A story by Mickey Minner
Gail Lewis looked up when she heard the door to her office creak open. “I hope that isn’t something you need today,” she said to the man standing in the opening, a sheet of paper held loosely in his hand. “I was hoping to get out of here at a decent hour.”
“Plans?” Rod Johnson asked as he entered the office and settled onto one of the pair of chairs in front of her desk.
“Yes. To be safely home and tucked into bed with all the lights out before the Trick or Treaters hit the streets.”
“I thought you liked Halloween.”
Gail’s eyes dropped to her desk. “I did,” she said softly, her eyes staring blankly at the array of papers spread across the pine surface. After a moment, she reached for her mouse and unthinkingly closed the open applications on her computer. Finally, she looked back up at Rod. “What’s on your mind?”
Rod accepted the change in subject without objection. “I hate to ask this of you but the Henson deal fell through and Jerry is going to have to scramble to find another buyer before Henson decides to pull the contract.”
“I thought that was a done deal.”
“So did we, but the buyers got cold feet. Seems his company is having some hard times with the current economy and his job isn’t as secure as they thought. They decided they couldn’t take the chance on a new mortgage.”
“That’s tough for Jerry. But, honestly, I can’t say I blame people for being cautious right now.”
Rod leaned forward and placed the sheet of paper on Gail’s desk. “Which leads me to this— we just got a call on some property in Parkland. The owner is anxious to have someone go out and give it the once over. Jerry was next in line but with the Henson problem he won’t have chance to get to it before next week. You closed on two houses this week, so I thought you might want to take it on.”
Gail picked up the fact sheet. Rod fell silent, giving her time to scan through the information on the new property. As he watched her read, the color drained from her face and her hands began to shake so hard that the paper fell from her fingers and floated toward the floor.
Rod jumped up and hurried around the desk. “Hey, are you okay?” He reached Gail in mere seconds but tears were already streaming from her eyes. “Gail, what the…?” He placed a tentative hand on her shoulder.
Gail waved him off. Then she took off her glasses and tossed them onto her desk. “Give me a minute,” she asked, her voice trembling, as she reached for the box of Kleenex sitting on the corner of her desk. While she tried to stem the flow of tears Rod eased back around the desk and pushed the office door shut. “Sorry,” she apologized when he retook his seat.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded. “I, uh… I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Expecting what?” he asked, continuing to eye her worriedly.
Gail pulled fresh tissues from the box and blew her nose. She tossed them into the wastebasket then pulled more tissues to wipe her face. “Um…” she started then stopped to suck in a deep breath, battling to hold her emotions in check.
“Something I said? Did?” Rod asked warily.
“No,” she assured him as she retrieved her glasses then bent over and picked the paper off the floor. She placed it on her desk before continuing. “You had no way of knowing.” She pointed at the fact sheet. “This is Sandy’s mother.”
“Oh, shit. I am so sorry. Oh, hell. Dammit, Gail, if I had known—”
“But you didn’t,” she injected.
“Look, I am so sorry. I’ll get someone else to do it,” he said reaching across her desk.
She placed her hand on top of the sheet preventing him from taking it. “No. I can do it.”
“It’s okay. I just wasn’t… Well, seeing her name caught me by surprise. I guess I’m not as over it as I thought.”
“No one expects you to be. It hasn’t been that long.”
Gail nodded and smiled gratefully. “Thanks for understanding.”
“Of course. Listen… let me give this to someone else.”
“No. Really, I can do it. I want to do it. Her mom was always so nice to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t call this office on purpose. I’ve kinda been avoiding her. Maybe this is a good thing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll give her a call and see if I can swing out that way this evening.”
“Good way to avoid the Trick or Treaters,” Rod said, glad to see Gail’s shoulders relaxing as she released some of the tension from the past several minutes.
She grinned. “I never thought of that. But you’re right; I doubt many would make the hike up her driveway. I bet that thing is a good half mile long.”
Rod stood. “If you’re sure…”
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
“Hey, Rod,” Gail stopped her boss from leaving her office. When he turned around, she said, “Thanks.”
“Letting me work through this. It’s been tough but knowing I could come in here and get my mind off of things has helped.”
Rod smiled. “You’re my best agent. Anything you need, you know that,” he said then pulled the door shut and left her to her own thoughts.
Gail leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, tears again flowing down her face. “Why did you leave me, Sandy?” she whispered into the silence. “I loved you so much.”
It took almost an hour for Gail to steady her emotions enough to call her ex-mother-in-law. She nervously waited as she listened to the rings on the other end of the line.
“Um… Hi… Joanne. It’s—”
“Gail? Oh, honey, it’s so good to hear from you.”
“Nonsense! I won’t hear any of that. I know you needed some time. I’m just glad you finally called. How are you?”
“It’s good to hear your voice,” Gail admitted, keeping the rest of the thought to herself. You sound so much like her. “The reason, I’m calling—”
Joanne laughed. “Goodness, dear, you don’t need a reason.”
Gail found herself smiling even though she was on the verge of crying again. “Damn, it really is good to talk to you. I shouldn’t have let so much time pass.”
“It’s what you needed. Why don’t you come out to the house?” Gail heard what sounded like quiet voices in the background. “Give me a minute, dear. I have a pot about to boil over on the stove.”
“If you’re busy, I don’t want—”
“None of that,” Joanne chided. “Now, don’t you go anywhere, I’ll be right back.” Gail took the opportunity to dry the tears on her cheeks. “You still there?” Joanne asked a few moments later.
“Good. Now, where were we? Oh, yes, you said you had a reason for calling…”
“You called my office today. I didn’t know you were thinking of selling.”
“Well, I wasn’t. That is, until… Well, you know… I just always expected Sandra would move back here and take it over.”
“Yes, I know. She loved being out there.”
“I don’t suppose…”
“No. Not without her. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t.”
“I understand, dear.”
Gail face scrunched up as she again heard what sounded like people talking in the background of the call. I must be imagining it. I don’t think Joanne has a party line. “Rod asked me to handle the appraisal, if that’s okay with you.”
“Of course, it is.”
“I was going to suggest I drop by later this afternoon. But it sounds like you have visitors.”
“Maybe it would be better for me to come out tomorrow.” She pressed the phone against her ear sure she had again heard something.
“No, no, no,” Joanne protested. “Today is fine. In fact, come for dinner? As usually, I’m making more than enough.”
“I don’t want to intrude—”
“Nonsense. I really would love to see you. Shall we plan to eat at six? But you come out whenever you’re ready. If I’m not at the house, I’ll be out back. You know your way around.”
“Okay. I’ll see you in a bit.”
It was dusk when Gail guided her car down the interstate off-ramp. It was the exit prior to the town of Parkland but provided a shorter drive to the property Sandy’s family had lived on for seven generations. For many years, the hundred acre plot had been a successful working farm but as the family grew smaller, Joanne had been forced to sell off sections of the property to pay the ever rising property taxes. Now she retained only the twenty acres that surrounded the old homestead and farm buildings.
Gail let the car roll to a stop at the end of the off ramp then, after checking for traffic, turned onto the frontage road. She drove for a mile before slowing to turn onto a gravel road that ran along the farm’s property line. She was saddened to see the recently constructed houses where rows of wheat and corn had once swayed in rhythm with the evening breezes. She remembered how upset Sandy had been whenever Joanne placed a section of the property on the market. They had tried to obtain the financing to save the land but it just never worked out.
Approaching the hump in the road where the old railroad right-of-way crossed, she pressed the brake slowing the car and bringing it to a stop where steam engines once chugged along iron tracks, pulling passenger and freight cars behind them. She set the gear shift to neutral and rolled down her window to gaze down the length of the abandoned roadbed. How many times did we walk that way, Sandy? Though the trains had stopped running the route long before her wife had been born, she had talked about them with great passion; and no visit to the family homestead was complete until they walked the old right-of-way while Sandy repeated stories about the trains that had been passed down from one generation to the next.
She could still picture Sandy’s animated face as she talked about the steam locomotives and their loud, shrill whistles that could be heard for miles around the valley. Oh, how you loved to walk and tell stories about those old trains. How your great-great-great-great-grandparents had ridden one when they left Illinois to travel west. She smiled remembering Sandy’s enthusiastic re-telling of her favorite story.
The day after they married, they said goodbye to their families and boarded the train. Could you imagine? Only in their twenties, leaving the safety of their families and friends and striking out on their own to find a place to begin a new life. But they had each other and that, and their love, was all they needed. They planned to go all the way to the end of the line but when the train traveled through this valley they knew this was the place for them. There wasn’t anything here back then except for the water tank where Parkland is now. But they insisted on getting off the train when it stopped for water and they walked back down the tracks, right where we’re walking today, and laid claim to this spot. Paid all their savings to the railroad agent for the land but the ground was rich and they worked hard, and over the years the farm grew. So did their family—otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. You always laughed when you said that. Then you would spread your arms and slowly rotate in a full circle and say, Amazing, isn’t it. They trusted their love and look what it got them. I hate to think what might have happened if they never got on that train. How awful that would have been. They never would have seen this valley. They never would have chosen here to live and start their family. And the absolutely worse thing would be that I might never have been born and then I never would have met you. Then you would wrap your arms around me and hug me as tight as you could. That, you would say, would have been the absolute worse thing ever.
Gail wiped at the tears running down her cheeks. “No, my love,” she whispered as she shifted the car into gear. “The absolutely worse thing is to have lost you.” She let the car coast down off the old railroad bed. The driveway to the farmhouse was less than fifty feet further down the road and she wasn’t in a hurry to reach it. “Damn it, girl,” she chastised herself as she pulled a tissue from the center console. “You don’t want Joanne seeing you like this. Besides, you’re here to do a job. You told Rod you could handle it so get it together.” She pressed her foot against the accelerator and the car gained speed.
The driveway was badly rutted and in need of a good scraping and leveling and Gail made a mental note to add that to her assessment. She drove past the front porch to park and was surprised when Joanne didn’t come out onto the porch to greet her. Before she shut off the engine, she glanced at the dashboard’s clock. “Five forty-five,” she murmured pushing the door open. “Well, she said she might be out back.” She grabbed her briefcase off the passenger seat before exiting the car then paused to look over the top of the car at the house. She gazed at the porch, its features illuminated by the fading sunlight. Being at the house always seemed to be so comfortable. So right.
She smiled remembering the first time Sandy had brought her home to meet Joanne. Having listened to her fiancé’s endless heartwarming stories about growing up on the family homestead, she couldn’t wait to get out of the car and literally bounced up the porch steps almost bumping into her future mother-in-law as she rushed out from the house. Joanne couldn’t have been more welcoming, wrapping her arms around her daughter’s lover for a long, loving hug.
She slammed the car door shut and slowly walked around to the porch steps. It seemed odd to be at the house without Sandy and she tried to remember any other time she had visited the old homestead without her wife by her side. “Only once,” she said as she climbed the steps. “The day we buried you.” She reached the porch and started across it to the door, the weathered wood creaking under her steps. “I just couldn’t force myself to come back here after that.” Her voice hitched and she paused a few moments to compose herself.
Finally, she pulled open the screen door and tried the knob of the main door. It turned in her hand and she pushed it open. “Joanne?” she called as she poked her head around the door. She stood listening for any sounds from the house but heard nothing. She reached for the light switch and flipped it on then entered the house. Her eyes scanned over the outdated furniture of the sitting room as she moved into the adjoining dining room. “Goodness,” she said as she walked across the floor, its aged wood groaning with each step. “I was right, she must have company.”
The dining room table was large enough to comfortably accommodate several diners and Gail was puzzled to see a full place setting in front of each of the dozen chairs set around the table. Empty platters had been placed down the center of the table and an assortment of serving utensils were arranged alongside of the platters.
Every burner on the top of the stove held a pot, its contents simmering and filling the air with a mixture of mouth-watering smells. Gail didn’t have to open the oven door to know that a roast was cooking inside along with onions, carrots, and potatoes. And the unmistakable aroma of baking bread came from the old wood stove in the corner of the kitchen. She inhaled deeply.
A card, folded in half, had been placed at the end of the table. Gail picked it up.
There is some fresh lemonade in the fridge.
Make yourself at home. I have a few chores to finish up.
I promise not to be too long.
Gail tapped the card against her chin. “How odd… what chores could she have to do after dark?” she wondered, glancing out the dining room windows to confirm that the sun had indeed set. The windows had been left open a few inches to allow the cooler evening air inside and she could hear crickets chirping outside. As she placed the card back on the table, another sound floated in on the breeze and she strained her ears to pinpoint its origin. But the oddly familiar yet out-of-place sound faded without being repeated. Deciding it couldn’t have been what she first thought and was more likely just a loud truck on the nearby highway, she walked back into the sitting room.
A wall of photos drew her attention so she moved closer to it. She was greeted by the smiling faces of Sandy’s relatives and ancestors. Having had the family history recited to her several times, she knew who each person was and their relationship to Sandy.
Great uncle, Donald, who Sandy had adored; he had been an engineer on the old railroad and Sandy told of sitting for hours listening to him tell stories about the steam trains. Great-great-great-great grandfather and grandmother, Joseph and Margaret, dressed in their Sunday finest and stiffly standing next to each other as they smiled for the tin-type taken just before boarding the train for their trip west. The photographs seemed to draw her in and she took her time examining each portrait.
Gail noticed a new photo and leaned in for a better look. “Where did this come from?” The person was very familiar but the setting was unknown to her. The picture seemed to have been taken at an unidentified train depot. A solitary woman stood on the iron steps of the waiting train’s passenger car. She was smiling at the photographer yet there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. The brick red coloring of the car’s wooden sides, the distinct rounding of the black roof, and the metal railing of the narrow deck at the rear of the car identified it as belonging to a steam train. Wisps of snow white steam billowed along the ground confirming the identification.
Gail studied the photograph. She was sure she had never seen it before and wondered when it could have been taken. Judging from her wife’s appearance, she knew it had to have been during the last year they had shared. But when? She forced her memory back over the last few months of Sandy’s life but could recall no time they had visited any of the many scenic steam trains still operating in the west.
Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted when her ears again caught the mysterious sound from before. Her head snapped back and she twisted her neck toward the closest window. “What’s that?” she asked aloud. But the sound again failed to repeat. She laughed nervously. “My imagination must be working overtime,” she muttered. “It’s Halloween and I’m hearing things.” She laughed nervously. “Go figure.”
The darkness outside was lightening as the moon rose higher in the night sky. A bright beam suddenly streamed through the windows on the east side of the room as she returned her focus to the wall of photographs.
“What the hell?” Gail exclaimed as she saw each of the photographs sparkling were suddenly in the moonlight. She stared in fascination as their various backgrounds faded then reformed until all bore a strange similarity. She timidly placed her index finger on one photo then moved it to another photo. And another. And another. She took a step back and her eyes snapped from one photograph to the next. “They’re all standing in front of that same passenger car. All the way back to her great-great-great-great-grandparents. Except…” Her eyes scanned over the frames. “Except for Joanne.”
“I see you’ve discovered our family secret.” Gail spun around to find Joanne standing a few steps behind her. “I thought I heard you drive up,” she added, offering Gail a glass of lemonade.
Ignoring the glass being held out to her, Gail turned back to the wall of photographs. “Joanne, the pictures…? And the one of Sandy? When? How?”
“Let’s sit, dear, before you fall down.” Joanne carried the glasses across the room to a pair of stuffed chairs in the corner. She placed them on the table between the chairs then walked back to where Gail seemed frozen in place. Gently wrapping her hand around Gail’s arm, she guided her across the room. She waited for Gail to drop into one of the chairs before settling into the other.
“Please, I don’t understand. What does it mean?”
Joanne chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “Sandra was so looking forward to telling you but she was taken before she had the chance.”
“Tell me what?”
Joanne lifted one of the glasses and took a sip before answering. “Our family, over the years, we developed such a love for this land… and for each other, that… well, I suppose some would say we brought a curse upon ourselves.” She smiled. “But we like to think of it as a blessing.”
“I don’t… I don’t…”
“I know, dear. It’s hard to explain and harder to understand. I’m not sure we do even after all these years. But… I guess the best way is just tell you. We love this land so much that during the month of the harvest, on the night of the full moon those of us who have left this life come back.”
Gail stared at her mother-in-law in disbelief. “Whaaaat are you saying?” Both women looked to the windows when the shrill shriek of a steam whistle shattered the night’s stillness. It took a moment for Gail’s rattled brain to identify the sound. “That can’t be…”
Joanne set down her glass then stood to stand in front of Gail. She bent down and gently took Gail’s hands into her own. Looking in her eyes, she asked, “Did you love Sandra?”
Gail didn’t hesitate. “With all my heart.”
“Then you must believe in that love.”
Gail felt a low rumbling beneath her feet then the room’s walls started to tremble. The whistle blew again and she could hear the characteristic chug-chug-chug of a steam engine’s pistons followed by the squeal of metal dragging on metal when the engineer applied the locomotive’s brakes. “Joanne?”
“Come with me.” Joanne, still holding Gail’s hands, led the bewildered woman out the front door and onto the porch.
Gail stared at the sight that greeted them. Not fifty feet away from the house a steam locomotive was rolling to a stop, a towering column of black smoke rising from its smoke stack and billowing clouds of steam enveloping the engine as the engineer released the pressure on its boiler.
Joanne left Gail on the porch while she moved down the steps and across the yard to where passengers were disembarking from the passenger car. She greeted each with a hug before welcoming the next. One by one, Sandy’s relatives walked across the yard and climbed the steps, each smiling a silent greeting at an incredulous Gail as they walked past her and entered the house.
Sandy slowly exited the passenger car and moved to the steps at the side of the platform. She smiled forlornly at her waiting mother. “She didn’t come,” she whispered when she stepped down to the ground to be wrapped in Joanne’s arms.
Gail almost fainted when Sandy walked out of the passenger car to be illuminated by the bright moonlight. There was no mistaking the woman who held her heart. She gathered her wits and scrambled down the porch steps, almost falling when her foot missed the last riser. But she quickly caught her balance and increased the speed of her steps until she was running across the yard only to skid to a stop in front of Sandy. Cautiously, she stretched out an arm to place a tentative hand against Sandy’s cheek. “If this is a dream, don’t wake me,” she whispered as tears welled in her eyes.
Sandy leaned into Gail’s touch. “It’s not a dream,” she said placing her hand on top of her wife’s.
“I don’t even care how this can be happening… just tell me it’s not going to end.”
“Not as long as you love me.”
Gail smiled even though tears were streaming down her face. “I said I would love you forever and I meant that.”
Sandy wrapped her arms around Gail and hugged her as tight as she dared. “I love you so much.”