This is a story based on little known but true horrific events in the life of Henry Rathbone, Abraham Lincoln’s friend.
The study in the Rathbone home was small but suited Henry well. It served as a place not only for him to tend to the brutal scar left on his arm by John Wilkes Booth, but also to get away from his wife. They’d fought earlier that evening about her indiscretions with other men, and although she denied all of his accusations vehemently, he knew better. The way she acted around other men was proof of her betrayal, and he couldn’t listen to her lies anymore or he’d have killed her. He told her as much, too, before retiring to this small chamber.
As the flickering candle illuminated the room with its warm amber light, Henry uncapped the tin containing a therapeutic salve for his scar. He could see the bottom of the container, the last bit of it hugged the edges. After scooping some of it up with the tips of his fingers, he began to rub the cold cream into the damaged skin. He didn’t like looking at the wound, so he looked for something to keep his attention.
He started with the small painting on a nearby wall. The artist had painted a lonely tree amidst a golden field of tall grass. Rathbone thought about how nice it would be to sit under that tree. He could even smell the sweet warmth from the grass and hear the buzzing of bees floating from flower to flower. For a short while, he lost himself in that painting, but it didn’t last long because his wife appeared in that meadow as well. She wasn’t alone, either. A shadowy man laid her down into the grass, and as he bent down to kiss her, Rathbone looked away from the picture.
He wasn’t surprised his attention immediately landed on his service revolver. For some time now, he considered killing his wife. He hadn’t always wanted to because, after all, he’d married her out of love, but he was naïve to think it would last forever. Nothing lasted forever. If death didn’t take things away then the consequences of living life would. In his case, death was too sweet a reward for him, a man burdened by the deaths of countless men during the war, and so God seemed to think it a better idea to have him suffer atrocity after atrocity. First, a man murdered Lincoln, and during his struggle with the assailant in that theater, he received the scar. If that wasn’t enough, his wife turn adulterous whore a few short years later. He figured his wife would soon give him syphilis and then leave with the children.
He was thankful the scar didn’t hurt much, but he would have preferred physical pain over the constant debilitating memories associated with it. That was the worst part, because he had to relive it every moment. If not during the day, then it came to him as nightmares in his sleep. There was no known escape from those horrible images beyond death, and sometimes he wished he had died during the war. At least he could be at peace and his wife would be free to do whatever, or whomsoever, she wanted.
After finishing with the salve, he replaced the cap. When he pushed it back next to his quill, he glimpsed the small smudge of ink on the tin where his youngest son had touched it. That was the first time the boy had seen his scar, and Rathbone recalled the haunting conversation he had with George.
“What’s that, Father?”
“It’s a scar.”
“What happened?” The boy had moved closer to inspect the puffy flesh.
“I tried to capture a man who killed my friend.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know, son.” Rathbone had held the tin so George could dip his fingers into it. “Some men do evil things.”
The boy had cautiously dabbed his fingers into it, and then sniffed the cream. He had scrunched his tiny nose. “It feels strange.”
“That’s the mint,” he had said, and nodded. “Go ahead.”
The boy had gently applied the cream as if the surface of the wound was painful to touch. It may not have been painful for George, but Henry had felt it and had a hard time keeping his face from wincing.
When George had finished, he looked up at his father with curious but soulful eyes. “Have you done bad things?”
The question pulled Rathbone back to reality. He would have liked to have told his son that he didn’t do bad things, but he couldn’t lie to the boy. Sure, it was necessary to fight for the freedom of men, but that didn’t mean the death of all those soldiers wasn’t at least some kind of evil. Both sides fought for what they though was right, and many men had women and children waiting for their safe return. For every soldier he killed, he murdered a family.
Rathbone picked his revolver off the desk. Although the blood that stained the grains in the wood handle had dried long ago, the cold surface made it feel wet. He closed his eyes to free his mind of the memories of dead soldiers, and it worked. Soon, he saw smoke snaking sinuously into the air from the freshly fired gun. He looked passed it, and he saw his wife slowly falling backward as a spray of blood, brain, and bone fragments painted the wall. He saw himself standing over her, and she didn’t look surprised. No, she looked guilty because she knew why he did it.
Henry let out a sharp breath and opened his eyes when he heard the floorboard outside the study moan. He glanced at the hallway to see who was there, but because the candle wasn’t strong enough, black shadows curtained it from view.
“George? Junior?” His two boys always snuck around on Christmas Eve. No doubt, they headed for the gifts in the parlor under the tree. “You best get back to bed.”
He stood and pulled on his shirt. Though the hall remained quiet, it didn’t mean someone wasn’t lurking out there. As he stared intently into that black abyss, he thought he saw a shadow move across the doorway.
“Clara?” he said, and then aimed the revolver at the hallway.
He grabbed the base of the candleholder with his left hand, and moved closer to the door. Cobwebs of black shadows hung in the corners as the furthest wall brightened a little. He stopped in the middle of the room, and furrowed his brow. He waited for a moment expecting a sound or another shadow to move.
Rathbone stepped closer to the hallway. The warm flittering flame cast away the darkness, and the shadows dissolved toward the ceiling to reveal more of the hallway. A lone spider skittered along the wall and disappeared into the blackness.
“I hate spiders,” he sighed as he looked down the hallway in both directions. The right led to the rooms in which the children slept. The boys were in the first room on the left and his daughter was at the end. He looked toward the parlor, and saw a shadow melt into the darkness.
“You best show yourself!” He aimed the gun, but no one answered or appeared. “There’ll be no more warnings.”
Another creak in the floorboards alerted him, and he nearly squeezed the trigger but stopped. Had it been his wife, he might have fired. However, he couldn’t be sure she was the one walking around. He couldn’t shoot his own children, unless of course they weren’t his. That thought had crossed his mind before, but he didn’t have proof, so he couldn’t just shoot wildly into the dark and risk killing the children.
He stepped into the hallway and moved toward the parlor. With each quiet step, the candle revealed more of the hallway. Though his eyes should have remained on the darkness ahead, two frames on the wall commanded his attention. The first was the only picture he had of his late friend Lincoln. The other was a photograph of Henry and his family.
As he passed the frames, he though he saw them move. He immediately turned to examine them, but they were never straighter. He narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was almost certain he saw them tilt, but they sat there untouched as they always had.
When he reached the parlor, the shadows thinned and much of the room became visible. He swept left and right, checking as much of the room as possible before continuing further into it. In one corner was the stack of Christmas gifts for the following morning. He didn’t see anyone hiding under the tables or kneeling behind the couch. The front door appeared unmolested, and the locks on them looked secure. If there was an intruder in the house, then he must have entered some other way.
As he crossed the room to the hallway leading to the master bedroom, he saw a white dress fade into the shadows. He paused, heart hammering in his chest. “Clara? I swear if that’s you, woman…”
No response, but he didn’t think he’d get one. That wasn’t the most concerning thing, though. He recognized that dress. It was the same one she wore the night Booth shot Lincoln. He never understood why she kept the Godforsaken thing because his friend’s blood was all over it. He’d told her repeatedly to destroy it, but she never did. Now, she further disrespected Lincoln’s memory by wearing it and walking around their home.
How tasteless, he thought.
When he entered the hallway and reached the door to the master room, he peered into it. The light reflected from the green satin duvet, which look disheveled. The side in which his wife slept was open and revealed the sheets below. Her pillow appeared distressed in the middle as if a head had recently laid upon it. When he put his hand on the bed, it felt warm.
Heavy patters of feet erupted from behind him, and when he whipped around to face the intruder, a shadow disappeared into the hallway.
“Clara, come on out. I won’t hurt you,” he said as he readied his finger on the trigger.
He moved back into the hallway, and the patter of feet fled to the other side of the house. He pursued them as fast as possible, and when he was back in the hallway leading toward his study and the children’s rooms, he slowed. Whomever was back there trapped themselves, and he didn’t want them to take him by surprise.
As he approached the frames on the wall, |the one with Lincoln and Mary Todd moved. This time he was sure of it, and when he looked, it kept moving. Henry reared against the adjacent wall, and pointed the gun at the image. From behind the frame, a black sharp claw reached out and grasped the edge. Its thick claws tapped and cracked the glass as it moved the picture to the side. Henry’s heart thumped hard, threatening to explode from his chest. He wanted to run, but his legs were iron rods bolted to the ground. Further and further still the frame moved, and eventually it revealed the creature behind it. A man. No, not a man, it was the shadow of a man with bright white glowing teeth grinning in the darkness. It laughed and laughed, and he suddenly recognized that chortle because he recalled hearing it the night Booth took Lincoln’s life. That twisted laugh of macabre delight.
Henry fired a round.
The bullet shattered the glass and tore through the image of Lincoln. The powerful shot slammed into the wall, and both frames fell to the ground. He fully expected the shadow man to crawl through the wall and attack him, but to his surprise, the man was gone. The wall was flat, no longer did it contain a portal to some dark world from which the ghost of John Wilkes Booth tormented him.
He reluctantly pressed the muzzle of the gun against the wall, and it didn’t move. He’d hoped that it would, that maybe it would reveal a hatch or something to explain what he’d seen, but it didn’t.
Henry bent down to pick up the pictures, but stopped when he glanced at the one of his family. He saw black holes where their eyes and mouths should have been. Then, dozens of spindly-legged spiders began to crawl from those deep dark pits. They poured into the hallway, and he began to stomp, but no matter how hard he slammed his bare foot into the wood, he didn’t crush a single spider.
“Die! Die!” he screamed, his foot becoming sorer with each stomp.
When he finally stopped, the ball of his heel throbbed. His labored breathing was loud, but not loud enough to douse the soft creaking of an approaching assailant. He aimed the gun at the darkness and lifted the candle, which had nearly burned out during his rampage over the spiders. A swift patter of feet disappeared down the hallway again. This time it was more than one set. More than one intruder.
“You made a mistake breaking into my home!”
A door in the darkness slammed, but it wasn’t near. That meant it had to be one of the doors to his children’s rooms. He ran through the darkness, and stopped at his daughter’s room. The candle’s light flickered from the closed door as he placed it on the candleholder attached to the wall.
He knocked on the door and said, “Boys? Your mother and sister in there with you?”
He didn’t get an answer, but he did hear the soft whimper of children. He turned the knob and rushed into the room with the gun pushed out head of him. From his left, something shrieked and knocked the gun from his hand. It clattered against the floor, and Henry lunged at his attacker. The shadow monster dug its claws into his wrists as he pushed it against the wall. It called out in pain, and Rathbone ducked away from it to find the gun.
It proved difficult to find the revolver because the door had partially closed and blocked the light. He swore several times as his hands searched the thick darkness. The monster grabbed him from behind as his hand finally fell upon the cool metal. Rathbone twisted free of the attacker’s grip, flipped over, and opened fire. He pulled and pulled until there was no scream left in the gun, only hard, dry clicks.
He heard soft wet coughs in the darkness as if the monster’s lungs battled tuberculosis. He rushed into the hallway to grab the candle, and quickly returned.
Something loud banged against the front door in the living room. The flickering light revealed that the intruder had pulled the coverlet off his daughter’s bed as it fell, and it now draped over his body. He reached down, and pulled the sheer cloth up and away. He first saw the chin, and immediately began to remember the moment he lifted his wife’s veil at their wedding. When he’d completely unveiled the monster, he stared down in shock. Supine on the floor in a growing puddle of crimson blood was his wife. Three bullets had entered her chest, one in her abdomen, and one had torn through her cheek. She coughed her last breath, and died.
He dropped to his knees next to Clara’s body, and her warm blood wetted his knees. He was certain he had struggled with an intruder. It had made itself known in the shadows as spiders skittering along the wall, and the picture… it was behind it watching him! He knew what he’d seen; there was no doubt.
He could think of no reason why his wife attacked him other than she thought he was an intruder, too. It was obvious she had intended to attack someone because she had a knife tucked into the sash of her—
Gown? Wasn’t she wearing the white dress?
“What have you done?” he asked her as the children cried behind him.
He thought he wanted to kill her. After all, he dreamed about it every night the way every man surely dreams of revenge. Just then, however, a sudden feeling of grief, pain, and guilt burned within him. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. Despite his wife’s attempt to kill him and despite her adulterous proclivities, he couldn’t believe his wife was dead.
The banging in the living room continued, and he set down the candle. Tears welled in his eyes, and he grabbed the knife from her sash. As the front door crashed loudly through the hallway, he turned the knife on himself. Each stab felt like fire in his chest. The heavy footfalls of men echoed through the corridor as he stabbed and stabbed screaming wildly into the darkness.
After several more deep stabs, two men entered the room. He looked up, and the dying candlelight revealed them as his neighbor Rolf and an officer. Rolf quickly snatched the knife from his hand, and the officer grabbed Henry’s arms.
“My God,” Rolf whispered.
“There was someone in the house!” Henry screamed as Rolf attended to the crying children. The officer pulled Henry out of the room, dragged him down the hallway, and out into the frigid winter night.
Henry continued screaming. “There’s something in the house. Something’s in my house! I know it! Get my children out of there. They made me kill my wife! It must’ve been the people in the walls… the ones behind the pictures!”
“Quiet,” the officer said, and locked Henry in the back of the police wagon.
As the officer returned to the house, Henry shivered from the cold. He peered through the bars, and his gaze drifted to the front window. He thought he saw the drapes pull slightly to the left, and when he looked harder, he was certain of it. A shadow among shadows peered through that window and watched him.