The mountain trails of Styria were a harder workout than the ones Penny was used to in Pasadena. The mountain air was cooler than home with a mist that dampened the ground and softened the sound of her steady pace. She heard something moving through the underbrush to her right but there was nothing she could see. She stopped to look but the early morning light was too dim to make out anything except the nearest undergrowth. She started jogging again toward the castle. The sound returned after another five minutes of her jog. Penny wondered if someone was following her now. She picked up a sturdy branch and slipped into the trees. The wet leaves let her move quietly so she nestled herself into a thick copse of hemlock. The sound started moving along the direction she would have been jogging. She let whatever it was get ahead of her position in the trees. She got back on the jogging trail and walked staying alert for sounds or tracks. She found something in the mud and leaves that looked like a very large cougar track but that was ridiculous for this part of the world. She wondered if some animal might have escaped a zoo because there were no cats this size in Austria.
Penny kept the branch while she walked and kept looking for more signs. If it was a big cat, running would just attract its attention. She found a few more prints that were just as large as the first. The prints weren't expanded by the wetness. This cat was huge. She heard the sound moving in the undergrowth again. The thing seemed to be following her. She walked loudly into the trees making a racket with the branch banging the branches and tree trunks. She saw something black and low to the ground slinking away into the deep undergrowth about twenty yards away. Her senses were keyed up and her curiosity pushed her to check the ground where she saw the thing but the place was too thickly covered with dead leaves to find clear tracks. The undergrowth showed signs of breakage and some stiff black animal hair. All the signs said it was a big cat so Penny kept up the noise to discourage it coming closer.
She got back to the trail and walked on toward the castle. She wanted to be able to hear anything following her and running could easily trigger a cat’s prey instincts. Penny wished she’d asked Missy to come but she hadn’t wanted to disturb her sleep. She and Laura had been up late talking about schools she might go to and what to prepare in a portfolio. Penny knew Missy wanted to go to a school in Europe for Helen. She thought about Helen saying she had a crush on her ever since Nebraska. She thought about that fight in North Platte, again. The shock she’d always thought was because she couldn’t believe Helen had done that to her. Penny asked herself if that shock was also because she had a crush on Helen, too. She thought about their dance in Aachen and wishing she’d felt free to follow that crush. She had felt her attachment to Sheldon too much to do anything more with her than dance. The waltzing with Sheldon in Vienna came to mind. The golden decked halls and gorgeous painted ceilings of the Hofburg were still fresh in her memory.
The prowling rustle in the brush shook Penny out of her reverie. She batted the brush and whooped a loud cry. The animal noises ran away from the trail. Penny kept up some noise while she followed the path. Sheldon had brought her to the Hofburg a few times, even with Missy once down in Texas. The dances were always the same. The people never varied even when Sheldon changed the clothes or time. She thought of Aachen and working with Helen’s team. Unbailing hay, rubbing down the horses, mucking the stalls, Sheldon had never gone near any of that in his time at the Festival. You’d never know it existed in his dreamscape. She thought about the last tour she had taken with Sheldon before this trip. He had shown her more about trains and engineering than she had thought possible. She was sure he had something on his mind fretting with the cutlery in the café. Her thoughts were broken by the slinking that returned in the brush. She shouted and rapped the branches overhead with her stick. The creature slunk away. Penny thought she saw a black animal skulking low to the ground about thirty yards into the trees. She rushed into the tree line smacking the wood loudly. The animal ran away from her into the deeper brush.
‘I’m sick of this cat and mouse game.’ Penny wished she had her bow or better a rifle with a big cat out in the woods slinking along with her. She hoped it was just curiosity but she’d feel better back at the castle. She wanted to explore the place if her hosts didn’t mind. She could take one of the guided tours, at least. She thought of that Italian family and young Luciana. She’d asked if the show was going to film at the castle or move to Europe from the US. Penny had to disappoint her, although the girl was right. Karnstein would be a marvelous filming location. She had enjoyed indulging Luciana’s enthusiasm. She loved meeting people who engaged the show creatively. Penny wanted to take a look whether Luciana’s blog photos had made it to the Hexist website with their weird interpretations of the cast’s real lives.
Penny stopped in apprehension. That was no girl’s voice. It was a man’s voice, familiar but she couldn’t place it. She listened for movement but there was silence.
‘Come on, Kaley, you know we should be together.’
‘Jonas Twill! Where the hell are you?’ She was furious. They should have let her know that nut was on the loose. How could he have even found her here in Karnstein of all places unless he saw those damn blog pictures.
‘We’re soulmates, Kaley. We’ll be together forever.’
‘The hell we will. I am Penny Queen, asshole! I’m no one’s soulmate!’ She didn’t have Sheldon around but she didn’t need him this time. Penny gripped the branch and barged into the tree line where Jonas’s voice had come from. She heard running and saw a figure disappear into the brush. She halted when she heard a roar like a cougar and a man’s voice screaming for help. The screams ended. The forest was silent like it had been when her jog had begun. Penny guessed the running didn’t pay off for Jonas.
She had to tell someone and get the police here. She had to call someone but she didn’t have her cellphone. The horseflies were waking and beginning to look for a meal. They were a nuisance that Penny batted away. She grumbled about not thinking of a cap for her hair as she batted at a persistent pest.
Penny woke up annoyed at the flies that weren’t there when she woke. She blinked in confusion and laughed. She was in the four poster bed she’d gone to sleep in and her phone was buzzing on the nightstand by her bed. Her alarm for 7am was demanding she leave the sumptuous warmth of the duvet that spread over her on the king sized bed. She turned off the phone and flumped back on the bed while dragging a pillow across her face. She closed her eyes and imagined life as an Austrian countess who didn’t think of waking before 3pm.
‘I’m just the guest of one.’ She tossed the pillow aside and abandoned her delightful linen nest. The setup of her suite was similar in size and design to her rooms in Pasadena. She padded into the bathroom to prepare for the day with a quick shower. She thought about the dream. Jonas had scared her more than anything in her life but she hadn’t been scared in the dream. She laughed at herself for lunatic courage walking in between a madman and a cougar armed only with a stick. She was happy that dream hadn’t scared her this time. She wondered what a cougar in a dream might mean though.
She went back into the bedroom when she was done showering and thought about diving back into her fortress of overstuffed pillows. Her grumbling stomach had other ideas so she gave in to hunger and went to dress. This place had a much better walk in closet than Los Robles though which saddened Penny to look at while she prepared for the day. Sheldon just did not appreciate closet space like the Karnsteins.
Laura was already eating in the family salon when Penny came in. ‘Hey, good morning! Breakfast is served.’ She sprang up to bring Penny over to the sideboard where the trays, bowls, and tureens were laden with food that looked familiar. Sausages, scrambled eggs, bacon, and rolls were in abundance. Odder morning foods to Penny like baked beans, kippers, and marmite were plentiful.
‘Beans? Why baked beans?’
‘Carm doesn’t understand beans for breakfast, either. It’s just not an English breakfast without them. My dad was from England and he had to have at least one real English meal every day.’ Laura told Penny about her family. Her mother was Karnstein Valley Styrian but her father was from Kent and became more English with every day in Styria. Laura had never been there but she liked to keep some things alive for his sake like an English breakfast, a ritual that couldn’t be ignored.
Penny filled a plate and joined Laura. She looked closer at the Karnstein crest on the silverware and dishes after she sat down. There was a green shield on horizontal white and green stripes. The shield had a large ornate K for Karnstein on top instead of a crown like the duchy’s flag. Unlike the stylized white panther on the shield of the Styrian flag, this one had a black panther that looked just like the animal in her dream.
‘If you like it, I’m sure Carm will let you take a set home. She doesn’t put a lot of attachment onto family regalia.’
‘Thanks, but I was thinking of a dream I had last night. I was jogging in the forest somewhere around the castle. I kept hearing some animal following me. It looked a lot like the one on here.’
‘Did it just follow you?’
‘Yeah, mostly. I was jogging and daydreaming about the trip and other things. This cat thing would start following me and I’d make some noise and it would run away.’ Penny stared at the crest and coaxed the details of her dreams.
‘What do you think it means? Why was the cat following you, besides wanting to eat you?’
‘I’m not sure. I didn’t feel scared of it. It would run away, I’d start daydreaming, and then it would be back breaking my train of thought.’
‘Morning y’all! Did you sleep alright?’
‘Hi to you, too.’ Penny laughed at being broken out of thinking about being broken out of her train of thought.
Missy was introduced to the food and settled herself down with her friends.
‘I guess we’re not waiting for Carmilla, Laura?’
‘You see that bookcase to the right of the door? Those are some of the annals of the castle. The top right is always the current volume being written. If you ever see Carm before noon, write it down in there. It would be the biggest event since the Ottomans besieged the place in 1493. I wasn’t joking about her sleeping habits.’
The guests envied Carmilla’s sleep schedule but they did have things they wanted to do, today. Missy brought up to Laura her wanting to find a school for film and TV production. She was thinking of one in Europe because she was probably being a fool. Helen was going to be working in Bavaria so Missy wanted to be in the neighborhood as much as finding a decent school.
‘We can go to the school and look at what you can do. I have a couple of dissertation students coming to discuss their projects in the morning. We’ll have all afternoon to see what you can do. Do you have any film or art portfolios to look at?’
‘Not proper ones for a school, but I can show you a few of the TV projects I worked on that are online. Some advertisements, public relations work, a mix of things.’
‘That’s a start. What about you, Penny?
‘I wanted a better look at the castle. Are they doing any tours?’
‘Don’t do that unless you really want to. You're one of us here. Just ask Madame Perrodon to show you around, the housekeeper. She knows this place better than any tour guide.’
After breakfast, Laura made some suggestions about where to go, especially the library. There were a lot of folios of French and Italian plays that she would like as an actress. She did point out Carmilla’s rooms while they walked to the elevator so Penny didn’t barge in on her wife in her exploration. Penny went back to the salon after the elevator took them down to the garage. She got another coffee to think over a plan of action with.
A sixtyish, tall, heavyset woman came into the salon with a two other people. She stopped when she saw Penny sitting in a corner chair by the window.
‘Good morning, I am Madame Perrodon. You are Miss Penny Queen, yes?’
‘Yes, hi… I’m not in the way, am I?’
‘No, not at all, but we are cleaning the breakfast. You are finished, yes?’
Penny found Madame Perrodon was more comfortable with French than English or German but she was used to using a mix of languages with her employers. She was from Switzerland and had worked for Laura’s family since Laura was a baby. The woman reminded Penny of Connie so much that she had to make sure Missy met her. She gave Penny a rundown of the castle’s levels if she wished to explore. Penny opted for the library, first.
She stopped in amazement in the doorway. The library was a cavern the size of Los Robles Cottage from the look of it. Madame Perrodon pointed out the general layout of subject matter around the two stories of book cases. A mezzanine surrounded the room which had spiral stairways at the four corners of the library. The main floor had numerous couches and chairs for reading in front of the three large windows on the south side of the room. The mountains behind the castle made a meditative view for users of the room.
‘Miss Laura thought you might like the computer so it has been prepared for you and your friend.’ Madame Perrodon brought Penny over to the windows and the laptop. Laura had left instruction for setting up video calls if she wanted to call home.
Penny was grateful for her host’s thoughtfulness. The housekeeper made sure Penny was happy and pointed out the intercom if she needed anything. She chose a leather upholstered armchair and pulled the laptop closer. She checked the time and expected Bernadette might be home on a late Tuesday evening but she and Howard didn’t seem to be in. She left a video message for Bernadette and a special one for Halley. She hesitated before calling Sheldon. Her dreams from last night and that cat came to mind. It kept distracting her from her daydreams and always when they were about Sheldon.
Penny noticed some decanters and glasses on a desk between the windows. She opened one with a dark golden liquor inside. The aroma was very much like the Tokay Maleva had said could be found here. She poured a small glass and took a sip. She hummed in pleasure. It was Tokay. If anything, it was better than the wine she’d had at the séance. ‘No wonder your dad only drank this stuff, Maleva.’
She went back to her chair and took a deeper sip. She savored the taste and contemplated the mountains. She looked at the glass in her left hand and let her mind drift to coax back the dream of jogging, last night. The glass was etched with the Karnstein shield with its panther. ‘What are you trying to tell me, kitty?’
She remembered the difference between Sheldon’s Aachen and the real one. There was so much missing in his Aachen from the world of horses she knew. ‘What else have I missed in his dreams?’ Even her séance rodeo had the smells she knew. She even recalled the smell of barbecue on Helen’s breath when they argued back in Platte. Helen Geffin, she could still feel the gossamer softness of Helen’s hair on her cheek when they danced. She had wanted to go further with Helen but it would have felt like cheating. Cheating on a dead man. Alright, a ghost but dead none the less. She hadn’t really felt attracted to anyone since Elizabeth and Zane. She was acting like she was married. And the cat, always there, always following, always directing her thoughts from Sheldon. ‘Have I been up there in that study too long, kitty? Bernie would say I was, for sure.’
The films her agent had sent were all going to film overseas. They all excited her but she hadn’t thought about needing to leave Los Robles for months on end. There had even been a TV production in the UK sending feelers in regards to after her contract with The Coven concluded. That would mean even longer away than a film. Penny recalled Sheldon’s dismay at the white boards being taken over by her other life- her job. What did she want to do with the physics? She’d wanted to understand what was on those boards and she had. She thought of building the collector’s room and Sheldon daring her to use her mind instead of hiding it. She was grateful for that but now what? She’d gotten the acting on her own. It’s what she had wanted when she’d left Nebraska. Helen had wondered how she’d gotten so far from home. Penny found herself asking what was holding her back from going further. The crystal panther before her eyes begged her to answer.
She finished her wine. She thought about the end of her dream, running into Jonas Twill. She didn’t ever like to think about it but she couldn’t help it whenever some excited fan would surprise her from behind. She’d be there that night Jonas ambushed her for a second whenever that happened. She was glad Sheldon had been there that night and in the courtroom later but in the dream she’d felt she didn’t need Sheldon there. She wanted that feeling back before Jonas had ever jumped her. She felt like she should have handled it, could have handled it even if Sheldon hadn’t been there but she couldn’t know it like she did in her dream.
The library felt too silent for where her thoughts were going. ‘Let’s go see the sights, kitty.’
Penny set the glass down and turned off the computer. She wanted to lighten her mood so she started exploring the library. Madame Perradon’s layout led Penny to the mezzanine and the philosophy, spiritualism, and magic books. There were a lot that she heard of from Maleva and her own small collection. Aristotle, Heraclitus, Eratosthenes Constellation Myths, Cornelius Agrippa’s Books of Occult Philosophy, Livris Eibon and many more but they were in Latin and Greek to her disappointment. The poetry had better results. She discovered a 17th century English edition of Orlando Furioso translated by Sir John Harrington.
She was enchanted by the engravings of Bradamante Valorosa, armored and on her horse ready for battle. She would not marry anyone who could not defeat her at arms. Penny had never liked that part. That hit her all the more when she thought about Jonas and Sheldon’s help. She liked feeling ready to fight him without Sheldon's help in the dream. She’d been happy to scare the life out of Lynn with that power but Penny wondered if she was depending too much on Sheldon. She started a happy dance when she found The Lusiads, it was a 16th century edition and in Portuguese but it was familiar enough to find the lines she wanted. She read them aloud speaking to the hall and the mountains outside.
Amor é um fogo que arde sem se ver,
é ferida que dói, e não se sente;
é um contentamento descontente,
é dor que desatina sem doer.
Penny felt discontentment this morning. She needed fresh air. There was plenty of that in the Austrian mountains.
‘You sound more French than Portuguese.’
Penny jumped and spun around on Carmilla standing by the shelves of poetry. ‘Where did you come from, a secret passage?’
‘It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you but it’s not really a secret. There’s a doorway to my rooms behind that tapestry at the end of the mezzanine. The one with the constellations of Eratosthenes on it.’
‘Really? I’m sorry if I was too noisy reading out loud like that.’ Penny hadn’t thought about bedrooms being near the place.
‘You weren’t but I was wondering about you after last night.’
‘I’m fine just some strange dreams about giant mountain lions in Austria,’ Penny put the books away.
‘And how did that lead to Camoes?’
‘Nothing, I just wanted to look around the library. I wish I could speak all the languages here so I could read them.’ Penny showed Carmilla the books she’d taken special interest in.
‘Orlando, that was one of my father’s favorites. He might have been happier without a son if I had been more like Bradamante. He didn’t know what to do with a daughter except see she was married off.’
‘We have that in common, anyway, except my dad had me out hunting, riding, and the rest like a boy which drove my mom up the wall. A lot of mixed messages from that house.’ Penny didn’t want to go down a road that sounded like self-pity so she perused more of the books.
‘Where you on safari for big game in your dream, last night?’
‘No, I was jogging and some kind of black cat thing was following me. It was a lot bigger than any cat I ever heard of going from its paw prints. I think it was… you, I guess?’
‘You see me as a large predatory animal?’ Carmilla raised an eyebrow and smirked stepping closer to the taller Nebraskan actress.
‘No, although you sleep like a cat if Laura is anything to go by.’ Penny rolled her eyes and giggled. ‘I was looking at your family crest this morning and it looked a lot like the cat in my dream. I figure the cat was your advice on my mind in the dream.’
‘Dreams are a doorway into the soul. I hope the cat was helpful. What was this cat doing in your dream, dancing with a fiddle?’
‘I guess Maleva wrote to you about the last séance I had with her when she introduced Missy and me?’ Penny looked out the windows gathering her thoughts. Everyone saw Sheldon, Missy and I did, at any rate. The others said they only saw a grey mist. Sheldon jumped inside me, a spirit possession. That’s as far as they know, even Missy. Sheldon has been haunting my house, his house, anyway Los Robles Cottage used to be his house. His experiments were sabotaged. He died accidentally before he could solve it so his ghost was stuck there trying to finish the job. I helped finish it and he’s been there with me ever since.’
‘No one knows there’s a ghost there besides you?’
‘Sheldon kept the place well haunted. No one wanted it until Bernadette and I moved in there. Sheldon tried scaring us off but his ghost mojo never worked on me for some reason and he never tried it on Bernie, either come to think of it. You are right, no one knows Sheldon is there, well Bernadette’s daughter has been able to see him ever since she was born. I think it’s because she saw him when she was a newborn. Missy can sense what he’s thinking and I think she can feel when he’s around but she doesn’t know for sure. They are twins so it might be similar to Halley. You’re taking all this about Sheldon really well.’
‘My family has had a long association with the supernatural. Laura keeps asking why none of the Karnsteins have shown up on your show.’ Carmilla snorted and suggested they move to the couches downstairs. She draped herself across one and waved to the couch opposite where Penny lounged in kind. They were interrupted by Madame Perrodon before they could continue their talk.
‘Miss Carmilla, you are up! I came if Miss Penny wanted something. Do you both want anything?’
‘Hot chocolate, Penny?’ Carmilla made the order two after Penny nodded.
‘Laura wasn’t kidding about never seeing you before noon, I guess.’ Her voice was a mix of incredulity and laughter. ‘Wait a minute, I promised Laura this.’
Penny ran down the hallway to the salon and returned with the castle annals that Laura mentioned. Penny got a pen from one of the lecterns. She opened the book to the most recent entry and began writing the requested historical event. Carmilla glided over to sit by Penny and followed what she was writing. Carmilla made a few emendations and additions directed at her wife concerning the dungeon and witnessed the entry next to Penny’s signature.
‘Now Penny, you are one of us. You are a part of Karnstein history, and entitled to all the rights, privileges, and demonic curses that pertain there to.’
Madame Perrodon came back with the hot chocolate and the remains of yesterday’s sachertorte. Meanwhile, Penny and Carmilla got some very large plush pillows and blankets from Carmilla’s rooms to make their chat more civilized. They pushed the couches closer to the table and nested.
‘This is what Karnstein women get up to, is it?’ The hot chocolate was rich and velvety like nothing Penny had had before. This would be perfect if Bernie was here.
‘When at all possible, although horseback riding, reading obscure books, and murder are frequent alternatives between bouts of lurid waltzes and general mayhem.’
They savored the chocolate. Carmilla came back to Penny and Sheldon. ‘So, no one knows Sheldon is there, with exceptions, whose idea was that?’
‘I didn’t want Bernie getting frightened and later he didn’t want his family descending on him. It seemed easier to keep it secret after a while.’ Penny was tired of the secrecy. It would be nice not having people looking at her like a nutcase whenever Sheldon was yammering at her in public.
‘Is that fair to your Bernie, or to Missy and her family? Is it fair to you?’
Carmilla let the silence speak. They sipped their hot chocolates. Penny looked into the dark soulful eyes across the table but she could only let the silence answer.
Missy helped Laura with the shopping bags of cookies and treats from the chocolatier in the village they’d stopped at on the way home.
‘You really should add the University of Music and Performing Arts to your applications list. It’s got everything you need and you can apply to the Film Academy there. That would really let you develop your production and directing interests.’
‘That would be great but you haven’t seen how embarrassing my high school and college grades were.’ The elevator let Missy and Laura off in the family wing after the morning at Le Fanu.
‘Art schools care a lot more about work in the portfolio than grades on math and science tests. Focus on what you’ve done and can do, especially get any letters of recommendation from directors and producers you’ve worked with. Don’t forget any art departments like those advertisers you interned with. Think like an artist, not like your brother and pure academics.’ They stopped in the kitchen to put some of the purchases away.
‘Miss Laura, your wife and Miss Penny are in the library.’ Madame Perrodon took their lunch requests before they left to find their missing halves.
‘Can’t wait to find out what they’re up to.’ Missy hadn’t seen the library yet so she was eager to see what would pass for one here. She wasn’t disappointed when Laura opened the double doors. She gaped in awe at the interior.
‘Great Stoker’s Ghost, she’s turned Penny into one of her.’ Laura waved to Missy and pointed out the couches with the bundled sleepers.
The women on the couches opened their eyes to peer at the intrusion on their nap. Laura and Missy pressed their invasion to the couches forcing their other halves to sit up grumbling in protest. Madame Perrodon entered with two of her staff and with her Swiss efficiency had lunch set up for the women and the linens that Carmilla and Penny used whisked away. The hot chocolate mollified the awakened pair. Missy’s bag of chocolate truffles succeeded in making peace in the library. Laura noted the volume of the annals while she poured her hot chocolate and Penny invited her to look at the newest entry.
‘I can’t believe you saw her awake at 10am and I missed it!’ Laura giggled her way through Penny’s description of the event. She added a few side notes to her wife’s added comments.
‘History recorded, we should take that horse ride you wanted, yesterday. You don’t think I got up just to sleep in the library, did you?’ Carmilla knew Laura missed spending more time with her horse so the motorbikes could be indulged, yesterday.
Laura kissed Carmilla for remembering. The women got clothes better suited for horse riding and met at the elevator to the garage. Laura insisted on taking everyone in her car so Carmilla couldn’t start another Grand Prix down the mountain. They arrived sooner than last night thanks to Laura’s direct route. The women brushed down their horses before putting saddling them up. Penny and Missy took extra time with Snape and Lily respectively to let the horses get familiar with their unfamiliar presence. The brought the horses out to the paddock to give them some stretching out and so Penny and Missy could get a feel for the horses they would be using. Laura and Carmilla gave the women some tips on peculiar things that could make their mounts skittish while they exercised their horses around the paddock.
They rode the trails up into the eastern hills of the valley. The trail was a commonly used forest track between the Karnstein valley and the Rittersburg valley. Carmilla and Laura rode a few horse lengths ahead giving Missy and Penny a chance to spend some time together, today.
‘Did you like experimenting with being a vampire, sleeping by day in a castle of immortal evil?’
‘I’ll need to try it out for a century or two but I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the blood sucking. The chocolate is better, though.’
‘How did you two end up conked out like that?
‘Like I put it in the annals, Carmilla found me reading poetry in the library. We got to talking about the séance and stuff last night out at Laura’s old house.’ Penny slipped into her pensive face.
‘What really happened with you and Sheldon at the séance?’ Missy still found it hard to believe they had talked to a real ghost that night but she had seen Sheldon clear as day. It was his voice coming out of Penny.
‘Have you ever felt Sheldon was around you, Missy? You said you thought you heard him talking to you while you were falling asleep a little after you came to Los Robles. Did you ever feel anything like that any other times like he was really there?’
‘You’re going to think it’s strange but yeah, when you’re around.’ Missy dismounted to give her horse a rest and to think for a minute. Penny followed suit and looked around for that cat for just a second.
‘I think the first time was when we went to Lynn’s place. I felt like he was standing just out of the corner of my eye. The séance, it felt just like Lynn’s house for a second just before Sheldon appeared in the séance. The funniest was dreaming the three of us were here in Austria. We were all in Vienna watching the Lipizzaners and Sheldon asked us to go waltzing at the Hofburg. I had to have made up the dancing but it seemed so real. I had the same kind of dreams before we left for Europe. He and I were horse backing in Texas. I keep getting stuff like that with you, feelings and dreams whenever you’re around, except here in Europe. There’s been nothing that felt like Sheldon since we got here. Have you been feeling like he was around?’
‘In a way, there’s more to it than the séance.’ Penny smiled. The day was a lot like she remembered at Los Robles the first time up on the hillside looking down at the valley. 'Los Robles was a troubled house, the whole property was notorious. That’s what made it so cheap. Howard tried talking us out of it every day we were there for more than a week.
‘Yeah, he warned me about your rooms at one point. He’s sure Sheldon’s never left.’
‘He’s not wrong. It is Sheldon haunting the place.’ Penny nodded in earnest while Missy just snickered.
‘Come on, Sheldon haunting Los Robles? The séance was amazing but a few creaking doors in an old house don’t make a place haunted.’ Missy wanted proof. Sheldon annoyed her to no end over science but he did teach her the worth of hard facts growing up.
‘Really, it’s more than creaking doors. He was obsessed with solving what went wrong in the arctic. That’s why his spirit never moved on from the house. He would never shut up about it. I got into studying it just to figure out what those white boards were saying. I kept on with an M.A. because we were having fun arguing about it all. You can really drive him up the wall with getting things wrong on purpose.’ Penny giggled at some of the arguments they’d had that came to mind.
‘Penny, are you sure you aren’t imagining it? I saw what happened at the séance but that could have been all imagination. I wanted to see something that night so I did. I have heard what you can do with your voice like you did at Lynn’s house. Maybe, you just hypnotized yourself in the séance?’
‘There’s no hypnosis. I know Howard is jumpy about the house but the guy is an astronaut. He doesn’t crack under pressure that would have you and me screaming like loons. He was terrified of the house before Bernie and I moved in. You heard him at dinner that night we finished the sale, he still wants nothing to do with the place. He’s afraid because the place really is haunted. Sheldon can scare the crap out of anyone. You felt that at Lynn’s house, even a little at the séance. That is literal death you’re feeling because he is dead. A ghost isn’t a presence. It’s an absence, an absence of all life, a black hole that feels like it’s sucking your life and soul into nothingness, a hole in living existence. Mostly, he’s just bumbling around and being an annoying geek in his haunting but when he’s angry or upset, I think he could truly scare someone to death like Lynn and Frank felt.’
‘Are you sure you just haven’t been playing Kaley Jenkins too long? That sounded more like a speech from your show than the real world.’
‘Career wise, I might be getting close to too long but Sheldon isn’t from getting buried in the role.’ Penny could get the proof right now easy enough outside this valley with a smartphone connection. She could borrow Laura’s computer again and let Missy see Sheldon that way but she would like to just be believed.
Penny noticed how far ahead their friends were getting. She pointed out the distance and then they remounted to catch up. They rode silently for a couple minutes letting the horses go at a quick trot. Laura and Carmilla reined in their horses when they heard the faster hoof beats behind them. Missy told them she and Penny were deep in family chat and fell behind again. Their hosts, satisfied all was well, told Missy and Penny the trail went on up about two more miles to a pond where they’d wait for them. They rode ahead understanding their guests wanted some privacy.
Penny leaned forward to breathe in Snape’s musky scent. The warm horse hair after a run brought Penny back to Nebraska. She could feel Chucky’s saddle and the scent of his mane. Her grandfather’s old horse. She was four and grampa had picked her up off the corral rail and sat her in front of him. Penny knew the poor thing was too old to do much more than a quick walk but at four it had felt like she was flying. She had felt like she could ride forever.
‘You remember that backpacking in Texas dream, right? What did it feel like, sounds, sights, all that?’
‘I don’t know, pretty much like I remember the trips. Sheldon complained about everything between moments of being something special like the séance.’ Missy remembered the advice and the kindness she’d never heard from him when he was alive. That had to be a dream.
‘The senses, though, what did you feel? How did it feel compared to what we’re doing right now?’
Missy looked around taking in the scenery. It wasn’t east Texas they were riding through so the air was alive with different smells and sounds from forest on their right than the woods of home. The Texas landscape had been flatter and not as dense but the dream forest didn’t carry the smells it should have. She loved the scent of the long leaf pines but she couldn’t remember that from the dream. She remembered the heat and the heavy humidity of the swamplands but there were no smells of the magnolias or the sweetgums which Missy loved when she went camping back home. ‘It’s weird but the smells were different. I remember passing a magnolia in bloom and I didn’t smell a thing from it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind because I love that smell, Sheldon couldn’t stand them, though.'
‘Sheldon remembers his dreams, his life, the way he wanted it. He edits it or forgets it, amounts to the same, so you don't sense what he would wish to not have in his dreams. I noticed that in Aachen. I have been there in Sheldon’s dreams, to the time you both went but when we got there this time it was a revelation. The horses, the stables, heck even the horse dung, I felt like I’d gone back home to Nebraska for a second. Sheldon’s dreams don’t have any of that so when you’re in one with him those smells are gone. I know it’s not just because of the dreams because in the séance I went back to that rodeo with Helen. All the smells and sounds and everything was there just like being in Aachen or right here. We love this stuff so it’s all there in our souls.’
Missy tried to recollect the dreams and think about what else might have been like the magnolias. The most obvious was the food. It was all Sheldon’s favorites. It was funny in her recollection how it’s cooking on the fires had almost no smell. He hated the smell of food cooking other than Meemaw’s pies and cakes. The grills were impossibly clean for camp grills. That was something Sheldon would put up no end of fuss about. It might have just been an ordinary dream but why would she make so much to Sheldon’s tastes in her own dreams?
‘I’ll give you there’s some strange goings on in Los Robles with the dreams. Let’s say Sheldon is haunting the place, why is he still there? You said it was because he couldn’t solve his arctic problem but why is he still there now that it is fixed?’
‘I couldn’t tell you. I have asked myself that or I used to. He’s been part of my life every day since we moved in. I got started on his work, I even buy him comics. I think somewhere I fell in love with him.’
‘You think he’s there because you fell in love with him? I do know my brother some. I love you Penny but I can’t imagine Sheldon being in love with you. He loved himself, Star Trek, and science. I never saw room in him to much care about anyone else except as a necessary evil other than Meemaw and Pop-Pop.’ Missy was back to worrying if Penny might be a little cracked.
‘He is that for sure. He doesn’t understand anyone’s feelings any more than a rock does, including his own. He does care in his whack-a-doodle way but he just has no idea how to say it. He sure doesn’t understand sex. The day he found my set of vibrators I thought he’d die… again. He said he hadn’t been so shocked since the night you tried sneaking Bruce Tague into the house.’ Penny chuckled at that but Missy looked shocked.
‘Did he write that down somewhere? He promised never to tell anyone. I had to… never mind. Sheldon would never break a promise.’
‘He was pretty shocked. He didn’t know what he was saying.’
‘He’s really there?’ Missy tried to put into words what it meant that her brother was still with them. ‘Why didn’t you say something before this?’
‘I didn’t want Bernie scared after we moved in. Howard was already creeped out about the house without knowing there were ghosts there. After a while, it was what we did. He really didn’t want your mom finding out or she’d move in with us. Probably, bring her church, too.’
‘Yeah, I’d avoid that, too but what are you going to do? Are you just going to keep living with Sheldon?’ Missy started wondering if she was going screwy taking this seriously, at all.
Penny told Missy about her dream last night with the cat. She was wondering if it really meant she should let the past go like Maleva advised. Carmilla had said much the same, especially about being in love with a ghost. She didn’t want Missy getting the idea she was trying to insert herself between Helen and her so she tried being as diplomatic as possible. She felt like a fool back in eighth grade.
‘Helen has a crush on you?’
I think she’d say it was more the TV star, now instead of that girl in the rodeos that kicked it off. I just wonder with everything, the dream, the séance, what am I missing out on? I would have gone with Helen if I didn’t feel so attached to Sheldon.’
They got to the pond where Carmilla and Laura had set up a small picnic. The arrivals tied up their horses and put their grazing muzzles on to keep them from over eating. Missy sat with their hosts but Penny excused herself to take a walk around the shore.
‘Did you talk about the séance?’
‘Yeah, how did you know?’ Missy hadn’t expected Carmilla to bring that up.
‘Maleva wrote about what happened. It interested us so we wanted to see you and Penny. Did she say much beyond what happened in the séance?’ The women watched Penny throwing stones in the water.
‘She said she’s been living with the ghost of my brother, Sheldon. I know that sounds crazy but I believe her. She’s feeling torn about what she’s been doing and how she’s been living. She loves him and she is starting to notice she’s missing out on life. I guess that’s why she gets so quiet these days. I sound nuts, don’t I?’
‘No, no you don’t. Carm and I have seen ghosts and many stranger things,’ Laura reassured Missy she wasn’t joking. Maleva was worried about Penny. She’d hoped her cousins could give Penny some perspective.
‘Thank you, both of you.’ Missy got up to bring Penny back from her brooding by the pond side. She was surprised when Penny wrapped her in a hug.
‘What are you crying for, Penny?’ Missy didn’t get an answer except for Penny’s arms engulfing her and the actress's ragged sighs so she held her and wished she could kick her brother’s skinny ass.