The Visitor Suspense Short Fiction By Ann Gelder

The Visitor: Suspense Short Fiction By Ann Gelder

Ann Gelder, author of The Visitor, has previously published fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atticus Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, was published by Bona Fide Books and is now a podcast.

*****

I was surprised that Monica sought to befriend me. Surprised and, frankly, suspicious. Hadn’t my husband and I made it clear, during the twenty-odd years we’d lived here on Nasturtium Avenue, that we wanted no part of the neighborhood scene? What did Monica, that whirlwind of activity, want from the introverted likes of me? But after that first day, when she knocked on my door and invited herself in for a drink, I was delighted. I hadn’t had a close friend in ages, and now here was Monica, filling my afternoons with lilac perfume and lurid stories. A few weeks later, however, I became worried, and then terrified, because of one particular story she told me.

We were sitting on my living room sofa. I was taking a break from my online job search, having been laid off from the ad agency where I was a copywriter. Monica, whose social calendar remained full in the wake of her divorce, was again regaling me with local secrets.

A few weeks later, however, I became worried, and then terrified, because of one particular story she told me.

As always, before revealing this one, she made me swear not to tell another living soul, and I raised my right hand mock-solemnly while placing my left on a book on the coffee table. (I immediately wished I had sworn my oath on another book, but this one was closest. It was called Hawaiian Landscapes, a collection of photographs my husband had bought at the library sale. He seemed to find paging through the book calming, but the super-saturated colors saddened me, like a promise I wanted to believe but could not.)

Monica’s secret concerned a woman named Sarah, whom I had only met a few times in passing. She had lived two doors down from Monica, on the opposite end of Nasturtium from my husband and me. Sarah had been confiding in Monica since her own divorce, which had happened around the same time as Monica’s. Sarah had recently moved away, and as Monica talked, I wondered if her interest in me stemmed from the absence of this more appropriate friend. At this point, however, I was just glad to have Monica in my life. I didn’t care why she’d chosen me.

Sarah, I gathered, had gone mad.

“After her husband moved out, Sarah became convinced that a man was entering her house at night,” Monica said, crossing her designer-jeans-encased legs and swirling the sangria in her glass. I’d started making sangria in anticipation of our afternoon meetings, and serving it along with baguettes and cheese, which Monica didn’t touch. She was trying to stay trim, she said, with a smile that suggested she was dating again, though further details did not emerge.

“She changed the locks on all the doors,” Monica said. “She had an alarm system put in, plus motion-sensing lights outside. She locked all the windows and put a chain on her bedroom door. There was simply no way anyone could get in without being detected. Yet she insisted to me that every night, she awoke to find a man beside her bed.”

“What was he doing?” I asked.

“At first, simply standing there. Sarah couldn’t see his face, but she said she felt his presence. When she screamed, he disappeared into the shadows. I told her that meant she was still asleep, because people didn’t vanish like that, but she insisted she was awake. The bedroom looked the same as in the daytime. She could read the numbers on her clock—he always appeared at 1:30 a.m. exactly. And she said she could smell him. It was a clean smell, with a layer of sweat, as from recent exertion. You can’t smell anything in dreams, she said.”

“How did she think he was getting in, since the house was locked up?”

“…Sarah couldn’t see his face, but she said she felt his presence…”

“I asked her that,” Monica said. “She looked like she pitied me for being so stupid. He opens a special passageway, she told me. He comes from far away, but he can get here in a blink of an eye.

“I told her that what she’d said sounded crazy. I said the stress of the divorce was probably getting to her—something I understood very well myself—and that seeing a psychiatrist had helped me. I promised to ask my doctor for some names.”

I had to stop myself from interrupting. Monica’s divorce last year had been so astonishing that when my husband heard about it, he’d rushed home from his evening stroll to tell me (You never know what’s going on behind closed doors, he’d said, sighing). Still, I couldn’t imagine Monica, that exemplar of communally endorsed sanity, seeing a psychiatrist. Devoted to her husband and three children, she was a tireless fundraiser for charities, a churchgoer, and a full-time manager for some giant corporation downtown.

My husband and I had deliberately resisted her robust normality. All Monica’s invitations to block parties or cocktail hours met with our polite No, thank you. But over the past year, I realized, Monica had lost nearly everything that had defined her. Her youngest child had left for college, her husband was gone, and she’d been fired from her job for a reason she never explained. Then she’d entangled herself with a crazy person.

Monica needed help, I thought. My help. I put my reflections aside and listened carefully.

“Sarah yelled at me,” Monica said. “How dare I question her sanity? Hadn’t I known her for years as a rational person? She said if I couldn’t support her, she couldn’t be my friend. She threw me out of her house. She literally grabbed me by the arm and yanked me toward the door. You can still see traces of the bruise, more than two months later.”

Monica unbuttoned the cuff of her silk shirt and began rolling up the sleeve.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “I believe you.”

Monica smiled gratefully and refastened her cuff.

“I spent the next few days pacing my house, reading psychology websites,” Monica said. “I asked my psychiatrist what I should do, and she said to keep pushing back, to keep the delusion from deepening. Sarah might get angry because she didn’t want to think she was going crazy. But I should keep encouraging her to get help.

“I went over to Sarah’s house again a few days later. She opened the door and walked away, like she had been expecting someone else. One look at her convinced me that things with the strange man had advanced. Her eyes were filmy. Her hair had come loose from its ponytail. She was wearing a bathrobe in the middle of the day, apparently with nothing under it.

“I followed her into the living room and sat down. She didn’t join me, but kept dashing around, looking out the windows. She said, I only have a few minutes, then you have to leave. He’s coming at 1:30, and he can’t open the passageway unless I’m alone and the house is locked up. She’d twisted it all around, see. Now all the locks and alarms weren’t there to keep the man out, but to help him get in. She didn’t seem to know whether it was day or night. All that mattered was that it was 1:30.

“My heart sank. I’d been hoping that something I’d said the last time I’d visited had taken hold. I’d imagined she’d gotten some rest and started to see things more clearly, or at least had decided to see a doctor. But the opposite had happened. She had gone over completely to the other side.”

“That must have been terrifying,” I said. “For her, but also for you.”

This was my effort to demonstrate empathy. I wasn’t good at conversation, so I’d been reading articles on how to do it while my husband was out walking or texting with some colleague I didn’t know.

“It certainly scared me,” Monica agreed.

I was empathizing well, probably because what Monica said really did frighten me. In my idle hours, I sometimes wondered what it would be like to lose my mind. Would I know it was happening? Or would I—as Sarah apparently had—decide others were crazy and/or against me?

“But Sarah wasn’t afraid,” Monica went on. “Or not only that. She was excited.” Here Monica leaned toward me, placing a pink-manicured hand on my forearm. “Because now she wanted the man to come.”

Despite my mounting anxiety, I couldn’t help feeling pleased. Here I was, after so many years, being trusted with a confidence that was both titillating and alarming. I felt I’d been handed a beautiful object, which I had to take care not to break.

“Sarah told me that she knew who the man was now,” Monica said. “His name was Paul Mahoney. I don’t know the man personally, but he lived—still lives, I assume—a few blocks west of here. Sarah met him at a Rotary function two years ago, and they’d felt what she called a spark. They were both there with their spouses, so they couldn’t do anything right then, but they’d started texting.

“Sarah was sure the relationship was going to blossom, but it didn’t. Though Paul never officially cut things off, he stopped responding to Sarah’s messages, and she’d eventually given up. But she’d never forgotten him, and now it was clear that he hadn’t forgotten her, either. She told me that they’d started having sex.”

“You mean…”

“Yes. The magical version of Paul was now joining her in bed and doing all sorts of wondrous things to her. She told me she’d never experienced that kind of pleasure in her life. It’s like I’m melting into the universe, she said. Their encounters took everything out of her, but that’s what she wanted. To be drained and refilled, over and over.

“I told her again that she had to be dreaming. People have sex dreams all the time, and it made sense that she was dreaming about someone she’d seemed to connect with and then lost. Or else she’d created a fantasy to fill her empty days. It was normal to feel lonely after a divorce, I told her. I was lonely myself, and I’d had thoughts about men who weren’t available.

“Others have been available, I’m glad to say,” Monica added, with a wink that I found inappropriate amid this narrative. I waited to hear who these others were, but again Monica offered no additional information.

“Unlike me, Sarah couldn’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and I told her so,” Monica said. “Sarah pulled back the collar of her robe. Is this fantasy? All over her neck were purple bite marks that looked horribly painful.” Monica touched her own neck inside her shirt collar and winced in sympathy. “I asked Sarah how she’d gotten those marks, and she gave me that pitying look again. I guess you’ve never had interesting sex, she said. I could only think that she’d made those marks herself, by pinching herself or maybe using a tool.”

It was my turn to wince. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing such harm to themselves.

“Did she make those marks to fool you?” I asked Monica. “Or was she getting pleasure from doing that and imagining it was Paul?”

Monica shrugged dramatically. “I have no idea. I didn’t get a chance to ask anything else. She had started pointing at the clock and insisting that I leave. I had begun regaining her trust and I didn’t want to ruin that. And I didn’t want any more bruises on my arm.

“I went home and thought about what to do next. It didn’t seem like Sarah had any other close friends besides me. Her only nearby relatives were her ex-husband and one adult son, and she was not on good terms with either. If I told them what was happening, they might try to have her committed. I didn’t want Sarah to end up in some awful facility. I told myself her condition was temporary, an effect of grief that would pass. She wasn’t hurting others or herself. Not seriously, anyway. So, again, I waited.”

Monica paused. Her expression begged me for affirmation.

“I might have done the same thing,” I said. But I couldn’t say for certain. Sarah was hurting herself. She wasn’t in her right mind. Not all psychiatric hospitals are terrible, and maybe being committed, or at least examined, would have helped her. I wondered if Monica’s biggest concern wasn’t Sarah, but herself—she resisted acting because she wanted Sarah to like her. Which, of course, is what I wanted from Monica.

Monica waited for me to affirm her more convincingly, and when I didn’t, she poured herself another glass of sangria. I set my glass aside. I felt I needed to be alert for what came next, although, in the end, I was not prepared at all for what happened.

“The next day,” Monica said, after taking a deep swallow, “I went back again. This time I went in the morning, assuming Sarah wasn’t expecting her friend until later. I’d printed out some articles on depression, which in some forms causes hallucinations, and I planned to sit her down and make her read them. I still believed there was some rational part of her I could reach. I was going to tell her how worried I was and beg her to get help. She needed to know that there were people around—real people—who would take care of her.

“When she answered the door, I almost collapsed with relief. She was a different human being entirely. She looked me in the eye and said she was glad to see me. She had washed and was dressed in normal clothes—if anything, she was dressed up, as if going somewhere. She’d just made a pot of coffee and invited me into the kitchen. That’s when I saw the coil of rope on the table.”

My hand involuntarily grasped my neck. “What kind of rope?”

“Climbing rope. She and her ex had belonged to a rock gym. They were into running and hiking and so on, though after the divorce Sarah had given all that up. I asked if she was taking up climbing again, and said I hoped that would make her feel better.

Oh, that, she said, glancing at the table as if it was perfectly normal to have a rope lying there. That’s to kill Paul’s wife with. We’re going to run away together and we don’t want her bothering us. We’re going to make it look like suicide, like she hung herself after her husband left her.

“I stood there absolutely stunned. Sarah gave me this innocent smile, like everything was perfectly OK. Did you want cream?, she asked, holding the container toward me.

“That’s when I started screaming at her. You’ve lost your mind. You can’t murder somebody. What has gotten into you? I’m going to have to report this, Sarah. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket. I wasn’t sure whether to dial 9-11 or just the regular police number. That brief hesitation gave her the opportunity she needed.

“We were standing by the kitchen window. On the sill there was a brass elephant, about the size of a softball. As I stared at my phone, Sarah grabbed the elephant and smashed it into the back of my head. I fell down unconscious. I had the sensation of being dragged, and shortly after that, I heard a car driving off.

“I came to under some bushes in Sarah’s back yard. My head was killing me. I could barely lift it off the ground. I touched the spot and saw blood on my fingertips. Even today, it’s still sore.” Monica touched the back of her head gingerly. “Somehow I managed to stagger home. I passed out on my sofa and woke up thirty-six hours later. I’m lucky I didn’t die or go into a coma. You’re not supposed to go to sleep with a concussion, right?”

“So you called the police?” I asked. “Or an ambulance? You must have needed stitches, a CAT scan…”

“I was so confused. I started to think that the last few days had all been a bad dream. I couldn’t keep the story straight in my mind, I couldn’t imagine explaining it in a way someone else would believe. All I wanted was to go back to sleep.”

“Are you telling me you did nothing?” I was trying to be sympathetic, but it was hard to conceal my growing outrage. How could she have ignored the danger to Paul’s wife? How could she not get help for a serious injury? Didn’t that injury suggest that Sarah was indeed capable of murder? There was a violent, deranged person on the loose, and Monica had gone to bed!

“I didn’t do nothing,” Monica said. “I checked online to see if there had been any murders or suicides in the area over the past few days. There hadn’t. Then I found Paul Mahoney’s Facebook page. It wasn’t easy, because there are quite a few men by that name, and, as I’ve mentioned, I never met him. But I searched on the name of our city, plus Rotary, and I found the page that I’m sure was his. He’s quite handsome, by the way. I can see why Sarah fell for him.

“Anyway, from there, I figured out his wife’s name is Georgia, and visited her page. I’ve looked at her page every day for the past two months, and I can assure you that she is alive and well. It turns out that doing nothing was the right decision. I didn’t overreact and scare people I didn’t even know for no reason.”

Monica looked a little too proud of herself, almost triumphant, as she took another swig of sangria.

“What happened to Sarah?” I asked.

“All I know is that she moved away. A couple weeks after she hit me and drove off, her son came with a truck and emptied out the house. I went over and asked him where his mom was. He said she had found a place downtown, but he clearly didn’t want to talk to me, and the feeling was mutual—I knew how unkind he’d been to his mother. The For Sale sign went up right after that. I expect the house will sell, although it’s been neglected. They should spruce up the yard at least…”

While Monica chattered on about real estate, as if this were just as interesting as her tale of madness and near-murder, I began to feel the same suspicion that had haunted me when she’d first started coming over. Why had she told me this story, if (in her mind) it had all come to nothing? What did she want from me? Affirmation? Absolution? A simple acknowledgment that she had entertained me, proving she was still the neighborhood’s favorite raconteur?

Then I remembered something that transformed my suspicion into horror, and Monica, my delightful friend, into the monster she truly is. The sangria, mixed with bile, rose in my throat.

“Get out,” I gasped.

“Jane, what’s wrong? Are you ill?” Monica was pretending that she thought her tale had upset my delicate sensibilities. She was very good at faking concern. Sarah surely realized that, too.

“Get out right now.” I ran to the front door and opened it, and when Monica didn’t move, I grabbed her by the arm, pulled her off the sofa, and dragged her over the threshold. “And don’t ever come back, or else!”

“I don’t understand, but all right.,” said Monica, all wounded innocence. She brushed her hands together, as if ridding herself of me and all remnants of her guilt. I felt a pang of sadness as she departed, trailing her cloud of lilac. I’d never had a friend like her, and I would miss her.

But it had all been a lie.

About three years ago, my husband and I had received one of Monica’s block-party invitations. It was our usual practice, after declining, to have a cake delivered to Monica’s house on the morning of the party, to show that we wished the revelers well and weren’t complete misanthropes. But on this occasion, we’d forgotten to order a cake. So on the morning of the party I’d gone out and bought one, and then nervously carried it over to Monica’s at the other end of the street. She’d answered the door, harried and not entirely sure who I was, but she’d invited me in to leave the cake on her kitchen counter.

That’s when I noticed it—the brass elephant on her windowsill. The morning sun struck it at just the right angle to make it look like a small, golden fire. I’d remarked upon it, and Monica had picked it up to show it to me. It fit very comfortably in her hand, like a softball.

What were the odds of Sarah also having this exact same object on her kitchen sill? Virtually zero. Monica didn’t remember that I’d been to her house before (I am a forgettable person)—so she’d picked the elephant up for her story as casually as she’d handed it to me in her kitchen.

I grabbed my laptop and Googled Sarah Wilmington. As I suspected, she had died two months earlier. The cause, officially, was suicide. She had hanged herself in a studio apartment in the city. Why I hadn’t heard this at the time, I couldn’t fathom. Of course, I wasn’t an avid follower of the local news. But when my husband took his evening strolls, he often paused to chat with fellow amblers, which was how he learned the latest gossip. Surely his sources had passed along this especially shocking information, so why hadn’t he told me? One reason, as you might have guessed, was that his “sources” weren’t who I thought. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until too late.

Next, I checked Paul’s wife’s Facebook page. As Monica said, Georgia Mahoney was alive, posting frequently and cheerfully. Her relationship status, however, was “divorced.” I then went to Paul’s Facebook page, already certain what I would find. Sure enough, he hadn’t posted for two months. His last post showed the indeed very handsome Paul embracing a vigorous, pony-tailed woman. I am heartbroken, Paul had written, appending the corresponding emoji. My beloved Sarah has died by her own hand. I saw no sign that she was unhappy, I guess you never know what’s going on behind closed doors.

Monica, the woman who knew everybody, had insisted a little too strongly that she had never met Paul. Now I knew why. Not only had she met him, she had fallen in love with him. Perhaps they’d had a brief affair. More likely, they had merely exchanged a few texts until Paul stopped responding. In either case, the relationship had ended, because Paul had fallen in love with Sarah. Sarah’s love story was the real one, and Monica’s the fantasy. That was why Monica had killed Sarah.

But why did Monica bring me into it by telling me this elaborate lie? Wasn’t she worried that I would figure out the truth and expose her? Perhaps Monica wasn’t a natural murderer. She was simply a terribly unhappy person who had lost everything and made an irrevocable mistake. She saw me as a similarly lonely soul, who would understand and forgive her. Of course, I couldn’t forgive her for what she’d actually done, so she’d tried to elicit my pardon for a lesser sin—not doing enough for someone who needed help. That someone, I now knew, was Monica herself. The delusions she’d attributed to Sarah were her own. Come to think of it, when Monica clutched her neck after claiming Sarah had been pinching herself, I’m sure I saw a bruise inside her collar.

She also probably thought that even if I discovered the truth, no one would believe me. That turned out to be the case. As soon as Monica left, I called the police and explained how I knew Sarah Wilmington’s suicide had been a murder. The response was a verbal pat on the head and a promise, delivered with a hearty laugh, to look into the matter at once.

However, it was a mistake to view Sarah’s murder as a mere crime of passion. Reluctantly but inescapably, I came to realize that Monica was a cold-blooded psychopath with exceptional powers.

On the evening of that same day, my husband announced that he had to go on a business trip. Please don’t leave, I said. I had just told him about what Monica had done, how I’d called the police and they hadn’t believed me. She knows I know, I said, watching him pack. She’ll try to kill me to silence me.

My husband wouldn’t listen. Lately, especially when I wanted to discuss our marriage, he’d been indicating that he thought me unstable. This was one reason I’d been talking to him less and less. Why speak, only to have every point I made dismissed out of hand? Now he said that I sounded truly crazy and that he couldn’t take much more of this. He slammed the door behind him and ran to his Uber.

My first night alone, I awoke at 1:30. The smell of lilac was suffocating, like a humid hand over my mouth and nose. Monica emerged from the shadows, her silk blouse iridescent in the clock’s green light. Slowly, she produced a chef’s knife from behind her back and placed its tip against my jugular. She bent down and whispered in my ear: I know you understand why I must do this. You know me better than anyone. The blade pierced my skin with a pop.

I screamed and rolled away, kicking and flailing. When I looked again, Monica had vanished.

I called the police, who searched the house and found no signs of either a forced entry or a sudden exit. One of the cops patted my shoulder and said that it had probably all been a bad dream. And the puncture wound on my neck? A mosquito bite.

The next night, with my husband still gone, I locked everything up and wedged a chair under the bedroom doorknob. But soon as 1:30 arrived, there was that crushing scent, as if someone had stuffed my lungs with flowers. My enemy shimmered, the blade flashed. I screamed, she disappeared.

The cops came again. Not even bothering to search the house this time, they repeated that I must have been dreaming. They reminded me of the phone call I’d made about Sarah’s murder, which suggested my vivid imagination was running amok. Perhaps, one cop said, I should try writing ghost stories. I wished I’d never called them at all. I was in danger and sought help, and what did those charged with protecting me do? They gaslighted me. Just like Monica did. And my husband.

He returned from his trip the next day, but that didn’t keep Monica away. If anything, his presence emboldened her, because he did nothing to stop her. Every night for weeks on end, I awoke to lilac perfume and the blade, while he slumbered on. My screams roused him, but he said he saw no faint iridescence, detected no lilac scent. When I showed him the marks the knife left, he said I’d been clawing my neck in my sleep. He did not hold or comfort me. Finally, he told me he was leaving, and he didn’t have to tell me for whom. Monica’s visits to me had been warnings: don’t fuck with us or you’ll end up like Sarah.

Have you ever felt utterly alone in the world? Have you screamed your head off begging for help, only to be disbelieved, mocked, and called crazy? You have at least some recent acquaintance with loss and fear, so I hope you understand why I had only one option. It was with considerable regret that I took matters—by which I mean the brass elephant—into my own hands.

What are you doing here? Monica asked, when I stepped into her kitchen bearing an especially lovely lemon cake. There’s no block party today. As if she weren’t about to move to Hawaii with my husband. As if she didn’t remember we once were friends.

Indeed there was no party yesterday. And if there’s another one in the future, the good residents of Nasturtium Avenue will have to designate a new host.

Paul, as I watch you sleeping beside your no-longer-ex-wife, Georgia, with whom you seem to have foolishly reconciled, I wish you knew how much I’ve done for you. How close you—and Georgia, for that matter—came to falling prey to the murderer in our midst. If it weren’t for me, one or both of you would be dangling from a ceiling or clutching your throat, your life spurting out through your fingers.

By now, the police have talked to my soon-to-be-ex-husband, who has enthusiastically given me up. As I speak, they are searching the house he and I once shared, and I will shortly go back there and let them take me. Wherever I end up, I will be content, knowing I have done right by the one I truly love: in case I have not made it clear, that is you, Paul.

One day, we will be together, one way or the other. In the meantime, if ever I sense you are in danger, from Monica’s specter or perhaps Georgia, who may decide not to forgive you after all, I will come back through this special passageway and take care of you.

*****

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