Effie Wickes finds herself struggling to deal with her mother's death...
Effie searched through the cupboards, noting down each item she needed to replace or purchase in order to feed herself, and Nimbus, well for the next month. Her mother had thought ahead, and for what that was worth, had left Effie a sizeable sum of money. She had also invested wisely, giving Effie a monthly income that would help her until the investment tanked. She was, of course, grateful to her mother for making those wise decisions, but Effie couldn’t help but feel that Theola had known all along that she would pass sooner, rather than later.
Content with her list, she slipped her arms into her coat and tied her boots. She checked her pockets for her keys, pulled them out, and turned to say good-bye to Nimbus (who was sitting on the windowsill, her tail flicking back and forth, her eyes focused on the birds outside). Without a word, Effie left the house and locked the door—old habits die hard. She knew the town was safe, and the forest was clear of thieves and rapists, but the lessons she had learned in the city were engrained in her mind. She chided herself for not trusting her new neighbours but did not unlock the door again. Once she had settled into the cottage, she might learn to be as trusting as the other inhabitants of Norswood—until then, she would lock her doors and take precautions.
She slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, bringing the car to life. It had been her only mode of reliable transportation for sixteen years, and she would take the best care of it to ensure that she wouldn’t have to buy another vehicle for a long while—it had been her father’s, before he passed, and though she couldn’t remember much of him, she did remember him working on it in the garage every weekend.
The drive into town, though short, was beautiful—Effie could clearly see the colours of autumn surrounding the road, and she could hear the rustle of the leaves through the open car window as she drove down the single-lane road.
Norswood was filled with small shops and organic food stands on the pavement of downtown. Effie parked on the side of the road, in front of a large grocery store; she remembered that it had been family owned and managed when she was a child and wondered if the same family still operated it. She locked the door and pocketed her keys, checking her list again to see what was needed.
The store was smaller than those she had been to in the city, but it had many options she had never found before arriving in Norswood. There weren’t any apples, pumpkins, squash, or other harvest produce—not until after the Autumn Celebration, she remembered. The efforts of the townspeople would bring in the harvest over the weekend, which meant she would have to wait for her fruits. Effie placed a bag of potatoes in her cart and checked the item off her list; she passed the dairy section and the meat section, turning down the isle that kept the breakfast foods. She had sweet tooth that was best satiated with brown sugar and vanilla oatmeal. She picked up a few containers of the oats and a bag of brown sugar—though she searched, Effie could not find the vanilla extract.
Her shopping finished, Effie placed her bags in the boot of her vehicle and checked her watch—it wasn’t too late, and she was in dire need of a cup of coffee. Across the street and down a few buildings was a coffee and book shop that her mother had spent many hours in during their visits to the town. It seemed that Theola’s presence had permeated Norswood and wherever she turned, Effie couldn’t get away from her mother’s memory.
She ordered a large coffee with French Vanilla creamer and sprinkled nutmeg over the complimentary whipped cream the barista had added—she chose a window seat in the corner where she could watch the entire room without seeming mental.
‘Effie Wickes?’ A voice called from the crowd. She looked up from her cup and saw a familiar face, though one she had not seen in quite a few years. ‘Oh, wow, it is you!’
‘Vincent….’ her voice trailed off as she remembered the last time she had seen her childhood friend. It must have been ten years earlier, the year she had turned sixteen, during the Spring Celebration the town held in March. ‘It’s been a long while.’
‘A long while? It’s been a decade!’ He laughed out, sitting opposite her. ‘Tell me, how have you been holding up? I heard from the Andersons that your mother died. My condolences.’
‘I’ve been better, but it seems to be looking up each day. I’m coming to terms with her death, slowly.’ Effie offered a smile, but she didn’t feel joyous in seeing her friend again. She had hoped for a quiet afternoon out, without running into people wanting to catch up. Perhaps her request had been a bit too much to ask the universe.
‘Of course, it isn’t easy losing a parent—my father passed five years ago, and it was difficult to handle it for the first two years.’ He said—Effie could tell that he was trying to comfort her, but his words weren’t very consoling. ‘Why did you come to Norswood?’
His question seemed very abrupt, compared to their previous line of discussion. She was taken aback by it, but recovered quickly, saying:
‘My mother left the cottage to me, and there seem to be quite a few boxes that need to be sorted. I decided to move out here, indefinitely, to get her things in order.’ She explained, sipping her coffee. They remained silent, sipping their drinks, both struggling to keep the conversation from stagnating.
‘Well,’ Vincent began, draining his cup, ‘I need to pick my nephew up from school; perhaps we can get together again, soon?’ He rose from the table and turned to leave. ‘It was nice seeing you, Effie, despite the circumstances. Please, give me a call when you have a free moment.’
‘Sure, that sounds lovely.’ Effie said, waving at him as he walked away. Why had she felt so nervous around someone that had once been her closest friend? Had her mother’s death truly changed her that much?
She finished her coffee and returned the mug to the barista. Effie wanted to walk through the town, but she felt a nagging pit in her stomach threatening an anxiety attack. Thinking better of it, she headed back to her car and home to her cottage surrounded by the quiet and calm forest.
Tossing and turning and thrashing against her sheets and comforter, Effie struggled against the dreams that were holding her mind hostage. Just barely, as if through many layers of glass panes, she could hear the soft mewling of Nimbus trying to wake her. She wanted so badly to answer those cries, to open her eyes and assure the feline that all was well and she needn’t fret—but she could not force her eyes to open.
Pain. Searing pain shooting down her spine, through her arms and legs—she jolted upright in her bed, her breathing laboured. Nimbus sat on the edge, near her feet, her head cocked to one side as if to ask Effie what was wrong.
‘Just a bad dream, Nimbus. Nothing to be worried about.’ Effie confided, running her hand over the kitten’s head and down her back. ‘I’m all right now.’
Nimbus mewled in response and jumped off the bed, stopping at the doorway to look back as if to say are you coming? Effie laughed under her breath as she stood from the bed and pulled her robe on over her night clothes.
‘Yes, yes, Nimbus—I’m coming.’ She followed the kitten down the stairs to the kitchen; she filled the kettle, stoked the embers, and waited for the water to boil. Nimbus watched from the doorway, following Effie back and forth as she moved around the kitchen. When the water was boiling, she prepared a cup of tea, scooped up the kitten, and snuggled on the couch.
The soft sounds of the night reached her ears through the glass—the chirping of crickets, the rustle of leaves, even the howling of wolves far in the distance; the beautiful symphony of the forest stirred something deep within her chest. She placed Nimbus on the couch and her cup on the table then went to dress in something warm.
The woods glowed with a strange blue light, cast by the moon above. It was dark and mysterious, and vaguely threatening as Effie turned her torch on and pointed it into the shadows. She turned and waved at Nimbus, who was sitting in the window watching her as she walked into the trees. Something about the way the kitten’s eyes blinked, perhaps their half-lidded state, made Effie turn back around once she reached the tree-line. She blew a kiss at Nimbus, who jumped off the windowsill as if catching her affection. Smiling, Effie pointed the torch back to the shadows and took a few steps into the forest.
She walked for what felt like hours, following the twists and turns in the pathway—she passed the meadow where Nimbus had led her, where she had found the strange trinket box, and continued down the path, deeper into the forest.
The rustling of leaves, the screams of an animal, the wet sound of flesh being torn—Effie was drawn off the path, deep into the thick bushes and tree trunks. A deer had fallen to the ground, its throat ripped, its blood soaking the earth around it, causing each step she took to sink lower into the dirt, covering her shoes in the bloody mud.
There was a figure on the other side of the animal, bent over its corpse, white shirt stark against the dark backdrop of the trees. The figure raised his head as she neared, alerted by the sounds of breaking twigs and crunching leaves and the paludal soil. Blood smeared across his face, dripping from his lips, staining his chest and his arms and his hands. Effie covered her mouth with her hand, stifling a scream and keeping herself from vomiting.
He rose from the ground, arms dangling at his side, blood dripping from his fingers, his eyes wild and hungry. She blinked, confused at the scene and horrified by the gore—but he was not there when she opened her eyes again. For a moment she was comforted by the thought that she was alone again in the woods, but as she turned to leave the deer carcas behind, a pair of hands gripped her shoulders and spun her in place.
‘You will not remember seeing anything here tonight.’ The man said, his voice low and resonating. She stared into his eyes and nodded. ‘You will not remember seeing me, you will not remember the deer, you will remember nothing. You went for a walk, then decided to head home because your legs were tired and it was getting chilly.
‘I got tired, so I went home. It was very cold out.’ Effie mumbled, nodding her head. The man let her go and she found her way back to the path. For a moment, she was confused as to how she had gotten there, but remember that she had gone for a walk. Realising how cold it was, and how tired her legs were, she turned down the path and continued home, her torch shining a light on the trail before her.
The early morning sun shown through the lace curtains, and the smell of petrichor lingered in the air. Effie opened her eyes to Nimbus purring, kneading the blanket. She reached her hand out from under the cover and stroked the kitten’s ear as she stretched her legs.
‘Did you sleep well, my love?’ She asked the kitten as she stood from the bed and stretched her arms over her head. The kitten mewled in response, jumping down and rubbing against her ankle. ‘I slept well. I had a strange dream, though, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.’ She wrapped her robe around her shoulders and tied it about her waist. ‘I need some coffee, Nimbus. Care for some milk?
Nimbus raced to the door in response, leading the way for Effie down the stairs and into the kitchen. She sniffed the air, confused as to the coppery scent that lingered. The smell was coming from her hiking boots, which sat by the back-door. As she leant down to examine them, her dream flashed in her memory and she took in a deep breath.
‘There was blood, a lot of blood. She whispered, scooping Nimbus away from the boots. With her free hand, Effie opened the door and tossed them onto the back porch, promising herself she would clean them later. ‘A dead animal…. And a man. How odd, to have such a dream and wake to find blood on my boots.’
Placing Nimbus on the floor in front of her bowl, Effie pulled the milk from the freezer box and filled the kitten’s bowl half way. She went to the living room, where most of her luggage and boxes still sat, still packed. In one of them was a French press, ideal for making small amounts of wonderful coffee. She placed it on the counter near the stove and filled the kettle with water. She stoked the coals, added a new log and some paper, and blew on the embers until the paper caught. It would take a while to heat the water, she knew, so she returned to the living room and sat at the desk.
‘I’ll go ahead and write down what I dreamt of last night—you never know what your dreams will reveal.’ She mused entirely to herself, knowing that Nimbus was in the other room and that the kitten couldn’t actually understand her. She opened her notebook—titled Dream Journal—and wrote down the key elements of the dream. Just for added measure, she also noted that her boots had been covered in blood. It was an odd coincidence, indeed, but perhaps she had stepped somewhere that had been the dining place of a predator.
The kettle whistled and she stood from the desk, closing her journal. She poured the water into the French press and pushed down on the plunger, releasing the oils from the ground beans, filling the kitchen with the sweet aroma of fresh coffee. She took in a deep breath and sighed, feeling comfortable and at home for the first time in months.
Back in the living room, creamer in her coffee and her mother’s book in her hands, Effie lounged on the couch and listened to the soft sounds of the forest waking up. Her dream well behind her, she was ready to start a new day.
She pulled a small, shallow box from the back of the drawer she was filling with clothes and sat back on the bench of the vanity. Another hidden treasure her mother had saved, most likely forgetting it existed during her stays at the cottage. Effie lifted the lid and found the contents sparse—a single, small key sat on a bed of white lace.
‘I wonder….’ She found the small chest she had brought home from the clearing and placed the key in the lock, turning it gently—the mechanism clicked and the lid popped open. ‘Oh, mum….’
Within the chest sat a silver chain adorned with a single tear-drop pearl. She remembered the necklace from her childhood—it had been her mother’s, and before that her grandmother’s. According to tradition, the necklace was passed down to the daughter on her wedding day (something old); but, her mother hadn’t given it to her, stating that it wasn’t a proper marriage. Effie hadn’t understood her mother’s meaning, and Theola wouldn’t explain it to her, but she had the feeling that it was due to her choice in a husband.
Effie held the necklace up to her neck and looked in the vanity mirror; she clasped the chain around her neck and touched the pearl, feeling her mother’s presence surrounding her.
Her fingers on the pearl, Effie left the bedroom and went for the stairs, seeing, for the first time, the paintings that lined the wall down to the living room. Theola had painted most of them, though there were a few of her that had been painted by a friend in town, and a few landscapes by other local painters. As a child, Effie had enjoyed staring at the pieces of art while her mother explained the different techniques, colours, and brushes that had been used.
The paintings brought up a mixture of emotions in the pit of her stomach—pain, fear, grief, longing; Effie felt the wetness of tears on her cheeks before she knew she was crying, but she reached a hand out to touch one of the paintings.
‘Mum, I miss you.’ She whispered, choking on her tears. Effie looked into the eyes of the portrait, remembering the way they sparkled and how her smile, though often sad, was always bright and infectious. No one could resist her laugh, it brought out the happiness in every situation. Why then, she constantly wondered, had her mother continued farther down the dark path of depression? She would tell her friends that Theola was ill, but in reality, it was not an illness anyone could see—and even though there was an abundance of medication to mask the illness, there was no cure, and Effie had watched her mother wither away into a husk of what she had once been.
She remembered the day her mother had died, and it caused her to crumple into a heap on the stairs, her fingers still clasped around the pearl.
She had been at work, dodging calls from Henry, and trying her hardest to maintain a professional attitude with her customers. Her manager appeared and pulled her away from her register.
‘You have a call in the office.’ His face was reserved, but she could see fear and sympathy in his eyes. Effie knew it was her mother, that something had happened, but she had never thought the call would carry such painful information.
Theola had taken her own life. Effie had been gone no longer than an hour, and when she had left for work that morning, her mother had seemed in proper spirits and was planning their dinner for that evening. Everything had seemed so normal, for the first time, that Effie hadn’t assumed anything was amiss. But that call made her question everything she had experienced since moving back in with her mother.
As she bawled into her hands, she felt Nimbus rubbing against her leg, and she laughed through her tears. ‘I’m fine, Nimbus, I’m just grieving.’ The feline trilled in response and nipped her pant leg. ‘What, are you out of food?’ Another trill, another nip, and Nimbus padded down a few steps, turning back to make sure she was following. ‘All right, all right, I’m coming.’
Effie wiped the tears from her face and inhaled deeply as she walked into the kitchen and refilled the kitten's bowl. Feeling the need for a cup of tea, she began preparing the fire and filled the kettle with water, watching as the flames came back to life.
She took a sip of her tea, turning the page of the book she was reading, a flannel blanket wrapped over her shoulders to keep the chill away. It was peaceful, and she was grateful for the silence, except for the soft purrs coming from Nimbus, who was curled in her lap. Smiling, Effie looked down from the book at the kitten, wishing she could have as little concern as a cat.
The soft sound of footsteps on the second floor alerted the kitten, and a soft growl escaped her mouth. Effie looked at Nimbus, at first confused as to her reaction—had she had a dream?—but once she heard the steps, she understood. There was someone in the house, someone moving around in her bedroom. How did they get into the house? What did they want? She didn’t have much money, not in cash at least, and though there were a few antiques throughout the house, Effie was sure they weren’t worth much to a thief.
She remained on the couch, listening to movement—it seemed to be isolated, one single path, pacing back and forth in front of the door, as if unsure if they wanted to leave the bedroom or remain there. Effie hadn’t thought to bring a weapon with her, and though there were knives, they were all in the kitchen—she would have to pass by the stairs in order to get to them, and there was a high chance that the intruder had a stronger weapon that a simple kitchen knife.
As she continued to listen without moving from the couch, she realised that she could clearly see every breath she exhaled. The temperature in the cottage had dropped considerably, and a chill bit at her skin through the blanket; Nimbus vibrated in her lap, both from the cold and from the growls she was emitting. Effie followed the kitten’s gaze to the stairs and heard the bedroom door open and close, the footsteps moving down the hall to the top of the stairs. They were still soft, a woman’s steps and they were familiar to her—she had heard those footsteps before. She went to stand from the couch, but as the intruder descended the stairs, there was nothing there. No one accompanied the soft gait, no one appeared as the sound reached the last step.
She was alone, except for Nimbus, but she swore there was something standing at the stairs, looking at her, watching her with curiosity. She knew it was her mother, though she couldn’t explain how she knew that.
Effie closed the book in her hand, placed her cup on the table, and moved Nimbus to the cushion as she stood from the couch. The cottage was still chilled, her breath still visible as she moved to the stairs and stood in the exact spot where the steps had stopped.
The feeling was gone, she no longer felt that someone was watching her, that someone was standing at the stairs. It was gone, and the temperature in the cottage returned to normal. Nimbus left the couched and trotted into the kitchen, mewling for another dish of milk.