Readers, please enjoy this original short ghost fiction, from my collection of the same title:
Carrie loved antique shops. Her favorite was called Golden Old, on Oak Street down in the village. She’d picked up many an item there; some for resale on eBay, some for herself.
Today she stopped by to browse. She found herself in front of the old sepia-toned photographs. She thought these so poignant. The people always peering straight into your eyes from the distant past, so formally dressed, posture rigid, and while not frowning, not smiling. Portraits were considered serious business then. She sometimes bought these just for the frames. But she enjoyed poring over them and thinking about their subjects.
She paused in front of one now. It was set in an unusually rococo frame. Gilded and even jeweled (of course those couldn’t be real stones, but they looked genuine), with scrolls and grapes and vines. This was quite a find, Carrie thought, picking it up to look at the back to see if there might be an inscription. There was, in ornate, tiny script. It said (wait, she needed her glasses) . . . “Monte Haides, Photographers Underwood Florida USA
The woman in the photo was clad in a formal Victorian dress with lots of bows, frills and a very full skirt. (How on earth did she get that corset so tight? Carrie wondered. Ah, but she probably had servants. The fabric was shiny and probably black although it looked dark brown in sepia. The hair was pulled back on top but full, rounded curls fell to each side. Her face was lovely, even in the no-makeup, no-fillers, no botox look of those days. Large black eyes fringed with thick lashes, no lines, a pretty mouth and straight nose. The woman looked straight into Carrie’s eyes. She was not smiling but then none of them did. Carrie couldn’t take her eyes off the photo.
Finally a saleswoman came by.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“Thanks so much,” said Carrie, coming out of a daze. “I’m intrigued by this piece,” she indicated the photo, although there was no need, as she gripped it tightly in her hands.
“That just came in, in fact, about half an hour before you did,” said the woman, whose nametag said Nancy. “It’s quite old and it’s interesting, because although Haides was considered a master photographer, not many of his pieces come up. I don’t honestly know whether collectors hoard them or if they were destroyed during the Civil War. But this is rather rare.” She paused a moment to look it over.
“The frame is quite nice, isn’t it. Again, it seems to be one of a kind,” added Nancy.
“Can you tell me who the subject might be,” asked Carrie.
“Not without some research. I can tell you that Haides specialized in society people, and with good reason: they could afford to hire him! So whomever it is likely came from an established important family not far from Underwood. Now, take a closer look. She’s wearing a necklace with a monogram: can you read it? Give me a moment.” Nancy went to a desk and picked up a magnifier.
“Now let’s see,” she muttered. “It looks like CL. Perhaps that’s a lead for you.”
“Why, yes, thanks,” said Carrie. “I’ll take it. It will be fun to see what I can discover.”
Nancy led Carrie to the cash register and rang up the item. Carrie paid cash, and Nancy wrapped her purchase in tissue and placed it in a pretty bag with handles.
“Your receipt’s here in the bag,” Nancy said, handing it to Carrie. “Thank you for shopping.” Carrie thanked her and took her find to the car, and drove off to continue her errands.
Once home, she put away her things and then sat down with her new purchase. What an amazing piece, she mused. I can’t take my eyes off it.
She gazed into the picture. The next thing she knew, the phone was ringing. She picked it up (she must have dozed off, my goodness, it was already nine thirty!) to hear only static and some breathy sounds on the other end. After asking who’s there and getting nothing, she hung up. Prank caller, college kids, must’ve been.
She placed her photo on her mantle. She looked at it once more before retiring for the night.
When Carrie got up the next day, she had coffee and again, went in to see her picture. She couldn’t get her mind off it. She looked closely. But wait. Something had changed. The woman had moved closer. Originally, she’d been seated almost in the background. Look at this: more detail of her gown could be seen. Her necklace was now clear to see, an elaborate CL indeed. And, could it be? Her lips seemed compressed in a way she’d not noticed before. And she seemed to be staring at Carrie most intently. Must be just a trick of the light, Carrie concluded. Maybe she was just staring at the photographer. Photos took much longer in those days. Still though, odd.
Carrie went to her job at the insurance agency, where she worked as an administrative assistant to the manager. It was not exciting work, but the pay was good and the people easy to get on with. She had a quiet day and couldn’t wait to get home. While on her lunch break, she took out her tablet to look up prominent families in Underwood in the 1860’s. There was an Abernathy Williams on the town council and a doctor named Waverly. She looked on, and found a family, the Wendigues, posed on the front veranda of a large plantation home. It must have been opulent for the times. She thought she could make out the woman in her photo, there in the middle of the group. Again, the woman seemed to see her. It was unsettling, that. She closed the browser, but still she felt observed.
Her afternoon was uneventful, although she received another of those static-y phone calls with no voice. But wait: a faint whispering could be discerned between the snaps and pops. She listened hard, and turned up her volume. She thought she heard her name, followed by “two days.” But no, how could that be?
Carrie went home and got ready for her date. She’d been delayed on the boulevard, a traffic accident, so rather than taking time to look at her antique picture again, she rushed to get ready for her date that evening.
Marco was prompt, and she was just ready when the doorbell rang. She let him in with a hug and asked him to take a seat while she grabbed a sweater and changed bags. He sat down in the living room.
Her hair wouldn’t cooperate, and she fussed over it longer than she’d meant to. Quickly she stuffed the essentials from her day purse into a nicer evening one and saw Marco, still sitting by the fireplace. He seemed transfixed by her photo.
“Ready to go?” Carrie asked, and slowly, as if awakening from a deep sleep, Marco said “Uh, oh, yes. I must have nodded off.”
“You seemed fascinated by my new antique.”
“I remember seeing it, but nothing else, it’s like I tuned out. Funny. Oh, well, come on, let’s not be late for our reservation.” They left the house and turned on the hall light behind them. In the living room the photo seemed to radiate a faint glow of its own.
They had a dinner at DaVero’s, their favorite place. They shared the events of their week. Carrie told him about her photo and about what she’d learned so far.
“I think I’ve found her family,” Carrie said.
“You’re really into this, aren’t you,” observed Marco. “It’s sort of a creepy picture. She doesn’t smile, there doesn’t seem to be any warmth about her at all. You know, sometimes these old things can carry peculiar vibes,” he added.
“I don’t believe that,” said Carrie, but was that true? She was starting to wonder. Now that she was away from the picture, what was it that had pulled her to it? There were so many other old photos, many in equally pretty frames and all equally intriguing. But it was as if it had tapped her on the shoulder. Why had she even stopped by Golden Old yesterday? It was as if something told her to. She shook her head. This was nuts.
The couple had dessert and then left for a movie. Perhaps it would have been wiser not to have chosen such a scary one. The ghost was so realistic, and so angry. Marco took Carrie home, saw her to the door, and left, having an early appointment in the morning.
Carrie closed and locked the door behind her, and put away her sweater. She got a chamomile tea (really, the movie was just a bit too frightening) and took it in to the living room to watch some late night tv before retiring. There was an infomercial, and here was a talk show. She glanced up at her photo, and then stared: for again, it appeared the woman had moved closer to the front. Her face seemed larger, more intent, and yes, menacing. Carrie shivered, turned the photo so it faced the wall, and went to bed.
She had strange dreams that night. She was in the office when the woman in the picture came in to make an insurance claim. She said she wanted the money for her house, which had burned down in an unexplained fire of great intensity. Carrie said she would have to speak with the manager, and the woman stared at her in a steady, ice-cold way. Carrie felt, suddenly, overwhelmed by terror: for a moment it felt as if the woman was not human at all, but some kind of evil spirit.
Carrie woke up in a cold sweat. She couldn’t go on like this. She got coffee, popped open her laptop and looked up the Wendigue family.
They had been wealthy plantation owners in the ante bellum era, but more than that, they had been feared. It was thought that they were practitioners of the dark arts. Local children had gone missing. And people who crossed the Wendigues rued the day: misfortune hounded them. Finally, the locals had had enough. According to some, a group of people from town had gathered, along with their clergy, and together they had burned the house down. Most of the family was inside at the time. Afterwards, the ground was salted, blessed, and sprinkled with holy water to prevent the return of any evil. But no one would go there, and the land stood empty for decades, until finally it eroded into the neighboring Lethe River.
Carrie discovered that the woman in her photo was probably Carlotta Wendigue, the daughter of the patriarch, the belle of a ball to which no one local would come: so young people from other counties and even other states had been invited. No harm befell them. They were the sons and daughters of the powerful and influential. They were catered to and treated with care. Those who attended claimed it was a lovely event. But no one had danced with Carlotta more than the obligatory once. And the young ladies spoke with her as little as they politely could. They felt something wasn’t right about her. Even in the light and gaiety of the party, it still came through. It was the day after the event that the family gathered for the group photo; and some individual Wendigues had portraits done, like the one that had fallen into Carrie’s hands.
Carrie went to the mantel to check on the photo. When she turned it to face her, she gasped. For Carlotta’s face now took up the entire picture. And her eyes were pure black. A kind of electrical shock seemed to pass from the picture onto Carrie.
When Carrie came to, she was very uncomfortable. It was hot and sticky out and she was wearing a heavy silk dress with layers of fabric and flounces. And tons of clothing underneath, including (she could hardly breathe!) a corset set on “asphyxiate.” She was surrounded by other people in equally antique dress, all standing round the front of a large plantation house. There was a photographer several feet in front with a huge, boxy kind of camera with a drape in back. He held up a bulb and told everyone not to move.
People at the office thought Carrie seemed under the weather that day. She was quieter than usual, and wore old style, very dark glasses (she said she had been for an eye exam). That night, out with Marco, she ate the fish (a first!). She seemed rather unwell, certainly didn’t have much to say. Marco found this unsettling. He told her he thought he should take her home and make her some hot tea and lemon, and she should lie down, clearly she was coming down with something. Carrie nodded (she’d quite lost her voice).
Back at the house, he sat her down in her favorite armchair and brought her the remote and the tv listings. He served her the tea and some English biscuits he knew she was fond of. When he returned, she had nodded off. She must be coming down with something, he thought. He took a look at her photo before leaving her. It looked the same. Except.
There was something about the eyes. Were they looking at him? He shook that idea out of his head and left, locking up behind himself. He wanted Carrie to be safe.