by Lauren Davidson
Riding her bicycle was supposed to provide some relief in the oppressive Alabama heat, but the sweat had given up on flowing freely down her body and lazily stopped and stuck her legs to the leather seat as Billie pressed each pedal down harder. Her destination wouldn’t provide any comfort anyways, so she might as well accept the heat. Almost there, she told herself. The tires spit out rocks and grass as she moved forward on the dirt path, the willow trees limping pathetically on either side of her.
Up ahead she saw the big black iron gates standing open just enough for her to get through. Ivy had coiled around the iron and suffocated it, leaving the entrance to look even more foreboding than it would have already. Not that it would have mattered. The Ellis residency was at the end of a long dirt road, and the only visitors were the postman and Billie, as far as she could tell.
Once a beautiful and prosperous plantation, the Ellis estate now slumped decrepitly. Billie both hated and feared the place, but she certainly wasn’t there of her own accord. One of the worst requirements of being an obituary writer was calling on the surviving family of the deceased. Billie’s empathetic nature made her a good listener, and she actually excelled at obituary writing, not that she was proud of it, but dues must be paid, she figured.
Today’s appointment was with the infamous Catherine Ellis, of whom Billie had only heard tell of in hushed whispers. “Don’t go out there,” her friends had urged. “Get someone else to do it. That lady is terrifying. Have you ever seen her outside? I heard she’s blind. You remember that girl disappeared up there!” Billie had laughed it off at the time. “Well if she’s blind, she can’t very well do me much harm. What’s she gonna do? Steal my eyes?” she laughed. But now that she was here, she felt a tightness in her stomach and a shortness in her breath that could be accounted to more than the strenuous ride out to the estate.
Unlike most appointments, where there were gobs of family and friends around to comfort the bereaved, the Ellis residence seemed to be completely deserted as Billie made her way up to the front door. She put her bike to the side and collected herself as much as the heat would allow before knocking politely on the heavy wooden door. The silence was as oppressive as the heat as Billie stood fidgeting.
Finally, the door creaked open to reveal an older black man, his height only magnified by his stooped posture. His deep voice came out as thick and slow as margarine. “Welcome, ma’am. You must be Miss Waits. Please do come in. May I offer you a tea?” Billie relaxed a bit. “Sure,” she replied. “And please, call me Billie. Is Mrs. Ellis home?” “Yes,” the gentleman replied slowly, “she’s expecting you, of course. Right this way.” He motioned to walk on ahead and Billie followed suit, feeling uncomfortable that she was walking in front of him without knowing where she was headed. “Keep on,” he advised, as they continued down the long hallway, until they reached a lighted porch. There didn’t seem to be any air conditioning, which was typical of these old Southern houses, and Billie was glad to see a fan lazily swinging from the ceiling of the porch. “Have a seat, Miss Waits, and I’ll get your tea. Mrs. Ellis will be with you soon.” Billie turned to thank him, but the old man was gone.
Even with the heat, Billie felt a chill run down her spine. Lots of mourning families’ homes felt sad, but the atmosphere here was as heavy as the air. It was empty, but she felt as if she was being watched. She took a seat on one of the wicker chairs and got her notebook out of her bag. Just get it over with, she thought to herself, name, date of birth, history, surviving family. Don’t be paranoid. She took a deep breath and tried to relax. There was a scratching noise of a record player, and a haunting sound began to fill the room. Billie jumped in her seat and felt her body tense. Relax, relax, breathe in, breathe out.
Finally, she heard the old man’s footsteps coming toward the room. She was glad she had positioned herself within full view of the entrance. She saw their shadows first, and then the butler appeared in the door, a glass of tea in one hand, and a small woman clutching onto his other arm. “Here we are now, Mrs. Ellis,” he said gently as he helped her into the chair across from Billie. This action gave Billie relief, as she noted how sweetly the old man babied the woman. “Thank you, Thurman,” she replied, in an aristocratic old-money Southern drawl. “Miss Waits?” The elderly woman looked around, her face hidden underneath a giant pair of wraparound sunglasses.
Billie cleared her throat, feeling a sick sense of foreboding. “Yes, Mrs. Ellis, hi.” She stood from her chair and leaned toward the woman, gently patting her hand, which was very quickly jerked away. Billie stepped back in shock and sat back down in her chair. She cleared her throat again. “Um. I’m Elizabeth Waits, here with the Court and Record and I’m here to help with the obituary for Mr. Ellis. May I say, I am so sorry for your loss.” Repeating these words that she had said time after time relaxed Billie enough to regain her calm. “Well isn’t that just sweet,” drawled Mrs. Ellis, venom dripping from each syllable. “We don’t get too many visitors here.”
Nervously, Billie sipped her tea politely, noting the odd aroma that drifted off of the milky liquid. “I’m assuming you need all the specifics for the paper,” Mrs. Ellis continued. “He was 89. We have no living relatives, no children. Edward was quite a bore,” she let out a sick laugh here that stopped Billie’s heart fast, “but he was really only passionate about one thing and that was his collecting.” Despite herself, Billie felt intrigued. “89. Okay. And what did he collect?” she asked. “Well I could certainly show you, dear,” Mrs. Ellis replied, the saccharine in her voice coming out sickly through her red lipped bouche. Her mouth spread wide until all her teeth showed, a yellowed cluster with missing parts. “Okay,” Billie replied, taking another sip of tea. She was really starting to relax, she observed. Her eyes were even starting to feel a little heavy.
When Mrs. Ellis rang a small gold bell at her side to notify Thurman, the sound seemed as if it were at a distance. Something inside of Billie said to wake up, to move, but Billie felt as if she could just melt into the wicker chair beneath her, she was so comfortable and relaxed. Soon, she heard Thurman pad into the room. “Well I do believe Miss Waits is ready, Thurman,” Mrs. Ellis drawled. “She certainly will make a nice addition, won’t she?” Billie felt as if she were resting on a cloud as she let Thurman drape her easily over his arm. She willed herself to wake up, but the panic that she knew was real continued to drift easily away, and she allowed Thurman to lead the two of them down the corridor, to a dimly lit, muggy room, where he settled her easily into what appeared to be an old dentist’s chair situated in the middle of the room. “That feels so nice,” she murmured as Thurman gently looped restraints around her wrists and ankles. All around her, she saw gleaming little stars in jars. It won’t hurt to shut my eyes for a little while, she thought.
Mrs. Ellis took off her sunglasses, admiring Thurman’s work. “What a beautiful shade of blue,” she drawled. “I think I’ll make these the new centerpiece. Mr. Ellis would just be overjoyed. Such a nice way to honor his memory, don’t you think?”
Lauren Davidson was born and raised in North Carolina and has freelanced for various publications around the state.