I had meant to have a private conversation with Ethan, but when I looked over his shoulder it was clear the rest of the adults had heard everything. My mom stepped up and interrupted us with a solid voice, bringing both Ethan and me back to reality from our surreal conversation. “Dana, you look like you could sit down. Ethan, I have some bandaids in my purse. Will you help me find it?” While my dad led me back to the couch, my mother took Ethan firmly by the hand and guided him into her bedroom. I could overhear my mother telling Ethan she would make sure to go outside and watch him play after he was all fixed up.
“Dana, what’s going on?” my dad asked quietly. Karen was still shook up; she sat huddled up in the corner of the couch with her husband’s handkerchief pressed to her face. Spencer himself stood behind her, hands protectively on her shoulders. Rich and Stacy looked on somewhat bewildered with the events of the last few minutes. I began recounting everything that had happened since our arrival; the strange conversations with Ethan, the creepy dolls and the visitor from last night; Ethan’s tour of the property with the tree and the lookout; the story of Henry and Sarah.
Karen roused herself enough to explain how my image had changed when she was telling me about the Wilson boy. And then I finished the rest. “I guess you all felt the cold air and overheard what Ethan said about Sarah and the lake. I don’t know what else to say. I guess I was hoping it was just Ethan’s imagination being wild, but there’s too much to ignore now.”
No one said anything. We listened to the rest of the kids playing happily outside in the sunshine, unaware of the chill that had taken over the home and our lives.
I don’t know how much of my story the family believed, but it was obvious that Karen and I--and especially Ethan were not doing well in that home. Our impromptu family council decided that we were done with the house; the rest of the week’s rent could be forfeited for our sanity. The trick was to break the news to the kids, pack up and leave and maybe find a new place without freaking out the younger set or disappointing them too much. With the exception of Ethan, none of the children had any inkling what was going on.
We called the owners to tell them we had a family emergency and were leaving early. I didn’t mention it was the “we’re scared witless and I’m thinking either my son needs some significant clinical help or may have actually come back from the dead” variety of emergency. The owners didn’t sound surprised at all, but certainly didn’t offer us a refund. They just asked us to checkout and drop off the key at the neighbors’ house. The Stewarts were year round residents and did the cleaning and upkeep on the home.
I volunteered to run the key over while everyone else endured the kids’ whining and moaning about leaving and finished packing up. The Stewarts’ home was much smaller, but was the same age and almost as picturesque as the one that Ethan had insisted on renting the night he crawled in bed with me seeking refuge from his nightmare.
Annabelle was a friendly soul who tried to make small talk with me as I filled out a form verifying our information for the return of the deposit. She also very gently prodded to find out why we were leaving early, but I was tight-lipped until she mentioned in the course of her one-sided conversation that their home had been in the family since it was built. And that her grandfather Henry was living with her now. Annabelle could sense how that last little tidbit of news transformed my whole countenance. She offered to introduce me to Henry and I greedily accepted.
Henry sat on the back porch, his body bent into a wicker chair facing the lake. Even in the summer’s warmth, his flannel shirt was buttoned all the way to the top and a lap quilt trailed onto the floor. Annabelle introduced us. He grasped my hand with his gnarled one in a surprisingly strong grip and invited me to sit in the other wicker chair. His wrinkled face indicated he was likely in his 90’s. Henry’s eyes were clear and kind.
“I see you rented the old Wilson place,” Henry began.
I nodded and he continued.
“That home has changed hands so many times over the years. The last couple to come in lasted a long time--a couple years. They renovated a lot of the place and planned to make it their dream home. Meant to stay here forever. Finally they couldn’t handle it anymore and gave up and turned it into a rental. Trying to make back some of the money they sunk into it.” Henry turned to face me from where he had been staring at the lake. “I don’t mean to scare you, my dear, but the place is haunted you know.”
His matter-of-fact tone about it would normally strike me as ridiculous or creepy, but it was actually slightly soothing to me now--somehow confirming that I wasn’t just crazy.
“Yes, we discovered.” My voice was hollow. “That’s why we’re leaving.”
Henry was not surprised by my admission. “Are you all right? I don’t think anyone has ever been really hurt, just shaken up.”
“Actually, I think Sarah has hurt my son Ethan.” I recalled the injured hand and the scared face of my youngest.
Henry grabbed the arms of the chair and sat ramrod straight as I mentioned the names of the former occupants.
“Ethan? How do you know about Ethan and Sarah?”
“Ethan’s my six year old.” I paused before I continued, but decided to plow ahead anyway. “He says he lived here before. He knows things about this place; he talks about his sister Sarah. And you.” I looked at the wizened man next to me. “I assume you’re the Henry he’s talking about.”
Henry grunted his assent.
“The thing is, I don’t believe in this kind of hocus-pocus, ghost stuff. I think reincarnation is absurd. Why would a soul ever be recycled? You get one shot at life and that’s it. Part of me refuses to believe Ethan’s story and yet there’s too many odd things to discount what he’s telling me.” I stopped and caught my breath. “Henry, it seems you’re mixed up in the history of this place and maybe my son’s story too. Please tell me if you know something.”
“I saw your son yesterday down by the lake. I was doing some birding.” He indicated binoculars on the table next to him. “At first, I thought maybe it was Ethan come back after all these years. But he was walking and talking with other children and what looked like a grandmother. Then I decided that maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me and it was just an ordinary child with an uncanny resemblance to my friend.”
Henry shifted his weight and gathered his thoughts. “The Wilsons were an odd family. They had their children late in life. Sarah came first, but was homely and sour. Rumor has it she ran off several nursemaids with her fussing even as an infant and then when she was older. . . well, I guess folks would say she was a very unpromising child. The proverbial bad seed. But if Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had treated her right, things may have turned out differently. When Ethan was born a few years after Sarah, her parents ignored her in favor of the boy. I guess anyone could turn bitter and jealous. Ethan was a smart, handsome, cheerful boy--apple of his father’s eye. Even as a young boy, Mr. Wilson was grooming Ethan to take over the business. Those parents ignored Sarah as far as I could tell. She was only ten years old when it happened.” Henry’s voice trailed off. I could tell he was years in the past.
“What happened on the lake, Henry? Ethan tells me you were there.”
Henry sighed deeply and shook his head. “It was so long ago. I wish I could forget it. The mind has a way of letting go of the things you want to remember, but holding onto the things you want to forget.”
Henry settled himself in, ready to share with me the things that had imprinted themselves in his brain. “Our family had spent summers here for years, but I had been sickly--had polio when I was younger. I made friends with Ethan. He used to come and visit me when I was laid up here in the home.” Henry indicated the house behind us with a wave of his hand. “We played with my toy soldiers, teased my sisters. He was a good friend.” Henry smiled at the memory of his friend Ethan and I couldn’t help but think of how much I loved my Ethan too.
Henry began again, “I had missed out on learning how to swim. But that year, I had finally gained enough strength to be outside like the others. I was in the water with Sarah. She told me she was going to teach me how to swim, but she kept leading me into the deeper water where it was going to be over my head. I was just a little bit younger than she was, but she was so adamant; I don’t know what she was up to. Ethan saw us and came down the dock. His parents had always been so careful with him. They let Sarah run wild, but they tried to protect Ethan from everything. Never even let him go down to the lake without someone holding his hand. He saw that I was in trouble and that Sarah was the cause of it.”
A wind had picked up off the lake and I found I was starting to shiver even in the bright July sunlight. I stared out onto the lake and could see the dock where everything had unfolded. The normally serene lake was beginning to ripple with the stiff breeze.
“Ethan came out to the end of the dock. He was yelling at Sarah to let me be. Sarah got mad and swam over there. And I started to make my way out of the water while she was distracted with Ethan. I was exhausted. That’s when Ethan fell in. I looked back and I saw Sarah diving down into the water once, twice and then coming back up. I thought she might be trying to help him. I decided if I could make it to shore, I could get some adults to help. My back was turned. I couldn’t see exactly what happened, but I do know that Ethan never did make it back up. Sarah was odd, but I don’t think she was a killer. It was a terrible accident.”
I thought the story was done, but Henry cleared his throat. “Like I said, I didn’t witness the whole thing, but Mrs. Wilson did or, at least, must have seen enough to make her come tearing down off their property like a woman possessed. Skirts up to her knees, click clacking down the dock in those heeled shoes. She ran the whole length and jumped in. She was trying to save Ethan, but it had been too long. People didn’t know CPR and such in those days. And I guess she assumed Sarah killed him.”
Henry’s voice started to quaver, but he continued. “Mrs. Wilson turned on Sarah. That girl never came back up either.” Henry shook his head as if trying to knock loose the images that were so indelibly stored there. “Mrs. Wilson carried Ethan’s body back to shore, but she just left Sarah. My father and some other neighbors had to find Sarah’s body and retrieve it. I was too scared to tell anyone what I saw.”
“Fact is, Sarah died that day too. But her parents wouldn’t even acknowledge her death. Maybe Ethan got a second go at life because he wasn’t supposed to go so soon, but maybe Sarah’s been cursed to not move on because she really did kill Ethan. I’m sorry. I thought Sarah was trying to help, but maybe Mrs. Wilson was right and she was so jealous she drowned him. I wish I knew the truth.” Henry looked me square in the eye before he finished his story in a subdued voice. “But I suppose if the daughter is cursed then the mother is too for what she did to that little girl. If Sarah really was a bad seed, then in this case, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. I didn’t know such evil existed.”
I was feeling numb from Henry’s story. Ethan hadn’t shared this awful final part. I suppose if he was already dead, then he may not know any of it. I addressed Henry, “If it is true that Sarah could go so far as to drown Ethan back then, we absolutely have to get him away now.”
“You should go now,” Henry urged. “And watch out for that mother. I’m sure she’s not thrilled about letting Ethan go again.”
My heart started to thump and my muscles twitched with a fight or flight response. I only had experience with Sarah’s ghost. I knew nothing of the mother. Was Henry saying that Sarah wasn’t the only ghost next door? Maybe the mother’s spirit was still trying to get close to and protect Ethan.
Then again, maybe I did know Mrs. Wilson’s spirit.
I thought back to a short while ago when Karen insisted my face changed to someone else’s and I had been so drowsy. Could it have been the mother trying to take me over? If she were capable of murdering her own daughter, then what else was she capable of? And would she love me or despise me for taking care of her son? I mumbled my thanks to Henry and took off sprinting from the porch straight back to the lake house and Ethan.
Check back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to the story!