The smoke forced her outside. As she gasped for air, an unsolicited hand rested on her lower back to steady her. Henrietta flinched and spun away to face Thomas.
“Mr. Ambrewster,” she choked out. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
Henrietta heard the fire brigade’s bells growing louder as they neared her burning house. Her mind cleared.
“Alice! Where’s Alice?” She grabbed hold of Thomas’ arm, her eyes pleading. “Have you seen her? Has she made it outside?”
Thomas smiled beatifically at her and laid his hand on top of hers. “All I care about is right here.”
Henrietta shoved him away. “Scoundrel,” she seethed. Gathering the skirts of her widow’s black, she turned back to the house.
Thomas grabbed her arm, gripping tightly. “You need only say ‘yes,’ and I will help you.”
“The answer will always be ‘no,’ Mr. Ambrewster,” Henrietta spit as she wrenched her arm away and disappeared into the billowing smoke.
The air was thick and scorched her lungs. Each time she cried out for Alice, more smoke and ash coated her throat. Her eyes stung as she pushed through the heat.
Henrietta listened for her child’s cries, but all she could hear was the wood popping with the heat and the house groaning as its supports burned away. She cursed the bulk of her mourning dress as she pushed past furniture that seemed to reach out and grab at her hem.
Where had she last seen Alice? Her bedroom was on the second floor. The stairs seemed impossibly far as Henrietta forced herself to trudge forward against the blistering heat. A wave of dizziness brought her to her knees.
She coughed violently, tears streaming down her face. The world grew darker.
Henrietta faded as Alice’s name slipped from her lips.
She wandered the ruins of the house listlessly, retracing the trail she had paced so many times before. The path was invisible, but she was familiar with the steps.
She passed the place where she tried and failed to ignite the already charred beams of the roof to capture the attention of her friends who had stopped by to see the damages just days after the fire.
There was the rock she had thrown to catch the eye of the man with the strange, tiny camera. He hadn’t noticed her even when he pointed his camera in her direction.
Past the spot the child fell more recently as he fled her screams for help that barely came out as moans.
All her attempts to garner attention did not bring the desired results. Rather, her efforts seemed to have driven people away. She hadn’t seen another human in so many years she had lost count. Henrietta had tried to leave so many times, but once she reached the edges of the house, she was unable to move further.
She looked out over the land surrounding the house, gorgeous with its tall, old growth trees and rolling hills. She thought she would never tire of the sight. After 100 years, though, it had become boring.
Henrietta remembered the fruitlessness of those early days before she’d fully accepted what she had become. Only a few weeks after the fire, a group of occultists had snuck onto the property to perform an amateur seance.
She had stood behind the leader of the group while he explained how to use the talking board they’d brought. When the group first started their seance, she felt a pull inside that encouraged her to answer. The pull quickly faded when the leader began intentionally manipulating the planchette. When he had pretended to be her, to make up answers for her, she was furious.
Henrietta laid her hands over the leader’s and tried to push the planchette, but his will was much stronger than hers. As the group left, she seethed with hopelessness. He had denied her the ability to communicate, to find answers about her daughter.
Had Alice perished in the fire, too? Was she alive somewhere, healthy and happy? Henrietta had seen fragments of her own bones many times over, but she had never seen Alice’s. Her hope that Alice had lived kept her going through her lonely existence, but she needed to know for sure.
On rare occasions, a group of children, always different, would show up at night. They’d dare one another to stay the night in the remains of the house, but they’d flee before the night was over with some imagined threat.
Henrietta watched them from afar. She didn’t want to scare them away. She’d search for her daughter in the faces of the children, disappointed each time despite knowing how small the odds were.
This new group of children was older than she was used to, and they arrived holding strange little boxes that lit their faces up in the darkness. One had a board tucked under his arm like a treasure. Two other boys carried an ice box, and a girl trailed behind with a blanket.
The group set up the blanket and ice box as though they intended to have a picnic at night. When the boy unfolded the board, she froze. It was a talking board! She hadn’t seen one since that horrid man refused to let her speak so many years ago.
Henrietta flitted closer to the children, unable to quell the rising hope that she might finally communicate with the living and find the answers she sought so desperately. She took a place behind the boy who had brought the board and hovered over his shoulder.
He shivered, then he leaned in and placed his fingertips on the wooden planchette in the center of the board. The other children followed his lead, and then he spoke.
“Spirits, if you are with us, give us a sign.”
She felt the same strange pull towards the board as before. If she had a pulse, it would have quickened with excitement. Henrietta laid her hand over the boy’s and pushed the planchette to the part of the board marked YES.
“Don’t push it,” snarled the girl.
“I’m not,” the boy replied.
“Ask it who it is,” said another boy.
“Who are you?”
She gently pushed the planchette over the letters of her name. H-E-N-R-I-E-T-T-A
“Henrietta? Ugh, seriously, Adam.” The girl rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
Henrietta felt the pull from the talking board lessen slightly and frowned.
“I’m not doing anything,” Adam grumbled.
“Ask it - her - something else,” one of the other boys suggested.
“Fine. How did you die, Henrietta?”
She grimaced, remembering the smoke filling her lungs. F-I-R-E
“You’re doing this on purpose,” the girl said. “You already know the story.”
Adam moved his hands from the planchette, and the other two boys did the same. Henrietta felt the pull release as the children’s attention was broken. With a desperate ache, she put all her energy into pushing the planchette on her own.
The girl started screaming. “It moved on its own! My mom was right - we’re all going to be possessed by demons!” She leapt up and retreated several feet from the board.
While the other boys seemed unnerved, Adam remained calm. He cocked his head thoughtfully. “Alice was my grandmother’s name.”
Henrietta started. Was it possible?
Adam continued. “She said her mother Henrietta died here when some angry guy burned the house down. The firemen wouldn’t let her go inside to look for her mom.”
She searched his face for traces of her daughter. There. In his eyes. This boy Adam... was her great-grandson. Henrietta’s spirit bubbled over with joy.
“Are you still there?” he asked.
“Stop talking to ghosts, idiot. We have to get out of here.” The girl rushed to fold the blanket.
Henrietta reached out and put a hand over Adam’s cheek. He shivered once, then turned to his friends.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
Henrietta watched them take their belongings and walk away. Watched her great-grandson fade off into the night, her proof that Alice had survived the fire. The peace she had denied herself washed over her.
A light bloomed behind her, and she turned around. The light was divinely beautiful, and Henrietta felt her spirit untether from the charred ruins of the house.
It was alright now. She could go.
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Cute fawn you are unique and creative in every story I am deeply impressed
Hi Fawn, What an interesting take on the prompt! i enjoyed the story...it could be a child's ghost story...I like the flow and the twist at the end. I didn't see that coming. The story might benefit from a little more at the 2007 seance. Maybe a pull toward the boy even though she doesn't know why. Just an idea. For my story, No Judgement, I took a different prompt and tried to work in a moral but not so sure it works. Anyway, thanks for writing. I like your writing!
Thank you for reading - that’s a great suggestion for when I revisit this story. I appreciate it!