The loops and whorls danced across the yellowed page in faded ink, the cursive letters cascading over one another like the waves breaking in the surf. The handwriting was exuberant, almost showy, but at the same time, it was deliberate. The descending loop on every g was the same, as was the ascending loop on every d and the height of every t.
He had barely been living in the house a month when he found the letters. The house was on the south side of Broad Street on the western side of the peninsula that was the location of downtown Charleston. It was a fixer for sure, but he was excited about restoring the antebellum beauty to its former glory.
He had been surveying the rooms, looking to see what exactly needed to be repaired in each one. He was in a small room upstairs, one of the extra bedrooms. As he inspected it, he heard a knocking sound coming from one of the walls. He knew that there might be rats or even raccoons living in the walls, so he didn’t think much of it at first, but it was persistent. It was the only room where he heard the knocking, and every time he entered the room, he seemed to hear it.
Finally, he decided to really investigate. After isolating the part of the wall where the knocking seemed to be located, he opened it up with a sledgehammer, figuring he could always repair it later. He found that someone had covered over a small alcove at some point. More startling though was the package he found. He unwrapped crumbling brown paper to reveal a bundle of papers. They were letters, he realized. Carefully, he unfolded the first one and began to read. It was dated June 24, 1832.
Not a day passes when I don’t think of you. I know that you think it horribly unfair of my father to send me all the way up here to Boston, but he assures me that this matter will not take long to settle, a few months at most, and then I will be back in Charleston, and we can resume our walks along the water before the end of the summer. Until then, I can only dream of you.
He wondered about the letters in the following days, but soon, he became wrapped up in the plans for the renovation of the house, and he put them in a drawer and for got about them. The odd occurrences in the house did not stop, however. After a while, he noticed that things moved. Little things like books and small knick-knacks would disappear, only to appear a few days later in a different place. He tried to tell himself that he was just absent-mindedly walking around with things and setting them down, but then larger things began to move. Lamps would exchange places. He even found a few pictures switched around on the walls. Then one night, as he was just drifting off to sleep, he heard a horrific noise coming from downstairs. It was a moan that shook the entire house. He jumped out of bed and ran down the stairs to find that the antique buffet in the dining room, which weighed several hundred pounds, had been moved about a foot away from the wall. On the dining room table were the letters, where he knew he had not left them. He picked them up and began to read them again. This time, he selected one from the middle of the stack. It was dated October 5, 1832.
I must apologize for not writing you sooner. I’ve run into difficulties as I attempt to wrap up my father’s business here in Boston. I do hope to be home before too long. I’m afraid I can hardly stand the chill in the weather. To spend winter here, I fear would be unbearable. I appreciate your efforts to keep me up to date on the lives of our friends and acquaintances. I will try to see you once I return.
He couldn’t help but notice the distance in this letter as opposed to the first one he had read. He quickly thumbed through the stack to the last letter. It was dated September 13, 1833, almost a year later.
I apologize again for not writing you sooner. As you may have ascertained, we have been preoccupied as of late. Thank you for your gracious words of congratulations. I know that you mean it when you wish Emily and me a future of happiness.
He knew from his friend Amy, a local historian, that the house had once belonged to John Summerfield, a wealthy merchant who had had his hand in almost everything going in and leaving the port. He decided to show Amy the letters and to ask her if she could find out anything about the people named Celia and Gerald.
Unfortunately, the strange happenings continued. The room where he had originally found the letters defied renovation. Stains reappeared within twenty-four hours of painting over them, and the work crew’s tools broke on a regular basis, only to work again when taken to another room. The room also developed a smell, a sickly-sweet honeysuckle aroma. It eventually reached the point where it turned his stomach to even pass the room, and since his own bedroom was down the hall, he took to sleeping downstairs on the sofa. He also began to see shadows moving up and down the stairs, unable to be accounted for by any source of light in or around the house.
About a month later, Amy called him. They met at a little coffee shop not far from the house.
“You look awful,” was the first thing that Amy said.
“I haven’t been getting much sleep,” he replied.
“Well, I did some digging, like you asked, and it seems that you have a little tragedy on your hands in that house of yours. Your Celia–”
“She’s not my Celia.”
Amy looked at him funny before continuing. “In any event, the Celia in the letters was the daughter of John Summerfield. Gerald was Gerald Baker, the son of a Savannah businessman, a sometimes competitor and sometimes partner of Mr. Summerfield. Mr. Baker sent his son to run his business affairs here in Charleston, and inevitably, he met Celia. Somewhere around 1831, they began courting. I suspect that the two fathers were very happy about the relationship but saw it as a business venture and not a couple in love.”
“Sounds like a recipe for disaster.”
“It was. Gerald was Mr. Baker’s only son. The family legacy rested with him. Again, I’m speculating, but I thing the reason behind the trip to Boston was because Mr. Baker had found a more suitable ‘merger’ for his son, if you will.”
“Exactly. A week after that last letter, Celia hanged herself in her room.”
“And I bet I know exactly which room that is.”
Knowing the story behind the problems didn’t help. In fact, things became worse. A week after he met with Amy, the screaming began. Every night at exactly 2:13 a.m. a terrifying wail rose up from Celia’s room. After five nights, he had had enough.
“What do you want?” he yelled in desperation, “What do I have to do to get you to go away?”
“Burn them,” a voice said clearly.
He didn’t even have to ask what. He went to the desk drawer where he kept the bundle of letters. He took them downstairs to the kitchen and tossed them into the sink. He rifled through the drawers until he found a match. He struck it and dropped the lit match on top of the letters. He watched as they burned, as the corners of the paper darkened and curled and the writing disappeared. All at once the anxiety and tension left him, and he suddenly felt very tired. He sat down at the little table in the corner of the kitchen. He could barely see the tip of the little fire above the lip of the sink. Gradually, it dimmed as it started to burn itself out.
He awoke with a start, as if someone had kicked his chair. The whole room almost was on fire. The flames had already engulfed the wall with the sink, and they were making their way around. Later, he wouldn’t be able to remember exactly what happened. He remembered racing through the door of the kitchen just as the fire reached it as well. He remembered the cold, wet grass on his feet when he finally made it outside, and he remembered the terrible crash as the entire house collapsed not even a minute later.
“You’re very lucky, sir,” a paramedic said to him later after the firefighter’s arrived, as he was sitting in the back of an ambulance, “I’ve never seen a fire catch that fast. I’m amazed that you made it out before the whole structure collapsed.”
“Yeah, lucky,” he repeated, but he wasn’t really listening. He was staring at the fire, the loops and whorls dancing across the night sky in red flame.