Della quietly directed a couple of F-bombs at the microfiche machine as she scrolled through the early century news articles. She was determined to recreate the family tree of her house and learn who the woman in her bedroom had been. She hadn’t used one of these contraptions since 1993 when she abruptly decided to research the shooting death of a boy she had dated back in 1980. Her parents had shielded her from the news coverage back then and she hadn’t experienced the impact of exactly how tragic it had been until at the age of 30 when she became obsessed with a need to know everything that had happened. She wanted facts, not just what she knew from all the whispering that happened around their school and what her immature mind had imagined.
No one had heard of grief counselors back then. Everyone was in a daze at school. The family had held a private funeral a day or so prior to a memorial service arranged for his friends. Della couldn’t be there. She had a leading role in the school musical and it was opening night. The director made an announcement before the curtain opened that the show would be dedicated to Ben, even though there was no one in the audience who knew Ben. They were all at his memorial service. None of seemed it real…until that day in 1993 when she woke up and found herself focused on the need to visit his grave, say the good-bye that she never got to and apologize to him.
Ben Spencer. He was 17 and beautiful (she could still picture his eyes and remember every colored fleck as if were yesterday). He drove a banged up 1966 Mustang that he’d been working on since he was 15. Ben would have been her first if it hadn’t been for the police officer that found them parked in the van he had borrowed from his brother for their big night overlooking the lights of the city. He loved his “Stang” but that evening called for finer accommodations. He kissed her gently and gave her a silver ID bracelet with her name engraved on the front and “Love always, Ben” engraved on the back. She still took it out from time to time, draped it across her wrist and wondered if he still loved her (or the girl she was at 17) and looked down on her from wherever he was.
Their “break-up” did not occur under the best of terms. One of the popular boys at school asked her out and since being popular was everything at that age, she started distancing herself from Ben and started spending time with the other boy. Della was too cowardly to end things face to face with him, so they just drifted. Nothing was ever said or finalized…they just stopped. She knew he was hurt by the look in his eyes when they would pass each other in the hallway…and from the way his most loyal friend, Aaron, looked at her with disappointment. They were never mean about it. Just sad and disappointed, which made her more ashamed than if she’d just flat out broken his heart and dumped him.
Someone vandalized her car shortly after that and when the police asked her who might have done it, she suggested Ben (arrogantly thinking that surely he was still pining away for her). She answered a knock at her door a couple of days later and found Ben and Aaron. Ben was furious and demanded to know why she would imagine that he would do something like that and insisted on knowing why she would tell the police and try to get him in trouble. She had no answer. She just looked at him stupidly. Ben put his hands on his hips, shook his head and dropped his gaze. He turned to leave without another word. Aaron glanced sideways at her as he followed; the disappointment ever-present on his face. That was the last time she saw Ben.
During the early months of their senior year, his boss showed up at a convenience store where Ben worked a Saturday late shift. The door was locked, the money missing and there was no Ben. That kid’s ass was fired, the boss thought, and started a fresh pot of coffee before dialing the police.
Ben had told his parents that he was going to stay with friends that night after work. Problem was, he hadn’t yet told his friends he was coming over for the night, so no one missed him. It wasn’t until Monday morning at school that people started to chatter and speculate about where he was.
His boss called the police. The school called his parents. His parents called his friends. Friends called his parents. The police called his parents. His parents called his boss. The pieces started falling into place and by Wednesday everyone was whispering intensely about it at school.
An amateur rock hound found his body with two bullets wounds in the head about a week later while he was tooling around in the west desert with a metal detector. Ben’s burnt car was recovered in Oregon shortly after that. The ensuing investigation revealed that two men had entered the store that night and taken the money and Ben. A suspect was later arrested and he admitted that he and his friend had forced Ben to drive them to the desert where they killed him. The second suspect was never arrested and the first man killed himself before the case was ever prosecuted.
Della never got to visit Ben’s grave and apologize. She had pulled every news story she could find from the microfiche files and resolved herself to the fact that she would never be able to relieve the feelings of guilt that she had developed. His obituary read that he was cremated and no location of internment was listed. Maybe his parents had his ashes. After all that time, she would never be able to track Aaron down and ask him. Even if she could, she would have been too embarrassed to talk to him.
The popular boy was an ass, like most of the others she’d been with since. In 1980, she was too young to appreciate Ben’s goodness. She’d hoped that wherever he was, he had fond feelings for her. Maybe he saw her when she would pull out the bracelet. Maybe from where he was he could see into her heart and know that she was sorry for how she had treated him.
The closing-time bell sounded from the main floor above her at the library and some of the lights went dark. She returned her focus to the machine and tried to remember if it had been this difficult to maneuver back in 1993. The machine rebounded to the left when she tried to scroll to the right. The illumination from the microfiche spilled into the growing dimness of the room and she could hear one of the workers at the counter behind her, turning things off and shuffling papers.
Steve would be waiting outside to pick her up but she couldn’t leave empty-handed. She needed something to get her going in the right direction.
She brushed her hand at something on the back of her neck and tried again to scroll to the right. It rebounded to the left again.
A gentleman to her right was replacing dowels draped with newspapers on the storage racks. “Ma’am, you’ve got 10 minutes.”
Della’s heart started to race and she wished she had a Valium with her. What good was it to fill a prescription and never have it around when you needed it? The pills were probably expired by now.
A warm breath of air brushed past her ear and she absent-mindedly brushed at it again, leaned closer to the screen, and pushed her reading glasses further up the bridge of her nose.
“Bingo!” she half-shouted. The characters 467 jumped out at her from a page as she recognized her house numbers and street name. The man with the papers turned his head in response to her outburst.
“Sorry,” she said and pointed at the screen. That was stupid. He couldn’t even see the screen.
She knew that her home had belonged to a Jensen, Jenkins, Jansen family…something like that…for years before she bought it.
The warm breath was at her ear again but this time she ignored it as she eagerly read:
The Midvalley Times
May 23, 1917
A shocking and unexplained death has claimed the life of Ivy Jansen, 18-month old daughter of Cy and Mary Jansen, earlier this present month on Wednesday, May 9. The Jansens lived in a new yet modest home at 467 Lincoln Lane, just south of Bingham Junction and they are the son and daughter-in-law of the well-known Jansen beet farming family.
The lifeless body of the child was delivered to Doctor Jenkins’ home during the early morning hours by her parents. The doctor opines that little Ivy passed sometime during the night, based on his examination and the state of the remains.
A preliminary inquest has revealed that the child has, historically, been healthy and happy. Sheriff Colburn has promised that he will continue the investigation into this mysterious incident despite Cy Jansen’s arrest as a result of reports of his brusque mannerisms amongst his co-worker and reports from neighbors who heard a loud and threatening quarrel at the Jansens’ earlier that night.
“Dell-ahhh.” It was a soft, sisterly voice in her ear and she felt the slightest wisp of warmth as she looked up and questioned what she had just heard.
The newspaper man was gone; she could hear the sounds of people exiting the building upstairs and lights being clicked off around her in preparation for the employees to go home.
“Help.” Della flung her head to the left and looked over the top of her glasses. There was no one there.
The microfiche machine began scrolling from right to left. Surely there was some problem with the rotating mechanisms in the machine.
“Help.” Another soft whisper from further away.
She stood up and walked to her left, catching sight of a skirt hem as it disappeared behind a shelf.
“Hello. Is there someone there? What do you want?”
“Please answer me.” Her heart was racing. God, she wanted a Valium.
She stepped further into the darkness of the shelving area and heard the rustle of fabric from the other side of the shelves to her right.
“What’s your name? I want to help you.”
Silence, but for the buzzing of the microfiche behind her. She stood still and strained to hear when from out of nowhere, she was suddenly grabbed by an unseen hand and turned backwards on her heels.
“Oh, God…Steve. What are you doing?” She exhaled heavily and blinked her eyes.
“I’ve been waiting outside for half an hour. What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve been searching…I mean I’ve found…I’ll tell you when we get to the car.” She could tell by the look on her face that he was perturbed.
Steve put his arm around her, led her back towards the machine and she grabbed her purse.
Della wanted to cry and she let her eyes fill just enough so that he could see she was upset and maybe he’d ask her what was wrong. He didn’t notice.
She let him lead her to the car and when they were settled inside, she turned to him and said, “I need to tell you something and you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
Steve sighed and closed his eyes in a non-verbal “what-is-it-now” gesture.
“Promise you won’t laugh at me.”
“Please spend the night tonight. I’m scared.”
“Since when did you get scared being on your own?” He was amused by her vulnerable plea.
“I’m serious. Now just take a deep breath and try to have an open mind. OK…here goes. I think my house is haunted by a woman and her child and I think she is trying to tell me something. I saw her in my bedroom the last time you stayed over and the next morning I thought it was a dream. I wasn’t sure at first, because I was fuzzy from being sleepy, but it was so real, and the longer I think about it, I figure that maybe it was real. My house is way old and surely over a period of almost 100 years, somebody has died in that house or maybe the energy of intense emotions has been left behind. This woman, well, she followed me here tonight and tried to talk to me and I think I’ve found out who she is and I want…no, I need…to find out who she is and why she has started appearing to me. Her baby died and her husband…well, he was arrested and I think she needs my help. I saw her again in the shelving area. Well, not her, but her skirt. I’m sure it was the same woman. I need to help her.”
Steve was chuckling.
“Slow down, Baby Cakes.”
That was her favorite nickname that he used for her.
“I’m going to get you home and make you a cup of tea. A strong cup of tea.”
Della inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
“I know, I know. And you’re also a little bit kooky. Your cemetery obsession is a perfect example…that and the headstone in your living room. Look…you’re tired, things have been hectic at work, the Baby Bea case is stalled, you’re under a lot of pressure and I think you’re imagining things.”
“Whatever. Just take me home,” she resigned.
(Don’t patronize me, you jerk)
“Well, you may be kooky, but you’re still pretty.”
(He thinks he’s funny.)
“ Let’s get you home.”
Della stared angrily out the window as they drove. She bit her tongue so as not to start a fight and prayed that Mary would show up again tonight. That’d show him. We’ll see who’s kooky.