The following is a short piece of horror fiction originally submitted to a local literature newsletter in May, 2018.
It has since been slightly updated.
She received the phone call on Tuesday.
It was a normal day, early in a normal week for Jennifer Tillman, a normal account executive at an all-too-normal marketing agency.
The call however, was anything but normal.
Jennifer, 38, brunette, unassuming, but beautiful in the best Plain Jane sort of way, was living on her own in rural Pennsylvania. The wooden two-story frame house may have seemed a bit too much for one person, but she got a great deal on the place and loved the classic setting with the fenced-in yard and detached two-car garage. It reminded her of her happy childhood home, which struck a particularly sensitive chord since she was an only child with both of her parents now deceased. Between her work at the agency and hobbies that included gardening, playing the violin and, inexplicably, model trains, she essentially kept to herself and neither knew, nor cared much about her distant relatives in Virginia. Her folks, George and Katherine (who always went by Kat), Tillman, had mentioned “The Oddballs” a handful of times when she was growing up. As they were, the Oddballs – otherwise known as the Fedler family – were made up of Kat’s two aunts, three uncles and many cousins from her father’s estranged side of the family.
Calling the Fedlers distant relatives would be something of an understatement for Jennifer, since she had never actually met any of them. Even Kat had only met her Aunt Gwen and cousins Dell and Mary, just once back when she was sixteen, long before Jennifer was born. By now the Fedler family has surely grown by two more generations, though their names or current whereabouts would be unknown to the Tillmans after so many years of no communication. All Jennifer knew about them was the not-so-affectionate moniker of ‘oddball’ derived from that families’ long involvement in the travelling circus business – some seven or eight decades worth. All except for Kat’s father that is, who shunned that calling, moved his own family away and became a steel worker instead. Among the conservative, white picket fence lifestyle that Jennifer was raised on, big city artist types and yes, circus folk, were intentionally misunderstood and frowned upon. George never exactly cared for the rambled-on stories his father in law would tell about the wacky side of his family, even if he did find them amusing. Underneath the entertaining façade, George thought, there always seemed to be something unsettling, if not downright spooky about all those old Fedler yarns.
The voice on the other end of Jennifer’s phone and the corresponding official letter that arrived two days later confirmed that she was next of kin for members of the Fedlers, who were listed as being from Locust Grove, Virginia. She received the call because none of them were known to still be alive and Jennifer was inheriting what was left of their estate.
When the call came, she had a pleasant, albeit serious and official, conversation with the man from the bank who was handling the estate’s affairs. They seemed to be on the same page with the subject at hand and developed a quick rapport, cemented with both people throwing out the occasional one-liner and off-center humor. Toward the end of the call the man even commented on Jennifer’s laugh; a rapid, yet demure chuckle that was altogether endearing to those who knew her. And apparently, even to those who didn’t. Before they hung up, it occurred to Jennifer that she didn’t even know what happened to the remaining Fedlers. When she asked the man about it, there was a long pause. He then informed her that there had been an accident at their work but the tone in his voice seemed ominous, as if he was withholding some secret. Jennifer persisted, but the man wouldn’t say anything more.
Wouldn’t or couldn’t? Jennifer thought to herself.
She assumed that if they were still in the circus business, there could’ve been a crash while traveling to the next tour stop, or some sort of problems with machinery or setting up the attractions. Hardly a year goes by where she doesn’t hear of a construction worker falling to his death or a stuntman on a movie set suffering some horrific accident. It would make sense if something similar happened here. She decided not to press on with the matter.
The main part of the estate, nay, the only part, Jennifer learned, was an old farmhouse that had been in the Fedler family for decades. Some of the crazy stories that George would indulge from Kat’s dad took place there. Of course, it was all fourth and fifth-hand news if a young Jennifer ever heard any of them, but deep in the back of her mind she somehow did recall that the big old house existed somewhere. It was hers now, and she must decide what to do with it. Would she move in if she liked it and could find a job in Locust Grove? Or would she just sell it and keep the money? Maybe she could fix it up and rent it to a lucky tenant? Time would tell. First, she had to see the place. She had plenty of vacation and personal days piled up, so she decided to take a week off from work and make the long drive to Locust Grove to check things out.
There seemed to be nothing unusual about the town itself, Jennifer noticed, when she arrived. It was a beautiful autumn day and there was a good amount of people out and about in the downtown area, going about their business and pleasure. The local elementary school was right on the main street and its students were enjoying recess outside. Joggers and bicyclists were moseying along, and the cafes and bars still had their outdoor seating open. Altogether, Locust Grove had the atmosphere and charm of classic Small Town, USA, which really appealed to Jennifer’s simplistic sensibilities. Without even seeing the house yet, she started to think that she could be happy in a town like this.
Jennifer assumed she’d stay at the house overnight, so instead of booking a hotel she headed straight to the bank, where she had previously made the arrangements to pick up the keys and directions to the house. She had also planned to meet Mr. Jennings, the arbiter of the estate’s affairs and the man who called her two days’ prior, but when she arrived he was not there. His assistant, a plump middle-aged woman named Grace whose Wagnerian cough betrayed her love of Winston’s gave her the keys and pointed out where she could find the house. There was a little twang of unease in her voice when she spoke about the house – which concerned Jennifer somewhat – but she was pleasant enough.
Jennifer left the bank and walked across the street to a little hole in the wall called George’s Coffeehouse. She wasn’t affected by the gazes that fell upon her from the half dozen or so patrons inside. I’m new in town and it’s obvious, so what? She thought. She went outside and sat at a table by the curb, enjoying her large black coffee with a shot of caramel, and taking in the idyllic autumn day. While she had time, Jennifer poured over the paperwork she got from Grace about the house and any tertiary items in the estate, noting there was nothing out of the ordinary. Finishing her coffee, she got up to leave. After exchanging a quick “hello” with two people she passed while crossing the street, Jennifer didn’t realize they had turned and watched her all the way as she entered her black Chevy Cruze.
Noting yet even more eyeballs in her direction as she drove out of town, Jennifer headed out on Old Plank Road toward the house. It was a few miles away on several acres of unused farmland. In a short time, she arrived at the home she had inherited.
The land was essentially what she expected it to be; large, flat, and overgrown. A long gravel drive ran from Old Plank Road straight back toward the house. About halfway up a large archway loomed over the driveway, with rusted metal letters spelling the name F-E-D-L-E-R across the apex. A few outbuildings were strewn about, long unused, in varying stages of decay. The house itself lay straight ahead and at first sight Jennifer imagined how this whole piece of land must have been magnificent in its early years. What she saw before her now as she parked was still magnificent, but in a sad, forlorn way. The house seemed rather unique, design-wise. It was of the Victorian style, and yet not. It was also a traditional farmhouse, and yet not. It looked as though it started out as one style but finished as another, in some sort of haphazard hybrid way that didn’t make a lot of sense, but then Jennifer was no architect.
The dwelling was clearly three stories tall, with dormer windows above the top floor which indicated a possible fourth level, or large attic. The center and the east and west sides of the house featured large, rounded turrets with dilapidated lightning rods on the pinnacles of each tower and a huge wrap-around porch that was partially demolished on one side. When looked at closely it seemed the ground was higher in that area, creating the illusion that one side of the house was sinking into the earth. Looking upward as she approached the front door, she saw that all the curtains in the windows were drawn, except in one of the turret windows on the second floor they were partially open on one side, as if being peeked out of by an unseen person.
Jennifer climbed the porch steps and inserted the old brass key into the massive front door. The deadbolt drew with a heavy thwack and the petrified door groaned on the rusted hinges as it swung open. She entered the house and was immediately assaulted by a waft of heavy, stale air, as if a door or window hadn’t been opened in years. As she began to explore the long hallways and large rooms she noticed the house was mostly empty. Only a few pieces of damaged, frayed furniture remained here and there, and some rooms were completely barren altogether. Heavy, bronze-colored curtains festooned with a thick layer of dust hung closed over each window. Massive cobwebs swayed as Jennifer walked by, her movements stirring the atmosphere for the first time in God knows how long in this place. The decades’ old wallpaper was peeling off virtually everywhere, but strangely a handful of old paintings and portraits still donned the walls. The once beautiful original cherrywood floors creaked, sagged in some places, and were ripped out altogether in others. The plaster ceilings were cracked and caving in in almost every room. It was like someone started to remodel the house decades ago but suddenly stopped and the work was never finished, leaving the uncompleted work to expedite the withering condition of the house.
But weren’t the remaining Fedlers living here recently? The supposed accident happened less than a month ago. Had they just abandoned their home long before that?
Doubt crept into Jennifer’s mind very quickly, accompanied by that prickly feeling on the back of your neck that sometimes indicates you aren’t alone. Walking back through the main foyer toward what appeared to be a small library, she passed by a large, ornate mirror and was startled by something in her periphery; a face that wasn’t hers. She gasped, but the image was gone. Jennifer passed it off as just being in an unfamiliar old house, but she couldn’t shake the fact that the face she saw had what looked like makeup on it. Not like a woman who went too far with the mascara, this was more like some weird jester. Or, rather, a clown.
Jennifer kept investigating the decrepit old house, going room by room and taking a mental note of the condition and size of each. After a while she decided it would be far too much work to either fix up the house and rent it out or live there herself. She would instead get the entire property appraised as-is and sell it outright if she could find an interested buyer. “Pretty quick way to put some money in the bank at least”, she said to herself.
Not only was the house in need of major repairs, but it gave Jennifer an unsettled, frightful feeling about being there. Yet amid all of that, she inexplicably found something very funny about this whole situation. Though she couldn’t understand what it was or why, she started to giggle uncontrollably. And then she started to dance. She roamed all about the empty halls and rooms on all three floors, dancing to some music unheard by anyone except in her own mind. Something had become of her, controlling her like she was a puppet on a string, and she couldn’t seem to stop it. It terrified her, but it felt comforting at the same time. She was equally filled with joy and fright, especially when she began to hear whispers. Of course, it was all in her mind, she told herself. Yet without any doubt, she kept hearing some faint whisper that sounded like it said “welcome home.” Odder still, it just made her giggle and dance around even more, as a happy child might folic through a daisy field on a spring day; as she did herself growing up at her parents’ house.
Unbeknownst to Jennifer who was in the throes of her laugh-dancing trance, Mr. Jennings had arrived at the house to meet her and go over further details on the estate. His repeated knocks on the front door went unanswered but having seen her car in the driveway he knew she was there somewhere. He found the door unlocked and decided to let himself in.
There was no sign of Jennifer in the foyer, main hall or library. But while moving toward the back of the house on the first floor toward the dining room, he heard footsteps upstairs. The sound was like a quick pitter-patter, as if someone was running on their tiptoes. Walter Jennings was a logical man, 55 years old, cultured, and very good at his job. But when he couldn’t find Jennifer anywhere on the second floor, he began to be concerned. He turned down the second-floor hallway and near an old end table holding a broken lamp he saw a large family portrait on the wall. The image captivated him. It looked like a fairly recent likeness of the Fedler family for some of them in the portrait he thought he recognized, but the picture was faded and hard to completely discern.
Something else began to draw his attention just then.
The row of people standing in the back on the three-tiered platform used in the image seemed disjointed somehow; uneven, as if they didn’t line up correctly for the picture, or there weren’t enough people to even out the pose.
It was now a quarter past five o’clock, the sun was starting to go down and Mr. Jennings was ready to be home for the day, but he very much wanted to meet with Jennifer first. Assuming with all evidence she was on the third floor, he proceeded up the stairs. There was still no sign of her on that level either, aside from the continual footsteps – and now – voices? Did he hear someone? Or was that just a draft?
“Jennifer? Hello? It’s Wally Jennings from the bank”, he called out.
He repeated this call several times.
When no answer came, he tried calling her cell phone, hoping that even if she didn’t answer he could at least hear her phone ring himself and follow the sound to where he would find Jennifer. Walter dialed and moved his phone away from his ear when he established the call. After a couple seconds he finally heard a phone ring in the distance – once. The sound was faint, and he couldn’t determine from what direction. The solo ring he heard ended abruptly and although his own phone was still ringing, he could hear nothing else throughout the house. With darkness descending outside and the electricity in the house inactive, he did not – could not – want to be here in total darkness. But where was Jennifer? Those had to be her footsteps he heard, and had to be her phone that rang, yet she was nowhere to be found. The house was huge, but he was sure he’d looked everywhere.
Walter had no choice now. He didn’t want to make a scene, but this was too damn peculiar to ignore, and technically he was the one still responsible for the house and everything in it for the time being. He ran back outside to the driveway near his own car and called the police. Within minutes, three squad cars full of Locust Grove’s finest arrived at the house. Walter quickly updated the policemen about each stage of his involvement here: His role at the bank, his call and letter to Jennifer, her appointment to take possession of the house today, and finally her apparent disappearance.
The officers entered the house and began to look for Jennifer. None of the outbuildings, garage, or any part of the yard revealed anything unusual, aside from the rot and general neglect so all efforts were concentrated in the house itself. By now it was fully dark, and with the house void of electricity any illumination was limited to flashlights. The policemen split up to cover more ground and after several sweeps of all three floors of the house, plus the cellar and attic they still found no trace of Jennifer at all. Repeated shouts to her directly, and calls to her cell phone, were fruitless.
Confounded, the policemen decided to reconvene outside and report back to their precinct on the situation at the old Fedler place.
Walter was the last one upstairs. As he turned to go down outside to join the officers, something caught his eye again in the family portrait. Training his flashlight on the image, he noticed the people in the back row were now all lined up correctly, where he swore they weren’t before. It was as though one more person was added to the row.
As he stepped back to contemplate this, his heart pounded when heard a familiar sound – a woman’s rapid, endearing chuckle.
Walter took a slow step back, then turned down the stairs and out the door, never to return.
In the distant edge of the field outside, Ellie Fedler smiled as she wrapped her misty, non-corporeal arms around her husband Jacob’s waist.
Several others surrounded them, laughter slowly rising from each.
“Let’s go home,” Jacob said.
Jennifer glided along with her family toward the house, no longer feeling the ground beneath her.