We had 60 hours to write our stories as usual, and again this tied for second. Why must first be so elusive?
Smuttynose Island had a beer company named after it, and felt eons away as I piloted a rented boat towards it. By the time I reached the shore, the fading daylight had tinted the water the color of cheap cola. I sighed at the thought: the whole point of the trip was to escape the excesses of modern life that followed me, over fifty pounds worth of it since college.
Bringing the boat against the dock, I was pleased that it was whole. The rental guy had me imagining planks missing or ready to give way under my weight, though my aunt probably would have mentioned it before suggesting I stay there for the summer. The guy might have just been yanking my chain, but his alarm at learning my destination had seemed genuine. "What are you going out there alone for?" he'd asked. "Don't you know that's a murder house?"
I had known that; Grandma kept a macabre scrapbook of articles about our most famous dead relative and I'd poured over it as a child. "She wasn't a beauty, Jenna, neither of them girls were but they didn't deserve to die like that," Grandma, finger hovering over the photo of slain Anethe, would say every time she caught me. Maybe it was meant to be comforting, that notion that even ugly people shouldn't be murdered, but I figured she was trying to nicely say I was homely too.
Sighing, I tried to shake off the old insecurities, and checked to make sure the anchor chain was sound. I never did answer the rental guy's first question. He probably would've laughed to hear that I was hoping that shutting myself away from easily accessible supermarkets and bakeries would be the kick in the pants, the oversize pants, I needed to get serious about dieting.
Docking the boat myself wasn't easy, but I managed. The house was visible from the shore and it wasn't a beauty either. Aunt Katherine had someone out to fix it up, twice, but the repairs were never quite finished, and the worn building advertised its age and state of neglect. I trudged up the path, hoping that the interior of the little building would be nicer.
It wasn't. Opening the door, I could imagine Katherine saying: "Give it a chance, Jenna. You said that life has gone off plumb for you. Maybe this will help." Maybe it would. I could hardly see myself baking in that kitchen - the batter would be as much dust as flour.
At least there was electricity. Katherine might be fond of hoop earrings, gauzy skirts, and prattle about chakras, but even she didn't believe in denying oneself the comforts of modern technology. How else would she have sold power crystals on eBay?
Even with electricity, I found myself clumsily tripping over carton of small tools that someone had left on the bathroom floor. Clearly it belonged to one of the unreliable workmen because the new toilet showed evidence of work in there. Fortunately, the vanity I braced myself against to keep from tumbling into the ancient tub was sturdy.
I hadn't thought to bring a duster, so I found a rag and set about trying to smooth the dust off various surfaces. It was probably a futile effort without a vacuum cleaner, but the burst of activity helped keep my mind off of cake and other forbidden delights. Even without sweets there to actively vie for my attention, my thoughts kept circling back to the fact that I would have gladly killed the rental guy for a Snickers bar.
Everyone I trusted enough to ask about weight loss had told me that the longer you go without sugar, the weaker the cravings become. It only took me three days before I realized that none of these people had actually ever tried their own advice. Having nothing sweet in the house drove me to distraction and I couldn't even bake anything. Fruit just wasn't cutting it, and I had bought more of that with me than just about anything else. Horny men thought about sex less often than I craved carbs.
Eventually I found myself looking up sugar detoxification, hoping that webMD might have a page on adverse reactions because I was beginning to imagine suffering tremors or hallucinating a chorus line of Hostess baked goods. A websearch revealed that no one, at least not with the initials DR after their name, had ever seriously researched the matter. It didn't help me much but at least I didn't have to worry about a pie visiting me with rattling chains.
By the morning of the fourth day, I realized that my grand plan had a fatal flaw. I had only thought of how stranding myself on a tiny, otherwise uninhabited island would force me to behave myself, but I hadn't given any thought to what I would do instead of snack. An amateur historian might have combed the property for clues about the semi-unsolved crime, but I had spent only a short while exploring the two outbuildings before deciding that anything of value had probably been eaten by time, so that was no way to occupy myself. The classic hobby, writing the great American novel, was right out because I was as distractible as a kindergartner.
I could clean though, so I pawed through my purse, hoping to find a pen and paper for a list. Quite unexpectedly, my hand found half of a Kit Kat bar. Without even thinking about it, I unwrapped it, and popped it in my mouth. Bliss.
I was still savoring the taste of chocolate when I heard an explosion behind me. Whipping around, I saw that a canister of flour, one that had probably seen the Eisenhower administration, had dashed itself on floor. I stared at the broken shards in the powdery drift, and wondered how it had happened...at least, until I remembered the open window. Sighing, I picked up the biggest pieces, and added a new dustpan to my list of cleaning supplies.
Later, as I headed back to the mainland, I was thankful yet again that I'd done a lot of boating as a kid. At least I could escape if someone showed up with an axe, I thought morbidly. It must have been terrible, for the two women who died, and the one who didn't, to have been trapped in that house when someone came.
The mainland hardware store had everything on my list, though I knew that I was being screwed over on prices: Katherine told me flat out that prices got raised in May so summer tourists could be fleeced. After that, I popped into the grocery store, intending only to buy some bread for the seagulls. Without quite thinking about it, I found myself leaving the store with a box of doughnuts and break-away cookie dough too.
On the way back I rationalized it. It has been four days, not counting the chocolate, since I had indulged in sweets. Everyone said that the key to a successful diet was to not deny yourself, so I was just following good advice.
"It's good advice," I muttered as I entered the house. Could houses be disappointed in you, I wondered idly. Of course not. Going sugar-free really was making me lose my mind if I was personifying the house so someone could be disdainful about my purchases.
The strangest thing happened when I put the cookie dough away: the refrigerator shuddered, bouncing my endless supply of fruit. I stared at it and made a mental note to check if there'd been an earthquake. People think the northeast doesn't get any. It does, just too small to be noteworthy.
I got the donuts put away without incident, but I thought I saw the cabinet door move a little out of the corner of my eye. It was just nerves, I decided.
Truth be told, I was a little disappointed in myself for those thoughtless purchases, so I took the L-Glutamine a friend swore by, and tried very hard not to crave anything but sleep. I made it a whole night without caving in, and it felt like a victory.
The victory only lasted until three, when I found myself being drawn to the fridge like a redneck in an alien tractor beam. I was only going to eat one dough blob, not even giving myself the satisfaction of warm cookies.
Next thing I knew, I was opening the dough, and a flicker of movement froze me. For a second I'd been sure someone had been staring at me, but no one was there. I slammed the fridge shut, stuffed the dough in my mouth, and dashed back to bed. The house's history was getting to me, that's all.
The house suffered another tremor as I gathered bread and donuts and headed outside. Maybe it was built on a small faultline. I promised myself to ask Katherine about it later.
As soon as they saw me, seagulls gathered along the shore and I spent a while tearing bread into pieces and tossing it to them, only slightly bothered that their hungry cries sounded like lost toddlers. Some were more daring than others, and I found myself laughing at their antics between bites of donut.
But only until something horrifying happened. A hand made of water surged out of the ocean and smacked away everything I was holding. I shrieked and jumped back, fully expecting that a closer look would provide a logical explanation.
What I saw was watery fingers waggling disapprovingly at the food scattered on the ground. The seagulls didn't mind and dove for what I'd dropped. But me? I ran screaming all the way back to the house.
My heart pounded as I slammed the door behind me. If I thought the house would provide sanctuary, I was wrong. Something sticky immediately fell on my head, and I felt for it, hand trembling, only to discover cookie dough. Before I quite knew it, several more unseen assaults were launched, like someone was firing the dough at me from a paintball gun.
In the kitchen donuts hung in mid-air until they noticed me, then they flew at me, leaving powder all over me as I ran away. I stopped only long enough to grab my phone before shutting myself into the cellar.
Somehow, there was a signal. "Aunt Katherine," I cried shakily when she answered. "I think the house is haunted."
"This is going to sound crazy, but every time I eat something sweet, weird stuff happens."
I'm not sure what I expected her reaction to be, but laughter wasn't it. "Of course it does."
"What?" I asked blankly.
"I suggested you stay there for a reason, Jenna."
"Anethe hated sugar. She wouldn't allow it in the house. So..."
"You're saying that I'm being haunted by a sugar-hating ghost?" My voice rose at the end.
"I think so. Both those workmen who skipped out on me, they complained about rattling and stuff moving while they finish their lunches. So it only stood to reason-"
I hung up on her.
You probably think I jumped back in the boat and left immediately, but you'd be wrong. I stayed as long as I'd planned before everything weird happened.
I needed help with my sugar addiction, and Anethe was more than willing to provide it. I can't think of a better way to stay in line than knowing that a sugar-hating specter is ready to pounce poltergeist-style, can you?
Anethe and I made our peace - with just a few more sweet slipups - and I left the last week of August feeling better about myself than ages. When people ask my weight loss secret, I'd just smile and say I got some help from an old busybody relative who helped me break my bad habits.
P.S. the murders really did happen, late in the 1800s. Google "Smuttynose Murders" for more info.
"Everyone has respect to uphold, you lost mine when you screwed me over tenfold." - Captain Phoenix, Pistols & Hearts buy