Nora and Claire ascended the wide steps leading to the porch in silence. At the top, a small brown sparrow—patiently building her nest under the porch eave—spirited away into the sky with a noisy fluttering of wings. As they stood looking at the broad front door, both girls listened for any sound coming from the other side. Hearing none, they glanced at each other and shrugged before turning back to the door.
“Knock,” Claire hissed in a whisper. Nora was just about to protest when the white lace curtain covering the door’s window shifted from inside. There was a metallic clicking sound, and then the heavy door opened a few inches releasing the faint aroma of flowers and burned cooking oil onto the porch. Although it was a sunny morning, most of the curtains were drawn over the windows so that only a murky mosaic of shadows stared back at the girls from within the house.
Claire was just about to speak into the cracked opening of the door when a smiling face materialized from the darkness. The widow wore her salt-and-peppery gray hair drawn back in a tight bun—though a few wispy strands had escaped and hung limply over her brow. Vibrant eyes glowed from behind the thick lenses of her thin gold-rimmed glasses, and she said in a sweet voice, “hello? Oh, I wasn’t expecting any callers today.”
Claire looked at Nora and then quickly back to the woman, “oh, no—I’m sorry—hi, my name is Claire, and this is Nora,” she said waving her hand at her friend. “We’re doing our senior project at Buford University, and we were just wondering if you had a little time to help us by answering some questions?”
There was a pause before the silvery-haired lady said, “oh, that sounds wonderful sweety—but I don’t see what I could have to say that would be very helpful for that, I’m afraid.”
Claire had expected her to say something like that, and she’d already rehearsed an answer ahead of time: “well, our project is about people who’ve lived in Monroe County for a long time… and there aren’t many people around here who’ve seen as much local history as I’m sure you probably have,” she said in an attempt to flatter her.
The old woman’s smile did indeed get wider, and she said airily, “that may very well be true. Well, I don’t know. I don’t have many visitors these days so the house isn’t very presentable… but we could sit out here?” She opened the door a bit further and gestured to a pair of white rocking chairs on the porch.
Nora hadn’t anticipated the possibility of sitting outside and for a moment she felt cold fear stirring in her belly. What difference does it make though, she thought, Claire can just ask to use the bathroom after a little bit—and then I won’t even have to go inside the stupid house.
Like Nora, Claire was also caught off-guard by the woman’s proposed change of location. Unlike Nora however, when she panicked there was no compensatory follow-up thought, and she instead blurted out, “oh I’m sorry—I just hate the bugs out here. They get right into my eyes and stick to my makeup. I’m really terribly sorry,” and she waved her hand around her face as though she were shooing away the tiny nuisances.
Nora didn’t see any bugs—and she was sure that Claire had just blown their chances—but to her surprise the widow quickly said, “oh, I understand dear. When I wore makeup more often I was the same way. I don’t wear it these days so I suppose I’ve forgotten how terrible they can be.” She looked from one girl to the other and said, “you both seem like sweet girls, I suppose we can go inside where it’s cooler and sit.” The widow opened the door completely and then turned and slowly shuffled into the dimly lit house.
Claire followed after the woman, and then Nora, who closed the door behind her. The lady led the girls to a small sitting room not far from the front parlor. She gestured to a beige couch that looked as though it had been built in the last century. The two girls sat down on the sofa as the woman went over to a careworn rocking chair, tucking her light blue checkered dress under her as she sat.
Nora looked around the room. The window curtains were made from an intricately woven and delicate lace that sifted the light coming in, transforming it into an incandescent glow that filled the air with soft white light. Every piece of furniture that Nora could see appeared to be as old as the house—or at least as old as the widow was.
Despite what the lady had said at the door, the house was surprisingly tidy and it reminded Nora more of a museum than a home. Somewhere in another room, a grandfather clock ticked to the passing time and the sound carried through the downstairs. Claire took a notebook and pen from her bag—brought along to enhance their subterfuge—and brushed her red hair behind her shoulder before she cleared her throat. “So, maybe we should just start with your name and… maybe a little background about yourself?” she said.
The widow seemed not to hear the question though, and she instead said, “oh dear, I’m afraid it’s been so long since I’ve had guests I must have forgotten my manners. Would you girls like some sweet tea?” and she began to stand back up again.
“No—that’s okay, we’re fine,” Nora cut in quickly. She didn’t want any more proof that they were at the house than was necessary. It was bad enough that Claire had let a perfect opportunity slip through their hands while they were on the porch.
The woman smiled and sat back down. “Okay, perhaps in a little bit then. Now, what was it you asked, my dear?” she said to Claire.
“Oh, I was just saying that maybe we should start with your name, and then maybe a little bit of your background?” Claire asked rhetorically, moving to the edge of the couch. She didn’t have many questions to ask the lady memorized, so she was hoping that she would drag her answers out the way old people tend to do. Her plan was to talk for a few minutes, excuse herself, and then let Nora take over while she quickly searched the cellar.
“Well, my name is Lottie Pellman,” the widow began, “but of course before that I was Lottie Erlander. I was born right here in Monroe County—our house was over by where the landfill is now—and my Vernon and me got married as soon as we graduated high school.”
A slender tabby cat sauntered into the room and rubbed its ribs on the ottoman. “That’s Taffy,” said Mrs. Pellman when the girls looked at the cat, “he came with the house,” and she laughed softly at her own joke—her gold-rimmed glasses bouncing up and down.
Claire had been scribbling half-hearted notes as Mrs. Pellman talked, and she looked down at her notebook and asked, “so you and Vernon—Mr. Pellman—moved in here when you got married then?”
The widow began to gently rock in the chair and answered, “oh no, we had to live with my parents at first. Vernon worked as journalist for the Monroe Gazette back then and his pay was lousy. When we decided to look at some houses one Saturday afternoon, we stopped here. Well, Vernon just fell right in love with the place.”
Taffy, deciding that Mrs. Pellman would be sitting long enough to be worth his while, hopped gracefully up to her lap—spun around once—and lay down. The lady gently pet the cat’s head and continued, “he said from the very first day that this house never wanted him leave—he loved it that much. In fact, both our parents—and me, I can admit now—thought he was a little crazy when he quit his job at the Gazette so he could be home more.”
Mrs. Pellman smiled at the fond memory and went on, “But that’s just what he did. Woke up morning and just quit the paper.”
Nora leaned forward and asked, “so what did he do for a living afterwards?” Claire’s claims of a fortune hidden in the cellar seemed less likely if Mr. Pellman simply sat around the house for sixty years.
The widow nodded understandingly, “oh, Vern didn’t have to work. We had a little bit in savings, but unfortunately soon after we moved in both my parent’s passed in an automobile accident. They left me more than enough money to support us. Vernon sold articles from time to time to newspapers and magazines around the country, but mostly he just worked on the house,” and she looked around the room as she motioned with her hands.
Claire perked up at the mention of an inherited fortune and threw both patience and caution to the wind. “I’m really sorry Mrs. Pellman,” she said, “but my stomach seems to be acting up—is there a bathroom that I can use?”
Nora hadn’t expected to be thrust on stage so quickly, and she took the notebook from Claire with a flustered and confused face. Mrs. Pellman didn’t suspect anything unusual however, and she answered, hand outstretched to the doorway on the opposite wall, and said, “of course, sweetie. Just go through there and down the hall. It’s the last door on the right.” Claire shot Nora a conspiratorial look and walked out of the room.
Much of the rest of the house was dark compared to the sitting room, and it took Claire’s eyes a moment to adjust in the dim hallway. Rows of pictures lined the walls; some were of a boy at various ages while others were family portraits, taken together. Several, Claire noticed, were photographs taken of the house from different vantage points on the property.
She slowly made her way down the hall—not wanting to switch on any lights in case it drew attention. She quietly peeked into the doors along the walls as she crept, careful not to make any noise. The first door led to a coat closet and the next to a small spare bedroom. But when she opened the third door, she immediately felt a damp subterranean breeze and smelled an earthy odor. Claire stole a glance back down the hallway and slipped through the door into the darkness beyond, shutting it softly behind her.
Nora sat on the beige sofa and looked at Claire’s notes with amusement—she hadn’t even spelt “magazine” correctly. “So… Mrs. Pellman,” she said awkwardly, “what else can you tell me about your childhood that people might find interesting?” She didn’t really care, but Nora wanted to keep the old lady talking for as long as possible, and childhood stories seemed to be the best way to do it.
Mrs. Pellman smiled again and tilted her head, “oh, I don’t know. I don’t guess there was much very interesting about it, really. Monroe County has always been pretty small, and I’ve spent most of my life here—with Vernon. He used to like to make up little projects for the house, whereas I enjoyed working outside in the garden—or even just sitting out on the porch with my knitting.
So, she does knit, Nora thought humorously, wait until I tell Claire. It seemed that no matter what the girls had tried, the widow always circled the conversation back to the manor. Fine, she thought, if you want to talk about the house, talk all about the house then. “Did Mr. Pellman do all of the work on the house then?” Nora asked.
The widow shifted slightly in the rocking chair and Taffy hopped down and left the room in search of a quieter napping spot. “Oh yes,” Mrs. Pellman said, “well everything that he possibly could. He hated other people working on it—always said they were too rough on it when they worked.”
Nora didn’t even want to begin to understand what that meant, but she needed to find a subject that the woman would chat at length on. She tried again and said, “your husband must have been very handy to have around then.”
Mrs. Pellman just laughed and said, “oh yes, dear—nothing escaped his attention for long.”
Claire felt along the wall until she found the light switch. She flipped the switch up and a pale orange light bulb sprang to life in the cellar at the bottom of the stairs. She carefully walked down the wooden steps until she stood on the earthen floor. The cellar was expansive, extending back in every direction until it disappeared into inky darkness beyond the reach of the naked bulb.
The first thing she noticed was that there were no windows down here that opened up to the ground level above. The next thing she noticed was the size of the cellar. Holy shit, she thought, where do I even begin? There were pieces of old furniture stacked against the walls in places with cabinets and work benches dotting the open room like grazing cattle.
Claire walked around the room looking for somewhere obvious that Mr. Pellman would have hid the money. Not seeing anything that stood out, she hurried over to a cabinet and began searching it—trying her best to not make noise but still move quickly.
Mrs. Pellman had just finished telling Nora about a squirrel infestation in the attic that she and Vernon had dealt with one winter when she suddenly said, “dearie, I hope your friend is okay—she’s been in the lavatory for a while now,” and looked toward the empty hallway.
A shot of cold fear climbed Nora’s spine and her mind raced to conjure a response. She said, “I’m sure she’s fine—we had a large breakfast is all,” and smiled with a look that she hoped said: who hasn’t been there, right?
The widow wasn’t listening however, and her head was turned as if to glean some noise in another room. Without speaking, she stood up from the rocking chair and smiled at Nora curtly before turning to shuffle out of the room.
Nora screamed inside of her head. What do I do now? she thought—beginning to panic. “Oh, Mrs. Pellman, where did you and Vernon get all of this beautiful furniture from?” she asked. But the old woman didn’t reply as she shuffled out of the room, and Nora’s question trailed off into the air.
Claire was on her third large wooden cabinet when her shoe felt something unusual in the hard dirt underfoot. She gently tapped her heel on the floor again and heard a dull echo in response. Looking down, she could see that the floor did look different where she was standing—the color looked slightly darker than the surrounding area. She scraped her foot on the floor to clear the dirt away—but no dirt moved.
She quickly stepped down in different spots on the floor and—to her surprise—after a few tries one section of the floor popped up as if lifted by hidden springs. The “dirt” on the floor here was some grainy textured dark brown paint she had never seen before on top of some sort of trap door. She quietly squealed in happiness and got down on her knees. Reaching under the lip of the floor-turned-lid, she tried to lift it. Thankfully, the lid was light and she easily managed to swing it open.
Dug into the cellar floor was a large cavity the size of a bathtub. The orange light overhead barely penetrated inside, but Claire could make out dozens of bundles of bills held together by rubber bands. She sat there frozen—there was no way to guess how much money was in the floor below—until the spell was broken when the widow appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Hey—” she cried from the upper landing, and Claire gasped as she reeled around.
“Mrs. Pellman—Mrs. Pellman,” Nora called after the lady as she went down the hallway. They were busted, she knew. A million possibilities raced through her mind as she followed behind her, and when she threw open the cellar door, Nora panicked.
Everyone had been so cruel to her when she had moved to Monroe County in the 3rd grade; everyone except Claire. As they grew up—and even Nora didn’t know why—Claire had never left her side and never let anyone mess with her. Claire wasn’t the easiest friend to have, but she was Nora’s only friend—and now she was about to let her down.
Nora stood behind the old lady at the top of the stairs. She could see Claire down in the cellar—crouched over a large hole in the floor in front of a cabinet. Inside the hole, Nora could see the bundles of bills piled in haphazard stacks. Seeing that the money was real, she began to panic even more than before. It was real, she screamed inside her head.
“Hey—” the widow yelled in shocked anger down into the cellar. Claire turned in surprise and looked up at her on the upper landing—Nora standing behind her with a look of astonishment on her face. Claire’s mind scrambled to come up with some excuse—any excuse—but nothing would come.
Before she could explain, Claire watched the widow lurch forward—pushed from behind—and fall down the stairs. There was a loud cracking sound as her face hit the steps, and when she came to a stop at the bottom landing she stared up at the orange light bulb with unseeing eyes.