The Answer

by Amber Cook

The price was unbeatable, despite the dust and rusting nails.

Angela pulled a sheet from the moldy sofa and coughed up a cloud of allergens that had settled in her lungs. Tennessee was where she had sprouted from and Tennessee was where she had ended up in the long run, despite a decade or so of running. Her mother said she was crazy and maybe she was, but the property had been a clear cut case of love at first sight. Sure, it was a little run down, but loose boards could be fixed and dust could be swept away. A little time and care was all it needed.

She waved her hand, clearing the air. The place had been abandoned for at least ten years, maybe more. It had seen only one previous resident in sixty years, not counting the handful of squatters that had left signs of their presence in the form of empty beer bottles and blackened cigarette butts. No one wanted the place, her real estate agent said. Eighty acres and a broken down old farmhouse was a lot for anyone to take on. It wasn’t only her mother calling her crazy. Even Angela was starting to wonder if she had lost her mind.

The first knock came as she was heading for the dining room. Pausing, she turned and glanced through the window. The porch steps hadn’t creaked as they always did when someone pressed their weight upon them. There was no shadow. Walking slowly towards the door, she grabbed a screwdriver from a table nearby and took a deep breath. She wasn’t scared, never had been, but being a woman alone in the middle of nowhere made a sudden visitor all the more concerning.

Pulling back the wooden door, she was met with nothing but a swinging, busted screen door. Letting out a breath, she leaned against the door frame and chastised herself for being so jumpy. Of course, it was the wind in the door. Making a mental note to get the hinges fixed as soon as possible, she shut it back and locked it tight behind her.

It was another ten minutes before she heard the knock again. Ignoring it, she headed for the back of the house and began to work in the kitchen, burying her head in the cabinets beneath the sink. Mouse droppings littered every open surface, dotting the cabinet floors black. Again, she heard the knocking and again, she ignored it. It wasn’t until the third round of banging that she grew tired of the noise and raised up from the cabinets, tossing her cleaning rag into the bucket of water beside her.

“That door just moved up on the list,” she muttered, pushing herself to standing. That was when she saw him. With a start, she jumped as her eyes looked through the kitchen window, knocking over the bucket of water beside her. Fifty yards or so behind the house, a man was standing, eyeing the place with a strange expression. Her body froze as her mind tried to recall the last place she had seen the screwdriver. It was the only weapon in the house, save for a rusted old ax she had seen in the cellar and it would do her no good at that point. The man was moving closer to the house, his footsteps slow and deliberate.

Angela watched him from the window, studying his appearance from afar. He looked to be in his twenties, maybe older. His face was a little weathered and needed a good shave. How long had he been there, she wondered. She had been under the cabinets for at least an hour. The sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, a good sign for October that it was nearing five. As he neared the house, she located the misplaced screwdriver and met him at the back screen door.

“Can I help you?”

He paused, staring past her with dark, tired eyes. For a moment, she wondered if he could see her at all. His gaze was somewhere else, almost looking right through her. “Amelia. Is she here?”

She shook her head, gripping the screwdriver a little tighter. “No, she isn’t. I’m the new owner. Nobody else has lived here for at least a decade. Maybe you’re in the wrong place?”

He continued staring over her shoulder. “If you see Amelia, tell her I’m waiting.”

Turning, he disappeared into the woods as if he had never been there at all. For a moment, Angela wondered if the cleaning fumes had gotten to her brain. Shaking it off, she shut the door tight again and headed back up front to repair the swinging screen door. Just one of her new neighbors, she supposed, reminding herself that she wasn’t in the city anymore.

It was well after eight when she settled down for the night. The screen door was fixed, the kitchen cabinets were cleared and the house was lit by a few candles, her only source of light until the electricity was hooked up the next day. She rested on the floor, taking a moment to pat herself on the back for a hard day’s work as she crunched on the bowl of dry cereal that made up her dinner. The place was home like, despite even its current condition. Her furniture would arrive the next day, probably right around the same time the electrician did. In the meantime, she would have to sleep in the one remaining bed upstairs—musty sheets and all.

Making sure the doors and windows were locked up tight for the evening, she went up one slow step at a time and paused in the doorway of the master bedroom. A tall, scratched canopy bed was pushed against the far wall, the blankets and sheets still intact on the sagging mattress. Angela eased onto it, worried that the center would cave when she placed her full weight onto it. It didn’t. Lying back, she took a deep breath and felt her eyes begin to droop right away. She was asleep before her body ever made it beneath the covers.

The dream began right away and turned her sleep from a deep, relaxing one to restless nightmares. In them, she wasn’t herself. She was someone else entirely, a spirit inhabiting another body that wasn’t her own. She was crying, clutching a piece of paper as tears streamed down her face and soaked the ink, making it run. She couldn’t make out the words. She couldn’t make out anything beyond her own grief. There was a dark closet and the banging of a hammer. All at once, it was cold—very cold. Angela’s body jolted and she sat upright in the bed, gasping for air. It was still dark out and the moonlight streamed through the open window to her left, casting long, dark shadows around the room. A breeze drifted in, drawing goosebumps to her arms. Rising from the bed, she walked over and slid the window closed, pausing for a moment as something in the grass below caught her eye.

It was the same young man from earlier, staring up at the house in the same way he had been when she first saw him. Though his eyes made contact with hers, they again appeared to look right through, at something beyond her that she couldn’t see. The moonlight glinted on his sleek black hair, illuminating him against the darkness. She wanted to scream. She wanted to call the police. She couldn’t do either. Instead, she could only stare, watching him as he watched her. After what felt like hours, he turned, walking back towards the woods. It wasn’t until he disappeared into the shadows that she felt her body relax enough to return to the bed.

Who was he? The question lingered in her mind, along with others that she was too tired to consider. When her eyes closed again, she fell into a deep sleep, one that wasn’t plagued by the dreams she had experienced earlier. The sun was warming her face when she woke again. The images of the man standing in the darkness were still fresh in her mind and again, she had to wonder if she had imagined it all. It felt haunting and real, but so much like a dream. Throwing her hair back into a ponytail, she pushed the thoughts out of her mind and jumped right into her day.

The next few hours kept her busy—signing electrical contracts and unloading furniture from the moving van out front. She was happy to be occupied and happy not to be alone for a little while, even if the company came only from the moving men and the electricians drilling lines into the side of the house. Still, it meant she wasn’t by herself and after seeing the man again in the darkness, that was a welcome relief.

She was even more grateful for their presence when the knock came at the back door around early evening, just as the movers were unloading the last two pieces of furniture and piling them in the front hall. Angela made her way to the kitchen door, finding the young man again waiting on her porch.

“Amelia,” he said. “I need to see her.”

Angela stared at him through the screen door, noting the small tear in his flannel shirt and the dirt scuffing up the hem of his denim jeans. “I told you yesterday, there is no Amelia here. I saw you outside last night. I want you to stay away from my house. If I see you out there again, I’m going to call the police.”

“Tell her I’m still waiting.” He said, looking over her shoulder as he had done the day before. She glanced back, seeing his eyes fixed on the hallway closet. Looking back at him, she felt a pang of pity run through her, though she couldn’t say why. Maybe his mind had gone. Maybe he had had a rough life. Softening a little, she sighed. “Listen, if I see her, I’ll tell her.”

He turned and walked back towards the woods, his legs carrying him with the same purposeful stride they had the day before. Pausing at the door, Angela called after him one last time. “If she comes by, can I tell her where to find you?”

The man paused, his back to her. Never looking back, she heard him faintly murmur three words. “Old Joplin Road.”

Resuming his pace, he was gone again. Just like that. Angela felt a chill run down her spine and closed the kitchen door tight behind her.

In an hour, the movers were gone and she was alone again, a house full of old and new furniture around her. Flipping on the lights, she laid down on her couch, unable to get the image of the man out of her mind. It was bothering her, the not knowing. She reached for her phone and dialed the only number she could think of, the only one that could give her answers. After three rings, her real estate agent picked up.

“I know I told you before that I didn’t care, but I need you to tell me the history of this house,” Angela said, preparing herself for whatever she was about to hear.

“There isn’t much to tell,” the agent replied, the sound of plates clinking in the background. “It was a family farm that ran from the 1800’s to sometime in the early forties. The family that lived there had three daughters. Two of them married, but the youngest died suddenly at eighteen. There aren’t many details, but I do know that it didn’t happen at the house. The two older daughters wanted nothing to do with the farm, but couldn’t bear to sell it after their parents died. So, it stayed boarded up all of these years until the last sister died and you came along. I wish I could tell you more, but that’s all of the information I have.”

Angela ended the phone call with a quick thank you and laid back down on the couch. It didn’t make any sense. Then again, as tired as her brain was, not much did. Before she could make it upstairs to bed, her body gave up on the fight and she again fell into a restless sleep, the same dreams from the night before plaguing her mind. Again, she was someone else, consumed by an overwhelming sense of grief and emotion that threatened to eat her alive. Tears were streaming down her face, staining the paper she clutched. A splash of cold and dark washed over her and she couldn’t breathe. The air was being drained from her body, sucking the life right out of her. Angela shot up on the couch, breathing as heavy as she had the night before.

A strange feeling was nagging at her. Heading for the kitchen, she pushed aside the curtains and looked out. There again, standing in the middle of the grass, was the young man. He stared at the house and at her, his eyes never blinking. Letting the curtains dropped, she took a breath and tried to calm the beating heart in her chest. Should she call the police? She reached for her phone, pausing to look outside one more time before dialing the number. The man was gone. Something was wrong. The dreams, the visits—she double checked the lock on the kitchen door and leaned her back against it. In the hallway, shadowed between the dark kitchen and the living room lamp light, was the closet. It was the one place she hadn’t looked at since moving into the house and the one place the young man’s eyes couldn’t seem to be torn away from. Hurrying towards it, she yanked open the door and looked inside.

A jacket hung on an old wooden hanger. In the floor beside it was a straw broom, leaning against the wall. What about the closet had the man been so entranced by? She ripped the jacket from the hanger and tore through the pockets, finding nothing except a few stray buttons and a receipt from a restaurant dated forty years earlier. Dropping to her knees, she ground her knuckles into the wood floor and breathed, wondering just how close she was to really losing her mind.

As her eyes focused, she noticed the floor. Each dust covered wooden plank was tightly hammered into place—all except one. It stood out from the rest, the nail rising a little more from the board than the others. It looked a little warped, as if it had been yanked up at one time and returned to its spot in a hurry. Giving the board a tug, she pulled it back until it gave way and came loose from the floor around it. Tossing it to the side, she leaned into the back of the closet and peered down into the dark space.

Even through the darkness, she could see something hiding inside. Closing her eyes, she shoved her hand into the hole and felt her fingers make contact with something solid and wooden. It was a box. Turning it to fit, she pulled it back through the opening and sat it on the floor in front of her. Curiosity had her in a chokehold. Flipping open the clasp, she lifted the lid and took a look inside.

There were letters, each one folded and placed inside the velvet lined box with care. Angela picked them up and unfolded each one, skimming over the faded ink. They were love letters, written from a soldier to a woman sometime around 1942. They spoke of war, of love and of the future. Each letter was signed ‘With Love, Henry – P.S. Do you have an answer yet?” As she reached the last one, she noticed the envelope’s handwriting had changed and a large ‘Return To Sender’ stamp had been emblazoned in red across the front. Opening the letter, Angela read quickly, noting the name at the bottom. “With Love, Amelia – P.S. My answer, finally, is yes.”

Folding the letter back, Angela slid it into the envelope and glanced back into the box. At the bottom, nestled against the velvet lining, was a small diamond ring. Her heart sank. Returning the contents to the box, she clasped it tight and grabbed her car keys.

Old Joplin Road, he had said. She wasn’t familiar with the area, not yet, but the street sign had stood out to her when she made the drive in two days before. It was a mile away and, as she discovered when she reached it, a knobby one lane road that was only paved for the first hundred or so yards. Past that, she drove on into the darkness on dirt and gravel, dust flying around her as she accelerated. Maybe she was crazy, she thought.

As she reached the end of the road, she brought the car to a stop and let her headlights shine through the trees on a small open area a few yards away. The smell of tobacco hung in the air like perfume and the sound of dry leaves rustling in the midnight breeze filled the air. Grabbing the box, she left the car behind and headed into the trees, the glow from the headlights guiding her way. A small sign met her as she reached the clearing. It read: Grover’s Cemetary – Established 1892.

Most of the headstones were cracked and crumbling with age. Some weren’t attached to graves at all, but were lying propped against trees, disconnected from their original places of rest. Angela looked around, her eyes straining to see in the darkness. A small stone a few feet away seemed to draw her in. Taking a step forward, she knelt down and read the inscription on the front. Henry Jenkins – 1919-1942 – Killed In Action. With her hands shaking, she leaned forward and placed the wooden box on top of the grave.

“She said yes,” she whispered and made her way back through the night to her car.

 

Amber Cook was born, raised and still resides in Tennessee. Her work has previously appeared in Deep South, as well as a number of other publications, including Literary Mama, Adanna and Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web series.

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