Hi. I’m Tonia Thompson, horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT: the Black horror podcast. This week we hear a story from Sharon Cullars. Sharon is known for her romance novels and this story is one of her first forays into horror.
Today’s episode is narrated by the amazing Cherrae Stuart.
A big thanks to our new patrons Erin and A.L. We couldn’t keep fresh horror in your ears every Tuesday without you.
And now, Daddy’s Home by Sharon Cullars.
By Sharon Cullars
Halloween isn’t a joke in my house. Not anymore. There are no chocolate candies or cut-out goblins, no taffy apples, no smiling spiders plastered to windows. And there’s definitely no laughing. My sisters and I learned a long time ago not to laugh or even talk too loudly. Everything from midnight to midnight on the 31st is spoken softly in this house. It’s been this way since we were young, since before I could remember.
Since around the time my father went away.
“You took the garbage out, Annie?” my mother asks. The grooves around her eyes are deeper this morning.
“Yeah.” Can’t help the peeve in my voice and my mom looks up from scrambling the breakfast eggs, spatula paused over a popping skillet.
“So what’s your problem today?”
“Don’t have a problem.”
“Sounds like it. Now go upstairs and wake your sisters. They’re sleeping like the dead.”
She realizes what she’s said, shuts up and goes back to the eggs. And I go upstairs to my sisters’ bedrooms.
Jordan is lying face down, her head half hidden under her pillow. It’s nearly eight, and she went to bed at seven last night. She’s trying to escape in her dreams. My own dreams have never provided any safety.
“Get up, already!” I yell, then quickly clamp my mouth shut as I realize my mistake.
She stirs slowly, mumbling. “Leave me alone,” she finally gets out, softly like it should be spoken. Like I should’ve spoken a second ago.
She grimaces as she slowly realizes the day is here and she does have to leave the haven of her bed. She sits on the edge of her bed, rubs her eyes and looks at me finally.
“Damn,” she says mournfully.
I nod. “Yeah, I know. I gotta go get Taylor up.”
But when I go to Taylor’s bedroom, she’s not there. The bathroom door is open and she’s not there, either. So I know where she is.
I head to the north closet, pull the step ladder to the center, push open the door to the attic and climb up. No proverbial spider webs up here; my mom keeps it tidy.
Taylor’s sitting on the trunk near the window, her head down. She looks up at me and I can see tears in her eyes.
Taylor’s thirteen, but looks ten—small chested, babyfaced. She gets teased about it enough. Girls can be bitches. Today, she looks much older.
“You didn’t sleep?”
My sister shakes her head. “Couldn’t? Did you?”
“A little. Not much.”
She’s silent as she twiddles a finger. “Why is it like this?” she asks. “Why are we so different?”
“Mom says we’re special. At least Daddy is.”
Taylor looks out the spotless window. Not even a flyspeck. “You ever thought about running away?”
I shake my head and think about Angela. “Not anymore.”
“Maybe if we all left?”
“We tried that, remember?” Angela shakes her head.
“Oh, I guess you don’t, you were only three then.” It had snowed that Halloween, an unexpected October blizzard. Still, mom had wrapped us up and bundled us four girls into a car. The car didn’t make it very far before it stalled. For some reason, she didn’t try to go any farther. As though she knew that she couldn’t—that there was nowhere to run to. Because we had run before. And he always found us…eventually. I remember my loud words minutes before. I had broken a silent covenant. Strangely, I wasn’t frightened, not like I should’ve been. I was tired of the fear. In the corner, on an old Spinet, lay pictures of all of us, face down. But I remember the faces: Mom, Daddy and eight sisters. Five are gone now. Lynn, Sada, Donnie, Sienna, and Angie. Angie had run, but like mom, learned she couldn’t run far enough. We’d moved afterward; people might ask questions. “I wish things were different. Maybe this time, he’ll…I don’t know. Maybe he’s not as mad as before.” I didn’t say anything. I’d wished the same thing when I was her age. That was two years ago. We never knew which sister he would want to go live with him. And always, he’d say the same damn thing: “So, the court said I can’t have my kids. Fuck the courts! I’m gonna have all my kids. All of ’em.” One time, I’d asked Mom about his words, and she’d told me that he yelled them that first time on the courthouse steps. We were staying at my aunt Sylvia’s at the time. Taylor was a baby. I was almost three. I don’t remember Aunt Sylvia. Daddy killed her when I was four. The police chased him down and he got killed. We thought we were safe. But that first Halloween after Aunt Sylvia’s murder, he came to the apartment door, smiling, all of his teeth and a good part of his lower skull exposed. His eye was shot out, and the dirt spilled from his burial clothes. Only we heard my mother scream as he said, “I’m baaaack!” No one ever heard us scream, like no one cared. I talked Taylor down from the attic. It was Saturday, no school. But there were still chores. My mother learned a long time ago it was better to keep us busy, to keep our mind off of things to come. So, for the rest of the day, floors got swept, rugs vacuumed. Mom cleaned out the refrigerator. We girls cleaned up our rooms – although they were always neat—the way Daddy had always instructed us. Sheets were ironed, toilets brushed white and sinless. Mom never forgot the punishments for crumbs. Jordan remembered the broken arm when she had shouted while playing in the living room. She never forgot that Daddy liked quiet. So, on Halloween, we keep silent. And we do what females are supposed to do – shut up and do what we’re told. Only three of us left to take. Which one tonight? That’s the thought on all of our minds as the sun drifts away, condemning us to the night. We turn on all the lights, turn on the television, turn the volume down. I want to run to the Stanleys across the way. But over the years, another lesson learned: you pull other folk in, they get hurt, killed even. At least those who would give you help. We also learned the truth about All Hallows Eve – the dead do walk, seeking vengeance for wrongs done to them. See, I found out some time ago that it wasn’t the police who killed Daddy. After he slit Aunt Sylvia’s throat for hiding us away from him, and after the police got after him, Mom found out he hadn’t run far. One night as she walked to her car in a dark parking lot, he just appeared. He didn’t know she kept a gun since the murder. Probably didn’t have time to realize when the bullet ripped the top of his face apart. The police said self-defense, and so did the courts. Everything should’ve been all right after that.
But it wasn’t. Sometimes he simply broke open the door. Other times he managed to slip through locked windows. One year, we boarded up windows. Didn’t work. A couple of years, it seemed he forgot us. But then he came for Sienna (we called her Sinny; she was always getting into stuff, always laughing), and then Angie last year. “You’re older than both of us,” Taylor says to Jordan as Jordan sits staring in front of the television. Survivor is on. Taylor’s thrown up about three times and has just come down from cleaning the bathroom. “Does that make you feel any better, you little turd?” She’s angry, but not at her sister. That’s how it is when you’re maybe about to die. Or something much worse. “Don’t call your sister that, Jo…” My mother is sitting in the armchair, her face drawn. Watching her, I hate her for not protecting us. I hate her for being stupid enough to marry someone like him. Someone like her own father. Between those two, she simply doesn’t have enough fight left. My hate ebbs away. A little. But I do have some fight left. I will do something. Somehow. He wasn’t going to take me or my sisters. Not this Halloween. I run upstairs and pull out every aspirin bottle, every old prescription, and I run back downstairs. “Here, we can take these. C’mon, we don’t have to wait for him anymore,” I say fighting for breath. For a second, my mother’s eyes brighten, then just as quickly dim back to lifelessness. “I don’t believe in that. You can lose your soul.” “Mom, we don’t have any souls left! He took all of our souls a long time ago, even before he died.” “Is that right?” a whisper comes from over my left shoulder. He has snuck in again. How? Jordan jumps up and runs to the kitchen. I hear the rattling of chains, I hear the door open; I hear it quickly slam shut. She didn’t make it out. Taylor draws into a corner, whimpering. Mom just sits there, staring away from us. I turn and look at the decomposed face. Twelve years can ravage a dead man like that. He’s smiling, always smiling. Because he knows he owns us. Not that he really wants us. He just doesn’t want Mom to have us. The sound of breaking glass comes from the kitchen. Jordan again. He doesn’t even go through his usual spiel: “These are MY kids, bitch! They were never yours!” Before anyone can blink, he swoops up Taylor and she screams and screams. Mom doesn’t move, tears flowing down her face. Jordan runs in from the kitchen, shaking her head. “No, no!” In the morning, Mom will tell people that Taylor has gone to live with her father. And then the rest of us will move again. But not this time. I thought Jordan had been trapped in the kitchen, but it seems she did make it outside. The glass must have been her breaking in again, because she has an axe in her hand. Where did she get it from? How can no one hear Taylor screaming? It’s enough to wake the dead – if they weren’t already awake. My sister’s face is contorted with terror as Daddy lays a kiss on her forehead and says: “My baby; you’re going to like the grave. It’s so dark down there.” I grieve for all my sisters as I grab the axe and without a thought wham it into Daddy’s head. The skull falls off, then bounces across the floor. And just as quickly rolls back. Daddy drops Taylor on the floor so he can pick up his head. And he places it back on his ravaged body, clothes all shredded to hell. He cackles, then shrugs as if to say, “See…you can’t kill me.” I still have the ax in my hand. And suddenly I know what will end all of this. Because it occurred to me seconds before. My breath stills with the thought, my hand shakes as both fear and grief work their way through my body. He doesn’t want us. He never wanted daughters anyway, wished we were boys. All he wants is to hurt Mom. This is between them. He wants to destroy her. To reduce her to nothing. I look at her, just a second. The message passes silently between us. She nods. No suicide for her. But this…this is all right. I don’t feel the splatter. But I do see my father suddenly shake and howl, before he disappears into nothing but dust. Something he should have done a long time ago. Taylor grabs my arm. And Jordan cries softly behind me. And for the second time on Halloween, I break the silence, my scream of grief and triumph piercing the night.
1. What inspired the story “Daddy’s Home”?
I wrote the story in 2014 for my blog, which is mostly inactive these days. Since the Halloween holiday was coming up, I originally entitled it “Halloween Visit.” It really was a personal challenge because I had rarely written horror and was basically known for my romance books. The intended audience was my blog readers but then I published it along with other short stories in a compilation on Amazon.
2. What inspired you to start writing?
Decades ago, I took a few courses in college, including a screenwriting class. Those classes whetted my appetite. But it was only about twenty years ago that I started being more consistent, and with that consistency came a renewed seriousness about what I was putting out in the zeitgeist.
3. Tell us where you are in your writing career now and where you hope to be in the next few years.
Although a few years back, I concentrated on writing full novels, mostly romance, I have recently started focusing on writing short fiction. As a matter of fact, I’ve been inspired by one of my horror shorts to turn it into a full-blown screenplay to shop around. I hope to do more scripts in the future. Who knows, I may actually see one of my scripts turned into a indie production.
4. What are your favorite works of Black horror? Film, books, podcasts, etc?
I’ve only recently started getting into horror fiction. Believe it or not, I haven’t even seen “Get Out” yet. But years ago, there was a little movie called “Tales from the Hood” which was an entertaining cinematic anthology of black horror tales. I think it’s actually going through a revival now. It was scary enough for me back in the day. Also, when I was a girl in the 70s, Blacula was the man (although the movie probably doesn’t hold up as well as other horror films from that era). I am very glad that Jordan Peele is proving that there is an audience for Black horror because in the end, horror traverses the intersection of race, gender, and ethnicity. As for black horror fiction, my favorite author would have to be Tananarive Due, who has written several excellent horror novels in the past decades. And I do appreciate that the Nightlight podcast is introducing black horror to a new audience. For so long, there has been a dearth of books and movies featuring black characters in horror.
5. Where can we learn more about you and your work? Do you have any work coming out soon that we should keep an eye out for?
Again, most of my previous works have been romance but I am only now concentrating on writing short horror fiction as well as speculative fiction. I am writing as fast as I can an am shopping around my works. I have had a couple of stories published with Weirdbook Magazine (and a couple more due to be published in the coming months). And I am thankful to have “Daddy’s Home” given an audience at the Nightlight Podcast.
Our interview with Sharon is available on the episode webpage. Just go to nightlightpod.com, click on episodes and scroll to the July 31 post.
Thanks again to our patrons. If you’d like to join us, go to patreon.com/nightlightpod. And thanks also to Dionne Obeso and Jen Zink for volunteering their time to edit this story and the audio.
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We’ll be back next week with another story.