The visitor

Susan Humphrey, from over in Cross Junction, near 60 miles west, came by. She brought a basket of dried goods and a bottle of Old Gent’s rye whiskey. We had known each other since grade school. We were girls who giggled over movie magazines and cried when we lost our folks, and all those heady times in between. We were as close as sisters, but it had probably been ten years since we last stood on the same patch of ground. Time has a way of scratching the numbers off a calendar without you noticing.

That’s not quite right.

Why, Charlotte, you look so pretty,” she said. “Being a fresh widow agrees with you. Your hair! It’s so blonde! I don’t recall you being a towhead when we were girls. Are you using a bottle?”

Natural sun bleach,” I said. “Hard sunlight. I have no time to fritter in the shade of my kitchen. And look at you. You brought good whiskey and flour and sugar and coffee. God bless you, I was almost out.” Sue didn’t look older at all. She still had that naturally pink complexion and those elegant green eyes. Her cheeks looked a little bruised, and her eyes more deeply set, but if that was all ten years gave her, she was doing well. A few crow’s feet is a small price for getting older.

She hugged me close and brushed her lips against my cheek. I felt tears dribble down my face. I could feel dank sweat and thin bones under her clothes.

Just look at you,” she said, and it sounded sincere. “You haven’t aged at all.”

I’m starved for conversation,” I said. “You’re a sight, Susan. Come on in and put your feet up. I’ll make us some whiskey coffee.”

She looked at exactly as I remembered her, right down to her favorite pink house dress and herringbone jacket. She must have been burning up in that jacket. I was sweating like a fish.

Hold the coffee for me, Char. Honey, you look good. All trim and blonde. You won’t have no problems finding yourself a sweet man. Maybe one with money.” She giggled, and it sounded like bubbles caught in her throat, a hiccupy noise. It was odd. I didn’t recall Susan being a giggling sort of woman, not after she married George.

If I’m trim, it’s because I have no time to eat,” I said. “Tough old corn and stale bread. There’s deer meat in the ice box, but that’s all the meat I’ll probably see for a long time.”

I’ve missed you, Char,” she said. “I’m so glad I decided to visit. Could be you’ll visit me soon. I’ve missed you.”

In the patch of shade under the porch, she did look older. Less refined. Yes, she was older, and her eyes were dark from exhaustion from the long drive. They weren’t quite the green color I recalled, but darker. Almost black. And those three-for-a-penny crow’s feet really did look like crow’s feet. Not just fine lines, but like something had walked across and started pecking. Her skin looked darkly translucent, like a thin mask. Her teeth were gray and filled with grit.

The last time I saw Susan was ten years earlier. It was at her funeral.

I screamed, and the sun bore down and cast shadows from a dark drifting cloud.

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