The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Thirteen: Aunt Patty
Not a word was spoken on the ride back to Wildwood Farm. The time was spent in quiet reflection of the events at the hedge maze, each consumed by his or her personal thoughts. Even Ethan remained silent (for the most part), as if a top-secret government agency had put his mouth in quarantine. Then again, it was kind of hard to talk when your mouth was stuffed with cider donuts.
When they arrived at the farm, they parked their bikes behind the barn and unloaded the apples. Ethan crumpled an empty bag of donuts and tucked it away in his pocket, a revelation that six of those heavenly treats had found their way to the bottom of his stomach. Jeff shook his head in disbelief, and Ethan offered an innocent shrug in return. Still, not a single syllable had slipped between their teeth, and it wasn't until they had stepped onto the rear deck of the main house that an informal debriefing was initiated.
"What are we going to do about the Halloween Festival?" Sofie asked. "No Drew, no Tin Man."
"He quit the gang," Jeff said. "I don't think he quit being friends."
"And he always comes around after blowups like this," Ethan said. "I'm sure he'll be back."
"But he's never officially quit before," Sofie noted. "Are we willing to take that chance?"
Jeff paused. "Do we have a choice?"
"I can fill in," Ben said, tip-toeing lightly around a delicate subject. "That is, if you need me to. I could whip up a Tin Man costume pretty quickly. I have some ideas."
Ben's offering, while commendable, rattled Jeff. Perhaps it signaled finality to Drew's time in the Wildwood Gang, and Jeff wasn't ready for that.
"We'd have to clear it with Drew," Jeff said. "If he's out, fine. But until then…"
"Sure," Ben said. "I'll have one ready, though. Just in case."
Jeff nodded reluctantly, unwilling to make a final decision on the matter, and entered the house with his bag of apples. Ben carried the second bag and followed Ethan and Sofie into the kitchen and placed the apples on the table next to Jeff's bag. Sasha greeted them from the stepstool as she reached high into the cabinet for her second apple peeler.
"How was apple picking?" she asked as she rummaged through measuring bowls, dessert plates, and other items that rarely saw the light of day.
"It was okay," Jeff replied, declining to offer any further information.
"I realized I should've given you money for donuts," she said, spying the peeler tucked away in the corner. She carefully removed it from the cabinet and stepped down from the stool, and offered an apologetic smile to the somber faces in front of her. "Where's Drew?"
"He went home," Jeff answered before anyone could let slip the truth. He wasn't in the mood to discuss Drew right now, and fortunately he was spared that hardship, for just as Sasha was about to inquire why Drew had gone home, there came a loud knock at the front door. Sasha's face beamed as she looked at her son.
"Your Aunt Patty!"
Sasha scurried in her stocking feet out of the kitchen and down the hall, but her visitor had already let herself in, announcing her presence with a hearty 'Hello, hello!'
"Aunt Patty!" Sasha smiled with arms opened wide. She wrapped Aunt Patty in a warm embrace, which was equally reciprocated, while Patty's husband, Paul, struggled to lift a ginormous suitcase into the house.
"Paul! I told you to leave that in the car," Patty scolded.
"It's okay, Aunt Patty," Sasha said. "You'll be staying in the main house with us."
"Oh, bless you, dear," Patty said. "We'd hate to be a nuisance to the guests at the inn. Paul is in the bathroom half the night."
"It's the tea, dear," Paul stated matter-of-factly as he rolled the suitcase aside and closed the door. He, too, was greeted with a hug from Sasha, and fifteen seconds later, was nearly tackled as Jeff's sister, Emily, came flying down the stairs and into his arms.
Jeff observed most of this from the kitchen, and to his displeasure, knew he had no choice but to participate. "Might as well get this over with," he said to his friends.
It was obvious that Jeff was no fan of greetings such as this, especially with all the hugging and kissing and other nonsense. And quite frankly, neither am I. And since I'm the one telling this story, I reserve the right to skip over certain parts. But if that upsets you, I would suggest you imagine a visit from one or more of your relatives, and all the pleasantries and formalities that go along with it. You can make it as huggy-huggy-kissy-kissy as you like, or make it an exercise in social distancing. Either way, you'll get a nice visual. And while you're doing that, I'll tell you a little bit about Aunt Patty.
Aunty Patty was Thomas Markham's younger sister. She grew up on Wildwood Farm, and had great affinity for the place. Through constant play with her brothers she developed some tomboy qualities, but for the most part she accepted her role as farmer's daughter. Nowadays that role is considered outdated, especially with such a big world to explore. I mean, who wants to spend all day cooking and cleaning and doing laundry and taking care of Ma and Pa? A show of hands? Anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so. But in those days, Patty was cool with it. And then she met her future husband.
Paul was in the Air Force, and he flew fighter jets like it was nobody's business. He was tall and handsome and had nice teeth, and whenever he wore his flight suit, Patty just melted. So they got married, and had three sons, and traveled all over creation. Throughout his military career, Paul had been stationed in North Carolina, New Mexico, California, upstate New York, Alaska, and Iceland. His final assignment was eastern Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, and it was here that they established their permanent residence after his retirement.
Coincidentally, all that moving around had turned Patty into a world traveler. She had visited every continent, even Antarctica, and would always bring back souvenirs for her favorite grandniece and grandnephew (Jeff and Emily, in case that one flew under your radar).
Despite her fondness for her childhood home, it had been two years since Aunt Patty set foot on Wildwood Farm. It was tradition for her to return each year at Christmas, but last year she and Paul spent the holidays in Germany, crossing another to-do item off the bucket list.
Yet here she was, two months early, unable to stay away from the people she held dear. Her mother; her 'good-for-nothing' brother Tom; Ron, Sasha, and the kids---
Oh! Looks like all the hugging and kissing and introductions are over. Let's resume, shall we?
After a short visit in her mother's suite, Aunt Patty returned to the living room and sat down on the couch between her husband and sister-in-law (aka Grandma Markham). The stone fireplace governed the room from the center of the end wall, setting the tone for a more rustic flair. To the left of the fireplace, extending into the room, sat the skirted farmhouse couch that Aunt Patty had commandeered. Directly opposite was a second couch of similar style crammed with four younger humans, namely Jeff, Ethan, Sofie, and Ben.
Completing the horseshoe layout was a skirted chair, upon which Sasha presided, and in the center of it all rested the handcrafted coffee table that Thomas had made from a fallen tree. And speaking of Thomas, he stood leaning against the fireplace holding his store-bought cup of coffee that was sadly getting too cold to drink.
Rounding out the room were two overflow chairs from the dining room, each positioned in separate corners, an old-fashioned Windsor desk with a pull-down top that Old Man Markham had built, and half-a-dozen potted plants overflowing with greenery that brought the outdoors inside.
Although the turmoil at Sugarville Orchard was a fresh wound for the Wildwood Gang, the mystery of Kent Cottage and the headless ghost of Charles Nichols was not lost on them. It was believed that Aunt Patty was the keeper of knowledge for all things Charles Nichols, and she held the key for unlocking the secrets that baffled them. At Ethan's persistent urging, Jeff used this opportunity to quiz Aunt Patty on the history of Kent Cottage and the tragedy of the Nichols family.
"Kent Cottage?" Patty said with utter disdain. "That infernal building is still standing? I wish they'd bulldoze it."
"What about Charles Nichols?" Jeff asked, leaving his question open-ended.
"Well Charles was a sweet boy," Patty said. "A little odd, but sweet. He simply wasn't a farmer and kept to himself. But we became friends."
"He was sweet on you, Patty, as I recall," Thomas said.
Patty paused briefly. "We had a connection, certainly. I showed enough interest in his interests, and he appreciated that. I think he saw me as a confidante, someone he could trust. Someone he could talk to."
"Maybe she can talk to the ghost," Ethan whispered to Jeff, but loud enough for all to hear.
"The ghost?" Patty said. "What ghost?"
"The ghost that haunts Kent Cottage," Jeff said. "The ghost of Charles Nichols."
Patty laughed. "Why would Charles Nichols haunt Kent Cottage?"
Jeff hesitated. "Because… he was murdered."
"Murdered!" Patty exclaimed. "Who told you he was murdered?"
Jeff recoiled slightly, like a turtle ducking into its shell. "Well, Greg did," he said. "And Grandpa."
All eyes suddenly fell on Thomas, who looked as equally surprised. Grandma was beside herself, her jaw dropping like Jacob Marley's.
"Thomas Nathaniel Markham!" she said. "Did you tell Jeff that Charles Nichols was murdered?"
"No!" Thomas said, professing his innocence. "Of course not!"
"But Grandpa," Jeff said, "you told me that Charles Nichols lost his head."
"Well, I, uh… yeah," Thomas stammered. "I was speaking figuratively. What I meant was, he went crazy."
"He did NOT go crazy," Patty corrected him. "He suffered a brain injury. Why on earth would someone tell you he was murdered?"
"Greg was likely trying to scare them," Sasha said with a grin. "Ron doesn't want them playing out there."
"And what exactly did he tell you?" Patty inquired of Jeff.
"Well," Jeff said. "He told us that his siblings dangled him out of the attic window and the sash came down and chopped his head off."
"Oh goodness gracious," Patty said, placing her hand on her forehead. "This is how rumors start! Next time I see Greg---"
"So what really happened?" Ethan said, hovering on the edge of his seat.
Patty sighed and collected her thoughts. "Charles was outside playing one day. Playing dangerously close to the well. And he fell in." She paused for the small lump in her throat to pass. "He was lucky his father was nearby, or he would've drowned. I don't know how he got him out, but he did. He saved his life, but unfortunately the damage was done. He spent weeks in the hospital, and when he came home I went to see him, but he wasn't the same. He wasn't the Charles I knew. He was confined to a chair and needed twenty-four hour care, and it became such a burden on his mother that they moved him to a nursing home. And I never saw him again."
A dark cloud moved in over the living room as the Markham family held an unofficial moment of silence for the tragic tale of Charles Nichols. The silence became deafening, but nobody could think of anything proper to say.
"Well that was uplifting," Patty said sarcastically. "I should come back more often to revisit traumatic memories."
"But what about the treasure?" Jeff said. "Does it exist?"
Sasha rolled her eyes at her son. "Jeff, I think that's enough Kent Cottage talk for now. Let Aunt Patty rest."
Sasha's eyes widened to silence her firstborn, and he sunk back into the couch in defeat. But Aunt Patty waved her off.
"It's okay, Sasha," Patty said. "I've heard the same rumors. But honestly, Jeff, I don't think there's anything there. At least not anymore. I know that his siblings went back there years later looking for something of value. A diamond ring, maybe. Money. A family heirloom. Who knows? But if there is something hidden there, it will probably never be found unless they tear the place down and sift through the rubble piece by piece."
"I can assure you that Ron would love to tear that place down," Sasha said. "But he won't waste his time sifting through the rubble."
Patty's thoughts shifted back to her old friend. "Poor Charles. I really should make it a point to go see him."
"Do you know where he is, Aunt Patty?" Jeff asked.
"Not exactly," Patty replied. "I thought it was Mount Pleasant or Spencer Ridge or one of those towns over there. But that was years ago. I don't even know if he's alive."
It was at this time that Aunt Patty gave the final word on Charles Nichols and Kent Cottage, and excused herself to her mother's sitting room. The rest of the party dispersed soon after, including Jeff's friends, who were collected by their parents shortly before dinner.
Jeff and Emily brought two extra chairs to the dining room table while Sasha and Grandma rolled out a fabulous roast beef with a slew of fixings, including roasted potatoes, green beans, and freshly baked bread. For dessert, Sasha surprised them with her award-winning apple pie.
While the grown-ups entertained conversation well into the evening, Jeff found an opportunity to stealthily slip away. After a trying day that saw his best friend quit their gang, as well as the revelation that there was no headless ghost haunting Kent Cottage, Jeff retreated to his bedroom and read comic books until he fell asleep.
The next morning Jeff awoke to the aroma of coffee brewing and bacon sizzling, and he hurried downstairs to investigate. In the kitchen he found Aunt Patty and Uncle Paul, and Grandma and Grandpa Markham, and Emily, who was sampling so much of Grandma's bacon it could barely make it from the griddle to the serving plate.
Grandpa and Uncle Paul were drinking their morning coffee and discussing the state of the farm, while Aunt Patty was at the stove making her famous French toast, which she drowned in so much vegetable oil she could power a diesel engine.
Jeff took a moment to soak in the scene. He loved it when old people gathered in the kitchen on Sunday mornings. It was a source of comfort, and it smelled like family.
With spatula in hand, Aunt Patty slid two pieces of French toast onto the first plate, cut the toast in quarters and sprinkled them with sugar, and delivered it to Jeff at the table. He went to work on it immediately, but his breakfast was soon interrupted by an urgent phone call.
"Jeff! It's Sofie," said the voice on the line. "I found Charles Nichols!"
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.