Working Title

by Jill Corddry

It started small, as weird little annoyances.

I couldn’t find my keys anywhere. I looked under couch cushions, dared to stick a hand under the couch–and tried not to think about the crumbs and goo my fingers were crawling through. I searched in the laundry hamper and went through all the pockets of my jeans, then every jacket and hoodie I could find strewn about my studio apartment. I mean, the place is, like, minuscule. How many spots were there for keys to hide?

Think, Emma! THINK! Where did you toss them last night?

I was beginning to believe a ghost had made itself at home when I finally found them hanging on a little hook by the front door.

Definitely not where I left them. Okay, probably not where I left them…I was pretty sure I didn’t even know there was a hook by the door until that second. And was that a bit of sawdust on the floor?

That game of hide-and-seek went on for five days until I finally gave up and started putting them on that damn hook when I came home every night. I swear I heard a satisfied ha-rumpf shudder through the small apartment.

The next week my shoes weren’t where I’d leave them (kicked across the room like usual after a long day bussing tables). Instead they were carefully lined up to the side of the door. And again the next day and the next. With a sigh, I finally set them there after I hung up the keys.

This time I most certainly heard–or maybe felt?–a smug ha-rumpf. Like, the air in the apartment changed or something. I couldn’t quite figure out what was different, but that gloating sigh was followed by the aroma of warm cookies. And I knew I wasn’t baking. Tried it once and almost ruined the oven.

I passed it off to simply not remembering. Or getting old. Something like that. It was either that or admit I was going crazy, and I was only twenty-one. Too young for full-on senility, right?

Sure, I couldn’t explain the sounds, but it was an old building, and they made strange noises all the time. Never mind that I’d never noticed before. And one of my neighbors must have been baking. Thin walls and all that. A reasonable explanation existed. Even if I didn’t know what it was.

Right?

So my keys were always hanging on that little hook if I forgot and tossed them aside, and my shoes were waiting in place in the morning. After a few weeks, I’d kinda gotten used to all that. If my apartment suddenly had a ghost, at least it was a helpful spirit. I could handle haunting via the occasional tidying.

(The only “ghost” I could think of who’d go around cleaning up after people had given up on me ages ago.)

Things didn’t get really weird until the following week.

I simply didn’t know what to make of it.

They were dirty when I went to bed. I swear. I’d rather have a novocaine-free root canal than wash dishes, and usually let them back up for days–okay, okay, a week…maybe weeks–before finally dealing with the mess. I mean, it’s not like this crap-hole came with a dishwasher. Other than me.

I blinked and backed out of the kitchen, almost tripping in my haste. I took several deep breaths, counted to ten, then came in again, convinced I was seeing things in my pre-coffee fog. And yet there they sat. The drying rack was neatly piled with gleaming dishes. Like, they weren’t even that clean when I bought them.

Okay, Emma, okay. Calm down. You’re totally just seeing things. Or forgetting that you did it. Or you’ve started doing housework in your sleep. Weird, but not the weirdest thing you’ve ever done.

Over the past few weeks, I’d spent more time than usual with my annoyingly organized mother and older sister. Maybe responsibility was contagious. Wouldn’t be the first, or the worst, thing I’d caught from her.

It happened again the next morning. The frosting flower on the whole mess was the dishes from the day before were put away. In their proper places. There was nothing slow about my departure from the kitchen this time. Or my apartment. Never mind that I wasn’t wearing shoes. After huddling, and shaking, in the hallway for more than an hour, I tired of the neighbors staring and asking me if I was okay. Which I really, really wasn’t.

For all that, I wasn’t gonna be chased out of my apartment–crappy though it might be–without a fight. No way I was ever living at home again.

Game. On.

I used paper plates and plastic forks for the rest of the day, leaving the sink free and clear. I made sure my keys and shoes were in their proper places. That’ll show them. Or it.

I curled up on the couch, not taking my eyes off the kitchen. I wanted to see the frustration on whoever or whatever was pulling this prank.

A sharp ray of sunlight woke me early the next morning. I stumbled into the kitchen, crouching down to peer all around the sink. Not that I had any idea what I was looking for exactly, but it seemed untouched. Not a dish was washed. Not a footprint to be found.

HA! One point for Emma. I was still behind on points, but at least I wasn’t going down in a total shutout.

I shuffle-skipped to my bedroom, pleased that I’d thwarted my ghost, and reached for the laundry basket I’d shoved into the corner a couple weeks ago. I usually pulled whatever I needed for the day out of the basket. When I got around to actually doing laundry, of course. Sometimes it’s easier to buy new underwear. My fingers paused when they didn’t encounter the expected lumps and wrinkles.

I closed my eyes, finally forcing them open when I started to feel dizzy. My heart thudded like footsteps on metal stairs as I glanced down.

Everything was crisply folded and perfectly stacked, nicer than when they’d been on display in the store. (Pretty sure the shirts with collars were even ironed. IRONED! I didn’t even have an iron.)

What. The. Hell?

It was all I could do not to kick the piles over, simply to spite whatever was doing this. Or light the whole mess on fire. Instead I shoved a few of those perfectly folded items into a bag and hightailed it to a friend’s place.

And I took my point away. Even in my terrified state, fair was fair.

When I dared come home two days later, my apartment sparkled. Gleamed. Shone. Every surface had been cleaned to within a millimeter of its being. The aroma of lemon, pine, and bleach danced, providing an overwhelming, but somehow satisfying combination.

Gram would’ve been proud. Not that I could take any of the credit, but the even the floor was clean enough that the old bat could’ve eaten off it and not found anything to complain over. Every family event involved her pointing a gnarled finger at my rumpled shirts and scuffed sneakers. She’d make a show of sighing and easing her broom-bent body into a chair. “Emma,” she’d rasp, “You are an adult now, with your own home. It is time for you to take better care. Show others you respect yourself with a tidy home and heart.”

I had neither a tidy home nor heart, much to her great disappointment.

Not that I had much in the respect department either.

Her Christmas and birthday gifts to me were anything but subtle: bottles of cleaner, sponges, a broom, and that was all for my sweet sixteen. Her accompanying, mean-spirited comments filled in for any kind of birthday card.

Gram’s passive-aggressiveness had reached from beyond the grave, one final waggle of her judgy finger. All she’d left me when she died was a battered copy of some old-fashioned book about housekeeping. The title was mostly worn off, the pages creased and used. Not that I was surprised. I couldn’t remember a single time I’d gone to visit and her house wasn’t perfectly tidy, coffee ready, and some kind of treat just coming out of the oven.

Gee, thanks a lot, Gram. As if she hadn’t been obvious enough when she was alive…

I’d tried to get rid of it, but mom had scowled at me, looking just like Gram, so I took the damn thing and shoved it on a shelf.

That had been more than a month ago, and I hadn’t opened it once.

But now it sat saucily, perfectly placed on the coffee table I’d forgotten I owned, piled as it was–or rather, had been–under old magazines, dirty dishes, and mis-matched socks.

I reached for it, knocking a vase of sweetly scented roses to the floor. It didn’t break, but water pooled across the wood floors.

Before I could so much as gasp, the housekeeping book shivered and cooed, sounding somehow pleased, and vanished in a dustless poof from the table. Seconds later, it reappeared, three dish towels hovering behind it. The towels circled the mess twice, then, on some unseen and unheard command, began mopping up the puddle of water. Once it was dry, the towels floated toward the bathroom and the vase re-centered itself on the coffee table, the flowers twitching until they were just so.

The book returned to its place in the center of the table. And I swear it straightened its dust jacket with pride.

I reached for the book again–and felt like I was being watched this time–and randomly turned to a page. It was smudged with use, but instead of the tedious 1950s humdrum I expected, it was a spell. For folding laundry.

What. The. Hell?

I flipped to another page and found an incantation for setting the perfect table, complete with napkin swans and a seasonally-appropriate centerpiece.

More flips produced a spell for washing dishes, another for dusting, and basically any and all housekeeping tasks.

Gram had been a witch. I wondered if Mom knew. Somehow I doubted Gram shared any of this with her.

I paged through the book eagerly now, with purpose. About halfway into the book a note fell out, address to me in Gram’s perfect calligraphy. Bet there’s a spell for that in here, I snickered to myself.

 

Now you know my secrets. All of them. Use this book to create a YOU the world deserves. Conjure the respect you couldn’t find on your own.

 Love, Gram

 

Thanks a lot, Gram. And I meant that this time, with love and sincerity.

I pulled the book into a hug of sorts; it quivered in my hold, waiting to be useful.

Smiling, I turned to the table of contents and found the page for the perfect mac ‘n cheese. Just like Gram used to make. Just like Gram used to magic, I corrected myself. The familiar comfort food was exactly what I needed tonight.

*****

Months passed.

My clothes were clean and wrinkle-free, always hanging in my closet or perfectly folded in my dresser. Not a dust bunny could be found anywhere in my apartment. Friends begged to come to my house for dinner parties. I always declined their help cleaning.

I applied for and got a promotion–and a raise–to hostess at the restaurant.

People talked about me when they didn’t think I could hear. Wondering what happened… What had come over me… Not that anyone complained.

Guess I’d been an ungrateful slob.

I practiced modesty, yet tried to stay honest. “Gram always believed in me. Never gave up, not even after she died. Guess I’m finally living up to her expectations.”

Mom clucked and nitpicked over non-existent strings on my crisp shirts, sighing over how she wished Gram could see me now. How proud she would be that I’d found my self respect. Her eyes glanced upward briefly, her fingers white-tight around the pearl pendant she’d inherited.

If only she knew.

It seemed Gram held onto her secret literally until the day she died. I wondered if even Gramps had known, but that seemed unlikely.

A year passed, and I used the spell book every day, making my life easier, tidier, simpler. Better. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed. I got another promotion at work; I moved into a nicer apartment.

I met someone. We moved in together. Then into a nicer, bigger apartment building.

I was happy.

Right?

Yet…every little detail nagged at me. Anxiety gripped my heart, my gut, every waking second.

Was that a crumb on the counter? That single crumb could ruin my entire day.

Was the rug askew? Its crookedness sent me on a flurry of cleaning and straightening.

Was my shirt wrinkled? It wasn’t enough to fix that lone blemish; I had to go through my entire wardrobe and fix them all. The real ones, and the rumples that only I could see.

And I judged other people. No one escaped my harsh, critical eye.

I judged the ones I loved the harshest, until even they couldn’t take it any longer.

And I was alone. No lover. No family. No one.

Just like Gram.

As the years passed, it became clear that she had indeed bestowed all her secrets on me. No longer was the book a gift. I now carried all her burdens as well. I vowed that I would be the last in our family, any family, to harness this power, this responsibility.

No clean home was worth the loneliness.

As my end drew near, no loving family gathered around me, only paid caregivers.

In the dark of midnight, as my night nurse napped, I slipped out of bed and gathered the evil book from its hiding place. I no longer needed it to work the spells, committing all of them to heart decades ago.

I closed my eyes, mumbling under my breath, and flames sprung to life in the fireplace. The book quivered in my hold, gleeful to see an old friend.

“Not this time,” I whispered. “You’ll do no more harm in this world.”

It squealed as flames licked at its old pages. Red and orange flickered green and purple.

I thought I saw the devil’s face.

I watched as it disintegrated, becoming nothing more than smoldering ash, making absolutely sure nothing more remained. A sigh breezed through the house as the last embers grew cold.

It was done.

As was I. My eyes closed against a weariness I hadn’t noticed before, the chill consuming me as well, with no muss or fuss left for anyone to deal with, as befitted a proper, tidy woman of my age and means.

 

The end

*****

 

Thanks to Phil S. for the initial spark of an idea!

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