By Erin J. Kahn
“Oh, Hank! It’s wonderful!”
“Sure, if by wonderful you mean downright creepy. But I’m glad you like it.”
“I love it!”
“So, do I get a thank you?”
I turned to Hank and planted a firm kiss on his mouth. He kissed me back and smiled.
There was a silence.
“Well, shall we go in?” Hank asked.
We picked up our suitcases and headed towards the old house. It was perfect, like something out of a Gothic romance novel, the kind I liked to snuggle up with on rainy October nights. Hank had booked it for our honeymoon, knowing it was my dream to stay in a house like this. I knew he would have preferred a honeymoon in Hawaii or Mexico, where we could have lain on the beach and tanned while we sipped our lemonade and basked in the heat. But I preferred dark, damp places with overgrown plants and creaky floors, and Hank loved giving me what I wanted, especially if it was a surprise. I hadn’t even known exactly where we were going till we stepped off the airplane in Boston. Then, in a frenzy of excitement, I demanded to know what was going on. And Hank had told me, of course. He never could hold out long against me.
“Ugh, smells like mildew,” my husband (it was so satisfying to be able to call him that now) complained as he opened the door and we stepped across the threshold.
“Smells like old books,” I corrected.
“Well, maybe we can buy some of their air freshener for our apartment,” Hank replied sarcastically.
I smiled to myself. He was going to be like this all week, but I didn’t mind. I knew he was really bursting with pride at having managed to please me so completely.
“Let’s go exploring,” I whispered.
He smiled in spite of himself as I took his hand in mine and led him up the winding stairs.
The house was perfect. The rooms were old and drafty, filled with just enough nooks, crannies and secret closets to make me feel like a child exploring her parents’ new home. There were several empty bedrooms that sent delightful little shivers down my spine, with shuttered windows looking out over a windy orchard, overgrown now and looking very spooky in the deepening twilight. There were no light switches in the upstairs bedrooms, only in the kitchen and the dining hall, as if someone had added them as an afterthought. A naked light bulb attached to a cord hung from the bathroom ceiling, and a lamp had been placed in the living room next to the faded sofa that looked to have been covered in deep red velvet in a former life.
I gasped at the fireplace, laid in red brick with a tall chimney, and guarded by a tarnished black fire grate.
“Well?” Hank asked me.
“How much did you pay for this thing?” I asked in return.
“Don’t worry about that,” he reassured me. “It was a very good deal. Seems not many people wanted to spend the week in a dilapidated old house with no light switches or TV, though why that is, I can’t imagine.”
We unpacked and sat down for dinner at the long wooden table in the dining hall. Hank had suggested eating on the couch, by the fire, but I had insisted on eating in the formal dining hall, at least for our first night.
Acquiescing, Hank had gone to turn on the light, but I stopped him with his hand on the switch, and found some tall candles in one of the cupboards.
“Are you going to make us sit at opposite ends?” Hank asked me as I set the candles on the table and lit them.
I laughed at him. “Not if you don’t want to.”
After dinner I reminded Hank that we should call our parents to let them know we’d arrived safely.
“Oh, I suppose we have to, don’t we?” he replied. “But we don’t have to call, right? Can’t we just shoot them a quick email that says: we’re here, we’re alive, stay out of our business for a week?”
“Did you see a computer anywhere?” I asked with a sly smile.
“There was one upstairs in the third bedroom we went into,” he replied without blinking. “Looked like something out of the 70s, but I imagine it has internet access.”
I grimaced as I mounted the stairs. Of course Hank would notice the only computer in the house, while I was too busy drooling over the wooden sleigh bed in that particular room to notice anything built after the 19th century.
I went into the bedroom and there, sure enough, was the bulky old computer: thick white monitor, rounded screen, with keys raised about three inches off the board.
This should be interesting, I thought. I’ve never emailed on a time machine.
It did have internet access, so I signed in to my email and wrote a group letter to both sets of parents. “Hey,” I wrote. “Flight was smooth. We’re in Boston now, in a great old house Hank booked for us. See you when we get back.”
Within five seconds I received a reply. “Hey, Pumpkin, glad you’re safe. Heard there was some thunder over Michigan.”
Dad. I smiled to myself at what he had omitted from his reply: We thought you’d gotten caught in a thunderstorm and are having a massive heart attack over here.
I clicked “reply” and then the screen went black.
“Man,” I kicked the computer desk, then sat in the silent darkness for a moment, relishing the stillness. Everything was so quiet, as if a muffler had been placed over the house. I got up, deciding my parents could wait for more news till next week, and headed for the stairs.
“Good news, romanticist,” Hank called when he saw me. “Power’s out.”
He was sitting in the faded arm chair by the fireplace, (though there was no fire in it) holding a newspaper in his hands.
“Are you reading The New York Times?” I asked doubtfully.
“Not anymore,” he replied.
“You brought The New York Times on our honeymoon?” I asked, still reluctant to believe it.
“You’re emailing your parents on our honeymoon?” he parried.
“Yes, and yours too. They were worried.”
“They should be. You know how creepy you look standing at the top of the stairs like that, in the dark? I swear you’re going to turn into a vampire and eat my face off.”
“Vampires don’t eat people’s faces off,” I said, but I came down to sit beside him.
We sat in silence for a moment, listening to the wind smacking against the shutters and the floor creaking upstairs.
“This place gives me the chills,” Hank whispered.
“I know,” I said. “Isn’t it great?”
Hank studied me for a moment with an expression that said I will never understand you.
“Well,” he said, standing up. “Time for bed?”
“I guess so – what are you doing?”
Hank had one arm behind my head and the other under my legs, then, in one move, he scooped me up off the couch. I couldn't stop laughing.
“What are you doing, you dork?” I asked.
“Carrying you to the honeymoon suite,” he replied. “Isn't this how they do it in old movies that take place in big creepy houses?”
“What old movies do you watch?” I asked.
“Hush. I once saw fifteen minutes of Gone with the Wind.”
I laughed again and let him carry me up the stairs and into the master bedroom. He deposited me on the bed.
“Now,” he said. “The real reason I carried you up here – was so I could have the bathroom first!” He grinned suddenly and darted into the bathroom, leaving me laughing on the bed.
“We could share the bathroom, you know!” I called out, half-jokingly, to the closed bathroom door. “We are married, after all.” I slid my legs over the side of the bed and stood up, savoring the sound of the branches knocking against the window outside. Deliciously creepy. I crouched down over my suitcase and took the opportunity to subtly check under the bed for monsters. But I needn't have bothered – there was absolutely nothing under the bed. I wondered if that made me feel just a little disappointed, but I didn't have time to ponder the question, because at that moment I heard the bathroom door open and saw Hank come out.
“It's all yours,” he told me. “Good luck.”
“Why? Are there vampires in the shower or something?”
“Worse. I think the toilet's clogged.”
“It's probably a poltergeist,” I said hopefully.
“Yeah, well, call it whatever you want, it still doesn't flush.”
Despite the poltergeist in the toilet, I managed to succeed in washing my face, brushing my teeth, and changing into my pajamas. Hank was already in bed when I came out of the bathroom, so I pulled back the sheets on my side of the bed and snuggled up beside him.
“Hank,” I said. “This house really is perfect. Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” he said softly. “Did I ever tell you how beautiful you are?”
“Oh,” I pretended to think. “Only about a million times. Why don't you tell me again?”
“Come here,” he whispered with a half-grin, pulling me gently closer to him. It was the universal law of attraction that drew our lips together in the near darkness and when we met, it was a chemical reaction. In the radioactive aftermath, we fell asleep.
Maybe that was what caused the dreams.
“Fanny, why are you still awake? I can feel you breathing next to me. Go to sleep.”
“I’m thinking,” I said.
“Well don’t. Mother says thinking isn’t wholesome after 8:00.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Mary Mottleton at the wedding. Just sitting there during the ceremony, next to Fred. The look in her black eyes would have killed a baby. She was so jealous.”
“Why shouldn’t she be?”
“Oh, I know. I can’t help feeling sorry for her. Everyone knows she only married Fred because her family didn’t think she’d get another proposal. Everyone is so afraid of ending up an old maid. I do not think it would be such an awful thing as everyone makes it out to be… But, still, it is better to be married, of course.”
“Are these the kinds of things you think about at night?”
“Generally. They’re just empty little trifles, as you can see.”
“I was silly to worry about you thinking after 8, I should have known girls’ heads are never filled with much weight, anyhow.”
“What do you think about at night, George?”
“Nothing. I sleep.”
“You are always making me laugh, George, that is why I love you so.”
“How much do you love me, Fanny?”
“More than anything? More than anyone else in the world?”
“Yes, almost, but you know, I could never love anyone more than my little sister, Aimee. She is the dearest little thing.”
“Fanny, I do not think that is right.”
“But, George – she's only my sister. And I really do love you so very much -”
“I will write to Mother about this and see what she thinks.”
“Oh no, George, please don’t do that. I do adore your mother, but I should like this to be our time together, alone, without your mother – or anyone else.”
“Then why did you bring up your sister?”
“Because you asked me; but I will not bring her up again, or anyone else, if it displeases you. We shall think and talk only of ourselves for this week, as if no one else exists in the wide world.”
“Very well. Now go to sleep. It is late.”
“Yes, George. I love you, you know.”
But there was only silence.
“Morning Stormcloud,” Hank greeted as I slumped down the stairs. “You slept late.”
I smiled reluctantly, even though I still felt groggy. Hank's habit of calling me “Stormcloud” had started one morning when he'd called me Sunshine, and we'd both decided the name didn’t fit. Eventually, Hank had settled on a nickname that was more akin to my morning mood.
“What do you want to do today?” Hank asked me over breakfast. “Should we go out on the town, see Boston?”
“Let’s stay here,” I said. “I want to explore the house some more. We can always go out tomorrow; after all, we’re here for a week.”
“All right. What are we going to do here? Send emails to our parents and read The New York Times?”
I hesitated. “Can we play hide and seek?”
Hank laughed at me. “You want to play hide and seek? We could have done that at home in the park for a lot cheaper.”
“I keep thinking how fun it would be to play hide and seek in this house.”
He shrugged. “Whatever. Since it’s your honeymoon, I’ll humor you.”
“It’s your honeymoon, too,” I reminded him.
“And I would love to play hide and seek with you in this house,” he replied. “Do you want to hide or count first?”
Hank plopped his head down on the table and began counting, “1… 2… 3….”
I darted away and crept as quietly as I could up the stairs.
The bedroom on the left seemed to beckon to me. I had seen a little closet hidden in the corner of that room the day before, which I thought I could easily squeeze into and manage to elude Hank for a good while.
I opened the door and stepped inside. It was tight, but sure enough, I fit.
I closed my fingers around the handle and softly closed the door.
From downstairs, I could still hear Hank’s voice counting off the numbers, “17… 18… 19… 20.” I heard a chair scraping the floor. “Ready or not, here I come!”
I listened to the creaking of the downstairs floor, trying to gauge where he was. Finally, I heard someone coming up the stairs. I held my breath. The footsteps creaked along the hallway and turned aside into the bathroom.
For a moment, everything was still.
Beside me, someone was breathing.
Startled, my heart started racing suddenly, then I calmed myself. Just your imagination, I tried to convince myself. This house is playing tricks on you. I listened as the footsteps padded back up the hall and into the neighboring bedroom.
All at once, an unaccountable feeling of panic seized me. What if it’s not Hank who’s looking for me? I suddenly felt that I did not want to be found, that I must conceal myself, at all costs, until the footsteps retreated. Stop it, I told myself. You’re getting all worked up over nothing. Still, something was wrong.
The door swung outwards and Hank stood there. I jumped.
“Found you!” he exulted. I sprang forward into his arms, squeezing him to me.
“Wow,” he said. “I take back what I said before. If this is the prize for winning, I can play hide and seek all day!”
I stepped back, hoping he wouldn’t notice my knees shaking. “Let’s go outside,” I said.
He puzzled at me for a moment, then shrugged. “All right.”
It was a delicious day, just blustery enough to be romantic, and just sunny enough through the scattered clouds to be nice walking weather.
When we returned to the house, boots coated in mud and wet up to the knees, Hank told me to go upstairs and change. I put on my comfy jeans, woolen socks, and my favorite turtleneck, then looked in the mirror. I smiled ruefully. My hair was a mess, so tossed and tangled in the wind that it looked like birds had built their nests in it. I went into the bathroom, considered for a moment, then tied it back into a ponytail. I’d mess with it tomorrow.
When I came back downstairs, there was a fire crackling merrily in the hearth. I shivered and sat down on the floor in front of it, as close as I could get without scorching my legs. I rubbed my hands together and held them out towards the flames; it felt wonderful.
After a moment Hank came back in, two mugs of steaming chocolate in his hands. He sat down beside me on the floor, handing me one of the cups, which I took gratefully.
“Thanks,” I told him after I had taken a sip. “For the fire, and the hot chocolate. It’s wonderful.” I gave him a kiss to show my appreciation.
We found some old board games in one of the closets upstairs and sat by the fire pitting our wits against each other at Monopoly for several hours, until I landed on one of Hank's properties with only 27 dollars to my name. Hank studied my situation.
“If you sell back your houses, give me all your cash, and turn over your remaining properties -” he began.
“It's over!” I cried melodramatically, tossing my paper money at him. “Take it! Take it all, you money-hoarding scoundrel!” I flung my remaining properties at him, then I picked up my two houses from the board and threw them in his face as well.
“Hey!” he laughed, shielding his face. “No need to get so defensive!”
I tipped the game-board up on its side and overturned it, sending all of Hank's hotels sliding. Then I got up and threw myself at him, sending him sprawling onto his side with me on top of him.
“OK OK,” he said, warding me off between laughs. “I didn't realize the consequences of winning would be so dire.”
I laughed and kissed him.
“Want to go out to dinner?” Hank asked. “I'm a millionaire now so I can afford it.” He crinkled a $500 piece of Monopoly money in his hand.
“If you're paying,” I said. “I'm bankrupt and in debt. So I'll have to appeal to your charity.”
“Appeal granted,” Hank said. “Get your coat.”
I got up off the floor and ran upstairs to get my coat from the hall closet. When I reached the landing I decided to grab a scarf as well, and darted into the bedroom. I crouched down beside the half-open suitcase that I hadn't bothered to unpack. Suddenly I stopped. A sudden, unexpected gleam from under the bed had caught my eye. Before I could think about it, I reached my hand out and grabbed hold of what felt like a sturdy wooden pole. I pulled it out from under the bed and sat back with a soft thud. It was an axe.
“Are you coming – tonight?” Hank called from downstairs.
I shook myself and slid the axe back under the bed. It must have been there the night before. I just hadn't seen it. Maybe it was some bizarre form of home security. Some people keep a gun under their bed. Why not an axe? Anyway, we weren't the first people to inhabit this house. The thought suddenly chilled me, and I grabbed my scarf and darted downstairs.
As we got in the car and headed downtown, my thoughts were wrapped up in the axe under the bed, but Hank wanted to talk, and once we sat down at the restaurant, I had forgotten about it.
When we pulled back into the narrow driveway, it was dark outside, and we both felt ready for bed. The sheets were deliciously cold, but we snuggled together for warmth and after an interlude – or main event – fell asleep in each other's arms.
“Fanny, I don’t like the way you looked at that boy in town this afternoon.”
“What do you mean? He only took off his hat and I curtsied to him.”
“Oh, yes, he took off his hat all right, and just about ate you up with his eyes while he was doing it.”
“What do you expect me to do about it? Can I help it if I’m considered rather pretty?”
“You can’t let him think that you’re encouraging him.”
“Did I give that impression?”
“It certainly didn’t seem as if you were discouraging him.”
“Oh, George, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that – I was just trying to be polite –”
“You just don’t understand these things, Fanny. You can’t be polite to a strange man. He’ll take it the wrong way.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Of course, that’s why I’m telling you.”
“Yes – yes, how good of you it is. You are so patient with me.”
The wind knocked against the shutters and an owl hooted somewhere outside.
“What do you think of the property, Fanny?”
“I told you, George, I adore the house. It is so wonderful that you had it built just for me. Everything is so beautiful, and it feels so good to know that it is all mine.”
“Yes, yes, but what about the yard? There are a lot of trees. Of course, I wanted to have them all chopped down before you came, but the house took longer than I thought it would. No matter, though, I’ll have the servants begin chopping them down tomorrow.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I rather like the trees. They have a sort of… dreamy feel.”
“They must be cut down as soon as possible.”
“Why? Why must they be cut down?”
“They block out all the sunlight. You’ll catch cold.”
“I don’t mind. I daresay I’ll get used to it.”
“I’m going to have them cleared and get an orchard planted. A neat, sunny little orchard with rows of fruit trees.”
“Oh, no, don’t. I hate orchards. There was one behind our house and the neighbor boys used to chase me around in it till they had me cornered. They wouldn’t let me go till I kissed them. It was so dreadfully embarrassing.”
“Which kind of trees shall we have? Apple?”
“Well, if we must have an orchard, I suppose I should like peach trees. They are rather lovely, the way they twist around so.”
“I think apple. You can do a lot with apples.”
“Yes, but apples are boring; everyone has apples.”
“But we shall have the best apples.”
The wind softened outside and the leaves rustled slightly.
“Do you really think apples would be the best thing?”
“Of course, I thought we had decided that.”
“Well, if you think so. I suppose I can make apple pies.”
“Of course you can.”
The sun was streaming through the open window and a bird was singing loudly. I opened my eyes slowly and sat up. The morning sun cast gentle shadows across the wooden plank floor and over the bed frame.
“Are you awake?” Hank called from downstairs.
It took me a moment to answer.
“Good, come down.”
“In a moment,” I called back, sliding the blankets off and standing up with a yawn. Why was I so tired? I staggered into the bathroom and stared groggily at my reflection. Without looking, I reached down and turned the knob on the sink, hoping the cold water would wake me up. I held my hands under it, still staring at myself in the mirror.
The water was warm. It felt… strange.
Surprised, I looked down at my hands. They were covered in blood.
My head pounded. I jumped back from the sink, not knowing what to do with my hands as they dripped onto the floor. The sink kept pouring out blood, splashing against the white bowl and running down into the drain in a steady stream. I felt sick.
“Stormcloud!” Hank called from downstairs. “You fall back asleep?”
“Hank,” I cried. “Get up here!”
Footsteps pounded up the stairs and a moment later Hank was standing beside me in the bathroom.
“What the…” He reached out and turned off the faucet. The stream of blood thinned and was gone, leaving a red tinge on the previously white sink bowl.
“Weird,” Hank observed. He turned to me. “Wait, don’t move, let me get you a rag.” He stuck his head in the shower closet and emerged with a towel, which he held out for me to wipe my hands on.
I wiped and wiped, slowly at first, then faster and faster, as if my hands had taken over and were wiping of their own accord, desperate to be clean. I couldn’t stop.
“All right,” Hank said gently, taking the towel away and tossing it into the shower.
I realized I was shaking.
We stood in the bathroom silently for a moment, neither one of us moving.
“Hank,” I whispered finally. “I think this house is haunted.”
Hank laughed. “That’s just wishful thinking,” he said, but I noticed the uneasiness behind his laughter.
“You don’t think so?” I asked. “What else could account for… that.” I pointed at the sink.
Hank shrugged. “Rust.”
“It was not rust,” I told him.
He shrugged again. “An accident. An animal or something got stuck in the pipes and died.”
I shook my head. Suddenly, unaccountably, my thoughts went to the axe under the bed.
“Come on,” Hank said, taking my arm. “You need some breakfast, and then we’re getting out of this house for the day; going into Boston.”
When we returned home late that night, the morning’s incident had almost left my mind. The city of Boston was brimming with life, history, and beauty, and the dilemma over the haunted house had been pushed aside for the present.
“Whew, I’m beat,” Hank exclaimed as we entered through the creaky wooden door and flung ourselves down on the sofa. “Let’s call it a night, what do you say?”
“Sounds fine,” I said. My feet were sore from walking all day, and my eyelids were beginning to droop.
A sudden blast of wind knocked the branches of the maple tree against the windows.
Hank shivered. “Cold,” he said.
Whenever Hank was physically uncomfortable, he would use as few words as possible. Though I had often pondered it, I still wasn't sure why he did this. To conserve energy? Because he wanted to focus on his miserableness and didn’t have enough brain space to form sentences at the same time?
“Come upstairs,” I said, rising.
The room went black.
“Power's out,” Hank said helpfully.
I kicked at the carpet; then shrugged, though no one could see me.
“We’re going to bed anyway,” I replied. “We don’t need the lights on.”
I stumbled to the base of the stairs and carefully began climbing. I heard Hank getting up off the sofa to follow, and then the floor creaked under his big feet.
Finally, I discovered that I was on the landing. “You get in bed,” I said to the darkness. “I’m going to see if I can find some extra blankets.”
My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness as I cautiously stepped down the hallway and into one of the bedrooms. I found the closet, but there were no blankets in it, so I tried the next room. There was a faint glow coming from the far corner.
Maybe it’s the computer, I thought. Then I realized how stupid that was. Well, then it must be the moon.
I rounded the corner and stopped at the door frame.
A woman was bending over a heavy-looking trunk in the back corner, rifling frantically through its contents.
I couldn’t scream; I couldn’t even call to Hank. I just stood there, heart pounding against the inside of my chest like a drum mallet.
I heard Hank reach the top of the stairs and stumble into the bedroom. There was a heavy creaking as he flung himself onto the bed.
The woman froze; then she turned.
I felt my mouth open wide but no sound came out. My heart was pounding furiously and I was sweating all over, my head thrumming against my skull.
Two wild eyes, a thin, tight-lipped mouth, and sallow cheek-bones. She was skeletal and pale white; long cloth smirched with brown and gray, folded up over the girdle with bony white legs and dirty feet. The sealed lips parted – grinning teeth.
It rushed at me.
I tried to run but fell instead, knocking my head against the hard floor, legs bending unnaturally beneath me.
“Hey, what happened?”
I opened my eyes.
The room was dark.
“What happened?” Hank asked again, crouching down beside me.
Shakily, I raised myself up off the floor boards and stood up.
“Hey,” Hank asked me. “You OK?”
I just stood there for a moment, shaking all over and breathing raggedly.
“Ghost,” I said.
“I saw a ghost,” the words came slow and haltingly, but I got them out.
Hank was silent a moment.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“I think – you were dreaming.”
“I was awake,” my voice still sounded strange to me, and I spoke softly, unable to raise my voice.
“Well, then you imagined it.”
“It can’t have been real.”
I said nothing.
“Come to bed,” Hank told me gently. “You’re tired. Your brain is playing tricks on you.”
“No,” was all I could say.
Hank moved closer and touched my hair softly.
“It’s fine,” he murmured. “Come to bed. We’ll talk about it when you wake up.” He went into the master bedroom.
Bending over my suitcase, I reached my hand under the bed timorously and felt the handle of the axe. Still there.
The smooth curve of the wood beneath my hand was the last thought lingering in my mind when I fell asleep.
“I don’t understand you, Fanny.”
“Why would you do this?”
“Fanny! Answer me.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“How should I know? Answer my question!”
“This is maddening! Tell me why you chopped down those apple trees!”
“I couldn’t stand to look at them another second.”
“You’re mad. Why did you do it? Tell me!
“I hate apple trees. I told you.”
“I had the servants plant those trees just for you, so you could have your own apple orchard. And this is how I am thanked! It is maddening!”
“That is why I chopped them down.”
“Maddening,” the voice was almost too soft.
“You are mad. I ought to call mother and have her come over here.”
“Well, what can I do? You have left the path of reason.”
“I’m perfectly sane.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I told you.”
“You told me nothing!”
“Please, listen. I hate those trees; every day I sit in the kitchen and look out at them, and they just stand there perfectly still, no breeze, and their trunks so solid. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. This morning I looked out at them, and they were laughing at me, and I went to the shed, and I grabbed the axe, and I hacked them all down.”
“If you hated the trees so much, why did you never tell me?”
“I think you are sick. It is this house; it’s too gloomy. I’ve put off clearing those trees out front, but I’ll have them cut as soon as possible now. And I’ll call mother; she can come over every day and sit with you.”
“No, please, don’t cut down those trees, and don’t bring over your mother. It makes me feel like a child.”
“My dear, what else can I do? You are clearly unwell and we must get you better.”
The night was uncommonly still.
“I will write her to come as soon as possible.”
I opened my eyes.
The sun was streaming in through the window.
I yawned, pushed back my hair, and sat up. Apart from me, the room was empty. A creaking downstairs told me that Hank had been up for a good while.
I closed my eyes and listened to the bird singing outside my window.
Suddenly I opened my eyes and sat bolt upright.
I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, almost falling several times.
Hank was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the New York Times.
“I saw a ghost last night,” I said without any preamble.
Hank looked up from his newspaper unconcernedly.
“I don’t think so,” he said good-naturedly.
“But I did. It was a woman, in a long dress – I think she was crazy. She was upstairs in one of the bedrooms, looking through a trunk.”
“Did she see you?”
“She rushed at me, and I fell down. And then – and then –“
“I – she was gone.”
“Come on,” he said abruptly. “Get dressed and get in the car.”
“You need to get out of here for a while; I have somewhere I want to take you.”
Ten minutes later I was sitting in the front seat of the car beside Hank, who kept his hands on the steering wheel and said nothing.
“Will you tell me where we’re going?” I asked after a while.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
I slouched back against the seat and folded my arms across my chest.
Somewhere ahead of us, a siren wailed. I jumped.
Hank’s eyes flitted to me for a split second, then he looked back out the front window.
He was worried. Well, why shouldn’t he be? Either there was a ghost in the house he had rented, or his wife was losing her mind.
I stared out the side window as trees and buildings rushed by in a flash of green and brown, our momentum slicing through the middle of the landscape like a clean, sharp axe cut. How gratifying it would be to split the world down the middle with one perfect, calculated chop.
The car came to a stop.
Hank turned off the ignition and turned to me with a grin.
“What?” I asked. “Where are we?”
He grinned wider, looking very pleased with himself, and pointed out the window.
A tall yellow house with green shutters stood framed by huge leafy trees.
I looked at it for a moment, then threw open the door and sprang from the car while Hank laughed at me.
“Hank,” I whispered, feeling tears start to form in my eyes. “This is… thank you.”
I felt his arms close about me from behind. “Whose house is this?” he asked me teasingly.
“It’s Emily Dickinson’s,” I breathed. “I didn’t think…”
“What? Didn’t think I’d remember your favorite writer lived in Amherst?”
Though he didn’t say anything, Hank must have been at least a little embarrassed during the tour. I only asked about three questions in every room, questions like, “Is this where she sat to write? Which window was the one that she used to lower the basket from? Which is the room she would hide in when guests came over?” The tour guide was starting to get annoyed by the third room, but I didn’t care. Then the tour was over. I sighed.
“Come on,” Hank said, gesturing to the gift shop shelves around us. “I’ll buy you something.”
I searched the shelves and came back with a huge book.
I showed him the cover.
“‘Poems by Emily Dickinson;’ but you already have three books full of her poems.”
“But this is a complete listing of her poems, in the order they were written, and it’s illustrated!”
Hank shrugged with a funny smile on his face and took the book from me.
“There’s your change. Did you enjoy the tour?” the cashier asked as Hank took his change and handed me the book, wrapped up in brown paper.
“It was very nice,” he replied.
“It was wonderful!” I exclaimed.
The cashier smiled. “Is this your first time in Amherst?”
“Where are you staying?”
“Outside of Boston,” Hank explained. “In a house on the outskirts.”
The cashier’s brow furrowed slightly. “What’s it called?”
“Orchard House,” I replied while Hank scratched his head trying to remember.
“Oh,” the cashier was obviously disturbed by this news, but politely refrained from commenting.
“Is there…” I hesitated. “Is there something wrong with that house?”
“Oh, no, it’s beautiful, of course. And I hear it’s let for very cheap.”
“Yes,” Hank said slowly. “Too cheap.”
The cashier attempted a doubtful smile and bent hurriedly to arrange something under the counter.
I looked at Hank, but he refused to return my gaze.
The cashier emerged and looked a little surprised that we were still there.
“I noticed Orchard House is very old,” I said. What a stupid remark. “Do you know how long it’s been around for?”
“It was built in 1813, same time as the Homestead. That’s how I know about it.”
“And what, exactly, do you know?”
“It was built by Mr. George Darson for his new bride; I believe she was… oh, let’s see… 17?”
“Young,” Hank scoffed.
“Well, girls generally married very young in the 1800s.”
“And how long did they live there?” I asked.
“Oh, not very long. Only about a year.”
“Why? Did they move?”
“Well, no… they died.”
“How?” I gasped.
“It was Mrs. Darson: she was insane.”
“She committed suicide?” Hank asked.
“She murdered her husband?” I asked at the same time.
“Both. She murdered her husband and then she committed suicide.”
“Where?” I breathed. “What room did it happen in?”
“She’s supposed to have murdered him at night,” the cashier replied. “In bed.”
“Thank you,” Hank said abruptly. “We should be going now.”
“Hank,” I breathed excitedly as we stepped outside. “She murdered him in the master bedroom, in the bed we’ve been sleeping in!”
“You sound happy about that.”
“It’s so creepy.” I shivered deliciously.
“I knew I should have booked that flight to Hawaii,” Hank murmured under his breath.
We reached the car in silence. Hank opened the door for me and I got in. I waited while he walked around to the other side and got situated behind the steering wheel. He sat there for a moment, not moving. Then he turned to me.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” he stated.
“I saw her,” I told him stubbornly.
“You thought you saw her. It was just your imagination.”
“How could I have imagined something like that?” my voice was rising. “I didn’t even know about the murder, but I saw the ghost of a young woman, in a white dress, and she looked insane.”
“Coincidence, or, maybe you read something about it and forgot.”
“I’ll call a hotel when we get back.”
“We can’t stay in that house anymore; it’s not good.”
“What, you superstitious? I thought there was no such thing as ghosts.”
“But you think the opposite. We’re not going to stay in a house you think is haunted.”
“But we only have a few more days left, and hotels are so expensive.”
“Hank,” I said softly. “It would be stupid for us to book a hotel this late, when we could just stay in that house and pay about half as much.”
“Less than half,” he muttered. “And now I’m understanding why.”
“Come on,” I urged. “Don’t be foolish.”
He sighed again. “You’re right. It would be stupid.” He turned to fix me with serious eyes. “But I don’t want you to be scared.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m fine.”
We drove home.
The house was cold when we came back. I stepped inside the front door and took off my boots. A sudden gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me and I almost fell over.
“Hey,” Hank said gently. “I thought you weren’t scared.”
“I’m not,” I said defiantly.
It was time for bed.
“Do you want to sleep in a different room tonight?” Hank asked me at length.
“Why?” Though I knew full well why.
He shrugged. “We could sleep in one of the other beds, I just thought…”
“The other beds are tiny; we wouldn’t fit.”
“I could sleep on the floor.”
“On our honeymoon?” I said, though sleeping in the master chamber filled me with a sense of dread I would never admit to him. “Of course not, we’ll sleep in the master bedroom again. It’s the biggest and the most comfortable.”
Hank shrugged, and we went upstairs, neither of us speaking.
When we reached the doorway of the master bedroom, we both stopped simultaneously.
“I don’t want to go in,” Hank whispered after a while.
Me neither, I thought, but I stayed silent.
We looked at each other.
“We’re like two little kids,” Hank said, trying to smile. “Scared of the dark.”
“Silly,” I agreed.
But neither of us moved.
“This is ridiculous!” Hank whispered.
“On three,” I said. “We go in together.
Hank nodded. “All right.”
“1… 2… … … 3….”
We stood still.
All at once Hank grabbed my hand and lunged forward through the doorway. We ran, not wanting to stop and get stuck again, and jumped onto the bed. Then we ripped off the covers and dove under them.
“Good night,” Hank whispered.
“Good night,” I whispered back.
A woman was cackling.
“Stop it, Fanny.”
“I said stop it!”
“Get a hold of yourself.”
“It’s… it’s just it’s hilarious!”
The woman broke out into wild laughter again.
“I don’t see the joke. Calm yourself.”
“Mary Mottleton in town today – I saw her at the bakery.”
“What were you doing at the bakery?”
“Buying bread, what else?”
“I do not like you to go out alone.”
The woman cackled again to fill the silence.
“What did she say to you?”
“‘If there’s ever anything I can do to help out,’” the woman’s voice was shrill and girlish. “‘I do so worry about you, shut up in that big house all day with no one about but the servants.’”
“Why should she worry about you?”
“That’s what’s so hilarious!” The voice broke out into another round of raucous laughter.
“Settle down, Fanny. I don’t understand why you should find this funny.”
“The way she - haha - looked at me out of those coal black eyes. Hahaha!”
“Her eyes were always so dark, so cold – not like mine: blue as the sky on a winter’s day when the clouds part. Haha! But the way she looked at me! Ha! Haha… ha… Ah.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, but I want you to stop it now.”
“Why?” the word was a laugh.
“You’re tired; your trip into town wore you out.”
“No it didn’t. I don’t feel a bit tired! Not at all! Hahaha!”
“I am tired. It is time for bed.”
“Says you! Haha!”
“Hey, wake up.”
Someone was shaking me.
“Wake up. Wake up.”
Hank loomed over me, his hand gently shaking my shoulder.
I stared at him in confusion.
“You were talking in your sleep,” Hank told me. “Well, actually more like screaming.”
I felt disoriented.
“You must have been having a bad dream,” he told me.
I looked down at the sheets tangled in my arms. Bad dream?
“What were you dreaming about?” he asked me.
I hesitated. “Mrs. Darson,” I said.
I felt a shiver go up Hank's arm.
Suddenly, he let go of me and sat up in bed, throwing off the white sheets and quilted brown comforter. I watched him slide his legs over the side of the bed and with a quick, determined motion, stand and go into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
I sat up slowly, feeling the cold seep into my bones. Slowly, so very slowly, I slid my legs over the side of the bed. Feeling my way, I slid down onto the floor and revolved to face the space under the bed. Listening all the time for the bathroom door, I reached my hand into the utter darkness and pulled out the wooden handle. With the silent, calculated movements of a cat, I sat back on my haunches and rested the axe on my knees. I ran my finger along the handle until I felt the cold metal of the head.
The bathroom door slid open.