Mavis

Mavis

Jean had just taken a bite of eggs when she saw the old woman outside the cottage window, flanked by mist. The cottage resided just above the sea on a cliff, rolled over with a light blanket of moisture. The waters below gently whined and splashed below, disguising the sounds of the old woman’s footfalls.

Eyes squinted, the old woman cupped her fingers and waved in gentle oscillations.

“Jean?” Avery asked. Jean turned to find a lays-about Avery, sleepy-eyed with crumbs on his mouth. He looked him over: his ratty green checkered robe was covered in stains. He smelled like food. Avery dipped his toast in a bit of his yolk, then munched on a goopy corner.

“What’s the matter, Jean?” Avery asked.

“What’s it? Oh,” Jean said, pointing to the window. “Mavis is here.”

“Well, let’s have her in, then?” Avery swallowed, putting down his toast, and craned his neck to see out the window. “Mavis, come on in, miss! Have some tea with us?”

Mavis slowly nodded her head, and edged out of view, towards the front door. Then, it opened, bringing with it an even stronger brine than before. Mavis crept around the door, and closed it behind her.

Avery stood up and fished for a mug from the cabinet. “What’ll it be today, Mavis?”

Mavis licked her lips. “I do like raspberry.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we have a large supply of raspberry tea bags. Right, Jean?”

“That’s right,” Jean said. “Come on in, sit down, Mavis.”

“Oh, hoh!” Mavis yelped. “Such good company you are. Thank you for having me.”

Avery filled a kettle and put it on the stove. Meanwhile, Jean peered over to Mavis, swallowing her last mouthful of eggs. Her hands folded, Mavis examined the table, cocking her head, ever-smiling.

“What are you abouts today?” Jean asked. “Walk on the beach?”

“Nah,” Mavis said. “Enough of that for the week. I’ll have to go home for some errands.”

Avery was cleaning dishes at the sink. “Take long to make your rounds?”

Mavis laughed. “It always takes longer than I think.”

A few minutes later, the kettle rumbled and started to scream. Avery turned down the heat and poured a cup.

“And there it is, Mavis,” Avery said. “I don’t know if you know, but that’s hot.”

“Oh, is it now?” Mavis asked, her jowls shaking as she said it. Jean and Avery laughed, and Mavis joined. “It’s always good fun to be here with you.”

Jean took her own plate to the sink, smirking. This little old woman who’s made us so happy, she thought, running the water. What did we do to deserve her?

The plate clattered in the sink. It didn’t break, but the plate startled Jean. She stood still as the water ran, hands at the sink’s ledge.

“Everything alright, dear?” Mavis asked.

Jean turned about-face. Mavis held the mug of raspberry tea. Avery’s fatigued face took on a skewed glance.

“Just dropped a plate,” Jean said. “All good.”

“Mavis, you gave us those plates, didn’t you?” Avery said, putting an arm around the old gal. She took a sip and rested her mug.

“They used to be mine, but now they’re yours,” Mavis said. “So they’re yours!”

Jean watched Mavis, her eyes squinting in a chuckle. Jean tried to smile, but her lips formed a pitiful crescent, heavier now than before.

This little old woman who’s made us so happy.

***

After Mavis left, Jean found Avery getting on his sandals in the bedroom for the daily beach romp. She stood in the doorway, gripping the trim, wondering how she was going to quite put the words she wanted to say.

“Avery,” Jean said, “you have a minute?”

“Always time for you, love,” Avery said, latching his sandal straps around his ankles. “What’ll it be? A massage? A bad joke? I can give you anything.”

“Very generous, Avery,” Jean said. “But it’s about Mavis.”

Avery turned. “Old Mavis? What about? Did she forget something?”

“She didn’t, no. Actually,” Jean said, laughing, finding the choice words, “I’ve forgotten. Perhaps you can remind me.”

Avery walked to the doorway and put his hands on his waist. “And what’s that, love?”

“Do you,” Jean said, pausing for a beat. “Do you remember when we met Mavis?”

Avery squinted. He scratched his chin, blinking a few times. He leaned in place, and the floorboards creaked underneath. What little light that came through the overcast sky had made deep, sleepy shadows across the room, but Avery’s face was half-marked in shade.

“You know,” Avery said, “I think I might remember.”

Jean sighed out. “It was really bothering me, to tell you the truth,” Jean said, smiling. “Felt a little crazy myself. What was it?”

“Well,” Avery began, crossing his arms, “I recall Mavis had come over with a tray of muffins, telling us how nice we were. We had those for a few breakfasts after.”

As Avery mentioned the details, the memory came to Jean. She could picture Mavis walking the tray through the mist, coming in and sharing them. Warm muffins.

“Those were good,” Jean said. But then her heart quickened as she lingered on the thought. “But, I don’t think that was too long ago. Didn’t I ask Mavis if she could bake, and if she’d be willing to bring something over?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Avery said, shaking his head. “When was that?”

Jean thought, loosening her grip on the door’s trim, crossing her arms over her chest.

“That couldn’t have been more than a year ago, Avery,” Jean said. “When did we meet her?”

“You got me, love,” Avery said, rubbing Jean’s lower back as he exited the bedroom. “To the beach?”

“It’s just… a bit odd. I wish I could remember.”

Avery chuckled in the hallway. “Love, we’ve always known Mavis.”

“I suppose we have,” Jean said. “I wish I could remember.”

***

The fog had settled along the north bank of the cliff. Jean and Avery reached the sandy border of grass and beach, passing the mounds of willows that grew along the path from the cliffside walk. Avery immediately unstrapped his sandals and proceeded to the foam of the water, while Jean dug her sneakers into the damp, loose earth.

“Coming, love?” Avery asked. “You been staring for a bit.”

“Have I?”

“You have.” Avery reached out his hand. “What do you want to talk about today?”

Jean hesitated to take Avery’s hand. Seconds separated her thoughts. Meanwhile, Avery frowned.

“I don’t know.”

Avery pulled back his hand. His cheeks raised and wiggled his nose. “I want to talk about the sun.”

Jean sighed, her shoes sinking into the sand next to Avery. “Let’s talk about the sun, then.”

“It’s a biological necessity for human life,” Avery said.

“Agreed.”

“Some days it’s radiant, right? Up there, hanging about, proud of itself.” Avery’s hand had made its way to Jean’s. “Shiny thing in the sky. Other days,” Avery said, pointing with his free hand, “it’s barely there at all.”

“You’re really captivating me, Avery,” Jean said. “Do continue this fascinating lesson on sun science for me.”

“Oh, it gets better,” Avery chirped. “See, sometimes—in fact, every night—the sun disappears, and our world falls into a big shadow.”

“And then it comes back,” Jean said.

“Why would it? Isn’t that just an assumption?”

“An assumption based on measurable truth, love,” Jean said. “You’re acting really cheeky this morning—”

“Oh, let me get to it. Lord knows I’m a fool—but a fool needs practice. As I was saying, we’re not guaranteed the sun will actually come back up, but we believe it will, right?”

“Sure.” Jean’s mind swam amidst the waves, turning over themselves, folding like perpetual blankets. Avery’s fingers tightened.

“If you just expect the sun to come back up, without any actual proof of knowing so, isn’t that delusional”

“I don’t buy it,” Jean said. “It’s predictable. We have folks who can, you know, measure this. Who consistently measure this.”

“Forget them. I’m talking you, right here, on this beach. Pretend you were separated from the rest of the world, you didn’t know anything, and the sun went down. If you didn’t assume the sun would come back up—what would you do?”

Jean rolled her eyes. But she mulled in her thoughts an image of a hairy animal man, hiding in a cave along a dark beach, cowering, afraid of a sunless world.

“All I’m saying is,” Avery said, “sometimes it’s good to be delusional, right?”

“You,” Jean said, “have a penchant for picking beach conversation.” She chuckled and punched Avery in the shoulder. “Love, get off your soapbox and tell me what’s for supper.”

“Oh, I’m not cooking tonight,” Avery said. “Mavis is bringing over casserole. Did you miss that?”

“I guess I did.”

She let go of Avery’s hand but rubbed her thumb on his palm. She looked up to the top of the cliff and screamed.

“What is it?” Avery asked.

At the top was Mavis, hunched over, waving.

“Oh,” Avery said. “It’s only Mavis, darling.”

“She—just startled me, is all.”

“Mavis can enjoy the beach in her own way, can’t she?” Avery asked. He aimed his head to the cliff and waved, too, laughing and looking back at Jean with raised eyebrows. “I love you,” he said, grabbing Jean’s hand again. “Even if Mavis spooks you.”

“She doesn’t spook me, love.” Jean looked up at the cliff again, and Mavis had disappeared. “Doesn’t spook me. Just startled me.” She watched the sand as she walked along in Avery’s grip, spotting millions of particles. She thought about the animal man in the cave. How dark it was for him.

***

Avery served the casserole Mavis made. Three heaping plates of the stuff lay adjacent to the table’s center. Chunks of gray and green interspersed with a heavy cream. Avery sat at the head of the table, while Mavis sat across from Jean, her hands folded as always.

“Looks good, Mavis,” Avery said. “Be a shame if someone here were to look away and all of it be gone.”

“Wouldn’t be a shame,” Mavis said, huffing in a breath and coughing it right out. “You can’t deny a wanter. It’s not sound morals when you have so much to give.” Avery took a plate, and Mavis took hers. Jean watched Mavis examine the entirety of the plate, her eyes in a wet gleam from the overhead dining light. “Look how much we have.”

“You’re too wise, Mavis,” Avery said. “Jean, are you going to take a plate?”

Do I even like casserole? Jean thought. I don’t quite remember. But Jean noticed Mavis watching from her seat. Her plate lay in front of her, but her hands were again folded. So Jean grabbed the last plate, found her fork, and took in a biteful.

“Do you recall when we first met?” Jean asked, casserole sloshing between her teeth. Avery set his fork down. Mavis remained still. “I’m just wondering, since Avery and I couldn’t figure it out ourselves.”

Mavis sat silent for a few seconds. Then she spoke:

“I feel like I’ve known you for quite some time,” Mavis said, without any sign of trepidation. “You’re such good company, I can’t picture a moment we haven’t shared our evenings together. That’s lovely, isn’t it? To think how close we’ve become that the memory itself fades away.”

“Friendship can be so undervalued, you know?” Avery said. “There’s a lot to be grateful for here.”

There’s a lot to be grateful for. Such a lovely old woman.

Jean swallowed.

“It’s just a bit odd. I can’t tell where—” Jean paused, looking at Avery, who pouted as a child would when…

When what, Jean? she thought. When what?

She knew what children looked like: little adults. What else made them children?

When had she even last seen a child?

“Are you tired, love?” Avery asked. Do you want to go to sleep?”

Jean turned to Mavis. Her plate was empty. When had she even eaten her casserole?

“You had a good walk today,” Mavis said. “Such a good walk. It’s tiring to walk so much—but being tired is good, isn’t it?”

“I think I’d like to rest. That’s a good idea. Excuse me.” Jean slid from the chair, taking her plate to the sink and rinsing it. She caught Avery whispering a sorry to Mavis. Jean left the plate and walked out of the room. She sauntered down the hall to the bedroom and passed through the open door. The nightstand lamp was on. The top corner of the bedsheets had been folded over, ready for someone to climb in.

What a sweetheart, Jean thought. Avery’s already prepared the bed.

Though as she slipped under the sheets, turning off the lamp and facing the darkness of the room, Jean wondered when Avery even had time to do so.

***

“Where does Mavis live?” Jean asked.

Avery put away a notebook while Jean cross-examined him from her side of the bed. When she’d woken up, muted light had breached through the sequins of holes lining the shades.

“Love,” Avery said, “why do you care where Mavis lives? You going to jump her in the middle of the night?”

Jean slunk down into her pillow. She stared at the wall.

“Maybe she has a nice house,” Jean said. “Something pretty down the beach. How else does she get here so quickly?”

“Jean—”

“Where does she come from?”

Avery got out of bed. “I don’t know where she comes from, and, to say it plainly,” he said, putting on a robe, “I’m not of the mind to figure it out.”

Jean climbed out of the sheets. “It’s just a walk away, right? We always walk on the beach, love. What if we just—”

“You really want to walk around out there?” Avery asked. “So you find her house. Do you break in? Do you bring over muffins in a tin?”

“I’m just curious—”

“Don’t get curious about Mavis, alright?”

Avery left the room. Jean could hear him filling a pot of water. Tea every morning. And Mavis—

Someone knocked at the door, as Jean expected would happen.

Jean walked through the hallway as she heard the door open. She smelled the sea brine as it rolled into the cottage, perhaps stronger than she could recall. When she came to the kitchen, she saw Mavis holding a tray.

“Banana bread, dear,” Mavis said.

***

Jean and Avery didn’t talk on the beach. She looked up—somewhere through the clouds, the sun was watching. It has risen yet again.

Then she looked over to Avery, who had his hands in his pockets. He walked briskly.

What is wrong with you, Avery? Jean thought.

Then: what is wrong with me?

She thought back on her life, a broad sweep, clasping for something. There were images, sure: the beach, the cottage, the fog, Avery, Mavis.

Where did she go to school?

Did she go to school?

Did she have parents?

Did she have children?

“When did we get together?” Jean asked.

“What?”

Jean smiled, putting her arm through Avery’s. “Yessir. I’m a bit of a romantic this morning. What with Mavis and the banana bread and the good cup of tea—when exactly did we meet? And where? I’d love to hear it again.”

Avery didn’t respond.

“Love? You remember it, don’t you?”

Avery turned, and stopped with a harsh affront against the wet sand underfoot.

“Do you?”

Jean’s face burned in the cold mist. Her eyes widened.

“You don’t remember anything either.”

Avery glanced down. His shoulders lifted as he took a deep breath.

“And you’re trying to convince me,” Jean continued, “that I’m crazy?”

They held vigil amidst the prayers of passing waves. Avery’s eyes darted about.

“How long have you known?” Avery asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m asking,” Avery continued, “when you realized what’s been going on?”

Jean shuddered. She wrapped her arms over her chest. Then she turned her view towards the ocean, which didn’t sprawl but ceased after what could have only been a mile out. Or less. Everything else was fog.

“It was yesterday, I think.”

“Okay,” Avery said, turning towards the cottage. “I have to show you something.”

***

Jean watched the bedroom door as Avery reached into the nightstand. She half-expected to catch Mavis in the doorway, her hands folded, squinting, ready to come in.

“Here,” Avery said. In his hands was a small notebook, the one he’d sketch in from time to time. Jean hadn’t paid much attention to the notebook. He put the notebook on the bed and gently pushed it. “Take a look.”

Jean stepped away from the door towards the bed. Her shoulders tensed, her hair raising on her neck as she imagined Mavis behind her. Jean grabbed the notebook and sat next to Avery.

She looked at the first page: graphite notches. Every four were stricken with a fifth. Each notebook line had a few dozen notches, neatly drawn, compact. And over the next three pages, the rows were filled.

“I have a theory it’s been much longer than that,” Avery said, “but I only started this method when I caught myself forgetting.”

Jean dropped the notebook and lifted her hand to her mouth. Short sobs bubbled up. Jean wiped her nose and mouth and put her hands flat between her knees.

“Until… it came to me, of course… I’d never once thought about how the cottage was being maintained. Who was maintaining the cottage. Who was buying our food. Our tea.

“And then I realized no one had actually bought anything. It’d just been there. As if it’d always been there.

Jean shook her head and pursed her lips.

“You think… it’s…”

“I know it’s her,” Avery said. “She says she runs errands. But once I saw her, and I don’t think she realized I saw her, walking back in the fog. She stopped, turned around, and waited. Standing out there near the cliff.”

“For how long, Avery?” Jean asked. “What the hell was she doing out there?”

“I don’t know,” Avery said, “but I couldn’t watch for more than half an hour.”

A silence grew in the room.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you seemed so happy,” Avery said. “Like how… how… I can’t think of a comparison. I don’t even know what I’d compare it to—”

Before Avery finished the thought, three tepid knocks struck the front door of the cottage. Jean looked at Avery, her tears drying, his glum face morphing into panic.

“She can’t know that you know,” Avery said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what she’ll do.”

Jean nodded. She rose, stepping over the notebook. She pressed her shoulder at the trim of the door, and the frame crackled and the floor underneath groaned. Then she looked back.

“You want to keep seeming happy?” Jean asked.

“Jean, don’t—”

Three knocks again at the door.

“It’s not worth seeming happy, dear Avery,” Jean said, “when I can’t remember what the hell life used to be like.”

Before Avery got another word in, Jean was already gone to the front door.

Does she know, Jean thought, that I know?

Jean heard three more knocks. She reached out for the door knob. Mavis could’ve had a gun or a knife, come to undo her. And how did she do it? Was it drugs? Was it hypnosis?

She pulled the door open and instinctually smiled at a beaming Mavis, who had a round tin in her little hands.

“I’ve decided to switch it up, Miss Jean,” Mavis said. “I’ve brought you and Avery treacle. Have you ever had treacle?”

“Not in the longest time,” Jean said, laughing. “Come on in and set those down. I have to go outside for a moment, alright?”

“You enjoy that fresh air,” Mavis said. “You can go cuckoo cooped up in a little house like this.”

Jean laughed again. When Mavis ventured further into the kitchen with the tin, Jean closed the door—and ran. Away from the cliff, deeper into the fog.

The veil of moisture hid more than she’d expected as she attempted not to break her ankles. Eventually, the land turned from grassy hill to flattened earth. Nothing granular or loose. More like an outdoor floor. She smelled for the ocean, and even that was gone the further into the fog her fury took her.

She stopped to look back at the cottage—nothing more than a wall of condensation barring view.

I left Avery with her, Jean said. I left Avery with her, didn’t I?

What will she do to him?

Probably feed him treacle.

Jean chuckled, then her tears came again.

“Stupid, stupid man,” she said, looking down to the unearthly floor—and in the corner of her eye, Jean saw folded hands.

She twisted her torso in a swift motion—and there was Mavis, smiling in the deep folds of the fog.

“I hope I’ve treated you well,” Mavis said. “I’m sorry you felt the urge to leave, Miss Jean. I wish I’d done… more.”

“Where are we?” Jean asked.

“It’s a place close to my own home,” Mavis said. “A keeping place.”

Keeping place?

“It’s all the grounds to my estate,” Mavis continued. “You just happen to be my guests.”

“I never asked to be your guest.”

“You never had to,” Mavis said. “You always were.”

“How are you doing it?” Jean asked, stepping closer to Mavis. “How are you getting rid of our memories?”

“Those painful things?” Mavis asked. “It is not easy. It takes work. Your husband knows, of course.”

Jean took another step. “Just say it! Just say it!”

“I only wanted to make you happy,” Mavis said.

Happy?

Jean shoved Mavis to the ground, her body flying into a limp state, arms folded, her head jostling and askew. In the impact, Jean gasped, moving closer. She bent down to the old woman’s side and shook her head. “No, Mavis, Mavis,” Jean said, “you have to tell me: where did all my memories go?”

Mavis didn’t answer. Jean lifted herself from the ground. She looked at her hands, then back to Mavis, hoping she hadn’t done what she thought she’d done—

Then Jean noticed the flat earth transforming, blossoming into black fractals. As she stood up, stepping back, she saw the obsidian growth spread quickly, moving inward on Mavis until her figure lost form to the bloom. The fractals continued outward, creeping up the walls of fog, towards the sky. Jean’s eyes wandered up to see the faded sunlight, soon eaten by the fractals. In minutes, Jean was in a new world, somewhere amidst a vast darkness, no longer surrounded by fog but by deep shadows.

She shuddered when she saw what was beyond the fog: in rows by the dozens were perfectly rounded hemispheres, neatly partitioned beyond the invisible horizon.

And in each hemisphere, blanketed by whirling plumes of fog, was a cottage atop a seaside cliff.

 

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