When luck is on our side, we say we are in the right place at the right time. We thank Jesus or salute the guardian angels who were looking out for us that day. It’s when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time that we curse the heavens. Today I was in the right place at the wrong time, and I wasn’t feeling lucky. I felt like a person who’d just witnessed a car accident while driving down the road. I wanted to throw up my hand to shield my eyes and pretend I had not seen anything, but here it was a bit too hard to drive on by.
In reality I had not seen anything. Yet. I was dependent upon the word of a shy, misunderstood thirteen year old. Once again, with little doubt, I believed him. Yes, I believed that a cow had told him its owner, Mr. Sook, was dead. I wanted to call 911, but if this turned out to be a false alarm and instead just the over reactive imagination of a young boy wanting attention, I thought I’d find myself in hot water with the offices back in Mobile if the cops questioned us and filed a complaint since I was his formal liaison.
“How do I get to Mr. Sook’s house?” I asked Cotter.
“I’m coming with you!” he said, jumping to his feet.
“Me too!” Frankie yelled, copying Cotter and hopping out of the rocking chair, standing proud right next to him.
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Both of you should stay here,” I said.
I walked over to the screen door and held my hands up to look through the screen. I didn’t see Anna Mae right away. I opened the door and stepped back into the foyer. She was just coming up the hallway with the phone to her ear.
“No one is answering,” she said.
“Why don’t I drive over there and just check things out? I’ll make sure Mr. Sook is okay. I can give Nanny a ride back.”
“Are you sure? It’s not the first time Holly has gotten over the fence,” she said disconnecting the call.
“I don’t mind at all. Just tell me the best way to get there.”
She gave me directions which consisted of going back down the lane and making a left at the cemetery, turning left at the big cherry tree and then looking for the picket fence that needed painting. Apparently I was trapped in a Mark Twain novel and didn’t know it.
I rushed out the door and down the steps to my car. As I pulled away, I turned my rear view mirror and saw Anna Mae standing on the porch with her arm wrapped around Frankie’s shoulder. He was waving good-bye but looking in the other direction. That poor boy. I didn’t see Cotter until he popped up in my back seat and scared the breath out of me. I thought he was a ghost, but seeing ghosts was his specialty. Not mine.
“Cotter, I thought I told you to stay there.”
“You did, but I want to help.”
“You can help by telling me what’s going on.”
He pointed out the window. “Turn left at the cemetery.”
“I know. Your sister gave me directions. Down the lane and through the woods to Mr. Sook’s house we go. Did the cow really tell you Mr. Sook is dead?”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. It just started happening one day.”
“So, you can see spirits and animals can talk to you?” I asked, trying to take advantage of these few minutes we had together before arriving at Mr. Sook’s house.
“Anything else I should know?”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Is your father in the car with us again?”
“No, not now,” he said looking over his shoulder at the seat.
“Good. We’ve got to talk about this once this ordeal with Mr. Sook is sorted out. Okay?”
“Okay,” he said, sitting back.
The directions Anna Mae gave were spot on. Good thing I knew how to identify a cherry tree out of season. Southerners sure make good use of their landmarks. It sure made things more interesting than commonplace street names, although 70 Willow Street had turned out to be an exception.
Mr. Sook’s house was a small stone cottage. While the rickety fence did need painting and the yard was a patch of weeds, the property did have its charms. The small barn out back looked newer than the house itself. I suspected this home had once belonged to the Faulk property and served as a home for a groundskeeper, or even slaves back in the day.
As we got out of the car, Cotter ran around to the back of the house. I followed.
“Shoo, shoo!” Nanny said, waving her arms in the air and bouncing back and forth on her feet to try to get Holly to go into the barn. Holly was taking her own sweet time, paying no attention to the dancing maid.
“Any sign of Mr. Sook?” I asked.
“No m’am, Might try knocking on the door,” Nanny said.
Cotter took off toward the door, but I stopped him and told him to let me do it. I knocked on the back door, but no one answered. I rapped on it again and waited a few seconds before trying the knob. I closed my eyes, wishing it would be locked but luck wasn’t on my side here either.
The knob turned. I opened it just a few inches and called out, “Mr. Sook, are you home?” I added, “We brought Holly home,” just in case a double barrel shotgun was pointed at me on the other side.
There was no gun, but when I opened the door enough to put my head through, I was looking down a long narrow paneled hallway. There was a bright light shining up the hall from deep inside the house, and I was reminded of the light at the end of the tunnel often described by those who have near death experiences. The light was coming from a lamp that had been overturned on the floor. It’s shade had fallen off and I was staring into the bright bare bulb. There was a strange lump or shadow lying on the floor between me and the bulb, and I knew right away what it was. The harsh sour smell of decomposition wafting down the hallway also confirmed it.
Holly had been right. Mr. Sook had gone toward the light.
I closed the door. Cotter was assisting Nanny with the cow, who apparently liked Cotter more and was agreeing to let him lead her back into the barn.
“Nanny, can I speak to you for a moment?” I said, motioning her to come over. Cotter looked at me. He already knew what I was going to tell her, but I still felt the need to say it privately. “Don’t be alarmed or let on that anything is wrong, but Mr. Sook has passed on.”
“Passed on?” she said, a bit too loud. I could tell she didn’t comprehend.
“Yes,” I said in a whisper, holding a finger to my lips.
“Passed on?” she repeated, now in a whisper. She put a finger to her own lips, mimicking me and raising her eyebrows.
“Yes, he’s dead.” I took the finger away from my face and she did the same.
“Dead?” she whispered.
“How do you know?”
“Did he live alone?”
“Well, there’s a dead body in the house. I’m assuming it’s him.”
I looked over and spotted Cotter opening the back door. He pushed it and let it swing wide open. I yelled, “Cotter! Wait!.” But it was too late. I waited for the proverbial Ewww! but he just stood there looking down the hallway. I ran over to him and put my hand on his shoulder to make sure he was okay and not in shock. He just looked up and nodded at me, letting me know what I had told Nanny was correct.
I reached for my cell phone in my pocket but I knew it wouldn’t reach a signal all the way out here. It didn’t. I asked Nanny to run back to the house and tell Anna Mae to call 911. I didn’t want anyone going inside, and I also wanted a few minutes alone with Cotter again.
“So, tell me how this works. Can you see him?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“He’s in the hallway looking at us. He looks confused. I think he doesn’t know.”
“Is he saying anything?”
“Yeah, he’s mad at us for opening the door. He thinks we’re going to come in and steal something.”
“Tell him it’s okay. Can you help him cross over?”
I must watch too many reality shows on Discovery channel to be this familiar with the lingo of helping spirits cross over.
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. Never had to.”
Cotter was quiet for a few seconds and then spoke again. I guess he had been communicating with Mr. Sook telepathically. “I told him who we were and that we are here to help, so he’s calm now. He says he can’t leave yet. He says we need to come inside. He wants us to remove something from the house before anyone else gets here.”
“Remove something? Did he say what it is?”
Cotter was quiet again and then said, “He won’t tell me. He says if we come in he’ll show us where it is.”
“I don’t know, Cotter, this all seems strange.”
Cotter lifted his tee shirt over his nose and stepped inside.
“Wait! What are you doing?” I said, stopping him.
“I’m going inside. I’m going to do what he says.”
“What if it’s a trap or a prank.”
“He’s dead. He’s not a poltergeist.”
“Not a poltergeist,” I repeated. Cotter and I both had definitely watched too many ghost hunter reality shows. “Okay, let’s do this.”
I lifted my shirt over my nose and followed Cotter inside. We slowly walked down the hallway like two people trying to feel their way around a room in the dark. At the end of the hallway, we paused to look at Mr. Sook’s body. Instead of a bald crotchety man lying there with thin silver hair and brown paper bag skin as I had expected, Mr. Sook was no older than thirty. He had a farmer tan and buzzed black hair.
There was a gash on his forehead and he’d bled out quite a bit on the floor. Based on the broken lamp and a few other items in the room that appeared to be thrown about, I thought there had been a struggle. It was possible that he’d fallen down during a drunken stupor, but the wound on his head was a bit too deep to be caused by a fall. Someone had killed him.
“Cool!” Cotter said at the sight of all the blood.
“Where to now?” I said, trying to hurry him along.
“This way,” he said.
We turned to the left and went down another short hallway that led out of the living room and into the rest of the house. Cotter walked straight ahead and through an open door into a bedroom. Bright sunlight filled the room from a window covered with thin pale yellow curtains. A beam of light was shining across the room illuminating dust fragments in the air. There was also dust all over the cheap pressed wood furniture in the room, thick enough for you to be able to write your name in it.
The scratched hardwood floor had not been cleaned in months, if it had ever been cleaned at all. A bare mattress and box springs with holes in the side were pushed into the corner with a wadded blanket and scrunched pillow tossed on top, all covered in sweat stains. It was obvious this house lacked a woman.
“Over there,” Cotter said, pointing to a puke green recliner in the corner.
An old rabbit eared television sat on a TV dinner tray in front of it. Crushed beer cans scattered the floor all around. Cotter pushed the recliner out of the way and revealed a lose board in the floor. He knelt down and pried it up with his fingers. There was a dark cubby hole underneath. He reached inside feeling around and soon pulled up an old cigar box. He admired its gold labeled lid and then handed it to me.
I held it away from me and slowly opened the lid. I don’t really know what I had expected to find inside, but what was inside was a bit of a curiosity.
Cotter jumped back up to his feet and grabbed my arm so he could peek inside.
“What is it?” he asked.
I snapped the lid shut before he had a chance to see. “Let’s get out of here first and then I’ll show you.”