Upstate New York was beautiful in the spring, when everything turned green and full of life. The streams ran swiftly with water from the recent rains and the tree frogs – colloquially known as peepers – started their mating song as soon as it turned dusk. On a clear night such as this the sky was full of stars, twinkling above dairy farms and small towns.
The beauty of the scenery was lost on Rodney McKay, who slammed on the brakes of his rental car to avoid yet another deer. He’d programmed the address into his GPS, which was dragging him over every seasonal road between Scarsdale and his ultimate destination. He was glad he’d paid for the extra insurance because surely these rutted almost-roads had scraped off half the underside of the Chevy sedan. He’d have to upgrade to an SUV if he stayed for any length of time.
In three hundred yards, turn right.
“Fuck you,” Rodney snarled. He hated driving at night, particularly when he was unfamiliar with the area. If the stupid GPS hadn’t taken him the long way he’d have reached his uncle’s house when the sun was still up. Still, it was all he had and so he turned right when he was told, narrowly avoiding a lumpy, lumbering creature he couldn’t identify.
The road he was on was hemmed in on both sides by trees, blocking out what little light was coming from the half-moon. Rodney slowed down even more, annoyed at having to crawl along at such a slow pace, but his fear of hitting a wayward animal was greater than his need to get to the house. He only hoped this was all worth his time. If it turned out that Uncle Gunn lived in some kind of backwoods shack or something, he was going to be seriously pissed.
Finally, after one more turn he was back on a road that was at least paved and it was only another three miles until he’d reached what he could only hope was the driveway. It was long enough that Rodney wondered if someone came to plow it out during the winter, though he had every intention of being long gone by then.
The house, what little of it he could see in the headlights, was substantially more than a shack in the woods and a great deal more imposing. It looked like an abandoned set from a gothic film, all rough stone and dark wood, jutting angles interspersed with curved walls and arches. Most of the windows were dark, save one on the first floor that emitted a feeble yellow glow.
Rodney put the car in park at the bend of the driveway, where it looped around and joined back up with itself at the far edge of the house. He sat there for a few minutes, waiting – for what, he didn’t know – before he finally sighed and turned the car off. He left his bags in the backseat as he went in search of the caretaker, who was supposed to be here to meet him and give him the keys.
“Hello?” he called, then winced when he heard how far his voice carried. Aside from the peeping frogs and the sound of running water, the night was silent. The caretaker – what was his name? Shemp? Sharpe? – was probably passed out in the carriage house, which presumably was that dark shape shrouded in shadows at the edge of the driveway.
“Great. Wonderful.” Rodney started making for the carriage house, eyes wide as he tried to see in the dark. “I’ll probably get eaten by a mountain lion or something.”
“We don’t get a lot of those around here,” a voice said. Rodney jumped and barely suppressed an undignified scream as one shadow moved out of the others and formed the shape of a man.
“Oh, my God! Are you insane?” He pressed his hand over his heart, which was pounding frantically. “You could’ve given me a heart attack! Wait, who are you? Are you some kind of hillbilly serial killer? Cause I’ve got to warn you, I’m armed. With…uh…armaments.”
“Armaments?” The masculine voice sounded amused. For every step he took forward, Rodney took one back until he bumped against the car.
“I have 911 on speed dial!”
“No cell service here, Dr. McKay.”
“What do you…hey. How do you know my name?” Rodney squinted at the man in front of him, getting a vague impression of lean and tall and crazily spiky hair. “Are you Shemp?”
“Is that a Three Stooges joke?”
The man clicked on a flashlight and pointed it off to the side. Now Rodney could see his face – jaw line darkened by stubble, nose well-shaped if just a bit crooked. There wasn’t light enough to make out his eye color, but his dark brown hair was definitely defying gravity.
“John Sheppard,” the guy said.
“Rodney McKay.” He held out his hand but John just looked at him without offering his in return. After an awkward few seconds Rodney lowered his hand and rubbed his palm on the leg of his pants. “You’re the caretaker?”
“Oh. Well, good. I’d like the keys to the house, please. I’ve had a very long drive, so we can skip the grand tour and I’ll just find a bed and call it a night.”
John – much easier to remember than Sheppard – nodded and walked towards the house. Rodney grabbed his suitcase from the backseat and followed along, paying close attention as he was shown how to use the surprisingly advanced alarm system.
“When were you here last?”
Rodney shook his head. “Never been. In fact, I only met Uncle Gunn once at a family reunion, and he wasn’t an actual relative anyway. More like a courtesy uncle. When I got the letter from his estate lawyer I had to call my sister and ask who he even was.”
He followed John inside and then stood there gaping. The only light on in the place was in the foyer and it wasn’t sufficient to illuminate the cathedral ceiling that soared far above his head. There was more stone in here, interspersed with dark wood and stuccoed walls painted a very light green. There was an open staircase on the right side of the foyer that led up to a landing dominated by a large stained glass window in an abstract pattern, and a rounded balcony. There were boxes piled along the left wall, and along the side of the stairs.
“Have you started packing already?” Rodney asked, annoyed. He didn’t want some caretaker pawing through things until he’d gotten a chance to take a look himself. Before he could start on a good rant, though, John cut him off with a look.
“I haven’t touched anything.”
“Oh. Well, who…”
“Take a look.” John pointed to a room off the foyer and Rodney headed there after setting his suitcase down. The room was some kind of parlor, he supposed, though all he could really see of it was a large fireplace with a wooden mantle and exposed beams in the ceiling. He fumbled for the light switch on the wall and then immediately wished he hadn’t when he got a better look at the room. The entirety of the space was filled with boxes, furniture, and plastic bins of varying size and color. Rodney could make out a long oak dining table, with matching chairs stacked on top, and the arm of what might have been a brown leather couch piled high with a jumble of cloth that he couldn’t begin to guess the use of. Table clothes maybe? Or curtains? The contents of the boxes were a mystery, but some of the clear bins showed books, magazines, and what were either fur coats or stuffed animals.
“Please tell me the whole house isn’t like this,” Rodney begged. “Was he one of those hoarders? I’ve seen that on TV.”
“He was a…collector.” John leaned against the door jamb. “There’s some good stuff in with the junk.”
Rodney ran a hand through his hair. “Well, that’s even worse. It means I can’t just dump it wholesale. Was he crazy or something?”
The caretaker seemed to take offense at that, his body language changing abruptly from boneless slouching to very tense standing. “Gunn wasn’t crazy. He was a nice guy.”
“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that. You knew him better than I did.” Rodney seemed to recall the lawyer saying something about John working for Uncle Gunn for a few years. The old guy hadn’t had any family of his own, so it was probably good that he wasn’t completely alone in his declining years. “This is going to take longer than I thought.”
His hand twitched towards his cell phone before he remembered what John had said about the cell tower. Presumably there was a land line on the premises, and he made a mental note to call Laura first thing in the morning and get her up here to help him. There was no way he could manage this on his own.
“How many rooms?”
“Six bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms. Full basement and attic. Utility room, music room, living room, parlor, library, dining room, kitchen, study.”
Rodney nodded wearily. “And they’re all full like this?”
“Most of them. Also, there’s a storage shed out back and the part of the carriage house I don’t live in.” John had lost some of his angry posture but his hands were still clenched into tight fists.
They should probably talk about the future of John’s employment but Rodney was honestly just too tired. And now that it wouldn’t be a quick dump and sell, he’d need to reevaluate his time table.
“I’m not dealing with anything else today. Is there a bed in this place I can sleep in or should I just find an empty spot on the floor?”
“I cleared some space for you in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. Clean sheets and everything.”
“Thank God for that.” Rodney went back to the foyer to retrieve his suitcase. He cast an eye at the stairs and the darkened upper hall. “Uh…lights?”
John showed him where the switch was, which operated both the huge chandelier hanging from the high ceiling and the electric wall sconces. “There’s another switch at the top of the stairs that turns them off.”
“Well, that does it for me. Uh…key?” Rodney held out his hand expectantly. John looked at him for a long moment, then dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out several keys on a plain silver ring.
“Front door, back door, outside basement door.” He dropped them into Rodney’s hand. “See you in the morning, Dr. McKay.”
Rodney raised his hand in an awkward little wave, but John was already out the door. With a sigh he reset the alarm and carried his suitcase up the stairs. The wooden railing was in need of a good polishing and he added that to the mental list he was compiling. That list would need to be considerably more substantial, he thought, once he got to the top of the stairs and saw that the hallway was barely passable: more boxes, more random pieces of furniture, and even a fully assembled artificial Christmas tree.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Rodney rubbed a hand over his eyes, suddenly exhausted beyond measure, and pushed his way into the first door at the top of the stairs, as instructed.
The bedroom was large, sporting floor to ceiling windows and grey wallpaper with a flocked swirl design. There was more junk in there, though it had been stacked neatly against the far wall; John’s doing, supposedly. Rodney had to admit he was grateful when he caught sight of the queen-sized bed and the door connecting to one of the three and a half bathrooms.
It didn’t take him long to get ready for bed. His teeth got only a cursory brushing, after he promised to make it up to himself in the morning. He was so tired he could barely stand without holding on to something to steady himself. Despite the strange bed and even stranger circumstance, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
If not for the pressure on his bladder he didn’t think he could work up the ambition to get out of bed. Getting the house ready to sell seemed like such a huge project now that he’d seen a bit of it and he cursed Uncle Gunn for having left the mess to him to deal with. Were there no other McKays worthy enough?
With a sigh, Rodney got up and shuffled to the bathroom. His desire for a shower was only slightly dimmed by the fact that it took an eternity for the water to heat up. He’d have to take a look at the hot water heater, which was probably just as old as this pseudo-castle. He made yet another mental note, this one to have the plumbing and electric thoroughly checked out. He’d hate to put a lot of work in only to have the place get flooded out or burn to the ground.
In anticipation of starting a general inventory, and probably not staying very clean in the process, Rodney put on an old pair of jeans and an even older t-shirt emblazoned with a faded picture of a penguin sitting on top of a 1980s-era television set. He considered poking around some of the upstairs rooms, just to see, but decided that would be a foolish endeavor before he had his coffee. Which then led him to panic – what if there was no coffee?
Rodney hurried down the stairs and went in search of the kitchen. He passed the fancy glass doors that led to the dining room and winced at the pile of junk that was stuffed into that room, completely hiding whatever table and chairs might be inside. Or maybe that was the table that had been in the parlor, there was no way to be certain.
Thankfully the kitchen was devoid of boxes, though the sight of decrepit appliances did little to lighten his spirit. It looked as if the last update had happened in the 70s – the electric stove and the fridge were both avocado green and the wallpaper was a hideous orange flower pattern that was difficult to look at. Rodney started going through the dark wood cabinets, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were fully stocked with foodstuffs, all of which looked brand new and unopened.
“Oh, thank God!” He clutched the can of Folgers to his chest. Normally he preferred a higher quality of coffee, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and he’d been terrified that he’d have to make do with instant. It took a little longer to find the coffee maker, which had duct tape wrapped around the cord. The threat of electrocution wasn’t enough to dissuade him from hooking it up and getting a pot of coffee started.
While he waited he poked around looking for the phone, unsuccessfully. He found a pantry closet stocked with canned goods, a utility room which was home to countless hanging garment bags and heaps of old shoes, and the door to the back porch. Through the window he could see John tooling around on the riding mower, wearing shorts, a tank top and a baseball cap. Surely it wasn’t warm enough out there to be dressed so lightly.
He drank his first cup of coffee black, barely letting it cool enough to keep from burning his tongue. Thus bolstered by caffeine he poured a second cup and then spent a minute wondering if he should offer some to John. In the end he decided against it. The man was already up and doing menial labor, so presumably he’d already had some coffee. Still, it didn’t stop him from venturing outside.
The smell of fresh-cut grass hung heavily in the air and made Rodney sneeze. He leaned against the porch railing and watched as John circled around the far edge of the lawn. It occurred to him that he had no idea how much property came with the house. The swath currently being mowed had to be at least an acre, and unlike the inside of the house the grounds were meticulous. The shrubs were neatly trimmed, the flower beds mulched, and the bench under the red maple looked as if it had been freshly painted white. Rodney thought perhaps John was more industrious than he’d first surmised.
John eventually caught sight of him and rode the mower over to the porch. He turned it off and tipped his cap back, rubbing his arm across his forehead. Rodney had no idea sitting on a mower was such hot work, but the sweat-stained tank top said otherwise.
“Do you always work this early?” Rodney asked.
“No. Sometimes I go jogging first thing.”
“Out here in the wilderness? Aren’t you afraid of getting eaten by coyotes or something?” Where the nicely maintained lawn ended forest began, and he could only imagine what kind of man-eating creatures living in there. John just smirked.
“We do have paved roads here.”
“Without sidewalks. Don’t think I didn’t notice that. If someone wasn’t paying attention they could hit you with their car and then where would you be?”
“That’s not funny.” Rodney waved a hand at the house. “Where’s the phone? Please tell me you have one, because I can’t be cut off from civilization this way. It’s a safety issue.”
“I’ll show you.” John swung one leg completely over the front of the mower in a move that would’ve had Rodney in a painful heap on the lawn if he’d tried it. Maybe he was double-jointed or had some kind of boneless condition that also necessitated all the leaning in doorways he’d done the night before.
Rodney trailed after him, back through the kitchen and down a short hall to a door that he’d presumed led to a closet. Instead it turned out to be something like a phone booth, with a padded bench and a little table holding a corded phone and a notepad. He’d half expected it would be a rotary dial, but it was a touch tone phone. The cord, though…that would take some getting used to.
“This is practically prehistoric,” he grumbled. John shrugged.
“You need anything else? I have to get back to work.”
Rodney waved him off. “I can take it from here.” He sat down on the bench, sneezing again at the dust that puffed up when he did so. Clearly Uncle Gunn hadn’t spent much time in there. Rodney had to pull out his cell phone to look up Laura’s number. He kept her on speed dial out of necessity.
“Laura, I need you up here as soon as possible. You won’t believe what that old man stuffed into this place. Which, by the way, looks like something from a Dracula movie.” He picked up the pen next to the pad and started to doodle. “I’m going to start an inventory today but there’s too much. I need help.”
Take a breath. How soon do you want me up there? Because I…
“Now. I need you here right now. Word of warning, if you use your GPS you’ll wind up on every goat trail along the way and it’ll take you forever. My rental car bottomed out several times.”
I can’t get there before tomorrow, Rodney.
No buts! I still have to reschedule your speaking engagements, and there’s the little matter of what you want me to do with Mr. Pibb. Should I call the kennel?
“No, no. Bring him with you. I can’t leave him in the kennel that long, he’d never forgive me.” The cat had been a rescue from a kill shelter and Rodney had tried to change his name to no avail. The furry monster would only answer to Mr. Pibb.
Okay, but I’m not cleaning out his carrier this time if he pukes in it.
“I’ll give you a bonus,” Rodney said hastily. Laura sighed.
That’s what you always say.
“Yes, well, I mean it this time. And bring the coffee maker, the one here is a death trap. Call me before you leave. Oh, wait. I don’t know the number here and there’s no cell service.”
I have the caretaker’s number. Will he give you the message?
“I don’t know. Probably. He seems mostly normal.”
Yeah? Is he young? He sounded young the last time I talked to him.
“This isn’t Love Connection. You’re coming up here to work, not to get in John’s pants.” He didn’t think it was worth mentioning how good John looked in the aforementioned pants.
Ooh, you’re on a first name basis already?
“Laura…” Rodney tried to sound as threatening as he could, though Laura had been working for him long enough now not to be intimidated by anything he did.
Chill out, Rodney. I’ll be good, I promise. Can I go and get some actual work done now? Please?
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” He hung up the phone and added a few more constellations to the night sky he’d been doodling. Laura had been with him for about three years now, working as his business manager and personal assistant. She was hopefully the last in a long line of incompetent idiots. Unlike her predecessors she could successfully juggle everything Rodney threw at her without getting bitter or turning into a simpering sycophant.
Well, there was no putting it off. Time to get to work. Rodney left the pseudo-phone booth and went in search of his tablet. The inventory wasn’t going to do itself.
He looked down at his tablet, which needed to be charged. He was keeping a comprehensive inventory on there, room by room, as well as lists of things that needed to be done to fix up the house for sale and things that needed to be done to make it more habitable while he was staying there. Wi-Fi was tops on that list. Rodney appreciated the appeal of quiet country living, but that was no excuse to be cut off from civilization.
“Dr. McKay?” John called from somewhere downstairs.
Rodney tried to stand up, then plunked back down when everything started to spin. It belatedly occurred to him that he’d neglected to eat breakfast. He clumsily patted down his pockets to see if he had anything on him and was pleased to find a butterscotch candy. He unwrapped it as fast as he could and popped it in his mouth, sucking hard to get the sugar flowing.
“Hey. Everything okay?” John stood a couple feet away, looking ill at ease. He still wore the shorts and tank top combo from that morning, and his sneakers were liberally sprinkled with cut grass.
“Hypoglycemia,” Rodney said. “Give me a couple minutes. I’ll be fine.”
“Uh…I could make you some lunch?”
“Yeah. That would be helpful. Nothing with citrus, though. I’m deathly allergic.”
Without another word John clumped back down the stairs, no doubt leaving a trail of grass in his wake. Rodney wondered if he could hire someone to come in and clean. He knew how to run a vacuum, of course, but he already had plenty of work to do and the thought of asking Laura to do it was laughable. She’d have his head for a request like that.
The candy soon had Rodney regaining his equilibrium, and he was able to grab his tablet and make it down to the kitchen without incident. He found John making sandwiches in the most frantic way possible. He was practically a cartoon, with the way lunch meat was flying.
“Hey, relax. I’m not going to slip into a coma or anything.” Rodney opened the fridge and bypassed the carton of orange juice for the apple, chugging it right from the bottle.
“Are you okay?” John asked, a slice of turkey in one hand and cheese in the other.
“Fine, fine. I just forgot about breakfast this morning, that’s all.” Rodney grabbed one of the finished sandwiches and took it to the glass-topped table. “Don’t worry. Laura’s coming tomorrow and she keeps track of stuff like that.”
John brought the rest of the sandwiches to the table and sat down across from Rodney. “Is that your girlfriend?”
Rodney snorted. “God, no! And don’t tell her you thought that or I’ll never hear the end of it. She’s my business manager and part-time babysitter. She has some kind of spidey sense about my eating habits. It’s probably tingling right now and she doesn’t know why.”
John’s lips twitched up in an almost-grin at that, and he turned his attention to his own lunch. They ate in companionable silence for a while, until Rodney really was feeling better.
“Thanks for the sandwiches.”
Rodney waited for more, but clearly this guy wasn’t much of a talker. Which was fine, because Rodney could talk enough for four people without even breaking a sweat.
“Inventory is going slow. I can’t believe some of the stuff Uncle Gunn has packed up in boxes. License plates! What the hell am I supposed to do with those?” He shook his head. “I mean, I know people will collect just about anything, but this is ridiculous.”
“Almost forgot.” John tipped up on one hip and fished something out of the back pocket of his shorts. The action drew Rodney’s attention to places he was better off not looking at. The something turned out to be two business cards, which were tossed in the center of the table. Rodney picked them up.
“Call Teyla. She’ll schedule a time to come out and have a look around. She can tell you what’s worth selling and what you can give to goodwill.”
“And this one?” Rodney waved the card advertising Ronevan Contracting.
“Home repairs, electric work. He can rent you a dumpster at a good price.”
“Hmmm.” He looked at both cards again. It was good, having local contacts. If they were friends of John’s that hopefully meant they wouldn’t gouge him on prices for services rendered. It would be particularly helpful to have someone come and evaluate any possible antiques, since weeding through all the chaff was proving to be a thankless job.
“I have to get back to work.” John carried the now empty plate to the sink and gave it a quick wash. “Will you be okay?”
Rodney scowled. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thanks. Go weed some flower beds or whatever it is you do out there.”
That merely earned him a smirk and a wave, and he was once again alone in the house.
Besides, if he was going to invite someone for dinner he planned on serving more than just boiled hot dogs. To that end, he took another look through the freezer and pulled out some pork chops to thaw. Laura would expect something a little gourmet and that might be a better time to invite John over. Laura would insist on meeting him anyway.
Before dinner Rodney had done a walk-through of all the remaining rooms upstairs, which were many, and set up inventory sheets for each one. After dinner he did the same for the downstairs rooms, popping his head in each one to determine what it was and get a general idea of the scope of work he’d be facing. It was disheartening. The library, which should have been – and was – full of books, was also home to piles of quilts in various states of decay, a whole stack of framed cross-stitch samplers, and an army of mismatched chairs.
The only room Rodney didn’t venture into was the study, though upon opening the door he immediately made a note on the tablet to talk to the contractor about checking the thermostat. It was freezing in there, almost see-your-breath cold. It was also the only room he’d come across that seemed untouched by Uncle Gunn’s hoarding: just a desk, a couple of chairs, and some empty built-in bookshelves. Rodney might have wondered why this room had escaped unscathed, but he started to feel a little sick. Probably undercooked hotdogs.
He passed the rest of the evening refining his many lists, making new ones, and wondering what had to go wrong in a person’s brain chemistry to make them collect random bits of trash that had no purpose. Then his thoughts turned to John, who was presumably holed up in the carriage house doing whatever it was he did when the sun went down. Hopefully he had a plan for when the house sold and he needed to move on, as it was highly unlikely that new owners would want to keep him on. It was no concern of Rodney’s, yet he couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. Maybe he’d talk to Laura tomorrow and see if she had any ideas on how to help him.
Rodney finally gave in to boredom around ten and went to bed, only to be awakened a couple of hours later by the sound of…crying? He was still fuzzy from sleep, but had the errant thought that maybe Laura had come early, and if she was crying there was probably some horrible emergency because she never did girly stuff like that. Suddenly worried that something had happened to his sister Jeannie, Rodney slipped out of bed and went out in the hall.
“Laura?” The house was dark and he wasn’t familiar enough with it to be sure of his footing, so he did a shuffling-slide step towards the stairs. The crying seemed to be coming from the first floor and he kept one hand tight on the banister as he descended. Mental note: keep a flashlight next to the bed. The thought of actually turning on the lights didn’t even occur to him.
Rodney followed the sound of crying to the study. “Laura, is that you?” She sounded absolutely heartbroken and he didn’t hesitate to open the door and step into the room. His eyes had adjusted to the dark by then, but this room seemed to have gathered shadows to it, making it much darker than the hall. He fumbled for the switch but couldn’t find it.
“Laura?” Rodney wasn’t so sure now. It didn’t feel like there was anyone else in the room, and the crying was already tapering off until it was little more than an echo of grief sifting through the air. It settled on his shoulders, which bowed under the weight of it.
Finding Laura, or whoever had been crying, ceased to be important. Rodney leaned back against the wall and slid down it until he was sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around himself because it was cold, bone chillingly cold. He could see the white puffs of his breath hanging in the air.
What was he even doing? He could’ve let someone else take care of the house, it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to pay for that kind of service. Denial, the little voice in his head sneered. You’re a has-been who doesn’t have the common sense to stop living in the past.
“I know,” Rodney moaned. He was messing around with Uncle Gunn’s house because he quite simply had nothing better to do. His father had been right after all and wasn’t it a pity that he’d died and wouldn’t be able to rub Rodney’s face in it.
You’re a disappointment. Everyone knows it but you.
He hid his face in his hands, shivering with cold and misery and the certainty that he had absolutely nothing to offer anyone. He was no better than Uncle Gunn, holed up all alone in his great big house, surrounding himself with things that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
He jerked away from the hands that were suddenly clutching at him and tried to roll up in a protective ball.
“Snap out of it, buddy, come on!”
Rodney shook his head, teeth chattering. “No. It’s not worth it. Ten years. Ten fucking years!” He tried to dredge up some anger but none was forthcoming.
“I know. It’s okay. Let me help you.”
It was like a switch had suddenly been flipped and Rodney gave himself up to John, who dragged him out of the study by hooking his arms under Rodney’s and pulling. As soon as he was back in the hall, which was now blazing with light, he felt momentarily dizzy and was glad he was already on the floor.
“Are you okay?” John stood opposite him, bent at the waist and panting as if he’d run a mile uphill. He was wearing a pair of thin cotton pants and a matching gray t-shirt, and his hair was laughably mussed up. Rodney didn’t feel like laughing.
“I’m a flash in the pan,” he said morosely.
“You’re a genius,” John countered. He looked steadily at Rodney, who noted inanely that his eyes were hazel green. “I read your book. It was amazing.”
“Ten years of writer’s block says otherwise.” It was humiliating to admit it out loud. “All I had was that one book. There’s nothing else in me.”
John straightened up, rubbing his hands on his pants. “So what?”
“What do you mean, so what? So…everything!” Rodney flung his arms wide and winced when his left hand smacked painfully against the wall. “Ow!”
“Your one book won’t ever be forgotten, Rodney. That’s more than most people can ask for.” With that John started heading toward the door. “Stay out of the study.”
Before Rodney could even begin to form a question or complaint, John was gone.
Rodney was a man who needed answers to his questions, no matter what the circumstances, and so as soon as he got dressed he marched over to the carriage house and pounded on John’s door. If he’d been hoping to catch the man asleep he was sorely disappointed. John opened the door wearing the fresh-scrubbed look of a man just out of the shower. He was dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a faded USAF t-shirt.
“Was there something you needed, Dr. McKay?”
Not in the mood for slouchy good humor, Rodney pushed past him and into the space that John called home. To say it was spartan was an understatement – it was one step up from a college dorm, the furniture basic and utilitarian and the walls completely empty save for a poster of Johnny Cash.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Rodney said, hands on his hips. “Homey.”
John didn’t look amused. He stood by the door with his arms crossed tightly and glowered. “What do you want?”
“I want to know what the hell that was last night.”
“Look, I’m sorry –”
“Don’t apologize, for God’s sake, just explain!” Rodney huffed out a breath. “If you know something tell me. I don’t like surprises, and I don’t like hinky things going on around me, waiting to spring out in the middle of the night when I least expect it!”
John’s glower softened and took on a hint of guilt, but he kept his defensive posture. “You’re right, I should’ve told you. But the study doesn’t affect everyone. It was likely you wouldn’t have noticed anything was wrong.”
“That’s all well and good, but what is it?” Rodney was getting frustrated. He took a few steps towards John but stopped when the other man moved backwards, keeping space between them. Surely he wasn’t intimidated by Rodney?
“It’s nothing, really. Just…that one room is kind of…bad.” John’s shoulders came up and Rodney frowned. He wasn’t always great at reading body language but clearly John found even the thought of the study distasteful. He remembered how John had been gasping for breath in the hall, and perhaps it hadn’t been physical exertion at all.
“Are you telling me that Uncle Gunn’s house is haunted? That’s ridiculous!”
“That’s not what I’m saying, McKay. Just…haven’t you ever been anywhere that felt off in a way you couldn’t explain?”
“There’s a logical explanation for that kind of phenomenon. Aural frequencies below human hearing can cause any number of physical reactions. Electromagnetic field fluctuations can affect our sense of the environment.” Rodney paced, hands gesturing. “There’s no scientific proof that ghosts exist.”
John’s lips twitched. “Electromagnetic field fluctuations?”
“Just one of many reasons for a room or a house being perceived as haunted.”
“Fine. It doesn’t change the fact that the study isn’t a healthy place so just stay out of it, okay?”
“Well, uh…there’s nothing to be inventoried in there, really. I guess it can wait.”
John looked surprisingly relieved, which perversely made Rodney feel out of sorts. He stormed out the same way he’d stormed in, intent on turning his attentions towards breakfast. He had another long day ahead of him and it wouldn’t do to get light-headed again. He put the ludicrous idea of ghosts out of his head, in favor of more mundane issues, and wondered when Laura would get there.
“Close the door!” Rodney shouted, and it was so windy that John really had to push back on it to get it closed.
“It’s nasty out there,” he said, shaking out the coat and hanging it on a hook by the door. It hadn’t done anything to keep him dry.
“Well, don’t move. You’ll get everything wet.” Rodney turned off the burner and moved the frying pan before he ducked into the laundry room for a clean towel, which he threw at John’s head with a little more force than was probably necessary. “Dry off.”
“Something smells good.”
“That would be my lunch.”
Rodney sighed a world-weary sigh and handed his plate off to John. He went to the fridge to pull out more cheese so he could make another one.
“Thanks.” He must’ve been starving, because the sandwich was gone before Rodney had even gotten the next one put together. He ended up making four more and pulling a bag of potato chips out of the pantry closet as a side dish.
“Do you have any soup? This would be great with soup.”
“Knock yourself out.”
While Rodney ate John pulled out a couple cans of tomato soup and heated them up on the stove, which ended up being the second course of their lunch.
“So what brings you over, aside from the free food?” Rodney asked once he’d eaten his fill. The soup had been a nice addition, John was right about that.
“Your business manager called. She’s delayed till tomorrow and said not to call her because no amount of yelling will get her here any quicker.”
Rodney frowned. “Delayed? Well, that’s just perfect. She’s supposed to be here helping me and she knows it! She can forget the bonus, that’s for damn sure.”
“Well,” John said almost apologetically. “I can’t do any yard work with all this rain, so I could give you a hand.”
“Oh. Well. That would be good. There’s some really heavy furniture in the blue bedroom.” Rodney didn’t show it but he was pleased at the offer. The work would go much faster if he had someone to help him do the heavy lifting.
“Jack not name. Jack job,” John quipped.
“Great. Muppet quotes. That’ll make the day go faster.”
“What happened to your thumb?”
Rodney looked at it, the yards of gauze he’d wrapped around it now slightly stained with butter and tomato soup. “I cut myself on a broken snowglobe. It’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing.”
“Yes, well, I may have gotten a bit carried away with the gauze.” He finished off the rest of his soup and let out a satisfied belch. John ducked his head but Rodney could see the grin on his face. “My compliments to the chef.”
John washed the lunch dishes, in deference to Rodney’s injury, and they went upstairs to finish in the bedroom Rodney had started that morning. The so-called Blue Room was painted Wedgewood blue with white trim and a tray ceiling. The little bits of carpeting visible were also blue.
“So, I started at the front and just kind of keep shifting things around to get to the stuff at the back,” Rodney explained. He retrieved his tablet from the box he’d left it on. “So far we have a box filled with pot holders and oven mitts, another with alarm clocks, and the snow globes that tried to kill me.”
That particular box had a gruesome streak of blood on it that turned his stomach, and he hoped he hadn’t dripped any on the carpet. John nodded, moving easily through the narrow pathway Rodney had created.
“This armoire looks like an antique.”
“Everything around here looks like an antique,” Rodney said with a frown. “Which means we’ll really need that woman to come up here and take a look around. A lot of this crap is just old and junky, and I could probably sort some of it out, but I don’t really have the eye for that kind of thing.”
In addition to the bulky armoire there was a roll top desk, head and footboards for at least three beds, a deacon’s bench, a double-sided full-length oak mirror on a stand, and a hope chest. Cataloguing the furniture and the boxes would’ve been a big enough job, but Uncle Gunn had stuffed things inside drawers and cabinets as well, so all the furniture had to be gone through.
John lifted the seat of the deacon’s bench. The storage area inside was filled with board games. “Wow. Do you suppose these have all the pieces?”
“I wouldn’t count on it. Something tells me he wasn’t too particular about that kind of thing.”
John rooted around and then pulled out a cheap plastic chess set. “Do you play?” he asked, looking hopeful.
“It’s been a while,” Rodney admitted. “Of course, I used to be quite good. I have a genius IQ you know.”
“So I’ve heard. I’m gonna set this out in the hall. Maybe we can play later.”
Rodney only nodded, clambering gracelessly over a box to get to the ones behind it. While he opened up the one on top and looked inside, John started shifting things around for better access.
“Doorknobs,” Rodney said morosely. “A whole box of them.”
“Maybe you should consider opening up a thrift shop,” John remarked. “Hey, I’ve got record albums here. 45s and 78s.”
“Anything to play them on?”
“Not that I’ve seen so far. Wow. Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass. That’s an oldie.” He flipped through a stack of albums. “Bread. Bing Crosby. Chuck Berry. Rolling Stones. Someone sure had eclectic tastes.”
Rodney leaned over the boxes and pulled another stack of records out of John’s box. “Dionne Warwick. Grease soundtrack. Children’s Christmas Classics. At least these make more sense than doorknobs, for goodness sake. Ooh, Anne Murray.”
“No Johnny Cash,” John sighed.
“Yeah. Real shame.” Rodney dumped the albums back in the box, hesitating a moment over Anne Murray until he reminded himself that he didn’t have anything that even remotely resembled a record player.
They worked in silence for a little while, John keeping his own inventory list on a piece of scrap paper. It was actually nice to have someone else in the room, even if they didn’t talk much, and Rodney found himself humming under his breath. While he dug through a box filled with partially used office supplies, he wondered about John.
He seemed like a reasonably intelligent guy, yet he was working as a caretaker for a guy who collected other people’s castoffs. And Rodney hadn’t missed the way John very carefully kept space between them at all times. It was entirely possible that he had some sort of touch phobia, something Rodney was sure he’d seen on a television documentary at one time or another.
“Did you really read my book?” he blurted out when the silence began to weigh too heavily.
John just raised an eyebrow at him and nodded.
“I thought that’s what I was supposed to do with my life,” Rodney found himself admitting. He looked down at the crocheted doily in his hand, one of several he’d just uncovered. “But then…the words just stopped coming.”
It had been at once his greatest achievement and his biggest failure. He’d left a high-paying job with a prestigious scientific research corporation to pursue what was supposed to be his dream, his hitherto untapped literary creativity. Rodney had worked on the book for three years and it was an immediate success, both critically and financially. He’d attained instant stardom, and of course everyone wanted more, more, more. He hadn’t been able to give it to them.
“The book touched a lot of people, McKay,” John said seriously. “And maybe…that’s what you were supposed to do. Just that.”
Rodney sighed. “That’s very poetic and everything, but that doesn’t help me figure out what I’m supposed to do now. Ten years I’ve been trying to write something, anything. I need to move on. I just don’t know to what.”
John closed up the lid on the box he was looking through and set it aside. “You know what? I think we’ve sorted through enough stuff for one day. Let’s play some chess.”
“What? No! We have so much –”
“It’s not going anywhere. Come on. I’ll let you win.”
Rodney snorted. “As if I can’t beat you on my own.”
With his eyes narrowed at John’s blatant smugness, Rodney abandoned the work and led the way back downstairs, scooping up the chess game as he went.
“I should get going,” John said after a while.
“Yeah, well…uh…thanks. For the game.” Rodney felt unaccountably awkward. He was probably making an idiot of himself, but John only nodded.
“We’ll have to do that again.”
Rodney trailed after John to the back door. The rain had tapered off to a light drizzle and he wondered if there’d be any flooding as a result of the all-day soaking.
John hesitated at the door, one hand on the knob. “You’re not afraid to stay alone, are you? After last night, I mean.”
Rodney tried not to take that as an affront to his manhood, but it was a close thing. “I’m afraid of heart disease, not strange noises,” he snapped. “Good night.”
“Night.” John grabbed his rain coat on the way out and promptly disappeared into the darkness.
Motion lights went on the mental list of things the house needed to be livable. Or maybe those safety lights that stayed on all night long, those would be good too. Rodney reminded himself that he wasn’t going to be living there. Once he had everything cleared out and cleaned up he could get back to the city and…continue pretending he was a writer.
Shaking off that depressing line of thought, he went around the first floor locking up and setting the alarm. Just in case, he grabbed a flashlight out of the utility drawer in the kitchen, checking it first to make sure the batteries were still good. He had no intention of wandering around in the dark again, no matter what the reason.
Once he’d stripped down to his boxers and brushed his teeth, Rodney settled in bed with his tablet and made a few more additions to his shopping list. He decided he’d make a run into town tomorrow, which would serve the dual purpose of enabling him to get some things he needed for the house and also let him visit the antique woman to negotiate a fair price for her services. Surely out here in the boondocks it would be a fraction of the cost he’d pay back home.
It was only just after eleven when Rodney turned out the light and snuggled up under the blankets. Normally he didn’t go to bed so early, but he’d been working hard and something about the country air just seemed to tire him out. It felt like he’d only just dropped off to sleep when a noise woke him abruptly. Not crying, which he’d half expected, but the sound of footsteps downstairs.
Rodney’s eyes narrowed as he slipped out of bed. There was only one person who could be creeping around down there and that was John, because he knew the code to the alarm. He grabbed his flannel robe off the end of the bed, shoving his arms in as he went, and barely remembered the flashlight.
He thought about calling out but decided that catching John in the act would be far more satisfying. Rodney made his way down the stairs, the carpeted treads scratchy against his bare feet. The way he saw it now, last night’s ridiculous escapade was a hoax. John was clearly trying to scare him off so that he could stay on as caretaker. Or else he wanted something of value in the house and the only way he could get to it was to get Rodney on the run. Well, he was sadly mistaken if he thought Rodney would give up that easily. Haunted house. Please. It was nothing more than a poorly written Scooby Doo episode, which was beyond insulting.
When he got to the first floor he palmed the flashlight as much as possible, not wanting to give himself away. He paused, listening, and then heard footsteps in the hall off the kitchen. Full of grim resolve, Rodney slowly followed the sound to an open door. He hesitated at the threshold, pointing the flashlight down the flight of stairs that greeted him. Whatever John was looking for must be in the basement.
“You’re gonna be sorry you messed with me, pal,” Rodney muttered under his breath.
There was no banister for the basement stairs, so he kept one hand on the wall as he made his way down. The air was cool and clammy, and he was unsurprised to see shallow pools of water on the concrete below. The foundation was made of fieldstone and some parts had been patched with concrete, but it was clearly wet and even mossy in some spots. Rodney was almost to the bottom of the stairs when the basement door slammed shut behind him. He whirled around and almost lost his footing, heart racing. He pounded back up the stairs but when he tried the door it was locked.
“Open this door, you asshole!” He smacked his hand on the door, and tried the knob again, to no avail. He put his ear against it, trying to hear if John was laughing at his expense on the other side, but there was only silence.
“I’m having you arrested when I get out of here!” Rodney shouted his promise. He couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. He and John had been getting along well, he thought. Well, he always was crap at reading people.
He put his shoulder against the door a few times but like everything else in this ridiculous house it was built solidly. There’d be no getting out that way unless John unlocked it. As the reality of his situation sank in, the flesh on the back of his neck began to crawl. He spun around, shining the flashlight in a wide arc, suddenly sure that someone was watching him. All he could see was the aged hot water heater and the rusty furnace.
“Great. Just great.” Rodney belted his robe a bit more tightly against the basement chill and tried to decide what to do. Surely John wouldn’t leave him down there all night, but could he really take that chance? It seemed his best shot was to look for another exit. He seemed to recall that there was outside access, he just needed to find it.
Even with the flashlight the darkness seemed to crowd him, the shadows deep enough to hide, say, a crazed lunatic with a hatchet. It took him several minutes to work up the courage to go back down the stairs and further into the basement. Only his anger at being made a fool of kept him moving forward.
The basement turned out to be comprised of several adjoining rooms, and the going was wetter and mustier the further Rodney went. Only the first room had a concrete floor, and he shuddered from more than just the cold when he had to traverse the damp earthen floors of the connected rooms in bare feet.
There was surprisingly little being stored down there, though it made sense given the extreme damp and the likelihood that anything left down there too long would be quickly overtaken with bloat and mold. In the second room Rodney found shelves built in between support posts, full of food in canning jars. A closer inspection showed that most of them had become vile looking chemistry experiments, and no wonder why – they all bore handwritten labels with dates like 1978 and 1980 on them. Disgusting. He wondered if they’d come with the house when Uncle Gunn bought it or if they were part of his so-called collections. That room also boasted several stacks of Styrofoam egg containers and a disassembled crib that was half rotted and swollen with moisture.
Rodney was getting discouraged, and his feet felt like grubby blocks of ice. He wished he’d thought to put slippers on, since his attempt at stealth had gotten him nowhere. He moved into the third room, which was much smaller than the first two, and shrieked when something ran over his feet.
“Shit! Holy shit!” He swung the flashlight around wildly, and thought he caught sight of a very large mouse – Jesus was that a rat? – scurrying away. “Fuck!”
He forced himself to take deep breaths before he passed out, hampered by the knowledge that if he did he’d likely become some sort of rodent buffet. He wanted nothing more than to turn back and head for the relative safety of the stairs, but he was sure the outside exit was nearby. In the last room, maybe. Aside from vermin, the only things in this room were wooden pallets that had seen better days and a rusted toolbox.
“Please.” Rodney knelt down in front of it, hoping for some sort of tool that would help him get through the basement door. He pried open the lid and then hastily shut it again. The thing was empty, save for some very large spiders that hadn’t looked at all friendly.
“I hate this fucking house,” he said bitterly. He clenched his jaw in frustration. Only one way to go and that was forward.
The fourth and final basement room was a horror show. It was small, little more than a closet, and there were shelves completely covering one wall. Ranged across the shelves were countless dolls, their wide, unseeing eyes so creepy that Rodney found himself holding his breath. They were in a bad state – mold crawled up frilly dresses and petticoats, spiders had spun webs in their nylon hair and between their bodies, and several of them had cracked faces. For added terror, there were several ventriloquist dummies among them, looking especially malevolent.
It was almost enough to distract Rodney from the fact that he’d found the door. He was reluctant to turn his back on the wall of dolls, but desperate times called for desperate measures. His skin crawled the entire time he pushed against the metal door that would take him out of the basement but, like the door at the top of the stairs, this one was sealed up tight. He was well and truly trapped in the basement.
Rodney turned back to face the dolls, flushing with fear when he was certain he’d seen movement out of the corner of his eye. He was reminded of a movie he saw when he was a kid, called Magic, about a psychotic ventriloquist dummy, and that was all the push he needed to flee back to the first room with the reassuring concrete floor.
He was panting with exertion and fear by the time he got back to the stairs. He tried the door again, but it was still locked. He decided to take up a defensive position there, sitting down on the top step and keeping the door to his back. He pulled his knees up and covered as much of himself as he could with the robe.
With every passing moment Rodney grew more and more paranoid, certain he heard rodent feet nearby, or the distinctive shuffle step of a homicidal doll coming to end him. He spent the rest of the night there, huddled miserably at the top of the stairs, remaining ever vigilant against threats both domestic and otherworldly.