Stories Page 4
Winter 2011

 

 
 
VALENTINE’S DAY
 
    by  Janet Shell Anderson
 
 
  
Ashlee Cernak is dead, but it isn’t enough.
 
Valentine’s Day. The farmhouse just west of Hallam, Nebraska, is empty when Diana Helstrom comes home, except for Jane Eyre, a small gray cat.
 
“Max.”
 
No answer. Diana does not expect any. Jane Eyre washes her paws. Across the pasture on the far hills, Diana can see ruined Hallam, a town destroyed by the largest tornado ever seen. Now Hallam has destroyed her husband, Max. Every night he goes out with his brothers and drinks. Hallam meant nothing to Diana. It meant everything to Max. Ashlee Cernak lived there. 
 
The winter landscape smolders toward sunset; hills stripped of crops by the tornado’s passing lift bare slopes toward a stained sky. Farmsteads are ruined, barns smashed, sheds ripped apart. Loss has driven her husband to bars, to noise. Max will be coming home late and will sleep in the small back bedroom alone. Diana will toss and turn in the front bedroom in the huge oak bed they bought together. The windbreak will rustle all night; coyotes will cry, the same as it’s been every night since Ashlee died.
 
Diana shivers. The empty house feels as if ghosts are piling into it, inky memories of other lives. It is Max’s home, not hers anymore. His father betrayed his mother in it. Now Max is betraying Diana with dreams of a dead woman.
 
One west windowpane fans an arc of crimson light up the plastered wall. The farmhouse is 100 years old. The two-mile wide tornado just missed it, hit the barn, killed Black Angus in the field, killed the white dog, Artemis, who grew up with Max, killed an old woman they barely knew, killed Ashlee. Sunset red as fire stains the walls.
 
“Max,” Diana calls. “Max.”
 
His name in the empty house is wrong, harsh; the rows of jelly glasses in the old oak hutch once belonging to his grandmother resent the calling of the name. The pressed glass bowl on its ancient shelf glows with a disturbing light; something left behind, ugly. Helstrom men have betrayed Helstrom women for generations on these bleak hills. The antique glassware sits in ranks, dusted by furious, heartbroken women, left after their men found other lovers. Abandoned, the Helstrom women retained their pristine rooms, their untracked floors, their solitary beds.
 
“Max.” The western sky is red as a torn Valentine.
 
The mirror almost refuses to shatter; the glasses almost refuse to break. They bounce on the bare oak floors at first. Diana lights a candle, then a curtain, then a rug.  The old house ignites in a hurry. The small cat, Jane Eyre, races for the door.
 
 
Bio: Janet Shell Anderson has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction. In the past year she has been published by Vestal Review, Pindeldyboz, The Scruffy Dog Review, LITSNACK, Gemini Magazine, Convergence, The Grey Sparrow Press and The Four Cornered Universe. She is an attorney.
 
 
 
 
COLOR IN THE GARDEN
 
       by Sandy Steinman

     “When change occurs,” she told me, “a window opens to growth.” I nodded in agreement, though I wasn't quite sure what she meant. "And growth is always welcome, isn't it?"
    
      "Of course," I replied, and hired the prospective new gardener, though I was still  unsure what she  meant by change and growth.
    
       It wasn't until months later that I discovered exactly what she had in mind by what she set into the ground in the streaming sun of my kitchen garden.
    
      “What I want is vibrant color,”  I explained during the interview. She nodded, sitting tall and straight at my kitchen table as if rooted into the oak chair. She sipped geranium tea while tapping a shiny spade on her knee.
    
       “I like the vibrant primary hues to excite my eyes," I told her, "heady perfume to stimulate my senses as I gaze out into the garden through my open window drying dishes or preparing a summer's ratatouille."
    
        I pointed sadly at the bland callas, boring white impatiens, white hydrangeas, tree roses.
    
        It's not that I have an aversion to white. I prefer white sheets on our feather bed, white towels, white underwear. Jasmine rice, filet of sole, and vanilla ices are favored dinner fare. I attend with joy the chaste weddings of a first marriage and celebrate the Chinese New Year.
       
       Yet, white in the garden, depresses me.
       
       “I have the perfect solution,” she announced, and on her next scheduled work day she arrived with twenty skinny pale green stalks. ”Brazilian Manandola Lilies,” she announced, “from my stepmother's garden. Ten are vivid red, ten, sunny yellow.”
       
       She had an odd expression on her face, a smirk, perhaps a near-wicked smile, as though she held an amusing, though dark secret.
    
       At the front of the embankment where the slope is shallow, she dug deep and planted ten slim stalks announcing they would be red blooms.   Down below the knotted pine steps, she planted the yellows.
    
       I was intrigued. “How tall will they grow?”
    
       Shrugging her wide shoulders, she dug still deeper and flashing that odd smile, replied in a whisper, “Very, very tall.”
    
      Several weeks later, after removing the remaining white periwinkle, she  announced that she had made some significant life changes. Uprooting her present husband, she'd plucked a new boyfriend who was flying with her to Paris.
    
     “Besides, my work here is done.” she said with her strange smile.
    
     Today at the kitchen sink, as warm water foams the detergent, out the window I see thick pale green stalks, thick as young elm trunks.
    
     Squinting, I gaze up at the Manandolada Lilies, now 70 feet tall. They are still growing.
    
     I will need strong binoculars to see the bright yellow and red blooms if they ever bloom.
 
 

Bio: Writer and photographer, Sandy Steinman formerly taught Fine Art Photography at Fairfield University in CT. She currently writes poetry, prose, monologues and one act plays. She enjoys participating in monologue presentations and poetry readings. Online work is included in several literary publications, including "Mipo, Eclectica,"   "Zimmerzine," "The Third Muse," "Junket," "The Adirondack Review," "Big Bridge,""Doorknobs and Bodypaint, " "Mentress Moon," "The Writer's Hood," "Pulse," and "The Melic Review." She is a passionate summer gardener specializing in pole beans and Early Girl tomatoes.







Life at Tiffany Hall

       by Phyllis Humby

 

       Alexandra lowered her delicate frame to the hand-embroidered seat of her bedside chair.  The illumination of the lamp reflected the faint veins of her drooping eyelids, as her head nodded toward her left shoulder.  Suspended between sleep and wakefulness, Alexandra rekindled memories of her first visit to Tiffany Hall, and the decision that changed the course of her life.

             The wrinkles above her brow softened and her thin dry lips parted.  Her breathing became shallow as she returned to that occasion; her undisturbed state disquieted only by the tremor in her parchment-wrinkled hands.     

                            **************************************

           

             Alexandra boarded a train in New York for a trip back to Virginia: back to her roots.  All the while, she puzzled over the reason her parents had kept the estate in the family.  According to her parents’ attorney, Mr. Aiken, they had not arranged for the upkeep of her great-great-uncle’s estate, although they did pay taxes to keep the city from intervening.

            She recalled seeing the deserted plantation as a young child while horseback riding with her parents.  That very night, her father Raymond built a crackling fire as she cuddled next to her mother, Letitia, begging to hear the enthralling history of Tiffany Hall.

                        ************************************************************

Ramona LaCroix was a spirited young woman when she married Raymond’s distinguished great-uncle, Frederick Drew-Allen, and moved into the white-pillared mansion surrounded by lush gardens and ponds.

The servants and caretakers of Tiffany Hall delighted in coddling Ramona, just as they had pampered Vanessa Drew-Allen, whose heartbreaking death years earlier had created a pall over the huge estate.  The new bride’s laughter echoed through the immense rooms of the lovely mansion, and music and merriment filtered through the windows, over the sound of horse and buggy, on many star-filled nights.

            When Ramona elatedly whispered of her delicate condition, they had more reason to celebrate.  Frederick’s memory of the loss of his first wife and newborn clouded his happiness.  He would celebrate once again, only when he knew his adored Ramona and the baby were strong and healthy.

            Tiffany Hall bustled in anticipation of the new arrival.     

            Oblivious to the rumbling thunder and rain-spotted window, Ramona and Frederick remained cocooned in the miracle of birth. 

Frederick stared into the eyes of his infant son’s mother, until her soul lay bare: he knew that their love would last an eternity.  He carried his swaddled newborn to the window as Ramona watched their images intensify with the flash of lightning. 
            “You are Raol Edward Drew-Allen, son of Frederick Drew-Allen and Ramona LaCroix.  All that is mine is yours.”

            Frederick returned the infant to Ramona and brushed the salty wetness of her cheek with his firm warm lips.  His wife looked like a mere child herself with damp ringlets clinging to her glistening cheeks.  Soothing her newborn, Ramona’s lips formed a contented smile as she drifted off to sleep.

            Raol grew to be a strong, rugged boy who shared his father’s love for the outdoors and his passion for horses.

            To be so happy seemed too good to be true. 

            The sound of restless horses awoke Raol early one dawn, and tugging on his breeches, he hurtled down the stairs and charged across the open stretch of land.

            Reaching the stable and panting for breath, Raol slid the rail across and opened the large doors.  In a blinding flash, his black stallion bolted through the opening, knocking him down with a sickening thump.

            Ramona’s scream shattered the morning air as she witnessed her son’s tragic accident from her window.  She reached Raol just as Frederick lifted the limp body.

            Raol Drew-Allen now rested with his baby brother and Vanessa in the grassy knoll beyond the gardens.  His parents gave thanks for thirteen years of joy with a son whose memory they would cherish every day of their lives.

            At the urgings of close friends, the Drew-Allens’ suppressed their sorrow and opened their home to guests.  The empty stables and long walks to the other side of the gardens were reminders of fleeting happiness.

            Frederick was eighty-three years old when he passed away, leaving Ramona to take up the walk alone.

            Dispirited, she closed many of the rooms in the house and let the caretakers go.  Short visits with close friends sustained Ramona’s existence.  For twenty-nine years, she wandered from the deteriorating house to the gardens and beyond, before joining her family for eternity at the age of eighty-two.

            The manor was sealed and its precious memories laid to rest. 

 

                        **********************************************

 

Tiffany Hall had remained hidden in Alex’s memory since her family moved north.  She had considered the estate and its history an enchanting fairy tale: a link to her childhood that she was determined to revisit. 

The call of the conductor interrupted Alex’s thoughts as the train chugged into the station.

           

                        **************************************************

 

            The sight of Tiffany Hall betrayed her childhood fantasy.  Long thick weeds and bushes gone wild, engulfed the veranda, choking the once picturesque gardens.  Alex moved forward for a closer view of the ruins.

            Accompanied by Mr. Aiken, they literally broke into the decrepit building. 

            “Don’t concern yourself, Alexandra.  This is a routine procedure.  We will evaluate the contents for the auction, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the city grabs up this bit of land for a park.”

Standing in the dismal entrance, yanked her back in time.  Alex was unprepared for the wrenching emotion; a sentimental attachment that she attributed to her parents’ vivid storytelling.

            Moving forward, she inspected the elaborate dust-laden drapes, which she imagined had been an olive green.  Drop cloths silhouetted the antique chairs, settees, and tables. 

Oblivious to the tears welling in her eyes, she stared at the impressive oak staircase.  She pictured Ramona gliding down the stairs to greet her guests.  Alex smiled at her romanticisms.  The fantasy was still alive.

She flinched as a hand touched her arm.

“Are you all right?”  Mr. Aiken looked uncomfortable.  Alex lingered at the stairs adjusting her silk scarf and pulling black kid gloves over her long, slim fingers.

“Perhaps, we should leave now.” he coaxed.

John Aiken glanced at the young heiress on the drive back to the centre of town.  He hoped she was not feeling ill.  Her flushed cheeks and dewy eyes alluded to the emotional impact of the tour.

Alex was silent throughout the real estate prattle back to her hotel.

“Will you be leaving in the morning?” he asked as the car slowed to a stop.

“No,” she replied huskily, “I think I’ll stay on.”

Mr. Aiken’s left brow shot up questioningly.

By the time she reached her room, she felt emotionally drained.  Of one thing, she was sure: she would do it.  She must.  She could afford a hiatus from her work and if the city was just as anxious to restore this landmark, she was sure she could count on their co-operation. 

The master bedroom and kitchen were a priority if she was to take up residence.  Exhaustion vanished and she felt the buzz of exhilaration as she constructed a plan.  Tomorrow she would hire workers to remove the boards and let the sun shine, once again, on the remains of Tiffany Hall. 

                        ****************************************

After weeks of vigorous activity, Alex stood at the new glass panes, her eyes darting from the sun-blackened men, hoeing and raking neglected gardens, to the tractors droning over hilly lawns. 

Alex worked from morning to night, examining pieces of furniture, while the cleaning crew worked diligently.  Workers were closing off a tunnel beneath the back kitchen, which led to the servants’ quarters.  A fire at some time had destroyed most of the old quarters and it was not worth repairing the damage.

Mr. Soloman, head of the restoration crew, lumbered across the entrance room bellowing, “Miss Alex, you have a caller.”

“Thank you Mr. Soloman.  I am on my way.”  Alex strode across the hall and skipped down the first flight of stairs, catching a glimpse of the dumb waiter.  “I wish you were an elevator.”  She sang over her shoulder.  She was out of breath when she reached the front doors.

A frail man, his back to the entrance, was bundled into a long overcoat, hat, and high rubber boots, despite the warmth of the day.

“May I help you?”

He turned at the sound of her voice, and displayed a youthful grin.  Reaching for his hand, Alex looked into the warmest blue eyes she had ever seen.

“Please come in.”

Alex, placing her hand beneath his elbow, escorted him into the foyer.

“Forgive me.  I know I should not bother you.  I had to come to see if it is true.  You see, I was here when they put the boards on the windows.  Sad, very sad.  The Drew-Allen’s were kind, gracious people.  God rest their souls.”

“You knew them personally?”

“Oh yes.  My parents visited the Drew-Allen’s on many occasions.  I remember sneaking into this room” he raised an arm indicating the doorway to the Games Room, “and hiding behind my father’s chair while the men were gathered for a drink and a cigar.  Oh, I heard some good stories when I was a youngster.”  He chuckled, focusing on the large room, no doubt coaxing memories through the cobwebs.

“Would you care to join me for tea and sandwiches?”

“Oh, I didn’t come to take up your time.  I just wanted a look at the place.  You know when you are old all you have are memories”, he added shaking his head.

“I insist you stay, as long as you don’t mind lots of questions.”  Alex used her most persuasive tone.

Benjamin Hayes visited for over an hour, rekindling his memories as they toured Tiffany Hall.  The rooms came alive as the kindly old man recalled happier times.

“I would bring my mother to visit Mrs. Drew-Allen.  Why, I’d unhitch the horses and let them graze in the field.  My mother always had a basket of preserves and fresh cakes.  Yes, ma’am.  ‘Course if there was the odd job to do, I would work away at it until Mother was ready to leave.”

With encouragement, Mr. Hayes continued. 

“Mother never said much on the way home.  I don’t think Mrs. Drew-Allen was herself since she lost her husband.”  Casting Alex a long look, he added, “Not herself since her boy died.”

Alex wanted to hear more and Mr. Hayes agreed to visit again soon.

“I wouldn’t dream of letting you walk three miles back to the nursing home.”

“I walk every day.  That’s how I keep young”, the old man teased. 

“I’m sure you’ve had your exercise today, Mr. Hayes.  Mr. Soloman will drop you off on his way to town.” 

There was no arguing as she waved down the gravel-pocked pickup truck. 

************************************************************

           

            The formal parlour, ballroom, and dining room would have to wait.  Alex was overwhelmed at present with the immediate restoration.

            The most fascinating challenge of all were the seven bedrooms.  Alex sanctioned the intimacy and privacy they commanded.  She zealously cleaned and cleared the bedrooms with a fervour that she had never before experienced.

            The master bedroom commanded the most attention.  The once opulent velvet drapes, too fragile to clean, were discarded and replaced with a luxurious drapery in a similar rose colour.  The original silk wallpaper, thought to have had a sparkling effect with golden scrolls on a gleaming white background, remained creamy beige with darker markings when cleaned. 

            The bed was on a platform about eight inches off the floor and constructed from the same oak that formed the staircase.  The spiralling four posters rose almost five feet from the ancient feather tick mattress.  Tatters of shear netting hung limply from the rails. 

            Leading off to the left was a small chamber room and to the right an enchanting sitting room.  Alex imagined her late aunt doing needlepoint by oil lamp.  While admiring a small secretariat, she discovered correspondence and journals suspended in time, secreted in the small cubbyholes of the dark oak desk.  Alex resisted the temptation of reading the letters and books at once.

Beyond was a dressing room where twenty satin and lace gowns hung inside glass-panelled closets, awaiting the next ball.  The history entombed in these rooms captivated Alex.

            Several months later, with a clear conscience, Alex sat at Ramona’s desk and sent a letter to her New York office.  She would not return.

 

            ***************************************************************

 

            The fresh clean scent of paint greeted Alex as she peeked into the formal sitting room.  Luxuriant Indian carpets and furnishings sat in the centre of the area under protective drop cloths.

            “What do you think, Miss Drew-Allen?”

            Stripped of drapes and wall hangings, the room expanded before her eyes.

            The painter was holding his brush midair wondering if her startled look was approval or disapproval.  “It needs another coat yet.”

            “Oh, I love it.  It looks… grand.”

            The sunlight shimmered on the wet, pale green paint and Alex caught her breath.  The striped wallpaper designated for the end wall would create a perfect contrast.

            “Keep up the good work.” 

She continued her morning tour: so many nooks and crannies to explore.  There were secret passageways and stairways leading to various rooms and necessary short cuts.

Carrying a steaming mug of coffee, Alex made her way to a flight of stairs at the end of the room, then along a wide hall.  She discovered four steps leading to a locked door.  Setting her mug on the floor, she stood on the second step and retrieved a skeleton key from her pocket.

            Alex entered the small room.  Daylight streaked through the dirty windows, exposing a wicker baby carriage, picture frames, and various pieces of furniture.  Oil lamps hung in a row from the rafters.  Two huge trunks holding unseen treasures dominated her immediate attention.  Kneeling in the dust, she tugged open a lid.

            She had no idea of the passage of time until Mr. Soloman entered the room.

            “Excuse me, the men are leaving now.  Would you like me to lock up?”

            Alex stumbled to her feet, her limbs frozen in one position.

            “Oh, yes, thanks.  I’ll be right down.” 

            Casting a glance around the room before closing the door, Alex decided she would bring Mr. Hayes up for a look on his next visit. 

 

            ***********************************************************

 

            The first night Alex slept in the restored master bedroom, she carefully lit a fire in the corner fireplace of the room.  She admired the portrait she discovered in the storage room: a young woman with black curls cascading from ivory combs, and on her lap, amidst the rumple of aubergine satin folds, a curious-eyed baby.  Although Mr. Hayes had never before seen the portrait, he confirmed it was Ramona with Raol.  Something told Alex it belonged above the fireplace in this room.

Her focus shifted from the portrait, to the gleaming oak, to the snow-white shears peaking around the heavy drapes.  The ball gowns were now on exhibit in a local museum.  An industrious cleaning and restoration crew had restored all other valuables in the private sanctuary to their original condition.  

Although Tiffany Hall was becoming home to Alex, she considered herself a caretaker, never forgetting that it was once the revered home of her ancestors. 

On more than one night, Alex awoke to the sound of violins and laughter.  These strange happenings did not frighten her.  She respected her ancestors’ stronghold on their home.

Once, when she retired early, she saw a light glowing in the sitting room.  She was sure it was Ramona, and although comforted by her presence, Alex knew that she needed to bring life into the mansion.

            Several days later Mr. Hayes was sitting across the table from Alex, sharing fresh muffins and jam, when Alex broached the subject.

            “There’s so much room here and you’re such good company.  I’m sure Ramona and Frederick would approve of you living here.  Say yes.”

            “Oh, God Bless You.  You’re so good to me.  No, I’m too old to make a move.  I’m happy at the Home.  Besides, this gives me a place to go every day.  Ramona and Frederick would approve of you, my dear Alexandra.  Yes, I am sure they would.”

            Mr. Hayes remained at the nursing home, while Tiffany Hall continued to give meaning to his old life.

            Alex was never sure when the idea first formulated in her mind.  Although she was still a young woman in her thirties, and planned to spend the rest of her life here, she could not help wondering what would become of Tiffany Hall when she was gone.  Would all of her hard work and restoration go to waste?  Would her ancestral home go to rest once again?  This time forever?  She knew what she must do and her mind became preoccupied with change.

 

            **************************************************************

 

“It’s so good to see you Alexandra.  It has been too long.  The reinstatement of Tiffany Hall is the talk of the city.  You should be quite proud of your accomplishments.”

            “Thank you Mr. Aiken,” Alex laughed, “But I really didn’t invite you to lunch to sing my praise.”

            His smooth soft face folded into a smile as he leaned back in his chair studying the sole creation of Raymond and Letitia Drew-Allen.  She resembled Raymond somewhat with her black hair and dark serious eyes, but the infectious smile and lilting laugh were definitely Letitia.  However, she thought like no one else he knew.  He had underestimated Alexandra once before.  Having earned his respect, he would stand behind her on anything she proposed.

            “Well, I suppose it’s possible.  Of course, there are technicalities.  I could easily oversee them.”  He smiled broadly, and announced, “Fine idea.  Shall we begin the application in the morning?”

            “Soon, Mr. Aiken, soon.”

 

            ***************************************************************

 

            “Mr. Soloman, have you seen Mr. Hayes?”

            “Not since day before yesterday.  Is something wrong?”

            “I hope not.”  Alex had felt miserable all day, depressed for the first time since returning home to Virginia.  She craved Mr. Hayes’ light-hearted humour and jovial spirit.

Shortly before noon, at the sound of a car in the driveway, Alex swung the front door wide.  Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed the imprint on the side door of the blue station wagon:  ‘Sunnyside Nursing Home’.

            A grey-haired woman stepped out of the car and approached Alex at the front steps.

            “Miss Drew-Allen?”

            Shaken, Alex could only nod her head.

            “I’m sorry.  I know you and Benjamin were friends.  You made his last days very happy.”  She reassured her with a faint smile and patted her arm affectionately.

           

                        *****************************************************

 

            Reverend Bradley read the eulogy at the short ceremony.  The restoration crew, and a few folks from the nursing home, attended the burial in the cemetery next to Tiffany Hall.

            Alex wiped away a tear.  She was sure Mr. Hayes would approve of this eternal resting place with old friends and memories.        

Alex wandered from room to room, revelling in the success of the restoration.  It was time to initiate her next project. 

            Retiring to her favourite sitting room just off her bedroom, she curled up on the divan and pulled the soft wool afghan across her legs.  A stack of old journals were within reach but she resisted.  She could get lost in the past, losing her identity to someone who lived long ago.  She could not let that happen.

            Alex reached for the telephone, one of many installed in the huge house, and dialed.

            “Mr. Aiken, I’m sorry to bother you at this hour but I’m anxious to begin proceedings.”

 

                        ******************************************************

 

Within eighteen months, the sound of laughter and activity reverberated through the high ceilinged rooms.  Trays of vegetables and bowls of fruit, lined the long table in the dining room.  The ballroom resembled an obstacle course with its tiny paint easels, and low tables covered in construction paper, glue, and scissors.  The four-poster beds were no longer in evidence, as each bedroom had a row of bunk beds with brightly coloured quilts, and cushions of all shapes.  The lush green lawns sported sand pits with slides, swings, and monkey bars.  Riding toys and bicycles decorated the side yard.  The stables echoed the sounds of feeding buckets and whinnies.  Tiffany Hall was exuberantly alive. 

Over the years, thousands of orphans thrived under the loving care of Auntie Alex, as the children affectionately named her.  Watching her youngsters grow into responsible young adults was a small part of the gratification she felt in returning to her roots. 

                        ****************************************************

 

  Stirring, Alexandra detected the glow of light under the door of the sitting room.  At peace, her lids lowered and her body relaxed, knowing she was in good company.

 

 

 

Bio: Phyllis Humby resides in rural Ontario, Canada with her husband Marv, a loveable mixed breed dog named Lexus and a prima donna Himalayan cat named Tiki. She enjoys writing fiction and her vivid imagination enables her to create realistic characters and storylines that capture your attention from the very first page.  In addition to short stories, Phyllis is currently working on her second novel.