Life (or is it Death?) continues at Wisdom Court. I hope you enjoy the first short story…
The Scent of Lavender
Eve turned her head from light pooled on the pillow, setting her blonde strands aglow. In her dream a bird on a pine branch called to another.
A chill touched her face and she frowned.
She moved under the cotton blanket, pulled the blue folds over her shoulder.
A faint scent drifted past her nose and she saw fields of flowers behind her eyes. Her lips parted in a breath.
Would it never stop? Annoyance roused Eve into opening her eyes. As she blinked at the shadowy dark of the room, fragrance filled her nostrils.
She sneezed. Lavender? She brushed at her nose. Where could it be coming from?
Chirp-chirp—chirp-chirp—chirp-chirp. The squeaking rasped at her ears.
Eve turned toward the noise and saw the rocking chair in the corner pitching to and fro with increasing speed, the back of it nearing the wall.
A wave of frigid air hit her face, forcing her eyes closed. She held her hand out in front of her in a halting motion, trying to stem the terrible cold. “Who are you?” Her voice quavered. Her fingertips numbed. As a child she’d had frostbite, this same sensation of deadening flesh. “Stop. Stop. Please stop.”
The room stilled. Eve peeked through slitted eyes at the chair. It was motionless.
As she felt the air warming, her gaze was caught by motion. Wavering lines stirred between the arms of the rocker. Transparent filaments wiggled into shapes visible against the deep blue paint on the wall.
Her breath chopped into gasps and her heart shook in her chest. Tendrils wrapped into a yarn-ball head and twisting strands coiled into sausage curls. A tubular shape—like a rolling pin, she thought in silent horror—became shoulders and stretched like reaching worms into arms and hands.
Eve fell back against her pillow, darkness spreading at the edges of her vision. For a moment the image doubled.
The soft whisper barely rested on the air, but Eve could sense entreaty.
Eve pushed herself up onto her elbows and forced her gaze to the shape seated in the chair. Vivid blue eyes stared back at her.
Mouth agape, Eve struggled to release her breath. Before she could, a creature landed on her legs, attacked her knees.
Eve screamed and scooted back against the headboard.
Claws out, Danica paced up her thighs, stopped on her lap to butt her head against Eve’s sternum.
“Mrroauw,” said the black and white cat.
Eve lunged toward the nightstand, sending the cat running, and flailed for the phone. Her icy fingers punched three numbers to connect her to Rose in the Wisdom Court main house.
Two rings and a rusty voice croaked. “This is Rose.”
“It’s Eve.” Her words wobbled. “Something’s here.”
“Mrroauw.” Danica purred with gusto from the bedside table.
“Sounds like your cat.”
Eve cast a quick look over her shoulder at the wall behind her. The chair was unmoving. The framed picture of a waterfall slid down to the rug and she whimpered.
Rose’s voice sharpened. “What’s going on over there?“
“Visitation. Woke me up.” Eve struggled to hold herself together. “It’s over now, I think. I hope. Sorry I bothered you.”
“I’m on my way.” The receiver clicked in Eve’s ear.
“Well, that’s some visitation.” Rose set down her cup and rubbed at the corner of one eye like a tired child. Her gray-blonde hair tumbled to her shoulders and her face was blurry with fatigue. She’d arrived in her pajamas, feet in untied running shoes. “How long do you think it took—the whole thing, I mean?”
Eve thought. “After I woke up…maybe five—ten minutes.” She noted Rose’s bleary gaze and guilt stabbed her. “I freaked out over the way she took shape…so different from the features-forming-from-vapor routine we’ve seen before. I froze, just watched. I should’ve tried to do something.”
“When you’re scared it’s hard to function.”
Eve swallowed. “I was frozen—not just because it was like an iceberg in here. And then she said please. It got to me.” She shook her head impatiently. Hadn’t they all learned the very purpose of ghostly visits was to resolve old pain in the dead souls who couldn’t rest? “Sad and desperate.”
“That seems to be our stock in trade.” Rose pushed herself off the sofa. “You want to come back to house with me? You can sleep on the couch.”
Eve smiled at her. “Thanks, but no. The way I screamed probably scared her away for now.”
“Hope so.” Rose yawned. “If anything else does happen, let me know. Otherwise, we’ll go over it at breakfast.”
“Okay.” Eve returned her hug, grateful for her warmth. “Thanks for coming.”
“It’s what we do, dearie.”
Eve let Rose out and watched her walk down the carpet runner to the front door. When she’d pulled it shut behind her, Eve mirrored Rose’s actions and turned the deadbolt to barricade herself inside.
“Mrroauw?” Danica peered at her from the kitchen doorway and Eve took the hint. The cat was lapping cream as Eve forced herself up the stairs to the bedroom. As she drew near, she saw light on the pillow, gone in an instant.
She stopped in her tracks. Don’t let her still be here, she thought with dread. Taking a step, then another, she hesitated at the open door.
Lines gleamed from the wall behind the rocking chair, but when Eve turned on the overhead light, she could see nothing on it. Frowning, she turned off the light and, leaving the door to the hall open, headed toward the bed. As she moved she saw the glimmer again.
“Hello?” No answer.
Her pulse throbbing in her throat, Eve approached the rocking chair. Above it on the wall were wavy lines appearing and fading as her shadow interrupted the dim light from the hall. She stopped as she realized words had been formed with transparent filaments, perhaps the same used to form the outlines of the entity she’d seen. She drew closer and read the curving script, barely aware of the faint aroma in the air.
I am blameless.
“You’re kidding me.” Andrea Bellamy held her cup of coffee halfway to her mouth and stared at Eve in amazement. Sun spearing through the Wisdom Court kitchen window kindled red strands in her chestnut hair. Her clever eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “What, she wanted to correct the record?”
“I guess.” Eve forgot Aura Lee had refilled her cup and took a large gulp of coffee, burning her mouth. “Ouch.” She got up for a glass of water, sidestepping the back door swinging open from the back porch.
Brenna swept in, slammed it shut, putting out a hand to stabilize the ceramic plaque of a Celtic knot on the wall beside the door. “‘T’sup?” Gamine in skinny jeans and a woolly white sweater, she pushed fine black hair off her forehead, making for the empty chair at the end of the table.
“Among other things,” Aura Lee announced as she poured coffee into a cup for her, “Eve has had a visitor from beyond.”
“Beyond? That’s in New Mexico, right?”
“Oh, shut up.” Aura Lee wrinkled her nose at her, eyes twinkling.
Brenna reached for toast. “This is the first one this week, right?” She peered around the table. “Is there honey?”
“Behind the orange juice.” Aura Lee resumed her seat, automatically pushing the sleeves of her caftan away from her plate of scrambled eggs. “Tell her, Eve.”
Rose came in as Eve complied, her expression darkening as she heard about the words formed on the wall the night before. “Not another mystery to explain.” She grabbed a handful of grapes from the bowl at the center of the table. “How could we ever begin to figure out what that means?”
“And who would care?” Andrea asked. “We don’t know who she is.”
“She could tell us that, I suppose.” Aura Lee paused, excitement spreading across her face. “She could tell us everything, since she can communicate.”
Rose poured herself a cup of tea. “Cross your fingers that she won’t. We need to get on with our own lives, not always be trying to finish the stories of the spirits who show up at Wisdom Court.”
That night Eve awoke to chirping again. A glance at the clock showed three-eleven. The air was tinged with lavender and the chair moved as if alive.
She was so tired. Her eyes closed and her breath slowed to a dreaming speed.
My sister was my mirror, and I was hers. Seven minutes apart, as like as two peas, Papa always said. Mama dressed us the same and preened at her way of telling her babies apart. “A drop of lavender on Sara’s heel, attar of roses on Maude’s, and Mother’s nose knows.” Her musical laugh would lighten the room. Poor Mother. It was never as simple as she wanted it to be.
Two babies in ruffles kicked their feet and cooed at the smiling woman. Eve turned onto her side and cupped her cheek with one hand. The echoes of laughter disappeared as dawn grew near.
The creamer swirled in a vortex as Eve stirred her coffee. She turned on the computer and sipped while the printer roared to life and colorful icons popped onto the monitor screen. She set the coffee at a distance from the keyboard and opened the file for her work in progress. Frowning, she held her breath as her fingers moved across the keys, closing the file, opening another. Air gushed from her lungs as the words, Twins’ Story, appeared on the tab of the new file.
Her fingers kept moving though she tried to stop them. Dreams weren’t enough for this one, Eve thought as words appeared on the screen.
We loved to play tricks on Father. He was never sure which of us was Sara, which Maude. More than once I caught him watching us, that funny wrinkle across his brow. Mama’s branding of us never worked for him. He said he’d lost his sense of smell working in a Pittsburgh steel mill as a boy.
He’d play chase, running after us, catching one of us and twirling her around, tickling her neck with his bristly moustache. “Who are you?” he’d roar, and hug us tightly, always whispering in our ear, “You know I love you best.” Poor Father. He never knew what an impression the words made.
When we started at the girls’ seminary we discovered how easy it was to fool other people as well. Mother continued to order our clothing in twos, and we became adept at braiding each other’s hair. We were blonde and had bright blue eyes and pink lips. We knew we were prettier than Amy March in Little Women.
The beginning was accidental: I hadn’t wholly memorized Poe’s poem for recitation and my sister had learned it perfectly while listening to me practice. I promised to do her chores for a week if she would take my place and she did. Each of us applied her special scent on the other. It would become our ritual.
She recited beautifully. The girls and the teachers were entranced by her performance and awarded her a certificate. I hid it from her and she never found it. It belonged to me. It had my name on it.
Aura Lee set her crocheting in her lap to lean forward in her chair, reaching for Eve’s hand. “Were you in a trance as you typed?”
Eve shook her head, and a blonde strand fell across her eyes. “I was awake but I could see the story in my mind. My hands pressed the keys and the words appeared on the screen.”
“Creepy.” Brenna shivered. “It’s hard enough to contend with the dreams. This must have freaked you out.”
“After the stuff that’s happened here? My snakes and your horrible nightmares?” Eve pushed down the fear waiting to rise in her mind. “I was just typing the ghost’s dictation. I wish everything I write could be so easy.”
Her cup wobbled as she lifted it to drink. She set it back onto the table and let out a silent, shaky breath.
We laughed together at what we could do. Causing confusion was a power we shared. Even our closest friends were unable to tell us apart with certainty. We grew older. I could see no difference in our looks, but my sister drew more attention. In cotillion class, the boys flocked around her, but the girls showed little jealousy. She was their friend and they were as besotted with her as the boys were. But she was still mine and we continued to play our game together.
We met Peter when we were nearly seventeen. His family had moved to Boone County from Illinois the summer before our final year at school. He was magnificent. Tall and lean, his dark hair curled onto his forehead, and his features were heroic. His nose was straight and noble above his full lips. He was excellent at all the sports and smiled readily. But his liquid brown eyes were drawn most often to my sister, his glance moving over me with little interest. She treated him with the friendliness she showed to all, but I suspected what must lay hidden in her heart. And now she had little time for our old game. She said teasing our friends by pretending to be one another was for children, not the young ladies we were becoming.
I began to wish I were my sister.
Rose had read the latest pages and then asked Eve to speak with her privately. She gestured toward the overstuffed living room chair and sank onto the sofa near the fireplace as Eve sat across from her.
“I don’t like the way this is going.” Worry had gathered her brows together. “You said you’re awake when you’re typing this ghost’s story. Are you certain of that?”
Eve nodded. “It’s not as though I’m possessed or my mind’s controlled. I simply find myself recording what I’m told.”
“Do you hear her voice?”
Eve drew a breath, and then let it out. Puzzled, she thought back over the encounters. “I’m not sure,” she said finally. “I thought I heard her say ‘please’ that first time she came. But lately it’s felt a little like writing something of my own. The characters will take over sometimes and, for lack of a better word, dictate to me.” At the alarm flickering in Rose’s eyes, Eve added quickly, “It’s wonderful when it happens.”
Rose searched her face. “Do you think you could be writing this as a delayed reaction to what happened when we were under attack and the tunnel caved in?”
Eve was shaking her head. “I don’t see how. None of the twins’ story has ever crossed my mind.“
“We’ve been so busy trying to get back to normal we haven’t been paying attention for the signs of more hauntings. It occurred to me last night that you might be channeling this ghost, the way you did Caldicott. We don’t know what the long-term effects are.” Rose drew one hand over her forehead. “Max and Kerry won’t be back for another two weeks, and who know where Charlie is?” Her eyes searched Eve’s. “I’m not sure what I should do.”
“It’s all right, Rose. Charlie’s still in London, reporting on what happened here.” Eve hated that she might be in crisis mode again. “I don’t feel…overtaken…the way I did when I was receiving the information from Caldicott. I’m awake for all of it, and I can’t believe Maude and Sara are my creations. I was about thirty pages into an outline for a mystery when the ghost started sharing her tale.”
“Will you use the story of the twins in your own work?”
“No.” Eve’s voice had flattened and she struggled to inject lightness into it. “Not my sort of thing.” She summoned a smile as she rubbed at the stiffness in her fingers. “Please don’t worry. I believe the story’s almost over. She wants us to know what happened, and when we do, I think she’ll be at peace.”
Rose nodded, though she clearly was unconvinced. “I hope you’re right.”
The air was heavy with the scent of roses.
Eve coughed and turned fitfully on the pillow, trying to escape the cloying aroma. She slid from her bed and walked haltingly to her study. Her hands moved over the keyboard, words appearing on the computer screen. Her eyes were closed as she worked.
Peter was coming to ride with Maude that afternoon and she was angry when I put on my riding clothes as well. I’m sure she thought two girls in blue habits weren’t nearly as impressive as one. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’m riding into town.”
I was dabbing her scent on my wrists—I’d begun it months before to irritate our mother—when the note from Peter came. He was unable to ride with her after all. When Mother heard the news and saw I was in my habit, she told us to go together. “It will do you both good,” she said. “Return in time for tea.”
I saw the soft smile Mother gave to Maude and tossed my head as her lips thinned when she looked me up and down. “Why can’t you fasten those top buttons like your sister!” she snapped as we left the house.
The air was laden with the scent of honeysuckle. Our horses were fresh, my black Duke shying at every shadow, her bay Roman breaking into a trot, for once actually awake. “Make certain you don’t fall off,” I murmured. Maude slapped her crop against his flank and the bay broke into a canter.
We rode along the river. The heat was building as we started up the hillside, the valley of trees spreading across the landscape beside us. When lightning struck the bluff above us, sound exploded all around, shards flying everywhere. Larger pieces of pink sandstone fell down the slope toward us. Duke was hit in the head and neck, falling to the ground as I kicked my boots from the stirrups. I landed hard on my side, the air knocked from my lungs.
When I came to myself, I pushed up to look around. My sister was stumbling to her feet, head moving side to side. Her horse was standing not far from her, breathing heavily. I called to her but she didn’t turn my way. She just kept walking. Something fell into my eyes, and I wiped at it. When I pulled my hand back I saw it was blood and felt pain in my head.
Where was Maude? I saw her near the bank of the trail and screamed at her. She turned sharply and lost her balance. She flailed the air to gain her balance and slowly fell over the side.
“Those poor girls.” Aura Lee shook her head in sympathy, hummingbird earrings bouncing at her cheeks. Her fingers moved quickly as she chain stitched amber yarn into a lacy circle.
Brenna ruffled her dark hair with both hands. “Who was it who fell?”
Eve closed her eyes at the ache in her head. “It was Maude.” Had she awakened early to type the latest part of the story? She couldn’t remember. She might have done it in her sleep.
“Eve, where’d you go?” Brenna was examining her in curiosity.
“What?” Eve straightened in the chair. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t get much sleep.” She pasted on a smile. “I keep thinking about their story even after I’ve read it. Typed it. Whatever.”
“It has to be upsetting.” Aura Lee reached for a cookie.
“Well, you start to feel as though you know these people.” Eve got up from the table and gathered her papers. “I think I’ll try to nap. I’ll plan to see you at dinner.”
I made my way to the edge of the path and looked over it. Far below me was Maude. She’d landed on a rocky outcrop, blood covering her face. Her head was at a terrible angle and I knew she was dead. I went to her horse Roman and took hold of his reins. Sobbing, I leaned against his side.
At the sound of someone coming I struggled to keep the horse from running. I don’t remember anything else until I heard my father’s voice calling us. When he stopped before me and got off his horse, I could barely see him. I fell into his arms.
“Maude, Maudie,” he choked. “What happened to Sara?”
Into my mind flashed my mother’s image smiling at Maude as we’d left for our ride. She’d always loved her more, as did our father. Peter as well.
I leaned on him, and let the tears escape. “A lightning strike out of nowhere.” I could hardly breathe. “Rocks hit us and she went over the edge.”
“Dear Lord,” he cried. “Where’s her horse?”
“He was hit by stones, too. He’s dead…over there.” I pointed toward the dark area under the bluff and all I could do was cry for Duke.
I turned in Father’s arms to look behind me. Peter was coming toward me.
“You said you couldn’t come with us…” My voice broke.
He grabbed hold of me and murmured, “Maude, what happened?”
I almost told him. I almost did. But he breathed in my scent—her scent. He breathed in the attar of roses and his arms tightened. “Thank God it wasn’t you.” He pushed my head to his shoulder and I sobbed at the thought of Mother’s smile, felt the strength in Peter’s hold. Nobody wanted me to be the one left behind. I wept until I became hysterical and they took me home to put me to bed.
My parents treated me like spun glass. But they were never the same. They acted as if the center had left their lives. Sometimes I wondered if they had loved me more than I’d thought, but there was no way to ever answer that question. They died the following year, five months apart.
“That’s so sad.” Aura Lee squeezed a few drops of lemon into her tea. “It’s almost as though poor girl was being punished for lying.”
Eve nodded. She’d read the new pages to them while they had cordials before dinner. When she’d awakened from her nap, the pages were resting on the bedside table. She’d examined them with no memory of having typed them. Clearly Sara was taking more control in the process of telling her story.
“Or maybe she was wrong about their loving Maude more.” Brenna emptied the tiny crystal glass holding the golden amaretto. Her eyes closed as she swallowed.
Rose grimaced. “I wish she’d hurry up and finish telling her story so you could get back to your writing.” She reached for her wine glass. “You’re beginning to look so tired. And thinner.”
Eve smiled at her. “I just want to know how it will end. Hauntings are a special kind of tale, an effort to balance the scales, I think. I can’t imagine how that can happen with this one.”
“I’m wondering about what happened with Peter,” Brenna said. “He’d be the hardest one to fool, don’t you think?”
“Maybe.” Eve gave a brief thought to a man she’d dated in college. He’d been almost oblivious to what she’d spent her thoughts on, even about the things she’d told him. “Depends on how acute he was, I suppose.”
“Or how cute.” Brenna set down her glass and stood up, and then headed toward the door. “I hate to drink and run, but I’m going to a Truffaut retrospective. See you later.”
Eve awoke to the sound of the rocking chair. No longer did it remind her of singing birds. She extended her arms over her head in a stretch and found herself throwing off the blanket, pushing herself off the mattress. She walked into the hall and down the stairs, crossing to the door to her study. The computer went on as she sat at the desk.
Her heart beat rapidly. Her hands shook as she placed them on the keyboard.
Peter was tender as he asked for my hand in marriage. He waited until six months of mourning had passed. I accepted, although I knew I should tell him the truth. The thought of his disgust with me if I did frightened me more than continuing the lie. He would abandon me, and then I would have no one.
“I want us to wed in the family chapel.” He kissed my hand. “It’s a family tradition: there we will become one person in the sight of God. We’ll never be parted and I will cherish you forever, my sweet Maude.”
Our wedding day dawned cold. No ray of sunshine broke through the forbidding clouds as we made our way to the church perching on the crag of the tall hill near the blue lake below us. The music played by the organist jangled at my ears, and I was certain people were gossiping about Peter and me. No, about Maude and Peter. Some of the pointed glances I received during our engagement made me wonder if people could feel that I wasn’t truly Maude.
As I walked down the aisle on the arm of our uncle, the scent of roses, the scent of lavender engulfed me. I could almost feel Maude at my side, almost sense the warmth of her presence. Which of us was here to marry Peter? Maude or Sara, Sara or Maude?
My head spun as I continued to the altar. My breath came more quickly and I shivered as a breath of cold air blew against my neck. Ahead of me I saw the array of flowers, saw the large family bible awaiting us.
Peter stood watching me, and the possessiveness in his eyes caused me to stumble. Why did he look at me this way? Did he have an inkling of what I’d done? I stepped to his side and he took my hand, holding it tightly. His skin was hot against mine, and I could hardly breathe for the scent of flowers.
My breath froze in my chest. Here then, in this holy family place, I was lying before the world and before God.
“And before me,” I heard my sister say.
“No!” I choked. I pulled sharply away from Peter and ran down the aisle toward the church door. I jerked it open and squeezed through, running as fast as I was able toward the trees at the edge of the churchyard.
Still I smelled the flowers. Still I felt my sister’s presence. I felt condemned by the world for what I had done.
When I came to the edge overlooking the lake, I tried to stop. I felt a hand at my back, a hand pushing me farther. In a cloud of rose scent I was forced to the very edge and thrust into the air.
Eve slumped over the keyboard, hands resting on the desk. Her breath came fast and she was almost certain she was about to faint. When she pushed herself up she saw the computer screen was unlit. As she looked into it, she saw two forms take shape behind her, both with up-swept hair and each of them staring over her shoulders, features barely discernible on the dark screen.
“Lavender for Sara,” they whispered together. “Attar of roses for Maude.”
As they faded away, Eve realized she could no longer smell the flowers on the air.