Edgar Alan died in 1874, age ten, struck by the back-wheel of a horse drawn buggy. Some say the wheel found a deeper love within the strands of his burnt umber painted, feathery locks, and refused to part with them — for the wheel dragged him across the cobblestone by the knotted locks of his hair, forty-three feet past the starting mark before it finally let go. They say he painted the town red that night. The streaks of blood, splattered where he bounced, but painted beautiful straight lines down where he dragged. Crimson Valley, they call it now — the road that took Edgar Alan.
“I hope no one believes that,” Edgar whispers to me, from where he sits on my shoulder. He scratches his head — the back, where it first begins to cave in, a long diagonal line where the wheel rolled over him, leading to the shorter jagged parts of his hair, where the wheel grew attached.
“Why shouldn’t they believe it?” I ask.
We stand behind the gift shop counter, staring out into the living room. Our eyes remain fixated on them. The people of now, who came for the midnight tour. It’s funny, we both think. The closest thing we have to an attraction are the goats, who only live here for symbolics— Edgar Alan admired goats, and once wished to live on a farm. Yet the tourists flock here anyways, just to see the home of a boy who died someplace else. Well, that and the hotel’s in the middle of everything, and the tour’s a cheap something to do when you’re out of ideas. The Alan family estate was never a loving place, Edgar told me once. It was no surprise when Robert grew up, and turned their home into a profit.
“It isn’t fair for them to believe it,” Edgar says, before he disappears.
He doesn’t like to stay in the gift shop long, because he believes the idea of it ridiculous. T-shirts, photographs, postcards. It’s meaningless. The only gift so worth anything, according to Edgar Alan, is the gift of pure truth.
He’s probably off to play on the roof again. Robert hates when Edgar plays on the roof. Edgar believes his brother’s fear to be baseless — after all, there’s no such thing as dying twice. You’re either gone, or you’re here. Then Robert scolds him, always. He fears not for his brother, but for the ones like me, a living person who can see Edgar and the other allegedly dead things. I nearly had a heart attack, my first visit. Seeing a child dancing on the pointed roof of a high building, is not an easy take.
Edgar is the oldest, he told me. He was born in 1864, and Robert was born in 1866. But Robert lived on till 1889 — twenty-three. The battles over who’s truly oldest often become heated — though I suppose they’re aside from the point. Usually, I’ve been told, when a person is to pass, they’re allowed to explore what happens next. For whatever reason, the Alan brothers are trapped in their estate.
“Ahem,” coughs the man, who stands in front of me. He must’ve just gotten here, or, I’d been too focused on Edgar to notice him. He’s forty maybe. Blonde, but his beard blends the yellows with prickly whites, eager to reveal his age, in spite of the youthfulness of his face. He’s not wearing a ring. He isn’t married.
“Hello, Sir,” I say, putting on the best of my smiles. “How may I help you today?”
He doesn’t answer, as if he weren’t the one to command my attention. Instead, he looks around the shop, before he scrunches his nose, and throws his head towards the glass counter. Slowly, he raises his hands, and makes a pinching motion, before jerking his hand towards the glass, and pinching a piece of floating dust. “Gotcha,” he mumbles.
He clears his throat to me. “My girlfriend,” he says, finally. “She likes weird stuff.” Clearly. “She’s obsessed with the Alan Brothers. While I’m in Virginia, I was hoping to stop by and get her something. You wouldn’t happen to have any recommendations, would you?”
It’s one fifty-nine. My recommendation is to never enter a shop a minute before close, and expect extra services.
I clear my own throat, to him. “Um, maybe if I knew more about her?” I say, against my better will. “Let’s start with her favorite—.”
“Oh, look at the time,” he says, to his watch. “Hmm. I’m staying in the house. I suppose I’ll have to stop by tomorrow, after the morning tour.”
“You aren’t a part of the midnight?” I ask. “Sorry, I just assumed.”
“I was,” he says. “It’s our thing, to go around the country, and piece together unsolved mysteries. She’d kill me for solving this one without her, but, I couldn’t pass through Virginia, without checking it out— hence the gift.”
“Ahh,” I say, “an apology at its finest. . . But Edgar Alan isn’t a mystery. I’m more sorry you’re wasting your time, than I am your girlfriend’s missing it.”
He laughs at me, as if he knew better, before he goes away.
“It’s quite fair,” was the last I heard through the floorboards, before the brick came flying past my head.
Only seconds prior, the pictures were all in tact. Edgar Alan, age ten, smiling on the back of a horse. The hardest was getting it to stand still long enough for the picture, Edgar told me once, fascinated by the quickness of my cellphone camera.
Beside Edgar was me, age seventeen, brown skin trapped in the ropes of a blue prom dress, forcing a smile for the camera. It was hard to be truly happy, when the only boy who’d asked me, was the boy who’s little brother followed him everywhere he went, with a hatchet sticking out the side of him. He told me it was an accident, on a camping trip, my date, when I asked if he had any siblings. His brother died ten years ago. His brother told me it wasn’t anyone’s fault; but they buried him out there anyway, just in case the big men with the badges, didn’t believe them. If Id’ve found out in time, I would’ve caught a flu. Instead, I forced a smile for the camera.
Beside me, was Robert Alan, age twenty at the time, sitting before a white wall, with his hands folded over his thigh, who folded over his leg. His nightly brown hair, somehow ever so striking, shining white on his left, beneath the window light. His hopeful eyes wide, a combination of fear and dreams, as every twenty something who’s been gifted with everything, by the cold hands of their still parents. When his father died, he got the house, the stables, the business, and the goats — Robert was given everything, because Robert was the only one left. Robert Alan was all alone.
Then came the brick.
“You broke every frame,” I scold him, holding the shards of them in my hands, dumping them into the bin. “Not to mention, you almost killed me!”
Robert laughs, clapping his hands together, smiling like a devilish child — he is a devilish child, now that I’ve mentioned it.
“Oh calm down, Liza,” he giggles, through his smiling teeth. “It was only a practical joke.”
Of course it was. Attempted murder’s always only a joke, when you miss the target. I go on to question him. “And if I moved an inch over, and it killed me?”
He smirks at me. “I believe those are called, lucky shots.”
I’d hate Robert if he wasn’t useful. I suppose he feels the same of me. When the estate was due to go under — lack of funding — my uncle bought the place and turned it around. I usually stay a month every year, to help him with renovations. Cracks in the hotel doors, or leaky sinks in the faucets. Assisting in the births of new goats, or leading a midnight tour when the guides are sick. If it weren’t for us, this place wouldn’t have lasted. It was Robert’s dream to build something that would last forever.
As for him, Robert’s good at knowing everything. Better, he’s terrible at keeping secrets, when asked directly for the truth.
“I’ll kill you one of these days, Liza Hollingsworth,” he says, smiling at me. “Then you’ll finally be mine.”
“Oh, what?” I ask him. “No ghosts your own age?”
He glares at me. “Well if you’d die now, you’d be perfect.”
“Your brother thinks it isn’t fair,” I move on. “Every time they talk about him, he says it isn’t fair. Why?”
I was less concerned with Edgar’s moodiness, rather how his mood intertwined with the stranger from the shop. Could it be it isn’t fair, because he knows his written story isn’t true?
Robert shakes his head, and rolls his hands over one another — his tell. “You’d have to ask him. . . Or—.”
Lucky timing. Robert disappears when the knock comes, and I nearly jump from my skin, as my uncle isn’t home, and the guests usually haven’t a need at three o’clock in the morning. Behind the door stands the man from earlier, using his cellphone as a flashlight. It isn’t that dark in the hall; we’ve got nightlights in every outlet.
“Ah,” he says, when he sees me. “The girl from the shop. I didn’t know you stayed here too.”
“Yes,” I say, growing uncomfortable. “Did you need. . .”
“Ah,” he says, raising a finger. I prepare to watch him grab a dust flurry from the air, but he doesn’t. “I heard a crash,” he says. “I wanted to make sure everything was alright. I heard you talking.”
He pokes his head into my room, looking up and down. I take a step back, and another step forward, guiding him back into the hall.
“Sorry,” he says. “Curiosity—.”
“Killed the cat,” I finish.
“But satisfaction brought it back,” he quips, with a quick smile.
I shake my head. “There’s no such thing as satisfaction, to the heart of a curious thing.”
“Hmm,” he hums. Then his eyes shift to my bedroom floor. “Ah! Is that! That wouldn’t happen to be a real photograph, of Robert Alan? My goodness, time’s really been kind to this one, it’s in excellent condition!”
I turn to the shattered frame, and the photograph on the floor. “Actually,” I say, brushing the glass from the photo, and picking it up to hand it over. “Why don’t you take this for your girlfriend? It’s better than anything in the gift shop.”
“Liza,” I say. “This place is filled with old pictures, and this one’s just in my room, so, no one was seeing it anyway.”
“I’m sure,” I say, before he can question it. It’s funny. He was on his way to saying how he couldn’t take a gift so grand, and yet he never tried handing it back to me, once. What’s even more amusing, is his alleged knowledge of the Alan Brothers; he should know that in this house, the only gift worth it, is the gift of pure truth. Ah— he’s still here. “Goodnight, Mister?”
“Bruce,” he says, forcing my hand into a shake. “Bruce Whitley.”
When the door closes, he appears. He hates living people more than anything, and by the million bricks I’m forced to dodge, I imagine I’m not an exception. The look on his face; I can’t tell if it’s dedicated to me, or to Whitley.
“You gave him my picture,” he says, with angry eyes.
I would’ve felt bad, if not for the fact that, “You tried to kill me.”
“It wasn’t yours to give,” he says.
“And my life,” I retort, “isn’t yours to take. If you want your photo back, buy a copy in the shop. We open at noon.”
His right eye grows squinted, and twitches more fiercely with every traveling second. He raises his hand to me, and curves it, as if he’s got the intentions of using it. He holds it there, in front of my neck, moving not another inch. I dare him, silently.
“It isn’t fair,” he hisses.
Then he’s gone.
Two men’s tees, size medium, and one women’s size XL. The woman pays thirty-two dollars, and forty-six cents, before taking her bag, and going away.
Two photo frames, three bags of chips, and four children’s tees, size medium, small, and 4t. The father offers to pay for the smashed snow globe, before he yells at the middle boy to either stop screwing around or get a job, but I tell him it’s on the house, so long as he tells his friends to come by for a midday tour. He pays seventy-six dollars, and thirty-eight cents, before splitting the bags between the children, and going away.
One men’s tee, size small, and one women’s size medium. Mr. Whitley’s bags are lined up behind him, and he runs his finger across the shelf, checking for dust. He smiles when he sees me. “Liza.”
“Whitley,” I say. “You know, I was thinking—.”
“The photo,” he says, placing the picture of Robert, gently on the counter.
I bite my lips, before nodding to him. “I was just thinking, that maybe it wasn’t really mine to give after all. Thanks for understanding.”
“No worries,” he says. “I got a funny feeling that it might belong here, more than my mantel, anyway. Nevertheless, she’s got a thing for proving she’s been someplace, even if she’s never truly seen it in all her life. I’m sure the shirt will do her fine.”
“She?” I ask, slipping the photo into the counter drawer. “Oh, right. I’m surprised to see you leave so soon. I thought you wanted to solve the ‘mystery.”
He smiles at me. “I solved it last night.”
I raise a brow to him. Impossible.
He said it’s easy, for anyone bothering to look. The postmortem photos of Edgar, show him only having one wheel track going down his head. I ask him wasn’t one enough. He tells me, it is not. If he were truly run over by the buggy, then he should have two tracks, one for the wheel that first hit him, and a second for the following.
“Maybe only one hit him?” I ask.
“Impossible,” he tells me. “Unless he willingly laid beneath a horse buggy, and let it roll him over, which seems unlikely.”
“But possible,” I add.
“Possible,” he shrugs. “Maybe. But the story goes the buggy dragged him. If the front wheel rolled over him, I’m sure the driver would’ve stopped, not continue down the road. Even if the back wheel hit him, I find it hard to believe his hair got locked in it. He had a short cut, from what I could tell by the photos. It’s likely his killer snatched a chunk out, to validate their story. After doing some digging last night, I found my way to the attic.”
“Trespassing at its finest,” I quip, though it doesn’t seem to faze him.
In the attic, he found the old files, and the original Alan will, hidden beneath a loose board in the floor. Reginald Alan planned to leave Edgar everything, as most fathers did their eldest sons. He imagined Robert found it all to be unfair. He imagined that Robert, aged eight of all ages, went on in a jealous rage, and struck his brother with the wheel. He imagined that someone old enough helped him clean it up, and came up with the story of the horse drawn buggy, and the crimson lines, for the sake of explaining the accident. And when he imagined himself to be grasping at nonsense, he found the rope. It was old and frail and discolored by time, but certain bits were more ugly than others. Blood stains.
“Why would anyone go through the trouble of hiding an old rope?” he says. “Because it was the rope that pulled Edgar Alan. I imagine they tied it to the back of the carriage, or they pulled it themselves.”
“And you’re so sure it was Robert?”
“They didn’t have other siblings,” Whitley says, “and their family only consisted of the parents, the brothers, and their grandfather for a short while. His mother died before him. Taking the wheel to Edgar’s head was an act of rage; I doubt his father did it, because his father left him everything. And considering the rope was hidden with the will, I’m assuming the document has every bit to do with the crime.”
“Hmm,” I go. “Well, it’s all—.”
“Speculation,” he says. “But it’s all so easy, for anyone willing to look. It’s good she didn’t make it this time, or else she might’ve been disappointed. Though I’m sure she’ll still be excited to hear.”
I nod to him, and offer a closed mouth smile, and ring the total. He leaves me, with the promise to come back with his girlfriend one day, when they run out of harder mysteries. He’ll find out what happened to Robert next, as a tale of consumption wasn’t good enough for him. I wish him all the hardest mysteries in the world — hopefully a million. And I turn to him, when the shop is empty.
“It must not be fair for you,” I say, “to have so many people making up ridiculous stories about your death? It is ridiculous, right?”
Edgar smiles at me, from where he sits, on the far left of the counter, just past the cash register. “I quite liked Mr. Whitley,” Edgar says. “I hope his girlfriend enjoys her gift. It was worth the visit, after all.”