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Winter House: Chapter 10
Fiction by Christian Shuck
June 3rd, 1972
The West Indiana State University campus was an easy bike ride from the McGregor’s home. Rian was glad he could use his bicycle, it was one of the things he missed most about Ireland. The concrete jungle of the University wasn’t exactly the same as the dirt roads outside of Dublin, but at least Molly could use their car if she needed it.
After locking his bike Rian walked into the library. Then, once inside, downstairs and to the windowless archive section. The smell of dust and old paper greeted him. Along with Mrs. Toomes, the archivist.
“Good morning, Professor McGregor. I see you’re not wasting any time this summer.”
“Good morning to you too, Mrs. Toomes. And no, no rest for the wicked I suppose.”
“Well that’s a good thing, since I’ve already pulled the documents you asked for.” She proceeded to hand him a folder full of pages from newspapers, a bound book full of medical records and another book with no title.
“Thank you,” said Rian. “I’m a little eager to get started.”
“You can have that table right over there. Not as if it would be used during the school year, much less over the summer. You can leave your work there for as long as you need it.”
“That’s very kind of you. Can I ask what this unmarked book is?” Rian held it out in front of him, examining the tattered leather.
“It’s a bit interesting. It appears to be some kind of diary kept at the fort when it was first established. It’s not in the best condition, I’ve tried to give it to the State Museum a few times and they say because it doesn’t divulge any real information about the fort itself they don’t want it.”
Rian cocked his head to one side. “That seems a bit odd. I’d think they’d be interested in anything to do with the fort.”
Mrs. Toomes shrugged. “You’d think, but I assume they have enough information as it is.”
“Well thank you for including it, I’ll be sure to look it over.”
Rian walked over to the table Mrs. Toomes had indicated and laid down his satchel along with the new research material. He didn’t waste any time organizing. The newspaper copies went to their own pile. The two books he’d brought with him went next to them, then the book of medical records next to those. He started with the journal.
The penmanship was exquisite, though the ink was quite faded. It was clear the book had gotten wet at some point. Someone cared enough for it to be set out to dry. While there were full pages that were now illegible, most of them seemed to have survived.
From what Rian could discern, it appeared to be the diary of an army captain named Zachary Taylor. He’d not found any previous mention of this Captain Taylor in his initial research of the fort.
“Mrs. Toomes, have you ever heard of an army captain named Zachary Taylor?”
Not even bothering to turn in her chair she replied, “Can’t say that I have dear. That’s probably why the State Museum didn’t think that diary was important. No use in documenting the writing of a nobody.”
Rian continued let his hand gently drag across some of the illegible pages, as if to will them back to their original state. At first glance he could understand why the museum didn’t show interest. The entries were scattered by date. The illegible pages only made the time gaps worse. One entry was a description of the previous captain in charge of the fort and Taylor’s evident disapproval. Another described the ragged defense of the fort and the eventual rescue from siege by Colonel Russell’s forces. But the most strange entry was the mention of a single man offering to save the fort before the Colonel arrived. According to the book, the man offered to save the whole fort in exchange for the life of a child.
“Must’ve been mad,” Rian said aloud. Then he wondered whether it was Captain Taylor or the stranger who was losing his mind at the time.
Scratching his chin, Rian pondered why he’d never heard of this Taylor who, according to the man’s own diary, had defended the fort. No matter how minute the details seemed to be, it was a part of the fort’s history. He placed the diary to the side making a mental note to save anything he came across that might mention Taylor.
Next, he opened the folder of newspaper pages. Most of the information was recent. An article on an American Independence Day celebration at the fort. The addition of the fort to the Indiana and national historic site record. The next page stopped him in his tracks.
The piece was not extraordinary itself, just a highlight of repairs and maintenance to the fort. The article below it, with a photo on the front page, showed a house.
The paper was dated March 23rd, 1913. The title of the article read, “Single House Evades Flood, Child Missing.”
In the photo, Rian could see a man, woman and a young girl standing in front of the home. The flood waters surrounded the house, which, remarkably, seemed untouched.
“This is amazing!” Rian shouted.
Mrs. Toomes jumped in her chair. “Mr. McGregor, if you’re going to shout like that I’m afraid we will have to discuss another arrangement for your research.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Toomes.” Excitedly, he clambered over to her desk to show her the newspaper. “That’s my house!” he said, stabbing a finger at the photo.
Peering over her bifocals Mrs. Toomes examined the paper. Then she looked up to Rian.
“And?” she asked.
“Bit of a coincidence, dontcha think?!”
“Well I just so happen to be looking for new information about the fort and here this article is placed right next to it. And it just so happens to be the house I now occupy?” Rian could feel his eyes glittering with excitement. A stark contrast to the uninterested gloss in those of Mrs. Toomes.
“Mr. McGregor, I’ve worked in this library almost my entire life and in these archives for nearly half of it. Being a professor of history I thought you would have realized this by now. When you spend your days surrounded by history, you begin to realize there is no such thing as coincidence.”
“It’s just your Irish superstition,” Molly said as she tossed vegetables in a skillet.
“D’ya think?” Rian asked, sitting at the table in the kitchen. Their infant son Ethan bounced on his knee, making spit bubbles. Rian got caught up in all his excitement during the day, he’d forgotten to eat anything. The anticipation of dinner was high. He let his eyes wander around the room as he thought. The kitchen wasn’t small by any means, but not so big it was overbearing. He imagined the woman in the photo he found moving about the space. Her cooking spices had occupied the same cabinets; she probably had an old cast iron stove to cook on. The children would have been finishing their chores and washing for dinner about the same time. For a moment, he felt like they were all there, together. Separated by time alone.
Molly shook her wooden spatula at him and looked at him mischievously. “What do you think it could mean?”
After regaining his thoughts, Rian said, “I think it’s strange there’s no mention of this Taylor anywhere. I think it’s even more strange he’d write in his diary about a man asking for the life of a child to save the fort.”
“Well of course it’s strange,” said Molly plainly. “It’s probably why the museum didn’t care to have the book. It’s the diary of a man half starved, cold, and probably going mad.”
“Almost biblical, isn’t it?”
“Maybe too much so.” She stirred the carrots and peas in the pan. The sizzle and smell made Rian’s stomach grumble.
“And finding that picture of our house, that’s just weird.”
“It’s a coincidence.”
“I’m not sure, the diary said that stranger was found after an earthquake by a scouting party. The place where they found him happened to be right by our house. Is that a coincidence?”
Molly shrugged, then opened the oven to look at the potatoes. “I don’t know dear, it’s just a book and you don’t know know if that man was in his right mind or not. They could’ve found the stranger anywhere.”
“What if he came out of the earth during the quake?” The questions surprised him as much as it did his wife.
Molly laughed hysterically. “My Da, your Ma, my Auntie, your cousin Jack, they all believe in the old fairy stories. We were raised to think a giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. Just because a man showed up at a fort 150 years ago after an earthquake doesn’t make him a demon of the earth.” She turned back to the stove.
Rian laughed, embarrassed. “I never said he was a demon, I just think it’s suspicious. Why mention the man if he wasn’t important?”
“Why does it bother you so much?”
“I don’t know,” said Rian. He moved Ethan from one knee to the other so he could wipe his spittle.
“Well is there any more to the story you’ve found? Is it mentioned in any other record?” She took a salt shaker and dashed the skillet.
“No, none of it.” Then, “Well, the earthquakes are documented in several places. The fact the fort suffered through illnesses in the winter months is too. And of course the siege later in the year is well known.”
“Then there ya go,” Molly said, lifting the skillet from the stove. “How da ya know the diary isn’t written by a man with a fever?”
“I guess I don’t. My instincts tell me different.”
Molly handed him a plate with potatoes she took out of the oven. He stood and carried Ethan into the dining room in his other arm where the rest of the dinner Molly prepared was waiting.
“Thanks for humoring me at least,” Rian said.
“That’s what ya have me for, love.” She smiled and scraped the cooked vegetables onto each plate. “Anything to help you along so we can get those books moved and eat in the kitchen again. This dining room is too nice for the likes of us.” Rian glanced around the room, observing the built-in bookshelves and crown molding on the ceiling.
When she’d left the skillet in the kitchen she joined Rian and Ethan at the table.
“I think the whole thing has me nervous because of the boy that went missing in that flood,” Rian said between bites of roast beef.
“Darlin’ I think you’ve got yourself excited for nothin’. I bet you could listen to the history of any house on this street and you’d find somethin’ that seemed outta place. People come and go, things happen. It’s just the way of the world.”
Ethan gummed a spoonful of carrots.
“I didn’t get anything done today for class. I spent all my time thinking about these connections. That’s what history is, y’know, a bunch of otherwise random occurrences strung together in one great big story.” He cut another piece of meat, covered it in potatoes and shoveled it into his mouth.
Molly continued to feed Ethan between moments of consuming her own meal. Rian could tell she was losing interest.
He persisted. “That’s why I get so excited about these types of things. What are the odds we would end up in this house, with me researching the area, and discover that very thing. Two incidences separated by 100 years involving the same location?”
The eyebrows on Molly’s face practically went to the top of her head.
“Yeah, what are the odds? I mean, how strange is it that a dog probably took a shite in the front yard, exactly where another dog took a shite just a week before it? Amazing!”
She held up her hands and shook them, mocking fear.
Rian nearly spit out his beer.
After he’d wiped his mouth, and before Molly had finished laughing he said, “Alright, you made your point.”
Before the chuckling ended, Ethan started to cry. It shocked both of his parents, and they looked to each other for guidance.
“Ethan, love, what’s the matter?” Molly asked, wiping the carrots off his chin. The baby wailed and reached out toward a corner of the dining room.
Rian turned to look toward the corner where a tall potted plant stood. He looked back to Molly and shrugged.
The child’s crying turned into more of a scream, so Molly picked him up to hold him. She bounced around the dining room as she patted his back making shushing sounds. No matter which way she turned, Ethan moved his head to cast his gaze on the corner.
Curious, Rian got out of his seat to examine the plant. Aside from some dry soil, nothing was out of the ordinary. For a moment, he thought he smelled sulfur, but it was so fleeting he assumed it was his imagination.
“I think I’ll take him upstairs to see if I can get him to lay down,” Molly said.
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The next day Rian steered his bike toward downtown. Instead of going downstairs to the archives, he went up. At the front desk was a short girl, probably a student interning for the summer. He stopped to introduce himself and explained what he was looking for. She smiled, gave him directions to the section he needed, and sent him on his way.
Libraries, to Rian, were like giant mazes. Organized collections with secrets and surprises waiting around every corner. He liked to think he let books call to him, not the other way around. But this time he was on task and his eagerness to solve his mystery drove him to walk quickly down the aisles.
Once he found the stack he needed he turned between the shelves. His eyes flitted over the titles, searching for a key word that would lead him to his goal. A mix of black and red colored spines littered the section, a tribute to the material within; some with iconic text and others with a fancy script for dramatic effect. If Molly knew he was standing in the middle of the library about to pull a book of local ghost stories off the shelf she’d roll her eyes and tell him to stop wasting his time.
Mrs. Toomes was right. Rian had spent too much of his life studying history not to understand that eventually, it all comes together. Ten, seven hundred, one thousand little events could create waves of effect that eventually merged together in a moment to wreak havoc on an otherwise oblivious individual. Experience had taught him to follow his gut, investigate every clue. The diary from Captain Taylor could very easily be the ramblings of a man losing his mind. Or it could be an overlooked piece in a much larger puzzle. It was no coincidence the man mentioned in the diary was found near the McGregor’s home. The fort was spared from destruction, the same as the house was from the flood. Both instances mentioned a child missing.
As he took “A Haunted History of Basevale” off the shelf Rian almost didn’t want to open it. Holding back the cover to find the index he realized his hands were shaking. In the list of stories nothing stood out. Tales like “The Witch in the Cabin” seemed fairly generic. Then he read the description of a story called “The Winter House.”
It was not, as he presumed, a story of a cabin in the woods. Instead, the summary claimed the tale of a man who lost his mind and tried to cleanse his house of demons by setting it on fire. Rian thumbed to the page where the story began and skimmed the paragraphs. A man, a butcher, living in a house not quite thirty years ago, disappeared after his neighbors claimed he tried to set his house on fire. The next page talked about his respectable nature until he seemed to begin to go insane. The next described his family and children. Reading faster, there was a sentence that included “demon from the ground.” Words like torment and abuse flashed off the pages.
Rian paused to take a breath. It’s just a story, he told himself. He waited until the thumping of his heart slowed. Okay, he thought, maybe I am taking this a little too far. He chuckled at himself. Holding the book up he skimmed the pages one more time before placing it back on the shelf. And there it was.
He read the sentence out loud. “The house, located on South Jefferson Street in Basevale, still stands today. It is now known as the Winter House.” Rian clapped the book shut, frantically grabbed a dozen more books off the shelf and ran to the front desk.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.