Authors: Sarah Langan
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
For Carole, Chris, Michael, and Peter
The darkness of this house has got the best of us, There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
hey knew Susan Marley. They saw her climbing to the top of Iroquois Hill at dawn, or dipping a stick tied with string into the polluted Messalonski River, waiting for fish that would never come. She was seen knocking on store windows after “Open” signs had been flipped to “Closed,” and at the Clott Paper Mill in the dark twilight hours, where shifts of men had once departed into the night. She was even seen standing on the front stoop of her childhood home, her hand suspended over the bell, as if waiting for someone to open the door.
She was a beautiful woman in the most classical sense of the word; curly blond hair; blue eyes; a small, childlike body; and delicate features. So impossible to attain, it was not the kind of beauty that inspired envy. It was also not the kind of beauty that appealed. She was too empty to allure, too fragile to touch. Perhaps this was what made them especially aware of her, so that when they felt her presence on the street or outside their homes, they stopped for a moment and held their breaths like children passing through a graveyard.
By the time she was nineteen, Susan Marley stopped speaking. She did not thank the cashier at Puff-N-Stop when she bought her weekly supply of Marlboro Reds and Campbell’s Tomato Soup. She did not offer the sign of peace to her neighbors when she sat in the last pew of Sunday morning services at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrow. She did not even wave hello when old family friends driving by in Chevys and Subarus honked their horns in greeting.
They discussed this silence over family dinners, and in the vestibule of the town hall after monthly meetings had ended. From her grammar school teachers and family friends, they gleaned the fragments of her sad history, and attempted in vain to decipher a language. They made a map of the houses she passed during her late-night walks, trying to divine a pattern, only to discover that she walked a wide circle around the town that closed smaller and smaller within itself.
They heard that she frequented Montie’s Bar in the afternoons, drinking vodka gimlets like water. She often shared her bed with the men she met there; country men, lost tourists, and—God help us—Bedford boys thinking they’d discovered the world. The women near her apartment kept an eye on who came and went, and only rarely did rumors surface about married Dennis Murdock, sweet Jonathan Bagley, or drunken Paul Martin sneaking with hunched shoulders out the back door and walking to cars they’d parked a block away.
For a while, she was all they talked about. “Did you see Susan Marley last night?” they asked each other over the phone, or at Montie’s Bar, or in the Shaws Supermarket. “I saw her lying on her back in the cemetery with a blade of grass sticking out of her mouth like it wasn’t thirty degrees outside,” one person might say, and another would answer: “Danny Willow told her she should check herself into a hospital but she wouldn’t go. These days, you can’t do anything for these people unless they slit their own wrists.”
Beneath their curiosity was outrage. The town had its share of troubled souls who drank all day, and women who hid the bruises on their faces with thick layers of skin-colored makeup, but even these people knew the limits of their behavior. They did not stare, they did not wander the town, they did not display the scars of their lives for all to appraise and pity.
Doesn’t everyone have scars?
was the unspoken question.
Haven’t we all had to live through bad times, and come out the other side?
What made Susan Marley so special, when poor Margaret McDermott was raising three girls on her own, and Bernard McMullen had been born without the sense of a bird? These people did not complain: These people had the courage to face their lives and find happiness where they could. Their outrage drew full circle, and they were offended by Susan’s circumstances, and offended again by her silent insistence on making those circumstances known.