(Note 2 – I split this chapter in half to make for shorter reading. This is the first half )
I noticed the lady looking at me. I moved a little and sure enough, her eyes were following me. I couldn’t but help think of Lyndsey.
“No, Lyndsey,” I said to myself. “She’s not flirting with me.”
She wasn’t really, but she was watching me very closely, her eyes following me around the store.
It was one of those weeks that I had to go into the office almost every day, which to me was tiring. And that didn’t count the over an hour drive in each direction. On Wednesday I stopped off at one of the big stores on my way home. Since I don’t make it into town often, I try to take advantage of it. Usually I just pop into a few stores on 101 A and leave right away, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. And then there was that mysterious lady, who wasn’t flirting with me, just watching me very intently. I tried to ignore her. I focused on the shelf in front of me, not seeing her at all.
“Hello. Mr. Baxter?” The lady had come over to me. Up close she was slightly familiar.
“Are you a telemarketer? They’re the only ones that call me that,” I said.
“Oh, hi Mr. Baxter!” she said with a big grin. “You may not remember me. I’m your old neighbor, Amy, uhm, you would know me by Amy Lancing.”
“Amy! Wow, the last time I saw you, you were a kid. It’s great to see you. But I’m Gill, not ‘Mr. Baxter’, OK?”
“How are you? You look good.”
“I’m, uhm, OK.” The way she said it I could tell she wasn’t OK but I wasn’t going to pry.
“And your parents, how are they? I haven’t seen Bill and Linda since you moved out ages ago. What, right after you graduated high school? You left for college and they moved to Merrimack?”
Her face dropped. “My dad was in a bad accident on Sunday. He’s… he’s… he’s in the ICU here in Nashua.”
“Oh my God, Amy, I’m so sorry.” She looked like she was on the verge of tears. Without thinking I stepped closer and hugged her. She hugged back and started to sob on my chest. “It’s alright, you go ahead and cry. It’s alright.” I patted her back.
After a minute she pulled back and pushed away the tears.
“I’m sorry Mr. Ba.., I mean Gill. I can’t imagine what you think.”
“I think you’re upset that your dad is hurt. I’m really sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“No. I’m staying with my mom. I took the week off of work and drove up. My husband and kids will come up on Friday and spend the weekend. Right now I’m just taking a break, roaming the town and window shopping to keep my mind off of things.”
“Well, I don’t know if you knew it, but I have a big old house on Maple Street out in Amesbury now and you, your husband and kids are welcome to come out if you need some time further away, a place to stay or whatever.”
“Thanks. I doubt it, but it’s nice of you to offer. Oh, thinking of Amesbury, I ran into someone else from Amesbury, Jess.”
“Did she tell you that she was playing hooky from cleaning my house?”
“Well, she said she had just finished and had to go pick up some supplies. She was, well…” Amy made a face, as if she was confused about what to say about Jess. “Anyway, I guess some things and some people never change.”
“No, there are some who don’t.”
“Oh, she did say that you made your first visit out to the Goode Mansion with Lyndsey last weekend.”
“Nobody ever said that Jessica knew how to keep a secret.”
“Did she tell you about our first time going out there?” I shook my head. “Oh, we were, I don’t know, maybe 17 at the time. Maybe still 16. Jess was flirting with you relentlessly and saying things like she was going to marry you. I think at that time she really did have a huge crush on you and meant it. She sometimes followed you when you went for a walk.”
She glanced me, did a half smile, but otherwise ignored the fact that I had turned bright red.
“You tried your hardest to ignore her, but I could tell you were cracking. You don’t hide that blush very well.” She laughed. “Anyway, so it was at that time that we went up there, the five of us inseparables. Jess kept saying she wanted to talk to Martha, maybe ask advice about you. We, of course, teased her, reminding her that Martha never had any luck with men her entire very long lie. Or her just as long after-life, for that matter.” Amy giggled, returning to her 16-year-old thoughts.
“So we went in and were greeted by a middle aged lady. She told us we weren’t invited. OK, not too scary. Then she turned into a rotten corpse and yelled at us to get out. That got our attention! We bolted for the door, but I realized Jess wasn’t with us.”
“Jessica was pretty sassy, and brazen, back then. I can’t imagine her being petrified by a ghost.”
“She wasn’t. I turned and walked back and called her. She and Martha, now middle-aged again, were sizing each other up. Jess turned to me and told me that she’d be OK, but I should leave. Martha turned to a corpse and did her ‘Get Out’ routine again. So I walked out.”
“As I was going out the door, I looked back and froze. It looked like Jess had a twin. I guess it must have been Martha, but she looked almost exactly like Jess. She was beautiful and literally radiant, shining from within. I wanted to say something, but then the door closed and I didn’t see any more. Jess came out about ten or fifteen minutes later, though to us waiting it felt like years, and just smiled when we asked her what happened.”
“Not like her not to talk.”
“No it isn’t. She came back with us on other occasions, but only entered the house during the day. If she came by at night, she’d stay outside and listened to the music. But I heard rumors that she often went into the mansion on her own. I once spied on her and saw her come up to the mansion, but I couldn’t tell if she went in or not.”
“What’s weirder is that it seemed to change her. On the surface she stayed the same, but in so many ways she became a different person. In ways, she was a little less alive after that. The spark was gone. In odd, intangible ways, she changed so much, and yet, actually, it was as if she never changed again, even up to now. But the not changing was for appearances. It was almost like she was a shell of her former self, a shell cast in porcelain that stayed the same.”
“I did notice that she always acted like that 16-year-old, but I never placed it to an event.”
“I can’t be sure it was an event. It was a gradual relization that something wasn’t right, and you were the first clue. You see, in many ways her change was most visible when it was about you. If she talked about marrying you after that, it was a joke, or a game. Life was a game. When she flirted, it was to press your buttons, not because she wanted to go out with you. Her emotional depth seemed to have evaporated. And all of the while I guess she was going out with that creep, Nate.” She shivered.
“Did you know about Nate? I mean, I never would have guessed. Of course, I didn’t know him.”
“I didn’t know anything about it, except the guy gave me the creeps. He flirted with us all of the time, all of us, not just Jess. I heard rumors that he had always done that, flirted with high school girls. He was creepy, but we laughed about it. Jess did too. But she must have been seeing him on the sly, just as she was going into the mansion on her own. Or maybe she was meeting him, not going to the mansion. I don’t know.”
“I never knew he was like that. Of course, I was never a high school girl. I feel awful when I remember that I sometimes flirted back to Jessica. Was I creepy too?”
“Oh no, of course not! When Jess wasn’t flirting you were very nice, at least to me. You were friendly and helped out. I liked you a lot, at least as a neighbor. We actually did some stuff together, remember? Like you once took me and my little brother skiing. My parents trusted you. I trusted you. Remember?”
“I do. You guys were great kids. And your friends too, despite the flirting.”
“Yeah, an when any of us flirted, suddenly you tried to ignore us, like we didn’t exist. That just made some of the girls want to flirt with you even more.” She laughed again. “You weren’t that much older than us and you weren’t bad looking. You drove a nice car, were nice. Jess wasn’t the only one who said she wanted to marry you.”
I could tell I was bright crimson again. She laughed.
“And that,” she said, pointing, obviously referring to my blush, “was one of the things we found so appealing. No, you were nothing like Nate. If I knew she was seeing him on the sly, I would have surgically removed his testicles with a baseball bat.”
“You know, that is not a very precise, surgical instrument…”
“Can you deny he deserved it? But by the time we found out, it was too late. She was 18, had graduated high school and said she would elope if her parents didn’t give her a wedding. I went off to school about that time and we grew apart. We were the inseparables no more. It’s been years since I’ve seen her or talk to her. Until today…”
Something about the way Amy said that last sentence made me believe that the meeting didn’t go well. Before I could think too much about it, she smiled. “Anyway, it was really nice to run into you again. I hope we can catch up some time.”
“My pleasure. Oh, and…” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a business card. “My cell number is on here. Anything I can do for you, give me a call. You and your family need to get away? Give me a call. If you’re too busy to pick something up at the store? Call and I’ll do it for you.”
“Thanks Mr. Bax.., Gill, that’s very nice of you.”
“A speedy recovery for your father. Tell your mother I said ‘hello’.”
We hugged, and then with a wave and a few more words, she left. I, of course, instantly found what I had been searching for, and left as well.
I did hope Mr. Lancing was going to be OK. I could tell she was worried. I promised myself that I’d look it up and have flowers sent to his room and to Mrs. Lancing.