As you can see, this may turn out to be a trashy novel. I’ve moved a few things around, since the original post, added a little more detail, and put Josepha into a situation that she does not want to be in at all. She was only trying to be nice to her mother.
The snow — exceptionally cold for the middle of October — the snow came down in heaps — by the shovelful. Josepha rounded he corner in her Saab, easing the breaks so she wouldn’t go into a skid. Last winter had been treacherous. This winter looked like it would be the beginning of the ice age.
“Global warming!” she snorted under her breath, wiping the mist from the windshield with her gloved hand. But since when did the sky and the sun and the wind read those supposed scientific predictions? They did what they were meant to do. As far as Josepha was concerned, the forces of nature could never really be predicted in a computer model, because there are far too many variables, and variables of variables to consider. The flutter of a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world, may at least figuratively lead to the tornado on the other side of the world. Well, perhaps it didn’t work quite like that, but she knew full well that small things can propel us into situations that later turn out to be great events.
“She slid the car into the driveway, turned off the windshield wipers and the heat and cut the engine.
She trudged up the walk, noting that she would have to be outside again, right after supper with a shovel. This was not the way she wanted to spend her evening. She huffed and puffed up the three flights of stairs to her apartment, turned on the heat and made herself a cup of tea, waiting for the heat to kick in before she took off her coat.
The coat was old, dating from the 1950s, a treasure she had found at a second hand shop. It was getting frayed around the edges, but it was still warmer than anything she had ever owned before.
Catastrophe came in from the bedroom and curled up at her feet. The cat had been part of a litter born in the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. As a kitten he had found his way up the stairs to her apartment, and decided he didn’t want to leave, even though Josepha had dutifully returned him to the home of his birth, several times before she was able to admit she had a pet.
She fixed herself a solitary supper — a cheese omelet with vegetables left from the day before, eating it while reading a science fiction book for company.
The heat began to blow in through the register, warming her back. Between that and her mug of hot tea, she very nearly dozed off, until the phone rang.
“Hello?” She hadn’t looked to see who was on the caller ID, and felt a pang of disappointment when she heard her mother’s voice.
“Josepha, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I need you over here tonight.”
“I can’t, Mother. I have to be at work early in the morning.
“Look, sweetheart, it’s important, or I wouldn’t ask you to do this. I need you here for a seance.”
“No … There was an intruder last night. Someone broke the lock on the door and I heard all kinds of stuff going on downstairs. I don’t want to be in here alone tonight.”
“You called the locksmith about getting an alarm put on the house?”
“I did, but they won’t be able to come around till next week.”
“You want me to move in with you till then?”
“Not really, no. but would you come over tonight?”
Josepha sighed. “I’ll be there in an hour.” She hung up the phone, put her coat and boots on and headed out the door to make a stab at clearing the front walk. Half an hour later, her hands burning with cold, she put an extra portion of kibble in the bowl for Catastrophe, packed a night gown and a clean blouse in her carryall and headed over to her mother’s row house apartment on the other side of town.
Every time Josepha walked into that house, she felt as though she was walking intoa time warp. It had been built at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Brownstone facing on the outside, identical with the brownstone facing on the rest of the row of houses going down the block, rather like an apartment building going from side to side, instead of up and down. Inside, her apartment was a tunnel of small, dark rooms, with dark paneling, wainscoting, that rose half way up the walls in all the rooms, including the kitchen. Over the years, her mother had furnished the place with antiques that would have been appropriate to the house when it was first built. She had even found a gas/coal stove for the kitchen, and had been tempted to have the heat converted back to coal, except it would have been far too expensive and messy, even for her mother who loved to dabble with old fashioned things.
Louise met her at the door, her head wrapped in a silk turban, with tassels dangling at the back of her neck. “Mother, that thing on your head. Isn’t that part of last year’s living room curtain? The one you said was too cruddy to use any more?”
“Yes it is, darling. But I couldn’t bare to throw it away. It’s just my colors — and so appropriate for a seance — don’t you think?”
“I thought you said there had been a break-in.”
“There was. Last night. I heard someone slip the door open.”
“You didn’t forget to lock it, did you?”
“Josepha, you know how I feel about locks.”
“Mom, I don’t know how you survived into the twenty-first century.”
“By being true to myself, dear.”
Josepha felt she could have said a lot to that one, but felt it would be better not to. “I’m nearly frozen, and something warm would be good. Shall I fix you something?”
“Oh, no. I’ve already eaten. Wait, there’s some left-over stew. I could warm that up for you.”
When the two of them were seated at the kitchen table, Josepha, breaking up chunks of vegetables with her spoon said, “All right. What is this business about a break-in and a seance?”
“Well, about the seance … Win Allen, from next door should be here in about fifteen minutes, and Loretta said she would come too.”
Josepha sighed. “The break-in?”
“Well, that is why I’m having a seance. You see there was this curious tapping and knocking around in the living room last night, and it kept getting colder and colder. I was mostly asleep, and thought I was dreaming — otherwise I would have come downstairs and found out what the fellow wanted.”
“Was anything missing when you got up this morning?”
“No. Just things moved around. Papers on my desk were not filed where I had put them — letters and things like that were pushed around. But as far as I know, everything was there.”
“I know how you are when you can’t find something — you sift through the contents of eery shelf and drawer, until you decide yo can’t find it, and maybe you’d better replace it.”
“This was nothing like that. He left a message.”
“There was a note on the coffee table. I found it when I was putting things away. It was from Uncle Jack.”
“He’s been dead for years! Mom, someone is playing a prank on you.”
“No. I know his handwriting.”
“Let me see.”
Louise showed her the note. ‘Lou, I’m coming back. Jack.’ it looked to Josepha as though it could have been written any time — except last night. “Mom, the edge of that paper is singed as though it had been burned.” She held the note out for her mother.
“That? No. He tore it from this note pad. It just has a deckled edge.”
The doorbell rang and Josehpa got up to carry her bowl to the sink. “You go answer your door. I’ll take care of the dishes.”
Louise headed to the living room and Josepha peaked around the corner on her way to the kitchen, to see who had come. Win stood at the door, stamping the snow from his boots. “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses, Louise. You know, I’ve been telling you for years this place was haunted.”
Louise took his coat and hung it in the closet, then settled down on the couch with a flirtatious sigh. “You are so right.”
Josepha ground her teeth and filled the kettle with fresh water for tea. Three minutes later, she put the tea in the pot to steep and answered the door to Loretta’s timid knock.
Loretta was thin and always cold. Even on the warmest days in the summer, she would wear a heavy dress, stockings and a sweater. This evening, she did not want to take off her coat. “Oh, don’t bother with it. I’ll take it off when I get warm.” Louise invited them out to the dining room where Josepha had arranged the tea pot and a tray filled with cookies. They each filled their cups and sipped uncomfortably until Win got up, saying, “I’ll take over here. I know more about this sort of thing than any of you. Alistair used to be my neighbor, when I was a little boy. Oh, you may not believe me, but it’s true. He was my neighbor and I used to sit on his knee…”
Josepha wanted to throw something at him, but she refrained. Louise gathered up the tea things and took them to the kitchen. She brought back four long white tapers with candlesticks holders to the table. “Now, we’ll just light these and turn out the overhead, and then we’ll be ready to begin.”
Josepha sat down between Win, who might have learned something from Alistair, whoever he was, and Loretta. Her mother completed the circle. It had been a long day for Josepha. She worked as a legal secretary in a private practice. She saw plenty going on in that office. Her boss was in trouble. Maybe he was winning too many law-suits. Crazy things did happen in a criminal law office. But she didn’t want to think about those things tonight. The flickering candles, coupled with Win Allen’s droning voice, repeating over and over again something about calling the spirits to communicate with them that night, made her feel heavy with sleep. She tried to stay awake, but she could not keep her eyes open. Win’s voice continued to drone, and spirals of smoke from the candles circled around the room. The next thing she knew, the lights were turned back on and her mother was beaming at her. “Josepha, I never knew!”
Josepha stretched her legs and looked around. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep like that.”
Win stood up, grasped her hand in both of his and deposited a sloppy kiss on her fingers. Josepha couldn’t wait for him to let her go, so she could head to the bathroom to wash her hands.
“You, you are … I have never seen anyone like you.” Loretta held Josepha’s other hand and wept, dripping tears on her.
Josepha tried to stand up, saying, “I think I need to get home to bed.”
Louise put her arm around Josepha’s shoulders. “No, dear. After what you have been through, you are going to spend the night right here. I’ll fix up the guest room for you.”
The guest room wasn’t quite as creepy as the rest of the house. The bed wasn’t more than a hundred years old, and it did have a new mattress — at least it wasn’t original to the bed. She really was tired, so she permitted herself to be lead off by her mother, while Win Allen and Loretta James let themselves out the door.
What does Josepha want?
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