Friday, October 30, 2009
I wrote this short story last fall. I took the kernel of truth from J's story and used it in this fictionalized piece. It is a long short story -- not ideally for a blog, so I am warning you now, or come back and read it when you have some time to do so.....it's about 4500 wds long...HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
Charlotte held the slip of paper between the middle and index fingers of her right hand as she gripped the leather steering wheel of the rental car. She peered at the hastily scribbled directions she had written from her conversation with Kevin that morning while keeping an eye out for the landmarks he had given her, in deference to her “navigationally challenged” nature. As she slowed to read street signs, cars zoomed behind her bumper until they were positioned to whiz around the halting vehicle, impatient in their quest to fly through rush-hour traffic. One or two honked as they sped by.
“It’s obvious I’m looking for a street,” she said aloud. “Read the out-of-state tags, jerk.” Finally spying the one she wanted, she pulled off the busy road into a quiet neighborhood with a sigh of relief.
All the houses looked cared for; lawns tidy and trees large and well established. She felt pleased Kevin had found a house in such a prosperous-looking residential area. After eighteen months in a cramped and flimsy FEMA trailer, she would’ve been happy with anything solid with four walls that weren’t portable, but this was more than she had hoped for. Taking a sharp right onto a street she recognized from their conversation, Charlotte slowed to allow another car to pass so she could continue to observe the neighborhood. It was peaceful. Not a person or animal moving, not a leaf or dead plant out of place.
She saw Kevin’s green Explorer parked high up a steep driveway. There it is, she thought. Our house. It seemed a little ungainly, like how a fat woman squatting over a toilet must look, the way it crouched on its small hilltop – but she could see why it had appealed to Kevin. With its long covered upper-balcony, series of French doors, and ornate wrought ironwork and fancy brick, it looked like a typical New Orleans-style house. A little bit of home, she smiled, without the grime and high-water marks or brown, scorched, debris-strewn yards of most of the neighborhoods we’ve left behind.
As she stretched her legs beside the rental car, a gray Lexus purred up the drive and parked behind her. A dumpy woman in neon-green Capri pants far too tight for her ample butt and thighs clambered out, preceded by a halo of frizzy red hair.
“Hi, oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been running behind all morning. I’m Emily Redding, your real estate agent. I see your husband’s already inside waiting.”
As the stranger talked she walked over and grabbed Charlotte’s left arm, not seeming to notice her flinch -- Charlotte disliked being touched by strangers -- and steered them both up four steps towards a cream-colored front door. Before Charlotte could respond, however, the door yanked open and Kevin loomed before them.
“There you are! Finally!”
Charlotte wasn’t sure if the remark was addressed to her or the realtor, but it didn’t matter. As Kevin wrapped his arms around her she leaned into his broad sturdy chest and inhaled the smell of coconut that always seemed to pervade him. She allowed herself to relax after the stress of the long drive, and suddenly felt like weeping. Embarrassed, she turned her face to the nearest wall.
Kevin laughed. “You’ll have to excuse my wife; it’s been a long, hard year and a half, and she hates change.” Kevin grinned at Emily and kissed the top of Charlotte’s head as the realtor busied herself with a chirping cell phone, giving them a brief minute of privacy as she headed off a sales call.
“No, no,” Emily replied absently after hanging up, to nothing in particular. “I was hoping to get here after ya’ll had some time alone together…”
Sharp metallic clicks echoed through the bare hallway, and picked up speed as a bundle of tightly twisted furry brown and white hair barreled towards them. Wriggling and wagging a stub of a tail, a dog made a beeline towards the still entwined couple.
“Lucy!” Charlotte cried as she pulled away from Kevin and flung herself on the linoleum. Hugging the dog, which she had missed as much as Kevin, she gave the entry hall another quick glance. This awful tile must go, she thought, as she struggled to kiss the dog’s bobbing fuzzy head. Lucy’s warm moist tongue gave her doggie kisses until Charlotte protested in delight.
“Now I know she’s feeling better,” Kevin said to Emily, while both watched the scene with bemused looks.
“Shall we take a quick glance around the house?” Emily asked, pointedly looking at her watch. Charlotte could tell she was anxious to complete the formalities of their meeting. Reluctantly getting off the floor, she ignored Lucy’s pawing and whines for more attention.
“Sorry – certainly – let’s get started. I’m eager to see it.” Falling in line behind Kevin and Emily, Charlotte and Lucy obediently followed them to the back of the house.
“Do you really like it?” Kevin asked when they were finally alone. His expression conveyed he expected Charlotte would say she loved it, and he anticipated full praise. When she smiled but paused the teeniest bit before repling, he frowned.
She did like the house. And yet…His smile stretched tighter.
“So you don’t like it? What’s wrong now? This is more house than I ever expected us to get!”
“I know,” Charlotte rushed to reply. “It’s just – I don’t know – it’s fantastic – but, I just have this – feeling – in some of the rooms…”
“Oh, GOD, your feelings…” Kevin stormed.
Wounded and hurt, Charlotte shrugged. “I know; sorry. It’s a great house.”
Kevin’s expression softened, and he glanced around the empty kitchen. “Hey, we’re both wiped out. I bought OJ and milk and cereal, but what do you say we go try to find one of those restaurants Emily told us about? I’m tired of sandwiches and fast food, and I know you must be.”
“I’m all for unpacking later,” Charlotte sighed. She fumbled in her purse for lip-gloss and smoothed back unruly black curls, which had untwisted from the bun she had hastily pinned this morning. As she did, she thought back to the events that had drawn them here. They had decided the month before Kevin would go ahead and find a house in Arkansas while Charlotte stayed in Louisiana to clear up the final details of moving out of state, and attending to insurance matters involved with the flood. She knew she had no right to criticize his choice of houses. He did the best he could, she rationalized. No need to add to an already stressful situation.
Before they could head out the door, Lucy moved to prevent their exit. A medium-sized mutt weighing around thirty pounds, Lucy wasn’t as formidable as a large dog, but for all her slightness she was solid. Her high-pitched barking sounded too loud and frantic in a hall unsoftened by rugs or furnishings.
“Lucy, no! What’s wrong with her?” Charlotte tried to soothe and silence the dog as Lucy continued to block the door with her body. “She never does this!”
“Lucy, down!” shouted Kevin, pushing Lucy roughly to one side. Lucy growled and crouched low, crawling back to the threshold.
“Whatsa matter, sweet girl?” Charlotte asked as she stroked the dog’s jerking head. She was annoyed by Kevin’s unnecessary roughness and surprised Lucy was growling. This move had been hard for everyone.
“Don’t hit her. She’s just sad we’re leaving.”
“I didn’t hurt her – she’s spoiled.”
“This isn’t like her, she’s never done this before; we’re leaving and it’s a new place, she can’t help it…”
“She’ll be fine,” Kevin said, curtly. “I’m not staying in the house for a dog – I’m hungry.” Shoving past Lucy a final time, he pushed Charlotte through the door gently and firmly. “She has to get used to it sometime.”
Climbing into the Explorer’s passenger seat after brushing off cracker crumbs while trying to ignore the sour smell of grease and fast food wrappers crumpled on the floor, Charlotte glanced over her shoulder towards the house. As she buckled her seat belt, she noticed a slight movement, like a fluttering, behind the curtains of an upper window. That was that tiny room painted pink she thought. Surely Lucy couldn’t have run upstairs that fast. She felt her face flush and glanced down at her hands, which were trembling slightly, but didn’t say anything as Kevin pushed the key in the ignition and the engine turned over. Maybe we left the ceiling fan on in that room, she mused, making a mental note to check when they got back. As they eased down the steep drive, Charlotte thought she heard Lucy howl, and the hair on the back of her neck stiffened.
The following week passed quickly – too quickly – Charlotte thought, but eventually Kevin started his new job as a computer sales associate, leaving her alone to finish unpacking and acclimate to a new city, new state. And Lucy, too, but the dog seemed to find exploring the back yard immensely more pleasurable that any room inside the house, and even seemed opposed to entering some of the rooms, regardless of whether or not Charlotte was in there.
“It’s so quiet around here…almost eerie,” she said after dinner one evening while hanging new curtain rods in the living room.
Kevin held up a few curtain rings in the palm of one hand.
“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly ‘the big easy,’ that’s for sure, but what did you expect?”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, struggling to push heavy gray fabric through a ring. “But it’s so quiet around here, even during the day. There must not be any kids at all in the neighborhood, and I only see people in cars -- ”
“So? We don’t have any kids.” Kevin winced as soon as the words left his mouth. He hadn’t given much thought to what Charlotte was saying; he had been distracted, simultaneously admiring her bare legs as she perched on the kitchen stool, and watching Lucy through the window digging at something in the yard – probably some rodent hole. I need to check that out --- we don’t need mice in the house or moles tearing up the yard.
Charlotte paused and the heavy curtains slipped from her hands and thudded into a heap on the wood floor. “What did you say? Is that how you think of us? As childless? We did have a child, and we will have one again. I don’t think Dr. Leroy has all the answers.”
Kevin’s face reddened and the pity and alarm that skittered across it angered Charlotte even more.
“Fuck it,” she muttered as she hopped over the velour drapes and fled the room.
* * *
Ever since Ashleigh died of SIDS, Kevin felt Char was never going to forgive him. He’d beat himself up about it plenty of times. He had insisted they move the baby into her nursery across the hall. After all, they were right there, and the baby monitor was positioned by the bed. Charlotte checked fifty times a night anyway. Kevin hadn’t been able to sleep with the baby in the bed with them. She was so tiny and delicate – irony of ironies – he had been so afraid they’d inadvertently roll over and suffocate her. And the baby’s constant wakefulness prevented him from sleeping when he could finally sleep. But he knew Char blamed him, though she never said anything directly.
He also knew it would’ve never happened had the baby remained in their room. And if he hadn’t insisted they use the old family crib his parents had handed down so proudly.
“It’s been in the Fowler family five generations,” his dad had said. Kevin had noticed the doubtful look on Charlotte’s face as she traced the wide slats on the side of the crib with her fingers, though she had said nothing.
Kevin accepted this. But he was still frustrated and angry. It’s been four years; he wanted their life back. Maybe that was why he had begun an affair with Carla from accounting. He never would’ve noticed her had things been different – or rather the same – between he and Charlotte. Carla looked cheap --- too obvious, with her fire-engine-red lipstick and feral mouth, vapid, eager eyes, and tight, low-necked sweaters and bottle-blonde hair, which even Kevin could see was way too light for her age. The way she leered at him from their first meeting, he knew she would be easily available should he choose to take her up on it. And one afternoon after work when the company had met for drinks, Kevin did just that.
Slightly drunk, and definitely horny, there still had been no valid excuse; he knew what he was doing. Long hot showers couldn’t seem to drive the Patchouli scent of her away after their assignations in the dingy Motel-6 off the old main highway. But Char never seemed to notice. So maybe the lingering odor had just been in his head. Still, he was relieved the move had given him an excuse to cut it off after just a couple of months, before the affair became obvious to all but the most sharp-eyed gossips in the office…
Kevin jerked to attention. Charlotte had come back into the room and was eyeing him with curiosity.
“…So, I said, we’ll try again…where were you just now?”
“Umm, just thinking about something at work. …Lucy wants in,” he stammered, moving across the room. Fortunately Lucy was always a good excuse, since her needs topped anything else in the house.
The following day after dinner Kevin announced he had to attend employee training at the computer store’s headquarters in Houston if he intended to get a promotion anytime soon.
“Management told me I’d have to go to Leadership Academy if I want on the fast track,” he said between mouthfuls of Cherry Garcia ice cream, his spoon repeatedly scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl.
Charlotte wished he’d stop clanging the sides of the glass with the metal spoon and get more if he wanted it, then decided she was just annoyed she would be left alone so soon. When he saw her down-turned mouth he suggested she come along for the week.
“I can’t see sitting in a hotel room when there’s still so much to do around here.” She gestured vaguely around the kitchen.
“There’s a pool, you could hang around there, or go shopping…”
“And leave Lucy in some kennel? No, we can’t afford that. And we don’t have the money for shopping yet,” she replied, shaking her head regretfully, thinking of all the furniture they needed to buy for the sparsely furnished rooms. After Katrina, they were starting at square one.
“Whatever,” he said, setting the empty bowl in the kitchen sink.
By the third day after he was gone, Charlotte decided to tackle the boxes stacked in a room she wanted to turn into a guest bedroom. The upstairs consisted of their master bedroom with bath and walk-in closets – unusual for a house built in the ‘70s, as the realtor had pointed out – two rooms connected by a Jack n’ Jill bathroom, and the tiny pink room she had assumed had been a nursery of some sort. Where the curtains had fluttered that first night.
All the bedrooms had windows and French doors to the balcony, but despite that, they felt claustrophobic and dark. Being upstairs at all made her feel mildly anxious. Her stomach felt hollow and seemed to flop at the slightest noise – the air conditioner kicking on, the hum of an appliance downstairs, the creaking of a stair step…
She had grown accustomed to the sudden cool spots she’d unexpectedly encounter in the narrow hallway. She even halfway welcomed them over the dampness that seemed to linger in the dim corridor. But still, being up there at all often felt oppressive and made her irritable. She knew she was being irrational.
Charlotte stood poised at the top of the stairs and peered down the hall cautiously. I wonder how we can open this up. If nothing else, it needs a brighter coat of paint and some wall sconces. She’d try to remember to ask – what’s her name -- Emily -- for a recommendation for a hardware store that sold lighting fixtures.
At that moment, she heard Lucy go wild. Must be a chipmunk or squirrel again, she decided, since the dog was in the back yard. Charlotte pivoted but resisted heading back down and forced herself to continue through the hallway. Instead of the guest room, however, she headed to the nursery. The light switch on the wall of the pink room flipped to her touch but no light came on. Damn. She tripped on the edge of the raised threshold, but caught herself and walked across the floor to pull apart the curtains.
As she pushed them aside she came face to face with a wan vision staring back at her from the outer balcony, inches from the glass.
Gasping, Charlotte stumbled backwards as if pushed in the chest, her hands flying to her open mouth. She wanted to scream but no sound came from her throat but a raspy wheeze, like the hiss of a deflating tire, which filled the dead air of the room.
Her eyes cast about wildly, anywhere but back into the eyes of that – what – child?
After a few seconds, when she felt she could bear it, she lifted her eyes back towards the window, willing herself to stay steady on her feet, preparing to flee the room. She halfway expected to see nothing. It was nothing. Didn’t I just think this would’ve made a great room for Ashleigh if she were still with us? The figment was a girl, about her daughter’s age had she lived; all this is some kind of projection from my psyche, she thought desperately, fear making her nauseous.
But when she reluctantly raised her eyes, the little girl was still before her. Only now she was in the room. Close enough to touch.
Charlotte backed towards the door, keeping her horrified eyes on the faint oval face swimming before her in shimmering waves, until she felt the doorframe with her fingertips, half-tripping over the threshold again.
The disembodied face smiled then, and for some reason the smile filled Charlotte with more terror than had she glared. Slamming the door behind her, Charlotte ran down the hall and wrenched a knee as she stumbled down the stairs two at a time.
Sitting at the kitchen table, eyes and ears alert to the slightest movement or noise, Charlotte made no move for a long time. Maybe twenty minutes passed as she numbly watched the hands of the wall clock revolve. Her chest gradually stopped heaving and her heart stopped pounding and slowed to a regular rhythm. When she could think again, she began to wonder just what she had seen. Was she dreaming? Of course -- what had just happened hadn’t really happened…it couldn’t have…this was surreal…. she had heard of things like this – had watched shows on TV until she spooked herself and turned them off – but this was real life, wasn’t it…?
Finally, when Lucy scratched a third time on the back door Charlotte got up to let her in, her numb bottom and throbbing knee reminding her she was indeed awake, and had been sitting in the darkness of the kitchen for over two hours. For the rest of the night she sat in the downstairs den with the TV blaring and her cell phone turned on before her, Lucy hugged closely to her side.
She didn’t dare tell Kevin when he called the next day. He considered her too fragile from Ashleigh’s death and the trauma of Katrina. She knew he’d assume she was having another breakdown and she’d be forced back to some psych ward or into seeing yet another therapist, who would say the same old things and offer the same old prescriptions for “anxiety.” Kevin would mutter about her “attendant drama” and watch her more closely. There would be whispered phone conversations when he thought she was asleep. A few remaining friends would dash off breezy notes once they learned their new address. Her parents would offer to visit.
Mainly just to have somebody to talk to and because she knew no one else in town, Charlotte dug Emily Redding’s business card from the bottom of her purse. Emily answered on the second ring.
“Emily Redding Real Estate.”
“It’s Charlotte Fowler, Emily,” she began, noting how reedy and high-pitched her voice sounded. She hesitated, unsure of how to begin.
“Why, yes, Charlotte!” Emily replied warmly. “How are you enjoying the house? Have you met any neighbors yet?”
“The reason I’m calling,” Charlotte said, ignoring the questions, “is, I need – I mean I want – to know if there were any – children – who lived here before us, and if, well, if anything out of the ordinary happened here…” Charlotte’s voice faltered then, and she decided not to say any more until Emily responded. She heard a long sigh, so knew the connection had not died. After another pause, Emily spoke slowly and carefully.
“Your house was considered a stigmatized property,” she replied warily. “As I told your husband the day I showed it to him. Of course,” she continued, her voice picking up speed, “we’re under no legal obligation to have divulged any ‘latent defects,’ since what occurred could not possibly have affected your physical health or safety…”
Charlotte interrupted. “Stigmatized property? What’s that? What do you mean? And what do you mean ‘like you told my husband?’”
“Kevin was more interested in why the house was available for such a low price considering it’s real property value and the neighborhood, and didn’t seem concerned by it’s history. I assumed he’d told you…” Emily answered.
“Well, I’m asking that you tell me now…” pressed Charlotte.
Emily paused again. “Just a minute – my other line,” and clicked off. Coming back after a long wait, she said, “You still there? Sorry, had to take that call…” She sounded disappointed Charlotte was still on the line.
Charlotte said, “Please continue.”
Emily sighed yet again, before reluctantly starting. “Well, basically, the story I heard was that in the early ‘70s, the teenage son of the family living in your house was killed while out riding around drinking with friends. The driver had drug him out of the car and hit and knocked his head on the curb, left him lying on the sidewalk; all because he was angry the kid had vomited in his car. The kid went into a coma and died the next day before his parents were notified. The parents divorced shortly afterwards, and the mother hung herself a few years later.”
“Where?” asked Charlotte, once she could gasp out the word. She steeled herself for the answer.
“In the garage,” was the rather surprising reply.
Upon hanging up, Charlotte briefly considered calling Kevin, but thought better of it after noting the time. He’d still be in seminars. She was angry but recognized why he hadn’t told her. It definitely explained how they could afford the place. It still did not explain the presence of the little girl in the upstairs bedroom, however.
“Am I going mad?” Charlotte muttered to herself. She tried some of the coping mechanisms she had learned from previous therapy but soon gave up when her efforts felt weak and ineffectual.
The day before Kevin was to fly home, a letter addressed to them both arrived in the mail. Charlotte didn’t recognize the childish handwriting, but the return address was from Kevin’s old company. Sliding a butter knife along the seal, she paused, sniffing the oily scent of Patchouli that wafted into the air. Where have I smelled that before? She wrinkled her nose.
Drawing out a single slip of paper, she unfolded it. Just two words were printed in all caps on a piece of office paper: I’M PREGNANT, along with a long-distance telephone number.
With a jolt Charlotte let the paper slip from her fingers, where it landed facedown in a smear of strawberry jam left over from breakfast. Hastily retrieving it from the sticky puddle, she thoughtlessly wiped it with an index finger, leaving a reddish mark along the middle of the phone number. Now it looks like blood, she thought. She’d leave it to Kevin to wonder whether it was or not.
After abandoning the letter on the kitchen counter, Charlotte coaxed Lucy into the house and then wandered into the garage. Taking a slow look around, she noted the jumble of packing boxes and hunting and camping equipment Kevin had scattered across the concrete floor. She pushed the mess away with both feet as she made her way to the outer wall toward a ladder propped on its side. Hauling it to the middle of the room, she set it under a steel beam that connected to the garage door. She then went through various boxes until she found a length of cotton rope in Kevin’s fishing gear.
Hefting the thick rope across the beam and tying it off, she stepped back to consider it hanging there. I wonder what it’d feel like. She reached up and looped it taunt around her neck, climbing onto the fourth rung of the ladder. The smoothness of the rope was surprising. It felt as warm and comfortable as an old turtleneck. She wanted to feel its tightness.
She hesitantly stepped off the ladder rung with one foot and felt a shock of surprise as her body reacted to the suddenly violent wrench of the rope digging into her neck. She looked down as both feet involuntarily jerked against the ladder and felt a flash of despair as it was knocked over in her struggle to regain her footing.
She continued staring at her dangling, twitching feet as her hands clawed her neck, which was stinging hot, and growing raw. As the rope thickly cut off her air – too slowly, she thought – she began losing consciousnesses. It was then she sensed movement beside her. The tightness of the rope prevented her head from turning easily, but just before she blacked out she made a desperate effort to swing her body to one side. In doing so, she caught a glimpse of a woman swinging beside her, in practically the same position. The long-dead woman’s body was rigid and looked marbled; her sightless eyes bulged. Clasped in one hand was the crumpled school photo of a young boy.
As Charlotte continued to hang there helplessly, her world grew darker and her body finally stopped quivering spastically. The zing of shock and panic that had soared through her and the unbearable dread of hanging next to the presence faded and she became calmer.
The heavy dullness of her body weight grew lighter as she felt herself floating away. Her last conscious thoughts were for Lucy; her ears filled with Lucy’s wail as the dog let out a long howl from inside the house, which echoed and reverberated throughout the garage.