I have grown up in the interminable shadow of a tragedy. There have been many times when all of us have wished things could be different, but alas, it is not possible to change what has occurred by wishing. Many of the attempts to soften the blow of past events have fallen on cold shoulders and deaf ears. I suppose this is likely because many of the attempts have not panned out as planned. After all, there is a reason for the expression, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Before I was born, recess lighting was added to all the hallways of the family’s mansion. Apparently, the edges and corners were even darker before. My mother fell down the stairs once due to the shadowy corners and their suggested menace. She twisted her ankle and lost a pregnancy. She never speaks of it to me, but I did overhear her on the phone with a friend once. During that phone call she insisted there had been a ghost. Given that I overheard this at a young age, I confronted her. My innocent inquiries did not lead to a conversation and instead to a smack across the face and a warning to never speak of it again.
For a while I avoided home as much as an eight-year-old could. I spent time in the sunken Italian garden in the back of the house and tried to walk in a straight line around the perimeter of the property with my eyes closed. After that phase passed, I devoted time to searching for ghosts. The turrets of our Victorian style manor provided a great ground for exploring. The high bookshelves, statue gallery, and circular, metal staircases became an elaborate playground. Instead of a rainforest or jungle, I explored the expansive indoor land of my forefathers. Rarely, if ever, did anyone notice my explorations. The adults had better things to do than “play hide and seek” with a child.
My mother tried to hide her superstitions from me and my father never ceased to insist the spiritual world did not exist. He scoffed at any suggestions of ghosts and he rejected all faiths. “I believe in the concrete,” he said to me once. At the time he was showing off the safe where the reserve funds were kept.
I became more aware of strange happenings as I grew into a teenager. The family portrait above the fireplace burst into flames one winter day. The faces of my mom and me remained unscathed, but my father’s face existed only as a charred spot once the fire was extinguished. Angry, my father threatened all those who worked for us. His anger frightened me, regardless of at whom it was directed.
Many of the times we drove into town as a family resulted in flat tires. My father grew convinced that the townspeople had a vendetta. Since this only happened when he drove, my mother and I became the drivers for any excursions or chores. Typically, my father would wait at home for one or both of us to return, mumbling about ingrates.
Even after the tragedy my family remained a major employer in the town. Although many lives had been lost in the fire, the factory still remained a stable, respectable workplace. From what I have been told, though, reconstruction did not go smoothly. At first, my grandfather tried to rebuild the factory on the same land. This action was met with heated protests from residents as they felt it was disrespectful to continue to make money off of a place where so many had lost their lives. Grudgingly, my grandfather turned the area into a small memorial park and then rebuilt the factory a short ways away.
He was a devoted businessman, my grandfather. He valued money highly and productivity even more so. My father said my grandfather did not spend much time with him as a child due to his work schedule. Apparently, this continued even after the fire. I never met him. He died before I was born. My father says it was most likely a heart attack. He also says it is for the best I never met him.
My father is not an affectionate man either. I suppose he comes by that trait honestly. He spends no extra time with my mother and I and he spends no time with the community. He does not attend the yearly memorial services for the victims of the fire, nor does he keep up the memorial park.
I am expected to take over the family business, but I hate the factory. Each time I have been there I have become overwhelmed with the smell of smoke. I choke and choke but no one notices. All the employees go about their work. The last time this happened my father even shook me in an attempt to snap out of it.
In preparation for the inevitable, I have begun cleaning the memorial park. The unruly rose bushes prick my fingers every time I attempt to prune them. In addition to the rose bushes there are shrubs with the thickest roots I have ever seen. It is impossible to leave the garden without shedding some amount of blood. Each time I promise to return with higher quality gardening gloves, steel-toed boots, thicker pants. So I do, but it makes no difference.
I have also begun going through old records. There are pages missing from the year of the fire, but I suppose that is to be expected. But when I ask my father about them, he grows angry with me. A few employees pause to listen to the argument. He does not even notice.
The next day, a small fire started in the corner of his office. My father had every police officer he could out to the factory to investigate. They spent hours watching the security footage and yet, no one was seen going in or out of the suite.
The next time I went to the memorial garden I tripped on a rock. I smashed my face into the ground initiating such a powerful nosebleed that all I could do was crouch in the grass and let the blood drip onto the ground in front of me. As soon as possible I wriggled out of my sweatshirt and pressed it against my nose. I flipped over the rock. A date seemed carved into it. I rubbed away the dirt to better make out the numbers. The five digit number looked as if it was chiseled by an amateur. I blinked and when I looked again, the number was gone.
I absent-mindedly doodled the number on my napkin as I drank coffee the next morning. I felt a presence behind me and turned to see my father staring over my shoulder. He frowned. “Where did you get that number?” He asked. I looked at him. He grabbed the napkin and walked off with it balled off in his fist.
His behavior puzzled me. It was just a number. A number that seemed to resemble the employee ID numbers my grandfather issued his workers.
I waited until my father was otherwise occupied to search for more records from the factory. As the only child and heir, I had an idea of where my father would keep any additional records. I waited until night to sneak the key to the safe off of his key ring. I almost called off my search several times, but each timeI felt something was compelling me to continue this search.
The safe contained an amalgam of items. Important family documents, money, some gold. At first I did not see anything I could not explain. Then, I noticed an envelope shoved in the back. I unfolded the flap and found documents that matched the missing factory records.
My grandmother’s name jumped out at me - Emmeline Smith. The date of birth matched, but I did not understand why she would be listed as an employee. She never worked at the factory. But, then, the five digit employee number jumped out at me. It was the same number I had seen on the rock.
Also included in the envelope were other old documents. A marriage license for my grandparents, confirming what I already knew about their marriage, and a birth certificate for my father. But this birth certificate was wrong - it had him listed as being born 12 years earlier than he was.
I went back to the safe to see if there were any other documents or items I missed. I found another envelope hidden at the bottom of the firebox containing the family’s documents. This envelope contained several yellowed newspaper articles from the year of the fire. “Arson Suspected in Factory Fire” and “6,660 Employees Perish in Flames” jumped out at me. I felt my face grow pale. There had never been a time when I did not know about the tragedy. But, the story I had been told included an accident and a lower number of casualties. I folded the papers and returned them to their respective envelopes, vowing to come back and make a copy of each. Arson? My grandmother a factory employee? My father’s fake birth certificate? As I closed the safe I heard the sound of breathing coming from behind me. Chills ran up my spine.
“Hello Eden,” my father said. His voice, surprisingly even and calm, froze me to the spot.
“Hello Father,” I replied. I forced myself to meet his eyes. He gestured toward the safe.
“Doing some investigating I see,” he said. “Well, I suppose if you are to take over you may as well know the full story.” He motioned for me to follow him.
We walked in silence over the dewy grass until we reached the memorial garden, not far from our own property.
“It was all his fault,” my father said.
“Grandfather started the fire?” I felt sick.
“In a way he did,” my father answered. I waited for him to continue. “My mother worked in the factory. She worked hard. She was not from a wealthy family, your grandmother. And when the boss started paying attention to her, what was she to do? She let him get his way. I was born later that year. For years we lived in poverty. My mother barely made enough to get by as a single woman and then she had a son at a time when you did not have children as an unmarried person. I saw the way my father lived. He had this mansion. He had those servants. It was not fair. For years I felt the anger building.”
I remained quiet, trying to take in all he was saying.
“My mother tried to reason with him and her entreaties fell on deaf ears. She would come home from work in tears. I wanted nothing more to hurt the one who caused them. So, I did. One day when my mother was at work I came to visit her under the pretense of bringing her lunch. My father would not even look at me when I walked by him. I waited for him to leave for his lunch before enacting my plan. I had planted kerosene around the outer perimeter of the factory the night before, you see, so now I knew I just had to start one fire. I found my place and lit the match. Of course, the flames took time to grow. In that time I pushed furniture in the way of exits. We were all trapped.”
I looked at my father. He was staring off into the distance. I saw a smile curve onto his face.
“And then Mr. Bossman sprang into action. I made sure my mother was near an exit and allowed my father to believe he rescued us both. He took it as a sign from God and made us his family. Of course, in keeping with appearances he changed a few documents, such as my birth certificate. A small price to pay - getting a new birthday.”
The smile on his face repulsed me. “The strangeness around here…” I murmured.
“Oh,” he said. “That. I do not believe in ghosts or spirits. I believe in the evil in human nature. I believe in money. But, perhaps our family is a bit haunted.” He shrugged. “It’s never bothered me.”