Lilacs and Kudzu

Her mama told her not to go out past the lilacs off the dead end, but she never listened to much of anyone. Everybody, at least once between the ages of seven and seventeen, snuck on over through the lilacs to the old Victorian house at the end of the road. Most did it on a dare, some looking for an isolated place for a little fun, and the bravest--or dumbest, as her mama put it--went in after dusk. That's when most saw her wandering, the old woman with the magnolia in her sun hat and lilacs in her hands. So they say. Emma wasn't one who believed in old stories, but she was fascinated by the house. The exterior of what was left was beautiful. It was like walking into another time. The trailer park and one-story houses that filled up both sides of the street were hardly any match for the old, three story building no matter how much the kudzu snaking its way in tried to suffocate the house. She stepped through the lilacs with her Polaroid camera dangling from a strap around her neck and her nose turned up at the smell of the flowers. She always hated that smell. Magnolias, irises, lilacs, jasmine--they all smelled foul to her. She never understood their appeal, nor that of the dogwood flowers her mother practically worshiped in their backyard. The grass in the yard was high. No one maintained the property. Passing travelers might think that the apparent from the mountains of kudzu engulfing the house, but she knew better. Kudzu could strangle anything and needed no time at all. She looked for deeper signs of decay. The front porch steps were gone, sitting in the grass in pieces. She stepped on the porch with one foot to gage its strength, then put a hand on what remained of the railing. It was sturdy enough. She hopped up on the porch and pointed her camera at the kudzu flowers hanging down from the roof. Up close, she thought they were almost pretty, but her upbringing prevented her from appreciating the true beauty of the invading devil plant before her. She tapped on the half opened door. It snapped off the frame and fell down. A piece of the porch went with it. Emma took a picture of that too. Carefully, she stepped over the hole and into the house. The wood floor creaked as she walked. With each step, she feared her weight would drag her down into some dark hell underneath the house. With so much rotting wood and a lake in the back of the property, she envisioned a pit of snakes beneath her feet. Emma tried to remember the names of the snakes her mama always warned her about. The rattlesnake, the copperhead, the cottonmouth. She tried to remember their faces, but the only snake she could see in her mind was the harmless eastern kingsnake. She wondered if a gator might be living in the backyard. Emma's feet became light as a feather as she explored with her hands on the camera, unable to take a single shot out of fear. Emma looked back at the door and contemplated returning. She shook her head and stared up at the stairway. She wasn't a coward, she told herself. No house being squeezed in by kudzu was going to scare her away. Emma heard something outside just before she touched the steps. She pointed her camera in the direction of the noise and took several pictures as she looked for the source. She didn't see anything and waited for her pictures to develop. There was nothing on the photos she took, save for the last one. It had an unusual black mark on it, over the back door. Emma chalked it up to the poor lightning in the house and put more film in her camera. She slowly walked up the long stairs, terrified each new step might be the one to drag her under. At the seventh step, her foot broke through the rotting board. She caught herself before she fell all the way through. Emma pulled a small flashlight out of her overalls and shined it down into the dark space. Down under the steps, she didn't see the snakes or gators she feared. The space underneath the stairs was full though. Kudzu leaves filled up so much of the space she couldn't see the bottom. Emma stepped over the broken board and made her way to the second floor. Emma noticed on both the main and second floor that much of the furniture and decor was still there, though heavily damaged. Some picture frames were broken open by the kudzu growing through the walls and the fabric covered furniture clearly had various animals living inside them. She thought about snakes again, but then told herself it was more likely rats and opossums were living in the old living room set. Emma picked up one of the photos from the broken picture frames off the ground. In the photo, there was a young woman with a big sun hat. She reckoned this woman was the inspiration for the ghost story. Every kid knew the story. Someone told it at every sleepover and Halloween event, and every neighborhood had that one kid who seemed to know all the local legends and spooky tales. A hundred years ago or so, a beautiful woman lived in the house with her family, who always kept to themselves. They didn't like how much attention she got in town, as she was the stepdaughter of the man who owned the house and the man's daughter always complained no one outside their home looked at her. In the version the teenagers told, the man had another motive. The man was a widower after his wife died in a freak accident on a boat on the lake, though some told it that he strangled her and lied about it. When he was in town one day with his three sons and his daughter, he saw the woman in the big sun hat, then a teenager, and wanted to marry her. Her father refused him and he strangled him in secret, then dumped his body in the lake. Then, he took advantage of the grieving widow and married her to get close to the daughter. He grew tired of dealing with his new wife and in most versions, he strangled her out on the lake and dumped her over the side of the boat. The pretty woman refused him until he forced himself on her. Then, he discovered, before they were to wed, that she was already pregnant by the first night he took her. She confessed that all three of his sons had done the same to her as he had. He killed each son, one by one, strangling them with his bare hands. And one by one, into the lake they went. These details were all missing in the kids' version, but she would sneak out and listen to the stories the drunken teenagers told by fire in the woods on Halloween night. In the kids version, the stepfather simply went mad one day, possessed by some unseen force that consumed his mind. With the wife and the brothers gone, that left the stepfather, the stepsister, and the pretty woman. Two versions of the pretty woman's stepsister's fate existed. Her father snapped and killed her to be alone with the young woman; or, disturbed and heartbroken by her father's actions, the stepsister ran to tell the police. When they came to the house, the father claimed she was disturbed and making up lies. After the police left, he strangled her too and wed the beautiful woman shortly after. According to legend, the young woman ages rapidly over the years and the wicked stepfather lived long, as if he stole the years from her. Their bodies were found together in the house when the man didn't show at work for a week. Some say she finally killed him and then herself. Others claim the old man lost it completely and tried to kill her, then killed himself. How the story ended depended on who was telling it. As for the child, the baby was never born. This detail varied the most between stories about what happened late in the woman's pregnancy, with some simply forgetting about the child and the pregnancy altogether. Emma always wondered how anyone knew all the details no one could be there for. Of course, the answer was obvious. She tossed the photo down on the ground and moved down the hall. The second floor was more frightening than the first. There were already missing parts in the floor from others wandering through who shouldn't. A creaking noise came from downstairs. Emma stood still, listening closely. It could be an animal scurrying about or a kid sneaking in like she was. In all likelihood, no one down below was going to hurt her. There was the off chance someone shady was down there, but how quiet the main floor was suggested to her otherwise. When she didn't hear any more noise, Emma continued on. She took pictures of every room on the second floor. Kudzu hung down from the holes in the ceiling and the walls, and broken glass was scattered about. Emma pulled books off of a large bookshelf in one room. Most of the books were about gardening and poetry. At the end of the top shelf, she found a photo album. Emma opened up the dusty album. Each page turned with a crackling noise. The woman in the sun hat was in many of the photos. At the back was a family photo. Sitting down in front were two young women, one of them being the woman in the sun hat. Behind them were three young men. To the far side were an older couple. The photo was damaged. Cuts across the film distorted the faces of everyone except the older man and the young woman in the sun hat. Emma presumed some kids did this a long time ago to add to the spooky legend. Emma went to put the album back. Before she could, something slid around her ankle. She dropped the album and screamed, stumbling backwards. She hit the ground. Emma looked around the room for what may have touched her. Beside the photo album, a five foot long kingsnake stared at her. The snake readied itself to strike. Emma froze. The kingsnake lunged at something behind her. Emma quickly moved out of the way. The kingsnake attacked a young copperhead that was hiding under the table behind her. The kingsnake started to eat the younger snake. Kingsnakes weren't venomous, but any snake can bite. Emma moved away from the two snakes. She noticed something different about the photo album as she went to leave the room. There were photos behind the ones she saw. Emma pulled them out. The first one was of the young woman in the sun hat, undressed and seemingly unconscious on a bed of lilacs by the lake. The second photo was of the other young woman, wearing nothing but a flower crown of gardenias and staring terrified at the camera beside the young woman who wore the sun hat. She didn't have her hat in this photo. She wore a flower crown of lilacs and the same terrified expression as the other woman. The third one was much stranger, as were the three after that. In the third photograph, the other young woman was laying in the kudzu, the violet colored flowers surrounding her. On her head, another gardenia crown, the white petals having turned yellow and stems and leaves dark. Upon her neck, she wore a noose tightened enough to draw blood. The filthy noose, blackened by dirt and soiled by blood was sparsely decorated with some of the yellow gardenia petals. It reminded her of a coral snake. The rope appeared to have been dragged along the ground before placed on the woman. Emma's stomach turned. The fourth photo was of the lack in the backyard. Several large stones were before the water's edge. She could barely make it out, but a ways into the water, something was floating. She thought it might be a gator, because of the large size, but she couldn't tell what it really was. Kudzu dangled down from a tree branch out of view and a long arm hung in between the leaves. The arm was see through. Emma told herself it was likely caused by double exposure. The violet flowers were brighter than ever, and the lake had a red tint to it. In the fifth photo, several bags were soaked through, sitting together in a boat. Red seeped out of them. The final photo was of the woman who wore the sun hat wearing a crown of lilacs and placing lilacs on a mass of kudzu. Around her neck were bruises and her dark hair had long streaks of white. The lilacs and kudzu flowers painted the space of green with beautiful, purple spots. Behind the young woman, she thought she could make out someone else standing beside her, but it appeared to be another double exposure. In the center of the kudzu, a kingsnake examined one of the lilacs. Something white peeked out from behind the leaves, but the kudzu was too thick for her to tell what was there. Something dawned on Emma. The photos should have been in black and white, like all the rest in the album. She blinked and the color was gone. Emma threw the photos on the ground and ran out of the room. She wanted to go home, but there were two more floors to explore, the third floor and the basement. She hadn't explored the backyard yet either. Emma returned to her slow pace, remembering the floor's instability. She went up to the third floor and turned on her flashlight. The sun was setting and night would soon hide everything in the house. Loud creaking came from the second floor. Emma told herself it was the house settling. She searched every room, taking photos of each. She looked over her photos when they developed. Orbs in various colors littered her photos. Emma blamed the lighting and put in more film. In the last room on the floor, an old bedroom, Emma was more thorough with her search. The bedroom was filled with many trinkets, books, and furniture. She dusted aside the spiders and cockroaches that made their home in the room. Old make-up, jewelry with missing stones, empty perfume bottles--Emma wondered who used this room. She opened up one of the old perfume bottles and sniffed, then turned up her nose. Lilac. She hated the smell. She closed the bottle back, but she could still smell that horrid scent. "Do you want to try one?" A voice asked from behind her. A cold hand touched hers. Emma screamed and ran to the door. She ran down the hall to the stairs. She looked back and saw right through the old woman. Emma ran so fast she forgot about the unstable boards. On her way down, she broke through two floors, falling into the basement below. The kudzu kept her from breaking anything as it grabbed at her on her descent. Her flashlight hit the ground below her. When it hit the ground, it lit up a pair of eyes. Another kingsnake, this one devouring a water moccasin. Emma needed to get out. She had no choice but to climb down and get her flashlight. Emma made her way down, her heartbeat ringing in her ears. She cautiously reached for the flashlight. The snake didn't attack her. It was too busy with its meal. Emma pushed her way through the thick kudzu. She finally came across a door. It led to the backyard. The big lake reflected the full moon and the stars. Mist hung over parts of it in the distance. Emma looked around for the old woman, but no one was behind her. All she found was the kudzu choking the house. Her gut was telling her to leave. Emma put her hands around the camera straps on her neck. She took a few shots of the basement door and the lake. She walked around the edge of the lake. Everything was covered in kudzu. Emma kept an eye on the water for gators. She wasn't positive what she saw in that photo was a gator, but she wasn't going to take any chances. The water was eerily still even when the wind blew. It unnerved her. On the far end from the house, Emma saw something familiar. She shined her flashlight on it to get a better look. In the kudzu, lilac flowers and gardenia petals were scattered about. The strange white hid under the green. Curiosity got the better of her. She pulled away at the kudzu until she could see it clearly. A skeleton rested in the leaves. Wrapped around the skull, a kingsnake looked up at her. The snake lifted its head and stuck its tongue out at her. Emma leaned back at first, afraid of being bitten. Their eyes locked and her fear subsided. She reached her hand out toward the snake. Its tongue touched her fingertips, then it slid onto a higher part of the kudzu. The snake appeared to be waiting for something. Emma looked back again. The old woman with the magnolia in her sun hat and lilacs in her hands stood behind Emma. She placed the lilacs in the kudzu leaves. The kingsnake slithered over to the flowers, examining each one and resting contently on top of them. Emma watched the two of them for a while, then ran home. Her mother scolded her as soon as she came in. Emma told her mother about the ghost and the skeleton, then the police, and anyone else who would listen. In time, no one would. She returned to that spot in the kudzu by the lake to find the skeleton, but when she returned, the kudzu was thicker than ever. She couldn't get through. In time, she too didn't want to hear anything about that old house. Emma decided she would throw away the photos. She looked through them all one last time. Orbs and shadows were not evidence of anything, and most of the photos were too blurry or dark to be worth showing to anyone. One photo was different. At the bottom of her box of Polaroid pictures was a photo of the basement door. In the doorway, she could make out the eyes and head of the kingsnake. Several feet above the snake, too tall to be the old woman, a second set of eyes looked out from behind the kudzu leaves. Emma stared at the photo for a long time, then burned all of them and threw away her camera. The image never left her, and haunted her dreams.