Go here for Part 3 of Dark Fens of Cedar.
“Get the doctor! Oh god, hurry!”
Hannah woke clutching her cramped abdomen. A vague awareness caused her to throw back her blankets; fear shot through her when she saw the blood-stained sheets.
For one stunned moment, she didn’t understand what was happening. The crazy thought–I lost the baby–shot through her mind. But that didn’t make sense. She wasn’t pregnant. It took her several long, confused moments to figure out that she was not Annie from her dream. She was Hannah, and she had only started her menstrual period, a little early and unexpectedly. It was, however, a sticky mess.
Her shaky laugh sounded hollow in the dim room of the B&B. No wonder she had been so emotional with Jack yesterday.
She went into the bathroom and cleaned herself up, finding a box of Maxi pads beneath the sink. Then she stripped the sheets off the bed, futilely trying to scrub away the stains on the mattress. She walks through the world and leaves bloody footprints. The line seemed familiar, though she couldn’t recall who wrote them.
And then, in the midst of her scrubbing, she did know. Annie had written those words. They had lived in that bundled sheaf of papers she’d given Jonathan to read in Hannah’s dream, among many other words that seemed to be on the tip of her tongue, but beyond her reach.
Her phone flashed with Craig’s messages. She shut the phone off and put it in her purse. On a sudden impulse, she took the rock on the bedside table as well.
She was halfway to the Historical Society when she realized it was probably too early to be open. It was 8:26 am, and she was fairly certain it opened at 9:00. She turned and headed to the Korner Kitchenette to wait. Jack was ordering his coffee in the to-go line.
She rushed up to him. “Annie was a poet, too,” she blurted.
He turned to her in surprise, his coffee sloshing through the hole in the plastic cap. “Hannah, um, hi. Do you mean Annie Eldridge?” He winced, then muttered, “Of course, who else would you mean, what other Annie would you–”
“She was a poet, too, she wrote a bunch of poems that her own husband called brilliant, though he then went on to criticize them for being too personal, not a proper subject for poetry, but the thing is, there has to be a record of them somewhere, or some extant pieces of it left. Something, somewhere. It’s absolutely incredible, but will you help me find them?”
As she stood catching her breath, Jack turned to the girl behind the counter. “Could I also have a cream with no sugar?” He looked back at Hannah. “That’s how you like it, isn’t it?”
When she had it in her hand, he led her to a booth in the corner. “Now, what makes you think Annie was a poet?”
“Well, I…” I dreamed it, she could have said. Or, I am the living embodiment of Annie Eldridge, reliving her memories through dreams with the help of some rock I found at the tower. Or: I am completely insane.
“I just know.”
“Okay.” He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “Where should we start looking?”
“Just like that? You’ll help me, with no proof at all?”
He spun the Styrofoam cup between his hands. “I don’t have much else going on, except…” He shrugged his shoulders.
Except to watch his mother battle cancer. “How’s your mom doing?”
“She’s just really sick. Dad’s with her now. I’ll relieve him later, after lunch.”
“I’m so sorry, Jack.”
He made an effort at a smile. “This will be an interesting distraction. If it’s true, it’d be really big, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be like finding out Shakespeare’s wife was a writer. But yeah, it would make some ripples in the literary world. It would make my career.”
“Let’s get to it, then,” he said. “I don’t think the Historical Society has anything to offer. I know that place inside out, and there’s nothing anywhere to suggest that Annie wrote it at all. If there were any surviving manuscripts, they might have been taken to Boston to Eldridge’s family when the children were sent there after his death. We could research his family line, try to contact his descendants, see if there are any leads. If anything, we could get you names and contact information, for when you go back to Boston.”
When she went back to Boston. To Craig. To Kitty and her guest list and seating arrangements. To the future suburban house that echoed with the voices of their unborn children. All the things she knew she didn’t want to go back to.
This place, River Valley, had taken some kind of hold over her. As she’d written her verses yesterday afternoon, she allowed herself to imagine living here, writing her poetry. Living alone in some charming apartment, perhaps teaching at the community college. Maybe even pouring coffee here at the Korner Kitchenette, until things got settled. Pouring coffee for Jack, before he went to the Historical Society. It was a vision so sweet, she could almost taste it.
“Hannah? What do you think?” Jack looked at her expectantly over his cup.
“Sounds like a plan.”
They ended up going back to the Historical Society to use the computer there. Eldridge’s lineage was somewhat of a public record. Jonathan and Annie’s son, Robert, had married a Boston socialite. They’d had four children, who then had gone off in different directions, from New York to London to India. Two grandsons had been killed in World War I, and the trail went cold from there.
Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called, had married a Boston lawyer, but the marriage produced no children. Some kind of scandal had been involved, with Lizzie leaving her husband and travelling to Europe to become an artist.
Hannah was immensely intrigued by this, but she had to stay focused on the task at hand. She sat back in her chair and sighed heavily. “Any surviving manuscript could be anywhere in the world.” She already felt defeated; she was no literary sleuth.
“We need to narrow down the search, find which trail to follow,” Jack said. “If we had a little bit more to go on…” He glanced over at her, hoping she would supply that missing information.
Information she didn’t have, except the unprovable conviction that Annie had written poetry. She stood and stretched her neck. “We’ve been at it for two hours. What do you say we take a walk up to the property again.”
“Sure.” He grabbed some granola bars from a desk drawer and two plastic bottles of water. The day was mild again, sunny and cloudless. Once at the property, they sat on an old log and tore at the granola wrappers. They chewed in silence, looking out at the spreading town below.
She glanced at Jack out of the corner of her eye. She’d only known him for two days, but she felt comfortable with him, as if she could tell him anything. If she’d told Craig about the dream, he’d laugh it off. Or insist she get psychological help. He was a doctor. He liked to fix things, to dismantle a problem so he could put it back together in a sensible manner. She had admired that in him, in his utter confidence to make things right. But here, now, she just needed someone to listen and accept.
“I know that Annie was a poet,” she said after a while, “because I dreamed it.”
He swallowed his water and waited. “Go on.”
“Since I’ve arrived here, I’ve dreamed of her. Dreamed of her writing, of showing Eldridge her work. And they’re not just normal dreams. In the dreams, I am Annie. Reliving her memories.” She dug into her purse and pulled out the rock. “I’m not sure, but I think this rock has something to do with it. I found it my first day here, in the woods near the tower. It–called to me. I dreamed of the rock, too. Jonathan gave it to Annie. The sharp edges cut her skin, drawing blood. They vowed their love would be eternal.”
She held it out to him. It glittered in the sunlight. He looked at it a moment before taking it from her.
“Wow,” he said.
“You don’t think I’m crazy?”
He shook his head, weighing the rock in his hand. “I’m a scientist by education. But I know that there are still things in the world that we can never understand. Not scientifically. I know that places–or even objects–can be haunted by memories, or intense emotions. Sometimes when I come here…” He drifted off, looking around at the empty lot, at the weeds running riot, at the vines choking the hedges and branches alike. He shrugged. “I just get this funny feeling, you know? Joy and anguish mixed together. It’s overwhelming. Maybe that’s why I don’t come here too often.”
“Are you feeling it now?”
“Yup.” He smiled at her, but it was tight, as if he were in pain.
“We should go.”
He looked at his cell phone for the time. “I should get home. My dad will be waiting.”
“Can I help?”
He looked at her curiously. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know.” For some reason, she wanted to help this kind man take care of his mother. She wanted to do something for someone else for once. She was sick of being in her own head, and needed to get away from herself–and Annie.
They walked back to the Historical Society and got into his silver Honda Civic. He drove them across town to the ranch-style house he lived in with is parents, on a pleasant street called Meadow Lane. His father was in the kitchen putting dirty dishes into the sink. He had the same sad-looking eyes as Jack, lined and weary around the edges, but he perked up at the sight of his son bringing home a young woman.
“Dad, this is Hannah. A friend. She offered to help us today.”
Jack’s father held out a hand to Hannah. “Steve Whitmore. It’s nice to see Jack getting out a little bit with people his own age. Thinks he’s gotta be a hermit, what with his mom and all, but I’ve been encouraging him to date.”
“Dad.” Jack rolled his eyes.
“We’re new friends,” Hannah said, trying to ease Jack’s embarrassment. “Jack’s helping me with my thesis. We met at the Historical Society.”
Steve’s eyes lit up. “History major?” Hannah remembered he was a history teacher.
“English Lit. I’m writing on Jonathan Eldridge.”
“Ah, Eldridge. River Valley’s almost-famous son. He could have been one of the greats. But grief destroyed him.” He pursed his lips and glanced behind him, down the hall. He addressed Jack. “She’s restless today. Agitated. Kept asking for you. I didn’t have much time to get anything done.” He sighed and ran a hand over his receding hairline.
Jack put a hand on his arm. “Why don’t you get a beer, Dad, and relax. Get out of the house for a while.”
“Think I will. Nice meeting you, Hannah.” He shuffled out to the green pickup in the driveway, checking for keys and wallet on the way.
“I’ll make her some tea,” Jack said.
“Let me make it. You go in and see her. I’ll bring it when it’s done.”
“Thanks. Third cupboard on the right.”
She filled the red tea kettle with water, set in on the stove top, turned the dial until blue flames appeared. In the appointed cupboard, she found black, green and chamomile tea. She opted for the chamomile and set the box on the table. After poking around, she found the cabinet with the glasses and chose a white mug that said, “World’s Best Mom.”
She felt comfortable in this kitchen. It wasn’t worn and shabby, with mismatched table and chairs and faded flower wallpaper, like the kitchen of her childhood, stamped with poverty. Neither was it gleaming and cold and intimidating, like the sleek kitchen at Craig’s parents house, as if no one lived there.
When the tea was done, she brought it to the bedroom door and knocked softly.
“Come in,” Jack said. When she entered he was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his mother’s hand. The curtains were closed against the brilliant spring day, with only one lamp lighting the room. The stale air had the faint scent of vomit and cleaning solution.
Jack’s mother sat up in the big bed against propped-up pillows. A floral bedspread was pulled up to her thin form. What hair she had left, now in tufts and patches, had been dark, and her large blue eyes shifted from her son to Hannah as she brought the tea.
“This is my friend, Hannah, mom.”
Hannah set the steaming mug onto the bedside table, trying to smile reassuringly. The woman’s eyes never left her for a moment, following her across the room unnervingly. Hannah wondered suddenly if she shouldn’t have come. Maybe his mother would resent her presence here, maybe she’d want her son’s company all to herself right now. She had every right.
Finally, his mom smiled weakly at her. “She’s lovely, Jack. I’m very happy for you.”
“It’s not like that, Mom,” he said, blushing again at the same assumption his father had made. “She’s a friend. I’m helping Hannah with her thesis. Or trying to, anyway.”
“We just met two days ago,” Hannah added.
“It doesn’t matter,” his mom said, her eyes glittering in the low light. “I can see it.”
“See what, Mom?”
“Oh,” she said, raising an arm that looked alarmingly thin to Hannah. “The link. It’s very strong.”
“The link?” Jack repeated.
“You’re both the same color. Red. The exact same shade, like blood.”
Jack glanced back at Hannah, then reached for the tea on the table. “Have some tea, Mom, and then get some rest.” He brought the mug to her pale lips as she inclined her head forward from the pillows. She took a few swallows, and then sagged back and closed her eyes.
Hannah left the bedroom. In the kitchen, she washed the few dishes in the sink, wiped up some crumbs from the counter, found the broom and swept the floor. The sick woman’s words made no sense, but she couldn’t get them out of her head.
After a time, Jack came out of the bedroom, and she made tea for them both. They sat at the kitchen table, their hands wrapped around their mugs.
“Sorry about that,” Jack said. “I’m used to her being confused, but that was just weird.”
“I’m getting used to weird around here,” she said, blowing on her tea.
“Do you think you’ll dream of Annie again tonight?”
“I don’t know. Last time, she was losing the baby. We know that she died with the third child. What if…I don’t want to go through…” She stopped and covered her distress by sipping her tea. The warmth in her belly helped with the ache of her menstrual cramps.
“If you want, I can stay with you tonight. Just to, you know, watch over you.” He plunked his teabag in and out of his mug by the string, not looking at her.
She didn’t realize how afraid she was at the idea of going to sleep that night, until she felt relief wash over at his suggestion.
He misunderstood her pause. “God, sorry, it was a dumb idea–”
“No, please. I’d appreciate that, really.” She reached out a hand and placed it over his on the table.
“Okay.” She didn’t withdraw her hand, and neither did he. She squeezed it a little, and his thumb came up to lightly trace her own.
His mother’s voice calling him made them jump, and he stood up from the chair with a loud scrape. “Sorry, I better go check on her.”
He disappeared into the bedroom. She sat at the table and finished her tea, listening to the sparrows singing outside the open kitchen window. She was aware of her hand tingling where Jack had touched it. She was aware of the rock in her purse, which hung off the arm of the chair. She was aware of her cell phone, full of Craig’s messages.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled out the phone and accessed her voice mail.
“Hi babe. Did you fall asleep before calling me? Sweet dreams. I’ll call you in the morning before my shift.”
“You must be elbow-deep in research. I hope it’s worth it, Hanny. Miss you. Please call. Okay?”
There were no more voice messages, but there were several texts:
I don’t mean to keep bothering you, but a call would be nice.
I’m getting worried. Did you fall off that tower?
You met someone, didn’t you? You could at least be an adult and admit it.
She had to stand and pace the kitchen to work through the outrage that surged through her. She picked up the broom again and swept the rest of the house furiously, then went outside and swept the porch and front steps, muttering as she did so. After she emptied the dustpan into the trash, she sat at the table again, chewing her thumbnail.
In all fairness, Craig was right. She had met someone. Several someones: Jack and his parents, Jonathan and Annie Eldridge. They seemed more real to her than Craig did, in distant Boston. Suddenly the last few years of her life didn’t feel real at all, as if she’d only been playing at something until her real life appeared. Her anger spent, she found she didn’t care what Craig thought, unfair as that was.
She took up her phone and texted: Yes, I did meet someone, Craig. She’s immensely important to me, and I have to find out everything I can about her. I’m not sure when I’ll be going back to Boston. In light of this, I can’t in good conscience go through with the wedding. I’m so very sorry. I’ll explain everything when I see you again.
She hit send, shut the phone off and put it back in her purse. Holding out her left hand, she pulled off the diamond engagement ring and put that, too, into her purse. It had been on her finger long enough that it felt strange without it now, but she couldn’t deny how right it felt to take it off. An enormous weight was gone. She was giddy with lightness, with freedom. Anything was possible now.
When Jack returned to the kitchen, he gave her a funny look. “You okay?”
She realized she was smiling. “I’m good. What else can I do for you?”
Go here for Part 5 of Dark Fens of Cedar.