Please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Ghost Who Didn’t Believe in Herself

 by Paula Gail Benson

From: Pixabay
 

           Pressing the buzzer on the entrance’s stone column caused the towering wrought iron gates to open sedately. As Miles Henshaw drove onto the estate, his new wife, Clare, and Clare’s ten-year-old daughter Dorrie watched in silence as they passed the clean, well-tended, seemingly endless lawn. When the mansion came into view, Miles stopped, allowing them to take in the enormity of the structure.

The stillness was interrupted by a gnarled fist rapping against the driver’s window. When Miles opened it, an elderly, humped-back man wearing a dark work uniform asked if he could be of service.

“No, thank you,” Clare answered. “We’re expected.”

They parked the car in the drive beside the mansion and stood before the massive exterior entrance doorway. Clare simply swooned.

“It’s impressive, isn’t it?” Her voice purred as she squeezed Miles’ hand. Turning back to Dorrie, who carried a packed duffle, she said, “Darling, you must try to make a good impression. Aunt Astrid never really fancied me, but if she took to you, she might leave you everything. She has no one else.”

Miles nodded as he turned about taking it all in. “Not to mention, what a great place this is for you to spend school holidays when your mother and I are out of the country.”

Dorrie assumed from the eagerness with which the lovebirds planned their Christmastime delayed honeymoon, their trips outside the country could be quite frequent. Of course, having a place to deposit the bride’s daughter during school breaks would be advantageous.

The great door opened. A tall blonde woman, past middle age, but still youthful in appearance, greeted them.

 “Serenity Walcott!” Clare exclaimed. “You simply never age, do you?”

“Only in unexpected ways,” Serenity replied with a smile. “Please come in. Your aunt is waiting for you. Mr. Henshaw, she’s especially looking forward to meeting you.”

The newlyweds exchanged a glance. “And I her,” Miles said.

Serenity took a moment to observe Dorrie. “Miss Pandora Whittaker, it’s been too long since last I saw you.”

“Oh, we’ve simplified things a lot these days,” Clare said. “She’s just Dorrie and I’m Clare instead of Clarissa.”

Serenity looked skeptical, but spoke as if in agreement. “Very sensible, considering modern technology, particularly with the limited characters on Twitter responses.”

Henshaw laughed. “Seems anachronistic to be talking about modern social media in this ancient edifice,” he observed.

Serenity gave him a discerning look. “You might be surprised how often discussions of technical advances have taken place in this house. Some family members were quite enamored with the sciences.”

Extending her arm toward the hall, Serenity ushered them inside before closing the door. Then, she took them through a series of front rooms adorned with heavy curtains and furniture upholstered in velvets and tapestries. Above a massive mantelpiece hung a life-sized portrait of twin girls, likely in their early twenties. One stood straight and tall, peering out with piercing eyes. The other sat, misty-eyed, with a dreamy expression. They wore identical flowing pastel dresses and posed at the edge of a garden bursting in blooms. An ancient wooden fence rose just behind the flowers. One of the fence boards seemed to contain writing or drawing. It was difficult to see clearly.

Dorrie stopped, transfixed by the painting. Her mother and stepfather moved forward toward the back of the house. Serenity remained at the connecting doorway, watching Dorrie’s face.

“Hurry, darling,” Clare called.

Serenity walked over and placed her arm around Dorrie’s shoulders. “After you meet your aunt, you’ll have to tell me which twin she is.”

“Aunt Astrid has a twin?”

“She did. Miss Ingrid passed away many years ago. Not long after that painting was completed.” Serenity stared up at the portrait. “Her death changed your aunt’s life dramatically.”

 They walked into a large room with a wall of windows. Through the sheer drapery panels, hazy shapes of a portico and bushes were visible. In the center of the room, a white haired woman sat on a wheelchair, her right elbow perched on the arm support so her hand could cup her chin. She gazed toward the shrouded grounds as if not really caring about the view.

“Auntie, how glorious to see you,” Clare cried out, clutching her husband’s hand tightly. She stopped a few feet in front of Aunt Astrid.

Lifting her head, Aunt Astrid gazed at the group assembled before her. She sighed. “I presume this is your spouse?”

 “Indeed it is!” Clare smiled and grasped her husband’s hand more tightly. “Aunt Astrid, this is Miles Henshaw. Miles, darling, this is my aunt, Astrid Eagerton.”

“Such a pleasure, madam.” Miles made a step in Aunt Astrid’s direction, but Clare pulled him back beside her.

Aunt Astrid’s lower lip bulged forward. “I would have come to your wedding if I had been invited.”

“I know, Auntie,” Clare chattered. “The elopement was very romantic for us, but completely dissatisfying for family and friends. We mean to make amends by having a huge party in the new year. We promise that you’ll be the guest of honor.”

“How perfectly ridiculous to honor an elderly spinster at a wedding reception. I suppose you suggest it because you want me to host it here.”

The response genuinely stunned Clare, and confirmed that Aunt Astrid had never really fancied her. “Of course, we would have no right to expect such an extravagance,” Clare said.

“You seem confident enough to leave your daughter here for the holiday while you head off to tropical locales.”

This time, Miles took his step forward. “Please know how grateful we are for your generous hospitality. If you would be willing to have our reception here, I would certainly pay all expenses as well as a rental fee.”

Aunt Astrid took a moment to look him over before dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “This home is not a rentable event venue, but I gladly open it to family celebrations. We can discuss details later. I’m sure you’re anxious to begin your journey.”

Clare moved to tentatively kiss her aunt’s cheek. “Thank you so much. May you have the best ever of holidays!”

“It will be what it is,” Aunt Astrid replied.

Miles bowed. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Eagerton.” He gently cuffed Dorrie on the shoulder. “Take care, young scamp!”

“My sweet darling.” Clare pulled Dorrie close in an embrace. “We will miss you dreadfully, but how we shall celebrate when we are all together again.”

As Serenity escorted the couple out, Dorrie found herself alone with her aunt, who took the time to examine her from head to toe.

Finally, Aunt Astrid spoke. “Pandora seems a bit pretentious. What do they call you at school?”

“Dorrie.”

“Like that fish in the cartoon?”

“Yes. Except spelled with two ‘r’s’ and an ‘ie’ instead of a single ‘r’ and ‘y.’”

Aunt Astrid shook her head. “A poor choice.”

Dorrie traced a pattern in the carpet with the toe of her shoe. “I suppose it’s preferable to ‘Panda’ or ‘Ora,’ although there’s nothing wrong with either of those.”

“Huh.” Aunt Astrid rolled her eyes. “Your father was a fanciful sort, but I rather admired his desire for you to have a classical name. I doubt he’d approve of having it shortened. I shall take the matter under advisement and let you know when I determine how to address you.”

“May I call you Aunt Astrid?”

The question seemed to please her. “Yes, thank you. I can think of no alternative.” When Serenity reappeared at the doorway, Aunt Astrid turned to her. “Please escort the child to her room. Whichever one you think appropriate, just not the one we discussed.”

Serenity led the way back through the rooms they had passed. Dorrie took a moment to look again at the portrait. She wasn’t sure which twin was Astrid and which Ingrid.

As they went up the broad staircase, Dorrie asked, “What room did Aunt Astrid not want me to stay in?”

Serenity gazed back, then continued climbing. “Don’t take any offense. Miss Astrid doesn’t like for anyone to go into the rooms she shared with Miss Ingrid when they were young. She barely lets us keep them dusted.”

“Why?”

“That’s a good question. Miss Astrid used to go there often herself, until her arthritis left her dependent upon the wheelchair and restricted to the first floor. I believe she hoped to find a message from her sister in their childhood suite.”

“What kind of message?”

Serenity stopped at a door. “You should be very comfortable here. Let me help you get your things put away.”

With its mahogany canopy bed and writing desk, the room seemed a very dreary, adult place to Dorrie. They unpacked her bag, and Serenity showed her the connecting bathroom where fresh towels awaited.

“Now, is there anything else I can do for you?” Serenity asked.

Dorrie was about to ask for more information about the twins when a bell rang.

“Please excuse me. I need to check with your aunt. Dinner will be at six o’clock sharp. Come downstairs a little before that time and I’ll take you to the dining room.”

Serenity hurried off. Dorrie looked around the room. No reading matter or television. Dorrie didn’t feel like spending the time on her tablet.

Exiting, she made her way along the upstairs hallway, passing by portraits of stern looking ancestors and closed doors. As she neared the end of the hall, and was ready to turn around, she heard the soft tinny notes of an old-fashioned song, “My Wild Irish Rose.”

Listening closely, Dorrie located the room with the music and opened the door. For a moment, she felt blinded by the sunlight. When she could focus, she saw white furniture groupings and white bookcases lining the walls. In the center, twin desks and chairs faced the windows. A tall woman--her hair cut short in a bob; her dress long and straight, ending just below her knee; and her skinny legs in dark stockings crossed and propped across one desk--sat holding a music box.

She glanced in Dorrie’s direction. “Took you long enough.”

Dorrie had become fascinated by the image on the top of the music box--a painting of a sweet, cherub-like face ringed by curls and wearing a morning glory blossom upside down on its head, like a pointed hat. She turned her attention to the woman. “I beg your pardon?”

“You might well do so, since you’ve taken so much time to get here.”

Dorrie didn’t understand why she was being criticized. “I just arrived.”

“You’ve been well on your way to this spot since you saw the portrait. Hearing that you shouldn’t be in one room of the house piqued your curiosity to find the forbidden place.”

Dorrie had to concede that was true. “Have you been waiting for me?”

“Of course not.” The woman swung her legs off the desk, closed the music box, and put it down. “You’ve been conjuring me up. I’m a figment of your imagination.”

Dorrie hadn’t conversed with an imaginary figment before. “You look very real to me.”

Standing, the woman shrugged her shoulders and took a few steps toward the windows. “I would expect nothing less from your imagination.”

“Thank you,” Dorrie said. “Could you tell me who you are?”

“Ingrid, of course.”

Dorrie took a closer look. “Yes, I see a resemblance to the portrait.”

“But, to which twin?”

Dorrie examined her critically. Ingrid seemed sharp and direct, like the twin with the piercing gaze. But, somehow, Dorrie couldn’t imagine Aunt Astrid as dewy eyed and dreamy.

“I’m not sure. Both, I suppose.”

“Many people confused us, mostly because they didn’t know us and took no time to learn about us. They’d say, ‘Those are the Eagerton twins.’ Never, ‘that’s Astrid, whose drawings capture the essence of their subjects, or that’s Ingrid, who’s brilliant at the sciences.’ Only Wilton Smythe looked deeper.”

“Who’s Wilton Smythe?”

“The portrait painter, of course.” Ingrid sighed dramatically, crisscrossing her arms around her waist. “Astrid always suspected that he loved me instead of her.”

“Did he?”

Ingrid turned to face her. “Why are you asking me questions for which you don’t have the answers?”

“You’ve already provided information I didn’t know.”

Ingrid shook her head. “You’re mistaken.”

Dorrie remained resolute. “I didn’t know Wilton Smythe’s name until you told me.”

Ingrid rolled her eyes. “Then you must have seen his signature on the portrait.”

“But, I didn’t,” Dorrie insisted. “I was looking at the faces.”

Ingrid stamped a foot. “Well, Wilton’s always skulking around pretending to look after the landscaping so he can be near Astrid. He’ll never quit hoping that she’ll forgive him for helping me.”

Dorrie thought back to the man they met after coming through the gate. “We did see someone on the lawn.”

“Bent over and wearing a black jump suit?” When Dorrie nodded, Ingrid continued, “That’s him. You must have seen his name stitched on a pocket.”

Dorrie shook her head. “No, I didn’t. Look, why are you purposely trying to hide your identity?”

Ingrid tilted her head and scrunched her eyebrows. “How dare you accuse me, and what on earth do you mean?”

Dorrie gave her a quick nod. “On earth exactly. Since Ingrid is deceased, you can’t be here, except as a ghost. That’s what I believe you are--a ghost, not something I’ve made up.”

Ingrid threw her head back, laughed, and flopped back into the desk chair. “You are fanciful. Just like your father.”

“You couldn’t have known my father.”

“But, you did.” Ingrid propped her legs back across the desk. “Which is why my contention, that I’m a figment of your imagination, is more probable than me being a ghost. What you’ve made up about me is based more on your own creative speculations than any facts. Besides, as a student of science, I know ghosts aren’t real.”

Remembering her own scientific studies, Dorrie recognized something false about that statement. “How do you know ghosts aren’t real? Can you prove it?”

Ingrid stared at her coolly. “I don’t have to prove nonexistence when there is no credible evidence of a being in reality. Ghosts are the stuff of legends and belief systems. They have been used by charlatans to manipulate, storytellers to entertain, and . . .,” she paused, maintaining eye contact, “by children to analyze situations they don’t understand. That is why you have conceived me.”

As Dorrie formulated a response, she heard Serenity’s voice calling to her from below. “Please wash your hands and come downstairs, dear. Your aunt has decided to have dinner early.”

Ingrid stretched out her arms and legs. “By all means answer the call. No doubt your mind can summon me up at a later time, if you’re still interested.”

Dorrie headed to the door, looking back to see if Ingrid had levitated from her position across the desk. No one was there, which convinced Dorrie all the more that Ingrid was a ghost.

“If I had imagined you, then I would have made you polite enough to not disappear until I had left,” Dorrie said to the empty room.

#######

The meal offered simple fare: a hearty beef and vegetable soup accompanied by a crusty roll with creamy butter. Dorrie figured it was to let her know that a great house did not always provide sumptuous cuisine. She didn’t mind, particularly when served a treacle tart for dessert.

She remained preoccupied with the ghost or figment she had experienced upstairs. She didn’t realize how quiet she had been until Aunt Astrid asked, “Why are you so lost in contemplation?”

Dorrie shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Aunt Astrid made a huffing sound. “Of course you do. You’re just reluctant to tell me.”

Dorrie considered that Aunt Astrid was always forthright. Perhaps she should be, too. “That’s true,” she admitted.

“Good.” Aunt Astrid nodded. “Tell me anyway.”

How was the best way to put it? “It’s hard to explain.”

“Tell me the question you’re pondering.”

“Have you . . .,” Dorrie hesitated, took a deep breath, and continued, “ever had to convince someone they were real?”

Aunt Astrid sat back in her chair. “That’s a very peculiar thought.”

“I know. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“What would you consider doing, to convince someone?”

Dorrie thought for a moment. “If it were a usual situation, I would pinch the person.”

Aunt Astrid laughed. “Good answer. Show the person by a sensory response. My scientific sister would approve. Why can’t you pinch the person?”

Dorrie was elated to hear her aunt mention Ingrid, but puzzled as to how to answer the question. “This person is difficult to get close to.”

Aunt Astrid straightened her back, holding her head higher. “I hope you don’t mean me.”

“Oh, no, Aunt Astrid. I’m very sure you know you are real.”

Aunt Astrid laughed again. “And, I presume you don’t question your reality, because if you pinched yourself, you might still wonder if that action was real or imagined.”

“True.”

“You have admirable intelligence. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever heard of pareidolia?”

Dorrie shook her head. “No.”

“Well, it’s how a brain processes information by putting all the sensory pieces together. Have you ever looked at the clouds and seen shapes of animals or thought there was a face on the moon?”

Dorrie had to admit she had.

“That’s how pareidolia works,” Aunt Astrid continued. “It translates what a person sees or experiences based on what the person knows of life.”

Dorrie nodded without really understanding. “Yes, ma’am,” she said to be polite. “How did you learn about it?”

“From my sister. We talked about it while having our portrait painted. But, I see that you don’t truly comprehend. If you did, I’d see the light in your eyes. Never hesitate to ask questions. Let me try another example. Do you know the musical, Hello Dolly?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I will tell your mother that your education is lacking. Hello Dolly is the story of a woman who acts as a matchmaker for others while seeking a spouse for herself.”

Dorrie didn’t see the connection with pareidolia, but continued to nod politely.

“The matchmaker’s first husband had a saying. ‘Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.’”

Dorrie still had no idea what it all meant, but she had to stop nodding. She was getting dizzy.

“The matchmaker picked out her new spouse, but wanted a sign from her first husband that he approved.”

“Her dead first husband?” Dorrie found this remarkable. She couldn’t imagine her mother seeking her dead father’s permission to remarry.

“Exactly.” Aunt Astrid’s eyes twinkled. “Do you know how she got the sign?”

“No.”

“She heard her intended speak the same words her first husband used to say about money. To her, that confirmed that her first husband approved and that she could continue to live as a community benefactress.”

Dorrie pondered what she had just heard. At first it seemed to support the argument that Ingrid was a figment rather than a ghost, but then she thought a little more. “It was sort of like the matchmaker’s intended channeled a message from her first husband.”

Aunt Astrid thought about that for a minute before agreeing. “Yes, particularly since the intended seemed to be a stingy man while the first husband had been generous.”

“Thank you, Aunt Astrid. You’ve given me a lot to consider.”

#######

During the next morning, while a huge evergreen was being delivered and set up in the room with the portrait, Dorrie wandered outside onto the portico. In the winter, the garden had only short green bushes along dark patches of ground where flowers would bloom in the spring. Following the path, Dorrie reached the place where a set of weathered boards remained anchored in the soil, remnants of a fence. As she drew closer, Dorrie noticed a pattern on one of the boards. She reached out to touch it, wondering if it had occurred naturally or been drawn there.

“Young miss, you’ll take care, please,” a voice called to her.

She turned to see the dark-uniformed caretaker who had asked if her family needed assistance when they arrived. He took off his cap and bowed his head slightly.

“Might be you think it silly,” he told her, “with those boards so close to falling down, but they have a sentimental meaning, you see, so I mean to preserve them as long as possible.”

“They are in the portrait with the twins,” Dorrie said.

Smiling, the man replaced his cap. “You noticed.”

“Oh, yes. And this one,” she pointed to the pattern, “reminds me of an image I’ve seen. A child or maybe a fairy wearing a morning glory blossom as a pointed hat.”

The man’s face turned ashen. “You saw it drawn? Where?”

“In the twins’ room. On a music box that played ‘My Wild Irish Rose.’”

Somehow, the man’s face grew paler. “But that’s impossible.”

“Why?”

He shook his head. “That box left here long ago.”

“With Ingrid?”

He looked frightened by her question. “How is it you know?”

“The same way I know you’re Wilton Smythe. Ingrid haunts this place and told me. She carries the music box with her.”

He stood, eying the cold, hard ground as if reasoning out what he had just heard. Finally, he sighed. “I can’t say I’m surprised. She wouldn’t let go of this place without her whole story being told. She only left because she thought she might never have another chance to work at a lab and that was her life’s dream, to make wonderful discoveries and better the world. How she would have loved to work on a cure for the arthritis that plagues Astrid.”

“Tell me about her. Tell me about the three of you.”

He pointed toward a bench. After Dorrie followed and sat, he perched beside her and began the telling. “We grew up in this community, the three of us the same age. The twins had private tutors while I went to the small public school, with all the year-groups in a single room. When Mr. Eagerton learned I had some artistic talent, he invited me to take drawing lessons with his daughters in their home. I’d finished public school and had no means to go to college, so I gladly accepted, along with a job to keep up the landscaping. Astrid and I loved composing pictures and painting, while Ingrid excelled at copying images with precision and detail. She adored filling her notebooks with sketches of plants and animals. Observing how things were put together gave her the same joy as solving a mathematic equation.

“Back in those days, the goal for young ladies was to marry well, have families, and keep organized homes. Astrid’s love of art seemed an appropriate hobby that provided decorating skill, but Ingrid’s wanting to be a scientist was viewed as odd. Her father forbade her to study the biology and chemistry texts she found so captivating. She defied him by finding a position with a lab in Birmingham. I agreed to take her to the station after the rest of the house had gone to sleep.”

He leaned against the back of the bench, breathing hard, as if talking had taken something out of him. “Late that night, Ingrid snuck out of the house and got into my old truck. We rode along in silence for a bit. Then I noticed she was crying.

“‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘I’m leaving without a remembrance of my sister,’ she said. I felt like saying, can’t you look in the mirror, but that seemed unkind when she was so forlorn. So I did a thing I shouldn’t have done and now live to regret.”

Dorrie patted his hand. “You loved her very much.”

“No!” He drew his hand away. “Oh, I liked Ingrid well enough, but my heart belonged to Astrid. Always has. If only I’d just consoled Ingrid that night, or even taken her back home, things might have been different. Instead, I gave her the music box I’d made for Astrid. The one with the image you described, the fairy wearing a bloom for a hat. What, as young art students, we thought we saw in the plank from the old wooden fence.”

“That’s why you included the fence in the portrait.”

“Yes. That’s why. For Christmas that year, I had found a music box that played ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ the song I hummed for Astrid, and painted the image on the cover. I planned to give it to her and ask her to marry me. Sadly, that was all I had to offer Ingrid. She took it with her to Birmingham. When she was killed in a traffic accident, crossing the road as she left the station, her bag was returned to the family. Seeing the music box among Ingrid’s possessions, Astrid thought that meant I had loved Ingrid instead of her. I heard Astrid threw the box away. She’s only spoken to me in passing since.”

Dorrie took his hand. “I have an idea.” She whispered her thoughts in his ear.

As he listened, he became more animated. “Yes, yes,” he agreed. “That I can do.”

“Then, bring it with you and return tonight as we are finishing the tree.”

#######

Following dinner that evening, Serenity had a fire going in the room with the portrait and Christmas tree. She wheeled Miss Astrid in to admire the decorations while having a cup of tea.

Giving it a thorough once over, Astrid agreed, “It is quite handsomely appointed. I commend your efforts.”

“There is one ornament more, Aunt Astrid,” Dorrie told her. “May I invite in a Christmas guest?”

“It seems a late hour for visiting.”

“But, this is important and already has been delayed too long,” Dorrie said.

The doorbell rang. Serenity went to answer it and returned with Wilton Smythe, still dressed in his black uniform and holding his cap in his hands.

Aunt Astrid flinched. “We have no need to communicate.”

“Please Aunt Astrid,” Dorrie begged. “See what he has brought.”

Wilton handed her a flat, round wooden circle with a painting of the fairy wearing a bloom hat. “I drew this for you many years ago, placing it on a music box that played ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ the tune I always hummed for you. I gave the box to Ingrid because she was sad about leaving home. I thought I could make another for you, but after she was killed and you found the box in her bag, you presumed my love had been for her.” Slowly, he knelt beside the wheelchair. “I admired Ingrid’s intelligence, but I loved only you. I still love only you.”

The logs in the fireplace crackled. The firelight shone in Wilton Smythe’s and Astrid Eagerton’s eyes.

“I’ve been such an old fool,” Astrid said, dropping the ornament in her lap and reaching for Wilton’s hands.

He lifted her fingers to his lips. “No more so than I.”

Quietly, Serenity stepped forward to retrieve the ornament. “We’ll place this on the tree and leave you alone to talk.”

As Serenity hung the ornament, Dorrie looked at the portrait. It had a third figure. A younger version of Wilton knelt beside the sitting girl who looked at him adoringly. Meanwhile, her standing sister looked out toward Dorrie and winked.

Declining Serenity’s offer of hot chocolate, Dorrie took the steps two at a time to the second floor. She opened the door to the twins’ room. The moonlight shown on the white furnishings making them glisten. The music box sat on the desk where Ingrid had lounged.

Beside the music box, Dorrie found a note with her name. She opened it to read: “I concede you are correct. I am a ghost, haunting this place until I could find someone to believe me and return the music box to my sister. I entrust that task to you. In your future, may you come to value pareidolia as we did. With gratitude, Ingrid P.S. Despite being incorrigible, pinching me would have been a sound method of proving reality, if it could have been accomplished. Farewell.”

#######

When Miles and Clare returned to the mansion on the morning of December 30th, they found themselves surprisingly intruding upon a rollicking party.

Greeting them at the door, Serenity welcomed them warmly. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilton Smythe will be so delighted you returned in time for their wedding reception.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Wilton Smythe?” Clare asked.

“Your Aunt Astrid, of course,” Serenity explained. “She wanted to have the ceremony while Pandora was still here and could be her attendant.”

“Pandora?” Miles asked.

“Yes, Mrs. Smythe and your lovely stepdaughter much prefer that to a nickname. Come join them. The bride is about to toss the bouquet.”

Miles and Clare found themselves following Serenity into an unexpected world.


 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Christmas Cuckoo by Tammy Euliano

 This story is from the universe of my novel, Fatal Intent. A view into Dr. Kate Downey's childhood.



Christmas means gifts. Of course, it means much more, like cookies and time off and church, but in our house, opening gifts Christmas morning was the highlight, at least to my fourteen-year-old self. Except at fourteen, I had no money to purchase gifts. Instead, Christmas meant creativity.

That November, Dad sat my older brother, Dave, and me down for our annual, “what to make mom for Christmas” discussion. No joke, we did this every year, as far back as I could remember. The evidence decorated the house, and Mom, year-round.

“This year she definitely wants to fly in a glider,” Dave said. He always claimed she wanted something related to an airplane. Before Dad could argue, Dave added, “It’s the Golden Rule. Do unto others…”

“Then she wants a puppy.” I always pushed for our Lab-mix, Pep, to have a buddy. “One with long floppy ears and—"

“Yeah, Kate, I don’t think that’s what Jesus, or any philosopher for that matter, had in mind,” Dad said. “Nice try, though, both of you.”

Dave and I nodded in our sibling way, heads tilted, wry smiles. We tried every holiday. One of these days we’d break him. But not that day.

Dad tried again. “What does Mom want for Christmas?”

“Not clothes,” Dave said. “Guys don’t sew.”

I laughed. The hilariously uneven hem of the dress we made for Mom last year remained a source of pride for her, shame for Dave, and humor for the community at large. Perhaps encouraged a little by me pointing out Dave’s haphazard contribution as a fashion trend-setter at every opportunity.

“You could sew a puppy-blanket,” I said.

“Nope. You could sew a neck pillow for the plane ride.”

“Kids! This is about Mom.” Dad’s hands went into his hair, a sure sign of frustration. He would be bald soon. “She admired a cuckoo clock at Auntie Lori’s.” Mom’s sister lived in England. While our parents went to visit last summer, Great Uncle Max stayed with Dave and me. He lived on the property, in his own little house across one of the fields.

We had a blast with him in charge. He’s like the coolest substitute teacher ever, who didn’t bother to read the lesson plans and didn’t know the meaning of the word "boundaries." Maybe it means something different in his native German. No curfew, no lights out, no limits on dessert.

Back to Christmas planning. A cuckoo clock sounded fine to us. Next step, research. Always research—figure out the options, including costs, and come up with a proposal. Our next meeting would be Saturday morning when Mom went to book club.

***

At school, I asked my friends if anyone had a cuckoo clock—nope, had seen a cuckoo clock—nope, knew where I might find a cuckoo clock—nope. Someone suggested watching the Sound of Music and Dave agreed to drive me to BlockBuster to rent it for the night.

For the record, there is no cuckoo clock in the Sound of Music, only a song about a cuckoo clock. In fact, there are a lot of songs, about raindrops and roses and whiskers and kittens; about turning seventeen, which seemed a long way off; about female deer and pronouns for self; and on and on. Turned out, Mom loved the movie and could sing nearly every word.

Afterward, she kissed the top of my head before getting up from the couch. “Why did you choose this movie?”

I debated my answer. I could say it was assigned, but she might see the lie on my face. I was a terrible liar; a tragedy for a teenager. “Someone at school said it was good.”

She seemed to accept that. “What did you think?”

“I liked it.” And I did. Later I would realize I loved it, and later still I would realize why—because it made Mom happy. At the time, though, it got me no closer to a cuckoo clock plan.


On Thursday, Dave picked me up after school and drove to the clock store in the mall. They had hundreds of wall clocks on display but none with a cuckoo inside, or outside for that matter. They did have a catalog, though, and we stared with wonder at cuckoo clocks from Germany’s Black Forest Clock Association. Besides being beautiful and amazing, they all had two things in common: a price tag well beyond our means, and intricate details well beyond our skill set. We would have felt discouraged, except we knew this to be the beginning of every great Christmas gift for Mom.

Saturday morning, Dave, Dad and I went to the flea market for our weekly visit. We went most weekends. And most weekends, Dad found treasures; because who doesn’t need a fourth set of wrenches in “perfect condition, and for this price?!” Sure, Dad, whatever.

Dave and I strolled away while Dad haggled over a hammer that might have been discarded by George Washington’s carpenter. We passed tables of “antiques” that just looked like old junk rescued from a dumpster. I found the craft tables interesting if still beyond my meager means.

Dave stopped at a booth with, what else, an old wood propeller painted as a wall hanging.

I started to pass him and froze. “Dave, look.”

No response.

Without looking back, I stretched my arm out and patted his shoulder. “Dave, look.”

“Excuse me.”

Oops, the shoulder belonged to someone else. “Sorry.”

I took a step back, poked Dave in the ribs, then ducked to avoid his flying elbow response. “Look.” I pointed.

“What?...Oh.”

We walked side-by-side, probably in slow motion, toward the final table in the row, staring at the piece hanging on the back wall, a cuckoo clock. It was beautiful-ish. Not like the Black Forest clocks. And not like anything Mom would choose. It was painted a crazy mix of colors, like someone barfed rainbow sherbet all over it. But it had the hands, and the little door at the top for something to pop out on the hour, and the pendulum and other dangly things underneath. It was perfect-ish.

“That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Dave whispered as we neared the table. “Like someone barfed…”

I nudged him. The booth’s owner watched us approach with a too-wide grin. He knew suckers. What he didn’t know was we were suckers without money.

“Interested in the clock, are ya?” he said, still grinning.

“Yes, sir.” Then I remembered Dad’s haggling instructions: Don’t appear eager. “Maybe. A little.” Whew, that was close.

He chuckled. “Would you like to see it?”

“Ye…” I stopped myself. This guy was good. Instead, I raised my shoulders in a shrug. “Whatever.”

He pulled the clock from the wall and lay it on the table. Dave examined it. “How’d you make it?”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I repurposed a classic as art.”

Dad appeared then. “Wow,” he said as he took in the clock.

I coughed to cover a giggle. It was Dad’s that’s-hideous “wow.” Still, the artist beamed.

“Do you have any you have yet to restore?” Dad asked.

“Restore? This isn’t a restored clock. It’s a piece of art. An expression of…” The rest of his words were drowned out by Dave’s coughing. I’m pretty sure I heard some swear words in his cough.

Dad smacked him on the back, partly to help with the cough, mostly to tell him to cut it out. “I could not hope to match your artistry,” Dad said. “I am just hoping to find a project I can do with the kids for their Mom’s Christmas present. She needs a clock and we can’t afford something like this.” He went on before the artist could start haggling. “It will mean so much to her if it’s something the kids paint themselves.”

The artist now eyed Dave and me. I put on what I hoped was my please-sir-it’s-for-my-mama face. If such a face exists.

The man reached into a box beside him and pulled out the ragged shell of a cuckoo clock. This one was from whatever’s the opposite of Germany’s Black Forest. It had a plain wood front of chipped gray paint. The clock had only one hand, and the small hole above had no doors.

“I bet the cuckoo took off in search of better housing,” Dave said.

“We can make a new one,” I said.

“The whole thing needs work,” Dave said.

“Don’t all our presents for Mom?”

He grunted.

“This wouldn’t involve a sewing machine or a stove,” I said. The clock’s bottom had an oblong hole. “Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of pendulum down here?”

“Yep.”

I scanned other items on the table. “Is it here somewhere?”

“Nope. Clock comes as-is.”

“It’s not a clock if it doesn’t tell time.” I was getting good at this.

“It’s mostly right twice a day.” He winked at me.

The sundial at school was just a stick in the ground, and it did better than that.

With the owner’s permission, Dad opened up the clock. There were all sorts of gears and metal pieces inside. “What do you want for it?”

“Hundred bucks,” the stall owner said.

I swallowed. Dad put it down and turned to leave.

“Fifty,” the stall owner said.

“It’s not worth twenty,” Dad said.

“Okay, twenty.”

“He said it’s not worth twenty,” Dave said. But at the same moment, Dad said, “Deal.”

Back at the car, Dad turned the key in the ignition. “That might be the best deal I ever made.”

Dave and I looked at each other over the seat.

“You’ll see,” he said.

For the next few weeks, we worked on the clock most evenings and for several hours on weekends. We stripped the paint and stained the wood, rebuilt the mechanism, bought a few replacement parts, like the pendulum and weights. Dave and I worked together on the cuckoo, using scrap wood and fabric.

The last Saturday before Christmas, while Mom was out shopping, we were ready for the first test run. Dad wound the mechanism, and we watched and listened. It took a little work to get the pendulum timing right, but eventually it was close, and the metal bar shot out on the hour. The only thing left was the cuckoo, but Dave and I wanted it to be a surprise. We took the clock back to his room and installed our creation.

Christmas morning, I woke eager and excited and a little worried. Mom had liked everything we’d ever given her, but this one had been a bit more ambitious, and couldn’t compare with Auntie Lori’s clock. At last it was time, three minutes ‘til eight. I covered Mom’s eyes while Dave brought out the clock and placed it on the mantle. I uncovered her eyes with one minute to spare. She stood and took a good long look. “It’s beautiful. Oh my gosh, you made this?”

“Hang on.” Dave looked at his watch.

“Keep watching,” I said as my own watch clicked past eight.

Mom and Dad stared unblinking at the clock and its swinging pendulum. I wondered vaguely if hypnotism was real. As the sound began, the tiny doors swung open, and out flew a tiny airplane piloted by a miniature dog, only distinguishable by his floppy ears.

Monday, December 13, 2021

THE HANDBELL RINGERS OF WHITE PINES PARISH

 by Korina Moss


Some people say fences make the best neighbors. Mrs. Molly Pringle always thought the best neighbors were dead ones. Thus, when the sturdy 55-year-old widow found a cottage for sale that abutted a nineteenth-century cemetery, she drove the three hundred miles to White Pines, Vermont, to see about purchasing it.

An Episcopal church shared a lawn with the cottage and was its only neighbor, which suited Mrs. Pringle. Father Clinton Burrows, who’d owned the house for the last two decades, assured Mrs. Pringle that the church bells would be the only interruption to the quietude of village life. Mrs. Pringle thought Sunday service bells were acceptable, as she was a churchgoer. She bought the cottage from the reverend and moved in promptly.

So it was with great consternation that a month after moving in, just as the earth was beginning to thaw from the long New England winter, Mrs. Pringle learned of the Handbell Ringers of White Pines Parish. Once a week at precisely ten a.m., a group of twelve congregants gathered on the church’s wide front walkway to practice their bell ringing. When Mrs. Pringle, aghast at the piercing din that penetrated her cottage’s stone walls, went outside to complain, she was told they’d just come off their two-month break and were preparing for December’s holiday performances throughout the Northeast Kingdom, culminating in the regional Christmas Handbell Ringers competition. Had Mrs. Pringle paid more attention to the church than the cemetery behind it, she would’ve noticed the large handmade sign indicating the fundraising goal for their traveling expenses. Had she listened to the conversations at coffee hour, she would’ve heard that Fiona Atwell, who was the youngest ringer at 38 and had a penchant for wearing pastels, had recruited two congregants to replace this season’s retiring ringers, thus ensuring their fourteen-year streak competing in the regional Christmas competition would not be broken. Since the carols relied on the timing of each bell, even having a single ringer down would’ve disrupted the group. 

 

 

Father Burrows’ wife of twenty-six years, an exceedingly thin woman with pinched lips and a barely hidden distaste for her husband, disclosed one Sunday after services how thrilled she was to finally be living away from that racket. She sneered at the polished brass handbells displayed with pride in a glass-fronted cabinet in the church’s vestibule. Father Burrows’ left eye twitched as he tried to shush her—after all, he’d purposely misled Mrs. Pringle about the bells when selling her the cottage. His wife sneered at him too. Mrs. Pringle regretted not heeding her instinct to distrust a man over fifty with hair the color of shoe polish, even if he was a reverend.

Mrs. Pringle felt a certain betrayal that Ina, her 110-pound Newfoundland, loved the ringing and would leap at the door every time she heard the cars pull into the church’s lot at 9:55 a.m., as they were all particularly punctual. Mrs. Pringle had to walk Ina up and down the street during the entire bell ringing practice before the dog would settle down, only for her to get excited again when Father Burrows would return to the church alone a mere ten minutes after practice ended. The walk never settled Mrs. Pringle, however. Her irritation at the bell ringers intensified over the summer when her windows were wide open and by autumn it turned into a severe loathing. The members insisted to Mrs. Pringle they had to mimic the conditions of the outdoor Christmas competition and thus she would have to bear the ringing.

 

The closer the holiday season approached, the more frequent the practices. By December, it had become a daily ninety-minute occurrence. Mrs. Pringle continued to hear the clanging in her head long after the brassy peals had dissipated. Any slowing car at any time of day would elicit a torturous Pavlovian response from Mrs. Pringle, tensing her entire body. The clanging resounded even in her dreams. She couldn’t take another day of it. Something had to be done. 

 

At church that Sunday, Mrs. Pringle’s eyelids did not grow heavy during Father Burrows’ sermon, as they usually did. This time, thoughts of how she would execute her plan kept her mind sharp.

 

The following Wednesday morning at 9:55 a.m., Ina loped to the side door at the first hint of a car’s engine slowing at the curb. This time, Mrs. Pringle’s muscles did not tense. Her teeth did not clench. In fact, this morning she was humming. She would’ve been peeved to realize it was one of the Christmas tunes the Handbell Ringers had been practicing.

 

She wound her knit scarf around her neck, slipped on her boots and her three-quarter length parka, and clipped Ina’s leash onto the dog’s collar. This time she happily followed Ina outside.  

 

Normally, the handbell ringers would all be in their places in front of the church with Father Burrows standing on the church steps before them, directing, as it was ten a.m. on the dot. They had not started their first song, however. Much to Mrs. Pringle’s delight, there was some chaos this morning.

 

Ignoring the expected confusion, she walked to her detached garage and lifted the door above her head. An excited Ina continued to tug on her leash, forcing Mrs. Pringle to make separate careful trips to the curb with her trash and recycle bins for pick-up later that morning. Navigating the unnecessarily enormous recycle can always annoyed Mrs. Pringle, but not today. Today, she happily rolled it down the driveway, ready for the automated sanitation truck that would arrive shortly. Ina seemed more boisterous than usual, likely because the bell ringing had not yet begun. Mrs. Pringle would have to give Ina extra treats later to soothe her disappointment, as she knew there’d be no bell ringing today.

As Mrs. Pringle began to walk Ina on her usual route past the church, she decided it wasn’t enough to merely listen to the silence. She wanted a front row seat to witness the collective bewilderment. The bell ringers, still abuzz with chatter, left the walkway with brass bells in hand and went inside. Mrs. Pringle and Ina followed up the church steps and through the arched red doors.

 

Everyone stood in the vestibule, staring accusingly at the single pair of handbells which remained behind the cabinet doors. Mrs. Pringle’s lips curled in a smile, but only for an instant. She couldn’t show her delight.


“Is something the matter?” she said to the group, making a point to pull up the sleeve of her parka with her gloved hand to note the time on her watch. “It’s 10:13.” Thirteen glorious minutes without bells.

 

“Miranda isn’t here,” Shelly volunteered in her squeaky voice. With the hood of her puffy white parka still fastened around her face, she looked submerged in meringue. “We can’t practice without every ringer. Nelson was supposed to pick her up this morning.”

 

“She lives around the corner, but I drive her here on the coldest mornings,” Nelson said, tucking his wool scarf under his chin to speak. He was just a few years older than Mrs. Pringle with good posture and a protruding stomach where the buttons of his peacoat pulled. “She wasn’t home and didn’t answer her phone. I thought we got our signals crossed and she decided to walk to practice. But I didn’t see her on the roadside and she’s not here.”

 

“We can’t ring without Miranda. It’ll throw everything off,” Shelly’s husband Gregory reiterated her earlier statement. His bells clanged when he gestured with his arms, causing Mrs. Pringle to wince.

 

An eager Ina alerted Mrs. Pringle to the arrival of Helen Burrows a few moments before she entered the church. It was impossible to tell her temper, as she wasn’t a smiler even under happy circumstances.

 

“Helen, what are you doing here?” the reverend asked his wife.

 

“I contacted her,” Nelson said. “I know she has a key to Miranda’s house.”

 

“She’s not in the house and she’s not answering my calls. I can’t imagine where she would be. I think she’s gone missing,” Helen Burrows stated.

 

“Missing?” Mrs. Pringle echoed.

 

“We should call the police.” Shelly set down her bells and reached in the pocket of her puffy coat for her cell phone.

 

“Now, now, let’s not be hasty,” Father Burrows said. “It might be nothing. How will it look to have the police here?”

 

“He’s right,” Fiona, who was dressed as usual in pastel from hat to boots, spoke up. “It could be a simple explanation. Could she have gone away? Maybe on a trip?”

 

“Don’t be an idiot, Fiona,” Helen Burrows barked. “The regional Christmas competition is the only trip she ever takes. Everyone knows that.”

 

“She’d never leave the bell ringers so close to our first performance,” Nelson said. “Who saw her last?”

 

The group tried to ascertain Miranda Titwell’s whereabouts. It appeared yesterday’s practice was the last sighting.

 

“We returned our bells to the cabinet, I locked the church, and we all left for home,” Father Burrows summed up. 

 

Mrs. Pringle cleared her throat. “Now, that’s not exactly true.”

 

Father Burrows’ left eye twitched.

 

She continued, “You returned after practice again like you tend to do. I looked out the window because Ina barked when she heard your car, and I saw you go back into the church.” Mrs. Pringle knew this because it was how she was able to sneak into the church shortly after Father Burrows.

 

Helen Burrows glared at her husband. Her angry stare slid to Fiona, who always managed to be standing near the reverend. Fiona’s rosy cheeks flushed as if she’d been ringing bells outdoors for hours. She broke eye contact with Mrs. Burrows and looked down at her lavender boots.

 

Father Burrows stuttered a few mumbled words before finding his voice to explain. “I-I was hoping not to have to say anything, but it looks like I have no choice. I discovered Miranda was stealing the money we were raising for this year’s competition.”

 

“What?” Astonishment rang through the room.

 

Father Burrows continued, “As treasurer, she had complete access to the money, of course. I started to become suspicious when our fundraisers were bringing in so much less than usual. She admitted to taking the money and begged me not to turn her in. What was I to do? I told her if she brought the money back in full, I would forgive her and keep it between us. We were supposed to meet in the office yesterday so she could return it—that’s why I came back in secret. But she never showed up. She must’ve decided to take the money and run.”

 

“I can’t believe Miranda would do that to the Handbell Ringers.” Shelly’s voice cracked trying to hold back her tears.

 

The whoop whoop of a siren sounded.

 

“I called Sheriff Ogden as soon as I couldn’t find Miranda,” Helen Burrows announced.

 

Ina pulled on her leash, wanting to investigate the noise. “Down, Ina, down!” Mrs. Pringle scrambled to open the church doors before Ina scratched them trying to claw her way outside. 

 


As soon the doors were opened, the massive dog raced ahead, pulling Mrs. Pringle forward and unbalancing her. The leash slipped through Mrs. Pringle’s hand as Ina barreled down the walkway to Sheriff Ogden, knocking over the church’s recycle bin at the curb, causing it to thunk on the ground. Sheriff Ogden readily petted Ina who, on her hind legs, met the sheriff nose to nose.

 

It wasn’t until Mrs. Pringle made it down the steps and to the end of the walkway and commanded Ina to get down, that anyone noticed what had spilled out of the church’s overturned recycle bin—the dead body of Miranda Titwell. 

 

*****

 

Sheriff Ogden called for backup and ordered everyone to return inside the church. Father Burrows and Helen Burrows, the ringers, and Mrs. Pringle did as they were instructed. After the other officers arrived, Sheriff Ogden joined the group inside. Father Burrows was forced to recount what he’d disclosed about Miranda’s theft.

 

Shelly, who’d been standing near the cabinet, regarded Miranda’s bells. “I can’t believe this is all that’s left of her.” This time her tears spilled over. She stuffed her face into Gregory’s lapel.

 

With one arm around his wife, Gregory reached out the other to open the cabinet.

 

“Don’t touch it,” Sheriff Ogden ordered as he shuffled everyone into the nave and away from the cabinet. “The bells could be evidence.”

 

Now it was Mrs. Pringle who felt weepy. She knew her fingerprints would be on those bells.

 

“Did you kill her?” Helen Burrows demanded to know.

 

Mrs. Pringle nervously faced Mrs. Burrows, but Helen’s accusing stare was targeted at her husband.

 

“Helen!” Father Burrows was appalled at the accusation.

 

“Clint?” Fiona’s voice trembled.

 

Clint?” Helen Burrows repeated, suddenly enraged. Nobody used Father Burrows’ shortened first name but her and his closest confidantes. “You told me you stopped seeing that cotton candy tramp!” She lunged at her husband, jumping on him like a spider monkey and wildly swinging her fists as they toppled into a pew.

 

Over Ina’s barking, Father Burrows shouted his confessions as if he were a sinning Catholic. “I stopped! I swear! Fiona meant nothing! I called it off with her months ago!”

 

Fiona was frozen in place. Shelly helped her back away from the tussle, but not before righting the overturned poinsettia at the foot of the pew.

 

Sheriff Ogden had a surprisingly difficult time tearing the petite woman off her husband. When he did, she was still spewing accusations.

 

“Why were you still coming here after practice?” Helen Burrows demanded to know.

 

He clumsily pulled himself up from the pew and patted his disheveled hair into place. “It was Miranda.”

 

“You were sleeping with Miranda too?” Fiona cried.

 

All eyes turned to Fiona, her admission compounding their astonishment.

 

“No! Miranda was blackmailing me.” He turned his attention back to his wife, his explanation spilling out. “She’d caught me and Fiona months before and she threatened to tell everyone, even after I stopped seeing her. She wanted money, so I started giving her the Christmas competition funds. But when she found out where the money was coming from, she didn’t want it. She wanted my money. When I told her I couldn’t do that without you finding out, she said she’d gladly tell everyone about me and Fiona. She threatened me just like you did, Helen.” He turned chillingly calm and took a step toward his wife. “Just like you. So before she could leave my office, I put my fingers around her neck…” He demonstrated with his hands on an imaginary Miranda. “…until she was finally quiet. I only wish I had done it to you too.”

 

Helen Burrows’ face slackened in horror.

 

Father Burrows sighed, the weight of his secrets now expunged, and extended his arms in front of him in surrender. Sheriff Ogden cuffed his wrists and led him out of the church.

 

Everyone stood silent in shock. Gregory put a protective arm around Shelly. Tears streaked Fiona’s cheeks and Helen Burrows looked lost. Ina stayed close to Mrs. Pringle, sensing her nerves. The sheriff returned with his deputies and directed them to cordon off the reverend’s office. He gently told everyone they could go home.

 

With lowered heads, they all shuffled out, grasping their bells, not wanting to give them up yet.

 

“Are we practicing tomorrow?” Shelly asked, her thin voice even squeakier than usual.

 

Nelson shook his head. “It’s over for this season, Shelly.”

 

*****

 

When church resumed on Christmas Eve with a new reverend, it was decided Miranda’s handbells should be displayed in a special place of honor. Shelly took them out of the cabinet and was surprised by their silence—they were missing their clappers. Everyone assumed someone had removed them as a tribute to Miranda. No one ever suspected that at the same time Reverend Burrows was murdering Miranda Titwell in his office, Mrs. Pringle had been in the vestibule unscrewing the bells’ clappers—her plan to be free of the incessant ringing for just one day.

 

Mrs. Pringle never confessed, but her conscience eventually got the better of her. Thus, on the first day of spring the following year, Mrs. Molly Pringle found herself in front of the church steps at 9:55 a.m. as the newest member of the Handbell Ringers of White Pines Parish.