Cheryl Moretz wasn’t looking forward to this visit with her old high school friend Nadine Watts. Although Nadine had refused to tell her anything specific over the telephone, Cheryl could tell that she was upset. A woman couldn’t be a real estate agent for ten years and not learn to detect the stress in a person’s voice even over the phone. More than once, Cheryl had let clients wander off by themselves while touring a home and heard in their voices upon their return that they had seen something in a bathroom or a basement that made them dissatisfied with the house.
What she’d heard in Nadine’s voice on the phone yesterday afternoon went much deeper than dissatisfaction with the house that she’d bought from Cheryl about three years ago. For certain, Cheryl knew that Nadine wasn’t calling about a flooded basement or a cracked retaining wall. As far back as Cheryl could remember, Nadine had never been the type of person who got upset over daily problems no matter how serious they seemed at the time—Nadine was as level-headed as they came. And she was the smartest girl Cheryl had known in high school. She’d gone to nursing school, then came back to Hibriten, and worked at Memorial Hospital for the last eight years. Despite not really being a close friend to Nadine since she’d started working in the hospital, Cheryl worried about the problem her friend insisted on sharing with her.
Pulling into Nadine’s driveway, Cheryl gave the house and grounds a quick but thorough appraisal. It had always been a nice piece of property. Two acres of land, nearly half of which consisted of a thick stand of trees that stretched along the full width of the lot in the back, providing a small wilderness for Nadine’s two boys to explore. Adjacent to the back part of the Watts’ property was a strip of land everybody called Lucy’s Field. Next door to the front half of the Watts’ property which settled into a long, narrow strip of grass stood a modest aluminum-sided house where Cheryl had grown up.
She and her husband, Troy, had spent the first five years of their married life in that house. Her mother had deeded it over to her when she went to live with her sister down in Charleston after Cheryl’s father had died of the brown lung he’d picked up working in the Shadow Valley Textile Mill. For the first couple of years she’d been out of high school, Cheryl had worked in a furniture factory. She didn’t think she’d be welcomed into Hibriten’s textile factory society since her mother had stirred up a lawsuit against the Shadow Valley plant. Thinking she might take secretary classes at the community college, Cheryl had, instead, started working on her real estate license. Before she even took the state exam, she’d found a job with Blue Ridge Realty. She’d been putting people in homes ever since.
As she followed the slate walk from the driveway to Nadine’s front porch, Cheryl inspected the house even more closely. It looked in fine shape from the outside. Nadine and her husband kept it in prime condition. Viewed from the side, the house had three levels, a basement garage, a main floor with five rooms and a full bath, then a second floor with two bedrooms and a two-thirds bath. The second floor belonged to Nadine’s two sons. When she and her husband had bought the house, they’d talked about turning the two-thirds bathroom into a full bath. Cheryl wondered if Nadine had found some dark secret troubling the house’s plumbing. No. Nadine had sounded troubled way beyond a plumbing problem.
About a month before Cheryl graduated from high school, the house had partially burned. Because it was brick, all of the serious damage had been inside. The people who had lived there at the time were the Pritchards. Wayne and Peggy Pritchard. And their son, Knox. Cheryl glanced back at the house where she’d spent her childhood. She had practically grown up with Knox. They’d played baseball in that strip of yard between their houses. Up in the furthermost back corner of the wooded lot, she and Knox had built a tree house where they’d spent hours defending the fort against every form of hostile force that they carried with them from movies, television shows, and books. Cheryl smiled to herself; once Knox started collecting comic books, he never lacked for enemies from whom they needed to take refuge in the tree house.
After the fire, Knox and his parents had lived with one of his aunts for three or four months, then moved into another house in the neighboring town of Granite Falls. Since Knox had left for college that fall, eighteen years ago, Cheryl had seen little of him. Of course, by the time they went to high school, they weren’t all that close anyway. When they were in the sixth and seventh grade, they’d done some awkward kissing up in the tree house, but by then, Knox was already growing tall and skinny. Too skinny for Cheryl’s tastes. And he was in the band. A trumpet player. More often than not, when he asked Cheryl if she wanted to go to the tree house, he brought his trumpet and expected her to sit through his practicing. He had been a sweet boy, but too skinny, too musical all through high school.
After Cheryl rang the doorbell, she took a step back and once again studied the bricks and the trim of Nadine’s house. It looked good. Had she found some kind of fire damage that Cheryl didn’t know about? Floor beams burned through that nobody bothered to replace? She had the house inspected as soon as it had come into her possession. She had been completely honest with Nadine and Grafton. She’d told them the place had burned. Knox’s father and mother had been reluctant to even consider moving back into the house. It had sat empty and ruined for almost a year. The insurance company couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to repair the house or just tear it down. When it was finally repaired, it had been offered as rental property until Cheryl decided to save her old neighborhood from the wrong kind of development. She wasn’t opposed to anyone making a profit off of property, but when she and Troy made the decision to sell her parents’ house and build their dream home outside of town in Cedar Run Estates by the Catawba, she felt a powerful urge to protect the neighborhood of her youth. She’d been alarmingly selective in the families she’d let visit her and Knox’s old homes.
In fact, she’d spent so much time worrying about who might buy her childhood home that Troy had finally insisted that she turn the listing over to another real estate agency. For a couple of months, she had fretted about turning her back on her old home, but eventually, she’d come around to appreciating her husband’s concern. Besides, she and Troy had gotten swept up in the excitement of moving out to the lake. For the past nine years, Cheryl had deliberately kept herself ignorant about the ownership of her first home. However, she had heard rumors that it had gone up for sale. And judging from the blank look of the windows, she was convinced the house was empty. It might be time, she calculated, to get control of the property again.
From the way Nadine jerked open her front door, Cheryl suspected that her friend had been waiting by it all morning. Since she was a teenager, Nadine’s face had been round and deeply dimpled. Even now in her late thirties, her hair was a honey blond that glowed despite how short she wore it. Back when Cheryl was selling her and Grafton this house, Nadine had explained that no nurse had any business with long hair. Nor long fingernails. “About the only parts I can primp are my toenails,” she’d admitted to Cheryl.
Nadine pushed open the storm door with her elbow, took a leaning step toward Cheryl, and hugged her. “Thank God you came.”
Cheryl patted Nadine’s tense shoulders. “What’s going on?”
Pulling away from Cheryl, Nadine laughed, but it sounded more like she was choking on a handful of M&Ms. After a deep shuddering breath, she led Cheryl through the door by her elbow. “Either you sold me a haunted house or I’m losing my mind.”
Cheryl stopped so suddenly that her elbow popped out of Nadine’s grip. They were standing in a cozy living room. The walls had been painted a golden bronze and textured like adobe. They had tiled the living room floor with the traditional terra cotta squares, but Cheryl also noticed that the same floor covering stretched through the door into the dining room. She remembered that doorway as being narrower. And she was absolutely positive it hadn’t been arched. Nadine and Grafton had turned the place into a hacienda, airy and warm, and surely as hard to haunt as an Easter basket.
“I can’t believe for a minute you’re losing your mind.” Cheryl stepped close enough to Nadine to put her arm around her shoulder. “But I’ve never heard anybody accuse this house of being haunted.” She glanced around the living room with her most professional squint. “As far as I know, nobody’s died in this house.” Cheryl walked over to a mission style couch and felt the linen upholstery. “It was a rental property for three years before you and Grafton bought it. Before that, it sat empty because of the fire damage.”
Cheryl let her gaze settle on the fireplace mantle where family photographs crowded the entire length of highly varnished timber. Among pictures of their two sons in little league uniforms and Nadine in her hospital scrubs was parked a surprisingly long photograph of Grafton and his Mack eighteen wheeler. He drove the long distance runs for Kincaid Furniture.
“What about before the house burned?” Nadine sat down on the couch but didn’t relax. She crouched, her arms squared away from her body as if she thought she might have to throw herself from the couch.
“Well, before the Pritchards bought the house, the only other owners were the people who built it.” Cheryl crossed over to the couch and sat down. As coiled as Nadine appeared, Cheryl thought it’d be safer to sit beside rather than stand in front of her. “Do you remember the Berringers?”
“Don’t think so.” Nadine checked her watch then glanced behind her toward the dining room.
“They sold this place to the Pritchards when I was about six. Moved down to Florida. I think they were the first people I knew who retired to Florida.” Cheryl looked behind her, wondering if Nadine had the ghost on a schedule. “Even when I was that young, I’d already assumed that people bought homes so they’d have their own private place to die. When my mom and dad explained to me that the Berringers wanted to leave their home where they’d lived for forty years so they could die on vacation—that’s how I interpreted the idea of retiring—I felt the foundation of my world shake.”
Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and checking her watch again, Nadine scooted closer to the edge of the couch. “I’ve felt some of that shaky foundation myself.”
“What I’m trying to tell you is that as far as restless spirits go, this house doesn’t have any history of deaths, much less murders or suicides. Mr. and Mrs. Berringer owned a fabric store. Peggy Pritchard worked in the cabinet room at Blowing Rock Furniture and Wayne Pritchard worked for years as an upholsterer at Hammary Furniture Company. I knew them personally, went to the same church with the Pritchards. All of the owners were sweet, normal people.” Cheryl thought about touching Nadine’s arm, but she was afraid the contact would startle her friend.
“Then I must be crazy.” Nadine stood up but hesitated. With difficulty, she turned to face Cheryl.
As she pushed herself up from the couch, Cheryl said, “I didn’t think nurses were allowed to lose their minds.”
“All these years, I thought being married to a truck driver, working with doctors, and raising two boys made me immune to insanity—like everyday was a little inoculation of lunacy.” Nadine hugged herself like she was cold. “But something’s started going on in this house, and . . . “ Nadine jerked her arm up to check her watch again.
Cheryl squeezed Nadine’s hand. “Is it about to happen again?”
“That’s why I called you.” Nadine grabbed Cheryl’s wrist and pulled her toward the dining room. “For the last three years, I’ve worked at the hospital. My schedule was busy all the time. If I wasn’t at work, I was trying to catch up on my sleep or waiting on the boys. Then about two weeks ago, I started working for Hospice. I wanted to have more time at home, and Hospice gives me more flexible hours.”
Nadine led Cheryl to a Spanish-looking table for six, dark wood with heavy, matching chairs. The top of the table was inlaid tiles, small ivory and brown rectangles. For several seconds, Nadine kept her grip on Cheryl’s hand and stared at the table. Again she checked her watch but continued to hold Cheryl’s hand.
“What’s supposed to happen?” Cheryl remained standing slightly behind Nadine. She wasn’t comfortable being held by someone as distracted by a table as Nadine appeared to be.
“I’m sorry, Cheryl.” Nadine released her hand and moved slightly to one side, clearly making room for Cheryl next to the table. “The last five times this table has . . . changed . . . it’s happened right at 10:35 in the morning.”
“Changed?” Cheryl wasn’t sure if she needed to keep her eyes on Nadine or the table.
Nadine slapped the tiled table top several times. “What kind of table do you see right now? Right where I’m slapping.” She grabbed Cheryl’s hand and pushed it down on the table top. “Right there under your own hand.”
Facing the table more squarely so she’d have more leverage if she decided to jerk her hand out of Nadine’s grip, Cheryl still found herself moved by the desperate appeal in her friend’s voice. She wasn’t hysterical, but she wanted someone to share her uncertainty.
As she rubbed the table top, Cheryl rested her other hand on Nadine’s shoulder. “I see a dining room table with a mahogany border and its top covered in small brown tiles.”
“Keep looking.” Nadine released Cheryl’s hand and backed a couple of steps from the table. “I have to sit down.” She slid a chair out enough to perch on its edge.
“Do I need to sit down?” Cheryl glanced at Nadine.
”Keep your eyes on the table!” Nadine jabbed her finger at the tiles.
After a few more seconds of staring at the table, Cheryl thought she would like to sit down, but she didn’t want Nadine to suspect her of the impatience and doubt she was beginning to feel.
“Why don’t you just tell me what I’m supposed to be looking for?” Cheryl deliberately stooped down, bringing her face about two feet from the tiles.
Somewhat to Cheryl’s surprise, Nadine moved her face closer to the table top as well. “I don’t want to give you any clues. You know, contaminate your perception.”
Feeling a cramp blooming in her thigh, Cheryl pulled a chair next to her and slid onto it. When she looked back at the table, she felt her eyes waver in disbelief. The rectangular, tiled top was gone as was the dark mahogany border. In its place sat a circular, heart of pine table. In protest, Cheryl jumped from the chair so she could refocus her vision. Instead of snapping back into its dark, rectangular shape, this new table clung stubbornly to its position in the dining room, still round, still red and blonde heart of pine.
As soon as Cheryl stood up, Nadine turned to study her face. Once she had measured the depth of the shock on Cheryl’s face, she asked, “What do you see?”
“Do you see it too?” Cheryl backed away from the table far enough to circle behind the chairs—which were now pine with lower, rounder backs. Nothing like the dark, square-backed chair she’d just sat down in fifteen seconds ago.
“First tell me what you see.” Now Nadine stood up, planted her hands side by side on the table, and leaned toward Cheryl who had circled to the other side of the table.
“The table has . . . changed.” Cheryl touched the table with the tips of her fingers. “It’s round now. Made out of pine. Not quite as big as the . . . other . . . table. But it has six chairs around it. They’re matching pine. Arched backs.”
“Thank God.” Nadine dropped back into her chair.
“Is that what you see?” Cheryl sat down opposite Nadine.
“That’s what I see.” Nadine rubbed his face vigorously then stopped but kept her face covered. “I’ve been seeing it, and other things, for three weeks.”
“What does Grafton say about it?”
“Grafton hasn’t seen it.” Nadine looked through her fingers at Cheryl.
Cheryl saw that her friend was crying. “What did he say when you told him?”
“I haven’t told him.” Nadine wiped the lower lids of her eyes with the knuckles of her index fingers.
Cheryl nodded. She reached across the table and squeezed Nadine’s arm. She loved her husband, Troy, but she could completely understand why Nadine hadn’t told Grafton about the table. Although she had met Grafton only a few times when they were buying the house, she was pretty certain that he had a lot in common with Troy, particularly in their lack of imagination. Which wasn’t to say that Troy wasn’t smart. And he did have vision, true vision, when it came to commercial real estate. While a man needed vision to be successful, Cheryl didn’t see imagination as particularly desirable in a husband. Except for rare geniuses, a man with an imagination couldn’t make a good husband. From Cheryl’s observations, if an average man had an imagination, he couldn’t be trusted—not to stay faithful, not to make a decent living. And it would take a very active imagination to absorb a description of what she and Nadine were witnessing right now.
“Why haven’t you shown Grafton what happens to this table at 10:35 a.m.?”
Nadine propped herself on her elbows and bowed her head, studying the table for a few seconds. “After the sixth time I watched it change, I decided to make him watch. Usually, he’s on the road at that hour. During that first week, I still figured I was losing my mind, so I didn’t want to come right out and tell him what I was seeing.” Nadine pulled herself straighter in her chair and crossed her arms in front of her. “So the first day he did have off, I told him I’d help him wash his truck if he’d wait for breakfast until after we got done. I had him and his pancakes at the table right at 10:35, but nothing happened. We sat eating and talking for nearly an hour, and the table didn’t even make a funny noise.”
“Was that the only time you tried to show him?”
“No, over the last two weeks, I had five different chances to have him at the table when it should have changed.” Nadine checked her watch again. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would perform its little trick with you watching.”
“Your boys haven’t seen anything?” Cheryl thought of her own spacious rooms with their view of the lake. Could she stay in a house that wouldn’t keep a firm grasp on her furniture’s identity?
“Oh, I would have heard from them if they’d come across a table or a chair squirming into a different shape.”
“Have you brought them to this table during the changing time?” Cheryl ran her fingers across the top of the table then pressed them as hard as she could against the wood. It felt as solid as the other table. It wasn’t a ghost table. It just wasn’t the table that Nadine started out with.
“Just like with Grafton. Not a thing changed. Not a waver. Not a flicker out of the ordinary.”
At first, Cheryl wasn’t surprised by a feeling of familiarity with the pine table. It was a pretty common piece of dining room furniture. She’d seen more than a dozen of them over the years she’d been selling real estate. She’d played Monopoly at a table very much like this one long ago. Feeling her face flush, Cheryl slipped off her chair and onto her knees so she could inspect the underside of the table.
Nadine leaned over and poked her head under the table to better see what Cheryl was searching for. “It’s pine all the way through.”
“I had the dumbest notion that I might know who owned this table.” She crawled to the middle of the table, her eyes fastened to the wood just a couple of inches above her nose. She was thankful that Nadine kept house like a surgical assistant. She had an appointment with a client in less than an hour, and she certainly wouldn’t have time to go home and change clothes.
Then she found what she wasn’t really looking for. Lightly etched in the wood, barely scratching the surface, Knox Loves Cheryl. This table belonged to the Pritchards’ dining room. Briefly, Cheryl felt the flush in her face spread down into her chest and abdomen. They were in the sixth grade. Must have been a day or two before Christmas. She and Knox had gone to a special showing of an old movie, something like Babes in Toyland. She could tell that Knox was still caught up in the movie. She’d thought it was a little silly, but Knox always wanted the movies to keep going. When Knox said he’d like to get his trumpet and try to play some of the songs from the movie, Cheryl said she’d let him kiss her if he played Monopoly with her instead. After the kiss, while she was setting up the board, Knox had crawled under the dining room table and scratched his little love note. Even in the sixth grade, Knox was too much of a Baptist to carve his love very deeply into the bottom of his mother’s table.
Before Cheryl had fully absorbed the warmth of her memory, she recalled that the dining room was one of the places that suffered the worst damage when the house burned. Peggy Pritchard’s table had been reduced to a few sticks of charred wood. She jerked her fingers from the faint inscription and slid from under the table, grabbing Nadine’s hand as if she expected the floor to suck her down into the basement or into some place darker and stranger.
Nadine helped Cheryl settle into the chair beside her. “What’d you see down there?”
Cheryl explained Knox’s love note. She hadn’t expected Nadine to take such a deep interest in the message scratched under the table, but she practically threw herself under the table as soon as Cheryl finished her account. Cheryl found herself extremely reluctant to go back under the table. Come to think of it, she told herself, if Nadine could find the love note without any outside help, it would prove more convincingly that the note really was down there.
Cheryl leaned over to give instructions to Nadine. “Look right there in the middle. You have to raise up closer to the bottom of the table. The words are real faint. Knox wasn’t the kind of boy who felt comfortable defacing property.”
“Not even for the woman he loved?” Nadine peered up at the table, shifted to her knees so she could move in a few inches closer. “Would a flashlight help?”
“I found it without one.” Cheryl was about to join Nadine in the search when her friend reached up and stroked the table.
“It is here. Knox Loves Cheryl.” She read the message to herself several more times. “That’s sweet.”
“But still scary.”
Nadine nodded then looked around. “Still scary.” On her knees, she scuttled from under the table.
As Nadine got to her feet, Cheryl decided that Nadine needed to know about what the fire did to the table. “I hate to bring up another complication just when it seems like we’re starting to make sense out of this table showing up after eighteen years, but Nadine, I saw what was left of this table carried out in a trash can, burned way past any possibility of being repaired, way past the possibility of ever being furniture again.”
Nadine squeezed Cheryl’s shoulder and looked deeply into her eyes. “That kind of news is why I didn’t name one of my sons after you.” She checked her watch. “I’d offer you a drink, but I’ve got a Hospice call to make.”
“If I didn’t have a house to sell, I’d take that drink.” Cheryl stood up. She knew they needed to talk about the table, but she had absolutely nothing coherent to say. “You’re the nurse. Is this a symptom of insanity? Brain cancer? Alzheimer’s?” As terrible as these diseases sounded when Cheryl spoke out loud about them, she was certain she preferred a disaster with a name rather than admitting that her entire world simply no longer made sense.
“I’ve taken care of people with all those illnesses. I’ve put catheters in them, monitored their vital signs up until the last pulse, stitched them up when they’ve injured themselves, and nobody’s ever complained about one dining room table impersonating another one.”
Cheryl smoothed her skirt and checked her hair in a mirror on the other side of the dining room. For a second, the wall behind the mirror flashed a floral printed wallpaper through the stucco. Cheryl jerked her head in Nadine’s direction, but she was slightly unnerved when she caught Nadine staring at her with a clinical concern.
“What’s wrong?” Nadine took a step toward Cheryl.
Cheryl exhaled through a shaky laugh. “Nothing compared to what you’ve put me through this morning.” But she could see that Nadine was still concerned. “How long does the change go on? Could that Pritchard table be sitting there when your boys come home from school?”
“To be honest with you, this is the longest the shift has lasted.” Nadine stood next to the table with her hands on her hips and studied it for several seconds.