Shelter From the Storm - A Ghost Story for Christmas, страница 1
Shelter from the Storm
© 2013 Barrymore Tebbs. All rights reserved.
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Cover graphic: Barrymore Tebbs
Some years ago while traveling home on Christmas Eve I lost my way on an unfamiliar road in the wild and wintry night. I don’t know how I strayed so far from the highway, but the night was black and nothing in the beams of my headlights appeared familiar to me. The hypnotic onslaught of snow and rain lulled me into a trance. It was a dirty night for traveling. I had not been home for Christmas in several years and so had little choice but to plunge headlong into the storm.
Just as I began to fear I had become hopelessly lost, the headlights revealed a white wooden mailbox mounted on a post at the side of the road. I seized the opportunity to turn around in the entrance to the drive, but no sooner had I shifted the Roadmaster into reverse than I felt the rear end of the car being dragged down from behind. I gunned the engine to no avail. The back end slid further into a gully until it was sucked into the mire.
I stepped from the car, the collar of my coat turned up against the frigid blast. The Buick perched at a precarious angle. The ditch was a mass of slop, the chilling rain eager to coat it with a frosty glaze. I could not hope to push the car out of the ditch by myself.
I stood in the beams of the headlights, looking to my left and to my right as if expecting someone to magically appear. Tonight of all nights I refused to hunker down in the front seat of the Buick. I read the name of Baldwin on the mailbox. With luck, the family would be at home and I might perhaps persuade an able bodied man or two to help me push the Buick out of the ditch. I shut off the car lights and was plunged into blackest night. I tucked my chin against the icy wind and headed up the drive.
Within a few moments I saw the lights of the house. As I drew closer, squinting against the stinging pellets of rain which struck my face, I saw that each window contained a lighted candle, welcoming and cheerful. Thunder cracked overhead and I hurried up the steps to the veranda.
I listened at the door for some sign of life within, but all I heard was the racing wind as it whipped around the eaves of the house. I had no idea of the lateness of the hour, but surely the residents had not yet gone to bed with candles burning at every window. I pushed the button at the side of the door. A brilliant ring sounded from deep inside the house. I peered through the beveled glass at one side of the door and waited. Presently, I saw movement. I patted down my hair, certain I must look a fright after only a few minutes exposed to the elements.
The door opened. A warm glow silhouetted a woman of slender frame and medium height. The woman’s hands flew to her cheeks, and in a shrill voice she squealed, “Mama, it’s Hoyt! Hoyt’s here!”
I raised my hands in protest but before I could interrupt her outburst, a second woman, smaller but just as frail, toddled into the foyer.
“Jesus have mercy,” Mama said. “Don’t just stand there, Violet – invite him in. We’ve been worried half to death about you. Only a fool would venture out on a night like this.”
I stepped inside. Violet shut the door against the chill and Mama lifted her delicate hands to touch my face.
“I’m afraid there has been some mistake,” I said. “My name is Walter Spradlin.”
Mama eyed me up and down. “Of course it is,” she said. “Violet, he looks nothing like Hoyt. This man is not as tall and is bigger boned. His hair is dark. Our Hoyt is trim and lean, and has a head of thick auburn hair.” She spoke to Violet as if she were a simple child, but from what I could see in the dim light, Violet was at least fifty years of age and Mama well into her seventies. “Lord, but it’s a wicked night. The roads must be treacherous. I hope Hoyt makes it home safely. Violet, take Mr. Spradlin’s coat. I am Amanda Baldwin and this unfortunate creature is my daughter, Violet.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble,” I said. “My car went off the road into a ditch at the end of the lane. Perhaps Hoyt will be able to help me push it out when he arrives.”
“We may not see him until morning. Hoyt would have the good sense to turn into the nearest motor court during a storm like this.”
Violet shook the rain from my coat and hung it on a wooden rack in the foyer.
“I wonder if I could use your phone.”
Amanda Baldwin shook her head. “You are welcome to use our phone, but you see the electricity has gone out. We are so far removed from town that when it storms, ours is the first to go.”
“And the last to come back,” said Violet.
The two of them ushered me into the parlor, a cozy room filled with light from a roaring fire and a multitude of candles… even the Christmas tree in the corner of the room was lit with candles. The Baldwin parlor was a cheerful, old fashioned Christmas – a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
I asked, “How far are we from town?”
Violet shrugged. “Ten miles.”
“More like twenty,” said her mother.
“You’re not thinking of going back out into this dreadful night!”
“I don’t see what choice I have.”
“Stay and visit with us. It is Christmas Eve, after all, and we would never turn away a stranger in need on Christmas Eve. Perhaps Hoyt will be home soon. Maybe the storm will pass. Perhaps the electricity will return. Violet, be a dear and check the phone for Mr. Spradlin.”
Violet went into the next room and after a moment returned and said, “It’s dead.”
“You see? The phone is dead. You have two choices, Mr. Spradlin. Either you can go back out into the dirtiest night of the year or you can sit a spell with us. We have already had our supper, but there is still gingerbread to come, and eggnog, and when Hoyt arrives there will be carols around the piano. Do please stay with us awhile.”
The storm ripped at the shutters and rattled the windows. I supposed it would do no harm to enjoy their hospitality for a few hours and see what transpired. Either the storm would pass or I would find myself curled up on the couch come Christmas morning.
Miss Amanda sent her daughter to the kitchen to prepare tea and then gestured to a wingback chair at one side of the fireplace.
“Won’t you sit, Mr. Spradlin? The fire will help remove the chill.”
I did as I was told and managed a smile. Miss Amanda sat in the chair on the other side of the hearth. In the harsh orange light her face was a mass of wrinkles, but when she smiled, the lines at the corners of her eyes were genuine. I began to feel at ease.
“Did you say you have family in town, Mr. Spradlin?”
“Yes, but only my mother is left. It’s been a number of years since I have been able to come home for Christmas. I do wish the electricity would return so I can telephone and tell her not to worry.”
“She will be more comforted to see you arrive alive and well on Christmas Day than to receive a telegram from the morgue.”
What a morbid thing to say. I scrutinized her face but could see that she spoke without giving thought to the implication of her words.
Miss Amanda went to the piano and returned with a double frame of gilt silver and placed it in my hands.
“This is our beloved.” She beamed proudly.
The man in the photo on the left was indeed handsome; hair slicked back from his high forehead, his smile vibrant; eyes bright with vitality. It could easily have been a photograph of a picture star from Ph
“Charming,” I said and returned the photograph. Amanda’s bony fingers caressed the glass. The firelight revealed a sparkle at the corner of her eye.
“Isn’t he handsome?”
“He should be in pictures,” I said.
“He truly should! He can sing and dance, and tell a joke that will make you clutch your belly with laughter. He appeared briefly on the vaudeville stage when he was young.”
“There are so few of those left anymore.”
Miss Amanda shook her head. “Isn’t that a shame?”
“Here we are!” sang Violet as she appeared between the drapes from the room beyond. She moved slowly so as not to spill the contents of the tray she carried.
“Did you feel the need to bring the entire kitchen? Be careful!” Miss Amanda warned as Violet set the tray on a small round table. “You’ll break the lamp.”
The lamp wobbled and I sprang quickly to my feet to help her with the tray. No wonder her burden was heavy. Not only was there a pot of steaming tea and cups and saucers, but there was also a pitcher of eggnog and a plate of gaily decorated gingerbread cookies.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all the bother,” I said.