Saturday, 18 May 2019, Evening
Paxwood, Whatcom County, Washington, USA
I wanted to get inside Paxwood House, and Diana Cade, Paxwood Chronicle Editor, pulled through. All I had to do was ask, and she gave me the contact info to schedule a visit and one of her digital cameras to add pictures to my report. I would entrust the camera to Char and her eye for visual balance.
When I called the real estate agency that managed Paxwood House visits, four separate people assured me I did not want to or need to visit, and they could provide me with up-to-date photographs and video footage from inside the house for my reporting needs.
“Look, this isn’t a prank. I’m not trying to create a scary meme video. I write for the Paxwood Chronicle. My mom’s on the city council. I’m working on a series of articles about the sale. If none of you want to show me around the property, can you give me the key and I’ll go myself?”
I expected the answer would be, “No, that would be ridiculous. We won’t let a teenager go into one of our properties without supervision all alone. Let’s schedule an official viewing, shall we?”
Instead, Agent Number Four said, “I’ll need to get permission from a member of the city council, but considering who your mother is, I think we can arrange that.”
So, when Saturday arrived, I rode my bicycle to Paxwood House—still grounded from car usage—with a ring of borrowed keys almost guiltily heavy in my pocket, though I didn’t understand why. I’d gotten them through legitimate channels. I had permission for this visit. My mother, the real estate agency, and the editor of the Paxwood Chronicle all knew. So did Char’s parents. I had documentation along with the keys to prove it. If Adrien Morgan showed up, he’d just have to deal with it.
The weight could come from the research I continued on Thursday and Friday. Stories of a mysterious flu that claimed John and Nellie Paxwood, then came back for the remaining Paxwoods, leaving no heir. That flu, colloquially the Sandman Flu, would pop up every couple of decades and put visitors to Paxwood House into comas. Once, during a remodel in the 1980s, a wolf assaulted four construction workers in the basement. Their wounds matched a wolf attack, but no one could find evidence of any wolf on the Paxwood Grounds.
In Luella’s journal, she wrote about Nellie’s haunting presence, and sometimes a black dog or wolf in the treeline, watching her.
Black dogs, a sign of bad luck, a potential death omen.
And Luella had died.
Oh, and apparently, the whole reason the mayor moved out of Paxwood House was a supposed anthrax attack back in late 2001 that had claimed three lives and put ten others in critical danger. No actual anthrax detected on further investigation, but there were no better explanations, either.
Maybe Paxwood House was bad news. Mx. Cardoso could be right.
There was one certainty, though: Those walls hid a story, and it was mine.
Char arrived ten minutes after me. I’d already freed the padlock and chain from the main gate to the grounds and pushed the gate open for us. The wrought iron had an elaborate tree pattern, branches and roots stretching out into abstract curls. Same as always, when I stood on the outside of the wall, the late spring afternoon sunlight felt warm and inviting, but a chill raised goosebumps across my skin once I crossed the property line.
“You weren’t wrong about wearing a coat,” Char said as she joined me. She wrapped her arms a little more tightly around herself. I passed her the camera.
“Ready for an adventure?”
“I know you’ll keep me safe.”
My heart turned into a burst of butterflies just for a split second, before I set my sights on the historic residence before us.
The long cobblestone driveway was barely wide enough for two cars heading in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Dark green moss consumed cobblestones, slowly returning them to the forest.
The Paxwoods’ private arboretum grew around the drive, with trees from around the world. Some had survived and thrived in the absence of a regular caretaker. Others stretched out their dry, dead, crackling branches like long witch’s fingers grasping for something alive to consume.
I usually snuck onto the grounds after dark, so seeing all these trees in sunlight was different. And, yet, as Char and I walked down the cobblestone drive toward the grand entrance to Paxwood House, I swore it was more shadowy than it should have been in the early afternoon, sun high overhead.
The camera clicked and flashed as Char took pictures of the trees.
“Auto flash is on, but we’re outdoors, so it shouldn’t have triggered. I’ll…” She pressed something on the camera. “There. Settings adjusted. I’ll turn the flash back on when we’re indoors. Tell me the story?”
“Gladly. Imagine it: You’ve been invited to the Northern Cascades, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You don’t know what to expect. It’s the headquarters for a lumber business, and lumberjacks are a rough and tumble lot.”
Char took a picture of the house in the distance as we walked. She looked at the digital display, lips pressed together in a tight line, played with the settings, lifted the camera for another shot. Since she wasn’t interrupting my narrative, I kept going while she worked out whatever she needed to.
“But when you arrive in Paxwood, it’s well laid out. The evergreen trees and the buildings blend in a mountainous balance of wilderness and civilization. You make your way to Paxwood House and find the artistic wrought-iron gates standing open, waiting for you to come through. A private arboretum filled with trees from around the world greets you. The lumber industry is so often about dead wood, the grain, color, quality, but here there is a celebration of the living trees, the roots that give the industry its most precious resource.”
With the camera turned toward the trees, the house ahead of us, Char continued snapping pictures.
“The house itself, constructed from local wood and granite, stands proudly at the end of the drive. Luella writes the house was dark green, pastel green, and golden yellow, inside and out. Her oldest sister called it their slice of the Emerald City, referring to Oz, not Seattle.”
Char stopped next to me, and I followed suit. We were three quarters of the way up the drive, perfect photo opportunity. Whoever had painted the house most recently used a more modern mayor’s house color scheme, creams and tans that were smudged brown, cracking, and peeling. They’d even painted over the granite foundation, though stone was showing through the worn-out paint. A stately home, fallen, left empty for the better part of ten years.
Someone had boarded up the windows. Moss and natural rainwater claimed the central feature of the roundabout, the elaborate fountain. The statue featured a man and woman dressed in Greco-Roman togas, clasping one pair of hands together at waist level, while they held their opposite hands cupped together above their heads. The cupped hands no doubt served as the fountainhead.
“Some would say it was ostentatious for Mr. and Mrs. Paxwood to commission a statue of themselves like they’d brought life to this part of the Cascades. The Salish people thrived here long before any white person stepped foot on the North American continent, but…”
“It’s not that,” Char said. “It’s… Here, look.”
She stepped up next to me and showed me the pictures she’d taken. Every single one looked dim and blurry, like she’d taken them at night or in a fog. The photos blurred most around the house, a reddish miasma. An old sailor’s rhyme sprang unbidden from my memory: Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
But what did an early afternoon red haze only visible via a digital camera mean?
“Is the camera broken?”
“Just a minute. I want to see something.”
Char headed for the gate again, and I followed, guessing her thoughts. This was a practical test, after all. When we were back outside the gate, she kept her back to Paxwood House and took a picture of the city from the hilltop vantage point. There were plenty of trees between us and a really decent skyline-style photo, but that wasn’t the point. Char turned the camera so I could see the results of her test.
The photo was crystal clear.
“Please tell me you aren’t messing with me.” A strange delight soared inside of me at the photographic evidence that something really was different about Paxwood House.
“I wouldn’t.” Char shook her head. She faced Paxwood House again, taking a picture from this distance. In the fresh shot, the area outside the gate looked clear, even along the drive. The miasma started up somewhere closer to the house, its visible effect less overt around the grounds further away. “What… does this mean?”
It meant I should tell her what Mx. Cardoso said, listen to their advice, consider the fact that no real estate agent or adult working for Diane Cade at the Paxwood Chronicle would go anywhere close to the house. It meant we should leave.
“Only one way to find out.” I raised the borrowed keys.