I stare across at her little cottage, to chance a sight of her.
I dare to sneak another peek through the curtains, pulling them aside ever so slightly, but her abode is covered in shadow and even the flowers that grew so vibrant, are in hiding.
This has become my life these last three months.
Since she moved across the way, a thirst for knowledge about her developed, then took hold.
I feel tired, washed out, reduced, yet still I watch and obsess over her.
When she’s out, I fantasise about sneaking into her cottage and eventually resolve to do just so. Then I find myself as if waking from a slumber, many hours having passed while I am still in my kitchen, only now surrounded by night.
I wake with a start and when I look across the way, there she is, my neighbour, staring at me from her window, expressionless, before closing her blinds and shutting me out.
And so, the sorry loop continues.
I am thinning, feeling worse by the day. I’m a dull grey tone in a shrinking sepia world that I cannot escape.
And it all began when she arrived, Deanne Wander.
A temporary neighbour, here in the village for a job and supposedly gone in no time.
Only I feel as if I’ve lived a thousand lives since her arrival and each is the same, a dry arid non-existence, forever exhausted as I try to reach inside and know her, understand what she is.
Deanne Wander arrived in our humble little village, following an advert for an archiving job in the local library and museum.
The latter was a modest sized establishment but the archiving alongside that of the schools, would take up anything from six to nine months, dependant on the skills of the archivist.
Enter Deanne Wander.
The job itself allowed for a temporary home opposite my own. It was owned by Harvey Wilson, the long-time town mayor, who was always happy to rent out his little cottage for those coming to the town on a short stay.
I’d seen many tenants come and go over the years, nearly all of them polite and pleasant. The employers within the town, always made sure to identify those who would fit in no matter how short the stay.
Deanne, I was informed, would be a quiet considerate neighbour and fitted the bill perfectly.
The day she arrived, I stepped out to greet her and offer her assistance.
She was a plain looking woman, not that I was one to judge on appearances.
Deanne had straight black hair that stopped short at her shoulders with a rather pale complexion, not ashen as such but skin that had rarely spied the sun and if it had, it had not absorbed any of its richness.
She had opal dark eyes, steady and deep. They were enchanting, too much to bear in fact. They betrayed her small frame and slightly bland attire. On the day of our first encounter, she wore a black jumper with plain dark trousers, and did so most of the following days I saw her.
But her eyes were like night, shrewd, penetrative, and even on our first meeting I found it almost impossible to maintain eye contact with her.
I swear I’d caught the hint of a delicate smile, faint amusement, whenever I failed to hold her gaze. I did not find this woman remotely attractive you understand, but rather looking too long into those eyes felt like an invasion, an offense to some order I could not yet fathom.
But most of all, she unnerved me deep down to my stomach. Something stirred inside me when we caught each other’s eye, a cold unwanted alien feeling.
Deanne needed no assistance. I couldn’t help but notice that her car was short on luggage, for a new tenant you would expect to see the boot and car stuffed with various homely items not to mention a wardrobe of clothes along with pictures and keep sakes, the odd sentimental furnishing despite the cottage being fully furnished already.
But her car was practically empty, just some weight free looking boxes.
I introduced myself, “Thomas Bryson,” I said proudly, “Anything I can do at all to make your stay a pleasant one, you just call on your neighbour Tom and I’ll come a running,” I said as I held out my hand.
Deanne looked at my hand as if it were a foreign object, before that faint little smile touched her lips again, “How nice to meet you Thomas, I am Deanne, as I’m sure you already know. I shall be no trouble to you at all. I like peace,” she added as she gently pushed my outstretched hand away.
The way she said this last, resonated as a warning. Its hard to explain, but I must try to tell you this story before she senses.
My body received it as a warning as I involuntarily stepped away from her. Deanne seemed not to notice as she turned to the boot. She dropped a purse as she lifted one of the weightless boxes from the car. I quickly found myself picking it up and handing it to her from the floor. That hint of a smile again danced on her thin lips, “Are you good at picking up after people Thomas?”
The question seemed to carry far more gravity than I could understand, I looked to her briefly before catching those eyes staring at me. I wanted to return to my own cottage just behind me. I could simply turn around and walk a few metres, open the door, then lie down in the dark a while.
Instead of answering directly I laughed nervously before finally being able to work my mouth, “I am conscientious, I guess?”
Her gaze never left me, searching, scraping at something I wanted to keep tethered, whatever it was, “Well, it’s been a pleasure. I’m sure we’ll meet again but I’d really like to carry on with moving in. Perhaps I’ll see you later.”
I found myself staring at my shoes as she talked then managed to dig out a reply, “Great and like I say if there is…” but already she had walked to her front door and promptly closed it.
There I stood, staring like an old fool as I noted the cottage looked different in that moment, like it had subtly changed in dimension only I couldn’t perceive how. I was beeped out of my stupor by a passing car, one of the locals I presume.
I jumped out of my skin then returned in doors.
The desire to lay in the dark stayed with me.
The following days and weeks passed without incident.
When I think about it, there is never an incident to speak of.
This is what makes it all so distressing. The ever-growing feeling of utter dismay since she arrived, is not based on any one event. Only a series of moments but its all I have as a frame of reference.
At first, it was a gentle unrest, a blessing in comparison to what I experience now.
I’d see her driving off for work first thing and as I watched her leave, my eyes would be drawn to her empty cottage. Light was losing the battle in the sun facing home and there was something else, a smell, an aroma, wafting gently across the way.
It reminded me of the first damp soil of spring.
Within a few days of her arrival, I decided to accidentally bump into her, first thing.
I needed to exchange a pleasantry with her, settle the irrational unrest I felt.
I got up a little early and waited until eight a.m., the time she normally set off. At seven fifty-six a.m. I stepped outside, performed some desultory weeding of the lawn until she came out. I jumped a little when her door opened at my back, but undeterred, I turned to face her as I waved and called out, “Good Morning Ms Wander,” I managed in my best jovial tone.
Deanne Wander stopped at her car and turned to me, “Oh yes, morning Thomas.”
Her tone was gentle, warming even and I felt such a wave of relief in that moment. I was momentarily and unwittingly savouring the feeling before I realised, she was staring at me, “Do you enjoy looking at the cottage Thomas, since I moved in?”
I didn’t know what to say.
She laughed, which disarmed me entirely as I looked back to my own cottage and suddenly thought again of resting awhile, in the dark.
My thoughts were broken by her car starting up before heading off on its journey.
When I eventually returned indoors, it was two p.m.
I lost hours it seemed each day, total black-out and all of them since she arrived.
I decided in the end after several grinding days of dislocated vague meanderings, that I’d call Harvey Wilson, the landlord and the man chiefly responsible for her appointment. I scribbled down what I’d say, just in case. Things had been confused of late and if I wanted to get to the bottom of this, then I needed my wits about me.
An awful thought had struck me, what if in these later years of mine, since retiring, what if I was slowly going mad? Through boredom perhaps or discontent. Or worse, what if I had dementia or some such?
I knew deep down that wasn’t the case, or was that part of my condition, self-delusion?
I’d get on with calling Harvey Wilson for sanity sake.
Only when I called Harvey Wilson, my mind went blank. We were talking away with him telling me about his latest ventures, I’m babbling on about writing and photography projects I’ve not really started while something bigger lay behind it all, only I couldn’t identify what it was. My mind lurched to the note pad in front of me, but the words were ineligible, just a series of wild scribbles.
Then it was Harvey who brought her up, “Oh I say, Ms Wander is, well she is a wonder with her work. Nearly all done apparently, with the archiving. Private lady, most quiet, but a hard worker and so charming. How have you found her as a neighbour Thomas?”
This was my moment to say…to say what exactly? Nothing had happened. I’d lost several hours each day since her arrival and felt a growing unease but nothing more. I couldn’t explain proficiently just how I was feeling.
“Thomas? Are you okay?”
I felt fear then in that moment, I’d over-stepped the mark even discussing her never mind entertaining ideas of breaking into her place or snooping around. She already knew I’d been watching her home. Imagine how she might feel about my snooping further.
My skin came out in a shiver and I swallowed hard.
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“Deanne, Ms Wander you mean? Oh, she finished work about twenty minutes ago, its five thirty p.m. so I imagine she’ll be arriving home shortly. Why, have you got something planned for her old boy? Soft spot for the lady eh?”
I hung up the phone.
The room had grown dark and cold.
Something else was here with me.
My muscles struggled to work as I tried to rise from the table and away from the phone, I pictured myself getting up and walking out of the lounge but my body refused to react, I could not move and I started to feel pain. Subtle at first and rising through my body, growing all the time. It was becoming unbearable, like a great many scalpels were being scraped across my bones. I wanted to scream and tried to do so but nothing came.
There I was, trapped in the black, screaming silently.
And here she was.
Deanne Wander stood opposite me in my own home, her faint smile present and those eyes boring into me.
She glided towards me and laid her pale hand on my forehead, like a coldest blade resting on flesh. Kneeling slightly as I shriek in silence, she opens her mouth. I smell decay, age, and meat, as her mouth clasps over my gaping cry.
And then there is nothing.
We are in her cottage.
Like my own, it is dark, cold, but it smells ancient, infinite.
Deanne Wander is sat opposite me. Her pale complexion like wax in the gloom that surrounds us.
She is drinking from a teacup, once again the hint of a smile dancing around her lips.
She starts to stir the tea over and over, her eyes never leaving mine.
The pain in my body has ceased, its absence a blessing amidst the horrors.
Deanne speaks to me and I feel grateful, relieved even.
“Thomas, poor Thomas. You were always a perceptive man. Quick to spot me. I never came for you, Thomas. You did not feature in my visit here. Although, I can always make room for more and once you sensed me, well, here we are. I can find a place for you. I’m here to archive after all and you must make a choice. Will you take my hand when the time comes? We’ll see. But for now, my work here is nearly done.”
I ask, through cracked dry lips, “What work?”
Deanne tuts, “This work.”
Her mouth opens into a gigantic sigh and soft wet mud starts to pour forth before her body burst open, bringing forth waves of soil and mud.
I am finally able to scream as the cottage fills with wet earth.
I see endless glimpses of white, maggots and worms writhe within, and as it starts to cover me, I see limbs rolling in a filthy sea.
I find myself wishing to be buried in it all. I’m overpowered by how comforting the wet filth feels between flailing fingers, the consistency and weight shrouding me in heat.
How I want to be a part of it.
Then I come to.
I am in my own bed, shivering, cold and agonised to the bone.
I don’t quite know when these latest events happened or if they happened. Surely it is not possible.
Time has ceased to be.
I stumble from day to day confused.
Deanne Wander continues to go to work and return.
Sometimes I awake from a slumber and find her at the bottom of my bed, staring at me through night and shadow, the smallest hint of a smile playing at her mouth.
When I’m in my kitchen, blinds drawn to avoid looking at her cottage, I feel her fingers curl around my shirt collar or tug at my hair, her breath on my neck, then when I turn. Nothing.
All the while the pain in my bones, my joints and hands, my skin, it can be unbearable and only her haunting presence sates the agony.
I feel her now as I write this, she is behind me, wearing an invisible smile as her hand slides down my arm, drawing blood from air and flesh as she clasps my hand, “Its okay Thomas, you can come with me now. It is time.”
Her words soothe my body as I take her freezing hand and follow her. Anything to stop the pain. I think she gave it to me, or I took it from her. But now, it can cease.
I see faces I recognise outside as we make our way towards Deanne’s cottage. There are four of us excluding Deanne. I spy Mrs Watkins who runs the cake shop by the village square, Ernie the village bus driver is also here along with Mildred who really shouldn’t be out at this time of night, not with her condition.
Deanne has impossibly long thin arms draped over all of us as she guides us into her home.
The pain relents further when we enter her abode.
She asks us to sit in the living room as she takes Ernie upstairs.
I want to speak with Mrs Watkins and try to do so, “How are you here Mrs Watkins? What…” I taste something gritty, fleshy and cough. A dirt caked maggot falls from my mouth. Mrs Watkins eyes bulge in revulsion as she chokes then sticks her fingers into own her mouth and removes a clump of soil.
I feel a scream coming on but am instantly calmed.
Deanne, sweet Deanne Wander is here.
She takes me by the hand and leads me upstairs.
The stairs go on a long way, but I don’t care, Deanne is with me.
I see out of the corner of my eye how many rooms there are as we ascend the stairs. Endless rows of countless doors pass by in a blur.
We reach my cottage door.
I don’t know how or why it is in here but there it is.
Deanne finally smiles as she pushes open the door.
I see a gigantic bed of wet mud and soil, its smells damp and warm, welcoming.
I yearn for it.
“Would you like to stay with me Thomas? Sleep here with me?”
I weep and nod.
“Come,” beckons Deanne as she reveals her nakedness and we embrace. She is deathly beautiful. I see that now. A vision beyond description. I feel her tongue exploring my mouth and winding down my throat, searching, penetrating, filling me up with her essence.
I lay down in my new bed of earth as the insects nestle into me and the pain ceases altogether. I am in heaven.
“Goodnight Thomas,” she whispers as she closes the door.
Harvey Wilson stood outside Thomas Bryson’s cottage, eyeing it with a tear in his eye.
His death had been such a shock, unexpected. He’d never known he was ill but perhaps he should have taken more time to find out after the strange phone call he’d received from Thomas just a few days back.
Too late now, as it was for a few of the village folk.
What a sad time it had been, awful really. The little village was so close knit and when they lost someone, they all felt it. To lose four of its residents like this, all to ill health in such quick succession, well it had left Harvey and the village reeling.
He was broken from his thoughts by the front door of the cottage closing just behind him.
Deanne Wander stepped out with a box, heavily bound and reinforced. “Please Ms Wander, allow me,” offered Harvey as he took the box from her.
He was surprised how heavy it was and how light she’d made it look when stepping out with it in hand.
He walked over to the open car boot, his nose wrinkling at the odour coming from the box. Harvey set it down in the car boot.
“Whoosh, that was heavy! I must be getting old,” he wheezed.
Deanne nodded, “It is rather heavy.”
“Do you mind if I ask what is in there?”
Deanne smiled widely, a smile that could break the dawn, “I archive, Mr Wilson. Even in my spare time. In here,” she said as she drummed the box lid with long cold fingers, “is a collection of the more specialist kind. One day I may return, and who knows, you might just get to see first-hand my private archives.”
Deanne got into the car as Harvey Wilson closed the door behind her, she wound down the window.
“Don’t be a stranger, come back anytime, God knows the village will miss you after all that has gone on.”
Deanne placed a consoling hand on Harvey’s, he felt a subtle itching in his bones, “I suspect Mr Wilson, that I’ll have more archiving to do here one day soon. But for now, I’ll go wherever I’m needed.”
Deanne Wander drove away leaving Harvey Wilson looking back at two vacant cottages.
The sun broke through and its rays touched the scene in front of him, as flowers and life bent towards it.
Harvey thought the two cottages had never looked so wonderful and fought back tears once more, thinking of how much Thomas Bryson would have appreciated the sight.