The house was old–ancient by some folks’ reckoning. The flagstone pathway ran in a somewhat straight fashion towards the entrance, and a few carefree wrens flitted around in the foliage. The grounds were in that state of disrepair that, while still showing the original care and love of minutia, clearly advertised the present state of dismal affairs. The property was not obviously abandoned, but a casual observer might have made that pronouncement, had he been asked. A few apple trees stood in one corner of the lawn, drooping with the weight of the load that came so predictably every year. The ground underneath was strewn with half-rotted fruit, and bees, birds, and other wild beasts from the smaller variant of the animal kingdom enjoyed the feast. Various foliar plants overgrew their bounds, and the grass rose in patches throughout the lawn. Helix Hedera had claimed half of the brick facade, and while at one time controlled, it now seemed to enjoy free reign of the mortar and whatever handy crevice might fall under its grasp.
I say that the house might have been deemed abandoned; indeed, even the old iron gate out front seemed to have given leave of its duties and swung freely, unlatched, all the while moaning out some ancient song of dismal gloom. A total abandonment, however, was not the case, as you have probably already guessed. If you were to stand at the road, and carefully watch between the bars of the old fashioned windows with their wavy, opaque glass, you might think that, every so often, a fleeting glimpse of a stray ray of light could be caught, and in rare cases, when the wind howled and the lightning flashed, you might even get the notion that a face had appeared at one of the windows. Soon, after a time or ten, you might start to believe that the old house still served its purpose, and further, if the fancy took you to discuss this in the pub at night, under the influence of some spirit and in the presence of friends, you might decide that you should affirm your theories. Thus, I decided to brave the moaning iron gate and traverse the old flagstones.
The day was chillier than I had anticipated. The wind didn’t exactly whip through the shrubs, but I wouldn’t degrade Euros’ work to a mere breeze. I marched somewhat bravely to the front door. The door knocker was a great cat’s head. Its eyes looked into mine, and I found this the most unnerving thing since I had stepped foot onto the property. At that moment, a wren flitted by and sang on the ivy to my right. I took this as a good omen, and the knocker echoed into the dark hall beyond. The door knob turned, and clenching my teeth with what I hoped was an expression of goodwill, I prepared to meet my host.
A conflict of emotions welled up within me as the door swung open. Foremost in their ranks was surprise, for standing before me, clad in a cream colored silk dress with edges of black and wearing a bright red cloche hat, was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She wore her black hair fairly short, and her face wore an expression of mild amusement. Fright and confusion closely followed my surprise; I had not expected such a young host, and I certainly was not prepared for one this stunning. My visage must have betrayed me, for she smiled and laughed out, “why, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!”
I stammered a bit before finding my manners. “Well, yes. I su-suppose I might! My apologies, miss!”
“Do come in; we so very rarely receive guests here. Jane, fix our visitor a cup of tea!”
With that, I quickly removed my shoes and was swept into the hall by the mere force of her personality. “Come with me, our sitting room is the second door on the right.”
The interior of the house could have possessed no greater a degree of a disparate mood to that of the exterior. On the walls hung paintings of men and women, not recognized by myself, but no doubt great in some form or place. The ceilings were made of a polished black wood of some sort, Ebony, if I were to hazard a guess. They reflected the light from the surprisingly bright gas fixtures that lined the halls. The walls were a mahogany paneling, inset with rings and various geometric shapes of cedar, cherry, and other fine woods. The paintings were not hung with any particular reference or pattern, but to say that they were imprecise would be a farce, for each hung as though it could hang in no other spot. The floor was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Someone had taken small pieces of wood, about one to two cubic centimeters in volume–some square, some not, some with no defined shape–and strewn them throughout the entire expanse of the hall so that they sat with corners upended and sides facing every which way. Lacquer had then been poured over all to create a smooth surface. Every so often a shiny trinket or coin had been trapped beneath the sea of clear coat, and the sheen mirrored itself in my hostess’s eyes. She beckoned me into the sitting room, and I took my seat in a plush chair beneath a great painting of some old hunting party.
My wonderment at the house was soon drowned. A chill had swept over my heart, and the reason stood in the second door of the room. An old hag, no doubt the Jane whom my host had summoned, stood with a tray of teapot and cups. If my host was beautiful beyond word, then this woman, if I may call her that, was frightening beyond thought. Her smile cracked the lines of her face as she looked towards my seat, but this expression showed no more pleasure or amiability than the rudest gesture of the most crass of my friends. Her hair sat as if it resented its position on top of such a vile mass, and her clothes, while kempt and undoubtedly expensive, hung on her frame as though they were ashamed of their duty. “Tea?” she said with a look, and though I made no verbal response, I took some with cream and sugar, but still, it was strangely bitter. Again, that horrid smile appeared as she turned away, and I swear that I saw a faint reflection of the same on my host’s face as she too took a cup from the tray.
The beautiful face turned to me and she began to speak, but soon, the room faded, and the red cloche bobbed back and forth as the melodic voice of my host melded into the background, aided, no doubt, by the drug in the cup.
I awoke in a new room. The ceiling was of the same design as the hall, but the floor here was carpeted with a fine, tall carpet that felt like grass beneath my feet. The walls here were barren, except for one painting. The outline of a man stood in depthless space, surrounding by nothing but gray brushstrokes. Almost every detail of the man was complete. His clothes possessed a realism that made me question his status as a painting, but there was one feature which stood out prominently as missing. His face contained no features. As though someone had blurred the head with a skin-tone paint, he stood with no eyes, mouth, nose, or facial hair. Beside him stood a woman. I blinked again, for I hadn’t seen her before in the painting. Her face was too, in the same manner as the man’s, blurred into oblivion. A red cloche sat upon her head, atop her short black hair.
A faint recognition dawned somewhere in the back of my head. I watched as the figures moved and conversed, while the gray made no changes. Slowly, swirling like ripples in water, the painting melded away to nothing, and once more, I fell asleep.
I lifted my head. The rest of my body felt as though it were restrained by some omnipotent force. My vision was foggy, and harsh lighting beat down from above. The voices around me were garbled, and I couldn’t make out my company, but I thought I imagined a blur of red and a menacing smile. I fell asleep.
“We found him last night. He seems to have passed in his sleep. We let him wander when he wanted; he didn’t pose a fall threat or seem to bother anyone else. We think he just came in here, sat down, and just never woke up.”
The man in the white jacket and well-organized attire spoke somberly. The elderly woman with the tear-stained face watched as a gurney was wheeled out towards the door. She didn’t say anything in reply, and her eyes wandered through the common room, pausing on a painting on the opposite wall. The Victorian house was attractive and somehow familiar. A flagstone path lead up to the door, and she moved closer to look into a window, for she was certain that a face had appeared, a familiar face, wearing something she recognized.
She decided that her eyes had deceived her, and walked out through the doors, which were adorned with paper hearts and cut flowers. She passed the desk and the calendar with February 14 circled in red felt pen. She walked down the stairs of the asylum, and as she did, she paused and pulled a hat from her purse, an old red hat that had seen many years and better days. She looked up into the sky and smiled, a smile that cracked the lines on her face. When she got home, she poured herself a cup of tea, a bitter-tasting tea. She fell asleep, and the red cloche fell to the floor.
I don’t often write short stories, but I enjoy them. I started writing a short story for Valentine’s Day four years ago, and I missed last year, so this makes story number three. Enjoy it? Have a great Valentine’s!