Janie smothered a giggle as she raced up the crooked staircase. Robbie was right—this staircase did have a kind of funhouse affect. Janie had been at the Wayland Manor more than a dozen times, so she knew what steps to skip and where to walk without making a sound.
The docent—her name was Amanda--liked Janie but she trusted the teenager a bit too much. Janie liked Amanda too and she did not want to let her down. Although she had done that a few times. Like forgetting to lock the back door and setting the alarm off.
The older woman was one of the few people that did not take her at face value. Meaning Amanda did not treat Janie like a child. She paid no mind of her baby face and petite stature. Janie wished with all her heart that her parents would take a cue from Amanda.
Janie was nineteen and she liked her job with the Mobile Historical Society, but she resented the fact that she did not get paid much and she never got to do the speaking tours, but she did like it. She aced her public speaking course, why wouldn’t they give her a chance?
Fine, if she had to make a scene, she would. Janie needed a break. Wouldn’t it be great if she could lead a tour at Oakleigh or Bragg Mitchell? The Wayland place had plenty of history, but no one was really allowed to talk about it.
Crazy, huh? Well, if Janie was not allowed to give an oral history, she’d be the best damn actress on this tour. The best non-speaking actress ever. Like her Aunt Valerie always said, “If you want something bad enough you had to take risks.”
Most girls her age dreamed of leaving her hometown and making it big in a much bigger city and she was no different. Honestly, she didn’t know what she wanted to be. Being an actress would be a dream come true, but it was just a dream and not likely to occur. Maybe she should be a teacher? A professional violinist? Neither of those were likely either. She never achieved first chair violinist. Not even close.
But today was one of those quarterly paranormal events, the kind that was immensely popular with the weirdos. Okay, not all weirdos. Some of Mobile’s snobby families liked the spooky stuff. They did not go around wearing goth clothes or black lipstick but they loved hearing about hauntings and murder and mayhem. The Wayland Manor had that in spades, but again, they were strongly encouraged to keep that part of the history on the down low. However, knowing Mobile’s history more than others on her team, she knew the old stories. The juicy ones that involved cousins eloping and the murder of a nun. Imagine that? A nun was murdered, tortured right here on this property. And then there was the little girl. The poor dead girl whose body was found in the strangest way. She could also tell the people on the tour how old Mr. Hollinger really got his money.
Yeah, it wasn’t just the Wayland Manor that had its creepy places. How about the Angel Bridge and the Boyington Oak.
The truth was that ghosts and goblins did not turn Janie on at all. She didn’t believe any of that stuff, but she did believe in keeping her job, as goofy and mindless as it was.
Okay, she coached herself. This was simple enough, step out of the master bedroom and exit to the smaller bedroom when the guests made their tour upstairs.
Her costumed appearances would startle people, but she was a real living person. If she played her role correctly she might even frighten a few.
Janie never imagined she’d become a paranormal reenactor. This job was like working in one of those haunted houses that popped up in the Mobile Festival Center every October. Only this was steadier work and there weren’t angsty teenagers rolling their eyes at you, or otherwise doing naughty things. At least Janie didn’t have to tote an ax covered in fake blood or don a hockey mask.
But no, the Mobile Historical Society would probably not approve of my intentional scare idea. They would not approve of her powdered wig and the dark circles painted under my eyes. She was not originally hired to do basic tour guide stuff, not this kind of work at all. However, when the opportunity arrived, she did not hesitate. Janie was mean to be an entertainer. To bring the history of the Wayland Manor alive.
Ooh…just the thought gave her chills.
Normally, she would stick to the routine without question. From one room to the next and then up the stairs to the attic, stomp around a bit and then scurry down through the servants’ entrance and light a lamp in the barn. Go there and wait for the docent and the tour group.
But not tonight.
Janie wanted to give the tourists a real thrill. Mostly because Tony Edwards was on the guest list. She had crushed on him hard when she was college, but he never noticed her. Not in any significant way. Once Tony pointed out that Janie dropped a pencil near her desk but that was the limit of their communication. He didn’t even offer to pick it up for her. She mutely did it herself and by the time she collected it, Tony had left the classroom.
Until tonight. He would know me. He would remember.
Janie had even taken the trouble to powder her hair white and she donned the vintage wedding veil. Every time the fabric touched her skin it made her itch. She blew it away and fiddled with it until she positioned it exactly right.
Waiting for the right moment to reveal herself was the hard part.
For this new scare tactic to work she needed to step out at just the right time. Janie would hear the footsteps of the dozen or so people trooping up the stairs and then she would move, as ethereally as possible, from room to room, walking from one closet to the other.
The closet in the master bedroom had a secret chamber behind it. Janie would slip inside one and wait there on the dusty bench until the tourists did their exploration.
They would never find her. Not until her big reveal at the end. Janie would introduce herself when the tour ended. That way Tony would know it was her. Maybe she would be able to clean up a little before then. Powdered wigs were not that flattering. She appeared quite horrible really.
Janie silently closed the small bedroom door and then tiptoed to the closet. The door squeaked a little but not so loudly that anyone would notice it. She hoped anyway. Even if Tony thought she was lame she really did not care. The only thing that mattered was that he noticed her.
She could hear the docent welcoming the guests now. Are we ready to step back into the past? It is my pleasure to lead you back into the past of this great house, the Wayland Manor. Back in the early 1800’s, long before there was this fine house on the property, it was a farmhouse, before the Way lands the Owens family worked this land. There were seven in that family, Horatio and Angelina Owens who had five children. Unfortunately, only one of the Owens children survived, a girl named Greta.
Janie sighed as she listened to the somewhat familiar muffled speech. She’d have a small lamp in her hand, it helped add to the ambiance. There would be other lamps too, positioned around the house to make the experience that much spookier and more genuine. She was indeed sharing more of the scary side of this story with the visitors. Man, why did she pick today to be long winded?
People who worked in the house said that the Owens family haunted the Wayland Manor, much more so than the Waylands. But then again, Janie wasn’t sure. She never saw anything at all. Nothing paranormal in any way shape or form. Kind of disappointing but it was the truth. Sure, there were places in this house that were chillier than others—cold spots are what the ghost enthusiasts called them. Hadn’t they ever heard of a draft?
A few dark corners were not evidence of the paranormal.
“Come on, Mrs. Sutherland. I’ve got to pee,” she whispered to herself.
And she did indeed need to visit the bathroom, in a big way.
Why did this always happen? Janie’s nerves got the better of her every time. How ridiculous to be this excited about pretending to be a ghost. She tugged at her tight, high dress collar. The cameo felt crooked and probably needed adjusting but it would just have to wait.
As people began walking up the steps. She hurried out of the closet, and waited by the door of the room, it had been left ajar. When she heard her cue, she deliberately stomped across the hallway in her old-fashioned boots. They were a bit tight, but she did not plan on wearing them long. As expected Janie heard someone gasp as she moved smoothly across the landing, but she did not linger.
Keeping her face blank, she fought the urge to smile at them. Janie hurried across the long hall and entered the master bedroom. Naturally, the docent would save the master bedroom for last, there were other rooms to see. They would pause and tell her they had witnessed something, a ghost perhaps. They would mostly certainly be curious about what they all had just seen. Surely the docent would realize that she was only trying to improve her role. Not deliberately trying scare anyone to death--only frighten them a little.
In case Amanda did change her routine and come in here first, Janie raced toward the master bedroom closet. To her surprise, it would not budge. The handle felt stiff, immovable.
Why? She had opened this door many times without any worries whatsoever. Crap! She needed to get inside!
Janie banged on the door lightly and then to her surprise the door popped open. Hmm. Maybe it was the humidity. That could be the reason. Whatever the reason, she had to hide. Opening the door, she slid inside and arranged her skirts so no one could see them from outside.
Yes, this was going just as planned. Keeping silent would be the hard part. She could hear Amanda repeating the story about Billy Fowler and the murder of his sister, the nun. Did Billy kill her? Nobody knew but it was rumored that Mr. Fowler hid her skull here at the house. Just rumors. A horrible rumor but that was all it could be.
Why was she thinking about this now? She’d heard Amanda’s polished story so many times but it did not bother her like it did today. Today, it’s like it got under my skin.
Janie froze with her hand on the doorknob. She planned on peeking out, watching their faces, especially Tony’s. He would certainly never forget her after this. Janie planned on making a memorable impression.
Get out now. Oh crap! Had someone else gotten in here?
“Hello?” Janie whispered into the dark. “Is somebody there?” The closet was empty. There was absolutely nothing inside. No hangers, or clothing, no storage at all. Just the secret door at the back of the closet.
He didn’t speak again; Janie heard a hiss. A strange hiss. Like the kind you hear when you stab an inflated pool toy. Suddenly my teeth began to chatter. It had dropped at least twenty degrees in this tiny closet. How in the God’s name was that possible? There wasn’t even a vent in here, there were only AC vents in the main rooms. Not the closets.
“Hello?” Janie began to plead with the emptiness. The black emptiness that reached for me, yes hands were coming. She could see the hands, two of them, small hands. Dirty and pale. No make that pale and gray, like they belonged to a dead child. The hands were not reaching for help—they were reaching to hurt.
To hurt her—maybe even kill her.
Janie snatched the veil off her head and threw it into the blackness. Then she could see him. The boy--he couldn’t be more than nine or ten—his head was on backwards. As if someone had twisted it, broken it. His mouth moved again, a strange hiss accompanied the scream.
GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!
She struggled with the door, never taking her eyes off the dead, mangled boy. With a wild shriek of her own she tumbled out of the closet as the hands rushed away from the dim light and once again hid in the darkness.
Janie screamed endlessly and when it was over, when Amanda was standing over her, speaking silently to her, the crowd gathered around her as she sobbed.
Eventually her legs found the strength to work, she found her voice and she left Wayland Manor. Believe it or not, Tony volunteered to drive her home. It turns out he did remember her, even with all the powder and antique clothes. They did not talk as he drove, except when he needed directions.
And when she got home, she couldn’t get out of the car. What if the boy was in her closet? What if it followed her home? What if…
Then Tony kissed her and she remembered real life. Yes, this was real life. Despite the horrible thing that had happened to her it was hers to live. One thing was for sure though.
She would never return to Wayland Manor again. Never.