The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.
Martin Cox stood with his son Daniel on the brick sidewalk facing a three story Georgian manor. The two hundred-year-old manor home was situated at the end of a quiet avenue at the crest of a hill near the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry. The small engine house where John Brown had made his final stand in 1859 was only a short stroll away.
“Lots of character and older home charm,” Martin read off the classified listing in the wrinkled copy of the The Journal in his hand. He glanced back and forth at the home’s quaint description in the newspaper and its dirty red brick and its white paint peeling off the trim. “It has five bedrooms, two baths, wood floors, natural woodwork, and new roof,” he read. A single round window just below the cornice shimmered in a hint of sunlight. Two thin, white muntins paired like a Greek cross divided the window into four equal parts. “Well, at least there’s a new roof,” Martin grumbled.
His son, a young man, twenty years old, stared at a group of tourists making their way up the street. “No wonder this place is so cheap,” he finally said. “It creeps me out. Look at it. It looks like it should be condemned.”
“Yeah, it certainly does have charm,” Martin said while adjusting his clip-on sunglasses. “The realtor wouldn’t even come with us. But hey, for this price who cares if it’s a fixer-upper.”
“Are we going to check it out, or what?” Dan asked impatiently.
Martin folded his newspaper and strolled up the weed-choked sidewalk to the front steps. The cement stairs were cracked, but still intact. Small circles were ornately carved into the sides of each step. The temperature seemed to drop as Martin and his son were drawn out of the afternoon sun as they neared the door.
“Wait,” Dan said. “There’s something in the mailbox.”
Martin turned just in time to see his son retrieve a piece of paper from the faded blue mailbox. “What does it say?” he asked as a sudden breeze ruffled his hair.
“I don’t know,” Dan replied and ran up the steps with the paper in his hand. “It’s some kind of list.”
“Bring it in,” Martin grumbled as he imagined it was a list of repairs and saw his investment go down the drain. He reached the door and jiggled the tarnished handle.
“Don’t you have the key?” his son asked.
Martin continued to play with the knob. “Not exactly,” he answered. “But I don’t see the harm in checking it out. The house is going to be ours soon anyway, right?” Martin slammed his shoulder into the door, which shook violently.
Dan pushed his way in front of his father. “Look out,” he said. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a credit card. With some effort he was able to compromise the lock. When the oak door swung open, he extended his arm and pretended to usher his dad through.
“Thanks,” Martin said sarcastically. The open door revealed a spacious living room. Dust-covered sheets protected the furniture, the baroque wallpaper was yellowed, and heavy cloth tarps covered sections of the floor. “Hey, at least it’s furnished,” Martin said. He was trying to remain optimistic.
Dan walked into the center of the room with his hands resting on his hips. “It looks nice,” he admitted, grudgingly. “What do you want to see first?”
Martin rubbed his cheek. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe we can start with the kitchen. Your mother should have come with.” He walked over to one of the sofas and lifted up the sheet, revealing gaudy golden upholstery. “This is going to have to go,” Martin informed his son, who was inspecting the fireplace. “What does that paper you found say?” he asked.
Dan unfolded the small piece of paper. His face twisted into a look of disbelief. “Feed the cat,” he replied after a moment of hesitation.
“What?” Martin asked. He stopped what he was doing and turned around.
“Feed the cat,” Dan repeated. “That’s what it says.”
“What cat?” his father asked. The two stood silently and waited for a moment. “What else does it say?”
“It’s a list of things to do,” Martin’s son explained. “The first one says feed the cat, the second one says clean the nursery.”
“That’s strange,” Martin said. His head jerked to the left as he saw a black blur and heard the soft thump of something landing on top the sofa. A pleasant meow confirmed that a cat had indeed entered the room. Martin and his son looked at each other.
“It must be starving,” Dan said. “I wonder how long it’s been in here.” He walked over to the cat and picked it up. It leapt into his arms and rubbed its head in his shoulder. “It’s friendly.”
“There must be a whole family in there,” his father theorized. “Feeding off of rats or something.”
Dan started to walk into the hallway. “Where do you think the cat food is?” he inquired. He was only half joking.
“Let’s check the basement,” his father suggested. “I want to go down there anyway. If there’s an old furnace we’re going to have to replace it. I also want to put in a bar and a hot tub.”
“Are we going to be able to afford that?” his son asked.
“With the money we’ll save buying this place we will,” Martin replied. “Of course, the repairs are going to cost a lot.” The two poked their way through the hallway and tried a few doors before they found the one that led to a side entrance and ultimately to the basement.
Dan put the cat over his shoulder and carefully investigated the right side of the hallway. One of the doors he opened led to a deep closet that was filled with antique clothing. “Hey, look at this,” he announced. “We’ll be able to sell all of this stuff on the Internet or something.” The cat purred contently.
His father stuck his head into one of the bathrooms. It was painted a calming sea green and was tiled halfway up the walls. There were empty pots for plants and towels scattered around the room. The bathtub was filled with about an inch of dirt, but Martin was amazed at how clean the tiles were. A warm beam of sunlight streamed through the window above the bathtub.
“I found the basement,” Dan called from the other side of the hallway. Martin took another look around the bathroom and then joined his son. The two walked carefully down the steps. When they got near the bottom, the cat meowed loudly and propelled itself off of Dan’s shoulder. Dan fell backwards into his father.
“Look out!” Martin yelled.
“That cat surprised me,” Dan said defensively. “Where did it go?”
His father ignored him and pushed his way past. The black cat sat in a washtub and blinked.
“I found the cat food,” his son announced. He stood in front of the shelves and picked through a number of cans. The cat jumped down from the tub and ran over to him. It cried frantically. “I know you’re hungry,” Dan whispered sympathetically. “Do you have a name?” he asked the animal while he scratched the side of its neck. “Wait,” Dan said when he realized there was no way to open the can of cat food. “We need to get a can opener from the kitchen.”
“There’s nothing in there,” his father replied. “Just forget about that thing.”
“It’s on the list,” his son protested.
Just as Martin was going to say something in reply, the two heard a voice from upstairs. “Momma wants us to get ready for supper,” it called out. The voice, belonging to a little girl, echoed throughout the house. Martin and his son froze.
“Are you sure you got the right house?” Dan hissed.
His father raised his eyebrows. “Yes,” he whispered back. “Something is going on. This place was abandoned.”
Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.