By the time she got home, Beth was exhausted. The new chair was robust enough, but she had become used to her previous one, and this replacement didn’t feel as smooth to maneuver. Consequently her arms ached on her trial run around the hospital corridors. An orderly helped her put it into the car, and waved her off cheerily as she drove out of the car park.
Her eyes darted around constantly. Seeking indication that Dolores was still in attendance. There was no sign.
As she parked the car on the brick paved area in front of the house, Beth noticed the lights were on upstairs. For a second she was immobilized by panic. Then she saw what time it was. James had a couple of people viewing the development — potential new neighbors. He must have come back for a coffee first, or something.
“I’m home,” she called, as she wheeled herself into the hallway.
There was no reply.
Beth began the winding ascent of her specially adapted staircase ramp.
She could hear noises now.
The climb wasn’t as easy in this new, different, wheelchair.
The sounds were louder the higher she went.
“James? Are you okay?”
Still no response.
Then the noises started to get more distinct.
Grunts of a sort.
Not distress as she had feared. This was pleasure.
When she reached the landing she could see the door to her bedroom was open. This was where the sounds emanated. A deep male voice, and with it the counterpoint of an echoing female voice, whispering, willing, evil and encouraging.
In the doorway, Beth took hold of the door handle, and pulled herself partially into the room.
On the bed, flooded with brilliant sunshine from the open windows, was what at first glance seemed to be a single naked figure. Legs tangled in the disturbed duvet, arms wrapped around a pillow, the rippling back moving, as if snakes were burrowed beneath the smooth skin. Then she realized it was not one body, there were two people writhing on the bed, on her bed.
At her shout, his head attempted to turn. It didn’t quite succeed. The taloned arms of the figure beneath him had too firm a grasp.
Beth saw the anguished look on his face as he tried to pull himself upright. She wheeled further into the room, and it was then that she realized the carpet was completely sopping wet. The stench was of stagnant water. Trails of weed dangled from the window sill to the bed, and all around it.
The wheelchair struggled through the sodden carpet, but as soon as she was in reach of them, Beth took hold of a bare leg and pulled.
Muffled cries of anger seeped from the soaking bed covers. The figures wrestled one another, fury now replacing whatever passion had existed before. Beth dragged on the leg she hoped belonged to James, but the woman wrapped around him tugged at his arms, and neck, to hold him close.
At the window a bedraggled figure appeared. Dark hair, dark eyes. If that was Dolores, then who…
“Jessica, let him go!”
Beth felt her grip tighten. She pulled harder, and James scuttled to the end of the bed, cowering as near to her as he could.
On the bed, the nude body of Jessica squirmed as if in the throes of ecstasy. Her pale-skinned, thin torso, was pressed deeply into the covers, as if trying to immerse herself into it.
James fell off the end of the bed at Beth’s feet. He grabbed hold of one of the wheels, and whimpered like a beaten animal.
Silently, Jessica oozed off the bed, and slinked across the drenched carpet to the window. Dolores enveloped her in her bony arms, and they drifted out of the window. As she glanced back into the room, Dolores hissed.
Beth placed a hand on top of James’ head.
“Are you going to tell me you were sleepwalking again?”
He struggled to his feet. His chest was ripped with a dozen or more cuts and tears. Teeth marks pocked his shoulders. There was pondweed in his hair, and his legs were striped with bloodied finger marks.
He fell into her arms and wept.
James was in the bath. He had said very little, appearing dazed, almost as if he had been drugged. Beth was tending to his wounds, which were considerable.
“I wasn’t asleep.”
Beth waited for him to say more, but his head slumped forward, and he continued to stare at the bloodied water.
“Can you remember what happened?”
His back was criss-crossed with red wheals. Tufts of hair had been torn from his head, and there were lacerations to both arms.
“You had a viewing,” Beth prompted.
“I’ve missed them.”
“That’s not important now. I called Edward, he was concerned about you, but he dealt with it.”
“I missed the viewing.”
“You came back to the house.” Beth appreciated she was speaking in a gentle tone of voice, probably more suited to talking to a child, but James was alarmingly unresponsive.
“I needed to change my shirt. That was it.” He sounded triumphant at the memory. “Coffee spilled on it.”
“So you came upstairs for a clean shirt?”
“You weren’t here.”
Beth explained about her visit to the hospital. She couldn’t say for certain that he took it in. His eyes were unfocused. His words slurred. There was no smell of alcohol on his breath, and he hated drugs of any kind, preferring to avoid even innocent painkillers if he could.
“She was waiting for me on the bed. She looked gorgeous… oh, sorry, I mean… she looked like she did when I first met her.”
It must have been some kind of illusion. Jessica in life had been a beautiful young woman. Beth knew she and James had been in a short-lived relationship, and his memory of her might be rooted in that time frame, if his thoughts were muddled, as they seemed to be.
“I’d already taken off my shirt. She knelt up on the bed, and the next thing I knew we were kissing…”
Beth didn’t want to hear the details. She had seen enough when she found them thrashing together on the bed. In ordinary circumstances coming home and finding her new husband making love with another woman on the marital bed would have been sufficient to fire an anger in her that was rarely released. These were far from ordinary circumstances. James was as much a victim here as she had been down at the lake.
When he was dried, and sleeping in bed, Beth went downstairs.
She wanted to look something up on the Internet.
James wasn’t fit enough to go with her, so she traveled alone.
The journey to the hospital in Cambridge was just about the limit of her stamina for driving. An hour and a half along the busy A road was easy enough, but she got tired quite quickly having to concentrate on traffic conditions. Strange, because her endurance when her attention was fixed on her computer screen, writing her books, was all but limitless.
She used the journey to speak on the phone to Edward Falmer about what her Internet searches had suggested to her.
“You’ve been looking into what?”
Beth had anticipated some opposition.
“Either have it drained, or filled in entirely.”
She didn’t know Edward particularly well, but she imagined she could see the expression on his face. A mixture of keen to help, always wanting to please, while at the same time desperate to shout, “no,” very loudly.
“It’s a bit of an eyesore as it is. I don’t believe anyone uses it. We could turn the site into a feature the Stillwater Development residents can all use.”
“I don’t think it’s ours to do with as we want.”
“Surely the land from the original house extends to the woodland and lake?”
“I can check with Bernard Franklin I suppose. Although my solicitor will be quicker. He and the architects who drew up the plans will know the extent of the Land Registry title. See how far our boundaries go.”
Beth was gritting her teeth. Whether from frustration at his objections, or from pent up emotion at recent events, she wasn’t sure.
“If the residents don’t own it, then who would?”
“I’ll have to get it checked. Only take a day or so. It will likely be the Forestry Commission, or the Woodland Trust, some organization like those. Leave it with me.”
After parking at the hospital, sorting out her wheelchair, and checking in at reception, Beth sat patiently for her consultant. It was inevitable they would be late: it seemed to be a general rule of all hospitals, NHS or private, that the patient had limitless hours to waste, and when eventually seen, the appointment would seem to be rushed by comparison.
By the time she was called through to the plush consulting room, she was in an irritable mood. It wasn’t helped by the manner of the well-spoken man seated across the desk from her.
“I have been reviewing your file, Ms. Alvarini.” The voice was intended to convey compassion and professionalism, but to Beth, in her present frame of mind, he sounded like a patronizing golf club bore.
“Well, your records are out of date if that’s the name still on them.”
“My name is Bartlett now. I married recently.”
“Congratulations.” The voice took on a new gloss. It sounded almost genuine. “Apart from that administrative slip-up, your records are full and current.”
“I can feel things,” she blurted out. “Below the waist.”
“Right. I see. Would you like a nurse present?”
“What? Oh, well, are you going to examine me?”
“It seems wise. I can gauge what level of sensation we’re talking about. As you no doubt know, sometimes the mind can play tricks on the body. Amputees feeling pain in the lost limb, that kind of thing.”
“I haven’t lost a limb, just the use of two of them. The spinal damage has put me in this chair, but there was always a chance I could walk again, wasn’t there?” To her horror, she began to cry.
Despite his privileged persona, Giles Conrad was a compassionate man. He had been a consultant neurologist long enough to know that the psychology of injury was just as damaging to the recipient as the actual physical injury. He gently pushed a box of tissues across the desk, stood and called through to the outside office for a nurse to join them.
“I’m so sorry,” Beth said.
“No need,” Conrad said. “This is Emma. She’s going to assist me. Emma can you help Mrs. Bartlett behind the screen. Slip off the shoes and trousers, that’s all.”
When Beth was ready, on the couch and, ridiculous as it seemed to her, holding the hand of the smiling nurse, Conrad pulled back the screen.
“I’m going to start with your feet and move up each leg. Now Emma is with us can I ask what I didn’t earlier. The sensations you have experienced. Have they been in the legs, the feet, or are we talking about sexual?”
Beth looked at Emma, who didn’t seem the least embarrassed.
“They did start during sex. I had… or maybe I imagined I had, an orgasm. At other times, once or twice I definitely, almost certainly, felt a kind of tingling in my groin.”
“Your vulva, vagina? That area of the body?”
“Yes. But more recently my left leg. Below the knee in fact. A definite twinge, like muscle pain, cramps.”
“Righto. Here we go.”
Beth watched as Conrad lifted her left leg in the air, and proceeded to press fingers and thumbs into the flesh. She didn’t feel anything. At first. When he reached the knee she called out, “There. I felt that.”
Beth felt Emma squeeze her hand, which she took to be encouragement.
The examination of the right leg followed.
“I’m going to have a prod on the tummy, upper thighs, and around the groin. If anything is uncomfortable, or you want me to stop, just let me know. Emma, can you come round this side? Thanks.”
His hands were warm on her stomach, and Beth closed her eyes. She was aware of his hands getting lower, over her underwear, pressing the soft flesh at the top of her legs. Wait a minute… “I can feel all of that,” she said excitedly.
“This?” Conrad pressed just above the pubic bone.
“Yes. Any lower and I’ll have to remind you I’m a married woman.”
“Close your eyes. Emma will make sure I behave. Right. Feel this? Tell me where I am touching.”
“My left thigh.”
“The outside of my right leg, quite high up, towards the back of the thigh.”
“Okay, open your eyes. You will see I am smiling. Emma will confirm that is not a regular event. Now with Emma’s help I’m going to roll you onto your side and take a look at the spine, especially around the coccyx area.”
There wasn’t much, if any, sensation from her back. She could see his reflection in a mirror on the wall, so she knew he was moving from her upper back, lower down her spine until he was level with her buttocks.
“You didn’t feel any of that?”
Beth shook her head.
“What about now?”
“Whoa, I felt that. What did you do?”
She was rolled onto her back, and Conrad held a long needle in his hands.
“Very gently, almost medically correctly I would have said, I stuck this little devil into your lower back. You felt it.”
“Too right I…”
“No, I mean you shouldn’t have, given your prognosis, but you did, didn’t you? You felt it?”
When Beth left the hospital, she was smiling.
The smile disintegrated when she arrived home.
All the windows of the house were open. There was water pouring out of each one. It was green, dark and slightly viscous. This wasn’t a burst water tank, or a bath left running.
The front door was ripped from its hinges, and listed drunkenly against the porch. What plants had been neatly arranged in the new flower beds were now uprooted, and discarded, like seaweed on a beach at low tide.
The struggle to get into her wheelchair was even more pronounced, as she fumbled with every aspect of the process in her haste. By the time she reached the front path, the gardens were awash with foul smelling water.
Without being able to get inside, she resorted to calling out as loudly as she could. There was no answer.
She maneuvered round to the side of the house. The windows there were in a similar state as the front. At the back she found the same, except for one difference. The windows to her and James’ bedroom were not merely open, they were smashed, the glass shattered, and the wooden frame splintered. Something had been thrown out forcibly. Thrown or pulled.
She examined the grass underneath the window, sodden as it was. There were deep gouges in the ground. Something, or someone, had been dragged along, and they had resisted. Around the drag marks were several footprints, all of bare feet.
The house was still flooding. It was as if it was spouting water.
Then she heard the noise. It was coming from behind her, in the woods. She knew exactly where from.
There was no choice. She followed the path of the disturbed grass, but she knew where the track led.
By the time she reached the lake it was dimly dusk. There was an eerie silence hanging like a premonition over the still water. What little light remained from the fading day failed to breach the leaves and branches of the overhanging trees. The surface of the lake moved with a swaying motion that resembled breathing. Occasionally something broke through, something larger than any fish, and immediately dived under again.
At the opposite bank were several figures.
Seated on the fallen trunk of a tree was a dark haired woman. She was dressed in a diaphanous cloak that barely contained her nakedness. Standing all around here were young men who seemed to be dancing, trancelike. The noise was the chanting they were repeating. It wasn’t words, at least not ones Beth could understand.
Sitting directly in front of the woman was James. He didn’t look as if he was being restrained. He was gazing up at Dolores Franklin as if bewitched.
“They make a lovely couple don’t they?”
The whispered words came from behind her, but Beth didn’t need to turn around to know who was there.
“Doesn’t it make you jealous, Jessica?”
“Jealous? Of her?”
“The power she wields over them, over any man it seems. Her having what you couldn’t.”
Beth felt the cold touch of menacing fingers on her shoulders.
“She took them all.”
“She took James. She took your father. She’s even taken your death as her own.”
Jessica embraced her.
Beth felt it as a cold electric shock through her body. It was as if she had been enveloped in a frozen blanket, wrapped tightly around her, pressed into her skin. Ice was injected into her veins, flooding her with bleak hopelessness, dulling her senses, stopping her brain.
When the infusion was complete, she pushed down with her arms and leapt from the wheelchair. She was vaguely aware the grassy bank was slippery as she ran, but her legs were their own masters. The cool air brushed her face, but her arms pumped, her legs pounded, and she was amongst the group of people before she was aware of it.
James stared at her as if she was a figment of his imagination.
Beth grabbed his hand, and hauled him to his feet. It was then she noticed he was naked.
She dragged him to the side of the lake.
The water was dark, and stagnant, and very inviting.
Clutching his hand tightly Beth jumped into the bitter embrace of the lake, with James by her side.
As they plunged deeper, she was conscious of the slight wisp of an existence slipping out of her. The bottom of the lake seemed a long way off, and she closed her eyes to help her on her way
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: