Mary’s three-story, 100-year-old house is obscured by a tall oak with its leafless, witch-finger branches that slash across the full moon and pierce the night sky. The wind is rising and rain threatens. On this cold autumn night, smoke pours from the chimney, but no light escapes the shuttered windows. The passing years have flaked off big patches of paint from the porch rails.
We and our three preschool children live next door, but we don’t know Mary well. I do know she loves reading dark stories, and I’ve come here tonight to loan her my Edgar Alan Poe. Her husband died years ago, and now she and her teenage daughter, Susan, live here alone. Last year, Mary’s other daughter, Linda, died in a brutal auto accident. We were out of state at the time, and when we returned home and searched the old papers, we found the report of the accident, but nothing about Linda’s funeral.
I knock on Mary’s door and wait, feeling guilty that I haven’t visited earlier. She opens the door, peers out at me, and says, “Come in. We haven’t seen you for a while. Oh! I love Poe, especially his horror stories.” Susan peeps over her shoulder—silent, brooding, uncertain.
“I thought you’d like it,” I say. “I guess my favorite story is “The Telltale Heart.”
Mary leads me down a dim hallway to the parlor and says, “I’ll sit here; you take that easy chair over there.” A weak light leaks into the parlor from a dusty chandelier in the adjacent room.
Susan rises to make tea. The window shades are drawn, and dust lies on all the furniture. My chair creaks when I move. A rug smelling of cat urine covers the uneven wooden floor. Books lie helter-skelter around the parlor. When Susan returns with a few stale crackers and tea, we sip silently but don’t converse much. Mary says, “Thank you for coming.” Her voice betrays a sad wistfulness, or a resignation.
After tea, Mary and Susan both disappear into one of the bedrooms. I wonder where they’ve gone. After ten minutes they emerge, half-leading and half-carrying a young woman who I judge to be in her early twenties. I feel a chill and my hands turn clammy—she looks like Linda!
They seat the woman in a recliner opposite me, carefully arranging her full skirt about her knees. I imagine I see her chest rise and fall ever so slightly. Her clothes give her a girlish look—a green sweater and opaque white stockings. Her feet stretch out in front of her with her black flats hanging off her toes. Thin hands lie limp in her lap, revealing red, nail-polished fingers. Her pale face head leans back against the top of her chair with glazed eyelids falling open, seemingly staring at the lights of the chandelier. Then I see the dark purple scar that runs from beside her nose around to the back of her head, naturally parting her disheveled brown hair.
Mary says to me, “She loves the recliner. She needs a little help getting to and from the bedroom, don’t you Linda?” I imagine I see Linda’s glazed eyes flicker. Susan says nothing. In fact, she hardly talks throughout my whole visit.
In contrast, I have the impression that Linda is interjecting murmured comments now and again, although I can’t distinguish any words. She seems to be making gentle demands—not mean, but insistent. What does she want?
I wonder, Why do they care for her here? Does Linda have her sister and mother under her powers? What powers? Is she somehow hindering them from releasing her? She hardly speaks, but the two women seem dedicated to her, and even fearful. Mary leans anxiously toward her.
I feel weak, and cannot comprehend Mary’s burden—the daily care for Linda, and the pain of having to watch her wide-eyed Susan, perpetually fearful, moody, and mournful. I’m suddenly seized by compassion, and suggest, “Why don’t Barbara and I take Linda in for a few days to give you a break? We’re right next door.”
Mary glances at Linda and says, “Oh, I don’t know how she would like that. We see her and talk to her every day.”
“Oh, that’s OK. We have an empty bedroom. And you can come over each day to visit.”
Finally, Mary reluctantly agrees. “Linda really doesn’t require much care—she sleeps in her clothes. She likes sitting in the living room during the day and retiring early, and she doesn’t mind company. But, how will we get her over to your house? She can hardly walk.”
“No problem—I’ll carry her.”
I walk over to the chair and hoist Linda in my arms, feeling her cold body. She’s lost a lot of weight since I saw her a year ago. When her wounded head falls back, I stare into her wan face with its pale, pink-lipped mouth partly open, as if she’s trying to breathe through her nose.
I say goodbye and leave the house. Mary and Susan watch us from the porch as I carry her down the uneven steps. I’m thinking, I haven’t even told Barbara about this! I wonder if she’ll mind? And what evil, what violence, am I bringing into our home with our small children? As I walk, I try to watch for cracks in the uneven sidewalk. A cold rain has started to fall that obscures the moon and dampens Linda’s face. Little rivulets fall off her sodden hair, drip off her nose and the corners of her gaping mouth, and run down my arm. When I reach out house and climb up the steep cement steps onto our wooden porch, I see the lighted jack-o-lantern the kids carved this week.
I give a violent start, as if waking from a dream. I sit up in my bed sodden with sweat I look around, bewildered. Linda has somehow disappeared!
And then with a shock I realize—tonight is All Hallows Eve!