The word caused Paige to flinch in the passenger seat. She scanned the leaf-carpeted banks of the road, looking for signs of movement.
“It was Virginia Woolf who took her life that way, not Brontë,” Jon explained, “my mistake. Wait, did you think I saw an actual . . . ”
“You gave me a start,” she said brusquely.
Jon’s mouth hitched into a grin, which made him look more pained than amused. “Maybe you have some Halloween spirit after all.”
Paige made a noise with her throat then stared out at the drabness that surrounded them. The road was all clay and ugly stones, and the trees that flanked it had lost their foliage. They passed a pumpkin-patch, a cornfield, both of which had been gleaned of their growth. Even the sunlight was filtered through strips of gray clouds that reduced it to a vague glimmer, the way the features of the dead grow indistinct beneath the shroud.
“Any of this look familiar?” asked Jon.
“The country all looks the same to me.”
“Oh. Well, according to my phone we’re less than three miles from the bed-and-breakfast.”
The final bend was riddled with potholes, forcing Jon to slow the car to a crawl. The phone app instructed him to turn left.
“Hmm,” he muttered, “that doesn’t seem correct.”
“Take a look down there, honey. That lane looks like a footpath. I doubt I could even get the car down there without getting the sides all scratched up by those trees. I’d hate to damage my new present.” He patted the dashboard gently, then touched Paige’s hair. “I know you said these places all look the same to you, but do you remember turning down a little lane like this when you were last here?”
“Teddy and I didn’t stay at this particular place,” Paige explained, “but it was near here.”
Jon rubbed the back of his neck. The rush of blood had made him feel hot. “Teddy . . . ” he mumbled, though not so softly as to go unheard.
She reached to the steering wheel, placed her hand over his. “This can be our place.”
They made the turn.
He’d been correct about the narrowness of the lane but had underestimated its length, for by the time they came upon the white two-story house the main road was no longer visible. It was obvious that the photos they’d seen of the establishment online had been taken in fairer weather and during better times. The sloping lawn that had appeared so rich and manicured was now a sparse, brownish mat, interspersed with mud puddles and a broken stone birdbath. Jon did his best to mask his feelings of having been swindled.
“I guess we just park over there.” He indicated an ovular patch of the yard that was inlaid with white gravel. They drove up alongside the beige jeep that was parked there, and Jon switched off the engine.
He gave the car, which Paige had given him as a spontaneous gift over the summer, an inspection for scratches.
“The paint is fine,” said Paige.
Jon nodded, collected their bags. The only detail that distinguished the house as a business was a small placard beside the doorframe: GUESTS—PLEASE RING DOORBELL FOR SERVICE.
“This doesn’t look very . . . ”
“Very what?” Paige asked.
Jon shrugged. “All I mean is, you can afford to holiday in places much nicer than this.”
“I think it’s perfect.”
Paige obeyed the sign and pressed the button. They stood in wait on the covered porch and Jon whispered to her that he hoped they would have enough privacy.
The woman who drew back the inner door was genial, energetic, and, Jon felt, very well put together for someone her age. Her hair, obviously dyed, was the color of rusted tin. She extended her hand, introduced herself as Imogene, and then plucked both suitcases from Jon’s hands.
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” he said.
“Nonsense,” replied Imogene, “come, come.”
The couple followed the wake of perfume that smelled of clean linen. Imogene led them to a handsome Edwardian desk and bade them to sit. Stationing herself behind the desk, she deftly collected file folders and confirmed the details of their stay.
“Just one night it is then?”
“Yes,” Paige said.
“It’s refreshing to have guests here on a Tuesday, especially during the off-season. Both of my rooms are booked for tonight in fact. Are you here for the Halloween Ball over in Durham?”
“There’s a Ball?” Jon asked.
At this same instant Paige uttered, “No.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Imogene. “The other couple that’s here said they’re not going either. You really should reconsider. It’s a good deal of fun. I’m going there myself after supper tonight. You did know that here we offer both dinner and breakfast to all guests?”
“Yes, that’s excellent, thank you,” said Paige.
“Can I ask if that scent from the kitchen is tonight’s dinner?” Jon said.
“It is—Irish stew and homemade bread.”
“Good Celtic faire. That’s fitting.”
Imogene looked confused.
Jon felt himself blushing. “Halloween . . . it was a Celtic holiday . . . way back, I mean.”
“A fountain of information, this one,” she said, winking at Paige.
They signed the registration forms and were shown to their room, which was slight but stylish.
“The tub is really something,” Paige said as she emerged from the washroom, “I could practically swim in it.” She found Jon standing between the bed and the nightstand. He had a finger pressed to his mouth. Warbled voices, one deep and the other bright, were audible from the adjoining room.
“Just as I’d feared,” grumbled Jon as he maneuvered out of the awkward space. “These walls are like tissue paper. We’ll not have any privacy at all. I can practically hear them breathing next door.”
“Well there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“I suppose. Why don’t we go for a walk before dinner?”
“I’d rather not.”
The woman beyond the wall laughed shrilly.
Jon sighed. “What would you like to do?”
“I think I’m going to soak in that tub for a while.”
He was hoping for some indication that Paige wanted company. When none came, he proceeded to unpack and then went to appreciate the view, such as it was, from the upper story window. The landscape that surrounded them looked as dull as the piled clouds. Their room was facing the lane. Even from this higher vantage, the main road remained obscured by bends in the lane and by the unkempt verge.
Paige’s voice startled him. He spun around and asked, “How was your bath?”
“Lovely, but now I’m famished. I’ll get dressed and we can go downstairs.”
Soon after, they were about to venture down when Paige decided to change shoes. While Jon was waiting in the hallway, the other couple emerged from their room. Jon experienced a pang of social anxiety. The three of them nodded and offered vague greetings.
The other man then said, “Hello, Paige.”
Jon snapped his head back to the doorway of his room.
“Did you say?” Jon uttered hoarsely.
“I’d like you to meet Alicia, my fiancée. Alicia, this is Paige and . . . ?”
Jon shook hands but did not think to introduce himself. The four of them casually forged a circle. Three of them conversed. Jon, however, scarcely spoke and heard even less of the discussion. His brain was oscillating between disbelief and rage.
“Well,” Teddy said, checking his watch, “shall we go down?”
He wrapped his arm around Alicia’s waist and the two of them descended the stairs. Paige was about to follow when Jon gripped her wrist.
“I need to talk to you,” he rasped. “In here.” He opened the door to their room. Paige was reluctant to close it once she saw the expression on her lover’s face. “What do you take me for?”
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“Is this your idea of a sick joke, dragging me here to spend the night with your ex-husband? What, are you two comparing your new paramours?”
“I didn’t know he would be here!”
“I didn’t. Last year we stayed near here, yes, but how could I have known that he would pick this exact place on the same night as we did?”
“An amazing coincidence, no?”
“That’s just what it is.” She pressed herself against him, kissed his neck. “I swear. I’m not thrilled with this either, but let’s not let it ruin our trip. Let’s just go have some dinner, be civil for an hour or so, and then I’m going to prove to you that I’m yours and only yours.”
Paige’s whispered words and the gestures that followed caused Jon’s anatomy to reflexively awaken even though his take on the situation hadn’t changed. Paige took his hand and together they slipped down to the dining room.
Four settings had been placed upon a large tortoise-shell table that sat beneath a hanging lamp with a golden dome. Teddy and Alicia were already seated, their hands clasped in a churlish show of their bond. Jon forewent his habit of pulling out Paige’s chair. One wall of the dining room was covered in gold-veined mirror panels. Jon moved in front of this and sat down heavily. He poured himself some ice water from the crystal pitcher. He could feel Teddy seeking eye contact, perhaps to start a conversation, perhaps to assess how deeply his presence was troubling him. Jon refused to look up from his glass, at least until the kitchen door swung open and he caught sight of Imogene wheeling in a serving cart. It took all his resolve to keep from laughing in the woman’s face.
Imogene’s costume, if it was that, was a hybrid of Hollywood witch and low-rate prostitute. Her reddish hair was now capped with a conical hat and her eyes were heavily laden with kohl. The dress she wore revealed too much of her flesh, which in turn betrayed far too much of her age, or so Jon felt. Her breasts, plumped by a push-up bra, were creased and freckled, and her legs sat lumpy inside their stockings.
Jon’s sense of disgust was suddenly replaced by a powerful lash of shame. Had his inner-self always been this judgmental, this ugly, he wondered?
The other guests proceeded to heap praise on their hostess’s appearance, which only increased Jon’s bout of self-loathing.
“I’m off to the dance just as soon as I see that you good people have been fed,” said Imogene. “Now, please don’t even trouble yourself once you’re finished. I’ll clean everything once I’m back, and then the dining room will be all ready for your breakfast feast tomorrow.”
As she ladled out the stew, Teddy questioned her about it containing eye of newt. Other jokes, equally dreadful, were offered. With the main course served, Imogene then made several trips back to the kitchen, returning each time with a platter of desserts, which she laid out in a row on a stout hutch that stood against the dining-room wall.
“Here is my cell phone number,” she said, snapping a business card onto the table. “Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything, but I won’t be late at all. Happy Halloween!”
Her heels click-clacked along the hardwood floor and she was gone.
Jon spooned up more of the stew, which was nowhere as succulent as its aroma. Teddy, Alicia, and Paige had no difficulty finding topics of conversation. When Jon emptied the last drop from the pitcher, Teddy clapped his hands and announced that he’d brought something much finer than ice water. He rose from the table and darted upstairs, returning a moment later with a bottle of twenty-year-old scotch. Glasses were filled, including Jon’s. They drank and chatted and switched off the overhead light to bask in the cold moonlight.
Jon cleared his throat. “Alicia, can I ask you something?”
In the bluish light, her startled expression appeared ghastly. “I . . . suppose so.”
“Did you know that Teddy here was married to Paige?”
Alicia’s eyes fell to her finger of scotch. “Yes, of course I did. Teddy told me.”
“When did Teddy tell you? Before you came up here? After?”
Paige gripped Jon’s forearm, mouthed the word ‘stop.’
Alicia shrugged and said, “I think the important thing is that we all managed to get away, tonight especially.”
“Why? Because of Halloween?” asked Jon.
“Because of Paige’s father,” Teddy said in a steely, final-sounding tone.
Jon felt his brow furrowing.
“This is the anniversary of his passing.”
The fact that it was Paige who provided this information refreshed Jon’s overall annoyance. The fact that he was ignorant of today’s underlying significance to Paige made him feel wilted. Alicia reached over and began to rub her paramour’s back. Teddy’s eyes were fixed on Jon. Shadows obscured the nature of his gaze, but Jon could sense that it was withering.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.” Jon was overcome with regret the instant he uttered the apology. Why should he offer comfort to this man who should by all rights be a relic in his lover’s past? But Teddy was no memory, no skeleton in Paige’s closet. He was here, right alongside them, shadowing their every moment together.
“I take it that you were close to your late and former father-in-law?” asked Jon.
“Teddy and I tended to him during his last year,” Paige explained. “It was an awful time. Daddy was so sick, so frail. He required around-the-clock care.”
Jon didn’t care at all for the way Paige’s expression changed while she recalled this ordeal, of which he had known nothing. Her face was a mask of admiration, respect.
“If he was so sick,” Jon began, “his death must have been something of a blessing then, yes?”
“I’m sure it was no less painful.” This time it was Alicia doing the judging.
Jon had to resist the urge to let out a primal scream.
“That’s why Paige and I, together or separately, always try to get away every October 31st and go somewhere new.”
“Somewhere we’ve never been.”
This last phrase was uttered by Paige and Teddy in unison. Jon turned to her, saw the tears sparkling beneath her black lashes. Alicia reached across the table and handed Paige a napkin.
“I’ll be in the room,” Jon said plainly. His ascent of the stairs was noiseless. Once inside their room he found he was without energy. He flopped onto the bed and switched on the television, which was ludicrously large for a room of this size.
A news station was recapping its main stories. Jon gazed absentmindedly at this for a few minutes before deciding that discussions of the Dow Jones and fuel-tax hikes were much too vulgar. A changing of the channel flung him into a séance. The Classic Movie channel, like most stations, was marking the holiday with a horror marathon. This particular scene was unfamiliar to Jon, which did not surprise him as he’d never been much of a film buff. It was in black-and-white. A lone violin provided the reedy, spectral score. A foursome of well-to-do-looking adults was seated around a circular table. They appeared to be meeting in a seaside mansion. A lone white candle guttered in the foreground. The camera was positioned to give the viewer the impression that they too were part of this circle.
One of the women at the table began to groan. The camera spun to face her. “ . . . Laughing Lady, is that you?” gasped one of the others at the table. “Laughing Lady, come back. Join us in this circle, gathered here in your honor. In life, your powers condemned you to the bedlam. In death, you found freedom. Share your wisdom with us!”
Cackling suddenly blasted from the speakers. Jon was surprised to feel the hair on his arms lifting. A howling wind extinguished the on-screen candle. Jon took up the remote and pressed the Information button:
HAUNT OF THE LAUGHING LADY/1958/
CAST: JAYNE VANCE, CYRIL DONNELLY. DIR. JACQUES PEPPET.
Jon had never so much as heard of the film or any of its talents. He switched off the set and reposed for a few moments in the unlit stillness.
His trance was broken when a pair of headlights brightened his window. He listened intently but heard no car moving down the lane. The lights dimmed then dissipated. Jon went to the pane and peered out. The moon was now masked by clouds, so only hints of the environment were visible: the skeletal trees, the vague lay of the path, his and Teddy’s vehicles reposing side-by-side. Had Teddy’s jeep also been a gift from Paige, Jon wondered?
“We need to talk.”
He hadn’t even noticed Paige entering the room, so her voice startled him. He had to squint just to pick up her reflection in the glass.
“I don’t feel like talking.”
He returned to the bed and lay down again. Paige continued to speak, even lecture, but Jon did not listen.
What he did listen to were Teddy’s and Alicia’s voices as they leaked through. The exact words were instantly interred in the dividing wall, but Jon could tell that their conversation was, if not heated, then certainly emotional. At one point he heard their door close, then heavy footsteps on the stairs. He strained to pick up any further sounds; the closing of the house’s main door, the sound of Teddy’s jeep engine, but the only noises were those of Paige readying herself for bed and, later, the faint rumble of her snore. Jon knew that for him sleep was far off, if not altogether impossible.
Another pair of lights suddenly brightened the window. Though these lights were somewhat murkier than the first, their hue was unusual—red-tinged, like two signal-lanterns glowing wanly by some rustic stretch of railway. Again, these lights arrived noiselessly, but this time they lingered.
Jon rose and moved to the glass.
The light radiated from two small orbs the size and hue of fresh embers. Jon watched them as they bobbed before the main floor window. The sensation that overcame him as he studied the orbs was something Jon could not identify. Though the lights dazzled him, he felt no joy. While their sheer strangeness frightened him, he would not have called this feeling horror.
The lights began to waver, brightening and fading in turn.
It was crucial that he see them, that he bask in their presence as intimately and for as long as possible. He mustn’t let them vanish. Even the act of closing the door behind him felt like an interminable delay.
Jon took the stairs two at a time, but by the time his feet hit the foyer the glowing orbs were gone.
Disappointment weighted him like a millstone. He imagined himself as the figure in some Expressionist painting—all shadow and low-hanging head, stewing in his own ennui.
“Is she taking care of you?”
Jon spun around and saw that he was not the sole figure in this grim setting. Teddy was seated at the dining table. The bottle of scotch before him was visibly emptier than it had been at dinner. Judging by the slur of his speech, much of it had gone down Teddy’s throat.
“Did you see them,” Jon asked, “the lights?”
“I’m sure she is,” Teddy continued. “Paige takes care of all her men. For a while. That’s the way it goes . . . Paige’s father took care of her, then we took care of him . . . That long final year . . . we took care . . . we just had to add a little bit in his food . . . just a touch . . . meal after meal after meal . . . even the coroner couldn’t tell . . . Paige saw to everything . . . And then the windfall was all hers . . . she told me it’d be ours . . . but it was hers . . . or hers and yours now maybe . . . ”
“What are you saying?”
Teddy refilled his glass. The silence that hung between the two men was made even more tedious by the grandfather clock, whose ticking emphasized just how long the pause truly was.
“I don’t like this place.” Teddy’s voice had now assumed the grating whine of the self-pitying drunk. “Don’t like it at all . . . too close to last year’s . . . we should have gone farther away . . . you should have gone farther, too . . . ”
The light returned. Or perhaps this was the emergence of a different light altogether, for its color and its intensity were different. No longer the scarlet orbs, this new light was bluish and painfully bright. It pressed in on the entire front of the house, brightening the foyer like some close, ferocious moon. Jon hurried to the living room’s picture window.
Without, the entire property was awash in the livid shimmer. All shadow had been purged.
This queer new illumination made the figure that was moving down the lane plainly visible. It was human, or had once been, but its form was devious in shape and each shambling step it took toward the house looked painful. The figure’s right arm swung wildly as it moved, yet its left seemed almost fossilized in place. The head was cocked at an impossible angle. Jon hoped that it was merely the wind pressing against the boards, for he could hear the unmistakable sound of moaning.
“What is it?” Teddy had moved up behind Jon and was squinting through the hanging sheers. “ . . . Why . . . ” This was the only word Teddy managed before his breathing was reduced to a series of sharp, frantic gasps. He backed away from the window, moving into the dining 96 / Richard Gavin room where he upset one of the high-backed chairs before crumpling down onto to the carpet. “We didn’t hide well enough . . . he’s found us . . . he’s found . . . ”
Teddy’s voice was muted. What silenced it was the presence that had miraculously managed to go from shambling down the winding lane to standing inside the foyer of the house.
Jon stood in the living room, staring at the apparition. It was the first time he’d ever doubted his mind and all his senses. For even though he was wholly present, his every sense engaged by what was now before him, his rational brain refused to accept it. Like a spoiled child, his reason ranted against the sight of this crooked guest.
The interior of the house had become stilled, as if the hands of time were being held in place by some greater force. Everything seemed to be stretching, crackling with the cold, stifling power of impossibility.
The figure was that of an old man. Jon’s nostrils were impacted by a waxy stench of illness and unwashed skin.
For an instant Jon thought of bursting through the picture window and tearing down the lane. What prevented him from doing this was a genuine uncertainty that he would even find a world out there, at the lane’s end.
The figure advanced to the staircase. It appeared to be using the banister to pull its frame up the steps. When it was halfway up, Jon discovered that the revenant was footless.
By now the bluish glow had faded, leaving the main floor in a terrible darkness. Paige’s face flashed in Jon’s mind, breaking his trance. He took a step forward and was instantly overwhelmed with vertigo. Swallowing back the bile in this throat, he staggered to the stairs.
Teddy was visible in his periphery, huddled like a puppy under the dining room table, his large frame quaking, his sobs sounding like cat mewls.
Jon found himself no better equipped to scale the stairs than the specter had been. Even the idea of touching that banister repulsed him. Instead of using it, he crawled up the carpeted steps before frantically moving down the hall. He turned the handle to their room, tumbled inside, and immediately shut and locked the door.
“Paige!” he hissed, again and again. Her snoring was louder now. Not even his violent shaking of her body managed to rouse Paige from sleep.
The walls here were so very thin, every sound seeped through from the opposite room. Jon sat on the floor beside the bed. He listened helplessly, or, if he was being honest, feebly, to every awful noise that stabbed at his psyche; the thuds, the feminine screams muted by . . . what? A pillow? A foul hand? There was low grunting and creaking springs. The headboard thumped against the wall again and again, in a rhythm that should only ever be made by lovers. One of the room’s hanging pictures was knocked from its hook.
When Jon heard Alicia struggling to call out Teddy’s name, he dragged himself into the bathroom and shut the door. Not daring to switch on the light, or even to breathe too loudly, he crawled into the tub that was still damp from Paige’s luxurious bath.
Jon shifted, his limbs aching. Though he was sure he hadn’t slept, he was groggy nonetheless. He sat up in the tub and, against his better judgment, he strained to listen.
There were noises in the house, but not the kind he was expecting. Through the floor he could hear the chink of dishes and women’s voices. He recognized Paige’s laugh.
He climbed out of the tub and, with held breath, pulled back the door. Clear autumnal sunlight filled the bedroom. His and Paige’s suitcases were sitting atop the made bed.
Stepping into the upper hall, Jon had no trouble avoiding the closed door to Teddy’s and Alicia’s room. He descended the stairs, keeping his hands in his pockets.
Paige was the only guest in the dining room. When she saw Jon in the foyer, her only greeting was a lift of her eyebrows. She bit into a pastry, then reached for her coffee-cup.
The hutch by the mirrored wall was heaped with a variety of cakes and pastries. The silver coffee-urn needed polishing.
Imogene entered through the swinging kitchen door. Her outfit was in such contrast to yesterday’s attire that it took Jon a moment to identify her.
“Good morning,” she said. She was dressed in slacks and an oversized cable-knit sweater that was the color of yellow sugar. Imogene placed another tray of delicacies on the serving table.
Jon pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Imogene was telling me that she’s thinking of only staying open for the summer from now on,” Paige said.
“I’m considering it,” said Imogene. “It would be nice to just let people see the place in full-bloom. I might just close it up once the leaves begin to turn.” She was not wearing any makeup.
The sound of movement drew Jon’s eyes from his hostess to the foyer. Teddy was patiently leading Alicia down the stairs, whispering lovingly to her the entire time. When Jon saw Alicia’s appearance, last night’s potent vertigo once again pressed through him. Her flesh was as bloodless as the revenant’s. Jon couldn’t help but wonder if she was now somehow infected, if she shared in whatever affliction kept creatures like that in their half-life. Her manner was catatonic.
The couple exited the house without a word. Through the picture window Jon watched their jeep driving down the sunlit lane.
Imogene went back into the kitchen, at which time Paige expressed how disappointed she would be if the bed-and-breakfast wasn’t open next fall. She said this could be the beginning of a new Halloween tradition for the two of them.
Jon was unsure which two she meant. He stared at his reflection in the mirrored wall, whose gold veins marred his face like cracks in a fragile mask. This image bored into him, caused his hands to tremble. Halloween’s masquerade was now over and fate, it seemed, was forcing him out of his cherished disguise. The last twenty-four hours, with all their ugly spite, antagonism, and above all cowardice, raced through Jon’s mind. Everything was coming undone. His precious mask was slipping. Jon lowered his head, partly in shame and partly to avoid looking at the marbled glass. He knew it was only a question of time before he’d have to look upon the long-hidden face of his true self.
Originally published in The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories, edited by Stephen Jones.