Saturday, 18 May 2019, Evening
Paxwood, Whatcom County, Washington, USA
The massive double doors parted silently, an open invitation. Weren’t haunted house doors supposed to creak like the voices of cursed souls? I stopped before I crossed the threshold and turned to give Char a photogenic smile, hand on the doorknob. With a laugh, she took my picture.
“I’m not what you’re here to photograph,” I said.
“It’s not like digital film can be wasted, and even if it could, you were perfectly posed in that doorframe.”
I trusted her eye, even though I was sure she was speaking literally. She took the picture because of the pose, and that was all. This wasn’t the right time to get carried away with what-ifs or turn Char’s words inside out.
Then we were inside the foyer. The moment I let go of the handle, the weighty door slid back toward its frame, though the latch rested against the metal tongue, the door still open just a crack. It would only take a light press of the hand to close it all the way. At least it didn’t slam shut and trap us in classic haunted house style. That had to be a good sign.
“The agent who gave me the key said the electricity would be on when we got here, so…” I looked at the wall on either side of the door. If there had been fancy hundred-year-old wallpaper here, someone peeled it off or painted right over it in bland beige. An ordinary beige modern light switch blended right in. I flipped it, and the foyer’s chandelier flickered to life over our heads.
Now, that, at least, they’d left alone, except for adapting it from gas to electric. I wasn’t sure when that happened, though I knew from some unrelated research that Paxwood became electrified, along with Bellingham, after the construction of the Nooksack Falls Hydroelectric Power Plant in 1906. Char took pictures of the glittering piece of art, a Venetian Chandelier with 22 candles—now electric candles, their flame-shaped bulbs filling the foyer with light.
“Is it supposed to flicker like fire?”
“Not sure,” I admitted. She was right, though. The flame bulbs glowed at varying intensities, each one flickering in and out independently from the others. Almost a dance, almost in waltz time. Was I hearing a waltz? No, of course not.
“Whether it’s on purpose or accident, it’s probably a wiring thing.”
“It’s gorgeous, though.” She took one more picture, then turned her focus toward the stairs straight ahead of us. “I expected one of those massive sweeping grand staircases, honestly.”
The half-turn staircase with its landing in the middle led up to the second-floor mezzanine. The railing was stately in its own right, decorative balusters with a floral theme, handrail worn smooth and light along the top from decades of use. But even with the subtle details, the staircase came across a little too ordinary, especially compared to that fountain outside.
“Well, imagine Florence Paxwood sweeping down these steps in profile, first one way, then the other, a chance for any visitors to look upon her from every angle. Or, John conserved a bit of money on a staircase to indulge in other places. Luella wasn’t alive to make observations about staircase construction decisions, so I honestly can’t be sure from her journal. Maybe somewhere a carpenter has records.”
A shadow shifted in the far left corner of my eye. The hairs on my arms prickled up. Drawn by the movement, I turned, but nothing was there. A trick of the flickering not-candlelight, probably.
“The library is to our immediate left, converted into the mayor’s home office, but they tried to keep some of the antique furniture and decor in there. The once-disguised door close to the center of the left wall leads into a servant corridor and more directly back to the kitchen and laundry. Then, there’s the dining room double doors.”
“Bet you could guess which room sounds most interesting to me.” Char moved toward the wall panel.
“The kitchen. Of course.” I didn’t bother finishing my description of the first floor layout—the grand hall to our right, behind both sets of double doors. Marble floors and more high ceilings. A place for dancing. If I continued the narrative my way, I’d be guiding Char out onto that marble floor to dance with her.
Char came here at my request, though, so I had to give her this.
I let her lead us toward the door to the servant corridor.
“A flat color really doesn’t hide this door,” Char said as she approached. “I don’t know a lot about late 19th century wallpaper, but I bet they would have used something with at least straight vertical lines to hide the door frame a bit more than it is. Or, wooden paneling. Something like that?”
“I hope you never have to choose between costuming, set design, and cooking.”
She was right, though. Whether or not it was intentional, no one bothered to hide the hidden door any more, so the tiniest line of a gap was perceptible even to a casual viewer.
“I’ll have to at some point. Only so many hours in the day.” Still, Char smiled as she pressed her fingers into the distinct square space that served as the door’s trigger. The latch clicked, and the door swung open on silent hidden hinges. “I’ll ask my dad about it. The hidden door thing.”
“Wonder if Silphium would bother to consult an expert and hide this door, or if they’d just open the whole thing up.” With pursed lips, I considered which a vampire would prefer. Probably a hidden hallway.
More annoyingly beige paint awaited in the servant’s corridors, but that may have been historically accurate for all I knew. Servants didn’t need fancy wallpaper.
“If it’s really haunted, this would be the perfect backdrop for a dramatic bleeding wall moment,” I kidded, trying to pull my thoughts away from the Silphium lawyer.
Char jabbed me with her elbow. “I’m not laughing.”
Still, there was crinkle in the corner of her eye. A kitchen to explore outweighed any hesitance or fear. How could I deny her the chance to explore something familiar?
“It should be the first door on the right,” I said, letting the joke fade away.
Vampires couldn’t possibly be real, but I accepted ghosts could be, and the ghosts of this house could be listening, too. We didn’t need their blood to manifest around us.
Char continued to lead us down the hall, toward the kitchen door. To my surprise, though, when we reached it, she turned away from it, toward the open stairs—one flight heading up toward the second floor, the other down toward the cellar.
“There’s a basement?” she asked. There was something off in her tone.
It was a common enough fear, though. Cellars. They were dark, damp, hidden places. And people usually sealed them off behind a door. In fact, as I looked at the stairway, I recognized the door frame there, the empty hinges. There should have been a door here. It was missing.
“Yeah, I know, not that common in Washington,” I said, try to play it off. “With all the rain, it doesn’t take much for poorly constructed basements to flood.” I stepped behind Char, to the kitchen door, and swung it open, holding it wide for her. “I think the kitchen was last updated in the early 2000s, not too long before they made the decision to move the mayor out of Paxwood House. Come on.”
She snapped her gaze away from the gaping stairs, back toward me. Her skin was pale.
Right when she turned, the wrongness I’d been trying to deny grasped hold of my lungs. I went rigid as I saw the paranormal in movement for the first confirmed time in my life.
Wafting down the upper staircase, a grey fog, and a faint outline of a figure in a dress, hands reaching out toward us.
Transforming from cellar shadow to solid reality, a massive black dog, white fangs bared.
And Char, beautiful, enchanted future five star chef Char, was all eyes for the kitchen, camera up as she took another picture of me in a doorway. My expression couldn’t have been photogenic in the least that time.
“Char, run!” My muscles were tight, still holding the door wide open. Would it be better for us to run down the hall or close ourselves up in the kitchen like those kids in the dinosaur movie?
Char looked over her shoulder, screamed, then listened. Whether it was my words or her instincts she listened to, she shot down the hallway.
As she did, so, too, did the black dog.
I didn’t mean to be standing there, holding the door, letting Char bait the dog. That wasn’t my intent at all. Shock and adrenaline make poor planning companions, and no one prepares you in school for an emergency like seeing a ghost and a black dog in a haunted house.
I screamed my own my muscles into action, out into the hallway, chasing after the black dog and Char. If the ghost was going to come after me, let her. My best friend was in danger.