Free Room. The words stared back at me. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and ran my hand over the page. The words remained. Free Room.
The July evening was hot and humid, causing the edges of the newspaper I held in my hand to droop. There was no breeze and my eyes were heavy as the sun began to set, slowly drifting away behind the trees in the distance. I had finally gotten around to the seemingly endless house search when I stumbled across the unbelievable ad in the paper. Free Room.
It couldn’t possibly be true, but the words were there, right in front of me. Free Room. There was a number listed below to call with interest next to the name Marjorie Jones. Thinking that it was likely an older woman who was living alone, I decided to call the next day. Maybe she wanted someone to do yard work instead of paying rent. Yes, I thought, that makes sense. Completely normal.
Three weeks later my car sputtered to a stop in front of a small, old, brick house on the outskirts of town. It was only about a ten-minute drive from the grocery store and fifteen from the camera store I had secured a job at. Four years studying light and angles and I was selling cheap plastic cameras to tourists. It was far from what I wanted to do, but it left plenty of time for my real passion.
As I got out of my small grey car I looked at my surroundings. The house was small, made of red brick with a deep green door with a gold handle and lion head knocker. From the chimney, smoke rose to the blue sky through the clearing in the trees. The house was surrounded by woods, mostly pine and oak trees that were still green with summer life. There were two wooden rocking chairs on a small porch with a white rail. White sheer curtains fell over all the windows visible from the front of the house. It was at that moment that I saw something move in the first-floor window to the right.
A grey-haired woman peered passed the curtain, her eyes fixed on me. She didn’t smile and had not seemed to notice that I had seen her. She simply tilted her head and squinted a bit, as if she was evaluating me. It was a bit odd, but she had seemed nice enough what I had spoken to her on the phone. She explained that she was widowed and that her son had recently passed away, leaving her alone but well off. She didn’t have to worry about finances, but was very lonely and wanted someone who would liven up the house. Her story was so sad that I had immediately pushed off any of my concerns and agreed immediately, even though my sister told me it was a bad idea. The room was free. How could I have said no?
Marjorie came to the door and peaked her head out. Her grey hair was pulled into a bun atop her head and she was a few inches shorter than me, about five foot three. She wore large, black rimmed glassed and a peach colored dress with a grey sweater. For an older woman, she had few wrinkles. I made a note to ask her what moisturizer she used.
“Hello,” she said kindly, “You must be Kera! It’s so wonderful to meet you.” She carefully descended the porch steps and made her way over to me.
“That would be me,” I said, fumbling with my duffle bag as I tried to get it out of the car. I hadn’t brought a lot, but what I had packed was almost all in one gigantic duffle. I’m not really sure how I got it in the car in the first place, because getting it out was proving to be quite a challenge.
“Can I help you with that?” Marjorie asked, pushing her glasses up on her nose.
“No,” I said, getting the bag free with one big tug, nearly toppling to the ground, “I’ve got it.”
“Is that all?” she asked, peering into my car.
“I just have my camera supplies in the trunk. You said there was a room I could use to develop?” I asked. The free room and opportunity to help an older woman was enough reason to take the offer, but the real clincher had been that she had a finished basement that she rarely went in because of her bad hip that I was able to use as a dark room. I couldn’t think of a better deal.
“I do. I can show it to you after you see your room. Then I have dinner ready for you.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to make me dinner,” I said, “but thank you so much.”
“No, it’s my pleasure. It’s been so long since I’ve cooked for more than just myself.” She looked off into the distance as if she was recalling a happier time and mourning its loss. I couldn’t imagine her pain; both her husband and son dying. I made it my personal mission to help the poor woman as much as I could.
She showed me to my room, a small but comfortable room facing the backyard. The walls were painted a sky blue and a few framed Monet’s hung on the walls. There was a twin bed, bookcase, and desk, all ready for my use. She had even set up the bathroom in the hall for me, saying that she mostly used the master bath, so this would be all for me. Next, she showed me to a basement with a small couch, a chair, a TV, and a few gaming systems. The cabinet in the corner was filled with games and movies that Marjorie explained were her son’s. I was free to use them if I liked. There was also a small kitchenette that Marjorie said her son had mainly used to make popcorn that I could have free reign of. There was a room adjoined to the main area that she had cleared out for me. It was probably used as a walk-in closet before, but gave me bad memories of college dorm rooms. This room, however, was void of furniture and had nothing but a few shelves. It would work perfectly as a dark room.
After I had gotten settled I met Marjorie in the kitchen for dinner. She had gone all out and made soup, salad, ham, potatoes, and even pie for desert. I doubted I could eat it all. By the time we finished I was stuffed to the brim. “Now I understand what Hansel and Gretel felt like,” I said laughing, “I’m stuffed. That was delicious.”
“Thank you, my dear. I’m so glad you liked it,” Marjorie smiled, “How is your room?”
“It’s perfect,” I said, “though I can’t find my top sheet. I could have sworn I packed it.”
“Don’t worry about that. I have some extras in the attic. You can go up and grab one. I would get it for you, but my hips are already unhappy about that trip into the basement.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem. Thank you so much,” I said, taking my plate to the sink.
“Not a problem, dear.” She paused for a moment. “There is one thing. The room next to yours was my son’s. I want to keep it as it was, so if you wouldn’t mind not going in there…”
“Of course,” I nodded, “I totally understand.” I made a mental note to not accidentally mix it up with the bathroom.
The attic was dusty but spacious. It spanned the entire house and, even though the floorboards creaked, I could stand to my full height in the center of the room. It was lined with old chests and boxes that I had a strong urge to go through. I loved old things, but the sun was setting and the small attic light gave little light in addition to the dim light that came through the window. I wished that I had brought my camera and promised myself that I would come back up. This would be a great place to get some photos if I could get the light to hit the dust just right. The trunk and old birdcage might make an interesting focal point.
I reminded myself that my task was sheets, not photography, and went back to looking for them. She had said it was in a black trunk, but it seemed like there were at least six black trunks. I couldn’t help but wonder when the last time anyone had been up here was.
I coughed as I wiped the dust off the first trunk. Inside was what looked like a wedding dress. It was long sleeved with beads all along the neckline and a skirt that trailed off into a very long train. Marjorie must have looked beautiful in it when she was younger. I wondered if she had any pictures.
I closed the chest and moved to the next one, which was filled with old baby clothes, neatly folded and organized. Amidst the “It’s a boy” onesies and tiny bowties there were also newborn sized dresses. I didn’t know that she had a daughter as well. I wondered why she hadn’t mentioned her, but it wasn’t really my place to ask. She didn’t have to tell me everything, especially when I had just met her.
The third box was smaller and more grey than black, but I decided to check it anyway. To my surprise it was filled with undeveloped film. I picked one of them up. I had the supplies to develop them. Well, I thought, what a wonderful surprise that would be for my host. Maybe they were pictures of her family. There were about twenty in the box, leaving it mostly empty except for a very old but very nice camera. I spent a few minutes looking at it before the descending darkness made me move along. I grabbed five of the rolls and decided to start my project with them. I hoped that Marjorie would like it.
I found the sheets in the next box and made my way downstairs. I started work in the morning and wanted to get a good night's sleep before my first day, even if it was just selling cameras instead of using them. Marjorie was nowhere to be seen, so I went to my room and settled in for the night.
The room was cool and I slept fairly well, though I woke a few times in the night and saw the curtains moving despite the fact that the window was closed. It must be drafty, I told myself in the morning. I would have to see what I could do about that before winter came.
My first few weeks went by fast. Working and getting settled in a new town took up a surprising amount of time, so much so that it was almost a month before I got to start my project for Marjorie. She had been a wonderful host, so I was quite excited when I had an open Saturday to get to work. I headed down into the basement around nine in the morning, telling Marjorie that I was going to be in the dark room and would appreciate it if I wasn’t disturbed. She agreed to leave me to my work and I was off.
By that afternoon I had developed all five rolls and the negatives were ready to print. The smell of the chemicals, though I suppose most people would have been bothered by them, was pleasant to me. It had been so long since I had done any of my own developing and I had missed it greatly. It was even better since I was working with old photos.
From what I could make out, the negatives appeared to be of a baby. Photos of her son as a child, I thought, excited at the prospect. I decided to get the rest before I began to print so I could give them to her all at once.
I stored the negatives and packed up shop for the day, well past ready for whatever Marjorie had made for lunch.
That night, after I heard Marjorie go to bed, I slipped into the dark hall with a flashlight. I silently made my way to the end of the hall where the attic door was and pulled the staircase down. I hurried up the steps and closed it behind me, just in case Marjorie woke up. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
Flicking my flashlight on, I easily found the box, only now there were sixteen rolls, when I was fairly certain I had left only fifteen. I shrugged, figuring that I had probably just miscounted. After all, they looked rather old. It was unlikely Marjorie had been up here anyway, with her hip problems and such. I slipped them into the bag I had brought and headed back to the door.
I stopped when I heard a sound in the hall. Perhaps Marjorie had gotten up for a glass of water. I peeked through a crack between the door and the floor and saw Marjorie walking down the hall toward my room. For a moment, I feared that she was going to my room and would see I wasn’t there, but she turned and opened the door to her son’s room. It swung shut behind her and I let out a sigh. I wasn’t caught yet.
As quietly as I could, I let down the door and rushed to my room, for some reason feeling a sense of urgency, the cause of which I couldn’t place. I slipped the bag of film rolls into my camera bag and slid under the covers.
I laid there awake for at least another half hour before I heard feet shift across the wooden hall floor. Rather than going away, they came closer and closer until I heard my door creek open. My eyes shot open and I was glad that my back was to the door.
Amid the silence of the night, a voice softly spoke. “Katie, James, Lily, William, Isaac… Katie, James, Lily, William, Isaac… Katie, James, Lily, William, Isaac…” Marjorie repeated the names time and time again. Over and over the same five names. I could hear the floor boards creek as the rocked back and forth on her feet. I didn’t move.
“Gone,” Marjorie suddenly changed her monologue, “All of them gone. Good babies, my good babies.” I heard her sniffle. “I loved you, sweet ones. Sweet, sweet, gone. All gone.” As she spoke the footsteps receded. I could hear her speaking as she reentered the hall, but I could no longer make out the words. Her sadness remained in the air like a thick fog.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, my mind rushing with what had happened. Why had Marjorie been up and in her son’s room? Why had she come into my room and started listing names? And what were those names? What babies were gone? Had she lost other children? My heart was heavy for the woman and whatever loss she had suffered. I wished that I could help, but had no idea where to begin.
A few weeks later, as I sat with Marjorie at dinner, I finally got up the courage to ask her about her son. I had been curious since before the incident, but now I wanted to know what had happened, what was so terrible that she visited his room in the middle of the night. Perhaps if I knew, I could help her.
“So, I’ve been wondering… I mean, I don’t know when it is, but I was curious if you would want to go to the cemetery on your son’s birthday.” It was the best way of finding out that I could think of. “My mom, dad, sister, and I always go for my grandparent’s birthdays and that’s coming up, so it made me wonder if that was something you might want to do. I offered to go so you wouldn’t, you know, be alone.” I fumbled over my words a bit, awkwardly ringing my hands, afraid she might be onto me.
Marjorie looked at me for a moment, not responding. “Oh,” she finally said, “That’s very sweet of you, dear, but I think not.”
I took a deep breath. “Why not? If you don’t mind my asking.” I threw the last line as an afterthought.
“It would just be too difficult.” It wasn’t too difficult to visit his room in the middle of the night. For some reason, something seemed off. I wanted to believe that everything was as it should be, but I had the strangest feeling that something was altogether wrong. Lecia, my older sister, had always been better than me at the whole instinctual feeling thing. She would tell the end of movies at the beginning, claiming that she “just knew”. I, on the other hand, had to put the pieces together one by one. At that moment, I felt like I had a puzzle with only half the pieces and no way to find the other ones.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m sorry to bring it up.”
“Oh, no worries, my dear. No worries.”
Later that evening I decided to go for a walk and give my sister a call. Perhaps she would know what to do. The phone rang a few times before she answered it.
“Hey, Ker’,” she said, her voice in a whisper.
“Hi Lecia,” I greeted, also in a whisper. “Why are we whispering?”
“I just got Annora to sleep,” she said with a yawn, “she’s been crying for an hour.”
I smiled. My little niece was nearly three months old now and was something of a pistol. “How is my little Nora?” I asked.
“She’s good. Driving me crazy, though.” We spoke for a few minutes about Annora and how Lecia was hoping to go back to work soon, glad for the intrigue of detective work even though she hated to leave her baby.
“So, I have a question for you,” I said. I told her of all the odd things that had happened since I had been living with Marjorie: the things I found in the attic, the forbidden room, the photo project trip to the attic, the extra roll of film, Marjorie’s late-night sojourn into her son’s room and then mine, the list of names, the refusal to see her son’s grave.
“Kera, that is really weird,” she said. “I don’t like this. I didn’t like it to start with, remember?” She paused for a moment. “Call me when you develop those pictures. They’re important.”
“Why?” I asked, impatient for an answer.
“I just know, Ker’. And see if you can find out what’s in that room.”
“But she told me not to go in there,” I protested.
“I know. That’s why you should.”
“You think something bad is happening, don’t you?” I said, recognizing the tone in her voice.
She sighed. “Nothing good is happening. Of that I’m certain. I don’t want to say anything else right now, Kera, but please be careful. And pray that I’m wrong. Please let me be wrong.”
“Lecia, you’re scaring me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Kera, I shouldn’t ask you to do that. I should tell you to leave now, but I’m afraid that would be too suspicious.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, beginning to feel very afraid for the first time. “What is happening?”
“Kera,” my sister said sternly, “I want you to go inside and pretend nothing is wrong. Do not let her know that you suspect anything is wrong. Okay?” I nodded, forgetting she couldn’t see me through the phone. “Kera?”
“Oh, yes. Okay, I’ll do that, but why?”
She ignored my question. Typical older sister. “Develop those photos as soon as possible, but don’t let her know, whatever you do. Tell me what they are and let me know if you see the son’s room or if anything else happens. But whatever you do, do not let her see you and do not let her know you think something is wrong.”
“But what is wrong, Lecia?” I asked, dying to know what she thought was happening.
I heard her take a deep breath. “I have a really bad feeling and a worse theory. I don’t want to tell you yet. It could put you in danger.”
“I’m in danger?” My voice was panicked and a bit louder than normal.
“Shhh,” she warned. “You might be. Just be careful, Kera. I’ll call you as soon as
I have the information I need. If you have a chance to leave without it being weird, do it.”
“The next time I am supposed to go out is on Monday for work. It’s Thursday…”
“It’s just a weekend,” she said, “You’ll be fine.” I didn’t believe her. “What was the woman’s name, again?”
“Marjorie Jones,” I said, the tears in my eyes threatening to spill over. I heard a pencil scratch on paper.
“Okay,” Lecia said. I heard a voice in the background and she said a few words. “Kera, please, please, please be careful. Delete the record of this phone call and any messages from me from now on. Don’t let her see you contact anyone. But please keep in touch with me. Okay?” I nodded again. “Are you nodding, Kera?”
“Sorry,” I said softly.
She laughed a bit, though it sounded pained. “You always do that.”
“Yeah… I do.”
“You should go, Kera. Be safe. I love you, little sister.”
I didn’t want to put the phone down, but I knew she was right. I had been gone a long time. “I love you, too. Give Nora a hug for me?”
“You’ve got it. Oh, and Arthur says hello.”
I smiled. “Hi to him, too.” Neither of us spoke for a moment.
“Okay,” Lecia said, “I’m going to hang up now. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Yeah. Soon,” I said. Click.
It took me all day Friday to finish developing the negatives. Luckily, Marjorie was used to me spending a lot of time in the darkroom, so I doubted that she suspected anything. A lot of the pictures looked like babies, though one was clearly a woman in a wedding dress. They were hard to make out with my tired eyes, so I put them down and decided to go to bed and wait to make the prints the next day. I would be just fine, I told myself, trying not to let my sister’s words scare me. It could put you in danger.
Part of me refused to believe it. Marjorie had been nothing but nice to me. How could anything possibly be wrong here? She was just a sad old woman. But my gut, and my sister, told me differently. I had known both of them a lot longer than I had known Marjorie, and though I wanted to believe she was just a kind old woman who I could help, I needed to know what was going on.
As I reached the top of the steps I saw Marjorie heading into her bedroom. I hadn’t seen her since dinner, but it wasn’t unlike her to be awake and about at that time of night. The door closed behind her and I heard the water start running in the master bathroom.
I turned and looked down the hall. My door stood at the end, but that wasn’t what I was looking at. If there was ever a time to see her son’s room, it was while she was in the shower. I waited a few minutes to ensure that she wouldn’t return to the hall for a towel or something, but when nothing happened, I moved toward the door.
My heart was beating a hundred miles a minute and my hands shook uncontrollably. The doorknob was cold under my hand as I slowly opened the door, looking around me to be sure that Marjorie wasn’t suddenly behind me.
The room was dark, lit only by the light coming from the window. The soft moonlight fell over the room, giving it an eerie feel. I held my breath. A small white cradle sat in the center of the room next to a matching rocking chair. A pale green shawl was thrown over the back of the chair and baby blue blankets sat folded in the cradle, matching the color of the walls. Stuffed animals, toys, and baby books lined the wall, but they all looked untouched, put away perfectly.
Her son was only a baby. The thought came into my head suddenly. How long ago had he died? Why was the room still like this? I pictured much younger Marjorie sitting in the rocking chair holding a small bundle. I pictured her now, repeating the five names over and over. Why five? Had they been her top five options to name her child? Or had there been more than one child?
I heard the water stop in the other room. I quickly stepped into the hall and closed the door behind me, then pulled the door to my room open and stumbled in. I leaned back against the door, my heartbeat finally slowing down. Why hadn’t Marjorie wanted me to see that?
When I woke up the next day, my head was pounding. The world spun as I sat up and my stomach threatened to evacuate its contents. I slowly stood and made my way to the kitchen, wanting to get myself a glass of water for my sore throat. I had chosen the worst time to get sick.
Marjorie was sipping on a cup of coffee when I walked into the kitchen. “Oh dear,” she said, “I beg your pardon, but you look terrible.”
“S’okay…” I said, reaching for a glass.
“No, dear. You let me get that. You’re sick.” She stood up and grabbed a glass from the drying rack, filling it with water and adding a few ice cubes from the tray in the freezer. “Here.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip. I swayed on my feet.
“Why don’t you go sit on the couch. I’ll get you some medicine.” I was headed toward the living room when I suddenly got the idea that taking medicine from Marjorie might be a bad idea. Who would know what it really was? I hated suspecting her like that, but Lecia had really scared me.
“No, I don’t need medicine. Really,” I said.
“Sure, you do,” Marjorie insisted, taking a bottle off the shelf and pouring some. She left it for a moment to escort me to the couch. “Sit down, child. Here,” she pulled a blanket over me. “Just rest. I’ll take care of you, sweetheart.” She went back to the kitchen to prepare whatever it was she wanted to give me. My mind ran a thousand directions at once but my thoughts were scattered. No medicine. Photos. Rocking chair. My head. Water.
I took a sip of the cold water, letting it soothe my throat. I needed to get down to the darkroom to print those photos. I only had two days and Marjorie wasn’t going to let me out of her sight since I was sick. I had no idea how to make her leave, but then I had a thought.
“Marjorie,” I called. She rushed in, bringing the liquid medicine with her. “There’s this one cough syrup that I always use when I’m sick. It’s the only one that works for me. But they only sell it at the pharmacy a few towns over. I hate to ask, but –”
She cut me off. “Of course, I can go get it,” she said. “Anything to help you feel better. What is it called?” She set the other medicine on the table and I wrote the name of the store and the medication down. While it wasn’t true that the medicine was the only one that worked, I knew that it was only sold at that specific store and I hoped that it would get Marjorie out of the house for a short while.
I watched from the couch as she drove away and got up from the couch. She had taken my car, as she didn’t have one, so there would be no convenient escape for me. I stumbled down the steps but somehow managed to make it to the bottom unscathed. The normally pleasant smell of the darkroom chemicals made my stomach churn but I pressed on anyway. It usually took a while to print, but since I had everything ready from the day before, I was able to get started right away.
I watched as picture after picture appeared on the photo paper. To save time I only did one or two from each roll. A woman in a wedding dress, with mahogany brown hair and smiling eyes. The woman dancing. A man with the same woman, holding a just married sign. The two smiling, standing in front of a small house; the woman was pregnant. The same woman, who I could tell was Marjorie, holding a baby boy. A picture of a baby wrapped in a small pink blanket. A baby different from the first two, crying hysterically. Marjorie holding a small bundle, tears falling from her eyes. The man from the wedding photo smiling with a baby boy, who looked different from all the others. A picture of the man, looking away from the camera, with a tear sliding down his cheek. The man lying in a bed, eyes closed, asleep. A young man, about twenty, reading a book. A girl about my age sipping a cup of tea. The same man who was reading the book, asleep on a couch. Then the girl in the same position.
I nearly dropped the next photo. It was of me. I stood with my back to the house, headed into the woods with my camera in my hand.
The babies. Five of them. Five names. The baby clothes in the attic. It came together like a picture developing on paper. Marjorie hadn’t had a son – she had had three, and two daughters.
I checked a few more photos. None of the babies passed a few weeks old. Where were the other pictures? Had something happened to the kids? And who were the boy and girl?
I coughed, making my head pound. I opened the door to the dark room and stumbled into the kitchenette, inhaling the clear, uncontaminated air. I opened my phone as I slowly climbed the carpeted steps, hoping that Marjorie wasn’t yet home and that my sister would answer.
“Kera?” Lecia’s voice was concerned.
“I did it. I saw the pictures.” I told her what I had seen, pausing multiple times to cough and sitting on the top step, which was in view of the door.
“Kera, are you okay? You sound sick,” Lecia said after one of my fits.
“I was fine yesterday,” I said, “but I feel terrible now. I keep coughing,” I paused to cough, taking a moment to catch my breath, “I feel like I’m going to be sick, my head is killing me.” I heard Lecia say something under her breath. “Lecia?” I asked, hearing rustling in the background.
“I shouldn’t have waited,” she said.
“Waited for what?”
“For information. I wanted to be sure. But I might not have had that luxury.” I heard a car start.
“Lecia, are you going somewhere?” I stood up and walked to the window, checking for Marjorie. The car was still gone.
“Whatever you do, don’t take anything she gives you.” She ignored my question, but I could hear her car’s engine through the phone. “Not medicine, not food, not anything.”
“I didn’t. Well, not this morning. I ate with her last night though,” I said, suddenly feeling very dizzy. I sat down on the couch, my head reeling.
She muttered something I couldn’t understand. “Can you get out of there? Get to your car before she notices?”
“Um… she has my car,” I said, coughing once more. I reached for the glass of water on the table. The ice had melted and outside of the glass was slippery with perspiration.
“Why in the world does she have your car, Kera? Now you’re stuck.” She sounded panicked. Lecia was never panicked.
“I needed her to leave so I could develop the photos. She wouldn’t leave me alone,” I said, “You’re scaring me, Lecia.” A tear slid from my eye and fall in the water. The glass slid from my hand and onto the floor with a splash and I had a terrifying realization. “Lecia, you don’t think she… she poisoned me, do you? You think she made me sick? Why are you panicking?”
Lecia hesitated. “I… I don’t think she is looking out for your best interest. But it sounds like that could be the case… I… It’s just the dead people in those photos...”
Suddenly I realized my sister was right. They weren’t sleeping. “She’s going to kill me, isn’t she?” I looked at the glass on the floor, the water pouring out on the carpet. I had seen her get the water from the sink but the ice had been in the tray… she could have done anything to it.
“Kera, we don’t know what’s going to happen --”
I cut her off. “She gave me water this morning, Lecia. I think I just got another dose of whatever it was.” My arms and legs felt numb and my eyes threatened to drift shut against my will. My heart raced a thousand beats a second. I could barely breathe.
My sister stammered, collecting herself. “Don’t go to sleep. Don’t take anything else she gives you. Don’t panic. I’m coming, Kera. Okay? I’m coming.”
“Lee…” the name I had called her when we were children slipped out. “I’m scared, Lee…”
“I’ll be there soon. I’m not going to let her hurt you.” Her voice drifted away as my phone hit the floor. My eyes fluttered open and shut and I barely registered my head hitting the couch. I drifted into the darkness.
I do not know how much time passed before the door opened. I blinked and shifted on the couch. Marjorie stood in the doorway looking at me.
“On no,” she said, walking toward me. “You don’t look so well, my dear.” I shrunk away from her outstretched hand. “It’s just me, just Marjorie.”
“St-stay away,” I stammered, coughing over my words.
“Oh, don’t be silly, sweetheart. I’m here to make you feel better.” She took my felt my forehead with her wrist. “You’re burning up.”
She sat next on the edge of the couch and picked up my phone, looking at it carefully, then setting it on the coffee table. “Did you make a call?” she asked.
“No,” I said defiantly.
She looked at me disapprovingly. “Don’t lie to Mommy, dear.”
“You’re not my mother,” I choked out, coughing once more.
“That hurts me.” She put her hand to her heart. “I’ve come to think of you as a daughter, Kera. I thought you felt the same.” She pulled the blanket back up over me and tucked it around my side. I hadn’t been able to move much in the first place, but after that I was truly trapped.
Marjorie slipped off the couch and sat next to it on the floor, rather agile for an old woman. Feeling my consciousness slipping from me once more, I looked a Marjorie. “What happened to the babies?” I asked.
Marjorie, who had been stroking my hair, froze. “What babies?” she asked, unsettled.
“The ones in the pictures.”
Her face was suddenly angry. Rage shone in her dark eyes and I sucked in a quick breath. But as quickly as the expression came, it was gone. She smiled softly. “You weren’t supposed to see those, dear.”
“Did they die, too?” I asked.
“What do you mean ‘too’?” Marjorie questioned, once more stroking my hair.
“Did you kill them just like you’re going to kill me?” I stammered, tears flowing from my eyes at the words. She wiped them off my face.
“No, no, dear. Why would you think that? I’m not going to kill you, I’m going to care for you?” She looked down at the carpet. “My babies… My babies couldn’t live, but it wasn’t my fault. I would have never harmed them.” She looked at me. “You see, all I wanted was to care for them, to be their mommy, but I couldn’t. They were taken from me.” Her voice broke off as she tried to keep a smile on her face. Instead of appearing cheerful, she just looked crazy. Tears wet her face as she continued. “It was him. He did it.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“My husband,” she spit the words out as if it burned her tongue to say them. “I wasn’t fit for childbearing, they said. My babies would never live long, they said. But they were wrong.
It was his fault.”
I suddenly felt very uneasy. “What happened to him?” I asked. “What did you do?”
She looked at me sadly. “He was killing our babies,” she said, “so I punished him.”
“You killed him,” I said, gaping at her. “You killed your husband.”
“No, I simply stopped him from hurting our babies,” she insisted.
“But he wasn’t hurting them. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that --”
“Don’t take his side!” she yelled, standing suddenly and looming over me. I shrunk back into the couch, gasping. With a look at my face she softened and knelt back down. “I’m sorry I yelled, sweetie.” She smiled softly, holding my hand. I was terrified, but I could do nothing to stop her. But as scared as I was, I pitied her. How great was her loss that it drove her to this?
“Who were the others? The people in the pictures?” I asked, hoping I could keep her taking until Lecia got here.
“I’ve had other children, Kera,” she said.
“You killed them, too…” I stared at her in shock.
“No, I cared for them.” She wrapped her arms around me in a hug. “You should get some sleep, my dear Kera.” I could feel her arms tightening around me. Too tight. “I’ll be here the whole time. You won’t be alone.” I couldn’t breathe. “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby…” she sang softly as my vision blurred.
The door slammed open and Marjorie jumped up.
I gasped for air, coughing hard.
Through my blurred vision I saw someone with a gun.
“Tiffany Mallory, you are under arrest for murder, attempted murder, and resisting arrest. Put your hands up now and --”
“Blah, blah, blah,” I heard Marjorie mock. “I know the drill. Remain silent, have an attorney, got it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the middle of something.” She knelt back down.
I heard a click. “Step away.”
“Or what, you’ll shoot me? You’re adorable.”
Moments later I heard a shot and Marjorie howled in pain. I saw movement as she was put in handcuffs and Lecia came to my side.
She shot her, I thought. She shot her.
“Kera?” my sister called. I blinked.
“Lecia, you came… Is she…” I slurred.
“Of course, I came,” she helped me to sit up and handed me a bottle of water. “I shot her in the leg, Kera. She’s going to be tried and convicted for this. She doesn’t get to get off easy.” I could hear the scowl in her voice. “And you’re going to be just fine.” I heard Marjorie laugh as she held her bleeding leg.
“You’re far from fine. I need to take care of her,” she shrieked, cackling in the most unsettling manner. Lecia ignored her.
“I thought you said I was poisoned --”
“It’s designed to make you feel sick, not kill you,” Lecia interjected.
“How… You knew before, didn’t you?” I heard sirens in front of the house and Lecia stood up to speak to the officers that entered, letting them lead Marjorie from the house. She returned to me a moment later.
“I had my suspicions,” she started, “It reminded me of a few reports I’ve seen. One of a man who was found dead about ten years ago after he and his wife had lost their fifth child. His wife was nowhere to be found. The five names and baby clothes brought it to mind. The other one was two murders six and three years ago that consist of bodies found in secluded houses with families of victims reporting that the deceased had been living with a kind old woman. It didn’t match up until I remembered something you told me just after you moved in, about some moisturizer she used to avoid wrinkles. Another great way to avoid wrinkles is to not be old enough to have them. If you assume that the age is a disguise, the murders line up with the death of the husband and children. And it would make sense that she didn’t want to see her sons grave because the original crime occurred over one thousand miles from here. It isn’t here to see. I wanted to have evidence though, so I asked you to get the photos, thinking that they might be a sort of memorabilia. Murderers tend to do that, especially serial murderers. Apparently, I was right. I also didn’t think that she would try anything so soon. The others had been living with her a year before she killed them.” She looked at me, realizing that that may have come off a bit insensitive. “Anyway, I had the whole thing figured out before we got off the phone, but with a lack of concrete evidence, I didn’t think I would get an arrest warrant. Actually, I didn’t have one until I was about five minutes from here, after you told me about the photos.”
“Wow…” I was taken aback. My sister hugged me tightly. Upon her request, I explained what had happened here and answered as many of her questions as I could. When I finished she looked at me apologetically.
“I’m sorry I was late,” she said. “But you did help catch a serial killer today. Not too shabby for a photography major.”
“Not all of us can be Sherlock Holmes,” I said, smiling a bit as my sister helped me to the car.
“Okay, Watson, off to the station we go. You can come back to my house when we’re done there, okay?” She opened the car door for me and I sat down.
“Can I watch Annora?” I asked, getting a bit excited at the prospect of seeing my niece.
“Only as long as you promise not to ‘care for her’. Ever.”