General Fiction posted May 28, 2017 Chapters: 1 -2- 3 


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The town's municipal town clerk speaks

A chapter in the book Sketches of a Deceitful Town

Empty Arms

by Spiritual Echo


"The story continues...

Bridgewater, a pretty southern town, is shaken by a visitor who arrives in a vintage Cadillac convertible. Elizabeth Harris Brown stops long enough to buy Brolin House--sight unseen--then disappears as quickly as she arrived.

The nefarious history of the property and the secrets of the townspeople begin to surface. The story is told in chapters changing perspective as a collective deceit is revealed.



Each time the door of the municipal offices swung open, Molly felt a rush of anticipation. She'd spent days admonishing herself for her reaction to Gino Silvestri, the general contractor in charge of the Brolin house renovations. Despite her self-discipline, she couldn't help her physical response to the burly Italian who'd teased her with a wicked smile. Lying in her bed late at night, Molly's swirling thoughts settled on a single adjective to describe the man who'd rocked her world--swarthy, but in the most delicious way.

Built like a bull, Gino swaggered, a barrel of a man with the grace of a dancer. He'd made his introductions on his first visit to the office. Dressed in a white cotton tank top saturated with sweat and hiding none of his furry chest hair, his charming manner gave Molly goose-bumps.

She stared, caught off guard by Gino's oozing masculinity as he pushed his applications across the counter. Trying to regain her composure, she attempted to calculate the cost of the permits, but found herself mentally immobilized, unable to add up the simple fees. Two plus two equals four, she told herself, trying to shake the sexual response Gino had awakened.

A random thought made her giggle. Two and two might become twenty-two. It doesn't have to make sense--none of it.

"You laugh like an angel, but I hope my angel is not laughing at me," Gino said. "I need these permits approved to begin working on the septic system."

My angel: The words floated through Molly's thoughts like plucked chords from a symphony.

"Septic system?" Molly returned to reality, and taking a closer look at the proposed property plans, she felt her throat tighten. "You can't excavate behind the house."

"Of course I can. It is the best location." Gino blustered, and eventually left the office agreeing to resubmit his application, but not before he took Molly's hand in his over-sized paw and placed a gentle kiss on her palm.

On my palm... Molly was smitten. She'd seen the Mediterranean gesture in the movies, but always on the back of the hand. On my palm... Distracted by carnal thoughts, for the rest of the day she wondered why she hadn't given Gino any reason for the application rejection, and later she asked herself why she'd treated the graveyard as a secret. Everyone who grew up in Bridgewater knew of its existence, but no one talked about it, and certainly not to an outside who might ask a lot of questions.

***
A practical woman, Molly Biggs had few illusions about her unimportant and beige existence. Yet, after work, she made an impulsive decision; she needed a make-over. The unofficial town spinster felt leashed to Bridgewater by circumstance and family obligations. Gino's attention made her conscious of her greying hair and dowdy appearance. After Gino's third visit to the office, equally flirtatious, Molly headed off to the salon, determined to do something about her looks--something Gino might consider attractive.

Ladies came to Jenny's salon just as much for the gossip as a haircut. Molly's new colour, a group decision favouring blonde highlights, had been debated and applied. With the timer set, the conversation took a turned into a whimsical chatter about past-life experiences. Molly, empowered by the attention, declared with absolute certainty she'd probably been nothing more than a scullery maid in a previous life. "It seems that's all I do; clean up after my mother."

"That's not how reincarnation works," Doris said. "If you were a servant in one life, you return as the master to experience both sides of the coin. The entire premise of reincarnation is to reach enlightenment."

The librarian was the unofficial expert on everything and nothing, Molly thought, but the rest of the regulars at the salon seemed to accept Doris's intellectual superiority. Molly thought she was a snob, flaunting her book knowledge around, and always wanting the final word.

"So then, Doris, do you believe you came back as a librarian because you were once a writer, brought into this life to protect your manuscripts?" Molly silently congratulated herself for her witty contribution to the conversation.

Usually she had very little to offer, but she felt light-hearted. Until Gino began to appear at the municipal office, Molly had little to add to the conversation, and spent her weekly appointment absorbing the stories other women shared. She wouldn't call them friends, but they were the closest thing she had to confidents. From them, she'd learned many intimate secrets about men and marriage, a lifestyle she'd never experienced. Her one and only kiss occurred in middle school, a hard memory to savour as she'd later found out, the awkward, pimply-faced boy had no true affection for Molly. He'd kissed her on a dare .

"What's the latest news about the Brolin house?" Molly asked, abruptly changing the subject. She hoped someone might bring up Gino's name so she could ease her questions into the conversation without suspicion. Though she felt foolish, she yearned for more information about the man who made her blush and gush, prattling like a school girl whenever he spoke to her.

Molly's thoughts drifted as the ladies began to speculate about the damn Yankee, the infamous Elizabeth Harris Brown. She couldn't care less about the new owner. It was only when she overheard Jenny mention ghosts that Molly snapped to attention.

"Did you say the house is haunted?"

"That's what Mary-Jo claims. Her new boyfriend gave her a tour of the place and she heard a baby crying. There was no baby there--no one but the two of them wandering around an empty house. "

A thick, intense silence filled the room as the women bathed in the ominous possibility of a local ghost. Prone to believing in conspiracy theories, Jenny's clients had a special taste for the paranormal. A dozen seconds elapsed before everyone began to talk at once.

"Maybe all the graveyard babies have come back to avenge their death. " Doris's dramatic whisper stopped the chatter as the group considered the librarian's explanation.

"What dead babies?"

The regulars turned toward Sarah, the newest customer, a recent city transplant who'd bought one of the cookie-cutter homes sprouting up in Bridgewater. They began to regale the young woman with stories about Brolin House. Molly knew half the things they told Sarah were not true, but some of the things said scared her; the idea of a serial killer whose victims were infants sent chills down her spine.

Molly didn't want to participate any longer. At the mention of a baby's cry,  her fingers rolled into her palms; fists, white-knuckled weapons poised for defence. She fought the surge of nausea and tried to concentrate on breathing. Taking deep breaths, she hoped no one noticed the anxiety attack ignited by the conversation.

The memory of a crying baby carved through years of denial. Molly's mother worked at Brolin House until it closed. As a child, the shame of having a working mother added to her feelings of alienation from the other children. Up north, women might have been marching for equality and burning their bras, but time stood still in Bridgewater. In the south, the only reason a woman sought employment outside the home meant a man had failed to provide for his family. Children were vicious, taunting Molly, calling her white trash.

Molly tried to ingratiate herself, find acceptance among her peers. She painted her father as a war hero, but, neither survivors nor victims of the Viet Nam War were treated with honour. Not able to deal with abandonment issues, she created an elaborate story about her father's death, struck down by the enemy. The truth and the aftermath of an absent father fueled her lies. Molly was only ten years old when John Biggs, a draft dodger, headed for Canada. He'd simply walked out without saying goodbye.

She spent her childhood waiting for his return, lonely and longing for an intact family until anger replaced hope. She blamed her father for leaving without her--making her a slave to her mother's bitterness.

Molly never knew what her mother did for a living, guessing she was a housekeeper; she just couldn't bear the thought of calling her mother a maid. The maids who worked for townsfolk who could afford hired help wore black, shiny dresses and starched aprons. Once or twice Molly had caught a glimpse shopping in town. No, she'd convinced herself, her mother could not be a maid. Now could she be? Not possible; her mother was white.

The day Patricia Biggs dragged Molly to Brolin House due to an unexpected emergency. Molly's fears disappeared. Only important folks were summoned to work on their day off she reasoned, and obediently remained seated on the parlour sofa, her allocated perch, while her mother disappeared up the stairs.

Such a long time ago... All around her the ladies in the salon chattered, witching topics, but Molly couldn't follow the conversation. Her thoughts were fixated on a crying baby. A baby had cried the day she sat on the horsehair sofa in Brolin House--just for a moment--and then silence.

"Can I see the baby?" Molly had asked her mother when she reappeared.

"No. He's gone to live with his father."

"Why can't I go see my father?" The wave of anger and a jealousy pushed her mother's warnings aside. It was forbidden to talk about her father. Her impudence was rewarded with a sharp slap across the side of her head.

"Molly, are you with us?"

Molly blinked and sat up, correcting her posture from her slumped down position in the chair.

"I must have dozed off," she said as Jenny motioned her towards the wash-out sinks.

"You probably needed a nap. Looking after your mother can't be easy. Is she any better these days?"

Molly had no interest in discussing her mother. Although she'd spent most of her visits to the salon dumping her complaints on anyone who was foolish enough to enquire about Patricia, her mind whirled and the nausea threatened an embarrassment.

When Molly didn't pick up the usual conversation thread, Jenny continued. "Such a horrible disease.Losing one's memory seems so tragic."

Jenny's sympathy rubbed Molly the wrong way. "Oh, she remembers what she wants to, when it's convenient." Impatient, Molly urged Jenny to speed up. "I've got to get home."

Feeling foolish, she ignored Jenny's compliments when the hairdresser turned off the blow-dryer. She'd opted to get rid of the grey, hoping to appear more attractive to Gino, but she could hardly recognize the image on the mirror.

A bubble burst. An uncertain truth from her past mingled and erased her romantic notions. Without ever having met the new owner of Brolin House, she hated the damn Yankee for stirring up old stories. A gnawing anxiety sent her racing out of the salon.

As she did every day when she got home, Molly sat in the car for a few minutes. Taking deep breaths, she tried to prepare herself for another long evening of servitude. Patricia Biggs, never a warm maternal parent, had become more and more demanding as her dementia deepened. Molly never knew what she would face when she returned home. Some days Patricia seemed totally normal, but infrequent. Guilt partnered with financial obstacles to keep Molly a prisoner in Bridgewater. She simply could not afford the cost of a nursing home.

For a fleeting moment, Molly remembered how exciting it was to go off to college. She'd had a chance to start over, make new friends and better herself, but that dream dissolved in her first semester. Brolin House was closed down her mother lost her job, broke her hip and summoned Molly to return home. The promise her mother made Molly, 'you'll go back just as soon as I heal and find a new job', never happened. Patricia Biggs settled into her role as an invalid with the ease of slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. Her mother's broken bones were replaced by depression and leaked into an Alzheimer diagnosis. Molly didn't want to believe the doctors.

"I'm home." Molly dropped her keys on the hallway table. "Where are you, Mother?" Silence--no sign of Patricia.

Molly continued to call out while checking the kitchen and racing up the stairs. Expecting to find her mother in bed taking a nap, she began to panic when her search of the upstairs did not reveal her mother's whereabouts. There was no sign of Patricia in the backyard. Deciding her mother must have gone for a walk and perhaps become confused, she ran back inside to grab her car keys.

Halfway across the kitchen, she noticed the basement door ajar. What would she be doing in the basement? But, that's where she discovered her mother, sitting on the cement floor, her stretch-pants saturated, a pool of urine seeping across the floor

"Stop your screaming. The babies are sleeping." Patricia growled in response to Molly's shocked gasp. Cradling a doll, she rocked back and forth, lost in a world of her own. .

"What are you doing down here in the dark?"

As she pulled the cord from the single ceiling light fixture, the smell of ammonia reached her nostrils."Oh, my God, Mother, what have you done? Why didn't you turn the light on? You shouldn't be down here."

"Babies sleeping."

The contents from cardboard boxes pulled off storage shelves littered the floor. Ripped open, books, clothing and toys were strewn across the basement seemed evidence of a manic frenzy. Exasperated, Molly surveyed the mess. She picked up a discarded doll, its head twisted off; blue plastic eyes staring at nothing. A sense of despair enveloped her as she looked at the toys; mementoes of her lost innocence.

"What were you looking for?"

Patricia, startled by the question, seemed to reconnect, peering up at her daughter as if she'd appeared out of thin air.

"What were you looking for?"

Suddenly indignant, Patricia hauled herself to her feet, the doll now dangling from her hand like a forgotten appendage. The reality of her incontinence and her surroundings made her turn away from Molly as if ashamed. She flung the doll against the wall and tried to push past her, but Molly grabbed her by the shoulders.

"What were you looking for down here? Look at the mess you've made."

"I need my book."

Molly glanced around the dingy cellar. Her Nancy Drew and old comic books were everywhere, some with torn covers as if Patricia had attacked the boxes with rage.

Defeated by a conversation making no sense, she stood back and let her mother pass. "All your books are in your room."

"Not my baby book. I hid it down here," Patricia climbed the stairs without a backward glance..

"Have a shower before you put on your nightgown," Molly yelled, but Patricia disappeared out of sight, closing the basement door behind her without responding.

Molly sat down on the bottom step and buried her face in her hands. People told her she was lucky her mother could still look after her personal needs. Molly didn't bother arguing the point. Every day Patricia produced high drama. The thought of her mother's continuing deterioration burdened her mind.

It'll never be my turn.

"Out of nothing... This whole mess for a damn book!" She dropped her hands into her lap and briefly gazed at her palms. She'd woken up with a glimmer of hope, thinking that Gino might be legitimately interested in her. She'd dared to dream, thinking a new hairdo might make her look more attractive to the contractor.

The basement door opened.

"I'm hungry," Patricia yelled down the stairs.

"You'll have to wait," Molly snapped back. "Go have a shower."

The door slammed shut.

Resigned to the chore, Molly stood up and began to gather up the toys. As she threw books back into the cardboard box she noticed a burgundy notebook she couldn't remember. Opening the cover, she immediately recognized her mother's writing.

"Your damn book."

Molly hated herself for the bitterness consuming her life. Even as she placed the book on the washing machine, she felt a stab of disappointment. "What was I expecting? Baby pictures?" Gino had awakened something she thought she'd buried--hope. Molly had never felt cherished.

Casting off her self-pity, she began to restore order to the basement. It took almost an hour for Molly to repack the cartons and mop the floor before she went back upstairs. Relieved to find her mother showered and sitting at the kitchen table eating crackers, she tossed the notebook in front of her and busied herself making supper.

During the fifteen minutes it took to fry ham and scramble eggs, Patricia kept her face buried in the notebook. Molly brewed tea, counted out her mother's pills and sat down at the table with a weary sigh.

"Put the book away, Mother. It's time to eat." Molly had to repeat herself two more times before Patricia complied.

"What's so interesting in that book that you destroyed the basement looking for it? Is it your journal?"

"It's my book of emergencies. I thought I'd forgotten their names, but I remember them now."

"Emergencies? What kind of emergencies?"

Patricia picked up her teacup and took a sip. For a moment, Molly thought her mother had drifted off into her own world again, but when she set the cup back on the saucer, she seemed anxious to talk.

"It's just a word we used--not a real emergency--but when one of the girls went into labour, it was my job to look after things. We called the baby an emergency."

"You were a midwife?" Molly asked in astonishment. She'd stopped wondering what her mother did at Brolin House decades ago. Water under the bridge--times long past,--but the local gossip since the purchase of the property and the conversation at the salon spurred her on to ask more questions.

"No, dear, I was an angel. I sent those babies straight back to Heaven. Half-breeds... God's only mistake, but I made it right."

Molly sat, paralysed by her mother's narrative. she tried to process what she was hearing. Patricia's sense of pride repulsed Molly. Her mother calmly described how newborns were categorized. Children born at Brolin House--caramel, chocolate and charcoal--were allowed to live or die, all based on skin colour.

"Go to bed."

Patricia reared back at the force of Molly's command.

"Go to bed now!"

Molly's voice verged on hysteria, but Patricia obeyed. She left the table and stumbled towards the stairs. "Why can't you tell me how proud you are. I was a good mother," she whimpered as she left the kitchen.

The darkness of the kitchen eventually roused Molly from her stupor. She got up, turned the light on, and then returned to sit at the table. She opened the notebook and began to read.

The tears flowed freely as she read the names of the girls; their babies identified by gender, weight and skin colour. Molly choked--time of birth--time of death--life measured in minutes.

A name on the third page jumped out--Elizabeth Harris. Molly's remaining composure crumbled. Could it be the same woman? Elizabeth Harris Brown--the new owner of Brolin Housse?

Minutes passed before Molly turned back to the book. Elizabeth had borne twins, a girl and a boy, but by some miracle of nature, the male was 'chocolate' while the girl...white! Molly's breath came in short spurts as she tried to read the rest of the entry. The boy, born first, lived three minutes. There was no time of death listed for the girl.

It was after midnight before Molly stirred. She cleared the table, rinsed the plates and rifled through the pantry looking for the stashed bottle of brandy. Pouring a generous serving into her teacup, she leaned against the counter sipping the liquor and wondered what to do with the information she'd discovered.. One thing was certain. She hated her mother--the executioner.

She could hear her mother snoring when she went upstairs, briefly paused, thinking how easy it would be to go into Patricia's room and cover her face with a pillow. Didn't she deserve the same death? Didn't she merit the same end?

Molly brushed her teeth and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. She didn't recognize herself, almost having forgotten being in the salon. As she studied the brunette looking back at her, a seed of hope seemed to germinate. She could hand over the evidence to the sheriff. He would have to do something--charge Patricia Biggs with murder--take her away.

It would cause such a scandal, Molly thought as she crawled into bed. Yes, such a delicious scandal!

Molly pulled the covers up to her chin and smiled.




 


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