Historical mainstream fiction; general audience
Chapter One - A Bad Day
The body fell out with a thud. It wasn’t a hard sound, like the time we were playing hide-and-seek in the library and I turned too quickly, sending the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and the table it was sitting on crashing to the floor. No. This sound was soft. I’d say it was more like the sound that my grandmother, MooMoo, taught me about ripe cantaloupes. “The sound has a spongy, dull thump,” she’d said, rapping her knuckles on the outside of the rough skin. “There…that’s it…this melon is juicy and ready to eat.”
All I could do was stand solid as stone and stare at the dried-out skull and hollow eye sockets. Swirls of dust floated in the sunbeams and tickled at my nose. How inappropriate of the dust particles, I thought, to be playing at such a time. But I couldn’t prevent the effects of the dust that hovered in my nostrils. Without even covering my mouth -- because I couldn’t, I was frozen in place -- I sneezed. I watched helplessly as the spittle flowed through the air and sank to the floor.
Watching in dumbfounded silence, articles of clothing spilled out: a lace collar, yellowed with age; a whale-bone corset, once cream but now with brownish stains along the stays; a remnant of sage green taffeta, part of a gown I suppose, crumpled and worn thin along the edges.
The poor dear, I thought, to be so alone for such a long time, only to pop out of the vintage steamer trunk in such an awkward way. To expose herself in such a disheveled state to people she’d never met before. We didn’t intend to disturb her. We were only playing. We often came to the attic to acquire costumes for the plays my older sister, Betsy, had written. She had a flair for writing and always gave me and my younger sister and brother, Crosey and Michael, roles in her plays. After rehearsing, we’d select costumes from the collection of elegant garments meticulously hung in the attic closets. For the male roles, there was an assortment of thickly woven apparel: tweed suits, vests with pockets, cotton shirts with stiff collars, cravats, bow ties, and shoes with their spats still attached. The women’s selection was far broader. The full-length gowns were many and varied. All floor-length but in thick moiré, fine silk, taffeta, some trailing a two-foot length of train. The colors seemed endless: grass, dew, and emerald green; poppy, garnet and crimson red; teal, sapphire and cerulean blue; not to mention the pinks, mauves, daisy-yellows, and linen whites. Included in this collection was everyday clothing: woolen tweed suits, cream and white cotton shirtwaist blouses and sturdy skirts, leather button-up shoes. And, oh, the hats! There were wide brimmed hats in black, white, blue, red, with large flowers, ribbons, and feathers, and even one with a cardinal tacked on the side. In addition to the fancy hats, there were smaller felt cloches that fit close to the face. There was even a woman’s horseback riding outfit: jodhpurs, white pleated fitted blouse, black velvet jacket and hard-hat, leather crop, and gleaming brown boots.
On this particular day, we were trying to find clothing for our special-spooky Halloween skit. We had tried before to pry open this particular steamer trunk, but we could never get the lock to budge. It was shut as tight as the lips on the Sphinx. Today, however, it popped open, as if it had a mind of its own. Little did we know we’d find a lady inside in such disarray.
I wrinkled my nose at the stench. She must have been in there a rather long time, maybe years, or even decades.
A sudden crackling sound split the silence like lightning. I jerked with a startle and gasped before I realized the sound was the lady’s jaw. It had dropped open, as if to say “Hello, dearies.” I guess she was as surprised to see us as we were to see her.
A strange twinge of grief wrenched my chest. Wanting to touch her, to hold her and comfort her, I started to reach out my hand. But at that moment, I spotted the large, round stains that marred the bodice of what I first imagined as the tranquilly elegant sage green of her taffeta gown. The stains were deep brown. My first thought was of Sergeant Joe Friday of the television show Dragnet. If it were him instead of me coming upon this body (as I wished it were), he would probably say, “It looks like blood. Human most likely, with that pearl knife handle protruding out of her ribs like that. Won’t know for sure until we test it. But that’s my assessment of this situation.” I was inclined to concur with Sergeant Friday. “I agree,” I whispered to myself, “this lady’s demise was most likely not due to natural causes.”
Again my heart squeezed with acrid sorrow. I tried to imagine some skin around those bones. Was she tall or short? Brunette or blonde? Did she have high cheek bones or a moon-shaped face like me? Did she pluck her eyebrows into thin slivers like my older sister Betsy? Or did she brush them into natural dormers over her eyes like my Mom did?
I knew at least a little something about her death. But what was her life like? Did she tend her large garden or make flower arrangements, as Mom did every so often? Or did she cook using herbs from the kitchen garden? Maybe because she lived in this large house, she had a cook and a gardener. I wondered if she had children. Or was she gone before she’d known the joy of having even one? Was she happy? Or was her unhappiness the reason that she ended up in the trunk?
A shriek shattered my reverie. My younger brother, Michael, was screaming and running in circles beside me. This reaction from Michael was not extraordinary. His conventional response to anything unusual was a frenzied stomp in a tight circle, accompanied by a high-pitched screech. He’d continue in this dreadful display until someone stood in his path, forcing him to stop with a full-body block. Because he wasn’t smart enough to run around the obstacle, Michael would smack into the human barrier and finally come to a halt. The rescuer would then have to quickly quell Michael’s emotion by hugging him and whispering, “It’s all right. You’re safe now.”
I thought about helping Michael, by abruptly impeding his circles and comforting him. Usually, because Michael seemed to like me the most, I was assigned the task of keeping him in tow. I would hold his hand to make sure he didn’t wander off, as he had a penchant for doing. But the task of calming Michael’s tirades was typically my older brother Bud’s job. I’d never been in this exact situation, so I was caught off-guard and couldn’t imagine what I should do. Bud was the one who could give Michael the required full-body grip, quiet his moans, and make him feel safe again. But Bud wasn’t there. I hesitated. I bit down on my lip. Hard.
I let out a sigh and tried to think through this awkward state of affairs.
Help might be here soon, I thought. Crosey -- Caroline Rose, my younger sister -- had taken off as soon as the mysterious lady did her jack-in-the-box routine. Apparently she’d run down the hallway and was now leaning over the balustrade. I heard her shouting, “Mom, call the police! No, make that the coroner. She’s beyond help, now!”
Crosey was always that way. She instinctively assessed the situation and was able to act appropriately. I asked her once if she ever felt surprised at her own intelligence.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You always seem to understand everything. And you make perfect sense.”
She tapped her finger against her cheek, assessing the question carefully. Finally she said, “Yes, I’m surprised right now, because I don’t know why you would ever ask such a thing.”
“Well, you always seem to know what to do,” I’d said.
She replied quickly. “Oh, I suppose that comes from reading the Emergency Manual the Red Cross sent us in the mail,” she said.
You see what I mean about Crosey? She knew what to do. And she didn’t freeze up like me.
Feeling that my abilities to do anything of value were limited, I decided to let Michael continue his circling and moaning. Help would probably be here soon.
Besides, the smell was starting to envelop me. I hoped my skin wasn’t absorbing the odor. I tried to lift my arm to sniff it, but it wouldn’t budge. And my whole torso felt stiff. My legs and feet felt as if they were encased in concrete. I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. A steely fear clasped my core.
I rolled my eyes right and glanced sideways at Michael. His face was red. And he seemed to be getting redder with each rotation. That was normal for him. But I knew he needed help -- soon. And I needed help, too. My eyes were burning. I could hardly breathe, the stink of the mysterious death was so foul. Every time I tried to gulp some air, my lungs burned. So I stood there feeling trapped in a scrim of ghostly webs.
Oh, thank goodness, I thought, my mother was finally here. I felt her warm hands drape around my shoulders. Even though my real name was Barbara Anne, my mother always called me Annie, so everyone else did, too.
“Yes, Mom,” I muttered.
“We have to go,” she said.
“I’m fine,” I replied, not fully understanding why I wanted to stay with the corpse.
I heard another familiar voice now. “Wow, look at the dead body!” That was Bud -- not very tactful but always ready for excitement.
I could feel Mom’s fingers press into my shoulders, a sign of her disgust with Bud’s reaction. “Bud, please stop gawking at that body and do your job with Michael.”
“Got it, Mom,” Bud replied.
Still frozen in place, I watched as Bud stood in front of Michael and waited for him to come around his circle once more. Boom. Michael bounced right into Bud’s abdomen. Then Bud quickly extended his long arms, wrapped them around him, and squeezed. He held on for dear life. “That’s OK, Michael,” Bud said. “Everything’s all right.”
A large man in a blue uniform came in. He had a round, pudgy face that turned bright red when he spotted the body. He wore a policeman’s cap, except it had gold bands around it and a gold star on the brim. Strands of gray hair stuck out from under the cap. He had a badge that said “Sheriff Blake” on his left shoulder, and several gold chevrons on his jacket sleeves. He came into the room and stood right over the body. He put his hands on his hips and stared at the pitiful sight. He then coughed and covered his mouth and nose. I guess the stench really was as bad as I thought it was.
“We’ll take it from here, Mrs. Campbell,” he said. His voice was as large as he was. “You’d better get the children out of here.”
“We have to go now, Annie dear. The police -- they’ll handle everything now,” my mother said. Oh, how I loved my mother’s mellow voice, her buttery touch, her fresh cotton scent. She caressed my shoulders and guided me gently towards the doorway. My numbness started to ooze from me like warm honey.
“But I want to stay,” I said. Despite her desolate end, this woman had intrigued me. Who was she? How did she live? We knew how she died -- pending Sergeant Friday’s confirmation, of course. But how did she get into such a predicament? And, most importantly, who killed her? I wanted to know.
“Come, Annie,” my mother repeated, tugging me towards the attic threshold.
My quest would have to wait until later.
Oh dear. I think I’ve done it again. I’m always doing that. Rushing things, that is. Crosey’s always telling me I start a story in the middle and forget to give the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. She also says that I tend to tell readers the most exciting but the least important and most irrelevant parts of the story. Like the lady popping out of the trunk that day. That incident was only a sliver of what happened to us in our new home.
In fact, the lady’s demise isn’t even pivotal to the story. It’s what Crosey said is a “sidelight,” something related because the house seemed strange, but not at the heart of what happened.
I guess I did it again. In all my eagerness to tell you about what happened, about our adventure in the new house, I suppose I’ve gotten much too far ahead of myself.
I need to slow down. I need to start at the very beginning. I need to tell you the whole story.
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