I Never Owned Any Mules
by Tracey Farmer-Luster
What awakened me, I don’t know. Maybe the pad of feet across the ceiling above me, or the sun that glowed through my eyelids, or the car that slid down the street outside. Whatever it was, it shook me awake, causing my heart to pound in my chest. Maybe someone was in my room, someone I had’nt sensed. Someone that stood even now watching my every move. My heart beat into my throat. I never awoke without something or someone coercing me.
I peeled one eye open. Damn. I’m losing sleep. Not getting enough of it made me anxious and out of sorts, left to determine the difference between wakefulness and dream. I had to be able to spot the difference, especially if I wanted to ‘remain sane’, which up to now I had barely managed.
With one eye open, I gazed into the hallway. A shadow slid across the floor. The door to the bathroom creaked open. My heart fluttered.
“Hey Mom!,” a voice rang out, “It’s just me!” Six heavy footfalls later, I realized that Michael darted up the steps and not some strange faceless entity. I sighed and closed my darting eye. Maybe five more minutes if I’m lucky. The alarm clock blared. Not a chance.
I lifted my head from the pillow eyeing each corner of the room. It seemed to be free of any uninvited guests, save for a spider that skirted across the floor. Spider? How did I know it was a spider?
“Tray, are you up?” Snippy called from the top of the stairs “I cooked breakfast.”
“Ok ma, on my way.”
I reached over to the nightstand and tapped the snooze button. Seven thirty. Still early. I kicked the covers to my ankles and stared at the tiled ceiling. What did I have to do today? Did I have an assignment? Snippy would tell me soon enough, but only about the where and when, not the what. I would rather know the details before walking into it. Sometimes I did, if fate allowed, and sometimes, like today, I didn’t. I sighed. I hated days that were left to fate.
I pulled myself up in the bed, my eyes still darting about the room. I sniffed the air. No breakfast, though I thought I heard bacon sizzling. I slid across the bed rubbing my palms over the sheet. I stopped and looked down to my hand. Frowning, I clenched a fist full of sheet and a bit of hard spring mattress. Strong and solid the mattress recoiled, bouncing beneath my fist. Stop being paranoid, I thought, it’s too early. I looked to the floor and stared at the fluffy pair of mules. A thought pricked my mind, then disappeared. I slipped on the mules. Surely, Jerry would have called me by now. Unnerved, I got up and dragged myself into the bathroom eager to get beneath the spray of warm water.
Once upstairs, I found Snippy laying out breakfast in the tiny dining room. She placed the plates heaped with bacon and sausages onto the table. Her face lit up in a smile.
“It’s about time, sleepy head,” she said, “You have an assignment with Jerry today.”
A bell went off in my head. An assignment with Jerry, sure, about a woman. But, what was the situation? I sat down to the table. The heavy mules caught on the rug so I kicked them off. Snippy placed a plate of bacon before me and took a seat. I peered down at the plate then around at the others. Why would anyone cook bacon and sausage without eggs, or even toast? Another prick, like a splinter nagging at the rearmost corner of my mind. This time I winced.
“So, is it true he beats her?” Snippy asked. She lifted a link of sausage to her lips. “How will you handle it?”
A beater. Still didn’t ring a bell. “Don’t know,” I said, “Have to wait and see.” I looked again at my plate. “Did you cook any eggs or toast?”
She looked down at her plate, then nodded towards the den. “Your son has been in there for an hour trying to finish up his homework. Better set him straight before you go.”
I turned around to peer through the open doorway. Michael sat tapping away at the computer keyboard. His slender fingers moved with the speed of one twice his age. Grabbing a piece of bacon, I got up and went in to him, tripping over the overlarge mules that I thought I kicked off. He muffled a giggle as I pulled up a chair.
“Almost finished mom,” he said grinning. “Mrs. Dewey said a hundred words was enough.”
I looked at the screen, my eyes following each letter as they appeared. “What’s the paper about?”
“Dreams and premonitions.”
A knock came at the front door.
“I‘ll get it.” Snippy rose from the table and made her way to the stairs. I heard the door slide across the floor followed by Jerry’s deep melodic voice.
“Hey, Ms.Hudson,” he said, “Is she ready?”
“Yea. Don’t know how, but she is.”
The computer keys went silent as Michael placed a slender hand upon mine. “Go on mom,” he said, “Find out what you need to know.”
I studied him a moment then kissed his forehead. “Mind your granny.”
I stood at the top of the stairs looking down to Jerry’s massive form, amazed that he fit in the tiny split-level foyer. Tall and slender his body rivaled that of an athlete. His long black hair, pulled back in a ponytail, fell clean to his waist, and his high cheekbones softened only when he smiled. He gazed up at me with ink black eyes that never seemed to blink. My cheeks warmed under his perusal.
“You coming?” he asked.
“What do you mean, I’m here”
He tilted his head. “What’s up Mike?”
“Hey dude!” Michael yelled from the den.
“You better get going,” Snippy said. “That poor woman needs you.”
I kissed her on the cheek and stepped down to the foyer, scooting passed Jerry through the door.
His huge black truck sat in the driveway glistening in the morning sun. Its engine hummed like a sleeping giant. Rounding to the driver’s side, Jerry glanced at me over the hood.
“By the way, he’s a beater.” His eyes narrowed.
“Yes I know.” I looked up into the sky squinting at the sun as it peeked thru the clouds. The day seemed strange. We climbed into the truck and backed out onto the empty lane, both pondering the coming threat in silence.
We had come across beaters before, one of which left me quite battered. Jerry didn’t take any more chances after that, so I felt safe. Still, anything could happen especially when I had no clue of the details. My stomach tightened. I closed my eyes to meditate, hoping that I could get a handle on things before we got there. I didn’t dare ask Jerry about the details. He would have a fit if he thought I wasn’t prepared. His look of disdain often put his light perusals to shame.
After an hour, we pulled onto a cobblestone drive shaded by tall, ancient oaks on either side. Beneath them sat brick homes, large and old, but well kept. Expensive cars filled many of the driveways and a gardner or two could be seen bent over a line of bushes. As I gazed out at the pristine lawns, I sucked in a breath and prepared for the worst.
One could wonder why, in such a neighborhood, you’d find an unhappy soul bent on the torture of the living. But actually, this was where they usually hung out. Unable to accept life after death, these spirits walked around confused and angry, not wanting to leave their opulent mansions or expensive cars. Though the light beckons, they refuse to move on, getting angrier and angrier as the years go by. Sometimes they were benevolent wishing only to remain with their memories. But, mostly they were pissed. Angry at no longer being a part of the only life they believed in.
We stopped in front of a beautiful home, massive and brick with Victorian styled gables. Flowers blossomed along its walkway and miniature bushes stood carved to perfection just beyond the porch. The only odd thing about the house was the shroud of darkness that hovered over it’s entrance. I had seen it before. Negative energy pulled from every fiber of a place to spread like a fog around it. Whatever the spirit here was formidable, strong enough to create a visible energy. Even the sun overhead couldn’t scatter the shadow and Jerry, not being a sensitive, could see it as well.
He leaned over me to get a better view, sighing heavily as he peered up to the second level. “Well, this is it.” he said, “May as well get in and get out.”
He leaned back over the seat and exited the truck, moving to the rear to get the large leather duffle bag from the bed. He then came around to the passenger side door and pulled it open. Sweat beaded my brow when I stepped from the truck. I looked down to the street to see it swaying beneath my feet. I held onto the door and stomped the pavement into submission. The smack of my rubber souls echoed like gunshots through the air. Jerry studied my expression.
I opened my mouth to answer, when all of a sudden a little girl of not more than six came barreling out from the porch. Her red hair billowed behind her she made her way headlong toward us, picking up speed as she reached the edge of the sidewalk. I stretched out a hand to catch her before she ran into the side of the truck, but realized there was no need. Before my hand could reach her, she flew like a breeze; passed me---into ---and through the truck, as if its massive form were no more than dust. She turned from the street and looked at me. Her hand rose to her lips to muffle a giggle.
Jerry, noting my movements, looked from me to the street and back again. “What is it?”
I let out a sigh. The little girl faded like ether into the morning light. “Nothing. Just someone playing games.”
I hated that kind of crap. Once they knew I could see them they always had to show off. Once I tried to stop a guy from running in front of an oncoming truck. I got there in time to see him vanish and nearly get myself creamed by a semi. Show offs. They could get you killed. I had better tread lightly. “Let’s go.”
Jerry lifted the heavy duffle bag over his shoulder and we walked up the tiled sidewalk to the door. Once there he rang the doorbell, which sounded more like a tinkle than a ring. Another child, a girl of maybe ten, appeared next to me. Her large brown eyes beckoned as her lips moved without a sound. I bent low to catch her words but she backed away and stepped down the porch, never to reach the sidewalk.
“This place is full of kids,” I said.
“I know.” He turned and scanned the wide porch. “It used to be a neighborhood orphanage.”
I reached out a trembling finger and rang the bell again. Before the sound could melt away, a woman peeped through the curtain. Moments later the locks clicked and the door swung open.
The woman of slight build stood in the doorway, her narrow arms pressed against the doorjamb as if it held her instead of otherwise. She looked at us through deep-set eyes encircled by dark shadows that told of her sleepless nights. She attempted a feeble smile and beckoned us to enter. Once in, she reached out a hand in greeting.
“Hello,” she said, “I am Edith. You must be Tray. Jerry has told me about you.”
“Pleased to meet you Edith,” I said. I glanced to Jerry, “But I’m afraid I’m at a disadvantage. You see, I don’t know very much about your case.”
Jerry’s eyes burned into my cheek. He cleared his throat. “I usually tell Tray something about a case,” He explained, “...but being that yours is severe, I thought it best she know nothing until she could examine it herself.”
Since when, I thought.
“I see.” She eyed us curiously. “Please, come in”
Casting Jerry a glare, I followed the woman down the narrow hallway. A large room with an arched doorway sat to the left. Dark shadows engulfed the room where the two main windows hung covered with heavy burlap curtains. Only a narrow blade of light entered through the panels. A sofa of antique brogue sat center the room with two ornate styled, chairs. Jerry took a seat on the sofa. I, of course, waited until the children bounded from it, then sat next to him. Edith sat down in one of the chairs, leaning forward as if her back caught fire.
“Jerry tells me this used to be an orphanage.” I averted my gaze, trying to ignore the children who appeared and disappeared in the shadow.
“Yes it did some years ago. There were as many as 40 children here, I’m told.”
I scooted to one side. “47”
At that moment, a loud crash came from the rear of the hall. I looked to Jerry and the woman to see if they too heard it. From the looks on their faces they did.
“That’s him,” she whispered, “He does that in the early morning. I suppose he wants breakfast.”
Jerry looked at me, then leaned forward “You said, ‘he’. Do you know him?”
She lowered her head, her chin disappearing in her chest. I noticed for the first time her pale white hair, uncharacteristic of a woman her age. A sense of anger swept over me as I thought of the beast in the kitchen that had stolen her youth.
“It’s not your fault.” I whispered, “Take us to the kitchen.”
Garnering her strength, Edith rose and smoothed her wrinkled shift. “This way.” We followed her out of the room into the darkened hall.
At the end of the hallway, the kitchen spread wide across the rear of the house with windows spanning an entire wall that looked out onto the spacious backyard. As I stepped in, I noticed a large pot sitting in the center of the floor. The doors to the cabinets lay open and dangling on their hinges. White wood and stainless steel dominated the kitchen giving it a sterile appearance, but the smell of sewage and rotten food rose up to sting our noses.
“I don’t know where the smell comes from,” she said, “I have tried many things…”
“Not to worry.” Jerry said, “It’s often this way.” He placed the heavy duffle bag on the floor as I walked the space of the kitchen, sensing out the portals used for coming and going. He laid out the contents of the duffle bag placing the blanket down first, then the drum, and the box of incense. Once done he asked the woman to wait for us in the hall. Her eyes brimming with tears, she nodded and stepped out.
“You want me to play the drum?” he asked.
“Yes,but outside the door.”
He frowned. “Tray, he’s a beater, and…”
“I know he is. But he’s also not comfortable with you”
He looked at me with a strained expression. I was right and he knew it, but that didn’t make it any easier for him. To him I was his charge, and thus, his responsibility. He had always thought so since first being assigned by the tribe so long ago. A storm clouded his brow as he gathered up the drum.
“Outside the door then.” he said, “Just outside, so you can hear the beat”
“Fine. I’ll keep the incense with me.”
He looked at me long and hard, his eyes never blinking. Scanning the room as, if to warn the hateful spirit, he nodded and backed out of the kitchen. The door closed with a thud behind him.
Alone now, I spread the blanket on the floor near the door and sat facing the sink. The drum began it’s slow melodic beat. I lit the tray of incense, fanning the fragrance beneath my nose. A child stood in the corner of the kitchen staring. Then, as if startled, turned and disappeared through a window. The soothing sound of the drum took its toll and soon I closed my eyes. Emotions washed over me like a deluge.
“They can’t have my house, the bastards! They can’t have it!”
The thoughts hit me hard, blasting into my consciousness. I listened for the drum as they came again.
“Edith! Is there any food around here! “Where is it, Edith!”
A scent burst through the room, as if through an open window. I gagged on the acrid odor as acid rose in my throat.
“Where is my bottle? You can’t hide it from me, Edith! It’s that damn gardener! I’ll kill him! He ignores me, but I’ll kill him! He’ll know who’s boss then, boy!”
I braced myself, sucking in a breath. Then blowing through pursed lips, I opened my eyes.
Light burst into my vision. I peered through the glare to get a fix on my location. I sat on the floor as before facing the sink, but now new cabinets lined the walls and the setting sun danced through the windows onto the white tiled floor. A bright silent light flashed, and there, at the kitchen sink with his back turned, stood a man. His broad shoulders bent as he heaved over the basin. A retching sound filled my ears, then a spilling. The smell of alcohol permeated the air. The man straightened.
Tall and broad, his figure eclipsed the wide chrome sink. A bellow filled the air, twisting into guttural words. “Bitch! Trying to drive me crazy!”
He slid an arm across the counter top knocking a heap of pans to the floor. My breath quickened. I listened for the drum. The low rhythmic thump continued as the smell of incense competed with the stench of alcohol. The man turned around.
His face lined with finger deep fissures stared into mine, his dark and oily hair roiled about his head. I winced as the smell of alcohol leapt from his open mouth to sting my eyes. He ducked low to see if I peered back. Once he caught my gaze he bellowed, “What the hell are you doing in my house!”
Before I could move, he flung from behind him a huge pot that came inches from my head slamming against the door behind me. Jerry’s voice pierced my consciousness.
“Are you ok?” He sounded so far away.
“I am fine.” I said, “You heard that?”
“See it too!”
I looked down to the pot and watched as it melted away.
“Got it!” He said.
“Ok. Stay clear.” I looked back to the behemoth. He leveled his eyes on me, panting like a rabid dog. My heart fluttered as I straightened to face him. Time to get straight to the point.
“I am Shiote, Shaman of the Tequa people. I have come to escort you to the other side.”
His eyes squinted to slits as he took a step toward me, his body wobbling like a skyscraper in the wind. “Get out!” he bellowed. “This is my house! You are not welcome here! I will hurt you!” The room trembled.
“Things are different,” I said, “Can you not see? The light, it beckons you. You must go to it.”
“Get out, damn you!” He took another step.
I inhaled a breath, pushing it deep within my chest. Then, with all my strength, I thought him back. He stumbled backward, spitting and spewing as if the air flew from his lungs. He slid a hand behind him to brace himself against the countertop.
“Ok, now don’t do that again,” I said. “Just listen”
His mouth hung open, choking me with it’s stench. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a string of candy beads. I held them in the air.
“Yours,” I said “..from your father. Do you remember?”
He stared at the beads wiping a beefy hand across his brow. “Daddy?” His voice softened. His form seemed to shrivel, shrinking to a more regular size.
“Your father awaits you.” I said, “It is time you leave this place.”
“But,--it is my home.”
“Was. You died.”
He moved forward. I pushed back. He looked at me, eyes wide and brimming with tears. I tried again.
“This life is over. Another awaits. The stories were true. You must leave or…” I searched my mind for something relevant. “…or you will lose all you worked for.”
He straightened. Reaching out his hand, he pulled the candy string from mine. I did not resist as it floated through the air. He lifted the string to his lips, taking a bite of the candies. Something of a smile crept across his lips as the darkness surrounding him faded. I blew a sigh of relief: Not a dark spirit, just a confused one. The light streaming through the window brightened to a white-hot glare. I wanted to reach out and take his hand but he smelled so bad I just pointed.
“Go.” I said, “That’s the way”
Nodding with the candy still in his mouth, he walked into the light and disappeared with a loud pop. I shuddered. They all leave differently, I thought, some with a bang some with a pop. But no matter how they leave, I always shudder. Suddenly, Jerry’s voice burst into my consciousness.
“I’m fine,” I said, “bring me back.”
The drum beat louder and louder. I closed my eyes concentrating on its rhythm. When I opened them again, I sat in the old kitchen atop the Indian blanket. I blinked twice. The kitchen lay in shambles. No longer pristine, the tiles and cabinets lay broken in pieces on the floor and the chrome sink hung like a drunk from the wall. Jerry burst through the door, coming to kneel before me.
“Shit!” he reached to my forehead, “You’re bleeding! Snippy’s going to kill me!”
I reached up to feel the wet sticky fluid clinging to my skin. “I guess he did get me with the pan.” I searched Jerry’s eyes for a hint of a smile. I found none.
“Come on!” He pulled me from the floor, his eyes darting about the kitchen “Let’s get out of here. I‘ll fix the wound in the car.”
It wasn’t unusual for a house to look different after a return, but it was for Jerry to be unnerved. He looked decidedly worried, which on such an impressive man, unnerved me. “Jerry what happened?”
Outside the kitchen, he stuffed the drum and blanket into the duffle bag, and hoisted it over his shoulder. Placing a hand behind my waist, he moved me with deliberate speed through the darkened hall.
“Whoa!” I said, “What’s the rush? Where is Edith?” I looked up into his face but something else caught my eye. Dust bunnies billowed from the corners of the once pristine hallway and the paint on the walls streaked pale with chips. The air itself hung heavy with a thick layer of dust and the carpet lay torn and frayed.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked, but I knew the answer. The little girl with the fire red hair stood smiling in the doorway.
“Edith...” he breathed, “...she was a spirit as well” He pulled open the door. The little red haired girl whisked away in a ribbon of smoke. “When he disappeared, so did she.” He scanned the porch before stepping out. “The children---they are of a different sort”
Feeling much like a duffle bag myself, he pulled me along to the end of the porch then pushed me down the steps to the walkway. I turned back to the house and stared up into its dark foreboding heights. Old and decrepit the house stood vacant, its windows filled only with the faces of the children it once housed. I thought of the woman who brought us here to help the man, and the man whom without the memory of his father would have never made it home. The memory of his father? How did I know about his father, and how did I get the candy necklace in my pocket?
I looked to Jerry who in his hurry threw the duffle bag into the bed of the truck. The street swayed and rolled beneath my feet. I tried to cry out as darkness blanketed the sky. I stared into Jerry’s panicked face as all around me faded to black.
“Tray, Tray! Get up! Jerry will be here in a few minutes!”
Snippy’s voice blared into my ears. Disoriented and still kicking my feet, my eyes shot open. The glare from the window blinded me. Shuttering to focus, the room finally faded into view: my bedroom, with snippy standing at the towering wardrobe throwing clothes out and across the bed.
“So you know what you are going to wear?,” She asked, “You know Jerry is always on time, like some freaking alarm clock.” She turned and moved to the bed, carrying with her a pair of jeans and white blouse. She glanced up to see my response. “Why you looking at me like that? Is white the wrong color?” She lifted the shirt into the sun light. “I heard he beats her, poor woman. Did you have a premonition about it?”
I sat up in bed feeling the soft but solid bedding beneath my fingers. The sun streamed through the blinds as the smell of bacon and eggs wafted in the air.
“You never cook bacon without eggs and toast,” I said.
“What?” She paused, then rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Anyway, you think the guy still beats her?”
I scooted to the bedside. Scanning the entire room, I looked down to the floor. My socks lay crumpled in a heap next to an old magazine.
“He used to beat her,” I said.
“Well, I hope she can forgive him or she’ll be in the same spot as he.”
“She is,” I said, “And she did.”
I looked down to the floor and picked up my socks. As I pulled them on a thought pricked my mind, this time crystal clear.
I never owned any mules.