The version below of this story was published in 1998 in a now-defunct online literary journal called Visions and Voices. (See the post above for more details.)
A Lovely Ghost Story
Ted parked the car at the top of the winding driveway. The massive oak tree between the house and the barn partially shaded the spot. A loose shutter banged in the wind. Mrs. Welch, the realtor, started talking before I was out of the car. Obviously she was afraid we would be unimpressed by the farm. I stole a look at Ted and could tell his thoughts by his expression. I stifled the urge to laugh and followed Mrs. Welch into the house.
We admired the gigantic open staircase, the lovely hardwood floors and the huge country kitchen. Mrs. Welch was babbling at this point. Something about this place made her uncomfortable. Finally she paused to take a breath in her sales pitch about the investment potential of this handyman special. Ted seized the opportunity. "We'd like to return to your office and make a bid." I spent a moment wondering why Mrs. Welch appeared to be surprised, then allowed myself to experience a feeling of perfect happiness. I knew that this farm was ours.
The whole place needed a tremendous amount of work and after we moved in, we began the endless job of clearing the brush from the fields, repairing the barn roof and making the house livable. Decorating was a few years down the road. One day Ted returned from a trip to the store accompanied by another young man. "This is Joe," Ted explained. "He's our neighbor."
I stopped painting the kitchen windowsill and grasped Joe's extended hand. "Pleased to meet you," I said, then added "sorry," when I noticed that my handshake had left him with a streak of white paint on his palm.
"That's O.K.," he responded cordially, "I'm a veteran house renovator." We all chatted for a few minutes and finally I wrapped it up by inviting Joe and his girlfriend, Rachel, over for dinner the following weekend. Later that evening while relaxing with a drink, I heard Kirby, my affable mutt, barking ferociously outside. I went to the door and called him. When he failed to respond, I followed his growls until I discovered him.
"What is it, Kirb?" I asked, looking around. It was a beautiful night, and I paused a moment to admire the breathtaking stars. Suddenly, I heard someone behind me. Startled, I spun around. "Joe!" I exclaimed. "You scared me."
"I didn't mean to sneak up on you," he said, grinning. "Rachel wanted to know what we should bring on Saturday."
"Oh." I reached down and took Kirby by the collar. "Would you like some coffee?" I asked.
"I'd rather have beer," Joe replied, following on my heels.
"O.K." I handed him one from the refrigerator and poured myself a glass of wine. "Why don't you bring some wine," I suggested.
"What? Oh, for dinner, you mean," he said with an embarrassed laugh. I smiled and sat down at the kitchen table. Kirby was sniffing the kitchen door.
"Are either of you vegetarians?" I enquired.
"No," he replied, "nice painting job." He indicated the windowsill.
"Thank you. Kirby's acting strangely tonight."
"New place probably makes him nervous. Animals don't like change," Joe said, sitting down. I studied his face. What incredible green eyes, I thought. Joe was attractive. I glanced away and toyed with my wine glass.
"I'm looking forward to meeting Rachel," I said for my own benefit.
"I'm sure you'll like her," he replied absently, then added suddenly, "where's Ted?"
"I don't know. I mean, he's gone out for a while." I drained the wine glass, jumped when Kirby started barking again. "I don't know what's the matter with me," I apologized. This time Kirby's barking was different, a happy sound. His tail was wagging. The door opened and Ted entered.
"Hi, Joe," he said, while stooping to pet Kirby. Joe finished his beer and made for the door.
"Diana says we should bring wine."
"Oh. Well, we'll see you Saturday," Ted called after him.
"Kirby is acting very skittish tonight," I told Ted.
"Oh yeah? Probably smells a cat outside." He seemed preoccupied.
"Saturday should be fun," I continued, "I wonder what Rachel is like."
"Not half as interesting as you, I'll bet."
"Thank you," I said, though he didn't sound as if he'd meant it as a compliment. "What shall we have for dinner? Joe said that they're not vegetarians."
"Anything, then, I guess," Ted replied. Ted seemed tense lately, but I assigned it to the pressure of our move and all the house renovations. I followed him into the living room.
"What shall we listen to?" I studied the stereo.
"I'm tired, Diana. I'll see you in the morning." I watched him climb the stairs, then returned to the kitchen to refill my wine glass.
"Does the radio sound good, Kirb?"
Rachel was a gossip. By the time we sat down to eat, she'd enlightened us on the entire town's extramarital affairs and juvenile delinquent children. I found her amusing, and contrary to Ted's opinion, much more interesting than I. Ted was not his usual jovial self, I noted as I served the lasagna.
"Decided to go vegetarian after all, Diana?" Joe joked. Rachel stared blankly.
"Don't you eat meat?" She wanted to know.
"A private joke," Ted explained. He must not like them, I thought, and resolved to make this a brief party. After dinner, Ted, Rachel and Joe returned to the livingroom while I lingered in the kitchen, clearing the table and preparing Kirby's supper. After a few minutes Joe joined me.
"No-one offered to help," he began.
"I don't mind. I have to feed Kirby."
"I see he's sniffing at the door again."
"He's checking for cats." Joe was standing at my elbow, a bit too close. I shifted uncomfortably. "Rachel's nice."
"Yes, she is." He took my arm. "So are you. Why don't you join us?"
"All right," I said, moving toward the living room. "Does anyone need a refill on their drink?"
When I was seated, Kirby started barking. I scolded him. "He's been acting differently lately."
"We all have," Ted said suddenly. "The responsibility of home ownership."
"Oh no," Rachel giggled, "it's this place. Very mysterious."
"What do you mean?," I asked.
"You're a history buff. You'll probably enjoy the story," she said. Joe looked annoyed.
"Some more gossip, no doubt. Rachel, you're drunk."
"You're right," she continued giggling. "Too drunk to remember the story."
"Oh, come on," I coaxed. "We'd love to hear it."
"Another time," she responded, "I think we should go." Ted looked relieved, so I decided not to protest and saw them out instead.
"That was weird," I said to Ted when they were gone. "Why did she say this place was mysterious?"
"As Rachel herself explained, she was drunk," Ted replied. "You've been highly suggestible lately."
"Have I?" I wondered. "I think the dog has been making me nervous."
"Oh, he's always barked too much. I'll be happy when we're done renovating this place."
"So will I. You don't like Joe and Rachel, do you?"
"Oh, they're all right. I can tell that Joe likes you."
"Do you think so? I hadn't noticed," I lied.
"Really? I thought you were encouraging it."
"It's not like you to be jealous," I said defensively.
"Me? Jealous?" He laughed. "What a joke."
"Let's clean up the kitchen," I suggested, changing the subject.
"No," he responded curtly. "I'm going to bed." I turned toward the kitchen and noticed that Kirby was barking once again.
"Rachel talks a lot of nonsense." Joe explained in answer to my question about our mysterious farm. "Pay no attention."
"That's not nice," I scolded. He had stopped by to thank us for dinner. "I found her stories quite entertaining."
"Try living with her."
"It's not as if you have to," I reminded him, then added, "actually, I'd rather not hear about your problems."
"What are friends for?" he lamented.
"Are we friends?" I asked sharply.
"I hope we are. Looks like Ted is not home again," he remarked. I shook my head.
"He's been uptight about the house lately," I confessed, then regretted saying it.
"Oh. Are you happy?" He asked.
"I love this house," I said in response, though we both knew that was not what he'd asked. The question lingered in my mind for some time after he had left. I stared absently out of the kitchen window, watching Kirby sniff around near the huge old oak tree. My gaze lingered for a while on the barn, which was looking much better now with a fresh coat of paint. Until lately we had been happy. Why did a good change, such as owning our first house, have to cause so much stress. I opened the door and Kirby came in, then circled on his rug and laid down. Even he seemed older lately.
Ted came home with grocery bags. "I saw Joe in town and invited them over for a barbecue," he explained. He showed me some steaks. "Because they're not vegetarians," he teased. I smiled. He definitely seemed in better spirits. The telephone rang. Ted answered it. When he hung up, I asked who had called. "Rachel. She can't come over tonight, so I told her to have Joe come anyway," he explained.
"Oh," I said, trying to hide my disappointment. I was dying to know about the mystery. After a few minutes I got an idea. "Ted, I have an errand to run. I'll be back in a little while."
"Take your time," he said politely.
I stopped the car in front of the real estate office, then regretted not remembering to call first. When I went in, however, I was pleased to see that Mrs.Welch was still there.
"Diana, dear," she greeted me. "Is something wrong at the house? Or are you looking for a new investment?"
"No," I answered hastily. "It's something quite different. I've heard that there is a mystery story about our farm..." My voice trailed off. Suddenly I felt silly.
"Yes?" She prompted.
"I know you've lived around here for a long time, and I thought you might know the story."
"Oh! Well, dear, I do know a lovely ghost story about the place." She paused. "What concerns me is how agitated you are. What's the matter, have you seen a ghost?" I ignored her.
"Will you tell me this ghost story, please?"
"Well," she glanced at her watch. "Of course. Won't you sit down?" I did as she asked and waited eagerly.
"A hundred years ago your place was owned by a young farmer and his wife."
"The young woman was very beautiful. Her name was Katherine. Katherine and Peter -- Peter was her husband's name, you know," Mrs. Welch explained while offering me a cup of coffee, "they loved to entertain. They had huge, lively parties in your barn. Why, they had a band, an dancing and lots of hard cider." She smiled at me, remembering. "I was told this by my grandfather; he was a young man at the time. He was a fiddle player in the band."
"Really?" I sipped my coffee and imagined the merry scene.
"Now Katherine was a very beautiful woman, and I guess a bit wild. Peter was known to be moody and stern sometimes. So, Katherine had a lover, a very handsome young man named Julian."
"Julian," I repeated. "What a nice name."
"Yes," agreed Mrs. Welch. "He was as romantic as Peter was stern. Somehow Peter found out about his wife's affair, and I'll bet you can imagine how angry he was. He waited until their next party for his revenge."
"Please, go on," I begged.
"You've probably noticed that one half of your barn is for animals and the other half is for hay storage," she stated. I nodded. Another time I might have accused her of patronizing me.
"Obviously, they had their parties on the storage side." Mrs. Welch stirred her coffee and paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "On the other side they had grain for the animals stored in barrels, so naturally they had a problem with rodents."
"Of course," I agreed. "Actually I think we might still have a mouse or two in the barn."
"You might try getting a cat," she suggested. "Anyway, Peter had bought some rat poison to take care of the pests and that was stored in the barn as well. Sometime during the festivities he managed to slip some strychnine into Julian's hard cider."
"How horrible!" I exclaimed. "So does the story end by suggesting that Katherine's lover haunts our farm?" I guessed.
"Hold on, dear." Mrs. Welch smiled at my eagerness. "Julian suddenly was taken ill. Luckily for him, there was a doctor at the dance. He operated on the poisoned man and a part of Julian's stomach is buried near your barn." I shivered, imagining the crude surgery.
"How terrible...and yet romantic," I commented, grappling for the proper words.
"That's not all. After the doctor properly diagnosed Julian's problem, Katherine suspected her husband as the culprit. They searched the barn to no avail. When they rushed toward the house, they were greeted by a ghastly sight."
"Which was?" I prompted.
"Peter had hung himself in the oak tree near the kitchen." I silently digested this. "What happened to Julian? Did he live?"
"Oh yes, he lived for many years. In fact," Mrs. Welch added eagerly, "his great grandson is your neighbor Joe."
"Joe!" I exclaimed. "Oh, thank you, Mrs. Welch." I rushed to my car.
"Wait!" She called after me. "Don't you want to hear about the ghost?" I waved to her and drove away.
"Ted!" I yelled his name as soon as I had parked the car. I could smell the steaks cooking, but neither Ted nor Joe was anywhere to be found. Frantically, I dialed the telephone. "Rachel! Has Joe left yet?" I demanded.
"Oh yes," she replied, "quite some time ago. Why? Is something the matter?"
"No, I don't think so," I lied, hanging up. I turned and shrieked in fright when Ted entered, carrying a very wet Kirby wrapped in a towel.
"Kirby!" I exclaimed. "What's wrong with him? Has he been poisoned?"
"Poisoned!" Ted sounded shocked. "Diana, I think you need a drink."
"Drink!" I said, horrified. "Why?"
"Because you're so agitated. Why else?" He wondered, studying me with knitted eyebrows. "Actually," he continued without waiting for an answer, "I've discovered why Kirby has been acting so strangely lately."
"Really? What's the reason?"
"There was a skunk living near that old oak tree," Ted answered. "It decided to spray him tonight."
"Oh." I felt stupid. "I think I do need a drink."
"I was bathing him down at the stream. You'll have to buy more milk, I'm afraid," Ted informed me.
"Oh, Kirby." I rubbed his back with a towel, feeling very foolish.
"Where's Joe?" I asked.
"I don't know. He isn't here yet?" Ted seemed disinterested. I stared at him, seized with suspicion.
"What do you mean? Rachel said he left a long time ago!"
"Here I am," Joe said from the door. Once again, I felt foolish and relieved. Joe handed Ted a bottle of wine, who then popped the cork and poured it. We toasted, then Ted served the steaks. Shortly after dinner, Joe complained that he wasn't feeling well.
"What's the matter?" I asked nervously.
"I don't know. My stomach. Maybe I'd better be going."
"Don't you think you should go to the hospital?" I asked.
"The hospital!" Ted said, sounding surprised. "What's with you, Diana?"
"Really, Diana," Joe managed to laugh. "I'll be fine. Ate too much."
Ted started to climb the stairs.
"Where are you going, Ted?" I called after him anxiously.
"To get my car keys." He sounded impatient. "I thought I'd offer Joe a ride home."
"Oh." I must have seemed unconvinced, because Joe took my hand.
"Diana." He studied my face. "What's bothering you?"
"Nothing," I lied. "Well, actually I have this strange feeling that you should go to the hospital."
"Really?" Joe looked skeptical. "Listen, I'm going to leave now. Tell Ted that a ride wasn't necessary. And if I feel any worse," he squeezed my hand, "I'll have Rachel bring me to the hospital. I promise. O.K.?" I nodded and he left. Then, I rushed up the stairs in search of Ted. It was taking him too long to locate his keys.
"Ted," I said when I found him, "Joe left. He didn't feel that he needed a ride."
"Oh." Ted was distracted. "I can't find my keys."
"Really?" I looked around. "Here they are," I pointed to the top of the bureau and felt even more suspicious.
"What would I do without you?" He put his arm around me.
"I don't know." There were tears in my eyes.
"You worry too much," he said. "Everything will be all right." We decided to retire.
The telephone woke me at seven. "Hello?" It was Rachel.
"I had to rush Joe to the hospital," she told me.
"What?!" I sat up, fully awake now.
"He said you knew." It sounded like an accusation.
"Oh my God." I felt numb. "Is he all right?"
"Apparently." Rachel took a deep breath. "He had appendicitis."
"Appendicitis," I repeated. "Thank God." A shocked Rachel heard laughing as I hung up.
After he recuperated, we invited Joe and Rachel over for dessert. For the first time in weeks I felt relaxed. Joe came up beside me when I was alone in the kitchen.
"How did you know I would have to go to the hospital?" He wanted to know.
"Intuition, I guess," I replied evasively. Rachel entered then, looking a bit tipsy.
"I never told you that mystery story."
"That's O.K.," I told her, "I really would rather not know."
"I'd like to propose a toast," Ted said when we were back in the living room. "To the end of renovations."
"The end!" Rachel spluttered. "I mean, this place has really come along, but I'd scarcely say it was finished!" She looked around.
"It is the end for us." Ted grinned. "We've decided to take the pressure off of ourselves by hiring a contractor to complete the job." He raised his glass. I raised mine as well. "To the end of stress," I said with a smile.
We've been settled for several months now and the place feels more and more like home. Kirby continues to bark at the oak tree. Ted remarks that dogs never learn a lesson, but I know better. It wasn't necessary for me to hear the end of that lovely ghost story, for sometimes on hot summer nights I can hear the distant sound of violins playing. When I hear this sweet music, I look from the kitchen window toward that proud old oak tree, and there, among the branches, swaying gently in the breeze, is the image of an angry, long-dead, heartbroken man.