My mother sighed. It was pretty funny actually if you were in the right mood. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the right mood. She sounded like a tornado blowing through, but if you looked at her, she was very prim and proper with her mouth pinched in a tiny purse. Mom was a dainty woman with still brown curls, dressed in a neatly pressed Sunday frock that was baggy on her, as she’d lost a lot of weight recently, but still very fresh and spring-like. If she could, she wore flowers. Even her snow boots had flowers on them.
“Marilee Harper,” Mom said, “if you’re going to be fired, then you need to face up to it. Don’t deny what happened. You need to acknowledge your mistake and move forward with a positive attitude.”
I positively tried not to roll my eyes where my mother could see me. I am not a dainty, little woman. I’m very nearly six feet and weigh more than I’ll ever admit to. Even my hair is big with tight curls that spring out all over, no matter how I style it. Some people will tell you that I’m negative, that I complain, but that’s not true. I am not a negative person. I am not the kind who moans about a half-empty glass. I finish the glass and order another. Except that unemployment meant I couldn’t afford another and, at the moment, I couldn’t afford one even with employment. I had to find another job.
“Mom,” I tried to explain again, “I didn’t get fired. They haven’t fired me yet, okay? Geez, you might be a little supportive.”
“I do not appreciate your tone,” my mom snapped. “I only asked.”
I heard that complaint from her a lot as well.
I gripped the steering wheel of Mom’s Volvo more tightly. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the car company had in mind when they built their ad campaign around safety, but that steering wheel had kept Mom from harm more than once.
More Excerpts from Restless Spirits –
- How To Seduce Your Boss – shared with LBM Book Blog
- How To Decorate Around A Haunting – shared with the Book Tart
- When Spirits Chase Away Your Guests – shared with Fangtastic Book
“I don’t have a tone, Mom,” I said. “I just told you that, no, I have not been fired yet.” I tried to change the subject. “So what does the doctor want to check for this time?”
“Nothing,” Mom replied, waving off my question. “We’re not going to the doctor’s. I found you another job that I think you’ll like much better.”
It actually took a moment for the words to register. Then I turned to her, dumbfounded, and Mom screeched, “Keep your eyes on the road!”
I groaned and fought the urge to bang my forehead on the steering wheel. Fortunately we had come to a stop at a red light. “Oh God, Mom,” I moaned. “What did you do? Don’t tell people I need a new job!”
“Why not?” my mother replied. “You’re going to lose your job, so I got you a new one.” She sounded both triumphant and defiant, and as I shook my head in disbelief, she waved pointedly toward the front window. “The light’s changed.”
I started the car forward again. We were on the old highway, the one that used to lead out of town before the new interstate went in sometime in the fifties. They only connected the other end to the new freeway, so you couldn’t drive through town, just in and out the one exit. The only thing in this direction from town was the community college and you reached that from another exit off the freeway.
I tried to come up with a calm question, something that would lead to a sensible conversation with my mother instead of another shouting match. Nothing occurred to me, so I sighed and shifted gears as the Volvo slowed on an upward tilt. “So where are we going exactly?” I was trying to think which of Mom’s acquaintances might actually take her seriously or, worse yet, mention something at the bank.
“Oh it’s further along here,” Mom said. “You need to take that left. No, no the next one! Marilee, listen, or we’ll be late. Turn here. Turn here!”
I listened, sort of, but I also wrestled with a bumpy road badly in need of repair that dipped and climbed through woody hills, so I was a bit preoccupied. My hometown sits on the bluffs that line a tributary that flows to the Mississippi, one of many little towns in the middle of the country that thrived and grew when the river was its lifeblood. We’re not the only Fayetteville around though. There are over a dozen throughout the United States. The Marquis de Lafayette was a popular Revolutionary War hero. A lot of towns were re-named after him when he toured the United States in 1824 as part of the country’s fiftieth anniversary celebration.
Anyway, our Fayetteville is not a pretty little town that overlooks the river. Outside of a few brick buildings on downtown streets, the bluffs are rugged and cracked, weathered by wind and water into enough hills, valleys, caves, and ravines to challenge any outdoorsman and completely irritate the hell out of someone like me who’d rather walk barefoot across coals than scuff her stilettos. It’s one reason the highway went in across easier-to-build-on land and cut off the town. I was lost the minute we left the red light behind, and Mom’s instructions didn’t help.
When she finally called out, “Stop, stop,” I didn’t see that we’d actually arrived anywhere. Sure, we’d pulled off that so-called road, but then we wandered down another country lane, unpaved and dusty, until we sat in a barely cleared field. I peered through the front windshield and then twisted around to look out the side window, hunting for some sign of civilization. All I saw was the scraggly front of the tree line and the impression of dense underbrush beyond, more brown than green after a blistering hot summer and not at all picturesque.
“Okay, Mom,” I said, striving for patience. “Where are we? What is so important that I had to take off early from work and haul my ass all the way out here to the middle of nowhere?”
“Marilee Harper, watch your language. You will never get anywhere with that attitude!” Mom pushed ineffectively at her door until I reached over and opened it for her. That did not earn me a respite from her scolding. “Straighten up. We need to make a good impression here.”
“If it was so important to make a good impression, then you should have told me and I could have changed when I took off early from work.” I opened my own door and stepped out. Sure enough, the stiletto heels of my black pumps sank into the dusty ground. I slammed the door a little harder than was strictly necessary. I was not happy about scuffing my shoes since they were Etienne Aigner. That bank dress code required desperate measures. My mother pointedly shut her door with exaggerated delicateness.
“Your clothes are fine,” she said stiffly, “but you’d best let me talk if you can’t be civil.”
I took a deep breath and looked around, squinting against the late-summer sun. Dust motes settled in the dying light. The view didn’t improve with scrutiny. I saw trees and more trees. There was a faint musty scent in the air, probably the fallout from the trees and tantalizingly, a hint of lavender. The place was probably an allergy sufferer’s worst nightmare.
“Well, sure you can talk,” I grumbled as I followed my mother toward the tree line. “Especially since I don’t know why we’re here to begin with.”
Mom ignored me, but since I concentrated on tiptoeing so my shoes wouldn’t get stuck in the dirt, I pretty much ignored her too. As we drew near, I saw an old, weathered clapboard house right at the edge of clearing. I didn’t know it was there until we skirted the line of trees that blocked it from view, but if you cut back the upstart trees that had sprung up to surround it, then the house sat at the far end of the large clearing with dense forest behind it. I looked back past the car to the other side of the clearing and saw the outline of a stone barn that appeared to have collapsed from time and the elements to be half-swallowed by the hillside. One particularly huge oak tree, split in half, probably from a lightning strike, stood sentry in front of the barn.
“There’s a ravine back there as well.” My mother noted my surveillance. “The run-off goes down to the river. Years ago, there were stairs that led to a dock. It was really beautiful.”
“You know this place?” It looked like it hadn’t been inhabited for a hundred years.
Mom blushed a little. “Oh it was pretty years ago,” she said casually. “You know, if you wanted to go hiking one evening or some such.”
Ah, a parking spot, I thought and grinned.
Mom sniffed in disapproval and stomped up what was left of a gravel path to the house proper. It was larger than I expected. Houses grew substantially from the turn of the last century to today. This house was comparable to a contemporary McMansion, so it had been practically palatial for its day.
The porch was wide, but the wood was faded, and some floorboards were warped. Large sections of railing were missing. The porch roof didn’t sag, though. The structural beams appeared sound, but the overall air was as decrepit and depressed as the empty lot. Time and weather had not been kind and peeling paint flaked off the building like the first flurries of an early snowstorm.
“It’s got six bedrooms, four upstairs and two down, in addition to the parlor, a dining room, kitchen, and assorted closets,” a pleasant male voice said.
I jumped, startled, and wobbled on my stilettos. Long fingers grabbed my elbow and steadied me while dark brown eyes smiled warmly down.
Those warm, brown eyes were disconcerting. For one, I don’t look up at that many people. At best, I’m eye-level with most men. Second, most men don’t look me in the eye. Usually, I see the tops of their dipped heads as they stare at my boobs. I’m a big gal. My boobs are kind of out there. One ex-boyfriend compared me to the proud figurehead of an advancing navy. I give you one guess as to why he’s an ex, but I try to dress as elegantly as possible to offset looking like, well, a looming frigate.
Tall and skinny, the man who caught me wore dark slacks and a button-down white shirt. His tie was askew as were his glasses. He wasn’t handsome in that rugged, ‘alpha male’ way you see on the cover of romance novels, but he was very appealing in a clean-cut, little-boy kind of way. He wore classic square black frames, the kind of glasses Clark Kent made famous as a not very convincing disguise, and his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled, hinting that he wasn’t quite as young as he looked.
I wondered what the man’s story was, but quickly pushed the thought away. I had the world’s worst luck when it came to dating and honestly, I could not handle one more disaster in my life right now. I realized I was staring and gave myself a mental shake as my cheeks flushed. I slid my elbow back out of the man’s grasp and he blinked as he let go, but his friendly smile never wavered.
“Some of the bedrooms have attached sitting rooms, so actually we’ll end up with even more rooms when we’re done,” the man went on. ‘This house has enough nooks and crannies for English muffins, but that’s okay. We’ll turn them into bathrooms.”
“Excuse me?” I managed. I’d gotten lost somewhere in the conversation between bedrooms and muffins.
“Bathrooms,” said the man encouragingly. “We’ve converted the closets into bathrooms.”
“Huh?” I managed again. I actually wished he hadn’t mentioned bathrooms after that bouncing car ride.
Mom fortunately came up then and saved the stranger from more of my dazzling repartee. “Bathrooms,” she repeated. She glared at me, a reminder that I wasn’t supposed to talk, I guess. “How are the renovations going, John?”
“Oh, really well,” John said. He didn’t do anything so formal as offer Mom his arm, but he did escorted her up the path to the house. “We’ve finished the structural repairs, the roof, and a few windows. It’s in better shape than it looks. Mostly we just had to rewire and check pipes.”
My mother nodded happily back at me. I spread my hands to indicate confusion, and she rolled her eyes. I saw the guy grinning at me over Mom’s head and I couldn’t help but grin back. We might have been wasting time, but at least we were doing it in cute company.
“We’re thinking of converting the attic too,” John said, speaking to my mother while looking at me, “but I wanted to see what you thought first.”
My mom nodded and rubbed her hands together briskly. She was famous for this at the drive-through. The shift manager would hide in his office if he couldn’t take the day off altogether when Mom got picked to conduct inventory. She loved being in charge.
“It all depends on how much storage space there is,” Mom was halfway up the porch steps as she spoke. Her escort darted ahead of her and tugged open the front door.
“Storage space we’ve got,” he told her as she moved past him. “We’ve moved everything to the barn. Plenty of room there.”
Peering inside the house, I could see drop cloths and white dust. Some serious repair or construction was going on. I raised a questioning eyebrow at the man now holding the door open for me.
“I’m John, John Smith.” He grinned down at me. “This is my house, well mine and the bank’s, and we’re turning it into a bed and breakfast.”
“Uh, hi,” I answered, concentrating on negotiating around the rubble in my delicate heels. “I’m Marilee, Marilee Harper. Isn’t this kind of far out to be a bed and breakfast? I mean, from town and, well, everything?”
“Ah, that’s the key.” John’s grin grew even bigger if possible. “Rumor has it that there’s plans to repair and reconnect the old highway to the college. When that happens, then we’ll be sitting pretty.”
“Could be,” I agreed politely, noncommittally. I don’t know if I’d invest on the basis of a rumor, but looking around, I didn’t think the place could have cost John very much. He turned to pull the front door closed, but it sagged so badly against its hinges, he had to step outside and push it to get it started, then slip inside quickly before it closed. Good thing he was so skinny.
Mom rejoined us by the time he’d gotten back inside. She rubbed her hands with a wet wipe and promptly handed me one. I didn’t protest because negotiating the front door had left black smears across my hands as well. Mom offered John a wipe and he accepted it with another quick smile. He had to be the most cheerful guy I’d ever met.
“We’ll have to get that door replaced, I think,” he said. “I don’t know if that can be repaired.”
John seemed to be waiting for some reaction on my part, but I didn’t know what he wanted. I was embarrassed for not knowing, then irritated because some part of me was ridiculously happy that this guy seemed interested in my opinion. That was just wishful thinking on my part, so I pushed it away and looked around.
“Mr. O’Bannon will know. C’mon.” John led the way down a narrow hall, made narrower by a lumbering staircase that hugged one wall. Someone had worked hard to cram as much sweep as they could into that flight of stairs.
I privately thought that the hall was a bit dark and dreary for a bed and breakfast, but Mom felt no hesitation about expressing her opinion. “This is not at all inviting,” she told John’s tall back. “People will leave as soon as they step in the front door if they even get that far.”
John laughed. “It is pretty gloomy. Perfect for a haunted house, huh?”