The gate gave easily beneath her touch. A light brush of pressure was all it took for the old hinges to swing inward.
Any hint of resistance would have deterred her. That’s all it would have taken for her to turn around, crawl back in her car, and leave behind this foolish notion of claiming her inheritance. Yet, the gate had opened with invitation, beckoning her inside the sleepy yard, and now Charity Gannon was halfway up the pebbled walk.
It all looked innocent enough. Idyllic, even. A tiny little cottage set in the middle of an over-sized lot, nestled beneath the arms of mature crabapple, cherry, and sugar maple trees. Window boxes and flowerbeds, an inviting screened-in summer porch. Peeling white paint for instant shabby chic charm. Signs of a vegetable garden off to the left, a weathered old shed to the right. A porch swing suspended from the limb of a huge old oak, surrounded by rose bushes and flowering shrubs.
Under normal circumstances, the charming scene would delight her. It looked like a clipping from one of those travel magazines, one that touted the hidden treasures of rural Vermont. The right travel agent could lease the cottage as the perfect summer retreat, garnering a hefty price tag for its quiet location and its nod to yesteryear.
Under normal circumstances, Charity might be tempted to rent the cottage herself. But there was nothing normal about her visit today, and she could not rent what she already owned.
In spite of the homey appearance of the cottage, a sense of dread spilled out onto the walkway and muddled around Charity’s footsteps. Her pace slowed as she drew closer to the porch. Instead of cheerful window boxes, her eyes were drawn to the windows themselves, sad, empty panes that looked into a darkened house.
Charity tugged her sweater closer, gathering a handful of courage along with the fabric as she stepped onto the porch. The screen door protested with a loud screech, but it gave no more resistance than the foot gate out front. Maybe the front door would be less cooperative. Maybe the key would not fit. Maybe she could put this off until tomorrow.
But no, the old key was a perfect fit for the tarnished brass doorknob. The lock tumbled easily. As the door swung inward, Charity had no excuse not to step inside.
She stepped over the threshold and came to an abrupt halt. She was overwhelmed to see that the cottage was still fully furnished, filled with the remnants of someone else’s life.
Not just someone’s, she reminded herself. Aunt Nell’s.
It was a small front room, crowded by too much furniture. There wasn’t even enough room for a full-sized couch. An overstuffed loveseat snuggled next to an upholstered rocker. There was just enough room for a coffee table and a slender ladder back chair to complete the seating arrangement. Without the antique desk and overflowing bookcase, the room would have been cozy; with them, the space felt cramped.
Charity flipped a light switch, not expecting a reaction. She was surprised when golden light flooded from the glass globes of twin floor lamps.
She wandered into the adjacent dining room. Wide openings between the rooms gave the illusion of more space and offered a nice flow from one space to the next. The square oak table and china cabinet may or may not have qualified as antiques.
Like the living room, the space was crowded but neat. To the eye, there was nothing amiss; it was a small, modest home belonging to a widowed woman. Beneath the heavy cloak of stale air, Charity detected the clinging odors of onions, liniment, and old furniture polish.
But something else lingered in the air. Something not visible to the eye, something indiscernible by the nose. Whatever it was tickled the hairs on the back of Charity’s neck and crawled down her spine with whispered unease.
“You’re being silly.” Charity spoke the words aloud, needing to hear a human voice in the eerie silence of the house. The rooms were mute, save for the steady click of time ticked away by the old-school clock in the living room. An occasional squeaky board protested beneath her feet, but not even the refrigerator hummed.
Charity stepped into the kitchen. It was large enough, but poorly designed. “How on earth did she ever cook an entire meal in here?” She propped indignant hands upon her hips as she gave a pitied ‘tsk’. Her eyes roamed over the sad lack of laminate-topped counter space, ancient appliances, and a stove that stood all the way across the room, separate from other features of the kitchen.
“That door must go outside, and I guess this one,” she murmured as she stepped through the doorway on her left, “takes me to... a teeny, tiny hall. Okay, so there’s the bathroom. Love the old claw-foot tub, not so much the tiny mirror and medicine cabinet... Down the four-foot hall into… a shoebox. A shoebox with a bed and an old wardrobe. So no closet. Unless this door… nope, goes to the other bedroom.” As she left the tiny room she muttered, “A pass-through shoe-box, at that.”
She continued her monologue as she entered the front bedroom. “Old style house, no closets, no hall to speak of, just rooms opening into other rooms. Since this door opens back into the living room, it is one big loop. Tour is over, ladies and gentleman,” she murmured.
With puffed out cheeks, Charity turned back to survey the largest of the bedrooms; ‘largest’, however, being a relative term.
“So this was obviously the master.” Again, a large antique wardrobe served as a closet. A dresser and nightstands on either side of the quilt-covered bed provided more storage. A full bed, she noted, not even a queen, but plenty big for one person. That left hardly enough space to squeeze around the bed and reach the window, where a puffy cushion turned a long cedar chest into a window seat.
A collection of men’s toiletries littered the bedside table farthest from the door. A man’s suit of clothing hung from the hall tree tucked in a corner.
“Auntie Nell, did you have a lover?” She spoke to an empty room, but her voice held a teasing lilt. The rest of the house had a decided feminine touch — plenty of frilly pale yellow throw pillows, rose-speckled chintz on the loveseat, frou-frou and lace doilies scattered here and there — but here in the bedroom there were definite traces of a man.
Charity took a step closer to examine the outfit. The tattered khaki work clothes appeared to be from a different era.
“How sad,” she murmured. “All these years, she kept her husband’s clothes.” The knowledge added to the heaviness in the stale air.
Charity knew very little about her uncle. His name was spoken in hushed tones; not the kind reserved for the well-loved, highly revered heroes who still inspired awe and respect, but the kind that were whispered in shame, or pity, or some sad mixture of the two. Charity wasn’t even born when Harold Tillman died. No one shared the details of his death with her, no one ever bothered to tell her the story. All she knew was that his death pushed her aunt ever closer to the edge of sanity, and further away from the comfort and support of her only sister. By the time Charity’s own mother died, the women barely spoke to one another. Aunt Nell came for Laura’s funeral but Charity remembered how she kept to herself, curled into a ball of self-pity and grief. She left immediately after the service.
In the sixteen years that passed since her mother’s death, Charity heard from her aunt exactly twice. The lack of response never kept Charity from sending Christmas cards and graduation announcements to her sole relative on her mother’s side, but the only time Nell ever replied was when she sent a crisp one hundred dollar bill for Charity’s eighteenth birthday, along with the scrawled words, ‘Your mother would have been so proud of you.’ The next and only other time Charity heard from her aunt was when the lawyer called, saying Nell had passed away and left her estate to her sole niece.
So here she was, come to collect a reward she hardly deserved.
Charity asked the question a hundred times, but there was no clear answer. Even if she was Nell’s only blood kin, surely there had been others more deserving of the honor. Charity barely remembered her aunt; had, in fact, seen her but a handful of times in her life. Surely, there were friends or neighbors who deserved to be rewarded for the part they played in Nell Tillman’s life. Someone who knew the real story behind her uncle’s death and why his name was spoken with pity, someone who knew why these walls fairly crumbled with the weight of a heavy conscience.
There was so much more to the story, Charity was certain of it. She could feel the oppression in the air. It wasn’t just the musty smell of dust and the lack of fresh air. There was a story to be told in the strictly feminine decor, save for the untouched male garments here in the bedroom. Something happened to her uncle, Charity was sure. Something bad, something of which no one spoke.
Charity fingered the ragged garments. They must have been hanging there for at least twenty-five years or more. A thick layer of dust coated the material. At her touch, the disturbed motes danced up to tickle her nose and caused Charity to sneeze. She inadvertently jerked, disturbing the clothes even further. A fold shifted to reveal a dark stain across the front of the shirt. Even after all these years, the blood was evident.
Just like the bullet hole it surrounded.
Charity dropped the cloth with a jerk, her hand stinging. Her sudden move caused the hall tree to teeter uncertainly, twirling on one foot as if the wooden pole had a life of its own. The bloodstained clothes whipped around and chased after Charity as she shrieked and stumbled backwards.
After a balancing act worthy of a circus performance, the pole finally righted itself and spun to a stop. The blood soaked clothes made a final swish through the air, circled round the pole, then settled once more into a sagging heap.
“Oh. My. Gosh.” Charity whispered the words aloud, palms flat against her cheeks. She stood staring at the clothes, wondering if they would take another lunge at her. With much of the dust shaken free and now floating through the air, tickling at her nose once more, the clothes looked lighter, freer. Their secret was no longer hidden in the folds of forgotten khaki. The bloodstains — and the bullet hole — were now clearly visible.
Charity knew it was irrational, but she glanced over her shoulder with a sense of guilt. The rush of relief washing over her was every bit as crazy. She couldn’t say exactly why, but she hurried forward and rearranged the clothes so that their secret was once again safe. Then she quickly left the room, even shutting the door behind her for good measure.
Out of sight and, she hoped, out of mind.