Old Man Gumpy was the town’s oldest resident, how old exactly was the subject of much speculation and debate; some said he was born ancient. Despite his advanced age, he was as mean as a junkyard dog and twice as vicious. If you came anywhere near his property, he’d come charging out of his house, foaming at the mouth and unleashing a torrent of expletives.
With vacant lots on both sides of him, and abandoned homes across the street, Old Man Gumpy lived in a sea of isolation — just as he liked it. Hormonal teenagers would sometimes ring his doorbell on a dare, more than one returned bloodied. There were whispers that one doomed boy never returned from Gumpy’s, the rumors spread from one household to the next like an unchecked illness.
On the blacktops, fearful children would sing a playground ballad about Gumpy, it’s cheery melody belying a darker meaning.
Old Man Gumpy
Old and Ugly
Knock on his door
You’ll make him grumpy
Knock it again
You’ll make him hungry
He’ll cook you up good
Til’ your skin is crunchy
Tim Parson was raised two miles from Gumpy’s house, and as Tim grew older, and Gumpy remained old, he grew ever more curious about his town’s most reclusive resident. He started to think of Gumpy as a misunderstood relic of a bygone era, an anachronism whose story was begging to be told. Tim had dreams of becoming a world-renowned journalist, chronicling the human condition and all of its turbulent states. Fueled by his ‘do or die’ spirit and sense of adventure, Tim spontaneously landed on Gumpy’s doorstep on a dreary February morning.
Anywhere is better than home, Tim muttered to himself.
Pulling back a tattered screen door, he knocked softly twice. Preparing for a verbal assault, or something worse, Tim stepped back several feet — but the house remained silent.
“Hello? My name is Tim Parker, I’m a local journalist and I was hoping to ask you a few questions.” Tim nervously shouted as he knocked again.
A cold wind blew from the east, followed by a sprinkling of frigid rain. Undeterred by the inclement weather, Tim remained cemented on Gumpy’s front porch, continuing to make his presence known. Unwilling to take no for an answer, with the dogged determination of a pushy salesman, Tim continued to bark for Gumpy.
Before he could strike the weathered door once more, it slowly creaked open, revealing a tackily furnished ramshackle of a home. Almost everything was broken, from the blinds to the chairs, scattered around as if a tornado had just swept through.
Stepping cautiously inside, Tim was struck by an overpowering stench, causing him to dry heave. The hairs on his neck were as erect as attentive soldiers, accompanied by an uncomfortable sensation bubbling in his stomach. Noise from the outside world fell away, replaced by a deafening silence. Fear cascaded through his body, a primal reaction to some unseen force. As he turned to sprint away like a dog with its tail between its legs, a forceful gust cut through the home and the slammed the front door shut.
The few lights in Gumpy’s house began flickering wildly and the temperature dropped severely. A haunting screech boomed from inside the house, rattling the windows like rusty chains. Tim’s head snapped to the left as something began frantically scratching at the walls.
A bloodied woman rocked back and forth in the corner of the living room, clothes tattered to shreds. Manically tearing at yellowed-wallpaper, she left streaks of blood against the wall that dripped down leisurely to the floor. A tiny, gilded birdcage was perched atop her shoulders, her head stuffed uncomfortably into the undersized space.
Holding his breath, heart beating like a hydraulic pump, Tim slowly backed away from the woman, praying she wouldn’t turn around. He was just a short distance from a grime-covered bathroom, and hopefully, the security of a locked door. Unfortunately, the dusty hardwood creaked loudly, echoing all around.
The woman’s neck bent backward at an impossible angle, instinctually reacting to the sound. Her eyes were pits of blackness, and as they made eye contact, Tim could feel his soul descending into its depths, turning him to stone like Medusa’s stare.
Her limbs twitched wildly as she shuffled closer, licking her ruby red lips. Tim gagged as she kneeled down in front of him, the smell of death wafting from her rotted gums. Pointed fingernails scraped against his cheeks, drawing slivers of blood which the woman greedily dripped into her mouth.
An explosion of splinters brought Tim out of his trance, the front door swinging freely on its broken hinges. Wind and rain blew through the home as a feeble old man, cane in hand, limped inside — Old Man Gumpy had returned.
“Jessica, step away from the boy! His soul is not yours to take, do you hear me?” Shaking his cane, Gumpy castigated the bloodied woman like a disappointed father. He took an aggressive step towards her, she was completely fixated on his movements. As her attention was diverted, Tim regained control over his muscles, limbs tingling with pins and needles.
A horrid, hoarse hiss escaped the woman’s throat as she swiped at Old Man Gumpy, but he was surprisingly agile, dodging her strike with relative ease. Slipping his hand into a shabby winter jacket, Gumpy pulled out a squealing rat, desperately squirming to escape.
“I brought a present for you Jessica, something to satiate that infernal hunger of yours.” Placing the rat down on the ground, Gumpy stepped back as the woman lunged at her meal. Bringing the rat to salivating lips, she devoured the poor creature, alive, like it was corn on the cob.
“Into the back room, if you want to live that is,” Gumpy shouted at Tim, dripping with sardonic wit.
Like a bat out of hell, Tim charged into a dilapidated bedroom. The room had an unusual smell, not bad, but not good either. Gumpy stumbled in behind him, forcefully closing the door, sending paint chips crumbling to the ground.
“Nice to meet you, my name’s Gumpy — but I’m sure you already knew that.” Extending a veiny hand, Gumpy looked on with a toothless smile.
“What the fuck was that thing?” Ignoring his offer for a handshake, Tim managed to sputter out a question.
“That thing is my daughter Jessica, well, was my daughter Jessica. I’d appreciate it if you were a little more understanding of her condition, she can’t help what she’s become — it’s not her fault.” Tears welled in Gumpy’s eyes, but he managed to stifle them.
“How can she be your daughter? She’s so young, and you’re so…” Tim trailed off, not wanting to offend further.
“Old — you can say it. I know I’m as old as dirt, ain’t no shame in it. But I wasn’t always old, so they tell me anyways,” Gumpy fell back into a scuffed leather chair, his knees shaking, “Jessica on the other hand, she’s been young her whole life. Granted, she’s been dead for most of it.” Gumpy was nonchalant, talking about his reincarnated dead daughter as if he was delivering the weather report.
Tim was mute in his response, unsure of what to say or do. Gumpy sounded insane, and he looked the part as well. He couldn’t deny what he’d just seen, but the truth Gumpy was offering was incongruent with the world as Tim knew it. He began to wonder if Gumpy was part of something more nefarious. Had he abducted Jessica, locking her away in his house until she turned feral? Tim grasped for any non-supernatural explanation, no matter how remotely possible.
“You think I’m a crazy old hoot, don’t ya? I can see it in your eyes, it’s plain as day. Believe it or not, Jessica is my daughter, she’s dead, and she’s dangerous — well to you anyway, I’ll be fine regardless.” Gumpy wheezed slightly, his elderly bones creaking in the chair.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, this is just a lot to digest — but — if I were to play devil’s advocate for a moment, this does all seem fucking impossible.” Teeth chattering, Tim replied distrustfully.
Gumpy stared for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He opened his mouth to respond, but closed it again — scratching his head slightly. Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out a frayed, black and white photograph and handed it to Tim. A jovial, bearded man held a young girl high above his head, their faces lit up in joy for the camera. Although the man was much younger, there was no mistaking that it was Gumpy. Turning over the photograph, there was a small inscription on the backside. Gerald and Jessica, Backyard Fun (1931)
“Three days after that photo was taken, my wife and Jessica perished in a nightmarish fire. The cops said it was electrical, but I knew they were lying through their dirty, murderous teeth. I’d gone and married a colored girl, and there was no place for that type of behavior in our town — so an example was made,” Gumpy spoke in a forlorn manner, “I prayed and prayed for revenge, for God to cast judgment on the wicked, but my salvation never came. Wallowing in my own wretched darkness, I looked to other, more unsavory avenues for support.”
“Gumpy, what did you do?” Tim asked, a lump growing in his throat.
“I gave up a piece of my soul, an offer to a being few still remember. In return, I was given my bloody retribution — every last drop of it. Once vengeance had been wrought, and the entity had bathed in the blood of my enemies, I was granted one final wish — the return of my daughter. If only I had known what that actually meant.” Gumpy’s eyes wandered around the room, lost in a distant memory.
“I’m so sorry, Gumpy. People can be unspeakably wicked, I understand that more than most.”
Thoughts of his own troubled past whizzed through Tim’s mind. Gumpy spoke with a pain he understood all too well, and in that way, he felt an immediate kinship. They were bonded through the shackles of suffering, having tread down a path few survive intact.
“Yes, yes they can,” Gumpy let out an extended sigh, “Now, let’s see if I can’t shepherd you to safety — Jessica should be resting by now.” Abruptly ending the conversation, Gumpy motioned for Tim to follow.
Slipping into the dimly-lit hallway, they tip-toed cautiously towards the front door. Shadows twisted and morphed around them, a cloud of darkness fixed into the periphery. A gentle humming began buzzing in Tim’s eardrum, it’s melody melancholy.
As they reached the front door, Gumpy slowly pushed it open, revealing a starry night sky. Firmly grasped onto Tim’s shoulder, his bony fingers trembling, Gumpy spoke softly, “Troubled souls are drawn to this place, like moths to an accursed flame. In her own way, I believe Jessica is trying to save them — but she just can’t control herself when it comes down to it. I hope you find peace Tim, in this life and the next. You deserve it.”
With a slight push, Gumpy sent him on his way. As Tim began the trek home, a million thoughts running through his head, he found himself stuck on one particular point — he had never told Gumpy his name.