by L.H. Dillman
Head For History is the second place winner in our Halloween Mystery Short Story contest! Watch for the rest of the top 5 this week, and check those entries, including the winner, that have already gone up!
Auntie Cee wasn’t really the children’s aunt, and her name wasn’t really ‘Cee.’ She was an old friend of their mama’s mama, and she came to stay whenever their mama had a bout of the keep-to-herself-in-her-room blues. When the darkness descended, somebody had to watch out for the twins and their older sister until Maxine was on her feet, and that someone was Auntie Cee. She was firm but loving, exacting yet forgiving, down-to-earth while, at the same time, touched with a bit of magic. The children thought of her as a sort of Mary Poppins, but older, plumper, and, of course, blacker.
Late last October, Maxine made the call. The sky over the San Joaquin Valley had been gray for weeks with low, but frustratingly rainless, clouds, and her mood became morose. Auntie Cee, whose real name was Carolina Roundtree, left Los Angeles in her battered Toyota Corolla at noon and pulled into their long, rutted driveway at dusk. The family lived in a two-story Victorian farmhouse at the top of a hill off County Route J15 on the outskirts of Tulare. Maxine had purchased the ten-acre homestead ten months earlier with the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance policy. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Standing in front of the old house in the twilight, Carolina saw that Maxine still hadn’t gotten around to sprucing it up. The structure’s exterior siding was badly weathered and peeling. The front steps bowed. The bric-a-brac pieces around the porch and under the eaves, which originally had served to show that the home belonged to a successful rancher, were broken, loose and missing. Two of the first-floor windows had been newly patched with plywood. The overall effect was of a painted lady past her prime, a crumbling crone with her garters around her ankles.
Carolina had a fondness for antiques, and it pained her to see this one had become even more decrepit since her last visit. No wonder the twins called it ‘creepy.’ She gave her horn two swift honks. The eight-year olds, Miles and Ruby, each grabbed hold of a handle of Carolina’s trunk and lugged it in. Eleven-year old Paulette was entrusted with Carolina’s violin and purse. Carolina wouldn’t let anyone touch her floral-printed hatbox, a round cardboard case the size of a snare drum. She walked up the rickety steps, avoiding a hole in the tread, holding the hatbox in front of her as though presenting a cake to the queen. But instead of opening it at the dining table, she took it straight to her usual room behind the kitchen, shooed the children out, and closed the door.
A few minutes later, she pocketed the key, climbed the stairs, and rapped on the door to the master bedroom. “It’s Carolina, dear. May I come in?” She entered without waiting for an answer.
Maxine hoisted herself to a sitting position in the bed. The lights were off, but even so Carolina could see the woman’s skin carried a dull gray cast, and her hair was all nappy like it hadn’t been washed or ironed in weeks. The room smelled like dirty sheets. Giving Maxine a hug, Carolina felt her shoulders poking sharply.
“First thing I’m going to do, child, is fix you a pot of chicken soup and some cornbread. Put some meat on those bones.” Carolina turned on a lamp and opened a window.
“Thank you, Auntie Cee,” Maxine said, her brown eyes blinking against the light. “You’re a Godsend, truly. I don’t know what I’d do . . .”
Carolina waved off the praise. “What else can I get you?”
“I do have a favor to ask. Tomorrow’s Halloween.”
“So it is.” Carolina moved a pile of dishes off the armchair and sat down.
“The children are going to want to go trick-or-treating in town.”
Carolina nodded. “So long as they’ve finished their homework.”
“They’ve made their costumes,” Maxine said, as if pleading for Auntie Cee not to be too much of a taskmaster this time.
“Good,” Carolina said. She’d left her sewing machine at home.
“But somebody’s got to stay here, Auntie Cee. I just don’t have the energy to handle it.”
Caroline looked at her quizzically. “You mean, to give out candy?” The place was so isolated, she doubted they’d get any trick-or-treaters.
“No, to make sure no one pulls a trick on us. I know it sounds silly. . .”
“Well, the house does look haunted,” Carolina said, trying to inject a little humor. “Not to be critical, dear, but it could use a little T-L-C.”
“It is a lot to handle,” Maxine said with a sigh. “The repairs are killing me. If there were money enough left over, I’d have a new well dug and tap in to the big aquifer that’s supposed to be below here, and get some income coming in . . . ” Her shoulders slumped. “I thought the kids would be better off out of the city, but . . . Maybe I should have taken Mr. Clawson up on his offer.”
“Someone’s offered to buy you out?”
Maxine nodded sadly. “But his price is way too low. So I’m stuck.”
Carolina took her hand. “Look on the bright side, honey. At least no one’s tempted to rob the place.” She got the younger woman to laugh with that one.
“So will you drop the children off in town at four?” Maxine asked, back to business. “Paulette’s good about not letting the twins out of her sight. The stores are handing out goodies, and Main Street’s well lit. It’s safer there than here, actually.”
Carolina gave her a quizzical look. “What’s got you worried, child?”
“We’ve had a few incidents. Probably just pranksters, but I’d feel better if you keep watch outside until the witching hour’s over.”
“What kind of incidents?”
“Well, you probably saw the broken windows we got last month.”
“Right after that, someone put a dead cat in our driveway. Thank God I found it and not the children.”
Carolina asked how Maxine knew the cat hadn’t just died while crossing their property.
“Because it was decapitated.”
Carolina clutched at her bosom. “Lord have mercy!”
“The biggest danger is fire, Auntie Cee. Everything’s so parched around here. We have ten acres that didn’t get watered all summer because of the drought. They’d go up like a tinder-box and take us with it.”
“But no one’s tried to set fire, have they?”
“That’s the thing,” Maxine said in a whisper. “Don’t tell the kids, but last Thursday I found a small ‘t’ burnt in the front yard. Just a foot long, but I know it was a cross.”
“They stepped over the line with that one,” Caroline said, stiffening. She had assumed this kind of harassment was a thing of the past. “What, have you got some Klu-Kluxers the next farm over?”
Maxine shook her head. “All the land around here is corporate-owned. Agri-business and oil-drilling companies. ”
“Have you called the police?”
Yes, Maxine had called. But the county is almost 5000 square miles, and for the crime of malicious mischief the best the Sheriffs’ Department could do was take a phone report.
“All right then,” Carolina said, scooping an armful of laundry off the floor as she rose up. “We’ll take care of it ourselves. I always say, the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“Amen,” Maxine said.
Carolina grabbed the stack of dirty dishes with the other hand. “Why don’t you take a bath, hon? Wash that hair.”
“Maybe later.” As the older woman reached the door, Maxine added, “There’s an old shot-gun in the basement, in case you want it.”
Carolina shook her head. “I’ve got something better than that, dear. Don’t you worry.”
At five the next evening, having delivered the children in their costumes to Main Street, done some work on the saggy front steps, and fixed Maxine a nourishing dinner, Carolina was ready for her watch. She took a cup of Oprah’s Chai Spiced Tea and her hatbox out to the front porch. The sky was near dark, with a half-moon mostly hidden by clouds. She eased herself into the wicker rocking chair. The air was warm and dry, not a hint of moisture. She waited, sipping tea and rocking and listening to the crickets, as the night grew black. She elected not to turn on the porch light. Better to see than be seen.
An hour passed, and nothing happened. Occasionally, a car passed on County Route J-15 about a hundred yards down the dirt driveway.
Another hour went by, and another. The temperature dropped. She fetched a heavy-duty flashlight and refilled her teacup with Jim Beam – only for the warmth it provided her innards, of course. She saw no tricksters – in costume or otherwise. As she sipped and kept watch, she imagined what the property would look like if Maxine ever got that well dug and was able to irrigate. The front lawn, sloping down to the road, could be a beautiful emerald green. Maxine could plant flowers. That would be good for her. She could even sell the excess water, get some cash, and fix the house.
At nine, the children got dropped off at home. Auntie Cee allowed them one piece of candy before they brushed their teeth. Then she made them wash up, say their prayers, and go up to bed. “There’s school tomorrow, and you need your sleep.” They knew better than to argue. It had been a long day; Carolina was ready to turn in herself.
Miles ran out of his bedroom as Carolina was headed to the stairway. “Wait, wait, Auntie Cee. I’m afraid.”
“There was a scary man following us.”
She stopped. “When?”
“Tonight,” said Ruby, popping out of the next bedroom.
“In town,” said Miles. “A cowboy. He had a pistol and boots.”
Carolina got a few more details from Ruby. Then, Paulette appeared in her doorway. “I don’t think he was following us, Auntie Cee. He was just walking in the same direction.”
“Did he really have a gun?”
Paulette shrugged. “He was in costume.”
“All right, then, it’s nothing to be concerned about.” Carolina gave them each a kiss on the forehead and told them to go to back to bed.
After the children had disappeared into their rooms, she tapped lightly on Maxine’s door and went in. Maxine had the light on and was reading. An improvement. Caroline brought the younger woman up to date on the kids’ trick-or-treat excursion, omitting the cowboy episode, then asked a couple of questions about the man who had made the low-ball offer to buy the property. Maxine described Mr. Clawson as best as she could.
“I haven’t heard from him in a while,” Maxine said. “Why do you want to know?”
“No particular reason. Night, now.”
Instead of going to bed as she had planned to do when the children returned, Carolina took a crocheted blanket out to the porch and snuggled up in her rocker with the cup of Jim Beam in her hand and the hatbox and the flashlight within reach. The crickets had quieted down. She rocked and sipped and waited.
Sometime after eleven, a tiny sound reached her ears from down by the road — a crunch, like a footstep on gravel. Slowly, she took the lid off the hatbox.
A minute later, she heard a faint rustling. It came from the Oleander bushes along the driveway.
She reached into the hatbox and pulled a heavy glass jar from its tissue-paper nest. The jar was eight inches high and ten inches around. Inside, a solid, dark object floated in liquid.
Another minute went by. Then, about ten yards down the slope in front of her, a spark of light erupted. It went out as fast as it had burst, so she couldn’t see what had caused it.
Another spark, another dud. She heard a man’s voice say: “Shit.”
“Who dares to enter the land of Juaquin Murrieta?” she called out.
“What the Ef?” came the response from the front yard.
Carolina grabbed the heavy-duty flashlight and aimed the beam at the source of the profanity. A scrawny man in a cowboy hat rose up from a squatting position. His white face had been painted with mud. A black gym bag lay at his feet.
“This property is under the protection of Juaquin Murrieta,” she said, her voice low and gravelly from the bourbon. “Who goes there?”
The man threw a hand up to shield his eyes from the glare. “Uh, John Doe. Who the hell is Joaquin Murrieta?”
“Ignoramus.” It never ceased to surprise her how little people knew of history, how so many of the tales from the past had been forgotten. “For your information, Juaquin Murrieta was a Mexican bandit who was beheaded by a posse of California Rangers near here in 1853.” Actually, the killing took place in about 80 miles away, but a little fudging was forgivable. “They preserved his head in whiskey and took it ‘round on display all over California.”
She aimed the flashlight beam at the jar on her lap. A hideous, shrunken visage bobbed up and down in the liquid.
The man gasped. “Holy–”
“Murrieta was mighty ticked off, as you can imagine. Legend has it that he vowed his revenge, and anyone who possesses the head can use his power.” She jiggled the flashlight around the jar. The beam illuminated a shriveled scalp and a shrunken face with holes for eyes and a gaping maw for a mouth.
“Oh my God.”
“Looks to me like he’s casting his curse on you for trespass.”
The man stared. “Where’d you get that thing?”
“Let’s just say I’m a collector.” Carolina smiled to herself, remembering the stop she’d made many years ago at the old saloon outside Coalinga. The barkeep had been happy to part with the old glass vessel and its grotesque contents for five dollars. Saved him a trip to the Haz-Mat disposal site. Like most folk, he didn’t know his history.
“It ain’t real,” said the man in the yard.
“Come take a look, why don’t you?”
The man hesitated.
“You aren’t afraid, are you, Mr. Doe?”
“Hell no.” He got three-quarters of the way up the front steps before the wood gave way beneath him. His boots shot straight through until he was stuck, his torso pinched by old timbers. “Get me outta here!”
“Oh dear,” Caroline said, getting up from the rocker with her jar. “I meant to get to work repairing those old treads.” Actually, she had worked on them earlier that evening, but ‘repairing’ did not quite describe what she’d done. She stood over the trapped man and unscrewed the lid of her jar, releasing an odor reminiscent of rotted sour-mash whiskey.
He flailed his arms. “Are you gonna help me, or what?!”
“I don’t believe I will.” She kicked the hat off his head and tilted the jar so that a few drops fell on his scalp.
“You crazy old witch!”
“Witch, yes; crazy, no.” She poured more of the slimy, smelly liquid over him, dousing his shirt.
“Arrgghh – Stop!”
The front door squeaked open, and Maxine poked her head out. “Auntie Cee, you okay? What’s–”
“Flip on the light, dear,” Carolina instructed. “Is this your Mr. Clawson? The guy who’s been wanting to buy your land and your water rights cheap?”
Maxine stared. “It is! What’s he doing there?”
“Go on inside and phone the Sheriff, hon. Tell ‘em to hurry. We’ve found the prankster.”
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