Short Stories

Late Friday afternoon, we finally close the house sale, a long distance transaction complicated by emailed documents and Fedex’d deeds and a Texas bank that waits until 4:45 EST to transfer the funds. At one panic-stricken point, I feared the deal would be held over until Monday. Or fall through entirely.
After the attorney subtracts the outstanding mortgage, real estate taxes, water and sewer bills, commissions and fees, I have exactly one hundred dollars to show for twenty years of home ownership. 
But I am free.
             “Thank God it wasn’t a short sale,” Mark, my new husband, a Delta pilot, says, hugging me.
I am no longer the owner of 181 Pinecone Drive, a 1915 Craftsman bungalow kit house featuring stone columns, roof brackets, quarter-sawn oak trim, mullioned built-ins, fieldstone fireplace, drafty windows, and dirt-floored cellar host to a snorting wild beast of an oil-fired boiler.
No more $4 a gallon heating oil that translates into $24 per day and an unthinkable $720 a month. No more snow up to my armpits and brutal below zero days.
As if underscoring my thoughts, the AC in our rented brand new McMansion kicks on, heralded by the breeze prickling the sweat under my arms.
“Let’s celebrate,” I suggest. “Make me a Jack and Coke?”
Up north, I never drank Coke. But in Georgia, land of its birth, it tastes better, a metaphor for how everything in the South is familiar but slightly skewed.
“Be glad to,” Mark says with a grin. “But none for me. I’m flying the Atlanta – Boston route tomorrow.”
I toss down several drinks, giddy with the relief of shedding a three-year burden. Who could have guessed that the real estate market would tank right after I moved? We talked about keeping it for a summer place but I had no desire to remain tied to the remote, decaying town that had trapped me for years.
It’s over. My real estate ordeal is finally over.
There is nothing so optimistically naïve as celebrating too soon.
That night I dream I’m standing on the porch of 181 Pinecone. A brightly lit Christmas tree glows through frosted casement windows. The house is buried in snow, of course; deep banks cover the flowerbeds and icicles drip from the low eaves. Inside, a fire crackles in the fireplace and on the mantel, candles flicker among pine garlands. My daughter--always 8 years old in dreams for some reason--twirls and dances in her white nightgown. “It’s Christmas, Mommy!” she cries.
I jolt awake, gasping, tears on my face. For one thousand days I couldn’t wait, no, I ached, to be free of it. Now a cascade of sweet memories I’d staunchly held at bay floods my mind. The first day of school. Prom. High school graduation. The pets we loved and lost, now buried in the woods. I sob. What have I done? I’ve lost the very heart and history of my life.
Mark puts his arm around me. “Of course you’re sad. You spent a lot of years there. But you still have the memories.”
Memories? They’re like looking at a picture of chocolate when you’re craving the silky mouth feel of high cocoa butter content.
Somewhere in the room, wood creaks, sounding like a snort of agreement.
But…the only wood in this plastic house has been reengineered into an entirely new molecular configuration. It literally can’t creak.
Shaking my head, I cuddle closer to my husband and deliberately begin kissing his warm neck, prickly with sprouting beard. As he takes me in his arms, I thrust my past away and force myself to concentrate on the tangible now.
I don’t get up the next day until well after he’s gone to the airport. Dressed only in the tiny silk slip I wear to bed, I wander down to the kitchen, bright with polished granite and stainless steel glinting in the strong sunlight. Outside, leaf blowers buzz like giant insects sent to tidy the already immaculate neighborhood lawns.
I put fresh beans in the Saeco Exprelia coffee machine, add water and push the button. Yogurt and berries will be my breakfast and as I set them on the breakfast bar, I see something odd.
Placed exactly in the middle of the sweeping granite expanse is a long brass key with curlicues on the end.  The last time I saw that key it was in the bottom of my jewelry box, tucked away as a keepsake.
The key to 181 Pinecone.
The hair stands up on my neck. Who did this? There is no reason for my husband to put it there and I certainly don’t remember doing it.  With reluctant fingers I reach out and pick it up.
The icy metal almost burns my fingers.  It drops to the counter with the sharp clink of metal on stone.  Forgetting breakfast, I flee.
Later that day I visit the grounds of an old plantation house, where I wander paths lined with red and white and pink azaleas and tall camellia bushes. Ahead, dogwood blossoms hang like stars in the oak understory. The air is soft and still, the temperature touching 80 degrees. After years in arctic zone 3, I relish the variety and abundance of zone 8 gardens.
In a quiet corner, I find a wrought iron bench tucked between two massive forsythia bushes and sit to rest. All day I’ve been ruminating about the house. And that blasted key. I’ve convinced myself I must have forgotten putting it there during the frantic haste of finalizing the house sale.
My eyes close and I doze, lulled by the warmth and the scent of lilacs.
Lilacs. Bees buzz avidly, nuzzling into the small blossoms for nectar. Right inside the enormous bush, its multiple trunks forming a small room, my daughter and her friend play with baby dolls. I hack at the rock-hard and rocky New England ground with a shovel, turning soil for another attempt at a vegetable garden. Spring has arrived at last, feeling like a victory wrested from the harsh elements. We survived winter once again.
“Lilacs,” I murmur, opening my eyes.
An elderly lady tottering by turns her wizened face, shaded by a broad-brimmed sun hat, and rasps, “No lilacs here, dear. Perhaps you meant wisteria.” She points behind me and I turn to see clusters of pale purple flowers smothering a venerable oak.
I get up for a closer look. Despite the similar color, the clusters hang down from a thick twisting vine. And the odor, although strong and sweet, is decidedly different. 
Rattled by that odd experience (Aren’t olfactory hallucinations signs of mental illness or brain damage? Curse the Internet for that tidbit), I stop by the package store on the way home and buy a bottle of wine.  A big fat bottle.
That night, alone, on my third big fat glass of wine, Mark late due to a delayed flight, I give in to the temptation.
I dig out the photo albums.
Three hours later, Mark opens the master closet door to find me huddled in the corner, still clutching the album detailing 181 Pinecone’s laborious yet historically correct renovations. I had been the second owner of the property; I bought it after the last member of the family who built it died at 102.
“I heard you had tornado warnings,” he says. “But I think it’s OK to come out now.”
When the eerie shriek of the air raid siren pierced the crashing thunder of the most violent thunderstorm ever, I had run for cover, as instructed.
He leans closer. “Did it scare you? You look like you’ve been crying.”
I clutch the album tighter. “It misses me.”
“Yes, it missed us. We’re very lucky. Several houses were destroyed a couple of miles away.”
“No.” I point to the album. “The house. It misses me.” Still tipsy, I allow a tidal wave of sorrow and loss to rise up through my gut and erupt through my eyes and nose, which soon stream with tears and snot. My mouth stretches open like a child wailing in pain.
Mark gently lifts me off the carpet. “Babe. You need help.”
I don’t tell the therapist about the hallucinations or dreams or the odd compulsion I have to sneak peeks at pictures of the house. I hide them everywhere. Under the kitchen towels. Next to the toilet paper (he never replaces it).  Between the pages of the novels I attempt to read. Every time I give in, I feel both relief and a grinding shame. This is how a porn addict feels, I realize.
Instead I tell the middle-aged Southern belle ex-cheerleader that I’d fallen in love, gotten married and moved, and I’m having trouble adjusting. Perhaps I’m homesick.
“Ya’ll experiencin’ relocation grief,” the therapist tells me in her soft twang. “We first saw it when all those folks started moving into Atlanta a few years back. And the recession’s caused a lot of what we call involuntary relocations. Were you foreclosed upon, hon?” Her Botoxed brow attempts to crease in sympathy.
I shake my head no. I don’t have the excuse of being forcibly evicted from my house. I chose to leave.
“It’ll get better. Allow yourself time to grieve, to go through the stages. You’re in a new phase of your life now.”
“Yeah, at least I don’t have seasonal affective disorder any more,” I quip. “We had 300 cloudy days a year up there. And winters were six months long.”
“Oh, my.” Horrified, she contemplates a world without sunshine.  She brightens. “You know, it might not be a bad idea to find yourselves a house to buy. That should take your mind off the old place. Create new memories in a new home.”
The slowly rotating ceiling fan emits a squealing groan of protest, as if the bearings were shot.
We both look up in alarm. I don’t trust the things. I’m convinced the one in our bedroom will someday let go and decapitate us in our sleep.
“That’s strange,” she says. “That’s a new fan.” Turning back to me, “Call me in say, a month, if you’re still not feeling’ right, OK, hon?”
After a couple of days of thought, I decide the fan thing was just coincidence and look on the Internet for real estate agencies. One seems to specialize in older homes—the quaint and historic type—so I drive down to the Atlanta Highway. I’ve discovered that Atlanta Highway, after Martin Luther King and anything Peachtree, seems to be the most common street name. All roads lead to Atlanta, right?
The agency is located in a former home appearing to be of late Victorian vintage, with its sweeping round porches and gingerbread trim and lots of hanging plants and window boxes. It’s hushed inside, the ticking of a grandfather clock the only sound. The real estate crash hit Georgia especially hard, I’ve heard, and the lack of action here certainly bears that out. A pretty receptionist tells me someone will be with me shortly, so I wander over to a display of photographs tacked to a revolving corkboard thing.

Wow. Enough bungalows for sale to satisfy the lust of any Craftsman fanatic. I adore bungalows--their size, layout, charming features, and overall sense of style. The woodwork and fixtures are to die for. Dwelling in one is like experiencing a former time when life was solid and real and rich. The good old days. I spin the display, taken by this one. And that one. And oh, did you see that—a childish greed makes my mouth water.
I’m not quite sure what happens next. A murky black cloud smothers me; red darts like lightning bolts streaking down through the top of my head and out my arms and legs. When I come back to myself, the stand is bare and shreds of photographs litter the tasteful Oriental under my knees. I huddle on that carpet, arms clutching my knees, rocking. The receptionist, finally back to fetch me, screams, a hand genteelly covering her glossy pink lips.
Mark and the therapist declare an emergency and, after drugging me to the gills, leave me to wander the McMansion in a fog of anti-everything. The albums and the photos and the paperwork and anything else that may remind me of the house are confiscated. They think I’m crazy. But I know better. It’s 181 Pinecone exacting its revenge for my faithlessness, for my audacity in abandoning it to a new owner.
During endless empty hours, Mark on the Atlanta – L.A. rotation now, I troll the Internet trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Online, I find plenty of haunted house stories but they all involve spirits of the departed remaining at the property. My situation isn’t like that. Then, with a cold shock that punctures my mental cloudbank, I realize the truth.
I’m being haunted by my house.
And where do you go for that kind of help? 1-800-Psychic, of course. I decide to try a medium, someone to send the house’s spirit to the light. Or whatever they do.
The woman I find online, Bella Rose, bills herself as a psychic shaman. “Are you having nightmares?” she asks on her web site.  “Experiencing compulsive behavior or the inability to move on?”
“Yes, yes and yes,” I murmur, clutching the one photo my husband missed at the bottom of the tampon box. A vintage sepia shot of the house newly built, the surrounding landscaping raw and empty of the glorious gardens later to come, the ones I meticulously revived.
Bella’s office is in her home, a shotgun shack surrounded by a tangled wilderness of flowers and shrubs.  I pick my way down the winding flagstone path, wincing as I spot a grotesque cement gargoyle scowling at me from underneath a riotous orange lantana. What was I doing visiting a psychic, someone sure to be a nutcase or just plain freaky?
“And you’re not?” the creepy statue seemed to say. 
Bella isn’t the exotic gypsy fortuneteller I somehow expected. She’s more an earthy granola-type with flowing silver-threaded hair, bare feet, and a slender, supple body. Her green eyes are kind and understanding.
We sit on the carpeted floor of her spacious “treatment room,” as she calls it, furnished only with big pillows, candles and an iPod playing soothing rainforest sounds, and I tell her the whole strange story.
“I think you need a soul retrieval,” she says.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Traumatic events can cause people to lose a piece of themselves. For example, abusive relationships or accidents or loss of a loved one. When people say, ‘I’ll never be the same,’ that’s a marker for soul loss.  I see it a lot with bad break-ups. Think about all the songs that talk about someone taking a piece of your heart.  As a shaman, I’m trained to take a spiritual journey for you and retrieve those pieces. Usually my power animal, a jaguar, comes along to help.”
“OK,” I say, trying to absorb this gobbledygook. “But all I did was move. Would that be considered traumatic?”
She nods. “It can be. Think of it this way. You invested years of your life and energy into that house, fixing it up and creating a home for your daughter.  Very powerful stuff. So when you moved, you didn’t fully disconnect. You left part of yourself there.”
That makes a strange kind of sense. “All right, I’ll try it.”
She has me lie down on the rug and close my eyes, explaining that I don’t have to do anything but relax.
I hear the thuds of a drum and sense her moving about the floor. Stifling a giggle, I picture an Indian medicine man doing his dance. Next she’d be breaking out the peace pipe and wacky tabaccy…
I’m in front of 181 Pinecone, standing on the cement path leading to the front door. It’s night and no lights are on, but the wide oak door stands partway open. Bella is beside me and on the other side of her—yes, it’s a sleek and powerful jaguar. The animal, not the automobile.
I must be on the journey, too, or else I’m having a heck of a dream, I think as I float up the porch steps and into the vestibule. The French door into the main house is also open, and we step into the living room, lit only by a small fire burning in the massive stone fireplace.  I look around at the furniture and artwork. How strange. Either the new owner has my exact taste or I’m seeing the house as it used to be when I owned it. As I cross the room to look at the photographs on the mantel, the fire flares. I reach out and pick one up. It’s my daughter’s high school graduation picture. A wave of nostalgia rushes through me, bringing wistful tears to my eyes. In response, the flames crackle and pop and the wall sconces flicker.
“What’s going on?” I yelp, almost dropping the photograph.
“Part of you is here,” Bella says. “The house is responding to your presence. I’m going to look around.” She and her companion go up the wide stairs, the cat sniffing around like he’s on the hunt.
I set the frame back in place with trembling hands. The lights brighten as I circle the living room discovering familiar belongings. My gardening books. The glass case full of collectible trinkets from the golden era of White Mountains tourism. A Simon Pierce vase full of daffodils. Unlike the hazy vision of memory, I see everything clearly, as if I am literally at the house. “That’ s some strong hoo-doo you got there, Bella,” I mutter to myself.
Bella and the big cat pad down the stairs. “Nothing up there,” she announces. “Is there a basement?”
“Would that be a representation of my sub-conscious?” I quip. 
“Perhaps,” she snaps.
“This way. The stairs are in the kitchen.”
I flick the basement light switch. Nothing. We carefully descend inky dark stairs lit only by the streetlight shining through one streaked window.  I reach for the box of wooden matches I always kept near the woodstove. Yes!
“Where are you?” Bella calls. The cat growls. I light one match after another as we wander into the depths of the cellar, past the monolithic boiler, the shelves of old canning jars, the untidy heaps of boxes and tubs resting on pallets above the dirt floor.
In the farthest corner from the stairs, an old man huddles against the cobweb-draped stone foundation. He’s clutching a metal box to his chest. “Get away,” he says in a deep voice. His white hair is thick and his skin surprisingly smooth for the advanced age evident in his bent posture.
My energy is responsible for that, I realize. Otherwise he’d be the wreck I had purchased.
“This is unusual,” Bella says. “There’s an entity involved.” Bowing her head, she breathes deeply, then, holding her hand out to the man, says in a piercing and commanding tone, “Give it to me.”
Shaking his head like a defiant child, he gives us an evil grin. “It’s mine.”
“I’m asking just one more time.”
His responds by turning his back. At Bella’s nod, the cat leaps forward with a roar. Screams. The terrible sounds of ripping cloth and flesh.
Bella tosses the box toward me.
I miss the catch and the box hits the floor with a clang, spilling open and releasing a crimson orb.
With guttural moans, the big cat tears and pulls at the old man. I refuse to look; instead I pick up the orb, which fits perfectly in the palm of my hand.
Flashes of purple and gold and white and pink burst from its glowing surface like solar flares. With each pulse, I feel an answering pull in my solar plexus.
“Courage, commitment, devotion, and love,” Bella says, tracing each color with a slender finger.  “All that you gave to this house. Now they’re yours again, to give as you wish.”  She closes my hands over the orb and presses it to my chest. “Choose wisely.”

The End

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