[short story] the cottage on peppercorn tree hill

The cottage on Peppercorn Tree Hill was not a cottage: it was a Federation Bungalow with a bay window and Evelyn Millar loved it. From the moment Harold drove her up the dusty road and she saw red brick façade with cream latticework under the eaves, Evie knew they would be happy here. The front was shaded with a large peppercorn tree, for which the hill was named, with a swollen trunk and wide-spanning limbs. Evie jumped out of the car, blonde curls bouncing, and breathed in the fresh country air. A smile curled her lips as she beheld her future looking down at the town below.

            Evie and Harold met in a hospital, though neither was a patient. Her mother Vilma had been volunteering at the 113th Australian General Hospital to care for the many repatriated soldiers wounded in the Pacific. Together with her younger sister, Margaret, Evie spent much of her time there, helping where she could, while their father fought in Papua New Guinea. While assisting the nurses on their rounds, Evie happened upon a fresh-faced, fair-haired doctor by the name of Harold Millar. In spite of horror piling up around her, Evie fell in love.

            Dr Millar’s steady hands and sympathetic eyes were a thing of beauty, and the soothing voice he used to comfort the injured was the sweetest sound Evie had ever heard. In turn, Harold loved Evelyn’s unwavering resolve and her tireless work ethic.  The young coupled remained focussed on their work, ignoring their obvious and mutual attraction, having vowed not to wed until the war was over. When that day finally came, they married in an understated ceremony, with Vilma and Harold’s parents the only witnesses.

            The newlywed Millars would welcome their first child in early 1947, but the war hung heavily in their minds. Doubting their safety in the major cities, Evie suggested a sea change—a place where her family would be happy and safe.  It had been a nervous move from Bondi down to a sleepy little town in rural NSW, but upon seeing the beautiful cottage which soon became home, Evie could not have been surer of her decision.

            Evelyn loved being a wife—and she loved being a mother even more. With her dedicated husband working long hours at the hospital in town, and two young boys in school, nothing was more important to her than the meals they shared, morning and night. Edward, her youngest, was an early riser. A naturally light-sleeping six year old, Edward woke when his mother did and proceeded straight to the kitchen to help Evie with breakfast. Tuesdays were crepe days; Edward squeezed the orange juice.

            ‘You only need to turn the one direction, darling,’ Evie instructed with a gentle voice. Edward had a habit of spinning the oranges every which way, sending the torn pith down into the jug. Evie picked up a fresh half and showed him with slow, steady, clockwise turns. ‘See? Now the juice doesn’t go everywhere and you have more to drink!’

            ‘Can’t I just eat them?’

            Evie chuckled. ‘Well, I suppose you can if you like. Don’t tell your brother.’

            She took a fresh orange from the pile and sliced it into wedges. Edward plucked at them happily, his fingers sticky.

            Robert, now eight years old and much more like his father, didn’t get out of bed until smell of crepe batter bubbling in the pan went wafting down the hallway. The table was set and plates warming in the oven by the time Robert and Harold came to the table.

            ‘Wash your hands please, boys,’ Evie reminded and sent them racing to the kitchen sink. She set a plate stacked high with crepes down in the centre of the table, between the jug of Edward’s orange juice and the sugar bowl. When she was a little girl, her mother had always made crepes with sugar and lemon for her and Margaret; Evie, however, hated lemons—they were much too sour—and instead poured orange juice over her crepes. This peculiar preference continued into her adult life and Evie happily passed the tradition on to her own family.

            ‘They look delightful, Evelyn,’ Harold said, rolling his sugar-sprinkled crepes into little cigars. He splashed a little orange juice over the top. ‘A personal favourite of mine.’

            ‘And here I thought Sunday fry-up was your personal favourite?’ Evie teased lightly. Every Sunday morning she would treat the boys to a hearty full breakfast of fried eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomatoes and buttered mushrooms.

            ‘It would appear I have many,’ he said with a beaming smile.

            Evie served the boys two crepes each and helped Edward to roll his like his father had. ‘Not too much sugar,’ she warned. With a steady hand, she poured the juice, careful not to make the crepes soggy.

            Finally, Evie was able to enjoy her own breakfast, taking the two smallest (and slightly burnt) crepes for her own. Manners dictated one should not eat with one’s mouth full, and yet Evie welcomed chatter at her table. The boys excitedly discussed the games they planned to play with their friends during lunch break; she and Harold mulled over their day ahead.

            ‘I have to do rounds at the hospital this morning before going to the clinic,’ Harold was saying between bites. ‘Mr Demopoulos is due for discharge after his appendectomy on Friday.’

            ‘Oh that’s great news!’ Evie exclaimed. ‘Tia will be so relieved! I’ll call in and see her at the grocery store when I go into town to get things for dinner.’

            ‘What are we having for dinner tonight, my dear?’

            A smile grew across Evie’s lips in silent triumph. She reached across the table and cupped her hand over Harold’s. ‘I was thinking of getting a leg of lamb to roast. If that takes your fancy?’

            ‘Why, Evelyn, that sounds divine,’ he grinned. ‘Roast lamb is a personal favourite of mine.’

 

 

Harold drove the boys down to school on his way to work every morning leaving Evie alone in the cottage to tidy up. She loved everything from the stained-glass windows to the mint-and-black tiled bathroom—keeping it clean was a matter of pride. After the breakfast dishes were rinsed, Evie ran herself a nice hot bath, now ready to get herself polished and proper for the day. A taxi was booked to take her into town for her daily chores but until then, all she needed to do was enjoy a lengthy soak. Lying in the tub until the water began to cool and her fingers shrivel up like prunes was her favourite part of her morning ritual. Evie did this every day, never imagining it would change.

            Evelyn Millar died on a Monday morning in May. She slipped on the bottom of the bath, her head colliding with the edge of the heavy stone sink. Evie was dead before she hit the floor. Naked and exposed she lay on the tiles, blood congealing in her blonde hair.

            Several hours passed before her family returned home. At first the boys were irritated: where was the smell of roasting lamb? Why was Evie not there to meet them with her powdered face and curled hair? But their annoyance soon turned to fear when Harold started screaming for an ambulance. Drawn by their father’s cries, Robert and Edward raced to the bathroom. Harold cradled Evie’s cold, lifeless form. There was nothing any of them could do.

            The Millars left the cottage on Peppercorn Tree Hill in June 1956. They couldn’t continue living in a house where their mother was not, let alone in the house where she had died. With only clothes and memories stuffed in their suitcases, Harold Millar took his two sons back to the city, to the place where his parents still lived. Everything was left behind.

            Everything, including Evie.

 

 

Evie didn’t realise her fate until a new family moved in to the cottage several months later. She woke as if from sleep, as if it was any other morning of her life. But Harold was not beside her. The sheets were not even mussed. Evie raced to mirror above her dresser. He eyes strained to see through the layer of dust and veil of cobwebs. How had her carefully maintained bedroom gotten so dirty? Evie rubbed her eyes, unconvinced by what she saw. Her body was indiscernible, her edges frayed and transparent. Permanently twisted from the fall, her cracked head sat bent at an odd angle atop her bare body.

            Evelyn Millar was stark naked and dead.

            Realisation hit her with the force of a steam train. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, but no tears came to her deceased eyes.

            How? When? She had no memory of the event, no clues outside her nakedness and broken neck. Where was Harold? Robert? Edward? Did they know? Questions swarmed her like a hurricane. Her intangible form flickered under the distress. Wailing grief rocked the window panes, knocked down photos in their frames. The whole house shuddered.

            Evie made for the window. A moving van bumbled up the hill to join a group of strangers on her front lawn. Two boys chased an energetic Labrador around the peppercorn tree.

            What is happening? Emotions surged within in her, a confused overwhelming maelstrom. She shouldn’t be here. It was wrong, unnatural—but it was her house. Who were these people to march up her front steps into her beloved cottage? Indignation swelled in her chest and Evie forgot herself. She burst from the bedroom in a great gush, the door banging in her wake.

            ‘Heavens what was that?’ A woman gasped, pulling one of the boys protectively against her stomach. A man chuckled.

            ‘Just the wind, my dear. My, you’re awfully jittery.’

            ‘I’m not sure about this house, Arthur. It’s so … isolated.’

          ‘Isolated? Dear Eliza, don’t you mean private? Our own little perch on top of the world.’ Arthur placed a fatherly hand on the child’s head and kissed his wife. They were happy. Happy, like she and Harold had been. Evie’s rage melted away, suddenly ashamed at the anger she felt for this sweet young family. She dashed for the linen cupboard at the end of the hall and passed right through the door. Was there any point in hiding? Could the living even see her? Surely they could not. Why else would Harold leave her here alone?

            Sleep descended upon the household. Evie huddled at the bottom of the cupboard. From her head’s crooked angle, she watched the fading of lights beyond the crack of the doorjamb. Limbs unfurling from their comforting embrace, Evie rose to her feet and stepped out into the hall. Her hollow chest ached as she passed the kitchen, the living room, the foyer. She melted through the front door and out into the night.

            The sky was starless. Evie’s bare footsteps made no sound as she crossed the dew-damp grass towards the peppercorn tree. Wind rustled its spiny leaves. A wooden plaque lay at the base of the thick, gnarled trunk.

In Memory of

EVELYN MARIE MILLAR

1923 - 1956

Beloved wife of Harold

Mother to Robert & Edward

It was a hard thing, to look upon her own headstone; Evie bore it with as much strength as she could muster. Her bones were buried here—she could feel them. A numbness entered her. It started in her chest, like the touch of an icy finger, and then spread throughout her extremities. Is this what it felt like to die? To fully acknowledge the death of her humanity? Evie tore her eyes away from the sign. She wasn’t ready. She had to find Harold, had to tell him she was still here.

            It would be a long walk into town.. What a sight she would be to all those who could behold her! Naked, parading through the streets, with her makeup un-made and her neck snapped in two. But Evie was not perturbed; she marched on with purpose. Surely someone must know where her Harold went. She would ask, listen, learn. Do anything to—

            Evie’s footsteps froze. She’d reached the mail box at the edge of the property and she could go no further. The air before her was as immovable as a brick wall. Her legs were anchored to the earth. Evie strained against the invisible bonds to the point her body flickered in and out like a badly wired lightbulb. This was it. Evelyn Millar was dead. And she was never leaving.

 

 

The new residents of the cottage on Peppercorn Tree Hill were the Sutherlands. Arthur and Eliza had been married ten years, had two sons—Jack and Matthew—and had just moved here from a nearby town, having come into some money following Arthur’s father’s passing.  They bought the house fully furnished for a good price and moved in right away.

            ‘Well apparently something happened to the wife and the husband was in an awful rush to leave,’ Eliza told her friends when they came to see how she was settling in. Four women sat in the living room, balancing tea saucers on their knees as they gossiped. Evie listened from the kitchen. She’d since learnt to manipulate her form so she could appear completely transparent.

            ‘I’ve heard about that,’ said a blonde in a blue sundress far too inappropriate for the early spring weather. ‘The Millars, right? A close friend of my husband’s worked with—oh what was his name?’

            ‘Harold. Harold Millar,’ another woman said. ‘It was all over the local papers. Such a sad story. Poor Evelyn.’

            Evie thought she looked familiar: it was Sally Bourke from the post office. While they were hardly what one would call friends, Sally was always polite and cordial whenever Evie called in for errands.

            ‘She died in this house, you know,’ Sally continued, setting her teacup down on the saucer. ‘An accident, supposedly, but, well, no one ever looks at the husband the same way when a woman is hurt. I’m just saying, he did leave town awful quick.’

            A glass smashed on the kitchen floor; the ladies jumped and turned their heads towards the sound. Evie’s rage simmered in her hollow core. Her emotions had been erratic and volatile since the change. The more emotional she was, the more she found she could influence the living world. With an incensed wave of her arm, she’d swiped the glass from the counter.

            ‘Must have been the dog,’ Eliza assured her guests with a nervous smile.

 

 

Evie tried to remain an inconspicuous presence in the Sutherland household. She slipped up at times, like the incident at the tea party, accidentally banging doors or knocking things over. Her emotions had been erratic and volatile since the change. It was hard to understand how she might react to any given situation. To make matters worse, the dog was becoming increasingly alert to her presence and would bark whenever she entered the same room.

            Every Sunday, the family gathered around the dinner table to enjoy a filling roast, Evie had once done with her boys. In her best invisible state, she moved about the room, recalling the memories of lamb, rosemary and hot, buttered potatoes. The Sutherland’s youngest, Matthew, reminded her oh so painfully of her little Edward, with his sandy locks and wide, long-lashed eyes. Matthew hadn’t touched his meal; he pushed peas around his plate with his fork but never brought anything to his lips.

            ‘Eat your veggies, Matthew, or there’ll be no crumble for dessert,’ his mother warned.

            ‘Are you ill?’ Arthur pressed a hand to his son’s forehead.

            ‘It’s haunted,’ Matthew said.

            ‘It’s what?’

            ‘It’s haunted. The house—it’s haunted.’

            ‘Is not! You’re just a baby!’ The older brother taunted.

            ‘Jack! Ssh!’ Eliza reached out to Matthew and folded her hand over his. ‘Why would you say that, darling? What makes your think the house is haunted?’

            ‘It’s old Mrs Millar! She doesn’t like us being here!’

            Evie recoiled at the term old. She’d barely been thirty-three when she died and judging from the newspapers she often peeked at, only a year had passed since then.

            ‘Oh darling, there’s no such things as ghosts,’ Eliza soothed. ‘It’s just an old house. Old houses make noises sometimes.’

            Matthew’s cheeks paled as he talked about the ghost’s presence. Evie’s irritation mellowed.

            A little boy was suffering because of me. She was still human enough—still mother enough—to be affected by his palpable fear. Evie retreated to the linen cupboard, careful not to bump anything as she wisped by. When her little Edward was scared of the dark, she illuminated the shadows so he could see. Perhaps if she revealed herself to the boy it would remove the dread of the unknown. Evie had been practising with her new abilities—if she could make herself be seen, she could make herself be heard.

            Matthew slept in the very same room Edward had—across the hallway from the master bedroom. It was the smallest room in the house, made smaller by the imposing Queen Anne wardrobe she’d inherited from her great aunt. The wardrobe was far too big for Edward’s room—and far too old for a young boy—but the other rooms had built-in robes and Evie couldn’t bear to part with it as it had been in the family for years. In fact, she was rather miffed at Harold for leaving it behind with strangers.

            Eliza had just finished tucking Matthew in to bed and was heading for the doorway. Evie slipped into the room, passing the boy’s mother in a cool breeze. Eliza’s hair ruffled and Evie caught a frown of doubt crease her smooth, clear skin. Matthew was still awake; the whites of his wide eyes were almost luminescent in the dark. His blankets where pulled up to his nose. Evie swished the curtains. Matthew sucked in air with a hiss and dove under the covers.

            ‘Don’t be afraid, Matthew,’ Evie said, using the most gentle voice her ghostly form could muster. The boy only whimpered. Were her words no longer intelligible to human ears? She tried again.

            ‘My name is Evelyn,’ she said. ‘You can call me Evie, if you like. I used to have a boy just like you. His name was Edward. He was such a sweet little boy, I’m sure you would have been friends. This was his—’

            ‘Why are you here?’ Matthew snapped, finding his bravery. ‘Why are you tormenting us? What did we ever do to you?’

            ‘I’m not tormenting you, dear. This is my home. I live here.’

            ‘No you don’t! It’s our home! You shouldn’t be here! You’re mean and scary and I hate you!’

            Evie fought to contain the explosive emotions boiling within. Mean. Scary. Hate. The boy’s words pierced like needles. The battle was already lost. Rage bellowed from Evie’s mouth in a calliopean screech that shattered the window panes and blew the blankets from Matthew’s bed. Exposed on the mattress, the boy was coiled in a ball, his head tucked between his knees. Evie’s raw emotional state rendered her fully visible. She stood in the light of the window, her solid form casting a shadow across the bed. Matthew screamed without restraint. Evie trembled. She hadn’t meant this.

            The door swung open. Matthew’s parents raced into the room. That was when the screaming began. Naked and broken, Evie was a confronting sight. Eliza bundled Matthew up from the bed while Arthur shielded Robert in the doorway.

            ‘Stay back!’ He warned, though he bore no weapon to fend off a ghost.

           Howling like a harpy, Evie rushed towards them and out of the room. How foolish she had been to think she could calm a child, as grotesque and haunting as she now was. That poor boy! Her emotions had to be controlled. Her power had to be controlled. Only then could she heal the damage she had done.

 

 

Evie never had her chance to make amends with the Sutherlands. They departed in a great hurry, as one might expect after the supernatural horrors they had seen. It was some time before a new family arrived at Peppercorn Tree Hill. Evie grew despondent and wicked in her loneliness. She saw little point in in containing her abilities when she received so little in return. And so, instead of befriending tenants, Evie found solace in tormenting them. The more content the family seemed, the more mischievous Evie became. From flickering lights to scratching in the walls, cold spots to full-blown apparitions—she did it all with relish. Stories of the haunting spread; residents lasted mere weeks before fleeing. For a time, during the seventies, teenagers flocked in thrill-seeking sleepovers to spend the night in the abandoned homestead but even they grew weary. The beloved house fell into disrepair and Evelyn Millar truly was alone.

            Early in the new millennium, a young Mr and Mrs Stevenson happened across the property for a veritable bargain. He was a carpenter and she was a clerk, and they were both newlyweds starting out on their own adventure. The house had been marketed as a ‘Renovator’s Dream’ and that was exactly what the young couple found when they arrived.

            ‘Well this is a dump,’ an unenthusiastic Lisa moaned.

            ‘Are you surprised? Considering what we paid for it,’ husband Trevor said.

            ‘What were we thinking? Renovating! Should have just bought that refurbished little fibro house down on Pickering Street like Mum said.’

            ‘Nah, she’ll be right, darl. This place’s got good bones. Got actual bones too.’

            ‘God, don’t start up with that haunted bullshit again, Trev. Just some rubbish the realtor was spruiking to make it sound edgy and exciting when it’s really just a piece of shit.’

            Trevor cracked a bellowing laugh. ‘I’m tellin’ ya, it’ll be fine, Lis,’ he said, just as his heavy work boot plummeted through the rotted floor boards.

 

 

Evie woke to the sound of sledge hammers and power tools and nothing was quite right. Her world was filtered through a clouded veil that obscured and confused. The edges of her being were fuzzy and distant, like the frayed hem of an old towel. She was intangible, an emotional force of energy, unable to comprehend or remember what she had once been. A chilling fear spread outward from her core in a slow bleed. Panic swelled. Evie howled down the hallway in an ethereal whirl of wind. Lights flickered in her wake.

            Trevor lowered his hammer. ‘Did ya see that, darl?’

            ‘What?’ Lisa pulled the thick earmuffs away from her head.

            ‘I said: did you see that?’

            ‘See what?’

            ‘The lights. The power went all funny.’

        Lisa scoffed. ‘It’s an old house Trev. You said so yourself—it’s going to need rewiring.’

       The couple shrugged, readjusted their protective gear, and returned to their demolitions.

           The days that followed were a blur, punctuated by the bang of renovations shaking Evie’s unstable consciousness. She floated throughout the house without ever understanding where she was or what she was doing. In the years spent drifting between this world and the next, her connection to humanity had been severed. She couldn’t remember who—or what—she was. Faces and names floated in her mind, but Evie could no longer connect them or recall what they meant to her. Had her time “asleep” damaged her? She was afraid but didn’t know what it was she was so scared to lose.

            It returned to her in blurry waves—an accident, a house, a family. So too did the ache of loneliness and the burn of red-hot resentment in much clearer resolution.  The new couple on Peppercorn Tree Hill would be no different. Why would they? But Evie would not go back to the world between worlds. She would not forget herself again. This house was hers. It was always going to be hers. And this couple, this Mr and Mrs Stevenson, were damaging it.

           Evie unleashed every trick in her well-tested poltergeist book. The Stevensons were invulnerable. Day after day, they chipped away at the house, replacing the tiles and window panes and floor boards; night after night, Evie played with their minds. She moved power tools from room to room and blew their laundry from the washing line. But still, they would not leave. They would not even spook. Every phenomenon was shrugged off with a laugh and reasoned explanation. The haunted property became a joke and their nonchalant smiles grated away at what little humanity Evie had left.

            They have to go. I have to get them to leave! The daily mantra repeated in Evie’s head as stood beneath the peppercorn tree, a possum grasped in her hands.

            ‘I’m sorry I have to do this,’ she said to the little creature. ‘But I want my house back. We have to get them to go.’

            Evie’s hands tightened; the possum whimpered, legs flailing to find safety. The bloody smear of their furry little neighbour was bound to send the Stevensons running. Evie had the strength. She had the anger. All she had to do was squeeze—

            The possum scampered up the tree into the night. Evelyn Millar collapsed to her knees before the rotted wooden sign that had once marked her name. Evie cried, her wails swallowed by the howling wind. It was hopeless.

            She had lost.

            She was lost.

            Evie spent her days sitting beneath the peppercorn tree while the seasons and the cottage transformed around her. New floors were laid as the winter frosts melted; spring flowers heralded the arrival of bathroom fittings; and by the time summer storms rumbled on the horizon, a sleek Colorbond Steel roof was erected in charcoal blue. It was obvious now, painfully so, that the new couple on Peppercorn Tree Hill had made the cottage theirs—and theirs alone.

 

 

The Stevensons flourished in happiness Evie had once known. They had two children—two beautiful girls, Rachel and Miranda—who grew up in a world far removed from the one Evie remembered. Telephones, which had once been attached to walls, were now attached to hands. Dinners were silent as fingers swiped at screens. Families no longer gathered around televisions sets and instead strapped them to their faces in personal viewing devices. Was this what had become of Evie’s boys, of her grandchildren? Oh what she would give to have a conversation with her family and yet here they all sat around in oblivious silence! She wanted to shake them, scream at them for the precious time they were wasting. But in the end she did nothing.

            Lisa and Trevor’s daughters married and moved out, as children tend to do, and the cottage was filled with a new kind of silence. The Stevensons spent their days at work and their nights in bed by nine. There was still joy in their lives, a renewed focus on their marriage and excitement for their impending retirements. The children called often—in video now, fancy that!—and brought their growing families to visit every school holiday. It was everything Evie had wanted in her own life and she was so grateful to experience it, however vicariously, through the lovely couple who had made a home in her house on the hill.

            Trevor Stevenson died in a workplace accident in 2042. Unseasonably wild storms had loosened the joints in the scaffolding at his building site, which ultimately collapsed underneath him—or so said the police officers who came to deliver the news to a very distraught Lisa. The family soon gathered, and the house came alive with the sombre song of mourning. With Lisa now into sixties, her daughters were concerned about their mother living alone on the outskirts of town, despite her good health.

          ‘Brett won’t mind moving back here,’ Rachel said, taking Lisa’s hand in a tight grasp. ‘We’ll both be able to find work easy enough.’

        ‘Don’t be stupid Rachel,’ her mother chastised. ‘You only just got that deposit together for your house and I’m not going to have you sell it five minutes after moving in. And your boys are already settled in to their new school. Don’t go tearing them away from their friends.’

            ‘Then what about me, Mum?’ Miranda suggested. ‘Jackie and I are only renting our place, and Dean’s just gone off to uni this year—’

           ‘No. I won’t uproot you girls either. Dean might be at uni but he still needs you. Think about all he went through bouncing around foster care. Poor kid needs some stability, not his mothers packing up and moving once he’s out of the house.’

            ‘We just want to take care of you, Mum,’ Rachel said. ‘It’s going to be hard now with Dad not around.’

            ‘Yes, I realise that darling. But I’ll manage somehow. I always do.’

 

 

And manage she did. Lisa Stevenson returned to work two weeks later, kept all her social appointments and even adopted a cat called Snickers. She handled herself remarkably well. Lisa didn’t pack up and run when her partner died like Harold did. Perhaps if he had had a fraction of Lisa’s courage, Evie might have seen her boys grow up after all.

            Lisa aged with dignity, flowing gracefully into retirement. She enjoyed weekends in the city with her girlfriends and was sometimes gone weeks at a time to stay with her daughters. Evie came to know Lisa’s routine as well as anything: Monday she paid her bills; Rachel and Brett called Tuesday nights—Miranda and Jackie, Thursdays; every second Wednesday was lunch at the country club with her friends; Fridays she got her hair done; she shopped for groceries Saturday morning; and on Sundays, she cleaned. Everything in Lisa’s life moved like clockwork, and just like clocks, the batteries eventually drained.

            Once Lisa’s joints started to ache and her heart grow weaker, she stopped going out so much. Wednesday luncheon was cancelled. One by one, her friends passed away. It seemed like every second month Lisa was leaving the house shrouded in black to clamber down the front steps into a peculiar driverless taxi. Her cheeks had grown thin, her eyes joyless, and there was a tiredness to her gait that suggested something more than physical exertion. Months bled together as Lisa’s once predictable routine crumbled. Soon, she stopped leaving the house altogether. Groceries were delivered; doctor consultations performed digitally on a device in her living room; and her hair she used to have permed once a month was left to grow straight and limp. Even the phone calls that previously came weekly lessened to once a month, then once a year. Her grandchildren were grown and her daughters now grandmothers themselves.

            When Snickers died so too did Lisa’s motivation. She had chattered away to that animal as though she expected it to talk back. But once the cat was gone, the emptiness of the cottage was oppressing. There were no voices to be heard. Night and day, Lisa reclined in her fading armchair, retro wall-mounted TV droning on in the background. Every few hours she’d hobble to the kitchen for a cup of tea or slice of toast, or down the hall to the bathroom. Lisa fumbled about the cottage with no sense of purpose, no consequence to others. She was just like Evie: trapped with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

          Lisa eased herself into her armchair having returned from one of her many bathroom trips. She flicked through the channels, never really settling on any one program. Evie stepped into the room.

             ‘It’s hard being stuck,’ she said. Her voice croaked like a rusted hinge.

           Lisa straightened in her chair, eyes darting around the room for the source. ‘Oh God,’ she groaned. ‘Now I’m going senile.’

             ‘I assure you, you’re not.’

            ‘Then what are you? Some kind of reaper here to take me away? Good. It’s about bloody time.’

            ‘No, I’m not that either.’ Evie moved deeper into the living room, hoping to draw Lisa’s attention without revealing her visible form. She gave the coffee table a gentle nudge and sent ripples scattering across the surface of a cold cup of tea. ‘My name is Evelyn Millar, and I have lived in this house for a very long time.’

            Lisa gave a throaty scoff. ‘Are you trying to tell me you’re a ghost?’

           ‘I think you know that I am. You’ve been aware of me for some time. You just didn’t want to admit it.’

            ‘You’re damn right I didn’t. I really liked this house and I very much wanted to live here.’

            Evie chuckled at Lisa’s fiery stubbornness. ‘You certainly were the hardest tenant to evict.’

          ‘You nearly had us with that wall scratching trick of yours. That was downright infuriating.’

            ‘I owe the possum for that one. He showed me how truly irritating it could be.’

            ‘Yes, well, that’s possums for you, isn’t it?’

            Lisa glanced around the room, her milky eyes brushing over Evie more times than she realised. Evie’s voice was everywhere and nowhere all at once, making it difficult for the elderly lady to place where she was.

            ‘So,’ Lisa continued, ‘if I’m not imagining all this, why can’t I see you, Mrs Evelyn Millar?’ Scepticism rose in her rose in her voice like hot air.

            ‘Because I am as I died—broken and naked. I had a fall in the tub, I think, I don’t really remember now, but that must have been what happened. Why else would I have been in the nude?’ Evie tried to find amusement in her fate but none would come. Her forced smile quickly faded.  ‘It’s not a pretty sight,’ she added, her voice soft.

            ‘At ninety-three years of age, my dear, I do think I’ve seen everything.’

           Apprehension paralysed her. To think that she could still experience fear! But what exactly did Evie have to be afraid of? She had no physical form! No legs to break, no wounds to bleed. Only her heart. And it pained with the thought of being shunned once more. She still heard that child’s screams, his shrill little voice reverberating inside her being. The coffee table shook. Tea cups and saucers clattered as though the cottage was experiencing its own private earthquake. Lisa’s arthritic hands gripped the arm rests of her chair.

         ‘Well isn’t that something,’ she said. It was then Evie knew she was visible. She would have modestly covered herself had she not already known it was futile.

            ‘Evelyn, was it?’ Lisa confirmed.

            ‘Evie.’

            ‘Well, Evie, if I still had a body like yours I wouldn’t want to wear clothes!’

 

 

Evelyn and Lisa chatted late into the night. Having been silent for so long, they both found they had very much to say. Nothing was off-limits—they spoke frankly without reserve. The more Evie spoke of her past, the more she remembered; Harold and the boys were no longer faceless forms floating in her mind. She ached for her kids. Anguish was written on her face every time she spoke of them, an expression that did not go unnoticed by Lisa.

            ‘Life can be so cruel sometimes,’ Lisa said. She reached out for Evie’s hand and grasped air. ‘A healthy young thing like yourself robbed of seeing her kids grow up, while here I am forced to linger long enough for mine to forget me. Oh Evie, why have I lived so long?’

            The question took Evie off guard. She knew Lisa didn’t expect an answer but Evie felt compelled to give one. Did it really just come down to luck? No. Something so complex, so important, couldn’t just be left to chance.

            ‘Your children love you, Lisa,’ Evie said after a long pause spent rolling the words around her tongue. ‘I saw how they were when you lost your husband. They haven’t forgotten you.’

            ‘Oh I know that,’ Lisa said with a dismissive wave. ‘They’re just busy. I get it, I was too. They’re mothers now—grandmothers! Enough of their time is taken up with that without worrying about poor old me. And that’s the way it should be. I’m more than grateful for the time I’ve had with them, don’t get me wrong. But enough is enough. I’m just so bloody tired.’

            It was Evie’s turn to reach out to grab Lisa. The old woman startled at the cold press on her forearm. Dusty tears formed in Evie’s bone-dry eyes.

            ‘I know exactly how you feel.’

 

 

And so Evie and Lisa became the closest of friends, bonded by their shared melancholy. They continued to exchange stories during the waking hours; at night Evie would retreat outside to the peppercorn tree to watch the stars. She felt uneasy so close to her bones, but that was a part of her now, one with which she had long since come to terms. Peace would not come to her, as it would soon come for Lisa. Whatever twist of fate had taken her young life had also chosen to keep her anchored to the world. She would remain here, stuck, until her bones turned to ash in the dirt, however many centuries that may take. Evie sighed at the weighty prospect, the reality suddenly even more inescapable. At least for now, she wasn’t alone.

          Lisa Stevenson never woke on the morning of September 3, 2061. She passed quietly and peacefully in her sleep, a mercy for which Evie was grateful. Lisa laid still in her chair long after the spring sun came up, pale eyes unfocussed, her mouth a perpetual yawn. No one came to remove her body for no one knew she was gone. No one except Evie, who could do nothing at all.

            When Lisa’s standing order of groceries arrived at week’s end and no one came to accept the delivery, the alarm was raised. Ambulances and police cars came roaring up the dirt road to Peppercorn Tree Hill, dust flaring in the wake of their hover motors. Days later, the children arrived, and the grandchildren, and any surviving friends and relatives who wished to pay their respects and celebrate the long life Lisa Stevenson had enjoyed. Evie was there as they traded stories of love and admiration, wishing she could share some of her own about the friend she had come to cherish so dearly.

            The weeks flowed on and Evie didn’t see the family again for some time. Dust fell on every surface of the cottage; spiders built their webs in the architraves; and mice left their droppings on the bedsheets. The house Lisa had loved—the house Evie loves—was forgotten once again until a summer morning in the new year when Miranda and Rachel came trudging up the driveway, a paper suspended between them. They paused at the front steps Evie had seen their father fall through all those years ago.

        ‘It is a beautiful house,’ Rachel said softly. The years showed on her features, announcing themselves in bursts of wrinkles about her eyes and streaks of grey through her hair.

           ‘It really is,’ Miranda agreed, adjusting the glasses that now sat permanently atop her nose. ‘What do we do with it?’

            ‘I don’t know. I suppose we sell it.’

          ‘Do we? Who would buy it? No one wants to live out here anymore. Who would leave the city for this? Even we didn’t want to, not really. Well, we did for Mum when she was here, but now? What’s the point?’

            Rachel shrugged. ‘So we leave it here. For Mum.’

            ‘For Mum.’

         The girls reached into the paper bag and pulled out a simple copper urn. They waited for the breeze to pick up and then, removing the lid, sprayed Lisa’s ashes across the house. The wind carried Lisa away in a grey plume. Rachel and Miranda embraced, long and strong like only siblings can. There were no tears, not now. When they parted, they collected up the paper bag and urn and tottered back down the hill.

         Evie climbed the stairs and slipped in through the closed door. A dusty veil shrouded the room, caught in the light spilling through the windows. And there, through the haze, sitting in her chair, Evie saw Lisa.

 

 

Another family never came to live at the cottage on Peppercorn Tree Hill. Just as the Stevenson girls predicted, it remained uninhabited, so did many of the houses in the town below.

Uninhabited, but never empty.

 

 

 

 


(c) Jessica A. McMinn 2017
6 742 words.

 

Comments, critiques and reblogs/shares welcome and encouraged.

One thought on “[short story] the cottage on peppercorn tree hill

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