Ladies In Waiting

Halper, the village real estate man said with a squint, “You’re the same people that looked at that place back in April, aren’t you?  Sure you are.  The ones that got caught in that freak snowstorm and spent the night there.  Mr. and Mrs. Sommerfield, isn’t it?”

“Sommerfeld,” Norman corrected, frowning at a photograph on the wall of the old man’s dingy office, a yellowed, fly-spotted picture of the house itself, in all its decay and drabness.

“And you want to look at it again?”

“Yes!” Linda exclaimed.

Both men looked at her sharply because of her vehemence.  Norman, her husband, was alarmed a new at the eagerness that suddenly flamed in her lovely brown eyes and as suddenly was replaced by a look of guilt.  Yes–unmistakably a look of guilt.

“I mean,” she stammered, “we will want a big old house that we can do over, Mr. Halper.  We’ve never stopped looking.  And we keep thinking the Creighton place just might do.”

You keep thinking it might do, Norman silently corrected.  He himself had intensely disliked the place when Halper showed it to them four months ago.  The sharp edge of his abhorrence was not even blunted and time would never dull his remembrance of that shocking expression on Linda’s face.  When they stepped through that hundred-seventy-year-old doorway again, he would hate and fear the house as much as before, he was certain.

Would he again see that look on his wife’s face?  God forbid!

“Well,” Halper said, “there’s no need for me to go along with you this time, I guess.  I’ll just ask you to return the key when you’re through, same as you did before.”

Norman accepted the key tag from him and walked unhappily out of the car.

 It was four miles from the town to the house.  One mile of narrow blacktop, three of a dirt road that seemed forlorn and forgotten even in this neglected part of the state.  At three in the afternoon of an awesomely hot August day the car made the only sound in a deep silence.  The sun’s heat had robbed even birds and insects of their voices.

Norman was silent too–with apprehension.  Beside him his adored wife of less than two years leaned forward to peer through the windshield for the first glimpse of their destination, seeming to have forgotten he existed.  And there it was.

Nothing had changed.  it was big and ugly, with a sagging front porch and too few windows.  It was old.  It was gray because almost all of its white paint had long ago weathered off.  According to old Halper, the Crieghtons had lived there for generations, having come from Salem where one of their women in the days of witch madness had been hanged for practicing demonolatry.  A likely story.

As he stopped the car by the porch steps, Norman glanced at the woman beside him.  His beloved.  His childhood sweetheart.  Why, in God’s name, was she eager to come here again?  She had not been so in the beginning.  For days after that harrowing ordeal she ahd been depressed, unwilling to even talk about it.

But then, weeks later, the change.  Ah, yes, the change!  So subtle at first, or at least as subtle as her unsophisticated nature could contrive.  “Norm . . . do you remember that old house we were snowbound in?  do you suppose we might have liked it if things had been different . . .?

Then not so subtle.  “Norm, can we look at the Creighton place again?  Please?  Norm?”

As he fumbled the key into the lock, he reached for her hand.  “Are you all right, Hon?”

“Of course!”  The same tone of voice she had used in Halper’s shabby office.  Impatient.  Critical.  Don’t ask silly questions!

With a premonition of disaster he pushed the door open.

It was the same.

Furnished, Halper had called it, trying to be facetious.  There were dusty ruins of furniture and carpets and–yes–the impression that someone or something was using them, that the house had not been empty for eight years, as Halper had claimed.  Now the feeling returned to Norman as he trailed his wife through the downstairs rooms and up the staircase to the bedchambers above.  And the feeling was strong!  He wanted desperately to seize her hand again and shout,  “No, no, Darling!  Come out of here!”

Upstairs when she halted in the big front bedroom, turning slowly to look about her, he said helplessly, “Hon, please–what is it?  What do you want?”

No answer.  He had ceased to exist.  She even bumped into him as she went past to sit on the old four-poster with its mildewed mattress.  And seated there, she stared emptily into space as she had done before.

He went to her and took her hands.  “Linda, for God’s sake!  What is it with this place?”

She looked up at him and smiled.  “I’m all right.  Don’t worry, Darling.”

There had been an old blanket on the bed when they entered this room before.  He had thought of wrapping her in it because she was shivering, the house was frigid for April, and with the car trapped in deepening snow they would have to spend the night here.  But the blanket had reeked from age and she had cringed from the touch of it.

Then–”Wait,” he had said with a flash of inspiration.  “Maybe if I could jam this under a tire! . . . Come on.  It’s at least worth a try.”

“I’m cold, Norm.  let me stay here.”

“You’ll be all right?  Not scared?”

“Better scared than frozen.”

“Well . . . I won’t be long.”

How long was he gone?  Ten minutes?  Twenty?  Twice the car had seemed about to pull free from the snow’s mushy grip.  Twice the wheel had spun the sodden blanket out from under and sent it flying through space like a huge yellow bird, and he’d been forced to go groping after it with icy wind lashing his frozen face.  Say twenty minutes, certainly no longer.  Then, giving it up as a bad job, he had trudged despondently back to the house and climbed the stairs again to the front bedroom.

And there she sat on the bed, as she was sitting now.  White as the snow itself.  Wide-eyed.  Staring at or into something that only she could see.

“Linda!  What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  Nothing . . . “

He grasped her shoulders.  “Look at me!  Stop staring like that!  What’s happened?”

“I thought I heard something.  Saw something.”

“Saw what?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t remember.”

Lifting her from the bed, he put his arm about her and glowered defiantly at the empty doorway.  Strange.  A paper-thin layer of mist or smoke moved along the floor there, drifting out into the hall.  And there were floating shapes of the same darkish stuff trapped in the room’s corners, as though left behind when the chamber emptied itself of the large mass.  Or was he imagining these things?  One moment they seemed to be there; a moment later they were gone.

And was he also imagining the odor?  It had not been present in the musty air of this room before; it certainly seemed to be now, unless his senses were playing tricks on him.  A peculiarly robust smell, unquestionably male.  But now it was fading.

Never mind.  There was someone in this house, by God!  He had felt an alien presence when Halper was here; even more so after the agent’s departure.  Someone, something, following them about, watching them.

The back of Linda’s dress was unzipped; he realized then.  His hands pressing her to him, suddenly found themselves inside the garment, on her body.  And her body was cold.  Colder than the snow he had struggled with outside.  Cold and clammy.

The zipper.  He fumbled for it, found it drawn all the way down.  What had she tried to do?  This was his wife, who loved him.  This was the person who only a few weeks ago, at the club, had savagely slapped the face of the town’s richest, handsomest playboy for daring to hint at a mate-swapping arrangement.  Slowly he drew the zipper up again, then held her at arm’s length and looked again at her face.

She seemed unaware he had touched her.  Or that he existed.  She was entirely alone, still gazing into that secret world in which he had no place.

The ret of the night had seemed endless.  Linda lying on the bed, he sitting beside her waiting for daylight.  She seemed to sleep some of the time; at other times, though she said nothing even when spoken to, he sensed she was as wide awake as he.  About four o’clock the wind died and the snow stopped its wet slapping at the windowpanes.  No dawn had ever been so welcome, even though he was still unable to free the car and they both had to walk into town to send a tow truck for it.

And now he had let her persuade him to come back here.  He must be insane.

“Norman?”

She sat there on the bed, the same bed, but at least she was looking at him now.  Not through him into that secret world of hers.  “Norman, you do like this house a little, don’t you?”

“If you mean could I ever seriously consider living here–” emphatically, he shook his head.  “My God, no!  it gives me the horrors!”

“It’s really a lovely old house, Norman.  We could work on it a little by little.  Do you think I’m crazy?”

“If you can imagine living in this mausoleum, I know you’re crazy.  My God, woman, you were nearly frightened out of your wits here.  In this very room, too.”

“Was I, Norman?  Really?”

“Yes, you were!  If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never stop seeing that look on your face.”

“What kind of look was it, Norman?”

“I don’t know.  That’s just it–I don’t know!  What in heaven’s name were you seeing when I walked back in here after my session with the car?  What was that mist?  That smell?”

Smiling, she reached for his hands.  “I don’t remember any mist or smell, Norman.  I was just frightened.  I told you–I thought I heard something.”

“You saw something too, you said.”

“Did I say that?  I’ve forgotten.”  Still smiling, she looked around the room–at the garden of faded roses on shreds of time-stained wallpaper, at the shabby bureau with its solitary broken cut-glass vase.  “Mr. Halper was to blame for what happened, Norman.  His talk of demons.”

“Halper didn’t do that much talking, Linda.”

“Well, he told us about the woman who was hanged in Salem.  I can see now, of course, that he threw that out as bait, because I told him you write mystery novels.  He probably pictured you sitting in some Dracula cape, scratching out your books with a quill, by lamplight, and thought this would be a marvelous setting for it.”  Her soft laugh was a welcome sound, reminding Norman he loved this girl and she loved him–that their life together, except for her inexplicable interest in this house, was full of gentleness and caring.

But he could not let her win this debate.  “Linda, listen, if this is such a fine old house, why has it been empty for eight years?”

“Well, Mr. Halper explained that, Norman.”

“Did he?  I don’t seem to recall any explanation.”

“He said that the last person to live here was a woman who dies eight years ago at ninety-three.  Her married name was Stanhope, I think he said, but she was a Creighton–she even had the same given name, Prudence, as the woman hanged in Salem for worshipping demons.  And when she passed away there was some legal question about the property because her husband had died some years before in an asylum, leaving no will.”

Norman reluctantly nodded.  The truth was he hadn’t paid much attention to the real estate man’s talk, but he did recall the remark that the last man of the house had been committed to an asylum for the insane.  Probably from having lived in such a gloomy place for so long, he thought at the time.

Annoyed with himself for having lost the debate–at least, for not having won it–he turned from the bed and walked to a window, where he stood gazing down at the yard.  Right down there, four months ago, was where he had struggled to free the car.  Frowning on the spot now, he suddenly said aloud, “Wait.  That’s damn queer.”

“What is it, Dear?”

“I’ve always thought we left the car in a low spot that night.  A spot where the snow must have drifted extra deep, I mean,  but we didn’t.  we were in the highest part of the yard.”

“Perhaps the ground is soft there.”

“Uh-uh.  It’s rocky.”

“Then it might have been slippery?”

“Well, I suppose–”  suddenly he pressed closer to the window glass.  “Oh, damn!  We’ve got a flat.”

“What, Norman?”

“A flat!  Those are new tires, too.  We must have picked up a nail on our way to this stupid place.”  Striding back to the bed, he caught her hand.  “Come on.  I’m not leaving you here this time!”

She didn’t protest.  Obediently she followed him downstairs to the front door.  On the porch she hesitated briefly, glancing back in what seemed to be a moment of panic, but when he again grasped her hand, she meekly went with him down the steps and out to the car.

The left front was the flat one.  Hunkering down beside it, he searched for the culprit nail but failed to find any.  It was underneath, no doubt.  Things like flat tires always annoyed him, in a properly organized world they wouldn’t happen.  Of course, in such a world there would not be the kind of road one had to travel to reach this place, nor would there be such an impossible house to begin with.

Muttering to himself, he opened the trunk, extracted the jack, tools, and spare and went to work.

Strange.  There was no nail in the offending tire.  No cut or bruise either.  The tire must have been badly made.  The thought did not improve his mood as, on his knees, he wrestled the spare into place.

Then when he lowered the jack, the spare gently flattened under the car’s weight and he knelt there staring at it in disbelief.  “What the hell . . . ?”  nothing like this had ever happened to him before.

He jacked the car up again, took the spare off and examined it.  No nail, no break, no bruise.  It was a new tire like the others.  He had a repair kit for tubeless tires in the trunk; he recalled–bought one day on impulse.  “Repair a puncture in minutes without even taking the tire off the car.”  But how could you repair a puncture that wasn’t there?

“Linda, this is crazy.  We’ll have to walk back to town, the way we did before.”  he turned his head.  “Linda?”

She was not there.

He lurched to his feet.  “Linda!  Where are you?”  How long had she been gone?  He must have been working on the car for fifteen or twenty minutes.  She hadn’t spoken in that time, he suddenly realized.  Had she slipped back into the house the moment he became absorbed in his task?  She knew well enough how intensely he concentrated on such things.  How when he was writing, for instance, she could walk through the room without his even knowing it.

“Linda, for God’s sake–no!”  Hoarsely shouting her name, he stumbled toward the house.  The door clattered open when he flung himself against it and the sound filled his ears as he staggered down the hall.  But now the hall was not just an ancient, dusty corridor; it was a dim tunnel filled with premature darkness and strange whisperings.

He knew where she must be.  In that cursed room at the top of the stairs where he had seen that look on her face four months ago, and where she had tried so cunningly to conceal the truth from him this time.  But the room was hard to reach now.  A swirling mist choked the staircase, repeatedly causing him to stumble.  Things resembling hands darted out of it to clutch at him and hold him back.

He stopped in confusion, and the hands nudged him forward again.  Their owner was playing a game with him, he realized, mocking his frantic efforts to reach the bedroom, yet at the same time seductively urging him to try even harder.  And the whispering made words, or seemed to.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

In the upstairs hall, too, the swirling mist challenged him, deepening into a moving mass that hid the door of the room.  But he needed no compass to find that door.  Gasping and cursing–”Damn you, leave me alone!  Get out of my way!”  he struggled to it and found it open as he and Linda had left it.  Hands outthrust, he groped his way over the threshold.

The alien presence here was stronger.  The sense of being confronted by some unseen creature was all but overwhelming.  Yet the assault upon him was less vio0lent now that he had reached the room.  The hands groping for him in the eerie darkness were even gentle, caressing.  They clung with a velvet softness that was strangely pleasurable, and there was something voluptuously female about him, even to a faint but pervasive female odor.

An odor, not a perfume.  A body scent, drug like in its effect upon his senses.  Bewildered, he ceased his struggle for a moment to see what would happen.  The whispering became an invitation, a promise of incredible delights. But he allowed himself only a moment of listening and then, shouting Linda’s name, hurled himself at the bed again.  This time he was able to reach it.

But she was not sitting there staring into that secret world of hers, as he had expected.  The bed was empty and the seductive voice in the darkness softly laughed at his dismay.  “Come, Norman . . . sweet Norman . . . come come come . . . “

He felt himself taken from behind by the shoulders, turned and ever so gently pushed.  He fell floating onto the old mattress, halfheartedly thrusting up his arms to keep the advancing shadow-form from possessing him.  But it flowed down over him, onto him, despite his feeble resistance, and the female smell tantalized his senses again, destroying his will to resist.

As he ceased struggling, he heard a sound of rusty hinges creaking in that part of the room’s dimness where the door was, and then a soft thud.  The door had been closed.  But he did not cry out.  He felt no alarm.  It was good to be here on the bed, luxuriating in this sensuous caressing softness.  As he became quiescent it flowed over him with unrestrained indulgence, touching and stroking him to heights of ecstasy.

Now the unseen hands, having opened his shirt, slowly and seductively glided down his body to his belt . . .

He heard a new sound then.  For a moment it bewildered him because, although coming through the ancient wall behind him, from the adjoining bedroom, it placed him at once in his own bedroom at home.  Linda and he had joked about it often, as true lovers could–the explosive little syllables to which she always gave voice when making love.

So she was content, too.  Good.  Everything was straightforward and aboveboard, then.  After all, as the fellow at the club had suggested, mate swapping was an in thing . . . wasn’t it?  All kinds of people did it.

He must buy this house, as Linda had suggested.  Of course.  She was absolutely right.  With a sigh of happiness he closed his eyes and relaxed, no longer made reluctant by a feeling of guilt.

But–something was wrong.  Distinctly, now, he felt not two hands caressing him, but more.  And were they hands?  They suddenly seemed cold, clammy, frighteningly eager.

Opening his eyes, he was startled to find that the misty darkness had dissolved and he could see.  Perhaps the seeing came with total surrender, or with the final abandonment of his guilt feeling.  He lay on his back, naked, with his nameless partner half beside him, half on him.  He saw her scaly, misshapen breasts overflowing his chest and her monstrous, demonic face swaying in space before his own.  And as he screamed, he saw that she did have more than two hands:  she had a whole writhing mass of them at the ends of long, searching tentacles.

The last thing he saw before his scream became that of a madman was a row of three others like her squatting by the wall, their tentacles restlessly reaching toward him as they impatiently awaited their turn.

 

 

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