BEWARE! DARK SEAS: Inheritance by Kathleen Palm
Welcome to Beware! Dark Seas Halloween showcase, an annual author & artist showcase that features talented creators. Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Prepare for dark stories, myths & legends, and creepy creations that will make the hair on the nape of your neck stand up straight. May the water have mercy on your soul.
BY KATHLEEN PALM
The lake, a dark mirror, reflects the cloud-dotted, echoing the first colors of sunset. My lake now, I suppose. Tugging at the collar of my shirt, I release the top button and take a deep breath, then set my long dark hair free of the tightly wound bun. Leaving the…no, my cozy wood cabin, I follow the rock steps to the gazebo. It smells like summer, warm rocks and pine trees. It sounds like summer, the call of birds and rolling waves. Like all the summers I spent here.
Peaceful. Almost. Quiet, except for the shadows lurking in the crevices and the growl hanging in the wind.
The waves whisper in an uneasy rhythm. The water dark as if holding secrets.
The wood groans as I enter the octagonal structure and stand at the railing, my fingers searching out the peeling white paint. I gaze at the lake that stretches to the horizon and the trees lining the edges, a view etched in my brain from years of visits.
Mine. Though I’m not sure I want it.
A blemish interrupts the scene. A black spot floats in the water, slowly approaching the pebbled beach. I lean over the railing.
A doll. Yarn hair the color of night drifts in the rolling waves. A fabric face stained with time. It bobs on the surface like a lonely sodden memory.
I can’t breathe.
“Oh, Lennie, I can’t believe you did it!” My brother’s voice cuts through my confusion.
Air rushes into my lungs as I glance behind me. The gazebo frames the old house, the winding path slicing through the stone hill, and my little brother. Brown hair flops in Jet’s face, his knobby knees outlined by too-tight jeans as he trudges down to me.
“I just can’t believe it.” He waves his hands in the air maybe fighting off flying pests, or maybe being dramatic. “You can’t possibly want to live here!”
It’s mine. The ink fresh on the paper. The house. The land. Everything Great Aunt Lenora owned is mine. “Well, I am.”
Jet stomps into the gazebo and throws his hands on the railing. “Why? After all the summers we had to come here, all the summers we hated it—”
“I didn’t hate it.” Not completely. Though Jet did. I know he did. She didn’t love him quite the same way she loved me.
Jet tilts his head to me, his blue eyes rolling in disbelief. “Right.”
He thinks I hated it as much as he did. I let him think that as every summer, Mom dropped us off to keep an old lady company. Stuck in a house of dust-covered silence and yellowed photos of long dead people, of musty afghans and too-sweet tea. Boring hours of reading stale books and meals where Aunt Nora tried her best to make it fun, to make us smile. Though I didn’t care for the hours that ticked by in ominous tocks, I liked Aunt Nora. A connection formed between us in moments of her teaching me to knit, of walks by the water, of baking pies. She told me I was special, that the name we shared held power.
Shaking his head, Jet turns, arms crossed as he leans against the warped rail. “We couldn’t even swim, remember? Aunt Nora wouldn’t let us near the water. What good is a lake you can’t swim in? Crazy old lady.”
“She wasn’t crazy,” I say.
Jet’s chin sags to his chest, his fingers fiddling with the buttons on his shirt.
I stare at the water, at the doll hovering at the edge of the beach. “We’re all she had.” No kids of her own. No partner in life. Only a house by a lake.
“I know.” Jet slams his hands against the wood rail, then he sighs, a sound of sadness, of loss. “And she didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”
“But don’t stay here, Len. Don’t.”
“But she left it to me.” Being in the house. Gazing out at the water. So many memories lurk. “It’s weird without her, the place feels incomplete, lost. Though…it’s like she’s still here.” I can almost hear the clinking of ice in her glass. I can almost smell her perfume, like lilacs.
With a cry of frustration, Jet exits the gazebo, pausing at the path to the house. “Let someone else have it. Sell it and take the money! Don’t stay here in the middle of nowhere. Don’t stay here and drink tea and learn how to knit.”
I shove my hands in my pockets. “I won’t let Aunt Nora’s life disappear. She loved it here.”
“Did she? ‘Cause she seemed like she didn’t,” Jet says. “Those last few years, she didn’t.”
“But she was better.”
Jet glances at me over his shoulder, his black and white patterned shirt billowing in a breeze. “Her memory was better, but something else was wrong. You know it.”
I do know.
Wandering up the path, Jet spins and points finger-guns at me. “I’m going to go make sure the lawyer has everything, so he can go. Coming?”
“Yeah.” I turn back to the doll, a toy lost so long ago. “In a minute.”
After the sound of the door crashing shut with a cry, I descend to the beach. The familiar, smooth rocks lead me. My toes inches from the dark water, I pluck the doll from the lake, streams falling from its hair and ragged dress. Red ribbons hang limp from around its head. Aunt Nora made her for me the first summer I spent here. A jumble of sadness and joy knots in my chest as I hold her close. “Polly. My Polly.”
The lake gave her back. The water remembered.
“Aunt Nora?” Maybe she’s still here, her spirit mingling with the whispering waves.
I gaze down at the grime-coated bit of the past, colors faded and stitches broken. With a shudder, I drop it and the old piece of fabric lands on the rocks with a splat.
No. No ghosts. Aunt Nora is dead.
A shiver runs up my back as I stare at the water. We did swim, once. Before Aunt Nora started forgetting.
Her eyes blank as she looked at us, not knowing our names. Standing in a room, staring at her hands as if she didn’t recognize them. Holding the phone, as if it had transformed into an alien creature.
Scary summers. Months of worry, of feeling as if the world spun the wrong direction.
Then on a sunny day in May, as Mom drove away, Aunt Nora said she fixed it. She’d never forget again. And she didn’t.
But, the place changed. The lake. The house. Everything.
The constant roar of the water lingered behind all our thoughts and words like a stain, like a chant. No amount of smiling ever drove back the darkness. Laughter never chased all the shadows away.
Waves lap at my toes and I step back.
Because the whispers that skulk beneath the surface, that loiter in the depths, they still hang in the air.
The water took her, Aunt Nora. Her body, mutilated and missing a hand, found on this beach only a week ago. Dead. Drowned.
She left her estate to me. To her namesake.
I signed the papers, for her, for the special memories of making a lonely lady happy. But maybe I don’t have to stay. I can sell it.
Rid myself of the shadow that clings to the place.
A glint on the water stops me from turning, from leaving. A shape floats toward shore, riding the waves to my feet. A picture. The smiling face of Aunt Nora, her white hair shining. Another picture settles on the shore. Aunt Nora and me from when I was maybe six or seven, when going to the lake still held magic. My tan arms wrapped around her neck, Aunt Nora’s eyes sparkle. I pick up the photo, rubbing the drops of water from the image as another picture bumps into my foot. Aunt Nora standing in the gazebo, the water a dark presence in the background. I glance at the structure behind me. So often I saw her there, staring at the lake.
I collect the photos, tucking them in my pocket. She was special. She made this place special. I loved her. I still love her. Even when I went to college, when I stopped coming, I never forgot, never forgot how much she meant to me.
Maybe she remains here, reminding me how she loved me. With a doll. With pictures.
And now it’s mine. The house. The gazebo. The lake.
The water flows around my feet, like an embrace. “Aunt Nora?” Something in the air. Something all around. Strong.
I step back, looking at the lake, a reflection of the sky. Black spots dot the ever-moving surface. The forms ride the waves closer and closer.
Yellow. Pink. Purple. Red. White. Flowers gather on the beach. Aunt Nora loved flowers. Together, we filled pots with life and added color around the house.
“You are here, aren’t you?”
The blooms continue to crowd around my feet. An invitation. A welcome. I can almost hear her voice weaving with the sound of water. The pictures. The flowers. The doll. “I’ll stay, Aunt Nora. I’ll stay here for you.”
A gentle clinking, like metal on rock, breaks the rhythm of the waves. I look down. A flash of light shines from the water, the final rays of the sun reflecting off an object shifting in the current. I plunge my hand into the cool water, my fingers finding an oddity among the rocks.
Water drips from a silver band with a white oval stone set in a frame. I know this ring, the strange symbols etched in the band, the smooth gem, the cold metal. Confusion intertwines with the recognition, as I pull the pictures from my pocket. There on Aunt Nora’s finger, the ring…this ring.
Now, like all her things, it comes to me.
I slide it on my finger. A perfect fit.
The red of the sunset spreads across the lake as the sound of the waves swallows the world. The silence of the deep dark pulses in my mind and a shiver crawls through my gut. Dread. An almost understanding.
For after Aunt Nora stopped forgetting, after the shadow settled over the lake, we didn’t walk along the water, we didn’t smile, we didn’t knit. Aunt Nora changed.
She paced, twisting the ring back and forth as she avoided the waves climbing the shore. I look at my hands, my fingers wrapped around the ring, rubbing it, twisting it. I pull my hand from the trinket as fiery red seeps into the stone on the ring, as if absorbing the color of the sky.
Those last few years, Aunt Nora didn’t look at the water as she would a friend, but an enemy.
With a hiss, the photos in my hand curl as black slithers over the image, erasing our smiles. I release the pictures, which crumble to dust as they fall, raining darkness over the colorful blooms that shrivel and turn black. The doll warps into a sick reflection of a memory.
She paced. She muttered…about what hid in the water.
I lift my gaze as a shadow slips under the waves. My legs tremble. I can’t swallow the lump of fear that tangles in my throat.
The presence, the one calling to me with memories. Not Aunt Nora. Something else. Something dwelling in the deepest part of the lake. I glance at the ring, like a blood-red eye, and try to yank it from my finger. Only it won’t come off.
A sob echoes in my chest as, frozen in shock and sadness, I stand and stare as a hand floats onto the beach. Fingers curled as if reaching for help. My hands shake as I bring them to my face, catching my tears on my fingertips.
Aunt Nora’s hand?
The hand shifts as the waves push it next to my feet. Close enough to see the dent circling the third finger, perhaps where a ring sat.
The waves whisper, low and threatening.
Twisting the ring on my finger, I step back from the water as dark figures rise to the surface. The light of the dying sun falls on arms and legs, on blank faces and bloated bellies. People. Bodies. So many bodies. I don’t know how or why, only that I am a part of it now.
And I have to stay. Because it killed her.
“Hey, Len! The lawyer’s gone…finally!” Jet’s voice sweeps through the tension hovering in the air. “What are you doing? Let’s get out of here!”
He can’t see them?
The slam of the back door then Jet calls, “Len! Are you really going to stay here? He says you can sell it.”
I jump as one by one the bodies are pulled back under the dark surface, leaving ripples marring the surface. The red of the setting sun fades to night.
Because I inherited more than a house.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR KATHLEEN PALM
Kathleen Palm loves the weird, the scary, and the fantastical, for magic makes the world a fabulously strange place. Her kids, husband, cats, and dog add laughter and general chaos to her life, which includes writing, reading, and watching creepy television shows and movies, mainly featuring demons or time travel.
Blog: Finding Faeries
Photo cred: Gail Werner