“John? John, why won’t you talk to me? Please, what did I do?”
Nicole’s husband sighed, scrubbed at his red-rimmed eyes with calloused hands, and shoved to his feet in an angry burst of motion.
Nicole covered her shocked gasp with a palm pressed to her lips. “John?”
Without a single glance, the love of her life stomped from the room. Distraught and confused, Nicole sank to her knees and buried her fingers in the deep pile of the Luxelle carpet, which reflected the soft silver glow of the muted day.
In the corner of the lounge, which overlooked the lake—obscured by impenetrable fog this morning—their Old English Sheepdog snored and kicked a leg, deep in slumber and doggy dreams. Tentative, Nicole stretched out a hand and stroked the thick fur of his neck. “Oh, Shadow,” she whispered. “At least you haven’t abandoned me.”
The dog startled, shot to his feet, and shook his heavy frame free of the vestiges of sleep. His lush, long fur flung in all directions before it settled along his heaving flanks. With a baleful stare toward Nicole, Shadow snorted and followed in John’s wake toward the kitchen.
Huh. Even the bloody dog was ignoring her. What the hell? Nicole peered through the picture window at the empty table and chairs on the fog-drenched deck. Beyond, the lake lay flat and gloomy, reflecting her state of mind.
Desperate, Nicole cast her mind back … had they argued? She recalled no falling out or catastrophic event. Last night, she’d had THAT dream again. The one which began wet but turned hellish by the end. Had she cried out? Disturbed John? Nicole shook her head. Even so, that wouldn’t warrant her husband’s complete neglect of her this past month. When did it go so wrong? In consternation, she chewed on her bottom lip. “I didn’t do anything!” she cried in frustration. Only the dulled thup-thup of the grandfather clock in the hall offered a reply; otherwise, the house remained as still and silent as the grave.
In a huff, Nicole donned her wet-weather gear and marched from the holiday retreat. A circuit of the miles-long lake would perk her up. So much for coming away for a fresh start. Anyone would think she’d had the affair rather than John, the way her husband was behaving.
The fog hampered Nicole’s plans of walking a full circuit of the lake. The further from the house she roamed, the thicker the fog fell. Eeerie shapes and silhouettes loomed and leered from the swirls of white-grey which blocked her way. Nicole’s heart thumped and thud-thudded in alarm and nerves pimpled the skin on her neck and arms while also trailing icy fingers down her spine.
Fed up, wet, and dispirited, Nicole turned back to retrace her sodden steps. The tall trees that lined the trail appeared black and threatening in the murk, menacing as though her recent nightmares dogged her every step. What had she done to offend the universe so?
Fog and premature dusk played tricks on her senses and misled her as to time and place. When, eventually, Nicole reached the sanctuary of Lake Pines, it seemed that another month had oozed by since she left the temperamental shelter of the house.
Hand on the doorknob, she paused and listened. From within, the high tinkly laugh of some unknown female danced on the warm air that caressed her chilled frame. Surely, John hadn’t brought his mistress here? She shook her head. No, he promised it was over. A stupid mistake. Or was Nicole the stupid one? Could this explain his mood? Had he hoped to drive his wife away so he could play? Swallowing a sob, Nicole stiffened her shoulders and pushed through the door and into the house.
At the entrance to the lounge, she stopped short. Strangers. A man and a woman, middle aged, stood gazing onto the empty deck, discussing the gorgeous view despite the persistent fog—you’d think they’d intruded here on a bright spring day the way they gushed and oohed and ahh’d. A low growl from off to the side redirected Nicole’s attention. Shadow crouched in the far entryway, beneath the doorframe, hackles raised and fur on end. John stepped into view and placed a restraining hand on the dog’s ruff. A sheepish grin lifted his strained, drawn features for a few fleeting seconds.
“Sorry. He’s not usually like this.”
The woman turned and smiled. “Oh, now, isn’t he a sweetie.”
The husband followed her gaze then turned around too. He knelt and held out a flat palm to the dog, who leaned forward for an inquisitive sniff. “What’s his name?” A gentle smile lifted the man’s lips and creased his soft, kind eyes.
John patted the dog’s head, and the Old English made a harrumph kind of noise in the back of his throat while, begrudgingly, he shifted a fraction of his attention to the strangers and John. “We call him Shadow.” John cleared his throat and blinked rapidly. “N-Nicole, my wife, chose it. As a pup, the little critter followed us everywhere.”
The woman smiled sadly. “Hence, Shadow.” Her smile lifted further and brightened her whole countenance. “That’s so lovely.”
John swallowed, nodded.
Stunned, Nicole had watched the interchange mute and statue-still. To make her presence known, now, seemed rude and intrusive … insensitive somehow. Bewildered, she chose to retreat silently. She would tackle her husband later. Demand he tell her what was going on. John, though, never came up to bed.
In the early hours, Nicole thrashed herself awake. THAT dream again.
… It starts out erotic with she and John holding each other in a manner highly inappropriate for driving. On the cusp of climax, Nicole closes her eyes. In her hand, she feels her husband approach his own precipice. Then the dreamscape shifts. Morphs into a nightmare of screaming steel and burning rubber. Screams and blood and pain. Crashing and thunder and agonised wails. “No, no, no, no, no,” over and over again. Then utter blackness. Absence.
… Always, Nicole jerked awake at this most horrifying moment. Confused and drenched in sweat, she laid on her back and stared, unseeing, at the ceiling—cracked and in need of paint. By her side, the bed lay empty and cold. Unused. With a huff of disappointment, Nicole rolled onto her side and slid her legs over the side of the mattress. It was way past time to sort this out once and for all.
In the hall, she stopped, mouth agape. John handed two bunches of keys to the man and woman from … before … yesterday, wasn’t it? She couldn’t be sure. Outside, the fog edged closer, oppressive. All at once she felt trapped. Disoriented. Bloody annoyed. John waved and strode down the gravel driveway. Nicole stumbled after him, incoherent and stupefied with rage. “You sold the house? Our bloody home? How could you?!”
John ignored her. Nicole ran ahead and pushed against his rigid chest, which—all of a sudden—gave way. Stumped, she staggered and watched as her husband walked past her, seemingly oblivious, and climbed into a car she didn’t recognise.
From there, things went from bad to worse. The new occupants rearranged the house and threw away so many memories. Nicole wept and pleaded … all to no avail. And that damned fog persisted. Whenever she would leave on a light, or a door open, or play her favourite song, desperate for illumination and company, the intruders would plunge her into dark, silent isolation. Day by day, night by night, the mist thickened, threatened, and smothered. How much longer could she endure? And why had John abandoned her?
Then came the priest. Words bandied about … exorcism. Nicole smiled, all at once relieved. Of course, all this time ghosts had haunted her house. John must have gone away to get help. Why couldn’t she remember? Nicole shrugged, smiled. It would all be over soon.
At first, the priest’s words brought solace. Then came a tug at her navel. Most unpleasant. Then the fog enveloped body and soul … swallowed her into ephemerality. Glimpses … a grave, a memorial stone …
Here Lies Nicole Gellert—Devoted Wife—Loving Companion—Gone but not forgotten. Rest in Peace.