Armoires shouldn’t be used as a mode of transportation for the dead.
That’s what I keep telling myself as I stare at the antique mahogany armoire I purchased for an insane amount of money at the auction house last month.
I’ve spent my life not believing in anything that can’t be seen or touched. That includes God, the afterlife, soul mates and the Tooth Fairy. But, lately, I’ve had to reevaluate that belief since a ghost hitched a ride to my condo in an armoire.
The first time I realized I was not alone was the day the beautiful piece was delivered. When I called my mom to confide my supernatural secret, she told me I was nuts. Nuts! That’s coming from someone who believes in everything. She thinks everyone is right as long as they firmly believe in something. So, go to fortune tellers if you believe in them. Go to the North Pole if you believe in Santa. Go to Ireland and catch that leprechaun if you believe in the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Just believe.
When my bohemian mother scoffs at me, I know I have a problem. But there is a definite presence in my condo. A cold feeling settles in my bones at certain times of the night, and my thermostat works fine. Once I even felt the cushion of the sofa sink down, and I bolted straight for the bathroom.
I don’t know why I thought hightailing it to the bathroom would be all that great of an idea. Can’t ghosts walk through walls? The only relief I get is at work, and if that isn’t irony I don’t know what is. It’s hard talking to people about nutrition and proper living, especially when they aren’t all that interested. But, now I’m redefining proper living to actually include a flesh and blood person with a heartbeat.
Drifting toward the armoire, I keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. My gaze lands on the framed quilting square on the wall beside it, and a lump forms at the back of my throat. I stare at it, thinking about the sweet friend I lost recently.
Shaking off the melancholy, I reach out and close the doors to the armoire, effectively hiding the television tucked inside. You’d think my ghost would be willing to split the cable bill at least. If my invisible roomie is watching Dexter with me, he or she should damn well be pitching in financially.
Every night at exactly eight o’clock, the chain on my front door rattles. Every single night. It’s about six minutes to eight, and already I’m a ball of nerves.
My heart pounds as I pretend not to be scared or anxious. I pretend my life is still normal.
Strolling into the hallway, I pick up my mail, hoping my ghost thinks I find the junk mail extremely interesting. Coupons, postcards from cleaning services I don’t need and old mail for the last four residents hit the top of the trashcan. I glance quickly at the envelope from my mortgage company, who’s offering to lower my interest rate. Since I just purchased my little condo last year, I’ll have to crunch the numbers to see if it’s worth it.
The floorboards creak. Then, again. The sound comes closer.
God, help me. If you’re out there, help me.
My heart picks up speed. I feel the cold. It’s so close I can probably reach out and grab it. Most of the time I’m not so much scared as I am curious. Curious as to why a random ghost chose to stick with a piece of furniture instead of staying close to someone they knew and loved.
The chain rattles. I look upward through my lashes and pretend to still be looking at the mail. The chain rises by itself and slides into locking position.
Why does this being keep locking me in at night? It never does anything to scare me, but I’m on edge nonetheless. There’s either a dead person hanging out in my condo or else I’ve officially lost my mind. I’ve never tried to make contact because that kind of goes hand in hand with the crazy thing.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve lived with the idea that things don’t exist if you don’t believe. I never had a nightlight in my room to ward off evil beings. I never slept with a baton under my pillow to attack the Boogie Man in the dead of night. I never double-checked closets for monsters ready to spring out at me. Because I never believed.
I’m not a stupid woman. I believe in evil. Human evil. I do check the backseat of my car to make sure I’m not transporting an axe-murderer to my home to chop me into a gazillion pieces. I’m cautious when it comes to everyday life because life deserves a certain amount of caution.
The phone rings, and I jump in surprise. After collecting myself and taking a deep breath, I walk towards the counter, disconnect my cell phone from the charger and look at the screen. Unfamiliar number.
Steeling myself to sound calm and normal and not at all crazy, I answer it.
“Hello.” There. That sounds normal enough under the circumstances.
“May I speak with Madilynn Kendall?” A deep voice—an unfamiliar voice—asks.
“This is she.” I say with a breathy voice. “How can I help you?”
“My name is Shawn Kirtland. I’m calling regarding a piece of furniture you purchased at an auction last month. It was a mahogany—“
“Yes.” God, please let him tell me that he wants it back. “I have the armoire.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding. My mother put the armoire up for auction without my consent while I was out of the country. It’s taken me a week to track it to you, but I was wondering if you would be willing to sell it back to me. I would be more than willing to pay you extra for your inconvenience.”
This is too good to be true! It’s a miracle. I asked God for help, and he provided me with a modern-day miracle. Who knew God would come through for a nonbeliever?
“Can I ask why you want it back?” The words slip out of my mouth without thought. I should have just answered in the affirmative, but I want to know why he wants it back. Maybe he knows it’s haunted. Maybe he’s a ghost hunter. Or maybe he murdered the person currently haunting my condo, and that person expects me—a part-time yoga instructor—to solve the mystery.
“It has,” he clears his throat softly, “sentimental value.”
Something in his voice tells me he’s hiding something.
“Can I come by and talk with you in person?” He asks with a slight hesitation.
Yeah, right, buddy. You can come by my house. In your dreams. So, you can chop up my body and hide it in the armoire? Forget it.
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” I shift from foot to foot.
A chilly breeze brushes my skin, leaving a scent of roses in its wake. At once, I relax, and I don’t understand why. The window’s not open, but my hair swirls lightly around my shoulders.
An overwhelming urge to meet this guy suddenly takes over. I want answers. Maybe I’m supposed to lead Armoire Being into the eternal light or whatever is out there.
“Actually…why don’t we meet? I live in Old Town. There’s a coffee shop around the corner from me. Carla’s Café….”
“I know where that it,” he says quickly. “I can be there in ten minutes.”
Holy shit. This guy is desperate to have this haunted armoire returned. But what if he takes back the armoire but the ghost remains in my condo? Hell, if it can hitch a ride in a piece of furniture, it could end up staying with me for the rest of my life.
Ten minutes. In ten minutes maybe I’ll have some answers.
“Okay. I have on…” I glance down at the ratty Spongebob pajama top and boxer shorts I’m currently sporting and realize I can’t meet an axe-murderer in my jammies. I do have my standards.
Eight minutes later, I push open the door to the coffee house and arrange a location for my stakeout. I have two minutes to scope the place out. Find the exits if I need to make a quick escape. I quickly send my mom another sensible text with my location and the name of the guy who called me so that if I go missing at least the cops will have some kind of lead.
I ended up telling him that I would be wearing a red shirt and jeans, but I forgot to ask what he would be wearing. Maybe he’ll be a giant bear of a man with tattoos twining up his arms and piercings in his eyebrows. Or maybe he’ll be some weird Ted Bundy type and pretend to have a broken arm to play on my sympathies. And let’s not forget the freak show from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Well, he’s met his match. I’m nobody’s fool.
The aroma of fresh coffee beckons me toward the counter. After placing my order, I head to the round table in the corner and wait for my coffee. I should really know better than to order caffeine when it’s pushing towards nine at night, but I can’t be any jumpier than I am right now. And I haven’t had a full night’s rest in almost a month anyway.
My eyes scan the sea of bodies needing nighttime caffeine. A couple of older kids, probably local college students, sit in the corner swapping papers. Only two people are sitting by themselves, and I quickly rule them out as Shawn Kirtland. One is an old man nibbling away on his sandwich while reading the paper. The other is a businesswoman frantically clicking away on her Blackberry, an almost maniacal look in her eyes.
The pony-tail boy from the register brings me my cafe latte with extra cream on top. Hell, if I’m having caffeine this late at night, I may as well enjoy it.
As I’m licking some cream off my upper lip, the door opens and a vision crosses the threshold. He’s a living cliché. He’s tall, dark and yummy. I lick my lip again. Parts of my body tingle with delight.
Please don’t go sit by Blackberry Chick. Please don’t be married. Please don’t be my axe-murderer. Please just be mine.
He strides into the coffee shop like he owns the place. His dark green eyes immediately find mine, and he smiles and heads in my direction.
It’s true love. Love at first sight. I’ve never been a believer in that either, but I’m willing to make an exception. He feels it too. Nothing else can possibly explain this immediate attraction.
“Hi. I’m Shawn.”
Except that. Jesus, I’m an idiot. Of course he’s Shawn. Of course he’d be gorgeous. Of course he would be the one desperate for the return of a haunted armoire.
With one hand gripping the edge of the table, I stand up and hold out the other for a handshake. I want to linger with my hand in his, but I don’t.
“Hi. I’m Maddie. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sorry to have called so late.” He shakes his head while pulling out a chair. “I couldn’t believe my mom sold the armoire without my consent. I just got back last week to find it gone. Like I said, it’s taken me a little while to locate you.”
“You said it has sentimental value…” I begin, weighing my words carefully. I can’t let on that I know it’s haunted. He might be tipped off that I know he’s responsible for the death of that person. And if he isn’t aware, I risk sounding like a fruitcake.
“Yes. It belonged to my grandparents. I have strong memories of that piece in particular. My sister and I used to play hide and go seek in it while my grandmother straightened up the upstairs rooms.” He stares straight into my eyes as he reaches in his jacket pocket, and his hand brings out some pictures. He tosses them across the table. “Here’s some proof that I am who I say I am.”
The top picture is of a toddler sitting on the bed playing with action figures, my armoire clearly in the background. The next one is of a young boy with familiar green eyes, his arm slung across the shoulders of a much younger girl with the same green eyes. Sister, I suppose. My heart warms at the sight of his protective arm and easy smile. As I sift through the pictures, one grabs my attention. It’s a woman in the background. She seems familiar to me, but I can’t place her. It’s a little blurry, but there’s definitely something about her. I keep looking at the pictures, trying to sort out this newest puzzle.
“So, would you sell it back to me?” His voice brings me back to my first puzzle.
I have to know. I just have to. I risk sounding like a mental patient, but I just have to know.
“Can I ask you a question?” I take a sip of my latte, licking the creamy foam from my lip again while I wait for his answer.
All of a sudden he looks uneasy. “Sure. What is it?”
“Did someone die in the house near that armoire?” There. It’s out there now. Out there in Crazyland.
The unease in his eyes intensifies. And I know. He knows. He knows that my armoire is haunted.
“Why do you ask that?” His fingers tighten on the straw he picked up from the table.
My eyes narrow. “I think you know…”
Surprise leaps into his eyes. “But…how…” His eyes leave mine for a moment but then return. “What do you mean?”
“At the risk of sounding completely loony-tunes, I’ll go ahead and put it out there. There’s someone living in my condo, and they aren’t payin’ rent.”
I expected to see denial in his expression. Maybe a bit of skepticism. What I didn’t expect was the excitement and hopeful expression. And my heart skips in response.
An axe-murderer might be excited to get rid of some clue. But he wouldn’t have that hopeful look plastered on his rugged, handsome face. I glance down at the picture of him with his arm around his sister, and I have a moment’s hesitation. Would a murderer be that protective of a younger sister?
“So, who is it?” I ask, point-blank.
I can tell by the long pause that he doesn’t want to come right out and admit it. To admit it means telling someone how crazy he is. I understand his problem. I’ve been dealing with the same thing for almost a month now.
“I can’t believe she made herself known to you.” He drops the crumpled straw on the table. “She hasn’t for my mom or my sister. Or cousins. Just me.”
“Why only you?” I ask because I have a strange feeling that he needs someone to believe him.
“I’ve never believed in a heaven or hell. Or that we go anywhere once we leave this life.”
I didn’t expect that one. He sounds like me. Maybe that’s the connection. Nonbelievers. Skeptics. But why would a ghost come to haunt me? It doesn’t make sense.
“So, you’re saying that this…this…person—“
“My grandmother,” he interrupts with a quick affirmative nod.
Holy Moses. I’ve been scared of a little old granny?
“But why would she be haunting you? Or me?”
“For me, it’s not about haunting. Back when I was a sophomore at college, I came home for Christmas break and was visiting her. I had just finished a semester learning about how culture and religion play a part in our belief system. I told her that I didn’t believe in an afterlife. At all.” He glances around the coffee shop like God Himself was ready to drag him out by the ear. “She disagreed.”
“That still doesn’t explain why—“
“She told me that if it was at all possible to stick around after she died, that she would do her best to make herself known to me. And if she succeeded, it would prove that there was an afterlife. I’d have to believe.”
I suck in a quick breath. It sounds so much like another conversation I’d had. It was with an older woman after my yoga class. She and I had bonded over deep breathing, comfortable stretching and meditation. As a part-time yoga instructor at the senior center, I taught her the first two, but it was Gladys who taught me more about the meditation. Of course, for her, meditation was something she did on a spiritual level. For me, it was to connect with myself and find inner peace.
Over breakfast one morning, she talked with me about my beliefs. She shook her head sadly and said I reminded her of someone else she knew.
My eyes scan the pictures once more. Then I lean forward and take a longer look at the blurry image in the background.
“What was your grandmother’s name?”
I start laughing. Inappropriate, I know, but I can’t help myself. What a small world. And a huge coincidence. Somehow, this meddling, sweet woman got what she wanted. She had tried for three years to get me to meet her grandson. I resisted, assured that I wouldn’t be interested. And I didn’t want to damage our relationship if I blew off her grandson. Why, oh, why didn’t I ask to see a picture?
“What’s funny?” The corner of his mouth pulls up in an endearing smile.
“I knew your grandmother.”
There. That wiped that smile off his face. His eyebrows pull together with a look of confusion.
“Are you sure? How is that even possible? How could you have known—“
“Oh, I knew her. Spunky. Played poker with your grandfather’s old friends on Friday nights and usually cleaned them out of their money. Couldn’t quilt to save her life, although she tried for her sister. She hated the quilting group because they were a bunch of gossipy—“
“—old biddies.” We finish together.
He sits back and runs his fingers through his dark hair. Then he looks out the window, deep in thought.
“You don’t happen to teach yoga, do you?”
Now, it’s my turn to have the smile wiped off my face. I guess he can tell by my look that I do indeed teach yoga.
He shakes his head back and forth, chuckling softly. “My Maddie says this, my Maddie says that. My Maddie…”
I can feel the lump growing in my throat. I was her Maddie? God, I miss her. She’s been gone for six months, but I still expect to see her on her bright purple mat, face scrunched up with concentration as she tries to do a particularly hard stretch. I miss her sarcasm. I miss her sweetness. I even miss her meddling in my life.
“I miss her…” I admit aloud, with just a touch of sadness.
And now that I know who’s been in my condo, watching Dexter with me and making sure my front door is locked at night, it will be so hard to give back that armoire and lose her. Now that slight scent of roses makes so much more sense. Like she was trying to tell me that I was safe. That it was just her. The rosewater and glycerin she used on her face in the evenings always left her with a slight scent of roses. I used to tell her that she reminded me of a yellow rose. With her combination of sophistication and feistiness. And the fact that she grew up in the Texas panhandle. My yellow rose of Texas. That’s what I called her.
“Are you the one who sent the quilting square to the funeral home?” He asks, as if he’s reading my mind.
I sent the quilting square as an inside joke. Since she hated quilting, but she tried so hard to like it for her sister. But it was the pair of quilting squares that grabbed my heart. Each one had a yellow rose on a blue background with a sun in the corner. When I saw them in my mother’s antique shop, I had to buy them. After having them framed, I intended to keep one and give her the other one.
Three days later, she died, and I never got that chance.
I wonder if she somehow knows that I meant for her to have it.
“She hated flowers at funerals. The idea that people bring you flowers when you’ve died but don’t do anything for you when you’re alive and can enjoy it.” Shawn says, head tilted and looking at me in quiet thought.
I nod my understanding. I remember her saying that as well. “That was why I sent the quilting square. Sort of a private joke between us.”
“My sister, my mom and cousins took home most of the flower arrangements,” he says, never taking his eyes away from mine. “I took home the quilting square.”
My breath hitches. Maybe she knows then. That I wanted her to have it. My yellow rose of Texas.
“I took it because it reminded me of her,” he admits with a touch of hesitation.
“Sunny and feisty…” I swallow past the lump forming in my throat and then clear it to continue, “with just the right touch of serenity.”
He nods his understanding, and I suddenly feel so connected to this man I’ve just met. This man that, if Gladys had her way, I would have met three years ago.
And I know. Somehow I know. This was her intention.
Gladys knew that I would be at the auction. I go every year with my mom to help temper her enthusiasm for buying. If left to her own devices, my mom would end up with every piece from every estate. So I go to put my hand over her numbered cardboard paddle when it seems to be going up with greater and greater frequency.
By the end of the afternoon, with only a few estates left to auction, I was getting increasingly irritated playing chaperone to the world’s most spontaneous and financially irresponsible woman. Mom’s assortment of gaudy bracelets made such a racket with the excited motions of a woman in the pure, unadulterated joy of making bids.
Then they wheeled out my armoire. Mine. I felt a certain connection with it at first glance, but I didn’t intend to make a bid. I truly didn’t. And neither, it appeared, did my mom. Just as a gentleman in the back was one second away from walking out of there with my armoire, something made me grab Mom’s auction paddle and whip it into the air. And when I did, I immediately felt relief of such overwhelming magnitude. I was meant to take that piece home.
But how did it even end up at the auction house?
“You said your mom put it up at the auction house? That it was a misunderstanding?”
“I knew about the auction. As a matter of fact, I had several pieces that belonged to my great-grandfather and were a bit too large for my taste. When my mother mentioned that she’d be collecting things from my house and my sister’s that we didn’t want, I told her that I would put a post-it on the things intended for the auction since I was leaving for London the following morning.”
“And there was a post-it on the armoire?”
His left eyebrow rises a bit. “So she says.”
My curiosity peaks more. “If there was a post-it on the armoire, why do you think your grandmother wanted it taken away from you? That doesn’t make any sense.”
He shrugs. “That was why I knew she didn’t do it. There would be no reason for that. It was her only piece of furniture that I ever wanted, and she knew it.”
“Well, of course I’ll sell it back to you. And don’t worry about paying me extra for the inconvenience. It didn’t cost me anything to have it delivered.”
“My mom owns an antique shop here in Old Town, and I just added my one piece onto her order. She tends to go overboard at auctions.” I take a last sip of my now-cold latte. “Would you like to come to my place? See the piece again? See if Gladys missed you a bit?”
He smiles at my joke. “Now?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Maybe because you thought I was a chainsaw killer.”
“Actually, it was an axe-murderer. But, I’m sure Gladys could take you on if you get out of line.”
His smile broadens.
When we open the door to my condo, the smell of roses hangs in the air, and now I understand. It was her clue for me so that I wouldn’t be scared. Too bad I was always a little slow piecing things together.
Shawn looks around my place and sees the armoire in the corner of the living room. He opens it up and smiles at the television hidden inside. He looks at the wall next to the armoire, and the smile leaves. He stares at the framed quilting square that’s identical to the one he took home from the funeral.
He must be thinking about his grandmother, and I hate to intrude on his thoughts but I do.
“Would you like a drink?”
He leans against the armoire, a soft smile directed at me. “What kind of drink?”
Is that a trick question? “Ummm. Water? Soda?” I swallow. “Wine?”
Now the soft smile reaches those deep green eyes. “Wine would be nice.”
I sidle backwards toward the kitchen, wishing I had worn something a little nicer to the coffee shop. Granted, my jeans and t-shirt is slightly better than the Spongebob jammies, but still. A handsome man in my place. Wine on its way, and I’m in freaking jeans.
I take off my tennis shoes—the shoes I strategically wore in case I had to run for my life—and ball up my socks, tucking them inside the shoes. I’m so glad I had a pedicure last week. It’s the one luxury my mom and I share together. I wiggle my toes, and the light catches the deep, shiny red surface of my nails.
It’s too late to go change my clothes, but the sexy toenails will have to do. After removing the cork and pouring the Cabernet Sauvignon into two glasses, I take one out to Shawn. He’s now standing by the window, looking toward the stars.
I put the wine on the table beside him.
When he turns to me, I smile. I smile for all the things Gladys did to bring us to this point. And I wonder if he realizes the same thing.
A chilly breeze drifts by, the scent of roses in its wake. A few seconds later, the chain rattles at the front door.
He looks at me in question. “Is she locking me in?”
I swallow. And then I nod.
His eyes light up, and he takes a step toward me. “She went through a lot of trouble to get us here, didn’t she?”
I nod again.
She meddled again. My Gladys. She wanted me to know that there was something more. To believe in things I felt were unbelievable. To believe that we do go on after we depart this world. To believe in something beyond ourselves. That’s what she always wanted me to know. It only took four classes before we were making a ritual of having breakfast together on Saturday mornings. Those mornings were something I looked forward to all week. I would laugh with her about disastrous dates. And she would hint about her charming grandson. I would slap her hand and tell her not to try setting me up. I didn’t believe in true love, anyway. I never believed in true love or soul mates or love-at-first-glance bullshit.
But I do believe in Gladys.
I take a step forward to meet him.
We hesitate a few seconds too long because I feel a soft pressure on the back of my head, pushing me forward. He takes another step.
When our lips meet, it’s like everything was meant to be. His soft lips slant over mine, and our bodies come together. When I give a little sigh of pleasure, he deepens the kiss, and my body comes alive. My heart cracks open, and for a moment I believe in everything.
My hands reach up toward the back of his neck, and my fingers make a trail into his hair. One of his hands is gripping my hip as if he thinks I’ll ever walk away. The other is wrapped in my hair, holding my mouth to his.
And just as our mouths pull apart a bit reluctantly, I could swear I hear a low chuckle. On a rose-scented breeze, I hear the whispered words…