Short Story Contest Winner: Indigo Wood (September 2019)
The woman across the hotel breakfast room still stared at him. Langdon raised an eyebrow at her, taking in the gray streaks through her black hair, trying to shake the familiarity of her face. He was a twenty-four-year-old construction worker. He didn’t know any middle-aged black women who walked around in pantsuits. Especially not in this tiny mountain town. He was here for a job. That was all.
He went back to his breakfast, a sad selection of cardboard toast, a wooden apple, and cold eggs from the hotel’s spread, and concentrated on it like it was high tea at Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, his focus couldn’t block the screech of a chair across the tile floor. Pantsuit woman sat down at the table with him, the concentrated wrinkle in her forehead replaced with a smile. “Langdon, isn’t it?”
Langdon was ready with an annoyed do I know you when her smile slid into place in his memory. He choked on his bite of toast. Coughing, he reached for his glass of water and drained it. “Professor Mallory,” he spluttered once he’d gotten his cough under control. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyebrows lifted. Langdon flushed, realizing how rude he sounded. “Sorry,” he said. “I just...it’s been six years. And I was only in your class for half a semester. How…”
“It’s amazing how students’ faces stick in a teacher’s brain,” Mallory said. “But I confess that your face had a little extra help in sticking. I had a brother of yours in my class a couple of years after you opted to leave the university.”
Ice flooded Langdon’s guts. He looked down at his plate and took a bite of his apple, hoping the crunching noise would drown out this unasked-for conversation. No such luck.
“He asked about you,” Mallory said. “He didn’t say much, but I got the impression he hadn’t heard from you in some time.”
“Did you need something from me?” Langdon didn’t care how rude he sounded anymore. He hadn’t come here for some old bat to pretend his family missed him. He knew better.
Professor Mallory tilted her head, looking at Langdon like he was a particularly messy calculus equation. “I don’t mean to pry,” she said evenly. “I was just explaining why you stood out to me. And I was curious about what you’ve been up to the past six years. You wrote me quite a passionate email about the greater world outside of academia. I confess that I felt a smidge jealous of your ability to walk away and leave it all behind. Where did you end up?”
No hint of sarcasm or judgment etched her tone. She could have the world’s greatest deadpan, or she could be asking honestly. Langdon took another bite of eggs, breathing in and out through his nose to release the tension in his chest. Swallowing, he said, “Construction. Joined a crew for a while. The past couple years I’ve been doing small renovation jobs on my own. I’m working on the quilt shop down the street right now.”
“You’re the one working on Margie’s shop?” Mallory’s eyes lit up. “What an interesting coincidence. My aunt and uncle had an inn here on the edge of town. It’s been closed down for years, and no one in my family can quite decide what to do with it. It’s fallen to me to come check out the state of things and sell it if I can. It’s a beautiful old building, solid as the day it was built, just neglected and worn down by time.”
The description stirred Langdon’s memory. “Are you talking about that big old building up the road a mile or so? The one with the violin?”
Mallory’s eyebrows drew together. “The violin?”
“Sure. Every time I go past it, someone’s playing their heart out on the violin.”
“Huh.” She looked puzzled. “Maybe one of the kids in town has taken to sneaking in. I’ll have to look into that. If they’re not doing anything worse than playing violin...but I don’t want anyone to get hurt in there.” Shaking her head, she said, “Margie gushed to me yesterday about the work you’ve been doing in her shop. If you have a spare minute, would you be interested in taking a look? Just to see how much it would take to restore it. I don’t think I could take on a project like that, but it would be good to know if I do end up selling it.”
Truth was, the old inn had already caught Langdon’s eye. It was a sturdy, classy old structure, and he’d itched to get inside and check it out. But it wouldn’t do any good to show too much enthusiasm. He leaned forward and looked the professor in the eye. “I’ll do it on one condition,” he said. “You don’t go looking up my brother and telling him that you’ve seen me.”
The condition was obviously not to Mallory’s liking. She frowned, but sighed and said, “It’s your personal business. I won’t interfere.”
“Good.” Langdon stood and picked up his plate, not interested in forcing any more of the hotel breakfast down his throat. “I’ll stop by sometime today.”
“Langdon.” Mallory’s voice stopped him, and he met her eyes. She said, “It’s good to see you. I’m glad you’ve done well for yourself.”
Unsure how to respond, Langdon mumbled something incoherent and made for the door. Breaking into the open air, he sucked in a lungful of crisp early-spring air. The chance meeting with his old professor had shaken him, more than he wanted to admit. And no matter how he fought it, he couldn’t help wondering which of his brothers she had spoken to. Probably Elliott. He was always the math whiz, the one with the grades and aspirations that met their dad’s high bar.
Even after six years on his own, Langdon still found himself trying to meet that bar. All too often, when he finished a job he was particularly proud of, a nagging voice at the back of his mind wondered if it would be good enough to make up for his plethora of failures growing up. Langdon’s answer was always the same.
Shaking off the unwelcome memories, Langdon headed down the street to the quilt shop, anxious to work off his tension. But when he reached it, a piece of white cardboard hung in the window.
Open at 11 today.
Great. Langdon tried the door, but it was locked. Why hadn’t she told him yesterday? “Fine,” Langdon grumbled to himself. “Might as well head up the road and check out the inn.”
In a town built on the side of a mountain, up the road literally meant up. The street sloped at an angle that had to be killer once the snow started in the winter. Langdon took the incline aggressively, making his way up the hill with long strides and letting the burn in his legs drive out the knot in his stomach.
The abandoned inn came into sight about the same time the violin music reached his ears. It was a beautiful song, simple but flowing and elegant. Langdon had wondered sometimes if it was coming from somewhere nearby, but the closer he came, the more he knew it could only be coming from the inn. Probably some old drifter with a fiddle from days long gone. Least I can do is warn him the owners are selling the place, Langdon thought, climbing the creaky old porch steps and turning the rattly doorknob.
The old door stuck so firmly that Langdon had to use his shoulder to get it open. It finally gave way with a scrape and a squeak, letting out a rush of cold, stale air that had likely been stuck in that house since he was still kicking around in elementary school.
Langdon stepped inside, pausing just past the door and letting his eyes adjust. The lights surely didn’t work anymore, but the inn had huge windows. Making his way to the nearest one, Langdon pulled back the curtains, coughing at the cloud of dust that burst out. That was enough light to start on.
There was wood everywhere. Hardwood floors, sleek wood bannisters on the grand staircase, elegantly carved wood tables in the grand dining room off the side, wood panels on the walls etched with forests and mountains.
“This place is amazing,” he whispered, breathing in the smell of wood that permeated the building. Slowly, cautiously, he climbed the sweeping staircase that reigned over the entryway. His hand brushed lightly over the bannister, rubbing away a blanket of dust to reveal the cherry wood beneath. Whoever put this place together knew what they were doing.
The sound of the violin grew clearer as he climbed, past the second floor and on up to the third. He followed the music down a long hallway and around a corner to a small room against the outer wall. Pushing the door open, he peered in.
Definitely not a drifter. A girl stood by the window, two braids trailing down her back, a violin tucked under her chin, her eyes closed as she drew the bow back and forth. She wore a vintage-looking blue dress with knee-high socks and hard, shiny brown shoes. She couldn’t have been more than nine. She looked about the same age his youngest sister had been when he left home.
“Hey, kid,” he said softly. The song faltered, and the girl opened her eyes, looking at him in surprise. “You’re sounding pretty good with that violin.”
“You can hear me?”
Langdon huffed a little laugh. “That window’s wide open. Anyone walking by can hear you.”
The girl looked at the window, then back at Langdon. Her forehead wrinkled, as if she’d never considered the fact that someone could hear her violin. Langdon took a step into the room and asked, “How long have you been playing?”
“A long time,” she said, a little sadly.
Her tone pricked at Langdon’s heart. “You don’t like playing?”
“Oh, I love my violin. It’s just that sometimes I get tired.”
“I used to play.” Sheesh, Langdon hadn’t thought about that for ages. “Can I have a try?”
That seemed to confuse the girl even more than the fact that she’d been heard. She looked at her violin, then shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so.”
Langdon surveyed the little girl, puzzled. His eyes caught on her forehead. Leaning forward for a closer look, he said, “That’s some bruise. How’d you get it?”
The girl turned abruptly away to face the window. “You should go.”
“So should you,” he said. “This place is going to be sold. I don’t want you to get in trouble. You’ll have to find somewhere else to practice.”
“I can’t.” The girl gripped her violin tighter. “I haven’t left since they took me away.”
Langdon’s heart stuttered. Took her away? Had she been kidnapped? Coming closer and lowering his voice, he asked, “Who took you away?”
“The people in the ambulance. I was climbing in that tree, and I fell.” She pointed out the window at a massive oak tree behind the inn. “Daddy found me, and he cried and cried and cried. Mama called the ambulance, but when they came, they just stood around and shook their heads. They put me in the ambulance and drove away, but they didn’t even use the lights.” Her face pulled into a pout.
Langdon sorted through her words, his arms and neck prickling with a sudden chill. “And...you haven’t left the inn since you...fell?”
The girl shook her head mournfully. “After the ambulance took my body away, I came back to my room and found my violin. I played it to keep out the sound of crying. Mama came in sometimes, and she’d sit on my bed.” She pointed to an empty spot of floor. “Sometimes I thought she could hear me playing, but she never answered when I tried to talk to her. So I just played. But maybe I didn’t play well enough, because Mama and Daddy left. I tried to go with them, but…” She put her hand up to the open window. The skin on her hand flattened as if it were pressed against a pane of glass. “So I stayed to play my violin. No one’s ever come in to see me before, though. Not until you.” She spun around, spearing Langdon with a narrow stare. “Why did you come?”
Langdon opened his mouth, closed it, and gave himself a hard pinch. It hurt. Shouldn’t he feel more...scared? Sad, yes. A little freaked, yeah. But not afraid.
The girl’s eyes widened as they fell on his tool belt. “You’re here to fix the inn!” she cried, her face lighting up. “I knew it would happen someday! This place is too beautiful to just fall to pieces.”
“I--hang on,” Langdon said, holding up a hand. “I just came to look--a project this huge--I’ve only ever--”
The temperature in the room dropped as the little girl crossed her arms, bow and violin still dangling from her hands. “I know it’s you,” she said, the bruise on her forehead flickering a little darker. “No one else can do it like you, Langdon. It’s why you’re here.”
She knew his name? “How…”
With another startling twist of mood, the girl twirled and lifted her arms in the air. “You can have it open by Christmas! Oh, the inn was always so beautiful at Christmas. The lights, and the candles!” Without seeming to move, the girl suddenly appeared at Langdon’s side. “You will do it, won’t you?”
“I…” How did one say no to a ghost? Especially the ghost of a nine-year-old girl? “I don’t know if I can do it. I’m not…” Years of reaching for approval and persistently falling short closed in around him, squeezing his lungs. “What if it’s not what you expect?”
“It will be.” The girl reached out and touched his arm, her fingers sending a cold shock across his skin. “I believe in you, Langdon. You’ll make this inn into a place where people feel at home, just like Mama and Daddy did.”
With another flicker, she was back by the window, lifting her violin to her chin and drawing the bow across the strings, a blissful smile on her face.
Langdon never made it back to the quilt shop that afternoon. He called in his apologies and a promise to be there early the next day, then found Professor Mallory. After a great many phone calls, forms, and signatures, Langdon returned with her to the old inn. Two stories above, violin music floated down.
“Whoever was playing the violin here must have gone home,” Mallory remarked, standing on the porch with her hands on her hips. “I’ve gone past a few times today and never heard a thing.”
Cocking his head, Langdon listened to the melody that only he could hear. For just a second, he caught sight of a girl’s silhouette in the upper window.
“You’ll have to let me know when you open,” Mallory said. “I’d love to come back and see this place back in its full glory. What are you going to call it?”
Langdon grinned. “I had an idea.” Picking up a loose piece of plywood, he grabbed a fat permanent marker from his belt and wrote for a moment, then set it up on the porch railing for the whole town to see.
Coming soon: Spirited Inn.
Written by Indigo Wood
Instagram | @indi.go.wood