“The Secrets in the Floorboards”
By JC Coccoli
He broke his gaze just enough to offer a warm smile. “Why, thank ya, Ness– you didn’t have to go through the trouble.”
“Nonsense. Can’t have you starvin’ down here while them folk go wastin’ scraps ‘cause they ain’t fit to be eatin’ ‘em no more,” Nessie replied with subtle irritation.
“Sure, sure,” he replied kindly. “Anybody be needin’ their motor moved?”
She struck up another match. “Not quite yet. They’re still up there a-bickerin’ about ‘whos-its and whats-its.’” She took a pause. “I’ll tell you, this job done-be the death of me one of these days.”
Chauncey looked up from his food. “Ah, hush now. You good at it. You the best at it. Shucks, I’m blinder than a bat on Christmas, and you done-keep that secret better than any locked diary I’ve ever laid down with ink.”
“Well, that ain’t sayin’ much, cause you can’t read, Chaunce,” Ness laughed. They took a moment to break the tension with shared smiles. He was right, though– Ness was the best in town. Just a shame nobody had taken the time to notice.
She took a stare off into the corner. A long, hard stare. There, under another afghan (threaded with soft pinks and blues), she carefully eyed something snug as a bug.
Chauncey knew what she was thinking. “She’s breathing better. S’all that matters.”
Nessie softly walked to the corner of the room, eyeing the baby who was sleeping calmly in the makeshift crib which the Help had put together out of broken pieces of lumber found on the property. So calm. So peaceful. As if even the newborn herself knew that she was a secret. The pigment in the child’s skin was lighter than that of Chauncey or Nessie– a pleasant shade of mocha, with freckles. Her eyes were a light gray, which looked like they could turn into a pale blue with any blink now.
She was breathing better, and yes, that was all that mattered for now.
Chauncey munched away on the lukewarm chicken bits, thankful for anything other than lima beans and grits– his meal for every other day. “We can’t hide her forever. We’ve got to let em’ know someday,” he continued with concern.
Nessie gently touched the side of the baby’s cheek. “Sure, I know.” She took a stern back. “But not now. They ain’t ready to know yet.”
The baby cooed at the touch of Nessie. You see, she was never able to bear children. Not that the Lord hadn’t give her the parts; it was that she’d never found a man who was able to stick around long enough to give her one. Her life had a been one of taking care of others, with a total neglect for her own happiness and well-being. But never try bringing that up to a thick-skinned woman like Nessie; she didn’t have time to sulk in the memories of yesterday– there was work to be done.
Chauncey swallowed the last bite and slapped his hands together to release the last bits of remaining crumbs. “Look, I’ve got something I want to show ya.”
He slowly got to his feet, using the base of a rickety ol’ dresser to catch his balance. He lifted himself up and hobbled to the bedside near the baby, and then raised the mattress to pull out a scrapbook filled with black and white newspaper clippings; bound by tape and glue, each scrap was organized by date.
He smacked the bedside next to him, signaling for Nessie to take a seat. “Come here, Ness.” She obliged, dusting off her dress and giving one last sigh at the little one, and then went to take a seat.
“I’ve been unsettled about them coyotes since the day the family arrived. You think it’s happening again?” Nessie asked as she sat down.
Chauncey flipped through the pages. “It’s too soon to tell, but I do know that this house has rules– and it surely will bring down the guillotine if they ain’t followed.”
“That’s what I be worried about,” she replied, locking eyes with him. “The Misses and the children… they be innocent.”
He went back to the scrapbook. “You think that? That the Misses and the chil’dn ain’t got no idea of the impact that the Master has on a household– or an entire town for that matter? Phooey, I don’t believe at that all, Nessie. Not one bit.”
Chauncey was right. Every man of any house was known to do things of a questionable nature… and, with that, it was the role of the wife (and anyone below her) to keep those questionable secrets dug deep down into the floorboards, until there were enough blankets to cover those secrets up completely. And… forever.
For that was the foundation upon which this house was built.
The house was built in 1865, right as the Civil War had make its mark on the nation forever. The original oak flooring was refurbished, as best as it could be, when the Mason family took it over. Rumors went about town that many had died on the property, whether it be from the Typhoid Fever, malnourishment or an empty heart– each one more deadly than the next. The basement had been used as a place for the men of the town to meet and plan their next strategic move. Men would crowd the basement, smelling of gun powder and brandy, barking orders to one another and letting their bravery speak for itself with every wound.
One fateful night, a southern general had brought his mistress down to share a drink with his men. She had waltzed in wearing her powder-blue hoop skirt and perfectly matched corset. Her skin appeared to glow as her curls carefully kissed the side of her neck down to her bosom. Her beady eyes were a piercing shade of blue, with a small speck of red in each eye. She wore jewelry much like that of a gypsy.
The gentlemen enjoyed the company of this misses, for they had been at war for quite some time. She sat quietly listening to them swap war horror stories, sharing a bottle of brandy. Each man proudly boasted about the many lifeless bodies for which he was responsible– until suddenly, the breathing of the men began to slow. Their eyes widened, and as each one grasped for air, it was clear…. Poison. This magnetic –yet mysterious– gypsy, who had never taken a sip, took a liquid spell to all in her path. As the general’s hand reached up for one last cry for mercy, she knelt down by his side and removed her Diamond Gothic pendant, laying it upon his chest.
The bodies were discovered many weeks later. From then on, the house had been cursed in the eyes of the town. The gypsy woman was never to be seen again. The war had come and gone, but the secrets under the floorboard remained. Who was the gypsy who had come to wreak havoc? Who had sent her?
Nessie palmed the newspaper clipping of the murders of 1865. The idea that the curse could one day come back was displeasing to Nessie, and Chauncey knew it.
The basement door above creaked.
“Nessie! NESS! Come on now, the guests are ready to go!” hollered Dorothy.
Chauncey and Nessie exchanged looks. “I’ll send Neena down to take care of the baby,” she said as she rose from the bedside.
Chauncey nodded in agreement. “Whatever you have brewing in your mind, Ms. Nessie, ain’t too far from the truth. If the stories about this house are true, then there’s hell to be paid.”
Nessie turned back past Chauncey to the baby once more, and became locked into a stare. Thinking. Then Nessie nodded politely and hurried out of the door, securing the wall properly the way they had all been taught to do. She climbed the stairwell, and when the bright lights finally hit her eyes, it was enough to force a subtle squint as she gently closed the basement door.
“Comin’, Madame,” she mustered in a defeated tone, making her way to the kitchen again.
From behind the wall, Walter Mason watched Nessie scurry down the hallway. The master of the house really does see everything, doesn’t he?