This piece does not yet have a publication “home,” and I doubt it’s going to get one. It’s one of the quieter stories I’ve finished, so here it is in all its understated glory.
(Content note: the maximum rating I’d give this thing is PG-13, but beware the 13 part of it. Also, there are two small children in the story. Living children, that is. Deaths of children and adults are alluded to in this piece.)
* * *
The daylight was waning and its beams falling low through the September leaves when Holly pulled her Subaru into the inn’s small parking lot. It was a bumpy stop, and she worried briefly that they would have to buy a new car soon.
She checked the back seat. Ava looked grumpy and Evangeline obviously needed a bathroom break, courtesy of the large, blue Slushie Holly had allowed for the drive. A bribe, like Ava’s new toy cars, for sticking it out through the two hour trip, which was a lot to ask of children seven and four. She felt bad for dragging the girls along with her, but this was her last opportunity for one of these conferences, which she would need if she wanted the vice principal position next year. And Stephen was out of town for one of his conferences this weekend.
As the girls piled out of the car, Holly surveyed her surroundings: a gorgeous, Victorian mansion with a recent paint job, a well-kept garden, and a wide, green lawn stretching out from its front doors. They would have a lovely view, no matter which side of the property their windows faced.
Evangeline was shifting about uncomfortably and Holly moved to get the girls inside. The porch was at the end of a long, paved lane leading out from the lot. After tying Ava’s shoe, she herded them in that direction. The first thing she saw after looking back up was startling–a tall woman wearing what Holly thought were clothes from the early 1900s, her chestnut hair piled on her head in a bun. Was the inn holding a Victorian theme wedding? The web site said it hosted them occasionally. Still, it was disconcerting to run into someone who seemed so obviously out of place.
“How can I help you?” the woman asked in a low voice that was self-assured, but hoarse, worn down.
“I need to get my kids to a bathroom,” Holly replied. “We had a long drive from Portland, and I missed the last rest stop.”
Evangeline gave her a funny look.
“Well, you do have to go, don’t you?” said Holly. Evangeline shrugged a gesture that was probably a yes. Seven was turning out to be such an odd age.
The costumed woman pointed toward the ornate, glassy front door.
“Uh, thank you,” said Holly, awkwardly. Getting the girls up the front steps, she tried the door handle. It was locked. But that woman must have gotten in the house somehow.
“Excuse me, could you–?” Holly turned back toward the woman, who had walked away. She craned her neck toward the parking lot, expecting another glimpse of those strange, bustling skirts, and saw nothing. Annoyed, she took the girls along the wraparound porch, thinking they’d simply tried the wrong entrance. Sure enough, another glass paneled door greeted them at the other end of the house. This was locked, too, but Holly saw a sinewy, black woman coming down an interior hallway to greet them.
“Welcome to the Henley,” she said to them warmly as she ushered them in. “I’m June. You’re early. We didn’t expect you until six.”
“I wanted to get an early start, beat the Friday traffic,” said Holly. “My daughter needs a bathroom.”
“Of course.” June led them inside and pointed to a room at the end of the hallway. The door had the letters ‘W.C.’ painted on it in gold. Water closet, if Holly remembered correctly, was the polite term for bathroom around the turn of the twentieth century.
“Anyway, I’m sorry about the front door. That section is closed for remodeling, so we’re processing guests through this part of the residence. Is this your first stay with us?”
“Yes,” said Holly, feeling nervous as Ava plunked down on the Turkish rug beneath their feet. It appeared they were now in what had once been some kind of parlor. An overstuffed pair of love seats sat on each side of an ancient oak coffee table, and a huge grandfather clock stood against the wall by the door.
“Is it okay if my daughter plays with her toys?” asked Holly. The furniture was clearly expensive and she was concerned about how much of it was antique.
“Oh, it’s fine,” said June. “But be careful of that clock. It has wheels on the bottom and has been known to tip over sometimes.”
“Ava, did you hear that? Leave the clock alone,” Holly told her.
June went to retrieve their room key, and Holly went to check on Evangeline. The period details inside the Henley were authentic enough that Holly was suddenly worried the plumbing might be unstable.
“Almost done?” she said to the bathroom door. “Your sister might need in there, too.”
Evangeline muttered a “done in a sec” with barely a hint of seven year old snideness. Things were looking up.
Until she saw the little girl. The W.C. was the first of three rooms in a hall leading to another exit, and the girl was standing in front of it. The child was about Ava’s age, and like the woman out front, wore a dress and shoes that were distinctly from another era. Her light blonde hair was curled in stiff, polished ringlets it must have taken a stylist hours to create. Jesus, do they have children in this wedding? Holly thought.
Evangeline came out from the bathroom.
“It’s cold in there,” she said.
“We’re working on the heating,” June explained as she handed Holly her key. “Some of the rooms are warmer than others.”
Holly stared uncomfortably back down the hall, seeing no child there anymore, as she had known there wouldn’t be.
There had been quite a bit of talk on various web sites about ghost sightings at this inn, Holly had noted, while Googling for places to stay in the area. While the Henley’s site itself avoided the gossip, groups like the Willamette Valley Ghost Hunters Union raved about it on their pages. She shooed Evangeline off to watch Ava. Then, feeling ridiculous and somewhat juvenile, she said to June,
“There was a young girl down that hall a couple seconds ago. Now she’s gone.”
“Oh, that’s just Ethyl,” June said reassuringly. “She says hello to guests from time to time. Watch out if you see her mother, though.”
Holly blinked. “Why’s that?”
“They don’t like me to talk about it, but since you can find out on the Internet now…Ethyl Henley died in 1904 in a carriage accident. I think one toppled over on her. Her mother, Wilhelmina, spent the rest of her life in mourning. Supposedly, she never left the top two floors of the residence. She died in 1912 from some kind of opiate overdose, but I’m not sure they could tell how a person died back then.”
“So the mother’s not a friendly ghost?” said Holly, feeling worse than immature now, but relieved to able to use the word ‘ghost’ at last.
“I’ve never seen her personally. The last sighting happened before I worked here….” June trailed off, uneasy.
“They were probably just coincidences, people trying to explain away bad luck, you know. One of our owners admitted to me that guests who report seeing Wilhelmina Henley sometimes have accidents.”
“Uh-oh,” said Holly, trying to feign indifference.
“One guy lost his boat in the lake east of here.”
“Actually, it sank. One of his kids wasn’t wearing a life jacket. If it hadn’t been for a helpful bystander, he could have drowned. Another family–they lost control of their mini-van on a patch of ice right after they left the parking lot. If you ask me, they shouldn’t have been going so fast—”
“I thought you said the last sighting was before you worked here.” Holly was still hoping for a mention of a vintage theme wedding to emerge.
“I forgot about the mini-van incident. There was also a woman who stayed here two years ago. Claimed she saw a figure in one of the upstairs rooms. Her daughter took a fall down one of the staircases.”
“Sounds like they don’t want you to talk about it for liability reasons,” said, Holly to cut her off. “Speaking of, I should—” she jerked her chin toward where Ava and Evangeline were playing together.
Walking past the stairs to the second floor, Holly gave its balcony a passing glance. Hovering on the right side, dark, but unmistakable, was the shape of that well-dressed woman.
Holly turned her eyes back to the kids just in time. Despite the warnings, Ava had not been able to resist the urge to play with the clock, which was wobbling and about to topple forward. In a flash, Holly and June converged on the clock, each grabbing one side of the behemoth and pushing it back upright.
“Now,” said Holly, winded with triumphant relief, “Let’s…”
Her sentence died away as she watched one of Ava’s cars, kicked away when the women had tangled with the clock, roll off the Turkish rug and onto the hardwood floor. Then everything became crystal clear in her mind. The repairs her husband had wanted her to get before their road trip—new tires, brakes, a suspension check, repairs Holly had postponed—would be the cause of the accident. It would happen on the way to the conference tomorrow, when, despite her reasonable speed and normal driving conditions, a tight turn around a curve of highway would send them careening down a steep hillside.
“Is there a repair shop nearby?” she asked June, digging into her purse for her cell phone.
While June gave her a name and directions, Holly stared up to the second floor again. The dark figure no longer lingered there, as if she had heard their discussion and took Holly’s comments for what they were—an attempt to communicate, with gratitude—message received.