Kristen Houghton

The January Featured Writer is Kristen Houghton

Feel free to email Kristen at: Krisnalan2@msn.com


by Kristen Houghton

“It’s all yours. Here you go.” The lawyer held out an iPad and, with a pen, pointed to where Caryn had to sign. Great-Aunt Cecily’s house was all hers. Wow and three cheers—all hers. She thanked the lawyer for meeting here instead of her office and watched her drive away.

Caryn sighed, put the For-Sale sign on the lawn, closed the heavy front door, and walked into the gloomy living room. An unpleasant, unidentifiable faint smell assailed her nostrils. It smelled like flowers but in a funny way, like a floral spray used to cover a bad stink.

Great-Aunt Cecily, the weird relative her brother always called bat-shit crazy. The one who had spent a few years in a mental hospital after someone’s death. The two of them had laughed at that but, in truth, there was something about Aunt Cecily that was kind of creepy.

Her mother had been kinder about their aunt, calling her “just a lonely old woman”. A little strange, maybe, but that could just be old age. And, her mother always pointed out, Cecily’s had her share of tragedy. That sad, old tale repeated down the generations. What was that story again?

Oh, yes. Supposedly her fiancé had drowned when he was only twenty years old and Cecily was seventeen. Poor man. They were rowing on a lake when he fell overboard and hit his head on a submerged boulder. A terrible tragedy to witness. The strange thing was that his body was never found. Only his clothes had surfaced a mile downstream. It didn’t help that the man’s mother blamed Cecily for his death and disappearance.

“I know—I know it was you who caused his death. You and that Jamaican woman. I just know it! Where is his body? Where is he?” she had screamed to a surprisingly dry-eyed Cecily at the memorial service.  Later that night, Cecily had sat in her bedroom alternately laughing and screaming, “Cannot see! Cannot see! It is done now!” A week of this made her father commit her to an asylum.

Little Cecily’s life had always been a lonely one. She was mostly raised by her Jamaican nanny, old Ashaki, while her socialite parents traveled the world and paid little attention to her. Cecily spent a great deal of time with Ashaki who taught her the Jamaican patois.

Her mother brought back dolls from every one of her travels which she seemed to feel made up for her frequent absences. Those dolls became Cecily’s family. Even as she grew up and became a young woman, the dolls took first place in her life. Upon returning from the asylum, she would spend hours and hours locked in her bedroom with her dolls and old Ashaki making dolls’ clothes and speaking and singing strange songs in the Jamaican Patois.

The dolls. Caryn, standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the bedrooms, looked upward. A memory surfaced of Great-Aunt Cecily showing those dolls to her on that one occasion Caryn had been to the strange-smelling old house. All prettily lined up on shelves.  Dolls with porcelain faces and dead glass eyes that simply stared straight ahead. Wooden dolls with moveable arms and legs and eerily painted facial features, small ones, big ones—all of them female dolls dressed in fancy old-fashioned clothes. All of them what her great-aunt called ‘little ladies’. Caryn had been fascinated and was curious about them, even the strange-looking one.

That one was the only male doll, a simple, cloth one that had no face. A boy doll plainly dressed in black overalls and with a black hat on his faceless head, so out of place in that collection of fancy dolls. It had been picked up on a trip to Amish country by her elderly nanny who gave it to Cecily telling her that it was special in so many ways. 

“No, dear, don’t be afraid,” Great-Aunt Cecily had said to Caryn when she timidly backed up and away from the strange doll. Cecily picked up the doll and held him close. “No one can touch him but me. I take care of him, you see. He calls me Ceci. He and I spent a great deal of time together.” She then spoke a few words in patois to the doll, nodded strangely, and smiled. Caryn was sure she saw the doll’s leg move and ran crying to her mother who told her she had imagined it.

Walking from room to room, Caryn measured the house with the practiced eye of a real estate agent. She was very good at her job but, then again, her high-end real estate usually sold itself. This house, well, there had to be a way to get rid of that smell whatever it was.

Lights flickered as she moved about and she heard what sounded like a hissing sound coming from upstairs. Ssssssssss. It sounded spooky. She just hoped it wasn’t a problem with the electrical wires. She sighed even as she felt a small chill. Maybe some speculator would buy it, level the house and parcel up the lot. Caryn figured that this lot could be divided up to hold three split-levels easily. Well, then, she had better get started on seeing what had to be done to make it saleable.

Caryn spent the afternoon tagging items, mostly furniture and appliances that she planned to donate to a local veterans’ charity. Every once in a while, she felt a sense of unease come over her—that smell and the idea that someone was watching her. She put it down to what her mother had called ‘overactive imagination and silly shadows’ and continued to work. She opened all the windows, every single one with no screens of course, and opened both front and back doors. The smell lingered.

Toward evening she was pretty wiped out and, grabbing a bottle of lemonade from the cooler she’d brought with her, she sat on a pillow on the living room floor. Was there anything else she needed to do tonight? She really wanted to get back to her nice, orderly, tastefully decorated townhouse. This place was depressing. Remembering the story her mother had told her made the place seem one of death, despair, and sadness.

As Caryn leaned back against the wall she remembered what else needed to be done in the house. The dolls! How could she have forgotten that! Maybe she should try to sell them at an auction. They had to be worth something, right? Even that creepy faceless one. Sssssss. Those wires again! There was going to be an electrical fire if she didn’t call someone to check the wiring. She shivered as a shadow seemed to flutter nearby. Oh for God’s sake, she thought. This place is making me imagine things.

She fiercely concentrated on what she had to do. Pack up the dolls, call an electrician, get in touch with the veterans’ society, call a house cleaning service, hopefully one that specialized in getting rid of odors, and maybe—oh shit! What now? Bong! Bong! The sound startled Caryn out of her mental list-making. It sounded like what she imagined the bells of Hell were like.

She looked around to see from where the noise emanated and laughed at herself for being startled. It was only the huge clock on the mantle, loudly counting out the hours. Eight bongs, eight o’clock. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet. She’d come back tomorrow to finish up. Not tonight, no, not tonight. She was exhausted.

Caryn gathered her things and decided to leave by the back door so she could take out the trash she’d collected. Outside, she dumped the trash into a can and quickly walked toward her car. A soft wind was blowing, making the branches on the tree in front of the house move erratically. Small shards of lightening from a coming summer storm sparked the sky. Caryn turned to take in the house with a critical eye. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe she could get a decent sale for it.

A branch slapping gently at a window on the second floor made Caryn look up and a flash of lightening made her look closer. What the hell was that? Was there someone looking out of the window up there? How was that possible! Oh no, maybe an animal had gotten in the place when she’d had the doors and windows open to air out the house. She definitely didn’t want to run into a large racoon tomorrow. She strained harder to see, but a second flash revealed nothing more than the tree leaves reflected in the glass. Caryn shook her head.

It’s been a long day, she thought as she got in her car for the ride home. I’m seeing things.

A sound of hissing seemed to escape from the deep recess of the house.


Caryn didn’t get back to Great-Aunt Cecily’s house until late evening the next day. She hated coming here after a long work day even though it had been a good day in many ways. She’d sold a large home to a couple for $22,000 over the asking price, giving her a nice jump in commission, and she’d contacted an auction house whose manager sounded very interested in viewing Great-Aunt Cecily’s dolls for possible purchase. She and a colleague had celebrated with dinner where Caryn had killed a half bottle of wine. Now all she had to do was box up the dolls for the auction house manager, and leave.

She was carrying a large box and sheets of plastic wrapping up the stairs when she thought she heard a voice. Probably a neighbor or someone who had seen the For-Sale sign out front. She paused and called out, “Hello? Anyone here? Hello?” She listened for a response but there was no sound. She coughed. That flowery-decay smell always seemed to be stronger upstairs.

Sssssssss. The hair on the back of her neck bristled slightly. In the heat of summer, she felt a chill, an ominous feeling. Oh for heaven’s sake, this is ridiculous! It’s only an old house with squeaky stairs and floors, and faulty wiring, she told herself. Caryn squared her shoulders, took a breath, and continued up the stairs.

In Great-Aunt Cecily’s bedroom she went to the shelves that held all those dolls. Oh they really were pretty! Certainly they would sell quickly and bring in a good price. Carefully she took down each doll and wrapped it in plastic before placing it in the large box.

The male doll was all alone on the third shelf staring with its eyeless face. At least Caryn felt that it was staring. Hesitantly she reached for it feeling a thrill of fear when she touched it. How silly! It’s just a doll, nothing more. She placed it on top of the box, not wanting to put it in with the others.

The doll fell forward on its face and it was then that Caryn saw it. A small book in the back pocket of the doll’s overalls. She removed it from the pocket and stared at a book no bigger than a 3 x 4 picture frame.  It was a diary. Flipping through it she curiously read the writings and daily life of her Great-Aunt Cecily. Most were boring descriptions of teas with her dolls, walks with her nanny, and descriptions of the weather, each entry meticulously dated.

But suddenly things changed. A pressed flower heralded a new chapter for Cecily. Her father’s business partner, J.T. Hall, came to visit her parents, briefly home from one of their travels. There was a dinner and musicians to celebrate some very successful business deal. And there was the son of her father’s partner, a young man named Carter. Cecily’s life had changed.

The next pages were all filled with writings about Carter. She had fallen in love and, from what Caryn gathered from the writing, the two fathers felt a marriage would help to cement their burgeoning business partnership. Cecily wrote how she felt about it all, so in love, so happy, but Caryn got the impression that Carter wasn’t as enthused as her great-aunt was and was only going along with it to please his dear papà. There was one telling section about the engagement that said reams about how Carter really felt.

“Oh my heart! Yesterday Carter took me aside and asked me if we could wait a year before becoming officially engaged. He said we both needed to be absolutely certain. I said no and he left shortly after. He cannot leave me. I must talk to Ashaki.”

The overhead light blinked sporadically in the room. And there was that hissing sound again. Caryn looked up and felt that small charge of fear but she wanted to read on.

It seemed that young Carter, was not only not keen on the engagement to Cecily, but had started seeing someone else. Ashaki came back from a trip to town and told Cecily she had seen Carter and a very pretty young lady walking arm-in-arm on the main street and entering the ice cream parlor.

“His eyes, they saw only her,” said old Ashaki grimly to her young charge. 

Cecily wrote that she was in despair. Three days went by before she wrote again. She was going to the lake with Carter. He had something to tell her. “I have a dreadful foreboding of what he has to say to me,” she wrote.

The next page had only one printed sentence, “Carter is dead,” followed by something in patois, “Tek fi him ys.” 

Leafing through the rest of the tiny book Caryn found nothing but empty pages. One of those pages looked as if it had been torn out. Carter died the day they went to the lake, mused Caryn. That day. The next day Great-Aunt Cecily wrote that he was dead and some gibberish in patois. How strange that she—the lights flickered quickly on and off and that subtle hissing came and went. And that smell!

Outside a flash of lightening streaked across the evening sky. Startled, Caryn stepped backward and her foot bumped against something soft. The strange doll. It had fallen face forward before, but now it was face up. How did that happen?

Suddenly the overhead lights came fully on, no flickering. Caryn looked apprehensively down at the doll and thought she saw a small piece of white under the black Amish hat. Not wanting to touch the doll again, but curious to find out what was under the hat, she bent forward and moved the brim of the hat aside. Tucked deeply between the hat and the faceless head was a folded piece of paper, the same type of paper as the diary, one of the ripped out pages.

“It is done. I did just as old Ashaki taught me. He will have eyes for no other woman.”

Ssssssss. The hissing sound was louder. The wires or something, but still, it was a frightful sound. The smell. The fear.

Good Lord, the words on the paper made it seem as if Great-Aunt Cecily had a hand in Carter’s death. Caryn gripped the paper tightly and felt her legs go weak. She quickly sat on the old bed. If the body was never found, where was it? A horrible thought came to Caryn. Oh, God, is it somewhere in this house? That smell!

Caryn looked at the patois written on the paper then took out her phone. With shaky fingers she keyed in the words to Goggle translate. Tek fi him ys. Her fingers felt numb and clumsy and her mind was foggy from the wine at dinner. She misspelled the words twice and she had to flex her hand to re-type them.

Jamaican Patois: Tek fi him ys

English: Take his eyes.

That can’t be right, thought Caryn going to another translation site and typing in the words again. But the translation was the same. Take his eyes. She read on. A ritual of some kind had been begun before Cecily met Carter at the lake.

“We were alone on the lake. No one was around at all. I almost couldn’t go through with it. Not until he said he said he was breaking our engagement to be with that other woman, the one Ashaki saw with him, the one whom Ashaki said, ‘His eyes, they saw  her.’ Then, then, it was easy for me to do what Ashaki said had to be done.”

My God, oh my God! What am I reading? A confession of murder? Cecily went on to write that she had struck Carter in the head with a rock she had gathered on the shore. He fell into the boat dead. Cecily then tied a rope around his foot and pushed his body into the water. She began rowing downstream, dragging his body until she came to a small cove. There Ashaki was waiting. As part of the ritual they stripped off his clothes, bundled his body into a heavy burlap cloth with strange signs on it, and dragged him to Cecily’s father’s carriage. Then they made their way home to an empty house.

The next part of the ritual was so horrible that Caryn felt bile rise into her throat as she read it. Cecily cut out his eyes and burned them in a brazier. Then she and Ashaki raised his spirit and hid it in the—another word in patois. Caryn keyed the word poupe into her phone and gasped. Doll. They hid his spirit in a—doll.

Ssssssss. That sound now coming from the floor. She looked down. It was coming from the male doll, the one without a face! Was it—moving? It was moving and making that hissing sound! The faceless doll was sitting up and staring at her. But how can it stare when it has no eyes?!

Sssssss. Ceci.” It was trying to say the name Ceci. ‘He calls me Ceci,’ her great-aunt had said.

“Ceci is that you? I can’t see, you know I can’t see. Please help me. I can’t see.”

My God, I’m hallucinating or something. The doll is moving and I swear it talked! She felt frozen in place. No, no, no! When the doll approached her, adrenaline flowed through her body and she ran for the door, stumbling down the stairs.

“Ceci, please Ceci!” screamed the doll. “Help me. I can’t find you! You said you would take care of me! I can’t see!”

Through the front door Caryn ran to her car, crying hysterically. Getting in, she took her keys out of her pocket and roared the car to life, speeding away from that house.

The farther she drove, the more her mind tried to be rational. She was overtired after a full day at work, that old house and the stories she’d been told about her great-aunt were all feeding her imagination. That wine she’d had with dinner was making her woozy. Great-Aunt Cecily was totally bat shit crazy as her brother always said so she wrote imaginary things. Simple, rational explanations.

Driving to a mall parking lot where the lights were bright and creepiness seemed far away, she stopped the car. Then she picked up the piece of paper she had tossed onto the passenger seat and read the back of the page. I must be reading it all wrong. It doesn’t mean what I think it means.

But what she read terrified her even more. Ashaki had used a strong obeah to force the spirit of Carter into the faceless doll. Obeah, a spell said the Google site. That way the spirit of Carter would always be with Cecily. Carter’s lifeless body was covered in aromatic oils and camphor, placed back in the burlap cloth with the strange signs, and walled up in an unused closet. That was the smell, that strange smell of decaying flowers and rotting flesh. Oh God!

Caryn sat back and opened a window, trying to make sense of all this. Insanity to believe this mumbo-jumbo, but she did. And for some reason she couldn’t explain, she felt sorry for that faceless doll, so lost without Cecily. Calling her name because it was trapped, sightless, in that house. It, he, was all alone without Cecily. The spirit trapped inside needed freedom. After all, Carter’s spirit deserved to be free now that Cecily was dead, right? It was only fitting.

Grabbing her phone, she keyed in a search for breaking spells and freeing a spirit trapped within an object. There were so many that Caryn laughed out loud. Big business in breaking spells, she guessed. But she finally found a good Jamaican one that seemed as if it would work. She sighed and started the car, driving to a store on the outside of the mall to make some purchases.

As she drove back to Great-Aunt Cecily’s house, she knew what she had to do. She had bought what she needed for this good, old Jamaican ritual that would break the spell and free the spirit. She repeated the words of the spell in her mind several times. Yes, it would work. She would free the spirit of Carter Hall.

Caryn waited until the second floor was engulfed in flames before she called the fire department. Then she drove away once more, the empty can of lighter fluid and the box of matches sitting on her passenger seat. The ritual was easier than she had imagined and there was no regret on her part.

Boule kay kote abite nanm ak lespri bondye a ap ba yo libète.

Burn the house where the trapped soul resides and the spirit will be freed.

Kristen Houghton is the author of nine top-selling novels, including the best-selling new series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation, named “Best new crime series” by The Huffington Post Book Reviewer, Greg Archer. The latest book in the series, Do Unto Others, was published this past summer.

Her new YA series, Lilith Angel, will be published in early 2019.

From the cover:

“Her parents are vampires, her boyfriend is a werewolf, she has witchy, untried powers of her own but—Lilith is just trying to live a normal life and pass advanced calculus!”
Houghton is also the author of two non-fiction books and is proud to have contributed numerous short horror stories and poems to The Horror Zine which she views as the “absolute best magazine in horror fiction.”

Her work can also be seen in Criminal Element Magazine and in Thrive Global. She is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the national Sisters-in-Crime Authors Society.