"This is a story about an elderly widow who loses her home during a home invasion, but gains something far greater."—David
She was taped to her high-backed chair at the dining room table. There, in front of the bay window, beside her husband’s military portrait over the mantelpiece. Scattered on the floor was the Sunday newspaper she had just walked up the lane. Lying next to the paper was her cane and her Audubon calendar. She put everything on her calendar. The little white boxes were filled with her meticulous print. She included the weather, when her boys drove home, when she visited the cemetery.
She was beginning to lose sensation of her right hand now. They had wrapped the tape tighter on this. It had been the first one. She didn’t recall them taping it. When she had opened the back door, carrying the paper, they had been behind it, waiting. Then she heard the explosion. Later, she had opened her eyes, as if from sleep, to the sound of panting behind her.
Now, the tall one was already upstairs, in her bedroom. She could hear the sound of telephones being torn from the walls and smashed. Of lamps falling to the floor. Of her dresser drawers being thrown open. The other one, the shorter one, was standing beside her. He wore a stocking over his face, with three holes. He had kind, gentle eyes.
When his partner disappeared upstairs with the gun, he put his hand lightly on her shoulder. He wore thin white rubber gloves. The medical kind.
"You believe in Jesus?" he said. "You believe he is the Savior?"
She tried to look around again. Behind, her Labrador retriever was lying on the kitchen floor eyes open, legs quivering, blood pouring from his mouth.
The gloved hands took hold of her head and turned it to the bay window. Her bay window overlooked the back garden. Sunshine flooded through it, it was spring, all the flowers in bloom. She had planted many last year for her husband’s ceremony. She remembered it as clearly as yesterday now, and could see his casket under the mulberry tree flanked by the color guard that had fired shots into the morning sky.
"You believe in Jesus, ma’am?" asked the shorter one again. "You believe He loves you?"
She didn’t look at him because the other one, the tall one, had told her not to look at them. But she already knew who they were. At least one of them. She had heard his voice before. So many times.
She was still trying to catch her breath. There seemed so little air in the room. “I believe in Jesus,” she said. Her voice was high and like a girl’s.
Just then, the other one was coming back down the stairs two at a time, with the gun. The hand tightened on her shoulder.
"Pray to Him," whispered the voice from under the mask. "Pray to Him."
Then she knew that they were ghosts come to take her away. Ever since William had left her, she had prayed to join him. And now, as she stared into the garden, her lips began to move again in silent entreaty as her eyes grew wider and wider trying to encompass the morning light.
Margaret had met William Wilkes ten years before. William, who owned a printing company in Philadelphia, had three grown daughters and had recently lost their mother to cancer. Margaret, a divorcee, was from Virginia and had two sons in college. William proposed to Margaret a month after meeting her.
Following their honeymoon in Jamaica, the Wilkes bought Magnolia, a two hundred acre farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, not far from where William had been born and raised. The main house, built before the Revolutionary War, was made of white brick and had a broad, pillared portico. Under linden trees and weeping willows, the circular indentation of the carriage path could still be seen and, just beyond, over an old split-rail fence was the graveyard of the Tilghmans, the original owners of the plantation.
William had bought Magnolia from a farmer by the name of Downs. Mr. Downs employed two farmhands, Joshua Stark and his son Jed. They lived in tenant houses on the property. Joshua’s grandfather had been a slave at Magnolia. Though William didn’t intend to farm the land any longer, he kept Joshua and Jed on because he had decided to raise beef cattle.
In the next years, the Wilkes transformed Magnolia. They renovated the main house and added a new wing. They refurbished the two tenant houses for the Starks and their families. They put in a swimming pool, a pond, a skeet range, and a kennel for Margaret’s champion retrievers. They razed the outbuildings that were beyond repair, and rebuilt the barns and silos. And they put in a mile of new fencing and brought in seventy-five head of Black Angus.
Jed had three teenage sons, Wayne, Deon, and Carter, who helped with the work during the first summers. They put in the orchard, mowed the grounds, tended to the cattle, and cut firewood. William paid them $4 an hour. Later, Wayne got a job at the Chrysler plant in Dover and Deon enlisted in the Marine Corps. As for Carter, he moved to Baltimore after William ordered him off the property for stealing a chainsaw. Carter said he was just borrowing the saw. But for some time now equipment had been disappearing from the farm. William told Jed he couldn’t have a thief on the property.
After moving to the city, Carter was convicted on a felony charge and sent to prison for two years. On release, he returned to the Eastern Shore and took a job with a house painting crew. Soon afterwards he was back at Magnolia painting the barns with his new employer. William was in Philadelphia on business at the time. When he got back Margaret persuaded him to give Carter a second chance. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” she told her husband. Jed had promised her his son had gone on the straight and narrow. So William didn’t order him off the property again. He just kept an eye on him.
By that time the renovation of Magnolia was nearly complete and the two tenant houses were vacant. Joshua, eighty-two years old, had passed away. And William had a made a down payment on a new place in town for Jed. The following spring, William put Magnolia on the tour of historic properties in Queen Anne’s County.
At the end of that year, William sold his printing business in Philadelphia and retired. He and Margaret did some traveling — they went to China, India, and Thailand — but mostly they stayed home and enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
Not long after his retirement, William came down with what he thought at first was just a cold. Then he grew fatigued and started to experience chest pains. At last, Margaret walked into a private room at Johns Hopkins and found her husband in bed crying. In their ten years of marriage, she had never seen William cry. Until now he had been a dignified man. Self-possessed, energetic, optimistic.
Two months later he was sitting in his rocking chair at his upstairs bedroom window watching Jed out on the tractor, mowing the pasture. His back was covered with radiation burns but he hadn’t lost his hair yet because he had just begun chemo. Margaret came in and gave him some tomato soup, the only thing he could keep down. After lunch she helped him to bed, but he made her promise to wake him up from his nap for the six o’clock news. He’d always kept abreast of the news. A few hours later she came back upstairs and found him lying on the floor.
His ceremony was attended by two hundred people and held in the back garden at Magnolia. His casket was carried out by a Marine color guard that included Jed’s youngest son, Deon, who was now a corporal first class. William had been a brigadier general in the Marine Corps and had fought in the South Pacific. At the end of the ceremony, the color guard presented arms and shot into the sky. Then Jed’s son folded the flag into a triangle and handed it to the widow. Of the Starks, only Carter was absent from the ceremony.
The executor of the estate arrived the following week with an appraiser and an accountant. William’s daughters returned in U-Haul trucks with their husbands. Margaret put Magnolia up for sale. Now that she was on a small trust, she told Jed she didn’t know how much longer she could keep him. His family had worked on the property for two hundred years, but he started to look for something else. Meantime he kept up the place as best he could. On the few days he needed help, he asked Margaret if he could bring one of his sons and she said that would be fine. So he brought Carter into the house one morning to give him a hand moving furniture out. Carter had been laid off from his house painting job.
One day after most of the furniture was moved and Margaret was living in the half empty house waiting for it to sell, she started going through her husband’s dresser. She hadn’t been able to deal with his clothes until now. It took her some time to go through the dresser. As she packed sweaters and old ironed shirts into cardboard boxes, she smelled them, she pressed them to her face, and she kissed them.
When the dresser was empty, it occurred to her there was something missing. Her husband had kept his service revolver in his bottom drawer. Or at least she seemed to recall that he had.
The muzzle was pressed against the side of her forehead now by the tall one. Her eyes were closed and all she could hear were the choking pants behind her and the ringing in her ears from the first shot.
He asked her again where she was hiding all the money. All the silver. All the jewelry.
"I’ll shoot you in the face, bitch. Where’s it all at? Where you hiding the shit?"
His companion, the shorter one, said, “Easy, Bobby. Be cool, man.” Then Margaret felt his hand on her shoulder again. “Just tell us where it is, ma’am. We won’t hurt you, we’ll be gone.”
She told them that she didn’t have anything. She told them that they could take anything they found. She told them that it was all theirs. Everything.
She began to call to her dog again. He was an old Labrador named Angus. He had followed her down the lane to get the paper like he did every Sunday. And when they got back, as soon as she opened the door, there was the explosion, he was on the floor and she was being thrown into the chair. She could hear the air in his throat now, the gargling, and his claws on the floor, trying to pull himself up.
"Baby," she called. "Baby."
She couldn’t feel her arms under the tape anymore and she strained to turn around. Then she heard another explosion and the panting ended. Then the voices above her again, from the holes in the masks —
"The next one’s for you, bitch! Now where’s it at?"
"Easy, Bobby. Be cool now…. Just tell us where it is, ma’am – won’t be no trouble."
They sounded far away as if she was hearing them in a dream. When she opened her eyes, she was alone again with the shorter one. As more drawers were slammed and lamps broken upstairs, the voice kept saying to her, “Jesus will take care of you, ma’am. Just tell us where the rest is.”
When the tall one, the one called Bobby, returned, he was carrying a pillowcase from her bed, half full. Suddenly the gun was back at her head and he wanted to know why she was lying.
Then she felt him take hold of a finger on her left hand. Her wedding ring was a diamond solitaire, and her engagement ring had sapphires. She hadn’t taken them off in years. The arthritis had turned her knuckles inward and to twice their size. The gloved hand tried to remove the rings, but they wouldn’t come.
"Please," she was saying, "please, no."
Then she saw a kitchen knife laid across the finger. And as she felt the blade bear down, she suddenly cried, “Please, Carter.”
His hand went slack on the knife. He stared at the old woman through the frayed scissored holes in his mask. “My name ain’t Carter, bitch. You got the wrong fuckin boy.”
She turned her head up and looked at him for the first time, into his wild, frightened eyes. And she said, “Please, Carter. We were good to you.”
Carter dropped the knife and pressed the service revolver to her temple again. But she kept looking at him because she knew she was going to die now and she was ready. She had been ready for a long time.
"You’re crazy, bitch," Carter said. "You’re crazy."
His companion snatched up the sack from the floor and took hold of him.
"Come on, man, let’s split. She got no more. We got it all."
Margaret kept looking at Carter. Suddenly he pulled her husband’s gun away from her head, snatched the car keys from the table, and kicked the door open.
Margaret’s shoulders began to heave again and she couldn’t catch her breath. The other one, the one whose name she didn’t know, leaned down and whispered to her, “God bless you, ma’am.”
Then he kissed her on the forehead and was gone.
She listened to her car screech out the drive. Soon everything was quiet again: all she could hear was the wind in the garden. Then she leaned over the table and, with her teeth, picked up the letter opener. After she finally cut through the tape on her forearms, she pushed herself off the chair.
On her hands and knees, Margaret inched over to her dog who was lying motionless in his blood now, his tongue out, his eyes frozen. She lay with her arms around him like a child. Then she spread her jacket over his body. “Baby,” she wept. “Sweet baby.”
Outside with her cane, she began to move in faltering half steps down the drive that the carriages had traveled to the plantation so many years before. Her nearest neighbor lived a quarter of a mile off, across the blacktop road. Halfway there, she stumbled and fell into the grass. As she tried to gather the strength to regain her feet, she looked back into the pasture beyond her empty house. It was radiant green, the orchard was budding, and she suddenly wondered what season this was, if she was dead and if she was looking into the sky of heaven.
Then, suddenly out in the distance where the sun rose at the edge of her field, she saw the tall golden silhouette of her husband beckoning to her, arms to the sky.
"William," she called. "William, my love."
And as she pulled herself up and moved out toward the light, she felt the heat on her forehead as if an angel had kissed her there, turned her into a phantom, and relieved her of everything that had held her to this lost and glorious place.
David Comfort has been a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, and Narrative, as well as a nominee for the Pushcart Prize. His recent work has appeared in The Evergreen Review, The Cortland Review, Montreal Review, and Stanford Arts Review. He has published four popular nonfiction trade titles, three from Simon & Schuster, the last, in 2009, from Citadel/ Kensington. This fall, Writer’s Digest will be releasing his latest: The Insider’s Guide to Getting Published: Everything You Need to Know About Traditional and Self-Publishing.