First published in “Gothic Tales Resurrected” Magazine April 2011
Copyright Russell R. James 2011
Nora Lowell bit her lower lip. The anticipation of her husband’s return had her nervous as a cat.
Out her upper bedroom window, darkness enveloped the long approach to their Maine mansion. A cold north wind whipped the bare trees back and forth. At this time of year, everyone with good sense had already returned to civilization. Nora should have left the summer house and returned to the city weeks ago. But she decided to wait. Mr. Hiram Lowell’s carriage would pull up at any moment, returning him from his steamship voyage andEngland. Then she and her husband would have the servants pack the house and they would move back to the city. Together. Like a proper couple.
Nora turned up the wick on the oil lamp to put more light in the room’s shadowy corners. How she wished this house had gas like their city home. Her husband clung to this place, just as three generations of his family had before him. Mr. Lowell would not hear of adding modern conveniences like a coal furnace and running water, despite her pleas that it was practically the 20th century.
Nora sat at her dressing table and reset a few hairpins to tighten her hair, piled high on her head. She straightened her tall collar and re-centered the ivory brooch at her throat. She thought she still looked quite good for 40. She kept her skin rosy and she still fit in her wedding dress. Mr. Lowell may travel a great deal on business, but she never feared he would stray. Every homecoming was a joyous reunion where once again she felt complete.
Nora moved to the edge of her bed where she could see out the window and down the road. She had owned the ornately carved, four post masterpiece since her teens. Mr. Lowell had the rest of the furniture custom built to match the same shade of dark oak. Despite all the packing they would do this week, her bedroom set was the only furniture that would return to the city. Nora slept on no other bed.
The ticking clock marked each second’s passage. She had the eerie sensation of waiting here before. Was that what her spiritualist circle called “déjà vu”? She shook the notion from her head. Of course this seemed familiar. How many days had she spent awaiting her husband’s return? He had worn out carriage wheels to and from port this year.
A gust of wind elicited a soft moan from the house, a low chorus of flexing timbers and shifting window panes, like a collective cry against the approaching season of ice and snow. Mr. Lowell never paid it any mind, but Nora shared the servants’ sentiments. It sounded too much like spirits. Nora shivered.
It was well after supper and the sound of the kitchen being cleaned for tomorrow’s move should have echoed up the staircase. Nora could not hear a thing. If Bessie Mae thought she could wait for Mr. Lowell’s return to start, and then delay their departure, she was most mistaken. Nora reached up and yanked the silk pull that rang the kitchen bell. Bessie had better get up here with a good explanation.
When she released the pull, another wave of familiarity swept over her. Not just the feel of the silk in her hand, but her uncharacteristic sharp feelings for lovely Bessie. She could almost forecast the next thing to happen, but then the premonition slipped away.
Oh silly woman, she thought. What nonsense. Déjà vu, indeed. It was the late hour. The waiting was confusing her.
A mix of anxiety and anticipation filled Nora as she watched the country lane beyond the house, praying for the flicker of her husband’s carriage lanterns. Couldn’t that driver hurry it up? She rubbed her hands together to burn some nervous energy.
The wind abated and she heard something. Soft, faint. A whisper?
No, she thought. A field mouse inside the plaster walls, perhaps. They scurry about at night. Or a raccoon made its way into the attic crawl space, his claws scratching on rafters. She had let the creaking of the house set her thinking of spirits, and now her mind was playing tricks on her.
The sound came again. There was no mistaking it. A human voice. Not a whisper really. It lacked that hushed confidential tone. It just sounded distant, like the person was at the far end of a long marble corridor. The unrecognizable words faded in and out.
Bessie Mae, she thought. The cook was gossiping somewhere in the hall with the other servants. No wonder the kitchen isn’t being cleaned. No wonder she hasn’t answered my ring.
Nora opened the door and looked down the hallway. Empty.
“Bessie Mae!” No answer but another breeze-induced moan from the rafters. The hairs on her neck bristled. That same feeling of déjà vu crept over her again. She wanted to run down and give Bessie Mae a good lesson about ignoring her, but the silent empty staircase exuded an uncharacteristic foreboding. She knew she dared not leave her room, though could not say why. She slammed the door.
This was all too much. Why hadn’t Mr. Lowell come home yet? The steamship was supposed to dock this morning. He should have been home bymidday. If he was here, there would be no lollygagging by the servants. She would not be so confused and anxious. There would be a roaring fire, a sound night’s sleep, and we would be on our way back to the bright vibrant city in the morning.
She resumed her sentinel position at the window. She could not help but worry. The road from the port was poorly maintained. The curve by the river, with that steep drop off, always made her cringe. Mr. Lowell might dismiss her fears, but carriages had overturned there. She pushed the thought from her mind.
The voice came again. This time it was no whisper. A male stranger’s voice, clear as a bell.
“Are you here, Nora?”
Nora spun to face the room. The soft glow of the oil lamp showed it empty, but the voice sounded so close. A chill raced up her spine.
Her spiritualist circle had discussed this. A house this old would have the spirits of the dead in residence. The way Mr. Lowell’s family was attached to the place, any who died here could still be trapped in the ether that surrounded the property. She kept her fear in check. The relatives would surely mean her no harm.
“Are you in this room?” the man said.
“Of course I’m in the room,” she said, trying to stay calm. “Where are you?” She waited. An eternal minute passed without an answer. Pity welled within her for the tortured soul who could not move on.
“Who are you?” she called out. “Why do you haunt this place?”
More silence. The spirit had to be one of Mr. Lowell’s relatives. Her husband should be here to witness this. Where could he be?
Nora picked the oil lamp up from her dressing table. With slow measured steps, she walked the perimeter of the room. She probed around the furniture and looked for any sign of the spirit’s presence. Around the armoire, past the red stuffed leather chair, beside the tall dressers. Nothing was out of place.
As she rested the lamp on her night stand, a shape appeared in the stuffed chair. At first gray and indistinct, it darkened and morphed into a steadily more human form. Its faceless head swiveled around the room, searching. One hand reached out to Nora’s bed.
This poor soul, she thought. Trapped between here and heaven’s rewards. Alone and looking for reassurance.
She reached out. Her hand hovered over the dark figure’s. Her heart skipped a beat as her fingers bent to caress its wrist. She brushed against it.
Her fingers burned hot as a blacksmith’s forge.
In unison, she and the dark figure recoiled from each other. The spirit blinked out of existence. Nora checked her fingertips, certain they were seared. They glowed a warm red, but were undamaged.
Outside the clop and jangle of a carriage sounded at the front door. Nora leapt from the bed. Another premonition swept over her, this time dripping with dread. She looked out the window as a pair of harnessed black horses stopped in front of the mansion. Her heart dropped to her feet. It wasn’t her husband’s carriage. The steaming horses pulled an open wagon.
Nora’s breath caught in her throat. She didn’t recognize the man at the reins, but she knew the disheveled man at his side. It was Vincent, their driver. His arm was in a sling and his top hat was missing. Vincent was never to be outside without his hat. What could…
In the back of the wagon, a dark green tarp covered a shape that resembled only one thing. A human body.
“No, no, no,” Nora said with a slow shake of her head. It’s a workman from some farm, struck by accident by Mr. Lowell’s carriage. Or a body they found as they traveled home. Something, anything but…
Vincent rose from the seat with great effort, as if he carried a burden far heavier than his own weight. He shuffled to the rear of the wagon and grabbed the canvas’ edge.
Tears welled in Nora’s eyes. Her lower lip trembled. “Please, God, no.”
Vincent pulled back the canvas. Mr. Lowell lay stiff in the back of the truck, his face lifeless gray. His clothes were soaked and strands of algae clung to his coat.
“Lord, this can’t be happening,” she said. Her mind reeled. She turned hollow inside. Her strength, her purpose was gone. How could she face his sallow corpse? In a moment of madness, she thought that if she never went downstairs, time would roll backward and Mr. Lowell would still be alive.
“Dude, it was so unreal.” Kyle brushed his long blond hair away from his face.
“No way. You were really there?” Brantley said. He wore the same purple Theta Nu sweatshirt as Kyle. He refilled his glass from the pitcher of beer between them on the bar.
“Right there in the room,” Kyle said. “Same haunted room everyone talks about at that old B&B. I was like, ready for a trip to the edge and that was the place for it. The place to plug into the beyond.”
“I can’t believe you went through with it, bro.”
“And the room was like a total time capsule,” Kyle said. “The bed, the chairs. No one ever changed it since she killed herself there.”
“So you saw her?”
Kyle looked sheepish.
“Well, no. But like, I felt her. Like her presence was there. Like a force.”
“Whoaaa, tell me about it, Luke Skywalker.”
“Hey, dude,” Kyle shot back. “She touched me. It was like instant frostbite.”
“But you got no proof, no pictures.”
“Oh, there’s proof.” Kyle nodded with satisfaction. “EVP.”
“Electronic Voice Phenomena. You don’t hear the ghosts, but they record.” Kyle pulled out an iPod and stuck the earbuds in his roommate’s ears. “Listen up.”
Brantley put his hands over the earbuds. He closed his eyes and concentrated, like a record producer ready to screen the next big hit.
“Listen. It’s me, then her, then her again.” Kyle pressed play.
Kyle’s voice, hushed and tenuous, materialized in Brantley’s head. A hint of fear warbled in his words.
“I’m here to help you tonight.”
A pause, then a faint noise arose, a static-filled swoosh, well short of intelligible.
“Dude,” Brantley said. “That’s nothing.”
Kyle slapped him on the back of the head.
“Shut up and listen.”
Kyle’s recorded voice came through the earbuds again.
“Are you here, Nora? Are you here in this room?”
Clear as polished diamonds, Nora spoke.
“Of course I’m in the room. Where are you?” A pause. Compassion tinged Nora’s voice. “Who are you? Why do you haunt this place?”
“Dude,” Brantley whispered, his eyes wide with amazement. “She thinks you’re the ghost.”
“I know. Isn’t that wild?”