Thursday, May 25, 2017

Next Author Appearance Booked

I will next be at the Southwick Public Library for their Local Author event on June 17, 2017, Saturday, from 10:30AM-12:30PM. I'll have first edition copies of my 2016 OZMA Awards shortlisted fantasy/magical realism novel, Black King Takes White Queen with me. The book retails for $17.99 but I'll be selling them for only $10 apiece during the two hours of this event that day.

I am so happy to add that local author and friend Judith Sessler will also be at this event! She's written some amazing books! (Can you tell I'm a fan of hers?)

If you live in the area stop by to say hello!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Paranormal Investigators Novels

Ages ago, way back when Kelly was probably still in middle school, I began writing a book about a group of paranormal investigators. It never really went anywhere.

Then, when she was in college, maybe junior year (2011/12), she participated in NANOWRIMO in November- National Novel Writing Month. I hadn't ever written a whole novel before and didn't think I had it in me. She and her roommate and best friend, Bethany, participated in 2011 and Kelly told me all about it during Christmas break. She wanted me to try it in November 2012.

So, in March of 2012, I decided to practice writing a novel, just to see if I could do it, before agreeing to participate in the 2012 NANOWRIMO. So, I took the characters from the abandoned paranormal investigators novel and resurrected them and wrote a sequel to the first novel, the one that didn't even exist yet except in a few random chapters that I wasn't going to ever continue writing, and a list of characters, and a location- a haunted house.

I set the second novel at another haunted house that had been turned into a seaside inn on the coast of Maine. I wrote the novel in about 22 days (I work full time, so this was weekday evening and weekend writing). I was pretty happy with the novel. Kelly was furious that I had written a sequel when she had been patiently waiting for the FIRST novel in what was now a series.

I didn't write it that November. I wrote Talon:An Intimate Familiarity in 2012. Again my daughter blasted me for not writing the first novel in the paranormal series. Sigh.

I wrote that novel 2013. In November 2013, I rewrote it as my NANOWRIMO novel- finally delivering the long awaited novel into her hands. She has subsequently picked it it's been sitting in a milk crate in a binder for three and a half years. I actually hired a graphics artist in 2015 who did the cover for me using one of my favorite houses locally. It's a great cover, but it's sitting in the binder because we never could make contact with the homeowner for permission to use the photo. The house has been broken up into college apartments but isn't owned by the college.

Well- to make a long story short- I have a werewolf novel that I've promised her now...but today's project turned out to be getting the FIRST paranormal investigators novel into some sort of professional looking format with a little clean-up done prior to creating a proof copy because it needs a major read through, some overhauling and a little TLC- but the whole story is there. I haven't looked at it in years- but the bits and pieces I read while working with it this afternoon and evening weren't bad.  It's definitely an earlier work when I still didn't think writing novels was my thing. (I've since been convinced otherwise and have 15 novels written to date (11 self published so far). Considering that I had ZERO novels written at the beginning of 2012 I've made some unexpected progress.

So, werewolf novel is on the side burner while I get this novel finished. It's long overdue. And so is its sequel, which I actually like better than the first one, but that's just my personal preference. There is a third one in the series started, and possibly a fourth one is lurking in the dining room somewhere- I believe I saw it when cleaning the other day.

So-what I might do is create the first two in the series this year and move on to werewolf as promised to Kelly and that will remove two more novels from the holding pattern on the dining room table. One other, the vampire novel, is close to being done. The resort hotel romance novel is about 3/4 done.

Life around here is not written in concrete and stone. It's more flexible and fluid. I didn't expect to be working on this project today, but around 2:30 this afternoon that's what came into my head to accomplish before Kelly's 26th birthday next month. I OWE her this novel from the early 2000's (she was class of 2009 in high school, so I'm thinking I started this in 2003-04?  She's been waiting over a decade...time for Mom to deliver on a promise.

The Ebb & Flow of Creativity

For the past two weeks I've been writing new ghost stories for Ghost Stories LIVE! I ended up writing five short stories for the event, and then digging out three older stories from the file cabinet for a total of 8 potential stories for the event last night, from which I would pick one. I narrowed it down to five that I took with me. I selected one, and then while Russell was reading Mortmain, a classic ghost story, I agonized over my choice because it was an older one, set in an Irish cemetery in October. I debated all the while Russell was reading. Then he announced that I would be reading a new ghost story and introduced me.

On the way from the front window where I'd been sitting during his reading to the rear of the story by the tree in the children's area where I'd left a pile of stories, and where Kelly was sitting on a toadstool awaiting her cue to read her story, I changed my mind and decided to go with the first of the five stories I'd written for the event- the one that had caused me all the anxiety due to the main character being trapped in a mine (I have terrible claustrophobia)- and just suck it up.

So I read The Mother Lode- and it was well-received. I made it through reading it aloud without having an anxiety attack (yeah!).

Kelly read her story, then Kathy Palmer told a true story.

Next Ghost Stories LIVE! will be Ghost Stories 'round the Camp Fire in July.  I'm already thinking about possible stories to write for this event, and I'm sure there are some classic campfire ghost stories to resurrect for this event!

I've also been thinking about the clock maker story- I want to start with the ending first and then go back to the beginning with this one, but that might not work as well as I'm hoping it would. All the while I've been writing the ghost stories, I've also been thinking about this new novel and how I want it to read...when normally, I just jump into a novel and just write off the top of my head. I don't know where this idea that I need to plot and plan has come from. I've never written that way. Maybe it's from listening to other writers and their struggles to plot and layout a novel. I don't really know.

I'm actually at a place where I am not feeling very creative. This occasionally happens. It's sort of like a circadian rhythm this ebb and flow of creativity. I just went through a burst of writing five stories, one a mere three hours before the event started...and today I feel no spark- like the battery is dead. I know it's not...random thoughts are floating around in my brain, but nothing is coalescing, coming together.

From here it looks like a long climb back up the ladder to the thought bubbles high overhead, but in reality all it takes is buoyancy of mind, no actual effort to climb. I'll bounce back. I always have. It could just be exhaustion after doing so much since the beginning of the year- a dormant period. A time of rest and renewal.

I think most writers go through these cycles of productivity and then a sense of standing at the edge of a desert- almost overwhelmed by having to take that first step into the hot sand and cross that barren expanse to the next oasis of creativity- not really sure where it lies...the desert full of mirages like false promises.

I'm not quite ready to take the first step on a new journey, but I feel fairly confident that I'm mentally collecting the supplies I need to venture, I'm just kicking back and relaxing.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories, Vlume 1 Giveaway ENDS at Midnight

Tomorrow is the next edition of Ghost Stories LIVE! during which I'll be reading a brand new ghost story written exclusively for the vent and never read before to anyone. I have 6-7 stories prepared, but will grab the one I'll be reading just before I dash out the door tomorrow evening.

Meanwhile, the Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories, Volume I giveaway ends on goodreads at midnight tonight! I am going to try to get the signed first edition copies into the mail on Saturday morning. My best friend who just moved to Florida was just reading her advance reader copy on the beach in St. Pete's the other day. A copy of butterscotch-a collection of stories when zipping off to her on Wednesday morning.

Tomorrow, copies of Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories, Volume I and 13 will be available at Blue Umbrella Books, 2 Main Street, Westfield, MA 01085. If unable to attend, a copy can be ordered by calling the story at 413-579-5383. Jessica will also have a few copies of the new story collection, butterscotch. I've been hearing back on various stories from advance readers, and so far so good. Several stories may leave the reader with a difference of opinion, but that's what good writing is all about-the stories are fairly open ended so anything could happen in the future- anything at all.

Third Proof of OUT has Arrived

My lengthiest book project ever has just reached a new milestone. The third revision proof copy arrived today. It's not that the book is any great length- it's average in that respect, but I want to story be flow right, and this book is set up differently in that there are past and present sequences and each chapter has a unique beginning piece. There are also many characters with bit parts, but each one if vital and necessary to the story to move it forward. I have to make sure of continuity and that the right characters are being advanced, or are following their ARCs.s properly. This is something I've never paid too much attention to in the past because the story flowed from chapter to chapter.

This book is different.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Cast Iron Casket at Collinsville Axe Factory

A friend just visited the Collinsville Axe Factory, which is now a museum, I believe she said, with historic artifacts and such. The Collinsville Axe Factory is in Canton, CT (the Collinsville Antiques Center, another awesome destination is in New Hartford, CT).

The reason she mentioned it to me was that I'd sent her an email with a link to Edith Howard Cook, a toddler from the mid-1800's who was discovered well-preserved in her small cast iron casket with glassine windows under the floor of a garage during a home renovation in San Francisco California last year. She was recently identified. Another friend (Gayle) had just sent me the link and told me there was a ghost story to be written based on this discovery.

Well, I wrote the ghost story using the discovery of a small cast iron casket with a preserved toddler visible inside a few days later and titled it Betsy. In the story the casket is discovered by three children, buried under the dirt floor in the cellar of their Victorian era home. I wrote about this ghost story to Betty...and she wrote back about having seen an adult-sized cast iron casket at the museum, complete with window in it! I predict a road trip in the near future!

There are always odd little coincidences occurring in my life.

Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories Giveaway Ends at Midnight May 19th

There are still a couple of days to enter the goodreads giveaway for a signed first edition of the new release, Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories, Volume I.

I've been working on a ghost story for Ghost Stories LIVE! which is going to be on May 20th at Blue Umbrella Books, 2 Main Street, Westfield, MA. Daughter and author Kelly Buffum will be making her first appearance as a recurring cast member. She's written a 427 word flash fiction ghost story for the event. Meanwhile, I've written four ghost stories but still don't feel that I've written the one I want to read aloud at the event. Two are way to long, one is sad, and the other gives me an anxiety attack so I probably should NOT read that one aloud (if I ever personally read it at all ever again!)

Anyway- don't miss out on the opportunity to win a signed first edition of Miss Peculiar's Ghost Stories, Volume I on goodreads!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mom Gets A Werewolf For Mother's Day

I was recently inspired to write a new novel when I was driving through downtown and saw the mechanical clock tower open for the first time in the several years it's stood there. It only opens at specific hours for a brief time. It happened to be high noon, so there it was.

I had an idea for a new novel in my head by the time I got home less than 15 mintes later. I started writing it that night, got four pages into it but stopped because typing was giving me motion sickness. I was having a problem with vertigo at the time.

My vertigo has cleared up. The other night I trashed the original four pages, and began anew, finishing the first two chapters in one evening. Meanwhile, I like to have something visual nearby to keep me inspired. I had gone on and seen a plush werewolf toy, but he was large and on the expensive side, so I just printed a picture of him and resigned him to my wish list.

This morning I came into the kitchen to find a lumpy white mailer bag with a greeting card attached waiting for me on the kitchen counter. A Mother's Day card and gift from Kelly. The card would have been enough- it brought tears to my eyes. However, when I opened the mailer bag- there inside a clear plastic bag, curled up in a fetal position for shipping (kind of symbolic for it being Mother's Day) was the werewolf! He's huge (almost two feet long)! He has felt fangs and leatherette claws. He's made by Scared Stuffless (I guess they call him Wolfgang Puck, but he certainly doesn't look like a chef to me!) I have christened him Julian Roth Beresford, but he prefers to be called J. Roth, or just J or Roth, your choice. Only one person can call him Julian.

I didn't expect to get a werewolf for Mother's Day, but he is a totally appropriate gift for this Mom from her writer daughter!

Happy Mother's Day to all Moms!!!!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ghost Story The Mother Lode

The Mother Lode bu Susan Buffum

I woke with a start, having the feeling that someone had just passed close to where my sleeping bag was laid out near some low lying brush. The echo of the sharp crack of a branch breaking still rang in my subconscious mind as I turned my head, looking for the source of the disturbance that had awakened me. About five feet away was the dark elongated shape of my cousin James, and just beyond him, barely visible, the same sort of loosely lumpy shape of his wife Jennifer. Both of them seemed to still be sound asleep.

I could see very little beyond them, the campfire having died down long ago to a rosy glow of embers amid the ash. We were in the shadow of the cliff under which gold miners had dug a shaft around 1853. This had been someone’s claim back then, and it had most likely been worked by other prospectors and gold seekers into the early nineteen hundreds before being abandoned, the thrill of the hunt for gold nuggets having dissipated by then.

James and Jennifer had discovered this site while hiking in the rugged Nevada hills last summer. They had persuaded me to join them for a little treasure seeking, something I hadn’t been much interested in, but I was interested in the old mine shaft, my having a deep passion for abandoned places, ghost towns, derelict houses and barns, tumbling down, dilapidated structures. I was putting together a book about such places, so thought an old mining shaft would be a great addition to the book.

My cousin had had me down in the shaft with a small pick axe yesterday, chipping away at stubborn solid rock. He’d purchased headlamps from some spelunker’s catalog online, the LED lamp blindingly bright in the confined space. I’d retired just after sundown with a screaming headache and an uncomfortable tightness between my shoulder blades, not to mention the scraped knuckles from a close encounter with the flesh resistant rock when my hands had slipped on the shaft of the pick axe, my having removed my work gloves because they were sopping wet with sweat and chaffing painfully.

I let my head drop back down onto the tiny travel pillow that protected the back of my head from the ground. I was not the sort of girl who liked to be without the creature comforts for long. This was the third night we’d been here and I was fairly chomping at the bit for Friday to arrive so we could begin the trudge back to the road off of which he’d parked the SUV. I was more than ready to go home. I’d had enough of this already. But James seemed obsessed with finding at least a tiny nugget of gold. I wasn’t feeling any too hopeful about that. What was not blocked up by rock fall of the shaft seemed pretty unforthcoming with its glittery secrets, if it even held any. It all looked just like boring old rock to me with an occasional glint of mica or quartz.

I stared up at the stars, my nerves still tingling from having been startled awake like that. It had probably been an animal, hopefully not a wolf or a coyote or whatever prowled the hills and cliffs in this Godforsaken place. The only thing I’d found truly amazing about this whole misadventure was the simple fact that the stars actually did appear to twinkle in the heavens. I was a city girl, the closest I’d ever been to the country being the suburbs of New Jersey when visiting James’ parents, my Aunt Patty and Uncle Jim. I hadn’t camped out in their postage stamp-sized backyard. I’d slept on the foldout couch down in the basement rec room, trying to find a position where the metal bars supporting the thin mattress didn’t make me feel as if I was about to be severed into three pieces by a human sized bread slicer.

The stars were amazing!

I was reaching for my camera case, thinking that I’d shoot a dozen or so photos of the various constellations spread out across the midnight blue-deep violet canvas of the night sky, when a disturbance in the pattern made me pause and blink. Some of the stars had vanished as if a huge ink blot had spread to obliterate them. “What the….” I began to say aloud when a rough hand was laid across my mouth, stifling my words. I reacted badly, trying to grab my camera case and swing it, my city born and bred body already coiling in the defensive fight or flight reflexes inbred in those who face the human predators prowling the urban jungle on a daily basis. I’d been mugged one too many times in my relatively brief life.

“You come to steal my gold, young fella?” growled a voice that sounded dry and raspy as the ground I was lying on. “Who sent ya? Who ya workin’ for?” I shook my head. He had it all wrong. I wasn’t working for anyone. I wasn’t after any gold! “Tell me, or I’ll slit yer throat faster than you can blink an eye!”

“I’m a photographer,” I replied, my voice muffled, my words garbled by his hand still across my mouth.

“What’s that?”

The pressure eased up but he didn’t remove his hand. “I’m a photographer. I’m here taking pictures of the mine.”

“Who sent ya? You work for the newspaper?”

“No. I’m freelance.”

“Yer what?”

“I work independently. I don’t work for a newspaper.”

His hand moved away. “Yer a female!” he cried, sounding almost horrified.

“Yes. I am.” I watched as he rose to his feet and backed away. I thought he’d trip over my cousin and his wife but he kept backing up as I scrambled to free myself from my sleeping bag, feeling too vulnerable trapped in that sack like thing. I got myself up, shoving my feet into my hiking boots even though I didn’t have socks on. “Who are you? Do you own this property now? Are you going to throw us off for trespassing? Can’t you just let us stay and we’ll leave as soon as the sun goes up? When we can see the trail and make it safely back down to where the…”

“Who’s this we?” he demanded warily.

“My cousin James and his wife are right th…” I began to raise my arm to point toward where James and Jennifer were cocooned in their sleeping bags but my arm froze. There was nothing there, only the shadowy shape of the man. “Oh, my God, how can this be?” I wondered, my mind buzzing with confusion and wriggling in my skull as the worms of fear began rising to the surface of my consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody here but me and you,” he said. Goose bumps rose like a rash all over my body, up the back of my neck and around my scalp making my skin feel like it had shrunk and become too tight. “Ya want to take some pictures, girl? I’ll show ya my mine, but ya have to promise me you’ll never tell a soul how to find this place. I’ll show ya the biggest mother lode of gold you’ve ever laid eyes on, I will.” He nodded toward the dark lump of my camera bag lying near my feet. “That yer camera? Looks small.”

“It is small.”

“Had my picture taken once. Nearly blinded me it did with that big bright flash!”

“It’ll be bright but there’ll be no noise. It’s a new camera.”

“New? Well, I ain’t seen one since. Where do ya put the plates in that itty bitty little thing?” he asked as I lifted my digital camera from the bag. “What the devil is that?”

“It’s a camera. Trust me.”

He shrugged and turned away, shambling toward the entrance to the shaft. I clomped behind him in my unlaced boots, feeling kind of foolish in pink cotton shorts and a lime green tank top. “Ya don’t want to put nothin’ else on over them skivvies?” he asked. “I got some beans I can heat up. Ya look more ‘n half starved,” he muttered. “No meat on yer bones. Scrawny l’il filly.” He shook his head and then spat on the ground.

I looked down at the glistening glob and shook my head. I could smell the tobacco on him. Tobacco, sweat, and the fact that he hadn’t seen soap and water in happy union in a tub of water in quite a while.

He paused to light a crude torch, a rag of some sort knotted around the end of a gnarly bit of wood about fifteen inches in length. I heard the scratch of a match against rock, got a whiff of sulfur and wrinkled my nose because it was sharp enough to sting. The rag bloomed into a fiery flower atop the branch it was tied to. And I got my first look at the old miner as he turned his head, his face still half in shadow as he sort of leered at me over his shoulder. His face was a creased and shriveled as beef jerky, his bulging eye catching the torchlight. I caught a glimpse of a dark patch over his far eye. His lower face was lost in a snarl of salt and pepper whiskers sorely in need of a barber’s attention. His lips were thick and moist with tobacco spittle. “You afraid of the dark, l’il girl?” he asked, and I realized he was missing quite a few teeth. That was what was giving him the lisp and lack of elocution evident in his speech.

“No,” I lied. I was terrified of the dark, if truth be told. My co-op in the city was never truly dark due to all the ambient light from the street below and all the apartments where night owls roosted.

“C’mon. Yer gonna love this.” He turned and disappeared through the entrance to the mine. I hesitated, caught off guard by the fact that the timbers framing the entry were intact, not sere and brittle, slanted in defeat like the shoulders of a weary athlete leaving the field after a long and discouraging game.

Shaking my head, I flicked the switch to turn on my camera and shot a quick picture. From further in the mine where I could see the flickering torchlight against the rock I heard him muttering about heat lightning. I wondered what he’d say about the brightness of the flash in the confines of the mine shaft, if there was really anything for me to take a picture of, that is.

I carefully made my way through what I thought would be a minefield of fallen rock, but the shaft entrance was almost pristine. I frowned. Had he been working at clearing this up while the three of us had been sleeping soundly? I paused to glance back over my shoulder, but it was too dark to see anything behind me. I wasn’t sure how I’d become so disoriented that I hadn’t been able to see James or Jennifer, but reassured myself that I was only a scream away if this weird old timer did anything alarming. I was willing to play along with him. His brain was probably half baked from the desert sun. He seemed harmless enough, just delusional somewhat, if he thought there was gold in this disappointing rock cut.

I caught up to him and followed him, a little more apprehensive as he led me further into the shaft. I kept looking back over my shoulder, certain that James and I hadn’t come this far in before meeting a wall of tumbled rock that had blocked our path. I was trying to find the divots I had pecked into the rock with the pickaxe but had missed them, evidently.

“Lookee here, sister,” he said. I had nearly run into him because he had abruptly stopped and I had been looking over my shoulder. “You see it? A streak o’ gold as wide as your forearm!” He was tapping an area with his dirty forefinger while holding the torch closer to the rock with his other hand. He turned his head and looked at me, me now being on the eye patch side of him. “Go on,” he urged. “Take your picture. Ain’t nobody gonna believe you seen this if you don’t get a picture of it. But, I warned you, and I’ll warn you again, you can’t tell a livin’ soul where you seen this mother lode.”

“I won’t tell a soul,” I promised. I really couldn’t see anything. There was a shiny place but the torch was flickering wildly in some sort of draft I couldn’t feel. I raised the camera, aiming at the place he was pointing to and shot several pictures in rapid succession, earning a cussing out from the old timer. He’d dropped the torch to cover both his eyes, even though the left one was already covered by the patch. The torch went out, the rag having been nearly consumed already. This left us in pitch blackness, although I was seeing purple spots dancing in front of my eyes, even though one eye had been to the viewfinder of my 35mm digital camera and the other had been squeezed shut against the bright flashes. The light had still penetrated my eyelid enough to cause this purple spot phenomenon.

“You got an implement of the devil’s own design!” he cried as he shoved me against the rough rock wall of the shaft and pushed past me, his boots thudding as he retreated.

“It’s a digital camera!” I called after him. “It’s technology!”

“Stay away from me!” he cried, his voice sounding more distant.

I hit the review button and squinted at the brightness of the photographs I’d shot in the utter darkness of the mine shaft. But then my eyes widened as I made out the vein of glinting gold he had pointed out. “No way!” I muttered. “That’s not there!”

I spun around, disoriented in the dark before thinking to shoot the camera to create flashes of light to help me see. I held the camera out at arm’s length and slowly turned in a circle. I did it twice more, my heart beginning to hammer as beads of sweat popped out all over my body. I seemed to be surrounded by rock walls. The crude path ended at tumbled rock walls on either side of me. There were somewhat blurry photos with glints of gold in them. I had been in motion, turning in a circle as I’d shot the pictures. “No, no, no!” I cried. “This can’t be!” I rushed to the tumbled stone wall and began trying to move the rocks away but they were heavy and I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything but the hammering of my own racing heart in my ears. “Help!” I shouted. “Help! Come back! Get me out of here! Help!” My voice sounded flat and too loud in the confined space. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” I cried, trying to waken myself from the nightmare that I had literally become trapped in. But, I wasn’t really asleep, and I knew it. “Get me out of here!” I screamed again and again until my voice was nothing but a harsh rasp and I dropped to the rock and dirt path, suffocating in the grip of claustrophobia and blind terror, my camera battery almost drained of power.

And I knew. I knew right then and there, that no one would ever see these pictures of the mother lode that the old miner had shown me.

Copyright by Susan Buffum, May 6, 2017

Ghost Story Betsy

Betsy by Susan Buffum

It was another gloomy, rainy afternoon trapped in the house with three rambunctious, bored children. I sighed deeply as I turned from the open kitchen door where I had been staring past the back porch out into the muddy yard. Three faces stared back at me from the kitchen table where boxes of crayons spilled in colorful log jams across the scrubbed oak. Various pieces of paper depicted a drooping rose with bleeding thorns, the product of thirteen year old Caroline’s imagination, a dragon that was either yawning or roaring, I really couldn’t tell which, half crumpled up in front of nine-year old Henry, and a cheerful yellow sunshine with a black eye before six-year old Penny. “What happened to the sun?” I asked.

“A cloud bumped into it,” she replied.

“Clouds are nowhere near the sun,” Caroline said with contempt for his sister’s lack of knowledge about astronomy and the heavens evident in her tone.

I’d had about enough of her surly attitude this summer. “Take the kids down to the cellar and let them play in the dirt for awhile.” I saw her face morph into disbelief and then shift toward outrage. “I want to sweep and mop the floors before I have to start dinner. Go on. All three of you. Go play downstairs.”

“Oh, boy!” This was Henry, already out of his chair and twisting the balky, round, ceramic doorknob. “C’mon! Stupid door!”

“You have to turn it the other way,” Caroline said, pushing back her chair and getting to her feet. “Moron.”

“That’s enough of that!” I snapped. As she opened her mouth to talk back I narrowed my eyes, employing my mother’s evil eye on her. I couldn’t count the number of times my mother had shot me that dead-eye stare when I had been Caroline’s age. It was enough so that I had become an accomplished mimic of it the moment pre-adolescent attitude had begun to show its ugly face like a mask superimposed over my daughter’s lovely face.

“Come on, Penny. Mom’s got her bitch on. Time to descend into the dark, dank dungeon to dig in the dirt. Let’s tunnel out while the prison matron’s mopping the floors. She’ll never miss us, you know. Maybe she’s hoping we’ll escape.”

Henry had already clattered down the stairs. Caroline was at the head of the stairs. Penny had stopped and was looking back over her shoulder at me, her eyes wide and a little apprehensive, as if she thought I wanted her out of my life. “My shoes are going to get muddy,” she said as she turned back to Caroline.

“Yeah, well, we’ll take them off and hang them around your neck and you can run barefoot through the mud.”

“Is there really a tunnel?’ she asked as they began going down the stairs.

“Yeah, I started digging it when I was your age, the first time she sent me down to the cellar to get rid of me for a few hours so she could do whatever- like ride her broom around the house without anyone seeing her.”

I frowned as I swung the door shut. Part of the cellar had a concrete floor, but toward the front of the house the floor was still dirt. Caroline had loved to dig in the dirt while I did laundry when she was younger. Now it was Henry who did the excavating. Penny liked to dig divots in the dirt and play with marbles, trying to roll all the red ones into one hollow, all the blue into another shallow bowl in the dirt, and the yellow in another. Caroline would sprawl in a folding mesh beach chair and read a book, or text her friends on her cellphone.

I had about an hour to do some cleaning. I glanced at the clock, noted that it was quarter past one, opened the closet and got out the broom and dust pan. Cat and dog fur accumulated like miniature tumbleweeds, rolling lazily along the hardwood floors of the old mansion. It was a futile chore chasing them and gathering them in a dust pan. They would reform in a matter of hours, or so it seemed. I would have just enough time to mop the floors before they were once again littered with fur.

Captain, our dog, was asleep on the front porch. He’d been run ragged by Henry and Penny this morning. They’d chased him up the front staircase, through the upstairs rooms, down the back staircase, his claws scrabbling on the linoleum in the kitchen before he regained his footing and fled down the hallway toward the front of the house so they could complete another circuit— dog barking, kids shrieking, Caroline yelling for everyone to shut up already! I’d taken three aspirin and then picked up the pieces of a broken vase in the dining room.

Thunder boomed as I mopped the hallway, bright flashes of light preceding each loud rumble. The storm was close, only a few seconds between flash and boom. The lights I had on so I could see if I’d missed any spots had flickered, dimmed and then flared brightly. I thought for sure there would be a thundering of sneaker clad feet on the wooden stairs and a tangle of children pushing through the door into the kitchen, but that had not happened.

Grabbing the pail, I hauled it out onto the back porch and flung the gray water with its clots of fur and who knew what that the mop had picked up, into the yard. I left the pail on the porch beside the mop I’d propped up against the back wall of the house. Rain was coming down hard. The yard was full of muddy puddles. The carriage house was a dull gray blur in the distance. I tried to remember if I’d left the chicken coop door propped open with the rock or not. I gnawed my lip, worried that I’d find dead chickens floating around in the puddles behind the carriage house. That had happened to me when Joe and I had first moved into this house. I’d had the chickens, the remnants of a high school science project on incubation of various kinds of eggs. I’d had duck, goose, and chicken eggs. It was a horrible project. Some of my chicks hadn’t survived. I’d been mortified, and saddened by the loss of my little chicks, one of them only partially emerged from its shell, still slimy when it had just keeled over dead. I’d tried to revive it, breaking it out of its cracked shell, rubbing it with a paper towel, but it was too fragile. I’d burst into tears and eventually been led to the nurse’s office where my mother was summoned to come and collect me and my project that had been removed from the gymnasium.

I’d raised the chickens, the ducks and the goose that had survived. I’d incubated more eggs and not lost any chicks. I’d had thirty five chickens and the goose when I married Joe. He’d built me the chicken coop and fenced in an area where they could waddle around and scratch to their heart’s content. The goose had gotten itself run over chasing the chimney sweep’s truck. We’d had a chimney fire. The fire department had put it out and told us to have the chimneys cleaned before we tried to have any more fires in the fireplaces.

I looked up at the black clouds, squinting as another bright flash of lightning streaked down from the sky, hunched my shoulders at the loud crack of thunder that immediately followed. It made the porch floor thrum beneath my feet. Quickly, I turned and went back inside, pushing the door shut, as if wood and glass could protect us from Mother Nature’s savage fury.

I crossed the kitchen and wrestled the cellar door open, making a mental note to remind Joe to tighten the doorknob, or just replace the whole thing with a new knob. This was ridiculous having to fight it every time I had to run downstairs. I listened but didn’t hear any voices. “Kids! You can come up now! I’m done cleaning!”

Hearing no response, I rolled my eyes and descended the stairs. If they were playing and Caroline was on her phone they might not be able to hear me. “Hey, guys!” I made my way past dark shadowy rooms- the laundry room, the canned goods room, the workshop, the storage room- toward the front of the house. Ahead of me I could see the overhead bare bulbs that illuminated the cast iron boiler and the hot water tank. Beyond these mechanical monsters lay the dirt floored portion of the cellar at the front of the house.

Coming around the boiler I saw the three of them huddled around a fairly deep hole in the floor. “What are you three up to?” I asked, a little disturbed by the fact that they had quite a hole going. Were they actually trying to tunnel out? Was I that difficult to live with when I wanted to get housework done? “Hey!” All three of them jumped. Caroline looked up, directly at me, Henry and Penny craning their heads around to stare at me as if I was a ghost. “What are you doing?”

“We found something,” Caroline replied. “I don’t know what it is. It’s like a metal trunk and there’s a doll of some sort inside. You can see her through the window in the top of the trunk.”

“She’s a pretty dolly,” Penny murmured. “Can I play with her? Can you get her out for me?”

“Let me see.” I crossed from the cement to the dirt and made my way past the shallow, scooped out bowls in the dirt where the various marbles sat. Henry had worked on grading some roads. There were trucks and cars scattered about. Two hand held gardening shovels lay near the hole. One beside Caroline and the other near Henry’s knee. I reached Henry and peered over his shoulder down into the hole. “What in the world is that?’ I wondered aloud. “Henry, go get the flashlight from the laundry room.”

“It’s dark in there,” he replied.

I hurried to the laundry room and got the flashlight myself. Back at the hole, I switched it on and shone the light down onto the metal trunk. The beam struck the thick glassine window and I gasped as a sweet little face was illuminated. The dolls eyes were closed. The little rosebud lips were pursed in a little pout. The doll had plump cheeks and delicate ears. Her wig was blonde ringlets, possibly made from human hair. It was shinier and finer than mohair. The high collar of a white dress framed her lower face. “She’s a lovely doll,” I said. “But, who in the world buries a doll in the cellar as if they’re burying a real toddler.”

“I just need to dig a little more and we should be able to get the trunk out of the hole,” Caroline said, leaning down and using the shovel to scoop away more dirt. The metal trunk was about two and a half feet under the dirt floor. “This trunk is really very ornate,” she said. “But it looks heavy. I don’t know if I’ll be able to lift it out by myself. Can you help, Mom?”

Gone was all the sullen surliness she had exhibited earlier. This discovery of an antique doll buried in an ornate metal box in the cellar had transformed her into a suburban archaeologist. “I can help you,” Henry said.

“I don’t want you getting hurt,” I told him.

“Can I sleep with the baby doll?” Penny asked. “Her name’s Elizabeth. I’m going to call her Betsy for short and sing lullabies to her and rock her to sleep every night like you rocked me when I was a baby.”

As Caroline exposed more of the box it struck me that it was tapered. A little quiver of unease rippled through me as the last few inches of the box were exposed. I shown the light along the length of it and said, “Caroline, stop.” She was leaning down into the hole. She tilted her head back to look up at me. “I think we should just leave this where it is.” I knew what this was. My mind was reeling, trying to find a rationale, an explanation for a tiny child to have been buried in the cellar like this. I didn’t recall there having been any sort of marker in the dirt. If there had been one, it was long gone.

I shone the beam of the flashlight around, along the base of the stone foundation. There were some loose stones leaning against the wall here and there that I had assumed were just stones the masons had brought in while constructing the foundation and left there when finished, not wanting to haul them back out. None of them appeared to be grave marker size or shape.

“Mom,” Caroline said, a quaver in her voice. It drew my attention back to her, and the hole. “Um…I don’t think this is a doll,” she said. She was sitting back on her heels and her face was ashen pale. There was something in her eyes I had never seen before- shock and fear. “I think this is…”

“A very pretty dolly,” Penny chimed in. “Her name is Elizabeth, like I already told you. She told me so.” I looked down at my six-year old. “She wants me to play with her.”

“Penny, we need to go upstairs now,” I said. She shook her head.  “Henry, Caroline, let’s go. Right now.” I grasped Penny’s hand. She tried to shake it loose, resisting my trying to pull her away from the open grave, from the well-preserved remains of a child of about two and a half years of age, no more than three. “I’d like you to help me bake some cookies before Daddy gets home,” I said to get her moving. She loved cookies.

“Can Betsy help?” she queried.

“Yes, of course,” I replied, agreeable to anything she asked as long as it got her moving away from the grave.

Caroline turned off the lights behind us as I herded the two younger children ahead of me to the open wooden stairs leading up to the kitchen. “Let’s go, guys. Upstairs!” Henry clattered up. Penny was slower to climb the stairs.

“Do you want me to carry you?” she asked.

“What?” Why would she ask me that?

“Not you, Mommy. I was talking to Betsy. She hurt her leg.”

“Mom…” Caroline said from behind me. “Can we just get upstairs? I don’t feel so good. I’m cold.” She was close behind me and I felt her shivering.

“Come on, Penny.” I urge her up the stairs, Caroline right on my heels. As we passed through the open doorway into the kitchen Henry swung the door shut. It didn’t latch and slowly swung open. “Close the door!”

“All right!” he replied, pushing the door shut. This time it latched.

I got Henry’s and Penny’s hands washed. Caroline cleaned up at the kitchen sink. She had the kettle on the stove for tea when I came back with Penny. Henry was already back at the kitchen table, already working on another picture. The kitchen felt cold. I turned on the oven and went into the pantry to gather the ingredients for the cookies.

Soon, the kitchen felt warmer. The water boiled. Caroline fixed a cup of tea for herself and one for me. Penny, who normally loved to help me make cookies, wasn’t inclined to help this afternoon. She quietly sat in the Boston rocker near the huge brick fireplace and rocked, singing to herself. I thought she might be coming down with a summer virus. I gave her some apple juice and she smiled up at me.

Soon we had dozens of cookies cooling on the counter. I had managed to clean a chicken to roast while Caroline had dropped cookie dough on the trays and handled the baking. Henry was entertaining himself with his drawings. Penny had finished her juice and appeared to be napping in the chair. It didn’t look very comfortable.

The storm had passed but it was still gray and gloomy out.  Henry went upstairs to his room to watch a movie. Caroline had finished cleaning up the baking trays, bowls, measuring cups, and spoons. I had scrubbed potatoes and put them in the oven with the chicken. I would wash the green beans and cook them when Joe got home. By the time he’d changed his clothes and visited with the kids for a few minutes, dinner would be ready.

Penny was still snoozing in the rocker. I set the table in the dining room, then I returned to the kitchen, bent down and scooped her up in my arms. Her eyes opened partway and she murmured something. “Shh, you can nap until Daddy gets home.” I carried her to the informal parlor that we used as the family room and laid her on the loveseat, covering her with an afghan my grandmother had crocheted for me when I was a teenager.

I straightened up the room even though I knew it would be a jumble again after dinner. As I sat in a wingchair looking through one of a dozen magazines that had accumulated on the end table, I realized that neither the dog nor the cat had reappeared. Both of them were afraid of thunderstorms and had most likely hidden in their usual places. They were probably upstairs with Henry and Caroline, I figured.

Joe arrived home at five thirty, stuck his head in to say hello then went upstairs to change and get ready for dinner. I glanced at Penny who was still asleep, then went to wash the beans and put them on to cook. Captain, I saw was in his dog bed beside the pantry door. He did not lift his head, but his eyes tracked me as I moved about the kitchen. “What’s the matter with you, fella. The storm’s over. I don’t think there’s another one coming through.”

When he came back downstairs, Joe carved the chicken I had taken out of the oven. He told me Caroline and Henry would be down in a minute, they were hungry. “So, what exactly did they unearth in the cellar?’ he asked. “Henry said it was a doll in a metal box. Caroline didn’t want to talk about it. Is she feeling all right?”


“And why’s Penny sleeping? Are the girls sick? A bunch of people have miserable summer colds, and two were out today with a stomach virus thing that’s also been going around. It’s just a twenty-four hour bug. Mike had it last week.”

“That’s probably what it is, one or the other. Penny probably caught it at dance class. They all grab onto the bar. If someone sneezed on it or didn’t wash their hands…” I shook my head. “I’ll go roust Penny. She should have a bite to eat, then a bath and maybe to bed early tonight if she’s not feeling well.”

“Hey,” Caroline said as she came into the kitchen. “You want me to do anything?”

“You can open a can of cranberry sauce. Is Henry downstairs?”

“He’s coming,” she replied, and then added, “Roxie is acting weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Like she’s really spooked. She’s hiding in my closet. I can’t get her to come out.”

“That was a pretty bad storm we had. She’s probably still just rattled from the thunder earlier. She’ll come out soon enough, as soon as she smells this chicken.” I continued to the family room and gently roused Penny who opened her eyes and smiled at me. “Time for dinner, sleepyhead,” I said.

She sat up. As she slid off the loveseat she stumbled. “Ow! My leg hurts!”

“Did it fall asleep. You were zonked out there, kiddo. Give it a minute to wake up.” I lifted her up and carried her to the lav before carrying her to the dining room. Joe was already seated at the table. He cocked a brow at me. “Her leg fell asleep.” I settled her into her chair, looked the table over and was satisfied that everything was ready before sitting down.

“Is Dad going to go and cover that thing up?” Caroline asked as she tackled her baked potato, her attention focused there.

“What thing? The doll in the packing case or whatever it is?” Joe asked.

“It’s weird,” Henry said as he stuffed about a dozen green beans into his mouth.

“Don’t take such big mouthfuls,” I warned.

“It’s not a doll,” Caroline muttered. I shot her a warning glance. She gave me a look in return. I nodded toward Henry and Penny. She made a face, but didn’t say anything more except, “Can you pass me the cranberry sauce?”

“Mommy, can I share my chicken with Betsy? She’s hungry.”

I turned my head and looked at Penny. She was looking at me. Obviously she still believed the toddler in the casket was a doll in a metal box. “Sure. She’s probably hungry,” I replied.

“She’s starving!” Penny said, turning the other way. “You’ll have to share from my plate because Mommy didn’t give you one. She probably forgot.”

Joe looked from Penny to me with a quizzical expression. “Just eat your dinner. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay then. So, what else did you guys do today?”

The rest of the dinner conversation was normal. Penny continued to pretend that she had the doll sitting beside her. It was a little strange, but I didn’t want to try to explain to her that there was no doll. She was a child with a vivid imagination. If she wanted an invisible playmate, she could play with Betsy. No harm in that. Caroline had had an invisible friend when she was young, maybe a year or two younger than Penny was now, but kids developed at their own pace. Maybe Penny was just missing her school friends. In a few months she’d be starting first grade and this would all be water under the bridge as real friends replaced her invisible friend.

Caroline took Penny upstairs to give her a bath after dinner. Henry played a computer game in the family room while Joe helped me put away the leftovers, rinse the dishes, and load them into the dishwasher. “Okay, exactly what is it that’s downstairs that I need to deal with?” he asked.

“Joe, I think it’s an antique metal casket of some sort with a window in it. Through the window you can see…” I tried to suppress a shudder, but it rippled through me as if my body was being rocked by a seismic shockwave.

“Jesus,” he said quietly. “Are you trying to tell me there’s a dead body in the cellar? In some sort of a casket?” I nodded, unable to speak at the moment. Something had gripped my chest and was squeezing it. I didn’t know what it was, but abruptly I burst into tears. “What’s the matter? It’s not like any of us killed someone and buried them in the cellar! You said it looks old.”

“It’s just…oh, Joe! She was a beautiful little girl! She looks like she’s only sleeping! She’s just…she’s perfectly preserved! It’s like she might just open her eyes and smile at you at any moment!”

“Maybe I should call the police?”

“I don’t know what to do! I mean, who buries their child in the cellar like this? She must have been there since shortly after this house was built.”

“I’m going to go down and take a look.”

“Take the flashlight.”

He went downstairs after a brief struggle with the doorknob. I finished cleaning up and was sitting at the kitchen table when he came back upstairs. “That is remarkable. It’s unbelievable! You’re right, the poor little thing does look like she’s sleeping.”

“So, what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Caroline’s very upset. She hasn’t been herself since she realized what it was they’d found.”

“How about Henry?”

“He still thinks it’s a doll. It was interesting to dig up, but he doesn’t have much interest in dolls. Penny, on the other hand, has named the doll Elizabeth and calls her Betsy. That’s who she was sharing her dinner with tonight.” I shook my head. “How on earth do I explain to a six year old that she and her brother and sister dug up a dead child in a casket in the cellar? How is she going to grasp that? She’s never seen a dead body. I doubt she’s ever even thought about anything dying. We haven’t lost any pets or family members. You buried the chickens we’ve lost before she’s seen them. How in the world do I tell her the doll is a dead little girl? Don’t you think that will haunt her for the rest of her life?”

He paced the kitchen for a few minutes but ended up nodding. “Yeah, it probably will. It’s kind of a weird first exposure to death for a little girl.” Captain had gotten up to eat and was now at the back door. Joe let him out. “So…on the one hand we have a dead body in our basement that’s probably been buried there since the mid-eighteen hundreds. We should probably inform the police that the kids dug it up while playing. At the very least someone should take custody of the thing. Maybe the Historical Society can figure out who the little girl is. Maybe the town can bury her in the cemetery or something. I mean, she’s not related to us or anything. She’s just been buried in our cellar for like a hundred sixty something  years. We shouldn’t have to pay to have her buried properly, right?”

“I don’t know, Joe! This is way outside of my limited experience with dead bodies.”

“All right. Let’s just leave her alone for tonight and deal with it tomorrow.”

Caroline came into the kitchen with a tense looking Roxie clinging to her. “The cat’s still freaked out. She won’t go into Penny’s room. I brought her downstairs to eat.” She tried to set the cat down, but Roxie wouldn’t let go of her. “Dad, can you help me?”

Joe managed to get one paw loose, but as soon as he started to free another paw the one he’d just loosened would grab his shirt and not let go. “What the hell is wrong with this cat?” he cried, exasperated.

Somehow, between Caroline and I, we got the cat loose from Joe’s shirt. Roxie hissed and tried to bite my wrist. I dropped her from hip height and she bolted from the kitchen. “Penny’s acting weird, too,” Caroline said.

“Her invisible friend?” Caroline rolled her eyes, made a face. “Did you have to give her a bath, too?”

“Oh, yeah. Try giving a bath to an invisible little girl.”

“It’s a phase. She’ll outgrow it. You had an invisible friend when you were little. Don’t you remember Holly Day?”

“No,” she said, but in the way she said it I could tell that she did remember, or hearing the name she’d christened her invisible friend had sparked a vague memory. “I need to call Jennifer. Penny’s having a tea party in her room with Betsy and her stuffed animals.” She started to leave the kitchen, but reappeared in the doorway. “Oh, and what’s with her leg? She’s limping.”

“I don’t know. I thought it had fallen asleep. Did she fall in the cellar or anything?” Caroline shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe she just got a Charley horse. You know how painful a leg cramp can be. I’ll give her leg a little massage before I tuck her in.” Caroline vanished down the hallway. We heard her running up the main staircase.

“Just keep the kids upstairs tomorrow. Don’t let them go down in the cellar. I’ll call Bob and see what he says.” Bob was his friend from high school who was not a lieutenant in the police department.

I put some steaks in to marinade and then went up the back staircase to Penny’s room. She was sitting on her bed turning the pages of a picture book, telling the story I told her whenever I read this particular book to her. “Bedtime, kiddo,” I said.

“In a minute, Mommy. I’m telling Betsy a bedtime story.”

“Well, Betsy should get some sleep, too.” Her eyes met mine, a plea in their depths. “All right. Finish up. I’ll just put the tea things away.”

“Can’t they stay on the table tonight? Maybe she’ll get hungry and thirsty and want to eat some more while I’m sleeping.”

“All right. Fine. Hurry up.” I walked to the tall windows and looked outside. It was dark for nine o’clock, the yard below in deep shadow. As I raised my eyes, I caught the reflection of Penny sitting on her bed across the room, head bent over the storybook as she continued telling the story she knew by heart. It startled me when I thought I saw a pale reflection of a second little girl with light blonde hair, head bent over the book. The image was brief, the two blonde heads seeming to merge into one as I spun around, fully expecting to see a ghost child on the bed with Penny, but there was only my little girl sitting there.

“The end,” she said, flipping the book shut. “Can you put this on the bookshelf for me, Mommy? My leg hurts.”

I replaced the book on the shelf as Penny laid back and got herself settled. She had on her Disney princess nightgown. “Which leg hurts?” I asked her as I came back and sat down on the side of her bed.

“This one,” she said, patting her left thigh.

“Did you have a muscle cramp? Were you sitting or kneeling funny in the cellar?” She shook her head to every question I asked. I examined her lower left leg and didn’t see anything wrong, but her skin felt rather cold to the touch. “Do you want a pair of socks? Are you cold?”

“I’m okay. Just tired. I want to go to sleep now.”

I pulled her nightgown down, then the covers up, tucking them under her chin. She gazed up into my eyes. “Love you, sweetie,” I said.

“Love you, too, Mommy.” I kissed her goodnight and started to rise. “Can you kiss Betsy goodnight, too? She misses her Mommy. She thinks you’re very nice. She’ll sleep better if you kiss her goodnight.”

“All right. Where is she? I can’t quite make her out against the pillow. “

Penny turned her head to the left. “She sleeps against the wall because she’s still little. I don’t want her to fall out of bed and get hurt again.”

“Is she hurt?” I asked, leaning over her to air kiss near her head on the pillow.

“Uh-huh. She has a sore leg, too. Remember? That’s why it took her so long to climb the stairs.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. I was thinking about the cookies and getting dinner started.”

“It’s okay. She knows you’re busy. ‘night!”

“Goodnight, baby. Love you. Sleep tight.” I walked to the door. My hand was on the switch when she reminded me to wish Betsy a goodnight. “Goodnight, Betsy. Sleep well. See you both in the morning.” I switched off the light and softly closed the door.

Joe was watching a baseball game. I made some popcorn for him and brought him a beer. Then I went back upstairs to get Henry into bed. “I forgot to put my trucks and stuff away,” he said as he climbed into bed.

“That’s all right.”

“I’ll put them away in the morning.”

I hesitated, then said, “It’s okay. I really don’t want you guys going downstairs tomorrow.”

“Why not?” he asked, ever inquisitive.

I had to think fast. “Remember how we got that snake in the cellar a couple of years ago after a big rainstorm?” His eyes widened as he remembered the king snake that had somehow come up through the drain in the floor. He’d nearly stepped on it as he was helping me with the laundry. He’d yelped. I’d looked to see what had startled him and screamed so loud my own ears had vibrated with the echo of that scream for minutes afterwards. “I want Daddy to check the cellar when he gets home from work tomorrow to make sure there are no snakes before you guys can go downstairs again.”

“Then can I go to Billy’s house and play? He’s got a new game.”

“I’ll call his mom in the morning and ask if the two of you can play together for a few hours.”

“If I like it, can you get it for me for my birthday?”

“We’ll see.” I kissed the top of his head. Tonight, he surprised me by throwing his arms around my neck, kissing my cheek. “I love you, Mom!” he said.

“Are you buttering me up for this new game?” I asked.

“No!” he replied, sounding insulted. “Can’t a guy tell his mom he loves her once in a while without her thinking he wants something, like Avengers of the Realm?” So, that was the name of the game he wanted. I didn’t need to be clobbered with a hint that huge a second time.

“It’s nice to hear. Thank you. Love you, too. Goodnight.”

“’night, Mom.”

I stuck my head around Caroline’s door. The bedside light was on. She was just lying in bed staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. “Can I come in?” Her eyes shifted to the doorway and she gave a slight nod. I stepped into her room and quietly closed the door. “Dad’s going to try to find out what we should do about this,” I said.

“It’s so weird to know there’s a dead baby in a coffin downstairs,” she said. “It’s creepy!” And then her eyes filled with tears and the tears began streaming down the sides of her face into her hair and ears. Her expression crumpled. I went to the bed and sat down. She sat up and I gathered her in my arms and held her. She was upset and frightened by the whole thing. “She looks so…so…like you could kiss her cheek and her eyes would flutter open and she’d smile sleepily at you!”

“Yes, she’s like a little sleeping beauty, only she’s long gone, Caroline. She’s not going to wake up.”

“How in the world can she possibly look like she just…like she…”

“Like she just slipped away from this world?” She nodded. “I don’t know. Maybe I can find out by searching this type of casket on the internet. I don’t know if they were embalming people back then or not. Her skin is so pale and perfect.”

“She’s so sweet and innocent looking, but still… look! I still have goose bumps! I still feel so cold, Mom! That cold followed me upstairs. I can’t shake it! That’s why I’m in bed. I just can’t get warm!”

I stayed with her for a half an hour longer, searching my mind for subjects to steer her mind away from the casket and the child in the basement. Finally, she yawned and gave me a last hug, an unexpected kiss on the cheek because she had stopped kissing me when she was eleven and a half years old, before she lay back. “Why don’t we make Belgian waffles for breakfast tomorrow? Henry wants to visit Billy for a couple of hours. If Mrs. Knowles is willing to watch him for three hours maybe you, Penny, and I can run over to the mall. She needs a new bathing suit, and you can probably use a new one, too.” She’d been wanting a new swimsuit since last summer. “Sound good to you?”

“Sounds like a plan, Mom. Goodnight.”

“’night, Caroline.”

I went back downstairs, washed the popcorn bowl, put the empty beer can on the back porch in the empty case for Joe to return to the package store when it was full. It would be sitting there for a while as he only had a beer occasionally. Going back inside, he said he was going to hit the shower, then watch the end of the game upstairs in the bedroom. I said I’d close up the house and meet him upstairs.

Going back out into the kitchen to secure the back door, I turned and heard the cellar door creak. The door stood ajar a couple of inches. I walked over and pushed it shut, jiggling the knob to make sure it had caught; making a mental note for Joe to get on the doorknob replacement project sooner rather than later. I switched off lights, called Captain, who had disappeared again. Joe had told me that he’d let the dog out again while I’d been upstairs putting the kids to bed. I shrugged. He’d be fine, wherever he was.

I found him as I entered the bedroom. Captain was lying on the rug beside the bed. “There you are. Sleeping with us tonight, fella?” I moved around the room, closing the drapes, turning on the TV, finding the game, switching on my bedside lamp, making sure the book I was reading was at hand. I went into my dressing room and changed into a pair of cotton short and a t-shirt. It was a little too chilly in the house tonight for a tank top. The lack of sunshine and all the gloom and rain had syphoned the warmth from every room in the house this afternoon.

Joe watched the game to the end, satisfied by the win. He slid down in the bed and was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. He hadn’t wanted to talk about the casket in the basement. I had to trust that he’d start finding out what we were supposed to do about it from work tomorrow, making a few phone calls in between seeing clients.  I sighed, closed my book, leaned over and put it on the bedside table and then turned off the light.

Lying there in the darkness, my eyes adjusted so that I could make out the narrow strip of faint light coming through the space between the door and the frame. I’d left the door ajar a few inches tonight, not sure if I’d be needed during the night or not, and knowing if he got hungry or thirsty, Captain could wedge his snout into the gap and push the door open so he could go down to the kitchen for his snack.

My eyes were just about to drift shut when I saw a shadow in the gap. At first, I thought it was Captain. But, it was taller than Captain would be, though not as tall as Penny would be. My eyes strained to make out what it was that I was seeing. It was definitely child size. It wasn’t Roxie. I’d only be able to see the tip of her upright tail over Joe’s legs and hip if she was out there in the hallway. “Who’s out there?’ I asked in a hushed voice, thinking this was ridiculous. There couldn’t possibly be anyone there. I didn’t want to disturb Joe. He’d had a long day. “Who is it?”


My heart leapt. The voice was soft, plaintive, the voice of a very young child. It was not the voice of any of my children. Even when they were trying to play tricks on me, I recognized their disguised voices as being distinctly Caroline, Henry, or Penny. “Who are you?” I asked, my voice unsteady. Beside me, Joe stirred and murmured.

It’s me, Mama….Betsy.

I couldn’t help it, a sound erupted out of me, a sort of startled, strangled scream. Captain growled and then began to whine. Joe shot upright in bed beside me, instantly awake. “What the…” he started to say, but I grasped his upper arm and squeezed it hard. “Diane, what’s the matter?”

Across the room, the door creaked. Both of us looked toward the door and saw it slowly swinging inward. And there in the doorway was the form of a child looking like a shadow. As it stepped into the room from the hallway it took on a glowing appearance and more detail began to emerge. “Oh, my God,” I breathed as the child in the casket approached the side of the bed. Captain had crawled beneath the bed. I could feel him through the mattress, trembling against the box springs.

“Betsy?” It was Penny’s voice calling quietly from her room down the hall. “Betsy? Where’d you go?” I heard small bare feet padding along the carpet runner in the hall, the footsteps uneven. She was still limping. “Betsy?” The ghost turned and drifted out of the bedroom. “There you are! Are you thirsty? Hungry? I can get you a cookie. Come on.” Penny’s solid form passed by the doorway. She was heading toward the main staircase.

I flung the covers aside and was just getting out of bed when it occurred to me that she was limping, that she would have trouble on the stairs, especially in the dark. “No!” I cried. “Penny, wait! No!” My words were still rushing from my mouth as she cried out and I heard her tumble down the stairs. “Oh, my God! No! Penny!”

Joe was out of bed and pushed past me into the hallway, running to the light switch. I had just reached the head of the staircase when the overhead light came on and I caught sight of my little girl lying at the foot of the stairs, her lower legs propped up on the bottom stair, one arm twisted beneath her, the other flung out to one side, her neck at an impossible angle.

I screamed, then screamed again as I discerned a shadowy form leaning over Penny’s still body. The ghost child reached a hand down and took a pale hand in hers. I saw my child, her form translucent, rise from her physical body and knew…I knew in that moment that she was gone. “Don’t take her! Don’t take her from me!” I cried as I tried to get down the stairs to my baby, but Joe had grabbed me, spun me around and was pushing me toward Caroline who had come out into the hallway. “No! No! I need to go to her!” I cried. My little girl! My precious little girl!

It was twenty-one days later when we finally laid Penny to rest. A special permit had been obtained to inter the cast iron casket with the unknown female child in it with Penny’s little white casket. I felt numb due to medication, Joe supporting me as I tossed red and white roses and white lilies into the open grave. “Goodbye, baby,” I whispered, before dissolving into tears. Despite the medication, I was still weepy.

“It’s okay, Mom,” a devastated Caroline said, slipping her arm around my waist, leaning her head against my shoulder. “If that’s Elizabeth then Penny’s not alone. She’s got a friend with her, right? Penny’s not all alone, is she?”

A frisson of anger ran through me. If they’d never dug up the casket, if I had realized that my youngest child was sensitive to spirits, had been able to see and communicate with the ghost of the dead toddler, then maybe I could have figured out something to do that would have prevented this from happening.  It was a thought cycle that kept repeating in my head. I had tried to talk to Joe about it, but he didn’t want to listen to me. He seemed sad and exasperated, exhausted and distant. I knew he must be grieving, but there is no grief as deep, as profound as a mother’s grief for their child. It was not possible to give birth to a child and not have a part of yourself still connected to that little person who had grown and developed inside your own body for nine months. If not a physical connection, then it was a psychological one, an emotional one…a spiritual one. I felt as if some part of me had been sheared away and I was bleeding from a wound nothing could staunch.

Caroline slowly turned me from the grave, and as she did, I saw through my tears two blurry forms, one head and shoulders shorter than the other. Both in white dresses. It pinched my heart. I didn’t want to blink, but could not stop myself. In that brief moment, they vanished, were no longer there when my eyes opened again. In less than a heartbeat they were gone. And while my mind tried to persuade me to turn and fling myself down into the grave and go with my child, I was steered toward the car by Caroline. Joe and Henry were waiting there, Henry looking stricken. Joe looking grim.

It was the sorrow in the depths of my husband’s eyes that pulled my mind and heart out of that grave behind me and back to the reality of the continuation of life after loss. Caroline let go of me to go around to the other side of the car to get in, telling her brother to get into the car and buckle his seat belt. I continued to look deeply into my husband’s eyes, and a moment later I was in his arms and we just clung to one another for a few minutes, until Henry knocked on the window and shouted through the safety glass that he was hungry, weren’t we going to go eat?

Joe opened the door and I slid into the passenger seat. As he walked around the front of the vehicle to get into the driver’s side, I glanced back at the grave, at the funeral director talking now to the man in denim coveralls who would be maneuvering the cement vault lid into the open grave and then using a small backhoe to scoop the soil back into the hole. The stone was already in place with Penny’s name carved into it. It was shaped like a sleeping cat, like Roxie. There was a marble rose between the cat’s paws.

I closed my eyes as Joe pulled slowly away, gravel crunching beneath the tires. The thought ran through my mind that tomorrow I would go down to the historical society, and maybe the library. Henry was going over to Billy’s again for the day. He’d been invited to spend the entire day and have dinner there before they’d bring him home. I would ask Caroline if she wanted to join me. I wanted to try to find out who Elizabeth had been. There had to be a record of her somewhere. Perhaps I would start with the house, who had built it, who had lived in it. There had to be some real estate and city listing records somewhere.

No matter how long it took, I would find the answer as to who Betsy was so that her name could be added to the stone beneath Penny’s. I would find her identity if it took me the rest of my life, because I did not want my child spending eternity with a little girl whose name I did not know.

Elizabeth…Betsy…Penny had given me a clue, a place to begin.

(Copyright by Susan Buffum, May 13, 2017 No part of this story can be reproduced without the permission of the author.)