The Haunting of Briar Manor (The Anomaly Hunters)

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Funky Footprints

Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore. Camellia scrambled out of the hot tub. Her legs were bright red.

The water gun fight had come to a halt. All four combatants looked startled. “Camellia?” said Preston.

“What happened?” Hulin asked, climbing out of the pool to investigate.

“The temperature keeps going up,” Camellia said. “I can’t stop it; it⁠—” She looked down at the screen. It had stopped on 121°. “Well, now it’s stopped. But I swear it just kept climbing like the button was stuck or something.”

“I believe you,” Hulin said with a glance down at her legs. Camellia had hoped he might tell her it was a frequent happenstance, maybe about how his dad had been meaning to get it fixed. Instead, he got a closer look at the settings screen with a confused look on his face. “It looks perfectly normal.”

“Was it the ghost?” Preston asked. He joined Camellia and Hulin by the hot tub. The two kids followed behind him.

“Did you see anything?” Hulin asked Camellia.

Camellia shook her head. “Although, granted, I wasn’t really paying attention. You guys didn’t see anything out of the ordinary?”

Hulin and Preston both answered negatively.

Rosie tugged at Hulin’s wet T-shirt timidly. “Is the ghost here?”

Hulin looked down at the kids. “Of course not. It looks like the hot tub just went a little crazy. Are you guys hungry?”

Qiu and Rosie nodded vigorously.

“All right. Get your floaties off and take care of the guns and I’ll take you up to get a snack.”

They raced off toward the toy bin.

Hulin turned his attention to Preston and Camellia. “If you want to investigate, go on ahead. I just want to get them out of here before something happens again.”

“So you do think it was the ‘ghost’?” Camellia asked.

“Aha, so you admit it could be an actual ghost!” said Preston.

“I used air quotes.”

Hulin shrugged. “I don’t really know what else it could be. Maybe it’s not happy that you’re here. Trying to scare you away.”

“That or kill me,” Camellia said.

“The ghost has yet to do anything that could result in death,” Hulin said.

“I don’t know; we were pretty close to having Camellia soup for lunch,” Preston said. He added thoughtfully, “Would that be an American or a Chinese dish?”

“Thankfully, I know to get out of water if it’s burning me, and I’d imagine the ‘ghost’ figured I’d be smart enough,” Camellia said. “I worry more about what would’ve happened had it been you.”

Qiu and Rosie had finished putting everything away and were eagerly tugging at Hulin. Hulin told Preston and Camellia that he would return to fetch them, and then left with the two kids.

“Look around for clues that might show somebody aside from the five of us were in here,” Camellia directed Preston. “I’m going to check out this screen.”

“You got it,” said Preston, beginning his task immediately.

Camellia knelt beside the screen, wincing in pain. She figured she might want to do something about the burns on her legs, but that was a job for later. Firstly, she brought the temperature well down to something more reasonable. Then, she shut the screen off so she could better see any fingerprints left behind. There were a few smudges, but she couldn’t exactly tell what was hers and what wasn’t. She made another print from her index finger beside where the smudges were to compare. Any print she could make out looked like her own.

“Hey, Camellia,” Preston called.

Camellia stood. “Find something?” She joined him at the side of the room.

He pointed at the floor. “Are those footprints?”

She squinted and crouched low to the floor. Sure enough, there did appear to be a foggy outline of something fairly foot-shaped. “Looks like it. They’re weird, though. They look pretty fresh, but whoever made them appears to not have been barefoot.” She stood up. “None of us had shoes on; right?”

“Far as I know,” Preston said. “I mean, nobody wears shoes in the pool. That’s just weird.”

“Right. So somebody else had to have been in here before us and messed with that hot tub. But they don’t even look like shoe prints. They’re just . . . flat. Besides, they’d have to be pretty thin shoes for their feet to make an outline of condensation.”

“Socks?”

“Maybe?” Curiously, Camellia followed the path of footprints ⁠— one of which had a completely smoothed bit of mud over it ⁠— to an open door in the opposite end of the room. The room beyond the door had concrete floors, and, thus, the trail ended. Camellia went into the room, Preston following behind her. It was small, with a couple shelves of pool towels. A second door leading to the backyard was on the other wall, hanging open just like the one across from it. “Huh.”

“Camellia? Preston?” Hulin had returned for them.

Camellia poked her head out into the main room. “Hey, Hulin, do you guys leave this door open normally?”

Hulin frowned. “The outside door? No, we don’t. Is it open?” He walked around the pool to check it out for himself. “Yeah, that’s not supposed to be like that.” He shut it.

“Maybe the ghost opened it!” suggested Preston.

“Or someone trying to make a quick escape didn’t get the chance to close it,” Camellia countered.

Preston peered out the window in the door. “I don’t see anybody out there.”

“Whoever it was would’ve had plenty of time to get out of sight by now,” Camellia said. “I think this particular investigation has hit a dead end.”

“So you didn’t learn anything?” Hulin asked.

“Well,” Camellia said, “we learned that our ‘ghost’ has weird feet and left no fingerprints. None that were distinguishable, at least.” She told Hulin about her fingerprint investigation and the strangely-shaped footprints Preston had found.

“Weird,” said Hulin. “Maybe we do have an actual ghost.”

“Ghosts don’t leave footprints,” Camellia said.

“Maybe they do and we just don’t know because we’ve never met a real one before,” Preston said, taking his face off the window. His eyes widened. “Are we going to be the first people ever to catch a real ghost?”

“Doubtful,” Camellia said.

Preston’s attention was back on the outside. “Hold on — I do see more tracks in the snow!” He opened the door and pointed them out.

Camellia pushed past him to examine them. The cool air felt good on her legs. And Preston was right — the same vaguely foot-shaped prints were left in the shallow bits of melting snow. Just like the mud left behind on one of the prints in the main room, they were completely flat ⁠— no design or outline of toes. Hulin took a look, too. “Huh,” he said, “those are weird.”

“Maybe ghosts have weird feet!” Preston said. Then, he frowned. “I hope we aren’t making it self-conscious by pointing that out.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that,” Camellia said.

“Not that I don’t have faith that you know what you’re talking about,” Hulin said, “but, if not a ghost, I don’t have much of an explanation for either of those prints, finger or foot. Or the lack thereof, in the case of the former. You have any theories about what kind of anomaly could do this?”

Preston shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I hardly pay attention during history classes.”

“To be honest, I don’t even really have much of a guess,” Camellia said. “If this is all the work of an actual, living anomaly, it’s one I don’t know much about. My best wager would be that it’s a human being. Maybe with the help of an anomaly object.

“As for the prints, it’s possible whoever it was was wearing gloves,” she reasoned, “or messed with the settings then wiped their prints off the screen. Or that they were just completely indistinguishable within the smudges. My test wasn’t entirely foolproof, mind you.

“The footprints could’ve been made by someone wearing some kind of weirdly-built shoes with completely flat bottoms. Do you know of the existence of such in the house, Hulin?”

Hulin shrugged. “Can’t say I do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We can check; everyone’s shoes are kept in a closet beside the main entrance. Judging by the size, it looks like these’d belong to one of the younger kids. I can’t imagine any of them trying to hurt you, though.”

“I know it is,” Camellia said sympathetically, “but you can’t really rule anybody out.”

“Except for me; right?” Hulin winked.

Camellia raised an eyebrow but made no comment. Instead, she said, “If it’s all right, I think I’ll skip lunch and search through the shoe closet. That way, I’ll know everybody’s in the dining room and not wearing their shoes and they should all be there.”

“That’s a one-person job; right?” Preston asked.

“Mind you we were both sent on this mission.”

“Yeah, but, I mean, really, does it take two people to look at shoes?”

Camellia rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll do it myself and you can eat your lunch.”

Preston brightened. “Great! Thanks, Camellia!”

“In the meantime,” said Hulin, “you want something for those legs, Camellia?”

Camellia glanced down at her still-red legs. “Yeah. Probably.”

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