Horror Literary Fiction Strange

Senile Cradle

By Jen Knox
3,073 words · 12-minute reading time
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From the author: An unexpected visitor shows up in the garage on a winter day.


The snow erases the day and distracts Cora from her aching knee. Garlic and butter sizzle in a nearby pan, releasing aromas that weave around the room. She stands wide-legged near the kitchen window and chops the final clove that will make it possible for her to stomach sautéed spinach. She watches fat flakes swirl in the squall, her dark eyes fixed on nothing at all, as though waiting for something or someone to arrive.

Cora’s husband, Nate, has direct orders to eat more greens now, and she wants to be supportive, but saliva floods her mouth when she thinks about the crispy deep-crust pizza at Pappano’s. The couple’s Friday-night orders were always quick to deliver, cheese still scalding hot. Even on a night like this, the owner’s son would be at the door in twenty minutes, resplendent in his yellow ball cap and uneven smile.

Just as she entertains the idea of a late-night, hush-hush pizza after Nate falls asleep, a sound jars her; a clattering persists, until a loud clunk arrives, and all goes quiet again. Cora’s right knee, the bad one, buckles, and the day’s events flood her thoughts.

The investment Cora made earlier in the day had been risky, a single purchase from a hardcore antiquer who’d been ready to walk when she countered at a ten percent discount. The big-ticket restorations can set the shop back, and business hasn’t been good, but some items speak to Cora. This one screamed.  

“Did you forget to close the garage again?” she yells.

Nate enters the room in shorts and sandals—the defiant winter loungewear of an Ohio-born man. Flat-footed, he walks hard on the linoleum and finds his place at the counter before nodding. “Don’t use your prison voice with me. In fact, I salted the drive and closed up shop an hour ago.”

Cora eases on her slippers and rubs her hands together vigorously, preparing her arthritis for the chill. She says, “Thank you,” in an overly tender voice. “Guess what I got in today? Hopefully it’s not whatever fell out there.”

“A guillotine?” He guesses the same thing every time. Cora places a warm hand on her hip, waiting for him to finish laughing at his own joke.

“Something you’ve never heard of.”

“I’ve heard it all,” he says.

“An adult cradle, smart guy. Heard of that?”

He shakes his head slowly, then quickly, as though searching for a memory. “Sounds creepy. And expensive.”

“It was. Mr. Jonson called it a senile cradle and said people used to place them by the fireplace and rock the elderly or enfeebled to sleep. This piece is Antique Roadshow-worthy. Travel the states in an RV-worthy. We’re talking 19th century.”

Cora hears a rustling in the garage, and stares at her husband narrow-eyed. He stares back.

“You brought something haunted to our house, Cora? Something that we can’t afford?”

“I brought something special home. I’m feeling a little guilty about it, yes, but it spoke to me, Nate. Want to see?” she asks.

“Later.”

Cora watches her husband put on his Grill Master apron with a scowl. “Make sure the oven is on 425. I’m going to chase off these raccoons.” She opens the door to the garage without hesitation, ready to chase off another pest, when she notices the rake is hanging on the wrong peg. Cora has an eye for such things; she’s always the first to find Waldo. “Did you use the rake?”

“Why would I use a rake in this weather?”

From the doorway, Cora peers toward the dark recesses of the garage, bending her bad knee slowly so that she can look under the Jeep. The shelves Nate built shortly after the couple moved in are cluttered with tools and random knickknacks; Cora realizes it looks just the way her grandpa’s garage used to look, and the thought warms her heart. “We need to clean this garage,” she yells, pulling her robe tighter against the chill.

When Nate doesn’t respond, Cora tilts her head back to watch him work in his sandals, legs covered in curly black hair. He used to be such a slight guy, overly skinny and so full of energy that it was contagious. Now he’s deliberate. He takes up space in the world, and she loves him for it. Nate gave Cora the bravery to quit her shit job a year ago and open an antique shop. It’s still hard, exhausting; in fact, it’s impossible, but she loves it.

Just as she’s about to close the door, the cradle catches her eye, and she decides to walk around the car, to double-check that it wasn’t harmed. Cora doesn’t see anything that would make a rustling noise, and nothing fell, unless the rake fell and then hung itself back up on the wrong hook, but she feels compelled to check.

The garage light flickers a bit before settling into a warm glow. Cora walks past the Jeep and notices that the rake is not only on the wrong peg, it is also backwards. She turns on her heel and, just as she is about to go back inside, something reflective, the arm of a jacket, catches her eye. Cora traces the reflective strip along a forearm, and her gaze settles on a finger raised to a set of chapped lips. A man’s lips.

His matted hair and dark eyes would be too much to take in, but there’s something disarming about him, a tranquility. He nods in a strangely reassuring way as she glances over at the ajar door to the kitchen. The man before Cora, who she thinks is a hallucination at first, wears a reflective jacket, something a firefighter would wear, and when she asks, “How in the holy fuck did you get in my garage?” she asks, full-on prison voice.

He stands slowly from what was previously a crouch, palms facing her way as though she were going to arrest him. “I’d appreciate your space for the evening,” he says in a low hum of a voice. 

“Are you—are you trying to steal the car?”

“No.”

“My cradle?” Cora glances toward the wrapped piece of furniture tucked in the corner.

“No. No thank you.” He too glances back at the purchase, assessing it. “I’d just appreciate this space for the evening,” he says again, gesturing to a lawn bag on the ground where he seemed to have been sleeping. Cora catches a hint of annoyance in his tone.

“That’s not an ordinary request!”

“We don’t really own anything, so think about this as a courtesy that I’m asking,” he says.

We own this house. My husband and I, that is. We worked our asses off for twenty years to own this house. The police would understand that we own this house if you don’t.”

No matter how forceful she tries to sound, the words come out choppy. This man doesn’t know that Cora worked in corrections for over a decade before opening her antique shop. He doesn’t know that she knows his type.

“I’ll leave first thing in the morning, Cora,” he says.

“How did you get in? How do you know my name?” She imagines herself doing rounds, nodding upward to Jeff, who was always on the second floor looking down. She’d had hard days. She’d had men try to attack her so often that she couldn’t remember all the incidents, but she knew self-defense, and she had a crew. Now, an old lady, she’s unsure she’d have the reflexes if he charged.

“Your husband got done salting the drive, and I noticed the letter in recycling. If it were me, I’d do the whole street and shred my mail.”

“You are awfully judgmental, young man.” When he moves his arm, Cora sees that he scratched it on something. “You need to clean that up. My big, mean husband keeps an emergency kit around here.” She glares at him as she digs in the tool box near the door before handing over a large bandage and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

“Thank you.” His teeth are stained, like he'd binged on chocolate the way Cora would like to after Nate goes to bed tonight.

“YMCA is two miles down the road. There’s a place in the basement – they don’t turn people away.”

“I know,” he says. He watches Cora with the expression of a young child or a hungry pet. She stares back at him the way she used to her algebra teacher—utterly confused.

“I have to think about this. I’ll get you a toothbrush though. We keep extras for guests, but don’t go spitting in here. You’ll have to wait till tomorrow to use it.” The man brushes her knee and says thanks. Cora feels a sudden wave of peace and narrows her eyes, never even considering that she should worry her husband over the odd interaction.

The oatmeal bar with dark chocolate nibs tastes as sweet as a Snickers to Nate now. He is thinking about how icy the roads are and feels a shift in his belly. It hasn’t snowed in a few days, but the temperatures are out of control, and he’s sure that Cora will be safe getting to work, but he still worries. Every day he worries.

Nate’s tongue feels like it’s having an orgasm as a chocolate nib melts. He’s closing his eyes, allowing the oats and sugar to soften, when he hears something in the guestroom. The couple’s cat died over a year ago in that room, and it still freaks Nate out. Cora thinks him crazy for entertaining the notion that ghosts could exist, but Nate has lived long enough to know that you can’t count anything out. That asshole cat haunts him because she knew he was more of a dog person.

When he enters the room, Nate doesn’t see anything. He straightens the covers and tucks the edges under the mattress. He used to run a tighter ship, back when they had small kids. He turns off the light when he hears the sound again, coming from the half-bath. The couple have a curtain up to separate this room, a curtain Nate has been promising to replace with a sliding barn door for ten years. He feels a pang of guilt every time he uses this bathroom, so he rarely uses it.

He sees the man’s worn brown shoes first. A scrawny man, scrawnier than Nate has ever seen in person, is sitting on the toilet. His beige pants are around his knees, and he’s gripping the seat as though going to war with his bowel movement. “I just need to finish up here. Mind giving me a little privacy?” he says.

Nate waves the air in front of him, even though he doesn’t smell anything. “Privacy!” He says it indignantly, but he backs away and calls the police. Sitting on the bed, waiting for the ringing to stop, a woman finally answers and asks Nate what his emergency is. He hears the man spray air freshener generously; the nauseating scent of artificial cinnamon and apples comes wafting out as he appears. Nate notices the slow way he approaches.

“Sir?” the woman asks, and Nate hangs up, explaining that it was a misdial.

“I apologize. I really needed the space, just for a few moments. I’m homeless,” the skinny man says.

“So. You break into homes to use the bathroom? What kind of thing is that to do? You could go in public places, you know. I see all kinds of homeless people at the library.”

The man nods, as though truly considering this suggestion. “I’ve used the library. Good facilities.” He lifts his chin slightly, adding. “I appreciate your generosity. I’ll leave now.”

There’s something disarming about him. He’s too calm, too confident for a man in his position. A man who just shit in another man’s house, and Nate knows how crazy it sounds that he just lets him go. Cora would throw a fit, but Nate couldn’t help but think that maybe the skinny man is just that damn cat reincarnated. Nate clears his throat. “Hey, um … You want a granola bar?”

The skinny man hesitates. He nods at Nate, glancing down at the man’s belly, then takes a few granola bars and walks out the front door, lugging a few hunter green backpacks, and it dawns on Nate after he’s long gone that he has no idea how the man got in. Nate checks all the windows, the security system, the doors, the locks … all he can figure is that the skinny guy snuck in when Nate was bringing home the groceries. After double-checking that he didn’t steal anything, Nate sits at the table dumbstruck. He wonders if he should tell Cora, but ultimately decides against it.

“That movie was confusing. How did it win all those awards?” Nate asks.

“Hell if I know.”

Cora tries the lock, and it turns, but the door catches. Nate places a meaty hand on her shoulder and kisses her on the ear. He tries his key, but again, there is a catch. The security lock is on. Nate tries the back fence by slipping his hand over the top and unlocking the metal clasp, but it takes him a long time.

“What in the holy hell is going on?” Cora asks.

“It’s stuck,” he says.

The couple goes back to the front, and Cora calls the local locksmith, Cal. She’d bought Cal dinner a few years ago after she forgot the garage code while Nate was out of town. He got her out of a mess that day, and she’d paid him with steak and potatoes – back when they could all eat like that. “He says he’ll be around tomorrow at 2 p.m. – earliest he can do.”

Nate presses his face against the window glass to our bedroom, where the orange glow of our lamp shines. “I see someone in there. Call the cops,” he says, and without looking I know exactly who he sees.

“What does he look like?” Cora dials 9-1-1.

“Matted hair. Skinny. Too skinny, like a post.”  Nate knocks on the glass, and the man opens the blinds. He waves, and Nate gestures for him to open the window; he acquiesces.

“Hey!” Cora yells. “That is our home.”

“Hey, man,” Nate says, reaching down to rub his belly – which is half the size it was a month ago. “Let us in. How did you change the locks?”

The man cracks the window. “That’s what I used to do. Locks.”

“Why’d you lock us out?”

“I needed the space,” he says, matching Nate’s cadence and looking toward Cora with kind eyes. “Just for the night. I’ll put things back the way they were.”

Cora and Nate exchange crinkled brows. Remembering her negotiating skills, Cora adopts her old detachment and says, in her calm prison voice, “Why can’t we share the space tonight, and you can leave in the morning? I’ll make bacon.”

Nate mumbles, “We don’t have bacon. Why would you promise such a thing?”

The man watches them converse, then closes the window. Cora rushes toward it and knocks, knocks again, her phone falling into the bushes below. It is here, in the oddity of this moment, that she realizes her knee hasn’t bothered her in weeks. “Ma’am?” a man says on the other end of 9-1-1, but she is getting angry now. She knocks again, louder, and doesn’t stop until Nate nudges her.

“Never mind the call. Misunderstanding,” she yells to the phone.  

“Please stop crank calling us. This is the second call we’ve received from this number, and it is a serious offense to tie up our lines,” the operator yells.

“He opened the front door,” Nate whispers.

The couple rush in, best they can rush. “You have to go! You have to get out!” Now Cora’s the one yelling; that is, until her uninvited guest enters the front room with two backpacks and, as always, a disarming expression of satisfied calm.

Miles Davis is playing in the bedroom, and I push past the man to follow the sound. Next to the bed is the senile cradle, sanded and stained with the lawn bags beneath it. It’s large enough for Nate to curl up and nod off in. Cora imagines all the bodies it must have held, and she wonders what relief the rocking offered, if any, as she watches its rhythmic sway. Nate runs his fingers along the stained woodwork, curved shapes that lined the top.

“Oh man, this thing is creepy,” he says.

Nate and Cora stare at each other for a long time. The boxed meals they order usually provide them enough for three. They both think to offer but neither does.

 The man watches them, waiting, then nods toward the crib, which creaks a bit. “You got it from here?” he asks Nate.

The senile cradle is positioned in the front window of the antique shop. Nate works more shifts, and Cora calls him her lucky charm, but they both know the true source of their windfall.

“What’s the story behind this piece? I’m interested in it,” a woman with old eyes and a tight face asks, and all Cora can do is look at Nate.

“That’s not for sale, but it does have a story. You want to hear it?”

The couple tells it together, tells it better than the last time, and they’ve told this story dozens of times by now. The cradle rocks by itself sometimes as they narrate. Cora attributes it to a customer rushing in with a tough breeze, along with the incline of the display window, but Nate can see her delight when people notice it rocking and begin to whisper.

After a long day at the shop that spring, Nate slides the barn door closed to the half-bath at home, and, for a moment, he feels the sensation of something brushing his leg. He puts on his apron to make dinner, but he stops to watch his wife as she watches two cardinals dance around their oak.

“What are you thinking?” he asks, and she shrugs. He places his hand on her back, and they watch together: the couple of birds navigate branches, swooping and jumping, exploring their temporary domain—a place to rest comfortably until it’s time to move on.  

This story originally appeared in The Green Light.


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