Readers, here is a deliciously creepy tale from my ghost story collection, Rest in Fleece: I hope you enjoy it! (Consumer Warning: this one sneaks up on you!)
Mandi (with an “i”) saw the sign first. “Look, Mark!” she exclaimed, jerking his attention from the road ahead and the baseball game on the radio.
“Yes honey?” he responded, his mind still on the Cubs.
“I said, look!” Mandi repeated, pointing ahead at a charming cottage with a For Sale by Owner sign in front. It’s so cuuuute!” she added.
“Mmmmmm,” from Mark.
“Let’s check it out, pleeeeeaze?” Mandi pronounced the word in such a way as to remind Mark of a dentist’s drill set on Dredge. Reluctantly he snapped to.
“Sure, babe.” Mark found this the best method, short of premature deafness, to make the bad sound go away. He pulled over. Mandi popped out of the car with a pen and notepad to copy the phone number (she was utterly compulsive about getting her way. Mark had met Mandi at a fraternity open house in college. He’d been a Sigma Nu. She was an Alpha Zeta (aka Zoo) Delta, a house known mostly for taking the dregs of the Greek system inadmissible elsewhere. She’d not have made it even there except for three things: stunning good looks, an endless allowance, and the difficult-to-swallow but undeniable fact that she was a Leg, or Legacy: her mother had been an Alpha (and had paid for the new dormitory wing), so Mandi would be an Alpha. Those were the rules. Like it or lump it.
Mark recalled that Mandi quite stood out among the other, rather plain girls in her group that day: those with Good Personalities and bad hair or big feet, the one with a sari and red dot, the one with the club foot. That was part of it. Thing was, she’d been prettier than anyone who’d come by, even compared to TriDelts, who were always the most desirable, hottest girls on campus; cheerleaders, homecoming queens. Mandi’s clothes were the epitome of In. She drove a little ice-blue convertible, a Beemer Z4. She was … the whole package.
Unfortunately for Mark, who was not the quickest W.A.S.P. in the nest, his parameters were stuck in the three foot end of the dating pool. Mandi, as it turned out, was a spoiled, nasty girl who was lovely only so long as she got what she wanted. The moment that didn’t happen she became a virago of the first order. Mark and Mandi, though, became the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of campus (without the alcohol or insanity . . . or the talent). Thus, they were mere cardboard cutouts: one-dimensional, soulless yuppies.
To be fair, Mandi had grown used to instant gratification. She had been over-pampered by indulgent, neglectful parents who paid others to handle the Whinge (as they referred to their daughter when others were out of earshot). For Mandi had been endowed with two things: stunning beauty, and hardy vocal chords capable of cutting glass if her desires were not met within twenty seconds or so. Having the money to do so, her parents arranged for Mandi to be brought up by others, who were paid well enough to put up with her demands although some had suffered varying degrees of hearing loss in the process. Always a continent away from Mandi, the parents had developed a zen-like demeanor where she was concerned. Distance, that was the key, they found.
Mandi and Mark had dated, she had been pinned. They became engaged and then were married at the Justice of the Peace (church was out: they didn’t believe in anything, except accessorizing). Now, a year later, Mandy was industriously looking for new digs. The condo had grown stale for her. All her friends were getting houses, so she wanted one. Between her allowance (still endless) and Mark’s salary as an attorney with the established firm Haldeman Erlichmann Dean, the sky was the limit. But Mandi was nothing if not selective. She wanted a house like the one she saw in her strange, recurrent dream: a white cottage with green shutters, dormers, and window boxes, with flowers all over the yard. Imagine her delight when that very house appeared up the street: and with a For Sale sign! Mandi was thrilled! She had no doubt she’d get the house. After all, she wanted it.
After charming the secretary on the other end of the phone, Mandi finagled an appointment for that very afternoon. Yes, Mark would have to give up his round of golf. The house was all that mattered. She found herself obsessed with it. In her imagination she was already Upgrading its interior.
They returned to the house punctually at three, even though Mandi liked to be late because she got more attention that way. She wanted this house, though. They knocked and the door (a quaint one with elaborate carving of … what on earth, Mark? What is that? Mark returned from his mental voyage to the Planet Kolob and glanced at the image. Then he stared at it.
“You know babe, it looks like a, whatchacallit, you know, like the sign, Sagittarius? Right. A satyr. Part man, part horse. A mythical creature. A fine carving but you don’t expect it on a front door.”
“But Mark, I love it,” cries Mandi.
They ring the bell, and the door is duly opened by a woman dressed in green. She is quite lovely, but also sufficiently older than Mark and Mandi that Mandi doesn’t get jealous. Mandi sets out to charm: she has to have this house! She introduces herself and Mark, and the woman replies that she is Daphne, and will be showing them The Nest, as the cottage is called.
“It is bigger than it appears,” she said. “a good 3,200 square feet between the main floor, the second story and the addition in back (which is a family room and an en suite for guests). They followed her as she showed them each room. Mandi was elated. Somehow this house was even better than she’d imagined. Hand scraped hardwoods. Travertine. The kitchen had those cabinets she liked with all the moldings and the birdcage hardware. The bathrooms, all as if just done by HGTV! Mandi was so happy.
The master bedroom was light-filled and even had a window seat! The closets were very big (as they would have to be) and capacious, with plenty of room for Mandi’s clothes (Mark could use the guest closet). Daphne showed them everything. It was if the house had read Mandi’s mind, such as it was: every detail was so exactly to her taste that no rehab would be necessary.
And such an old house, too. How old, she’d asked Daphne, who said she didn’t know but thought probably colonial period. So well-maintained, Daphne added. She’d look it up. The back yard was lovely, a riot of garden flowers and shrubs, with a line of trees at the back fence, like sentries at the border. Mark wondered what lay beyond that. Daphne said just more woods, and that behind them lay BLM land, no one could build on it.
Mark, attorney that he was, tried to play the devil’s advocate: nothing was this good, his law school training told him. So, how’s the wiring, the plumbing? And the foundation? Daphne assured him that all was in excellent repair but that there would be an inspection and in the event anything cropped up, he could be assured it would be repaired to the highest standard, at the owner’s expense. He would be happy to do it, she added. Let us sleep on it, the couple said, home buyer code for we want it but don’t wish to appear eager.
The following afternoon, the paperwork was faxed to Mark’s office, where he and Colson, the energetic contract law specialist, and Segretti, the real estate guy, sat down together. Not so much as a period was out of place. Nothing was wrong or unacceptable about the deed, the terms, anything. Even the price seemed remarkably fair, for that part of town. Mark’s colleagues congratulated him, he’d got himself a gem! Reassured, Mark and Mandi signed everything and returned it promptly. Daphne called them the next day to say the inspection had turned up no problems, and that if all went well, they could expect to move in as soon as the bank cleared the check. Which, as it turned out, was the following week.
It began when Mandi went out to the garden one day. She brought shears to cut some flowers for her new Lalique vase. The stems, though, were surprisingly tough. They would not be trimmed. She went back to the house for a sharp kitchen knife, which still didn’t so much as dent in the sinewy stems. However, it unexpectedly bounced back and sliced Mandi’s soft, I Don’t Work hand. Blood spilled into the garden. Mandi trotted back to the house for bandages and antiseptic. Shaking her head, she could not verbalize the feeling she had whenever something had resisted her: frustration. Anger? A little, maybe.
Mark came back from PJ’s, the gourmet grocery, with some steaks and fresh organic corn on the cob and tossed salad for dinner, along with a fresh baguette so good it could have come from France. There was a remarkably good built-in barbeque grill out back. He changed clothes and began to prepare dinner. They could sit here, and look out at this yard. He congratulated himself. Mandi had been right about this place.
As Mark grilled, Mandi brought out napkins, tableware and dishes. She poured a nice red into the unbreakable but pretty picnic wine goblets she’d got at Neiman Marcus. They enjoyed the late afternoon. Mark said that, if anything, the garden seemed even more beautiful. Mandi held up her bandaged hand and shared about her wound, and how hard it had been to harvest the flowers. Mark, thinking gee, she’s got to start working out, said he’d look into it later. But they finished their steaks and wine and cleared the table and went inside to watch their room size flat screen tv. Later came and then went.
That night Mandi awoke around three a.m. She usually slept quite soundly, so this in itself was out of the ordinary. She sat up to drink some water from the bedside carafe when she saw some motion out of the corner of her eye. Looking up, there was the light of a full moon filtering through her plantation shutters. Had a bird flown by?
She pulled the shutters open and saw, beneath her, in the back garden, any number of sprites, fairies, creatures: all small, all clad in very brightly colored, jewel-toned garb, dancing and playing. She heard nothing. It was completely silent. But the tiny beings continued to romp. She went to get Mark but for once thought it best to let him sleep. Perhaps it was the wine? She looked back out once again, but all was normal. The way she liked it.
She returned to bed and slept in. This made her later than ever for her mani-pedi spa day and her lunch with her sorority sisters. Later, they shopped. Mandi, who needed nothing, still bought a few things (silk blouses, shoes) because they were on sale. She came home laden with shopping bags from the better places, full of better things. Things were all Mandi had come to know as reward in her short but shallow life.
It was so pretty in the garden that Mandi let slip yesterday’s episode and out she went. She brought a book and her portable radio and crossword puzzles. Mandi didn’t like to be outside with nothing to do. She was relaxing, focused on 8 across, when she felt a sharp sting on her leg. Startled, she saw bite marks on her calf about the size of a small dog’s mouth. She neither saw nor heard anything else. But the garden, it seemed to her, was filling out nicely.
That weekend, Mark went out back to inspect his property. Lord of the manor, he chuckled. He wandered past the garden (so lush!) and its roses as big as cantaloupes, rich purple irises, lilacs, peonies in pink and white, hydrangeas in all shades, with lobelia and alyssum clumped round the borders. Even Mark, not usually moved by anything in nature except a great lie on the 9th hole, was awash in the natural richness of it all.
Now he had come to the trees at the border of his land. They were pretty but quite dense. And tall! Italian cypress they were (he’d looked them up). They cast a long shadow. Mark tried to see what was beyond them but was unable to find a break in the foliage; and it was, come to think of it, pretty scratchy. Look, his arm was full of faint scrape lines as if someone with a tiny hand had gently scraped him with sharp nails. But the skin was not broken. Curious, although feeling the creep of afternoon lassitude, he tried again.
This time a few low branches gave way. Mark found himself gazing at a mysterious scene indeed. There was a small clearing with a golden sundial in the middle. The shadow was hovering round 1:30 pm. There were some bags of fertilizer sitting on the ground and some garden tools. A little spring of water burbled up and around the sundial. Iridescent, quick little fish sparkled their way through it, a gentle splashing sound now and again. There were birds, too. Bright red cardinals. Goldfinches. Bluebirds. Robins. Finches. So colorful. Soft, cheeping sounds could be heard as they pecked at suet and seeds, left for them in a pretty, hand-carved feeder with several perches. They looked plump, these birds.
Mark felt awed. He slipped quietly back to his own yard, respectfully pulling the loose branches back into place. It was almost a religious experience for this unimaginative fellow. Something had touched his heart. He felt renewed. Walking by the garden, he thought to pluck a rose. It almost fell into his hand. He wondered why Mandi had had so much difficulty, the other day. He looked back for one more glimpse of the garden as he headed back the house. It seemed to Mark that it smiled.
Mandi got up Sunday (for brunch at the Ritz, not church). She made espresso. She somehow didn’t want to leave her house. It was so nice here. It was getting hard to go. Anyplace. It felt as if she had finally found her true home after many years of emotionally just camping out. She ran her hand along the slab granite counter. She could not have picked a nicer piece of stone herself. Perfect. She sat in the leather wing chair in the family room. It embraced her. But what a nice day. Perhaps this morning she might try for a little tan before she had to get ready. Her white dress would look so much better if she was less pale.
She sat outside in her chaise longue with coffee, a cross stitch pattern, and an iPad so she could surf the web for sorority news, decorating tips, and of course closet design. She was feeling ever so relaxed when suddenly she felt a heavy, wet splat, right on top of her perfectly cut hair. She looked up and above her was a large, nay, obese bird. It was surely the biggest Canadian goose she’d ever seen. It had to weigh thirty pounds at least. (Actually, it was a bluebird. While not thirty pounds, it was unusually heavy at nine and a half. Having unloaded, it flew off towards the woods behind the Italian cypresses.
“BLM my ass,” Mandi thought. They had so many damn protected species. No wonder the bears and reptiles and poison ivy were taking back the land. Why, Mandi read the other day about a man swallowed whole by a python, out in Alabama someplace. And her sorority sister, Tish, had been attacked by a shark while diving off the coast. Fortunately Tish had her mini poison dart pistol and that settled that fast. But, still, a close call. Things in nature, Mandi thought, could be getting out of hand. Speaking of which, the garden really needed to be cut back. She would call Danilo and Joey.
Mandi washed her hair in the bathroom sink. Why was this gunk not rinsing out? Her hair was glued together in globs of a sticky, tar-like substance. It had the faintest odor of sulfur, like a whiff of Yellowstone. She shampooed again. Toweling dry, she looked in the mirror: and screamed.
Her damaged tresses fell out in thick clumps. She was left with a shaggy, rough-looking pixie style, her roots now vividly obvious. Even worse: something had happened to her head. Her scalp was now leprous with open, oozing sores. But Mandi wasn’t one to give up. She threw a De La Renta silk scarf over it all, made an appointment to see the doctor, and drove to the clinic.
“I have no idea what this is,” she said to the physician, whose name tag revealed to be Dr. Herne.
“Sit down, Miss, we’ll have a look,” he replied in a Dubliner accent. He removed the scarf and held a lighted magnifier over Mandi’s scalp. He applied some salve from a tube, which he gave her to take home. “Re-apply every four hours,” he said. “It should clear up by tomorrow. Spend some time outdoors, the fresh air will speed the healing process.”
Mandi thanked him and, feeling a bit faint, returned to the house. She had been brought up to take health professionals at their word: a white coat was a white coat. She took a book and an iced tea out to the back yard. As she sat, it occurred to her that the garden seemed absolutely tumultuous. It spilled in a disorderly way over the lawn and pushed itself towards the house, and over the fences to the side. The flowers were riotous in color and variety. It all looked quite unruly. This kind of disorder made her ill at ease: it was out control. What enormous roses, thought Mandi, with a sense of foreboding. But she took off her scarf and sat with her head in the sun. She nodded off to sleep, in the warmth of the afternoon.
She dreamed that Daphne and Dr. Herne, wearing masks and fancy dress, were dancing together. Around them were the same creatures she’d seen in the night that time. A nature-fest. There was a sundial and a little spring and she could see Italian cypress in the distance. Then she felt something around her ankles. What? Vines? But they were moving, weaving around into themselves, meshing her in grounded place. She tried to run but the vines held fast. Up they crept, wrapping her legs, then her torso. Soon she was shrouded in them.
Mark came home and couldn’t find Mandi, although he saw the receipt from the clinic on the counter, and on Mandi’s calendar, a note: see Dr. Herne, 10:00 a.m.
What on earth? He called, but no one answered. In the yard, he found a novel and some weak tea, the ice long since melted.
The police were called, and after the requisite time, a missing persons report was duly filed. No one had seen Mandi that day, outside of the doctor’s office. So, later on, a couple of detectives stopped by.
“Hello,” they greeted the receptionist. “We’re on a missing persons case and hoped to speak with Dr. Herne, who saw Mandi Amherst Tuesday?” The woman at the desk, puzzled, replied
“But we have no Dr. Herne here. Are you sure it was this office?” They showed her the tube of ointment and the receipt.
“Well, that’s strange. We’re not open Tuesdays.” The police departed, as puzzled as the receptionist, whom they felt sure was being truthful. They’d looked on the wall and saw there was no Dr. Herne listed as staff.
Mark came home from the office. While he missed Mandi, he was relieved of the constant demands, whining, and disruption which always accompanied her presence. It was only in her absence that this became clear to him. After a busy week, with no clues unearthed as to her whereabouts, he assumed she had left him for a bigger, more ambitious fish. Women of her type were known to do that kind of thing. As time went on, he felt a sense of peace that had eluded him, well, since he’d met Mandi.
He went out back and was amazed at the luxuriance of his well-manicured garden (Mandi must have called Danilo and Joey, everything looked perfectly trimmed, yet still lush and full). He walked through to pick a few flowers, which almost fell into his hand, as if they existed solely for his pleasure.
Behind the cypresses, by the sundial, the little fish sparkled like diamonds in the spring. The water rushed, sapphire blue in the shade; the grass, a deep emerald green. And here was a new bush, quite full, with vines and white blooms. Daphne and Dr. Herne were there, among any number of sprites, fairies, creatures: all small, all very brightly colored, jewel-toned, dancing and playing in the afternoon sun.