This was originally published as a part of a Halloween event called Tell-tale Midnight. It's spooky season, so I decided to put it up here.
Trevor Moore had never feared much of anything. Not ghosts or ghouls or goblins. Not spiders or snakes. Not even that creeping sensation of fingers trailing along the back of his neck, of the hairs on his arms standing on end, of goosebumps sprouting up on his flesh like pinpricks from a too-sharp needle when alone in the dark.
The only thing that frightened Trevor Moore was falling in love.
Miriam had changed all that.
He’d thought love would take him slowly. A years-long process that would end in marriage and children and all the other things he was never sure he wanted. It would be like freezing to death. At first, you don’t know it’s happening. Then, you can’t feel anything but the cold. By the time the temperature takes you, you close your eyes and welcome it, asleep at last.
Yet here he was, engaged to a woman he’d only known a few short months, standing inside the third house that day. The real estate agent droned on and on about the added value of the third bathroom and the quality of the newly installed water heater.
Maybe that was how love was supposed to happen. A do-or-die, feet-to-the-fire sort of thing.
“Trevor, are you listening?” Miriam asked, her voice a welcome break from his rambling thoughts. He glanced her way. Her ivory skin glowed softly in the rays of sunlight that scattered through the French blinds, almost as white as her dress, a vintage piece.
“Well?” The agent—Kim, her curled blond hair a contrast to his fiancé’s dark, waist-length waves—asked. She crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side as she scrutinized him.
“It doesn’t feel like home,” he said. Though Trevor had always been drawn to newer architecture, stainless steel and granite countertops, he found himself wanting something with a little more character.
Miriam nodded in agreement. “It’s clean.” She said it like she’d meant to say sterile. “New.”
“Too clean,” he said. “I want something with history.”
Miriam’s face lit up. She really was rubbing off on him, he realized. She crossed the kitchen, the slight heel of her shoes clicking against the new tile. The agent glanced behind her, brow furrowed, then looked back down at the list of houses she’d prepared for the day.
“There’s always the one you suggested,” Kim said.
It was a house that Miriam had found in the paper, near the park where they’d met. Trevor shot his fiancé a grin and said, “Let’s take a look.”
They pulled into the gravel driveway of a rundown 1920s bungalow. Though columns held the not-quite-sagging roof over the front porch, the one at the far right had been nearly severed from its base. Paint had begun to peel from the faded-blue siding, and water had stained the gutters with long, black lines. Grass struggled to grow in the front lawn, the yellowed blades bent and thirsty.
“This is…not exactly what I had in mind,” Trevor said. He looked back at the car, but when Miriam took his hand in hers, he considered the house once more.
“Give it a chance,” she whispered.
“It needs a little work, but it definitely has character,” Kim said with her red lipstick smile.
“A little work?” Trevor asked.
Miriam cut him a look.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Let’s go inside.”
“Right this way.” Kim led them up the path. The grasshoppers quieted as they approached. A sharp wind cut through the thick, unseasonal heat as she unlocked and opened the front door with a loud creak. She stepped inside and held it back.
The front room gaped open and empty, with ceilings several feet above Trevor’s head. Windows had been built in above the interior doors, and haphazard scratches marked the old hardwood floors. Once gold, the floral wallpaper had faded over time to a light brown. A fireplace sat in the corner, partially renovated. An old iron grate had been haphazardly placed in front of the hole. New tile had been laid on one half, while the other half sat cracked and discolored.
“Are they still updating the house?”
“It’s sold as is,” Kim said.
“Looks like someone left in a hurry,” Trevor said. But despite the disrepair, he found the room felt comfortable. Familiar. “It has potential,” he remarked, and the Realtor’s eyes lit up for the first time that afternoon. “Just imagine this fireplace in the winter.”
“If winter ever comes,” Miriam said, tugging at the long sleeves of her dress. “It’s been hot for months.”
“Exactly!” Kim said almost before Miriam finished speaking. “Just wait until you see the attic. With the right remodeler, you could have your own in-home speakeasy. Or maybe a playroom if you end up having kids.”
Trevor glanced at Miriam, and she smiled wistfully. He could have kids. With her. The thought made him hot and cold all at once. He quickly glanced away. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her smile slip.
“What’s next?” he asked.
“The kitchen,” Kim said, eyes bright as she took them down the hallway. “Wait until you get a look at this. You wanted a house with history? This kitchen definitely has a lived-in feeling.”
Trevor stopped at one of the hallway doors and pushed it open. An old claw foot tub sat in the center. Though a little worse for wear, a refinishing could make it like new. What concerned him was the brownish-red tint of the tiles nearest the drain, the way it looked as if some dark liquid had pooled between the cracks and never really been washed clean.
“That’s…concerning,” Trevor said.
“Maybe it’s rust?” Miriam suggested as she stepped past him and into the bathroom.
“If so, the pipes might need to be replaced.” The asking price for the house was almost seventy-five thousand less than he’d been planning. They could afford a remodeling budget.
“What’s that?” Kim asked as the sound of her footsteps stopped in the hallway. She turned back and stood beside him in the doorway. He pointed at the stain. “Probably a leak at some point,” she said, though her voice trembled slightly. “Should be easy enough to remove.” She turned without another look and started toward the kitchen.
“She didn’t sound convinced,” he said to Miriam, once Kim was out of earshot.
“Are you?” Miriam asked.
“That we can get it up? Probably. That it was a leak…” He trailed off.
“Then what?” Miriam said as she knelt down beside the tub.
“It doesn’t matter,” he decided. “If we love the house, what difference does the history make?”
Miriam’s eyebrows rose high on her head. “History is everything.”
He laughed and offered her a hand up, and together they followed Kim down the hall. All of his concerns about the bathroom faded as soon as he stepped through the kitchen door. Though the tile floors needed a thorough cleaning, the gray marble on the kitchen island and countertop backsplash warmed him. It was like he’d stepped into his grandfather’s house, back before his parents had split and he’d given up on love.
White cabinets lined one wall, the wood ribbed. He gripped Miriam’s hand and pulled her closer. “Now this is character.”
“I told you,” Kim said, when her phone started to ring. She glanced at the screen and groaned softly. “Sorry, my husband. I’m just going to step outside and take this. Feel free to look around while I’m gone.”
He nodded at her, then crossed over to the deep-set sink and glanced at the yard behind the house. A rickety white shed stood along the fence. The doors didn’t quite fit the frame, and even from inside he could see the rusty old padlock that held them in place. His chest went cold at the sight, an unfamiliar sensation.
He nodded toward the window.
“Okay, now I’m interested in the history of this place.”
Miriam came to stand beside him.
Even from inside he could feel the small building like it was a person watching him through the glass, beckoning him outside and into the tall, uncut grass. He started toward the back door, when Kim stepped back inside, barring their exit.
“If you think this kitchen is something, wait until you see the attic. That’s where the real potential is.” She pointed down the hall, and with a sigh, Trevor turned. The shed would have to wait.
At the end of the hall, three steps led to the attic door, a faded-white piece of bead board only a few inches taller than him. The wood didn’t quite reach the base of the stairs leaving an inch-thick strip of black along the bottom.
Kim lifted the metal hook holding it in place, and pulled the door open, revealing a narrow staircase. A wave of vertigo washed over him as he climbed. He paused and gripped the thin rail. His mind skipped back to the shed.
Maybe this wasn’t the right house after all.
“You alright?” Miriam whispered, a hand on his lower back.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “The red in the bathroom, now this staircase. This house feels like it’s the one. Like it’s meant to be. But…”
“We don’t have to make an offer if you don’t want to,” she said. “You’re right. It needs work. And I don’t want you to really go all in unless you mean it.”
He nodded and said, “Let’s look at the attic and go from there.”
“Are you alright, Trevor?” Kim peered at him from the top step.
“It’s like climbing a ladder,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ll get furniture up here.”
“You’ll have to find the right pieces for sure,” Kim called. “But wait until you see it.”
With a bracing breath, he finished the climb, and what he found at the top pushed his fears away. The space was wide and open, the ceilings almost as high as the first floor. It extended clear to the back porch with a transom that would make a perfect a reading nook.
“We could easily double the size of this place.” He looked back at Miriam. “We could put a whole master suite up here. Home office, bedroom, closets, bathroom. I can’t believe they want so little for this place. Why hasn’t it sold?”
Kim followed his eyes then crossed over the attic floor, brushing just past Miriam. She glanced out the attic window to the shed below. “It’s a hell of a deal,” she agreed. “But the seller has a few requirements about the shed out back.”
A short, cracking cement path led from the back door to the shed. Ivy hung from a nearby tree. It wrapped around its branches, reached out toward the structure, then crawled up the once-white wood.
“The listing says they won’t open it,” Kim said. “Looks old enough that you might just want to have it torn down.”
Trevor took a step toward it. “Wonder what’s inside.” When he grabbed the lock, a chill swept through him. Miriam rested a hand on his upper back and peered past him at the door. Despite the rust, the lock wouldn’t give.
She pressed her ear to the door. A loud creak echoed from inside. The vines shifted as if disturbed.
Kim’s eyes went wide, and she took a step back. “Let’s…let’s go back in the house,” Kim said. “I’m sure there’s more to show you.”
Trevor gave the lock another shake.
“I wonder if she knows anything about this place,” Miriam whispered. “Beyond the listing.”
“Do you?” Trevor asked.
“Hmm?” Kim asked, giving the shed another sidelong glance.
“Do you know anything about this place? Beyond the listing.” Trevor repeated Miriam’s question.
“The last sale was almost sixty years ago,” Kim said. “If I had to guess, someone inherited it and didn’t have the heart to sell it. Or the energy.” She gave the untended yard a pointed look.
“But houses go so fast in this town,” Trevor said.
“Well it’s a fixer-upper for sure,” Kim said.
“I don’t mind putting in a little work,” Trevor said.
Kim sighed. “I really want you to find a house you’ll like, and I thought this would be it, but I don’t feel right keeping things from you.”
Miriam arched her eyebrows.
“What do you mean?” Trevor asked.
“I’ve been hearing…voices since we got here.” Kim laughed uncomfortably. “Like we’re not alone.”
“Are you trying to talk me out of a sale?” Trevor asked with a grin. “I never thought I’d see the day.” Kim had found his condo for him a few years ago. She was committed to him, but he knew she was more committed to her commission. Still, she’d done a good job.
“Not at all!” She turned back around and said. “I’m sure you need to talk about it with your fiancé, even if she isn’t going to be on the deed, but if this isn’t the one, then I’ll take you out again to look at a few more.”
“I’m on board if you are,” Miriam said.
“Think we could get the owners to open up the shed if we make an offer?” Trevor asked. “Maybe make it a condition?”
“I doubt it,” Kim said. “The notes are pretty clear that it’s sold as-is, and breaking the lock without their permission is against the law.”
“Not even if there’s say…a dead body in there?”
Kim laughed uncomfortably. “You’ve got some imagination.”
“One of the things I love about him,” Miriam said. “I think tearing it down is probably our best option.”
“We’re not going to tear it down until after we look inside,” Trevor said.
Kim shrugged. “Then you’ll have to buy the house.”
Trevor didn’t believe in destiny or fate. He didn’t believe some things were just meant to be. But this house was meant to be. It was the one.
Despite his concerns, he hadn’t needed to see any other homes. The seller accepted the offer without hesitation, and they’d closed two weeks later. Easiest deal Kim had ever done, or so she said.
He and Miriam walked up the front steps hand-in-hand. He pulled the keys from his pocket, and unlocked the door. It opened with a sigh.
He held out his arms to Miriam.
“Shouldn’t we wait until after the wedding for you to carry me over the threshold?”
Though she wore the ring on her finger, they hadn’t even started planning. Still, it felt like they’d known each other all their lives. Like they’d been married for years.
With a grin, she let him pick her up and carry her inside. Trevor closed the door behind him with his hip and set her gently on the hardwood floors. They’d had a new bed delivered—an early wedding present from his parents even though they hadn’t met Miriam yet—but the rest of his furniture was in a pod on the street, waiting for them to unpack when the sun was back up. All except a pair of bolt cutters.
“Time to go take a look inside that shed,” Trevor said.
“In the dark? After what Kim said…”
“Afraid of a few ghosts?” Trevor asked.
A shadow passed over Miriam’s face. “There are worse things than ghosts.”
“Like being alone,” she suggested.
He planted a kiss on her cheek and said, “You don’t have to worry about that.” Then he grabbed the bolt cutters and headed toward the back of the house.
The porch light provided a soft glow that didn’t quite reach the shed, so Trevor handed Miriam his phone with the flashlight on. “Hold this up so I can see.” She obliged as he lifted the bolt cutters and angled the blades over the arch of the rusted lock.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked.
The blades were just beginning to cut into the metal when Trevor hesitated. “Do you not want me to?”
Miriam glanced from him to the door, her eyebrows pulling down as she opened and closed her mouth. “Do you love me?”
“You already know the answer to that,” he said.
“And this is forever, you and me?”
“I don’t know how that relates to this shed…”
“Just answer the question.”
“Of course,” he said. “Forever.”
She nodded toward the lock. “Do it.”
Trevor clamped down on the handles of the bolt cutters. It took three tries before they finally ate through the metal. He opened them, and the lock fell to the ground, buried beneath the tall grass.
The shed door creaked open toward him then stopped. Darkness spilled from the crack in the door like ink. Trevor took a step back, and grabbed Miriam’s hand, and a chill swept through him.
He reached for the door and finished pulling it open. A rocking chair sat in the middle of the shed, its back to them. In it, the shadow of a body.
“Hold the light up a little higher,” he said.
Instead, Miriam handed him the phone and stepped through the door. He lifted the light and followed after her when the chair began to rock. Trevor moved to stand by his fiancé. Together, they faced the rocker.
A skeleton stared back at him.
Dark hair hung limp down to the body’s waist. Though the flesh had rotted from the bones long ago, a long white gown had survived. A red-brown stain ran from the neckline all the way to the hem. The jaw hung open as if in a scream.
“There…there really is a dead body in here.” He rubbed against his arms, eyes growing wide. “We should call the police.”
Miriam took a step toward the rocking chair, and then she began to sit. Her hips against the skeleton’s hips. Her back against the skeleton’s back. Her skin started to glow until she sat before him, translucent. Until she disappeared.
The chair began to rock.
The skeleton turned its head.
Trevor’s phone slipped from his hand and fell to the ground. The light went out. The door behind him creaked closed, and he started to scream. The sound lasted only a few seconds before skeletal fingers wound their way around his throat. Though he pried at them, his breath faded, and with it, his strength.
Death rose up to greet him.
Miriam would never be alone again.