Tina Inherits the House
Part 2: The End of the Story
“Nick? It’s Walter.”
We both froze.
“Just a minute, Walter.” Nick turned to me. “Let me handle this alone. Trust me.”
He walked over to the door. Walter knocked again, and Nick opened it almost as soon as he stopped. Walter began to push his way into the apartment, but Nick put out a strong hand and pushed him back.
“She’s alive,” he said simply. He continued pushing Walter back until they were both outside the door, which he then shut. Their muffled voices stayed low enough to hide whatever they said, but I could tell that Nick did most of the talking. When he came back in, he was clearly rattled.
“We have maybe twenty-four hours.”
“What does that mean?” I had almost stopped shivering, but now it came back.
“It means we have to get us both the hell out of here to a safe place! On top of that we need to figure out a way to either change the will—YOUR will, if you have one! I keep forgetting your uncle is already gone.”
“I don’t have any place to go! My folks are too far away, and honestly I don’t have any money to get there anyway.”
“I have some savings, but leaving the property alive is a bigger problem to solve. I don’t think Walter is about to let us out of his sight.”
“Maybe I could have the lawyer come here?” I was grasping at straws.
“It’s Sunday morning, Tina.”
So there we were, just the two of us, late at night, soft, lamplight, sitting side by side on Nick’s uncomfortable, high-backed leather couch. I’m sitting there with a splitting headache from being poisoned. Next to me, an absolutely gorgeous man who just attempted my murder by poison sits, his face stony and unreadable. He can’t decide if he loves me. I can’t decide if he will try to kill me or kiss me. And we both have just twenty-four hours left to live.
At that point, I did what any normal woman would do. I began to cry. Which made my head feel even worse. From the look on Nick’s face, it made him feel worse too but I couldn’t help it. I knew he had no desire for this mess to happen. I looked at him and I knew then, he really did love me.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I shook my head, yes, and it hurt so much I cried louder. Which made us both laugh at the total absurdity of the situation. Which made my head hurt even worse. I started to lay it on his shoulder and he slipped an arm behind me. Then he leaned over and we were kissing. Tender, gentle, long and sweet. It completely disarmed me. For the moment, I was safe in his arms.
When he was done, he released me.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I laid eyes on you.”
We fell asleep there, holding each other. The sun woke us up, way too early. Nick put coffee on and decided he would walk over to the house to get some pancake mix. I told him that sounded chancy, but he insisted nothing could happen this early, that Walter wouldn’t be up yet. And he was half right. Walter wasn’t up, but there was a bee in the wet grass.
After ten minutes I got off the couch. He should have been back. I looked out the window and he was laying on his back, barefoot, not moving. Next to him on the lawn was a splash of white—he had dropped the bag of pancake mix and it had exploded all over the lawn. Of course, I freaked out. I would have run but even walking made my head throb. The Sunday morning sun was shining, the grass was wet with dew, birds were singing, and Nick was laying on the lawn dying. I could feel it. When I got there, he was gasping for air and his face was so puffy I could barely tell it was him.
“Bee. Kit” he gasped.
I ran, pain and all, to the kitchen. But I couldn’t find anything that looked like a ‘kit’. I ran back to him.
“I can’t find it! Is there one in the carriage house?”
He nodded. “Door,” he gasped.
I ran to the door that led up the stairs to his apartment. Nothing. I checked the door to the downstairs, the barn. There, on a rickety wooden shelf was a red metal box with a Red Cross on it. I yanked it open and found Band Aides and some kind of ointment. Benadryl or an epi-pen might help, but there was nothing of the kind!
I was frantic by now and my head hurt so bad I could hardly see. I looked around a little, but there was nothing that looked remotely like first aide except for that one box. I checked it again—nothing that would help. By the time I got back to him on the lawn, his eyes were both swelled shut and he was gasping like he’d just finished a twenty yard dash. Well, more like I would sound after one.
“Nick! I can’t find anything! I’m…”
He seemed to go limp then and I almost screamed. But I realized Walter would hear and probably keep us both here until Nick died. Damn him!
The kitchen screen door slammed open. It was Walter!
He came running over to the two of us and sent me sprawling, out of his way. He stabbed Nick in the leg with some kind of hypodermic needle.
“What are you doing!” I screamed and pushed him backward away from Nick.
He fell on his back into the pancake mix.
“Do you want him to die?!” Walter was livid. “He’s gone into anaphylactic shock. That’s an epi-pen. It’s probably the only thing that can save his life!”
I was speechless.
Walter swore and stood up. As he tried to brush dew-dampened pancake mix off his hair-covered chest and back, we both suddenly realized he was dressed pajama bottoms, very thin, very worn out pajama bottoms. He grabbed the waistband just as it slipped, and red-faced, marched back into the house.
Nick groaned and I forgot everything but him. But I had no idea what to do now. The man—the men?—who were trying to murder me were either saving my life or saving each other’s and I was… what?! I had no idea what to do or feel. My head still throbbed, the pancake mix was all over the lawn (so we weren’t doing that!) and Nick, I decided, needed to be inside. I leaned over him. His face was still so puffy I could barely recognize him.
“Can you walk? We need to get you inside.”
He groaned again and tried to roll over to his knees. Too weak for that, he flopped back onto his back and managed only to straighten out his legs. He mumbled something about the pancakes, I think—his swollen lips and throat made it hard to understand him. He realized that and felt around for my hand, found it, and held on tight with his.
The Sunday morning sun was shining, the grass was wet with dew, birds were singing. And Nick was not dying. Not this morning, at least. I shifted around and put his head in my lap and there we sat. I could almost smiled.
It was close to an hour before he was strong enough to get up, with help. We stumbled up the stairs almost falling backwards only once (my big fear!) and got him to bed.
I headed to the tiny kitchen to see what there might be for breakfast, but there was another knock at the door. I froze with fear. There was no peep, nowhere to run or hide; I had to open it. I took a deep breath and turned the knob. It was Sadie. She handed me a coffee cake so hot it almost burned my hands through the towel that swaddled the pan. She couldn’t meet my eye.
“I’ll be back in a minute with some scrambled eggs,” she almost whispered. Again, I didn’t know what to say. I nodded and she turned and started down the stairs. I watched her walk across the lawn, skirting the flour on the grass and disappear into the kitchen.
Nick came out of the bedroom. He’d managed to get out of the wet jeans and tee shirt into some gym shorts. His chest was almost as hairy as Walter’s.
“Who was that?”
“Sadie,” I said, setting the coffee cake down on the stove top.
“O-o-o-o her famous coffee cake!” he said. “And still hot! Cut me a piece!”
I stared at him. “Are you sure it’s not poison?”
He laughed. “They don’t want me dead! And besides I doubt Sadie would let even Walter mess with her coffee cake!”
I was doubtful, but he insisted. By then, Sadie was back with the eggs. Nick answered the door and she hugged him. I couldn’t hear what she said, but he obviously wasn’t afraid or angry. He kissed her on the forehead and she looked as if she was going to cry.
She left, he swung the door shut with one foot, and presented me with a serving platter heaped with probably a dozen scrambled eggs.
“Hot sauce is in the fridge. I’ll get the forks.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I am. Make some coffee. Or,” he looked at me and smiled a very puffy smile, “or if you want, I will.” He put his arms around me and the eggs. “Trust me! They’re not going to try anything again soon. They’re not stupid.”
“I'm not so sure.”
“I am. I know their secrets and I have them stored where the police can get them and they can’t. This isn’t their first attempted murder.”
“Your uncle didn’t have a heart condition. That’s the story Walter told me to tell you. He was dosed with belladonna and fell asleep. He never woke up.”
“How do you know this? Who did it? And why are you telling me this? How am I supposed to trust you?!”
“All I know is that I didn’t dose him and when I found out, I didn’t agree to it being done, either. But I couldn’t stop it.”
“Yes you could have! Of course you could have!
“It’s not that simple.”
“How simple is it to pick up the telephone?!”
That made Nick angry. He stood up and wobbled to the door. “I don’t need this.”
“Where are you going?”
“Someplace else. You can stay here as long as you like. Or dare.”
“Don’t leave me here alone! What if Walter comes…?”
“‘Pick up the phone.’ It’s that simple, remember?” He yanked the door open and slammed it behind him.
Seconds later I heard him stumble on the stairs.
By the time I got out the door and to the top of the stairs he was laying in a heap at the bottom, not moving. I raced down, jumped over him and picked up his head. His lip was split and bleeding, but he jerked away from me.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, and tried to get up. I grabbed one arm to help him and he groaned.
“I'm sorry,” I said. “My head still hurts and I just found out my uncle was murdered and now you…”
“…and now you’re leaving me. I don’t want you to go.” I hated to have to admit that! “I don’t feel safe here. Where are you going anyway?”
“I’m going to the drug store, to buy another epi-pen. There should have been at least one in that box. I usually keep two or three.” He paused. “I can’t afford another episode like that.”
“Take me with you then!”
“Where are you two going?”
We both jumped. Walter was standing just outside the door. For how long, I didn’t know. But he was looking so innocent I wanted to shoot him.
“Epi-pens,” Nick said, as I helped him stand up.
“Well, here.” Walter held out his hand, with three epi-pens in it. “I was going to replenish the box in the barn before you got back. I used one and the other went out of date while you were gone.”
Nick just stared at Walter’s hand, not speaking or moving.
After a moment, he lowered his hand. “Or I can put them in the box for you. You probably need to finish that coffee cake and take a nap.” He smiled at Nick, but Nick just looked away.
“I’ll leave you two alone for now. Oh, and Tina! That coffee cake?” Walter was looking at me, smiling now. “It’s famous all over campus and the village,” he said. “Full of wild blueberries we picked last fall! Mmm-mm. And those eggs are duck eggs—way better than hen’s.” He took a few steps, and then turned around again. “Hope we see you at lunch, Tina. That is, if he’s ready to be left alone. Anaphylactic shock is nothing to sneeze at. It can be deadly!” He turned again to leave. “See you at lunch,” he said over his shoulder.
The hell you will! I muttered under my breath.
Nick looked over at me. “He means it.”
“I don’t care what he means! I eat where I want to. And what I want to! And when!” I wanted to spit I was so mad! “Duck eggs!”
“They are pretty good,” Nick said. “And see? I’m still alive!”
“I’m not convinced,” I said. “I know there’s slow poison as well as fast.”
“True. But now that his hand is tipped, he’d be crazy to try anything again.”
“He murdered my uncle! And almost got me! He IS crazy!”
“You got me there,” Nick said. Then he smiled. “I have some peanut butter crackers, still in the wrapper. How’s that for a safe breakfast?”
* * *
Nick feasted on coffee cake and eggs, extra hot sauce while I munched on stale peanut butter crackers and sipped black coffee. Even so, by the time the meal was over, my heart was singing. This man… I kept trying to find things wrong with him, and I was failing. He was kind, generous, courteous. He was good with money, kept his apartment fairly clean and made excellent coffee, even when I had to drink it black! It was hard not to… like! Like! Like! Him, I thought. Don’t you dare cross that line, Tina! It’s way too soon!
Nick finished most of the eggs himself. The rest I put in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator, at his directions.
“Nap time,” he said. His eyes sparkled, said much more than just a nap for him. My own feelings were way ahead of a nap, too. He walked to me and put his strong arms around me, gently, not forcing contact. I leaned in.
“I really do need to sleep,” he said. “Between the bee sting and the belly full of food, I’m really drowsy.” He looked down at me. I looked up at him. “I’d be honored to have you join me.”
I hesitated and he got a very severe look on his face. “No hanky panky, young lady! I’m a sick man!”
We actually did sleep, after we talked a little. A few questions and answers about his past, his family, and mine. And a little of what good he thought the garden could do for the University, instead of it being just a ‘private flower patch’ as he put it. I wasn’t so quick to fall asleep and just watching him relax and drift off was…very nice. I woke up before him, about an hour later. It was ten thirty, church bells were ringing in town and the sun from the window was shining on me, making me sweat.
We had laid on his bed, on the bedspread, his arm for my pillow. Now, the back of my blouse was wet with sweat and my mouth tasted like peanut butter and it felt like it was full of cotton. He had somehow extricated his arm and I was looking at his broad back, also sweaty like mine. I watched him breathe. How long had it been since I’d awakened like this? I didn’t even want to think about it. But it felt very natural, very good. Very right! I put a hand in his bicep, couldn’t resist the temptation. Oh yeah, he could take care of himself and me too with that.
Through the open window, I heard the kitchen screen door slam, and Sadie calling.
“Walter, where are you going? Leave them alone!”
I began to shiver, and Nick stirred.
“Walter! Leave them alone!” Sadie shouted again. I didn’t hear any answer. I was ready to lock the door when Nick started and whirled around, wide awake.
“Who was that?”
As he finished waking up, and realized who was beside him on the bed, he smiled.
“Well, Hi,” he smiled.
“Hi,” I said.
“I did. The sun woke me up: it got too hot.”
There was a knock at the door and Walter’s voice calling for Nick. I jumped but Nick smiled.
“Not to worry. I’ll take care of him.” I remembered his biceps and smiled. There was a manly pride in his step on the way out of the bedroom. I liked that. As before, the door opened but the two of them stepped outside with the door shut. From here, I could hear nothing.
When he came back to the bedroom, his smile was forced. “All taken care of.”
I didn’t say anything, and he motioned me to cuddle like we had before.
“You look worried,” I said, not moving.
“It’s nothing. Come cuddle.”
I still didn’t move. Finally he sighed.
“He wants me to persuade you to keep the garden together, here at the house. I already told him you wanted to get rid of the poison plants…”
“I told him that myself, before you got back!”
“Well he says he’s sorry about all the trouble the two of us have had the last couple of days, but he really thinks we have no choice but to keep the garden for ourselves and not give any of it to the university.”
“He apologized?! For what?? Is that him admitting he tried to kill me and not you?” I wasn’t in a cuddling mood now. “What kind of idiot does he take me for? Why would I ever trust him again, ever, for anything?”
“Hold it, Miss Hothead! He didn’t admit anything. He was just trying to be nice…”
“That’s being nice?”
“I know him better than you. He’s not the most articulate guy. He meant he wasn’t happy about the both of us being…”
“What? Half dead thanks to him?! Well, gee thanks!”
“He’s not the villain you’re making him out to be, Tina. He knows the money troubles with the house, and he thinks that what he’s doing is the only possible way to fix things. You realize, if you lose the house, he and Sadie also lose their jobs. And considering how long they’ve been here, they’re pretty much losing their lives. The way he sees it, it’s his back that’s against the wall and nobody is doing anything significant about it.”
“You don’t kill somebody to keep a job! Especially when it’s me!”
Nick sighed again. “You don’t get it. It’s not a job to him. It’s not even a way of life. It IS his life. This garden is his life’s work. Hell, at this point, it’s his whole life! What else has he got?!”
“From what you’ve told me, what he has is a flower garden full of poison flowers because that’s all he ever wanted. He and his wife obviously don’t get along and he drove his daughter to kill herself. And if he didn’t kill my uncle, who did? Am I supposed to blame Sadie?!
Nick looked away.
“Oh my god! Nick, what are you saying? Nick?!”
“There are things…”
I got off the bed and walked out to the living area. Nick followed and came over to put his arms around me. Now, instead of a protective comfort they seemed like bondage or imprisonment.
“No!” I pushed him away and turned my back. “You know too much and tell me too little. I don’t trust you anymore.”
“Tina! There are a lot of things I know that you don’t need to know. Walter, Sadie, your uncle—we’ve spent years together and you’re the new-comer. How am I supposed to tell you everything that ever happened between us?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Well it sure as hell sounds like it! And what about you? What do I know about you and your secrets? You want some kind of ‘full disclosure’ from me when all I know about you is your family’s name and what state they live in? How do I know YOU aren’t some mass murderer?”
I whirled around. “I am not the one who admitted he tried to poison me! Or that I stood by and let someone else murder someone. Or two!”
“Fine.” He strode back into the bedroom and pulled on a tee shirt and jeans. “Since I’m such a villain, I’ll just leave you alone! That way, at least you won’t have to worry about ME trying to poison you!”
“Fine!” I shouted as he headed for the downstairs door.
He hesitated at the door. Then he growled, “Good luck, hero!” , and slammed the door.
“THAT’S HEROINE! And you’re welcome!” I shouted after him. “Or whatever,” I said softly.
I heard his car start and from the living room window I watched the tires spray gravel as he gunned it around the circular drive in front of the carriage house and out the driveway. Then I sat down and cried.
I was angry. And I was scared. I was afraid I was living in a household full of murderers. One probably murdered my uncle, one possibly killed her daughter and one of the three tried to poison me. I couldn’t even tell which one did that! And worse than that, I was falling in love with the one who sat out my uncle’s death, who sat next to me as I was dying and then changed his mind and saved me. I was scared and I had no idea what to do next.
There was another knock on the door. Again I froze. Would this never end? Not like that, in death! But… this one-thing-after-another fright?
It was Sadie.
“I brought you some tea.”
She stood there, two cups and a teapot in hand, looking for all the world like a whipped puppy. When I didn’t respond—what in the world was I supposed to do?!—she straightened her back and with some fire in her voice said, “It’s hot, I need to set it down!”
“I’m not hungry. Thirsty, I mean.”
“Nonsense! You’re dying for something to drink.” As soon as she said it, I realized she was right. And whatever it was the tea was made of, it smelled delicious. “And it goes with the coffee cake,” she added.
I realized it was almost lunch time and I was almost as hungry as I was thirsty. When I hesitated again, she looked up into my face. Did I mention that Sadie is barely four foot ten, if I guess correctly.
“I know what that stuff does to you,” she said, and pushed past me to set the teapot down on the table in front of the couch. “All to well, I know! And I know you don’t want to trust me, but just do it. I’m drinking and eating right along with you.”
I was still standing at the door. Was this real? Do people really try to kill you and then bring you tea and sympathy? My mind could not compute this.
“I’m not the one you need to worry about anyway. That professor friend of yours is the one. He’s the sneaky, two-faced one.” She returned from the kitchen with the coffee cake, a piece each on paper towels. “No doubt he’s sweet talked you into trusting him, but believe me, you do? You’ll be sorry!”
She put her hands on her hips.
“Well don’t just stand there! Come! Sit down and eat! You need it after all you’ve been through!”
I sat down. We talked. I heard more about Nick and Walter and my uncle from Sadie in that half hour than I been able to find out or figure out in the two-going-on-three weeks that I had been there.
According to Sadie, My uncle was a dreamer, or so Walter believed. He was always coming up with “good ideas” but he never had a way to pay for them. That’s why the taxes weren’t paid. But he was a loyal and generous friend to Sadie and Walter. That’s why they were still here, and still got paid.
Nick, on the other hand, was always scheming, always charming, always looking out for himself. He was always on the most powerful committees at the university and was friends with all the right people. He made sure he got to go on the summer faculty trips and give the most popular lectures. And he was good with saving money, but not the greatest at making it.
Walter, on the other hand, had no property, no connections, no degree. But he knew how to turn stuff into money. Without him, the other two would have been living on the street, or on someone’s couch. It was Walter who figured out that the garden—and especially the poisons from the garden—were the key to making enough to support all four of them. Five, counting you, she added, looking at me with a smile.
Then something went wrong, Sadie said. She wasn’t sure what, but Walter and Nick began to be distant and then argue. When the professor went off on his summer trip in June, things came to a head here at the garden.
“Part of it was the taxes. Walter found out that they hadn’t been paid so that we could be paid,” Sadie said. Walter and she weree ashamed of that, but what was the alternative? “Walter was furious, of course! He’s not one to own anybody anything! And this just felt to him like the unpaid taxes were our fault!”
“And then…” Sadie began to choke. “… and then, Shelly.”
“I’m so sorry!”
“No! I need to talk about it. But it hurts so much…” She waited a moment to gather herself. “She met a boy. No, a man. A very good young man! Walter hated him immediately and I thought he was the best thing in the world for her. She needed to get out more. But for Walter, he might as well have been the Devil himself.
“So, what happened?” I was ready to hear another version of the same story both Walter and Nick had told. Maybe this time it would be the truth.
“They fell in love! It was so sweet to watch. He would bring her flowers or a gift, and she would laugh and smile! He would take her for coffee or maybe ice cream. Once, they dressed up and he took her out to one of the nicest restaurants in the village! He even rented a new car to drive there. It was so romantic. He wanted to marry her, I’m sure. And then…” Again she choked.
“What?!” I was getting wrapped up in the story.
“Then he just disappeared!”
“Yes. He just stopped coming around, stopped calling. Nothing. Shelly was heartbroken. There was no explanation.”
I began to shiver. I could think of an explanation and I didn’t want to begin thinking about it.
“What about Walter? Was he ok with this?”
“He didn’t seem to care. He made some comment about the boy being nothing but trouble anyway and went on as if he had never existed.”
“Or was dead!” That slipped out before I could stop myself.
Sadie stared at me for a second then laughed. “No! Not like that. People still saw him, other people. Walter said he saw him at the hardware store a week after all the calls stopped. Said he had a talk with him and told him how much he had hurt Shelly. Walter said he didn’t seem to care, didn’t have anything to say for himself. Not even an apology for his behavior.”
“So did he continue classes? Didn’t Shelly try to see him again?”
“Walter doesn’t like schooling, so Shelly didn’t go to college. I thought Nick had the boy for a few classes but he never mentioned him after that. I thought he was just being polite to us.”
My shivering increased. Why did I think the ‘boy’ was dead?! I didn’t dare say that out loud though. What I said was different.
“I’m so sorry to hear all this. And then…she…”
“Yes.” There was a long pause, and then Sadie shook her head, as if to make something stop buzzing around her. “Yes, and then she… died. She used to sleep in the room you’re in now.” Another pause. “She loved to look out the windows at the garden…”
Sadie abruptly stood up, grabbed the teapot and her cup. I hadn’t finished my tea or she would have snatched my cup as well.
“I need to go. Bring your cup and the coffee cake pan when you come in.” And without another word, she walked out.
I sat on Nick’s uncomfortable leather couch until the sun was almost down. Sadie’s cup of tea was cold and the coffee cake had begun to dry out but my mind just kept going over and over the things I had heard. And even more the things I had not heard. Where was this boyfriend? Why had Sadie just… left when she got to the part about Shelly’s death? And where was Nick?
I didn’t go in for lunch and nobody came to the door looking for me. I was happy for that, at least! I picked at the coffee cake—apparently it wasn’t poison. Finally, I had to pee so bad I had to get off the couch. Real life. While I was in the bathroom, I heard the stair door open. I considered a bathroom window escape but then remembered I was on the second floor. Then I heard Nick’s voice calling my name.
I hate talking to anyone through the bathroom door. I finished and flushed and washed my hands. He was kind enough not to try the doorknob.
“There you are.” He was cautious, but his eyes said he wanted to make up.
“I’m still here.” Again, I was at a loss for words.
Nick smiled. “Good.” He hesitated, then, “I’m sorry I stormed out like that. I was angry. I… I didn’t know what else to do to convince you…” He let the sentence die and I did too.
After a long quiet minute, I said, “Sadie came over with tea. We talked.”
“Oh yeah?” he said brightly.
“Not ‘yeah’. It just raised more questions and didn’t’ answer any of the old ones.”
“Oh.” His face fell.
“You… need to answer me some questions or I need to just walk out of here and hitchhike back to Iowa.”
Nick put his head back and laughed out loud. “I can see you, suitcase by your side, standing by the onramp to the Interstate, thumb out with a pitiful look on your face!”
I turned to leave and he jumped to grab my arm.
“I’m sorry! This hasn’t been the easiest day in my life, either. And I wouldn’t stay in that bedroom in the house tonight, if I were you. Not tonight, and maybe not ever again.”
“I should what? Stay here in your bed?”
“That’s not what I meant. Besides, I’m not the enemy!”
“I’m not so sure about that, Mr. Get Ahead for Himself.”
“Ah. Sadie did talk to you. Well let’s talk about that. Yes! That’s me. I'm not willing to die poor and feeling sorry for myself for not making the connections and taking the chances that getting ahead requires. Walter doesn’t dare. Your uncle didn’t care. I do! I want to be somebody, somebody recognized, someone important in my profession! And I want to make some money doing it! Is that the ‘wicked’ part of me? Is that what Sadie told you?”
He was intense, passionate. But not angry. And not evil, not now. I admired him for his drive, even, but it still didn’t answer the questions about how my uncle, how Shelly, and now how her boyfriend died.
“You haven’t answered my questions about you and about…”
“Let’s go for a walk, in the poison garden. I want to show you what we’re actually talking about, when I say, ‘give the poison garden to the University.” He saw the doubt on my face and held up two fingers. “Scout’s honor! No foul play.”
There was a breeze and the sun was almost down. The garden smelled delicious, and the night bloomers were just opening. And the majority of the bees were safely at their hives. He took me to a part of the garden I don’t think I had visited before. It was about as far away from the house as you could get, although as I looked up, my bedroom windows were facing directly this way.
There was a very innocent white picket fence around this part with a gate. The sign on the gate warned that the plants inside could be hazardous to health and to not go in unless well-schooled in the dangers. That made me hesitate.
“Just don’t eat anything!” Nick said. “Actually, try not to touch them, too. Most of the ones near the path are not that bad, though.”
Until then, I hadn’t realized it was that easy to poison yourself, and I told him so. He laughed.
“It’s really not that easy! Don’t eat anything and don’t lick your fingers. Avoid those two and you are pretty much safe.”
He showed me the monkshood. “Wolfbane, they called it in older times. It doesn’t kill you outright. It just paralyzes your nerves, lowers your blood pressure and eventually slows your heart rate to zero. The Nazi’s used it to poison bullets.”
“Is that what my uncle was dosing himself with?” I asked.
Honestly, I don’t know what was going on with that. I doubt it, though. More likely Deadly Nightshade.”
“That sounds worse!”
Nick laughed again. “I’ll show it to you. You’ll probably recognize it.”
And I did! “It smells so bad!” I wrinkled my nose.
“Exactly. Most poison plants do.”
Then he showed me the clump of poison hemlock—the same stuff that Socrates drank in 399 B.C.
“You’re allowed to grow this?!”
“Yes. Again, unless you eat it, it doesn’t jump out and kill you.’
I noticed some white, trumpet-shaped flowers that seemed to be closing as the sun sank.
“Datura,” said Nick. “Death angel is its nickname. Again, unless you really try, it won’t kill you. But on the way there you will have hallucinations, maybe seizures. Oh, and your body might forget how to automatically breath.”
“And my uncle wanted these plants around?”
“Yes. Oddly enough, some of the compounds are worth looking into for the medical good they can do. But until the university owns the garden…” Nick stopped and stared.
“Do you see that?” he asked. He pointed and I looked.
The hair stood up on my arms.
It was her, the ghost.
I was both scared to death and elated. Finally someone other than me saw what I saw. On the other hand, I was standing in the middle of a poison plant garden and she was walking toward us. I grabbed Nick’s arm.
“What do we do?”
“We wait. See what she does first.” He seemed more excited than scared. “This might answer some questions of yours, and of mine, too.”
The ghost wasn’t moving very fast, but it seemed like she covered a lot of ground in a short time. Maybe thirty seconds later, she was standing outside the picket fence, one hand on the gate. I watched blood begin to run down the inside of the gate where her hand touched it, and almost gagged. This couldn’t be just a hallucination.
She was staring at Nick, silent, holding out the other hand to him. Nick reached a hand out to her and she smiled. I was ready to run far, far away, but he took a step closer to her! So I just held on.
Nick took another step toward her and she hesitated.
“Do you know who she is?” I asked.
“Sure. It’s Shelly.”
I almost threw up.
“She’s trying to tell us what happened.”
“Can you hear her? She didn’t speak to me.”
“Not exactly hear, but I get it, what she’s saying.” He paused. “She didn’t commit suicide.” Then he was quiet for a long moment. I kept looking between her and Nick’s face. She got very sad; then he did. Then he got very angry and pulled away from me.
“I’ll explain later.”
She whirled around then, as if someone was coming. When she turned back, there was blood on her face again, that wasn’t there before. The knife was also in her hand again and she kept looking back over her shoulder.
“We need to get out of here,” Nick said. He was angry but there was something else, mixed in with the anger
I looked back at Shelly, but she was gone.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We got out the poison garden gate—there was no blood on it now—and started on the path out of the garden. I think I forgot to mention that the whole garden has a perimeter hedge around it. The hedge is only three feet high along the driveway, but it’s seven feet, almost eight feet high elsewhere. In the hedge there is a chain link fence hidden, to make sure no curious children or animals stray in. inside the garden, there are several other hedges and multiple paths. That said, there are only three gates in or out of the perimeter. Mostly we use the one gate closest to the house, a kind of an iron gatehouse with benches and low voltage lighting. But there is another gate—simple and sturdy—on the carriage house side. It’s a work gate, to get weeds and fertilizer and such in and out of the garden. I was told there was another gate, but I hadn’t found it.
The daylight had become twilight and fireflies began to flicker. We were headed away from the house and the carriage house. Nick was in a hurry. His long legs had me almost at a trot trying to keep up. The more we hurried, the more afraid I became. It occurred to me that the chain link fence inside the hedge also meant there was no way to just ‘crash’ out of the garden. The only way out was through the gates and both Nick and Walter knew that. I tried to put the fear away and keep up. I was out of breath and my side began to hurt.
“We’re almost there,” Nick assured me. “It’s just around here…”
We turned one last corner and headed toward the perimeter hedge. Nick stopped short and I almost ran into him. Walter was casually leaning back on the inside of the gate, arms crossed.
“Where are you two going in such a hurry?”
“You and I need to talk” Nick growled.
“Oh?” Walter didn’t seem to be impressed.
“Yes. You and Sadie both.”
“Oh?!” That got Walter’s attention, but he didn’t uncross his arms and he wasn’t moving out of the way.
“We need to talk about the details of how Shelly died. And her uncle too.”
At that, Walter stood up and uncrossed his arms.
“You already know how they died. What do you mean?”
“I know how you told me they died. I’ve got some damn good reasons to believe you lied to me. You and Sadie both, I think. How about we go back to the house and the four of us have a talk?”
“No!” I had no desire to go back. Especially now that Nick had seen what I did and was angry about it!
“Yes,” he said. He slid an arm around my waist. “You didn’t hear what she said, did you?”
“No, but you said...”
“That was before this.” He pulled me a little closer. “She told me,” he said very quietly.
“Well if we’re going, let’s go. It’s getting late,” Walter said. He didn’t look happy.
I walked as slowly as I could. Nick took my hand finally, and squeezed it. “It’ll be ok. I’ll take care of you. Besides, there are more of us than of them.” I didn’t know what he meant until I looked behind us. Shelly was following us about six feet behind, smiling, her knife at the ready. I jumped and Nick smiled at me. Then he leaned over and kissed my cheek.
We reached the house as twilight settled over the garden. The night-blooming flowers were opening, their scent heavy in the humid air. The fireflies were twinkling and in the indigo sky above, the evening star was just beginning to show. The house was dark as we approached but the back porch light was on. We walked around to the kitchen door and up the steps. As we did, the porch light illuminated a ghostly shape on the lawn—the remaining pancake flour. I looked behind us one again. I didn’t see anyone now.
As we walked up the steps the kitchen light came on and Sadie opened the door.
“What on earth…?”
“Put some water on for tea,” Walter said.
“No thanks,” I said immediately. No way would I dare drink or eat anything in the house now.
“I’ll take some of that lemon balm tea if you still have it?” Nick smiled at Sadie. She returned the smile, uncertainly, and nodded.
“With honey?” she asked?
We sat around the kitchen table each opposite their mate. The overhead light Sadie had switched on was hard on our eyes but there were more important things to think about. I looked around for Shelly. I could feel her but she was nowhere I could see. Nick was just as at ease as could be. Maybe he felt her presence as well?
“So what do we need to talk about?” Walter was direct. Sadie stiffened.
“For starters, tell us again, Tina and I, how her uncle died.”
“Like I said before, he had a heart condition that he treated himself with herbs from the garden. He apparently got the dose wrong and he died of heart failure. That’s what the doctor said.”
“Who was the doctor,” I asked.
“A friend of ours, an expert in Homeopathy. We figured she would know best what went wrong because she uses herbs all the time.”
“That’s not a doctor!” I almost shouted. “I mean, who pronounced him dead? What hospital did you take him to? Where’s the death certificate?”
By the look on his face, Walter bit his tongue and counted to ten. When he spoke he was back in control. “There was no need for a hospital. His body was cold when we found him. As for a death certificate, there wasn’t one. Your uncle’s lawyer…”
“Bullshit!” Nick said quietly. “It’s a legal requirement for every death in this state to be certified by the authorities. That lawyer can’t execute the will without one.”
“Well… I don’t know,” Walter replied. “He didn’t ask me for one. But then, I’m no lawyer, so I wouldn’t know anyway. Maybe we can get one.”
Nick snorted. “What about your daughter? Do you have a death certificate for her?”
Sadie made a noise, almost a yelp.
“Same thing,” Walter said. “Her suicide was an herbal poisoning. We figured we should do the same thing we did for your uncle.”
“You mean, keep the legitimate doctors and the law out of it?” Nick was getting angry.
“They have no business in a person’s private life!”
“They are the LAW! And they protect innocent people from…”
“They interfere with law-abiding families!” Walter shouted.
“They uncover murders, too!” Nick shouted back.
Walter jumped up from his seat. “This conversation is over! You and your “girlfriend” are welcome to stay the night and in the morning you will leave this place and never come back!’
My mouth fell open.
Nick let out a harsh laugh.
“You don’t own the place.”
“I will if she dies.”
“Over my dead body!” Now Nick was standing, shouting back.
Without either of us noticing, Sadie had left the room. She returned now, shaking a mason jar that buzzed with a dozen angry bees.
“Don’t make me open this, Nick. I love you, young man, but this has to stop now. No more questions. No more prying into our private lives. You and the girl, just… just get in your car and leave.” Sadie glanced at Walter, who nodded. She was white as a sheet.
“You know Shelly’s here?” Nick said quietly. He too was pale.
“Shut up!” Walter was livid now.
“She is!” I piped up. “Aren’t you, Shelly?”
There was no verbal answer, no flickering lights, no rattling chains. But Sadie almost collapsed. Walter swore. And the jar of bees fell to the floor and shattered.
The bees flew all over the room, some heading for the light bulbs overhead, others flying aimlessly around the walls, as if looking for a way out. I screamed, Nick quickly sat and held very still. Eventually most of the bees were buzzing in circles around the overhead light bulbs, confused. Even so, every now and then, one would fly off in another direction, swooping low before rising up to the light. Every time one swooped I yelped. Sadie collapsed into her chair, sobbing.
“I’m sorry, Shelly! I’m so sorry! It’s all my fault, Shelly! I’m sorry!”
“Shut up, woman!” Walter yelled at her. Then he turned to me and an evil grin split his face. “YOU are allergic to bee stings too, aren’t you, Tina?”
As he was saying that, he picked up the plastic ‘honey bear’ full of honey that sat in the middle of the table. Before I realized what he was doing he squeezed it onto my arm. Then, he reached up near the light and swatted a bee right at me.
The bee landed right in the honey and started to struggle. I screamed again and tried to brush it out of the sticky mess. I felt the prick in my hand and screamed a third time. Nick lunged at Walter over the table but Walter stepped back out of reach.
By now, Sadie was hysterical, crying and shouting at Walter to stop.
Then everyone became silent as a bee landed on Nick’s forearm. It struggled in the hair on his forearm, walking around in it, trying to get free. When it got untangled, it launched itself back at the overhead light.
Walter began to laugh, maniacally. “It doesn’t matter now, Nick! She already got stung! Good bye, missy!”
“So it was you!” I said. “You poisoned my uncle!”
“Yes I did. And if it weren’t for your professor friend here, I wouldn’t have had to do it! But no! He has to get rich and famous! But the night isn’t over yet, Nick! You still have time to die too.”
“What did you do to Shelly?” As Nick said that, his face went completely white and he stared over Walter’s shoulder. “Or would you rather she told us herself?”
The room was suddenly freezing cold. The bees slowed their buzzing and glided for the door to the dining room. Sadie looked over, choked and pointed, too petrified to even scream. Walter whirled around.
Shelly stood there, bloodier than ever, knife up-raised, no smile.
“No! I didn’t hurt you! That was your mother!”
Shelly shook her head.
“No! He… He deserved it! What he did to you…”
Shelly lunged at him. The ghostly knife came down and seemed to pierce Walter’s shirt where his heart was. Walter collapsed, knocking his chair over. There was no hole, no blood, but from the way he fell, I was pretty sure he was not going to get up again.
Shelly turned to Sadie.
“I was wrong. So wrong! I’m sorry. I should have believed you, shouldn’t have forced you to lose the baby. I… I could have a grandchild and you now!”
At that, the ghost lowered the knife. For a moment she smiled a sad smile. And then, she dissolved.
The room began to warm up and one of the bees came buzzing back into the room.
Nick stood up.
“We’ll be back in the morning,” he said, as he took my hand and pulled me to the porch door. He looked down at Walter, then back at Sadie. “He’ll be fine there til morning. I’ll call the police then.” He added. “Probably a heart attack.”
A second bee started buzzing and bumping into the overhead light, and he yanked the door open and out we went.
* * *
We didn’t sleep much that night. The bee sting on my hand hurt and he wanted to talk. Well, that and some other things. Somewhere around three a.m. I think we both nodded off, wrapped in each other’s arms. Those arms! And that chest. Anyway, we woke up to a rainy day Monday morning. Nick called to cancel his appointments and we walked over to the house.
Walter was still there on the kitchen floor. Sadie had ‘arranged’ him and we called 911, said he looked like he had a heart attack overnight. They arrived in minutes but it was closer to lunch time by the time everyone left, police included. Sadie was a shell of her energetic self and we asked if she wanted to go out for breakfast. She thought about it, but decided she’d rather just stay here, lay down for a while. “I can make myself something if I get hungry.”
“You know you’re welcome to stay, Sadie,” I said. “Just… just so you know. You have a home here.”
She smiled and thanked me. Nick smiled. If possible, I think the Garden itself smiled. Life was good.
* * *
In case you were wondering, we did find out what happened to Shelly and her boyfriend, and my uncle. Between what Shelly told Nick in that non-verbal way and what Sadie was eventually willing to admit, all three were indeed murdered. Well, sort of. After arguing with Walter about the garden, my uncle probably did have a stress-induced heart attack. Walter gave Sadie herbs from the garden to ease the pain but it was too late. After a lot of thought and prayer, we asked the county coroner to do an autopsy. From what he could find, cause of death was likely a massive coronary event that went untreated. And knowing how stubbornness runs in our family, my uncle probably wouldn’t have gone to a doctor anyway. Still, not getting the death certificate the right was against the law.
As for the boyfriend, we still don’t have the full story. Walter knew for sure what happened to him, but of course he’s gone. The boy did not return to classes. His parents got an email that seemed to be from him that said he was going to hitchhike around the world to find himself and would be in touch. They never heard from him again. I understand that the land outside of the village that I inherited has some very out-of-the-way sections, but I don’t want to go digging around there. Maybe someone else can, some day. Maybe. Not me.
And Shelly. Poor Shelly. She was heart-broken when the boyfriend disappeared. She was worried because they had spent one night together and she was left wondering if that was why he left. She worried she was somehow ‘not good enough’ for him, although he had repeatedly assured her afterward that they would spend the rest of their lives together. Which, sadly, was almost true.
With him gone, she got depressed and gained weight. Walter and Sadie both began to think she was pregnant, although she assured them she wasn’t. And in fact there was no baby. Nick took her for a doctor visit, without her parents knowledge, to make sure. The test was negative. That was when Walter and Nick argued and stopped being so close.
Without the boyfriend, without a future as she saw it, Shelly lost her desire to live. She asked my uncle about poison herbs—she was researching what Juliet might have taken, she said—and he innocently told her. Sadie caught her in the garden with the herbs and questioned her. But in the end she let Shelly go. Now, of course, she blames herself for her daughter’s suicide.
So now you are up-to-date. Well, almost. After that night at the carriage house, Nick and I did more talking, more dating. Yes, I’m that old-fashioned, and he is too. He still lives in the carriage house and Sadie and I live in the house. She’s doing well, although she still misses Walter.
When spring came, we had transferred the plants from the poison garden to the university, in exchange for them paying the back taxes on our property and naming the garden on campus in honor of my uncle. They were more than willing to. Nick now has tenure and is in line for Department Head.
I say “our” property. It’s still all mine for now. The area where the poison plants were, surrounded with a white picket fence, is now a bridal space we rent out for weddings. We created a path and another gate to the street, for convenience. I think this is a great way to make some money off the garden without ruining it or giving it up. And if things go as planned, Nick and I will have a wedding there ourselves fairly soon.
About the author
Gordon DeLand was raised in a small country village in Central New York State. He spent six years in the US Navy traveling the world. Presently he lives in the Dallas Metroplex with two roommates, no cats and one lemon tree.