Whispers in the Wood

by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Alexandra was finally going to live in the house she’d always belonged in.

The mahogany-colored contemporary ranch sat at the end of a serpentine drive in a desirable suburb of Miami, tucked amidst leaning palms and low shrubs. An eight-foot Tiki statue, its infinity-symbol mouth baring triangular teeth, stood to the right of the carved wooden front door.

It was exactly as she’d remembered.

Bruce turned off the engine. “Well, my future bride.” He set his hand on hers. “You’re home.” He leapt from the car and raced around to her door.

Her heart swelled. She had waited forty-two years for the moment he’d return to her doorstep with apology flowers and ask her to marry him. While eloping on a Polynesian island she’d never heard of was certainly not what she’d envisioned all those lonely nights—and Bruce had four days worth of business before they could leave—his enthusiasm told her she was at last not only part of his life, but entrenched.

He was only able to half-carry her across the threshold. “Not as young as I used to be,” he quipped, setting her down on the stones of the foyer. “But I completely redecorated.”

Alexandra breathed in the smells of new carpet and lemon polish. He’d spent his life doing everything but settling, and the house’s interior reflected that; everywhere was evidence of his exotic travels—carved masks, some with brows of frolicking sea creatures; drinking goblets fashioned from cocoanuts, an umbrella stand filled with walking sticks and decorated spears, odd pieces she recognized from the National Geographic as musical instruments.

But overwhelming all were the Tiki statues. Perched along the dish rail bordering the goldenrod painted kitchen, flanking the electric fireplace, supporting the glass-topped coffee table.

“Whaddaya say, huh?” Bruce spread out his hands.

“Your Tiki collection has certainly grown.”

“But you like what I’ve done to the place?”

She imagined any other woman wouldn’t have liked being eyed by a houseful of faces, but these were his things, and she was not any other woman. She was not any of his other women.

“I love it!” She pulled off her ivory pumps, padded across the maroon carpet, and thrushed open the heavy drapes.

She gasped.

What she’d remembered as a manicured lawn was now a sprawling tropical garden. A herringbone-patterned walkway wound through it, and tall azaleas and palms bent over a running stream; purple, orange, and red orchids, hibiscus, and jasmine huddled around waterfalls and stone benches.

“Oh, Bruce. This is amazing.”

He came up behind her, settled his arms around her waist, kissed her neck. “I’m glad you approve.” He pulled away from her. “I had your things moved. All your boxes are in the hall. I figured you can work on that—and packing—while I’m gone. And don’t forget to buy a really unique dress for the ceremony. Something amazing.”

“I won’t,” she said. Outside, the path ended at a massive Tiki statue; to the left was a smaller one that wore a mane and what looked to Alexandra to be the face of a lion. On the opposite side, though, the foliage parted above a slab of stone.

“What happened to that one?”

“What one?” He was in the kitchen; she heard the refrigerator door swing shut.

“On the right. It looks like there was a pedestal there that something should be standing on.”

“I’m going to bring home one to put there. From our trip.”

She heard the champagne pop and turned to join him; he was at a marble-topped service bar in the living room.

“Akeapukao Island is where,” he said, filling two crystal flutes, “I get all of my prized Tikis. I’ve been going there for years.” He set down the champagne bottle and carried the glasses to the coffee table.

She moved to the couch and sat next to him. “Did you refurbish the study too?”

“I added a few things in there.” He handed her a glass.

“Now that this is—well, half my house, anyway—is it still off-limits?”

He laughed. “Don’t be jealous. You’ll have your own special place when we get back. Cheers.”

She glanced around the large cathedral-ceilinged room before she took a sip, not quite sure why, for the first time, she was unnerved.

#

There were few who were versed in she and Bruce’s decades-long history of frequent reuniting only so that he’d leave and break her heart, and none knew of their plans. She was aware that they plainly despised him, and never wanted to see her be with him even if it meant she was alone. She could understand their concern, and she well knew that up until he’d returned two months ago, especially on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, she had run the risk of looking like an “old fool.”

The truth was she’d always known better. She’d gotten a few offers over the years, from stable, nice, decent men who did all the right things, but they just hadn’t upset her cart in the most amazing of ways like Bruce had. She had deliberately and always been saving herself for him, because his “you’re not the one for me” was a lie; she belonged to him, and he’d return. Even if it was only because the blonde stewardesses, strawberry-haired divorcees and cheating secretaries finally turned their backs on him in favor of someone more youthful. She was aware that there was a soft side to Bruce, that he was no Hugh Heffner, and therefore, the pull of the money and far-reaching trips he made for his advertising consulting business which catered mostly to luxury resort consortiums would eventually lose its charm. If he didn’t want to be alone, well…he’d have to come back to her. She would always love him unconditionally no matter behavior, age, or otherwise.

She sat on the couch, one of his comprehensive, leather-bound atlases across her lap. She traced the coastline of Dubai, where he was now, for what he’d said was a critical meeting with the backers of an underwater hotel project he couldn’t reschedule. She had timidly suggested she accompany him and they fold it into their wedding trip, but he’d quickly answered, without hesitation or cage, ‘no, darling, we’re getting married at my favorite place,’ followed by the name of that island that she was still, despite hours of poring, trying to locate.

A chimed version of “Aloha ’Oe” cut the silence: the doorbell. She wondered if it, too, was new to the house, because she had to admit that Bruce had never had visitors of any kind when she’d been with him before.

She opened the door, surprised that it felt heavier than she’d assumed.

A middle-aged man in khakis and a green silk shirt stood before her; despite the shade of his panama hat, she could see his ice-blue eyes and recognize him immediately.

Her brother.

She hadn’t spoken to Chuck, ten years her junior, since they’d sold that falling-down dump of her parents’ house in North Miami a dozen years ago.

“Please tell me,” he said, rocking slightly forward on his toes, “you’re not married to him.”

“How did you find me?”

He laughed, that familiar chortle she remembered from when they were kids. “Did you forget I’m a private detective? You’re not senile already, are you?” She sensed he was about to say something else, something more serious, but there was only silence as he tried to peer past her. Then: “Can I come in?”

“No.” Alexandra closed the gap by pulling the front door closer to her body. “What can I do for you?”

His brow furrowed, and he motioned with a stack of folders she hadn’t thus far noticed. “I really need to talk to you.”

“You can talk from there.”

“Look…you may be in danger.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Dad didn’t like him, and you don’t like him. You never gave him a chance. Stop being dramatic.”

“I’m not, Allie.” He took a deep breath. “He’s had a lot of girlfriends—”

“I know all about the girlfriends. Time changes people.”

“This isn’t actually about my personal opinion. Hear me out.” He held forth the folders. “Each one of these folders represents a woman who’s changed her address to this one and then just disappeared.”

She moved to push the door closed, but he stepped forward and blocked it.

“Look,” he said. “Just look, and I’ll go.”

“Right.”

“I will.”

She took a deep breath, pushed the door slightly so she could reach through it, took the stack from him and balanced it so she could read some of the file names: Angelina Scoma, Kelly-Ann Federle, Heather Sullivan, Lisa Patton.

He cleared his throat. “This has been going on for about a decade. Most of them are…estranged from their families.”

She shrugged and handed him back the stack. “They left him, that’s all.”

Chuck was hesitant.

“Take it,” she said.

He did. “I’m telling you, this isn’t good. It’s not safe for you here.”

Alexandra heard one of her neighbors fire up a lawn mower. “It’s perfectly safe here. I belong here, and I’m finally getting what I wanted.”

She slammed the door, pressed her ear against it.

No footsteps.

She felt a sudden chill when she thought of the thick stack of dog-eared folders he’d had in his hand. While she and her brother had never seen level on just about anything, he had always been an honest person; he’d never make something like that up. Wine, just have a glass of wine or two. You’ll feel better.

The bell chimed again.

She yanked the door open. “What.”

“Here.” A business card was pinched between his index and middle finger. “If you want to get out of this, if you need help, I’ll help you. Just find me. I’m only in Coral Gables.”

“Chuck, I don’t need your—”

“Humor me.”

She took the card.

He tipped his hat. “See you.”

She nodded and closed the door after him, bowing the card in her hand. As she walked by the foyer table, she tossed it into her open handbag.

At the service bar, she reached for a palm-tree etched glass and filled it to the brim from a crystal decanter of red she’d just filled yesterday. She lifted it to her lips to take a sip, almost choking on the surprising taste of vinegar—it was clearly past its prime. As she forced herself to swallow, she heard something, light and breathy.

A woman’s sigh.

She looked up, almost spilling her drink. “Hello?”

Again.

She set her glass down. “Hello?”
She thought of the file in her brother’s hand.

The hall clock bonged, and she jumped.

She laughed at herself. This was her home now. She simply wasn’t used to it just yet, was all. Still, it was dinner hour, and no one to share it with, not until Thursday, when Bruce returned. She mused at this; it wasn’t as though she weren’t used to eating by herself, but now that Bruce had come back, she felt like she’d die if she ever had to eat alone again.

Deciding against a meal, she went back to the couch, pulled the atlas across her lap, and continued to search for Akeapukao Island.

#

She had given up on her search for the island hours before—she knew there were still areas of the world in which to look, but she had simply gotten bored of it; she instead decided to begin unpacking some of her things from the boxes in the hall.

She opened the first one, proudly emblazoned with RYDER MOVERS, and what she recognized as Bruce’s handwriting: BEDROOM CLOSET.

Oh no, she thought. In all the excitement, she’d forgotten about her private things, things she hadn’t wanted anyone, let alone him, to see. She opened the carton and delved through shoe and hat boxes until she found a small wooden chest. She lifted the cover, relieved to have been reunited with her dearest reminders: letters and cards from Bruce, cocktail napkins emblazoned with names of bars they’d frequented during their brief dating stints: The Cherry Blossom Lounge, Broadway Street Club, Elegant’s. There were dried rose petals from a bouquet he’d bought her. There was even a wrapped lemon candy, from when they’d gone to a carnival and he’d slotted a penny in the claw machine and retrieved a handful of sweets. She’d eaten the rest, but kept just that one.

But some things, she noted, were missing: a silver mirror he’d given her the one time her birthday had fallen when they’d happened to be dating, the stub of a taper she’d burned during one of their candlelight dinners, a silk scarf she’d worn so much it had frayed at the edges. Panicked, she set the chest aside and rummaged through the carton’s contents.

The sound of a woman’s sigh, and subsequent sobbing, stopped her.

She held her breath, cocked an ear. The crying was coming from the direction of the kitchen.

A chill traveled down her bare arms, and she stood up. “Who is here?”

A female voice, smooth and burgeoning with the confidence of a woman who knew how to get what she wanted from a man, answered: He has them, you know.

She froze. First sighing, then crying and now hearing things talk? This voice was coming from the bedroom.

You are going to get what you always wanted.

Anxiety, she thought. Anxiety because I can’t find the mirror, the candle, the scarf. Another box, that’s all. They fell out and they’re in another one of these boxes around here.

Weeping from the kitchen, and her stomach knotted in fear. Who the hell was crying in her house?

A shrill ringing noise—the phone.

Relieved, she ran to the living room to pick up the receiver, suddenly aware she wasn’t sure how to answer. She hesitated, then said, “Strayer residence.”

There was static, and a broken chuckle on the other end of the line.

She caught her breath. “Hello?”

“I said, ‘that’s sexy!’”

It was Bruce. “Darling!” She hipped the phone and brought it over with her to the edge of the couch and leaned against its arm.

“Can’t talk long, and connection’s bad. Just wanted to check in. How are things?”

“Everything is…”

She heard laughing. This time, from the head of the foyer. It sounded muffled, as though coming from inside a box.

“Did you get your dress yet?”

“What?”
He repeated it.

“Not yet.”

The laughing came from the hall again, louder.

“You’re going to go, right?”

“Yes…Bruce, I was just wondering, I—” She stopped herself. What was she going to say? “There have been some…interesting noises here.”

Static, and then he said, “Well, new-to-you house. I can assure you there is nothing there that can move and attack you in the middle of the night.”

They said their goodbyes, and she hung up.

Silly woman, she told herself. A lot of change, a lot of pinch me am I dreaming. You’re fine. It’s all in your head. New-to-you house. And you’ve been cooped up in it too long. Tomorrow, you go shopping.

#

The next day, filling her honeymoon suitcase at shops with names like Sunset Chic and Savvy East, Alexandra was reminded again of her age, and her figure. Although she hadn’t exactly let herself go, she was not in the shape she had been when she’d first met Bruce, and most of her sojourns through the racks sent her back to her car, regretting that he’d missed what were her prime years.

Still, as she spread her purchases on their bed, she noted she hadn’t done poorly: she’d managed to find a swim suit that slimmed her, light blouses in shades that complimented her complexion, and panties that not only didn’t look like something her grandmother had worn, but made her feel desirable. She was also pleased with the only thing Bruce had insisted on since the beginning: a unique dress for their ceremony. She’d managed to find an ivory maxi with orange tiger lilies embroidered on the hem. Its mock-collared, tailored style accentuated her chest and minimized her belly.

It isn’t red, said the smooth woman’s voice. His favorite color is red, you know.

She sucked in her breath and turned. There was no one in the room.

It’s the last dress he’s going to see you in. I would have chosen something with a little more pop.

She looked at the clothes splayed on the bed. Anxiety anxiety. “Stop it!”

Then: I’m over here.

Alexandra held still. Someone in the room was breathing, and she knew it wasn’t her.

She scanned for anything she could use to defend herself; when she spied the vase of roses on her nightstand, she seized it.

You are being ridiculous, said the voice. I can’t hurt you.

“What do you want?”
To welcome you.

Brandishing the vase, she crept toward the slider that opened to the lanai, grasped the drape, and yanked.

I am Lisa.

Something caught her eye in the corner—another of Bruce’s Tiki statues. This one wore a peculiar, asymmetrical grin and, as she got closer, had lines, almost like the wrinkles of a furrowed brow, on its forehead. Its eyes looked closed, as though it were sleeping.

Dropping the vase, she fled the room and slammed the door shut behind her, raced to the couch, clutched the over-sized atlas to her chest.

She sat for awhile, listening, but heard nothing more.

#

Thursday at last, and Bruce was coming home. Earlier in the day, she’d gone to pick up the ingredients for shrimp Veracruz. She opened a fresh bottle of wine and set herself up in the kitchen, cutting the bell pepper into strips and tossing it to sizzle into an olive oiled frying pan.

She was in the middle of chopping onions when something splashed on the back of her hand—a dime-sized drop of clear liquid.

A leak?

She looked up, took a step back from the stove. Nothing to indicate any leaks—not a hole in the ceiling or any of those horrible brown water stains she’d been so familiar with growing up.

There was only the Tiki statue.

Drip.

The water was coming from the corner of its left eye.

You really don’t wanna go with him. You really don’t.

She screamed and backed away, flattened herself against a wall of cabinets. She clambered for the knob to the broom closet, wrapped her sweaty fingers around the finial.

The voice was young, girlish: My name was Heather.

“Stop it!” The door was stuck.

I was one of his women, too.

She gave the door a solid yank, and it thwucked open. She thrust her hand inside, fumbled for anything with a long handle, clutched a mop, hefted it above her head, and swiped at the Tiki. She swore she heard it scream as it crashed to the ceramic tile floor.

There was only the hiss-pishle of the browning peppers. Alexandra, out of breath, toed the statue.

A pop came from the frying pan on the stove. She rushed over, slid the pan off the heat. “I’m here now,” Alexandra said aloud. “I’m his wife, I’m the one who belongs here, and whatever this is, it’s going to stop.”

You don’t understand, it will stop. We were his women. A breathy sob. We wanted to be with him forever, and now we are. You should just take a peek if you don’t believe me, in his study.

New-to-you house, Alexandra thought, and for the first time, she considered asking Bruce if…if the Tikis could be put away. Just for a little while, until she was settled.

She turned once more and looked at the Tiki on the floor. She crouched down, touched it. It felt warm beneath her fingertips, warm and smooth. It had a hawkish nose, but unlike some others in the house, it seemed to have a feminine, almost demure, smile; its eyes, too, were different: they had pupils. But most intriguing of all was a raised band that ringed the fringe of its hairline: an arc of buttons graced with a fleur de lies at its midpoint. No other gecko, pineapple or wave design was as intricate.

A small puddle had formed on the tile, and a drop of water welled beneath the Tiki’s left eye. Before she could stop herself, she swept her thumb across the Tiki’s cheek, brushed it away.

Another drop swelled in its place.

Seriously, there are pictures of me and the others.

Alexandra looked at the study door.

#

The room smelled of him: laundry soap and cedar. When she turned on the light, however, she could see it was not like him at all: bookcases crammed with leather-bound volumes, dog-eared photos, dusty bookends and aging paperbacks ran from floor to ceiling. Boxes and crates seemed to be set in random positions, and there was only a narrow path winding among them.

A metal desk littered with books and papers was jammed against slatted blinds that completely obscured the window. She approached it and turned on the pineapple-shaped desk lamp.

The papers were covered with symbols, and most of what appeared to be text was in a language she couldn’t decipher. Some had drawings of Tikis, and some had pieces of fabric glued to them—red satin, yellow cotton, green lace, pink silk. She flipped them over carefully, and when she got to the bottom, two books were open: Studies in Animism and Voodoo: An In-Depth Study of Practical Application. The pages were rainbowed in highlighter.

She put the pages back the way she’d found them. All this told her was what she already knew: Bruce traveled to strange places at the ends of the earth. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to have esoteric books.

A thunk behind her made her turn. She studied for the source of the sound—whatever had fallen, she’d better put back—but she got distracted by a shelf which contained books that were all the same color and height. On each binding, in heavy black lettering, was a woman’s name: Kelly-Ann. Angelina. On and on.

Lisa. Heather.

She could barely swallow around the lump in her throat.

She shivered and made her way toward the series, pulled the one labeled HEATHER from the shelf. It was clearly a photo album.

Inside were pictures of a lush tropical landscape like she’d never seen: Tahitian seas, purple dusk skies. Grass-roofed huts in a clearing, a cobblestoned street lined with pastel-colored stucco buildings. And there was a woman with him, tall and lithe, her black hair tucked beneath a large sun hat in some photos and tethering in the ocean breeze in others: Heather. There were photos, too, of the two of them standing around a fire pit; several men in what she assumed was dress indigenous to that part of the world held her aloft on a throne-like chair. Heather was in a flowing yellow sheath dress, trimmed with dark green lace.

And wearing a tiara.

A tiara with a fleur de leis at its midpoint.

From the direction of the kitchen, she heard the girlish voice’s sigh: I was so totally pretty.

Alexandra closed the book. You don’t like seeing his other women, that’s all. But she couldn’t resist; she pulled the album labeled LISA from the shelf. A stunning blonde, but her eyes seemed to be closed in every photo, even when she was smiling: she was one of those people that never took a good photograph.

My name is Lisa. The bedroom Tiki’s eyes had been closed.

Lisa, too, appeared in the chair, and she was clad in a red satin gown.

His favorite color is red, you know…

Enough, Alexandra thought, desperately trying to quell the image of the strange writing she’d seen in the books on Bruce’s desk. That’s impossible.

She slammed the volume closed, wedged it back onto the shelf, and made to leave, stumbling over a box and crashing through a curtain on the side wall.

For a moment, all she heard was her own breathing. She was in a closet, and she’d landed on something soft.

She struggled to sit up, pulling her stomach muscles to get enough wedge to grab the wooden molding. Finally on her knees, she crawled out, shifted to see how much damage she’d done.

There was movement above her: clothing hangers, swinging as though they’d shed their garb. She looked at the satiny pile on the floor. Red and yellow and green, pink and purple and orange. Satin and cotton, tulle and silk.

Dresses.

Lisa’s red one. Heather’s yellow and green sheath. And several others.

She clambered to her feet, scooped up each dress and frantically worked to get it on its hangers. When she finished the last one, a box fell from the top shelf and crashed at her feet, spilling its contents.

Her mirror. Her taper. Her scarf.

And something else.

She crouched down and reached for the one mysterious item. It was a plastic bag with a twisted curl of wispy stranded something inside.

A lock of hair.

Her hair.

The voices. The papers. The books. The albums. The dresses. Her things.

Some of the papers had had swatches stuck to them.

She remembered her brother. Telling her about Bruce’s girlfriends…each one of these folders represents a woman who’s changed her address to this one and then disappeared…

They hadn’t disappeared. They were all still here.

Go, said…Heather’s voice. You can.

Chuck’s card. She went into her purse, tossed aside her lipstick, tissues, keys, pen…the card. A bit flashy for a PI, she thought—in her mind, a sandy beach under leaning palms didn’t exactly connote professionalism unless you were a lifeguard or a travel agent, but it didn’t matter; the address she needed was there: 1577 Haleakala Circle South, Coral Gables.

She thrust the card in her pocket and headed toward the bedroom to pack: all of her new things were inside, tags still on.

“Hey…what were you doin’ in the study?”

Startled, she turned.

Bruce stood in the door, not leaning against the jamb as he usually did, hands in his pockets, looking handsome and devil-may-care. He stood squarely in the middle, leaning forward, hands clenched.

“I—”

“What did you see?”
“Nothing, just some…”

What did you see?”

“Pictures, Bruce. I saw pictures.”

She saw something in his eyes she’d never imagined she’d see: fear. “Of what?”

“I—just…”

She was aware that whatever she said next could change everything. She thought of the forty-two years she had waited; she thought of her brother, tsk-tsking, I warned you. She thought of their argument all those years ago and how he’d gloat that he had been right, and how she would feel, once again, like an old fool.

She looked at Bruce. One week to, at last, be with him; after, forever to be with him. She took a deep breath and smelled the new carpets and lemon polish. Her heart swelled.

This was her house, and she belonged in it.

She crunched the card and shoved it in her pocket. “I—just…I’m not used to things is all.” She went into the bedroom. “Let me show you the dress I bought.”

*************

Kristi Petersen Schoonover, whose short fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies, wonders if she’ll ever finish that Tiki bar in her basement. She’s received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, has served as a judge for New York City Midnight‘s short story competitions, and is co-editor for Read Short Fiction.

Website: www.kristipetersenschoonover.com/

Facebook: kpschoonover

Twitter: @KPSchoonover

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