Two for Tea

Emily skimmed through her sister’s e-mail before snapping her laptop closed in disgust. They had never had that typical twin closeness. Abby had a flawless life and never missed the opportunity to rub Emily’s nose in it. A handsome, successful husband, angelic children, the catalog perfect home. It wasn’t the boasting that annoyed Emily the most. It was the implication that in comparison, she was somehow less. The constant needling was one of the reasons she had sunk everything she had into the inn. She felt obligated to prove herself. Measure up.

The camera guy thumped a heavy case down. Emily hoped it wouldn’t snag the vintage carpet. She went back to staring at the phone. Waffling. The timing for Abby’s visit couldn’t be worse. She’d just ring her up, tell her it was a bad time, and that would be it. Of course that wouldn’t be it though. There would be complaining accompanied by veiled accusations that Emily was hiding something. It wasn’t worth the argument.

A second case thudded down next to the first. The amount of equipment the TV crew was carting in was mind boggling. Emily wondered if this whole thing was a good idea. The show – “Real Spooks” – was kind of hokey. A perky hostess traveled the world showcasing deserted castles, rundown theaters, and other ghostly haunts. In her wake, a horde of viewers descended. The thrill seekers were burning to glimpse some otherworldly apparition. The skeptics aimed to debunk the supernatural. Emily didn’t care why they came. It only mattered that the rooms were booked and credit cards good.

The extravagant Victorian home, turned inn, was reminiscent of a wedding cake – turrets, peaks, and frilly accents. However, the elegant layers of icing obscured a savage past. Charlotte Crowley, a high society spinster, had stabbed her twin sister eighteen times, before calmly sitting down to hemlock tea. Properly, in the front parlor. The historians called it a psychotic break. When the maid found Charlotte’s body, she appeared to be peacefully listening to the wireless. They found her sister’s mangled corpse in the library. There was so much blood that the flooring had to be replaced. Henceforth, the rumor-mill claimed that Charlotte’s guilty shade could be found, roaming the house. Emily didn’t buy into the tale of tortured remorse. If anything, she empathized. Twin sisters were such a trial.

The whole spirit-in-the-parlor thing was why Emily had gotten such a great deal on the place. Despite being a doubter herself, she embraced the story. It was deliciously macabre. She decorated in a retro-30’s theme and christened the new inn “Charlotte’s Haunt.” It wasn’t long before a small following of ghost hunters began arriving, eager to be terrified. She was counting on the TV show to grow the inn’s clientele.

Heels clicked on tile. A blonde in an impeccable suit flitted through the foyer, overseeing the crewmen. Emily watched her from behind the reception desk in the lobby. She wondered if the show’s host really bought into the whole spirit world nonsense. Likely she was just a pretty actress cashing a check, pretending to be scared.

“Charlotte? If you’re listening, this weekend would be an excellent time to show yourself.” As if in answer, the lights flickered. Emily rolled her eyes at the murmur of excitement in the foyer. There was a reason she hadn’t brought the wiring up to code. It had cost her a fortune to get the electrician to sign off, but the fluttering lights added to the ambiance. Emily shelved her ridicule and smoothed on a genial smile. Inwardly, she groaned. It was going to be a long weekend of interviews and Abby was arriving in the morning. Only people in the hotel business looked forward to Mondays.

***

Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue…” Judy Garland was crooning on the wireless. Emily carefully placed the long butcher’s knife on the tea tray. Her hands were splattered crimson. She frowned as she wiped them on the crisp napkin. The laundress would never get the stain out.

Emily unwrapped a twist of paper, dropping frilly leaves into the teapot. She wrinkled her nose at the mousy scent. She closed the lid to let the tea steep. It wouldn’t be long. She let the music wash away the remnants of her headache. The clear notes rang out in the silent house. She crossed her ankles, leaning back into the chair. It wasn’t proper, but there wasn’t anyone to see.

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star, wake up where the clouds are far behind me.” Emily smiled to herself. That’s where she was headed, over the rainbow. She poured the tea. The warmth seeping through the delicate china felt good in her hand. She drained the cup quickly. Unladylike, but this wasn’t a brew for sipping. She grimaced at the acrid taste. She replaced the teacup on the tray. Judy Garland kept her company as she settled in to wait.

***

Emily couldn’t breathe, paralyzed by a weight on her chest. She struggled against the coils of slumber, fighting for breath. She gasped, jolting fully awake. The dream had been so intense that the tea still lingered, bitter on her tongue. It took a few minutes for the bass-drum of her heart to slow. She had spent an eternity that evening answering questions about the Crowley murder/suicide. The producer was painstakingly specific in his curiosity. It was small wonder that the sordid affair had infiltrated her dreams. Although, it was eerie that she experienced it through Charlotte’s eyes. The small things struck her so vividly – the creamy linens, the blue flowered china, the mouse-like odor of the hemlock leaves. Her imagination was surprisingly detailed.

Emily flipped the pillow over to the cool side. She was desperate for sleep and they were filming tomorrow. She expected that the cameras would be more forgiving than Abby. Her sister would jump at the chance to point out any dark circles under Emily’s eyes. She threw an arm over her head and tried to ignore the creaking footsteps in the hallway. The ghost enthusiasts were a nocturnal bunch, scouring the darkened corridors for spectral manifestations. They paid for the rooms. They didn’t have to sleep in them.

By morning Emily had a pounding headache. It distracted, making it difficult to order her thoughts. She sipped her coffee in the deserted lobby. The silence was soothing. The guests, up half the night searching for phantasms, thankfully slept late. The TV crew was on West Coast time. Emily was pleased she wouldn’t have an audience when Abby arrived. Right on cue, a metallic blue Mercedes pulled up. Moments later her twin swept through the front door.

“Emmy.”

“Abigail.”

“Don’t call me Abigail.”

“Don’t call me Emmy.”

“Do you have someone to bring my bags in out of the car? It’s new. Shane got a promotion at work, huge raise. He got me the car to celebrate. I thought about an Audi, but really, who can go wrong with Mercedes-Benz?”

“Bags, plural? Abby. You’re only here one night.”

“Well, I didn’t know if my Valentino was too dressy for dinner. So I also brought a cute Calvin Klein number. Of course it’s more casual but the shoes that go with it are to die for…”

Emily bit her tongue and let her sister’s voice fade into the background. The prattle was making her headache worse. It was best to tune out. Abby was better at monologue than dialogue anyway. Emily schooled her face into a suitably impressed expression and lost herself in her own thoughts. Absorbed in her wardrobe litany, Abby never noticed.

***

The high-tech camera equipment looked out of place in the old fashioned, formal parlor. Emily fussed with a lacy doily lining the silver tray. A shiver tiptoed up her spine. She had arranged it in mirror image of the tea service from her dream. Creepy.

“Remind me what this is all about?”

“It’s a TV show, Abby. They’re filming a piece about Charlotte Crowley. This is the room where they found her. After murdering her sister and then drinking poison.” Emily snatched up the heavy handled knife and mimed stabbing motions in the air. She giggled.

“How grisly.” Abby sniffed. She had no sense of humor.

“That’s the point.” Emily carefully placed the long butcher’s knife on the tea tray. Her head swam – déja vu.

“Em? Emily. It’s freezing. Can’t you turn up the heat?”

“What are you talking about? It’s fine in here.”

“Emmy. I can see my breath.” Abby rubbed her hands together.

“Don’t be so melodramatic. It’s an old house. Drafty.” Abby opened her mouth, but Emily, exasperated, cut her off. She had no interest in hearing about how nice her sister’s beach house was this time of year.

“If you want to watch the taping, you have to be quiet. And don’t call me Emmy.”

The interview went well. Abby sulked in the corner, miffed at not being center of attention for once. Emily was in her element, recounting the Crowley story. She displayed the wax-paper packet of poison hemlock, the exact variety Charlotte would have used. An herbalist friend had procured it with admonishments to smell, but not touch. It had a musty, animal scent. The bubbly moderator exclaimed in enthusiastic horror as the tale unfolded. She leaned towards Emily, encouraging her to conspire.

“So I understand that this wireless is original? The very piece that was playing when Charlotte was discovered?” She stroked the glossy wood with an impeccable manicure.

“Yes. It was in the attic when I bought the house. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, but…”

Static erupted from the radio cutting her short. Emily’s jaw dropped.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly…” Judy Garland warbled a few lines and then fell silent. Emily reached forward and held up the cord for the stunned cameraman to see. It wasn’t plugged in.

***

What the hell was that? Emily paced the empty hallway. The show’s technician had inspected the antique wireless but couldn’t find any hidden transmitters. The crew was aflutter, titillated that they had caught it all on film. Apparently authentic hauntings weren’t as common as the show led its viewers to believe. Emily, on the other hand, was freaked out. She could explain away a defunct, unplugged radio that suddenly spluttered to life. An elaborate, if clever, prank. It was the Judy Garland song that unhinged her. “Over the Rainbow” wasn’t part of the legend. She hadn’t told anyone about her dream. It was uncanny. Her stomach flipped.

Blink. Judy Garland was a charlatan. The landscape beyond the rainbow was a frozen, monochrome grey. Familiar, but notably altered. Emily jiggled the hall switch. The lights flickered but failed to dispel the layers of shadow. Someone had changed the globes on the fixtures. She rubbed her temples. She was sure they were supposed to be smooth glass spheres. These were faceted.

Emily swished down the hallway, heading into the library. Her dress fluttered, filling the silent corridor with the bare suggestion of rustling silk. She despised the prudish, ankle-length skirts. Hemlines were rising, but her sister refused to allow anything that conflicted with her archaic views of propriety. Insufferable. Her twin’s stern voice resounded in her head – it’s just not proper, Charlotte. She massaged her temples again. Emily, not Charlotte. One of her headaches was coming on.

Blink. Emily sagged against a plush, velvet settee. She rubbed sweaty palms on her jeans. She half expected silk. What was going on? She was alone in the library. She didn’t remember how she got there. Or she did, but it was a half remembered nightmare that left behind indistinct, fractured images. It felt as if someone else had been steering her body. She was only a spectator. She swallowed hard against the rising panic. It took longer than expected to regain her composure and head back downstairs.

***

The filming was finally complete, the equipment packed away. Abby, bored with the proceedings, had gone upstairs to pout. Emily, luxuriating in a few moments of solitude, decided to have a cup of tea in the parlor. She usually found the parallel amusing. Tonight it just felt gruesome. She let out a strangled sigh. The teapot sat on the hotplate, untouched.

A prickle of foreboding shot through her, the hairs on her arms standing on end. An icy draft breathed on the back of her neck. The weight of unseen eyes made the room feel too small. Claustrophobic. The pressure made her head ache. Her thoughts were too loud. They were jumbled, chaotic, trying to escape her head.

She peered around the room, staring into shadowed corners. Searching for something that wasn’t there. Her eyes fell on the knife. It belonged in the display-case in the library. She’d just take it upstairs. Tiding up. Not fleeing the parlor. Static from the broken radio chased her from of the room.

Something kept pace with her in the hallways. A tangible, invisible presence that vied for Emily’s will. The headache intensified, daggers that threatened to shatter her control. The lights flickered as Emily burst into the library. Abby dropped the magazine she’d been flipping through. A hint of annoyance crossed her face.

“About time. Is that what you’re wearing to dinner?” The irritation shifted to fear. “Emily? Emmy! What – ”

Blink. The knife parted flesh easier than she thought it would. The shrieking wouldn’t stop. Her head hurt so badly. Too many thoughts. Some were her own. Some weren’t. She just wanted the voices to leave her alone. Tired, her arm fell limply to her side. Catching her breath, she licked her lips, tasting a coppery tang. The screaming dwindled, replaced by a faint gurgling. Silence. In the quiet the throbbing in her temples began to fade. The thoughts stilled.

She headed down to the parlor. The tea still needed to be made. She laid the long butcher’s knife alongside the sugar bowl. Wiped sticky hands on a napkin. She frowned. The acts were familiar, but the details wrong. She emptied the packet of leaves into the teapot. The china should have blue flowers, not pink. She crossed her ankles. Trousers? Her twin would be appalled if she could see it. She couldn’t though. The thought raised a flicker of internal discord. She squashed it.

The mousy scent hit her nose as she poured the tea. The inner rebellion tried to wrest control. She forced her arm to move, brought the cup to her lips. Swallowed. It was bitter. Bittersweet. Her song was playing on the radio. It made promises it couldn’t keep.

“Oh, somewhere over the rainbow way up high, And the dream that you dare to, why oh, why can’t I?”

She let the music sooth away the residual pangs of her headache. The voices were silenced. For a time. Judy Garland kept her company as she settled in to wait.

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