Read The Drifter Online

Authors: Richie Tankersley Cusick

The Drifter

The Drifter

Richie Tankersley Cusick

For Wayne …

Happy Birthday

Happy Always

1

“S
OME SAY YOU CAN STILL HEAR THEM
—
VOICES OF POOR,
drowned sailors. Even now.”

The tall, gaunt housekeeper looked down at Carolyn Baxter and her mother, who were huddled together at the bottom of the front steps. Wind moaned around the eaves of the house, and a light fog was already swirling along the ground at their feet.

“What you mean is,” Mrs. Baxter said firmly, “the ocean only
sounds
like voices calling. Isn't that it?”

Nora's lips stretched into a macabre semblance of a smile.

“On deep, dark nights,” she monotoned, “calling out their own names … as drowned men's ghosts are said to do.”

Carolyn shivered, casting an anxious glance at the clouds scudding across the pewter-gray sky. She could hear the ocean, and she knew it was very close, but the fog was closing in so fast now, obscuring everything from view, even most of the house that loomed up before them.

“If I'd known you were coming tonight, I'd have said wait till morning.” Nora raked them with a chilly frown. “But I
didn't
know. No one told
me
.”

“How … how did they drown?” Carolyn asked, not even aware that she'd stepped closer to her mother. She nervously fingered the tiny gold chain she always wore around her neck, and slipped it down inside her collar.

“Many a ship's been lured to those cliffs, to crash on the rocks below.” Nora raised one thin eyebrow and tilted her head slightly, as if studying the girl. “Watery graves, the lot of them.”

“Sounds like legend and superstition to me,” Mrs. Baxter countered lightly.

Nora gazed at them and said nothing.

“It isn't supposed to be cold like this in summer.” Carolyn gave a nervous laugh, eager to change the subject. “Nobody told me I should have brought winter clothes to the beach.”

Nodding, her mother put a hand on Carolyn's arm. “This horrible fog,” Mrs. Baxter mumbled, casting a glance behind her, into oblivion. “I can hardly see a thing. I'd be afraid to take a single step away from the house until it cleared.”

“You're wise to be cautious.” Nora spoke crisply as she shoved a key into the front door. “Some haven't been. And they've gone to their deaths over those cliffs.”

“Really?” Carolyn shivered. “How close are they?”

“Not fifty feet from where you stand.” Nora made a vague gesture. “The house sits practically on the edge. Didn't you know?”

Mrs. Baxter sounded apologetic. “Not really. We only learned about Aunt Hazel's death a week ago. We hadn't been in touch with her for such a long time …”

“Hmmph,” Nora sniffed, giving the door a shove. “I believe
that!
I worked for her this whole past year, and she never said a word about
you!
” She glanced back, narrowing her flinty eyes. “Nobody said you'd be here tonight. Folks around here were real
surprised
she left Glanton House to you. She loved this place. She was
particular
about who stayed.”

Carolyn looked down at her shoes, fascinated by the little swirls of fog snaking around her ankles. It was obvious that Nora didn't approve of them
or
of them being here. Why couldn't Mom take the hint and just turn right around and head back for Ohio?

“It was a godsend for us, really.” Mom was trying to be pleasant, going ahead of Carolyn up the steps and onto the sagging porch. “Hazel is—
was
—my great-aunt on my father's side, but I didn't really know her. The family was never what you'd call close.”

Why is she telling this weird woman about us?
Carolyn wondered. She saw the way Nora's piercing eyes bore into them, her lips set in a tight line, and it made Carolyn's skin crawl.
She hates us, can't Mom see that, so why don't we just quit talking and leave?

“My husband died recently …” There was a catch in Mom's voice, but she swallowed it and hurried on. “I've always wanted to run a guest house, and Carolyn and I desperately needed the income. So of course, when I found out Aunt Hazel had left us this place, I wanted to see it as soon as possible, and that's why—”

“Won't get many guests out this way.” Nora's face settled into a sneer. “Too far out from the mainland. Not enough sun. Too windy.”

Carolyn realized she was nodding in silent agreement. The whole time they'd been standing there, she'd been uneasily conscious of the sharp wind, howling and shrieking around the house, biting through her summer clothes until her skin felt raw.

“But surely Aunt Hazel had visitors from time to time,” Mom was going on as Nora turned back to the door. It seemed to be stuck, and the woman leaned her weight against it.

“No. She liked her solitude. She didn't have much use for people.”

“So why's it called Glanton House?” Carolyn asked. “Aunt Hazel's name was Crawford.”

“Named after the sea captain who built it,” Nora said shortly. She rammed her shoulder, and the door popped open, banging back into darkness. “It's true, what I said. About the poor dead sailors. Him, too. You'll see.”

“Him? You mean Captain—” Carolyn began, but Nora slipped into the house, motioning Mrs. Baxter to follow.

Carolyn watched the two women disappear into the shadows. Then she stepped back and looked slowly over the house, from the porch all the way to the roof.

It was gray … as gray and nondescript as the fog hanging heavy around it, its outside walls weathered by long seasons of salt spray and raw wind and damp piercing cold. It rose, shuttered and shingled, with bays and gables, spires and cupolas, wrapped all around with a porch, and oddly distorted in the soupy mist. As Carolyn's gaze swept over the chimneys and rooftops, she drew her breath in slowly.

A widow's walk.

Right up there, at the very top of the house.

A railed platform encircling a small wooden garret—the attic, she guessed—
where some woman … at some time … must have kept watch out to sea for the return of someone she loved.…

The captain Nora had mentioned?
Carolyn loved legends. She'd have to ask Nora to finish that story about Captain Glanton.

She stared at the widow's walk another few minutes, then lowered her brown eyes to the porch, giving a long, deep shiver. She was damp and chilled straight through to her bones. Gathering her dark hair back from her face, she turned to look sideways past the house.

No … she couldn't really see the water beyond the veil of fog, but she could hear it—she could smell it—every sense tingled with the uneasy awareness that it was
there
, just beyond the grayness, water and water and more water, and that strange feeling that it was watching … that it was waiting …

Carolyn shuddered again and ran up the steps, making her way into a dingy parlor as the other two women continued an argument.

“Well, anyway,” Mrs. Baxter said briskly. “That's our plan.”

“Stupid plan, if you ask me,” Nora replied.

“Well, I'm not asking you.” Mrs. Baxter frowned, and Nora regarded her with a look of half surprise, half indignation.

“So you've worked here for the last year,” Mom went on firmly, and the flinty-gray eyes narrowed as Nora waited for her to finish.

“She couldn't have done without me,” Nora said.

“And I'm sure it'd be difficult for
me
to do without you, too,” Mom added. “So I'd like you to stay, if you think you can stand to be a little more pleasant.”

Nora's back was ramrod straight. Her spidery hands plucked at the plain black dress she was wearing, then slid up to pat the bun into place at the back of her neck.

“I'll think about it,” Nora said.

“You do that,” Mom answered, and Carolyn saw her turn away to hide a smile. “Goodness, it's so cold in here. So damp.”

“Been empty, that's why. Didn't expect you tonight, like I said. Been locked up.”

“Can't we turn the heat on or something?” Mom sighed. ‘
Is
there heat?”

“Of course there's heat,” Nora sniffed, giving Mom a look that implied she was a total idiot. “But it'll take a while for it to start working.”

“Fine. Just turn it on.” Mrs. Baxter waited till Nora left the room, then turned to Carolyn with a groan. “Look at this mess. Oh, Carolyn, what have we done? What have I gotten us into?”

It
was
pretty bad, Carolyn had to admit, taking a long, slow survey of the room. The parlor furniture was draped in dingy yellowed sheets. The wallpaper was peeling and stained with mildew. Damp gray ashes had blown from the fireplace, scattering across the area rug and the wooden floor, and a heavy dank odor hung in the air with the tangy smell of the sea. Beyond the windowpanes fog curled silently, as if eavesdropping on their conversation.

Nora reappeared in the doorway, shrugging out of her sweater. Her sleeves were long and black, tapered to her wrists. She reminded Carolyn of a skeleton in mourning.

“Better come along,” Nora muttered, “if you want to see the rest of it.”

Carolyn and her mother exchanged looks and obediently followed Nora on a tour of the house. There were two bedrooms on the first floor, a bathroom, a dining room with a huge oval table, and a kitchen at the very back, large and old-fashioned and sadly outdated. Mom eyed the rust-spotted sink and tiny refrigerator, and Carolyn heard her moan again.

“This way,” Nora said, and they turned and followed her up a wide wooden staircase to the second floor. “More bedrooms up here.”

As she led them from doorway to doorway, Carolyn stared in amazement. The rooms were a good size, their dark, massive furniture shrouded in dropcloths and dust, and yellowed shades hung at the windows, casting a jaundiced glow through the rooms. All Carolyn could think of was a funeral home.

“Candles by the beds,” Nora informed them. “Wind's always knocking the electric out. There're flashlights, too, but the batteries probably don't work.” She jabbed a finger toward one end of the hall. “Another bathroom there. Plumbing's not great. Takes forever for water to get hot. Best be warned about that.”

“Oh, look Carolyn,” Mom said, her voice lifting. “A claw-footed tub! You know, with the right curtains and wallpaper, this bathroom could be really charming! Potpourri and candles and fresh, fluffy guest towels—”

But Carolyn scarcely heard her. She was still standing in the first bedroom Nora had shown them, studying it uncertainly. It was nothing at all like her sunny room at home, but maybe …
with a lot of work
…

She walked slowly from wall to wall, lifting the edges of the dropcloths. There was a white iron bedstead and a vanity table, a wicker rocking chair, and an embroidered footstool. On one wall hung a grimy mirror, and as she walked closer, her own reflection stared back at her, oddly distorted. Startled, she gave a cry, then laughed at herself.
Silly, what did you think it was … ghosts?

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