Part I - Ascending
Brittany jumped as wind howled throughout the house again. A small whistle emitted from its point of entry, but the sound dissipated as quickly as the rushing air. A second gust outside slammed the beaten shutters into the window frame.
“Is it raining yet?” Charlene asked.
“No, it doesn’t rain – they’re just wind storms.” Paul answered.
“And this place is known for them?” Janie asked placing a hand on the small of Paul’s back.
“Quite. The guide book says it helped them in a few wars.”
“What war did we fight in Arles?” Brittany asked.
Paul took a deep breath. Alan’s taste in women had not improved much with age. “We did not fight the wars – the French did. And the wars to which they are referring are the Roman battles, I believe. “
Brittany looked at Paul blankly for a moment. Then she lifted her empty wine glass in Alan’s direction and shook it at him.
“Coming, darling.” Alan said in a mock falsetto, selecting one of the many open bottles.
Another flurry tore past the windows as a mysterious wafting intruder whipped around the interior.
“Seriously, why can’t we find where that’s coming from?” Thomas asked walking the periphery of the room again.
“Maybe we should each take a wall and with the next gust, see who feels it first.” Charlene said enthusiastically.
“How are we going to cover a whole wall?” Thomas asked, his tone ripe with sarcasm.
“Like this…” Charlene responded by going up to a wall and comically extending her arms and legs to their farthest reaches. She splayed her fingers for further absurdity. The others rewarded her with a collective laugh. More wind slapped outside and sent a tendril in the room. “Oh!” Charlene chirped, jumping back from the wall.
“Did you find it?” Thomas asked going to the wall and holding his hand up to it.
“No, it was a spark.” Charlene said.
“I didn’t see a spark.” Brittany said.
“No, like a jolt… electricity or something.”
“Are you OK?” Janie asked.
Paul joined Thomas at the wall. “Electricity? In a 3 foot thick stone wall?”
“Oh, this thing isn’t three feet thick.” Thomas said. Paul looked at him with furrowed brow. “What?” Thomas asked him.
“Are you OK, Charlene?” Paul said pointedly looking at Thomas.
“No, I’m fine.” Charlene said not releasing her hand that took the jolt. She made her way to the couch casting furtive glances at the wall.
The house was old, quite old. The couples found it through a website in which people list their homes for vacation rental. Paul and Janie and Thomas and Charlene had traveled together for years. Alan usually joined them, when not travelling with work, and always brought some new companion he adored but with whom he saw no future. This trip, only four days in, had seemed a lifetime. And neither Brittany nor the weather had anything to do with it.
The house was narrow – only one room width across – and four stories high. An enclosed tiled staircase spiralled to the various floors. Bedrooms anchored the second and third floors. The fourth floor had a landing and a rooftop balcony that looked out over Arles. Janie picked Arles because of her fondness for Van Gogh’s “Le Jardin de l’Hôtel-Dieu”; painted not far from their front door, she was delighted to learn.
Paul and Charlene were more attracted to the city’s foundation built on battles. Thomas had tagged along as always, but found Brittany an unexpected bonus. Alan’s last two girls had been okay to look at, but their opinions and the need to spew them grated on Thomas until he was forced outside in pursuit of silence.
Brittany, having exited to the kitchen during the confusion, returned to the living room chewing on a cold ear of corn. The others stared at her.
“Would you like some?” They all declined politely, if with a tone of incredulity undetected by Brittany.
“I cannot get enough of this fresh produce. It tastes homemade!”
Alan came to Brittany’s side, affectionately tousling her hair with one hand as his other hand extracted his phone from his belt. Brittany robotically reached up and put her hair back in place. The others had not paid much attention to her since she arrived, something she either did not mind or did not notice. She was more uneducated than unintelligent. When you’re born beautiful – and grow even more so – you learn how little people care about your ability to contribute to a conversation. People like Paul, Alan and Thomas quietly preferred her type. Her being so pretty made what they were saying more interesting.
Charlene had no place for Brittany. Reading everything she needed to know about Brittany in her introduction, Charlene left her be. Charlene disliked the other woman’s archaic tactics but she could appreciate her survival instincts. She was not so much preying on the likes of Alan as she was subsisting. As long as Brittany’s intent was limited to herself, Charlene accepted her presence without quite encouraging it.
All the same, she kept her eye on Thomas.
Janie, the brightest of the bunch, was the most sympathetic toward Brittany. She took every opportunity to bring Brittany into the conversation, and Brittany’s limited ability to stay there seemed not to deter her. Paul teased Janie about her efforts to include Alan’s girls, reminding her they would never last long enough to matter. Paul formed an opinion of others before they released from the handshake. Janie was constantly trying to open his mind.
But Janie’s intelligence was no match for Charlene’s wealth and that’s where Brittany kept her focus.
Charlene was not ostentatious, which in Brittany’s experience meant she must be from old money and plenty of it. Brittany was fascinated by Charlene and hung on her every word.
“Brittany?” Janie interrupted her thoughts. “Sorry, I was just curious – where are you from?”
“The South.” Brittany responded.
“Ah, that explains the appreciation of fresh produce.” Janie said kindly.
“Where in the South?” Thomas asked, seemingly to her chest.
“Deep South.” Brittany responded flatly. Another snap of wind rattled past outside. Each member of the party shook their heads as a wisp ran passed them. Brittany smiled. These folks had never spent a harsh winter in a second-hand, single-wide trailer. A little wind wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Not enclosed in here. Brittany disentangled herself from Alan and went into the kitchen. She plucked a few green beans from a bowl. Noting Paul’s smirk, she turned her back and chewed them intently. Obviously, no one here had ever known a life that involved eating vegetables only from a can. The freshness that wealth affords you in life is usually lost on the rich. Brittany watched Charlene, who seemed the slightest bit jumpier since her encounter with the wall. She cast a glance at Alan. He was absorbed with his phone.
She entertained lifting her top and shaking her breasts to prove a point. She decided against it.
A thud was heard from the upper floors of the house. Conversation stopped and all eyes looked towards the ceiling.
“What the hell was that?” Thomas asked looking up the stairway.
Paul came to his side. “Something must have fallen.”
“Just like that?” Thomas continued.
Paul placed his hands on his hips. “We are in a windstorm, Thomas. That hardly qualifies as ‘just like that’.”
Janie pushed past them. “I’m going to check it out.”
“And off she goes!” Charlene yelled out with a wave of her hand. Paul followed her at a much slower pace, and Thomas went to retrieve a bottle from the kitchen. When he was next to Brittany he said, “Janie loves ghosts. If she does ever actually find one, her heart will give out from the thrill.”
“Ghosts?” Brittany asked.
“Yeah, you know, spirits.” Thomas responded. Brittany opened her mouth to clarify what she was asking but closed it again. Thomas was not the one to ask. Alan could fill her in on everyone’s eccentricities once in bed.
Janie returned disappointed. “It was nothing. Just old house noises. Nothing’s even knocked over.” Paul let out a chuckle. Janie didn’t care that he found her silly.
Charlene reached out her hand, depositing a magazine on the side table and swept up her glass in one fluid motion. She turned her gaze to Janie while taking a sip of wine. It was all so effortless. Brittany practiced the move from behind the sink. She saw Alan reach out his hand to pat her knee. His concentration was pulled from his phone when he realized she was not beside him. He looked about the room. Once he made eye contact she giggled and waved – just the way he liked it. He mimicked her crinkled nose and waved back before patting her vacated cushion next to him. Brittany looked at Charlene who was laughing loudly at Paul’s story. Her mother had taught her a bird in the hand was worth more than two in the bush. She skipped to Alan’s side keeping one ear on Charlene’s conversation.
**This post first appeared on Fictionique.com and is part of a series