Marilyn knew she’d made a mistake letting the woman in. How could she have not? The woman looked so pathetic standing there, bag in hand, drenched, the storm raging around her. It was the only compassionate recourse.
The storm came banging down the valley, thunder and lightning crashing along the mountains, wind driving sheets of rain before it.
It was only luck Marilyn heard the woman calling out and pounding on the door as she checked windows. “May I use your phone?” the woman asked.
“Not while the storm’s raging, but come in,” Marilyn told her, taking her by the arm and drawing her into the hall. “Here, let me take your coat.”
The woman sat down her suitcase and, like a child, let herself be divested of the sopping coat. Marilyn hung it on the coat rack and turned back to her visitor. “Oh, dear. You’re soaked through and through!” Her brown hair hung lank, pasted round her pale face, and the rain had penetrated her threadbare coat to soak the plain frock she wore and which now dripped water onto Marilyn’s rug. The woman’s eyes darted nervously about her, unable to focus on Marilyn.
“Take off the dress, too,” Marilyn told her. “I’ll get you a towel and a robe.”
When Marilyn returned, the woman stood in the same place in her slip, still dripping, eyes downcast, hands twitching at her sides. Marilyn gave her the towel, then held the robe for her after she had dried off. The lilac robe was new and Marilyn was reluctant to hand it over to a stranger, but what else could she do?
Thunder crashed and the rain drummed on the roof above them. The lights flickered but didn’t go out. The woman shivered.
“Let’s go into the kitchen. I’ll make some tea,” Marilyn said.
“I’d like to use the phone,” the woman said in a meek little voice.
“Soon as the storm eases up.”
They sat in the kitchen, drinking their tea and Marilyn tried to draw out the woman, though her questions brought only monosyllabic responses, grunts or nods of the head. She gave up trying then. Marilyn wasn’t much for disclosing details of her life to others either. She was a private person which was part of the reason she lived way out in the country on a seldom traveled road. And, though she cherished her solitude, it was this isolation that normally kept her from opening her door to strangers.
Still, what did she have to fear from this poor woman? She was scarcely bigger than a child and seemed so meek she inspired not fear, but pity. She sat there, holding her cup in both hands as though its weight were too much for her, hair drying frizzy round her pale face, eyes still skittering like bugs on a pond, sat there in Marilyn’s new robe for which she hadn’t even muttered a thank you, sat there with her battered old suitcase pulled up close beside her.
Looking at the suitcase, Marilyn was touched once more by pity. Poor thing, she thought. It’s nothing but a piece of junk. Who would want to steal it, that or what’s in it?
They sat and they sipped and the only sound was the drumming of the rain, the less occasional crash of the thunder and the ticking of a clock somewhere else in the house. Once Marilyn got up to refill their cups and to peek out the window into the enveloping darkness.
Finally the rain slacked off and there was no more thunder or lightning. “You can make your call now, dear,” Marilyn told her, pointing to the phone on the far wall.
The woman got up, dragging her suitcase with her, and went to the phone. Slowly, she dialed a number. Not wanting to appear to be eavesdropping, Marilyn took their cups to the sink, rinsed them and sat them in the rack where other dishes, forks, knives and utensils still reposed since supper.
“I went,” the woman was saying in a low monotone, “but I couldn’t go in. No, I can’t. It was terrible. I won’t!”
The vehemence of the last caused Marilyn to spin around, facing the woman whose back was to her. “They would have put me in restraints,” the woman was saying. “I couldn’t bear that. What? Yes, I took my pills. It’s okay. I’m just down the road. A kind lady took me in. Yes. Yes. I will.”
Restraints? Pills. Just down the road. Suddenly, the truth dawned on Marilyn. There was a psychiatric hospital a short distance down the road. That’s where this woman had come from. She must have gone to admit herself and then changed her mind. Fear gripped Marilyn.
“I’m staying here,” the woman said and hung up the phone. She turned toward Marilyn, a smile lighting her face. “I’m staying…”
Marilyn backed up against the sink. The woman came on, still smiling, her eyes focused now. Marilyn’s hand grappled behind her, seeking the rack. She found what she sought and her fingers closed around the handle. As the woman approached Marilyn plunged the butcher knife into her stomach. The woman grunted and backed away. Her eyes widened and her mouth popped open. She stared down at the knife in her belly and the blood gushing out over Marilyn’s new robe. She groaned again and slumped to the floor.
“Why did you stab her?” the state trooper asked Marilyn as she sat at the table sipping another cup of tea. She had called the police after making the tea. She was certain the woman was dead and it seemed the right thing to do; she didn’t want the body cluttering up her kitchen. His face streaked with tears, the man who had come for the woman stood behind the trooper. He had arrived before the police, but Marilyn wouldn’t let him in until they came.
“I was afraid. I had to protect myself.”
“Afraid?” the man who came for the woman said. “Afraid of what? She was never a threat to anyone but herself.”
Marilyn looked at him. “She wanted my house. She said she was staying.”
“She meant she was staying here until I came for her,” the man said.
Marilyn sipped her tea and didn’t answer. If that’s what she meant, why didn’t she say it, she thought. Then I wouldn’t have had to make a mess of my new robe.