“You have got to be kidding me.” I looked at my real estate agent accusingly. “This looks nothing like the photos from my childhood. “What…
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“You have got to be kidding me.” I looked at my real estate agent accusingly. “This looks nothing like the photos from my childhood.
“What can I say? Things change.” Blaine shrugged her shoulders and spread her hands, palms out.
“You never said a word about the condition of this place, even after I asked.”
“You asked if the place was livable. Nothing else. I assure you it is, even if it doesn’t look it.”
I gazed back at the house dubiously. Paint peeled from the clapboard, revealing the old, gray wood underneath. The glass in the windows was still intact but the front porch sagged and didn’t look like it could support a person’s weight. The roof seemed level, but several shingles were missing, and I had no idea how long ago it had been replaced. The gutter had separated from the side of the house, hanging at an angle, and the bottom section was missing. A huge hole had been carved in the dirt underneath and even though it was now dry, it evidently filled every time it rained. The rest of the yard was in no better shape. Overrun with dead weeds, the grass was non-existent and most of the bushes had run wild. Considering how neglected the outside was, I didn’t hold out much hope the inside was any better. Sighing heavily, I stepped towards the gate and unlatched it, only to have it fall when the hinges separated from the wooden post. Sighing again, I gingerly moved it aside, leaning it against the fence and praying that wouldn’t collapse as well. Making my way up the broken stone walkway, I circled the house, dismayed but not surprised the back was in worse shape than the front.
“Are you sure it’s safe to stay here?” I turned to Blaine as she hurried to my side, my displeasure evident.
“Your uncle lived here until the day he died. It’s livable, even if it needs work.”
My uncle had, for some reason, left the house to me. Why, I had no idea. We had never been close, and I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in over twenty years. When I first learned of my inheritance, I had been thrilled if a little baffled. A house right on the beach in one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Calator could be just the thing to rescue me from my financial difficulties. Even the condition that I live in it for at least a year wasn’t a problem. The taxes had been paid in advance and I was given a small stipend, enough to cover the utilities and food if I was careful. I could continue to promote my artwork, hopefully generating more sales for the gallery that handled my pieces. Now, however, I wondered how much painting I would actually get done. And how much of my stipend would end up being used to get the place ready to sell. Because unless my paintings suddenly began flying out the door, I would have to sell it. My divorce took everything I had, leaving me almost bankrupt.
I gave Blaine a dirty look and turned back to the house. Rapping my knuckles on the front porch, I tentatively placed a foot on it, tensing when it groaned. But it quieted immediately, and I gingerly stepped onto it, prepared to run if it seemed in danger of collapsing. When nothing happened, I bounced a few times, then stepped towards the door. Holding my hand behind me, I grasped the key Blaine placed in there and unlocked it. It opened with a squeal, and I stiffened my spine before entering. And then I stopped, my mouth dropping in shock.
The interior looked nothing like the outside. The place was clean and obviously well cared for, and I felt like I had stepped into a different world. I backed up, giving the outside another look, then stepped back inside, slightly flustered.
“I told you it was livable.” Blaine had a smug look on her face, and I shot her another dirty look. “C’mon. I’ll show you around.”
“You win, Blaine. It is livable, although it might take some getting used to.”
“Your uncle took good care of the place, even if it doesn’t look it from the outside. He saw no reason to invest money in something that would look like crap after a year. The proximity to the ocean is a real estate gold mine but a homeowner’s nightmare. The constant wind and salt weather everything quickly. He did what the town required but nothing more.”
“What, exactly, did my uncle do for a living? And why did he specifically leave the house to me? His kids weren’t exactly happy about it. I’m still getting hate messages.”
“Your uncle was a collector. And a writer. As for why he left it to you. I can only assume he felt you would be the best person to, um, take over the care of it.”
“Anyone can take care of a house. You should know that.”
“That’s true to some extent. But your uncle hoped you would come to love this place as much as he did. He knew his children never would.”
“Why would he feel I would eventually love this place? You know how far in debt I am. Even if I do end up wishing I could stay, it’s impossible.”
“He kept tabs on what you were doing, even if your mother refused to allow him to be a part of your life. He hoped you would eventually contact him but was smart enough to know that you might not do so. After all, your mother made it clear she wanted no part of him after his, uh, adventure.”
“Blaine, how do you know so much about Uncle Laramie? And about our family difficulties?”
“Your uncle was very involved with community events. We met at one of the annual fundraisers. When he found out I knew a lot about the town’s history, he started asking me questions and we became friends. His death hit me hard. Still does. But I promised him I would do what I could to keep the house in the family.”
“I’m not keeping it. Don’t even try to convince me otherwise.”
“Whatever. Let’s see how you feel in a year. In the meantime, take a look around. You might find it rather interesting.”
Interesting was an understatement. The house was like nothing I had ever seen before. It looked more like a museum than a home. But not like any museum I had ever visited. While the antique furniture was in excellent shape and somewhat normal, the items contained in the display cases, on top of almost every horizontal surface, and in the built-in bookshelves were not. I could see shrunken heads, skulls of different animals, weird carved figures, seashells, insects in amber, and other assorted oddities. And the books were strange, too. They ran the gamut from ancient texts on religion to modern crime novels, with trashy romances, biological textbooks, and everything else in between. On the walls were ancient maps, some of the places I couldn’t identify, shadowboxes with pinned insects, and carved masks of every shape and size. And that was only what I saw at first glance. I spun slowly, trying to take it all in and failing miserably.
“This place is giving me the creeps. Where did he get all this stuff? And what the hell am I going to do with it all?”
“He collected it. Almost everything here was obtained for a specific reason. Your uncle was keenly interested in the obscure traditions and folklore of other civilizations, especially ancient ones. And he liked to look for parallels between them as well as their influence on modern culture.”
“But romance novels? And seashells? What possible connection could they have to a shrunken head? Or a map drawn on animal skin?”
“Are you sure it’s animal skin?” Blaine arched an eyebrow and cocked her head, a small smile on her face. I recoiled, staring at the item with disgust. “As for why he felt there were connections, only he knows. There are chests upstairs with notebooks full of handwritten notes. Maybe that will tell you.”
“I have zero interest in researching this. The will states I have to live here for a year. But it doesn’t say anything about keeping the stuff. First thing Monday, I’m contacting every museum I know and asking if they want it. If not, it’s going in the trash.”
“You might want to check on the value before you do that.” Blaine began walking away, pulling her phone from her pocket. “I need to go. Another appointment. I’ll text you later. Enjoy.”
I followed Blaine back outside, retrieving my two suitcases from the car. The rest of my stuff was supposed to arrive in a few days, although I had no idea where I would put it. Waving as she drove off, I trudged back inside, depositing the bags at the bottom of the stairs. Heading to the kitchen, I was pleased to see that this room, at least, was modern and devoid of anything weird. Brewing a cup of tea, I began a tour of the house, fascinated and repelled by what it contained. Screwing up my courage, I headed upstairs, happy to find the master bedroom was also free of anything creepy. I guess Uncle Laramie could only take so much of his collection and needed a place free of it. Leaving the mug on the dresser, I retrieved my bags and shut the door before settling into the high-backed chair that overlooked the backyard and the ocean. I quickly tamped down the emerging idea that maybe I could find a way to stay. It just wasn’t possible, no matter how magnificent the view.
The crash of thunder jolted me out of a deep sleep, causing my heart to race. I sat up, taking several deep breaths as I waited for it to slow. The storm that raged was one of the worst I had ever seen, and I prayed the house wouldn’t suffer any damage. Almost constant flashes of lightning lit up the place like a Christmas tree on overload and the rain beat on the roof like a thousand drums. Realizing I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep until the storm’s fury passed, I pulled on my robe and made my way downstairs, trying not to think about the items in the cases.
Turning on the kitchen light, I brewed a cup of coffee, then added a shot of whiskey as an afterthought. Settling at the table, I drew up my legs and stared out at the storm, letting my thoughts wander. Despite my earlier statements, the house and its contents intrigued me. I had no doubt that despite my claims to the contrary, I’d be reading my uncle’s notes very soon.
Gradually, the sound of music seeped in around the edge of my consciousness. I mentally shook my head, coming back to the present, and tried to locate the source. I realized it was a song, but not any song I recognized. As soon as I began focusing on it, I felt an irresistible pull and found myself half out of the chair before I stopped myself. Dropping back, I grabbed my mug, downing the cold remnants in a single gulp as the hair on my neck began to rise.
The song was eerie, almost like an undulating wail. And the more I listened, the more complex it became. Almost as if more voices were joining in. It sounded like it was coming from the ocean, which seemed absurd, but when I turned away, it faded slightly, confirming its origin. I gazed out the window, placing my face against the glass and cupping my hands around my eyes. Pitch black, I saw nothing and was just about to pull away when a bolt of lightning lit up the sky. I gasped, scrambling backward and knocking the chair over in my haste to move away.
The lightning revealed a row of people standing at the shoreline. The storm didn’t seem to be affecting them and as I watched, more people emerged from the water. The singing became louder and this time, I allowed it to pull me towards the door, grabbing the bottle of whiskey and downing a slug before opening it. The beach was now dark again, but the figures were imprinted in my brain, and I found myself unconsciously moving towards the water.
The song ended abruptly, and another bolt of lightning revealed the figures had disappeared. I stopped, staring at the water in confusion, oblivious to the rain that now soaked me to the bone. A third bolt, not as bright, confirmed the beach was now empty and I turned around, no longer feeling like I was being pulled. I trudged back towards the house, casting one glance back at the water before reaching the door. Opening it, I stepped inside and grabbed the dishtowel. Doing my best to dry my hair, I tossed the soaked rag in the sink and went to make another cup of coffee. I had a feeling sleep wasn’t going to come easily and I might as well put the time to good use.
Turning to grab my mug, I gasped in shock, dropping it as my hand flew to my mouth. The mug shattered into a million pieces, but I didn’t notice, instead backing up until I hit the edge of the sink. Reaching behind me, I frantically felt for something to use as a weapon, finally landing on a small pan left drying after dinner. It wasn’t much, but I refused to look behind me, leaving me with nothing else.
“You must be Myla. Your uncle said you would be coming.”
I stared at the man now seated at the kitchen table. His sea-green eyes stared back unflinchingly, and I had to tear my gaze away. “Who are you? And what are you doing in my house?”
“My name is Hanno and I apologize for interrupting you. But I need your help. I made a foolish mistake and didn’t heed the warnings. The storm caught me, if not unawares, at least too late to escape it. My small boat was no match for the fury and broke apart. I barely managed to swim to shore and when I saw the light, I thought it was your uncle. Your presence tells me he has passed. Is that correct?”
“Yes, he died several months ago. And the house is now mine. But I just got here and am not sure how I can help.” This was a lie, but I felt slightly uncomfortable having a strange man in my house, even if he claimed he knew my uncle.
“I only seek to stay the night. As soon as the sun rises, I will leave and make my way home. But the storm,” he swung an arm towards the window,” is far from done and I am afraid I took a chill from being in the water so long.”
“Oh geez,” I cried. “I’m so sorry. Let me get you a towel. And would you like some coffee? I’m brewing some for myself.”
“The towel is fine, and the coffee is welcome.” Hanno smiled and I felt my heart leap. Slamming a lid on it, I turned and ran to the bathroom. Grabbing several towels, I stopped and stared at my reflection.
“Do not go getting involved. You have no idea who this man is or what he intends.”
I tried to look stern, but the man’s face intruded. I gave up, returning and handing the towel to Hanno. He rose and bowed, something I found odd but charming, then moved to the stove and poured the coffee. I watched, somewhat at loose ends, then belatedly began cleaning up the broken pottery. Hanno dropped to his knees, helping pick out the larger slivers, and I smiled in gratitude. I tried not to stare, averting my eyes every time he looked at me.
His hair, now drying, was a dark blonde and reached his shoulders, curling slightly at the ends. He smelled of clean air and saltwater, which wasn’t surprising if he wasn't lying. But his clothes perplexed me. The shirt was a rough tunic with a lace-up neck and the pants were loose cotton. He wore a pair of soft boots, which seemed an odd choice for boating, and around his neck was a braided chain with a silver scallop shell pendant. He caught me staring and smiled widely, causing my heart to catch again. I hastily rose and emptied the dustbin, then retrieved the wet towels and headed back to the bathroom.
On the way back, I caught a glimpse of an ancient picture in one of the cabinets and stopped short. Inspecting it carefully, I gasped again. The man in the picture was Hanno, right down to the necklace. But the date on it was 1875. I suddenly remembered the adventure that had driven my mother to send my uncle away. And with the memory came knowledge. I now knew why my uncle had left the house to me.
“Yes, Myla, that’s me.” Hanno’s voice tickled my ear and I stumbled back. “And now that you have shown me hospitality, we are bound for all eternity.”
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