The heavy oak door creaked open and the light shifted. Margret tapped her slim, white cane across the threshold and onto her new wooden floors for the first time. She’d been in the house a few times before, but it was never hers until now. Something about the atmosphere had changed. The scent of artificial lavender and vanilla candles had faded into the inky blackness. Nothing had yet replaced it, except perhaps the faint odor of wood polish, though it may have hidden under the candles and lavender without her noticing.
Her contemplation was interrupted by her brother, barking from behind her. “Midge! Get outta the way, this thing is heavy! Where do you want it?”
Margret slid aside to let him pass. “I don’t know what you’re carrying, Richard. If you told me I could tell you.”
“It’s…oh, I guess it says dishes.” Her brother’s footsteps moved in the direction of the kitchen.
She sighed a little and leaned her cane against the wall nearest the front door. “If you just put the box on the counter, I’ll put them away tonight I really want to get the bedroom stuff upstairs first. Then if we have time before it gets dark. We can get the rest of it.”
She turned to the front door and stepped outside into the bright sunlight of early afternoon. Taking cautious and confident steps, she started back toward the car without her cane. She felt like she’d walked the path enough times to be able to navigate it without it. Putting her hand out in front of her, she felt for the open car door and pulled out a box. Running her hands along the top, she found the little square she’d drawn with puff paint to indicate it was full of things for the kitchen. Setting it off to the side, she felt around for boxes with triangles to take upstairs to the bedroom.
Her brother’s feet swiped the cement path behind her. She turned and handed him a box, pulling out another, and taking it up.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take this stuff in and you can just put it away?” Richard called, trailing after her with the box.
“No, it’ll go a lot faster if I help. I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.” Margret pressed the box against the banister of the stairs and grasped at the railing, following it up the stairs to her bedroom. There were three doors that stood in a row on the top floor; a guest room, a bathroom, and the room she’d chosen at the end. Her toe kicked free at the final stair and she knew it was straight down the hall with a quick twist to the right. A gallery railing ran along the left side, overlooking the entryway. She had been told there was a beautiful chandelier that hung just above it.
For several hours, the two of them shuffled boxes and bedposts up the stairs and throughout the rest of the house until it started to look more habitable. The sun’s light died away, prompting Richard to turn on the lights. His fatigue had gotten the better of him, luring him to fall asleep on the unmade guest bed with a quilt lazily draped over him. She’d heard him snoring when she’d gone to make the bed and decided to just let him sleep. Sleep seemed like a great plan, but she knew she wouldn’t rest well with everything still in boxes.
Margret felt along the bathroom counter to find the box marked with a circle. In the box were towels and washcloths, bathroom paraphernalia of all kinds. She busied herself with unpacking and refolding each piece of linen before putting them away, but before she could finish, a strange thought came to mind.
You are not alone.
She wasn’t sure what it meant, and it didn’t feel as comforting as it sounded, but it was repeating itself. It was repeating itself in the back of her mind in a voice that wasn’t hers and it seemed to get louder and louder with each repetition. Louder and louder until a voice was screaming, “You are not alone!”
Margret pressed her hands to her temples trying to will the sound away, or trying to compress it, anything to make it stop! Margret spun around a few times, still clutching her temples and searching for the source of the screaming. There was something in the room with her, something watching her, filling her head with unbearable sound.
Just as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Deafening silence overcame her, the sense that someone was standing too close, and the scent of rotten fruit. No, not fruit…flowers. Flowers. The scent wrapped its invisible tendrils around her throat, choking her from the inside.
“Midge?” The name sounded like she was hearing it through an old phone line. “Margret? What’re you doing?”
The smell unwound itself and dissipated, as did the presence closest to her. It was just Richard now. She realized her hands were still on her head and she was breathing in erratic bursts.
“Jesus, Margret! You look like someone just had a gun to your head. What happened?” Richard leaned on the bathroom door frame, still groggy from sleep.
“Oh my god, Ricky!” She blurted, turning to face him. “You scared the hell out of me!”
“Sorry, I just came to answer the call of nature, and here you are spinning around with your hands on your head. Are you sure you wanna live alone? Mom and dad said-”
“I know what our parents said, Richard. They’ve been saying it my whole goddamn life, and I don’t need to hear it from you too.”
“No you’re not.” She spat the words at him like watermelon seeds. Margret wasn’t sure what made her say it, but something living in the pit of her stomach knew it was true.
“Fuck you, Margret!” Richard turned to leave, but spun back around to keep the rage train on track. “I did not drive all the way from Hoboken so you could bitch at me.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just…don’t feel like myself right now. I didn’t mean it.” Against all her better judgment, Margret forced herself to apologize. Even if she didn’t mean it, she would prefer to keep peace between her brother and herself. Although, it was true that she was feeling out of sorts. She was still reeling from before.
“Yeah, well…I dunno.” Ricky was still trying to read the situation. “Maybe we’re just tired. I’m going back to bed.”
“You should get some sleep too. Don’t bother putting anything else away tonight. It’ll wait.” His voice was getting further and further away, until he was talking quietly from the next room over.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she picked up the towels and stuffed them into the cabinet with the others. Alone again with her thoughts, she decided the whole night was just a result of moving-based stress; the attack in the bathroom, the argument with Ricky, all of it. She wanted to hit the reset button and start again with this house in the morning.
She turned out the light in the bathroom and slid her hand along the wall until she found her door. Her bed was four or five steps from the threshold and had already been made. She sat on her bed spread for a little while, letting her mind drift before taking off her shoes and socks. She flung herself across the bed and folded her arms under her head. It wasn’t the way she planned to sleep, but it was a start.
The smell of old lavender was much stronger in here than downstairs. She figured there must be an old scented plug-in or a moldering bowl of potpourri somewhere around. She’d find it in the morning. Margret rolled her body to match the length of the bed and nestled into the pillow.
She felt herself slipping into sleep, but before she could pass into unconsciousness, something sharp began to stab her nostrils. It was like being water-boarded with old ladies’ perfume, or a bottled essence of funeral home. She sat up in bed and gagged on it, feeling it wind itself around her throat once more. Small, thin hands clawed at her shoulders and forced her back on the pillow with unreasonable force.
There was a face looming just a few inches from her own. Long, rasping breaths, with lungs full of water fell like an inconstant waterfall. She felt its cold, wet breath moisten her skin. The voice from the bathroom returned to her, much closer and sounding much more like a woman’s this time.
“You are not alone. You are not alone. I am here. I am here.” The words seemed to echo. A monotonous tune of what sounded like dripping water seemed to rise from nowhere and served as the melody behind her words.
“You are not alone. I am here. You are…lonely? As I am lonely.”
Margret was losing her ability to breathe. The smell strangled her while the hands held her shoulders so tightly, Margret could feel each individual bone in their fingers.
“You are lonely?” the specter’s voice cooed. The statement seemed less like a question and more like an observation. “Come with me. Come with me.”
With her eyes, Margret plead. No, no! I am not! I don’t! But the woman above her was relentless. Margret became increasingly aware that there was no body weight resting on her lower half. Just hands and a face. She pulled with her legs, raking the sheets with her heels. She pulled herself down the bed, away from the cold, dank breath and vice grip of boney fingers. The hands relinquished their grip and the breathing stopped. Shrieking, like a banshee caught aflame. The sound threatened to peel her ears from her head. Margret wanted to match the pitch of the wailing, but when she tried, the reek of rotten blossoms filled her mouth, as heavy as if she’d filled it full of mud. It slipped down her throat and into her stomach, making her want to vomit.
The shrieking faded, leaving only a few echoes to stir the silence. The odiferous sludge evaporated, freeing her mouth. The train of heavy gasps was broken only by the occasional shuddering sob. Margret had lost all control over her muscles, and no matter how much she willed them, they wouldn’t allow her to sit up. The push of gravity on her chest was almost too much. She thought she might be crushed, but then the door opened and painful electricity filled her body, jolting her upright.
“What is it? What’s goin’ on?” Ricky’s voice pierced the darkness. The light from the hallway gave the dark room a muddy look and stung her eyes.
“Oh god! Ricky!” she sobbed. “It was here, and it was choking me, and it smelt like…rotten flowers. I don’t-” she felt Ricky sit on her bed and heard him sigh.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” He tried to sound comforting, but fell short. “It’s okay, it was probably just a bad dream.”
“But she dug her fingers into my skin!” She wailed, moving the shoulder of her shirt to show him where she still felt the sensation of being pinched.
From his lack of pause, she figured he either didn’t see anything or didn’t bother to look. Margret calmed her breathing and pulled her knees to her chest. “Just go back to bed Ricky.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. And you’ve got a long drive tomorrow.”
“I can stay another night, if you want?”
“No!” she spat, but checking herself, she tried to soften her tone. “No, I’ll be okay. I promise.” Despite her attempts to lessen her anger, her tone still sounded a bit hostile. Ricky must’ve noticed, because he grew very quiet.
“Fine. Works for me.” She heard him turn on his heel and pass into the hallway.
Margret let her head fall back on the pillow and rolled onto her side. She hadn’t meant to shut him down as hard as she did, but how could he have written her off like it was nothing? If she’d been prone to this kind of paranoia, it would’ve made sense. But this was the first abnormal thing she’d ever experienced, and he acted like she was completely crazy. Or worse, making it all up. Margret was used to total strangers making stupid assumptions about her. She figured anyone with a disability would be. But this was her brother, whom she’d spent the vast majority of her life looking after. He should know better!
Exhaustion took her in the form of uncomfortable sleep. Nothing stirred for the rest of the night.
Sunlight drained in through the curtainless windows. Ricky woke to the smell of coffee and bacon. Putting on his shoes, he grabbed his shirt and buttoned it on the way down the stairs. Margret was standing in the kitchen, forking piles of bacon onto a plate.
“Morning,” he greeted. “Any more crazy broads with long fingernails bother you last night?”
“No, thank you.” She bit her lip and brought him a plate with two biscuits and a pile of bacon strips. Not wanting to start a fight right before he left, Margret decided to just let her brother get away with it, just this once.
“Everything smells great. I’m gonna get some of that coffee, if it’s ready?”
“Did you pack any sugar?”
“It’s in the cabinet above the pot.” Margret smiled, remembering their father’s thoughts on coffee. “You know what Dad would say if he found out you were still drinking coffee with sugar?”
“He’d bitch that it wasn’t manly. I know.” Ricky made a swishing noise to emphasize how little he really cared. “He can drink all the black he wants. I think it tastes like crap without it.”
“Yeah, that it does.” Margret sat down with her own cup and added milk from a little bottle on the table. Ricky put the sugar into her hand and she added that too. She let the sweet, hot scent tickle her nose before sipping.
After breakfast, Ricky kissed his sister goodbye and drove back in the direction of Hoboken. Margret, now alone in the house, breathed a kind of relief to see him go. But her relief was short-lived. An uneasy feeling dug its fingers into her heart. Whether it was the events of the night before, what Ricky had said, or even just being alone in the house, it set her teeth on edge.
She decided to christen the new bathtub to ease her anxiety. After making sure it was well away from the edge, she lit a mint and rosemary candle and began to fill the bath. There was no need to turn the overhead light since there was no chance of anyone walking in on her, but the room wasn’t completely dark. The flickering candle flame set strange shadowy shapes to dance on the wall. She put a towel on the rack near the tub and cast off her clothing from the night before; sweatpants and a t-shirt. Once the tub was nearly full, she stepped in and got comfortable. Steam permeated her skin and soaked her hair.
She allowed her head to slip down into the water, bending her knees a little to fit herself in the tub. Her nose protruded from the surface of the water like a shark fin. All of her senses were temporarily paralyzed by the scent and stillness of the bath. And yet, she couldn’t help but be aware of the smell of her candle. It had gone from something faint and breezy, to heavy and choking. The cool touch of mint died away, replaced by the aroma of rotting fruit. No, not fruit…flowers.
An urge to jolt upright, rendered helpless by bony claws pressing her shoulders down to the bottom. Her nose, no longer touching the air, filled with water. And a voice, more clear than if it were inside her own head, whispering, “You are not alone. I am here.”
BreAnn McCoy recently graduated from Doane college in Nebraska with her degrees in English and Theatre. She has been trying to get her name out there. She’s loaded all of her work, consisting of short stories and scripts for stage and screen, into a cannon and started shooting it at publishers. Her teeth and ambitions are bared.
photo credit: This is what a 5 year old slice of lemon looks like via photopin (license)