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The Mysterious Red Velvet Dress
The Family Next Door
I have never liked the color, red. Perhaps the reason I hate it is because my sister had red hair, and we fought all the time. Or perhaps it’s because my fair skin always used to blister under the blazing sun of the Arizona desert. But most likely I dislike the color because it reminds me of the red velvet dress I found in a box on the day that changed my life forever.
It was during the summer of 1969 when the Henderson family moved in next door. I remember the episode well because it happened on a Friday night when my sister and I were watching the latest scary show on TV. It was well after midnight when we heard the sound of an engine humming in front of the empty house next door. As we peeked through the curtains of our living room window, we discerned that there were five people in the party. Four of them were unloading a few suitcases and a large green trunk with white lettering, while the fifth, a toddler was running around and weaving in and out underfoot. Although we thought it was rather strange that they would be moving in at such a late hour, and with so little belongings, we knew that this was not really so unusual because people were constantly moving in and out of our little out-of-the-way desert town, and we thought that perhaps more belongings would be arriving in the next day or so. However, they did not.
As Joan and I continued to watch the family for the next couple of days we began wondering if something weird was going on. This was because the mother and three daughters, Esther, Abigail, and baby Lillie, rarely left the house, and never socialized with anyone, not even the Jehovah Witnesses. I can even remember when my own mother tried to welcome the family into the neighborhood. She had knocked repeatedly on the front door, knowing that Mrs. Henderson was at home because she had seen her peering out of the kitchen window just moments earlier. Finally the door opened and mom was immediately turned away. I remember the frustrated look on her face when she said that Mrs. Henderson had not let her enter for fear that her husband, who spent most of his time at the local pub, would find out and get very upset. But finally, knowing that my sister and I would never stop being inquisitive, she relented to let us visit the girls when she knew that her husband would be gone for the day.
Although we hadn’t noticed any outward signs of pain on any of the girls, we knew that something was definitely wrong. We could tell this was so by the look of fright on their faces whenever Mr. Henderson’s name was mentioned. Was he abusive, or was there some dark aspect of their lives they wished to keep hidden? Why else would they be so secretive? Besides, they had moved into the house in the middle of the night, and had virtually no belongings, just a few suitcases and a rather large green trunk with white lettering, which seemed suspicious to us anyway. But all my sister and I could do was watch, pray, and hope for the best because, even if we did call the authorities, it would take at least two hours for them to arrive in our tiny town, as its few houses were situated way out in the middle of nowhere. However, we did our best to make friends with Esther and Abigail, and visited at every opportunity.
One peculiar thing we noticed on our first visit was that the two older girls wore skirts that hung down past their knees, long sleeved blouses, and knee-high stockings, even during the hottest days of August, when most of us were wearing hip-hugger shorts, halter-tops, and flip-flops, but we said nothing. However, I asked my mom about it when we got home, and she replied “Maybe it’s because of their religion, you know, like that religious group near Kingsley, so don’t go and start asking them silly questions.” So, as a typically curious nine year-old, I did just that one day when I cornered Esther alone in the bedroom. However, she just replied “These are the only clothes dad will let us wear.” Then she stared off into the distance, like someone dreaming of another time before whispering “It wasn’t like this before he came into our lives. Before that, we always wore nice clothes and had lots of friends.” That’s when I came up with the brilliant idea of playing dress up. That way, in my young mind, I believed my sister and I could bring some happiness into their miserable lives, at least for a little while.
When we asked Mrs. Henderson about it the next day, she reluctantly agreed “You can do it so long as you don’t tell anyone, and as soon as I see Mr. Henderson coming, you must leave immediately.” So, without further ado, Joan and I brought some of our clothes over that afternoon. Therefore, for the next few days we girls had fun laughing, and experimenting with different styles of clothing while Mrs. Henderson stood watch near the kitchen window, where she could see the entire length of Front Street, from the tavern to the house. Then, whenever she spied Mr. Henderson wobbling up the street, she would knock on the bedroom door and urgently whisper “It’s time to go girls” and would hurriedly help us gather up our things and make sure that everything was neat and tidy before ushering us out the back door. Then she would again make us promise not to tell anyone that we had been there.
Then one day, as we were all playing in the bedroom, we noticed that Abigail seemed to be having trouble lifting her right arm, and when her blouse accidentally slipped past her shoulder, we immediately understood why. There was a deep purplish bruise on her forearm. It looked as if someone had grabbed onto and squeezed her arm very tightly. When we questioned her about it she said that she had bumped into the wall the night before, but we knew something more sinister had happened. However, we didn’t have time to question her further because Mrs. Henderson was already knocking on the door. However, in our haste to leave, no one noticed Joan’s turquois bracelet lying on the bedside table.
That night neither one of us slept very well because we kept rehearsing the day’s events, and we swore to tell our parents about it the next day. However, when we awoke, there was no sign of the Henderson family. They had packed up and left in the middle of the night, just as suddenly and mysteriously as they had come, telling no one of their intentions. Later that day, when we were sure they were gone, Joan and I decided to investigate, so we walked over to the house, and upon opening the front door, were immediately accosted by an awful sight.
As we entered the house we could see that the place was in shambles. There were broken dishes and glass strewn about, and in one place there was what looked like a spot of blood congealing on the wall. As we looked further, it became apparent that the little bracelet had been the cause of the turmoil, as the nightstand where it had lain was smashed to bits, and tiny pieces of green rocks and silver chain were strewn all over the floor. Then, just as we were about to leave, I stubbed my toe on a nail that was sticking up out of the wooden floor near the girls’ bedroom door.
As I bent down to examine my injured foot I noticed that several of the floor boards were loose. As I pried them up, I noticed a small box hidden underneath. It was just a plain ordinary paper shoebox, but inside were several old black and white photographs taken inside a funeral parlor. In the middle of one of the pictures was an open coffin. Behind this stood people, dressed in old fashioned clothing, ominously staring at the body inside. I felt a sudden chill and a prickling feeling went up my spine as I stared at those faces, so solemn and almost ghostlike. Since these pictures were so old and faded that we could not decipher any names, we had no way of determining who they were until we came upon the last two. Mysteriously, they were the only color photographs in the box, and they had been taken fairly recently.
The first photograph I picked up was of an open coffin, with a little girl, dressed in a beautiful red velvet dress, lying inside. She looked so serene and peaceful that I wondered why anyone would leave her photograph, and perhaps her memory, behind. The other photograph was of another little girl, her age looked to be about one year old, and she was dressed in an identical red velvet dress. Amazingly, both girls looked just like little Lillie, only about six months or so younger perhaps. That’s when it occurred to me that they were twins. And there, underneath the pictures, wrapped in newspaper, was the most beautiful red velvet dress with white lace, a matching bonnet, white stockings, and red velvet baby shoes.
Did Lillie have a twin who had died under mysterious circumstances? Was this a clue, perhaps left behind by Mrs. Henderson or one of the girls, as to their mysterious behavior? “After all,” I pondered “why had they come and gone so mysteriously, with no belongings, why didn’t they tell anyone, and why did their arrival and departure happen so hurriedly in the middle of the night?” We decided to search the paper to see if there was anything in it about the dead girl. Low and behold, there was an article about a little girl named Julie who had been found dead by her mother when she returned home from shopping. Supposedly she had fallen from her crib while her father was attending her twin sister. However, there had been unconfirmed reports of child abuse by the neighbors, placing the father under suspicion. I cried as I looked at the picture, because there was baby Lillie’s twin staring straight at me.
Even though we called the authorities, no trace of the Henderson family was ever found. It seemed as though they had simply vanished from the face of the earth. Then one day, about thirty years later, I was watching the news on TV, when the station suddenly began broadcasting a most gruesome tale of finding the skeletal remains of four females, ranging in age from between approximately two and thirty years, at the bottom of an old mine shaft, just twenty miles outside of town. Alongside these bodies was a large green trunk with white lettering, filled with women’s clothes, girl’s long sleeved blouses, long skirts, and knee-high stockings, exactly the same as those worn by Abigail and Esther.