Saturday, July 9, 2011
(One of my fictional shorts)
The cicadas and tree frogs rhythmically chanted outside the windows of the carriage house. Judy Childers stepped outside onto the porch. Certain she heard a woman’s anguished scream, she studied the flickering fireflies along the creek and shrugged. No doubt, this city girl just wasn’t used to the sounds of the outdoors.
Whatever made her think of renting a carriage house on a manor estate in rural Virginia for a full summer? There was no air-conditioning. She wiped the back of her sweaty neck and wandered off through the apple orchard and towards the mansion.
She’d been staying in the cottage for a full week with no sign of the owner. The agent assured her the man was a reclusive retired military doctor and was not to be bothered—ever. She wanted to respect the man’s privacy, but she was an artist and the manor home’s beautiful gardens were a wonderland for a series of paintings.
Every night she’d come to wander the grounds like a crazy haunting wraith, cutting pathways through the boxwood maze and hickory grove. Ultimately, Judy always came to rest behind a walnut tree, studying the slats in the plantation blinds of the mansion with the eager eyes of what could only be called a lonely stalker.
Tonight, the sound of shouting within the mansion brought her to life. Worrying for the retired recluse, she rushed the house without thinking, the back door slamming against the wall. She barreled into the kitchen, squinting into the dim room, trying to figure out where the yelling was coming from. Just then, a man’s voice rose up again, followed by another man’s harsh response from upstairs.
Judy plunged up the narrow dark stairs, met halfway in the almost complete darkness by a movement above her. She stopped to study it when the sound of heavy booted footsteps continued and she realized a man was rushing down the stairs. She jumped out of the way and pasted herself to the wall, eyes closed tightly. The steps stopped briefly. An ice cold tingling rushed through her body. The sense of something nearby made her open her eyes and she heard the dark figure finish his descent down the wooden stairs.
More footsteps in the hall above sounded. She looked up to see the outline of a tall body. A hand reached out and flicked on the hall light, casting the man in a backlight.
“I’m sorry.” She explained. “I heard arguing and I wanted to help.”
He descended the stairs to meet her.
“And what exactly were you going to do without a weapon?”
“I was in the gardens when I heard the shouting. I’m afraid he got away.”
“He gets away every night.” He sighed. “He’s never stopped like that before. I think he knew you were there. How interesting.” He drawled as he pulled her along down the stairs. “It is time to go, Miss Childers.”
“You know my name?”
“I know your art. That is why I allowed you to rent the carriage house. I had hoped being an artist, you were a recluse.” He ushered her out the back door. “This house is no place for the inquisitive.”
“I’m really sorry, Dr. Deyden.”
He sighed as he guided her towards the cottage.
“Who was that man?” She asked.
“Do you mind me painting in the gardens?” She babbled.
“It would please me if you painted the manor home. The place hasn’t been painted since before the Yankees destroyed everything in the Civil War.”
“Gooseneck Manor was in The War?” She asked as she rushed to keep up with his long-legged strides.
“They took it over, scaring out an earlier generation of Deyden’s. They used it as a field hospital. My family got the manor home back following The War, with all its…idiosyncrasies.”
After a lengthy silence, something she was never comfortable with, Judy blurted out. “Are you going to report the robber?”
“Did you see him?” He asked as they stopped at her porch.
“No, not really.”
He leaned against the porch post. “So, when he raced down the stairs, did you feel him go by?”
“I felt a cold breeze.”
“Did you hear a door slam or a car take off?”
Judy hated the darkness. She could barely make him out in the porch light clotted by bugs. He wore dark clothing and she could see a hint of deep-set eyes and a slightly crooked jog in the bridge of his nose. There wasn’t enough light to see his age, but she would have guessed his early 40s, maybe.
“I don’t mean to doubt your intelligence, Miss Childers, but as a Yankee, I’m not sure you’d understand the concept of homes having character.”
“Houses hold memories and spirits.” He said slowly.
“Oh.” She grasped his meaning. “Ghosts?”
He nodded tightly.
“So, what went past me on the stairs was a ghost?”
“Just one of the characters of this estate. In fact, one of my great-great-great aunts was kept here when the family fled and forced to be a triage nurse. She drowned herself in the creek. She couldn’t bear to watch the state of human flesh when it was burning and bleeding and festering.”
He seemed like a man stuck in time and bitterness.
“The war’s been over for 150 years.” She reminded him.
“Not in my home.” He said dryly.
The doctor surveyed the darkness around them. “On summer nights like this, right at dusk when it’s more dark than light,” he said in a slow drawl, “you can hear her anguished screams rising from the creek. It makes your hair stand on end. Take care you don’t linger that time of day, Miss.” He turned and left. When the night swallowed him up, she studied the darkness with a healthy amount of fear and awe.
It took three more nights of hearing the woman screaming at dusk before Judy decided she’d had enough. She marched over to the manor house to have a real conversation with the doctor. She wanted another human voice and not all the images in her mind of drowning women and chilly ghosts on staircases.
“So glad you could come.” The door swung open and a hand yanked her inside. “How did I know the curious little artist would not take `no’ for an answer?” The slow drawl of his voice sounded menacing. Judy could smell the sour scent of whiskey on him.
She turned to face the doctor in the pale glow of a single candle on the counter. His eyes looked weary, his face unshaven with dark stubble. He looked like he needed a good night’s sleep.
“Tonight, I think I’m going to use a little bait.”
“Every generation has managed to banish some of the Yankees from this place. We’re down to two stubborn ghosts; a general and a doctor.”
Barking voices from above sent her eyes searching the ceiling.
“They start that argument every night. Only, when you were here, the doctor saw you on the stairs. I’ve tried for years and never got either to realize I’m here. Of course, I’m not a distractingly beautiful woman.”
“My father banished three in his lifetime. You have to get their attention first.” He ordered. “I just need you to go into the master suite and let them see you. I’ll do the rest.” He offered, nudging her forward.
“Are you insane? I don’t even believe in ghosts, let alone the possibility you can banish them.”
He chuckled dryly. “Well, one step into that room and we’ll see what you think. You get their attention. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Caught up in his crazy scenario, she had to ask, “What will you do?”
“Once they have their eyes on something in this world, they can hear us, as well.”
“Really?” She shivered with childish delight. Being an artist didn’t just mean having a steady hand and keen eye, but it involved a whole world of make believe that was better than the real world. Even the things she painted were enhanced and exaggerated in the way she wanted to see them rather than how they actually appeared. For a strange moment, Judy felt a kinship with this tormented man.
“Upstairs.” He nodded.
She hoped he might climb first, but no such luck. Judy stepped into a long narrow hallway. The ancient boards creaked beneath her feet.
“First door to your right.” He took her hand and guided her into the huge room with a giant fireplace and an imposing four-poster bed.
“Let’s prop you up against the mantle here.” He pressed her against the carved wood and stepped back as if studying a work of art. He had the gall to arrange her long hair around her shoulders. “Yes, that’ll do.”
He leaned against the footboard. “This is the last task for me and I can live a free man.”
“From this responsibility.” He gestured around the room. “To be able to sleep nights. To consider having a wife and raising children without this god-awful loop of history intruding.”
“You were raised here and you turned out all right.” Perhaps that was a hasty assumption.
His head turned quickly and Judy followed his eyes. Not 12-feet away a dark form stood. It leaned forward, fist raised, pounding at the air but making a thumping sound as if striking an imaginary table. She startled.
“Touch your hair. Get him to notice you.” The doctor directed.
Judy’s hand trembled violently as she tried to run it through her tangled hair. The dark figure stopped, its head coming up. It was black as night but definitely a man shape.
“The other will show up close by.” The doctor whispered. “Don’t be scared.”
She followed his eyes focused at the spot on the other side of the fireplace from her. Judy saw the outline of a face and its features and the edge of one shoulder, but nothing more.
“Preen.” The doctor prodded.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder and the head turned straight toward her, the eyes narrowing. Both heads were looking her way. Judy’s hand clenched on her breast in horror.
“War’s over boys. You’ve all been called home. The North won. You did it!” The doctor proclaimed in the most awfully imitated northerner dialect ever.
The figures didn’t respond.
“Y-you heard your superior. We won the war, men. Your families await you. Hurry home to your reward.” She gestured to the door.
The figures rushed forward and the doctor grabbed Judy up just in time to avoid the icy breeze that filled the room. The shapes dissipated through the doorway and their footsteps faded to nothing. The room felt strangely light where it once felt heavy. She sighed with relief, nestled safely in his strong arms.
Just when she thought it was all over, the doctor ruined the moment once again.
“Tell me, Miss Childers, how do you feel about distracting a drowned nurse?”