to avoid, but there’s no way around them. And that basement is dusty and full of cobwebs, but I got a flashlight I keep stored by the fuse box, so I can find the blown fuses and replace them.”

“So it’s all set?”

“All set.”

“I brought your groceries.”

“I can see that.”

Ro looked at Louisa. Her brown eyes deepened. “Lu, something wrong?” Louisa stood, gave Ro a big hug, not pressing too tightly for fear of getting her sister’s sweat all over her new blouse. She smacked a kiss on Ro’s soft cheek. “I’m fine.”

“Your face, your pretty face,” said Ro. She pinched Louisa’s cheek and shook the flesh. “So pretty, like candy, you look great. And still so thin. How do you do it?”

I work out and I don’t eat cookies all day, thought Louisa. She pulled away from her sister and sat down. She felt a headache coming on. There was aspirin in her purse. She couldn’t assume Ro would have any. Extra fuses, yes. Aspirin and spare toilet paper, maybe. Louisa nodded toward the envelope full of rent money. “Better take that.”

“My new tenants. A couple. They’re good kids, those two. Like my Oliver.”

“Is he still living here? I never see him.”

“Oliver met someone. Just don’t tell Mom.”

“You know, Ro, I have to say this. Oliver’s my nephew, but this fact appears to mean nothing to him. I mean, I give him a present each year at Christmas, but my generosity has never been reciprocated.”

Ro, shaking her head, bore down on her sister. “Oliver likes being the black-sheep, plays it to the hilt. Nothing I do or say will change that.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Trust me. He usually leaves early in the morning and he gets home late at night, if he comes home at all. And now that he’s got a boyfriend, I hardly ever see him. He’s thirty years old. I can’t run his life and I can’t wait until he moves out.”

“He wants this building, doesn’t he?”

“Do you blame him? It’s centrally located, I own it, and the rents cover more than it costs to keep it going. That’s why I don’t have to work.”

“Right,” said Louisa. “That’s why you don’t work.”

“But I worry.”

“Don’t we all.”

“How are the girls?”

“Can you sit down?” asked Louisa, her voice louder. “You’re making me nervous.”

Ro, unruffled, dragged a wooden chair away from the table and sat. She cleared the groceries aside and rested her forearms atop the table. “Look at you,” she said. “You don’t look so good. You’re anemic or something.”

“I’m okay. I’m fine. Really. By the way, what do you mean like Oliver? You mean gay? Do you only rent to gay couples now?”

“Lu, everybody’s gay. Where’ve you been?”

The throb in Louisa’s temples sharpened. “Not here, anyway, that’s for sure.”

“You need to get out of the suburbs. How’s our boy Chuck doing?”

“It’s still like pulling teeth to get my payments. I never see him.”

“You just be careful.”

“I’m too busy not to be.”

“Go rest on the couch, Lu. And thanks for the groceries. I’ll open some wine. You want some Chablis? Go on, take the couch. Take your shoes off. I’ve got dinner for us. Just have to heat it up. Now go, go, go.”

“But let me help.”

“I said go. I’ll bring the Chablis. Now get.”


An hour later, in her socks, Louisa sat with her feet tucked beneath her legs on the couch. Ro’s cat, Calzone, lay purring on the windowsill just above Louisa’s head. Louisa was on her second glass of wine and feeling light-headed. She could smell the food from Ro’s kitchen. Her headache had passed, but now the food aromas, instead of stirring her appetite, were stirring sharp pains in her stomach.

She shouted to Ro, wanting to let the wine take over, telling her about the church and the little statues there and her favorite birch tree and how they used to go apple picking when they were little girls and how she hoped to take her daughters apple picking this year and how time just passed so quickly and there never seemed to be enough of it to do what she really wanted.

Ro commented now and then, but for the most part kept busy with cooking and answering her phone. At one point, a young man stopped by her front door and sat in the kitchen and asked Ro if he could talk to her. Ro introduced the boy as Jared, who lived upstairs. He was Ro’s other tenant. Louisa didn’t sit with Jared and Ro in the kitchen, but she could see from the couch that Jared had a black eye.

Louisa listened, pouring herself more wine as Ro explained to Jared, “If these boys, you know, in the neighborhood, if they talk to you again, you just walk away, you hear me? You walk away. I heard one of them yesterday, you should have seen him, all dressed in a nice suit and he was going on about how he ain’t going to let no N-word this and no N-word that. I hope you don’t ever talk that way. I don’t like it. And I know that boy’s mother, she’s goes to Holy Ghost Church every Sunday and I see her there, but never with her boy, always alone. And my boy, Oliver, they went to CCD together, they did. You never hear my Oliver using the N-word. His father, may he rest in peace, wouldn’t stand for it. And neither do I, so mark my words, okay? Just stay away from that crowd. I mean you think you got beat up cuz they like you so much? I don’t think so, Jared.”

Louisa saw that Jared had no idea how to respond. She felt sorry for him. He would soon be too old to be a boy, but he still was, and this was dangerous in such a neighborhood where block by block the racial and economic dynamics were drastically different. She also knew Ro could blow up and level everything in her path. Jared appeared cowed by her, but he also looked grateful, relieved. Louisa felt sadistic pleasure in realizing she wasn’t the only one who felt lost.

“I don’t speak that way,” Jared said to Ro. He studied her, seeing that Ro had been listening. “I won’t. I hate it, too. I’m not a racist. Don’t worry.”

“Being smart never hurt nobody.” Ro yelled to her sister, “Ain’t that right, Lu?”

She hated being shouted at. Ro should know better. “Whatever you say.”

The talk was over. Jared left. Ro stood in front of Louisa at the TV set, remote in hand, and Louisa couldn’t help think how unfortunate it was that her sister, once so svelte and lovely, the apple of Hilton’s eye, had grown enormous. Beastly, in fact. What on earth was happening?

Ro was flipping quickly through channels, trying to find a program that Louisa had never heard of. Ro was shocked that her sister didn’t know this program. Louisa argued that she couldn’t afford such an expensive cable package. Nor did she have time to watch television.

“I’m home late from work every night, in case you were wondering,” she said, sounding more sarcastic than drunk. “Oh, and I have two daughters. Your nieces, by the way.”

“They’re not cutting back? You still get forty hours, but no overtime.”

“I get a salary. We’re busy right now.”

“How’s Mom?”

“The usual?”

“That’s a big company.”

“What is this? Twenty questions?”

“You wanted to talk. I’m talking,” said Ro.

When did she become so callous, thought Louisa. She said, “The company owns about fifty complexes across the state and they’ve got these ridiculous goals for occupancy rates. We’ve got agents out there and all sorts of new applicants. For some reason, this area is hot right now. Everybody wants to live here.”

“Not in the city. But the burbs.”

“It’s nice in the burbs,” said Louisa. “But it’s the city that’s hot.” She poured more wine into her glass and saw that she’d drunk nearly the whole bottle.

“I got more,” said Ro. “Finish it. Food’s ready. We’ll open another.”

“Mom’s not okay, you know. We need to be prepared for anything.”

“I’m glad to hear it’s picking up at work.”

“Me, too,” said Louisa. “But I’m wiped out with Mom. With everything. Thanks for having me over. I needed this.”

Ro had found her channel. “Forget it. Forget everything. I’ll drop in on Mom later this week. You watch this with me. Relax. Take a load off. I got a nice dinner for us. You’re too skinny, Lu. You always were.”

An oven timer started to beep in the kitchen. Ro bustled off. Long before Louisa made any sense of the sword and sorcerer fantasy program that she was watching, she found herself seated in front of a portable tray on a stand. She was drinking another glass of wine from a fresh bottle. She was telling Ro she was always a good cook, complimenting her food and eating it: lasagna, meatballs, Veal Parmesan, sausages with peppers, bread and butter, and antipasto salad. As she watched the program, she ate without really thinking about it and she heard Ro’s explanations of the plot and characters as if from a distance.

Ro moved in and out from kitchen to living room and back again, with repeated helpings for herself and now and then adding a few heaps on to Louisa’s plate, despite Louisa protesting that she could not possibly eat another bite.

“You work too much,” said Ro. “If I learned anything after Hilton passed away, it was to stop taking it all so seriously. He left me this place. He didn’t want me to work. You know that. You tell me about these churches like there’s something we can do about them. But there’s nothing. It’s the same with Mom. We can just live. We can hire caregivers. We can love each other. Give it our all.”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“We all are,” said Ro. She held up the television remote. “It’s not like we can just change the channel. Surf our way through life.”

“Would be nice, of course.”

Ro left the room again, her tread heavy over the floor as she shouted over her shoulder, “But we can’t. That’s just the way it is.”

She returned, bringing Louisa coffee around the time a warlord was impregnating a hybrid form of Viking and mystical soothsayer with wings. By the time apocalypse came, Ro had made another trip to the kitchen, bringing Louisa a wedge of chocolate cake and a pile of cookies on a little plate and Louisa realized she was stone drunk and felt warm and groggy as the coffee went down. She felt so full that it hurt to move and she could hardly make it to the toilet, stumbling on the way, the walls moving as if melting away from her.

When she returned, Louisa found that Ro had refilled her coffee cup and put out more cookies. Louisa wasn’t ashamed to admit she knew why her sister liked these cookies so much. They were irresistible, so tasty, melting on her tongue.

Before Louisa passed out on the couch, fully clothed, another warlord had appeared to reverse the apocalypse, and not a single cookie was left on her plate. Ro was going on about how life was too short not to enjoy at full throttle.


SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

John Michael Flynn

is currently an English Language Fellow with the US State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. His most recent poetry collection Keepers Meet Questing Eyes (2014) is available from Leaf Garden Press. Find him on the web at:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury