“Annie?” The frantic woman cried as she raced through the hallway in search of her daughter. She flung every door open, but none of the rooms held anyone inside. “Annie?”
“What’d she do wrong now?” her husband hollered from the floor below.
“I can’t find her, Bill. She’s not here.”
“She’s here, somewhere. This is a big house. Maybe she’s exploring the place.”
“Annie?” She stormed down the staircase and passed Bill without a word.
“Good morning to you too.” He tightened his robe sash. “I’ll make coffee.”
The woman beelined to their front door. The locks were undone, and her stomach turned. She pulled the entry door open. “Annie?”
“Jesus, Mom. Where’s the fire?”
All concerns left the woman’s tone. “I was scared something happened to you.”
“What? The empty house swallowed me up in my sleep?” Annie laughed under her breath.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Hey, sweetie,” Bill greeted his daughter and handed a steaming cup to his wife, Beth.
“Hi, Dad,” Annie said. “Mom was afraid I ran away.”
“I didn’t say that.” She took the coffee.
“Exactly where would she go? Right, kiddo?” He took a sip. “We’re a thousand miles from everyone she knows. We need to allow each other time to adjust to our new life here. That’s all.”
“Adjustments? I hope you mean with her attitude.”
“Me? Are you fricking kidding?”
“Both of you stop. Can’t we try to enjoy this? Think of it as an adventure.”
“I’m sorry.” Beth glanced over at him and offered a timid smile. “This is very stressful.”
“If you find me so stressful, maybe you shouldn’t have had me.”
“Come on,” Bill pleaded with his daughter. “We’ve got tons of painting to do before our furniture shows up. We can pencil your fights back in on Monday, uh?”
“She can begin with the dining room.” Beth glared at her husband. “The room is small and shouldn’t take her too long.
“I don’t want to be cooped up inside.” Annie stared at her dad with puppy eyes. “There’s only a few weeks of summer left before I have to start my senior year in some strange school.”
Bill’s expression changed into one Beth was familiar with.
“Oh, no you don’t. She’s helping,” Beth said, setting them both straight. “Fine, you want to be outside? You’re in charge of the front porch. Plenty of sunshine out here.”
Annie glanced around. “All of it?”
“Yes, the floor, the columns, the ceiling —all of it!”
“Come on, kid, help your old man out.”
Annie smiled at her dad.
“There are four gallons of white paint in the garage,” Beth said, quite pleased in her apparent victory.
“What about the door?”
“Yes, that too. I’m sure the previous owners left half-emptied cans. They always do. Pick something, but don’t get cute. If I don’t like your choice, you’ll have to repaint.”
“Let me carry the ladder for you.” Bill stepped around his wife and spotted a neighbor across the street, staring back at him. His robe had fallen open, revealing his boxers and bare chest.
Annie broke into laughter, and so did her mom.
Beth grabbed his arm and pulled him behind her. She waved at the woman still gawking at their family. “Good morning.”
“I’ve got it, Dad.”
“Yep. I’m a big girl. Plus, if you’re arrested, you won’t get to see what I do to the front door.”
Her mother sighed and went inside. Bill shrugged and shook his head in angst over his daughter and wife’s strained relationship.
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you back, Annie.”
The door closed, and Annie went to the garage. She wiped the cobwebs from the handle and turned the latch. The wheels creaked on the track as she struggled to raise the door. The rusted mechanics stuck once or twice, but she gave the door a hard nudge and helped it along its way.
Even in the daylight, the garage was dark and musty. Annie dunked under a dangling spider and flipped on the flashlight app on her cell. Four gallons of new paint lined the left side. Several rollers, brushes, and a bag of disposable covers rested on the cement floor next to them. A wooden ladder leaned against the wall off to the right.
She dragged the cans to the driveway, tossed the other equipment nearby, and went back for the ladder. It was heavy and awkward for her to carry, but she managed to lug the thing to the porch and propped it against the house. “Well, that was exhausting.”
The wicker chair creaked as Annie’s weight settled. With her knees to her chest, she curled her toes over the seat edge and traced the outlines of various layers of paint on the floorboards. “Jesus, this place is ancient.” She looked up and surveyed the ceiling. A once soft blue color had faded to nearly nothing. Hunks of this last layer lifted from the surface and gave a freckled appearance. “Daylights burning.”
She moved the ladder in place, yanked it open, and tested the rickety wooden rungs. She shook a can and stretched the plastic drop cloth out with her foot. The lid popped off quickly, but yellowish resin binder still floated inside the can’s edge. She stirred the thick batter and poured a decent amount into the tray.
With her roller loaded and extender attached, she climbed up on the third rung and aimed her roller. A large chunk of cured latex hung right in the spot she had chosen to start. Annie pushed herself up on her tiptoes and pinched the piece between two fingers. She ripped the paint away, and it moaned. She forgot she was on the ladder, and fell when she took a step back. The jagged circle of pale blue drifted down from above her. Something moved— zipped across the porch’s ceiling. She crawled back across the floor. “Shit!”
“Something scare you, girl?” a raspy voice asked.
Annie jumped up. “Who the hell are you?” After she asked, her brain registered his postal uniform.
The frosty-haired man smiled. “Just move in?”
“Yes. Oh, and sorry about the language. I mean, if you heard.”
He pulled a perfect white cloth square from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, and extended his hand.
“What’s that for?”
He nodded toward her face like when somebody has food smeared on their mouth, or their nose needs to be tidied up. She felt the wetness from where the roller had hit her when she splatted down on the wood. She wiped the white paint from her cheek.
He peered inside. “No curtains?” He leans closer to the window. “No furniture, either?”
“Our stuff is coming this weekend.”
“Well, see you tomorrow.” He walked toward the front steps. “You’re on my route.”
“Well, I’ll still be out here painting.”
He paused. “You ain’t planning on making everything white, are you?”
“Um, yeah. That way I don’t have to trim anything out, I can just slap it up and enjoy the rest of my boring life.”
He huffed. “These homes need different colors to delineate the fine details in the craftsmanship.”
She glanced around the porch and, for the first time, observed the decorative molding that bordered the space. “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Is it normal for an old house to make noises?”
“I suppose, after a century or more, it has something to say. What’d ya hear?”
“You’re going to laugh.”
“No, I won’t.” He dragged his finger in the shape of an “x” on his chest. “I cross my heart and hope to die.”
“I peeled a piece of paint from the ceiling.” She scrunched her brows and almost didn’t finish telling him, but blurted, “I heard a scream when I ripped it off.”
“Not someone. Something.”
“Where’d it come from?”
She pointed to the exposed spot.
“Oh.” He stepped back and headed to where the ladder stood. Under the pale blue paint, a grayed layer of ancient whitewash had been revealed. “That ain’t good.”
“Why, what was it? Wasps or something? Is the house infested?”
“Uh, huh, I’m afraid so.”
“Gross. I’m not living here with a bunch of bugs crawling everywhere.”
“Who said anything about bugs? You’re in the south. More likely, an infestation of hags.”
“Boohags. Haints.” He looked her straight on, and in a term she would know, added, “ghosts.”
Annie scurried to the opposite end of the porch, with her eyes on the aged man. He was crazy, and the whole situation freaked her out. If not for the shadow wisp and the agonizing shriek, she would have been convinced this was a prank. She noticed that neighbor, the one from earlier, watching them—watching her.
“Who is she?” Annie asked, still staring across the street.
“Penelope Hale, Hoodoo Priestess, and you don’t want no part of her.”
“What’s she doing, anyway?”
“Some sort of magic, I reckon. Black.”
Annie studied the woman who sprinkled something across her front stoop. “She doesn’t look like a Voodoo priestess.”
“Hoodoo, and what they supposed to look like?”
“I don’t know. Scary. Old. Dressed funny.”
The old man laughed.
“So, how do I make the ghosts leave?”
“Got to paint it all blue again.”
“My mom wants me to pick the color.”
“Nothing to do with what the mistress of the house wants.”
Annie’s eyes widened as she stared at the strange elderly man shaking his head at the peeled spot.
“Got to be blue.”
“You feel okay, mister?”
“I need to rest for a spell.” He meandered over to one of the wicker chairs. “An iced cold tea would be hospitable.”
“Oh, sure. Do you want it sweetened?”
“Is there any other kind?”
“Yeah, unsweetened. Green. The ones with the fancy fruits in them.”
“Not in the south there ain’t. I don’t know about that other stuff, but it ain’t tea.”
“I’ll be right back.” Annie headed straight for their kitchen. She was sure her mother would have a pitcher in the fridge because, after two full days in South Carolina, her mother acted like she was a southerner herself. She wasn’t. Her mother was born in Indiana. Annie poured two tall glasses of the sweet, amber liquid over ice and headed back out.
She stopped. “What Mom?”
“Oh, these?” Annie lifted her hands, raising the two glasses. “Super thirsty.”
Beth followed Annie into the living room and peered out the window closest to the front door.
“That your mother?”
“Yes.” She handed him his drink, and he nodded for her to place it on the wicker table. As she did, she saw her mother’s face through the windowpane and hoped she didn’t come out and ruin everything.
“She’s supposed to check on you.”
“I guess.” Annie perceived her mom’s eyes were set dead ahead, and she turned to find the Hale woman staring back. Her mother disappeared. “So, why blue?”
“Back before the Civil War was even thought of, before the American Revolution, there was a time when the fields of South Carolina were full of indigo.”
She sat in the chair next to him.
“Acres upon acres of bright green the color of spring with delicate sheaves of pink flowers bursting on the stems covered these fields. The plants were harvested and bundled by hand, brown hands like these.” He held both arms up, hands slightly shaking, nails yellowed with age.
Annie glanced down.
“These bundles were soaked overnight, trapped in place by stones until fermentation completed. In the morning, every drop of moisture was beat clean free before these poor plants returned to the field. There they decomposed in their graves and offered up their souls to feed the soil.”
“Wow, so vivid.”
He smiled. “They added lye and whipped the mixture until it became a frothy navy hue. After another day, murky brown water on top was removed. The thicker, indigo settled on the bottom was sieved through finer and finer cloths until only the purest paste remained. This was pressed into cakes and sold.”
“So, did they get to use some of it to make paint?”
“Get to? No, the slaves didn’t get anything. They sacrificed their families’ rations of milk and poured it into the empty vats. They made themselves a remembering paint of the softest blue, delicate in color like a robin’s egg.”
“What were they remembering?”
“All the back-breaking work. All the lives lost. All the hardship. All the missing of their home a world away. They didn’t paint no owner’s porch ceiling. That came later. No, they painted their slave quarters, so the ancestors knew they would always be remembered. So, you got to paint it blue.”
“Well, it is pretty like the sky or the water.” Annie recalled the peeling screams, and a chill rushed through her. “I don’t think my dad bought any other colors, just this white.”
“Some out in the garage. You can be sure.”
“How do you know?”
“Everybody’s got blue paint. Look around.” He pointed toward neighboring homes. Every porch she could see was blue. Some houses even had the shutters, and their front doors painted blue except one.
“Hale’s ceiling isn’t blue.”
“She likes the company of spirits, especially the dark ones.”
“Alright, I’ll do it, and hopefully, the weirdo across the street finds something else to entertain herself.” Annie considered all the information. “I’ll be right back.” She raced down the steps but turned to face the old man. “Will you still be here when I come back?”
“Oh, I can’t go nowhere else.” He smiled and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the perfect square of his white, folded handkerchief. “I got to see you finish it, plus, a bit more remains to the folklore.”
She returned the smile and raced around the side of their house toward the detached garage. He was right. A can of blue, the same shade as the centuries old peeled color, sat tucked under the left side of a hand-built workbench against the back wall. Annie grabbed the can, but the contents felt solid like it had dried up years ago. She took an equally ancient-looking screwdriver and shoved it in her back pocket.
There he was in the exact spot, next to his full glass of iced tea, except the ice had melted under the mounting heat. “The lid’s rusted shut and probably stuck.”
“I bet it’s just fine.”
Annie pushed the screwdriver’s flat tip through a hardened clump and pried the lid off. Grayish, tainted swirls swam on the surface. “You sure this is still good?” She winced as the can’s odor hit her nostrils.
He stood to gain a better view of the contents. “I think it’s real good. What you got there is some genuine Haint Blue.”
Annie poured the mixture into a new tray, coated the lamb’s wool roller, and climbed back up the ladder. She started with the naked, screaming spot. Thread-like, shadowy lines churned in the wetness.
“Keep painting,” he said.
“Shouldn’t I have sanded it or something, first?” The outlines of the peeled layers of floor paint came to mind as she rolled over the pieces that hung above her.
“Once you’ve got the momentum, you can’t take a break. Don’t you dare stop.”
“Yeah, okay,” she said, just wanting to be done for the day. She painted for longer than the roller’s saturation should have allowed. Each time she stepped down, the old man waited in a different spot. She was ready for him to move on.
Annie bent down and rested the roller in the tray. His feet stood in front of her, and they were bare. She hadn’t detected this before and wondered how a man delivered mail without any shoes. A few inches above his ankles, the tattered fabric, worn and dirty, hung and blew ever so slightly with the breeze. Her eyes shot up and she stepped back at the sight of his ear-wide grin.
The ceiling now alive circled overhead. “What have you done?” Annie cried. A gray-like mist floated her way and merged with the spirits overhead she had painted in place. “The ghosts are flying right to it!”
He dissolved into a translucent form and said, “Don’t you pay no nevermind.” His eerie laugh sickened her as he shifted from a man into thin black smoke and trailed upward like a candle’s snuffed out wick. His face blended among the hundreds of other spirits who swirled around each other like coiled snakes.
Without warning, a face, the one she recognized of him surfaced into view. His mouth lipped the words she completely understood. He said, “It haint nothin but blue.”
Read Part Two, September 7, 2020
Want a reminder when it’s published?
Follow this website and receive a notification when each story posts.