Through the oculus-shaped attic window, fiendish and inquisitive eyes suspiciously watched the commotion taking place on the sidewalk below, infuriated that strangers had the audacity to trespass onto his property, and wondering why they were all being so ridiculously loud. This wasn’t the first time he’d had his privacy infringed upon, but after he’d exacted his revenge for their blasphemous encroachments, they’d soon afterwards run away with their tails tucked between their legs like the terrified cowards that they were. These current pests would be no different than any of the others. He’d send them packing and screaming, too.
This was his house and he had no intentions of leaving or allowing uninvited outsiders to cohabitate with him.
There were three of them. A petite, fair-haired woman, a taller, blonde teen-aged girl, and a younger boy with hair the color of fire. With them was a filthy, disgusting black and white dog that the boy called Conroy, who sat like a statue on the sidewalk by his master’s side, staring up at the window where he stood, unmoving and silent, not even wagging his tail. He hated dogs almost as much as he despised humans and would extinguish this one exactly as he had the last one that had crossed over his house’s threshold. Like their predecessors, he knew their intentions were to come in and completely take over his entire domain, clogging up his space and getting in his way, and would likely do everything within their power to drive him out of his own home if they were to ever discover that he was there. He’d kill them all quickly and without an ounce of remorse before ever allowing that to happen!
Whatever it was they were doing was being done with some kind of gadget he’d never seen before. Repeated bright, white light continually flashed as the three of them posed, smiled and stared at whatever the woman was holding in her hand.
He had no time to be bothered with such pathetic nonsense.
The girl was pretty, though, as was the woman with her. What an exhilarating thought to imagine the fun he could have with them before completely annihilating them. He’d have fun with the boy, too, if he were lucky enough to capture and keep his attention long enough to make it worth his time. That atrocious dog would be the first one that had to go, and he would eliminate that problem the earliest chance he got. He had no particular order for destroying the remaining three, but with the fleabag out of the way, access to them would be a lot easier.
As he slinked back into the confines of the house’s dark interior, he was already making plans to ensure that the humans’ stay in his home was short-lived. But not before making them regret the moment that they’d ever crossed his path.
* * * * *
“Well, what do you think?” Joan Buchanan asked as she put her phone inside her purse when her kids started protesting about how many pictures she was taking. This was a big event for them, and she wanted to ensure that she had an adequate amount of keepsakes to remember the special occasion.
“Kind of creepy if you ask me,” her daughter, Pietra replied. “Hope the inside looks better than the outside does.”
“Don’t be such a negative Nellie. I know it’s different than what you’re used to, but it’s home. What do you say we make the best of it?”
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Chandler responded. “It’ll be fun pretending that we live in a haunted house.”
With sagging trees and dead shrubbery in both the front and back yards, it did have a certain spooky quality about it, so it was easy to understand why Chandler would consider it haunted. Only the wild imagination of an adolescent teenaged boy could concoct such a thought.
Pietra rolled her eyes. “Of course, you’d like it. Why wouldn’t you? You’re a weirdo.”
“What’s that up there?” he asked, pointing. “I’ve never seen a window like that. Reminds me of a church.”
“It’s called stained glass, you idiot.”
Ignoring her daughter’s demeaning remark, she answered, “The loft, I guess. Round windows like that are commonly used in attics, although I’ll have to admit that I’ve never seen one with such a strange looking design.”
She’d inspected the inside and outside of the house when touring it with the real estate agent, but she hadn’t been heavily focused on the windows, other than to ensure that none were broken, and that all were in working order. This was the first time the kids had seen the house, and there was a good reason for that. Pietra’s obvious disdain for its unkempt appearance and not measuring up to the standards that she was used to or expected only confirmed that she’d made the right call. If she’d been allowed to see it beforehand, it would have resulted in a verbal spat, and one or both of them would have made statements they’d later regret, and they’d already been through enough in the past several months to last them a lifetime. Besides, nothing positive could ever come from pouring gas onto an already burning fire.
“Reminds me of a ship’s porthole,” Pietra stated.
“Yeah,” Joan agreed. “It kind of does.”
“How do you know what the address is?” Pietra asked.
“The numbers are above the door. Six-six-nine.”
“No, mom. I mean, look at the door. It’s facing the corner where two streets intersect. I’ve never seen that before. Half of the house is on one street, the other half of the house is on the other street, like it’s split down the middle. Weird.”
“Didn’t even think about it. Good thing the address was pre-decided before we got here.”
“Which is it then? Nightfall Avenue or Shadow Street? Both creepy names, by the way.”
“And either one will be great when Halloween rolls around,” Chandler added.
“Nightfall Avenue,” Joan confirmed, internally comparing the differences between her son and daughter. Chandler, the horror movie lover who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, including snakes and bugs; and Pietra, the Diva, who would rather die than be seen in public without perfect hair, make-up, and clothes. God knew how much she loved them and how badly she felt about their current situation because they didn’t deserve it. Hell, who was she kidding? None of them deserved it and they’d certainly not done anything to warrant being in the predicament they now found themselves in.
In only six short months, they’d gone from living in an upscale house in a gated community to calling a ramshackled, almost eighty-year-old rundown structure their home.
It wasn’t until after the sudden death of her husband that all of the dark secrets he’d been hiding from her came pouring forth like a flash flood. Rumors of multiple extra-marital affairs, falling behind on and refusing to pay the mortgage, allowing every insurance policy they owned to lapse for non-payment of the premiums, discovering that he was thousands of dollars in debt to bookmakers and loan sharks for gambling losses.
Looking back, she should have known that something wasn’t quite right when she’d received a phone call from the funeral director informing her that the policy she’d turned over to him the day before to cover expenses wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, prompting her to place a phone call to the insurance company, only to learn that the policy had expired six months prior. By the time she’d found out about that little gem of information, Burt’s funeral and cremation had already been scheduled, so there was no way she could back out of the services. It wasn’t like she could take his body home and bury it in the back yard, erect a cross made of sticks and call it a day. But she could make some extreme changes to the arrangements, and that’s exactly what she’d done.
Thank God for the life insurance policy that she’d carried on him through her employment. It could have easily paid for his funeral had she gone the traditional route, but because of the debacle with the lapsed policy and not knowing the status of the second one he’d carried, she’d opted instead for the least expensive plan available. Money saved was money earned and she and the kids would be needing it a hell of a lot more than he would. He damned sure hadn’t deserved a luxurious funeral, and in hindsight, she was glad that she hadn’t given him one.
Within a few short months after his death, the bank foreclosed on their home, the finance company repossessed both cars, and since there was no other policy that would have provided her and the kids with monetary support and she knew she’d need every dime she could get her hands on in order to start over, she’d kept important possessions that she knew she would need, such as the stove and refrigerator, beds, and a few pieces of furniture, sold what she didn’t need or want, and what was left over, she’d donated to a local charity just to get it off her hands.
Between the embarrassment and the town gossip, it was more than she could endure, and also more than she was willing to allow herself or her children to be subjected to. Therefore, she’d packed what little they had left, stored the furniture and appliances, bought a decent used car, and hit the road with no regrets, and no looking back.
Her goal had been to put at least a hundred miles between their old town and new destination, but when she’d driven through the small, northern Kentucky town of Castleton only seventy miles away, she’d fallen in love with it and had decided that’s where they’d settle down. With a population of less than fifty thousand, it was large enough to avoid small-town gossip, yet small enough to feel cozy.
The drive from Killene had been beautiful, and she’d found it amazing that although she’d lived in Kentucky all of her life, there were so many places she’d never been and multitudes of towns and cities she’d never seen. Burt had never been one to take vacations or weekend jaunts, preferring instead to spend his weekends at home with a can of beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. The few trips she had taken over the years had been with the kids and they were usually to theme parks or zoos.
Landscaping along I-65 abounded with rolling green hills and white picket fences surrounding acre upon acre of horse farms, their breeders hoping they’d be the one to produce the next winner of the Kentucky Derby, as if they weren’t already rich enough, considering the multi-million dollar mansions that sat atop hills overlooking their sprawling property.
“Must be nice to be that wealthy,” Pietra would chime in each time they passed another farm.
“Being rich doesn’t necessarily refer to money,” she’d told her. And that was true. She considered herself rich, not monetarily, but because of good health, an excellent education, and two great kids that she adored. Those were special gifts that not everyone was blessed with.
“Can we get a horse, mom?” Chandler asked.
“Not likely, son. First of all, we’d have nowhere to put it. Secondly, none of us knows a thing about taking care of a horse.”
“Didn’t hurt to ask,” he replied, hugging his dog, Conroy, close to him. “You’re all I need anyway,” he told him.
Main street of downtown Castleton was lined with older, brick-constructed buildings and store fronts with large-paned glass display windows. A candy store, pawn broker and coffee house were just a few of the shops that caught her eye as she’d passed through town.
“There’s probably nothing to do here in Hicksville,” Pietra said as she looked out the window. “I’ll bet there’s only one school here that houses every grade, just like it was back in the olden days.”
“Don’t be so judgmental,” Joan told her. “Let’s check the town out before condemning it. At first glance, I must say that the scenery is lovely.”
“Mom, what are we going to do?” Pietra asked tartly. “We have nowhere to live, you don’t have a job, and we have no money. How, exactly, are you planning on pulling this off?”
The first two of her statements were true, the last one, not so much. She just hadn’t shared that bit of news with her kids. If she did, then she’d have to explain where the money came from, which would then lead to a conversation about the cost of their father’s funeral, and that was a discussion she didn’t care to have. In reality, the face value of the life insurance policy she’d carried on him was fifty-thousand dollars, double indemnity in case of accidental death. Fortunately for her and the kids, Burt dying of auto-erotic asphyxiation in a hotel room while pleasuring himself (or being pleasured by someone else) was ruled as accidental by the county coroner, basing his findings on the possibility that he’d not been alone at the time of his death, although no evidence to the contrary was ever found. However, she could have a say in how much of that hundred-thousand was spent paying for the funeral of a lying, cheating bastard who’d left her indigent, so she’d spent the least amount possible, opting for a rental coffin for his viewing and funeral, then returning it to the mortuary upon his cremation. No way in hell was she spending ten grand on a coffin that would only be incinerated and reduced to ashes, not when that amount of money could be spent elsewhere and on much more important things – like getting the hell out of town and away from backstabbing people that she’d thought were her friends! Such actions might seem cold and disconnected to most, but at the time she’d made the decision, she’d been unsure of the future for her and the kids, angry, and devastated. Not only because of her husband’s death, but the manner in which he’d died, and the more she continued to learn about his secret life after his death, the more she knew she’d made the right decision. She hadn’t expected to spend any more than she already had, but then the question of his ashes arose. Out of resentment and disgust, she’d decided to purchase a small display case inside the funeral home’s mausoleum where his urn would be interred, telling the kids that it was the respectful thing to do because they’d never have to worry about accidentally breaking the urn and spilling his ashes. The truth was that she hadn’t wanted them anywhere near her where she’d have to look at them every day and constantly be reminded of his betrayal.
Had she been wrong for keeping all of that information from her children? Maybe. But she didn’t regret it at all because life for them went on, and since she had no one that could help her out financially, she did what she’d thought was best for her and the kids.
“I’ll find us a place as quickly as I possibly can, Pietra. I know this is hard on you, honey, but it is for me and Chandler, too. All I’m asking is that you be patient and give me a chance. Is that asking too much?”
“I guess not,” Pietra shrugged. “What do we do in the meantime?”
“Find a motel for starters,” Joan replied. “We may have to stay in one for a week or two.”
Pietra grunted and threw her head back against the seat. “Seriously, mom? I have to sleep in the same room with him?” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at her brother.
“Not only him. I’ll be in the room, too. It’s only temporary.”
“Can you at least make sure it’s not a roach motel or one of those pay-by-the-hour ones?”
Joan laughed. “How do you know about anything like that?”
“I’m sixteen, mom, not six. I know about sex and hookers.”
“Pietra! Let’s not talk like that in front of Chandler.”
“It’s okay, mom,” Chandler called from the backseat. “I know about sex, too.”
Joan glanced through the rearview mirror at her son. “Exactly what are they teaching in school these days?”
“I learned from the Internet. There’s all kinds of stuff to look at there,” Chandler said.
“Remind me to set parental controls on your computer, will you?”
“Sure, mom, whatever you say.”
“It’s not the Ritz-Carlton, but this one looks clean and safe,” Joan said, pulling into the parking lot of the Castleton Hotel.
“Can’t I have my own room?” Pietra asked.
“No, you can’t, not here. When I find a house, I’ll make sure there’s enough room for each of you to have your own room,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. “You two sit tight while I go in and see if they have a vacancy. I won’t be long.”
“Are you mad at mom?” Chandler asked as Joan entered the lobby door.
“Not mad, upset maybe.”
“You’re not angry that we left Killene? All of our friends are there. So are our schools.”
“What was mom supposed to do, Pietra?”
“She could have chosen to stay there and find us another place to live. How hard could that have been?”
“With all of her friends making fun of her and talking about her behind her back? Why would she?”
“Whatever,” Pietra retorted, rolling her eyes. “She could have worked it out if she’d wanted to.”
“This isn’t her fault, Pietra. It’s not like she asked for dad to die. If you want to blame someone, blame him. He’s the reason we’re in this mess.”
She did blame him. For everything. But she blamed her mom, too. How could she not have known what was going on? Afterall, they had a joint checking account and she balanced it every month. Wouldn’t she have noticed if bills weren’t being paid? Why didn’t she confront their dad about it and make him explain?
“Good news,” Joan said, hopping back into the car. “Got us a room with two king-sized beds and a roll-away cot, on the third floor overlooking the pool. Had to pay extra for Conroy, but I suppose the mutt’s worth it.”
The room was located on the backside of the hotel, away from the main road and the sound of passing traffic. “What do you say we put our things away and go find a good place to eat?”
“I’m all for that,” Chandler said, removing his suitcase from the trunk.
“Can we at least go somewhere that we can go inside and sit down instead of eating hamburgers from paper bags?” Pietra groaned.
“I think I can handle that,” Joan answered, passing Pietra her suitcase. “We’ll talk about it when we get upstairs and decide what we want.”
A sit-down, Italian meal had been a good start to their new lives, but it certainly hadn’t continued on the same path.
What she’d expected to be no more than a week or two of hotel life had turned into two months, being forced to spend money she didn’t have to spare, yet she had no choice unless she chose to live in the car until she could find them a permanent place to stay.
Rentals in Castleton were few and far between, and the couple of houses that had been available were outrageously overpriced and way out of her range. All of the landlords wanted first and last months’ rent, and a security deposit that was the same amount as a month of rent; basically asking for three months’ worth in advance just to move in. For what they were asking, one would think they were being offered palaces equipped with golden toilets instead of basic, unfurnished living quarters. Apartment complexes either had two-bedrooms available, or three-bedrooms with no allowance for pets.
On the verge of giving up and moving on, she’d decided to visit a realtor and see if perhaps they had any private listings, which she knew some landlords did in order to prevent them from having to rent to what they considered to be unbecoming individuals.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” An overweight woman with black hair fashioned in a 60’s style bouffant, curled up ends and a pink felt bow in the center, asked her as she opened her listing catalog. Heavy on the blue eye shadow and black eyeliner, she looked like she was dressed for a costume party instead of working in a business office.
“At least three bedrooms, preferably two bathrooms.”
“Are you looking to rent or buy?”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any rentals at the moment,” she said, licking her fingertip and turning the page. “I have several listings of homes for sale. Is there a maximum price you’re willing to pay?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it to tell you the truth,” Joan answered. “I came here with the intention of renting.”
“Buying is so much better,” the lady told her, looking up from the catalog and offering her a smile, her teeth smeared with red lipstick. “When you own your own home, you can do whatever you want to do with it, fix it the way you want, decorate it in a way that suits you. So many times, landlords have ridiculous rules and won’t even allow a tenant to put a nail in the wall to hang a picture. Besides, when you rent, all you’re doing is lining someone else’s pockets. Buying a home is a lifetime investment.”
“You’re right,” Joan agreed. “Show me what you have available.”
“My name is Gloria Butler, by the way,” she said, extending a chubby hand.
“Nice to meet you, Joan.” Gloria hadn’t been so pleasant and jovial towards her when her intention had been to rent a place. Change the conversation to buying and, boom, instant gratitude. Why? Because she would make a nice commission off the sale. Talk about lining someone’s pockets! Hypocrite.
“This one is very nice,” Gloria said, pointing to a single-story, ranch-type house. “It’s located not too far from town and is situated on five acres.”
“No need to go any further on this one,” Joan said. “This is way out of my price range.”
“Alright, let me keep looking,” she said, humming as she turned page after page. “How long have you lived in Castleton?”
“Not long. A couple of months.”
Gloria looked up from the catalog. “Is that right?”
“Do you know anyone around here?”
“Then you’re not familiar with anything about our small community?”
“Outside of a motel and fast food restaurants? No.”
“Where did you move from?”
“Never been there,” Gloria smiled, flipping a page in her catalog. “I have another one similar to the one I just showed you. It’s a tad bit cheaper,” she said, passing the book to Joan.
“You call this a tad bit cheaper?” Joan asked with a smile. “Still too rich for my blood.”
“At the risk of sounding condescending, have you considered buying a trailer?”
“By trailer, you mean a mobile home?”
“Yes, or a pre-fab.”
“Not an option,” Joan stated. “With children, I want something much safer than a mobile home.”
“There’s really not much left,” Gloria said, closing her listing book.
“Guess I’ll have to try a different realtor. Maybe they’ll have something.”
“Unlikely, since we share MLS numbers.”
“MLS? What is that?”
“Multiple listings on available properties. In short, what I have in my listing book is the same as they’ll have in theirs, although one or two may differ.”
“I’ll have to take my chances,” Joan said, getting up from her chair. “Thanks for your help.”
“I can make a call for you if you’d like me to. One of my closest friends is an agent at another realtor’s office. Perhaps she has something that I’m not aware of.”
Does your friend dress like she just popped out of a 1960’s time capsule as well? Joan thought. “I appreciate that,” she said, sitting back down.
“This will only take a few seconds,” Gloria said, using the eraser of her pencil to punch in the numbers on the phone.
Joan sat quietly while Gloria exchanged pleasantries with her friend, watching light traffic pass up and down Main Street through the large store-front window. Over two months living there, and she still didn’t know what all the town had to offer in the way of shopping or entertainment. One tends to not focus so much on the non-essential things when they’re struggling to secure a permanent residence. As Gloria continued her phone conversation, Joan caught the faint scent of freshly baked bread or donuts, making a mental note to check and see if there was a bakery nearby.
“That old thing?” she heard Gloria say, turning her attention to the realtor as she scowled. “I had no idea it was for sale,” she said, jotting information down on her tablet with a pencil, occasionally glancing up at Joan. “How many children do you have?” Gloria asked her.
“Two. A son and daughter.”
“Shall I come and get the key, or do you want to meet us there?” Gloria asked her friend. “I’ll do that, thanks,” she said, then hung up and tore the sheet from the tablet.
“She did have a listing that I don’t have,” Gloria began. “But I have to be honest and tell you that the house is really old, and since I haven’t been inside, I can’t speak about the condition. It’s been empty for quite some time. In fact, I didn’t even know it was for sale.”
“Guess I won’t know unless I see it.”
“Um, yes,” Gloria said, clearing her throat. If Joan didn’t know any better, she’d swear that Gloria was reluctant about taking her to see the house because she seemed a bit nervous.
“Is there a problem?”
“No,” Gloria said, shaking her head. “No problem, but I do need to go pick up the key. It won’t take long. Her office isn’t far from here.”
“Shall we take my car?”
“Or you can meet me there.”
“Meet you?” Joan asked. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” Gloria replied, standing up, the sheet of paper fluttering in her shaking hand. “Shall we?”
Built parallel to intersecting streets, the tri-story home sat on a corner lot, sticking out like a sore thumb among the more modern homes in the neighborhood. The lower half of the house, including the two stoop pedestals and steps leading up to the porch, were constructed of red brick, the top half with faded white clapboards. Joan had seen similar type homes as a child when visiting her grandparents who’d lived in the high mountains in northern Kentucky, except that her grandparents’ house, like many others in their surrounding area, had tin roofs instead of tiles like this one did.
“How old is this house?” Joan asked as she pulled into the dirt driveway.
“I can’t tell you exactly, but I believe it was built sometime in the early forties.”
Patches of brown grass grew from clumps of dry dirt, and the hedges lining the front of the house were bare of any type of growth. On top of both pedestals were large, green flowerpots, their blooms long dead, withered limbs drooping over the sides of the planters.
“When was the last time anyone lived here?”
“Again, I’m not sure,” Gloria replied as she stared, unblinking, at the house.
“Take a guess.”
“A year, maybe. I can’t say for sure.”
“Is there no caretaker to look after the property and oversee the landscaping? Surely those dead plants haven’t been here since the last time the house was occupied.”
Gloria shrugged and shook her head as she chewed nervously on her bottom lip.
“You seem uptight,” Joan said, twisting in her seat to look at Gloria. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“No,” she quickly replied, turning to Joan smiling. “I’m sure you’re curious to see the inside, so let’s get this over with.”
“Is the back yard fenced in?” Joan asked, noticing the dilapidated gate to the left of the entrance.
“I don’t know.”
“Gloria, did your friend give you a spec sheet to bring with you that has all of the house’s information on it?”
“No, I’m afraid she didn’t, and only offered basic details, ones she thought pertinent enough for showing the house.”
“I’ll go take a quick look myself,” Joan said frustratingly. “Care to come along?”
“I’ll wait here for you.”
The rusted gate latch was melded to the catch from lack of use and little to no maintenance, refusing to budge from its locked position. After several failed attempts to disengage the lever, Joan gave the bottom part of the gate a swift kick, pushing the door inward and breaking the entire locking mechanism off the gate door, cringing at the shrill screech of the also rusted hatches as the door slowly creaked open.
“Guess I’ll have to pay for a new gate lock,” she called over her shoulder before entering the side yard. It was a large stretch of property, more than two acres by her estimation, and completely fenced in with what appeared to be barbed wire. A screened in back porch ran the entire length of the house, the door made of wood, all of the screening black with filth. Beyond the back fence was nothing but foliage and overgrown weeds. In the yard stood a child’s swing set, the slide brown with rust, the white plastic seats of the swings broken and dangling by single chains. Tall, mature oak and maple trees grew along the fence line, but like all other vegetation on the property, had not been nurtured and taken care of, leaving them looking saggy and droopy. Should she end up accepting the house, plant life would be one of the first things she attended to because the last thing she wanted was for her new neighbors to think that she was a dark and mysterious woman, caring little for the condition and appearance of the home in which she lived. With a good degree of tender loving care and attention, she’d have the trees and shrubs back to health in no time.
Speaking of neighbors, she was being watched as she inspected the back yard. Up the street to her left, a man stood in his yard with his hands resting on top of a rake as he eyed her curiously, likely wondering if he was about to get a new neighbor. And across the street from him, an overweight woman stood on the sidewalk in front of her house, arms folded across her large belly, observing her as curiously as her male counterpart. Joan could see that they were exchanging words, but she had no idea what they were saying, but she assumed whatever it was, they were talking about her.
“Don’t worry about the gate,” Gloria said to her when she returned. “We’ll figure out a way to secure it. Let’s take a look inside and see what you think.”
What she’d initially thought was brick flooring on the porch turned out to be red-painted concrete, many areas either worn or chipped away. To the right was a wooden swing suspended from the overhang by rusted chains, the dark brown paint in much the same condition as that on the porch floor. Gloria’s hand trembled as she inserted the key, finally able to unlock the door after the third try.
“Are you sure there isn’t something you need to disclose to me? You seem awfully nervous.”
“Nothing that would be of any importance to you,” Gloria replied. “It’s personal, nothing for you to worry about.” Dismissing Joan’s question, she began her realtor spiel. “This house has four bedrooms, two full baths, a dining area, kitchen, screened-in back porch, and an attic that could be converted into an extra bedroom or an entertainment area. When considering the newer homes in the neighborhood, this house may seem less ordinary, but at the time it was built, it was considered to be high-end, the kind that only rich folks could afford. When this home was originally constructed, it was the only one in this entire area,” she said with a wave of her flabby arm. “The homes you see now didn’t come until several years later. For the asking price, you’d be getting a lot of house for the money.”
“Recited all that information from memory, did you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You seem to know an awful lot about the house for someone who wasn’t provided a spec sheet.”
“Yes, well, I grew up here in Castleton. I suppose I know as much about this house as any other resident. Anyway,” she said, quickly changing the subject and stepping inside. “This is the living room.” Joan detected a slight tremor in Gloria’s voice as she spoke, the kind that develops when someone is either nervous or scared. “The fireplace is natural, no gas required,” Gloria continued, nervously glancing at the wooden staircase that led to the second floor. “All you need is firewood, and when the time comes that you need it, there are plenty of places around here that sell it.”
“Any idea how long it’s been since the chimney was cleaned?”
“No, I’m sorry, but I’ll write all of your questions down and get the answers for you. Shall we move on?”
The vaulted ceiling in the living room made the already expansive area seem even larger and would look practically empty with the small amount of furniture she owned. The floor in the living room was constructed of dark pine wood, but the one in the kitchen left a lot to be desired. It had been covered with the ugliest shade of bright orange linoleum that Joan had ever seen. Aluminum seams used for anchoring the rubber flooring were missing at the kitchen entry and back door, their corners torn, ragged, peeling away and curled up at the edges. She had never cared for linoleum because she thought it looked cheap, and she hated the way it felt on her bare feet. No matter how many times it was mopped or how clean it was, it always felt dirty and gritty to her. She could already see herself ripping it up from the floor and tossing it into the garbage.
The stark contrast between the flooring and the scarlet red cabinets was nauseating. What the hell were the last tenants thinking when choosing their color pattern?
Choosing to hang onto her kitchen appliances had been a smart move because the house didn’t come equipped with any.
“Where does that door lead?” Joan asked, pointing to an area to the right of where the stove would be placed.
“Any idea what’s down there?”
“Dust and cobwebs most likely,” Gloria said, quickly adding, “now to the upstairs.”
Not that Gloria needed to point out the dining room to her since she knew what one was, but that she walked right past it without stopping or mentioning it only made Joan more certain that for some reason, Gloria seemed to be in a hurry to get the tour over with and get the hell out of that house.
The wood creaked beneath their feet as they ascended to the second-floor landing. “There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms on this floor. One in the master bedroom, the other between the two rooms on the right. Let’s start with the master bedroom and work our way back,” she said, continuing down the hallway.
It was a massive room, larger than her kitchen and dining room combined in the house back in Killene. The entire wall overlooking the back yard was constructed of paned windows. Red, black, and orange paisley print paper covered the walls. The large walk-in closet would be more than enough space for what few clothes and shoes she owned, leaving room to store unopened boxes if she needed to. The master bath had an over-sized, clawfoot tub situated in the middle of the room with a circular, metal shower curtain rod that, once closed, would provide privacy if showers were preferred over baths. From the windows, Joan could see beyond the perimeter fence, but not much more was visible from there than there had been from standing in the back yard. Nothing but trees, foliage and overgrown weeds, the house’s own private forest.
Across the hall from the master bedroom was another one half the size of the master and could be set up as a guest room, or as she preferred, a sewing and craft room. The likelihood of ever having house guests that spent the night was slim, so she’d much rather put it to better use.
The main bathroom was also equipped with a tub and shower, but this one had sliding Plexiglas doors, as well as double sinks, each with their own storage cabinets.
A few feet from the head of the stairs, on the same side as what would be her sewing room, was another bedroom, its windows overlooking the front yard and surrounding neighborhood, and one she felt Chandler would be happy with.
“And the last bedroom,” Gloria said, opening the door. “As you can see, all of the bedrooms are large enough to fit an entire bedroom suite into and still have room left over. As a matter of fact, I think these rooms are bigger than my entire apartment,” she said with a nervous laugh.
The only thing different about the last room was that it had a cherry wood armoire built into the wall next to the closet. Joan ran a finger along the intricate artwork carved into the wood, admiring its creative beauty. Whoever had hand-crafted the piece of furniture had done so with painstaking care and acute attention to detail and had done so for someone with a great love for horses, if the artwork was any clue.
Pietra is going to love this, she thought as she carefully opened the double doors. Inside the armoire were four empty shelves, most likely at one time lined with a girl’s favorite dolls or figurines. The bottom part had two drawers, both also empty, leaving no remnants behind to indicate that it had ever belonged to anyone or that it had ever been used at all for that matter. Joan detected a light scent of cedar as she closed the door.
“I noticed a closed door down there,” Joan said, pointing back towards the master bedroom. “Is that another room?”
“No,” Gloria replied. “It leads to the attic. The staircase is beyond the door.”
“I’d like to take a look,” Joan said, walking down the hall. “Afterall, if you’re going to show me a house, you might as well show me all of it and not just the rooms you want me to see.” Four narrow wooden steps led up to a small landing, and to the left of that, four more steps that opened into a cavernous space. Joan wasn’t sure what she expected to find there, but it wasn’t the proverbial leather chest filled with Grandpa’s old war medals and treasure maps. Other than the specter of colors bathing the room through the stained-glass window, the attic was empty and surprisingly clean, except for a light coat of dust on the handrails. Renovations had been made at some point. With a walk-in closet and built-in bookshelves, the large space could easily serve as an extra room, den or recreation area.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Needs quite a bit of work,” Joan said. “But it has potential.”
“Great,” Gloria said, descending the stairs. “Let’s go back to my office and talk shop.”
“Not so fast,” Joan called after her. “There’s a few things I’d like to talk about first, and if you can’t answer my questions here, then there’s really no need for further discussion.”
“Can we at least talk outside?”
“No,” Joan stated sternly. “Let’s talk right here. And you can start by telling me the truth about why you’re scared of this house.”
“But…but…,” Gloria stammered. “I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. I get the feeling you don’t like being here. Something about this house makes you nervous and frightened, and I demand to know what it is before I discuss taking it.”
“It’s nothing, really, I told you.”
“Gloria,” Joan said, casting her a serious look. “Stop lying and tell me the truth. Did something happen in this house? Something bad, like a murder? Did someone die here?”
“Childhood rumors, you know?” Gloria answered, wiping sweat from her brow. “Every town has that one house that every kid believes is haunted.”
“And we’re standing in the one that Castleton folks believe is the haunted one?”
“What would give them that idea? Afterall, hauntings can’t happen without ghosts, and ghosts don’t occur unless there’s been a death. So which is it?”
“You know how kids are. One starts the rumor and by the time it gets passed around, the details have changed drastically.”
“When I was a child, I thought the woman living in a house in my neighborhood was a witch. I hated to even pass by her house. In fact, I’d step off the sidewalk and walk in the street until I was past it. As an adult, I now know how foolish that was. You understand what I’m saying?”
“I think so, yes. Don’t believe rumors unless you can prove them?”
“Something like that. Are you aware of anything untoward that has happened here? By aware, I mean is there concrete evidence or proof?”
“Not to my knowledge, no. Other than the rumors.”
“Am I going to have any problems from anyone around here should I choose to take the house?”
“Problems? Like what?”
“Harassing me and my kids for living here, passing judgments, making accusations?”
“I shouldn’t think so. I hope not, anyway.”
“As do I,” Joan told her, refraining from adding that she had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and wasn’t afraid to use it should the need arise – like a physical threat against her or her children. “It would be remiss of me if I didn’t add one more extremely important detail.”
“If you are aware of any such information and you failed or refused to disclose that information to me, and if harm should happen to befall me or one of my children, the end results wouldn’t be in your favor. Is that clear?”
“I told you, I don’t know anything definitively. Just speculations, that’s it.”
“Rumors don’t bother me in the least,” Joan stated, recalling the many hateful and false statements that had been made about her back in Killene, some of which would haunt her for the rest of her life, yet at the same time, she’d grown so accustomed to it that she’d learned to dismiss them all as rubbish spat out by narrow minds and people who didn’t know the whole truth about what had transpired in her life. “And since I don’t believe in ghosts, neither does the idea that the house might be haunted.”
“Good,” Joan said with a nod. “Then tell me how much the rent is.”
“Rent?” Gloria repeated. “I think there’s been some kind of a misunderstanding. The house isn’t for rent, Mrs. Buchanan. It’s for sale.”
“For sale?” Joan asked, sounding disappointed. “Is the owner willing to make the necessary repairs first? The kitchen floor desperately needs to be replaced.”
“The sale terms are on an as is basis.”
“Then is the seller willing to lower the price to allow for the necessary repairs?”
“As is means exactly that, Mrs. Buchanan. Besides, the asking price is incredulously low, so I doubt the price will go any lower than it already is.”
“And that’s the only option?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Buying a home had not been her intention, because by doing so, she would be obligated to pay a mortgage, which in turn, would bind her to the town. And in the event that she decided she didn’t like it in Castleton as much as she’d thought she had, then she’d be stuck until another prospective buyer came along. On the other hand, she hadn’t been successful at all in securing a rental property, and if she let this house pass her by, then her and the kids could be stuck in a hotel room indefinitely or move on to another town.
“What’s the asking price?”
“Probably much lower than you think,” Gloria replied, removing the spec sheet from her purse, and unfolding it. “Sixty thousand.”
“Sixty thousand!” Joan exclaimed. “For this huge house and all of this property? Are you sure you’re looking at the price correctly?” Although the home was in dire need of restorations, Joan imagined that it hadn’t always been that way, and had likely been immaculate and beautiful once. And considering its age, chances were that it was much better built than the modern day homes were, sturdier and more resilient because of the quality of materials used at the time of construction when homes were built from the foundation up instead of coming in pre-manufactured pieces that snapped together like children’s blocks. It definitely had the potential to be stunning again, with the right owner, and the right amount of love and care that it needed.
“I’m sure,” Gloria said, passing Joan the sheet so that she could see for herself.
“What’s the catch? At that price for this much house, there must be something that’s not being disclosed.”
“No catch,” Gloria assured her.
“Who’s the realtor selling the house for?”
“Then the house is a foreclosure?”
“I’m confused,” Joan said, folding her arms. “Usually, the only way that a bank takes possession of a house is through foreclosure. Am I right?”
“Then explain to me how this works.”
“You know what I think we should do? Let’s go sit down with my realtor friend and have her explain everything to you. She knows more about the property than I do.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Joan agreed.
Much to her surprise, Gloria’s friend was the polar opposite of her. Petite, her brown hair cut in a short pixie, professionally dressed and wearing light makeup, she was eager to answer every question Joan had, promising to answer them as honestly as she could, and vowing to quickly provide answers to questions that she didn’t know the answer to offhand.
“Are you interested in buying the Borloff house?” According to the identification badge that she wore on a placard around her neck, her name was Angie Holland.
“Possibly, but I’d like to know more about it before I decide.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Anything you can offer.”
“The house was built in 1941 by Josef Borloff,” Angie said as she read from the spec sheet that she had on the house, which obviously contained much more information than the one she’d given to Gloria. “As a wedding gift for his new bride. He lived there with his wife and their two children until 1957, at which time they disappeared without a trace. Mr. Borloff continued to reside in the home even after his family vanished and remained there alone until his death four years ago.”
“And he died in the house?”
“That’s how the rumors got started about the house being haunted?”
“Gloria told you, I see.”
“Only because I asked.”
“Gossip about the house began long before his death. As a kid myself I can remember hearing townsfolk talk about it and every single one of them told a different story. It was the kind of tale that got told around the campfire during cookouts, at slumber parties, and especially during Halloween. The scarier the better, I suppose. I’ve always viewed it as nothing more than an urban legend, much like the passing down of the scary story about the man with a hook for a hand that only hunted during a full moon, or some other crazy tale like that. Is this a problem for you?”
“Not at all. Tell me, how did the bank come to take ownership of the house?”
“Through intestate succession. At the time of Mr. Borloff’s death, he had no will and no surviving relatives to claim his property; therefore, it was turned over to the state to determine what steps needed to be taken, which then resulted in the house being auctioned off and sold to the highest bidder.”
“And the bank won the bid?”
“Four years after his death, why does the bank still hold the deed? Have there been no other’s interested in purchasing the home?”
“No. When the bank first took possession, the property was rented out, but it was costing the bank too much money in the long run because the renters never stayed for long. Maybe a few months or so, but then they’d vacate the premises without giving notice, ultimately breaching their rental agreement and refusing to pay their outstanding balances.”
“Exactly how many renters are we talking about here that, as you put it, up and left and violated their leases?”
“Five,” Angie answered. “After that, we decided that renting simply wasn’t worth the trouble or the cost.”
“Gloria told me the asking price of the house is sixty thousand. Is that correct?”
“Doesn’t seem like much for a house that size and with all of that vacant property surrounding it.”
“Between you and me, I think the bank came way down on the price just to get the house off their hands because they’re tired of dealing with it.”
“Does that mean my chances of buying the house from the bank are good?”
“I’m not a banker and I can’t speak for them, but I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be. If you’re seriously considering buying it, I can give you the name of the person who’s overseeing the sale. I can even give him a call for you if you’d like.”
“Please,” Joan replied.
Within a few minutes of making the phone call, Joan had an appointment at the bank to speak with a loan officer by the name of Marty Baker.
“That was quick,” Joan said to Angie. “Guess they really are eager to sell it.”
And eager they were. Marty approved her loan within thirty minutes, even though she hadn’t yet secured a job. Telling him that she was in the process of doing so was good enough for him. Able to meet the low down payment and agreeing that monthly payments less than three hundred dollars were perfect for her budget, and thanks to her near perfect credit score, she’d walked out of the bank a homeowner. Everything back in Killene that had been repossessed had been in her husband’s name, leaving her credit unscathed, of which she was now extremely grateful.
“Can I make a request?” Joan asked as she accepted the house keys.
“Is it possible to send a cleaning crew to the house before I move in with my children? It was quite dirty and dusty in there and it could use a good scrubbing.”
‘I wish I could tell you yes, Mrs. Buchanan, but I’m afraid that’s your responsibility,” Marty told her.
“Can you at least recommend a good one, then?”
“That I can do,” he replied, handing Joan a business card embossed with Klean Right, the One’s to Turn to When You Want It Cleaned Right! “We use them quite often. They’re good and thorough with their work. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.”
He’d been right about that because there wasn’t anything to be disappointed about. After numerous reschedules, they never showed up at all, leaving Joan to do the cleaning herself. On the bright side of things, she’d saved a couple of hundred bucks by doing so.
After three days of sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing toilets and sinks, the house was finally presentable – or at least as presentable as she could make it. The floors and cabinets still needed to be dealt with, but those were things she could do after moving in. She hadn’t brought the kids along to assist with the cleanup because one, she didn’t want to listen to Pietra bitch all day about how disgusting the house was, and two, because she wanted to surprise them, hoping that after a long stay in a hotel room, they’d be happy to finally have a place to call home.
The moment of truth had finally arrived.
Conroy refused to go inside, plopping down on the welcome mat and staring blankly through the door and into the living room as he released low, guttural growls.
A Border Collie gifted to Chandler on his tenth birthday from his father, Conroy was a gentle, loving dog and a constant, loyal companion to her son since the day he’d joined the family. He’d been a tremendous comfort to Chandler after his dad died, providing him with unconditional love and unequivocal patience during his time of grief, watching over him, protecting him, and licking away countless tears. Oftentimes Chandler had told her that Conroy was the best friend he’d ever had, and that statement continued to be inarguable. Chandler wasn’t necessarily an introvert, but it had never been easy for him to make friends because he was so painfully shy and the few friends that he did have back in Killene had been his friends since kindergarten. He was the type of boy that was comfortable with one or two close friends. Everyone else were mere acquaintances. Only his four-legged fur buddy topped the list of best friends ever. And Chandler was happy with that.
“Come on, Conroy,” Chandler coaxed, tugging at the dog’s collar. “Come inside and take a look at your new house.”
“What’s his deal?” Joan asked.
Chandler shrugged. “I don’t know. Strange place, I reckon. He’ll get used to it once he adjusts. Come on, boy,” Chandler called, patting his thigh. “It’s okay.”
Conroy rose to his feet and slowly lumbered into the house, his tail tucked securely between his legs, refusing to go beyond the living room.
“Stinks in here,” Pietra said, crinkling her nose as she looked around.
“How can you say that?” Joan replied with a scowl. “I spent days in here cleaning. You probably smell the pine cleaner I used. Come on, let me show you around,” she said, waving them towards the kitchen.
“Where’s the stove and refrigerator?” Pietra asked.
“Everything is supposed to be delivered tomorrow.”
“And we’re sleeping here tonight?” Pietra complained. “Without our beds?”
“We have sleeping bags. We can camp out in the living room. One night of sleeping on the floor won’t kill you.”
Pietra rolled her eyes as she opened the narrow door next to the empty space where the stove would eventually go. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, clamping onto her nose and slamming the door. “It smells like something died down there.”
Joan hadn’t bothered to include cleaning the cellar in her list of important things to do before moving in, nor had she inspected it during the walk through, a decision she would later come to regret. She figured once they got settled in, she’d make her way downstairs sooner or later, but she wasn’t in any hurry because she’d never been fond of cellars. She had her grandmother to thank for that after she’d accidentally locked her in one when she was a young girl and her immature and overactive imagination had conjured up unspeakable atrocities hiding in the corners and inside the furnace. Granny had apologized profusely, and although she knew she’d hadn’t meant to do it, it still hadn’t relieved her of the fear she’d felt as she’d sat there in the darkness waiting for Granny to open the door and let her out, nor had she forgotten the disgusting smell of rank mustiness, the combination of moist soil and rotting vegetables.
“It can’t be that bad,” Joan remarked, opening the door and closing it as quickly as Pietra had. “I stand corrected. A wild animal probably got in through a window or hole and couldn’t find its way out,” she offered, hoping to quell Pietra’s disgust. “The smell won’t last forever. Let me show the two of you your bedrooms.”
Conroy remained in the living room, attentively focused on the brick fireplace, ears perked, jowls puffing in and out as he tried to decide whether he wanted to bark or not. “Is there a squirrel in there?” Chandler asked, taking him by the collar and leading him towards the stairs. “You can chase him later. For now, let’s go check out our new bedroom.”
“Here’s yours, Pietra,” Joan said, opening the bedroom door. “You have a clear view of the backyard from here.”
“You mean a view of a forest,” Pietra replied as she glanced out the window. “I guess landscaping wasn’t a priority for the last occupants.”
“Apparently not,” Joan agreed. “They also failed to take their swing set with them when they left.”
“Gee, mom, and here I was thinking that you put that out there for us to play on,” Pietra said with a sardonic smile. “I’m so disappointed,” she said, stepping away from the window. “What is this?” she asked, slowly running her fingers along the outlines of the horse features etched into the cherry wood of the wardrobe.
“A built-in armoire,” Joan replied.
“Basically, a closet, although I’ve never seen one constructed into a wall like this one. Usually, they’re a stand-alone piece of furniture.”
“This is beautiful,” Pietra said, pulling open the double doors.
“You can use the shelves to store blankets,” Joan said. “Or books. Anything you want to, really. The two bottom drawers will provide you extra space without worrying about stuffing your bureau full.”
“I’ll definitely use it for something. It looks hand-made. Do you think it is?”
“Judging by the exquisite and intricate detail involved, I’d say yes.”
Pietra seemed entranced by the carpentry work as she admired the craftsmanship. “It smells like those wooden balls you used to put inside our closets back home to make them smell good.”
“This cabinet has the exact same scent, but I don’t see anything in here that would make it smell that way. Must be left over from the last time it was used.”
“I really like this, mom. It’s beautiful.”
“I thought you might like that, and I’m glad you do. Time to go and show Chandler his room.”
“You go ahead. I’ll stay in here,” Pietra told her.
“Already planning what you’re going to use it for?”
“Something like that,” Pietra answered.
“What’s up there?” Chandler asked, pointing to the stairs at the end of the hallway. Strange, she didn’t remember leaving the attic door open. In fact, she distinctly recalled the door being closed when she’d finished cleaning the house.
“The attic,” Joan replied as she entered his would-be bedroom.
“Can I go see?”
“Don’t you want to check out your room first?”
“No,” Chandler replied, sprinting to and up the stairs, stopping at the stoop before entering. “I want this room.”
“Chandler, this isn’t a bedroom,” Joan protested. “It’s a stuffy, dusty attic.”
“Not anymore,” Chandler said as he stepped into the room and glanced around with Joan following closely behind.
“I’ve already cleaned the downstairs room for you, Chandler, and it overlooks the front of the house. You can practically see the whole neighborhood from your window. Wouldn’t you be happier in there?”
“No way,” Chandler harped enthusiastically. “Look at all the room I’ll have. And get a load of that window and how it makes a rainbow in here!”
Only a thirteen-year-old boy could get so excited over having an attic bedroom! “What do you think, Conroy?” Chandler asked, turning back to the stairwell, but Conroy wasn’t there. “Silly mutt. He sure is acting goofy. Once I get my bed and everything else in here, he’ll settle down. He’s probably feeling a little misplaced right now.”
“Displaced is the word I think you’re looking for,” Joan said with a smile. “I’m sure he is, just like the rest of us. Chandler, are you sure you want to be up here all alone?”
“This room is really cool, mom,” he exclaimed, moving closer to the stained glass window, the bright prism of colors painting him in shades of orange, red and green. “It’s not that far away. Only one more floor up.”
It wasn’t the array of hues that caught Joan’s attention.
For the first time, she was getting an up close and personal view of the window markings. She’d been aware of the stained glass pane when she’d looked at the attic with Gloria but hadn’t paid much attention to the detail. And not expecting her son to choose the attic over a downstairs bedroom, she’d foregone cleaning it as well. There were two vents in the ceiling, one on each side of the room, which meant that the attic would be supplied with air and heat, so it wouldn’t be stuffy or cold as she’d initially expected.
“Are you sure I can’t talk you into taking the room downstairs?”
“I’m sure, mom,” he said with confidence. “This is the one I want.”
Joan sighed and shook her head, glancing up at the window, not confident that she was comfortable with his decision.
On the day that she’d toured the house with Gloria, she’d mistakenly thought that the window was comprised of a red rose inlay adorned with intertwining green leaves. Now that she had gotten a closer look, she realized exactly how wrong she’d been.
Whoever had made the choice for the mosaic pattern on the glass either had an extremely dark sense of humor or an overall disgusting taste in decorating. Whichever it was, she found the beast depicted in the display to be quite disturbing and the window would have to be replaced as soon as possible because she refused to have such a grotesque scene exhibited in the window where her son would be sleeping.
Suddenly, she felt uncomfortable standing in the attic, almost as if unseen eyes were watching her, aware of her thoughts about replacing the stained glass.
“Let’s get back downstairs, son” she said, disinclined to spend another second inside of a room that had a red demon with large green horns crafted in frosted glass staring down at her with his crimson, accusatory eyes.
Conroy’s incessant whimpering and whining awakened Joan from an already restless sleep. Not because of the lack of comfort from having to sleep on a bare wooden floor tucked inside a thin-layered sleeping bag that failed to provide much support or padding, but because she had been riddled with bad dreams since falling asleep, haunted by one nightmare after another, all of them involving either her dead husband or the disloyal friends who’d had no problem whatsoever throwing her skinned hide to the ravenous wolves once she’d lost the two things that ranked high on their priority lists – status and money.
It had been quite some time since she’d dreamt of her husband, or even thought about him for that matter. Putting all the bad behind her had not been an easy task, especially while continuing to live in their house in Killene, totally unaware of exactly how deep the shit was that Burt had left her and the kids to swim in until the collection calls started, foreclosure notices from the bank began coming in the mail, automobiles got repossessed, the discovery of an empty bank account and learning that every insurance policy they’d had was cancelled. It wasn’t until then that she’d realized the man she’d been married to for twenty-one years had been living a double life right under her nose and without her knowledge. Six months after his death, she was still left with unanswered questions, the biggest one being why. Why had he made the choices he’d made? Opting not to pay the mortgage or the car payments, knowing that sooner or later, the failure to meet his financial obligations would result in the loss of it all? Where had all their money gone? And what if he hadn’t died? What excuse would he have come up with to explain to her why they were losing their home, their vehicles, the motor home? So many lingering questions remained all these months later, and if they still remained unanswered this long after his death, chances were that they always would be.
She could punish and beat herself up from now until eternity trying to figure out where it all went wrong, what had happened to Burt to cause such a drastic change in him, how he’d gotten himself involved in such shady activities with even shadier people. But the truth was – she had no idea when or how it had happened because the changes weren’t physical, therefore, not visible. He’d gotten up and gone to work every day as usual, came home to dinner every night, devoted as much of his free time as he could to the kids. As long as everything seemed normal, she had no reason to believe otherwise – until she did. Unfortunately, by then, it was too late to do anything to help him. On occasion, she found herself regretting the choices she’d made for his funeral arrangements, scolding herself for being so uncaring and cheap. But the regrets were always short-lived, followed by an epiphany as she recalled why she’d made the choices she had in the first place, and once she did that, any feeling of melancholy or remorse quickly subsided.
The truth of the matter was that had she not had her own life insurance policy on him, and a small nest egg she’d built up over the past few years, she would have never been able to leave Killene because surely, they would have ended up on the streets, homeless and penniless. Not even her decent salary was enough to meet all of the monthly obligations that would have been required in order to keep the house, even if it hadn’t gone into foreclosure. Plagued with threatening phone calls from debtors attempting to collect the thousands of dollars that Burt owed, she’d refused to pay a dime, telling them all as much, and for the purpose of clarity, adding that there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it other than harass her because her name wasn’t on the mortgage, the car loans, or anything or anyone else he was indebted to. When the calls failed to cease, she’d disconnected the house phone and changed the number to her cell. As far as she was concerned, every one of them could wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one filled up the fastest. The only ones that she was obligated to take care of was her children. It had taken time and determination to finally be able to leave, but with willpower and determination, she’d done it. Not without consequences, however.
Pietra had stayed pissed at her for one reason or another since her dad had died. Perhaps she blamed Joan for his death, or possibly even for their current predicament. If she did, she hadn’t come right out and said so, but judging by her attitude and behavior, it was evident that she felt that way. In the mind of a sixteen-year-old, it wasn’t unusual to blame the surviving parent for the death of the other. It was a coping mechanism, a way to deal with loss, even if the underlying factor wasn’t true. The day would come when she’d have no other choice than to tell Pietra the truth about the circumstances surrounding Burt’s death, but that time had not yet arrived. And when she finally did tell her, she may be forced to deal with a whole new level of resentment for keeping the truth from her in the first place. With any luck, Pietra would soon have a change of heart, realize that her mother had no hand in her father’s death, get her butt off her shoulders and rekindle the close relationship she’d once had with her mother prior to the category five shitstorm that had put them where they were now.
Joan groped in the dark for her phone, certain that she’d put it on the floor beside her so that she’d hear the alarm when it went off. The last thing she wanted to do was be late for her scheduled job interview, especially considering how long it’d taken her to finally get one.
Apparently, she’d left it on the kitchen counter because it wasn’t anywhere near, or under, her sleeping bag.
Conroy wasn’t sleeping beside Chandler, either.
Quietly tip-toeing around the kids, she made her way towards the kitchen, stopping short when Conroy began barking.
“What is it, boy?” Joan whispered, going to the dog and gently stroking his head. “Did you hear something up there?” Straining to listen, Joan stood silently and unmoving for several seconds but didn’t hear anything strange.
The dog, however, sat erect and still at the foot of the stairs, staring up into the darkness while producing the same throaty growl that he’d displayed at the front door when he’d refused to come inside until Chandler had forced him to.
“Shhh,” Joan said softly. “Don’t wake them up.”
The silence inside the house was deafening – and unsettling, especially given the way the dog had been acting ever since he’d set sight on his new home. It was also quite an eerie feeling to think that maybe he was seeing and hearing something that she couldn’t.
“There’s nothing there, Conroy,” she said, attempting to ease the dog’s nervous tension, as well as her own. “How about a doggie snack to calm those nerves of yours?”
Hesitantly, he followed her into the kitchen and sat on the floor as he waited for his human mom to fulfill her promise, staring at her as he licked his chops in anticipation.
“Here you go, boy,” she said. “Lucky for you that your snacks don’t need to be refrigerated,” she added, placing the box back on the shelf. “Or else you’d be shit out of luck.”
The box wouldn’t fit back inside the cabinet. Instead of sitting flush against the shelf, the box tilted forward, as if something were blocking it. Removing the box, she ran her bare hand along the inside of the second shelf. “How the hell did this get in there?” she muttered, retrieving her phone. Maybe one of the kids had played a prank on her because she knew that she hadn’t put it there. She hadn’t even opened the cabinet doors since putting Conroy’s snacks away, nor had she or either of the kids given Conroy any treats since then. It had to be either Pietra or Chandler because there was no other logical explanation. No way did her phone make it from her sleeping bag all the way into the kitchen and hide itself in the cabinet.
To ensure that turning off the alarm hadn’t been part of their practical joke, she turned the phone on just to make sure. The only thing that had been altered was her background photo. The white tiger that was normally displayed on the screen had been replaced with one of the photos taken that afternoon of her and the kids standing in front of their new house, which was no big deal. At least Chandler hadn’t messed with the alarm. If he had and it had caused her to miss her interview, she would have been extremely upset.
A loud thump! erupted from beneath the kitchen floor, startling Joan and bringing Conroy to his feet, his bone forgotten as he stared at the cellar door, ears alert, the fur on his back standing at attention.
“Shit!” Joan hissed. “What the hell was that?”
Her ear pressed tightly against the wood, she hoped to God that a masked intruder didn’t suddenly burst through the door and knock her unconscious.
“The house is old, that’s all. It’s probably air in the water pipes,” she said more to herself than to Conroy, because it was she that needed convincing, not him. “Let’s go back to bed,” she said, checking the lock on the cellar door before turning out the light. “I’ve got an early morning ahead of me.”
Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the links below.
E-Book Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FYV91XM