James walked along the path from the hotel room towards the quaint bar located on the hotel's property. He was feeling morose - He and Sarah had been saving for months for this "romantic" getaway to a historic Charleston plantation right on the banks of the Ashley River. Now Sarah was bundled up in bed, fighting off God-only-knew what and for God-only-knew how long. They hadn't been exactly happy for some time now, and this was supposed to be the vacation that let them know if there was still a spark, anything at all left between them worth saving. James took Sarah's untimely sickness as a sign that everything they did as a couple was cursed. He still loved his wife very much, but it felt like a constant uphill battle to find common ground anymore. As he walked, he lingered on the memories of happier times, times when the two of them actually enjoyed the randomness of life. Now, it seemed like everything had order and purpose. There was no last minute "Hey, let's go do this or that." Now, if it wasn't on the calendar, it just wasn't done. That's why this trip had been so important. They had it all laid out with an exact itinerary of what time and where to be, down to the minute. That was shot to hell now, with Sarah's totally unplanned bug.
As James stepped into the bar, he noticed how charming and quiet the space was. Soft music played from overhead, and while there was a single flat screen hanging over the fireplace, James was pleased to see it was not playing just sports news. The furniture was comfortable and inviting. Nothing screamed "bar," but rather softly whispered "Come, sit down, have a drink, and relax.".
James ordered a local brew, something he was accustomed to do when he traveled. He enjoyed sampling the different offerings of local microbreweries, having lost interest in many massed produced beer products. To him, they had sacrificed the taste of what he called "The Art of the Brew" and replaced it with dollar signs. This had led James to co-found a popular beer and wine blog called "Vine-N-Brew". What started as a passion for pairing microbrews and wines with foods had grown into a nationally-followed blog and gradually became a full-time job. Now, he figured if he couldn't spend this mini-vacation with his wife, he might as well get some work done.
James chose a seat next to the fireplace at a small, wooden table. The fire crackled as it burned, even though it was a gas fireplace, subtly adding to the ambiance of the softly lit room. James thought it was a perfect place for a pleasant and unplanned conversation, remembering Sarah, sick, back in the room. He wished at that moment that she was sitting across from him, laughing and talking like old times. He truly longed for the connection he and Sarah once had, talking for hours about nothing and everything. Now they sat for hours in silence, not speaking a word, both tapping away on their own mobile devices. This usually lasted until one of the two of them sighed and said, "Ok, I'm headed to bed."
"How do two people go from being inseparable, even when physically apart, to being separate when they're sitting in the same room together?" wondered James to himself.
James returned his attention to the beer he had purchased, planning to visit various local breweries now that his itinerary had been shot all to hell. The beer he had ordered was a Munich Helles Lager named 'Joggling Board', from a place in Summerville named Oak Road Brewery. James' inner critic took note of the aroma, color, froth, and taste of this new beverage. He found himself pleased with its attributes and decided he would for sure spend some time at that particular brew house.
James, deep in thought, hadn't even noticed the attractive young woman seated in the corner, curiously observing his little beer drinking ritual. She chuckled and said, "Looks like you're a little unsure of what you want to do with your drink there."
James smiled and replied, "I guess it does look a little odd to somebody who's not a beer critic. I'm thinking about writing a review on my blog about this golden beauty, and want to make sure I do it some justice."
"I didn't even know there was such a thing as a beer critic. I guess I've heard it all now."
The young woman had watched him as he walked toward the table, noticing he was in very good shape for an avid beer drinker. James' freedom, provided by his blog, allowed him to keep a steady workout routine going. He was about six feet tall, and carried himself with an air of self-confidence that wasn't cocky at all, just confident, like a man sure of where he's headed in life. His hair was light brown and shaved close on the sides with the top about twice as long and brushed forward. She couldn't tell if he was ex-military or just preferred the high and tight look. His jawline was well defined, as though chiseled from stone, finished off with a perfectly rounded chin. His hazel eyes were good-humored, and she noticed that his eyebrows were perfectly shaped, leaving her to wonder if he had them done. He was wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans, and she smiled to herself thinking how natural he'd look wearing a tool belt and carrying a sledgehammer, like a man from a calendar page – in which case, he would likely be her favorite month.
James began speaking again, pulling her back into the reality of the moment. "Hey, you wouldn't happen to know where Summerville is from here would you? I'm thinking about hopping over to this Oak Road Brewery and sampling some more of their brews before I write my review."
"Sure, it's just northwest of here, and the brewery shouldn't be hard to find. It's a small town. I guess you've already had your fill of the plantation, huh?"
"To be honest, I haven't seen any of it. Sarah, my wife, got to feeling sick as soon as we arrived. So much for our romantic weekend taking in the sights and walking the gardens."
"No, but sometimes I wish we were. Life seemed so much simpler then. I wish I could find my way back there sometimes, to happier days." James didn't know why that had come out. He wasn't accustomed to sharing his feelings with people he knew, much less strangers.
The young woman stood up and stepped towards the table where James was sitting. She stood there for a few seconds as James admired her appearance with the same detail as he had appreciated the beer. She was petite and blonde. Her hair was long with subtle hints of a natural curl. Her soft brown eyes sparkled with what appeared to be flecks of gold. Her face was more oval than round, and beautifully accented by the way her hair outlined her jawline. Her skin appeared to be smooth as silk-soft, warm, and inviting, like her lips, which repeatedly drew James' eyes. In the dim light, he couldn't tell if she was wearing makeup or if she was just naturally gorgeous.
"What am I doing?" James thought to himself as he realized he hadn't taken a breath since she walked over to the table. He inhaled, and against his better judgement, stood and said, "Please, please have a seat. My name is James."
She extended her hand, palm down, even as James reached forward slowly to take her hand in his. He thought to himself, "Oh my god, her skin is as soft as silk." He actually considered kissing her hand, but thought the gesture might appear boyish and cheesy.
"My name is Stephanie. It's a pleasure to meet you. I hope you don't judge me as harshly as you do your drinks."
"Ha ha, no, I would never..."
"I was joking. Shall we sit?"
Suddenly, James realized he hadn't let go of her hand, and blushed slightly as he gently released it. When he sat, he gulped and then wiped his hands on his jeans, because he noticed they were beginning to sweat. He couldn't describe the feeling that was coming over him with any better words than pure infatuation, and finally gathered the courage to speak.
"So, what brings you here?"
"Well, it's a long story, but the short version is my fiancé."
"So, you're engaged?"
"No, not anymore. He brought me here, and my job kept me here after things went south between us."
"Well, you already know I'm a beer critic and blogger, so if you don't mind me asking, what is it that you do for a living?"
"Oh, I'm a writer. I write ghost stories, and I'm currently working on a compilation that brought me back to this plantation for a very specific ghost. She's a nasty one, but the vengeful ones usually are."
"Well, it does make sense. They always say nothing's crueler than a woman's scorn."
"I'd have to disagree with that statement," she said, smiling hesitantly. "Typically, I've found the action that caused her scorn is usually the cruelest thing."
Noticing he seemed to have struck a nerve, James rushed to reply, "You're right, I guess. That's what I get for quoting a statement obviously written by a man."
Stephanie smiled, thinking such sensitivity to her feelings was a rare trait to find in a man. Most men would carry their opinion to the grave to defend them, and many in history had. She leaned forward a bit, and asked, "What're your plans now that your wife is sick?"
"Haven't really thought about it, but I guess I'll take the morning tour around the gardens, and then tomorrow evening, I'll head into Summerville to this Oak Road place, and see what else they have to offer."
"Not that you're asking for company, but since you don't have anybody to enjoy the tour with, would you mind if I tag along? I'm planning on taking the tour as well, and I'm hoping the guides might have information on my ghost."
"I have to admit the company would be nice, and a ghost hunt would definitely make the tour more interesting. I just don't think Sarah would approve of me gallivanting around the grounds with a beautiful woman by my side, unless it was her, of course."
"I promise it'll be completely innocent, James, but I do appreciate your compliment."
James had to admit he was attracted to Stephanie in every way, but even this simple conversation could be detrimental to what was left of his marriage. However, Stephanie had said it would be "completely innocent", so if he didn't act on his attractions, maybe it would be fine. Just then, James' phone vibrated.
"Speak of the devil, I guess that's your wife now, checking up on you?" Stephanie questioned.
"Yes," James answered with a concerned but disappointed look. "Apparently, she's getting worse and wants to see a doctor. I'll have to get her to an emergency room since it's so late. Sorry to leave so suddenly. I was really enjoying this conversation."
"Well, the offer stands if you'd like some company tomorrow. It sounds for sure like your wife won't be able to join in."
James thought for a second and then answered, "Yes, I guess you're right. I'll meet you here at say eight o'clock?".
"Deal!" Stephanie replied excitedly. "This is going to be so much fun!"
The next morning, both James and Stephanie met at the entrance to the little bar. James looked exhausted, but he met Stephanie with a smile.
"Good morning, ma'am!" he said, with a courtly bow.
"Well, you look a little worse for wear now, don't you? Rough night?"
"You could say that," James said sheepishly. "The culprit turned out to be food poisoning. Apparently, Sarah ate some bad mussels at the restaurant where we stopped on the way in yesterday. I feel so bad for her. She's more sick than I thought she was."
"Been there, done that, and don't want to experience it again," Stephanie said with a sympathetic look in her eyes. "I truly hope she'll be okay."
"Well, she's being a true champ. She even encouraged me to go on my 'little ghost hunt' today with my new friend."
"Oh, so you did end up telling her about me?"
"Kind of.... I told her I had an opportunity to take the tour with a paranormal researcher looking for clues and proof to the rumors of ghostly activity. She just said, 'Wow, sounds like fun. You should totally do that. How often do you get a chance to chase a real ghost?'"
"So, you didn't tell her I'm a woman?"
"Yes, but I described you as plain looking, and not as plain gorgeous. I hope you don't mind."
"That's a little play on words, big guy? At least you clarified it with me," Stephanie smiled and blushed slightly.
The two walked onto the garden path, heading to the first of many stops throughout the day. They talked at length about life, love, happiness, and sorrow. James expressed his concerns for Sarah and his relationship to Stephanie, who was more than willing to share her views from a woman's angle and to offer some sound advice on how James could communicate with Sarah more effectively. While they worked to hide the obvious, attraction that both were feeling, it had been a long time since either had talked this much to someone they could relate to so perfectly. They had walked for what seemed like hours before James realized they hadn't learned anything more about Stephanie's ghost beyond what she already knew before entering the gardens.
"So, not to dampen the mood, but what do you know about this ghost we're hunting, Steph?
"Sorry, it's not something your ex called you, is it?"
"No, I actually like the way you say it. It seems so natural the way it rolls off your tongue."
"Well good, Steph. What do we know about this ghost of yours?"
Stephanie smiled for a second before sliding her left hand behind his right elbow and pulling his arm close to her. James was a little shocked by the sudden move, but didn't think twice about letting her body stay pressed up against his arm as she began to talk. He realized he enjoyed the feeling of being physically connected to someone again, even if she wasn't "his" someone.
"Well..." Stephanie's soft voice and attentive eyes drew James in. We know that she is a very scorned woman."
"Of course she is. What kind of story would it be if she weren't?"
Stephanie smiled, but James could tell she was forcing it to show up so as not to show her disappointment in his statement. "Well, any woman who's ever met a man has been scorned in some way."
James smiled back, knowing he had struck another nerve. "So true," he said in agreement, and noticed she was pleased once again with his demeanor.
"This particular woman was deeply in love with the man of her dreams, and for two years they enjoyed a storybook relationship, or at least what she had thought was a storybook relationship. They visited these gardens, sometimes weekly." Stephanie paused and spun slowly around as to take in all of what was around her before starting to speak again. "They fell in love with this place, visiting it often, and finally decided this is where they should be wed. They had a special spot somewhere on the bank of the river where they'd sit and watch the sun go down. That's the place I'm trying to find, because it's where they say people are most likely to see her."
"Why is that?" James asked, now fully absorbed in the story.
"Well, number one it was because of the meaning of the place which was their most treasured spot in the garden, and number two because it was the location of his most devastating transgression against her."
"Ooh, this is getting good! So, what happened to keep her here, some unresolved issue that she keeps trying to solve?"
"Would you just freaking wait?" she said about his interruption. "I'm trying to get to that part. Anyhow, the day of their wedding came, and they were to be married on the deck of the big house. She was there, all dressed in white, love stricken and ready to spend the rest of her days with the man she loved, but...."
"But he didn't show, did he?"
Stephanie stopped and looked up into James' eyes. A single tear fell from her left eye. Before it slid down her cheek, the tear just sat there, dancing in the corner of her eye and sparkling with the reflection of the sun, as if it didn't feel like crying itself out.
"Wow, you take this story seriously, don't you?" James pulled her in close and cradled the back of her head with his left arm, as she placed her right cheek against his chest. After what seemed like an hour, but was just a few seconds, she turned slowly away from him, staring back into the gardens.
"She and I share a similar wedding day story, so yes, I take it to heart."
Up until this point, James had not dared tread down the pathway of her memories. He reached out, tenderly took her right hand, and with the slightest pull, turned Stephanie back around to face him. She lay her head back on his chest, welcoming James' warm affections, and sobbed quietly for a few seconds. James felt the warmth of her tears seeping through his shirt.
"No, no, I refuse to let it bother me anymore. This isn't about me. It's about her. Yes, it has a little to do with why I like the story so much, but I refuse to let it take me back to that day and those feelings."
"It's okay if you don't want to finish."
"No, I'm good now. Anyhow, the jerk didn't show. The young woman fled down the steps of the porch, through the garden, and back to her room, hoping to find her lover to talk him into salvaging their relationship. Not finding him there, she grabbed a knife and headed to their favorite place. She planned to end her life on the very spot where he had proposed to her. When she walked out to the edge of the river, she found him with another woman. Angry, distraught, and injured to the core of her being, she unleashed a fury on the two of them. She stabbed them both so many times that her once white dress turned shades of pink and red. Onlookers tried to wrestle the knife from her hands but couldn't, and she backed her way to the water's edge. Seeing where she was, she slit both of her wrists and fell backwards into the water."
"No, there was nothing holy about it. One story goes that you can still see her on that point of the river crying on or around the date of her anniversary, waiting for the sun to go down, before wading back into the water and disappearing for another year. That anniversary is today."
"Now I know why you're trying so hard to find the location of that spot, but you said, one story?"
"Yes, the other is much darker. In that story, she preys on unfaithful men, trying to get them to fall for her, and then drags them into the water with her."
"So, which do you believe?"
"I don't typically choose between stories until I research them all. Usually, those closest to the story will have the best answer. That's why I like to ask around in the places where the event is rumored to have taken place. While it may not be the habit of the facility or tour guides to give up negative info on the property, I find that there are usually a couple of people who love the darker side of life and have all kinds of personal knowledge of the stories and legends."
"So, we're just going to ask some tour guides until we find the creepy one, huh?"
"Hey," Stephanie smiled and nudged James in the side. "I'm one of those 'creepy' people, you jerk."
James laughed, accepting Stephanie's lashing of the tongue. "I meant no offense to present company."
"You can't take it back just because you said 'no offense.'"
"Sure you can. It's the 'no offense' rule."
"A man definitely came up with that rule. It's so obvious to see." Stephanie smiled.
James, enjoying the walk and conversation, couldn't ignore the messages his bladder was sending him. "I don't know about you, but after all of this walking, my kidneys are getting desperate. When we get up to the big house, I need to find a bathroom."
"That's fine. I'll use the time to flirt with that hot tour guide up there and see what I can find out."
James' face flushed, and he felt his cheeks heat up, noticing that the flirting comment didn't sit well with him. He knew the two of them weren't a couple, but maybe, just for a day, he hoped they could be.
Stephanie noticed the shift in his posture. "Aw, did somebody get a little jealous?"
"I don't own you. Do what you want," James said sharply with a tone of regret that Stephanie wasn't his. With that, James headed to the restroom, leaving Stephanie to her guile.
When James returned, Stephanie was leaning against the handrail. He stopped and took in how beautiful she was as the sun glistened on her hair. Her silhouette was lit up as though she was afire, and James was ready to burn in her aura, leaving the ashes to the breeze. For a moment, James found it hard to even breathe. She turned, and noticing him, walked playfully towards him, as if gliding on the breeze. With each step, she swayed her hips slightly farther either way than that of her natural stride. Her head was slightly tilted so that her beautiful eyes were staring up at James, and her enticing smile begged to be kissed. Though James' ears didn't hear the plea, his heartstrings did.
"I'm married, I'm married, I'm married," James whispered as Stephanie approached.
"There's my handsome man," she said with the same flirtatious grin. James felt as if he was standing in the flames of the moment, and remembering Sarah back in their hotel room, did his best to extinguish himself.
"Look, you don't have to try to make me feel better about the way you talked about the tour guide. You're a single woman, and I'm very much someone else's 'handsome man.'" James spoke, wishing beneath his façade he could just be somebody else for a day.
"I was actually excited to see you, but if you don't want me to share what I found out, then I'll just keep it to myself."
"No, no, I'm sorry." James decided to try a bit of honesty. "It's just that I've really had fun today, and your comment made me realize that after today, it all ends."
Stephanie walked over, put her hands on his chest and grabbed James' shirt. She pulled him forward seductively, as if she were going to kiss him but stopped short of doing so. James did not want her to stop but would not give in to temptation. He just stood there wantonly, telling her with his eyes that he desired her to continue. He breathed deeply in relief as Stephanie began to speak. She released his shirt and slid her hands down his chest to his stomach, slowly pulling them away just above his belt.
"Sorry, I guess I got a little excited by the news I learned while you were in the men's room."
"What did you find out?" he asked, struggling to catch his breath.
"I know where it all happened and where our girl will show up tonight, if she shows up at all."
"Tonight?" James questioned. "Too bad I won't be able to see her with you. Tonight, I'm going to the brewery I was talking about yesterday." James was relieved he had an excuse to bail on Stephanie's ghost hunt. He knew his hormones would get the better of him.
"What?" Stephanie asked disappointedly. "You can't give up on the hunt now, dang It!"
"I'm really sorry, and this has been fun. In a way, it's been more than you know. I've needed this day, but I should really get back to Sarah now and see how she's doing."
"Well, I guess you're right, and after all, you aren't mine to stop," she said, slowly backing away. "If you decide beer isn't what you want tonight, I'll be just down on the water's edge, just next to that huge oak tree, where the path curves back up to the house. You know, the one with the bench by it."
"Yes, I know the one. I promise, if I change my mind, I'll be there."
With that James turned to walk away. As he did, Stephanie slid her hand down his nearest arm, softly grabbing his hand as it slid though hers. James wanted so badly to turn and take her in his arms right there on the steps, but again he resisted and headed back to the room, back to Sarah.
As he opened their hotel room door, he thought of the times when he and Sarah had shared the same emotions and sensations now swirling in his mind and throughout his body. He walked over to the bed, sat down beside his wife, and ran his fingers through Sarah's long, jet black hair, stopping for a moment to appreciate what he had in her, Sarah was an awesome friend and confidante. She was supportive and encouraging. When James and Kyle decided to start the blog, he remembered how Sarah had pushed him to follow his passions. She even let him walk away from his career before he'd replaced the income he'd been earning as a contractor.
James took time to admire his wife, subconsciously listing all the pros and cons and weighing the day's events against their four years of marriage. Sarah wasn't just clever and intelligent, she was still drop dead gorgeous! The one thing she still took time to do was work out, often taking calls while on the elliptical. She had always been athletic, and even now, sick as she was, she looked as if God had shaped her on a potter's wheel to be a perfect work of art. James stopped to think about how long it had been since he had truly appreciated her for the woman she had become to him. Sure, there was less intimacy, but what about all the positive sides to Sarah as a wife and partner in his life?
Sarah stirred in the bed, feeling his hands running through in her hair. She turned to look up at him, but the words she spoke were not what James had hoped to hear.
"What are you doing?" she asked annoyingly.
"I was just checking in on you and got carried away thinking about how beautiful you are. I wanted to see how you were doing before I head into Summerville to the brewery that I told you about. I am more than willing to stay here and take care of you, if you want me to. I don't have to go anywhere tonight if you just want to hang out?"
"What I want is to go back to sleep. I just don't want to be bothered at all. I don't mean to be rude, but I don't feel like hanging out, and I definitely don't want a snuggle buddy right now. I just want peace and quiet. I thought you were chasing a ghost with the ghost hunter anyhow, either way, the bar..."
"It's a brewery, not a bar."
"Whatever, they serve alcohol. Either way, I don't care. Go drink, go chase ghosts, go do something somewhere else so I can rest. We'll have plenty of time to hang out when we get back home."
"Yeah, just like we did before coming here. I can't freaking wait!"
"You know what? Don't even start with me. It's not like we have the worst relationship out there."
Thinking of the day he had just spent with Stephanie, he would say something that would cut Sarah to the bone.
"You're right, we'd have to have a relationship before we could have the worst one."
As the door slammed shut behind James, tears began to flow from Sarah's eyes. She longed for earlier days too, but couldn't remember what it was like not to stress about bills or a career. Life just seemed to drive a wedge between the two of them, and as badly as James' comment hurt, she knew he was right.
James strode to the car but just stood there holding the car door's handle. The memories of the day came rushing back, all the emotions, all the feelings that he longed to feel again. The door handle, still warm from the day's sun, reminded him of the way that Stephanie had held his hand before walking away. He yanked the door open and threw his cell onto the car seat, determined he wasn't going to suffer any unwanted interruptions.
Back in their room, Sarah began to realize how badly she had treated James. He had cared for her the entire night before and took time to make sure she felt the most comfort possible. He had even held her hair back as she puked her guts out. Sarah reached for her phone hoping to catch him before he left the grounds of the plantation. She dialed James' number, and held the phone to her ear.
All she heard was, "You've reached James. Sorry I couldn't get to the phone, but if you leave a message, I will get back to you..."
Before he even realized where he was heading, James was standing at the oak. He looked down at the river bank and saw Stephanie, standing alone, looking into the fading sunset. James scrambled down the bank to the grassy area and walked slowly up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist, softly pressing his face into her hair, kissing the back of her head.
"You decided to come after all." Stephanie spoke without turning around.
"Yes, I didn't want a perfect day to end the way it was about to." James thought back to the recent conversation with Sarah.
Stephanie turned and looked up into James' eyes. James could see the sunset reflecting up at him from her dark brown eyes and thought it had to be the sexiest sunset he had ever seen. He couldn't wait to kiss her, but took his time, taking in every detail of the moment, imprinting every minor sight, scent, or sound into his memory. He recognized the taste and slight scent of salt in the cool evening air, thinking how it would add to the flavor of Stephanie's lips. James heard the summer ducks whistling on approach to their reedy refuge, as he looked again at the sunset in her eyes, thinking if he kissed her, he wanted it to be as perfect as all that surrounded them. He anticipated the softness of her lips and the feel of her body pulled tightly against his. She anticipated as much.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" Stephanie murmured in a throaty whisper.
"Yes, yes, it is. I don't think I have ever wanted anything more than I do right now."
Stephanie smiled as she placed her left hand on the back of James' head and gently pulled it towards her as she tilted her head to the right. Their lips met, and James was amazed at how soft hers were. He thought to himself how he didn't want the moment to end.
The kiss went gone on for some time before he realized Stephanie's lips started feeling quite dry, and as James tried to pull away, he felt a sharp pain in the right side of his neck. He tried to scream as the pain slid across his throat, but all he could muster was some sort of gurgling, bubbling sound. He could feel the blood squirting from the gash in his throat as he looked up in horror, grabbing at his neck with newly slick fingers, trying desperately to stop the bleeding.
Before him stood the rotting body of a woman wearing a battered, torn, and mildewed wedding dress, soaking wet from top to bottom. There were blonde hanks of hair dangling from the badly decomposed skull, and James' eyes widened in horror and disbelief as a fiddler crab crept from the hole where her nose had been and skittered into the empty eye socket just above. The corpse did its best to complete a ghastly smile before speaking. It uttered this simple phrase twice before backing slowly into the water.
"You chose me. You chose me."
The ground began to move beneath James' feet as the arms of all the men that had chosen her reached forth and began to pull him down into the pluff mud. As James' head sank beneath the muck, his last and only thought was, "I should have chosen beer."