When socks and library cards go missing, Penny took them. If the lights get left on or doors get left open, Penny is the irresponsible one. She occasionally opens the garage door in the middle of the coldest winter night, allowing the water pump to freeze, and loves to snarf down the last piece of strawberry pie, leaving a trail of crumbs and a sticky, bright red mess on the countertop.
Penny never flushes.
The Swine Flu hit our household this week, and Penny hid the thermometer. We heard her laughing about it early this morning, around 2:17am, as she went about rearranging the boxes in the attic above our bedroom. Then she silently made her way to my son’s room and turned off his alarm clock. The alarm clock he swears he set before going to bed last night. He nearly missed the bus.
Penny is dead.
The story of how we first learned about Penny – the day our suspicions were confirmed, if you will – is a bit unsettling. About two years ago, my wife was carrying a bag of garbage to the dumpster at the end of our driveway when an old man in a beaten-down truck drove by and stopped in front of the house. We live on a dead-end street, so we don’t get much traffic. The man leaned out the window and said, “You know you have a ghost in your house?” My wife laughed, but the guy didn’t. He said the ghost was of a 12-year-old girl named Penny. Then he smiled a toothy grin and drove away. We’d never seen him before, and we’ve not seen him since.
So we set to digging. And this is her story:
Penny Antoinette Irene Nelson was born during the waning moments of an early-Autumn storm in 1809. The local historian will tell you, with that smug countenance of the rumormonger plastered on her pasty-white and wrinkled faces, that it was this storm that spawned the hellacious tornado which leveled the area’s corn and soybean fields. It is that smug expression, with its tiny hint of a wink and an almost tangible plea begging the question, which leads one to inquire further for the rest of the story. And there is far more than leveled corn fields at the end of this story.
Or so I’ve been told.
It is reported that as the sun rose the next morning, struggling to penetrate the All-Saints’-Day-morning fog, the population of my small, mid-western town found their number decreased by fourteen. For found dead, lying buried in the rubble of their farmhouse on the southwest corner of Feightner Street, were the Strausbaugh family. The patriarch, one William Everett Strausbaugh, had been a shut-in for over a decade by this point. Years of plowing, planting, harvesting, and drinking had turned him into a cantankerous, scurrilous, hoary-headed bastard. But people will tolerate the reclusive sort where the scent of wealth is present, and Old Man Strausbaugh was loaded. Each year, to usher in the New Year and inaugurate its slow unwinding, he would host an elaborate party, inviting the locals over to gather around his ample hearth fires and drink his homemade sour mash whiskey. And each year, he would smooth talk some young female house guest into visiting his bedchamber for some festivities of a more lascivious nature. In late January of 1809, his willing guest was one Abigail Nelson.
Abigail settled in the region after nineteen years of wandering the highways and byways at the side of her aging Gypsy mother, Rosalyn. She saw in the fields of corn a chance to finally settle down and start a new life, but funds for seed were hard to come by. On that cold and snow-swept evening, over steaming glasses of spiked cider, Old Man Strausbaugh had made promises to young Abigail Nelson. Promises that tickled her ears. Promises he never intended to keep. He planted a seed of a different sort. And when Abigail told him that she was going to bear him a child, he cut her loose in a vengeful, threat-laden rage.
Rosalyn was furious. All those years of wandering, with not a care in the world and no ill effects to speak of, and it took them settling down for things to turn sour. So she cursed Old Man Strausbaugh. Cursed him good. And with the dawning of that aforementioned midnight hour, he found himself aloft and flying, exhilarated as though in the rapture of a dream, and then smashed back upon the ground with a dark finality. The curse had taken not only his life, but the lives of his wife and twelve children. And in their stead, a new life was born. As the fog lifted, Rosalyn the Gypsy smiled a knowing smile and settled back in her rocking chair cradling her granddaughter.
The funny thing about curses is that they seldom play out in predictable ways. Indeed, Old Man Strausbaugh and his brood were dead, but Penny inherited a bit of his wild streak. Penny grew into a beautiful girl. I’ve seen the pictures, and they are haunting. She had the most penetrating eyes I’ve ever seen, and I imagine her smile could charm the proverbial ice from the proverbial Eskimo. And from reports I’ve read, she too, after decades of sowing wild oats and no small amount of general mayhem amongst the locals, became reclusive. Each Halloween, beginning sometime after 1897, the year she locked herself inside and never came out again, neighbors would report hearing ear-splitting screams emanating from the attic of the mustard-yellow house on Washington Boulevard where Penny Nelson lived. And regardless of the weather conditions, great gales of wind would sweep down the street, generally around the midnight hour, bending the lilac bushes that surrounded the house low to the ground in their deafening wake.
And on the wind was the faintest smell of liquor.
In 1909, long after Rosalyn and Abigail had been carried away and the windows boarded up, from the inside, the house simply blew away. No body was ever found. The property, overgrown with crab grass and nettles, but with blossoming lilac bushes still firmly rooted around the perimeter, sat vacant until 2003. That’s when I bought it. And it’s where I later built my house. Upon the advice of my neighbor, the local rumormonger historian, I opted for a cream-colored siding as opposed to mustard-yellow. And I stay away from drinking. But the wind has been picking up lately, blowing the leaves across the property and piling them up at the base of the lilac bushes. We decided to keep them. And the forecast for Halloween? Stormy . . .