The Unhinging of Harriett Markham

by Denise Streiner


The day began on their freshly repainted porch swing, her husband of forty years and she, swinging away, birds soaring overhead, the gentle breeze lifting her hair from her neck. The perfect day. How she ended up beating him with a shovel and burying his squirming body in her rose garden, Hariett will never know.

There they were, Sam and Hariett, talking occasionally, but mostly swinging in silence. When you’ve been together as long as they have, you don’t need to say much.

“Cindy bringing the kids over today?” he asked.

“Nope,” she answered. “Not today, they have soccer or something.”

They swung silently for a few beats.

“Yeah, keep her running, don’t they?” Sam chuckled.

This was how their conversations went. Except on the days when Cindy actually brought the kids over, then they’d laugh about how ragged their grandkids would inevitably run them.

Today, however, something changed. Hariett noticed it only because she knew Sam so well.

“That new lady down the street is nice. Asked me to fix her water heater,” Sam said. “I’m going over today to help.” Sam lit his cigar and looked up at the birds. There was something there, something different in him.

When would he have met the new neighbor? “You didn’t tell me you talked with her.”

“Oh, yesterday when I was out. I forgot to mention it. I won’t be there long, just going to see what’s wrong with it.”

They swung in silence. Hariett let the conversation go, unsure about her own concern. She had never worried about such things before. Sam is a good man, always has been, she reminded herself.

Later, Hariett was getting the mail when Julianna, their neighbor and friend, stopped by. Julianna looked harried and frightened.

“Hariett, where’s Sam?” she whispered frantically, eyes scanning the neighborhood.

Hariett’s heart began to race. Julianna was one of the most laid-back, even-keeled people she knew. “He just left to help the new neighbor.”

“Oh no,” she cried. “Listen carefully. He’s not Sam anymore. Don’t trust him!” She squealed and ran off casting nervous glances over her shoulder as she ran.

Hariett’s heart raced. That was when Sam walked up, not from the street where he should have been, but from within the house. Hariett jumped when he touched her.

“Oh Sam, you scared the life out of me,” she said.

He grinned. Her skin crawled.

“What did Julianna want?” He spoke in a voice Hariett didn’t recognize, cold and saccharinely sweet, yet demanding.

“I... I don’t really know. She didn’t give me time to ask,” Hariett answered, backing away.

Sam looked... wrong. His skin was waxy, and his eyes bore through her. He looked like an animated mannequin. Something was terribly wrong. Maybe she was crazy. Hariett’s heart raced more, everything in her screaming for her to run.

“I’m going to the market,” she said suddenly.

He blocked her path. “I’ll go with you.”

“Oh dear, you don’t have to go with me. I’ll be fine,” she said, praying he would let her go. This wasn’t her Sam!

He grinned again and stepped aside gesturing toward her keys, blessedly allowing her to leave. Hariett moved quickly, trying not to look like she was rushing to escape. She grabbed her keys and purse and flitted out the door. She drove to the first place she thought of, the neighborhood market, to see if she could find a friend that would help her Sam.

The store was bustling, as usual. Sweating now, Hariett ran to Martin the butcher, a lifelong friend.

She was out of breath when she reached the counter. “Martin, I’m so glad to see you!”

Martin turned, bloody hatchet in hand and a chilling smile, like Sam’s, on his plastic face.

His voice was like icy steel. “Hello, Hariett.”

Hariett jumped backward, bumping into someone’s cart. Joe and Julie, a young couple from down the block, stared at her unblinking, mouths stretched wide across their pale faces. Little baby Joshua’s head slowly turned Hariett’s way, and plastered to his tiny cherub face was that same cold, toothless grin and blank, unblinking stare.

Gasping, Hariett spun around, taking in the rest of the shoppers. Every man, woman, and child stood staring at her, eyes wide, each and every one of them grinning like they were going to devour her.

“Hariett, let me help you,” said the young store manager, taking Hariett’s arm and pulling her toward the back of the store.

She ripped her arm free and ran out the door, dropping her purse along the way. She didn’t go back for it. Hariett kept running as fast as her old legs would carry her, fighting to keep her balance.

Hariett went back to her house just long enough to grab the money, hidden beneath their bed. She had to get away. That’s when she picked up the shovel, on the way into her house.

Somehow, the sun was setting. How the day had slipped from her, Hariett didn’t know. Everyone she passed turned their head to stare with those hollow eyes and empty smiles. Including, to Hariett’s dismay, her dear friend, Julianna, who stood stock-still on the front walkway, like a wax figure from some horrid movie. Only her head, and those soulless eyes, followed as Hariett stumbled up the walk. They had gotten her, too.

Hariett made it into the bedroom, dragged the safety box from under the bed and opened it. That’s when Sam grabbed her.

“Hariett, I won’t hurt you,” Sam pleaded.

Hariett came up with the shovel as hard as her crooked hands would allow. Sam looked shocked just before the shovel hit him, and he fell with a thud. Hariett ran and didn’t look back. She went out the back door, avoiding Julianna who banged insistently at the front, her waxy face grinning in the little window.

Somehow, Sam followed Hariett out the back of the house, bleeding and moaning, grabbing for her. That’s when she hit him again. His body fell next to her roses. A large hole had already been started where Cindy and the kids were building Hariett’s Mother’s Day gift, a pond and fountain. Hariett used the shovel and pushed Sam’s squirming body into it.

She heard screaming around the pounding in her ears and the yard lit with flashing lights. Hariett collapsed to the ground exhausted and prayed the police were not part of this. Sheleft her safety in their hands as she passed out.

* * *

Hariett awakens in a hospital bed. Cindy is there, talking with the doctor. Her back is to Hariett, but Hariett can see the doctor’s face. It’s normal, no waxy skin, no nasty grin.

Hariett breathes a sigh of relief. It’s over. Tears roll down her exhausted face.

“I don’t understand. She hallucinated that everyone was trying to kill her? How can that be? Was it a breakdown? Will she be okay?” Cindy bombards the doctor with questions, trying to wrap her brain around the information she’s receiving. Her entire world is crashing down around her.

“Unfortunately, this may be a sign of something larger. Her hallucinations were so vivid and complete that we need to explore neurological disorders. We’ve started her on an anti-psychotic medication that may help contain the symptoms. Unfortunately, it will take time for the medication to build up in her system. We’ll have to watch her closely and will know more in a day or so,” offers the doctor gently.

“And my father?”

The Doctor shakes his head. “If your mother were any stronger, he would be dead, for sure, but he’s stable now. We’ll know the extent of his injuries when he wakes up. I’m sorry I can’t give you better news.” He pats her shoulder and walks out.

Approaching Hariett’s bed, Cindy grips her mother’s hand.

Hariett stares into her daughter’s precious face. Cindy looks haggard, shocked and terrified. Tears are falling from Cindy’s eyes. She looks as shocked as Hariett feels.

Hallucinations? None of it was real? I hurt my Sam! And none of it was real, Hariett thinks. Her stomach bottoms out as she realizes that she can’t even trust her own mind. What if Cindy or the kids had been there? Would I have hurt them, too? Oh God!

But I’m okay now, right? I saw the doctor, he was normal. Hariett looks into Cindy’s beautiful face, Cindy is normal, her sweet girl. The medication must be working.

Hariett wants to let Cindy know that she’s okay but she can’t.

A pale hand suddenly materializes on Cindy’s shoulder, making her jump. Julianna’s waxy face appears next to Cindy’s, smiling maniacally down at Hariett.

“Cindy, sweetie, I have a friend who needs to speak with you in the hallway,” says Julianna, guiding Cindy away. Cindy nods, looking back at her mother nervously, sensing that something is wrong. Hariett wants to scream for Cindy to run but finds herself paralyzed.

Julianna slithers back to Hariett’s bedside. “Goodbye Hariett,” she sneers. Leaning down over the frail woman, Julianna unhinges her jaw.

Hariett slips into oblivion, grinning wickedly.


Copyright © 2012 by Denise Streiner

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