Lily of the Valley

Illustration: Plunderpuss

fiction by Jessica Laine-Mork

It was a fixer-upper in a nice neighborhood where nothing ever happened. At the closing, Harold shook hands with Marjorie and James. “I hope you’ll be as happy as Lilith and I have been,” he said.

“I hope so, too,” Marjorie said, thinking about the errands she had to run that afternoon.

“My Lily and I—we couldn’t have children. I hope you’ll fill this house with kids. It would be a great family home.”

“We hope to,” James said. “Someday.”

Someday, but not too soon, thought Marjorie.

Harold smiled. “I think my Lily would like that.”

Marjorie remembered the sad story. Lily had been living in a nursing home and had become stuck between the railing and her bed. A nurse had found her the next morning: her body tangled up in the sheets, her face forever frozen in a terrible grimace, the call button just inches away from her cold, dead hands.

“I just hope she can find me,” Harold said.

“Who can find you?” asked James.

“Why, Lily, of course,” Harold said. “Now that I’m moving, I don’t know if she’ll know where to find me. She gets lonely at night, you know.”

Marjorie and James glanced at each other uneasily. Harold wrote down his new address on a scrap of paper and they said their goodbyes.

Marjorie and James bought things for the house: curtains, furniture, even a dog. Dogs were dirty creatures, Marjorie thought. And they were always a precursor to children, weren’t they? She agreed to get a dog on one condition. “No dogs on the bed,” she said. No matter how many times James and Fletcher the retriever looked at her with their sad, chocolate-brown eyes, she stood firm in her decision.

The next week, James went away on a business trip and Marjorie took some time off to do yard work.

“Won’t you be scared to stay here by yourself?” James asked before he left.

“No, why would I?”

“What if Lilith pays you a visit? Harold says she gets lonely at night,” he teased.

“She won’t visit me,” Marjorie said. “Besides, I’m not afraid of the dead; it’s the living who worry me.”

“As they should.” James kissed her cheek. “See you soon.”

On the first day, Marjorie trimmed the hedges in the front yard, discovering the partially decomposed skeletons of small rodents who’d died tangled in the web of branches. She disposed of their remains and called it a day. After dinner, Fletcher stood by the door, asking to be let out. Curiously, he ran to the edge of the property and barked ferociously into the darkness as though a person stood there. Marjorie looked and looked but couldn’t see anyone. She called him to her. Fletcher left the yard with great reluctance.

She was taking a shower when the scent of an old-fashioned, flowery perfume wafted through the bathroom, making her feel nauseated. She glanced at the mirror. Someone had written a word on the fogged-up glass in a spidery hand: MINE.

Marjorie almost screamed, but then realized James was probably playing a trick on her. Hadn’t he teased her, saying Lilith might come to visit? She grabbed a hand towel and violently scrubbed away the writing on the mirror. Then she went into the bedroom and settled under the covers. Fletcher looked up at her but she pointed at the dog bed on the floor. She fell into an uneasy sleep.

On the second day, Marjorie planted impatiens while Fletcher watched. Fetching water, she noticed deep scratch marks along the garden hose storage box, as if a small creature had taken refuge inside the box, and a larger creature had tried to claw its way through.

By twilight, Marjorie felt tired and dirty and a little feverish. She also felt eyes on her, as though someone were watching her. Suddenly, an eerie howl rose up from the small woods across the street. Coyotes? Marjorie wasn’t sure. All she knew was something had been snatching up the small dogs in her neighborhood at night and no one ever saw them again. She called for Fletcher and then locked the door behind them.

She was in the bathroom when the sickeningly sweet smell of the old-fashioned, flowery perfume hit her again. She heaved into the toilet and then reached into a drawer, pulling out a pregnancy test. She waited for the results:

Positive.

Shit.

She glanced up at the mirror. Written in the same spidery hand from the previous night was a new word: LEAVE.

Instead of fear, Marjorie felt a rage build up inside of her. They had paid good money for the house that Harold and Lily had let fall to ruin. This was her dream home now. She stood up. Marjorie furiously scrubbed out the message on the mirror and left one of her own: NO.

Back in the bedroom, she shooed Fletcher off the bed and fell fast asleep. She awoke to the sound of barking. She crept down the hallway. Fletcher sat in the dark growling at the front door, as if someone were standing on the other side, trying to get in. Marjorie didn’t get much sleep that night.

On the third day, Marjorie dragged her ass out of bed at noon. She decided to tackle the overgrown backyard and in her haste to make progress, stumbled over some buried roots, twisting her ankle. She fell.

Lying in the dirt, she wondered: Is this how it went then? Fifty years in the same house? Raising children? Making dinner? Washing endless loads of laundry? Until one day, you fell and you couldn’t get up and were carted off to a nursing home?

It seemed like a fate worse than death.

Suddenly, the stink of the old-fashioned, flowery perfume that had been haunting her bathroom overwhelmed her. Marjorie retched and then watched as a black snake slithered its way through a clump of white, bell-shaped flowers. She looked up the flowers on her phone, and learned they were called Lily of the Valley.

They were poisonous to dogs. The whole patch had to go, but Marjorie wondered how Lily would feel once she’d removed her namesake flowers. Marjorie touched her stomach. Since she worried more about the living than the dead, she ripped the godforsaken flowers out of the cold, damp earth and tossed them into a black garbage bag. “Take that, Lilith,” she said. She threw the bag into the garbage can and slammed the lid shut.

That evening, Marjorie decided to do without a shower—cleanliness be damned—and kept the lights blazing all night. Around midnight, a torrential downpour hit the earth with a violence that threatened to flood the basement.

And then the lights went out.

“Shit.” She stumbled about the bedroom, found a candle, and lit it. The stench of lily of the valley overpowered her. She fought back the urge to vomit. Fletcher barked. As Marjorie watched, the dog padded down the long hall with a murderous growl, teeth bared and hackles raised. He seemed to be forcing someone—or something—to return the way they’d come: through the front door.

Enough was enough. Candle in hand, Marjorie limped into the bathroom: WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT? She wrote on the mirror.

Spidery letters began to bloom on the misty glass: HIM.

Marjorie grabbed a scrap of paper off of her dresser. She stomped down the hallway and taped Harold’s new address to the front door.

“Ask and you shall receive, Lilith.” She slammed the door shut, locked it, and crawled into bed. Fletcher stared up at her from the dog bed on the floor.

“Up,” she commanded.

James found them in bed early the next morning.

“I thought you said no dogs on the bed.”

“That was before.”

“Before what?”

“This week.”

“Care to explain?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay.”

Marjorie sat up in bed. “I’ll be right back.”

She ran down the hallway. Harold’s address was no longer taped to the front door.

A hand fell on her shoulder, causing her to jump.

“What are you doing?” James asked.

“Oh, nothing.” Marjorie said. “Do you think we should remodel the bathroom next? I have a problem with the mirror in there.”

“Sounds good,” James said. “Think we’re going to be happy here?”

Marjorie thought about it.

“Yes.”

“As happy as Harold and Lilith?”

Gently, she stroked the top of her belly. “Happier,” she said.

Jessica Laine-Mork lives with a houseful of men in Minneapolis. Her short story “Safe Harbor” is featured in the mystery anthology, Cooked to Death. Jessica’s novel-in-progress won the 2016 Mystery Writers of America-Midwest Hugh Holton award.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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