A Sexual Haunting


By the time Cindy had recovered her wits enough to follow, she was gone.

"She looked...disappointed, I thought. And resigned. As if she had been without hope for so long it was almost a relief to have it taken away again."

"Poor woman," Bree said again. She picked at her salad, mostly made from vegetables from their own garden. "I wonder if I'll see her this time."

"Well, it is your turn," Cynthia said. Her lips pursed. "None of us have ever seen her more than once. She only seems to appear to the women in the family. Direct descendants of your great-grandfather Edgar. Momma saw her when I was about nine years old. Back in the seventies. But you're the last female of the Martin line. The last one living close, at least. I don't think Hazel is going to travel to Toronto to haunt your cousins.

"Every twenty years," she sighed. "In late September or early October. A week or so to either side of the date she died. What is she looking for? Or who?"


A week later Mark stood on the front steps of his new home, watching a small army of movers carry his worldly goods into the old farmhouse. Before each sweating workman passed him, he checked the meticulously neat handwriting on the top of each box so he could tell them in which room to place it. He didn't need their help unpacking, but he would be damned if he had to carry plates and silverware from the guest bedroom down to the kitchen, or his photo albums from the dining room to the attic, simply because the boxes had been put in the wrong room.

He felt good, he decided. Six months of unexpected fame were sliding away as easily as he could take off his jacket. He took a deep breath of warm air, scented with the deep, earthy smell of fertile farmland and growing things. On his drive over from Ottawa, he had constantly seen farmers on tractors and combines, out doing the work that made the area some of the most productive land in Canada. Dark green corn plants, their high, narrow leaves swaying in the breeze, had traded places with fields full of tall, golden-brown wheat.

"Library," he said, as another mover held out a box, packed to the brim with hardback books. He smiled. One of the unanticipated benefits of his sudden good fortune was the ability to buy good copies of all the books he wanted. No more haunting used-book stores, hoping that they would have the third book in a six-part series to fill out the set, or hoping the book he had bought on E-Bay would be in as good a shape as the seller claimed. He had spent a good percentage of the advance for his next book on high-quality hardbacks by all his favorite authors, and had bought the bookshelves necessary to display them properly. One of the downstairs rooms, formerly used as a parlor in more conservative times, was now his library, with comfortable chairs and good lighting. And the only piece of electronics allowed in there was a small, unobtrusive stereo, perfect for listening to music while he whiled away the hours.

Soon enough, the last box had been carried inside and the workmen left, sped along with a generous tip. As the moving vans pulled away and turned back onto the highway, Mark felt a knot of tension he hadn't even known he had loosen in his back. Quiet, he thought. The roar of the engines slowly receded, and a deep stillness settled over the farm. The only sounds were his own breathing, the faint sigh of the wind rustling over the grass, and the small noises of birds as they flitted from tree to tree in the front yard.

He smiled. His life head been turned upside down in the last several months. What had started as a joke had made him famous and wealthy. But now he was back where he truly belonged.

Grinning broadly, he bounded up the stairs and into the house. The screen door slammed shut behind him, and he didn't even bother to close or latch the inner door. No locks, he thought. No interviews. No phone ringing off the hook, each call a request for time or money. He took a deep, cleansing breath, then let it out again, eying the boxes set on the floors and, seemingly, every flat surface in the house.

"Well, let's get started," he said. He pulled out his phone, fished his earbuds out of his pocket, and turned on some music. As the first notes from My Chemical Romance sounded, he opened up a box and started the long, tedious process of unpacking.


By noon the next day, he had the place in some semblance of order. At least, most of his stuff was out of the boxes and crates and into closets and cupboards. He had found, to his own amusement, that his enthusiasm for unpacking had quickly diminished, and he had spent a good bit of time the night before finding excuses not to empty the boxes which seemed to mysteriously multiply whenever he took his eyes off them.

He was placing a set of glasses in one of the cabinets in the kitchen with a tired sigh when he heard a knock at the front door. Investigation showed him the attractive face of Brianna Martin, who walked past him and into the house without waiting for an invitation.

"What a mess," she said cheerfully, taking in the piles of empty boxes and the picture frames leaning against the walls. "But I can see Mom was right. She thought you might be still settling in, so I'm supposed to invite you over to dinner tonight. Don't feel like you have to accept, though. Mom's making Hamburger Surprise."

Mark lifted his eyebrows. "Hamburger Surprise?"

Brianna smiled, turning an ordinarily pretty face beautiful. "If it turns out to be any good. That would be the surprise. I love Mom, but she isn't the world's greatest cook. So if you happen to have a dog you don't like very much, bring him along. You can slip the plate under the table while she isn't looking and have him clean it for you."

"No, no dog," he said, laughing.

"No dog?" Brianna looked shocked. "But you're a writer! It's against the rules not to have an adorable pet that you can talk about on Twitter. Female writers have cats and male writers have dogs."

"But I'm a romance writer," he pointed out. "Doesn't that make me an honorary woman? Maybe I should get a cat. A long-haired Persian. A white one, that I could hold in my lap and stroke as I plot world domination." He cackled menacingly and rubbed his hands together.

She shook her head. "I don't see you as the evil overlord type, to be honest. Besides, you already have cats."

"Excuse me?"

"I'll show you later," she said, with a smile. "After you show me what you've done with the place."


Brianna let Mark guide her around the house, not that she was unfamiliar with it. She had grown up in the house next door, which her grandparents had built as a potential retirement home, if the care and upkeep of the old farmhouse ever became too much trouble for them. But she had spent a good deal of her childhood inside these brick walls, visiting her grandparents while her mother was at work. The fact they had both died so young was a grief to both herself and her mother. Grandfather Martin had died of a heart attack when he was barely fifty years old, and her grandmother had succumbed to breast cancer only a few years later.

She was happy to see that the family and living rooms were filled with new furniture, good and solid without being flashy or ostentatious. The entertainment center was first rate, with a flat-screen TV and surround-sound speakers that nestled unobtrusively in the corners, but did not call attention to itself. When she mentioned that fact to Mark, he gave a small smile.

"I grew up in a working-class family in Thunder Bay. I don't need it, my family wouldn't appreciate it, and my friends would just give me crap about trying to show off. Why bother?"

"Oh," she said, walking into the parlor, now transformed into a library. "This is beautiful!"

"You like it?" Mark asked, hovering near her shoulder.

"No," she said, walking forward. "I love it. God, why didn't we ever think of something like this?" Polished cherrywood bookshelves ran around the walls of the large room, ready to hold the multitude of books which were still waiting to be shelved. "You'll have such good light for reading in here. And the shelving is gorgeous."

Mark nodded. "I've always wanted something like this. Never had the money before. And then, when the book caught fire, I didn't have room in my apartment." He ran a hand lovingly along a shelf, the dark red wood as smooth as silk. To Bree's eyes, his hands were strong, the fingers lean and agile. A writer's hands. Or a lover's. "Now I have both. My own Fortress of Solitude, where I can read all day if I want and not have to deal with anyone I don't want to." He stood for a moment, looking into the distance, a lock of his black hair falling over his forehead. Bree's fingers itched with the urge to comb it back.

"So lonely, Mark?" she asked, surprising herself with her sympathy for a man she barely knew. "I'm sure there were plenty of women who wanted to see if the man who created Princess Chumani of the Sioux and her insatiable libido was as good in the sack as he was writing about it." She reddened as she finished, surprised at her own boldness. She was no prude, but at the same time she was unused to bringing up sex as a conversational topic.

Mark shrugged, seemingly unperturbed by the question. "Sure there were, yeah. But I was lucky. I had a good agent, and she came with me to a lot of the events after the book hit the best-seller list. Enough to teach me who was legitimately interested in me, and who was just trying to get close enough to me to rob me blind. There were too many of the latter and not enough of the former.

"But anyway," he said. "Enough of this. Where are these pets I'm supposed to have?"

"Aren't you going to show me the upstairs?" she asked.

He shook his head. "The master bedroom is still a disaster. I have the bed set up and the clothes put away, but there are boxes all over the place. The other rooms are even worse. Besides," he said with a smile, "I'm not sure what your mother would think if she found out you've been in a strange man's bedroom."

"She can think what she wants," she replied with a sniff. "But if you're too scared to show me the upstairs, let's go outside." She led him through the house to the back door, then out towards the dilapidated barn, filled with farming equipment too old, rusty, or damaged to sell at auction. With his help, she heaved one of the sliding doors back in its track, exposing the dim, dusty interior.

"They're usually in here this time of day," she said softly. "They hunt at night. And they like staying in here. It's someplace warm and sheltered, and they can come and go as they please." She squatted down on her heels, looking around. "There," she said, reaching up to catch his hand. She used the other one to point out the brindled shadow slowly weaving its way towards them through piles of discarded junk. It stopped a few feet away, then sat and began to nonchalantly wash itself, studiously ignoring them.

Mark moved forward, but Bree squeezed his hand. "No. Wait," she said, as the cat stood suddenly, only a moment away from bolting back into the interior of the barn. "They're outside cats, and don't much deal with people. Here," she continued. "Get down beside me, so you're not looming over her."

Following her instructions, he crouched down beside her. She held out her hand, one finger extended. "Come on, little lady," she crooned. "Don't be shy. We're not going to hurt you."

Slowly, the cat stepped toward her. She paused on the beaten earth in front of the barn, then bumped Bree's finger with her cold, pink nose. After a few seconds, she ran her furry cheek along the back of her hand, and they could hear the faint rumble of her purr. Mark copied her movements, and in a few minutes the cat had decided he was worthy of her trust as well. Bree smiled at the soft expression on his face as he slowly stroked the tawny fur of her back, the cat arching up under his touch.

I wonder how his hands would feel on me? She blushed, the hot blood heating her skin, as she realized she still held his right hand in her left. His shoulder was warm against hers, and she could smell the scent of him through the cotton of his t-shirt. She was tempted to pull away, but decided against it. There was something about Mark which made her feel safe and protected. His quiet, low-key presence was a balm to nerves which had been scraped raw by her recent break-up with Lance.

"How many of them are there?" he asked.

"Not too many," she said. The cat slipped from under Mark's hand, coming back to her. She scratched the fur under her chin, smiling as the purr intensified. "We try to spay and neuter them when they're young. They do not like that. It usually takes a few months to get their trust back after we bring them back from the vet."

"I can understand that attitude," Mark said solemnly, and she laughed.

"Right. But we can't just let them stay here and breed. They'd be out of control in no time. Right now there might be six or eight in all. Less in the summer. More in the winter, when the weather's nasty and they can sleep here, in a sheltered spot. But there's usually a breeding pair or two that we miss. So the numbers stay pretty stable.

"They do us a big favor, too. They keep down the mice and the rats. You'll see them out at night, hunting."

"So are they all outside cats? Do I need to put anything out for them?"

She shook her head. "They usually do just fine by themselves. If you want, you can put out some water in the summer. And if we have a brutal stretch of weather in the winter, you can leave some kibble out for them near the barn. But they're predators by nature, you know. They might accept our help, but they don't really need it. Once in a while, though, you'll find one who likes the comforts of home.

"If that happens, let him or her in. It'll make sure you don't have a rodent problem. And you'll have a nice, quiet friend. One who will never play music you don't like or hog the remote."

She stood, reluctantly disengaging her hand from Mark's. "I have to go. But we'll see you for dinner tonight, right?"

He smiled. "Wouldn't miss it. What time?"

"Seven should be good."

"I'll be there." He walked with her around the house, to where the footpath from her house merged with the asphalt driveway leading up from the county road. As she turned to leave, he seemed to want to say something else, but then simply let her go with a wave.


Several hours later, Mark pressed the doorbell of the small, ranch-style home of Cynthia and Brianna Martin. Unsure of what to wear for what was not a date, but was, for him at least, more than a simple meal with his landlady and her daughter, he had opted for a pair of well-worn designer jeans and a collared, button-up shirt. Black, slip-on leather shoes completed his ensemble. He had also taken care to shave and comb his hair, though the cowlick which persisted in falling over his forehead resisted all attempts at taming.

From inside, he could hear light footsteps quickly approaching. Brianna soon appeared, dressed in a pale yellow sundress which showed off her body to spectacular advantage.

"Mark! Don't stand out there! Come on in! You don't need to follow city manners, now that you're with us country folk." She opened the door and waved him in. As he passed close by her, his nostrils were tickled by a delightful floral scent. She turned and led him through the house, giving him a wonderful view of her shapely legs and rear. Was it just his imagination, or were her hips moving just a little more than necessary, giving a sexy sway to her steps?

"Mom is in the kitchen, overseeing the disaster," she said. "But I think we'll survive. I laid in some snack foods in case of an emergency."

"I heard that, Brianna Marie," Cynthia said as they entered the spotless kitchen. Belying Brianna's gloomy words, a tasty aroma was emerging from the oven. "Hello again, Mark. Thanks for coming over. Otherwise I'd have to spend all night with this brat." She swatted her child with an oven mitt.

"Thanks for inviting me, Cynthia," he replied. He handed her a bottle of red wine he had picked up in town earlier in the afternoon.

"Oh, nice," Brianna exclaimed, looking at the label. "I don't think we've ever had wine with Hamburger Surprise."

Her mother rolled her eyes. "First of all, Mark, call me Cindy. Everyone else does, aside from Brianna.

"Secondly, it's taco casserole. Not 'Hamburger Surprise.' Brianna just thinks it's funny to make fun of my cooking."

"You got the recipe from the back of a taco box, Mom," she said, grinning. "That's not really the mark of a gourmet chef. And what about the time you burned supper three nights in a row? Frozen pizza, each time," she continued as an aside to Mark, sotto voce. "I thought the people at McDonald's were going to give us a discount, we came in there to eat so often."

"You're a rotten little girl," her mother said mildly. "Here," she continued, taking the wine bottle away. "We can have this after the meal. Mark, would you like something to drink? We have water, iced tea, milk, or beer."

"Iced tea would be great," he said, and was rewarded with an approving nod from both women. As he sipped the sweet beverage, he thought he had somehow passed a test. Did the unlamented ex-husband have a drinking problem?

Cindy opened the oven door, peering inside. "I think it's done." She put on a pair of oven mitts and lifted a large glass casserole dish out of the oven. A tantalizing aroma rose from it, and Mark's mouth watered. He was an indifferent cook at best, and the prospect of a home-cooked meal was welcome to say the least.

"Anything I can do to help?" he asked.

Cindy set the dish on the top of the oven. "Nope. We've already got the table set. Come on into the dining room and let's put on the feedbags."

"God, Mom,Brianna said, rolling her eyes. "Could you be any more cliché? We're not cowboys, you know."

"Keep it up, missy, and you'll find you're not too old to spank."


Despite Bree's warning about her mother's cooking, which seemed, to be honest, more of a long-running family joke than an actual fear, the casserole was delicious. It was made of alternating layers of taco shells, rice, hamburger, and cheese, and it was only with an act of will that Mark kept himself from accepting a third helping. He had made Cindy promise to give him the recipe before he left, so he could incorporate it into his own cooking rotation, which consisted mainly of microwave dinners, frozen food, takeout, and whatever he could make on the grill.

The conversation was pleasant as well. Heartily tired of talking about himself after months of interviews, he asked his new neighbors about themselves and the area. He was relieved to find out that Bree's teasing of Cindy was returned in full force, and the two women acted more like sisters than a parent and child.

Probably a result of growing up without a husband around, he thought, as Cindy recounted a story about a time when Bree had come in after curfew, and the increasingly ridiculous story she had made up to try to justify why she was so late. They had to depend on each other.

Among other things, he found out that Brianna, having recently graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in landscape architecture, worked for the local government. Specifically, she was an engineer for the streets and sanitation department in Brantford, in charge of beautification projects. This seemed, he gathered, to consist mostly of convincing town officials that people actually liked to see flowers and trees and grass and flowering shrubs, rather than concrete.

"Bunch of dried-up old sticks," she complained, taking a bite of the fried potatoes that had joined the taco casserole on the table. "They think that any money that isn't spent on asphalt is wasted."

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