Ravenwood, Chapter 26 [fiction]

Stories, Part 3:

“Tell me another story,” I said to Vree. She was very good at it and I wanted to hear more.

“What would you like to hear?”

“Anything. You choose.”

“I have one about a witch named Emily Umberto. She wasn’t a bad witch, but she did a bad thing to a man named Morton Twitchel.”

“I know about a kid named Morty Twitchel,” I said, remembering my first visit to Ravenwood.

“I don’t think Morton and Morty are related. Morton wasn’t a very nice guy … especially to his mother.”

“I don’t think Morty was a nice guy, either, but go on with your story.”

She did:

Mort lived with his mother in a big farmhouse in the country. He owned a garage next to the barn behind the house where he worked on cars and trucks and sometimes tractors when he wasn’t milking his cows or growing and harvesting corn and hay. Something strange had happened outside his house the day the first snow fell. A white cloud appeared along the road not far from his house, and when vehicles passed through it, they stalled. And when they did, business at Mort’s garage was good.

One December evening, he sat in his lamp-lit sun porch, reading the evening newspaper chocked full of Christmas ads when he glanced up and saw a car pass through the cloud and continue past his house. He grinned. Then, “Ma,” he hollered toward the living room where she knitted in her rocking chair; “Hey, Ma, I’m going out. Be back later.”

“What about supper?” his mother called back.

“Keep it on the stove. I’ll eat when I get back.” He slipped on his coat and gloves.

“Pick me up some Pepsi…”

“I ain’t going to town—”

“…and some potato chips.”

Mort sagged against the storm door and shook his head, but his voice rose with his blood pressure. “I said I ain’t going to town, you stupid old cow. You never listen. Never ever. Just moo, moo, moo, like those heifers in the barn, all the time.” He bolted outdoors into December’s gelidity and fought to catch his breath. There, he fired up a Marlboro when the coughing jag subsided, and he felt his strength return after a deep drag from the cigarette.

His long, weak shadow followed him across the crunchy snow. The day’s timid sun had hurried to leave Ridgewood; the last minutes of daylight clutched the western sky. Somewhere, far away, that sun was high and hot and tanning pretty girls in bikinis.

Mort spat a brown hocker—cancer?—then pulled his capillary body into his big Ford tow truck and hurried from the driveway. He spotted the dead car past his house sooner than he expected. It was a fancy car, a silver Cutlass Supreme, no doubt circuited with the latest electronics. He parked in front of the stranded vehicle, then dropped to the ground and nearly fell when his knees almost buckled. He tossed away the cigarette and spat before he approached the car.

“Everything went dead,” a woman said. She stood outside her car in the waning daylight, her hands in the pockets of her white mink coat. Mort’s heart skipped a beat. The woman was young—late twenties, perhaps—and pretty. Strands of her long chestnut hair lifted in the cold breeze coming at her. She shivered, then said, “The car’s practically brand-new, and I just had it inspected last month.”

“It’s all good,” Mort said. He jerked a thumb at his tow truck. “I’ll get you back to my garage. Then I can get you up and running in no time. Meanwhile, you can ride with me.”

“I’d like that, Mr. …”

“Twitchel. Call me Mort.” He kept the smile on his face despite the cold picking at his dingy front teeth.

He returned to his truck, opened the passenger door, and helped the woman into the cab. When she was settled, he closed the door and spun, as much as his rickety ankles and knees would allow, and went to work getting the Oldsmobile fastened to his hitch. Then, on the way to his garage, he turned on the radio to avoid conversation. The radio played Christmas songs. Both were silent until Mort parked inside his spacious garage behind his mother’s lesser house.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he told the woman before he set the truck’s fan and heat at high so she could wait comfortably inside the cab. Then he went to work lowering the car and pretending to inspect the Nissan’s engine. He knew the car would start; they were far enough away from the strange cloud. And besides, the cloud never fried any circuits. But if he were to get any money out of this woman, he had to put on a convincing show.

“Mr. Twitchel,” she called out from the rolled-down window a few minutes later, “do you have any hot coffee?”

“This won’t take long.” He had forgotten to start the coffee pot in his office. His beverage of choice was the Budweiser in the garage fridge and anything on tap at the tavern a mile south.

“Won’t take long at all,” he said.

He went to his workbench and returned with some wrenches. Then he clacked them against each other from time to time under the hood while he pretended to fix the engine. He even sprawled his backside on a dolly and rolled beneath the car.

“Mr. Twitchel,” the woman called out again, “my watch must have stopped. Do you have the correct time?” She sounded restless, perhaps becoming impatient with his act. An unhappy customer could sour the deal. It was time to wrap things up.

“There’s a clock on the wall above my workbench.” He got up, wiped his hands on a rag from his jeans’ back pocket, then got into the car and turned the ignition. The Cutlass’s engine purred to life.

A large purse beckoned him to look inside it. A small white box, the kind with jewelry inside, caught his attention. He shook it and thought he heard the delicate rattle of a chain.

He hurried the box to his coat pocket, climbed from the car, closed the hood, and went to the truck, smiling kindly as he opened the door and helped the woman out. Then he climbed into the truck’s cab and turned off the heater.

“How much do I owe you for your prompt and valuable assistance, Mr. Twitchel?” the woman asked as she retrieved a wallet from her coat pocket and opened it. Several expensive rings on her fingers flashed and sparkled under the fluorescent shop light. Mort paused to admire their value and hoped something of equal value was inside the box he had stolen.

“Your price?” the woman asked.

Mort noticed her raised eyebrows and said, “My flat rate is fifty bucks up front for the tow, plus five for each mile. That’s fifty-five, minus the time spent working on your engine. For that, I charge ten bucks an hour, which I know sounds expensive, but a guy’s gotta make a living, you know.”

The woman nodded. “I’ll pay you for the entire hour, although a cup of hot coffee would have been nice.” She handed him a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “You’ve been very professional. Keep the change.”

Mort grinned. “Thank you kindly, Miss…”

“Umberto.”

“That’s an unusual name around here.”

“I moved here in July. I teach at the high school.”

Mort nodded as if he approved of her reply. “Well, I’m glad I could be of service.”

He left her while he wrote up a greasy receipt at his workbench and she got into the car and waited. When he handed the receipt to her through the open window of her car, he hoped she hadn’t noticed the box missing from her purse.

She took the receipt, put it in her wallet, and addressed him once more.

“Have a very merry Christmas. And make sure you spend some of that money on your mother.”

“My mother?”

“The woman inside.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

Mort thought he saw a flash of green light pass across them.

“You have a pleasant night, Mr. Twitchel,” she said before she backed out.

When her taillights were out of sight, Mort opened the box. He whistled when he saw the yellow gold necklace trimmed with diamonds. He stepped outside and grinned wide. It was going to be a very merry Christmas indeed. Ron Koehler at the pawnshop always paid top dollar for jewelry with no engravings. And the diamonds were not too big that ole Ron would have any trouble selling it, either.

Mort grinned so wide that the sharp, frigid air hurt his teeth.

He held the necklace to the clear, night sky. The diamonds glistened like the stars there—all those billion sparkling lights ablaze against the night’s velvet canvas above him.

The huge sky made him feel small and insignificant … and dizzy.

He squeezed shut his eyes, then looked again at the starry sky.

The wide expanse made him dizzier. He stumbled and sat hard on the snow; his gaze, however, remained riveted on the sky. There, the stars grew suddenly larger, their light brightening as a billion planets and suns came at him at a terrible speed.

They filled his vision and he felt the weight of their magnitude descending on him.

His throat tightened. He knew what he saw wasn’t real.

Still, they fell, seen only by him.

He tried to open his mouth and call out to his mother—to scream for her to rescue him as the entire night sky seemed to drop on him, crushing the air from his lungs.

Minutes later, a film of clouds entered the vast, starry sky from the north. New snowflakes fell where Mort’s body lay on the driveway’s old snow, his wide eyes staring lifelessly at the cover of snow clouds drifting across the sky.

A green shimmer of light appeared next to him. The pretty woman stepped from the shimmer and pried the necklace and box from Mort’s icy hands. She put on the adornment and felt her magic return. A ruddy color filled her cheeks; her eyes filled with bright emerald. She bent and placed a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a bag of potato chips in the snow, next to Mort. Then she took the hundred dollars from his pocket and placed it under the bottle of Pepsi.

“For your mother,” she said, “so she won’t think too unkindly of you.”

She stood, twirled a hand, and her body vanished in a flare of green light eaten by the night’s rapacious darkness.

# # #

“I liked this story,” I said to Vree. “Will you tell me more?”

The End.

Thanks for reading my stories about Ravenwood and Vree and other characters there. I stopped writing about Ravenwood in 1974 and stopped thinking about the place until that day many years later when I opened those notebooks from my mom’s attic and reconnected with Vree.

I want to publish some of those stories after I edit them, so please let me know your thoughts. Helpful criticism goes a long way and adds to filling and strengthening a writer’s toolbox.

Ravenwood, Chapter 25 [fiction]

Stories, Part 2:

“I liked your story,” I said. “It was very good. Are you writing a book?”

“I am.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’d like to be an author someday. Or a painter. I haven’t decided. I love painting landscapes and everyone tells me I should be a professional artist. But I’m only fifteen.”

“You don’t have to be a certain age to be talented. And you don’t have to be talented at only one thing.” I sucked in a breath, then released it. “I knew someone like you before she left.”

“You’re talking about me. What was I like before things changed?”

“You loved telling ghost stories.”

“I still do.”

“Really? Like what? Will you tell me one?”

“I will.” And so she told me the following story:

Some women have voices like angels. And Angela was the perfect name for the angel following him.

Brian listened to the gentle cadence of her voice, smiling and feeling warm and love-struck wonderful.

“Did you remember to bring your new camera?” she asked.

Brian pushed hanging branches away from his face. This part of the woods on Myers Ridge was thick with broadleaf and coniferous trees, and infested with thorny blackberry and raspberry bushes. These barbed sentries were deep in cover, away from hungry predators and ambitious and adventurous gardeners with spades and pruning shears. But few people trespassed here on his land. The terrain was rough and steep in many places, challenging to walk over. Thick and thorny underbrush, stinging nettle, and rattlesnakes were common threats, including branches falling from trees infected by disease and acid rain attacking their roots.

Overall, it was a miserable place in the summer for anyone who ventured off the large deer trail they were on. And he did not intend to leave the trail and risk not being with Angela.

“I did,” he said, answering her question. “It’s in my pack.”

He was glad to have the heavy pack on his back again. Hiking always cleared his mind and made his lungs and legs stronger. Plus, it usually brought Angela to him.

“I’m glad you came along today,” he said.

“I’m glad, too,” Angela said.

He glanced back at her and liked what he saw. Her one-piece calico dress looked old-fashioned in its simple, baggy design, but it made her look like a woman. The same with her long, flowing red hair. Not short and tomboyish like so many of women’s’ hairstyles today

“What time is it?” she asked him before he returned his attention to the deer path.

“Almost four o’clock,” he said without looking at his watch.

“I wish it were earlier,” she said. “I don’t want the day to end. You make everything better just by letting me be with you.”

He cleared his throat, feeling awkward for the first time today. He smiled and remembered the same feeling when he was young and uncertain. “You make me feel new and alive,” he told her. “What’s even more amazing is that someone like you could be in love with me.”

“You’re a wonderful guy. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“My ex would disagree with that.” He stared at the shadows flickering along the pathway from the sunlight filtering through the treetops, and saw painful memories in them. Some of them grew before his eyes and he was certain he did not want to see them again. He looked away at the clearing ahead and was glad to know the memories would not follow him there. But a few pressed their way between him and Angela anyway and lurked behind him like overgrown thieves wanting to rob him of his happiness.

He refused to look back until Angela asked, “Is that why you burned all your paintings of her?”

“I had to let go. It was the only way to heal from the heartbreak and all those drunken nights of pity dates.”

“Your portraits are very good,” she said. “I like the one you’re doing of me.”

He smiled. “Has someone been in my studio?”

“I hope you don’t mind. It’s the only place indoors I’m able to go … for now.”

Brian’s smile became a grin. The memories left him and Angela hurried to decrease the distance between her and Brian. When she was close enough to touch him without reaching out, she said, “When you take my picture this time, I want you to stand next to me.”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Yes. Please. I love you.”

Like every time before, Brian choked up when he tried to voice his love for her. Still, as his legs began to feel rubbery, he managed not to trip along the rutted trail that wound past scrub and fewer and smaller trees. Soon they would come to the clearing that had been a pasture when his grandfather owned the land. Brian thought of the pink and blue boulders that Grandpa Eric had dug from the ground and used as fencing for his bulls before he installed the electric fence. One of those rocks would make a good place to take Angela’s photo before her time to leave.

They passed the place where Grandpa’s barn had been. The structure had collapsed years ago, its timber now covered with field grass and hidden from sight by spruce, maple, ash, and poplar trees. He listened to Angela’s voice while she continued to talk. John again. She was reliving the phone call.

He glanced back at her when they entered the clearing and midafternoon sunshine. Her one-piece baggy calico dress billowed at her hips before a breeze pressed the material against her body, revealing her pleasant figure underneath. Brian looked away. She fiddled with her diamond engagement ring.

“After leaving the hospital, I thought I was strong enough to deal with it,” she said, “but after a few lonely nights at home, I began to fall to pieces. I called mother but she wouldn’t return any of my calls. We were never that close and I think she blamed me.

“So, I began sleeping during the days and drinking at night to help along the grieving, but the booze never stayed down, so I was miserably somewhere between sober and hung-over and sick to the stomach for a while until last Sunday when I got a call from John. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t coming home after all that happened to me.”

Brian said nothing. He barely heard the words she spoke. He had heard them so many times before.

“I’m glad you found me when you did,” she said. “It’s good to be connected to people who care about me.”

Brian led her to one of the rocks where sunlight brightened its salmon colored surface. Not too far in the distance, he heard the sound of bees buzzing. Angela’s time was short.

He took off his pack, took out the brand-new camera, and positioned it to face another pink rock. He set the timer and led her to the rock.

“Say cheese,” he said as he held her hand and smiled at the camera.

She kissed him on the cheek as the camera’s timer activated its shutter.

“I don’t want to go,” she said, her lips brushing his cheek.

The buzzing grew louder.

She brushed tears from her own cheeks.

He turned, took her in his arms and kissed her on the mouth.

Would she remember this tomorrow? Some days were like starting over.

He let his kiss linger on her lips before he released her. The buzzing sounded like a windy roar now.

He felt a faraway anger coming to him from the past and waited to see if it would make him cry. It did.

He felt electricity crawl across his skin. Angela’s body—her dress, too—turned silvery blue like a distant foggy sky. For a moment, she was there. Then she wasn’t.

The buzzing stopped.

Brian fetched his camera, returned it to his pack, and started back toward home, embracing tomorrow and aching to see Angela again.

To be continued.

Ravenwood, Chapter 24 [fiction]

Stories, Part 1:

When I returned to Ravenwood, it was May 1974, a Saturday, after another softball game. I sat at the top row bleachers behind home plate. Vree came to me and said, “I wrote a story.”

“I’d like to hear it,” I said.

She sat next to me, on my left, and told me this:

The best way to describe the room is it looked old—ancient-20th-century, single-bare-light-bulb, yellowed-wallpaper old. The room was small and square, sans any windows to clear away the smoky light that filled the place with nothingness. It smelled of dust and rotted upholstered furniture, but there was neither to be found. The black oak floor, warped in the center, held two high-backed wood chairs and was clean. It was always clean, yet no one cleaned here. Ever.

The pair of occupied chairs faced each other, their cheap wood painted oily black except where the paint chipped away like aging wounds. In one of the chairs sat a man in a dark gray suit, silver tie and black loafers. Gray argyle socks peeked from between the shoes and pants cuffs where his ankles crossed right over left. In the other chair, a woman sat upright, her hands folded elegantly in the lap of her black, strapless gown. Her hair was as dark as her dress and her skin glowed ivory.

“The prosecuting lawyers think Don Calloway killed his wife,” the woman said with a sweet and ever fresh voice. “Mr. Calloway says she fell down the stairs, but the lawyers think she was pushed. What do you think?”

The man drew his large left hand front to back through his short, spiky brown hair, down to the back of his neck where he stopped and rubbed away a kink. Behind him was a single door, closed and as old as the room, its round ivory handle smooth and polished and bone white. Below, neither light nor sound from the other side ever passed through the keyhole made for a skeleton key.

He reached for a cigarette from his shirt pocket, then remembered he had quit. He liked coffee and doughnuts with his smokes, but the room lacked anything to drink or eat. The thought evaporated when the woman spoke again, this time anxious.

“I think he’s guilty.”

“Only matters what the jury thinks,” he said. “Court is nothing more than a room of debaters, after all. Whoever presents the better argument wins. Or loses, should the jury be a bunch of morons.”

The woman brought a delicate right hand to the white pearl necklace around her throat. “Mr. Calloway grew up in the rich part of town,” she said with lips as red as scarlet. “He prospered in high school and college with the help of his banker father, and became prominent in TV as news anchor. I seem to recall he summered on the north end in that English brick house with sandstone trimmings and cast-iron fence, right next to the Methodist Church where their only child was baptized.”

“What’s your point?”

“He’s got money. He’ll go free. You wait and see.”

“But remember the circumstances,” the man said. “Calloway was seeing that New Cambridge shrink Maxine Green, and not on a professional level if you know what I mean. And the wife—well, suspicion turned for a while on the young man she was seeing. Police saw him hanging about the house after ‘the scene’. He gave them the slip and hasn’t been seen since.”

She looked past him at the door and he turned slightly. They waited as if anticipating someone’s arrival, but no one came. After almost a minute, the woman looked back at him. She asked accusingly, “You think the boy did it, don’t you?”

“Did what?”

“Push Mrs. Calloway down the stairs.”

The man folded his arms and leaned against the back of his chair. “Nah. His tender relations with an older and married woman were harmless and easy to explain. But running like he did makes him seem he has something to hide.”

The woman nodded. “The fellow next door … Ted Jackson, I think his name was, said he heard a crash just before Mrs. Calloway screamed, yet no one found anything broken.”

“Just her neck.”

She looked at him and frowned. “Did you know their house has a tainted history?”

He smiled. “It’s been mentioned. Some story started years ago by some crazy writer.” He laughed and saw her scolding him with a sharp look. He stopped and licked his lips. Then, “It’s just a story.”

She dabbed twisted fingers to the corners of her mouth. “A Dr. Geddes lived there, back in ’59. He killed his wife Sarah in the kitchen … stabbed her to death after they returned from a party. He thought she had been having an affair.”

He waved impatiently and frowned. When he settled, she continued.

“In ’52, a family named Walker moved in and reported that the house was haunted by Sarah Geddes’s ghost. They moved right out and the place remained empty until Mr. Calloway bought it.”

He shrugged and their conversation stalled.

“Just a story,” he said. He yawned, closed his eyes, and looked ready to take a nap when the woman interrupted his slumber.

“She had on a black dress,” she said.

“Who?”

“Sarah Geddes. A black strapless evening gown like mine. Like the one in the newspaper article my mother has in her scrapbook.”

He coughed and shifted in his seat. “They let you go to your mother’s?”

She bit her bottom lip. “Just once. A long time ago.”

He nodded and sighed. “Me too, but I can’t remember why.” Then he shrugged and unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a blue vest. Except where black, inky color stained it, the interior jacket was three shades lighter than his suit. He pulled out a gold pocket watch and clicked it open.

“What time is it?” she asked.

He wound the watch by its stem until it was tight.

“Don’t know,” he said at last. “The damned thing stopped a long time ago.”

She looked at the door. “Do you think it will ever be our turn?”

“Someday,” he said and closed the watch’s cover. “It’s just a matter of time.”

To be continued.

Ravenwood, Chapter 23 [fiction]

Do Overs, Part 3:

I decided to distance myself from the people in Ravenwood for a while. Then Vree’s sixteenth birthday arrived.

She yanked the steering wheel of her father’s John Deere riding lawnmower and sent it across several surface roots of the old oak tree in her parents’ backyard. She and the mower pitched left, right, left again, then … BAM. The deck slammed down on a root. The blade stopped. The motor whined for a moment before the engine stalled.

She leapt from the mower and almost fell when she stumbled over a root. I hurried to catch her.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I got the lawnmower stuck on these tree roots. My dad’s going to kill me if I broke anything.” She pushed from me and brushed her ponytail from her face. Wind blew across a flowery second-growth field behind us and purple-gray rainclouds edged the sky around us.

“Help me,” Vree said. She stood next to the mower and scowled at it.

I pondered what to do. All I knew about lawnmowers was how to check the gas and oil, and how to start the engine and turn it off.

“Hello?” Vree’s irritated voice brought me back. “Help me get it off this root.” She hiked up the waistband of her cotton jeans and grabbed the steering wheel. Wind rippled her green and white T-shirt like a flag and it danced across her back.

I hurried, placed both hands on the back of the seat and rocked the mower, grunting and pushing it until it was away from the roots. The damaged root exposed a white, wet wound where the lawnmower blade had cut it.

“There’s a can of tree wound sealer in the shed left over from when I cut into the roots last year,” Vree said. She balled her hands into fists. “This is great. Daddy’s gonna ground me. And on my birthday”

Thunder rumbled over us.

Vree hurried back into the seat and tried to start the mower. The engine coughed but did not jump to life. She tried several more times before she gave up. Her blue-green eyes met my gaze and worry filled them.

Thunder banged overhead, vibrating its way into me. The sky opened and dropped a flood of rain. It rushed through the umbrella of leafy oak branches and drenched us. We scampered to the tree trunk and shivered from the chill. Thirty yards away, the backdoor of her parents’ spacious Craftsman home beckoned us. Her orange tabby cat sat at the living room’s middle bay window, watching from behind the rain-streaked glass, and waiting for her to feed it. Three o’clock was Mr. Whiskers’ afternoon feeding time.

Five minutes later, the rainstorm showed no signs of letting up. Vree and I were drenched.

I followed her to the lawnmower, which felt heavier in the rain as we struggled to push it to the shed behind the garage.

“Come on and move,” she begged the mower. “Move.”

My shoes lost traction on the wet grass, and I lost my footing twice more before we managed half the distance to the shed.

Thunder cracked behind us and I yelped.

The rain fell faster and colder.

We kept pushing and had gone ten feet across the soggy ground when a flash of bright light dazzled me and tremendous heat hit me like a giant fist and knocked me off my feet. I do not remember landing on my back before I rolled to my stomach and rubbed at my eyes with cold, wet fingers.

Vree lay on her back a few feet away. My body ached as I inched my way to her. Her arms and legs twitched then stopped. She did not move.

I begged her to answer me.

“Can you hear me?” I took her hand in mine. Her eyes were closed; she was not breathing.

I placed an ear over her mouth to hear or feel for air. Nothing. Putting two fingers on her neck, I felt for a pulse. None.

“Please don’t die.” I fell on her and wept, but only for a second.

I had to save her.

I had seen an EMT demonstrate CPR on a rubber mannequin in my eighth grade Human Health class three years ago. But that was it.

“Come back, please don’t be dead, answer me, please,” I begged while I applied the little I knew about external cardiac massage.

Minutes later, I stopped at the sight of her lips becoming blue. I switched to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but she remained collapsed at my knees with no pulse and no breath.

The rain had stopped but I did not know it until sunlight fell across her lifeless face.

“Don’t be dead,” I pleaded. I looked heavenward. “Please, don’t take her away.”

White light glows from Vree’s face

A buzzing filled my head, vibrated down my back, to my arms and hands, on to my legs and feet. The palms of my hands grew sore where I clutched Vree’s shoulders. White light glowed from her face. Warmth filled me from head to toe.

Was this a trick of the sun?

Vree shuddered against me. I touched her cheeks and her face stopped glowing.

She gasped in a breath and opened her eyes.

“What happened?” she asked. Her voice sounded gravelly.

“I don’t know.”

“I saw white light. It was all around me. A voice—a woman’s voice—told me to stay with you.”

“With me?”

“Yes.” She sat up. “The voice said we’re connected and I’m to never break that connection.”

“Why? What will happen if you do?”

“She didn’t say.”

Vree stood on wobbly legs for a moment. I helped her put away the mower, then wished her a happy birthday before I stopped typing.

Vree had said that she was never to break her connection to me. She kept that promise and visited me in my dreams. Ten months passed before I sat at my typewriter and visited her.

My visit with Vree coming soon.