Chapter 5: Date

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“You are leaving, Miss Callista?”

I slowly put my bags down before responding to Rosa’s question. The answer, though simple, was rife with irrational reasoning.  What if she asked me why I was leaving?

Rosa’s face had a few more wrinkles, and her black hair was now streaked with silver, but she was the same giving woman from my youth.  As always, she wore a tailored gray dress. From what I could remember, Rosa had never dressed in bright shades.  I had taken the fact for granted when I was younger, now the detail piqued my curiosity.  Perhaps she considered the somber clothing a sort of uniform, although none was required for employees at Barnard Hall.

“Yes, Rosa,” I finally responded.  “I have plans to leave in the morning.”

Her forehead wrinkled in confusion, but she did not argue. 

How could I explain to her that I had not gotten any sleep since I had arrived because I was being haunted by the memory of my imaginary childhood friend?  Or that I was really being haunted, not by the memory, but by the ghost of my friend.  According to Beth, that seemed the more acceptable explanation for recent events.  There was no other option available if I hoped to stay sane.  I had to leave.

She nodded.  “This place has not been the same without you.  We will miss…”  Her face fell as she amended her statement.  “I will miss you.”

Even when my mother and her husband had been alive, the first part hadn’t been true.  No one besides Rosa had ever missed me.  I tried to smile reassuringly but knew the effort was futile; the movement felt like a lie.  “I suppose a promise to visit would be worthless.”

Her mouth lifted in a confirming smile.  We both knew after I left I would not be back.

“You could always come to America with me!  I can have a ticket booked in less than an hour.  Do you have a passport?”  Why hadn’t I thought of the idea beforehand?  Rosa could live with me, and we could put the memories of this house behind us. 

“Miss Callista, I cannot go with you.”

“Why not?”  There was nothing tying her down.  Her husband had died years ago, and she had no other family to speak of.  The house would likely be for sale at the end of the month, and she would have nowhere left to go.

“My place is here, with the house.”

Her response had not been what I had expected.  She had said, not that she belonged in the town or even in England, but that she had belonged with the house.  In an odd way it made sense.  Barnard Hall had been her home for a long time; it was understandable that she wouldn’t want to relocate now.  Still, the steel in her statement was hard to accept.

If I did sell the property, the next owner may not want to keep her as part of the staff.   In that case, Rosa would be separated from her home anyway.  But if she wanted to remain with Barnard Hall then I would do everything in my power to see that she had a place here for as long as she wanted to stay.

“What will you do?” she asked quietly.

It was unclear whether she meant me personally or what I was planning for the property—not that I had an answer for either.  I was still coming to terms with my plans for Barnard Hall.  Despite my lack of affection for the place, the decision to sell felt wrong.  And my life?  Well, that was an entirely different mess.

“I don’t know, Rosa.”  On either count.  I turned to collect the last of my bags but the overwhelming shadows guarding the top of the steps made me pause.  Instead of allowing the darkness to consume me, I grabbed my coat and headed for the door.  Rosa pulled a red umbrella from the stand and handed it to me but did not ask where I was going.  She probably knew before I did. 

I wondered aimlessly amongst the high hedges and green fields.  For a country with so much precipitation, the drainage system was horrendous.  In some places the puddles swallowed half of the road.  Instead of avoiding the sedentary water, I waded through.  I turned by the gothic church and let myself into the gate standing guard along the perimeter of the cemetery. 

Although I had been here yesterday, it felt like a lifetime ago.  Mounds of flowers had been abandoned, left to bathe my mother’s grave in wilting petals and leaves.  An arrangement of roses caught my eye.  The red buds were woven intricately around the word “Mom.” The ever-thoughtful Rosa had probably taken care of ordering the arrangement on my behalf.

Everything in the past week blurred together into periods of light and darkness, varying shadows.  To pick out one event would be impossible.  My body had been present, but my mind had been elsewhere, distancing itself from the traumatic situation.  The dreams of Tilly had felt more real than the last week of my life.

In the empty graveyard I thought I would be able to feel some semblance of emotion without an audience waiting for my reaction.  But no tears came.  I had resigned myself to losing my mother years ago; the final separation came as no shock. 

The rain started to fall harder; the steady sound of the deluge made the scene more serene.  The hums of passing cars were muted by heavy drops connecting with the damp earth.  Everyone and everything had sought shelter from the downpour.  The air around me stilled.

  My trip to the graveyard had been useless.  I didn’t know what I had come to find, but whatever it was, it wasn’t here.  Nothing had changed since the funeral.  She was never coming back.

  Delaying my return to Barnard Hall, I wandered among the headstones.  Reading the names written there allowed my imagination to construct the lives of the people long since buried.  Where had they lived?  Had they been happy?  How had they died? 

Some of the rocks were adorned with ornate, Celtic crosses or carved with winding stems and flowers that opened to the non-existent sun.  Others were plain, etched with only a name and two dates.  The newer stones were smooth like crystal, expensive and showy.  The constant rain had weathered and dimpled the older stones; the sandpaper surfaces scraped my fingertips.  I felt a link to the oldest ones. They had been forgotten, abandoned just like me.

Despite brandishing an umbrella, it wasn’t long before I was soaked through the skin and decided to seek shelter by the lone tree inside the fence.  The wide leaves did little to staunch the rain.  The plot beneath was the most peaceful in the cemetery.  I looked out over the rolling field dotted with yellow shrubs.  On a sunny day the view would be picturesque, worthy of any calendar.  If I had lived and died here, I would have chosen this plot myself. 

The morbid thought made me chuckle darkly.  I was probably the only seventeen-year- old in the world choosing the plot where her body would spend the rest of eternity.  Just as I turned to go, my eyes caught the inscription on the headstone next to me and I stopped mid-step.

Matilda Eileen Dalton Westbrook
Loving daughter, sister, wife, and mother.
May 15, 1884—August 24, 1912.

I swiped at the raindrops clouding my vision, noticing too late that it was no longer raining.  The heavy clouds had cleared and faint sunlight peeked through, reflecting off the damp surfaces surrounding me.  My eyes burned but it was impossible to staunch the flow of tears as I wept over the grave of my childhood friend.  I was not sure if I cried because her life was over or because she couldn’t have existed to me. 

The proof was right beneath my fingertips yet something felt wrong.  I caressed the cold stone, reverently tracing the shallow letters.

Beth had been right; Barnard Hall had been haunted.  Years ago I had befriended the ghost of a beautiful little girl.  My fingers rested on the date of Tilly Dalton’s death.  “August 24, 1912,” I said aloud.  “August 1912…”

Something triggered in my memory and my heart gagged me as it jumped from my chest.

Suicide.” 

I ran back to Barnard Hall with the ghost of my friend Tilly chasing me the entire way.  I was afraid to look back just in case I caught a glimpse of her tiny black curls bouncing behind me.  By the time I made it to the entrance my lungs were on fire, screaming for oxygen.

The heavy door slammed against the wall as I burst into the house.  Luckily, the one person I had wanted to find was walking out of the parlor.  I ran to her and gripped her shoulders, steadying myself.  

She stared at me as thought I had gone insane.  When she spoke her voice shook.  “Miss Franklyn, are you alright?”

Organizing my flood of emotions into a coherent sentence wasn’t working so I blurted out the one word that had been swirling in my mind.  “Suicide.”

Beth’s eyes widened.  “Calm down, Miss Franklyn.  I understand you are distraught over recent events but you cannot go around speaking ill of the dead.  I cannot imagine how saddened you must be by the loss of your mother and father, but there is no evidence of suicide.”       

“Stepfather,” I corrected automatically.  Her statement gave me time to collect my thoughts.

“Yes, stepfather,” she amended.

We stared at one another in silence until she tried to pull from my grasp.  “Who was the woman who committed suicide?”

“What woman?  I am sure I don’t know who you are talking about.”

“The curse.”  Those two words brought recognition to her face.  She looked embarrassed at having been pegged as the source of such superstitions.  “The daughter who jumped off the roof one-hundred years ago, what was her name?” I prompted.

“That’s just a tale, mere speculation.  You know how stories can become distorted over time.”

“Her name, Beth!”

“She was the only daughter of Nicholas and Maria Dalton.  I believe Matilda was her name.  At some point she was married, but I am not sure what her surname was after she wed.”

The blood drained from my face, and I could no longer breathe.  Bile rose in my throat, but I quickly swallowed the burning liquid.  My stepfather had been right, I was crazy.  Tilly… Matilda had died one-hundred years ago, and my mother had died this past week.  No, that was not true.  My mother had been dead long before the car accident.  Either way, the death of a person I could not possibly have known had affected me more so than the death of my own mother.

I stumbled into the parlor and fell onto the chaise lounge.  Memories from when I had left Barnard Hall came flooding back to me. 

The first thing my great-aunt had done when I had arrived to her home in New York was hire a therapist.  I had endured a traumatic childhood—at least that was what I had been told.  My mother had been constantly in the spotlight and she had remarried two months after my father’s death.  I had been moved to another country from the only home I had ever known and I had lived with an abusive stepfather.  To me it had been normal; in my mind all families had been like mine. 

Then I had imagined/dreamed/met Tilly.

I had been handling life pretty well, considering.  But, despite my trauma-filled childhood, I’d been required to go to therapy for the one bright part of my life: my best friend.  Dr. Starn had wanted me to recognize Tilly had not been real; she had been a figment of my imagination, a result of stress from the recent changes I had endured. 

I, on the other hand, had wanted him to realize Tilly was real.  I had played with her, and she had played back.  She had been more real to me than anyone else.  I had to pretend my mom loved me.  I had to pretend my stepfather loved me too.  I knew Tilly loved me. 

At first I had resisted therapy; I hadn’t wanted to reveal any of my secrets to some invasive stranger.  When it was apparent that my strategy wasn’t working, I had switched tactics and had told Dr. Starn all about my best friend in an attempt to convince him I was not a liar. 

“Callista, I want you to tell me about your friend,” Dr. Starn said.  He was an ugly man.  His glasses slid down the length of his beak-like nose, and his mouth was almost completely covered by a bushy, gray beard.  He looked sweaty and smelled like smoke.  When I got too close to him it made me cough and my made eyes burn.

“Her name is Matilda Dalton and she’s not just my friend, she’s my best friend.”  There was a big difference between the two.

“I see.  How did you first meet Matilda?”

“Tilly,” I corrected.

“I’m sorry?”

“She likes to be called Tilly.”

“What does she call you?”

“Just plain Callista.”  There were not many nicknames that could be made from Callista.  I had tried to think of one for her to call me, but she had told me that my name was too pretty not to use it.

“Alright.  How did you first meet Tilly?”

“I was grounded for not eating my liver, and she was sent to her room for stealing cookies.”

“I see.  Where is Tilly’s room?”

“In mine.  We share.”  I shared everything with Tilly.

“You two share rooms?”  He seemed surprised by the idea.

“Yes.” 

He wrote something in his notebook.  He was old and probably had to write things down so he did not forget the important stuff.  My great-aunt Mildred had lists stuck to all kinds of things in her house.  Some of them had been there for weeks; I had a funny feeling she had forgotten where she had put the scraps of paper.

“So, what do you and Tilly do together?”

Dr. Starn must not have any kids; every dad knew what kids did together.  “We play with dolls and tell secrets.  Sometimes she jumps on the bed, but I’m not allowed to do that.”

“Is that all you do?” he asked.

“Yes.  She plays with me when I’m in my room.”

“Only in your room?  Why not in the rest of your house?”

I didn’t have the answer to that question so I shrugged. 

“Have your parents met Tilly?”

“You mean my mom and Jim?”  Jim was not my dad.

“Yes, your mom and Jim.”  He made a note so he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t think she would like them.”  Sometimes I didn’t like them either.  “Jim saw her one time though.”  I tried not to think of the last time I had seen Tilly and shook my head against the horrible memory.

“I see.  And what did he do when he saw her?”

I shook my head again.  I didn’t want to think about it.  It would make me cry and I refused to cry in front of Dr. Starn.

“Hmm…  Did you introduce her to anyone else you know?  Maybe your housekeeper, Mrs. Santos?”

“No,” I whispered.  I had wanted to introduce Tilly to Rosa, but Tilly had wanted to keep our friendship a secret.  Having a secret friend had made life more exciting. 

“Do you think there is a reason why no one has met your friend?”

“I have met her,” I said stubbornly.  I was someone.

“Do you think maybe you are the only one who can see her?” 

I didn’t like the way he said that.  “No.”

“No?”

 “No,” I repeated with more force.  “Jim saw her.”

“What did he do when he saw her?” he asked in a pushy voice.  When I crossed my arms and refused to answer he asked again, “Callista, what did he do?”

“He killed her,” I whispered, trying to ignore my tears.

“That didn’t happen.  You’re making it up.”

“No, I’m not!  Tilly is real… she was real.  Other people could have seen her too but she never wanted them to.”

“Why not?” he pressed.

If only I could stop crying; my head was hurting.  “She always thought they would ruin our fun.”

Dr. Starn closed his book and scooted to the edge of his chair.  He spoke in a serious tone.  “Callista, listen to me.  Your friend does not exist.  Your parents asked around the town and no one who knew a girl named Matilda.”

I continued shaking my head, trying to keep his words from sinking in.  “That’s because her name is Tilly and she lives in my room!”

“She is not real, Callista,” he said with finality.

“Yes, she is!”  I felt a familiar weight around my neck and calmed down immediately.  Tilly had been real, and I didn’t care if no one believed me.  As long as I believed in her nothing else that mattered.

When Dr. Starn had told me that she did not exist, I had shut myself off from the logical explanations he had given.  Then I had overheard Aunt Mildred’s conversation with my mother.  She had said that I had to keep going to therapy until I realized Tilly had not been real.  Apparently my friendship wasn’t healthy.

Eventually, I accepted defeat and took the things Dr. Starn had said to heart.  My progress was remarkable, the change miraculous.  I had talked myself out of believing I had ever had a friend. 

Now I had a whole batch of new problems.  Matilda Dalton had been a real person.  She had lived and she had died.  But, most importantly, she had existed.  The problem was that she had been dead for over ninety years when I had first met her.  So, in theory, I had to have been playing and conversing with a ghost.

For some reason, the ghost explanation was harder to swallow than Tilly being a real girl.  Logical thought and reason did not allow for the presence of the undead.  I tried to remember all the nonsensical stories I had heard about ghosts.  Some people believed that ghosts had to stay in limbo if they had unfinished business.  Maybe Matilda had to do something before she could go to heaven.  She had always been in my room, so maybe she was connected to the room in some way beyond mere occupancy.  There could be something hidden beneath the floorboards or behind a secret panel that needed revealed before she could pass to the afterlife.

 Tilly had been twenty-eight when she had died.  Why had her ghost been a little girl?  I didn’t have an explanation for that one.

Besides the fact that they did not exist, there was another issue with my ghost theory.  Ghosts were supposed to be creepy, and I had never been scared of Tilly.  Also, I had played with her toys and I had touched her.  She had been a solid mass, not some mirage manifesting itself with the energy in the air.  And, to the best of my memory she had not been cold. 

Ghosts were supposed to be cold, right?

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