A prequel short story for DEATH AMONG DOILIES
By Mollie Cox Bryan
“Okay, so we’re agreed that place is not for us,” Cora Chevalier said, as they drove away from the large white clapboard farmhouse. It was the third house they toured in Virginia. Maybe they were being too picky, but then again, searching for a house that would also serve as a craft retreat was a tall order. There were only two appointments left—one in Suffolk, Virginia and one in Indigo Gap, North Carolina.
“It’s too far away from civilization,” Jane said. “I think we want a town. A kind of secluded town.” She rubbed her hands on her jeans and her long fingers tapped on her legs. Her brown hair was pulled into a pony tail, which fell in one long curl onto her shoulder.
“This Indigo Gap place is looking better all the time,” Cora said, as they drove past cornfields. There was nothing but fields, trees, and mountains in the distance. Jane Starr was Cora’s best friend and she knew her well enough to know that a house in the country would have to be spectacular for Jane to like. She was not a fan of the country.
“It sounds good. But, as we know, once we get there, it may stink,” Jane said, shrugging.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” London, Jane’s five-year-old daughter, said from the backseat.
“We’ll stop as soon as we can find a place honey,” Jane said, twisting her head around to look at London.
“Yes, but Indigo Gap is in North Carolina,” Cora said. “It seems so away from everything.”
“But that’s what we want. We want to start new, right?” Jane said.
Cora sighed. True enough. If she didn’t get out of Pittsburgh, she’d be found by previous clients –and a certain previous boyfriend she had no intention of ever letting back into her life. She didn’t mind the previous clients so much–it was their husbands and boyfriends that she minded. She worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter in Pittsburgh. At first, she adored her work. But then her work became her life. And her life became unhealthy. She developed an anxiety condition–and in dealing with it, discovered how soothing crafting was for her and for the women in the shelter. She started a blog, Cora Crafts a Life, where she recorded her thoughts and experiences, and it became so successful that she was earning more money from it than from her job. It was then that the germ of an idea picked at her brain and she shared it with Jane one day: “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a craft retreat?”
Jane’s eyes lit and instead of telling her how ridiculous her dream was, she fueled it and came up with several ideas and models for them to follow. They decided on trying to find an older home with plenty of property. The biggest problem was money. Neither one of them had much. Cora had a retirement account. For someone who was only 32, she’d done okay saving. But it was easy to save when you didn’t even have time to shop, let alone take a vacation. The more Cora thought about the retreat, the more she believed it was worth using her savings to get started. How many women might she help? This was more important to her than money.
Cora continued driving and the three of them settled into the ride, as the sweet soulful voice of Adele rang out over the radio.
They’d been to see two other houses in Virginia. Ideally, they were looking for place where they could live as well as hold their craft retreats–which meant the house had to be large. The house in Staunton was lovely, but the grounds were way too hilly. Cora wanted the place to be accessible to everybody.
The log house near the Blue Ridge Parkway was gorgeous, but not big enough. They had to find everything big place within their budget–it was proving difficult.
They stopped at the first gas station along the way, so that London could used the bathroom. Jane went into the bathroom with London and Cora looked around the gas station store.
The wood floors squeaked as she walked down the aisles. She passed bags of chips, candy bars, and racks of canned goods on her way to the cooler for something to drink. She always felt like if you used the facilities, you should at least try to purchase something.
Jane disagreed. “When you own a place like this, restrooms are a service to the public.”
Cora reached in the cooler and pulled out three bottles of water and headed for the cashier, busy wiping off the deli-counter.
“Just a minute, hon,” she said and walked to the back, presumably to wash her hands.
Cora noted they were red when she came back. Yes, she washed her hands. Good to know. Not that Cora was a clean freak, by any stretch of the imagination. But it was good to know that the woman handling the register and the bottles of water was germ conscious.
“Is that it?” she asked, obviously checking out Cora’s outfit. She was wearing a bright yellow, baby-doll shirt and pedal pushers straight from the 1960s. Cora wore vintage as much as possible. Perfectly good clothes deserved to be worn. Who care if they had been worn before?
The woman scanned in her water. “Where you heading to?” she asked.
Small talk, Cora thought, it would take some getting used to if she were going to move to a small town.
“We’re heading to Suffolk today, then North Carolina in the morning,” Cora said.
“Oh, I love Suffolk,” she said. The woman was about Cora’s size, which meant that she was small, but she was rounder than Cora, and dark-haired. “Suffolk’s a pretty little town. One of the most haunted towns in Virginia, though, so be careful.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows.
Cora couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.
And she decided not to ask.
Jane and London came up beside her.
“I’ve bought you some water,” Cora said
“Thanks,” Jane reached for the bottle.
“Do you mind if I ask you about your hair?” the woman said.
“Me?” Cora said, suddenly feeling a little self conscious about her red unruly hair. She tucked a strand of it behind her ear.
“Yes, is it natural? I’d loved to have red hair,” she said.
Cora laughed. “Of course it is.”
“Darn,” she said. “I was hoping I could get it out of a bottle.”
“Sorry,” Cora said, before leaving the store, feeling a bit more light-hearted.
Later, with London, asleep in the back seat, Jane and Cora drove into the sweet town of Suffolk, Va. The main street was line with quant shops and historical homes.
Cora could definitely see making her home here. Home. Even thought she had her own place in Pittsburgh, one that she barely spent time in, she felt as if this was there first time she was truly searching for a home, and everything that word meant. Her apartment was just a place to sleep, eat, and shower. And if she were honest about it, she did most of any of that stuff at the shelter.
“This town so pretty,” Cora said. “She was right about that.”
“We’ve gotten here just in time. The realtor said to meet her at 3:30, right?” Jane said.
“Yes,” Cora replied. “The house is right outside of town. I don’t think it would be too far to walk for our retreaters, if they want to stroll into town.”
They drove up to the place, which was Gothic-looking, complete with spires and an iron fence. It was a bit overgrown, as well. The realtor wasn’t there yet.
“We’re a bit early, ” Jane said.
“Is anybody taking care of this place?” Cora said. “Odd. With it on the market, you’d think they’d keep up with the weeding.”
“Didn’t the realtor say that its owner passed away and the kids don’t really live around here anymore?”
“That’s right,” Cora said. Families were so split up these days. Cora stepped out of the car. “I’m going to take a look around.”
Jane stepped out of the car, too. “I’ll stay here,” she said. “I don’t want to wake her up. But, I just have to stretch my legs.”
“Let’s hope the realtor gets here soon,” Cora said as she walked off toward the front gate, huge wrought iron, ornate. She opened it and walked through. The front lawn needed a good mowing, but it was charming, with shrubs and flowers planted all around the outer edges of the yard. She walked up onto the front porch. The place was also in need of painting. She sighed–she knew they’d have to get a house that needed some work and this place definitely had potential. It just needed a little care, and she was willing to provide it.
She knew Jane was, too. Jane wanted to get as far away from Pittsburgh as possible because her ex-husband had ties there. She didn’t even want him to know where she was–he was in prison right now, so this was easy enough. But he wouldn’t be there forever.
Jane would add a great deal to the retreats. She was a gifted potter. She had won awards and had a bit of a following–especially with her goddess-themed vases she made and sold. Besides all that, she was a good teacher and had excellent ideas.
Cora tried to peer through the windows. It was hard to see because it was so dark inside. But from what she could see, the place reeked of the Southern Gothic. She loved it.
An orange blur ran across her feet.
Her heart jumped into her mouth. What was that? A cat!
It meowed and ran back across her feet again.
“Well, I see you’ve met Petunia,” a voice came up behind her, setting Cora’s teeth on edge. Why did people do that?
“I’m sorry to startle you,” she said. “I’m Trudy Wilson.”
“Oh,” Cora held out her hand to shake Trudy’s hand. The woman’s hands were too soft and cold, and she barely managed a handshake. Like it was too much trouble.
Jane walked up on to the porch. She was holding London, who was just awake.
“Well, shall we go inside?” she said and slid her key in the lock.
“No,” London said, burying her face in Jane’s shoulder. “I’m not going in there.”
“What?” Jane said, smiling nervously. “Don’t be silly. Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
“No,” she said and buried her face in her mother’s should.
“I’m sorry,” Jane said. “She’s just waking up. It’s been a long trip.”
“It’s quite alright. I understand, ” Trudy said.
Jane stood on the porch holding London while Cora followed her through the front door.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” she said.
London was usually such a well-behaved and sensible girl. Sometimes she was so sensible that it freaked Cora out a bit.
“No,” she heard London say again.
As Jane walked into the foyer, it was almost as if she walked into another world. The place was cold. A shiver traveled though Cora.
It was decorated lavishly, with huge gilded paintings and oriental rugs and furniture, straight out the early 19th century. Baroque? French?
“The owners are offering to sell it furnished,” Trudy said.
Was the place charming? Or was it claustrophobic? Cloying? Cora could not make up her mind. She certainly did not like the furniture or the decor. It was all too much to take in and not very welcoming. She felt as is she had just walked into a cold museum, not a home.
“Of course,” Trudy said, her smile vanishing. “Furnishings are just an option. There’s so much potential here.” She gestured with a broad sweep of her arm.
Cora smiled back at her, politely and followed her into the living room.
Jane came into the room with London, sniffling, holding on to her mother. Jane smiled stiffly at Cora. “This is a nice room,” she said.
“I agree,” Trudy said. “There’s plenty of light because of the floor to ceiling windows, even though the room is painted dark colors. But painting doesn’t matter anyway, you can always change it if you don’t like the color.”
“I love the built-ins,” Cora said. “They’re just so charming.”
As they walked through the house and Jane exchanged approving glances–London clung to her mother. The place wasn’t perfect. Cora and Jane might have to share space, which they really hadn’t wanted to do. But the might be able to convert the garage into living space. There weren’t as many bathrooms as they had hoped for, either ,and that might pose a problem.
“What’s this door?” Jane asked.
“That goes to the attic, which the owners are not letting us look at while the place is on the market. They’ve been using it for storage and don’t really want anybody up there,” Trudy said.
“Do they expect people to buy the house without seeing everything?” Cora asked.
“Apparently,” Trudy said with a flat note in her voice, leading Cora to believe that the owners were being difficult. Did Cora want this place bad enough to deal with nonsense?
“I’m certainly not interested if I can’t see the whole place,” Cora said.
“I’d have to agree,” Jane said.
“Good, let’s go,” Jane said and started to pull Jane’s arms.
“I really hate that you had to come all this way and not see everything,” Trudy said. “But I don’t even have a key.”
“Someone is up there,” London whispered loudly. She pointed to the door.
“No, sweetie, it’s just a private space. They don’t want us to see inside,” Jane replied, allowing the girl to lead her down the steps.
Too bad, Cora thought, she liked the town, too. But how strange to not let potential buyers see a part of the house–a rather large part, she noted as she glanced up at the house.
Jane was buckling London back into her car seat as Cora continued to look at the place, the upper floor which must have been a full attic. Dark curtains hung in the windows–they were serious about keeping the sunlight, even, out of the place. She blinked–did a curtain move?
“Uh,” she said. Yes, she was certain. A curtain had moved!
“Get in the car,” Jane said. “Let’s go.”
“The curtain,” Cora said and pointed.
It was being held back, but Cora could not see by who.
“What the heck?” Jane said, holding her hand over her eyes to shield her eyes from the sun.
The curtain fell, as if whomever was holding it let it go.
“London was right,” Cora said as she slipped into the car, a sense of urgency pulling her forward. “Someone is living up there.”
“No wonder they didn’t want visitors,” Jane said. “That’s kind of creepy.”
“Was the door locked from the outside or inside? I can’t remember!
“Me either,” Jane said.
“It doesn’t matter, Mama,” London said quietly from the back seat.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a ghost,” she said.
Cora slammed on the breaks at the corner of the street. Good thing no cars were behind her.’ “What?”
“A ghost. She’s a ghost,” London said with a matter of fact tone.
“Now stop telling stories, London,” Jane said, scolding.
Cora glanced at London strapped in her chair in the back seat.
She shrugged. “Okay, Mama.”
But Cora couldn’t shrug off what woman at the stores had told her: Suffolk is on of the most haunted towns in Virginia. Had they just seen a ghost? Had they just been to a haunted house? Surely not.
She slipped on the radio.
Adele’s voice was crooning, “Hello from the other side.” Cora glanced at Jane, whose brown eyes were wide, as she started laughing, singing at the top of her lungs “Hello from the other side.”
The threesome drove on toward North Carolina–Jane and Cora giggling, and London back to snoozing.
“Indigo Gap, here we come,” Cora said.