I have followed your advice column for years, but never had cause to contact you until now.
My family has owned Wraith Manor for two centuries, and, in it, I have enjoyed a most quiet existence.
I love the cold, drafty rooms and ancient halls. I spend my happiest moments in the solitude of home. At night, the stars peek through the old casement windows and the soft breeze blows through the dark hallways, dripping with the musk of my mother’s roses.
I am free to roam my domain at will; yet, now and then, infestation appears, like the biblical locusts.
In the past, I have removed these plagues with little effort, but now, try as I might, I cannot get rid of them. My tried-and-true tactics—footsteps, moving objects, torpedoes, wails, moans and slamming doors—no longer work.
Worse even, the new vermin have taken my family portraits off the walls and installed pesky fireflies that light up with the flick of a switch.
I love fireflies as much as the next, but these little bugs, instead of blinking soothing green, light up in garish hues of white and yellow that glare and crackle.
Gone now is the moonlight wafting through the windows. Gone now is the sleepy silence of the hall, kitchen, ballroom and bedrooms. Instead, there is a constant chatter of voices by day, and a relentless buzzing by night.
I have done my best to spook these pests away, but to no avail. I even reached out to my cousin at Canterville Chase, but he could not offer much help.
Jem Thompson’s childhood best friend was Bruise, a mongrel dog mixed with stray, with a gray-black patch over his eye. Bruise died when Jem was a teen, and he missed his friend so much he never kept another pet again. There could be no other like Bruise.
Marriage, kids, grandkids, widowerhood.
Every day, Jem Thompson would walk in the park that faced his house and sit on the bench by the mermaid fountain at its eastern corner. There he would watch the comings and goings of his neighbors, and revel in the games they played with their dogs.
Late in the afternoon on a cloudy day, Jem Thompson sat at his bench longer than usual; fluffy white clouds had kept the beaming sun at bay and a cool breeze blew. He laid his head back on the hard wooden seat and took a brief nap. A cold wetness surprised Jem Thompson and he awoke to find Bruise’s soulful eyes gazing at him as the dog licked Jem’s fingers.
“Bruise?” Jem Thompson muttered in disbelief.
The dog yipped and Jem Thompson knew was Bruise, not another dog that looked like him. Bruise nuzzled his hand and then nudged Jem Thompson, now an old man, to follow him. The dog was relentless, and, with a snap of bones and a creak of the old knee, Jem Thompson stood, his hip jutting out sideways. Bruise walked a few paces, then returned to coax his old friend. With his slow and crooked gait, Jem Thompson followed his long-gone dog. It never occurred to him to fear the animal; this was Bruise, after all.
Bruise led him across the street and down a narrow alley, away from the square with the park at its center he’d known so well for forty-odd years. He walked past houses he hadn’t seen in decades, since Madge’s death and the creaky knee had forced him into an almost sedentary life. He came to a brick-red townhouse that stood between two modern bungalows. Jem Thompson recalled it had been part of a row of townhouses; now it was the last one standing. The plain, modern eyesores had replaced the others.
Jem sighed, winded and tired; Bruise trotted to the door. He barked and scratched it. The sun was low in the sky and Jem, unaware of how far he’d walked, stood like a fool before the house.
Bruise returned to his side and snapped at Jem’s hand, the way he’d always done when he’d wanted something from him. Jem sighed, and, shaking his head, tottered up the front path. He stood at the door, uneasy. With a deep breath, he rang the bell. An old woman opened; they stared at one another for a moment, then Jem’s eyes went from dull to shining with recognition.
“Fanny?” He said, surprised, “Fanny Markowitz?”
A slow smile spread over the woman’s face, “Jem Thompson, well I’ll be damned! It’s been, what, sixty years?”
Jem smiled at his old friend and was about to reply when a loud bang rattled the house.
“What the…?” Fanny exclaimed and turned to enter when Jem pulled her back.
“I smell gas!” he yelled.
He took Fanny’s withered hand and let her to the street. Tongues of fire licked the kitchen curtains. Smoke billowed from the upstairs window-frames and, in the next instant, flames erupted from the shattered glass.
“Serena!” Fanny yelled.
“Is someone else inside the house?” Jem asked in alarm.
“Serena, my cat!” Fanny screamed, “I need to get her!”
She was about to lunge into the flames when they distinguished the silhouette of a dog in the gaping doorway. It carried something in its muzzle.
Away from the burning house, the dog set the dangling bundle on the ground; it jerked and moved and ran to Fanny. Fanny cradled the calico cat in her arms. Jem turned to pet the dog, but Bruise had disappeared.
Fanny whispered beside him, “That was Bruise, wasn’t it?”
Jem nodded and moved his lips, but wailing sirens drowned out his answer.
“I still can’t believe this is happening,” Vicky squealed. Her thick round glasses made her look like an owl.
“Oh my gosh, I know!” Kathy giggled, “I didn’t think they even knew we existed!”
They glanced at themselves in the mirror; excitement beaming in their faces. Kathy put her earrings on.
“Now for the final touch,” Kathy smiled at Vicky.
She picked up the perfume bottle and sprayed just a tiny amount on her neck and on her wrists. The perfume was her dearest possession; it had belonged to Tina, Kathy’s older sister, and Kathy only wore it on special occasions. She passed the bottle to Vicky.
“Really? May I?” Vicky asked.
“It’s for good luck,” Kathy answered.
Vicky was careful to only use a tiny spritz behind her ears. Both girls fell silent as jasmine and lemongrass filled the room.
“An angel passed…”
“Tina, of course,” Kathy glanced at Vicky, her smile suspended in Tina’s scent.
Should she tell her best friend about Tina’s footsteps approaching her bed at nights, or about Tina’s laughter bursting through the walls when no one else was home?
“I feel her sometimes, you know,” Vicky said, her voice cautious.
“Yeah,” Kathy mumbled, “she’s watching us from heaven.”
Vicky wanted to say more but turned to the mirror. She gasped.
“Look,” she pointed.
Kathy followed Vicky’s gaze. The mirror no longer showed the image of the two excited girls, instead it showed a party replete with their classmates, well, only the popular kids. Kathy and Vicky did not belong to this group, and this was the party they would never ever in their wildest dreams attend. No one would invite them, and should they show up, they would be out on their butts in a flash. Kathy glanced at Vicky, whose owl eyes looked like two round moons.
The image in the mirror wound through the throngs of teenagers laughing and drinking. A couch appeared and, in it, sat Chad and Ian, the two boys who’d asked Kathy and Vicky on a date. Kyle, their friend, sat on the nearby chair. They were joking and laughing and swigging the cans of beer in their hands.
“Are you guys going to pick up those two nerds?” Kyle asked.
“We’ll leave in a few minutes,” Ian replied, “don’t get ahead of yourself, the night is young and we’ve caught the prey.”
“Easiest hundred bucks I ever made,” Chad chuckled.
“Don’t forget you have to go all the way, otherwise you lose the bet,” Kyle retorted.
“No problem,” Ian said, “those uggos are already eating out of the palms of our hands. We got this.”
“It’s a done deal,” Chad drove the knife home.
Kathy and Vicky stood speechless and shocked as they watched the exchange through the mirror. All the pieces fell into place; the date was just a game to them. Kathy felt the sting of tears and glanced at Vicky, whose glasses had misted over and wet streaks shone down her cheeks.
Tina’s perfume still hung in the air when the doorbell rang, and the mist from the spray hovered before the mirror. The girls’ eyes met and reached an unspoken agreement. Kathy flew out and reached the door as her father was about to open it.
“No Daddy, don’t,” Kathy whispered.
Her father stared at her through eyes sunken by deep sorrow. Tina’s death had left him haggard; a ragged soul in a middle-aged shell with a long life still ahead.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, we’ve decided not to go.”
He gave her a puzzled look; his eyes trying to pierce her innermost thoughts.
“Okay,” he reassured her, “you don’t have to go. I’ll handle this.”
He ushered Kathy upstairs; she joined Vicky and listened to the murmur of voices at the front door. Vicky touched Tina’s perfume bottle, then looked at the mirror. Through the perfumed mist, Tina’s smiling figure appeared in the glass. Her long black hair hung loose on her shoulders, and the green dress they’d buried her in shone like light passing through emeralds.
“Thank you,” the girls murmured in unison.
Tina smiled at them, and, as the mist dissipated, the girls noticed the pearly white wings on her back.
I opened the balcony door and stepped out to the balmy evening. Rain had trickled down all afternoon and had wrecked our plans to climb the mountain under whose skirts the small hotel stood. It was an ancient house built during colonial times, made of adobe with dark and dank rooms. The balcony was a narrow ledge protected by wrought-iron, and I leaned on the railing as I gazed at the mountain nearby.
The sun had set moments before, and its last rays intensified the green of the mountain. Verde que te quiero verde, I thought, and watched the flitting hummingbirds defend their territory at the feeder in the walled garden below my room. Hummingbirds—such big wars raging in such tiny creatures. No wonder the Aztecs believed warriors reincarnated as hummingbirds; only the bees dared to defy them.
Dusk descended, and with it an eerie calmness. I pulled up a chair and put my feet up on the railing; the cicadas’ fervent buzz inundated the evening like radio static. A humid breeze blew and wafted waves of jasmine and honeysuckle.
In the distance I heard the soft rumble of thunder and hoped rain would not ruin tomorrow’s expedition, again. Yet, as I listened, I realized it was not thunder I heard, but the soft grumble of hooves, and the click-clack of wooden wheels. I strained my ears and, sure enough, I distinguished the clip clop of horses and the rackety-rack of carts. A pilgrimage?
I glanced at the mountain and watched in awe as a long string of red mist descended the mountainside. It wound through the rocks and trees as if following a well-trodden path.
I remembered what the owner had told us in the lobby, “Sometimes you can hear wagons coming down the mountain after a rainstorm. People say it’s ghosts, but I think it’s the wind blowing through the trees.”
I would have agreed with him. Yet no one had mentioned the red meandering mist.
The water in the bathroom stopped and Tom stepped out.
“Shower’s free,” he said, and approached in his jeans and wet hair.
I did not answer, but stared mesmerized at the haze; the clatter of hooves reverberated in the mellow dusk.
“What is it?” He asked.
I pointed, “The mist. Isn’t it weird?”
He watched for a moment and agreed. A white moon appeared in the sky and Venus, the evening star, blinked hello.
“How long has this gone on?” Tom wondered.
“A few minutes, it started after sunset,” I answered, “wait… listen.”
It was then I realized the cicadas were silent and the hummingbirds had vanished from the feeder. I told him so. Tom pulled up a chair beside me and we watched the fog snaking closer; it would soon engulf us.
The raucous hooves intensified, as if the sound belonged to the red cloudiness. Tom reached for my hand and squeezed it; there were no words in his mouth or mine.
The reddish mist was upon us now, and as it slithered past our balcony, I discerned the shapes and figures of horses and riders, and a regiment on foot. I recognized the puffy pants, armor plate, helmets and muskets of the conquistadors that had marched through this land five-hundred years before.
They tramped right under us, oblivious to the garden wall and hummingbird feeder dangling from the ahuehuete tree. The cannon rattled as a horse pulled it over uneven ground. A rearguard soldier glanced up in passing and caught my gaze.
“Señora,” his hollow voice rang in my ears as he nodded a gracious greeting.
The mist dissipated with the sudden flutter of a myriad of hummingbirds. Night fell. The sounds of hooves faded away as the cicadas chirped again. The soft breeze whirled jasmine, honeysuckle… and gunpowder.
The house menaced in the harsh sunlight. The yard was a barren plot of dry grass, and the broken windows looked like hollow eye-sockets.
“Isn’t it great?” Miranda giggled and bounced on her toes.
“Um…” I tried to stammer out a supporting response but couldn’t, for the life of me, fathom why anyone would buy this house.
“It’s my first fixer-upper,” she squealed with delight, “it’s got real potential and I think we can turn a good profit.”
“Does Oscar agree?” I asked, knowing my sister’s penchant for pies in the sky.
“You bet!” She said and beckoned me to follow her.
I stared at the hideous building. It didn’t have the charm of a bygone architectural style most old houses had. It was square, dilapidated and bleak, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
“Let me show you,” Miranda took my hand and hurried me across the arid yard.
Charm and beauty weren’t on the inside either. It was like walking into a box with low ceilings and no decorative features. Debris lay strewn about on the floor, lost and mismatched objects, broken glass and, in the corner, a creepy doll slumped against the wall.
My heart skipped a beat when I beheld it. Only a bare rag of what may have been an apron covered the doll. Its arm was scorched black and it was missing an eye. Someone had pulled out most of its hair. To whom had this toy belonged?
“Do you know who lives here?” I asked Miranda, unable to peel my eyes off the unfortunate doll.
“Um, no, it’s abandoned.” Miranda answered, oblivious to the anxiety in my voice.
I cast one last look around the room as she led me towards the stairs. Eerie warped sunlight entered the window, and for the first time, I noticed the walls. My heart raced as my mind sought an explanation for the reddish brown spatters and streaks that lined the shabby wallpaper. What could have done this? These stains peppered every wall, and though they didn’t look like blood, I had the strange sensation they pointed to something.
“Elise!” Miranda called from the upstairs landing.
Reluctant, I climbed the stairs that creaked and cracked under my feet. Miranda stood at the top, arms akimbo, waiting for me as I dawdled. Shadows danced on the walls and ceiling behind her. I paused. Were they the distorted shapes of children?
I gulped. My mind was playing tricks on me, but…
I reached the top of the stairs and entered the gloomy and messy second floor.
“It doesn’t have the greatest view,” Miranda chatted as we crept down the hallway, “but we’ll figure something out.”
We entered one of the smaller bedrooms. I gasped and held back a scream.
“What?” Miranda asked.
“Who lived here?” I breathed.
She followed my gaze and shrugged.
“So the windows have bars,” she stated with that annoying nonchalance that often made me want to punch her.
“On the inside?” I exclaimed and pointed at the iron bars that ran from the ceiling to the floor.
“Why not?” She shrugged; I gave her an annoyed glance.
A draft blew in this dreary, ugly house and sent a chill up my spine. I whipped around, certain I’d heard a child’s whimper in that gust of air. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow run into the adjacent door, but I didn’t dare look. Instead, I invited Miranda to lunch, the sooner to hightail it without hurting her feelings. She was so damn sensitive and so excited about this horrible house any objection would fall on deaf ears.
As we turned to go, I glanced down the hall towards the master bedroom. In the fuzzy sunlight streaked on the wall, I saw, just for a moment, the dangling silhouette of a hanging man. I hurried my sister along and sped through the ground floor and its stained walls and into the dead yard.
This house is dead, but the shadows live. The words pounded in my brain and it took me a while to compose myself. Miranda never noticed.
“I’ve heard some stories,” Oscar whispered when I voiced my concern over the telephone the next day, “I heard the last owner, decades ago, hanged himself in a bedroom. They said he was heartbroken when his wife ran off with their kids.”
I said no more; in the background Miranda’s excited voice mixed with the rattle and boom of heavy machinery.
I hung up and went about my day, trying, and failing, to get that house out of my mind. Oscar’s story rang true, but there was something…
Night fell; the phone rang.
“Oh my God, Elise!” Miranda yelled before I could say the customary hello.
“What? What’s happened?” I said alarmed.
“You won’t believe what the workers found!”
“The skeletons of a woman and children entombed in the stained walls,” I blurted out.
The lion came to Ricky in dreams. Every night he closed his eyes after his mother put him to bed, and soon the lion appeared. Sometimes it threatened him, and he ran in fear from it. Other times, the lion just existed as part of the dreamscape his mind wove at nights.
Ricky told his parents about the lion, but they dismissed it as a simple dream. And dreams are only figments of our imagination, right? So what harm can they do? Ricky shrugged and tried to convince himself his parents were correct. Yet, every night the lion came.
Morning dawned on Ricky’s tenth birthday, and as he readied himself for school, he felt a prickling at the back of his head. He spun around with his pants halfway up his legs and glanced about the room. Someone was watching him.
“The lion,” he murmured and recalled that night’s dream.
He’d been walking in the bush; a pair of yellow eyes followed him in the dark. As he’d caught the creature’s gaze, the lion had pounced. Ricky had gasped awake and sat up in bed with sweat trickling down his forehead. He’d had the same dream all month, but it had never permeated reality, until now.
“Mom, may I stay home from school today?” Ricky gave a fake cough, “I think I’m coming down with something.”
Mom raised an eyebrow and shook her head.
“What a shame,” her voice dripped with sarcasm, “sick on your birthday. I suppose I’ll let everyone know there won’t be a party after school.”
Ricky scrunched his face; he’d forgotten about the party. The dread had pushed it to the back of his mind, but he’d been looking forward to it all month. And, knowing Mom, she would cancel if pressed.
Ricky felt the lion’s hunting gaze follow him all the way to the bus stop, which was empty. Ricky wondered if he was earlier than usual. He was one of three kids who stood at this stop, and he was often the last to arrive. Not today, today he stood alone in the morning light and the sense of foreboding grew as the minutes ticked. He glanced at the neighboring houses and caught Millie’s placid gaze on her stoop.
“Hi Millie,” he called; the tabby cat yawned with tongue out and fangs to the sky.
Ricky tried to goad her towards him with his fingertips, but Millie only flicked her tail.
A yellow car pulled up and the driver rolled down the window. Ricky’s heart skipped a beat when yellow eyes fixed on him. The man’s pasty skin showed under his long yellow hair and disheveled beard. The sallow cheekbones sunk beneath the deep dark bags under his eyelids, yet his eyes blazed with ferocity and malice. Ricky gulped.
“Hey buddy,” the man smirked, showing rotten yellow teeth, “your mom asked me to take you to school, get in the car.”
The man’s yellow voice oozed venom and menace; Ricky shook his head.
“Look buddy, you’re gonna be late. The school called your mom cause the bus broke down. All the parents are driving their kids today, but your mom asked me.”
Ricky looked around him. It seemed plausible; no one was at the bus stop. But… who was this man? How did he know Mom?
As Ricky pondered this and turned to face the car, the sudden stench of tobacco and armpits stung Ricky’s nostrils. A filthy hand clapped over his mouth, pasty arms enveloped him and shoved him towards the clunky yellow car. Ricky tried to scream as he kicked the air, hoping to hit something, anything. The thought that the lion had got him flashed through his mind as the gaping trunk loomed closer.
A yowl; the yellow man’s grip loosened in pain as Millie pounced on the man’s back and slid down with her claws. The man staggered and held on to the boy, yet Ricky freed one hand and used his fist as best as he could. Millie swiped and clawed at the man’s legs.
“Get in there!” The man snarled into Ricky’s face.
The stinking yellow breath almost winded Ricky and the yellow eyes flashed such evil Ricky couldn’t bear to look at them. His free hand rose and, the next instant, Ricky felt moist gooey orbs as he pushed his fingertips into the man’s eyes.
The man let go and Ricky fell on his butt. Millie hissed and swatted at the blinded man. Ricky kicked his feet and tried to stand.
“Ricky in here!” Mrs. Johnson, Millie’s elderly owner, called from her open door.
Ricky grabbed Millie and ran to the safety of Mrs. Johnson’s house.
The police took the yellow man away.
That night, the lion came again. In his dream, Ricky sat at a riverbank; the lion sat beside him and nuzzled his cheek.
Samuel shifted in his seat and rolled his shoulders back, trying to get comfortable in the cloth-draped plastic folding chair. The recital had begun, and while Alice gazed at the string quartet in rapture, Samuel fidgeted. Alice had begged him to join her at the concert, and though he hadn’t been reluctant to attend, now he found it boring.
He glanced around the mansion’s ballroom (now a museum) and marveled at the opulence of the Gilded Age. Baroque-style gold leaf adorned the high walls, and the marble floor shone with polish. Even the furniture seemed to sparkle with a gold sheen. Silk drapes hung on the floor-to-ceiling windows, and French doors opened onto a large stone terrace. A painted blue sky and clouds covered the ceiling, with cherubs at each corner and a large, ornate gold medallion at its center. Samuel sighed and turned his attention back to the performers.
Music filled the room, yet Samuel had the uncanny feeling a fog was settling over the audience. His sight blurred and his chin drooped. He jerked awake at the sensation of falling, then endeavored to focus on the quartet, now playing a lively tune. Too lively, Samuel thought, for only the most dismal and somber pieces—Alice’s favorites—were on the program. He gazed at the musicians.
Samuel frowned; wasn’t a woman in the quartet? An older, chubby and somewhat frumpy lady with black slacks and red cardigan fiddling on the viola came to mind. Now, there were men in black three-piece suits playing… a waltz?
Samuel scrunched his face and turned to Alice, but found only a side table with a Tiffany-style lamp beside him. He examined the lotus themed leaded glass lampshade with its bronze leaf-shaped mosaic base… Holy moly, a real Tiffany lamp!
“What in the world…?” He murmured and scanned the room.
Samuel gulped; he no longer sat on the folding chair among the spectators, but on a high-backed leather seat off to the side and by a window. Ladies in satin dresses, lace sleeves and low necklines, bouffant hairdos and sparkling jewels swirled on the arms of dapper men in tuxedos with stiff, high collars and slick hair.
The room rang with the sound of laughter and merry conversation as the couples twirled around the dance floor. The piece ended, the music paused, and a hush fell over the ballroom.
A strange tinkling sounded above Samuel; he glanced up and noticed the heavy crystal chandelier shaking and shimmering in the twilight. An astounded murmur rose through the crowd as the marble floor shuddered. Samuel kept his eye on the chandelier as it swayed back and forth. The chandelier creaked and the wiring snapped; he jolted.
“Wake up,” Alice hissed in his ear and gave him another discreet shake.
Her angry gazed burned, and Samuel found himself back at the recital with the chubby lady on the viola. He scanned his surroundings. The furniture was the same, save for the hard plastic folding chairs placed at the center. No chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Samuel glanced at his neighbors and noticed some fast asleep with their chins on their chests. He was about to glare at Alice when the sleepers jerked awake, and in unison, yelled, “the chandelier!”
A spectral crash sounded through the room; the marble floor glimmered with the ghosts of shattered glass.
Luke checks into the hotel and, as the receptionist runs his credit card, he notices the photograph displayed in the lobby. It is a black-and-white photo of the majestic Victorian building. He cannot say why, there is nothing odd about it, but it gives him the creepy-crawlies.
“That picture was taken when the hotel opened in the 1890s,” the receptionist says and hands him a key.
Luke enters his room and jolts at the sight of the black-and-white photograph hanging above the bed.
Art Nouveau four-poster bed, nightstand, table and chair at back of room, heavy dark drapes line French doors to balcony. Sunlight gleams on bedspread.
The sleek curves of the Art Nouveau style warp the mood of the photograph and give it a bizarre, off-kilter feel.
The furniture in Luke’s room is different, modern, but the layout the same. White bedspread, blue curtains.
“It’s this very room,” he exclaims.
He startles at the knock; the bellboy enters with Luke’s luggage and leaves.
Luke steps onto the balcony and enjoys the setting sun’s milky glimmer over the cityscape.
Luke’s eyes adjust as he enters from the balcony. Long shadows play upon the walls and blue imbues the room. Luke reaches for his jacket and stares at the photograph.
Man lies on bed, in slacks, vest and shirt, tie unfolded, legs extended on bedspread, arms behind head; resting. Face gazes towards balcony. Suit-jacket draped on chair, hat on table, shoes by bed.
Trembling, Luke grabs his wallet and hastens to the door. He leaves for dinner.
Luke opens the door and flicks on the light. The lamp on the nightstand is dim, but moonlight enters from the balcony. He places the keys on the nightstand and undoes his tie, preparing for bed. His heart skips when he glimpses the photograph.
Man, now in striped pajamas, opens bedspread. Face blurred by bulb of light from Tiffany lamp on nightstand.
Luke gulps and wonders whether to change rooms. He phones the lobby, but no other rooms available for the night.
“Tomorrow,” the receptionist says.
Luke enters the bathroom.
Luke opens the bed and is about to climb in when he stops and stares at the photograph.
Darkened room lit by moonlight from balcony. Table and chair in silhouette, nightstand in shadow, billowing drapes. Outline of man laying on side, face towards balcony, flat sheet and blanket pulled up to neck, bedspread rolled at feet; asleep.
Luke stands with arms hanging and mouth open, mesmerized. His heart pounds and he gapes at the photograph.
Woman stands at foot of bed. Long dress and tight jacket, heeled boots, corset and bustle. Hair in bun, tilted cap on head. Face blurry but turned toward sleeping man.
Luke’s frenzied mind searches for an explanation and finds none. He wants to turn away, but cannot.
Woman extends arm and points gun at sleeping man. Gun glitters in moonlight.
Flash of light at gun barrel.
Luke hears a faded pop, as if from a gramophone. The light in his room dims, then brightens.
Blanked out image, dark edges. Overexposed?
Luke screams as red spots appear and expand, soaking the white satin pillow on his bed.
Laura gazes into the forest and her sight tries to pierce through the thick branches but sees nothing beyond the trees. She’s been at Rainier’s cottage for days, though for her it feels like years. He’s been absent just as long, a wanderer in the thick forest mist.
In the morning she collects eggs and milks the goat and remembers her teenage self, always wishing to leave farm life behind her. Live in the city, be someone. Promises her devil made and… well, no, he kept. He gave her money and social status. Too late she realized what he expected in return; stupid girl.
In the evenings Laura listens for Rainier, but only the sounds of the forest enter the window. Some nights she hears a bear or a wolf pacing. She lights the oil lamp Rainier left by the nightstand. Laura closes the chicken coop and brings the goat in, her only companion.
Laura sits by the window and listens to the forest animals, while a fire crackles in the hearth. She doesn’t need it, nights are mild, but the warmth and flickering light comforts her; pleasant company, fire and goat. An owl hoots and the sound travels from the treeline where she suspects it lives in a hollow trunk.
The owl quiets and a chill crawls up Laura’s spine. She peeks out the window and sees nothing by a dank, thick mist. Neither moonlight nor starlight pierce the fog and Laura finds herself plunged into a strange world of darkness and silence. It’s a dead darkness with a coffin-like silence. She fixes her gaze on the fire, but its waning flames flicker with a warning hue.
A change in the air; Laura’s nostrils flare as the pungent yet sweet smell hits her. It’s a scent meant to intoxicate, to obfuscate, to immobilize. She realizes the mist is not natural but man-made; someone has poured venom and evil into the fog. Someone wants to harm her.
“Laura,” a voice whispers in the night.
Laura glances around the room for a weapon to defend herself from the enemy lurking beyond the cottage. The poker; she attempts to reach for it but finds herself immobile. Panic rises and she wants to scream but cannot open her mouth.
The goat places its head on her lap and consoles her but does not break the spell.
“Laura,” the voice taunts, “I see you.”
Laura watches through the open window as a figure emerges from the fog. It’s tall and clad in a black suit and hat, like the gangsters of old. Like her devil, though she knows it’s not him. Not for the first time, she wishes she hadn’t dropped her gun as she ran out the door the night she killed him. She’d once found the vintage clothing endearing, but now she realizes it’s a uniform of sorts; a way to identify them.
The figure approaches, then stops at the fence. Laura knows it won’t stop him and glances at the door, wishing for Rainier.
A barn owl soars through the mist; its vibrant white cuts through the black and Laura realizes the fog itself is black, not the world. The owl flies and swirls around the homestead and disperses the mist. Laura hears the flapping wings and with each flap her heart settles and the spell loses its hold. The barn owl lands on the windowsill and faces the man at the fence. Its screeches cut through the night and break the enchantment.
The man sniggers.
“I’m not finished,” he whispers and his voice snags Laura’s brain.
She shudders. He vanishes into the night.
The barn owl turns its heart-shaped head to face Laura, a creepy, yet comforting gesture. It hoots and flies away. The crescent moon shines in the sky. Laura gazes at a bright star and wonders whether it’s the same star she prayed by that night as she lay wounded on the riverbank.
The old man rocked on the back porch; his niece sat beside him. The evening closed around them, crickets chirped and cicadas buzzed. His niece lived with him; she cared for him in his last years and he accompanied her in the autumn of her life. Two lonely people, both unmarried, both aging with nothing to do but sit on the back porch and gaze at the garden, and wait.
“Uncle, can I get you something? Maybe some lemonade?” Niece asked.
Uncle nodded and told her to hurry.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she giggled.
Niece entered the old house, once a railroad station, with its gabled roof and stumpy watchtower. It had been more than a century since the trains had stopped and half that time since the old station became a house with an added two-story wing. The old railroad tracks, now rusty and decaying, marred the garden Niece cared for with vehemence, yet she’d never covered them.
Trains had stopped at this station, passengers had climbed off and on, and then had pulled out with a loud whistle conveying hopes to their destinations. The tracks ran through the tree-lined meadow and disappeared into the forest, where they wound around a bend and continued along a steep ravine. The Last Train had vanished into the trees and reappeared at the bottom of the gorge as a twisted and smoldering wreck. No one survived. No one removed the tracks either.
“The train won’t come if you cover them,” Uncle had said when she’d first moved in a decade ago. She had watched him with quizzical eyes, wondering if his mind was deteriorating too.
“Trains haven’t stopped here in more than a century,” she’d said.
He’d grumbled something and nodded, but a tiny sparkle had shone through his old man’s eyes.
Niece joined Uncle with two tall glasses of lemonade.
“I miss the fireflies,” he broke the silence, “haven’t seen one since that night.”
“What night?” Niece asked in her most nonchalant voice; she sensed a rare peep into Uncle’s history.
“The night she vanished. Crickets and cicadas had buzzed then too, but the fireflies flitted all over the fountain,” he sipped the lemonade.
“My bride-to-be; she left her wedding dress on the perch and disappeared into the night.”
“You were engaged?”
“She left you?”
He nodded again, “though I’ve always suspected I’m to blame. Me and my trysts.”
Niece gazed at Uncle with wide eyes. She’d never married because no one had proposed, but Uncle…
Uncle produced a photograph from his inner jacket pocket. A beautiful girl with marble skin and cropped jet-black hair that peeped from under a cloche hat with a white flower bow on the side smiled at the camera. The picture was black-and-white, but Niece noticed the light eyes, maybe blue, that twinkled with delight. She was young and fresh, and Uncle’s perfidy stung Niece.
“She took her yellow raincoat, her blue suitcase and that hat. They found the hat by an abandoned car. It was 1959. We never heard from her again.”
“What was her name?”
A tiny green light twinkled between them and Uncle and Niece turned their gaze back to the garden and the long-forgotten tracks. The same green light sparkled and multiplied until the garden glittered.
“Fireflies!” Uncle exclaimed with delight.
They watched the fireflies with awe and wonder as the bugs flitted around them, like flickering memories of innocent times.
“Uncle, what was her name?” Niece repeated after a moment.
A rumble blew through the trees and Niece’s question faded in the wind. The rumble thundered in their ears, yet the world remained unperturbed. In an instant, a black steam locomotive chugged into the eroding tracks. It hissed and sputtered. The murmur of voices overpowered the crickets and the hubbub and flurry of the past engulfed Uncle and Niece. A stationmaster called out orders. Gentlemen in suits, high-collars and stovepipe hats, paid porters to handle their luggage. Women in long skirts with bustles, corseted jackets and flowered bonnets, fanned themselves or closed their parasols, ready to ascend the train.
The locomotive churned on to the edge of sight, and the first wagon appeared with its passengers peering out of the window. Niece knew who to expect: the old lady and her elaborate hairdo, the gentleman with prominent muttonchops smoking his pipe, and the young dandy with the round spectacles. All of them with shining eyes and hopeful smiles, unaware they rode The Last Train and their dreams had tumbled into the abyss a century and a half ago.
Uncle gasped and pointed. Niece followed his gaze and through one window saw two passengers she’d never seen in the decade they’d watched The Last Train arrive. A young woman with a pearly complexion, short jet-black hair and blue eyes leaned her head on the shoulder of a rugged dark-haired and olive-skinned man with piercing black eyes.
“Miriam!” Uncle shrieked.
The train chugged away and vanished into the trees, toward the final bend.
Niece stared aghast; the photograph flittered in the breeze.
But… The Last Train crashed long before Uncle was born.