Phantom: A Love Story.byTamLin01©
"There is nothing more desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit, silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by the memories of evil and violent histories."
-Algernon Blackwood, "The Empty House"
"I guess no one mentioned that Devereux Manor is supposed to be haunted?"
Amelia paused with trowel in hand, bent on hands knees in the flowerbed, considering Ms. Price's question. The older woman sat forward a little, anxious for a reply, so Amelia took her time formulating one. Eventually she settled on: "What's Devereux Manor?"
Ms. Price blinked. "Why, that's this house, dear. Your house."
Amelia sat up a bit, looking sideways at the house. It was still hard to think of it as hers. Since her father had never really lived here she supposed it hadn't been his house either. In her mind it was just "the house", an entity unto itself. "Didn't you know about the Devereux family?" said Ms. Price.
"Never heard of them," said Amelia. She was pulling up the weeds that overran the lot and Ms. Price, who had stopped by to "welcome her to the neighborhood" after the moving trucks left, sat on the low stone wall that marked the edge of the property, chatting while Amelia worked.
"Well, I guess folks keep quiet about that kind of thing," said Ms. Price. "But it's a fascinating story, about the Devereuxs, and the fire. And of course, the Phantom. Sounds silly, I know, but it's been the story for as long as I've been around," said Ms. Price. "I bet you'd love to hear it, you being a writer and all."
The word "Phantom", divorced of all context, did seem silly, but for some reason Amelia didn't feel like laughing. She pushed her trowel back into the dirt, frowning with the effort of it. It was a hot day, a Louisiana summer, and she was wearing one of those wide-brimmed straw hats that made her feel like an old lady, older even than Ms. Price. She rubbed her dirt-caked hands on her overalls and grunted.
"I'm not that kind of writer," said Amelia. "I write technical manuals."
"Oh? Well how did you afford a house like this? Never mind, don't tell me, I'm being nosy again."
Amelia stood up. "Plastics," she said.
"What's that dear?"
"I invested in a plastics company when I was younger. They make computer parts now. That's how I could afford the house."
"Oh," said Ms. Price. "Well. It's good that someone is fixing this old place up."
"Mmm," was all Amelia said. She knew that the only reason it hadn't fallen down in the last hundred years was because of a local trust dedicated to preserving antique houses in the state. She also knew how hard the trust had worked to keep the deed from transferring to her after her father died. And she knew that Ms. Price was a founding member of that trust and knew perfectly well how Amelia came into it.
But she didn't see any reason for Ms. Price to know that she knew.
"This was a plantation house back then, of course," said Ms. Price. "Isn't it funny, you owning it now?"
"What's funny about that?"
"Just because you're a neg—well, I mean, because of your, you know, background."
"Funny," said Amelia.
Ms. Price made small talk (very small talk) for another half an hour, then excused herself to "check on her stew." Probably really going to go call one of the other board members, Amelia thought. She shrugged and enjoyed the quiet. Almost half the lot was weeded by the time it got dark. She should have gone in a long time ago, as there was plenty more work to do with cleaning and unpacking, but something made her want to stay outside as long as possible.
She was just about to stand again when a gleam caught her eye; her trowel had overturned something in the dirt. Frowning, she brushed the loose soil from it and was surprised to find a lump of gold. It looked like old jewelry, a locket or a pendant, that had been crushed somehow, but she couldn't make out its original shape. It was heavy in her hand, and cold. She turned it over and over, rapt for a moment. Then, without thinking about it, she slipped the gold lump into the pocket of her gardening apron, and almost immediately forgot she'd found it.
It was getting very dark now. She heard crickets chirping, real crickets, and was delighted. Reluctantly, she gathered her tools and turned toward the house. Devereux Manor was a fossil of the true Antebellum fashion, a great, looming, brooding pile of a house. Those old southern planters had perfected a style of ostentatious neoclassicalism that was now rarely seen, but Devereux Manor persisted, its peaked roofs and stout columns and blackened windows refusing to fade into the past where they belonged. The dingy whiteness of its walls made it look like an old skull, or a corpse that had just sat up out of its grave. Amelia reached one of the back doors and was about to knock, then felt foolish. The knocker, in the shape of two-faced Janus, stared at her out the corner of its eye as she entered.
Devereux Manor was always dark, no matter what time it was or how many lights she turned on (the electrical work had been done during her father's stewardship of the house, and was one of the things the historical trust objected to the most). Amelia went to where most of the boxes of her things were still stacked and changed out of her dirty work clothes, rummaging until she found a clean bathrobe. Once she was dressed (more or less), she poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen and thought about what she wanted to do tomorrow. Get the furniture arranged, she supposed.
She watched the day's last light stream through the paneled windows, making spider web patterns on the walls of the foyer. She thought about her father. He'd owned Devereux Manor for decades, but for some reason never lived in it or rented it out. Why he spent year after year living in that hovel in Richmond instead she could not imagine. Maybe he didn't like the idea of living with ghosts? She laughed, and it echoed through the whole house.
Amelia went to the upstairs bathroom for a hot shower. The plumbing was another of her father's additions. The old staircase creaked under her weight. Devereux Manor was a house of long corridors and narrow rooms and high ceilings, a house full of strange figures in banisters and wall panels, a house that watched and moved of its own accord, or so it seemed to Amelia. She would not let herself admit that she was afraid of this place. But she knew she was anyway. Before showering she locked the bathroom door, though she was the only one here, and she stayed in longer than she meant to, using up all the hot water. Drying her hair with a towel, she went to the first floor bedroom she'd set up as an office and worked for a few hours, translating software demos into Portuguese.
A set of French doors here overlooked what was now the garden but had been the slave quarters when the house was built. She'd heard some story or such about what had happened there, but had forgotten by now. Moonlight cast its glow over the lot. She watched the old trees sway in the wind and suddenly remembered the misshapen lump of gold she'd found. Without quite knowing why she went and got it, rubbing her fingers over it again and again. She thought about her father more. The image of him in the hospital bed, face obscured by an oxygen mask and a forest of tubes, gaunt as a corpse already, lurked in her memory. He had been trying to talk to her at the very end but his voice gurgled, like he was speaking underwater. For a long time she assumed she'd misunderstood his last words, but now she realized she'd heard him correctly and simply not recognized the name: "Devereux." He'd said, "Devereux."
But whatever he tried to tell her about the house in those last minutes, it was a secret he took out of this world.
She lay on the couch, clutching the gold piece, intending just to relax for a moment, but soon was slipping off to sleep. The last thing she saw, or thought she saw, was a figure at the French doors, a thin man in an old-fashioned cape, looking in, one hand pressed against the glass. Was he really there? No. It's my imagination, Amelia thought. And she slept.
Penelope sat at the night table, brushing out her hair. In the east wing, Phillip was at the piano, playing some sonata or another (she could never keep them straight). She counted her brushstrokes in time to his music. Outside, the wind was blowing, and the French doors rattled. She took a moment to fasten them, pushing the red velvet curtains aside. There was a terrible racket coming from the slave quarters. She sighed and fretted. What were they up to over there? What would it take for Phillip to keep them in line? Penelope thought about her father. She would never have to endure this if he were still around.
The music stopped. She heard footsteps down the hall. Phillip knocked once and entered. She saw his reflection in the window glass as he stood in the doorway, seemingly hesitating before closing it behind him. He was dressed in a typically unfashionable burgundy frock coat, the cravat at his throat arranged with too-deliberate neatness. He looked tired but pleased, as he always did after an evening of playing. He put a hand on her shoulder. She was wearing only her shift. He kissed her behind her ear and whispered, "Good evening, darling."
"Phillip," said Penelope. "I have to talk to you."
"Can it wait?" he said, and kissed her again.
"Important things should never wait."
"All right," he said, "what is it?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Penelope said, leaving the doors and sitting on the bed. She went to turn the lamps up, but saw that they were already as high as they could go. It still seemed so dark in here. It was always dark in the house. She rubbed her bare arms, though she wasn't cold. Phillip looked at her, and she looked at the mirror. He sat next to her, putting his hand on her leg.
"Stop that," she said.
"It's not proper."
"But we're man and wife?"
"This is my father's house," said Penelope.
"Not anymore. Now it's our house."
"Your house you mean," said Penelope.
"Darling, what's wrong?" said Phillip.
He put his arms around her. She resisted, but he did not let her go, and eventually she gave in, leaning against him. He stroked her hair.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I've felt awful all day."
"Were you thinking about your father again?"
"No. I mean, yes, but that's not what it is. I was thinking about the Marshall estate, about how the slaves murdered the family and burned the orchards."
Phillip looked baffled. "But why? You were all of a child when that happened?"
"Evey Marshall was the age I am now. Imagine dying now, when you've hardly even lived?"
"Penelope, don't talk this way," said Phillip, stroking her hair more. "I know it's hard to accept that your father is gone, but nothing terrible will happen to us."
"Won't it?" said Penelope. "Something terrible happens to all of us, eventually. Why not today, or tomorrow, or the next?"
She went to the French doors. She saw the lights, heard the tumult of noise. "What if they're out there right now, plotting to scalp and skin us all, like a pack of wild Indians? Or what if they're breeding some plague that will kill us, and get into the fields, and infect the new cotton, and kill everyone who touches it? What if —"
Phillip took her and kissed her. At first she did not respond, but he kissed her harder and soon she kissed him back. They sat on the bed, and she allowed him to run his fingers through her hair, and to kiss her lips, and the bridge of her nose, and the hollow at the base of her throat. She turned her face away from his and he turned it back, cupping her chin in his hand, and before long she gave up her halfhearted resistance, letting him lay her down and run his hands over her body, pulling her shift away. She looked up at the ceiling, eyes half-closed, barely responding to his kisses, but still enjoying the intimate feeling of his lips brushing hers, like the soft touch of silk on her bare skin.
Phillip's awkward, ungainly way of undressing himself gave her time to look over his body. She was always fascinated by the lily-white smoothness of his hands, those delicate fingers that worked such wonders at the piano, and the contrast with his rough, somehow half-finished features. He was an awkward creature in everything but in those hands, and his attempts to compensate through wardrobe only accentuated that awkwardness. Still, she could not help but admire the lines of his chest and abdomen, and the prominent strength of his forearms, or even the strange, dark purple color of the nipples on his bare chest. Phillip was beautiful, in his way; it was when these parts were animated that the ungainliness of his figure became apparent, as though he were built only for display, never meant to be move.
Automatically, Penelope opened her legs as Phillip lay on top of her. She winced as their bodies tried to settle in, his struggling for purchase on hers. He tried to kiss her mouth but she ducked out of the way, instead gliding her wet lips over the wiry musculature of his shoulders and chest. She felt his heart beating against the inside of his ribs and watched the spastic jumping of his throat under the pressure of his heavy breathing. Phillip was constantly livid with pent-up energy that his body could barely contain. When he played, he rocked back and forth in a kind of religious ecstasy. Evidently it was not enough to exorcise everything that was trapped inside of him.
Phillip's fingers stroked Penelope's hair as she continued kissing his naked body. He was being gentle out of consideration for what he perceived as her disconsolate state. Penelope was certain it wouldn't last. She would be relieved when he gave up the pretense, though she dared not even intimate this more directly. Instead she arched her back, pressing her naked breasts against him, watching his eyes roll under closed lids as perspiration dotted his bare skin. The manic energy pent up inside of him increased visibly; he would only need a little push to let it boil over. Penelope raked her fingernails across his bare chest, scoring a trail of red lines. Phillip's half-grunt, half-growl in reply told her she had judged his disposition accurately.
Moving so fast it took her breath away, Philip seized her, gathering Penelope up in his arms and bending her body against his; she gasped, the smallest of smiles flickering over her face for just a second, and then she cried out as he pushed against her, splaying her already-parted thighs even wider to accommodate him. She bit her lip and winced (though it was mostly for show) as he pushed inside of her, and she felt the reverberations of his trembling all through the core of her.
Penelope turned to the mirror to watch Phillip's reflection as he moved inside of her. She liked to follow the lines of his body, to break him down to just a series of lines and the repetitive motions they made; there were the lines of his arms, positioned just to each side of her shoulders, pushing himself back and forth. There was the curve of his thick thighs, turning up into the smoothness of his buttocks, rising up and down, up and down. The axis of his shoulders remained level, but it, too, rose and fell, and she watched it, enthralled. Phillip's body was akin to a reliable machine, his movements modeled, consciously or not, after the metronome that held such a prominent place in his affections.
But of course, Phillip was no machine, or if he was he was living one; Penelope was aware of the sticky, salty taste of the sweat dappling his skin, the hotness of his ragged breaths against her own bare flesh, the electric sensitivity of the tiny hairs standing upright all over him, and of course, the turgid, swollen pulse of his cock, gorging itself on the lurid wetness of her own too-human body. Most animal-like of all were the guttural grunts and moans coming from his mouth (and, she realized with a start, her own), the discordant melody of his writhing, thrusting, squirming body, too full of flesh to suit the mechanical longings of his spirit. Phillip was a mismatched suite of contradictions, always; beautiful ugliness, awkward grace, stilted passion, animalistic automation, wet heat.
Penelope wondered if she was the spoiler, if the careless, wanton decadence of her body or the detached, jaded stance of her mind was what threw Phillip off center and left him scrambling back and forth between these extremes. She considered how she took him in, enclosed him, encapsulated him, even. She was not well-suited for his ministrations. Fucking me is like playing a piano that's out of tune, she thought, and laughed. She had reduced Phillip now to his least dignified state, that of the grunting, rutting, almost helpless creature experiencing the climax, and she felt a perversely satisfying gush somewhere inside of her. The act of release, the very notion of spilling, seemed remarkably unlike Phillip, and Penelope took depraved joy in having driven him to that point, though when she looked at her own reflection again she saw only boredom looking back at her.
Although it was late Phillip dressed himself fully again. Penelope put on only her robe and then resumed her vigil at the French doors. She put one hand against the panes of glass. Her shoulders were tense. "Phillip," she said, taking a deep breath, "there's something I want to talk to you about."
"As you've already said," said Phillip.
"Tomorrow I want you to turn out Jeremiah and the other house slaves, and hire back the old staff."
Philip sighed. "We've discussed this, darling."
"No we haven't. You just decided it on your own."
"Is it not my house?" said Phillip, a note of real anger in his voice. He stood at her night table, looking over her combs and perfumes, his delicate pianist's fingers touching them, as if curious to test whether they were solid.
"Yes," said Penelope, her voice dull. "It is. But what if —"
She screamed and Phillip jumped and she ran from the window into his arms. He caught her and she buried her face against his chest.
"Penelope, what is it, what's wrong?"
"There's someone out here!" said Penelope. "Someone outside, staring into my window, I saw him!"
Phillip frowned. "Probably your imagination."
"It wasn't!" said Penelope, pulling back, actually striking him on the chest. "There was a man out there. But he wasn't a man, really. He looked strange...horrible." She shuddered. Phillip was about to say something more, but there came a bump and a crash from just outside. "You see!" said Penelope. Phillip went to the French doors and unfastened them. Penelope backed away. "Phillip, don't go out there. Phillip, no, it could be dangerous. You didn't see him, he was —"
"Wait here," said Phillip. The night air was limp and humid as he stepped out. Across the way, in the slave quarters, there was a terrible commotion, the sound of voices yelling, almost shrieking, and underneath it all the constant sound of — drums? Phillip frowned. What in the name of God were they doing?
The light of the moon showed him that the patio was empty but that the trellis was fallen. He stopped to right it. Had it blown over, somehow? But there had been no wind blowing a moment ago. Perhaps it had just collapsed?
Something caught his eye. At first he thought it was an ordinary burlap sack lying on the ground, but when he turned it over he almost cried out; a crude but ghastly face was painted onto it, and two holes gouged out in the center of the eyes. It was a kind of mask, he realized. It grinned at him, and he felt a chill run up his spine. The face of that mask was a face that knew things, things that Phillip did not want to know himself. It was a face that could haunt a man.
He went back inside, locking the doors behind him. He took a moment to regain his composure before turning to Penelope. She sat on the bed, tugging her hair with worry. "What was it?" she said. Phillip held up the mask and was about to make some joke, but Penelope screamed again. "That's it, that's the face I saw! I knew I saw someone out there, I knew it!"