A little bit of darkness to brighten your day
When twin sisters Claire and Chloe arrive to clean out the old family farmhouse their Great Aunt Mabel left Claire in her will, they may have inherited more than they're prepared for.
“You know what?” Ashlynn’s bright voice was only slightly strained. She hefted the last of the luggage from the back of the car. “I’m glad none of them returned your calls. Who needs men, anyway?”
“I suppose,” Chloe shrugged as she came out of the house for what felt like the thousandth time, trash bag in each hand. “And that’s not what you were saying 10 minutes ago when you were whining about how much you missed Ravi.”
She blew an air kiss at Ashlynn’s jokingly erect middle finger and continued, “Still, it would have made this go a lot more quickly. You’d think at least one of the companies would have been interested. I guess we only wanted to hire them for the day to help haul away all the trash so it wasn’t worth it for them, maybe? Still kind of weird, though, don’t you think, Claire?”
When her sister didn’t respond, Chloe glanced over her shoulder to where her twin stood in the grey afternoon light on the unkempt lawn, chewing her nails and staring up at the large white country house as clouds gathered in the distance.
Her sister started and turned. “Sorry, what?”
“I said, don’t you think it’s strange that none of the movers wanted … Never mind. You okay, sweetie?”
“Huh? Yeah, I’m just… This house, it’s...” she shook her head dismissively. “I dunno. I’ve just got a headache. Anyway, I thought you said one of them seemed interested?”
“Well, he did at first, until he started taking my info. I guess it wasn’t worth driving all the way out here just for a few hours’ work?”
Ashlynn chimed in. “Yeah, even your mom refused to drive out after the funeral. I still can’t believe your parents aren’t helping. Lazy jerks.” She grinned, her smile belying the harshness of her words.
“Yeah, I get the feeling Mum hates this house for whatever reason, even though she’s never come out and said it. She’s only been here a few times in her life, I think, but she got all weird every time anybody has brought it up the last few weeks. I mean, she didn’t flat out refuse to come back with us, but I could tell she didn’t really want to so...” Chloe shrugged. “It’s just clearing out the obvious junk today; the rest of this stuff is going to take weeks to sort through. I figured we could handle it.”
“And we CAN!” Ashlynn grinned, dropping what she was carrying to pose in a body builder’s stance, flexing her biceps.
Chloe laughed. “Besides, since Ravi will be here in a few days anyway and he’s bringing his friend, we can leave the really heavy stuff for them. I just wanted to get the junk cleared out.”
Raising her arms to indicate the bulging garbage bags she was carrying, she resumed her walk to the end of the drive, where she deposited them on the pile of others they’d already stacked there. On the way back, she stopped to grab the last of their things from the car before shutting the rear gate. When she turned, she noticed her sister standing in the grass in the same spot, still just gazing at the house.
“Um, gee, Claire, thanks for all the help unloading the car and clearing junk out of your house.”
“Eh, cut her some slack.” Ashlynn chimed in before Claire could respond. “She’s been kinda down lately, haven’t you, girl?”
Claire shot her a grateful look and shrugged. “I still should have helped. Sorry I’m so out of it. Really, Clo, you’re right. It’s totally lazy of me.”
Taking in her sister’s pale, dazed face and ragged, chewed nails almost hidden beneath the sleeves of her absurdly oversized sweater, Claire relented. “S’ok. Let’s head inside and see what we still need to tackle tonight.” She looked up at the gathering clouds. “Good thing we’ve finished unloading. It looks like it might rain.” The air felt thick and heavy, a contrast from the cool shadows of the house’s interior. Walking in and out of the stark temperature differences between the house and the yard was giving her a headache and she was glad to be done.
Ashlynn walked over to put her arm around Claire’s thin shoulders, drawing her into a one-sided embrace before -- almost protectively, Chloe noted -- guiding her up the grey stone steps and across the porch into the house.
Chloe followed a few lengths behind, distracted by thoughts of everything the girls still had to do that evening. A few feet from the porch, though, she stopped. Hairs rose on her arms and along the back of her neck. Glancing behind her to find no one, she looked to the closed screen door expecting to see one of the girls waiting for her, but Ashlynn and Claire had already disappeared inside. The two windows on either side of the door showed only faded curtains hanging, no spying faces peering out.
Backtracking a few steps, she gazed up at the large country house with its dingy white siding and peeling paint. Its dusty windows didn’t even make up a very realistic proverbial “face” gazing back at her like some houses did. There was no movement on the second floor from behind the three curtained windows there, nor from the small attic window on the floor above. Nothing to explain the odd feeling that she was being watched. Perhaps the darkening grey of the late afternoon sky was to blame, the sense of an impending storm, though that seemed far-fetched.
Studying the house more closely, she found herself again surprised at its sound condition. It would need repairs, obviously, plus a good cleaning if--when, undoubtedly--her sister decided to sell it, but considering it was, what, over 125 years old? it was in pretty good shape. The wooden porch would probably need repainted, the windows cleaned, and who knew what chores lay in wait for them inside -- carpets vacuumed and shampooed, floors mopped, everything dusted, not to mention the immense clutter she’d already noted on trips into the house earlier, carrying bags and luggage -- but, all things considered, it could have been a lot worse.
“Let’s hope the old nutball kept the plumbing and wiring in as good of shape as the rest of the place,” she muttered under her breath, then felt a stab of guilt. Poor Auntie Mabel, living here by herself all these years. No wonder she was so weird.
Shaking off the odd feeling of a few moments ago, she headed inside to find her sister and their friend. As she entered the dim front hall, she heard the two of them to her left in the room Ashlynn had declared the “fohr-mal pah-luh, dahlings,” when they’d first started bringing in their things over an hour ago. She dropped the bag with the rest of their stuff just inside the door and joined them.
“--still can’t believe your aunt left you a house,” Ashlynn was gushing to Claire. She stood shoeless in the center of the room, toes buried in the blue and gold rug, head back as she examined the crown moulding. “I thought that sort of shit only happened in gothic romance novels.”
Claire, feet tucked beneath her where she sat curled in the corner of the faded flower-patterned chaise longue before a closed-up white-painted fireplace, examined her nails and didn’t answer.
“Actually,” Chloe said, “I said the same thing, but the lawyer told me it still happens all the time. There was some money, too, but a lot of what was left of that went to pay the estate and inheritance taxes. But yeah, Auntie Mabel’s will specifically left it all to Claire, and apparently it was a ‘considerable amount’.
“I mean,” she continued as she crossed the room to plop down next to Claire, making her sister jump, “It’s not like we’re -- excuse me, like Claire’s -- rich now, or anything, but it’s a house, for Pete’s sake. Mum said she didn’t even know Auntie Mabel had a will anymore. She said there’d been talk of it years ago but she figured after what happened when we were little, if there was anything left of the ‘estate,’ the batty old thing would have left it to, like, a charity for orphaned cats or something.”
At the mention of her name, Claire had turned to Chloe a with hurt look. “It’s not like I asked her to leave it all to me, Clo. And you know anything that’s mine is yours; it’s not like I’m going to be stingy and--”
Her sister cut her off with a kiss on the top of her head. “I know, darling. I’m sorry, I’m just teasing. Ashlynn’s right, though. It’s all so out of the blue. Mum said that Auntie had written to say she’d changed her will when we were born, naming us as beneficiaries or whatever, but after that whole scare when we visited when we were little, Mum figured she’d just written us out.”
Ashlynn turned. “Wait, what? What ‘scare’? I haven’t heard this story. How have I not heard this story? We were just in the car for like, 97 hours together on the way here.”
“Five and a half,” Chloe corrected. “But with that godawful music you insisted on playing the whole time, you’re right, it felt infinitely longer. Aren’t black girls supposed to have great taste in music? What’d you, miss out on that gene ‘cause your dad’s white?”
Ashlynn snorted. “With an accountant for a father, you’re lucky I don’t insist on NPR talk radio. Besides, nineties alt rock ballads speak to my soul. They’re a very underappreciated--”
“Ugh, NOT THIS AGAIN,” Chloe groaned. She picked up a throw pillow to toss at her friend but was interrupted by a distant clanging.
The girls all looked at each other.
“I think it’s a phone?”
“I didn’t even know she had a phone,” Chloe proclaimed, rising quickly from the couch to go discover the source of the ringing. “I mean, I suppose I would have assumed, I just hadn’t thought about it…”
Her voice trailed off as she realized no one was listening. Both Ashlynn and Chloe headed rose to find the source of the ringing, Claire grasping fruitlessly at Chloe’s sleeve as she rose in an attempt to keep her sister next to her. Chloe squeezed her hand reassuringly before exiting to room and crossing the hall to what looked like a den. Even before she’d glanced into the dark paneled room, she could tell the ringing was coming from elsewhere. As she backed, she trod on Claire’s toes; her sister had quickly but silently crept up to follow her and was now standing behind her with a bemused expression.
“Claire!” Chloe jumped. “I didn’t hear you follow me, babe. What’s with you? Why aren’t you looking--?” she demanded, just as the ringing ceased abruptly.
After the clanging of the telephone echoing through the rooms, the near-silence was almost disconcerting. Ashlynn’s murmured greeting floated from somewhere within the bowels of the house. Following her muffled voice, Claire trailing behind like a shadow, Chloe reached the end of the hall just as Ashlynn popped out of a door on the right.
“Well, that was weird,” their friend wrinkled her nose.
“Who was it?”
“I honestly have no idea. Wrong number, I guess? But it was all echo-y and staticky, and I could hear voices but… anyway, doesn’t matter, I guess I’m just so used to having a cell that I barely remember what it’s like to talk on those clonky old things.”
Claire leaned past to peer into the murky bedroom as Chloe pulled her own cell from her back pocket.
“Oh, that reminds me.” She held up her phone. “No bars, no service, nothing. We’re cut off from civilization.”
Ashlynn wrinkled her nose again, her piercing glinting in the glow from the phone screen. “I’d say, ‘Just as well, we can concentrate on my designing and your writing, and getting this place shipshape, blah blah blah,’ but that’s going to get boring fast. And what happens when we need to—“
“This is where it happened.” Claire’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
The girls stopped talking to peer questioningly at her, before comprehension dawned on Chloe. “Oh, babe, you mean where they found Auntie Mabel?”
Claire didn’t respond. She reached out toward the bed, just inside the door to the left. Then she let her hand fall with a shudder before wrapping her arms around herself.
Stepping past her, Chloe flicked on the wall switch. Dingy yellow illuminated the room and Ashlynn peered up at the overhead fixture with a look of distaste.
“Uck, that ceiling light is gross,” Ashlynn sniffed. The sickly yellow glow made the highlights in her normally dark curls look brassy. “It looked better in here before you turned on the lights.”
“Yeah, this room was pretty recently updated, I think, but whoever advised Auntie on décor had some seriously bad taste,” Chloe conceded. She made her way around the room, examining a porcelain pig in a bonnet before hastily setting it back down again.
“At least it’s less drafty than the rest of the house, and I believe…” She crossed to another doorway in the left corner.
“Yeah, thought so. There’s a modern bathroom, thank god, so even if there’s one upstairs that isn’t the greatest, this one—” She stopped talking long enough to poke her head in and survey the bathroom. “—is totally updated. Apparently, Auntie sunk a good chunk of the remaining family money into having this room added a few years ago, after there was some accident and it turned out she was starting to have trouble with stairs.
“Spent a good bit on it too,” she continued, returning to where her sister and Ashlynn stood by the doorway. “According to the lawyer, anyway. There was some hassle with the insurance and Aunt Mabel ended up paying for most of it out of the remaining family money. He sounded really apologetic when he was telling Claire about it, though. The lawyer, I mean. It was kind of a weird story, wasn’t it, Claire?”
As before, Claire didn’t respond, just continued to gaze around the room. She seemed to be trying to curl in on herself; her shoulders were hunched and she’d only stopped hugging herself to chew her nails again.
Chloe fought the urge to comment and raised her eyebrows, pointedly addressing Ashlynn. “Something about how, there was some freak accident? A man drove into the side of the house, or something? Even though she’s all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, miles from town. And that side of the house isn’t even next to the driveway. It’s all pretty bizarre and I don’t know the details. And then, when insurance wanted to repair it, she refused to have men in the house and searched all over ‘til she found some female contractor she had to bring in from out of state. To top matters, she made the lady add this whole room and bathroom on as an addition instead of just letting her fix the damage; wouldn’t let her touch the original part of the house or make any changes. Something bizarre like that. I dunno.”
Ashlynn whistled through her teeth. “Whoa, that’s… your aunt sounds like she was kind of… well, the phrase ‘batshit crazy’ comes to mind, but you know me, never one to speak ill of anybody.”
Chloe snorted. “Yeah, I know. I feel bad she was so alone but after everything I’ve heard about her the last few days, I don’t know that I’d have wanted to be the one to keep her company.” She straightened. “Well. Anyway. We should probably—” She made a move to start around the girls and out of the room when she noticed her sister’s grey eyes, so like her own, were brimming with tears.
“Claire? Babe, what the…?”
The other two stared, perplexed, before Ashlynn took Claire by the shoulders and turned her to face them.
“Girl, what is wrong?”
“She didn’t want to stay in here. She missed her room upstairs. It’s so sad and lonely in here.”
Ashlynn and Chloe exchanged a look of alarm. Chloe reached out a fingertip to touch a tear as it made its way down her sister’s contorted features, the girl’s skin even paler than usual. At the touch, Claire seemed to come back to them. With a sniffle, she scrubbed at her bloodless cheeks with her palms and the girls watched as her eyes lost their distant look.
She refocused on their faces. “Oh. Sorry. What? Sorry. I’m just being... I just… I kind of hate this room. I keep thinking about getting old and living in a house all by yourself and dying alone with no one to… I’m just tired, I think.”
Then, almost as an afterthought, she mumbled, “IdontwanttosleephereClo.”
It took Chloe a minute to parse what her twin had said, but then she folded her sister’s frail frame into her arms.
Claire’s actually trembling, she realized, impatience and concern wrestling within her.
“Oh, babe, you don’t have to sleep here. We haven’t even scoped out the upstairs floor, and I’m sure Ashlynn or I’ll—”
Their friend cleared her throat. “If we’re all being honest, I’m not super keen on sleeping in a dead woman’s bed, myself, so…” She trailed off, toeing the carpet and avoiding Chloe’s gaze.
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Who knew a couple of straight A students would be so superstitious? Besides, aren’t all of these beds going to be dead women’s…”
At the look of alarm on Ashlynn’s face, Chloe stopped talking before she made the situation worse. “Fine. Let’s go check out the rooms upstairs. I’ll happily take the newly renovated bedroom with the queen-size bed and the attached full bathroom.”
She let go of Claire with an affectionate squeeze, her sister clinging to her for an extra second before letting go. Chloe let the way back out into the dimly lit hall with the others following behind, Claire right on her heel in her eagerness to get out of the room. They trudged up the stairs to the second floor, the rust-colored carpet not hiding the squeak of the old floorboards beneath their feet.
The upstairs hallway had four doors, two on each wall. All but one stood slightly ajar. Ashlynn peered through the open door on the right at the top of the stairs. “Whoa, there’s all sorts of cool stuff piled up everywhere in here.”
Chloe peered over her shoulder. “Urgh, this’ll be fun to sort through. Yay.”
“I know you’re being sarcastic, you harpy,” Ashlynn chirped, “But I think it will be. Look, is that one of those old foot-pedal sewing machines? And check out that hat!”
She started into the room but Chloe said, “Hold on, it’ll be getting dark and I know Claire’s tired. I’m pretty beat, myself. Let’s look at the rest of the rooms real quick and figure out where we’re sleeping tonight, and we can make a plan for tackling the rest of this stuff over the next few weeks, okay? We didn’t bring sleeping bags and if we need to, like, wash sheets or… I dunno… I should have thought this through better…” Chloe looked around for confirmation.
Though still pale, Claire already appeared more energetic and seemed to have recovered from her emotional breakdown. Without a word, she bounced past the other two and made a beeline for the closed door at the opposite end of the hall. Ashlynn, at least, acknowledged Chloe’s statement with a disappointed sigh, her lower lip protruding slightly.
“Oh, go and get the stupid hat if it’ll make you happy.”
Ashlynn crowed delightedly and hopped into the room, re-emerging with a green silk bonnet squashed on top of her dark curls and a haughty expression.
“Have Jeeves bring the car around, would you? I’m off to the theatre,” she intoned.
“They weren’t British, dork,” Chloe shot over her shoulder from where she’d moved to open the door to the room across the hall. Her laugh, drowned by the loud squeak of hinges, quickly changed to a sound of disgust.
“Ugh, this one’s even worse than the first one. Look, there’s boxes of stuff everywhere. It looks like —” she flicked the light switch with an audible click, “— old newspapers and photographs and books and stuff. And it’s all --” she interrupted herself with a loud sneeze.
“Indeed.” Chloe took a few steps into the room. “I can’t even tell whether there’s a bed in here.”
“Don’t exaggerate, it’s just buried.” Ashlynn pointed to the papers piled atop the bed in the corner. “That first room had one, too, under all the hatboxes. Nifty old brass frame. I’ll clear it off and sleep in there, if Claire doesn’t want it. I like it. I think there’s loads more hats and I saw a wardrobe—bet there’s all sorts of vintage clothes.”
“But what’ll we do when Ravi and… what’d you say his name was?”
“Mark,” Ashlynn reminded. “And you’re going to love him, by the way.”
At Chloe’s noncommittal grunt, she insisted, “You are. You two are perfect for each other. Ravi thinks so too. It was practically his idea.”
“Okay, whatever you say.”
“You’ll see. Anyway… what were we talking about?”
“Oh! Right. Well, it’ll be a few more days ‘til they drive out. We can have this room cleaned up by then. Ravi can sleep with me,” she smirked, “And, fingers crossed that Claire found another room in better condition.”
“Let’s hope so. Otherwise, someone’s going to have to share tonight. This one’s kind of awful.” Chloe looked around at the faded nondescript walls with their peeling wallpaper, dingy in the light from the single fixture overhead. “It feels like it hasn’t been used in ages. I guess she’s just been storing stuff in here for who knows how long. It’ll definitely take some fixing up before it’s livable.”
“We can double up for a few nights if we have to, it’s no big deal. C’mon, let’s go, though.” Ashlynn scratched her nose. “The dust in here is making me itchy too.”
They traipsed down the darkening hallway, the only light the setting sun weakly sifting through the window at the opposite end. They found Claire in the last room on the right. She stood motionless, her hands clutched over her stomach. Chloe crossed the threshold, then stopped. Ashlynn trod her heel but her apology was lost as both girls gawped at the room.
“Whoa,” was all Ashlynn managed.
Claire turned to face them, radiant in what remaining light filtered softly in through the gauzy curtains. “Isn’t it perfect?” Her voice had a breathy quality.
The room was, Chloe had to admit, surprisingly pretty in an antique, frilly, feminine, preserved sort of way. It was like a strange little museum of sorts. The bed to the left of the doorway was made up with a delicate, lazy coverlet that matched the curtains. A small tablecloth atop a dark occasional table before the window echoed the design, as did the doily runner on the mirrored vanity. The wallpaper was a faded fleur-de-lis pattern, the color indeterminate in the darkening room.
Squinting in the dimness, Chloe realized her sister had failed to turn on any lights. She looked to the wall but did not find a switch. In fact, casting her gaze upwards, she noticed there was no overhead light at all. It looked as though perhaps there had been at one time; branching hairline cracks, barely noticeable in the gloom, spread outwards like veins from a spot in the center of the ceiling where once a chandelier or light fixture might have hung, but there was nothing now.
She spotted a small lamp on the other side of the bed, atop yet another lace doily on a nightstand there. When she leaned across the bed and snapped it on, glints caught her eyes from all around. The light reflected off the silver accents that seemed to be everywhere, from the metallic handles of a matching hairbrush and hand mirror sitting on the vanity to the gleaming detailed scrolling of the bedframe a glittering picture frame hanging on the far wall.
“Wow,” Ashlynn echoed herself. “This room’s like something in a Victorian museum. That’s so weird! Do you think your family stayed in it over the years and just kept it updated? Or kept it like some weird shrine? It’s not even dusty!”
“It was hers, but now,” Claire breathed. “It’s mine.”
“… ‘kay….” Ashlynn shot her a look of annoyed bewilderment.
Chloe shuddered. She didn’t like the room at all. True, it was certainly tidier and cleaner than the other rooms, but it felt drafty and chill to her. She was glad she wouldn’t be the one sleeping in this time capsule.
She moved to examine the silver-framed black-and-white photo hanging on the wall. It showed two girls standing on either side of a much younger child, a little fair-haired girl who looked to be about three. Taller and dark-haired, the two older girls appeared closer to their teenage years. Though they were dressed differently, Chloe studied their features and realized they were twins. In the bottom right corner of the portrait in inked script that had faded to sepia was written “The Brewster Sisters, 1893.”
As she reached to lift the picture down from the wall so she could examine it in better light, her sister’s voice cut into her thoughts.
“It’s been waiting for me,” Claire said dreamily.
Chloe stiffened in irritation and dropped her hands to her sides. Turning in disgust, she faced her sister, suddenly sick to death of her own twin’s bizarre behavior all afternoon.
Apparently, Ashlynn shared her sentiments and spoke before Chloe had a chance to. “Okay, girl, I think we’ve had about enough of that. You’re being a total weirdo. ‘It’s mine, it’s been waiting for me,’ what the hell is that supposed to mean, anyway? What are you now, a Brontë character? I know there’s a lot going on and you’re still upset about Jason, but I’ve had just about all—”
Chloe’s head whipped around. “Jason?! Who’s Jason?”
Ashlynn snapped her mouth shut so hard that her teeth clicked audibly, but it was too late. Claire’s normally sweet face was twisted into a snarl as she turned to glare at her.
“Great, Ash, thanks,” she spat
“Oh, shit. I forgot… shit. Sorry.”
Chloe, ignoring Ashlynn, scowled instead at her twin. “Who the hell is Jason? Were… you were seeing somebody and didn’t tell me?”
With a sigh, Claire seemed to deflate before Chloe’s eyes.
“Please, can we talk about this some other time? I’m so tired.”
“Um… no, how about now? Yeah, now’s good.”
“Look, I didn’t tell you at first because I knew you wouldn’t like him. And I thought it was just going to be a one-time thing. Then, when we started seeing each other and it was looking more serious, right when I was trying to figure out how to tell you, a bunch of stuff happened and we ended it, okay?”
Stung, Chloe clung to her exasperation even as Claire shot her a pleading look.
“I’ll tell you more about it in detail some other time. I promise. And I really am sorry. But please, I don’t want to talk about it tonight. Please, Clo?”
Chloe looked away. “Fine.”
The three of them stood awkwardly, avoiding eye contact, not sure what to do next. It was Ashlynn, per usual, who broke the silence.
“So!” her falsely cheery voice was startling in the silence. She rubbed her hands together briskly. “So. Claire, girl, you claimed this room because apparently you’ve always wanted to live in a museum, and I’ll take the one at the top of the stairs. And Clo, you want the one on the first floor.” She looked around for acknowledgment and received a weak nod from Claire and petulant shrug from Chloe.
“Alright then.” She puffed her cheeks and blew the air out through pursed lips. “Now that’s settled, shall we explore the last room and pray it’s a fully decked out spa?”
Both twins still felt wronged and remained silent, but followed their friend out of the room and across the hall to what did in fact turn out to be a second bathroom, albeit one that looked as though it had been installed around the same time that indoor plumbing came into popularity and hadn’t been updated since. Unsurprisingly, the only light in the room was a single bulb with a pull-chain hanging from the ceiling.
“I mean… the clawfoot tub is fabulous…” Ashlynn tried to sound excited. “If we can get rid of the rust stains…”
Chloe raised an eyebrow. “That toilet looks ancient.” She didn’t try to hide her smugness. “Well, ladies, enjoy using this ‘commode’ while I take full advantage of my own personal adjoining bathroom complete with shower.”
Claire, for her part, gave no indication of caring one way or the other, and after the earlier disagreement, Ashlynn now seemed determined to put a positive spin on everything.
“Whatever. It’ll be something to tell Ravi’s and my grandchildren about.”
Chloe couldn’t hold back a burst of laughter. “Yes, it’ll be just like pioneer stories.” She mocked in the cracked voice of an elderly woman, “Back in my day, we didn’t have any of these fancy ‘holopotties’ you kiddies take for granted! Why, I once had to use a toilet so old it relied on a system of tubes and levers –”
Ashlynn shoved her playfully and even Claire gave a wan smile. When Ashlynn announced that she was hungry enough to devour whatever they found in the kitchen, even if it turned out to be “pioneer food,” they all agreed and made their way downstairs to scrounge up a meal.