Author’s note: This work is unfinished. It is very raw and has only been edited for coherence, and to ensure the major plot points are more-or-less where they belong.
The point of National Novel Writing Month is to complete 50,000 words. Writing that many words in a month required rushing, skipping around, making changes as I went without going back to alter. Please keep this all in mind and be gentle with your feedback. I’m posting it in this raw form because it touches on a rapidly changing part of human history.
The story and most the main characters thoughts and feelings took form out of my own struggles and inner demons during this pandemic. The best antidote for loneliness is to reach out and share with others. I hope sharing this now in its rough form might help me and anyone else who happens upon it to escape into this parallel world as I did while writing it and feel a little less alone as we finish out this year.
Part 1: The Listing
It was perfect! Everything I could’ve hoped for and then some! Over 100 rooms! An historic, sprawling estate from the 19th century, built by some railroad robber Barron of the gilded age. Oh, how I longed to visit it. To see it for myself. All I could do was inspect every detail of the few photos included in the listing or the few others the realtor had sent me after much begging. It was all really quite strange, thinking back on the initial conversation with the realtor, the whole thing was positively unbelievable.
“Originally we were going to auction off all the items inside,” the realtor confided to me over the phone, while discussing the particulars regarding the house. “Some of them are very old, but Corona made that damn near impossible. The house is currently pretty hard to get to. Nothing that can’t be solved by clearing a few trees and pouring down some fresh gravel,” she added, anticipating my puzzled expression as if we were face-to-face. “You could probably do it yourself if you’re handy with a chainsaw.”
If only, I’d thought to myself, but surely finding someone in the area who was couldn’t be too difficult.
“The house is a bit out of the way,” the realtor continued. “It doesn’t have a listed address and isn’t currently listed properly on any postal routes which is why nobody…” the line went silent. At first, I worried the call dropped, but then I heard frantic small steps and shrieks of young joy. I smiled sympathetically, unable to help to hear her distant voice,
“Mommy’s working right now, okay? Go play with your sister and I’ll be off the phone soon.” Returning to the line, she cleared her throat and after apologizing for the interruption, began again.
“I’m required to inform you the last resident died in the house. At least we believe so.” She paused again.
“Come again?” I said, not understanding what could be meant by believe so, usually such things were self-evident, or so I thought.
Well, there wasn’t… much left of her. Coroner believes she died in her sleep as much as a year before anyone found her. I felt my face twist involuntarily, trying to block the mental image forming in my brain. Bones inside a moldy nightgown. Dry strands of gray hair snaking down empty eye sockets from under a musty laced night cap. Perhaps a ring still on her bony finger providing a clue as to who she was. Her hands poking out from moth-eaten holes in the bed linens. Or perhaps the house stayed dry and sealed up. Her flesh dark and flaky from mummification. Her eyes shriveled up under sunken eyelids. I believe the realtor must have heard me shutter from this ghastly vision I’d compiled, or perhaps it was just her way fo filling my silence.
“At least she died peacefully in all likelihood,” her voice dressed in professional veneer of cheer, “I’m told the refrigerator was fully stocked and had evidence of normal kitchen activities one wouldn’t be able to do if her health were in decline. Probably an aneurism or heart attack or something fast like that.”
This actually did make me feel better. I felt my features unwind into a more relaxed state as we finished discussing particulars. The image of the corpse fading into that of a kind elderly woman coming in with a bag of groceries or perhaps fresh produce from a garden, since there was so much land around the house. Setting down the basket, washing her hands before loading things into the old fridge and solid oak cupboards. Perhaps realizing too late that her shoes were tracking dirt onto the delicate white mosaic tile with periodic flourishes of black detail to break it up. I’d only seen one dark image of the kitchen and while the floor wasn’t visible that sort of pattern in showed up in many an episode of Rehab Addict, so I hoped I’d be so lucky as to have the original.
Having emptied her basket or parcels I imagined her giving out a satisfied sigh of accomplishment as she gazed around the tidy kitchen and brushed invisible dirt from her hands. She’d sweep up the dirt tomorrow once it had had a chance to dry. There was no one for it to bother in the meantime.
Turning towards the door as the last pale blue of dusk left the sky she walked down the long, likely wood paneled hallway and up a grand set of stairs to her bed chambers. An old style vanity, an antique from generations before her. The edges of the mirror hazy with age, something she no longer noticed as she’d done this every night for countless years. Brushing her long gray shining hair like a star of old Hollywood, surrounded by glass bottles, many of which were empty, their former contents no longer known, but had sat so long they seemed to her like part of the furniture. Finishing her nightly routine she tucked herself into bed. Sighing peacefully as the familiar sounds of night lulled her to sleep one last time.
I went back to work unable to stay long away from that house in my mind. It was foolish. I tried pointing out it myself how it was well above what I was willing to spend. How it was way more house than one person could ever need or should ever have. How there were so many unanswered questions and plenty that could be too good to be true. Who knows what shape the house was in, how much it would cost to make it comfortable, let alone restore it properly.
It was no use bringing logic to a fight of feelings. This sort of thing was a one in a million find! Most houses this old and large had been gutted, raised, or underwent some garish and ill-advised remodeling in the 70s or 80s.
Looking back, I realize it was more than just the house that drew me, it was the countless hours alone in a tiny studio apartment, seeing no one, going nowhere, hunched over a keyboard looking out a window at a brick wall day in and day out. I’d have done anything to escape. There were countless cheaper, less risky ways I could have gone about it, but logic and reason had abandoned me as well by that point. It was something I wanted that no other option offered: adventure! The unanswered questions only added to the appeal.
I checked online to begin a fact finding expedition in hopes of disguising my impulsiveness with some bias confirming facts. The house was significantly under market price, if a market price even existed for houses like this. Essentially, the current owner was charging market rate for the land plus maybe 10% for the house, provided, of course that came with the provision it must be bought it as is. No waiting for inspections and the seller was unwilling to drop a dime into improvements. Prudence dictated I should commission an inspection anyway, but with everything locked down, lord only knows how long that would take. And in that time someone might decide snap it up for the land, not caring about the house, as most buyers would probably plan to bulldoze it anyway. Plus the more places they list it, the more likely looters might try and snag some copper pipes or furniture.
If the house truly had been occupied up until at least a year ago, I reasoned, how much structural damage could there be? Of course, I had no expertise to even guess at the answer, but I couldn’t imagine a house could deteriorate all that much in a year. After all the house had been around for centuries. What’s one year?
No sooner had I completed my last work task of the day then I was on the phone again with the realtor.
“I’m willing to take it sight unseen today if you agree to immediately take down the listing. I can send over my pre-approval letter. It’s a little under what you’re asking, but I’m willing to make up part of the difference with cash.” I said all of this in one breath, before she’d even finished saying hello. I waited for her answer adding up the figures in my head one more time before presenting the final number to the agent.
“That’s a bit less than the lowest he said he was willing to go, she said,” causing my heart to sink, “but I know with this pandemic and all he wants to close quickly, so if you send me all the info I’ll run it by him and get back to you tonight.”
As fast as it’s dropped my heart kept into my throat “Thank you!” I shouted, pulling the phone from my face to begin sending over the information. We exchanged final pleasantries before ending the call. Finally, sending the last form, I tossed down the phone on the table with a sigh. No sooner had I done so then regret oozed up from my gut to the center of my chest and spreading across every inch of my body at an agonizing pace. This was a lot of money. I had just pledged nearly all his savings in an instant.
My job’s safe, I began repeating this over and over like a mantra. I have a good job, and it’s safe. I can afford it. It’s been over 6 months and my manager had even given me direct assurances no cuts were planned for our department even with the pandemic. As soon as the hiring freeze lifts I would be brought in full time with a raise and likely a bonus. I only had three months left on my lease and even with the new mortgage payment his total expenses didn’t even take up half my monthly income.
I double-checked my figures. In less than a year I’d earn back all I’d spent out of pocket on the house even without the raise. I found this somewhat of a comfort, however, that assumed no emergencies, surprises, unforeseen expenses. I desperately hoped the house didn’t need any major repairs.
“My job is safe.”