I stepped out onto my front porch and breathed in the lilac-scented air. My plan was to plunk myself right down onto the steps and crane my neck skyward to gaze at the stars for the next couple of hours. This had become my habit on warm summer nights, and my neighborhood was perfect for it. The darkness on my quiet little street left the sky without too much of its pollution filter, and so many of the stars shone brightly, waiting to be counted.
It was for this reason that I was initially disappointed to find the street flooded with yellow light. It was coming from my next door neighbor’s house. Strange, I remember thinking. I knew these folks. They were usually the in-bed-by-ten types. Not stargazers or night owls as far as I knew. None of them met the description, being a married pair of young professionals, their toddler, and a grandmother.
Tonight, however, someone was awake next door. When I looked I saw Gail, the grandmother, seated by herself in a swing they had there. Gail was a remarkable woman. She was well into her 90s, though you’d never know it by looking at her. Out of all the inhabitants next door, I think I’d spoken with her most of all. She had so many interesting stories to share, as you might expect from a woman who had managed to reach the 20s for the second time. She’d lost her husband in the second World War. She’d seen massive social change. What’s more, she always seemed cheerful. I could easily imagine her skipping through the decades with a smile on her face.
That was not the case tonight. Though she was standing half in shadow, I could see the expression on her face clearly. To say there was an expression at all is generous. I saw blankness there. Blankness like I’d never known before. It was as if someone had taken Gail’s body and propped it up in the night when she was no longer there. In spite of myself, I shuddered.
I don’t know what made me do it---perhaps an overwhelming desire for normalcy---but I waved at her. At first, I wondered if she even saw me. She simply stared blankly ahead. My concern grew. In all the years I’d lived next to Gail and her family, I’d never seen her behave like this. It seemed clear to me that something was wrong.
I was just about to speak her name when her head suddenly snapped in my direction. I jumped and nearly yelped, but managed to stuff it down. Now, Gail was staring straight at me, still with an expression as blank as paper. Her eyes burned into mine. I tried to read some kind of message in them, but there was nothing. A chill crept its way up my spine as I stood locked under the old woman’s gaze. Finally, it reached the base of my skull and I managed to jerk free.
Immediately, I turned in the opposite direction. I wanted to look anywhere but at Gail at that moment. Any relief I felt was short lived, turning once more to curiosity at what I saw next.
Turning the corner at the very end of the street were two figures. From their shape, I assumed they were wearing cloaks of some kind. Perhaps even robes. I could make out no details, but the silhouettes I was seeing reminded me of classic depictions of medieval monks. One seemed to be taller than the other by at least half a foot. Strangest of all, at chest height on each figured appeared to be points of flickering light. The talk figure had one, and the shorter carried two.
Candles? I thought.
The figures came nearer and nearer, growing larger and larger in my field of vision. They were about halfway down the street when I realized that they were making absolutely no sound as they traveled. I should have been able to hear their footsteps, but there was nothing. Not even the wind seemed to be blowing. I stood frozen in place, but with a sense of panic rising within me. The entire scene that was playing out all around me seemed increasingly wrong and confusing.
The figures soon came very near. Now, I could see for sure that they were dressed in long, dark robes, and the objects they held were indeed candles. As I watched, I found my eyes fixated on the flame of one of the two candles the shorter figure carried. The flame danced and flickered and bobbed up and down. It was mesmerizing. Something about it calmed me. I felt my shoulders drop and my arms go slack. A smile made its way across my lips. Before long, I was completely at ease watching this candle burn.
Before I knew what was happening, I was gliding down my front steps toward where the figures were. As I came nearer, they stopped right at the end of my walkway. Now they seemed warm and welcoming, though why I could never say. The shorter of the figures held out one of his candles to me. I understood that I was to take it. I stepped down onto the sidewalk, my hand outstretched, ready to claim what was being offered to me.
It was then that I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw Gail standing very close, her face still blank. In a moment, I felt like I was back on Earth, back to my senses. The feelings I’d had just the moment before now sat sour in my stomach. I could feel the nausea rising, mixed with some strange kind of shame. Whatever I had felt at that time, I had a sudden stark idea that I wasn’t supposed to.
Now, I watched as Gail moved between me and the figures. She reached out and took the candle that had previously been offered to me. No sooner had she touched the wax than the figures were off again. They moved silently toward the end of the street, this time with Gail following. I simply stood where I was and stared at the trio until they disappeared around the corner.
I must have carried myself to bed at some point, because the next thing I remember is waking up there. I must have done something like sleep, even though I didn’t feel rested in the least. Still, there was no time for confusion as my ears were immediately filled with the sound of a commotion outside my window, I threw myself out of bed, wrapped myself in a bathrobe, and stepped out to see what was the matter.
The street was in chaos. An ambulance was parked outside of Gail’s house. It seemed as if the whole neighborhood was crowded around it. The back doors were closing in just that moment, but before they did, I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of Gail’s frail form lying inside, being worked on with great focus by a paramedic.
The sight of Gail brought the events of the previous night flooding back, and suddenly I felt uneasy. I needed to know what was happening, and I needed to know now.
I scanned the crowd until I caught sight of Brenda, another neighbor. “What’s happening?” I asked upon reaching her.
“It’s Gail,” she said solemnly. “I guess they found her unresponsive. They have to try and work on her, but I saw them bring her out.” She shook her head. “She’s gone.”
My blood ran cold. A million scenarios ran through my mind, not least of which was the possibility that I may have witnessed the precursor to a crime. Who were those figures, and what had they done to Gail?
“Do you know what time she got back last night?” I asked.
“Back?” The word came from further ahead in the crowd. I turned to see Cassie, the young professional and Gail’s granddaughter, stepping toward us. Her cheeks were pale and blotchy with wet patches where the tears were still drying. “What do you mean ‘back?’”
“I… uh…,” I stammered. I suddenly felt the need to choose my words very carefully. “I saw her leave last night. Or at least I thought I did.”
A wash of genuine confusion fell over Cassie’s face. “That’s not possible,” she said. “I think you’re mistaken.” I saw fresh tears form at the corner of her eyes. “My grandma hadn’t been well lately, and so we checked on her regularly, several times every night. I’m positive she never left her room.”
Written by Jdeschene