The 50-Year-Old Secret
His face was still handsome, but it was a stronger now. Maybe even more bitter. Maybe even more cut; maybe sharper than the blades on his expensive electric razor he used every other day.
Walter sat in his office upstairs every day, dusted the picture of his beloved late wife every Wednesday, pet his old Irish Setter Harry sitting by his feet every 15 minutes, and listened to the waves crash against the slate-colored rocks, sounding like murder, every chance he could get.
Routine was Walter’s get-me-by, as his maid Julia called it. It was what helped him survive to such an old, old age. It was his lover, his self-prescription, his religious conversion. He greeted it mentally every day, saying, “Hello again, life.” He ritualized his rituals and made every movement mean the same thing as it had meant the day before.
Walter’s friend Vinny, who was much younger than Walter was, told him every day that he was a boring, angry man and needed to break his routine and live a little before he croaked. But even that comment (in its multiple forms), Walter saw as his comforting routine.
“Walter, where’s the fun in life?” Vinny would sometimes ask.
“How the hell would I know?” Walter would respond. “Don’t you Italians know all about it?” Vinny would just smile a wide grin, showing off his golden crown in the back of his mouth.
One day, Vinny asked Walter why he didn’t move. “They got homes for people like you,” he joked and that just got him a glare that Vinny rightfully ignored and didn’t take seriously.
But then Vinny sobered up. “Why don’t you go live by your son and his wife? Didn’t you say they own a condo out west?”
“Damn it, Vinny, I just don’t know,” Walter sighed.
But Walter did know why he couldn’t leave. There were ghosts in his mansion. He saw them around every corner. They walked his stairs, slept in his bedroom, ate with him at meals, and explored the towers. His relationship with the sea, his beloved routine, and, yes, even these ghosts of memories kept him in the house year after year; or, actually, decade after decade. What Walter did not know was that one day quite soon, one of his ghosts would be resurrected before his eyes.
Elizabeth was quite the woman. She was alive and well and still acted young, and nobody was going to tell her otherwise. Her brown, high-heeled, and closed-toe shoes from Paris ca. 1980 made the clopping noise that she thought made her sound stronger. She looked at the dark black rocks surrounding her.
She heard beautiful piano music coming from the house and enjoyed the song that she had not heard for something like forty years. She swallowed back nostalgia and made her trip to the door a speedy one. She rang the doorbell, looked back at her driver, waved with eyes half open, and didn’t even bother to straighten her slightly collar. When a man came to the door, she knew him but did not greet him by his name.
“Yes, ma’am?” he asked.
Elizabeth smiled, kind of, and told Nathaniel she was here to see Walter, of course.
Nathaniel stared at her for a bit, and then opened the door farther in order to signal her to come in to the lobby area. Elizabeth started to follow him to the stairs, but he looked back at her, telling her he would announce her.
“The shrimp never did like me,” Elizabeth said under her breath. Nathaniel heard.
Elizabeth waited, staring at the winding staircase that conveniently led Nathaniel to the second floor but also wound to reach the basement.
When there was a knock at the door, Walter jumped so violently that Harry awoke from his two o’clock nap. Harry listened, while Walter composed himself and straightened his many old papers and let out a long old dog wine, signaling he wasn’t going to get up to inspect.
Quite the guard dog, Walter thought.
“Come on in,” he yelled, obviously frustrated.
The door opened. Nathaniel came in and closed the door behind him, awkwardly. Instead of walking closer to Walter, he just leaned his body in and whispered.
“Elizabeth is here, sir.”
“What, Nathaniel? You gotta talk louder. Did that rat Vinny come at a different time today? I don’t need my trash emptied yet and his greasy-haired self knows that.”
Nathaniel closed his eyes. He took three slow steps further. Walter’s eyebrows rose— not in the usual disgust, but in surprise.
“Walter, Elizabeth is here. I do not know what she wants.”
Walter’s face went from gray, bitter, and handsome, to ivory white, horrified, and somewhat immature. His frown lines used muscles he hadn’t used in years. He looked down at his desk, trying to think, but all he accomplished was perspiration and a lump in his throat. The sun that usually shone very brightly right into his office went behind a cloud. He looked back up at Nathaniel.
“I don’t know what to do, Walter, other than let her up and see what she wants.”
Walter nodded, eyes still large as quarters. When the door closed behind his doorman, he leapt up with sudden youth and looked into the mirror on the closed door.
He saw a long face with freckles from both old age and the sun. He tried to wipe the sweat from his forehead and under his baggy eyes, but in doing so, he caused his skin to become red and a little sore. He tried to smile and look sophisticated but that, of course, didn’t work. He looked at his body. It was 1995, and he still had it. This gave him a bit more confidence.
While running back to his chair, Walter noticed Harry was whining in his corner.
“What am I going to do with you?!” Walter asked his beloved dog that suddenly seemed so out of place to him. He thought about locking him in the closet but decided against it.
She would be able to hear his whining, he knew.
The waves crashed. The door opened.
Elizabeth walked in with a glory that shone, Walter thought. Nathaniel looked angry as he stood in the background, obviously interrupted as he was trying to do his job of opening the door for her. He should’ve known by now that she wouldn’t let him, Walter thought.
“Walter, Walter!” Elizabeth came to the front of his desk, arms open as if she was going to hug him, but Walter just stood up and gave a nervous, strained smile. She didn’t notice because she was smiling, looking out the window at the tower overlooking the waves. A curtain closed, but she thought nothing of it.
“Maine is still beautiful, my dear. Just as handsome as ever!” Elizabeth’s smiled turned seductive, like it always had.
Walter swallowed. “Yes, I still like it. Just can’t leave. Brandon’s got himself a great job out in Washington state, but I just can’t join him. He doesn’t grumble too much, though, because I cover his airfare for visits of course.”
Elizabeth sat, ankles crossed, light pink lips pursed into a falsely-interested expression.
“Oh, of course, Walter. Of course!” She let out a loud, long laugh that was once thought beautiful. “We try to not spoil them, but we can’t help it when we have more than enough means, right?” She laughed again. “Right…” she answered herself. “So you’ve got a dog now, I see?”
Walter looked down at Harry, cursing his beloved canine silently.
“Yeah, I’ve had Irish Setters for about fifty years now, Liz.”
“Has it really been that long, Walter? I mean, that long since we were a thing, ya know?” She winked. “I know we’ve seen each other at various times over the years since then, but really, time flies!”
Walter thought for a while. He looked up and smiled, telling her yes, it was that long, and asked her how good ol’ Poole was.
“Poole? Oh heavens. He passed away and good riddance. Freak accident back in… oh, I think it was ’65. Poor devil, you know.” She winked at her old beau.
His face had a shocked expression, and he didn’t even try to hide it. Harry looked up at him with loving curiosity.
“No, no. I am with a Mr. Pratt right now and truly happy, my dear, truly happy.” She looked around at the old furniture with an inspective, disapproving eye. “He’s the youngest so far… and actually my fourth husband… but… who’s counting? Isn’t that what they say?”
“I… guess so, Liz.”
Elizabeth leaned forward and looked Walter right in the eyes for the first time. She softened her expression brilliantly, and Walter noticed her wrinkled cheeks becoming rosy, trying not to be charmed by it. A snake’s a snake, he thought.
“No one’s called me that for sooooo long, Walt.” Walter controlled himself, starting to go back to his bitter self slowly. Elizabeth noticed but ignored it. “You simply have to tell me all about your life on a stroll by the beach. I haven’t seen you since I came by ten years ago!” She sat her wrinkled, manicured hand across her chest, stroking the pearls tightly strewn around her neck.
Walter looked but kept his bitter face like a victory medal. “I don’t think so, Liz.”
She looked up. She tried to look innocent but just ended up childlike, and very, very guilty.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you want, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth’s face turned red because of his bluntness. A line had been crossed in her opinion.
She uncrossed her feet and put her elbows on her knees, eyes bold and angry, shooting emotions straight across the ancient desk at Walter’s eyes. His eyes were silver, shining from the newly returned sunshine, and he knew what was coming. He was just surprised it took another ten years for her to return.
“I need ten grand, Walter.”
“Ten grand?!” Walter was outraged, and he did not care that he was showing it. This was just too much, and he was beginning to not even care if he was blackmailed. He was an old man with a son across the country and only four friends, counting Julia, and Nathaniel, Vinny his garbage man, and good ol’ Harry. Everyone else was either dead or just didn’t care. Money just doesn’t do what it used to, he thought.
“Walter, Lawrence Pratt is just lovely—” she used her formal voice but then remembered to lose it. “— but he gambles like a fox. He’s a honey of a lover, but he’s just so young and keeps spending all my Goddamn money.” She sent Walter the meanest look she could conjure up. Walter thought it was scarier than seeing a corpse.
“You’ve gotta help me, Walter. You know you have to. I left Grover back in the ‘80s, but he’d still give me any legal help I’d need. And you know what that means.”
“Lizbeth, we’re old! Don’t you know that? I know we’re still rich, and we’ve still kind of got our looks, but goodness gracious, we’re gonna die someday! Don’t that scare you? Don’t you want to just die in peace instead of worrying about blackmail or revenge?”
“I am not avenging no one, Walter! I especially ain’t avenging your precious Mary Grace!”
There was a knock at the door.
Thank goodness, thought a very offended and nervous Walter.
Nathaniel opened the door. Walter smiled at him like he had never smiled at him before.
“Julia and I are going to head into town to get some groceries, sir. Is that alright?”
Walter’s smile faded. Elizabeth took initiative.
“Yes, that’s fine, Nathaniel. Do make sure to get some beautiful salmon for dinner. I know Julia is so good with salmon; it would be almost as good as it was in the days of the old staff, with your father, Walter! Weren’t those happy days?” She smiled at Nathaniel, letting him know he was to leave.
Walter closed his eyes. Harry put his head down and let out another slow, long whine.
“I’m not giving you the money, Elizabeth… whatever-your-last-name-is-now. Tell the secret all you want… I just don’t care. My name won’t even be hurt or anything, because my idiot of a son went liberal and took his wife’s name.”
Liz calmly looked at him. She didn’t believe him.
“Ten thousand, Walt. I need it. And you don’t want your last years to be hell. Me— I’m gonna live forever sweetheart.” Her eyes turned evil. The brown took on an auburn tint.
Walt sat still, defeated by his own self. ”I’m not giving it to you, Liz. My money’s going to my grandbabies, not a cursed woman like you.”
With that, Elizabeth stood. Walter never saw his once beautiful mistress ever look so angry. It reminded him of 50 years ago, when he told her he wasn’t going to leave Mary Grace. But it was even angrier than that by more than six times, he was sure. He knew something irrational was going to occur but something else happened before it did.
When Walter heard it, really truly heard it, he knew it wasn’t his imagination this time. Maybe it hadn’t been his imagination all those years after all, because Elizabeth looked at him, reading his expression before looking at the tower. He watched her remember whose tower that was. Walter saw that the curtain was closed for the first time in 50 years. Harry panted happily as he listened to the piano version of “Blue Skies.”
“She won’t win,” said Elizabeth before she flung her old body towards the stairs, looking deranged and evil. Walter knew where she was going immediately, and it wasn’t the tower.
Walter was wheezing by the time he reached the basement. His body ached, and he was sweating from more than just the exercise. He was dizzy from the winding staircase, and he feared it was definitely not in his routine to go into the basement. In fact, he hadn’t been down here since 1950 when a detective came one last time to tell him they had closed the case. He didn’t even come down when the nuns came to pray one last time at the scene of the death. He just sat in his office, organizing the same papers, the same thoughts.
It was cold in the basement. But Walter knew it got colder. And he heard Elizabeth’s expensive shoes down the tiled hallway. He tried to turn on a light, but it didn’t work. He took out the cell phone Brandon and his wife had bought for him.
“It’s good for something, finally,” he said, complaining even in an urgent event like this one, and then hurried to catch up with Elizabeth.
Walter’s knees were bothering him lately, so he had a hard time catching up with Elizabeth, but he knew where he was going. He didn’t go in the basement for 50 years, but he explored it in his dreams often. Yep, there was the brick wall ahead. It looked so old by the light of his cell phone, and it was old, Walter reminded himself. Elizabeth was standing by the wall, with her shaky, old hands frantically skimming the surface of the old wall.
“Liz, stop! I don’t know what the heck you think you’re gonna accomplish. You look like a crazy woman! I don’t wanna go down there, but God help me, I will stop you from doing whatever ignorant, maniacal thing you are about to do!”
Elizabeth didn’t look back. Her hand found a brick that was able to be pushed in four inches, and Walter reached the wall just as it fell into a trench in the ground.
He closed his eyes as memories filled his mind; the overwhelming smells of dust and mold and the sounds of water dripping and the loud bang of the disappearing wall being catalysts. Elizabeth walked forward as if a magnet 40 yards down the dark tunnel ahead was pulling her forward. The walk started.
As Walter took each step behind the frantic Elizabeth, he was reliving a 50-year-old memory in his mind. He saw his beautiful Mary Grace. Their marriage went through his mind in vignettes, and he saw love, happiness, the birth of Brandon, some fights, more fights, and then their three-year anniversary party held here at the mansion. Walter was at a selfish time in his life then, and he invited his old girlfriend Elizabeth to the party. That was the start of their affair.
With each step the memories grew worse and worse. He remembered how he took to Elizabeth like a disease. The affair was his idea in the first place, but she took it as her own. There was no turning back when, after two years, she had manipulated him into giving her a lot of money. But Walter didn’t even care about money anymore; the one thing that she took from him that he actually cared about was Mary Grace. And Mary Grace didn’t deserve any of what happened. When she became stressed with juggling her singing career and raising Brandon, he was the young and selfish person he shouldn’t have been. He let their fights get to him instead of talking them out and fed a wrong with another wrong.
And that “wrong” was in front of him, an animal gone mad, searching for immortality amidst a dark, wet corridor underneath a haunted mansion.
She had done it quickly. The proposal of murder was made a week before, and then she had her way. She had always been jealous of Mary Grace. She had been the one to break up with him the first time, but then when he fell in love with Mary Grace, he seemed to see her everywhere, suddenly anew with interest in him. When he married Mary Grace he was never happier; he knew it was the right thing to do and was overcome with love for her. But his youth made him oblivious to the nature of marriage; no one told him there would be hardships they would have to face.
That was so, so long ago, Walter thought, how can I even remember that? He was amazed.
Elizabeth made him feel horrible; she knew the workings of his heart and laid guilt on him like an anvil. She would ask him why they were still together only in secret if he truly loved her. She would ask him why he even stayed with Mary Grace. He didn’t know that he still loved Mary Grace; he didn’t know that she was not using him. It wasn’t until her body was underground that he found out that the money he had accused her of stealing from him had come from her parents. It was Elizabeth who had been draining his bank account with help from her brother at the bank.
He would never forget seeing Mary Grace tumble down the winding staircase. She seemed graceful even in that moment. Her olive green skirted suit made ripping noises as her body thumped with each curve of the stairs. One shoe ended up caught in the staircase, one stayed on her size eight foot. Walter and Elizabeth’s brother carried Mary Grace down the hallway, to the brick wall, which Elizabeth opened with Walter’s instruction – third brick from the right, a long hallway, and then a small room that used to be used as a speakeasy in the 1920’s. Walter had ordered a beautiful ivory casket for Mary Grace, and Elizabeth’s brother made sure no one knew about it. The detectives worked for ten nerve-racking years of Walter’s life but were never that good around this part of town.
Walter was almost to the speakeasy turned tomb when he remembered how it was a killer on his back to get the wall back up again. He thought about how he would ask Vinny to do it later and what story he would give in order to keep him out of the hallway.
Walter heard Elizabeth let out a scream. She was more aboriginal than beautiful and graceful. The small, carpeted tomb lit up. She had taken a match from her pocket to the torch set up at the open doorway. There sat the ivory casket. Spider webs hung like lace doilies from its edge. Elizabeth kicked at them with her expensive shoes and slipped and fell.
Walter ran to her side, yelling, “Liz, what the hell are you doing?!” He slowly got down on his cracking knees and didn’t notice the noises coming from the ceiling .
“I told you! She won’t win!” Elizabeth kicked and screamed, and Walter noticed tears running down the old woman’s face. Her red, swollen eyes didn’t look at him but they were aimed in his direction. He pulled her up and held the tomb to keep himself up. Dirt was all over his palm, but then dirt landed on the other side of his hand. He looked up amidst the continued screaming of Elizabeth. He ceiling was falling, bit by bit.
“Elizabeth, we need to leave!” He yelled.
He took her arm and tried his best to pull her, but he put too much weight on his knee and tumbled to his knees and then landed hard on his bony bottom.
“Come on, for goodness sakes!!! We don’t need to die down here!”
Liz was leaning over the tomb, screaming inaudibly at the casket.
“Liz, the ceiling is going to fall on us! We’ve got to get out of here!”
“You will not win! You are dead, and I will live forever!”
With each scream there was a rumbling noise. It sounded like an avalanche, but amongst Liz’s screams it was a bit muffled.
“Let’s take that stroll on the beach! Come on! You can stay until Brandon gets here on Saturday!”
Liz didn’t listen. Her fingers were on the casket, slipping as she tried to grip either sides.
No, Walter thought.
He cringed and felt nausea in his stomach. He didn’t move to get up. He just sat there, guilt overcoming him. He said a prayer to both God and to Mary Grace. Two words: I’m sorry.
And with that, Liz ripped open the casket. She let out a shriek of victory and fell back when she saw the corpse… or what was left of it.
She looked at Walter. Her expression was at first confused and distant, but it then changed to realization, tears, and sorrow.
She looked at him and mouthed the word, “I’m sorry.”
He smiled at her, and they started to crawl towards each other.
And just when they were in front of each other, on all fours, tears cleansing their face, hair a mess, dirt all over them, but truly alive, the ceiling fell, and they were buried alive.
When Julia and Nathaniel got back, it took them hours to realize the piano music was not coming from their master’s bedroom.
She had won.
At the funeral, Vinny told Brandon that he had an old man that missed him every day. He told him that he was proud to have raised him by himself and was proud that he was successful out west. He also told Brandon about how much he talked about his mother and her mysterious death.
At this, Brandon scoffed. “My mother’s alive,” he told Vinny.
Vinny looked at him with life-altering bewilderment.
“But why did your father lie?”
Brandon just looked at the man who had been nicer to his father than his father had deserved.
And started walking to the tower.
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Photo by Rachel Dotson.© All rights reserved.