One day the mailman found Aunt Tillie’s house wide open with no sign of her. It was bitter cold, yet all the doors and windows were open. It had snowed the day before and there were no tracks to or from the house. Nothing was missing, including her car. They searched for days—even offered a reward. They never found her. People say she still haunts the old place.
“You start opening the living room walls,” I said, “and I’ll begin upstairs.”
Mattie and I began gutting Aunt Tillie’s timeworn home. I was pleased she had sacrificed her college holiday and was thankful for the company. I’d had too many lonely days since I retired. Too many lonely nights since her mother died.
I had just uncovered an old timber when Mattie screamed.
Thinking rat, I tore down the stairs. “Mattie! What’s the matter?”
Mattie stood transfixed, a fist in her mouth, her other hand pointing. A wood stove stood in one corner, a diagonal wall behind it. Broken lath and plaster hung askew, revealing the wall cavity. I struggled to comprehend the vision before us.
A desiccated corpse stared vacantly. Wisps of hair curled around a gruesome skull, its wrinkled skin stretched over snarling teeth. The skeleton wore a faded housedress, greyed with decades of dust.
I hugged Mattie to my chest as she trembled and sobbed. I uttered soothing sounds that echoed emptily in my ears.
We sat on our tailgate, wrapped in blankets, sipping hot coffee. A forensic team had scurried about for the last two hours.
I nodded to the deputy. “I guess we found Aunt Tillie. Any idea how she ended up inside that wall?”
“We’ll never know, but we have a theory. Tillie heated her place with wood. Our guys checked the chimney, and it’s clogged with creosote. If the wood stove started smoking, she would’ve aired out the house by opening up the doors and windows.”
“That would explain the house, but not Tillie,” I said.
“I’m getting to that. There’s a dormer in the attic where she could inspect the chimney. We found broken floorboards up there. She must have fallen into the gap between the chimney and the wall and knocked herself out. That’s why no one found her that day—she was unconscious. And that’s why there were no footprints in the snow. She never left the house. She died in the wall.”
Mattie shivered. “How horrible.”
I grimaced. “Wouldn’t there have been—an odor?”
“The weather was frigid that day. By the time the body thawed and decomposed, the sheriff had boarded up the place. Everyone else avoided the spooky house.”
We thanked him and he left.
“We’ll plan a funeral for your namesake,” I said.
“I named you after her—Matilda. You chose the nickname Mattie, but she preferred Tillie.”
“Poor Aunt Tillie.” She looked at me. “I hope her ghost will accept our changes. We are installing electric heat, right?”
Note: This story won 1st Place in the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America’s Second Annual Flash Fiction Contest.