Drawing of a lamp in a dark room, an outline of a woman appears on the wall. Caption reads: "The house was unusually dark."

Downsizing short story by Iris Carden

Elsie hated moving, but now the children were grown and out on their own, the family home was far too big for her alone. That’s why she’d bought the little two-bedroom Queenslander she’d seen for sale for a ridiculously low price.

Perhaps she should have questioned why the seller was getting rid of it for clearly half its value. It had passed the building and pest inspections, and she was assured it would not need major repairs in the foreseeable future. She didn’t ask anything more than that.

So here she was on her first evening. The movers had put the furniture in place, and left her surrounded by boxes. Packing was always bad. Unpacking was worse.

She hadn’t expected how dark the house would be. She’d moved from a more modern building, where lights were placed to eliminate dark corners.

This old house seemed to be all dark corners.

Her first priority had been to unpack the necessary items to make coffee. She could order take away for dinner, and next was to unpack enough to make the bed. Toiletries and pyjamas were in her suitcase, the last thing packed which held all her necessary overnight things.

Next, she wanted to unpack the second bedroom, which would be her office. The removalists had placed her desk, bookshelves, filing cabinets and office chair as she wanted them. She lifted a cardboard box on to the desk, cut through the packing tape, and began to take out books to place on the shelves.

Something seemed to move in the periphery of her vision. She tried to look closer at the place, but it was just a dark, shadowy, corner.

Elsie brought in a small side table from the lounge room, and a decorative lamp, which she turned on to try to lighten the very dark area. She made a mental note to get more powerful light bulbs than whatever was currently installed.

The lamp created a small pool of light, but seemed unable to shift much of the shadows.

Elsie continued unpacking and shelving books, one bookcase for her beloved novels, the other for her professional library. The professional books carefully ordered so she would know where to find them the moment she needed them.

The movement caught her attention again, but further investigation again found nothing. She’d moved so many times in the course of her career, and hoped this would be the last time she had to unpack.

Boxes of files came next. She’d boxed them in order, so transferring from the boxes back to the cabinet was easy. There was that movement again. Did she have a spider? Did she have (shudder) a cockroach?

She arranged stationery in her desk drawers. Then she took her laptop from her bag and placed it on the desk, and sat for a moment to see what the room looked like from the position in which she would spend so many hours of her days. There was something about this room. Perhaps she ought to have had it repainted before unpacking. The paint wasn’t peeling, but it seemed to have patterns of light and dark. From her seat at the desk, the pattern in the paint seemed to form the shape of a woman, in an old fashioned dress, with a form-fitting bodice and huge flaring skirt.

“Hello wall woman,” Elsie said. “What am I going to do about you? Maybe I can put a painting in that spot, or put in another bookcase.”

Elsie opened the laptop. She wouldn’t have the internet connected for another couple of days, so she connected to her phone’s wifi hotspot to collect her emails.

There were some messages from clients, and some from her children. Elsie read and responded for a while.

The next time she looked up, the light seemed dimmer, the shadows darker, and she could have sworn the wall woman had moved. She had been side-on when Elsie had first seen her, but now she was facing Elsie. Her features had been vague before, but were clear now, and she appeared angry.

Elsie shook her head, and looked again. The woman was still frozen in place glaring at Elsie.

“Well that’s quite impressive and also disturbing,” Elsie said to the woman.

She took her empty coffee cup to the kitchen, then returned to the office. She disconnected the computer from the wifi and closed it. When she looked at the image on the wall again, the woman had her hand raised above her head, holding a large kitchen knife.

Elsie began to wonder if she were over-tired, if the shadows were playing with her imagination, if moving had been too much and her mind was playing tricks.

Then she saw the woman move, out from the wall.

Elsie jumped up from her chair and stepped back as the knife came down and ripped through the upholstery on her chair. In the next moment the woman was gone. There was not even the image on the wall.

Elsie looked at her chair. It wasn’t her imagination. The damage was real.

Elsie grabbed laptop and went to her bedroom for the suitcase. The woman was there on the wall of that room now.

“I got the message. I’m leaving,” Elsie said. “Do you understand? I’m leaving.”

The woman turned to face her once again, arm raised with the knife.

Elsie grabbed her suitcase from the bed, as the knife came down and ripped through the mattress.

She took the suitcase and the laptop bag and ran to her car. She would spend the night in a hotel.

There was no buyer for her old house yet. She would take it off the market and move back. Elsie had no idea what she would do with the Queenslander.

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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