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The Haunting Of Bechdel Mansion

The Haunting Of Bechdel Mansion

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2016  by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

Chapter One

Retrospect

 

The Redwood Murders: Twenty Years Later

By Anthony Moore, Staff Writer, The Dover Sentinel

 

By 1975, the Bechdel mansion, located in the historical town of Redwood, Indiana, was considered the height of opulence. The lush acres that surrounded the mansion dated back generations to the nineteenth century. Reportedly of Dutch descent, the Bechdels migrated throughout the early U.S. colonies as trappers, traders, vendors, and developers, establishing a thriving dynasty that tragically came to an end on one summer night.

Early Census records cited the Bechdels as one of the largest families in the U.S. with over twenty-five families at the time carrying their respective bloodline. Their wealth, power, and influence knew no bounds. By the twentieth century, however, all of that changed. Historians often point to a mystical family curse that many believe doomed the family line to extinction.

The “Bechdel” curse has fascinated folklore and urban legend enthusiasts for years. The trials, tragedy, and misfortune of that followed the Bechdel bloodline cannot be overstated. Perhaps this is why the Redwood mansion continues to bring tourists to the area to this day. There has to be something out there. There has to be answers to explain the mystery behind the curse. Whatever the reasons, the 1970s saw the last living heirs of the family name.

George and Anabelle Bechdel prided themselves among the town’s most influential and powerful families. They had three sons and one daughter. Their eldest son, Travis, was engaged to be married to a wealthy real estate heiress. The recent engagement was the toast of the town. Though the merging of two wealthy families wasn’t front page news, everyone in town had heard about it.

On June 25, 1975, the Bechdel’s hosted a dinner party to celebrate the engagement. The parents of the bride, Victor and Holly Drake, were in attendance with their daughter, Katelyn. It was supposed to be a night of new beginnings and good cheer. Instead, it ended in tragedy and disaster. Even the skeptics had to admit that the existence of a family curse at least made some kind of sense. Some just didn’t want to admit it.

Redwood had grown considerably over the years from its initial establishment. Its quaint shops, local Inns, and pubs were a favorite to those who preferred rural life in a quiet village town to the busy congestion of the city. It was a popular town, but that soon changed following the brutal murder of the last Bechdel family and their party guests. No one was spared.

Fifteen people murdered in cold blood during the late hours of the evening. Much has been written about the “Redwood Massacre” since then, and countless theories, conspiracies, and offered for good mix. That is because to this day, the killers are still out there. After an initial investigation and subsequent media frenzy case grew cold within a year.

There were plenty of suspects but nothing ever materialized. Over time, all the hype and frenzy surrounding the case and it naturally faded, leaving a fractured town that still struggles to find its place today. There are some residents who believe that the Bechdel’s brought the curse with them upon settling in Redwood and that it has spread throughout the entire town. But there are other people, Pastor Phil, of the First Christ Church of Redwood, who believe that the town’s worst days are long behind them. Rather, they believe that the best days lie ahead.

There is no doubt that the unsolved murder of fifteen people shocked the community and tore the facade of innocence and harmony from Redwood. From then on, the town was never the same. But perhaps there is still hope for the future of Redwood. Only time will tell.

Chapter Two

Detective Work

 

Redwood, Indiana

June 25, 1975

 

Julie Bechdel sat on her bed bored as sounds of laughter and music rang throughout her room from below. Her parents were entertaining again, marking the engagement of her older brother, Travis, to a girl from a wealthy family. An heiress, they called her. Julie had to look the word up. The girl had a lot of money, but so did Julie’s family. She didn’t understand what the big deal was.

To Julie, her brother was too young to get married. He had just graduated high school. His fiancé, Kate, was just entering her senior year of high school. They were a year apart. Both their parents not only supported the engagement, they had insisted on it. Everything, however, seemed to be happening very fast. Julie had her suspicions.

She was a bright and perceptive eleven-year-old. And even though her room was adorned with plenty of games, books, and magazines, she was more curious about what was going on downstairs.

Julie was the only girl among four siblings, and she believed that had more to do with being sent to her room than her age. Her other brothers were all allowed to stay up, and they were only five or six years older. Whatever the reasons, she found the party distracting. She couldn’t sleep if she wanted to, and it was time to get a closer look.

Wearing her nightgown, Julie got out of bed and walked across the hardwood floor. She could already smell the cigar smoke before even opening the door. With the turn of a knob, she carefully ventured out of her room and down the hallway which led to a winding staircase. She stopped at the railing and looked below over the smoke-filled lounge.

Guests sat among plush green sofas conversing or stood on the white tile floor admiring the artwork which adorned the room. The Men in suits and women in their glittering evening gowns both looked the height of elegance. Julie’s brother, Travis, stood near a window talking with her other brothers, John and Alex, all in white long-sleeved tuxedo shirts and bowties. A record spun from the turntable, booming with jazz music.

Past the lounge sat a long dining room table with empty plates from dinner. Julie knew every nook and cranny of the two-story mansion and its fifteen rooms. She was born there. Her parents were very protective of her, and rarely let her have a social life beyond the few friends they approved of. She had spent a lot of time within the mansion and discovered all sorts of ways to move around undetected. That evening, she decided to do some investigating.

From below, guests cupped wine glasses and sipped periodically. Julie could hear her mother, Anabelle, laughing out of view. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. She crept down the stairs without a single head turning in her direction. The entire affair seemed strange to Julie. She reached the bottom of the stairs and stayed low. No one had noticed her yet.

She rushed behind the nearest couch to her right where a couple talked. She peeked over the top of the couch and felt a certain thrill to her spying. She turned to the gaming room across the lounge and saw her parents standing next to a billiards table mingling. Her father, George, puffed on a large cigar with some other men, drink in hand, as her mother chatted with the women.

Next to the gaming room was the library—her favorite room in the house. She could see inside. Katelyn, her brother’s fiancé, stood next to a book shelf with her parents in conversation. Julie wanted to get a listen. She moved along the side of the room, staying close to the thick red drapes that adorned the windows behind her.

She dropped to her knees next to a china cabinet as one of her brothers walked past her from the opposite direction. She was sure she had been spotted. His black pant legs kept going as she sighed with relief. She crawled to the corner of the room and crouched behind a vacant sofa chair, ready to sprint toward the library.

The music stopped for a moment as the record ended and flipped over. Julie waited until the next song came on and then ran across the room with stealth and reached the open double doors of the library. The Drake family were within an earshot. Julie stuck her head into the room, careful to not expose herself. The parents had their back to Julie. She saw Katelyn’s brown wavy hair over her parents’ shoulders.

“Well, you love Travis, don’t you?” Katelyn’s mother asked, her red hair in a perm and wearing silk blue evening gown.

“Of course I do, but—”

“Then what’s the problem then?” her mother asked.

“This is all happening too fast,” Katelyn said.

Julie knew it. There was something more to the engagement than her own parents had led on. She crept closer to the side of a tall book shelf, taking cover on its side.

Kate’s father interjected with his own take. “I understand that you’re nervous. That’s only natural. It will all pass soon enough.”

Kate shuffled in place, shaking her head. “It’s not just that. What about college? I’m graduating high school next year and all this talk about children… I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Kate’s father put his hand on her shoulder, his gray hair thinning on top. Julie couldn’t see the parents’ faces but could still detect her own worry in their daughter’s concerns. “That’s enough of that talk,” he said. “You have your entire life to do whatever you wish, but you will be marrying this boy. Our family’s fortunes rely on it.”

“Listen to your father, dear,” Kate’s mother added. “This is about more than…” she paused in hesitation.

Kate was quick to respond. “About what? My future? My own happiness?”

Her father tilted his head back, laughing nervously. “Of course not. Your happiness is very important to us.”

“Very much so,” her mother said. “We all have our little parts to play for a greater good. For the family.”

“Well said, dear,” her father said.

“Thank you,” her mother said.

Katelyn threw her arms down in frustration. Julie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her suspicions, it seemed, were true.

She recalled Travis expressing similar doubt at the breakfast table the morning prior. In response, her father shut him down without hesitation and told him to go to his room. As she stood near Katelyn and her parents, she did her best to remember every word so that she could write about it in her diary. She was ready to get to the bottom of things when her mother’s voice rung out from behind.

“Julie Lynn Bechdel!”

Julie spun around in a panic and saw her mother, Anabelle, standing in the doorway, pearls around her neck, glass in hand, and her face enraged. Julie struggled to speak, but found herself frozen.

“What are you doing in here?” her mother asked.

Katelyn’s parents turned around, surprised to see Julie standing nearby.

Julie thought quickly. “I-I couldn’t sleep. I was just going to grab a book.”

Anabelle moved to Julie like a hawk and yanked her by the arm. “You’re not allowed down here. We told you to go to bed an hour ago!” Julie struggled to get loose as her mother turned to Katelyn’s parents, blushing. “I’m very sorry.”

“Quite all right,” Katelyn’s dad said with a smile. His wife, however, stood stoned-faced and unamused.

“Let’s go,” Anabelle said, pulling her out of the room.

“You’re hurting me!” Julie cried out as heads turned in their direction from the lounge.

Her mother’s grip remained as she dragged Julie toward the staircase. She saw her father peer out from the gaming room, wearing a stoic frown. She was in trouble, that much was clear. Her mother stopped at the bottom of the stairs and released Julie’s arm.

“Now go to bed and stop this bad behavior,” she said.

Julie felt angered and defiant. Her brothers watched her from across the room, not getting involved. Guests attempted to turn their attention away, but it was clear that the scene had gotten their attention.

“How can I go to bed with all the noise you’re making down here!” Julie said.

More heads turned and Julie could see the embarrassment and inner rage in her mother’s glazed eyes. She could hear her father’s dress shoes clicking against the floor as he approached from the gaming room.

Her mother extended her long, skinny arm toward stairs. “Go!” she hissed.

Her father stopped beside Julie and stared down. “What are you doing down here? We told you to go to your room after dinner.” His bow-tie was undone and his short black hair was messy. Like her mother, there was a slight slur to what he said. She wondered how many glasses of wine both of them had already consumed.

“I’ve got this under control, George,” Anabelle said.

He raised his hands up defensively and back away. “If you say so.” He turned and rejoined the party as a new jazz track came blaring from the turntable speakers.

Julie took one step up the first stair and could feel he mother’s stare. She turned her head slightly to see her still there, arms crossed.

“I’m going!” Julie said. “Sheesh.”

“Good night,” Anabelle said in a steely tone.

Her parents could be both loving and cold depending on the situation. That evening, they seemed to have little patience for her antics. She came to the middle of the winding staircase to hear her mother finally walking away. She peered over the side as the party resumed and guests returned to their conversations. She wanted to find out more, but knew better than to push it.

She headed back up the stairs eager to continue record her findings in her diary. The party continued on as she closed the door behind her, only muffling the music and obnoxious laughter reverberating through the halls. Her blinds were open and the night sky was amassed with blankets of tiny stars. She approached her window and looked out into the courtyard below. Beyond the flowing fountain she saw a line of luxury vehicles, a few limos among them. Then from the shadows of the road leading into the courtyard, she saw headlights.

Chapter Three

Party Crashers

 

Julie watched in wonder as a large white van pulled into the courtyard and parked. It’s rusty exterior and rattling engine made it out of place from the other guests’ vehicles. Perhaps the driver was lost. She kept watch as things only grew stranger. The van’s headlights went out. The doors opened and several figures emerged. Beyond the glow of the fountain, she couldn’t tell who they were, but it seemed to be a lot of them.

A troubling feeling stirred in her gut. Something wasn’t right. Something hadn’t seemed right about the entire dinner party. As they approached the front door, she saw five people dressed in black. They were wearing masks. Black ski masks. The even had guns. Panic gripped her guts. She turned around and rushed toward her door in hopes to warn her parents.

From the hall, she heard an abrupt slam of the door in the foyer below. Several footsteps entered the house right through foyer. They had a doorman, and Julie wondered how they had gotten inside? She to the railing frightened and hoped they weren’t as dangerous as they looked from her window.

A shiver went done her spine as the mystery people entered the lounge came into view—five men, dressed in black and wearing ski masks. They each had long guns. Rifles maybe. They looked like something out of a movie. Surreal and nearly impossible to make sense of. The guests remained oblivious to the intruders as the music muffled their rapid approach in the open lounge area.

One of the masked men kicked over the turntable unit, gaining the attention of everyone in the room. The music stopped, followed by a large crash. Some of the women screamed. The gunmen rushed forward and formed an arch as a large man in the middle stepped forward, aiming his weapon at the terrified guests.

“Hands up! Don’t make a move!” he shouted through his mask. “I want everyone in this room right now. Every swinging dick!”

Julie crouched down behind the railing in a panic. She didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t been seen yet, but that could quickly change. She thought of the nearest phone—in her parent’s room at the end of the long hall upstairs. She wanted to act, but her legs wouldn’t move.

“All of you. That’s right, come on out,” the lead gunman continued as terrified guests packed into the lounge. Julie peeked over the railing, shaking. She hadn’t seen her parents yet. Her brothers were in view with their hands up, frozen with fear. The gunman paced around from side to side with the rifle against his shoulder. He seemed satisfied with the fear they had caused among the dinner guests.

“The first person I want to see is Mr. George Bechdel.” He paused, looking around and then aimed his rifle at the group. “Let’s go, Georgy boy. Front and center!”

From the stunned crowd, George stepped forward. He was sweating and his hair was even more of a mess than a few minutes ago. One of the other gunmen moved to him and pulled him closer, pushing him on the ground as more screams followed. To see her father helplessly tossed on the floor of his own home was a terrifying sight. But things got even worse when her mother stepped forward.

“Leave him alone!” she shouted. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

From his knees, George raised his a hand up, urging her to be calm. The lead gunman, however, had his own ideas on dealing with her outburst. His smacked her across the face with his gloved hand and sent her stumbling backwards. Several women shrieked.

Infuriated, George jumped up. “You son of a bitch!” He tried to tackle the lead gunman, but was instantly subdued with the buttstock of one of the other men’s rifle, clubbing him over the back. George collapsed on the floor, dumbstruck and in agony. Julie wanted to scream out. She wanted to do something, but couldn’t she move?

“Don’t make me do that again,” the lead gunman said.

Anabelle held her reddened face, glaring at the gunmen with contempt. She bravely approached George and placed a hand his should as lay on his stomach twisting and grunting.

“He’ll be okay,” the gunman continued. He then looked to the rest of the crowd to address them. “Is everyone here?” He glanced at Anabelle as she stroked George’s head, pearls dangling at her neck. “Is this all of your guests? Is there anyone in the can?”

Anabelle looked away without response. She then flinched as the gunman stepped closer. “Come on, Mrs. Bechdel. My men don’t have the time to search every room.” He took a knee, inches from her face. “Be honest with me, and no one gets hurt. Fair enough?”

Tears trickled down her cheeks as she nodded and looked around the room. “Everyone is here.”

Pleased, the gunman stood up. “Where’s the Drake family?”

After a brief hesitation the two parents rose their hands from within the huddle group. “Great,” the gunman said. “Come out here and join your friends.”

Fearing for her family and herself, Julie knew that she needed to run and call the police before it was too late. The nearest phone was in her parent’s room down the hall. A door they always kept locked. She turned from the staircase and could see that the door was closed.

The lead gunman continued with demands for wallets and purses. “Everything you have, just put it in the bag,” he said as one of his men held out a burlap sack, approaching the crowd.

Kate’s father, Victor, tossed his thick bill fold into his bag with creeping fury in his eyes. “Just take it and get the hell out of here. Damn, punks.”

“In time, Mr. Drake,” the gunman said. He then shifted toward George and kicked him lightly in the side. “Get up, Georgy Boy.”

George grunted in pain as Anabelle glared at the masked man. “You don’t have to kick him, you monster!”

The gunman stared down indifferent. “You too. Both of you on your feet.”

Anabelle helped George up, holding him as he looked to their remorseless assailant and spoke. “We’re willing to cooperate with you. Please stop pointing your guns at us. You’re scaring people with this nonsense.”

The gunman nodded, seeming to consider it. He then rose a gloved finger with further instructions. “Everyone get closer. Huddle together tight.” As he spoke, two other gunman took sides at both sides of the group. “My man are going on a little pillage mission, and we can’t have any of you running off. Got it?”

The terrified guests looked at each other in confusion. They were hesitant, and no one seemed to understand the seriousness of their situation as the gunmen boxed them in like cattle.

“Come on, people,” the gunman continued. “Don’t make me have to ask again.”

The guests reluctantly inched closer to each other, forming a tight huddle. “Great!” the gunman continued. “Now we can wrap this up.”

Julie carefully ascended the stairs, but no matter how light her movements, the steps creaked. She ducked down immediately as the gunman went silent. She could feel him listening as her heart beat wildly.

“Go upstairs and check it out,” she heard the gunman say to one of his men. “The rest of you, prepare to fire.”

An ocean of screams followed. Julie jumped up and looked over the side to see the masked men aim their rifles into the huddle as another one moved toward the stairs, closing in on her. She turned and ran the moment she heard her father’s voice scream out, begging the men not to shoot.

Gunfire erupted in a cacophony of deafening blasts. Julie stormed to her bedroom not looking back. She closed the door, locking it. Her hands were shaking and she could barely breathe. The shooting continued amidst the screams, initially rapid, but then more spaced out to one final shot. Julie couldn’t fathom any of it.

She heard footsteps outside the door, nearing her room slow and methodical. She turned off her bedside lamp and looked to her window. It was her only chance to escape. She ran over and unlocked it, without concern of anything she was leaving behind. Though her diary had crossed her mind. It was sitting on a nightstand in view, but there was no time. Her doorknob moved. She pulled the window open, feeling the night breeze hit her face. She looked down over the ledge to the thick grass below.

She could climb down the terrace on the side, but doubted she had the time. The doorknob jiggled, followed by a bang at her door. Her best bet was to run. She climbed out the window, legs, dangling in the air, and said a quick prayer.

She leapt out just has her door kicked open and hit the moist grass like a lead weight. A pain shivered up her leg as she looked around in panic. Her adrenaline was on overdrive, but she couldn’t shake off the confusion and disorientation.

She turned to run and collided with the waist of a man, smacking her face into his thick belt buckle. She flew back, feeling dazed. She covered her face in pain, blocking the man from sight. She couldn’t tell whether he was friend or foe. However, she learned quickly as soon as he spoke.

“Where you off to, little darlin’?”

It was the same man as before. The one whose voice had sent shivers down her spine. She looked up and could him towering over her, no longer wearing a mask but face nearly concealed by darkness. She shuttered as he held his rifle up and pressed against her forehead.

“I have to give it to you, you almost got away.”

Her legs locked as she shook in fear, tears streaming from her eyes. She felt cold. Sheer terror tore her stomach into knots. “No…” she said with a trembling voice.

The man paused with the barrel still pressed against her head. She could see his long jaw and thick stubble on his cheeks. Shaggy hair hung to the side over his forehead. His eyes appeared as two black holes as though there was nothing underneath.

“Don’t worry. It’ll be quick. You won’t feel a thing.”

“Why?” she cried out.

After a heavy sigh, the man spoke. “Nothing personal, sweetheart. Just business. Now close your eyes and go to sleep.”

She clenched her watering eyes as a white burst of light pummeled her being followed by silent darkness that consumed everything around her.

Chapter Four

Welcome to Redwood

 

For the longest time, the Bechdel Mansion had remained an old, dusty, and vacant shadow of itself. There was always some morbid fascination with the place in the decades that followed. The town of Redwood had grown wary of the association and tried to distance itself from the mansion and the family’s supposed curse. The Redwood city council tried several times to have the house demolished and leveled, but were met with resistance every time.

George Bechdel’s will rescinded all his financial assets and properties to his bank to be invested accordingly. The estate, he contended, must always remain. He explicitly forbid the destruction of the mansion and/or liquidation of the property. This, Bechdel’s lawyers explained, was non-binding. What was the bank going to do with a one hundred year mansion with such a history? Apparently they had several offers.

Boris Sokolov, a wealthy Ukrainian business man, moved his large family into the mansion one summer day in June 1992. He had high hopes of remodeling the mansion and suiting it to his families’ elegant needs. Two weeks after moving in, the Sokolov’s were out with little explanation to their hasty departure. All of their furniture hadn’t even been moved in yet.

In 1996, Christopher Taylor, a famous Hollywood director leased the mansion to shoot his latest horror movie. It only took a week for the trouble production to immediately shutdown and Taylor was on his way back to California with his demoralized cast and crew. Nobody ever said the reason why as though they had been sworn to secrecy. Taylor never made a movie again.

Five years later, the Bechdel estate found another purchaser—a wealthy Manhattan land developer who had big plans for the mansion. Eugene Garland moved his wife and four children into the mansion. His family was largely oblivious to the lore surrounding the mansion. Garland, himself, didn’t believe in that kind of stuff. He died in his sleep from a heart attack three weeks after moving in.

Then for a while, there were no buyers. No tenants. No renters. No one wanted to go near the house, and to prevent future financial liability, the bank constructed a six foot high perimeter fence around the premises, complete with pointed metal spikes at the top. It is there to this day, that the house remains.

 

***

October 9, 2016

 

Mary woke up upon bumping her head against the passenger window. It was daylight out and her fair-skinned face felt hot from the flashing rays of sunlight beaming through the oak tree branches along the leaf strewn road. Her husband, Curtis, was at the wheel of their Ford Expedition SUV as a twenty-six foot moving truck followed behind them. Soft rock played from the stereo as Mary tilted her head up and squinted against the blinding sun. Her neck ached and she didn’t know how long she had been out for. She reached for her glasses on the dashboard as Curtis glanced over from behind his own shades.

“Hey. You’re awake,” he asked.

Mary felt her neck and shook her head. “How long was I out for?”

“’Bout three hours,” he answered.

Her eyes widened. “Really? You’ve been driving the entire time?”

“I’m good for it. We crossed the state border about an hour ago.”

Mary looked around. A forest of trees, nearly bare of all their leaves, aligned both sides of rural two-lane State Road they were on.

“We’re in Indiana?” she asked.

“Sure are,” Curtis said as they continued down the road, blowing leaves to the side.

A fresh, familiar vision entered Mary’s head. She could see a large boarded up door with two vine-covered pillars on both sides. Beyond the entrance sat an empty fountain in the center of a cracked courtyard, weeds sprouted all around it. “I saw it,” she said. “In my dream, I saw our new house.”

Curtis pulled at the collar of of white polo shirt. His black hair was slicked back and face was clean-shaven with the lingering musk of after shave still there. They had been married for two and a half years. They had a happy marriage and good jobs and lives back in Chicago. Recently, however, all of that had changed, and they were looking to start over.

They had fled the city for a reason: to reach a new beginning under new and better circumstances. The town of Redwood afforded them that opportunity as Curtis had explained to her. He was the primary force in their sudden relocation, and Mary had felt like a simple bystander as of late.

She continued describing her dream and its unsettling visions.

Curtis was less than convinced that the dream meant anything significant. “You’ve the place before. So what’s the big deal?”

“Only in pictures, Curtis. I wasn’t looking at pictures in my dream. I was there and I could see everything. It was dilapidated. Lifeless, like a dead oak.”

“They’ve been renovating all week,” Curtis says. “It’s going to look a lot better now.”

“But people were murdered in that mansion,” Mary said with her hands out. “You should have told me that from the get go. Now, it’s like there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Curtis waved her off. “Mary, please. Those murders took place a long time ago in the seventies. We’ve been through this before. The mortgage alone is to die for.”

Mary turned to him, unamused. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

Curtis gripped the wheel with both hands. “I mean, they offered us a killer deal. What was I supposed to say?”

“Enough,” Mary said. She brushed back one side of her long blonde and turned away, looking out the window.

Curtis took her hand in his with an apologetic tone. “Listen. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make jokes…” he leaned closer. “It’s a ten acre mansion, Mary, for nearly the same price we were paying for a two bedroom apartment in Chicago. This is a miracle.”

“Gee, I wonder why it’s priced so low,” Mary said, turning away. “Maybe because a bunch of people were murdered there!”

Curtis ignored her sarcasm and squeezed her hand. “I don’t care. I feel good about this. After all we’ve been through we deserve it. A small town with a clean slate. It’s perfect.”

Mary turned to him half convinced. Before their marriage she had never went into great detail about her visions. Half the time she didn’t understand them herself. Her visions of the past and future came in spurts from as far back as childhood. Then again, she was an artist working as a freelance illustrator for children’s books. Having “visions” was part of the job.

Curtis began to speak of their future with sheer optimism. “I’m looking into setting up my own practice out here. You’ll have all the room you need to work on your drawings. We’ll have everything we need. He stroked the surface of her jeans above her knee. “We’re going to be okay.”

She looked up at him with a faint smile, struggling to find the right words. “I know. We’ve been through this all before. It’s a great deal. It’s just… something feels off now. I should have went out here with you first.”

“You were in the hospital then,” Curtis said, looking into her blue-green eyes. There was nothing we can do about that. I’m sorry. I had to make the decision, and I still think it’s the right one.”

Mary simply nodded in response, holding her emotions in. It was hard to believe how quickly things had fallen apart over the past year, but she did love him and felt committed to their future together.

Curtis slowed to a halt at an empty intersection. The moving truck following them stopped, headlights filling the rear-view mirror. Curtis looked both ways at the stop sign and continued on as the moving truck shifted and followed.

Mary looked ahead and saw a traffic sign ahead: Redwood 5 Miles. They were close. Curtis held her hand with his other hand steering. She wondered if there was still time to turn back, to return to their former lives before it was too late.

The moving truck behind was packed with everything they owned packed and loaded in haste. One day, they were in their apartment eating dinner, the next day movers were loading up their things. Would they ever return to the city or would Redwood be their home for the rest of their lives?

The passed over bumpy railroad tracks, when a long semi-truck, the first vehicle they had seen in miles, roared past them from the opposite direction. As they neared Redwood, Mary still had questions, she should have asked from the get-go but didn’t.

“How did you find out about this place?” she asked him as they passed a small gas station and country store. There were a few people in the parking lot and one car at one of the two pumps available.

“I told you this, remember?” Curtis said. She didn’t so her continued. “Tony Searle. My buddy in real estate. He put me in touch with a realtor in Redwood, Bob Deckers. Bob told me all about it. Mansion has been sitting dormant for over a decade.” Curtis laughed to himself then continued. “Lots of superstitious people out there I imagine.”

“Can you blame them?”

Curtis turned to her, seemingly exhausted of the subject. “We got lucky, Mary,” he said. “And we should be grateful for that.”

Rolling prairie fields and lush forest encompassed the surrounding area. The rural isolation was disquieting but comforting at the same time. They had truly escaped. Up ahead on their right, there was a large wooden sign half the size of a billboard. It overlooked a deep, watery canal. Etched on the sign were giant letters, clear as day: Welcome to Redwood Est. 1826. A small wooden sign hung below the big one on small links of chain: Population: 1,600. Mary wondered how accurate the numbers were. Perhaps she could adjust to life in the country after all. She would have to see the mansion first. Not in some kind of dream or vision, but right in front of her. She would make up her mind from there.

 

***

Curtis turned onto Main Street, an old-style brick road along the so-called “historic” district. He slowed as Mary took in all the quaint shops and buildings around them. There was an old theater a box office and marquee that read, “Autumn Celebration VC Fairgrounds OCT 15 & 16.”

Next to the theater was a green building, three stories high with two American flags flapping from its midsection. A red canopy hung over the first floor of a furniture store that was open for business. As they continued, Julie took notice of a grand mural sprawled across the side of the building detailing a herd of frontiersmen journeying up a hill of bare pine trees.

There were other historical markers along the way, including some statues among trim bushes and benches. They passed a deli and crafts store—all resembling mom and pop shops. They weren’t in Chicago anymore.

The police station was a small brick building with a sloping teal roof-top. To the left was the town square where a large fountain sprayed water, mushrooming out on all sides. Across from the fountain was a domed stage with several rows of empty benches. Past the dome, Julie could see a park with fading grass and fall leaves strewn across the ground. People walked about wearing sun hats and shades, pushing baby strollers or walking their dogs. There was serene quality to the town unlike anything Mary had felt in some time.

Heads glanced in their direction, young and old. Their mini-convoy did not go unnoticed. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there were plenty of people visiting shops, having lunch, or just out for a stroll. There was an old village vibe to the town, slightly modernized, but still steeped in the history of old buildings and roads. The brightness of the town resembled nothing in Mary’s own visions, and for the time being, she felt at peace.

“Nice little town,” Curtis said.

Mary nodded along observing shops on her side among bike racks and newspaper stands. Aside from its humble and welcoming aura, the town so far looked like something out of an amusement park. Though Mary kept such thoughts to herself. The intersections ahead had old fashioned traffic lights on each side of the street, attached to poles. Their light was green, but a child on a bike rode across right in front of them, not even looking.

“Look out!” Mary shouted.

Curtis slammed the brakes as the car screeched to a halt. Mary flew forward and was thrust back as her seatbelt locked. Her hair whipped up. Bags catapulted from the back seat. Mary’s purse hit the dashboard. The moving truck behind them slammed their brakes as Mary glanced into the rear-view mirror, terrified at the prospect of a collision.

The child, a young boy, stood frozen in place at the grill of the SUV came within inches of his face. The moving truck halted. Its front end dominated the rear-view mirror, but it did not hit them. The boy came to his senses, hopped on his bike, and peddled off without looking back. Curtis sat at the wheel, dumbfounded and nearly out of breath. Mary felt her chest where the belt had yanked her. She was pretty sure it was going to leave a mark.

“Holy shit…” Curtis said, dazed. “That was a close one.” He pressed the driver’s side button. The automatic window began going down as Curtis stuck his head out the window. “Hey!” he shouted at the fleeing boy.

Mary grabbed his shoulder. “What are you doing? Stop it.”

Curtis turned to her as though he was completely justified. “I was just going to ask if he was okay.” The light was still green and heads were turning in their direction.

“Just go. People are watching us,” Mary said.

Frustrated, Curtis gunned it through the intersection as the moving truck followed, no doubt feeling a little on edge themselves after that close call. They passed a few more buildings and then turned left off Main Street along a glistening lake that stretched for a mile.

Some locals were spread out around the lake, standing in ankle-high grass as endless forest stretched behind them on the horizon. Curtis steered along the wide curve in the two lane road still shaken from the incident.

“Can’t believe he just came out in front of us like that. Where are his parents?”

“It’s okay,” Mary said. “Just grateful nothing bad happened.”

“Nearly had a damn heart attack,” Curtis said, shaking his head. “Kids…”

Mary looked out her window as they drove past homes concealed within the forest brush and spread out with No trespassing signs posted on guide posts and gates blocking dirt trail entrances. The rural homeowners seemed to revel in their privacy and privacy was exactly what Curtis and Mary were looking for.

“How much farther?” Mary asked.

“About five miles down here,” Curtis said. “Excited?”

“I am,” she said. It was all she could say.

Curtis looked away, convinced enough. Mary glanced at the dashboard clock. It was a little after three.

As they continued down the road, other homes became more sporadic. Soon Mary didn’t see any. Were they really going to live out here? What were they going to to do with a two story, ten thousand square foot mansion? Mary closed her eyes, trying to calm her nerves while telling herself that she had to give it a chance.

She then had a sudden vision of a large hall with open windows thin white curtains blowing in the wind. A distant voice called to her from darkness at the end of the hall where she could see the faint glow of red eyes. Her heart seized and she couldn’t move. She snapped out of it, clutching her chest with a gasp

“What is it?” Curtis asked, looking over with concern.

“Nothing…” she said, rubbing her head. “I was… just thinking about that boy. How terrible it would’ve been.”

Curtis took her hand again and squeezed. “No need to worry. I wouldn’t have let anything happen to him.” He tapped his steering wheel. “You’re looking at the model of a safe driver here.”

Mary smiled even though she still didn’t feel right. The closer they got to the mansion, the worse she began to feel. She squeezed her forehead again while holding Curtis’s hand. She felt dizzy, frightened even. Curtis must have noticed something in her fading color or nodding forward.

“Mary? Mary!”

Before she knew it, her head dropped down and hit the dashboard without a moment’s notice. She was out cold.

Chapter Five

Homestead

 

Mary woke up, reclined in chair inside mansion near a living room window with an icepack over her forehead. She had no idea how long she had been out for. The sun was still out and she could hear movement all around her. Curtis was nowhere to be seen. She rose up from the chair with a sore neck and scanned the empty room where boxes were strewn across the floor. A large water bottle had been placed at her feet. She grabbed the bottle and took a long swig from it, immediately subsiding her thirst. She looked around the room, getting her first glimpse inside of the mansion with no idea how she had even got there.

 

She left the living room and walked through the two large double doors were propped open, revealing the busy courtyard outside. She briefly covered her eyes as she walked down the steps into the courtyard where a barrage of people and unfamiliar faces moved around in a dizzying bustle. She turned to face the mansion as it towered over her. It’s faded gray walls were covered in winding vines green brush growing spread on all sides. Its windows were thick with grime and dust. Its arching roof top was covered in leaves and debris, gutters full. An elegant center deck on the second floor looked out into the entire property.

An empty fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard filled to the brim with branches and dead leaves. She turned back to the mansion, taking its looming sight in. This was it. This was where they were going to live. It didn’t look nearly as dilapidated as it had appeared in her dreams.

Curtis had hired renovation team weeks ahead. There were several landscapers on site, eradicating decades of foliage growth with electric trimmers and mowers. Men with pressure washer hoses sprayed the front of house, turning the hard exterior surface from gray to white. There were also painters on site, janitorial services, carpenters, and other renovation teams. Mary lost count of them all. She shuddered to think of the cost.

The reality was that both she and Curtis had dipped into their savings to pay for it all. For the life of her, she hoped that it would be worth it. Their moving truck was parked next to the courtyard fountain, backed in hear the front door. Curtis at the rear directing the movers as they unloaded their living room set, placing different pieces of furniture around the court yard. Mary felt strangely detached, and she couldn’t pinpoint why

The sun was temporarily concealed by passing clouds, providing some much needed shade. She looked to the driveway circling the courtyard where a line of vans and trucks were parked. Even with all the busy work going on, there was still a lot of work to do. The thought of the cobwebs and rodents alone made Mary queasy. Despite her lingering apprehension, she couldn’t help but feel the excitement in the air. They actually owned a mansion. Everything that had brought them to this moment seemed unreal.

She walked along pebbled ground toward the moving truck to talk to Curtis. She had seen pictures of the mansion before, but within its presence she felt as though she had walked the same path many times before. She stopped beside the moving truck and looked up to the center balcony where a white curtain flowed into the air from an open window, it fabric torn.

A pest control van drove pulled up next to her, out of nowhere, and parked behind the long line of vehicles. She took in the disorienting sounds of the pressure washers, gas-powered hedge trimmers, and lawn mowers around her. There was so much activity going on, she didn’t know what she could do, if anything, to lend a hand. Everything had already been set in motion. Curtis had seen to that. What could she do, if anything, but accept their brash relocation?

She approached Curtis as he directed the movers from the rear of the truck. “What happened? How did I get inside?” she asked, startling him.

He turned around, head sweating with stains showing through his white polo shirt. Mary was wearing blue jeans and blue drape halter top that exposed her shoulders. There wasn’t a bead of sweat on her, and she felt guilty having passed out with so much work to be done.

“You gave us quite scare,” he said. “That’s what happened.”

“Yes. But how did I?” she said, struggling to form the very question at hand.

“Get inside?” Curtis answered with a shrug. “We carried you in there. You just passed out. Your head hit the dashboard, and you were out cold. I pulled over and tried to wake you.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, confused.

Curtis turned away from the movers and placed his hands over her shoulders. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Maybe it’s the heat. I called an ambulance about ten minutes ago, but look at where we are.” He spread his arms out wide, indicating just how isolated they were. She said nothing as he looked into her eyes with genuine concern. “How do you feel now?”

“Better,” she said with a faint smile.

He then turned to her side and held his arm out. “Well then. Would you like a personal tour of the premises now, Mrs. Malone?”

“A tour would be great.”

She put her arm around his as they walked off together, past the courtyard toward the marble steps leading inside. As the hired workers moved around them, Mary felt invisible. They ascended the front steps, arm in arm, leading to the large double-door entrance. The more she saw of the mansion, the more she felt at home.

Creeping anticipation for what lay behind each room increased with each step. Water mist from the pressure washer fell onto her arm from afar. Much of the grim and buildup on the right side of the house had already been removed. They reached the top step and Mary could see a darkened foyer ahead.

“Oh,” Curtis said. “Still trying to get the power on out here.” She followed him inside and could see rays of light hitting dusty hardwood floors from the open windows. “Got the water turned on though,” he added with pride.

“So… No power?” Mary asked.

Curtis let out a nervous laugh. “Trying to get ’em out here today, but it’s not looking good.”

Mary thought to herself for a moment. “Maybe we should just find a hotel for the time being.”

“Nonsense,” Curtis said with a squeeze around her waist. “It’s our first night. We have to stay.”

“But there’s no power,” Mary said. “And this place is a dust bowel.”

She looked down the vast empty foyer and observed its cobweb-covered chandeliers, hanging from the high ceiling above. Ahead of them was a long, winding staircase leading to the second floor. There were halls at both ends of the foyer, leading to a variety of different rooms—seven rooms on the first, eight on the second. Though there was plenty to explore, she felt a strange knowledge of the layout without even looking.

Curtis leaned over and kissed her on the head. “Shall we continue the tour?”

She turned her head slightly, smiling. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Curtis released her and backed away, pulling a folded paper from his pocket. “I’ve got a layout here.” He unfolded the paper as Mary looked to down the dark hall to their left. Nothing immediately grabbed her interest.

Curtis pulled a mini flash light from his pocket and shined a light on the map. The endless symphony of pressure washers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers continued outside, unabated. Mary walked in the center of the foyer. Her soft shoes barely made a sound on the dusty hardwood floors. She looked to her right toward an adjacent room that could very well be considered an extension of the foyer, though she found something peculiar about it.

“The lounge…” she said softly. “Is this where it happened?”

“Sorry?” Curtis said, holding the layout under his mini flashlight.

“Nothing,” Mary said. “How big is the kitchen?”

Curtis scanned around the layout, trying to answer. “Kitchen?”

Mary turned to her right and began walking.

“Yeah, that way,” he said, looking up. He hurried to catch up with her as she continued down the dark hall. Mary stopped in her tracks and looked up as Curtis stopped beside her.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah…” she said in a distant tone. She closed her eyes and touched her forehead, sighing.

“What is it, honey?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said, lowering her hand, eyes open. “I’m fine.”

He caressed her shoulder with concern. “Maybe you should lie down. I don’t want to you to another… incident.”

“I’m fine. Let’s see the kitchen,” she said, walking ahead. She looked up to where the ledge of the second floor ended and stopped again.

Curtis halted as his shoes squeaked against the floor. “Now what is it?”

Mary scanned the area in deep concentration. “How much do you know about the Bechdels?”

“Who?” Curtis asked, clutching the layout.

“The Bechdels,” Mary repeated. “The family who were murdered here.

Curtis dropped his arms to the side. “Honey, that forty years ago. We’ve been through this. I didn’t know you were so superstitious.”

“As home owners we have a right to know exactly what happened here.”

Curtis turned around, unsure of what to say. A smile hit his face as a thought sprung to mind. “How about we go to town tomorrow. They have this quaint library, you’d love it. And I’m sure they have plenty of crime books if you’re into that kind of thing.”

Mary nodded with a blank stare, seeming neither taken with or against the idea. She continued down the hall and entered a long, empty room with two windows on both sides—caked with enough dirt and grime to block the sunlight from entering.

“I believe this is, or was, the dining room,” Curtis said, shining his flashlight around.

Mary looked around in awe. “Enormous…”

The air was stuffy and smelled of old wood. Curtis went to the first window at his right and tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. He handed the map and flashlight to Mary and turned back to the window, pushing up against it. “This is ridiculous,” he said grunting. “We need to get all the windows of this place opened, and air this place out.”

Suddenly, the front doors swung open down the hall at the foyer. Two well-built men wearing white pants and shirts with a moving business logo entered. Curtis turned toward the foyer and signaled to Mary. “I gotta keep things moving, babe.”

Mary nodded. With Curtis gone to help the movers, she felt free to explore. She approached the window he couldn’t open and ran her hands down the warm glass, trailing lines of dust. Now that they had started, she felt the urge to explore every room in the house, top to bottom. She approached a set of double doors at the end of the dining room, eager to see the kitchen beyond its simple amenities.

She turned both knobs and pulled the heavy oak doors open as dank, musty air hit her senses. Like the rest of the house so far, all the windows were closed and caked with dirt and mildew buildup over the years. She entered the kitchen, fearless, and turned on the mini flashlight. Dust rained down as she moved the light through the darkened room. There were several counter tops and cabinets that reached the ceiling. The kitchen looked as though it could have been considered at one time the height of elegance.

There as a large industrial-sized antique over in the corner. She wondered if it was still operational. To her immediate right was a sink the size of a bathtub along flat, dusty countertops that stretched the entire length the room with more cabinets overhead than she knew what to do with.

She walked along the tiled floor past the thick, granite counter tops where she came upon a vast pantry with dozens of shelves bolted to plaster walls. There was energy in the room that she couldn’t quite pinpoint.

She walked away from the pantry, exploring the rest of the layout when suddenly, a jolting metal clang hit the floor a few feet ahead of her. She jumped and raised her flashlight, only to see a metallic spoon on the ground. It had fallen from a nearby hook on the wall. How long it had been there, she had no clue. The kitchen needed work. That much was clear. She had seen enough, though, and walked with haste back through the dining hall to the foyer where the movers were carrying in boxes. Curtis stood to the side on his cell phone, pacing back and forth.

“We’re moving in today. Do you understand that? I was scheduled for activation yesterday.” He paused, annoyed. “Look, I know how old this property is, but your company was given plenty of notice to turn our power on.”

It wasn’t looking good. Mary smiled and nodded at the movers as they breezed past her. She wasn’t sure what was in each box that they set down. She and Curtis had packed everything the prior weekend, and her head still wasn’t clear. Once their possessions were inside, she figured they could decide where to move it later, such was her exhaustion with the hasty move.

At first glance, the mansion seemed excessive in its size. Everything they owned could probably fit in the foyer alone. The thought of having so much space was overwhelming, and the thought of living behind these walls felt almost like a dream. What were they doing?

Curtis had spent the last few weeks convincing her they were making the right decision. He had made assurances of a fresh start and the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in their lives. She knew him to be impulsive, but in the end, she agreed to it. As she stood in the foyer, surrounded by boxes, she wondered when the true reality of their investment would settle in.

“Just send someone out today. Please,” Curtis said on the phone, out of patience. “We cannot and will not wait until Monday. That is final.” He hung up the phone and shook his head in frustration.

Mary’s gazed up the staircase, eager to see what the rooms looked like above and if they matched any of her earlier visions. It was funny to think of such a vast living space having remained vacant and undisturbed for so long. Though before she jaunted off into the unknown, she approached Curtis for an update.

“Everything okay?”

Curtis turned to her, flustered. “Yeah. Damn Power Company is playing games. They say that their service hours don’t run on the weekend, but our appointment was yesterday.” He looked around. “Do you see any power on, because I certainly don’t?”

She touched his arm. “I’m going to look around some more. Want to join me?”

Curtis brought his hands up to his head, massaging his temples. “Nah. That’s all right. Why don’t you go check out the master bedroom before I have them move in the rest of our stuff?”

“Sure thing,” she said with a smile.

She walked way toward the stairs climbed the white marble steps as they winded to the second floor. The faded brass railing had circular see-through patterns on it that ended at two thick rail posts at the top of the stairs. A glass chandelier hung within eye level over the floor below. She the foyer below as well as the lounge room where they were standing a while ago. Dizziness fell over her again, but she chalked it up to her hasty jog up the stairs.

She turned to the right and went down the hall headed toward the master bedroom, second door on the right. The doors on both sides of the hall were open halfway, exposing darkened empty rooms. She pushed the master bedroom door open and realized that she hadn’t even looked at the folded blueprint layout tucked into her pocket. This was the room. She just knew it.

The arched windows in the bedroom were nearly the size of the entire wall. They were less dirty than most and the sunlight beamed in, illuminating the bare hardwood floors that were so dusty, she left footprints as she walked across. The white ceiling was high and the walls were gray-patterned with sterling light fixtures bolted along the way.

She approached the windows, curious to see the view from their bedroom. The backyard was enormous with grass so high it covered a stone walkway that lead to a sizable gazebo covered in vines. Beyond the gazebo was thick forest, seemingly untouched by man. With its abundance of trees and underbrush, there was no denying that the backyard was a mess. She couldn’t imagine the amount of upkeep it was going to take to keep everything under control. Could they even afford to live here? Perhaps that was the scam to the entire place.

She turned to the bathroom at the other end of the room and went over to check it out. With a click of her flashlight, she looked inside, not surprised to see more space than they knew what do with. There was a long counter with two sinks, a bathtub, a standing shower, a bidet, and a toilet, golden but heavily faded. She left the bathroom with her mind racing. She had never been in a mansion let alone believed she’d ever live in one.

“Mary, where you at!” Curtis’s voice shouted from the hall.

“Back here,” she said, walking out of the room to meet him. He was leading the movers down the hall as they carried a mattress box spring. “Wait a minute,” she said. “We need to clean these floors before putting anything in here.”

The movers stopped with a large sigh between them as they lowered the mattress. Curtis stood nearby, dazed but understanding. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He turned to the movers. “Hold up, guys. We gotta clean these rooms up first.”

They leaned against the mattress and shrugged. Curtis turned to the staircase as Mary followed. “I can help clean,” she said.

“Mary, we’re paying these people. I want you to take it easy.”

“We’re not royalty,” she said as they descended the stairs. “It’s our house, and I want to help out.”

Curtis said no more. They walked through the foyer and back outside where the collective work of a dozen landscapers, painters, and movers continued.

As she walked into the courtyard, Mary glanced up into the window near the second-story balcony. She could see someone standing there watching them. At first glance, she assumed it to be the one of the two movers who brought the mattress up. Her attention went to the front door where both men walked outside. Her heart seized as she glanced up to the window again, but no one was there.

***

Later that evening, Mary and Curtis sat on the floor of their master bedroom. Their mattress sat in the corner with blankets strewn over it. Among them sat two burning candles, a pizza box, and an open bottle of wine on the floor. It had been a long day, and they were both ready to call it quits. Mary wore a nightgown she had pulled from her luggage. Curtis wore a pair of plaid pajamas from his carry bag.

Their first night in the house so far seemed peaceful and relaxing. Mary wondered at the thought that she could ever get used to living here.

“I heard some scratching in one of the rooms downstairs,” Mary said, taking a sip of wine from her glass.

Curtis tipped his wine glass with a smile. “Not to worry, my dear, pest control will be here all week.”

Mary didn’t know how much to tell Curtis about her visions and the spoon incident from the kitchen. It all seemed inconsequential. She wanted nothing more than to embrace their new life, but there was an undeniable uncertainty brewing from within.

“What are we going to do with all this space?” she asked, taking a sip. “Did you ever think about that?”

“What do you mean?” Curtis asked.

Seated cross-legged, Mary leaned forward feeling a tad combative, courtesy of the wine. “This place is large enough to fit a family of twenty. It’s nice, but it’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

“I think it’s perfect,” Curtis said, leaning against the bed. Its frame sat in against the wall near them currently unassembled.

“My mother thinks we’re crazy,” Mary replied, “and I’m starting to believe her.”

Curtis touched her bare knee with affection. No matter how determined she was to press him, he wouldn’t let her. “Fair enough, but there’s a lot your mother doesn’t know about the circumstances that brought us here are.”

Mary set her glass on the floor and leaned back, stretching. The floor had been clean and was a startling difference from what it had looked like a few hours ago. The same couldn’t be said of every room. There was still a lot of work to be done.

“A lot of it still doesn’t make sense to me,” she said, looking up at the high ceiling above.

Curtis scratched his head with a sigh. “What doesn’t make sense?” he asked as though obligated.

“Why we moved here. Not Redwood. Not a small town, but this mansion. What are you trying to prove?”

Curtis smiled, took both empty wine glasses, and stood up. “I think we should just call it a night. We have a big day tomorrow.”

“Don’t deflect,” Mary said, her voice raising. “Why can’t you just give me a straight answer?”

Curtis step forward unable to mask his increasing frustration. “What do you want to know?”

“Why did you move us here?” she shouted. “You purchased this property with our money while I was in the hospital. It’s not right.”

Curtis ran his hands through his hair as his eyes closed. Mouth opened, he turned around without saying a word.

“What?” Mary said, waiting. “Spit it out.”

He spun back around, eyes fierce and angry. “I took action, okay? I made a decision for us because that’s what husbands do. I wasn’t going to just sit around twiddling my thumbs. You hated Chicago. You told me as much. That city was draining us both.”

“Part of me wishes that you just waited until we had the time to really discus this,” Mary said. “Not it’s too late.”

Curtis threw his arms down. “You’re sounding ridiculous!”

Suddenly, both candles erupted in a bright burst of flame and then immediately extinguished leaving the room pitch black. Mary and Curtis sat silently in the dark, neither of them too keen on what had just happened.

“Just great,” Curtis said.

He leaned down, pulled a light from his pocket, and tried to re-lit them, but the wick wouldn’t take on either candle.

What’s wrong with these piece of shit candles?” he shouted.

“Calm down,” Mary said.

He sat back on the floor, deflated. “How about we just call it a night?”

“What just happened with those candles?” Mary asked. “Don’t you think that was strange.”

Curtis skidded close to her and put his arm around her. “It’s okay,” he said with tenderness. “I’m sorry I got angry.”

“Me too,” she said, placing her hand over his arm. He kissed her on the forehead as she stared at the sliver of smoke flowing from each candle. She still couldn’t wrap her head around it. “Weird…” she said softly.

“Tell me about it,” Curtis replied.

They sat together for a moment lost in their own thoughts as her affection for Curtis subsided earlier discontent. He had done his best, she believed, and she wasn’t going to harp on it any longer. There were, however, real issues she couldn’t ignore.

Beyond the strangeness of the mansion, she was most concerned about the upkeep. How could they possibly afford it? reality was that they were living in a mansion that they both could not afford, not the mortgage but the upkeep. A couple moves into a mansion large enough to fit a family of twenty. It was an insane idea but for that moment, she felt like she had to accept it for what it was.

Chapter Six

A Stroll through Town

 

Mary awoke to sunlight beaming into their room, feeling disoriented. Curtis’s side of the mattress was empty and she could hear movement downstairs. For a moment, she lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling. It felt strange to wake up in a new place, especially when she remembered where she was. The Bechdel mansion was a barrage of undiscovered secrets in her mind. It didn’t matter how long ago the murders took place. The house was trying to tell her something. It had been trying to tell her something the minute they left Chicago.

Just as soon as this realization came over Mary, she heard a large thud downstairs followed by several voices. She stretched and leaned over the side of the bed, retrieving her cell phone.

“Damn…” she said upon seeing that it was five past ten. They still had a lot of unpacking, cleaning, and moving to do. Settling in seemed a mammoth task that could take weeks. Curtis also wanted to go into town that day. Mary wasn’t even out of bed yet, and she already felt in over her head. Perhaps just lying in bed was her best option.

The stillness in the air indicated that the power still wasn’t on. It would take a good shower and a big cup of coffee to get her up in moving. She sat up as she heard footsteps clamoring up the stairs in unison and the sound of Curtis’s voice directing the movers. “That’s the guest bed. You can put it in this room here.”

Guest bed? she wondered. What else has he bought?

She heard them shuffle around in the room next door and stepped out of bed. Her bare feet touched the warm hardwood floor as she went to the door and closed it, muffling the commotion. She turned around and looked at the two large windows across the room overlooking the backyard. They were both opened, offering a slight breeze into the room.

She walked to her suitcase and placed it on the bed, zipping it open. Assorted clothes were crammed inside. The double closet in the room was a large enough to hit her entire wardrobe and then some, but for the time being, she was living out of a suitcase.

She grabbed a T-shirt and white shorts and headed for the bathroom, where she would find out just how well the plumbing worked. A small window illuminated the vast bathroom, and as she walked toward the standing shower, loosening her nightgown, she heard the bedroom door open.

She froze and pulled her nightgown back on. “Curtis?” she said. The bathroom door was opened a crack and she cursed herself for being so careless. The footsteps continued as she walked to the door calling for Curtis again. As she pushed the door open, she was taken aback to see a large bearded man, sweaty and panting, wander through the room like a lost child.

“Excuse me!” she shouted, backing into the bathroom.

She heard the man halt. “I-I’m sorry ma’am. I was just looking for a restroom.”

She clutched her chest and backed against the wall. “Well, this is our room! Please talk to my husband and find another.”

The man apologized and stumbled out of the room, closing the door behind him. Mary remained against the wall with an increased heartrate. She couldn’t believe it. She lowered her arms, sighing in frustration and went to the shower. The orange and white checkered tile inside looked old fashion, to say the least, and there two knobs below the shower head. She turned the left knob, assuming it was for hot water, and the pipes rumbled in shook, spraying out water intermittently.

She held her hand into the spray and felt a dash of warmth. After a moment, more water began to flow, but it had an almost sulfuric smell to it. The last thing she wanted to do was to have a strange odor on her. She stood there waiting for it to get better still dressed in her nightgown. Beyond the unwelcomed intruder from a moment ago, she had the strangest feeling that she was being watched.

From outside the bedroom door opened and shut again. Her head whipped around the bathroom door, but she heard nothing else. She turned the water off, frustrated. “Damn it, Curtis. That better be you.” She felt vulnerable even though her door was locked.

“What are you so afraid of?” a man’s voice asked. It sounded almost like Curtis, but she couldn’t tell for certain. Livid, she rushed to the bathroom door and swung it open, prepared to give whomever it was a piece of her mind. Their room was quiet and undisturbed. No one was there. She could feel her heart thumping in her chest. The door was closed. Their mattress was in the corner on top of a boxes-spring, her luggage, Curtis’s carry bag, and a few boxes from downstairs were lay about, but there was no man.

She darted to the open windows and looked below into the lush, overgrown backyard. There was no sign of anyone. She didn’t know what kind of game someone was playing with her, but she didn’t like it. Her hands vaulted at the windows and pulled them shut in anger. She scurried across the room and locked the bedroom door. Taking a shower had never proved so cumbersome. With all security measures in place, she walked back toward the bathroom, stopping at her suitcase as a thought crossed her mind.

She leaned down and tore through her clothes in a frenzy. Her hands stopped as she slowly pulled a .38 caliber pistol from the bottom. She wasn’t going to take any more chances. Feeling frazzled, she went back to the bathroom, locked the door, and set the pistol on the gray tiled countertop. The showerhead dripped in slow intervals as she dropped her nightgown and tried her hand at the knobs again. Water spurted and gushed for a moment before flowing naturally in warm, steady stream. The strange smell had managed to subside as well. She stepped inside, feeling immediate and much needed relief. It was only morning, and already she felt like she was being tested.

 

Showered and dressed, Mary walked downstairs, apprehensive about running into any of the movers. There were several men around, but Curtis wasn’t among them. She politely gave them a “good morning” and continued her search, walking outside to the bright light of the morning, shining down onto the cement courtyard, where the heat felt at its apex.

There were dozens of people outside, many of them still working on the massive lawn and overgrown trees and hedges surrounding the mansion. There was a roofer team above, walking along the top of the mansion and tossing rotted panels into a pile below. That day, Mary imagined, would be much like the day before with different maintenance teams and movers deep into their work. Ahead, next to the moving truck, she saw Curtis. He stood in the shade with a tall, skinny man who wore a red-netted hat. Mary knew him as Skip, one of the two movers who had driven the truck. The other five or six who had recently showed up, she hadn’t met before, but she was certain that the man who came into her room was among them.

She stormed over to Curtis, incensed. He looked up and smiled at her, but when he saw the straight line of her mouth and livid eyes, his smile dropped.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her, eyes brimming with concern.

“Can I talk with you in private?” she asked and glanced at Skip.

Curtis looked around, taken off guard. “Yeah… Yeah, sure.” He excused himself and followed Mary around to the other side of the truck. Once they were alone, she leaned closer and spoke in a soft but forceful tone.

“One of the movers came into our room earlier.”

Curtis’s eyes widened. “What?”

“Yeah,” she said, shaking her head. “I was about to take a shower and he walked right in like he owned the place.”

Curtis covered his mouth. “Oh my God…”

Realizing she was laying it on pretty thick, Mary raised a hand up. “It was an honest mistake, I imagine. He said he was looking for a bathroom, but I didn’t appreciate the intrusion one bit.”

Curtis nodded, biting his lip. “I’ll talk to them. I’m so sorry, honey. They should know better.”

“That’s not all,” she said, cutting in.

Curtis looked even more surprised as though he couldn’t believe the story could get worse.

“After he left, another person came into the room.”

What?” Curtis shouted.

“I was about to get into the shower, and someone came in and said ‘what are you afraid of?’ That was their exact words. I thought it was you at first, but when I opened the door, no one was there.”

“Are you serious?” Curtis asked in disbelief.

“I know what heard.”

Curtis looked around with his hands at his sides and growing increasingly frustrated. “Well, that’s it. Whoever that was, they’re gone. I’ll talk to Skip now. Fire the whole damn team if I have to.”

He began to walk away when Mary clutched his shoulder, holding him back. “That’s not it, Curtis. I don’t think the second man was one of the movers.”

Mouth open, Curtis’s eyes darted around, trying to make sense of it. He looked up to the roofers on top of the mansion. “Then it probably was one of them,” he said pointing. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.”

“I don’t think it was any of them,” she said with conviction.

“What are you saying?” he demanded.

“I think it’s this house. There’s no way someone could have snuck out of our room like that.”

Curtis held both his arms up in frustration. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. So was the first guy real or not?”

“Yes!” she said.

“But the second guy? He was the ghost?” he asked.

She smacked him lightly on the shoulder, taking offense. “This isn’t a joke. We need to find out more about this house before we invest any more of our money into it.”

Curtis calmed down and pulled him closer, hugging her. “I know you’re worried about the future. I am too, but these things you’re seeing, I think it’s all stress.”

Mary backed away in his arms, unconvinced. “Stress?”

“I’ll talk to the movers and roofers, honey, and get to the bottom of this, but I want you to take it easy. You’re not ready for all of this excitement. I can see it in your face.”

“I’m lucid enough to know what I see and hear,” she said.

He squeezed her hands, trying to make a case for calm. As they stood there in front of their supposed dream house, she found it harder and harder to deny him. “Why don’t we get away from this place and go into town? I’m getting a headache just standing here.”

She looked around in deep thought, trying to reach a resolution. It sounded like a nice enough idea, and beyond it all, she had a burning desire to find out more about the Bechdel mansion. Perhaps there were people in town who could help her.

***

They drove into town on a blue sky day, prepared to get the lay of the land and meet some people in the process. The mansion was roughly three miles from any home, store, or gas station, and it was nice to escape all the activity at home and rejoin civilization. Mary tried to put all the recent strangeness out of her mind and enjoy the scenic beauty of the town before them, a stunning contrast to the traffic and noises of the city. They had entered a different world.

It was a Sunday, and they passed a quaint white church like something out of a story book. Amidst its fresh green lawn and picket fence, a congregation flowed out of the double-door entrance toward a side parking lot. A wooden sign sat in front of the church with words professionally painted over saying, First Christ Church of Redwood.

“Looks like we just missed it,” Curtis said with a smile as they passed.

Mary turned and watched the church as families in their dress clothes, men and women, old and young alike, slowly walked along looking cheerful and vibrant. Mary was raised by Baptists parents but couldn’t remember the last time she had been to church. Mark identified as a Christian but went to Church as much as she. Generally, he worked about seven days a week at the law firm back in Chicago, where Mary worked from home as an illustrator for children’s books. She never thought she’d ever marry a lawyer, but something about them just clicked. She had felt it since day one.

“It looks nice,” she said, her head turned to the back window and watching the steeple as they continued on. She sat down and touched Mark’s hand resting on the armrest. “Maybe we should attend services next weekend and get to know some people.”

“Whatever your heart desires,” Mark said with a smirk. He then shook his head. “The things I do for love.”

Mary turned to him, mouth agape. “As if it would kill you to go to church.” She then leaned back against the headrest and placed her sunglasses on. “I think it would be good for us with everything that’s happened.”

“Church is boring,” Curtis said matter-of-factly.

Mary laughed. “This coming from someone who practices law.”

They passed a park where children climbed a jungle gym and a corner store to their right where an older man was fueling up his boat hitched to his truck at the gas pump. Downtown was in sight, and its series of brick roads, light posts, and buildings. “Historic Downtown,” they called it. There was a fire station to their left, small like everything else, that had its bay doors open revealing a shiny red fire truck. A sign on the at the end of the driveway said, “Redwood Fire Department.”

A few blocks past the fire station, they saw the police department again where two officers in beige uniforms were talking outside the door. Their heads turned toward the vehicle as Curtis passed and they waved. Curtis gave them a wave back and smiled. “Isn’t this place something?” he asked Mary.

“It does seem like a safe, nice town,” she said. She scanned the buildings ahead, hoping to see the library. Then she wondered if it would even be open on a Sunday. They passed a book store with carts of old books out front, but that wasn’t what she was looking for.

“You could use this place in one of your stories,” Curtis said. “Take your sketch pad out here and capture it.”

“I plan to,” Mary said, “but it’ll be for fun. I don’t write the stories.”

“I have you called your work yet and let them know you’re settling in?” he asked.

The thought so far hadn’t crossed her mind. She’d been on maternity leave for few weeks and was planning on taking at least one more. “I’ll call them tomorrow,” she said.

“That’s what I like to hear,” Curtis said. “Relax and put it off.” Curtis scanned the shops as they drove down Main Street. Mary knew that he was looking for a potential spot to set up his own practice, but their dwindling finances concerned her. During the drive from Chicago, she had suggested that find a partnership in Redwood. There had to be a law office out there somewhere. He had originally balked at the idea, but they would have to start somewhere.

They came to a parking lot near a pizza place aptly titled “Redwood Pizza,” completely with an old-fashioned hanging sign in front of the door. It was the same place they had ordered from the night before.

“This looks like a good place to park and walk around. Library’s just up the street,” he said, turning in.

Mary was relieved to hear it. Her desire for knowledge on the mansion’s history was inescapable despite the nonchalant, amiable face she was wearing. Curtis parked between a truck and jeep and turned off the ignition while glancing the rear-view mirror.

“Bob Deckers,” he said, surprised.

Mary turned her head. There was a man in suit standing under the canopy of a building behind them. “Who?” she asked.

“That’s the guy who sold us the mansion. Must be his realtor office,” Curtis said. He opened his door and stepped out as Mary put on her sun hat and exited the car, her sandals touching the hot pavement.

They walked to the rear of the car where Curtis maintained his attention on the man by the building. He looked to be in his fifties with gray slicked black hair, darkly tan and lighting a cigarette. “Let’s go talk to him,” Curtis said, taking her hand. “I want to ask him about leasing some space.”

Mary stayed in place and politely moved her hand away. “You talk to him, honey. I want to check and see if the library is open.” The truth was that she was lost in her thoughts and didn’t feel like talking to a lot of people at the moment. She didn’t want to be rude, but it was a feeling she couldn’t deny.

Curtis turned, frustrated but understanding. “At least come say hi to the man. He really helped us out.”

“Later,” Mary said. “I promise.”

Curtis shook his head. “All right. Don’t go far.”

“I’ll meet you at the library,” she said, waving.

“Sure thing,” Curtis said, waving back. She watched as he hurried to the building calling out Bob’s name and shaking his hand. Bob looked startled and surprised to see him. His lips then moved upward to form a big gaping smile as Curtis continued talking. The exchanged words and then Bob slapped Curtis on the back, opening the door to his office and leading him inside. Mary felt free to walk through the town on her own to get a feel of the place. Someone had to have the answers she needed.

What had her visions meant? Was it all really in her head? She was, in fact, a believer in the supernatural. She had seen too many strange things her entire life, but had always suppressed her ability to do so—from as far back as a teenager. There was a lot Curtis didn’t know about from back then, and she was determined to keep it that way.

She approached the sidewalk and moved past the pizza place, passing a closed consignment shop and next door art gallery. Redwood seemed to have a little of everything, and she was excited to see a crafts store with art supplies in the window. It was closed as well, but she made a note to stock up later. A few people passed her by as she smiled and nodded, but there weren’t near as many people out as the previous day.

She heard a church bell toll as the library came into distance—a long gray building with a flat roof and large tinted windows. It was surrounded by vertical metal railing and nicely trimmed bushes. She didn’t see anyone around the building, but something told her to keep going. The open gate in the center was a good sign.

As she walked past a closed bar, a woman stepped into her path from an alley, scaring the hell out of her. She was old and frazzled-looking with a long, dirty and plain dress about two sizes too large for her that concealed her feet and a green jacket. She was seemingly intoxicated as well. Mary froze as her heart skipped a beat.

“Oh my God! You startled me,” she said, carefully moving around the woman.

The woman stared her down, not saying a word, with her gray hair sprouted in all directions. She wore bright red lipsticks amidst the heavy bags under her glazed eyes. As Mary passed, the woman turned to her with a long finger in the air.

“You… You and your husband,” she said in a low, scratchy voice.

Mary stopped and turned around, facing the woman dumbfounded. “Excuse me?”

“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” the woman said.

Mary stepped forward, angered. “What are you talking about? You know my husband?”

“You don’t belong here. Outsider…” she hissed with contempt. Any normal person would have walked away from the woman, considering her crazy, but Mary felt a strong urge to probe her ramblings further.

“Tell me what you know,” she said.

The woman shook her head, lost in her own thoughts. She looked as though she had just crawled out of a paper bag, but there was something even stranger than her appearance. She exhibited a certain wisdom, concealed behind endless wrinkles and dirty layers of clothing.

The woman opened her mouth to speak when a man approached her from behind and placed a hand on her shoulders. “That’s all right, Evelyn, let’s take you home.”

The woman jumped as Mary stood there in wonder. The man looked up at Mary, clean-shaven with a smile on his face. He had thick white hair, neatly brushed to the side. His dark-blue three-piece suit was a stark contrast to the woman’s tattered and oversized clothes.

“Hi, I’m Phil,” he said, extending his hand.

Mary nodded and shook his hand. “I’m Mary. Nice to meet you.”

The woman looked down and mumbled to herself, her train of thought broken.

“I apologize if ol’ Evelyn gave you a scare. She wandered from the retirement home again.” He squeezed the woman’s shoulder. “She’s been gone all night. The staff has been worried sick.”

Mary smiled. “Well, I’m glad she has somewhere to go.”

The man narrowed his eyes in curiosity at her. “You and your husband just moved here, correct?”

“Wow. Word gets around,” she said.

“It sure does,” Phil responded.

“That’s correct,” she said. “We arrived yesterday.”

“And you’re staying in the old mansion, eh?”

“We are. It—It’s been interesting so far,” she said.

Phil smiled again, exposing bright white teeth. “I certainly hope you get settled in okay.” He paused for a moment and stepped closer to Mary as Evelyn rocked in place muttering. “I’m the pastor at the First Christ Church of Redwood. Pastor Phil they call me. I sure hope you and your husband can attend our services sometime.”

Mary nodded politely with a smile.

Realizing that he may have been a bit forward, Phil backtracked. “That is… if you’re practicing members of the faith.”

“I’m sure we’d love to check it out sometime,” she said.

Phil snapped his fingers as though recalling something. “We’re having our annual summer Barbecue next week. Y’all should come on out and see everyone.”

“That sounds… really nice,” she said.

Seeming satisfied, Phil turned back to Evelyn and took her by the hand. “It was nice meeting you Mrs. Malone, but I gotta take ol’ Evelyn here back home.”

“Pleasure meeting you as well,” she said, though she didn’t recall telling him her last name.

He waved and walked off with Evelyn in tow and then turned around, calling out to Mary. “I look forward to meeting your husband!”

Mary waved back and watched as they moved across the crosswalk to the other side of the road. A few cars passed as she stood there thinking about the woman’s words. They could have been the ramblings of a mentally damaged woman, or they could mean something more. She turned back to the library, reading to investigate and uncover whatever was behind the creeping strangeness that seemed to follow her wherever she went.

Chapter Seven

Unearthed

 

Mary was glad to see that the library was, in fact, open. There were a few rooms with rows of old bookshelves and several empty chairs and tables in the center for patrons to sit and read at. There was an older man at the check-out table sitting on a stool reading a newspaper. He wore a checkered button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and looked up at Mary as she walked in with his rectangular-shaped glasses resting on the tip of his nose. Inside, the library was eerily quiet as sunlight shined through the cracks of blinds of surrounding windows. She found the vintage aesthetic of the white plaster walls and faded red carpet before her comforting but also felt nervous being the only person there—so she thought.

“Good morning,” she said to the man, approaching his counter.

His wrinkled face gave her a polite smile and he eyed her like the complete stranger she was. His black, thinning was slicked back and his skinny neck hung down in folds. He appeared frail and skinny, and when he spoke, she detected a northeastern accent. Like her, she assumed that everyone in town was from somewhere else at one point, or maybe families had been in Redwood for generations. It was exactly what she intended to find out with the time she had to look around.

“Morning,” he said back. “Welcome to the Redwood Public Library.”

“Thanks,” she said, looking around. “I wasn’t sure if you were open today or not.”

“Seven days a week. My wife, Sheila, and I hold the place down.”

A mom and pop library? Mary thought. Now she had seen everything. “That’s great,” she said. She didn’t want to point out the empty tables and aisles but the man seemed to have read her mind.

“Sundays are our slowest in the morning. Big church community and all. By afternoon we usually get a good crowd,” he said.

Mary approached the counter and placed her hands flat on its mahogany surface. “I’m Mary. My husband and I just moved here from Chicago. I’d like to get a library card if I could please.”

The man nodded and leaned down, retrieving a large, dusty binder and setting on the counter. “All right, Mary, I’m Hal. I’m sure we can get you set up.” There was an old computer next to him, but he didn’t seem interested in using it. He asked her full name as well as her driver’s license.

She pulled her pocketbook out from her purse and opened it. “Oh. It still has my old address on it.”

“That’s fine,” he said, taking her license. “Just let me know the new one.”

He began scribbling onto a sheet in the open binder, taking down Mary’s name. The subdued quietness of the library alone had her thinking that she’d be spending a lot of time within its walls. “I live at 513 Weatherford Lane,” she said.

Hal stopped writing as his looked up at her. “Weatherford Lane? The old Bechdel mansion?”

She was surprised that he made the connection so carefully. Perhaps the mansion had a reputation all its own. That much seemed evident in the few interactions she had experienced so far in town. “Yes, that would be the place,” she said.

His eyes immediately went back down as he continued writing. “Didn’t think that place would ever sell,” he said.

Curious, Mary leaned in closer. “And why is that?”

Hal looked up again, taken off guard. “Well, it’s just… It’s an old place. Too big for most people. Not really practical in today’s modern world.”

“But it’s so inexpensive,” Mary said. “Hard to believe they’d have a hard time selling it.”

Hal tore a slip from the paper neatly around the edges and handed it to Mary. “I wouldn’t know. Just seems it was held up in probate for God knows how long.” He then handed her a pen. “Sign the card here and you’re all good to go.”

Mary took the card and signed it, not entirely satisfied with what he was willing or not willing to reveal. “Mister?” she paused waiting.

“Hal. Just call me Hal,” she said, sitting back down on his stool.

“Hal. I don’t want to be too forward, but part of why I came here was to get information.”

Hal went for his newspaper and the paused, looking up with an arched brow. “What kind of information?”

“About the Bechdel mansion and its history. The history of this town. I want to find out exactly what happened there and why the murders were never solved.”

Hal leaned back with his arms crossed more reserved than before. “You some kind of reporter? We get some of them from time to time, come around here asking questions and all.”

“No, I can assure you that—”

Hal cut her off with one arm in the air, pointing. “Because if you are trying to dig up some dirt under false pretenses, I’d like you to kindly leave.”

Mary shuffled on the carpet, eager to set the record straight. “Sir. I am not a reporter. My husband and I did just move into the mansion. I’m just curious about its history.”

“Oh…” he said, calming down. “I see. Well you can’t blame me for being suspect. Folks at Redwood don’t bother anyone. They just want to live in a nice, safe community. We’re not spectacles for big city types to come down here and judge us. I think you can respect that.”

“I can,” Mary said. “This is the exact kind of community my husband and I were looking for.”

“It’s a long shot from Chicago, ma’am. I can tell you that.”

She felt restrained from revealing anything more to the man and making him even more suspicious. She wanted to tell someone about the visions she had, the unsettling feeling the mansion gave her, and her overall apprehensiveness, but Hal seemed all business, and that’s exactly how she decided to proceed.

“Can you direct me to nonfiction, please? As I said before, I’d like to read some history about the town.”

“Plenty of books over there?” he said, pointing to a row of wooden shelves in the corner across the room. “Lots of local authors there.” He then paused and looked up, pushing his glasses back. “Of course, if it’s records you’re looking for, you might want to visit the courthouse. They got an office of records there dating back a hundred some odd years.”

Great, Mary thought. She was beginning to have her work cut out for her.

“But you do have a newspaper archive here, correct?” she asked.

“Sure do,” Hal replied. He then paused and eyed her suspiciously again. “You sure you’re not a reporter.” Her face went flush as she placed her hands on the counter, ready to launch into Hal for his unwarranted suspicions. He took quick notice and reversed course with a laugh. “I’m sorry. Can never be too sure around here.” He pointed to a darkened room to side left behind panels of glass where stacks of newspaper where piled on shelves. “That’s our news room there.”

“Thank you,” she said, walking away. Even with her back turned, she could sense him watching her. Perhaps he was reaching for his phone to alert the others that a newcomer was snooping around; an outsider. She stopped at the newspaper room and glanced behind her, only to see Hal going back to his own paper. She sighed with a troubling thought. These people are making me more paranoid of them than they are of me.

She turned the light switch on as walked inside the room, about the same size as her walk-in closet at the mansion. There were two old beige sofa chairs with a circular coffee table between them where a reading lamp sat. There were four tall book shelves aligned on the side of the room filled to the brim with newspapers. Each shelf had a small printed label indicating the press year, and as she walked between the first two shelves, she already felt overwhelmed.

There was a history that the residents of Redwood seemed very protective of. Hal had made that much obvious, though she was curious how long he and his wife had lived here. Maybe if she got to know him better over the weeks, she could find out. She trailed the shelves examining the old, stacks of papers that had long turned yellowish and faded. There were papers dating back to the 1950s. Farther down the aisle she saw some as identified from the 1930s. It was remarkable to see so many old papers stored together in a dusty room. For the time being, however, she wasn’t concerned about those decades. She was looking for one particular decade—one particular year.

She reached the end of the aisle and turned to walk between the next one over, eyes scanning up and down for something of interest. In the middle should could see a label on one of the shelves for 1974-1975, encompassing over five shelves from top to bottom. “Well,” she said to herself. “Here we go.”

Suddenly, her cell phone rang from inside her purse. She paused and pulled the phone out. Curtis was calling her. She answered speaking softly even though there was no one in the library at the moment to disturb.

Hey, babe. Did you make it to the library okay?”

“I sure did,” she said. “Currently standing in a stack of old newspapers.”

Already in the thicket of it, eh?” His voice cut out a little as a gust of wind blew into the phone. “Hey, listen. Bob Deckers wants to take us to lunch. There’s a little diner here across the street open for business. How about you meet us for a bite?”

“That’s fine,” she said without hesitation. “I’ve got to finish what I came here for.”

Come on, Mary. It’s Sunday. You’ll have plenty more times to go to the library this week.”

“Sorry, I’m in the middle of something. I’ll meet up with you when I’m finished.”

“And how long will that be?”

Mary paused and looked around the endless stacks of old newspapers surrounding her. “In a little bit. Meet you in an hour?”

Curtis sighed but held his tongue. “Okay. I’ll text you what they have on the menu.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, honey,” she said. She hung up as he offered a sad-sounding “bye,” and then went back to her search. She guided her hands along pile in the second shelf in front of her and pulled a few folded paper out of the stack almost by instinct. The papers were dated between June and July of 1975.

“Perfect,” she said, walking away toward one of the sofa chairs. She took a seat as a couple walked inside the library. She could see them through the pane glass in the window. They seemed friendly with Hal and walked off together toward the bookshelves. For some reason, Mary found that the people in town made her nervous. It seemed a natural reaction for anyone who was a newcomer, like herself.

She set the papers on her lap onto the floor and grabbed the first one, The Dover County Sentinel. Dover County, she had been told, was the county in which Redwood was located, but the town seemed to exhibit a boundary all its own. The closest town over, Jasper, was at least twenty miles away. Its headline displayed national news on inflation and gas prices. She flipped through the rough, dry pages feeling as though they would tear with the slightest force.

It was interesting seeing the advertisements for old television sets and refrigerators, right next to news articles with men dressed in vintage jean jackets and turtlenecks and women with their long yellow button-down dresses. As she flipped through more old news and captured moments of the past, her eyes stopped on one tiny article in the local section.

She recognized the man in the picture. He looked much younger than before, but there he was wearing a plaid jacket and tie, dark brown hair, but brushed back the same way as before. It was Pastor Phil, and he was standing at a podium with several microphones attached to it. The headline verified her suspicion immediately:

Local Pastor calls for Peace and Calm During Time of Tragedy

She brought the paper closer and read the article, completely engrossed.

“Following the tragic murders at the Bechdel Estate, Pastor Phillip F. Winstead led his congregation in vigil for the victims while urging the town not to fall prey to elements of darkness and fear.”

She lowered the paper, thinking to herself. It all seemed pretty straight forward with nothing suspicious on the outset. However, something told her there was more to the story than what she saw. She reached for another newspaper in the stack and pulled it out, completely engrossed. It was the exact paper she was looking for. “Massacre at the Bechdel Estate,” it said in big black letters. Her head rose as she looked around. The couple were strolling the bookshelves outside the room, Hal was still at his stool.

She didn’t know exactly what the articles would tell her, if anything, but she felt that she was closer than before. She grabbed the entire stack of newspapers and then stood up in haste, walking out of the room and approaching Hal once again.

“Do you have a copy machine here?”

His eyes rose up with their usual uncertainty. He examined her for a moment, hesitant, as she stood, arms clutching a stack of old newspapers.

“Back there,” he pointed.

She turned and could see a large copy machine next to the restrooms in the far corner, past the newspaper room.

“Ten cents a copy,” he added.

She set the stack down on the counter and fished through her purse, handing him a few dollar pills for change. He stopped and nearly sighed as his hands slowly went to the cash register and gave her a handful of change. She thanked him and went to the copy machine, feeling satisfied, even excited.

After a ten or so minutes of fishing through relevant articles detailing Redwood or the Bechdel mansion, she made her copies, one by one, not even realizing that the hour she had told Curtis had already passed. With over twenty copies folded and jammed into her purse she brought the newspapers back to the shelves, realizing that her foray into the room was far going to be her last.

Before leaving, however, she scanned the bookshelves, looking for anything crime related in the nonfiction section. She came across a few travelogue books detailing the “Redwood experience,” and then oddly enough came to a few books on understanding the world of the supernatural. The books were all from small independent publishing presses, and she wondered if the authors were the very locals Hal had boasted about. Odder still was that she knew exactly where to look for every book that ended up in her hands. She’d never had such a seamless experience in a library before.

Hal’s eyes widened as she approached with ten books in hand, plopping them down on the counter. “This’ll be it for today,” she said with an exhausted smile.

“Well, all right then,” Hal replied, marking the books with his scanner. She had more than enough to keep her busy. For the time being.

***

Later that evening, Curtis and Mary took a breather in the master bedroom, admiring the setup. Their dressers and nightstands had been moved in. The bed frame was set up. Mary’s bookshelf was intact along with their television stand and flat screen, and most of their boxes had been unpacked. The walk-in closet was full of shirts, dresses, and pants on hangers along with their shoes, but there was still plenty of room left. It was the first, and only room they had deemed livable in the two days they had been at the house.

In the corner of the room, near the bed sat Mary’s stack of newspapers and books. She had showed up to the diner much later than planned, but Curtis gave her a pass. Bob, the realtor had to go to a meeting, and she never got to meet him. It was a small town, though, and she was sure she’d get the opportunity again soon enough.

“Well, we have one room almost ready to go,” Curtis said, falling on the bed, back first. He held up his hand, counting along his fingers. “That leaves us about… fourteen more rooms.”

“We don’t have enough furniture,” Mary said, pacing barefoot in a pair of black Yoga Pants and white T-shirt. The power had been miraculously turned on while they were out for the day and although the standing lamp in their room worked fine, there was a series of electrical issues throughout the house, leaving many of the rooms without power. Curtis had explained that this was to be expected.

Mary was beginning to miss the simplicity of their apartment in Chicago. She tried her best to understand Curtis’s vision and share it with her, but the endless amount of work ahead was exhausting to consider. Curtis sat up and grabbed the remote, turning on the TV and receiving a screen of white noise instead.

“That reminds me,” he began. “Cable and Internet should be out here tomorrow.” He turned the TV off and tossed the remote aside.

“You know a house like this is going to need permanent upkeep. How are we going to afford it all?” she asked, still pacing.

Curtis groaned and grabbed a notebook lying on the floor, flipping it open. “I’ve charted out our finances right here for the next year. Things will be a little tight through the summer, but as soon as I open up my own practice, we’ll be back in the green.”

Mary initially said nothing. Curtis sounded so sure of himself and confident of their future that she didn’t want to dispirit him, and she certainly didn’t want another argument for their second night in the house. “What’s the plan for tomorrow?” she simply asked.

“Well…” Curtis said, flipping to the next page in his notebook. “The painters will be here to work on the interiors. Got an electrician coming out to sort out the bad wiring. Lawn maintenance begins their long slosh through our jungle of a backyard. Cleaners will be here to take care of the other rooms.” He paused, thinking to himself. “Is that it?”

“Sounds like plenty,” Mary said, taking a seat next to him in bed.

Curtis glanced over at her library find stacked next to the bed. “You never told me much about the library. Did you find what you needed?”

“It’s just a start but yet. The librarian was an older man named Hal. A bit off-putting at first, but I think he warmed to me eventually.”

“Who could resist?” Curtis said with a smile.

Some of Mary’s blond hair had fallen in strands from her hair tie in the back. Her ponytail reached just below her neck. Her face was free of makeup and tired looking. Curtis’s face was thick with stubble from the past few days. It was fair to say that they were both in need of a good night’s sleep.

“He suggested that I go to the office of records near the courthouse,” she said.

“To find what?” Curtis asked, curious.

She turned to look at him. “The history of this town. Of this house.”

“I knew it,” Curtis said with a laugh. “You are planning on writing a book.”

Mary smiled, not wanting to go into too much detail. “Maybe so.”

He took her hand, kissed it, and pulled her closer to him, kissing her soft lips. With a heavier embrace to follow, Mary backed up, holding him at bay. “Honey, please. We’re filthy.”

“I don’t mind,” he said with that look in his eyes.

It suddenly occurred to Mary that they hadn’t made love in quite some time. Not since she went to the hospital. Not since the miscarriage. The feeling in her bones was enough to go on. It was time. She fell back into his arms as they kissed with deep-seated passion. His hands caressed her back, moving her shirt up. She broke away and raised her arms as he pulled the fabric off and tossed it on the floor.

 

Mary awoke in the dead of night on her side of the bed, lying naked next to Curtis. The sheets were pulled up halfway, and she felt a dryness in her throat that she could no longer ignore. The room was dark beyond the blueness of the moon shadowed in through the open windows. The overhead ceiling fan was on, making a strange buzzing noise. The air conditioning unit needed to be replaced and Curtis had told her to expect a new unit there within the week.

Feeling spirited, not to mention thirsty, Mary rose and stepped out of bed, leaving Curtis asleep on his stomach. She grabbed her T-shirt and a pair of boxers lying on the floor and put them on. She wasn’t sure which lights in the house worked yet, so she picked up a flashlight next to the TV stand and left the room to venture toward the kitchen, where there was plenty of bottled water in their new refrigerator.

She crept down the hallway, flicking a light switch on the wall that did not work. She then turned on her flash light and continued down the hall. The house was quiet with nary a disturbance. The noise of their old city seemed like a distant memory. At the moment, Mary would have done anything to hear a car engine, a siren, or a train. She was tired of thinking of their new home as the Bechdel mansion. Maybe Curtis was right. It was so long ago, why couldn’t they just make the place her own? She then came to the stairs, hesitant to enter the black abyss below.

She never considered herself a fearless person. She knew when to stray from danger when it was right in front of her, especially living in Chicago, but if she was to be afraid to venture the house along, day or night, she feared that she could never make the transition work.

“Come on. What are you waiting for?” she asked herself in a soft voice. She pointed the flashlight down the stairs walked down, step by thick, marble step. She reached the foyer and was met with a series of unpacked boxes all over the room. The boxes casted shadows against the light which had her on edge. She couldn’t deny a slight pinch of fear coupled with her increasing heartrate. Her mind was playing tricks on her. She was seeing things—figures against shadow that her mind gave life to.

She rushed past the stacked boxes and headed toward the dining room, closing in toward the kitchen. She flicked on the kitchen light switch in haste. A series of long fluorescent bulbs from above flickered on, much to her relief. Their new stainless steel refrigerator hummed in the corner next to the dishwasher. She approached the fridge with the intent of grabbing a bottle or two and going back to bed, but the grumbling in her stomach told her otherwise.

She swung the fridge open and grabbed two water bottles from the middle shelf, setting them on the counter. Inside, the fridge was practically empty. There was half a tuna salad sandwich Curtis had gotten her from the diner earlier, a loaf of bread, and some cold cuts. Not wanting to spend too much time in alone, she grabbed the to-go box and closed the door. Sandwich and water in hand, she left the kitchen, leaving the light on behind her.

As she passed through the dining room, Mary felt more at ease and less afraid of the bare, looming walls along her way. She turned the flashlight back on, balancing her sandwich and drinks and suddenly heard an unmistakable sound coming from the foyer. She slowed her pace, and listened. It was the familiar scratching sound from before, coming from another room.

Rodents, she thought.

Pest control had done a sweep of the house earlier in the day, but their work was far from over. The scratching ceased and she continued on, when another sound stopped her dead in her tracks: the faint cry of an infant. She couldn’t believe it. She had to be dreaming. She slowed again and followed the sound, past the stair case and toward the rooms on the other side of the hall.

The crying grew louder with each step. Shining her flashlight ahead, she looked down and saw that her hands were trembling. As she stopped at the first door to her right, the crying became clearer. There was no door to muffle it. The sound was coming from the living room. She peeked inside, waving the flashlight around. The crying stopped. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up in unison.

What the hell was it?

She braved forward and entered the living room, clutching the bottles of water against her chest. Ahead in the corner, just beyond the beam of the flashlight, she saw something small huddled in the corner. It looked small and furry. Too large to be a rat or a feline. Too small to be human. The cries resumed. Whatever it thing was, it was most definitely making the noise.

She stopped within five feet of the thing and tried to steady her flashlight. A loud screech from all around startled her, just as the figure came into view, turning its gleaming yellow eyes fang-ridden face in her direction, hissing. She screamed just in time to see the figure scurry off to the other side of the room, burrowing into a small hole near above the baseboard.

The figure had ears, whiskers, and a stripped tale. She stumbled back, dropping her food and water, and bolted for the exit. She ran without turning back, vaulting up the stairs and into the room with adrenaline flowing through her veins.

She closed the door and threw her back against the wall, breathing heavily. “A raccoon…” she said, exasperated. “A freaking raccoon.”

Chapter Eight

A New Discovery

 

Mary woke the next morning still feeling rattled from the incident before. Curtis had just walked out of the bathroom in his robe with steamy mist following him as Mary sat up, agitated. “This house is infested,” she said.

Curtis stopped and dried his bushy hair with a towel, curious. “What are you talking about?”

Mary flipped her legs over and onto the floor as moved to the edge of the bed. “I went downstairs last night to grab a bottle of water and I saw a raccoon, clear as day. It hissed at me and burrowed into a hole in the wall.”

Curtis’s eyes widened. “Oh no. Are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious, and that’s not all. I heard things, Curtis. A baby crying. It was terrifying.”

Concerned, Curtis approached her as he tossed his towel to the floor. “I’m sorry that happened to you. Pest control will be here this morning and they’ll take care of it. He already set up a bunch of rodent traps yesterday just to be sure.”

“It’s not just the raccoon. There’s something strange about this house, sinister even, and it seems to get worse with each day.”

Curtis took a step back and shook his head. It was clear he didn’t want to entertain her notions of the supernatural. “I haven’t seen or heard a thing.”

She opened her mouth, and Curtis cut her off, quick to prevent an argument. “I’m not saying that I don’t believe you. I just think your nerves are a little shot with everything going on. That’s why I want you to relax. We have plenty of people to get this place in working order.”

Mary was anything but satisfied with his response. “I’m not crazy.”

Curtis let out a nervous laugh as he stood in the sunlight beaming into the room. “Of course not. I believe you. I think this is all part of those visions you’re talking about.” He then came closer and knelt down in front of her, taking her hands in his. “I think you have a gift, Mary, and it must be frustrating when no one sees or hears the things you do.” He squeezed her hands, trying to sound understanding. “But I think that’s just what they are, visions and nothing more.”

Mary didn’t know what else to say. It was clear to her that more research on the house was the only answer. She nodded and looked into his eyes with sincerity. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Mark my words.”

Curtis rose, seeming pleased enough. “I think you should. You have an excellent intuition.”

“The whole town is weird,” she said, perhaps too hastily. She looked down and retracted a bit. “Well… At least the people I’ve met so far.”

“Speaking of which,” Curtis said, walking to his dresser and pulling out some clothes. “We’ve been invited to a Barbecue next Sunday at the church.”

“How’d you hear about that?” Mary asked.

Curtis disrobed and put on a pair of shorts and University of Chicago T-shirt, checking himself in the mirror angled on top of the nightstand. “I met someone at the diner before you arrived. He’s the pastor at the church we passed.” He thought for a moment and then snapped his fingers. “Pastor Phil was his name.”

“I met him too,” Mary said. “He approached me on the street. Seemed like he already knew who I was. Same with you.”

“I admit, he did seem very friendly and outgoing.”

“He’s been living here since the seventies. Can you believe that?” Mary said.

Curtis turned with a shrug. “From what I hear, once people move to Redwood, they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

“I’m sure they don’t,” Mary said softly.

Curtis moved toward the door, ready to get started with his day. “Plenty of warm water left in the shower,” he said. He paused, hand on the doorknob and turned back to Mary. “So are you in for next Sunday?”

“The barbecue?” Mary asked.

“Yeah. You said so yourself that we should go to church more often.”

Mary arched a brow. “And I’m sure this has nothing to do with you fishing for prospective clients.”

“It has everything to do with that,” Curtis said with a laugh. “I’ve got to try to make a living somehow.”

Mary nodded. “Sure. Next Sunday. Let’s do it.”

Curtis seemed happy and said he had work to do, leaving Mary in the room as he shut the door behind him. She looked around their nearly setup master bedroom, wondering exactly how she was going to spend the day. It was Monday, and she expected more of the same—landscapers, roofers, movers, and all the like working in unison. More incessant hammering from above, ore lawn mowers blaring, and more and more people than she could even handle. Granted, they were there to help Mary and Curtis fix their dream house, but at that moment, she had never felt so alone.

 

She showered and went downstairs dressed in her sneakers, pink sleeveless button-down shirt and jean shorts, just in time to see Curtis talking with the pest control team in the foyer. There were two men, lanky and young-looking with red polo shirts and hats. They nodded along as Curtis explained to them the potential areas where rodents and other issues could be. He then stopped and looked up at Mary as she came to the bottom of the stairs.

“Ah, there she is,” Curtis said. “Honey, could you kindly show these gentlemen where you saw the raccoon last night?”

“My pleasure,” she said, signaling to the hall to the right. “Right this way.”

The two men thanked Curtis and followed Mary as she led them to the living room. It was empty, just as before, and less ominous in the daytime. Two bottles of water lay on the floor along with a to-go box. Mary carefully picked up the box to see that the sandwich was still inside. Regardless, it was going into the garbage.

She then went immediately to the far corner of the room across the hardwood floor to where she saw the raccoon. As suspected, there were tiny scratch marks on the wall, clear as day.

“Right there,” she said, pointing. “That’s where I saw it last night.”

The pest control teamed eyes the wall, hands on their chins, as Mary went straight across the to the other side of the room. “It ran over here and crawled back into the wall.” She stopped at a hole near the baseboard, about five inches wide. She couldn’t say how the raccoon squeezed in there so quickly, but the hole was evidence enough.

The men approached as the taller one with a goatee shinned his flashlight inside the hole. “Damn,” he said. “We can get in there, but it’s gonna be tricky.”

“Whatever you have to do,” she said. “This particular raccoon seemed very mean. I don’t want to mess around.”

The two men turned and looked at each other. The goatee man scratched his head and spoke with careful reconsideration. “We have a bunch of traps in our van. Of course, we can try to lure it out instead of banging up your wall.”

“She could have babies, Earl,” the other man said. “It’s best to take a look.”

“Fine,” the goatee man said. He then looked at Mary. “That okay with you?”

Mary thought of Curtis and all the effort in money they were putting into fixing the place up. “Keep the destruction to a minimum please.” Though she was eager for them to tear into the wall and get whatever was living inside of there out.

Earl looked up, scanning the room. “It’s a big house, ma’am, but we’ll try out best.”

They left the room as Mary paced around the center of the floor, stricken with worry. The infant cries were coming back to her. There was no way that any kind of animal could have made a noise so distinctive. It was yet another strange, unexplained occurrence. She walked to the window in the living room, looking outside at the front courtyard.

Curtis was by the empty fountain talking with some contractors. The pest control team were at their red van, pulling out some equipment. Earl had a crowbar in hand. She assumed that was how they were going to do it. She turned and walked back to the hole on the other side of the room. The faded and stained beige walls around her needed a good painting. The same could be said for pretty much every other room in the house.

She pulled a mini-flashlight from her pocket and shined it into the hole out of curiosity. She could barely see a thing beyond the light in the darkness, but as she held her hand against the hole she felt faint, cool air against her palm. She took a knee and tried to get a better look and then she heard something. She froze, just as a man with a noisy leaf blower passed by the window, distracting her. She pressed her ear against the hole, listening as the sound of the leaf blower finally passed.

Silence returned to the room. Mary remained still, eyes looking upward and trying to make out the faint noise inside the wall. It sounded like a groan. She pressed her ear closer, practically inside the hole. It was the long-winded groan of a man, fading but clear enough.

The sound soon vanished just as quickly as it appeared. With intense focus, Mary backed away and clutched the side of the hole, trying to pry bits of the wall off to make the hole larger. Something came over her, a need or obsession, and she pulled and pulled until she tore a piece of hard plaster from the wall and fell back in surprise.

“Whoa. What’s going on here?” Earl said, entering the room with his partner.

Mary looked up, startled and clutching a piece of the wall in her hand. “Nothing. I thought I heard something.”

“You leave the busy work to us, Mrs. Malone,” Earl said. “Pete and I have this.”

His partner, Pete, set a small cage next to the wall as Earl set down his toolbox. He knelt by the hole and asked Mary politely if she could give him some room. She stood up and backed away with the intent to watch them chip away at the hole, piece by piece.

Earl held the crowbar in hand and then turned to Mary with uncertainty. “You sure your husband is okay with this?”

She felt taken aback by the question and simply narrowed her eyes in response.

Earl stuttered nervously. “I-It’s just. He’s the one who called us out here and all.”

“Yeah, no offense,” Pete added.

Mary crossed her arms. “It’s quite all right,” she said. “My husband doesn’t mind, nor do I.”

Earl nodded with a gapped-tooth grin and then turned back to the wall. He stuck the crowbar in the wall and pushed against it like taking off a hubcap. A big chunk flew out as Earl fell back, regaining his balance. The hole was nearly large enough for him to put his head through, but he kept going, chipping away piece by piece. Heard the front door open and shot, and looked nervously to the side. Although she had assured them that Curtis was fine with everything, she had her doubts he would be happy once he saw what they were doing. Something was in the wall. Something beyond a raccoon or rodent, and she had to get to the bottom of it.

Satisfied, Earl set the crowbar on the ground and held up his long steel flashlight. Mary walked closer as he turned the light on and scanned the inside of the wall.

“Yep…” he said nodding. “Just like a thought. She’s got babies.”

“How do you know?” Mary said, hovering over his shoulder.

Earl scratched his face. “There’re droppings everywhere.” He was leaned over, head halfway in the wall, shining his flashlight inside and blocking Mary’s view. She half expected the vicious raccoon to come spiraling out of the hole to attack them. If anything, it was probably sleeping. “Hello, what’s this?” Earl said, reaching down. He backed out of the hole holding a dusty booklet of some kind. Mary was instantly intrigued. He shook the dust and bits of wall from the book and held it up for everyone to see. “Looks like someone lost their book in there.”

“Can raccoons read?” Pete said with a laugh.

Mary extended her arm to take the book as Earl reluctantly handed it to her. It was extremely dusty, despite him shaking it off. Mary carefully examined the leather-bound cover with a draw string tying it shut. It was small but thick. The pages looked warped and dry. She had no clue what to make of it.

“Let’s see what else we got in here,” Earl said, looking back in the hole. He shined his flashlight around as Mary’s felt along the book’s rough edges.

She was hesitant to open it as it seemed so fragile, she didn’t want it to vanquish into dust. Though her deep curiosity got the best of her. She turned from the men and gently untied the tattered, thin rope binding the book together. As the rope came undone, she slowly opened both sides of the book, directly down the middle. There was tiny, faded cursive handwriting all across both pages, barely legible. Mary held it closer, trying to read the words.

Tuesday, May 20, Today father said that we have to all put on a good face at lunch with the future in-laws. His words not mine. I’m so sick of putting a good face around here when they keep me locked in my room half the time. I got a record player for my birthday, but they won’t even let me play half the time. Mother says that my music is too loud and distracting.

Mary lowered the book in deep concentration. Earl had discovered a diary of some sort, and the raccoon had led them straight to it. What was it doing inside the wall, and it just how old was it? She ruminated over these questions has her a delicate piece of history rested in her hands. She looked over to Earl as his continued scanning the inside of the wall with his flashlight.

“See anything else?” she asked.

Earl grunted and then spoke. “Nah. Just a bunch more raccoon droppings. Might even have some rats down here too.”

“Just wonderful,” Mary said with a sigh.

Earl leaned back from the wall and turned toward her, face covered in dust. “I’ll leave a trail of pellets leading to the trap. Lure the mother out come feeding time.” He then paused, thinking to himself. “Course, we may have to put a fogger in there for the babies.”

“You mean kill them?” Mary asked.

“Yep,” Earl said, matter-of-fact.

She didn’t like the idea, but they were the professionals. Raccoons had no place in their walls, regardless of age. She flipped to another page in the book, almost on instinct and began reading.

In trouble today. Mother found out I’ve been taking scraps of food and feeding raccoons in the backyard. She told Father and he told Lawrence, our groundskeeper to kill any ‘rodents’ he see on site. Those raccoons are they only friends I have left and they won’t even let me have that. I need to get out of this house. I need to get away. Need to get away before it’s too late.

Mary raised her head and nearly dropped the book. Her mind went right back to the night before when she had encountered the raccoon. She remembered its yellow eyes, dripping fangs, but had no idea what connection it had with the girl’s writings.

“That was no normal raccoon,” she said out loud.

“What was that, Mrs. Malone?” Pete asked.

She turned to see both Earl and Pete looking at her. “Nothing… You gentlemen do what you have to do. I have to make a phone call.” She excused herself from the room and went right toward the stairs, clutching the book and rushing up the steps to evade being seen, though she couldn’t understand why.

She fled into the master bedroom, still unsure of why her need for utmost secrecy, and closed the door. The diary would make a good addition to the books and newspapers she had already acquired, and beyond those references, she felt that the most definitive view into the family’s history could in fact be the words of a young girl.

She went to the bed and sat, prepared to read the diary in one sitting. She turned the pages carefully and saw that some of them were so deteriorated that she couldn’t read the writing no matter how hard she tried.

Is there a way to restore a book? she wondered.

She then turned back to the very first page. The ink had smeared almost entirely, but she was able to read mid-sentence as it carried on to the next page.

…said that we had to. They’re so demanding. They gave me a diary for my birthday just like I asked, but they also wouldn’t let me have any friends over. They’re so protective that it’s driving me crazy. Happy birthday to me, I guess.

A knock suddenly came at the door as Mary’s head jolted up.

“Mary, you in there?” Curtis asked from outside.

“It’s open,” she said, tucking the diary under the sheets.

Curtis walked in, reddened from the sun and sweaty. “You all right in here?”

“Yeah,” she said without hesitance.

“The pest control guys said you took off in a hurry. I told them to go easy on the wall. I don’t think we have to tear this place apart to flush a couple rodents out.”

“I agree,” Mary said. She tried to put on her best face with hope that Curtis would be satisfied enough and go back to whatever it was he was doing, but he persisted.

“They said they found an old book. What’s with that?”

Mary waved him off. “Oh, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing?” he said, walking forward.

“These old walls,” Mary said. “You never know what you’ll find. I tried to read it, but the pages are all washed out.”

Curtis went to his dresser and grabbed a pair of sunglasses, seemingly no longer interested. “That’s a shame.” He then stopped and spun around. “You’ll never believe who stopped by.”

“Who?” Mary asked.

“Pastor Phil. He brought a welcome basket for us. Can you believe it?”

“Wow, that’s nice,” she said, rocking back and forth on in the bed.

“I told him that’d you come down and say hello,” Curtis continued.

Great, she thought.

Curtis walked to the door whistling and told Mary to come down when she was ready. As he closed the door behind him, Mary pondered the arrival of their new guest. He seemed awfully interested in making their acquaintance. Maybe he was just a really nice guy. However, her instincts told her differently.

She wondered if she should mention the diary to the Pastor. He seemed familiar enough with the Bechdels, and she knew from the newspaper that he was a Pastor of the same church before the family was slaughtered. She’d have to see if he was on the up and up first. Then maybe he could provide her some answers in the unending mystery before her.

She walked down the hall to the stairwell and looked down to see the top of Pastor Phil’s white hair as he chatted with Curtis with his back turned toward her. He wasn’t wearing a suit this time, he was dressed more casual in checkered short-sleeved button-down shirt and tan Dockers. He pivoted on his heels while laughing along with whatever Curtis was telling him. In his hands he still held a basket of fruit with plastic wrapping over it. The Redwood welcome wagon in the flesh.

She slowly descended the stairs as Curtis looked up at her, causing Pastor Phil to turn and smile at her approach.

“There she is,” Curtis said.

Phil nodded as she reached the bottom, holding the basket out to her. “Good morning, Mrs. Malone. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Hello,” she said, unsure how to address him. He hadn’t told her his last name, but he sure seemed to know theirs.

“A welcoming gift from our church,” he said, basket still out.

Mary smiled and took the basket in both hands. “You shouldn’t have.” She paused, feeling the plastic crinkle in her hands. “That’s very thoughtful of your church. Thank you.”

“When was the last time someone ever gave us a welcome basket?” Curtis asked with a laugh.

Phil waved him off, feigning modesty. “Ah. It’s nothing. We just like to make our neighbors feel at home.”

Mary turned and set the basket on a nearby nightstand at the end of the staircase. She thanked him again, noticing his eyes wander around the grand foyer surrounding them, boxes, furniture and all.

“Just a beautiful mansion,” he said.

“Still have a ways to go,” Curtis said. His demeanor suddenly changed as he looked at his wrist watch. “Oh, and I gotta get back to work. Thanks again, Pastor.”

They shook hands as Curtis waved to Mary and hurried out the door. As much as she wanted to probe the Pastor, she wondered why Curtis had called her down only to quickly abscond to the front.

Phil looked to Mary while wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. There were several windows open and portable fans blowing throughout the house, but the outside heat was inescapable. “Air conditioner on the fritz?” he said with a smile.

“It’s the air conditioner that never was,” Mary said with a sigh. “We should have a new unit here in a couple of days.”

“One modern convenience at a time,” Phil said.

“You said it.”

From down the living room over, Pete and Earl entered the foyer carrying a tool bag and two more cages and chatting amongst each other. Their voices lowered as they tipped their hats to Mary and Phil.

“The wall doesn’t look too bad, ma’am,” Pete said. “A little drywall and you’ll never know we were in there.”

“That’s fine,” she said as they walked by.

“We’ll give your kitchen a good look,” Earl added.

“Don’t forget about the attic,” Mary called out as they continued on.

“Oh no,” Pete billowed, turning his head. “We’re saving the best for last.”

Mary turned back to Pastor Phil who stood patiently to the side with a polite and subtle smile. “Pest control,” she said.

“Ah, I should have known,” he said.

“Thank you again for the basket, it was very nice of you.”

“My pleasure,” he said. “Your husband sounds pretty excited about the barbecue next Sunday. Can we count on your attendance?

Mary placed a finger against her lip and then pointed at him. “So you have an ulterior here motive, eh?”

Phil’s smile widened as he boasted a hearty, measured laugh that exposed him as a man of social tact. “You figured me out and uncovered my scheme.” He bowed his head like a royal subject. “Forgive me, madam.”

“We’ll put it on our calendar,” Mary said.

Phil looked up, pleased as Mary leaned in closer in interrogation. “You’ve lived her for some time, haven’t you?”

Phil’s smile straightened out as his blue eyes looked up in thought. “Well… darn near half my life has been spent in Redwood, yes.”

Mary paused, trying to choose her next words wisely. “And did you know any former homeowners of this mansion?”

“I did, actually,” he said. “Place has been vacant a long time, but I’ve known families who lived here at one time.”

“Families?” Mary said. She didn’t know of anyone else who had lived in the mansion, and the mere thought had her pumped to do more research. “So. You knew the Bechdel’s?”

For the first time since she had known him, Pastor Phil’s face went completely blank. He must have realized this and quickly tried to turn his lips up into a smile. “Yes. The Bechdel family. A terrible tragedy back then. Worst thing to ever happen in our humble town.”

Mary seized the moment and moved in closer as hammering continued outside. “Pastor Phil,” she said. “Is there something about this house we should know? I’ve heard things in the night, seen things I can’t ignore any longer, and we’ve only been here a few days. Do we have anything to worry about?”

Phil stared back at her, long and hard, in contemplation. She wasn’t sure how exactly he was going to respond, but she needed an answer for the sake of her own sanity. He then took a step back, motioning toward the door. “To be honest with you, Mrs. Malone, it’s an old creaky mansion that needs a lot of work. I’ve seen families come and go, some of them even going broke, trying to make this place into something it was never meant to be.” He paused and scratched his chin, looking around. “In the end, I think you and your husband will be fine. I can see it in you.”

Before she could say another word, Phil shuffled to the door, excusing himself. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Mrs. Malone. Have a wonderful day, and I hope to see you at the barbecue.”

Mary stood for a moment, stunned by his hasty exit. “Call me Mary,” she said as he neared the door.

“Sure thing, Mary,” he said with a wave and bright smile. She didn’t know exactly what she had said beyond her basic line of questioning. One thing was clear, Pastor Phil was being evasive. After he closed the door, she walked toward the living room prepared to see the damage done to the wall at her behest. Was Pastor Phil right? Would the house treat them any differently than the others? She wanted more than ever to find out before it was too late.

Chapter Nine

Sunday Barbecue

 

The new air conditioner was up and running, much to the collective relief of Mary, Craig, and the various work crews tasked with renovations. Painters, cleaners, movers, pest control, and electricians had been busy throughout the week modernizing the old mansion transforming its faded grimy, walls and dusty, spider-webbed interiors into something entirely different. Mary could hardly believe it herself. Their home was beginning to look downright livable in elegant fashion.

The attic had been cleared out of dwelling rodents who for so long had made the space there own. The pipes running through the walls had been nearly repaired, the septic system replaced, and the electrical wiring brought up to twenty-first century standards. No stone had been left unturned, and when Mary looked at the bright white paint covering the formerly brown-stained walls and shiny hardwood floors she could barely take it all in.

Empty of most boxes and modestly furnished with sofa chairs and coffee tables, the foyer looked unrecognizable from when she first saw it. It hardly resembled the scene of a mass murder some forty years ago, but that night was never far from her mind.

The downstairs study had been turned into her own art room where she could work under the sunlight of a large bay window that looked out into their shaded, fertile backyard and its long stone walkway through freshly cut crass and bushes trimmed to perfection. Her agent had lined up a new children’s book for her to illustrate. She had three week deadline and by mid-week she hadn’t even started.

Mary was doing her best to adjust, even though normality had long since recused itself to a different time and place. Redwood seemed the perfect town to live in, their mansion, a dream come true, but there was something lurking beneath the surface, troubling and grim, that she couldn’t shake off.

The week had rushed by, and by Sunday she couldn’t believe all the work that had been done on their home. Things were quieter with less people parading through the house, and Mary knew that she and Curtis would soon be the only two people inside their vast dream home, living like royalty without the bank account or prestige to show for it.

That morning, she had almost forgot their Sunday engagement at the Redwood church. There had been no visitors to their house since Pastor Phil’s unexpected visit, and when she opened the drawer to the nightstand to get her cellphone, she was greeted to the sight of the warped, burnt edges of the child’s diary that had captivated her the week before.

Curtis was just coming out of the bathroom after a shower when Mary quickly closed the drawer. She still hadn’t told him a thing about her discovery, and she didn’t know why. She stood in a T-shirt large enough to go down to the knees of her smooth, bare legs as he greeted her with an optimistic smile on his face.

“Morning,” she said back in a croaky voice. She hadn’t been feeling that well for the past few days, chalking it up to exhaustion.

“I hope you’re ready to testify,” he said, mimicking the movements of a preacher with his arms up in the air.

“Hardly…” she said, walking away from the nightstand. She had never seen him so eager to go to church, not the Curtis she knew. His angle, as she was it, was setting up a practice as soon as possible. There was no better way than to reach out to the church community of Redwood, of which there was a sizable amount within the congregation.

What she really wanted to do, beyond anything else was to dive back into her research about the mansion and the new town they had so hastily moved to. Even with the welcoming fruit basket, she had her suspicions of Pastor Phil. He knew things, he had to, and he had taken an interest in her and Curtis in ways that she couldn’t exactly pinpoint.

Curtis was already in the walk-in closet, searching for his best Sunday suit. He emerged in his boxers and white T-shirt holding two long-sleeved dress shirts in both hands with a tie hanging over each one. One shirt was light blue with gray tie, the other one a sterile white and blue tie.

“What do you think?” he asked her as she took a seat at the end of the bed, face tired and a stark contrast to his chipper morning attitude.

Mary’s had lay at her side as her straight, blond hair rested just above her shoulders, strands matted to her side from deep sleep. She was clearly not in the mood for outgoing social activity, but she put on her best face and told Curtis to go with the blue shirt.

“Are you okay?” he asked, noticing her lack of enthusiasm.

“Yes,” she answered quickly. “Nothing a big cup of coffee couldn’t cure.”

“I’ll make you a cup here in a minute,” he said, walking back into the closet.

As he continued talking, her eyes shifted back to the nightstand where the young girl’s diary was hidden. Mary suddenly realized that she didn’t even know the girl’s name yet. She had failed so far to find out as much as she could about the Bechdels. The week had been an exhausting blur, and in that time there hadn’t been any visions or anything out of the ordinary happen. Perhaps it had all been in her head. The thought was unsettling. She had considered the prospect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder playing a role, especially after the miscarriage, but she had never felt so in-tuned to reality. She had to trust her instincts, and they told her that there was far more to the mansion and the town of Redwood than she could even imagine.

“It’s been a week, Mary,” Curtis said from the closet. “We need to get out and meet some people.” He must have sensed her apprehension about the entire affair before them. “We’ve worked hard getting this place livable, and it’s about damn time we venture out and enjoy ourselves.”

“I agree,” she conceded from the bed, looking around the room. Everything had been unpacked. The walls had been painted a fresh white with random paintings hanging around—one of them of an orange sunrise over the mountains that Mary painted during their vacation to Tennessee. On the dresser across from the bed, next to the flat screen television, was a framed picture of Mary and Curtis on their wedding day—smiling and lively with the world ahead of them.

Curtis walked out of the closet in black slacks with his blue dress shirt on and adjusting his tie. “Service starts at 10:30. We have a good hour. I can make us some bacon and eggs if you want.”

“Coffee’s fine,” she said with a faint smile.

Curtis looked at her with near suspicion as his own smile dropped. “You need to eat, Mary. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

She looked down at the floor, embarrassed. Her appetite, like many other things, had been waning since they moved into the house. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll save it for the barbecue.”

Curtis straightened his tie and nodded. “That’s fine and well, but you should really have some breakfast first.”

Mary rose from the bed, heading toward the bathroom as sunlight beamed in through the thin curtains covering the window. “Shower… coffee… and I’ll be good to go.” She closed the door not saying another word. She went to the mirror and wiped her hand across its foggy surface, staring at her reflection. There were noticeable bags under her blue, vibrant eyes, her lips were fixed downward in a permanent frown.

Strands of blond hair curled up at her chin as she took note of her gaunt cheek bones. The more she looked at herself, the thinner her face grew, almost as though she was fading away before her very eyes. Her face went thinner and thinner until she began wasting away to nothing as though some force was sucking the soul from her very being.

Mary backed away from the mirror, terrified, and then glanced back at her appearance. She was normal again. Gone were the large eyes among a skeletal face within the visible disappearing of mass against bone. She panicked, wondering if what she had seen was just another vision brought her current surroundings or something else. She went to the shower, pulling her T-shirt off, and turned the nozzles on, evening out the hot and cold water. Nothing felt right. She didn’t feel right. Troubling anxiety flowed through her no matter what she did. She had never felt so alone.

***

They drove to the First Christ Church of Redwood on a bright, sunny morning amidst the rolling green fields and lush forest surrounding them. The town, on the outset, was instantly comforting with its natural beauty and lack of anything resembling a major city. This was a place people moved to get away from it all, and it showed.

Its old-fashioned, Victorian nature was endearing. An earlier brochure given to Mary by Curtis heralded Redwood as a “family community.” All of that was fine. But Mary wasn’t interested in all the good things about the town. She wanted to find out its secrets for the sake of her own sanity.

Curtis was upbeat as always with his blue shirt, gray tie, and slicked-back dark hair. Gone was his five day’s growth on his bare cheeks. Wearing a neon coral summer dress and sandals, Mary felt better after a shower and coffee. Her hair was tied back into a pony tail and she wore a light foundation of makeup upon her fair face. They were a young couple, married now for three years and she dreaded any questions she was sure to get while introducing themselves to the townspeople. They would probably ask why they moved into a mansion that could house a large family when they themselves had not children. She suppressed her anxiety as they drove to the church, hoping that she wasn’t being too paranoid. Curtis, however, easily saw through her silence.

“Nervous?” he asked.

“A little,” she replied, moving the passenger visor to the side to block the glare of the sun.

“Well you shouldn’t be,” he said. “There are good people in this town. I can feel it.”

Mary stared ahead, convinced that, for the most part, Curtis was probably right. But her concerns to do with the past and whatever secrets were buried within their home. If Pastor Phil seemed reserved in discussing the Bechdel’s, she assumed the same with anyone else. Maybe it was just something people didn’t talk about. Lost in her thoughts, she felt Curtis’s hand touch hers and squeeze.

“We’re going to be okay,” he said as the open two-lane, freshly-paved road sped by. “This will be a great start for the both of us.”

She squeezed back and nodded. “I hope so. I really do.” Ahead, the church was in view on the right. Its painted white exterior, modest size, and pointed steeple looked like something out of a storybook. Its front parking lot was full with a sign mounted in a square section of freshly cut grass. There was forest on both sides of the church, making it appear isolated in its own right.

Mary felt further anxiety when she looked at the dashboard clock. It’s was 10:35 and services had already began. The onus was on her, however. She had been in a morning funk and took too long to get ready. Taking notice of the time himself, Curtis assured again that they would be fine.

“We’ll find a spot in the back,” he said. “No one will even see us come in.”

Mary ran her hands down her face with a sigh. “I don’t even remember the last time we went to church. Remind me why we’re doing this again?”

Curtis jokingly scoffed. “We’re trying to fit in. It’s that simple.” He slowed the car and turned into the parking lot as Mary’s could feel her heart rate increasing. The church seemed inviting enough, maybe it would be good for them. She knew that she needed to shake off her suspicions and embrace the small-town life before them. Something, however, kept holding her back.

They parked in the far corner where Curtis had found a spot. They exited the SUV and walked hand in hand toward the church where they could hear the faint hum of an organ playing inside. A sloped cement walkway with a railing running up the middle led to the double doors of the church, with two elegant door handles on each side. Curtis pulled the door open for Mary, revealing a red-carpeted lobby where an older woman was seated in one of two chairs separated by a glossy table with bouquet arrangement. The woman looked up and smiled at them, her white hair trim and her large glasses magnifying her pupils.

Behind her was a window with vertical blinds open, revealing the backs of the congregation standing at the pews and holding hymnals and singing together. Mary approached the woman first as she stood, holding a leather-bound hymnal out for the taking.

“Welcome to the First Christ Church of Redwood,” she said with a smile and hushed tone. “My name is Barbara.”

Mary took the hymnal and introduced herself as Curtis approached from behind. A water cooler in the rear corner of the room bubbled. The surrounding white walls were adorned with paintings of historical saints and a door to the side led to a darkened room with books in the window identified as the Reading Room.

Curtis shook Barbara’s hand and apologized for their tardiness. She waved him off and then told them that they could go inside once the hymnal was done.

“You recently moved here, yes?” she asked.

“We sure did,” Curtis answered.

Barbara looked them over and then asked if they were the couple who had purchased the old mansion on Weatherford Lane.

“That’s us,” Curtis said.

“Wow,” Barbara commented. “I didn’t think anyone was going to buy that old place.”

Curtis was quick to respond. “Trust me. It’s taken us a lot of work.”

Barbara turned to Mary with a smile. “I hope you’re planning to stick around for the barbecue. It’s our first one this year.”

“We’re looking forward to it,” Mary said.

The signing died down and the congregation as the congregation took their seats. Barbara turned to the window and then approached the door to their right, opening for them. “Enjoy the service,” she said.

Mary and Curtis thanked her as they walked inside, heads turning as they searched for a place to seat. Mary went immediately to the third pew to their right which had a spot right at the end. A stained-glass window shielded the bright rays of the sun and Mary looked ahead as the organist switched off the organ and Pastor Phil approached a podium overlooking the crowd. Curtis smiled at an older couple seated next to them as he sat with Mary at the end. They had made it this far, she thought. The worst was over. She sat there as the room went quiet and Pastor Phil, wearing a beige suit and blue tie adjusted his thin rectangular glasses from the podium while looking down at his marked bible below. He looked up and seemed to make sudden and direct eye contact with Mary, causing her to look down.

The seated patrons consisted of adults of all ages, however, most of them older and gray. Pastor Phil spoke with clarity and conviction, and Mary could tell he had been doing this for a while. He gave blessings for the peaceful Sunday morning and then read from the scriptures, discussing faith and sacrament.

“It is our duty to love one another while adhering to the message of our Lord and Savior.” He paused, holding a finger in the air. “Let us never forget the sacrifice bestowed upon us in this world of sin. Let us come together under the banner of truth and love, of which are natural elements of His plan.”

As his sermon proceeded, Mary’s mind couldn’t help but wander. She thought of the diary back home and how she had neglected to do her due diligence and research everything she had checked out at the library. It had been an exhaustive, busy week and she couldn’t blame herself entirely. The pieces were there. All she had to do was to put them together. Pastor Phil continued on as his audience sat silent, seemingly captivated by his small-town charm and charisma. Mary could see that he was an experienced speaker with a smooth gravelly voice that invited calmness with his careful, measured words over the speakers in the ceiling.

She looked around the room and its stained-glass windows, wondering how long the church had been around. Ultimately, she just wanted the entire affair to be over with. They were newcomers to the town and the thought of putting on a friendly face and making a good impression among strangers was nerve-racking in itself. Perhaps she wasn’t completely out of her funk just yet. She noticed an elderly couple turn their heads in unison from three pews ahead and make eye contact with her. They nodded as she smiled in response. She turned to Curtis whose eyes were forward, trying his best to pay attention to Pastor Phil’s seemingly endless sermon.

On the wall next to the organ was small board with three hymn numbers listed on it. Pastor Phil took a step away from the podium, holding his own hymnal in hand and instructed the congregation to prepare to read from page 115. The organist began playing as the people rose from their pews. Mary and Curtis stood up as well, sharing the hymnal and signing in a barely audible tune. As the congregation broke out in chorus, it was clear that their arriving guests were new at this. Mary looked down at the page of as the words in the verse made little sense to her. Her lips moved, but barely a sound came out. It was going to be a long morning.

***

The Sunday service had ended with most of the congregation convened in the field behind the church with picnic tables aligned and hot dogs and hamburgers smoking on a nearby grill. There were several families out, wearing their Sunday best. Children played together, running around with colorful streamers as Mary and Curtis made their way outside, slightly overwhelmed with close to a hundred people mingling together.

Mary walked along with Curtis by her side, feeling almost invisible to everyone. Pastor Phil was talking to a young couple under a canopy which offered much-needed shade from the sun and waved at them to come over.

They approached with Curtis outstretching his arm to shake Pastor Phil’s hand.

“So nice of you two to make it,” Phil said with a tight, firm grip. He shook Mary’s hand more delicately while complimenting her dress.

“Thank you,” she said. “We’re glad to be here.”

Wearing dark shades, Phil signaled to the smoking grill as his smile extended. “I hope you brought your appetites. Looks like we have more than enough food.”

“That’s great,” Curtis said. “Excellent sermon by the way.”

Mary thought he was laying it on pretty thick, but Phil seemed to take the compliment in strides.

“Thank you so much,” Phil said. He then looked at Mary, half expecting additional praise, and then signaled to the couple standing next to him. “This is Lucille and Steven Hardwick. They moved here roughly six months ago.”

The attractive couple turned to Mary and Curtis and shook their hands. The woman was short and petite with long red hair and freckles. Her husband was much taller and lanky with curly blond locks. “Welcome to Redwood,” he said.

“It’s a pleasure,” Curtis said. “I just love this town so far.” He looked at Mary as her tight-lipped smile began to wane. “We really struck gold with this find. That’s for sure.”

“I heard you bought the old Bechdel mansion,” Steven said.

“Sure did,” Curtis responded. “Looking to be the best investment we’ve made so far.”

Suddenly, the woman, Lucille, took Mary’s hands in hers and spoke. “I simply have to show you around. These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

Mary nodded and then looked to Curtis nervously as Lucille began to pull her away.

“Go meet some of the folks,” Curtis said, clearly more interested in engaging the newly-introduced man before him. “Enjoy yourselves.”

Mary reluctantly gave in and allowed Lucille to guide her to other couples as the aroma from the grill made her stomach growl. They approached a group of five women in their Sunday dresses standing around a picnic bench in the shade of a tall oak tree, fanning themselves in unison.

“Ladies, this is Mary Malone,” Lucille said. “She just moved her from…” Lucille paused and turned to Mary. “Where is it that you’re from?”

“Chicago,” Mary said to the group.

The women nodded back with inviting smiles as Mary shook their hands. They were middle-aged, slightly older than her, and distinctively reserved like something out of the Victorian age. Their husbands, its seemed were gathered around the grill behind them, in their own huddled conversations full or cheer and laughter.

The women introduced themselves accordingly as Trish, Ellen, Madison, Bridget, and Allison. They each had a fair amount of makeup on with sparkling earrings dangling from their hair lobes. Two of the women looked nearly identical in both physical appearance and clothing. They also both brandished sun hats and wore large designer sunglasses. Mary glanced at them a little too long, their shoulder-length auburn hair, slender necks and matching pearl necklaces, when Ellen, the woman to her right made a comment.

“Yes, we’re twins,” she said. “But our matching wardrobes were not planned, I can assure you.”

Her sister, Madison, tilted her head back with laughter, touching Mary’s hand. “Do you have any siblings?”

“Yes,” Mary answered. “One brother and one sister.”

Madison leaned in closer with a crooked smile. “So you can understand what it’s like. We’ve had this problem since we were children.” She paused, shrugging. “After a while, we just embraced it.”

Mary was curious. “You mean to tell me that you dress alike without even realizing it.”

Ellen Stepped in. “It’s like looking in a mirror sometimes, I tell you.”

Madison waved her away as the other women laughed. “Of course, I’m the more attractive one.”

Mary smiled as the group continued laughing. A pack of small kids ran past them with their dress clothes slightly downgraded. They were the same bunch she saw running with streamers only minutes ago. They were all boys, elementary school-aged, and that’s when it dawned on Mary that she hadn’t seen a single young girl in the crowd anywhere.

“Tell me, Mary. How are you and your husband settling in?” the older of the women asked. Her gray hair was permed and she had a rose emblem pinned to the chest of the dark blue blazer over her flowered dress. Her face was caked in bronze make-up with dark mascara around her blue eyes. She had the brightest of bright red lipstick Mary had ever seen any woman wear. Her eyes remained on Mary with intense, unblinking focus.

“Just fine,” Mary replied. “It’s been a very busy week and we’re just glad to get out and meet some of the townspeople.”

“Tell me, love,” the woman named Bridget belted out suddenly. “What are you and your husband going to do with all that space?” She was a short frumpy woman whose eyes were also concealed behind dark sunglasses. As she had feared, Mary felt immediately uncomfortable with the question.

“It-It’s daunting, that’s for sure,” she said.

“What made the two of you want to move into that old place in the first place?” the woman asked with her hands out and chubby digits extended.

“Bridget, please,” Lucille said.

With the soft curls of her faux bob bouncing as she waved Lucille off, Bridget leaned closer to as though she were addressing Mary in confidence. “You do know what happened there, don’t you?”

“Bridget! That’s enough,” Lucille said with conviction.

Bridget paused and looked around at the faces of disapproval surrounding her. “Sheesh. It was just a question.”

“What do you know about the Bechdels?” Mary asked abruptly to the group as a whole. She received stunned silence in return.

“That’s not really appropriate church talk if you don’t mind,” Lucille said in a polite but stern tone. She then took Mary by the wrist and began to lead her away from the group as the women waved.

“Don’t mind, Bridget,” Lucille said into Mary’s ear. “What she lacks in simple tact she makes up for it with some of the best peanut butter cookies this side of the state.”

Mary turned back to glance at the women as she was guided through the crowd, faces growing blurry and ominous in their quick pace.

“Here,” Lucille said. “I want to introduce you to some of the other ladies here.” They reached a group of outside the crowd sitting at a bench under another canopy setup, all older than the ones Mary had just been introduced too. They sipped from bottled water and with fruit plates resting before them displaying watermelon and strawberries. Their long, sleek, glittery dresses looked the height of elegance. Their jewelry added to the picture of prestige with golden necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Mary glanced down at her own arms realizing that she forgot to wear any jewelry at all. The small diamond on her wedding ring sparkled in the sunlight, the only thing she had to show for herself.

The gray-haired woman, all but one who had fashioned an orange tint over her perm, looked up at Mary as she approached. They smiled as Lucille introduced her with enthusiasm.

“Mary, these lovely ladies run the local chapter of the Redwood Women’s Association.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Mary said, shaking their hands one after the other. The generic name sounded prestigious enough, but Mary could tell just by their posture and demeanor alone that they fancied themselves as power players in their own regard.

Sylvia, the woman introduced as the president of the local chapter, looked up at Mary and spoke with a low, scratchy voice.

“You and your husband are quite the word around town,” a taller woman in the middle of the bench said, pulling out a cigarette from a silver case.

“I suppose so,” Mary said. “I ran into Pastor Phil just the other week, and he seemed to already know our names.”

Sylvia shrugged and lit her cigarette as a bearded man with an acoustic guitar took center stage fifty feet from them on a wood platform with haystacks behind him. Lucile turned to the stage and signaled Mary to follow. It appeared as though she didn’t like to be in one spot for too long.

“You have to hear Randy play. He’s so great!”

Mary waved to the table of apparent aging socialites as they waved back. A sizeable crowd had already gathered around the stage, plastic plates in hand, digging into their grilled grub. The flannel-wearing guitarist stepped aside and introduced Pastor Phil who soon took the stage to enthusiastic applause.

“Welcome all. Thank you for being here,” he said with his arms outstretched in typical oratory fashion. He then lowered them with a slight laugh. “Now why you’d want to hear me speak again after an hour long sermon is beyond me, but here we go.”

The crowd laughed in response as Mary looked around, searching for Curtis. She caught a glimpse of him in the back near the grill, having joined the huddle of men deep in conversation. It looked as though he was making friends just fine. Mary, on the other hand, felt overwhelmed with all the unfamiliar faces. Lucille seemed nice enough, albeit a tad pushy.

“I’m glad to see so many smiling faces here for our Redwood Annual Summer Barbecue Kickoff!” Pastor Phil continued, swinging an arm through the air as the crowd clapped and hollered.

“I just love him,” Lucille said loudly into Mary’s ear. “Isn’t he just the best?”

Mary nodded, feigning a smile and feeling slightly dizzy with all the commotion around her.

“Now we’ve got plenty of food and drinks for everyone. Games for you and your kids or tables to sit and take in this beautiful nature that surrounds us. And before ol’ Randy plays us some lovely tunes, I want to welcome the newest addition to our lovely town, Curtis and Mary Malone! Everyone welcome them with a hearty applause.” He looked downward, arm outstretched to Mary, zeroing in on her from the crowd. She looked around nervously with a wave as the crowd cheered.

“Let’s show them how we treat each other here in Redwood,” Phil continued, “with love, kindness, and respect for each one another. The way neighbors are supposed to be.”

The cheering continued as Mary looked around for an out. She was packed in and it was getting more and more difficult for her to move. Phil said a few more words and then introduced the guitar playing who began to strum away in the glow of morning sun. “I need to find Curtis,” Mary said to Lucile as she worked her way out of the crowd. Lucile nodded, distracted by the music and subsequent signing emitting from Randy’s baritone crooning. Mary snuck away as Lucile continued clapping, squeezing herself through the crowd and excusing herself along the way.

She broke free and quickly moved to the grill where Curtis handed her a plate with a hot dog on a bun, beans, and coleslaw.

“Dig in,” he said, bobbing his head along with the music.

She took the plate, thanking him. She felt flushed and a bit light-headed as the music continued on in the distance. Curtis must have took notice of her growing paleness and asked her if she was okay.

“I want to go home,” she said. She looked over his shoulder past him, and for a minute it seemed as though all heads were turned in their direction, staring at them. She squinted her eyes shut and rubbed them. Upon, looking again she saw no such thing. No one was watching them. All attention was on the stage.

“You need to meet some of the guys first,” he said. “Bob’s around here somewhere. The realtor, remember?”

“I remember,” she said. “Maybe some other time.”

Curtis gently placed his hand on her shoulder as his smile faded, replaced with concern. “What’s wrong, Mary?”

“Nothing. I just… I’ve had enough for now and would like to go home.”

Curtis crouched down and grabbed a cold water bottle from a cooler below, rising up and handing it to her. “Why don’t you take a seat, have some food, and relax a little.”

She took a step forward, inches from his face. “I need to go home now. If you want to stay, I’ll gladly call a cab.”

Curtis paused stunned. He then looked around with his hands out. “A cab out here? Hate to break it to you, but we’re not in Chicago anymore.”

She turned and began to walk away from him, not saying a word, when his hand went back over her shoulder, stopping her. “Okay! We’ll leave. Just give me a minute.”

Mary conceded and stood for a moment, waiting as Curtis turned to tell his new group of friends that they had to leave. She could her the man express shock and try to convince him otherwise. Her only hope was that she could duck out without drawing attention of Lucille or any of the other women. Pastor Phil, however, always felt near, and he always seemed to be watching.

Curtis came to her side, holding his own plate of food and told her he was ready. She led the way at a quick pace, around the side of the church and to the parking lot as the music faded and the general cheer grew more distant. She felt instant relief upon entering the empty cement parking lot. She’d held her end of the deal for the most part. They could go home now. Even with that much obvious she couldn’t place why exactly the ordeal felt like such a chore in the first place. She would need to get to know these people at some point. Why did it feel like such a burden then? What was responsible for her increasing paranoia and antisocial behavior? Something told her that the diary would reveal more of answers and begin to explain why the town was having such a strange effect.

 

Chapter Ten

Warning

 

Curtis remained silent as they drove home, clearly perturbed by their hasty departure. Light classic rock played as Mary’s gaze met the passing trees of a long stretch of forest on their way back to the mansion. Out of the heat and the crowd, she felt better but still dazed.

“I’m sorry. I’m just not feeling well,” she said to Curtis. There’s always next Sunday.”

Curtis pursed his lips with an understanding nod. “It’s okay. I mean. We sure made one heck of a first impression running out like that. That’s for damn sure.” He paused with anger rising in his tone, though Mary felt defensive in her own right.

“What do you want me to say, Curtis? I tried. I told you from the get-go that I wasn’t feeling well.”

“That’s always the case when there’s something I want to do, isn’t it?” Curtis quipped dismissively.

“You think I’m making this up?” she said, throwing her hands to the side.

“Of course not,” he said, slapping the wheel. “But I hoped that you would at least try to make an effort. I’m trying to start a practice out here. I need to make connections. I need to network, and you know that.”

“I said that you could stay.”

“That’s not the point,” Curtis said. “Like I’m just going to send you off like that. We have to operate as a team, Mary. That’s how these people are. They’re traditional and old fashioned. It’s everything this town is about.”

“I think we’re fine being ourselves. You want business, being a phony isn’t going to help,” she said, nearly regretting the last part.

“Oh, okay!” he said. “I read you loud and clear, Mary. You know my job better than I do. Is that it? You’re going to lecture me now?

“Enough,” she said, cutting through the air with her hand like a knife. “I don’t feel like arguing anymore.”

He said no more as he turned right into the long road way leading to the mansion, bypassing an old, rusty automatic gate that had yet to be repaired. Mary understood his frustration of having to leave so early, but any longer at that barbecue and she was sure she would have passed out. Nonetheless, things were going to be stilted between them the rest of the day. She could already feel it.

They pulled into the empty courtyard, free of work crews. It seemed as though they were going to have a quiet day after all which was good enough for her. There was much research to be done. She wanted more than anything to prove to Curtis that something was indeed wrong with the house and the very town he had whisked them away to.

With one glance toward the front door, Mary’s heart seized upon seeing a curious marking painted down its surface.

Stop the car,” she said with urgency.

Curtis halted near the empty fountain, fifteen feet from the door without question as she flew forward, constrained by her seatbelt.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Mary squinted ahead to get a better look. “Oh my God…” she said cupping her mouth with both hands.

Curtis looked to the side, unsure of what to say. Painted down the middle of their double-door entrance was two thick red intersecting lines of an upside down cross.

 

A police cruiser showed up about twenty minutes later with the Chief of Police and his deputy after Curtis had called them. What looked like simple vandalism had a more ominous meaning to Mary. The driver, an older man, stepped out of the car and introduced himself as Chief Benjamin Riley. His partner, Deputy Alex Ramirez, extended his hand as well.

Chief Riley was older than his young deputy by at least twenty years. Tall and lanky with a gruff demeanor, his silver hair and wrinkled, leathery face exhibited a traditional notion of a small town sheriff. He wore aviator sunglasses and donned a gray short-sleeved uniform and dark slacks amidst his side pistol holster and radio.

Deputy Ramirez was shorter than the chief, with boyish good looks and a short crop of black hair. Mary remembered seeing the both of them standing outside the police station the week before, wondering if they alone made up the entire police force of Redwood.

All business, Chief Riley held his clipboard as they stood at the end of the courtyard next to the steps leading to the vandalized door. Ramirez admitted that they both came not only investigate but to meet the new couple everyone was talking about around town.

“I didn’t realize that we were such celebrities,” Mary said.

“You certainly are in this town,” Ramirez said, flashing a smile.

Angered, Curtis pointed to the red upside down cross on their door. “I want to press charges against the punks. Not even here two weeks, and our home has already been vandalized.”

“Anyone get inside?” the chief asked, scribbling onto his clipboard.

“Not that I know of,” Curtis said. “I searched every room. No sign of any break in.”

“Whoever did this had to know that we would be gone,” Mary said.

Deputy Ramirez glanced up at her with a raised brow. “What makes you say that?”

Curtis suddenly cut in. “The point is, I want whoever did this charged with trespassing and vandalism. This is unacceptable!”

Ramirez walked up the steps to take pictures of the door with his pocket-sized digital camera.

“You might want to get that gate fixed outside first and foremost,” the chief said with his near southern drawl.

These weren’t kids,” Mary said.

Their home had been marked with an upside down cross. There was nothing subtle about it. She wondered if it was yet another warning bestowed upon them by unseen forces.

Curtis turned to her with his hands on his hips, shaking his head. “I don’t care. I want whoever did it to face charges.”

“It’s a message,” she continued as Riley and Ramirez stood to the side, reserved to offer their own take. She approached the door and ran her hand down the fresh red paint on the hard wooden surface. “Either a warning or something else.”

Curtis walked up the steps and stopped near her, clearly not having it. “Mary, please. Someone is toying with us. Probably kids.”

She glanced at him, unconvinced. “I wish that was the case. I really do.”

Curtis went back to the two police officers with his hands out, shrugging. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find the perpetrators, right officers?”

Deputy Ramirez nodded while scribbling into a pocket-sized notebook. “We can run a search on paint purchases at the hardware store.”

“Good thinking, Deputy,” the chief added. They both seemed satisfied enough and turned to leave with an assurance that they’d try their best to find the vandals.

Mary then spun around from the front door with urgency. “Chief Riley!”

They both stopped as Riley turned around with a pause. She hurried down the stairs, passing Curtis and approached the officers, hands folded together and a worried look stricken across her face.

“Yes ma’am?” the chief asked, waiting.

“How long have you lived here, if you don’t mind me asking?” she asked.

Chief Riley looked up, thinking to himself. “Hm.” His head shifted back in her direction. “About fifteen years at this point.”

“How about you, Deputy?” she asked Ramirez.

“My wife and I moved here about five years ago,” he answered.

Mary turned, signaling toward the mansion. “I’m sure you’re both familiar with the history behind this place.”

“Sure am,” the chief said, putting a piece of gum in his mouth. “But that was a long time ago.”

“The Bechdel murders?” Ramirez asked.

Chief Riley nodded.

“The case was never solved to my knowledge,” Mary said. “This house is trying to tell us something. I can feel it.” She looked squarely at the chief, imploring him for details. “Is there anything we should know about this place? About this town?”

Chief Riley cocked his head back and scratched his face. “Well… All can say ma’am is that there’s one cold case that’s just never seen the light of day. But from what I’ve seen we’re certain that nothing like that is going to happen in Redwood again.”

“Pretty cryptic there, Chief,” Ramirez added.

“I’m asking for your help,” Mary said, determined. “Is there something I should know?” She paused as his blank expression showed a clear unwillingness to elaborate. “This upside down cross is just the latest in the strange occurrences that have happened since we moved in.”

Deputy Riley flashed a look of sincerity. “I can tell you this, ma’am. You’re not the first family to raise concerns about this old place.”

“Families? What other families?” Mary asked, shocked.

Riley looked at the ground as though he has said too much. Ramirez seemed just as surprised to hear the news.

“When? Who were they?” she demanded. Her raised voice caught Curtis’s attention as he turned from the door and approached, asking the officers if everything was okay. Mary’s fierce blue eyes remained on the two hesitant officers.

“Bout ten years ago a family moved in here,” the chief said. “Weren’t here very long from what I hear.”

“See,” Mary said to Curtis. “I told you there was something going on with this house.”

Curtis held his arms out. “So? What’s so uncommon about that?”

“Why has it been vacant for so long?” Mary responded. “Because no one wants to live here. There are forces in the house not to be reckoned with.”

Curtis scoffed and then tried calm Mary by touching her arm. “Mary. Honey, that’s ridiculous. Think about what you’re saying.”

The chief and his deputy took a step back and motioned to the Cruiser, eager to not be caught in the middle of any argument.

“Wait. Please,” Mary said, reaching out to them. The Chief stopped again with a near sigh. “Do you remember their names? The people who lived here?”

The chief shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am. Don’t believe that I do.”

Mary turned back to Curtis. “The realtor. Mr. Deckers. Maybe he has the records. An old mortgage or deed or something.”

Curtis simply walked away, unwilling to entertain the notion any longer as Mary approached the two officers, confiding in them. “I’m not trying to pry, Chief. I just want to know why no one wants to discuss this mansion. Pastor Phil had the same reaction. In your honest assessment, do you believe that my husband and I are in any danger?”

The chief thought to himself, perhaps too long. “No ma’am. I don’t believe that you’re in any danger. Like I said before, that was a long time ago—”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” she interjected. “Do you either of you have the slightest belief in the supernatural?”

Chief Riley looked down with a sheepish grin as Deputy Ramirez nodded slightly. “My wife… She used to dabble in that stuff all the time,” the chief said. He suddenly switched to a more serious tone. “But you shouldn’t worry about it. There are no ghosts here. Just a nice, friendly town.” He smiled, exposing two rows of pearly white teeth.

“Have a good day, ma’am,” Ramirez said as they turned away and walked back to the Cruiser. A police star was painted along the passenger side with Redwood Police Department written in big letters. She thanked them for coming out and stood there as the chief started the car and drove, leaving a faint trail of dusk passing over her as she contemplated her next move.

 

***

Mary woke up the next morning to find Curtis up and seemingly out the door in a pair of slacks and a dress shirt. They hadn’t said much to each other the day prior, now he was leaving without even telling her. Something was up.

“Where are you going?” she said, rubbing her eyes.

He stopped at the door and turned with a faint smile.

“It’s Monday,” he said. “Got to go to work.”

Mary rose from the bed, tossing the covers to the side. “What are you talking about?”

Curtis walked back to the bed with his sarcastic smirk. “I may not have an office, or an assistant, or any clients, but I’ve got to start somewhere.” He strolled toward the bed and leaned against one of the end posts. “Don’t you agree?”

Mary looked around the vastness just within their master bedroom. “Why not just open an office in one of the rooms? We’ve got plenty of them.”

“I need to be out there,” he said, pointing out the window. “Out in the public. I plan to look into office space today.”

Downstairs, they both had separate studies—Curtis with his oak desk, legal books, and computer and Mary with her drawing table, tablet, and art work handing on the walls. Her office was her workspace, whereas Curtis worked outside the home, and with one car between them, she was pretty much stuck there throughout the day.

“The electrician should be here later today to look at that bad wiring in the kitchen,” Curtis continued.

“Okay,” Mary said, getting out of bed with a stretch. “Good luck today. The courthouse could be looking big city public defender. You never know.”

“That’d be three steps back for me, but it’s on the list.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, holding it out to her as she examined it, smile widening. On the car was a mid-section profile of Curtis in a nice suit smiling with an American flag backdrop with his name and number advertising Malone Law Firm.

“When did you have these made?” she said, looking down with wonder.

“Just a prototype of what’s to come,” he said.

“Law offices downtown?” she said, handing him the card back. “That’s pretty vague.”

“Yeah…” he admitted with a laugh. “Like I said. Just a prototype.”

Mary wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

He rubbed back with his own apology. “It’s okay. We’re going to get through this together.”

“I’ll tell Pastor Phil what happened.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Curtis said. He looked into her eyes with genuine conviction. “I’ve been doing some thinking… Obviously I want all of this to work, but if you have real concerns about this house…” He then paused, shaking his head with a compromise that shocked her. “…If you’re uncomfortable here, we can always cut our losses and sell the place.”

Her mouth nearly dropped to the floor. “You’re serious?”

“Of course I am. I moved us here, and if this doesn’t work out it falls completely on me. ”

Part of her suspected Curtis of employing some kind of psychological reverse trick on her where she would have no choice but to embrace their life in Redwood. Could she alone be responsible for uprooting them again to another town or city where the same problems may or may not persist? His hazel eyes, however, said differently. He looked completely ready to do whatever she wanted.

“No…” she said. “I want to give this a chance. You know that I have my reservations, but I just want answers.”

“And I want to help,” he said, taking her hand. “I’m here for you. You know that, right?”

“Of course I do,” she said.

He then glanced at his watch and stood up to leave. She couldn’t believe he had nearly snuck out of the room the first time. “I’ll call someone to paint that crap off our door today too.”

Mary waved him off. “No, that’s all right. The painters left some buckets in the garage. I’ll take care of that today.”

“If you prefer,” he said with a quick hug and kiss on her forehead. “Call me if you need anything.”

“What time will you be home?” she asked.

He went to the night stand and grabbed his wallet. “Later this afternoon. I can’t believe I almost forgot this.” Distracted, he then turned to her. “We’ll work out this car situation too. No mass transit here, that’s for sure.”

“We don’t have the money for another car,” she said.”

He stopped at the door, hand against the frame and spoke with reassuring calm. “We’ll figure something out. Love you.”

“Love you too,” she said.

He was out the door in a flash as she stood there in her a gray Hanes T-shirt and underwear. Their heavy curtains blocked most of the sunlight outside and the room was still somewhat dark. A glance at the alarm clock on the stand next to her bed showed it as being ten past nine. She had the entire mansion to herself and the entire day to do whatever she wanted. Though, she knew the most important thing was to begin the illustrations for the next children’s book.

She slipped into a pair of sweat pants hanging from her night stand and walked out of the room in her slippers. Her old routine, back home was to go for a morning job, three times a week. No such routine had been established yet at their new home. That Monday was the first day she had been in the house alone, and the surreal strangeness of her quiet surroundings was undeniable.

She walked down the empty hallway toward the staircase, passed rooms still empty with their doors halfway open. The house was seemed peaceful and undisturbed, but as she descended the staircase, she heard a faint ticking noise.

She entered the low-lit foyer curious and headed toward the kitchen where, in between two sofa chairs near a front window stood a vintage grandfather clock. Its oak exterior was elaborately carved in a leaf cluster ornamentation. She stopped, dead in her tracks. She could swear beyond anything that she had never seen the clock before.

Where did it come from?

When did they put it there?

Am I losing my mind?

Behind thick glass, a golden pendulum swung back and forth with weights hanging from two chains as the clock’s mechanics ticked from the inside. Two long clock hands were displayed over the clock face, indicating the time as eleven past nine.

She remained in awe at the impossible sight, ready to retrieve her phone upstairs and call Curtis. She broke out of her trance and turned toward the stairs when the clock suddenly chimed, loud and abrupt, startling her. She grabbed the railing and flew up the stairs as the clock continued ringing out like a waring bell.

She hurried down the hall and into her room where her cell phone rested on the TV stand, plugged in to a nearby outlet. From downstairs the clock went quiet just as quickly as it had rang. Silence followed. She held her phone, listening. She swiped the screen and made the call. After three rings, Curtis answered over the car speaker phone.

Hey. What’s up?”

“Hey,” she said. “Just a quick question. When did we get a grandfather clock?”

A what?” he asked.

“A grandfather clock. You know the big antique clock in our foyer. Where on earth did it come from?”

There was silence on the other end as she waited for a response.

Honey. I don’t know what to tell you. What clock are you talking about? We don’t own a grandfather clock.”

“Of course we do,” she said with certainty as she made her way back down the hall and towards the stairs. “It’s in the foyer between the chairs. I was standing right in front of it a moment ago.”

You got me,” Curtis said. “Maybe one of the movers…”

“What?” she asked. “Placed it there by mistake?”

I don’t know, Mary. I’ll look at it when I get home. Makes no sense to me.”

She went back down the stairs, prepared to describe every detail of the clock, but by the time she reached the bottom step, the clock was gone.

“Impossible…” she said softly.

What’s wrong?” he asked, detecting her frightened tone. Her eyes darted around the room, trying to find it. After a stunned pause, she spoke. “Nothing. I-I’m sorry I bothered you. Have a good day.”

Okay, honey. You too.”

She hung up and held the phone at her side, staring ahead. There was no way she could have imagined it. The clock was real. She had seen it with her own two eyes. She had heard it. Its loud tolling was unmistakable. She shuttered to think that it was a figment

She hadn’t had any visions since last weekend when she saw the figure of a man standing in a window on the second floor. She had begun to feel more comfortable, but the grandfather clock was bringing it all back. Perhaps the house only spoke to her when it wanted to. Perhaps she wasn’t in control of anything.

“What do you want from me?” she said, voice echoing through the halls.

She waited patiently, receiving no response, not even the slightest pin drop.

“This is pointless,” she called out, looking around and pacing the foyer and living room. “We’re not moving. My husband wouldn’t agree to it, even if I asked him, despite what he told me earlier. So if you’re trying to scare us into living, it’s not going to work.” She paused and began a slow stroll to the kitchen, feeling defiant against whatever forces were at play.

Chapter Eleven

Encounters

 

When asking questions of the house, Mary didn’t know who she was supposed to be communicating with. She wasn’t a paranormal expert by any means. She knew, however, that she had a gift. A gift she kept hidden away since childhood. Visions of things not of this world were a big part of it. But she had long suppressed her abilities based her sheer inability to control it.

The house, however, was bringing it out of her whether she wanted it to or not. There was the girl and there was her diary. She had the Redwood travel logs and all the newspaper headline copies. There was the crying baby. The man’s voice. The upside down cross on the door. The raccoon or family of raccoons living in the walls. And then, that Monday morning, a grandfather clock she had never seen before.

She walked through the dining room, past a modest, four-seater table and approached the kitchen, feeling a strange sense of something lurking in the darkness. Fearless, she continued on, ready to face whatever the house had in store for her. She flipped the kitchen light switch as the fluorescent lights above flickered on. She stood just outside the kitchen scanning its freshly painted walls, hanging dish towels, and clean counter tops. There was nobody there and nothing out of the ordinary beyond some dirty plates sink. They must have been from Curtis.

She was going to find the truth behind the mansion with whatever tools she had at her disposal. The books, the diary, and copied newspaper articles were all sitting on the desk in her office and she was ready to dive in. All she needed first was a bagel and a cup of coffee.

 

A few rooms down from the kitchen, Mary sat in the desk of her study with a sketch pad and drawing pencils at her disposal. She sipped from her Cincinnati coffee mug and typed away on her laptop, responding to a deluge of work emails accumulated over the past few days. She had two week deadline to make on the rough sketches to present to the publisher, and she hadn’t drawn a single thing.

A stack of library books rested on the corner of her desk, just within reach. The diary was secured in her desk drawer, next to her Smith & Wesson .38 caliber pistol, a weapon she always kept near from years of living in the city. Classical music played from her laptop as she went into full work mode. It made her feel good to be somewhat settled in and returning from a lengthy hiatus. Her cell phone was in view with its screen reflecting the sunlight that beamed in the room from the open window behind Mary. She could feel a light breeze and felt in relative peace with the rustling of trees and chirping of birds from outside.

With the clock episode behind her, she felt ready to begin her first drawing for the week, which she had put off for a while. She needed to sketch the simple outline of a family at home. The boy, Tommy, is being told by his mother at the dinner table to never talk to strangers. It was simple enough scene, and Mary swiveled her chair around to the arched table behind her, taking a sharp drawing pencil and began to sketch over a thick sheet of drawing paper.

Her movements came naturally as before her long break from illustrating. She didn’t even have to look at any photos. She closed her eyes, envisioning the family: the father, mother, daughter, and three boys. She sketched away as her hand seemed to take a life of its own, scratching against the paper and quick, measured lines, forming a lines each family member. The music guided her along, her mind entering a familiar trance mode where she seemed to be operating on auto-pilot.

After a few moments of hasty scribbling, she opened her eyes and lowered her pencil, shocked by what she had drawn. There on the paper below was a rough sketch of a family, but not the one she had intended to draw. The nicely dressed mother, father, and children lay on their backs, riddled with gunshot holes and in thick pools of blood. She had drawn X’s over their eyes. Their tiny mouths were agape in horror. She backed her chair away, stunned and horrified by the drawing as her pencil fell to the ground.

She spun around, pulling the top drawer open and grabbed the small, crinkled diary hidden inside. She placed it on her desk, pushing her keyboard to the side and stared down at its faded leather-bound exterior. She had read nearly half of the diary so far, and found herself surprised that it had taken days for her to return to it. But that was the question in itself. Did she have any control over anything? Were the forces within the house returning her to another passage?

She opened a word document on her computer in haste, revealing her typed transcript of the legible pages in the diary. She flipped the book open somewhere in the middle on a page she had marked. With one hand holding the diary open and the other on her keyboard, her eyes scanned the page as she typed furiously and with purpose.

I don’t know what’s happening. I’m scared. I heard Mother and Father quietly discussing death threats. For weeks we’ve received dozens of unmarked letters and unrecognizable handwriting. They won’t even let me go into town anymore. Or to school. Or to the park. Or even in the woods behind our house. I have a private tutor now. Her name is Mrs. Dempsey. She’s fifty two years old and very stern. I asked Mother last night who would want to hurt us. She told me not to worry about it. But am I worried about it. How can I not?

Mary flipped to the next page without hesitation and continued tying.

Mother fired Mrs. Dempsey today after an argument. What it was, she wouldn’t tell me. This is the fifth person they’ve fired in the past week. Our gardener, butler, mechanic, and swim coach. All of them gone. Now I feel lonelier than ever.

Mary paused looking up. “Swim coach?” she said. Did the mansion once have a pool? There was nothing in the backyard but solid ground with plenty of trees and underbrush along the way. She looked back down and continued reading as the girl’s next words nearly stopped Mary’s heart.

Pastor Phil visited the house tonight. He’s about the only person Mother talks to anymore. He too expressed concern for our safety but said that God would protect us as long as we had faith in Him and each other. My parents were never really religious people. Though lately, that’s all changed.

She closed the diary and set it to the side as she reached for the copied newspaper articles in a near state of delirium. She flipped through the copies, frantic, eyes darting along the wording of each black and write article. In several different articles, the history of the Bechdel mansion carried the same generic outset. The estate was at least a hundred years old and had been a part of the Bechdel family for generations.

One article caught her eye as she discovered by the turn of the twentieth century, the Bechdel family tree extended to the size of an entire town. Redwood, it was reported, originated as town for and by the Bechdels. She couldn’t believe her eyes. By 1975, however, the Bechdel bloodline had been completely wiped out.

In a frenzied quest for information, she placed the articles to the side and grabbed the nearest travelogue book. Her mind didn’t waver from the task at hand. She gave no notice of time passing or attention to her phone or how many emails piled in her inbox. She was completely focused on the task before her, like an obsession that had consumed her sensibilities down to the deepest core.

She opened the first book, A Brief History of Redwood. It was a short book, maybe sixty pages long, and there were plenty of old photographs on the page which showed the progression of the town from a backwoods settlement to a full-fledged town. She flipped through the pages, letting her instincts guide her as she came across a small newspaper clipping, stuck between two pages. Curious, she took the clipping out and unfolded it, reading the headline with dread.

Ukrainian Heir Flees Redwood Mansion after Series of Unexplained Events

The article continued, In the summer of June, 1992, the rural town of Redwood welcomed one of its most prestigious newcomers, wealthy business heir Boris Sokolov, and his large family. Since moving to the town, Sokolov made several boastful and promising gestures to invest and expand into Redwood, helping to create what he called, a town of the late-20th century. But two weeks later, Sokolov, the self-proclaimed “savior of Redwood,” fled his new home, the infamous Bechdel estate, without a word, taking his family back to the Ukraine where they were never seen or heard of again.

The article went on, but Mary stopped there, in complete disbelief that she was just discovering the revealing information. She went back to the books, devouring the pages and taking in each and everything she could about the town in its history. Her fingers stopped between pages of another book, detailing Redwood municipal history and Dover County which surrounded it. There was another newspaper clipping, folded like before.

This time she found an article about the latest family to have lived in the mansion, going back only to 2006. The family moved after the father, Eugene Garland, a wealthy Manhattan land developer, died in his sleep, three weeks after moving in. Mary couldn’t believe it. She continued reading the article, immersed in its details of the mystery surrounding Garland’s death, when her eyes became heavy beyond control and she began drifted away into a slumber that did not seem her own.

A startling vision came over her, real and lifelike. She could see the foyer of the mansion decked out elegantly with white curtains, glowing candles and elaborate white leather furniture. There were servers in tuxedos holding trays with finger foods and champagne glasses. At a distance she could see men and women in fancy suits and dresses as jazz music played from a nearby record player.

The vision ascended up the winding staircase, watching the party from above as three masked men stormed into the house, brandishing rifles and shotguns and shouting at the dinner guests, terrifying and rounding them up into a huddle. Moments later, the party guests and everyone else were blasted away, riddled with bullets as gunfire tore them to pieces and sent clumps of flesh onto the ground in an orgy of blood.

The vision took Mary up the stairs and into the first bedroom on the right, a child’s room, the room of a young girl. She was seeing the mansion through someone’s eyes, perhaps the author of the diary. She came to a window overlooking the darkened courtyard as abrupt banging came over her bedroom door. She climbed from the window and jumped into the moist grass below, running off in a panic, gasping for air along the way. She ran into a man.

Mary could see his face as he pointed the barrel of his rifle into her sight: lean cheekbones, stubble, a scar on his right cheek, and a thick head of straight, reddish hair that went down past his ears. A blast and white flash of light followed, when suddenly Mary woke up.

The grandfather clock jarred her out of her deep sleep, bells tolling in sync that woke her to a darkened office. Her head rose up from the desk with a newspaper clipping stuck to her cheek. She felt an uncomfortable crick in her neck and, for a moment, didn’t know where she was.

 

Suddenly, she spun her chair around, gasping. The passage of time was unreal. She backed up and stared at her desk, long and hard. Books were strewn open all along its surface with newspaper articles lying everywhere. It looked like a madman had rummaged through everything in fervent frenzy.

“No…” Mary said in disbelief. Her blank laptop screen had long went into sleep mode. She looked at her cell phone and saw that it was a little after 8:00 p.m. “Impossible…” She had found herself saying that word a lot as of late.

In dazed confusion, she turned back around, looking out the window to the dark sky and distant chirping of crickets from the blackened forest. How could twelve hours have just passed without her even knowing? Fear crept into her heart when she realized that she had read every book and every copied article on the desk. She had ingested the material before her like some kind of ravenous animal. If only she could remember half of what she had apparently read.

She swiped her phone screen and saw some miss calls from her mother, agent, and from Curtis. Shaking, she called Curtis first as his number went straight to voicemail. She still found herself in a state of disbelief. As long as she was in that house, nothing much made sense.

“Just checking in with you. I’d thought you’d be home now. Call me back,” she said into the phone.

She hung up, curious as to his whereabouts and then rose from her chair, legs stiff and sore. Had she really been sitting there unabated for twelve hours? The empty plate on her desk with crumbs of an eaten bagel indicated as much along with her growling stomach. She walked past the desk lamp and out of the room, limping along the way, toward the kitchen to make some dinner.

She turned on the hall light and continued with the grandfather clock suddenly back in her mind. She flipped the kitchen lights on, carrying her empty plate and head to the sink, when the fluorescent lights above flickered and then went out in unison. She stood in the darkness, astonished and frustrated, as a faint glow from a single light above the sink retained visibility.

She looked up at the non-functioning lights above and sighed. The electrician was supposed to come and fix them already. Perhaps he did and she never answered the door. The thought alone was unsettling. She had never gotten around to the door either and was sure Curtis would throw a fit about the red paint still there.

She placed her plate in the sink and turned toward the refrigerator on the other side of the room. After a few steps, she felt something sleek and slippery on the tile floor below her slippers.

She looked down in the dim light. There were streaks on the floor. Her eyes squinted and she could make out the color red.

More red paint?

The thought was scary enough in itself. She took a careful step forward and heard a distant moan that caused the hairs to stand up on the back of her neck. She continued on, nearing central counter with pots and pans hanging from the cabinet above. She looked down and followed the red trail as the moaning persisted.

Just around the counter, she saw a figure slowly moving across the floor. She gasped and covered her mouth trembling. A few feet ahead of her crawled a man on his stomach with a large hole blasted in his back. His black suit was tattered, torn, and soaked with blood. His organs were hanging out, his intestines dragging on the floor. She could only see the back of his head as pulled one arm in front of the other with feeble, shaking movements.

“Oh my God…” she said, reaching for her cell phone. The trail of blood went from the sink of to the other signs as the man slowly crawled away from her, moaning in agony. Her legs had locked into place, paralyzed with fear. Her cell phone fell from her hand and smacked onto the ground in a puddle of blood.

She went immediately to the floor, crouched down, unsure if she was going to call 9-1-1 or Curtis first. She grabbed the blood-soaked phone as it slipped out of hand and slid across the tile, just out of reach. Warmness streamed down her cheeks when she suddenly realized that she was crying.

“No. No. No,” she repeated to herself closing her eyes. She hoped that when they opened the grotesque sight would be gone. “Go away,” she said softly.

Then, as if an earthquake had shaken the ground and everything on it, the kitchen came alive with one explosive and sweeping gust that sent each and every cabinet open in loud, deafening burst that sent Mary reeling to the slippery ground. Plates crashed and shattered into pieces. Pots flew into the wall. The refrigerator flew open, sending its contents smashing onto the ground. A dizzying white flash followed as Mary tried to stand, forcing her back down. Her forehead smacked against the tile and she felt blood trickling down her face.

No!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. She struggled again to get up as the disorienting cacophony of pots, pans, plates, and glasses crashed all around her. After one final heave, she made it to her feet and vaulted out the kitchen, slipping on blood and staggering down the hall, not looking back.

Her piercing screams echoed through the house as she stormed down the hall past rooms where doors slammed shut like guillotines hoping to snare her in. By the time she made it to the foyer, sweaty, petrified, and pale with terror, she was greeted with the sight of the grandfather clock in its original spot, bells blaring and blood bubbling from inside, from top to bottom. Both chairs suddenly flew toward her like guided missiles.

She jumped out of the way and slid across the hardwood floor as both crashed into the wall in a startling bang. She looked up to see the chandeliers swaying wildly with their bulbs flashing at their brightest. Doors slammed shut in unison all around her. Moaning continued. A barrage of insects scattered across the walls around her. Hanging pictures crashed to the ground. In the distance, the kitchen table flew across the dining room and pummeled into the wall.

Mary slipped and fell to her knees, feeling trapped and pinned to the ground. Thick blood spewed from the grandfather clock like a geyser, soaking the ceiling in its reddened flow.

What do you want?” she screamed.

A loud bang suddenly came against the front door, startling her further. Her head whipped around, staring at the exit and trying to build the nerve to run. Was this it for her? Had the house finally come alive to take her away?

Crouched down with her palms flat against the floor, sweat ran down her forehead creating a puddle below. She looked up to see a blinding white light at the end of the staircase. Within that light, she saw the shape of a young girl. Her face was hollow and pale with her cheeks sunken in and black eyes without a smidgen of white. She was barefoot and dressed in a nightgown.

“Please…” the girl pleaded. “You have to help me!”

Mary felt tremors through her body, shaking her in spastic, relentless measures. “Who-who are you?” she asked in a strained voice.

“Don’t leave me. Please don’t be afraid,” the girl said.

Mary fell flat on her stomach as her own body weight tripled and pushed her to the ground. Another flash of white and she felt a sharp pain in her jaw from smacking against the floor.

“Tell me what you want!” she tried to yell as blood oozed from her mouth.

“You know who I am,” the girl said. “I’m Julie Bechdel.” Before she could say another word, the girl looked up in terror and then screamed, instantly imploding into nothing. And then she was gone.

The pounding on the door continued. The house shook at its very foundation like the aftershock of an earthquake. Mary wasn’t sure if she’d make it out alive, but with one fresh gasp of air she flew forward onto her feet and hurdled toward the front door like an Olympic track star. The grandfather clock tipped over and crashed in front of the door, blocking her, and pouring human organs and limbs from its top, scattering them across the foyer.

She jumped over the clock without a second thought and smacked hard against the front door as the pounding continued. He knees and back ached. Her frequent dizziness returned to her with full force, making it near impossible to clutch the door handle and push it open. She screamed and rose up as heat engulfed her like an unseen fire. Her hands went to the door handle and yanked it open, screaming in terror as light hit her face, blinding her.

She ran out of the house, colliding directly with a man who caught her and held her tightly.

“Hey there! Listen to me. Calm down!”

She shook and thrashed and tried her best to move, but the man’s grip was impenetrable. “Let me go! Let me go!” she shouted repeatedly.

“Mary please listen to me!” the man pleaded.

Darkness came over her as the light in her eyes went away. She looked up, trembling. Pastor Phil’s face looked down at her as they nearly stumbled down the steps. She didn’t know what to say. She looked down at herself. She was sweaty and shaken, but there was no blood all but the cut on her forehead.

“Goodness, Mary. What happened?”

Too stunned to response, she looked inside the house as the front door swayed open. There was no clock. No organs. No gore splattered across the hardwood floor. But it was all too much. She could feel her mind slipping away by the second. Her heart beat like a jackhammer within her chest. That part was real enough, so was the sweat covering her drenched body.

“The house…” she said in a trembling voice. “It… it came alive. I’m not crazy…”

“I know you’re not, Mary. Why do you think I had ol’ Jerry Hadley paint a red cross on your door?”

She looked up, speechless with her shock growing.

“We have to keep the spirits contained,” he said, holding a flashlight and dressed with in simple blue jeans, T-shirt, and jacket.

“You…” she said, pulling away and enraged. Phil let her go as she stared him down, eyes furious and finger in his face. “You knew all about this house, and didn’t tell us.”

Phil took a defensive step back with his hands in the air. “Not everything. Just some things. I didn’t think it’d get this bad, but now things are different.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Can’t you do anything? This house needs an exorcist!”

“The secrets of the Bechdel mansion must stay buried for Redwood to survive,” Phil said. “That’s just the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been.”

“I don’t care. I’m not living here any longer,” she said with venom in her tone. “Now I want you off my property. Now.”

“It’s too late,” Pastor Phil said. “The house has chosen you for a reason, especially now that…” He suddenly stopped, raising Mary’s immediate suspicion.

Now that what?” she said, seething. Upon his hesitation, she stepped forward, pushing him out of the way.

“You can’t run!” Phil said. “No matter where you go, the spirits will follow you. They chose you. Understand?”

Mary stopped and turned around, prepared to get as far away from the mansion as she could and never turn back. However, there was something to his words, proof that the madness she had experienced wasn’t entirely in her head.

“Why did they chose me?” she said, slowly in a stern tone.

“That little girl. The Bechdel kid. Julie. She wants your help. The others. Well they want something else entirely.”

“Enough,” she said, swinging her arms downward. “I can’t take any more of this.”

“The house…” Phil began. “It knows you’re pregnant.”

Mary swung her head up, staring at him with her mouth agape. “What are talking about?”

“It knows… And your baby is in grave danger.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Haunting Of Bechdel Mansion

  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2016-09-07 23:20:11
  • Words: 37046
The Haunting Of Bechdel Mansion The Haunting Of Bechdel Mansion