What a gorgeous house!
Shelby’s heart soared as she walked up the drive with a bag of groceries cradled in her arm, gravel crunching beneath her boots. Afternoon sun, bright and gleaming as a reflection from polished chrome, warmed the slumping red-brown brick. It raked slantways across ridges of weathered clay and peeling paint, making the flaky texture stand out in thousands of tiny black shadows, like the creases in an old man’s face. It gave character. Darkness on light, crevices and bumps and places where the mortared lines curved slightly to reveal the settlings of the past two centuries. Even so, it was the most beautiful house she’d ever seen. The structure was two stories high not including the attic or basement, and it was all hers. A dream come true.
It was two hundred and seven years old, nearly the oldest building in Hendersonville, but worn and neglected over the past several decades. Black iron studs graced its outer walls in star shapes, where reinforcements had been inserted after a shakeup in the New Madrid fault in 1811. Far more recently, part of the porch had collapsed and a vine dotted with blue morning glories crept here and there across the fallen beams. The porch had been down for a while, it seemed, for the overgrowth was well established. There would be expensive restoration to put it right again, but that was okay.
Restoration was part of the deal. The Historical Landmarks Registry and the citizens’ committee formed to save this house from destruction were willing to let her buy it because she in turn was willing to set it right, and because there had been strenuous public outcry against a previous sale to a land developer who would have torn it down. Nobody in town wanted that. Shelby was an answer to the prayers of many, enabling the town to hang onto a bit of its past without costing them any money. Win/win, all around, everybody happy and smiling.
A shiver skittered up Shelby’s back as she gazed up at the morning glories, and she drew a deep breath. For a moment she thought about letting them grow here again once the porch was rebuilt, and had an image of the front of the house covered with a mass of blue blossoms. It made her smile.
One arm occupied by the bag of groceries, she yanked from the ground the brightly colored for sale/sold sign that stood near the battered black rural mailbox. Both sign and mailbox were faded and pocked by rifle fire, the mailbox also caved in on one side by a teenager’s baseball bat. No matter. As soon as she could, she’d have a brick one built that would discourage such hijinks. Brown brick, to match the house. She leaned the sign against the porch, faced in, so it could no longer be seen from the road. This was her place now. Not for sale. Shelby had come home.
Her smile faltered as she climbed the steps to the porch. The wrought iron rail along the front had long ago fallen to the ground below and was quite rusted into worthlessness. It lay there, grown over with weeds and accompanied by a couple of broken, white ladder-back chairs someone had dumped there. Poor, neglected house. There was a feeling of rescuing a stray pet that was ill and suffering, a sympathetic pain that made her eager to get started on the work. She patted one of the porch columns as she passed. All would be made right soon. It was a shame this had happened to such a beautiful old building.
She turned and looked out over the neighborhood, across the railroad tracks, at the modern houses and one apartment complex dotted among horse pastures, those in turn breaking up the suburban sprawl that stretched from Nashville. This house was much older than the tracks, and faced them nearly like a train station, ignoring the tree-lined road from which Shelby had come. She wondered whether it might even pre-date the road. The house had been built back when there had been little here other than wild animals and Indians, and those man-made features had grown up here with little regard for this one house.
All around, maple trees thickly-laden with fall leaves glowed bright yellow and coral, standing in puddles of their own fallen leaves like light under a lamp. Off a little ways, she could glimpse through the branches of less-leafy trees the onramp to the bypass. Twenty minutes from her office in Nashville, and less than five minutes from the center of Hendersonville, yet with horses, trees and open fields nearby.
Fumbling with her keys, she found the shiny new brass house key for the lock that had recently been installed. According to her real estate agent, for decades since the last owners had defaulted and departed suddenly, the property had been left unlocked and abandoned. But there had been no vandalism. Not one scribble, not one hole in a wall, not one cracked window.
The agent had made much of his opinion that Hendersonville was a small town sort of place where nobody ever stole, nary a cross word was ever said, and the churches all had one hundred percent attendance every Sunday. That made Shelby stifle a cynical smile, and as soon as she’d bought the place she’d had the lock installed herself.
She shoved the door inward and it opened on raspy, dusty hinges onto the front hallway. The room was musty and dim, silent like a storage locker filled with forgotten belongings. She took a deep breath and sighed. It smelled like…history. The past was all around. Everywhere. She had a vibrant sense of all the people who had lived here, who had come and gone, laughed and cried, were born and had died in this house.
To the left was a plain, wooden door that led beneath the stairs and down to the basement. The foyer, a wealth of mostly wasted space, ran the width of the house. Opposite the front door were two wide doorways to the dining and living rooms, each room dominated by identical hearths. At the end of the foyer was the door to the kitchen, two steps down and unlike any other part of the house for it had been added during the mid-twentieth-century along with the plumbing. She didn’t mind the house had been altered to accommodate certain technologies alien to its builders; history was one thing, but even Shelby didn’t care to live in a house without indoor plumbing.
The light switch on the wall to her right had buttons instead of a toggle, the wires run to it inside a small, square conduit, painted to match the wall, that went to the floor and along the molding. She pushed the button with a white dot on it, and a sconce to her right lit up. The weak, yellow light poked at the corners of the foyer, struggling from its dirty glass shade dotted with dead flies.
The walls were plaster and lath, hard as rock and built long, long before the house had been wired for electricity. But the place was solid, at least. Brick exterior walls were two feet thick, and no sheet rock. There was molding everywhere. Moldy molding, painted pale green, ten inches wide at the floor and four at the ceiling. Some of it was damaged and would need to be replaced, but the cost would be worth it.
“Hello,” she addressed the house. A giggle rose. She had no idea who she imagined might hear, but it just seemed the thing to do. Greet the house. “Hello, I’m here.” No answer. She sighed, at once glad yet sorry to not have received a reply.
After setting her bag down on the chipped tile counter in the kitchen, she went into the living room and looked around. The place echoed with tiny noises of her footsteps and her breathing. The carpet was wall-to-wall, cheap, threadbare shag left over from the seventies. And it was orange. Orange shag carpet. She shuddered to think what the furniture had looked like belonging to the folks who had installed this. Poor house. Poor, abused house. Polished hardwood beneath would have been nice, but the uncarpeted parts of the house showed the flooring was ordinary planking, painted mud-brown. This had not been a house for the wealthy, like the old houses with distinguished names that dotted the county. Hazel Path was a mansion and had once dominated the Hendersonville landscape the way the Methodist Church did nowadays. Rock Castle in the nearby Indian Lake district had belonged to a relative of Andrew Jackson. Certainly this house had never been as grand as either of them. But it was large enough, and quite expensive enough at his late date for an underpaid and overworked editor of books.
The casement windows were charming, and when she’d first seen the house she’d been ecstatic over the sills deep enough to sit on comfortably. But, being so deep, they let in very little light in spite of the morning sun slanting from the east and a lack of any sort of treatment. Not even a cheap pull-down shade covered them. Idly, she wondered whether she would dress them with blinds or go with a more traditional look. Gingham? Nah. Not chintz, either. Blinds—maybe wooden ones—were beginning to seem the thing to do.
White baseboard heaters lay along the interior walls, and she bent to turn their stiff dials to high. As they warmed, they creaked and snapped and filled the room with the smell of burnt dust. Shelby went from the living room to the stairs and up. The second story was identical to the lower floor, and each room had a fireplace identical to the ones downstairs. The bathroom was at the east end of the upper hallway, its fixtures all from the fifties. Not terribly modern—porcelain and tile rather than molded plastic—but not much different from what she was used to.
Air brakes hissed on the road below, and Shelby went to a window to look out at a semi tractor and trailer making a careful, lumbering turn into her driveway. Now she wished she’d come yesterday to clean some of the dust and dirt from the place before bringing her stuff in here. Especially she wished to have pulled up all that nasty old carpeting. But there was nothing for it. Her things had arrived. Shelby ran to greet the movers.
A crew of shaggy, tattooed men began with the large pieces, their skinny, sinewy arms straining as they struggled to lift and angle her sofa, then her bed pieces, through the front door, across the foyer, and through to the dining room. They brought with them the sharp, sour smell of old sweat, that wafted as they went past. The crew leader, who seemed the leader because he was the one with a clipboard, revealed an array of bad teeth when he smiled, and a string of three tears tattooed under his right eye. How wonderful to have an ex-con handling her things.
Nearly everything went into the dining room, except for the boxes marked “kitchen” which contained things she would need to find right away. Shelby hovered and advised, but her old apartment had been small, so her furniture and boxes of belongings would take up little space here. The move would go quickly.
In the midst of this, there was the crunch of gravel on the driveway as a car approached behind the moving van, and she ran outside to greet Susan and Neil.
“Hey!” A big grin lit her up as she gestured them in with a big, wide wave of her arm. “Come in! Come see the house!” Her friends gawked up at it much the same way Shelby had, as they approached it and climbed to the porch. They were both dressed in jeans and T-shirts, ready to help with the move. One of the moving guys stood sideways to let them by as he was on his way out with his hand truck for more boxes. But the three of them didn’t go inside and rather blocked the door as Neil looked around at the fallen porch. His eyes were wide at the caved-in end where a heavy beam and a scattering of decayed boards and rusted wrought iron lay piled on the rickety porch flooring, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his head tilted to the side. The moving men walked around without comment.
“That’s gonna be a bastard to fix,” said Neil. The wheels in his head were clanking away behind his eyes, calculating the time, effort and expense. It was what he did for a living in his construction company.
“Yeah.” Shelby shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt it myself.”
His gaze returned to her, plainly relieved, and a wry smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Good. I’ll give you a rate, and my guys will do it right.” He blew out his cheeks as he looked around. “’Cause this is going to be a job and a half. This place doesn’t look like it’s been kept up at all.” He and Susan entered the foyer as Shelby gestured them in.
Neil’s wife gawked without shame. “My god. It’s so old!” Even in excitement, Susan had a quality of stillness and barely moved as she scoped out the foyer. “I love it!” Her voice was low and soft as she looked around. Shelby’s closest friend, and a fellow book editor, Susan had often talked long with Shelby on the subject of living in a genuine antebellum house. “I want.”
“No,” said Neil.
“I want.” Her voice was still low and soft and she continued to gaze about.
“It’s a money pit.”
“But I want.”
“We’ve been married fourteen years, hon, and I love you, but there’s no way I’m going to live in a fixer-upper-from-hell like this.”
Susan sighed, clasped her hands, and pressed them to her stomach. “It’s incredible.” Through the stillness came a tone of intense longing.
“Incredibly dirty,” Shelby added cheerfully and shrugged. Her own joy bubbled into her voice. “But it’s so cool! I hope you guys don’t mind if we scrub down the bedroom upstairs before we start carrying furniture parts up there.” Her weight shifted from side to side, she was so excited to get started.
Neil shuffled around the foyer, poking floorboards with his toe and running his hand across the plaster walls. “Nice work.” His father had made him learn the business from the ground up before letting him run their company. There were few aspects of house construction Neil wasn’t at least conversant with, and that made him a valuable friend, for most of Shelby’s acquaintances were among the literary and corporate and were for the most part worthless with hammer and saw. Neil looked the part of a construction workman, stocky and muscular, his hips most comfortable carrying a tool belt and his wide hands capable with nearly any tool.
“This house is, what…a couple hundred years old? Are you planning on hauling water and going to the privy out back?” he asked.
Shelby laughed. “No privy. Hot and cold running water. Flush toilets, and everything.”
“And everything? The water heater work?” He stuck his head into the kitchen to look around.
“Works just fine. I’d love to find a place for it other than the kitchen, smack in the middle of everything, but I guess I shouldn’t complain.”
He turned and frowned. “The plumbing okay?”
Shelby shrugged. “Yeah, after running the water for about half an hour to get the rust out of it, it’ll be fine.”
Neil laughed. “Good news and bad news. The bad news is you probably will have to replace your pipes. The good news is that in a house like this there probably aren’t a lot of them.”
“Nah. Not a lot. They just go straight into the kitchen, then straight up to the bathroom, and back to the sewer. Here, I’ll show you.” Shelby turned to take him upstairs, but was stopped by the crew leader who required her signature. She signed, then hurried to the incredibly narrow stairwell as the movers withdrew to their truck and left. “You know, you guys, I’m really grateful to you both for coming to help me with this.”
Susan smiled. “Hey, what are friends for?”
But Neil’s reply was, “Ha! I’m going to make a bundle off of you.” Susan elbowed him, and he just chuckled.
Once the movers had finished their job and left in their truck, Shelby’s friends followed her upstairs to gawk some more at the old place, shuffling across the filthy carpeting and running fingers over dusty window sills. Then they all got down to work tearing up ratty, old carpet, rolling it, and carting it downstairs to the street for pickup by the waste disposal folks.
Once the floors were bare, the three of them set to sweeping and scrubbing the bedroom on the western side. That would be Shelby’s bedroom, and the other would be used for an office. Buckets of warm water turned gray immediately, then quickly went muddy with the filth scrubbed from walls and floors. Again and again the water was emptied and replaced with fresh, and gradually the place began to seem less dark and less musty. The wet wood now smelled sharp. Almost alive.
“Dang, I’m getting hungry.” Neil dumped a sponge into his bucket, dried his hands on his t-shirt, and reached for the cell phone at his waist. “Hey, what do you want on your pizza?”
Shelby grimaced, for pizza was not good for her waistline. “How about we go search down something in the kitchen? I did bring food from the apartment.”
“You wouldn’t rather have someone just bring you food? Chinese? This town’s got five—count” ’em, five—Chinese restaurants.”
Susan said, “No, hon, it’s down to four now. One got shut down ’cause they were trapping the ducks on the lake and serving them to their customers.”
Ew. “I think we can pass on the Chinese food after that story, I think,” said Shelby. “I have bread and cheese downstairs, and some canned fruit. It’ll be good.”
“Get Neil to go to the convenience store for some beer, and he’ll be fine. There’s one just up the bypass.” Susan’s fingertips lightly brushed back stray bits of hair from her face and she shook the locks back to keep from touching them too much with her wet hands.
Neil emitted a growl of enthusiasm, and pulled out his car keys to set about doing just that while Shelby and Susan went downstairs to the kitchen. The stove was electric, and Shelby wished it were gas. Actually, on some deep, imaginative level, she wished it were wood-burning though she knew real life made cooking with wood nearly impossible. As she set to work with a wet rag to clean a spot on the filthy, chipped tile counter, she imagined a big, black wood-burning stove in the spot where now sat an avocado-green electric stove. The thing looked as if it hadn’t been turned on in decades, so there was hope. Maybe this monstrosity wouldn’t work, and she’d have an excuse to buy a gas one to replace it. Even if she wasn’t brave enough to try wood, gas would be better than this. Once the counter was clean, she set out the cans of sardines, cheese, half a loaf of bread, and a bottle of orange-pineapple juice.
When Neil returned with his beer, they took the food out to the porch to sit on the steps in the fresh air outside. Neil persisted in eyeing the collapsed end.
Susan said, “You’re so lucky to have gotten this place.”
Shelby nodded, but her shoulders sagged a little as she thought of how she’d received the money for it. “I could have waited a few more years, though.”
A small hum of agreement, and Susan added, “Your parents weren’t young people though.”
“Nope. They were old enough to be my grandparents. And when Dad died, Mom just couldn’t hold it together after that. They’d been together too long, I guess.”
Susan heaved a wistful sigh. “Could you imagine loving someone that much? To not be able to live without them?”
That caught Neil’s attention, and he turned to give her a meaningful stare.
Susan chuckled and laid a hand on her husband’s knee. “Sorry, hon, but the deal is ’till death.’ After that, you’re on your own.”
He grunted, and with a wry smile returned to his construction reverie, staring at the collapsed end of the porch.
Shelby poked a piece of cheese back inside the bread and said, “There sure isn’t anyone I know I’d die for.” But at the same time there was a dim longing to know what it might be like to have loved the way her parents had.
After lunch, with Neil’s brawn handy for the heavy bedroom pieces, the work went quickly. Her bed was a heavy, bulky oak four-poster, and each piece of it was a struggle to haul upstairs. They manhandled the box spring up the stairs and onto the assembled bed frame, an awkward job for the three of them, and Shelby was deeply grateful for the help of her friends. She gave a shove to the mattress as Neil pulled, and Susan guided it as it thudded onto the frame. Then Shelby fluffed the sweaty hair at the back of her head, and slapped black dust from her hands and jeans. It was going to be weeks before this place would be anything but a dust storm.
By the end of the day, all the bedroom furniture was upstairs, the living room on the west side of the downstairs had been cleaned, and the heavy living room pieces had been placed. Huge rolls of dirty orange shag carpet and rotten padding lay out by the street, leaving the floors bare. Her house now smelled of an odd mixture of detergent and dust and its large spaces echoed still, having swallowed her scant apartment furnishings without any effort. Her sofa was backed up to the living room windows, across from the television that, at thirteen inches, was too far away to see well any more. Even the huge bed upstairs was dwarfed by the enormous room. Only the modern additions seemed normal size. Much like her old apartment, the bathroom was barely large enough to turn around in and the kitchen was a narrow strip of space tacked onto the outside of the building.
As the sun began to turn orange in the west, Susan and Neil departed for home after Susan extracted a promise from Shelby to accompany her to church the next morning. “It’ll be a good introduction to the community for you. Welcome to Hendersonville.”
Shelby liked the idea and promised to meet Susan there. She waved goodbye to her friends, then went inside to change into her running togs. If she could find them. Though she was fairly tuckered out by the strenuous lifting and carrying all day, Shelby still had to make her habitual run before supper. If she put off doing it once, she might stop doing it entirely and that would be a bad thing. She was tall, and not a thin woman, and tended to overweight if she didn’t exercise constantly and watch what she ate. Running every day had become a habit in recent years, and regardless of what other exercise she might get during the day she never felt quite right if she couldn’t get out and jog around the neighborhood just before dark.
Tonight she scoped out a route through the apartment complex on the other side of the tracks, for it was a nice, level area with streets that wound this way and that before dumping her back out onto the road by her house. Halfway through, though, she had to stop to gawk, panting and leaning on her knees. Arrayed on a tiny patch of lawn in front of one of the dozens of identical bay windows in the complex was a family of skunks. Ceramic lawn ornaments, the largest one about half life-size. The others were the babies, apparently, and they were enjoying a dip in a toy pool. Mama skunk stood guard, one baby stood on the diving board, and two others awaited their turn. The scene tickled Shelby into a fit of giggles as she heaved herself erect and lurched into a run again. Already she was liking this town.
After supper she spent the evening cleaning the kitchen, scrubbing black crud from between mismatched ceramic counter tiles, and wearing even more porcelain from the sink already scratched and scrubbed to bare metal. Then she unpacked utensils, dishes and small appliances. There wasn’t nearly enough counter space for all the machines. Toaster, microwave, bread machine, blender, crock pot, coffee maker…she’d have to select the most important ones then store the rest in cabinets until she would need them. There was no television cable, for it wasn’t yet connected, but she had a boom-box plugged in and listened to music as she worked. In the darkness, the house around her settled in for the night. A word slipped into her mind and stuck. Home. She smiled. She could spend the rest of her life here and be happy.
It was quite late when exhaustion caught up with her and she finally turned off the music to retire. The silence invaded in force, as if the music had been sucked into another dimension and the void filled with a medium thicker than air. Shelby turned off the downstairs lights, then by the stray light of an upstairs sconce that dribbled rays into the stairwell, she made her way up the dusty steps.
This was now her home, and she sighed at the warmth that thought brought. She went to the bedroom door and reached for the light button, but she froze, dumbfounded by what she saw inside the room.
A lit candle sat on the mantel at the far side of the room. She hadn’t left one in there—all her emergency candles were tucked away in a kitchen drawer now—and this didn’t even look like one of hers. It was yellowish and stood in a short pewter holder with a curved handle. She’d never seen it before, but it was there now. Its flame threw a small circle of light around the cold fireplace.
A movement startled her. Near the candle, in the dimness, stood a tall, dark-haired man, scratching himself.
Shelby screamed and tensed to bolt, but stopped when the man made no sign of having heard her. Apparently ignorant of her presence, he was pulling his shirttail from his pants and muttering as if to himself. Her heart flopped around in her chest like a dying fish, but it slowed as she realized he wasn’t threatening. He didn’t even seem to have heard her scream. Could one of the movers have been left behind? But she didn’t recognize him. No, this guy appeared too healthy and not nearly trashy enough to be one of those guys.
She took a deep breath and ventured, “Hey.”
No reaction from him. She couldn’t tell what that might mean.
“Hey.” No response. “Mister.” He was turned mostly away from he. Could he be deaf? Indecision thwarted her as she shifted her weight back and forth in simultaneous and conflicting urges to flee and approach. Was he a nutcase wandered in off the road? A deaf nutcase?
His clothes were strange, though, even for a homeless man. They were…different. His white shirt was without collar of any kind—not even that of a knit T-shirt—and the shapeless pants charcoal gray with suspenders dangling from the waistband. He unbuttoned the shirt, and as he took it off Shelby discerned amid the muttering, “Damnable chiggers.” A cigar butt was clamped between his teeth. From the other side of the room Shelby could smell a trace of tobacco smoke as he dropped his shirt behind him onto the floor and peeled back the high waist of his trousers to scratch at some red bumps on his skin beneath. He half-turned toward her to reach around for the ones in back. “Ah.” His eyelids drooped and his lip curled with the pain-pleasure of scratching chigoe mites.
His hair was collar length and a mite shaggy, and there were some large scars on his slender body: a diagonal white slash across his right forearm, a knotted burn scar in the crook of his left elbow, and an ugly red-purple gash across his left shoulder blade.
He paid no mind, and just kept scratching the red marks at his waist, mumbling around his cigar about the indignity of acquiring parasites when forced to sleep on the ground.
“Hey! You!” Shelby took a step into the bedroom and switched on the electric light.
The tall man disappeared with a wisp of mist that spiraled up then dispersed in the shadows overhead. The candle went as well.
For one long, dangling moment, all she felt was surprise. As if a stage magician had pulled a neat trick and she should applaud now. But then she realized a full-grown man had completely disappeared before her eyes in a puff of smoke, and it was no trick.
Another scream, and she dove from the room toward the stairs. At the top of the steps, she grabbed the banister and kept herself from fleeing even as her feet continued down. For a moment she hung from the top newel post, then found a step and stood on it, hugging the post as her only support to keep her from tumbling to the foyer below. She looked back at the room, agog at the truth of what she’d seen.
Oh, God. Was she hallucinating? Was it a ghost? Which was worse? Her feet still wanted to flee, but she gripped the post with the stubborn desire to keep her house hers.
She was faced with a decision. Did she want to run away? This house was her dream. A hard fist of panic clutched her heart and its quick beating felt weak. Breaths came shallow and fast. She struggled to keep her hold and not run away down the stairs as she eyed the door to the room from which she’d fled. Was she a coward? Would she let a man who didn’t exist—couldn’t exist—keep her from her dream? There was but one possible answer to that, though her heart fluttered helplessly and her head swam with fear.
The only possible answer was no. Leaving wasn’t an option. She wanted this house too much.
But now she had to let go of the post she clutched to her chest. Okay, letting go now. One hand released hold, and when nothing swooped in to shout “boo!” she loosened hold with the other. Knees barely able to hold her up, she returned to the bedroom and switched on the light. The clean glass of the fixture glowed white now, no dead bugs. Every corner of the room was illuminated, revealing the absence of any strange men dead or otherwise. Cautiously she stepped into the room.
She called out again, louder this time and with growing confidence. Well, less fear, anyway. “Hello? Are you there?”
Still no answer.
It was plain she wasn’t going to call him back from wherever it was he’d gone. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. She didn’t care for the prospect of being surprised at his whim and so didn’t care for being unable to influence his comings and goings. On the other hand, it didn’t seem likely she would summon him by accident.
“Mister, I’m going to take a bath now. Just so you’ll know.” She looked around, backing out of the room, but saw nothing as she went into the bathroom. Weirdly, this room seemed more like her own territory, more modern than the rest of the house. There was a moment of hesitation as she started to undress, for a queer feeling of being watched crept up her back. But she shook her head and told herself she was being silly. That man hadn’t heard her at all, and hadn’t been the least aware of her; there was no chance he could see her now.
Besides, if he was a ghost, he was dead. A shudder rattled her spine.
There were no ghostly wanderings that night, and no appearances the following day as she readied for church. She would be glad to see Susan today, for Shelby wasn’t going to be able to keep from talking about this, and Susan was the safest one to hear it. Anyone else might think she was nuts, but Susan had an imagination and might understand. Shelby gathered up her keys and hurried out the door.
The drive to Susan’s church was short, as was any drive within Hendersonville. Shelby’s new home was a nice little town with a single Main Street cutting between clusters of residential districts and a smattering of historical sites which had brought her here to live. Surviving buildings like her house, going back to the late eighteenth century, were often surrounded by offices or houses, like little pockets of the past one stumbled on unawares. Behind one building on Main Street, in which was housed a traditional men’s barber shop that was nearly an historical site in itself, lay a graveyard folks had forgotten for so long the stones were falling down. Luckily it had been discovered and restored in recent years. Notable in Susan’s neighborhood was a small plantation house nearly as old as Shelby’s, and on the next block a chain link fence surrounded the final resting places of the family who had built it. So strange to have such a graveyard in the midst of modern tract homes, but they were everywhere in these parts. Slaves, settler families and Indians buried in among the ranch homes with swing sets, car ports and above-ground pools.
Shelby’s destination, the huge Methodist Church, dominated its corner on Main Street. It stood on a rise, towering over the grocery store, junior high school, a discount department store, and a family restaurant. Its great, white steeple could be seen for miles, and its red brick trimmed in white gave the impression of stability. Permanence. Shelby liked that.
She met Susan in the parking lot, and they joined the congregation inside the enormous white sanctuary. Tall stained glass windows cast a bluish light that was relaxing. Restful. Shelby found herself calming from last night’s experience.
They found seats in a rear pew, and while waiting for the service to begin Susan occupied herself greeting others sitting nearby and introducing Shelby to passing friends. Except for her parents’ funerals, she hadn’t been in a church since she was little. It seemed strange to see so many people around who apparently went every week. She’d thought church had become passé decades ago, and had never suspected it of Susan.
A woman sitting in the pew in front of her turned around, and held out her hand. Shelby took it, anticipating an introduction, but instead heard, “This is my family’s pew.” She was a small, elderly lady, and smiled as she said it, indicating the bench on which she sat, so Shelby could only blink and smile in return. There was no telling what had been meant by that.
“Really?” Eager to get along with her new neighbors, her first thought was to wonder whether this church really did sell pews to people, and was somewhat alarmed at the possibility she and Susan might have inadvertently encroached on someone else’s assigned seat.
Susan turned to listen as the smiling old lady continued, “Yes, it is. My family has lived in this town, and been going to this church, for a hundred and thirty years. Give or take a couple years, anyway.” With a nod of affirmation for her own statement, she turned to face the front again. That, apparently, was all she’d wanted Shelby to know about her. The woman hadn’t even given a name. Shelby stared at the back of her gray, short-cropped head. She hadn’t even been invited to congratulate the old lady on her family’s continuity, not that Shelby’s own family was any less well established in Middle Tennessee.
Aghast, and at a loss for how to respond, Shelby muttered under her breath, “Carpetbaggers.”
Susan snorted laughter through her nose, and for the next several minutes her shoulders shook in silent hilarity.
After the service, Shelby talked Susan into accompanying her across the street for lunch. She needed to talk privately. Sunday, however, was a bad day to have chosen for lunch out, and the restaurant was packed. Shelby groaned when she saw the crowd just inside the door, waiting for tables. People milled about in their Sunday best, jockeying for position in the entryway, kids yelled to each other and played with the balloons tied to the cash register with colored ribbons until a couple of them slipped loose and floated to the ceiling and the kids’ parents made them stop. But the seating went efficiently, and soon Susan and Shelby were tucked away at a table in the non-smoking section.
“Holy moly, you didn’t tell me Hendersonville was like this on Sundays.”
Susan shrugged. “It’s like this on Saturdays, too, what with everything within twenty miles that resembles a boat going out on the lake every sunny weekend. And Fridays, when everyone takes off work at noon. Don’t ever try to get fast food at noon on Fridays, unless the weather really sucks.”
Susan chuckled. “Maybe you should have moved to Brentwood.”
Shelby snorted. “Right. Brentwood. Like I could afford it.”
“Your inheritance was enough for a healthy down payment on that one with the wrought iron fence.”
“Yeah, and then I could live the rest of my life in a big, empty house because I couldn’t buy any furniture. I like owning my house outright. Besides, I think if Hendersonville is good enough for you, then I can handle it, too.”
“I had no choice. I was born here.” Susan’s smile was tiny. Enigmatic.
A drooping, harried waitress came to take their orders. Once she was finished and out of earshot, Shelby continued the conversation. “Well, I’m here and I’m staying.”
“Good for you.” Susan’s eyes narrowed. “I’m glad you decided to tough it out in spite of the difficulty of obtaining fast food on the weekends.
Shelby laughed at that, then sat back in her chair and rested an arm on the back of the chair next to her. She hesitated before speaking again, then said, “Susan, do you believe in ghosts?”
There was a pause, and Susan’s jaw dropped. Then, “Oh, God.” She leaned forward and grinned. “You’ve seen the guy.”
Shelby blinked. “Huh?”
“The ghost. In your house. When I was a kid, there were all kinds of stories about that place. That it was haunted. There was this family living there during the seventies, and they moved out all of a sudden one day. Left all their stuff. Nobody knows why, but folks say they were chased out.”
Shelby leaned close, her voice tightening to a hiss to keep it from rising. “You knew about this? You didn’t think this was something I should know about the house before buying it?”
“I didn’t believe in it.” Susan raised her hand as if to swear to the truth. “I never thought it was a big deal, until I was there yesterday and I…you know…felt it. Sort of. By then it was way too late to say anything, so I kept shut. It’s real, then? There really is a ghost? You saw it?” Her eyes went wide, like a little kid.
“I saw it. Him.”
“No kidding at all. None. He’s there. What do you know about him?”
Susan shrugged. “Nothing, really. Just that he’s there. And he scared some people. He makes noises, too. They say he talks to himself.” She grinned again. “So you really saw him? Honest to God?”
“He was in the bedroom. He’s this tall guy. Really tall, like 6’3 or so. Dark hair. Smokes cigars, and you can smell the smoke. It’s really weird.”
Susan giggled, like a bubbling spring. “That’s incredible! Is he good-looking?”
A short bark of a laugh erupted, but when Shelby thought about the question a smile stuck to her face and she couldn’t wipe it off. She had to shrug and admit, “Yeah. In a…well, you know…drop-dead gorgeous sort of way.”
“Yeah. Sort of like,” Shelby considered, then said, “there’s this grace about him. Like he’s strong. Not bulky, but very strong. And he’s got these broad shoulders. Out to here.”
“Oh!” Shelby nodded. “Brick. Put together just right.” She raised a thumb of approval.
That made Susan laugh out loud. There was a brief pause as what they’d just said sunk in, then they both dissolved into giggles. “Good, Shel.”
“This is just silly.” But she was enjoying the laugh, and the terror she’d felt the night before dissolved in it. Still chuckling, she added, “I don’t know what to do now. I mean, what if he does something? What if he hurts me?”
“Ghosts can’t hurt you.” Susan waved away the thought.
“You said you didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“Well, what would they do? Give you a heart attack, would be the worst of it, I think.”
“He almost did. Scared the snot out of me, appearing then disappearing like that.”
“Right in front of you?”
“Went up in a puff of smoke. Poof.”
“Maybe he’s gone.”
Shelby shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She took a sugar packet from the little ceramic holder, and folded over the top edge. “What does he do? I mean, what did he do to those other people? Has he ever hurt anyone?”
A shrug, then, “Not a clue. I just hear he shows up every once in a while. Some folks say they’ve seen lights in that bedroom when nobody was living there. The only thing I’ve ever heard is that he talks. Doesn’t move anything, doesn’t set things on fire—”
“Fire? Ghosts set things on fire?”
“I said he didn’t do that. Near as I can figure, he’s just a presence. Like he’s hanging around. Waiting. Or just wanting. Or something.”
“Does anyone know his name?”
Susan shook her head. “Nobody knows who he is, or why he’s there. Or even how long he’s been there. I’d say at least forty years, ’cause I think the stories go back that far. Kids have been passing that around the schoolyard as far back as anyone I know can remember. Most people think it’s just a modern myth like that one about the serial killer with a hook.”
Shelby leaned forward, across the table. “What serial killer with a hook?”
“You haven’t heard that one? I thought everyone knew that.”
“There’s a serial killer with a hook on the loose?”
“No, it’s just a story.”
“You think it’s just a story. You thought the ghost was just a story, too. What about this serial killer with a hook?”
Shelby fell silent and sat back in her seat to regard Susan, not too sure about anything any more.
At home that afternoon, the silence in the house was thick again. “Halloo!” she hollered, and it backed away from her. A stamp of her foot echoed from the walls, and the silence fled farther. “I’m home!”
Yes, she was home. If she knew nothing else, she was dead certain this was home. As if she were meant to be here. That brought a tiny smile to the corners of her mouth.
Then she set to work unpacking some more and arranging her belongings into some semblance of how she’d lived in the apartment. The single stack of book shelves, though it had seemed like a huge collection in Nashville, now seemed small and forlorn in the enormous office upstairs. An antique kitchen table served as a desk for her computer, with a small file cabinet tucked underneath in lieu of drawers. The book case stood to one side, and the desk chair was the only other furniture. Shelby stood at the door and sighed, then pondered the question of braided rug versus oriental. It would have to be a big one, whatever it was, or else a couple of not-so-big ones. The floor was wide.
Gradually, she felt the silence fall again. It would be another week before the TV cable would be hooked up, and so her only recourse was music on the boom box downstairs. She headed there to banish the silence with a little Riverdance, but paused at the top of the steps as a thought struck her. Was the oppressive quiet actually absence of sound? Was it an absence of anything? Why did the air feel so heavy? Why was it so difficult to draw each breath, as if the atmosphere in the room were pressing against her chest?
Slowly, she walked to the bedroom to stand in the middle of it. Here was where the feeling was strongest. This room was where the ghost had appeared, and she could still feel him. At least, she thought she could. There was a sense…just a slight sense of energy right here that didn’t exist anywhere else in the house.
No answer. Of course not. She’d tried this before. Nevertheless, she closed her eyes to concentrate. She didn’t even know his name. She pictured him in her mind. Tall, well-muscled in a long-boned, lanky sort of way, shaggy hair as black and shiny as a raven’s wing, farmer’s tan that made a clean circle at the base of his neck then gave way to paleness that had probably never seen sunshine for even one day. In her memory, he had a shadow of a beard and dark, dark blue eyes. He might have been thirty years old, but no more than that. Had he been that young when he died? What, exactly, was it she had seen?
Breathing deeply and steadily, Shelby concentrated on that image. Tried to make it real. In a whisper, she said “Come to me,” over and over. Over and over, until it became nonsense syllables. Then she looked.
Still nothing there but the feeling. She glanced around the room, but saw no ghosts.
It was late. She needed to sleep, for in the morning she would have to start for work half an hour earlier than usual. Hendersonville had a nice, small-townness to it, but it was also a long, congested commute from Nashville. She readied for bed, wondering if she’d only imagined the figure in the linen shirt, wool trousers and suspenders. Perhaps she had. A vague disappointment settled in at that, and she wondered why.
But over the next week or so she was happy enough to let the mysterious disappearing man slip her mind. Each night she brought manuscripts home to read or line edit, for that was the only way to keep up with the work load, and as she became accustomed to the house, its tics, creaks and currents, she let go of the idea of there being anything strange about it. Cleaning and arranging, settling into her home now, she came to know its corners and cubbies, understood it to be built of brick and wood and plaster, and so stopped thinking in terms of spiritual presence. At least, it began to seem the spiritual presence was nothing more than a strong feeling coupled with a romanticized wish. She might even have imagined it and hallucinated the apparition in a moment of exhaustion.
Fall was soon done fading the maple and oak leaves everywhere in the neighborhood, and on one windy day the trees became bare and the ground scattered with leaves that were grayish brown in death. As the weather grew chilly, the sky lowered and settled in for the winter, Shelby found herself thankful for the two-foot thickness of brick in her walls. And even more thankful for the baseboard heaters in each room. She arranged for an entire cord of wood to be delivered and stacked by the west side of the house, for she anticipated much use of her four fireplaces. Otherwise, what was the point of having them?
In early December a high wind knocked the power out just as Shelby arrived home from work. The entire block went dark, including the apartments on the other side of the tracks, and she found her way to the door by the light of the moon. The weather whipped through the bare trees and tossed the pines every which way. The cold insinuated itself in Shelby’s clothing and in her hair, which tossed like the trees. She hunched against the wind and picked her way to her door. Inside the foyer, though she pushed first the top light switch button then the bottom, over and over, nothing came on. She sighed. Her house was down, too. Since she wasn’t in the habit of turning up the heat until coming home the place was dead cold, and so there was nothing for it but to carry in some wood and build a fire. God knew how she was going to cook supper over it. As she worked, she ran her kitchen inventory over in her mind to figure out what she would eat that evening.
Hot dogs cooked up just fine over the fire in the dining room, spit on a straightened wire hanger. They were actually pretty good, on slightly stale hoagie buns grilled in an iron frying pan set on coals. She slathered the dogs with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise with a dollop of relish, sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading a manuscript by the light of an emergency candle. Supper tasted like a campout, and except for the bother of carrying the candle everywhere she was little inconvenienced. The electric company had been called and their automated system alerted to the outage, so there was nothing left to do but take her candle and manuscript upstairs to work until bedtime. In the bedroom, she built a nice, roaring fire and sat up in bed with the manuscript. It was peaceful there. The world seemed far away. She wasn’t certain what time it was when she finally set the work aside, put another log on the fire, and readied for bed.
The hearth in her bedroom glowed warm and bright when she slipped under blankets piled high against the cold, hoping for a solid night’s sleep regardless of the electricity.
But, exhausted as she was, sleep wouldn’t come. She lay on her back and stared at the flickering ceiling. Stains on the old paint made shadows that jumped and quivered. She tried to close her eyes, but when she did, the flickering light against her lids made her open them.
Then the flickers on the ceiling became a single shadow. Shelby’s pulse leapt. She was afraid to look, but she had to. But she couldn’t. Her eyes stayed on the ceiling. Maybe the shadow would go away. It could be just her imagination. She’d spent weeks convincing herself these things were just her imagination. But it did not move. And she knew what it must be. She made her eyes move, and looked.
It was him, sitting in her rocking chair by the fireplace. Not much more than a silhouette against the flames, she knew him by his tall frame. And he began to mumble, his voice betraying anger.
“Blood…so much blood.” His hands flexed and he shifted in his seat, agitated. “God help me, I can’t stand any more death.” he moaned. He laid a trembling hand against his face.
Shelby took a breath to speak, but it all escaped unused. Her throat was tight, and she had to cough it clear. Finally she was able to say, “Who are you?” Inside she was trembling, but her defenses rose and she bluffed. “What’s your name?”
He didn’t answer. After a silence, he spoke again. “Lies. All lies.” His drawl was soft and deep.
Shelby crawled forward to the foot of the bed. This man was breathing. Hardly dead at all. Real and solid. He even had to clear his throat to speak through the grief that seemed to clench his body. She leaned in for a closer look, and her heart raced. What was she doing? She should be running for her life, or at least her sanity. She rose to her knees and held the bedpost between herself and the man before her. There was something about him that made her stay. Something in his voice that touched her heart. Her urge to run died as she realized she couldn’t abandon this poor, desolate soul.
He reached to a small table nearby for the candle that seemed to accompany him everywhere, then leaned toward the fire behind him to light it. One hand burrowed in an inner pocket of his jacket to produce a cigar, and he lit that from the candle. The flickering light on his face played over a two-day beard and ruddy skin, and a smudge of something dark—mud, or perhaps blood—crossed his nose. His eyes were dark blue, the color of the sky on a clear midwinter evening just after sunset. His jacket hung loose and open on him, the double-breasted gray of a Confederate officer. It was ragged and torn, and the brass buttons were corroded—some of them not even there. Stained, dirty longjohns were visible beneath his filthy white shirt, torn as well.
Shelby went cold. A Confederate soldier. This ghost had been here way longer than forty years. Almost a sigh, she said, “Civil War.”
He never appeared to hear her, and for nearly a full minute she watched him stare at the floor and smoke his cigar. He took a hard pull and the tobacco smoke stung Shelby’s nose. He looked up, and for a moment stared off across the room as if trying to discern something at a distance. “She wasn’t supposed to be the one to die.” Then he returned his attention to the floor in front of him. Pain rose in his eyes, and they glistened. For a moment he busied himself with his cigar, then he pressed a hand to his face and groaned. “Mary. Dear Mary Beth.”
His head tilted. “I can’t even know what my heart has lost. I’ll never know.” His voice was vague. Adrift. Awash with unfocused pain, Shelby couldn’t tell what he was feeling. Yearning? Sorrow? “Would she have grieved for me at all?”
What a strange thing to say!
He looked up, into the distance again, but found nothing there to help him. No more words came, and no hint of why he was so tormented.
Shelby slipped to the floor and knelt by the bed, then reached over to him. Her hand rested on a solid knee, muscle and kneecap, under heavy wool trousers.
It crumbled under her hand. Like a melting sugar cube, the tall man collapsed in an instant and threw a mist over the chair and Shelby.
She jerked back her hand and the white mist swirled about her. With a sharp gasp, she breathed it in. It tasted like dust, but seemed to fill her head. A buzzing noise shut out all other sound. She felt numb all over, then her heart opened to a great chasm of loneliness. A yawning emptiness, a longing for what might have been but wasn’t. And would never be for all eternity. Another gasp, and she shuddered. She turned and gripped the bedpost with all her trembling strength as she saw the abyss in which this poor man dwelt. Her face pressed against the bedpost, her breaths came hard and she squeezed her eyes shut from the pain of longing.
Copyright © 2012 Julianne Lee
by Julianne Ardian Lee
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-156-6