Once Upon an Old Clock...
“Again time elapsed.”
― Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock
The Girl with the Story
The door-bell sounded out of tune but it still carried a ring of nostalgic notes to it. It chimed and I could hear it echoing softly throughout the house. With that being done, all that I could do was to wait patiently and hope that this was the right home. It had to be the right home. But I still had my old suspicions that I was barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. I didn't even know if the person who lived here even existed. It had been a complete surprise to me when I stumbled across the address during my research. Surprised...and excited as well. Hope, just hope that they are there. And if they were, they could tell a thing or two.
After the last chiming echoes faded away from notice, the house grew eerily quiet from within. There was not a shadow of movement coming from behind the brown weather-beaten and rain-stained front door. I waited calmly for a couple of moments--maybe they were in the back of the house? I thought that that was likely enough but then they should have heard the door-bell amidst that sleepy silence. Not wanting to give up so easily, I attempted to rouse the attention of the home's residents by an alternative way: I knocked on the door. It wasn't that much louder but, nevertheless, it was still worth a try. I waited again for some sign of a response.
There was none.
Sighing, I tried the door-bell a couple more times, each time becoming more frustrating than the last. Before the chimes of the door-bell died away, I thought I heard something different this time amongst the fading notes. I turned my head in time to catch a glimpse of the window-blinds being moved back into place. The window was situated next to the front door and above the ill garden. So there was someone inside! On the other hand, they were spying on me through the blinds. I gulped and calmed my jumpy nerves. It was almost chilling to me being watched by the unknown stranger. Try it once more. I raised my hand and rang the door-bell again. Please--I know that you're in there--please answer--
It spooked me, causing me to take a frightening step back away from the door, when I distinctly heard a lock being turned on the inside. There was a brief moment's pause before I found myself looking into strange weary eyes. The door had been opened just a little and the small woman, who was eyeing me up and down my body, crouched behind it in case it became necessary to slam it shut. The woman's face was partially hidden in the shadows. The hand that was upon the door was wrinkled, aged, and worn with tiredness. She stood there looking at me with a large amount of perplexity and a hint of rebuffness put it for added measure. I suddenly found myself at a complete lose for words--what I had prepared myself to say when I finally came face-to-face went blank. To be perfectly honest, I never imagined that I would get this far. Only a minute I was having doubts whether or not this woman even existed. But even that scenario wasn't too late from happening--I still didn't know if she was the right woman or not. I must have looked stupid with my mouth hanging open.
Here she was, I thought. Could she be the woman that Mr. Stratemayer told me about? I had to find out and soon but the lose of words stunned me, freezing me like a deer in the headlights.
Speak, you idiot! Speak!
I straightened myself and was about to speak before I was caught off-guard once more by a slightly shaken voice.
"Who are you and what you want?" demanded the small and stout woman standing behind the partially-opened door.
Her voice was kind of raspy and rusty, as if she hadn't spoken for a long time and had to get used to doing so again. There was also evident a tone of fierce independence hidden beneath the subtle fragility. I could immediately tell that she was a woman who spoke her mind and did as she pleased. Even though the upper half of her face was shrouded in shadows, I could keenly sense her wistful eyes burning through me. Now was the moment to make my intentions clear, I thought. Another moment's silence and I stood tall and smiled nervously.
"I apologize, ma'am, for intruding, but I was wondering if I could have a word with a Mrs. Helen Corning?" She did not respond to my question but rather took a step back. I realized now who I was speaking to.
"I take it then that you are Mrs. Helen Corning?" It sounded weak to my ears and I think that she knew that I thought so. She grunted, retook a step forward, and gently cracked the door an inch or two open more.
"I am Helen Corning but who wants to know?" she inquired with a thinly-disguised bitter sarcasm. She waited for my answer like a teacher waits for a student to answer a test question. Here, at these door-steps, she was the authority and I was the malignant trespasser. Spiteful, irritant, and aversive to any strangers that dared summon her to the gate of her castle, Helen Corning was just another name to her. It did not matter that it was her. No face to go with it--and no memories to remember it by. But there was something that stirred inside of me. This was her...I couldn't believe my eyes that Helen Corning actually was alive and well...and REAL.
So Mr. Stratemayer had been right about the address when he had divulged that little secret to me. I remembered a little bit of the interview as I stood before the front door.
"Go to Helen Corning, young man. She'll give you the answers that you need," he had said to me during our interview. At that time I didn't notice it until later that there had been a certain twinkle in his eye. Now, that twinkle became more profound as I stood before Helen Corning, speechless and excited at the same time. I had to ask Mr. Stratemayer why he was telling me this.
"Because its about time that someone knows the story about that girl."
"You mean Helen Corning?" I had asked while taking notes in my portable blue composition book. After I had scribbled down the address with my black gel pen, I circled it several time to mark its importance among the rest of the highly-detailed notes that I had taken throughout the interview. Looking up, I saw Mr. Stratemayer shake his head and pondering me attentively. There was a smile upon his lips before he had spoken.
"Oh no--not Helen Corning at all. Oh no, I'm talking about another girl."
Another girl, I thought. But my journey had to start here, he had said.
"Start with Helen, my friend. Then, it will be up to you to decide where to go next."
It was only in a space of several seconds that I remembered that interview before my mind was reoccupied by the task at hand. I had to keep plowing ahead--I had to know about this girl!
"Uhm--well," I began with a shaky start, "my name is H.R. Jafael--"
"Never heard of you--" she exclaimed and began to close the door. Sensing the urgency of the matter, I immediately put my hand on it and kept the old lady from closing it in my face. It was then that I discovered that we had one thing in common so far and that was I could be just as stubborn. Unlike her, I was going to be persistant. Before she could throw an onslaught of critical scolding, I quickly finished what I had been saying.
"--and I was sent here by Edward Stratemayer Adams to you, Mrs. Corning."
The force attempting to close the door went slack. The two of us stared into each other's eyes as the front door was opened was opened all the way in a slow molasses' pace. The shadow finally fell away from her face. What I saw was a tired-looking individual with peppered gray hair, tied in a small bun on the back of her head. There was a sad frown upon her face and hard times were etched into her pale blue eyes. In her youth, she must have been beautiful--but now, age and time had wrecked their havoc. The aged woman was wearing a brown shirt with a tan-colored blouse. Around her waist was a white apron, stained with flour and cinnamon. As the door was now open, a warm smell of baking goods came all the way from the kitchen.
Perhaps this house wasn't so gloomy and dreary after all.
I watched her face with suspenseful anticipation, just waiting for some sort of acknowledgement. Her eyes seemed to flutter at the sound of the name of "Edward Stratemayer Adams"--there was a spark of recognition in them when she heard the name. Knowing this, I tried again.
"You know him, then?" I asked with gentleness.
She looked away past me to see if I was alone. There was no one else in sight on the undistinguishable street. It was like the other streets around it by being quiet, reserved, and old forgotten suburbia. The only difference that this street could account for was its name. Welcome to Emerson Avenue. Satisfying her need of assurance, Helen Corning looked up at my inquiring glance.
Then, to my utmost astonishment, she nodded.
"And it's Helen Archer--if only legally. My maiden name was Helen Corning but I go by that now...but it has been a while since someone has called me by my surname of Corning." There she stopped and leaned against the door as if she was tired and needed some support.
"You've told me that Eddie has sent you here but I still want to know WHO you are and WHY you came here."
She sputtered out with a variation of her original question. I surprised myself by finding myself being relieved by her question. How strange, I thought. This was the first challenge. Time to take it by the horns.
"As I have told you, my name is H.R. Jafael," I repeated but this time with more confidence and assurance than before. "And, no, you won't know who I am. I am merely here because Mr. Adams thought it would be wise if I came here."
"Why would Eddie send you, a stranger, to me? Doesn't he know that I don't like being disturbed?" Again the familiar bitter tone was evident in the emphasis of her speaking those words. I thought over that for a second before continuing.
"I suppose that he did know--but he also knew that you could provide me with answers to my questions." I waved my hand towards the Victorian-style home before me.
"Did you know, that a couple of minutes, I didn't think you even existed?"
Helen Corning arched an eyebrow and by the look on her face I could tell that she was puzzled by several things. I could sense that there was still doubt alongside a lingering suspicion where it concerned me.
"You're not an associate from the bank, are you?" she asked viciously.
Surprised, I shook my head "no". Immediately her face softened just a little. Apparently that had been weighing on her mind.
"You said that Eddie thought I should talk to you--what exactly does he want me to talk about?" Her wistful eyes narrowed as they observed me.
"Well," I started out, formulating the answer as I went along, "in general, just about memories. I would like to ask questions about your past, Mrs. Corning."
"Why?" she uttered for another time.
"Because I'm curious--I'm researching and investigating the past, so to speak." That was the best answer that I could give her and I was hoping that she would take it for what it was worth.
"Why would you care about the past? It's over and done with."
"Not necessarily--sometimes there are things in our pasts that are not finished--they're a continuous process until the day we die. That's why I'm here because I believe you are the only person left, other than Mr. Stratemayer, who can talk to me about Mildred Benson."
A cloud of silence fell between the two of us. I could see that I had piqued her sense of curiosity. She then stepped aside and invited me in like she would to a dear friend. Somehow, I had satisfied her and she had accepted me for what I was.
"No one before had cared about my past--well, I suppose I could answer some questions. What is it that you want to know?"
She made a good point--I thought for a moment on where she should start from.
"How about starting from the beginning?" I finally suggested with a warm smile as I entered the home of Helen Corning.