Rhubarb Pie Ghost Mystery Short Fiction By Max Jason Peterson

Rhubarb Pie: Ghost Mystery Short Fiction By Max Jason Peterson

Max Jason Peterson (they/Mx.), author of “Rhubarb Pie”, holds a master’s in English literature. As an award-winning author, Max has published under various bylines in Analog, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, PodCastle, Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019, and A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, among others.

*****

Gussie kneaded dough on the breadboard while her granddaughter Violet watched. Punch, punch, punch. Turn and punch, punch, punch. When Gussie spoke, she timed her words to the familiar rhythm. “We’ll take the extra loaf over to Widow Halsey. You can tell her you baked it. She’ll be even more pleased.”

Violet smiled, pride plumping her cheeks, like the four loaves already rising in the bread cabinet. “May I taste it, Nana? My own loaf?” She punched at her bread mound. The small impression of her pasty fist filled quickly. She carried over the heavy kitchen stool whose chipped white revealed red underneath. With the added height, her blows made the breadboard rock.

Gussie laughed. “Sure, honey. I’ll see you get the first piece.”

While the child covered the bread and set it aside to rise, Gussie removed a folded page from her apron pocket. The child chattered happily while Gussie read it again. Her hand shouldn’t be trembling so; she was only sixty-eight. Plenty of time to watch Violet grow up. That is, if her son Harald would let her.

She glanced over at the girl, who’d quickly become the bright spot in her life, after the child had been left on her doorstep two years ago in early 1946, crying for her dead mother. The morning sun brought out the red-brown undertone in Violet’s black hair as the child gathered the pie pans and rhubarb, whistling “Stormy Weather” the way she’d heard it on the Looff Carousel at Slater Park in their hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with no hint of its melancholy meaning.

While the child covered the bread and set it aside to rise, Gussie removed a folded page from her apron pocket.

As Gussie took the dish of chopped red stalks, she glanced at the trash, unable to resist checking for the poisonous leaves they’d disposed of, which looked so dangerously like lettuce to an untrained eye. She’d instructed Violet about how to prepare and wash the stalks. But Gussie had learned from her own mother how important it was to be careful with rhubarb.

Violet mixed the ingredients for the pie crust under Gussie’s careful supervision. Gussie tasted it a few times, inviting Violet to do the same before showing her what to add. Butter, sugar, flour, nutmeg. As Gussie laid in the top crust, Violet folded up a little rhubarb tart, pressing the dough with her fork to form a cross.

“Are you making a special pie for your daddy?” Gussie asked. She didn’t want to let any hint of her fears color the child’s feeling for her father’s return.

Violet looked up at her, blue eyes shining beneath her black bangs. She tried to smile. “The last time I saw him–the last time–” She stopped, keening a little under her breath. The old gray cat, Dusty, wound around her ankles, purring comfort.

“I know, honey,” Gussie said softly.

“I dream about him sometimes. Him and Mama. We were so happy, when I was little. I can still hear them singing in harmony. I don’t like to think about the last time–he came to visit. When he took me away, then left me–” Violet dropped her head, the old paralyzing shyness returning. Her father had come back for her a year ago, promising her a home, but after driving a day and a half, he’d dumped her at a diner and just kept going. Thank heaven that preacher and his wife had stopped and driven her all the way back here.

With her fingers covered in flour and dough, Gussie leaned forward to kiss raven hair. “We must remember Mr. and Mrs. Weill tonight in our prayers.”

“Don’t he love me?”

“I’m sure he does, sweetheart. He just gets distracted sometimes, due to what he saw in World War II. And it’s still hard to find work, with all the veterans home.” Of course, it was going on three years ago now since VE Day and his army discharge four months later. But pneumonia took Harald’s wife Jessica the winter after he returned from the war. It was a hard break. He couldn’t cope. Gussie understood that deep grief. She didn’t blame him at the time, and she’d tried to forgive him after he left the girl at the diner. But now, it was time to settle down.

Violet looked up at her with a round, serious face that reminded Gussie of Harald’s younger sister Mattie, who’d died as a little girl of ten. The same age as Violet. “That’s what he said when he first left me here, Nana. He told me he loved me and wanted the best for me. Then he said, ‘You need a mother, and my Ma’s the best in the business.'”

“Bless you, child.”

As the pie baked, Gussie readied the roast beef. The fresh pie went into the safe; the roast into the wood-heated oven; the potatoes into the pot on the cast-iron stove. Violet cleaned the carrots they’d picked from the garden and chopped them with a serrated edge.

As they worked companionably together, Gussie found herself thinking of younger days. Her marriage with Stan, though cut tragically short, had been a happy one. It had taken a while, but they’d created the family they dreamed about. Their first son, Earl, hadn’t lived past the first eight weeks.

Grief almost capsized them, and Gussie couldn’t bear the thought of another child when she still dreamed of that perfect baby every night. But three years after the loss, Charlie had come along, a healthy, thriving baby. Three years later, and it was Stan Junior. After that, it had seemed like the interval God ordained. Four living boys, all three years apart, the final son being Harald, followed by the little girl she’d longed for, Mathilda. But Mattie had drowned at ten, playing in the Blackstone River with Harald to watch over her.

As they worked companionably together, Gussie found herself thinking of younger days.

Gussie said quietly, “I just want you to know, dear. In case I’m not with you much longer.” She hushed the child’s immediate protest. “I don’t want to leave you, but I worry about what might happen without a mother to teach you what you need to know in life. But I want you to know, these days with you are the happiest in my life.”

Violet put her arms around Gussie’s waist.

The heavy brass doorknocker shook the house. Gussie dusted her hands on her apron, adjusted her spectacles, and went to answer it.

There on the stoop stood Harald, her youngest son. Her only son, since World War II. “Hello, Ma,” he said, smiling uncertainly and lifting his worn straw hat so he could mop his heat-reddened brow with a graying pocket square.

“Welcome home, Son!” she exclaimed. Gussie held out her arms and pressed him close, trying to compose her face.

From the kitchen, Violet bellowed “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

“Hey, I used to sing that to her. The kid’s got a good voice,” Harald said.

Gussie took his hat and briefcase. Making himself at home, Harald plopped right into the leather armchair where his stepfather Kenneth had died. The leather creaked as he reclined. Dusty jumped onto his round stomach, purring. Harald closed his eyes and snored along.

Violet peeped around the kitchen door, then moved back to let her grandmother through. They regarded one another for a moment. The silence weighed on Gussie’s heart as each declined to say one harsh word against their visitor.

“Nana, is it okay if I go out and play hotbox with Davey and the boys till dinnertime?”

“Don’t you want to visit with your father?”

Violet shrugged. “He’s napping.”

“Okay, honey, just make sure you come when I call.”

The child smiled gratefully and slipped out the back to join her pals.

Smiling at the sounds of play next door, Gussie finished preparing the salad, vegetables, roast beef, and mashed potatoes. From time to time, the letter in her pocket rustled against the counter.

As Harald’s letters and postcards had poured in from all over the country–always addressed to her, never to Violet–Gussie had wondered what he was really searching for.

Now, when she glanced in on her son, she was surprised to find he was still searching. Harald sat at Kenneth’s rolltop desk, going through the drawers. He looked up. “Is Violet’s birth certificate around here somewhere? She’ll need it to start school in California.”

Gussie went to the little safe under her bed in the side room, which she’d occupied since Kenneth got sick. She felt Harald’s eyes on her back. She fumbled the key and scratched the desk. Taking out the precious page, she looked at it long and hard to preserve the memory.

Harald barely glanced at the paper she handed him. His eyes roamed the room, shelves of knickknacks and old books, some handed down from her own grandparents, straight from Germany. Some, like the New Haven model engines, had been Kenneth’s pride and joy.

“You’ve got a lot of treasures, Ma,” Harald said.

“Remember this one? Nana’s pitcher?” She took down the creamy porcelain vase over her bed, dusting its vivid roses.

Harald turned it in her hands to reveal the maker’s mark on the bottom. “Yeah, it’s pretty valuable. Bet you’d get a lot from an antique shop.”

Gussie set it back on the shelf. “Dinner’s ready,” she said abruptly.

Striding onto the front stoop, she drew a deep, calming breath of evening air. Orange and pink clouds–a heavenly sight. Even though she could see Violet playing next door, Gussie rang the dinner bell. With each toll, she saw happy faces in her mind’s eye—Stan, then Kenneth, and her five children.

Violet dropped the bat and ran over.

Gussie said grace.

Harald requested desert first, as usual. He smacked his lips. “Ma, this is the best rhubarb pie I’ve ever tasted.”

“Thank you, son. But I don’t deserve all the credit. Violet helped me.” She put her arm around the girl sitting next to her. She allowed herself to bask in the glow for a moment, her son enjoying the pie that had been Kenneth’s favorite and thus a staple of their family home.

“It was fun,” Violet said nervously, her black bangs hiding her face as she bent over her pie.

Harald tucked into the main meal, to the sound of his fork on the plate, smacking lips, and moans of approval. “Ma, you outdid yourself again.”

Gussie laughed. “You say that every time. You just need to come around here more often so you don’t forget the taste of home cooking!”

Beside her, Violet huddled, poking at her pie glumly.

On the table beside Harald, the empty gravy boat showed how much he’d enjoyed his roast beef. The mountain of mashed potatoes in the serving bowl had dwindled to a molehill.

Violet had shaped the salads into smiling bunnies. Harald grinned. “Now there’s a new take on rabbit food.” At last he pushed his chair back from the table, standing and patting his belly with satisfaction.

His face clouded as he noticed Violet’s plate. “Hey, ain’t you feeling right, little girl?”

Violet scowled. “I ain’t so little.”

Gussie said, “Violet is a big help to me.”

Harald belched. He ran a hand over graying stubble. “That’s good. You can help your new mother around the house when we get to California.” He grinned at his daughter and pinched her cheek. “You ready to come home with me now, girl?”

Mutely, Violet pulled back and pressed her cheek into Gussie’s apron.

“Are you sure she can’t stay a little longer? I’ve got a lot to teach her yet. And you and your new wife might like a bit of privacy.”

“Sorry, Ma, I gotta hit the road. Me and Violet will be driving all night as it is.”

“All night? Won’t you get sleepy?”

He winked at Violet. “We’ll tell each other stories. I picked up a few in my travels. Besides, I’m sure we have a lot to catch up on.”

“I’m not driving all night,” Violet said flatly.

Gussie offered, “If you wait a few days, I’ll call around. We got cousins in Colorado. You could stay the night. They’re always asking about you.”

“Ma, destiny waits for no man. I’ve already got a job lined up in Hollywood.”

“Do you know Laurence Olivier?” Violet asked skeptically.

“The kid’s got taste,” Harald declared, smiling indulgently. He reached for her shoulder. She ducked.

“You don’t look like a movie star,” Violet declared.

That seemed to sour him a little, but after a brief frown, he returned to affability. “You’ll like your new mother. That’s the only thing that’s been missing, right honey?”

“Please, Harald,” Gussie implored. “California’s so far away. And I’m getting on. Who knows if I’ll ever see you two again?”

“Okay, one night,” he relented. “Just see that you wake us up early so we get a good start.”

“As long as you’re staying, how about playing a game with us?” Gussie already stood at the sideboard, wrenching open the lowest drawer. When she released the metal handles, they sang as they rocked back and forth. She pulled out a battered cardboard box, missing pieces from its sides. She smiled at the instant memories: nights and days playing Monopoly, through the midst of the Great Depression and beyond.

“Ho-ho!” Harald exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. Violet’s eyes lit up with an avaricious gleam. As Gussie set out the board, Violet snatched the top hat. Predictably, Harald took the race car. Gussie’s hand hovered over her traditional choices—iron or thimble. Then she swiftly scooped up the battleship and set it at Go.

Harald reached for the bank—she was already lifting the bottom half of the box to her side—but as she felt the worn cardboard corner start to tear, she relented. Only a game. The point was to have a fun evening, remember the good times. If this was her last evening with Violet, she wanted to enjoy it. And maybe Harald would get nostalgic. Remember his family. Think twice about separating them again.

“Hollywood, land of dreams,” Harald said, the same relish in his dreamy voice with which he’d praised his mother’s cooking. “My friend’s got it all set up for me. I’ll start my own production company. Just imagine it, Ma! Why, you always told me I had Daddy’s gift for a good yarn!” All the children had called Stan Daddy and Kenneth Pop. “You could come out there and live with us, once I buy my first mansion.” He chuckled. “With your life, I’ll bet you have plenty of great movie ideas just hiding away in your noggin.” He rapped his temple with a knuckle and gave her a wink. “And Violet here can star in them! You’re a pretty little thing,” he told her, his voice kind.

“You always did have big dreams, Son,” Gussie said.

He put a gentle hand on hers. She paused in the middle of her move, the battleship tight in her fist. “And you always believed in me and encouraged me, Ma. I don’t know what I would have done without you, all these years. You and little Violet here. Broke my heart, I guess. But everything is going to be better now. All I need is a little bit of a stake–”

“You don’t have the money to travel? Son, I’d lend it to you, you know I’ve always managed to scrape something together in the past, but now you have Violet to think of. If you don’t have the money, maybe you should let the girl stay here just a little bit longer. At least until you’ve got things ready for her.”

Unexpectedly, he cried out, real anguish in his voice. “Two years, Ma! I’ve waited two years already! Not to mention an entire war! Does she have to be a grown woman before I can be a father for my own daughter?”

Moved, Gussie said softly, “Of course not. Of course not, Son.”

But when Harald got his mitts on the railroad monopoly, the talk started up again. “Good old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. They did right by old Pop. You must be set up pretty well, Ma.”

“Kenneth loved being an engineer,” Gussie said, striving to keep the conversation on a positive note. “And he really enjoyed that summer you worked with him as a fireman.”

Harald shook his head with feeling. “That sure was hard work. Shoveling coal into the boiler’s firebox all day.”

“Kenneth was so proud of you.”

Harald shrugged and looked away. “Too bad the war interrupted my career.”

A flash of anger caught Gussie unaware. Where had he got that yellow streak, always blaming someone or something else for his failure to follow through? Not her. Not Kenneth. And she couldn’t imagine it came from his long-departed father, Stan. Harald had been thirteen when Stan died. He’d been devastated by the senseless death, his father run down by a careless motorist when he was crossing the street to buy a paper after church.

Gussie’s own rage caused some heated internal debates with God—she’d thought she kept that from the children, but those had been hard years, when her sideline businesses to help the family like taking in washing and ironing had become their sole means of support.

And with the Great Depression in full swing by then, she’d had to start work before sunup and continue long after the sun set. The children helped as they could. Working before and after school, Harald had pulled a wagon picking up and delivering laundry. But he’d always smiled, always brought home a joke to brighten up her day. That is, until that summer, when Mattie drowned.

Even before the war, that kind boy had retreated behind a veneer of brittle charm that kept his heart at arm’s reach. Gussie forced herself to take a long, deep breath and smile back at the little boy she’d loved, who looked back at her, bewildered, from deep in Harald’s eyes.

She answered his unspoken question directly. “It’s not much, just a small pension. But it’s enough for me to take care of Violet.”

Deep in her heart, Gussie hoped that even if he took Violet, he’d release her like last time. As risky as it would be, it would be less risky than Harald’s uncertain care, especially if he took her far across the continent, where Gussie couldn’t help. What if Violet found herself abandoned even farther from home? Worry knotted Gussie’s stomach. As she gazed across the table at her son, a resolve hardened in her chest. She had to prepare that girl to find her way back. Prepare her better than last time—with the truth about her feckless daddy.

“Maybe you’d like to help your son out as well,” Harald said. “My production company could stand a stake.”

Still holding the battleship, keeping her place on the board, Gussie worked hard to keep her temper. “We’re not rich, Harald. I’m still paying off Kenneth’s medical bills. I’m afraid your old Ma can’t help you out this time. Maybe some of those rich friends you’ve been telling me about could take an interest.” She felt sick discussing this in front of the little girl. Gussie was just barely getting by on the pension. Of course, she wouldn’t have as many expenses without the girl, but giving that money to Kenneth for his own foolish pursuits—wild dreams that quickly went bust—wouldn’t help Violet.

Silently, Violet got up and left the table.

Harald countered with a shot to the gut. “When I left Violet in your care, Kenneth was still alive. Now that Pop’s gone, and Violet’s getting so big, she’s soon going to be too much for an old woman alone.”

Resentment flared. Gussie took far better care of the girl than he would. But she must be careful. She’d get nowhere by letting her anger show. She reminded herself that he was Violet’s father, and her own son. And it was true: guilt nagged at her sometimes, about the many little ways Violet stepped daily into a helper’s role. Would she soon be taking care of her nana, her childhood vanishing into the responsibilities of an adult? She’d deeply regretted the way Stan’s death and the Great Depression crushed the innocence of her own children.

Gussie caught the sound of the refrigerator’s metal handle clicking back into place. She looked up through the wide archway that led to living room, then kitchen, to find Violet standing at the top of the three kitchen stairs. Violet held a plate wrapped in tin foil. “She takes care of me just fine,” the girl declared. “Here, Daddy. I made this for you.”

Harald peeled back the foil with interest. “A tart. It looks yummy, sweetheart. Thank you. Unfortunately, I’m full right now. Can I save it for tomorrow?”

“Might make a nice treat for breakfast,” Gussie suggested.

Harald’s sweet, boyhood smile emerged. “Yes! That sounds like a grand idea.”

Violet helped Gussie clear the table. Then Gussie sent her to get a bath while Gussie stored the leftovers and washed the dishes. She glanced at the large railroad clock on the cheery yellow wall of the kitchen Kenneth had built for her, along with the rest of this cozy house. How she wished she could ask him for help now!

Her heart hurt as she longed for one sight of Kenneth’s cheery, round-jowled face with the laughing eyes and wisps of iron-gray hair smoothed back. That big, booming laugh. The way he’d joke with Violet, frothing his shaving cream into a bubbly white beard like Santa Claus. She braced her hands on the rounded edges of the standalone porcelain sink, hung her head, and closed her eyes.

In the living room, Harald reclined in Kenneth’s black leather chair, smoking a pipe and listening to the radio. “You should get a television set, Ma. You could keep up with what’s going on in the world.”

“I do fine.”

“I’ll send you one after I get set up. Never let it be said I didn’t take care of my ma.” He said this without irony, with no hint of wheedling for money. As if he already had a plan.

Her chest felt tight with dread. Gussie put a hand on the heavy wooden banister. “I’m going to tuck in Violet.”

All night, Gussie tossed and turned in the little side room. The sturdy house creaked around her– stairs, floor, drawers in the rolltop desk–noises she hadn’t heard since Kenneth would prowl restlessly at night, before he’d gotten sick. She’d never minded. The sounds of his night-owl activity meant he was awake to keep their family safe.

She pressed her cheek to the cool side of the pillow, drawing slow breaths, telling herself to be grateful for one last night under the same roof with her son. As she drifted into sleep, she felt Kenneth’s gentle hand brushing her cheek, stroking her hair. “My darling,” he murmured. “My darlings. Never fear.”

She woke to a checkerboard of sunlight on the counterpane. How had she slept so long?

Flipping back the quilt, she hurried out to start breakfast. She found Harald still reclining in Kenneth’s chair, a plate of half-eaten rhubarb pie on his chest. Kenneth’s favorite.

Harald’s face looked blue. His eyes bulged wide.

Gussie watched motes hovering like ghosts. “Kenneth?” she whispered, shivering.

She dialed the police. The officers searched Harald’s belongings as part of their routine check.

Officer Diamonte smoothed a paper again and again, his hand trembling. He looked up at her with stricken eyes.

“It’s a bill of sale. Adoption, he calls it. But I never heard of an adoption for a half-grown girl netting this kind of cash.”

A cry escaped Gussie’s throat. It felt like the last shred of her birthing pains for Harald.

The autopsy revealed a heart attack, nothing more.

At the funeral, Gussie hugged Violet close. Neither of them cried.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed “Rhubarb Pie”, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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