Once, p.1Staci Hart
A Halloween Short Story
By Staci Hart
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
The clock chimed twelve, and I opened my eyes.
The house was dark, familiar in that distant way, like when you can’t recall a word or name that’s passed your lips a thousand times. Moonlight shone through the plated glass of the front door, throwing a long pattern of light across the rug under my feet, across the white cotton of my shift. The grandfather clock sat in the corner near the door, tall and polished, marking the unwavering constant of time as it ticked past, second by second.
It was my home, once. The knowledge slipped over me like fog in the night and pushed me forward with cold hands. I took a step, then another, touched the doorknob and turned it. Pulled it open and closed it behind me, harder than I intended. The windows shook when it slammed.
From somewhere upstairs, I heard a woman sob. “I can’t take it anymore, Sam. We have to move.” There was desperation in her voice.
“It’s nothing,” a man answered.
“You and I both know that’s not true.” Her words wavered. “I can’t keep doing this every night. I don’t care how long this house has been in your family.”
Their voices faded away as I walked across the patio. There was nothing to be done except leave.
The white boards creaked under my feet as I walked down the stairs and to the path as I had a thousand times before. The world was bathed in moonlight, the grass and white picket fence, the trees that stretched up and whispered in the breeze.
I heard a child’s laugh, an echo across time, and as if a curtain had been pulled away, the sun beamed down on the grass. He was just as I remembered him, running with outstretched hands and his face up to the sun, smiling with the abandon only a child or someone in love could possess. His hair shone like gold, just like my own. My boy. My child.
I was a mother once. Remembering brought me no surprise, though I felt a piece of my life slide into focus as I watched him run. I had already known somewhere in my heart, in my mind. I carried him once, held him in my arms. Laid him on my breast and shushed him. Whispered in his ear that I would protect him, care for him.
His specter caught fire like a photograph in a flame, chewing away at the image of him, eating holes in the vision until there was nothing left, and the sunlight that graced us snuffed out like a candle. I was once again alone in the moonlight, listening to the crickets sing and the trees rustle, and life went on as if I had not seen my heart burned away.
I stepped to the gate and laid my hand on the latch, and when I pushed it open, I stepped onto the street as it once was. Ruts cut into the dirt and mud like wounds in the earth, and I remembered the sound of hooves as our bridal carriage stopped in front of our home.
I was beautiful once. He loved me once.
On our wedding day, we stood under flowering lilacs and promised we would love each other for all of our years. His happy tears fell, his smile full of promise of our days to come. He carried me through that very gate, through that very door, to our room where he laid me down and gave me his love, and I gave him mine. Where we lay tangled together for days, smiling and sighing and wishing we could stop time. And months later when I told him I carried our child, he picked me up and spun me around until we were dizzy. I remember his hands in my hair, his lips on my own. I felt his hand on my cheek, remembering how he cherished me and gave me his heart, and we built our own world, built our happiness.
The old street faded away, replaced by the new, and I left my memories behind me as I crossed the street and walked into town, turning onto Main, toward the ocean.
I knew the buildings well, though the signs for boutiques and coffee shops were foreign to me. As I passed each one, I saw it as I knew it; the blacksmith, the dress maker, the jail and saloon. The street stretched before me as it used to be, and I watched women walk down the lane with parasols over their shoulders and free hands tucked in the crook of a man’s arm. Heard the clamor of carriages and motorcars as they bustled up and down Main, caught between two worlds as I walked past the park, past the bench where he’d kissed me for the first time.
When I reached what was once the general store, I stopped and looked through the dark window. In an instant, the rows of empty barber’s chairs and wall of mirrors were gone, and the store as I knew it was before me, the shelves stocked with trinkets and string, children running around barrels of sugar and flour, rows of penny candy and taffy in jars across the back wall.
It was the place where I’d first seen James with her.
There was nothing improper about them as they stood chatting that day, not that anyone would notice. Anyone outside of me. I stopped dead when I saw him, my corset all of a sudden too tight, my palms sweating in my gloves as I gripped the handle of my parasol. I knew every curve of his lips, every expression to pass across his face, and the moment I laid eyes on them, I knew. It was in the tilt of his head, the angle of his shoulders. Something in his smile that telegraphed his intentions, and she responded in kind with the bend in her waist and bright smile, her cheeks rosy as she laughed at something he said.
The moment James saw me, he straightened up and adjusted his hat to hide the flush in his face. He checked his pocket watch and shooed me away, all softness gone at the sight of me.
The memory slipped away, and I was on the sidewalk again in the dark, staring through the store window at abandoned chairs. I looked to the east, and the sea called to me.
I walked down Main, and the buildings fell behind me, replaced by trees that stretched up to the stars, swaying gently in the dark, a metronome to the steady hum of the wind as it skated through the leaves. It wasn’t long before I could smell the ocean, hear the waves in the distance, and when the road turned toward the harbor, I looked across the bend at the boats bobbing in the inlet below.
It was daylight again, and I heard our laughter as we sang in the carriage. The surrey rolled by, down the bend to the ocean where we climbed out and trekked to the water. Henry ran to the shore as he always did, let the waves roll over his legs as we set out the blanket and food. James and I lay under the umbrella, the salty air blowing over us as he pressed soft kisses to the corners of my lips with reverence.
I looked up to check on Henry, and my smile faded. He was nowhere to be seen, and my eyes roamed the empty beach, my heart frozen, my hands numb. We scrambled up and into the ocean screaming his name, my skirts dragging in the water, the current pulling me as I tried to run. I saw the white of his shirt, his body small and still like a doll as a wave curled and folded him inside. I screamed as James dove in after him, my tears and the ocean indistinguishable as we ran back to the shore. James laid Henry in the sand, called his name and slapped his cheeks, flipped him over and thumped his back. Laid an ear to his chest to find the beat of his life, the sign that he was safe.
But he was forever lost.
James collapsed in the sand, pressing his forehead into the infinite bones of shell and stone, his fisted hands pounding the ground. I pulled my son into my lap as I cried, feeling the sand on his face and hair, the weight of him in my arms as my world fell apart.
The vision blew away like ash, and I was left standing on the road in the night. The foot path to the lighthouse was just ahead, and I turned to climb the trail to the cliff top, following the trail of memories, the life I had known coming back to me with each step I took.
He loved me, once. I never believed his love would die, but each day that we endured drove the wedge further, deeper. Sleep found me with nightmares in its wake, and James would pull me from my dreams, back to the life I no longer wished to live. There was no comfort he could give in those moments, and I would p
As the days and months wore on, I left bed less and less. There were times when Henry’s face in my mind was more than I could bear, days when I closed my eyes and saw his smile, when his voice echoed in my ears, calling my name. Times when I would pass a mirror and pause, certain I had seen a ghost as I looked at my reflection, the reflection of a stranger, my face all points and angles, the shine of my hair gone as it lay lank and dull against my back. Each day James would come into our room and stand at the foot of the bed, but my eyes never left the lace curtains that danced in the breeze. He said nothing, and neither did I, and as every second and minute passed, I disappeared.
Our love slowly died, fading like old wallpaper, curling and peeling away from the wall, begging to be ripped and shredded, to be wiped clean.
I stepped through the tree line, the wind whipped my hair, whipped my dress around my legs, and I closed my eyes as my pain stretched out before me. When I opened them, I looked across the black sea as it turned and churned, crashing against the rocks and cliff below. Memories rushed through me as I leaned over the edge and looked down, and the salty wind lifted my hair behind me in a whirl.
On my final day, I woke to find James gone. I didn’t leave bed, only watched out the window as the light turned from the yellow cheer of morning to the soft oranges of dusk and into the cool night. It was near midnight when I heard the door close, and I peeled my heavy body from the confines of my sanctuary and walked down the stairs. His eyes never left me, his feet rooted to the ground in the foyer, his face drawn tight, lips flat.
“Where have you been?” My question was simple, one that held no accusation, as flat and dead as my spirit.
“You know where I’ve been.” His hands were by his side, his hat gripped in one fist as he told me everything in that single sentence.
His words washed over me, and my heart thumped, kicking my ribs as my fingers gripped the polished rail. “You’re leaving me.”
Pain flitted across his face. “You left me long ago, abandoned me on the beach that day and left me here to mourn you both. I won’t do it anymore, Lizzie. I can’t, and I won’t.”
My breath caught in my chest, then passed my lips in a burning rush. “What will become of me, James?”
“Your fate is your own. Attend to it as you see fit, but you will leave and never come back.” He placed his hat on his head. “You have one week. I will arrange for transport to your father. I can’t …” He swallowed and took a breath. “You’ve left me no choice.”
I stepped onto the carpet of the entryway, extending my hand to reach for him. If I could touch him, if I could reach him, if only—
But James took a step back, keeping the distance between us. My hand fell and clutched my shift, my gaze never leaving him. It may have been an illusion, a trick of the light as it danced across the tears in my eyes, but his face seemed to soften as he looked at me across the chasm between us. But the planes of the face I loved so much sharpened as quickly as they’d smoothed, and he turned and pulled open the door, pausing for a moment in the threshold before closing it behind him, cutting the thread between us neatly with the motion.
The only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock near the door. The moment Henry died, my life had ended, but I was shackled to the earth, chained to my body, destined to be alone. The home that I knew, the life that I knew, the man I loved, the child I’d born … all was lost. I was a prisoner of every breath I took.
The clock struck midnight in long chimes, and with each sound, I took another step. I touched the cool metal of the doorknob and turned, stepped out into the night and closed the door behind me harder than I intended. I put my hand on the gate of the fence and walked through town with bare feet. My cotton shift snapped against my legs, the thin fabric not enough to protect my body from the chill, but I felt nothing but my pain across every inch of my skin, through every nerve in my body.
I saw Henry’s face in my mind, my child. Saw him running ahead of me, up the trail into the woods, and I followed him that night to the exact place where I found myself standing.
I heard James in my ears, his voice carried by the wind.
Never come back.
I could smell the brine of the ocean below, feel the salt against my skin, cold and biting the tracks of my tears. Watched the swing of the light from the tower as it spun steadily in the night. And I saw Henry as I had so many times before, smiling before me with outstretched hands, calling for me. I took a step, then another. I felt him in my arms, felt the warmth of his love even as the world tilted, even as the rush of the wind carried me, as if I could hold out my hands and fly. And as the rocks and the sea rushed up to meet me, I closed my eyes.
The clock struck twelve, and I opened my eyes.
Other Books by Staci Hart
Deer in Headlights (Good Gods 1)
Snake in the Grass (Good Gods 2)
What the Heart Wants (Good Gods 2.5 Novella)
BOOK FOUR - COMING 2015
Nighthawk (Nighthawk 1)
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About the Author
Staci has been a lot of things up to this point in her life: a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a seamstress, a clothing and handbag designer, a waitress. Can’t forget that. She’s also been a mom to three little girls who are sure to grow up to break a number of hearts. She’s been a wife, even though she’s certainly not the cleanest, or the best cook. She’s also super, duper fun at a party, especially if she’s been drinking whiskey, and her favorite word starts with f, ends with k.
From roots in Houston, to a seven year stint in Southern California, Staci and her family ended up settling somewhere in between and equally north, in Denver. They are new enough that snow is still magical. When she’s not writing, she’s sleeping, cleaning, or designing graphics.
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Once by Staci Hart / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes