The wind whistled, black ravens crowed overhead, and dark clouds moved quickly across the sky. The night of the hallow moon was chasing the remnants of the day over the horizon, and time was slipping quickly. I was perilously close to missing evening Mass, an absolute no-no to Mother Agatha. But when Theodore and Bruno showed me where they had hidden the keys to the mansion that they had stolen from the groundskeeper, I knew I had to take the opportunity right away. Now, I was safely away from the orphanage and had veered off the moss-covered pathways of the grounds and into the woods, where the trees whispered to me the short cut back to my home. As I moved through the brush, zigzagging between the trees, I could hear the faint sound of organ music, which jogged cobwebbed memories.
I was a little girl—about five—with blond ringlets and a pink bow holding them off my face. My dress was the softest shade of blush, made of the finest English lace and the most delicate Indian silk. I was playing hide and seek with my father, Edgar. He hid behind the grand organ in the living room, and when I ran past, he jumped out.
“Boo!” Edgar said.
I let out a tiny scream, and then ran towards him with fists drawn.
Edgar let me pound his chest, pretended to fall, then recovered and lifted me into his arms. He twirled me around as I clung to his strong neck.
“A Boo! for my little cranky bear,” he teased.
“I’m not cranky,” I said as I burrowed my head into his shoulder until my mother, Alyce, walked in with a bundle of roses from the garden. Her golden hair was long and held into a loose bun on the top of her head. She was as beautiful as a queen and she was mine.
“Come here, Serafina,” she beckoned. I wrestled out of my father’s arms and walked to my mother. He went to the organ and sat down to play my favorite song.
Alyce crouched down next to me. She pulled a single rose from her bundle. “Here, my dear. This red rose is my love for you, and these thorns are my protection of you always.”
I took the rose carefully in one hand, and held her hand with the other. I was loved. I was safe.
That was a feeling like no other, one that lifted me above the clouds and gave me the strength to endure the last seven years since the carriage crash that killed them. I have kept that feeling locked in my heart. I would never let Mother Agatha take the last gift my parents gave me. I would never let her break my heart to take it, though she tried every day to do so.
The organ music grew louder, drawing me closer with each note, pulling me toward the mansion with an unearthly force. My heart pumped signals of urgency to my limbs. My silk stockings constrained me, made my legs burn from heat. I had to take them off. But stopping was a risk. I looked over my shoulder as I ran. I was panting, I was sweating despite the October chill. Theodore and Bruno would soon realize the keys they had stolen were missing and that I had taken them. They would skirt Mass as well and chase me down. But I knew things they didn’t know about the mansion—I could hide in a dozen places. I stopped by a large pine tree and hoisted up my dress to pull down my stockings, or what was left of them, as they had torn in so many places. Damaged stockings would get me a month on kitchen duty. But I shook off the worry. I hoped to never go back there. I just needed to get to the mansion on the hill almost as much as I needed to breathe.
When I emerged from the cover of the woods, I saw the outline of the gate, though hidden it was from ivy and weed, grown over the seven years of neglect. It was a sight for my tired eyes. I was so close. I ran to the front of the house, kicked the For Sale sign with my foot and stepped over it to get to the gate. The boys had stolen the keys to prove the rumors true that the house was haunted, the reason why it hadn’t sold. They had planned to go there that evening, and had told me of their plan because of my name—thinking that I would protect them because of it. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, especially of ones in my house. I pushed the vines away from the rusted ironwork and then traced my fingers around the letters on the metal sign. Serafina, the name of my grandmother who built this house—my name, too. This was my rightful home. I belonged here, not in the cold, drafty, prison of Mother Agatha’s Home for Orphans.
I steadied my hands and put the key into the lock. The lock was rusty and I was afraid of breaking the key. But I jiggled the key and the lock finally clicked, releasing the chain. I opened the gate, replaced the chain and the lock—locking it. I looked up at Serafina, and willed myself to remember the house at it was, not as it looked. Victorian in style, the grand house had too many angles to count. The windows were boarded, and the once vibrant paint was now a dulled gray and moldy yellow. Ivy grew up around the edges and filled in a large portion of the exterior walls. The mahogany front door had remained the same, though. It was the same door my grandfather Edward had carved from wood sourced from the property. My grandmother had carved the family crest in its center—a two-headed mythical creature rising from a fire with the family surname, Holdings. My family was strong and sturdy, holding on through the generations. I had not lost them, even though I was the last. I had just … detoured from them.
I walked up the steps towards the door, placed my feet gingerly on the wood planks, as some had rotted. I checked behind me again, but there was nothing but overgrown bushes and plants and grasses. The gate melted from view and I returned to the front door, where I slipped the second key into the lock. I held my breath as the key turned easily and swung open. I had finally unlocked the door to my past and with any luck, to my future.
Deep, echoing tones of organ music exploded into my senses and I grabbed hold of the door to steady myself. I retrieved a candle from the pocket of my pinafore and lit it with matches I had also stolen from the Nuns. The flame illuminated the front entry before me. I gasped. On a round table, a dozen fresh red roses filled my mother’s favorite crystal vase. I reached with my free hand to touch a petal, and then suddenly, light began to flood the room. The single candle in my hand blew out. One by one each of the gas lanterns in the foyer came on, then they lit in the adjacent rooms. My hand flew to my throat. Behold my eyes! There was the staircase leading up to my room. There was the portrait of mother and father! The house was dusted and clean and brimming with welcome.
I straightened my pinafore and dress, suddenly aware of how lowly I looked. I winced, wished I had kept my stockings on, at least. But then a cool breeze pushed along my lower back, urging me to walk forward. I proceeded with shaking limbs to the parlor with its red velvet wall covering and tapestried curtains. My fingers dragged against the soft material, the carved wood arms of the settee, the marble side table. Gradually, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were voices during an organ stop—I strained to hear them. And then rushed forward for they were familiar ones that I had heard long, long ago and which my soul cried out to hear again.
I stood in the archway of the great room, wrapped my arms around my tummy, and tried to ignore my tingling chest. My father was at the organ, my mother beside him. My stomach clenched, tears welled in my eyes.
“Mother, father,” I whimpered. I felt like I was going to faint.
Within a moment they were by my side. I could see them. I could feel their presence. I could smell my mother’s rose perfume. But something was wrong, very wrong. I started to shiver, my teeth clattered. I reached my numb fingers out to touch my father’s arm.
Zing! A shot of electricity pulsed up into my elbow.
“Ouch!” I shrilled.
“Serafina,” Edgar said, a gentle look flashed across his face. I relaxed at the sound of his baritone voice.
“My darling,” Alyce said. Her hand—a focused energy—combed through my hair. “Did you enjoy your walk? Baby Eva has been waiting for you.”
“Baby Eva?” I said. I squinted to the far side of the room, where a bassinet was indeed stationed.
“Don’t just stand there, come along, silly girl,” Edgar said. Both my parents flitted and fluttered around me, and I was too full of joy to consider that they were formed apparitions and not real.
“I’ll play a song for you—your favorite, Für Elise.” My father smiled as one hand tugged at his ear, and I remembered my mother teasing him that he was nervous when he did that. I looked over at my mother, who stretched out her hand to me. It, too, was cold and electric, but I gritted my teeth and held to it. By bearing the pain, I felt more alive than I ever had. I was energized with electricity from my very own mother! For the first time in seven years, I was home.
Edgar hastened to the organ and began to play. The rhythm of the notes, so familiar to my young ears, brought tears of elation to my eyes. Once again, I was safe and I was loved. Alyce led me to the center of the room and we swayed together. I stared at her porcelain, flawless, yet translucent skin. I studied the curves of her face, and burned them into my memory. She spun me around and dipped me. I laughed. This was real. It had to be.
But then, suddenly, Alyce’s eyes went wide and darted here and there. A split second later and her whole person flickered, and the arms holding me disintegrated. I fell to the ground. The outline of her body returned, but then turned hazy. I couldn’t distinguish a finger from a hand, a torso from a limb. She stared at me with eyes that could no longer see.
“No!” I cried. My father rushed to her side.
“Baby Eva!” Alyce exclaimed while reaching her hand out towards the bassinet that was no longer there.
“Hush,” Edgar said as he brushed a stray hair from across her forehead. His face turned ashen, deep red cracks began to ripple across his cheeks.
“What is happening?” I said. I fumbled to rise. I shook my head.
Alyce sat up and a baby appeared cradled in her arms. I leaned over to see her. My sister had brown curls, like my father. What had happened to her, was she dead, too? Edgar put his arm around Alyce’s shoulder. With his other arm, he reached for me, found me, and pulled me in close. I breathed in his spice cologne and felt warmth for a fleeting moment. Then, my shoulder began to burn and it felt like talons were digging into my skin.
“Serafina, come with us!” Alyce begged. “We are a family!”
I wanted to stay with them, oh God did I want to. But as the world darkened and a tunnel began to take shape with a faint light at its center, I struggled for breath. Something inside of me—my soul perhaps—began to resist.
“No!” I declared. Soon, two forces pulled at me in opposite directions. I went forward into the tunnel of light, and then backwards into the darkness of the ballroom, the darkness of life. My head whirled with decisions and I was getting tired, so tired. I felt a lump form in my throat, and my head spun, mashing up my thoughts. I closed my eyes, gave into the darkness, but then shouted from within, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Don’t leave me, mother! Don’t leave me father …” And then, I opened my eyes for a moment, and I saw them fade into the wood planks just as the lanterns fizzled out.
I curled into a ball and sobbed. The organ music ended. Dust balls covered the floor and cobwebs filled the corners. I pounded on the floor, willed myself to melt into the wood planks. I wanted to be with my family. I could not live on this earth without them anymore. But my soul argued with me ferociously, and my lungs forced me to breath. Slowly, my tears dried up and my breath returned, as did the present. I sat up, reached into my pocket, and found the candle. As I lit it bats scattered from the ceiling, fluttering here and there, scratching the walls, squeaking from fear of the light. I shuffled backwards, stumbled against a sheeted chaise.
My shoulders tightened and fear wrapped its grimy fingers around me. I was lost in my own home. I knew I could no longer stay here, it was not my home any longer. I stumbled to the door, which was still drawn open. The day was turning to night, dusk bringing with it deep shades of orange and red. The hallow moon was making its way into the center of the vast sky. I took the steps one at a time, meaning to walk down out through the gate, and away from the orphanage, a place I hoped to never to see again. But I followed my intuition and walked to the right. In a few minutes, I was standing in front of two gravestones. I knelt down to brush the overgrowth away from the markings. On the first, In Memory, EH, Loving husband and father, 1812-1838. On the other, In Memory, AH, Loving wife and mother, 1810-1838. On the top of each stone was a single freshly cut red rose. I looked for my sister’s gravestone, but could not find it.
As I spoke to the stones and asked for my parents to return to me, I heard a voice. Someone had found me and that someone was not happy.
“Serafina Holdings, you come right here, right now. The devil has possessed you and it is time you repented,” Mother Agatha shouted. I turned to the gate, visible from where I was. There she stood, in her habit, with fire burning in her eyes behind her veil. A police officer was holding a torch, another was breaking through the lock. Behind them, Theodore and Bruno were watching, smug looks flashing across their satisfied faces.
I picked up the red rose, and when I did, I heard the wind whisper, “This red rose is my love for you, and these thorns are my protection of you always.”