It was late afternoon, as a gentle humid breeze wafted across the empty parking lot. Jenny and her sister Selena raced their hot pink plastic rolling suitcases towards room number 17. Selena, being the smaller of the twins, had to use both hands to lug her shiny case up onto the curb. Jenny screamed with delight, as she passed her sister and ran ahead into the room, dropping her suitcase to the floor behind her in victory. Their mother followed behind them, carrying groceries and a duffel bag, scolding them to keep it down, and not make a mess.
Once inside, Justine looked around the room and smiled with a mixture of approval and relief. Simple and clean, albeit dated, it was done up in burgundy and shimmering gold tones, with matching brown wall to wall carpet and coordinated wood paneling. The girls kicked off their shoes, clambered up onto one of the two queen sized beds. Shoving back plaid bedspreads, they rolled around in a fit of giggles. They hadn’t ever been on a vacation, and they were especially excited about the prospect of a swimming pool.
Before she had put her bags down, they pleaded with her, “Momma, Momma! Can we go swimming now? It’s still light out! Please, please?” Their mother sighed, adjusting her ponytail in the mirror. “Yes, girls, just give Momma a few minutes to freshen up.” With that, she went into one of the bags, and took out a bottle of white wine. The girls giggled as they jumped off of the bed and ripped through their suitcases, to get out their matching swimsuits. In unison they shouted, “Me first, me first!” , and ran into the bathroom to change together.
Justine, was a tall, attractive woman, who looked quite young for her 34 years. A former athlete, she used to go to the gym regularly. It was only since the accident that she had stopped her fitness regimen. The rhythm of her life had been thrown off, but she knew that it was time to get back on track. Sighing, she uncorked the bottle, and removed plastic from the hotel cup to use as a wine glass. Taking a sip, she closed her eyes with a smile. Just then, the bathroom door burst open and the little girls raced out wearing bright floral swimsuits, a whirlwind of joy. Justine smiled and laughed, feeling good about her decision to do a mini vacation with her daughters.
She kicked off her shoes, slipped on a pair of flip flops, and grabbed a roll of beach towels. The girls were already out the door, and she chased after them towards the crystal blue pool behind the motel, which sat empty on a grassy hill, enclosed by fencing. The girls were already inside of the gate, when Justine caught up with them. “Careful and no running! I’m gonna sit right here and relax, while you two swim. “
With that, the two girls walked straight to the edge of the pool, held hands, and counted, “One, two, three!!!” They jumped in unison, creating a giant splash. Both little heads bobbed up simultaneousy, giggling and spurting water everywhere.
“Let’s play mermaids!”
“Okay! I’m the baby and you’re the mommy!’
“Okay! You follow me, ok?’
The little girls swam around the edge of the pool, talking in mermaid voices, wiggling their legs together, making up a fantastic world where mermaids were real, and humans didn’t exist. Justine, watched, as her heart filled with so much love that it hurt. Briefly, tears welled in her green-blue eyes, but she quickly blinked them away, and took another sip of wine. It was almost sunset, and the sky began shifting colors, from a soft hazy blue to various tones of rosegold. The motel was in a quiet small town in western Massachussets, perched adjacent to a horse farm and lush fields. As Justine surveyed the landscape, something odd caught her eye. Next to the motel was a dense thicket, but through an opening in the brush, she noticed what appeared to be a few tombstones. She strained her eyes to see in the dimming light, and yes, it was not only a few graves, but an entire graveyard that butted up against the motel. She thought it was strange, but this was Massachussetts after all, so much history here.
As the sky faded into darkness, the girls climbed out of the pool, and Justine swiftly wrapped them inside one giant beach towel. They shivered and shook, feeling the chill of the night air on their skin.
“Momma that was so much fun!” they exclaimed, teeth chattering, as they made their way back to the hotel room. Huddled inside of the giant towel together, they giggled all the way. Justine sent them to take a quick shower, and set about preparing a light meal from the groceries she had brought. Carefully, she turned down their bed and put the tv on, switching channels until she found an old Disney movie. No mermaids, but there was Dumbo, and she knew the girls had never seen it. She laid out a meal of various snacks on a tray, and set it on the bedside table. It would be the perfect end to a perfect day as they dozed off to dreamland.
Refilling her cup with wine, she sat in the big comfy armchair. As she listened to the voices chattering and giggling in the shower she smiled. It had been 2 years since her husband had died in a car crash, and this was the first time she had been able to conjure up the energy to plan anything beyond the day to day. She knew he would be proud of her, and she closed her eyes, sensing his energy warming her soul, and enveloping her being with his love. “I love you”, she whispered softly, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
With a deep inhale, Justine wiped her face, and got up to close the shades of the motel window. The view looked directly into the graveyard, which she could see was ancient, full of various sized tombstones, many of which were deteriorated, and crumbling. It was somewhat overgrown, but in the twilight, she noticed that the graves went on and on, as far as her eyes could see. With a shiver, she quickly let go of the blind, dropping it with a loud slapping sound. Hearing the noise, the girls ran out of the bathroom. “Momma! What was that? We heard a loud noise. Look we’re clean! “ They ran around the room, naked, a couple of little nymphs. Justine, reached into the suitcase and pulled out their pajamas, and told them to get cozy to watch the movie. They quickly dressed, and jumped into the big bed in unison, a pile of sheets, damp hair and laughter. Before Justine had the chance to offer them the tray of snacks, the two children were fast asleep, cuddled up in the big bed. Justine sat in her bed, turned on the tv, with low volume to watch the Disney movie herself. It was comforting to her, and she sipped her wine, opening a bag of fritos from the snack tray. She felt herself truly relaxing, as she leaned into the plush pillow propped against the headboard. Her heavy eyes opened and closed, as she caught glimpses of the cartoon. She set down the glass of wine, and surrounded herself with fluffy pillows as she drifted off to sleep.
In her dream, two kittens played with a couple of dried up dead rats, encrusted with mud and blood. She watched them in disgust as they rolled the carcasses back and forth, tossing one up into the air and chasing it as it fell to the ground. The nightmare was interrupted by a strange scratching sound. The sound got louder and louder, until finally, she sat straight up, feeling a sudden chill. She heard the noise again. It was coming from outside of the window. She listened intently, figuring it must be wind blowing a branch against the glass. But, there was no wind. In fact it was a very quiet night. There was a full moon, and she could see the glow filtering through the blinds. As the scratching became louder, she heard a tapping on the glass as well, and her heart began to race. She looked at the phone next to her. Would there be anyone at the front desk? It was 3:28 in the morning. Doubtful. They had been the only guests today, it being the off-season. She didn’t want to go outside and leave the girls alone in the room. So she sat still in the darkened room. Listening and trying to figure out what the noise was.
The tapping got louder, and then she heard it. What sounded like some sort of whispering laughter. At this point, her heart felt as if it was going to jump out of her chest. Her body felt rigid, almost impossible to move. She slowly raised her hand to reach the remote and turned down the already low volume on the tv. Maybe she had been delirious and confused the sounds from the movie with reality. Maybe this was part of a dream. Silence. She sat perfectly still, terrified, and cautiously, slowly, peered over the girls bed, where they slept soundly, towards the window where the noise was coming from. Momentarily, the moonlight seemed to flicker, and there it was again, the sound of low whispers and what seemed to be childrens’ voices. She gasped with fear as she saw the silhouette of a childs head pass by the window shade. Taking a deep breath, figuring this was some sort of prank, she forced herself to get up, and tip-toed over to the window. Silence. She took one finger, and began to part the blind. Nothing. Just the moonlit landscape of the graveyard. Just then, the tapping sound started again. This time it was at the motel door! She held her breath, being careful not to wake her daughters. She stealthily headed to the door, and peeked out the peephole. There stood two small girls very similar to her own, but dressed in what she thought might be Amish or country clothing. Alarmed at seeing kids alone in the middle of the night, she opened the door, and knelt down in front of the two little girls. She gently gripped their shoulders, and firmly asked them in a low whisper, “Hey, where’s your mommy and daddy? What are you two doing out here?” They held each other’s hands and shared a secret smile, then looked at her and shrugged their shoulders. She told them to be very quiet and she brought them into the room. The twins appeared to be the same age as her own girls, and they looked healthy enough. The outfits were strange and a bit ratty. She asked if they knew their mom’s phone number, and again, they just glanced and whispered to one another as though sharing a private joke. Thoroughly exaperated and exhausted, Justine considered calling the police. But, she figured it was nearly 4 am, and what could it hurt to wait until morning.
She told the girls to take off their shoes and take a nap – that she would be taking them home to their family in the morning. Straightening up her bed, she offered them to get in, while she put an extra blanket on the chair for herself. But, before she knew it, they had scrambled into the bed with her daughters. Strangely, her daughters didn’t wake up, rather they just moved a bit and let the other kids fit alongside. Justine smiled, seeing these 4 adorable girls, all the same size, lined up in the big bed. She couldn’t help but grab her phone to take a photo. Nobody would believe this story, she knew that much. Wiped out, she made sure the door was locked, and turned off the light, leaving a small glow from the electric clock, which she set for 7 am.
No sooner had she laid her head down, the alarm was buzzing. Daylight streamed through the blinds and she looked over to check on the kids. A tousle of hair stuck out from the sheets. She got up, and gasped, seeing only two girls. Ripping the covers off, the children sprang up, tousled hair and wide-eyed. “Momma Momma! What’s wrong? “ She grabbed them and pulled them close to her, hugging them with all her might. She inhaled deeply, but something caught her off guard. They had a musty smell about them, something like moth balls and dirt. She gripped them hard and told them to take a shower right away. She said if they wanted to go back to the pool, they would need to clean up first. They obediently got up and trudged to the bathroom, dragging their bare feet. Justine was shocked at the amount of dirt on their feet and legs. Her head pounded and although it seemed odd, all she could think of was coffee. Too much wine, yet again. She had felt this way too frequently, for too long.
As the shower ran, she slowly straightened the room. The girls were unusually quiet today, not their usual boisterous selves. Normally she would hear them singing and laughing in the shower, but today they were completely quiet. Just as she finished packing up a bag for the pool, the girls emerged from the bathroom wearing their matching swimsuits. They stayed quiet and walked single file to the motel door, where they waited patiently for their mother. She glanced at them, and asked, “What’s with you two today?” She didn’t want to bring up the overnight “visitors” because at this point she wasn’t sure what to make of it herself. Perhaps she had been imagining or dreaming it? She shook her head, and told them to unlock and open the door. Strangely the door was already unlocked and they headed out in front of their mother as she ushered them along towards the glimmering pool. Sun glinted off of the chairs and cicadas were buzzing. It was going to be a hot fall day. “Indian summer” they used to call it. The motel maid waved good morning to them from one of the doorsteps, and motioned them to go get breakfast in the small lobby. Justine smiled and waved back, squinting with heaviness in her eyes as she faced the sunlight. The pool sparkled invitingly. Strangely the girls just sat on the edge, gingerly dangling their feet into the pool.
“Come on kids, we have to leave at noon, you better enjoy the pool while you can!” The girls just looked at each other with blank faces and stared into the water at their feet.
‘Well, if you won’t go in, I will!” with that, she stood up, and did a perfect dive effortlessly into the crystalline water, surfacing with exclamation, pushing her long hair back and adjusting her sunglasses which she had forgotten to take off. She felt revitalized, and invigorated, the hangover instantly evaporated.
The girls had moved over to the chairs under the umbrella and they continue whispering to each other as they stared in the direction of the graveyard. They seemed to be in a deep serious discussion.
“GIrls…what is wrong with you two this morning. Don’t you want to play mermaids again? You had so much fun yesterday. You are not yourselves. Maybe you want to go home early. We didn’t come all the way here for you to sit around being sullen.”
“No No No Momma!!!” They chimed in unison. “We can’t go yet. Can’t we stay until tomorrow? Please Momma, we want to stay!”
“I don’t know why we should stay if you two aren’t interested in swimming. The pool is the main reason I chose this place, and you are acting like you don’t even want to swim! Plus I’m exhausted. I barely slept last night.”
“We really want to swim, mommy. We do. Please one more night.”
With that, Justine sighed, and said, “Ok, maybe I just need some coffee. Let’s go see what they have for breakfast in the lobby, and I’ll ask about another night here. But, then we are coming back to the pool, and you are going to swim and play and have fun!” The girls stood up, laughed with delight, and jumped up and down. Their mother wrapped them up in their towels and they followed her like little ducks down the path, up to the front of the Motel. A handsome young man at the front desk greeted them and asked how their night was. Justine answered, “Fine, and in fact we would love to stay one more night if possible.”
He glanced at a practically empty roster of guests, and politely answered, “Of course, we would be happy to accommodate you another night.” With that, he pointed towards the small lobby, “Please, help yourselves to our complimentary breakfast.” A spread of prepackaged muffins, along with some butter packets, and thankfully, a coffee thermos awaited. Justine and the girls shuffled into the small area where she poured herself a much needed coffee, adding a lot of cream and sugar. The kids grabbed a couple of the sticky packaged muffins and ripped them open with their teeth, knowingly staring into each other eyes, as twins sometimes do. They stood face to face and each took one bite, then at the same time they switched muffins and so it went back and forth until within seconds they had finished. They reached for a couple more of the packaged breakfast snacks and followed their mother out. The hotel manager wished them a wonderful stay and suggested they take a walk into town where there was a small farmers market going on, with a lot of children’s activities. Justine smiled. She then paused before exiting, “I noticed the grave yard next door. Can you tell me anything about it? I mean, it looks very old.”
The manager visibly blinked and tried to feign a smile. “Well, yes, it is a very old cemetery, dating back to the late 1600’s. It has family plots from early settlers, and many unknown graves as well. It’s a historic landmark. Quite peaceful, really.
“Is it haunted?”, blurted out Justine, shocked at her own voice. The girls standing at her sides, just snickered and pulled on her skirt, “Momma we want to go swim now, come on please, Momma, let’s go.”
“There have been some sightings, but mostly pranksters, you know, bored teens and such. Small town stuff. The usual. Nothing else really.”
Justine smiled awkwardly, and laughed. “Thank you for having us another night.” “You’re welcome ma’am. Enjoy the pool today.”
With that, she took the girls by the hands, forcibly separating them, and walked out the door. “Are you two ready to swim now? I booked us another night in the room, so you have the whole day to play in the pool.”
“Yes, mommy, yes.” They said at the same time. They walked obediently in front of her towards the pool, they suddenly paused, nodded to each other and took a hard right, darting across the motel lawn towards the hedge which delineated the property from the cemetery. Justine felt her head begin to throb, beads of sweat forming on her upper lip as she shouted, “Hey, where are you going! Get back here, you little brats. I’m gonna call Granddad if you don’t come over here right now!” They stopped in their tracks and glared back at her with angry furrowed brows, as they stood at the very edge of the property. Justine noted that they were at the hedges that divided the motel lawn with the graveyard. “Momma, we want to go in there! Can’t we? Please Momma please!”
Justine sighed. She felt exhausted from the previous night’s bad dreams. “Fine. I’m coming, so wait for me.” With that, the two small children swiftly made their way through the brush, via a narrow path which led to the cemetery. Justine could see them standing close and whispering to each other. They stared back at her, with strange flat expressions. She wondered what had come over them since this morning. She thought to herself maybe it was because this was the first time they had been away from home for more than a day since their father had died.
Justine pushed the shrubs away to make her way through the hedges and as she reached the girls, she was surprised at the vast landscape of ancient tombstones. Overgrown grass enveloped a few of the crumbling discolored slabs, while others were cleared and stood straight. The landscape of grey and green went on infinitely. The two girls stood hand in hand, looking out over the creepy expanse. Even though it was morning on a sunny day, a chilly new England fog had drifted in and settled over the entire area, and with it, a damp coolness. Justine had the urge to turn and run back through the hedges towards the sunny pool and motel, but her feet felt stuck. She tried to call out to the girls, but no voice came. It was then that they bolted. At first side by side, then they separated and took off faster that she had ever seen them run. She finally managed to cry out, but only a weak voice emerged. Tears welled in her eyes from fear and frustration. The girls got smaller and smaller as they zig-zagged amongst the gravestones, getting further and further from her. She felt a cool wind picking up and the sky began to darken with an impending thunder cloud.
She inhaled deeply, barely managing to get out a weak voice as she tried to yell, “ Girls, please come back her right now!’ At this point, they were practically out of sight, tiny bobbing figures darting between distant headstones. She felt overwhelmed and just dropped to the damp grass, head in hands, tears streaming down her hot face. As she looked up, a gravestone caught her eye. Two small lambs snuggled on top of a deteriorating mossy coated slab. She could barely make out the words engraved. Staring, blinking away the tears to see more clearly, she read it out loud to herself.
“Lost But Not Forgotten
Beloved Little Lambs
Maria and Anna.
B. 1747 -D. 1853. “
Justine heard herself inhale sharply, her breath catching in her throat with terror. She looked around, wild-eyed, trying to catch a glimpse of the twins in the distance. Her mouth opened into a stretched oval to scream, but it wouldn’t come out. Just at that moment, the silhuoettes of the girls emerged from the fog which had begun to lift. They skipped playfully towards her and called out, “Momma, Momma! We’re having so much fun! We love you!”
In an instant, they were in front of her, out of breath, as they laughed and shouted out again with glee, “Momma! We love it here!”. Justine, still on her knees, leaned to embrace the little girls. They felt sticky and cold to the touch. Clammy. Holding back tears of relief, her heart filled to bursting with love for her children. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but you cannot ever run away like that again! Promise me. Promise me now!” She yelled as she pulled them against her body, inhaling their musty scent and wondering how they had gotten so filthy. “Let’s go to the pool now, ok? I need to relax, and you two can swim.” “Okay Mommy, Ok. They chimed in together, in a flat tone. \
They trudged along, dusty and dirty, back towards the pool, which didn’t look so inviting now, as the clouds had come in, and there was a grayish cast to everything. Justine opened the gate and the girls reluctantly walked in. Once again, they sat at the edge of the deep end of the pool, barely dipping their toes into the water. The shared secrets, whispering into each other ears, as Justine watched them from the other end of the pool. She felt a wave of extreme exhaustion sweep over her. So intense, that her eyes began to twitch, and she had to force herself to stay awake. She leaned back in the chair and looked up into the sky to watch a dark cloud slowly crawling across, until it practically obliterated the sun. She felt a crushing heaviness, and her eyes closed. It seemed she had only been dozing for moments, when she woke. Silence. She sat up to look at her girls, and they were gone again. She cursed out loud. “Goddammit, what is going on with you two today!”. Standing up to look around, a dark shadow in the pool caught her eye. Horrified, she kicked off her shoes, and dove into the water, swimming towards the lifeless bodies. Terrified, she reached around the figures, scooped up one under each arm, and swam with them to the surface of the shallow end, where she swiftly tossed them over the edge onto the towels that had been laid out earlier. Justine began to hyperventilate at the sight of the two limp bodies. She grabbed and shook each of them. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” She tried to scream, and again, nothing would come out. She grabbed each tiny wrist, alternately feeling for a pulse. Hot tears burned her eyes, and streamed down her face. The tears blinded her vision, as she gripped one girl and began compression on her chest. “Please please please, wake up, wake up, wake up!” Her heart was breaking and she couldn’t breathe. She blinked her eyes hard a few times, praying this was her imagination or a nightmare she would wake from. Once more, she closed her eyes tightly.
At that moment, she heard both of the girls let out loud gasps of breath, coughing a bit, then, they both spurted out a bit of water and began to laugh. “We’re back, Momma!!! We’re back!” They each sat up on the towels, a glow coming back to their cheeks, and just then the sun began to shine again. The light and air shifted tones. The menacing air dissipated. Justine, hugged the girls closely to her and felt heat coming from their small bodies. She inhaled their familiar scent and said over and over again, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Back in the motel room, as the twins took a shower, Justine folded and packed away their things. Feeling light and happy, she hummed her favorite song, as she packed a small snack bag for the drive home. She paused, at that moment, realizing that with all of the confusion, she had forgotten to take any photos. She opened her phone. There was only one photo, of two little girls snuggled up in the big bed in the hotel room.