Sinclair Dodd opened his eyes. Darkness enveloped the car, which tilted to the driver side. Thunder rolled in the distance as the storm moved east. Confusion clouded his thoughts. A man stood in the road and Sinclair swerved, ending up in the ditch. He remembered a face against the window before he passed out. Sinclair let out a slow breath.
He checked his body. No major pain. All his appendages worked, so he did not have any broken bones. His head throbbed with each heartbeat and his hands found a lump.
“I need help,” he said, as he groped for the cell phone. Sinclair flipped on the overhead light and spotted the phone on the floorboard, along with his brief case, the Common Book of Prayer, and the Bible his mother gave him on graduation.
Unbuckling the seatbelt, he grabbed the phone and dialed. Nothing happened. He looked at the faceplate. No Service. Sinclair muttered a mild oath. “Guess I have to walk. But where?”
He sighed and gathered his belongings. Sinclair looked for the man who had sent him into the spin, but saw nothing. He opened the door and struggled out of the car. The air smelled of ozone and wet dirt. Few trees lined the road, which was little more than a sheet of mud over dry dirt. “I could have sworn this road was paved.” Sinclair shrugged. “When I take a wrong turn, I take a wrong turn.”
He looked around. Brief flashes of lightning from the departing storm lit the landscape, otherwise the countryside hid in the darkness. A light glowed in the distance. Sinclair smiled. Maybe, they’ve got a phone.
A full moon appeared from behind breaking clouds, lighting his way. Sinclair puffed as he walked up the narrow drive. He stopped and stared. Wood siding in need of paint and decayed roofing displayed the shack’s disrepair. The poverty saddened him. Light flickered in the window. Sinclair raised an eyebrow and walked toward the door.
“Who’s out there?” A male voice called from inside.
“Hi. I am The Reverend Sinclair Dodd,” he said. “My car broke down a few miles back. I need to use a phone.”
Silence answered. Sinclair started to speak again, but the door creaked opened. A black man walked onto the dilapidated porch. “Reverend, I am sorry that you are having trouble. I don’t know what you asked for, but I ain’t got it.”
Sinclair smiled. “That’s all right. Would you know who does have a phone?”
The man stared, then shook his head. “Your carriage throw a wheel or something, Reverend? I can help you with that in the morning. Or I can take you into to town on my wagon.”
“It’s all I got, sir,” the man said, averting his eyes. “The town folk won’t mind if I’m helping out a preacher. You can drive, I’ll sit in the back when we get near town. That way they won’t talk.”
“Does no one live near here?”
“No, sir,” he said. “I expect you going to have to spend the night.”
Sinclair scrunched his eyebrows together and frowned. Spending the night was not an option he had considered. “I don’t want to put you out, sir.”
The black man glanced around as if anyone might be listening, then smiled. “Reverend, I don’t have room for you in my shack. I only got one room and ten children and the missus. Besides, a white man staying in my house would be dangerous.” He pointed to the right. A two-story house stood about a hundred yards away.
“You can stay in the master’s house. Don’t nobody live there no more, not since the master died. I keep it up for the family. Mistress Bell done gave us our freedom when she moved. I got the papers.”
The man grinned. “Yes sir, me and my family are all free. Let me get you a few blankets. There’s still some furniture in there, so you might find a place to settle in. I’ll be right back.” The man closed the door.
Sinclair heard a commotion inside. At the window, children’s faces peered toward him, ducking their heads if he looked in their direction. Sinclair shook his head. “Mistress Bell done gave us our freedom,” the man had said. A few minutes later, the man walked out carrying two bundles.
“Follow me, Reverend,” he said. Sinclair walked fast to keep up with the man. “Got a bundle of blankets here and some food. I told that woman that no white man would eat her cooking, but she insisted that it was our Christian Duty to at least offer.”
“Thank you,” Sinclair said. “What is your name?”
“John William, sir,” he said as he climbed the steps to the front door. “No one been here in a long time, Reverend, but we keep it clean and keep the critters out.” John William stopped at the front door, turning toward Sinclair. “One thing I should told you. This place, it be haunted.”
“I trust the Lord will take care of me,” Sinclair said.
John William shook his head, then nodded. “I reckon he better.” He turned the knob and eased inside. “There’s wood in the fireplace, so I’ll start you a fire, then I got to get back. The Missus don’t like me coming over here after dark.” John William dropped the blankets and food on a chair and went to the fireplace. After a moment, a fire glowed, enveloping the room with dim light. John William took kindling and lit two oil lamps.
“Come see me in the morning, Reverend. I’ll help you with your carriage or get you into town, at least.” John William did not wait for an answer. He ran out of the house with a hasty good-bye. Sinclair smiled as he shut the door, keeping out a northerly breeze. He glanced around as his eyes adjusted to the glow of the fire and lamps.
Sinclair had seen houses like this one in Natchez and Vicksburg. Tall ceilings dominated the downstairs rooms. The kitchen would be in the back, built on the porch, most likely, with the original kitchen being a building outside of the house proper. The detached kitchens kept from heating the main house when cooking. He glanced up the stairs. Two or three bedrooms would be upstairs. Depending on the age of the house and the updating, there may or may not be a bathroom. Sinclair bet against running water. A knock sounded on the front door and Sinclair jumped.
“Reverend,” John William yelled. “I brought you some water for the night. I’ll leave it here.” Sinclair heard rapid, retreating footsteps. He smiled as he opened the door. Sinclair walked into the parlor and unbundled the blankets and food. He moved one lamp to a table beside the chair and settled in front of the fireplace. Sinclair reached into his briefcase and pulled out his Bible.
The house creaked with the wind. Sinclair pulled the blankets tight and concentrated on Psalm twenty-three, reading aloud. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Something moved in the corner. Sinclair sat up straight, startled. The blankets fell from his shoulders. A black cat walked from the shadows, growing larger with each step, and stood in front of the fire.
Sinclair sighed. “Hello, kitty. How did you get in here?” John William had not kept out all the critters, after all. The cat stared. Amber eyes pierced into Sinclair. He shivered, uncomfortable with the animal’s attention. “I think you had better go elsewhere for the night, cat.” He stood. The cat hissed and spat, showing sharp, white teeth, longer than a house cat should possess. Sinclair sat in the chair and watched the cat.
It swished its tail, then walked to the fireplace. The cat reached into the fire, knocking a coal onto the floor. “You’re going to burn yourself,” Sinclair said, hoping the creature would be scared and leave the way it came. The cat ignored him, batting the burning coal on the floor. When it became bored, it picked up the coal and spit it into the fire. Sinclair’s jaw dropped. A chill began at the top of his head and moved toward his feet, leaving all of his hair erect. The cat walked toward him and brushed against his legs, then returned to the fireplace.
It uttered a low growl. “Wait for Emmett,” the cat said.
Sinclair yelped and stood to run. Bony fingers grabbed his shoulders and forced him back into the chair. A form stood behind him, but Sinclair did not want to see. He stared at the cat.
“Well, Asmodeus,” a male voice said. The words sounded human, but had a lilting quality. “What’s with the flesh and blood? Why is he here?”
The cat growled. “Waiting for Emmett.”
The hands loosened their grip, but did not let go. “This must be the Reverend that Emmett said would officiate.” The man removed his hands from Sinclair’s shoulders. He walked around the chair. Sinclair looked up.
A pasty, but otherwise human face grinned. “I’m Nathan, Reverend Dodd. Emmett should be along in a moment. He’s taking care of some last minute arrangements.”
Sinclair stood. He tried to move, but he knees shook too much to risk running. His mouth dried with fear. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Worst of all, his head began to hurt again. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. It did not work, but he did find his voice.
“It’s been nice meeting you, Nathan,” he said, his voice shaking. He stared at the cat, but could not believe the creature actually spoke. “Tell Emmett I came by, but had to leave rather sudden. Extend my apologies.” Sinclair turned and headed for the door before Nathan could react. He heard the low growl of Asmodeus the cat as he flung open the door. Sinclair jumped. The man who caused his accident stared, smiling.
“Reverend Dodd,” the man said. “You’re not leaving after all the trouble I took to bring you back.” The statement was pleasant enough, but the words conveyed more demand than question. “I really must insist you stay, more for your own good, though I do have need of your services.”
Sinclair stood frozen. He assumed this was Emmett. He saw a well-dressed man in archaic clothes. Through him, he could see the light flickering in John William’s window. Through him? Sinclair hyperventilated and tried to run, but found that his feet would not move.
“Please, Reverend Dodd,” Emmett said. “I cannot hold you, but a moment longer. If you leave this porch, you will be stuck in this place, in this time.”
Sinclair was amazed he could speak. “What in hell does that mean?”
Emmett smiled. “Most of my kind are as rooted to time as the living. I find that I can travel through the barriers created by man and God. It took some doing, but I yanked you back to Eighteen Hundred and Twenty-three, in The Year of Our Lord. If you leave this house, I cannot protect you or get you back to your own time.”
Sinclair stopped struggling with the unseen force holding him. Calmness swept over his body. His head pounded with pain. “I get it,” he said. “I’m in my car unconscious. I could be dying.” Panic replaced the calm, which had replaced the fear. Emmett placed a hand on Sinclair’s chest. The hand moved through his jacket and under the skin. Calm returned with Emmett’s touch.
“Your injuries are minor, Reverend,” Emmett said. “I assure you that you have many more years among the living before you join us.”
The sound of hooves grabbed Sinclair’s attention. A carriage stopped beside John William’s shack. Two women sat in back with a middle-aged man driving. The door opened and John William stepped out. John William answered as the women and man spoke. One of the women waved as the carriage started toward the big house. John William watched, then shook his head and went inside his shack. Within seconds, the shack became dark.
“Ah, my fiancé,” Emmett said.
“Fiancé?” Sinclair looked at the carriage. The man driving and both women, one older than the other, pulsated with life in a way that Emmett could not. “But you’re dead and she’s alive.”
Emmett stared at Sinclair for a moment. “When they lived in North Carolina, I was straw boss on their plantation, until her father caught us in the barn one evening. He shot me and got away with murder.” Emmett smiled. “But I got the last laugh. I refused to leave, Reverend. My love is as strong today as when her daddy’s bullet entered my brain.”
Sinclair opened his mouth and stared. Emmett ignored him, concentrating on the carriage. This is all a dream, Sinclair thought. I’m lying in my car injured and unconscious, dreaming. And I’m about to marry a dead man to a live woman. “Not too different from some of the marriages I’ve performed.”
“What, Reverend?” Emmett glanced at Sinclair, then returned his attention the carriage as it pulled in front of the house.
“Nothing,” Sinclair said. “Just musing.” The carriage pulled up to the house and Sinclair studied the occupants.
The man wore a uniform of some type, dressed for a high occasion. He looked familiar, but Sinclair could not place him. The women caught his attention. The older woman wore a white dress with a blue shawl pulled around her. She possessed a face that had seen life and was acquainted with pain.
The younger woman in her twenties — a veritable spinster in this day — was all smiles. A light blue dress hung on her slender frame. A memory flashed in Sinclair’s mind, a faded photograph in his grandmother’s picture album. A woman dressed in Victorian clothes smiled through a surprised look. The younger woman looked like a twin to his Great, Great Aunt Betty Bell. Emmett confirmed his suspicions.
“Mrs. Bell,” Emmett said. “How good to see you, again.”
Mrs. Bell smiled. “Emmett. I have not seen you in over twenty years, usually it was just your presence or voice.”
Emmett bowed. “A special occasion to be sure, then.” He turned to the man. “Senator Jackson. I am so glad you could make it. You are welcome, sir. Pardon me that I do not shake your hand, but I am quite busy at the moment.”
Jackson, of course, Sinclair thought. “President Andrew Jackson,” Sinclair said with awe.
Jackson frowned, studying Emmett and then Sinclair. He spoke to Emmett. “Sir, I am not sure that I would like to shake your hand, in any case, and I mean no offense in that remark. I remember what John Bell said after he shook your hand. ‘Like that of a young child,’ I think he said. It would not do for the picture you put forth tonight.” Jackson helped Mrs. Bell from the carriage. “Would you do the ladies and I the pleasure of introducing your friend? He seems to have a high opinion of a lowly Southern Senator.”
“Pardon me, ladies. Senator. May I present to you The Reverend Sinclair Dodd. He will be presiding over tonight’s ceremony.” Emmett turned to Sinclair. “Reverend Dodd, this is Mrs. Beatrice Bell.”
Sinclair bowed. “I am pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Mrs. Bell smiled.
Emmett gestured to the younger woman. “I would like to introduce my fiancé, Miss Mary Bell.”
“I am honored, Miss Bell,” Sinclair said. He took a chance. “You remind of a picture I have seen of an ancestor of mine, a Miss Betty Bell of Natchez. Bells are in my ancestry, so it may be that we are cousins.”
Mary Bell curtsied. “You favor some in my family, Reverend Dodd,” she said.
“I know that you and the Reverend Dodd are related, my dear Mary,” Emmett said, glancing at Sinclair. “However, it is a distant relation. Quite distant, I assure you.”
And the distance is time, Sinclair thought. He turned toward Andrew Jackson. That was a mistake to call him President though he will be in six years I believe. Jackson waited, tying the reins to the porch. The hair was almost white, but the picture on the twenty-dollar bill did not do the man justice. He had been old and sick when the portrait had been painted. This was Old Hickory in the flesh, vibrant and young even in his early fifties.
Emmett introduced him. “And this Reverend Dodd is Senator Andrew Jackson.”
Sinclair held out his hand and received a robust squeeze. “Senator Jackson, I misspoke when I called you President, though I believe you should be, soon.”
Jackson grinned a broad grin. “That’s fine, Reverend. President Andrew Jackson has a nice sound to it. I heard you mention Natchez. Are you from there?”
“No sir,” Sinclair said. “I live in Dinsmore.”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed as he lost his grin. “You know Silas Dinsmore?”
The force of Jackson’s question took Sinclair back. “No, Senator.”
Jackson laughed. “Silas was an stubborn old coot. He almost had his Indians attack a company of my men as we went down the Natchez Trace. Damn Indian Agents think they own that land.” Jackson looked to the women. “Pardon my language, ladies.”
Emmett whistled and motioned for us to enter the house. “Shall we go inside? I believe most of the guests are here.” Emmett walked with the ladies, his hand light on their backs so as to not touch them. “Mrs. Bell, I believe your late husband should be here soon. Katie’s bringing him.”
Mrs. Bell laughed. “I don’t reckon he could say no to Katie, though I am still put out with her for taking John away from me.”
Emmett nodded. “I tried to stop her, ma’am, but Katie would have her revenge, one way or the other. Now, she lords over him in the spiritual world.” Emmett and the ladies laughed. Emmett directed the ladies to wait, while walking Jackson and Sinclair into the parlor.
Sinclair stopped. The room was full. Spirits in various forms and guises chatted with one another. Some picked rather mundane forms though others preferred the state of their death. Many of the guests had been hanged or murdered by their look. Most had glasses full of some liquor or other. All ignored Emmett and his corporeal guests.
“Reverend, I believe you should take your place near the fireplace,” Emmett said. “I have something that needs attention.” Emmett faded.
Sinclair looked at Jackson who shrugged. They walked to the fireplace. Sinclair recognized Nathan and realized that he had more substance than the others in the room. My God! He’s alive. Nathan smiled, nodding at the two living men.
“That’s Emmett’s brother,” Jackson said. “Looks like a corpse. Seems right at home, doesn’t he?”
Sinclair nodded, then turned to Jackson. “Why are you here, sir? Are you a friend of the Bell family?”
Jackson grabbed a bottle of whiskey that appeared on the table next to Sinclair’s briefcase. He offered the bottle to Sinclair, who declined. Jackson swallowed. “Ah. John Bell and two of his sons fought for me in New Orleans. That damn old witch visited and threatened to bother Rachel unless I came. Rachel wouldn’t survive Katie’s machinations.” Jackson fell silent for a moment, then he spoke as if only to himself. “I’d rather face the Brits alone than have to deal with the Bell Witch again.”
Sinclair nodded. Of course, the Bell Witch. Now I know this is a dream. He turned somber. I hope somebody finds me and gets me to a hospital before I die. His thoughts were interrupted by a loud wail.
Jackson took another swig from the bottle, and then one more. “Katie’s here,” he said.
An old woman glided through the front wall, dragging a man by his pants. She cackled. “I told you that you was coming, John Bell.”
“Katie, let me go,” John Bell protested. “I’m here, now. I ain’t leaving. Maybe I can talk some sense into that girl before she goes through with this.”
Mrs. Bell walked into the room and John Bell followed her with his eyes. “You’re as pretty as ever, Beatrice. I still look in on you, now and again.” He pointed over his shoulder with a transparent thumb. “That is whenever I can get this old hag to leave me alone.”
“You haven’t changed, have you, John?” Mrs. Bell smiled and sat before the fireplace. John Bell stood beside her, staring. Sinclair felt John Bell’s conflicting emotions of love and loss.
Sinclair felt a displacement of air. Emmett stood, grinning as he stared at John Bell and Katie. “Katie got him here. Good.” Sinclair felt the light touch as Emmett’s hand passed through his shoulder. “We can get started, now, Reverend.”
Emmett motioned and in a moment, Mary walked into the room. Someone sat at an uncovered piano and provided a march, not Mendelssohn or Wagner, but a song Sinclair did not recognize. Mary walked in rhythm to the music. A black crow flew in, cawing loud.
“Somebody stop that bird,” John Bell said. “It was bad enough that that creature ruined my funeral after Katie murdered me.”
“Asmodeus,” Emmett said.
The crow squawked once more, then descended to the piano. Sinclair watched it transform into the large black cat. It growled and began to groom. Sinclair’s mouth fell open. The music stopped.
“Reverend?” Emmett put a hand through his chest. Sinclair started, then looked at the guests. All eyes were on him; even those that did not have eyes turned their orbit-less sockets in his direction. Sinclair shivered. Get through with the dream, he thought. Get to the end and you’ll wake up.
“Reverend,” Emmett said. “We can start anytime now.”
Sinclair looked at and through Emmett. “Oh, yes. I am sorry.” He reached into his briefcase and pulled out the Book of Common Prayer. Silence filled the room, waiting. He cleared his throat.
“Dearly beloved,” Sinclair began. He looked around the room and shivered. “We are gathered here today in the sight of God.” Asmodeus growled.
“Asmodeus,” Emmett said. “I am going to put you out, if you do not be quiet.” The cat hissed then returned to grooming. Emmett turned to Sinclair. “I’m sorry, Reverend. Please continue.”
Sinclair nodded. As he went through the opening of the ceremony, his head began to hurt worse. Dizziness threatened to topple him, but he persevered, knowing that Emmett would not let him go until the marriage was complete. He finished the preamble.
“Therefore if any man can show just cause why they shouldn’t be joined together, let him speak now or forever hold his piece.”
John Bell jumped in the air and floated back to the floor. “I know just cause.”
Mary turned. “Shush, Daddy.”
“But he’s dead, Mary and you’re alive,” John Bell yelled. “If that ain’t just cause then I don’t know what is.”
“John, remember your condition,” Mrs. Bell said.
“Beatrice, I’m dead,” John Bell said. “I ain’t got no condition.” Sinclair caught a glimpse of Jackson standing stone-faced in the corner, still drawing on the bottle. Sinclair wished he had accepted Jackson’s offer of a drink.
John Bell continued. “Mary, be reasonable. He’s dead and you’re alive. If nothing else think of the children. They gonna be half-dead and half alive. And we ain’t going to know which half.”
Katie wailed and the room turned. “John Bell, you sit down or I’m gonna hold your piece for you.”
“Katie, you ain’t got no say-” John Bell’s voice cut off in mid sentence. Sinclair recognized a few mouthed curses, but John Bell sat down.
Emmett never lost his smile. Mary smiled at the ghost. “Please continue, Reverend.”
Sinclair skipped a few passages. “Emmett, do you take this woman to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, ’till death…” He let the words trail off. Muffled laughter filled the room. “Well in sickness and in health, then.”
Sinclair repeated the question for Mary, leaving out anything to do with death.
“By the power vested in me by the Great State of Mississippi, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Sinclair looked at Emmett. “You may kiss the bride.” A roar went up as Emmett and Mary walked out of the room. They stopped at the door.
“Reverend,” Emmett said. “Would you join us in the Library?” Sinclair followed the couple. Emmett pointed to a desk. “You must sign the marriage license.” Sinclair sat and dipped a quill into ink and signed his name. He leaned back in the chair. “It will be easier for both of us, Reverend, if you will sleep now.”
Sinclair nodded and closed his eyes.
He jumped awake inside his car. Someone rapped on the window. He turned, expecting Emmett. A Mississippi Highway Patrolman stared. Sinclair rolled down the window.
“Sir, are you all right?”
Sinclair looked around. A paved highway stretched out before him. Off to the side, a ditch ran parallel to the road. He saw where his car had been extricated.
“Yes, officer,” Sinclair said. “I am unhurt. I ran off the road last night during the storm and could not get out of the ditch.” He did not mention his headache.
The patrolman nodded. “I assume one of the farmers pulled you out. You are Sinclair Dodd.” Sinclair nodded. “You need to call your wife. She’s had us keeping a look out for you. I’m sure she’s worried sick.”
“Thank you, officer,” Sinclair said. “I will. I seem to have taken a wrong turn last night. How do I get back to Interstate 55?”
“Turn around and go back the way you came about four miles and turn right onto Highway Six. That’ll take back to the interstate. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Sinclair insisted he was fine and the patrolman left. He tried to find his phone, but neither it nor his briefcase was in the vehicle. “I must have left it in the house,” he said. “No. That was a dream, wasn’t it?”
Sinclair turned around in the highway, avoiding the ditch. His thoughts were not on his driving, though. He thought of Andrew Jackson, John and Mary Bell, and Emmett. After a few miles he slammed on his brakes. The big house stood just off the highway. It looked older and about to fall down, but it stood. He pulled into the drive. He knew that John Williams shack should have been near, but found no trace of a house. He pulled to a stop where Senator Jackson had stopped the carriage, the night before, one hundred eighty years ago.
He walked to the front porch and opened the door, leaving it open, just in case. Sinclair crept into the parlor. There was no furniture on the rotting wood floors. The fireplace had been replaced with a large space heater, the type used in Mississippi when electricity first came. Sunlight filtered into the room and glinted off something metallic on the mantel.
He found a framed document; an old document cared for through the years, squeezed between two panes of glass. It was the marriage license of Emmett and Mary Dodd, enforced on the twentieth day of September, eighteen hundred and twenty-three. At the bottom, he read the signature: The Reverend Sinclair Dodd.
Something moved in the corner. Sinclair jumped as a large black cat that growled and licked its paw. The cat stopped and stared with amber eyes. A low growl came from its throat. “Emmett sends his thank you.” Sinclair’s heart raced as Asmodeus faded into shadows. When the cat disappeared, Sinclair saw his briefcase. A rush of cold ran through him and he broke into a cold sweat. He grabbed his briefcase and hurried to the car, clutching the old marriage license.