by Nicholas Barner
The following excerpt of "A Rite in Steeple Manor" is from Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales, now available in our bookstore and on Amazon.
Lunch was sesame noodles in peanut sauce. Fridays, Kellen met Samantha at House of Jade on his mail route through Reedville’s east quarter. The morning had been beautiful. Orange leaves, Halloween décor staged through all the yards. No unwieldly deliveries. As always, Kellen used the pre-holiday mail lull to better himself. No drinking. Dickens at the bedside. Half an hour guided meditation before breakfasts of yogurt and flax. The healthy living had him invigorated, but also cut off from Reedville’s essentially blue-collar scene. He still had Samantha though, and these dates were his workweek’s highlight. That tiny episode from earlier? Didn’t even cross his mind. Absolutely nothing to worry about.
“Excuse me?” Samantha dropped her fork, mouth open. “Why would you say that?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yes, you did. You screamed.”
“No,” Kellen said, “I didn’t.”
“Yes.” Samantha leaned in. “You just yelled, ‘Let me in your body.’”
Well, that sounded wrong. Kellen did not remember saying that. Didn’t sound like Kellen at all. Then again, when he thought back a few moments, there was some kind of a blank spot. Not a total blackout, but something missing. A quick second or two gone from memory.
“There. Again. You screamed,” said Samantha, pointing to the tablecloth. “Look, you spit out your noodles.”
Oh god, thought Kellen. “I—I screamed?”
“Yup. Your eyes rolled up. You said, ‘Feed yourself to the beast.’”
“No,” said Kellen. “No way.”
“We should go. People are staring. Are you wasted?”
“Of course I’m not.” Diners were watching though. A mother in a booth by the fish tank covered her toddler’s ears and shook her head. “Okay,” said Kellen. “Let’s go.”
My Dear Neighbors of Reedville,
Lily Celeste Weaver is the name of my four-month-old daughter. My own name is Rita Weaver. Most of you know me as widow to Dacey Umbridge, Reedville’s deceased resident of Steeple Manor. Dacey collected rare books, sported British wool suits, and accumulated much personal lore. Of course, you already know the stories. He married a succession of younger women, the last of whom was me. Lily is his daughter, but Dacey didn’t live to meet her. You know that story too, mostly.
Parts of what I will write here, I also reported to the police. As of tonight, they’ve taken no action, which is to be expected. I was rebuffed by Deputy Todd Greeley, who noted that after Dacey’s death, I acquired “the obvious capacity to buy protection.” I doubt I’ll outlive the accusation of murdering my husband for his fortune, and I had come to accept it. But recently the lie has grown to a liability. My safety, however, is not what needs protecting. It’s Lily’s.
In recent weeks a man has come, an unwelcome man, falsely asserting his Reedville origins. He is a liar and a maniac, who in fact hails from a faraway place, somewhere you have never been, nor will ever go. This man has come to take away my Lily. If he does, I am sorry to say, we will all pay a sickening price.
Kellen lay in Samantha’s clawfoot tub, lavender soaps marbling the hot water. Samantha dabbed his forehead with a washcloth. “That makes no sense,” she said. “Can’t be heatstroke, highs are in the sixties. Tomorrow’s Halloween.”
“Maybe not heatstroke, but I did bump my head. Halfway through the morning. On Steeple Street. Small box going to… who was it? Horace Fisher. Yeah, Horace Fisher. I remember because I’d never seen the name. Anyway, I pulled the package out, read the label, dropped it at Thirty-Seven Steeple.”
“Thirty-Seven Steeple Street,” said Samantha, in thought.
“Right,” said Kellen. “Rita Weaver’s. The old manor. But Rita’s kept a P.O. box since Dacey died, and anyway the package wasn’t for her. It’s all a little strange, and it gets stranger. Soon as I made to leave, a voice came behind me. Whispery. Deep, asking about the package, like, “Is that for me?” I can’t remember what I said because next thing I know I’m waking up on my back, head throbbing, and this bald man is standing there, staring.”
“This is Horace Fisher?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t he say?”
“No. He only said one thing. ‘You are okay now.’ That’s all.”
“Let me feel your head,” said Samantha, “see if there’s a lump.”
“Oh, there’s a lump,” said Kellen. “Anyway, this bald guy stood like six inches taller than me. Light green eyes. Salt and pepper stubble on a face that seemed pretty old. I asked him who he was, if he was Horace Fisher. If so, was this his address?”
“Oh baby, there is a lump. A big one.” Samantha fished with two fingers in Kellen’s wet hair around a protrusion at the top of his neck. “This is a weird place to get hit. How did it happen?”
True, thought Kellen. How did this happen? One moment it was just another Friday, and the next…
“Shit,” said Samantha. “Again. You screamed.”
For Kellen, there had been another blank spot, same as before, an eventless blip of nothing, like waking from an empty dream. “What did I say?”
Samantha knelt beside the tub, rubbing his temples. “You said, ‘She is the daughter of sorrow. Lily. Lily.’ You said her name like six more times, then you went unconscious.”
“Only a sec, but you have to see a doctor.”
“No,” Kellen whispered.
“What? Why not?”
Kellen was pale, his face sluiced in oily bathwater. “Just listen,” he said. “All this man would say was, ‘You are okay now.’ He picked up the package, said it again. He went inside the manor. I thought he was gone, but he leaned back out and whispered again, ‘You are okay now.’ Fourth time, and that was that. I felt basically, you know, okay, so I finished the morning. A few hours later, I met you at House of Jade.”
“You’re seeing a doctor. This is crazy.”
“I would rather not.”
Samantha stood and left the bathroom, dialing her phone.
The open door let cool air in, fluttering steam off the mirror. Kellen had worked that route for three years, but it had been months since anything went to Steeple Manor. Rita took mail at the general store. Single mother. All that money. Keeping the address off the postage. Still, wasn’t as if any stranger within fifty miles couldn’t tell you where she lived. The manor was Reedville’s most immodest structure. Steeple Street itself was so named for that darkly shingled peak lofting over the old Dutch elms.
The manor’s resident, Dacey Umbridge, was also the stuff of legend. An eccentric aficionado of the upsettingly antique. Old money investor with redacted fiduciary origins. A scholar who’d learned some esoteric, friendship-precluding principle, and then implemented it. Children featured him in urban legends and adults mostly believed them. Rita caught flak too, for marrying that far up, both in wealth and in age, but Kellen figured she made out in the end. He closed his eyes, sank lower in the tub, and pictured the old bald man. Horace Fisher. If Rita Weaver had a new partner, Kellen thought, especially an out-of-towner, the gossip would have zeroed in. Talk would be of nothing else for weeks, which was not the case. So who was this bald guy getting mail at Steeple Manor?
Samantha came back. “I called Neil.”
Kellen clenched his fists, jealous and violated. Neil was his boss, and also Samantha’s ex. One of several practically-not-ex exes Kellen had tried, ineffectively, to befriend. But in a town the size of Reedville, having exes as neighbors, bosses, and even doctors, was essentially the norm. This was in truth the cause for Kellen’s medical avoidance. Valentina Thompson, nurse practitioner to Dr. Leduc, was also Kellen’s worst breakup in history. “Really?” Kellen said, “Neil?”
“He said you can swap routes. Call him later when you feel better. You’re not going by Steeple Street again. Forget it. Switch routes and we’ll see about the doctor, deal?”
The man is bald. The first time I saw him was the afternoon of Lily’s birth, outside Spear Memorial, leaning on a red Jeep that I’ve never seen again, and I doubt was his. My friend Patty was there to drive me home. I live alone in the manor after losing Dacey, and she’d planned to stay two weeks, helping out. The man approached us both, introducing himself as Dr. Horace Fisher, pediatrician. He said Lily would require special attention, and he could offer assistance. We ignored him as anyone ignores creeps and vagrants.
Lily did not, as it happened, require special attention. To the contrary, she hardly cried, fed normally, slept well. Lily’s overall sense of health and ease convinced me that Patty could leave after only three nights.
Then the bald man started visiting. He came in the dark. The first time, Lily woke crying, tangled in the sheets of her crib. I went to comfort her and saw, through the window, the man’s tall form standing outside, spot-lit at the front gate. Perfectly still. I rocked the crib, watching his shadow on the street. Eventually, with not much ceremony, he turned and walked stiffly away.
He did this again and again. Night after night. He would come at eleven and stand until three. Soon, I saw him in the town. First at Skilling Brothers’ General Store. I stood in line with diapers and a package slip. He was hiding in the crowd by the deli. At the register I bought the diapers and gave Bert the slip. He handed me a box addressed to Dacey, which still happens sometimes. Outside, buckling Lily into her car seat, I felt the weight of a large, cold hand suddenly touch my back. I jolted up and slammed my head on the roof, blacking out. When I came to, Horace Fisher was there, his green eyes and leathery, unshaven face some few inches from my own. I gathered my senses and asked him what he wanted.
You can guess what he told me.
I shoved him to no effect. Solid as granite. Nonetheless, he went away. I drove home and spent a quaking, fearful night holding Lily close. Eventually we slept from fatigue. But I had neglected to lock the gate. The morning came with a note on the door. “Deliver her to me,” it said.
The package, too—the one addressed to Dacey—was gone.
Read the rest of "A Rite in Steeple Manor" in Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales.
Nicholas is a farmer by day and a writer of fiction by early morning and night. He lives in Southern California with his partner and their part-dingo canine.
He can be found online at nicholasbarner.com.