Kate stopped at the Bloomfield Bed and Breakfast after driving aimlessly for hours. She hadn’t formed any coherent thought since leaving the city, certainly nothing as drastic as swallowing the bottle of Xanax in her purse. Her mind had simply been filled with the young female voice that had answered Evan’s cell phone that morning, one that suggested the fresh, pretty face that went along with it.
Evan’s in the shower now, can I take a message?
A sing-song voice that echoed in her brain like an annoying pop song. Kate had called to confirm their plans to celebrate her forty-third birthday at some swanky restaurant she couldn’t afford, but she wasn’t about to tell her young lover that.
The voice probably belonged to some perky co-ed named Tiffany or Jessamyn or Autumn. Kate hung up, got into her car, and drove. Over the next couple of hours she ignored the insistent buzzing of her cell. There was no point in speaking with Evan; she’d seen this coming all along. She’d been determined to enjoy it for as long as it lasted, and she had, but now that it was actually happening, she hadn’t been prepared for the black pit of despair she now found herself in.
It wasn’t just the loss of Evan. He was only the latest in a string of failed relationships with men who grew younger as she got older, a desperate inverse pattern meant to stave off the realization that her own youth was long gone, and she had nothing to show for it.
As her mind wandered down this bleak path, the awareness of the pills in her purse grew. Soon, she could think of nothing else. When the Bloomfield B&B appeared, with its red tiles and Victorian gables, the headline jumped out at her: Writer Takes Her Own Life in Local Landmark. Her death wouldn’t warrant a headline in any newspaper, but it seemed an appropriate place to end her disappointing life.
She parked in the empty lot, grabbed her purse, and walked up the moss-covered flagstones that led to the door. Inside, she tapped the bell stationed on the corner of a large desk. Its ring echoed in the silence. A sound at the top of the stairs caught her attention. The braided head of a little girl peered around the banister. Kate was about to say hello when the girl’s head disappeared as she darted back down the upstairs hallway.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” A woman about Kate’s own age came around a corner to the desk. “I was working on the books in the office.” Her graying hair was coiled into a bun on the back of her head, and a few wisps fell across her broad forehead. She pushed horn-rimmed glasses back up her long nose and smiled. “Welcome to the Bloomfield B&B. How can I help you?”
“One night, please.” Kate ruffled through her purse for her wallet. “You take Visa?”
“Absolutely. I’ll just need some ID.” The woman slid the credit card through the machine. She frowned, then looked at Kate with a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, but this card was declined.”
“Oh.” Kate’s face burned. “Oh, yes, I forgot. I closed this account,” she lied, taking the card back. “Do you take cash?”
“Of course. Single room?”
“Well, let’s see. If I put you in the Lily Room, it will be one-twenty-five.”
Kate was counting the cash in her wallet. Now she looked up at the woman. “Is that the least expensive room?” She had forty-five dollars.
“Tell you what,” the innkeeper said. “Give me what you can right now. There’s an ATM machine at the gas station in town, about a mile from here. We can settle up later.”
Kate hesitated. The Lily Room sounded lovely, but all she really had to do was pull over to the side of the road, swallow the pills, and be done with it. But that sad, sordid scenario repulsed her writer’s sensibility. She wanted to be found in the Lily Room, with her dyed auburn hair spread out over the silken pillows, and her manicured hand hanging over the bed, holding the empty bottle.
On the other hand, if she did the deed upstairs, the innkeeper would be jipped eighty dollars, and that bothered her, too. She didn’t care about leaving the ten thousand dollar Visa debt, but if she was going to die in this kind woman’s room, the least she could do was pay for all of it. How did dying become so complicated?
“That’s very good of you,” Kate said, handing over the cash.
After they finished their paperwork, the woman said, “My name is Diane. I run the inn with my daughter. She’s floating around here somewhere.” She waved a hand vaguely in the air. Kate remembered the little girl at the top of the stairs.
“I think I saw her,” she remarked.
“Did you? She’s usually in the garden at this hour.”
Diane led her up the carpeted stairs and down the hall to the left, to the Lily Room.
“Here we are.”
Kate stepped into a small room that was just receiving the afternoon light through the western window. Its rays fell on a twin bed covered with a cream-colored bedspread. The walls were papered in light green with small white lilies, and the wood floor had matching light green throw rugs with cream tassels. On a cherry wood table near the window, a vase held white lilies. The sun illuminated their silky petals, and released their subtle scent into the room.
Kate looked at the innkeeper. “It’s perfect.”
“Good. Dinner’s at five o’clock. Don’t be late-it’s swordfish with fresh asparagus. Adn if that doesn’t tempt you, then my homemade chocolate cream pie will.”
When Diane left, Kate sat down clutching her purse, and stared at the lilies in the green vase. She was glad she took the room. She wanted the last thing she saw on this earth to be something beautiful.
She fished out the bottle of Xanax from the purse. The prescription was nearly full, as she’d just renewed it the other day. She’d suffered from insomnia the past few months, with intermittent panic attacks. The depression had gotten better when she started dating Evan, but now its black tendrils crept over her again, pulling her down into the pit.
She noticed a pitcher of water and a glass tumbler on the table with the lilies. After pouring herself a glass, she leaned down top the lilies and inhaled their scent, as if filling herself up with it. Her eyes strayed out the window to a garden below filled with flower beds. From a large oak tree hung a wooden swing, and in the swing sat the little girl with the pigtails she had seen earlier. Her legs, which stuck out from a red dress with a big bow in the middle, swing back and forth as she pumped the swing. She seemed to be singing, though Kate couldn’t hear the song.
A sudden lump tightened her throat. Maybe she would have been happier if she’d had children. She’d had her chance in her youth when a young man named Mark had asked her to marry him. But Mark wanted children, and she wanted to write. At the time, the two things seemed incompatible, and she broke his heart. Twenty years later, with only a handful of publications and an out of print novel, it was becoming clear that she’d made the wrong choice.
She picked up the prescription bottle and opened it, spilling out a handful of pills. She was about to put them in her mouth when she glanced out the window. The little girl on the swing suddenly looked up at her with a frown.
Something shattered, startling Kate so that she dropped the pills with a gasp. She stared down at the table. Water dripped off its shiny surface, and pieces of glass littered the table and floor. It took her some moments to understand that the glass of water had just exploded into fragments.
She looked out the window to the swing, but the little girl was gone.
Kate cleaned up the mess, and then stretched out onto the bed, thinking about the little girl and he strange glass explosion. She tried to connect one with the other, but found it impossible to think straight, and she soon fell asleep.
When she woke, the shadows had lengthened in the room, though it was still bright. She reached for her cell phone in her purse to check the time. Four thirty. She’d slept for three and a half hours.
She held onto the phone, watching the message icon flash. After a while, she tapped the icon and put the phone to her ear. She closed her eyes and listened to Evan’s voice.
“Hey Kate. I see you called. We still on for tonight? Can’t wait to give you your birthday present,” he said, in his low, confidential voice they jokingly called his bedroom voice. Despite herself, a thrill shot through her. “Call me later. Bye.”
Ten minutes later: “Hey Kate, Carrie said you hung up on her when she answered earlier. Look, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. She’s my sister, visiting me before she goes off to college, I swear, okay? Let’s not ruin your birthday with this. I love you. Bye.”
She put the phone away and squeezed her eyes shut, willing the tears away. Sitting up, she put her head in her hands, feeling more alone than she ever had in her life. Loneliness had been a foe that she had battled with words on paper, and young lovers, and a polished veneer bought with money she didn’t have. Those weapons seemed to be losing their effectiveness. Her one last refuge had resided in the bottle of pills in her purse, and even that attempt had been bungled. She was alone, at the edge of the pit.
She wasn’t alone. The little girl was standing by her bed, staring at her. Kate gasped, and clutched at her lurching heart. “Jesus, you scared me.” The girl continued to look at her with a sweet, radiant face. “I saw you in the garden. On the swing. You looked up at me.” Her jangled nerves made her babble.
The girl smiled, a smile so warm and encompassing that it nearly broke Kate’s jaded, battered heart. The girl reached out, and covered Kate’s fingers with her own. Her skin was soft and warm and fragrant. The scented lilies wafted from her like the bouquet in the vase.
Kate was so surprised and moved by the gesture that she couldn’t speak. An urge to take the child in her arms overwhelmed her, as if in the act of soothing, she could be soothed.
She nearly gave in to the urge when her cell phone rang, muffled in her purse on the other side of the bed. She jumped and turned away from the girl, the smooth skin pulling away from her hand as she reached for the phone.
“Kate, where the hell are you?”
“Evan.” Kate looked back to the girl, but she was gone, as if she’d never been there. “I’m…” Her mind was clouded, as if she’d just woken from a strange dream.
“Are you all right? Kate?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” She got up from the bed, opened the door and looked down the hallway. She saw no one.
“Some B&B.” She looked out the window. She didn’t see the girl, but the swing rocked gently on its ropes. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t sound good. Tell me where you are, Kate.”
“Bloomington. I think.” She put a hand to her forehead and took a deep breath, trying to clear her mind. “No, Bloomfield.”
“Bloomfield? Where the hell is that?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Never mind, I’ll google it. I’m coming to meet you.”
“No.” She remembered that she was angry with him, that it was over, that she never wanted to see him again. “Please don’t, Evan. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be, okay?” She hated break ups, and liked to keep them quick, clean, and as painless as possible.
“Kate, I told you, Carrie’s my sister. You’re overreacting. Didn’t you listen to my messages? I love you, I want to be with you.”
“Just stop. I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call again.”
She hung up and turned the ringer off. Her stomach roiled with nausea, but after a few calming breaths it went away. When she put her phone back into her purse she spotted the pill bottle. There were some tablets left, still enough to do what she came here to do. But she only shook one tablet into her palm and swallowed it without water. She freshened up in the bathroom before dinner; she wasn’t very hungry, but couldn’t bear the thought of being alone just now.
Diane was in the spacious kitchen, lifting lids from pots on the stove and stirring their contents. An apron wrapped around her bulk said, “Get Pie-Eyed: Winner 2016 Bloomfield Pie Bake-Off.” She turned and smiled, her horn-rimmed glasses slightly steamed.
“You’re just in time. Have a seat.”
Despite her lack of appetite, Kate noted wonderful aromas issuing from the oven: pungent fish, made clean by the scent of lemon and rosemary. Diane donned some mitts and pulled a large casserole dish from the oven, containing the promised swordfish, and placed it on the stove top, next to the asparagus spears that bubbled in a stainless steal pot. Risotto rice plumped in another pot on the back burner.
“It looks wonderful,” Kate said. She wasn’t much of a cook, choosing to spend most of her free time in front of a computer rather than a stove. Takeout or microwave meals were the norm while she worked.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Diane said, taking off the mitts and fluffing the rice with a fork. “It’s just the three of us tonight.”
“Are there no other boarders?”
“Nope. We’re in between our busy periods of winter skiers and summer travelers. Fall is the busiest of all, of course, with the leaf-peepers and all, but spring tends to be pretty quiet. Can’t say that I mind too much. It gives us more time to devote to spring planting our garden.” She brought the steaming dishes over to the table, setting then down onto woven place mats.
“The lilies are certainly beautiful.”
The innkeeper bustled over to the refrigerator, bringing out a pitcher of water. She beamed as she placed the pitcher on the table. “We’re very proud of them. Our lilies won the grand prize at the spring festival last year.”
“How nice.” Prize-winning lilies as well as pies. A successful business, an enchanting daughter, and all without a man, as far as Kate could see. Envy of frumpy, homespun Diane flared in Kate. “Did you know the Greeks believed the white lily symbolized motherhood?”
“Is that so?”
“The story goes that Zeus wanted Hercules, his son by an extramarital affair with a mortal woman, to become a god. The only way for him to do that was to suckle at the breast of his wife, Hera. One day he put Hera to sleep, and placed Hercules at her breast. He sucked so vigorously that the milk overflowed. The mild that flowed heavenward became the Milky Way, and the milk that flowed to the earth became white lilies.”
“Well, isn’t that something?” Diane commented, offering a polite smile. Kate suddenly felt ridiculous for showing off. A woman like Diane would not be impressed with such useless information.
“So you like the room?” Diane went on, bringing out more glass tumblers like the one that had exploded earlier. Thinking about the incident, Kate hesitated, wondering if she should mention it.
“Love it,” she answered, deciding not to give Diane any reason to think she was crazy. Although, maybe she was. Hope you don’t mind, I just stopped by to kill myself in your lovely room.” Which reminded her of something.
“Oh my god, I forgot to run to the ATM to pay for the balance on the room.”
“Oh heck, I’m not worried,” Diane said, pouring water into the tumblers. “We’ll settle up later. Now, where is that daughter of mine?”
“I saw her upstairs about twenty minutes ago,” Kate offered. She didn’t mention that the girl had entered her room; she didn’t want to get her into any trouble. “She’s beautiful.”
Diane looked over at her in surprise as she took off the apron. “Well, isn’t that sweet of you? Lord knows Jenny’s never been accused of such a thing. I love her to pieces, but she’s got my looks, poor thing, and her no good father wasn’t much better.”
Kate only stared at her. The little girl was easily the most beautiful child she had ever seen. How could a mother, of all people, not see it?
Before she could even form a response, a young woman entered the kitchen. She cast a shy smile at Kate, and then with downcast eyes took a seat at the table.
“Well, there you are,” Diane said, sitting down next to her. “We were just talking about you.” The young woman took a sip of water, looking at Diane complacently.
“Oh,” Kate said. “You’re the daughter?” But of course she was. Looking at her, Kate could see the resemblance in the broad, plain features, the rather deep-set eyes, and the round face.
Mother and daughter looked at her blankly. Diane said, “Were you expecting some one else?”
Kate shook her head. “No. I was napping earlier, and I must have dreamed her.”
Diane and Jenny exchanged a glance. “I see,” Diane said, as she plunged a fork into the pile of asparagus. “I just love spring asparagus, don’t you?”
Kate made an effort to eat some of the food, and had to admit it was all delicious. Diane kept up an animated conversation, talking about the colorful characters she’d seen coming and going through the inn, the state of Bloomfield’s economically depressed downtown, and of course, the garden. The flower beds on the property held a special place in their hearts that went beyond mere pastime. Even Jenny, silent through most of the meal, talked quietly of the spring crocuses and daffodils, the summer roses, the multicolored mums they coaxed up in the autumn, as if they were dear friends. And the lilies, of course.
“Do you garden, Kate?” Diane asked, as she poured coffee during dessert. The chocolate cream pie was heavenly, surely the best she’d ever tasted, and decided she wouldn’t begrudge the innkeeper her pie contest title.
“Oh no,” she replied, stirring cream into her coffee. “I have a black thumb. In fact, I can’t seem to make anything grow.” With the words, the pie lost its flavor, and the pushed the rest away. Plants, meals, children, books, relationships. It didn’t matter. Nothing grew from her. She was sterile.
She didn’t realize silent tears streamed down her face until she felt Diane’s hand patting her own.
“Now, now,” she soothed. “It can’t be all that bad.”
“I’m sorry,” Kate said, wiping tears from her face. “I don’t mean to make such a scene. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
Diane sat back and regarded her. “Well, as to that, I think I might know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Follow me.” She left the kitchen through a door that led to the sitting room. Kate looked at Jenny, who only averted her eyes and picked at her pie with her fork.
Kate followed Diane into the sitting room, where she was turning on the lamps. Old pictures covered the walls, tintypes and sepia portraits of people, young and old, in Victorian clothing, and some later fashions that suggested early twentieth century.
Diane came to stand in front of one particular picture, just left of the window. “Is this the girl you saw?”
Kate drew closer. The face that looked out at her was indeed that of the girl she’d seen out in the garden, and again in her room. There were the same large, liquid brown eyes, the same Cupid’s bow mouth. Even the pigtails and the collar of the dress were the same. Her features were set in the same serious cast Kate had seen in her room, just before she’d smiled and ensnared Kate’s heart.
“Yes, that’s her. Who is she?”
“Her name is Lily Rose Powers. She lived in this house nearly one hundred years ago. In fact, the Lily Room was her bedroom. Elizabeth and Oscar Powers were raising her in this house when the Great War broke out. That’s them over there, by the way.”
Diane pointed to a picture on the other side of the window. A man and woman, impossibly young in their wedding finery, stiff and unsmiling as was the custom for photos back then. But underneath the stiffness, through the black and white lens, Kate sensed their joy bubbling beneath the surface, a great hope and excitement for the future, for their lives that were just beginning.
“Oscar was made an officer and was sent to the trenches in France,” Diane went on. “He never came back.”
“Terrible,” Kate murmured, glancing back at the handsome young face. He reminded her of Evan, or Mark of twenty years ago, and pain stabbed her heart. She imagined Oscar’s face splattered with mud and blood, rotting in the puddles of war.
“Elizabeth was never quite the same after that,” Diane continued. “She spent more and more time in her garden, tending to her beloved lilies. She so loved her lilies. She even had named her daughter after her favorite flower. But her husband’s death had altered her. One day she took Lily up to the attic and threw them both out the window, to their deaths.”
“My god,” Kate whispered.
“Yes, it’s a very sad story. She was only six years old.”
Sorrow upon sorrow here. Kate stood in mute grief for this child who had been dead before Kate’s own grandmother had been born.
The innkeeper, her rough hands clasped before her, waited for a response. After an interval of time, in which only the sound of the grandfather clock could be heard ticking in the hallway, Kate cleared her throat.
“So the girl, Lily. She’s…a ghost. That’s what you’re getting at, right?”
Diane shrugged. “I’ve never seen her. I’ve only the word and description given to me by some of the boarders here over the years.”
“She’s never appeared to you?”
“Not once. Nor to Jenny, or to anyone else in my family who’s run the inn for decades. But she’s very well-known to us, and every once in a while she singles out a boarder to whom she feels an affinity. Those are the only ones she appears to.”
“Why? Why would she appear to me?”
“That’s for you and Lily to figure out.”
Kate returned to the Lily Room, confused, but with a new sense of purpose. She was drawn to the little girl, the ghost that had chosen to appear to Kate, an honor bestowed on only a lucky few. Perhaps her very life depended on what this ghostly little girl wanted with her, and she was determined to find out what it was.
She retrieved the bottle of Xanax from her purse. After rolling it around in her hand, she flushed them down the toilet at the end of the hall. Then she sat on her bed and waited for Lily Powers to appear to her once again.
Despite her nap earlier, she fell asleep with the lamp on. She dreamed of lilies growing in puddles of bloody mud. When she woke, Lily stood by the bed watching her.
Kate slowly sat up. “It’s okay. I was just sleeping.”
The girl’s face broke into that beaming smile that made Kate want to press her against her chest. She reached out to do it, so overwhelming was the urge. She wanted to caress the girl’s hurts away. She wanted to matter to someone.
The girl’s smile never faltered, but she inched back, just out of reach, so that Kate’s hands fell upon air.
“What do you want, Lily?”
The girl backed up to the door and lifted her hand. She curled her finger, beckoning Kate to follow, then slipped out the open door.
Kate rose and looked out into the hallway. The girl was peeking around the corner at the end of the hall. Her giggle echoed down the corridor as she danced away.
Kate followed, as if floating along in a dream. Around the corner, Lily waited at the foot of some steps leading up into what Kate assumed to be the attic. Her smile gone now, Lily turned and marched up the stairs, dissolving into the darkness.
Dread coursed through Kate as she hesitated. The attic, where Lily and her mother fell to their deaths. She didn’t want to follow, yet she found herself walking toward the steps and staring up into the dark. A string hung down the wall to the right, and she pulled it. A single light bulb at the top of the stairs blinked on, dangling from the rusty rafters above.
Her foot creaked on the first step, and then the next, an invisible thread pulling her up the stairs toward the light. At the top, piles of boxes, chests, and old furniture sat indistinct in the wan light of the bulb. Everything was covered in dust, coating her nostrils and the back of her throat.
“Lily?” There was no sound. No wind outside the open window, no mice scurrying in corners, no spiders spinning webs. The stillness, more than anything else, terrified her.
“Lily Rose Powers,” she called into the silence, in the stern tone her mother had used when she was a child and misbehaving. “Stop playing games and show yourself this instant!”
She turned her head, following the scent of lilies.
Lily sat on the sill of the window, her eyes shiny with tears.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Kate said, reaching out a hand. An irrational fear of the girl falling out the window flashed through her. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. I just-” Just what? What did she want with this ghost of a girl?
“I just want to help you.” Lily had been dead for nearly one hundred years. What was there to be helped? It was an old tragedy. And yet, looking at the girl haunting the scene of her death, Kate thought maybe her spirit could be eased in some way. She couldn’t think of anything worse than eternal loneliness. A lifetime was enough.
Lily sniffed, and then, raising her eyes to Kate, held out her arms.
Instinctively, Kate moved forward to hold the child. Lily was solid against her. The skin of her arms was soft and warm, and her dark hair was smooth and glossy against Kate’s cheek. A phantom heartbeat pulsed against her own. They cried together as Kate rocked them atop the windowsill. Just the feel of the trembling girl in her embrace filled a deep need that couldn’t be assuaged by anything else. Not a man’s desire, not even writing. The touch was elemental. She never wanted it to end.
After their tears had been spent, Lily looked up at her and smiled again. Kate smiled back at her.
In the split second it took Lily to pull her out of the window with supernatural strength, Kate had time to feel an instant of terror; but the child still held her tightly as they fell. and before they hit the flagstones below, Kate understood.
She would have leaped if Lily had asked her to.
Diane was working in the front garden when a car pulled up to the inn a few days later. She pulled off her gardening gloves and stood, brushing dirt and leaves from her overalls as she watched the two young people emerge from the car. They both possessed dark hair and bright blue eyes; anyone could see that they were siblings.
“Excuse me,” the young man said as they approached. “I’m hoping you can help me. I’m looking for someone. Her name is Kate Simpson. I talked to her on the phone a few days ago and she said she was here.”
“Well, let me see,” Diane said, taking off her sun hat and wiping her brow with the back of her calloused hand. “Seems I do remember a Kate passing through here a few days ago. Tall, reddish hair, about my age, but heaps prettier?”
“That’s her,” the boy said. “Do you know where she was going? I can’t reach her on her cell.”
She shook her head. “She didn’t say, but I think she headed north. Is she your mother, honey?”
The boy’s jaw tightened. “She’s not my mother, she’s my girlfriend.” His sister rubbed his arm.
“Ah, I see. Well, as I said, I think she went north. Would you two kids like some nice cold lemonade? I just made a pitcher this morning.”
“Um, no thanks. I just want to find Kate.”
“Of course. Well, good luck, honey.”
“Thank you,” the girl said, pulling her brother away.
“Just one more question,” the boy said, turning suddenly.
“Did she seem upset or anything when she was here?”
“Well, she did seem a little sad. But by the time she left, she was quite serene, I’d say.”
“Thank you,” the sister said again, taking her brother’s arm. “Come on, Evan. We’ll keep looking.”
Evan kept glancing up at the inn as his sister led him back to the car. Diane smiled and waved as they sped away up the road.
When the car turned the corner and was gone, she let the smile fade. Turning back to her garden, she put her gloves back on and dug her hands into the bucket of fertilizer she made herself. Jenny was still squeamish about making it, but Diane had been chopping up its special ingredients for years now.
She spread it along the base of the white lilies that thrived in her little plot of earth, long before they should have bloomed. Hera’s milk, indeed, she thought,chuckling to herself. Their heady scent calmed her, and she dismissed the two young people from her mind. She had nothing to worry about, for she had a nephew that was good at making cell phones and cars disappear.
She’d seen the likes of Kate Simpson many times over the years. The vain, over-educated types, desperate to fill the empty hole in their souls. Those particular boarders always ended up smashed against the flagstones. Well, the dead had their own needs, and what the dead needed wasn’t Diane’s business. Her business was living. And growing prize-winning lilies, of course.
Too many deaths at her inn would have been suspicious and closed its doors forever. She had to do something with them.
“Well, look at that, Kate Simpson,” she murmured, spreading more of the fertilizer. “You can make something grow after all.”