Ghost Story

We fell in love with the house as soon as we saw it- a cape-cod style built in 1910, remodeled (and expanded) in the early aughts, painted a cheerful yellow and just right for our tiny little family (two adults and two cats: we were hoping to up that by at least one baby in the near future).  The couple who had it before us had been there for more than forty years, but had decided they could no longer handle the stairs.

If I'm being honest, it was the garden that sold it more than the house itself.  The wife, Nancy, had been an avid gardener, and the backyard was a private oasis of serene, sweet-smelling beauty.  I sat on a low retaining wall while my husband Michael eyeballed the foundation, and I could quite clearly see our future children playing in the perfectly manicured grass.

About three days after we closed on the place, when the rooms were full of boxes but we were still sleeping in our old apartment, reality hit me: I am not a gardener, and I had no clue how to maintain my little oasis.  And so I did a little social media stalking and reached out to the former owners for some tips and tricks.  Nancy was delighted to give me pointers, but at the end of our conversation she seemed almost like she was trying to decide whether or not to tell me something.

"My husband didn't want me to tell you this," she said, "and of course the realtor thinks I'm just a crazy old lady.  But I feel so bad about... well, I just think you ought to know."

I felt a chill trickle down my spine.  Ought to know what?  Was there a pocket of hidden black mold behind the bricked-in fireplace?  Was the cellar prone to flooding?  Was there an annual snake infestation?  Nancy took a deep breath.

"There's a ghost who lives in the house.  Well, she doesn't live there- but she comes to visit fairly frequently."

There was no rational response to this, and so I said, as politely as possible, "How frequently is fairly?"

"Almost every afternoon, around 1:30.  Sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later.  She's very polite.  I tried to explain that we were leaving but... I don't know that she understood.  She gets confused about things, you know."

"Mmm," I said.

"You don't believe me," said Nancy.  "It's alright.  I didn't believe it myself, in the beginning.  But... well... she likes lemon cookies.  So.  Good luck with the peonies."

I told Michael when he got got back from the store- how could you not share a story like that?  Our very own ghost!  But the days passed, and our attention was taken up with turning our new house into a home, and I soon forgot all about the ghost who liked lemon cookies.

Until the afternoon I stepped out on our back porch and found a young woman- a girl, really- sitting primly in one of my bright white rocking chairs.

"Oh!" I said, because there really isn't much else to say when someone suddenly appears in your backyard that is surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence.  She jumped to her feet, looking vaguely embarrassed.

"I'm so sorry!" she said.  "I didn't mean to startle you.  I'm here for Margaret.  Margaret Nichols.  She, um- she isn't expecting me."  Her face flushed and she looked down at her hands, which were playing nervously with a button on the front of her gown.  She dropped the button and smoothed her skirt.  It was a lovely vintage-style thing, the dark green color extremely flattering with her smooth auburn curls.

"There's- um.  There's no Margaret here," I said, wondering why I sounded so apologetic.

"Oh!" she said, and for a moment she looked like she might cry.  "I... I guess I'll go then.  I'm so sorry to have intruded."

I glanced back over my shoulder at the kitchen, wondering just how she'd gotten through the house without me knowing.  "I think you'd better-" I began, turning back to her- but she was gone.

The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up.

"Hello?" I peered around the porch, as though she might somehow be hiding in a corner.  I stepped out into the garden and rustled the bushes.  "Miss?"

Nothing.  Vanished.  Just like a ghost.

I shivered.

"Well," I said out loud, if only to reassure myself that I was still there.  "That will certainly make for entertaining dinner conversation."  But I didn't mention it over dinner.  Or in bed.  Or at breakfast.  I'm not sure why- perhaps because I didn't want to worry Michael, who was more likely to take the "stranger snuck through the house" position than the "ghostly apparition" position, and insist on an expensive security system.

That afternoon I nervously poked my head out onto the back porch, but no one was there.  I gave a little laugh, feeling silly, and came out the rest of the way.  I needed to do a bit of weeding in the rose bed, so I grabbed my gloves and a little basket as I headed into the garden.

"Excuse me?"

The noise I made can best be described as a "yelp", and I dropped everything in my hands for good measure.

"I'm so sorry!" she said, because of course it was the young woman again.  "I didn't mean to startle you.  I'm here for Margaret.  Margaret Nichols.  She, um- she isn't expecting me."  She looked down at her hands again, exactly as she had yesterday.  I had a hand pressed to my chest, trying to slow my racing heart.

"She... um, there's no Margaret here," I managed to squeak out.  "Remember?"

For a moment she looked confused.  "No, I..." then her face shifted to the same misery she'd shown yesterday.  "I... I guess I'll go then.  I'm so sorry to have intruded."

"Wait-" I said.  "Did... did you maybe mean Nancy?  Nancy Ellis?"  The girl's face grew confused again.

"Nancy," she said.  "I think... I think I knew a Nancy..." her voice trailed off, her gray eyes distant.  But then she shook her head and refocused on me.  "No, no it's Margaret I was... hoping to find.  I should go."  She turned abruptly, her shin-length skirt fanning out ever-so-slightly.

The next moment she was gone.

I sank to my knees, shaking ever-so-slightly.  "Oh wow oh wow oh wow," I said.

I sat there for a while, coming to terms with the fact that I really, truly had been conversing with a ghost.

That evening I called Nancy, not sure if I was doing it to apologize or ask for advice.  As it turned out I didn't get a chance to do either: her voice mailbox wasn't set up.  No help there.

I spent the next morning baking, and by 1:15 pm I was sitting nervously in a white rocker with a plate of cookies in my lap.

The girl appeared standing at the edge of the porch.

"Hello," she said, shyly.  "I'm here for Margaret.  Margaret Nichols.  She, um- she isn't expecting me."  Fingers-clutching-fabric.

"Margaret isn't here right now," I said, trying to keep my voice steady.  "Would you like a cookie?"

"Well I-" she began, looking confused, but I interrupted.

"They're lemon"

Her lips parted every so slightly, and then she smiled.  "I do love lemon cookies," she admitted, and stepped closer to me.

"Well sit down and help me eat them, then," I said, gesturing to the other rocker.  She sat, and took a single cookie from the plate.  She could touch things.  Interesting.

"What's your name?"  I asked, taking a bite from my own cookie.

"Dorothy Easterling," she answered, holding out her hand polite as you please.  "But people usually call me Dot, or sometimes Dottie because of my last name."

I took her hand, and it was cool in mine.  Not cold, like a corpse, but cool- almost like shaking hands with solid mist.  "Nice to meet you, Dot.  My name is Melissa, although people usually call me Mel."

"Oh that's a lovely name!" she said, taking her hand back and breaking her cookie in two.  "I've never heard it before."

"Really?" I eyed her dress again, trying to figure out when it was from.  The silhouette seemed too slim for the fifties.  Forties, maybe?  Thirties?  "I've never thought of it as all that uncommon."

"Well I haven't exactly met a lot of people," she said with a blush.  "So maybe that's it."

"Why are you looking for Margaret?" I asked, and she gave a little start, dropping the cookie.

"Oh!  Um, it's not-" her eyes began to fill and she looked away.  "Not anything... important.  I should go."

"I'm sorry," I said, and I was, but she had already stood.

"Thank you for the cookies, Mel," she said, and dashed away into nothingness before I could respond.

"Alright," I said to the thin air left behind.  "Time to figure out who the hell Margaret Nichols was."

I'd like to say it was a long and dramatic search, but the truth is that it took all of ten minutes with a search engine to discover that Margaret Nichols was the second owner of my house, and had lived in it during the forties.  But there was nothing tying her to a Dorothy Easterling.

"Curiouser and curiouser," I muttered to myself, although it wasn't as appropriate as a crack about Kansas would have been.

Nancy was right on the nose when she said that the ghost- Dot- did indeed appear almost every afternoon.  She always started out asking for Margaret, but if I tried to get her to talk about the woman beyond that, she would get flustered and leave.  It didn't take long for me to stop trying- as it turned out, I quite enjoyed Dot's company, and didn't like upsetting her.  She seemed to enjoy my company, as well- in time she'd even remember a bit from one day's conversation to the next.

How does memory work, for a ghost?  I'm still not sure.

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