Chapter 3: Curse

I had been set to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Brown University today.  I had spent an extravagant amount on a dress to wear beneath my mandatory, unbecoming robe.  It was grey-blue, chosen specifically to match my eyes.  The shade had been my mother’s favorite back when she’d had enough interest in life to choose favorites.  Even after all of these years, some small part of me had still hoped that my mother would have made it to my graduation.  She would have been proud of me earning my degree in Physics at seventeen.  But that would not happen now.  Neither would ever happen.

Oh, graduation wouldn’t wait for me.  My degree would come in the mail and the school would post photos of the commencement ceremony on our college website.  Oddly enough, I didn’t have any inclination to check them out later.  There would always be a sense of bitter loss tainting the images and the date they were taken.  Whether that bitterness stemmed from my missing a vital rite of passage or the death of my mother, I wasn’t sure.

 As I had hoped, I had gotten to see my mother today.  But she had been lying in a casket, dressed in the last designer gown she would ever wear.  Rosa had chosen the green silk to set off the mahogany color of my mother’s hair.  The funeral home had done an exquisite job with Sylvia Franklyn Burns.  Even in death she was the most beautiful woman in the world.  Her serene expression had looked almost peaceful.  There had been no sign of the depression that had consumed her as recently as last week.

I stood graveside, rigid and dry-eyed as they lowered my family into the dirt. 

No, the woman and man who had died were not my family.  The word family implied closeness, a bond.  There had been no bond tying the woman and her second husband to my life for ten years.  One would think we had been living in the dark ages for all the communication we’d had with one another.

I searched the crowd of faces surrounding the gravesite and did not recognize a single person.  Some were curious, others bored, but none looked effected.  It seemed like they all felt the same way I did.  They were here for the event, not to mourn the loss of life. 

Gossip-ridden murmurs had made their rounds when I had first arrived at the stuffy funeral home.  No one had thought the estranged daughter of the eccentric millionaires would show. 

Now there was speculation over my reaction—or lack thereof—and my inappropriate outfit.  But I had spent too much money on the dress not to wear it.  It wasn’t as if I was going to attend any grand events in the foreseeable future.  I hadn’t before, why would I start now?  These people wouldn’t understand the significance of the color and what it had represented to my family when we had been whole.  The gossips were having too much fun with Callista Franklyn; heaven forbid I ruin their carefully contrived tales before everyone in attendance could hear them.

Two women wearing trench-like raincoats and standing toward the front of the mob stared blatantly at me.  I resisted the childish urge to stick out my tongue or cross my eyes.  Then, at least, there would be some truth to the scandalous stories that would undoubtedly come from today.  I chuckled darkly, realizing belatedly how the sound would be perceived by those closest to me.  Did you hear how Callista Franklyn mocked the passing of her mother? She had the gall to laugh during the funeral! In deference to Rosa, who had to live with these people, I generously ignored the rude pair.

The inevitable misty rain continued to fall as we stood around two identical holes in the ground.  Black umbrellas held off the brunt of the shower, but the dampness from the nearly invisible drops settled into my bones.  When the committal ended, some strangers laid their hands on my shoulders to offer silent reassurance.  Others nodded a somber farewell.  The majority offered no condolences, choosing to look through me as they escaped to the dry comfort of their vehicles.  All the while I stood motionless, attempting to wrench some emotion for the woman who had given birth to me.  The effort was wasted.  So I let the raindrops fall on my face, hoping the moisture would give the illusion that I had cried. 

The crowd dissipated quickly and without an audience there was no point in remaining at the cemetery alone.  All feeling had been leeched out of me through the years of non-contact and forgotten familial ties, leaving me numb.  The last time I had seen Sylvia Franklyn Burns smile had been in a photo of Sylvia and my father Robert.

 I turned and made my way out of the graveyard toward the long drive that would lead back to Barnard Hall. 

My house.

As the sole heir, everything had been left to me.  My stepfather had turned over in his grave when he heard the news. 

Jim Burns had thought he’d acquired everything a man could want when he had married my mother.  He’d had a beautiful wife, a quiet and intelligent daughter, and lots of money. He had been nice at first, attempting to save face with his new family.  But inevitably he had dropped his skillfully cultivated façade and revealed the monster within.

Like most kids in my situation, I had not known how to cope with the man who had sought to replace my dad.  To a little girl, dads were beyond comprehension; they made things better, gave you the best advice, and loved you no matter what.  My stepfather had done none of those things.

When Jim had realized his trophy wife was no longer the vibrant woman he had coveted, my stepfather had blamed me.  All the admiration he had previously showered upon me had turned to scorn.  I had been a constant reminder of my dad.  Every time my mother had looked at me she had seen her deceased husband and her depression worsened.

Since I had been the reason Sylvia had been depressed, Jim had focused his disappointment on me.  After a few weeks his disappointment had grown to hatred.  When he had sent me away that August, to New York to live with my great aunt, he had hoped his wife would get better.  Jim had been under the illusion that the pair could start over together.  But that had never happened.

One time I had eavesdropped on my Aunt Mildred’s conversation with Rosa.  Rosa had said that Sylvia had continued to go about her life as if she were a ghost.  She ignored those around her and had become more detached from reality every day.  As much as it had hurt my mother to be reminded of her deceased husband, I had served as living proof that their love had existed.  Sylvia had needed proof.  Despite Rosa’s pleas, Aunt Mildred had refused to give me back.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I could thank her for her decision.

In the end, a car accident had ensured that I had inherited the fortune Jim had wanted so badly: twenty acres of prime real estate in the English countryside, Barnard Hall as well as a home in Savannah, and a townhouse in New York City.  As if that was not enough, I also held a fortune totaling well over 150 million dollars. 

But I had no one with whom I could share my wealth.  No, that was not true.  I could offer some of it to Rosa.  Our housekeeper had been the mother I had needed so desperately during those sunless summer months.  She had never crossed over the strict social boundaries Jim had enforced, but I had focused my love on her since my own mother had rejected all emotions. 

The problem with sharing with Rosa, even if she accepted—which was unlikely—was that I would have to stay in England.  Staying in England wasn’t even something I would consider.

Now I was left facing my future alone and without direction.

I could go on a shopping spree only there was nothing I wanted to buy with my millions.  I owned all the clothes, cars, and property a girl could handle.  I could enter the workforce.  But with plenty of money a job would be something to pass the time, a cure for the inevitable boredom.  While I had been singularly focused on graduation, I hadn’t planned on what I would do after I received my diploma.  What did a person even do with a degree in physics?  More school was probably the smart choice.  The structured regimen of classes would give me time to find a purpose beyond extensive education.

I opened the wrought iron gate shielding Barnard Hall from time and stared at the largest portion of my inherited real estate.  The three-story brick structure was beautiful in its timelessness.  However, the house would better serve as a museum than a home.  If I donated the building to the government it could be used as a lasting tribute to British Architecture and a way of life no longer practiced.  Historians would appreciate the structure and centuries of antiques within.  The public could gain a wealth of knowledge of how things used to be back when gentlemen existed, women were adored, and chivalry was a code to live by.

When I walked up the front steps, the familiar echo in the hall welcomed me back.  I escaped to the blessedly empty silence of the parlor to think and to decide what was next for Callista Franklyn.

“Would you like some tea, Miss Franklyn?”

The girl standing in front of me could not have been much older than me. She was pretty, with short brown hair and wide-set brown eyes.  The somber brown of her dress did nothing for her coloring; a bold red or blue could have done wonders to enhance her skin tone.  I kept my thoughts on her wardrobe to myself, understanding that the girl’s attire could be her way of mourning the loss of her previous employers.

“Yes, please, Beth.”  The maid slinked out of the room without a sound; in a house this silent it was quite an accomplishment.  Rosa had said the girls who worked here were from the local area.  Beyond my housekeeper, Barnard Hall employed a full-time staff of five: three maids and two gardeners who doubled as much-needed handy-men. 

The lit fireplace caught and held my attention.  I stared into the writhing flames and tried to recall something that would keep me here—anything that would make the decisions in the next few days easier.  But the only fond memories I had of Barnard Hall were hallucinations.  Before last night I had forgotten how this house could make a person feel like magic was possible.  When I was little I had pretended to hear faint waltzes floating from the largest room in the building.  Apparently it had doubled as a ballroom back when that sort of even was commonplace.  Sometimes I imagined hearing whispered conversations in empty rooms, and I swore I could smell perfume lingering in the hallways where no one had been for hours.  It was like the house had been alive.

I let out a humorless chuckle.  Leave it to me to give in to whimsical thinking.  After years of therapy, I could say that most of my memories from childhood had been figments of my imagination, creations of a lonely little girl’s mind. 

Maybe getting rid of the house really was my best option.  Completely washing my hands of the property would allow me to rid myself of all the emotional and psychological ties with the place.  That way someone else would have the opportunity to be haunted by Barnard Hall’s many ghosts.

It was difficult to determine how long I sat in the parlor and contemplated my next move.  When I came back to the present, soft ashes were the only evidence of a fire and the light had faded from the sky.  My tea had gone cold and long shadows danced eerily over the darkened walls, hiding behind tea sets and Tiffany lamps.  I stood up, stretched my cramped muscles, and then I froze.

Faint whispers rose from somewhere in the empty room.  Then I noticed the figures out in the hallway.  Beth’s voice was easily recognizable; she was talking to one of the other young maids.  They must not have realized that I was still lingering around the main part of the house at this hour.  Normal people would have sought the company of friends and family during their period of mourning.  Callista Franklyn lurked in dark, cold, empty rooms by herself. 

At first I felt badly about eavesdropping on the women exchanging low tones; however, I justified listening to their conversation after it became apparent that the girls had been talking about me.

“What do you suppose will happen to us?” the girl whispered.  Her name was either Megan or Kim.  Even with such a small staff, I was useless at remembering names.

“I imagine she will sell the house,” Beth said, her voice sad.  There was a pleasant huskiness to her tone that I hadn’t noticed before.

“Do you really think so?”

“She can have no affection for the place.  She only lived here for a matter of months and that was ten years ago.”

Was that true?  Would what I felt for Barnard Hall be considered affection?  No, it was closer to tolerance.  This place had been my stepfather’s dream.  When I was little I had dreamed here as well.   Now I was here because it was required of me.  I tolerated Barnard Hall because it was a responsibility I alone shouldered.

“What will you do if she sells?”

“It depends on how long the property remains vacant.  The last time, Barnard Hall was on the market for ten years.  If that’s the case it would be best to move on to other employment.”

“Why so long?  Was the price outrageous?” the girl asked. 

I was curious as well.  Jim Burns had purchased the estate ten years ago and that was the extent of my knowledge of its owners. 

My imagination had produced some unbelievable theories based on the paintings in the hallways.  There were various stories I barely remembered from childhood that had emerged from combinations of vague facts and fiction.  Someone had loved the land enough to build on it.  They had cared enough to pay for the many period details that made the structure unique.  Unfortunately, I had no idea who that someone was.

“No.  Everyone believed the place was haunted,” Beth said seriously.

The other girl snickered and shrugged off the outrageous statement.  “Haunted indeed.  What will you do, Beth?”

“If I had my choice, I would prefer to stay with Barnard Hall.  My family has been connected with this property for generations.  It would be an immense personal loss to have to move now.  I belong here.”

“Do you think it will be possible to stay here?”  Megan/Kim sounded hopeful

“As I said before, if the house doesn’t stay on the market long, then we can offer our services to the new owners, but there is no guarantee.  Some people bring or hire their own staff or wish to have none at all.  The latter would be devastating as Barnard Hall would likely lapse into disrepair.”

“I wish Miss Franklyn would just keep the place.  It would make life easier for everyone involved.”

“I know,” Beth agreed.

Their speculation annoyed me.  Even though I had just been contemplating selling my property or donating it to the public, it was disconcerting to hear the subject discussed by my household staff.  Of course, everyone said not to eavesdrop, so maybe I deserved to hear their honest opinions.

“I heard she didn’t even cry at the funeral,” Megan whispered harshly.

Here we go.  The next thing she said would have something to do with my outrageous attire.

“I’m not surprised.  From the way her stepfather talked there was no love lost between them.  It was a shock to the community that she even turned up for the event,” Beth offered conspiratorially.

I bristled silently at their assumptions and gossip.  Beth may have been employed in this house but she did not know me.  Even if her opinions had been swayed by Jim Burns, they were still based on malicious hearsay.  He had known me even less than those girls did.

“Such a tragedy to lose Mr. Burns.  He was a good man.”

I nearly choked on my shock.  Jim had been the polar opposite of a good man.  Didn’t these girls know anything?

“It’s not the first tragedy to strike the household.”

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you heard that Barnard Hall is cursed?” Beth asked.

Cursed and haunted.  Shocking.  Weren’t all old homes rumored to be at least one, if not both?  What was it about historic locations that brought about such outrageous superstitions?

“It’s an absurd superstition.  This is the twenty-first century; curses aren’t a logical explanation for anything.”

I silently agreed with the maid.  None of my Physics or Calculus classes had covered curses.  At least one of the two had a level head on her shoulders.  Perhaps I should give Beth my therapist’s number.

“Think what you’d like,” Beth was annoyed at her friend’s condescending tone. 

What more could she expect?  People didn’t believe in such primitive explanations anymore.

“What proof do you have?”

“Proof?”

“Yes, that there’s a curse or whatever.  Go on, let me hear it.”

My curiosity won over my fear of being caught, and I inched closer to the door to hear Beth’s response.  The proof would undoubtedly be as extreme as the conclusion.

“The Great Fire.”

“What fire?  Everything in this house is original.”

That was true.  The entirety of Barnard Hall had been built at the turn of the 18th century, in 1702.  Besides the necessary updates to the plumbing and electricity, the historical integrity remained intact.  It was the historical accuracy that had made Barnard Hall a piece of coveted real estate.

“The first carriage house burned down in August of 1902.  It killed almost an entire family,” Beth whispered.

My heart skipped a beat, and chills ran down my spine.  The carriage house began calling to me from the darkness.  As silly as it was, I was afraid of what I would see if I turned around to look at the building.  No one had ever mentioned that there had been a fire on my property.  Beth had been right about one thing, it was a tragic story.  I took a steadying breath and swore there was smoke in the air.  A wayward breeze must have kicked up some of the dying ashes in the hearth.

“Almost?” the other girl asked, now enthralled. 

“Everyone except for the daughter was burned alive.  She lived to rebuild an exact replica of the old carriage house but went mad a few years later and committed suicide.”

“How did she die?”

The macabre tale only mattered because I owned the house and it was now part of my family heritage.  It would be an added bonus to know the legends connected with the property when I sold it.  

“She jumped off the roof back in August 1912—on the ten-year anniversary of her family’s death.”

“That’s a horrible story.”

“And some say that her ghost still runs around the place.  Have you ever heard laughter coming from the bedrooms or heard music when you know no one is there?  Have you seen shadows shaped suspiciously like human figures?”

I awaited Megan’s response, but she said nothing.  Her silence affirmed Beth’s question.  It was interesting that other people in the house had seen and heard unexplainable things as well.  Maybe I was not completely crazy after all.  A sad tune floated in the air, surrounding me in its melodramatic notes.  I dismissed the heartbreaking noise as my overactive imagination.  A shadow moved in the corner, and I stifled my scream.  Jumpiness was an expected side effect of ghost stories.

“That’s not all,” Beth began.  Their voices faded away as the pair moved down the hall.  I went to follow after them so I could hear the rest of the tale, but stopped myself.  All of these events could not be the result of a curse.  More than likely, they were exactly as they seemed: tragic accidents.  Why anyone would speculate over their causes was beyond me.  They were all in the past and infinitely out of reach.  Perhaps it was that permanent separation that aroused so much interest in history.

After ensuring there was no one in the hall, I escaped to my room.  The bright yellow was no longer welcoming, and I felt more alone than I had the past seventeen years.  The sooner I escaped Barnard Hall the better.

Want more?  Read Chapter four! HERE

Don’t want to read this on the screen?  Click to download and print the .pdf version of Chapter 3

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