The Haunting of Briar Manor (The Anomaly Hunters)

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About the Briars

After everyone had had their fill of dinner and the even more fantastic dessert that followed, the chefs returned once more to clear away the dirty dishes. Then, the children were dismissed. Briar instructed his oldest boy, Hulin, to show Preston and Camellia to the guest room.

Hulin led them out of the dining room and back into the foyer. “I’m Hulin, if you didn’t catch that,” he told them, seeming to be addressing Camellia in particular. “I have to assume that by ‘inspecting the house’ my dad means you’ll be investigating the ‘hauntings’.”

“I guess so,” Camellia said. “Although ‘inspecting’ is a weird way of putting it.”

“Yeah, I think Dad doesn’t want us worrying about it,” Hulin said, bringing them up one of the sets of stairs that framed the front doors. “Especially the younger ones. But it’s no secret they’re happening, and it’s ticking him off.”

“Do you happen to know anything about them?” Camellia asked.

Hulin shrugged. “I mean, they just seem like typical ghost things. Stuff you’d see on TV.”

“So ghosts are real?” Preston said. “Maybe it’s the ghost of your mom!”

“Preston!” Camellia scolded. “Look, Arthur himself told us that ghosts aren’t real and there’s probably some other anomaly at play here.”

“We’ve seen plenty of weird stuff; ghosts aren’t that unrealistic.”

“I know that, but—” Camellia stopped as Hulin opened the door at the top of the landing. The room they entered was one full of staircases — staircases on the walls and ceilings, in addition to the floor.

“Weird, isn’t it?” Hulin smirked, seemingly proud to show off a quirk of his home. He started up the centermost stairs on the floor. Preston and Camellia curiously followed.

Once they had reached the middle step, gravity seemed to shift, and their feet fell on what used to be the side of the stair.

“It’s a little disorienting till you get used to it,” Hulin said. He held his hand out to Camellia. “I can always hold your hand until you do.”

Camellia looked at him then wordlessly took hold of the railing instead. Hulin winked at her and kept leading them through the maze of staircases. Eventually, they had endured enough gravity shifts and they finally stopped outside a door. Hulin opened it for them, and it opened with a terrible creak. “Welcome to the guest room.”

It was a rather large room, fitting five queen-sized beds while still having enough extra room to move around. Each bed was paired with a nightstand (on which were alarm clocks and lamps), and in the center was a large flatscreen television. There were two opposite doors on opposite sides of the room, one of which was presumably a bathroom. Next to one was a window that looked out to the side of the house.

“Take any bed you want,” Hulin said. “Anything in this room is yours to use, and should you need anything more, the button beside the light switch will call Jameson for you.”

“Thank you, Hulin,” Camellia said, deciding on the bed closest to the door. Preston claimed the bed that sat in front of the TV, already pressing the power button on the remote. “Are you busy right now? Would you mind answering a few questions?”

“Sure thing.” Hulin took a seat on the bed in between Preston’s and Camellia’s. “What’s up?”

“So you haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary?” she asked. “Anything that might provide some sort of explanation for these ‘hauntings’?”

“If you’re asking if I’ve actually seen the ghost, the answer is no,” Hulin said. “I’ve only seen it happen or, you know, the aftermath of it happening.”

“You’ve seen it happen? But you’ve not seen what caused it?”

“I mean, I see things, like, floating and whatever. Moving on their own. But the ghost isn’t corporeal, I guess, or it just doesn’t show itself. I don’t see it happen all that much myself, anyway. I’ve only ever seen it happen to my dad a couple times.”

Camellia bit her lip in concentration. “It only happens to your dad, then?”

“Far as I know.”

She nodded slowly. “Could you tell me a little about your family?”

“Oh, boy. There’s not ‘a little’ to tell. But, sure, yes. So my dad — Edmond Briar, his family has owned this place for generations. It has some weird things about it because apparently the Briars have some sort of connection to these magical beings or something—”

“Like anomalies?” Preston asked, not taking his eyes off The Simpsons.

“Uh, sure,” Hulin said. “You guys know much about it?”

“It’s our jobs,” Camellia said. “We’re anomaly hunters. We track down these things called anomalies — magical, I guess, objects or beings, usually ones that are pretty dangerous. It’s our job to both ensure the safety of ordinary civilians and keep reality from breaking. That’s why we were brought on this job. Your dad is friends with our boss, so he called him about his ‘ghost’ issue, and our boss thinks it must be some kind of anomaly. So, here we are. Playing Scooby-Doo.”

“I told you it was Scooby-Doo,” Preston said.

“I’m not talking to you.”

“That sounds awesome,” Hulin said. “I may have to ask about the adventures you’ve been on.”

“I’d be happy to indulge,” Camellia said, “after you answer the question in full.”

“Right. So, yeah, Dad’s a pretty big deal — owner of Briar Manufacturing Co. The company’s been in the family just as long as the estate. Started out as a car manufacturer, but they do a whole lot more now — computers, TVs, basically any sort of technology.

“Being the oldest, I’m set to inherit the company and estate when Dad’s time is up. I am eighteen, by the way,” he added for Camellia.

“Hmm,” she said, “then you’re out of high school?”

He clicked his tongue. “This is my last year. And then I’ll be starting college, I guess, but I haven’t really figured out where I want to go. No idea what I’m majoring in, either — what with the family’s wealth, not to mention what I’m set to inherit, I don’t exactly need a job. Although, that anomaly hunting thing — that sounds interesting. I don’t suppose you have any openings?”

“Luckily for you, we recruit people eighteen and over in the fall. You could certainly apply. Your familial relations might even give you an extra boost. I would be lying if I said that mine didn’t.”

“Sweet.”

“If your ‘familial relations’ gave you an extra boost, why’d it take you two tries to make it in?” Preston asked.

Shut up,” Camellia snapped.

“Anyway,” said Hulin, “Veronica’s a year younger than me. She, on the other hand, has known what she wants to do after school since she first picked up a law book in the seventh grade. She has her eyes on Harvard Law. Don’t tell her I said this, but I think she has what it takes to get in. She’s ridiculously smart, and more dedicated to her education than I could ever imagine being.

“Keung’s sixteen. He’s, like, the definition of a jock. Does every sport at school he can without one conflicting with another. Gets by with solid Bs in school, too; I don’t know how he manages that.”

“Could be because you’re rich and have resources others don’t,” Camellia said.

“A valid point. But, hey, I know some rich people suck, but I promise we’re not like those snobs. In fact, we donate a good amount to charities monthly.”

Camellia raised an eyebrow. “What’s a ‘good amount’?”

“Well, deduct expenses for maintenance, employee wages (which, F.Y.I., are well above minimum wage), payments on the house, et cetera . . . I’d say about half of the rest is donated. Divided between the twelve of us; we get to choose which charity to donate to.”

Camellia hummed. “That’s impressive, actually.”

“I promise my dad’s a good man. The first thing he did after inheriting the company was he established a whole bunch of reformations. He’s no Jeff Bezos.”

“Good to hear.”

“All right, so Alison — fifteen, also very sporty. She and Keung are pretty tight; they play a lot of the same sports. They’re usually either in the gym or outside playing some kind of one-on-one. She’s less ‘hardcore’, I guess, but she still could get probably any scolarship she wanted as well as he could. Especially lacrosse; she loves lacrosse. She’s also easily the best player on the team, even as a freshman, although I could be biased.

“Gushi’s fourteen. They’re a pretty quiet kid. Does well in school. They like reading pretty much anything, from classic literature to manga. They’ve probably read over half the books in our library. And it’s a big library, let me tell you.

“Uh, Deanna’s thirteen — she’s an art kid. Really talented, too; she’s been taking private lessons since she was three. Definitely super advanced for a thirteen-year-old. She takes art classes in school, but I’m almost fully sure it’s just so she can show off her skills to the other kids who are there to actually learn things.

“Song is twelve. She’s like Gushi: quiet. If I’m being honest, I don’t totally know what she’s into. She spends most of her time in her room and doesn’t talk much about her interests. Not to me, anyway. All I can really tell you is she’s a classic rock fan — I hear her listening to stuff like Fleetwood Mac and Queen sometimes.

“Oliver’s eleven. I imagine you must be seeing the pattern by now in ages. Anyway, Oliver likes video games. Big Nintendo fan. He plays a lot with Isabelle, sometimes with Yusheng. Yusheng is also big into science. Chemistry.

“Qiu and Rosie are the youngest. They’re into typical little kid stuff, I guess. To be honest, the younger my siblings get, the less I know about them. We certainly aren’t the closest family. Sorry if this wasn’t exactly all you were hoping for.”

“It’s all right,” Camellia said. “I appreciate what you did tell me. How about staff?”

Hulin blew out a puff of air. “That’s even worse. I mean, I can tell you what each of them does for a living, but that’s it. You’ve met Jameson, the butler. He’s a pretty cool dude, although movies would lead you to be suspicious of him, huh?”

Camellia snickered. “If this turns out to be a ‘the butler did it’ situation, I just may quit my job.”

“Hey! An opening for me,” Hulin said with a chuckle. “Anyway, we have two cooks — Zhang Ting does most of the Chinese cooking, and Kelsey Romano does most of the American. When he married Mom, Dad made sure to uphold the blend of cultures that was created in the family. Pretty cool, plus the stuff they make is always incredible. I know that probably doesn’t help your investigation, but it’s worth noting.”

“It was pretty delicious,” Preston chimed in.

“Yeah,” Hulin went on, “well, unfortunately, I don’t really know much about Kelsey or Ting as people. I don’t talk to them much or anything; Deanna and Isabelle would know them better than me. They don’t live here, unlike Jameson; they live down the road and only come over when they have to work. They’re either married or just roommates; I’ve never asked which.”

“And they were roommates . . . ,” Preston mumbled.

“Do you have anything actually helpful to contribute?” Camellia said to him. “No questions to ask?”

Preston hummed. “Do you guys get Adult Swim? Or, like, Cartoon Network?”

“Cartoon Network is sixty-nine,” Hulin said. “Not sure about Adult Swim, though.”

Preston nodded seriously and began flipping through channels.

Camellia sighed. “Goes to show, Hulin, that if you are going to apply to be an anomaly hunter, level of competence is not something to stress over.”

Hulin grinned. “Good to see the house is in excellent hands.”

Camellia rolled her eyes. “I know Arthur only sent us here because we’re the newest recruits. Experienced enough to get the job done for his buddy but not so experienced that we’re too valuable for something stupid like a ‘haunting’. I mean, no offense; I’m sure your dad has reason to want it taken care of, but this is just . . . not what I thought I’d be signing up for.”

“Ignore her, Hulin,” Preston said. “She doesn’t like anything remotely fun.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Well, if you don’t think the assignment itself will be fun,” Hulin said, “there’s plenty of stuff to do here that’ll keep you entertained in the meantime. I’d be happy to show you some of our fun rooms tomorrow, if you’re interested.”

“I mean, I’d like to get this assignment done as soon as I can,” Camellia said, “but . . . I suppose that doesn’t mean we can’t do things while we try to solve the case.”

“Awesome. Uh, is that all you need from me tonight?”

“I think that’s all the questions I have for you,” she said. “But I will request that if you see anything out of the ordinary, you tell me.”

“Can do,” he said, then stood. “I’ll see you both tomorrow, then. Sleep well.”

“Goodnight, Hulin.”

“G’night, dude,” Preston said, and Hulin left the room. When the door shut, Preston started laughing. “That was embarrassing.”

Camellia looked at him. “What?”

“He was, like, totally into you!” Preston said. “That’s embarrassing.”

She scoffed. “Please. He probably acts that way around every girl he meets. He’s a teenage boy.”

“I’m a teenage boy and I’ve never hit on you.”

“That’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“Anomaly hunter inductions, 1920s New York, our first history class with Alf . . . ?”

Preston furrowed his eyebrows in thought, and then his eyes widened. “Oh, yeah!” He chuckled. “Whoops.”

“Mm.” Camellia unzipped her bag and pulled out her toothbrush, toothpaste, and pajamas. She zipped the bag back up and headed into the bathroom.

Even the guest room bathroom was the most illustrious bathroom she’d ever been in. The countertops and walls seemed to be made of pure marble, and the toilet seat and mirror frames were solid gold. She could only imagine what the master bathroom looked like.

The room held both a shower and a bathtub, and, although she had initially entered with the intention of taking a quick shower, she decided the tub looked awfully comfortable and that she deserved a nice, warm bath — especially considering she was stuck ghost hunting with Preston for who-knows-how-long. So she drew some water, plugged her earbuds into her phone, hit shuffle on her favorite playlist, and settled in.

After she had gotten herself clean, though, she was only allowed about ten minutes of relaxation before she heard someone pounding on the door through the loud music in her ears. She popped out one of her earbuds. “What do you want?”

“Quit blasting your emo music and hurry up in there!” Preston said. “I gotta pee!”

“There’s gotta be another bathroom in this house,” Camellia snapped back. “Use it.”

“I don’t know how to get out of this room, let alone find a bathroom!” Preston said. “Just speed up whatever takes girls so long in the bathroom!”

Camellia sighed irritatedly. “Give me a minute.” She could never get even a moment’s peace.

She forced herself out of the tub, dried herself off, then pulled on her black tank top and pajama shorts. Just to spite Preston, she also took a moment to brush her teeth, and then she grabbed her dirty clothes and allowed him the bathroom.

He ran in past her, but stopped for a moment, looking at her pajamas. “Do you own anything that’s not black?”

“Do you own anything that’s not stupid?” she said with a glance down at his T-shirt that read “TRUST ME, I’M THIS HANDSOME ALL THE TIME”.

He smirked. “This is high fashion. You wouldn’t understand.”

She glared and slammed the door in his face.

She returned to her bed, slipped under the covers, and put her music back into her ears. Without even noticing when Preston returned to his bed, she set her phone down beside her pillow after a little over an hour of scrolling through Tumblr and attempted to find sleep.

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