Leo stumbles from bed on his first morning in the old farmhouse and finds the porcelain bathroom sinks, the claw-footed bathtub, and the toilets filled with water up to the brim. It feels as if the house has swelled during the night and absorbed all the water it could find. It makes him uneasy.
He wanders into the kitchen and plunges his hand into the sink. The icy cold water stings like bees attacking his skin and he fights the urge to yank it out. He fumbles for a minute until he finds the stopper, but when he pulls it up the water stays put as if held in place by an invisible hand. He jumps back, splashing the frosty water on his bare chest and belly. His uneasiness grows.
Leo gets dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, climbs into his new truck, and makes the thirty-minute drive into the town of Knotts. It’s the kind of small town she always wanted to live in and he hopes it will be the perfect place for his recovery. It’s a quaint, quirky place his truck’s GPS doesn’t recognize; the line on the digital map looks like he’s driven into the middle of a field.
The town consists of a pair of long brick buildings facing each other across a two-lane road, a curving white archway with a flashing red light, and a three-pump gas station. Leo parks in the empty gravel lot behind the building which houses the bank, post office, and general store. He finds all three places closed. The red light reflecting off the dark windows feels ominous and he crosses the empty street at almost a run.
He walks past a rustic-looking bar, the smell of smoke and sour beer lingers around the doorway and he can see a ratty-looking pool table through the dark window. A feed store sits beside it, and a line of hay leads from the double doors to the street. Both are closed, but the cafe has a flashing open sign and Leo darts inside.
A metallic bird sound calls out as he opens the door and the owner appears from the back room singing a greeting in a high, loud voice.
“Welcome to Birdwatch Cafe,” she sings. “Where the early bird catches the worm.”
She giggles. Ornate metal birdcages with brightly colored stuffed birds line the walls and Leo feels their glassy black eyes watching him as he approaches the wide orange counter. The sound of tango music blares from a small neon green boombox he’s sure dates back to the 1980s.
The plump woman smiles at him with a curved nose and small eyes, a bit bird-like. Dressed in flowing colorful clothing, she wears a large peacock clip in her red curly hair and thick blue eyeshadow. He orders a black coffee and a fresh blueberry muffin and sits down at a round purple table near the front window. She plants herself across from him and leans forward.
“You’re new around here,” she says.
It’s not a question and he reads enough mystery novels to know small towns in the midwest are filled with gossipy folks like her. He smiles and tries his best to answer her questions in a way she won’t be likely to exaggerate when recounting it later. She fires them off, one after the other without much pause.
He moved from San Francisco into the old farmhouse on Route 22 to work on a novel. No, he’s not published anything she would have read. Yes, he found the place easily enough. No, he doesn’t plan on getting any animals or farming the land.
“Just you up there all alone, huh?”
She leans further forward with this question and presses the sides of her arms against her breasts to make them swell out the top of her now slightly pulled-down hot pink sweater. He can see her leopard print bra. Her question, a missile launched across the bow of the ship to signal her intent and to stake her claim, makes his cheeks burn and he looks at the floor.
“Yeah,” he says.
He considers lying or telling her about Cecilia, but instead, he stands, wipes crumbs off his pants, and tries to maneuver around her to the front door. She stands and faces him, and he feels obligated to speak.
“Do you know when the general store opens?” he asks.
“Jim should be there now,” she says. “You need to fix somethin’? Everything okay with the house?”
The way she looks at him implies more than a question, it’s as if she knows something about the water. He wants to ask her about it, but he’s anxious to be free of her piercing eyes and prying questions. She’s standing so close he can see freckles on her nose.
“No,” he says. “I just want to look around.”
He inches around her, but she sidesteps him so they remain facing each other. Smiling, she pulls him into her, hugging his stiff body, his arms remaining fastened at his sides. She smells of baked goods and loose-leaf tea. The silent hug lasts forever, and when she releases him he staggers back.
“We are huggers ‘round here,” she says.
“Okay,” he says.
“Don’t be a stranger, now.”
She winks and his face flushes red, as red as the blinking light in the center of the road. He steps outside and wishes the weather was either hot or cold so his burning cheeks would make sense. There’s nobody on the street, but when he starts to cross a large man comes out of the store and leans against the doorframe.
The man seems to grow and grow as Leo gets closer until he’s looming in front of him, blocking the entire doorway. He’s a grizzly bear of a man, shockingly tall and wide-shouldered with unkempt dark brown hair and a thick beard obscuring all but his broad nose and his deep brown eyes. Without a word, he turns and disappears into the store with a sort of lumbering, limping walk.
Leo follows him inside and finds the store well-lit and crammed full of stuff. It seems determined to be the very definition of diversified goods. Shelves upon shelves lay packed with hardware, hunting gear, medicine, groceries, clothing, and small electronics. He’s surprised so much fits into such a small space. Leo finds the plungers and stands in front of them with his hands in his pockets.
“Can I help ya, fella?” Jim says.
Leo jumps and faces him. He feels like a startled rabbit and stammers a minute before finding his voice.
“I’ve got a problem with water,” he says.
“The old homestead off Route 22, eh?”
“Yeah…how did you know?”
He scuffs down the aisle, his left foot slightly deformed and tilted inward. When the man reaches the front counter he lowers himself onto a wooden stool with a gruff grunt.
“The name’s Jim,” he says. “But I reckon Tami told ya that. She loves to talk.”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with the plumbing at the house boy,” he says. “I fixed it myself.”
Leo isn’t sure if he should tell him about all the water, but Jim continues before he can.
“I can’t tell ya why things happen there, they just do. You got to learn to live with it…” his voice trails off. He looks hard at Leo who takes a step back. “Or not. It’s your choice.”
Leo grabs a package of balloons and some gum by the register, pretending they are what he came for. Jim raises his eyebrows and smiles.
“On the house,” he says.
Leo shakes his head all the way to his truck, trying to rid himself of the feelings settling there. He blares 50s music and drives with his windows down singing along to “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Long Tall Sally.” When he arrives back at the farmhouse, the water is gone. Very well, he thinks. He sets to work unpacking and cleaning, determined to not let the water enter his mind again.
He’s unsuccessful. Leo thinks about the water all day. When he sits down to work on his novel he keeps returning to water; flowing prose spills from his fingertips and his main character finds himself floating down the river, dreaming of the ocean, and drinking gallons of water. He finally snaps his laptop shut and wanders his property until dark, looking for a creek or river. He finds neither.
Before bed Leo checks each faucet, turning them on and then off as tight as he can. Under layers of blankets in the cold house, he dreams of her. A mixture of truth and fiction; he dreams of the rocky cliff, the horrible roaring waters below, of her car falling and falling, of her hands, clawing and clawing, of her last gasping breaths. Sharks tear the car to bits and feast on her body. He wakes in tears and cries out into the night.
“CiCi! Oh, CiCi! I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
She doesn’t respond. She never does.
He rolls onto his side and his brain does its thing; spirling thoughts tumbling one after another, a terrible snowball effect of grief and regret. He should have gone to her sister’s birthday party with her. She hated driving at night. He wanted to work on his novel and she didn’t hold it against him. She never did. She encouraged him and kissed his head. She believed in him. He didn’t write. He’d spent the night staring at the blank screen, reading poetry blogs, then writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over. The words didn’t come. He couldn’t make them.
The driver of the semi-truck had been on the road for two days without stopping, trying to earn extra money to pay for his daughter’s wedding. He fell asleep, crashed into her tiny Prius, and pushed it off the cliff and into the sea. If he had been at the party they would have left earlier or later. She’d still be here. He didn’t even write.
His Cecilia. His beautiful, young wife. Gone. He wishes they’d have died together. The grief gnaws at his insides and he pulls the blankets over his head to try and stop the thoughts and the horrible lingering images from his nightmares. It doesn’t work. The knife in his gut twists and twists.
He rushes from bed to puke in the toilet—it’s full of water, and so is the sink, the bathtub, and the cup he’d used to rinse out his mouth before bed. He rushes out the back door and pukes into a hydrangea bush. He drops to his knees and sobs, the big purple flowers watch him, glittery flecks of moonlight reflecting off his sickness.
When he can stand, he walks outside in his pajama and the cold night air makes him shiver. It’s been two years since her death, and yet it feels like two minutes. The grief feels as thick as ever. His therapist told him he needed a change of scenery and to start writing again, the project she believed in. He would dedicate his book to her, but first, he has to write it. He has to write the words stuck behind the grief, or maybe tangled up in it. He’s not sure he can.
Returning to the house he drapes a blanket around his shoulders and walks from room to room looking at the water, searching it for signs of CiCi’s face, for some sign she’s here with him. He wants so much to believe she’s here, but he feels nothing of her. It’s just water. She’s gone.
The next few days at the farmhouse were more or less the same, but eventually, Leo finds his own rhythm. Coffee and watering the flowers in the morning. Writing, or attempting to, from breakfast to late lunch. A long walk around the wild property in the early evening, followed by reading and a light dinner beside the fireplace until bedtime. Each night he crawls into bed and the nightmares come and each morning he wanders the house looking at the water.
Leo begins to leave out bowls, vases, and cups to test if they will be filled in the morning. They always are. No matter where he hides them or how small, come morning any empty vessel is filled to the brim with icy cold water. He vacillates between amusement and fear of the water, or more precisely, who gathers the water. It’s not his CiCi, but it is someone.
Three months after arriving, having made little progress on his now water-themed novel, Leo decides to pretend the water bringer is CiCi. He begins talking to her out loud.
“Hey CiCi, how’s it going? I can’t remember, do you like peach jam?”
It’s weird at first, his voice echoing in the empty rooms. However, the more he does it, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. Soon it’s as if she’s with him all the time, beside him as he walks through his day. He narrates his daily tasks to her, talks out plot ideas for his book, and reads to her each night before bed. He picks her flowers from the garden and she fills the vases at night with fresh water.
He knows it’s weird, but he feels comfortable with his pretend CiCi, and she seems to feel the same. Sometimes he can feel her near him; a brush of air near his ear or the lingering smell of fresh lemons. It’s strange and soothing.
A year passes and he finishes his novel. He lights a roaring fire, drinks a bottle of wine, and reads it out loud in one sitting. It takes all night. He feels as drained and full as he can ever remember feeling in his life.
He curls up on the floor and feels a shape beside him, a hand touching his cheek. He wants to recoil, but he doesn’t. He sits up and pulls the empty air in front of him to his chest, embraces it, and let’s go. Tears fill his eyes.
“It’s time for you to move on, CiCi. You don’t belong here. I loved our time together, but you have to go. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. You deserve to find happiness away from here. Go, sweet CiCi. Go.”
The words feel as if they’ve been pushed through him by some divine hand, soothing words of love speaking comfort to them both. A sense of calm surrounds him and he lays down and falls instantly asleep on the rug in front of the fire. When his dreams come, they are lovely.
Lucille doesn’t know why he loves her. He’d arrived one day and, unlike the others before him, he didn’t leave. He calls her CiCi, the name her father called her. She loves him.
She risked touching him tonight and he didn’t recoil, but it was the words he spoke she felt seeping into her body. She felt them like cool liquid spilling down her throat and she smiled.
She’d been thirsty for a long time. A hundred years maybe. The fever had ripped at her, burning her from the inside, and she couldn’t get enough to drink. Gallons of water sloshed around inside her, but nothing stopped the fire and the burning. Nothing until his words.
A brilliant white light fills the room and Lucille steps toward it without a backward glance.
Author’s note: I’m not one for ghost stories. I’m a scaredy-cat and I stray away from books, movies, or television shows which give my brain fresh imagery for nightmares. I made an exception with the Netflix shows “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” Both are phenomenal and serve as my inspiration for this week’s story. I hope I didn’t borrow too much of the imagery from either, and that you enjoyed meeting Leo and Lucille.
Short Story Challenge | Week 10
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a ghost story. We had to include the words tango, diversify, blog, invisible, missile, glitter, scuff, balloon, birdcage, and grizzly bear.
Write With Us
Prompt: The main character thinks he or she is about to get fired
Include: magazine, blow-dryer, congeal, bluebell, cummerbund, wheelie bag, pastels, cheeseburger, binding, and science