by Adelaide Shaw
part 1 of 2
It was nearly midnight and Dixie lay in bed listening to the wind rattle the loose casement windows of the old clapboard house. The curtains billowed as the wailing wind met no resistance and entered through the wide cracks.
Dixie lowered her blankets and looked over at her sleeping daughter in the cot next to her bed. Two year-old Kimberly, with her short red hair and hazel eyes, resembled her mother. She was sleeping heavily.
Noises and shadows emanating within the house had become sinister and unsettling since Jerry’s death three weeks earlier. He had fallen from the 10th Street trestle bridge while on a work crew. He had forgotten, one time too often, to hook his safety harness.
With every moaning cry the wind made, Dixie imagined Jerry’s screams as he fell. Hearing nothing more than the icy rain pelting the glass like gravel, she raised the blankets over her head and tried to force sleep.
Her thoughts turned to her bleak future. She urgently needed a plan. This cold snap was too early. It was only mid-October, and Dixie had no money for fuel.
The voice was soft, hardly above a whisper. It lingered on the syllables, stretching out each one like a child calling a friend out to play. Inching the blankets away from her face, Dixie turned toward the sound. The room had become brighter.
The voice was more insistent. Dixie bolted upright. Too startled to scream, her breath came in gasps. The window glowed with a mellow golden light, and in its center was a boy about ten years old, wearing knickers with suspenders and a cap. One hand held an unlighted candle; the other beckoned her to get up.
“Dix...ie, I can help you.”
The boy’s sing-song voice was friendly, inviting. Dixie had a flash of recognition when looking at the boy’s face. The dimpled chin, the wide set eyes, familiar, but unknown.
“Donnnnn’t be afraid. Come with me,” the boy crooned.
Almost mechanically, Dixie rose from her bed. Oblivious to the cold linoleum under her bare feet and the puffs of frost her breath made in the chilly dampness, she silently followed the boy into the dark cellar, guided by the glow which surrounded him like a spotlight. The boy, moving in a slow-motion dance, barely touched the floor and dissolved through doors just seconds before they opened for Dixie.
When they reached the center of the basement the boy turned. “At midnight, I’ll light this candle. You’ll have only a few seconds to act while the clock is striking, so be ready when I tell you to come.”
The boy produced a match, and with a quick snap of his fingernail it flared into a blue flame. When the mantel clock in the living room above them began to chime, the boy lighted the candle. A heavy wooden door with strong iron hinges and lock appeared in the wall facing them. It slowly swung open, revealing a room overflowing with jewels, precious stones, gold and silver. They spilled out of heavy canvas and burlap sacks, metal boxes and wooden crates.
The boy, now standing beside her, now inside the secret room, beckoned her. “Come, Dixie. Take whatever you can carry,”
She was transfixed to the cement floor, aware of the grit under her bare feet, but unable to lift them. She strained to go forward, pulled by the boy’s voice that seemed to come from a great distance. Time appeared to have slowed as each bong of the clock echoed and reechoed in the cellar.
“Hurry, “ the boy shouted, “when the clock stops striking the door will close, and you’ll be locked inside.”
Suddenly, as if thrown forward, Dixie fell into the room. She scooped two handfuls into her lap and then lifting up her nightgown to hold them, she stepped back into the darkened cellar just as the last bong of the clock faded away.
Almost simultaneously, the heavy wooden door slammed shut with a loud thud and instantly disappeared, along with the boy. The rough stone wall of the basement was again unbroken by any door or room.
Shaking in the blackness, Dixie stumbled up the stairs and dropped the jewels on the night table before crawling into bed. She lay in the darkness, still feeling the boy’s glowing presence, still hearing his voice urging her to “Take, take.”
When her trembling stopped she studied the jewels under the bedside lamp. The ropes of pearls slid through her hands like water, cool and smooth. She draped them up her arms and around her neck, feeling each individual pearl, each light pressure point as a caress, like silky fingers.
She stared into the center of an emerald ring the size of her thumbnail and saw the sea, deep and dark with secrets and mysteries. An oval ruby brooch shot tiny flames through her hands as she turned it under the light. Dropping it suddenly as if it were hot to the touch, she tossed it into the night table drawer, along with the others.
For several nights Dixie waited and listened for the boy. Who was he? Were these jewels hers now? Could she sell them? Only the house, settling in the darkness, spoke to her in voices she couldn’t understand.
A week later, with the house still cold and no money to buy fuel, Dixie retrieved a pearl bracelet with a gold clasp. While driving to the next town, where she was unknown, she felt anxious, as if she were doing something illegal, and she made up stories to explain the bracelet, how she came to have it, why she was selling it.
The man in the pawn shop was uninterested and asked no questions. When he offered to give her only $50 for it, Dixie, ignoring his cigar smoke and garlic breath, pushed it in front of him again. “One hundred and fifty dollars,” she said.
“Seventy-five,” he said, pushing it back. “Take it or leave it.”
She pocketed the cash and the pawn ticket, wondering if she would ever retrieve it. One by one she sold the other pieces of jewelry, retaining one long rope of pearls for herself to admire when alone at night in the darkness. She went to fine jewelers instead of pawn shops, a different one each time, and told a mixture of truth and lies.
“These belonged to my grandmother. We need the money to pay the bills,” she said. To explain her sudden funds to her friends she said Jerry had left an insurance policy. “He never told me. I found the policy in a cigar box.”
With each sale she gained confidence, insisting on more money than was initially offered. With the improvements the money bought, Dixie slept better at night, and, although she still missed Jerry, she had lost that feeling of desperation. But as the money dwindled, her apprehension returned.
* * *
The house had belonged to Jerry’s grandmother. In the year that she had lived in it, she and Jerry hadn’t disturbed anything in the cellar, and she didn’t know what she expected to find there. Working under the dull light of one naked bulb, Dixie poked through cartons and crates, some of which had probably been there since the house was built. She found cracked plates and yellowed linens and a box of photographs and mementos. This she pushed forward with her foot directly under the light and searched through it, first slowly, then hurriedly.
Halfway down, a faded photograph of a young boy, dressed in knickers and suspenders sitting cross-legged on a bench, stared at her. His lips were set in a crooked line, neither a frown nor a smile, but it was his eyes that made her drop the picture as if it were a living thing. His eyes looked beyond the photographer, beyond the photograph itself and directly at Dixie. She was certain he was the boy. She picked up the picture again, and, turning it over, read the name written in faded brown ink, Carmody.
Hours later, at a few minutes before midnight, Dixie waited in the dark cellar. “Carmody. I need your help again.”
It was an unnatural thing, what she was doing, summoning the dead. It was the subject of ghost stories and children’s imaginations and was superstitious to believe, and worse, unholy and evil actually to do. Yet she had seen Carmody, had gathered the jewels and sold them.
“Carmody,” she called again, running her hands along the stone wall feeling for a door.
The boy was behind her, sitting on a broken steamer trunk, dressed as before and surrounded by the golden light.
“Who are you?” Dixie asked.
“Why have you appeared to me?”
Carmody smiled, a slow purposeful smile, one with no evidence of mirth or spontaneous joy, but which made him look more like his picture. “Because of need,” he said. “Now, I have a question. Did you tell Kimberly about me?”
“No, of course not! It would frighten her.”
“Tell her I’m here and not to be frightened or to cry or to feel lonely. She’ll understand.”
“No. I can’t. I...”
Carmody interrupted her by offering the candle in its holder. “The clock is about to strike midnight,” he said, still smiling. “Are you ready?”
Dixie took the candle and turned to face the wall in which the room had previously appeared. As the candle flared, the clock struck its first note, and Dixie stepped towards the door that had returned and was opening. She knew what to do now, and, without scanning the room, she knelt down, plunging both hands into a crate nearest her, using her apron to hold the treasure.
She knew Carmody was in the room. She sensed him looking down on her, but she didn’t look up. She retreated with two bongs of the clock to spare. Just as the door shut, she saw Carmody’s face. His piercing dark eyes, like the eyes in the photograph, looked directly at her, telling her something that Dixie couldn’t fathom. Who was he and why was he interested in Kimberly? Dixie pushed that problem to the recesses of her mind while she devised a plan for disposing what she had gathered.
She moved slowly and carefully, selling just enough to not attract attention. She went to different towns to sell the pieces, using the name Dee Carmody. She acquired a new social security number and a new bank account. She avoided any overt display of wealth, but stuck to her story of an insurance policy and continued in her job as a grocery checker.
Soon she would move to another town; soon she would shed the harsh life she had expected would be hers. Carmody was a gift from a world she knew nothing about and was afraid to ask.
He had come “because of need,” he had said, but would he still think her needy if she called him again? Carmody’s eyes had been intense and determined, his smile, a knowing, satisfied smile as if he expected something from her. What he could extract from her Dixie was unable to imagine, but she felt confident that he would come when called.
* * *
In the cellar, Dixie climbed on the edge of the crawl space that ran under part of the house and directed her flashlight, looking for more evidence of the past. Years of accumulation of disintegrating mortar dust, dead spiders and flies and the bones of small rodents were illuminated in the beam of light. She slowly crawled across the dirty cement and pulled a large carton she had missed before. Partially chewed by rats, it fell apart with her first tug. Dust filled her nostrils, and she gagged on the rotting smell of damp and mold.
Kneeling on the hard floor, Dixie sorted through the crumbling box of greeting cards, children’s drawings, newspaper clippings; a lifetime collection of someone else’s memories. One newspaper clipping reported “O’Shea Wedding.” She was sure there had been O’Sheas in Jerry’s family, on his mother’s side.
She picked up more clippings. “Local Girl Wins State Spelling Bee,” “Death on the 10th Street Trestle Bridge.” Dixie fell back on her heels. It was the same headline as when Jerry died. In the photograph, the trestle bridge looked as it did six months earlier. The clipping was dated July 5, 1902 and read:
Yesterday, before horrified and helpless onlookers, 10-year old Carmody O’Shea fell to his death from the 10th Street trestle bridge. He and his five-year old sister, Megan, were spotted around 11:00 a.m. playing on the bridge. When shouts from the bystanders below the bridge failed to get the children to leave, the police were summoned. Due to the 4th of July parade downtown and two reports of injuries from firecrackers, it was several minutes before the police arrived on the scene. By then the boy had climbed upon the railing and was attempting to walk on it. As the police were climbing the dirt embankment, the boy fell to his death. The police rushed on the bridge, unable to save Carmody, but in time to rescue Megan O’Shea who had been sitting on the rail and was attempting to stand.
The article continued with comments from teachers and neighbors:
“A little wild, but very imaginative.” “Told tall tales of secret rooms and treasure.” “Wonderful help with his sister since his father walked out.” ”Like a father to Megan. She idolized him.”
There were two more newspaper clippings about Carmody’s death, one which raised a question.
One eyewitness said that Carmody O’Shea stood poised on the rail for several seconds before falling. His arms were extended on either side as if to balance himself. Then, according to the witness, the boy lowered his arms and appeared to step off the rail, not fall.
The third article, written a week later, included a picture of Carmody, the same one that Dixie had found, and a picture of Megan. Dixie sat all the way down on the floor as the blood drained from her head. The picture was a grainy black and white on yellowed newsprint, but there was no mistaking the child’s face, the short curly hair, the dimples, the rounded cheeks and impish grin. She could have been looking at Kimberly.
The furnace clicked on and Dixie jumped. She hastily read through the article which briefly described the accident again and plans to erect wire screening on the bridge (plans which had never materialized). The last paragraph noted that Megan was devastated about her brother’s death, and kept crying, “Where’s Carmody? He needs me.”
Dixie left the cellar, felling cold and dirty and fearful. Carmody must have been Jerry’s relative, a great-great-uncle, perhaps. But why hadn’t he helped anyone else who had lived in the house? Jerry’s family was always one door knock away from the creditors. Surely others had needed help too. What did Carmody want? His benevolence and generosity — “Take, take as much as you want,” — were not bestowed lovingly but with a calculating intensity.
Dixie would not call Carmody again. The more she learned about him, the more wary she became. She had sufficient jewels and treasure to establish her in a comfortable life, and she need not dwell on what she didn’t understand.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Adelaide Shaw