Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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The short, elderly woman spoke in a dry monotone as we followed her past the entryway into an enormous great hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the first class deck of the Titanic. I was only halfway listening, but I picked up enough to understand that she was reciting the house's history like some kind of tour guide. The home was built in 18-something-something by Colonel someone-someone. It began as a plantation (I knew it!) and then served as a hospital during the Civil War (or, as she worded it, “The War of Northern Aggression”).
As her words droned on, the interior of the manor was busy telling its own story. The hardwood floors with century-old claw marks. The enormous painting hanging over the fireplace depicting a man with side-burns and an I-dare-you-to grimace. The suit of armor, bearskin rug, crystal chandelier. I half expected to see a diamond billboard sign reading, “We have old money, so fuck you!”
The air smelled of tobacco and old books. Voices muffled from far away transferred through the walls. There was a jovial nature to them. Some laughter, even. The place was alive with people. (At least, I hoped that was what I was hearing).
At the base of the grand staircase was a thin door. The woman opened it, revealing a much less impressive set of steps leading down into a basement. She descended, and Jerry followed. I considered the wisdom of staying put, keeping the exit in sight just in case one of us needed to make a break for it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the door was still there. Not that it would do much good. If things went south again, I knew I wouldn’t make it very far on my own.
When I turned towards the basement, it was already too late to tell them to stop or wait. I looked back at the exit. I was stranded. It’s remarkable, really, that even with my attention being pulled in such opposite extremes, I somehow managed to notice the shelf of books against the wall by the fireplace. Even more remarkable how I gravitated towards it, almost unwillingly, how time stood still, how I forgot where I was for only a moment. And in that moment, I must have pulled a book out and begun reading. It had been ages since I let myself relax and get lost in a good story… Krikrikrikrik.
What the hell am I doing? Time whip-snapped back into place around me. How long have I been standing here? I was already a chapter and a half in. I closed the book and inspected it. “The Basilisk Stare.” It was an Agatha Christie mystery I’d never heard of before. Strange… I thought I’d already read everything she’d written. How did this one escape my radar?
All at once, I became aware of an unsettling presence. A looming shadow. The same feeling you get when a cop car starts tailing you on the interstate. I put the book back where it belonged, then turned around and confirmed my suspicion--I was no longer alone here.
The young woman was silently watching me. For how long, I don’t know, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say she wasn’t Edward Cullening me this entire time. She wore a light-blue formal dress--one that could have been plucked straight from the nineteenth century, complete with a hoop skirt and white, elbow-length gloves. She was about my age (assuming she wasn’t a ghost or a vampire, of course), with piercing blue eyes and black hair in ringlets framing a heart-shaped face. In her hands, she held an old book, the cover worn down enough to obscure the title.
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t smile or nod. She just stood there, quietly staring. I thought this behavior was a little weird until I realized that I was guilty of the same thing. I managed to get out the words, “oh,” and “hi,” in that order.
She turned her gaze momentarily to the bookshelf, then back to me. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “You’re like me, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t know how to answer. Part of me, deep down, wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t understand why. Instead, I tried, “What do you mean?”
When she spoke again, her voice had a little more heft, “There’s something wrong with you.”
The way she said it carried no malice. It was an innocent statement. I gave an honest response.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Her next question made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“The weird stuff... Does it follow you, too?”
I looked around to make sure we were still alone before answering. “I don’t know yet.”
“This way, please!” The old woman had returned. Despite the word “please,” I could tell it was more of a command than a request.
The girl with the piercing blue eyes stepped in front of me, shelved her book, and walked away without another word. This time, when the old woman descended the stairs, I was quick to follow. The sooner we got a call in to the mechanic, the sooner we could leave this place forever.
The underground room smelled exactly how I expected an underground room to smell--musty and damp. A single bare incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling, illuminating our surroundings. A broken grandfather clock against the far wall, an industrial washer and dryer combo, cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, and an eight-foot-tall taxidermied polar bear that begged the question, how the hell did they get that thing down here in one piece?
Jerry already had the receiver of the corded telephone between his ear and shoulder when I walked in. His hands held a yellowed phonebook.
“Alrighty, thanks bud… Yeah, you too...” He looked at me with a strange expression. His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes were saying “you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He put the phonebook on the table, cradled the receiver, took a deep breath, then answered slowly, “I’ve got good news and bad.”
“You know I hate this game, right?”
“The mechanic knows exactly where we are. He’s sending out his truck for a tow, but…”
“He won’t be able to get to us until morning.”
“Then we try someone else.”
“Yeah, about that… He’s the only mechanic in the entire county.”
“Oh? Did he tell you that?”
“He’s the only mechanic listed in the phonebook.”
“He… what? How is that even possible?”
I stepped over to the table and picked up the book. It immediately opened to the page for mechanics. If I weren’t so paranoid, I might not think anything about it. But the fact that it fell open directly to the exact spot I was looking for registered less as serendipity and more as a red flag big enough to propel a sailboat.
I sighed once I saw that he was right. A single entry under “Mechanics, Automotive.”
I put the book away and said, “That’s fine. We can make it through one night in the car. We’ve survived a lot worse.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the old lady began speaking (I’d honestly forgotten she was still there). “If this is what must be, I will not begrudge any travelers the safety of shelter for one night. There is a spare room available on the third floor--the Woodrow Harper suite.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “We couldn’t possibly accept such an imposition.”
Jerry made a noise that sounded like a quack and said, “Uh, yes we can! What are you talking about?”
She insisted, “It’s no imposition at all. My family has long been blessed with the fruits of fortune. It is only right that we extend our hospitality to those in need. However, there is one... condition upon which I must insist.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“No, really,” Jerry echoed. “Did you say ‘suite’?”
The bad feeling in my gut was growing stronger by the second. “Jerry, do you mind if I talk to you in private for a moment?”
He followed me to the far corner, below the watchful eyes of the dust-covered bear. “I don’t like it,” I whispered. “There’s something wrong here. Something about this place doesn’t make sense.”
Krikrikrikrik. For a flash instant, I thought I saw something crawling up the wall next to us... but upon closer inspection, I realized that there was nothing there. My mind has a tendency to play tricks.
Jerry didn’t bother with the inside voice. “Yeah, I know. It’s creepy as fuck, but grandma over there hardly strikes me as a murder-cannibal. I’m reasonably certain that if push comes to shove, we can take her.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if “grandma” had heard us. If she had, her face didn’t show it. I turned back to Jerry and continued, “It’s not her I’m worried about.”
“Then what is it?”