“This is the place,” I say and we get out of the truck. I walk around the truck and open Marimar’s door. I’m not going to let up on my manners, especially after running into my ex. What a nightmare. We get out of the truck and look around. It’s a very small shabby house and there’s garbage everywhere. In this part of town you’ll see either people living in shotgun shacks or trailers — ‘round here this is what they call white trash. This is the part of town where I live.
“I would think that they were having a yard sale if it wasn’t for all the scattered junk collecting spider webs and rusting. Look at the house, it’s falling apart,” Marimar comments. This house is a rung or two up from my trailer. “How can anybody live like this?”
I shrug. Of course she would say that. She probably has no clue what it’s like to live on the poor side of town; to scrape by with the cards you’re dealt. The only nice thing I have is the old truck my dad left me in his will and some other little keepsakes of his. Now, there’s no way I’m going to let her know where I live.
We walk on the dirt path leading to the entrance of the house. “I’ll do the talking,” I say to Marimar. “Since you seem to have a knack for getting folks steamed up.”
She gives me a fake toothless smile. We step onto the front porch. I can hear dogs barking inside. I hesitate before knocking. Hopefully, they’ll react differently than the people in the library. If not, I might have a dog chewing on my ass. Well, there is only one way to find out. I knock on the door. I wait a few seconds, but I don’t hear any movement. I knock again a little louder. This time I hear some movement in the house.
“Just a second!” I hear an elderly woman holler. I see the women who I think the voice belongs to look through the window shade on the other side of the door. I hear several latches open, the lock, and then the door opens. An elderly man opens the door. He is wearing an old grimy tank top. He looks very unfriendly with his piercing black eyes, receding hair, beer belly paunch and tattered jeans. The guy is a foot shorter than me. The women whose voice I had heard is looking over his shoulder. She has sky blue eyes and gray hair with a few strands of white interwoven in a bun. She seems nice enough.
“Whatcha young’uns want?” the man asks gruffly.
“Evening sir, I’m Sage and this is Marimar,” I say indicating with my hand.
“Hi,” Marimar says, waving slightly. I put out my hand for him to shake, but he doesn’t make any movement, so I let my hand drop. This is going to be harder than I thought.
“Sir, is this Mr. Louis and Mrs. Marion’s house?” Please say no. Please say no.
“I’m Marion and she’s Louise,” Marion says jabbing his thumb at himself, and then to Louise. Oops, if I had any chance of getting any information it’s gone now.
“And what a lovely name it is,” Marimar says, trying to recover the little civility we might have lost. He glares at me with cold eyes. I shift uncomfortably to the side. I clear my throat before speaking.
“Anyhow, we wanted to ask ya’ll a few questions about the old blacksmith’s house.”
“We don’t know nothing, and if ya’ll don’t get yer scrawny asses off my property pronto, I’ll sic the dogs on you, yawl must be Devil Worshipers!” he snaps, black spit flies onto my face. Gross! I resist the urge to wipe it away.
“Get on outta here!” he gargles, before spitting the tobacco at my feet. It splatters onto my worn boots; bastard.
“I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you. We’ll be on our way. Come on Mar, let’s go.” I grab her arm and we walk off the porch. She turns and stops short.
“Thank you for your time Mr. Louis, Mrs. Marion.” To top it off, she smirks. Oh, crap! Now she’s done it.
“Run!” I say, grabbing her from the elbow and hauling our asses to the truck. She runs to her side and I turn to mine. I can hear dogs running behind us, barking savagely. They’re gaining on us. I quickly open the door.
“Get in!” I shout. We jump into the truck and slam the doors. The dogs have just now reached us. I jump in my seat as a pair of mangy hound dogs scratch at my window, snarling and foaming at the mouth. I start the truck and I drive as fast as I can to get out of there. As I am driving I keep one hand on the wheel and use the other to wipe away the tobacco spit off my face with my shirt sleeve.
“You know, we’re going to need to work on your Southern cordiality. That guy was packing!”
“What, Jesus, a gun! He could have killed us.”
“I’m not finished. At this rate we’re not gonna get anywhere if you’re not civil.” I turn to look at her and she looks guiltless. Her eyes are sparkling in amusement, her lips are twitching at the corners — she sucks in her lips in an effort to suppress a laugh.
“Mmm-hmm,” she nods, looking me in the eyes. Her guiltless attitude is becoming even more aggravating. There must be something about the expression on my face she finds humorous because a wide grin sweeps across her face.
“It’s not funny.”
“It kind of is.”
“No, it ain’t. You could have gotten us mauled, or worse, one of us could have gotten shot! It’s legal to shoot someone that’s trespassing on your property here in Texas. What the hell possessed you to call him Mrs. Marion?”
“Okay, I admit that was pretty stupid, but I couldn’t help myself. I mean what kind of a name is Marion?” she giggles. I grin at the thought. “Besides, it wasn’t like I was the only one who offended him. The first thing you did was call him Mrs. Marion.”
“Fine, fine, but what about earlier when you were being sarcastic and you said, ‘Thank you, for your Southern Hospitality’, or when you said aloud that you, ‘hate this stupid town’. Things like that’ll get us into hot water.”
“Okay, I get it. I’ll try to keep my temper in check.”
“Back to business, we have two down and we now have four to go.”
“Let’s see … Shiloh and Tootsie Juniper. They live only a couple miles out.”
In a minute we’ll pass my house. The thought of her seeing where I live has me on pins and needles. Oscar should be home by now from being babysat by the next door neighbor. Bubba should be at work and Mom should be in her room getting stoned. But what if Oscar’s playing outside and waves? Mar will never consider being my girlfriend.
We pass my house without incident. Cool, she still has no idea of where I live. I exhale loudly in relief. Did she hear that? No, she’s still looking out the window. Probably still wondering how people can live like this.
We’re at the last name on our list and we still haven’t found out any information. We’ve had doors slammed in our faces, been threatened, called Satanist or demonic, or we’d find that the resident is not home or that they’d recently moved. We are both tuckered out at this point. One name left. This lady is our last chance. The orderly at the front desk of the nursing home escorts us to her room. I knock on her door.
“Loretta, you have visitors,” the lady from the nursing home says.
“Come in,” a feeble voice calls out, “I’d open the door for ya, but these old bones ain’t like they used to be.”
The lady opens the door letting us in. We see a frail old lady seated in a rocking chair covered with a quilt, she looks like she could keel over at any time. Mar read on the internet that’s she’s a hundred. She’s our best chance if we want to find out some information, if her mind hasn’t gone that is. Her skin is very wrinkled and it sags off of her bones that are protruding from underneath. Her hair is white, like all the color has drained from it. She has pale blue friendly eyes and she’s wearing a warm smile. She’s sitting by the open window; the sunlight streaming in almost makes her appear iridescent. She could be the model for the saying “one foot in the grave”.
“Good evening, Mrs. Azalea.”
“Evening, I reckon I don’t know ya’ll?”
“No, you don’t know us.”
“Good,” hee-hee, “I thought ya’ll might be relatives and I’d gone and lost my mind.”
“Actually we came here to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind, ma’am.”
“We wanted to know if you know anything or heard anything about the history of the ol’ blacksmiths house.”
“Oh,” she says. “I reckon everybody knows that there house. It’s haunted ya know. Well, what are you two dilly-dallying over there for? Take a seat on the bed you two and I’ll answer yer questions as best as I can. Sit-sit.”
“All right, Loretta, I’m going to leave this door propped open and I’ll be down the hall if you need me,” the nursing home lady says.
“Try to make it brief you two, we don’t want to wear her out,” the lady whispers so only Mar and I can hear.
“Come on now,” Loretta says. Mar takes the lead and sits down on the edge of the bed closest to her. I sit beside Mar. “So, why do you young’uns wanna know about that ol’ house there anyhow?”
“I live there,” Mar replies. Loretta’s eyes open wide with fear and her jaw drops. She doesn’t breath. Oh, no. One hand clutches at the quilt over her heart. Crap! I think she’s having a heart attack. She takes a sharp inhale. Whew!
Loretta reaches for Mars hand. “Sugar, you need to clear out of that ol’ house. It ain’t safe. Bad things happen there.” Loretta’s lips purse in fear. Her free hand shakes as she points to some pills on a TV tray beside a glass of water. I hand them both to her. She removes her hand from on top of Mar’s and pops the pills with one hand and takes a sip of water with the other.
Mar waits for her to finish swallowing before she responds, “I know. That’s why I need to know what happened in the house to get rid of whatever is in it.”
“I’ll tell ya’ll, but I reckon it ain’t gonna do ya’ll any good.”
“Any little bit of information is helpful. Please, continue,” Mar says.
“Alrighty then,” she breathes, “but keep in mind that what I’m about to tell ya’ll is a secret that folks here aren’t keen on telling. No outsider ain’t ever heard what ya’ll are about to hear. You two will be the first and the last. You can’t breathe a word of it to anyone. Ya’ll hear?”
“We promise,” we both firmly answer.
“Alrighty then, get settled ‘cause I’m fixing to tell ya’ll a tale. When I was a young’un that ol’ house where you live now was already abandoned. My grandmother told me of the family that built the place, the Lumpkin’s. They were the wealthiest landowners in town. The Lumpkin’s were major givers to the town and the church … Mr. Lumpkin was a son of a wealthy man. He had four brothers and each of them learned a trade to contribute to the family’s wealth. One was a Doctor, the other a Lawyer, and another a Banker. Ya’ll know what the fourth done learned?”
“Blacksmithing,” Mar and I simultaneously answer. I lean forward in my seat waiting for her to continue. Every few seconds she stops to take a breather, or she smacks her lips like her mouth is dry, but she doesn’t take a sip of water.
“Yes’m, and his pa wasn’t too keen on it, it being a “common man’s” trade. His father said he would lose his inheritance if he didn’t find a career worthy of the family name. He was supposed to attend Veterinary school when the civil war broke out. The brothers took up their arms and marched into battle. All of them died ‘cept for the blacksmith. Now, oh … where was I?”
“All of the brothers died ‘cept for the blacksmith.” Jeez, if she doesn’t get on with it, she might up and die before we’re through.
“Bless you, that’s right. Now them boys were bachelors when they up and died. So all of their money and property now belonged to Mr. Lumpkin. He sold all the land and all the property. He up and took the money and moved to this here town where he started up his shop and settled down and had a family. His wife bore him one child, a boy. Mind you, he plays an important part in this whole story. The boy was a very nice child, as sweet as can be. All the boys liked him and all the girls were sweet on him, my own grandmother was not an exception. One day, though, he got laid up and he stopped going to school or to church or anyplace. Nobody was allowed to see him, ‘cause everyone was afraid of getting sick.” She takes a long draw from her glass.
“This lasted for quite a spell. One day the Lumpkin’s barn done caught on fire. The neighboring folks came to help put it out, since them Lumpkin’s was nowhere to be found. Well, when the fire was done and put out, the good town folks went and took a look through the ashes of the barn …” She takes a deep breath before continuing, “And they found the charred remains of the boy chained to a post. He was burnt alive.
“The Lumpkin’s were never seen hide nor hair of again.” Loretta’s eyes begin to swell up and her lips begin to quiver. “That poor, poor little’un.”
“Would you like some more water?” Mar asks.
“Yes please, sugar.” Mar hands her, her drink. She takes a long draw.
Patience, I remind myself.
“So his parents murdered him?”
“How old was he?” I ask.
“Do you happen to remember what the little boy’s name was?”
“Umm … lemme see ... I-I reckon it was … I’m sorry, I think it plum slipped my mind.”
“Well, thank you for your time, ma’am. You were the only one that would tell us the history of the house,” I say.
“I’d imagine. It was a tragedy. You see, most folks see that incident as an embarrassment. People were proud of this here town and when that happened it rocked the whole community. Other more, superstitious people believe that the house is haunted and that the mere mention of the spirit will cause bad things to happen to them. Zealous members of the community will call you crazy or demonic for even having such a notion.”
“Earlier, you were saying that it’s dangerous for me to stay there. What did you mean by that? Have you heard any stories or circulated rumors by chance?” Mar asks.
“Plenty, but it was my own experience that caused me to believe the house was haunted. When I was a young’un I used to mess around with the boys, which led me to get into many a scrape. Little did I know that one day I would get myself into the worst scrape of my life.
“Now as I was saying, one day one of my playmates was pestering me to enter the house and to spend an hour in the boys’ room. Messing around with the boys made me wild, so being the little tomboy I was, I accepted. Like I had said, I entered the house. When I came out I was different. I was found by a neighbor of the Lumpkin’s house, a farmer. The farmer heard me hollering and had come to take a look. When he found me I was stark-naked, battered, and pale as the moon from loss of blood rushing from the lashes blanketing my poor person. My mind was jumbled up. The farmer said I’d been rambling on about some nonsense,” her voice quivers and she brings her fingertips to her temples and rubs them like she’s trying relieve a migraine.
“Wait, what about the kids you were with? They just left you?” I ask.
“They did what any young’un would do, run. I don’t blame ‘em for leaving. I reckon I might’ve done the same too if it were me. Our folks forbade us from going near that house, and to disobey meant a sound whipping. Now, many a member of the community had seen me leave school with them boys. So after being questioned they finally ‘fessed up to what we had done. They said that when they’d heard me hollering they just clean run off. To this day, I still don’t have any recollection of what happened. The doctor said I had amnesia. Everything I have told you I got from a friend. It’s ‘cause of me that nobody ever enters that ol’ house.” Her fingertips again return to her temples like she’s trying to suppress some bad memory. Something that she wants to keep to herself, something she’s hiding.
“But,” she laughs dryly, “there comes a time that every wild colt must be tamed, and after that day I was as tamed as a kitten.”
Loretta looked spent after telling us her story. We thanked her for her hospitality and asked if we could stop by sometime to see if she remembered anything else after we left. She said she would love to see us again, that we made such a lovely young couple. Couple, are we a couple?
“That poor lady,” Marimar comments after I get into the driver’s seat.
We sit in silence for a few moments.
“I’m sorry for wasting your time, Sage. I really appreciate you helping me.”
“You didn’t waste my time. Look on the bright side, at least now we know who’s been haunting you.”
“Yeah, that helps. What does it matter if it’s the little boy or if it’s not the little boy who’s out to kill me? We are still right back to where we started. There isn’t any point of searching for any more information now, because boy or no boy, someone is still out for cold blood, my blood.” I flinch at the thought.
“Did you notice she was acting kind of strange, like she was hiding something?”
“I picked that up but I didn’t want to press her any harder.”
“I wonder what it was.”
“Yeah.” She pauses for a second. “Want to hear something funny?” Mar asks after a short pause.
“Ever since I moved into my house I’ve been having these strange dreams.”
“Yeah, dreams. Within these dreams I would feel myself being burnt alive and I could smell my flesh burning and I would see flames consuming me.”
“That’s weird … are you sure you didn’t watch something or read something...?”
“Hmm. You know I think I heard something on TV about how ghosts will sometimes show you what happened to them through dreams. Is there anything else that you might remember?” She thinks about it for a moment.
“No, that’s it.” Damn. I start the truck and I pull out of the parking lot. Mar reaches over and turns down the volume.
“Sorry, I have to call Mama.” She pulls out her cell phone and dials the number. “Mama, we are heading home right now.” Pause. “Yeah, we’ve been reading.” That’s her cover. You’d think her Ma would have caught on by now. They must really trust her. “Mmm-hmm, we picked something up to eat. Okay, love you too, bye.” She hangs up the phone and turns up the volume on the radio.
“What time is it?” I ask before she puts her phone back in her pocket. The clock in the truck is busted and I don’t wear my wristwatch because it’s one of those cheap ass watches, the kind that kids might buy. I had a nice watch. It had belonged to my dad, but last week I woke up and it was missing from my wrist. That same evening my Mom arrived home with some new narcotics. To add insult to injury, she gave me ten dollars back and said I should go see a movie, her treat.
“Damn, it’s six already?”
“What time does your dad get home?”
“Six-thirty.” We’re thirty minutes away from her house; maybe if I speed a little I just might make it to her house before her dad gets there. I could make my good-bye brief and I could be out of there before her dad knows that I was even there. I’ll tell Mar that I forgot that I have to do something to explain speeding. What should I say I have to do…? Got it, I’ll say I have to cook dinner. That sounds believable enough. I hit the gas. The speed limit is sixty, but I’m going seventy and if I take some back roads I might be able to scrape by without being pulled over.
“Again with the speeding, what’s the hurry?”
“I have to get home, I’m making dinner tonight and Bubba hates it when dinner’s late.”
“Well I’d hate for you to fall off the face of the earth for another two weeks. Just try not to get us pulled over, okay?”
“That’s why I’m taking some back roads, cops hardly ever use these. I take ‘em all the time when I’m in a hurry to get home.”
“Gotcha, so what kind of work does your stepdad do?”
“He works at a bar.” Where he gets drunk every night.
“Does your Mom work?”
“She works part time at the drugstore and as a waitress at Bubba’s bar.” Neither pays much but both keep her in drugs.
“You never did tell me what happened to your biological father? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
What’s with the sudden interest in my family? “No, that’s all right. My dad died in a car accident when I was eleven. My Mom got remarried a year later, we were in a financial fix and Bubba seemed nice enough, so now he’s part of our life.”
“What do you mean by seemed?”
Jeez, what’s with the twenty questions all of a sudden? “I mean she was lonely and desperate and she just happened to meet him when she needed someone the most, so.…”
“Did you like him? I mean, when you first met him?”
“No, not really.” It’s kinda hard to like someone when your Mom is coming home with bruises.
“And you let your mom still marry him?”
“I didn’t really have a choice. One night she came home with Bubba and announced that they were married.” I can still hear her voice …
Mom: “Surprise, I got you a new daddy!”
I stood there in shock.
Bubba: “Those aren’t my kids,” he grumbled.
Mom: “Aren’t you going to congratulate us?”
Bubba: “Do as yer told boy or I’ll put a world of hurt on ya.” His favorite words. The truck is silent for a couple of minutes. My last answer seemed to render Mar speechless.
“What time is it, now?” I ask before pulling up into the lane.
I have ten minutes to get in and get out. I have enough time. I shut off the engine and I take my keys out of the ignition. We unbuckle our seatbelts and I get out of the truck and I briskly walk over to open Mar’s side. My heart is beating rapidly at the thought of her dad being early. She gets out at a leisurely pace. I tap my foot impatiently, when she becomes aware of it she hurries. I walk her briskly to the door; Mrs. Utt opens the door with Mar’s little sister hugging her side, their dog runs over and tugs on my pant leg. I reach down and give him a pat on the head. Mar pulls him off of me and gives him a kiss.
“Bye, Mar. Thanks for going out with me, I had a great time.” Most of what I said is true. I got to admit, I like her attitude. I’ve dated plenty of girls and none of them have gotten me into as much trouble as she has. And I thought I was going to be a bad influence. I catch her free hand and give it a kiss. If her Mom wasn’t there I’d probably try for a real one; maybe. “Evening Mrs. Utt, Marisol.”
“You’re leaving so soon? Why don’t you stay for dinner?” Mrs. Utt asks.
“I’m sorry —”
“He can’t, he’s in charge of making dinner.”
“Oh,” her mom says disappointed. “Well, I made plenty of food, why don’t you take some home with you? Come in while I go get it for you.”
“Mawimaw,” her little sister says running over and hugging her waist.
“Ma’am.” Mar’s Mom has already turned and left. Damn it.
“Hi Sunshine,” Mar says hugging her back and giving her a kiss on the head. “Sorry, Mama doesn’t take no for an answer,” Mar says redirecting her attention to me.
“I’ve noticed,” I say with a light laugh. Crap. This might take longer than I thought.
“Come in.” I follow Mar into the living room. Her little sister is towing her towards the same direction. Mar places her laptop bag on the coffee table before turning to me. “Take a seat,” Mar says as she sits down on the couch, putting Marisol on her lap. I sit down beside them.
“Don’t sit thewe, you awe going to make Geowge angwy.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say as I get back up.
“You made Geowge angwy, say you awe sowwy.”
“I’m sorry, George.” She obviously doesn’t want to share her sister.
“Sorry,” Mar whispers to me.
“It’s all right,” I respond. “How old is George?” I ask Marisol, making conversation.
“Marisol!” her mom calls.
“Coming! Come on, Geowge.” She slips off of Marimar and runs out the door.
“How long has she had this imaginary friend?”
“Hmm, since we moved here.” We both give each other a look of total understanding mixed with fear. “It’s George,” she breathes.