Monday, December 23, 2019

Annie Apple by Raima Larter

Molly moves in to a rickety old house in North Dakota, and finds a ghost trying on her clothes in the basement; by Raima Larter.

Molly first saw the ghost in the cellar, behind a shelf filled with dusty canning jars. The ghost was - or had been - a young woman. She had long glossy hair and a sprinkle of freckles over her transparent nose, and was floating in front of an old mirror. Molly could see the cellar wall through the ghost’s transparent arms, which were the only part of her body not covered by Molly’s dress, the scoop-necked gold satin.

Why was the ghost wearing Molly’s dress? And where was her camera when she needed it? The ghost grabbed hold of the skirt and turned this way, then that, in front of the dusty mirror. When she twirled, the dress billowed out like a bell.

The ghost’s reflection was visible in the mirror, which seemed surprising. Did ghosts even have mirror reflections? The ghost twirled again and, this time, caught sight of Molly. She dropped her hold on the dress and, just like that, was gone. The gown hung empty in the air for a few seconds, then slinked to the floor, pooling into a puddle of satin.

Molly should probably have been surprised to find a ghost in the cellar, but she was actually delighted. Ever since the real estate agent showed them the house she’d been hoping for it.

“They say the place is haunted,” he’d said, unlocking the door of the one-hundred-year-old home. There was a curly “A” carved into the door’s center. The agent swept a hand into the darkened interior. Ben hiked his eyebrows in Molly’s direction as they stepped in. The real estate guy laughed when he caught sight of Ben’s eyebrows. “It’s not really haunted. Just a story the neighborhood kids told when the house sat empty for years.” He led them across creaking floor boards into a gigantic kitchen. “Now here,” he said, gesturing at wooden countertops and broken-down cabinets, “is an authentic Victorian era kitchen.”

Ben hiked his eyebrows again, this time smiling broadly. “The place hasn’t had any upgrades?”

“Just a bit of updated plumbing and electrical.” The agent moved toward the staircase. “If it’s a fixer-upper you want - well, this one could use some fixin’. Let me show you the bedrooms. Upstairs.”

They toured the rest of the house, all very old looking, but the agent said nothing more about the place being haunted. The possibility that a ghost lurked somewhere in the dilapidated farmhouse was the main item in its favor, in Molly’s opinion.

Ben peered at plank-board siding, kicked at rotting porch supports, and gazed approvingly at the ancient furnace. “Sure needs a lot of work,” he said, grinning.

Molly tried to contain her glee and quickly agreed when Ben suggested a low-ball offer. They’d gone back and forth a couple of times with counter-offers but, in the end, got the place for a good price.

In less than a month’s time, they’d closed the sale, packed their stuff and moved across the country. And now, as promised, here was the ghost - maybe. Perhaps she’d just had a hallucination. But then why was the dress here? She bent to retrieve it, but bumped the shelves, which sent the canning jars to clinking and spiked the hairs on her neck.

Molly hadn’t seen this dress since the Opera Guild gala. That very night, she’d packed it and her other nice clothes into a moving box. She had no use for such things out here in North Dakota, but couldn’t bear to part with the outfits. The whole lot had ended up in an upstairs closet, and that’s where Molly had expected the clothes to stay. This ghost, apparently, had other ideas.

The last time Molly had worn the gold satin was the night Ben received the Spirit Lake offer. She was getting ready for the gala when he walked in, holding an opened envelope. “It’s a private medical group,” he said, handing her the letter. “Most of their clients, as I understand it, are residents of Spirit Lake.”

“What’s that?”

“An Indian reservation. Near Wahpeton.”

“Wah-puh-what?”

“Wahpeton. It’s in North Dakota.”

She frowned at the letter. “I’m not sure I even know where North Dakota is.”

“Oh come on, Molly. We’ll be closer to your parents in California, at least.”

“Who said I wanted to be closer to them?” She smiled, trying to put up a brave front.

He helped her on with her wrap and ushered her out of the house. “I’m sure you can find a job there.” He leaned to open the car door for her.

Molly slid into the passenger seat and when he’d gotten in and started the engine, she asked, “What sort of job?” She said it as if she wanted his advice, but she really didn’t. He’d suggest public relations again, but she’d had her fill of PR jobs during the endless North Carolina years.

As they drove to the gala that night, he fiddled with the car radio. Maybe he was right about a job. Instead of PR, though, perhaps it was time to return to her original career. After all, Ben wasn’t heading for another temporary residency. The offer from Spirit Lake could become permanent, so no more uprooting and moving.

When she had met Ben, she’d been a freelance photographer doing work for small-town newspapers, but got sidetracked after their first two moves - the first so Ben could take a residency in Pittsburgh, the second for the Charlotte position.

She still had her gear, though, packed away in a closet somewhere. Probably the same place she’d stashed her evening wear.



About a month after Molly saw the ghost, Ben walked into the kitchen and grabbed a loaf of bread to make lunch. “I found one of your cashmere shawls yesterday.”

Molly was at the sink, rinsing her coffee cup. She knew right away the ghost was involved. “In the closet? I put all those things in that box.”

“Not the closet - the cellar. I was trying to get the furnace’s pilot light lit when I saw it on that shelf. The one with all the empty canning jars?”

Molly startled, almost dropping the mug, but recovered and slowly put it down. She tried to sound nonchalant. “Did you pick it up? The shawl, I mean.”

He stuffed his sandwich in a bag. “Yes, I put it in the mudroom.”

Molly started to shake. Ben would think she was nuts if she said anything about the ghost. Her husband was a scientist, not prone to such beliefs, and who knew how he would react if she started talking about ghosts. She headed for the mudroom and there was her shawl. She plucked it from the peg it hung on and stood aside as Ben hurried past. He stopped and gave her a kiss. “See you tonight?” She nodded and waved the shawl at him as he got into the car, then hurried to return it to the closet.

After that, Molly found her nice outfits everywhere - everywhere but in the closet where they belonged. Evening gowns in the TV room, a velvet jacket in the garage, and more than a few cocktail dresses scattered around the cellar mirror. She’d gather them up and put them back in the closet, but in a few days, they’d be out again, strewn somewhere in the house - more often than not, near a mirror.

She finally hauled the box to the attic. Maybe if she hid her clothes, the ghost would stop messing with her things. Molly bumped the heavy carton up the rickety stairs, slid it over the rough floorboards, and wiggled it into place near some sagging cardboard boxes.

A piece of yellowed paper stuck through the flaps of one box, as if begging her to look inside. She tugged at the paper. It was a faded receipt from something called the “Wahpeton Electric Co-Op.” When she opened the box, she saw more paper. She lifted the stack of documents and there, in a jumbled pile, were dozens of old black and whites.

Molly let out a whoop, grabbed a handful of photos, and sank onto a dusty bench. She flipped through the snapshots, most of people near a barn next to a house that looked very much like the one Molly and Ben now owned. There was no barn, but Molly had seen odd markings on the grass - maybe an old foundation?

“Just look at all this cool stuff!” Molly shouted to the empty attic. Something in the corner moved, as if in response. She turned slowly toward the dark corner, the hairs on her arms spiking upward. Nothing but shadows. Molly could’ve sworn she sensed someone watching her, though.

She returned her attention to the photos. In one, a skinny man wearing overalls stood in front of the barn. Next to him was a short, heavy-set woman in a flowered dress. If the man had a pitchfork, it would have been the perfect American Gothic Scene. Molly flipped the photo over, hoping for a date or names, but the back was blank.

There were even more intriguing photos in the box. These had been cut up, as if someone had been removed. There were also old receipts, bills, yellowed newspapers - even a stack of report cards for one “Annie Apple” from the Wahpeton Public School System. So much good stuff. It would take a while to sort through it all, so Molly hauled the box to the kitchen, dumped everything onto the rough wooden tabletop, and began to sort things into piles.



One night later that week, Molly sat curled up on the sofa, yellowed paper spread around her in stacks. The ever-present North Dakota wind made a mournful whistling noise as it forced its way through the windows. Ben sat in the easy chair, a bright lamp aimed at a medical journal. Every few moments, a larger-than-normal gust rattled the house, causing the lights to flicker.

“Ben, look at this stuff,” Molly said. “These people kept everything! Every little scrap you can imagine - bills, receipts, even grocery lists.”

“Uh huh.” His gaze flitted toward the paper she waved at him, but quickly returned to the journal.

“One thing I have determined,” she said, ignoring him ignoring her, “is that the family name was Apple. That explains the fancy ‘A’ on the front door.”

“Uh huh.”

He obviously wasn’t listening, so she turned her attention back to the documents. Surely an explanation for her ghost was in them somewhere. She hadn’t actually seen the girl since that first sighting in the cellar, but there were signs everywhere in the form of scattered evening wear. So puzzling. Why would a ghost be interested in fancy clothes?

The next morning, as Molly stirred the pot of oatmeal, Ben showed up with a red sequin-encrusted blouse draped from his hand. “This was on the lamp in the living room?”

“Uh - I just tossed it there for fun.” She laughed nervously. “To see, you know, how the light might play off the sequins.”

He gave her a skeptical look “You’re going to make a lampshade out of that? Would give the room a kind of a bordello look, don’t you think?”

She shrugged. “You’re probably right. I should give those clothes to Goodwill.”

A sudden sound, like someone gasping, came from the hallway, but when Molly turned all she saw was a dark shape shrinking back into the shadows.

Ben frowned toward the dark hallway. “What was that?” When Molly shrugged again, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the countertop. “Well, you could still use those clothes. I’m pretty sure Fargo has an opera -”

She held a hand up to stop him. “It’s not worth getting involved in all that if we’re just going to be here a year or so.”

“Who said anything about a year or so? I’m pretty sure the clinic will invite me to stay on permanently.”

Pretty sure. She shrugged, and turned away so he couldn’t see the expression on her face. “It would be wonderful if your job became permanent. But we can’t count on it. Plus, I’m not sure I want to spend my time networking with a bunch of ladies who lunch. In Fargo.”

He grabbed her by the arms and turned her toward him. She stood there holding the spoon she’d been stirring the oatmeal with, hoping it wouldn’t drip onto the floor, her face hot with a sudden flush of embarrassment. “Listen, Molly,” he said. “I doubt very much that there are people like that in Fargo.”

She shrugged again and wiggled out of his grasp, turning back to the pot of oatmeal. “Of course there are. Every town has its high society crowd, even a place like Fargo. Or Wahpeton.”

After he’d gone off to the clinic, she started digging through the box of documents and sorting things into categories. The man in the overalls was, she quickly surmised, Homer Apple, and the heavy-set woman was his wife, Abigail. Molly also uncovered the original deed. Homer and Abigail Apple had, a hundred years before, built the very home that Molly and Ben now lived in.

That stack of report cards was intriguing, but they only covered the first five grades of school. Annie Apple was not a particularly strong student, though. The poor girl hadn’t earned anything higher than a “Needs to Improve” in any class.

Molly assumed that Annie must have been Homer and Abigail’s daughter, but the girl wasn’t in any of the photos. Is that who they’d cut out? And why? She dug deeper in the box, but couldn’t find a birth certificate or any report cards for the higher grades. There were more boxes in the attic, though, so she scooted another one across the attic floorboards and bumped it down the stairs to the kitchen. Three steps from the bottom the box tumbled into the kitchen, splitting and spilling its contents across the linoleum.

“Oh shoot,” Molly said to the empty room, sinking to her knees. Some old calendars were on top of the spilled items. She turned over the one dated 1949 and there, on the cover, was her ghost. Same dark eyes, same freckled nose, same lithe figure - but the girl in the photo was no ghost. She was a living person, dressed in a Daisy-Duke outfit: cutoff denim shorts and a plaid shirt tied at her midriff. She looked about eighteen in the photo and hadn’t aged a day in the last sixty-something years - except for being dead, of course.

She stood barefoot, posed next to a silvery biplane with a buff-looking guy. He wore a pilot’s jacket and had his arm around her waist. She held one thin arm toward the sky. The photo had a caption: “Wahpeton Seeds - Guaranteed to Send Your Yields Sky High!”

Molly flipped the calendar open to January, and there was her ghost again. This time the girl wore boots and a coat and stood in the snow next to a grain elevator. Molly flipped through the pages and on every month there was her girl, posed near a half-harvested field, or sitting on a tractor, or just leaning on a fence with a big smile.

Molly sorted the stuff that had spilled from the box and soon found a cardboard folder with a birth certificate for one “Annie Apple,” dated 1929. That same folder held an 8x10 glossy, black and white, of a couple dozen long-limbed young women, all dressed in identical Daisy-Duke outfits. They were lined up next to a brick building with a portion of a sign above them - just three letters, BRI.

And there, in the middle of the group, was Molly’s ghost, very much alive.

That night at the kitchen table, Molly showed Ben what she’d found. “Here’s her birth certificate,” she said, opening the cardboard folder, “and this is a photo of her with some other girls. I’m sure it’s Annie there in the middle. I mean, why would that photo be in this folder if it wasn’t her?”

Ben shoveled a bite of meat loaf in his mouth as he gazed at the photo, then picked up the birth certificate and read it carefully, all the while chewing. “Why are you so interested in this?”

She shrugged, her face hot with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. “I don’t know. I just am.” She picked at her food. “Aren’t you curious about who lived in this house before we did?”

“A little. Is it the history that interests you?”

“I just feel like this girl, this Annie Apple, is important in some way.”

He nodded. “You could look into it. Go to the library or search the county records?”

“Would I be allowed to see them?”

“Sure. Birth and death records are public information.”

“I don’t even know where the library is.”

He pulled out his phone and after a few moments said, “417 Second Avenue.”

“In Wahpeton?”

“Yep.” He clicked more buttons on his phone. “Oh wait - it’s closed for renovation. They recommend patrons use the Fargo Library.” He placed his phone on the table and reached for the plate of meat loaf.

“How far is Fargo?”

He picked up his phone again. “About an hour north. Right up I-25.”

“Okay.” She paused. “I guess I’ll need to give you a ride to the clinic so I can use the car.”

“Okey-dokey,” he said around a mouthful of meat loaf.

Molly laughed. “You sound like a local already.”

“Just trying to fit in,” he said, smiling.

The next day, she dropped Ben at the clinic and eventually found her way to a brick building in downtown Fargo. It had two doors, each topped by a sign. One said, “Fargo Public Library,” the other, “Briggs Modeling Agency.”

Molly entered the library and approached the reference desk where a young man sat slumped, staring at a computer. “Excuse me,” she said. “I need to look up some old birth and death records.”

He shook his head. “That’s all at the County Clerk’s Office.”

“Is Wahpeton in this county?”

“Nope. Different county.”

“Well - how about old newspapers? From the late 1940s?” Surely the papers would have something. Something awful must have happened to the poor girl - after all, why was she still around, haunting her old home?

The young man moved toward the back. “All newspapers prior to 1990 are on microfiche - I’ll show you the reader.”

Molly stumbled along behind him. “Micro - what?”

He reached to open a door. “Very few people use microfiche anymore, but don’t worry. The reader is easy.”

He was right - it was easy, but after hours peering through the viewer at fuzzy copy, Molly had a splitting headache. She found out all sorts of things about young men killed in the war, a drought that devastated the area, local politics and other interesting things—but nothing about Annie Apple.

She slid another cartridge of microfiche into the reader. “Why isn’t this stuff searchable?” she muttered and turned the knob, flipping through story after story. She almost missed it and had to turn the knob backward, fingers trembling, to find the headline that had gone flying past: Local Girl and Pilot Killed in Tragic Accident. And there, below the headline, was the photo from the seed calendar.

She made a paper copy, and sat back to read:

Fargo Police investigated the crash Sunday of a small crop-duster near the town of Horace. Two people were killed in the accident: the pilot, Captain Bill Bennett of the Air National Guard, and his passenger, Annie Apple. Authorities said the pair were practicing for the upcoming Fargo Air Show. Miss Apple was riding astride the wings, her arms and legs attached to the wing struts with ropes, while Captain Bennett sent the plane into a roll. Police are not certain what caused the crash, but are continuing to investigate. Miss Apple was the daughter of Homer and Abigail Apple of Wahpeton. Her employer, the Briggs Modeling Agency, had no comment.

Wow. A plane crash? Why in the world was Annie involved in such a dangerous stunt? Molly scanned the article again. Briggs Modeling Agency. It sounded familiar, but where had she heard of it?

Molly gathered her stuff, thanked the young man at reference, and headed out. On her way to the parking lot, she saw the sign, above the door next to the library: Briggs Modeling Agency. Molly ran over and yanked at the handle, but the door was locked. A sign gave the operating hours as nine a.m. to five p.m.

Was it after five already? She pulled out her phone and remembered: Ben! She sprinted to the car, slid behind the wheel and texted him quickly:

sorry – got held up at library – on my way!!



Later that evening, she headed up to bed, her head pounding from hours of squinting at microfiche. She clutched a folder full of newspaper clippings. She reached for the light switch inside the bedroom door and spotted her clothes - evening wear, shawls, sequined bags, all of it - strewn across the floor. And there was the ghost in Molly’s red evening gown. She floated in the semi-dark room in front of the dresser mirror, experimenting with a shawl, wrapping it this way, then that, around her transparent neck.

Molly’s hand hovered near the switch. The light from the hallway cast a dim glow, but the ghost didn’t seem to be aware of Molly’s presence. Molly stepped into the dimly-lit room. “Annie!”

The ghost twirled around. “How do you know my name?” Her voice shimmered, high and ethereal.

I’m talking to a ghost! A thrill of excitement jittered into Molly’s chest. “I found the newspaper clippings, Annie.” She held the folder up. “The old calendars, too - in the attic.”

Annie groaned and the shawl slid to the floor. “Mama kept those, didn’t she? I told her not to. I warned her they would just make her sad.”

Molly moved closer and the wooden floor creaked. Annie flinched backward.

“Your mama kept the calendars?” Molly’s voice trembled. If she could just keep Annie talking…

The light flicked on and there was Ben. “Who are you talking to - oh wow!”

Annie’s eyes grew wide and, just like before, she popped out of sight, the red dress slinking to the floor. Ben walked in and grabbed the dress. He turned to Molly, frowning. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

Molly hugged herself. “What did you see?”

He stared at the dress in his hand. “A girl -?”

“It’s Annie.”

“Who?”

“Annie Apple. She used to live in this house with her parents, Homer and Abigail. She wanted to be a model. She was killed in a plane crash. She -”

Ben held up a hand. “Wait! What are you talking about? I thought you said those people lived here eighty years ago.”

“They did live here eighty years ago.” She paused as Ben stared at her, his eyes grown wide and round. “She’s a ghost, Ben. She’s dead, but she’s still here. I - I don’t know why.”

He looked around at the clothing on the floor. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. And what is it with these clothes of yours?”

“That’s Annie’s doing, too. She wanted to be a model, you see.” Molly shrugged. “I think she just likes my outfits.”

Ben bent to pick up the fringy shawl. “I’ll help you clean this up. And then you need to get some sleep.” He frowned at her. “Doctor’s orders.”

The fact that Ben didn’t even believe the evidence of his own eyes made the embryonic plan Molly had been developing even more compelling. She would return to the modeling agency. Surely they’d have some answers. The next morning, she dropped Ben at the clinic and drove to Fargo. The agency was open, but the young woman at reception had never heard of Annie Apple. “Let me get Miss Briggs for you.”

She returned with a tall thin woman who wore a tight pencil skirt, a lemon-colored blouse, and glasses. She reached to shake Molly’s hand, showing teeth so white they almost glowed. “Hello! I’m Doreen Briggs.”

Molly pulled out the 8x10 glossy. “I’m looking for information about a young woman - Annie Apple? She was apparently employed by your agency, years ago. I found this in the old house we just bought in Wahpeton.”

Miss Briggs reached for the photo and smiled. “Well, that looks familiar.” She waved a hand toward the hallway. “I’ll show you.”

Molly followed Miss Briggs’ clicking heels down the long darkened hallway to the back room. On the wall next to a small microwave was a framed photo, identical to Molly’s 8x10. “That’s her right there,” Miss Briggs said, pointing. “My grandmother founded the agency eighty years ago. Annie Apple was one of Granny’s first recruits.” She waved a hand toward a table. “Would you like some coffee?”

They chatted for a while after Miss Briggs’ assistant brought them coffee and tiny cookies. Molly explained about buying the old home in Wahpeton, the dusty box, the Seed Depot calendars - but nothing about seeing Annie, of course. She pulled out the newspaper article. “Do you know about this plane accident?”

Miss Briggs took the paper and glanced through it. “Granny talked about Annie all the time. This crash, too, since the accident nearly caused Granny to lose the agency. That wasn’t the worst part of the tragedy, of course.” She sipped at her coffee. “Granny said Bill and Annie were secretly engaged.”

“Really!”

“I don’t know much more about it,” she said, handing her the clipping. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“You said your grandmother talked about Annie? What did she say?”

“That it was a huge loss. Annie showed a lot of potential as a model, and had overcome a lot to get that far. Annie’s parents were not at all supportive, particularly when she dropped out of school to join Granny’s fledgling agency.”

“How old was she when she came here?”

“The girls were required to be at least sixteen, but Granny found out later that Annie was only fourteen when she arrived.”

Molly ran her finger over the glossy photo. “It must have been very important to her, to drop out of school.”

“A lot of our girls are like that. It’s a real passion for some. They all believe they’ll end up in New York or Paris - but very few ever get out of North Dakota.”

Molly thanked Miss Briggs for her help and headed for her car. On the drive home, she reviewed her fledgling plan. She really didn’t know if it could work, but she had to try. Annie deserved a chance to pursue her modeling dreams. Molly knew all about unfulfilled dreams.

When she arrived home, she ran upstairs, rummaged through the closet for her camera and retrieved some of her evening wear. She strung the items as bait across the floor, then dropped some on the stairs, making a trail to the cellar. She draped the last item, a sparkly shawl, over the canning jar shelf, then hid behind the cellar stairs, her camera strap slung around her neck.

Her leg cramped after a half hour of waiting and she was afraid she’d have to abandon the plan when she heard the jars clinking. She peered around the steps and there was Annie, wearing the red evening gown again. She was experimenting with the shawl, tying it around her waist.

Molly lifted the camera, adjusted the lens and snapped. Annie spun around. “What’re ya doin’?” she shrieked.

“Annie, please,” Molly said, taking a step forward. “I just want to help.”

“Help how?”

“You want to be a model, right?”

Annie lifted her transparent chin. “Who says?”

“I talked to Miss Briggs.”

Annie shook her head. “Not possible. The woman is dead.” She glared at Molly. “It’s mama’s doin’, ain’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

Annie threw her transparent arms in the air, and the shawl slid to the floor. “All that woman done was nag. She never let up, told me I couldn’t work on the crop duster project.”

Molly held her finger over the camera button and aimed it toward Annie. She kept it low, in front of her belly. “Tell me about that project. What happened?”

Annie looked confused. “I don’t rightly know. I met Bill that day. We got set up for the trick. I remember taking off, but next thing I knew, I was here. In the attic.”

Molly stepped closer. “Tell me more.”

Annie crossed her arms and turned toward Molly. “Miss Briggs was the one who set up the crop duster shoot. She said it would get me more exposure. ‘If you want to be a model,’ Miss Briggs said, ‘you got to put yourself out there. Take risks.’” Annie swallowed and Molly saw a glint of tears in the ghost’s eyes. “The flying stunt was supposed to be the first step. It wasn’t supposed to be the last.”

“It isn’t going to be the last, Annie. I’ve got a camera here and I know how to use it. What say we have us a fashion shoot?”

A smile broke across Annie’s transparent face and she dropped her crossed arms. “You’re really a photographer?”

“I’m really a photographer.” Just saying the words, the truth, gave her goosebumps. Molly peered through the viewfinder. “And I can tell you something else: Annie Apple is going to take the world of New York fashion by storm.”

She took the shot just as Annie tipped her head and gave her a somber look. Molly peered at the screen on the camera’s back. There she was, a perfectly normal-looking girl-next-door, all dressed up in a red evening gown - floating six inches off the floor.

“Great shot, Annie,” Molly said. “How about a big smile this time?”

5 comments:

  1. "a sprinkle of freckles over her transparent nose" I could picture this, very well written

    ReplyDelete
  2. A feel good ghost story. Don't see too many of those. I liked it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love the way the mystery built up, and the ending is sweet. It's great to see both characters find a happy ending.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A ghost story with a happy ending. Not many of those around.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What a friendly ghost. Very personable and "there". Reminds me of Casper, or perhaps the Maitlands from Beetlejuice if I'm looking for a more human analog.

    ReplyDelete