By Judy Walker
As Katrina was looking up at a bluebird perched atop a roof peak of the quaint Victorian-style cottage, Kyle scooped her off the ground. She giggled and draped her arm around his neck then quickly reached up to keep her white bowknot hat from falling onto the cobblestone pathway. “What are you doing?” she asked, laughing so hard she could hardly speak.
“Carrying you across the threshold, of course. Welcome to Miller’s Merry Manor, and to your new life as Mrs. Blackwell.”
The twinkle in his blue eyes had the same captivating effect on her that it did the first time they met. Heat rose to her cheeks, and she found it difficult to pull away from his gaze. Just as their lips met, someone yelled, “Welcome! Are you two lovebirds on your honeymoon? I’m Maggie.”
They looked in the direction of the voice and saw an elderly woman, standing on a rickety old ladder propped up against the front of the cottage next door.
Kyle released Katrina, then ran across the yard. “Let me help you down, Maggie.”
He guided her off the ladder and safely to the ground. “You really shouldn’t be doing this. Your ladder doesn’t look very sturdy. It’s not even sitting level on the ground.”
Maggie flipped her hand. “Oh, phooey, young man. I’ve done it a million times. I’m eighty-six, but I’m still pretty limber. I’ve been taking care this place myself since my dear Frank passed on over a decade ago.”
“What do you need done? I’m glad to help.”
She pointed up to the roof. “Kevin has taken a liking to heights lately. For the life of me, I don’t know what’s gotten into him the past few days. He’s never done this!”
Kyle looked up to see an orange tiger cat sitting on the ledge of a dormer window. “Let me get him down for you.” He adjusted the ladder, then slowly climbed up to retrieve the cat. With Kevin tucked securely under his arm, he made his way back down and placed him in Maggie’s arms.
She held him close and kissed the top of his head. “He’s shaking like a leaf! Poor little thing.”
“Next time he does that, come over and get me. My wife and I will be staying for the next two weeks.”
“I’d hate to be a bother, since it’s your honeymoon and all. You two have got better things to do than pander to an old woman.”
“I assure you, you’re not a bother. We’re happy to help in whatever way we can.”
Katrina wandered over to them, anxious to meet one of the neighbors. Perhaps she’d be able to clue them in on some of the activities available to them in the area. She hoped to do some bike riding, boating, and maybe even a nature trail while they vacationed at Enchanted Lake.
Maggie looked Katrina over, head to toes. “Well, would ya look at you. Aren’t you just as cute as a speckled pup, with your red hair and freckles.”
Katrina smiled and extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Katrina, but you can call me Kat. Nice to meet you.”
Maggie shook her hand. “Glad to meet you, too, dear. My name is Margaret, but everyone around here calls me Maggie.”
“How long have you lived on the lake?”
“Oh, about twenty-five years now.”
“We’d like to have some fun while we’re here. Can you give us some suggestions?”
“Well, there’s bike, kayak, and canoe rentals at Bogies on the south end of the lake. And, the Blueberry Festival is going on in town this week. You won’t want to miss that!”
“Sounds wonderful. We’ll make sure we check it out. Thanks.”
Kyle winked at Katrina. “I guess we should go get unpacked.”
“Yes. I can’t wait to see the cottage!”
“I’m sure you won’t be disappointed,” Maggie said. “It’s one of the nicer rentals in the area. The Millers do a fine job of making sure their guests are comfortable.”
Kyle put his arm around Katrina. “That’s good to hear. I guess we’ll be seeing you around, Maggie.”
“You betcha. You kids go have some fun.”
Kyle and Katrina were in awe when they entered the cottage. Soft hues of turquoise, peach, and yellow flooded the living room. An overstuffed sofa sat under a large picture window, facing a flat-screened TV on the opposite wall. A wooden rowboat shelf in the corner of the room held stacks of books, games, and playing cards. Soft flowing sheers covered the windows, and the hardwood floors were shined to perfection. They walked through the living room and into the bright kitchen. Beyond the wall of glass doors was a deck with a picnic table and a grill. Wooden steps led from the deck to a pier jutting out over the water where a blue pedal boat bobbed up and down in the water, loosely tied to a post.
Katrina turned to Kyle and grinned. “Can we go out in the little boat? Please?”
“Of course, we can. Why don’t you unpack while I put the groceries away and fire up the grill. After dinner we can go out for a sunset cruise. How does that sound?”
She kissed his cheek. “Amazing. I can’t wait!”
They enjoyed hamburgers and a glass of wine, then spent the evening peddling around the lake looking at all the cottages lining the shore. Katrina imagined what it might be like to live in each one of the charming homes they passed along the way.
Only a sliver of sun could be seen peeking over the rooftops of the cottages across the lake when they returned. Kyle helped Katrina onto the pier, then tied the boat to the post. They were walking up the steps toward the cottage when Katrina saw a flash of pink from the corner of her eye. She squinted in the dim light to see an angelic figure shuffling around the yard next door. “Is that Maggie?”
Kyle stopped and glanced in the direction she was pointing. “I think it is. What is she doing? Is she wearing a nightgown?”
“I think so. I’ll go check on her.”
Maggie had a dazed look in her eyes when Katrina approached. “Maggie? Are you okay?”
Maggie stopped abruptly. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kat. Remember? We met earlier today.”
Maggie slowly took a few steps backward. “Get away. Now! Don’t come near me. You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
Katrina’s mind flashed back to when her grandmother was in a nursing home. She suffered from sundown syndrome and would become agitated and paranoid in the evening. She remembered watching her mother defuse her grandmother’s distress on numerous occasions. In the calmest voice Katrina could muster, she said, “Maggie, everything is okay. I’m here to help you. Let’s get you inside, okay?”
Maggie reached out her hand and tilted her head. “Are you my daughter?”
“Yes…yes.” Katrina took her hand and gently led her into the house. “Let’s get you tucked in for the night.”
“Okay, but they’re out there, you know. They’ll get you if you’re not careful.”
When she helped Maggie out of her pink chiffon robe, she noticed some sores on Maggie’s shoulder. Several large round wounds surrounded by charred skin consumed her upper left arm. Trying not to sound alarmed, she asked, “Did you burn yourself?”
Maggie became lethargic and sat on the bed. “What? No. I’m fine. I’m just tired. So very tired.”
Katrina knew better than to take her to the emergency room in her present state. She and Kyle could check in on her the next morning. Then she’d be more alert and willing to let them seek medical attention for her injury.
Maggie was fast asleep when Katrina turned off the light and tip toed out of the house and back to Miller’s Merry Manor.
Early the next morning, Kevin meowed at Kyle and Katrina from the dormer window ledge as they walked up the sidewalk to Maggie’s house. Kyle shook his head and laughed. “Look, the cat is up there again.” He redirected his attention to Katrina when he heard her scream.
With a revolted look on her face, she was staring at a gruesome lump of blood and guts lying on the wooden planks. “What is that?”
Kyle moved closer to inspect. “It looks like a mutilated squirrel. Not much left but the tail. Kevin’s really got some game if he managed to tackle a squirrel. I’m impressed!”
“That’s so gross! Let’s see how Maggie is doing.”
They stepped over the carcass and rang the doorbell. Within seconds, Maggie opened the door, smiling. “Well, hello. It’s so nice to see you two again. Please come in, won’t you? Let me get you a cup of coffee.”
She disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared with two mugs in her hands.
“How are you doing Maggie?” Katrina asked.
“I’m doing great. It’s a beautiful morning isn’t it?” she replied, placing the mugs on the coffee table.
“Yes, it is.” Katrina was anxious to get Maggie to the doctor. She’d been so consumed with worry about Maggie’s wounds that she’d hardly slept a wink. She’d scolded herself all night for letting her go to bed instead of taking her to the emergency room. “How is your shoulder this morning?”
“My shoulder? It’s perfectly fine, dear. Why on earth would you ask about my shoulder?”
Katrina glanced at Kyle for assistance and got a look that said, ‘you started this, go for it.’
“Because you had what appeared to be a burn on your upper left arm yesterday evening. I worried about you all night.”
Maggie pulled up the sleeve of her flowered blouse and turned around. “There’s nothing wrong with me. See for yourself.”
Unable to believe her eyes, Katrina stood up and walked over to take a closer look. All she saw were a few faint pink blotches on Maggie’s skin where the oozing wounds were the night before. She gently ran her fingers over her shoulder. “I…but…last night…” She replayed the events of the previous evening in her head as she resumed her seat beside Kyle. Am I going crazy?
Katrina was still dumfounded when they walked back to their cottage a half hour later. “I know what I saw, Kyle. How could it have disappeared overnight?”
“Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you thought. It was dusk when you put her to bed. The light may have cast a shadow on her back making the sores appear worse than they were. Maggie is fine. Stop worrying about her. Let’s go to town and checkout the Blueberry Festival. It might get your mind off things.”
They arrived back to the cottage in time to enjoy a cookout and watch the sunset. Kyle took some chicken out of the refrigerator to marinate while Katrina poured two glasses of wine.“Kyle, maybe we should ask Maggie to join us for dinner.”
He took her in his arms. “You’re still worried about her, aren’t you?” He kissed her forehead. “If it will make you feel better, I’m all for it. I’ll throw another chicken breast in the marinade while you go over and invite her.”
“Thanks. Have I told you today how wonderful you are?”
“Um, maybe once or twice.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Katrina noticed Maggie was dragging her left foot when they walked across the yard to join Kyle at the picnic table. Once they sat down, Katrina became concerned again. “Is your leg okay, Maggie?”
“Of course, dear. I think I may have sprained my ankle trimming the lilac bushes this afternoon. Don’t worry your pretty little head about the ills of an old woman. It’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Kyle went into the house to pour Maggie a glass of wine. Moments later, he returned and handed her the glass. “I hope you like chicken.”
“It’s one of my favorites. So nice of you to invite me over for dinner. I’m famished! I’ve been doing yard work all day and haven’t had a chance to eat.”
“In that case, I’ll go ahead and warm up the grill.”
After he turned on the gas, he noticed Maggie’s wine glass was empty. “That went down pretty easy. Would you like a refill?”
“Why, yes, I would. I don’t have to drive home, so why not?” She chuckled and stood up. “But you sit here with your beautiful bride. I’m perfectly capable of getting my own wine for Pete’s sake.”
“Okay, help yourself. It’s in the fridge.”
Maggie slipped into the kitchen. She seemed disoriented when she returned to the picnic table a few minutes later with a full glass of wine. As she sat down, her eyes rested on Katrina’s hand. “What a beautiful ring, dear. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like it.”
“Thank you. It’s very special to me. It was my grandmother’s wedding ring. She and grandpa were married seventy years.”
“How nice.” Maggie stared across the lake as if she were in a trance. “Did I mention that I’m getting married next week?”
“No, you didn’t. That’s exciting. Who’s the lucky guy?” Katrina asked.
Maggie paused and rubbed her chin. “His name? Why, I seem to have forgotten. Oh, I remember now, his name is Frank.”
Katrina and Kyle exchanged a confused glance.
“Wasn’t Frank your deceased husband’s name?” Kyle asked.
“I…I think so,” Maggie replied. She placed her hand on Kyle’s arm. “Would you be a dear and get my wedding dress out of the attic for me? I must try it on to make sure it still fits. It may need to be altered, and I haven’t much time.”
“I’d be happy to,” he replied, going along with her delusion. “I’ll stop over first thing tomorrow morning.”
“That would be awfully nice of you, young man. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He stood up and headed for the sliding doors. “First, we need to eat. I’ll grab the chicken and be right back.”
“And I could use some more wine,” Katrina said, following him into the kitchen.
Once they were inside, Kyle slid the door shut and pulled Katrina aside, out of Maggie’s view. “Boy, you weren’t kidding, Kat. She gets very confused at night, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, but you handled it perfectly. I’m so proud of you.”
Kyle walked over to the counter and picked up the bowl of chicken. “Kat? What happened to the three chicken breasts that were in this bowl marinating? They’re gone. Did you put them in the fridge or something?”
“No. I didn’t touch them.” She walked over and looked in the bowl. “Where’d they go?”
“You don’t suppose Maggie ate them, do you?”
“Why would she do that? They were raw.”
They both turned and looked outside. Maggie had disappeared.
The next morning, it was Kyle who was anxious to check on Maggie. He sprung out of bed and threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. “I’ll be right back. If she still insists that she’s getting married and wants the dress out of the attic, I’ll play along.”
“Sounds good. I’ll have breakfast ready when you get back. Hopefully, she’s not ill from eating the raw chicken last night. If she appears the slightest bit nauseous, let’s get her to the ER immediately.”
He kissed her cheek. “Okay. See you in a few.”
Katrina was scooping eggs onto their plates when Kyle bolted through the front door holding his arm.
“She bit me!” he screamed, running to the kitchen.
“What do you mean, she bit you?”
“Just what I said. She bit me! On my arm!”
“That’s absurd, Kyle. Let me see.”
He removed his hand, revealing some pink marks in a semicircle on his right forearm.
“Why did she bite you? Did you say something that upset her?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Let’s clean it off, although it doesn’t look very bad.”
“That’s because her dentures fell out! Otherwise, half my arm would have been chewed off!”
She led him to the sink, took off her wedding ring and set it on the countertop, then started scrubbing his skin with soap and water. “You’re being ridiculous. Stop exaggerating.”
“I’m not, Kat! You should have seen her. She was vicious! Not only that, her skin was a strange ashen color, like it had decayed. She also had some weird burn marks or something all over her body. She was dragging her leg again, too. Oh, and she made a strange grunt noise.”
Katrina stopped cleaning his arm. “Wait a second – Maggie shuffling around the yard at night, her disappearing sores, the dead squirrel, the missing chicken breasts, the attack on you this morning…”
“And Kevin! He probably climbed on the roof because she tried to eat him!”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Simultaneously, they both screamed, “Zombie!”
Kyle grabbed her hand and led her down the hall to the bedroom. “Let’s pack and get the heck out of here. Fast!”
Maggie was shuffling toward them wearing her wedding dress when they peeled out of the driveway five minutes later. Once they were on the highway nearing the outskirts of town, Kyle looked over at Katrina. “Wow, that was close!”
“Maybe we should try Vegas?” she asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Good idea. We could be there in about five hours.”
She smiled and glanced down at her ring finger. “Oh, no! I can’t believe I forgot my ring! It’s on the kitchen counter!”
He pulled over and slammed on the brakes. “We have to go back and get it!” Rubbing the wound on his arm, he added, “And those huge T-bone steaks I left in the fridge.” His eyes suddenly glazed over and rolled back in his head. He leaned in toward her. “But you’ve never looked so appetizing, Kat.”