by Margaret Mendel
Enjoy this never before published mystery/supernatural short story set at Easter.
Charlotte usually experienced a transition at dawn. She had lost count of how many of these she had undergone, but then, since her murder, not much made sense. There was a familiar feeling when this smoky life force came over her. Charlotte often thought it must be how a butterfly feels when it comes out of a cocoon. There was no casing though for her to break through only heaviness that weighted her down making it difficult to move about as she once again became active.
Charlotte usually found herself reclining when this awakening transition occurred. Well, it wasn’t so much reclining as it was finding herself crumped onto the floor as though the poor young woman’s legs had given out on her. Each time she became aware, her surroundings were always different from what she had seen on her last awakened time.
Arising to a standing position, Charlotte took stock of where she was. The last time her fumbling consciousness came alive, she found herself alone in a very dark place with rats scurrying about within the walls and on the floor, and there was a strong odor of rot and mold. Usually every awakening had an odd lingering familiarity even if there were rodents and nasty smells. But this place had nothing recognizable about it. The light was blinding and before Charlotte could adjust to her new surroundings, the oddest thing happened. A giant pink rabbit, an animal standing at least a foot taller than herself, walked toward her. The beast carried a basket filled with pastel-colored eggs, and it wore a raggedy straw hat like the one her grandmother used to wear when working in her flower garden.
Often during these transitions there was a slow period of adaptation. This time there was none. The rabbit walked quickly, passing right through her, leaving in his wake the odor of male sweat, tobacco, and whiskey. This was no beast, but a man in costume. Relieved that she had not awakened in a strangely populated world, Charlotte began to move about trying to understand where she was.
It was a place of business, perhaps a tremendous food pantry. Charlotte had never seen so much food and remembered as a small child, her mother taking her to a dry goods merchant. They brought home cured bacon, dried beans, salt, sugar, and yards of fabric that her mother would make into dresses for Charlotte and her sister.
One area of this place was filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. She had never thought anything like this could have existed. To taste them would have been heaven. Though this was not possible, so Charlotte feasted on them with her eyes. Standing next to the huge table of ripened tomatoes, the pink bunny came rushing past, this time with a young man dressed in a suit following close behind.
“Fine,” the rabbit said. “You don’t pay me enough to jump-around in this stupid jackrabbit costume. You think you can do a better job, then have at it.”
The rabbit and the young man stood toe to toe, near the tomatoes. The rabbit removed its clumsy animal head. There were now two men, not a man and rabbit, standing next to Charlotte. It was all quite confusing and entertaining until the man in the rabbit costume turned and faced Charlotte. Until that moment since her death, all human emotions had been outside of Charlotte’s capability. But now looking directly into the eyes of the man in the rabbit costume, she experienced a startling familiar sense of terror.
“Stanley,” Charlotte whispered.
She would never forget those eyes. How many times had he glared at her with those furious eyes before he struck her a blow? Their marriage had been arranged, and the only thing he was interested in was Charlotte’s money. He made her life hell for years before the day he pushed her down the stairs. And now how was it possible that after all this time, he still lived.
Stanley wiggled out of his rabbit costume. It slid to the floor. Kicking the pink outfit to the other side of the vegetable stand, the man who resembled her husband, Stanley, turned and stomped toward the front of the store. Charlotte quickly followed him. Though she could not hear what he said to a woman standing near the door, Charlotte read his angry look as though it was yesterday.
The woman cowered and looked away as she continued to put food into bags.
There was no way that Charlotte would let this man out of her sight, and she quickly went out into the open air. The vastness of the sky always startled her. But she would not let Stanley get lost in the expanse of the universe, and she quickly scooted in next to him as he slid into the driver’s seat of an automobile.
Charlotte watched as anger pulsed from the man’s body in brilliant red flashes. He mumbled something incoherent, and then took a long drink out of a bottle he’d taken from a compartment in the dashboard. Sighing heavily Stanley turned on the automobile and drove quickly through the streets, periodically taking drinks from the bottle.
Finally bringing the car to a stop, Stanley turned the engine off and plunked his head against the back of the seat and soon began to snore loudly. Charlotte watched him while he slept. It was uncanny how much he looked like, what should she call him, her former husband. The jaw line, the slant of his brows, the color of his hair, not to mention those eyes, they were all exactly as Stanley had looked by Charlotte’s rugged calculations, a little over one-hundred and fifty years ago when they were first married.
The afternoon seemed to go on forever while Charlotte watched the drunken man in the seat next to her. The late bright afternoon sun elongated the shadows across the quiet street. For a short while a long yellow shard of light crawled across Stanley’s sleeping face. When finally the man did wakeup, he rose in a relaxed manner, though soon he was in a growling coughing fit. He opened the car door, stretched his legs and then slowly walked up the steps to a pathetic looking house with peeling paint and a couple boarded up broken windows.
Each time Charlotte awakened and found herself in a transitional time, the world was always different. She had been through so many transitions that nothing surprised her; nothing seemed unusual because everything was out of the ordinary. There was a time, not long after her death that at the beginning of a transition she would find herself in a room with Stanley. Another woman was in the room with him the first time she saw him. They were making plans to marry. He drank his brandy while she talked on and on about the flower arrangements and the dress she was going to have made.
As time went on, Charlotte came through the transitions to see Stanley as a much older man. He looked pale and sickly, and the last time she saw him he smelled of death. He had a different wife, a much younger woman who busied herself with his wellbeing, feeding him special medicines, and sitting for hours at his bedside. Charlotte never saw him again, or anyone who resembled him, until this last transition. But the memory of her death, the tragic fall down a long flight of stairs was constantly in the ribbon of memory of what remained of her consciousness.
In each transition there was always a snippet of that tragic fall. A storm raged outside that night. The rain beat forcefully against the leaded windows. The gaslights and candles trembled and flickered throughout the storm, betraying the minutest draft in the old three-story house. Angry and crazed with drink, Stanley was on a rampage blaming Charlotte for all the misfortunes that had befallen him. He called her a Jezebel, a harlot, a woman who, ugly as she was, would find no man other than himself fool enough to make her an honest woman.
They were at the top of the stairs. Charlotte had told Stanley earlier in the afternoon that she had purchased a train ticket to travel east for a visit with her aunt. “I may not return,” Charlotte said. “I am tired of your drunken slobbering and will suffer the disgrace of divorce rather than live another day with you.”
Stanley eased close to Charlotte, her footing precariously positioned on the top of the landing. His foul breath filled her nostrils. His eyes mean, angry, glared at her from under his furrowed brows. A slight smile lifted one edge of his lips. He did not move but stood facing her, all the while a storm outside beat at the door, slammed against the windows. Lightening cracked overhead. Then Stanley slowly lifted his head as though an idea occurred to him. Charlotte expected him to turn and walk away. But instead he raised his arms and gave her a powerful shove. Lightening flashed. An earsplitting crack sounded in Charlotte’s head. She experienced an excruciating pain when falling onto the first stair step that broke her spine. After that she felt nothing as her bones broke and splintered, and her head cracked open. All this crashing was mercifully blotted out by the roaring sound of lightening bolts flashing across the sky and the powerful racket of rain beating against the house.
Now this man who resembled her former husband wandered about in his tumbled down house, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, lighting cigarettes, and dropping ash wherever he wanted. A grey evening light had settled into the house when the woman Stanley had spoken so angrily to at the store came through the front door. It wasn’t until Stanley slapped her hard across the face, that Charlotte made up her mind about what she was going to do.
The woman dropped the parcel she was carrying. Vegetables and packages of other food tumbled onto the floor. On top of all this mess plopped a cake decorated with colored candy eggs resting in a pretty little bird’s nest.
“What’d you do that for?” The woman asked.
“That’s for not standing up for me when the manager said he was going to fire me. You are such a good for nothing wife.”
“What could I do?”
“You’re worthless. Go fix me dinner. I’m hungry.”
Charlotte watched Stanley take a drink from the bottle while the woman gathered up the groceries from the floor. Stanley then put the bottle on the coffee table and stretched out on the couch. He put his hands behind his head, crossed his ankles, and looked quite pleased with himself.
Though indeed Charlotte knew she was dead, she also knew that the spirit world could still have some effect on the living. It had taken her many trials to figure this out, but it gave her some gratification to know that she still had some accountability in the human realm.
Stanley took a contented deep breath, and that was the moment Charlotte decided it was time. Without giving it another thought, Charlotte sat on the chest of the man who looked like her former husband.
“Oh,” he said.
Charlotte bounced up and down a couple of times.
Stanley grabbed his chest. He looked confused. Quickly getting up from the couch, he gasped for air. Charlotte saw the worried, quizzical look on his face. “It’s me, Stanley,” she whispered. “Is there a problem with your breathing? Poor man.”
Charlotte let a slight essence of her presence flash across Stanley’s vision.
He gasped and took a swig from his whiskey bottle and rushed into the kitchen.
“What’s the matter with you,” the woman said. “You look as pale as a ghost.”
Stanley said nothing and sat at the kitchen table. His hands trembled. He looked suspiciously around the room. Charlotte again made herself visible. She taunted and wiggled her ghostly apparition within Stanley’s view. He gasped, took another swallow of whiskey, but said nothing.
Eating his dinner, Stanley continually looked about the room, nervously expecting something out of the ordinary to occur.
“You’re a jumpy guy tonight,” the woman said.
Before Stanley could respond, Charlotte pushed her ghostly body against Stanley’s mouth and nose. He flailed at the air and moved his head back and forth.
“I can’t breathe,” he shouted. And as these words came from his mouth, Charlotte tipped over the bottle of whiskey. The amber liquid spread across the table, emptying most of the content before anyone could tip it back up again.
Stanley attempted to stand, but before he got to his feet, the plate containing his half eaten dinner tipped over onto his lap. Charlotte made an apparition of herself visible again to him, this time on the other side of the kitchen.
“Did you see that?” Stanley said.
“What?” the woman replied.
For days Charlotte let Stanley see the ghostly vision of herself. In the morning before the woman arose, Charlotte drifted back and forth across the foot of the bed as Stanley cautiously open his yes. He had grown nervous, untrusting of where to step, what to say and even whether or not to eat.
But it was on Easter Sunday, when all the women scheduled to work at the grocery store had decided to wear fancy hats, that Stanley came face to face with the ghostly vision that would rock him to his deepest inner core and make an even bigger mess of his miserable life.
The woman’s hat, a display of abundant artificial vegetables and spring flora, sat on the kitchen counter while she prepared Stanley’s breakfast.
“What do you call the mess of junk on that hat,” Stanley said as he sat at the kitchen table.
“An Easter bonnet,” she responded.
“Looks like pig food to me,” Stanley said and laughed, a sardonic chuckle of a man overly satisfied with himself. “You’re such a stupid woman.”
But as the last words exited Stanley’s mouth, the knife that the woman was using to slice the scallions for his omelet, flew out of her hands, zoomed across the room, imbedding itself deeply into the kitchen doorsill. The knife just missed Stanley’s head by less than an inch.
“Enough,” the woman screamed. Not realizing that it was not her who had flung the knife across the room, she shouted, “I’m tired of listening to you. I’m tired of your drinking and your lousy foul mouth.”
The woman looked pleased with herself, if not a bit startled by what had just happened because she did not remember throwing the knife.
A slight smile lit her face. “Any more comments like that from you,” she said, “and next time I won’t miss.” The woman’s breathing was heavy. Then in an instant her angry eyes became bright with excitement. “You know what?” she said. “I’ve got this all wrong.”
Stanley relaxed. Charlotte could see a cocky look come onto his face. He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief perhaps thinking his wife was about to apologize for her ill behavior.
“No, no, no what I want is you out of my life!” the woman shouted. “I never want to see you again. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to pack your stuff because I want to make sure that you’re not here when I come home from work tonight.”
Stanley was no longer smiling and before he could respond, his wife rushed up the stairs to the second floor. Hurrying into the bedroom, she threw open the closet door and began to rip her husband’s clothes from the hangers. Tossing them on the floor she stomped across the pile of pants and dress shirts to get to the dresser where she quickly emptied the two bottom drawers of Stanley’s socks, underwear, and T-shirts.
Charlotte watched, as the woman looked half crazed in a rampage racing around the room tossing and throwing Stanley’s possession onto the ever-growing pile. She then pulled a bed sheet from the linen closet. Wasting no time she unfolded the sheet and then kicked and shoved her husband’s belongings into a ragged mound in the middle of the sheet. Securing the four corners of the sheet together in tight knots, the woman shoved the bundle out of the room and pushed it down the stairs.
She stood on the landing looking down at the bundle lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. Her breathing quickened. Her hands trembled.
Stanley eased up next to her. He had shouted several times for his wife to stop what she was doing, that she would regret this, and that she’d just have to undo the mess when this stupid row was over and she calmed down.
Wife and husband turned to face each other. Stanley’s angry eyes would not look away from his wife. He clinched his jaw. The veins pulsed in his neck.
Horrible images flashed across Charlotte’s ribbon of memory. She heard thunder clap in the distance. A slight odor of an incoming spring rain filled her senses. Stanley moved closer to his wife. Charlotte grabbed at the man. The situation was impossible. She could not budge him. And then in a moment when her last memory of life was the strongest, Charlotte screamed and moaned with a voice that made the walls of this old tumbled down house vibrate. She could not stop. The terror of the day that Stanley pushed her down the stairs was rooted deeply in the ghostly fiber of her being.
Charlotte knew that Stanley felt this ghostly outrage.
Then his wife let out a howl so close to Stanley’s face that her spittle dotted his glasses. “Out! Out!” she shouted. “I never want to see you again!”
The woman took a step closer to Stanley. Furious with her husband, she gritted her teeth and raised her fists, clinched so tightly that her fingers had turned white. Stanley slowly eased backward. At one point Charlotte thought he was about to say something. Maybe make another nasty comment, or perhaps he was going to criticize his wife for how she was acting. But before he could utter a word, the woman snarled, “Get out while you can.” Her voice gravely and jagged, her eyes burning with anger.
He turned and quickly descending the stairs, looking back once, his own anger and cockiness now clearly turned to fear. He yanked at the bundle of his possessions and with great effort managed to get everything out the front door.
Charlotte exhausted by the experience grew limp. Her arms hung at her side as she eased herself against the bedroom wall. The wife slowly went down the stairs to the main level. She fussed with her hair for a while and then went into the kitchen. The last thing Charlotte saw as her young woman’s legs crumpled under her was the wife leaving the house wearing an Easter bonnet.
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