Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Sundress

Editor's Note: We continue our retrospective of the Mary M. Isaacs stories we have published. This one was published here Aug. 8, 2021
"The Sundress" - a short story by Mary M. Isaacs

   Lucy was alone in the house that day. She was visiting with her grandmother while grade school was closed for the summer, and her grandmother had gone out shopping…

   Lucy preferred playing alone. She didn’t have many friends at school because she was so shy. Sometimes she felt invisible there, but it was better than being teased, which happened often--teased for her shyness and plainness. And at home she had to be the perfect child; she could never be just herself.

   Her grandmother’s house was an escape from home and school. No one bothered her there; her grandmother always let her do what she wanted. It was like being in another world. She walked up the steps, across the porch, and through the front door into a sheltered place. In that house, she was safe—she and all her imaginings, where she was in control of everything and no one was in control of her.

   It was an old house, right on the edge of downtown, two stories with both an attic and a basement. Lucy loved everything about it. Downstairs was a roomy entry hall, with leaded windows overlooking the front porch and a side window near the stairs that looked across at the blank white wall of the old hotel next door. From the hall, you could turn and go into the formal parlor or walk straight down a short corridor to the living room, the kitchen, a bathroom, and a back bedroom. Upstairs were five other bedrooms and another bathroom. Her grandmother lived alone, after Lucy’s grandfather died a few years earlier, so she rented the upstairs rooms to boarders to help make ends meet. There was Mr. Johnson in Room 4, for example. It was the smallest and plainest room, with an iron bedstead and a simple rag rug on the floor, and Mr. Johnson had lived there for as long as Lucy could remember. She never knew his first name. He was a quiet man and was gone all day. Her grandmother did not offer meals or allow hot plates in the rooms, so the boarders went out to eat. The other people always seemed like strangers, but Mr. Johnson belonged.

   The upstairs bedrooms varied in size and furnishings. Lucy played in whichever ones weren’t rented, especially the one with the apricot-colored satin brocade bedspread. Sometimes she took it off the bed and wore it, pretending that she was a princess in a beautiful ballgown. She wrapped herself in its heavy, slick folds and walked around slowly, stopping to look at herself in the big mirror over the dressing table. She played by herself for hours, while her grandmother did housework, cooked, or went shopping. Lucy didn’t like the upstairs bathroom, so she never used it; the floor was creaky and uneven, and it made Lucy nervous to go in there. But from time to time, her grandmother would unlock the door next to the bathroom and let her go up the steep, rickety stairs to the attic. There were interesting things up there: trunks that Lucy rummaged through and odd pieces of furniture no longer used in the rest of the house. Sun came in through several small windows, but the attic always seemed dim and mysterious. She felt especially secluded there; except for her grandmother, no one in the world knew where she was. The basement, on the other hand, was dusty, dreary, and overrun with spiders. She never went there.

   That afternoon, Lucy was playing in the formal parlor, which was right by the front door and seldom used. The door was usually kept open, but the room was saved for special occasions. Lucy played in there whenever she wanted to, however. Her grandmother never minded, and Lucy always put everything away where it belonged. There was a fancy horsehair sofa, a baby grand piano, a bobcat skin rug, and a huge, old-fashioned desk with two enormous, heavy doors that opened outwards. Lucy liked to play in the parlor on warm afternoons. The bobcat skin rug, stuffed head and all, was on the floor in the middle of the room. Lucy liked to lie on it and touch the silky fur. She always looked at the pretend eyes and put her fingers in its open mouth to feel the teeth and fangs. Today she was wearing a new dress which her aunt had sent to her for her ninth birthday. It was a short, white, sleeveless sundress, with red and white striped kick pleats on the sides. Lucy loved her new dress and wore it as often as possible. While she sprawled on the rug, she could feel the soft bobcat fur on her bare arms and legs.

   Lucy looked up as her grandmother appeared at the parlor door, pulling a rolling wire shopping cart. “Lucy, I have to go to the store to get some things for supper. The boarders are all out, and I will lock the front door. Don’t go out or open the door to anyone until I come home.”

   “Okay, gramma!” said Lucy. She heard her grandmother go out the front door and shut it afterwards. There was the sound of a key turning in the lock, and then the noise of the shopping cart rolling across the porch and bumping down the steps. After things became quiet, Lucy looked at the bobcat again, wondering how it had gotten caught. Where had it lived? Who had caught it? Why was it there in her grandmother’s house? She rested her head on the bobcat’s furry one, like a pillow, and thought about her questions.

   All of a sudden she heard footsteps moving around above her; then she heard the creaking of the wooden stairs as someone came down them. Lucy froze. No one was supposed to be in the house! When did one of the boarders return? Why hadn’t she or her grandmother heard them come in? Or had they been here all along? Maybe it was Mr. Johnson—that would be okay! But maybe it wasn’t him… She looked up at the open parlor door and wondered if she had time to close it.

   She didn’t. The next moment there he was, standing in the doorway: the newest boarder. She had barely even met him. He looked at her silently for a long moment, and then said, “Is your grandmother here?” Lucy wondered why he hadn’t heard her grandmother leave and lock the door. Or had he?

   He was wearing a knee-length terry cloth bathrobe; the belt was untied, so it was hanging open. He had placed his arms on both sides of the door frame and was leaning forward, which pulled the robe open even further. He wore nothing underneath. His whole body was hairy, and Lucy saw everything. She was too startled to say anything more than, “No, she’s out, but she’ll be back soon.” Then she turned her face away and looked back down at the bobcat’s head. She hoped that he would leave and go back to his room, but he didn’t. He said, “I’ll wait,” and then came into the parlor and sat down on the horsehair sofa, very close to her. He didn’t say anything more, but just sat there, looking at her.

   All Lucy could think was, "I have to get out of here!" After a moment, she stood up as calmly as possible and walked out of the parlor, even though what she really wanted to do was run. She turned and went down the hall, past the bathroom, and into her grandmother’s bedroom. It was dark in there because the shades were drawn. Lucy walked quietly around the bedroom door and into the closet, standing as far back as she could among the hanging clothes. She didn’t shut the bedroom door because it made noise, and then he would know where she was. And that door had no lock. But she did pull the closet door partway shut.

   Looking down at what she wore, she became worried. The white sundress almost glowed in the dark. She realized how easy it would be for someone opening the closet door to see her hiding there, as her grandmother’s clothes didn’t hang low enough to completely cover her. And, of course, her pale legs showed, all the way down to her sandals.

   Then she heard it: the soft sound of bare feet coming down the short hall. Because the bedroom door was standing open, she could tell when the footsteps stopped at the door. She knew that he was looking into the darkened bedroom. If he looked around the bedroom door, he would see that there was a closet; and if he looked in the closet…he would see her.

   Lucy held her breath and didn’t move, although she was trembling all over. Her thoughts raced wildly: “Someone please come home and make him go away! Gramma, Mr. Johnson, anyone!” Trying desperately to think herself truly invisible, to melt into the hanging clothes, into the closet walls; to stifle her breathing and blink out of existence there. To stop time so she could run away—why hadn’t she run out the front door and down the street until she found her grandmother? Why had she run back to the bedroom closet, from which there was no escape? She was trapped. And no one was there to save her.

   Now she heard nothing at all. Had he left to go back upstairs and she had missed the sounds? Should she leave the closet and look around the bedroom door? Or was he still standing there, totally silent, waiting for her to show herself? If she did, what would happen then? She had no idea what, but she was filled with dread. Would he grab her? What would he do to her? She was almost afraid not to find out. Lucy reached for the closet doorknob--but then hesitated...

*****************

   ...the cursor hovered over the button for a moment, and then Lucy clicked “send”. She’d done it—her story was on its way, the creative writing class assignment finished only hours before the midnight deadline. It would have been sent much sooner if she hadn’t hesitated so long. But she’d been nervous, sending in this story about an event that had stayed with her for so many years. Even just thinking about it made her feel a little peculiar in her stomach. If only she knew more about that day…writing about it had brought back many memories, but no remembrance of what had actually happened. She never could remember that. But the story had poured out of her--right up to the missing ending.

   The students had been asked to write a fictional story about an unexpected event. The assignment itself was unexpected, coming as it did on the first day of instruction, but the professor had been delayed returning from speaking at a writer’s conference. The TAs weren’t prepared to lead the class themselves, so they just moved up the first assignment and hoped for the best. Most of the students had been excited by the fact that each of the TAs would pick out a story to run in the English Department’s literary magazine. Lucy had trouble trying to think up a story until she recalled the event from her childhood. She was sure that nothing she wrote would ever be chosen, which is why she finally decided to submit such a very personal and true story, pretending it was fiction.

   Lucy shut down her laptop and got ready for bed. She had an early class the next morning and a bit of a distance to drive to get to the school. That didn’t bother her much, however. It would have been nice to live on campus, but as a transfer student from a community college out of state, she had lower priority for the dorms than incoming first-year students. Instead, she had found a room to rent in a residence hotel far enough away that the cost was reasonable, even with eating out factored in. Lucy had dreamed of going to this school ever since she had lived here as a child.

   Transferring as a junior was the only way she could afford it. If only her grandmother was still alive, she could have lived with her! Lucy smiled at the thought. “Gramma…” she said with love. She still couldn’t drive past the place where her grandmother’s house had once stood before being torn down years ago. She wanted to think of the house as it used to be, to pretend it was still there somehow, still there for her... She had crystal clear memories of the rooms, the attic, the furnishings, her playtimes, everything--except that one incident. Why couldn't she remember what had happened that day? She went to bed still wondering about that.

******

   Lucy was glad to be home the next day after endless hours of classes and studying on campus. Dinner had been fast food again, but she planned to get deli sandwiches or a big salad tomorrow. Maybe if she found a part-time job, she could move to a studio apartment where she could prepare her own meals. She dropped her books and backpack on a chair, got out her laptop and set it up.

   She opened her email; near the top of her inbox she saw one from her writing class TA. It would be the location of her section meeting tomorrow, she figured. That had not been set at the time of the first session; the students were told that they’d be informed later. She opened the email and started to scan the contents.

   And stopped cold. He’d chosen her story as his pick to be printed in the campus literary magazine? Lucy went back to the beginning of the email and read slowly, trying to comprehend every word. Yes, it was true—and he’d already sent it to the professor, who was editor in chief of the magazine! Her TA told her where the professor’s office was located. She was supposed to skip her section meeting the next day and instead meet the professor in his office, to discuss her story and how to prepare it for publication and for presentation to the class.

   Lucy started to feel panic and her stomach began to knot up. She never dreamed that this would happen to her. Why had she sent in that particular story? What had she been thinking? Her writing wasn’t that good—that’s why she was taking this class, for heaven’s sake! She figured that only her TA, and maybe the professor, would read it, to grade her assignment. Why her story? And why on earth hadn’t she substituted a different name? Even though it was supposed to be fiction, sooner or later someone would guess that the story was really about her; then everyone would know something intimately embarrassing about her private life. Maybe she could change the character’s name—yes, that might work, it wasn’t in print yet! She could pick out some other name and hopefully no one would suspect that it was a true story. She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. All she had to do was convince the professor to accept the name change and pray that he would never guess that the story was true, and not fiction. She could do that. She had to do that.

***************

   The next morning, after a restless night's sleep, she drove to the school and walked to the building where the English department was located. She found the professor’s office and knocked on the door nervously. It wasn’t completely shut, so it swung open part way. Lucy looked inside and said a tentative “hello?” but no one was there. She glanced at her watch—oh, she was five minutes early. Maybe the professor had just stepped out for something. There were a couple of chairs facing his desk, so Lucy went in and sat down on one of them. While she waited, she thought again of her story, and that it was really going to be printed in a magazine. That was beginning to exhilarate her. But she had to ask right away that the girl’s name be changed. She couldn’t imagine that that would be a problem, but she hadn’t chosen an alternative yet. Maybe the professor could help her with that.

   Before she could go much farther in her thinking she heard the soft sound of steps coming down the hall, and then a voice spoke: “Good morning. It's Miss Layton, isn't it?" Lucy turned and saw an older man standing in the doorway. His arms were placed on the door frame as he leaned forward into the room. He continued, "Good story! Using your own name helped your imagination, didn’t it? That made it sound real, as if it had actually happened. But it stops too abruptly, leaves the reader hanging; it needs a stronger ending. If you put your mind to it, I think you can come up with one."

   He came into the room, but instead of going to his desk, he took the chair next to her. "What happened when Lucy stepped out of the closet?" He didn’t say anything more, but just sat there, looking at her.

   For a long moment, Lucy felt that she couldn’t breathe. She looked quickly around the room, but the door was the only way out of the office and it was beyond his chair. She was trapped. And no one was there to save her. Her eyes lost focus and she started shaking all over.

   The professor was instantly concerned. “Miss Layton, are you okay? What’s the matter?” He reached out his hand to touch her.

   Lucy shrank back as far away as possible, covering herself with her arms. She stared toward him with a dazed and shocked expression on her face, not really seeing him. “My dress…” she said in a high, tearful voice. “What happened to my sundress?”

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Mary M. Isaacs, Copyright 2019

The Sundress is included in the collection "Holy Innocence", featured on the sidebar.

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