James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: The Fourth Chapter

In which we fully introduce Chelsea Colette ‘Creedence’ Rucker, one of my favorite characters in all of my fiction, and a major player in DIXIANA as well. One of the Story River peer reviewers couldn’t understand why she takes up so much of MoHG’s narrative. Mercy. To quote an old Grateful Dead shirt I used to wear, ‘If I Have to Explain It, You Wouldn’t Understand.’

For those just catching up to these posts, click here to read Chapter 1 instead.


MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS

Chapter 4

Brushing a salty tear away from the corner of her eye with a flick of a pale, freckled finger, Devin’s sister stifled a scream, held back the ire against its will. She touched the deep, weary creases in her brow above heavy auburn eyebrows; acid reflux crawled up her gullet. “Edward Devin Rucker, you big dummy. Such a big stupid silly drunk dumbass.”

Chelsea, hanging up the phone hard, the cordless a hand-me-down from her mother’s kitchen counter of ten years ago. She’d fished it out of the trash one day when Eileen had gotten a new model. Perfectly good. Now that Daddy was dead, the woman ought to learn to save some money.

The Rucker daughter stood in her kitchen—it needed a good, deep cleaning, but lord, how she loathed housework—and shook with irritation at her lost older brother, doing god knew what, god knew where, and with god knew whom. God knew this or that—a turn of phrase more her mother Eileen’s than her own. Wrapped up in her mother, day in, day out. Chelsea, on some days with Mama’s voice ringing in her head like tinnitus.

Sounded strange hearing Devin call her Creedence. Chelsea, rarely thinking of herself as that anymore, not since losing her Daddy. Chelsea, this sounded like a woman’s name. Creedence? A skinny ugly dumb redneck girl stuck in Edgewater County, South Carolina. Stuck stuck stuck. Maybe Chelsea, on the other hand, would one day get herself free. They’d called her Colette as a child; her middle name. It had always felt inauthentic. What was wrong with using her first name? Lord, but her mother was a mess.

Eileen, in failing health for real, though. That much true about what she said to Devin. The weight loss. The fatigue. Her pallor. The trips to the bathroom, frequent. And yet, the woman wouldn’t admit to her own daughter that all those mysterious treks down to Columbia were to see doctors.

It was more than speculation. One of the guys in the body shop at the dealership, or rather his wife Felicia whom Chelsea had been in school with since the first grade, had told her that yes, Eileen had been in a number of times to see Dr. LaFreniere, but also that privacy laws were such that to say more could cost her her career. But that she was sorry—so so sorry, those extra so’s seeming like knife wounds in Chelsea’s gut—and to let their family know if there was anything she could do.

Friends. She could count on Felicia more than her own people. Sad and pitiful.

Chelsea, almost shitting a brick—nobody in the healthcare industry would say ‘sorry’ that way if whatever was wrong with Eileen Rucker wasn’t serious, damned serious. If it wasn’t cancer from all those horrid cigarettes, she’d be surprised, mighty durn surprised, ladies and gentleman watching at home, if it also wasn’t terminal.

For once, the sister could understand her brother’s need for a stiff drink.

#

Other voices in her head besides that of her mother: the babbling televisions and radios at the car dealership running constantly like a harsh, constant wail of white noise, the words spoken by the newsreaders and actors only half-noticed as she sat behind the switchboard in the Hampton Motors showroom, a glassed-in cubicle on a small stage, elevated. Her work: sending people and phone calls this way and that way, all day, every day, a task so all-mighty high falutin’ that on most days she ended up wanting to curl in a corner of the break room and croak from the boredom.

Not funny. Not with Mama croaking.

Forget it. That couldn’t be true. It was fine.

When not staring at the showroom television screens tuned to Fox News and ESPN, pointing, or punching line 1 or 2 or 3—Sales, Service, Parts—Chelsea now had her own computer and could sit quasi-discreetly surfing around to internet celebrity gossip sites and other online destinations. After going down the rabbit hole of links, she’d gotten caught up in UFOs, 9/11 conspiracies (what a crock), One World Government paranoia, faked moon landings. After a couple of hours of such surfing she’d feel dizzy from worrying about the Elites and their nefarious plans for humanity, so much so that she had to finally make herself stop reading and thinking about the idea of a cabal of humans controlling everything and everyone, earthly power wielded with godlike consequences, the shadowy puppet masters laughing at all whom they called the Great Unwashed. Chelsea, intrigued but unable to accept that the government would do things to hurt their own people. Insisting that the nature of reality was indeed how it appeared to be depicted on TV. Her mother, agreeing.

Then, a new tangent, one ongoing, reminded by the cloth tube hanging on the wall into which she shoved all the plastic grocery sacks: after stumbling across a story about a giant island of plastic crap floating around in the Pacific Ocean, Chelsea had begun to read and learn about environmental problems. How plastic wasn’t going away, but instead broke down into tiny pellets that shrimp out in the ocean mistook for food and then ate, mutating from it or dying off. How since those tiny shrimp were a minuscule but crucial base of the entire food chain, a potential catastrophe of future worldwide nutritional privation loomed . . .

But what was anyone to do?

Nobody was going to stop using plastic, driving cars, and running AC units, particularly in Edgewater County, so hot in the summer that people called the Carolina midlands the armpit of the South.

 But impossible to ignore, these fears of food running out or the world getting too hot or too cold: Chelsea now had her own legacy to consider in the form of a daughter.

Or maybe a boy.

Certain to be a little girl, though.

One like her.

Another me. Another person.

To replace Mama. 

Once she’s gone.

Eileen’s beloved and only daughter groaned. The phone rang, scaring a scream and a poot out of her.

Mama. “Did you talk to him?”

“Yes.”

“You got him on the phone?”

“Did I stutter?”

Chelsea’s mother, a burst of weeping. Mama Eileen had gales of grief at times. They came and went, almost like she could turn it on and off like a play-actor. “Is he—? Did you—?”

“Yes, Mama. I lied to him and told him you were sick. That he better get home soon, if he was gonna see you again. It made me want to puke. But I lied for you.”

Her tears, evaporating. “Good. That little shit. He doesn’t deserve anyone to tell him the truth.”

“I also told him about the baby. Thought that would help.”

“What’d he say?”

Remembering his nastiness. His disdain. “He sure sounded happy. Hoping it’d be a little nephew for him to play with.”

“Nephew? P’shaw. If it ain’t a little girl, it’ll be the first time I was ever wrong about anything, Colette. Won’t it.”

“Sure, Mama. Whatever you say.”

Digging around in the fridge and suffering innocuous small talk and enduring waves of her Mama’s dry, choking cough, Chelsea begged to be let go and was, but only with great reluctance. They talked three times a day, usually saw each other once or twice. The routine.

Stooped over in lounging pants and oversized Jeff Gordon T-shirt, one of Dusty’s, Chelsea’s house-clothes hung loose, threadbare and stained, fuzzy bedroom slippers worn, stinky. She grabbed a head of iceberg lettuce out of the crisper, the bag of carrots, half a tomato left over from the sandwich Dusty had taken to the hardware store for lunch that day. Trying to eat better, all these salads. Half the time it was still pizza and burgers. Not much of a cook. Her mother had never had the patience to teach her.

Thinking: Maybe this will bring meaning. Us having made a baby.

Us.

She barked a laugh. Caught herself. Suffered a bout of revulsion at that one awful remark of Devin’s.

About the daddy.

Of the baby.

Just morning sickness, her twinge of nausea, only a few hours late today.

#

The baby, the baby, the baby; the baby represented another chance, a new beginning for Chelsea, her husband, her demented-acting mother. For all of them, in fact, and this included poor shattered Devin.

Devin. Driving everyone up the wall with his morose behavior, now, then, always. One particular summer, changing from his sweet former self into a troubled angry little shit, and never looking back. Getting caught drinking, constantly, from that fifteenth year, drinking drinking drinking—Devin, not like your typical kid, getting beerdrunk and ‘partying’. Hell no. Guzzling straight liquor. She saw him do it, time and again, when it was only the two of them at home. He went from being a happy boy who played games with her and did funny voices and dances and laughed all the time straight to a mean old redneck drunk like you would see hanging around that nasty old honkytonk The Dixiana in downtown Tillman Falls. Like in his case, adolescence meant skipping the healthy and productive adult years and going straight to alcoholic, sad and confused curmudgeon.

Then later, Libby’s death at the hands of a drunk driver, but ironically enough, not Devin himself. That mess had been the final nail in an actual coffin into which Chelsea thought her brother should have crawled with his dead girlfriend, for all years he’d lost to grieving and drinking, anyway. She didn’t have the words or ideas for what ailed Devin. Considering the circumstances of what happened to Libby, one would have thought he’d never take another drink, not so much as a drop.

In his case? The opposite. She wondered if he considered that the universe had sent him a message to chill out and clean himself up. Only drinking more, though, after that day. No one could blame him.

And then there was sweet Dobbs, Devin’s best friend who’d been riding with them. Thrown from the car and paralyzed, living ever since just up the road with his own mother. He seemed to have let the tragedy finish him too, only in a different way.

Everybody gave up.

Even Chelsea, in a way.

Dang. So lost in rumination that she’d shredded an entire mound of carrots.

She finished making the salad and envisioned her brother’s imminent arrival in Chilton, not even a goddurn actual place, only an unincorporated collection of subdivisions with the only real town center being Hill Hampton’s car dealership, and quite unlike pretty, preserved Tillman Falls, the county seat, with its town green and statues and sense of history. How she wished she could at least live in one of those nice old southern houses on Whaley Way, with their massive magnolias and oaks and crepe myrtles so ancient that they towered high as trees. That was real money back in there.

What she wanted couldn’t be bought: Chelsea, and the rest of the family, at last managing to heal Devin—ushering him, processional, down the path of wholeness and sanity, at the same time making her saintly mother’s passage from this life to the next as comfy as possible. An act of generosity, a kind of filial duty, one fraught with inherent meaning; her current life felt bereft of said meaning; a no-brainer.

Fix Devin.

And as for Mama, maybe not as sick as she imagined. Her pal Felicia, always such a gossip, going back far as Chelsea could remember.

#

Myriad other worries besides Devin bobbed to the surface like Big Ma-Maw’s homemade dumplings in broth bubbling with greasy fat. But she’d been dead twenty years now, her granny, the first dead body Creedence and Devin had ever seen, and nobody’d had them good dumplings since. Now, with Dusty acting distracted and frightened over the impending birth of their child—yes, she had lied to her brother about Dusty’s enthusiasm—more immediate concerns sat poised to take precedence over old tragedies such as lost-soul brothers, dead grannies, and missing old friends like Libby and Dobbs.

Old friends. 

Old friends who could maybe help Devin. Get him back home.

Covering her salad bowl with Glad wrap and putting it in the fridge, she chewed her lip and glanced sidelong at the phone. Chelsea should have been turning on the oven to preheat for the taters, thick cut steak fries that she refused to put in the Fry Daddy anymore because of Dusty’s growing gut. Instead, she plopped down on a kitchen stool and began doodling on the message pad sitting next to the cordless phone base.

Kitty-cat faces.

Dusty caricatures.

A hollow-eyed skeleton wearing aviator shades.

Devin.

Looking around her home, gripping her stomach, panic at the idea of having been born and living in a South Carolina pine barren with a man she didn’t love.

With his child inside her.

Billy. 

That’s who she’d call. The logic, irrefutable.

Chelsea—Creedence, as he’d remember her—would call Billy Steeple in Columbia. He’d know what to do about Devin. Chelsea, in need of a hand; one of handsome Billy’s hands, doing nicely. The idea of talking to him after so long came as a rare thrill; the fantasy of doing more than talking, as they had almost managed so long ago, left her weak in the knees.

Thinking long and hard before deciding to look up his office number in the Southeastern University online directory, though. Naughty, bad girl thoughts. She stayed so mad at Dusty all the time. And him so namby-pamby and dull and unsexy.

What had happened the last time she left herself think naughty thoughts?

Argh.

Going outside on the porch of her manufactured home, she drank in the springtime Carolina air, tried to clear her head, sneezed from all the yellow pollen that had started blowing off the pine trees. Cussed at all the straw Dusty wouldn’t rake up to save his life. Cringed at the sound of a logging truck choo-chooing on the hill down toward the highway. Heard dogs howling at a far-off siren.

Billy. They had all but screwed that one time.

Still wasn’t clear what had gone wrong.

Maybe it could be fixed. Could go right this time.

With butterflies in her stomach, she ran back inside to make one more phone call today. Devin, Billy, the baby.

The baby.

Chelsea, perhaps at last finding her one true thing.

And deep in her heart she knew, knew it had to be Dusty’s. Uh-huh. Wasn’t no doubt. After all, she’d only done it with one of the car salesmen at Hampton Motors, Buddy Lawler, twice so far.


All right, this concludes the preview of the text of MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS. Hope everyone has enjoyed this tease of this rather long novel for which I am currently seeking a publication partner. Keep fingers crossed that the right one will emerge… even if it’s only yours truly and Amazon Createspace.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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