The End of Her Story
by Anne Altieri
When my mother asked if I was nervous about staying home alone for the weekend, I lied and said, “Nah, of course not.”
Really, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal for a thirteen-year-old kid like me. I lived on a farm in a sleepy North Carolina town where the most dangerous thing I ever encountered was a startled skunk. But it was the idea of being alone at night in a big ol’ house that had, as the people ‘round here called it, “a reputation,” that made me a little uneasy.
“Don’t pay any mind to what people say,” my father told me. He had inherited the house from a distant cousin, and we moved in a few months ago. “The idea of there being a ghost in this house is just an old wives tale told for the entertainment of foolish people,” he said.
Well, as for me, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not really. It’s just that it made me uncomfortable knowing other people did, and that they thought one lived in my house, no less.
After lunch, I walked my mother and father out to the truck. They were going to visit my Aunt Bonnie who lived a long way off in Georgia. She had fallen and broken her leg, and my mother wanted to go check on her. While my mother looked after Aunt Bonnie, my father said he’d help my Uncle Jim patch the roof, which had gotten damaged in a hurricane.
“Now Jesse, you know what chores you need to do today,” my father said. “And it looks like we’re going to get a mighty storm tonight, so before dinner, turn in the horses that have been outside in the paddocks and bring them into the barn. But first you’ll have to muck out the stalls.”
My mother kissed my cheek, climbed into the passenger seat, and told me to make the cherry pie she’d baked last through the weekend. “I know you’ll be fine, Son, but if you have any trouble, just call the neighbors,” she said as they pulled off down the gravel drive.
The day was hot and sticky, and mucking out stalls is a smelly, dirty job, so I drank lots of sweet tea. Everything went along just fine until I tried to get that wild bay mare, Trickster, into her stall.
The wind had been picking up, and sometimes it made the horses jittery when they sensed a storm coming in. Trickster was acting a mess and wouldn’t let me take her bridal to lead her inside. She kept running ‘round the paddock and wouldn’t stop, even when I tried to coax her to me with a bucket of feed. “Well fine,” I thought. “You can run yourself crazy in the rain tonight.”
By nightfall, it was awfully quiet as I ate my dinner alone in the kitchen. I turned on the television for some comforting noise, when all of a sudden a big gust of wind blew and then “Pop!” Everything went silent and dark. “Oh great, a blackout,” I muttered to myself.
I went to the drawer where my mother kept the emergency candles, and found some matches over the stove. I lit several candles and ate by myself, listening to the gusting wind in the trees and the pounding of Trickster’s hooves as she took off ‘round her paddock again.
The light from the candles made dull shadows on the walls, and as the flames flickered, everything looked like it was alive and moving ‘round me. Suddenly, stark white lightening flashed and thunder boomed above me. My stomach felt all tight, and I’d pretty much lost my appetite, so I cleared my plates.
I decided to be nice and give it another try with Trickster before the rain started. When I stepped outside, I was blasted with wind, and grit flew into my eyes. I could hardly see for the moonless night, but I pushed into the wind and made my way to Trickster’s paddock, calling out her name. The mare’s beating hooves and high-pitched whinny answered back from the far end of the paddock.
I let myself into the paddock and called again. The thud of hoof beats grew louder and the ground began to vibrate as Trickster bounded toward me, faster and faster. When she was almost to me, the wind howled, or screamed really, and a flash of white exploded between me and Trickster. In that illuminating moment, I saw Trickster reared up on her hind legs. She’d stopped only inches from where I stood.
The flash of lightening, it must have been lightening, had shocked Trickster still in her tracks. Her eyes were wild, her breathing burst hot from her muzzle, but she was still.
“Whoa, girl, whoa. It’s me, Trickster. It’s okay,” I said, running my hand along her neck. Gently, I took hold of her bridle. I led her out of the paddock and safely into her stall. As I slid the barn doors shut, the first fat drops of rain hit the back of my neck. I made a run for the house and got inside just as a sheet of rain hit the ground with a smack.
Now that the power was off, my night of TV viewing was ruined, so I grabbed two candles from the kitchen, blew out the rest, and went upstairs. After a quick shower, I put the candles on my night table, crawled into bed, and opened up my Popular Mechanics magazine.
Raindrops thrummed hard on the window. The wind whistled through all the gaps in this ol’ house, and the lightening and thunder carried on their angry conversation. A crack of thunder broke so loud, I felt it shake the house and me with it. The magazine flew out of my hands, and I threw the covers over my head.
After a minute, I got composed enough to feel ridiculous so I lowered the covers. There was nothing to be afraid of, it was just a bit of weather carrying on and it would be over in no time.
I leaned over the side of the bed to pick up my magazine, when my eyes caught sight of two glowing, slippered feet. Just then, I thought I heard someone whisper my name. I screamed, flew off of the bed, and ran straight into the closet, slamming the door behind me.
My heart was thumping in my chest, and I thought my ears would blow with all the blood rushing to my head. I held the door shut with one hand and grabbed my Louisville Slugger with the other. For added measure, I jammed my football helmet on my head.
I stood still and waited. I listened and listened, but all I could hear through the door was the occasional peal of thunder. Then it started. I heard a moan. I held my breath and tightened my grip on the baseball bat. I heard another moan and a soft cry. Then I heard deep, wracking sobs that went on and on.
It made me sad to hear all that crying, so sad, I forgot I was afraid. I opened the door a crack and peered out. Even though my eyes were looking straight at it, I still couldn’t believe it. There in my room was a ghost bawlin’ her eyes out.
The ghost didn’t see me watching her; she was covering her face with her hands, muffling her cries. She had long hair past her shoulders and wore a flowing nightgown. She seemed older than me, but still young, like a teenager. It was hard for my eyes to adjust. I could see her, but I could also see through her. When I looked at her, I was also looking at my Charlotte Knights team poster behind her.
I watched her for a while and then slowly opened the door. She looked up, and our eyes met. We stayed that way for a long time.
“I like your helmet, Jesse,” she said softly.
I’d forgotten I had it on. “Thank you,” I said. “How’d you know my name?”
“I know the names of everyone who’s lived in this house after me,” the ghost said.
“When did you live here?” I asked.
“A long time ago, nearly 100 years,” she said. “This used to be my room.”
“You didn’t,…uh, didn’t….”
“Die in this room? No. Back when I was alive, someone who was gravely ill was brought into a room on the main floor so the people caring for the sick could be spared running up and down stairs all day. We called it a dying room.”
Neither of us said anything for a while after that.
“I always loved this room,” she said.
“So you got really sick and that’s how you died?” I interrupted, still stuck on what she'd said earlier.
“Yes. It was a surprise to us all—myself included. I had a simple flu, but then it settled in my lungs, and it was over rather quickly after that. It was 1918. Many people fell ill that year.”
I suddenly had this terrible thought of other ghost people hanging ‘round dying rooms, but I decided I’d better not think about all that right now.
“Do you have a name,” I asked.
She laughed. “Oh yes! It’s been such a long time since I’ve talked to the living that I’ve forgotten my manners. My name is Eleanor Paulson, but everyone called me Ellie.”
I took off my football helmet and leaned the baseball bat against the wall. “My name’s Jesse Monroe. But then you know that already.”
“Yes. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jesse,” she said.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me. I mean, I’m actually talking to a…a….”
“Ghost. Yes,” Ellie said. “But you know, you do believe, or you wouldn’t be able to see me right now. That’s what’s so difficult, so few people these days believe in anything more than what they can see and touch.”
“Well, I know my mother and father don’t believe. They’re good people, but I doubt they’d ever understand all this,” I said.
Ellie looked at me and nodded her head sadly, like she knew all too well what it was like to be misunderstood.
“Jesse, I was wondering if you could help me,” she said. “Once a year, on the anniversary of the day I died, I can come back to this house to seek help so I can go to my eternal rest. I’ve wandered many years because I left some unfinished business in my life before I died.”
“What did you do? Was it something really bad?” I asked.
“No, it’s very simple, really. During the time I was ill, I was reading a book, but I never finished it because…, well, you know” she said.
“So the only thing stopping you from going wherever it is you’re supposed to go is that you didn’t finish reading your book?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s all,” Ellie said.
“Why don’t you just find a copy of the book and finish it?”
“I wish it were that easy, but it’s difficult for someone in my condition. You see, I can’t hold a book or turn its pages.” To prove her point, she passed her hand, back and forth, through a candle. The flame burned on without the slightest flicker.
“You could have had someone read it to you,” I said.
“I’ve tried,” Ellie’s voice cracked. “I’ve tried all these years, but people either don’t believe in ghosts and can’t see me, or if they do, I frighten them and they run away from me before I can ask.”
“Well, I could read the book to you,” I said.
Ellie’s eyes opened wide, and she glowed brighter and brighter. “I was hoping you might, Jesse. Thank you, thank you!”
“Aw, it’s okay,” I said, feeling like I was probably glowing a little brighter too somehow. “What book were you reading?”
“Oh, it was a very popular book,” Ellie said. “It still is, actually. It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.”
I think my glow sputtered out some after hearing that. “You mean that ol’ timey girl’s book?”
“Yes, that would be the one.”
“Ellie, I don’t have that book. Isn’t there something else I could read you instead?”
“No, it needs to be that one. But you needn’t be concerned about not having the book. I know where there’s a copy in the house,” she said.
“Here? I’ve never seen a copy of it ‘round here,” I said.
“When I died, my mother was so distraught she took all the things that most reminded her of me and put them in a box. She couldn’t get rid of it because she loved me so, but she couldn’t have it around in sight either because my death caused her such pain. She took the box and put it under a floorboard in the attic.”
“The attic! Oh no, nuh-uh. I’m not going up there. I’ve only been up there once in broad daylight, and even then it made my skin crawl.”
“Nope, sorry. Tomorrow I’ll go into town and borrow a copy of the book from the library and we’ll start reading it then,” I said.
“No, Jesse, it doesn’t work like that. I have to start reading it tonight on the anniversary date of my death, or I’ll have to wait another year. If for some reason you and your family are no longer living in this house next year, I’ll have to try and get one of the next inhabitants to read to me. In the 89 years since I died, you’re the only person who’s tried to help me.”
“Aw, Ellie. I hate it up there,” I said. “It’s so dark, and I feel like I can’t breathe. I think it might be haunted, too.”
“Jesse, you’re talking to a ghost. Trust me, there’s nothing up there. Besides, you can think of it as returning a favor.”
“Returning a favor. I got between you and that charging horse earlier this evening. How else do you think it could have stopped in the middle of a full gallop?”
“That was you? That flash of white was you?”
“Yes, of course. Animals see me quite easily, and I’ve always been good at calming a skittish horse.”
Oh brother, I was certainly out of arguments and excuses after that. Turning back into my closet, I pulled out my sneakers and put them on. If I was going to step on a mouse, a snake, or some squishy dead thing, I wasn’t going to do it barefoot.
I took one of the candles and started out the room. Then I thought better of it and took the other one too. Ellie followed me to the foot of the stairs leading to the attic. I put one of the candles on the bottom step and started up. My forehead and hands felt clammy. I made it half-way up the flight of stairs and stopped. I just couldn’t go any further. What if there were bats up there? What if there were rats and huge spiders?
I turned to Ellie. She just floated up the flight, and when she got to the top step by the door, she looked back at me and gave me a little encouraging smile. She passed silently through the door to wait for me on the other side.
It’s funny to think I found it more comforting to go up into a dark attic with a ghost than to do it alone.
I climbed the rest of the stairs, turned the doorknob, and walked in. The hot, stuffy air and that attic smell hit me. Immediately I sneezed, doing my best to protect the candle’s flame.
“Bless you,” Ellie said.
“Thanks,” Jesse said. “Hey wait a minute. I read once that people say ‘bless you’ because they want to protect the sneezer from having evil spirits enter their body. If you—a ghost—say it, then there must really be evil spirits, right?”
“There are,” she said. “But I told you, they aren’t here tonight. Now, if you’ll follow me….”
She moved to the far end of the attic near a window. The rain drummed on the roof, and the lightening took a pretend snapshot picture of the room.
Ellie stood—or hovered, really, her feet didn’t touch the ground—by a wide slat in the floor. I stepped on one end of it and the other end popped up with a creak. I lifted the slat and inside was a small wooden chest, not much bigger than a shoebox.
I put the candle on the floor and Ellie and I crouched over the box as I lifted the little latch and raised the lid. She gasped as I drew out a pale doll with a ceramic face and a small pillow embroidered with flowers and a butterfly.
She tried to touch the doll but her hand passed through its body. She didn’t try to touch the pillow. “My mother made it,” she said. “She was very good with a needle and thread.”
At the bottom of the chest was her book. It was bound in leather and smelled musty when I opened it. One of the pages was made of something like tracing paper and it had a picture of four young women in wide hooped skirts. “Oh boy,” I thought, “I really can’t tell anyone about this.”
I took up the candle and Ellie and I left the attic. Leaving sure was a lot easier than arriving.
Back in my room, I settled into bed and Ellie hovered in a sitting position over the rocking chair. Ellie said she had read through the third chapter, so I started reading at the forth.
Although the story took place during the Civil War, there were no descriptions of battles or soldiers. Instead, it was about the women folk left behind at home. I was thoroughly prepared to be thoroughly bored by it, but I had to admit, the book started to grow on me. The story followed the lives of the four March girls from their childhood years to adulthood. I liked them because they reminded me of my grown sisters.
Maybe it was because it had been such a strange, hard day, or maybe it was because I was getting so tired, but when I read the part where Beth died, I felt all choked up. I know it got to Ellie. I heard her sniff a couple of times.
By the time I came to the last lines of the story, the candles were burned down to nubs and I could barely keep my eyes open. The March girls were all grown up and had gotten settled in their lives, even that feisty Jo girl.
The sun was starting to come up. I looked at Ellie. She was smiling and smiling as my eyes got heavier and heavier. As my eyes began to close, she started to fade from my sight. I heard her whisper, “Thank you, Jesse. You’re very brave.”
I woke to the sound of the telephone later that day with the sun shining bright in my room. My mother was calling to see if I was okay. They’d heard on the news there’d been a terrible storm here, and that power and telephone lines were down. She asked if I’d had any trouble, and I said, “Nah, not a bit.”
Toward the end of the day, after I’d turned out the horses from their stalls, had my dinner, and ate some pie, I laid down in bed and read the first three chapters of Little Women—just to see how the whole story made sense, of course.
When I finished reading, I went up to the attic, put the book, pillow, and doll back in the chest and under the floorboard. It wasn’t until I was walking down the attic stairs that I realized I hadn’t been the least bit scared.
Somehow I guess I was a little different. Come to think of it, Trickster was different too. When I had turned her out of her stall earlier in the day, she'd followed me to the paddock as quietly as a little lamb. She just walked out to the pasture, looked at me for a moment, and then bowed her head to graze on the fresh green grass.
I don’t know that I’ll be telling anybody about last night for a long, long time. I doubt many people would believe me. But when I’m a grown up, I’ll probably tell my kids. It’ll be easier for them to understand. I’ll tell them about the ghost who couldn’t go home until she got to the end of her story.
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