Author's Official Booksite PINKIE PARANYA

Sample Chapter: Seńora of the Superstitions

~ Chapter 1 ~

The house crouched, brooding and silent, like a giant beast of stone and mortar. Waiting for her—expecting her to come.

“Aren’t you at least going to the door with me?” Jowanna McFarland turned to the strange old man who brought her out to the desert and now hurried back toward his truck.

“No ma’am. Got to get back.” His large Adam’s apple bobbed in his skinny neck, a sheen of sweat beaded his weathered face.

Where is my father? Why didn’t he meet me?

Panic rising at her uneasy thoughts, she picked up one of her suitcases and reached for the other. It was so hard to believe she stood at the foot of Superstition Mountains in Arizona. She sensed that nothing much had changed in this desert land from the beginning to this year of 1948. The letter clenched in her hand was hard to read through the tears she fought back, but she’d memorized it. The long white envelope was addressed to Jason McFarland, her brother, dead for the past ten years.

Jowanna knew the contents of the letter by heart. The signature was her father’s, who had abandoned his family eighteen years ago. It wasn’t only the bare words that had dragged her out of her comfortable niche and brought her to this strange destination. And it wasn’t only to confront him with their pain his leaving had caused the family, nor was it the mention in his letter of a gold mine he’d been searching for and finally found. What drew her out was the raw urgency behind the words he had written. He was in trouble and needed Jason or someone to help him.

“Can’t you at least wait until I find out if anyone’s here? I might want to go back with you.” She hated the sound of pleading in her voice. She’d never had to beg for anything in her life.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

“Uh‑uh,” Charlie muttered, the quavering voice came from somewhere inside his beard. “They don’t cotton to company here. Besides, there’s the Seńora. I ain’t a‑gonna get tangled up with a ghost.”

“A what?” She fought to keep the edge of hysteria from her voice. That crazy old coot—Charlie he said his name was. He’d so many bad things to say about the Superstitions, why would anyone stay here? Rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders as big as a man’s hand, flash floods and caves filled with poison gas, puma lairs, drop‑offs into bottomless mine shafts and as if that wasn’t enough—here he was babbling about a ghost. She looked off into the distance at the towering mountain that looked sinister and menacing even from far away. She would have felt that way even if Charlie hadn’t gone on about its dangers.

Hoping she wasn’t as neurotic as her mother, Jowanna admitted to having fears of everything outside of her realm of existence and old Charlie had named most of them in one sentence.

But he hadn’t mentioned a resident ghost before. What else wasn’t he telling her?

Maybe she should have told him whom she had come out to see, but her father’s letter had warned Jason not to trust anyone.

When the plane had landed at Phoenix, she remembered feeling a sudden thrill as she stepped off, not to a bank of dirty New York City snow, but into the brilliant warm desert sunlight. On her way to Albandigos, Arizona, she had stared at her reflection in the window while the scenery flashed by. No one appeared in the dusty little town to meet her. Had her father received her telegram? Her lips tightened with repressed anger she’d held back for eighteen years.

Turning to call again to Charlie, the backfire and the plume of dust rising in the distance told her the churlish old man was driving away in his contraption of nuts, bolts and steering apparatus that he called a truck. Deserting her. The sight and sound snapped her back to her present predicament

About to meet a father she could barely remember, her usual logical rationality began to overpower her excitement. Part of her exhilaration had been anger. A deeply buried anger that was just now surfacing. She hated him for leaving them. She needed to face him down, to demand to know why he had left his family without a word.

He probably wouldn’t be pleased to see her. He obviously needed Jason. Why hadn’t he contacted them over the years? In the letter he told of a step‑son and brother‑in‑law, no doubt two stodgy old tobacco‑chewing cowboys. She pictured them with her all-too vivid imagination, scruffy, stained beards like Charlie’s. Her father had also mentioned a woman called Delia who was missing, which had alarmed him.

Who was Delia? Why was Charlie so afraid of this place? She had expected a bit of gossip from him, but he was tight‑lipped the entire ride, except for spouting frightful warnings about the desert and mountain area.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

The most ominous part of her father’s letter was the reference to it all blowing up in his face soon. What did he mean?

“Arizona.” She spoke the name out loud, as the word moved through her consciousness like a thread through a hemline. It was like coming to a foreign country. She’d never been out of New York and had no reason to think she would ever leave. Over the years she began to feel rubbed raw from her mother’s continual nit-picking, but inertia had claimed her after a time and she forgot about wanting independence.

The house stood in front of her, as if blocking her way to the desert and mountains behind it. The structure was graceful; swooping, extending upward and outward. Slabs of petrified wood combined with seasoned hard wood made up the exterior, creating an unique and beautiful house in a wild, uninhibited way. She’d read about the Petrified Forest in Arizona from a magazine she’d picked up at a lay over on her way here.

A loud flap of an outbuilding door shattered her musing, sending her pulses racing. She took a deep breath. “Hello! Anyone here?” Her voice squeaked and she cleared her throat.

Suddenly her gaze froze upward. Was that a shadow—a movement in the upper window? She stared harder, but it vanished in an instant. It could be the wind in a curtain, but the window wasn’t open. Realizing her thoughts skirted dangerously close to old Charlie’s mention of the ghost, she called out again, louder.

“Hello. Anyone here?”

Never, in her wildest imagination, could she have pictured a more lonely, desolate, forgotten place. Like an awkward, ungainly mirage, the two‑story, native stone house looked out of place on the desert and yet strangely enough, it blended in. As if the house had staked its claim and dared anyone to move it.

Strange thoughts, she skittered away from them.

The loose door on the outbuilding continued to flap monotonously to and fro, breaking the eerie stillness. The hot wind touched her face in a gentle caress, like something live. The silk blouse stuck to her back and perspiration trickled from behind her knees. She felt the pressure of the garters above her knees and wondered why she thought she would need to wear stockings with a calf-length skirt.

The nickering of a horse broke the silence, coming from the direction of the barn. Undecided for a moment, she moved away from her luggage toward the stables, needing to see a living, breathing creature, even if it was a horse.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

No, that wouldn’t do. It would soon be dark. She had no choice but to go inside and wait for her father to return. Where was he? Why didn’t he meet her at Albandigos as he had promised in the letter? Surely he received her telegram saying she was coming.

Standing on the wide veranda at the front door, did nothing to assuage her fears.

The blowing wind made nearby trees bow and dance, reflecting on the window panes, causing shadowy figures to move inside.

She beat on the massive door, which moved to open slightly beneath her pounding fists. At this point she only wanted to run away, as far and as fast as her legs would take her. Somehow the thought of confronting her father for his years of neglect didn’t seem all that important.

Jowanna picked up her suitcases and tiptoed slowly forward. She’d never thought of entering someone’s home uninvited, but this was her father’s ranch, wasn’t it? Not to mention she had nowhere else to go.

The house inside felt cool, damp and dark. Quiet as a tomb. She looked around, her gaze nervously flickered away from the shadowy walls. As if against her will, she crept close to each of the corners, checking to see if they were empty. Expecting to see something crouching, waiting for her with yellow eyes and a red tongue. She cursed her imagination and dropping her suitcases, turned toward what appeared to be the kitchen.

Just over the threshold, she found three glass kerosene lamps and long kitchen matches. When her hands stopped shaking, she tried to light one but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. She finally figured out how to turn the wick up and down and after lighting several, she set them around the kitchen. She needed the light to send a protective glow around the room, dispelling the gloom.

The kitchen was spacious with a huge window overlooking the desert. An old fashioned wood burning stove and a table covered with a shiny oil cloth completed the picture. Cast iron kettles and frying pans lined the back of the stove.

Carrying a lamp in each hand, she returned to the living room. In spite of the thick patina of dust covering everything, she saw remnants of past comforts, reminders of a woman’s touch tucked in between the masculine furnishings.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

Dust‑dry flowers topped the mantle of the huge stone fireplace, giant pottery ollas stood on the hearth filled with dry plumes of pampas grass. The jars were large enough to hold a person.

She pushed the disconcerting memory away of a long ago fairy tale—of someone hiding in a giant jar and the villain pouring hot oil into each one. The story had always scared her when she was a child. What if someone jumped out at her?

The living area was sunken, with two steps down. Thick, colorful Navajo rugs covered the ceramic tile floor, their intricate weaves and patterns came through even though muted by layers of dust. The ceiling was high and vaulted, with massive beams of dark wood. There were many shelves of books and some lying about on a coffee table made of petrified wood.

It was a comfortable home, except for the air of neglect and the spooky atmosphere of shadows and silence.

The pervading desert dust clogged her nostrils, causing her to sneeze. She was about to turn away, but holding the lantern high for one last glance, the blood froze in her veins at what she saw.

Footprints on the dusty floor leading upstairs.

Her fingers trembled on the lamp and she clutched it tighter, knuckles white. Every inch of her body sensed danger as the skin at the nape of her neck crinkled and goosebumps raised the hair on her arms.

She fought the urge to run away. Where would she go? It was dark outside by now. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled a mournful cry in answer to the sudden darkness. Another echoed the sound. She put a foot on the bottom stair and thought of walking up that long, dark passageway, each corner holding an unknown menace.

“Hello?” She made her voice carry up the stairs even though she shouted through dry, cracked lips. If she didn’t continue her search, she would never be able to stay in this house until her father came.

She began to realize what a pampered, sheltered life she had led. For the first time in her twenty-eight years she was completely alone, on her own. No demanding, meticulous mother to supervise her actions. No excuses to fall back on if she failed. Well, since her mother often accused her of willful stubbornness, she’d use that to combat her paralyzing fears.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

Staring at the offending footprints only caused her fertile imagination to magnify the threat, but she couldn’t skitter away like a frightened mouse. Hadn’t she called out twice with no answer? There wasn’t anyone here—unless you wanted to count the ghostly Seńora of the Superstitions.

Jowanna fought the panic, her heart fluttered in her throat.

She started up the stairs with grim determination. Shadows danced on the ceilings and the walls from the lamp held in her trembling hands. On the second landing a loose board under her feet screeched. The sudden noise in the silent house caused her to tilt backward in fright. She grabbed hold of the railing, steadying her wobbly legs, her fingers clutched around the lamp until they ached.

“Coward!” she admonished herself out loud, needing to hear a voice. “There’s no such things as ghosts.” The footprints weren’t made by a ghost, a thought that offered little comfort. They were oddly shaped, made by someone wearing boots? That would seem natural out here, she conceded.

At the top of one landing was a small dormer window at right angles to the continuing stairs. She shoved and pulled, but thick paint at the base had probably locked it in place.

Brushing aside some of the dust on the panes, she saw where the roof extended out and then sloped downward until the ground appeared as close as fifteen or twenty feet away. A large cage nestled in a corner near a gable. For pigeons, she guessed.

She continued up the stairs, thankful the narrow passageway offered no opportunity for dark corners.

The first door down the long hall pushed open easily.

Wasn’t anything locked around here? It didn’t seem normal. Back home you locked your apartment door if you went down to check with the doorman for mail.

The room contained an old-fashioned brass bed with a blanket thrown over the mattress. On the floor against the wall, a fancy silver inlaid saddle lay on its side, looking out of place. A few items of masculine clothing lay across a chair. Nothing in here was dusty. Someone had been here and not too long ago.

Back in the hallway, she closed that door behind her and moved on to the next room. Clothes hung neatly in the closet, and the bed had been made with precise, tight corners. Only the large easel and spatters of dried oil paint on a sheet beneath marred the neatness. This room too, was nearly dust‑free.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

A hard object under the bed almost tripped her when her foot kicked into it. Kneeling down, she pulled out a large portrait in oils. The woman pictured was breathtakingly lovely, with wide blue eyes, long blonde hair and delicate features. Something in the way it was painted bespoke a loving care, even if it was unsigned. Who had painted it and why was it hidden beneath the bed?

She shoved it back under and turned away, suddenly feeling like an intruder.

With that door shut behind her, the lamplight flickered against the walls on the stair landing and she licked her dry lips. She checked the level of the oil. How long would it last? She didn’t want to be caught up here in the dark. Pushing open the third door, she walked to the dresser and almost dropped the lamp.

Her own face stared back at her with gray eyes big and solemn, hair in long black braids. Jason stood next to her, tall and straight, with her father in the middle.

She felt the familiar pain of loss that had become mixed in with anger, but had never quite left her. First their father leaving without a word and then such a waste, the tragedy of Jason drowning in a boating accident.

A stranger passing by had taken the photo of the three of them at a birthday party in the park. The last party when her father was there with them.

Trembling, she held the lamp with both hands. The room was dusty, as if no one had been here in a while. It had to be her father’s room. She touched the clothes draped across the bed and picked up a shirt, holding it to her cheek, trying to inhale some essence of him, but the dust choked her.

Suddenly she felt so alone. Yet the impression of someone being close by was so strong she looked around, showing the lamp above her head to search out the corners. The anger against her father threatened to melt away and she brought it back quickly to protect against the pain.

Couldn’t he have come back to see them during the long years? Why didn’t he tell them goodbye? She needed to confront him with her sorrow for Jason’s death, of her pain of being left alone over the long years without either of them as a buffer against her rigid, tyrannical mother and grandfather.

Why had he sent for Jason now, after all these years? Why had his letter sounded so urgent, so desperate, as if he had no other choice? He was in trouble, some kind of danger threatened him or he never would have contacted them.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

Unable to bear her thoughts any longer, she stepped out of the room and, as the door closed behind her, Jowanna felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rising. The end of the hall was shrouded in shadows, but something called her to go to it.

She stared up at the narrowed, twisting stairway, the ceiling low. In two storied houses, especially the older ones, there was usually an additional attic space. This must be the gables she saw from outside. In an effort to stop the shaking, she clamped her left hand over the right as the light shone down on more footprints on the dusty hardwood landing, pointed upward.

What should she do? Go downstairs and cower in fear all night, waiting for her father? She couldn’t go without sleep forever. She had come here for answers, how else to get them?

Coming out here alone, looking for a father who she believed didn’t love her, it was all so out of character and well she knew it, but her behavior had started events which had become like a ball of snow rolling down the hill. She couldn’t stop herself any more than she could stop whatever happened to her.

She started up the small set of stairs, as they became steeper and narrower. Leaning to hold the lamp down low, she perceived that the footprints in front of her had to step sideways now, the steps were so narrow. The prints ceased abruptly at the end of the stairway in front of a closed door to the attic. Jowanna reached out to turn the knob.

It didn’t budge. How odd, the only locked door in the entire house.

Pushing her cheek against the paneled wood, she heard nothing. When she started to turn away, a faint trace of perfume sifted from underneath the doorway.

Her hand wobbled, and she clutched the lamp tighter, fearing to drop it. Did the perfume and the eerie feeling of not being alone come from the Seńora?

Did ghosts wear perfume?

With the light scent teasing her nostrils, she turned and ran down the stairs as fast as she could, feeling eyes boring into her back with every step.

Back in the living room, Jowanna brushed off a leather recliner and sat gingerly on the edge, trying to decide what to do. She didn’t see many choices. There was no way to leave this place. Her father asked for her, or Jason anyway, so he would surely be close by and would turn up sooner or later. She looked up at the shadowy staircase and shivered, deciding at that moment to sleep in the barn with the horse that had whinnied when she first arrived.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

At least an animal was alive and non‑threatening. She hated herself for fearing a ghost that crazy old man told her about, but the perfume smell still lingered and she knew that wasn’t her imagination.

Clutching the kerosene lamp and a blanket off one of the couches, she pushed open the front door and hurried out to the barn. The sky was full of stars, the moon shone down, casting an eerie, silvery light over all the cactus and trees nearby, turning them into stealthy, twisted characters that seemed to move along with every step she took.

Setting down the blanket and lamp, she faced the big double doors. When she tugged on them, they didn’t budge. Were the doors locked from inside? She looked back toward the house. Oh, no, she wasn’t going to retreat, now that she’d gone this far to get out of that scary place. She jerked hard on the side with a handle. It flew open, knocking her down on the packed earth, jarring the wind out of her.

Once inside with the big double doors pushed shut behind, a wash of relief flooded over her, leaving her weak with a cold sweat. She straightened her shoulders and some of the tiredness left as the realization came of what she had done.

Jowanna McFarland had marched up the terrifying dark stairs alone, faced down a handful of her most debilitating fears. Then she had gone outside in the midst of coyotes howling and tortured silhouettes dotting the landscape. And nothing had happened to her. Yet.

She looked at the two horses, munching hay from an automatic hay feeder above their heads. Slowly she walked toward them but the bigger horse shied away, snorting, eyes rolling. A white ring encircled each of his eyes, the top of his nostrils were colored the same off‑white as his back. Multi‑sized spots, some dark, some light, spread like a graceful blanket of white over his back and rump. The rest of his coat was pale red.

When he limped away, she saw a cloth wrapped loosely around his leg.

The little black horse put her head over the low stall, seeming to summon her touch. One phobia Jowanna didn’t own was toward horses. She remembered some good times with Jason and her father riding in Central Park. She leaned against the horse’s neck, grateful for contact with another living being.

Finding a pile of straw and a horse blanket to lie on, she hesitated only briefly before blowing out the lamp. Her first instinct was to leave it burning, but she thought of it accidentally tipping over and starting a fire in the dry hay on the stable floor.

 

Seńora of the Superstitions

Darkness pulled in around her, but listening to the horses chewing and snorting made her feel comforted, no longer alone.

Coyotes yipped and howled in the distance. An odd whooshing noise, possibly a large owl, swooped close to the barn followed by the shrill scream of its prey. Certain she would not be able to close her eyes one minute, she nestled down into her straw bed and slept without waking through the night.

Once, during the early morning hours she dreamed of a figure standing in the open door of the barn, the moonlight silhouetting a large outline of someone watching her sleep. It hadn’t scared her enough to wake up.

In the morning, the contented chewing of the horses finally woke her. The stable door yawned wide, the bright sunlight poured in. How did the horses get oats? The bins had been empty the night before. She distinctly remembered closing that door before she blew out the lamp.

Standing to brush down her silk pants and shirt, Jowanna tried to pull out some of the straw that entangled in her hair.

Perhaps her father had returned.

When she started for the house, the daylight assured her there was a sensible explanation for footprints in an empty house and a locked storeroom door. The pervasive odor of perfume at the top of the stairs could also be explained easily enough. Everything seemed logical in the bright sunlight.

Cool, damp air engulfed her when she opened the front door. Outside, the heat built in visible waves in the air.

She stepped past the entryway into the front room, but the house seemed to offer no sense of threat in the daylight. Moving closer to the stairs, she bent close to examine the footprints of the night before. The dust on the stairs was scuffed and scattered as if someone had walked over the top of the first set of prints. How odd. She’d tried to avoid stepping directly on the footprints for some reason when she walked up the stairs.

The smell of bacon assailed her. Her father had come in! Would she recognize him after all these years? Would he be disappointed she wasn’t Jason?

Jowanna swallowed hard before entering the kitchen, preparing for the first angry words she wanted to get out of the way.

The rugged, good‑looking man standing there, long legs encased in tight jeans and stirring a cast iron skillet on the old wood stove, was definitely not her father. His stare was bold and he assessed her frankly. She couldn’t have missed his observation and the approval in his eyes.