Maddy pulled into the driveway that curved around the flowerbed where the lamppost was planted, and she turned off the car. Mrs. Henderson had not arrived yet, so she decided to sit and wait with the windows rolled down and with the chilly October breeze reaching into the front seat and making her wish she’d worn a warmer jacket.
Her mother, Marlene, knew Mrs. Henderson from the water aerobics class they both took at the Y. The two ladies were doing knee lifts in the pool one day, and Marlene mentioned that Maddy would be coming to town for a visit, that she was a writer who seemed unable to write lately, and Marlene was hoping to give her some room for inspiration. She called it “quiet time.” “I’d like to give her some space and some quiet time.”
Mrs. Henderson said that no one had used her lake house in weeks, or was it months, she couldn’t remember for sure. And she would be happy to let Maddy stay there for as long as she needed. It was as quiet as they come, she said, and it would be good for someone to be there to air out the place and run some water through the pipes. She said for Maddy to meet her there at 5:00, and she would give her the keys and give her a quick tour. Maddy was only a few minutes early.
She remembered what her mother said about this woman, that she was late to everything that was governed by a set time, and that she was usually the last one in the pool and always apologizing as if she were normally prompt. She would sidle out of the locker room looking like Tracy Lord and slip off her robe, drape it over the bleachers by the south wall, and snap on her swimming cap, careful to tuck in every loose strand of hair. Throughout the entire display, she would say how sorry she was for being late, and she just didn’t know how she could have misread the clock. The first couple of times, the other women in the class and their instructor would stop and listen and smile, but after it seemed Mrs. Henderson’s entrance was going to be a regular exhibition, they stopped paying attention and kept on with their jumping jacks while she gushed.
Having become impatient with waiting, Maddy got out of her car and decided to give herself a tour while she waited. The side yard was narrow and overhung with tree branches like a trellis, and she had to duck to get through the tunnel they made. At the other end was a wide-open back yard that extended down to the lake where there were benches and an empty dock. With the onset of fall, all the boats had been brought in for the season, and the only things still on the lake were the geese and ducks and sea gulls. The birds were taking turns circling overhead and honking, gathering the troops for the flight south.
Standing in the middle of the yard, Maddy turned back to see the house and was startled by its size. From the front, it was nothing but a simple ranch house, but from the back it had character and a rustic sense that made it blend in with the woods around it. It was built on a hill, so the back had an exposed basement that wasn’t seen from the front, revealing it to be a much bigger house than people expected when standing on the front porch.
To the right of the house was an inlet where local residents tied up their canoes during the summer months, but now there was nothing more than a ripple from the occasional duck turned upside down looking for fish. To the left, on the other side of the thick stand of trees were more and more trees growing out of a ravine too steep for hiking. Maddy stood on the edge where the ground began to slope, holding onto a slim tree trunk as she leaned forward for a better view and thinking she’d need something like a ski pole to navigate down to the bottom. It wasn’t too far of a drop, though, and she could see how the leaves on the forest floor gave way to mud from a recent rain.
Car tires crunched the gravel in the driveway, and Maddy made her way back through the wild trellis to meet Mrs. Henderson. A tall woman draped in a pashmina shawl made to look like leopard skin climbed out of a vintage Mercedes the color of steel. She flipped her shawl over her shoulder and extended a gloved hand to Maddy.
“You must be Marlene’s daughter. I’m Mrs. Henderson. Call me Janine.”
“Hi, I’m Maddy. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your letting me stay here for a few days. It’s so nice of you.” Maddy smiled as she pictured Mrs. Henderson in a one-piece and bathing cap doing water aerobics in a swimming pool at the Y.
Mrs. Henderson smiled back as she pictured herself as the benefactress of a struggling author. “My pleasure. Let’s go inside, and I’ll show you around. I see you’ve already had a look at the grounds.”
The two women stepped through the front door, and Maddy followed her host as she went from room to room. “There are just a few rooms to show you, dear,” Mrs. Henderson said as she turned the thermostat up a bit. “I’ll just show you around and leave you here to make yourself at home.”
They walked through the living room that combined with the kitchen, and they peeked in at the guest room and extra bath. There was a laundry room and door to the basement steps and an enclosed back porch with wicker chairs and rockers. On the other side of the house beside the inlet was the master suite. It was roomy but comfortable, and the bathroom was like something Maddy imagined finding in a spa, the kind of spa she could never afford.
Mrs. Henderson saw the look of delight on Maddy’s face at the sight of the round tub, a large window that opened out toward the inlet, and gold faucets that fed the marble sink. “It really is a lovely room, isn’t it?”
“It really is.” Maddy tried not to sound too eager.
“I’ll tell you a secret, though. One night I came in here to use the potty, and just as I sat down—pardon my frankness—I spotted a big, black spider on the rug right in front of the shower door. It was the kind you’d see outside in the woods and not like one I had ever seen inside before. I was so horrified that as soon as I had finished, I ran straight back to bed. And I’m ashamed to say I can hardly stand to use this bathroom anymore. I have not seen the nasty thing since, but it was enough to put me off of this gorgeous room for good, at least at night. Well, that’s my little secret. Feel free to use the master suite, dear. I just thought you should know.”
“I promise not to tell a soul,” comforted Maddy. She was trying so hard to appear cool in front of the woman with the cashmere wrap that must have cost her a month’s worth of Maddy’s rent that she didn’t have the courage to admit her own biggest fear—spiders. She was relieved to hear they were not typically found inside the house but would keep a wary eye toward the rug in front of the shower.
Mrs. Henderson left a set of keys and her phone number on the kitchen counter and left Maddy to find her inspiration in the hide-away house.
Maddy brought her small suitcase in from the car along with a few bags of groceries she had picked up on her way in from town. She unpacked her clothes and put them in the empty drawers set aside for guests. She put away the milk and juice and some things she had planned for simple meals, and she made a tuna sandwich and took it out to the back porch with a glass of bargain wine. In the morning she would attempt to write something or at least think about writing.
It was the middle of the night, or what seemed like it, when Maddy woke up to find herself in the unfamiliar room in the strange house that creaked and rattled. A fierce wind circled around the house and through the woods and lapped water onto the rocks along the shoreline. It took Maddy a minute to recognize where she was and to realize a storm had blown in while she had slept.
She needed to use the toilet, but when she turned on the light in the master bathroom, she remembered Mrs. Henderson’s secret. Had she been fully awake, Maddy might have been clear-headed enough to squelch her fear of spiders, but the image of a threatening outside creature was still fresh in her head, and she decided to use the smaller guest bath on the other side of the house.
As she washed her hands in the tiny sink, a gust of wind blew through the trees and around the house, and the wood frame and cedar siding creaked under the pressure. Just as Maddy turned off the light, CRACK, a tree overhead snapped at its base and then, BOOM, it slammed into the roof and front wall just at the corner of the house, landing with full force into the guestroom and sending splinters of wood and bits of glass in all directions.
Startled and frozen in place, Maddy stood in the doorframe of the cramped bathroom unsure of what to do next. Once she caught her breath, she flipped the switch for the bathroom light back on to see just exactly what had happened and what damage had been done. The tree must have taken an electrical line down with it because the power had gone out even to the lamppost in the driveway.
In complete darkness, Maddy reached her hands out in front of her and slowly stepped forward. With half the roof and part of the front wall missing in the guestroom, the wind was blowing leaves into the house, making them swirl on the floor at her feet, and for a moment she wasn’t sure if she was outside or in. She stepped forward again but jumped when her foot landed on a piece of broken glass, and she rolled head first over the big tree trunk that now lay across the floor. And at the other end of the somersault, Maddy found herself sitting in the wet grass.
Feeling her way toward something solid to stand on or to hold onto, Maddy tried to make her way back into the house, but she stumbled on a fallen branch. She stumbled again and and again in a groggy panic until she made contact with a tree that seemed firmly planted, and she held on with both hands.
The rain had begun lightly just a few minutes before but was now in a full downpour, which made for some slippery traction in the fallen leaves and muddy patches. So, when Maddy, now drenched in her night shirt and flannel pants, turned to get her bearings, her feet went out from under her, and she slid down that ravine she had been marveling at in daylight, the one she knew to be too steep to manage without help.
She screamed on her way down and grabbed at small tree trunks and branches as she slid past them, scratching herself from head to toe. When she reached the sludgy mud, Maddy knew she had hit the bottom. She sat still just for a moment and then screamed for help some more, and she checked herself for broken bones.
Maddy appeared to be all in one piece, but she sat in the mud in the dark and wind and rain and thought through all of her options. There might be someone nearby to rescue her, but that would be unlikely on this remote road late at night where no one heard her scream. She could wait until dawn to try climbing out, but she was already wet and cold and had no idea what time it was. Every time a leaf moved or a tree limb brushed against her skin, Maddy remembered Mrs. Henderson’s description of the big, black spider, the one that you’d normally see outside, and she would shiver and brush phantom things from her arms.
If ever there was a perfect spot for spiders to dwell, Maddy thought, it would be the bottom of this dark and damp ravine. She decided to stand up and attempt the impossible climb back up to the house right then and there.
With firm steps and determined grip, pulling on this tree and that tree and working to hoist herself up one step at a time, she dug her bare feet into the mud. She would make progress, climbing up two or three feet and then slip down again, but she dug in that much deeper and pulled that much harder until she finally made it back up to the front lawn. Leaning forward with her hands on her knees as she gasped for air, cold rain pelting her back, Maddy remembered the emergency flashlight she kept in her glove box, and she limped her way through howling wind and flying debris to fetch it from the car. Now armed with a slight source of light, she climbed back over the tree that had slammed into the guestroom, and she gathered her purse, her insufficient jacket, and her shoes.
Safely back to her car, she left her quiet hide-away house leaving a spray of gravel behind her. She escaped what was supposed to be a few days filled with the promise of peace and productivity, the possibility of renewed energy and newfound clarity. She drove through the driving rain and whipping winds breathing hard like a marathon runner and thinking out loud about the unimaginable events that had led to this moment.
If only Mrs. Henderson had seen the creature in the guest bathroom instead of in that gaudy, self-indulgent luxury spa, or if only that woman had kept her damned secret to herself, Maddy was sure she would not be weaving down the isolated road back to town soaking wet and caked with mud, shivering, scratched and bloody. If only she’d been brave enough to use the toilet in that bathroom with the Italian marble and gold fixtures instead of using the one that was more like a closet, she would not be feeling so foolish.
With both hands gripping the wheel, Maddy was beginning to form the words in her head for the story she would tell her mother when she finally reached town. Slowly beginning to relax, she began to think in paragraphs with punctuation so she could present the tale in proper form to her editor. This had all happened because once there was a spider on the rug in front of the shower door.