Find the secret messages lurking in this ghost-story-without-a-ghost!
The sixty-something woman struggled along the broken sidewalk, kerchief threatening escape as she head-butted the raking autumn wind. A gust bit right through the oatmeal sweater she’d belted around her middle; a plastering of wet leaves slapped her left cheek. Discarded candy wrappers and an old bus ticket swirled ’round her knee-his, nearly flying up her dress. Althea gasped, slowing to regain herself in this evil weather. She stopped dead when she spotted the house.
The neighbourhood huddled sympathetically against the brewing storm, yet the little bungalow, set further back than the rest, stood unperturbed under dirty clouds.
White clapboards shone brightly as if lit by the sun. A black iron fence, neat rows of rods and curlicues, with a decorative spider web worked ingeniously into one corner, guarded the postage stamp garden against marauders. Red geraniums, hanging in tidy pots from the haint blue porch roof, weren’t even swinging in the breeze. And the door. The purple door sat ajar, expectant. Althea pressed a palm against her left breast, willing the taxed muscle beneath to stop torturing her ribs.
The gate, for all its glossy new paint – not one spot of rust would dare – shrieked mightily when she lifted the latch. Althea barely had time to register the noise when a movement on the threshold – a graceful swish of eyelet and checked cotton – drew her gaze. Yes. She was expected.
The gate swung noiselessly shut behind her; she was too busy clutching kerchief and handbag, and screwing up enough nerve to climb the old wooden steps, to notice.
The woman at the door made it easy. Youngish – early thirties, perhaps – not some self-entitled millennial, Althea was relieved to see. Heart-shaped face, olive-tan skin (maybe she was a real Gypsy! – or one of them Indians, by her name). Not a lick of that whorish face paint, not a single wart, and a sweet smile. And eyes. Oh, such grey eyes, like rain-soaked slate, brimming with amusement, yet too polite to let it out loud.
“Miss Althea?” the woman asked gently. A kind voice. Not a cackle to be heard. “You’re right on time! Won’t you come in?” With a flick of pale blue voile more suited to high summer, the young woman stepped back to let her visitor through.
If Althea had ever been to the ocean, which she hadn’t – she was born right here in Placente and would stay put until she passed – she’d have sworn this was one of those quaint yet upscale seaside cottages she saw in Shore Living magazine. The airy bead board paneling was just as cheery in here as the outside walls. White candles in bubble-flecked glass adorned an oak console, and starfish and sand dollars and pearly shells perched just so on a couple of barnwood shelves. Althea’s nose twitched. What was that scent? Sweet, like apples or hay – and the faint tang of salt. Beneath her pragmatic oxfords, a pale sisal runner yielded with a pleasing crunch as the women stepped into the parlour. Althea noticed her hostess was barefoot.
It was four thirty on a rainy October afternoon, when neighbours had already switched on every light in their houses, yet this unlit room was bathed in rich apricot, like the ripest sunrise. From a secrétaire in the corner, a lone oil lamp flickered on, just as Althea lowered warily onto the rattan settee.
“I’ve made tea,” her hostess informed in East Coat vowels. “Not the sweet kind – if that’s what you were hoping for. Too late in the year for that,” she laughed. “No, it’s a blend of peach and harvest apple, with a dash of cinnamon and cloves, in keeping with the season.” Her smile was white and even as she held out a steaming saucer.
“Oh, Lordy!” burst Althea, unlacing nervous fingers from her lap. “I mean, Saints alive, I never –” she flushed, mortified. It was always sweet tea, beer or bourbon ’round here – and now she’d gone and taken the Lord’s name. “I s’pose you don’t like me saying that, Miz Chawit,” she said, subdued. “Religious talk, and all. I’m sorry if I offended.” The teacup rattled in her palsied hands.
Her hostess laughed again; Althea swore she heard tinkling wind chimes. “That’s quite alright, Miss Althea, and please call me Mia. I won’t take it as an insult. Now then,” she continued, seating herself without ceremony beside the older woman and laying a steadying hand on her arm, “what is it that you’ve come for? A husband who’s died? You want to talk to him?”
Althea took breath rather too sharply, and reddened again. Marooned, actually. “Law, girl, Jasper’s been gone these forty years. We didn’t talk much when he was alive, what would I say to him now?” She chuckled at that, her double chin tripling. “No, I come to find out when I’m gonna die.”
The grey eyes flew wide. “Oh,” Mia breathed, removing her hand abruptly. She shifted toward the end of the settee, opening a blank space between them. Althea listened for a clock ticking, or crickets or something, but there was only a long, empty nothing.
Mia folded her own hands on her crisp lap and waited. “Drink up your tea, Miss Althea,” she said softly. “The session’s over. It’s time for you to go.”
Althea was confused. Out of politeness – although she wasn’t sure why she was worrying about that – she fumbled for the handle and lifted the cup to her lips. The light-filled room seemed warmer now, but the tea was cool – like the drink she’d been longing for. Yet it burned all the way down. She started to sweat.
“Now, Althea,” her hostess said as the older woman gaped for a moment, sagged, and faceplanted onto the rattan. A flowery rayon kerchief floated to the floor to rest beside her handbag and the shattered teacup.
The young woman sighed and sat for a few moments, eyeing the mouse-brown head beside her, desperately wanting to reach out and stroke the pitifully thin hair in consolation.
The room was in pewter shadow when she stirred enough to retrieve Miss Althea’s wayward things. Shutting the purse clasp firmly, she got up and padded to the secrétaire. A particularly nice Louis XVI walnut, late 18th century Milano, its front, sides and all those wonderful little drawers inlaid with Bacchus and muses and little winged putti.
Mia Chawit snicked closed the most secret drawer of all, and, for once, extinguished the lamp by turning down the wick.
“Apples and Oil Lamps” Copyright © 2019 by Valerie J. Barrett. All rights reserved by the author.