I am under construction – a permanent, perennial project, a living labor of love. A marvel of miraculous engineering made up of moments and memories, I am a fleeting, faltering, and flawlessly full of faults dawdling, dauntless daydreamer. A confounding collection of curiosities, a cacophonous convergence of creation, I am proud to be (persistently) (profoundly) perfectly imperfect.
*For the first two posts in this limited series, go here and here.*
I’ve been working on some version of the story this scene comes from since 2016. It’s a story about a house, a family, a legacy, and what it means to come home again. I don’t know why I’ve never finished it. I suspect it’s a bit too close to my heart. I’ve loved and hated writing it, and it’s given me more trouble than it will perhaps ever be worth. We’ll see.
Enjoy this bit, though, and be sure to check back next week for the last October Stories post! (And thank you for reading!)
The dark tree limbs meandered like streams against a bright midnight sky, black, gnarly rivulets creaking with the howling wind. Tall grasses, waiting to be baled into winding bundles of hay, swayed back and forth. The craggy fields sat silent, waiting for the promise of Christmas snow. How many years since Tess had seen a winter in this hollow?
Eight Christmases away, eight in the bustle and traffic and lights of the city, attending party after party and trying to build some reputation in the world. Wrapped tightly in a sturdy handmade quilt, Tess certainly didn’t envy the partygoers now.
As she sat, alone except for Charlie, in front of the glimmering embers of the fireplace, she thought of all of those wasted holidays. How many red velvet cakes had she missed? How many cups of Christmas custard? How lonely, now, the last Taylor woman, waiting along with the empty fields and valleys for that first flake of mountain snow.
From somewhere in the belly of the house, Tess heard a step, a sigh, the creak of a door upstairs. Perhaps not so alone, she thought, and scratched Charlie’s wrinkled head.
“Charlie,” she whispered, watching his ears perk up and his eyes remain closed. Did he feel it too? This was home, and you’re supposed to be home at Christmas. Even the house, standing tall and dark and steady against the winter wind, seemed content to have a Taylor home.
*If you didn’t catch the start of this limited series, check out this post: October Stories #1. If you did and you’re back for more, welcome back, and thank you!*
A few years ago, I had a weird dream. This happens frequently, but my dreams usually aren’t vivid enough to warrant writing them down. This dream was different, and it inspired me to start the story I’m sharing today. I think about this one from time to time, but I’ve never come back to it. Maybe one day.
Anyway, enjoy! And come back next week. 😉
To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. And not a very interesting one. It was regularly tall, wooden, with panels in the standard places, and a simple brass doorknob. No light peeked out from underneath it, and the usual person looking at it would think, quite reasonably, that it opened to a narrow set of stairs leading up to a dusty old attic filled with boxes and crates brimming with the collected junk of a thousand yesterdays.
Sara Smith, however, and despite her entirely common name, was not a usual person. And her parents knew it.
All parents think their children are special. “Jack rides his tricycle faster than any other boy on the block,” a parent might say. “Yes, well, Jane is already writing in cursive and her fingers can barely fit around the pen,” another might reply.
Sara’s parents, sitting in the parlor with other families sharing lunch or tea, would change the subject. “The weather’s been lovely this summer,” they might suggest. Or sometimes, “I hear the spring festival this year is supposed to draw twice the normal crowd.” The conversation would then move on toward topics unrelated to children and their small but noteworthy accomplishments, at least for the next several minutes, and Bill and Anna Smith would look at each other and breathe two syncopated but inconspicuous sighs of relief.
Because Sara Smith was not a usual child.
Her birth was normal enough, if a bit early. She’d been a normally happy baby. She’d even liked prunes, though when her mother thought of that now, she wondered if it might have been the first sign that something was not quite usual. As Sara had grown, she’d hit her milestones right on schedule. She learned to babble and then to talk, to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk and then to run, to sound words and then to read them, and she’d even broken her arm trying to climb a tree when she was five. She liked unicorns, princesses, coloring books, and, much to her mother’s dismay, the color pink.
One night, when Sara was six and three months, and playing in the nursery her parents had set up in the bright, airy attic of their quaint, cozy house, her mother had come up to check on her. In between giggles, she’d heard Sara talking.
“My mommy says it’s good to be helpful and to share.”
“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”
“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”
“Sara,” her mother called, “who are you talking to?”
“The nice old lady,” Sara replied. “She wants me to help her.”
“With what?” Anna Smith was proud that her daughter was playing at helping.
“She says she’s not alive anymore and her son is sad and I should let him know that she’s okay and that the combination to the safe is seven seven three nine. That’s a really big number, isn’t it, Mommy?”
“Yes,” Anna replied, “it is.” She didn’t know what else to say.
Looking back, Bill and Anna Smith always thought of that moment as the one that changed everything, because it was the moment they knew that Sara, their happy, normal, freckled, giggly daughter, could see ghosts.
Sara Smith was not a usual child. And to anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just a door. But to Sara Smith, it was the entrance to her very special workshop.
I love a good ghost story. When people ask me if my house is haunted, I’m always just a little disappointed to say, “No, I don’t think so. Probably. Most of the time.”
Since it’s October, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghost stories. I actually think a lot about ghost stories a lot of the time. October just gives me a convenient excuse to let my weirdo flag fly. I think a lot of people think about ghost stories, because ghost stories are, at their hearts, human stories. Whether they’re psychological, tragic, uplifting, or frightening, ghost stories are fundamentally human. Most of us are curious about what will happen to us when we die, and ghost stories give us a tangible, palatable way to explore that curiosity.
I write a lot of ghost stories. Or, I should say, I start a lot of ghost stories. I seldom finish them. But I thought it would be kind of fun to share some of these abandoned pieces with you, for the month of October. Expect a post each week this month (four total), starting today, with what I thought might be the prologue to a ghostly murder mystery, inspired by my own longstanding (and admittedly strange) hobby of reading palms. A prologue is, so far, all it’s become. But I hope you enjoy it, fragment though it may be, and come back in the next few weeks for more.
*And a disclaimer – many of these are old, some of them are unedited, all of them are incomplete. Writing is messy work. But it sure is fun. And if you particularly like one of these, feel free to leave a comment! Maybe you’ll inspire me to get back to work on it. So with that in mind, into the ghostly ether we go!*
In my dream, I’m trying my best to ignore the sounds of someone crying in the room outside the kitchen. My mother is at the stove, worrying over the kettle, and I’m putting two tea bags into a chipped mug I got out of the sink. I take the mug over, and she pours the water and walks away, and then I’m alone and waiting to be allowed in my own living room again. Customers don’t like children, I’ve been told, and I can’t read yet anyway.
I know this is a dream because I know what happens next, but I never see it. Before the preacher slings the hot tea in my mother’s face for what she’s told him, before he slams the door and says we’re both damned to Hell, before my mother comes back into the kitchen to wipe her red, burned cheeks with a dirty dish towel, and before she tells me that a fortuneteller’s life is no life for anyone, I will wake up.
I’ll startle out of sleep and my hazy mind will muster whatever sense it has in the middle of the night to remember that my life is different, that I have built a better future, and that my mother has been dead for three years. I will remind myself that I haven’t read a single palm since the accident, and that it wasn’t my fault.
This I will tell myself over and over, “not my fault one, not my fault two,” counting my own reassurances the way that other people count sheep, until I fall back into an uncertain sleep and dream, again, of subtle lines in rough hands and the dangerous secrets they whisper to the few who can hear them. I will see my mother’s face, her wide green eyes sad and certain, resigned to the fate that I’ve read for her, my first and last paying customer. The lines will tell you everything, she reminds me, even if you’re not ready to listen. I’ll wake again and remind myself that I’m not listening. Not anymore. Not ever again.
This life might be no life for anyone, but I don’t know if it will ever let me go.
I remember apple trees and shucking corn, and the smell of oil in a cast iron pan. A fine dust of white flour on the counter, and fried apple turnovers sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar at the center of a lace tablecloth.
I remember red and gold leaves, raked into thick pillars taller than me, and a woodpile at the bottom of the hill, stacked tight and high in advance of the coming cold.
And I remember my grandmother, her stubby, gnarled fingers, like knobby roots on an ancient tree, wrapped delicately around a tiny sewing needle. She made me a bright pink apron once, and I remember parading around the house in it, swooshing it around my hips like a ballgown.
There are things I don’t remember. I don’t remember the name of the family who lived down the hill, or the phone number I used to call to say hello to my grandmother after school. I don’t remember my grandmother’s face, though I recognize her in pictures, and I’d know her voice in a crowd even now. Some days, I don’t remember the names of my children and their children. Or so they tell me. And though I can play my favorite song on the piano, my own fingers now stiff and curved, I can’t remember the words.
Memories are precious things.
I used to spend whole days with my grandmother. We’d cook and talk, and she’d watch her gameshows. She’d tell me about when she was a girl, how she loved to read and play ball, how she was her class’s valedictorian, and how she always wished for a black-haired grandchild. My own hair was auburn. What’s left of it now whisps around my head in spindly gray spider’s webs.
One September day, just after the leaves had started to turn, my grandmother sat with me on her front porch. The air was still warm, but the breeze carried with it the bitter cold sting of winter. I must have been about seven. My grandmother had made us root beer floats and we were rocking back and forth in old wooden chairs, keeping rhythm with each other.
“How old are you,” I asked.
“Seventy-five,” she said. “I’m an old lady.”
“You’re not that old,” I answered. “Seventy-five isn’t that much more than fifty.”
“Well, then, I’m just over middle-aged,” she said, and laughed. She had a crackly, dry sort of laugh.
“Yeah,” I nodded, and dug my spoon so deep in my glass that root beer sloshed over the top and into my lap.
I can’t remember if the rocking chairs were painted red or white. I don’t know what happened to them after my parents sold the house. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere, rocking another grandmother and grandchild.
My grandmother died when I was twenty, and I have many more years behind me now. Time makes blank slates of all of us, slowly and meticulously, and unrelenting. Soon, like my grandmother, I will be a name in the family tree, a face in an old picture, a story or two at a holiday gathering, and people will argue over the details.
After I got lost driving myself to the grocery store one morning over the summer, my children hired a nurse to live with me, Heather, and she tells me not to worry about things like time. She says that I am strong for someone my age. She’s young, and once when I asked her, she told me she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher. I couldn’t remember something like that, even before I started losing pieces of my own story.
It’s September now, late in the month and early in the fall, and the leaves have just started to turn. I ask Heather every day to help me outside, where I can sit on my own front porch and watch as the wind blows them down.
Today, she’s spread a fleece blanket over my legs and she’s sitting beside me, reading aloud from my favorite book, Jacob Have I Loved. I can’t remember who wrote it.
“Heather,” I say, interrupting her just as they’ve discovered the sister can sing, “have you ever shucked corn?”
She folds the book up in her lap and says, “I don’t think I have. You can buy it from the store already ready to cook.”
I ask her if she can go to the store later and buy some corn that hasn’t been shucked. She says yes and goes back to reading.
Twenty minutes later, she leads me to my bedroom and I drift off to sleep. I dream of corn on the cob and of root beer floats.
My grandmother taught me how to pull corn off the stalk and shuck it. She taught me how to string beans and how to fry chicken and make biscuits so well that they came out golden and flaky every time.
Sometimes we’d make a batch of biscuits for no reason at all, and we’d eat them toasted and slathered with a thick smear of dripping yellow butter. This she bought from the store. I remember her telling me how to make homemade butter, once, but I can’t remember what she said to do.
I sent poor Heather to the store this afternoon with a grocery list a whole page long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed happy, in fact. Maybe she’s relieved I finally want to do something besides stare out at the garden.
We’re in the kitchen together now, and I’m instructing her on how to mix the biscuit dough just right and how you need to salt each piece of chicken individually before you cover it in flour and crushed up Corn Flakes to fry it. I’m too weak to stand long enough to do it myself, and she’s being a good sport.
“We’re going to have a feast,” she says. She’s got flour on her chin and smudged just under her eye.
“This was just a normal dinner when I was little,” I say. “You should have seen what we used to put on the table every night.”
“You’ll have to teach me more,” she says, and I nod.
“I never could get red velvet cake right,” I answer. “We could try that sometime.”
“I’d like that,” she says.
She comes over to sit by me at the table, and she brings with her a package of four ears of corn, all still in their husks.
“Now,” she says, “you tell me what to do, and I’ll just follow your directions.”
I tell her the best I can, miming everything and probably looking silly, but she doesn’t laugh. She gets to work. Her long, slender fingers are quick and she makes the whole thing look easy.
“One day, you’ll teach someone how to do this,” I say. “You can tell them you learned from the second best.”
“I can tell them I learned from the best,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone better.”
She finishes cooking everything and we sit down to eat together. She tells me little things about her life, and I smile and nod and try my best to bite down and grab the corn off the cob with my teeth. Eventually, she cuts it off for me and I eat it with my fork. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one more. One more thing I’ve lost. I can’t remember the last time I could eat corn right off the cob. It was kind of her to let me try.
After dinner, Heather helps me to bed and sits down beside me once I’m settled under the covers.
“Thank you for sharing all those recipes with me,” she says.
I roll over on my side and close my eyes. She reads for a bit, her gentle, even voice almost a song.
I remember nights without street lights, with stars as bright as flame and a big, yellow harvest moon in the sky. I remember the bitter smell of wood fire, burning hot and steady in the old metal stove downstairs. I remember evenings spent playing Rook and drinking cold boiled custard.
I remember the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the stiff cornstalks in my grandmother’s garden. I remember her dented black mailbox, at the top of the hill. I don’t remember the address, but I remember the long walks up and down, my grandmother beside me, beckoning me to keep up with her. I remember complaining that it shouldn’t be so hard to get your mail.
Tomorrow I will ask Heather to pick up some green apples. We’ll make fried turnovers, and I’ll tell her how I learned to peel apples without a fancy peeler, and how my grandmother used to make jars and jars of apple butter and keep them on shelves in her basement, ready for visitors who wanted a little something sweet.
I will tell her these things, while I can still remember them. Maybe I’ll even ask her to write them down. And maybe someday someone will find them, and I will become a new memory.
All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.
“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”
Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.
“Sure, I do,” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.
Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.
“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”
“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”
“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”
Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.
“Just like him,” her mother said.
“I’ll miss him.”
Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.
“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”
“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”
“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”
Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.
“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.
They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.
“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.
“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”
“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”
“Oh, God, I did not!”
“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.
“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”
“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”
Sara’s mother didn’t reply.
“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.
“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”
“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”
“That house has been empty for years.”
“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”
“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.
“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”
The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.
After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.
She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.
“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.
“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”
Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.
“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”
“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”
“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”
“When are you heading back?”
“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”
“We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss y’all, too.”
“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”
Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”
Her uncle nodded and stood up.
“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”
Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”
Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”
“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.
“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”
“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”
Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.
“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”
Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.
“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.
Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.
Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.