by P. S. Gifford
Mary Higgins sat there looking at the screwdriver in her hand. She then looked at the body of her dying husband at the site of the new house they were having built.
It was a muggy afternoon on the 2nd of August, 1956. She had only married Sam a few months earlier. She supposed it was more to do with family convenience than love. Mary had never loved Sam, never had the slightest romantic interest in him, not even on their wedding night. She cannot help but shudder as she recalled that fateful night...
No, the only reason she had married into the Nichols family was for money. Simply put, her family had none, their family had plenty. She reasoned it was a reasonable sacrifice; her happiness in exchange for being able to take care of her three sisters and aging mother. Her father had worked in the coal mines, and as many miners before him, died before his fortieth birthday. These were hard times in West Virginia.
She had met Sam almost a year before, at the local church dance. He was immediately attracted to her; most men were. Her combination of a slim, yet shapely, figure and raven-black hair and green eyes aroused most men’s passions. Yet, Sam had what most men in these parts didn’t: a sizable bank account.
The first few weeks had been bearable. She had finagled to get an allowance for her unmarried sisters, and as a result they managed to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. They had rented a small house on the outskirts of town. Mary entertained herself with her garden, and she had adopted a young black terrier, Eddie. Eddie now never left her side, much to Sam’s chagrin.
Sam at first idolized Mary; she was after all a major prize. He paraded her around the fashionable places, as a proud pig farmer would delight in showing off his finest hog. Mary was just another beautiful thing to possess.
The newlywed Nichols had decided that a new house was to be built — or rather Sam decided, he after all made all the decision. It was going to be the largest and grandest house that the city of Binkley, West Virginia had ever known. The Nichols had made all their money three generations back, in the lumber business. Ravaging the land of trees had made them a small fortune.
The house was going to have seven bedrooms and three bathrooms, on five acres of the greenest fields you would ever wish to see. It was on a Sunday afternoon when the construction was halfway through that the incident happened.
As every Sunday, the construction workers were enjoying their only day of rest. Sam had come to examine the week’s work, as he did every Sunday. As is typical during West Virginia summers, the air was humid and hot. Mosquitoes were flocking about with wild abandon, and Sam had been bitten several times. It was funny: Mary rarely was bitten, yet, for Sam it was a regular occurrence. Perhaps this was nature’s way of seeking revenge on the family who had destroyed so many trees and neglected to replant any.
Sam was irritable as he examined the work completed on the building during the week; he was becoming more and more dissatisfied. He grumbled constantly at the builders’ slow pace — and this from a man who had never done a day’s labor in his entire life.
As was also typical, Mary had been dragged along also, and if Mary went anywhere, Eddie was not far behind. She was not sure what prompted him to lose his temper; no doubt it was something mundane. However, it was hot, and nerves were raw. The couple had been exploring the new basement of the house; the walls had already been half bricked up. This is where the wine cellar was going to be.
As Sam prodded the masonry with a screwdriver, Eddie accidentally got between his feet, and Sam fell. His head smashed into the pile of bricks. He squealed and quickly got to his feet. Mary had seen him upset on many occasions, but this was exceptional even for him.
Sam next reached down and grabbed Eddie by the throat. As the poor dog’s life was being squeezed out of him, he whined helplessly. Suddenly Sam dropped the dog and keeled over.
Mary held the bloody screwdriver in her hand. She had just stabbed her husband with in the back of the neck. Eddie scurried to the safety of his mistress, who with tears in her eyes reached down and caressed his ears. Eddie responded with a gentle lick to the back of her hand.
Mary examined Sam. He seemed to be writhing a bit; he was not quite dead. She realized that having gone this far, she was already going to have a case of attempted murder held against her. Her best way out was to complete the job.
She spied a sizable piece of lumber and with surprising calmness and clarity of mind proceeded to smash it repeatedly on Sam’s skull. A horrified Sam tried in vain to fight her off, yet his injuries rendered his attempts futile.
Now Mary had another problem. How was she going to dispose of the body? She realized that the answer was right in front of her: the bricks. She would simply place her husband behind the uncompleted wall and finish the job herself.
Dragging Sam’s body was harder than she had imagined. Sam had enjoyed the good life, including fine food and wine in extravagant quantities. Mary finally managed to drag his oversized body to the wall. After an hour, an exhausted Mary had managed to stuff Sam behind the wall.
She next considered the bricks and the mortar. She figured that about four to five hundred bricks were going to have to be laid to completely fill in the hole. Glancing at her watch she realized that she had just fourteen hours to complete the task before the workmen returned in the morning.
Unfazed, she set about the grim task at hand. She awkwardly set the first few bricks in place and discovered it was harder than it looked. Yet she persevered, she had watched the process of bricklaying often enough, and after an hour she became surprisingly proficient at it.
At five-thirty, as the sun was starting to set, with Eddie lazily sleeping just a few feet away, she was ninety percent finished. all she had to do now was fill in the final fifty bricks. It was then she heard it; her husband’s voice.
As she gazed bewildered between the unfinished bricks, she screamed. Her husband’s glaring eyes were staring back at her. He had apparently been unconscious, and was now realizing his fate.
“I swear I shall get you,” he hollered.
Mary started putting the bricks in place more quickly now, less meticulously than before, yet good enough.
“Let me out of here!” A little fainter this time.
Finally, the last brick was in place. There was still the faint muffled cry managing to echo through the walls. “I will have my revenge...” Then quiet.
Mary glanced at her watch. It was almost six. The workmen would be here in just three hours. Would Sam be silent by then? Yet she had no choice. She quickly cleaned up the job, and with Eddie at her side hopped into the Lincoln Continental and fled back to their residence.
At first, there was a huge investigation into the disappearance of Sam. Yet, besides his elderly parents no one much cared about Sam. In fact, if most people were to be honest, they were relieved.
Mary had concocted a story that he had spent the day hunting by himself and simply never returned. A flimsy story perhaps, yet men tended to want to believe it.
Two months later Sam’s father passed away unexpectedly, and his mother’s death followed just a few weeks later, both apparently of natural causes. Young Mary inherited the Nichols’ vast fortune, including the now-completed mansion.
* * *
It was the morning of Mary’s seventy-sixth birthday. As she swung herself gently on the porch above the now overgrown garden of the home where she had lived for almost fifty years, she could not fail to smile.
Mary had never remarried. Shortly after the house was completed, she, her three sisters, and her mother moved in. Only her youngest sister, Elsa, had married, and she and her husband also lived in the spacious house.
The Bickley estate had changed much over the last half-century: she had been forced to sell all but half an acre of the large grounds they once owned.
She never once thought about Sam after that day, but no one was ever allowed down into the cellar. Not once. It had been locked, sealed, and forgotten. Yet, that very morning she was forced to reflect on it: a government official had paid her a visit.
She was being forced to sell; the house was destined to be torn down and a modern condominium building was going to take its place. Her attorneys had tried to prevent it, yet, taxes on the land had proved beyond her ability to pay, and she had to sell. As she lingered on a sip of her ice tea, she realized that she was going to have to deal with her haunted past.
The following morning, over her daily coffee and toast, she decided that after all these years she was going to have to explore the cellar. Although she was in her late seventies, fate had blessed her with relatively good health. She was still spritely and nimble enough to get about by herself.
Her latest companion, the fifth in a long line of loyal black terriers looked up lovingly at her. It was funny she often thought that this dog, Chester, could almost have the spirit of her first dog, Eddie, inside him. They shared a similar temperament, heart, and, seemingly, soul. Eddie’s eyes had concealed a vast wisdom in their deep brown hue, and so did Chester’s.
She had survived her sisters and for the last three years had been living with only Chester for companionship. The money had gradually been depleted; her and her sister’s family had lived well. Now the house was on its last legs, just as she surely was. Soon the house would be gone, and she supposed she was soon going to follow suit.
As Chester’s loving gaze followed her, she opened the bottom cabinet in the kitchen, where numerous old keys were stored; her eyes were drawn to a sparkling key. It was the key to Sam’s old 1952 Lincoln. The car had long since gone, yet the spare key still sat in this drawer, where it had hid for nearly half a century.
As she fumbled amongst old faded papers, and miscellaneous junk, she finally came across the large brass key to the cellar. The last time she had held that key was several weeks after the incident, when the house had been completed. They had handed her a set of keys for the house. The very first thing she ever did in this property was to lock that cellar door, and place the key in the drawer.
Nervously clasping the key, she began walking to the back of the kitchen. She opened the door that led down to the cellar. Her nostrils were met with stale putrid air, it made her cough uncontrollably. Chester instantly leaped up and peered into the darkness, hovering protectively at Mary’s side.
Mary turned on the light switch. She was not expecting it to work after all these many years and was a bit startled when it did. The dim bulb illuminated the steeply descending staircase. Cobwebs adorned virtually every corner and crevice. Mary shivered. Memories of the incident raced through her mind, as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
With Chester gallantly at her heels, she began her descent, clutching the handrail. She had no idea what she was going to do. Surely there would be no way she could demolish those bricks, those very bricks set with her own hands. She examined her hands today, wrinkled and liver-spotted. They had been so dainty once, she thought.
It took her a few minutes to reach the bottom of the staircase. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the key in her pocket. It was then she heard it. Surely, that was a cry. Or maybe an old frightened mind simply playing tricks? She could not muster enough courage to place the key in the lock. Yet she knew she must, or else her long, deep secret would be revealed to the world, and she would die in prison alone, without her best friend Chester. She reached down and tenderly scratched Chester’s ear. Chester responded by licking her hand encouragingly. She smiled to herself. Yes, this dog surely has Eddie’s spirit...
Again she heard a noise, it sounded like a cry. No, no, it must be the wind. Has to be. Simply has to be. She had a hard time convincing herself but eventually placed the key in the lock. She attempted to turn it; it is reluctant, its workings long lodged in one place. She tried again, with more force, her arms trembling at the exertion. Finally, the key began gradually to turn. With a click the lock opened.
She reached for the light switch, tugging at the petrified old string. This time she was not rewarded with light. She opened the door fully, and the swinging light bulb from the stairwell behind her danced haunting shadows on the wall.
As her eyes slowly adjusted to the muted light, she stared in total panic and disbelief. Where she had entombed Sam there was a hole in the wall, a gaping hole.
Mary screamed and collapsed to the floor.
* * *
“The body had evidently been there for a few days,” the chief police inspector calmly explained to the reporters who had gathered outside the Nichols’ house. “We found Mary Nichols collapsed at the bottom of the stairs leading to an old cellar. Her dog was sitting at her side, whimpering and licking the dead body.
“It was the strangest thing though; at first glance we thought it had been a terrible accident, that she had simply fallen over and hit her head. We were very surprised to find an old screwdriver sticking out of the back of her neck...”
Copyright © 2006 by P. S. Gifford