By Palmer Smith
Melissa returned to town on a winter’s afternoon, one day before her debutante presentation. She had been living for four years in New York City with her father. Her mother, Ellen, was granted custody after befriending the Judge on their case and bribing him. She handed him $30,000 the day prior to the verdict whilst chatting with him on the edge of Chamber Street. She paid him in cash, with only one $100 dollar bill managing to fall out of the Judge’s Barbour coat when he walked back to the court room.
Melissa enjoyed her life in New York’s East Harlem. Her father, a painter, inherited family money which allowed them to live in a turquoise townhouse on East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. She spent a great deal of time with her grandparents in Manhattan—she had no family on her mother’s side that she knew of; she was told they all died over the years. She attended a co-ed Magnet Arts High School where she discovered a love of reading and writing poetry. Her friends at school challenged her writing and were poets themselves. Overall, she was well-liked by her peers, yet many girls were envious of her complex beauty and her nonchalant confidence. Her pale skin glimmered in the daylight. Her hair was a charcoal color, and her eyes were light green, appearing to be a glowing yellow when she saw her reflection in a mirror.
Melissa returned to her home on Meeting Street. It was the same home that had been haunted since January 5th, 1989, when the disappearance of eighteen-year-old Charlotte Pointer disrupted the night of the Sailing Club’s Debutante Ball. This ball occurred once a year by invitation only. The invitation was hand-made by the local stationary creator who was a master of calligraphy. The event presented the crème de la crème of Charleston’s upper-class daughters who were invited by the Magnolia Society, a group of women who handpicked the debutantes using their secretly curated list.
Rumor has it that Charlotte sprinted to her house before her presentation in order to find her silk gloves. This is the supposed reason she went home, although many reports from her friends stated that Charlotte did not want to be a debutante. She was known for her critiques of upper-class society and its absurdities, and her friends claimed that her mother attempted to control her entire life. They had heard that Charlotte was being forced to attend college in England the following year and that her mother attempted to arrange her marriage.
Her parents responded to the media that this was not the case: Charlotte wanted “nothing” more than to be presented amongst society, and Charlotte’s irregular stories were merely a “figment of her imagination.”
Her gown, sewn with beaded Australian opals and freshwater pearls, was ripped at the hem that evening. (The opals and pearls are now stored in the haunted museum in North Charleston.) The opals and pearls were found sprawled on the spiral staircase of the home. And yet, Charlotte was nowhere to be found.
Despite multiple search teams composed of the finest detectives and search dogs in the city, Charlotte was believed to have been kidnapped or killed, with her body being hidden. Others claimed that Charlotte had perhaps become a ghost trapped inside the Stewart home. Charlotte was never to be seen again. A year later, her parents moved to England and have never returned to the United States since.
Melissa knew of the ghost story, but never believed Charlotte’s spirit to be living inside of the house all these years, and she never thought of it in relation to her own debutante ball. She had gracefully placed the tale into the deep subconscious of her mind.
The sky was full of purple clouds as Melissa’s plane landed. Her mother did not pick her up from the airport; she was at a Doctor’s appointment. The child was used to this absent-minded behavior shown by her mother. She opted to take a taxi home instead. As the taxi crossed the Cooper River Bridge, the vertebrae of her back coiled as her backpack weighed heavy on her small frame.
The home she recalled in her mind’s eye was not in the same pristine condition it had been in years past. What was once considered one of the loveliest homes in Charleston had become a decayed memory of what it had been. Melissa remembered a bright peach-colored home with bay windows of ivy-green. She remembered a white rounded door with red and pink stained glass making up the surrounding windows. A clay statue of Saint Andrew livened up the backyard along with a most handsome scalloped fountain. The fountain was kissed with moss at its bottom. She recalled as a young girl sneaking into the garden to pick a yellow Cherokee rose to place by her bedside table.
She placed her hands over the red mailbox when she arrived home, feeling that it had been dented in multiple places. From where she stood, the glass windows of the home were covered in a thick dust. As she made halting steps across the path to the front door, she realized that many of the stones were out of place or cracked. Weeds sprouted in between their cracks. With each step she took, the weeds began to grow faster and faster until she sprinted towards the door in an effort to avoid her feet becoming entangled.
Whilst holding onto one of the Greek columns adjacent to the front door, her mouth grew agape as the door handle, once a deep bronzed-gold, was now a faded black. After searching for minutes under the welcome mat and the potted plants for the extra key, she remembered the loose brick, half-covered in moss, that held the extra key behind it. The moss made it that much harder for her to trace where the brick had been. She began to peel back the moss until her hands were covered in green. Finally, she pulled out the brick like she used to as a child, and there was the golden key.
Melissa again noticed a sharp pain at the base of her spine and placed her fingers on her back, gently rubbing it for a moment. She walked through the house to the backyard, attempting not to notice the fraying Persian rugs. The garden no longer existed. Where the white, yellow and red roses once grew was now a dilapidated wooden bench, partially eaten away by termites. The statue of St. Andrew was missing. Melissa’s eyes began to water her fingertips began fell numb.
She scurried back inside the house to the second-floor ballroom. She arched her neck to view the crystal chandelier which was imported from Italy in the late 1800s to the historic home. The chandelier was the same size, covering a quarter of the main hallway, but when she attempted to turn the lights on, the bulbs flashed for a moment and suddenly their light sizzled out.
The spiral staircase leading up to the three bedrooms on the second floor had been surprisingly well-maintained in its mahogany-make; the wood shone illustriously. The banister was just as wide as she recalled. Her face became a pigmented a greyish-blue as she entered her room. Her waifish hands and pillow-satin cheeks grew cold. Her eyes became hungry, as if while making eye contact with her, she might swallow one whole apart from bone. These sudden changes sparked a heavy worry in her. Attempting to ignore this calamity, she paced around the room with her black hair swaying. The room remained the same as it was before. The light broke onto the white walls through her window as she remembered, and her turquoise sconces lit her walls with the same ethereal light they had before.
The pictures on her mahogany bureau were unchanged. In every photograph Melissa was alone. One photograph was captured in front of her pre-school, with a three-year-old Melissa giggling. There was only one photograph of her mother in the entire house: a portrait from two years ago. Her hair, red-orange, hung at her shoulders, and her black eyebrows arched from the Botox she was addicted to receiving. Her teeth were stained white by treatments from her notoriously expensive dentist.
Her mother mentioned over the phone that Melissa’s debutante dress had arrived from Cunningham’s, the local boutique custom designer. Cunningham’s had designed dresses for the finest families in Charleston: the Aikens, the Draytons, the Pinckneys. Melissa’s eyes gravitated towards the ivory colored dress upon her Queen-sized bed. Its crystal pattern hem at the waist and above the breast line sparkled, with pearls sewn in at the bottom of the dress. Melissa both desired and detested the dress for its significance. It was a sign of her societal ranking as well as the life her mother would force her to live in Charleston: one of manners and expectations.
An impulse came over her to try on the dress as she drew her hands across its silk and satin. A gust of wind blew her window wide open as she began to zip up the dress, and as she turned to close the window, she saw herself in the window’s reflection. Her hair began to grey at the roots and her lips grew purple. The debutante ball was only a day away and Melissa considered that she might be falling ill. She was accustomed to catching colds after flying on a plane, but not this suddenly.
She crept into her mother’s marble bathroom to check the medicine cabinet for a thermometer. Opening drawer after drawer, Melissa began to find multiple strange items. In the top drawer next to the bathroom skin sat four boxes of colored blue contact lenses. Melissa never knew her mother’s eyes were not blue. She gasped as she found over twenty boxes of red hair dye in the bottom drawer. She had always assumed her mother was a natural redhead. It occurred to her that she ought to contact her mother and let her know she was home, that she was feeling ill, and to comment upon the current state of the home. Despite feeling deceived by her discoveries of her mother’s deceptive physical appearance, she decided (for the sake of keeping the peace) to keep quiet about the items. But, what did the items mean? She found the thermometer, and shuddered as she did not have a high temperature.
With her dress halfway zipped Melissa returned to her room lay back in her cotton sheets. She pulled her iPhone out of her purse to type a text message to send to Ellen.
“Mom, do you want me to go ahead and cook myself dinner or wait for you? Also, why is the house in such bad shape outside and in the garden? Is something wrong? – M”
Melissa closed her eyes as she drifted into what she believed to be a dream. The dream began as she felt the silky debutante dress hugging her hips. She found herself in the left-wing bedroom of the house, the guest room, observing a room that appeared completely different in its interior than she recalled. She stood at the door of the room and realized there was a girl about her age in the room, dressed in almost the same style debutante dress she was wearing, except her dress had pearls and opals—yet, many were missing.
This girl was stunning in a most phantom-like way; her eyebrows were arched towards the middle and framed her porcelain heart-shaped face in the most asymmetrical way. Her doe-eyes were made all the wiser by their lime green hue, a haunting, yet memorable aspect of her face—and a similar color to Melissa’s. Melissa was reminded of herself as she looked at the girl. She sat on the guest bed, slouching towards a leather-bound journal in which she wrote.
Melissa could not communicate with the ghost verbally as there appeared thin cloud separating her from the ghost, but she walked closer to the journal in which it was written,
“January 4th, 1989
To whom it may concern: I have to escape. You don’t know how cruel she’s been to me…I can’t even speak to anyone about it—not even my dearest friends. My whole life has been planned before me, without any decisions being made on my own. It’s not the 1940s anymore. I don’t know why she treats me this way. And when I do try to make a decision, she puts her foot down, and my father, my poor father, can’t get in a word. Cruella, she is. My mother. A Devil. My true devil…my mother.”
A chill ran down Melissa’s spine as she wondered what sort of image this was before her. Was this truly a ghost? Was this Charlotte Pointer? It certainly couldn’t be reality, but yet, she could not distinguish this dream from reality. She desired to reach her hand out to the girl, but each time she tried a force of air pushed her hands back, and just as she felt her hand begin to physically hurt, she awoke, coughing and coughing into the side of her pillow.
“Yoo-hoo! Melissa, are you home?” Ellen yelled from downstairs.
“I’m up here, mom,” Charlotte gasped whilst trying to get her voice to travel to her mother.
“Dinner will be ready in fifteen. Come down then, ok?”
“Yes m’am,” she replied, as she tried to sit up and rubbed her hands over her face. Charlotte traced her mind’s eye to a few memories she had from when she was a child, in this very house. She recalled being awoken by strange noises in the nighttime, that sounded both like a piercing wind, yet also like light shrieks. They tended to come from that very guest room, and also in the attic on the third floor.
Each time she’d hear the penetrating noise, she would awaken and ask her mother what it was. Her mother would then nonchalantly waltz into the guest room in her cream night mask, checking inside the room and telling little Charlotte there was nothing wrong—it truly was just the wind. From then on, she detested the sound of the wind anywhere she went.
As Charlotte stood up from the bed, her spine began to tingle once again; for a moment she felt as though she might faint. How odd, she thought, since the second she stepped into the house she has only felt weaker and weaker. As she reached the marble floor nearby the kitchen, she paused a moment to appreciate the orchids her mother left in front of the windows. She pinched a petal to confirm that these orchids were alive and not dead; they were still alive. A gasp rang out of the kitchen.
“OH MELISSA! Darling, what a beautiful dress. It does look a bit too tight though. Have you not been sticking to that diet?”
“Mom, I don’t want to get into that right now.”
“Hi, sweetie!” she reached out to her daughter, giving her a side-hug and kiss.
“What’s going on with the house, mom?” Melissa asked.
“What in the world do you mean, babe?”
“I mean the outside…it looks like it’s falling apart…I’m surprised your neighbors haven’t complained.”
“What on earth are you talking about? The house was just photographed for Architectural Digest. It’s never looked better, inside or out.”
Melissa felt a lump in her throat, but as she tried to swallow it, she let out a hoarse cough.
“Oh…I guess I was just…day-dreaming,” said Melissa, confused as to what was occurring.
Melissa peered at her mother’s face as she took their frozen Lean Cuisines out of the microwave. She had had more Botox than usual, and her eyebrows appeared even more arched than they had been before.
“By the way, I found some blue contacts in your bathroom. I’d never known before that your eyes weren’t really blue?”
Ellen’s neck froze in place as she pouring their pasta into their bowls.
“Oh, that. Yes, honey. But you know me—I like to change what God gave me.”
“Well, what color are your eyes really?”
“Brown—an icky sort of brown,” Ellen replied.
“So, have you chatted or texted with Mark? I think he’s excited to be your escort to the ball.”
“Not really. It’ll be nice to see him though,” Melissa stated solemnly.
As Melissa swallowed her spaghetti, she began to realize how little she truly knew about her mother. Ellen turned on the nightly news. Gunshot in North Charleston. New tourism ships coming from Florida, stopping in Charleston and hurting the environment due to oil leaks. The announcement of the debutante ball tomorrow. And the old story of Charlotte Pointer.
“What a tragic story,” said Ellen.
“Pretty odd that it happened right it our house, too,” mentioned Melissa.
“Well, you go cozy up in bed, get a good night’s rest and put on a movie to fall asleep to,” replied Ellen.
Melissa thought about the ball and her earlier dream. Instead of watching a New Year’s themed movie, she decided to take half a melatonin and drift into sleep, for perhaps she would have the same dream as before. As she slipped into slumber, she heard the noise of the wind calling her, as well as a familiar voice yelling the guest room. She was unsure if she was awake or dreaming at this point. She tip-toed into the guest room, and the door was cracked.
It appeared to be a different time—January 1989, the calendar on the wall read. There was the ghost—Charlotte Pointer in her debutante dress. There was the woman who in a very uncanny way resembled her mother, Ellen, but a younger version of Ellen: the version with brown eyes and brown hair, and much less Botox.
Charlotte sat crammed against the corner of the room, crying, and yelling,
“I won’t ever marry this boy. I don’t even know him, Mom!”
“Charlotte, shut up right this instance. You have your presentation in 20 minutes and you need to pull yourself together. You will marry him and that is an order. There is nothing you can do about it,” screamed Ellen.
Melissa stepped back from the door, and just as she did, Charlotte made eye contact with her.
Melissa woke up in a cold sweat. It was now 4am, and she decided it would be wise to get a warm cloth for her forehead. As she sprinted down the creaky wooden star case, she felt an immense pain in her spine once again—but this time it was debilitating. Just as she felt her hand touch the base of her spine, the grand piano, sitting in the library to the left of the kitchen, began playing its keys to the tune of a song Melissa had heard before. It was As she turned towards the piano, there was Charlotte, playing the instrument as though she was in a trance. The song, “Dream of a Witches Sabbath,” by Berlioz, began causing such a stirring panic in Melissa that she began to hold onto the piano, as though she, too, was in a trance. Melissa fainted in front of the piano, and just as she did Charlotte’s spirit took over Melissa’s physical self. Charlotte was now Melissa, and she would be for the next twenty four hours.
Charlotte, appearing as Melissa, crept back up into Ellen’s room. She had planned this the next day and evening for the last thirty years. She had to wait until Melissa was old enough to fully plan it out. Charlotte thought about all the things she could do to get revenge upon her mother. Yet, none of them panned out so well as beating her at her own game. Charlotte searched in the bathroom for the blue contacts, the red hair dye, collecting them into a plastic bag. She then opened Ellen’s safe, in which there was all of the woman’s proper identification: old passports and driver’s license before she had changed her name. Then she found the most needed object: the gun that Ellen shot her daughter with the night of her debutante ball when Charlotte threatened to run away and tell the entire town how cruel her mother was.
Before locking the safe, Charlotte dissolved fifteen Ambien pills into her mother’s tea. She already knew Ellen was knocked out from the two she usually took each night, but she always awoke thirsty at some point. Charlotte mixed in honey and sugar into the tea. Charlotte drove her mother’s golf-cart, with the bag in hand, to drop off all evidence in front of the police station. Inside the bag Charlotte had a typed note she forged with Ellen’s signature. She had traced over her mother’s signature from a bill. The note read: “I killed my daughter in 1989. I’m killing myself now. My current name is Ellen Sawyer, but my original name is Sarah Pointer.”
Charlotte drove back to her home, wearing the debutante dress. She packed another bag of makeup and her mother’s pearls and diamond ring. It was her time now. Her time to live. She camped outside of the Gibbes Museum, where the Ball was being held this year. She had her hair done that afternoon at a local hair salon. And she visited the grave of her father who had died two years after her murder, of what she believed was heartbreak over his daughter’s death.
At 7pm the cocktails began and at 7:15, the escort line assembled. Charlotte met Mark, who she decided was much more likable than Daniel, the boy she was going to be forced to marry. He asked her what she liked to do for fun.
She smiled and said, “I like to write.”
As her name was called, Charlotte pranced gracefully down the wooden floor with Mark by her side. Her face was in an effervescent glow, and her sparkled from across the room. The crowed clapped and she had had her moment.
Now, it was time for Charlotte to bring Melissa back to life, and for the two to live their lives without their cruel mother.
Ralph Harvard, of Ralph Harvard Incorporated
(Bio:Palmer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and an incoming MFA and MA student. She has worked as a paralegal since 2018. She has written for Refresh Magazine, The Online Journal for Person-Centered Dermatology, Sea Maven Magazine and Calm Down Magazine, with work forthcoming in The French Press Zine and level:deep south.Palmer’s first book, “Butterfly Bruises” is being published this spring by a London-based Press.)