The Pest House
The Pest House
By Jennifer Miller
My story actually inspired by a park behind the Cockeysville Branch that I have visited many times since moving to the area almost 20 years ago. I have to give some credit to the Baltimore County Historical Society (or the almshouse in the story) as it was also inspired by real life accounts of the almshouse and accompanying pest house on the property. Everything else is, of course, fiction.
She was cold, but it was OK...she almost couldn’t feel it anymore.
Mary pulled the grey, threadbare blanket closer around her as she made her way out of the small, stone building known as the pest house. The sun was setting and the wind was gusting in a way that made her nervous about being able to keep her feet on the ground. Even before getting sick, she hadn’t been very big at just 10 years old. Now, she was so thin, she felt she might just blow away with a strong enough gust.
She was still better than most of the inhabitants of the house that had been her home these past months, though, and it was up to her and the few others still able to make the walk to gather the evening meal at the fence. A long wooden fence separated the pest house from the almshouse at the top of the hill and Mary stopped for just a moment to look upward and wonder, as she often did, what it must be like beyond those glowing windows above.
She quickly put her head down, though, and focused on the ground below her. It wasn’t a long walk, but she wanted to get this done quickly.
She was almost at the end of the path before she noticed the smell.
It was so faint at first, Mary thought she was surely imagining it. It had been so long since she’d had any real, good food, her mind must be playing tricks on her. As she approached the fence, though, the aroma of meat and baked goods wafted downwind and enveloped Mary’s senses. She began to salivate in a way she never had before. She quickened her pace, almost unconsciously, toward the heavenly smell of fresh, warm food.
Mary then noticed some unfamiliar figures standing on the hill, on the other side of the fence. These were definitely not any member of the almshouse staff she had ever seen before. In fact, she doubted they worked there at all.
There stood eight women, all dressed in finer clothes than Mary had ever laid eyes on before. All were holding different kinds of trays, baskets, and dishes.
If the appearance of these ladies hadn’t seemed so strange to Mary, the scent emanating from the food lying in their arms might have driven every other thought out of her mind. However, there was something about them...
Was it that they weren’t wearing masks, like the almshouse staff usually did when delivering meals? No, it was their hair. Despite the wind that was still blowing as ferociously as before, each had an elaborate hair style; not a single strand of which seemed to be out of place. In fact, every inch of them was unearthly still. Not even a single skirt billowed. It was as if they were made out of the same marble that lined the windowsills of the pest house. And yet, even in the twilight, Mary could see them smile and move closer to the weather-worn fence separating them.
The one closest to the front had a particularly complicated blonde updo, with a brown hat adorned with little blue flowers (which matched her eyes) perched precariously on top of it all. Her dress and coat were also blue but for some brown fur lining the collar and cuffs. She smiled even larger when she spotted Mary, and, at first, the young girl began to return the smile. However, a glint then appeared in one of those big blue eyes that made Mary’s breath catch in her throat. She tried to tell herself it was just the moonlight, but she suddenly felt very cold inside.
Then, the blonde woman spoke: “Greetings! And a Happy Valentine’s Day to you all! As a special treat, the almshouse staff has allowed us, the Haunt Valley Women’s Club, to provide a complimentary meal to you, in place of your usual rations. We hope you don’t mind! We have been working all week to prepare for this, haven’t we, ladies?”
As the blonde woman turned to her companions, Mary noticed all of them nod their heads in agreement, in perfect unison.
Mary then turned to look at her elders standing beside her. The sight of them made her heart drop. They were all staring straight ahead at the ladies, as if in a trance. She could even see the old woman closest to her clutch her skirts as a small trickle of saliva ran down the side of her mouth.
Mary turned back to the ladies, all of whom were now moving forward, preparing to hand the dishes over to the citizens of the pest house through the hole roughly cut into the wooden panels. She was almost pushed to her knees by her fellows as they rushed forward, eager to grab the food. She watched as delicately gloved hands emerged from the hole, only to be quickly withdrawn as each dish being offered was taken.
Finally, when it seemed all the dishes had been handed out, the blonde woman looked down at Mary, again. She was closer than before, slightly leaning over the fence and looking down when she said, “Come dear, you must be so hungry. There’s just one dish left and it’s all for you.”
Then the blonde woman ducked down and she saw the same small gloved hands, reaching through the fence with a pot of soup.
It was the most delicious soup Mary had ever smelled. From what she could tell, it seemed to contain some mixture of cream and chicken and vegetables and, for just a moment, Mary forgot about everything and only thought about how delicious that soup must taste. She reached forward...
Then Mary caught the scent of something else. It reminded her of when a person would die in the pest house, and wasn’t noticed right away. And that coldness filled Mary’s whole body once again, freezing her to the spot.
“Come dear! Take the soup! It’s very cold out here. We should all get back to our warm homes and settle in for the evening.” said the blonde woman, soothingly.
Mary reached forward and took the soup, fighting the urge to drop it or throw it away. Only the thought of how much her Mother would love a soup like this, stopped her.
With a sigh of relief from the blonde woman, Mary watched as the ladies began to quickly move away from the fence. She then cautiously turned around and began to walk slowly down the hill. It was only when she heard the blonde woman call out to her, once more, that she turned around.
“Now you be sure to eat that all up! Although, if you have family, be sure to share with them, too. We want everyone to lie down with full bellies tonight!”
Then the blonde woman turned away and resumed walking back toward the almshouse with the others.
Mary turned around again and continued walking down the hill. She had to force herself up the steps and over the threshold into the pest house, where she was met with a scene that made her want to turn around screaming from the building.
Everybody around her was tearing apart the dishes of food like wild animals. They were scooping up handfuls of food and shoving them into their mouths. Everyone was completely oblivious to others around them, with the exception of someone getting in between them and the food. People were roughly shoving each other out of the way, dunking their heads into the dishes like pigs at a trough. If Mary’s stomach wasn’t already empty, she would have vomited up whatever was in there. Then someone laid a hand on her arm, causing Mary to want to jump out of her skin.
She turned around, though, and it was simply her Mother. While she hadn’t been able to manage to get out of bed for days now, there she was, looking almost like her old self, again. She too, though, had the same crazed look in her eyes as everyone else did, and said, “Mary! Is that soup?”
Mary’s Mother rushed forward, grabbing the pot out of her hands. For just a moment, Mary held on, not wanting to let her Mother have it, but her Mother’s strength seemed to have returned, and she couldn’t hold on. At once, Mary’s Mother took the pot and began pouring the soup into her mouth. Mary stood by and watched as the soup ran down the sides of her Mother’s mouth and onto the front of her dress.
Her Mother only stopped gulping the soup down when a man in tattered clothing passed by with a tray of roast chicken. Mary’s Mother dropped the soup and grabbed for a piece of the chicken, but the man angrily shoved her aside and said, “This is for my wife!” Mary’s Mother picked up the pot again and walked further into the house, looking for even more to eat.
Mary stood in the doorway, unable to move. Then, she ran.
Not into the house, but out of it. She wanted to put as much distance between her and this scene as possible. She couldn’t believe how the adults were acting! It’s like they had all gone mad!
She ran around the pest house and up the hill behind it, opposite the hill she had just come down. There was a path back there that Mary liked to walk on days that weren’t too cold, and it was the only place that felt like it might be safe, right now. Before she was even halfway up the hill, though, she stopped, and looked back at the pest house.
She could still see signs of the chaos inside through the windows, but she imagined that it did seem to be calming down a bit. She considered going back, especially as a gust of wind almost knocked her down and made it feel as though ice crystals were forming inside of her.
It was then that she heard a twig snap behind her. Mary whipped around, only to see a dark figure approaching from the top of the hill. She couldn’t even make out if it was a man or woman. In fact, it seemed much too large to be either. And in abject terror, Mary turned and ran away from the figure, away from the pest house, and away from the fence, in the only direction she had left: toward the ponds.
There was a small pond, and then a larger pond beyond it, that Mary had never liked. But, she ran faster than she ever had before, toward them. She truly felt like she was running for her life, even though a part of her was saying, this is silly! The people in the house were just hungry! The figure at the top of the hill was probably just someone that had been passing by and smelled the food! Why was she running?
She continued, though, over the rough, hilly terrain. She passed the first pond on her right, and ran toward a trail behind the larger pond. But, just as she started down the path, she saw what looked to be the same dark figure up ahead. However, it couldn’t be, could it? It must be someone else.
Unlike the first dark figure, this one started rushing toward her.
Mary choked back a scream and turned to run around the big pond that was now on her left. She could hear the dark figure running behind her...it was almost on top of her.
Not knowing what else to do, she flung herself onto the frozen pond. She slipped, twisting her ankle, and slid across the icy surface, toward the small island in the middle of the pond where the egrets liked to land and build nests in the warmer months.
She turned around and saw the dark figure standing at the edge of the pond, watching her. It seemed unwilling to follow her onto the pond. She was glad of this, but now that it was illuminated by the glow of the moon, she could make out its features. It seemed to be standing like a human, but it definitely was not. It looked as if it were a giant wolf in men’s clothing. And, it looked angry.
Mary turned around. Her only thought was that if she could just get to the island she might be safe. She tried to stand but found she wasn’t able to support her weight on her twisted ankle. So, she decided to crawl.
She crawled over the ice, so numb with cold, she had almost started to feel warm, again. Finally, though, she could see that the island was just a few feet in front of her.
That’s when she heard the crack. Mary stayed very still, listening, trying to judge where the crack had come from. That’s when she heard another. She realized then, it wasn’t just a crack. It sounded like a small stone had hit the ice and made it crack. Mary turned around just in time to see the creature pick up another stone and throw it toward her. She flinched, but it didn’t hit her. She got the feeling it wasn’t really trying to hit her. It was trying to hit the ice around her.
Not wasting another second, Mary turned around and began crawling even faster toward the island. The stone and the resulting cracks were coming quicker now, but she was almost there.
She reached the island and started pulling herself up the mound by her hands, desperately looking for a place to hide.
She had never been here before. She had wanted to visit this island when she first spotted it after arriving this past summer, and could have easily swam to it, but there was something about these ponds; she could never bring herself to dunk so much as a toe in them.
She didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but then she saw it: A dense underbrush that Mary thought she might be able to climb under. She had just started toward it when she heard something behind her.
Before she could even turn around, she was grabbed by arms that seemed too big to be human. And there was the smell that again reminded her of dead bodies. How had the creature gotten here so fast? It picked her up and carried her back out to the ice, muffling her screams with its giant… paw?
Mary looked out and there, standing in the middle of the frozen pond, was the blonde woman. She seemed just as calm and serene as she had, standing at the fence. The wind was whipping around Mary and the creature harder than ever, and yet, the blonde woman looked like she was simply standing in the middle of a park on a still, spring day.
“Dear, dear child,” the blonde woman began to say. Although the wind should have whipped her voice away, it was almost as if Mary could hear the woman inside her head. “Why didn’t you just eat the soup? It would have been so much more… pleasant.”
Just then, the creature holding Mary began to jump. She watched helplessly as the ice cracked more and more beneath its feet with every jump. She looked up once more at the blonde woman who had what would have looked like a sad expression on her face, if the glint in her eyes hadn’t given her away. Mary then glanced over at the pest house in the distance. There was still light glowing in the windows but it somehow seemed very calm and quiet, now.
And then, the ice gave way, and Mary was quiet, too.
“Hey, be careful!”
Jordan turned around, and rolled her eyes. “It’s OK, Taylor! Geez, it’s just a pond!”
“Yeah, but there could be snakes or something.” replied Taylor. “Mom told me they like to hang out at the water’s edge.”
“Well, I don’t see any snakes, do you?” Jordan retorted.
“No. I don’t think so, anyway...” mumbled Taylor.
“Look, I just want to get a picture of these ducks! I think they might be sitting on some eggs!” said Jordan, with an excited look returning to her hazel eyes. Whipping around, she leaned down and held her phone out in front of her, using her other hand to zoom in on the ducks resting nearby.
Taylor was still feeling nervous. He couldn’t be sure why. He told himself it was the possibility of snakes hiding in the tall grass lining the pond, but he couldn’t deny that it was more than that. These ponds had always given him the creeps.
Jordan finished snapping her pictures and stood up, again. “If only I could get some Wi-Fi out here. I want to post these on my Instagram!”
“Well let’s go home, then!” squeaked Taylor, in a high-pitched tone, eager to get away.
“Well let’s go home, then!”
Mary heard these words come out of the darkness.
Where was she? How long had she been asleep?
She tried to will her eyes open, but there was something wrong with them. What was going on?
Finally, a light began to emerge above her. She moved toward it and suddenly found herself standing at the edge of the pond. Ahead of her, she saw two children who looked not much older than herself, running away.
“Wait up!” Jordan yelled at her little brother. “Mom isn’t even going to be home, yet!”
Mary wanted to run after them. But then she turned around and saw the pest house. It was quiet and still in the sunlight. “Home,” she thought. “Yes, I should go home now.”