The Lace in the Window
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
When the sleeve of Susan’s wedding gown, which hung on the shower rod, moved, she was sure it was because the fierce July storm was forcing its way around Room 15’s closed bathroom window.
She hated the country. Wind, dirt, rain, bugs, sleepless nights from strange animal noises and sticky, just like in that God-awful summer camp her parents had sent her to every summer.
It didn’t help that she knew the Howe Caverns attraction and its adjoining motel had been hit hard by inflation. But this was the price to pay for a wedding the social pages were devouring: as an actress who hadn’t worked in awhile, her agent and publicist had insisted that she do something to create headlines. She wouldn’t be working again anytime soon if she didn’t. She’d been planning on marrying Larry somewhere swank and glamorous back home in the City, maybe the Waldorf. But being the first to wed at Howe Caverns in 38 years—the last one had been in 1938—was getting her a spot on something new called the “Page Six” in the New York Post.
Thunder shook the thin walls. Despite her room’s avocado-mustard décor, she could tell from the structure’s motor-court style it had been built well before she was born. It might have even been the kind of place her parents had stayed in on their wedding night—and the brutal rains weren’t helping, as everything was clammy and the air smelled faintly of wet grass, despite the staff’s overuse of lemon freshener.
Perhaps inflation hadn’t been the only contributing factor to the place’s precarious position.
She suddenly realized she really didn’t want to go through with any of this, but she had no choice. If this didn’t come off, she’d no longer be Susan Night, actress. She’d just be Susan, Larry Dillman’s wife.
However, Larry, the wedding party, photographers and her publicist weren’t arriving until tomorrow. She was, at the moment, glad to have time alone.
She turned on the clock radio, noticing the words Solid State had nearly worn off. Karen Carpenter sang she needed to be in love—something Susan wouldn’t have minded if she hadn’t listened to the A Kind of Hush album day in and day out since it’d hit the shelves in May. Annoyed, she turned it off and stubbed out her Eve, a new cigarette she was trying she’d already decided she wasn’t that crazy about, although now she was stuck with them, because she was pretty sure it’d be a hike to go find a pack of Virginia Slims.
She wanted a shower.
Her wedding gown had been heavily inspired by one she’d seen on Days of Our Lives last year. She admired its lace bell sleeves, Empire waist and gilt panel while she moved it from the rod to a hook on the back of the door.
There wasn’t a shower head—it was a pipe stuck out of the wall—but at least the water pressure was strong. Just as she’d finished lathering her hair, though, the flow abruptly trickled to nothing. Someone in another room had probably just flushed the toilet. Christ. Not wanting to wait until it recovered, she rinsed away as much Wella Balsam as she could, turned off the water, and thrust aside the paisley shower curtain.
Her gown was heaped on the linoleum.
She hurriedly smoothed a towel around her and went to the dress, hoping it hadn’t gotten too wrinkled or soiled. It had a high collar, how could it have come off the hanger?
The back of it was unzipped.
She glanced up at the window. Of course! She’d only thought she’d zipped the gown, and the wind had taken care of the rest. She sighed in disgust, then hung it back up and made sure the zipper was securely fastened.
This was going to be a long four days.
She was due to meet Brenda, their onsite coordinator, for a cocktail. Susan hadn’t thought this necessary, but Brenda had insisted on a twice-a-day check-in. “We’re so wanting to make sure that everything’s perfect!” Brenda had said. “Howe had a long history of marrying people down in the caves and we’re seriously trying to bring this back, so this is just as important to us as it is to you and we need to make sure this goes off without a hitch.”
A cocktail—was it late enough for a Pink Squirrel?—sounded refreshing, though she was sure that if they’d even heard of it, they wouldn’t make it as well as they did back home.
The geraniums and mums around the main lodge, which looked like a cross between a Swiss chalet and an English manor, drooped: the storms over the past few days had been too brutal even for them.
She ascended the slate steps and found whom she assumed to be Brenda—a petite, wiry woman in a paisley maxi-dress who was still copying Mia Farrow’s Rosemary’s Baby hairstyle—sitting in one of the verandah’s rocking chairs. When she got up to greet Susan, her bracelets made a tinkling sound.
“It is fan-tastic to meet you.” She reached for her patchwork hobo bag, which sat on the floor under the rattan cocktail table. “Oh, I hope you don’t mind.” She handed Susan a TV Guide ad for the last movie she’d been in three years prior, Don’t Turn Out the Light. “My son, he absolutely adored you in this movie, I mean it just scared him clear to high school. Would you sign it?”
She was surprised to find herself glad someone remembered her—and sad that this was, if she didn’t get more work soon, going to be all she was remembered for: a low-budget Movie-of-the-Week flick about gremlins trying to drag her to hell through a hole in the refrigerator.
“Sure.” She smiled, took the thrust-out pen, and signed over her own face.
Brenda took the ad and examined it. “Oh, this is just great. He is going to be completely thrilled. Not to mention he’ll believe all my stories now about working with you.” She tucked it back into her bag and lit up a Kool.
A waiter set two orange drinks on the table.
“I figured Harvey Wallbangers would be just the thing!” Brenda twisted the orange garnish over the glass and dropped it in.
Harvey Wallbangers. So last year.
“Well, and how is everything going?” Brenda exhaled a long column of smoke.
“The room’s comfortable?”
“Yes.” Susan sipped the drink and tried not to grimace. It was too heavy on the Galliano. She decided to smoke a cigarette instead and pulled out her pack—again grimacing at the taste and again wishing she had her regular Virginia Slim.
“Everything’s…going as planned,” Brenda said.
Jesus, Susan thought, what does she want me to say? “Well, I’m not happy at all with this rain.”
Brenda nodded. “Unfortunately we’re just going to have to handle that for a few days. It isn’t supposed to stop, but as long as everything is okay on your end, we should be fine.”
Susan sipped from the straw, and there was a moment of silence between them. Then, she said, “Actually, there is something.”
Brenda seemed to relax. “Wind?”
“Yes, wind. Coming around the frame of the bathroom window.”
Brenda smiled nervously. “That’s all.”
Susan frowned. “What do you mean, that’s all? I know it’s an old building, but it knocked my gown off the hanger this afternoon.”
Seemingly non-plussed, Brenda smiled. “Well, we’ll just have to get someone over there to put something across that window. I do apologize for the inconvenience. In the meantime, we need to talk about your photo shoot this afternoon. What’s happening?”
“The first round will be just me, with the others after they get here. Maybe we can do theirs in the dining room.”
Brenda seemed to hesitate. “Listen, with all the set-up going on for your wedding, the dining room is going to be the one place we can’t swing the space, but as you can see, on the property, we have lots of other—even nicer—areas…how about the gazebo up on the back hill?”
On the walk across the drive, which split the attraction’s expansive lawn through the middle, to the motel, Susan was bit by mosquitoes twice. She managed to stop the second in the middle of its meal. A tiny starlet of her own blood shot from its mangled body.
She wanted to pack it in.
Stop it, stop it. You have to go through with this. Hopefully the AfterBite® you bought will take care of it.
She fumbled for the paddle key and shoved it in the lock, then stopped.
Was that music coming from her room?
She pushed open the door. Her clock radio’s face was half-lit, and Carpenter wallowed in “I Need to Be in Love” again. The last guest must have left the alarm set. God, don’t these radio stations up here know how to play anything else? She switched off the radio, took another shower, and coated her bites. The itch receded immediately.
Where the hell was this stuff when she’d been a kid, suffering up there in the deep woods, welts all over her arms and legs?
See? You can do this, she thought, and fell into bed.
At three a.m., the phone rang.
Startled, she answered it. “Hello?”
Not a sound on the other end. Just some clicking.
She hung it up and rolled over, slipping into a dream in which her wedding was at the glittering Waldorf-Astoria.
The phone rang again.
“Hello?” This time, there was the sound of something like rain on the other end. “Who is this?”
Outside, a crack of thunder. Ugh. Of course. Weather doesn’t interfere with the lines in New York like it does up here.
Five minutes later, a repeat performance, except this time what sounded like the roar of an angry ocean blasted her ear so loud it hurt.
She slammed the receiver back in its cradle.
The phone didn’t ring again for the remaining hours of the morning, but it didn’t matter, because Susan couldn’t get back to sleep.
The next morning, a peculiar lily-smelling fog cottoned the valley, shrouding the winding road down the hill. For the moment, it had stopped raining, but the sky was clearly not done; the bottoms of the clouds were the greenish hue of mold.
She met Brenda for continental breakfast.
The small café had a rug that had seen better days, although the tables looked new and had been lavished with souvenir ashtrays, diner-style napkin dispensers, and full glass jars of Brim and Maxwell House instant coffee.
Coffee, Susan thought, thank God.
Brenda dervished in, then stopped. “You look…tired. Is everything okay?”
“Not really.” Susan reached for the pot of hot water that had just been set between them and filled her cup.
Brenda seemed to hesitate, then slung her bag over the back of the chair and slid into it. “What.” She watched Susan unscrew the lid on the Maxwell House. “What’s the matter?”
“I didn’t get any sleep last night because the phone kept ringing.”
Brenda seemed relieved, then reached for the pot and filled her own cup. “Who was calling?”
“Near as I can tell, no one.”
“No one. There was nothing but noise on the other end of the line.”
Brenda shook her head, then spooned coffee granules into her cup and stirred. “Sometimes, in these storms up here, the lines get a little fuzzy. Hopefully, things will be better tonight. Would you like me to have the handyman come and look into it?”
“He hasn’t come to fix the window yet, either.”
Brenda frowned. “I left word last night. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure he does both while you’re out at your shoot this afternoon.”
Back in her room, Susan felt the need to shower again before the shoot. She’d done her hair so many times she was afraid she was going to run out of Aqua Net, but she knew she was just going to have to make do.
In the shower, she lathered her hair and thought about the coming shoot, what she was going to wear—she wasn’t even on the public’s mind enough to get an offer from any designers to model their clothes, so she’d gone shopping and picked up a few things, the most modern stuff she could find.
She felt something in her hair, something jelly-like and cool that tickled her scalp. Then the sound changed: She couldn’t hear the pounding of the water spewing from the pipe.
She looked at her hands. Brown. Her hands were covered with mud.
She turned around.
Earthworms dropped from the pipe.
She screamed and leapt from the shower, landing on her tailbone. She cried out in shock and pain, rolled over, and crawled to yank the curtain closed.
For a moment, there was only the sound of the rain pummeling the window.
She struggled to her feet and hobbled from the bathroom, stopping when she caught a glimpse of her mud-splattered form in the vanity. How was she supposed to do the photo shoot like this? Angry, determined to call up Brenda and not only give her a piece of her mind but demand she send the handyman immediately, she worked her way to the phone and picked up the receiver, frantically dialing zero.
All she got was a high-pitched sound, almost like a scream.
She yanked the phone from the nightstand and threw it against the wall.
She burst into tears. When she’d worn herself out, she faced the reality that the photographers were probably waiting for her up at the main lodge.
Complain later. Just right now, get the worms out of the shower. That’s all. Just get them out of the shower and throw them outside, turn on the faucet again and see if you can get at least a little water to rinse this mud off you.
The idea was abhorrent to her, touching worms, but she had to do it.
She scanned the room. There was nothing resembling any sort of shovel, anything that would effectively scoop them up without her having to touch them.
The trash can.
She went to the marigold-colored can and pulled out its plastic liner. Then she went into the bathroom, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled aside the curtain.
There was nothing there.
For a second, she panicked, feeling her skin crawl. Were they on the floor? Where did they go?
She checked the room, behind the commode, even beneath the vanity outside the bathroom.
There were no worms.
Enough. Enough. You need to go. Just get out of this whole thing. Go meet the photographers and tell them it’s off.
But she couldn’t do that, and she knew it. Nothing can stop this, nothing can stop this, nothing can stop this. You want your career to go down the drain? You saw The Stepford Wives! You want to end up like Katharine Ross? Be known as Susan Larry’s wife, do nothing but bleach the Formica, pop out a couple of kids and go to PTA meetings?
She looked at her hands. They were shaking.
They were also mud-free.
She looked at her stomach, her shoulders. No mud. There was no mud on her.
Calm down. You just imagined it. Go sit on the bed and have a cigarette.
For the first time since she’d bought the pack, the Eve tasted great.
The odd combination of unbearable heat and cold rain, combined with intermittent sky-splitting lightning, had made the gazebo photo shoot uncomfortable—Susan alternately felt as though she was being bitten by mosquitoes or like her skin was tacky as flypaper. After the photographers, who were staying seven miles away in town, had left to get something to eat, she headed to the motel, hoping Larry and the others had arrived. They were supposed to have shown up two hours ago. The driving’s probably treacherous, she thought.
Rivers ran down the driveway, and Susan lifted the hems of her pants to keep them from getting doused, even though there wasn’t much point—the insides of her shoes were slippery. She thought she could take them off and stocking-foot it, then changed her mind: Earthworms littered the pavement, the rains having forced them above-ground so they wouldn’t drown.
She shuddered at the sight.
At the base of the lawn, a distance away, she saw a woman, clad in white and carrying a pink umbrella. She seemed calm, meandering as though it were a fine summer’s day. As though sensing she’d been spotted, she turned and made eye contact with Susan, and waved.
Annoyed, Susan didn’t wave back. Was that one of the other motel guests? Perhaps the one who had interfered with the water pressure during her shower yesterday? Maybe the little country girl knew who she was and those phone calls were from her, pranking for fun?
The rain beat harder. That was enough. She ran the rest of the way.
There were no other cars in the motel lot—no Larry and the others.
In her room, she stripped out of her wet clothes and slipped into her silk robe, though it wouldn’t do much to ward off the sudden chill that had descended. She went into the bathroom and stopped short.
The small window was open. Water was pouring through it, sluicing down the walls and onto her wedding gown, which was once again mysteriously heaped on the floor.
She felt a stab of panic and raced to the dress. It was sopping wet, and as she started to cry she struggled to get it on the hanger, hoping the satin portions weren’t so water-stained that—
There was a knock at the door.
She flung it open. “Weren’t you already here? You already left the window open in the bathroom and you’ve probably ruined my wedding dress, what more do you want?”
He blinked. “Ma’am, I didn’t ruin anything, I haven’t been here yet. Brenda told me to come fix your window and check your phone, but I had another—I’ve had things to take care of, down in the caves, first. We’re just real busy with this rain.”
Susan didn’t know whether to believe him. She glanced over at the phone—which was still in the spot it had landed after the earthworm incident.
He was telling the truth.
“Um, you know what, it’s fine.”
“Well, looks to me like your phone’s—”
“It’s fine, really, I don’t need the phone.”
Maintenance Man seemed to finally accept what he was being told. He weakly made an offer about letting him know if she changed her mind before departing.
Susan closed the door, sat on the bed, grabbed the Howe Caverns ashtray, and lit up. What the hell is going on around here?
Outside, she heard a low growl.
A car! Larry and everybody had finally arrived! She pushed aside the window drapes.
A female face, sugar white and malevolent, stared at her.
Don’t worry, it mouthed, the voice muffled through the plate glass, you will be remembered.
Susan felt bound, as though someone had tied rope around her legs, her arms. The face broke into a Mona Lisa-esque smile, then retreated as the woman it belonged to took a few steps back.
It was the woman she’d seen on the lawn.
Susan wanted to scream, but something filled her throat. She could do nothing as the woman turned and left with a swoop of her white lace bell sleeves.
Something pushed her, and she suddenly could move. She clambered for the drapes and pulled them closed. She tried to slow down her breathing.
Another bride! You saw her gown, that was a gown. That was another bride! That’s why Brenda had been so nervous. That’s why you couldn’t shoot in the dining room! Someone else got married here today! After all the hell in this pit you are not going to be the first person to marry here in 38 years! The desperate bastards double-booked and you’ve gone through this for nothing!
The chill was gone, and she was warm—in fact, hot. Enough. Enough! She looked at her watch. Four o’clock. Brenda would still be at the office.
She checked herself in the mirror, disturbed to see shadows beneath her eyes. She dressed and rushed from the room, not locking it, not conscious that she’d forgotten her raincoat until, halfway across the drive that separated the motel from the main lodge, the skies opened up and needled her with what she was sure were small hail stones.
The inside of the attraction’s lodge, done in faded elegance, Susan thought angrily, was chilly from what Susan had told her was the natural cave air pumped from below. No one else was in the cavernous main dining room area, which had been set for her own wedding tomorrow, its early-American tables draped in the soft marigold and orange linens she’d chosen as her colors. For a moment, it looked so beautiful, she stopped.
Not everything was as perfect as it should be—a crooked folded napkin, the forks and knives not quite evenly aligned.
Because they did it fast to cover up the other reception they had earlier.
With fresh bluster, Susan quickened her step and stopped Brenda from leaving the ticket window just as the woman was about to flip out the light and head for the door.
“What can I do for—”
“The bathroom is a rattle-trap, the phone still doesn’t work, my dress is ruined but this? This is going to destroy my comeback! I can’t very well be the first bride to marry here in almost forty years if someone just got married this afternoon! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Brenda reacted as though she’d been slapped. “What are you talking about?”
“Quit lying! I have had enough!”
“Look, calm down.”
“I will not calm down!”
“Okay. Whatever is wrong, we will fix it. I will do everything I can to get things taken care of.”
“That’s what you said about my phone, and that’s what you said about my window!”
“Listen, I know you’re upset—”
“I knew something wasn’t right with you, all cocktails and coffee to get me to not pay attention. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“NO. No, of course not. I promise you, no one got married here today! The only one getting married here is you.”
“Then who’s that bride I saw just now? She even had the gall to look in my window! I was looking right at her, face to face!”
Brenda paled. Her pen made a clattering sound as it hit the office’s flagstone floor. Her eyes were wide, full of a terror Susan had only seen on Lee Remick. Brenda pulled a chair over, sank into it.
Susan felt her rage weaken only slightly. “Spare me the dramatics—”
“Wait!” Brenda gasped. She swallowed, held up an index finger. “Don’t, just don’t. It’s alright. Just give me a second.”
For what seemed awhile, there was nothing but the faint whistle of the air coming up from the caves, the distant roar of thunder, and rain pattering on the roof.
Finally, Brenda bent beneath the desk, and Susan heard what she thought was the opening of a safe. When the woman sat upright, she presented Susan with a black and white photo in a gilt frame. “Is this the woman you saw?”
Susan noticed Brenda’s fingers were trembling. “It shouldn’t matter—”
“Just answer the question, honey. Is this the woman you saw?”
It undeniably was—the same hair, the same white complexion, the same, unsettling close-lipped smile…the same dress, the same lace bell sleeves.
She didn’t know why, but she felt off. Sweaty. A lump in her throat. “Yes,” she said. “That’s her.”
Brenda put her face in her hands.
“I’m…I’ve made a terrible mistake,” she said.
“Yes, you have, but I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“No, you don’t understand.” She took the photo from Susan. “This woman’s name was Catalina. She ran this place and was somehow related to Lester, who discovered these caves, although we’re not quite sure how. In the 1930s, the caverns were hurting—not just because of the Depression, but because they’d just invested heavily in building this lodge, the motel, and the elevators that take you underground. They were in a lot of trouble. But Catalina must have had a lot of Lester in her. She loved the caverns more than life itself, and she would have done just about anything to keep them open. So, in a repeat of the publicity stunts Howe’s daughters Harriet and Huldah had done in 1854, she decided to get married in the cave. The advance press she got was pretty amazing.” Brenda looked up at Susan. “But the wedding was the same day as the Hurricane of 1938. No one thought it would affect this area. Too far inland. But during the ceremony, there was a flash flood. Everyone, the guests, the bride, the groom…they all died.”
Susan wasn’t sure how to respond. “Alright, so…I don’t understand.”
Brenda rubbed her eyes. “There’s a legend the locals tell about Catalina. If a bride who’s marrying here should see her, she and her guests will suffer the same fate. That’s why no one has ever been married here since the accident. But we’d just bought this place and it was a disaster. Then you came along, and…we convinced ourselves that what the prior owners told us was just probably…silly old superstition anyway. I mean, it’s the seventies, for God’s sake! No one believes in those poppycock farm country tales anymore.” She touched the picture, her fingers brushing Catalina’s cheek. “I guess we were wrong.”
Susan blinked. If you buy into this, you’re an idiot. It sounds a little like the plot of that stupid show that Larry’s mother made you watch, the one about the dead woman’s angry shadow sticking on the wall. Brenda probably watched the same one.
But what other explanation was there, really? There had been no other cars in the motel lot all day, except for those belonging to the photographers and her publicist, and they’d left right after the shoot. She herself hadn’t really seen anything to indicate there had been a wedding and reception. Only this one, lace-clad woman in her window.
And your gown falling from the hanger. You know damn well you’d zipped it. And the weird noises on the phone. And the handyman telling the truth that he hadn’t been there but somehow the window got opened and your dress was destroyed.
And the earthworms. Don’t forget the earthworms.
She recalled the woman’s words: You will be remembered.
“We made it! Wow, that weather sure is lousy!”
Both women turned to look. It was Larry. As though sensing something, he stopped shaking the water off him and stared at the women. “What?”
The opening chapter of Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has appeared in countless publications, including several anthologies such as Great Old Ones Publishing’s Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification and Western Legend Press’ Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, serves as a judge for New York City Midnight’s story competitions, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction. She lives with her husband in the haunted woods of Connecticut and sleeps with the lights on. You can find out more at www.kristipetersenschoonover.com.