Chapter 2: The Old Lady by the Woods

The vulnerable, old woman had no husband and no family yet she snored without a care beneath her crusty sheets paying no mind to the Chesapeake Bay wind screaming through the small holes in her weathered home. Tree branches scraped her tin roof and bedroom window but she did not stir. She had grown accustomed to the noises long ago. On these nights when the wind howled and the trees moaned she turned in early deciding she’d rather sleep through the noises than stay awake and listen to them. A vertical sliver of light shined through the cracked door of her bathroom so she could find her way in on repeated bathroom visits throughout the night. Despite the customary light and roaring wind, she did not stir.

Outside her bedroom, past her dusty living room, and through her kitchen window a glow crept across her kitchen counter. The shadow of trees across the road swayed over her kitchen sink. A faint noise alien to her ears woke her and she pushed herself upright. She cleared her eyes and wondered why she had woken. The wind’s punch hammered the house and the windows quaked, but she knew such noise would not have moved her. She could see straight through her open door, through the dark living room and into the kitchen. The unnatural glow, much like dim moonlight, illuminated the swaying pines beyond her kitchen window. She monitored it for a moment and an old, familiar sense of dread oozed over her. She swung her spindly legs over the bed and into waiting slippers. Her hips ached as her body’s weight settled on to them and she waited the usual moment it took for the pain to pass.

She moved fast for her old age, not turning on any lamps as she breezed through her lonely home. Leaning over her kitchen sink she gazed through the window at the tree tops on the other side of Haven Beach road. The light illuminated the trees from behind and they swayed like black paper cutouts against the pale dull gloom, but she could not see the source of the glow.

She shook and cowered from the sink as the familiar sound of metal scraping against wood, roared through the trees. That’s their anchor. Her slippers scratched through the grit as she rushed to check the locks on her door, her old heart chugging as she wiggled the secure door knob. The locks would do no good if they decided to come for her and she felt silly for even checking them but the road would protect her as it had in the past. She crept back to the window. The dull glow, still present, hovered somewhere above the forest. She knew what floated above the trees from the old tales but one never got used to this fright. She and her husband had never relaxed or slept on nights like these but he left years ago and she now she faced this fear alone.

The sky exploded with white light as a sinister shaft of electricity tore a path through the night with bolts large enough to split trees in two. The frightened old woman prepared for a crackling boom of thunder that never came. She put her hands over her sensitive ears and peered through the window once more. The sky came to life like camera flashes in a dark room and she had to shield her eyes from the brilliance but again no sound came.

She moved back into her living room and looked through its window which faced a different part of the sky. The stars sparkled. She saw no clouds. She hurried back to her kitchen window as fast as an old woman could, and glared across the road. Deep in the trees, with each burst of silent lightning, she saw the roaming movements of men. Their tiny lantern lights appeared and disappeared behind trees like flashing fire flies. They drew closer. She gasped. They had returned!

Wide eyed, she scampered back into her living room on rusty hips and pulled the knob on her antiquated television set. A pale, gray glow filled the room. An infomercial rattled on about timeshares but she didn’t care. She needed to hear friendly voices. She retreated back into her bedroom, flung the door shut, and crawled under her covers, shaking like a frightened child. With the T.V. on and the wind blowing, she wouldn’t hear anything coming towards her house and she wondered if the road would protect her again.

——

You can remember at least one terrible time from your childhood when your parents fought with such intensity, that you were too frightened to move. You wanted to hide under your bed or in the closet, but you remained still, like prey in the bush, and hoped they wouldn’t see you, wouldn’t realize you were there. If you come from a happy home and your parents are still together, you can still recall that one evening when they fought like bitter enemies and details too intimate for you to hear, raged from their mouths. If you come from a broken home or unhappy marriage then you may have seen this too frequently but one fight above all others has remained embedded in your memory throughout the years.

In either instance you saw a side of your parents that for a brief moment in time made them appear no better than the criminals you saw on your favorite TV shows. Through their red faced cursing and selfish disregard for your presence, you shook with the belief that your home and life might be no more.

Barnaby Schroeder sat on the floor of his room, too afraid to move, as a storm erupted below between his parents. He looked at his poster of Mr. T, the toughest man on television, for courage. Mr. T, stared back at him with a scowl and had no pity for him. Barnaby drew pictures of battleships and ignored the hollering which normally came from his father. Not until his mother began shouting did Barnaby pause and take notice. He had never heard her shout, not even when he cracked the aquarium, and for half a second, he wondered if it were not some other woman below.

His father’s voice sounded like muffled conversation compared to her’s but then she did not smoke or overuse it as he did. Barnaby got to his knees but the floor creaked and he froze. Were they now looking up to the ceiling he wondered? But they did not pause or take a breath. He heard something shatter and his mother fell silent mid-sentence. His father had the floor again. Barnaby shook but did not move forward, backward or to either side. He sat still, his knees grinding into the wooden floor, and listened. He heard his father yell something about “the woods” and “deer” but he didn’t understand the rest.

His stuffed Koala, Mistletoe, stared at him from the foot of the bed. He leaned over and pulled him off without upsetting the boards. His father shouted and told his mother what to do. He heard his mother’s light footsteps on the stairs. His door flew open! She scanned the room with a wild panic he had never seen except in girls who ran from guys wearing ski masks.

“Grab your shoes honey. We’re going!”

They were already on. He jumped to his feet and ran to her but his father blocked their way.

Barnaby’s eyes popped open. The dream had ended before it got worse. Every time he had it, the dream unraveled just as the events occurred eighteen years earlier though sometimes he woke before the story ended. He couldn’t fly in it. His best friend in third grade didn’t appear. And no, Mr. T. didn’t bust through the wall with his machine gun. Nothing unusual happened in this dream as with others which ironically is what made the dream unusual. Every two or three months he relived that episode from his past through dream and no detail went missing.

He took a deep breath and turned his head towards his wife Jules. He feared he had woken her as he had on previous occasions. When he would turn to see her lying there watching him, embarrassment overtook him because he knew he had thrashed around on the nights when the dream played the story to its end. Often she wouldn’t touch him choosing instead to lie awake and allow him to work out the emotions in his head. He didn’t like to show her cowardice, even while sleeping.

Lately, as he grew older, or rather as his marriage grew older, he began to lose confidence in her love for him. Cowardice he thought was one more reason for her to leave him. She rattled on often about the other men she knew. One man, six years her junior, made her laugh every night they worked together at a local restaurant. A fact his wife spoke of much . He couldn’t remember the last time his wife laughed at anything he said.

A second man, much older than her, made loads of money and always bragged about the vacations he went on. Naturally they were to places that Barnaby could never afford to take her and of course this man made passes at his wife.

He had laid awake the night before until his wife pulled in the driveway at 1:00 a.m.. The restaurant closed at 9:00 and even during a busy night with late walk-ins and the necessary cleaning up afterward, she should have been home by eleven. He wanted to call or text but he didn’t want to appear insecure so he tossed and turned and watched the minutes change on his digital clock. When her headlights rolled over the house, he closed his eyes and passed out, happy she arrived home safely even if she might have been having an affair.

He slipped out of bed and into the bathroom without turning on any lights. His wife, if woken, would no doubt try to offer an explanation of her whereabouts the night before but Barnaby didn’t want to force her into making one up. So he washed his face and brushed his teeth in the dark before leaving. She would be relieved when she woke and found him gone. That way he wouldn’t know exactly how late she had slept.

Barnaby Schroeder pulled his car to the edge of Haven Beach road in front of an abandoned home. The warm, clear summer day, put everyone he met in the town of Mathews in a good mood. Rarely could you go into town and not run into someone you knew and on a day like this, everyone was smiling. Everyone but him.

He surveyed the trees of particular interest to him, shrugged his shoulders and saw nothing special about them at first glance. He and his friends played war in woods like these as a child. They looked no more significant than any of the other forests he had encountered. He saw nothing terrifying in them that would send people running.

“Those woods are haunted,” croaked a rickety voice. “You would do well not to trespass in them.”

The unexpected, crusty words shook Barnaby. The presence of a person he did not notice when he got out of his car to inspect the trees surprised him. An ancient woman eyed him from the front porch of her two story dilapidated home. Cracked, plastic flower pots hung from the porch roof. The absent plants long gone with the wind.

He smiled the best he could after having been shaken and felt obligated to offer an explanation as to why he parked in front of her house. He jogged across the gravel road to put her curious mind at ease.

The small, frail, woman looked like wrinkled laundry that had dried in a ball. Her short, thinning hair remarkably still had a few streaks of black in it. She wore no shoes and she couldn’t have cut her toe nails within the last two months.

The home appeared abandoned when Barnaby first drove down the gravel road and parked in front of it. Tall grass, bushes and small trees had so overrun its foundation that in a few years, the building would all together be camouflaged from those passing by.

“You are easily frightened,” she stated. Her voice sounded as run down as her house appeared and Barnaby guessed she had been or was a smoker.

Barnaby forced a smile despite her insult. “Just startled is all. I wasn’t aware any one lived here.”

The old woman looked at her surroundings. The paint on the porch and columns had all but worn away. Either time or wear had crumbled the brick steps leading to the front porch and the window behind the rocking chair in which she sat had a hole in it. Several wasp nests hung in the corners of the flaky, porch roof but as they buzzed around, Barnaby determined they and this woman had an agreement not to bother one another.

“I’ll admit the house is a bit seasoned,” she retorted, insulted by Barnaby’s off handed insinuation that her house was not fit enough for a person to inhabit.

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” he apologized. “The driveway looks as though it hasn’t been used in years, and in all my trips up and down this road, I’ve never seen you sitting out here. That’s why I didn’t think anyone lived here.”

The old woman squinted and looked at the gravel road which curved out of site a short ways down.

“Go down to the beach a lot do you?” she asked.

“Occasionally. With my wife,” Barnaby nodded with a smile. “Though I suppose its not much of a beach after all the erosion.”

“You’re married?”

“Yes.”

“Father?”

Barnaby shook his head.

“Seems like everyone is divorced these days. No one understands the Good Lord meant for folks to stick it out.” She said this with a look of distaste. “How long have you been married?”

“Ten years.” He didn’t know where this conversation was headed but he hoped he could steer her back to her original comment regarding the woods’ haunted status.

“Ten years!” she rolled her eyes. “I bet you’ve hardly been tested.”

Barnaby thought about his job and the little income it provided to the family, the old sedan his wife drove that broke down on rainy days, and the diamond ring he could never afford to buy her. Other than infidelity, Barnaby thought nothing could challenge a marriage more than inadequate financial support.

He felt weak as a provider and while their friends and family drove past in new automobiles, Barnaby’s wife Jules took notice. He dreamed of publishing a book one day and winning back her admiration but how many men failed at such a dream? How long could she wait? How long would he pursue his dream if it meant the end of his marriage? If she left him for another man, what good would it be to win her back if his heart wouldn’t allow him to love her once more.

“You have no kids either,” the woman added. “That makes things easy but I bet you don’t know how easy. Most people don’t until they have them. Do you not want them?”

“I want them!”

“But…?”

“But it hasn’t worked out,” Barnaby said, this time with a touch of irritation because of her prying.

The woman eyed him for many seconds which felt like weeks due to her ugly gaze and so Barnaby threw her a legitimate answer she could understand.

“We can’t afford it.”

The woman nodded with understanding as though they shared a bond in battling poverty together. “As you can see I can’t afford much either.”

Barnaby frowned but said nothing. For all that he and his wife lacked, he led a blessed life compared to this woman.

“But I’m alive. I can be thankful for that.”

Was she really thankful to be alive? I would look forward to death rather than spend my last days in such a house.

“It’s a warm, wonderful day and I thought I would come out here and spend time with my pet wasps. That’s why you see me.”

Barnaby remained expressionless fearing a smile or laugh of any kind might insult her once more.

The woman’s grin stretched across her face and the corners of her mouth and eyes crinkled like wax paper. “I’m teasing son.”

Barnaby returned the smile and nodded, playing along with her attempt at humor.

“Truth is I don’t see much point in knocking them down,” she said referring to the nests. “I couldn’t out run them and I don’t get any visitors who they might bother.”

“Except men who stop in front of your house to stare at the trees,” Barnaby added hoping to add his own humor.

The old woman gazed at him, remembering why he parked in front of her house.

“Why are you so interested in those woods?” she grumbled.

Barnaby glanced at them. The woods consisted of mostly pine, oak, and holly trees and at least on the fringes, thick briars.

“Well as you said, the woods are haunted or at least that’s what a lot of people think. A haunting frequently attracts the curious.”

“And you’re curious?”

Barnaby shrugged. “Curious enough I guess to stop and look at them.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think people’s imaginations probably get the better of them.” A wasp flew by his head and he ducked.

She watched the wasp buzz back to its nest. “Don’t fear them. You’ll lose their respect.”

Barnaby thought about his volatile relationship with his father and the lack of respect he received from him.

“And where else have you been?” she asked rocking back and forth.

“What do you mean?”

“Have you been to other haunted places? The West Point railroad or Church Hill?”

The town of West Point; much like a heavy smoker, looked old in appearance as the rich white smoke from the paper mill deteriorated the atmosphere and corroded the face of the surrounding houses. According to legend the local ghost wandered the railway leading to and from the mill looking for his head. Dozens have claimed to see a lone light like that of a lantern wandering the rail road tracks at night. Barnaby recalled a few people telling him they had seen the eerie light strolling through the dark, but he didn’t believe them. Most likely the light came from an actual person tending to the tracks or a mill employee.

Church Hill, an old Southern Plantation, stood not far from his home. According to legend blood appeared on the first snow fall of winter. Snow blood which likely appeared once from a wounded animal, frightened him little. Not like the tales he read of Old House Woods.

“I know about West Point but haven’t hung out by the tracks late at night. I’ll leave that up to the kids. I don’t know much about Church Hill.”

The old woman’s eyes sparkled. “A family mistakenly buried their comatosed daughter alive because they thought she had died. Shortly afterward a man dug her up to steal jewels buried with her. He couldn’t remove her ring so the filthy animal cut off her finger! That’s when she woke. Of course he thought she had come back to life so he ran. The poor girl crawled through the snow bleeding to the front door of her home but her father believed her scratching at the door came from wild animals. He found her the next day frozen.”

“What a terrible story!”

His reaction energized the woman. “You know burying people alive was not so uncommon at one time. They say that’s where the expression “saved by the bell” came from.”

Barnaby tried to mask his skepticism. What the hell is this old woman talking about? “I don’t understand. I thought it was a boxing term when the boxer is saved from losing the fight by the bell signaling the round’s end.”

She shrugged. “They say people were so scared of being buried alive that family would tie a string to the deceased’s finger and at the other end, above the soil, they would tie a bell. That way the buried person could ring the bell and let people know they were still alive.”

Barnaby couldn’t conceal the look of intense incredulity from his face.

“They say George Washington insisted they not put his body into a vault until at least two days after his death to make sure of course that he was dead.”

Barnaby shook his head in confusion. “How in the world could someone confuse you for being dead when you’re alive? Even back then they knew if you were still breathing that you weren’t dead.”

“People once thought the world was flat too.”

Barnaby sighed. He saw no sense in arguing though he had a hard time in allowing anyone to go on believing such non-sense.

“I’m not real interested in West Point or Church Hill. From what I’ve read about these woods in books and old newspaper articles, this place dwarfs those in terms of ghostly activity. The stories I read astounded me so here I am. I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about.”

“Hmph,” she snorted, “there has been more than one curious person who wished they hadn’t been so much so. I’ve heard their screams as they run out of the woods at night. I suppose though the hauntings are not what attracted them. Most people don’t believe in such things but the ghosts are there, I would testify to it.”

Barnaby’s interest stirred. “You’ve seen them?” He didn’t expect to learn much on his trip to the woods other than to record a description of the area. If this woman had indeed seen anything, it could help his story. “I have read some of the stories but I’ve never spoken to someone who has seen anything.”

The old woman catching on to his excitement flashed a cunning smirk. “I’ll tell you what,” she said with a sly smile, “if you go to the store and get me a bottle of liquor, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Are you kidding me? Barnaby, put off at first over her desire for alcohol, reconsidered her proposal for a moment. How accurate a story could he get if this woman were under the influence? He wasn’t sure either whether he wished to endure her company or her swarm of “pet” wasps for much longer than he already had. He decided though she could very well prove to be his best source of information. To write a page turner, he must be willing to make sacrifices.

He sighed. “What kind of liquor do you drink?”

“Bring me back something brown!” she smiled like she had won a large pot at poker not the least put off by his evident lack of enthusiasm.

“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” Barnaby said jogging towards his car, “Don’t go anywhere!”

“If I could go anywhere, I’d go get the liquor myself,” she hollered back surprisingly loud for an elderly person.

Her statement made sense to Barnaby as he climbed into his car and turned around in the road but then again, someone had to be bringing her food. She had to have contact with somebody.

He waved to her as he drove off but she did not return it nor did she even smile. She went back to rocking and watching the woods and Christian wondered if he was being conned.

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