Spring Fling: Relative Proximity by Michelle Ceasar Davis

Posted by on May 2, 2014 in Reading, Spring Fling | 0 comments

Spring Fling: Relative Proximity by Michelle Ceasar Davis


It’s time for another writer and illustrator showcase on Pen and Muse. This season’s theme is Spring Fling – making powerful connections with another soul, and as quickly as they appear, the person is gone. 


Relative Proximity

by Michelle Ceasar Davis


Dr. Lawrence glanced around the History department student lounge before entering. All ten students in attendance, he took his preferred seat next to the window. He let the students talk amongst themselves so he could finish the last few sips of his warmed coffee. When he set his empty travel mug on the end table next to him, the room became quiet.

“We’ve discussed several broad ideas for your senior papers the last two weeks. Has anyone decided what you will write about?”

Danielle waved her hand wildly and he nodded to her. “I have the most fantastic idea. I’m going to write about the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.”

Dr. Lawrence folded in hands across his chest. “Interesting topic. Any particular reason why?”

“I want to show how an amendment from 1972 never got ratified by 1979 because of falsehoods and poor logic. And after I get my law degree, I plan to represent women in discrimination lawsuits.”

“Admirable. Anyone else?”

Greg cleared his throat and leaned forward. “I’m gonna write about Tulane University basketball and how the school ended the program before the NCAA could give them the death penalty.”

“What’s that?” Danielle asked.

“The NCAA was going to make an example of Tulane University. Instead, the school ended the program.”

“Interesting,” Dr. Lawrence said. “Should make for an interesting read.” He looked around the room.

One student looked jumpy for a Wednesday afternoon. “Alyssa, do you have something to say?”

She ran a hand through her short hair. “I’ve been thinking about a subject for weeks and reading different books and articles but I don’t think I’m any closer to finding something that really excites me.”

“That’s why we meet every week for the first month. Maybe as a group we can help you find your true topic.”

“Okay. I know I want to do a historical overview of a religious movement, but I’m torn between the witch trials of Salem and the Fox sisters and the spiritualism of Lily Dale in upstate New York.”

“You’re crazy,” Greg said.

Danielle shook her head. “No, she’s nuts. No one wants to read about either of those.”

“Those topics are so difficult to contain to a 25-page paper,” Dr. Lawrence said.

“And no one will come to your presentation when it’s time to do your reading.”

“We support each other here, not tear each other down. Alyssa, I don’t think you can do a comprehensive paper on either of those. People have written books, indeed volumes of books, on each of those subjects.”

Alyssa rubbed her eyes, not worrying about the mascara she smeared. “But I want to write about one of those. What if I examined one day during the witch trials? Or maybe the punishments they exacted?”

“One word,” Danielle said. “Hanging.”

Dr. Lawrence raised an eyebrow in Danielle’s direction and she sat back in her chair. “The subjects are too complex. Find something more focused.”

“What would you recommend?” Alyssa asked.

“I can’t think of anything other than tighten up your topic. There must be something else out there that interests you.”

She threw her head back against the chair. “I don’t know. I’ll take a pass for right now and let everyone else have their say.”

At the end of class, Alyssa went downstairs to the coffee shop and several of her classmates joined her.

“I don’t care what Dr. Lawrence thinks,” Melanie said, sipping on a frozen hazelnut coffee, “I believe either of those topics would be great for your senior paper.”

“No, he’s right,” Alyssa said. “So much has already been written about them, I wouldn’t be able to contribute anything new. I’d only be regurgitating all the old ideas.”

“So what are you doing to do?” Ron asked. “You have to turn in a paper before the end of semester.”

“I need another idea, something no one else is doing.”

Melanie put down her scone. “We know what Danielle is doing, and the guys are all doing some sort of sport history.” Ron made a face in her direction. “And I’m writing about the early history of reality television. There are lots of subjects still available.”

Alyssa looked at the cinnamon roll sitting in front of her, two bites missing. “But how am I supposed to find something new? It’s not as though there’s a book on history term paper topics.”

“What else are you interested in?” Ron asked, picking the green peppers off his bagel sandwich.

“This is probably going to sound really weird, but I find the Lizzie Borden axe murders fascinating.”

“You’re right; it is weird.”

“And over-done as well,” Melanie said. “Maybe there are some other unsolved murders that you can write about.”

“Maybe you can even find the first case that used modern forensic science.”

Alyssa shrugged her shoulders. “That might be interesting.”

“It only has to be interesting enough to write the paper,” Melanie said, finishing her coffee. “And for the presentation during the state conference.”

Fifteen minutes later, Alyssa walked into the college library and began looking at the periodical database for possible topics. After wasting an entire afternoon looking for a spark, she rested her eyes for a few hours before returning to the library that evening.

With no hope for success, she grabbed a random roll of microfilm and threaded it through the reader.

She advanced the film a few frames and began to read some of the stories, most about New York City.

She flipped over the box and saw The World (NY, NY) May 1908.

“I should be able to find something on these pages,” she mumbled to herself.

She stopped the film on May 8, 1908. A headline on the front page grabbed her attention.

Two More Victims Are Unearthed On The Murder Farm.

As Alyssa read the article, she learned a middle-aged woman from La Porte, Indiana, was accused of killing more than ten people and then killing herself and her children in a house fire.

The edges of the newspaper column began to fade away as she continued to read the article. She blinked twice and found herself standing in the kitchen of a run-down house, a handmade corn broom in her hands and a homespun apron tied around her waist. She closed her eyes and shook her head several times. When she opened her eyes again, she was still in that kitchen. Alyssa took several deep breaths and tried to logically determine how she got where she was.

“Which is where?” she asked herself.

“In the cupboard next to the sink,” a woman’s voice answered from another room. “I always keep my tea there.”

Tea. At least that was something she could accomplish.

She shuffled around the kitchen, pulling dishes and tea out of the cupboards. She stopped in front of the stove.

It was a wood burning cook stove. Not a reproduction made to look like the original but with all the modern conveniences. No, this stove had seen lots of use and it wasn’t rusty like others she had seen in museums. This stove looked original to the house.

“How much longer are you going to be?” the voice called again. “We have business to attend to in town.”

Alyssa poured the water in the tea pot and took the tray into the rooms beyond the kitchen. When she found the owner of the voice, she firmly held the tray. The woman matched the photo in the article she had been reading. She stood in front of Belle Gunness, a reported serial killer.

“You forgot the cakes,” Belle said. “Please go back and get the cakes.”

“But…I…” Alyssa couldn’t form a complete thought. What worm hole opened that would put her face to face with a murderess?

“Excuse me,” Belle said to her guest, an older man dressed for an afternoon of business. “My new housekeeper still doesn’t know her way around my home.” She grabbed Alyssa by the arm and half-dragged, half-pushed her to the kitchen. She didn’t stop until they got to the kitchen.

“This is the last time I am going to tell you this,” Belle said, straightening her dress. “You work for me, which you agreed to when you left Chicago. I demand much from my employees, including competence.” She grabbed the broom and put it in Alyssa’s hands. “Since you seem to be incapable of serving tea today, you can finish cleaning the house.” She looked at the watch pinned to her blouse. “My banker and I are going into town after tea so you also need to begin dinner soon. If you want meet tonight, you will need to slaughter a chicken yourself.” Alyssa felt herself turn green, and Belle laughed at her. “Such a naïve girl. Fine, I will do it tomorrow. You can make soup instead. We will also need a fresh loaf of bread tonight.”

Belle left the kitchen and Alyssa fell against the sink, sick with fear. She didn’t know how to cook anything but ramen noodles and Pop Tarts, neither of which was available to her. To her relief, one of Belle’s daughters, Lucy, came downstairs from her playroom and showed Alyssa how to make bread and a simple vegetable soup.

She was finishing the soup when Belle returned to the farm several hours later without the banker. She walked into the kitchen and sampled the fresh soup.

“Could use some salt,” Belle said, taking a small box from the shelf near the stove. She put a generous dash into the pot and gave it a stir. “There, that should be good now.” She turned her attention back to Alyssa. “Where are the children?”

“Upstairs playing,” she squeaked. “I’ll go get them.”

“No, you can set the table. I will get the girls.”

Belle went upstairs and Alyssa became concerned when she was gone longer than 20 minutes. She started to climb the stairs and met Belle near the top.

“Where are the girls?” Alyssa asked.

“They are tired from playing all day so they went to bed.” She pushed past Alyssa and descended the stairs. Curious, Alyssa climbed two, three more stairs, hoping for a peek into the children’s room. “Leave them be. My dinner is getting cold.”

Alyssa hesitated for a moment before following Belle to the dining room.

“I hate eating alone,” Belle said, “so you can set a place for yourself.”

Her hands trembled as she brought the soup terrine into the dining room. She strained her brain to remember details about the article. She knew she read something about Belle’s children, but she couldn’t remember anything specific.

Belle followed her with the loaf of bread and then used a large knife at the table to slice several pieces. Alyssa filled a bowl of soup for Belle and handed it to her.

“No thank you,” she said, tearing a slice of bread in half. “I am not hungry for soup tonight. Please, though, help yourself.”

Alyssa set the bowl at her place and took several small spoonfuls, all while Belle watched. She felt a slightly tightness in her jaw and left the table to get a glass of water. She gulped down the first glass and refilled it. She started to walk back to the dining room and her hand began to shake uncontrollably. The glass fell and broke.

“You stupid girl!” Belle shouted. “You did not need to do that!”

She opened her mouth to speak but no sound crossed her lips. Alyssa clawed at her throat as she felt it close. Her legs then began to tremble and she fell to the floor. Her back arched and she tried to scream in pain.

Belle laughed from the table. “Stop fighting it. Embrace the truth.”

Alyssa closed her eyes as her body convulsed. What had that woman done? Did she poison the soup with her special salt?

She heard a chair move and Belle get up. She tried to swallow air, each breath becoming harder than the last. Still her body moved against her will, toes and fingers curling.

Alyssa forced her eyes open and saw Belle approach her, a large log for the cook stove in her hands.

Belle stood over her head and dropped the log. “It’s time to go.”

Alyssa jerked and she was back in the library, one of the student workers standing next to her. “What did you say?”

“We’re closing in ten minutes,” he said. “You’ve got to leave.”

“Ten minutes? I’ve got enough time to make a copy of this article.”

The next afternoon, Alyssa talked to Dr. Lawrence about the topic of her senior paper. After he agreed to a biography of Belle Gunness, she phoned her mother to tell her the news.

“That’s an odd coincidence,” her mother said.

“Mom, I’m too happy for one of your guessing games. What’s so odd?”

“Have you done much research on her yet?”

“I’ve read part of an article.” She couldn’t tell her mother what she experienced in the library.

“You know my side of the family is from Chicago, right?”

“Mom, what does this have to do with my paper?”

“One of your great-grandmothers, I forget which, had a sister who answered an ad for a housekeeper in Indiana and was never heard from again.”

A small chill snaked down her back. “And you think Belle had something to do with her disappearance?”

“Maybe your research can answer that question.”

About Jessi S

Jessi is a lit junkie - you can either find her reading fantasy books, writing about reading. or reading about writing. When she's not doing that, she's the Publishing Coordinator at Pen and Muse Press, an editorial intern at Month9Books, and writing a novel about the '50s. You can find her on her blog posting cat pictures (listentomuses.wordpress.com) and twitter (link: https://twitter.com/listentomuses).

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