There’s something sort of sad and beautiful about watching this house crumble. Sad, because it’s very old and doubtless full of stories, even if it isn’t full of ghosts. And as it deteriorates, a little more every day, it takes those stories with it. Beautiful, because nature has a way of reclaiming land and forging on, regardless of what humans do.
I don’t know what this house will look like next year. But I’ll be there, regardless, to find out.
P.S. As I did last year and the year before, I’ll add this 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.
Though you may bury us, we rise. From ashes and mud, blood and bone, we remake ourselves from the sand and the stone that covered us, smothered us. Though we are gone, our spirits are strong. We climb, we reach our withered fingers into the sky, and sing the song no man can silence. Though few may hear, we will sing for those listening.
The last dress rehearsal did not go well. In fact, it went very, very poorly.
“You know what they say,” Mitch told me.
“You know I don’t,” I answered.
Why would I? Years of restaurant experience had led me down a dead-end path and straight into the wings of the Old River Theatre. Desperate times, Mitch had said. And anyway, I’d only be the assistant to the Stage Manager. He thought it was funny that I was going backwards.
“You’re supposed to wait tables while you try to make it,” he’d said. “You’re working the other way around.”
Now, as we closed up the final dress for the season opener, he clapped me on the back and said, “I forget sometimes. Feels like you’ve been here forever.”
“Is that a compliment, boss?”
“Frank’s been here forever, too, man.” And he pointed up towards the catwalk.
Frank managed lights, sound, and all other things technical and sundry. And he drank himself into a stupor every night. He was probably at it now, somewhere up there, taking swigs from his hip flask and tapping his foot to music only he could hear.
I rolled my eyes. “He’s a liability, Mitch,” I said. “Anyway, tell me, what do they say?”
“Bad dress, good opening. Should be a great show.”
I didn’t feel so confident.
“Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “We’re all professionals here.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Even Frank,” he added. “Let’s finish out and go grab a beer.”
This year, Old River decided to open its fiftieth season with The Sound of Music. The playbill proudly proclaimed it “America’s favorite musical!” Could have fooled me. Ticket sales moved fast enough, but the cast and crew came in every day looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.
“Twenty fucking minutes of ‘Do, re, mi,’” the director said, one evening, after a particularly grueling dance rehearsal. “What do you even do with that?”
The production so far honestly seemed sort of cursed. We’d been hit with a volley of issues starting on day one. Bolts of fabric that never arrived to the costume shop, a music director who lost hearing in one ear halfway through, three von Trapp kids coming down with the flu on the same night. Just one thing after another, culminating in a last dress rehearsal from hell.
“Is all of this normal?” I asked Mitch as we started on our second beer at the dive bar down the street.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Mitch told me, “but this one does feel sort of different.”
Mitch sat for a moment, and then took a deep gulp of the rest of his lager. “Every show has a few issues,” he said. “I had a lead actress a few years back who used to get laryngitis during every tech week. But this cast, I don’t know. Normally, it starts to feel like a family, you know?”
I nodded. I did not know, but I thought it might be nice to see, one day. Lots of restaurant owners say that about their staff. It’s never true.
“This one just feels off. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve never liked this show.”
I hummed an agreement.
“Next up is Midsummer, and I’m looking forward to that one. Shakespeare’s wild.”
“I think I read that one in school,” I said.
“Trust me, it’s better on stage. Fucking funny.”
I did trust Mitch. I didn’t know what to think, at first, walking into this new world. Actors are a weird bunch, but I’d enjoyed this job so far a lot more than my last three. And the hours suited me fine. Servers get used to late nights and slow mornings.
“Isn’t one of his plays cursed?”
“Shakespeare’s? Oh, yeah,” Mitch said, and laughed. “The Scottish play. Don’t let anyone hear you say the name, ever.”
Mitch bobbed his head. “I think it’s silly,” he said, “but lots of people believe it. I should give you a rundown of all that shit.”
“All what shit?”
“The legends. The bad luck and shit.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff either,” I said. “But I also don’t want a reason to get fired.”
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Mitch said. “After things calm down. For now, we ought to get going. It’s late.”
I looked at my watch. Just after 2:00, and with an early call tomorrow. I left some cash on the table and stood up.
“I think I left my coat in the green room,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” Mitch said. “I need to run back and grab my notebook anyway.”
We walked back at a pretty slow pace. The weather had just started to turn. The days still felt summery, but in the evenings, the temperature and the humidity dropped. It was a relief, after the summer heat, to finally feel a bit of fall.
“I bet September’s chilly this year,” I said.
We reached the stage door, and Mitch fumbled with the key.
“It always sticks,” he said, and shook his head. “It’s like the ghost doesn’t want us in there late at night.”
He pushed the door open and flipped the lights to the green room.
“The Old River’s haunted?”
“Every theatre has a ghost,” Mitch explained, a little like he was talking to a child. “That’s why we always leave a stage light on.”
We made our way into the left wing, where Mitch’s station was set up by a small podium.
“Geez, kid, I know you’ve seen me do it.”
I thought back and realized I had. I just hadn’t really thought about it before now.
“Or, at least, that’s what they say,” Mitch added. “Really, it’s for safety, but people love their ghost stories.”
“It’s not on right now,” I said. And sure enough, the stage was dark. The house was pitch black.
Mitch turned to check, and I think he actually gasped. We walked to center stage and I looked up.
“Maybe Frank turned it off,” I offered.
“Frank!” Mitch walked to the right wing, and called again. “Frank?”
“Or maybe he went home,” I said, quietly.
“Nah, he’s here somewhere. Go up and check the catwalk.”
“He’s not on the catwalk, boss,” I said. “He’s out in the auditorium. Er, house.” Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could clearly see someone out there, seated towards the middle, looking straight ahead. I pointed, “You can see him, right?”
Mitch shook his head. “Not Frank,” he said.
“What do you mean, not Frank?”
He didn’t answer.
“Who is it, then?”
Just then, the stage light flickered on. I looked out into the house again.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“Let’s go,” Mitch said. He turned on his heel and practically ran back to his station. He grabbed his notebook and stuffed it into his bag. “Come on,” he said.
We hurried toward the door. At the stairs to the catwalk, Frank met us, smelling like he’d swallowed a whole distillery’s worth of whiskey.
“You’re here late,” he wheezed. Poor Frank.
Mitch just nodded.
“Have you been up there this whole time?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Yeah,” Frank answered. “Just came down when I heard you on stage. Ghost light was out. Got it fixed.”
Mitch didn’t say a word, and the three of us walked out together as if nothing strange had happened at all.
Just as Mitch predicted, opening night went off without a hitch. The cast hit every beat, nailed every song, and the orchestra played like they’d practiced together for years. For all I knew, some of them probably had. Even the kids were perfect. It was exhilarating, being part of this kind of magic.
Mitch took us out for a drink after the show. “I’m buying,” he said. “You did a good job tonight.”
“Thanks,” I told him.
“So, are you hooked?”
I thought about it. I’d never been part of anything quite like this before. And so I answered, “I think I am.”
“Okay, then,” Mitch said. “Then there are definitely a few things you need to know, if you’re sticking around.”
“Okay,” I said.
“The first thing is, you never look directly at Mr. Holly.”
“That’s who you saw last night,” he said. “You know I said every theatre has a ghost? Well, he belongs to the Old River.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. I put my beer down.
“I’d never seen him before last night,” Mitch told me. His flat tone indicated to me that he was, in fact, completely serious. “And I’d like to never see him again.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I thought about it again, and nodded once. “Okay. Well, tell me the rest,” I said.
And Mitch smiled. “You’re one of the good ones, kid.”
Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:
We’ll never know who did it. Who cast the spell and brought the fog. It rolled in as we slept, before the dawn, gray and viscous, a blanket of cool and damp. It slithered over the grass and in the trees, and curled itself into every little nook, cranny, and corner.
Life was quiet on the Mountain. That’s why we came. That’s why we built our homes and planted our gardens and settled here. High above the rest of the world, away from the noise and the hurry, we could live in peace, with no one but birds and bears and deer to judge us, and nothing but trees and stars and each other for company. This we wanted – this easy, quiet, slow turning of the days, this peaceful time together, this chance to build something better than we’d had before. We were all grateful for this place and this peace, and most of all for Mary, who’d made it all possible.
Mary had money, more money than she needed, she said. But more than that, she had love. Love to give to all of us, more than we’d ever had. She embraced us, guided us, and made for us a home in the sky.
“Come to the Mountain with me,” she’d pleaded, “come and live there together and we’ll show the world that it never should have given up on us.”
And we’d come. How quickly we’d packed our bags – only one for each of us – and said goodbye.
“We’ll build something they could never even imagine, and we’ll do it together,” Mary had said. “I deserve happiness. You deserve it, we all deserve it, and we’ll create it there, together. Come with me.”
And then she’d hugged each of us, touched her white, slender hand to each of our hearts, alabaster against the grime of a world gone wrong inside us, and she’d kissed our cheeks with her cool, red lips. And to every one of us, she’d said, “I am yours, and you are mine, and we belong to each other. Do you love me?”
And we’d answered, all of us, barely above a whisper, “I love you, Mary.”
“I love you, too,” she’d said.
And just like that, Mary became Mother, and all of us Brothers and Sisters, her Children. She’d protect us, feed us, clothe us, love us. We truly did belong to each other, and not even an army couldn’t break us apart.
In the beginning, in those earliest days on the Mountain, we prayed and we worked and we sang. And we ate together at every meal, stretched out on threadbare blankets across the high Green Valley meadow, or squeezed into the Peoples’ Hall if the weather was cold or wet. We ate the food we grew, and Mary, always somewhere in the middle of all of us, reminded us to be grateful, and to show appreciation.
“We work together as one, and what feeds one feeds all. We live for each other, and to each other we give life.”
And on Thursday evenings, tucked together into the chapel at the Pinnacle, the top of our little village, Mary told us stories and asked us to share our own. And when those stories were sad, or angry, then we’d join hands and lift our voices to cast out that dangerous energy.
“Make no mistake, my Children,” Mary would tell us, “there is evil in this world, and those who think it and speak it, they manifest it. They cast it, they give it form.”
And here, she would pause, breathe deep, and we could feel her fear and worry. And then she would smile, gentle and wide.
“But we are new,” she’d say, “and we are safe here together. We are new every day, every moment, that we choose to live in love and not in fear.”
Mary spoke often of the Darkness. Her greatest agony, she said, was knowing that it was always close by, in all of our hearts, and our greatest task was keeping it at bay.
“We all harbor Darkness,” she’d warn us. “Even within myself, I feel it. But we must never let it take control of us, and we must never give in to it. My mother always told me, and I tell you now, that one bad apple spoils the bunch. What’s done by one is done by all, but we can work together to harbor the Light. We must always love and trust each other. And my Children, sometimes trust must be earned, and love must be cruel.”
We all knew what she meant. We all knew the Punishments for evil thoughts and dark impulses. Mary decided each case, and we knew she felt the pain of each judgment. A day spent facing the wall, or an evening without supper – these were for mild discretions, like laziness or a harsh tongue. A beating administered by the Offended, that was the cost of spreading lies. But for something truly evil, it was a night in the Cellar, in the cold, dark ground with the worms and snakes, and with no light, food, or water. And if the offense was bad enough, a night could become a week, or more.
Mary would cry as she led us there to witness a Punishment. And she would tell us, as she embraced the Offender, “You are Punished now because you are loved. May you learn this lesson, Child, and may your return to the Light be your reward.”
Always, one of us was missing. But we knew the stakes. We knew that any hatred or sinfulness within one of us could spell the end for all.
Some days, Mary would leave us, and spend time on her own.
“I need my Silence,” she’d say, “so I can hear what can’t be heard. I will bring it to you, and share it with you. My mind is your mind.”
She kept her room in the back of the Pinnacle, and we knew never to intrude upon that space. And so on the days when she rested and listened, we worked as normal, often harder, so she could see. We sewed and mended, we scrubbed, we cooked, we chopped wood for our fires and gathered flowers or leaves for our hearths, and we waited. And when she came back to us, she always noticed.
“My Children, I am proud.”
The greatest compliment.
Our lives were simple. And our love for each other was deep and unshakeable, and we lived for a long time in that comforting, warm certainty. And then, one day, we noticed a change in Mary.
It started at supper, on a cool autumn evening. As Mary led us through our Evening Prayer, her voice trembled.
“My Children,” she began, “my heart is heavy today, and my bones are tired. I feel a change coming, and I fear it will be difficult for us.”
She paused, and we waited, each of us holding our breath and clenching our fists.
“I ask that you trust me, as I trust you,” she continued. “I do not know what our future holds, but I will guide you, and I will show you the path, as I always have.”
She touched one hand to her chest, and raised her mug of tea in the other. “Our Family,” she said.
“Our Family,” we repeated.
In the days that followed, Mary spent more time alone, and when she did join us, her gaze was distant, her blue eyes clouded, and she spoke barely a word. She didn’t join us in preparing our meals, or in our daily chores. And when she did speak, her voice was flat and empty.
“The time is coming,” she would say. “A change is coming. It is one we all need.”
And then, one morning, Mary didn’t come to the Peoples’ Hall for breakfast. She didn’t come the next morning, or the one after that, and we started to worry.
And on the morning of the fourth day, we found a note, and beside the note, a bottle of amber liquid, both placed in the center of the main dining table.
My children, the note read, in Mary’s delicate, spiraling script, the day is today. All Mothers must let their children fly, and today, you must spread your wings. It is the pain all Mothers must endure. I have taught you what I know, and you have made my life full and beautiful. We have belonged to each other, and we will belong to each other always. But today, I must allow you to grow beyond me, and you must allow yourselves to take these next steps into the Light. I must leave you, but my heart will remain on the Mountain, because it is there within each of you.
And here, she’d written instructions. Terrible instructions.
I will meet you on the Path, my Children, though I will walk it with you no longer. Trust that when the time is right, we will be together again.
There was some argument about what to do next. Some of us, the weak and the frightened, couldn’t bear to follow Mary’s guidance, and they left and made their way down the mountain. But most of us, we stayed. And we gathered cups from the kitchen, and we poured for each other from the bottle and drank deeply. And we fell asleep, just as Mary said we would, and when we awoke, there was the fog.
Now we are here alone. And the fog will not relent, and we will never know who brought it to us – doubtless one of the few who left us spoke it into being and made it real. The Light is hard to see, but we will not give up.
And Mary will come to us, we know, when the time is right, just as she said. Perhaps she’ll emerge from the tree line in the Green Valley, or she’ll make her way down from the Pinnacle, weaving through the dark trees in her bright white dress.
But we know she’ll come. Our Mother would never abandon us. In this, we have decided, she is trying to teach us. Patience, maybe, or trust. We trust her. And so we will wait here, for as long as we must. We will wait for her, in this fog, on this mountain, our home.
Thank you for reading! This is the tenth 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 nine stories, if you’d like to read them:
Can I be certain? Well, no, but I’d like to think I’m right, because it’s a pretty cool connection. See, this house is just a few minutes away on the outskirts of our village, and Graham and I drive by it frequently. Of all the gin joints, right?
I’ve always been a fan of both ghost stories and old houses. I love walking into a space knowing that it has a history, that others have come and gone and loved it and built their lives there before me. And honestly, I think it’s just a fundamentally, very human thing to love ghost stories. Something in our primal makeup, in our DNA and our bones and the very oldest part of our brains tells us to be afraid of things that go bump in the night, and to ponder what happens to us when we die. I grew up in a town full of ghosts and legends, and I live in an area rife with them now, too. And this house is just one small piece of that larger puzzle.
Or, it was. Which is to say, it still is, but for how long is anyone’s guess. It was a ruin last year. It’s in worse shape now.
Graham stopped by yesterday and snapped this picture. Sad, isn’t it? Soon enough, the house will be gone, and the stories will be all that’s left. Then one day, they’ll be forgotten, too. But for now, the house is still here, crumbling away on the roadside, taking its secrets with it.
P.S. As I did last year, I’ll add this 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.
I am only a flash in the corner of your eye, nothing but a shadow, or a trick of the light on the stair, there and gone. You can try to catch me in a photo, or to capture the sound of my voice. Many have, and most leave disappointed. Are you scared? You should be, you know. I’m not for everyone.
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.
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:
*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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.*