It started about two weeks ago. The dreaded pounding and scratching that would keep Valerie awake night after night came on quietly, almost inaudibly at first but gradually built into the cacophony of racket that now plagued her relentlessly.
She had explored every mechanical possibility to resolve the problem. She had hired workmen, plumbers and the like, all with the same result: “Everything is fine," they would say. Or “Your plumbing ain’t the problem lady, but you better find yourself a good priest—fast!"
She was actually getting accustomed to her visitors sprinting down the front walk without even putting on their coats. In fact, one workman ran out so fast, he didn’t even bother taking his coat with him and now she was the proud owner of a very nice leather jacket. Attempts to return it by contacting the man by phone were met with the dead-end of an answering machine or voice mail and none of the messages she left were ever returned.
At 42 years of age, Valerie lived alone. She wasn’t the type of woman to spook easily, nor was she prone to escalations of imagination. She was an independent, levelheaded woman and since she had become the holder of title to this great Victorian estate, she refused to be put out by a few harmless noises or bumps in the night.
She had worked very hard to get here. She finally had something of value she could call her own and nothing was going to come between it and her, not even a ghost or ghosts.
The house she had inherited was a large estate on the edge of town. In her mind, it was perfectly located in a quiet, rural setting, yet close to the bustle and conveniences of town. To the new, more objective caller, the house had a formidable appeal, as it more closely resembled Norman Bates’ residence than it did the elegant country estate in Valerie’s mind. It had sinister looking wrought iron embellishments and storm shutters and the obligatory lightning rod that donned the stereotypical haunted house.
Its wide front porch led down to a brick walkway flanked by low evergreen hedges and lush green grass. In the side yard was a peculiar oak tree, ancient looking and ragged, like the ghastly white bones of an arthritic skeleton. It loomed like a sentinel positioned menacingly on a hillock as if to warn arrivals that this place was not to be entered whimsically or taken lightly.
While Valerie was aware of the macabre appearance of her newly acquired treasure, she intentionally overlooked the oddness of it at first. To her this was just a house, a very nice house and its strange appearance was not to be given any credence. She intended to make it her home permanently. All that was required was a little cheery paint, some pruning or landscaping and she would put her mark upon it—forever rectifying the gloomy, almost mournful tone of the place.
She had moved in immediately despite the home’s state of neglect. Actually, it wasn’t in awful shape, it had just been vacant for so long that it was very dusty and forgotten. Due to the state of flux her life was in, she felt it was best to just take the plunge and work things out once she moved in. And that’s exactly what she did. She sold her furniture, tied up a few loose ends and packed her 1998 Volvo with only her essentials: clothing, personal effects and a bag of groceries. On a Saturday afternoon in late October she put her car in park, took a deep breath and stepped out onto the lawn of the place that would change her life forever.
Her first task was to roam the interior, amazed at her good fortune as the place was absolutely filled with fine antiques, priceless art and delightfully interesting objects. At the head of the massive and ornately carved mahogany staircase, she browsed the five luxuriously outfitted bedrooms, choosing the largest for her own. Once done, she unpacked her Volvo and placed all of her clothing in their appropriate places. A large bureau housed her intimates, sweaters and jeans. An immense armoire became home to her dresses, blouses and skirts. This activity took all of three hours and afterwards she opted for an overdue lunch.
She took the bag of groceries she had packed and made her way to the kitchen, a large practical room equipped with all the needed items to prepare a more than adequate meal. And while the appliances and cooking utensils weren’t new, they were of fine quality and amply supplied so she could definitely make do without any immediate trips to the kitchen and bath store.
She set the bag down on a large butcher-block table, obviously utilized by the staff in bygone times to prepare elaborate meals and baked goods. Across from this was the refrigerator. She tugged on the handle and noticed that inside it was in very good shape, had been left very clean and exhibited none of the rank odors she expected.
She set about unpacking her food items. She frowned as she realized that in her excitement she had forgotten to immediately refrigerate her milk, but crossed her fingers as she placed it and the remaining items in their appropriate places. She found the bottom of the grocery bag soon enough and noticed its contents were dwarfed by the cavernous interior of the appliance. It was enough food for the next few days, but she made a mental note that a trip to the grocer would be needed in the near future.
She pulled out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. Not exactly five star, but it would kill the growl in her belly. She pulled out a drawer, found a knife and slathered on a thick coating of the brown, nutty paste. Then she dropped the knife, folded the bread in half and took a relishing bite. With her free hand, she reopened the refrigerator door and pulled out the quart of milk, pushed the door closed with her foot and set the carton on the counter.
A glass. Where were the glasses? In all the flurry of the preceding days, she hadn’t thought of things in such detail and for the first time realized there might not be any.
She began opening and closing cupboard doors. In relief, she located some plates and since she had found the silverware just a few seconds earlier, she knew it was just a matter of persistence before she would come across a container that would hold her lukewarm milk.
She swung open the corner cabinet door and inside she found a very interesting little box. Holding the sandwich gingerly in her mouth, she reached for it, pulled it out with both hands and placed it on the counter where she could get a good look at the contents without strain.
Carefully, she pulled the lid back and inside she found one lone item: an old iron skeleton key with a very elaborately fashioned handle.
She held it up to the light and pulled the sandwich out of her mouth with her left hand, slowly chewing the bite while she examined the object closely.
“What does this go to?" she asked herself as she puzzled, taking another bite. After a few moments the peanut butter overwhelmed her mouth and she could not swallow. The need for liquid overruled her curiosity and her search for a glass resumed. She placed the key back in the box and returned to the cabinets, opening the next. Bingo! There were the glasses. She barely had time to fill it with milk when a jangling sound pierced the quiet. It was her cell phone.
Where did she leave it? In her activities she had absent-mindedly dropped her handbag in some unknown place. She gulped some milk quickly and started rifling through things following the direction of the ring. The phone incessantly squealed its ear-splitting announcement while Valerie hunted and searched for the source. Finally, the phone gasped its last plea and fell silent just as Valerie placed her hand on her bag. She fished the device out of its resting place and looked at the face. The caller ID reported to her that the call had come from an “unknown caller," as she polished off the last bite of her sandwich.
Too busy to care and too interested in her new dwelling, she dropped the phone into her jeans front pocket with the assumption that the caller would leave a message or leave her alone, the latter being the preferred outcome.
With her hunger now at bay, her mind went to her next task—the exploration of the rest of the house and its outbuildings.
She opted to explore the outbuildings first as the October air was prone to chill and darkness came earlier every day. She hunted around for the jacket she had left on a hall chair and shoved her arms into its sleeves. She patted her pockets and determined that all she really needed was her keys, located them and dropped them into her right front jacket pocket.
Pulling the front door to, she left it unlocked and stepped onto the wide front porch. Then she stepped down into a carpet of deep, soft green as she eagerly set off to the right toward the specter-like oak tree in the side yard. As she strolled the length of the front of the house, she noted the overgrowth of untended gardens that lay beneath the massive windows. She turned her gaze to the western horizon where the sun was making its slow descent and as she passed the far edge of the house, she never noticed the rustling of the drape or the transparent pale face peering out of the corner window.
Fully into the side yard, she paused for a moment to survey the grounds. Ahead of her was a broad expanse of land—rolling hills of lush grass that led to a thicket of trees that bordered the property several hundred yards away. Even from this distance, she could sense the onset of winter as most of the trees’ leaves had fallen, leaving the structures bare like dead bony fingers reaching toward the sky.
To the right she could view the side of the house as well as glimpse the back portion of the property from the gap between the house and what appeared to be a gardener’s shed. As this was her day of assessment, she chose to check out the shed and its contents before it became too dark. She jaunted across the grass, surveying the grounds as she walked and upon approaching the outbuilding, she stopped abruptly when she heard someone calling her name.
It was a whisper, very small and barely audible. Yet once her feet became motionless, the crunching of the grass beneath them became silent, and she began to doubt that she had actually heard anything at all. Nevertheless, she glanced around, curiously seeking the source of the voice. She looked up at the side of the house.
From this vantage point, the scale of the place impressed her for the first time. She was able to see all of the windows on that side of the three-story structure—those that lined the parlor walls and a small window, higher than the others, which more than likely vented the ground floor bathroom. Above that level were the two bedrooms on the west side of the house. The heavy drapes that lined these windows were apparent as well as the supplemental gauzy fabric intended to filter light and add privacy. At the very top of the wall was a small crescent-shaped window that Valerie guessed to be the attic.
Her eyes scanned each vacant pane of each window after which she turned completely around and viewed the road in front of the house. There was nobody there. Not a single car in sight or person for that matter. This survey of her environment assured her that indeed she had confused the sound of her body motion with a human voice.
Satisfied with this explanation she continued on her quest.
She turned back around and closed the gap between her present position and the entrance to the shed. The door was made of two out-swinging panels, intended to allow enough room for gardening implements to pass through. The two panels were held shut by a clasp locked tight with an old, rusty lock. She reached in her pocket for the keys.
All she found was an empty pocket.
She tried the other side, but it was empty, too. “What the --?" she stammered, frustrated that she had come all this way without them. Confused, her mind raced immediately back to the moment when she surely had dropped the keys in her pocket. She began patting herself to determine if she had decided on a different pocket last minute and had just forgotten.
The keys were nowhere on her person. “I must have dropped them on my way out," she said to herself optimistically and began retracing her steps across the thick grass. As she walked, she zigzagged her line of sight intending to miss not a single inch of traversed ground.
She passed by the oak tree, silent and massive, circled it’s trunk just to make sure and started back across the front yard. The sun was making long shadows on the ground and she looked like a 30 foot-tall woman, hunting frantically for her memory as well as her keys.
She mounted the front steps and passed through the front door. She then groped the wall to side of the door jam looking for a light switch. It was already murky inside and it was only 5:30 in the afternoon.
She found the switch and flicked on the light. It was dim but adequate to get her across the hall and back into the kitchen where she started. Again, she groped for that switch and as the golden glow of light filled the room, her eyes went to the counter. Relieved, she found her keys safely on the counter! Neatly displayed in plain view.
But her relief was fleeting as the realization that the box with the key was no longer where she left it. The kitchen appeared as though it hadn’t been touched in a very, very long time.
Her heart began to pound so loudly she could hear it. Her hands began to shake as a very frightening reality engulfed her.
She was not alone.
She reached for her cell phone and began to back slowly toward the front door and out of the house.
To be continued . . . these spirits are still materializing!