Read A Stranger in My Grave Online
Authors: Margaret Millar
Tags: #Crime Fiction
A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE
Text Copyright Â© 1960 by Margaret Millar.
Introduction copyright Â© 1983 by Margaret Millar and Kenneth Millar 1981 Trusts.
This edition published in 2016 by
This book is dedicated,
with affection and admiration,
to Louise Doty Colt
Any writer can tell you, usually at great length, about the ebb and flow of creative juices. What causes an ebb when a flow is expected must be the same force that causes a zig instead of a zag, a willy instead of a nilly. It is unexplainable in physical, mental, or emotional terms. The happiest, healthiest, brightest person in the world may be unable to create anything more than a cheese soufflÃ©, while many of the world's masterpieces have been written by people in great physical pain and emotional and mental distress.
Sometimes when I finish writing a book I am very tired and envious of the days when men communicated only in grunts and growls. But if the creative juices don't stop flowing I simply change direction and compose a song, without words, of course. Usually it's a pretty bad song and soon forgotten.
At other times, however, I go with the flow. Ideas for future books occur to me and I write them down in a spiral notebook in longhand. These ideas range from one-liners to several pages.
A Stranger in My Grave
originated in a one-sentence idea I had put down a long time before in this same notebook:
A woman dreams of visiting a cemetery and seeing engraved on a granite tombstone her name, the date of her birth, and the date of her death four years previously. Write your way out of that one, kiddo.
I did. It was an interesting assignment, reconstructing a day in the past and the event or events which had traumatized the young woman and convinced her that she had been murdered or almost murdered on the date engraved on the tombstone. I picked a day at random, then used the microfilm library of the local newspaper to reconstruct the day.
Given this same one-line idea to work on, another writer such as my husband, Ross Macdonald, would have produced quite difÂ¬ferent results. Though all creative juices may start at the same unknown spring, they flow in different channels.
Here is mine.
Santa Barbara, California
My beloved Daisy: It has been so many years since I have seen you. . . .
The times of
terror began, not in the middle of the night when the quiet and the darkness made terror seem a natural thing, but on a bright and noisy morning during the first week of February. The acacia trees, in such full bloom that they looked leafless, were shaking the night fog off their blossoms like shaggy dogs shaking off rain, and the eucalyptus fluttered and played coquette with hundreds of tiny gray birds, no bigger than thumbs, whose name Daisy did not know.
She had tried to find out what species they belonged to by conÂsulting the bird book Jim had given her when they'd first moved into the new house. But the little thumb-sized birds refused to stay still long enough to be identified, and Daisy dropped the subÂject. She didn't like birds anyway. The contrast between their blithe freedom in flight and their terrible vulnerability when grounded reminded her too strongly of herself.
Across the wooded canyon she could see parts of the new housÂing development. Less than a year ago, there had been nothing but scrub oak and castor beans pushing out through the stubborn adobe soil. Now the hills were sprouting with brick chimneys and television aerials, and the landscape was growing green with newly rooted ice plant and ivy. Noises floated across the canyon to Daisy's house, undiminished by distance on a windless day: the barking of dogs, the shrieks of children at play, snatches of music, the crying of a baby, the shout of an angry mother, the intermittent whirring of an electric saw.
Daisy enjoyed these morning sounds, sounds of life, of living. She sat at the breakfast table listening to them, a pretty dark-haired young woman wearing a bright blue robe that matched her eyes, and the faintest trace of a smile. The smile meant nothing. It was one of habit. She put it on in the morning along with her lipstick and removed it at night when she washed her face. Jim liked this smile of Daisy's. To him it indicated that she was a happy woman and that he, as her husband, deserved a major portion of the praise for making and keeping her that way. And so the smile, which intended no purpose, served one anyway: it convinced Jim that he was doing what at various times in the past he'd believed to be impossibleâmaking Daisy happy.
He was reading the paper, some of it to himself, some of it aloud, when he came upon any item that he thought might interÂest her.
“There's a new storm front off the Oregon coast. Maybe it will get down this far. I hope to God it does. Did you know this has been the driest year since '48?”
“Mmm.” It was not an answer or a comment, merely an encouragement for him to tell her more so she wouldn't have to talk. Usually she felt quite talkative at breakfast, recounting the day past, planning the day to come. But this morning she felt quiet, as if some part of her lay still asleep and dreaming.
“Only five and a half inches of rain since last July. That's eight months. It's amazing how all our trees have managed to survive, isn't it?”
“Still, I suppose the bigger ones have their roots down to the creek bed by this time. The fire hazard's pretty bad, though. I hope you're careful with your cigarettes, Daisy. Our fire insurance wouldn't cover the replacement cost of the house. Are you?”
“Careful with your cigarettes and matches?”
“Actually, it's your mother I'm concerned about.” By looking over Daisy's left shoulder out through the picture window of the dinette, he could see the used-brick chimney of the mother-in-law cottage he'd built for Mrs. Fielding. It was some 200 yards away. Sometimes it seemed closer, sometimes he forgot about it entirely. “I know she's fussy about such things, but accidents can happen. Suppose she's sitting there smoking one night and has another stroke? I wonder if I ought to talk to her about it.”
It was nine years ago, before Jim and Daisy had even met, that Mrs. Fielding had suffered a slight stroke, sold her dress shop in Denver, and retired to San FÃ©lice on the California coast. But Jim still worried about it, as if the stroke had just taken place yesterÂday and might recur tomorrow. He himself had always had a very active and healthy life, and the idea of illness appalled him. Since he had become successful as a land speculator, he'd met a great many doctors socially, but their presence made him uncomfortÂable. They were intruders, Cassandras, like morticians at a wedÂding or policemen at a child's party.
“I hope you won't mind, Daisy.”
“If I speak to your mother about it.”
He returned, satisfied, to his paper. The bacon and eggs Daisy had cooked for him because the day maid didn't arrive until nine o'clock lay untouched on his plate. Food meant little to Jim at breakfast time. It was the paper he devoured, paragraph by paraÂgraph, eating up the facts and figures as if he could never get enough of them. He'd quit school at sixteen to join a construction crew.
“Now here's something interesting. Researchers have now proved that whales have a sonar system for avoiding collisions, something like bats.”
“Mmm.” Some part of her still slept and dreamed: she could think of nothing to say. So she sat gazing out the window, listenÂing to Jim and the other morning sounds. Then, without warnÂing, without apparent reason, the terror seized her.
The placid, steady beating of her heart turned into a fast, arrhythmic pounding. She began to breathe heavily and quickly, like a person engaged in some tremendous physical feat, and the blood swept up into her face as if driven before a wind. Her foreÂhead and cheeks and the tips of her ears burned with sudden fever, and sweat poured into the palms of her hands from some secret well.
The sleeper had awakened.
“Yes?” He glanced at her over the top of the paper and thought how well Daisy was looking this morning, with a fine high color, like a young girl's. She seemed excited, as if she'd just planned some new big project, and he wondered, indulgently, what it would be this time. The years were crammed with Daisy's projects, packed away and half forgotten, like old toys in a trunk, some of them broken, some barely used: ceramics, astrology, tuberous begonias, Spanish conversation, upholstering, Vedanta, mental hygiene, mosaics, Russian literatureâall the toys Daisy had played with and discarded. “Do you want someÂthing, dear?”
“Sure thing.” He brought a glass of water from the kitchen. “Here you are.”
She reached for the glass, but she couldn't pick it up. The lower part of her body was frozen, the upper part burned with fever, and there seemed to be no connection between the two parts. She wanted the water to cool her parched mouth, but the hand on the glass would not respond, as if the lines of communiÂcation had been broken between desire and will.
“Daisy? What's the matter?”
“I feelâI think I'mâsick.”
“Sick?” He looked surprised and hurt, like a boxer caught by a sudden low blow. “You don't look sick. I was thinking just a minute ago what a marvelous color you have this morningâoh God, Daisy, don't be sick.”
“I can't help it.”
“Here. Drink this. Let me carry you over to the davenport. Then I'll go and get your mother.”
“No,” she said sharply. “I don't want her toâ”
“We have to do something. Perhaps I'd better call a doctor.”
“No, don't. It will all be over by the time anyone could get here.”
“How do you know?”
“It's happened before.”
“Last week. Twice.”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
“I don't know.” She had a reason, but she couldn't remember it. “I feel soâhot.”
He pressed his right hand gently against her forehead. It was cold and moist. “I don't think you have a temperature,” he said anxiously. “You sound all right. And you've still got that good healthy color.”
He didn't recognize the color of terror.
Daisy leaned forward in her chair. The lines of communication between the two parts of her body, the frozen half and the feverÂish half, were gradually re-forming themselves. By an effort of will she was able to pick up the glass from the table and drink the water. The water tasted peculiar, and Jim's face, staring down at her, was out of focus, so that he looked not like Jim, but like some kind stranger who'd dropped in to help her.
How had this kind stranger gotten in? Had she called out to him as he was passing, had she cried, “Help!”?
“Daisy? Are you all right now?”
“Thank God. You had me scared for a minute there.”
“You should take regular daily exercise,” Jim said. “It would be good for your nerves. I also think you haven't been getting enough sleep.”
Sleep. Scared. Help.
The words kept sweeping around and around in her mind like horses on a carousel. If there were only some way of stopping it or even slowing it downâ
hey, operator; you at the controls, kind stranger, slow down, stop, stop, stop.
“It might be a good idea to start taking vitamins every day.”
“Stop,” she said. “Stop.”
Jim stopped, and so did the horses, but only for a second, long enough to jump right off the carousel and start galloping in the opposite direction,
all running riderless together in a cloud of dust. She blinked.
“All right, dear. I was only trying to do the right thing.” He smiled at her timidly, like a nervous parent at a fretful, ailing child who must, but can't, be pleased. “Listen, why don't you sit there quietly for a minute, and I'll go and make you some hot tea?”
“There's coffee in the percolator.”
“Tea might be better for you when you're upset like this.”
I'm not upset, stranger. I'm cold and calm.
She began to shiver, as if the mere thinking of the word had conjured up a tangible thing, like a block of ice.
She could hear Jim bumbling around in the kitchen, opening drawers and cupboards, trying to find the tea bags and the kettle. The gold sunburst clock over the mantel said 8:30. In another half hour the maid Stella would be arriving, and shortly after that Daisy's mother would be coming over from her cottage, brisk and cheerful, as usual in the mornings, and inclined to be critical of anyone who wasn't, especially Daisy.
Half an hour to become brisk and cheerful. So little time, so much to do, so many things to figure out.
What happened to me? Why did it happen? I was just sitting here, doing nothing, thinking nothing, only listening to Jim and to the sounds from across the canÂyon, the children playing, the dogs barking, the saw whirring, the baby crying. I felt quite happy, in a sleepy kind of way. And then suddenly something woke me, and it began, the terror, the panic. What started it, which of those sounds?
Perhaps it was the dog,
she thought. One of the new families across the canyon had an Airedale that howled at passing planes. A howling dog, when she was a child, meant death. She was nearly thirty now, and she knew some dogs howled, particular breeds, and others didn't, and it had nothing to do with death.
As soon as the word entered her mind, she knew that it was the real one; the others going around on the carousel had been merely substitutes for it.
“Be with you in a minute. I'm waiting for the kettle to boil.”
“Don't bother making any tea.”
“How about some milk, then? It'd be good for you. You're going to have to take better care of yourself.”
No, it's too late for that,
All the milk and vitamins and exercise and fresh air and sleep in the world don't make an antidote for death.
Jim came back, carrying a glass of milk. “Here you are. Drink up.”
She shook her head.
“Come on, Daisy.”
“No. No, it's too late.”
“What do you mean it's too late? Too late for what?” He put the glass down on the table so hard that some of the milk splashed on the cloth. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don't swear at me.”
“I have to swear at you. You're so damned exasperating.”
“You'd better go to your office.”
“And leave you here like this, in this condition?”
“I'm all right.”
“O.K., O.K., you're all right. But I'm sticking around anyway.” He sat down, stubbornly, opposite her. “Now, what's this all about, Daisy?”
“I can'tâtell you.”
“Can't, or don't want to? Which?”
She covered her eyes with her hands. She was not aware that she was crying until she felt the tears drip down between her fingers.