As Halloween 2014 drags its bloated, or soon-to-be-bloated, body nearer, of course I thought it appropriate for a love story of a different kind. I’m splitting the skull of this story into three pieces, for your (I hope) ease of reading and enjoyment. Comments and referrals are always appreciated. 🙂
Undelivered Valentines: Part I
by Leigh Ward-Smith
An icepick of a shriek rocked me free from my tendrily bedsheets. As I bolted out, almost tripping on their thin cotton arms, I was just able to clap eyes on the garish red numbers: 2:59.
“Em, what’s wrong?” floated out of me before I even felt my toes scuff the frayed, but dense, carpet in the hallway outside her room. It was an inky Indiana night, sticky as a state fair cotton-candy funnel cake.
The hallway light I’d brushed on my way past threw an elongated white triangle onto the dark floor that slunk up the side of the bed.
“Th-th-there,” she pointed toward the closet, her arm board-stiff.
Rusty was machine-gun barking by that point, and I blocked him off and thrust him away from the bedside with my leg, almost tangling him in headphones that pendulumed from the stereo. In the tense instant my mind catalogued an innocuous nag to “try not to fall asleep in those things,” for what little good it would do.
The door to the converted walk-in gaped. I wondered if this all would turn out to be related to the muffled sounds she’d reported in the last few weeks. We’d called Critter Gitters out twice since moving into the house only 2 months ago. But no bats, rats . . . or cats, for that matter.
After a short hesitation, I strode into the closet. By groping the dimness, my hand finally grazed the hanging light cord that noosed at the end and I pulled, causing the cord to spring up above my head like an marionette with a grand-mal seizure. It then summarily flicked me on the cheek.
The only frightening thing, apart from the stack of balled-up clothes against the left wall almost waist-high, was the occasional zzt of the lightbulb. Though I didn’t often step foot in her inner sanctum, nothing seemed disturbed or disturbing.
“Wait . . . what exactly am I looking for, hon?” I poked my head out of the doorway to find she was still rooted in place, as if she’d been transformed into a statue by some invisible Medusa.
“I d-d-didn’t tell you yet, Mom. I found . . . something.” The long, thin fingers folded on her lap had suddenly become more interesting than the latest boy band on the teen scene.
“On the dresser.” She pointed more with her head than anything.
I went over and flipped the lamp on to get a brighter view. It wasn’t the nail polish or slanting stack of Stephen King books I figured she was wanting me to see, but a trifolded paper. I had the sudden image in my head of a a cross-legged meditating form opening its arms in welcome to whatever or whomever—if anything—watched from the sky.
When I picked up the browning paper, worn corners of it calved, glacierlike, then slid through my fingers as if made of sand.
“My dearest Gladys,” it began. The date was difficult to read, as if a rat or something teethy had snarfed on the top right ear of the paper. It seemed to say February-something 19-smear-2.
I paused, considering whether to continue. It felt like I was horning in on a telephone conversation. Or was it more like intercepting a private telegram? But because Emily had already invaded the probably long-dead writer’s privacy, I figured I might as well look, too. Maybe it might even provide a good way to break the ice, as it were, and meet some people in town. Classes hadn’t begun yet, so we knew next to no one. Okay, truthfully, we were smack-dab at X-marks-the-spot in terms of not knowing our neighbors, much less the town landmarks.
I continued reading silently.
I apologize for the brevity. Captured aboard train. Some of us plan to escape. If it works, you will see me again. If it doesn’t, perhaps you will someday receive this missive. You deserve to know my feelings for you are both pure and true. I thank God they have no mirrors here. I must go . . . Ever yours, Thomas
“Hmm. That’s quite a cryptic letter. What’s that got to do with the scream? There’s nothing in the closet . . . what’s going on, sweetie?”
As I put the letter back on her dresser, I noticed she didn’t do the teeny-bopper exasper-gasp or even eye-roll at my pet term for her. But a New York quarter-minute before I could be amazed, she pelted me with what would be a doozy of a scary story if I weren’t such a skeptic.
“He was here. Ohmygod, I just know it was him. One minute I was asleep, or close to it, and the next there was this feeling on my arm, and I was up and I saw him. Mom, I saw him! And not just him, but through him!” She gesticulated rather wildly now as she talked. Rather like my own “talking with my hands” habit.
“Him who? You mean the man in the letter? How could you possibly know that?”
“I just know, mom. He was in old-timey clothes, had an old-guy hat and, ewww, I think an animal skin kind of overcoat. But that wasn’t the worst. His face . . .” She shivered, it seemed, involuntarily.
“His face, Mom. It was just awful!”
“Awful, hon? How do you mean? Like that poor guy called the Elephant Man?”
“No, not misshapen like Joseph Merrick. Just, like, facially messed up. Maybe diseased or something. And he looked at me so funny . . . so sad . . . before he went off in that direction and melted into the wall.”
I noticed that she’d started to subtly rock in place where she sat, the covers bunching at her torso. Almost instinctively, I moved to sit on the edge of her bed.
“Hon, now wait. You’ve been really tired lately, we’ve heard the weird sounds in the walls, we’ve not met anybody in town yet and that’s kind of depressing. It’s a bad combination, and enough to make anybody susceptible to suggestion. But let’s be logical here. You were possibly just dreaming, and—”
“Jeez, Mom! You don’t believe me? It wasn’t a dream or stress or loneliness. I saw what I frigging saw!”
“Em, don’t talk like that. You know Dad . . .” I let the words fester in my throat, and we both stayed silent.
I got up and turned my back briefly, hoping we didn’t continue that part of the conversation.
After I’d gathered myself, I swung around to talk to her again. “Look, sweetie, I do believe you think you saw something. So here’s what we’re going to do. First thing tomorrow, we’ll get to work on this mystery. Together. We’ll find out who wrote this letter or to whom it was addressed, I promise.”
Her mouth scrunched into a silent pout.
“Whaddya say, Team Meadows for the win. Slap me some skin?”
In full-on sulk mode, she had flopped down on her covers and was pretending not to listen. And ignoring my outstretched face-up palm. Yeah, I’m old school.
A painful silence persisted for what seemed like minutes. I exploded it with motion. As I scooped up the dog and left, I thought about shutting the door loudly enough so she knew I was annoyed, but not so loud as to thunder-clap with disapproval.
Somehow dipping into the well of motherly patience, I decided against it.
Instead, I left her door open and shuffled off. I prepared to settle down for a short summer’s sleep in my own now-chilled bed. Within several minutes, I heard her creep to my door and look in, presumably for comfort’s sake.
“Come on over, Em” I muttered, hoping it sounded inviting. I felt her body bear down on the mattress next to me, then it became fetal at my back. Soon only a wordless warmth rolled like soft mist through my mind.
To be continued . . . in Part II tomorrow