Writer Devon Glenn loosens the bodice of history with a modern ghost story set in Victorian Cape May, New Jersey. Read more
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In Black Wave, Joan runs the Black Wave B&B with her husband Burt and their clairvoyant daughter, Emily. In this chapter Emily, who has just turned 18, is entertaining the guests when she receives a couple of unexpected visits: one from a friendly spirit who has followed a guest from her room, and the other from Darthilda, the dead medium who has been haunting Emily since childhood.
Cocktail hour was one of the most popular amenities at the Black Wave B&B. Joan had put Emily in charge of entertaining the guests with quickie channeling sessions with the spirits of the house. Spirits and Spirits, it read in the pamphlet. This meant her mother took a break while Emily repeated the lyrics of old drinking songs and listed the prices of liquors in the 19th century to mostly elderly couples who were hard of hearing.
On the night Emily decided to run away she saw a girl who was only a few years older than she was, with thick-rimmed glasses and dark hair. Since the girl was almost finished with her third can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, it seemed like a good time to ask if she’d like to talk to a dead person. Emily walked over to the girl’s table and took the empty seat.
“We’re closing the bar soon,” Emily said. “Can I bring you another one of our Victorian ales?”
The girl set down her can and smiled. “Sure, why not?” she said. “You’re the girl from the pamphlet who does the séances, right?” the girl asked. Emily nodded. “Can I talk to whoever was rattling my dresser drawers last night?”
Emily shrugged. “We’ll see who shows up.” She grabbed two cans of PBR and passed one to the girl. “I’m Emily, by the way.”
“Penny,” the girl said. She turned around and pulled a sweater off the back of her chair. “It’s a little cold in here.”
Emily looked at the sweater – an olive green cardigan. Pinned to the front was a floral brooch set with enamel, sapphires and pearls. As soon as Emily locked eyes with the jewelry a spark appeared on one of its gems. Emily felt a faint tapping on the floor as if music were playing in another room. She saw her right hand fly out to grab the brooch, but could still feel both of her hands in her lap.
“I think someone’s here,” she said. “Whoever it is, she likes your brooch.”
Emily closed her eyes and the image of a tall, slender woman with bobbed hair and a flapper costume danced into her thoughts. “Who’s this?” she asked the woman. Penny looked around at the nearly empty room, amused.
The spirit smiled at both of them and raised her hand. She drew a line across the air, and her words flew out like title cards: “Lorelei Lemke, Untold Tragedy of the Screen.”
Emily watched as the spirit projected images from her life as if in a film on an imaginary screen in front of them. Lorelei had worked as a stage actress in New York City until her mother, a round character with wide eyes and a hat, insisted that she come home to New Jersey to help wait tables in the family restaurant. Unwilling to give up her dreams of stardom, Lorelei took the next train to California. As fate would have it, she met Mr. Lemke, a German traveler en route to Hollywood to produce a silent film. He was enchanted by Lorelei’s beauty. He brought her to Hollywood for an audition. The former stage actress took to the screen like needle to a phonograph. She didn’t need color or sound - her face was unforgettable. Lorelei’s mother had given her a brooch for her eighteenth birthday and when Lorelei appeared in her first motion picture, she pinned it to her dress in the hope that her mother, wherever she was, would see the film and know that Lorelei hadn’t forgotten about her. Lorelei got her wish of stardom, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for her to return home. (The starlet drew a handkerchief to her mouth and pulled it back to reveal a perfect drop of blood in the shape of a heart.) Lorelei died of tuberculosis two years later. So she came back after death to console her mother, who had not only seen the film, but who had planned to attend her daughter’s wedding in California shortly before her death. Lorelei married Mr. Lemke in a lavish ceremony by the sea. When her mother passed, they took turns visiting one another – Lorelei’s mother enjoyed watching new films in the plush theatres of Los Angeles; Lorelei always stopped by her old parents’ old diner on her way to their favorite vacation spot in Cape May. When Lorelei saw a brooch just like hers in Penny’s drawer, she wanted to touch it, just to remember.
“Maybe it’s hers,” Penny said. “I got it at a vintage shop in Los Angeles.”
Lorelei put her hands on her heart and smiled. The lights in the dining room flickered.
“She’s happy that you have it,” Emily said.
“Is she the one moving the drawers around in my room?” Penny asked.
“Yes, and she’s sorry if she woke you up,” Emily said. She watched Lorelei’s face for further instructions. “But she does think it’s funny that in her life as a silent film actress, she was seen but never heard, while in death, she is heard but not seen.”
Penny pulled out a clothing catalog dated 1924. Lorelei’s eyes lit up. “What’s that?” Emily asked.
“I’m the costume director for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan,’” she said. “We’re setting it in 1924 when the play premiered, as if Joan of Arc were alive at the time - a modern adaptation of sorts.”
“Cool,” Emily said. She fingered the catalogue, her hand resting on a drawing of a brazier with laces on each side. “That looks complicated,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a Symington Side Lacer,” Penny replied. “It makes your chest look flatter. Androgyny was the look back then – probably why they liked Joan of Arc. I need to find some kind of undergarment for when she puts on her armor. ” Penny pointed to a shapeless cotton nightgown with lace embroidery in the shape of a cross. “What does the ghost think of this?”
“No one in the audience will be able to see the embroidery on stage,” Lorelei wrote. “And that will never fit under her armor.” She raised her arms in the air and slid her hands down the sides of her waist, then up and down each arm and across her chest like she was bathing herself.
Emily nodded. “She says, ‘go with the art silk – it drips off your body like water after a hot bath.’”
“Art silk…that’s what they used to call rayon,” Penny said. She reached into her purse and got out a pencil and notepad. “Don’t you think it’s a little feminine for the character? I mean, this is Joan of Arc.”
Lorelei shrugged. “Who’s more fun to look at, Joan the saint or Joan the country girl?” she wrote. “They can see her armor in a museum. You need to show them her cami-bockers,” she finished with an exclamation point, and smacked her own butt.
Emily leaned forward in her chair as she told Penny about Joan of Arc’s underpants.
Penny laughed and pointed to a drawing of a silky chemise. “How’s this?”
The starlet nodded, tapped Penny’s brooch and smiled, then faded into the atmosphere like a trail of cigarette smoke.
“It’s perfect,” Emily said. “Lorelei’s gone now, but she likes you. She thinks you’re better than community theatre in New Jersey.” Penny set down the catalog. “Sometimes spirits who still hang around on earth will latch on to people they can help – they turn into Spirit Guides, if that’s what you want to call them.”
“Really?” Penny asked.
“Yeah,” Emily nodded. “So if you ever have a question about your play or something, just ask Lorelei before you go to sleep. If she’s around, she’ll give you an answer in your dreams.”
Penny looked out the window at something Emily couldn’t see. When she returned her gaze, Emily could see she was tipsy. “I don’t know if what you’ve said is total bullshit, but that’s probably the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me,” she said.
A long shadow stretched across the floor and Joan appeared in the doorway. She looked at the beer in Penny’s hand, and then the one in front of Emily.
“Cocktail hour is over, Emily,” she said. “And you’re here for spirits, not spirits.” She looked at Penny. “I suppose my daughter didn’t tell you she’s under age.”
“Nope,” Penny said. “But she was the bartender, so I just assumed she checked her own ID.”
“I did, and it said that I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions,” Emily said to Joan.
A few tables away, two elderly women looked up from their sherry in surprise.
“I’m not in the mood for this,” Joan decided, and trimmed the speech she had planned to one sentence: “If you drink in our bar, we will lose our liquor license and without liquor, the old ladies will never fall asleep.”
“She has a point,” Emily said. “Sorry, Mom.”
Joan tossed Emily’s beer in the trash can behind the bar and left the room. Penny followed her lead. “I should go to bed,” she said. “But you’re a cool girl, Emily. You should think about being a playwright.”
Emily sat alone at her table, thinking about being a playwright, a college student and everything else she was supposed to want to be now that she was 18 years old and finished with high school. She had looked up the going rate for the average psychic medium, a job she had been doing for free since childhood. The hourly rate was more than a substitute teacher made in a day, at least according to salarycheck.com. Emily could leave home and spend her life translating messages from the other side to lonely people who missed their families. She wouldn’t have to go to school for that – no one but her even knew that what she did was real. So what if nothing better came along?
Ghosts were supposed to make people feel cold and prickly, but Emily rarely got goose bumps. For her it was a warm feeling that bore into her forehead like a laser beam, or like a hand on her shoulder to let her know that someone else was with her; that her thoughts were not entirely her own. Emily stared into the window and saw a familiar face reflected in the glass: it was Darthilda with her same dark hair and austere expression, but this time, her eyes looked a little softer. “Maybe something better is out there,” Darthilda said.
“Point the way, old woman,” Emily told her. “Now that Mom has taken our liquor, you and I are never falling asleep.”
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