This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Francine never had any friends. She had acquaintances, of course, and the occasional PTA member over for tea, but her husband Walter made sure she knew she was needed at home. Friends were a distraction from her commitments, he claimed. From her family.
The closest she had was me. They hired me as a live-in housekeeper when Francine first fell ill, since I’m distantly related to Walter and young enough to be cheap. You’d think she’d be glad for the company, but she mostly kept to herself.
And him, I suppose.
When she passed, Walter felt it deeply. He’d wander up and down the stairs with no particular destination in mind, running his hand along the banister and yelling at me when dust collected on his fingertips.
It was almost a relief when the day of the funeral arrived. Walter invited a few family members around after the service, and we dried our tears with memories and anecdotes.
“Maybe we’ll see you in January,” Walter’s son David said that evening as he shrugged on his coat. “Tessa’s already booked flights to see her family for Christmas. It’s their turn this year; you understand.”
“Yes,” Walter said, his jaw clenched. “Goodbye, son.”
David disappeared through the door, followed by the last stray cousin and perfumed-soaked aunt, and Walter excused himself for bed.
“Will you be retiring as well, Marie?” he asked, staring pointedly at the grandfather clock.
“No,” I said. “It’s only eight.”
He humphed in protest, but still withdrew, his socked feet padding up the stairs into his bedroom.
I chose one of Francine’s dog-eared poetry books from the shelf in the living room and settled into an armchair. Yet when I tried to lose myself in the beautiful prose about loneliness and deep despair, sometimes annotated by Francine herself, the ticking of the clock drove through my skull, so loudly and painfully I had to put the book down again.
Maybe I was more tired than I’d thought.
I walked upstairs, but the ticking followed.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
Click clack. Click clack.
I spun around, but only my shadow greeted me. It stretched long and taut across the wall, waiting for my next move.
Frowning, I continued toward my bedroom, doing my best to ignore the incessant ticking that trailed behind me.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
Click clack. Click clack.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Those were definitely footsteps this time.
“Who’s there?” I called in my fiercest voice, but the only answer I received was hot breath across the back of my neck.
With a shriek, I retreated, tripping over my feet as I ran to my bedroom. I landed heavily in front of my door, which swung closed inches away from my hands.
One by one, the lights went out, like a line of dominoes toppling beside me. First was the hallway light, then the lamp in the office. Finally, the bulb in the bathroom dimmed, leaving me in near-total darkness.
“Walter, help me!” I cried.
Pain erupted at the base of my skull as I was struck from behind. Another blow landed, and another, then razor-sharp nails dug into my neck. I jerked forward, wrenching myself out of the intruder’s grasp, and screamed.
Walter’s door flew open, and he ran to me, his eyes still heavy from sleep. “What are you screeching about, girl?” he snapped.
I clutched Walter’s arm as a shadow stirred near his room. “Intruder!”
Walter lowered himself with a soft grunt, and I placed his palm on the back of my neck. A sliver of moonlight fell across his hand as he held it in front of his face. And there, my hopeless suspicions were confirmed.
He yanked me up without another word and ushered me toward the staircase. My foot slipped as we made our panicked descent, and I gripped the banister to steady myself, refusing to let it go until we were safely downstairs. The floorboards creaked as we fled through the house, although the sound never quite matched our frantic steps.
“Careful now, girl,” Walter said. “We’re almost there.”
We reached the back door, and Walter wrapped his hand around the silver doorknob, twisting it gently at first, then with more and more force.
“Where’s the blasted key?” he said.
The hook where it normally hung was empty, and I hadn’t been the one to move it. Cursing under my breath, I staggered to the telephone in the kitchen.
“I’m calling the police!” I yelled as both a warning and an explanation.
Sweat dotted my brow as I pressed the phone to my ear and waited for the tone, a voice, for anything at all, but all I heard were uneven footsteps.
“Walter?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Hello, Marie,” a voice behind me replied.
It was familiar and unfamiliar all at once. A woman’s voice, to be sure, although it was deeper and raspier than I remembered it being.
“Francine?” I whispered, turning around.
She stood in the middle of the kitchen, her feet not quite touching the ground. Her body was translucent, her face unlined, and she wore a sneer I’d never seen in life. Behind her were a dozen other women, all sharing the same wicked expression.
“Oh, Francine,” Walter said, now at my side. “You’ve made some friends.”
She raised her clawed hand, and I was squeezed from within, tighter and tighter, until I could barely breathe. Walter thrust his arm in front of me, as if that could protect me from whatever evil was at play here, and I clung to it, gasping.
“Leave her, Francine. This instant!” Walter’s voice shook.
Francine tipped her head to the side, her ice-blue eyes unblinking. “No. I want you to be alone, like I was for so many years,” she said to him.
My throat constricted, and I let out a weak, strangled cry. I shot a pleading look at Walter, my heart rattling against my ribs, then released his arm and shuffled away.
“You made sure you were all I had.” Francine bared her teeth, and her new friends flanked her sides, hissing at Walter as they rubbed her back.
“I didn’t know.” Even Walter winced at the lie, so he tried another tack. “Marie’s innocent!”
“So was I.”
Waves of fresh pain crashed behind my eyes, and I collapsed in a trembling heap. “I’ll leave,” I choked out. “Walter will never see me again.”
“That’s not enough,” she said. “I cannot rest until this wrong has been made right. And you won’t be the last, Marie! Walter will learn what it’s like to be alone. Until the end of his wretched life!”
“If I could go back, I’d do things differently,” Walter said. “I’d let you invite your friends for tea every weekend. I’d—”
“I mean it.” Terror fluttered across Walter’s face, but there was something else there as well. Something that looked an awful lot like guilt.
Lifting my chin, I forced myself to meet Francine’s furious gaze. Time alone couldn’t be blamed for the deep-set lines she’d worn before her death, or the way her shoulders stooped after David left. And while a last-minute flicker of guilt couldn’t absolve Walter of his sins, maybe it was enough to make him agree to the plan that had slowly formed in my mind.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said, far too late. “I’ll do anything to make it up to you.”
Swallowing hard, I said, “How about this…?”
Walter hesitated in the kitchen, staring at the doorway and whimpering every so often. He hadn’t forgotten how Francine hurt me, and neither had I, but a deal was a deal, and he’d always preached keeping one’s word.
I nudged him forward, and with one last groan, he carried a chessboard into the dining room, where Francine and her friends had thrown their heads back in raucous laughter. It was the first dinner party of what would be many; every weekend for the rest of his life, I’d made Walter promise. What happened after that was anybody’s guess, but it was a small price to pay after he’d denied her so much.
It was a far more fitting punishment, too, I believed. You could even call it poetic justice. And if there was one thing Francine had always loved, it was poetry.
I’d only agreed to help host while I lived here. Which wouldn’t be for much longer, thank you very much. But I could handle a few parties in exchange for my life.
The chandelier drove shards of light through the ghosts’ pallid skin as they joked and gossiped about people they’d met in the afterlife. Walter placed the chessboard on the table and a flurry of hands hurried to arrange the pieces.
“May I get you anything else, Francine?” I asked as Walter reluctantly took a seat.
“No, thank you,” she said. And for the first time in a very long time, she smiled.