This is a bonus story, inspired by the label on the bottle of Ghost Pines Merlot, which happens to be sitting on the table in front of me…
A short story by D.J. Lutz, copyright January 2011.
It was late in the year, the harvest long over. Only bare, twisted crags of low vine graced the landscape, save the two lonely pine trees who were standing watch. A low, foul smelling mist had set upon the land, rolling in from the hills. There was a silence, an absence of movement. There were no birds flitting about, no rabbits poking around the briar. This was clearly an evil place, death held court here.
Marissa had heard all of the stories. The old hands had made sure to impart their lore to the summer interns on their first day. “Don’t go through the vineyards after dusk,” they would say, “unless you want to meet the ghosts in the trees.” While many of the college kids attributed the stories as just that, a bunch of stories, Marissa had seen the fear in the eyes of one man, Thomas.
The interns spent most of the day learning about the different varietals of grape. Field experience during the day, testing the next morning. Fail three tests and your internship was over – pass the course and an intern would be guaranteed to land a job somewhere as an apprentice vintner. With so much at stake, and the only time to study being at night, the interns never had reason to be outside after dark. Thomas was not an intern, however. He was the man with the job no one else wanted. He closed the gates at sunset.
The legend was that a century ago, two vagrants were found dead, hanging from the trees. There were no signs of others, none at all. It was as if the trees had reached down and snared their prey. After a while, though, rumors started swirling about, saying that the owner had the vagrants hung for stealing a few wine bottles. Nothing was ever proven.
Since then, on certain evenings, when the fog rolled in, the smell of death wafted across the vineyard as the two trees stood silent vigil. The front gate was on the far side of the field, at the end of a dirt path that led from the main house to the highway. There was no way to get to the gate without passing by the two pine trees.
Every night, Thomas took the lantern and walked down to the gate. Once it was secured, he would strike a match and light the kerosene lamp. The walk back always a bit quicker, Thomas kept his head down, trying not to stop for any reason. Thomas was the “gate man,” only the fifth one since the hangings. The four previous gate men didn’t retire, they didn’t quit. They went out to the gate, lit the lamp, but never made it back to the house. They were all found dead, lamp in hand, at the foot of the trees. “Hobos got their revenge again,” people would say. Marissa saw the fear in Thomas’ eyes. She said a silent prayer for him every time he left the house to close the gate.
Now it was the end of the summer internship. Bags were packed, plane tickets at the ready. In the morning, the vintner would give them their final paycheck and certificates. The airport shuttle van was scheduled to pick them up after breakfast. This evening, to celebrate, the vintner uncorked a few bottles of one his best Merlots. Toasts were made all around, everyone was smiling, knowing that their futures were bright and full of promise.
The interns had started to retire for the evening, the permanent staff as well. Marissa was the last to leave the main hall, leaving just the vintner and Thomas.
“Marissa, may I have a word with you?”
“We are looking to hire a new person and the staff really noticed how well you have worked this summer. I would like to offer you a permanent position here at the vineyard.”
Astonished, Marissa could only muster a simple “Yes, that…would be wonderful.”
She could not believe her ears. Lonely Pines Vineyard was one of the more prestigious wineries in the state. The interns had only joked about working here, and she had just been offered a job.
“Very good then,” he said. Turning to Thomas, the vintner said “Thomas here will show you the ropes. You can start tomorrow by opening the gate…”