Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Highwayman

So this is an original short story I wrote for my college Creative Writing class. Nobody else except my husband saw this version as its the one only the teacher saw, basically the third revision. Obviously this post doesn't take a lot of work on my part, which is good because I spent the weekend cleaning my actual house instead of working on the dollhouse.  Hope everybody enjoys.

The Highwayman

(Inspiration taken from Alfred Noyes poem of the same name)

THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

The reflection was wrong. That was the first thing Sara thought. The old mirror she’d found in the attic was chipped and the silver backing to the glass was worn in spots but it was still beautiful once it was cleaned up and she’d hung it on the wall opposite the china hutch. It was perfect for the dining room but the reflection was…wrong.

Trying to keep calm, to be reasonable, Sara studied the image. The clothes were hers, even the room was the same, but the face was different, softer somehow, cheeks more rounded, lips darker. The hair was black, and so were the eyes, but the skin was slightly rosy, as if the reflection had been in the sun, but not tanned dark brown like the popular look today.

Sara shook her head and the reflection did the same. The long black hair waved from a dark red knot at the base of the neck. This was what the man on horseback saw, his burning eyes saw this girl, younger than she was, this was his Bess. Thunder rumbled, the sound sending a chill over Sara’s skin.

Sara turned as she heard the front door open and Liz call out that she was back with food. When Sara looked back the only reflection in the age spotted mirror was her own. With a slight shrug of her shoulders Sara went to meet her old friend, thankful that Liz had some time off and was willing to spend it fixing up Sara’s brand new old house.

The curtains were hung, Sara stood back with a satisfied smile to admire her work before she spread the panels to open the window. For a moment the sunny day outside vanished. Before her eyes was a darkened sky, near black with a soft silver moon glowing high above. Her hand tightened on the curtain with a wave of vertigo as it seemed she wasn’t looking out, but down.

Sara blinked trying to clear her eyes but stubbornly the vision clung to her. The face that she stared at wasn’t her own, wasn’t the black haired, black eyed girl she’d seen earlier. This was the face that burnt, eyes like coals in their heat, but the color of brandy, or autumn leaves. A harsh, sharply carved face with full lips parted on some word. And his hand, glove pulled from it, stretched upwards towards her hair… Thunder sounded in the distance.

Abruptly as it had come the picture was gone and Sara gasped. “What…” She shook her head and turned away from the window, ignoring the fact that the curtains remained closed against the sun. She sat down on the bed, trembling and staring at her hands as if trying to be certain they were her own.

The dreams she could handle, they were just dreams, Sara told herself. Reflections in mirrors could be…misunderstood, she expected to see herself and she saw Bess. Maybe she’d seen Bess’ reflection in a window or mirror in one of her dreams so she knew subconsciously what Bess looked like, and in the dark old mirror she’d mistaken her own face for the barmaid. Even the creepy feeling she got in the garage, that feeling of being watched, could be explained by mice or a stray cat, eyes were eyes after all.

But this…Sara bit her lip. This was during the day, in a bright room, and suddenly she was back in a dream from the middle of the night. And the sun was out. There weren’t any clouds for miles around but she’d heard thunder. A frown creased her forehead and her mouth firmed into a hard line. Turning back to the window she snapped the curtains open. This was her house now, regardless of the odd dreams, it was her house. She’d sunk all her savings into buying it and upgrading the electric system. Making ends meet would be difficult enough if the remodel went according to plan, she couldn’t afford to have hysterics and give up on this house, and especially not when she’d wanted this house since she was a girl.

Shaking knees forced Sara to sit on the edge of the bed again. Her hands were shaking too, she noted distantly. Logically she could sell the garage full of furniture she’d refinished over the years. That would bring her enough to start over somewhere else, if she could get top dollar for it, and if she could sell the house for her own purchase price. A lot of ifs and none of them anything she really wanted consider as possibilities. She belonged here, in this house. Every time she brought a room back to life with polish and paint and filled it with the right furniture, the house felt more like it was hers, more like she’d been here forever. It felt… Sara looked up at the plaster ceiling and out toward the garage…in spite of the odd dreams and creepy garage, the house felt like home.

“So having a morning off?” Liz’s voice made Sara jump at her desk. “Geez, you’re jumpy. Being alone in this old place getting to you now that the electricians have finally left?”

“No.” Sara shook her head turning to look at her friend. “You know I love this place, especially now that I can have a laptop, the fridge and the TV running at the same time.” Her mouth quirked at one corner, as she remembered the state of the wiring when she’d first moved in.

“Yeah, your love affair is painfully obvious the more we clean it.” Liz made a face, obviously contemplating yet more cleaning or painting and the resulting mess her clothes would be.

“Well turning it into a bed and breakfast will be a lot easier once it’s cleaned.” Sara grinned. “So I’ll thank you once again for all this free labor.”

“Hey, when I need a rest I’ll come here and let you spoil me with your omelets and soft beds.” Liz struck a deliberately languid pose in the doorway and held it for all of five seconds before Sara started to giggle. “So what are you doing in here? Exploring your Grandma’s old desk? And why are you in the…pantry?” Liz looked around the tiny room.

“It’s called a‘snug’, a ladies parlor, because it used to be ladies didn’t eat in the common room with men. Usually they were off of the kitchen or a private dining room. As for what I’m doing,” Sara carefully tucked the receipts into a file and slid the drawer shut. “I’m working on a client’s books.” She stood and arched her back. “My old boss gave me a recommendation for some bookkeeping, so I’ll have money for extras…like food.” She grinned.

“You’re budgeted that tight with this remodel?” Liz’s brown eyes were wide with concern. “You know I can help out with the cleaning more…even the attic if I must.” She gave a mock shudder.

Sara’s grin turned into a chuckle. “I’m not that bad off. Tight isn’t broke. I just don’t have a lot of ‘walking around’money. I’ve got eating money, bills money, but not ‘walking around burning a hole in my pocket’ money. Though I do appreciate the ultimate sacrifice of helping with the attic, with all the dust, cobwebs and spiders that have accumulated over the years.”

“Well you could always clean out the loft over the garage and rent it out. Remember your grandparents talked about doing that for a while.” Liz suggested.

“Yeah, until Grandpa died and Grandma went into the convalescence home.” Sara frowned remembering how the entire house had been shut up and gloomy. Every time she and her family had come by to do basic cleaning and maintenance the poor house had seemed so lonely. “But it’s a thought for later. Depends on how awful the loft looks.” The house has me now, she told herself; it won’t be lonely anymore.

Sara watched as Liz returned to the kitchen, knowing that the girl would down at least a cup of coffee before they started work for the day. The doorway swam before her eyes, the air darkening with smoke and dusty lamplight. A voice filled with affection cajoled her to leave work for a moment, warm lips pressed to her cheek, gentle arms wrapped around her waist, the masculine scent of leather and tobacco surrounded her, and in the distance thunder sounded.

Sara blinked and pressed a hand to her heart, felt it pounding and the resultant flush of blood in her cheeks. Her chest ached as if she’d been struck, but the rest of her…the girl felt her face blush further…the rest of her felt as if a lover had come to steal a kiss.

Sara stared uneasily at the garage. Converted from an old barn and stable; it still bore the stamp of its original purpose, a loft rising above the concrete floor where her old truck rested.

She frowned. Something…something was wrong with the garage. But that didn’t make sense, the girl thought, uneasy even as she tried to reason with herself. It was an airy, dusty, useful building but there was nothing wrong with it.

Except... looking at it from the window Sara felt…watched. As if there were some malevolent presence; it felt possessive, maddened, but there was nothing there. No one stood in the shadow of the garage door, not in the huge wide sliding doors either. There was no man with hair like straw and pale blue eyes like hollows in his face. But it felt like someone watched her. Someone obsessed with red lips and black eyes, someone she knew but didn’t like. Tim… Sara shuddered and resolved to clean out the loft for her next project; perhaps that would exorcise the garage, and tried not to wonder how she knew the name of the… “Ghost.” She finally gave voice to her thought shaking her head.

“What ghost?” Liz asked from behind her.

Sara shook her head again. “Every time I look at the garage or when I’m in it…I feel like I’m being watched. It’s weird. There’s no one around. Not even a cat, but I swear someone’s staring at me.”

“Mice.” There was a laugh in Liz’s voice.

“Oh yuck.”

Sara stared out the window a week later and wondered if she were going mad. She’d cleaned out the loft, surprised it had needed so little work, even the bathroom had been in shockingly good shape. And the entire time she’d been in the garage she’d felt like her skin was crawling, whoever Tim was, if the name she’d conjured up was right, he gave her the serious creeps. Liz had come up to help and had nearly scared her half to death.

Now she was hearing hoof beats again. As if someone were riding a horse nearby. Reluctantly she moved closer to the casement and set her hand on the window, pushing it open to the spring breeze. She could hear the horse, its breath in the chilly night steaming from its nostrils. She could hear the man’s voice and see his face, his eyes like brandy burning for something… Sara pressed a hand to her heart again, feeling a sharp pain in her chest and inexplicably heard thunder again. The man…she knew his name, knew who he was…the feel of his hand in her hair, touching the black waves, breathing in the perfume of her hair. Sara shut her eyes a moment and could see him standing up in the stirrups, reaching for her.

His words made an odd sort of sense, Sara opened heavy eyes, her entire body suddenly aching. He’d spoken of a prize he was after, a prize of gold, of defying his father and a kiss. Closing her eyes again she let herself slip back into that place, with him. Give me a kiss to last forever.’ Sara remembered his words, ‘I’ll come to you by the moon if I’m hard pressed.’ He couldn’t reach her from the back of the horse, and he wanted a kiss…

Sara pulled away from the window and slid down to the floor beneath it, leaning weakly against the wall. She could hardly breathe her heart was beating so fast. Bess loved him…and she, Sara, loved him as well. “In love with a ghost or a vision or…” her voice broke as she put a hand to her cheek, damp with tears.

Liz poked her head in the doorway, the grin on her face fading as she took in Sara’s expression. “Good God, are you all right?” She crossed the room in three strides and sank down next to Sara. “You said five minutes, you wanted a sweater. I’ve been waiting half an hour. What’s wrong?”

Sara took a deep breath and began to tell Liz everything, beginning with the first time she’d heard thunder and her changed reflection, to the dreams and the creepy garage.

“Okay.” Liz took a deep breath obviously trying to be supportive. “Kinda reminds me of those Law & Order shows…with the serial killers…you know how they say they get worse?”

Sara nodded. “Serial killer isn’t the most comforting comparison, but… I’ve been dreaming, and now and then I’d see things but this is…” a shudder crawled over her, “And its getting harder and harder to go into the garage, like I can feel that…man watching me, I can feel it from inside the house now…” Her hands shook as she stared at her fingers.“I know I’m not her…but I know him, the man on the horse. His name was Nicholas James, he was a younger son of an educated, wealthy landowner, noble, or close to, I guess. He fell in love with Bess, the daughter of the landlord, when this place was an inn. I think he…he became a highwayman… began to rob people along the roads.”


Sara looked at her. “I…I think because he wasn’t allowed to marry Bess. His father didn’t approve.”

“And you know all this because…”

“Because I’ve been dreaming it.” Sara sighed. “And believe me, I know how that sounds.”

“You can’t possibly.”Liz shook her head. “I’ll tell you one thing; you’re not staying in this house.”

“I can’t leave.”Sara shook her head. “I can’t explain it, but leaving won’t help. I have to be here. It won’t stop otherwise, it’ll just get worse if I leave and come back. Even going to the store and back…it’s like I was gone years. The house wants me here, the garage hates me…or at least…hates something to do with me…but I can’t leave.” She groaned and shook her head. “And that sounds even crazier than dreaming about a highwayman in love with me two hundred years ago. I can’t leave.” Sara repeated. “I can’t.”

“Fine.” Liz looked at her, narrow-eyed. “I’m staying here with you.”

Sara watched Liz flip through the TV channels grumbling about lousy programming and smiled a little. With Liz here the garage didn’t seem to watch her as constantly. How weird does that sound? Sara thought wryly, the garage, Tim, doesn’t seem as pissed off if my friend is with me, but when the electricians were in the house… Sara winced at the thought and let her head fall back onto the couch, and then her eyes widened as the room changed.

The walls became darker, whitewashed but the light was flickering and smoky, though the open window streamed with sunlight. She was moving at a good pace, carrying platters to different low wooden tables set around the room, and every few minutes looking towards the road outside the window. The shadows were nearly gone, it was almost noon, almost time…

The front door slammed in the hall and four of King George’s soldiers strode into the room as if they owned the inn. Ignoring everyone, the leader’s eyes clamped down upon Sara. No, not Sara, she realized, Bess.

Redcoats. A chill slid through her middle even as the King’s men beckoned for ale. When she brought it to them, a pint for each, the leader, a Lieutenant judging by his gold braid and epaulets, grabbed her by the waist, spilling ale over her skirt, and squeezing her in way that her skin crawled. The other men grabbed for their tankards, drinking the ale so hastily it spilled out the corners of their mouths and dripped onto their blood hued coats. She squirmed, shuddering, trying to pull away from the Lieutenant, but he held her fast by the waist, turning his face into the curve of her breast and inhaling deeply. When he turned towards his men a lascivious grin contorted his ruddy face.

She couldn’t hear what he said, the words rushing in her ears in a torrent of sound that had no meaning, but his ale went untouched as he stood. His stool toppled backward in a clatter of sound that added to the cacophony assaulting her ears. Her struggles to escape the hard grasp of his hands were pitiable they were so ineffective. More words, a blur of faces as she was pulled from the common room, through the hall to the staircase, the soldier’s hand manacled around her wrist now. A few words came clear through the rush of blood pounding in her temples; ‘We’ll keep watch here, he’s sure to come for his sweetheart, a tidy wench like this tidbit.’

Sara could feel the blood drain from her face as time dragged and the meaning of that damning phrase became clear. They were here for Nicholas. They were here to take him, kill him, and she was bait for the trap. Even as she thought to scream a foul rag was stuffed into her mouth, and tied hard against her lips, cloth cutting into the corners of her mouth. The narrow frame of her bed was sturdy and served the soldier’s purpose as the lieutenant directed the men to bind her upright. Her wrists were wrapped in rough hemp rope, bits of it scratching at her skin. With a lecherous chuckle the lieutenant gave a solder his musket while his hand traveled boldly over her hip and breast. Her look of revulsion seemed to amuse him and with one last cruel squeeze of her flesh, began to bind the musket to her body, the barrel just beneath her breast, pointing towards her heart. ‘Keep good watch.’ His mouth pressed to her cheek, damp lips lingering over soft skin before he gestured to the men.

One of the redcoats left the room with the lieutenant; the other two took up watch at her window. The sun was still high in the sky. Sara felt dizzy, how could so little time have passed when the world was going to end? It should have taken hours for them to bind and gag her. She heard the soldiers snickering, one of them joking that she should keep watch. A kiss to keep me forever.” Sara heard Nicholas say in Bess’ memory. “I’ll come to you by the moon.” He would come in the moonlight if he did not come at noon and he had not come at dawn. Nicholas would come riding down the road through the fields to see her by the moonlight as he had so many nights before. But this time…he rode straight into a trap, and she without anyway to warn him, forced to watch him shot down. But if she could free her hands…if she could free her hands, she could loosen the gag, she could scream…she could warn her love away.

She began to twist her wrists against the rough hemp, scraping skin away as she struggled to remain quiet and unnoticed by the men guarding the window. Tears ran down her cheeks dampening the cloth cutting into her mouth as she writhed her hands against the rope. Slowly the shadows grew longer as the sun fell from view. Minutes of struggle passed into hours and still her hands weren’t free. Her wrists were wet with blood and stinging with sweat as Sara began to stretch and strain, darkness slowly creeping into the room.

A chill ran through her. The fat moon was a sliver over the horizon now. The day was gone and now there were only hours until the moon was at its height, only hours until Nicholas rode to his death. She could no longer keep her sobs completely silent, but the men at the window remained silent and unmoved by her plight. Her mouth was dry and parched against the gag, her throat like a husk as she swallowed in a vain attempt to moisten it.

Metal under her fingers, Sara shuddered, praying desperately that she could loosen her bonds enough to shift the musket. The barrel still prodded the underside of her breast cruelly, pressed bruisingly hard to her flesh when she was first bound and worsened by her struggles with the rope. She could feel blood dripping from her fingers and knuckles to the wood floor and clung to the musket with her last hope. The curve of the trigger guard was in the palm of her hand, the stock pressed to her thigh, in all her struggles, she’d only managed to loosen her bonds enough to grasp the musket trigger. If she could move the barrel…but no; no amount of shifting, of pained breaths against the implacable metal, none of her struggles changed the aim of the barrel from her heart, her only triumph was that the trigger was beneath her fingers.

Sara took a deep breath knowing what would happen. She couldn’t remove the gag, even if she had managed that miracle, it would take another act of God that she would have breath to scream after her hours of imprisonment. The moon rose, the silver light mocking as it fell on her tearstained face, the frosty night a hollow echo of every night before. In the distance… a horse’s hooves sounded, like thunder in her ears, as she strained to listen. Iron hooves on a hard dirt road rang like bells through the night…the redcoats hadn’t even moved.

She stared in shock, struggling to listen, to understand…were they deaf? How could they not hear the rhythmic beat of the horse? Nearer and nearer they sounded, until the soldiers would have to be asleep to miss the sound. She stood still, watching the road, unwavering, waiting for a glimpse of him; hoping he might sense what waited for him at her window.

The soldiers quietly began to prime the muskets they held. It was a tricky business, too much powder and the gun might explode in a man’s hand, too little and the shot would fall short…but these men were professionals…and her last hope began to die.

He was closer now…the hoof beats rang sharper in the night, and she could see him coming over the brow of the hill, his horse and silhouette dark in the moonlight. The tri-corn hat was set at a jaunty angle as he turned the horse toward the inn. Sara moaned behind the gag and was ignored by the redcoats at the casement. There was no choice now…he couldn’t be allowed to come too close, she couldn’t let him be killed…not now…not when he could still get away. Her eyes grew wide…and she gasped for air against the gag, wishing she could close her eyes, knowing she would watch, that she had to watch Nicholas until the last possible moment. She could see his eyes, hear his voice, feel his hand in her hair, just before her finger moved upon the trigger.


Sara snapped her eyes open, stifling a scream to find Liz holding her shoulders and shaking her until Sara’s teeth rattled. “I’m awake, I’m awake.”

“It’s about damn time.” Liz let go of her. “You’ve only been screaming bloody murder for a solid five minutes.”

“I was screaming?”

“To wake the dead.” Liz stared at her. “You must’ve had some monster nightmare.”

“She killed herself.” Sara looked down. Her hands were shaking again. “She killed herself to warn him away.” Her voice broke on a sob. “He…”

“He’s dead.” Her friend’s voice was sympathetic but matter of fact still. “Sara, he’s been dead for a long time.”

“Its just so…”

“Hard to believe?”


“So how’s the garage feel now?” Liz looked out the window. “Still freaky?”

Sara looked, unwillingly, at the garage and shook her head. “Nothing’s, he’s not watching, not anymore, I think, I think it’s done.” She looked at Liz . “Would you mind…staying the rest of the night? I can’t sleep…I think I’ll to try and look some of this up, maybe I can find something on the internet …”

Liz shrugged. “Go ahead. I’ll stay. You asked if I’d help with the attic tomorrow anyway remember?”

Sara nodded. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she’d teased Liz about the dirty attic. “Yeah, that’d be good.”

“The trunks I saw were back there.” Sara nodded at the far corner near the bricks of the chimney. She grinned in spite of herself at the look on Liz’s face. The girl seriously hated dirt.

It took some struggling but the two of them were able to drag the two oldest looking trunks down to the kitchen. Liz shook her head in disgust as Sara immediately began to go through her new treasure chests.

“Oh, I didn’t get to tell you yesterday.” Sara spoke before Liz could take off in search of a shower. “I couldn’t find anything about Bess and Nicholas on the internet. Apparently in the seventeen hundreds newspapers weren’t exactly archived. But I did get another referral for some more bookkeeping work. Apparently there’s an architectural and design firm a few towns over. One of the junior partners is going to come over later and bring some of their books.”

“More eating money?” Liz grinned. “Hell; one of these days you might even get to shopping money.”

“Yeah,” Sara half grinned as she looked down at an old book already fascinated. “This is ancient.”

“And dirty.” Liz wrinkled her nose. “I’m outa here.”

“Hmm…” Sara opened the book carefully, trying to make out the words on the page.

I have learnt my letters now, well enough that I may fully set down the sad tale of my lost sister. She, the elder by six years, was so lovely to my eyes. Her name was Elizabeth, but we called her Bess…

Sara read until her eyes ached, and realized that her tears were coming close to splashing on the pages. A deep sigh escaped her as she closed the journal. Somehow it helped to know that they were real. Gone now, but still they’d been real. At least it wasn’t just something in her head.

The doorbell sounded, loud in the silence of the house and Sara jumped, swearing as she saw the clock. She’d been reading for more than two hours.

Grimacing and trying to finger comb her hair into some order she hurried to the front door, wondering exactly how awful a first impression she would make. “Sorry for the wait…” She stumbled to a halt mid-sentence.

“Hi I’m…James.” He was tall, with sharply defined face and the mouth that had jerked into an automatic smile that faded when she stopped speaking. “James Nicholas Henderson.” He finished staring down at her. His eyes were the color of good brandy. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine…” Sara wondered if she was going mad for certain. “I just…read, was reading, something sad.” She shook her head. “Come on in. I’m Sara Powers.”

“What’s your middle name?” His voice was thoughtful as he stared at her and then looked around the entryway, shifting the box he held to one hip.

“Sara Elizabeth Powers.” She tilted her head. “Why?”

“No reason.” He smiled and Sara felt her heart stutter in her chest. There was no reason he would… It was impossible to think that he was…

“You can…put the box on the table in there.” Sara pointed at the dining room. “Sorry, I got distracted…I’m usually a little more prepared for clients.”

“It’s all right.”He seemed to be studying her. “What were you reading?” Her face must have been confused because he elaborated. “You said you read something sad, what was it?”

“Oh, a…journal…I found in the attic. A girl who lived here wrote it, there was this stable boy…he…betrayed…her older sister…” Sara couldn’t make herself say it.

“Her older sister Bess.” His voice was absolutely certain and Sara nodded, almost frozen in shock as she watched his face. “Nicholas never did get his last kiss.”

“No he didn’t.” Sara whispered. “She wrote…he went mad with grief…and they shot him when he attacked the soldiers.”

“Well, maybe you’d like to show me around the house.” James smiled at her thoughtfully. “We should have dinner sometime…and maybe I’ll get to finally claim my kiss.”

Sara nodded slowly, her heart slowly lifting with hope. “Maybe.” She whispered.

No comments:

Post a Comment