Preview : Rose Wood

 After making sure she had enough cash on hand to pay for the tour, she stuffed her camera into her bag and grabbed her keys. 
     Just a little over two hours later, she passed through the black iron gates at the front and followed the narrow winding drive around to the side and parked in the gravel parking area provided.  There was no one around when she got out, and she made quick use of the facilities located in a rustic wooden building beside the small parking area. 
     In the time since the lightning strike, she had built the place up in her mind until it resembled a massive, looming specter of a house.  Looking at it now in the daytime, she saw it wasn’t as big as she remembered and the forest around it looked more idyllic than menacing.  She pulled out her small digital camera and clicked a few pictures.  The simple all brick three-story façade was painted a pale yellow set off by white columns supporting the two-level portico in front and the two smaller porches on either side beside the exterior chimneys.  Another two- level portico came off the back exactly like the front one, and the wrought-iron railing surrounding the second-floor balcony matched the gleaming white columns.
     As she started around the side, a gust of wind sprang up, flapping the flag flying on the tall pole beside it.  She saw that it wasn’t a rebel flag like she had thought.  It was actually a red design with a blue cross containing white stars, a palmetto tree, and a small crescent moon in the upper left corner.
     “It’s called the Sovereignty Flag.”
     Aileen turned.  A man wearing a park ranger’s uniform was coming out of a wooden building connected to the big house by a narrow path of small white rocks.  From its proximity to the house, it was probably originally the kitchen, which she knew was always located in a separate building because of the heat and the odors.  The large gun on his side and a small gold nametag identified him as Constable Carter.  His brown hair was longish like he was overdue for a cut.  She took him to be in his early to mid-thirties.  He was reasonably handsome in a rough sort of way that was somehow at odds with his uniform.  She was searching for an appropriate response when he spoke again.
     “It was the unofficial South Carolina flag before the war.  The fifteen stars represent the fifteen slave states.”
     She squinted up at the flag and tried in vain to think of something to say.  She sufficed by holding out her hand and introducing herself. 
     “Carter Connell.”  His hand felt hot and tight.  For a second she wondered if the rest of his body was as hot as his hands and felt a dull flush spread across her face.  As he regarded her, she could have sworn she detected a hint of amusement as if he knew exactly what she had been thinking.
     “Are you here for the tour?” he asked.
     “Um, yeah, I had a few minutes so I was just looking around."  She glanced at her watch.  “In fact, I’d better head on up if I’m going to catch it.”
     He fell into step beside her.  “You’ll like Jane.  She’s the interpretive guide today.  She’s really good.  She’s actually just volunteering part time, but we’re trying to convince her to stay on permanently.”
     The old plantation was beautifully kept.  She was finding it hard to reconcile the way it looked now in the daytime with the black nightmare impression she had been left with the night of her stormy experience.  The inlaid brick walkway they were following connected all the outbuildings to the main brick path that led around the house and branched off to a small courtyard surrounding the flagpole.  Fences of gnarly wood and short rock walls separated the various areas of the property, and the house and immediate trees were bordered by bushes and raised beds of now dormant flowers.
     Halfway around the house, Carter stopped at a neat little patch of cultivated dirt.  A small wooden sign posted low to the ground identified it as the Authentic Heirloom Garden.
     “You’ll have to come out in the summer sometime and see the garden and rose bushes when they’re blooming.”
     Rose bushes.  She remembered the intense smell she had been plagued with off and on since the lightning strike and suppressed a shudder.
     “Okay, just head on up and Jane will meet you at the front door."  He pointed at the lower level and main entranceway.
     She thanked him and strolled toward the front steps.  Even in the winter, the large tangled magnolia trees were magnificent, their glossy green leaves reaching across the walkway and covering the entire front lawn.  Seeing no sign of the aforementioned Jane, she walked down to the front gate.  She clicked a nice picture of the trees and the house just as a youngish woman with dark blond hair pulled back into a ponytail came out the front door.
     There was a group of people coming around the side as Aileen hurried up to meet her, and by the time she stepped up to pay, another car was pulling in.  All in all, there were seven of them, counting Jane.  After taking their money, Jane opened the door and led them inside.
     Just inside the front door, she had everyone—a group of three little old ladies, a woman and her teenaged daughter, and Aileen—leave their pocketbooks just inside the foyer.  She reassured them it was only for security purposes.  In case someone wants to lift something, Aileen read between the lines.  “No one will touch them.  We’re the only ones in the house and I have the doors locked,” Jane said as they reluctantly piled their purses up.
     “What about my camera?” Aileen asked as they filed into the first room to the left of the sturdy circular staircase rising up through the middle of the house.
     “Pictures are usually frowned upon, but I will allow you to take some.  Just don’t let Carter, our park manager, catch you using a flash on any of the oil paintings.  It can damage them.  He had trouble with someone a while back using a flash, even after they had been told it would harm the paintings, and he had to ask them to leave.”
     She reassured her that she wouldn't do that and followed her into the small parlor.
     The room was sparsely furnished.  There was a small center table, a few chairs arranged here and there, and an antique pianoforte against the right wall.  Still, it was a pretty room.  Red brocade curtains gave the room some color and complemented the gold trim and gleaming hardwood floors.
     Jane talked for a while about the architecture of the home and how it had started out as a plain federal- style building and then had been renovated in the 1850s into the then modern Greek Revival style.  As she led them around the rooms on the bottom floor, she touched briefly on the Civil War background of the family.  “State Senator Walter Gage was a prominent political figure during the time before the Civil War.  He was a strong supporter to the succession of South Carolina and lived in the home during the war and after until his death in 1876.  The home was still owned by one of Gage’s descendants until 1960 when it was donated to the Parks Department and later extensively restored and furnished with period pieces, including some owned by the Gage family.”  She indicated a large, definitely oil, painting of the Senator and his wife, Louisa, hanging in the dim hallway running behind the stairs.
     Jane led them up the staircase to the second floor, which was divided into two large rooms on the left, and a large ballroom on the right. The long rectangular ballroom, which encompassed the entire right side of the house, was bare except for two settees placed across the room from each other against the far walls, and according to Jane, the original Gage family L. Rickell's piano.  All the rooms had fireplaces, and this one had two, one for each half of the room.  Elaborate gilded mirrors sat above each of the fireplaces, and the magnificent glass chandelier dripping with crystals and the gold candelabra placed atop the piano still managed to convey the opulent feel the place must have once had.
    Aileen glanced into a small inset room containing a marble-topped washstand and sofa that Jane explained was where the ladies freshened up whenever a ball was being held, then crossed the length of the floor, her heels tapping on the polished wood.  She tried to imagine what life must have been like living in this house.  Beautifully dressed women and men twirling around the dance floor, waltzing and fanning themselves in the heat, the large airy rooms and tall ceilings and windows only marginally dissipating the sultry heat.
     She had already made it several steps past one of the large mirrors when she realized that something was wrong with the reflection she had barely registered out of the corner of her eye.
     She looked behind her.  There was no one else in the room.  She thought for a minute that the dim lighting had merely caused her hair to appear darker, but when she backed up and looked at her own reflection, it appeared just as mousy brown as always.
     Part of her must have wanted something to happen, or else she wouldn’t be there, but actually confronting whoever or whatever she had seen that fateful night suddenly filled her with trepidation.  Many times she had heard from other paranormal investigators, psychics, and such that inexperienced people not familiar with the proper techniques should never try to make contact with the spirit world for fear of bringing something into their lives that they had no control over and couldn't rid themselves of later.  If it wasn’t for the fact that it was her job and had invaded her life, which suddenly seemed to be heading in an unexpected and unwanted direction, she would immediately call a halt to this whole thing.   Her loss of control had scared her the night she and Colleen had gone on the ghost walk, and if she couldn’t learn to control her newfound connection to the previously unseen world around her, then the next time she decided to fling herself off a tall building there might not be anyone there to stop her.
     For years she had made a living trying to connect with the unknown spiritual realm, and now when she had finally achieved that, all she wanted to do was to run screaming back to the shallow and superficial life she had once led.
     No longer wanting to be alone, she quickly walked back across the ballroom to join Jane and the others on the back balcony.  She went to step out and a black-and-white picture hanging on the wall above the settee snagged her attention.  Unlike many of the early photographs she had seen where no one was ever smiling due to such long camera exposure times, this one showed a small boy grinning impishly at the camera.  He looked to be about five or six years old.  He was wearing a vaguely sailor-type outfit with a wide white collar and a darker tie.  It was a close up, only showing from the waist up, but it looked like it was taken outside from what she could see of the background and the light behind him.  The wind must have been blowing because a small section of hair in the back was standing up.  She thought he was adorable with his slightly jug ears and Alfalfa twig of hair.  She wondered who he was and made a mental note to ask Jane.
     “If you look out across the back left, you can see what is left of the slave quarters that made up what they called 'slave row,'"  Jane was saying. "They were later converted to tenant houses and servant quarters, and the few that are left are now used mainly for storage.  Feel free to go over and take a look on your way out.”
     Aileen only half listened as she discussed the heirloom rose bushes and hedges planted in a battle flag design that Mrs. Gage had planted.  She tuned back in when Jane led the way through another door that connected the balcony to the other side of the house.
     “This was the children's bedroom, undoubtedly a very sad room.  Of the eight children born to Mrs. Gage, only two made it past the age of seven, and only one to adulthood, who became the grandfather of the last living descendant—still alive today—to have actually lived in the home.”
     Aileen squeezed by one of the older ladies and stood beside the authentic Courier and Ives sleigh bed.  She was careful not to look too closely at the tiny infant garments on display across the child’s cradle in the corner.  Dead ghost babies she could not handle.  That was something she definitely thought might send her screaming from the house.
     Period toys were placed around the room.  An old-fashioned wooden top sat on the mantle and a ball and some marbles were scattered around a detailed girl’s dollhouse on the hearth below.  She wondered again who the little boy in the picture had been and if he had once played with the toys in that room.  It was heartbreaking to think of all the children who had once lived, and then died there.
     She edged out of the nursery farther into the adjoining room, mentally urging Jane to finish up and come on.
     Finally she did, and after giving a short-lived sigh of relief, Aileen started to follow the others out of the room when a strange noise caught her attention.  It was kind of like a rolling, scraping sound.  She looked back over her shoulder, and as she cast her eyes about for the source of the noise, one of the marbles rolled out from behind the dollhouse.
     It continued its slow purposeful roll across the floor as if propelled by an unseen force, scraping against the wooden boards as it proceeded relentlessly across the room toward her.
     Aileen stared in horrified fascination as it moved in a steady path straight for her.  Right before it touched the tip of her shoe, she whipped around and quickly marched away, trying to ignore the sound of it, which she could still hear.  It sounded as if it was going to come on into the room after her.
     The master bedroom they were in now was darker, more somber.  Heavy curtains hung down around closed shutters on all the windows.  A massive mahogany canopy bed and a huge matching wardrobe dominated the room.
     They milled around as Jane filled them in and answered questions on why all the beds were so short—people weren’t as tall then, and who had worn the amazing, hard to believe dress with the 22-inch waist displayed on a dress dummy—Mrs. Gage, even after eight children.
     But the most interesting item in the room was the mourning portrait of Louisa Gage painted after her death.  Aileen had never seen anything like it.  She stepped closer.  Louisa wore a high-necked black dress with a cameo pinned to her breast.  Noticing her interest, Jane began to explain that although she had been painted as if still alive, certain items in the painting depicted death.  “If you’ll notice, there is a tombstone behind her inscribed with a mourning poem, and a weeping willow which further signifies death, along with the gardenia, another signifier of mortality.”
     Aileen shivered as she imagined someone doing that for a living.  Whoever had painted the picture had sat surrounded by so much death, so much grief, time after time, trying to capture a loved one's likeness before they were gone forever.
     And this house had seen more than its share of death: Louisa's poor dead children, the countless slaves that had undoubtedly died there, the generations before and after.  She felt it coming off the house in waves.
     She was ready to get out of there.  What exactly did she think she would accomplish?  There was no way she was going to be able to control something like this.  She would just be drawn in deeper and deeper until she was one of those barking-mad people who believed in all kinds of batshit-crazy things and ended up being ostracized from polite society.
     She hurried to find the others, who had left the room while she had been staring morbidly at the funeral painting.  She went to step through the doorway out onto the upstairs landing and her foot slipped on something on the floor and she almost fell.  She caught herself on a dresser standing by the door, nearly knocking several items off as she grabbed hold of it.  She looked down.  The blue-and-white glass marble sat halfway between her and the dresser she was now holding onto.  Her heart lurched then began to thump loudly in her chest.  Trying to keep an eye on the murderous marble, she quickly straightened the oil lamp and book she had jarred.  She picked up a lock of hair tied with a faded yellow ribbon that had nearly slid off, and suddenly the floor seemed to buck beneath her feet.  She had to shut her eyes as a sickening wave of nausea rolled over her.
     When she opened her eyes, the wooden floor, the walls, and the house around her had fallen away.  She found herself under a nighttime sky filled with what looked like a thousand stars.  The grass and trees dripped, the air washed clean by recent rain.
     A woman’s wail rent the air.  She stood alone on a nearby hilltop, crying and screaming at the distant pinpoints of light.  The earth trembled and moved, the distant tremors rumbling across the landscape.  And still the woman screamed out her fury and her grief and her sorrow at the cold night sky.
     The woman fell to her knees, sobbing, and the earth trembled once more.  A bell began to ring in the distance, and the woman’s sobs rang out anew.  Each tortured clang of the bell seemed to knife into the woman as she shrieked and pummeled the ground.  Clang-clang, Clang-clang, Clang
     Clang.  Aileen jerked away, the sound of the bell still resonating in her ears, and dropped the lock of hair as if it were a burning ember.  She fled the room, almost stumbling on the stairs.  She smelled the odor of roses again, and the ringing in her ears had returned, even worse than before.  My God it was a cacophony.  She hurried down the hall behind the stairs and found Jane and the others in the back sitting room.  Their collective gaze went from the adjoining room, where the sound of the bell (not her ears after all) seemed to be coming from, to her, then back again.
     “So who’s ringing the bell?” she felt safe to ask since they were obviously hearing it too.
     Jane quickly marched through the dining room, past the gateleg table, and unlocked and tugged open the door that led outside.  The ringing stopped abruptly.  Aileen peeked around her.  The old iron bell sat silent and still atop the tall wooden stand where it was mounted halfway between the house and the kitchen.
     “Well I don’t know who would—" Jane started to say, when the faint chords of the pianoforte drifted in from the other side of the house.  Her eyes went wide.  “There’s someone in the house!"  She rushed back to the others and quickly hustled everyone out onto the back porch.
     The music floated dimly onto the porch where they were now standing.  The tentative strands resolved into what sounded like Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata."
     “Wait a minute, what about our pocketbooks?” cried one of the older ladies.
     Jane looked less than enthusiastic about going back in.  Aileen followed behind her as she reluctantly reentered the house.  She jumped when she realized Aileen was with her, then seemed grateful for her presence.
     They crept toward the parlor and the eerie music where the purses lay piled up.
     Jane stepped through the doorway, then Aileen, and the music fell silent.
     Just as she had expected, there was no one in the room.  The bench in front of the pianoforte was as empty as it had been earlier when they had first toured the room.
     The blood drained from Jane’s face.  Without a word, she turned on her heel.  Aileen could barely keep up with her as she flew back through the house.  Realizing they had forgotten the pocketbooks again, Aileen reversed course and made her way back through the hall, past the stairs, and over to the front door.  She stooped down and gathered up the purses.
     She had just turned back around, her arms full, when she saw her.
     She was standing in the middle of the staircase where it angled upwards to the nursery on the top floor, looking down at her with a positively delighted expression on her face.  Even without the pallor of death on her skin, Aileen recognized her.  It was the ghost-girl from the night of the storm.  Only now she didn’t look hideous; she looked ... cute.
     And that was somehow worse.
     Aileen fled back to the safety of the porch nearly as fast as Jane had.
     Jane managed to keep it all lighthearted, saying “the ghosts are in a playful mood today” but Aileen could tell she was shook up by the experience.
     She wondered if she would stay on full-time now.