Old Man Miller’s House – By Russell Waterman
The screams coming from the Miller house sounded different tonight.
“I told you to get the hell out of here.”
“Screw you old man.”
The gray-bearded man slammed his second story window.
“Stop talking with that old fart and get us a couple more beers,” said Joey, from the driver’s seat of his beat-up 1987 Chevy truck.
“Yeah, and make sure it’s a cold one this time too, you little dweeb,” added Duane, who was riding shotgun. Duane lit another Marlboro and punched Joey in the arm, giggling at his own smartass remark.
The boys parked in front of Miller’s house on another Saturday night. Joey tossed his empty beer bottle out of his truck window and belched.
* * *
The rundown farmhouse belonged to Dora and Earnest Miller, childhood sweethearts who married young. Their small two-story home sat on a fifty-acre parcel at the end of Spruce Street.
“Wipe your feet, Sweetheart,” said Dora. “I just cleaned the floor.”
“If I wipe anymore the soles will come off,” quipped Earnest. Taking a seat on the front porch and watching the sun go down, Earnest pried off his boots he’d had on since sun up, soiled in cow manure and soybean seed.
“I’m getting too old for this,” said Earnest. Stepping into the kitchen, “what smells so good?”
“Fresh vegetable soup,” said Dora, stirring it with a wooden spoon. “It’s been simmering, just waiting for you.”
Over the years as age crept in, Earnest took up being a part-time handyman. It didn’t pay much. But they didn’t need much, only each other.
* * *
Now, the same loving home showed signs of neglect and indifference. The house screamed loneliness, and silence pulsated through its walls. A prison to its one resident: Earnest Miller.
“Come on. What’s taking you so long with those beers?” asked Joey, brushing his long greasy hair from his face.
Robbie, the youngest at nineteen, having drawn the short straw, sat in the Chevy’s truck bed. He opened the Coleman cooler packed with ice and grabbed three more malt liquors, passing them out.
Robbie gulped half a bottle, then mumbled, “Joey, we’re gonna have to make a beer run pretty soon. We’re almost out.”
Cruising and drinking were the main sources of entertainment for teenage boys in Mount Hayman, West Virginia. A small coal mining town consisting mainly of one post office, a couple strip malls and a handful of traffic stops. With little else to do but get wasted, what better place than the Miller house? It was off the Police radar, until tonight.
“I said get outta here. Ya damn kids!”
Earnest closed the window to his small bedroom, wincing as he slowly pulled the drapes shut. He rubbed his hands together trying to relieve some of the arthritic pain. The seventy-nine year old man sat down on the edge of his bed to catch his breath. Haggard, he lowered his head into his thin boney hands.
Closing his eyes he began thinking.
This happens every Saturday night. Those boys come around raising hell. I can’t stand it anymore.
Picking up a matching wedding ban from his nightstand, he said, “I miss her”.
Despondent, Earnest looked at the tiny Jesus statue on his nightstand and prayed, like never before, one last time; “Please Lord, give me the strength for what I have to do. Amen.” Earnest made the sign of the cross, and remembered.
* * *
“If the cancer doesn’t kill me, the chemo sure will,” Dora would say.
Being eaten alive from the inside was a terrible way to die. Slowly her bones and tissue started to disintegrate. Then her mind dissolved. Worst of all, Earnest would lose Dora.
“It hurts, Earnest.” Dora’s voice was weak. Coughing and struggling to speak, she added, “sit with me.”
She ached. With every movement she felt pain.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” said Earnest, softly.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Earnest gently took Dora’s hand. Picking it up, it pained him to see how thin and frail she had become, so vulnerable. The disease barely took six months to invade, sucking away her life.
It began with a cough that lingered for days, followed by a fever that was slow to break. Small lesions appeared on her skin, one by one, causing her to scratch incessantly until they bled.
Earnest convinced Dora to make a Doctor’s appointment. Living in a secluded area made the long walk to the bus stop difficult. Nevertheless, they made the bus ride into Mount Hayman several times, but the Doctor did little. Discounting the old lady’s ailments, instead he treated her sores. Telling her it was just a sign of old age and they’d go away eventually with a little ointment. As time passed and the disease progressed, Dora was diagnosed with cancer.
They endured the three hour bus ride into Morgantown to get Dora treatment at the Randolph Cancer Center. The chemotherapy killed the cancerous cells and tissues, but also killed her body’s ability to live.
Later, with Dora resting in a hospital bed, sedated, the Doctor led Earnest into his office.
“Mr. Miller, I’m afraid your Wife’s prognosis has worsened. Initially the treatment helped. However, the cancer is quite aggressive. And, with her advanced age and the lateness in which the cancer was detected, it’s continuing to spread, uncontrollably. At this point, I’d make her as comfortable as possible. I’m very sorry.”
Earnest held his head in his hands and started to cry. The Doctor touched Earnest’s shoulder, trying to comfort him as best he could, in that Doctor kind-of-way.
Standing up slowly, wiping the tears from his face and gathering strength, he looked at the Doctor. In a quiet unwavering voice, he said, “I’m going to take my bride home now.”
At home, Earnest sat on the bed next to Dora looking at her thin, emaciated face. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, he thought how lovely she looked.
Tenderly holding her hand, he gazed into the eyes of the woman he fell in love with a lifetime ago, and dreamed. He envisioned them walking hand-in-hand down the aisle of Mount Hayman Church of God. She was beautiful in her white wedding dress. It was the happiest day of their lives. He promised she would be his forever, ’til death do us part.
But now, he couldn’t let her go. Even in death.
“I do,” whispered Earnest, with tears forming in his eyes. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead. “I’d marry you all over again.”
A light spring rain began to fall and dance against the bedroom window, interrupting his mood. Looking around the room and still holding her hand, he found himself back home in near darkness. The curtains on the window were always drawn, protecting her from the harsh sunlight. A desk lamp by the door gave off a soft glow.
Her eyes opened and met his, and in a low quivering voice, she said, “I love you, Earnest”. Her eyes glistened and she took in a deep breath.
“I love you, Dora.”
A serene smile crossed her face. She blinked her eyes once more and closed them. Dora relaxed, her head coming to rest on her pillow. The room was silent. Earnest could no longer hear her struggling for air. He could not feel the mild hold she had on his hand. His bride was gone.
Earnest leaned over and hugged Dora. The tears flowing freely as he cradled her in his arms. Kissing her cheek, he held her close and tight, not wanting to let her go. For when he did, he knew he’d never be able to hold her again.
He began to shake and tremble, “Dora! Don’t leave me! I love you!”
Earnest held Dora, rocking her slowly, lovingly, back and forth.
As dawn began to rise, he whispered, “I’ll be with you again, Dora, somehow. I promise.”
* * *
Earnest lifted his bearded face from his hands as the noise outside increased with the sounds of laughter and beer bottles crashing in the street.
He opened his withered eyes and looked up to see his image in the filthy mirror in front of him. The reflection was troubling. He stared intently at it. Focusing, he began sensing a presence.
Should I? Will God approve?
Continuing to look deep within for the answer he sought, the cloudiness gradually started to clear. His mind coming to realize the path he should take.
A surge of energy rushed throughout his body as he began to prepare. Getting up from the edge of the bed, he methodically began to tighten his suspenders and retie his boot laces. Brushing his long oily hair from his eyes and securing it straight back into a pony tail. Taking in a deep breath and summoning all his courage. He was going to need every bit of it.
“It’s time,” he said, and walked out of the bedroom.
* * *
“Ahh, that’s better”, said a relieved Robbie.
“Are you done playing with yourself? Hell, me and Duane ain’t pissed once, and you’ve flicked your wick twice now. Enjoying yourself?” laughed Joey.
“Shut up. Ya drink more, ya gotta piss more,” slurred Robbie. His tongue felt thick and dry.
His weak attempt at a comeback made Duane and Joey howl.
Robbie squeezed off the last little bit and zipped up his fly, being careful not to snag anything. Not unlike their last drinking binge when his privates got pinched.
Robbie finished his business and stumbled his way back to the truck in almost total darkness. His arms flailing about like a blind man.
“Don’t kill yourself,” advised Duane, himself drunk.
The inevitable happened two seconds later. Tripping over his size nine Nikes, Robbie crashed to the ground. Screaming like a stuck pig.
His body slammed hard, but his forehead got the worst of it. Knuckle size rocks spilt open his brow. The blood came rushing out of the large gash.
“F*ck that hurts!” screamed Robbie.
“No man, it hurts! I think I’m bleeding?”
“No sh*t?” Joey sobered up just a bit as he and Duane staggered toward Robbie.
The distant street lamp along with the clouds covering the moonlight made it hard to find their way.
Taking off his sweat-stained t-shirt, Joey wrapped it around Robbie’s bloody scalp. “Here, put this around your head. You’re bleeding like crazy.”
“We got to get you to a Doctor,” said Duane.
“Yeah and how do we get there?” said Joey, snarling at Duane. “We can barely walk, you idiot. No way in hell I can drive. Come on; let’s go see old man Miller.”
“No way, he hates our guts. All the sh*t we give him,” whimpered Duane, terrified at the prospect of actually talking to Miller face-to-face.
“It’ll be fine. Once he sees how bad Robbie’s head is, plus all the blood, he’ll have to help us,” said Joey, trying to convince his friend.
Reluctantly, and with no other choices, Duane agreed. Propping each other up with Robbie in the middle, they make their way toward the dimly lit house.
* * *
“Bang on the door, Joey,” said Duane.
“I am. Keep your pants on.”
The t-shirt around Robbie’s head was now soaked with blood.
Joey nervously knocked on the door. He waited a moment and knocked again, harder this time. The trio heard faint footsteps.
Mr. Miller slowly opened the door, seeing the boys standing on the porch. A light from behind him framed his body in silhouette. The darkness hid the look of finality on his face.
Leaning on each other for support and being as polite as possible, Joey spoke first, “Mr. Miller, sir, could we use your phone? My friend’s hurt real bad,” looking toward Robbie.
“What happened? Get too drunk again?” said an indignant Mr. Miller.
“He fell, hit a rock and…” started Joey.
“…yeah and it was on your property! He might sue ya, ya know?” Duane interrupted.
“Shut up, Duane!” snapped Joey. “Sorry Mr. Miller. Can we please use your phone?”
Mr. Miller hesitated.
From this point forward there would be no turning back?
Making his choice, Mr. Miller motioned the boys in.
The house, dark with a stale scent about it, was dirty and out of sorts. To the left was the den with a large musty couch. Across from the couch, the drapes covering the front windows were drawn. A floor lamp in the corner dimly lit the room.
As they entered the room a rodent darted in front of them, startling everyone but Mr. Miller.
“What was that?” said Joey.
“A rat I’m afraid. They’ve started to take over the house a bit,” apologized a stoic Mr. Miller. “But don’t worry, I have poison. I put it in little trays of water and leave it for them to drink. Works pretty good. They don’t seem to notice the poison, ’til it’s too late. I just have to remember to pick up the dead ones before they start to smell.” He deadpanned. “Sit there on the couch. I’ll be right back.”
Feeling uneasy, the boys sat down and checked out the room. Their heads bobbed like a ragdoll, spinning from the booze.
Joey noticed that even in this faint light the injury to Robbie’s head looked severe. He had to do something. Robbie might bleed to death.
Mr. Miller appeared from the adjoining kitchen with clean towels and a glass of liquid.
“Take off that bloody rag and wrap this towel around your head. Apply some pressure. It’ll help stop the bleeding. And drink this. It’ll make you feel better ’til you get to the Doctor. Help calm your nerves.”
“What is it? It looks like water?” said Robbie.
“It has water in it. It’s a homemade remedy.”
Robbie downed the drink like he was in a beer chugging contest and collapsed back on the couch. Then, making a face as if he’d just eaten one of the dead rats, said, “Oh man that tastes terrible.”
“Its medicine,” reassured Mr. Miller.
Duane pressed the clean towel against Robbie’s head trying to curb the bleeding.
“This ain’t working. He’s still bleeding.”
“Can I use your phone now?” asked Joey.
Strange rumblings began coming from Robbie’s stomach. Something was dying to get out. His face contorted, he held onto his belly in an effort to keep it from exploding.
“My stomach hurts, Joey. It burns,” said Robbie, aching to get the words out.
Starting to panic, Joey looked back at an indifferent Mr. Miller who was staring straight at Robbie, looking at him as if waiting for the big show to begin.
“Phone, where’s the phone!” pleaded Joey.
“It’s down the hall and to your left.”
“Hey Joey, I think he’s getting worse. Look at his face,” said Duane.
Without warning Robbie’s body lurched forward. His chest began rocking violently back and forth. It started as a trickle from the corner of his lips. Then vomit spewed out of his mouth. The contents covering his clothes, the coffee table, everything. Again he threw up. The stench of half-digested food and stale beer filled the room.
“Holy sh*t, what did you give him?” yelled Joey.
“It’s an old family remedy. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t kill him.”
“Right?” said Joey. “Watch him Duane. I’m going to call for an ambulance.”
Robbie was dry heaving as Joey rushed to find a phone.
“Wait. Let me show you where it is.”
Still too drunk to make much sense of his predicament, Joey bounced against the hall walls in search of a phone. He found a desk phone in a small room just off the hallway. Mr. Miller paused a moment in another room, before slithering up to Joey from behind.
It happened while Joey fumbled with the old style rotary dial phone, searching for the “o” for Operator button.
The fireplace poker sliced through the air. It came to a sudden end, crashing into Joey’s back. The pain was dull and agonizing. The nerves in his back sent the pain racing through his body, trying to escape the bite brought on by the blunt force. Screaming and sensing another blow, his body recoiled in defense.
Using the poker like a baseball bat, his teeth grinding, his eyes piercing, Earnest hit Joey again, square on the back. With the wind knocked out of him, Joey fell to the floor. His jaw caught the edge of the table. Blood started squirting from his mouth. Half of his tongue was gone.
Mr. Miller stood above Joey with poker in hand: ready to strike again. Choking from his half-severed tongue, Joey lay on his back. He raised his battered arms to fend off another attack.
One more time, decided the old man.
Raising the poker, Earnest swung away, striking Joey about the arms and shoulders. Joey’s bones cracked. Screaming and fearing another blow, he turned onto his belly and covered his head as best he could.
Earnest looked down at Joey, watching, reasoning.
Has he had enough? Would he do it given the chance?
There was anger and pain in Mr. Miller’s eyes, but mostly in his heart.
Then he left the room.
* * *
Duane was squirming on the couch when the screaming started. Jumping to his feet, he froze … listening. His heart raced, his eyelids glued to his forehead. Soon a deathly silence thundered throughout the house.
Watching the doorway to the den, he eyed for any movement. Straining to hear any sound.
A violent wind blew the leaves of the sycamores against the window. Thunder crackled in the distance, spooking Duane and signaling the advancement of the approaching storm.
Footsteps now, coming down the hall. Duane’s breathing increased. Anxiously looking from side-to-side, he started shaking. With Robbie still out cold on the couch, the sounds were coming closer, growing louder.
“Joey, is that you?”
What do I do? Where do I go?
Silence again. Duane’s attention returned to the source. His eyes were suddenly fixed on the menacing figure of Earnest Miller.
Holding the fireplace poker and blocking his exit, Earnest stared down Duane. Duane licked his lips and swallowed hard. His eyes landed on the rusty poker. Earnest slowly swung the poker into his open palm.
“What are you doing? Where’s Joey?” stammered Duane.
Earnest took a step. Duane was near panic.
Earnest’s arms started shaking as he stepped closer, raising the weapon above his head.
Out of options with nowhere to go, Duane’s instincts took over. Duane lunged toward the old man who was slow to react, tackling and sending them both to the floor. Showing no resistance and relaxing his hold on the poker, Earnest’s head bounced on the hard floor, rattling his brain. Lying motionless, blood trickled from his cracked skull.
Sucking in air, breathing like he had just run a four-minute mile, Duane relaxed his grip on Earnest.
Blood continued seeping from Earnest. Duane began gathering his thoughts, his mind working frantically.
What happened to Joey? And Robbie’s still passed out? But–the drink! He got sick from the drink? It was poisoned! Rat poisoned!
“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE!” yelled Duane.
Scrambling to his feet, Duane stumbled in the dim light to find his friend.
Duane found Joey lying in a small room down the hall. The furniture in disarray with the coffee table splattered in blood. Holding his arms and bleeding, the agony on his face said it all.
“Careful … easy buddy,” said Duane.
“I think my arm is broken,” grimaced Joey, as Duane helped Joey to his feet.
“What happened?” said Duane. “It was old man Miller wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, the psycho hit me with a fireplace poker.”
“He tried that with me too. But I got ‘em,” bragged Duane. “He’s in the den bleeding all over the floor.”
A small grin crossed Joey’s face, “Let’s get Robbie and get the hell out of here.”
“Let’s call the cops. The phone’s right here,” said Duane.
Picking up the receiver and ready to dial, Duane stopped and slammed it down. “It’s dead.”
The buzz from the beer was all but gone, spoiled as it were. A crazy old man was trying to kill them and mount their heads on his living room wall. And they didn’t have a clue as to why.
With their hearts racing, they hurried back to the den.
Robbie was still unconscious when they entered the room.
“I left him right there,” said Duane, looking around for the body. “He was bleeding. I left him right here. I thought he was dead!”
“Duane,” began Joey, his arm throbbing, “don’t worry ‘bout Miller right now. Let’s get Robbie and get the hell out of here. I’ll lift his legs. You grab his top half.”
“He weighs a ton. And he’s covered in crap,” said Duane.
“Forget the vomit ….”
Their attention diverted, the figure silently came toward the boys, becoming visible far too late.
The antique vase met the back of Duane’s head abruptly. Propelling shattered glass everywhere. Slivers of serrated glass stuck in his head. Duane’s knees buckled, sending him to the floor.
Mr. Miller focused on Joey, broken arm and all. Using the broken end of the vase as a knife, Earnest sliced open Joey’s side. Blood began pouring out of the wound. Joey collapsed screaming, trying desperately to relieve his body of the glass sticking in him.
Duane lay stunned at the foot of the couch, bleeding, and his head spinning. He was disparate to overcome his dizziness. He knew if he didn’t do something, Earnest was going to kill him.
Earnest stood over the teenagers, exhausted. His job was almost complete. They lay broken in blood and vomit.
It shouldn’t be long now. He thought.
Let them do it, Lord, please, before I end up killing them!
In agony and weak from the loss of blood, Joey slowly turned his head and caught Mr. Miller’s eyes. Joey saw a withered and empty old man, devoid of emotion. His eyes were hollow and translucent. Earnest Miller had the look of a dead man.
By this time the storm was beating down. Joey’s screams were drowned out by the pouring rain and the thunder shaking the farmhouse.
“Get up, Duane, get up! WATCH OUT!”
His head spinning, Duane saw Mr. Miller reach for the poker.
Robbie stirred from the couch in time to see the attack.
Duane willed himself to his feet. Rushing forward and burying his head into Mr. Miller’s chest, Duane body tackled him into the wall. The aging plaster cracking at the point of impact, as did Earnest’s head. Both crashed to the floor. Earnest took the full force of the wall stud. His head split in two, releasing the flow of blood.
As Duane slowly got to his feet, he screamed, “Let’s see how you like it, old man!”
The fireplace poker returned the favor. Duane grabbed the poker and used it with a vengeance he never knew existed. His inner demons would be proud. Pummeling Earnest, again and again, Duane beat him unmercifully. Breaking one arm, then the other, and with his adrenaline pumping, Duane went on to bashing his face. Crushing his jaw and puncturing an eye socket.
Earnest responded by bleeding and absorbing the blows.
“Hit me will ya? Try to kill us will ya?” yelled Duane, all the time swinging the poker like a Louisville slugger.
“Stop it, stop it! You’re killing him!” screamed Joey.
“But he tried to kill us!”
“I don’t think so. We’d already be dead if that’s what he wanted!”
The words began resonating with Duane. He stopped. Earnest lay bleeding and beaten to a pulp.
“What are you talking about, Joey?” panted Duane.
“Back when I was trying to make a phone call and he was beating on me, he could have killed me. But, he left. And just a few minutes ago when we were both on the floor; he could have speared us both with that thing. But he didn’t,” said Joey. “Why?”
“Look!” said Duane. “The old man’s trying to say something.”
Earnest Miller lay bleeding. His bones shattered and body broken. Slowly opening his eyes, he was drawn to the only light in the room. The floor lamp gave off a gentle glow. Its soothing radiance invited Earnest into its warmth. He saw a glimpse of something within the brightness. It seemed familiar somehow.
Earnest stared deeply into the light, never wavering. He continued to look passionately into it as if his prayer was being answered. As if he could keep his promise.
A tender smile appeared on his cracked lips. His eyes moistened, releasing a tear. His spirit was coming alive again. Illuminated, his breathing slowed, almost to a stop. Then, scarcely opening his mouth, Earnest whispered, “Dora.”