This short story is broken into two parts to make it more readable on the blog. Part 2 will follow the day after Part 1.
I thought the blond, green-eyed waif looked too delicate to be interested in the Kindfellow Manor. The estate was an albatross, having been fallow for at least a generation. It was the last house I needed to sell before I could quit Destiny Realtors. I was ready to be rid of it, but still, I was annoyed to be here, on probably the coldest day of winter, an overcast day that made the house seem gloomier than usual, a poor day for selling albatrosses. But Miss Smith had insisted when she called to arrange for the tour.
“I have a rare medical condition, Ms. Brooks, a genetic sensitivity to the sun. The best time for me to come out is at night.”
Oh, lady, wrap yourself up, I had thought while I half-listened to her. It’s the dead of winter, bone-aching cold, and the sun hasn’t been seen in days. But I bit my tongue because I was desperate to sell the house.
“I’m so sorry about your condition. Unfortunately, I cannot meet you tonight, but we could meet this afternoon. The day is quite overcast but it would be light enough to see the house.” There were a few moments of silence, and I thought I had blown it, lost another rare chance to rid me of my burden.
“Very well,” Ms. Smith finally said in an icy voice that made me shiver. “We will meet at four o’clock. Please do not be late.” And then she hung up. I sighed. These days the sun set about four-thirty. The old house was thirty miles outside of town and through a thick wood.
But, like I said, I wanted to be rid of the house. I also wanted to be rid of my husband Ray and this tired city both of whom were in steady decline. Up until ten years ago, Ray was farming his family’s dairy farm. He was the last of his line to try and keep the farm going, but eventually he could no longer, not without killing himself. I pushed him to sell, thinking we would use the money to get out of here. But we had too much debt and Ray was a lousy negotiator, and he sold the farm at a loss.
Now he works in Schenectady and pines for the good old days of plowing and milking cows. I became a Realtor so I could save money and someday leave the dreary bleakness of winter. I want to move to Florida, to the land of sunshine. I had never forgotten that spring break in my senior year of high school when a bunch of us girls cajoled our parents into letting us drive down and spend a week on the beach. There, in Pensacola, the water was blue and warm and the sun was bright and hot. Back home, our parents were still shoveling dirty snow. Thirty years ago but so vivid a memory that I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
I came early to the manor in the hopes that Ms. Smith would be early too. Instead she showed up at four o’clock sharp. She parked her black Lexus next to my rusted beige Oldsmobile, making my car look even more like it was ready for the salvage yard. The windows of her car were tinted black, giving it a sinister look. She could see me, but I certainly could not see her.
I gasped when the car door opened and what appeared to be a wisp of smoke floated from the car. Miss Smith was clad in gray wool from head to foot; she practically blended into the background of the gray Glenville river and steel gray sky. Her figure was as slight as a child’s, and I wondered how anyone so delicate-looking would manage the broken-down monstrosity of the Kindfellow Manor.
She came toward me, with her arm outstretched. I clasped her gloved hand and was surprised by the strength of her grip. We exchanged pleasantries, and I ushered her inside. I had brought my flashlight but I hoped this would be a quick tour. Something about Miss Smith unnerved me.
As we stood in the foyer, I pointed out the rooms off to the sides—the living and dining rooms to the left and the kitchen and pantry to the right—and the grand but faded carpeted staircase before us that led to the bedrooms and attic. She dropped the hood of her coat, startling me with the luminosity of her skin and the while-blond of her hair. Her head practically glowed in the dusky air of the house.
She led us into the living room and then glided around its perimeter, as if taking its measure. She was so young, I thought but there was something old-fashioned about her, too. A lace collar covered her neck, and a cameo pin decorated her throat. Delicate pearl beads dripped from her earlobes.
“So, Miss Smith, you seem so young to wanting such a big house for yourself.” I tried to laugh in a light, friendly manner, not wanting to offend my prospective buyer, but I was curious.
With her back to me, she said, “Oh, Ms. Brooks, I’m not as young as you think.”
I tried to make small talk with her while she explored the rooms with studied interest, but she was slow to respond, as if her mind was elsewhere. She said she had no family, had been an only child, and both of her parents were dead. A distant uncle, however, had left her an inheritance, enough to live on and to buy the house. I watched her with growing envy. She was young and free, I thought.
I patted the back of my iron-gray bob and promised myself that when I sell this house, I will dye my hair red with gold highlights, grab my commission, and catch the next flight to Pensacola. I’d already decided that I wouldn’t take any luggage, and that Ray wouldn’t know anything until it was too late for him to stop me.
I snapped out of my revelry. To my embarrassment, Miss Smith was standing directly in front of me, only a foot away. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes were intensely focused on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was lost in thought. Would you like to see the upstairs now?” My feet and legs were starting to ache from standing for so long. I wanted to climb the carpeted stairs and give them a stretch.
“Actually, I was wondering … “ she paused. “Is there a basement?”
My heart plummeted to my stomach. “Why, yes, there is, but it’s really a root cellar. It’s quite dank and very dark. It just has a single light bulb. It would be hard to see-“
“Oh, I have excellent eyesight in the dark,” she said, smiling faintly. I noticed that she hadn’t blinked the whole time we were talking. I suddenly felt chilled and began to rub my arms.
“Goodness, these big houses can be so chilly,” I said. “And it’s getting dark. I just hate winters here. It gets dark so early.”
Her smile broadened. “I like the dark myself,” she said. “I’m most active at night.”
Good for you, I thought, feeling annoyed. She still hadn’t blinked and she was still staring directly into my eyes. I turned away and started toward the staircase.
“I recommend that we take a look at the upstairs and then tomorrow we can come back, bright and early, to see the rest of the place-“
I stopped dead in my tracks. The waif’s voice had become authoritative. I felt like crying. Why the hell did she want to see the basement? It was a damp, dark, and dirty place with cobwebs and rats running around. It had earthen walls; it wasn’t intended to be anything but a root cellar. The only time I had been in it, I felt like I was being buried alive.
“Ms. Brooks,” she said again, but softly. “My preference is to see the basement. If it is as dark as you say, then it won’t be any lighter tomorrow morning. Thus, there’s no point in waiting.” She spoke with the enduring patience of a nanny. I was old enough to be her mother, yet she made me feel chastened. I simply had to do as she told, and she wouldn’t get angry, I thought.
“All right,” I said slowly. “It’s off the kitchen.” She walked close behind me. The door to the basement was in a small room between the kitchen and the back door, where the previous residents had kept mud-caked boots and outer garments.
As I put my hand on the doorknob, I looked out a window and saw that the sun had set. The sky retained a pink-lavender glow, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. I pushed open the door.
The smell of moist earth enveloped me. It was a heady, musky scent, like my husband’s body used to smell after a day’s plowing. I used to love that smell, back when I loved him. I was surprised to feel that I missed him.
The stairs descending into the darkness were nothing more than an old ladder fixed into the earth. There was no railing so I had to back my way down. I switched on the light, the low-watt bulb barely illuminating the space.
“Ms. Brooks,” said the waif, startling me by appearing at my side. “Would you join me for dinner?”
The light suddenly went out and I felt something cold and hard embrace me. I opened my mouth to protest, but then a sharp and exquisite pain took my breath away. I remembered how Ray used to molest my neck with his mouth, leaving me with large bruises and a glow.
I felt my knees buckle but I didn’t fall. In my mind, I saw myself in Florida, reclining in a beach chair, drinking a margarita, only this time, it’s after dark and the moon is my sun.
To be continued …