The Haunting of Horace
“For who knows what magic takes place in his world…”
Tuesday, March 13, 1979
This attic was the only place Horace could find to hide. There were so many people out there, but here, in this empty room, he was alone with the full moon whose light was slipping feebly through the tiny window.
He couldn’t imagine what he had been thinking when he’d accepted Bob’s invitation. It had been so entirely unexpected, though, there was nothing else he could do. The star quarterback of the high school football team had invited him to a party… at the home of the single most beautiful cheerleader who had ever graced the halls of Poe High School. And Horace was the head of the Poe Nothings. Horace knew himself well enough to know that Rhiannon would never actually talk to him, but there was that Glimmer of Hope. Just a little Hope can make the heart beat a bit faster. Horace enjoyed the feeling, so he accepted the invitation. And now he was in the attic, hoping he could find a way out of here.
All of these people were light years beyond his social class. None of them had ever seen an episode of Star Trek. He knew absolutely nothing about the sports that they discussed with the precision of scientists debating quantum mechanics. They were all well built, outgoing, attractive people. Horace was thin, gangly, socially inept, and unattractive in any conventional sense. He was the only virgin in the entire house. What had Bob been thinking?
He didn’t belong. He wanted to leave, but it was awfully cold in March, and it was a 17 mile walk from Wells back to Biddeford. Hiding represented his only chance to survive, and he couldn’t get away with the bathroom for more than about 5 minutes at a time. There were way too many people, drinking way too much, and they all required a restroom.
But this room looked like it was hiding, too. It wasn’t even a full-sized room. It was accessible only by a narrow, winding staircase at the last corner of a very dark hallway. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to perceive that against the wall to his right, there was an old, worm-eaten wooden table filled with what Horace decided must be an artist’s supplies. There were notched candles. There were cloves. There were strangely shaped bottles filled with various colors of oils. When he walked to it he observed seeds, matches, and a shot glass.
He turned around when he heard the door open behind him, and he moved as quietly as he could out of the light. Rhiannon backed into the room, a round candlestick in her hand. She turned and glided silently across the room, and when she crossed the moonlight, the room seemed to glow with her.
She went to the table, and lit the notched candle using the tall thin one attached to the holder. She mumbled something, but Horace couldn’t make out what it was. He could see her silhouette moving her hands up the bizarrely shaped candle, bottom to top, 9 times. He counted. She sighed confidently.
When she turned around to leave the room she saw him, and they were both startled. Horace, already in the corner, tried to back away, but just smashed his body awkwardly into the wall. She dropped her candle, and it rolled, lit, across the wooden floor toward him. He knelt, nearly falling over, and picked it up. He stood up, and found her standing directly in front of him. He handed it back to her. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered.
Rhiannon smiled compassionately at him. “Me too.” She looked briefly over her shoulder at the strange candle, and disappointment tinted her blue eyes.
Horace couldn’t look at her. He noticed his shoelaces didn’t match.
“I really am trying my best.” She looked back at Horace. “To be a decent person I mean. I know a lot of people think I’m stuck up, or whatever, but, really, I’m not.”
Horace said nothing.
“Okay?” She whispered.
He looked up. “Okay.” His stare, while entirely unintentional, was almost rude in its intensity.
There have been, throughout human history, quite a few women renowned for their beautiful hair. None of them, however, had anything on Rhiannon. Lady Godiva and Rapunzel, for example, were each known for the lengths of theirs. Rhiannon’s didn’t come close to such a ghastly stretch. It fell, seemingly effortlessly, down her neck and covered her shoulders as a quiet brown river lightly licking its banks, or a blanket under which the slender shoulders snuggled greedily.
Helen of Troy and Lucretia Borgia were sufficiently beautiful that they seemed almost to be able to cast a spell on men simply by looking at them. They were Anti-Medusas. Horace was as inspired as any Trojan.
When she saw Horace staring through his hormone haze, she smiled shyly and brushed her hair slowly back from her forehead. Then she nervously moved her fingers through it like a tide stealing sand from a moonlit beach as it slides up and down.
“I mean, do you ever ask yourself if it’s even possible to make everyone happy without hurting someone?”
“No… not until just now.”
“If you ever figure it out…” her eyes shimmered in the candlelight. They both smiled. Rhiannon, he decided, was a girl who knew how to run her fingers through her hair. They were having a moment.
The banging on the door made them both jump, but Rhiannon held firmly to her candle, and Horace slithered back into his dark corner silently.
“Rhiannon? You in there?” Horace recognized Bob’s tenor voice.
She took her hand away from her hair. “I’ll be right out.” The moment was over.
“There’s a party downstairs, and you’re being a lousy hostess.”
She smiled, almost tenderly at him, and left the room, the notched candle burning. Horace was alone in the dark.
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety…”
“She’s married?” Rhonda asked as Horace lit his little glass pipe.
He held the hit a moment, squeaking in an unflattering way, exhaled, and then looked up at Rhonda.
“Your secret internet girlfriend. She’s married?”
“Yes, she is.”
“So, she’s cheating on her husband?”
“Certainly not. She’s entirely unaware that she is my girlfriend.”
“How stoned, exactly, are you?” Rhonda asked. She lit a cigarette. “To be your girlfriend would require that she has some part in the relationship, wouldn’t it?”
“She does. She accounts for nearly 3% of it. The other 97% exists exclusively in my mind.”
The metal screen door from the house opened, and Rita sauntered into the backyard.
While Rhonda was only in her mid twenties, Rita was in her 40s. They had been together for quite a few years before Horace had stumbled into their lives, and they had, essentially, adopted him.
When one of them was in the hospital (which happened far too frequently; all three of them had health problems. Horace was nearly deaf, Rita had chronic Lyme Disease, and Rhonda had genetic cardiac problems.), Rita and Rhonda identified each other as wives. For Horace, they were roommates.
Rhonda looked up at her instantly, and said, “Your roommate is a weird stalker dude.”
Rita sighed, and sat down in the nearest patio chair. “Where are the cigarettes?”
“I’m nothing of the sort. I shall certainly never see her again. I am, however, allowed to have whatever thoughts I choose, thank you Miss Orwell.” Horace picked up Rita’s cigarettes from the barely standing bedside table they had put on the patio to hold their accessories, and he tossed them unceremoniously to her.
“Who are you calling Miss Orwell?” asked Rhonda, flipping her dark hair off to one side.
“You’re being the Thought Police,” said Rita, opening the pack. “Let the man think what he wants.” She lit a cigarette, and then opened the book she’d brought outside with her. Her blonde hair fell in her face when she looked down at it, and she pushed it quickly out of the way.
“You want to live with a crazy man?”
“I want to read my book.”
Rhonda, unobserved, rolled her eyes at Rita and turned back to Horace. “What’s her 3%?”
“She likes my posts on Facebook sometimes. Once in a while, she even comments. She says she likes my writing.”
“So she’s messaged you? That could be construed as cheating.”
“Oh, heavens no! Nor have I ever sent her a message. That would increase our involvement, and that would ruin it. 3% gives birth to hope. 10% gives birth to hassles.”
Without looking up from her book Rita muttered, “100% give birth to children.”
“So how do you know she likes your writing?” Rhonda glanced back at Rita. Her eyes seemed to be losing focus.
He took another hit, and then, holding his breath, said, “She clicks like.”
“Lots of people like your stuff.” Rhonda seemed a little annoyed.
Horace exhaled. “Yes,” he said as he emptied the remainder of the pipe into the little red measuring cup in which he kept his supplies. He covered the carb, and blew into the pipe to remove any clogs. He began gathering bits from the bottom of the 1 ¾ cup container, and loaded them gingerly into his pipe. “I’m not, however, secretly in love with lots of people.”
“So, what’s the other 97%?” Rhonda watched Rita’s eyes begin to droop.
“The other 97% consists of messages unwritten except in my head, enjoying the intimacy of my thoughts connecting with hers, even if only for a few hundred words on my page or my blog, and vague leftover fantasies from the last time I saw her nearly 40 years ago.” He smiled nostalgically. “She was burning candles in her attic.
Rita’s head fell to her chest.
“Get her cigarette,” Rhonda said. “I don’t want her to burn herself.”
Horace reached for the cigarette dangling loosely between Rita’s fingers, and her head snapped up quickly. “I’m fine.”
Horace watched her another moment to be sure she was coherent, and then he turned back to Rhonda. “And I get to experience great joy when she says or does something nice. I don’t, if you hadn’t noticed, get a lot of joy.”
“You get to live with me. How much joy do you need?”
He picked up the clipboard, pulled the pen out from behind the clip, and began to cross out something on the printed paper. “More than that,” he said without looking up.
“I’m going to throw something at you. And it’s going to hurt.”
“I would very much prefer if you didn’t. That would decrease my joy.”
Rhonda threw nothing. “What’s her name?”
“Said you’d give me light
But you never told me about the fire”
“Rhiannon rings like a bell in the night…”
Saturday, May 7, 1983
Horace had bought his mother a candle for Mother’s Day, every year for the last 14 years, but always something basic, from Wal Mart or K Mart. He was in college, now, and it was time to do better. Pier One Imports would, he was sure, have something classier.
The place smelled of strange foreign spices, and the light came from the sunroof in the middle of the ceiling. The store was an eclectic collection of items from anywhere other than Maine. There were strikingly beautiful statues, and there were cheap, tasteless trinkets. He walked through several aisles before he found the candles. He studied them, but none of them stood out. There were a few layered candles, with colors bleeding from one layer to the next, but there was nothing unique. They were all variations of each other.
“Did you figure it out?”
Horace turned around, and his eyes widened to see a singularly beautiful woman standing in front of him. “Rhiannon?” he said after the moment it took him to recognize her.
“You’re… Howard, right?”
“Horace. But close enough.”
“God, I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since last I saw you.” She looked him up and down. “You’ve changed a little.”
“I got my shoelaces to match.”
She laughed a little too hard. While Holden would have found it appalling and phony, Horace found it appealing and charming, nearly enchanting. “Were you funny in high school?”
“I thought I was. But, I’ve always been unreasonably arrogant for someone entirely lacking in social skills or physical attractiveness. So, maybe I wasn’t.”
Her laughter rang like a bell throughout the store, and Horace expected someone to come and see what was wrong. No one did. And that’s when he realized the store was, other than the two of them, empty. “Isn’t it boring to be here with no customers?”
“Sometimes it can be.”
“You should hire someone to come and talk to you when you’re bored.”
“Want a job?”
“No.” He was too frightened to give any other answer, but he was determined not to show it. “I want a unique candle. I’d love one of those weirdly shaped ones you had years ago.”
Her face darkened for a moment. “You won’t find one of those here.”
“Pier One is too commercial?”
“Well, we can’t make everyone happy, so we just avoid hurting anyone.” She smiled again. “None of these candles can be seen as offensive.”
“Or interesting.” He looked around. “Have any artistic ones?”
When he looked back, he saw her head turning as she scanned the entire store. She looked back at him, and he couldn’t help but notice the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.
“We have a carved candle that really is beautiful, but it’s incredibly expensive.” She walked toward the front of the store. Inside a glass case at the front counter sat a candle that must have weighed ten pounds. It was rich, dark green, and there was a cottage, in a forest, in a glade carved onto it with exquisite detail. He could almost see a light on in the attic.
“That’s… incredible…You could never burn that. It would almost be a crime against the Art.”
“If it has a wick, Horace, it wants to be burned.”
He couldn’t keep himself from staring, and he knew it, and he hated it about himself. She didn’t seem to mind. Her eyes were like a singer’s asking if the audience had any requests. He looked back at her like a regular patron asking the bartender for “The Usual.” And, for a moment, she slid her fingers lightly through her hair.
The door opened, causing a bell to ring, and Rhiannon looked away to see who it was.
They were two lost hippies, women who were out of their time. They wore their very long hair down, they each had a straw hat, long necklaces, and bracelets that jingled whenever they moved. They wore plain gray skirts that nearly touched the floor. “We’ve come for chairs,” announced the taller one.
“Wicker chairs,” said her companion.
Horace watched Rhiannon scamper off toward them.
An old man in a black hat moved behind the display case to which Rhiannon had led him. “May I help you?”
“I want to buy this candle,” said Horace pointing. He pulled out his very first credit card, an American Express, and couldn’t help but watch Rhiannon and the women discussing the comfort of wicker, in its natural state, as opposed to processed material.
When The Man In Black handed him the receipt and the boxed candle, Horace nodded to him and walked toward the door.
Rhiannon was behind a high backed wicker chair, and as she heard the bell ring when he opened the door, she looked around the side of it, smiled far too broadly, and waved to Horace. She was a woman who knew how to wave from behind wicker.
“She is like a cat in the dark and then
She is the darkness”
“She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead”
– Paul Simon
Rhiannon was beginning to take shape in the flickering candlelight of the 3 AM darkness, as she often did while Horace was half conscious. She wasn’t the 16 year old girl with whom he had been pointlessly in love 40 years ago, but she wasn’t the woman in her current pictures, either. She was a lovely, if foggy, combination of those two memories, and he was beginning to smile without being aware of it. The cat crawled across his slowly rising and falling stomach, laid his head down on Horace’s chest, and yawned wide and long. The bell around his neck tinkled softly.
They both jumped when the banging on the door began. “What’s wrong?” He pulled his covers down. The breeze from the motion blew the candle out. Rhiannon retreated to the depths of his misted brain, and Horace rolled to his right and flipped on the bedside light.
“I need you to get Christine out of my room,” came Rita’s not entirely coherent voice.
Horace frowned. “My sister’s in your room?”
“She’s on the bed. She won’t leave.”
Mr. Brown jumped from the bed to the floor, his tail high. “I really don’t think she’s there, Rita.”
She was almost crying outside the door now. “I just told you she is. Make her go away.”
Horace sighed and got out of the bed. He pushed his feet into his slippers and walked to the door. When Horace opened it, Mr. Brown scampered out of his room and across the hall into Rhonda and Rita’s room. Rita nearly collapsed onto Horace who supported her the best he could.
He walked her back into her bedroom. Rhonda was sleeping deeply on her side of the bed. There was no one else there. Horace pointed that out to Rita.
“Where did she go?” Rita was genuinely surprised by Christine’s absence.
“I really don’t know. Maybe you could go back to bed.”
“I wanna have a cigarette.” She started down the hall toward the library, and its backdoor to the patio. Horace glanced at Rhonda, still completely oblivious, and decided to follow Rita. He found her on the best chair lighting a cigarette.
“Was she really beautiful as a little girl?” Rita asked as he stepped outside.
“My sister? Yes, I suppose she was. My parents said as much. I never found her beautiful, though.”
“She looks like she must have been a beautiful little girl. She has the prettiest hair. When she was young, I bet all the boys loved her.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever met her, Rita.”
“Duh. Just now? She kept playing with her hair. It was almost spooky. And she didn’t seem like she was where she meant to be. I think she got the wrong room.”
Horace took a cigarette from his pack. “You talked to her?” He sat down across from her.
“No. I just freaked out when she woke me up and came and got you.”
He watched her silently as she took a drag from her cigarette. In another moment, her eyes drifted shut. He got up, took the cigarette from between her fingers, set it in the ashtray, and then went to wake Rhonda. It was evidently time to change Rita’s meds again.
He locked his bedroom door.
Rhiannon didn’t return that night.
“When I whispered I thought I could love her
She just said, ‘Baby, don’t even bother to try.’”
“Horace Wimp, this is your life
Go out and find yourself a wife…”
July 10, 1986
He watched the woman beside him sleeping silently, and then Horace rolled over in the bed and retrieved the remote. The TV came on louder than he had anticipated, and he looked over to her as he quickly turned it down. She was unfazed.
Jimmy Durante was singing while the credits rolled on a romantic comedy whose title Horace couldn’t quite remember. “Make someone happy, Make just one someone happy…”
He flipped the channel and a news reporter began explaining, in a far too optimistic way, a crash that had occurred on Route 1 that afternoon.
At least, thought Horace, he had lost his virginity. He wasn’t stuck with that particular badge anymore. If he ever returned to Rhiannon’s attic, he would be at least a bit closer to her category.
He was 23; she was 43. She was a divorced mother who had been far too drunk at the bar. She had sought him out. Horace never, ever asked anyone to dance. He was no good at it; it embarrassed him. He just liked the band. And tonight, they had let him sit in on drums, because everyone was a little drunk, and this particular crowd would have loved them even if they played polka tunes in Ancient Coptic. Horace wouldn’t hurt anything.
When he came off stage, the woman, a complete stranger to him, had run across the dance floor and thrown her arms around him. She hugged him embarrassingly tightly. She had insisted on dancing with him the rest of the night, and he obliged. They couldn’t really talk. The music, particularly on the dance floor, was far too loud.
There was nothing wrong with her. She was probably a very nice woman when she was sober. She wasn’t unattractive. She had just moaned too much about knowing young flesh would be good. Horace had no clue what he was doing. It just felt wrong to him.
“… and in our final story, a scandal involving local celebrity Rhiannon Stark.”
Horace’s attention went immediately to the television. He turned it up a bit.
“That’s right, Danny, she was Miss Kensington County of 1985, and now she may be disqualified because of rumours of her participation in witchcraft. There are accusations of a practice called Astral Projection…”
The woman stirred, and Horace muted the television while he gazed at Rhiannon’s face filling the screen. “So wild,” muttered Horace as he watched her standing there with her hands in her hair. As she walked from the courthouse steps, past the paparazzi, the breeze blew lightly, and it lifted from her shoulders so that it glowed with the late afternoon sun behind her. Rhiannon was a woman who knew how to ignite cold contempt in the hearts of men toward any woman who had the misfortune of not being Rhiannon.
Horace rolled over, as far from the woman as he could, and laid, shivering, in the dark.
“She rules her life like a bird…”
“All your life you’ve never seen
A woman taken by the wind”
He was nicely, serenely stoned. Her picture was on the 21.5 inch monitor in front of him. He would have loved to see her in her yearbook pictures from high school, to help him construct The Perfect Rhiannon inside his mind, but these served as a reasonable guide. Her previous beauty had been preserved flatteringly. “Age doth not stale nor custom whither,” he muttered.
Horace smiled unconsciously, and then clicked back over to the essay he was writing. She would like this, he felt sure. It was close as he would ever come to saying he loved her. But it was more than close enough… if she ever read it.
“We’re home!” came Rhonda’s voice.
Horace looked up from the screen and watched the girls come into the library from the kitchen.
“They have me on a whole new set of painkillers,” said Rita. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“We brought you a present,” said Rhonda, handing him a donut.
“Oh, thank you!” Horace was genuinely delighted. He took the donut, and jelly dripped almost immediately onto his t shirt. He collected it onto his index finger, and licked it off. “And it’s fine. It was just a little weird.”
“She doesn’t hallucinate often,” said Rhonda. “In the five years I’ve been with her, it’s only the third time it’s happened.”
“Did you wake up in the middle of the night while you were dreaming or something?”
“No! Your sister sat down on the bed, and she asked me some bizarre question.”
Horace smiled, perhaps somewhat indulgently. “What’d she ask you?”
“I don’t know. I think it was like whether you could make anyone happy without hurting everyone, or something like that. What the fuck does that even mean?”
Horace considered the question a moment. “That would be a hell of an achievement.” He smiled. “And I think you reversed it.”
“It means it was time to change your meds,” Rhonda said to Rita. She turned to Horace. “We’re going to smoke. Join us.”
“Maybe not,” muttered Horace as the girls went outside.
Rita stuck her head back in the door. “What?”
Horace stared into space a few moments. He was thinking of Rhiannon’s candles. There was something he had heard about candles once, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.
Mr. Brown strutted into the library, and looked up at Horace sitting at the desk. There was an essay being written, and Mr. Brown felt obliged to make his contribution. He jumped into Horace’s lap, and Horace reflexively started stroking his fur. He looked once into Horace’s eyes, closed his own for a moment, then opened them again. He hopped up onto the desk, strolled across the keyboard, and the screen glowed with Rhiannon’s picture again. Mr. Brown’s bell tinkled gently.
Rita started to yell at the cat, when her eyes caught the image in front of Horace. “There she is!”
“Who?” He looked from Rhiannon to Rita.
“That’s who came into my room the other night. That’s your sister, isn’t it?”
“No,” said Horace, shaking his head slowly. “It’s not.”
When the cat crossed the desk, and leapt from the mouse to the window above, her status appeared: “Do you suppose you could make everyone happy without hurting anyone?”
Mr. Brown searched the backyard for birds.
Please don’t write about me anymore.”