Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

  She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it.

  “Like to go to a movie?” her husband asked.

  “I don’t think so, thanks,” Margaret said. “Why?”

  “You look sort of bored,” her husband said.

  “Were you watching me?” Margaret asked. “I thought you were reading.”

  “Just looked at you for a minute.” He smiled at her, the smile of a man who is still, after ten years of marriage, very fond of his wife.

  The idea of smashing the glass ashtray over her husband’s head had never before occurred to Margaret, but now it would not leave her mind. She stirred uneasily in her chair, thinking: what a terrible thought to have, whatever made me think of such a thing? Probably a perverted affectionate gesture, and she laughed.

  “Funny?” her husband asked.

  “Nothing,” Margaret said.

  She stood up and crossed the room to the hall door, without purpose. She was very uneasy, and looking at her husband did not help. The cord that held the curtains back made her think: strangle him. She told herself: it’s not that I don’t love him, I just feel morbid tonight. As though something bad were going to happen. A telegram coming, or the refrigerator breaking down. Drown him, the goldfish bowl suggested.

  Look, Margaret told herself severely, standing just outside the hall door so that her husband would not see her if he looked up from his paper, look, this is perfectly ridiculous. The idea of a grown woman troubling herself with silly fears like that—it’s like being afraid of ghosts, or something. Nothing is going to happen to him, Margaret, she said almost aloud; nothing can happen to hurt either you or your husband or anyone you love. You are perfectly safe.

  “Margaret?” her husband called.


  “Is something wrong?”

  “No, dear,” Margaret said. “Just getting a drink of water.”

  Poison him? Push him in front of a car? A train?

  I don’t want to kill my husband, Margaret said to herself. I never dreamed of killing him. I want him to live. Stop it, stop it.

  She got her drink of water, a little formality she played out with herself because she had told him she was going to do it, and then wandered back into the living room and sat down. He looked up as she entered.

  “You seem very restless tonight,” he said.

  “It’s the weather, I guess,” Margaret said. “Heat always bothers me.”

  “Sure you wouldn’t like to go to a movie?” he said. “Or we could go for a ride, cool off.”

  “No, thanks,” she said. “I’ll go to bed early.”

  “Good idea,” he said.

  What would I do without him? she wondered. How would I live, who would ever marry me, where would I go? What would I do with all the furniture, crying when I saw his picture, burning his old letters? I could give his suits away, but what would I do with the house? Who would take care of the income tax? I love my husband, Margaret told herself emphatically; I must stop thinking like this. It’s like an idiot tune running through my head.

  She got up again to turn the radio on; the flat voice of the announcer offended her and she turned the radio off again, passing beyond it to the bookcase. She took down a book and then another, leafing through them without seeing the pages, thinking: it isn’t as though I had a motive; they’d never catch me. Why would I kill my husband? She could see herself saying tearfully to an imaginary police lieutenant: “But I loved him—I can’t stand his being dead!”

  “Margaret,” her husband said. “Are you worried about something?”

  “No, dear,” she said. “Why?”

  “You really seem terribly upset tonight. Are you feverish?”

  “No,” she said. “A chill, if anything.”

  “Come over here and let me feel your forehead.”

  She came obediently, and bent down for him to put his hand on her forehead. At his cool touch she thought, Oh, the dear, good man; and wanted to cry at what she had been thinking.

  “You’re right,” he said. “Your head feels cold. Better go on off to bed.”

  “In a little while,” she said. “I’m not tired yet.”

  “Shall I make you a drink?” he asked. “Or something like lemonade?”

  “Thank you very much, dear,” she said. “But no thanks.”

  They say if you soak a cigarette in water overnight the water will be almost pure nicotine by morning, and deadly poisonous. You can put it in coffee and it won’t taste.

  “Shall I make you some coffee?” she asked, surprising herself.

  He looked up again, frowning. “I just had two cups for dinner,” he said. “But thanks just the same.”

  I’m brave enough to go through with it, Margaret thought; what will it all matter a hundred years from now? I’ll be dead, too, by then, and who cares about the furniture?

  She began to think concretely. A burglar. First call a doctor, then the police, then her brother-in-law and her own sister. Tell them all the same thing, her voice broken with tears. It would not be necessary to worry about preparations; the more elaborately these things were planned, the better chance of making a mistake. She could get out of it without being caught if she thought of it in a broad perspective and not as a matter of small details. Once she started worrying about things like fingerprints she was lost. Whatever you worry about catches you, every time.

  “Have you any enemies?” she asked her husband, not meaning to.

  “Enemies,” he said. For a moment he took her seriously, and then he smiled and said, “I suppose I have hundreds. Secret ones.”

  “I didn’t mean to ask you that,” she said, surprising herself again.

  “Why would I have enemies?” he asked, suddenly serious again, and setting down his paper. “What makes you think I have enemies, Margaret?”

  “It was silly of me,” she said. “A silly thought.” She smiled and after a minute he smiled again.

  “I suppose the milkman hates me,” he said. “I always forget to leave the bottles out.”

  The milkman would hardly do; he knew it, and he would not help her. Her glance rested on the glass ashtray, glittering and colored in the light from the reading lamp; she had washed the ashtray that morning and nothing had occurred to her about it then. Now she thought: it ought to be the ashtray; the first idea is always the best.

  She rose for the third time and came around to lean on the back of his chair; the ashtray was on the table to her right, now, and she bent down and kissed the top of his head.

  “I never loved you more,” she said, and he reached up without looking to touch her hair affectionately.

  Carefully she took his cigar out of the ashtray and set it on the table. For a minute he did not notice and then, as he reached for his cigar, he saw that it was on the table and picked it up quickly, touching the table underneath to see if it had burned. “Set fire to the house,” he said casually. When he was looking at the paper again she picked up the ashtray silently.

  “I don’t want to,” she said as she struck him.

  The Bus

  Old Miss Harper was going home, although the night was wet and nasty. Miss Harper disliked traveling at any time, and she particularly disliked traveling on this dirty small bus which was her only way of getting home; she had frequently complained to the bus company about their service because it seemed that no matter where she wanted to go, they had no respectable bus to carry her. Getting away from home was bad enough—Miss Harper was fond of pointing out to the bus company—but getting home always se
emed very close to impossible. Tonight Miss Harper had no choice: if she did not go home by this particular bus she could not go for another day. Annoyed, tired, depressed, she tapped irritably on the counter of the little tobacco store which served also as the bus station. Sir, she was thinking, beginning her letter of complaint, although I am an elderly lady of modest circumstances and must curtail my fondness for travel, let me point out that your bus service falls far below . . .

  Outside, the bus stirred noisily, clearly not anxious to be moving; Miss Harper thought she could already hear the weary sound of its springs sinking out of shape. I just can’t make this trip again, Miss Harper thought, even seeing Stephanie isn’t worth it, they really go out of their way to make you uncomfortable. “Can I get my ticket, please?” she said sharply, and the old man at the other end of the counter put down his paper and gave her a look of hatred.

  Miss Harper ordered her ticket, deploring her own cross voice, and the old man slapped it down on the counter in front of her and said, “You got three minutes before the bus leaves.”

  He’d love to tell me I missed it, Miss Harper thought, and made a point of counting her change.

  The rain was beating down, and Miss Harper hurried the few exposed steps to the door of the bus. The driver was slow in opening the door and as Miss Harper climbed in she was thinking, Sir, I shall never travel with your company again. Your ticket salesmen are ugly, your drivers are surly, your vehicles indescribably filthy . . .

  There were already several people sitting in the bus, and Miss Harper wondered where they could possibly be going; were there really this many small towns served only by this bus? Were there really other people who would endure this kind of trip to get somewhere, even home? I’m very out of sorts, Miss Harper thought, very out of sorts; it’s too strenuous a visit for a woman of my age; I need to get home. She thought of a hot bath and a cup of tea and her own bed, and sighed. No one offered to help her put her suitcase on the rack, and she glanced over her shoulder at the driver sitting with his back turned and thought, he’d probably rather put me off the bus than help me, and then, perceiving her own ill nature, smiled. The bus company might write a letter of complaint about me, she told herself and felt better. She had providentially taken a sleeping pill before leaving for the bus station, hoping to sleep through as much of the trip as possible, and at last, sitting near the back, she promised herself that it would not be unbearably long before she had a bath and a cup of tea, and tried to compose the bus company’s letter of complaint. Madam, a lady of your experience and advanced age ought surely to be aware of the problems confronting a poor but honest little company which wants only . . .

  She was aware that the bus had started, because she was rocked and bounced in her seat, and the feeling of rattling and throbbing beneath the soles of her shoes stayed with her even when she slept at last. She lay back uneasily, her head resting on the seat back, moving back and forth with the motion of the bus, and around her other people slept, or spoke softly, or stared blankly out the windows at the passing lights and the rain.

  Sometime during her sleep Miss Harper was jostled by someone moving into the seat behind her, her head was pushed and her hat disarranged; for a minute, bewildered by sleep, Miss Harper clutched at her hat, and said vaguely, “Who?”

  “Go back to sleep,” a young voice said, and giggled. “I’m just running away from home, that’s all.”

  Miss Harper was not awake, but she opened her eyes a little and looked up to the ceiling of the bus. “That’s wrong,” Miss Harper said as clearly as she could. “That’s wrong. Go back.”

  There was another giggle. “Too late,” the voice said. “Go back to sleep.”

  Miss Harper did. She slept uncomfortably and awkwardly, her mouth a little open. Sometime, perhaps an hour later, her head was jostled again and the voice said, “I think I’m going to get off here. ’By now.”

  “You’ll be sorry,” Miss Harper said, asleep. “Go back.”

  Then, still later, the bus driver was shaking her. “Look, lady,” he was saying, “I’m not an alarm clock. Wake up and get off the bus.”

  “What?” Miss Harper stirred, opened her eyes, felt for her pocketbook.

  “I’m not an alarm clock,” the driver said. His voice was harsh and tired. “I’m not an alarm clock. Get off the bus.”

  “What?” said Miss Harper again.

  “This is as far as you go. You got a ticket to here. You’ve arrived. And I am not an alarm clock waking up people to tell them when it’s time to get off; you got here, lady, and it’s not part of my job to carry you off the bus. I’m not—”

  “I intend to report you,” Miss Harper said, awake. She felt for her pocketbook and found it in her lap, moved her feet, straightened her hat. She was stiff and moving was difficult.

  “Report me. But from somewhere else. I got a bus to run. Now will you please get off so I can go on my way?”

  His voice was loud, and Miss Harper was sickeningly aware of faces turned toward her from along the bus, grins, amused comments. The driver turned and stamped off down the bus to his seat, saying, “She thinks I’m an alarm clock,” and Miss Harper, without assistance and moving clumsily, took down her suitcase and struggled with it down the aisle. Her suitcase banged against seats, and she knew that people were staring at her; she was terribly afraid that she might stumble and fall.

  “I’ll certainly report you,” she said to the driver, who shrugged.

  “Come on, lady,” he said. “It’s the middle of the night and I got a bus to run.”

  “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Miss Harper said wildly, wanting to cry.

  “Lady,” the driver said with elaborate patience, “please get off my bus.”

  The door was open, and Miss Harper eased herself and her suitcase onto the steep step. “She thinks everyone’s an alarm clock, got to see she gets off the bus,” the driver said behind her, and Miss Harper stepped onto the ground. Suitcase, pocketbook, gloves, hat; she had them all. She had barely taken stock when the bus started with a jerk, almost throwing her backward, and Miss Harper, for the first time in her life, wanted to run and shake her fist at someone. I’ll report him, she thought, I’ll see that he loses his job, and then she realized that she was in the wrong place.

  Standing quite still in the rain and the darkness Miss Harper became aware that she was not at the bus corner of her town where the bus should have left her. She was on an empty crossroads in the rain. There were no stores, no lights, no taxis, no people. There was nothing, in fact, but a wet dirt road under her feet and a signpost where two roads came together. Don’t panic, Miss Harper told herself, almost whispering, don’t panic; it’s all right, it’s all right, you’ll see that it’s all right, don’t be frightened.

  She took a few steps in the direction the bus had gone, but it was out of sight and when Miss Harper called falteringly, “Come back,” and, “Help,” there was no answer to the shocking sound of her own voice out loud except the steady drive of the rain. I sound old, she thought, but I will not panic. She turned in a circle, her suitcase in her hand, and told herself, don’t panic, it’s all right.

  There was no shelter in sight, but the signpost said RICKET’S LANDING; so that’s where I am, Miss Harper thought, I’ve come to Ricket’s Landing and I don’t like it here. She set her suitcase down next to the signpost and tried to see down the road; perhaps there might be a house, or even some kind of a barn or shed where she could get out of the rain. She was crying a little, and lost and hopeless, saying Please, won’t someone come? when she saw headlights far off down the road and realized that someone was really coming to help her. She ran to the middle of the road and stood waving, her gloves wet and her pocketbook draggled. “Here,” she called, “here I am, please come and help me.”

  Through the sound of the rain she could hear the motor, and then the headlights caught her and, suddenly emb
arrassed, she put her pocketbook in front of her face while the lights were on her. The lights belonged to a small truck, and it came to an abrupt stop beside her and the window near her was rolled down and a man’s voice said furiously, “You want to get killed? You trying to get killed or something? What you doing in the middle of the road, trying to get killed?” The young man turned and spoke to the driver. “It’s some dame. Running out in the road like that.”

  “Please,” Miss Harper said, as he seemed almost about to close the window again, “please help me. The bus put me off here when it wasn’t my stop and I’m lost.”

  “Lost?” The young man laughed richly. “First I ever heard anyone getting lost in Ricket’s Landing. Mostly they have trouble finding it.” He laughed again, and the driver, leaning forward over the steering wheel to look curiously at Miss Harper, laughed too. Miss Harper put on a willing smile, and said, “Can you take me somewhere? Perhaps a bus station?”

  “No bus station.” The young man shook his head profoundly. “Bus comes through here every night, stops if he’s got any passengers.”

  “Well,” Miss Harper’s voice rose in spite of herself; she was suddenly afraid of antagonizing these young men; perhaps they might even leave her here where they found her, in the wet and dark. “Please,” she said, “can I get in with you, out of the rain?”

  The two young men looked at each other. “Take her down to the old lady’s,” one of them said.

  “She’s pretty wet to get in the truck,” the other one said.

  “Please,” Miss Harper said, “I’ll be glad to pay you what I can.”

  “We’ll take you to the old lady,” the driver said. “Come on, move over,” he said to the other young man.

  “Wait, my suitcase.” Miss Harper ran back to the signpost, no longer caring how she must look, stumbling about in the rain, and brought her suitcase over to the truck.

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