The skies were pitch black that night and the wind was whispering a warning to any man within earshot that he had better head indoors. Inside the former Garrett Inn sat a man in a near-vacant pale oak room that was dimly lit by the flickering dance of a gas lamp. The man sat comfortably at his regular table, back to the wall, staring out past the window as the sky violently gave birth to a wild child of a rainstorm. He reached for his drink and took a mouthful as the raindrops pitter-pattered against the windowpane.
At the opposite side of this particular room a door creaked open wide and in stepped a young man who was soaked from boot to britches. The patrons of the establishment offered him a wool blanket which he wrapped into like the swaddling savior himself. The young man waddled over to the counter and took a plate of food and drink from the cook. He approached the center of the dining hall where the man in the corner sat, and looked perplexed and directionless.
The man in the corner waved his arms and motioned for the soaked young man to join him. He was an older gentleman with sunken cheeks and wrinkled hands who was dressed in a suit, cravat and vest that had seen better days. Accompanying his manner of dress was a thick gray beard that was tempered with a handful of specks of remaining Autumn-brown hair.
“Come and sit with me son,” the man said.
The young man wrapped in wool hesitated for a moment, and then took the invitation to sit. His hair was an untrimmed mess, running down past his shirt’s collar. He had a youthful baby face that was juxtaposed against his grim and solemn looks. He began slowly sipping from a hot cup of tea in front of him.
“Quite the storm we have on our hands isn’t it?” the man in the corner said.
“I reckon I’m proof of that sir,” the young man replied matter-of-factly
“There is truth in that statement my dear boy, truth indeed.”
The man in the corner leaned his chair forward and put forth his hand saying,
“Forgive my lack of manners, my name is Arthur Billings.”
“Elias Mitchell,” he responded quietly as he shook Arthur’s hand.
“I haven’t seen you around hear before Elias, I take it you’re new?”
“Indeed I am sir,” Elias replied.
“Not much for talking, are you Elias?”
Elias nodded his head in confirmation. His eyes gave a look of caution and innocence, or rather lost innocence trying to be regained. He made a clean sweep of his hair as driblets of water fell to the floor. Arthur inched in closer to the table and noticed that Elias had barely separated the heap of mashed potatoes that was invading the steak’s territory on the oblong plate in front of him.
“Not hungry, my friend?”
“No sir, I don’t seem to have quite an appetite just yet,” Elias said.
Arthur sat there and stroked his ever-graying beard as if he was trying to break hard news to the young lad, like telling a small boy that there was no Father Christmas after all.
“I tell ya what Elias my boy. My wife always told my children that nights like these are perfect for swapping stories, am I right?”
“I suppose so,” Elias replied. “Are you meaning ghost stories and tales such as that?”
Arthur chuckled a bit. “Oh no my friend, ghost stories are all falsehoods and fairytales. I am meaning true stories. True stories are far more frightening than any story of some condemned Negro soul haunting an abandoned plantation or some poppycock.”
Elias looked puzzled. “How might that be Mr. Billings?”
“Well first off my young Elias, Arthur Billings isn’t my real name; the truth of that story is far more interesting than your common ghost story. True stories, you see, provide a personal sort of pain that is undeniably haunting.”
“I see. If you’re not Arthur Billings, then who might you be, sir?” Elias inquired.
“No, no, no, my fine young man. First we hear your own true tale of agony and misery, and then I share my own.”
Elias chopped up his meat into tiny slivers ww hile he stared at the storm outside.
“Well, I suppose we aren’t going anywhere, are we?”
“Right you are my boy.”
Elias nodded and took a deep breath, with the solemnity of a minister at the pulpit.
“Very well,” Elias said as he wrapped himself tighter in his woolen cocoon. “I suppose my story is a love story. Not my love story, mind you, but a love story nonetheless. I spent my boyhood years growing up in the cotton fields near the Tallahassee Railroad. My elder brother Jonah was my own personal hero, like one of them baseball legends you read about in the papers. When it came to him and me, Jonah could do no wrong; everything he liked, I liked. Everywhere he went, I went.”
All the while that Elias was talking, he continued to mince up his food at a nervous pace, mixing in the potatoes until it was an unrecognizable mish mash of vittles.
“So when he came to take up a sweetheart, I liked her too. I was always respectful of course; she belonged to Jonah, not me. Time went on and we all grew up and they were still in love, she was practically a part of my family. Adelaide and Jonah…Adelaide was Jonah’s sweetheart’s name; they were engaged to be wed. Everyone in my family was overjoyed by this news.”
Elias paused and gave a distinct shiver, and stopped playing with his food. He made a quick glance over his shoulder, as if he felt someone standing behind him. He turned his attention back to Arthur and continued.
“Although not every man in our small town was excited for the coming nuptials, especially…Harrison,” he said with a disdainful scratch in his throat, as if the name Harrison were akin to that of the Devil.
”Harrison was a troubled young man who grew up with us when we were boys. He was always jealous of my brother Jonah’s success, and he was particularly fond of Adelaide.”
Arthur listened intently with a furrowed brow, and didn’t make a noise during Elias’ tale, save for a readjusting of his chair every now and again.
“Now my mother, father and even Jonah paid little attention to Harrison’s avarice, as if they didn’t know that the boy existed at all. But I was concerned. So it happened one night, the night before Jonah and Adelaide’s wedding day that I found myself outside of Adelaide’s home. I was to bring her my mother’s wedding dress, for I had no sisters of my own to one day wear it.”
Once again Elias gave an uneasy gander around the room as if Jack the Ripper had come across the sea to terrorize the States.
”What happened next is hard to say, sir. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. I could see a light coming from the upstairs window so I let myself in. I walked up the steps as they made creaking noises like some alley cat in heat, and then I found Adelaide. She was making love with Harrison! I knew that he would eventually try to get his filthy hands on her. I was so ashamed. Ashamed that I hadn’t put a stop to Harrison when I caught his eyes lingering on Adelaide at church, ashamed that Adelaide had betrayed my brother’s faith and fidelity and most of all ashamed of myself.”
At this point Elias stopped talking. Arthur noticed that Elias’ hands were trembling until he tightened them into clenched fists of rage. Elias merely stared at his food and breathed heavily. After a moment or so Arthur broke the silence.
“What happened, boy? What did you do then?”
“Well Mr. Billings, I was overcome with a fury that I had never felt before. It was as if Lucifer had taken control of my soul for that regrettable moment and I merely watched as a passenger in a carriage of fiery wrath. I…I …killed Harrison.”
Elias put his face in his hands in shame. He was no longer shaking, nor were there tears in his eyes, but Arthur could see the sorrow in Elias’ shrugged shoulders.“That wasn’t even the worst of it, sir,” Elias continued. “I explained to my family what happened, but they didn’t seem to listen. They were ashamed of me as well. Jonah cast out Adelaide for the Jezebel that she was, serves her right. I believed I was acting on my brother’s behalf, to uphold his honor. My family didn’t see it that way; all they saw was the heinous crime I committed. So like the harlot Adelaide, I was banished from my home, and after some time, I found myself at this table on this very night with you sir.”
Arthur didn’t seem very taken aback by this story’s conclusion. He opened his mouth to make some sort of response, but Elias cut him off before he could pronounce a single syllable.
“And ever since the…incident, I feel like I can hear Harrison speak to me. I hear him laughing, as if he is in some inferno of hell mocking me, waiting for me to join him in the blazes. It’s something that chills me to the bone sir.” Elias began to weep. He let loose a few tears and then began to compose himself again. “I apologize for the emotion sir.”
“It’s quite alright Elias,” Arthur replied. “Do you really believe that you’ll be going to hell for killing another man?” Arthur questioned, as if the thought of such things were preposterous.
“Well yes, sir. ‘Thou shall not kill.’” Elias said wholeheartedly. “Do you not agree with that?”
Arthur cracked a smile behind his wiry beard and looked Elias dead in the eye. “Not if killing another man is what God wants you to do Elias; not if it’s justice.”
Elias gave the man a peculiar look and very nervously asked “Have you killed a man before, sir?”
Arthur didn’t even hesitate in his response. “I did. You happen to be speaking to the only man in America who’s ever gotten away with killing a President.”
Elias shed his blanket, despite the fact that he was still wet, as he took a moment to process this information. The only President that had ever been killed was Abraham Lincoln, back in ’65. “You’re telling me that you’re John Wilkes Booth?” Elias asked as he scratched his head with a nervous twitch.
“I am,” Booth replied.
“That’s impossible.” Elias remarked in an unexpected wave of self determination and courage. “I read about him in school, they said Booth was hunted down and killed over 30 years ago!”
John Wilkes Booth sat back in a state of mirth. He had been holding the secret of his life for so many years that it was a relief to finally get it off of his shoulders and tell someone.
“My friend, I forgive you for your youth, but it seems that the school system is failing its constituents,” Booth said. “Yes, for the past few decades they’ve been teaching you all that I was a ruthless killer, but they always fail to mention that I also was one of the greatest actors in this nation!”
Elias gave a look of contempt and incredulity. “So you’re trying to convince me that you faked your death on account of your fine acting skills?” He then began to eat the mixture of food that he had concocted at the start of their conversation, barely leaving room to breath.
“I didn’t say that I acted dead, Elias. I’m glad to see you’ve found your appetite by the way. What I’m saying is that it was my double that died. You see, when I was on the stage, they called me ‘The Pride of the American People.’ With such renown, I didn’t want to risk an injury, so I hired a double, to perform any dangerous stunts that I might be required to do. So after I shot Lincoln, I took my famous flight to the Edward’s farm in Maryland, where I told my double, William to meet me. When those damned Union soldiers came, I used William as a diversion to improve my odds of escape… though I never thought they’d actually kill the poor sap, just merely arrest him.” Booth said with great reluctance. “Still, it gave me some time to run. I spent about a week or so in Raleigh before I made my journey’s end here in Tallahassee.”
When Booth had begun telling his tale, Elias’ disbelief was palpable. But having heard the seemingly genuine heartbreak in his voice talking about his double William, it seemed that disbelief was waning.
“So what did you do when you got here?” Elias asked.
“I stayed quiet for a little while, and changed my name to Arthur Billing and took on a job as a tailor. Eventually I got married to a drab little thing named Margaret. She died in childbirth with my son Jonathan. Grief took hold of me for some time. After a while however, I became tremendously bored with that existence. I sent my boy to school and returned to the stage as a playwright. It wasn’t the same as being the star of the show, but it let me express my creative spirit. But even that could only last for so long. So here I am in this dreaded place, washed up and uninspired, sharing stories with you.”
Elias finished his drink and stared blankly back at the man across the table from him.
“I don’t regret anything though,” Booth continued. “That old fool with his ridiculous beard never should’ve freed those damn slaves. You say you’re afraid of hell my friend? Ever since the end of the War of Northern Aggression this country has been the very hell that you so fear.”
Booth paused a moment as he closed his eyes and lurched his head back, as if he were hearkening back to earlier times.
“I was once Julius Caesar, the leader of a proud people. Now I reckon I’m just an outcast, like that slut Adelaide that was two-timing your brother,” he snickered.
Elias stood up and pointed a judging finger back at Booth.
“Don’t you dare call Adelaide a slut! She was my beautiful angel.” he exclaimed.
Looking confused, Booth replied “You’re the one who called her a harlot, my young friend, I was merely agreeing with you.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about you blubbering old fool.” Elias said. “How could you possibly even know about my affair with Adelaide? I just sit down to eat a meal in peace and you decide to you yammer away about your life’s story.”
Wholeheartedly baffled, John Wilkes Booth stood up to confront this strange turn of emotion. “What is wrong with you Elias? I thought we were having a nice conversation, and now…” Booth was cut off all of a sudden by a right hook to the jaw, knocking him flat on the floor.
“Stop calling me that,” the young man said. “My name is Harrison Mitchell.”
Booth lay on the floor with a blood soaked beard and called out for help.
“Somebody get this loon away from me! He attacked me unprovoked!”
A group of large men ran to assist the older man up from the floor. Two of them restrained the younger man, who struggled to get free.
“Let go of me!” he yelled. “He’s a murderer! He killed President Lincoln, he told me!” The young man put his hand to his head in distressed pain.
One of the men restraining him stared at the older man with a scornful look. He pulled Mitchell back saying, “Harrison, when you arrived here this evening we told you not to talk to that man, didn’t we?”
Harrison looked perplexed as they walked him out of the dining hall. “But… I’m Elias,” he said despondently, “I…I killed Harrison years ago…”
“It’s best that you try to get some rest Mr. Mitchell,” the attendant calmly said. “You’ve been up all night; let’s get you back to your room.” They brought him to a small room with the number 14 labeled on the door. They helped him into his bed, blew out the light, wished him pleasant dreams and locked the door behind him.
That peculiar conversation on that particularly stormy night was one of brain-wracking confusion. Most conversations between a pathological liar and a young man with dissociative identity disorder often are. Outside the storm began to subside. The whispering wind played with the damp leaves as it tossed them across the groves of dewed grass. Dawn was beginning to break, and so another day was beginning at the former Garrett Inn, recently reopened as the Tallahassee Psychiatric Hospital.
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