The story so far:
Southern Gothic: Romance Chapter Five by writerwannabe
Andrew and Leigh reached the first floor landing and Andrew immediately went to one of the doors leading off of the short hallway. As a teenager, Andrew had served a couple of years on his town's volunteer fire department. He was no expert, by any means, but he knew enough to check a door for heat before opening it. He also knew enough about fires, in general, to have taken note of the fact that this fire was not "normal". There was something very strange about the way it was burning. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he hoped he'd have an answer before it was too late.
Cautiously, he pressed his palm against the wood of the door and instantly pulled it back. His palm was bright read. The door was very hot, indicating the fire on the other side was intense. Had he not checked, had he simply opened the door; the blaze would have blown through the door, engulfing both of them in its instant thirst for fresh air. He backed away from the hot door and tried the same test on two more doors. Only this time, he didn't actually touch the doors. He didn't have to. His hand still an inch from the wood registered the intense heat behind each of the portals.
Leigh watched from the middle of the landing. She recognized Andrew's actions and her eyes, wide with fear from the outset, were now bordering on panic. When he showed her his palms and she realized the implication, she asked in a tremulous voice. "What now? What do we...what do we do, now?"
His breath ragged, Andrew did not answer immediately. Instead, he took Leigh into his arms. He wanted to console her, to slow down the panic he saw in her eyes while he tried to figure out a solution. He surveyed the stairs and saw the smoke at the bottom of the steps. Strange, though, that the smoke ascended only half way up the staircase and had, at least for now, stalled at that point. Past the smoke, Andrew could see the entire ground floor of the house engulfed in flames. There could be no retreat. The walls, all around them were simmering with a thin sheen of smoke, rising upward, indicating that the opposite sides of those walls were burning; but the staircase, itself, the steps from bannister to smoky wall, was free of fire and smoke.
He whispered into Leigh's ear. "We have to go up. It's against everything I've been taught, but it's our only hope. If we're quick enough, we can outrun the fire and find a way out through a window and onto one of the trellis' on the side of the house. There are no shutters on the upstairs windows."
Leigh looked into his eyes. She saw concern but no fear. She nodded her head and Andrew immediately pulled away, took her hand and ran with her up the next flight of stairs. Reaching the next landing, he could see that the "hot door test" would prove the same results as before. Black vapors swirled across the front of the door and tiny tongues of flames darted through the cracks between the door, frame and floor.
Andrew paused and looked around. He looked up and down. Disquiet was obvious on his face and Leigh asked, "What is it?
He shook his head, trying to find the right words. "This fire...it's. I don't know...it's not normal. I thought it earlier and now I'm certain that there's something very unusual about the burn rate and the way it's moving." He turned Leigh toward the down staircase.
"You see? There's no fire on the stairs, and the smoke only comes up the staircase about half way." He turned her again, facing the up staircase. "None. All the way up to the attic. And it's much too fast. It looks like it's already consumed the entire house... except...except for the staircase!"
BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!
The crashing noise startled both and they immediately looked up, toward the attic, from where the loud crashing noise obviously emanated. Andrew pulled Leigh close. He held her head against his chest.
Leigh felt and heard his racing heart against her ear. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply of his scent. As his body heat infused her senses, she began to feel light headed. Not faint, but a dreamy state. In her mind she saw her grandmother's trunk. It seemed to be expanding and contracting, almost as if it were breathing. The trunk called to her. The call was not that of enticement, nothing sensual or inviting about it. It was a command and it's voice was that of her grandmother. "COME TO ME. NOW!"
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The slamming of the trunk against the floor of the attic shocked Leigh out of her daydream. She pushed back from Andrew and looked up into his eyes. "Do you trust me, doc?" Her eyes implored him to say, yes.
Confused at her change in temperament, but not her question, Andrew replied, "Yes...yes, of course, but...."
She stilled his lips with a kiss. He reacted by pulling her closer and returned the kiss; a kiss as fervent as any he'd ever given or received. Mouths opened, tongues danced, fingers tightened as they pulled each other tighter than mere passion would dictate, and for a few seconds they lost themselves completely in the other.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Leigh pulled away slowly, the pounding of the trunk no longer startling in it's intensity, lost as it was in the aura of love that surrounded the pair. That single kiss, though not the first they'd shared, in this particular time and place, seemed to coalesce strong feelings of love that heretofore had been held captive deep within their hearts. Leigh's eyes, shining with adoration and confidence, held Andrew's and she said, "Come. We have to go to the attic."
She took his hand and led the way up the final staircase to the small door that led to the attic.
The roof was burning. Inside the attic room itself was free of smoke, but the roof was invisible through a thin layer of black, swirling fog. The pair, bent over could feel the vapors as they wove their way through their hair.
The trunk sat ten feet away, expanding and contracting just as Leigh had seen it in her daydream. She looked at Andrew and was reassured that he, too, saw what she did. It was no hallucination.
"What the...what the hell is going on, Leigh?" He whispered.
Leigh did not immediately reply. Instead, she took Andrew's hand and pulled him to within a foot of the trunk. Kneeling next to Andrew, Leigh reached a hand forward and gently laid it upon the top of the chest. Instantly, it stopped "breathing" and from within, a brilliant light shown through the crack between lid and corpus.
"She's wanted me here all along," Leigh whispered. "After the first day when I opened it and what I thought as something black, something evil burst from within, I've been too afraid to come back; at least I've been too afraid to open the trunk again. But, whatever it was that came out of the chest, it wasn't evil...per se. I think it was a guardian of some sort. I don't know for sure, but something like that."
Andrew was paying attention to what Leigh was saying; he didn't understand it, but he heard the words and he was able to follow her meaning. At the same time, he was highly cognizant of the fire and their need to get out the house as quickly as possible. "Leigh, we have to get out of here. Coming to the attic was not a good idea...we're trapped he...."
"I know. I know. But, look how the chest shines inside. I have to open it. She, my grandmother, wants me to and I have to...." Leigh unhinged the clasp and, with one hand holding Andrew's; she pushed the lid of the chest back and away with the other.
A golden light filled the attic and a distinct smell filled the attic, erasing the odor of smoke and burning wood. Neither Leigh nor Andrew could definitively define the essence, although they'd both basked in its bouquet many times. It was the fragrance of spring time in the South. How many individual traces flowed together to create this one, overwhelming scent, neither could say; but the combinations were as pleasant as they were utterly, unforgettable.
Leigh grasped the edge of the chest with both hands, bowed her head and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply of the bouquet and in her mind's eye she saw - the house as it was fifty years before. There was a party in the garden with many guests, all dressed in their finest. It was a wedding, Leigh saw, and the bride, her grandmother looked resplendent in her dazzling white gown.
Opening her eyes, Leigh saw the same silky fabric that she'd seen in her dream covering the bottom half of the trunk. She reached in and pulled it out. Here, where the joists of the roof peaked, she was able to stand straight up and she did so, pulling the fabric from the chest as she stood. Andrew hesitated but a moment and then he too, stood, entranced with the vision of Leigh holding her grandmother's wedding dress in front of herself.
It was a beautiful garment, brilliantly white despite all those years in the trunk. It glowed with a radiance all its own. Leigh, eyes glowing and misty with tears calmly turned and placed the gown across the trunk. Without hesitation or apprehension, she shed her own clothes; and, with her back still toward Andrew, she pulled her grandmothers wedding dress over her head. The gown settled on her body in a flawless fit.
Andrew, unable to speak, certainly unable to protest, could only watch and admire the beauty of the woman he loved. He knew that, now, beyond all doubt. He'd known it from the moment they'd met, actually; but, current social mores and his own upbringing would not allow him to admit such a thing as "love at first sight". The fire, still raging, had somehow become simply a noise in the background. Whether the rest of his life was to be measured in mere minutes, he knew that all of his life was determined and defined by this moment; this instant in time would resolve both his and Leigh's lives forevermore.
Leigh stood before him, resplendent in the wedding gown. She grasped Andrew's hands in her own and looked him in the eyes. In a voice as soft as the wind, as if reading his thoughts about love at first sight, she said, "I believe in soul mates, Andrew. My grandmother did, as well. She always told me that I'd meet my soul mate here, in this house. The banging trunk, my fainting spells when you were near, the dreams; all of it -- even this fire were the actions of my grandmother's spirit to bring us together." With a chuckle, Leigh added, "She wanted there to be no doubt in my mind that you were my soul mate, doc."
Andrew took a step forward and pulled Leigh close. He kissed her brow, her cheeks, the tip of her nose and finally, her lips. As one they stood in the glow of the open trunk and the rage of the fire, completely absorbed in each other, oblivious to everything else.
Breaking the kiss, Andrew placed his hands gently on Leigh's cheeks. He tilted her head and whispered. "I love you, Leigh, with all my heart. I always have. If we....."
Leigh pushed her fingers across his lips. "There are no "ifs". There are no "ands" and there are no "buts", my love. There is only one question and one answer. Just that, and all things will be as they should be."
Andrew kissed her fingers, but kept them on his lips as he continued, "Will you marry me, Leigh and for the rest of this life and into the next, be my bride forever?"
Leigh sprang into his arms. Her legs wrapped around his waist. Her hands pulled his lips to hers, against which she whispered, "Yes, oh yes, my darling."
Their kiss lasted several minutes and when they finally tore their lips from each other, the quiet rushed in upon their senses. The fire was gone. Turning in each other's arms, they surveyed the house and saw not a hint of flame, smoke or damage.
The dreams, the fainting, the buzzing noises, the fire -- all had been illusory. Or, had it really? It didn't matter actually, because now, all things were as they should be.
'Southern Gothic: Romance Chapter Five' statistics: (click to read)