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Beyond the window pane, a northerly wind attempted to rob the few remaining leaves from the trees. They held steady, but not for long. Just as I fought and lost, they would, too. The realization left me feeling sad and listless.
I turned and looked across the desk at my lawyer, Douglas Roderick, who spoke on the phone in a performance meant to impress. Truthfully, he did impress me. Had I spent hours searching for the best advocate to handle my divorce and property matters, I couldn't have chosen better. What would he think if he knew I simply closed my eyes and pointed to his name in the Yellow Pages of the Sheffield Telephone Directory?
The precipitating effects of a headache forced their way into my head. I wished my doctor had prescribed me drugs. Nothing potent, just something to take the edge off. Instead, he told me what a strong woman I was and dismissed my time-bomb-waiting-to-explode feeling with a pat on the back. God. If Dr. Hudson stood before me now, I'd smack him.
"Sorry about the call," my lawyer said, plunking the receiver in its cradle. "How are you today, Mrs. Turner?"
My parents taught me not to whine, so I smiled. "Fine."
"Good, good." He opened my file, took out the documents that would dissolve my marriage and slid them toward me. Like an automaton, I took the pen from his outstretched hand.
"As you requested, the petition states the reason for the divorce is irreconcilable differences."
Doing it that way saved face. Admitting to myself I couldn't keep my husband happy in bed was disturbing enough without seeing it in print.
"Do you have any questions?"
Oh, I had questions, all right.How would I provide for my children when the money ran out? How did a wife not know her husband at all? Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong?
It took all of my strength to turn my thoughts to the present. "What?"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." Just peachy.
He pointed to the signature line. "Sign here."
I injected little energy into signing my name--Suzannah V. Turner. For sixteen years, I was the wife of Jonathan Thomas Turner and Suzie the happy homemaker. In six months, I would be the single mother of sixteen-year-old Katie Scott Turner and seven-year-old Benjamin John Turner. The thought frightened me. The future terrified me.
He shoved more papers at me. "These are the documents for the sale of your house on Woodland Drive."
Regaining my focus, I listened with as much attention as I possessed these days as he explained everything--smiling when he smiled, nodding when he nodded--then I signed my name again where he indicated.
"All things considered, Mrs. Turner, you came out the winner on this one. Not every wife does. Your husband was very generous giving you the house and paying your legal fees."
Generous? I didn't think so. Now he didn't need to pay support or maintenance for the children. I'd say he got away easy. Too easy. "Yes, he was."
"The money you have left will tide you over nicely for the next several years."
"Yes, it will." What would happen when the money ran out? Having to get a job was not the worst thing that befell me. Neither was the divorce. I turned my thoughts away from that sad and unpleasant memory. Maybe one day I'd come to accept that, too.
He pushed more documents at me. "These are the documents for the purchase of your new house on King George Highway."
My new house was an old house, built sometime in the early nineteen hundreds. It needed a lot of work, but nothing a fresh coat of paint, refinishing the hardwood floors, retiling the bathroom walls and floor, installing new fixtures and updating the kitchen wouldn't fix.
The children haven't seen it yet. I imagined their reaction and flinched. Compared to our fourteen-room home in one of the more affluent parts of the city, the house was a shack. That made me sound like a spoiled child.
My real estate agent had joked the former owners died in each other's arms from an overabundance of love. It seemed incredible that ninety-year-olds would be sexually active, but then if someone had told me Jonathan would find love in another woman's arms, I wouldn't have believed that, either.
When I asked why the house was on the market for so long, she shrugged and said it needed some work. An understatement, to be sure. Maybe no one else wanted to take on the task of refurbishing it. I needed the challenge, something that would consume my every waking moment. I planned on doing most of the work myself. What I couldn't, I'd hire contractors to do.
The words of the old man next door reverberated in my mind: "That house is cursed. You'd be wise to walk away while you can, girlie." I didn't heed his advice. I couldn't. From the moment I stepped across the threshold, I decided to put in an offer. I was drawn to it. Not drawn to the hand-carved woodwork or the spacious backyard where I pictured flower gardens, junipers and apple trees, but something else. Something I couldn't identify.
Then he pointed a gnarled finger toward the sky. "A black aura surrounds it. See?" I looked up and noticed the roof needed re-shingling. I made a mental note to lower my intended offer even more.
"Sign here, here and here."
I followed the direction of his finger and signed my name with even less energy than before.
"Okay, that finishes it. Stop by tomorrow ... say, around eleven o'clock, and I'll have the keys to your new home."
I stood. "I'll do that." We shook hands. On the way out the door I decided to drive by my new-old house on the way home.
Leroy August walked into the kitchen and looked at his wife. Her shock white hair shone in the light streaming through the window. "Breakfast ready, sweet pea?"
"In two shakes of a puppy's tail." Clara turned away from the stove and stared at him. "You look like something the wind spat back. Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine." He sat at the table and rubbed his tired eyes. Birds sang in melodious harmony from the branches of the apple tree in the backyard, but that didn't do anything to raise his spirits.
For years now, a good night's sleep eluded him. It was because of the nightmare. Always the same nightmare: A ring of fire encircling a full moon. Magenta clouds dotting a blackened sky. An owl hooting ominously in the distance. Birds speeding through the air, their frightened cries echoing in their wake. A house, shrouded in darkness. The front door creaking open. His heart hammering in his ears as he crossed the threshold into thick, almost soupy air. The room swathed in a reddish haze at the end of the hallway. The something, or maybe someone, he didn't know for certain, darting chaotically around him. The maniacal laugh at his back, piercing the silence.
It all started when their good friends, Bridget and Vince Simson, moved into the house next door.
Everything was fine for awhile.
Then things changed.
Little things at first, like Bridget and Vince declining their dinner invitations and forgetting their weekly bridge game.
While Vince seemed oblivious to his wife, Leroy observed her moping about the house, taking no interest in her appearance, the house or the flower gardens she once cherished, chanting--the ravings of a lunatic, he thought. It was then he intervened. If only he could turn back time. If only he had done things differently ... Enough. He wouldn't think about it any more.
"I'm going to get the paper." He stood and walked through the hallway and out the front door. He strode across the verandah and down the six wide steps, then along the walkway as quickly as his feeble eighty-year-old legs allowed. Stooping to pick up the daily newspaper, he noticed a car driving slowly past. He squinted against the glare of the early morning sun and recognized Suzannah Turner behind the wheel. The moment she noticed him, she jerked her head away and sped by.
Careful not to look at the stalwart survivor of years of neglect nestled between his house and the Bartons on the other side, he straightened and retraced his steps. The house terrified him, or more exactly, what inhabited the house terrified him. The admission didn't come easy.
"The woman who bought Vince and Bridget's house just drove past," he said, re-entering the kitchen.
Clara placed his breakfast--oatmeal with blueberries--on the table in front of him. "So?"
He stared at his oatmeal with no appetite. "Well, I think she might be afraid of me."
Clara scoffed. "Why would she be afraid of a big teddy bear like you?" She took her seat across from him.
"Maybe it's because I told her Vince's house is cursed." The words rushed out on his exhaled breath.
She placed a hand against her heart. "Oh dear."
"When will I get it through my thick head no one will believe that house is haunted?" He sighed, removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose.
"She probably thinks you're nutty." She chuckled.
He chuckled, too. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"Poor Father Murphy, God rest his soul." She signed a cross against her heart and kissed her fingertips. "He was so sympathetic, but the more we tried to convince him the house was possessed, the crazier he thought we were. And the ladies from the church..." She shook her head. "That was so embarrassing."
In his peripheral vision, he saw the house next door through the window and an involuntary shiver swept through him.
"Leroy, you're not eating. Is something wrong with your oatmeal?"
He shook his head, unable to speak.
"You've got to stop worrying about it, dear, or you'll drive yourself crazy. You warned her. There's nothing more you can do."
Clara knew him all too well. He patted her hand. "I know. Maybe one day I'll believe it. Or maybe I'll be stricken with Alzheimer's and I won't remember anything."
"That includes not remembering me, you know."
The softness of her words and the sadness in her eyes pained him. "Okay, selective Alzheimer's."
He studied her a moment. "You're worried about the new owner, too. I can hear it in your voice; see the fear for her in your eyes."
"Aye, that I am."
Knowing there was nothing he could do to prevent Suzannah Turner from moving in and what was inevitable once she did became almost too much for him to bear. It would be too late then. Her life would never be the same again. It stabbed his heart.
"Bridget and Vince are in a better place, you know."
He mustered a smile. "I know, but when I think of what it put them through all those years..."
Clara wiped his sorrow from his cheeks with her hankie. "Something else is worrying you. What is it?"
He shrugged. "Does it bother you how they died?"
"Yes, but when I think of their choices ... I might have done the same thing in their shoes." "I still feel frustrated and angry we couldn't help them. There must have been something we could have done."
Clara smoothed a napkin across her lap. "We've been over this a thousand times, Leroy. We did our best." She passed him a bran muffin.
He looked up from his untouched breakfast and took the muffin from her hand, noticing she wore that disapproving expression on her face. He spread his arms wide. "What?"
"You're going to try to help her, aren't you?"
"Harrumph. Look where that got us the last time." Truthfully, he wanted to try again. He gave her a long, steady look. "We got over it though, didn't we?"
She frowned. "What are you saying, dear?"
"I'm not saying anything." He pushed his oatmeal and muffin aside.
Clara hefted the teapot from the trivet and filled his cup. "Uh-huh."
There was no fooling her. She knew him better than he knew himself. "What are your plans for the day?" For many years now they spent their days together. Before he retired he asked her that same question every morning just as she asked him how his day went when he returned home from work. Some habits were just plain hard to break.
She gave the ceiling her undivided attention, drumming a finger against her chin. "Hmm. I find I'm dusting less, and I don't mind dirty dishes sitting in the sink anymore. Dust bunnies under the beds don't bother me; in fact, I think they're dang cute. And instead of sweeping crumbs from the floor, I try to figure out what their shapes resemble."
She could always make him laugh. God, how he loved her.
"Leroy, it took me all of my eighty years to realize life is meant to be cherished, not endured. Now every night before I fall asleep I wonder if I'll be sipping tea with Jesus in the morning. When morning comes and I open my eyes and see you next to me, I tell myself today is special because it's one more day I have to spend with you."
He squeezed her hand.
She dabbed his eyes. "Please don't worry, dear. You'll make yourself sick. What would others have done in our shoes? I'm guessing the same as what we did. Try to help. There was nothing more we could do, and there's nothing we can do for the new owner, either."
Leroy didn't agree. There was something he could do. He just needed to approach it differently and with more circumspection than he had with Vince and Bridget. As God was his witness, he would help the Turner family.