The ranch house stood on the western slopes of Beaumont Hills, surrounded by emerald-green slopes gently descending to the Pacific coast. The perimeter had been fenced with barbed electric wire to ward off trespassers.
Mr. Stewart, fourth generation owner, personally attended to repairing the damaged portions. Since the time his wife and only daughter had died in a freak road accident, he had turned into a recluse, shunning social events organized by the ranch owners living on the western coast.
As for the ranch house, it had fallen into disrepair. Martin spent most of his time in the living room which doubled up as his bedroom in the long lonely nights. His comforter was a patchwork throw rug on the three-seater settee made by Laura. A pile of lumpy food-stained cushions, however uncomfortable, served as his pillow. The settee, once facing the French windows was repositioned to face the mantelpiece. All along the ledge stood framed photos of Laura and him, of baby Tanya and their many vacations to Disneyland, Hawaii, a trip to Mexico, a cruise to the Bahamas. Beautiful memories to keep them alive.
Long into the night, he conversed with Laura, mostly about Tanya's future. An outsider peering into the living room would conclude Martin had lost it! No, not in the least.
Laura, holding Tanya’s hand, stepped out of the photograph every night, once darkness enveloped the mansion. Martin felt so comforted with her presence, sitting on the couch by his side, running her fingers through his thinning hair. "Martin, enough of this grieving. Go out into the world. I always knew you had a soft corner for Alice, your friend's unmarried sister. It's time to move on and renew your friendship and see where it takes you."
Martin refused to be placated. "Never...no one can come between us. I have you right here and that's the way it will be till my end. Rumour mills were abuzz that Martin had become a basket case. Word reached the ears of the parish priest Father O'Conner. On Sunday morning Mass, he advised the parishioners to stop this gossip. However, he decided to drop by the ranch house and talk to Martin. Maybe he needed counselling and psychiatric therapy.
Sunday noon Father O'Connor set out towards Martin's ranch. He reached after sundown, a delay he hadn't anticipated, caused by the enroute road repair work.
Alighting from his vehicle he saw the lights on in the living room. Lifting the brass knocker, he stopped midway, jumping out of his skin at the scene he witnessed. Martin talking to a woman. Well, that was a good sign, Father thought to himself. Martin had learned to move on and perhaps wanted to keep the relationship under wraps. Changing his mind, Father decided to return the following Sunday to have a tete-a-tete with the recluse, not so recluse as he had imagined.
The rumour mill stopped churning out further gossip once Father shared the news with his parishioners of Martin being seen with another lady. Most concurred it was the right decision. A few of his close friends decided to make a surprise visit during the week to catch them red-handed, not so much out of curiosity, but to congratulate and encourage the relationship. Alice, Martin’s high school girlfriend felt a tad disappointed. Since being widowed and with Laura’s passing, she had hoped to rekindle the old flame, left on the low burner. Leaving aside her personal feelings, she decided to join Craig, Peter, and Bob.
In a cheery mood, they stood on his porch and shouted out “Hey Martin, your secret is out. Come out, Buddy, and introduce us to your new friend. We can’t wait to welcome her into our lives.” The chirping of birds was the only response. Perhaps he was outside in the adjacent stable where he kept his prized horses. The gang headed towards the stable. Sure enough, Martin was filling the nosebag attached to the heads of the horses. They exchanged hugs and once again Peter asked him about the new lady in his life. Martin rubbished it without batting an eyelid. His eyes rested on Alice and seemed to soften a bit. Only briefly. The shadow of grief pulled over. Leaving it at that, they coaxed Martin to come into the town pub over the weekends to chill out with them. He declined the offer. “I’ve given up drinking long ago,” he replied curtly. Saddened by his response, his friends backed off, not giving up on him though.
Next Sunday came all too soon and Father arrived earlier than usual. This time too he noticed Martin talking to a woman, with her back to the door. What was even more unsettling was seeing a little girl playing peek-a-boo from behind the thick drapes. He could barely make out their faces, but with the look on Martin's face, he seemed pretty comfortable in their presence. This time Father lifted the knocker and clanged it on the wooden door with three sharp knocks. Martin pulled himself out of the sofa to answer the doorbell. Seeing the parish priest, he felt hugely embarrassed. "Good evening, Father," he greeted with a warm smile.
"May I come in, son? I'm here to check out if all is well with you since you have not attended the Church service in a very long while."
Martin held the door wide open, welcoming his guest. "Do take a seat, Father, while I put the kettle on to make tea for us".
Upon entering Father looked around for the woman and the child he had seen from outside the French windows. To his utter surprise, the room was empty. Martin too, on being questioned, denied having any company. From his downcast eyes, Father surmised he was lying.
Probing further, Martin confessed. “I know this may sound weird to you, Father. I am in touch with Laura and Tanya and I look forward to their daily visit.”
All too strange for a firm believer of the Christian faith, Father O’Conner was aghast, even as Martin went on to explain that his house continued to be the abode of the spirits of his family and that he looked forward to their visitations to keep him alive and ticking.
"This is unhealthy, Martin. You most definitely need to see a shrink and leave this house, if there is any grain of truth in what you have just said." So saying, Father O'Connor took his leave.
Martin continued to live with the spirits of his wife and child, his only link to the past.
Strange are the ways of some people, was what was being circulated in the community. After that, Father never visited the haunted ranch house on the hills. Two years later, Martin died in his sleep. His workers informed the Funeral parlour and the Church committee. A funeral service was arranged with Father O’Conner presiding over the Mass, after which his coffin was laid to rest in the family burial ground. Peter, Craig, and Paul offered to be the pallbearers.
Everyone wondered what would happen to the crumbling house and the property, in the absence of any descendants of the Stewart family lineage. Martin’s workers, however, put to rest all speculation, handing over to the Town Councillor, an envelope containing his will and last testament. Alice was speechless when summoned and told she was the beneficiary of his assets. This was not what she had bargained for. Material things would be of no use, without him. She sold the place and donated the proceeds to the Cancer Hospital for Children, a cause close to her heart.
Many driving past the property, reported hearing laughter and partying going on the green hills.