The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Fourteen: Senior Sing-A-Long
Shortly before noon on Sunday, Jeff hunkered down for an emergency meeting of the Wildwood Gang. Thanks to the latest in technological advancements, he was able to conduct this meeting from the privacy of his own bedroom, and he didn't even have to change out of his pajamas! In fact, he could've sat there in his underwear if he wanted to, but for the record, he was fully dressed and ready to go.
He sat down at his desk and fired up his laptop, then reached down into a small pile of dirty clothes and retrieved his headset. When his computer had booted, he opened the video conferencing app and searched his contacts for the appropriate parties, and a few seconds later, images of Sofie and Ethan appeared on the screen. Ethan wasted no time and inquired about the details of Sofie's discovery.
"Well, it took a little research and a lot of luck," she said. "Aunt Patty thought he was at a nursing home in the Spencer Ridge area, so I did an online search for nursing homes in the surrounding towns, and it turns out there's only one and it's right here in Spencer Ridge! It's called Frederick Fisk Village, and I called them and asked if they had a patient named Charles Nichols. But they said they can't release personal information like that."
"Why didn't you just tell them you were his granddaughter or something?" Ethan said.
"They're not stupid, Ethan," she replied.
"So how do we know if he's staying there?" Ethan inquired further.
"I'm getting to that," she said. "It turns out that my neighbor, Mrs. McGovern, volunteers at the COA's Senior Center."
"What's the COA?" Jeff asked.
"Council on Aging," Sofie said. "It's right next to the nursing home, and Mrs. McGovern is there on Wednesdays for the sing-a-long."
"Sing-a-long?" Ethan said. "What, like karaoke?"
Sofie shook her head. "No. Mrs. McGovern plays the piano and has songbooks for the seniors and everybody sings. And I guess it's a pretty big deal and the seniors really enjoy it. But here's the exciting part. Mrs. McGovern knows Charles Nichols!"
"The Charles Nichols?" Jeff asked.
"Yes!" Sofie replied. "The Charles Nichols. Our Charles Nichols."
"Are you sure it's him?" Jeff said. "There could be more than one Charles Nichols out there."
"It's him," Sofie answered. "Mrs. McGovern's known him for years. She's met his sisters! He comes to the senior sing-a-long every Wednesday."
"Wait, I thought he was brain dead," Ethan said.
"No, he had a brain injury," Sofie corrected him. "He's in a wheelchair, but the staff from the nursing home brings him down and stays with him."
"Does he sing?" Ethan asked.
Sofie looked bewildered. "What difference does it make?"
"Well if he doesn't sing," Ethan said, "what's the point in going? You go to a sing-a-long to sing, right?"
"I'm not there watching his lips move," Sofie said. "Maybe he just wants to listen to the music. Or maybe he wants to be around other people for a little while. You can ask him when we go."
"Wait, we're going?" Jeff said, somewhat taken aback.
"Well, yeah…" Sofie said with a long lead-in. "I figured you'd want to see him."
"Why would I want to see him?"
Sofie furrowed her brow. "Seriously? Oh, I don't know. To ask about the treasure, maybe?"
Jeff leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "Why the sudden interest in the treasure? I thought that was Drew's angle."
"Ben said that if it really exists, we could find it and return it to the family."
"You told Ben???" Jeff said, exerting a little more oomph than he may have wanted to.
Sofie paused and went on the defensive. "Well… I was excited I found him. I had to tell someone!"
"Ah, Sofie. I wish you hadn't done that," Jeff said, shaking his head.
Sofie squinted into her webcam. "You're starting to sound like Drew."
Now Jeff was on the defensive. "Well, he's not wrong… all the time." He smiled nervously, stuck in limbo between defending one friend, and politely voicing his displeasure with the actions of another.
Sofie took the high road and refused to retaliate, and the three friends sat there for a short time as the silence turned binary and filtered through their video chat. After a few awkward glances almost ended their call, Sofie offered a suggestion.
"I think we should go see him," she said, "and see what he knows. Maybe he doesn't know anything about it. Maybe it is just a rumor. Or maybe there is something there and he just needs his memory jogged. But if we don't go, we'll never know."
Jeff took a few moments and thought about it. "What about Drew?"
Sofie shrugged. "Invite him if you want. I'm sure he'd like closure."
Closure? Jeff thought to himself. He didn't particularly care for that word right now. He assumed that Sofie meant closure on Charles Nichols and Kent Cottage, and I think that's a safe bet. But there was also closure for Drew's time in the Wildwood Gang, and that was something Jeff was not ready to accept.
Regardless, Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan agreed that they would go see Charles Nichols after school on Wednesday and ask him about the mysterious treasure at his childhood home. They also agreed they would reach out to Drew and extend him an invitation.
But Drew proved elusive over the next few days. He was not seen at lunch or recess, nor was he on the bus to and from school. But they saw him at school on Tuesday when they passed his class in the hall on the way back from gym class. It was as if he were avoiding his friends, and considering all that had happened recently, that was understandable.
On Wednesday morning, Jeff borrowed the bathroom hall pass and took the roundabout route past Drew's classroom. He peered in through the narrow window in the door and noticed Drew in his usual seat scribbling something in his notebook. But aside from that, there were no further Drew sightings that day. Even at the end of school when Jeff hurried back to his classroom, Drew was already gone.
Jeff had been quite anxious to inform Drew about Charles Nichols and the nursing home, anticipating his friend's excitement at the news. But alas, it was not meant to be, and Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan would be going to senior sing-a-long without him.
However, his spot was conveniently filled by Ben, and the four of them took the bus to Sofie's house after school. Upon arrival, they chatted with Sofie's mom and sampled her homemade chocolate chip cookies before walking next-door and piling into Mrs. McGovern's Corolla.
Mrs. McGovern was a friendly, church-going woman who was very active in the community. She had two children in high school and a third in college, and their desire for independence granted her the opportunity to do volunteer work at places such as the COA. She had short, curly auburn hair atop a round face, and the strangest shade of dark green eyes that one might only find in a giant box of crayons. She wore a broad smile that flashed repeatedly, displaying rather large front teeth up top.
Mrs. McGovern made small talk on the drive over to the senior center, with Sofie handling much of the responsorial. Jeff, Ethan, and Ben resembled the contents of a sardine can in the cramped backseat, and any questions sent their way by Mrs. McGovern were met with simple one-word answers or grunts. Fortunately for the boys, the ride was short, and after Mrs. McGovern brought the car to a stop directly outside the senior center, Ben opened his door and the boys squeezed themselves out like toothpaste.
The COA building stood separate from the nursing home but was connected by a freshly paved walkway with a canopy covering. Once inside the COA's single-story brick building, visitors would pass through a gorgeous atrium-like lobby and sitting area. A wide hallway on the left led to a pair of conference rooms and public restrooms, while a hallway on the right led to the administrative offices.
Directly ahead lay two double-doors flanked by large glass paneling that led to the senior center, a spacious function hall partitioned into three sections. The first, and largest of the sections was the cafeteria. It wasn't a full-service cafeteria, but rather a communal place that was staffed at specific times and for specific events.
The back half of the hall was split in two and walled off from the cafeteria, with the right portion serving as a game room, where seniors and their guests could congregate for puzzles and board games or just sit and watch television. It wasn't the most exciting of rooms, but perfectly suitable to those without the dexterity in their fingers to play Fortnite or Roblox.
The left portion was reserved for musical events and guest speakers. There was a small stage at the front of the room with a moveable podium, and a smart board hovering on the wall behind it. To the right of the stage was a long folding table used for snacks and sweets, and to the left of the stage was a grand piano that, despite having seen better days, was adequately tuned and playable. There were six rows of chairs, eight wide, neatly positioned in front of the stage, and behind them, three round tables with folding chairs.
In case you hadn't guessed, this is where senior sing-a-long took place, and when Mrs. McGovern led the Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, into the room, they observed maybe fifteen seniors scattered about, in various states of health. Some could barely stand, some could barely sit, some could barely see, and some could barely hear. But they all had one thing in common: they were here to sing and have fun. Well, I suppose that's two things, but whatever.
Mrs. McGovern greeted some of the regulars, introducing Sofie and her friends at the same time. The younglings made a good first impression with their elders, and their presence was greatly appreciated. Y'see, old people like being around young people, especially very young people, and the young people can often find themselves trapped in these one-sided conversations. And these conversations can drag on and on, and most of the time it's harmless.
But I can't help but wonder sometimes if the old folks weren't attempting some sort of voodoo mumbo jumbo, where they transferred their consciousness from their old and frail bodies to these young and healthy bodies, kind of like some evil body-snatching horror movie.
Anyway, that didn't happen. Instead, Mrs. McGovern peeled her charges away from the elders like one of those gravy separators, and led them toward the back corner of the room where they found an elderly gentleman sitting crumpled in his wheelchair. He had thinning white hair that was sort of all over the place, pale white skin that was only a few shades darker than the Pillsbury Doughboy, week-old stubble that actually enhanced his appearance, and round black eyes that stared helplessly into the abyss.
His chin was tucked firmly into his chest and his hands folded peacefully in his lap, and his breathing was so steady and rhythmic that the rise and fall of his chest was almost hypnotizing.
He wore a burgundy cardigan over a light-blue collared shirt, and a navy blue woolen blanket covered his fragile legs, and though I cannot accurately cite his age, he appeared much older than he actually was.
Mrs. McGovern introduced him as Charles Nichols, and the Wildwood kids stared at him in awe, for he had been the key figure in their most recent adventures. Of course, at that time he was believed to be a headless ghost, haunting and terrorizing and throwing people out of an attic window, and now here he was in the flesh with his head still attached to his shoulders. It was a little much to process.
But the kids pulled it together and said hello to Charles Nichols, but he didn't say anything back. He just sat there staring at the floor, and when Ethan stepped up and offered a friendly handshake, Charles just sat there staring at the floor.
"He doesn't say much," Mrs. McGovern whispered.
"Can he hear us?" Ethan asked.
"Oh, yes," she nodded. "He's just very slow to respond. His brain doesn't function as quickly as ours, and it takes a lot of energy to speak. But he can definitely hear you."
"Should we ask him about the treasure?" Ethan said, looking directly at Jeff.
"I guess," Jeff said, although somewhat reluctant.
"Tell him who you are," Sofie suggested. "He might recognize the name."
Jeff stood beside Charles Nichols, but had a difficult time formulating a question. He seemed flustered, and was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to begin the interrogation. "I don't know what to say. Sofie, maybe you better do it."
Actually, Sofie preferred not to do it. But she could tell by the look on Jeff's face that he was uncomfortable, and she couldn't let Ethan do it because this was a delicate matter and Ethan didn't do delicate, and Ben wasn't really an option. So she took a step closer to Charles Nichols and bent over slightly, trying to place herself in his line of sight.
"Hi, Mr. Nichols," she began. "I believe you know Jeff's family, the Markhams? They live on Wildwood Farm." She waited for some form of acknowledgment, but Charles Nichols did not flinch. "Do you remember Wildwood Farm?"
There was still no response from Charles Nichols, and Sofie looked deep into those dark, round eyes, hoping for some sign of remembrance. "You lived on Wildwood Farm," she continued. "Do you remember Kent Cottage?"
It was the 'Kent Cottage' that did the trick. Charles moved his head just a tad before it snapped back into place on his chest, but he followed that with a short grunt, giving the kids a sliver of hope that he might provide them with the answers they came for.
"We were told there might be a hidden treasure at Kent Cottage," she said, speaking slow and steady. "Do you know anything about a treasure at Kent Cottage?" She emphasized those words for maximum effect.
Charles could barely lift his head, but he did so just enough to meet Sofie's gaze for a split second. He grunted again, and then collapsed deeper into his chair.
"Do you know where the treasure is hidden at Kent Cottage?" she asked. She held onto the word 'where' long enough for him to process it, but his response was not forthcoming. He sat in his chair like a statue, and for a moment Sofie and the others thought they had lost him. But his lips started to quiver, and then slowly parted, allowing a single word to slip through.
"Mantle," he said.
The Wildwood kids gasped, for Charles Nichols had just stamped a big fat X on their treasure map. Even Ben seemed overjoyed, but Sofie was quick to contain their excitement and prodded Charles Nichols one more time.
"It's hidden in the mantel?" she said, trying to meet his eyes.
His head tilted to one side, and it was clear he was struggling, but he mustered his last bit of strength to confirm.
"Mantle," he repeated.
And just like that, hope had been restored to their quest for the hidden treasure. The question now was, what next? That was yet to be decided, and deliberation was needed. But for the next hour they were trapped at senior sing-a-long, so when Mrs. McGovern took her seat at the piano and kicked off the festivities, the Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, escaped to a corner table in the cafeteria to determine their next course of action.
"We have to go back," Ben said, stepping in to take the reigns. It was the 'we' part that rubbed Jeff the wrong way. Sure, Ben was a decent guy, and had said all the right things, but he was not an official member of the Wildwood Gang. And he was certainly in no position to be making decisions for them.
"We can't go back," Jeff said. "We shouldn't have been out there in the first place. I don't know how many times I have to say it, we're not allowed at Kent Cottage. My Dad doesn't want us there, and that's that."
"But this time we know where the treasure is," Ben argued. "Last time you were fumbling around in the dark. Now we know where to go. We're in and out in no time. They won't even know we were there."
"You don't know Mr. Heard," Jeff said.
"Sofie's told me all about Mr. Heard," Ben said. "We just find a time when he's not around."
"But he's always around!" Jeff said. "Man, I sound like a broken record. You guys just don't get it."
"So you're telling us he'll be around all weekend?" Ben asked. "There's not an hour when he'll be out? To go to lunch? The hardware store? Anything at all?"
Jeff paused and stared at him for a moment. "You seem to be all fired up about this, Ben. Why the sudden interest in Wildwood business?" Jeff's insides shivered. He was starting to sound like Drew.
"Look, I'm sorry," Ben said. "I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes. It's just that… I had some issues at my last school. I don't like to talk about it, but I got into some trouble, and my Dad and I haven't really spoken much. But I thought… I mean I hoped, that if we could find this treasure, we could return it to the Nichols family. That would make a great story. Local kids do good. And maybe my Dad would see me in a different light. But if you don't want to go, I understand. I don't want you to get busted, and I don't want the Wildwood Gang to get broken up either. It was just an idea."
The four of them fell silent, and Jeff sighed and looked away. He closed his eyes and retreated inside himself, where two opposing forces were battling for supremacy. On one side, empathy: for Ben and his situation. On the other, self-preservation: and respect for his father's wishes.
"If we find the treasure and give it back to the family, we'll be heroes," Ethan said. "We'll get our names in the paper. Might even be on the news. Wouldn't that be great?"
Jeff gave him a partial shrug, then he looked at Sofie, a respected and loyal confidante, hoping her facial expression would steer him in the right direction. But Sofie was dealing with an inner struggle of her own: to side with her dear friend Jeff, or to side with her more-than-just-a-friend Ben.
"Finding the treasure for the Nichols family would be a noble deed," she said, almost apologetically. "What if this is a priceless family heirloom that's been missing for years? If we find it and give it back to them, who knows what kind of healing it might bring."
Jeff thought about it for a moment. He weighed his options in an effort to find a viable solution, and although he didn't realize it at this particular moment, his knack for mediation and compromise would help him in the years to come.
"I think we should tell my father," Jeff said. "Tell him about the treasure. Tell him about the mantel, and see if he can get it for us. And then we can return it to the Nichols family."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Ben said, further muddying the thought process. "I mean, I'm sure your dad is a great guy an' all, but what if he says no? What if he shuts it down right there? Then you definitely can't defy him, and it's over."
"Jeff's dad isn't like that," Sofie said.
"But can we take that chance?" Ben said. "My Uncle Nate always says it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. If you ask permission to do this, and he says no, and you do it anyway…"
"That's not necessary," Jeff said. He took a deep breath and looked at his friends, then spoke slowly but deliberately. "Saturday night is the Flower and Garden Festival at the fairgrounds. Mr. Heard takes his mother every year, without fail. It's one of the only events she gets to, so it's a big deal. And Mr. Heard will never refuse his mother."
Ben paused as a victory smile appeared on his face. "Saturday night then?"
Ben looked around the table. "And we're all in?" Sofie and Ethan nodded, but Jeff shook his head.
"I can't go," he said.
What do you mean you can't go? was the look he got from all three of them.
"I can't disobey my Dad. We dodged a bullet last time. Greg won't cover for us again, and he shouldn't have to. My Dad can't punish you guys. You're not his kids. The punishment will be mine. And great guy or not, a punishment from Ron Markham can be harsh."
"So we're just gonna forget about it then?" Ethan said.
"Not necessarily," Jeff replied. "Just because I can't go doesn't mean you guys can't. I can stay at my house and be the lookout while you three go to the cottage and find the treasure. But it'll have to be Saturday night while Mr. Heard is gone. No Heard, no Greg, no Cody. I just have to keep an eye on my Dad. And you'll have to be out of there by nine cuz that's when the festival ends, so you'll need careful planning."
"That's where we need Drew," Ethan muttered.
"I can handle the planning," Ben said. "We won't need much. In and out."
Jeff smiled nervously. "Let's hope so."
In-and-out would require more than just careful planning. It would require some luck, and a lot of it, because not only would they be up against a deathtrap of a building in Kent Cottage, they would be navigating dangerous terrain in the dark, contending with snakes and ticks and other nasties, fending off the threat of being caught, and… uh, something else I don't want to spoil for you. You'll find out in a second.
At the conclusion of senior sing-a-long (and not a moment too soon, because the ears can only tolerate so much), the kids shoehorned themselves back into Mrs. McGovern's car for the journey home. She inquired about the kids' treasure-hunting operation, and though they seemed upbeat, they were kind of mum about it.
"I hope the treasure is still there," Sofie said. "For all we know, the family went back and found it already."
"Oh, I highly doubt that," Mrs. McGovern said.
Sofie gave her an inquisitive stare. "How can you be sure?"
"I know the sisters won't go anywhere near that place," she replied.
"Why not?" Sofie asked.
"Because it's haunted."
Sofie turned over her shoulder and looked at the three faces in the backseat, all of which broadcast the same confused expression that she had.
"But Mrs. McGovern," Sofie said, turning back to face her, "how can it be haunted if Charles is still alive?"
"Oh, it isn't Charles that's haunting it," Mrs. McGovern said. (Cue creepy music.)
"It's his mother."
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.