Sunday, January 13, 2008
Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne by Maureen McMahon
Fourth sample chapter from Enchanted Holidays - New Years - Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne by Maureen McMahon
What house more stately hath there been
Or can be, than is Man? to whose creation
All things are in decay?
--- George Herbert
I hadn't expected the house to be so imposing. When Holly Purcell, my friend since childhood, asked me to accompany her to the remote New Hampshire property her grandmother had willed her, I'd expected a quaint little holiday cottage. What loomed before us, as my little blue car slid up the icy drive between twin rows of gnarled, naked willows, was something much more impressive—and much more sinister.
Gripped by unkempt tangles of dormant vines and shrubbery and oblivious to the encroaching forest, the house thrust a multi-peaked roof, complete with stately turret, into a gray, wintry sky. Its windows observed our approach with dull disinterest. I couldn't help but shudder.
"God! You didn't tell me it was so old and spooky," I said.
"Didn't I?" Holly smiled. "Well, it should be—spooky, that is. It's supposed to be haunted."
"Oh, right," I scoffed. "This is beginning to sound like one of those slumber parties where we used to try to scare each other to death. Sorry, Holly, but I'm not so gullible anymore."
"Cross my heart," she said, making the appropriate sign, her expression sincere. "Gran loved to tell us the tale of Miss Clementine Kreen, the daughter of the original owners. She lived here back at the start of the century. She was supposedly jilted by her lover on New Year's Eve and ran off into a blizzard, never to be heard from again."
I stopped the car in front of a ramshackle shed that once must have served as a garage, but was now leaning precariously to one side under the pressure of a huge pine tree that had grown up much too closely. Heavy pine boughs lay across the sagging roof. Holly looked at me, her beautiful, cornflower blue eyes twinkling beneath thick lashes. "They say her spirit still roams the woods—searching."
"Searching for what?" I cocked a skeptical brow, unable to prevent my journalistic curiosity from snapping up the bait.
Holly shrugged. "Some say she's still searching for her lover. Others say she's searching for shelter from the blizzard she was lost in. But Gran always believed there was something else. No one knows for sure."
I turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition. "Well, it seems like a mammoth waste of time to me. Maybe while we're here, we can give her a hand and
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help her find whatever it is she's looking for." I had meant the words to be sarcastic, but Holly was delighted.
"That's just what I'd hoped you'd say!" she said. "I knew if anyone would understand, you would."
"Well…" I began, but she was out of the car and trudging up the path toward the house so quickly that my words were lost and I was forced to run to catch up.
She waited at the foot of the front porch steps. "We'll get the luggage later," she said. "First, I'll show you around. It's positively gorgeous—but needs a lot of work."
I nodded, puffing small white clouds after my brief exertion. The structure's decay and neglect was more apparent close-up. The weatherboards were badly in need of painting and some of the fascia was loose or missing altogether. An old broken porch swing hung askew, its chains rusted stiff. Pine needles and old brittle leaves littered the porch floor.
"Does anyone look after the place?" I asked, glad there was only a dusting of snow on the ground. It was already December twenty-nine and so far, it had been a relatively mild winter. While I had hoped for a traditional white Christmas, I was relieved we'd been spared the inconvenience of traveling through heavy snow.
"Lyle asked Brent Atherton to keep an eye on things," she said. "Brent is a neighbor—he and his granddad live just over there." She pointed off into the woods to our left.
I nodded. I didn't know Brent Atherton or his grandfather, but Lyle was Holly's older brother who lived in Boston, a good four-hour drive away. The house was left to them both, but I suspected that Holly was more enthused by the bequest. Lyle already lived a life of luxury, with a glamorous wife and a high-paying real estate business. He'd have little use for a dilapidated old homestead set on a remote lake in upper New Hampshire. Holly, on the other hand, lived modestly in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, trying to make a living from her art. She was an excellent artist, but work was scarce and often didn't pay well.
"So, come on!" Holly said, producing a set of keys. "Let me give you the guided tour before the others arrive."
"What others?" I asked, surprised.
She smiled mischievously. "Why, Lyle and Clare, Armando, who's bringing up my car and, I hope, Peter."
"Peter?" I echoed.
She dimpled at my expression. "Yes, silly, your Peter. Lyle thought it would be fun to have us all together again. Since Peter's bank handles the trust account for the estate, we can combine business with pleasure. But I'm not sure if or when he can make it."
I scowled, disturbed by the sudden lurch in the pit of my stomach at the mention of Peter Mansfield's name. We'd been inseparable during our college days—even came close to making a permanent commitment—but stubbornness and youth contrived
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against us and, after graduation, we went our separate ways. We still kept in touch, but now his work as a partner and financial advisor at his father's bank and my job as a journalist for a prestigious travel magazine, left little opportunity to rekindle old sparks.
It had been pure luck that my New Year's holidays coincided with Holly's invitation to come with her to her grandmother's estate. I had visualized just her and me toasting in the new year in front of a cozy fire, reminiscing about our life growing up in Marblehead, a quaint, but well-to-do, suburb of Boston. I was naturally taken aback when she dropped her bombshell.
"So, you're still trying to play at being the matchmaker, eh?" I griped. "Will you ever give it up?"
She shook her head, unperturbed. "Probably not," she said. "Especially not where you and Peter are concerned." She pushed a stray lock of silky golden hair back from her face and met my glare without flinching, her petal lips set in a stubborn moue. "You know, Stacey, men like Peter Mansfield don't grow on trees. And everyone who ever knew you knows you two are meant to be together. Why won't you just accept fate and live happily ever after?"
"I'll accept nothing of the kind," I said haughtily. "What Peter and I had was wonderful, I'll admit, but we've both changed."
"Yes," she said pointedly, "now you're even more suited to each other."
I opened my mouth to retort, but she didn't give me a chance. Climbing the porch steps, she inserted a key into the lock and pushed the front door open. "But let's not argue," she said. "Peter may not be able to make it anyway. He wasn't sure if he could get time off—so there's no point making a fuss. Won't you please step this way, Miss Christian?" She made an exaggerated sweeping bow and I had to smile.
"Yes, ma'am." I saluted briskly and stepped past her into the dim interior of the house. There was no point arguing with Holly once she made up her mind. Secretly, I wasn't averse to seeing Peter Mansfield again—if only for auld lang syne.
* * * * *
Despite the ancient wallpaper, threadbare carpets and rustic plumbing, the house seemed comfortable enough. The front door opened onto a hallway that ran the length of the house. A set of narrow stairs covered by an ancient paisley runner hugged the right wall of the hallway, then made a left turn from a small landing to complete its rise to the second floor. It seemed there were doors everywhere, many opened into closets or cupboards filled to the brim with products of a lifetime of hoarding. Holly's grandmother had apparently parted with very little in her eighty-six years.
The kitchen was at the back of the house. Originally, it would've been exceptionally small, but someone in recent years had possessed the foresight to modernize and enlarge it. Now, there was room for an oak table surrounded by six matching chairs and a large hutch filled with china and crystal. Double-glazed windows framed a small backyard that gently sloped to the frozen expanse of Lake Catawah beyond. The lake
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was not large by any means, but large enough to provide a refreshing swim in the summer and good ice fishing in the winter.
"Did you bring your skates?" Holly asked.
"No," I sighed. "Though I practically pulled my parents' basement apart to find them. In any case, I don't think they would've fit anymore."
"Well, I'm sure Gran will have some around here that'll fit you," Holly said. "I know she always kept quite a few pairs—as well as boots and gloves for winter and swimsuits and sandals for summer. Whenever we came to visit, we forgot something. But no matter what it was, Gran always had a replacement." Her voice trailed off into a squeaky sob and I put my arms around her and hugged her, feeling her shoulders tremble as she let pent-up tears fall silently.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I've been so thoughtless. I didn't even consider all the memories you must be dealing with."
"It's okay," she said. She gave me a quick, tight hug in return, then pulled away, snatching a tissue from a box on a nearby shelf and wiping her eyes. "Gran would hate to think I was crying over her."
I nodded. I had met Holly's grandmother only twice, but both times she struck me as a strong, no-nonsense woman who wouldn't stand for tears.
"Come on," Holly said, her moment of weakness past. "Let's go get the bags and I'll show you your room. I've put you right next to Peter—if he comes, that is." She winked with exaggerated innuendo.
But seeing the warning look in my eye, she squealed with laughter and made for the front door at a run. I followed, happy to see her naturally vivacious nature restored.
* * * * *
My room was one of four on the second floor—two bedrooms, a bathroom and what appeared to be a sitting room. I couldn't be sure of this, though, since the furnishings were draped with dust covers.
I was lucky to have a room of my own. It was modest in size and somewhat stark in comparison to the other rooms in the house, most of which were filled with a hodgepodge of furniture, paintings, photographs and bric-a-brac. The wallpaper was a faded yellow floral and the rug was old and slightly musty, but welcome, considering the cold hardwood floor underneath.
The single bed sagged slightly in the middle, but was made up with crisp white sheets, fluffy blankets and an exquisite, hand-sewn quilt.
A small closet contained a few old coats. Holly had pushed these to the back to make room for my things. Against one wall was a mahogany chest of drawers, full except for the top two drawers that she'd haphazardly emptied into a cardboard box and also shoved to the back of the closet. There was a matching mahogany bedside
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table, sporting a lace doily and a rather extravagant lamp, the base of which was a statue of Aphrodite holding aloft a bulb, covered with a yellow, lace-edged shade.
The window next to the bed looked out over the kitchen to the lake and surrounding forest. I gazed out, mesmerized by the sunset colors tinting the frost-tipped trees and casting multicolored fingers across the thin covering of snow. I could just make out another house at the far end of the lake, set against the steep wooded slopes that rose protectively on all sides. But the only real sign anyone else inhabited the area was a thin stream of smoke rising from some hidden chimney in the woods to my right. The scene was lovely and peaceful, but at the same time, lonely and forbidding.
I turned from the window and rummaged through one of my cases for my camera. I wasn't a great photographer, but I'd learned to appreciate the artistic value of good lighting from Arthur Wong, my magazine's resident photographer. Finding the apparatus, I snapped a couple of cursory pictures through the window as the sun set. I intended to be more vigilant at keeping visual records of my holidays and trips. I'd realized sadly that I'd kept few pictures of my halcyon days at college and I was determined not to make the same mistake with the rest of my life.
There was a cursory knock at the door and Holly poked her head in. "How're you settling in? Do you need anything?"
I shook my head. "No. I think I'm okay, thanks. But come in and keep me company while I unpack."
She complied happily, settling herself on the bed and running a reverent hand over the quilt. "You know, Gran made a quilt for every bed in this house. They're all different—all with unique themes. This one is the holiday quilt. You see? Here's a patch with a Christmas tree and another with a decorated egg motif. There's Valentine's Day, Washington's birthday… Look, here's one for Groundhog Day! But I don't know what this one is for."
I went over to look at what she indicated. It was a patch depicting an old man with a long beard, holding a scroll. "That's Father Time," I said. "He often represents the new year—the passing of time. Out with the old and in with the new."
Holly frowned. "Well, he doesn't look very festive," she said.
I laughed. "No. But that's what the new year is all about—you really never know what it'll hold. You can only hope to put the past to rest and move on to whatever the future has in store."
She cocked her head and weighed my words. Then she shrugged. "Well, I sure wish I knew what the future held in store for me." She sighed and I sat down on the bed next to her.
"What about you and Armando? Aren't you happy with him?"
She smiled. "Oh, sure. Armando's fun and romantic and sweet…but he's not going to be here for much longer." At my questioning look, she explained. "He's only here from Peru for a year. His working holiday visa runs out at the end of January."
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"I see," I said slowly. "But…if you love each other…"
Holly scoffed. "No, nothing like that. We're deeply infatuated, but it's not love. We both know that."
I hadn't met Armando Perez yet, but Holly had told me a bit about him. They'd met at an art exhibit in Boston. He was an artist himself, working at the Boston Art Museum during his visit. They had their art in common and Holly insisted that he had "looks to die for". Because he had no relatives in the U.S. and she couldn't stand the thought of anyone spending the holidays alone, she'd invited him to join us at the lake for New Year's.
"Well," I said, patting her hand sympathetically, "you never know what the future holds."
"I suppose," she said. "And as Scarlett would say, 'Tomorrow is another day.'"
"So, when will the rest be arriving?" I asked.
She glanced at her watch and frowned. "Well, Armando said he'd be down tomorrow morning and Lyle and Clare said they'd be here tomorrow afternoon sometime. Who knows with them! And Peter—well, like I said, if he can make it, he'll make it whenever."
I glanced at my own watch. It was nearing six p.m. and already nearly dark. "What do you say we go find some dinner?" I said. "We may have to go shopping tomorrow. Do you know where the nearest supermarket is?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "It's not too far. We're off the beaten track, but not totally cut off. I brought some food along, but I'll definitely have to stock up to feed everyone. And we have to have champagne for New Year's Eve and ham and turkey…"
"Whoa!" I cried in mock horror. "I hope you know what you're getting into! You do know that my culinary skills are nonexistent?"
She laughed. "Don't worry, I like to cook. But we'll take it day by day. No need to go overboard."
"Good," I said. "Let's go down and see what's available for dinner tonight. I'm starved!"
She agreed and together we headed for the kitchen. But just before I shut the door, I glanced back at the quilt on my bed and the patch with Father Time and felt a tiny pang of regret for all the months since I'd last seen Peter Mansfield.
(c) 2008 Maureen McMahon- Do not reproduce in any form without the permission of the author/owner.
If you like this sample chapter, you can read the rest and 5 other stories by purchasing a copy of ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS, available from Cerridwen Press http://www.cerridwenpress.com in both electronic and print.