Saturday, August 25, 2012
Sleeping bags on carpet made for a restless night.
Mia spent most of it holding on to Adam like a little girl clinging to a huge teddy bear. The weird unease she couldn’t quite shake had been bad enough, but the emptiness of the house worsened her fears, especially in the dark.
They’d spent the remainder of the daylight hours unpacking the few things they’d loaded into the Tahoe and crammed into every inch of usable space in the Nissan. Not knowing what—if any—delivery food existed in this area, Mia had made sure to bring a box of canned goods and pasta. She prepared a basic dinner of spaghetti and they had an inglorious feast sitting on the living room floor watching a movie on Adam’s laptop.
Once it ended, he’d asked her about her feelings toward the house.
Despite not wanting to feed his almost boyish preoccupation with parapsychology, she’d been honest with him. He already knew about her childhood home, specifically that Robert Williams, her paternal grandfather, had died in the house in his later sixties from a heart attack. Mia had only been a year old at the time and never really knew the man. All during her childhood, she’d hear footsteps on her ceiling at night, like someone walking around the attic. There, she refused to go alone. For no reason she could put her finger on, the attic terrified her more than the basement. She’d gone up there once when she’d been around six to ask her mother for something—she’d been puttering around, getting rid of old stuff they didn’t need. Mia didn’t remember much of the day, only that she’d been in such a hurry to get out of the attic she’d fallen down the stairs and spent about an hour afterward scream-crying. Mia had refused to go near the attic ever again. She didn’t even like being near the door at the bottom of the stairs.
Not until her father’s younger brother, Uncle John, visited for Christmas the year she’d been twelve, did she hear the stories her parents wouldn’t discuss. The house had been built in 1902, and back in those days, most people held funeral visitations right in their homes. In addition to her father’s father, Great Grandpa Williams had also died in the house, as did his parents, all of them lying in state right in the living room. To Mia, that had explained why the living room became scary at night, though it didn’t bother her in the day—probably because all the ghosts went up to the attic to hide until the sun went down… or something.
None of the old relatives had suffered particularly bad deaths, but she felt they all disliked her or at least didn’t want a child anywhere near them. They probably felt the same way toward her little brother Timothy—perhaps even more so—but he didn’t react to them to the same degree Mia did. He, too, refused to set foot in the attic and hated being sent to the basement for errands.
Hearing that this house gave her the same feeling her ‘haunted’ childhood home did had made Adam’s day. Probably made his month. At that point, he confessed to having heard some rumors that this place might have a restless spirit in it, but hadn’t looked into any of the details of who they’d been or how they died. Truth be told, this house had been listed for a seriously low price for the area—not that real estate in the area had been bad to begin with. But, their new house’s price was so low it did seem suspicious. Worse, it sat on the market for almost three years without being snapped up at that price as though everyone else in this area knew better than to go near the place.
On the upside, they both now had a roughly half-hour commute to Syracuse, hardly that bad. Joe the realtor said the little town of Spring Falls had one police officer, and any internet connection they wanted would have to be either dish or radio based. None of that really explained why no one else had jumped on such a deal, if only to flip the house and make a quick profit. Though, the listing sat on the market for a long damn time at a ridiculously low price. That had to have scared away anyone who might’ve tried to flip it. If it wouldn’t sell low, it definitely wouldn’t sell ‘normal.’
After they’d set up sleeping bags in the master bedroom, she’d spent much of the night staring at the ceiling waiting to hear footsteps go overhead… or watching the door, expecting it to swing open all by itself. Adam had no trouble falling asleep and passed out within five minutes. Eventually, dark became light in an instant, and she remained there in a groggy half-awake state, only partially aware of voices downstairs.
Ugh. I must’ve fallen asleep, but only a few hours ago.
Heavy tromping snapped her out of a brief catnap. She groaned and sat up, rubbing her face. The alarm clock on the rug beside her showed the time at 10:04 a.m. A spaghetti-flavored burp slipped out as she stood and headed into the upstairs hallway. Four feet to her left, a door led to the upstairs bathroom, more than double the size of the one in their last apartment. It had an enormous closet on the left wall with three pairs of louvered doors. Walking from the door to the toilet practically counted as ‘hiking.’ She took a seat on the bowl with her face in her hands. Once finished, she returned to the master bedroom. It occupied the front left corner of the upstairs, the only bedroom with windows on two walls. The house theoretically had five bedrooms upstairs plus an atrium at the rear right corner with more windows than wall. Of course, having no furniture anywhere yet to turn any of them into actual bedrooms, four of them would remain purposeless for some time. Part of her felt a little weird that they might have ‘stolen’ a house like this from a couple who wanted—or already had—a big family. Mia didn’t not want kids, but she’d never felt in any great rush. Also, if it happened, she’d be content with one or two… nothing she needed a five-bedroom house for.
After getting dressed in the same T-shirt and jeans she’d worn the day before, she jogged down the hall to the stairs all the way at the end. A washer-dryer nook stood to her left at the top of the stairs in an alcove recessed back from the hallway that intruded on the atrium room, giving it an L-shape. At least whoever built the place had been nice enough to take the need to go up and down stairs out of laundry day. Even better, doing laundry wouldn’t require her going anywhere near a basement. Mia paused to smile at the machines… which also looked suspiciously new.
“Laundromats are something I will not miss.”
Much of the house’s creepy vibe vanished in the daytime. The place did have an attic—the door roughly at the midpoint of the upstairs hall—as well as a basement. Her old childhood home had done the same mood thing: fine during the day, creepy at night. She eyed the attic door and decided against checking it, mostly out of old fears and not real time feelings.
Downstairs, the movers went about doing their thing, lugging heavy objects and boxes back and forth. Adam, coffee in hand, watched them and pointed out where to put things. Upon noticing Mia awake and at the bottom of the stairs, he walked over for a kiss.
“It is.” She yawned. “Sorry for oversleeping.”
“It’s fine. I know how you are with new surroundings. Couple days, you’ll be fine. Oh, and our bed is here.”
Mia eyed the movers. “I noticed.”
She kissed him again, then followed her nose to the coffee machine, already unboxed and with half a pot left. Adam had also opened one of the kitchen boxes with mugs and glasses. Several dirty mugs sat in the sink suggested he’d given the movers coffee already. For the next few hours, she did her best to stay out of their way. The curtains in their old place had belonged to the apartment management, which meant they would need to buy all new ones for the house.
Ugh. That’s another few weekends shot.
Between sips of coffee, Mia repositioned boxes the movers had left stacked against the wall in the living room. Anything marked with a K went to the kitchen, D to the dining room, and so on.
“Hello?” called an older male voice from the front door.
Since Adam had gone upstairs to assist the movers with the bed, Mia put down the box she’d been about to carry to the kitchen and stepped out onto the front porch.
A sixtyish man with neat grey hair stood at the base of the porch stairs in a powder blue button-down shirt and khaki pants. His somewhat large nose bore two red marks from eyeglasses nowhere in sight. He leaned toward the house, wearing a hopeful smile somewhere between friendly neighbor and insurance salesman.
“Can I help you?” asked Mia, approaching the top of the steps.
“Hello, are you the lady of the house?” He offered a hand. “Welcome to Spring Falls. I’m Weston Parker.”
“Yep.” She smiled and accepted the handshake. “Mia Gartner. We just got here yesterday, my husband Adam and I that is. Do you live nearby?”
“Oh, not quite so close. Not too far either.” He emitted a wheezy chuckle, then gestured at a forest green Jeep Cherokee parked out on the street at the end of the driveway. “Were I your age, I might’ve walked.”
“Well, still neighbors then even if we don’t live next door.”
“That we are. I’d like to do everything possible to help you folks settle in here.” Weston eyed the house, his smile weakening. “You and your husband ought to join us tomorrow for services. My church is just a ways from here down Brownbriar Road. I’m the pastor.”
“Ahh.” Mia leaned back, folding her arms. “That’s nice of you to invite us, but we’re not religious.”
Weston shifted his gaze from the house to her, his expression as incredulous as though she’d told him they didn’t eat food and derived all their nutrition from the air. “It would do you well to seek His protection. Dark things have happened in these woods, Mrs. Gartner. I’d hate to think you and your husband might fall prey to the same.”
“Really, we’re fine. I don’t think there’s any sky wizard up there watching me. And, even if there is one, you people always ramble on and on about how he’s got this great plan for us. If that’s true, then whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless of what I do—unless you think your god is so weak that humans can overpower him and change that plan.”
Weston stared at her, shocked mute.
Footsteps crossed the porch behind her.
“Oh, we have a visitor?” asked Adam, sidling up to stand next to her.
“Pastor Weston Parker.” He offered a hand. “I was just telling Mia here that you should really join us tomorrow for worship service.”
Mia shot Adam a flat look.
“Yeah, umm…” Adam emitted a humorless chuckle. “She hasn’t exactly had the best experience with religion. It’s a bit of a sore point for her. Please don’t take it personally, but you’d have an easier time selling SCUBA classes in the middle of the Sahara desert than talking her into attending church.”
Mia stifled a chuckle.
“I’m not interested in selling you anything, Mr. Gartner. It’s your souls I’m concerned about protecting. You don’t need to give me anything but your time. I beg you to consider it. Just go left on Minstrel Run to Deer Path, two miles down, hang another left onto Brownbriar. The church is on the right ’bout four more miles. Can’t miss it.”
“Let me guess, you’ve got a twenty-foot-tall cross on the front lawn? How many poor people could you have fed for what that cost?” asked Mia.
Weston chuckled. “No, ma’am. Ours is a simple building, none of that ostentatious display stuff. It’s ungodly.”
Mia locked stares with him. This guy is too insistent, but aren’t they all. “Thanks for stopping by, but I really need to get back to unpacking. If God wants me to visit your church, he can ask in person.”
She waved and ducked back inside. Shuffling on the porch suggested Weston tried to follow her but Adam got in the way. The two men resumed talking, though she tuned them out and resumed carrying boxes around. Four movers thundered down the stairs, all nodding in greeting on their way out the door to the truck.
They re-entered in a few minutes, two carrying Adam’s dresser, two lugging hers.
She ferried boxes around the various rooms, saving the ones destined for the second floor until later—both out of laziness and not wanting to get in the way as the movers would be monopolizing the stairs for a little while more. If they’d hit the bedroom stuff, the truck had to be nearly empty.
Adam walked in, shaking his head.
“I know, I know,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have bit his head off like that, but he tweaked a nerve.”
“This is about your brother, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is, but can we not rehash that now? This is supposed to be a pleasant, exciting day of moving into our new home.” She draped her arms around his neck. “The last thing I want to do is think about my parents.”
“All right.” Adam started to come in for a kiss, but froze at a long, slow creeeak from the back of the house.
Mia leaned to the side, peering around him down the hall at the kitchen. “What was that?”
“One of the movers using the toilet closet?”
“They’re all upstairs wrestling with the box spring and mattress.” Mia pointed. “I’d swear the bathroom door had been open, sticking into the hall, but it’s closed out of sight now. The spot of sunlight on the rug is gone.”
“Aren’t you the paranormal nerd?” Mia poked him in the side.
“I am.” He grinned. “But, I am a scientist first. All reasonable explanations must be exhausted before considering the unreasonable.”
“Right… But you want there to be ghosts.”
“I do.” He kissed her. “And I know you believe in them. The stories you told me about the house you grew up in…”
“Yeah. I’m far more inclined to believe ghosts are real than I’m psychic. As far as that goes, I think you’re only seeing what you want to see.”
Adam shrugged. “You’re not a very good atheist, you know. They don’t believe in ghosts.”
“I never claimed to be an atheist. It’s the cults I don’t like. Whether or not there’s anything up there, out there, under there, or whatever, I have no idea. If there’s a god, he, she, or it can recruit me personally. Anything that comes out of a human being’s mouth about what ‘god’ wants is a hundred percent bullshit. Isn’t it funny how what ‘god’ wants always seems to be the same thing the person saying so also wants?”
“Right. Hey, you don’t need to soapbox me.” Adam pulled her into a hug. “You’re still riled up about that pastor?”
“Ugh.” She rested her head against his shoulder. “Yeah. I really can’t stand the pushy ones like that.”
“Well, I didn’t get the sense he wanted money.”
“Some people don’t. They just have this creepy need to rope everyone into their little cult.” Mia scooped up another box and tromped to the kitchen with it.
Adam trailed after her. “This guy didn’t give off that vibe. He seemed genuinely worried ‘for our souls.’”
Mia laughed and set the box on the counter. “Right. They always say that.”
“Do you believe in souls?”
“But you believe in ghosts. Aren’t they the same thing?”
Mia paused. “Okay. Maybe there are souls.”
Four sets of boots came down the stairs.
“Mr. Gartner?” asked a deep voice from the living room. “That’s the last of it. Wanna give a quick look around and let us know if you’d like a hand rearranging anything?”
“Sure.” He patted Mia on the butt. “Be right back.”
She shook her head, smiling at nothing in particular while opening the first box of plates, which she proceeded to unwrap and set in the cabinets. A few minutes later, a soft skitter slid across the kitchen behind her. She turned, noticing one bit of wadded up packing paper by the dining room entrance, well away from the pile she’d made.
Draft or something.
Adam and the movers’ boss came downstairs. They sat at the dining room table—which looked comically small in this house—and proceeded to go over the paperwork for the moving contract. Both men seemed happy, so Mia disregarded them and resumed packing away kitchen stuff in the cabinets.
She attacked the open box of mugs next, muttering to herself about why a family of two owned over a hundred coffee mugs. Both she and Adam worked in places where every secret Santa turned into a coffee mug, all the relatives they still talked to sent them gag coffee mugs for Christmas or birthdays, and Adam couldn’t resist buying funny mugs if he saw one.
Something bumped into Mia’s leg.
She jumped with a yelp and stared at the lower cabinet door. It had swung open.
“Hon?” asked Adam.
“I’m fine. Might need to check the magnets on these cabinet doors. One just drifted open and I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Cool,” said Adam.
“What happened to ‘scientist,’ huh?” She grinned. “Reasonable explanation first?”
“Of course. I’ll check the doors out.”
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Gartner. Congrats on the new place,” said the mover. “Appreciate your business.”
“I appreciate you guys’ saving my back. Drive safe.” Adam added a cash tip to his handshake.
“Thank you again! Take care.”
“Bye!” Mia waved at him.
Adam walked the mover out and closed the door. “Well, we’re officially home.”
“Yeah. Home.” Mia glanced over her shoulder to her right at the thin white door covering the basement stairs at the corner of the kitchen. Childhood trauma. I’m going to be afraid of basements for the rest of my life.
“The living room and dining room can wait for now. I’ll get started in the bedroom.”
“Okay,” called Mia. “Save your back? You’re what, twenty-nine going on fifty?”
“Ha. I am a psychology professor, not an athlete.”
“Hey, what are we going to do for food? It’s almost four and we haven’t eaten a damn thing.”
“We went past a diner on the way here. Pine something…”
Mia shrugged. “We just got here and you want to go out?”
“We don’t exactly have a choice.” He walked in, pulled the empty fridge open, and gestured at it like a game show hostess. “There has to be at least one pizza place. We’re not that far out in the sticks they won’t deliver.”
“This is pretty far out in the sticks. Only way we’d be even more remote is if we’d bought a log cabin.”
“Hah. We still have cellular signal, so we haven’t left civilization.” Adam’s face flickered different shades as he browsed his smartphone. “Yep. There is one pizza place.”
“Do your magic.” She winked.
Adam paced around with the phone to his ear. “Hi, yeah. Do you guys deliver? Six Minstrel Run. Uh huh. Yeah, we just moved in, why? Heh. I’ll take you up on that. Okay, can we get a large with pepperoni and an order of garlic bread? Mm-hmm. Yeah, cash. Thanks.” He hung up.
“What was that about?” Mia glanced at him.
“Oh, nothing. The owner just said he’d send us a free pie if we last six months in here.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“I don’t want to needlessly alarm you…” Adam flashed a sly smile. “But apparently, people who move into this house usually leave fairly soon, according to local folklore.”
“If you are going to keep priming me with stuff like this, I’m going to start jumping at shadows. Do you want to have to peel me off the ceiling every time a cloud goes by overhead?”
“Aww, babe.” He walked over and hugged her. “It’s nothing Joe didn’t already mention. Past few people to own this house have all been fast turnover.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Mia shook her head.
While Adam ran upstairs to start unpacking their clothes, she continued stacking mugs in the cabinet, then moved on among the various boxes of kitchenware. The stove seemed brand new, barely used, an electric range with a ceramic cooktop. She remembered reading somewhere the house had been built in the early 1960s. No way was it the original range. Whoever installed it couldn’t have gotten much use out of it before they sold the place.
“Hmm. Odd.” Mia crouched in front of it and pulled the oven open. “Still smells like ‘new appliance.’”
When she closed the door, a dark spot in the reflection on the window made it look like someone stood behind her. She whirled, clinging to the oven door handle… and stared at an empty kitchen. Her heart resumed beating in a few breaths. Gradually, she turned back to look at the glass, dreading what she’d see.
The reflection appeared normal, no trace of anything standing behind her.
“Ugh.” She covered her face with a hand. “Dammit, Adam. You’ve put ghosts and spookies in my head, so I’m going to be imagining crap for weeks now.”
A soft thud shook the ceiling along with a short grunt of exertion from Adam.
Mia gathered loose packing paper back into the boxes. “These are so much easier to carry without all the dishes.”
She spun, staring at the basement door. It remained closed, but she couldn’t help but get the feeling someone had recently been standing in the corner and slipped out of sight with no sound other than the snap of the latch.
“Hey, look…” Mia bit her lip. “If there are any ghosts here, we don’t want to get in your way, okay? The last time I lived in a house instead of an apartment, it had a bunch of ghosts and we got along pretty well. So, play nice with me and we won’t have any issues.”
Nothing moved, made noise, or answered.
Another thud from overhead almost made her jump onto the counter.
“Dammit, Adam.” She glared up. “Do you have to throw stuff around like that?” The kitchen no longer felt like someone stood there with her. Though, she expected that would change as soon as the sun went down.