Diana was having fun peeling latex paint off her hands. I had to admit there was something oddly satisfying about watching her strip the pieces off her skin. Her long fingers pulled at the stretchy latex. She was able to keep large pieces together, carefully lifting it off her strong hands.
We were resting after a long afternoon of painting the front porch. So far we finished the banisters and walls, but still needed to get the slated ceiling of the over hang. I would need a ladder for that.
We were admiring our handy work while we watched the sun set over the horizon. Our hands were almost touching as we swung on a newly installed porch swing. The swing was made by my grandfather before he past away. I thought it deserved its home on the porch and not in storage.
Closing the last couple of inches between us seemed to be causing me some trouble. I didn’t want to spoil the moment by going too fast before the time was right. If I made a move to early I risked rejection, if I made a move to late I risked remaining in the friend zone forever.
“Thanks for helping me paint,” I said breaking a moment of silence. “I was way over my head when I thought I could finish the porch alone. I’m just glad you had the time off to help.”
“Did you really call me just to help you paint a house?” Diana asked tilting her head to the side.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” I said as my face turned red. I tried asking her out so many times, but couldn’t. When I finally got the nerve to call her I asked her to help me paint the house instead. It was a lame move, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with the opposite sex. I figured if we hung out we could get to know one another without the awkward conversations of a first date. I was somewhat wrong on that front.
“Do you ask a lot of girls to paint houses with you?” She said coyly.
“Only the girls I like,” I sheepishly replied.
“No one has ever asked me to help them paint a house before. So I was wondering, if this, you know... was this supposed to be a date?” she asked taking my hand, “It’s okay if it is, really. I just thought I should know if this was a date,” It was a surprising change of events as she held my hand.
I blushed, but shook my head. “I just wanted to hang out with you. But Does that mean if I ask you on a proper date you would say yes?”
“I don’t know, Charlie,” she said with a smile. “Are you going to ask me on a proper date?” She was being playful, which took me for a spin.
Before I could answer my grandmother poked her head out of the house, “Charlie, I hate to bother you, especially when you have company,” my grandmother teased as we split apart in embarrassment. “I’m about to make a roast for tomorrow, but can’t find the roasting pan anywhere. Would you be a lamb and see if it’s in the attic?” My grandmother’s attention turned to Diana’s presence. “Hello dear, I’m sorry my grandson hasn’t learned any manners, but if Charlie won’t introduce us then I guess I will have to do it myself.”
“Oh sorry! Nunny, this is Diana. Diana, my grandmother.”
“Nice to meet you dear. You’re Andy Morgan’s daughter.”
“That’s right,” she answered.
“I hope he’s well, haven’t seen him in a long while. I heard in town that he never leaves the funeral home anymore.”
“He’s doing a bit better,” Diana said while she fidgeted with her hands. “Bit of a hermit, really. I’ve been trying to get him out, but he’s more stubborn than my mother was. It doesn’t help that he works and lives there.”
“Poor thing. Tell your father, Sylvia Kane sends her regards. It was nice meeting you, Diana.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you too, Mrs. Kane.”
“She’s so sweet, Charlie,” my grandmother said before turning to go back inside.
“Do you want to come up to the attic with me?” I asked Diana. “I could use a hand, if you have the time.”
“You don’t need any help, you just want to get be alone in a scary attic,” she said with her emerald eyes piercing into mine. “Just ask me to chill with you.”
“I don’t have to trick you into staying?” I jokingly asked.
“Charlie, I came over because I like you. I’m here because I want to be here,” she said and kissed me on the cheek. I’ll wait for you while you get that pan.”
“Come up with me. It’s freezing out here.”
“I’ll just wait for you out here. I don’t mind the cold,” Diana said with a bit of hesitation. I could tell she was hiding something. Her hands were fidgeting again. I had seen it before when she was talking about her dad. The fidgeting was Diana’s tell. She was hiding something, but this time it wouldn’t hurt to press.
“Why don’t you want to go into the house? Are you scarred to go inside?”
“What do you mean?” She said a bit flustered. “I’m not scared to go in,” she added in a poorly conveyed vail.
“I was only joking, but now I know why you won’t come in with me.” I recalled the ghost stories Madison said her friends told her about my grandmother’s inn. The townies thought the Sunnyledge was supposed to be haunted, occupied with multiple resident ghosts. I wasn’t going to tell Diana, but I had to say it was a possibility.
“I can assure you that the Sunnyledge is not currently haunted.” I kind of lied. “I’ve been here two weeks and not one ghost,” I said in the most sincere voice as I could, then added, “Just in case, I’ll take my proton pack. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” She laughed at the Ghostbusters reference, which confirmed my theory we were soul mates.
“It’s just a nice bed and breakfast that my family owns. I don’t blame you for being scared. Ghost stories are scary when we’re kids, but they’re just stories.” I said.
“Okay, maybe I’m a little scarred.” Diana grabbed my hand and pulled me into the house.
“Do you remember any of the stories?” I asked, hopping to learn something new about my family.
“Just parts. There was a little girl ghost who roamed the halls at night. In one version she could travel through the mirrors in the house. Attacking the visitors from out of town.”
“For some reason little girl ghosts are scarier than adult ghosts. It’s a law of horror movies. Nothing is scarier than the slow moving little girl,” I said with a bit of sarcasm. “What about the other stories?”
“I don’t really want to say.”
“It can’t be that scary,” I said realizing that’s not why she didn’t want to tell me.
“They were kind of about your dad, Charlie.” Diana looked down at the floor, guilty of even mentioning my father.
I should have known better than to think Diana wouldn’t have some opinion of my family already. She grew up in this town like all of the others. Just being here with me was probably weird for her.
“Are the stories that bad?”
“Some of the versions are pretty horrific, but obviously made up.” There was an awkward silence, and then she added, “And now you know why I was so scarred to be here.” This time I pulled her with me further into the house to show her she was safe with me.
“Can I ask a personal question?” I said while we climbed the main staircase hand in hand. She nodded with permission. “That thing you said about your dad. He sounds depressed from the way you described him.”
She stopped to look at the stained glass window over the landing. So many different colors had pierced through the multi-colored glass. The setting sun gave an illusion of fiery diamonds shining all over our bodies. Under the brilliant glow I could see her melancholy.
“My mom passed away a couple of years ago,” Diana explained, her hands still. “My dad didn’t take her death well. At first I didn’t know there was a problem, but he got worse as time went on. He can barely take care of himself these days. I have to check on him at least three times a week to make sure he’s eating.”
“How did she die?” I regretted asking that, wishing I could take it back. “Sorry, that wasn’t very sensitive of me. You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want too.”
“I’m okay talking about it,” she smirked. “She died on the operating table three years ago. It was in the middle of a procedure to remove a tumor from her neck. It was pressing against her spinal cord and already spreading. She was going to die soon either way. The chances of her surviving the surgery were small, but there was still a chance it would work. Best case senecio she would live another year. I was so proud of her. She knew her chances, but she never gave up hope.”
I wiped away her tears with the cuff of my sleeve. We stood side by side on the landing, and our eyes finally met again. Instantly our heads moved closer together. I closed my eyes as our lips collided in an open mouth kiss. Our lips overlapped, fitting together like two pieces of the same puzzle. Her lips were warm and soft against mine. Our bodies mashed into each other, but only for a moment.
A high pitched voice in the back of my head was calling out my name in an annoying way, drawing out the first syllable, “Char...lie... Char...lie...”
I looked up onto the next floor and saw my little sister, Madison, leaning over the railing. She was looking down over us. I wondered how long she had been standing there? Had she heard our whole conversation? Was she ever going to stop creeping up on people?
“What are you guys doing down there?” she asked.
Was she still that naive child or was she messing with me? She had gone to a co-ed prep school after all. I couldn’t imagine she was this sheltered. I decided she was just messing with me and gave her a death stare.
“Hey Maddie!” Diana called out, “We’re going up to the attic. Do you want to come with us?”
Say no Madison, say no. You do not want to come with us, I thought. I was trying to make her hear me with my mind, but I didn’t think it was working. Right then I wished I had telepathic powers. It still didn’t stop me from thinking, “No,” over and over again in my mind.
“Sure, sounds like fun!” My sister said as my patience began to waver. I wanted to have Diana all to myself, I didn’t want to share her with anyone. How wrong was that? “Charlie, you don’t look so good,” my sister said almost with a giggle. “Maybe you’re coming down with something,” she added.
“I thought you hated when people called you Maddie?” I shot back.
Madison was quick on the defense. “Only when you call me, Maddie. When anyone else does it, it’s fine.”
Diana laughed at the two of us bickering. She was actually getting a kick out of my torment. “You two are so cute the way you go back and forth. I’m jealous because I was an only child. Didn’t have siblings to fight with.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” I said to Diana. “How about I give you my sister. You can fight with Maddie all you want,” I said as I walked past Madison in the hall.
“I would love to have Maddie as my sister,” Diana added, giving my sister a warm embrace. “You can stay with me anytime you want.”
“Okay, that’s it, Charlie marry her,” Madison said. “She’s perfect,” she said to me and then turned towards Diana. “You don’t have plans for the rest of your life yet, do you?”
We were standing at the end of the hallway standing under a rectangular trap door cut into the ceiling. I pulled a dangling cord and instantly a deafening sound of nails against a chalk board sliced through the air. I let go of the string and covered my ears in pain.
The trap door’s rusted hinges made a sound that struck the core of my very soul. The sound was completely unnerving and I could even feel it in my teeth. Diana lost her own nerves, becoming terrified, but tried to hide it by laughing.
I pulled the ladder down unable to ignore the piercing noise. I decided to go first, mostly because neither of the girls offered to go first. I could tell Diana was still a little jumpy from being in the Sunnyledge. I just assumed Madison was on edge for the same reasons.
The attic was really just a crawl space hidden between the roof and second floor ceiling. There was enough room for a large child to walk around, but most full grown adults would have to squat. Piles of junk were spread out around the room making it very difficult to find anything.
It appeared my grandparents were hoarders. Why hadn’t they ever cleaned the attic out? As I examined the things in the room I thought about where everything had come from. Each item must have its own story. It’s own history.
My sister took an interest in something packed into a stack of boxes. She pulled a small bag out and an entire column of junk came toppling over, crashing around Madison.
“Sorry, but this looked so pretty,” she said holding a purple velvet clutch. “Don’t you think this will go with my shoes?” Madison asked Diana unfazed by the fallen antiques.
I found the oven rack next to an old blender that looked like it hadn’t been used since the late seventies.
“I’m trying hard not to laugh,” I said as I put the rack down and helped her clean up the mess she made. I picked up an old radio and placed it on the table. I noticed an absurd number of suitcases up here. I think I was starting to understand what most of this stuff was. Lost and found. Years and years of lost items collecting dust. It was a wasteland of personal possessions. I would wager that over the years guests didn’t usually return to obtain their personal belongings.
I went to grab a brown leather briefcase off the floor. When I grabbed the handle and pulled, the hinges broke open, scattering the articles that were inside. Spilled around the floor was a gold pocket watch missing its chain, and a pair of reading glasses with only one lens. I tossed them back into the bag. The watch was filthy with so much grime I couldn’t make out the design somewhere hidden under the dirt. The tarnish from years of neglect made the watch worthless.
Before I was able to grab it, Madison picked up a leather bound book that had fallen out of the case. The aged red leather of the book was cracked from years of abuse. Water stains had ruined the soft leather leaving a round mark of discoloration over the entire back cover.
Madison flipped the book open, surprised by what was inside. Her eyes opened wide, then her brow wrinkled in confusion. A grunt like noise came from her throat, and a second later the book was flying through the air hitting me square in the chest.
I yelped, but caught the book before it fell. “Why did you do that?”
“It’s not in English,” my sister said with disappointment in her voice. “I have no idea what language that’s in.”
“That’s not a reason to throw it at me,” I said as I studied the faded red cover. There was a design at the center, but it was hard to make out. I could feel something embossed on it, under the grime. It was a mess and I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be.
I flipped through the journal to a random page towards the middle. I didn’t know what Madison was talking about. I could read the book fine. It was English, the only language I knew. I turned the page once, twice, and then flipped back through the pages. I could understand every word.
I picked a page at random and started to read out loud, “It has been only several days since the incident, but it has haunted my dreams. I can do nothing to stop these awful nightmares.”
“That’s not funny, Charlie,” my sister barked. She was frightened, but why? I didn’t know if she was messing with me, but I wasn’t amused. “It looks like a jumble of math and some funny looking letters.” Why was she pretending not to be able to read it?
Diana looked over my shoulder, “Looks like algebra mixed with some sort of either Hebrew or Arabic.” She looked at it a little longer. “This might be what Aramaic was supposed to look like, but I’m not sure about the equations.”
“Aramaic?” Madison and I said.
“It’s the ancient language of the middle east. It eventually turned into Arabic and Hebrew.”
“How do you know that?”
“I took linguistics my freshman year,” Diana said bashfully. “I wanted to study anthropology so I had to take the prerequisite courses.”
“And that would come in handy when in your life?” I asked.
“What was that I just said a second ago? It just came in handy.”
“What do you mean, it’s not in another language. Look, just normal English.” I looked back down at the words, but now saw a different language, the same thing Diana and Madison had seen. It wasn’t in English at all. Well, some of it was, but I didn’t understand what had happened. I turned each page looking at the words that were made up of mathematical equations and an ancient foreign language no one ever used anymore. “It was English a second ago,” I said under my breath. In the same instant I realized I should not have said it.
“Charlie, just stop!” Madison was about to cry, her eyes already filling with tears, “You know I get upset when you play games like that.”
I placed the book in my pocket and stood up. I wouldn’t discuss the book again. It wasn’t worth driving my sister crazy worrying about me.
“Sorry, Maddie, I was just messing with you.” I didn’t want to scare my sister any more than she already was. I decided to drop it. I pretended it was just a joke between siblings. “It’s probably fine if you take the clutch,” I told my sister. My sister smiled, which made me feel so much better. “I don’t think anyone will come looking for it any time soon.”
I grabbed the roasting rack and waited for Madison and Diana to climb down the ladder. When they were safely on the floor below I turned the light off and followed them down. I gave Madison the oven rack and went to wash up in my room. Diana was going to follow me, but I said, “I’ll meet you guys downstairs.” I could tell Diana was a little worried about my behavior, but agreed and followed Madison.
“Charlie, you can call me Maddie if you want,” my sister told me.
“I thought I just did,” I responded.
“Yeah, but that was to get under my skin,” my sister happily replied. “But it doesn’t bother me anymore, so it’s okay to call me Maddie.” My sister started to walk away, but she turned back. She put her thumb to her lips and began to bite her nail. “Umm, Diana, will you come to the bathroom with me? I’m a little freaked out.”
“Don’t tell me your brother was able to scare you with that book,” Diana said, surprised at the effect I had. Madison didn’t find it as amusing. “Lead the way,” she said to my sister. “Charlie, can you drive me back home soon?”
When Diana finished washing up, I drove her back to her apartment before her shift at the diner started. Diana sat extremely close to me on the ride home. She rested her head on my shoulder when we got into town all the way to her apartment.
“I’m glad I was able to spend some time with you today,” Diana said as she looked through her bag for her keys. When she found them, she said, “This is going to sound so childish, but could you walk me to my door? I mean... you don’t have, too.”
“Of course I will.” I jumped at the chance to be a little chivalrous.
“I didn’t realize how shaken up I was,” Diana said when we got to the front door of the building.
“I’m sorry the Sunnyledge freaks you out so much.”
“It’s okay,” she said, before kissing me on the lips. “They were just stories, nothing I should have taken so seriously.”
“I’m still sorry I spooked you and Madison. I didn’t mean to scare you guys.”
“That’s sweet, Charlie.”
“So, do you think you’ll want to hang out tomorrow?”
“Is this you asking me out on a proper date?”
“Something like that,” I responded.
“Call me,” she said as she went inside.
When I returned to the Sunnyledge I went up to my room. I had to get a handle on what was going on. First there was the girl in the clearing, then the guy in the kitchen. He follows me around the house and now I’m reading a language that no one else could see. It was more than just seeing ghosts. It was like they were trying to communicate with me.
What was wrong with me? My headaches had pretty much disappeared, but I was left with hallucinations that many would say were bordering on insanity. Could I trust anything I saw anymore? And even if I could, what did it all mean?
The room lights were less than adequate for an inspection of the book. I moved to a desk in the corner of the room equipped with an extra reading lamp. I placed the book under the small light to see it better. The lamp’s green glass cast a dazzling emerald onto the red leather.
The cover was still filthy. I wiped the dirt away with a slightly wet rag. When I removed the majority of the dirt I could make out what was embossed on the cover.
A small figure was holding a long scythe. The long blade was usually used for farming, but in this case I thought it meant something else. Something a little darker. I wiped the cover with the paper towel, tracing the outline, working my way around the figure. When I was finished the figure was clear.
The grim reaper was staring back at me. A skeleton wearing a hood. A chill went down my spine. What kind of journal has the grim reaper on the cover?
On the inside cover the number, “24,” was sketched out in elaborate block lettering. It was drawn in black ink and took up half the page. Below the number was the name, T.C. Howell, written in the same black ink. The rest of the book was handmade. I could tell because the inside stitching wasn’t placed at the same intervals. When a machine made a book, the stitching was at exactly the same distance to the next stitch. In this case the spacing was all goofy and not in any kind of spaced pattern. It looked like a diary, maybe one that was in a series of as many as twenty-three other volumes.
I flipped through it, but besides the first couple of pages the words were jumbled equations (Thanks to Diana) and Aramaic, not the English I originally saw. I scanned the pages, but it was all the same. The journal was hand written and organized by date. It seemed to be some morbid diary of a very deranged person.
The first couple of pages were in English, but the rest of the book was in the strange script. I flipped back to the last couple of entries in the journal and realized they were also in English.
I opened the book to a page that was in the strange language. At first I couldn’t understand the strange script, but a moment later the text changed and I could read it in English again. I quickly shut the book, hoping it would turn back to the foreign language. When I opened the book again, I’ll see the old text I couldn’t read, solidifying my theory I was going crazy. I slowly opened the book again, but didn’t see the ancient language. The pages were still all in English, not just the first couple of pages, but as I looked closer I realized that behind the English was a shadow of the ancient language. It was if the English was superimposed onto the foreign script.
I closed the journal and reopened it, but still saw the translated words. I tried to focus on the script written behind and all of a sudden the translation disappeared and it changed back to the foreign script. I rubbed my eyes hoping that could change my perception. It was pointless to try to figure it out so I did the only thing I could think of doing. I opened the book to the first page.
The first entry put the diary written in the the fall of 1910. The book was over a hundred years old and embossed on the cover was the picture of a grim reaper.
I searched for Aramaic online with my new tablet, hoping to identify the language from the book, but couldn’t match it to anything. I ruled out Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, although it resembled them the most. I checked off African, Hindi, Russian, and every other language I could find. When I ran out of linguistic possibilities I turned to college math departments. Nothing made any sense so maybe a college physics professor had seen it before.
How was I able to translate it so easily? It just didn’t make any sense. Was this my mind playing tricks on me again? Could I even trust my own senses anymore. If Diana and Madison couldn’t see it, why could I?
I looked up the name, T.C. Howell, but the search was too broad. Without any other information I wouldn’t be able to find him or her. I would have to read the book to find out more about the author. Maybe if I compiled some clues I could learn their identify. Or at least where they were from.
My mind returned to the girl from the clearing and the man from the kitchen. It was possible everything was connected in some way. Was it a coincidence these things were happening at the same time? I didn’t think so. I think everything was related. I started to sound like Aaron’s paranoid delusions, but to me it made sense.
I searched for everything on Laura McDermott I could find. The Morgantown Courier had the details of her disappearance, but nothing I could use to help me. I checked Facebook, but her account had already been taken down. I tried the Dumont high school website next.
The current high school year book was linked, but not any of the prior years. Laura graduated the year before and her pictures were not linked. After failing for twenty minutes I finally figured out the web address to the server’s archived year books.
All the year books were still online, but archived on the school’s server. It was a change in the end string, but nothing very complicated now that I knew the keywords. I just had to go through a lot of variations. The digital file was easy enough to navigate. I rushed through the freshman, skipped the sophomores and started to pay attention towards the end of the juniors.
The senior photos were at least twice as big as the juniors, and four times as big as the freshmen. I found Laura’s picture halfway through the senior section. I couldn’t believe it. It was impossible, but it was her, the girl from the forest. I had never seen her picture before today so there was no way I could have guessed what she looked like.
I was beginning to think I wasn’t crazy. I was starting to believe in it all. I knew it had to be real. I had seen Laura McDermott’s ghost. Then another in the Sunnyledge kitchen. I couldn’t remember if I knew about the ghost stories before I saw the translucent blue man. If it was real it meant that there was at least one ghost roaming the Sunnyledge and it wasn’t a little girl.
If the girl in the clearing was real and I was the only one who could see her, did that mean I had to help her? Was it my responsibility to find the person responsible for her death? Did I owe my new friends at least that much?