Prologue
Agnes MacPherson

 

They call me the Witch Woman. They’ve been calling me that for most of my life. I was born Agnes MacPherson, and to my face people call me Miss Aggie, but behind my back it’s another story. They think I don’t know, but I do. It’s because I can see spirits. They’re all around us, you know—lost souls traveling the world, trying to keep the things they’ve left behind. Now these spirits, just like live people, come in all colors. I’m not talking about the color of their skin. Once you’re dead you don’t have any. No, I’m talking about what some people call an aura. I know, I know, there are those that scoff at such a notion. They laugh at me sometimes, and point. But they come to see me too. Don’t want anyone to know they come but they do, and more often than you might think. They have all sorts of questions and can’t quite seem to understand that I’m not a fortuneteller. Of course, I can see what a person is feeling by the color of their aura so I can answer certain questions, like “Does he really love me?” or “Is she lying when she says…” and I can see quite clearly whether or not the spirit of a dearly departed has gone on to greener pastures or is stuck here on the earthly plane. But the future is as much a question mark to me as it is to those who come to my door. Still, it is a talent very few people have, and it does serve a purpose.

I’ve been living in Cooper’s Grove nearly all of my life, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen things other people can’t because they don’t see the colors. Those colors tell me if a person’s happy or excited, angry or sad, if they’re having a bad day. The worse the day, the darker the aura. One time I saw Chester Finch driving by my house out on the edge of town. Went by so fast that his pickup was almost a blur. But I could see his color as he sped by, and it was black as night. I knew when I saw him that something terrible had happened and as it turned out, I was right. He’d just killed his wife and shot the town baker. Thought she was carrying on with him. She wasn’t but he didn’t know that, and I guess he never thought to ask, and if he did, he didn’t believe her answer. Amelia, that was his wife’s name, well, she was just planning a little birthday surprise for him, and I guess she was being kind of secretive. You’ve got to be secretive if you’re planning a surprise. That goes without saying. She’d been down to the bakery ordering a special cake big enough for all the guests she’d invited—half the town almost—and the baker was a nice looking man who just happened to be single, and I swear I don’t know where Chester got his idea, but he somehow got it into his head that Amelia and the baker—Ted Meacham is his name—were fooling around. I guess he’d caught on that she’d been over there a few times that week. Anyway, he came home from work and killed Amelia with his hunting rifle. Then he drove into town and shot poor Ted. Ted survived, by the way, but he was never the same again. Head wound. Then Chester took off with half of Main Street looking after him, and he came ripping by my place and ran his truck right into a bridge abutment. I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet money he did it on purpose. Crashing his truck, I mean. I know he shot Amelia and Ted on purpose. The point is, I knew when I saw him go by that something was up and I was proved right.

You’d be surprised at how many spirits there are still walking this earth. I feel real sorry for them most of the time. They’re sad souls. They haven’t figured out they’re dead, and try to go on living, try to make connections with the people they’ve spent their lives with, and then get real frustrated when they can’t. I can see them sometimes screaming into the ears of those they left behind. I thank the Lord I can’t hear them because it would be too much for me, but I guess it’s something like yelling at a deaf person. No matter how loud you holler they can’t hear you, and no matter how loud those spirits yell, the living ones can’t hear them. But they can feel something’s amiss.

Sometimes spirits come to us in dreams. Like Bertha Parker. Her daddy died and Bertha missed him real bad. She talked to him every night. Not that she ever had a conversation with him like she would with you or me, but talked to him like we talk to God maybe—you know, talked to him with her heart. She would ask him for help with things, silly little things like if she was late for the school bus, would he please make the bus late, or if she hadn’t studied, would he please help her with a test. She swears she got everything she asked for. I think by doing that she kept him here, and he didn’t know he was dead. Anyway, about a year and a half after he died, Bertha, her sister and a girlfriend went to New York City to see the World’s Fair, and Bertha had this dream. They were staying at a Howard Johnson Hotel, and she dreamed she was getting off the elevator to the lobby. It was crowded, and across the room she saw her daddy. He was smiling at her and coming towards her, pushing through all the people. Well, when Bertha saw him, she got really scared because she knew he was dead and shouldn’t be there. She started shaking and sweating, and I guess the fear was written all over her. She said all of a sudden he looked sad and real sorry he’d scared her, and then he turned around and walked away. After that, she said, it was never the same when she talked to him. It was like he wasn’t there anymore. I think she was right. I think he figured out he was dead and finally went on to whatever lies beyond that thin veil that separates the living from the realm of spirits.

I used to see quite a few spirits roaming the woods that were near my house, but those days are gone. The woods are gone too, and now it’s a bunch of those condominiums, and I don’t know where the spirits went. Cooper’s Grove used to be real nice. Pretty little town snuggled on the eastern shore of southern Maryland. There have always been some summer people, but in the last thirty years we’ve gone from a quiet, out of the way retreat to a bustling summer resort for the wealthy people of Baltimore and Washington D.C. They’ve just about taken over the place, and if you ask me, we’re the worse for it. It was bad enough when there were just a few. Now we even have a mall, and it makes me shake my head when I hear those ads on the television around Christmas inviting people to come to the mall to find the true spirit of the holidays. Now just what in the hell is that all about? Used to be Thanksgiving and Christmas were a time for family and thanking the Lord for all He’d given us. Now it’s shop ‘til you drop. I think we’ve lost something precious and we’re never going to get it back.

When I was a young woman, I left Cooper’s Grove for a time and went to live and work in the city. Had an adventurous soul, I did, and in some ways I still do, although my adventures these days are more of the armchair variety. At the time, I had great plans for the future. I got myself a job in a bank and I even enrolled in night school college classes. I was excited to find there were courses in things that dovetailed with my abilities—things like parapsychology and dream research. Truth to tell, I also went looking for a husband. Pickings were pretty slim here in Cooper’s Grove, what with the spooky reputation of the women in the family. My father, for instance, wasn’t from around here. My mother met him when she was visiting her grandmother in Scotland. I guess he hadn’t heard about the family ability, and if he had, well, I guess it didn’t matter. He fell for her like a ton of bricks and she brought him back with her. And her mother, my grandma, she married a man from out of town as well. I guess maybe I figured if I got away from Cooper’s Grove I’d find somebody too, somebody who wouldn’t have all these preconceived notions about women who can see things that others don’t, or at least wouldn’t care. Never did, though, and I can’t say just why, only that I never met a man who truly interested me. Truth to tell, there weren’t many who were interested in me either. I think maybe there are just some people who aren’t meant to be married and I’m one of them. Also, and this is hard for me to admit, I was never a beauty. It seemed that in the city I was surrounded by pretty girls and, next to them, I just came up short. I never thought of myself as ugly. Just plain. And maybe that’s why I appeared so. Sometimes I think the way we feel about ourselves shapes the way other people see us. I felt plain and so I was.

Well, long story short, my mother died while I was away, and I had to come back home to take care of my dad and my younger sister. One thing led to another and I never left. My sister married and moved away, and my dad eventually died, and I became the strange woman who lived at the edge of the woods who could see colors and spirits. Somehow I found it suited me. My time in the city had shown me I am a country girl at heart. The people here in Cooper’s Grove know me. Maybe they think I’m strange, but they accept me, and I have found that people need acceptance. I have no regrets about spending my life here, although it does make me a little sad when I think that I have no daughter to whom I can pass on my gift. But my life is what it is and regrets are hollow things.

I have the house and a little money left to me by my father, and to make ends meet, I charge a small fee to those who come to see me. I know some people would say it isn’t right, that I should give away the fruits of my gift for free, but I’ve got to eat too. I don’t think any of them would fix my plumbing or paint my house just for the love of it, and I have to remind them of that from time to time when they try to talk me into giving them what they refer to as a “freebie.”

There have been times when my knowing a spirit is still bound to this earth has helped those who have been left behind. Sometimes what happens is the spirits won’t leave them alone. It gets pretty scary for them, being haunted like that, and that’s where I come in. I have used my abilities to assist those who are haunted to communicate with the dearly departed and help them to realize that they’re dead. Then those souls can finally be free of this earth. In all my experience, it was never too difficult of an undertaking, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Until Lucinda Mae Hawkins.

Everything was okay until she took up with… Well, you’ll see.

Chapter One
Lucinda Mae Hawkins

 Lucinda Mae was excited. It was her sixth birthday, and her mama was baking the cake. When her daddy got off from work that night, he’d stop at the store and pick up the ice cream and birthday candles. After supper was over, there would be singing and the opening of gifts. It seemed an eternity until suppertime would actually arrive. It was only early afternoon, and Lucinda had been ready for the party ever since waking early that morning.

She sat alone in the sandbox her daddy had built for her out in the back yard humming “Happy Birthday” to herself over and over again, feeling that if she hummed it enough the hours would magically pass, and then it would be time for her party. So far it hadn’t worked. But that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. If anything it added to it. Years later she would come to realize that the anticipation of something wonderful is sometimes better than the actual event. Right now the only thoughts in her mind were visions of pink frosting and piles of birthday gifts.

Her Granny Gert would be there. She was her mama’s mother and Lucinda loved Granny Gert so much, sometimes she thought she would burst. Granny was so soft, like a great big pillow, and she would swoop Lucinda up in her arms and tickle her while smothering her with kisses, telling her how she was Granny’s Little Princess. Papa Ed, Granny’s husband, would always bring her a surprise—even when it wasn’t her birthday—like a little bag of candy or a bubble pipe and that soapy stuff to make the bubbles. Granny and Papa’s presents were always the best. Last year they’d given her a Betsy Wetsy. She’d come with a feeding bottle and diapers and when you fed her she actually wet her pants! It fascinated Lucinda and she never tired of caring for Betsy. On Christmas, Papa and Granny had given her a whole play kitchen with a sink and a stove and a refrigerator.

Grandmother Constance would be there also. Lucinda knew it was bad, but she didn’t much like Grandmother Constance, who never hugged and kissed. She gave presents like underwear and school supplies. Sensible things. And she talked mean to Lucinda’s mama. Grandmother Constance always came alone, and Lucinda had never met her Grandfather Hawkins. She knew she had a Grandfather Hawkins because she heard her daddy and Grandmother Constance talk about him. They would sometimes argue about him, and Grandmother Constance would then talk mean to her daddy just like she did to her mama. A few times there had been big arguments, and Grandmother Constance had left in a huff. Lucinda didn’t care because she didn’t feel comfortable around her.

Today, however, Lucinda was hoping Grandmother Constance would be different, that she wouldn’t bring the same old boring gifts. Instead, she’d bring something wonderful—a paint set. Lucinda just knew she would because she’d been hinting about it for a long time. Ever since she’d seen it in the window at the toy store up on Main Street. She didn’t know a whole lot about numbers, but when figuring out what to hint about to her grandparents, she’d known enough to figure that the paint set and some drawing paper wouldn’t cost as much as the two-wheeler with training wheels would. That gift, she’d decided, would be the one she’d hint about to Granny Gert and Papa Ed. In her six-year-old mind, the price of the gift explained the difference between what was given by Granny and Papa and Grandmother Constance. No one had ever said Grandmother Constance was poor, but Lucinda thought she must be, seeing as she talked about money and how it must never be wasted and always saved for a rainy day. Lucinda was certain that a Betsy Wetsy must cost a fortune, while underwear and school supplies must be pretty cheap.

It was hot and Lucinda was thirsty. She put down the shovel and pail she’d been playing with and got up to go inside. How long had she been out here, she wondered, hoping it was long enough. Her mama wasn’t feeling well today. There were a lot of days when she didn’t feel well, it seemed, and when she wasn’t well, she made Lucinda stay outside and “out of her hair” as she put it. But it seemed like hours had passed since she’d left the coolness of the kitchen, and her throat felt parched. A glass of grape juice sure would taste good right about now, and surely her mama wouldn’t mind if she came in and got it. She’d be very quiet. Quiet as a mouse. Her mama wouldn’t even know she was there. Besides, she couldn’t wait a minute longer to see her birthday cake. She’d asked for devil’s food. That was her favorite, and pink was her favorite color, so she’d asked for pink frosting. It would be really nice if there were little roses on it too. Last week at the market she’d seen some in the cake section and pointed them out to her mother. Her mama told her that they were hard and didn’t taste very good, but Lucinda said she didn’t care, they were pretty. She could only hope her mama had remembered and put them on her birthday cake.

As she was walking up the back steps to the kitchen door, she heard the sound of her daddy’s car pulling into the driveway. Maybe all that singing of “Happy Birthday” had worked and time had magically passed! It seemed like it was too early for her daddy to be home, but here he was, and today was her birthday, and that alone was enough to make it magical. She ran down the stairs and around the side of the small house.

“Daddy!” She flung herself into his arms.

“Hey, Lucy Mae!” He picked her up and twirled her in the air. “Hi, birthday girl!”

“Where’s the ice cream and candles?” she asked, noticing that he carried no packages with him.

He gave her a hug, then put her down. “It’s too early for that right now. Daddy will go to the store later and get them before everybody gets here for the big party!”

“Is it suppertime?” she asked, hoping his answer would be yes, but knowing it was still too early. Maybe he’d come home from work early because today was her birthday and he wanted to spend it with her.

“No, not yet. It’s still early, Lucy Goosey.”

She giggled when he used that name.

“Where’s your mama?”

“She’s in the house making my cake. She didn’t feel too good again this morning, so I came outside to play and get out of her hair.”

Her daddy only nodded at that, then headed for the back door.

“I was just going to get some grape juice,” Lucinda said. “Do you want some too?”

His answer was short and clipped. “No, Lucy Mae. Why don’t you stay outside for a minute? I’ll get you that grape juice and then go check to see how Mama is doing.”

“But I’m hot!”

“No whining, birthday girl, or the mean birthday gremlin will come along and steal all your presents.”

Eyes downcast, Lucinda grumbled an “Okay” and sat on the bottom step to wait for her father to bring her the juice. In a minute he came back outside with a tall plastic glass of the purple liquid in his hand.

“Why don’t you go sit in the shade?” he suggested. “I’ll go in and talk to Mama.”

Lucinda took the glass and walked across the yard to the big tree where her daddy had made a swing for her from a tire and a rope attached to one of the lower branches. She sat down in the dirt at the base of the tree and leaned against the trunk. The sweet taste of the juice and the coldness of it was almost like heaven.

She was sleepy. All that playing and the heat of the sun had taken its toll on her, and in a few minutes she dozed off, the half drunk glass of juice tipping over and soaking into the dirt.

She dreamed.

In the dream people were angry and yelling. They sounded a lot like her mama and daddy, and Lucinda was afraid. Then there was thunder, like a terrible storm, then a shriek, high pitched. Something crashed, glass maybe. It was very noisy and it made Lucinda feel nervous. Her tummy hurt with the nasty fear the dream made her experience. The tummy ache woke her up and she stopped dreaming, but the noise kept on. It was her mama and daddy, and they were fighting again.

Ugly, angry words flew from the confines of the small house. Lucinda didn’t hear them all, only some. Words like “drunk” hurled at her mama and “useless” thrown back at her daddy. She put her small hands over her ears to make the noises go away. It wasn’t fair. Today was her birthday and they shouldn’t be doing this. There was a huge crash, like somebody threw something against a wall. There were dents in the walls. Lucinda had noticed them, but she was careful never to think too hard about how they got there.

Lucinda pressed her fists tighter over her ears, but the sound of the argument managed to bypass the barriers.

“Worthless asshole!” The voice of her mama. Lucinda pressed her fists tighter, trying to block out the sound. The hitting would come soon. It always did. Her mama would say one word too many. That’s how her daddy put it. One word too many. And then Mama would have to take her medicine.

She tried to swallow past the lump in her throat, but it was hard. It felt like there was a big rock lodged there, and it was painful to swallow. She wished Granny Gert were here. If she was, then none of this would be happening. Her mama and daddy never acted this way when people were around.

Another crash, this from the kitchen, then the sound of her mama screaming, “Get off of me! Let me go, you loser. Damn loser who can’t keep a job!”

“Better than a drunk who can’t even stand up most of the time!”

Lucinda almost knew the argument by heart. It didn’t matter how it started. It always came to this.

“If I had a decent life, lived in a nice house instead of a falling down shack, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to have a drink now and then!”

“I never should have married you! I should have just walked away!”

“That’s right! You fucking loser! It’d be like you to walk away from your responsibilities! Walk away from your kid!”

Now her father roared. “But I didn’t, did I? I married you and gave up everything. I took on the responsibility of you and Lucy Mae. If it wasn’t for her…”

“Don’t call her that stupid hick name! It’s Lucinda!” Another crash as Mama punctuated her point with a piece of glassware that was close at hand.

“If it’s a hick name it’s only because she’s got a hick mother!”

“Oh, like you’re so damned high and mighty!”

Lucinda was crying now, all thoughts of birthday cakes and brightly colored packages gone from her mind. Try as she might, she couldn’t block out the terrible sounds of anger coming from the house.

Suddenly there was a loud crash, and her mama came flying through the screen door. Lucinda squeezed her eyes shut and sang “Happy Birthday” as loud as she could, but it wasn’t loud enough. She could still hear the sound of her daddy’s heavy boots as they thudded on the wooden planks of the back porch, still hear the sound as he screamed “Lush!” at her mama, still hear the sound as his fist connected with some part of her body, still hear the scream as her mama pitched forward down the back porch steps.

Then there was silence.

“Get up!” Her daddy’s voice, low and angry.

Nothing.

“Stell, I said get up!”

Still nothing.

“Stella? Stella? Are you okay?”

Then the sound as Lucinda’s daddy ran down the steps to the lump that was lying in a heap on the grass at the base of the stairs.

“Honey?”

A muffled groan from Mama as Daddy turned her over.

Lucinda peeked through her knotted fists in time to see a bright stream of red dripping from her mother’s nose and the crooked angle of her mama’s leg as she lay moaning on the ground.

“Oh God! Honey, I didn’t mean to….” a gasp from Daddy. “We’ve got to get you to the hospital. You took a nasty fall there.”

Now he turned to Lucinda. “Lucy Mae! Lucy Mae! Mama got hurt. She accidentally fell down the steps while she and Daddy were talking, and now Daddy has to get her some help. You run along up the road to Miss Aggie while Daddy takes Mama to the hospital. Tell her I’ll be back to pick you up as soon as the doctors fix up your mama. I’ll call Granny and Papa and Grandmother Hawkins from the hospital.”

Picking Mama up from the ground now. She was groaning and crying and saying something, but Lucinda couldn’t tell what it was.

“I’m sorry about your birthday party, honey,” Daddy said. “We’ll have to postpone it until Mama is better. You understand, don’t you?”

Lucinda knew better than to say no. She only nodded and left the yard.

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