Jesse’s in the Back Room (A Short Story)

I see Jesse’s face in my dreams at night, still and pale, and young. She’s always young, even after all these years. I can’t call it a nightmare. She doesn’t scare me. She doesn’t move and she doesn’t talk. Her eyes are closed, heavy lids and dark lashes, her mouth a thin line. It’s not the dead we should be afraid of.

Jesse was my cousin. She was all quiet moments and pretty things. When we were up to our knees in muddy creek water, hands digging in the muck for crawdads and river rocks, she’d be up on the bank, making flower crowns woven so tight and so clean, every flower perfect, you’d think they were plastic. I wore torn denim overalls and dirty sneakers. Jesse wore white linen, soft cotton in pastel shades. She loved checkers and cherry colas, always in a tall glass with big ice cubes. Her blonde hair lay braided and neat, trimmed bangs framing her freckled forehead. She offered to braid my hair once, and to help me comb out the tangles. I told her it wouldn’t be worth the time.

She was three or four years younger than me. If she’d grown up, we’d be in the same spot – mothers and wives and almost old women, both of us. But when I was eleven, nearly a grown-up, she was a baby. I often wonder what kind of teenager she would have been, what kind of mother, what kind of person. I try not to think of her often, but it’s gotten harder now. See, place is a powerful thing, and this is Jesse’s house.

I’ll tell you a story. Over the years, the details have gotten fuzzy, and most of the people who remembered it well are gone now. I feel like someone should tell it and remember it, though, even if it’s done poorly, because I don’t know if there are even any pictures of Jesse left.

On her last day, we’d gone out into the woods. The weather wouldn’t let up. It hadn’t rained for days, but the dewy air stuck to our arms and faces. The heat wouldn’t break, even at night. Nothing to do in that kind of weather but live with it. So the neighbor kids had strung up a rope swing into one of the old oak trees in the clearing near the river, under its shade and out of the brightest sunlight.

There were five of us that day. Me, my brother, Bill and Audrey from down the road, and Jesse. We headed out after lunch time, our faces and hands stained pink and sticky from the watermelon we’d snuck out of the refrigerator. Except for Jesse’s. She’d decided to save her watermelon for later. Our plan was to cool off in the river, and then to spend some time on the swing, maybe see who could get the highest and then jump the farthest.

“Audrey’s scared of heights,” Bill said.

“I am not,” Audrey yelled, and crossed her arms and stomped on ahead.

“She is so,” Bill told me. “She won’t even climb up the ladder in the barn.”

I wasn’t really listening or not listening. Bill and Audrey argued a lot, and it played in my head like the music on a radio station. Constant background noise. Jesse trailed along behind us, picking the dandelions from along the path and blowing their fluff out around her. She giggled, and I smiled. I turned around at one point and threaded a stem behind her ear.

“It’s itchy,” she said, but she smiled too.

The river was low and warm when we got there. It almost stood still.

“There are mosquitoes everywhere,” I said. “Let’s just go back.”

But the group decided we’d come all this way and we should at least get some time in on the rope swing. So we did, and took turns.

“It’s too high,” Jesse told me. “I don’t want to.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Next year.”

We headed back at about 3:00, a little more dirty and tired for the time, but pretty happy and mostly distracted from the still sweltering summer day. Jesse trailed along behind again, clean as a whistle, but with a wrinkle in her brow and downcast eyes.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Nah,” I said. “I can tell it’s something.”

“You’ll laugh at me.”

“I would never!”

Now, this wasn’t strictly true. I’d laughed at Jesse plenty. She was an odd kid. But I could tell something was eating at her, and I wanted her to tell me. I especially wanted her to tell me before she told her mom, in case what was troubling her meant trouble for us.

So I added, “You can tell me, promise.”

And she said, “I want to go back and play on the swing.”

“I thought you were scared,” I said.

“I was, but that was dumb. Now I can’t even try.”

“We’ll go back tomorrow,” I told her. “We’ll go just us.”

She grinned a little then, and I thought it was fine. I held her hand most of the way home, and only let it go when Audrey tripped over a rock in the road and needed help to get up. I don’t know how Jesse slipped away from us. But she did. And when we all walked through the kitchen door, Jesse wasn’t with us. I’ve never felt so terrible for anything in my life as I still feel for letting her disappear like that.

“Jesse still outside?” My aunt sat at the table with my mother, shelling sweet peas.

“She was right behind us,” I said. And I thought it was true.

But by 5:00, Jesse still wasn’t back. And people started to worry, and then, before dinner, they went out to look.

They found her in the swing, all tangled up in the rope. She looked like she’d been there a long time. I’ll spare you the details. I don’t like to think of them.

They brought her into our back room, and laid her out on the little twin bed. If you didn’t know, you’d have thought she was sleeping. She looked peaceful there in the dark. I hope she was.

Or, I suppose, I hope she is.

I don’t think she ever left.

Everyone else did, though, and now it’s just me and my husband in this old house. My brother left for the Army. Bill and Audrey moved away. My parents died, and Jesse’s mother, my aunt Margie, she could never come into the house again.

“She’s still in there,” she’d say. “I know she’s still in there.”

I thought she was just sad. Sad and a little crazy. They say she went a little crazy after Jesse died. Now that I’ve had children, I don’t blame her. I’d go crazy, too. I’ve had a hard enough time knowing they’ve moved away to start families of their own. The house is too quiet without them.

Except when it’s not.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a giggle. Sometimes a creak on the floor, or a rustle on the bed. Sometimes, I’ll hear a door open and close, slow and quiet. Jesse was always so quiet. And when that happens, I’ll say to my husband: “Jesse’s in the back room.”

Whether he believes me or not, he’s never said.

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Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first five stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of August.

Found Friday #10: The most haunted house in Loudoun County?

*If you haven’t read last week’s Found Friday post, this one won’t make a lot of sense. So, you know, mosey on over and do that real quick.*

If you look to your right heading west on John Mosby Highway, just past Gilbert’s Corner, you’ll see a house. Or, it used to be a house. It’s only a ruin now.

It has been for a long time. I’ve heard it called the most haunted house in Loudoun. And I’m pretty sure Frank Raflo wrote about it.

I can’t be certain, but the details line up pretty well. And I confess, the first time I read the story of the day he explored an abandoned, crumbling ruin of a reportedly very haunted house near Gilbert’s Corner, I didn’t know the area like I do now, and I didn’t really put the pieces together. I got it this time.

Mr. Raflo didn’t sense any otherworldly goings-on during his brief visit – in fact, he says he felt quite comfortable and at peace – and wasn’t able to confirm any of the stories he’d been told. And now that the house is basically only an empty shell, I wonder if we’ll ever really know whether it’s haunted or not.

At least we have the stories. And judging by the condition of the place, soon enough, they’ll be all that’s left of it.

P.S. – If you happen to live in or close to Loudoun County and you like exploring abandoned places, a brief disclaimer: This house is on private property, and there are no trespassing signs posted, so please don’t go poking around where you’re not welcome. It’s easy enough to take a picture from the road.

P.P.S. – I know I promised that my short story for October would be posted on Wednesday. My apologies! It took a bit longer than I anticipated for all the pieces to fit into the puzzle just right. It’ll be up tomorrow, just in time for Halloween.

October Stories #4: Regret Won’t Die

Here it is, folks – the final post in this limited series. For the others, go here, here, and here.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing these incomplete snippets! It’s intimidating to post things that are unfinished and largely unedited, but it’s also sort of freeing. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to writing, something is better than nothing. You can’t build sandcastles without sand. Just getting something down on the page is the most important thing.

This particular piece is more a pre-writing exercise than anything, creating a character and a history to build on, inspired by a trip I took (I think I was on it while I was writing this) to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I imagined this story as a psychological mystery/thriller, with a ghostly component. I liked the idea of exploring regret and isolation, of looking at how running away isn’t a solution, and how old hurts and bad thoughts, unchecked and pushed away, can be debilitatingly toxic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I’ll try to think of some others I can put together in the future. In the meantime, thank you for reading! (And check back on Wednesday for a complete short story for October. It’s going to be a good one!)

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Laura Fuller had always envied her cousin’s hair. Lyla Henry had deep auburn hair that glowed copper in the sunlight, and bright green eyes with fiery gold flecks. Laura’s own hair was dull blonde, almost gray, and her eyes were brown. Just brown. Lyla’s alabaster skin shimmered like a pearl. Laura’s was tawny, always tan, even in winter. 

One night, when Lyla and her parents had come for a visit, Laura had teased knots into Lyla’s hair as she slept. The next morning, Lyla had sniffled, resigned, as she watched the tangled mess fall to the floor, lobbed off with kitchen scissors. One summer, as they lay on a blanket under a blistering hot sun, Laura watched as Lyla’s milky white skin turned deep purple.  She’d replaced Lyla’s sunscreen with coconut-scented lotion. Laura broke Lyla’s glasses, put baby oil in her shampoo, sprinkled pepper in her soda. Any petty, unkind thing. When Lyla cried, Laura smiled. 

When Laura learned that Lyla’s parents had died, and that Lyla would be coming to live at her own house, she spent the whole night outside wrapped in a blanket, lying with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing, staring up at an unfriendly moon in an angry sky threatening rain.

Laura believed that we must be born with the ability to hate, because she had hated Lyla, who was chatty and funny and kind, for as long as she could remember. Next to Lyla, she felt dirty and clumsy. At sixteen, Laura could muster only mild sympathy, and a bit of ruthless satisfaction, knowing that Lyla had nothing, no parents and no home and no love.  And for that, she felt awful all over again. Why had Lyla been born gentle and beautiful, while she had been born bitter and spiteful?

Lyla settled in quickly, but she cried into her pillow at night when she thought no one would hear. She shared Laura’s room, and the day she moved in, she made Laura a throw pillow with lace and sequins to put on her bed. She’d sewn a picture of the two of them into the stuffing, and made herself one to match. Lyla helped Laura’s mother with the dishes after dinner, and swept every other day. Laura seethed, and spent hours reading books and lying in bed. Lyla exceled in school, made a large group of friends, and went to the movies every Friday. She put a picture of her parents on her bedside table, and kissed it each night before going to sleep.  Laura hid the picture under some blankets in her closet. While Lyla searched, Laura stepped outside to watch the birds in the garden.

About a year later, Lyla didn’t come home for dinner after studying with friends at the library, Laura felt relieved to have one night alone. When the police found Lyla’s hat and gloves in a ditch the very next day, Laura worried, and cried for Lyla for the first time in her life. When her mother hosted a funeral service, with a casket filled with Lyla’s favorite books and photos, and the pillow she’d sewn to match Laura’s, Laura spent the night again wrapped in a blanket in the garden, with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing.

********

Laura and Lyla were connected, had always been connected, born two days apart to two twin sisters. When Laura had fallen and scraped her knee, Lyla’s had scabbed over. If Lyla should happen to trip on the stairs, Laura would stumble. And when Laura felt angry and hateful toward Lyla, Lyla would stare into Laura’s eyes with a deep ache in her own.

On the night Lyla disappeared, Laura dreamed of wind and weeds. She dreamed of dirt and dark. In the wind she heard howls, and in the weeds she smelled blood. When she did wake, twisted in a heap of blankets on her bed, she heard only the sound of crickets and clocks, the quiet, calm noises of an old house, and she knew that her dream was real. Laura felt empty and incomplete, as if a part of her was missing, gone, murdered. Whoever had taken Lyla had taken a part of Laura too.      

The police never arrested anyone, and they never found Lyla. Laura spent the next two years, until she turned eighteen, haunted by bad memories. If she found a copper hair strewn across her pillow, if she found a picture of Lyla and her parents in a desk drawer, if she felt someone behind her walking in the woods, or gentle hands on her back as she brooded in the tire swing, Laura feared that Lyla was there, or had been there. Laura became so apprehensive and nervous that any drop of hatred in her body dried up, became hard and heavy, sitting in her chest like a stone, growing mossy, dark black with mold. Some days she could smell damp on her breath, the earthy mushroom scent of that jagged rock in her core, odious and acrid.

********

On the day she turned eighteen, Laura purged her room of all signs of Lyla. Any picture, any stuffed animal, any book or belt or piece of jewelry. She stuffed the pillow Lyla had crafted into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She put fresh yellow roses on Lyla’s empty grave, and promised that she would never worry about a breath on her cheek in the night or a presence behind her as she walked. She went to college, and spent the next four years practicing forgetting her cousin. But she felt the stone in her gut dig deeper, carve out a larger cavity, and sink into her, heavy and unbreakable.  She wondered again why she had been born only to hate and hurt.      

********

Out of college and living at home, Laura began again to feel the breath on her cheek as she slept.  She dreamed only bad dreams, and spent her days groggy and silent. When she found an old picture of Lyla lying on her dresser, she knew Lyla lived in that house still, and was watching.

Laura moved, when she was twenty-two, across the country, to a sparsely populated island on the eastern shore of Virginia. She lived with an acquaintance of her mother, who was elderly and needed help with housekeeping and grocery shopping. She settled into her small bedroom, into her routine of housework and errands, and thought very seldom of Lyla, or of the stone still nestled inside her. She wrote editorial columns and feature articles for a local paper. She learned to bake soufflé and to play piano. She read at night on the porch, and listened to the distant clamor of gently crashing waves. 

She made friends with the locals and spent quiet evenings at the table playing cards and eating cookies. Sometimes, in between sleep and wake, she dreamed of Lyla humming, or sometimes, whispering.

Find me. I’m here. I’m not gone.

Found Friday #9: The Gift of Ghost Stories

Back in 2016, my friend Liz gave me this book as a housewarming gift.

To be fair, I don’t know that it was meant to be a housewarming gift, as both Liz and I love a good ghost story and she just thought I’d enjoy it, but the timing worked out. And it’s more special than a “just because” present. It’s signed by Frank Raflo, the author.

He passed away in 2009.

I felt like it was time to revisit this book today. After I read it the first time, I tucked it away on my bookshelf and didn’t really think much about it. But stories are the gifts that keep on giving, and I thought it would be fun to re-read these, since it’s spooky season. There are lots of good stories in this book, but, as it turns out and after reading it today, there’s one in particular that I just can’t get out of my head.

And next week, I’ll tell you why. 😉

*In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about some of the ghost stories I grew up with living in Virginia, I recommend the Ghosts of Virginia books by L.B. Taylor, Jr. I devoured them when I was younger, and I come back to them often.*

October Stories #3: A Little Christmas

*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!)

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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.

October Stories #2: Final Wishes

*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. 😉

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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.”

Silence.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”

Silence.

“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”

Silence.

“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.

October Stories #1: A Spooky Prologue to an Incomplete Tale

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!*

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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.