Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Jessie said, "This place just gets stranger and stranger." Megan stared stupidly at the pile of stuff for a moment, grateful for whoever their invisible helpers were, but sorry she hadn't got at least a glimpse of them. Incongruously, she realized how bad their most precious treasures looked piled up in daylight. But there was no way she could justify taking them into the filthy house yet. Too bad they didn't check to see if there were lockers at the station.
As much as she'd have liked to solve the mystery of how the family's stuff got onto the porch, there was a bigger mystery to solve—how they were going to make even one room of the house clean enough to move into before dark. She decided to start with the kitchen, since it had the least dust at the moment. She said, "Come on kids, let's get the kitchen clean, then at least we can move our stuff in there."
"But Mom," Harry protested, "Who brought our stuff up the hill?"
Jessie volunteered, "The ghosts, silly. Who else would it be?"
Megan said, "Don't you start. Come on, you two." And she led them back into the kitchen. Even with the electric lighting on, the remaining closed shutters made the kitchen seem dark. Megan said, "Harry, can you get these shutters, too?"
"Sorry, Mom, I had trouble reaching them."
Megan went outside to take a look. Each shutter was held by a board that dropped into a J-shaped metal bracket on either side of the window, an extra protection against hurricanes. Harry was too short to push the boards up and out of the brackets. Megan had no trouble with that at all. Opening the windows from the inside so she could unlatch the shutters was a bigger problem.
When Megan and Harry had got the shutters of two of the kitchen windows open, Megan was pleased with how much brighter it seemed. "Try the sink, would you, Jessie?" she asked, while she started exploring for any kind of cleaning supplies. Behind her, she heard the sink sputtering to life, and pipes hammering all over the house.
"Ewwww," said Jessie. "It looks like orange juice."
Megan said, "It should clear up in a minute or two," and it did. She also heard an electric motor running downstairs. Good, the house had a well, which meant that as long as they had electricity, they'd have water. Megan had grown up on a remote farm, and knew exactly what it meant to have—and not to have—well water. Maybe they should get some bottled water just in case, though.
To Megan's relief, one of the closets contained a vacuum cleaner and a new package of bags, although she figured she'd need another fifty or sixty bags eventually. One of the drawers contained a half-dozen dishtowels and a few washcloths.
As another good surprise, one of the doors off the kitchen led to a little half-bath that may have started out as a pantry. She gave the toilet a "test flush," and it worked. Then she flushed it a couple more times until the water was no longer orange. She announced that the half-bath was the first priority, followed by the kitchen, and one of the other rooms, if they had time.
Harry kept demanding that they explore the whole house, so when Megan was ready for a break, she invited him to go with her for a "walk-through." Jessie thought the idea was stupid, but tagged along because she didn't want to be left alone in the "creepy old place." A couple of the stairs seemed dicey. So Megan made a point of directing Jessie not to step in the center of the steps, where old stairs are typically weakest—a trick Megan had learned in the old barns she grew up with.
The second story had a real bathroom, two massive bedrooms and a large "sitting room." But they couldn't see much else, because only two light bulbs on the whole floor were working. Megan worried about Harry, because he moved so fast that he kept disappearing. After the fifth or sixth time he disappeared, she heard a bloodcurdling scream, followed by hysterical laughter.
Megan tore toward the room from which the sound had apparently come, with Jessie on her heels, unwilling to get separated from her mom. It took Megan's eyes a few more moments to adjust to the dim lighting, but she had stopped worrying by then, since Harry's voice had gone back to normal.
"Whoa, Mom, you have to see this!" But by then, Megan did see, a witch figure was hanging from the ceiling behind Harry, bouncing up and down slightly. Harry said, "When I went to hit the light switch, I hit this button instead, and this witch flew out at me. I just about wet my pants."
Now that the witch's movement was slowing so Megan could get a good look at it, she realized that it had paper mache head and hands, and was trailing lots of ratty fabric. Jessie was not amused, and Megan tried calming her down, despite her own misgivings about living in a house with such boobytraps. "Remember what they said about the amusement park? This thing must be left over from that."
"Yes, but how many friends does she have hidden around the house?"
Megan examined the little red button that Harry had pressed. "Watch out for these, and we'll see how it goes."
The third story had four bedrooms, a somewhat smaller sitting room and one working lamp. From what they could tell overall, the second and third stories were in as good, and as bad a shape as the first floor. The stairs to the fourth story were dark and narrow, and the lights over the stairway did not work. By then, the stifling heat was getting to them all anyway. Megan lost interest in exploring what were probably the servants' quarters and told Harry not to go up there until she had time to go up with him. In the meantime, she added flashlights, batteries, and even more light bulbs to her mental "grocery list."
The good news was that the Forrester family would have more room than they would ever need. The bad news was that they would have more house than they could ever remotely care for, or probably even clean up properly. "There's a reason folks who owned houses like this had so many servants," she told Jessie.
"Can we get some servants?" asked Harry.
"We are the servants," replied Jessie.
"Then who lives here?" asked Harry.
Jessie replied, "The ghosts, of course." Megan gave her a look.
The family started out by vacuuming off everything in the half-bath and kitchen, then wiping down the surfaces. When Harry got into Jesse's way for the tenth time, Megan sent him looking for any kind of blankets or other bedding they might be able to use for "mattresses" when they camped out on the floor that night. To her delight, Harry found a blanket chest full of blankets and pillows that seemed to have been mostly protected from the dust, moths, and mice. The family took those outside to shake them out, then left the blankets draped over the porch rail to air out. Harry also came back with reports on several other rooms of the house that had some feature or other he thought was great, but Megan could only deal with one room at a time just now.
While the family was working on the house, Jessie kept a lookout for the little buttons like the one Harry had hit by accident. Once when Harry was close by, she triggered one on purpose, startling Harry again, this time with a giant plastic skeleton that swept by Harry's head so fast that you could hardly see it before it had disappeared again. "Hey!" he exclaimed. "No fair!" Megan told Jessie to cut it out, but she was secretly relieved that Jessie was beginning to see the humor in it all. As the kids continued to explore, they learned that most of the "ghosts" came in and out so fast you couldn't get a good look at them. The witch figure that had startled Harry must have been malfunctioning because it stuck around long enough to look fake.
By late afternoon, the kitchen was almost livable. Megan told the kids to start on the "library," while she found and washed up enough pots, pans, plates, and silverware to cook and serve supper that night, even if it was just Spaghettios and green beans from the cans Ralph had donated. He had also thrown in a can of cherry pie filling, which they divided up and ate with spoons for desert.
By then, dew was falling, so Megan had the kids bring everything from the front porch around the house (to avoid kicking up more dust) and into the kitchen. With any luck they could have the library vacuumed yet tonight. Maybe they could sleep in there.
Then, just at dusk, the power went out abruptly. As the lights went dark, and the vacuum whined down to a stop, both kids started complaining. Megan said, "Hey, there's nothing I can do about it—we shouldn't have had power in the first place. I'll try to figure out tomorrow how to get it back on permanently. In the meantime, it looks like we're camping out in the kitchen tonight. Each of you get a half a glass of water to brush your teeth with. And when you use the bathroom, don't flush until everybody's gone – there might only be enough water for one flush and we don't want to smell it all night."
"Ewwwww, Mom," protested Jessie. Turning to Harry she said, "It's okay for you—you never remember to flush anyway."
After brushing his teeth, Harry happily made a bed out of blankets and stretched out in front of the refrigerator, not noticing that his mother and sister had no room to stretch out. They each grabbed a blanket and pillow and tried to make themselves comfortable sitting up, with their backs to the cabinets. In a few moments, Harry was sound asleep.
Jessie leaned over and told her mother, "Mom, you should know that even though I'm here with you, that doesn't mean I'm good with this."
Megan sighed and said, "Don't worry honey, it'll all make more sense soon." Some days later, when Megan remembered saying, this she admitted, "That was probably the worst prediction I've ever made in my life."
At dawn the next morning, Megan was awakened by the vacuum cleaner powering up like an air raid siren, plus every light in the kitchen, half-bath and library coming on at the same time. She got to the vacuum quickly to shut it off, then bent over in pain from a leg cramp she had just given herself by jumping up so fast. Not to mention how stiff she was from sleeping sitting up. Fortunately the kids barely stirred. After Megan made use of the half-bath, she was glad to hear the well pump running to refill the toilet tank. At least they had plumbing in the daylight hours. Their next cleaning priority would be clearing a path to a real bathroom and cleaning it up.
Megan found a change of clothes in her overnight bag, then gave herself a sort of towel bath, using the lavatory. Then she woke Jessie and told her to do the same thing.
The family ate a breakfast of fruit cocktail and butterbread, again from Ralph's donations, and took another look at the house. Since the kids had already started on the library, Megan sent them in there to work, while she went back to work on the kitchen. By the time she had wiped out the cupboards, she realized that every dishtowel and washcloth was filthy. Was there a laundry room? "Tell me it isn't in some creepy old basement," she said to herself.
The laundry room was in the basement, but Megan could tell that it would be nice enough once it was cleaned up again. Best of all there was an old washing machine whose power light came on when Megan turned the cycle knob. There was also an ancient box of laundry detergent powder that had crystalized into one solid hunk. Megan laid the box on the floor and hit it with an antique iron until she had broken off enough powder for a load. Then she threw in the dirty towels and washcloths, and crossed her fingers. The washer started. Though the first cup or two
of water coming out were pretty orange, the water ran clear before long. Megan wan't that worried about the old dishtowels getting a tad orange, so she went back upstairs.
After about an hour helping the kids clear out a path to the closest full bathroom, Megan went back down to check on the wash. It was clean and had gone through the spin cycle. But, sadly, the dryer next to the washer didn't work at all. So she used one of the damp towels she had just washed to clean up an old laundry basket, then dumped the rest of the clean laundry into it. When she got upstairs, she asked Harry to find something they could use for a clothesline. Harry came back in a few minutes with a long extension cord, an old, dirty rope, and a roll of residential telephone wire. Megan chose the telephone wire, went outside, stretched it between two trees, and draped the towels and washcloths over it. Then she washed a load of old bathtowels that the kids found.
In the next forty minutes or so, the Forrester family made pretty good progress on the bathroom. There was a shower head and tile lining around the tub, but the shower curtain was in shreds, and they pulled it down. Megan told Jessie that if she promised to be careful, she could get a shower. Jessie joked that at least she wouldn't be imagining the Psycho shower scene without a shower curtain. Megan said, "Why do you have to be so morbid?"
"Look at this place, Mom, it's got everything but the taxidermy."
Megan went back to the basement to check on the old bathtowels. They were ready to come out, so she brought them upstairs to take outside. But as she opened the back door, she had a shock—the towels she had hung an hour ago were nowhere in sight. Then, something caught her eye. The towels she had brought up earlier had been dried, carefully folded and stacked in a laundry basket she didn't recognize on the corner of the back porch.
The logical explanation would have been that Harry or Jessie found another laundry basket and folded the wash without being asked. But, unfortunately, Megan found it easier to believe in ghosts than to accept that explanation. Or house-elves. Someone who didn't want to be seen was being very helpful.
As Megan checked the dry towels, she could tell that they had been dried in a drier with a drier sheet to soften the fabric. Even stranger. Now she faced another decision. What should she do with the towels she had just brought up? She shrugged her shoulders and hung them out. Then she took the clean towels out of the laundry basket and left it there.
Then she went into the house, found a sheet of paper and a pen and wrote a note. "Thank you very much for the help. Please stop in and introduce yourself."
She left the note under a rock on the porch next to the laundry basket. After a second's reflection, she left the pen next to it.
A few minutes later, she was wiping the shelves of the library, when Harry came breathlessly back from one of his explorations. "Mom!" he shouted, "A witch just stole the bathtowels."
"I was looking out a window upstairs and I saw a witch come over and steal our towels."
"Don't be silly," Megan said.
But by then, Jessie was in the room, too. "I got a glimpse of her, too, Mom," she said.
Megan told them about the first set of towels she hung out. "I think she's trying to help out, but doesn't want to be seen."
"Why in the world would she do that?"
"I don't know." Megan went to the back porch. The laundry basket was gone, as were the towels, but her note was still there. Under the line, "Please stop in and introduce yourself" was a new line: "Not yet, Dearie. P.S. About the clothesline: Do you WANT people to know you're living here? P.P.S. Gene will be by tonight to help with your lawn. Please don't be alarmed."
While both of the kids argued over what the note probably meant, Megan entertained her own ideas. Apparently the Forresters weren't the only family hiding out in Spook Hill. What did Ralph say? "There are spooks, and then there are spooks."
But that didn't explain why Megan's reclusive helper was dressed as a witch. After a few minutes of trying to get them to describe what they saw, she figured out that her unseen helper was wearing an ankle-length black dress, old-fashioned boots, and a black sort of bonnet that came almost to a point in the back. Megan wasn't quite ready to accept the "witch" explanation yet. Maybe they had stumbled into a secret settlement of some religious cult that dressed like the Amish or something. But they couldn't be Amish, because they used clothes dryers. Were there any Shakers still alive?
At any rate, there was work to be done. With most of the downstairs shutters off, Megan toured the remaining downstairs rooms. One room's floor held about a bushel's worth of raccoon poop. Megan sent Harry to look for a shovel. In the meantime, she changed vacuum cleaner bags once again. Oops; they were down to the last bag. Before she pitched the full bag, Megan wrote the number down so she could order them from the train crew on their next pass. Then Harry ran in from the kitchen with an alarmed expression. "Mom, you gotta see this."
"Need to see this," Megan corrected absent-mindedly. "What'd you do, see another ghost?"
"Sort of. Come outside." Megan followed Harry outside, with Jessie tagging along to see what the ruckus was all about. Harry explained that he had gone to the garage to look for a shovel. And found something else.
The "garage" was really an old carriage house and stable that the family hadn't gotten around to exploring, yet. Harry opened one of the big double-doors to reveal, not surprisingly, an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage. But in front of the carriage, in full harness, were two horse skeletons, standing as if they had been hooked up to pull the carriage. "Oh, that is too weird," Jessie said.
Megan's threshold for shock must have been getting higher, because her initial astonishment didn't keep her from noticing that the skeleton horses' hooves didn't quite touch the ground, and there was some sort of belt-and-pulley arrangement between their legs.
As they drew closer, the others could see that the "skeletons" weren't bone at all, but cleverly painted and jointed plastic. Harry leaned under one of the horses and said, "Cool" for about the hundredth time that week. "Look, there's a pulley thing down here that must make the horses' legs move when it runs." While Megan was saying "Careful, Harry, don't pull on that," Harry pulled on the belt anyway. The wheels between the horses' legs rotated a little, and the horse's legs moved in a slow-motion caricature of walking. What alarmed Megan was a coughing sound from the carriage's boot.
"Harry, get out of there, now," she said, and he did. Opening the boot, Megan saw a Briggs and Stratton lawn tractor engine that wasn't that much different from the tractor engines she had grown up with. "Look here, Harry," she said. If you'd pulled much harder, you might have jump-started the thing, and I'd have to explain how you managed to get trampled to death by dead horses."
"Cool," said Harry. "Can we take it out for a ride?"
"Tell you what, when we have the first two floors cleaned out, I'll see if I can get it to start."
"Aww, that'll take forever."
"It will if we just stand here staring at this silly thing. Now did you see a shovel anywhere?"
Worried about airborne parasites from the raccoon poop, Megan tied a washcloth over her face as a makeshift mask and shoveled the raccoon poop into a big bucket they found. Now what to do with the poop? It's not like they had figured out trash pickup yet. Megan gave up and dumped it in the middle of a small copse of trees on a back corner of their lot. "That'll either make the trees very happy or very angry," she thought. Then she found an outdoor faucet and carefully rinsed the shovel, the bucket, and her hands.
Back in the house, she faced the problem of how to get up the traces that the shovel had left behind. It was on the gum floor, so they could wipe it up if they had enough paper towels, she supposed. Then she remembered that they didn't have any paper towels. She added that to her list of things they needed. Then she thought about sending one of the kids down to the station to leave the list in case the train came. No, she should probably go down herself and do some "grocery shopping." Finally, she realized she was walking in circles and that if she didn't get some lunch, she wasn't going to be accomplish anything of value.
Megan asked the kids to come to the station to help her with groceries, looked over her list, picked up her purse, and opened the front door. There on the porch was a picnic basket with a note pinned to it that said, "Welcome to Forresterville. Hope this helps out." While Megan was discerning that this was a different handwriting than her "witch" friend, the kids were finding out what was in the basket. A big summer sausage, a box of crackers, and a big can of potato salad were the main attractions, along with some carrot and celery sticks that the kids didn't find quite as appetizing.
Megan had been up since the vacuum cleaner had awakened her at dawn, so this seemed like a good time for a break. She pulled the "witch's" note out of her pocket and gave it to Jessie to look over. "Why should we be alarmed if someone comes over to help us with the lawn tonight?" Jessie wondered.
"I don't know," laughed Megan. "If having ghost horses in our garage and a witch doing our laundry didn't put us off, what would?"
After lunch, the family did make a trip to the station, where Megan tried to pick out exactly $60 worth of groceries, because she didn't have anything smaller than a $20. Maybe she could meet the train the next time it came and get change from Ralph.
That evening, Megan made chicken-and-dumplings that were home-cooked, if you didn't count the fact that the chicken came from a can. Later, the family arranged their mats in the library and timed their trips to the bathroom so that they were truly ready for bed when the lights went out. There was no sign of any visitors when they went to bed. But about midnight, Megan was awakened by the sound of a small gasoline engine. She watched out a library window until she could vaguely make out that someone on a lawn tractor was riding back and forth in the back yard. Why in the world would they mow at night? And why would they leave the grass so long? Their benefactor seemed to have the mowing deck set five or six inches in the air.
Then Megan remembered that the lawns in town had mostly looked neglected, but not necessarily abandoned. Maybe the point was to keep the lawns under control without making that too obvious to the casual viewer. How many people might be living in this "ghost town," anyway?
Then Megan's unseen benefactor crossed in front of the carriage house so that she could clearly see his/its silhouette. The person riding the lawn mower had no head! On one level, Megan realized that this was probably another trick or costume, like the fake zombies on the train. But on a more basic level, Megan was truly shaken, perhaps for the first time in this odd adventure. Then something brushed her shoulder and she jumped. It was Jessie, who had crept up next to her, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the apparition in their back yard.
Abruptly Megan was struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. She said, "It looks like we're in Sleepy Hollow after all. And the Headless Horseman is mowing our lawn in the dark. And not very well, at that. But I'm not going to go out there and complain."
Jessie said, "Well, now we know why Gene only comes out at night."
Megan couldn't help laughing. Somehow knowing that the Headless Lawnmower Man's name was Gene made him seem a little less scary.
Later that night, Megan woke again. She heard footsteps on the stairs to the second floor. And whispers. This was even more alarming than the apparition in the back yard, because whoever it was was in the house with her children. She crept around the corner where she could get a clear view of the stairs, but she couldn't make anything out in the dark. Reflexively, she clicked the light switch on the wall beside her, but nothing happened. Her motion seemed to have got the intruders' attention, however, since the footsteps and whispering stopped immediately. Megan stood, frozen in place, while her eyes adjusted to the nearly complete darkness of the room. Eventually she could see the banister, and several of the steps. But she could see no one on the stairs.
Megan was just beginning to try explaining the footsteps to herself. Maybe the raccoon was back—he was certainly heavy enough to make the stairs creak. But what about the whispering? Was it the wind?
Megan probably only stood there for about five minutes, but it seemed like an hour. Just when she was on the point of deciding that she had imagined the whole thing, the whispers started again, and so did the footsteps. They were unmistakably coming down the stairs. Megan stayed absolutely still, hoping she wouldn't be noticed in the darkness. She saw nothing at all, as the footsteps continued down the entrance hall to the front door. Then she heard a door swing on its hinges, then close softly, as though someone was trying to avoid slamming it. But the front door remained closed the whole time.
Megan eased herself down to a sitting position in the doorway to the library where her children were sleeping. She was determined to hold a vigil to guard them from whomever, or whatever she had heard on the stairs.
What had Ralph said? "There are spooks and then there are spooks."
Two states away, Maria Reynolds was pacing nervously and trying to keep her three children quiet while Whitey was arguing with someone over the telephone in his "home office." She was also trying very hard not to hear Whitey's end of the conversation.
"No, we haven't lost them; we have a pretty good idea where they've gone." After a pause, "No, she did exactly what we needed her to do. Bert would never have tried to contact her as long as she stayed put. Now he'll think it's safe to get in touch. When he does, we'll have him." Another pause, "Yes, I'll keep you posted."