My Dearest Alicia:
Since I, too, am a guaranteed winner of the Publishers Clearing House jackpot (and a repository of more money than you'll ever know), I expect you'll soon be trying to look me up. In the event you should muster that kind of curiosity, I'll be nodding off in one of those cheery semi-private living quarters in the nursing home at Sunny Pines, waiting for a couple of the stouter aides to come pluck me out of my chair while my roommate snores wetly through the better of it. The floor (and I see a lot of that here) is an institutional green linoleum of the loveliest shade. If I could find stationery to match, I'd send it along with some of our finer samples of convalescent living, let me assure you.
Seeing that you probably never will make it down to this happy little vacation spot, and they do allow me felt-tipped markers and a lot of dead time, I've taken it upon myself to explain to you why I chose to come here instead of dropping in on you, though I don't know why that should give me pause, since you'll end up with all my money anyway.
Well, God, yes, I had a stroke. That's only the half of it. My left foot stays dormant mostly now, but don't doubt for a minute that I couldn't catch a day flight on a Continental and be grinning on your doorstep before you know. Not that I'd particularly care to do that, of course. It's far less taxing to share my thoughts with a roommate who troubles herself to keep our relationship on speaking terms, even if she hasn't made a complete sentence in three years.
I expect that one of these days when I'm as good as dead and you and Joe (does he still buy his underwear at Syms?) make your last-minute trip to cash in on the inheritance, I'll be lying here in a puddle of my own incontinence with my tongue dried to the roof of my mouth, unable to give you a proper swearing, and with that in mind, I'm telling you how I got here, how suddenly everything, for lack of a better explanation, got stuck on spin cycle.
Do you remember the Stevenson estate? We'd always heard it was haunted, you know. The upshot among Realtors was this much is true: you could walk in and smell bacon frying. Not terribly spooky until you consider the house had been vacant for nearly 20 years. That, among the other things. My Realtor-friend Gertrude insisted the property was otherwise salable. I'm surprised Joe didn't jump for it when they reduced the price the first time. Forty grand for a two-story Norman tudor is one heck of a deal, don't you think?
Our local historical society had once considered acquiring the property when the treasury was full. But it was last on our list, and, as president, I distinctly recall a strong gut feeling not to do so. I rarely thought about the house again until that desperate call from Gertrude.
"I've got a bite," she said. "Some really serious customers, and they're willing to pay market price Please tell me you can do something."
Now, you know about me and graveyards. Consider it, Alicia.Can you joyously sit up there on your mountain and pass judgment on your demented old aunt for doing something she dearly loves? Pardon me if I don't exactly look the part of an upstanding deacon's widow when I hoist my skirts for a better view of an unmarked headstone, but when we get right down to the particulars, it never made good gossip at the women's prayer breakfasts, anyway. And I _never_ considered haunted houses to be any specialty, either. You must know I'm not _that_ crazy.
So, I offered to take the case. The buyers were Ken and Cora Terrell. Young couple, no children. Ken was an upstart attorney opening his own practice here in Sevier County. Cora had her own catering service and was excited about taking time off to restore the house. The papers were ready to sign and the deal was set to close, but after just two nights in their new home, Cora had discovered a pickle, so to speak.
When I first laid eyes on Cora, I could see at once that she was alarmingly frail, even under the layered parachute jumpsuit she wore. Another skinny girl from the city, perhaps, but I was disinclined to believe she came that way naturally. When we sat down for coffee, I began to understand why. She handled the utensils, the pot, and the cups with a thin white handkerchief, never once touching any object without that slipcover in place.
I diverted my attention to the construction workers. Took my cup of coffee. Accepted the Danish. Cora had nothing.
"So. You're the spiritualist?" she asked.
"No," I answered. I could see a malicious disappointment rising in her eyes. I saw _that_ more clearly than I lied.
"I don't work with ghosts, actually," I went on. "Only things visible to the naked eye. Documents, family histories, and so forth."
Since she hadn't served herself, I made the offer."They're really quite good," I said. "Don't you indulge yourself now and then?"
"Oh, no," she said, waving it away. "The smell has left me quite nauseous."
Did I say it already? I didn't like the way she was disparaging me, and she was quite obvious with it, I tell you. The construction work was loud, and wafting over odors of sawdust and cleansing agents was the smell of freshly fried bacon.
"Maybe we should go outside," I suggested.
That earned a reaction. I've always found the pathos quite remarkable, you see - this abject _terror_ of things normal. Cora looked like she'd just seen days-old larvae of the species _trichinosis_ oozing out of my eye sockets.
"What? _Outside_? In this environment? You've got to be kidding?
I braced myself.
"Cows are primary carriers of intestinal parasites, you know," she went on, gesturing toward the back pasture. "Look at us. We're surrounded!"
My grandfather used to tell us stories about Choctaws raiding the logging camps. In that moment I had a flickering memory of his booming bass voice reciting, "Chockie, Chockie all around! Circle your wagons!"
At the time, I knew Cora was still convinced that the smell could be scoured, suctioned or soaked away. There were other things that would bother her later, of course. At least Gertrude had come clean about the house. She'd told Cora about the _possibility_ - that's how she put it - that the house was haunted. Such a farce, I tell you. She couldn't sell them that house in good conscience otherwise.
Gertrude warned me, and I know now that I should've seen it coming, Alicia. I can give you that much. Cora was a head case. A regular Martha Stewart with Howard Hughes' syndrome. Besides, that house was a disaster waiting to happen. And the joke was on me.
Against better advice, Ken Terrell had turned down a lucrative partnership in the city to move his wife to a lovely estate in the country,surrounded by rolling hills and wind that never stopped. When her weight dropped under ninety, his concern turned to panic.
"She'll either get better," he told Gertrude, "or she'll die."
All any of us will do in time, Alicia. Pardon my cynicism. But keep that in mind next time you have one of your dizzy moments.
Anyway, I left that day feeling humanitarian, convinced that Cora's illness was more horrible than any phantom haunting the house itself. All I had to od was help her. I didn't know about the window on the back side of the house.
The truth behind the bacon wasn't hard to find: I knew already that the estate had transferred from the late Miriam Stevenson to her godson, George Fray. With a call to Mr. Fray, I confirmed a story going two generations back, or to Miriam's grandparents. Those Stevensons were hog growers. Mr. Fray recalled the story as I did, the one about the child (that would've been Miriam's great aunt) who had attempted to drown herself one winter in grievance for the hogs being slaughtered. Hearing them die simply drove her mad. Due to exposure, she'd died of pneumonia That was the winter of 1943,and thereafter, the Stevensons, he said, never served pork in their home again.
I checked out his story. In a nursing home (ironically, the one I later chose), I found an old neighbor with a remarkably different take.
"Sounds sweet, but that's not the way it happened," she said, raising a knotted finger. "I was there, and I remember the little freckled brat was too lazy to brush her own teeth. Wouldn't wash her hands. The blood, that's what got her. I never seen anyone so happy during a slaughter. Maybe the family though tit was madness, I don't know."
"The blood?" I asked.
"That's right." Miriam had spoken often to her about it, she said.
I wanted to know more, but she went off someplace where all feeble minds go No chance to rehash the particulars after she asked the ceiling, "Gee, Viola, do you remember if they ate any more bacon after that?"
I decided right then that the spirit permeating the Terrell's new home was more than likely a slab of spiteful pig than a child's tortured soul. But this wasn't a professional opinion.
And Gertrude sadly informed me that Cora would no longer be needing my services. She'd contacted a real spiritualist after all, who was in the process of arranging a seance, an opportunity to resurrect the ghosts of Stevensons past, possibly even Miriam herself.
I bowed out with mixed emotions, but not before making an appointment with Ken Terrell. Though he'd discussed Cora's personal problems with Gertrude, you see, he hadn't with me. Therefore I broke my first and foremost business policy (yes, Alicia, I do happen to have a few.) I gave unsolicited personal advice.
"I don't normally do this," I began, "but I think you need to understand that the bacon is there to stay. And I wouldn't pretend to know what kind of ceremony is required to drive it out." It occurred to me that the house as Cora wanted it would be far less interesting without its presence. Had he considered counseling?
He was far more gracious than I deserved. Yes, he had, and no, I was badly mistaken. No bacon odor was going to hang around in _his_ space. He finished by challenging me to get a real job.
This was an insinuation I could have done without. It's bad enough coming from all of you, and being fired form a hobby is downright embarrassing - sort of like someone laughing at your shrink art. So, I wondered - should I find a more meaningful pastime?
I didn't go to the courthouse for several weeks. I tried reading books,renting videos, a little gardening here and there. I started to call you several times, but thought better of it. I think I prefer being bored.
That is, except for the dreams. They still come twice or three times a week, and it's always the same. Did I tell you already? I have a headless man sleeping at the foot of my bed. Sometimes in the wee hours of morning I open my eyes and see the decapitated and badly decomposed head of Ed McMahon rising up at my feet. He hovers there over the comforter, with something dripping from - well, where his nose and eyes used to be, onto my bed. I look and see worms teeming in the covers with me. Then I usually wake u on the floor and wait for some irritable aide to come in and throw her back out.
In my dreams I also see an window sill splattered and smeared with blood, a child's handprints on the facing. It's always the same.
For a long time my only contact with the Terrells was through Gertrude.
"It's still in there," She'd say.
"Oh," I'd reply. Tough one. That pig must've come from Minnesota."
"They found something else," she said, one day. "During the renovation, well, the construction workers had trouble sealing off this window in the second story bathroom. The workers would close it on account of Cora, and there it would be, open gain."
I thought about my dream.
The Terrells had heard the window slam shut one morning about two a.m., she continued. Ken went upstairs and switched on the bathroom light. As he moved closer to the window, he saw blood seeping under the casement, dripping over the sill, pooling into the tile grout under the commode. There also was something he described to my fried as "dripping gray, like brain matter." Horrified, he raised the window and wiped it all off.
"The very next night, the same thing," Gertrude went on. "Only this time there were - "
Gertrude didn't ask me how I knew. The next time there were even more, she said - smeared over the sill, the commode seat, the lavatory, going further and further into the house.
They'd also fired the spiritualist. And the very next day, Cora Terrell called.
"You've got to help us" she pleaded."What are we going to do?"
"You could move."
"But we _like_ it here," she whined. Which made me wonder. News was, Ken now commuted out of town for bigger bucks. Cora was seeing a psychiatrist three times a week. From all appearances, she would continue cashing in on the household income, at least until she conquered the smell, not to mention the upper-story bathroom.
Figuring I didn't have anything to lose, I asked her how counseling was going.
"We're working through some things," she said. "It's not an overnight process, you know."
"Neither were the circumstances that put that smell in there," I said, and cut her off with the story about Miriam's great aunt. I finished by saying, "You're a determined woman, Cora. I know you have it in you to conquer what haunts you." Somehow, it sounded limp. I didn't have some bloody curse of Moses flowing into my bathroom, did I?
After that phone call, I was back to normal. I checked the courthouse records on Miriam Stevenson's great aunt and had my annual physical.
My physician (a very bright fellow, but too young to be a doctor) listened to my story and studied a copy of the death certificate. He thought on it a minute.
"There is a bacterial pneumonia called bordatella that's transmitted from hogs to man," he said.
"Oh?" Goose flesh rose on my arms.
"More commonly known around here as mad butcher's disease," he said. "It's transmitted by handling the entrails."
Gertrude contacted me two days later.
"Cora's taken a fall."
"Ken's worried about it because she's expecting," Gertrude said.
"Oh, my. Did she fall in the bathroom?"
"Won't go up there anymore," she said. "In the kitchen. She said there was blood on the floor."
My curiosity got the better of me. I made another trip to the courthouse and plundered all the files concerning the Stevenson estate. I hounded Miriam's neighbor at the nursing home. You see, Alicia, none of us can hide forever. Even a death certificate is a piece of us, jutting out there for everyone to see.
With a few days' research, this is what I found:
In the fall of 1978, Mrs. Miriam Stevenson slipped on something wet and fell down a flight of stairs. She entered the nursing home with a fractured hip and died eight weeks later. Until her dying day she told everyone she'd slipped on blood.
Twenty years before, her husband Nat had failed to come home from a fox hunt. One of the neighbors later admitted to an accidental shooting. When asked the particulars, he told the sheriff's office that the confusion occurred when Nat rushed him from the underbrush, "screaming like a madman, covered in blood."
Miriam Stevenson's youngest boy had also died, as a toddler. Word was that buzzards were attracted to him one day as he wandered in the pasture. They found his romper drenched in blood.
I was uncertain how this would all play out for Cora. I'm sure she felt she was being truthful with herself, just as you do. For her, the earth is a germ storehouse and we are the carriers. There was blood in the house, after all. In that way, I never expected Cora to scale the wall of terror she'd built around herself.
A week or so went by. I was surprised to hear from Cora again.
"Can you come out for a minute?" she asked, like I did this every day. I hadn't been out there in over a year. "I've got something to show you."
I pulled into the drive with expectations of new gadgetry planted in the middle of Cora's kitchen a couple of shiny thermonuclear devices that incinerate smells and blood.What I saw instead was beyond my belief.
Out in the yard was Cora, digging away in a freshly turned planter. She smiled and waved as I pulled into the turnaround. Radiant. Unearthly. I can tell you now, Alicia, I have never seen such a smile. Nor will I again.
Through the car's window I heard her calling out. Barney? _Binky?_
And following Cora - God save us all - was a baby pig. An ice finger of awe ran down my spine. This wasn't real.
But this was Cora, scooping up the pig and laughing. "I knew you'd be surprised," she said.
"Shock is more accurate."
"Don't believe it, do you?" The pig sneezed. She laughed again."Meet Barney. My therapist is pleased with our progress. You told me I could do it."
"Did I say that?"
Her eyes sparkled, a hint of rage. "It's all so - _peaceful_ - around here now. And the bacon is gone."
It took me a moment. "Oh," I said. "_That._ Did it leave suddenly?"
Cora's smile deepened. "Really, now. That window? You ought to know."
I smiled. No, I didn't know. My cellular phone was ringing.
"You'd better get that," she said, that odd smile still on her face.
On the other end was Gertrude, sounding out of breath. "I'm so glad I found you," she said. "This is so awful. Ken found Cora dead in the bathroom this morning!"
I can tell you this much, Alicia. Don't buy the house. There's too much blood. When Cora asked me inside, my only recourse was to follow. I _had_ to know. The interior had been exquisitely transformed with rich colors, accented by elegant heirloom pieces. _Hypnotic_ is the word I'm looking for, I think. I wanted to linger downstairs, but Cora was calling. Somewhere upstairs, I thought I heard water running. I looked around for her, but she was gone.
"Cora?" I called. "Are you up there?"
No answer. I started up.
Halfway up the staircase the incredible restoration project stopped Molded wallpaper hung from the ceiling. As I made my way, I was overcome with the smell of rotting flesh. I tried to make sense of it, how Cora could allow such a paradox in her house, but I never got that far. I heard slushing under my feet and looked down. The stair tread was soaked.
At the top, I turned left and leaned against the door jamb to catch my breath. I was standing on the threshold where all the trouble began, the upstairs bathroom.
My had went straight to my mouth in an attempt to stifle a scream. This is one of the few things I remember. What I saw in the bathtub, Alicia, exceeds my very worst Seconal-induced nightmares. The tub was overflowing with water and blood, gushing, running over the tops of my shoes. Submerged face-up was Cora, her expression frozen. I steadied myself, using the wall, slowly making my way closer. Floating on top was something that looked like intestines.
I moved beyond the bathtub.From that vantage point I could just see over into the lavatory. The sides were smeared with hand prints. It took a moment before I realized I was also looking at a pair of bloody knitting needles.
As I tried to put all this together, something shot up out of the water. My knees buckled and my kidneys slammed hard against the edge of the tub. I screamed in pain, clawing at the floor. It yanked me backward, head first into the tub. I struggled to come up for air, but it kept sucking me under. Water and blood gushed into my mouth and nose. I tried to hold my breath and kick my way onto my stomach. I gripped the edge of the tub, but it was so strong.
It wasn't Cora, though. She lay motionless in the bottom of the tub, dead irises to the sky. The blood was drowning me.
I found the edge of the lavatory with my right hand. It yanked me back, of course, but this time I had a knitting needle. Up and down the needle went, blood over blood, torrents of it exploding into my moth, my eyes...
I cannot go on. As they say in low places, bad things come in threes. It's true, dearie. Need I tell you what happened to Ken Terrell, just three days later?
So you see, Alicia, the blood has mocked us all. Oh, yes, I was spared - but death, I tell you, wears many faces. I see it all around me now, in this pissant poor excuse for something they cal an assisted _living_ facility. Indeed, the most intriguing live objecting the whole frigging outfit is my nighttime visitor. You'll see. One day, you,too, will find the day's greatest pleasure can be falling out of bed. The alternative - well, we won't go into that.
Cordially and affectionately,
Your Aunt Marcella
P.S. Oh, and by the way, Ed would like to know how you like your bacon?
Hey there, Shirlene;
Congrats on your new home! I'm so glad you and Dick will _finally_ be back in Sevier County. A four-hour drive beats the hell out of 15,you know. Joe and I volunteer to be your first house guests!
I've enclosed a copy of the most recent correspondence from our dear Aunt Marcella _emeritus_ (so you can see what we're up against.) I just got off the phone with the administrator at Sunny Pines. The staff physician there agrees that she must be transferred to the Alzheimer's unit at once.
I wish I could say that the money from her estate will cover the extra costs, but I'm afraid the tough old buzzard is going to outlive her own gravy train yet. She keeps threatening to win the lottery or the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, which she claims has doubled in payoff since Ed McMahon's death. I've tried showing her that he's still right there on television with the Prize Patrol and is very much alive, but she's a stubborn old coot with her own ideas.
At one time she had every resident on C wing believing that Cora Terrell aborted her baby with a knitting needle and that Ken was killed a week later in a multiple car accident in Dallas! All sorts of horrible assertions as you will reading her letter, making Cora out to be insane and the Stevenson homestead to be _haunted_, of all things. She always could tell a good ghost story, couldn't she?
Fact is, I've never seen the house look better. They've done a _marvelous_ job renovating it,a nd I think you'll be pleased with the new upstairs nursery they finished since your last show with Gertrude. She doesn't know what to think about our Auntie M. either. I'm pretty sure she doesn't go to the nursing home anymore.
If you decide to visit Marcella, I'll warn you, - _don't take the kids._ No telling what she might say. She's simply turned into a vulgar old bitch who has lost all sense of reality. You're fortunate she doesn't remember you, really. I suggest you keep it that way. Me? Well, let's just say she'll never forget who's holding her pocketbook.
And _don't_ let her letter get to you, okay? The Terrells are a lovely couple who wouldn't have _dreamed_ of moving otherwise. But with the baby having hemophilia, they'll always have to live where they have quick access to his blood type.
Let us know when you're settled and ready for some rowdy company!
Your big sis,
JulieRogers has been published in several national magazines including Coping and the annual anthology Writes of Passage. She received the 1997 Golden Triangle Writers' Guild first place for the screenplay (action-thriller)Driver and the 1998 Writer's Digest first for the one-act stage comedy Garage Sale, now in production for theater and television.