“Miasma” : An Excerpt

Amelia and her mother walked hand in hand towards the house on Murray street. The sidewalk was littered in orange, red and brown leaves that had fallen from the trees above; Amelia dusted her feet across them like a street sweeper as they walked. Above her head the tall trees canopied and sheltered the street from the sky. It was early October and the trees were beginning to shed their branches of the dying leaves. They fell one by one, opening up spaces in the canopy, letting light stream down onto the sidewalk in slivers. A large red leaf flip flopped as it slowly fell and landed on the back of Amelia’s head. She reached back and grabbed it, staring at the little veins and the rich, red color. She rubbed it in between her fingers, feeling its waxy skin. The leaf didn’t seem dead at all.

“I love the way leaves smell in October.” Amelia’s mother, Anne, said, as she stole the leaf from her hand, breathing it in. Amelia kept her head down and her grip on her mother’s hand tight. Amelia knew what she meant, but couldn’t agree. To her, it only smelt like death; musty, stale, cold death. Amelia hated that stench, because she smelled it all the time. That was what ghosts smelled like.

Amelia had never been to the house on Murray street before, but had overheard her mother talking about it to her father for weeks. All she knew was that the woman who lived there was her mother’s new friend Debra, that her husband was an architect and had built and designed the house for her and it was in the Back Bay, which was one of the nicest neighborhoods in Boston.

“It’s like the Taj Mahal!” Anne said to Amelia’s father while they were making dinner together one night. Amelia often hid under the dinner room table and eavesdropped on their conversations.

“Hun, theTaj Mahal is a mausoleum. That emperor built it for his wife after she died.” he retorted.

“Hmm. Well, it’s still romantic!”

Anne had met Debra when she came into Anne’s salon to get her hair cut. Debra was tall, thin, had on very high heels with red soles, dangly diamond earrings and sunglasses that covered half her face. She rang the little bell at the front desk, even though Anne was sitting right in front of her.

“May I help you?” Anne asked, standing up.

“ I sure hope so. I just moved here a few weeks ago and in dire need of a dye job. I saw you had a lot of good reviews online. Are you the owner?”

“No Ma’am, but I can certainly do your hair for you.”

Debra rattled her long purple fingernails on the desk.

“Well, I pretty much only let the owner of a salon do my hair, but I have a fundraiser tonight, so I guess this is an emergency.”

Debra strutted over and plopped herself down in the first chair, took her sunglasses on and set them on the table in front of her. She looked over at Anne with her arms crossed.

“Well come on now, pretty lady.” Debra said, with a smile.

Over the hour and a ½ the two women spent together, they actually became fast friends. Even though neither Anne nor Debra would’ve guessed it, they shared a lot of things in common: they both grew up in California, were equestrians as young girls, and loved Kevin Costner. When Anne was all finished, Debra gave her a business card and took one of Anne’s, exclaiming they just had to go to lunch one day. And just a few days later, they did, followed by dinner the next night, a gallery opening the following weekend, until finally, Debra invited Anne and her family over for dinner.

Anne had to park nearly half a mile away because she was worried their old station wagon wouldn’t make it up the long, steep driveway. From street level, the driveway looked like a long upwards streaming black river. It was wide at the beginning, then began to narrow as it got closer to the house. It was closed off to the public by a large, iron gate; it had two large letters on it, H and E, that met in the middle when the gate was closed. Anne told her that stood for “Homes Estate” and that having an estate meant you were very wealthy. To Amelia, when she was told someone was wealthy, that meant you weren’t allowed to touch anything when you went to their homes. She made a mental note of this. Anne called up to the house on the call box and Debra opened the gate for them. The iron wrought doors unhinged and groaned as they opened. Amelia imagined they were the mouth of a great whale and, just like Jonah, she and her mother were going to be swallowed whole. A shiver scurried up her spine and she squeezed her mother’s hand tighter.

You couldn’t even see the house until you made it around the first curve of the driveway. When you did, you were greeted with an expansive, unadorned building made of cold, dark steel. It stretched upwards into the trees to where it disappeared among them. Amelia couldn’t tell how many stories it was, but it certainly had to be a lot. The garage door on the bottom level was round, like a semi-circle, and was dark grey. Amelia had never seen a garage door like that before. Above it on the second level were two large picture windows that were copper tinted. Amelia stopped in her tracks and stared at the dark house, realizing that it looked like it was grimacing at her. Another shiver scurried up her spine.

“Amelia sweetheart, what’s a matter?”, her mother asked. Amelia just stared at the house.

“Oh, it’s just a house honey. I know it looks a little scary.”, her mother said as she kneeled down to Amelia’s eye level. Amelia and her mother looked nearly identical: soft brown hair, long eyelashes and velvety white skin. Amelia’s face was spattered with freckles and sometimes Anne would count them as she tried to rock Amelia to sleep at night when she had nightmares, which was often. Anne looked into Amelia’s cavernous blue eyes which were speckled with hints of gold and saw a reflection of her younger self.

“Remember how I told you Debra’s husband is an architect? Well, he built this house like a fortress. It keep Debra really safe. I promise it’s not scary honey.” she said, reassuringly.

Amelia looked at her mother, nodded and swallowed hard, hoping she could push her fear down her esophagus and into her stomach. Anne took her hand and marched towards the front door. Amelia looked up and saw the tree branches formed a dome over the house. It made it feel so cut off from the rest of the world. A shiver scurried up Amelia’s spine.


* * * * * * *

Ever since Amelia was little she feel and sense things a bit deeper than most people. She always knew when an earthquake was going to hit, when a pie was done in the oven and always, always knew if there was a ghost present. She could never see them, just sense them, but most of all, she could smell them. The smell of a decaying soul: musty, stale, cold. It was the smell of dead leaves. The never spoke to her or bothered her; they only made themselves known. Amelia tried to mother once, but she brushed it off, assuming it was the after affects of having seen a scary movie. There were places she knew were safe, like her home, but going out into unfamiliar places made her feel nauseated with fear.


* * * * *


Anne turned the pitch black knob on the pitch black front door that didn’t have any windows. It groaned just like gate had as Anne pushed it all the way open.

“Hello?” Anne sang, as she stepped into the house. She tried to pull Amelia in too, but Amelia just continued to stand outside. She wouldn’t budge, like anchor, as her mother tugged on her arm.

“Amelia, come inside.” Anne said, sternly.

Amelia shut her eyes tightly and took a big step forward into the house. Her mother let go of her hand and continued walking.

“Debra?” Anne hollered out. It echoed up through the ceiling, down through the hallway and back around to the foyer where Anne and Amelia were standing. As Amelia breathed in she was nearly knocked over with the stench of dead leaves. Her eyes shot open like a jack in the box. The house was bigger inside than she had imagined. Anne grabbed her hand and led her into the living room which felt like it was as big as their entire three bedroom, one story house. The walls were painted a dark purple and they had old paintings of British Kings and Queens framed with gold on them. As Amelia walked past their beady, black eyes followed her. A shiver scurried up her spine.

There were big leather couches and chairs strewn about the living room, creating a maze for Anne and Amelia to walk through. On the end tables were green glass lamps shaped like rhombuses with red light bulbs. Amelia remembered not to touch anything. She took a deep breath and the smell washed over her again. Her eyes began to water, she crinkled up her nose and grabbed her mother’s arm and hid behind her back, burying her face into her sweater. She closed her eyes and breathed in her mothers perfume – a mixture of lavender and baby powder – trying to mask the smell of death surrounding her. Her mother turned around to pull Amelia away, but she wouldn’t budge.

“Amelia honey, what are you doing?” her mother said, laughing. Amelia still wouldn’t budge. She felt her mother tug at her coat, but she didn’t want to smell anything but her mother’s sweater. With her eyes shut tight and her nose buried deep into the light blue cotton of the sweater, Amelia could only hear Debra walk into the living; the clack-clack-clack of her heels announcing her before she spoke.

“Anne Darling! I’m sorry, the telephone rang right after I buzzed you in. Great to see you. Did you bring the rest of the family?” Debra said, obviously not noticing Amelia concealed behind her mother’s back.

“Well, Ben couldn’t make it, but Amelia is just hiding here behind me. Amelia, stop being fussy and say hello to Debra!” Anne sad, frustrated. Amelia knew she had to move. She peeled her face away from her mother’s sweater and peeked it around her waist. Debra smiled and the corners of her mouth nearly touched her ears.

“My, aren’t you precious? Hello Amelia, I’m Debra.” she said, bending over at the knees and waving her hand slightly.

Amelia peered up at Debra like a china doll, still not removing herself completely from the safety of her mother’s back.

“Oh dear, don’t be afraid of this little old house. It’s hardly even a year old, so you know it can’t be haunted!” Debra said as she and Anne shared a laugh. Amelia was not amused by this completely incorrect notion, but dragged herself over to Debra and shook her hand.

“Nice to meet you Mrs. Holmes” Amelia mumbled.

“Debra is fine honey.”

Debra and Anne started to walk towards the kitchen as Debra offered Anne a glass of wine. Amelia latched back onto her mother’s hand like a suction cup. She kept her head down and tried to lose herself in the women’s conversation. She didn’t want to be too aware of the atmosphere around her. She felt the smell creep up around her back and hover around the crown of her head. It was that all too familiar feeling of thinking someone was walking just a few paces behind you. She knew it well. She shut her eyes tight and let her mother lead her into the kitchen.

One they were there, Anne let go of her hand, but Amelia still lingered as close to her as possible. Once the women were finished drinking their white wine, Anne leaned down to tell Amelia that she and Debra were going to go to her office to talk for a bit. Amelia looked at her mother’s face with a deeply seated fear. She knew that this usually meant she couldn’t come.

“Can I come too this time? Please?” she begged. Amelia looked at her mother sheepishly, hoping to persuade her.

“No, sweetheart I’m sorry. It’s just going to be boring adult conversation anyways. Why don’t you go explore the house? It’s really huge and there is even a pool and a racquet ball court!” Anne said, hoping to encourage her to be more excited about being left alone. Amelia wasn’t impressed. She scooted closer to her mother and looked into her eyes with despair. Her mother didn’t recognize the fear and only thought she was being stubborn.

“Dear, we won’t be long at all. You’ll be fine.”

“You have free reign over the whole house!” Debra chimed in.

“I love you.” Anne said, as she kissed Amelia forehead and slid away with Debra. And just like that, Amelia was alone. The sun was starting to se outside and it lit up the house with a red glow, laced with bursts of orange from the copper in the window tinting. Red and orange, Amelia thought, just like the colors of autumn. Her heart began to beat rapidly in her chest, thumping so hard against the skin she felt as if it might just break her ribcage. She looked out of the kitchen window and watched as night creeped in around all the corners of the house. She was trapped, she thought. She ran out of the kitchen into the living room, turning on as many lights as she could. She stared at the clock on the wall and saw that only a few minutes had passed since her mother had left with Debra. She cursed at time for moving so slow, stomping her feet on the ground. She just wanted to get out of that house and back to the safety of her own home. Her house didn’t smell like dead leaves because there weren’t any ghosts there. Debra’s house was thick with the stench of dead leaves. Thick with the stench of ghosts.

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