Hanging by a Thread
They say our house is cursed, and maybe it's true. It's been in my mom's family for almost a hundred years. It was a dress and alterations shop until ten years ago, when my mom and dad poured all their money into restorations so we could live in it. As soon as it was finished, they got divorced and we all moved away. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Three weeks ago, my mom and I moved back to town. We were finally getting around to hanging pictures on the walls, and the first one we pulled out of the moving box was of my great-great-grandmother Alma. In the old black-and-white photograph from the 1920s, she's standing in front of this same house.
The image is of Alma in her early twenties and very pregnant. She looks pretty in her simple wool serge dress. But she's overshadowed by the young woman standing next to her, who is wearing a gorgeous wedding gown. Silk voile drapes the bodice and dropped waist, and the Cluny lace veil is accented with small white feather plumes and pearls. If you look carefully, you can detect a darkness, a hint of fear, behind the young woman's shy smile.
The day after the picture was taken, both Alma and the young bride were dead.
I hung the picture while Mom watched, hands on her hips, directing me to move it a little higher, a little to the left. She's a perfectionist. I'm the creative type. Needless to say, this caused problems in our relationship, but we were treating each other gingerly. The move had caused enough stress already, and we were one sharp word away from a meltdown.
I wasn't exactly thrilled about leaving my old high school in the city and coming back to a tiny town where I only had one friend, but I was determined to make the best of it. I'd lived in Winston until I was ten, and I'd kept in touch with my best friend, Rachel, ever since. She'd grown up to be beautiful, popular, and—thanks to her dad's involvement in several start-up companies that had done well—rich, and she'd promised to get me connected with the in crowd at Winston High.
This was my big chance to finally fit in. Don't get me wrong—I'd loved my two years at my private arts high school. It was where I got interested in fashion design, and I'd made some good friends. But I'd had enough of the artistic temperaments competing for attention at the Blake School, enough of the drama and the edginess of the San Francisco art scene. I was tired of sharing a cramped two-bedroom apartment with my mom. I just wanted to know what normal felt like, and a sleepy little beach town with a population of two thousand people seemed like the perfect place to find out.
My mom wasn't adapting very well to being back, however. When we'd moved three hours north six years earlier, it was like she decided to put her entire past behind her, not just my dad. She broke contact with all her old friends and threw herself into her new job in the city. As the years passed, she changed. She became more polished, more professional, and more distant.
When my dad lost his job a few months ago and couldn't keep up with his child support payments, private school was suddenly no longer an option. Then rents went up in our building, and the accounting firm my mom worked for was hit hard by the economy and she lost some important clients. When my dad offered to sign over his share of the house in Winston, she saw a solution to our problems. She bought out a small accounting firm in town from a man who was retiring, the renters moved out of the old dress shop, and we moved back as soon as school was over.
"So sad," she sighed, once I'd hung the photograph exactly where she wanted it, in the small foyer of our house. "Poor Alma."
It's the exact same thing she said when I hung the photo in the San Francisco apartment. I remember because I didn't know the story back then and I wanted to know what was so sad about it. My mom gave me a watered-down version, but later I got the whole story from my grandmother.
Back in 1923, Alma was a newlywed herself, excited about the arrival of her first child, planning to quit her job at the dress shop after giving birth. Her last big project was a wedding dress for a beautiful young woman engaged to a violent and jealous man named Forrest Hansen. Hansen had accused his fiancee of secretly seeing another man, an attorney in town, and though she'd denied it, she made the mistake of stopping to talk to the attorney one day when they met in the street. Hansen followed her to the shop that evening, waiting in the shadows outside while Alma made a few final alterations and a photographer took the bridal portrait for the newspaper. After the photographer left, Hansen stormed into the shop, yelling accusations. While the lovers argued, Alma must have tried to intervene, because after shooting his fiancee, Hansen shot Alma too.
She lived long enough for her baby to be taken from her that night. The coroner wrapped the baby in the wedding dress, which was lying nearby on the cutting table, to keep her warm. The baby was a healthy girl—my great-grandmother Josie—who would go on to work in this same dress shop when she grew up.
Hansen was caught, tried, and executed. But something else happened that night. Amid the terrible storm of jealousy and rage and violence, Alma's innocent baby was born with a strange gift, one that she passed along to one of her own daughters—my Nana—and eventually, when I was twelve years old, to me.
"Well, I've got to get over to the office," my mother said, yawning. There was a lot of paperwork she still had to do in order to transition the prior owner's clients.
"Rachel and I are going downtown to sell," I reminded her. Rachel and I had started a business together, selling my one-of-a-kind fashions. We'd done pretty well last weekend and I was hoping we'd sell even more today.
"Okay. Good luck. I left you some money on the counter if you want to get lunch in town."
"We're going to the beach tonight." I said it in a rush, hoping Mom would let it go for once. Rachel's friends' standard Saturday night outing was to meet down at Black Rock Beach, build a fire, play volleyball until it was dark, and then sit and talk until midnight. For the last two weeks, she'd invited me along. I lived close enough to walk home—our town was small enough that you could walk from one end to the other in half an hour—but Mom still wasn't happy about it.
"Oh, Clare . . . ," she said, dismayed. "Can't you guys just go to someone's house? Or get a pizza or something?"
"Come on, Mom, it's only June twenty-ninth. Four more days until the madman strikes again."
"That's terrible—don't joke about it!" Mom exclaimed. She was more upset than I'd realized.
"Haven't you seen all the extra security they're bringing in for the festival?"
"Not at the beach."
"Well, they don't want kids hanging around in town while they're setting up. Where are we supposed to go?"
"You could always invite your friends here."
I rolled my eyes. Yeah, right, like Rachel's friends would want to come to my house. I was hoping to keep a low profile, and not just because I was the new girl. Our family had kind of a reputation in town. When I was little everyone used to say the old dress shop was haunted by my great-great-grandmother and the young bride who had been killed there. They said the reason my parents got divorced was that the house had cursed them. And when people in Winston got tired of gossiping about the rest of my family, my eccentric grandmother gave them plenty to talk about. I was learning that that was the downside of small-town living—everyone knowing everyone else's business.
"Nothing's going to happen," I said, with feeling. "Whoever did it, he's long gone. Besides, this town's going to be crawling with tourists and cops. It'll be like the safest place in the state."
I held my breath, hoping I hadn't pushed too far—tourism was still way down since the murders these last two Fourth of July weekends—and after a moment, my mom nodded. "Okay. But make sure you have a buddy when you're going up and down the path, and don't go in the water after dark, and—"
She stopped midsentence and gave me a crooked frown, hugging herself. For a moment she looked worried and fearful, nothing like the polished professional I was used to seeing walk out the door in the morning, dressed in her boring power suits, with her heavy bag over her shoulder.
"I'll be careful, okay? Promise."
Mom hesitated for a moment. I knew she wanted to say something else, but we'd made a habit of not saying some of the most important things. And when she hugged me, her familiar perfume seemed tinged with the scent of regret.
© Sophie Littlefield