Eric had a different day. Last night, after his sister had picked him up from Bethany’s house, she’d given him an earful about his kind host. “She’s trouble, Eric. How could you even…? I mean…”
“Why? She was perfectly nice. What has she done?”
“There are stories. You’d better not take any chances.”
The stories were about rituals, gatherings up at the house. Even people going missing. There was no evidence to sustain it, but people talked. “Clearly it’s haunted. I know someone who dated her, and he told me he always felt watched when he was at her house. And she won’t move out.”
“Why would she, it’s her home?” He remembered the draft, and the lock of hair waving up. These were hysteric times though. People wanted to believe anything supernatural and evil. Even if the place was haunted, he didn’t think it would be malicious. He’d been at places that housed dark energies. The last hotel he’d worked at being one of them. Her house wasn’t anything like it. He had felt most welcome.For his sister’s peace of mind though, he refrained from contradicting. He should count himself lucky that she would pick him up and take him in. There it was again. Luck.
He was utterly surprised though, the next day when at the end of the morning his fixed car was brought to his sister’s house. He was about to make some phone calls and drive out there in his sister’s car to see what could be done.
“What do I owe you?” He asked the driver of the tow truck as he lowered the car to the pavement. The shabby man looked at his clipboard. “All taken care of.”
“That’s your problem.” The stern man curtly said. He detached the car from the tow truck, cleared away and drove off. Leaving an astounded Eric behind on the pavement, looking at his old, but until the day before, trusted car. His sister hadn’t arranged for it, and other than his family, he knew only one other person in town. He smiled. His luck was changing.
A sudden wave of music sounded from inside the house. ‘This is Halloween’. The boys were playing it loudly on the TV. Gosh, the theme did take itself seriously this year, Eric gathered. He parked the car in the driveway and went back inside to watch the movie with the kids.
Bethany had seen the car that morning. It had scared her. What if they’d arranged it to be picked up and fixed, and found there was nothing wrong with it? It had happened before. Mechanics and electronics sometimes acted up near the house. So she’d taken care of it. She knew the rumours. The house was haunted. People had disappeared there. Although it wasn’t entirely untrue, the teens who’d disappeared on the grounds during the sixties had turned up in a cave somewhere, cold and lost. It had nothing to do with her house. And the worse gossip about satanic rituals, sacrifices. They went as far as saying Bethany herself was involved in dark things. They’d been around for so long, Bethany was sometimes scared it might be true. Maybe her sister was right, that Bethany would always be alone unless she moved away from the house. But it was so much a part of her, that she couldn’t imagine herself living anywhere else. Who would take care of the vegetable patch? The roses her grandmother had cherished so much?
It was a few days later, Friday, Bethany walked out on her porch with a few large pots. She’d not expected company, yet a car drove onto her driveway, stopping in front of the house.
She recognised it immediately. Happily, she chucked the pots on the large table and walked to the steps leading up.
“Eric!” She said delightedly. He looked better than he had a few days ago. Like her in a sweater and jeans. His hair unruly as she remembered it.
“Bethany!” He couldn’t explain how happy he was to see her. The idea of her had freaked him out. Their impromptu evening meal had been so surreal he had almost believed it to be a dream. She wasn’t. She was real. Wearing a black apron and her long hair in a thick braid on her back.
“How can I help you?” She asked him.
He walked up to her, up the steps. She didn’t back away when he kissed her cheek and handed her the plate. “I don’t need help today.” He said.
He looked around the porch and saw the big table with the pots, knives and other things that made it clear what she was about to do.
“I… ehm…” Why was he so shy all of a sudden?
Patiently she looked at him, still leaning against the post.
“I came to return the plate.” He pointed at it.
“Oh.” Was that all?
“And to thank you, for what you did. You shouldn’t have. But thank you for getting my car fixed.”
“It was the least I could do. Luck is a fickle friend.”
He nodded, still looking for words.
“Can I get you something? A cup of coffee, maybe. Or hot chocolate.”
“You don’t have to on my account.”
Her smile made the fresh Fall day seem a lot warmer.
“I have made way too much for myself. It’s a tradition.” She pointed at the table. “It’s pumpkin spice mind you.”
“Homemade. How can I say no to that?”
He followed her into the kitchen. It looked different in the daylight, he found. Not as mysterious as it had that night. Again there was this sense of home.
“I didn’t want to keep you from your work. I was wondering how to repay you. I mean, I don’t have any money…”
“Eric, there’s no need for that.”
“No, wait.” He asked her. “I figured maybe I could do things around the house for you. Maybe, I don’t know, carpentry or paint jobs you can’t get around to doing yourself.”
She spooned a large quantity of hot liquid into a cup and handed it to him. Leaned against her kitchen counter she stared at him, actively trying to read him. She didn’t do it often. Usually, she avoided invading anyone’s privacy. But she had to know if he was for real.
“I know you’re going to say it’s not necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But I find I want to.” He said before she was done assessing him.
Like before he saw her hair move. “Although I think that draft will not be cut off by putting extra insulation on your windows.”
Bethany gasped. Did he notice?
“Most adults are scared of this house.”
“I’m not. Quite the contrary. It feels friendly.”
“How are your pumpkin carving skills?” The question took him aback. He’d not counted on a question so casual in their current conversation.
“To be honest, I have never carved a pumpkin before.”
She turned to the counter, opened a drawer and took out a big carving knife.
“You haven’t? I call abuse. That needs to be corrected.”
He stared at the knife she held up to him.
“Unless you have other places to be.”
He took the knife. “No, my sister and her husband are out with the kids. I have a whole day to myself.”
“And you waste it on me and my old house. I’m flattered.” She’d be shocked if she knew how much time he’d spent on her already.
From the vegetable patch behind the house, they picked several huge pumpkins. “I don’t know why they grow so well here. But they do.” She excused herself when they carried them around the house. They were heavy.
He didn’t answer. Yet made sure Bethany didn’t have to carry any up the steps. He had to remember she was an independent woman. But he was still a gentleman.
When they had gathered the pumpkins, she handed him a marker.
Again Eric looked at her with a questioning gaze.
“So you can draw out what you want to carve.”
“What do I want to carve?”
She shrugged. “It’s your pumpkin.” It was mean of her to let him have a go first. But he made her curious.
The first one he did was traditional. Bethany showed him how to carve and deal with the entrails. They were roughly separated in the pots she had at the ready, as she had recipes for all of it. She was raised not to waste food.
Because the pumpkins were big, they worked closely together. It was new to Bethany, to feel so calm despite hardly knowing Eric.
“So, how come I never met you before?” He asked as he was scooping out the first pumpkin. “I mean, you’re about my age, I don’t remember you from school, or anything.”
“I was homeschooled.” She ran the knife along the line of her pumpkin to make the lid. “My grandmother didn’t put much stock in the traditional school system.”
That would explain it. “My sister managed to escape when it was time for high school. I only did the last year, for the exams.”
She vividly remembered how much of the odd one out she’d been. Being around so many people all day had been hard on her.
As he had looked around her house, he didn’t have a clue what she did for a living. She had to have a job. A house like this needed maintenance. He couldn’t imagine she was self-sufficient. He didn’t want to pry though. He felt at home with her, and it made him aware that he could easily cross boundaries.
“I am a freelance editor.” She answered the question he didn’t ask. “And the odd translating job.”
“Please don’t tell me you do Latin.”
She laughed out loud. She had a wonderful, deep laugh.
“Actually, I do. Latin, Italian, Spanish, French if I have to.”
He averted his gaze, but couldn’t hold back a laugh either. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. Every Witch should know Latin. I mean, spells in English sound cute, but Latin sounds so much better, don’t you think?”
“Absolutely.” He wasn’t sure if she was serious. Frankly, he didn’t care. It had been ages since he felt this light and had so much fun.
They worked side by side and talked. It was as new for Bethany as it was for Eric. He told her about the jobs he’d had. About the darkness at the last hotel that had scared him. He knew she understood. The way she looked at him. “You have seen darkness.” He calmly said.
Quickly she averted her gaze and focussed on the pumpkin.
“Most people have, I think.”
“Bethany?” It was as if the air suddenly had gone a lot colder. The knife slipped in his hand, and the tip scraped his finger.
“Oh, crap.” He said as he put it in his mouth.
“Oh dear. You must be getting tired. It’s a heavy job if you’re not used to it.” She threw down her knife.
“Let me see. Come inside. I’ll clean it up.”
The kitchen was as warm as it had been before. She had Eric put his finger under the tap, while she got her first aid kit.
“What, no herbs and mud?” He asked.
“Nope. A good old-fashioned saline solution.”
He sat down at the table with her and watched Bethany check, clean, and dress the wound.
“Hey, it’s only a little prick.” He said when he saw her stern gaze.
She tried to smile. It was. She’d had bigger mess ups herself. It was just that he was so at ease there and she didn’t want it to change. It had been her response when he mentioned the darkness he saw in her, that had made him lose focus.
He reached out with his other hand and stroked her cheek. It made her iciness melt a bit. She smiled again, genuine this time.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“It’s okay. Maybe we should have more of that potion of yours.” He pointed at the stove. Her heart skipped a beat. He didn’t want to get away?
“Good.” He said when they were both relaxed again. “Now we should finish up outside and clean up before it’s dark.”
It wouldn’t be too long, he gathered.
“What do you do with these?” He helped Bethany get the pots inside and on the kitchen counter.
“Soup, cakes, roasted seeds.” There was so much. “For the soup kitchen in the city. I mean, I’d be eating pumpkin for three months solid otherwise.”
He shook his head. “Don’t do that.”
“What?” Puzzled she looked at him.
“Make yourself sound less good than you are.”
“I’m not a saint, Eric.”
“I never said you were.” They stood side by side in the kitchen. No draft this time. The front door was closed, the house was warm.
Eric raised his hand and cupped her head. “So much good.” He whispered. He couldn’t help it. He stroked her cheek with his thumb, and when he moved in, she met him halfway. Their lips touching carefully at first. Bethany’s hands grabbed his hips to feel him closer. He didn’t hesitate, pushed her mouth open with his tongue to taste her.
There was a groan. Bethany wasn’t sure if it was hers or his. She wrapped her arms around his neck, scared to lose him. He seemed of the same mind, pushing her hips to the counter for support.
Slowly he retreated, checking if she was alright. There was a smile on her face. Her hands slid down until she held his. “Wow.” She said.
The silence in Bethany’s head and the kitchen was overwhelming. It had never been this calm before. She didn’t know what to say.
She let go and turned away. “I think you should leave.” She said in a voice that didn’t sound like hers.
He grabbed her arm and made her face him. When he looked into her eyes, he could see the confusion behind them. “What’s wrong?” He asked in a low voice, scared to startle her any further.
If only she knew. Thoughts were whirling through her head.
“I enjoyed your company, Eric. But it’s time to say goodbye now.”
A moment ago she didn’t have those scruples. She’d liked their kiss very much.
Eric stared at her, wondering if he should push through. The restlessness in her system seemed to grow. He let go of her hand to give her space.
“I’m sorry, Eric.” She continued when he didn’t speak. “It’s…” There weren’t words to explain what it was.
Because she wouldn’t calm down again, although she stood in front of him not moving a muscle as it seemed, he decided going would be the best thing he could do for her. He took his wallet and handed her a business card. “My phone number. I’d like you to call me. If you want. Even if just for a chat.”
“I’m sorry.” She repeated. The air in the kitchen still seemed unmoving. Not as vibrant as it usually was. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay, Bethany. We’ll see each other soon.” Suddenly he was scared for her. The darkness he’d sensed before tried to creep up.
“I’ll be fine.” She promised. “Take care of you.”
He nodded, checking her over one last time.
She watched him walk down the steps, get into his car and drive off.
“Oh, bugger off!” She said to the ghosts at large and walked back into the house to clean up the last of the mess.
Before getting home, Eric parked his car by the side of the road. If his sister and her family would have arrived home before him, he’d not have time to think it through in the noise and life they brought with them.
What had happened? Bethany and the energy of the house had changed on him. At what point exactly? He knew better than to blame it on curses. Looking back on it, she’d been afraid. Terrified even. When he stood in front of her, she’d been very good at hiding it.
There were so many questions running through his mind. Had he said or done something wrong? Scene by scene he played out the day. He’d mentioned her darkness and startled her.
She had been warm and inviting. They had kissed. It was a most mesmerising kiss.
What was she so scared of?
He’d arrived home and started dinner when the family dropped in on him, the kids full of stories about the theme park they’d visited that had been all restyled to fit the time of year. Eric found himself longing for Halloween to be over and ready for the Christmas season. The event got him on edge.