3LBE #15
Home Issues Store Submissions Authors

Isabelle

by Brenden Haukos

 

It’s as much her home as it is ours,” Mrs. Bagley said. “We wouldn’t consider her family, but she’s definitely part of the household.” The Bagleys stood, shadowed by the chalk-white columns of the portico, smiling their denture-ridden smiles and beaming behind thick-lens glasses, actors.

The bed and breakfast was a two-story colonial revival built sometime between the World Wars, with dormer windows, terra-cotta fireplaces, and vine-choked redbrick walls. The chimney blew a kiss toward the sky, where low-flying cumulus clouds patrolled from horizon to horizon.

I shook my head ashamedly.

Inside, it smelled old; it smelled of spiders spinning gossamer in the corners, of rainwater leaking through the ceiling, of specters prodding lampshades and lifting toupees from the heads of unsuspecting guests.

“I hope you like pancakes,” Mr. Bagley said, laboring up the hardwood stairs behind his wife. “Cause Ruth makes the best buttermilk flapjacks in the state of Minnesota.”

“That wasn’t in the brochure,” I said.

“Legal purposes.” He chuckled, losing a day of his life with every hoarse guffaw.

I ran my fingers across the balusters, wincing as each memory fingerprint coursed through my mind. Atop the stairs, the puerile urge to slide down the banister on my ever-fattening posterior almost overcame me.

We continued down the hall, motes of dust aflight in the wan shafts of sun.

“Here we are,” Mrs. Bagley said, flipping on the light switch. “The Berkshire Suite.”

They shuffled off without another word, pale and ghostly in their drooping clothes and penny loafers. But I knew they’d be terse. They had owned the estate since 1969.

I collapsed into bed, fatigued by the commute from Roseville. It was a quarter past three. I could savor a few hours’ respite before getting to work.

I descended into a pit of skyward-groping arms and writhing bodies, an orgiastic mob of Rubenesque women, their flesh undulating, and chiseled men, their overwrought libidos fuming from every naked pore. The effluvium of their breath and their perspiring forms enveloped me with the clammy tongue of a hound. On the outskirts of this pulsing throng, casting their stark shadows on the walls, were the watchers. I lurked among them, my tool of passion blazing in my grasp.

I swam up through the ether of sleep, yawning and laboring with my ten-ton eyelids.

Good afternoon, sweetheart.

With the graze of my fingertips, blue phosphorescent filigree burned across the surface of the mantel, painting vivid pictures that crept through my veins and tickled my skin to gooseflesh. All dormant images, untouchable by Mrs. Bagley’s Pledge.

Another day at the office, eh Bob? The man had sable hair down to the small of his back, while mine was cropped short. A stainless barbell jutted from his eyebrow.

I continued to comb the room, Isabelle’s suite. So far there was nothing of her, not a strand of astral DNA.

Stop wasting time. Didn’t you already get a confession? Let’s go home and get laid. When was the last time it wasn’t just ghosts?

“They’re not ghosts,” I slipped.

What’s the difference between ghosts and memories?

“What happened to Mom, then?”

Guilt.

“But I saw her too.”

You couldn’t accept the fact that Mom was a loony.

“Shut up,” I said. “Just shut the fuck up.”

A ripple spread through the chenille drapes, and they billowed out before the window, ocean combers bearing the distended corpses of sailors and shipwrecked buccaneers. I froze, watching without breathing as the drapes twisted upward in an inverted funnel. Everything was muted, the raucous laughter from another suite merely a soft dirge.

“She doesn’t like you.” It was Mrs. Bagley, the footless phantom. Standing in the doorway, hands on her hips. With her tumorous nose and her mound of gray hair. She vanished, and the drapes settled.

Fingers tapping playfully on the windowsill, I stared into the forest, and my lips cracked open in a smile, though it could’ve as easily been a frown.

• • •

The sun had sunk over the horizon, and twilight was fading. The sky was a pink canvas streaked with plum brushstrokes. The boughs of majestic maples swayed in the wind that whistled through the crisp autumnal air and brought to life drifts of fallen leaves.

“When did you start believing in ghosts?” Eva Nectar and her husband were sharing the sofa beside the fireplace.

“I was a kid, maybe eight or nine, staying over at a friend’s house,” I said. “I was up in the middle of the night, going to the bathroom. Swear to God, I had a bladder the size of a mustard seed. So I do my business, and I’m heading back to bed when I hear these footsteps coming up behind me. At first I’m thinking that I woke up one of his parents, and I turn around, with my apology ready.

“But it wasn’t his parents. And here’s some guy I’d never seen before stumbling down the hallway after me. He’s got this bullet wound in his gut. And he’s got his hand there, trying to hold in the blood. But it’s just flowing between his fingers. Deep, black blood. Gallons of it, seemed like.

“I make it to my friend’s room. I’m so freaked out I climb into bed with him. Ten minutes later I creep out into the hallway. But there’s no one there. No blood. Nothing.”

“Some guy who lived there before, you think?” Eva said. “Shot himself or something?”

“Probably,” I said, gazing at my lap as I spoke to her. Eva was an alluring woman: lush black hair, all in braids, maple complexion, supple thighs, half of them veiled in a pleated skirt. Whenever I glanced in her direction, I kept my eyes fixed on her husband, my quavering fingers tapping the armrest.

“You’ve got a ghost on your shoulder,” Mrs. Bagley said from her seat in a Queen Anne wing chair, her gimlet eyes boring holes through me. “Some reason you’re out here, tearing down people’s lives.”

My grandma, I thought. Grandma Jo-Ann, who had stalked Mom through two apartments and a townhouse. I remembered her tacking notes on the corkboard in the foyer and reading romance novels while Mom and I slept. She’d followed her daughter into a mental institution. But despite what anyone may’ve said, my mom wasn’t psycho-ward material. I’d seen Grandma, too.

“Where is she supposed to go?” Mrs. Bagley said.

“That’s a matter of speculation.”

“Just like if someone tore down your house.”

“Now,” I said, trying to keep my emotions in check, “the theory, which is backed by years of parapsychological research, is that when you take away the ghost’s haunt, you take away the ghost itself.” After Congress had passed the Poltergeist Residence Demolition Act, scores of old warehouses, funeral homes, hospices, and buildings on nearly every campus in the nation had succumbed to the wrecking ball.

“So you’re trying to kill her.”

“By all means, ma’am, Isabelle Stewart is already dead.”

“Then, why tear this place down? Why insult her memory? Did you know she still stayed here, even after she was forced to sell the B&B? Why don’t you go spit on her grave while you’re here?”

“There’s no need to get hostile with me, ma’am,” I said, yearning to exchange the ma’am with bitch. “I’m just here to make an assessment.”

“Then lie. Just say there’s nothing here.” She paused, donning her grandmotherly visage. “You could come back any time with the warmest of welcomes.”

“Not only are you asking me to wave my ethics, you’re asking me to break the law. If you continue, you might find yourself facing some bribery charges.” For a moment, I felt elevated, empowered.

Then I was barely able to check my compulsion to apologize.

A moth batted against the window, and we all turned, tacit, to peer into the obsidian depths of the night. The fire was pacifying – its light flooding over the hearth and creeping across the Oriental rugs and finally dancing on our pallid flesh.

“Sorry, but I’m a little lost,” Mr. Nectar said. “What exactly is it that you do, Mister uh—”

“Carson,” I said. “Lane Carson. I’m employed to a demolition company out of the Cities called Recker Brothers. I assess properties for poltergeist activity.”

“How do you qualify for a job like that?”

“I’m a clairvoyant, third-generation. My grandma, my mom, and now me.”

“So you can see the future?”

“No, that’s called precognition. I touch things and see the past.”

“Does the generation matter?” Eva said. “You said you were third-generation.”

“It takes two generations for the clairvoyance to fully develop. Then, after the third generation, it either diminishes or disappears altogether.”

“If you are what you say you are,” Mrs. Bagley said, “then tell me why Isabelle is dangerous.”

“Because dead company is bad company.”

A cackle arose from the recesses of my mind. Is that our new slogan?

“Do you know why Isabelle always stayed in the same room? The Berkshire suite has a direct view of the tree house her husband Todd built for their son Kenny. It was where he spent most of his free time. And do you know what’s beneath that tree house?”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“The unmarked burials of Todd and Kenny Stewart.”

“I’ve heard rumors of Isabelle’s family. Does this have a point?”

“Maybe tearing this place down wouldn’t be such a bad thing for her. It could be liberating.”

“Did you even think about how this would affect us? Harry and I. Do you even care?” she said, and the tears — those she’d been withholding since I’d appeared at their front door and the media-dubbed Haunted House law became a reality, her reality, and a decree that reverberated through her head, a eulogy for the house already perished — those tears welled up in her eyes. “We’re old. We can’t just pick up our lives and move.”

Mr. Bagley shuffled over to her, his shoulders stooped in an eternal slouch, and he was soothing her with his brittle palsied hands. He buried his face in her hair and gave her a kiss with his parched lips, now more cream-colored than pink.

“You’ve gotta understand — ”

“No. I understand,” Mrs. Bagley said. “I understand how you can go home and forget about us. People don’t care anymore.”

“It’s not like that. I really do care. What I said earlier — I’m sorry about that. I was being — ”

“It’s okay, son,” Mr. Bagley said. “Honey, why don’t you go put on your nightclothes and get situated? I’ll stay here and talk to Mr. Carson for a few more minutes.”

With Harry gripping her palm, Mrs. Bagley stood, her eyes moist and scarlet.

“I think we’ll call it a night,” Eva’s husband announced.

But my eyes, they were trained on Eva, as she brushed aside her braids, as she offered her comely half-grin.

“We’ll see you bright and early,” Mr. Bagley said to his wife.

And mere minutes after Mrs. Bagley’s tearful bout, the parlor was vacant, and sitting on opposite ends of the same overstuffed sofa, there was only Mr. Bagley and myself. Almost.

“There’s something I want to show you.” He hovered over a Philco record player, his back bent at an excruciating angle. The needle crackled over aged vinyl, and Elvis sang over the retorts of the fire and the mournful sighs of the wind. Harry thumbed the volume knob. “Can’t play it too loud, this late. But she loves Elvis.”

I felt my foot start to life, tap out a few beats.

Suddenly, something passed through me, a warm consciousness, welcomingly violating my personal boundaries. And the air before us flourished, heaving with a more potent and blissful life than I’d ever encountered. Though she never unveiled her astral body, I felt her jitterbugging about her private dance floor, mouthing the words to the song that made her heart stutter. And if the song would’ve played forever, she would’ve danced with it.

I glanced at Mr. Bagley, thumbing his suspenders and grinning. Tears crept across my cheeks. I was shivering.

• • •

I sat upright in the desk chair, shrouded in the absolute blackness of my suite. It was more serene in the dark. My hands rooted through my luggage, but despite their scotopic vision, they couldn’t detect the tears, cascading down my cheeks in salty runnels.

Outside, the wind’s intensity had increased tenfold. I heard the leaves, aflutter at the tips of immense branches. Suddenly, I felt my privacy betrayed.

This is your conscience speaking.

“Anything but.”

You caught me.

Delving farther into the rolling duffel, my hands found the toiletries case, where I kept the pills.

What are you doing?

And if I had the capacity to stop them, I don’t know that I would’ve. “Getting rid of you.”

No response from him, him with his back turned, him who couldn’t watch.

Then, I was outside under the colossal moonlit columns, naked save a pair of plaid boxers. The wind was a straight razor, shaving off my skin layer by layer. I shifted between feet, each numb from the frigid cement steps. I turned back to the house.

A woman materialized in the entranceway. She was almost ancient, but still showed the vestiges of beauty. Though I’d never seen her, I recognized Isabelle.

“It’s late. Will you two be staying?”

I glanced to my left, and there he was, standing shoulder to shoulder with me, wearing my face without the seams or crow’s feet. Maybe if I stopped loathing him, I’d begin to like his presence, or love it. I might even become him.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I think we will.”

 

 

Brenden Haukos Brenden Haukos lives and works in Central Minnesota, where he studies yoga and music.


▲  BACK TO TOP  ▲

ISSUE #15

Summer 2005

FICTION