Featured Work: The Woman in the Window

                                                                                                                                 Photo by Evey Jarrett

                                                                                                                                 Photo by Evey Jarrett

The public library in Whitmore, Connecticut was incredibly charming. At least, that was Laura’s first thought when she pulled up in front of it. It was early October and the changing maple trees framed the building in dazzling color. The historic colonial, which had originally been the home of a prominent local family, stood sentinel on the town square as it had for nearly a century. Laura walked up the stone path, paused to smooth out her skirt, and went inside for her job interview. 

On her first day of work, Laura realized that she had been so captivated by the autumnal scene that she had overlooked some decay lurking beneath the pretty façade. Flakes of paint curled away from the window frames and dampness from the basement created a musty odor in the foyer. As a brand-new librarian, Laura was especially troubled by the burned out light bulbs that created pools of shadow between the bookshelves. 

As she chatted about her new duties with Mrs. Rossiter, the library director, Laura made a mental checklist of some of the improvements she planned to make. As the list grew, she became daunted by the idea of managing it all herself. Aside from Mrs. Rossiter, the only other paid staff member was Eddie, the custodian. The rest of the modest operation was kept running by volunteers who worked as circulation clerks and library pages. Fortunately, the small staff buoyed her confidence with a warm welcome. The previous librarian had quit with very little notice, leaving them desperately short-handed. 

#

Laura truly enjoyed her job and the children’s room quickly became her favorite place in the building. Formerly the family room of the house, it featured a fieldstone hearth and a sturdy white rocking chair. Three mornings a week, Laura made good use of that rocker as excited preschoolers clamored for a spot on the colorful rug and wiggled through picture book stories, puppet shows, and sing-along songs. 

It wasn’t long, though, before she noticed a disturbing pattern of behavior in the local children. Occasionally, some of the young patrons would enter the children’s room and head straight for the rocking chair. They would never sit in it. Instead, the children had a variety of bizarre reactions. One little boy gazed at the chair, transfixed, then his eyes seemed to follow the path of someone walking away. A few days later, a little girl skipped into the room, paused in front of the chair and waved hello. Laura shrugged off these events as children playing make-believe, but she was thoroughly spooked by a similar incident the following week. A set of twin girls entered the room and stood side-by-side in front of the chair. One of the twins shyly said hello to the empty seat, as if greeting someone. Then, she looked at her sister and grinned. 
“I think she looks like Gran, don’t you?”

Her sister tilted her head, considering the question. “Sort of, but her clothes are really old-fashioned. Gran wouldn’t wear something like that.”

“I like how she always smiles at us. I wish I could hear what she’s saying.”

Laura felt goosebumps rise on her arms. She needed to talk to Mrs. Rossiter immediately, even if she sounded crazy. By the time she reached the door to the director’s office, she had begun to lose her nerve but she knocked anyway. 

Mrs. Rossiter invited Laura inside and pulled up a heavy oak chair. 

“Laura, what on Earth is troubling you?  You look pale.”

Laura closed her eyes and shook her head, hesitant to explain what she overheard. 
“I’ve been noticing something odd happening in the children’s room. I…It’s probably going to sound ridiculous."
 
Mrs. Rossiter’s face transformed from a look of worry into a knowing smile. “Ah. I know what this is about. I’m guessing you’ve finally met our most mysterious patron.”

Laura’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“The library ghost is something of a novelty here. She’s like an open secret.” 

“So… you know about the rocking chair?” 

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Rossiter said. “That’s the most interesting thing about her! The children see her there all the time, but their parents never do. Kids say she looks like a nice lady who sits there reading books. 

“Doesn’t that scare you a little?” Laura asked. She whispered her question, as if the ghost might overhear, then felt foolish. 

Mrs. Rossiter nodded. “The idea of a haunting used to frighten me when I first began working here, but that was a long time ago. Trust me, Laura, there is nothing to fear. She’s harmless.”
The director pulled a leather-bound photo album off the shelf behind her desk. She flipped through pages of yellowing newspaper clippings and old photographs, all detailing the history of the Whitmore Library. 

“Oh yes, here it is,” she said. She pointed to a large black-and-white photograph of the building. “This is one of the earliest pictures we have of the library. Look closely.” 

Laura leaned in to examine the image and, as she stared, saw the anomaly. In the upstairs window, beside the gauzy curtain, there was the dark outline of a young woman’s profile. It may have simply been a smudge on the film, but the blurred details suggested a human presence. Laura drew back from the picture, placing her hand over her mouth. 

“Is that really a picture of her?” 

“Nobody knows for certain, dear,” Mrs. Rossiter said, shrugging. “Some people say that she was the jilted mistress of the house’s former owner or his long-suffering wife. Personally, I’m not so sure. I’m just glad she’s having a bit of fun now, whoever she was.”

Mrs. Rossiter seemed amused at Laura’s horrified reaction. “The staff here refer to her as ‘Millicent’ but nobody really knows who she was in life. The director closed the album and patted Laura’s shoulder. “Please don’t worry about this. It’s been going on for years. Besides, look on the bright side. Millie can be a convenient scapegoat if you’re in the habit of misplacing your keys.”

The little joke made Laura smile, but she returned to work still feeling unsettled. 

#

Laura eventually became more comfortable sharing her workplace with the ghost. In the children’s room, she watched with curiosity instead of horror when young patrons reacted strangely to the rocking chair. For a bit of excitement, Laura would even give the chair an occasional push as she walked by. She enjoyed fueling the local ghost story if it meant more people would visit the library. 

Millicent, the ghost, also seemed to enjoy being a prankster. Laura learned to be patient when items left out on her desk overnight, like a stapler or date stamp, would be gone in the morning. She knew the miscellaneous objects would eventually turn up, all together, in an unexpected spot like the ladies’ lavatory. Millicent’s other tricks included stopping clocks, rearranging chairs, and locking doors. 

Laura threw herself into new projects and the library began to thrive. A variety of children’s programs were added to the calendar and creative fundraising allowed for the acquisition of new materials. To the director’s obvious relief, library usage climbed steadily. By December, Mrs. Rossiter had already given the young librarian a modest raise and added two evening shifts to her schedule. The library would finally be able to offer later hours to accommodate the community. 

During the day, the library ghost was a novelty, but Laura was surprised to discover how uneasy she felt working alone at night. When the library was empty, Laura had the feeling that she was being followed. Sometimes the sensation was so palpable that she turned on her heel, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever might be behind her. 

As the holidays approached, the evening shifts became especially deserted. People were too busy with shopping and parties to think about recreational reading. During one shift right before Christmas, Laura finally decided to test her nerve by speaking directly to the ghost. It was time to break the silence. 

“Well, it looks like it’s just you and me tonight, Millie. Everybody else is out celebrating. We’re two lucky ladies, aren’t we?”

Laura didn’t get a reply, but she hadn’t really been expecting one. She stretched, achy from sitting too long, and decided to shelve books to relieve her boredom. She placed a set of alphabetized cards on her desk and put her hands on her hips in a mock-authoritative stance. 
“Now, see here. I worked on organizing these file cards for over an hour, so I’d be much obliged if you left them alone.” She pointed her index finger in the air and looked up, as if addressing the ceiling. “I’ll be upset with you tomorrow morning if these are not exactly where I left them.” 

On her way to the bookshelves, Laura stopped in front of the enormous front window to look out into the night. It had snowed earlier and the great lawn of the library sparkled in the golden light spilling out from inside. Laura relaxed and enjoyed the wintry scene until her eyes refocused on the black windowpanes. The darkened glass reflected the room like a mirror. Directly behind her, the shadowy form of a young woman bloomed into focus like a developing picture. 

Laura shrieked and spun around, but the room was empty. She knew she hadn’t imagined seeing Millicent behind her and the image burned in her mind. Laura concentrated on slowing her breathing while reminding herself that the ghost had been a peaceful resident of the building for decades. She squeezed her eyes shut and deliberately overrode her fear by addressing her silent companion again. 

“Okay, Millicent, you must think I’m about as brave as a church mouse, but it isn’t nice to sneak up on people.”

Laura slowly turned back toward the window. This time she only saw the pale reflection of her own frightened face. It occurred to her that maybe the ghost was simply lonely and hadn’t intended to scare her at all. Laura spoke to her again, this time in a softer voice. 

“So, I was just wondering if your name is really Millicent?  If we’re going to be friends, I need to know what you’d like to be called.”

Laura waited, but only heard her heartbeat thumping in her ears. She was still so scared that she considered bolting for the front door, but she knew she had to face her fear or find another job in a ghost-free library. 

Too nervous to return to her desk, she finally decided to tidy up until her shift was over. She began organizing a cart of books when she heard a soft thump in the nonfiction section. She paced up and down the aisles, looking for the source of the noise, until she saw a book splayed open on the floor. It was The Three Faces of Eve. Apparently, the ghost had answered her question.

“Oh, Eve, is it?  That’s a much prettier name than Millicent.” Laura tried to make her tone conversational, but her voice came out too high. She swallowed hard and tried again. “Thank you for telling me.”

She used all of her self-control to walk calmly to her desk, pick up her purse, and leave the library. She shut off the lights and locked the door with trembling fingers. 

#

By February, Laura had almost succeeded in putting the peculiar dialogue with the ghost behind her. Her evenings were busier and her occasional comments to Millicent, whom she now thought of as ‘Eve,’ had always been answered with silence. 

The extended library hours were popular with the public, so Laura didn’t have any completely solitary shifts again until Valentine’s Day. On an evening reserved for lovers, even the young librarian had somewhere else she wanted to be. Laura’s boyfriend, James, had made dinner reservations for two. 

Laura had splurged on a black velvet dress that hung in a garment bag in the staff room. She was planning to change after her shift, since James had offered to pick her up directly from work. Every time she found herself daydreaming about slipping into that dress a soft smile played on her lips. She fantasized about their romantic date and what might happen afterward. Laura was so engrossed that she gave a little shriek when the phone on her desk rang, shattering the silence. It took her a moment to regain her professional composure. 

“Whitmore Public Library, Laura speaking. How can I help you?” she answered with practiced smoothness. 

“Damn, Laura,” James said. “I just love that buttoned-up librarian voice. So sexy.” 

His teasing made her laugh, despite herself. “Are you serious, James? You know I’m working, right?”

“Sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “I was just wondering if you could sneak out a few minutes early?” His eagerness suggested that he was looking forward to their date as much as she was. 

Laura bit her lower lip. “Good things come to those who wait.”

“Yeah, yeah,” James said, with mock exasperation. “And patience is a virtue. I get it. See you in twenty minutes.”

Although Laura could have gotten away with leaving before eight, she needed the extra time to get ready. She pulled the elastic out of her ponytail and let her honey-colored locks tumble freely over her shoulders. Next, she dug around in her bag for her glossy black compact and carefully applied her lipstick. She pressed her lips together, spreading out the color, and then smiled at her reflection. The rich shade of merlot brought out the green in her eyes. 

Still gazing into the mirror, Laura saw a shadow move across her field of vision like a cloud passing in front of the sun. She snapped the compact shut and twisted in her seat, but saw nothing. She chalked it up to another flickering light bulb and resumed her preening. She placed a drop of perfume in the hollow of her throat, then ran her finger down into the valley between her breasts. Then the phone rang again. Laura considered letting the call go but decided it was probably just James calling to tease her again. 

“Hello,” Laura purred. “How can I assist you tonight?” 

Instead of hearing James cheerful baritone, the line was silent, but not quite dead. A bit of static gave the impression of someone on the other end, listening. 

“Hello?” Laura said again, her voice losing its confidence. The call abruptly disconnected and a dial tone buzzed in her ear like a hornet. 

“Are you playing tricks on me, Eve”?  Laura said. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t unnerved. She wagged a finger in the air as if scolding a naughty child. “Well, I don’t care. You can’t spoil my mood tonight. You might be stuck here forever, but this librarian is going out for some fun.” 

Laura removed the garment bag from the bathroom door, stripped down to her panties, and slid the velvet dress over her head. The luxurious fabric flowed over her body and shiver of pleasure ran through her as she imagined James’ reaction. She kicked off her sensible shoes and put on a pair of stilettos as a final touch. 

Laura heard the crunch of tires in the parking lot, so she gathered up her work clothes and stuffed them in a tote. When she examined her reflection in the full-length mirror she was satisfied, at first, with what she saw. Then, she spotted a glob of lipstick on her teeth. Leaning in close, she used her pinky finger to wipe away the unattractive smear. She pulled back an inch to check her work, and saw the ghost standing behind her. This time, her face was twisted with anger and her arms were thrown wide. Laura screamed, recoiling from the dreadful image. 

Without warning, the mirror shattered as if struck by a closed fist. Laura’s hands flew up to protect her face, but she was too late. A tiny crystalline dagger flew from the mirror and struck the skin beneath her left eye. She felt it sting, then wiped away a single drop of blood oozing down her cheek like a crimson tear. 

Laura was momentarily paralyzed by shock, but quickly pulled herself together. Aside from the cut on her face, she was unhurt. She pressed a tissue to her cheek to stanch the blood and returned to the staff room as she tried to make sense of the attack. This was no innocent prank; Eve had clearly intended to hurt her. Laura needed to tell the director what happened, but that would have to wait until morning. 

Laura was trembling, but hot anger suffocated her fear. She refused to let the ghost’s violent outburst derail her plans. 

“That was not funny, Eve.” Laura shouted. Her hands were squeezed into tight fists at her sides. “And this isn’t finished.”

Laura heard James tap the horn of his car in the parking lot, so she raced back to her desk to grab her purse. A book she had never seen before was waiting on the seat of her chair. It was A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac. It took Laura a moment to absorb the insult, to realize that the ghost had called her a whore. She flung the hefty volume at the wall and turned to leave. 

“I really don’t care what you think, Eve. Rumor has it that you’re somebody’s pathetic old cast-off, anyway. Misery may love company, but you’re not going to get it from me,” she shouted. Laura exited the library, slamming the door behind her. 

#

Mrs. Rossiter dismissed Millicent’s role in destroying the mirror and called it a coincidence. 

“My dear, it must have been terribly frightening but I’m sure there is another explanation. Our ghost has never damaged anything. That mirror was very old and the glass probably just slipped from its frame.” 

Laura resisted arguing with her boss, but she was done being friendly with a ghost. Instead, Laura focused on her work and left promptly after every shift. She didn’t make offhand comments to herself or even hum a tune out loud when she was alone there. 
In the spring, golden sunshine slanted through the windows late into the afternoon, giving way to rosy twilight before closing. Without the oppressive darkness during evening shifts, the library felt less spooky. Laura never had to face those blackened windowpanes and fear what she might see reflected there. 

Laura remained vigilant, waiting for more evidence of Eve’s displeasure, but after the dreadful outburst on Valentine’s Day, the ghost seemed to be gone. Kids happily skipped past the rocking chair and objects had stopped disappearing from her desk. Laura hoped that the scary incident had somehow set the ghost free, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. 

To offset her anxiety at work, Laura spent nearly all of her free time with James. They spent their weekends making love, watching old movies, and talking endlessly about the future. When James proposed on her birthday Laura felt as if everything in her life had fallen into place. 

During the weekly staff meeting, Laura announced her engagement and was showered with hearty congratulations by Mrs. Rossiter, Eddie, and the volunteer staff. She fanned out the fingers of her left hand, showing off her glittering solitaire and enjoying the compliments from the small group. 

Remembering Eve’s jealous rage, Laura was especially cautious after her announcement. When weeks passed and nothing happened, Laura discovered that she was surprisingly disappointed. She enjoyed flaunting her happiness and admitted to herself that it would be satisfying to provoke the envy of the embittered ghost. After all, Eve deserved some payback for cutting her face and insulting her morals. 

Laura finally decided to tempt fate by placing a framed engagement photo on her desk. She hoped the ghost, whether she had been a scorned wife or jilted lover, would see that she had been bested. Laura expected to find the photo lying shattered on the floor, but it gathered dust along its gilded edges instead.

The undisturbed picture frame irritated Laura and she found herself gritting her teeth whenever she thought about the ghost. After decades of haunting the library, why would Eve have just suddenly left?  Then, Laura remembered the photograph of the woman in the window. Maybe something inside the director’s leather-bound album would explain why she had been the target of Eve’s scorn.

There hadn’t been a patron in the library for over an hour, so Laura let herself into Mrs. Rossiter’s office and pulled down the bulky album. She skimmed the pages filled with historical documents and stopped at a newspaper article from 1925 about the dedication of the library. 

Laura’s eyes locked on a black-and-white photograph of the original homeowners, Mr. and Mrs. James Sinclair. The young woman in the grainy picture was remarkably similar in appearance to the ghost she first saw reflected in the windowpanes. Laura tried to convince herself that the resemblance was a coincidence and continued on to the article:

The prominent couple was the subject of a local scandal that ended in tragedy. Shortly after James Sinclair was discovered having an extramarital relationship with a housemaid, his wife, Evelyn, died of unknown causes. The estate of the childless couple was left to Whitmore Township for community use and the town council voted to convert the home into a public library. 

Laura’s legs felt weak and she grasped the desk for support. She finally understood. Eve’s husband, who was also named James, had betrayed her with a household employee. In a way, Laura worked in their home, too, so it wasn’t difficult to make a comparison. She cringed as she recalled her habit of having flirtatious, whispered conversations with her fiancée over the phone. It must have angered Eve even more to hear her own husband’s name fall from her lips, Oh James, I can’t, I’m working… Laura put her hand to her chest, remembering how she had made things worse by taunting the ghost, calling her a pathetic cast-off. If only she had just let it go. 

The overhead lights flickered, jolting Laura from her thoughts. Now that she knew her role in provoking the ghost, she was terrified of being caught alone with her. She quickly put the album back onto the shelf, and left the room. 

Once in the hallway, Laura heard a quiet ping-ping-ping sound coming from the basement. It wasn’t unusual for the old pipes to clang and groan, but this was different. As she hurried toward the exit, the pinging grew louder, accompanied by the unmistakable odor of something burning. 

 At the door leading to the basement, Laura was accosted by an acrid haze that smelled of burning petroleum. Laura considered running to call the fire department, but descended the basement steps instead, remembering the furnace’s emergency switch. She lunged for the furnace room door and the steel handle scorched her hand. She watched in shock as a red welt rose on her palm. At her feet, black tendrils of smoke writhed out from under the door like vines. 

Without warning, the door above her slammed shut and Laura heard the lock slide into place. She was trapped. The months of silence didn’t mean that the ghost had moved on. Eve had simply been lying in wait. 

Laura raced back up the steps and grasped the doorknob, wrenching it savagely from side to side, but it was immovable. Upstairs, the fire alarm began to bleat and the wailing siren filled her with panic. She pounded on the door with her unburned hand and screamed herself hoarse, only stopping when the noxious air filling the room scorched her lungs with each breath. 

In desperation, Laura took a few paces back, and then threw her shoulder into the door to try to force it open. It was futile. Laura bounced off the door and tumbled down to the concrete floor below, knocking herself unconscious. When she finally came around, a curtain of fire had spread across the back of the basement. Searing heat bit at her face, singeing her eyelashes. 

Billowing smoke swirled around her forming unnatural patterns. Laura blinked, thinking that the disturbing images were the result of a concussion, but the shapes continued to change. Almost gracefully, the churning smoke organized itself into a humanlike form. Through the power of the blazing heat, Eve made herself manifest. 

The ghost first materialized into the young woman Laura saw reflected in the window. Then, as the flames spread across the ceiling, her form shifted into a shrouded crone. Finally, as the heat was becoming too intense to bear, Eve revealed her true form, which looked more monstrous than human. Her eyes, made from gaping black holes in the smoke, expressed absolute hatred. Flames danced around her head like a Medusa and her long, grasping fingers swayed in constant motion. The ghost threw her head back, but instead of hearing demonic laughter, Laura only heard the roar of the inferno. 

Laura tried to sit up, but the ghost swooped down upon her like a bird of prey. A burning hand gripped the young librarian’s throat and she felt her breath being squeezed from her lungs. Casting her eyes to the stairway, Laura desperately looked for an escape. All she could see were the walls around her beginning to blister and warp, so she closed her eyes and began to pray. Moments before she lost consciousness, she heard the sounds of shouting coming from upstairs. 

#

Laura blinked sleepily in the early morning sun that streamed through her window. It felt good to be back home, finally sleeping in her own bed, but she was far from healed. Pain was the first thing she noticed every morning and she still needed months of therapy just to regain full use of her hands. Laura suspected it would take even longer to get past the panic attacks. She was grateful to be alive, though. The firemen had broken down the door with little time to spare. 

Laura propped herself up and regarded her reflection in the mirror on her bureau. Mercifully, her face was fine, but an ugly red scar rippled across her neck. She ran a tentative touch over her damaged skin, wincing. A thumb-sized welt traveled from her jugular up to her ear and four parallel burns marked the space between her collarbone and jaw. 

The Whitmore Library had burned to the ground and the blaze had grown so intense that none of the historic building could be saved. The charred remains of the old structure were already gone, pushed away by bright yellow bulldozers. All that was left was a parcel of scorched earth and a few blackened trees. The scene was a disturbing blight on the quaint town square. 

During the weeks Laura spent in the hospital, the town council decided that a modern library would be built on the property. Although Laura never wanted to work in Whitmore again, she hoped that whatever evil had inhabited the building had been carried away with the ashes. 

James came to the door of Laura’s bedroom and looked in with a concerned smile. “Morning, sweetheart. How are you feeling?"
 
“Pretty good. I’ll join you in the kitchen in a minute.”

James’ face grew serious. “No way. You’re still on bed rest until all the bandages come off. I know you’re getting stir-crazy but it’s just a couple more days. 

Laura rolled her eyes, although she couldn’t help but smile. James had never left her side throughout her recovery. She snuggled back down into her pillows as he leaned over to kiss the top of her head. 

“So, what would you like for breakfast?”

Laura grinned up at him. “Surprise me.”

Laura turned on the television and used her good hand to flip through talk shows, game shows, and soap operas before finally giving up. She settled back on her pillow, inhaling the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen.

James popped back in the doorway a few minutes later, a steaming mug in one hand and a parcel in the other. 

“Here’s something that might cheer you up,” James said. “The postman delivered this about an hour ago. It’s addressed to you.” He set the package down and returned to the kitchen to finish cooking. 

Laura took the package in her lap and smiled. Her friends and family had been showering her with get-well cards and gifts. She pulled open the brown mailing paper and found a hardcover book inside. Laura looked for an enclosed note or a return address, but there was no indication of who sent the gift. 

Laura turned the volume over in her bandaged hands. It was a mystery by Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None. Laura whispered the title aloud and tears began to well in her eyes. In the bureau mirror, a shadowy figure surfaced, its shapeless form darkening the glass. 

Laura flung the book onto the floor and began to scream. James ran into the room, a prescription bottle rattling in his hand. 

“The mirror, James! She’s watching me in the mirror!” Laura was pressed against the headboard, her eyes huge, pointing at the wall. 

James placed a white pill into Laura’s bandaged palm and urged her to swallow it. Laura sobbed as he hugged her close. 

“There’s nothing there, baby.” James stroked her hair and sighed. “You’re safe. Just like when I checked yesterday.”