The Latham’s house, Peck’s Cottage, was a picturesque building set in its own grounds, and standing about a quarter of a mile from the road. With walls studded with knapped flint, and a newly thatched roof, the cottage might have been lifted from any illustrated Suffolk guidebook.
It would have been quicker to have walked through the woods, around the lake, but for Beth that wasn’t an option. She began the arduous procedure of extracting herself from her specially adapted Ford Focus, and got settled into her wheelchair.
Peck’s Cottage was wheelchair friendly, with a slowly graduating ramp covering the front step. Gwen Latham suffered with Multiple Sclerosis. Beth wheeled up to the front door, and reached across to ring the low reach doorbell. It was so unusual for a residential house to have a ramp that she was almost tempted to go back down, so she could come up again.
She heard Gwen’s voice calling out, and it was she who opened the door.
“Beth?” the greeting wasn’t hostile, but neither was it welcoming.
“As we’re neighbors, of a kind, again, I thought I’d pop by.”
“Right, of course. You’d better come in.”
Beth shifted her chair past Gwen’s own.
“Having a bad day with the old MS,” she said, and made a deprecating gesture with her hands in the general direction of the wheelchair.
When they were seated in the sunny conservatory, and Arthur had been dispatched to fetch drinks, Beth said, “I’m seeing a consultant tomorrow.”
“No problems I hope,” Gwen said. Her sympathetic tone of voice didn’t ascend to her eyes, which remained unsmiling.
“Who has problems?” Arthur said, as he appeared, carrying a tray of steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits.
“We all have problems,” Beth said lightly. “I was saying I’m seeing a consultant. But it’s good news. Or at least I hope it might be. I am getting occasional feeling in my legs, and in my lower body as well.”
“That’s great news,” Arthur gushed. “Isn’t it Gwen?”
She nodded. “I’m sure Beth is sensible enough not to get her hopes up, but I’ll pray for you, my dear. I really will.”
Beth had become used to Gwen’s negativity, in all matters. It was one reason why she dreaded bringing up the subject she had come to discuss. She had no choice.
“Obviously I was away for a while,” she began.
“Yes, a nice long honeymoon,” Gwen said, and disapproval oozed from every word.
“There was that of course, and the trip to the States about the book deal on the TV series over there.”
“We were very excited about that, weren’t we Gwen?” Arthur said, and his warmth and enthusiasm were a welcome counterpoint to his wife.
At the mention of her beloved books, Gwen softened a little. She had been star-struck to meet her favorite author when Beth first rented Stillwater. “We can’t wait. We’ve even taken a TV package so we can watch it.”
“I’ll let you know when it airs over here.”
“Drink your tea,” Gwen said.
Beth did as instructed. Then she said, far faster than planned, “Did you see or hear anything about Dolores Franklin while I was away?” The casualness she aimed for was way off the mark.
Gwen concentrated on her mug of coffee. Arthur suddenly found the view from the window intriguing.
“What have I missed?”
When it was obvious his wife was going to remain silent, Arthur leaned across the table, and placed one of his rough hands over Beth’s. “She’s dead, Beth.”
Gwen slammed her mug down, spilling liquid over the table top. “Dead doesn’t begin to describe it does it? She killed herself.”
“Suicide?” Beth was shocked.
“Drowned herself in Stillwater Lake.”
“Like Jessica did.”
“Like mother like daughter.”
Beth put down her own mug. “Only Jessica wasn’t her daughter, was she? Dolores was the stepmother from Hell.”
Arthur blew air out of his mouth in a long sigh. He had seen that look on his wife’s face too many times. Beth knew that. She had seen it before as well.
“What you have to remember about Dolores,” Gwen said. “Was that she truly believed she was a witch.”
“That doesn’t excuse the cruelty towards Jessica.”
“Of course it doesn’t. If Bernard Franklin had been a stronger man he might have stopped it all. As it was, he was as much under her spell as the impressionable young men who fawned at Dolores’s feet. Whether she had any powers is irrelevant. Her strength was not whether she had a witches’ spells, or whatever you’d call it, it was that weak minds believed she did. And that included her. She acted in a way that made it easy for people to recognize that she wasn’t like them. It was a short step, for some, to the adoration she craved.”
“I didn’t read about Dolores in the news. Didn’t it make the media?”
Arthur drank some tea. “You know what small towns are like for their secrets.”
“Especially one like this. You can see the headlines can’t you? ‘Mother and daughter in replica suicide’. Not very savory.” Gwen’s outrage was etched on her features.
Beth pushed herself away from the table. “I’d better get back. I can’t help thinking that beneath it all Jessica was a scared and lonely young woman.”
Gwen blocked her exit with her own wheelchair. “That’s as maybe, but heed this. Jessica was strange when she was alive. Sad and lonely she may have been, but it doesn’t make her any less dangerous now that she’s dead.”
Arthur opened the front door for Beth, and walked with her to her car. As he opened the doors, waiting until Beth was seated behind the steering wheel before stowing the chair in the back, he said, “She means well.”
“I’m sure she thinks she does.”
“Think on this. If what she says about Jessica being a danger is true, and no one knows the truth better than you, Beth. The same applies to Dolores, now that she’s dead.”
Beth didn’t want to go straight home. She was unsettled.
She drove part of the way back, skirting the woods, glimpsing the shining water of the lake through the branches.
She parked the car between some trees, a flattened patch of grass evidence that this was a previously used parking area. Possibly by fishermen, although Beth’s recollections of the lake weren’t of a picturesque place to serenely fish.
She could clearly remember her first sight of Stillwater Lake.
Helped by Miranda, she had made the circuitous half a mile or so trek into the woods, when they came across the small body of water that gave the rented house its name. Stretching five hundred yards across, the small lake was roughly circular, and almost surrounded by rhododendron bushes. The lake was certainly still, Beth thought stagnant a better description. Its surface was covered by a layer of weed, with a few water lilies popping up here and there to break the monotony. A couple of itinerant dragonflies darted backwards and forwards in search of food and, above the water, a thin, wispy mist hung in the air, disturbed only by the flitting of the dragonflies, and the occasional cloud of midges. Across the surface water boatmen, Corixa punctata, struggled to move with any freedom.
Beth heaved herself into her chair, and with a learned dexterity she wheeled through the trees, until she reached the bank.
It was a bright day, the sunshine attempting to break through the leaves to reach the water. Beams hit the surface, but seemed to be swallowed by the grey mist that floated, suspended as a protective barrier, over the water. It was warm, almost humid, and Beth was overdressed in her jacket.
It was as she was slipping her left arm out of the sleeve that she felt the wheelchair begin to slide.
At first she thought it was simply the movement she was making in divesting herself of her jacket. Only when the chair was in motion did she fully appreciate how serious was her predicament. Only as the left wheel raised in the air, and the safety of the ground was lost, did she realize she might be in a lot of trouble.
With one arm caught in the sleeve and neck of the garment, she was powerless as the second wheel, flat on the ground, began to spin.
The grass was damp; the foliage around the edge of the lake was moist. She clutched with her free hand, but the fronds of ferns she managed to grasp slithered away from her fingers. As she reached for a stray branch of an overhanging tree she leaned a little too far. Her hand held a few leaves before they tore away.
The green leaves touched the surface of the slimy water a few seconds before she did.
To an observer it might have seemed to be happening in slow motion. To Beth it was racing car fast.
The chair toppled. Her head hit the water, quickly followed by the metal and soft cushion. She wasn’t strapped in, but her jacket was caught on the arm. She wrenched at it, frantically working with one hand to rip it loose.
Water closed over her, and she struggled to keep her eyes open. The water was dark, the light held at bay by the weeds and mist.
The clothing was soaked now, making it even harder to pull away from the wheelchair.
As she sank lower, she became aware of an overwhelming sense of peace and calm that filled her. If this is what death feels like, she thought, it isn’t too bad.
Then her arm was free. The chair continued its descent, but she was suspended in the motionless water.
The jacket was still attached to her arm, but she quickly dragged it off. Her legs dangled beneath her, useless, waving in the barely swaying movement of the water. If she was going to reach the surface, she would have to make full use of the upper body strength she had developed.
It was then that she sensed what felt like hands clutching at her legs.
She didn’t have the time to wonder why she had feeling below the waist. At the moment it was panic, not logic that was uppermost in her mind.
She wanted to kick out at whatever was plucking at her trousers, but the commands from her brain weren’t being received by her legs. They flapped and fussed like a confused dementia sufferer. Present, but unaware.
The bank was not too far away. She had fallen directly from it into the lake. If she could only make the surface she could lunge at the greenery, even stinging nettles if need be, and pull herself out. The surface was a blank mirror that looked miles away.
The power of her arms was keeping her from being dragged deeper underwater. Whatever was clinging to her was weak, the hold on her transient. Surely it was simply reeds or rushes?
She could hear ringing in her ears. That can only be due to the length she had been in the water, she guessed. It was difficult to rationalize. Panic was her master. She wriggled like a fish at the end of a line. If she didn’t breathe air soon her mouth would open. Her lungs would fill, and she would sink.
Her brain offered up a scream that never materialized. It galvanized her sedentary mind. Instead of swimming upwards, she turned both arms down to the bottom of the lake, bent at the waist, and dived. Her legs were suddenly clear from the embrace. She flattened her body, and struck out hard for the surface.
When she broke through, her body gasped and quivered, shivering uncontrollably.
She was further from the bank than she had thought. Exhausted though she was, she raised first one arm, and then the other in a clumsy swimming stroke, until her fingers touched the clammy mud. So desperate was she to be out of the water that she grabbed whatever leaves and branches she could reach. Inch by inch she tugged. The edges of the bank were shallow. Had they been steep she would never have been able to pull herself out.
She lay on her back, damp earth beneath her, glints of mocking sunshine above.
As she glanced at the lake she saw ripples moving away from her. A slight figure hauled itself from the water at the farthest point of the lake. It was followed by a second. Both had wet, dark hair. They held hands, the two women, and skipped, laughing, into the woods.
Beth sank back and closed her eyes.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t seen your car.”
Beth had feared the worst.
She was exhausted from her struggles to be free of the clinging water. Her legs were flopped beneath her like two dead fish, and her hands were clutching the damp grass as if terrified she was going to be dragged back into the lake.
If she glanced across to the other side once, she did so a dozen times. She had no doubts about the identity of the two women who had run away laughing. Their casual joy was more than spiteful, it was taunting. She had nearly drowned, just like them.
It was this realization, that their deaths had almost been echoed with her own, that sent her body into spasms of shock. When James picked her up in his arms, and carried her back to his car, she was barely conscious. He laid her on the back seat and covered her with a blanket. It was a good twenty minutes before she was still, and her words had any semblance of articulation.
The doctor arrived within minutes of them getting back to the house. He did all the expected checks, and suggested strongly that she be taken to hospital.
Beth was having none of it. “All I need to do is rest.”
“Look,” James began. “If the doctor…”
“No. I’m fine. Honestly.” To the doctor she said, “I promise I’ll make an appointment in a day or so. I just want to stay here.”
Once the doctor had left, Beth lay down on the sofa, and waited for James to make the point that she knew he was going to.
“I’m going to speak with Edward,” James said, as he pressed a large brandy into her hands, and insisted she swallow it quickly.
“No!” It was several seconds before Beth could utter the word, with the brandy burning her throat.
“It’s clearly for the best. We’ve not been here a week yet, and already look at the state of you.”
“I slipped on the side of the lake bank, that’s all.”
“You could have drowned. And that’s not all though is it?”
“I’ll need another wheelchair. I doubt mine will be much use even if we were able to retrieve it.”
James shook his head. He knew the look on her face. Quiet and placid she may be for most of the time, when she set her mind to something, there was no shifting her. She was determined this was to be their home, or at least hers, and there was little he could do to dissuade her. Not that he would stop trying.
“I’ll do dinner tonight. Indian takeaway suit you?”
The community hospital, just outside of town, provided a wheelchair service to those in the area that needed it. Beth called them in the morning, and as luck would have it they had two to choose from. Could she get there by ten? She could.
James wanted to go with her, but she insisted she could manage. Her independence was as fiercely retained as it was difficult to maintain.
“Anyway,” she reminded him. “You’ve had enough time off work, with the honeymoon and American trip. Edward will be looking for a new partner.”
James helped her to the car; that was something she couldn’t easily manage alone. Once in the driving seat she was fine, until she got to her destination.
She hadn’t said anything to him since the honeymoon but there were increased stirrings of sensation in her legs. On more than one occasion she had felt a twinge in her left leg, just above the knee. One time she shifted out of the wheelchair and sat awkwardly on the floor. Once there, she tried in vain to move the leg. Although the leg, both legs in fact, remained resolutely immobile, there were flickers of feeling in each of them. She tried hard to keep hope hidden. The doctors had always said the chances of her regaining the ability to walk were slim. The possibility that this remote chance might just happen was too intense to contemplate.
At the hospital she parked in the nearest free disabled parking spot, still unused to the feeling she didn’t deserve such a privilege. She was expected, and so within a minute or so she was helped from the car into an NHS wheelchair, and taken through to the appropriate area.
As she waited to be seen by the nurse, she realized that another symptom of being in a wheelchair, which she had not considered in her past life, was the looks of sympathy she got from almost every passerby. The “poor thing” nods of supposed understanding might have been well intended, but they only served to rub it in that she had lost what they still had. Losing the use of her legs was the practical result of her accident, but the psychological effects were just as severe.
The nurse who took her through to a small institutional consulting room was all business and efficiency.
Before she closed the door she said, “Does your friend want to come in with you? She can if she likes.”
“Friend? I’m here on my own.”
The nurse seemed concerned. “Sorry. I assumed she was with you as she was holding onto your chair.”
Beth rolled the wheelchair back to the doorway and peered out.
Walking away from the door, towards the hospital exit, was a dark haired woman. Her hair flowed like cascading water down her slim back. Her floral dress billowed out as she walked, clouds around an engulfing sun.
Despite herself, Beth cried out, “Dolores.”
The woman half turned. The face was white, the eyes red rimmed. The smile was mocking.
“She’s not my friend.”
“Right. Let’s get you sorted out then shall we? Now, what happened to your own chair?”
Maynard Sims is the pen name of lifelong friends Len Maynard and Mick Sims, who met in 1964 at the age of eleven, and have been writing together since 1972. Their bibliography includes numerous novels, novellas, screenplays and short stories. They worked as editors on the nine volumes of Darkness Risinganthologies, ran Enigmatic Press in the UK, and continue to edit a variety of projects.
Malignant Ghosts extends the story of their novel Stillwater. Cemetery Dance is proud to offer a new e-book edition of Stillwater, along with several more Maynard Sims novels listed below: