This story is by Laura Porter Taylor and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I pull into the driveway of the dilapidated farmhouse on Fairview Lane, thoughts flitting through my head like dragonflies on the autumn goldenrod waving in the field below.
“It sucks being the oldest,” I grouse aloud, tapping my fingers in irritation on the steering wheel of the cut-rate rental car. Naturally, dispensing with my family’s crumbling ancestral mountain home has fallen to me since Mama died last year.
My brother says the old place is haunted. People died in it. The latter is true. But they’re in the cemetery up the mountain, not here.
I ought to set fire to the damned thing. The insurance proceeds will bring more than selling it.
A few pleasant memories dissipate my fleeting criminal contemplation. I loved it here when I was a little girl. There was a handmade swing in the backyard maple that looked over the downside of a hill. When my grandfather pushed hard, it was like flying. The field in front of the house was an endless source of fascination. There were wild strawberries and fresh plums from a tree in the exact geographic center of an acre filled with flowers and clover. On crisp summer evenings, we’d catch fireflies in Mason jars. But there was always my grandmother Lillian, with her constant recriminations and dire warnings about the hellfire that awaited evil children. I don’t have time for remembrances, even cherished ones about my Papa.
My feet touch the stone walk leading to the house. The woods behind it threatening to overtake the property are dark and brooding, save a few spots of ochre leaves clinging stubbornly to bare tree limbs. The roof needs replacing, paint is peeling off in sheets, and a cantilevered center window upstairs looks like a cyclops’ eye. Wilted dry grass is hip-high. I look around suspiciously for a rogue snake. Copperheads are as common in these Appalachian mountains as the rats they prey upon. While the house is familiar, something in my gut compels me to turn around. A chill as cold as the late October breeze runs down my spine.
I should go home. Kaitlyn and Charlie only want the money. I’ll see the realtor before leaving town and let her handle this.
Before my first retreating footstep falls, the wind gusts unexpectedly, lifting my hat from my head and it skitters up the walk. I scramble to retrieve it, but the closer I get, the faster it tumbles toward the house. I capture it under the parlor window and place it firmly on my head. As I turn to leave, there’s a light coming from the parlor window.
That’s odd. I pulled the main out of the fuse box last year after Mama’s funeral. I peer into the interior gloom of the house through small windows in the parlor door; the light has an unearthly glow. My heart thumps wildly in my chest. Should I go in? Then a whisper hisses ominously.
Clarinda. Come inside.
The only spirits I believe in are the kind you drink, and I could use a shot of tequila right now to warm the icy knot in the pit of my stomach. Someone called my name, the one I never use.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I say aloud, my tone exuding confidence I don’t feel, annoyed by my foolishness. I reach for the skeleton key in my pocket and unlock the door. Rusted hinges shriek mournfully at the unwanted intrusion. As I step into the semi-darkness of the parlor, the dust of ancestors assaults my nostrils along with a whiff of Evening in Paris, a smell I always associate with this place. The cheap, sickening sweet aroma of Lillian’s perfume turns my stomach. Bile rises in my throat remembering the woman who traded in the misery of others her entire life and for a large part of mine. Just one more reason to be rid of this wretched place.
The voice isn’t familiar. It sounds youthful, its intonation menacing.
“Is someone here?”
The ghostly glow radiates from the dining room. There must be a short in the fuse box – or at least that’s what I tell myself.
My footsteps are deliberate as I move toward the light, which appears more preternatural the nearer I draw to it.
My feet refuse to take another step. I can hear blood pounding in my ears in rhythm with the thumping of my heart. The muscles in my abdomen are rigid.
“Who’s there? What are you doing here?”
I live here.
“No one lives here. You’re trespassing on private property. I’m armed and dialing 911.”
My pistol is in the car, but the owner of the voice in the next room doesn’t know that.
Pulling my smartphone from my coat pocket, I look at the screen. It’s black. I push the power button, but there’s no response. It was fully charged just moments ago.
That won’t help you. Come closer, Clarinda. We have a score to settle.
My stomach clutches like an angry fist. I recognize the voice. It’s Lillian. She’s been dead for 40 years. This can’t be happening.
“I won’t. Show yourself. You always were a coward, Lillian.”
A primordial urge to flee burns in the deepest regions of my brain, imploring me to move, but my need to stay and fight commands me to stay.
It’s your own cowardice of which you speak. I warned there would be punishment for your sins. Such a thoughtless, selfish child.
The light inches closer. A transparent apparition in an Edwardian gown appears. Her long copper-colored hair is twisted into an updo, dotted with dead brown roses. A gold lavalier sparkles on her neck. She holds a glass kerosene lantern, but no flame emits from it.
Remember this? You broke it the summer your Papa passed. Cowardly little wretch – leaving me to die when it caught fire. Wicked child of Satan’s spawn. Your mother wouldn’t heed my admonitions. Pity, she didn’t.
My neural synapses are firing rapidly, sifting through every miserable memory I have of her. A spark of remembrance of leaving for school on a rainy morning in third grade arises. Mama went to work early, and Lillian had one of her dramatic crying jags. But that happened in Florida, not here. I was nine then and afraid of her, so I ran.
I’m not afraid anymore.
“Mama always said you were crazy and belonged in an asylum.”
That’s a lie! She loved me. She wasn’t spiteful. You were always cold-hearted and cruel. So unlike my Mariah.
A white-hot streak of light emanates from the lamp, bursting into a blaze by the only available exit. Someone nailed the back door shut years ago. Flames quickly devour the rotting, hand-hewn pine timbers. My feet somehow regain their traction. Frantic, I search for anything to break the closest window, but there’s nothing. The house is empty. Lillian is laughing hysterically, her eyes orange charcoal embers, her face as scarlet as the tongues of fire licking at me.
You can’t run this time, Clarinda. You’re finally getting what you deserve. She is giddy, reveling gleefully in anticipation of watching me burn alive.
The smoke in the room is black, choking, impairing my vision. My hand still grips the lifeless phone. Desperately, I heave it past her toward the fragile window glass, and it shatters into jagged shards. Kicking the rotting casing until it gives way, the flames singe my coat as I dive through the broken frame onto the grass below.
As the structure becomes completely engulfed I locate my phone, which has mysteriously regained power, and I move away from the house. The emergency app is a tap away. I am paralyzed with indecision. Five minutes pass, then ten. Finally, my reluctant fingers dial 911.
I watch, detached and unmoved at the destruction of a house that was home to five generations of my ancestors. Lillian is screaming my name.
It’s just the sirens, I tell myself, but I know better.
The fire is real, its heat warming my face, reddening my cheeks. Lillian did this. She was here. Charlie was right about this place being haunted. But it isn’t any longer. And neither am I.
The water from the firetrucks quenches the blackened remains. An eerie gray smoke arises from the ashes, hovering over them like a shroud.
“Miss? You alright? The neighbors heard a woman screaming for someone named Clarinda. Know anybody by that name?”
Clarinda Elizabeth Madigan.
“You related to the Parkers?”
“My grandparents. They’re long dead.”
“Sheriff’s gonna want to chat with you. Better stick around.”
I acknowledge him with a nod. The firefighters poke the smoldering ashes. Only the stone steps remain unscathed. A ray of light at their base in the waning afternoon sun catches my eye. Slithering down the stone path is a snake with a partially seared rat in its mouth, orange eyes glowing. Wound around its copper-spotted body is the gold lavalier.