I sighed with relief as we got home. Ray helped me out of the car. I am always stiff and sore after sitting for hours for my chemo treatment. I pulled off my wig as soon as we were in the door. It’s hot and scratchy. I’d go bald all the time, but I get tired of people staring. He settled me in the recliner, phone and remote at hand, a tray of drinks and snacks beside me. I married a good man. He paused, looking at me searchingly.
“What’s wrong?” I said. He shrugged, then grinned sheepishly.
“I don’t know. Somehow, I feel I should stay. Can’t exactly say why.”
“That’s sweet, but not necessary. I’m just going to be sitting here snoozing for the rest of the afternoon. How many times have we done this now? Don’t worry. I know you’ll find a pile of work waiting in the office. I’ll call if I need anything,” I said.
He still looked perturbed but kissed the top of my head and grabbed his keys.
“Okay, but I’ll be home soon. Promise you’ll call for anything?”
I nodded, then snuggled down after I heard the front door close. I channel surfed for a few minutes before giving up and turning the television off. Nothing but trashy talk shows and commercials. I couldn’t concentrate on anything intelligent. They call it chemo brain. Tuna, the cat, circled the recliner, sniffing suspiciously before jumping into my lap. He always does that on hospital days. He settled himself and began kneading and purring, his luminous green eyes fixed on me. We’d camped in the garden while we renovated the house, a two-hundred-year-old stone cottage. He had flitted around warily in the distance for days, lured closer and closer by canned tuna, before deciding we were his people. A cat makes a house complete, I thought contentedly, scratching him behind the ears. I surveyed the room. All the struggles of the renovation had been worth it, the blood, sweat, tears, exhaustion, squabbles and banged fingers. The low-ceiling room was cozy. We’d retained the original stone walls which were now lined with bookshelves and artwork. The French doors opened onto the garden. In the soft dusk, a light fog was descending. I looked at the brilliant autumn colors of the leaves covering the lawn. I should rake them when I feel stronger, I thought drowsily.
I must have drifted off to sleep because it was dark outside when I next looked at the windows. The room was lit by a soft golden light. Odd. I didn’t remember turning any lights on. Tuna suddenly stiffened, growled and leaped off my lap, his fur standing on end. He fled the room. I struggled to sit up and see what had scared him. There was a young woman standing at the French door. Tuna had never reacted this way to visitors before. This rural area was the kind of place where neighbors checked on neighbors and dropped in without invitation. Especially since I’d been ill, we’d got used to unexpected company, usually bearing casseroles and other edible offerings. I couldn’t eat much, but Ray complained that he’d gained ten pounds.
I beckoned her to come in. I hadn’t seen her before, but it never occurred to me to worry. She seemed to materialize on the footstool next to me. Ray must have finally fixed the French door because it didn’t screech the way it usually did when it was opened. She was wearing a strange old-fashioned long dress and apron. Her hair was covered with a cotton cap like a shower cap. She smiled at me shyly.
“Hello,” I said. “I like your costume. You must be getting ready for Hallowe’en early. Is someone having a party already?”
She glanced down and smoothed her apron, looking puzzled.
“I don’t know what you mean. This is my only dress. I came to welcome you.”
I stared at her. I knew I tended to be loopy on the chemo days, but this was beyond the norm.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Grace. I lived in this house once. I like the way it is now. You have made it exceptionally beautiful. It is a good house. That is why we never want to leave it.”
“This house was abandoned and derelict when we bought it. It hadn’t been lived in for years. You’re much too young to have ever lived here. Who are you and where have you come from?”
She smiled and laid her hand on my arm. It was chapped, with rough, bitten nails, the hand of someone who did manual labor, yet I could not feel her touch. Scared now, I pushed her away, sat up and swung my legs over the side of the recliner. Usually getting up after a nap was a stiff and painful process, but now I moved with ease. Tears brimmed in her eyes and she wiped her face with her apron.
“I did not mean to scare you. I meant to greet you. My family and I were happy here once, long before your time. We lived here till the farm failed and we had to move to town. I hate town. Dirt and people, poverty and begging. My baby brother died, my mother lost her mind and my father left. As soon as I died, I came back here.”
“Died? I am not dead,” I said. “Get out!”
At that moment, I heard the screech of the French door opening. Ray was home. I gasped in relief and ran towards him, arms out for his embrace. He passed me by, his wail of anguish filling the room. He dropped to his knees. I realized he was holding the hand of the woman lying in the recliner. I looked at Grace. She nodded her head sadly.
“I thought you understood. You are with me now.”
I grabbed Ray’s shoulders, intent on making him turn to look at me, not at the pitiful bald, figure in the chair. My hair was long again, shiny and luxuriant. He could see that I was all better, surely? He paid no attention, sobbing convulsively for a long time. Finally, he pushed himself up and reached for his phone, dialing 911.
I turned, weeping, towards Grace. She embraced me gently, holding me in her weightless grasp. When I calmed down, she cupped my face and looked at me.
“He will know you are here, where the happy times were. We are sisters now.”
I nodded. It was a comforting thought. I took her hand and followed her into the light.