The house sat waiting, and watching.
It had been a good two decades since anyone had dared set foot within, and the house was getting lonely. The last people to inhabit it had left long ago, fleeing in the middle of the night, taking only the clothes they had worn to bed and nothing more. Their name had been Olsen. Before the Olsens, there had been the Romaletti family. They had fled in the night too, sometime in the spring of 1991, as had the Cosgrays and the DeLaHoyas before them. But despite the influx and subsequent rapid outflux of Olsens, Romalettis, Cosgrays and DeLaHoyas, Geigers and Terhunes, and even a solitary Smythe, everyone in town called it the Winter House.
It sat high on a hill above the town of East Liberty (there was no West Liberty), a silent and crumbling sentinel on two acres of overgrown brush. The front porch had collapsed on one side, giving the house an off-center appearance, like an old man after a stroke. The windows had long since been broken out by teenagers brave enough to throw rocks but not quite daring enough to open the doors. On the right side of Winter House, a squared-off turret rose to meet torn and tattered shingles, many of which had been scattered by the four winds. The red paint hadn’t been touched up since the Cosgrays bought the place in 1979, and the wrought iron of the widow’s walk hung down like sharp black teeth.
On the east side of the hill, a small cemetery overgrown with magnolias lay. The main crypt held the mortal remains of old Josiah Winter, who had built the place during the Civil War (or as the locals would have it, the Late Unpleasantness). Josiah had met an early demise when it was discovered that the slaves he claimed had run away had in fact been cooked and eaten by Josiah and his family.
Back in the 1920s, one of the grandsons of Josiah Winter decided he should restore their ancestral home to its former glory. The grandson, one Hubert Winter, had made a great deal of money in stocks, and spent a significant amount of it on chandeliers, champagne, and fancy cars. For four glorious years, Winter House was once again a place where the upper echelon of East Liberty’s society came to hobnob with one another. At least, until the night when Hubert Winter hacked his wife and their three children to death with a garden scythe, and then flung himself headfirst from the widow’s walk into the concrete driveway below.
Down on South Grant Street, what was left of the driveway coasted down the hill to the road, where a simple chain provided a barrier between the house and the rest of the world. And yet, that barrier was merely a chain with a faded “No Trespassing” sign dangling from it, not a fence or a wall, and so occasionally, people managed to find their way in.
Far less occasionally, they found their way back out.
East Liberty had, like many small towns, its share of drifters. Transients came in, seeing East Liberty as a nice place to stop for a while. The climate was good most of the year, and folks were friendly. If someone happened to wander into town, a rucksack on his back and looking as though he needed a shave and a hot meal, everyone knew to send them on down to the South Avenue Church, where Reverend Delbert and his flock would make sure they had dinner and a bed for the night. If they were interested in doing a bit of labor for their keep, they could earn a few dollars by sweeping out the VFW hall.
And on their way back out of town, headed west, inevitably the drifters would move down South Grant Street. The soft and lush growth of the azaleas would call to them as they passed Winter House, the smell of lilacs in the air even during the cold months. Any wanderer with a sense of adventure would ignore that chain completely, pushing it aside, climbing over it or under it, and eventually make their way up the driveway.
It was often noted, with some degree of satisfaction, by town elders, that transients never stayed long in East Liberty. They were always gone by the next day. This made everyone happy, especially Mayor Titus Meador, whose wife Lois had a thriving business as a realtor. In fact, no one was as thrilled as Mayor Meador the day that Lois got a thick package via certified mail, full of notarized papers with signatures she had trouble reading. Because despite Lois’ inability to make heads or tails of who was authorizing it, she had enough of presence of mind to know that she had just been offered the chance of a lifetime, to list the Winter House for sale.
Lois happily made her way to South Grant Street to pound the blood-red “For Sale” sign into the ground at the foot of the cracked driveway. She even drove up to the house for a quick look and to take a few exterior photos, which would come in handy when she marketed the house at a low price as a handyman’s special. In fact, everyone in town was pleased when they saw Lois’ sign.
After all, Winter House was waiting, and watching.
And it was hungry.
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