Dottie clattered up the front walk, a swarm of children, floral housedress and neighborhood gossip aimed straight for the screen door. Claudia wasn’t expecting her, but Dottie was a summer thunderstorm; you could sense her arrival before seeing her

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Beneath the Moon Tower

Dottie clattered up the front walk, a swarm of children, floral housedress and neighborhood gossip aimed straight for the screen door.  Claudia wasn’t expecting her, but Dottie was a summer thunderstorm; you could sense her arrival before seeing her – you felt a change in the air.

The instant Claudia appeared in the doorway, Dottie began loudly: “Did you hear what happened to Louisa?  Police have been over at the Stanton house all day.”  She lowered her voice as she reached the creaking wooden porch.  “She rarely leaves the house anymore, I think she may have been… Oh, it’s all too dreadful,” she said with a mournful shake of her head.  “And that dear husband of hers!” Dottie wore an ill-fitting mask of grief and pity, scarcely disguising her glee at delivering such news.

She barreled inside, shedding children.  They spun off into far corners of the house like tiny cyclones, threatening the widow’s delicate treasures.  Dottie leisurely ambled to the sitting room, taking the time to carefully deposit the baby on the sofa next to her.  A seasoned gossip, Dottie expertly manipulated her audience with suspense.  She was intoxicated by the power of possessing a story that only she could dole out.  Sensing Claudia’s tension was near the breaking point, she said slowly, wide-eyed, “Louisa was murdered last night.”

“What?  Dear Lord, what happened?” Claudia asked, breathless and ashen-faced.

Feasting on Claudia’s mix of confusion and horror, Dottie leaned in, eyes sparkling, “Well, you remember that servant-killer a few years back?  I think maybe he’s come back and moved up the social ladder.  I mean, she’s part of a very important Austin family.  And you know they never caught him.  I’m certain it was him that did it.”

“But what happened, Dottie?”

Dottie scooted closer, almost whispering, “Well, I think it all had something to do with that odd-looking fella knocking on doors yesterday lunch, collecting donations or some such.  I saw her talking with him.  Thank God, I didn’t answer the door, or he may have wanted to kill me too.”

On the morning of her death, Louisa Stanton sat for hours at the window, disinterestedly surveying the activity on her street.  Men rushed off to work in carriages and automobiles, women bustled from house to house, and young children darted past.  Occasionally a passer-by would stop to admire the imposing blue Victorian home with the charming rose garden in front.  When they noticed the pretty, impassive face gazing back from one of the windows they quickly scurried on, embarrassed at being observed.

She watched a sudden rainstorm as it swept everyone into their homes and held them there. When people began to tentatively venture out again, questioning the sky, she followed them all from her window.  Eventually, a slim, tall man in a grey linen suit caught her attention as he loped up the street.  Louisa rose stiffly from her perch as he turned up her walkway, as if his presence roused her from a long drowsy dream.  She strode unhurried to the heavy oak door, tucking in loose curls, and tugging her gauzy sleeves down past her wrists before reaching for the glass knob.

Louisa opened the door as the man climbed the steps, keeping the screen door closed.  The September air was stifling, the perfume of wet soil mingled with roses.  Cicadas trilled joyously in the oppressive, smothering steam – an unwelcome souvenir of the morning rain.

She waited behind the screen, guardedly surveying him as he approached.  He stood rigidly upright, tension visible in his jaw, his straw hat hiding the rest of his face.  He lifted his head, pushed the hat back, and pleasantly met her gaze.  “Good day, ma’am.  I’m Brother Robert and I’m collecting donations for St. Theresa’s Church.  Is the man of the house in?” he asked, furtively peering past Louisa.

“No.  You should try back late this afternoon,” she answered tiredly.

“Well then, let me leave you one of our pamphlets, and perhaps I’ll see you this afternoon.” He tipped his hat, and with a winking smile turned back to the road.

Louisa reached for the paper he left by the door, then watched the man until he entered the neighbors’ garden.  She closed the door, reached for her handbag, and tucked the brochure deep inside.

“And to think I was with her just moments before.  Should’ve never let her off that streetcar.  I was the last one to see her alive, you know,” Dottie proudly proclaimed.  Already embroidering her role, she would exploit this tale for years.

“Did you see him, Dottie?  The murderer?”

“No, but I just had a spooky feeling.  You know, a woman’s intuition.  He must’ve just been lying in wait to attack some helpless woman.  Poor Louisa.”

Louisa waited on the bench, re-reading Terrie’s most recent letter in the fading afternoon sun.  She already knew it by heart.

…Remember on my birthday we were caught skipping school and smoking behind the barn?  My brother Bobby found us and brought us back to Mrs. Houston’s house so Papa wouldn’t find out and whoop me.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel that carefree again?…

Louisa replaced the letter in her handbag and pulled out a smaller paper.  “Moontower.  41st.” was scrawled across it in black ink.  An approaching rumble shook her out of her reverie.  She quickly stuffed the note back into her bag as Dottie and her brood descended on the bench.  Snapping the bag shut, her pallid hands fluttered to her lap as she chirped a greeting.

“Afternoon, Louisa.  You headed to Mr. Creamer’s store, too?  Do you think you could hold Peter on the streetcar for me?  He just gets so fidgety.”

Before Louisa could answer, the squirming boy was deposited in her lap.  Louisa winced, sharply drawing in her breath.  Dottie nattered on, not noticing Louisa’s discomfort.  They boarded the trolley and passed the trip in feigned conversation.  Suddenly, Louisa derailed Dottie by announcing she was getting off at the next stop to visit with Mrs. Petersen.  She unceremoniously plunked the toddler beside his mother and hopped from the streetcar as it clacked along without her.

Rounding the corner she saw a man reading the plaque on the moon tower while smoking a cigarette.  She hesitated for a moment, then inhaled deeply before rushing down the street.

“Where did they find her – you know, her body?” Claudia asked in a whisper.

“That’s the thing, they haven’t found her yet.  Monster must’ve thrown her in the river.”  Dottie relished delivering this final grotesque speculation.

Her morbid task complete, Dottie stood, gathering her children.  They swept out the door, a chaotic mass leaving gloom and mayhem in its wake.

“Fine evening we’re having, Mrs. Stanton.”

“Please don’t call me that,” she said between cautious glances behind her.  “I don’t want to hear that dreadful name ever again.  Call me Watkins.  That was my mother’s name.”

“Well, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Louisa Watkins.  Theresa’s told me an awful lot about you.”  He stuck out his hand.  Her sleeve fell back as she reached forward, and Robert silently noted the black and purple bruise covering her slender wrist.  “Now, let’s get goin’ before he figures out you’ve flown the coop.”

Louisa nodded, following Robert to a nearby car.  They drove east, silent until the trees outnumbered houses.

Louisa lost herself in memories of home and her dearest friend.  Running through gold, sun-baked fields with Theresa, immune to the dirt and trouble they were kicking up.  Going to dances in confection-like dresses and giggling about the serious-looking boys in their Sunday suits.  Terrie scared and sobbing with Louisa before she married him: “You can’t move away Lou-Bird.  I won’t know what to do without you.”  Louisa was finally heading back home, back to herself.

Robert interrupted her daydream.  “Terrie’s waiting for us at my aunt’s place with the baby.  We’ll stay there, then head to Houston in the morning.”  He glanced at her, pale and weary in the fading light.  “Y’know, she was worried you wouldn’t leave.  Wasn’t sure you’d catch her meanin’ from the letter.”

“I understood, but I wasn’t sure I could do it.”

“Was it really as bad as Terrie says?  Did he really do all those things to you?” he asked.  Nodding miserably in answer, Louisa Watkins thought of the hidden scars on her arms and legs that would never disappear, reminders of Louisa Stanton’s domestic nightmare.  She hoped that time could chase the sorrow and wicked memories away.

Robert quietly shook his head in pity and disbelief.  He was a good man.  Louisa could spot the bad ones now, after years of intimate study.  Theresa had chosen well for herself.

“How is the baby?  I can’t wait to finally see her,” she added with the first hint of a smile.

“She’s glorious.  Looks just like her momma; got my nose though.”

Louisa wordlessly gazed out the window, grinning as silver moonlight filtered through the passing trees.


Story by: Laura Garland

Source: thewritepractice.com

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