Finally at home, Nancy gently set Bea down on the island in the kitchen and filled a plastic sandwich bag with ice. She placed Bea’s hand in it and told her to leave it there until the pain went away. Then she went upstairs to get the Ibuprofen. She looked at herself in Bea’s bathroom mirror and took a deep breath. The lines that made parentheses from her nose to her mouth looked deeper. She pulled her cheeks back to flatten them. She bared her teeth and looked with dissatisfaction at them. Too much coffee. Too much red wine. Too much had happened today. She was weary and her head dully throbbed.
After administering as much of the medicine to Bea as she would take, they decided to pull out the wreath to brighten both their moods. Nancy inserted a double A battery into the back of it and switched it on. They waited. Nothing happened. She tried another battery. Shook the wreath. Shook it harder. Nothing.
“Perfect,” she grumbled. “Just freakin’ perfect.” Nancy felt her throat swell and tears welling but fought them back.
“What’s wrong, Mommy? Why don’t it play moosic?” Bea asked.
“I don’t know, honey,” Nancy managed.
“Maybe it’s broken, Mommy.”
“Yeah, I think so.” Nancy forced a cheery tone, not sure whether she was reassuring Bea or herself. “But you know what?”
“We could still hang it on the pantry for decoration. It’s still cool looking, right?”
Bea’s face brightened at her mommy’s excitement. “Yeah! It is!”
Nancy hung the wreath on the plastic hook already stuck to the pantry door. “There! Whaddya think?”
“I like it!” Bea cheered and then looked down at her hand in the ice bag. “My fingers hurt, Mommy.”
“I know they do, Bea-Bea.” She hugged the little girl tightly to her chest, feeling Bea’s own weariness matching hers. “Hey, do you wanna climb in the big bed upstairs and watch a movie while I fix dinner?”
She felt Bea nod against her chest. She rocked her back and forth for a minute, trying to soothe, to comfort.
“I don’t like that store, Mommy.”
Nancy stiffened and pulled Bea back from her chest. Her daughter looked up at her, cheeks flushed and her big blue eyes streaked with red from crying.
“I don’t either, baby. I don’t either.”
An hour later back at the kitchen island, Nancy was cutting up raw chicken for dinner. Bea was happily nestled in Nancy and Tom’s bed upstairs, surrounded by a dozen of her stuffed animals and watching The Lion King. Nancy sipped a glass of wine while she worked and tried to let the events of the day slip away. She absently listened to the muffled sound of the TV upstairs and ticking of the clock that hung above the sink.
From its place on the pantry door, the wreath gave a hiccupping sound. Nancy’s knife froze in mid-chop. Softly at first, then growing louder, it began to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. The music was awful, a warbled, sliding tune that hitched and choked as it made its way through what should have been a light and cheery children’s song. It was what “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” would sound like if it were melting off of a table.
The chicken Nancy was slicing, formerly chilled and firm from the refrigerator, suddenly felt warm and slimy. She dropped the knife onto the floor and jerked her hands back from the cutting board. Slowly she turned her head towards the wreath, breath caught in her throat. The music played on, and the wreath seemed to be looking at her, mocking her. She walked to it and yanked it down from the door. It felt wrong in her hands, slightly throbbing in time with its shambling song. Nancy yanked open the door, dropped the wreath to the floor and kicked it hard into the pantry. Her forceful kick turned it on its side, and it slid between a two-gallon water bottle and some paper grocery bags. The music abruptly stopped. Nancy slammed the door and then leaned her whole weight against it, her breath coming in uneven bursts through her nose.
“It was off. I turned it off. I turned it off,” she said to the refrigerator, who only hummed in response. Then she realized the absurdity of what she just said. If a possessed Halloween wreath was going to play a song like that, it really wouldn’t matter if was on or off, she supposed. Nancy heard herself make a sound that was somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. Then she heard Tom’s key turning in the front door.
“Ladies, I’m home!” his called, his voice booming in the foyer. He dropped his briefcase with a thud beside the umbrella stand and walked into the kitchen. “Man, you won’t believe the day I had, Nance. These people just don’t….”
He stopped midsentence as he came upon his wife, leaning against the pantry door, all the color drained from her face.
“Nance? Honey? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
Nancy realized she was holding the doorknob of the pantry door in a white-knuckled grip. Her entire body was one tense knot. She turned to look at her husband, standing at the island, staring at her. She slowly, shakily let go of the doorknob and crossed her arms in front of her chest. Swallowing hard, she tried a smile.
“Hi, honey. How are you? Tough day?” she croaked, the words sticking in her throat.
“Um, yeah,” he mumbled, walking around the island to stand before her. “You?”
“Well, kind of. Yeah. Well, Bea did.”
She saw a look of concern come into his eyes. “Where’s Bea?”
“She’s fine now, honey. She’s upstairs watching TV.”
Tom turned his back to her and walked to the bottom of the back staircase. Nancy quickly grabbed her glass of wine and drained it.
“Bumble Bea? Baby girl?” he shouted up the staircase. “You okay?”
“Hi, Daddy!” a little voice shouted back. “The light burned me! But I’m okay! I’m watching Simba! Can I eat dinner upstairs?”
“Sure, honey!” Tom said, turning back around to see Nancy rolling her eyes at him. “What?”
“We really don’t want to start that habit, Tom. She’ll want to eat up there every night.”
“Never mind that. What happened today? She got burned? Where?”
Nancy told him the story of the lighting display and Bea’s blistered fingers.
“Poor baby. That’s terrible. Should we take her to the doctor?” he asked, grabbing a beer from the refrigerator. He seemed to have forgotten the scene he walked in on.
“Nah. I don’t think so. She doesn’t even need ice on it anymore. She’ll be okay.”
“Okay. Cool. Listen, you won’t believe what I heard today –“ he began, popping a cherry tomato from the salad Nancy had made into his mouth.
“Tom –“ Nancy interrupted him, her heart beginning to race again. She wanted to tell him the rest of the story – the hooked-nose lady who’d mumbled at Bea, the noseless manager, the staring furniture movers, the cat-eyed lady. She felt a desperate need to speak of the weird events in her own kitchen to her trusted husband, to hear what words her brain would choose to tell it. Maybe in the telling of it, like making a Xerox copy of a copy, the characters in the story would lose some of their sharpness, be less real. Less frightening. And if he took it well, she would tell him about the wreath, too.
“Yeah?” Tom was a little irritated at still not being able to tell Nancy about his day.
“Other things happened today. Weird things.”
Tom took a swig of his beer. “Really? Like what?”
Nancy told him, her words coming first in a rush and then more haltingly as she saw a smile form on his face. It was what she thought of his “Amusing Little Nance” smile, and she knew what it meant. He didn’t believe her.
“You don’t believe me,” she said, tears welling back up in her eyes.
“Honey, it’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said softly, coming to her to put his arms around her waist.
“Never mind. Just forget it,” she spat, trying to pull away.
“Hey. Hey, Nance. Just relax, okay?” he crooned in an infuriatingly even tone, holding tight to her waist. “Look, the thing is, honey, everything you just described can be explained. I bet you’ve already explained most of it to yourself. Am I right?”
Nancy looked at him with a level, expressionless gaze. He was right. She had been making rationalizations to herself all day. Still, she was defensive.
“So, you explain it, then.”
“Well, okay,” he said and thought for a minute. “I admit that taken as a whole, everything you told me does sound weird, and it probably would have freaked me out, too.”
“See? Tom, seriously –“
“But when you break it down…” he began, and Nancy prepared herself for Attorney Tom. “When you break it down, it doesn’t seem weird at all. The manager had some sort of cancer, you said, right?”
“So, they had to remove her nose. I’ve actually seen that sort of thing before. It’s not pretty, but it happens. And she did say they all were wearing Halloween stuff, so that explains the mumbling lady, too. And she probably knew the lights were hot, so that’s why she mumbled to Bea. Which kind of pisses me off, honestly, if she did know. You should definitely write a letter to their corporate office about the handling of the whole thing, in my opinion.”
“You should write it. You’re the attorney. What about the furniture movers? And the freaky cashier?” She was growing agitated and little desperate. “And the cat lady?”
“All weird. But still explainable. You said yourself you were in the way of the furniture movers. They work in retail, Nance. There’s nothing that annoys them worse than a customer. The freaky cashier was a freaky teenager who gets a kick out of scaring people. Probably thinks she’s a vampire, too. And the three fingers, well, that’s unfortunate but not unheard of. Actually, that explains her attitude better. She’s probably made fun of a lot and wanted to take it out on someone. The manager and the cat lady laughing along with her is all the more reason for you to write a letter.”
“And what about the cat lady? “she said weakly, and looked down, her defiance gone. Her shoulders sagged, and Tom turned her chin back up to meet his gaze. He smiled at her warmly.
“Probably a mask too, Nance,” he said quietly.
As she hoped they would do when told, the events of the day began to dull and fade. She found she was even having trouble keeping them in the right order. Instead of calming her, however, this was extremely annoying. Even with his reassuring tone and warm embrace, Tom was extremely annoying. She thought briefly of dramatically pulling out the wreath from the bottom of the pantry with a flourish, brandishing it like a victory trophy and shoving it right in his smiling face.
“Here!” she would declare, grandly flipping on the beastly thing to reveal its terrible song, “Explain this!”
Except she knew what would happen. Nothing. The wreath would do nothing, play nothing, just as it had when she and Bea had first stuffed it with batteries and flipped it on. And even if it did play, what of it? So it was a Halloween wreath that played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”? Some disgruntled employee’s idea of a joke at the Halloween wreath factory. Tom would only give her another bemused smile. Or worse, she would receive one of his “I’m Concerned about Nancy” looks. She snapped out of her reverie to hear Tom going on.
“Honey, you’re overwhelmed. I understand. We just moved to a new house. And you’re staying home full time with Bea now. It’s a lot of change. You may feel a little out of it for a while until you adjust.”
Nancy sighed heavily and buried her face in his chest. She knew when she’d been beaten. “Yeah, I guess,” was her muffled response. She drew her head back and looked up at him. “I guess I am stressed out from the move. It’s been a lot of work.”
“Sure it has. Let’s do something fun this weekend, huh? Get out of the house. Let’s take Bea to the zoo. Whaddya say?”
“Sure. That sounds great,” she said, smiling up at him. He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and then a longer kiss on the mouth.
“Love you, Nance,” he said, satisfied that he had made his wife feel better.
“Love you, too, honey,” she replied.
“I’m gonna go up and see about the wounded soldier,” he said, letting go of her and walking to the stairs. He paused there. “You know, Nance, this probably isn’t helping to control your imagination either.”
He picked up a slim black volume that Nancy had left on top of one of the moving boxes at the foot of the stairs. The title read Scariest Ghost Stories of the Twentieth Century.
“Yeah, probably not,” she giggled, giving him a sheepish grin.
He laughed and shook his head as he continued up the stairs. Nancy looked at the partially-cut chicken on the cutting board and the knife lying on the floor. Not wanting to touch the chicken again, she picked up the knife and used it to scrape the chicken into the trashcan. Then she went to look for the flyer from the pizza delivery place.
That evening, after putting Bea to bed, Nancy sent an email to Interiors’ corporate office. She described in the email only what had happened to Bea and her dissatisfaction at the casual, uncaring way the incident was treated by the manager and her employees. Her tone was authoritative and direct. She sounded like a level-headed but determined mother who was upset about her child being hurt. She did not sound hysterical or overreactive. Writing the email cast a different tone over the whole day, and Nancy felt better about it. It felt settled, finished. It felt normal.
It was close to three a.m. when she became aware that she was awake. The house was quiet save for Tom’s soft snoring beside her. She lay still, glancing across their dark bedroom at the hulking outlines of the dresser and her vanity table. A soft wind blew outside, and her glance skipped to the trees moving outside the window. She quickly averted her gaze from it, loathe as she had been all her life to stare too long at a darkened window. You never knew what might be staring back.
She was thirsty. Painfully thirsty. Her tongue felt swollen, and the roof of her mouth and the insides of her cheeks ached to gulp liquid. Her throat was like sandpaper. She imagined tall, frosted glasses of water: cold, clear and sweating with condensation. She remembered the pepperoni pizza she had eaten for dinner, along with the Greek salad dressing and a big bowl of ice cream for dessert. She had also had two more glasses of wine. Her body was practically screaming at her for hydration.
But the wreath. The wreath was downstairs, crouching on the pantry floor in dusty darkness, waiting for her. It knew she would come. All of Nancy’s fear came rushing back in, as if it were burned fingers she had numbed under cold water and then pulled back out again. Her arms and legs erupted in goose bumps, and her stomach closed up in fear like a drawstring purse. She thought about “accidentally” waking Tom up to be with her in the night. She thought about just going into the bathroom and drinking from the tap. Then she remembered the calm, rational mother who had written the business-like email to Interiors’ corporate office just six hours before. She wanted to be that woman, not the quivering mess she was now, lying in bed, contemplating poking her sleeping husband in the face.
She sat up slowly and edged her way off the bed. Tom said something in his sleep and then turned over, pulling the covers over his head. She padded across the carpet to the bedroom door, the bottoms of her feet tingling and her heart thudding in her ears. Her entire body felt as if there was an electric current running through it. She tried to breathe slowly and purposefully. When she reached Bea’s bedroom door, she stopped to look in. Bea’s ladybug nightlight cast a soft glow across her bed, showing Nancy her daughter who was peacefully sleeping, her arms and legs thrown out to the four corners of her bed. With each of her soft exhales, Bea’s bangs were lifted off her forehead in a gentle wave. Some of Nancy’s courage returned at the sight of her blissfully unaware daughter. She blew her a kiss and continued towards the back staircase leading down to the kitchen.
Nancy made herself take each step. The pantry was positioned directly in front of the staircase, with the refrigerator right beside it. She could not avoid one if she wanted to get to the other. And she needed to get there. Now a sharp pain was stabbing at her temples and her forehead, and she was starting to feel lightheaded from thirst. She crossed the cold tile floor, went around the island and took a glass down from the cabinet over the sink. She took a deep breath. All she had to do was turn around, walk five steps to the refrigerator, push her glass against the water dispenser, drink deeply and then run like hell back up the stairs. It was a plan. She made the five steps, hers eyes darting nervously from the pantry door and back to the refrigerator. Finally, she stood before the water dispenser and eagerly filled her glass with lovely, beautiful water. The smell of it reached her nostrils, and she couldn’t get the glass to her mouth quickly enough. She did indeed drink deeply, emptying the glass in four gulps. She filled the glass again, wiping away some water that had dribbled down the corners of her mouth.
As she lifted the glass to her mouth for the second time, Nancy heard the first bars of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” coming from the other side of the pantry door. Paralyzed, she saw her fingers turn white as she gripped the water glass. The warped song sounded just as she remembered it: corrupted, mutilated, an abomination. The water she had inhaled turned to ice in her stomach. She wanted so badly to run back upstairs, but her feet would not move. The top of her head tingled, and the hair on the back of her neck stood in stiffened attention. Then, just as it had begun, the music suddenly stopped.
Nancy uttered a strangled cry. Her eyes darted toward the staircase then back to the pantry door. The air in the kitchen felt heavy, electrified. There hung in the room an expectation, a waiting for something. Then, in a voice that was high-pitched, sharp and metallic, like fingernails raking in shuddering, piercing strokes down a blackboard, came the familiar words, “ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?”
Whatever that was holding Nancy down suddenly released her, and she went careening towards the staircase. The water glass slipped from her fingers and smashed to the floor. Nancy took the stairs three at a time and ran as fast as she had ever run back to the bedroom. When she hurled herself into bed, she did wake her husband up. Tom was groggy and irritated at being jounced out of a deep sleep.
“Nancy! What the hell? What’s going on?”
“Sorry!” Nancy managed between heaving breaths. “Sorry! Downstairs…getting water…pantry…mouse…sorry!”
“Well, shit. Are you okay?” he sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Do you want me to get it? Are you sure it was a mouse?”
Nancy turned flat on her back and tried to keep from vomiting all the water in one surging, horrible gush. She covered her eyes with her hands. Then, to both their immense surprise, she started laughing. Tom looked confusedly down at his wife, whose whole body was shaking with laughter, peals of it erupting and rolling out of her. In their darkened bedroom, he couldn’t see that the laughter didn’t reach her eyes.
“Nance!” he whisper-shouted. “Shut up, Nancy, or you’ll wake up the baby!”
Nancy clapped her hands over her mouth. “Sorry!” she said through them. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to calm down. “Sorry. I’m okay. I think it was a mouse. I’ll put out a trap tomorrow morning.”
“Okay, well. Try to get some sleep, okay?”
“’Kay. Sorry.” Nancy turned on her side and stared again at the waving trees outside their bedroom window. She pondered her trip down to the kitchen.
“Sleepwalking,” she said to herself. “That explains it. I was dreaming.”
Reassured, she fell into a deep sleep.