full screen background image
         
  Table of contents Issue Twenty-two THE ALWAYS-SUMMER CLUB

by
HUGH CENTERVILLE
Home  
   

E

ddie, the kid in the center of the boat, the kid who’d rowed them out to the island, grabbed onto the wooden stanchion and pulled the rowboat around so it was flush against the side of the tumbled-down pier.



“All you have to do,” the kid in the front, whose name was Percy, said, “is go inside and close the door and count to ten and come out again. Even if you run all the way back down here screaming bloody murder, so long as you make it back alive, you’re a full-fledged member of the club.”



Eddie squinted toward the abandoned hotel.



It was in a cove and was Victorian, a sylvan mansion with the woods shrouding it and with turrets and gables, and a wide porch, and with the paint faded out of the sun-bleached clapboards.



“Think there’s ghosts in there?” Eddie said.



“It’s a hotel, not a house,” Percy said.



“Ghosts can haunt hotels,” Eddie said, “same as they can haunt houses or anything else, if they feel like it.”



Percy shrugged.



“Maybe it’s haunted,” he said. “I don’t know. You scared?”



“Not really,” Eddie said.



“The thing about spooks,” Percy said, “they can’t come out until it gets dark, so you’ll be OK, as long as you go now and don’t get lost in there.”



“Place as old as that,” Eddie said, squinting some more, “it’s maybe got a crypt, you know?”



“Crypts are for vampires, not ghosts,” Percy said.



“You see any vampires,” Jimmy, the third kid in the boat, in the back, said, “you get your tail down here fast, before they suck your blood. Otherwise I have to row us back across the river.”



Percy and Jimmy laughed; Eddie wasn’t sure was it a joke or not.



Eddie calculated. The sun had dropped behind the mountains but it wasn’t dark yet. It was the gloaming, the cool evening of what had been a blistering July day, and Eddie figured, did he go fast, he could get up to the hotel, go inside, close the door, count to ten, come out again, and get back down to the boat before it was entirely dark. Just to be sure, though, he checked the flashlight in his back pocket.



“You’re going, aren’t you?” Percy said.



“Yeh, yeh, I’m going,” Eddie said, in a voice lacking in any kind of surety.



“Today?” Percy said, and he and Jimmy laughed.



Eddie stood up, the boat rocking beneath him, the pier on a level with his shoulders so he had to scramble and roll to get up onto the deck. On his knees, he stared some more.



Eddie looked down at Percy.



“Piece of cake,” Percy said.



“Sure, piece of cake,” Eddie said.



Eddie had serious doubts about doing it, now it was time, but he’d be there on the river all summer and the other boys had a club and without membership, it’d be a boring summer for a thirteen-year-old city kid alone in the country, and there was no getting into a club without an initiation.



Eddie got up off his knees and walked to the end of the pier, to the shore. He walked up the slope, thinking how if he had to get away fast, he’d at least be going downhill, then it occurred to him how the ghosts would be going downhill too, except ghosts didn’t actually run. They only floated on the breeze, advantage Eddie.



He went up the stairs and onto the porch. He looked back; the other boys were watching.



He looked through the window alongside the door. It was dark inside and he couldn’t discern much. He thought, hoped, the door would be locked, and if it was, he could maybe fulfill his obligation to the club without actually going inside.



He grasped the doorknob, turned it, pushed slowly, and the door creaked open. He stepped inside, into a darkened lobby, and remembering he was required to close the door behind himself before he counted, he hesitated and finally closed it, just not all the way. Counting aloud, and more deliberately than he’d anticipated, he’d thought he’d do it really fast, he looked around the cobwebby, once-elegant interior. There was a piano, plush chairs and spittoons, and paintings on the walls. Wide stairs led up to a second-floor balcony. Just as Eddie finished counting, something, probably a burst of wind, slammed the door shut behind him, and he spun around and grabbed the knob and shook it and the door was stuck, or locked, and wouldn’t open. He pounded and pulled on the door.



“Trying to wake the dead?” A voice startled him and turning, he saw a woman, pale white, so white he thought he could see the bones inside her face. She was about his mom’s age and pretty, in a stern sort of way, and was dressed in old fashioned clothes, a red velvet gown with pinstripes and heavy with flounces and with floppy sleeves and a bodice.



She was tall and stared down at him.



“Are you a ghost?” he said.



“Yes,” she said. “Are you?”



“No!” he said.



“Of course you aren’t,” she said, and looking him over, the T-shirt, cutoff shorts, ball cap and sneakers. “You’re hoi polloi.”



“Are you going to do something to me?” he said.



“I’m going to chop off your head, boil it as if it were a cabbage, and eat your brains.”



Eddie freaked and began screaming and shaking the doorknob.



The tall pale woman put a cold white hand on his shoulder and he screamed even louder.



“I was joking,” she said.



He turned slowly, looked up at her again.



“Honest?” he said.



Her eyes were as cold as her hand.



“What’s your name?” she said.



“E…Eddie.”



“And I’m Mrs. Cleveland Walker,” she said. “Come along…Edward.”



“Come along, where?” he said.



“It’s time for dinner and we don’t want to miss it, do we?”



“I’m sorry, but I have to go,” Eddie said. “If you could just loosen the door…”



“Gladly,” she said. “But first, dinner.”



“I’m not hungry,” Eddie said.



“Neither am I,” the ghost said, and she turned and walked back across the room.



Eddie tried the door again, no luck, and after a moment’s indecision, he followed after her, too afraid of what she might do, did he not follow. She led him along a corridor and into a dining room with faded wallpaper above dark wainscoting. There were gaslights on the walls and a long table with candelabra, plates and silver, cloth napkins in rings, and with about twenty chairs. All the chairs were empty except for two, one on each of the long sides of the table. To Eddie’s left sat a ghost girl who looked as if she were late teens, to the other side was another ghost-girl, about Eddie’s age. Both girls were dressed elegantly, in the fashion of Mrs. Walker.



“These are my daughters,” Mrs. Walker said. “Phyllis and Catherine.”



Both girls had the same ethereal beauty as their mother. Phyllis, the older girl, had the sternness too, and it discomfited Eddie, the way she stared at him. The stare was disdainful, but thoughtful too, as if she were appraising him.



Catherine smiled at him and Eddie was smitten.



She was pale, sure, ghosts shrank from the sun, but for Eddie she was an enchantment with her smile, warm and friendly and everywhere on her face, in her crinkly eyes, lips and dimples. Her chestnut-colored hair was twined with pink ribbons and sparkly things. A rose, blood-red, was pinned to the breast of her gown, the gown an off-white color, its luster faded, as if a sheet of dust lay over it.



“This is Edward,” Mrs. Walker said.



“…Hi,” Eddie said.



“Edward. Hmmm.” Catherine studied him with a finger pressed against her lips. “May I call you Eddie?”



“Sure, you can…may,” he said



She touched the chair next to her.



“Won’t you sit, Eddie?” she said.



He did, and there was an awkward moment, with Mrs. Walker going to the head of the table, the hem of her long dress swishing the floor, and with Eddie sitting, Catherine smiling at him, and with neither of them saying anything. Eddie, at his age, would have found it difficult enough to talk to a regular girl; a pretty ghost-girl just made it all the more impossible.



A ghost-butler arrived, flitting noiselessly, busily around the room. He carried a pitcher and appeared to be pouring water into goblets except there wasn’t any water and the girls thanked him anyway. The butler ladled imaginary soup into real bowls and the girls feigned eating the soup, Eddie too, after he saw how the girls were doing it, spooning it, blowing on it, raising their spoons to their mouths. The phantom meal proceeded from the soup to the main course, meat and potatoes, the butler carving the meat on a sideboard before serving.



“Do you like the lamb, Eddie?” Catherine said.



“It’s…delicious,” he said.



“I’m glad you like it.”



Dinner concluded with a digestif for Mrs. Walker, glasses of milk for the children, and a scrumptious, imaginary apple charlotte.



Mrs. Walker pushed aside her plate and utensils and stared at Eddie, who was five or six chairs down from her, about halfway along the table. She was smiling, her presence slightly less intimidating now than when she’d come to the door.



“Are you a local boy?” she said.



“No,” Eddie said. “We’re from the city.”



That seemed to please Mrs. Walker.



“Up for the summer?”



“Yes, uh, ma’am.”



She nodded.



“Like my girls and myself. We were up for the summer, to escape the heat, and, well, as you may have surmised, we never went home again.”



He wanted to ask why but thought it would be impolitic.



“If you’re wondering how we died,” Mrs. Walker said, “I can assure you, it was tragic.”



“Yes, ma’am.”



“You may go now,” Mrs. Walker said, “and the door won’t give you any trouble.”



Catherine turned toward him and touched his hand and her own hand was cold.



“Oh, Eddie,” she said. “Won’t you stay?”



“He doesn’t want to stay,” Mrs. Walker said. “He only agreed to sit through dinner because he was afraid of what I might do to him, did he refuse.”



“Maybe for just a short while?” Catherine said. “Please, won’t you?”



Eddie looked at Mrs. Walker and she nodded, almost imperceptibly.



“I’ll stay, but not for too long,” he said, and maybe he was afraid of angering the ghosts, although he did feel as if he wanted to stay.



“Oh, yay!” Catherine said, gushing and clapping her hands.



“Catherine,” her mother said. “You’re a young lady. Please comport yourself as one.”



“I’m sorry, Momma,” Catherine said, and she stood up and spoke to Eddie: “I’ll give you the tour.”



She led him around the downstairs, into and through the different rooms, parlors, mostly, and it was like a museum with Catherine pointing out the most interesting features of each room.



“Why do you eat?” Eddie asked. “Since you can’t, I mean.”



“Momma says it’s to provide structure to our days, to give us something to look forward to,” she said, “and it keeps Bennett busy, and we feel we owe him. That’s funny, isn’t it? He’s the help and we feel as if we owe him. He gave his life trying to save us. Momma says that kind of loyalty should be rewarded.”



They went through more rooms and toward the back and into the library, a room with plush chairs, a fireplace, a moose head on the wall, a collection of stuffed songbirds in a glass case, and with the scent of all those musty books aligned on the shelves. There was an ashtray on the arm of a chair and with a pipe in the ashtray. Catherine, mischievous, stuck the pipe in her mouth and spoke and with the voice of a pompous intellectual:



“I’ve read every book here in the library and there’s a feeling of accomplishment, when I close the cover on the last book and go back again to the beginning. It’s as if I’m reacquainting myself with old friends, although I have to say, my friends are the realists, not the romantics. The truth is, my boy, I feel a certain amount of disdain, if not outright contempt, for the latter.” She sniffled. “Cooper and his ilk may be amusing enough for a rainy afternoon but they’re interminable in getting around to whatever it is they want to say, which generally turns out to be not much at all. You concur, don’t you, Edward?"



“Sure I do,” he said. “All the time.”



Catherine was herself again and was rueful:



“Most of the books I don’t understand so well,” she said.



“So you don’t really read them?” Eddie said.



She sighed.



“I’d be bored to tears, wouldn’t I?” she said, “if I couldn’t at least pretend to read them?”



“What else do you do,” he said, “besides not eat and not read?”



“Mostly what we do, we remember. It’s better, or worse, for Momma than for Phyllis and me, Momma has so much more to remember. That’s why I’m glad to have you. It gets tiresome, Momma telling us and us telling Momma. You’re someone who’s never heard any of it before. I just hope it isn’t boring for you.”



“It isn’t,” he assured her.



They toured a few more rooms, and going through the kitchen, Eddie glimpsed, through a partially opened door, stone steps leading down into darkness, and he thought he heard voices from below, voices faint and lugubrious. She led him hastily out of the kitchen, talking the entire time, and he felt as if she was trying to distract him from the uneasiness he’d felt, seeing the stairs and hearing the voices.



“It’s getting late,” he said. “I should go.”



“I’ve got one thing more to show you,” she said.



He hesitated.



“Please?” she said.



He acquiesced and they went back through the hotel and to the front foyer. They went up the wide stairs and down a hallway, then up another flight of stairs, then a third flight, the two upper flights narrow and enclosed in dark-paneled walls. They arrived in a bare attic room with a ladder to the ceiling and with a trapdoor at the top. Eddie climbed the ladder, thinking Catherine was right behind him, and when he opened the trapdoor and stepped onto the roof, she was already there, waiting for him.



They stood behind the railing of a widow’s walk.



“This is where the girls would come with the boys,” she said, blushing, and with just the faintest amount of red showing in her otherwise pale cheeks. “If there was a boy you liked, you’d ask him up here and if he dared kiss you, he was yours for the rest of the summer.”



There was a sweeping view of the river -- summer houses along the farther shore and on the bigger islands, and with boats on the water -- sailboats and power boats and day-liner replicas of nineteenth-century steamboats. There was magic, Eddie realized, up there on the roof. There’d been just a few minutes more of daylight when he’d entered the hotel and now and despite the time he’d been inside, it was still the gloaming, as if time had stood still for him.



“Isn’t the view beautiful?” Catherine said.



It was.



“In the mornings,” she said, “we’d take breakfast on the veranda, and in the afternoons there’d be picnics and croquet and pony rides. Later in the afternoon, after we’d rested, we’d dress for dinner and there’d be a promenade, everyone in their dinner clothes and strolling the gravel paths around the grounds and with musicians in the gazebo and after dinner, we cruised the river.”



Eddie looked for the pier and the rowboat, and the other boys, but a line of trees along the shore blocked his view. Staring out over the river, he realized there was more to the magic than he’d first realized -- none of the boats were modern and the houses were different too, older looking, and those steamboats, maybe they weren’t replicas.



“The hotel had a large flat-bottomed boat with benches,” Catherine said. “We’d tour the river and with a canopy over our heads and with refreshments, and when we returned, there’d be a bonfire and more refreshments, and it was terribly sad at the end of the summer with no one wanting to say goodbye and now it’s always summer for Momma and my sister and me.”



“But, honestly, Eddie,” she said, “and I hope I don’t sound forward, wouldn’t you like to be where it was always summer?”



He was still staring out over the river, at an approaching boat, a boat like what Catherine had described, a flat-bottomed boat spewing a plume of black smoke and soot. There was a red- and white-striped canopy and beneath the canopy, on benches, women dressed in the era of Catherine and her mother, and mustachioed men wearing bowler hats.



He turned toward her, to kiss her; it’d be his first ever kiss. She leaned into him and accepted his kiss, her lips touching his, and immediately she began gagging and hyperventilating, and there were tremors going through her, as if she was trying to eject something out of herself, and the ejection, when it came, was a foul regurgitation, a putrid, wet miasma that engulfed and splattered her, and Eddie, too.



“Jesus,” Eddie said, and he watched in disbelief and through the foul miasma of her heaving eructations as she transmogrified out of her cute adolescence, going through a century of advancing decrepitude. Her skin began hardening and cracking. Her hair shrank, as if it were being yanked back inside of her skull. Her eyes and nose collapsed into smoking craters; the shards of skin fell away from her head and face, revealing a bulbous, yellowed skull with strands of gray and white hair intertwined with faded pink ribbons, and without lips, her mouth was two rows of fully displayed teeth, Death’s frozen grin.



Eddie went down the ladder so fast, his feet hardly touched the rungs. He screeched down the three flights of stairs, and Catherine, her clothes heavy on her skeletal frame, collapsed against the railing. A few moments later and Mrs. Walker, transmogrifying now too, approached Catherine from behind.



“Oh, Momma,” Catherine said. “I let him get away, didn’t I?”



“Au contraire,” Mrs. Walker said, laughing gaily. “I was waiting at the bottom of the big stairs and he ran right through me. He got to the front door, and I had it locked and jammed, and he about ripped it off the hinges, and he ran streaking down the lawn and to the boat, into the arms of Percy and the other boy. Here they come now.”



They looked down to the sloping lawn and saw a sullen Eddie, accompanied by Percy and Jimmy, approaching the hotel.



“We best get downstairs,” Mrs. Walker said. “Bennett will have the tea prepared, and afterward we’ll go down to the crypt, so Edward can get started on his initiation.”



“Phyllis is going to be angry with us,” Catherine said, as they were going down.



“Yes,” Mrs. Walker sighed. “She’ll say we’re monsters and she’ll go to her room and spend the night sulking, and are we monsters, really?”



“With all the boys we’ve collected in the crypt,” Catherine said, and there’d have been a devilish grin on her face, did she still have a face, “and with all we put them through, I’d say yes, we are.”



Mrs. Walker laughed, delighted. She was still laughing when they got down to the foyer, where Eddie and the other boys were waiting. She stroked the top of Eddie’s head with her thumb.



“What do you think, young man?” she said. “Are we a couple of monsters?”



Eddie, feeling the last of his flesh slithering like hot wax off his bones, only nodded, his stupidly grinning skull bobbing at the top of his neck bone.



   
   

 

endmark



Hugh Centerville lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. He likes, in no particular order, baseball, cats, tall spreading sycamores and old Indian stuff. Hugh is an author and editor at Centerville Books and blogs with his siblings at HughCentervillesblog.com.



The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.