Episode 4: Ghosts of Albright Acres
“I can’t remember the last time I ate so well.” I dabbed my napkin across my mouth then set it to the side of my plate. “A fine homecoming meal, Ellie.”
“Well, thank you. I’d better leave some out for Al. Lord knows he’ll need it after a trip to The Admiral’s.” She laughed to herself as she gathered the dishes.
In the dim light of the old oil lamps, she looked as beautiful as ever, yet a tiredness rested on her face. Her smile, so alive, but her eyes, sad and heavy. No doubt from the burden of running the farm in our absence. I stacked my plate with dirty utensils and headed to the kitchen.
“Pike Samuel Albright, what do you think you’re doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m helping you clear the table.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Ellie reached over to take the dishes from me. “It isn’t your place.”
I clenched my jaw and tightened my grip around the silver-trimmed china. “I know it isn’t, but it’s the least I can do after everything you’ve done for us. Keeping the farm going. Caring for Maddie.”
“Well, you can resume the duties of running the farm and leave me to the simple task of setting and clearing the table.” Her eyes sparkled with pleased resistance.
“Oh, let him carry a load, Ellie.” Ms. Mae entered the dining room, carrying a small basin draped with a damp cloth. “But don’t let the others see him.” She winked.
I flashed a satisfied grin. “One load won’t hurt anything. Besides, with the outcome of the war, I’d better learn how to do the simple tasks, in case you decide to move on.”
Ellie rolled her eyes and half-smiled. “It would take more than carrying a load of dishes for you to have any idea what it takes to run this household. No, in good conscious, I couldn’t leave you to fend for yourself. For Maddie’s sake anyway.”
I followed her and Mae into the kitchen, wherein Ellie took my stack and placed them in the sink. Mae filled the basin with clean water and rinsed the cloth.
“How’s she doing, Mae?” I asked.
Mae replaced the cloth over the lip of the bowl. “As well as she can be, I suppose. She has her bouts, some worse than others. The fever comes and goes.”
I pressed my lips together as I stood in solemn thought. “Any idea what’s wrong with her?”
“The Doc didn’t say. But I’m sure she’s just worn out after seeing you and Mr. Al home.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll come say good night.” I turned to Ellie. “Do you mind?”
Ellie smiled softly. “Of course not. She needs you.”
Mae lead the way as we circled back through the dining room in route to Maddie’s room. Something thumped and rolled across the floor above us, a toy, no doubt. As we climbed the stairs, the tinkling chimes of a music box filled the air.
“Sounds like she’s feeling better,” I mused.
Mae chuckled. “Mmmhmmm. Takes more than a fever to keep her away from her playthings, especially at bedtime.”
When we reached Maddie’s room, Mae tapped on the door and pushed it open. The room was dark, but moonlight streamed through the window, highlighting a child’s table piled with drawings, a rocking horse, and the dollhouse Pa had built—a miniature replica of Albright Acres. The horse gently swayed, a sign someone had been riding it.
A forced cough weakly sounded from the mound under the quilted bedspread.
“I know you’re still awake. You can’t fool me.” I sat next to her, pretending to straighten the quilted pillow on the foot of her bed, before I reached under the blanket and tickled her foot.
She sat up, giggling, and hugged me. “I’m glad you’re home. I thought you were going to leave me here alone. I thought the war was going to kill every last one of you.” The words sounded particularly ugly coming from such a young girl.
“There’ll be no talking like that, Miss Maddie.” Mae pressed the cloth on Maddie’s forehead and dabbed around her cheeks and neck. “Only prayers of thanks to the good Lord for sending your brothers home.”
“And for Priscilla,” Maddie added.
I flashed a puzzled look at Mae before looking back at Maddie. “Who’s Priscilla?”
“My new doll—the one you gave me.” She pulled the blanket up to cover her mouth. “Don’t be mad, Pike, but I’ve already lost her.”
She looked incredibly pale in the moonlight, the bags under her eyes darkened under the night shadows. I lit the lamp at her bedside, and the warm glow vanquished her ghostly features. In her white nightgown, she looked like one of the china dolls that lined her dresser and settee across the room.
I ran my hand over her hair. “Mad? How could I ever be mad at you? Tell you what, I’ll help you find her in the morning. Deal?”
“Deal.” She let the blanket drop from her face and breathed a slow yawn.
Mae folded the cloth and hung it over the basin. “Well sweetheart, looks like you’re ready to rest. I’m gonna finish my work, but I’ll check on you before I turn in for the night.”
When Mae had gone, I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Pike, what we gonna do now?” Propped against a pile of pillows, she folded her hands on top of the bedspread. “We gonna put Pa and James in the ground with Mama?”
“Yes, Maddie. We’ll lay them to rest right here, so they’ll never be far. And don’t worry, you’ll never be alone.”
As if to counter my words, an eerie chill fell down my spine, and the room grew cold. Goose pimples stood on my arms and up the back of my neck. I jumped from the bed, half expecting a window to have blown open. In my haste, I knocked a stack of papers off of the nightstand and something rolled under the bed.
“My pictures!” Maddie exclaimed.
“Sorry, Sis. I’ll clean them up.” I reached under the bed and gathered the drawings and pencil.
When I placed the papers back on the table, I noticed the first one portrayed a contorted old tree. Dark charcoal strokes covered the paper and the shading on the trunk looked like a sideways grin.
“Wait a minute, I know that place. You’re not going that deep into the woods are you?” In our childhood, James, Al, and I had climbed that old tree hundreds of times, but times were different now. I turned to warn Maddie against playing into the forest, but she was asleep, softly breathing under the covers.
I placed the pencil on top of the drawings, extinguished the lamp, and left a kiss on Maddie’s forehead. As I crossed the room in the dark, my leg scraped against the corner of the over-sized dollhouse. In front of the structure, four dolls wrapped with black string lay side by side, parallel with the base of the dollhouse.
“Hmmm, four bodies in the barn.” Stooping down, I scooped up one of the dolls in my hand. The frilly white dress reminded me of little Maddie. I turned the doll over and noticed a line penciled on the back of the doll’s neck. “Strange.”
I returned the odd doll to its place among the others and glanced over at Maddie. In some ways she was still so innocent, untouched by the ugliness of a conflicted country, yet in other ways, she was well beyond her years. I wondered if—I hoped—her memories of wartime would fade. Partially closing the door behind me, I headed back downstairs.
Following my descent, I lingered in the foyer, unsure of what I should do. Amidst battle, there was always something to prepare, no time for idleness. If not cleaning guns, stocking ammo, or reviewing strategy, I was praying to make it through the night. In spite of my losses, I lowered my eyes offering silent thanks for making it home with Al.
My gaze followed the aged wood planks to the door to my father’s study. I pushed it open on sleepy hinges. It was exactly how I had remembered it—untouched, like he had just stepped away—but an emptiness lingered between its walls. I crossed the room and lit the oil lamp on his desk.
Amid stacks of invoices and ledgers, a bottle of bourbon and a dirty glass anchored maps and sketched mechanical drawings. I traced the rim of the tumbler. I thought about taking a drink, or many drinks, to dull the pain. But Pa always said never to drown your sorrow in a bottle. Spirits are for the spirited, to celebrate success or reward a hard day’s work. There’d be many hard days ahead.
“How are we going to run this place without you?” I directed my words to heaven, to him.
“You’ll find a way.” Ellie’s voice floated from the doorway. “Somehow we made it this far. Things are looking up now that you and Al are home.”
“I hope you’re right.” I straightened the desk up a bit, skimming letters, charts, and land surveys. Beneath the papers, I uncovered an old invitation to one of our annual dinner parties. I raised the card to show Ellie. “It’s been a while since we’ve had reason for this.”
Ellie tilted her head to the side as if remembering more carefree times. “Maybe when you and Al have settled in, you’ll revive the tradition.”
I moved out from behind the desk and leaned against its front. “Pa always liked the jovial atmosphere of a house filled with guests. It reminded him of Mother.”
Ellie walked to my side and looked over the faded invitation. “She was quite the socialite.”
“She was. The ‘belle of the ball’ as Pa called her.” I smiled in fond recollection. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll talk to Al about it in the morning.”
I returned the card to the desk and blew out the lamp’s flame. As I turned back around, I grazed Ellie’s hand with mine, the unexpected contact bringing us face-to-face. Moonlight crept through the sheer window panels, and, in the darkness, we looked the same. There was no white or black, no privileged or poor, no master or slave. Just a man and a woman, held apart by crumbling traditions and society’s expectations.
She looked at me like she always had, with caution and reserve, afraid the slightest emotion would betray her. But as her chest rose and fell with the quickened pace of her heart, I knew her feelings hadn’t changed. So great was my desire to touch her, to kiss her, that I pushed myself from the desk and walked to the middle of the room. If I crossed that line, there was no going back. Not for me, or my family. Or for Ellie.
“Maybe this year you could attend as a guest,” I said over my shoulder. “We could dance…help everyone feel like life is back to normal.”
She spoke slowly, as if controlling each breath. “With the outcome of the war, nothing in the days to come will be normal. Not everyone shares your family’s views. So as much as I’d like to, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
As if to end any rebuttal I might have, the dogs began barking outside. Ellie and I flew to the window to see what caused the commotion. Outside, the yard filled with chaos as men poured around the house from the bunkhouses out back.
I started for the front door, but Ellie threw herself in front of it. “You can’t go out there. It’s not safe at night.”
I grabbed my shotgun and loaded it. “Maybe not before, but I’m here now, and it’s my job to protect our home.”
“You don’t understand,” Ellie pleaded.
The dogs’ barking grew louder, and a familiar voice cried out.
“Get out of the way, Ellie. Al’s out there.”
Stay tuned! Episode 5 posts Friday, October 31, 2014.