Authors: Sheila Connolly
Tags: #mystery, #genealogy, #cozy, #psychic powers, #Boston, #Salem, #witch trials, #ghosts, #history
Scrape, scrape. Sometimes she got lucky and a couple of long strips peeled off easily. More often she had to hack away at stubborn spots with her trusty putty knife, while trying not to damage the plaster beneath. Nice plaster, it was—smooth and strong. Some nail holes here and there, showing where people had hung pictures in the past. Now and then she’d come upon a patched hole, which based on its size she guessed was where there had once been a gas line for a wall sconce—there were still a few in the upstairs bedrooms that nobody had bothered to remove. Abby couldn’t imagine how bright—or more likely, not bright—a gas-lit room would be. Nor could she imagine trying to read either a book or a newspaper in that era, since both used extremely small print, or to sew or do embroidery or anything dainty like that. What the heck had people done after dark back then? Held sing-alongs around an upright piano—that came with its own brackets for candles?
Abby, you’re still ducking the issue: Would you have been labeled a witch in 1692? And would somebody have wanted you to die for it?
She didn’t believe in witches. She did believe that her gift or power or whatever could have come down through the family genes, somehow. It wasn’t gender linked, so it could have come from any number of family lines. The immediate question was, had any of her ancestors been accused of witchcraft? Or had they laid low, kept their unusual abilities to themselves, and prayed that no one would look their way? Either way, if there were ancestors, or if there were others in extreme fear, would she be able to sense them somewhere in Andover or Salem? Or the residue of the community’s shared fear?
It wasn’t purely selfish or indulgent on her part to look into this, because there was Ellie to consider. Abby knew firsthand that Ellie was seeing people who were not there. Being young, she took it in stride, but even she had figured out that other people didn’t see them and she’d better keep her mouth shut or they’d say she was weird and shun her. Shunning could be very painful when you were in second grade. And look at how her mother, Leslie, had reacted. She and Ned had tried to explain, as best they could, what they understood of the phenomenon, and had gently tried to break it to Leslie that Ellie had the same ability. But Leslie had gone ballistic and shut them out of her and Ellie’s lives. After working with her for months, Abby knew that Leslie was an intelligent, educated woman with an understanding of history. But she was also a mother. To have a “psychic” child was not something Leslie had been prepared to deal with. Who would be? Still, Abby hoped for everyone’s sake that Leslie would reach out so they could all figure out the best way to handle things. She’d said her piece; now it was up to Leslie to make a move.
By midday she had cleared another wall, but she’d had enough. Outside it was a beautiful day; what was she doing cooped up inside? She should get out, do something, and come back refreshed.
What about Salem?
The thought popped into her head, although she shouldn’t have been surprised since she’d been talking about it earlier. And as she had told herself, it was only a half hour away. She could go and scout out the scene, since she had never been there. She seemed to recall reading
The House of Seven Gables
back in high school, and she’d visited Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord—not as an homage to the author, but because she had found ancestors right down the hill from his resting place. Fine: she could combine a trip to a literary landmark in Salem with some ghost hunting.
Abby, that sounds so silly!
But “dead seeking” didn’t sound any better, nor “trolling for ancestors.” All right, she would visit Salem and see what she could see. If anything.
She cleaned the worst of the wallpaper gunk off, grabbed a quick sandwich, and set off for Salem. The sun was shining, birds were singing, a few hardy plants were blooming—she’d already learned that spring came late to Massachusetts—and she felt freed. The house was great, or would be when they were finished fixing it, but she needed to have some kind of life outside its walls. There was a lot of the state she hadn’t seen—and a lot of ancestors to track down. She definitely needed to get out more.
She arrived in Salem shortly after two, and found Hawthorne’s famous house easily enough. There was even parking available on this weekday. When she got out of the car she walked around the building, trying to count the gables, which wasn’t easy. Then she strolled toward the end of the lane, where there was water. She chided herself for not looking at a map: Was this a river? A harbor? Somehow she had never pictured the place as near water, but then, she had some vague memory that Salem had been a busy port back in the eighteenth century, so of course there had to be water. She was beginning to feel undereducated, so she went into the building, paid the entrance fee, and took the tour.
In short order she learned from the well-informed tour guide that the building was actually the Turner-Ingersoll mansion, dating from 1668, and that Nathaniel Hawthorne had been born in the house in 1804 and spent some time there as a small child. The house and the land constituted their own National Historic Landmark District. When the tour was over, Abby drifted toward the gift shop—the oldest building on the site, dating from 1655, according to her pamphlet—and dutifully bought herself a new copy of Hawthorne’s book. Then she found a bench outside in a sunny spot, shut her eyes and waited to see if any ancestors appeared. Nothing. She sighed: it would have been kind of nice to be connected to Nathaniel Hawthorne. She felt she already knew him in a way, from his time in Concord, and based on portraits she had seen, he had been a rather handsome young man. But he had also been very attached to his wife, who had died far from home, along with their small daughter. There would have been sufficient anguish in Nathaniel’s life to carry him through to Abby’s senses now, if there were a connection. Well, she couldn’t be related to everyone in New England. Could she?
It was still early enough to walk around a bit and get the lay of the land. Leaving her car behind, Abby wandered away from the water, crossing one street, heading toward the next major cross street. The street she was on was narrow and not particularly interesting—mostly nineteenth-century houses, she guessed. But . . . halfway up the block she felt something odd, a sort of shimmer, and the street in front of her wavered. She stopped abruptly. She felt fine, didn’t she? Maybe she’d sat in the sun too long, and should have thought to wear a hat. She waited, but the odd sensation didn’t come again. There was no one around, nothing happening. She moved on, more slowly, toward the larger street.
A discreet sign suggested she turn left if she wanted to see the Witch House, so she did. She found it a few blocks away, embedded in yet another nondescript neighborhood. Funny how the very old, the modern, and everything in between were jumbled together. It was the older buildings that had been here before, with nothing around them, and then the city had filled in the spaces.
She walked to the front of the building and looked at it. Good-sized, but clad with dark wood, with small windows. Old—as old as the other house, only a few blocks away.
It happened again, the shimmer, stronger this time. She was still standing on the street, looking at the house, but at the same time she was seeing it in its earlier form—no trees in front, no houses around it, merely a very respectable wooden house, no doubt belonging to some wealthy man. It was disconcerting, the way her view of it kept shifting back and forth. What was going on? She knew where she was, but how was she seeing it? Through whose eyes?
And what did this person feel? Anger. Outrage. With a touch of fear. Strong.
And then the “seeing” snapped shut, leaving Abby standing on the sidewalk, bewildered. For a moment she couldn’t decide what to do—go back to the car? Take the tour? No, she didn’t want to listen to another lecture, but she did need to know whose house it was. A convenient sign was set next to the front door, so she read that. The house had been the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin—one of the judges who had presided at the witch trials. And she had “seen” through someone who had hated him. She had an ancestor from Salem, but she had no idea who it was.
Abby turned on her heel and walked back to her car, her mind spinning. She was too distracted to think about driving yet, so she found the bench she had sat on earlier and tried to calm herself. She studied the house in front of her: the stylistic and structural details matched those of the Witch House. They would have been in their respective places at the same time. Had anything lain between them? There was so much she didn’t know about Salem, but she’d never had any reason to dig into its history. The place had merited maybe a paragraph in her high school American history book. Yet here she was, and she had a link to the place. And that upset her. From what little she could recall, the witch trials had been a terrible time here, although mercifully short. There had been a lot of pain and anger and fear—and she had sensed just a hint of it. She needed to know more. She needed to get home and figure out who her link to this place was.
On the drive home, Abby debated about what to tell Ned. She’d already kind of made the case that Salem would be a good test case. What she’d found today only reinforced that. But what she had sensed had been fragmentary and inconclusive. She was pretty sure that she had had an ancestor there, and that that person had been angry at one of the witch trial judges, but that was the extent of what she knew. Her family tree was pitifully sparse, and she knew how much time it took to fill in any branch of it—and back that far, there were plenty of branches. Would it be better or worse if she could sense anybody’s strong emotions? No, that would be chaotic. It was confusing enough having to deal with only relatives.
In the end she told Ned over dinner that she had taken a quick trip up to Salem to get some basic information about the place, but she hadn’t delved any deeper. There would be time enough to involve Ned once she knew something more specific.
The next morning found her back on her ladder, scraping. The longer she worked, the more her skills at removing paper and gunk from the walls improved, and by the end of the day she had managed to clear most of the front parlor’s walls. Drifts of gummy paper littered the floor. Abby hadn’t bothered to protect the floor, because some idiot a couple of decades earlier had decided that stick-on vinyl tiles were a good idea. She’d pulled up a few, enough to tell that there was some lovely inlay bordering the wood floor, but it was going to take a lot more work to remove the tiles and clean off the adhesive without messing up the wood. Not for the first time she cursed the former inhabitants of the house, who had either done nothing or had made fast and cheap “improvements” that were now falling apart. Some people just didn’t appreciate what they had. Or what they didn’t have: taste.
She was surprised to hear her doorbell ring. The front door had one of those manual twist kinds of bell, polished brass, probably original to the house (she couldn’t imagine any of the clueless prior owners finding and installing it), and its ring was distinctive. She didn’t hear it often. The only people who seemed to use it were delivery people arriving with special shipments of something or other that Ned had ordered. She looked down at her sticky clothes. Maybe she’d scare off whoever it was. She certainly wasn’t going to shake hands, or they’d stick together.
When she opened the front door (lovely etched windows, which made it all but impossible to decipher who was on the other side), it took her a moment to recognize George Walker, Leslie’s husband, the man Ellie called Daddy. She’d barely exchanged twenty words with him when they’d met before, and those not under the best of circumstances.
“George? What are you doing here?” Abby peered behind him, but he seemed to be alone.
“I need to talk to you. And Ned too, but I thought I should start with you. He’s not home yet, right?”
“No, not yet. Is everything all right?”
“Nobody’s sick or hurt or anything, if that’s what you’re asking, but I wouldn’t call things all right, exactly. May I come in?”
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. I’ve been working on the walls and my head’s somewhere else. Come on through to the kitchen—it’s the friendliest room in the place at the moment.” She stepped back to let him in, trying to remember what little she knew about him. Nice guy, good with kids, kind of quiet. She couldn’t remember what he did for a living. She led the way to the back of the house, where the kitchen was located. “Please, have a seat. This is the only place with chairs. The whole house is kind of a work in progress.” She was chattering nervously, trying to fill the silence. Did George notice? “Would you like tea? Coffee? Something stronger?” she asked him.
George sat obediently. “A glass of water, maybe.”
Abby filled a glass, added a couple of ice cubes, and set it in front of George, then she sat down across the table from him. “George, does Leslie know you’re here?” she asked gently.
He shook his head. “She thinks I’m still at work. I wanted to talk with you without her because she’s still really upset, I guess. I can understand why, but it’s not helping us move forward. I mean, this thing, it’s not going to just go away, is it?” He looked at Abby with mute appeal.
Abby sighed. “George, what I don’t know about this thing is a whole lot more than what I do know. I’ve been trying to deal with it for only a few months, and I never thought other people would be involved. For me, it hasn’t gone away, but it does keep changing. For Ned, he’s kind of known about it all his life, but he’s done his best to ignore it. So I’ll tell you whatever I know, but I can’t give you any real answers.”
“Fair enough. Leslie won’t even talk to me, but she’s always watching Ellie when she thinks Ellie won’t notice. Like she’s scared of her.”
“Oh, George, I’m sorry. It’s not like she’s possessed by some evil force that can do harm. It’s simply an ability to see some things that most people can’t. Ellie’s not about to rip the heads off rabbits, unless she would have done that anyway. And she’s not going to call up a plague of locusts or anything like that. But I’m pretty sure she knows that Leslie’s upset. Have they talked about it at all?”