This is the first in a two-part story. The second part will appear in August.
When the air cools and the light dims, I stand and arch my back to stretch out the kinks from leaning over all afternoon. My arms throb with pain from pulling weeds in our large vegetable garden, but its new order, with the rows of carrots and onions delineated clearly from the beets and turnips, sends waves of satisfaction and pride through me. The newly-disturbed earth smells clean and fresh. What a simple thing, to bring so much joy. No wonder Carl and John don’t usually complain when Father makes them come out here after school.
But they have been sick for the past two weeks, leaving the plot so choked I couldn’t find the vegetables for dinner yesterday. Father stared out the window this morning, then told me, the only one well enough to work, to get my butt out here after lunch. At first, I didn’t want to spend my last Saturday before school ends digging in the dirt, but I warmed to the work, glad to be out of the sick house.
I take my trowel and hoe to the shed. A voice calls my name. Startled, for I am alone, I turn towards the sound. Mist rises from the ground around the peas. It forms the shape of a woman with dark eyes and mouth. She points a finger at me.
The maids’ gossip about a former slave who haunts our property, and has cursed my family, springs to mind, and I drop the tools and sprint to the house. Inside, I bolt the door, even though it won’t protect us against the wraith out there. Collapsed in a kitchen chair with my arms wrapped around my skinny body, I watch the door for a good five minutes. Nothing slips under the crack or through its solid surface. What would I do if it did? How does one fight a spirit? Slowly, when nothing more occurs, I remind myself that my father insists, “those ghost stories are pure superstition,” and I relax, but only a little.
My younger brother, John, comes into the room and flicks on the light. “Why are you sitting here in the dark?” he asks. “Where’s Father?”
“He took Carl to the Emergency Room after lunch and they haven’t returned.” The boils that had kept our older brother in bed for the last two weeks had spread down his legs this morning, clearly unimpressed by the antibiotics that were supposed to heal him.
John slumps in a chair across from me and drops his head and broken right arm on the table.
“Do we have any ginger ale?” John asks. “My stomach hurts.”
I stand and go to the refrigerator. “Have you drunk anything today?”
“Yeah. Some of that tea you made. I threw it up.”
I am tempted to tell John about the mist-woman, but it will either make him laugh at me or frighten him for no reason, so I say nothing. I hand him a soda. “Go back to bed.”
“I want some toast and a soft-boiled egg, like Mother used to make.”
“Okay. I’ll figure out how to do that. ” We have a basic cookbook which I use for everything.
While I wait for the egg to cook, I wish Mother were still alive. I never realized how much I depended on her until she became too ill from her liver cancer to do anything but lie in bed all day. If I could take back all of the complaints about her that I whispered to my friends or wrote in my diary, and bring her to life, I would. She may have insisted we follow her rules, but she always took the time after school to ask about our day. And she made the best food: pies, cookies, stews, roasts, salads, an endless list of deliciousness. Even before her death four months ago, all of that cooking fell on my shoulders. Unfortunately, I’d never learned how to do it properly. So much of what I fix tastes like instant mashed potatoes.
I stop remembering this chain of events and begin dinner. I had planned to pick vegetables from the garden to add to our hamburger and rice, but I won’t go out there now. The whole thought of facing that creature makes me shiver. Where is Father?
He comes in the door without Carl while I stir a package of frozen mixed vegetables into the pot. He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. I hunch my shoulders, certain the news is bad. Father never sighs. He pours himself a beer and stands over me. I expect him to ask why I’m using frozen vegetables, but instead he puts his hand on my shoulder. Another unfamiliar gesture.
“They kept Carl.” Father coughs so hard he sounds like he’ll rip his lungs apart. He has run a low-grade fever for at least a month. The coughing started last week, and has grown in frequency and intensity. When I turn around, he wraps his arms around me, the only time I remember him doing that except the night Mother died. Normally, I would relish this unusual sign of affection, but he’s so hot that I want him to let go. His fever is worse, not a good sign. One more thing to fret about.
In the morning, I sneeze and sneeze, a bad sign that I’m getting sick again. Ever since I had the flu last summer, I can’t seem to stay well. I don’t understand it. I never used to catch anything.
Father is still in bed, coughing, when I pad down the upstairs hall. Usually he gets up at six. My stomach twists when I hear him through the closed door of the room he once shared with Mother. I find John draped over the commode in our shared bathroom, his face pale and greenish white. I almost collapse from fear and worry when I see him there. What is happening to my family? Are the maids right? Did I see the ghost of one of my ancestor’s slaves in the garden?
I can’t stand the thought of breakfast. With my newly-minted drivers license, I drive to the hospital to check on Carl. At the reception desk, they tell me that I cannot see him until later today because he is being moved to Intensive Care. Oh, no. Not Carl. I always thought of him as invincible.
I return home to find my father at the kitchen table, his eyes bleary. “I need to go to the doctor,” he croaks and shows me the thermometer. It registers one hundred five degrees. I drive back to the hospital, this time with Father lying flat in the back seat. It takes forever in the Emergency Room before they wheel him away, but it isn’t long after that before a nurse’s aide tells me that he has pneumonia. They will keep him overnight; I don’t need to stay.
I find Intensive Care and check on Carl. They let me see him this time. Tubes run into his arm – antibiotics and fluids. I don’t think he knows I’m there, but I say hello and sit with him for a few minutes before the nurse chases me away.
I stumble into the central waiting area of the hospital and collapse onto a couch. My mind spits weird thoughts about Michael Jackson’s death and math problems. A long string of vocabulary words comes next: stupendous, malevolent, diarrhea… I take a deep breath and try to focus. I need help. Only sixteen, I can’t take care of John by myself. Father didn’t even give me money for groceries.
I scroll through my cell phone, not expecting to find the answer, but I see a name my mother entered when she got sick ‘just in case:’ Mrs. Strong, one of her hospice nurses. Good enough. I press ‘call.’
Soon, Mrs. Strong has her arms around me. “You poor child,” she says. “Come on. I’ll take you home. We’ll leave your car here. I packed a bag so I can spend the night with you and John.”
“What if you get sick, too?” I ask, although I don’t want her to leave us alone with that ghost in the yard, for I’ve started to fret again about it. What if it caused all of our illnesses, just like the maids claim? They won’t even come to our house anymore because of it.
“Psaw, girl, don’t you worry. Your Pops and Carl will be fine, too. Just you wait.”
I can’t believe she calls my father ‘Pops.’ I’d get the switch if I called him anything other than Father.
As we drive, she makes me tell her everything: how I cry every night, missing my mother; how we’re always sick; my inability to cook decent food; and even about the mist-woman last night. A frown line between her eyebrows tells me that my list worries her, but she doesn’t say anything, she simply asks more questions.
At our house, she says, “I’ll check on your brother. Go walk around the yard and get some fresh air. Sounds like you’ve been inside too much.”
It’s almost sunset. I don’t want to run into that ghost, but I also don’t want to admit I’m scared, so I say, “I spent eight hours weeding yesterday. I don’t need more fresh air.”
“Yes, you do. You’re all wound up. Pick us some lettuce for dinner.
I want to protest again, but somehow I can’t tell her that I won’t obey. I stay in our large front yard, on the grass, for a while, but then I head around the corner of the house and stop when I see the garden. Weeds fill the areas I cleared yesterday. The peas loom over everything, their vines curling up at least six feet tall. Yesterday, they were only a foot high. Before I realize it, I run towards the plot and stumble through the weed-choked garden towards them. A naked woman rises up in front of me. She has white skin and long black hair matted into a wild mess. Black wells of eyes stare with a gaze so nasty it threatens to burn me.
“Come no further.” Her voice is strong and hoarse.
I step towards her and a vine wraps around my throat. With a cry, I fall on my bottom. “This is my garden,” I shout. “You’re trespassing.”
She leans over me, and her eyes turn to flames. “I am the Goddess Ravenia, and I have guarded this land since it was created. You and your family must leave, or I will kill you all, not just your mother.”
I push her away, except that my hands go through her, as if she’s made of air. Terrified, I scramble to my feet and back away. “What are you?”
“You do not recognize me? Idiot. I rule the woods and fields. Now leave.” She slowly turns into a mist, then nothing.
Fury and panic fight for control of me. Fear insists that I should flee before this creature ties me down with vines and kills me right on the spot. Anger tells me to do something. How dare she kill my mother?
Fear wins. I scamper to the safety of the house. Right before I open the door, I turn. “There’s no such thing as Goddesses,” I yell. “There’s only one God. Everybody knows that.”
Her face reappears above the pumpkins, lit as if it’s still daylight. “Humans have certainly grown stupid in the five thousand years I’ve been underwater.” Then she vanishes.
I stumble into the kitchen, terrified. I feel like someone poured boiling water on every inch of my body. I scream in pain. Mrs. Strong appears.
“You poor girl,” she says. “You’re burning up.” She puts a cool hand on my forehead, and I calm enough to babble on about the goddess. While I talk, Mrs. Strong leads me down the hallway and puts me to bed. My temperature has jumped to one hundred four degrees. She makes me drink something awful. “Sleep. You’re hallucinating.”
All of a sudden, it’s morning or maybe even afternoon. I try to open my eyes, but they hurt so much that I give up. My whole body aches. I can barely swallow. The sound of footsteps indicate someone coming into my room. “Are you awake, Melanie?”
It’s Mrs. Strong. She places a cool hand on my forehead.
I nod and croak, “I’m so sick.”
“I know you feel awful, but I think your fever has broken. Come on, let’s sit you up and get some chicken broth into you.”
With Mrs. Strong’s help, I am well enough by the next morning to get out of bed. She props me up in the living room armchair with a TV tray, the remote, a bowl of soup and some crackers and heads to the hospital to fetch my father. Even though we left our car there, he isn’t well enough to drive himself.
As soon as she leaves, John comes into the living room and flops on the couch. It isn’t like him to lie down in the middle of the day, but at least he’s his usual brown tan, instead of that awful green. “It’s good to see you out of bed, Mel.”
“Something odd’s going on. Mrs. Strong was out in the backyard this morning, waving her hands in the air and chanting. While she did it, my nausea went away.”
Despite my father’s insistence that the supernatural doesn’t exist, an odd thought comes to me. “Maybe she’s a witch.”
John’s eyes grow big. “Cool.”
I tell him about the spirit in the garden and the weeds.
He sits up tall. “Really? We have to get rid of it. I’ll help.” And I thought he’d be scared. I should have expected my tough brother to rise to the challenge.
I repeat Ravenia’s last remark. “What does it mean, ‘underwater for five thousand years?'”
He jumps to his feet. “The boat.”
“The one they dredged up out of the lake last summer. Remember? Mr. Jackson couldn’t stop talking about it in our history class. He had us make a model of it. He plastered photos of the artifacts they found on it all over the classroom walls, and made us read articles by the archeologists.”
“So?” How could a boat have anything to do with this evil bitch?
“They found it last summer. Carbon dating put it at four to six thousand years old. Come on, let’s get on the computer. I’ll show you!” He lifts my half-eaten bowl of soup and crackers off my tray and sets them aside. I push away the tray. It still hurts to move, but I follow him up the stairs to Father’s office.
Thanks to Matthew Sinclair at FreeImages.com for the photo.