|The voice was back, as well as the sorrowful
inflection. Yes, she was hallucinating. Dreaming of a lover—or lack
of one. Didn’t it say it wouldn’t hurt her? So...what would it hurt
to play along?
Connie smiled, but continued to watch the play of firelight. It was so quiet that, despite the occasional crackle of the flames, she could swear she could hear the train whistling in the distance.
"Is it midnight yet?" she asked in a voice so soft as to not disturb the silence.
"Is it what? Midnight? Not for another hour, but soon. Perhaps it was time you tucked yourself in, Caroline."
"Connie. And I’m not ready," she said, battling another yawn. "What’s your name?"
The wood popped and hissed, reminded her she needed to tend to it. Reluctantly she got up and placed the last few sticks of firewood on it before replacing the screen.
"You’re exhausted, my beloved."
Connie started. Had her ears mis-heard him?
"What did you call me?"
But the voice of sad man didn’t answer.
Her judgement battled her common sense. Yes, she needed to get cleaned up after her day of making ready. But she could just as easily slip between her warmed sheets and worry about bathing in the morning. Then again, what would it hurt to snuggle, swaddled in the coverlet here in the chair, curl one’s legs underneath, and spend the night watching the fire? The old chair seemed to have been made to fit around her perfectly.
"Hello? Are you still there?"
Either the voice or the fire sizzled a "yes".
"What is your name? What am I supposed to call you?"
This time she knew it was the disembodied voice that answered. "Nathaniel."
"Nathaniel." Connie knew she had never met a Nathaniel before in her life. Or a Nathan, for that matter.
What if she wasn’t hearing things? What if the voice really existed?
"Why me, Nathaniel? Why here? Why now?"
"Because I have finally found you, Caroline."
Her head jerked up. "I’m not Caroline," she insisted. "My name is—"
She started. "What?"
"Find you? Where?" She managed a breathless, little laugh. "Right now?"
Attic? Go up into the cold attic at this time of night? Connie gave a little shudder. The last thing she wanted to do was get up out of her cozy chair, ghost or no ghost.
Leaving the warmth of the sitting room, she went into the kitchen where a narrow door opened up to an equally narrow flight of stairs. The lights obstinately remained off, forcing her go back into the kitchen for one of the candles she’d found in one of the drawers when she’d moved in. Thank goodness she’d had the foresight to leave them and the box of matches there.
The attic was freezing, and it didn’t take long before Connie felt the cold all the way through to her bones. Glancing around at the dust and grime, she wondered what on earth she was supposed to be looking for in the empty space. There wasn’t even a box left up here.
"Nathaniel? What am I supposed to be looking for?"
The voice was distant, almost fading. The soft plea tugged at her heart once more. "Find me."
"Okay. Find you. Great. Where? I mean, it’s not like you were buried up here," she muttered.
The shadows eluded her, but it was clear there was nothing that stood out to catch her attention. Shifting from one foot to the other, Connie debated whether to give up and go to bed, or to continue—
She turned to where the chimney was located. Didn’t the voice seem to be coming from there originally? Is that what Nathaniel could have meant? To look for him in the attic? Near the chimney?
Walking over to the far wall, Connie began inspecting the old rock fireplace. Pressing against the ancient mortar to see if something would shift, signaling a possible hidey-hole. She found nothing.
Crouching, she examined the baseboard around the chimney. Maybe there was some sort of loose board where something could have been stashed.
Maybe that’s why Nathaniel was still around. Maybe some personal possession of his had been secreted away decades ago.
Several boards nailed together braced the back of the chimney. Dust and debris coated the stones and wood to the point where they all blended together in a grayish mass. Connie brushed halfheartedly at the cobwebs, when something glittered in the candlelight. She paused, then reached down into the filth. Her fingertips touched something cold. Metallic.
Pulling it out, she blew on it, wrinkling her nose at the dust that suddenly flew into her face. A gentle wipe on her sweater, and she looked again.
It was a tintype of a young man.
It had to be Nathaniel.
She hurried downstairs to the kitchen where she got a softer cloth to clean it. Afraid of marring or scratching it. When she was finished, she took it back to the sitting room.
"I found it," she announced as she walked in. She held up the small plate. "Is this you, Nathaniel? Is this what you wanted me to find?"
The firelight was brighter than the candle. Seated back into her wingback, she could examine it more closely.
The young man was undeniably handsome, with dark, curly hair and dark eyes. He also wore the uniform of a Union soldier.
Connie frowned. He said he'd died in 1864. She opened her mouth to ask him about the photo, when another wave of immense sadness seemed to fill the room.
"We mustered out of Augusta on August 14, 1862. I was part of the 16th Regiment Infantry," he whispered. "I was injured twice in battle. Once at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the second time at Appomattox. My second wound never quite healed. It got infected. Gangrene. I died en route to a hospital."
"So...why is your tintype here? Were you born here in Stewer’s Bridge?"
"Yes," the voice murmured. "As well as Caroline. This was her home. Where we promised ourselves to each other before I shipped out."
"You gave her this picture?"
"But you died before you could get back. You never married her."
"No. But I never stopped wishing. I never stopped believing that one day, some day, we would be back together."
"But I’m not your Caroline," Connie insisted. "She died over a century ago. My name is Connie Crawford, and I just moved here from Worcester, Massachusetts."
"Your soul is that of my beloved Caroline. And I have been waiting here for you for over a century."