Excerpt from “An Uneasy Inheritance”

renovosnow

So, here we are, buried under more than a foot of snow. The weather is fortuitous for my writing, since the scenes I’m working on take place on a very snowy couple of days. This scene takes place in the mountains outside of Renovo, PA, where Kyr has inherited a house from a great- aunt she has very little memory of. She and Jamison Hufnagle, her great-aunt’s handsome young attorney, head up to the property so that Kyr can get an idea what shape the place is in before she lists it for sale. The following scene takes place inside the house:

*****

Each of the  first-floor rooms had its own charm and personality. I marveled at the simple but elegant wainscoting on the walls and the beautiful stained glass transoms. Perhaps the most fascinating discovery was an upright piano and a lone church pew, which stood by themselves in the sitting room. As I plinked out a few notes on the out-of-tune instrument, I sensed there was a story surrounding both the piano and the pew, but I doubted I’d ever hear them.

Still, for all the house’s beauty and the details put into its construction, something about the place left me unsettled, something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  It wasn’t until I heard my boots echoing on the hardwood floor as I crossed to the sitting room window that I realized what it was. Each of the rooms held only a chair or two, a small coffee table, and a single lamp; the dearth of furniture made the already-big house seem even bigger. With the exception of the library, which was full to overflowing with books, all the coffee tables, shelves, and windowsills were completely devoid of knick-knacks or other personal items, and I hadn’t even noticed any pictures hanging on the walls. I shook my head, wondering again why a woman who lived alone would need such a large house, especially when she had so few possessions to fill it. It’s a good thing I have furniture of my own to fill up the space. No sooner had the thought formed than I had to firmly remind myself that I was selling the house. Filling the space was someone else’s problem.

Jamison’s phone chirped, and he stepped out into the hallway, leaving me alone in the nearly-empty room. As I stood contemplating my great-aunt’s odd living habits, it suddenly occurred to me that furniture and knick-knacks weren’t the only things lacking in the house. One of the reasons I’d been somewhat hesitant to visit Great-Aunt Corinne’s home in the first place was my reluctance to embrace my newly-surfaced empathic abilities. After the intense dreams and visions I’d had recently, I’d been afraid that coming here would overwhelm my senses and would bring on an onslaught of psychic experiences. But that hadn’t happened at all. In fact, I felt nothing at all of her presence, a fact that both surprised and saddened me.

“Kyrie?” Pulled from my musings, I turned from the window to see Jamison standing in the doorway. “I’m sorry, but we’ll need to wrap up our tour sooner than expected. Something came up, and I need to head back to the office.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll just be a minute.” Surprisingly, I wasn’t disappointed at having to leave; in fact, I was ready to go. The absence of Great-Aunt Corinne’s imprint made the house feel like an empty shell rather than the beloved home I’d hoped it might be. The internal debate I’d been having since we set foot in the house suddenly made sense to me: Deep down inside, I’d been telling myself that if I’d felt Great-Aunt Corinne’s presence, sensed some connection with her here, I might be inclined to keep the house; without that sense of connection, this was just a house, a property that I had no reason to keep. Then why did the thought of putting the place up for sale still fill me with such sadness?

Jamison gave me a nod and retreated into the hallway again. I took one last look around the sitting room and closed my eyes. Concentrating on the image of Great-Aunt Corinne that I’d seen in my mind, I tried to project a silent invitation. This is your last chance. If you’re here, if you called me here, give me a sign. Otherwise, I’m going to leave, and the house is going up for sale.

Silence. Emptiness. I let out a sigh and swallowed hard to dislodge the unexpected lump in my throat before walking purposefully out of the room. As we made our way back towards the foyer, I was again acutely aware of my footsteps in the silence. Suddenly, at the foot of the stairs, a faint whisper caught my attention. A quick glance at Jamison told me he hadn’t heard anything. I stopped, listening hard. The whisper came again, wordless yet compelling, and I turned to peer up the stairs. My pulse quickened as I felt the same subtle tug in my spirit that I’d felt on the way to Renovo.

“Jamison?” He stopped and looked at me. I babbled uncertainly. “Is it all right if I take a quick peek upstairs? I’d just like a few pictures of the bedrooms, and I don’t know when I’ll get back here again. I’ll only be a minute…”

He froze with his hand on the doorknob; only his eyes moved to peer apprehensively towards the second floor. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he couldn’t hide the quaver in his voice as he said, “Of course, we can…” He released the doorknob and took two steps towards me before halting suddenly, almost as though he’d walked into a brick wall. “Tell you what, why don’t you go ahead? I’ll wait for you out on the porch.”

He fumbled the doorknob before yanking the door open and making a hasty exit, leaving me alone in the foyer. I stared after him, perplexed. There was no question about it; something on the second floor frightened him, and he refused to accompany me upstairs. His reaction briefly made me second guess my desire to investigate the whisper, and I sincerely hoped he wasn’t so unnerved that he’d take off for Renovo and leave me there alone.

I cocked my head to stare up into the darkness, wondering if I should put off checking out the rest of the house until Spook could accompany me. Just as I took a step toward the front door, I sensed rather than heard the whisper a third time. Shoving my apprehension aside, I turned back to the stairs, determined to face whoever or whatever was there. Just standing at the foot of the stairs, I could feel that unlike the first floor, the second floor felt…alive somehow. Looking around, I found a light switch. Thankfully, the hall light upstairs came on when I flipped the switch, bathing the upstairs landing with light.

Swallowing hard, I started up the stairs. I stepped lightly, trying to make as little noise as possible, but each step betrayed my ascent with the creak or pop that only century-old wood could make. Shaking my head, I told myself, Whoever or whatever is upstairs already knows you’re here anyway.

About halfway up, I passed through a patch of staticky air that made my skin tingle as though a thousand spiders were crawling over me. I paused until the sensation passed and then continued up a few more steps. I studied that step for a moment, trying to determine if there was something out of the ordinary, but everything seemed normal. Curious, I went back down to see if the anomaly was still there, but it had disappeared.

Tucking the odd event into the back of my mind, I continued up to the landing. I tensed; the atmosphere up here was definitely different, and I sensed that was why Jamison wouldn’t come upstairs. Stepping cautiously into the hallway to look around, I couldn’t see anything unusual, but the energy here was definitely much different than it was downstairs. Glancing down the stairs to make sure Jamison hadn’t come back in, I asked aloud, “Great-Aunt Corinne? Are you here? It’s me, Kyrie.”

Getting no response, I walked further into the hallway. There were two bedrooms in the front of the house, a bathroom in the middle of the hall, and then two more in the back. All the doors were shut, except for the bathroom door,  so I was unable to see into any of the bedrooms. Knowing I didn’t have time to investigate all four bedrooms, I tried once more to contact my relative. “Great-Aunt Corinne? If you’re here, please give me a sign.” Still getting nothing, I was about to give up and head back downstairs when I recalled something Jamison told me. It’s worth a try. “Great-Aunt Celeste? It’s Kyrie. Are you here?”

Silence, still. My gaze scanned the hallway once more, focusing on each of the closed doors, waiting for a sign, any sign. I gasped aloud as a thin sliver of light suddenly appeared beneath the door in the back corner of the hallway. The old floorboards creaked as I made my way toward what I guessed was Great-Aunt Corinne’s—no, Celeste’s room. I grasped the doorknob, took a deep breath, and opened the door. Before I even stepped through the doorway, a strong, loving, female presence enveloped me, bringing tears to my eyes. Celeste. I stood for a moment just feeling her, remembering her. No specific memories came to mind, only the sense of being deeply loved. “Why, Celeste? All this time, why didn’t you ever contact me?”

The presence retreated, again giving me no answers, and I walked into the room. As I took in the midnight blue walls with its moon-and-stars border, I was struck by how familiar the space felt, as though I’d spent a lot of time here. A moon-and-star-patterned quilt of dark blues, soft yellows, and white covered the double bed. The corners of my mouth twitched. I sense a theme here. A dresser and a bookshelf framed the window that looked out over the back of the lot, and a small desk sat facing the side window. An assortment of books and notebooks littered the desk, as well as a palm-sized iridescent white crystal ball on a stand. Drawn by the beautiful stone, I approached the desk and unconsciously reached out to touch it.

An unexpected gust of wind shook the house, bringing with it a high-pitched cry that brought my hands to my ears. Despite my apprehension over what might have made the unearthly sound, I hurried to the back window and peered out. For a second, I saw nothing but whirling, wind-driven snow scouring the window. A second screech sounded, right up against the house making me momentarily shrink back.

Suddenly, I saw it—the branch of a large tree growing close to the house scraped against the siding in the wind, making a loud scratching sound. That wasn’t what I’d heard, was it? I couldn’t be certain; the wail I’d heard had a definite voice-like quality to it, although I wasn’t sure if it was animal or human. The branch scraping against the house sounded like…a branch scraping against the house. My pulse pounding in my ears threatened to drown out the sound of the wind, and I spoke out loud to calm my nerves. “I’ll have to add that to the list of things for Spook to check out. It can’t be good having a tree so close to the house that the branches scratch the siding.”

As I stood considering the tree and its proximity to the house, something beyond the tree caught my eye. Leaning this way and that, I cupped my hands around my eyes and pressed against the glass, trying to make out what it was through the falling snow. It looked as though it were made of stone. Was it a building, maybe a shed? I wondered if it might be a newer addition; I had no recollection of a second building being on the property. Letting out a huff that fogged up the window, I shook my head. Doofus, it’s not as though you have a clear recognition of the place anyway.

Quickly wiping the fog from the glass, I peered out the window once more, scanning the rest of the lot. In the opposite corner from the stone structure, I saw a fenced-in area that I supposed was the strangely-beautiful monochromatic garden I’d seen in my vision. Of course, it was winter, so nothing was blooming. Even so, the little area had the appearance of neglect, as though it had been left to return to the wild. My heart sank regretfully, thinking the white garden should be restored. I mentally added another task to Spook’s to-do list.

My eyes continued to roam along the property’s rear perimeter. I spied the little white footbridge that crossed the creek. Seeing something strange near the creek, I squinted and cupped my hands around my eyes again for a closer look. Something resembling mist seemed to rise from the creek. Isn’t it too windy for snow fog? Even as the thought formed in my mind, the mist seemed to change. The rising tendrils writhed and morphed until they took the form of cloaked figures that followed the creek and disappeared into the trees. My eyes widened in disbelief as I watched them marching against the driving, snow-laden wind…

“Kyrie?” A voice from downstairs startled me, breaking my concentration. I blinked once, twice, and the figures and the snow fog were gone. However, the wind-driven snow continued. “Ms. Carter? We really should be going.”

Jamison! I’d forgotten he was waiting out on the porch. He was probably chilled to the bone from standing outside in the cold. I hurried to the doorway and called, “Coming.” Turning, I pulled out my phone and took a few quick shots of the strange, yet familiar room, then whispered, “I’ll be back, Celeste.” And I knew that I would be. “I’ll be back to stay.”

As I knew he would be, Jamison was standing in the foyer, huddled down in his coat and blowing into his hands to warm them. He glanced up as I came down the stairs, and he wasn’t quick enough to hide a reproachful expression. “Oh, there you are. I thought you’d gotten lost in a secret passage or something.”

I stopped short at the bottom of the stairs, my hand on the odd-shaped finial. “Secret passage? There aren’t secret passages in this house, are there?” Somehow, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

He chuckled. “None that I know of, but who knows with Ms. Beistel?”He grasped the doorknob. “Well, the snow is getting heavier, and even with four-wheel drive, I don’t want to hang around here much longer. You’ve got quite a drive ahead of you, too.”

“Right.”

Jamison held the door for me, and I headed out onto the porch. “The vehicle is unlocked. Why don’t you go get in while I lock up?”

“Sounds good.” I pulled my hood up and stepped off the porch into the snow. The footprints we’d left when we first arrived had all but vanished, completely buried in new snow. I picked my way along the front walk, trying to avoid the spot where I’d stumbled on the tree root.

As I turned the corner of the house, I ducked my head against an icy blast of wind. Reaching the vehicle, I looked up to grab the door handle and came face to face with a cloaked figure. I cried out in surprise and jumped back as I locked eyes with a short, heavyset Native American woman with long, gray-streaked hair done up in a single plait. Her charcoal-hued eyes glistened with recognition as she regarded me.

“Helen, what are you doing here?” Jamison had appeared next to me and was glaring at the unexpected visitor.

Helen’s face turned to stone as she fixed her smoldering gaze on him. “I’ve more right to be here than you do.” She held his gaze a moment longer and then met my gaze again. She smiled broadly, making her face appear to crack with a network of lines. “Celeste told me the daughter would come when she passed. And here she is.”

My brow wrinkled as I processed her words. What on earth was she talking about? I looked questioningly at Jamison, who answered me with an apologetic shrug. When I turned to face Helen again to ask her what she meant, I let out a gasp—she had simply vanished. “What? Jamison, what…who was that?”

He stood glaring in the direction Helen had presumably gone. “That was your nearest neighbor, Helen Northwood.” Fixing his stern gaze on me, he advised, “I’m pretty sure she’s harmless, but I strongly suggest you get the locks changed before you think about listing the house.”

I mentally added the task to my list, but something told me that neither door locks nor deadbolts would keep out the strange woman who seemed able to appear and disappear at will.

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