Amy Whittaker sat cross-legged on the pink, wool rug, surrounded by stacks of photos and letters. Her great-aunt’s personal life strewn helter-skelter, an eighty-nine year accumulation of keepsakes to be sorted. With a sigh, she pushed a long strand of dark hair behind her ear and rubbed one throbbing temple. The sooner she finished the task, the sooner she could leave the dreary old house tucked into the shadow of the mountain and head back to her apartment filled with light and laughter. After spending a couple of nights in this mausoleum, she actually appreciated her noisy, messy roommates.
The clock on the mantle clicked and whirred before striking a single chime. Amy nearly jumped out of her skin. “Good God, I’m losing it,” she mumbled.
Maybe she should have left the endless boxes of crap for the realtor to look through before putting the house on the market. But mixed in with cast off doilies and knick-knacks was bits of family history, and she couldn’t hand it all over to a stranger, even if her brother called her a sentimental chump.
A huge yawn popped her jaw, and she rubbed gritty eyes. If she had half a brain, she’d give up for the night and go to bed. But she’d promised herself she’d finish sorting this final box first.
What she needed was a major injection of caffeine. Pushing to her feet, she stepped across the piles and headed toward the kitchen. A lose shutter slapped against the house with a rhythmic thump as she waited for the coffee to drip into the carafe. Her skin prickled, and she took a deep breath, trying to steady jangling nerves. It was just the wind. The local weather channel had predicted a storm rolling in after .
The coffee maker gurgled and hissed. Grabbing a cup from the cupboard, she poured a stream of fragrant liquid and took a gulp. Warmth flowed through her, and she wrapped chilled fingers around the delicate porcelain. No insulated mugs for her great-aunt. She was strictly old school.
Aunt Margaret and her damn journals. Amy eyed the pile of notebooks stacked on the kitchen table. She’d wasted too many hours reading them. The old biddy had an opinion about everything, and some of her comments about the neighbors read like a Jerry Springer episode. Then there were the mentions of Farley. They began in the earliest journals, back when her aunt was barely in her teens, and continued to the very end.
Farley tried to lure me into the woods, but I was too scared to go… I nearly fainted when Farley appeared at my mother’s afternoon tea for her garden club wearing a bloodstained tunic. Thank heavens the women didn’t see him… My fiancé is dead, shot in some French town I’ve never heard of. If it weren’t for Farley, I’d lose my mind… Farley doesn’t approve of Mr. Hintz, though our friendship is innocent enough… The local children got more of a fright than they bargained for this Halloween. Damn, Farley! I’ll have some explaining to do to their parents…I’ve been feeling poorly for over a week now. Farley’s been visiting more often than usual…
Who in the world was Farley? Margaret Whittaker had never married. There was absolutely no gossip about a man in her life. None. Shouldn’t there have been someone in all those years? If it wasn’t for the journals, Amy would have gone on believing her great-aunt was the prim and proper, starched and pressed, retired librarian she portrayed to the community. Obviously there’d been more to the woman than she’d let on.
Amy spun on her sneakers, sloshing hot coffee over her hand. She dropped the cup, and it shattered on the checked linoleum. Heart pounding, she pressed her stinging fingers to her chest and backed up against the counter.
A flash of orange fur flew down the narrow back stairs. The cat stared at her through round golden eyes, blinked once, then minced around the puddle on the floor and plopped his butt down in front of the food bowl.
“Jesus, Max, give me a freaking heart attack, why don’t you!”
The cat twitched its tail and chomped dry food. Amy glared at the supercilious little beast. She had half a mind to dump him at the local animal shelter, but she’d promised her aunt…
The shutter slapped against the siding as a gust of wind shook the window panes. Amy shivered and ran her hands up and down her arms. It was cold in the house. Hopefully nothing was wrong with the furnace because there was no way in hell she was going into the basement to check. The place was full of dirt and cobwebs and probably mice. A shudder shook her.
Enough stalling. Grabbing a handful of paper towels, she cleaned up the mess of broken porcelain, and then took down a second cup. After filling it, she headed back to the parlor. She was nearing the bottom of the box. A fat scrapbook caught her attention, and she lifted it out from beneath a pair of embroidered pillow cases.
Not a photo album. The Whittaker Family History was inscribed across the front page in her aunt’s spidery handwriting. James Whittaker arrived in
in 1620 aboard the Reliance…She flipped pages chronicling the lives of her ancestors. Aunt Margaret had tried to interest her in genealogy, but history wasn’t Amy’s thing. As a nurse, she cared more about the living than the long dead. America
A parchment scroll, rolled and tied with a ribbon, was tucked between the binder’s rings. She pulled it out and flattened it on the rug. At the very top was James Whittaker, at the bottom Amy and her brother, Matt. Her gaze scanned up the list of names and dates, zeroing in on a familiar one. Farley Whittaker born
September 17, 1839 killed September 17, 1862 at Antietam. He’d died on his birthday. A chill slithered down her spine.
Was the Farley her aunt had repeatedly mentioned in her journal a relative descended from the Civil War hero? She didn’t remember a Farley at any of the boring family gatherings she’d been dragged to in years past. All her cousins, second cousins, and cousins once removed were older, and most of them male. They had no use for a skinny, tag-a-long girl in the hard-hitting football games they organized. Amy had usually been stuck in the kitchen with her aunts, drying dishes. The women had gossiped while they worked, and she was nearly positive the name Farley was never mentioned.
She shut the scrapbook and laid it in the keep pile. Enough. She could barley keep her eyes open. If she didn’t get some sleep, she’d be worthless tomorrow. Staggering to her feet, she walked around the room, turning off lamps. Extinguishing the last one plunged the room into darkness. Feeling her way along the furniture, she stepped into the hall and saw a light glowing from the kitchen doorway.
Didn’t I turn it off? With a shrug, she headed toward the back of the house. A floorboard creaked beneath her foot, and she moved a little faster. Old houses gave her the willies. She’d take a condo with modern conven—
A crash on the front porch sent her spinning around. The fine hair rose along her forearms. Maybe the cat… No, Max was inside. Halloween was only a few days away, and Aunt Margaret had mention neighborhood kids daring each other to run up on the front porch of the scary old house. If one of them had broken something… Straightening her shoulders, she marched toward the front door. Grabbing the handle, she twisted the lock and flung it open.
Dead leaves skittered across the porch in a gust of wind. The moon gleamed behind a haze of clouds, casting a feeble glow over the yard. Peering into the dark, Amy snapped on the outdoor light. Nothing. The bulb must be dead.
“Is anyone out there?”
Her words were swallowed up in the night. Heart thumping, she stepped through the doorway. Pattering feet scrambled from behind a broken planter, shattered on the porch floor. Eyes glowed green low to the ground. With a snarl, the raccoon raced down the steps.
Amy grabbed the railing for support as her pulse raced wildly. First the cat, and now a dammed raccoon… When she was certain her legs would support her, she turned and walked back into the house.
A man stood in the hallway, his broad shoulders silhouetted in the light cast through the kitchen doorway. His eyes were dark holes in a pale face. The front of his blue tunic was drenched in some dark liquid.
Amy swallowed, and then quietly shut the door behind her.
October’s brilliant colors had faded to brown with the onset of a frigid November. Wind whipped a swirl of dead leaves across the driveway to settle in piles at the edge of the lawn. Amy turned off the ignition and listened to the ticking of the car’s engine as it cooled. Overhead, bare branches on the huge oak tree rattled and shook.
She stared at Great-Aunt Margaret’s house, noting the loose shutter that slapped against the siding, and told herself walking up the front steps didn’t require an act of heroism. It was just an old house. There was no such thing as ghosts.
A shiver slid down her spine. She’d only imagined the man in the blue uniform. It was her own fault for reading those damn journals and staying up until the wee hours of the morning. Her exhausted brain had conjured up the image, which disappeared the second she blinked. Farley, the long dead Civil War soldier, was buried in a nearby graveyard. The Farley in her aunt’s journals was probably just a neighbor. It was the only thing that made sense.
She opened the car door and stepped out onto the graveled drive. She’d been an idiot to abandon the house two weeks before with the packing unfinished. But the realtor had a potential buyer, so she couldn’t put off finishing the task any longer. Her gaze strayed up the facade of the three story house. Above the porch roof, the lace curtain at her aunt’s bedroom window twitched.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Chanting the mantra, she squared her shoulders and marched up the porch steps with the key clutched in her hand. Come hell or high water—or an onslaught of visitors from beyond the grave—she wouldn’t leave the house until every last one of her aunt’s mementos was packed.
“The buyer’s definitely a live one, even made an offer, though it’s ridiculously low. Still, you can counter.”
Victor “Just call me Vic” McCall dropped the papers onto the kitchen table. “In this economy you can’t get too greedy, especially under the circumstances.”
Amy stared at the man through narrowed eyes. Everything about the realtor irritated her, from the big, toothy smile and unnatural tan, to the Italian leather shoes that probably cost more than she took home in a month adorning his oversized feet. She turned back to the papers in front of her and jumped when he rested a hand on her shoulder and leaned close to point at a figure.
“You can maybe get this much.”
She shifted away from him. “Why so low, and what ‘circumstances’ are you talking about?”
Vic cast a quick glance up the back staircase. “I had a family interested, but the wife came tearing down those stairs screaming about—”
The breath left Amy in a whoosh. “Dead soldiers,” she whispered.
His thick black brows shot up. “Huh?”
Goosebumps pebbled her arms, and she rubbed them through the sleeves of her sweater. “Nothing.”
“She swore the rocking chair in the master bedroom started moving when no one was near it. I tried to explain about drafts in these old places, but she wouldn’t listen.” He gave her his toothy smile. “The current buyer doesn’t have a nervous bone in his body. The front door slammed shut for no reason, nearly smacked him in the ass, and he didn’t even flinch. All he’s concerned about is the zoning laws in this neighborhood.”
Frowning, she dropped the papers. “Why would he care about that?”
“I think he wants to turn the house into a bed and breakfast.” The realtor waved his hands in the air. “When you think about it, it’s in the perfect location. Close to skiing in the winter, and a leaf peeper’s paradise in the fall. And to clench the deal, this area of
is an antique hunter’s dream year round.” Vermont
Aunt Margaret will roll in her freshly dug grave if strangers invade her home. Amy shuddered. “I don’t know…”
“Why do you care what he does with it? You’re selling the place.”
Yes, she was. Her home was in
. Her brother lived in Boston , and her parents spent most of the year in New York . None of them wanted the house. Aunt Margaret expected me to care. She shut down the thought before guilt could take hold. Florida
“I can’t sign anything right now. I have to talk to my family first.”
He shrugged. “Sure. Give them a call this evening. I’m sure your dad will see the wisdom in what I’ve suggested.”
Amy gritted her teeth and rose to her feet, pushing the chair across the linoleum floor. “A man having more sense than a woman, of course.”
Color burned in his cheeks, turning his tan a muddy brown. “I didn’t mean…”
She walked past him out into the hall. Pulling open the front door, she turned to face him. “I’ll get back to you with our decision.”
“Uh, you bet. Nice seeing you again, Amy.”
She closed the door and leaned against it. “Smarmy, condescending idiot—” Something brushed her ankle, and she let out a shriek. Glancing down, she pressed her hand to her chest. “You need a bell, Max, before you give me a heart attack.”
The cat twitched his tail and led the way back to the kitchen. After filling his bowl with kibble, she climbed the stairs to the upper hall. Her aunt’s room was in the front of the house. She paused to give the rocker a push with her toe, then stood next to the window. Pulling back the white lace curtain, she stared down at the lawn, remembering croquet games from her childhood. Aunt Margaret had always let her win…
A whiff of lilac teased her senses. The room still smelled like her great-aunt, though she hadn’t noticed it earlier. Dropping the curtain, she turned. Max rubbed against the rocking chair, purring insanely. Amy stared at the empty chair and bit her lip.
There’s no such thing as ghosts…
“I’m losing it.” Striding from the room, she headed down the main stairs and entered the parlor. She’d box up the rest of the photo albums, then pack the angel figurines adorning the mantle. She’d always loved the delicate little trinkets, and even when she was young, her aunt had let her touch them. Blinking back tears, she dragged a half-full box over to the bookshelf. Taking down the first album, she laid it inside. A second and third followed.
She’d reached the tenth book before she gave in to temptation. Cradling the old cloth album, she sat cross-legged on the rug and opened it on her lap. Pictures of a trio of girls in flared skirts with high waists and short, fitted jackets filled the page. Surely the blonde in the middle with the rolled bangs and flipped up hair was her great-aunt. Even the ravages of time hadn’t been able to obliterate the pointed chin or the mischief in her eyes. Aunt Margaret would have been about twenty when these photos were taken, shortly before her fiancé was killed in the war. Back when she was a carefree girl…
Amy shut the book and placed it in the box. Then she set to work on the angels, wrapping each in tissue before packing it away.
Hunger drove her into the kitchen. She filled the teakettle with water, opened a can of soup, and glanced over at the papers good old Vic had left. Selling the house was a wise decision, even if it had been in the family for nearly two hundred years. Keeping it was out of the question. Wasn’t it?
She ate the soup and placed the bowl in the sink, then stepped out onto the back porch. Her fingers wrapped around the porcelain teacup as she raised it to her lips. A chill autumn wind cut through her sweater, and she shivered. Long shadows stretched across the yard to the forest beyond.
She’d procrastinated long enough. Time to finishing the packing. Turning on her heel, she gasped when a flicker of movement caught her eye. She swung back around. Surely she’d seen…
A man in a blue tunic ran across the yard. His face wore a teasing grin as he looked down at the blonde girl with the pointed chin at his side. Hand in hand, they disappeared into the woods.
Amy backed through the kitchen door and slowly closed it. Her hand shook as she picked up her cell phone and pushed a button. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and waited for her dad to answer.
“Hi, honey, how’s the packing going?”
“Dad,” her voice quavered, and she made an effort to steady it. “I think we should keep Aunt Margaret’s house.”
He was silent for a long moment before a warm chuckle rolled into her ear. “I was wondering how long it would be before you made that decision. Can I ask what changed your mind?”
She glanced toward the empty hallway. “Let’s just say some keepsakes can’t be packed away in a box.”