USGN, Chapter Four
I forgot to update my blog yesterday. Here is chapter four of my “Untitled Southern Gothic Novel.” Titling works never used to be so difficult for me. In some cases, I worked from a title, but lately, it’s been a struggle. I’ll try not to think too hard about what that means.
Hope you like it.
Two days after arriving at the Winthorpe Estate, Skip had found a routine. It began with breakfast at seven, followed by a leisurely stroll around the grounds, then a nap. Then it was time for coffee on the patio, followed by intense sessions of handwringing and brainstorming over blank pages, until he managed to scrawl a few sentences on them, then get frustrated and have a drink or two.
He still hadn’t met Mr. Smith, and by Sunday evening, he developed a sense of worry around it. They’d eaten an early dinner and were sitting in the parlor, Evelyn making headway on some cross-stitching and he reading some literary journals to try and spur inspiration.
“Mr. Smith should be here by tomorrow evening,” she said. Her uncanny ability to sense his thoughts had also caused him to develop a mild paranoia. When he found himself thinking something untoward, he repeated Bible verses in his mind.
“Well, I very much look forward to it.” There was a tenseness in his voice he didn’t intend on, so he pointed his eyes back on the pages and pretended to be focused.
Evelyn watched him for a few moments, and then went back to her cross-stitching. It was almost eight in the evening, and they both continued on for several minutes in silence, until she made a dramatic show of bending her body and craning her neck to view the clock in the hallway.
“Oh, it’s gotten late.” She tidied up her materials and placed them in a basket beside her chair. She then took the basket, and placed it in a hutch that sat against the wall.
Wealthy people always find a way to make it appear as though no one lives in their home, Skip thought, making himself at home in his newfound cynicism.
“Just be sure to shut off the light when you’re done. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Seven it is,” he said, almost under his breath, and then gave a small wave to lessen the guilt he felt, though he didn’t look up to see her reaction. He listened as she climbed the steps and then shut his book. He didn’t know why he’d become so testy. They hadn’t had a conversation like the first two, and instead merely traded niceties. As soon as he felt some sense of comfort around her, she would say something either cutting or cold, and he would retreat into himself. He ventured to guess that had she and Mr. Smith met under different, less morbid circumstances, that they wouldn’t have grown attached so quickly. He found it impossible to connect with her. He put down the book and grabbed his pipe. He’d cleaned and filled it with tobacco earlier, but had decided smoking before dinner was unappealing, after Evelyn had made a comment.
“Not trying to watch your weight are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Smoking before a meal ensures you will eat less. It’s a lady’s trick.”
Lady’s trick. He scoffed internally, but found himself putting down the pipe and instead going back to his book.
Now, he was alone, and he could smoke without any criticism. He took the pipe, and went outside onto the patio. He lit his match, then his tobacco, and looked out onto the property. During the day, when the sun was shining and the heat was bubbling, he found the atmosphere suffocating. In the evening, however, under the light of the moon with a cool breeze coming in off the marsh and the nighttime serenade of the crickets, he was utterly soothed by it. He took a draw from his pipe and looked back to the house. There, in a lighted window on the second floor, was Evelyn. He couldn’t tell which direction she was facing, as the light was behind her. In any case, he turned back around and faced the direction of the yard.
He found himself growing anxious, and turned back around. The light was off and Evelyn was gone. He remained on the patio even after his pipe went out, taking in the nighttime air.
After a while, he grew colder, perhaps from standing still so long. He decided to make his way back inside, and as he opened the door he heard something clatter in the kitchen. His heart rate instantly rose, and he quieted his movements. There were no lights on, but he could still hear something. Don’t be silly, he told himself. It’s probably nothing. He wasn’t sure what to do, but there was a candlestick on the bar with no candle in it. He grabbed it, and shut the door behind him as quietly as possible.
Walking slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he made his way toward the kitchen. He peered inside and could see a figure in front of one of the cabinets. He looked at the wall, trying to find a switch. He spotted it, and quickly as he could, flipped the switch and then jumped forward, the candlestick raised above his head.
In front of him was a well-dressed gentleman, in a brown seersucker suit, holding a box of corn flakes. One hand was previously inside the box, but with the scare, flew out of it and scattered corn flakes across the floor.
“You gave me quite the scare! You must be Mr. Wilson. I’m Sherman.” Sherman held out his hand, and Skip stared down at it, mortified.
“I’m so sorry. There were no lights on. Evelyn said you wouldn’t be back until tomorrow night.”
“Well, business was resolved earlier than planned. Plus, I wanted to surprise her.”
“It was a good surprise. You surprised me, too. Does she know you’re back?”
“Not yet. I was famished.” He lifted the box in his hand. “Corn flakes.”
“I see. I should really help you clean this up.”
“Don’t be silly, I’ll take care of it. I scared you more than you scared me, I’m sure.”
“Well, I… I’d like to stay and chat, but I’m quite tired.”
“As am I. As soon as I get this all cleaned up I’ll be off to bed myself. Well, it was nice to meet you, Mr. Wilson. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, then. Sorry about that.”
Sherman smiled in response and bowed his head. Skip made his way back to the parlor, where he set the candlestick back on the bar, then headed up to his room. He closed the door and sat on the bed for a few minutes, processing what had just happened and trying to calm himself down, internally measuring the levels of adrenaline as they lowered. After a while, he got up, went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and washed his face, then got undressed and into bed.
Though he was lying down, eyes closed, it took him a while to fall asleep as he replayed the events of the day in his head. The memories took a turn into more fantastical territory, and Skip sensed he was falling into slumber. He turned over, relishing in the warmth of impending sleep.
In the morning, Skip could smell the breakfast cooking before he opened his eyes. The air was thick with grease and smoke. He felt bleary and heavy, as if he hadn’t slept at all. He stumbled to the bathroom, splashed water on his face and looked in the mirror. His eyes couldn’t focus too well, but he looked rested. “I need coffee,” he said aloud.
He got dressed in a pair of shorts and a linen shirt and went downstairs. His face lit up as soon as he saw Evelyn in the kitchen overseeing the breakfast preparation.
“Are you excited?” he asked. He expected her face to have some sort of expression that would answer his question, but instead she merely appeared puzzled.
“Excited for what?”
“To have Mr. Smith back home.”
“Oh, well, yes. I’ll be very happy to see him this evening.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you alright, Mr. Wilson?”
“Yes, but last night-”
“I’m glad you brought it up. I would like to apologize. There was a tension last night that I didn’t intend. I’m going to make an effort to be more jovial.” She paused. “That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”
“I agree that there was a tension. I, too, am sorry for my own-”
“Well, we should let bygones be bygones. How’s that?”
“Alright. But didn’t Mr. Smith- didn’t he arrive last night?”
Evelyn looked at Skip in the eye intensely, not with malice or prejudice, but bewilderment.
“No, no he didn’t. Why would you ask that?”
Skip stood, unsure of what to do with himself or what to say. “I think I dreamed something and mistook it for reality.”
“Sounds like you need some coffee. I hope you don’t mind some chicory, I didn’t realize we were running low. I’ll have to go back into town today.”
“That’s fine. I’ll take it black, thank you. Would you excuse me for just a moment?” Skip turned on his heel and headed back upstairs, wiping his brow which had begun to perspire. Once he got to his room, he pulled the journal from his bag and scrawled furiously the events of the night before. He knew what he heard and saw and that it wasn’t a dream, but he couldn’t figure out who was being deceitful or exactly why. What reason would there be?
He was detailed in his writing, but began to worry he was taking too long, so started to condense his thoughts as he scribbled them on the page. Once he had enough information down, he shoved the journal back into his bag and quickly made his way back downstairs.
Evelyn “Are you alright, Mr. Wilson?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Let’s take our coffee outside. I think some fresh air will do you some good.” Barring the fact that he took his coffee outside every morning, he agreed with her statement.
That day, something felt different about the environment. There was a steady breeze. There was no clawing buzz of insects that tore into Skip’s psyche. It was a welcome surprise from the tension that had begun to rise in him, steadily and swiftly like a tide.
He knew that there would be limited conversation. There was less of a need for them to speak today, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They just listened together to the sounds. The rustling leaves. The chirps and squawks of birds hanging in the giant oaks.
Evelyn sat down on one of the chairs and pulled a magazine from the table. Skip wasn’t entirely certain of how things appeared on the estate, they just seemed to simply materialize.
“Would you mind if I came to town with you today?” Skip asked. Evelyn looked up from her magazine with an intentionally stoic expression. He looked intently into her eyes to try and measure her thoughts.
“That would be fine,” she said. Fine. Fine was good enough. Though the air was fresh, his routine was stale and he felt as if he might never find inspiration. “As a matter of fact, I should start getting myself together now. What do you say we leave in an hour?”
“That sounds great!” And it did. He had been growing tired of the slow and plodding pace of Southern life. It was like everything was covered in molasses and moved as such. From the accents to the passage of time itself. Of course, this was the life of those with the luxury to take their time. It’s why he was itching to go into town.
Evelyn stood up and took her coffee cup with her, back inside. Skip sensed he should follow. After all, he hadn’t eaten yet, and he knew Evelyn wasn’t going to. It seemed breakfast wasn’t really her thing. She would poke at her plate for a few minutes, but generally drank several cups of coffee and went outside for a cigarette. Her lady’s trick. There was part of him that wished he could follow suit, but he often awoke with an intense, seemingly insatiable hunger that felt like a fire burning down to the last embers. He needed to feed it.
He went inside and helped himself to several pieces of bacon, a biscuit topped with butter and jam, and a heaping pile of eggs. Florence was popping in and out of the kitchen, tidying up and already prepping for lunch.
“Florence?” he asked.
“Does Evelyn usually eat breakfast when there are no guests?”
“Well, no, she doesn’t. But Mr. Smith is another story. He… has a voracious appetite.”
Skip nodded and mumbled something while he continued to eat, standing, hovering over his plate in a manner that would have been unbecoming if there had been anyone else other than the cook in the room with him. He shoveled the food into his mouth and chased it with sips of the hot chicory-supplemented coffee.
“Thanks Florence,” he said, tossing his napkin atop his plate, and then went upstairs to get ready for his first day in town.
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