Miss Hilda Wright had seventeen pet rats that slept in the bed with her. Or at least that’s what Susie Dellaray told me during a game of kickball in her humongous backyard.
Miss Hilda was Susie’s backyard neighbor. One night, Susie explained in between innings, her delinquent older brother, Tristan, had snuck over their white picket fence to snoop around Miss Hilda’s property. He walked around to the side of Miss Hilda’s little red cottage, with its cedar shake peeling off and empty flower pots sticking to the window sills, and smushed his face up against the only window with a bit of lamp light spilling out. And there she was, propped up in a four-poster bed, reading a mysterious purple book, and stroking a blanket of brown rats covering her twiggy legs.
“Tristan stood there and counted them all,” Susie said proudly. “I bet she uses them for her potions!” a pudgy boy Marty Sykes yelled.
“Or maybe she eats them for dinner,” Clara Lite said in that nasally voice of hers.
“Maybe,” Susie said. “All I know is that Miss Hilda is nasty.”
And she spelled it out: N-A-S-T-Y.
“All I know is that I never want to go near that house,” I said. “Can we get back to the game?”
Miss Hilda scared me. Susie and her brother could tell all the made-up stories about rats they wanted, I overheard my grandma telling my Uncle Charlie real stories about Miss Hilda that gave me nightmares for a week.
Miss Hilda moved to the island in 1973, a year after my grandparents had bought our cottage on Fig Tree Lane, just a few blocks south of Susie’s estate on Avenue A. One morning, before the sun had peaked over the cedar trees and the last of the lighting bugs had gone to bed, my grandma left for her early morning walk. When she rounded the corner onto Avenue B, there it was – a tiny red cottage with cedar shake siding and pots of chrysanthemums dancing on top of the window sills.
My grandma ran home to tell my grandpa about the house. It had appeared overnight. No construction workers, no real estate agents, no housewarming parties. The lot was a ghostland, and then all of the sudden it was home to two of the most charming people on the island – Miss Hilda and her husband, Lawrence.
They were a fine looking couple. Miss Hilda had long, blonde hair that spilled over her shoulders like silky cornhusks. She wore polka dotted dresses and always seemed to find the perfect shade of blush to compliment both her hair and her outfit. Lawrence had darker features – black hair, brown eyes, full eyebrows. They said they moved to the island from the suburbs in Virginia, but their tanned skin made them look like long-time beach dwellers.
Miss Hilda and Lawrence attended all the social events – beach barbecues, shag dancing at the Community Center, the annual Fig Tree Festival, the Fourth of July parade. They were at church every Sunday, sit- ting right up close to Pastor Frank. Miss Hilda would nod her head and whisper, “praise be” every time the Holy Spirit compelled her to – which was often. After church, she would host bridge tournaments in her living room and Lawrence would prepare fried okra and pimento cheese sandwiches for all their guests.
Lawrence was a quiet man, contemplative. But every now and then, when someone funny like my grandpa cracked a good joke, Lawrence’s laugh filled the room. Miss Hilda beamed when she heard her husband’s laugh. She beamed when her husband did just about anything. My grandma said she never saw a love as strong as Lawrence and Miss Hilda’s.
The couple made friends with everybody in town. Within a year, they were considered local – a true badge of honor on the island – and everybody knew Miss Hilda made the best blackberry jam on this side of heaven, and that Lawrence could handyman just about anything.
And then one day, they disappeared. Miss Hilda and her husband went inside that little red cottage of theirs and didn’t come back out. Not for Saturday night shag dancing or Sunday morning service. Their 1960 Buick Invicta collected dust in their driveway for six whole days without a trip to the beach or even the grocery store. On the third day, neighbors began dropping by.
“I knew they had to be hungry, locking themselves inside for three whole days. So I went over there with a container of persimmon pudding,” I overheard my grandma tell my Uncle Charlie. “Knocked twice, but no one came to the door. I saw shadows through the curtains and left the pudding on the porch.”
My grandma wasn’t the only one who saw the shadows. Miss Hilda and her husband kept their lacey curtains drawn, but every person that stopped by said they saw movement beyond the beige barricades. Some would cup their hands around their eyes and lean in real close to the glass. But they saw nothing, heard nothing. Something was moving inside that little red cottage, but no could make out exactly what it was.
On the morning of day six, rumors began circling around the town. Some were saying Miss Hilda and Lawrence were dead and everyone began arguing about who should have to go the house and peel their rotting bodies off the floor.
Sheriff McDowell said he would do it, but when he got there that afternoon, Miss Hilda was out on the front porch in her rocking chair – the one Lawrence had built her – rocking back and forth on the splintered wood and whistling Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”
McDowell asked her where Lawrence was and her response was short and simple.
“Gone,” Miss Hilda told the sheriff. “He’s gone.”
And then, without another word, she went back inside her little red cottage.
Sunday morning rolled around and Miss Hilda was missing from church.
On Monday, Hattie Daniel’s boy, Peter, was seen dropping Miss Hilda’s weekly groceries off on the front porch. She finally came out of the house late Wednesday afternoon, but only to sit in the rocking chair and whistle “Into the Mystic” till the sun went down. My grandma said she thought about going over there to check in on her, but decided against it at the last minute it.
In the meantime, news of Lawrence’s sudden disappearance travelled around town and the gossip spread like hellfire.
“Lawrence left her.” “No, he’d been unfaithful and she kicked him out.” “But Lawrence would never do that.” “Well maybe she killed him, buried his body in the backyard.” “But why would she kill her husband? I’ve never even heard them raise their voices at each other.” “Some people are just crazy, I guess.”
And so that’s what the town settled on: Miss Hilda was crazy. With her ab- sent from church and the Community Center, it was easier to come to this conclusion. Before long, the town agreed to keep away from Miss Hilda and that little red cottage. And no one, not even the sheriff, bothered to search the home for a sign of Lawrence.
“I think some people were better off not knowing,” my grandma told Uncle Charlie.
“More to talk about on this island where nothing worth talking about ever happens.”
And that’s when they started talking about the cottage, how it had appeared on Avenue B in the middle of the night. Talk of the supernatural made its way between church pews and oyster roasts. Soon enough, everyone in town was convinced Miss Hilda was not only a murderer, but a witch.
Hattie Daniels said she remembered walking home from the Community Center late one night, about two weeks after Miss Hilda and Lawrence arrived on the island, and seeing the couple walking hand-in-hand through the church cemetery.
“It was almost midnight, and there they were,” Hattie said. “Just strolling along like they were at the beach.”
Mr. Sykes, said he could top Hattie’s tale. One afternoon, he had been help- ing Lawrence and Miss Hilda straighten up after a long game of bridge at their place. He went to go pick up a purple-bound book that had fallen on the floor and it flipped open in his hands.
“There was a bunch of these weird curly symbols all over the pages,” he said. “I never told Lawrence or Hilda that I had seen them, but man, did that book rub me the wrong way.”
More stories about Miss Hilda’s witchy ways made their way around the town. Kids like Tristan began creeping along the sides of the cottage in the dead of night and peeping through windows. They returned home with wild tales about witches brews and demon summoning. When Mrs. Davenport’s dog was found in the woods with its throat slit, everyone knew it was Miss Hilda.
My grandma didn’t believe it though. She told Uncle Charlie she had read an article in the paper about small houses being shipped across the country on the back of logging trucks and remembered Lawrence had said, on one of those rare occasions he joined in on the conversation, that he was in the logging business before him and Miss Hilda moved to the island.
No one ever listened to my grandma when she explained the house’s sudden appearance, but she said she couldn’t blame them. That graveyard business made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and it sure was creepy the way Miss Hilda sat on that rocking chair of hers every afternoon and whistled “Into the Mystic” till the sun went down.
My grandma told me to keep away from Miss Hilda and her little red cottage, and after I heard the stories she told Uncle Charlie, I didn’t need any reminding. But it was hard at Susie’s house. Tristan was always trying to get us to sneak over that white picket fence and peep into Miss Hilda’s windows. “Hilda the Hag,” they called her.
And I could see Tristan now, standing on our makeshift pitchers mound – two big bags of fertilizer stacked on top of one another – and eyeing that picket fence. He was scheming up a way to send one of us, one of the younger kids, over to Miss Hilda’s, the orange kickball gleaming in his hands like the sun.
Clara Lite was up to kick next. She stepped up to home plate and pulsed her heels up and down in the soft grass. Tristan rolled it to her hard and fast. The side of Clara’s foot struck the ball with a loud schmack! and it sailed through the air and over that white picket fence, right into Miss Hilda’s yard.
Clara hadn’t even tapped first base when the question started ringing through the air: “Who’s gonna get the ball back from Miss Hilda?”
Nose goes and I was the slowpoke. I looked around at the hungry eyes begging me to scale that fence and daring me to return without a wild story about Hilda the Hag.
“Don’t you have another ball, Susie?” I asked.
“No,” Susie said “I don’t. And anyways, it’s nose goes so you have to go get it.”
“But–” “Stop being a wimp,” Susie said.
“Fine,” I said, stomping away from Susie and the others. “I’ll go get the stupid ball.”
I shimmied up the fence and dropped down into Miss Hilda’s backyard. The yard, and the house, looked just as I had remembered from the few times I’d defied my grandma’s orders and gone near it: unkempt.
At Susie’s house, the grass was as green as the tip of one of those felt markers Mrs. Parker used to write on the whiteboard at Sunday School with, neon almost. Over here, everything just looked dead. I could hear the crunch of the dull-colored grass under my sneakers as I tip-toed over to the side of the cottage. When I reached the house, I saw a pile of cedar shake shavings pooled up on the ground along the perimeter. It was like the little red cottage was shedding little red hairs.
And then I saw the orange kickball, stuck right in the empty flower pot on the window sill, like an oversized, rubbery chrysanthemum. And of course, it was right near a window. I reminded myself to “accidentally” peg Susie with the ball when I got back.
I inched closer to the window, my hands shaking as I reached for the ball. And then I stopped, dead-still, frozen. There she was, Miss Hilda Wright, hunched over at her dining room table, cornsilk hair limp in her hands.
I dropped my hands and ducked my head down, leaving only the top of my forehead and my eyeballs exposed to see what was going on behind the window.
I focused in on her arched spine, the way her shoulders rose and fell, and I realized she was crying. No, sobbing. Big, breathless sobs. The kind of crying you do when you’re all cried out and there’s no tears left to give, but you just can’t stop the gasping and the shaking. I remembered the last time I cried like that. My tabby cat, Boots, had run out in front of a truck and been smushed down to a pulp. Just stretched out flat on the asphalt. I cried until my tears turned to breathless sobs and my grandma carried me inside and put me to bed.
But I had never seen anyone Miss Hilda’s age cry like that. My Uncle Charlie didn’t even cry like that at his brother’s, my dad’s, funeral. He cried what my grandma called “church tears” – two polite little streams running down his cheeks as he shook hands with Susie and Tristan’s parents.
Miss Hilda’s tears were not church tears. I stood there for what felt like years, watching her doubled-over at her dining room table, sobbing. I scanned the table for a sign to explain the crying – a letter, a photograph, a piece of burnt toast. But there was nothing. Just Miss Hilda, her tears, and an empty dining room table.
Before long, she shifted her weight and I ran, scared she would straighten-up again and see me in the window. I ran and I didn’t look back, hopped over the fence again and met Susie and the others, breathless with adrenaline and fear.
“Where’s the ball?” Susie asked.
I looked down at my empty hands. The ball, I thought. I had left it in the flowerpot.
“Oh, uh, I couldn’t find it.” “Well, did you at least see anything?” Tristan asked.
I thought of Miss Hilda hunched over at that table, weighed down by her breathless sobs.
I wondered if my Uncle Charlie cried like that after everyone left the church and he was alone with my dad’s casket. I wondered what made Miss Hilda cry like that.
Was it Lawrence? The stories? Both?
I looked around at the hungry eyes begging me for a wild story of my own. I paused, took a deep breath.
“Rats,” I told them. “I saw rats. Tons of them.”
Arabella Saunders is a sophomore from Outer Banks, NC. She’s a Journalism and Food Studies double major and, in her free time, she enjoys going to the beach and baking vegan desserts.