Chapter 6: Work to be done
The busy summer slid into fall. The days were getting shorter while the winds got colder. Dry leaves crunched under heavy tires. Two trucks pulled up to the high fence. Alex frowned at the No Trespassing sign, a sign he knew too well was often ignored. He and Aaron had made it to the porch before a car scared them off. The day had already been a long one. It was early afternoon when they arrived. It was later than they had planned after having finally finished a project for a very particular client. Arnold had been happy to call it quits for the day, but his sons had become more and more insistent they start on the old house.
“I still cannot believe you bought this place.” Alex whooped as his father cut off the padlock holding the gate shut. Alex’s fingers gripped the chain link. He stared through it to the large structure. In the weak afternoon sun, the house looked majestic to him. Standing alone in the middle of a huge, flat lawn, the house looked down on a fountain that was once surrounded by lush gardens. The grounds were overgrown and the house boarded up, but to Alex it was a wonder of brick and ornamental carving. “Man, this place is so awesome.”
“Shut up, Alex, and get back in the truck.” Aaron called from the van emblazoned with “Holt and Sons Restorations.” He sat in the driver’s seat, his hands open on the wheel, questioning the delay. “We’re all anxious.” Several angry glares and gestures flashed between the brothers.
“Come on, Alex, get back in the truck!” Arthur called.
“We all know you are afraid of the haunted house, but we have a job to do!” Aaron called mockingly. True it had been Alex who ran when they had heard the car approach. To this day he claimed it was because he didn’t want to get into trouble. Alex gave his older brother the finger as he jumped into the passenger seat of the van, his father already slamming the driver’s door shut.
Alex’s excitement mounted as the house grew the closer they got. It calmed a bit while they proceeded up the long pothole-riddled drive. He could see the years of neglect in the peeling paint and rotted porch. Then a memory crept up from deep in his mind. A mischievous grin began to grow across his face—knowing his brother had been very scared of the old house when they were younger. When Alex had run away from the “car,” Aaron had passed him with little effort. This thought caused him to ask the question generally ignored in the household. “You know the story about the gray girl, right?” he asked.
Arnold did not say anything for most of the ride up. Alex waited for an answer. He hoped he hadn’t annoyed his father. Alex was about to either ask again or apologize; he wasn’t sure which. His father spoke softly. Alex expected to be told it was nothing but a rumor, a silly story told to scare children. He never expected what he heard next.
“Yeah, I’ve heard the stories.” He shrugged. “Like you kids, I tried to see her.” They slowed to navigate a particularly deep hole in the drive. “You know your grandfather always had a theory about her.”
“Whoa,” Alex cried. “Wait, Granddad knew about her?” Alex tried to digest this information. “How long has she been around?” he wondered aloud gaining a look from his father. Deciding not to annoy his father, Alex asked, “What was his theory?”
Arnold chewed his lip as if trying to decide to continue. “Well, when I was younger, your granddad told me about a girl he went to school with, who went missing.” He eased the truck to a stop, turned off the ignition, and opened the door. Alex sat stunned for a second. Quickly he joined his father. Aaron had joined them. It felt as if the temperature had dropped several degrees from the fence to the front porch. “He says that on the day the girl disappeared, the old owner of this place”—he gestured to the old stately house before the three men—“well, he tried to pick her up. Apparently, he tried this with a lot of girls. Sometimes he tried too much.” Arnold was working on the front-door lock, oblivious to his son’s fascination. Aaron was trying to pick up on the conversation. The door swung open with a long low squeal. “Well, Gramps said that her name was Chloe, and she went missing after school.” Arthur opened a toolbox Aaron had brought, pulling out a flashlight. “They found skid marks and blood on the road but no body.” They stood in the cluttered front room taking in the cobwebs and dust.
“So why did Granddad think that what’s-his-face had something to do with it?” Alex asked. Aaron pushed past him with a grumble. Alex threw some fallen plaster at his brother, earning him some flying at him in return.
Ignoring the salvos between his boys, he continued, “Well, like I said, they found skid marks and blood and the guy.” Arnold was busy replacing the locks on the front door. “Edgar, that was his name, or Edmond, whatever.” He shrugged. “Well, he claimed he had hit a deer; see his truck was smashed up on one side.”
“This floor seems OK; boards still on most of the windows,” Aaron interrupted, smacking a dusty hand on Alex’s face. “We got an overgrown greenhouse out back that looks in decent shape. Might need to come down if it is too much work to clean up.” Alex pushed Aaron.
“It’s a conservatory,” Alex corrected. Aaron spared him his best whatever look. Alex rolled his eyes in return. “So, this Ed dude had a smashed truck, and a girl is missing, huh? Why didn’t the cops arrest him?” Alex inquired. Behind him he could feel Aaron aping him. Ignoring Aaron’s continued mocking, he waited for an answer.
“Check upstairs for water damage,” Arnold replied, dusting his hands off from finishing with the door. “We’ll start setting up the work lights.”
“Come on, Dad,” Alex complained as he left to retrieve the lights and generator. He nearly ran to the truck, hastily gathered the equipment, and then hurried back to the house. “What happened?” he demanded as soon as he was back through the door.
Arthur stared at Alex for a moment as if confused. Suddenly he took up the story again. “The cops did talk to him. He said he was at work when the girl would have been walking.” Together they set up one light stand. “Problem is, according to your granddad, no one saw him in the office.” Aaron was back now, setting up the second light stand.
“But”—Arnold shrugged—“his brother vouched for him.”
“So why did ol’ Granddad think this chick didn’t just run off?” Aaron asked. Alex was shocked thinking Aaron hadn’t been listening. Light filled the room causing Alex to shield his eyes until they adjusted. The harsh work lights sent odd shadows over the walls. Alex was sure something had moved just out of his sight.
“Well, apparently the girl was a real stand-up person—a class act.” Arnold adjusted the lights and began pulling dusty cloths from furniture. Cascades of years of neglect streamed through the bright light.
“Wait.” Aaron stopped to turn to his father. “If she went to school with Granddad, it was, what, the teens or twenties or something?”
Arnold was inspecting an old sideboard, admiring the craftsmanship. “No! How old do you think Granddad was?” His attention turned back to his sons. “It was the early thirties, and she was all set to go to college, Linden Hall even. Women going to college back then was a rarity. He also said she came from a real close family.” Arnold was now checking an outlet. “Granddad was positive she didn’t run off. Then, of course, there was what he called evidence.” Arnold smiled to himself as he walked out the door. He had both his sons completely enthralled. Not since they were kids had he held their attention this long. Aaron was now twenty-three and Alex nineteen. They rarely listened to his stories anymore. He could hear their exasperation as he continued to inspect the furniture. After stalling for too long over the antiques, he began collecting his tools.
“Daaad!” the boys cried out in unison. Arthur suppressed a smile. His boys had gone from grown men to ten years old in an instant.
“OK, OK.” Arnold held up his hands in defense. “Granddad went to school with this girl and didn’t live too far from her. A couple of years after she went missing, he was walking home with a friend who had moved into her old house.” He paused for effect. “See, her family left town after she went missing, and the father died.” It was at this point the house was filled with a terrible mournful cry followed by what sounded like a howl of rage.
“What the hell was that?” Alex asked as he and the other two stared up at the ceiling.
Aaron looked at his father. “I swear the first noise came from the hall.”
“Yeah,” Alex answered. “But the second one was definitely from upstairs.”
“That is weird. I don’t have plans to turn the water back on until next week.” Arnold scratched at his chin. “Did one of you boys try the taps for some reason?” Neither claimed to have done so.
“Oh man, if it is the pipes, that is the most messed-up plumbing we’ve ever dealt with then,” Aaron groaned. Alex ventured to the hall. He saw a bathroom across the way. His flashlight showed the faded wallpaper and tarnished fixtures. Slowly he turned a tap. Nothing happened. He tried the toilet, adjusting the valve to let water back into the cistern. Again nothing happened. Movement in the corner of his eye. He spun on the spot. Light from the small flashlight flashed out into the empty hall. He swore someone had been there.
Turning back to the dry facilities, he said, “Yo, Pops. I don’t think it was the…” As he turned back toward the hall, Alex’s voice dried up in his throat. A young woman was standing there watching him. “Wow, you startled me…” He wheezed. With widening eyes, he realized she was there, but he could still see the wall behind her. Pearly tears ran down her face. Arthur noisily entered the hall, distracting Alex. “Da-Da-Dad…” Alex pointed, his mouth still trying to form words. He looked back at the hall, but the girl was gone.
“What did you say, Alex?” Aaron asked from behind his father.
“Did you see her?” Alex whispered.
“What?” Aaron demanded, cupping a hand to his ear.
“Did you see her?” Alex shouted.
“No.” His father replied with a force and determination that was too fast for Alex to believe. An awkward silence stretched as the two men studied each other. Finally, Arthur broke the stalemate. “There is nothing in this house that shouldn’t be except for old wiring and plumbing.” Arthur’s voice betrayed his nerves. “So let’s get back to the front room and devise a plan.”
“But what?” Aaron started. He paused to gather his thoughts intrigued by his brother’s actions. Alex was flashing his light up and down the hall hoping to catch another glimpse of the girl. Aaron seemed to have come to a conclusion. “What the hell was that? The noises I mean, and what is Alex talking about?” he demanded. He turned to his brother, who now stood wide-eyed staring back at him. They looked to their father, who shrugged.
“Old plumbing?” Arthur offered lamely, yet he also glanced around the hall nervously.
“What about the moaning and shit?” Aaron demanded. His father simply shrugged again. Alex shivered, his breath visible in the air. Aaron rubbed at his arms against the chill. “And why the hell is it suddenly so frickin’ cold?” The two quickly followed their father back to the warmth of the front room.