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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Brian Barnett: Cybil

Art by Nancy Soriano 2022



Brian Barnett



“All right class, does everyone have their gift baskets ready?” Mrs. Thompson asked.

Kate quickly ran the edge of her scissors down the last three strands of ribbon causing them to form into tight bouncy curls around the handle of her basket. She rearranged the cellophane wrapped cookies again to make them as presentable as possible. A couple of them had burnt and most were sure to explode into crumbs after the first bite, but Mrs. Thompson had insisted for everyone to make their own care baskets. A quick look around the room told her that most everyone had just bought soaps, candies, house slippers, or books.

The class was destined for Willow Shade Retirement Community. The specific assignment was to bring gift baskets to its residents to, hopefully, bring them some holiday cheer before the Christmas season.

Kate glanced at the name on the card attached to her basket. Cybil.

She hoped Cybil would appreciate the cookies, or at least the effort.  Kate had never baked before, and aside from wrecking the kitchen, she ruined two batches before finally making a dozen or so that was at least passable.

Her dad had tried to hide the fact that he spit his samples out from the first two batches. At least he choked one down from the final batch with only a slightly bitter face.

“Line up, we’re heading to the bus.”

“Kate! Here’s my half.”

Kate sighed as Carlie tucked a hand-made card between a pair of cookies.

“So you just made a card?”

“Well, yeah. I spent almost a half an hour making it.”

“Do you have any idea how long it took me to bake these cookies?”

“Some of us don’t have time to bake.” Carlie flipped one of the cookies, exposing its too-brown underside. “Man, you must be terrible at baking.”

They joined the line leading out of the classroom and made their way to the bus where they shared a seat. After a brief safety instruction, the bus drove the class around to the Willow Shade Retirement Community building.

Kate and Carlie waited their turn to exit the bus and followed the other students into the building. Mrs. Thompson and a few of the retirement home’s staff divided up the class to escort them to their assigned resident. A lady whose name tag read Anna led them down a hall.

“I sure hope she likes burnt cookies.” Kate sighed.

“Maybe they won’t allow her to eat any. She could be on a special diet or something. But hey, at least she has a card.” said Carlie.

They reached room 13 and Anna knocked on the half-open door.

“Ms. Cybil, these two ladies would like to spend a little time with you, if you don’t mind a visit.” she announced in an overly cheerful, sing-song voice.

The overhead light buzzed and flickered a bit as Anna led the girls into the room. Kate noticed a large number of dead bugs collected in the glass covering the lightbulbs.

Anna huffed. “The lights in here are so stubborn. I’m going to have to call maintenance again.”

A lady sat alone in the corner near the window. The curtains were closed and despite the lights being on, the corner somehow seemed darker than the rest of the room.

It was hard for Kate to make out the lady’s features. But she didn’t seem happy to have visitors. Anna gripped the curtains and pushed them aside allowing the mid-morning sun to brighten the room.

Kate nearly gasped now that the old Lady’s face was clearly visible. It was a mass of wrinkles, and her eyes were so dark. They were like two sinister beady voids that glared at the nurse.  

The lady spoke with a voice of gravel. “I like the curtains closed.”

“I know that, Ms. Cybil, but now these two ladies can see your beautiful face.”

Kate had hoped that this lady wasn’t Cybil. She had hoped she was a roommate or maybe a relative who was visiting. She wanted to hide the basket of burnt cookies.

Cybil slowly turned toward the girls. “What are your names?” she demanded.

“Huh?” was all Kate could answer.

“Your names, child. What are your names?”

“I’m Kate.”

“Of course you are. And who is that?” she gestured toward Carlie with her shaky, vein-covered hand. Carlie was on her hands and knees looking under Cybil’s bed.

“That’s Carlie.” Kate finally noticed Carlie on the floor and nudged her with her foot.

“Oh, hi! I’m Carlie.” She climbed to her feet and dusted her knees. “I thought I saw a cat.”

“You did see a cat. Her name is Bella Donna. Don’t go near her. She doesn’t like people.”

“Well, I can see you are all acquainted,” Anna said. “I’m going to check on the other rooms and I’ll be back a little later.”

Kate tried to use her eyes to plead with her to stay. Whether or not Anna caught the hint, she left the room, anyway.

Kate turned back to Cybil, who hadn’t stopped scowling.

“So, uh, we brought you a gift basket.”

Cybil continued to scowl.

A tinkling bell caught Kate’s attention. Bella Donna had jumped onto the bed. Carlie tried to pet her.

“I warned you once, girl.”

Bella Donna swatted Carlie and left deep scratch marks on the back of her hand.

“Ouch! Your cat scratched me.”

Cybil chuckled under her breath. Her crooked smile exposed brown teeth. “Bella Donna is a pretty one, but she is dangerous to touch,” she whispered.

Carlie disappeared into the bathroom and began washing her wound.

“Um,” Kate tried to salvage the visit. “I brought cookies. I made them myself.”

Cybil peered into the basket. With surprising quickness, she snatched it from Kate and placed it on the bedside table. “Thank you, girl.”

Kate found herself staring at the old woman, not knowing what else to say. Cybil sat almost perfectly still in her wheelchair. Her long gray hair had been pulled into a braid that nearly reached the floor. Her eyes, Kate noticed, were a mottled gray-green. They somehow looked younger than the rest of her.

“In my day I would accuse someone of being rude for staring at me like that.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just daydreaming. I do that when I’m tired. I was up late baking the cookies and I guess I didn’t realize I was staring.”

“I see you like to ramble when you are nervous, too.”

“Yeah, I do that, too.”

Carlie returned from the bathroom with a paper towel held against her hand. “Did you see my card? I made it myself.”

“I’ll look at it later.”

Bella Donna hissed as Carlie passed the foot of the bed.

A sharp double knock started the girls. It was just Nurse Anna returning to the room. “All right, girls. I think it’s about time for Cybil to get ready for mealtime. I hope everyone enjoyed the visit!”

Leaving the room was a relief for Kate. It was an even bigger relief riding the bus back to school. That was, until Carlie showed her the card she’d made.

“You took back your card?”

“Yep. If she can’t keep her cat under control, she doesn’t deserve my card.”

Kate felt uneasy again. She couldn’t shake the scowl on Cybil’s face. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think she was a witch.


          Kate finally made it home after basketball practice and a quick trip to the grocery with her mom. It was past seven o’clock and the sun had gone down a couple hours before. Fortunately, her dad had stayed home to prepare supper. She was starved.

          The house seemed extra quiet for some reason. Kate thought maybe it was because it had been a long day and Cybil’s weird stare still had her nervous. She sat at the table after her dad slid plates of food in front of everyone. Chicken, macaroni and cheese, and peas. Dad’s specialty, she thought.

          “How was practice?” he asked with a mouthful of food.

“It was good. I hit fifteen free throws in a row at one point, so I guess I’m getting better.”

“Wow, I guess that hoop I put up on the garage must be coming in handy.”

The hoop was crooked and only eight feet high, but she nodded, anyway. “Yeah, I think it has been. Thanks again for putting it up.”

Just before taking a bite, Kate’s mom asked, “How was the retirement home visit? What was her name? Cybil?”

The light over the dining room table flickered.

All three looked up at the same time.

“Well, that’s odd.” said her dad. “I wonder if there’s strong wind outside or something.”

“I don’t hear any wind,” said her mom. “Anyway, did she like your cookies?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t try any while I was there.”

          Kate was about to stab at her macaroni and cheese when the light flickered again. Between flickers it seemed as if her macaroni was moving. She leaned closer and saw that it wasn’t macaroni. It was a pile of writhing maggots. She screamed.

          The light came back on, and her dad reassured her. “It’s all right. It’s probably a windstorm or maybe it’s lightning somewhere.”

          “No, it’s not the light. It’s my food. It was moving!”

          Both her parents were looking at her as if she’d lost her mind.

          “So, where was it going?” her dad asked.

          “I’m not joking! My macaroni was squirming like maggots or something.”

          Her mom dropped her fork and pushed her plate away. “Well, there goes my appetite.”

          “It was just your imagination!” Her dad tried again to reassure her. “Sometimes your mind can play tricks on you in the dark. See, look . . .” he stabbed some macaroni and took a bite. “Mmm, I made the three-cheese variety.”

          Kate nearly gagged at the thought of tiny maggots bursting between his teeth.

          “Can I just eat a little later? I have homework and I’m tired.”

          “Yeah, I’ll wrap it up for you,” her mom said. “Do you feel okay?” She reached over and felt Kate’s forehead.

          “I feel fine. I’m just tired and I just freaked myself out a little, that’s all.”

          Kate went straight to the bathroom to brush her teeth. The flavor of the food was still in her mouth, and it turned her stomach.

          While brushing, she thought she heard a tinkling of a bell. It reminded her of the sound of Bella Donna’s bell. That’s impossible, she thought. She brushed faster so she could leave the bathroom and get to her room where she felt the safest and most comfortable.

          She spat into the sink and rinsed her mouth. When she looked back up, she saw a shadow shift on the wall.

          She turned and scanned the bathroom. Of course, she was the only one there. So, what could have made the shadow move? Or was it just her imagination again?

          Kate rushed away from the mirror and jerked the bathroom door open. She ran through the door and immediately ran into someone.

          “What on earth, Katie!” said Kate’s mother, who was rubbing her forehead.

          “I’m sorry! I was just in a hurry to get my homework done.”

          “That must be some exciting homework. Please be more careful.”

          “I will,” Kate said as she jogged to her room.

She closed the door behind her and immediately slipped under her covers. She didn’t have any homework. But it made for a good excuse to get some privacy.

Kate stared at her ceiling, wondering what was going on. Had Cybil traumatized her that badly to cause her to hallucinate? Or maybe she was just really tired and making something out of nothing. Or maybe there was a third option. But it was crazy. Maybe Cybil was a witch.

That can’t be possible, Kate told herself. Witches don’t exist. She just looked like one and she was a grumpy old lady. Nothing more.

Kate felt herself getting sleepy. It was only nearly eight o’ clock but it had been a long day after a late night of baking cookies. She turned off her bedside lamp and slid further under her covers. She began to doze.

Somewhere in the room she heard a tinkling bell. It’s your imagination, she scolded herself. Get a grip!

She doubled up her pillow and rolled to her side, determined to go to sleep.

The bell tinkled again, and something jumped on her bed.

She clenched her eyes tighter. I’m not going to look. There’s nothing there. I’m imagining it.

She felt the weight of a paw climbing up the blanket onto her hip. About the weight of a cat! Her eyes opened wide with panic.

But she didn’t see a cat. Instead, near the bed she saw a shadow that was darker than the darkness of the room. It was in the shape of an old woman in a wheelchair. Cybil.

The shadow’s eyes were two glowing gray-green points of light. It reached out its arm and placed something on Kate’s dresser.

In a moment of pure adrenaline, Kate quickly reached over and snapped on her bedside lamp.

The room was empty.

Nobody was in her room. No cat. No shadow. No Cybil.

But there was a basket on her dresser. Kate slowly slid out of bed and walked over to look into the basket.

There was a note in the bottom covered in burnt cookie crumbs.

It read: Thank you for the wonderful cookies.

Brian Barnett is the author of the middle grade novellas Graveyard Scavenger Hunt and Chaos at the Carnival. He has over three hundred publishing credits in dozens of magazines and anthologies, such as the Lovecraft eZine, Spaceports & Spidersilk, Blood Bound Books, and Scifaikuest.

Nancy Soriano grew up in New York City and now resides in the Hudson Valley. She loves the darker side of art—and life. She is rediscovering her love of photography through her latest muse, her cat Zoey.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022