Thursday, February 9, 2017

STORY The Gray Lady

The Gray Lady by Susan Buffum

A bloodcurdling scream wrenched me out of a dead sleep. Flinging the bedcovers aside I leapt out of bed and ran barefoot out into the hallway of the Victorian house my husband and I had recently purchased and were in the process of renovating. A small figure in pale gray darted along the dark hallway, vanishing into the gloom at the far end. “Victoria!” I called, thinking it was our six-year old daughter fleeing a mouse or some such creature that had startled her out of sleep.

“Mommy!” came the quavering cry of a frightened child from her bedroom to my left.

I turned the embossed brass knob. For a moment nothing happened, but then the latch gave and I was able to push the door open and enter the room. My feet were already growing cold from contact with the thinly carpeted floor. The house had steam heat, provided by a behemoth H.B. Smith boiler in the dank, dreary basement. The heat did not penetrate into the hallways, especially at night when our doors were closed against random wintery drafts prevalent in poorly insulated New England homes. Proper insulation installation was on our To Do list of home improvements.

I fumbled for the outdated push button light switch, finding it with chilled fingertips and pressing it. High overhead dim bulbs began to glow in the antique light fixture that must have been installed when the house was converted from gaslight to electricity back around the turn of the twentieth century.

Victoria was huddled beneath her Disney princess comforter, just her wide eyes and button nose visible. “There was a lady in my room!” she whispered, her eyes full of fear and worry as if she were afraid of what my reaction to this pronouncement would be.

My eyes scanned the room, every dim corner and shadowed angle where furniture met walls. “I don’t see anyone in here,” I said. Walking over to her closet, I tugged open the door, peering into the narrow space. The closets in this house were not deep, but they extended for some distance left and right with wrought iron hooks jutting from the wall every six inches or so. I saw nothing but small hangers displaying limp shirts and folded over pants. Her sneakers and shoes were neatly lined up undisturbed on the bare wood floor. The games and toys on the shelf above the long row of hooks were in order. I swung the door closed as I turned back to the bed, my mind flashing an image of the figure I’d seen, or thought I’d seen, fleeing down the hallway. “There’s no one here,” I said. “No one in the closet.”

“Look under the bed!” she whispered, her eyes imploring me to do so.

The last thing I wanted to do was kneel on the cold floor to peer into the dust bunny haven beneath her antique double bed, but I’d signed that  Mommy contract the day I’d given birth to this child promising that I would be the best mother possible, so I dropped to my knees, lifted the bed skirt, and looked underneath the bed. “Hand me your flashlight,” I said, reaching a hand up. I heard her shift as she drew the mini Maglite from beneath her pillow. The icy cold aluminum hit the palm of my hand, making me shudder. I twisted the head of the flashlight, producing a bright, blue-white LED beam of light. I swept the beam of light from side to side and saw nothing but her missing pink slipper resting askew dead center beneath the bed. She may have kicked it there, but I didn’t see how a child’s small foot could have gotten that distance on carpet while merely climbing into bed. I’d have to get the yardstick and push it out in the morning. “Nothing there but your missing slipper,” I reported as I climbed to my feet.

“No lady?”

“No lady. It’d be a tight squeeze under there for anyone but one of Santa’s elves,” I assured her. “You were probably dreaming about a lady and woke up imagining you saw one.” We had watched Little Women last night, the one with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder that had been partially filmed at nearby Historic Deerfield. I’d been telling Victoria, as I’d tucked her in, that we’d have to take a drive along the village street to see if we could spot any of the house exteriors used in the movie. “Maybe it was Marmie or Jo, Beth or Amy checking on you. They weren’t scary, were they?” Victoria shook her head, but shrugged at the same time. Uncertain about that. “All right then. Do you need to use the bathroom? Do you want some water?” She shook her head no twice. “Okay, lie back and let me get you tucked in snug as a bug in your bed and we’ll try to go back to sleep. Daddy’ll be coming home tomorrow. We have to drive all the way down into Connecticut to meet his plane.” I was glad he was flying into Bradley this time. I hated driving into Logan at holiday time. “Give me a kiss and then close your eyes.” I leaned down so she could kiss my cheek. I turned my head and kissed her warm, soft cheek, tucking the covers beneath her chin. “Get some sleep. We have a busy day ahead of us. Remember? We’re making gingerbread men before we go to the airport?” She nodded. “Close your eyes and dream about gumdrop buttons, raisin eyes, white icing smiles, cinnamon red hot noses.” I touched the tip of her nose with my finger and she giggled. “Daddy loves those!”

I left her room, relieved to see the smile at the corners of her mouth as I pressed the button to extinguish the overhead light. Softly I closed the door and headed back to bed. But as I approached the master bedroom a rush of cold air came along the hallway, circling my ankles. I stopped, shivering, looking down, but of course I couldn’t see much f anything in the dark hallway, only a bit of blue moonlight through the windows at either end of the hall.

I heard a rustling noise and what I thought was a muffled voice. Looking over my shoulder I noticed the light from the window at the far end of the hallway was blocked by a black rectangle. One of the doors to an unused room stood open out into the hallway. I remembered that the bedroom doors opened inward as I started toward the open door. This then was the door to the attic stairway which opened out into the hallway because it couldn’t open inward against the bottom stair. “Great,” I muttered to myself as I drew nearer the door. It felt even colder this close to the attic stairway. All the wintry air from the unheated attic was rushing down the staircase, flooding the hallway as the meager heat of the hall fought its way upward toward the attic.

I reached the door and tried to swing it shut, but it wouldn’t budge. Frowning, muttering about old hinges in desperate need of WD40, I pushed harder against the door and still it wouldn’t move. Annoyed now, I stepped around the door to tug on it from the other direction. As I came around the door I heard a rustling sound on the staircase. Turning my head I caught a fleeting glimpse of a pale form disappearing at the head of the staircase. “Hey!” I called. Had someone broken into the house? It was not unheard of, especially this close to Christmas when people with very little were desperate for money to buy holiday gifts for their families. There’d been several daytime break-ins in the area during the past few weeks. I’d been reading about them in the police log in the newspaper. “Hey! I know you’re up there! I’m going to call the police!” I had one hand on the door. With my free hand I was feeling around for the light switch, another push button one, that would turn on the bare bulbs in two sockets screwed into cross beams high up in the rafters overhead.

As my finger connected with the button and pressed I heard an indistinct female voice and then the sound of something falling with a soft thud above me. A girl? A young woman maybe? Victoria had said there’d been a lady in her room. In the dark she could have mistaken a young woman in a knit cap for an older woman, I supposed. “I’m coming up there! If it’s money you want there isn’t any in the house. There’s nothing of any great value here. We’ve only just moved in last month. We’re still unpacking the POD. Just come out and we’ll go downstairs. I won’t call the police if you’re alone and just looking for money. Everyone goes through difficult times. I’ll give you what I have in my purse if you’ll just go peacefully.”

I crept up the staircase, hugging the dust-furred plaster wall that still bore some scraps of brittle wallpaper. The wallpaper flaked off, raining softly down onto the bare wooden risers as I brushed against the ragged strips. Above me I heard nothing, although my ears strained for the sound of someone breathing.

My head came level with the floor of the attic. I peered over the edge of the floor into mostly empty space. There were a few sagging cartons, a number of empty picture frames leaning against the bare walls, a three-legged chair, a small pile of scrap lumber from some previous repair job. The bare bulbs cast sickly yellow spheres of weak light onto the dusty floor. I did not see any footprints in the dust.

I turned and glanced in the opposite direction, my heart leaping into the back of my throat as I caught sight of a wide-eyed woman staring back at me from a pale face. It took me a few moments to realize that it was only my own reflection in a mirror that had lost much of its silver backing giving the image a flat, ghostly appearance. A soft chuff of relieved laughter escaped through my nose.

But then a shuffling noise brought me up short. It had come from further back behind the mirror that was evidently propped up by some other left behind carton, box or small piece of furniture. I stared hard into the gloom where the light did not penetrate and thought I saw movement there. “All right! I see you! Come over into the light and let me get a look at you! Just walk slowly forward. No one has to get hurt here tonight. I just want you to leave my house, to leave me and my daughter alone.”

My house! hissed a voice that sounded as if someone was standing right beside me talking in my ear. I jumped. Get out!

An object came flying out of the shadows and struck me hard on the forehead, then fell onto the stair near my left foot. I bent my head and looked down to try to identify what it was that had hit me. Something else struck me, on the crown of my head this time. “Hey!” I cried, retreating down one riser. Another object brushed across my shoulder, skidding across the floor behind my head. “Stop that!” These were chunks of brick! She was throwing pieces of broken brick from the chimney at me! “Hey!” I cried again as a nearly whole brick came dangerously close to landing on my bare foot. “Are you crazy!”

Get out! The voice cried angrily. Get out of my house!

I fled down the stairs, punching the button to extinguish the light. Glancing back over my shoulder I saw a gray form at the top of the attic stairway, and then three bricks came tumbling noisily down the stairs. Grabbing the door, I swung it shut, hearing the brick lands up against the door on the bottom stair. “Victoria!” I shouted as I ran down the hallway. “Victoria!”

My daughter and I spent the remainder of that night in a room at the Homewood Suites near the mall in Holyoke, driven from our home by a mad old phantom woman with a heck of a pitching arm! I wasn’t sure if my husband would believe me about there being an angry ghost in the house, but I did have a vivid bruise on my forehead. And I was certain the bricks would be lying at the bottom of the attic staircase if he looked. He’d be angry and upset about the change of holiday plans, but I was taking Victoria to my parent’s house. She and I were not going back to that old house—ever!

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