Every year since my children were small, I've written a Halloween story for them. Since they're adults now, I'm writing them more for my own amusement. Hope you enjoy this year's effort!
Letitia Bally, known as Letty to her family, had achieved a master’s degree in decorative arts, specializing in early nineteenth century, a feat which surprised no one in her family. They knew she had eccentricities, but she used them well in her graduate studies. Letty had never looked her age, with her long brown hair tied in braids and a galaxy of freckles bright on her pale cheeks. She wore rose water for her cologne and black lace up shoes that were favored by those who dressed Goth, but which for her looked old-fashioned. Her camisoles she made by hand and added antique lace, and a cameo she’d bought at an antique shop was her only jewelry. It always covered the top button of her blouse, except when it was very hot, and then she’d pin it to her collar. Those who didn’t know her wondered if she was the child bride of a cult leader with twenty teen-aged wives, her clothes were so odd and hemmed to the tops of her ankles.
Her parents accepted her eccentricities and her, because they loved her, but they worried that she never dated, had never had a beau, and was getting close to thirty. They’d hoped she’d outgrow her antique affectations, and her father promised to but her a convertible Volkswagen Beetle if she’d wear something more modern, like jeans. Didn’t happen. Letty didn’t care about cars, except as the currently acceptable mode of transportation. Secretly, she wished she could take a horse and buggy to work.
Her one true gift was an ability to spot an antique and where it had been made, with unerring accuracy. In school, her teachers had remarked among themselves that she seemed to have “the gift.”
“It’s almost as if she speaks their language,” they muttered, simultaneously envious and proud of their prize pupil.
At least, her parents consoled each other, she had a job. Much to their surprise, her graduate degree landed her a gig working for a museum in the South. She was tasked to travel the countryside, looking for authentic period pieces that the museum could collect. American decorative arts were hot items in the antiques world, and getting scarcer than hen’s teeth.
“What kind of assurance do you have that you’ll be safe?” Letty’s father wasn’t thrilled with the idea of their only child driving the back roads of the redneck South alone.
“The museum receives hundreds of letters every year, with photos falling from envelopes or attachments to emails, displaying family furniture and pictures that are for sale. Those that look the most promising received a return phone call, and sometimes an appointment is set up for a look-see.” Letty wasn’t worried. At least she wouldn’t be cooped up in an office cubicle.
“I get to give the piece a thorough examination, and if I recommend it, it gets brought to the museum for a final inspection before an offer is made.” Letty was quite proud of her authority, but knew it was justified.
Her boss said Letty had the “eye.” While he thought her style of dress an affectation, he had to admit she was right 99% of the time when she suggested an offer be made for a piece. The one percent wasn’t a failure of authenticity, but of need. The museum had a narrow focus, and sometimes, while a sideboard or tall chest was especially nice, they already had one a bit nicer or they just didn’t need anything from that region at that time.
“Well, keep your cell phone handy and don’t stick around anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable.” Secretly, Letty’s father wanted to go with her, but knew she’d have a fit if he suggested it. For the first time in her life, Letty felt like she fit in and had purpose.
Staying in cheap motels and eating fast food wasn’t Letty’s idea of heaven, but the museum per diem was pretty paltry, and besides, those were usually the only offerings where Letty was sent, into the middle of nowhere. She pretended her beat-up Toyota was a curricle, the awful hotels a posting house on the way to London, and McDonald’s was the equivalent of pub fare. It was all worth it when she saw the treasures she was sent to assess, and a diamond of the first water, as she put it, was waiting to be rescued from some sad little trailer sitting behind a decrepit barn.
Today, however, had been a roster of disappointments. Nothing she’d seen had made her drool with joy. The sun was hot, the car hotter, and she was feeling totally disgusted with the list her boss had given her to check out. The man was an idiot. Never had she seen such junk.
The next site on her list was one she should have put off to the next day, but she decided to hurry to get everything seen so she could head home sooner rather than later. So she drove on. The letter sent to the museum was in her briefcase, but there’d been no photo of the sideboard. Strangely, the letter was handwritten in pencil on lined school notebook paper, and the handwriting large and loopy, as if a child had written it. But the description of the sideboard was precise, with excellent provenance given, and its history laid out with scholarly precision. Whoever had written the letter, for the signature was illegible, knew exactly what he or she was doing to pique the museum’s curiosity. It was probably a hoax, Letty decided. The perfect end to a perfectly wasted day.
The summer sun dallied on the hilly horizon as Letty pulled her car into a dirt driveway. Rusted out pickups, both old as the hills, teetered on broken axels beside the front of the two-story house, and broken plastic milk cartons and mangled bicycles added to the sad ambiance of the place. Frowning, Letty wondered if she’d gotten the address right. A quick check of the return address on the envelope with the letter sent to the museum matched the sad mailbox at the end of the drive. Yep, she’d gotten it right.
Huge vines draped the bare wooden siding of the house, engulfing the chimney and trailing over windows on the second floor. No one came to the front door, which often happened when she visited the properties set up for her by the museum. She knew a call should have been made, telling the owners generally when to expect her, but she was hurried and not hopeful, so who cared?
She didn’t encourage anyone’s hopes that the museum would make an offer, and the general disappointment had depressed her. The unending poverty of this part of Georgia, the trailers with rotting roofs and mongrel dogs guarding the front door, had all melded into such a depressing picture of an America she hadn’t known existed when she was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Let someone else crush the fragile dreams of fragile people, she thought as she tapped the car horn to announce her presence.
She should go. No one came to the door, or from anywhere. Putting the Toyota into reverse, Letty felt the wheels slip. It almost felt as if she’d gotten the car stuck in a snow bank.
What on earth, she wondered? Getting out, she checked all four tires. Flat as pancakes.
Stunned, she sat down behind the wheel and tried to think. She had one spare, and that certainly wasn’t going to do the job. Pulling out her cell phone, she held it aloft at different angles to try to get a signal. Nothing. What next? She drew a blank until she realized the highway ran beside the house, close enough the bushes to the left of it swayed with the breeze as tractor trailers blew by. She had one option – head down to the highway and hope she could flag down someone who would send a tow truck.
Sighing, she retrieved her briefcase and began walking down the driveway, not looking forward to the danger of the highway. She knew she shouldn’t, but what else could she do? With no cell phone service and no one at home, she was out of ideas. Striding along with a false sense of bravado, she ran smack dab into an invisible wall, bouncing back so hard she ended up on her backside in the dirt.
What the. . ? Her nose hurt where it had hit the barrier, and she thought she might have wrenched her knee. Dragging herself upright, she was astounded to see nothing in front of her. Feeling like a fool, she hoisted her briefcase strap to her shoulder, and took a step forward. This time she stumbled back without landing on her keister.
No, no, no, she silently screamed. This couldn’t be happening. What was going on? The highway sounds had grown fainter and now she was aware of someone breathing hard. Harder than she was. Turning slowly, she was shocked to see a small figure on the front porch.
“Okay, what the hell is happening here?” Letty demanded. “I want to leave.”
“We thought you’d come to see the sideboard, if you’re Letty Bally.” The voice was deeper than that of a child. “Sorry to have kept you waiting. We were . . . busy.”
“I did. Come to see the sideboard. Why can’t I leave? What is going on?” Letty forced herself to remain calm. As calm as she could be, given the pickle she was in. Pickle, she realized, being as stupid a description as she could dig up. What kind of trouble was she in? Everything she was experiencing was too far beyond her normal life for her to think logically.
“Would you like a cup of tea? It will refresh you, I am sure.” The girl gestured to the front door. “We’d love to have you join us.”
Staring at the figure on the sagging porch, Letty hesitated. She was there for a job, after all. And she was thirsty. Maybe she’d think more clearly after a cup of tea. Obviously, her long, hot, and disappointing day had affected her hold on reality.
“I’d be pleased,” Letty replied, finding pleasure in the old-fashioned acceptance.
The figure, dressed, Letty could now see, in a flowered gown with an empire waistline that brushed the ground, disappeared through the front door. Ascending to rickety stairs, Letty hesitated a second before following her inside. What if this was some sort of trap? Then again, what kind of trap could a child set? And she really should see the sideboard.
Entering the foyer, she felt like Alice dropping through the rabbit hole. Nothing outside the decrepit house hinted at the exquisitely decorated interior. Instantly recognizing the Louis Quatorze chairs and Regency table, Letty tried, unsuccessfully, to keep her jaw from dropping open.
“Tea is served in the sun room,” the small woman smiled as Letty halted in her tracks. “This way, if you please.”
She was a woman, Letty realized. Under five feet tall, but a woman for sure. With her hair pulled into a bun on top of her head, stray curls dangling down her cheeks, and a thin linen scarf wrapped around her neckline, she looked as if she’d walked out of an illustration of an 1820s novel.
“Ah, I see you’re intrigued by the sideboard.” Without realizing she’d been staring as she was guided through the dining room, Letty had halted in front of the piece she knew she’d been summoned to see. “You’ve arrived in the nick of time. We sent the letter ages ago.”
“Your description failed to do it justice,” Letty answered, studying every line, every inlay detail, the types of woods used for the inlay, the shape of the legs, every detail she could catalogue in her head belonging to a Charleston master craftsman. “How did you come by it? I know you said it was purchased by the family in Charleston, but I thought it must be in pieces. And how did it get from Charleston to here?”
“Oh, my, I hope my letter wasn’t misleading. The sideboard was a wedding gift after the Revolution to my great-great-great grandfather upon his marriage to our three times great grandmother. I believe Mr. Edmund was the gift-giver. We have a letter somewhere in which he hopes our relatives will enjoy the sideboard for many years, his best felicitations to a true patriot, et cetera. The letter has always been in the bottom of the silverware drawer, but we decided to keep it with other family papers while Ryman is working on our history. He’s almost done, I’m afraid. We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him for a twelve month.” She smiled apologetically, and Letty noticed a few missing teeth. “He refuses to leave his room while he’s writing, except for trips to the necessary.” She blushed at her reference to a bodily function.
“May I ask your name? I couldn’t quite make it out in your letter to the museum. I’m Letty Bally, the museum’s rep, as you know.”
“My manners are sorely lacking! My stars, how sister will give me a hard time. I’m Genevieve Grayson, and my sister, who is awaiting us in the sun room, is Grace. I will make proper introductions when you can see her.”
“Can see her?” The words slipped out before Letty could stop them.
“She’s rather shy. You’ll understand, if she makes an appearance. I was hoping she’d stay after laying out the tea set, but it’s never a given. Even for me to see her.” Shrugging, Genevieve led the way through a parlor loaded with more antiques, some of them so spectacular Letty wanted to get down on her hands and knees and pull out her magnifying glass.
“Your family has quite the collection.” Letty tried to play it cool, but she knew her enthusiasm was showing. “Why, may I ask, are you willing to part with the sideboard?”
They’d reached the sunroom. Tacked onto the house off the side, it was reached through a butler’s pantry that gleamed with sparkling sterling silver tea sets and serving pieces displayed in glass-fronted mahogany cupboards. Ferns hung from the ceiling, while potted plants lined the window sills. Colors from the stained glass window panes rioted against the white-washed walls. Displayed on a wicker table was a rose-painted tea set and silver salvers covered with scones and tiny sandwiches.
“Grace is quite handy in the kitchen. It’s a good thing she is, or we’d starve. We can’t get kitchen help way out here, not anymore.” Genevieve sighed as she glanced at the chairs flanking the table. “I’m afraid Grace is reluctant to make an appearance. I hope you won’t mind too much.”
“Your brother never eats with you two?”
“Oh, no, as I said, not until the family history is complete. That’s why we asked if you’d like to see the sideboard, I mean, your museum, of course. We understand it has the highest standards, and as we’re rather taken with its history, we’d like it to have a home where as many people as possible can enjoy its beauty. Beauty fades if it’s not admired, don’t you find? Like a pretty girl who withers without the watering of compliments.”
Sinking into the wicker chair to the right of Genevieve’s, Letty didn’t know what to make of such a strange statement. All she could muster was a noncommittal “ummm.”
Pouring the tea, Genevieve chattered on. “I do get tired of having no one to talk to half the time, but please be assured, dear Miss Bally, that my siblings and I are in complete agreement about the sideboard leaving us. You must save it.”
Letty let that sink in for a bit. Over the tea cup she’d raised to her lips, taking care not to drink anything, she studied her hostess. Her face, unlined but unnaturally pale, was plain enough to be called homely. Her lips, though thin, could have been helped by lipstick, and her eyes by liner and mascara. After making such a judgment, Letty was embarrassingly aware of her own lack of makeup. She’d never thought it necessary before, but now she wondered how she appeared to others.
“Scone, Miss Bally?” Genevieve tapped the edge of a silver platter. “They’re a particular specialty of my sister.”
“In a moment,” Letty stalled. The colored design of a drooping lily reflected on Genevieve’s chest. “I’d like to know what else you have to authenticate the sideboard. Do you know the name of the maker?”
“But of course. I have everything in an envelope for you, which I will retrieve from my brother’s room. Now, there’s something else I must explain before our time is up.” Glancing at the stained glass window that was reflecting on her breast, Genevieve frowned. “Grayson must be closer than I thought to his last sentence. We must hurry.”
“Why?” The sunroom was growing hotter, and Letty wished she could ask about opening a window, but they seemed to be nailed shut.
“There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I guess I must just lay it all out. Spill the beans, so to say.” With a worried glance up at the ceiling, Genevieve cleared her throat as if it hurt her. “I hope Grace is getting ready. Time is shorter than I thought.”
Letty had no idea what was making Genevieve so nervous, but the woman’s anxiety level was increasing by the second. “What do you mean, time is shorter?”
Genevieve flinched. “I can’t really explain. Believe me when I say I know this sounds a bit, um, crazy, but we chose you because of your reputation. That you understand the old ways of things that have lived a long and useful life. We asked many pieces of furniture and they all said, to a piece, that you could be trusted.”
“I’m flattered, but I hardly think furniture can talk.” She was gathering her briefcase and purse closer, readying herself to jump up and run. This woman was certifiable, Letty was sure of it.
“But it does. It lives and breathes as much as you and I. With memories, loves, hates, and a desire to live. But all lives come to an end, and that’s true of the sideboard. It won’t survive this ending, but the other pieces in this house will live on, with us, wherever we land in the next few minutes. We’re never sure, but there’s always a place waiting for us.”
Letty could only stare, digging her nails into her palms to keep from laughing and crying. Why the heck hadn’t she kept on driving this evening? What on earth possessed her to pull into that dirt driveway when she’d seen the house was deserted looking?
“We only have so many lives to relive, you see, and the sideboard was our first piece. We’re inordinately fond of it, because it’s lived with us all of our lives, of course. We’d like you to save it. Make sure it ends up where it’ll be appreciated and admired. It’s rather vain, you see, because we’ve always told it it’s so special and gorgeous, which it is, you must admit.” Genevieve’s smile was sad and sweet, and Letty found herself almost believing Genevieve believed what she was saying.
“I don’t see how that’s possible, that furniture, that things, have a soul, have feelings, can live or die. I’m sorry, but I really must be going. Please accept my apologies and give my regards to your brother and sister.” Briefcase tucked under her arm, slinging her purse over her shoulder, Letty rose.
Then she heard it. A soft murmur of voices, high, low, and in between. At first, she thought they were coming from upstairs, but then she realized it was all over the house, top to bottom. A lone voice stood out from the rest, masculine, rusty-sounding, and definitely excited.
“Grace, Genevieve, it’s finished! Are you ready? I am! Can’t wait to start the next one!”
“That’s Grayson,” Genevieve explained, sounding apologetic. “Just as I feared. How I wish we’d had more time. You’re just as you were described to us, and I know the sideboard will be fine in your hands.”
“How? I don’t have a company check on me, I need to arrange transport back to the museum for a final appraisal, there’re a ton of steps to take before the museum assumes ownership!” Pausing in the gilt-flocked wallpapered foyer, Letty took a final glance at Genevieve.
Smiling, the tiny woman raised one thin hand and waved. “So lovely meeting you. Don’t forget us, will you? I mean, you never got to meet Grace or Grayson. . .” Turning her face towards the ceiling, it appeared that Genevieve was listening. “Yes, I know. You must leave now, Miss Bally. Cherish our dear friend. I do so regret we can’t take it with us, but you will give it a good and loving home. Remember that it likes orange oil now and then!”
The front door sprang open by itself, and Letty decided to run. Heaven knew what was coming next, but she didn’t think she’d like it. Racing down the steps, Letty stumbled and tripped at the bottom. Sprawled in the dirt, she looked at the house, half expecting Genevieve to come running after her with a butcher knife in her hand.
Instead, the kudzu grew and entwined even faster around the house than Letty could believe. Every inch of the claptrap siding sank beneath the vine’s weight. Even so, she could smell smoke. An acrid, thick smoke, which curled from beneath the kudzu like licks of cold air.
Shivering, Letty inched backwards on her fanny, unable to take her eyes from the curls of smoke escaping the green rectangle of house.
Her car. Could she reach it? Clearly, the house was on fire. Would she be able to get the Toyota to move now? Should she run back inside and try to drag Genevieve out with her? Call 911 for a fire truck? Pausing in her scramble, Letty dumped the contents of her purse on the ground and fumbled for her cell. Even as she opened it, she remembered the lack of cell tower signal in the area, and the reason she hadn’t called ahead about the appointment. Maybe she could find a store or gas station at the next exit off the interstate and call from there.
Her mind racing, Letty didn’t notice at first the sideboard at her side. As she struggled to her feet, she grasped its edge to steady herself.
“What…?” Letty gasped when she realized what she held.
It was there, beside her. The Charleston sideboard. Patting it with both hands, Letty assured herself she wasn’t dreaming. Gleaming in the setting sun, the sideboard shone with a breathtaking beauty. Even as Letty admired it, she felt something else coming through her hands from the wood beneath them. At first, she thought it was her imagination, but then she realized, she couldn’t get her hands off the furniture. As if held by a big magnet, her hands tingled, then she felt vibrations running from them, through her whole body. Music. It was a form of music, a song she’d never heard. And it hummed through her with a language she instantly understood.
Don’t be afraid, it said. They’re just moving on. I am yours now, my time with them is finished.
Letty couldn’t have screamed if she’d wanted to. Nodding, she accepting the message for what it was, a declaration of truth. “I won’t take you to the museum,” she promised out loud. “Only I will know your story. Will you tell me the whole thing?”
It may take a lifetime, the sideboard answered. It will be my honor and privilege. Miss Genevieve gave me instructions on how to carry on, in honesty and truth.
Nodding, Letty acknowledged the statement. “And I will do the same with you.”
Her hands released, Letty knew exactly where to start. She dialed a number she had in her contacts list, for a special transport that specialized in delicate objects. She tried to text a message. After a quick description and directions to the house, Letty hung up. The message had gone through. Turning from the sideboard, she saw the house was a pile of smoking rubble. The conflagration had consumed every inch in the space of minutes. She’d never have been able to rescue Genevieve or anyone else.
With one hand resting lightly on the sideboard, she felt its sadness. “I am sorry for your loss,” she murmured. “So many years. But there’s good to come.”
She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did. Without knowing how or why she came by the knowledge, she was sure she’d have a successful career dealing in antique American decorative arts. Instead of collecting for the museum, she’d find homes for objects that still needed to be loved, to be admired, to be used by living human beings. And her sideboard would be with her through it all, grounding her, keeping her focused on her goals. To make sure these precious objects were loved. She settled into her car to wait. The night passed, but she never felt alone or afraid. The sideboard was there to keep her company.
As the special transport truck pulled into the driveway the next morning, Letty emailed her resignation letter to the museum. No explanation necessary. She was done collecting furniture to put it in isolation, lonely and unnecessary.
The transport driver had brought other men to help load, being accustomed to the museum’s requirements. What he wasn’t prepared for were the instructions he received.
“Deliver to this address.” Letty handed him a piece of paper. Her parent would be happy to store the sideboard until Letty got her business address up and running. She knew they’d be thrilled at her new adventure. Maybe she’d even start wearing makeup and dressing for success, she chuckled silently as the transport disappeared back to the Interstate highway.
This time her car was able to leave the smoldering remains of the house with no problem. As Letty merged into highway traffic, she wondered where Genevieve and her siblings ended up with their precious friends, the antiques that had surrounded them.
The family that had squabbled for years over who was to pay the tax bill on the old family homestead was notified of its fiery destruction. None of them grieved over its loss. They finally agreed to sell the remaining land to a gas station that would erect a huge sign over the interstate to draw in gas-hungry drivers and their cars. One day during excavation for the gas tanks, a silver cake knife, untarnished and intact, would be turned up. The bulldozer operator would take it home to his wife, who was thrilled to own something so beautiful. She would use it to served their daughter’s seventh birthday cake, and hold on to it for many years to be passed down in the family. Everyone loved it.