Episode Eleven of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
“Look, here, I brought them over.” Dee plopped the pile of documents on Vonna’s kitchen table the next morning. “They were up in the attic, on an old rickety table, along with these photo albums, and I thought they were letters, but they’re not. I was up all night, going through them.”
She watched as Vonna gingerly sifted through the sometimes brittle, sometimes flimsy pieces of paper, trying to decipher the spidery handwriting. She seemed bewildered, and Dee’s hopes that Vonna would be able to explain them began to fade.
“These were in the attic?” Vonna asked, more than once. “I never saw them there.”
“Probably Antonia’s,” Nance huffed. “Doing her diabolical best.” She paged through them but was more interested in the photographs. “Look at these faces! They’re like something out of Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet. What a bunch of creeps! Vonna, do you recognize any of them?”
Vonna leafed through the albums, which appeared to run the gamut from the late 1890s to the sixties. Her mystification was obvious until she came across some photos from the 1950’s, of two women dressed in high fashion, holding cocktail glasses. “Oh my gosh,” she whispered. “That’s my mother and her sister. Oliver’s mother. I never saw them dressed like that before!” The women were clearly living it up, wearing glamorous cocktail dresses, their hair carefully styled, and smiling at the photographer. They appeared to be in a nightclub or dressy restaurant, sitting in a circular booth with a wall of framed celebrity-type photographs and caricatures behind them. Dee peered at the picture carefully, but couldn’t identify any of the faces on the wall.
“Jeez,” Nance said. “Looks like Lucy and Ethel Go to the Brown Derby. All we’re missing is William Holden. I thought your mom hardly ever left the farm.”
“She didn’t,” Vonna said slowly, “but I think this photo was taken before she was married to Dad. Maybe she had a very different lifestyle back then.”
“Well, in the meanwhile, can you figure out any of these papers?” Dee asked. “They look like recipes for – I dunno – spells. Some of them look like song lyrics or poems or maybe chants. These two seem to be almost like test results, like someone had done some experiments and was recording the results, and they’re the most current-looking of all the pages. Ordinary notebook paper. Other ones look like they’re all done by the same person, with this embossed writing paper. Does the letter B mean anything to you?”
Vonna pushed back from the table. “I don’t know anything about any of these. They’re nothing to do with me.”
“But you said,” Nance began, “you said, to Rona and she told me, you said you were going to fight back. To stop Antonia. To get your powers back. Don’t chicken out now.”
“But all this! All this and I still don’t have a clue!” Vonna said, spreading her fingers wide and pressing them to her forehead. “I know I need to stop her, but I’m just – do you know what else she did? She made Drew Wilkes think he was having a heart attack! Yes! Just yesterday! And he got to the hospital and there was nothing wrong with him, just nothing at all! It was all in his head, a delusion, a mirage. And I know she did it, I just know. And I don’t know how to get my powers back, because I don’t know how I lost them to begin with. At least . . . ” She paused and stared at the tabletop for a moment. “I remember thinking I would never use my powers again, that I refused to, and then . . . they were gone.” She looked up and into Nance’s face and then Dee’s. “Do you suppose if I . . . ” Vonna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She held it for a long time and then let it out. Slowly, she opened her eyes and stared at Nance.
Nance also took a deep breath and stared back. “Nope. Try again.”
Vonna closed her eyes again, took a deep breath again, opened her eyes again.
“Still nope,” Nance said. “Try harder. Bear down.”
“If I try any harder, I’m gonna poop my pants.”
Frustrated, Nance turned to Dee. “Okay, go over it again. Tell us exactly what happened, step-by-step, when you and Gina went up to the attic yesterday.”
Dee recounted, as best she could, the devastating actions. Gina opening the wardrobe and letting out a whoosh of bad-smelling air. “It felt evil,” she said, “like it was out to get us. And then that old trunk began moving and Gina threw it out the window, and a big black cloud came out of it. Even worse than the – whatever that was – that came out of the wardrobe.”
“So . . . there were two entities,” Vonna said slowly. “I don’t understand how there was anything left in the wardrobe. It was empty the last time I looked inside. But maybe . . . ” She stood up and walked to the window. When she turned back toward Nance and Dee, she said, “Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s figure this damn thing out.”
Jake had always been a nerd. Indeed, he came from a long line of nerds. His father had been a meticulous collector of coins and stamps, although professionally he was a college lecturer in engineering. His mother’s passion was for household cleanliness and organization. He could barely remember her doing anything else besides dusting furniture, polishing silver, and working in their garden. All her hollyhocks stood straight at attention and her linen closet would have made Martha Stewart weep with joy. He learned young to become obsessive about whatever he was doing. No effort could be half-hearted.
And so, Jake was whole-heartedly, head-over-heels in love with Antonia. She was perfection in his eyes. His romantic fantasies envisioned her as an enchanted, fairy-like creature, too good for this world. It became his goal to make her path in life an easy one, no matter what cost to himself. In fact, he hoped to find some magnificent sacrifice that he could make to prove he was, indeed, her knight in shining armor.
It wasn’t easy. Even though she sometimes called on his service, she held him at arm’s length. Not that Jake was surprised by that. He seemed to have that effect on most women – they thought him a helpful fellow, but not worthy of their attention. He was always just that useful guy who would be a good Designated Driver, so they could party with someone else.
He woke this late April morning with many worries hanging over his head. Last night, after midnight, Antonia had phoned and asked for some help. He went and picked her up from the motel across the lake from Juniper Row where she was staying and, following her instructions, drove as silently as possible down the street and around to the back of Vonna’s farmhouse. There, in the beam of his headlights, he saw the shattered remains of an old wooden trunk. Antonia got down from the truck and fished something from out of the fragments, wrapped it in a scarf and stowed it in her tapestry carryall. Then she asked him to help her break in the back door and go up to the attic. He wasn’t happy about that – he didn’t like the attic at all – but of course, he went along. Antonia got very upset when she found that some of her things were missing, and she went on a rampaging search of the rest of the house, using just her cell phone flashlight as a guide. Finally, muttering that she’d just have to get by, they came back down the stairs and he’d driven her back to the motel.
As she turned to say goodnight, he gathered all his courage and said, “Antonia, I just have to say how much I love and admire you. I’d do anything to help you. If you need money, or a place to stay – ”
“Thanks. A lot. But I’ve got things under control.”
She looked at him with an expression of pity and Jake pressed on. “Seriously, the slightest thing you want, just tell me. I’d move heaven and earth – ”
“Don’t say that. I mean it,” she said, interrupting his plea and causing the words to dry up in his throat. He was so shocked, he couldn’t respond. “You don’t know what you’re saying.” She turned abruptly and shut the door in his face.
He stood for a moment, overwhelmed with a sense of embarrassment and shame. Jake drove home in misery, tossed and turned all night, and woke this morning with a new resolve.
Determined to take some kind of action that would symbolize his willingness to become a new man for Antonia, he walked straight out into his back yard, stripped off his pajama bottoms, and dove into the lake. The water was freezing cold, but after a moment of shock, he began swimming with strong, single-minded strokes that drove him parallel to the shore and all the way to Dee’s pier at the far end of the street. He climbed out and faced the water, feeling the cold air on his skin, and shouted “I will make you love me, Antonia Gray! Nothing can stop me now!”
And then, because a breeze was freezing his nuts off, Jake dove back into the water and swam home to his own pier. Symbolic actions were all very well, and he felt noble as hell, but holy frijole, Batman, it was cold out.
He was about to climb out of the water when suddenly he saw Gina barreling down the pier at him. “You asshole!” she shouted. Jake grabbed for his pants, but before he could, she’d pushed him off the pier and back into the water. “You pathetic excuse of a pussy-whipped loser!” she added, standing over him while he spluttered and tried to figure out how to escape before his jewels froze off. “Why are you helping her? Don’t you know she’s the anti-Christ? You stupid little pubescent brat!” Abruptly, she threw his pajama bottoms at him and he scrambled to put them on underwater. Better than nothing.
Gina reached a hand down to help him out and then, before he could say anything, smacked him right across the face. “Wake up!” she yelled. “Before we all become sacrificial lambs to her agenda. Now go get dressed and come with me to Vonna’s. We’ve got things to do!”
The photograph albums lay open to different pages, and Dee took notes while Vonna tried to remember and identify the folks in the pictures.
“That’s my great-grandma, so I guess that’s my great-grandpa with her,” she said, pointing at the disturbing photo of the man with his hand clamped around the back of a woman’s neck. The woman’s eyes were closed. “I don’t know anything about him except he walked out of the marriage pretty early on. And also he was Italian, an immigrant. No one really talked about him, but I heard a lot about how my great-grandma had to make ends meet as a dressmaker and single mother. So this photo is from around 1905.”
“Did your great-grandmother have powers?” Nance asked.
“I have no clue. I told you, Mom and Grandma never talked about it.”
“What was her name?” Dee asked. “Your great-grandmother.”
“Irene. Um, Irene Robbins Baraonda. But she always ran her dressmaking business under the name Irene Baron.”
“Baron! B for Baron! Or Baraonda, whichever.” Dee said, reaching over to show the monogrammed papers. “So that’s a starting point – we can try to find out her husband’s first name. Figure out whether the magical powers came from him originally. I mean, he looks evil, don’t you think? Maybe she was under his spell.”
Vonna closed her eyes for a moment, and then said, “All I remember was my mom saying her grandmother was always very quiet and sad. Not like Grandma, who was a firecracker. Seriously, that woman’s hair could stand up from her head like a Medusa when she was pissed off about something. She used to scare the bejabbers out of me.” She flipped through the albums to find a photo of a woman in a cloche hat, posing with an antique car. The woman was laughing at the camera man and looking very coquettish. “I never saw this photo before, but that’s Grandma, alright. When she was young. Later, you never knew such a Puritan – she thought chewing gum was the Devil’s tool.”
That was when Gina charged in, dragging Jake behind her. “Okay, guys, he’s gonna spill on everything Antonia’s been doing since the last time we saw her. Or else,” she added, giving him the stink eye, “he’s going to be very, very sorry.” She shoved him down into a chair and he gave the group a nervous glance. “Talk.”
So, like a weak-willed idiot, he did. “All I really know is she was upset that things were removed from the attic. And she took something from that trunk out in the yard.” Under Gina’s fierce frown, he wretchedly added, “She’s staying at the Lakeside Motel. But you don’t understand her! She wouldn’t hurt anyone! She just wants to live her own life.”
“She’s already hurt people!” Nance exclaimed, and told him about all the events of yesterday. “She’s tied in with all those creepy things in the attic and who knows what she’ll do next? She has to be stopped!”
Jake shrugged miserably. He didn’t believe them. They would all of them, but especially Jake, have been seriously disturbed if they’d known that what Antonia removed from the trunk and wrapped so carefully in a scarf was a skull. A skull, and a jumble of small bones that had once been a hand.
Horrible found that he was quite comfortable settling in the uppermost branches of a grove of trees. Like curling up on a comfy quilt. Of course, the flock of birds who’d been twittering there had to immediately fly away, with two or three dropping dead on the spot, but a fellow had to settle down somewhere, right? Regroup. Relax. Plan his next steps.
How long had he been in the trunk? It was all very unclear, as he had not always been conscious of his circumstances, and time was a very liquid concept to him. All he knew was that he’d been disturbed by a presence, someone new. Not Vonna. He was familiar with Vonna, at least with her essence, which was all he could experience while in the trunk. Like a scent that was recognizable to a dog. He’d known her since her childhood, when she would run and play in the yard or barn. But this new presence had been different – inquisitive, aggressive. Demanding. Disturbing. Someone who had opened the trunk and not been afraid, and yet . . . he also sensed some kind of familiarity, as though through layers of glass and smoke. He did not trust this presence. It wanted something from him.
Half-slumbering there in the treetop, Horrible thought back to his death. He remembered that, alright. One minute he was alive, walking through the woods, and the next minute he’d fallen down a ravine, slithering downhill on a slick of red mud until he landed on a large rock, severing his spine. He’d lain there for days. Longer, maybe. And from time to time, he was visited by the Other, whose name he never knew, who waited for him to die.
And THAT was the object of his hatred, the one he wanted to find. He would not rest until then.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read parts 1-10 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. To read my blog posts, go here. Or to learn about my books, go here. If you’d like to subscribe and get notifications of new posts, go to my Home Page here and scroll down to the bottom. Thanks for reading!