She had a headdress made of oak leaves, and she was irate.
“What a lot of nonsense!” she scolded the boys at her door.
Lucas Jernigan and Rooster Sutts each took a small step backward on the stoop. They were college seniors, the vanguard of an amateur ghost hunting troop waiting at the filling station two miles down the road. Lucas was a broad-shouldered photography major who kept a dashing crop of blond stubble on his face to hide his rough skin. His dark blue rosary hung from his belt loop. He had searched long and hard for it that morning.
Rooster Sutts was a third baseman, a wildlife studies major, and nobody’s fool. He rolled his own cigarettes and habitually stalked his bowstring frame into the local wetland to muck about for this turtle or that snail. He was short with a face like a tobacco plug and was missing a bicuspid, though he would never say why.
The leaf-headed lady upon whose porch they stood glared at them through the wide open door with fierce blue eyes. She might have been all of forty or forty-five, as far as Lucas could tell, though she looked younger. She had curly dishwater hair and ivory skin with a faint birthmark along her collarbone. She wore a white cotton dressing gown that hung about her like a flag at rest. Lucas caught himself gaping. Rooster stared with acute interest at the door jamb.
“You young reprobates come out here looking for Satanic tales and hoopla!” said the lady. “All you’re bound to find is poor folks who can barely look after themselves. Haunted asylum indeed! I’ve a mind to call the police.”
Lucas watched the sinews of her neck move as she spoke. He felt his face grow hot and looked away.
“Look, ma’am,” said Rooster, “we’re sorry. We didn’t mean anything in particular by it. We’re just curious about the place.”
“Curious?!” she spat. “Curious people stick their hands in dark holes and get what’s coming to them. Is that the sort of fools you are?”
Lucas finally found his tongue.
“We’re awfully sorry, ma’am,” he insisted. “We just thought we’d be neighborly and ask if you had any insight. It’s certainly not okay to barge in to these old places, and we wanted to talk to people. We figured that, since you live nearby, you might know some interesting things.”
Rooster looked askance at him. Lucas’s plea wasn’t entirely genuine, given that eight of their other friends were smoking cigarettes and eating chips down the road while waiting for a haunted excursion.
The lady peered hard at Lucas, then huffed and crossed her arms.
“Well,” she said, “answer a fool according.”
“What?” said Lucas, but Rooster sniggered.
“Get your smart asses in here!” she said.
She stood aside for them and extended a hand toward a tired floral couch that filled the width of the living room. Lucas and Rooster glanced at each other but stepped over the threshold and into the house.
“Think the Lord’s word is funny, do you?” she fussed at them. “I don’t suppose I ought to expect better. Well, sit down. Will you have some tea?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Rooster.
“No, thank you,” said Lucas.
Rooster looked askance at him again.
“Two teas, please, ma’am,” said Rooster.
The lady smirked and shook her head, then went to the kitchen.
“I didn’t want anything,” said Lucas.
Rooster lowered his voice.
“You shut up, and you drink it,” he said, “and you say, ‘Thank you.’”
The house was a rambling, airy bungalow. The floorboards creaked like bullfrogs and sported wide patches where the finish had worn through completely. Thick ivy crept up most of the outer pilasters, but the walls inside were washed in a blinding white that scattered the meanest shard of sunlight like a kaleidoscope through the room. There was plenty of seating, but the woman appeared to live alone. Family photographs, all of them looking about fifty years old, lined the walls and sat atop the furniture. An old barroom upright rested against the wall, its polished wood black and cracked keys yellow with age. A beveled mirror ran the length of the instrument, and spots of tarnish peppered the silver backing. Most obvious, though, were the gardenias.
The great dark bushes bordered the porch outside and were scattered in clusters around the property. Wide-mouthed jars sprouted bouquets at intervals upon the furniture inside. The air in the house hung heavy and fragrant with the scent.
Lucas looked at the room through the piano mirror. He could see the reflection of the tiled kitchen from where he sat, but he could not see the lady pouring tea. He heard little wisps of movement and the clink of ice. He didn’t want any tea. He looked at his watch.
“You wanted to do this,” Rooster said. “It’s going to take time to do it right.”
“I just don’t want everybody getting ill at us for taking too long.”
“Welcome to the South,” said Rooster. “Get used to the pace. You’ve been traveling around enough for class, you oughta know by now.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Lucas.
“Here you are,” said the lady, appearing from the kitchen.
From a tray in her hand, she gave them two glasses of amber-colored sweet tea with green mint leaves gracing the top.
“That’s the way my mother served it,” she said. “Do forgive me for not introducing myself up front. I am Vivien Wallace of the Fort Perkins Wallaces, and not of the East Marletta Wallaces. Now, what particular misinformation can I correct for you young gentlemen?”
She put the tray aside, settled herself in a cane backed chair, and folded her hands in her lap. Despite her sharpness, Lucas felt at ease. The gardenia smell seemed stronger when the lady was near. Her white gown threw the scattered sunlight back into the room, and she appeared to glow.
“Well,” said Rooster, “we hoped you might know a little something about the old Bell Shore Asylum.”
Vivien waited, but he didn’t offer any more.
“Oh, don’t be coy,” she said. “Surely you came out here with some preconceptions of your own. You don’t possess the erudite bearing and attention to detail of historians, so I can only assume that you are ghost hunters. Am I right?”
Rooster returned a thin-lipped half smile. Lucas nodded shyly.
“We did hear the place would be haunted,” Lucas said.
“Hm. Aren’t you a little old for that?” said Vivien.
Rooster looked at the floor and chuckled.
“I’ve never been too old to learn something new, ma’am,” he said.
“I see,” said Vivien. “Well, if that’s the case, allow me to educate you gentlemen.”
She went to the bookshelf, moved a jar of gardenias, and retrieved an aging, canvas-bound volume. It was nearly as wide as it was long, with various papers and tattered ephemera sticking out of the top and dim etchings of gold leaf spelling out the words BELL SHORE on the spine. Vivien sat down and turned the pages with great care until she came to a sepia photograph of a school house.
“There,” she said. “That was the beginning.
“Captain Milford Wallace built that place with his own two hands almost a century and a half ago. He was my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, and his second son was, as they called them then, demented. The school looks like a regular schoolhouse, but inside it had small rooms where the boy could feel more comfortable. Also, the captain invited all the famous doctors of mental health out to the estate. They were never allowed to see the boy, but they could read the captain’s journals and were encouraged to discourse at length on the performance of their professions.
“Well, word got out. The captain was very private, but eventually some other family with an ill child on their hands came for help. After that it was like dominoes. People travelled thirty and forty miles to bring their children to see these doctors and have a lesson at the schoolhouse. Of course, it was a help to some and not to others, but the reputation spread.
“After that, they had investors and two doctors on staff and a new building. Then two more new buildings.”
Vivien turned pages and pointed to photographs of construction and of doctors shaking hands. She pulled out certificates and newspaper articles and laid them on the table.
“And the ghost stories?” said Rooster.
“Permanent patients at the later hospitals certainly died in the course of time,” said Vivien. “There are old graveyards back in the woods beyond the spring. You can still find the foundations of the spring house if you poke your head through the briars, but I wouldn’t go traipsing back there. All those lots reverted to the county when they were abandoned.”
“Why should we be afraid of the county?” said Rooster.
Vivien glared at him.
“Perhaps you ought to have a sense of propriety for those laid to rest out there,” she said. “Not everybody was exhumed, and if you dig up someone’s bones, you’re liable for it—to God if no one else.”
Lucas felt alarmed at her indignity. If she wanted, Vivien Wallace could certainly send them back the way they came and call the cops to make sure they left.
“But your relative,” Lucas chimed in, “the captain was your relative, yes? He wasn’t the only one to run the place. Surely there were others that did so after him. I don’t imagine they all did right by the patients.”
“No, certainly not,” said Vivien, looking down. “You know as well as I do the ways that people experimented on the sick and defenseless during those days. Doctors and pseudo-scientists were all after the latest findings, and they preyed like vultures on the weak. There were electric shocks and abuses and horrid drugs and worse.
“But those days went by the wayside, and the state took over. Then they decided to remand all the residents to the care of their families, or the prison system, when they shut us down. Some of them they simply released to fend for themselves.”
“Us?” said Rooster.
Vivien looked back down at her lap and sighed. She gathered up the articles and certificates and began to stow them between the book’s pages. Rooster glimpsed a photograph of a young, pretty nurse before she closed the book.
“You worked there,” he said.
“I do believe I’ve told you enough for one afternoon’s curiosity,” said Vivien, smiling.
“The asylum closed a long time ago, I thought,” said Lucas.
Vivien said nothing, but forced her smile upon them.
“Do you mind if I look at that book?” said Lucas.
“I do mind,” Vivien said. “Now, if you would be so kind, I need to rest a while.”
Lucas made to stand up, but a shadow caught his eye. It crossed the white shimmers of sun that reflected off of the inner walls and then moved out of view. Lucas heard two heavy, irregular footsteps on the porch boards.
“Miss Wallace,” said Lucas, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but do you have a gardener or some such? I believe there’s someone on your porch.”
“Oh, heavens. That’ll be Ol’ Marley Hendrick,” she said. “Never you mind him. Just—just stay in here.”
Lucas and Rooster exchanged looks. A second ago, she had wanted them to leave.
“Stay in here?” said Rooster. “Is Marley Hendrick—dangerous?”
In answer to the question, a low pig-grunt came from outside, followed by the sharp slap of what might have been metal against the porch wall. Lucas felt his neck clench at the loud report. Miss Wallace jumped in her seat then closed her eyes with irritation.
“I swear, that man!” she said, and she pointed her face at the wall nearest the sound. “MARLEY! These are my guests—two kind, young gentlemen! We are having a nice conversation! You will grow a set of manners!”
Another grunt responded, sounding somewhat penitent.
“He’s very protective of me,” she said. “He made my leafy headdress here. Marley lives up beyond the ravine there in a little dugout place.”
She pointed past them and through the walls toward a spot she knew. They heard the heavy sound of the man sitting in a chair outside. He began to rock slowly, humming to himself in a low, tuneless croon, and he tapped something solid on the porch as he rocked.
“Oh, dear,” said Vivien.
She wrung her hands together.
“He’ll sit there like that for ages, sometimes,” she said.
“Perhaps you could introduce us to him,” Lucas suggested.
“No, no. It isn’t like that,” she said. “You will have to stay until he leaves. I’ll do my best to stay awake.”
“I think we’ll be alright, if you need to go to sleep, ma’am,” said Rooster.
“I’ve known a number of fools to think such things,” Vivien said.
To be concluded next week!