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Paul helped Maria negotiate the broken boards strewn around the porch, holding her soaking wet hand as he guided the way with his flashlight. After reaching the safety of the house, he wedged the front door back into place, grateful to finally escape the storm that continued to rage into the night.
“Oh, thank god,” said Maria, hugging herself tightly for warmth. Chilly rainwater dripped from the hem of her dress, forming an inky black puddle in a ring around her feet.
Standing beside her in the entryway, Paul wiped the thin rivulets of water from his face with the back of his arm before using his flashlight to scan around the dusky house.
“Whoa—” he exclaimed under his breath as the weak beam glassed over the previous occupant’s belongings. They appeared to be untouched, dutifully waiting as if their owner might yet return at any moment.
“Are you sure people aren’t living here anymore?” asked Maria, her eyes following the light around the room.
The inside of the house, like many erected in those parts of the map regularly beset by the hot, steamy air of the sub-tropics, was open and spacious. From where they stood they could see a majority of the downstairs, save for a few rooms still yet hidden away behind closed doors. Directly in front of them was the deserted remains of a sitting parlor—a matching set of moldy sofas and upholstered chairs casually positioned around ornately carved wooden end-tables.
Just past the dusty furniture, a stairwell led up to the second floor hallway where the balcony offered a commanding birds-eye view down into the parlor. Despite the less-than-ideal location and its current condition, it was obvious that the house had once belonged to a distinguished family.
“I’m pretty sure no one’s coming back,” said Paul, stepping into the parlor. “Look at this stuff. I don’t think anyone’s lived here for twenty years—at least.”
Maria had to admit that it looked as though they might be the first ones to step foot inside the house for quite some time. A thick, fuzzy layer of gray dust coated every surface while abandoned cobwebs rippled in the drafty air currents wherever their builders had once deigned fit to construct them. On the walls, colossal oil paintings displayed picturesque rural sceneries: a turquoise stream meandering through the foothills; a squat, chunky windmill stoically braving the relentless prairie gusts; a supplicated weeping willow bowing obediently at the edge of a glassy pond.
“It’s weird,” she said, “I wonder why they left everything behind. I’m starting to get a little creeped out.”
“What? There’s nothing creepy about it. The last owner probably died without leaving it to anyone. Or maybe the family is fighting over everything in probate. Either way, it doesn’t matter—we’re not here to rob them.” Paul searched the walls with his flashlight and said, “I don’t expect there’s a working phone, but at least we can ride out the storm until morning and then figure out a way to get out of here.” He reached over to the light switch on the wall and flicked it up, correctly assuming it to be a pointless gesture.
Shining the flashlight onto the sofas in the sitting parlor, he said, “Here, sit right there and I’ll see if I can find us some towels or blankets or something. It’ll be better once we’re dry.”
“You’re not leaving me here alone,” said Maria quickly.
Paul didn’t reply, searching around the room with the light instead. “Ah—” he said, walking over to a long credenza set against the left wall. Resting atop the dusty cabinet, a glass oil lamp glittered under the beam of the flashlight, casting a translucent shadow on the walls. The oil inside had long ago evaporated, but when he opened the credenza doors he quickly found what he was after.
Holding the flashlight under his chin, he filled the lamp with the bottle of oil from the cupboard before using a match to light the wick. The resurrected flame sputtered to life, filling the parlor with a guttering orange glow as Paul set the lamp on the small table by the nearest sofa.
Turning back to Maria, he said, “There, now you’ll be perfectly fine. If we don’t get you dried off though, you’re going to get sick. There’s got to be something around here that we can use.”
“Me? You’re soaked to the bone as well,” said Mary, downplaying her misery.
“I didn’t throw up Miss Estelle’s gumbo all over the floorboards either,” replied Paul, referring his parent’s matronly personal cook.
He gently led her over to a dirty beige sofa near the fireplace, easing her down as the chilly water continued to drip from her dress onto the hardwood floor. The warmth of the lamp felt good on her face and she held her hands up to the glass, letting the heat radiate through her cold palms.
Paul looked disapprovingly at the crumbling fireplace and said, “If I didn’t think we’d burn the place down I’d start us a fire. The chimney’s probably packed with more junk than a racoon’s pockets though.” Looking around the parlor, he spotted a hallway towards the rear of the house, presumably leading to the kitchen. “One second,” he said, crossing the room with the flashlight before disappearing around the corner of the hall.
Maria could hear him rummaging around, opening and closing various cupboards and doors as he wandered further and further away. Outside the house, lightning continued to flash through the gaps in the wooden planks covering the downstairs windows. With each strong gust of wind, the old manor groaned and creaked in protest, its ancient boards voicing their objection to the storm’s relentless assault.
Paul suddenly reappeared holding an old quilted blanket aloft. “Success! This should work for now at least. I found a linen closet by the kitchen and this was the cleanest one.” He walked over to where Maria was sitting on the sofa by the oil lamp and wrapped the quilt around her. Rubbing her arms, he asked, “That feel any better?”
Maria smiled back at him and said, “Much better, thank you.” She sniffed the old fabric tentatively before scrunching her nose. “It smells a little funny.”
“I’m not surprised, lord knows how long it’s been sitting in there. Oh, also, as you can imagine—no phone. No food either, and I definitely don’t suggest opening the icebox.”
Maria laughed. “I don’t even want to know. But that’s fine, I’m not very hungry anyway.”
“Yeah, me either.” Paul stood up and walked over to a large framed painting hanging on the wall. In it, a sandhill crane hunted amongst the tall reeds along the edge of a pond, its serpentine neck poised to strike at some unsuspecting prey beneath the lily pads. “I wonder who used to live here,” he said as he scrutinized the painting.
Still holding her numbed fingers to the lamp, Maria said, “I know. It’s such a shame, the house was probably gorgeous once upon a time. Now it’s all just going to rot into the ground out here.”
“Tell me about it. I think I’m going to have a look around, see if I can figure out who these people were.”
“No, just stay here and wait with me, Paul. You don’t know anything about this place. You could go wandering off and end up getting hurt.”
“Relax, I’m only going to snoop around a little bit, I didn’t say I was going to start remodeling the place. Just stay in here and warm up some more. Who knows, I might even be able to find us some dry clothes.”
Maria knew there no point in arguing with him. Even if she could convince him to sit and wait with her, he would just be restless and irritable until he finally got his way. Besides, she figured, the house was big—far bigger than their own—but still not so large that they shouldn’t hear one another if they yelled.
“Fine,” she said begrudgingly, “but be careful—there could be all kinds of wild animals living in here.”
Paul thought for a moment and said, “You know what, you’re probably right.” He walked over to the fireplace and took an iron fire poker from the rack of tools beside the wood cradle. Testing its weight in his hand, he remarked confidently, “Yeah, that should work just fine.”
As he bent down and kissed her forehead, Maria thought his face looked like that of a child, who, about to embark on some grand adventure, couldn’t mask his excitement. At what age do men stop being boys? she thought to herself.
“Just holler out if you need me, okay?”
Maria smiled back up at him, “I will. Just be careful, Paul—please?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said with a wink. With the flashlight in one hand and the fire poker in the other, he walked back out of the parlor towards the rear of the house.
Maria pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. Even though her dress had soaked through most of the quilted cotton, it was comforting to feel its weighted embrace across her back. Taking the lamp from the table, she carried it over to the far wall, adorned with faded old photographs hung every few feet along the floral wallpaper like soldiers on parade.
The first picture that she came to was taken from the road out front looking towards the house. In the photograph, a pretty, middle-aged woman stood amongst a semi-circle ring of boys, the oldest being no more than ten and the youngest likely just out of diapers. Judging by their clothes, Maria guessed the photo had been taken many years ago, perhaps around the turn of the 19th century.
The woman in the photo had on a dark, full-length Victorian dress with the skirts flared out in a pleated hoop. A ruffled white lace collar billowed out around her slender neck, spilling down and stopping just above the cameo brooch worn above her right breast. The tightly coiled bun of dark hair atop her head was a perfect pairing for the stern expression on her face, as she stared into the camera lens with could only be thinly veiled contempt.
For their part, none of the young boys with her in the photograph were smiling either. While not wearing uniforms per say, they were all dressed in similar dark trousers and white, short-sleeved button-up shirts. One of them, (a gangly youth no older than nine or ten years old with wild shoots of hair that jutted out in all directions), wore a pair of threadbare shoes, but the rest stood barefooted in the sandy red-dirt.
Making her way along the wall to the next photograph, Maria noticed that it was incredibly similar to the first. Also taken from the road looking up at the house, the black-and-white image showed the lady wearing the same dark Victorian dress with the same severe hair bun. Standing in the familiar semi-circle around the woman, the shoeless boys also had on the near-matching trousers and white button-up shirts, as in the previous picture.
The boys themselves, however, were different. Gone was the gangly youth with the unruly hair; replaced, as were the others, with a different assortment of boys possessing their own vacant expressions and haunted eyes.
Maria was studying the mysterious faces in the photo when she felt a draft rush through the room.
“They weren’t supposed to tell…”
The whisper was so feint and fleeting that before Maria had even spun around she began to doubt that she’d heard anything at all.
“Paul?” she called out loudly. For a moment, the only response was the muffled storm outside, blowing the rain and absconded leaves against the house. Then, suddenly Paul appeared on the balcony at the top of the stairs.
“Yeah?” he replied, startling Maria and causing her to jump.
“Oh! Damn it Paul, you scared me!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. What’s up?”
Maria hesitated, afraid of sounding foolish. “Did you hear something? Like talking or anything?” She tried to sound light-hearted about it, but she detected the uneasiness in her own voice.
“No, nothing. It’s still coming down pretty bad out there though. There’s no telling what kinds of noises a house like this makes in this type of weather.”
Maria nodded as she pulled the quilt tighter around her chin. “Yeah, true. It was probably nothing. It is pretty drafty down here, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t trying to say something to me.” It wasn’t her best cover, but under the circumstances, it’d have to do.
Paul shrugged. “Nope. I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, hey,” said Maria, as she gestured to the photographs on the wall with her head. “I think I know what this place was.”
Paul made a face like he was pretending to think and said, “Let me guess, some kind of orphanage or boarding house?”
Maria laughed in surprise and asked, “How’d you know?”
Paul stepped back from the mahogany handrail and theatrically bowed at the waist. Standing upright, he laughed and said, “Okay, okay. I found the bedrooms.”
“Bedrooms? What do you mean?”
“There’s a couple of bedrooms up here down at the end of the hall. Thing is, they look more like prison cells than bedrooms—metal bunk-beds, bare walls, the whole works. I figured it had to be along those lines.”
Something about it all seemed strange, but Maria held her tongue for the time being, at least until she had something more substantial to support her concerns. “Find anything else helpful, detective?” she asked sarcastically.
“Nah. But I’m going to check out the other wing of the hall and see what’s down that way.”
“Alright, but please don’t go too far,” she asked, trying not to sound desperate for protection—protection from what, she still wasn’t sure.
“I won’t,” he called down obligingly before blowing her a kiss and disappearing back into the murky shadows of the empty house.
When he’d left, Maria returned to studying the photographs along the wall. The third picture was like the two that preceded it—the spinsterish Victorian woman flanked by the joyless boys in their bare feet, taken out front of the house. Now though, time had begun to announce itself in the furrowed skin around the woman’s eyes, and thin tendrils of silver accented the tightly drawn hair-bun.
Maria looked at the cameo brooch on the lady’s chest, leaning in closely to study the ivory, curly-haired silhouette by the light of the oil lamp. Standing upright again, she caught movement on the balcony in the reflection of the picture-frame glass. Thinking it was Paul, she was just about to call up to him from over her shoulder when the person abruptly threw themselves over the handrailing towards the parlor floor below.
As Maria watched the reflection in horror, she immediately recognized the dark Victorian dress, still bearing the cameo brooch, as it fluttered loudly through the air right before jerking to a halt with an angry snap. The thick hemp rope made a dry, creaking noise as the noose tightened further around the old woman’s slender neck—the matured face from the pictures contorting grotesquely in the flickering lamp light.
Swinging lazily more than a dozen feet above the parlor floor, the laced walking boots twitched involuntarily as the woman’s tongue began to protrude from her mouth. Her eye’s, so callous and cold in the photographs along the wall, now bulged ghoulishly from her face.
Frozen with fear, all Maria could do is watch the image of the lifeless body hanging from the balcony, slowly twirling at the end of the rope. When the woman’s corpse spun around, it suddenly stopped facing Maria’s direction. The bloodshot, malevolent eyes rotated in their sockets and met hers through the glass reflection. “They weren’t supposed to tell,” the spinster croaked in a raspy, forlorn voice. Then, the old woman’s expression suddenly flashed to seething rage, and she bellowed, “Get out!”
Paul made his way down the hall, walking carefully to avoid stepping on any rotten floorboards. His flashlight barely penetrated the darkness around him as he went from door to door, checking to see what was behind each one. Most led to storage closets of one kind or another, their dried out and antiquated contents uniformly besieged by mice, mildew, and bugs. At the far end of the hall, an oak door with an elaborate carving of a tree on its surface guarded what he guessed to be the master bedroom suite.
He twisted the brass handle and swung the door inward, holding the fire poker aloft in the event that any animals had decided to take up residency. When nothing rushed out to meet him, he stepped inside and scanned the room with his flashlight.
A massive four-poster bed along the far wall dominated the spacious master suite. Opposite that, tall wooden cabinets flanked either end of an expensive-looking vanity in front of a large bay window. Unlike downstairs, the windows on the second floor were uncovered and Paul watched in the bursts of lightning as the trees along the muddy state road lashed about wildly in the rain.
Other than the furniture, the master bedroom was spartanly adorned. Only a few smaller generic-looking oil paintings hung on the walls, and none of the tabletops had any pictures on them. Discarded articles of clothing, now indistinguishable beneath the layers of dust and rot, lay scattered on the floor. He crossed the room to the vanity and began searching through the drawers, not sure what he expected to find.
Rifling through the contents, nothing stood out to him as being unusual or abnormal: some bolts of fabric; a couple spools of ribbon; a few old books written in what appeared to be German, but nothing scandalous or even very informative. Closing the last drawer, he walked over to the bed. It felt as though he’d been awake for days already, and the plush comforter looked inviting— even in its shabby state.
There’s no harm in taking a little break, he thought to himself as he tossed the fire poker onto the blanket and plopped down. The bed springs squeaked loudly as a gray cloud of dust billowed up around him. Coughing, he waved a hand in front of his face to disperse the moldy fog. On second thought… As he went to stand back up however, he felt something lumpy from within the mattress.
Curious, he pulled the bedcover down, exposing the heavily stained mattress underneath. Using his fingers to tear a hole in the thin fabric, he felt around the insides until he brushed over the mysterious object buried deep within the stuffing. When his fingers closed around a stack of papers, he pulled them out and sat back down on the bed to look them over. Holding the light under his chin again, he began unfolding the top page:
STATE OF GEORGIA YOUTH SERVICES
As he quickly scanned the other folded sheets of paper, he realized they were transfer orders for the children coming to the orphanage. Page after page provided the scant details, either all that were known or all that were pertinent, of scores of young boys—presumed ages; medical concerns; race; problems with either schools or police, and similar information. Paul looked at the fresh hole torn into the mattress. But why would they be hidden away in there? he wondered.
Suddenly, from the hallway, Maria’s bloodcurdling scream in the downstairs parlor pierced the tomb-like silence of the house. Dropping the papers on the floor, he looked at the open door. “Maria!” he yelled, turning to run to her. Before he could move however, the bedroom’s ornate door slammed shut with a deafening blast.
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