Property Values

by Michael C. Keith

Property has its duties as well as its rights.
--Thomas Drummond

Sally Girard was killed in the early morning hours of June 14 when she ran a stop sign while texting a friend and was hit broadside by a truck. Angie Harrington, whose husband had also died recently, was jolted from sleep by the sound of the crash. Her house had the misfortune of being located at the most dangerous intersection in town and as a result Angie had become somewhat inured to the frequent late night squeal of rubber on asphalt and the deep thud of large moving objects colliding into each other. From the sound of this one, she knew the cars' occupants were in serious trouble, so she promptly dialed 911 while looking out of her bedroom window that faced the notorious junction.

From her vantage point and with the help of a solitary streetlight Angie could make out a body on the pavement. Whoever it was had not worn a seatbelt, concluded Angie, who then closed the curtains to block out the grizzly scene. Within minutes she heard the inevitable sirens, and shortly after that the flashing lights of the ambulance and police cars seeped through the thick fabric of her window dressings. This was an all too familiar scenario to Angie, and she was more anxious than ever to sell her house. During the time they lived in it Angie and her husband experienced a half-dozen crashes of varying severity, and even before he died they had put the house on the market, no longer willing to tolerate these invasions of their peace.

* * *

When the accident was finally cleared away, Angie tried to go back to sleep, but as was the case on so many other occasions, that was difficult due to her frayed nerves and the disturbing accident images that kept asserting themselves. In the morning she contacted her realtor and lowered the price she had been asking for her house. At this point, all she wanted out of the sale was enough to purchase a small condo at the nearby shore. Her late husband's modest investments would allow her to live comfortably if not lavishly and she was close to drawing social security, which would get her through her so-called golden years.

An open house was slated for the weekend, and Angie's realtor felt optimistic that the new asking price would result in an offer. The morning of the open house, Angie rose early to make sure her yard was free of any signs of last night's accident or the usual trash tossed on it by passing cars. Beer cans were the items she usually found, but to her surprise there were none. In fact, the area was free of all debris except for a mound of rocks that held a framed photograph of a young woman, and Angie quickly realized that the bereaved relatives of the night's car crash victim had erected a monument for their lost loved one. Although moved by the sight of the makeshift memorial, she remembered it was the day of her open house and her heart sank. A tombstone in front of her house would not be a selling point, she reflected, as she began to dismantle it.

While she was removing the mound of rocks one by one, a car pulled up and a middle-age couple carrying flowers climbed out shouting for her to stop.

"What!" exclaimed Angie startled by the sudden interruption.

"Hey, what are you doing? That's for our daughter who just died here," replied the distraught man approaching her.

"Please, leave it alone," added the woman accompanying him.

"I'm sorry, but I can't have this here. I feel terrible about what happened, but it can't stay. I'm trying to sell my house, and this would turn people off," Angie responded handing them their dead daughter's photograph.

"It's just for a while until her friends have a chance to pay their respects and visit where she died," pleaded the man on the verge of tears.

"You can't do this," implored the woman clasping her hands as if to pray.

"But I have a lot of people coming here today, and if this is here it will be a major turnoff. I'm sorry . . . really," replied Angie turning to return to her house.

"Oh my, God! Look! Look!" blurted the woman as Angie walked away. "She's crying. There's a tear coming from her eye, Tom."

"Sweet Jesus, there is," answered her husband.

"Look, ma'am! Mrs. Harrington, right? Please . . . please take a look at this," cried out Mrs. Girard trailing Angie with the photograph.

It did, indeed, appear as if the young woman in the picture was shedding a tear, and that stopped Angie in her tracks.

"It's probably morning dew or condensation," countered Angie, giving the picture a closer look.

"No. . . . no, it's not. When I first saw it, I wiped it away, and it came back right away."

Angie rubbed the droplet from the picture with the palm of her hand and within moments another reappeared in the dead girl's eye.

"See, it's a miracle. My little girl is communicating with us," said the woman, and Angie was at a loss for an explanation to refute the mother's seemingly outlandish claim and too exasperated to try.

"Please put it back. I know it's what Sally wants. She needs to say goodbye to her friends from where she was last alive," begged Mr. Girard.

"Okay," answered Angie moved by the distraught parents and nonplussed by the weeping photo.

What if this terrible tragedy had occurred to her, mused Angie as she returned to her house? She had always wanted a child but it wasn't in the cards and that had left her with a hole in her life that nothing else was capable of filling. It had become a permanent sadness for both her and her deceased husband, and it had cast a shadow on their otherwise salutary marriage.

* * *

For the balance of the day and well into the night people gathered around the pile of rocks in Angie's front yard. Only two couples had ventured past the mob to look at her house and they did so in a cursory fashion. It was long after sunset when the last person departed the improptu cenotaph and Angie went to bed, but again she could not get to sleep. She tossed and turned for over an hour and then gave up on the idea and tried to read but could not concentrate because her thoughts kept returning to the bizarre photograph of Sally Girard. Was it still weeping, she wondered, and put on her slippers and robe to check it out. With a flashlight in hand, Angie went to the mound and cast the beam on the picture. A tear formed in Sally's eye and ran down her cheek to the bottom of the frame where it leaked out and dropped to the ground. At the spot where it landed small flowers were sprouting from the soil. As far as Angie could recall they had not been there before the memorial was built, and it confused and disturbed her, because she was a lifelong doubter in things spiritual or paranormal in nature.

Angie stood at the monument until she heard a car moving up the road, and then she retreated to her house not wanting to be spied on in her nightclothes. Eventually she got to sleep and when she awoke she was startled to find it was late morning. As she slowly rose from bed she heard a commotion coming from outside and went to the window. On first glimpse she thought she was still dreaming. At least a hundred people occupied her front yard.

"This is ridiculous. Miracle or not, this has got to stop," she mumbled throwing on her clothes.

On her way to the door her phone rang. It was her realtor reporting that the mob was causing her property value to plunge faster than Fanny May stock.

"It was bad enough that all those accidents happened at your house, but with this I'll never be able to sell it, Angie. If you can't get them to take down that thing, you should call the police. They're trespassing, and that's illegal."

Angie said she was well aware of the situation and had told the Girards that they had until Monday to remove their daughter's monument.

"You know, there's actually something weird going on out there. The picture looks like it's crying," commented Angie, and her realtor replied that it was a bunch of silliness.

"I don't know. I saw it myself," replied Angie wondering if she, too, had been smitten by the hysteria.

"You can see anything you want to see, but it's a gimmick. There's something in the frame. You can buy those things on the Internet. Shit, you can buy anything on the Internet."

Angie repeated that it would be gone by Monday to which her realtor added that if it wasn't she could not continue to list the house.

"I don't want my "for sale" sign on some wacky impromptu shrine. It's bad for my business, and things are tough enough. When you lose your credibility, you're done."

Angie remained inside all day as the crowd continued to swell. At one point the police called and said that neighbors were complaining about the uproar, and when she explained what was going on, she was advised to hire a police detail to manage the throng.

"If something happens, and that's a dangerous intersection to begin with, you'll be held responsible," she was told and reluctantly heeded the advice.

A squad car with its blue lights flashing parked in front of her house for the rest of the day. When the crowd thinned down close to midnight, the police car departed. Not long after, the handful of visitors remaining at the site left as well. As Angie had done the night before she slipped down to the monument in her robe but this time took Sally Girard's picture back to her house determined to check the frame for any tear-generating devices. She carefully dismantled the frame and closely inspected its pieces. There was no sign that anything had been tampered with, but the tears continued to form in the dead girl's eyes. Angie stood gazing down at the weeping photograph and chills ran down her back causing her to shiver. This can't be happening, she thought, and quickly reassembled the picture and returned it to its improvised altar. She then climbed under the covers and waited out the long night.

* * *

Throughout the morning the crowds thickened and Angie was forced to hire police supervision again. By early afternoon the Girard's had arrived to enthusiastic fanfare from the group, and Angie bolted from her house to read the riot act to them.

"Look, you said you'd remove this stuff from my lawn by today. You're trespassing and I can have the police arrest you. I know this is important to you and, again, I'm sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how terrible this is for you, but I have a life to live, too, and it requires I sell the place, so take your daughter's picture and all those things on the rocks and leave," demanded Angie as the crowd tightened around her.

"This is a sacred site, lady. It's hallowed ground, and it cannot be violated," shouted someone behind her, and the assemblage voiced its approval.

"Leave it alone. It's not bothering anyone," shouted another member of the cabal, whose sentiments were echoed by yet another and another until the entire group was chanting, "Leave it Alone! . . . Leave it alone!"

Angie was unnerved by the crowd's zeal and returned to her house fearing for her safety. She felt trapped by the situation and could see no option other than to wait it out. If she had everyone removed by the authorities, it could have serious additional repercussions for her, she feared. There was no telling what might happen given the Girards strong feelings and those of their exuberant supporters.

As she had the last couple of days, she sequestered herself in her house to avoid the absurd and annoying scene, but it was impossible to ward off the rumble of the noise it produced and the beams of vehicle headlights in the evening, which invaded every room no matter how she tried to block them. As the day and then the night dragged on Angie found herself slipping into an even deeper funk thinking about what was happening and how it was reducing the chances of her realizing a better life. With the weight of events pressing down hard on her, she took to her bed earlier than usual but again laid awake for hours before finally achieving solace in unconsciousness.

* * *

It was at precisely the hour that Sally Girard had met her untimely demise that Angie was jerked from sleep by a horrific explosion. Her eyes first landed on the luminous red digits of the clock next to which she placed her glasses. She threw them on nearly poking out one of her eyes and ran to the window cracking the drapes enough to view where the sound originated. A large truck had struck the memorial and scattered it across the road. It stopped for a moment and then sped away, and Angie tried in vain to read the license plate but all she could determine was that it was registered in state.

Again, as so many times before, she put on her robe and made her way to the cursed intersection. The stones of the monument and its adornments had been cast as far as her eyes could see. Angie walked the area looking for Sally Girard's photograph and was about to give up the search when she spotted it in a clump of bushes. Amazingly it appeared undamaged. After pushing several rocks from the road with her feet to prevent another traffic mishap, she returned to her house with the picture hoping that if she hid it from its crazed devotees maybe they would leave and she could get on with her existence. It was what she wanted more than anything.

* * *

What Angie hoped would happen, did. After a few days of scouring the area in vain for the photograph, the Girards and their dead daughter's adherents quit the location, and life as Angie had known it, gradually returned. A month later she agreed to an offer on her house that was considerably under what it had listed for, but she had calculated it would allow her to purchase a tiny cottage a couple blocks away from her beloved shore. It was a compromise but one she was happy and relieved to accept.

By early fall, Angie was settled in her new home and as happy as she had been for a long time. Prior to moving she had considered disposing of the photograph of Sally Girard once and for all, but she found she could not do it, so she brought it along to her new residence and stored it away in a trunk. It had stopped weeping, and Angie began to question whether it ever had. Over time she found that her curiosity and interest in it grew, and on occasion she would take it out and stare at it wondering about the young life that had come to its end so soon and so violently. Her feelings for the dead girl increased as the years passed to where she had removed the picture from the trunk and placed it on the mantle above her small fireplace. Its presence gave her a feeling of comfort she had not experienced since her husband was alive.

On a balmy Spring day in early May, as Angie placed a vase of just picked daffodils on the fireplace mantle next to Sally's photograph, she noticed the long-absent tears had returned, and she took them as a sign of affirmation and love. The young woman in the picture had become a substitute for the child Angie had always longed for but never had. She would talk to the photograph for hours and, as the days and years slipped by, it began to talk to her. In time a relationship developed equal to any between a parent and its offspring.

* * *

A decade after Angie moved into her small cottage her doctor informed her that her health was failing due to congenital heart disease, so she set about the task of preparing for her end. At first she considered being buried with the photo of her adopted child but then decided that it should be returned to its rightful owners. Though it would be painful to give up Sally's beloved image, Angie's conscience insisted she do so.

When she knew death was at her doorstep, she placed the picture in a box for mailing to the Girard's the next day, but, as fate would have it, that night her heart gave out. With no known relatives or existing will her estate was eventually auctioned off by the state. Weeks later the buyer of Angie's earthly possessions discarded everything he considered of little value, including the streak stained photograph of an unknown young woman.

BIO: Michael C. Keith is the author of over 20 books (mostly on media topics) and many articles and short stories. In 2003 his memoir, The Next Better Place, was published by Algonquin Books and received high praise from critics. Keith teaches Communication at Boston College and is the recipient of numerous awards for his scholarship in radio studies.