Breaking Character (Original Short Story)

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~Sometimes the perks of a Summer job are not in the contract~

My job is not all that glamorous, but as far as I am concerned it was the best thing to have happened to me so far this summer. It was comfortable, to say the least, if not a bit repetitive; to boot, it’s technically government work so the pay has been a nice addition. On top of that, it’s doing something I love; you see, I’m currently working in an old government residence, with a history spanning more than 130 years, back to when my city wasn’t really much of a city.

Since the building has been around since the early 1880’s, the government has turned it into a ‘living museum’; while much of the original building had been torn down and the land sold to other businesses, some of the older remaining wings have been restored and maintained in a state similar to when the house itself was new. As such, they liked to employ ‘historical re-enactment’ for the tours of the old wings. Being a history buff, as well as having caught the acting bug early on in my life, this seemed like the perfect place to spend my summer, and getting paid was just an extra reward.

All that being said, it could get pretty boring, and on days like today there wasn’t much for me to do but laze around the lobby in my Victorian gown, and wait for my co-workers to ring the bell and start the show when, or if, an interested group came through the doors. Since most kids were out of school, and the tourist season wasn’t really in full swing yet, groups had been small as well as few and far between.

Including my training, which really was just a brush up on the history of the place and an orientation tour on what was interesting to point out to various groups on tour, I had spent a good deal of time just wandering around the main museum which consisted of servant, living, dining, and entertainment quarters, filled with antiques and antique replicas painstakingly maintained or recreated. The house had a bit of an odd feeling about it some days, but that is true about most old buildings. We were always told to point out to our groups a few stories to try and get their imaginations running; these included the fact that you could sometimes smell cigar smoke in the billiards room (really, some of the furniture and such was original, so the smell could linger, but it got the younger kids a bit spooked), or that in the dead of night you could sometimes hear the crying of a baby, or children laughing. However, my favourite ‘ghostly tale’ had to do with one of the previous governors who had owned a monkey, and let him wander the main house when he had guests. To that effect, I would take my school aged groups around, and then come back to the lobby, tell them about the monkey, and tell them that if they were very quiet and very calm some days you could hear the movement of small feet running along the upper banisters, and smell the faint aroma of primate. I didn’t really think so myself, I had never smelt anything in the room other than potpourri and the oil they used to polish the wood, but it got the kids going and you could see the excitement of the possible ‘paranormal’ encounter in their eyes.

So far, today was one of those days that just seemed to drag on in silence; a few phone calls about arranging tours for smaller summer camp groups later in the month, a few inquiries about High Tea reservations and the symphony concert series event the next week. All in all, a pretty run of the mill day. I was about to throw in the towel and undo my corset to get a full and easy breath when the doors finally opened, and my co-worker Danny, dressed as a period butler, gave me the ‘all is good to go’ nod.

It wasn’t a large group really, just a family; mother, father, two school aged children, baby in stroller, and grandmother. The type of group that wouldn’t ask me many challenging questions, but would be game to play along with the ‘step back in time’ element. The children were well behaved, the grandmother asked polite questions about objects, and the parents looked relieved to have found something that was low energy, but that would keep the kids entertained long enough to allow them a short respite. Their son, I would say he was about six years old, fluctuated back and forth from looking at his baby sibling sleeping in the stroller, to asking a bevy of questions about what people used to eat, and why the pictures on the wall were black and white instead of colour. Their daughter was quiet, but would smile and wave anytime I directed my words or questions towards her, twisting her hands in the hem of her dress, too shy to talk to a ‘stranger’. A pleasant group in general.

We passed through the dining room, the billiards and games room, and headed upstairs to the living quarters. Normally in the bed rooms we always have the heavy curtains open, though since the room itself faces East not much light gets in during the afternoons. Danny must have forgotten to open them when he was doing his checks, because they were drawn closed and the room was nearly pitch black save for the hallway light. I covered my small annoyance with what I would call a clever bit of improv, stating that the Governor must have had an awful headache and had to take a short lay down before continuing on with his business. The daughter, for the first time, came across the room with me, and took the heavy brocade in her hands and started to open them. I thanked her, but told her that she was the guest and she shouldn’t have to do my work for me. She smiled and giggled, and skipped back to stand by her brother.

After that, the rest of the tour was quiet; the grandmother stopped asking questions and looked straight ahead as we continued on. It was a lot of walking and some stair climbing, and I thought maybe she was tired; even I sometimes felt a little worn out near the end of a tour, but normally I was also trying to keep a group of at least 20 people actively engaged.

We finished the tour and I led them back to the main entrance, finishing on my normal line; “Thank you all so much for visiting today, and I am sorry that the Governor was so busy and unable to come and greet you. I have to leave you now to go and set the table for dinner, but I hope that you’ll come back to visit again.”

The parents and children said their quiet thank you’s, stopping by the desk and bending over to look at the guest registry, maybe to sign it, and speak briefly with the front of house staff. I was smiling and finishing my wave, picking up the tray that I normally leave in the front room as a ‘character prop’, when I felt eyes on me. I turned around, to say farewell again, and saw the grandmother looking at me. She didn’t say anything, she just kept looking at me, her eyes a little hard, cloudy with the beginning of cataracts but completely and solely focused on me. I tried to think if I had forgotten to answer one of her questions, or if I had said anything that could have been considered scandalous or in bad taste, but my mind came up blank. The parents finished their chat with the cashier, the dad picked up the son who had started to nod off as most 6 year olds do, and they left.

Danny came over a few minutes later, half dressed out since the day was almost at an end, and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. With a sigh I reached up, undid my hair from its bun, popped the top few fishhooks from my corset, and we headed off to do our final rounds; mostly this just involved checking the rooms to make sure that no one had snuck in, turning out the lights, and closing the blinds. We were on the top floor, going through the living quarters, when my co-worker finally spoke up.

So, were there any problems on the tour?” A standard question when the groups are large, but this had been a small family and nothing to generally illicit any such questions.

No, none at all. Nice family, well behaved kids. Grandma was a bit strange near the end, but whatever. It was pretty decent.” I had switched off the full set of upstairs lights at this point, and we went room to room, closing curtains.

Oh,” he said, his voice sounding a little perplexed, “ because I overheard what they were saying. Could be that they just wanted to get something out of it, but they kept saying that you seemed kind of oblivious to them after awhile, because you stopped talking to them.”

Now, I know some people come to places and purposely, and for no reason, decide to call out staff on behaviour in hopes of getting something in return. Having worked in retail, I was not unfamiliar with this type of thing, but I had never really encountered it in my current job. It left me scratching my head. I had spoken to them for the entire tour, directed everything I said to them, answered their questions, and done my best to make sure they were interested. I didn’t see how they could have thought that I wasn’t engaged, and I definitely had not been speaking in a quiet voice, I could have been heard easily I was sure of it. I stewed over this for a few minutes, as Danny and I went on about our tasks. He let it drop, he’s a pretty laid back guy, and instead we started talking about our plans for the evening; he was going to pick up his girlfriend and head out to a movie, while I was going to head on home and get caught up on some material for my upcoming term as a newly minted graduate student. My parents were out of town for a few weeks, visiting friends in the neighbouring province, and it felt like a good time to make use of the quiet hours.

At one point, Danny and I split up on the second floor; he took the West hallway, while I took the East, shutting blinds and turning off lamps as I went. As I approached the master suite I noticed that it was already dark, though I had been in that room and opened the blinds no more than 45 minutes earlier. I poked my head into the room, and saw nothing. The rope that held to heavy brocade back from the window was swinging slightly, just visible in the low light. I did a cursory glance about the room from the door, a typical check since my main task had already been completed by my apparent ineptitude at tying knots. Nothing seemed amiss. Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, kids would manage to get past the front desk and staff, and sneak around the place on their own. Generally it wasn’t much of a problem, and we kept security light so there was usually only a single guard on duty outside.

Satisfied that the room was empty, I closed the door and did my final few checks, more than ready to change out of my work costume and head home. With all the lights out, save for the occasional hall lamp left on for patrol purposes, the building could get pretty creepy when there was no natural light filtering in; the wood was old, where major renovations hadn’t been done, and the floors had settled enough to creak and squeak a little in the more travelled spots. I could see that Danny was waiting at the end of the hall, like he normally did when we checked everything out.

As I was walking down the hall towards the stairs to meet with Danny, so we could get our things from the staff room and finish our dress out, I pulled up short. It felt, oddly, as if I had missed something important. Despite having done the same actions six days a week for the past month and a half, I went over my list again in my head. I never liked to leave things feeling unfinished; I had checked the rooms, turned out the lights, and closed the doors after making sure all the curtains were drawn, save for the master suite. I shrugged it off, realizing that I was just feeling strange because I hadn’t pulled those heavy curtains into place myself, but it would have been useless to go back and do the action simply for the sake of feeling that it was complete.

With that, Danny and I got into our street clothes, locked the staff room and wardrobe, and said good night to the security guard, Jon, who was sitting in his booth with the newspaper. He would stay for a few more hours until the last of the staff left, and the cleaners and maintenance were done with the few things they had to take care of.

The sun was still shining pretty brightly outside, just starting to dip past the tree line; it would be another few hours until full darkness set in. Such was the advantage of living in the prairies; while winter was long and dark, our summers’ were filled with long days were the sun lingered as if it was reluctant to set. Danny had already climbed into his car and was pulling out of the parking lot when I made it to my little two door. I fished my keys from my purse, and for some reason glanced back up the approach to the house, it just seemed like the thing to do.

I froze, and my keys slipped from my hand back into my purse. From where I was, I had a clear view of the bay windows of the master suite and I could see the curtains pulled back, though not fully open, almost as if someone was holding them. As quickly as I saw it though, they were closed again, unmoving. If you know heavy curtains, you know they tend to sway noticeably when they are moved. They were perfectly still. I felt unnerved, a little jolted, and my heart leapt frantically against my ribs, like a rabbit trying to escape. I must have stood there for a few minutes, before I moved, getting my keys and popping them into my lock to get in my car. At this point I pulled out my cell phone, and took a deep breath to calm myself.

Government House, Jon speaking.” The steady, calm, easy voice of the security guard calmed me almost instantly. I felt silly for calling, but knew in the long run it would set me at ease.

Hey Jon, it’s just me. When you get a chance could you do a quick check of the upstairs? I’m pretty sure I closed everything up, but it just feels like I may have forgotten something.” I tried to keep myself sounding as calm and composed as possible; there was no use getting him to rush around when I was beginning to feel as if it had just been a figment of my imagination, caused by the fact that the majority of the day had been quiet and I hadn’t had much to do but let my mind wander. Jon assured me he would give it a check, and bid me a good night before hanging up. By then I was feeling much better, and started my drive home, letting the whole thing slip out of my mind; it was probably just the air flow moving the curtains, and my mind over exaggerating what I actually saw.

My drive home was as quiet and uneventful as it normally was. Even now, with the huge boost in construction and population, traffic wasn’t a problem. I bopped my head along to the nondescript music on the classics station until I pulled into my driveway and checked my mail. It was time to make supper, grab my book, and settle in for a few hours of constructive reading.

Around midnight I closed my book and took off my glasses, setting them on my bedside table. I had already checked my doors, fed my cats, and prepped for bed, so flicking my lights off was a two stepper from my bed. I turned up the sound on my stereo as it played through my podcast playlist, something that I did every night even when my parents were home because it just made sleeping easier; it was something my grandmother used to do for me, when I would spend the nights at her home when I was a kid and my parents worked shift, though she would play audio books instead of historical investigation podcasts. Settling into bed, it wasn’t long before I fell asleep.

I could feel weight moving on my leg, it was the first sensation I had. With my curtains pulled and the covers over my head, I kicked my leg out slightly, to dislodge my cat. It seemed to work because the movement stopped, but it was no use, I was awake. It was probably far too early in the morning, but it was routine for my cat to start bugging me for breakfast before the sun was even up. Suddenly, for no reason, I felt a tingle run up my spine, curling my toes in an indescribable rush of super sensitivity. The house was dead silent; the AC was off, my playlist must have ended as there was no hum from the electronics, no settling in the structure. My house is absolutely never completely silent. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to pull the covers from my face, and I lay there, awake, my eyes wide open in the dark folds of my fleece covers.

It started quietly at first, almost so low that it could have been my imagination, hyped up from some un-remember dream. The weight against my leg hadn’t moved, but it wasn’t kneading, or rumbling. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sound began to become clearer, so slowly that I almost couldn’t tell that it was getting louder. It was an odd sound to begin with, hollow and light, the exact opposite of the acerbic voices I associated with my particular podcast of choice. Soon words began to become clear, snippets at a time, rising in and out. The voice was childish, lilting in its hollowness, sing-songy, and all together unsettling. The words though, I hadn’t heard in a long time, since I was a child.

Goosey Goosey Gander, where shall I wander?

Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber.

It was getting louder, now more noticeably, drawing closer and closer to me though it didn’t seem to be coming from a single source. I am not, by nature, an easily frightened individual, not by a long shot. I basked in ghost stories, though I could never bring myself to believe them much after a certain age, and I had never experienced anything of the like myself, nor to my knowledge had any of my immediate family members. I couldn’t move, I could hardly breathe as I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to will myself to sleep, or to wake if I was still locked in some eerie dream brought on by the odd feeling that had overcome me earlier in the day. To my horror it continued coming closer and closer; my heart was in my throat, hammering harder than I can ever remember it beating in my life. The voice was clearly female, though far too young to be any of my friends playing a trick. I silently hoped that it would break, stop, and turn out to be a nasty prank on behalf of the podcast producer before they launched into some well researched episode about the darker side of children’s stories. I knew these words, knew them because my grandmother used to read me nursery rhymes, before she died from complications involving her COPD.

There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,

I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

With everything in me, I tensed my muscles and with all my strength shot up in bed, throwing my blanket as hard as I possibly could and planting my feet on the floor, ready to bolt from my room. The silence fell like a weight, pressing in on all sides and causing my ears to hum. It was dark, save for the glow of my docking station, and their was dead. I could hear myself breathing frantically, my arms and legs trembling. I took the two steps and flicked on my lights, to see nothing in my room save the small disorder that I usually left it in after getting home from work. Still something did not feel right, it felt like my skin was sparking with static electricity, and I could smell something over the scent of my lotion, over the scent of a house that has a cat, over the smell of the measly but filling supper that I had made myself. Wafting over everything was the subtle scent of wood smoke. On instinct I grabbed my jacket and my phone and left my room, but there was no smoke, and everything was settled and quiet. All of the windows were closed, the doors locked, and the alarm set, exactly as I had left it before going to bed.

I was just starting to shake it off as a pre-waking dream, turning off the lights in the hallway as I headed back through the living room to my bed when I saw it. There was my cat, stretched out on his back completely asleep, laying on the kitchen table. The hair on the back of my neck rose and I was terrified; when my cat wakes me up to get fed, he will not go back to sleep until after he has had something, anything, to eat. But here he was, fast asleep, when he had been pawing, his weight settled near my legs, less than two minutes ago in my bedroom.

Unable to dismiss the wrongness of it all, I turned all the lights in my living room on, grabbed my cell phone, turned on the television, and sat on the couch for the rest of the night, unable to shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong; more unsettling, I could not get the words of the old nursery rhythm out of my head.

When I went in to work the next day, Danny could tell that something was bugging me. He’s a pretty great guy, and pulled me aside before our morning checks, hands on my shoulders. He had been working at Government house for close to three years, on a year round basis, because he said it was a sweet job that gave him time to do lots of other things without all the stress of an office. He had been the one to show me some of the ropes on my first day.

You look exhausted, what’s up?” His voice was concerned, but no-nonsense so I knew I couldn’t let it slip. It felt stupid, but I told him everything that had happened the night before, right from leaving work to the moment the sun came up. He listened, but I could tell from the skeptical look on his face that he was having trouble taking any of it seriously. He just nodded, and when I finished he gave me a few minutes to breathe.

It was probably just a nightmare, you know? This place can do funny things to your head. It probably didn’t help that you were alone last night. Don’t worry too much about it, but you know you can always give me a shout if you need someone, right?” His smile eased a bit of tension from my tired body, and I nodded, putting a smile on that felt a bit weak even to me.

We split up and started to open up our rooms, I took the West while he took the East in the morning; the upstairs of the West corridor was the access to the serving quarters, nursery, and what had been the library when the house had been actively used as a residence. It was by far the easier start up; only four rooms in total.

I was opening the light curtains in the nursery room when I heard it; the humming was so low that I dismissed it at first, but only for a second before it began to take that hauntingly familiar shape.

Goosey …. Goosey…. Gander….

. . .and threw him down the . . . stairs

I froze and could not turn around, not for the life of me. The words were drawn out, almost to a whisper thin trace. I clutched at the light cotton in my hands, trembling before taking a deep, shaky breath. Then I remembered, and felt like an idiot! Not even ten minutes ago I had told this whole story to Danny. Shaking my head, and forcing my way past the spine tingling reaction of terror, exhaled forcefully, and launch myself around on the balls of my feet.

Danny! I am so not amuse . . .” I trailed off, starting at the empty space behind me, the double doors of the nursery wide open. Nobody was there; not a hide, nor hair, not a shadow or a whisper of movement save for the swaying of the curtains. I took one quick look around, and thought I caught something from the corner of my eye. I bolted like I was being chased like a bear, absolutely careless and haphazard, kicking off my shoes to gain better traction.

I was shaking when Danny found me in the staff room, yanking off my corset and fumbling with the buttons on the dress. I had to get out of there, I had to do it fast, and I had to get some sleep. My mind was starting to mess with me, and I knew it was just going to keep going downhill if I stayed at work and tried to push through. He grabbed my backpack and purse and let me change, talking constantly from the other side of the door, his concerned voice acting like some kind of anchor that kept me from completely losing it.

He assured me that he could handle the rest of the day on his own, as he doubted it would be all that busy because of the rain and the fact that a long weekend was coming up. Still shaken, but a little more together, we walked through the lobby, heel to heel, as he did his best to keep me calm. We were just about to the front desk when something caught my eye. No movement, no shadow, but just a regular old picture. It was in a small gilt frame, hanging on the wall, old and faded behind smoky glass. I couldn’t recall having ever seen this particular picture, and I had spent a fair bit of time looking over most of the things on the main floor, and reading the small information plaques that were provided for some of them. Beneath this one, the small plaque simply read Government House, Family and Staff, 1899.

Danny stopped beside me and looked at the picture as well, cocking his head to the side. “That’s weird,” he said “I thought we rotated this one out.” I looked over at him, wanting to ask about it but unable to bring voice to the question which was suddenly caught tight in my throat. He looked at me, guessing that I wanted him to continue, so he obliged.

It was a bit of a sad story really. They were just finishing the place up when the governor’s daughter went missing. The North-West Mounted Police were called in to help the local constables in the search. They looked everywhere, but all they ever found was her hair ribbons out back. They held the groundskeeper for a week in jail, because they found the ribbon near his tool shed. There wasn’t enough evidence though, and they had to let him go. Not too long after that the groundskeeper died; he was on his ladder, fixing the chandelier on the second story when he fell down the stairs and broke his neck.”

A chill went up my spine, a small one, but it was unnerving none the less. I looked at the picture, at the faces of the individuals. When I spoke, I did my best to keep the waver out of my voice.

Hey Danny, did the governor and his wife have any other children? After they left?” He raised a brow and thought for a minute before responded that they had not, in fact, to his knowledge had any other children, as they had been older to begin with and apparently had taken the loss as some sort of sign.

Why do you ask? For a history student you usual haven’t been all that interested in anything local.” I almost bolted right them, but I simply could not move as I looked at the photo, my eyes fixed.

Curious. I swear the daughter looks almost identical to the kid that was here yesterday with her family.”

Carefully, slowly, Danny put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around, his expression caught between incredulous and disgusted.

Don’t even do that. Is this all some sort of joke, this whole act today?” His voice was quite stern now, something I had only heard him use when telling misbehaving kids to get in line or to stop touching the displays. I brushed his hands off my shoulders and took a step back, admittedly a little hurt at his reaction. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he had suddenly changed. I was a bit offended, and I snarked at him.

No! Why in the hell would I do that? Some elaborate joke? I thought you would know me a bit better by now.”

Danny took a deep breath to calm himself down and I waited, expecting him apologize to me for overreacting for absolutely no reason.

What girl are you talking about?” He asked, looking at me with a concerned expression.

The daughter, the little one in the dress. She helped me open the curtains that you forgot in the master suite. She was really shy, but she looks uncannily like the girl in this picture.” I could feel myself getting shaky even as I made it to the end of the sentence. It was too unreal, it had to be some sort of prank, and that hurt me even more then Danny’s reaction.

Listen,” he said, getting quiet and stepping closer, pulling me into a hug. “I opened all of the curtains yesterday, I know because I watched them mow the lawn from the master suite. There were only five people here yesterday. There was no little girl; not in a dress, or in anything else. The only kids were the baby, and the little boy.”

 

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