This story is by Deborah Trahan and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Haunted Consumption of Lydia Raveneaux
Shadows shroud the empty parking lot adjacent to McRaven House when Lydia and Knox step from their car. No one else is here. Rather peculiar. Since it’s dusk on All Hallows’ Eve.
“Where’s the entrance, Knox?” Lydia asks, impatient to set eyes on the South’s most haunted mansion.
“We’re in the right spot, according to Google Maps,” he says. Then, Knox spots an ornate silver wrought-iron gate propped askew with a couple of bricks. They cautiously follow an uneven pathway toward the house—hand-in-hand.
Evening falls fast amidst Vicksburg’s live oak trees when a misty fog rolls in. That’s October for you, the locals say. Halfway to the house, Lydia panics. Though years have passed since her last asthma attack, she feels an intense weight press against her chest. “Give me a second,” she says.
Not prepared for this—do I even have an inhaler in the car?
As the sudden chest pain dissipates, a wind gust knocks her off-balance. “Not too late for a change in plans. We can celebrate your birthday downtown, babe. If you’d rather,” Knox whispers. He hugs her tightly. Holds her elbow, seemingly, to alter her course.
Before Lydia can follow her husband’s lead, a tour guide dressed in antebellum attire steps from the porch’s shadows: her gown too substantial for a petite figure. “Never mind changing directions, dearie. The wind will settle as you enter.”
Seriously, the wind? It’s the least of my challenges.
After entering the foyer, the green-grey door slams shut. Its message? Sorry my pretties, too late to turn back.
“Hello, I’m Miss Ella. Welcome to the only home I’ve ever known. You’ll likely meet other infamous residents…who’ve chosen to spend their afterlife here.” Ella’s expansive hoop skirt requires a particular sway in advance of her footsteps into the parlor. Her porcelain skin shows no sign of wrinkles.
Once in the room surrounded by 19th-century antiques, the pressure on Lydia’s chest returns with a vengeance. She reaches for Knox’s arm to steady herself while Ella charges into a monologue. Untethered by Lydia’s reaction, Ella describes minute details about the room’s furnishings, including the harpsichord piano positioned in the corner. Then, with no warning, the frenetic notes of Chopin’s Minute Waltz screech in Lydia’s right ear. She bends over in pain, searching for a place to sit.
“Step away from the room’s center,” Ella shouts. Lydia shuffles closer to the fireplace.
“It’s easily explained, your chest pain,” she says. “You see, a previous owner was shot in the back by Union soldiers. When his wife retrieved his body, she had it placed on an interior door—I believe it was the dining room door—right here in the center of this room.”
As the spirit’s attack lessens, Lydia whispers. “For her husband’s wake, I’d imagine.”
Knox isn’t buying a bit of Ella’s spiel. “Damn, does a ghost tour need to be this creepy? Don’t get me wrong, babe,” he says. “I’m up for celebrating your birthday and all. But this is too weird.” When Knox reaches to draw her closer, Lydia steps back.
Ella turns to Lydia and asks, “It depends, my dear. Are you clairsentient?” As Lydia nods, the pressure on her chest evaporates. The piano keys stop moving in mid-note. “Then you surely knew what to expect.”
A renewed confidence washes over Lydia at the mere touch of her black obsidian necklace, a favorite talisman she wears when errant spirits are anticipated. When she edges closer to Ella, an antique doll nestled in a wooden crib attracts her attention. Did that doll move its head? “Tell me about who once lived here.”
As they wander through the rooms on the first floor, Ella describes McRaven’s former residents, beginning with a pirate who stole from travelers along the Natchez Trace in the 1700s to the Confederate soldiers requiring medical treatment during the Civil War. “And then the Murrays lived here in the late 19th century. My people. We were a family of nine…until….”
“Everyone died.” Lydia finishes the sentence.
Taking the stairs to the home’s original section, Ella turns to Knox with a warning. “If you’re discomforted, my friend, it’s only going to worsen.”
Knox pauses. Flummoxed, he defers to Lydia. “You good?”
“I’m fine, babe. I think the warning’s for you,” Lydia says. “I came prepared.”
Yet each step threads a growing dread. The air feels heavy as overwhelming sadness blankets Lydia’s countenance.
Did I speak too soon?
Knox enters the rustic bedroom on the left. And finds the story of the stagecoach thief who built this section of McRaven most amusing. Until a doll tumbles out of its chair and soars across the room. Sending Knox to hover in the tiny hallway. “I’m not doing this,” he says. “You coming, Lydia?”
“Not yet. I want to see the room across the hall.”
“The evening’s highlight: Miss Mary Elizabeth’s bedroom,” Ella says, sidestepping Knox. She motions for Lydia to enter.
“I’ll see you in a few minutes, babe.” Lydia kisses her husband’s cheek.
A gust of ice-cold air greets Lydia as she approaches the hand-carved four-poster bed covered in a patchwork quilt. Ella points out a spinning wheel nestled in a corner while Lydia is inexplicably drawn to a window overlooking the home’s back balcony. Within seconds the apparition of a young woman darts across the porch’s wooden planks.
Rapid enough to be fleeting. Nebulous enough to prove unrecognizable.
Ella shares the story about Mary Elizabeth Howard, the wife of a sheriff who purchased the house in 1836. Sheriff Howard added this second bedroom and a dining room below. But Lydia only hears the guide’s voice reverberating Mary Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth. Echoing over and over.
Lydia closes her eyes and drinks in the musty smells of yesteryear. When her eyes reopen, she concentrates on the dark period pieces that covet long-held memories. She traces her fingers along the edge of a vanity that displays Mary Elizabeth’s hairbrush and hand mirror. Then, gasps when the small wooden doors flanking the large center mirror begin to sway back and forth. Open—close. Ever so slowly, then quickly.
“My, oh my. Seems that you’re a welcome guest, Lydia. Mary Elizabeth is known to behave rather inhospitably. But not tonight,” Ella says. “Did I mention her death in this very room? During childbirth?”
“I don’t believe you did. Until now.” Distracted, Lydia watches a collection of blue and purple orbs bounce between the sunbeams of light—bursting from the room’s windows.
Where to focus? On a ghost’s identity…or these magnificent orbs?
“Only 15 years of age. Though girls did marry quite young at that time.” Ella backs toward the door, giving Lydia sufficient freedom to wander the room. Examine its contents.
“So, it’s her ghost? The one who lingers?” Lydia asks. The pressure that began in her chest while approaching McRaven’s front door now builds an obstructed sensation in her larynx. She swallows.
Don’t do this, please.
Lydia struggles to concentrate on Ella’s response.
“Very likely, yes, it’s Mary Elizabeth. We’ve read in her journals that she was most happy here, rather pleased with her situation, having married well. It’s tragic, indeed.” Sensing Lydia’s pain, Ella reaches for her hand. Then guides Lydia to rest on Mary Elizabeth’s bed to catch her breath.
“Shall I go find your husband? Fetch you a cup of water?” she asks, draping Mary Elizabeth’s wedding scarf around Lydia’s shoulders. “Just hold onto this lace, and you’ll feel better soon.” As Lydia listens to the swosh of Ella’s hoop skirt, sweeping against the wooden steps on her descent to locate Knox, she feels a tug toward another time. Hears Knox’s name called out. Repeatedly. Until there’s only silence.
“Where did you go, Knox?”
Despite her wooziness, Lydia stands and walks to the door. But when she steadies herself at the threshold, Lydia feels the heaviness of 200-year-old wood slam against her midsection—it’s as if her very spirit is consumed by its weight. Raising her fist against the closed door, Lydia pulls back her hand, scorched with heat.
“Knox!” she screams, tears brimming in her eyes. “Don’t leave me here.”
I knew better. Why, oh, why did I agree to come here?
Then, the doorknob rattles in response. “Knox? Is that you? Please don’t do this….”
Lydia’s final attempt to escape the bedroom meets such resistance that she’s flung back onto the feather-filled bed, where she struggles for breath—Mary Elizabeth’s wedding scarf knotted tightly around her neck.
Knox and Ella wait patiently in the hallway until no other sounds can be heard from Mary Elizabeth’s bedroom. Ella thanks Lydia’s husband for upholding his end of the bargain. “Your spirit ancestors will bless you for your actions, my dear.”
He hangs his head.
“Time to go home, lad. Lydia belongs to us now.”