The Mug Collection
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Cold Sweat"
Originally featured on 12-13-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

“I wouldn’t go over there.”

Mark and Sally were looking through their large living room window at the small yellow house across the street.

“I’ve heard some strange things about that woman,” Mark continued.

Sally closed the beige curtains. “We’ve only been here three weeks. What could you have heard?” she asked, glaring at him.

The move hadn’t been easy and it had certainly taken its toll on them. Even with the great deal they had gotten on the house, they weren’t really able to afford a moving company so they had to do it all themselves. They hadn’t thought clearing out a two bedroom apartment would have taken so long but it did — three days and it hadn’t stopped raining the entire time.

They argued about everything: what to keep, what to throw away, who was supposed to have bought more boxes. By the time they had driven the 600 miles and arrived at the new house, after getting lost of course, they were barely speaking to each other. Only in the last couple of days were things starting to get a little back to normal.

Mark turned around and went back to the couch. “Oh, you know, people talk, the stories get around.”

Sally smiled sourly. “What stories? Let me guess: that she killed her husband and he’s buried in the basement? Or better yet she had him stuffed so he could keep sitting next to her on the sofa?”

Mark looked up at her and smirked. “I haven’t heard that one. It’s nothing too dramatic. I just heard she has a mug collection.”

Sally laughed. “A mug collection? That’s the big rumor about Mrs. Layton? That she has a mug collection?” She laughed again and sat down next to him.

“It’s not just any mug collection,” he said. “I hear she has hundreds, maybe thousands of them, that the house is filled with them.”

“Everyone needs a hobby, Mark,” she said a little more harshly then she had intended. “What’s the big deal? My Aunt Esther owned about four hundred thimbles. She was so proud of them. Every time my family went over there she would be so excited to show us the latest ones she had gotten. I always thought it was sweet.”

Mark shrugged and picked up the remote.

“Well, I’m going over,” Sally said getting up. “We keep getting her mail; it’s about time we brought it to her.” She walked over to the dining room table, casually maneuvering around a few boxes, and took a blue jacket off the back of one of the chairs.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” she said, picking up a small stack of papers on the table next to the front door.

“Just be careful,” Mark said.

Sally chuckled sarcastically. “Sure I will. Hey, maybe I’ll bring you back a souvenir. You need a new coffee mug, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for a response and quickly closed the door behind her.

Mark could be so irritating, Sally thought, walking down the driveway and slipping on the jacket. Why does he have to make everything into such a drama? He wasn’t always like this, was he?

As she made her way across the street, she noticed something odd. She really had just intended to drop the catalogues and fliers into the mailbox. However, there didn’t appear to be one. She looked up and down the street. While every other house on the block had its own mailbox on the street, this house did not. Sally thought it might be one of those older ones attached to the house, but she didn’t see that either.

I guess I’ll just have to deliver it personally, she thought as she walked up the stone steps. After she rang the bell, she turned around to look at the yard. The small lawn and bushes were a bright green and perfectly manicured. I’ll have to get the name of her landscapers, she thought, gazing across the street at her own unruly auburn yard.

“Can I help you with something?”

Sally jumped and uttered a small cry. She turned back around. The door was now open and a small old woman was standing there. She was wearing a white dress with yellow flowers and a white shawl. Aside from a few lines around her eyes, her face was perfectly smooth and her hair was a silvery-gray. She was looking at Sally a little suspiciously.

Sally laughed nervously. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the door open. You might not know me, I live across the street.” She pointed to the house. “We’ve been getting your mail for a little while and just thought you would want it.” She held up the little stack of mail.

The woman smiled. “That’s so nice of you,” she said. “Won’t you please come in?”

Sally hesitated. “Well, uh, I really have to…” She glanced back at the house and saw Mark’s head peeking from around the curtains. Sally smiled. “Sure, why not?” The woman held the door open and Sally stepped inside.

Sally followed the woman down a narrow hallway and into a small living room. “Please have a seat,” the woman said gesturing to a small yellow sofa. “Would you like some tea? The water is just about ready.”

“That would be nice, thank you,” Sally said as she sat down, tossing the mail on the coffee table. She looked around. The room was sparsely decorated and appeared to be very clean. The carpet was a pristine white and the drapes were light yellow. “You have a lovely home here.”

“Why, thank you,” came a response from the kitchen. A moment later the woman returned to the living room carrying a small silver tray. She sat down across from Sally in a white easy chair.

“You know I just realized we haven’t been introduced. My name is Marion Layton.” She slowly extended her wrinkled hand and Sally shook it.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Layton. I’m Sally Mathers.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sally. And please, call me Marion.”

“It’s funny,” Sally said. “We just moved in and don’t really know anyone. You’re really the first neighbor that I’ve-“

Sally stopped abruptly as Marion held out a mug for her.

“Is something wrong, dear?” Marion asked.

Sally smiled and blushed. “I’m sorry,” she said taking the steaming mug. “It’s just that…never mind.”

“What is it?”

“It’s just that I heard some ridiculous rumor about you having a strange mug collection and then you handed me a mug and it was just a little weird. I know that sounds dumb. I’m sorry.”

Marion laughed. “Is that what they’re saying about me? That I have a mug collection?”

Sally smiled and nodded.

“I’m afraid it’s much worse than that.”

Suddenly Sally’s smile disappeared.

Marion laughed again. “I’m just kidding with you, Sally. If that’s the worst thing people are saying about me, then I must be doing okay.”

Sally laughed a little uneasily.

“I do have a little mug collection, though. Oh, it’s nothing to write home about, but I’m fond of it.” She looked up at Sally expectantly. “Would you like to see it?”

Sally, feeling relaxed again, smiled. “Sure.”

“Okay, follow me.”

They went into the kitchen. It was as clean and neat as the living room. The walls were a soft yellow and the floor was a sparkling white. Marion walked over to a large wooden cabinet above the stove and opened it. Inside were about 25 or 30 mugs of different colors neatly arranged. They all had pictures of people on them and looked like the kind of mugs you could get made at an amusement park gift shop.

“So here it is—my infamous mug collection.”

“Wow, you certainly have a lot of them,” Sally said, stepping closer.

“Yes, and I’m always on the lookout for more.”

“Oh, these must be your family. You have such cute grandchildren!”

As she took another step forward she could see that the expressions on every face looked similar. No one was smiling and they all looked somewhat uncomfortable. Sally took another step forward. Marion quickly shut the cabinet door.

“No, they’re not my family. Come, let us finish our tea.”

Sally followed Marion back to the living room. As Sally sat down she suddenly felt a little light-headed.

“Tell me, dear, how long have you been getting my mail?”

Sally thought she heard a hint of anger in her tone and she looked at her for a moment.

“Oh, not that long, Mrs. Layton,” she said.

“I told you to call me Marion,” she said icily. “You haven’t been looking through it, have you?”

Sally looked confused and all of a sudden she felt very uncomfortable. “Through what?” she asked.

“My mail. Have you been looking through my mail?”

“Oh, of course not,” Sally said a little nervously. “It’s just been some catalogues and some, uh, other stuff like that, mostly junk mail. If it looked like something important I would have brought it over sooner.”

Marion smiled. “That’s so kind of you. So, what brings you to our nice little town?”

Sally quickly felt more relaxed again. “Well, it’s actually kind of a funny story. My husband and I had been talking about moving for a while, somewhere nice, out of the big city, but we never really had the guts to get up and do it. A couple months ago he finds out he’s been promoted to the branch here. That was just what we needed. We’re actually really excited about being here. We can’t wait to start a family. Now that we have a big house and can-“

“And how are you and Mark getting along now? Not still arguing I hope?”

“Oh, we’re going to be fine; it was just a little fight. I’m sure-“ Sally stopped abruptly. Had she said Mark’s name? And did she say they had been fighting? She couldn’t remember. Suddenly she couldn’t think very clearly.

With a slightly shaky hand, she reached down for her teacup. Marion stared at her over the brim of her own mug.

“So how do you like the house? Big, isn’t it? The Walkers, those were the people there before you, loved that house. I would always look out my window and see them working in the yard and the children running and playing, jumping through the sprinkler.” She glanced out the window and frowned. “And they were always here, leaving their toys on the lawn, stepping on the flowers; and constantly knocking on my door with Girl Scout cookies or plastic treat-or-treat pumpkins, or collecting cans for food drives, always bothering me.” She looked back at Sally. “It’s a shame what happened.”

Sally began to feel a little nauseous and she had broken out into a cold sweat. She looked in her mug and noticed that the tea was almost completely gone, although she only remembered taking two or three small sips.

“What happened?” she asked very softly.

Marion looked at Sally and grinned. “Why, they moved away of course. More tea, dear?”

Sally certainly didn’t want anymore but she felt her head nod up and down. Marion put down her mug and picked up the yellow teapot. As she poured the tea, Sally looked at Marion’s mug. When Marion had first brought the tea, Sally could have sworn both mugs were completely white. But now she could see something on it. It was a picture of a man. It was a little out of focus but she thought she knew him.

“Are you feeling all right, dear?” Marion asked.

Without even realizing it, Sally started sipping her tea again, all the while not taking her eyes off of Marion’s mug. When Marion picked it up again, Sally noticed the picture had sharpened dramatically. She did know who was in the picture: it was her husband Mark. He had the same expression as the faces on the other mugs. Sally knew what that look meant, she had seen it when Mark had broken his ankle last winter when they were ice skating. It was a look of intense pain.

Suddenly Sally wanted more than anything to be out of this house. “I really have to go,” she said, her words slurred slightly. She quickly put down her mug and stood up. She could feel the blood rush to her head and it made her woozy. She stumbled past the coffee table and caught her shin on one corner.

“Sit down, Sally.” Marion said calmly.

Although she didn’t want to, Sally felt herself walk back to the sofa and sit down. “But I really need to get home,” she said quietly. “I need to see what my husband is doing.”

Marion smiled. “Mark is fine, dear. Don’t worry about him. Why don’t you lie down? You don’t look so good.”

Sally nodded and stretched out on the sofa.

“I’ll just clear these things while you take a nice nap. I’ll leave your tea if you want it.”

Sally watched her go back to the kitchen. She reached for the mug and then stopped. Now there was a picture on this mug. Feeling incredibly weak, she picked up the mug and brought it to her face. She looked at herself staring back; it was as if she was looking into a tiny mirror. She wanted to scream but couldn’t utter a sound. She felt her eyes close as the mug fell from her hand and thumped to the floor. The last thing she remembered was hearing the sound of dishes being put away.

Or perhaps it was mugs.


Read More By Tim Josephs

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