11

For two days, Howell was an invalid. Scotty came and rubbed his back and saw that he ate, but he wasn’t sure she believed it was as bad as he made it out to be. It was, in fact, worse. Every time he got to his feet he had about two minutes of a semblance of mobility before his legs began to cramp horribly, then it was into a chair or back to bed. As long as he sat or reclined, the pain was manageable. It was manageable, even then, because of the pain killers the doctor had given him, mixed with generous doses of Jack Daniel’s.

He was in no mood to think about work, so he thought about the seance and the girl at the window. He could not bring himself to give any credence to the idea that the house might be haunted, but he was intrigued by the double coincidence of the medium’s being blind and being named Joyce, like the elder O’Coineen daughter. It was clear that they could not be the same person, since Joyce O’Coineen would now be in her late forties, and the medium had been much younger, or at least, she seemed younger. Still, he was intrigued. Both the visiting couples had left the lake the morning after the seance, apparently, to go back to Chatanooga. He couldn’t remember Jack’s last name; Helen’s name was Smith, and that was tough to trace; and Harry and Joyce Martin weren’t going to be easy, either, he thought, an opinion confirmed when the Chatanooga information operator was finally persuaded to give him the numbers of all the Harry, Harold, and H. Martins listed. There were some two dozen. Halfway through the list, he got lucky.

“May I speak to Joyce Martin, please?”

“Speaking.”

“Is this the Joyce Martin who was at Lake Sutherland a few days ago?”

“Yes, is this John Howell?”

“Yes,” he replied, surprised.

“I thought so; I’m good at voices,” the woman said.

“I’m sorry to trouble you, Joyce, but I’ve been thinking about the seance the other night, and…”

“You’re psychic, yourself, aren’t you, John?”

“Well, I’ve had a few minor episodes that were hard to explain away, but…”

“You shouldn’t suppress it, you know.”

This was making Howell uncomfortable, and he pressed on. “Joyce, may I ask your maiden name?”

“It’s Wilks. Why?”

“And may I ask where you were born and grew up?”

“At Newport, on the Isle of Wight, in England.”

“Of course, I had forgotten you were British. I’m asking, because there was a girl who lived in this area many years ago whose name was Joyce and who was blind.”

“Someone still living?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, I’d never been to that area before last week, and I assure you I’m not a ghost revisiting an old locale.”

Howell laughed. “I didn’t think you were.”

“Tell me,” she said. “Were you frightened by what happened the other night?”

“No, just intrigued.”

“Did you experience something you didn’t tell the rest of us about?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because, sometimes, people who are uncomfortable at seances, as you were, either don’t want to admit an experience, or don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Anyway, I just felt you did.”

“Well, yes, I thought I saw a young girl standing at the window.”

“Was this the first time you’d seen her?”

“No, there was one other time.” He told her about the thunderstorm.

“Does any of this have any meaning to you? Something in your personal life, perhaps?”

“No, nothing at all. At least not until after the seance.” He was beginning to trust her, now, to want to confide in her. He told her Enda McCauliffe’s story, and about the player piano’s behavior.

“Well, now,” Joyce said. “You’ve got something very interesting going on there, haven’t you?”

“Well, maybe.”

“The piano interests me a lot. The manipulation of an inanimate object by a spirit is often part of the poltergeist phenomenon, something often associated with the presence of a pubescent child in the house. I take it you have no children there.”

“No.”

“But you say the girl you saw was of that age.”

“Yes, I think so.”

“And the O’Coineens had a daughter of that age named Kathleen, and now the piano is playing a song with her name in it.”

“That seems to be what’s happening.”

“So, what does this mean to you?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Oh, come on, John, you just don’t want to acknowledge what’s going on. You don’t need me to tell you that somebody wants to contact you.”

“Then why did the… whatever it was say it wanted Scotty?”

“I don’t know, but Scotty is your friend; maybe it feels you are offering resistance and it’s trying to get to you through Scotty.”

“Well, that’s very interesting, Joyce. I…”

“And it’s obvious that this event wasn’t induced only by the seance, since you had seen the girl before on your own.”

“What’s your advice, then? What should I do about it?”

“If you’re frightened by all this, you can always find a priest and try and persuade him to do an exorcism, but it would be hard to get one to do it, and, anyway, you say you aren’t frightened.”

“No, not yet, anyway.”

“Well, I think it would be a lot more interesting just to see what happens. Lie back and enjoy it, John.”

“Should I speak to her?”

“Sure, if you like. I should tell you, though, that people who see ghosts don’t usually get much conversation out of them. Their actions are more important. What did you say she was doing when you saw her?”

“She was looking out the window over the lake, both times.”

“Well, if it happens again, why don’t you have a look out the window?”

“Well, all right. Can I call you again for advice?”

“I’m afraid Harry and I are leaving tonight for New York, and we’ve got a flight to London tomorrow. My father is ill, and I expect to be in England for several weeks. Try me in a few weeks, though, if it’s still going on.”

He thanked her and hung up. It hadn’t been a very satisfying conversation. He had called her to dispel one notion, and she had planted another, one he didn’t like very much.

When Howell woke on the third day, the pills were gone, and the bourbon wasn’t enough. Scotty was at work, and the thought of waiting until she could refill the prescription was more than he could bear. So was the thought of going back to the quack in Sutherland, with his drugs and injections. The man obviously knew no way to cure his problem. If quacks were all that was available, then what the hell?

When he reached the crossroads, he very nearly turned right toward the town, but a twinge from his sciatic nerve kept him on course, straight ahead. As he passed the mailbox, he reflected that this was the closest he had come to the house. He wasn’t sure why he had been avoiding it; odd people had always appealed to him, and he had never had any trouble talking with the eccentrics and freaks that so repelled most people. In his early days as a reporter, he had gotten more than a few readable features out of just such people – quirky stuff that filled in the cracks between police and political reporting, stuff that caught the attention of editors and, eventually, helped convince them that he might be good for a column.

The house was like hundreds he had seen all over the south; together, he thought, they must form some backwoods school of architecture. It was frame, with a wide porch, deep eaves, and a heavy, gently pitched roof, the house of a moderately prosperous farmer or sawmill operator. It was different, though. There was no lawn, just a hard-packed, pebble-strewn yard, and only scrawny remnants of shrubbery. But if the residents had no enthusiasm for beautification, like their neighbors, neither did they hold with neglect. There were no missing shingles, no broken panes, no rusting automotive heaps on the grounds. The place had a tidy, well-mended look to it.

He stopped in the dirt driveway at a corner of the porch. A young woman was sitting in a porch swing, rocking gently, shelling peas. Her thick, pale, red hair fell to her shoulders, and her skin was powdery and freckled. Her cheekbones were wide and high, her jaw firm, square, her shoulders broad, and, from what Howell could see from his angle, her breasts were full and high under the flowered, cotton dress. He sat, staring at her for a moment. He could immediately see what her younger brother, Brian, might have been had he been born with his full senses.

“Well,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder, “whatever it is you want, you’d better come get it; we don’t offer curb service.”

Howell climbed carefully from the car and ambulated, crab-like, up the porch steps. By the time he reached the top, the leg cramps were coming again, and he nearly dived into the swing next to her to get the weight off his feet.

She held onto the pan into which she had been shelling the peas and waited for the swing to settle down after his lunge for it.

“Have a seat,” she said, drily.

“Sorry, I just couldn’t make it any further. I’ve come…”

“I know why you’ve come,” she interrupted.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Howell said, nodding wearily. “Mama told you.”

She looked at him sideways. “That’s right, Mama told me. What took you so long?” She didn’t sound particularly glad to see him.

“Well, I haven’t been getting around too well these past few days. You’re…”

“Leonie,” she said. She pronounced it Lee-OH-ne.

He started to tell her his name, but then, she already knew it, didn’t she?

“So you’re the famous John Howell,” she said, as if she doubted it. “I used to read you in the paper.”

“Well, I’ve been surprised at how many folks around here have. I wouldn’t have thought people this far up would have read the Atlanta paper.”

“Oh, yes,” she said with mock gravity. “We have to struggle with it, but we manage to get through a newspaper if we move our lips.”

“Look,” he said, irritably, “that’s not what I meant, I…” He stopped, realizing that she was goading him and that it was getting to him. He didn’t want an argument with her. He was, in fact, quite attracted to her. “Do you think I could see your mother?”

“She’s asleep.”

“Well, maybe I’d better come back another time, then.” He shifted his weight in preparation for getting up again.

“Just sit tight. She knows you’re here; she’ll wake up soon.”

He sat tight and watched her shell peas, which she did very quickly. She seemed to concentrate on the job, though he knew she didn’t have to. He wondered what she was thinking and tried to think of something to say, but she didn’t seem to be very receptive. He heard a footstep from inside the door and the screen door swung open. He had expected the mother, but a girl came out. He knew immediately that she was Brian’s twin. There was the same beauty, marred by the vacant look.

“You finished the peas yet, Leonie?” the girl asked. She looked shyly at Howell.

“Just about, honey,” her sister replied. “Mary, this is John Howell. He’s come to see Mama about something.”

“Hey, John,” the girl said, and smiled.

“Hey, Mary.” Howell said back to her. She had the same beautiful teeth that her brothers had. He wondered if Leonie had them, too. He hadn’t been able to tell, yet.

Leonie held out the pot of freshly shelled peas. “Here, honey, you can take them to the kitchen. Don’t cook them for more than five minutes, now. Remember to set the timer.” The girl took the peas and went happily away.

“She seems like a nice kid,” Howell said. “So does Brian.”

“Well, they’re as alike as two of those peas,” Leonie said and permitted herself an affectionate smile. “And just as sweet.”

Howell thought of how they had surely come to be retarded and was suddenly stuck for something to say. He was saved by a voice from inside the house.

“Leonie!”

Howell was brought sharply back to why he was here, and he was suddenly as nervous as a cat.

“Yes, Mama,” Leonie called back. “All right,” she said to Howell, “Let’s go see her.” She stood up and led the way into the house, walking slowly so that Howell could keep up with her. In the living room she stopped and said, “Wait here for just a minute, while I sit her up and brush her hair. She likes to look nice when people come.”

Howell sank gratefully into an easy chair and looked around the room, trying to get some further sense of the Kelly family. The first thing he noticed was books; there were books everywhere. They seemed to be mostly book club selections, fiction and biography, but then he saw a familiar binding stretching eight feet or so along a bottom shelf. The Harvard Classics. He had the set, too, he’d bought them in a used book shop years before with the best of intentions, but he’d never cracked a one of them. He wondered if somebody in this house had. He scanned the other shelves quickly, looking for his own book, like any author. It was there; it had been a selection for a book club. The bookcases meandered around the room, banged together, it seemed, by a poor carpenter. The shelves sagged and fell off at odd angles. There were some family photographs, some of them quite old. He picked up one from the table next to his chair. It was a group of people sitting on the steps of a house much like the one he was in, but not quite. Must have been during World War II or just after; a man was in an Army uniform. The others’ clothes looked about right for the period. There was an oddly familiar face in the group, a child. Not the child in the window; he hadn’t seen her face. He was trying to place it when Leonie’s voice made him jump.

“All right, you can come on in now.” She was standing in the door of what must be Mama Kelly’s room.

Howell struggled up and shuffled across the living room rug, feeling more and more nervous with each step. He entered the bedroom slowly and, at first, saw only the foot of a hospital bed and some covered feet. The head of the bed was behind the door he was entering. Leonie was standing at the foot of the bed and beckoned him to join her. He was glad of that, because, when he reached the end of the bed he could lean on it. He turned to face Mama Kelly.

He had built up a fantasy of some shriveled old hag who would be waiting for him, and he turned his eyes reluctantly toward the head of the bed to be met with a steady gaze from large, blue eyes set in a handsome, nearly unlined face. He was sure that, before her illness, she had been quite a beautiful woman. She seemed large, like Leonie, though frail; she must have lost considerable weight, he thought. Her hair was very white and quite thin, and Leonie had arranged it carefully.

She smiled broadly, as if welcoming a long lost friend. The teeth were perfect.

“Welcome, John Howell,” she said. “I’ve waited an awful long time for you to come.”

His unease left him immediately. “How do you do, Mrs. Kelly, I’m sorry I didn’t get by sooner. I wanted to thank you for sending Dermot to me and for the firewood. I’ve let too much time pass before coming to see you.”

“Oh, I’ve been waiting for longer than that, John – may I call you John?”

“Of course. I don’t know quite what you mean, though.”

She smiled again. “Oh, you will in time, don’t you worry.” She patted the bed beside her. “Will you come and sit down here next to me?”

He moved carefully to her side and sat on the edge of the bed. She took his hand in the two of hers. Her hands were warm and rough, as if they had done hard labor. He felt perfectly comfortable, as if he were visiting a favorite aunt that he hadn’t seen for years.

“You’re in a great deal of pain, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s…”

“It’s in your back, I can feel it,” she said, and a shadow, a wince crossed her face.

“Mama,” Leonie spoke up, “Don’t you do this. You’re not up to it.”

Howell was alarmed that she might be somehow taking on his pain. “No ma’am,” he said, withdrawing his hand. “You mustn’t do that. I can go back to the doctor.”

She took his hand back and held it. “I’m perfectly all right, it’s just that I’m a little tired. I know that you had trepidations about coming to see me. I know this is all a little strange to you. But we’re going to help you with your back, and with the other thing, too. You see, you’re stronger than you think, but you need the help.”

Howell frowned. There was no question that he needed all the help he could get with his back, but the rest of what she was saying baffled him.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “You’ll know, you’ll understand in time. It will come to you one way or another.” She looked up at her daughter. “Leonie, come around here.” She gestured to the other side of the bed. Leonie came and took her hand. Then, one hand holding Leonie’s and one holding Howell’s, Mama Kelly said, “John, my powers are waning with my own sickness, but my daughter’s are just beginning.”

Leonie looked embarrassed. “Mama, I don’t think…”

“Hush, girl, listen to me. God gave you these powers, and it didn’t matter that you didn’t want them, not until now, it didn’t. But now, I can’t carry on, and it’s time for you to take this on. Now is a good time, because John has come here to help us, and it’s only right that we help him. Do you understand?”

Leonie nodded and squeezed her mother’s hand.

Mama Kelly turned back to Howell. “Now, John, I need to talk to Leonie for just a minute. You go up to her room – it’s the first door at the top of the stairs – and lie down and rest for just a bit. It’s better if you’re relaxed, and I know you’re uncomfortable standing up.”

Howell looked up at Leonie questioningly. She nodded.

Mama Kelly spoke again. “You go on up, now, and I want you to come and see me again if things seem to get too much for you, you hear?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll do that,” Howell said, and left the mother and daughter alone. He found the stairs and limped painfully up them, putting as much weight as he could on the bannister. At the top of the stairs he opened a door and found a neat, sunlit room filled with country arts – needlework and quilts – and a fourposter bed. The pain was gaining fast on him; he kicked off his shoes and threw himself onto the bed, panting, and waited for it to subside. It was a feather mattress, and he sank gratefully into it. The pain slowly drained away and with it, the tension that he had brought to this house. He let it go and, soon, fell into a light doze. What must have been a few minutes later he heard the bedroom door open and close and a light footstep on the rug. There was the tiny rasp of a window shade, and the light in the room grew dimmer.

“Turn over,” she said, softly. Then he felt her hand at the small of his back, just to the right of where his spine ended, at the very epicenter of his pain.

“How did you know?” he mumbled, half into the soft mattress. “How did you know exactly where?”

There was a hint of a laugh. “I just knew,” she said. “Undo your pants.”

He managed to lift enough to get the buckle and zipper loose, then helped her peel away the jeans and undershorts.

She pushed upward on his polo shirt. “This, too.”

He tossed it aside and sank again into the feather mattress. The sunlight had warmed the room, and the air felt good on his naked skin. He felt her climb onto the bed next to him.

She placed both her hands on his back again and held them there, as if feeling for something. She took them away and put them back again in a slightly different position. Then again.

He had nearly drifted off, but now he became fully alert. Her hands were growing warm. Not simply the warmth of skin against skin, but a heat he had never felt before from another human being. It grew until he thought he would be burned. Then she withdrew her hands. When she replaced them, they were cooler, and she began to gently massage the place at the center of the pain. He felt a deep relaxation coming, of muscles he had not known were there.

“Have you ever done this before?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Did you mother tell you what to do?”

“No. She just said I’d know.”

Howell moved his body gingerly in a way that would have, a few minutes before, caused him agony. Nothing happened.

“Not yet,” she said. “Don’t move yet. Let me do the moving.” She began to move her fingers up his back, feeling her way, seeming to pull at his spine. She placed the heel of one hand at the base of his skull and the other in the small of his back and pushed in opposite directions. She began massaging his neck and shoulders, then stopped, got up for a moment and returned. She began again, this time using oil, which she warmed in her hands. She moved slowly down each side of his back, rubbing away tenseness, then to his buttocks, pressing hard with the heels of her hands into the large muscles. At one moment, her hand brushed across his anus and made his breath quicken, then she moved down to his legs and eventually, his feet. She stopped and sat quietly for a moment. He lay still, breathing deeply. “That’s all I can do for your back right now,” she said. She seemed to be breathing rapidly. “Lie still for a few minutes and rest. Then get dressed and come downstairs. I want to check on Mama.” She left.

He lay on the feather bed and tried to recapture what had just happened, but it flew from him. Finally, knowing that she would not come back, he got up and dressed. It was not until he was halfway down the stairs that he realized that he was moving without pain or restriction for the first time in days. There was some soreness in his back, as if he had just played some strenuous game, but no pain. He felt light and easy on his feet. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Leonie came out of her mother’s bedroom. They walked out on the porch together.

“I’d like to thank her,” he said.

“She’s asleep. You can see her another time.”

“I hardly know how to thank you. I’ve no pain at all in my back. I can tap-dance again.”

She laughed. “I’m glad to hear it. Mama says I’ll have to do it again, to make it permanent.”

“Well, you won’t get an argument out of me. I could come back whenever you like, or…” He hesitated. “Will you come to the cabin?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Tomorrow night?” He was already thinking of what to say to Scottie. Work, maybe. He would say he could only work at night.

“Not at night. Only in the daytime, when I can get away.” She laughed again. “Anyhow, you’re busy at night.”

“I can get free.”

“Only in the daytime.”

“All right.”

Driving back to the cabin, he thought about the Kelly family, why they were the way they were. He pushed the thought away. That was all over. The old man, Patrick, was dead, and there was nothing wrong with Leonie. He wanted her. Elizabeth came into his mind for a moment, but he pushed her away.

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