The following story was written in front of a live audience.
I asked for suggestions. A dangerous family member. A hobby. A concept. Through chatting with viewers, the following ideas emerged.
Brittany: "Grandma" and "Crocheting"
JD: Cask of Amontillado
When you think of a crazed murderer, most often you imagine them wielding a knife.
Grandma used a hook.
Mabel Ann Brooks was born just before the second world war, and while she was merely a teenager by the time it ended, to hear my mother explain it, the war had changed her.
And not in a particularly great way.
Grandma wasn’t warm. She wasn’t loving. She didn’t bake us cookies or tell us bedtime stories.
She talked about death a lot. She talked about future generations letting her down. Besmirching the family name.
Y'know, I think that's probably why, when mom moved out, she stayed away from grandma.
I didn’t even know she existed until I was in my early teens. I mean, I had logically reasoned that my mom probably had parents of her own. That, y'know, felt likely. But since there were never any old people smiling at me on Christmas or whatever, I had also logically reasoned that, wherever they were, they were probably dead.
One day, I was hanging out in the living room, minding my own business, playing some Sega Genesis, when my mom walked in, arm-in-arm with an old woman. A tiny woman with piercing eyes, wearing a lumpy knit sweater. The way she stared at me, immediately I felt uncomfortable. Exposed, somehow.
It wasn’t just that she was a stranger to me, I had a feeling I’d imagine small rabbits have when a bird of prey caws from somewhere nearby. The feeling that my dog Missy had when the ice maker clanked, and the fur on her back stood up.
Again: I was wrong. Half wrong.
The closest I got to an explanation was that Grandma couldn't live alone anymore, so she'd be taking over the guest room.
My friend Cory told me that the same thing happened with his grandpa, and that within a couple weeks, his parents told him grandpa had moved again to live on a big farm up north.
My grandma held on for nearly twenty more years...
Not one of them pleasant.
One of my earliest memories of when she moved it is when she forced me to stand with my back against the wall. She told me my posture was terrible, that my shoulders were rounding, and if I didn’t straighten out, I’d “grow up crooked.”
"You want carry the legacy of this family, you do it with a straight back."
Part of me couldn’t even believe it was happening. She had picked a moment where my mother wasn’t around. I had always been taught to listen to adults, and so I did my best to follow the drill sergeant’s instructions. All the while she brandished a small wooden hook. The same one she used to knit almost every article of clothing she wore.
It was intimidating. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt smaller.
That’s the kind of grandma I suddenly had.
Before the year was out, I nearly ran away once or twice. I couldn’t bare the thought of waking up each morning to some inevitable criticism and leering eye judging my every decision, meal, and hobby.
Thankfully, eventually the comments were replaced by dirty looks. Still unpleasant, but much much easier to ignore.
Most days, grandma was perched on an easy chair in the corner, always knitting something. A blanket, a hat, who knows? It was just something to keep her busy, I guess.
Whatever feud had kept her away remained a mystery to me. Mom seemed clueless as to how miserable grandma was to be around. I think she almost reverted to becoming a little girl whose mommy knew best. Whenever grandma would unveil another hat, mom practically fell to her hands and knees in praise.
Could have been a survival tactic, but if I'm honest, I think she was just trying to secure some inevitable inheritance. By all accounts I’d heard grandma was loaded. Rich from some sort of wartime earnings from her father, plus a fair few businesses she had run herself at some point. In my late teens it dawned on me: grandma was running my home like a cut-throat CEO who expects everyone to work harder and harder. No end in sight.
"My daddy would have whipped this family into shape."
What octogenarian says "daddy?"
Instead of an employee, though, I was starting to feel something like a soldier, vigilantly on guard. I can't begin to count how many nights I sat up, listening for any suggestion that grandma was walking toward my room.
It had happened more than a few times.
For some reason, it didn’t seem to matter just how late at night it was, but if grandma had determined I was awake (listening to music, light under the door from my computer), she would push the door open without warning just to judge me and bark unsolicited advice, always brandishing that hook.
“No one likes a porker.”
“In my day, we respected our elders."
"What kind of weakling can't wear wool?"
Regretfully, I'd heard this insult before. My allergy to natural fibers made me the enemy of many knitting hobbyists. No one likes the girl who complains about rashes and itchy eyes after they receive a handmade present.
There was no sense fighting her.
“Good point. Thank you, grandma, goodnight.”
With perfect horror-movie timing, she often creakily pulled the door shut, as slowly as humanly possible, her hate-filled expression gradually sinking away into the darkness of the hall.
A couple of times, I even suspected she had remained behind the closed door for several minutes before returning to her room.
Years of living like this.
It had been getting better, to be fair.
Time marches on, I grew up (still living at home, sadly), and Grandma got ever weaker, but no less insulting.
My failure to launch was an affront.
Clearly I had not only let the family down, I had destroyed the bloodline.
It was truly a joy to hear about it every goddamn day.
Thankfully, when she turned ninety, she seldom left her room. Always knitting knitting knitting.
Part of me is ashamed to admit that I hated visiting her. Mom would sometimes urge me to drop in on grandma and chat. But at the same time, she was more likely to urge me to visit with grandma than do it herself.
At best, she talked with her mother a little bit whenever she went to bring grandma more yarn. I couldn't imagine what she must have been knitting in there. I know old people get cold, but how thick can a blanket be?
My relationship with my mom had become strained. She plainly refused to acknowledge how uncomfortable life had gotten with her mother around. She wouldn’t hear it.
One day I told her she didn’t deserve the inheritance. Mom just stared me, the hurt on her face was devastating.
What'd it matter really? It was temporary. It's just a fact of life: there would come a day that grandma would pass away, and then maybe life would get back to normal.
Normal was long gone.
When the dog went missing, some of my friends joked that grandma had eaten her.
"The old witch probably used her in a spell or something."
But here’s the crazy part.
They were almost right.
I found out why grandma didn’t leave her room anymore.
I found out what grandma was knitting with that hook.
It was one of those nights where the moon is so bright, you almost don’t need to turn on the lights. I lay in bed scrolling through smiling faces ranking horror movies or practicing using makeup to craft horrific wounds on their bodies.
It was the first time I didn’t hear her come into the room.
At least I hope so.
She didn’t say a word. She just waddled slowly beside me, reached out, and wrapped something soft, pink, and wet around my head.
A knitted hat? As it covered below my chin, I thought maybe it was a bag to suffocate me... But if suffocation was the goal, why would she use yarn?
In the movies, sometimes you see someone who has had plastic wrapped over their face. It’s awful. I think we can all relate to at least the concept of suffocating. Who hasn’t been underwater and frantically paddled to the surface, worrying that they won’t make it in time?
But though the fibers wrapped around my face, I had air. Air contaminated by some unknown toxic liquid that made my head swim.
I could breath.
But not enough.
Not nearly enough.
Worse, each feeble breath pulled loose fibers deep into my nostrils and lungs. I coughed and choked, realizing with horror that grandma likely hadn't used a synthetic fiber.
"WOOL," I screamed inside, as my eyes itched from the fiber and my lungs burned from the chemicals. All along, grandma wrestled to keep me still.
She was strong. Way stronger than I ever would have thought. Or maybe I was getting weaker. I felt myself getting dizzy...Once I fell to the ground, she let go, but no matter how much I pulled, the knitted bag wouldn’t come off.
I think she had tied it around my neck.
“When you’re done panicking, nod your head.”
She was insane. I always knew she was insane.
The yarn was thick and pillowy, allowing narrow slits of light to come through, and just enough air to remain conscious. Just dimly I could make out parts of my room through the tight weave around my face. Unsure what would happen next, but certain that I needed to do whatever it took to get this goddamn thing off my head...I nodded. I could do nothing else. The terror was mounting, my pulse was racing, I couldn't think straight.
Grandma led me down the hall, and into her room.
It didn't matter how thick the yarn around my face was. The smell hit me and I started gagging.
It smelled like decay.
Recklessly fast, grandma reached out with her small wooden hook, snagging some yarn around my right eye and yanking open a small hole.
The room was covered in knitting. Not the walls but everything inside it.
There on the floor at the foot of her bed was a rounded bundle of fabric. It would almost be cute if I couldn’t see what it contained.
Depicted in the yarn was the image of Missy. The dog hadn’t gone missing. She was there on the floor. Wrapped up like a spider's next meal.
I looked from the dog’s cocoon back to my grandma, who, for the first time, smiled. I didn't like it one bit.
Inhaling more of the fibers, I could feel my throat begin to swell shut.
“They say you can’t take it with you. But what do they expect me to do? Leave all my belongings in the care of my undeserving progeny? Our bloodline doesn't deserve to continue. I've decided it shall end with me, my failure of a grandchild, and my simpering daughter."
Grandma gestured, and for the first time, I spotted a human shaped cocoon sitting up in the bed. A smiling image of my mother's face woven at the head. I almost didn't trust my perception at first. The chemicals on the mask had started to dry, but I was still lost in a haze, able only to summon strength for a single question.
“You're killing us with...knitting?” I choked.
“Knitting?” Grandma scoffed, dousing my mask in something cold and wet, that stung my eyes and shut me up quickly.
“As if I didn’t already know how worthless you were..."
Using the same hook, grandma closed my hole in the mask, sealing off my window to the world, but also sparing me from looking at decorated corpses of my mother and dog.
"Daddy used to read to me about the pharaohs, and how they buried themselves with their worldly possessions...Gold and rubies. I'll have to settle for you."
I was treated to each agonizing step of her decision process.
Her disappointment with my mother, her horror at her own mortality, and her anger at the thought of the family continuing with me. It had been months since she decided to take it all with her. To spend her final moments knitting her own death shroud, enclosing herself in a perfect bundle, surrounded by her family and personal effects. There would be no inheritance.
Three generations entombed in yarn. I sat pathetically still, unable to summon the strength to fight. Dying would be slow. Painfully, horrifyingly slow. It occurred to me that my mother might still be alive in her cocoon as well. How long would it take for us to finally die?
The last thing I could hear was grandma's muffled narration as she sealed herself away and the room fell silent.
"By the way, what I've done to you isn't knitting. It's called crocheting," hollered Mabel Ann Brooks, my grandmother and murderer, through layers of fabric.
"I killed you all with a single hook."