Author: Claude Chabot PM
A husband and wife buy a house in the Florida Keys containing a clue to their pasts and their futures. Note: some explicit sexual content and mild profanity.Rated: Fiction M - English - Horror - Words: 13,751 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 01-11-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2881275
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I remember standing and looking at the pillared façade in the hot breezy air with the wind hissing through the trees. All manner of vegetation grew about it then: tendrils of vines insinuated themselves around the pillars; dead husks of palms and palmettos rotted against the wet earth. There was the sound of a shutter or door banging against the house in the fierce breezed that had arisen.
My husband had pointed to a sign. I'm not sure why it caught his attention swinging from its one rusted chain, but he wanted to know what it said. We climbed over a decaying white fence surrounding the front yard and the deserted shell of the building.
The wind picked up and the sign jerked about ever more wildly. It repeatedly struck the house making an oddly disturbing thudding, such as something hollow and wet being dragged downstairs. The shadows it made crossed wildly over the verandah making weird and fearsome shapes in the moonlight.
I took hold of the sign as it jerked and writhed above my head. Its rough, fibrous texture repelled me. I let it go.
"Why did you do that!" Mark screamed against the wind.
"I don't know. It felt disgusting; scaly and wet."
"You're so odd," he said and roughly grabbed the sign. He turned it towards the streetlight so we could both read it, but there were only peeling remnants of lettering. It was impossible to tell what the building had housed.
He said he would inquire about it the next morning and leaping over the fence started to walk away. I listened for a moment to the sign slapping against the house, then hurried to catch up with him.
"You're always so slow," he snapped without looking at me.
The sun was so bright that morning in the realtor's office that he got up and drew the blinds when he saw me squinting.
"If you're looking for an investment property you can't go wrong. Considerable renovation is necessary, but the structure is sound and there's a working steamroom. It was a men's clubhouse, closed some thirty years ago and hasn't been opened since. The market has passed it by."
"If it's such a great investment, why hasn't someone bought it by now?" I asked. Mark looked darkly at me.
The agent fidgeted with his sunglasses on the desk. "Frankly there are some tall stories about it. But you know how things are. If a house stands vacant long enough and bodies are found…"
"Bodies!" I gasped.
"Drunken vagrants who've wandered into the house and broken their necks by falling down the stairs. These stories circulate and you can't stop them from becoming wildly exaggerated. And that's all they are, superstitious stories repeated by the idle minds you find in any small town, especially in the Keys." He leaned forward and murmured quietly to Mark, "Renovations would make it a grand winter home or a stylish guesthouse. I think it's exactly the property you're looking for. Let the townspeople gossip, it's an excellent buy because of them."
Mark nodded. The realtor looked at him, pulling on his moustache. Mark looked back at him keenly and said, "When can we look at it?"
"This morning if you like. The cook at the rectory of the Catholic church has the keys. Unless you would care to climb through a window as some people have done. But for legal entry I would see, Bina, the cook. You see, the priest owns the property."
Bina, what a name! That morning we went with the realtor to see her. I commented on her name on our walk over because I thought it was funny, but they didn't hear me. Somehow I always fall behind Mark when he's with another person. Usually people go to great lengths to include me in the conversation, even slowing their pace so I can keep up (I am so slow!), but after awhile the realtor turned his attentions solely to Mark. I wasn't surprised, but I was still hurt. Sometimes people's attentions seem like the beam of a searchlight that will settle on the person or object next to me, illuminating them but leaving me in a darkness greater than before. I straggled a few feet behind while they laughed and huddled.
We reached the rectory attached directly to a church built to look like a small castle. The realtor knocked.
Bina opened the door to us. She was a round, tiny Cuban woman in faded blue jeans, a flowered top and aviator sunglasses.
"You people here to see the priest's place? Come on in, Father told me about you guys. Now, d'you people want something? Something to drink that is? We got ice tea, we got juice. We got soda. It's not a long walk, but it's hot and the water ain't turned on. Y'all might get thirsty. We got beer, too, if you want it, but it might make your heads funny and let me tell you, you want to look real careful at that house."
The realtor cleared his throat, "Mark would you like something? I'd just as soon get there before the sun is any stronger."
"Let's go to it."
"I'd like something." Mark and the realtor looked at me, surprised, I think, to realize that I was still breathing. Mark rolled his eyes.
"Why don't you have something and then catch up with us later?" the realtor suggested.
"Do you have root beer?"
"Sure do young lady." Bina added quickly with a tiny smile, pulling a key ring from the pocket of her jeans, "here's the keys, you fellows seem to be in a rush."
"We'll be back soon," Mark answered hastily, trying to hide the smirk on his face.
"Well, sure, I guess so honey. See you later." I called after them as I watched Mark and the realtor walk off. Bina went to the kitchen to get the root beer for me.
"Where are you from girl?" she shouted to me as she walked back from the kitchen. She poured the foaming drink over ice and handed it to me.
"Ohio. Mark's from Miami, but we live outside Columbus now. We've been married for just about a year, and we're very happy." I've repeated this over and over to so many people; it was like an incantation I invoked from time to time. I sighed.
"I was married once," Bina said in her heavy Floridian accent, "and it wasn't no Technicolor day dream, believe you me. He stayed out all night, drank to beat the ban, hit me when he felt like it. He hit me once that is. Then next time he tried that I slapped him silly." We both laughed. I couldn't imagine hitting Mark for anything, but for some reason the idea also appealed to me.
"You been to Palmetto Key before?"
"Never. Mark has though. He's so impressed with the business that guesthouses do down here that he'd like to open one and keep an apartment for ourselves for the winter."
"Good business to have if you can make it work. It's harder than you think. I manage a guesthouse three days a week in Key West when I'm not here." She lit a cigarette, inhaled and spouted smoke from her nostrils like some miniature dragon. "Now, that building your husband is looking at sure is handsome, has a big yard in the back, but needs a lot of work. Hell, it's got to be rebuilt. Make it real pretty so's people will forget about all those bodies. Folks here wanted to tear it down. But your guests will never know. Yep, just make it real pretty. Maybe folks won't think it's haunted no more."
"Haunted? You can't be serious?"
"If you can believe it. Find an old deserted house and the bodies of a few drifters and people start tellin' tales. We've got enough problems in the Keys without worryin' about dead people comin' back."
My stomach contracted. "Were they murdered?"
"Well, like I said they all broke their necks. The police say they fell down this broke stairway in the dark. It's missin' two steps. And all these fellows they found about two or three years apart, always with broke necks and their heads twisted around in the wrong direction. And the house been boarded up for years, except for the side door so you could get in. It was locked, but it would be easy to kick in. But they never did find it kicked in, that's what was funny about it. The door was always unlocked after these things. Was it the same person who pushed them if they was pushed? Who knows? Nothin's happened in three, four years now."
An hour later Mark and the realtor returned. They looked mussed and sweaty and seemed the best of pals.
"It's perfect," Mark said to me. "We're going to take it."
After he told me the price I had asked, "Isn't it terribly expensive?" knowing as I did that would make Mark angry.
"You're never upbeat about anything," he hissed between clenched teeth.
"I'm sorry, I've never understood these things. You're such a wheeler-dealer." I always trust Mark to spend my money wisely.
"And you apologize too much."
"I'm sorry," I answered. He sighed and shook his head.
The sun has gone down and the room is filled with dark, hot wind blowing in from the open doors of the balconies. The night rustles all about me. I can feel the soft breezes on my skin. I can't remember how I got into this suite of rooms, and this feeling of disorientation startles me awake. It must be the martini that I had. I can smell the gin on my breath. It makes me nauseous. My head is throbbing. I can barely make out Billy, the neighborhood's adopted cat, moving to the other side of the room. He sort of has the run of the house. I feed him, then he disappears for a few days. I rise and stretch, and as I do, I glimpse through the French doors to the balcony the tops of the dark palms, swaying in the wind outside. I feel as if something is about to happen.
I guess I just had too much to drink and fell asleep. I wrap my robe tightly about me and tie it. I suddenly feel chilled and I'm shivering. All about me the air moves, and I can hear a door banging somewhere in the distance. All I can hear is the wind hissing through the palms, a sound I think will drive me mad, and that door banging, banging. I suddenly scream outloud, "Won't someone please close that door?"
I walk to the balcony we built for this suite and brush my long damp hair out of my face as it blows about me. The night is alive with wind, and moonlight, which makes the houses glow blue white. There is silence but for the wind and that door still banging constantly. I look out at the roofs and steeples of this gingerbread styled island with its tourists, discotheques, and eccentrics. I wonder how I've come to live here, as I've always thought of myself as sensible and a little dull.
Stepping back inside I suddenly cry out loud and stumble. I stepped in front of the mirror and thought I'd seen something other than myself. I looked again to make sure it was me. I can't help giggling a little. Guess I'm still drunk.
I got drunk because Mark slapped me, slapped me hard when I finally confronted him with all the money he's been spending from our joint account, our account by my money. I told him I knew about everything he's been doing. I guess I was disgusted. After all I've done for him! Running this guesthouse: it's been making money because of me. I helped the architect and designer after Mark got bored with the project. I've never thought of myself as particularly talented or anything, but my parents raised me to be responsible and to do things well. I helped see the renovation through to completion, something I'd never done even though Mark "approved" the plans.
That was when I began to have some contempt for his lack of discipline, his vanity. He's never been able to finish anything. That was before I even found out about the hookers, the hustlers, the drugs and the gambling. I tried to understand, to help him, never letting on that I knew about the sex parties and drug dealing. But he really doesn't care.
The wind is seething now outside, and I can hear voices of men laughing coming from somewhere inside the house, but when I've gone downstairs before (and I've done this many nights now) all I can hear is the sound of the wind in the palms. No one's around. The sounds must come from the street, or from another guesthouse carried by the gusts in the trees. I don't think that there was ever a sound that at times could be so soothing and at the other times so lonely. It's a dark claustrophobic loneliness, surrounding and invading, that wind seething in the trees.
Mark's out somewhere tonight, I don't know where. I don't care really as long as he never hits me again. That slap stunned more than my cheek. It destroyed the charade that is our marriage, the last bit of respect that I had for him. It made me grow up quickly. I think I grew up more quickly in that moment than in all my previous 25 years.
I'm wet and cold and starting to shiver. But we've got one small steam room. It was a leftover from the old men's clubhouse, an Elks club or something we discovered when we did the title search. We put in new pipes and fixed it up.
I decide to have a steam. Tonight the sign says "Men," but I knock on the glass door to see if anyone is in and when nobody answers, I turn the sign around to "Women." I just drop my terry cloth robe and go in. The steam rolls all about me and the heat feels good, close and comforting. Then I decide to take off my top. I'm a little surprised at myself, but suddenly I just want to feel free. I unstrap myself, laying the top carefully on the tile recess and then sit down. I cup my breasts in my hands. They're a little large, and I stroke them a bit. Mark likes them. I think that's why he married me, he liked my body and my boobs and he thought I was dumb and rich. Well, I was dumb and rich, but not dumb in the way he thought. I was just naïve, trusting; yes, naïve and trusting.
I'm not that way anymore. The steam is hot, so hot, it feels luscious, it burns away that clammy, chilly feeling that sullied my body. It burns away the hangover and my sadness.
I decide to turn around and lay down on the marble surface. Just as I do, I notice out of the corner of my eye the outline of someone in the recess of the steam room. Startled and scared, I sit back up, but it doesn't seem as if anything is really there after all. The steam swirling around the grouting of the tiles suggests the outline of a figure.
Again I hear the sound of men's voices coming from somewhere. They seem to be inside the house, and yet again they seem to be coming from far away. This has been happening frequently in the past few days, these sounds of raucous men's voices. They're coarse and the laughter isn't pleasant. Like Mark when he's drunk, I suddenly realize.
I guess now I have to decide what to do about this. What to do about leaving Mark. That's what I'm going to do. I'm a little afraid since he's hit me; maybe a little afraid of what I might do.
There's something about the steam room that is tremendously soothing and encouraging at the same time. The heat and swirling mist makes one feel protected and at ease and…able, capable, comfortable with oneself. As I sit, I again cup my breasts in my hands and stroke my nipples. Mark is always rough and hurried with our…sex. As I sit stroking my body I notice a sound, at first I think it's the wind, but that's not possible I tell myself, the sound of the wind is not able to penetrate these thick walls. Nevertheless, I hear it again and realize that it comes from the corner of the room. It's the sound of someone whimpering.
Nervous but curious, I creep slowly across the room through the twining mists to see what may be making this ominous keening. Sitting in the corner, crouched and grasping her knees, is a young woman wrapped in a towel, and in an instant my fear is overcome and my perplexity about her being here disappears. I simply feel her sadness.
"What is it?"
The woman heavily raises her head and looks at me through the mists, her eyes red and tortured, her body trembling with sobs. She looks at me for a long time by says nothing. I repeat myself.
"Who are you? What is it?"
She says nothing but shakes her head. Again that sound of men's laughter comes from somewhere near, but also far, far away. As I hear it her eyes widen with fear and she huddles in the corner as if she were trapped.
"Don't let them near me, please. Whoever you are, don't let them near, please." She leans forward and grasps my arm. Her grasp is amazingly firm for one so slight, and I look down to see her hand and arm, so pale, almost bloodless. Her grasp is viselike, and though I feel great pity for her, there is something repulsively wrong about her touch. I politely pull away.
"There's no one here. What are you afraid of? Has someone hurt you? Are you a guest?" The questions tumble out of me, too rapidly I suppose, because she leans back against the wall and closes her eyes.
"The men are gone, aren't they?" she finally asks in a whisper, her eyes darting about. Now that I am so close to her I see she looks like me; about twenty to twenty five, my age, blond, thin, pretty, but the resemblance is only superficial. She seems nervous and easily distracted.
"What men are you talking about?"
"They won't leave me alone; they keep…they keep…they keep…wanting…" her voice diminishes to a fragile, inchoate whisper and then her eyes open and she screams, "they make me feel dirty, they make me feel dirty, don't let them come back, don't let them come back to the club! I only needed the job for awhile. When Fall comes I'll go back to school."
I stroke her head, and sitting down next to her, let it rest in my lap. I stroke her head with my eyes closed and she stops crying. I open my eyes and pause, then start screaming…
When I came to, Bina had me wrapped in my terry cloth robe. She was working for us now to make some extra cash. More than that she helped me by being my friend in this strange and isolated little island.
"Honey, what were you doin' in the steamroom all by 'yerself? You were howlin' your head off."
"I don't know," is my automatic reply. But yes, I do know, because I remember who else was working for a little extra cash. That girl in the steam room. When I opened my eyes and looked at her back I saw it covered with bleeding stab wounds.
"I was frightened by something. I thought there was someone in there with me."
"Nobody was there."
"I know," I agreed outloud, but there was, I just can't tell her. I couldn't have imagined it, and those men's voices…
"You fell asleep and had a bad dream. Must have been. I could smell the liquor on 'yer breath honey. Sometimes we all have a few too many, and it don't sit right with us."
She was wrong. "What time is it? Have you seen my husband?"
"It's well past midnight, and no ma'am, I have not seen the skunk. Now there's a bad dream if you know what I mean. He needs a good talkin' to my dear, and if you won't do it I have a mind to set him straight myself."
"I'll do it Bina, it has to come from me you know." For some reason at that moment I remembered one of our last encounters: Mark above me as I lay on bed listening to the dark wind seething in the night, somehow detached from his grunting thrusts. I wondered why this thought had occurred to me when abruptly there was a sharp rap on the desk clerk's counter.
"Talkin' bad about me again bitches? I heard you comin' up the walk. Puttin' daddy down?"
Bina and I both turned around immediately. Mark was standing at the open doorway to the vacant room where Bina had brought me, swaying ever so slightly, his face flushed and his eyes drooping into red tinted slits. His wet shirt was open down to his navel, and he was covered with sweat. Bina's mouth set in a hard line and she took a step back.
"What are you doin' in a robe for honey? Don't you have any decent clothes?"
"She woke up and wasn't feelin' well, and she came down here. If her husband was here when he was supposed to be, maybe she wouldn't have to rely on the desk clerk for some comfort when she's blue."
"Shit, I'd be home twenty four hours a day attendin' to my darlin' wife when she ain't feelin' well, 'cause she ain't feelin' well all the time. And I think I know why. What's that on your breath bitch? Root beer? You're gonna stink up the whole house!"
"Let's just go up to bed honey," I hear myself saying once again, trying to placate him, "please, no more arguments."
He grunted and staggered past me and with a cold metal clang slid open the door of the small elevator which we had installed.
"I'll be waitin' for 'ya upstairs babe. Don't keep me."
"I won't honey, I'll be up soon."
"Make it real soon," he growled, and sticking his head out of the elevator warned me, "'cause I don't like it when you keep me waitin'."
Bina looked at me sternly, her eyes demanding to know what I was going to do. When I said nothing she hollered upstairs, "Wait for what you son-of-a-bitch, she's a free woman," but by this time we heard the elevator door open on the third floor and Mark either chose not to respond or didn't hear her.
"Isn't it time you took matters into your own hands?" she questioned me sharply. I merely looked down and hugged the robe closer to my body. She must have realized how she sounded because she came up to me, her soft wrinkling skin and her faint mustache clearly visible to me as she took one of my hands and squeezed it. "Honey, I don't want to sound mad to you 'un," her voice was deep, soft, "'ya understand, it's like I'm mad for you," and she tapped me softly with her free hand on my shoulder.
"I know," I acknowledged, feeling exhausted and confused, looking at her searching gray eyes when we heard Mark shout, "You comin' up here baby or do I have to come down?" We both turned our heads to gaze up the stairs, and I turned to look directly up and called weakly, "Coming honey." Turning back to Bina I added, "Goodnight, and thanks for all you've done," then whispering added firmly, "I'll handle him, but it has to be my way, in my time." I left Bina with a frown on her face.
During the next few weeks I gradually forgot about the strange dream I had, hallucination, or whatever it was. Mark was oddly considerate to me that night when I got upstairs, apologized for hitting me, and we both agreed that what I had thought I'd seen must have been from all the drinking I was doing that night. Then he told me that he blamed himself, that he wasn't going to drink anymore himself, wasn't going to do any of the things he'd done before and promised never to hit me again. Of course I believed him. I had been taught that way.
The winter went and we stayed on and on that spring and summer, as the semi-Caribbean seasons seemed to become more demonic in their heat and intensity. Mark changed, but he did it by announcing that he was going away for awhile.
One morning before the intolerable heat forced me into the house, I was on the verandah reading. He came downstairs wearing a business suit, a trench coat on his arm, carrying one small piece of luggage. He was red faced and sweating from the heat and a tight fitting gabardine.
I simply stared.
"I did tell you, you don't need to look so shocked."
"You haven't mentioned going away, that is…you are going away?"
"That's the trouble with you, you're slow. Damn slow in the head. I told you a week ago about visiting my family in Cincinnati. My sister's sick."
"No, you didn't…"
"Shit, I did. I'm leaving, and I'll be back after the 4th."
"That means you'll be away for almost two weeks! Now I know you didn't tell me. How could I forget that? We have that charter group from Seattle to take care of."
He carelessly replied, "You do wonders on your own. Now I have to call a cab. I'm getting a flight from Key West to Miami with a connection to Columbus." He looked at this watch. "But I'm kind of early, I wanted to have a leisurely drive to the airport, but you look so fetching…"
By this time he had dropped his trench coat and bag and kneeling he coaxed me, "How about it baby? Just a little poke inside you. Just a little poke, come on for daddy, just some baby cakes for daddy. For while I'm gone, to remember you by." Then he ran his soft, uncalloused hand to between my thighs.
I simply stared at him as he grinned that grin I've always thought so innocent, so appealing, but now mingled with that artificial tenderness was contempt in his eyes, a look that spoke of nothing but a need to humiliate. It strangled my protests. I meant to slap him at that moment and started to raise my hand when I heard the sound of men's voices somewhere in the distance, men such as you'll find in a locker room laughing at some team member's conquest the night before, or the ribald bonded ignorance of a card game, from bruised and stupid men salved by their unanimous contempt for women. I froze, as I'd never before heard the laughter so clearly. Simultaneously, out of the corner of my eye beyond Mark, I noticed the waves of heat rising from the pavement and emerging from these I saw the figure of a young woman wearing a halter top, so alike but unlike me. She lifted her eyelids, looked directly at me and smiled sadly, then turned around. I saw blood dripping down her back from the stab wounds. That's when I could hear Mark talking and snapping his fingers in front of my face. I looked ahead to see him with a strange, shocked expression. It was only then that I heard Bina talking rapidly, "She looks alike she's havin' a seizure!"
"Hold on, her eyes are open. Shoot honey!"
"Mark?" I asked, not sure who he was or where I was.
"You've been staring at nothing for five whole minutes."
"Really? I'm tired, so sleepy and heavy..."
Bina leaned over me and half talked, half whispered, "Come on in the house sweetie, I'll get you some juice, you can lie down in bed and relax," then leaning forward in her standing position she quizzed Mark, "where are you goin' with that on?" staring at his hot suit so out of place on this casual island.
"There's a trip I have to take. It's none of your damn business."
"You know mister it sure is my business when I see what you're doin' to 'yer wife, 'specially when she's in such a bad way," she got up close to him and half whispered, half spat out the words, "I could kill you for the way you humiliate her, treat her like the dirt under your feet. But she ain't dirt, and I ain't eager to be tried for murder, but I'll do what it takes to protect her from the likes of you. I certainly will call the police if you ever lay a hand on her again or humiliate her like I heard you do just now."
Mark uttered a slow, quiet laugh, rippling in echoes around the verandah which grew increasingly hot from the sun rising in the sky, "Shut up you Cuban cow, or you're out of a job," he shot back. "Take care of her, I'll be away for awhile." Turning to me he growled, "now call a cab for me honey and give me a kiss," then dug his mouth into mine without waiting for an answer.
The room is hot, so much like that night months ago when I woke up in the darkness, drunk and tired. This evening I'm not drunk; I'm toting a martini but sip it infrequently, and this only to steady my nerves, not to seek oblivion. Mark is coming back tonight from his trip, his foray back home, if that's what it was. All these nights, but especially that night of July 4th, trying to attend to the needs of all our holiday guests, I've been thinking about what to do about myself and Mark.
There's something I've not mentioned. I now see that young girl with the stab wounds all the time, sometimes even when I'm not drunk and trying to escape reality. She no longer has that vague blond face and figure. She is, or has become, me.
I dismiss the image from my mind's eye. I think again of the person I'm waiting for, my guest, someone who figures carefully in my story, but whom I have not seen since Mark and I bought his house so many months ago. I step onto the balcony which overlooks the island and the road leading up to this house and without surprise I see him hurrying along red-faced. I can almost smell the incense. I can see the swinging crucifix as he walks up the quiet lane with his sleeves rolled up his arms, a youngish, big man gone slightly gray walking with a heaviness and a slight stoop. I'm speaking about the priest who owned this property and who is bringing something to me that he may not even realize he has: my solution, my exculpation.
I wait quietly outside on the crimson tinted balcony, admiring the vestiges of a sunny afternoon over serene, blue waters. A few weeks ago it occurred to me to go the public library and look up some editions of the Palmetto Star to start my investigation. They hadn't heard of microfilm, and I was led to a basement storage room where there were boxes filled with crumbling editions of the local papers going back to the turn of the century. But they were organized, and I searched through the pages of the weekly, beginning in 1959, until, with surprise, I actually found what I had been looking for.
It was an account of a stag party gone awry one summer. A seminary student had been listed as missing, wanted in connection with the disappearance of a young college girl who was working as a cocktail waitress the night of the party, the only female employee on the premises that night. It was reported that there had been complaints about noises coming from the club and that after midnight the house had gone dark very quickly and become completely quiet, according to a neighbor who had been kept up, although she had not seen people leaving the premises. I tried to find other articles following up on this story, but later issues were incomplete and there was never again a mention of the incident or the results of the police investigation. The newspaper ceased publication twenty odd years ago. I couldn't find any of the old reporters to question or any of the officers themselves. I did call the present police force, but they were all too young to have known the incident and the chief wasn't a local and had only lived there for ten years. Without names no one could help me. The few neighbors up and down the street who lived there at the time, all of whom had been children the night of the party, just told me there was "trouble," that was all they could remember. They only knew the stories about the vagrants who had been killed on the property in the last few years.
The service bell is ringing. The priest must be in the lobby talking to Bina right now. All I have to do is go downstairs and speak to him and maybe my life will be simpler. You see I'm beginning to think that there's some reason that I've started to see this apparition, this apparition that's come to resemble me. At the same time, I have to decide once and for all what has to be done about my marriage. As I descend the stairs to Bina's holler, all I can do is assure myself that somehow this apparition, this premonition, this warning, whatever it is, will show me my path.
Father Alvarez had his back turned to me as I descended the staircase. He didn't turn but stood looking at a print on the wall. I realized he wouldn't have heard me approach on the carpet with the crepe soles in my shoes, and as I approached him I remembered how big a man he actually was. I had forgotten: when we agreed to purchase the house he had been sitting for most of the time, and though he had looked big and broad shouldered seated, when he had risen to say goodbye had looked as imposing as a quarterback wearing his shoulder pads, certainly not like the slight and nervous Episcopalian minister I had known as a child.
He turned around slowly as if surprised. He didn't look so different from that day a few years ago, except that he was tanned and his manner seemed more relaxed as he came forward to greet me. His face turned into a wide grin of what seemed to be genuine pleasure, revealing white teeth spaced slightly apart at the sides. A carefully trimmed, dense mustache matching the salt and pepper of his hair lay luxuriously on his upper lip, and a simple silver crucifix, on a silver chain dangling from beneath his jutting chin, swung lightly and fell back against his massive cassocked chest as he stood to greet me. I sensed in his charm and bearing a need to please.
"What you've done to this building I never had the means to salvage! Of course, I see it almost every day from outside, but I never guessed what it could look like inside. It isn't the same. I must compliment you and your husband on the fine workmanship and excellent taste you've exhibited in restoring it."
I stood there without saying anything. After a few seconds I noticed Bina looking at me and frowning, and the priest looking at me as well and then, as if they were hidden in a fog, I saw my counterpart in time seated behind the priest, slowly shaking her head left and right. Suddenly the scene popped as if a flash had gone off, and Bina and Father Alvarez rushed up to me and asked me what was the matter. As usual, I told them I don't know when this trance or seizure or whatever it is grips me.
"This keeps happenin' damn near all the time Father, this seizure 'a hers, and I'm nervous about it. She don't belong here runnin' an inn, she should be in a hospital gettin' some attention."
For once, I was abrupt with her. "Bina, it's not that bad." Then turning to the priest I added, gushing an apology as if I had offended him, "They're just spells Father, exhaustion or what have you. I'm only terribly sorry that this is the way we have to meet. I was hoping that we could talk. I need to talk," I continued, embarrassed by the incident which seemed to have shaken the priest. Then surprised at myself I blurted, "I must talk to someone before I go mad about what's happening to me. I know you can help me. Or maybe you're too busy, you hear people's problems all the time, maybe you can recommend a psychiatrist or a therapist or someone else who can explain what's been happening to me."
He looked at my gravely and responded deliberately, "Of course, I would be happy to. But don't you think you should take Bina's advice and see a doctor? It did look to me like you were ill just now."
"I do need help. Maybe you'll think I'm really sick. Crazy, maybe, once I talk to you about what's on my mind." Bina looked at me curiously and again, for the first time, I wished she were somewhere else. "Father, would you come upstairs to my office?"
"Yes, if you prefer to speak there," he turned around to me and then halted, "before we go I want to know if Bina has finished organizing the church supper for Saturday night."
"You bet, it's the same every year. David will help, too." She looked puzzled to me.
The priest's black eyes turned back to me, "Alright, you have my undivided attention. Shall we?"
I smiled and pressed the elevator button. "It's on the top floor. It was too small to make into bedroom, but it has a widow's walk and a superb view of the Gulf. You can see Cuba on a clear day."
"My family's home."
"Oh? Did they leave when Castro came to power?"
"No. We've been native Floridians for three generations. My family came here and operated a cigar factory. They also supplied the Navy bases in Key West with various sundries peculiar to the needs of sailors. They grew rich on the backs of the local workers. It was part of the reason that I entered the Church: for recompense. Bina is the daughter of one of my family's servants. We've known each other since my childhood. But we were going to talk about you."
"It's interesting listening to you. I haven't really been able to talk to many of the local residents."
Upstairs I unlocked the office, turned on the light, had a seat at the rolltop desk where I worked and gestured to Father Alvarez to have a seat in Mark's big, expensive leather armchair crammed into the tiny office which never sees him. Then I told Father Alvarez what had been happening to me. He looked shocked and startled at my story.
"Is this why you asked me here? To confirm your suspicions?"
"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure why I asked you where, it's all wrapped up with this trance or vision or whatever it is."
"Because you must know that I was that seminary student at that party, and that I met the young woman that you're talking about. That night haunts me as much as it does you. I had to leave Palmetto Key to talk to the bishop. He begged me not to go to the police because they were afraid of the publicity, a seminarian being associated with such an event. But I knew that she was killed. How she must have suffered!" He lowered his head and some tears dropped from his tightly shut eyes. How strange watching this huge man cry. My perplexity at this denouement, and now of his reaction, must have been equal to how people respond to me when I'm seeing the vision.
"I thought that you might have known the student mentioned in the papers at the time," I whispered, wanting to console him but shy of any physical contact with a priest, "I never thought you had been the student."
"I was there because my uncle's business associate was getting married. And they were having this party that I didn't want to attend. But my uncle insisted, saying that my absence would be considered an insult."
He wiped his eyes with his hands, and I gave him a Kleenex and then smiled, "One of the things that I didn't tell you is how much this vision has come to resemble me. I don't see the girl I used to see, I see me. Every once in awhile, I hear men's voice whenever she appears. From what you've just told me, they must be the voices of the men who killed her. I think she's come back because she feels an empathy with me, a connection, and somehow of avenging herself through me. She wants me to know that what happened to her could happen to me, not because our circumstances are the same, but because I'm in danger."
Father Alvarez lifted his head. "Do you truly believe that?"
"I don't know what to believe. I don't want to believe, but it makes a kind of strange sense. But there's someone missing, the person who killed or who helped to kill my vision, my 'friend', but I don't know who it could be." We both looked at one another and Father Alvarez dropped his head in thought cupping his hands together under his chin. I looked out the window and was somewhat calmed in my agitation by a clear sunset on the smooth waters. It was one of the reasons I had come to love this island, and this room, because of the peace of the evenings. Nevertheless, I noticed some clouds at sea approaching the island. The wind chimes clanged together on the widow's walk. It was all too obvious a symbol of what was to come. If it had been difficult now, the future would make all this seem like tranquility.
"I feel certain something awful is going to happen, and there isn't any escape from it. But at the same time, I welcome the storm because I know once it has passed everything will be somehow resolved. Except I don't know if I can survive the hurricane." I laughed weakly. Everything I said sounded silly but that was how things seemed to me. There was something I had to pass through. I would be a happier, better, or saner person, once it was over, if I survived it. "Speaking of hurricanes, I didn't think we were due for a storm but it seems like one is coming right at us."
Father Alvarez frowned as he looked outside, "Yes, it seems like we're in for a squall, nothing much," he practically whispered. He looked back at me, his face still moist from tears. "The interesting thing about all of this is your resolve. You don't seem as distressed or shaken by these visions as other people might be. How can you think you're in danger and then speak so calmly of it? And in danger from whom?"
"I can't tell you. I don't know." I couldn't tell him about Mark. Something held me back from revealing this, although Bina might have told him about the situation already.
Father Alvarez looked at me and then again out to sea. "What worries me is that someone from that night might still be here, or want to come back, once they know the property has changed hands, because they're afraid that somehow interest in the murder might be revived. The club was forced to close because of that scandal, and my grandfather held onto the property for years, never renting or selling it. I supposed because of the real estate situation at the time, it was hard to sell or rent such a large house on a residential street, that is before the tourist boom. But he held onto it, paying taxes on the property and letting it fall into decay as a kind of penance for being associated with anything so sordid. Of course, only I knew who was killed."
"You think after all this time someone would have an interest? It's not like there's any evidence anywhere except these visions I've been seeing."
"We don't know that. Perhaps your visions will tell. I shouldn't even have any faith in them because they seem demonic to me," he paused and smiled to emphasize that he was making a joke, then continued, "they seem to be guiding you."
Outside, I noticed the sky had darkened and the wind had picked up. I heard it in the trees, that rushing, seething sound I knew so well. Then I heard the honk of a horn and man's voice from far below. I instinctively tensed, even though the voice was garbled, it was unmistakable. Mark was home. I winced but stood straight.
Father Alvarez must have noticed Mark's coarse, hoarse instructions to the driver. He looked at me, seeming to understand the kind of life I was being forced to lead, and If I'm not mistaken, silent encouragement to resolve it to my satisfaction.
"I must go Father. I think that's my husband just come home from a business trip. But there is one thing that I'd like to know about before you leave, if you can explain it to me. Corpses were found on your – this - property over the years, homeless men or derelicts, or however you want to describe them, strangled with their heads twisted around in the wrong direction."
"Now those were demonic. I saw a photograph of one of the corpses; evil and ugly and completely unsolved. And this house always found unlocked, although the door that was unlocked only locked from the inside; all the other doors and windows boarded up or undisturbed. Still, there must have been another way of getting in. There had to be. Unless your vision committed those horrible crimes, and that means she would have some kind of corporeal presence and that's beyond belief."
"When I first saw her she appeared to me as a real person, with form and mass."
"Now we're speaking fantastically. It's hard enough for me to have faith in your vision, and then believe that it can reach from beyond the world of the dead and seek revenge on the living."
"But you believe that God was made man, walked on this Earth and performed miracles."
"Individuals do not come back and have their revenge on mankind Mrs. Carncross. Perhaps this interview has lasted too long. You said you have other things to attend to now. If you need help with the matters we've just discussed, I will be happy to assist you."
He rose abruptly and indicated that he meant to leave. I didn't understand the change in his mood and attitude from just seconds before. Perhaps it was this way with all men, not just with Mark. My father had been distant and disconsolate, and my mother simply tolerated it.
"I hope I haven't upset or disturbed you Father. What I said just now wasn't meant to be blasphemous. I'm trying to describe something beyond my experience."
This priest with the broad shoulders and the powerful frame hid his face from me. "You haven't thought anything that I haven't myself," he whispered sadly, and then began to go downstairs without looking at me, not bothering with the elevator.
I jumped up and followed him, sorry that he was leaving and afraid that I might have upset him. I could hear Mark shouting from the foyer. At the same time the house seemed to be creaking, actually shuddering from the rising winds.
Quickly I shouted downstairs to him, "Father, will you help me close the shutters in the house? I'm afraid there won't be enough time before the rain starts. It sounds like it's going to be a big storm."
Strangely enough, he assented although he had seemed to be rushing out. Mark would have argued with me and told me that I was overreacting. "I'll get the ones on the top floor. Would you close those in the unoccupied bedrooms? The doors are open. I'll get to the other rooms myself."
"Certainly," he answered quietly. As he descended the stairs I was struck by the sense of power and protection that his big, sturdy body impressed me with, and was also touched and pleased by his kindness. Yet I wondered what it was that I said that had disturbed him so much; being reminded that he was present at the time of the murder so many years, ago, or being challenged by my occult theories?
I was coming out of one of the unoccupied bedrooms when I felt someone grab me and spin me around. At first I thought it was going to be her, my vision, my alter ego. Instead it was Mark, and his face, angry as I would have expected, was set in a peaceful and relaxed grin which almost disturbed me as much as his rage would have.
"Daddy's home and he's starving," he whispered.
"You might at least say hello, and scaring me like that!" I snapped, "And Father Alvarez on the next floor too! How did you get up here so quickly?"
"I took the stairs, two at a time. Didn't see anyone on my way up, no problem." He stared at my face as if seeing me for the first time, and then took my chin delicately under his thumb and forefingers, lifting it up ever so slightly and looking into my eyes. He seemed changed, as if a twin long separated from him had been instructed to come to this house. His expression was foreign to me, and even the cadence in his voice was different, gentler, yet somehow disturbing.
"You said you were hungry," I practically shouted with all the courage I could muster and display, "did you want…"
"Lunch, if the cook isn't busy. A minute steak would do, rare. Some potatoes, a salad, maybe a beer. And later…"
"Pie à la mode. Got any pie around dear heart?"
"You want pie, honey?" I almost laughed. This wasn't Mark, the Mark I knew. "Dearheart?" It made me a little giddy, and I giggled nervously.
Father Alvarez shouted up the stairs, "I'm finished Mrs. Carncross. Thank you for an interesting afternoon," he came up the stairs and saw Mark and I, "I hope I was some help for you. Maybe we can talk again. Ah, I remember your husband." He came forward extending his hand.
"Yes. Mark, you remember Father Alvarez." Two men I thought to myself, two very different men, "We were just discussing this house's history."
"Really? It is a fascinating old building," Mark lowered his head and closed his eyes inexplicably as he made this comment and almost whispering, trembling on the verge of tears uttered in a painful moan, "did your father own it when the murder took place?"
I think the priest and I gasped at the same time. I had never heard him ask a question in such a plaintive way.
But Father Alvarez was nonplussed. "It was a tragic affair. You've given the house a new life." Then turning to me he practically commanded, "Come to speak to me when you like. Now, if you'll excuse me I'd better go. You were right, the storm sounds menacing. I must leave before the rain starts! I'll see myself out. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," I weakly answered, sorry and afraid that he was going. Afraid for no apparent reason but anxious and worried just the same.
The wind was buffeting the house now. I could hear the boards groan. A shutter banged open, thrashing the house until Mark went to close it. The wind was pulling at the trees, the houses, the sea, everywhere there was the sound of the greedy wind, the seething, hissing hot wind now lashing the island with rain.
That night I went up to the steam room, only it was occupied by a female guest. Naturally, it had to be done alone. I had to try and see her because I think I know what's happening. I had to return very early in the morning in order to accomplish what I set out to do. By this time, one of the attendants had closed the room. I switched the light and the thermostat on, then waited outside while the room filled with steam. For some reason, I didn't think she'd come without the steam, as if she can't manifest herself without it. I waited for a few minutes in my terry robe, and she finally appeared, seeming to emerge from the shifting, twining vapor and the lattice patterns of tiles in the background. This was not the slight, weeping figure of before, but a proud, even brazen woman who looked haughty and angry.
"What have you done? What are you doing to my husband?"
She stood up and stepped down from the tiles, came toward me, and this time I was afraid. She actually seemed to have grown, appearing almost as tall as the steam room itself.
When she spoke her booming voice seemed not to come from the sturdy but still vapid apparition before me, but from somewhere far away, "Your husband? You want him dead. I've known you for brief periods when I've inhabited your body. You want him dead."
"Inhabited my body!"
"I've known the rage, rage we share, but you're bound by earthly considerations that no longer restrain me. And though you think you're feeble, you're wrong. You're a powerful woman. It's always a great effort entering you. You have an iron resolution, stronger then the dead can break in the living. That is why I finally chose your husband as my instrument."
"Is that what you've done, using innocents as instruments for murder, revenge, torture? Do you have to kill drifters because you were killed all those years ago? If you must, find your murderers and give them justice, but don't pick on vagrants, don't pick on us, on Mark."
"I don't remember," she whispered.
She stood there, this giant swollen with her power, yet still vulnerable somehow for her features softened and she seemed to recede into the steam, or it appeared to flow through her.
"If I knew, if I only could know and find them, but I have no earthly memory for people, only that I am bound here by my fate, and only knowing the pain and horror of that night. They were men, and men die if they disturb me in this house. You should never have come here with your husband and changed the house. I had almost…forgotten, almost found peace." She seemed to be fading and her stature diminished until she was that recognizable shade I first encountered. "It was only when the strangers would come and disturb my rest, my peace, it was only then that my rage, so distant, so grey and forgotten would live again. When the men came they had to be quieted so I would not feel the rage anymore because the rage brings the pain, and men awaken the memory. Only by satisfying my rage will the pain fade away, and I can rest once more."
"But you will never rest. Now that this is a guesthouse there will always be people – there will always be men – to rekindle your memories. You have no place here. You have to go, leave the living, join the dead and finally escape from your pain."
"I…can't! I…can't! I…can't!" She repeated savagely, each time more vehemently, more angrily, but with a moan of despair.
"I thought you, you who are an earthly woman could be helpful to me, but you can be inhabited for only a short time and when I do enter you, you rebel. You'll never be any use to me. No matter what I've done, I haven't been able to gain your help. But you husband is different," she seemed at this point to swell in size, and her voice, though still distant, grew deeper and bolder, "you see how I change. I feel so much better in his body than I have in yours. I never had much time within you; it was always a struggle: but he is weak and easy, and will help me in any way I choose."
The steam hissed from the pipes, and I fled, my throat tight with fear and horror. I burst from the steam room. Father Alvarez would help me. He must help me! He would have to exorcise her from Mark and try to banish her from the house itself.
The rain, though heavy, fell in quiet torrents, the wind barely picking up the sheets of moisture as they fell. I made my way to the priest's house, splashing and sliding as I ran, my clothes slowly drenched, and as I approached the house, the wind suddenly became a gale and buffeted me back, but I fought it and tried to reach the door. The street lights suddenly failed. I picked my way through the darkness lit occasionally by baleful lightning. I finally made it to the rectory of Father Alvarez, and pressed the buzzer, only realizing then that this would be of no use as all the power was out. I rapped cautiously several times, but there was no answer. Perhaps, even in this storm, he was asleep. I stumbled around in the hot, hissing, blowing downpour to the alley separating the church from the rectory, trying to see if I could find the priest's bedroom, hoping to somehow wake him by my call or a rap on the window. In the darkness I did make out a faint yellow light coming from one of the back rooms, and as I stood on tiptoes I could see that it was open several inches to let in the night air. The shade was drawn down only to the open sill, yet I could see a flickering candle playing on the walls in the room.
To my amazement, I could make out two nude male bodies in embrace. By craning my head and peering carefully through the space uncovered by the window shade, I could see the massive dark head on Father Alvarez, but he seemed different; pagan; animal; his formidable back stretching in a rippling V over large muscled buttocks. He was swaying in a dancing embrace with another man whom I recognized as his young gardener, David, shorter, but with a bodybuilder's physique just the same. This was as much an apparition to me as the ghost who came to me in the steam room, and though I was frantic for help, I paused, suddenly calm and curious as the rain and wind splashed against me. Their healthy bodies were brown and powerful, and they aroused a thrill hitherto unknown to me. A thunder clamp boomed, and then I came back to myself, remembered the urgency of the matter and not wanting to surprise the priest or his companion, and feeling dazed by what I had seen, I rushed back to the front door and started pounding on it with desperation. Whatever confused, shocked, aroused or disquieted feelings I had were sublimated to the urgency of the situation; for getting help, to rescue Mark from the grasp of the foul shade, and have the priest drive the demon from the house.
Father Alvarez ran with me in the tight, tattered blue jeans that he had hastily pulled on, his chest heaving with the strain and urgency of rushing through the tropical storm. We pushed against the gusts and the sheets of rain assailing us. It was difficult to see more than few feet ahead in the grey dawn, the torrents of rain were so dense and the drops continuously stuck our eyes, blinding, us, though we pressed forward.
My anxiety overcame me as we ran until I stopped and was sick at the side of the road. Father Alvarez held the back of my head while I was ill.
"Are you all right?" he gasped when I stood up, shaking and humiliated but calmed.
"Let's keep going, I don't think there's much time."
The wind picked up and the rain lashed our faces. The water penetrated my blouse until I was finally soaked through. Father Alvarez's dense black hair was plastered to his resolute, stoic brow.
We rounded the street corner and saw the guesthouse. At first I merely screamed: Mark stood at the widow's walk that opened from the window from our office, swinging from the rail with one hand on it and one foot supporting him while he waved his free hand out to the sky, his other foot dangling into midair as the storm drove against his rain lashed body. He was silent and seemed to be lost to what he was doing, not looking at the drop to the ground.
"We have to get up there now," I shouted against the wind.
"Otherwise he's going to fall," Father Alvarez agreed, rapidly nodding his head.
I turned to him and yelled, "And you've got to drive her from the house once and for all!"
"I can't do anything except to try to coax him back inside. This is a matter for the police."
"A matter for the police?" I practically screamed and shrilly sobbed at the same time, "for the police!" Why do you think I came and got you! You have to exorcise her demon. She'd not going to have her revenge on my husband for something he hasn't done."
He stared at me, maybe appalled at any of a number of things I had just said, then he frowned and said sarcastically, "Do you know what you're asking? This isn't a game. An exorcism takes time and calm and we haven't either."
"Then what should we do?" Then more quietly I whispered frantically, "What can we do?"
Only seconds passed as we argued, but each moment was wasted as Mark dangled from the walk. During our shouted conversation, amidst the near hurricane, I never took my gaze from him. At one point he faltered; he was going to lose his grip. Momentarily my hands grasped Father Alvarez on his upper arm, but Mark recovered himself. Despite his bizarre behavior, no one had come to his aid, even to gape. The rain fell on a street as empty of cars as people.
"We have to get him down from there first," Father Alvarez half yelled, half reasoned with me, "it's the only way. We have to get him to safety if we're going to do anything at all. You think a spirit or demon is controlling your husband. I don't know; maybe it's possible, but I've never performed an exorcism. If it's needed, I'll do it, but later. You have to understand that if we're going to help him now."
I did, but it was difficult to think clearly. I actually thought I saw her up there with him, floating just beyond his reach, coaxing him, tempting him, but the impression lasted for less than a second and was gone.
"She is controlling him! And you have to understand you're my only hope. She can enter someone's body if they're weak or vulnerable. At any moment she could try and succeed in controlling one of us if we give into fear. She can have us do anything if we don't resist her. Be vigilant while we bring Mark down to safety, and…and then we'll destroy the house if there is no other way to lay her to rest."
Father Alvarez looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Maybe I had.
The inn's sign had snapped from its chain and was banging against the house. It had probably come unhinged in the fierce breezed that had arisen, just like the time Mark and I first saw the house.
The priest and I rushed into the guesthouse. There was no one around. Bina had left for home hours ago. I would be attending to the desk this morning though the house was empty of guests. We tried the elevator and then remembering that the power was out, practically leapt up the stairs.
As we went up the stairs I began to remember the gross sexual display that I had witnessed, and I wondered if Father Alvarez had the moral conviction to rid the house of the shade which haunted my waking hours and now had captured my husband. He was not behaving like a prince of the church, nor even as a loyal, simple servant to God, but had surrendered himself to unnatural lust, just as my husband had. If he was not pure, then what hope could I have that he would or could help Mark?
I looked at the priest as we came to the third floor landing. He was panting, his light blue work shirt open to his hairy chest, his whole body wet and dripping form the rain. He thighs bulged in his jeans and for a moment I was disgusted, actually made physically sick by the appearance of this imposter; a sensual thug exposed. Oh God, teach me tolerance and respect for the men who surrounded me with their ugly instincts!
I prayed to a God who did not answer directly, but who was showing me the path to righteousness by guiding me to the only logical and just conclusion. It was strange how I hadn't seen the way before, but it was in the hour of need when my senses became sharpest.
What prevented me from rescuing Mark alone if the priest would not or could not help? I actually despised him as I thought of his large clumsy body stuffed into his street clothes, wavering in his faith, in his own ability to triumph over evil. Isn't that so typical of the Church today, all churches, to refuse to deal with the evil that is engulfing the world?
I came to realize that Satan surrounded me. There was no hope of escape through the Church, its representative had to be destroyed, and with him my husband. Then I would destroy the house by fire to cleanse our lives of the evil. That's what I would do. I would destroy our guesthouse to save ourselves. I exulted in the sense of power that was filling me, flooding me, engorging my sense of impending triumph.
They would die, all these men, then there would be blissful peace, and the sight of God and only forgetfulness of my imprisonment here, my inability to leave this house, this island; imprisoned by men, violated by them, murdered, but not deprived of life or vengeance, free in this woman's body who in her fear and hysteria now served my purpose. She didn't understand that what I wanted she wanted. I would save her by destroying her husband.
As Father Alvarez and I rushed up the stairs I thought quickly of what I could do to actually start the blaze and eliminate the whole building. It wouldn't be easy, but I knew there was some way of accomplishing it. The house was an old tinderbox after all, easily burned.
The priest pounded on the door to the tower and its widow's walk, as if expecting Mark to open it from his station on the precipice. Men are stupid I thought to myself; stupid and vain.
Father Alvarez turned, and perhaps noticed a change in me, but he could never guess what a change. It was!
I reached the top of the stairs and flung open the small door which led to the widow's walk itself. This so startled the poor man on the precipice, who now shook with fear, that he almost fell. Not yet, I though, not yet. How fitting that I would have my revenge on this slut, and this priest who had fled on the night of my own murder, who had fled without helping me.
Exulting in my powers, I tore open my blouse in my warrior heat. One breast exposed, I ran to the landing where the pig screamed and tottered at the edge of the widow's walk. Mark turned his head as I came to him, smiling desperately and reached out with one hand, but this smile turned to confusion and then, maybe, to realization when he saw my one breast jutting from my torn blouse. I think he knew. I grinned, grabbed his head and snapped his skull to the left then shoved him off the walk. The splattering thud on the pavement below delighted me.
Father Alvarez stared at me in a moment of sick stillness. His jaw dropped in disbelief as he rushed to the edge of the widow's walk.
"Oh my God."
Now I chose to wait. I stood watching him.
"Mrs. Carncross?" he asked calmly, suddenly quite changed. This disturbed me. Why didn't he sound afraid? It didn't matter. He would be.
"You never tried to do anything that night Father, not to help me nor even to get help, merely walking away thinking of your own reputation."
"She was right. You exist. You can control others," he marveled, again quite calmly. I hated him for his calm, for his apparent strength. "You aren't Mrs. Carncross, at least not at this moment, are you?" He stared at me again, expressionless. "I didn't flee: I left because of the atmosphere and goings on at that place there...here that night. I could never have guessed what it would lead to. I was young and frightened and confused. Afterwards, during the scandal, I thought of going to the police, but I was advised against it by my superiors."
"Your 'superiors'! Men without women in their lives who cared nothing for the suffering of a girl, and nothing for justice."
"That isn't true," he stated firmly and simply. "But what do you want from her, from me?" I felt weaker somehow in his presence; maybe I was mistaken about his lack of resolve after all. Perhaps I could enter him and discover what he was thinking and what he wanted. Somehow she was even now resisting...I was...fading, and I was afraid.
I emerged from my dream with that familiar "pop," reentering reality with a dim memory of a figure with stab wounds on her back; now with a terrible sensation that something was profoundly wrong. I recognized Father Alvarez, but with an unfamiliar expression of fear and hatred on his face which scared me almost as much as my desertion into a trance.
"Father? It's happened again. I've been...'absent'. Has anything happened? Suddenly I became aware that we were standing on the widow's walk in a howling downpour. I was soaked to the skin. My blouse was torn open and my breast was exposed. I hurried to cover it. How had I gotten up here? On the ground a number of people had gathered in a circle surrounding something obscure to me.
Abruptly Father Alvarez rushed up to me, "Don't look Mrs. Carncross." I tried again to look down but he grabbed my head and forced me to look straight at him, "It's your husband. He…fell. He's dead."
Father Alvarez suddenly grabbed me again by the arm. "Please come downstairs with me. We have to get away from this place; we have to destroy it before she can return. We must destroy it, burn it, purify it of that devilish shade. I believe everything you've said now. If we destroy the structure I think she won't have earthly contact any longer. She'll go to her rest."
"Destroy this house? My investment with my husband…my former husband…my dead husband?" I started to cry.
"I know how you must feel," he screamed above the roar of the near hurricane, "but there's no time to talk. This house has to be burned before she can reenter either one of us. There must be gasoline around, or the stove, there are gas stoves in the kitchen? The wind is strong enough to spread the fire throughout the house. Get whatever guests remain out of the place and burn it, rid ourselves of the demon. She has no mercy or understanding that her revenge is an evil deed without end."
"I've lost my husband, what will it matter if I lose the house? And all because we bought this place, and I tried to console her, to help her, never knowing her selfishness, her hatred, and now my husband is lost, lost forever. I hated him, but I never really wanted him to die. Oh Mark! Mark! If I can't be with you then I should die as well. Please Father, help me die!"
"You're upset, you don't know that you're saying," he pleaded, grabbing me by my arms. It's impossible just now to explain how to want to live after what's happened. I…there's nothing I can say, you simply have to face it that his death shouldn't, can't make you feel that you have nothing to live for. And we haven't defeated her yet. We must destroy the house, burn it down if we're to rid ourselves of her evil."
The storm had reached a frightening pitch, the wind all around the house pulling; pushing at our shelter; unbearable, untamable, beyond any ability we had to control it or even ourselves or our destinies. The wind and the rain pulled at me, pulled at Father Alvarez as we fought our way downstairs. It came through the house rattling the shutters and blinds seething through the rooms as if the demon shade was herself the wind.
I threw the gasoline we had found in the garage on the stairs, the balustrade and on the carpeting of the first floor. I threw the match on the liquid and watched the flames jump to the ceiling and play about the room like spirits of the house long dormant, now awakened, dancing about and embracing the house as they consumed it. I watched and then opened the windows as I darted nimbly about the flames.
Suddenly, Father Alvarez rushed up the burning staircase, pulling me along, demanding that I come with him. He jerked me savagely, almost wrenching my arm from my socket in an awful display of strength. How can I describe the terror that filled me as he pulled me up the staircase, the air more and more filled with black smoke, ignited ash and embers as we rose? I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. It was dreamlike, as if I were watching it happen to someone else, not to me. The air became unbreathable as we rose higher and high up the smoke choked stairway, the wooden staircase now a cracked, charcoal-chalky skeletal ember with veins of orange twisting, jumping and glowing from it and within it.
"Help me, God in heaven, I'm an innocent," I screamed against the roar of the flames and the wind.
"God in His Heaven can't help you!" the priest hissed to himself, then he scratched and clawed at this face, his nails digging into his flesh at his eyes, drawing blood. He shook violently, pulled at his chest hair and his groin screaming, "God in Heaven, help me, it wasn't me! It wasn't me!"
There was no choice for me in that second: I turned around, pivoting on one foot and grabbed Father Alvarez by the waist as he tried to tear out his own eyes. Despite his size and his strength, his power matched against the power of the demon-shade made him passive, and I was able to pull Father Alvarez's hands from his face. I dragged him down the smoldering stairs as the house started to collapse behind us. We reached the street, now teeming with spectators shielding themselves from the howling storm.
The fire burned in a wild conflagration ripped by the torrential winds. It was a strange and pleasing spectacle: I felt as if I were watching the resolution of some ancient sin, a retribution for a silent rage.
Father Alvarez held my hand sobbing, "Mark was my half-brother, the fruit of my father, profligate in his debaucheries, abandoned by him. I think that Mark followed this same course without knowing why. He never knew of the disaster that overtook this house and my family. He simply knew I lived on Palmetto Key and somehow wanted to make the connection, I think, to the vestiges of a family he thought he had, or wanted to have. He came to this end, deservedly or not. You couldn't have saved him: it wasn't for either of us to. He completed the circle that my father began so many years ago."
I heard Father speaking, not clearly, but I was not surprised by the revelation. At times the feeling that I had hurt Mark and brought about his death came back to me with an almost physical power, as if now in death he had come back to remonstrate me for realizing that with his passing I would be happier. I realized, guiltily, that without Mark I could live my life the way I wanted. I could take a lover, I thought, and giggled to myself. Father Alvarez was watching me because I was laughing. He looked tired and old. The police were running toward me. I hadn't done anything! I wasn't guilty, but they frightened me; severe punishing, horrible men. But I didn't have anything to fear because if I did want Mark dead it was simply convenient and nothing more. I hadn't brought it about, I only rejoiced in it.
There was no struggle left. We had put her to rest. The spirit was vanquished as the flames consumed the remainder of the building and the widow's walk fell, tumbling through the faltering remnants of the fire blackened and consumed frame. I thought I heard the wind bring her last cries, "I'm fading…I wanted him to die, and now I will rest! I'm fading…to escape all pain…to escape…to finally…escape…"
I adored watching the flames and was held in thrall by them; the body at the side of the road with the paramedics and the police barely disturbed my vision. It was the building I watched with a vivid sense of freedom and release and even Mark's death seemed unimportant. I was elated, exalted, overawed by the possibilities open to me now. The house's restoration had been my accomplishment and now its destruction was my destiny. Whatever came of what the police wanted, it was all part of a fantastic plan and in a perverse way I was grateful to the demon for killing my husband.
Copyright 2011 by Claude Chabot. All rights reserved.