The mattress seemed to give a bit as if someone sat upon it and leaned toward her. She was conscious enough—in that hazy landscape between deep sleep and wakefulness—to know that no one “should” be there. The doors were locked and the cat had been banished for bad behavior. She had no logical reason for someone, some thing, to be sitting on her bed, leaning over her, pressing everywhere, but not touching anywhere. She heard the slight squeak of bedsprings, the sense of something coming closer, then a soft sibilant whisper. Jessssica.
Jessica lay very still and tried to will her eyes open, but couldn’t. So she raised her arm and swept it in a scythe-like movement and encountered—nothing.
She scurried backwards to the head of the bed, wide-eyed at last. The bedroom was gray and shadowed, and of course, unoccupied. But it felt like someone had just left. This was silly.
She grabbed her robe and shivered her way thorough her apartment, through rooms easily navigated in the semi-dark. In the hallway, she knew to step to the left around the small writing desk with its antique inkwells and feathered pens, to cross the dining room in such a way as not to bump her knee on the sideboard filled with her collection of vintage toys. Sliding open the pocket doors, she heard the familiar soft thud of oak against plastered lathe as they slid into the wall. She paused to view the parlor she had so painstakingly restored.
Soft yellow-green light from the street lamp at the end of the street filtered through trees and lace curtains and skimmed the curve of the velvet chaise, glinted off the swinging brass pendulum of the grandfather clock. The only sound was its measured ticking and the refrigerator’s hum from the kitchen. She was definitely alone. And very awake.
She flipped on the Tiffany floor lamp beside the rolltop desk and picked up the mail she hadn’t had a chance to go through before going to bed. Amongst the bills and magazines was a small package from one of the E-bay vendors. She smiled. It must be the tintypes she’d won last week.
The auction had been one of those lots with a dozen tiny images laid out for the display photo, so she hadn’t really been able to distinguish the details. Caught up in the last minute flurry of bidding, she’d been surprised to come out on top. She used a carved ivory letter opener from the desk to carefully open the padded envelope. The thin, three inch by four inch rectangles of tin were wrapped in tissue and taped carefully. Excited, she held the images up to the light as she revealed each one.
There were wedding and christening poses and a marvelous woman in a striped dress on a bicycle. What a haul. She planned to use them for her new collage series, scanning the images, then using a computer program to carefully select and paste the vintage people from their curtained backdrops of faux landscapes and pompous parlors into dreamlike, sometimes surreal, environments which she created from her art and photography. Occasionally the photographic images inspired the ideas but usually she bought for specific types: a staid gentleman, an overstuffed and corseted lady, a serious child, an outrageous hat or unusual uniform. This batch looked very promising. She picked up the last one, a little smaller than the rest, and for some reason felt reluctant to open it. A chill ran over her arms and she forced herself to rip through the packaging.
She stared at the posed threesome. A young baby, dressed in a flowing christening gown, lay half propped in an overstuffed chair. What appeared to be his sister held one arm, but both leaned away from the third individual. Someone had almost obliterated this child. The surface of the tintype had been badly damaged, violently so, and all that could be seen was a pair of button top shoes below the scribbly scraped off area over the image. The entire scene was so disquieting that Jessica quickly wrapped it back up and placed it on the desk.
What could have happened? The violent defacing was a mystery impossible to solve. Everyone in the tintype, and everyone who had known them, was long dead, and as with most of the collectibles she purchased through E-bay, the provenance was lost.
The batch had probably come from an estate sale and been reassembled and auctioned a number of times since. Maybe she’d ask her friend Sierra to take a look. After all, what was the good of having a psychic for a friend if she didn’t do a little paranormal snooping for her now and then.
The next evening, Jessica poured a stream of tea into flowered china cups while Sierra held the tintype beneath a magnifying glass.
“Where’s Max the Cat?” she asked distractedly, not looking up from her examination.
“He’s been banished. When I didn’t give him his milk in a timely manner, he jumped up on the mantle, meowed til he got my attention and sprayed the mirror.”
“No!” Sierra said.
“Yeah. He’s like every other male in my life, you let him in your heart and in your home. And what does he do?”
“Piss on the walls?”
“Jay never called back, huh? Do you want me to do a reading, honey, see if there’s a tall dark handsomeman, or even a short blonde, in your future?”
“No, the only people I’m interested in are the vintage people from my collection. I’m taking Max’s misbehavior as a sign and taking a break from romance. Speaking of signs, are you getting anything from that?” she asked, then plopped a couple of sugar cubes in her Earl Grey.
“I thought we were having a tea party, not a séance.”
“I’m sorry, you said you didn’t mind.”
“I was just kidding, this is fascinating. But I’m not getting a thing, honey. Remember I’m more a healer and a clairvoyant. Psychic skills are distributed a bit like any other talent, and psychometry isn’t my best thing. I was just starting to get something, then it felt as if the information is being blocked, a bit like the rubbed out image.”
“I wonder what that little girl did to make someone do that. It’s not like a contemporary snapshot where you just rip up the ones that aren’t flattering or delete the digital ones. Back then, in some cases, people only had their photos taken once or twice in a lifetime.”
“Maybe she was beautiful and the sister was jealous, or since we are making up a story, maybe she was psychic and it made everyone leery of her. Superstitions and misunderstanding of the paranormal is still very real,” said Sierra.
Using her best scary voice, Jessica suggested, “Maybe she was evil,” then immediately regretted it since she couldn’t keep from remembering the goosebumps on her arm the night before.
“I can do a clearing if you want,” offered Sierra.
“Hey you are totally my “go to” person for something like this, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Yet. I am so aware of her.”
Sierra tapped the tin rectangle against her fingernail. “You know, this is such a different material than photos today, and the people had to sit still for so long for the photographer.”
“Yeah, they even had posing stands that supported the back of the head,” said Jessica.
“No wonder everyone looks like they have such great posture. And they are amazingly detailed and clear, even after all this time. It wouldn’t be surprising to find a remaining resonance of the individuals. And there you are staring at the image for hours while you are working with them. You’re probably a bit of a ghost magnet. I’ve always thought you could be a great natural medium but you don’t really try to develop the ability.”
“Damn right, especially if it’s going to magnetize the dearly, and not so recently, departed to my bedchamber. Don’t really need—or want—to see dead people, ya know.”
“Yeah, I know,”
But that didn’t keep it from happening.
The early morning visitations continued, mostly that sense that she wasn’t alone so Jessica started reading—really light contemporary subject matter—until she fell asleep with the lights on. Some days she would walk into the parlor and for a moment reality shifted, as if her center of gravity slid a slightly sideways, leaving her feeling a bit as if she’d been sailing all afternoon and had just stepped onto dry land. And more that once she woke from a daydream to find herself surrounded by her antique photography collection: the tintypes, cyanotypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes lined up on the table before her, and what she came to call the tainted tintype in her lax hands.
Jessica decided to give the apartment a good cleaning in preparation for weekly tea with Sierra. While the scones were baking she pulled out her old-fashioned feather duster and began what was to her the enjoyable domestic task of dusting her collectibles. Frowning, she began to notice that her things were, well, rearranged. Actually, a couple of dolls and her bear were missing. The French bisque doll had been the result of her first ferocious bidding war on Ebay. She’d paid a bit too much, but now it was worth twice that amount. She located the stuffed toy horse in the corner on its side, then took a quick inventory of the room. Definitely, the Stieff bear was gone.
The stereographic viewer with its pile of cards and the daguerreotypes were attractively displayed in the parlor, but the painted tin top with the carousel horses on the side and the Mason jar of marbles were nowhere to be found either. A growing anxiety began in the pit of her stomach but the next evening before Sierra arrived everything was back where it belonged.
“Just my luck, Sierra, instead of the handsome suitor with the poet’s hands, or the darling musician with the guitar, I get a little brat who’s a kleptomaniac.”
“Have you seen anything?”
“Not hide nor hair. Not that she’d have either I suppose.”
“Do you feel threatened?”
“No, just annoyed. And I never actually see anything move.”
“I feel uneasy, I guess. My home feels like I have a roommate I never see. My keys, my hairbrush, you know, little things are never where I left them.”
“She’s stealing your keys?”
“And playing with my toys!”
“Hey, at least she brought them back. My best friend forever, Anna, never returned my Barbie back when I was nine.”
“Thanks for believing me.” Jessica meant it.
Sierra gave her that look. If anyone would…
“Maybe her telekinesis is still weak,” she said.
“Still?” Jessica’s voice rose. “You think she’s getting stronger?”
“Honey, she’s feeding off of something.”
“Something in my apartment? What?”
“Maybe she feels comfortable around things of her own era,” suggested Sierra.
“There are half a dozen bed and breakfasts in town restored to the tiniest detail. Why isn’t she there?
“Maybe she is, but here there is a difference. You sense her.”
“Great.” Jessica sighed. “Maybe you should try to talk to her?
“Then let’s do a séance.”
They lit candles, but nothing happened.
“Well, that was a bit of a bust,” said Sierra after a few uncomfortably innocuous minutes.
So they gave up and opened a bottle of white wine.
“Are you disappointed?”
“No, not in myself, I’ve told you mediumship isn’t really my forte. But the apartment feels “off”. I noticed it when I came in, your place is usually light and free flowing with energy. But it feels...”
“Feels?” Jessica detected Sierra’s anxiety.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It doesn’t matter how much sage or incense I use it feels the same.”
“Maybe we should schedule a heavy-duty clearing when we both aren’t so tired, or inebriated,” She divided the last of the wine between their glasses. “This is Halloween weekend and the veils between the worlds are thinner. A good time for it.”
“At this rate, if they get any thinner I could end up with a real ghost story for Halloween. Lets do this soon, I could definitely use an air freshener. This place is beginning to smell like a closed up attic.”
“I don’t smell anything,” said Sierra.
“Great. I get to be the psychic one this time, thanks.”
She hugged Sierra goodbye, then sat down with her glass of wine to think about all they’d discussed. She became aware of a strange low sound. At first she thought it was Max trying to get in. He’d developed a new habit of sitting on his butt at the oval glass door and tapping his claws to get her attention. She took him milk but still refused him entry. But this sound was different, not like glass, but more like metal.
The sound, a metallic rubbing, no more like scrubbing, but definitely not scratching. Once in a printmaking class she’d created an etching and cut into the copper plate with a steel tool, drawing into the metal, then burnishing it for texture. The sound was a bit like that.
Or a buttonhook against a tintype, destroying forever the image of a young girl.
Across the room, in front of the flow of velvet drapes a shape began to form or rather to erase that part of the room, created the same scribbly void as the tainted tintype.
The sounds of cars on the street, of a neighbor’s distant radio, of the pendulum in the room blurred and her ears began to ring, yet underlying it all like a constant percussive rhythm, scrape, scrape, scrape.
Mouth too dry to speak, Jessica reached for the wine glass she’d set on the ornate side table and fingers trembling, took a quick sip.
The void grew, seemed to gather energy and became a fury of dark scribbles that floated and morphed like a wind blown cloud with torn edges. A scent similar to mildewed clothing seeped from the dark, inundating the cooling air. So cool, the windows and mirrors frosted over and Jessica’s wine glass began to chill her fingers.
At this rate she’d soon be holding a chardonnay slushie, but she couldn’t put it down.
In fact, Jessica couldn’t move. She sat as still as a photographic subject waiting for the gunpowder flash to explode.
At the bottom of the charcoal scribble of energy, a pair of feet began to materialize, smooth black leather with black buttons gleaming in the light from the fireplace.
What would Sierra do? Talk to it—er her?
“Hell—hello?” Her voice was barely a whisper but it was the best she could do.
The toes of the tiny boots turned slowly in her direction and stepped closer.
Much like looking in to a dark closet Jessica could just make out the shadow within the shadows. A long-haired girl’s silhouette. No facial details, but definitely young, probably pre-teen.
Jessica felt a questioning, more like a pressure than actual words. If a feeling could have an expression, this one would be widened eyes, lifted brow, intensity. The sensation was familiar, much like the amorphous pressure from her dream state the last few mornings.
“Yes, I see you.”
A nameless mixture of emotions, like a pureed soup where identification of ingredients took long consideration, swept through Jessica. Such a cacophony of sentiments, of passions, and definitely none her own. What Jessica felt was more like sympathy and curiosity. Surprisingly, she wasn’t afraid.
“Do you have a name?” Dang, where was a Ouija board when you really needed one.
She tried to think of a few Victorian era names, running through a mental list slowly, watching, listening, opening all her senses for some kind of reaction.
“Amanda? Victoria? Mildred?” No definitely not a Mildred.
“Emily? Marjorie? Georgia? Caroline? Betty, Belinda?”
The ice in her wine glass began to melt.
“Hey am I getting warmer? Starts with a B? Beatrice?” This could go on for hours. She heard a soft distant tinkly sound. “Belle!”
Her wine glass grew so warm she had to put it down. The tawny liquid began to boil.
“Yes. Belle.” She laughed, she couldn’t help it. “Okay, Belle, I guess the next, and most obvious question is, what do you want?”
Longing, such longing that Jessica’s eyes teared up. “Oh, you miss everything don’t you?”
The shape unexpectedly disappeared, then reappeared in the doorway to bedroom, then repeated in the kitchen, outside the French doors to the garden, then in front of the fireplace, cycling around the room at a dizzying pace, growing more and more urgent and as she did so, increasingly transparent until Jessica could see the curtains and furniture through the vague cloud and the shoes had disappeared altogether.
Urgency, but no real clarity. The shape darkened to midnight again.
“What, Belle, what?”
The mood changed to frustration, then to aggravation and the sound, the scraping, scrabbly sound grew so loud that Jessica covered her ears.
“I don’t understand,” It wasn’t like she spoke “ghost.” Why, she wasn’t even very good at charades with real people, much less invisible ones.
“I’m trying, Belle,” Jessica whispered, “I just don’t underst--"
The wine glass exploded in a perfect ten inch circle leaving the stem standing in the middle and the apparition, Belle, completely dissipated.
The next morning as early as she could decently do so, she called Sierra and rushed through the events of the previous night, finishing with, “I’ve got to come up with a better method of communication or go shopping for wineglasses at the GoodWill. That was the good crystal!”
A groggy Sierra made her repeat the salient details, making encouraging noises accompanied all the while by the sounds of coffee making.
“You know, just my luck. No beautiful mysterious transparent woman, or handsome Civil War hero, no I’m being haunted by the female version of the Peanut’s character, Pigpen--in high top button shoes.”
She heard Sierra take a deep swallow, “Jessica that is wild. Are you okay?”
“A little freaked out. I couldn’t go to sleep for fear of someone plopping down on my bed.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Said Sierra. “Did you ever really feel in danger at any point?”
Jessica thought about it. “Not really. I felt sympathy, perhaps even empathy. I just wish I knew what she wants.”
“Maybe nothing. Like I said, she may just be attracted because for the first time in decades someone is looking at the picture. You are aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she admitted, “for hours at a time.”
“Well, you might want to give that a rest. Is she still moving things?”
“Mainly the toys.”
“I’m completely booked with readings all weekend, but, call me if you need me, okay? I should be done by five and I can drop by.”
“Do you still have my emergency backup keys, just in case?”
“I do. You know, Belle might be able to communicate if you give her the opportunity. I doubt she’s familiar with ball point pens but you could get out the pen and ink and leave it for her.”
The feather pen with the gold nib and a selection of ink lay on the coffee table unused for the rest of the week. Every time she came through her living room door she checked but, nothing, Jessica felt adrenalin wracked, on constant alert and her sleep continued to suffer.
Halloween night, Sierra had to cancel due to a last minute fortunetelling gig.
Jessica handed out candy until the evening waned and her trick or treaters tapered off. Walking back into the parlor after locking up, her foot bumped a jar, a formerly missing jar, of marbles. The container tipped over and marbles skittered all over the Persian rug. Max, who must have slipped in when was handing out candy, went into attack mode and began to tap at the multicolored glass balls. One large shooter began to roll in a crazy pattern, paused, then rolled again in the opposite direction. And Max was on it, cavorting like a kitten. Jessica had never seen him behave like this and she sank to the sofa, poured another glass and watched him as he jumped and rolled and stalked. In fact she was so entranced, she didn’t notice the return of Belle, until one of the marbles rolled into a tiny black leather covered foot.
Max paused for a moment, but one black paw went out to slap the marble back into play. Then he began to leap up, and flip and kept cavorting, almost dancing.
“Wow Max,” she said, then as his movement became more erratic, more impossible, “Max?”
He began to roll and turn in ways that the skeleton and ligaments of a cat was never designed to do. He began to cry, with a thin mewling sound that grew high pitched and desperate. The black cat began to spin so fast, she could no longer make out the details, his body became a familiar dark scribble of energy with only his little black paws hooked into the carpet.
One last agonizing squeal and he was gone.
The room was so oven-hot and airless, Jessica wiped sweat from her forehead and panted for breath, sick to her stomach from the smell of invisible blood and scorched hair.
For the first time she realized that perhaps the body language of the other children in the tintype was expressing something much more ominous. What if Belle wasn’t a misunderstood little girl with Sierra’s suggested psychic abilities What if she was actually a malevolent child who used her powers to create havoc?
The air grew thinner and the temperature continued to rise until she began to feel a bit dizzy, so sank down on the chaise and the last thing she remembered was a feeling of deep dread.
As if awakening from a dream, Jessica opened her eyes and looked around at her apartment. What was left of her collection of toys was shattered, the Stieff bear ripped, with stuffing trailing from it. Ink bottles tipped on their sides and splotches of navy ink covered the velvet upholstery and streaked the closed draperies.
Her answering machine blinked showing over twenty messages on the digital readout.
She looked down at her hands and realized the tips of the fingers of her right hand were stained navy and blotched with large and tiny spots of ink. But it was her left arm that caught her horrified attention.
Self inflicted tattoos carved with the antique writing instrument starting at her elbow, over and over, indelibly all the way to her wrist and edging down over her hand, smeared with blood and ink, the letters run together, Iambelle iambelle…I am belle
She pushed everything off her lap scattering toys and books and torn parchment. She staggered to her feet and walked over to the oval mirror above the fireplace, shocked by her dishevelment, her hair matted and ink stained, dark circled Halloween eyes, bloodshot and startlingly blue. If she went outside tonight, for somehow she knew this was indeed still Halloween, no one would notice the wild-eyed witch she had become.
But she couldn’t go to the door and open it. She was trapped, utterly embroiled and embellished. Her vision shifted, darkness chased over her iris, like one of those floaters but this wasn’t a dot, it was a streak. Then another, obscuring more of her view. When she looked into the mirror the scribbling had already started. She raised her hands to wipe it away but it was too late. The cloud of energy with the torn fragile edges was overtaking her body and now her mind, the sound grew louder and louder, scrape scrape, scrape.
All Sierra found when she rushed over and used her rescue key, was an apartment in chaos, that smelled like a musty trunk, every surface covered with a fine gray dust and in front of the fireplace a pair, in Jessica’s size seven, of button top shoes. Lying face up on the mantle was the tintype. She forced herself to walk over and pick it up. The scraped away shape was gone.
In its place was a small curly haired girl, surrounded by toys and holding a limp black cat. But when she lifted the tiny photo closer, the child’s head was obscured by one of those blurs often found in old tintypes, as if the person had moved during the posing. But in spite of the distortion, in perfect focus, looking back at her, was Jessica’s desperate eyes.
Thanks for reading.