Entry for Pill Hill's Haunted anthology
|Word count: 1413 (Submitted to Pill Hill's Haunted anthology, but allowing edits)
The house had settled, into the swampy Louisiana soil, into the encroaching cypress forest, into a somewhat addled sense of complacency. Nobody had lived there for a long time, and still the house stood, squat but upright.
One day, close to dusk, a car picked its way through the brambles and fallen branches in the long, winding driveway…
Grace Randall peered out the front window of the rented Subaru, squinting in the fading light to catch a glimpse of the house. The long driveway was filled with brambles and fallen branches, and her brother, Max, cursed as he steered his way around the larger obstacles. Grace leaned away from him.
It wasn't until Max stopped with a lurch and turned off the car that he took a good look at the house. "Shit!" he said, and jerked open the car door.
As he stepped out the door, Grace noticed with disbelief that he was wearing loafers with tassles. She grimaced and closed her eyes, but steeled herself and got out as well. When Aunt Heidi had passed away, and her lawyer had asked Grace to be at a reading of the will, she'd been curious and excited, but then Max showed up.
"That hick lawyer said Aunt Heidi left us a piece of property, not a damn shack in a swamp. What the hell are we going to do with this dump?"
Grace didn't answer. She seldom returned Max's phone calls, and couldn't believe she'd agreed to come down alone with him to see the house. Our house, she thought, and her back tensed.
"Come on, Gracie, let's go inside. Might be good for a laugh." Max stepped up onto the front step, which gave out an aggrieved squeak. He pulled a key out of his pocket, but there wasn't a keyhole in the door.
Grace watched as he stepped back down. She walked over and turned the knob. The door was not locked. Rolling her eyes, she stepped into the musty living room, with Max close behind. Suddenly, she jerked forward, and then rubbed her arm. The pinch left an angry red welt. "Damn it, Max, grow up!"
Max smirked like always, but then got distracted looking around. "Look at this craphole. Didn't Aunt Heidi ever clean?"
"She didn't live here; she lived in Baton Rouge. This was her cousin's, Jasper or something, that old guy who disappeared. Nobody's lived here for years. I'm surprised it's still standing." Grace wiped a finger across the banister, and came up with a thick layer of dust. "It could use a good cleaning."
There was a rustle, and a sighing sound. Grace looked around to see the source, but there was nothing there. Spooky old house, she thought, smiling ruefully at her own jitters.
"Let's look upstairs." Max tested each step as he went up. Though the stairs creaked, they held. Grace followed, glancing behind her as she went.
"I hate these old houses," Max said, then swore as a chunk of plaster broke loose and hit him on the temple. "Goddamnit," he said, holding his head. A small trickle of blood ran from a cut on his temple.
"Looks like the house doesn't like you much either," said Grace. Max wasn't usually the one in their family who got hurt; he was usually the one causing the hurt.
"Very funny. Let's see you laugh when the house collapses around us." Dabbing at his head with a tissue from his pocket, Max peered into the first bedroom. "This place is creepy with all the stuff just sitting here. I wonder if Jasper left anything valuable."
Grace stepped into the room., and ran her hand across the ancient wallpaper, which showed a forest with embossed hunters and hounds. "This wallpaper is incredible. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it."
"Sure, but look at that water damage. The roof must leak like crazy." Max wandered off to see the other room.
Grace walked past the bed and looked at the large stain in the wallpaper. She felt the paper, and gently pushed at the wall. Not a leak, but maybe a broken pipe, she thought. The stain didn't start at the top of the wall, but spread out from a point just above Grace's head, and went all the way down to the floor. Unsure why, she shivered and moved away.
"The wall's dry, at least," Grace said, "with no give." She felt calmer discussing practicalities. "It's a shame. That wallpaper's unique, but we'll have to strip it off and put up something new, maybe new wallpaper, maybe paint."
Max stepped out into the hall and stared at her, but then gave a barking laugh. "Are you crazy? We're tearing this place down, Gracie. Nobody's going to buy a creaky old shack like this. I figure we can clear the land and build something modern, attract... Ouch!" A floorboard under Max's foot had given out, and he was sent sprawling.
Grace stifled a laugh. Then, she stopped and gave a speculative look around. "Are you sure we should spend the night here, Max? It doesn't seem all that safe… at least for you."
"What else can we do, for chrissake? Can you believe that goddamn hick hotel doesn't take credit cards. Not an ATM for fifty miles, and that jerk won't take plastic. I can't wait to get back to civilization." Max looked edgy, and Grace moved away. When Max was nervous, she knew better than to stay within arm's length.
"I dunno, I kind of like this funny old place." Grace placed a gentle hand on the dark cherry dresser, and she could almost swear it caressed her back.
"Don't get too attached. We'll stay tonight, but tomorrow, I'm finding someone to tear this dump down." Max touched the tender spot on his head, and winced. "The sooner, the better."
Grace waited, but nothing further happened. She shrugged, and walked back into the first bedroom. The room had a comfortable feel to it. "I think we should keep it. It has charm." She sat on the bed, which raised a cloud of dust. "I'll sleep in here; you can have the other bedroom."
Night was coming on fast, so Max fetched sleeping bags and suitcases. Grace took hers and said goodnight, setting a small battery-powered clock on the bedside table. Soon, its small glow was the only light.
Much later, Grace woke to a scrabbling sound. The battery on her clock had worn down; it was utterly dark. After a thump, the noise stopped. Must have been a raccoon, Grace told herself, but slid a little further into her sleeping bag. It took her a long time to fall back asleep.
The early morning sun shone through the dusty window and woke Grace. She opened the window, breathing in the fresh air. She listened, but the only sounds were a few birds and wind rustling through the cypress trees.
Grace walked down the hall and tapped on Max's door. There was no answer. Peeking in, she saw the sleeping bag, empty and discarded on the floor. She paused and gasped. There was a large new stain on the wall. She reached out with a tentative hand. The stain was damp and a little sticky, and she quickly wiped her hand on her pants.
Grace looked down at the sleeping bag, and then backed out, closing the door behind her. She stood in the hall, her heart pounding, and then called loudly, "Max! Are you downstairs, Max? You'd better not be trying to scare me." She half-expected him to leap out at her as he had so often when they were young, but there was no response.
Turning back to the door, she peered inside again. Max's shoes were on the floor, and his pants and shirt with bunched up in the corner. She looked at the sleeping bag, then back up at the stain on the wallpaper. "Well, I'll be damned," she said, and realized her heart had slowed down to its normal rate.
Closing the door gently again, Grace walked slowly down the stairs. The morning sun was doing its best to make it through the dusty windows, and Grace smiled. Those windows will have to get cleaned up first, she thought. "I like you, house," she said out loud. "I have a feeling we'll get on together just fine." She stroked the old oak banister, and it fit happily into her hand.