"time had chilled the sunlight in his hair"—from today's supernatural story "Nelson Street" by Carol Reid from super natural British Columbia. Photo credit goes to Carol Reid as well.
story and photo by Carol Reid
The newspaper on the doorstep had a rumpled look. When Rose stooped to gather it up the letter tucked inside fell into her hand. There was no envelope, just a single sheet of blue notepaper. She unfolded it and held it to the light.
''Dear Rosalea,'' the letter said. Everyone called her Rose, and had done so all her married life.
Harry lumbered in from his Saturday morning golf, bringing with him a scent of damp wool and open air. She pushed the letter into her cardigan pocket and offered him the weekend Sun. He took it into the sitting room, and eased himself into the armchair. Rose heard the hum of the television screen come to life and set the pan of sausages on the stove. As they sizzled, she took the letter out again.
''Dear Rosalea,'' the letter said, ''I've thought long and hard before sending you this, (here there was a section crossed out.) I live in the old house on Nelson Street. Though I wonder if you would recognize it anymore. So if you are in the vicinity would you please come by, perhaps at mid-day Sunday? I would be pleased to give you lunch if you have not eaten by the time you get here. Yours truly, Charles Magnus Harrison.''
Charlie, she thought. After all these years.
And here it was Saturday. She stuffed the letter back into her pocket. If she meant to go up into Old Town tomorrow morning, she must clear her brain and calm her heart and think what she would say to Harry before she left. For a brief moment she considered simply telling him the truth. Then she called the rectory to make an appointment with Reverend Styles for ten forty-five the following morning.
''This is Mrs. Arden calling,'' she said when Mrs. Styles said it would an inconvenient time.
''Yes, Mrs. Arden, I know.''
Rose felt her face redden. It wasn't like she took up hours of the reverend's time. Sometimes she just needed the quiet of the rectory office as she awaited his arrival. It calmed her to study the hazy portraits of the church fathers with their plain dark robes and homely faces.
''I'll just come in then, at ten forty-five?'' she said.
Then to Harry, "Would you run me up to the manse in the morning? I have to see the reverend about the spring planting." He speared a sausage. She supposed that meant he would.
As she slowly swung her legs out of the car at ten-forty Sunday morning she only said, ''Don't wait for me, Harry, Mrs. Styles can run me home''.
He reached over and pulled the passenger door shut behind her.
She watched him drive to the corner, turn right and disappear. The wind blew strands of hair across her eyes. She pulled off her scarf, and the broad barrette at the nape of her neck came with it. She refastened it, then went into the reverend's office to cancel her appointment.
Mrs. Styles gave her a look when she insisted she didn't need to re-book and suddenly she felt a sickening awareness of eyes upon her. What if someone called Harry and told him to come back for her now? She stepped into the alcove and used their phone, then waited out in the damp rising wind for her cab to arrive.
''Nelson Street, Old Town?'' the driver said. ''Allrighty.''
He had turned down the music when she got in the cab. She could hear the occasional strains of melody between the thump of the wiper blades. The cabbie smiled and muttered into his speaker.
.When he raised the volume of the music uncomfortably high she rapped lightly on the Plexiglas partition between them but he seemed not to hear and she refolded her hands in her lap.
She sat back on the stiff upholstery and watched the sea as the cab glided along Marine Drive and up into the Old Town. Here, yards were larger, houses smaller- some newly painted, some fallen into scabrous disrepair. A tiny milk and bread store with a dim ''Open'' sign sat at the foot of the hill. Three bedraggled boys straddled their bikes in front of the shop and drank Fanta out of bottles, tipping their faces back into the full force of the rain. The cabbie waved at them as he passed, then turned to her.
''Nelson Street'' he said.
The street had always been long and crooked as a cow path, backed by low, logged out mountains that kept the lake side of the street in shadow on summer evenings. Her parents' house had been torn down years ago and a sprawling rancher now sat in its place. But there was the old Harrison house, set back at an angle from the road. The cabbie hopped out and held the car door while she fumbled in her bag for the fare.
''Here,'' she said and paid him with a twenty dollar bill, waving away the change. He slipped it into a flat black wallet. She wanted to tell him, I haven't set foot on this street for forty years but here I am, now. The cab was already on its way. She watched it glide through the intersection and vanish over the crest of Nelson hill. Then she walked to the back of the old house and knocked on the basement door.
An old man answered. When she was ten and he fourteen, he had seemed to tower over her, already a man-- broad shouldered, well muscled, hair bleached by the salt of the nearby sea. Now they were eye to eye, breadth to breadth, and time had chilled the sunlight in his hair. He'd had some brothers, much like him in looks, but they had been casually cruel, calling her names like ''Charlie's little bit,'' that made her feel vaguely sick.
He winked and pulled her inside. She laughed, and squeezed his shoulder with her free hand. It was warm in the basement and smelled of oil from the old furnace that clattered away in a corner. Two clotheslines were strung up from steel eyes embedded in the painted cement walls. Shirts and underclothes were pinned neatly to the lines and gave forth a clean, soapy scent. The cedar box, stuffed with dress-up rags, sat next to a patched velvet chair, and two braided rugs clashed together on the floor. She took it all in hungrily, still clutching Charlie's hand.
''How long have you been back here?'' she said, finally releasing him.
''Since the first of March, only a couple of weeks,'' he said in a voice she never would have recognized. As a boy, he shouted more than spoke. Now he was left with a strained whisper, as if his throat closed on every word.
''That was a funny letter you wrote me.''
He frowned. ''It took me a long time to write that letter.''
The furnace wheezed into silence and it was very still in the dim basement.
''Can we go up and have some lunch then?'' she said brightly, her appetite gone.
How could she have forgotten his awkwardness at school, how she, at ten, had read to him from his textbooks on spring evenings? Her eyes filled with tears. She could barely see her way and clung to the banister.
''I shouldn't have sent it,'' he said, trudging up the staircase.
In the kitchen, he flicked on a ceiling lamp that tinged the grey afternoon light a pale yellow. A splattering rain struck the windows. She searched the counter for a kettle.
''I could use of a cup of tea, Charlie.''
He turned and saw that she was weeping. She shrugged and shook her head. He kept looking at her.
''What?' she said, drying her cheeks with her coat sleeve.
''Tea, you bet. There's some cans of chicken and bread, in the cupboard next to the kettle.''
She brought the food to the kitchen table. With practiced hands she put together the sandwiches and he soon set down a mug of tea beside her. Thoughts of Harry flickered through her mind. He had probably eaten onion rings and a sundae at the Dairy Queen, then gone home to sit in front of a blaring television. When would he notice how long she had been gone?
Charlie seemed to enjoy his sandwich, and again she saw the boy in him as he tossed his long grey hair back with one hand.
''Where are your brothers?'' she asked. She sipped the tea. Already cold.
''Scattered to the winds. Two over on the Island, one, I think, back east, the other one...''
He crossed himself and crossed his arms. She tore the crust of her sandwich into crumbs. They gave the dead a moment of silence.
''I remember wishing I had brothers when I was little. Then I met yours and I didn't wish that anymore.''
''You were happy just with Mama and Papa.''
Her smile faded. ''Yes. Sometimes I think it was always summer when I was a little girl.'' Another gust of rain-soaked wind struck the glass.
''In the daytime you helped Mama hang the wet clothes and in the evening when Papa came home…'
''We worked together in the garden. And when I was a little bit older I thought, here we are just we three in the house, perfectly happy, and in your house, so many people and you all by yourself." She swallowed the last of the tea. She needed to go to the restroom and realized she didn't know where it was. This kitchen, curtained only with worn lace panels, had been visible from her parents' house, but beyond that the layout of the upstairs house was unknown to her.
''Excuse me for a minute, Charlie,'' she said.
He pointed down the short dark hallway. ''Second left,'' he said, ''I cleaned this morning.''
She was ashamed at the surprise she felt as she entered the washroom. It was, as promised, clean, although the porcelain was porous with age and the tile had dulled to a shade that had no name. He had cleaned with bleach, as everyone had in the old days; no lemons or floral or vanilla. Just the merest hint of Javex assured her that it was safe to sit down.
She heard him talking as she re-entered the hallway. She'd seen no telephone and heard no ring. She had begun to say, ''beg pardon?'' as she realized that the conversation was entirely self-contained.
''Do you think she likes me?'' he said. His hands cupped his ears, as if he struggled to hear a response. ''No, I didn't think that was funny.''
He hushed and turned to face her. She had wanted so much to come to this place, to remember the happiness of her early life, but there was so much that she had forgotten. Mama had forbidden her to go into the Harrison house. Papa had once stood between Charlie and his oldest brother after the bigger boy had struck the younger one full in the head with an axe handle. The image made her flinch; Charlie, hunched over, with a running cut on the crown of his head, and Papa , no taller than the older boy but twice as broad, wresting the weapon from his hand and snapping it like a breadstick. Later that night she had heard her parents talking in the kitchen.
"Is Rosalea's friend that boy," Papa had said, "the other ones can go to hell, but the younger one, Charlie, he does no harm."
No more boys, Mama had said, her voice an angry hiss Rose had never heard before. Not the great Charlie, not anyone.
The storm outside had fallen quiet. Only a light breeze ruffled the greening leaves.
''Let's get some air while it's not raining,'' she said and picked up her coat from the back of the chair. A plaid jacket hung from a hook at the back door and she helped him slip his arms into the sleeves.
The hills in the distance were black in the mid-afternoon light. The backyard sloped gently toward the stand of alders that hid the old lake from view. Her parents had swum in that lake before she was born, before the reeds and water lilies had choked the lake into a sludgy puddle. When she was old enough to swim, Papa had taken her to the ocean in the evening and carried her over the barnacles to the water's edge on his warm back. Rose could smell the lake now on the breeze, the dark, sweetish scent of decomposed leaves and standing water. As they approached the bush she noticed clouds of tiny flies hovering over damp depressions, like footprints, in the grass. Here, the ground was a firm green carpet beneath their feet.
''Wasn't this the corn patch, Charlie? It feels like the soil's still good.''
The Harrisons had made no objection when her father's garden had trespassed over the property line. She had often lugged baskets of zucchini and corn to the Harrisons' back steps to make up for the encroachment. Sometimes the produce was taken in. Sometimes it lay untouched until Papa, needing the basket, tipped it out onto the compost heap with a somber look on his dark face.
''There was nothing better than that corn,' Charlie said. You could pull off the husk and the silk and eat it raw right off the cob.''
Rosalea made a shocked face and shook her finger ''You'll get stomach-ache!''
''Oh she was always right about that,'' Charlie said, ''Mama was always right.''
Not always, Rose thought. Mama should have felt Papa's heart weakening, should have seen that his arms trembled with every spadeful of earth. She'd been just a girl and she had seen the black fear in his eyes as he drooped against the handle, sweating in the cool of the evening. And just two years later Mama should have tended to herself instead of shrinking into a brittle rack of bones, leaving Rosalea too young to know her way into the world.
The clouds were gathering again, ready to release the next hatful of rain. The first fat droplets splattered in Rose's hair and she made for cover under a substantial fir. Charlie picked his way carefully over the uneven ground... and as she leaned back against the rough bark and watched him approach she saw the reason for his careful pace. The earth in a ten-foot radius of the tree had been tilled into soft mounds. Not a bramble or root remained there and, like the spokes of a giant wheel, empty seed rows waited.
''Charlie, did you do this?'' Her hands were very cold and she could see his ragged breath in the air.
''I'm not alone here,'' he said with a small, shamefaced smile. Then he cupped his ears and whispered, but she couldn't make out the words.
She felt the touch of her father's hands in hers, and the comforting circle of her mother's arm around her shoulders, urging her back out into the downpour. The seed rows were filling with rain, and the earth was warm, then cold on her feet as her shoes filled with mud. She wanted to stay there, to sink into the dirt, to be swallowed and born again into eternal summer. But they would not let her stay; they held onto her muscles and bones and moved her away from bush and the ruined lake and into the open space of the yard. She began to run toward the street, surprising her legs with the sudden exertion, her soles slipping across the wet grass.
Charlie was shouting at her in that tight, whispery voice. She turned to see him trudging behind her, his long grey hair in damp strings across his shoulders.
''Rosalea, don't run away.''
She wanted to take Charlie with her, wanted to reach out and fasten his hand to her own, but she was dizzy with cold and she needed to get to the bread and milk store, to call the cab to take her home. The warm push stayed at her back, moving her forward, forward, forward. She kept her eyes on her feet, on her dirt -and grass-stained shoes.
When the taxi pulled into the parking lot the driver squinted at her but remembered the tip she'd given him and let her into the cab. The heat blasted from the car heater and she dozed a little on the ride home. The driver tried to help her to the house but she shook him away and planted another twenty into his hand.
She leaned against the gate and looked at the house. Clean white siding, new roof, clipped boxwood hedge glimmering with rain. The house that Harry built and she kept, pretty as a picture.
Harry was in his chair, just finishing up the last section of the paper. About time, he muttered, then folded back the page and jabbed at it.
"What was the name of the family next to your old place on Nelson? Harrison, weren't it?"
She had only enough energy to nod.
"I see one of the boys passed on, Charles Harrison, aged 63. Passed away March first of this year. No service. Was that the one you knew?"