Possessions, by Christina Ortega Phillips
“…but it’s really hearts and souls you want to possess.
Except this gets tricky.
Hearts and souls have
a mind of their own
and they fight back…”
The box, in all actuality, was fairly light. There were a few shirts that had been worn so much they could have doubled as dust rags, old love letters that had been read and re-read so often that their contents, if not memorized, would have been unseeable, and lastly, there were handfuls of crushed flower petals that no longer smelled like roses. The heaviness of the box was not in its contents, but rather in Celeste’s mind. It was the last box of his things; once she carried this out to the curb, she would no longer have any physical reminders of him in the apartment. To her, it was heavy and difficult to carry outside.
She had just been about to pick it up for the umpteenth time that morning when her cell phone rang, singing to her about being a survivor. The ringtone was supposed to help motivate her. Instead, it irritated her, but she refused to change it since she had spent $2.99 on it.
Seeing that it was a phone number she did not recognize, she debated on answering the call. Looking at her feet and seeing the box she needed to throw out, she opted for the distraction of a conversation with a stranger instead.
“Hello?” Celeste answered wearily.
“Celeste? Is that you, dear?” the voice belonged to Mabel O’Malley, someone Celeste had tried to forget these past few months. Mabel, however, would not hear of it. She was convinced that talking to Celeste once in a while somehow kept her connected to her own deceased husband, even though they had both been there when he had moved on.
“Mabel,” Celeste said, trying not to let the irritation into her voice. “How are–how–” she stuttered. Asking a person who had recently lost someone how they were was just a stupid question. Celeste hated being asked it herself. Each time she was asked, she had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping, “How the hell do you think I am?” She was sure she had done some damage to her taste buds.
Recovering, she asked instead, “How can I help you today?”
Mabel chuckled. “Oh, Celeste, dear, you’re always so formal with me.”
It was part of her plan to keep the widow at arm’s length, but it clearly wasn’t working.
“Anyway, dear, I was wondering if you could stop by this afternoon for some tea?”
“Oh, Mrs. O’Malley, I–”
“Mabel,” the widow corrected sharply.
“–will see you at two o’clock, dear,” she said, again in that uncharacteristically sharp tone and promptly hung up.
Celeste looked from the box at her feet to the phone in her hand: a task she couldn’t complete and a task she didn’t want to do. Yet, these days, she struggled to think of things that she actually did want to do.
“Dammit,” she muttered.
Celeste reluctantly arrived at the widow’s home at 2:15. As she walked up to the porch, the widow was setting the tea tray on the small table between the wicker chairs.
“Celeste,” Mabel greeted her, smiling warmly. “You’re just in time. I was just about to pour the tea.”
Somehow afternoon tea became afternoon hot toddies, and as soon as they were about to begin their third round, an elderly woman arrived at Mabel’s house.
She was about Mabel’s age but with less gray hair. The bags under her eyes matched the darkness of her clothes, and the dragging of her feet made her look like she wanted to be there as much as Celeste did. It was those things and the tightness in her greeting that made Celeste realize why the widow had demanded rather than requested her presence and understand the widow’s generosity with the beverages. She had been set up. Dammit.
The widow coaxed Celeste with shepherd’s pie and more hot toddies to get her to stay and listen to her friend’s story: Gladys’ husband Morty had died a couple months ago and Gladys was convinced her deceased spouse was trying to contact her. Remembering how Celeste had helped her, Mabel insisted that Gladys meet Celeste so she could help her, too. It sounded simple enough to check out, but Celeste wasn’t so sure she was in the position to help anyone. The hot toddies made her say otherwise.
Pulling up to the quaint little home, Celeste immediately regretted not turning down the request for her help. The home looked picture-perfect: a one-story ranch style with those cute shutters that aren’t functional and a white picket fence with a trellis archway welcoming any guests. Celeste grimaced. The house felt like it was taunting her. If things had gone differently, maybe she would’ve eventually ended up in a home like this. Instead, she felt unworthy to enter. She shook her head, trying to dismiss the negativity that had just swept over her. Might as well get this over with, she muttered, dragging herself from the car.
She hesitated again before knocking on the red but chipping door. A memory came to her, and she heard her mother’s voice telling her that they could not paint their front door red. “Why not?” she had pouted. “Because,” her mother had explained, “if you have a red door, then they come.” “What? Who is ‘they’?” Her mother had shrugged and said it was something her own mother used to say. Celeste had forgotten about that superstition until just then. Out of the corner of her eye, she swore she saw the curtains move, but when she turned, nothing was there.
I should just turn around and go home, Celeste thought, looking at the house. Besides her and her own suddenly dark mood, there didn’t feel like there was anything wrong there. But then she pictured Mabel and the relief in her eyes when she had heard Harold’s last message and her friend Gladys’ hopeful look when Mabel insisted Celeste could do the same for her. “Dammit,” she muttered. She had to at least try.
Gladys answered the door after the first knock, almost as if she had been waiting for Celeste right there in the hallway. Maybe that’s what she had seen in the window?
“Celeste, dear,” she greeted her, opening the door, “come on in. Would you like some tea? Or I could put on some coffee?”
She turned to lead the way into the kitchen, still listing beverages. Celeste kept mumbling no, all the while looking around. The house felt cooler than the normal cliché of an elderly person’s warm house. Celeste glanced around, trying to take in everything, feel if anything was out of the normal. She thought she saw someone on the couch in the living room, but when she blinked, there was nothing. She chided herself for being antsy. She had been told there may be a spirit here and she had dealt with spirits before. Still, though, something felt different.
By the time they were in the kitchen, the widow was still chattering, but had gone on to list all of the snacks that she could offer Celeste.
“Mrs. Davis, I’m fine, really,” Celeste said firmly. “I’d rather just try to help you and be on my way, if you don’t mind. Now, remember what I asked you for? Do you have something that was special to Morty?”
The widow made a face, but quickly erased it and put on a smile instead. “How about I make us some coffee?”
Celeste frowned. For someone who said she had wanted to contact her husband, she sure did not seem to be in any hurry to do so.
The widow didn’t wait for a response but instead began preparing the coffee but the only thing she was able to do without interference was put a new filter in the machine. When she turned on the water to fill the pot, it spurted and at first refused to drip for her. When she tried to fill the filter with grounds, the cabinet doors refused to budge open. And when she hit the “brew” button, there was a short causing the kitchen lights to turn off.
Celeste watched it all intently. When the coffee finally began to brew, she asked, “Do things like that happen often?”
The widow, who had sat down, tired from fighting with her kitchen, merely nodded. Her eyes filled with tears and she could not elaborate.
Mabel had been right: the widow’s husband was trying to make contact with her, but he sure was making a nuisance of himself. Celeste hated to push, but she needed to find out why.
“Did Morty not like coffee?” She tried to keep her voice light, conversational.
“H-he loved it,” the widow struggled to push the words past the sobs she was holding in her throat. “I was the one who never liked the stuff.”
Celeste was confused. Maybe the widow had taken a liking to coffee in memory of her husband. If that were the case, why did he seem to have a problem with her drinking coffee? She didn’t have time to voice her thoughts as the coffee pot chose that moment to shatter, sending glass and coffee all over the counter and floor.
This time, Celeste swore out loud. “Is this really necessary?” she demanded. She had never lost her temper with a spirit before, but this really was out of hand. And seeing the widow bawling only made her more frustrated with the spirit. “You can show yourself and talk to me,” she continued. “Enough with the theatrics.”
In response, there was a loud crash from the living room where Celeste thought she had seen something earlier. Not sure if it was the spirit or not, Celeste jumped up, her hand going instinctively to the pocket where she often tucked her knife. Spirits may not usually be harmful, but people could be and she wasn’t sure which had made the noise.
“Mrs. Davis, is there anyone else here?”
The widow was too busy attempting to curl into a fetal position though the table was in her way. As a result, she sat slumped forward, sobbing and muttering apologies. No amount of shaking or yelling pulled her out of it.
The lights flickered again, as if telling Celeste the noise had been the spirit. She gritted her teeth. Talking to a spirit was nothing: she had been doing it since she was old enough to talk, but this one, this one was angry and she wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
“Mrs. Davis, maybe I should take you to Mrs. O’Malley’s house,” Celeste said, putting a hand on her shoulder to get her attention. “If this is your husband, he seems to be very angry.”
But she wouldn’t budge. Celeste thought she heard a muffled, “I know,” but couldn’t be sure. Celeste furrowed her brow, thinking about her next move. She could run away and leave the widow to deal with her angry husband. Celeste never liked getting involved in lovers’ spats anyway. And Mrs. O’Malley would probably definitely never speak to her again. She could try and talk to the spirit from the kitchen since he seemed to be in and out of the room. Besides some knives, there was probably less damage he could do in this room. Or she could go into the living room and face him head on, so to speak. In the end, she went to the living room and left the weeping widow in the kitchen.
But the spirit was no longer in the living room by the time she had made her mind up to go in there. Instead, there was a lamp lying on the floor, shining on what at first appeared to be a pile of strewn knickknacks and magazines. But when she crept closer, Celeste could see that the items were arranged to spell “go away.”
“Well, if that isn’t a sign for me to leave, I don’t know what is,” Celeste said aloud. And yet she still could not leave. Yes, it was angry and violent, but she could not leave the widow alone with it.
“Mr. Davis,” Celeste said, “I’m here to try and help you. Can we talk?”
In response, a book flew off of one of the bookshelves. If she hadn’t been so short, it probably would’ve knocked her in the head. Instead, it flew over her.
“Son of a b—!” Celeste swore. She took a deep breath and counted to ten. Responding to the spirit’s anger with more anger would not help this situation.
“Okay,” she called out, “I can’t make you talk, but I can make you listen.”
The lamp shorted out and flew at her, forcing her to duck quickly to the ground. Her blood and heart were pounding, but over it she could hear another loud crash from a distant corner of the house.
Don’t just sit here, go check on the widow, she told herself. Shaking slightly, she did what she told herself to do. Finding the widow in the same position, she continued to slowly walk to the source of the crash. Along the way, she kept talking to herself.
“You’re acting like the idiot in horror movies who runs up the stairs instead of out the door.”
The lights flickered in agreement.
“I can’t just abandon the widow, I have to try to talk to this spirit.”
Pictures hanging in the hallway shook and crashed down around her, causing her to jump a little.
“And how is talking to yourself and getting things thrown at you helping?”
Celeste sighed. She needed a way to tether the spirit so that she could actually talk to Mr. Davis instead of getting attacked. She had asked the widow for an object of his, but the widow was in a very unhelpful state.
As she neared the last door on her left, the lights flickered even more, causing one bulb to pop and rain shattered glass on her. She knew then that the spirit didn’t want her in that particular room yet she was ready to go in anyway.
“I am that idiot in the movies,” she muttered. As she entered, she crouched down to avoid getting hit by any more flying objects. She was hit anyway.
The room turned out to be Mr. Davis’ study and when she tried to enter, he shoved an old-fashioned armchair across the floor, causing the chair to slam into her, easily knocking her down as she was standing in such an awkward position.
“Mr. Davis!” she screamed in frustration. “Gladys told me you have been trying to talk to her. I can help you do that.” She slammed a hand onto the carpet. “I cannot help if you keep trying to hurt me.” Staying on the floor, she did a quick assessment. She’d be bruised for sure, but nothing felt truly damaged. She slowly stood up, using the abusive chair as leverage to help.
Other than the chair and a single box, it looked as if Gladys had emptied out the room. The desk and bookshelves that lined the walls were as bare as Old Mother’s cupboard yet they were clean. The room smelled of Pledge. There were faint outlines on the walls where things had clearly been hung for years but no longer were.
“So you’re upset because she’s cleaning out your office? After months of you being gone?” Celeste walked cautiously towards the box, but the armchair went sliding towards her again. This time she jumped so that she simply sat on the chair rather than letting it knock her down again. She could not slow her heart rate, no matter how many deep breaths she took.
“Okay, okay,” Celeste said, holding up her hands as if surrendering. “I won’t touch your stuff.” Celeste shifted so that she was sitting more comfortably in the armchair. “Is that what you want me to tell her?”
Gladys chose that moment to enter the study. She was walking slowly as if something was pulling her back. Her face was stained with tears and her eyes refilled with them when she caught Celeste’s gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth earlier,” she said slowly.
She may have been planning to say more, but the chair Celeste was on tilted to pour her out of it and then went sliding swiftly at Gladys who was too worn out to move out of its way. Once she was on the floor, the chair flipped so that she was trapped under it. Celeste could barely think over the widow’s shrill screams.
“Morty!” Celeste yelled, hoping she could be heard over Gladys. “Morty, stop! She was your wife!”
“On paper only,” a raspy voice growled.
Finally, Celeste thought. Maybe now we can get somewhere.
“Morty, what does that mean?”
“You see how she’s packing everything up, right? Ask her why.”
“Gladys, Gladys, I need you to stop screaming,” Celeste said. She tried to inch toward her, but Morty only stood up and gave the chair a violent shake, making Gladys scream more.
“Morty, I can’t talk to her if she’s screaming like this.”
Morty disappeared and then the desk flew against a wall causing both of the women to shriek.
“Morty! I’m sorry!” Gladys sobbed.
“Gladys, talk to me,” Celeste said, trying to move out of the next path she thought the desk could take. “What am I missing?”
Through sobs Gladys admitted to Celeste that she was packing up Morty’s things to make room for the neighbor Ruben and his things. Each time she paused to sob, Morty either shook the chair or would throw a drawer from the desk, thankfully not hitting either of them.
“Morty, sometimes people move on. It happens. You can’t expect her to grieve forever.”
Morty appeared in front of Celeste and bellowed, “Ask her when they started dating! I’ve been hanging around here, not wanting to leave her, I hear things! I know!” This time he picked up the chair and slammed it against the empty book shelves which began to fall.
“Gladys, Morty seems to think you’ve been seeing Ruben for-” she struggled how to word it, “-for quite some time.”
Gladys only whimpered, still curled on the floor, covering her head in case Morty threw something in her direction again.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, both of you. Celeste, I should’ve told you how angry Morty’s been.”
But ignoring Morty to apologize only angered him more. A broken shelf went flying, hitting the wall behind Gladys.
“We were married for forty-two years!” he yelled. “How could you do this?”
“Gladys, what happened?” Celeste asked.
“Ruben and I–he would come over while Morty was in the hospital. He would help around the house. But we didn’t do anything until–until after…”
“Liar!” Morty cried out, throwing another broken shelf.
“Morty! Please! Let me talk to her for you,” Celeste demanded.
“Ask when it started,” Morty said, appearing again inches from Celeste’s face.
“Gladys,” Celeste said, trying to stay calm, “when exactly did you and Ruben start dating?”
But Gladys only shook her head and went back to sobbing.
Morty threw another drawer.
“Gladys, Morty can’t move on unless he is at peace. He loved you for forty-two years and he thought you did the same. If you can tell him something to help him understand, maybe then he can have some peace and move on.”
Morty only grunted, causing the lights to flicker. “I just wanted her heart, like I gave her mine.” The anger was slowly slipping from his voice, but he was still creeping Celeste out. Celeste relayed what he said to Gladys.
“I did love him,” Gladys finally said. “I just-I just…” she broke off into sobs again. “Our life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. And then Morty got sick and Ruben was there…”
“She did love you, Morty,” Celeste emphasized even though she knew Morty had heard every word Gladys said. She just wanted to focus him on the positive aspect of Gladys’ words. “She loved you, Morty, and–”
The armchair went flying and this time Celeste couldn’t move fast enough. It pinned her against the wall.
“Morty!” Gladys shrieked. “Morty, stop! Leave her alone. You’re mad at me, remember?”
Celeste’s heart was nearly in her throat and it was all she could do to keep the shakiness out of her voice. “Morty, she loved you and then you died. I’m sorry she moved on before you were gone, but you have to let go. You can’t have someone’s heart if they aren’t willing to give it to you. Yes, she hurt you and now you’ve hurt her. But do you really want to spend the rest of eternity like this? Don’t you want to move on and see what’s next?”
The armchair fell to the floor with a loud bang. Celeste breathed a sigh of relief but waited until her heart slowed down before moving away from the wall.
“Morty?” she asked cautiously.
He was sitting slumped on the chair, defeated. “Tell her-” he tried… “tell her that I really did love her. She was my everything. She had my heart and that was a permanent lock. I just-I just wish she had felt the same.”
Celeste relayed the message.
“He was my world for a while,” Gladys said, crying softly again. “He was my life for a time. And it was a good time.”
“Ruben can’t be for her what I was. He won’t make her happy,” Morty said, but the anger was still leaving his voice. “I guess she just has to learn that on her own though. I get that now.”
Celeste repeated his words for Gladys, who sighed with relief.
And then he was gone. No last words, no light like she had seen some other times when spirits left, nothing special. The room felt different, though. It was easier to breathe.
Celeste helped Gladys up.
“Thank you, dear,” she mumbled, too embarrassed to look her in the eye.
The doorbell ringing prevented Celeste from lecturing her for not giving her a warning.
“I’ll get that for you,” Celeste said shortly.
It was a man, about Gladys’ age.
“You must be Ruben,” Celeste said unkindly.
He smiled, oblivious to her tone. “Hello, is Gladys home?”
“She’s in there,” she said, motioning into the house.
He walked past her and nearly tripped on his way past the living room. “It’s a bit cold in here, isn’t it?” he asked conversationally.
Gladys had made her way back to the kitchen was trying to clean up the mess Morty had made.
“Honey, what happened?” Ruben went to her and began helping her.
Gladys mumbled something about being clumsy.
Celeste cleared her throat.
“Gladys, I think I will be on my way now. If that’s okay?”
“Yes, dear, and thank you again.”
As Celeste turned to leave, she heard Ruben say, “I am dying for a cup of coffee. Should we go out to a cafe?”
Something about his tone sent a chill down Celeste’s spine. No, she thought. It can’t be…
She watched them carefully, but nothing seemed malevolent about Ruben’s behavior.
Ruben saw her hesitation and smiled at her. “Thank you for helping,” he whispered so Gladys couldn’t hear. There was a shadow in his eyes that made an alarm go off somewhere inside Celeste. Morty wasn’t gone, she realized. But he didn’t seem so angry anymore. Maybe he really did want a second chance with Gladys. But did he deserve one? Who was to say? Celeste reminded herself that she hadn’t wanted to be involved in the lovers’ quarrel in the first place. She had told Mabel that she would help Gladys talk to Morty and technically she had done that.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she turned and walked out. She had her own ghosts to deal with at home.
Christina Ortega Phillips was born and raised in northwest Indiana. A graduate of Valparaiso University, she received her BA in English and Psychology and an MA in English Studies and Communication and an MA in TESOL. She is an ESL teacher by trade, but a writer and geek at heart. She has contributed to Being Latino in the past. Her work has also been published in River Poets Journal and here at Infective Ink. Her writing group, Blank Slate, has published two anthologies, Midnight Oil and Night Light. To keep up with Christina and her writing projects, visit her Facebook page.
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Tags: Christina Ortega Phillips, death, ghosts