When Lynnette got married four years ago, all she wanted was to flee the confines of her dull hometown deep in the heart of the cornfields of Iowa. After the death of her husband, Lynnette has now returned to her famine-plagued farming town to care for her widowed mother. Looking to escape the boredom of being back home, she visits Jay Van Fleet in the old and eerie Van Fleet house, long rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Nella Van Fleet, Jay’s mother who died during childbirth. Jay, haunted by a horrific near tragedy that shaped his boyhood, has reluctantly returned to his family homestead to claim his inheritance.
Both coping with loss, Lynnette and Jay find solace in each other until terrifying and strange events start occurring in the Van Fleet house. The ghost of Jake’s mother, Nella, feeding off the presence of her adored son, grows stronger by the day. She has already killed once for him, and she will kill again to ensure that he belongs to her—and her alone—for all eternity.
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By Marlys Millhiser
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Marlys Millhiser
All rights reserved.
Black leafless branches curled and intertwined past second-story windows and double chimneys, forming only a spidery latticework in front of the house. The giant elms, meant to shield it from the highway, were dead.
A touch of chill January in the August sun.
Lynnette could only stare, her forehead and nose pressed against the bus' cool window.
Acres of cornfield surrounded the Van Fleet house. The fringe of ocean-gray-green tassles rippled first one way and then the other. Cornstalks rose so tall they dwarfed the fence posts, but even they could not hide the grotesque scene.
That's all that place needs, dead trees.
Old Clayborne had been dead for three years. Had they found his heir or did the Van Fleet house still stand empty? She wondered as the bus left the highway for the road to Roggins.
Even rows of corn had been her view for miles, made her vision blurry and head dizzy as they raced past with hypnotic frenzy. Lynnette fixed her eyes on the back of the empty seat in front of her. No matter how hard she pressed her feet against the floor, the gray towers of the Roggins, Iowa, Co-Op grain elevator drew closer. I don't want to come back, Joey, she whispered.
Elaine's farmhouse sat shabby and sullen in the heat. Her sister's car and the pickup were gone. The family would have gathered at the home farm now, around their mother.
Before she could look away ... the tiny frame church swept by ... where she and Joey had been married four years ago. He'd promised to get her out of Roggins. He had kept his promise.
They passed the cemetery where she'd buried Joey two years later ... where they would bury her father tomorrow. A wrought-iron sign, arching over the entrance, announced its purpose in scrolly black letters ... as if there could be any doubt.
Swinging right onto Main Street, the bus roared to a stop in front of Torgeson's filling station.
Why does the bus stop in Roggins? she wondered. Nobody else does.
It stopped just long enough to discharge Lynnette and her suitcases.
She stood on the humped sidewalk and stared dumbly at a weed growing through one of the cracks in the concrete.
Thick heat pressed in on her skin, forced her clothes and hair hard against her body. The stench of poisonous fumes from the bus scoured the mucous lining of her nose until her eyes watered.
It's only till after the funeral. She sat on a suitcase. It burned her legs.
Not one car parked in front of a store, not one person walking the blistering sidewalks. Roggins lay hushed under a damp malign heat that coaxed vegetation to steal in from the countryside, to push up through fissures between sidewalk and empty boarded store building, to tangle across vacant lots that dotted Main Street like missing teeth in an aging smile.
The inside of her knees were wet and Lynnette stretched out her legs. A fly with scratchy feet crawled on her thigh.
A deep rolling belch sounded behind her, rather like an imitation of a sick machine gun, startling in the hush that smothered Main Street. She turned to see Chris Gunderson shuffle across the street to his house.
Every little town had a Chris Gunderson. Roggins had several. He carried a narrow paper sack lovingly in the crook of his arm. A little something to keep him company until the pool hall opened. Unshaven, dusty, he wore dark green work clothes with a rumpled billed cap to match, his shirt long sleeved, the same uniform he wore year round. Lynnette had never seen Chris Gunderson work at anything.
A child ran out of the front door as he opened it and he lifted the sack to protect its contents. The young Gunderson paused to stare at her with pale Nordic eyes, a hallmark of Roggins, and then turned back to search the weeds of the vacant lot next to his house.
The storefront on the other side of the vacant lot shielded the viewing parlor used by Minturn mortuaries servicing Roggins.
Joey lay in a coffin there the last time she was home, or what had been Joey ... once fluffy black hair plastered to his head, heavy makeup that couldn't cover the damage to his face ... the warped flooring had seemed to heave under her feet.
Mercifully a Cadillac moved up Main Street, heat lines wavering above the hood. It made a U- turn and stopped next to her suitcases. She picked them up, stuffed them into the backseat and crawled in beside her brother. If he'd met the bus in Minturn, where he had his law practice, he would have opened the door for her and put her luggage in the car himself.
Harold patted her shoulder with a ringed manicured hand. "Glad to see you home, little sister. Been a long time."
Lynnette struggled for an answer. The best she could manage was a choked, "How's Bertha?"
"Mother's holding up like a rock. The bad time will be after the funeral when everyone goes home." Harold turned up the air-conditioning and the car moved forward one block to a square concrete pier that stood in the center of the broad street and supported a stop sign. The Cadillac, the only moving thing for miles, came dutifully to a stop.
The faded wooden war memorial to her left. To her right at the end of the next block, her Aunt Vera's library. Lynnette looked away to her lap, where whitening fingers clutched her purse. I hate this town!
The second block of Main Street (there were only two) and directly in front of her now ... the white gingerbread house in perfect repair and paint ... shaded lawn ... birdbaths ... picket fence ... The clasp of her purse dug into her hand. The Stewarts' house sat in quiet cool respectability, a road's width apart from Roggins.
Harold leaned forward to stare at it. "I suppose you still think of Joey sometimes."
"Well, it's been two years, Lynn." The Cadillac turned back the way she'd come but on a graveled road, toward home and the Van Fleet house. "You should've gotten over it by now."
Harold drove slowly, one elbow resting on the armrest so that his hand could knead his chin, as if he were meditating some important decision. His stomach overflowed above his belt and Lynnette wondered if the steering wheel made calluses on it or if his shirts wore through where the wheel abraded them.
Harold was twenty years older than she, a college junior when she was born.
"Yup, glad to see you home," he repeated, his eyes skidding toward her behind dark-rimmed glasses as if he waited for a particular answer to this nonquestion.
The proper answer would have been that she was glad to be home. But she wasn't. "Why?"
"You're about all that Mom has left, Lynn," he said quietly.
"What do you mean? She has the family and she's related to half of Roggins...."
"But Lynn, don't you see? Elaine and Leroy have each other and the kids. Margaret and I live in Minturn ... and Mom would never leave Roggins. Besides, she doesn't get along well with Margaret. Aunt Vera is old and has to stay near the library."
But I'm the spinster-widow. The perfect answer to who's going to stay home on the farm and take care of Bertha. Harold, I'm only twenty-four ... you can't bury me in Roggins.
"Mom and Dad would have taken you in after Joey died. But you had to go trucking back to Denver all by yourself. We've been worried about you clear out there. You should be back here." When she didn't comment, the flush deepened on his puffy face as it often did when things didn't go as he'd planned. Harold was a tidy planner.
The roof of the one-room schoolhouse showed above the cornstalks at the edge of the Olson farm. The Van Fleet house loomed ahead on its hill at the end of the road. "Have they found Jay Van Fleet?"
"They think they might have this time, in Peru." Harold sounded impatient with the change of subject. "They found a man injured after that earthquake. He's in a hospital in Lima. The Benninghoffs are getting the house ready again but they won't have the electricity hooked up this time until they know this isn't another false lead."
"It would be odd to find out you'd inherited a fortune three years ago and didn't even know it." Jay Van Fleet had been the target of an exhaustive search.
Harold turned into the rutted lane of the Olson farm, flanked on either side by cornfields and then by the long fenced house yard. "Lynn ..."
"Is the Van Fleet house still supposed to be haunted?"
"Of course. The Benninghoffs won't go near the main house at night." There was the sound of a sneer in his voice.
The lane circled behind the house and entered a farmyard filled with cars and pickup trucks. Harold drove up beside the gate.
She opened the door. "Well what?"
He snorted, the flush mottling. "Are you going to move back here?"
Lynnette looked toward the square box of a house where some old friends of her father's stood by the back door. Dressed in their Sunday striped overalls, some with suit jackets and all wearing hats, they looked hot and ill at ease as they shifted from one foot to another, kicked at the dirt with a toe or spit at the grass.
Her answer was to get out of the car and slam the door.
The men stopped talking as she came through the gate. They nodded in unison. Lynnette nodded back. When the screen door flapped closed behind her, she heard one of them whisper, "'Bout time she got here."
She stood in the enclosed back porch and took a deep breath. Dishes covered the top of the chest freezer, the washing machine and the old metal sink. A huge mixing bowl full of weeping red jello afloat with browning banana slices ... loaves of homemade bread ... cakes ... pies ... meat loaves. Some of the dishes were empty and washed, all bore strips of adhesive tape with the name of the owner so they could be returned when "it" was over.
The smell of all that food in the airless room made Lynnette swallow hard. The sounds of voices, occasional laughter and the clink of dishes—the ritual gorging session observed for funerals....
Margaret, Harold's wife, bustled from the kitchen carrying a cooked ham on a platter. "Why, Lynn, how are you, dear? Mom will be so glad to have you home." Her sister-in-law flashed her big teeth and found a space on the freezer for the platter. She wiped her hands on her organdy apron and kissed Lynnette's cheek. "My, but you've gotten a tan this summer. Be careful, Lynn. Makes the skin dry up."
Margaret's heavy perfume added one more unwelcome smell to the room.
Harold grunted in with her suitcases and Lynnette scurried into the kitchen but she heard Margaret's question, "Did you talk to her?"
"Tried to. Talking to her's like talking to a fence post."
That night Lynnette returned to Main Street, in the backseat of Harold's Cadillac. He and Margaret sat in front waiting for Bertha. Margaret filed her fingernails in the dark. Harold stared at the mortuary, running his hand over the bald spot on his head.
Night birds and crickets called, hushed and far away. Fireflies darted among the dark fernlike weeds in the vacant lot next to the mortuary.
A man laughed in the pool hall down the street.
Lynnette hadn't wanted to "view" her father, had wanted to remember the live Olaf, even if he had been senile and silly, the gentle old man whose blank eyes could grow tender over a kitten or a grandchild....
More laughter and a catcall from the pool hall. Chris Gunderson spilled out onto the sidewalk in a puddle of smoke-yellow light, picked himself up and wove past them to his house.
The screen door of the mortuary squeaked and her mother stood on the sidewalk under the streetlight talking to Aunt Vera, her father's sister.
"...'course she will." Bertha sounded exhausted. She was geared more for expending energy than emotion. "Ain't no sense in her going back there when she's got a perfectly good home here." Her white hair glowed under the spider web of "invisible" hairnet in the lamplight.
"Do you think there might be a man in Denver?"
"Huh! What man would want a skinny old brown thing like her? And secondhand at that. She'll stay here where she belongs."
Harold dropped them off at the farmhouse and Bertha disappeared into the ground-floor bedroom. After fifty-two years of marriage, she would sleep alone tonight.
Lynnette dragged herself up the stairs. Heat filtered down from the attic and up through the floor to hover stagnant, choking, thick with the smell of dust, old wallpaper and stale urine. She imagined she could still see the shadowy ghost of the dark-blue metal chamber pot that had sat in the hall for so many years. Until Bertha had relented and had a bathroom installed in the pantry.
She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to will her weary mind to action. What was she to do? She had nothing left in Denver but her clothes and a month's rent due on her apartment. And a few happy memories?
Finally Lynnette fell back onto her lumpy mattress and slept without covers in the airless heat.
Joey and her father visited her dreams and old Clayborne Van Fleet....
She awoke after midnight, tousled and sticky wet, to stand by the window, trying to breathe air in through the screen. The leaves on the box-elder tree hung limp in the moonlight.
Out of a habit she'd acquired in childhood, Lynnette stared up the hill to the Van Fleet mansion. Where no one cared to venture after dark. So deserted that even the electricity wasn't connected.
There was a light in a room on the second floor.CHAPTER 2
Ancient evergreens, grown fat with time and rich Iowa soil, towered above the cemetery, lower branches spreading across older graves, tilting upright monuments and cutting off sunlight to thin dank grass.
If Roggins was deteriorating, its cemetery was growing.
The limousine turned right at the Van Fleet vault and stopped behind the hearse. Lynnette looked back at the vault, her thoughts on the light in the empty mansion on the hill and the elusive heir, Jay Van Fleet.
Olaf Olson took his place next to his parents. Reverend Birmingham performed the graveside service quickly to spare them from the heat. Then everyone gathered around Bertha.
Lynnette slipped across the road to Joey's grave....
A thorny rosebush had been planted on one side of the headstone. A robin swooped to land, saw her and flew off, its feet barely touching gray marble.
He's not here. He never was here. Joey is nowhere.
Still she waited ... for some feeling of grief ... regret ... anything. But all she felt was the hot sun and the presence of the woman who came to stand beside her.
"You had to take him away." Rachael Stewart rubbed one white-gloved hand over the other, standing lovely and petite beside the grave of her only child. She'd played the organ at Olaf's funeral.
Lynnette looked into eyes the color and shape of Joey's. "He took me away, Mrs. Stewart."
"And now you both are back...."
"I don't plan to stay."
"I think I'm glad to hear that ... Mrs. Stewart."
All afternoon Lynnette helped Margaret carry food and lemonade to familiar faces above plates balanced on knees. She relieved her sister, Elaine, at the kitchen sink while sweat dribbled between her breasts and her feet swelled in her shoes. The wake continued. All it lacked was booze.
By 4:30 she could stand no more and retreated quietly upstairs. As she peeled off her clammy dress, sounds filtered up through the air register in the floor.
The clinking of dishes, heavy footsteps and her Aunt Vera's voice ... "Yes, but he couldn't have gone on the way he was. Bertha couldn't have handled him much longer. She's lucky to have Lynnette now."
Lynnette grimaced and changed into lightweight slacks and tennis shoes. She could remember, at her wedding shower, overhearing Aunt Vera telling someone behind a closed door that it would be a blessing for her parents to have her married. "Bertha will have her hands full with Olaf. Lynnette was a change-of-life baby. She's been nothing but trouble...." Aunt Vera's tune had changed.
Opening the window in the hallway, she pushed out the screen and slid through to the back- porch roof, hesitating at the edge of the shingles. The trick was to keep her toe from catching in the eaves trough and to clear the narrow sidewalk. Could she still do it? She bit her lip and grinned.
Lynnette jumped, landed on her feet with her knees bent and lost her balance, bouncing back hard on her rear. Giggling, she ran out of the house yard and threaded her way between cars.
Safe in the barn, she leaned against the door. Her giggles turned into full laughter but hot tears stung her cheeks.
She was not alone. Tears, laughter, near hysteria dried up in one gulp. She turned toward the man in the stall to her right.
Roger Jenson propped against a pitchfork, his only movement the barely perceptible stroking of his dark chin.
Some of her earliest memories were of this boy from across the road. Playmates, fellow misfits, classmates. A cool but comfortable comradeship, until she'd sensed the change in him ... the danger she couldn't describe. But to a teen-ager in Roggins, even danger had its appeal.
"You cut your hair," he said finally.
She nodded, wondering why he should be the first to notice, why after four years they hadn't bothered to exchange hellos.
"I didn't know anyone was out here." Lynnette rubbed her bottom and checked the back of her slacks.
"What'd you do, jump the roof again?"
"Yes. My landing isn't what it used to be."
He chuckled, that mock-evil chuckle she'd often teased him about, and continued cleaning out the stall.
Excerpted from Nella Waits by Marlys Millhiser. Copyright © 1974 Marlys Millhiser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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