Another decade had passed and Margaret arrived again to the old house at the end of the lane.
Even with the recently completed renovations and the creaking sign outside proclaiming The Haunted-House Hotel, the home she once knew had changed very little. What had been a lawn of soft Augusta grass the new homeowner transformed into a bed of fresh-tilled earth. Gravestones—too clean to be anything but props— speckled the yard, ghoulish puppets fluttering in the wind behind them.
“You kids stop tearing apart my decorations!"
Margaret turned toward the commotion, where two young children hid behind the great oak tree. One dressed as a pumpkin, the other wore a pointed black hat and a painted green face. It was evident they’d yanked down the faux spider webs draped from the orange-trimmed roofs. For they'd scattered the stuff around the lawn like Autumn snow.
"No buts! Unless you'd like a visit from the Halloween candy-napper tonight!"
The candy-napper herself stood on the sturdy front porch, cheeks red from the chill and an apron speckled with flour around her waist. She finished glaring at the pumpkin and the witch, who wore twin expressions of innocence, and turned a 50-Watt smile on Margaret.
"Welcome to the Haunted-House Hotel!" She smoothed a strand of gray hair into her bun before extending a hand. “Please, call me Mary Ann.”
“A pleasure. I'm Margaret." Though the front steps were new, Margaret still avoided the spot where the loose panel used to be as she hurried to shake the woman’s hand. "This place looks positively festive, Ms. Mary Ann. I can't think of a better place to spend All Hallow's Eve."
Mary Ann blushed, the picture of a humble hostess. Grabbing Margaret’s suitcase with one hand and her arm with the other, the hotelier wheeled her to the front door.
“Got to keep up with expectations when you live in this town." She laughed, nudging the door open with her foot. "You here for the holiday or passing through?”
“A little of both,” Margaret said and stepped into the warmth.
Roasted cinnamon and sweet vanilla scented the air from the red and white candles flickering in the old-fashioned chandelier overhead. Like the silk rug-covered floors, the walls were polished to a coffee-colored shine.
"A true relic from the past, this house,” Mary Ann was saying. "They don't make 'em like they used to."
"They don't, do they?" Catching herself, Margaret smiled at Mary Ann's perplexed look. "I read a lot about 19th-century design and architecture."
“Of course you do,” said Mary Ann, not missing a beat. She scrounged around inside her desk, returning with a key. “You’ll be in the old master bedroom, as requested. I’d take you up myself, dear, but I’ve got to get dinner out. 6 o’clock sharp, if you aren’t heading into town.” The hotelier pointed up the grand staircase. “Head up the stairs and swing left at the landing. Your room’s the—“
“Last door on the right.” At Mary Ann’s raised brow, Margaret added, “I stayed here a few years back. With the previous owner.”
A welcome interruption, the girl dressed as a witch burst screeching through the front door, the pumpkin-clad boy close on her heels. Mary Ann excused herself, apologizing, and hurried after the children, hollering.
Margaret smiled after them before heading up the grand staircase.
A gust of warmth wrapped around her when she entered the familiar room, fireplace roaring beside the bed and letting off a lovely golden glow. The furniture was antique though not the originals. In place of the old mahogany bed, a clean, white metal frame shone in the late afternoon light. A canopy of torn gauze hung over it, matching the festive curtains draped awry over the window.
With nothing else to do until the Witching Hour, Margaret found herself staring at her reflection in the silver-leafed mirror set beside the broad bay windows. A face as smooth and unwrinkled as the day she’d first departed this place stared back at her. Though her hairstyle changed with the times, it was the same chestnut hue as the day she’d been born. The only sign she’d aged at all was the tarnished locket hanging from her throat.
The fireplace guttered, casting the room in shadow, and it was as if Margaret got a glimpse of history in the ornate mirror.
She held a baby on her hip. A baby with sparkling green eyes and a shining dark cap of curls. Margaret’s heart skipped and she reached out to touch the little girl's cheek, the soft white blankets like a halo around her head.
As quick as the image came, it vanished with the sun. And Margaret was alone again.
An hour ‘til the Witching, soft laughter from parents carrying their young ones to bed trickled through the walls, stirring her. When the voices died down and the house grew still, Margaret ventured out.
She went first to the old parlor.
Having forgotten her shawl, she meandered to the old marble fireplace. She paused upon sighting the painting hanging over the mantle. Reaching out a trembling hand, she touched the oil paint that was as vibrant as the day she'd finished it.
“A sad story, what happened to the folks who built this house.”
Margaret jumped, but it was only Mary Ann peeking through the doorway, a cup of something steaming in her hands.
“Was it?” Asked Margaret.
“The baby and the father taken by the spots.” Mary Ann joined Margaret’s side. “Poor mother followed a few days after. They say she passed from grief.”
“Sad indeed,” she said. “How'd you get ahold of this painting? It wasn't here last time."
"I found it in the town museum along with some of the original furniture. It seems the second owner of this house sold it after he bought this place from the town in 1821."
"Incredible.” Clearing the emotion from her throat, Margaret added, "I think it's lovely you restored this home to its former state. I'm sure the family would've loved what you’ve done here."
Mary Ann blushed, moving closer to the painting, squinting. “You know, you could be her long lost descendant with those long brown curls. Why, you even have the same locket!”
“What a coincidence," said Margaret.
“I don’t mean to pry,” the hotelier said after a pause, “but I used to own a bed and breakfast just down the road. 7 years, I watched guests come and go. Most were tourists who'd come to see the town’s festivities. They'd find there’s not much to hoot and holler about and I'd never see them again. Yet you seem like a local come home for the holidays.”
Tears sprang to Margaret’s eyes and she smiled softly, sadly. “It does feel like coming home.”
“Oh, silly me!” Mary Ann ruffled through the pocket of her rust-colored housecoat, handing Margaret a wrinkled tissue smelling of peppermints. “I didn’t mean to make you cry, dear. Let me get you a cup of tea.”
Margaret accepted the tissue. “Tea would be lovely. Thank you, Ms. Mary Ann.”
Ever the hostess, Mary Ann shuffled off. When she returned, she beckoned Margaret to the settee and poured a mug full of tea. She handed it over before topping off her own and leaning back against the taut silk pillows.
“Are you married?” When Margaret shook her head, Mary Ann added, “Or dating. I forget you kids are putting it off these days.”
Margaret took a gulp from the thick mug, enjoying the spicy flavor as the liquid warmed her belly. “No, no boyfriend. It’s only me.”
“Nothing wrong at all with that,” said Mary Ann with a harrumph.
“What about you?” Margaret asked. “Where’s your family this All Hallow’s Eve night?”
“Those two rugrats you saw speeding about when you arrived are mine,” she said with grandmotherly pride. “Their mother’s my daughter, sweet as strawberries she is. But my husband and my son both passed away long ago. The war, you know.”
Margaret touched the hotelier’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Bah.” Mary Ann took a quick drink of her tea. “It was years ago.”
“Yet the pain will be with you always.”
To her surprise, Mary Ann laughed. “Oh, you are young. Everything seems like the end of the world. Well, yes, the pain is always with me. But it isn’t so sad as you might think. I've found a way to move on.” The hotelier looked around fondly.
Margaret blinked. “But don’t you ever feel like you’re abandoning them? Enjoying your life while they cannot?”
“I’ve never abandoned them, my dear! I only accepted the truth. They're gone and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. You know they wanted to tear this lovely old Victorian down? If I’d still been stuck in my grief a year ago, I wouldn’t have taken a chance on it. And what a mistake that would’ve been!”
Margaret didn’t know what to say. She sipped her tea and stared out the window as the moon sailed closer to its zenith. They sat in comfortable silence for a while before Mary Ann let out a yawn.
“Off to bed with me, then!” She rose, gathering the tea things. “Can I pour you another cup of tea or will you be turning in, too?”
“Yes, thank you. I think I’ll stay up until the Witching Hour.”
The hotelier raised one brow. “You really are like these superstitious locals. Well, goodnight, Margaret.”
“Goodnight, Ms. Mary Ann. And thank you for the tea. It’s the best stuff I’ve had in years.”
The hotelier waved her hand and shuffled out, but not before Margaret spied a blush spreading on her cheeks.
She waited for Mary Ann to climb the grand staircase to the old attic while she sipped the remnants of her tea. When everything was quiet again, Margaret hurried to the library.
It was like stepping into the past.
Mary Ann hadn't lied about the old furniture, for here it sat in its rightful place. The piano her father had gifted them the day John asked for hand sat in the corner, the matching bench reupholstered in red velvet. Even the books smelled of lingering tobacco.
Moonlight stole through the great bay window; Margaret forced herself to focus.
The floors here were refurbished, too, but she didn't need the old scuffs to find the right floorboard. She pried it up, careful not to ruin the polish or warp the wood. A plume of dust clouded the air and Margaret coughed, covering her mouth and nose. From below, she pulled an ancient box coated in a decade's worth of dust and placed it on the floor before her.
Margaret opened her locket revealing a tiny key inside. She placed the key into the lock. It clicked and she pulled the lid free.
A silver chalice and a box of matches lay inside.
Margaret took up the chalice first. The moonlight reflected off it as she plucked a strand of dark hair from the crown of her head and put it in the cup. Igniting a match, Margaret dropped it in, too. The acrid scent of burning hair clouded her senses as she closed her eyes.
"What I See in the shadows of All Hallow's Eve day," Margaret recited, "Let be in the light of the Witching Hour tonight."
The fire in the chalice extinguished with the last word of her spell.
Strong arms slid around her waist and Margaret let out a sob. John pressed his face to her hair and reached out a finger—rough from working in the fields behind their home—to touch the child’s cheek where she lay in her mother’s arms.
Margaret whirled, throwing her spare arm around her husband's neck-- as real and solid as the day he'd died.
"My dear, Margaret," he whispered in her hair. "It’s been much too long."
A tear dropped onto her baby's face, which was as sweet as the day Margaret had borne her. “Much too long, indeed."
For a while, they danced to phantom piano music, humming together the song her mother played at their wedding. When their feet turned sore and the baby grew tired, they laid together on the great big couch and John read aloud. Just like old times.
The signs of dawn came much too soon and John turned to her, a serious look on his smile-lined face.
“You know I love you more than the moon," he said. "But I don't want you coming round decade after decade, looking as sad as the night we left you. I need you to promise, promise me you’ll--”
Margaret put a finger to his lips, soft as the time she'd first kissed them. "Please don’t ask it. I’ve never lied to you before and I don’t wish to now.”
"My stubborn Margaret." John rested his forehead against hers. “You know I only want what’s best for you."
"And I for you. But I did not sell my soul to the King of All Hallow's Eve to live an immortal life alone. I did it so I could See you." She pressed her fingers to his jaw. "Touch you." She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, soft. "Hold you."
"I love you too much to let you spend your life pining and wasting away."
"This is the one event I look forward to in my never-ending life,” Margaret said. “It’s not a waste."
"It's been more than two centuries, love." John gently pulled her arms from his neck and placed them by her side. "It's time. Time for you to move forward.”
Margaret rose abruptly, reminded of the hotelier's words. “I don’t want to move on.”
A sorrowful expression crossed her husband’s eyes; he sighed. “Then I will not speak of it again. You know I cannot request you to do a thing you so deny.”
“Good.” Margaret held out her hand and pasted on her most dazzling smile, though, in truth, she didn't feel like smiling. “Then dance with me until dawn.”
Never able to say no to her, not even now, John took her hand. And with the baby clutched between them, they danced until sunlight bled into the dark. Only then did Margaret hug John goodbye and kiss her tiny child, promising she'd return.
When daylight intruded into the library, her family vanished like mere mist in the morning.
And Margaret was alone again.
Bones stiff with lack of sleep, Margaret stared at her forever-young reflection in the silver-leafed mirror. Her mind churned with John and Mary Ann’s words.
Was she wasting her immortal life hardly living or breathing during the years between her visits here? Would she be doing her family a disservice finding happiness when they could not? And if it were somehow right, could she do it? Could she truly move on?
Margaret mulled over these questions during a quiet breakfast of coffee and hotcakes with honey and cream. She mulled them over as she straightened up their old room before taking up her suitcase. And she mulled them over more as she wandered through the house long after the other guests were gone, touching the pillows, the walls, the sconces.
Mary Ann’s grandchildren were screaming in the front yard again when she finally made her way out.
Margaret shielded her eyes against the sun, watching the children help their grandmother take down (or rather, tear down) the decorations. Mary Ann perched atop a ladder, unhooking the faux spider webs from the peaked roof.
“I’m sorry I’m a bit late for checkout.” Margaret set down her suitcase and passed her room key to the hotelier. “I had a lovely time. Thank you for your old-fashioned hospitality.”
"It was nothing, my dear." The hotelier winked, pocketing the key. "Oh!" Scrambling down the ladder, she poked her head inside the house, returning with a large package wrapped in brown parchment. "I know you say it's a coincidence, but I dreamed last night of giving this painting to you. And when I awoke, it felt right somehow."
Margaret pressed a hand over her mouth, tears already slipping through her lashes. "I couldn't take this. It belongs here with you."
Mary Ann gave her a knowing look. "You sure about that?"
Margaret wiped her face and accepted the painting without another protest. After a moment of consideration, she removed the tarnished old locket from her neck and pressed it into Mary Ann's palm.
"If ever you're in need or danger," said Margaret, "rub this locket and help will come."
Mary Ann unclasped the necklace and put it on without question. "Will I see you again, dear?" Grinning wryly, she added, "Aside from if I run into trouble?"
A cloud rolled over the sun and as if the King of All Hallow's Eve blessed her with the Sight one last time, the shadows revealed a figure watching from the window, baby in his arms. He noticed her gaze and waved, smiling.
We’ll be with you always.
“Goodbye,” Margaret whispered. “I’ll be with you, too.”
Her family vanished with the sunlight for what she knew would be the last time.
Sniffing back tears, Margaret picked up her suitcase and tucked her painting under one arm. The air smelled crisper, the jewel-leaved trees shined a bit brighter. And beyond The Haunted-House Hotel, the road extended further than even she could see.
“No, Ms. Mary Ann,” Margaret said at last. “I don’t think I'll be back again.”
Somehow knowing the weight of those words, the hotelier grinned and wished her good travels.
Margaret turned from the old mansion at the end of the lane, setting her sights ahead. And for the first time in over two hundred years, she didn't feel alone at all.