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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Royce’s Ruse (by Anyta Sunday)

A short story, contributed by Anyta Sunday.

 

I flicked the cigarette onto the brick path and stomped on it, and then lit another. If that cat didn’t quit meowing, Mrs. Trollier from next door would soon hear about it.

The rasping howl came again from the hedges, a scraping of nails on a blackboard with a husky note. Easily it could be mistaken for a dry, obnoxious cough. He doesn’t even sound like a freaking feline!

A handful of butts collected in a small bunch at my feet. I hadn’t smoked this much in years, but I’d needed something to take the edge off.

My gaze swung across the small field that stretched to next door. The other next door; Mrs. Trollier and her cat lived behind and to the left. I sighed and my breath, mingled with smoke, clawed into the crisp afternoon air and desperately sought a path toward the red shingled roof cottage. A breeze blew it off course.

You should’ve been mine.

Every day I’d sat with the old bastard on that porch of his. I was so sure he had no children, no wife, no one to will the property to. Good bucks I’d scraped together to buy the cottage as soon as it came on the market after he bit the big one.

But—shocker—there was a grandnephew.

A city slicker. Not one built for the likes of this town. He wouldn’t appreciate what a beauty this house was.

Bending over, I picked up the butts and brought them to the outside trash. The cat yowled again, and I crashed the metal lid down. I smiled as the small beast raced off.

I ran an appreciative gaze over my own modest lodgings. Small and comfortable. Undeniably adequate. But—

It’s not the cottage.

Walking past the hedges and primroses, I made through the familiar path. The grass bald by my daily crossing. A sharp perfume latticed the air. It was wonderful how the lady of the night flowers enriched the beauty of the countryside.

I passed the old water trough and the rickety ladder perched to the side of the cottage leading to the roof. The large attic window under the gable peered down. I winked my usual salute and rounded the corner.

The distinct sound of tires over gravel had my heart plummeting somewhere down by my heavy, steel capped boots.

Grandnephy is here already?

The strong desire to chain myself to the front door and refuse him entry overcame me. There had to be something I could do. Surely.

The guy drove way too fast over the gravel. As the car came to an abrupt halt, I clenched my teeth. The way he rolled up said nothing to assure me he’d look after the place.

Calm down, Royce, think about it. A city guy like him won’t wanna stay in the country long. This is merely a holiday joint to him. A place to take the girlfriend, wife, mistress—or whatever on weekends. Keep it friendly. I paced toward the figure stepping out onto the gravel. No, better than that, schmooze, get on his good side. Maybe he’s interested in selling.

A wicked smile tugged at my lips. Or perhaps I can persuade him to?

I swallowed a snicker at how he dressed. Light gray pants, black boots, and a navy blue funnel neck. Way too fashionable for the farm, Grandnephy.

He shut and locked his car door. Double checked. Then turned, his dark hair falling over one eye. With a casual flick he freed his gaze, smiled, and extended an arm. I gripped it in response, firm, expecting I’d bruise him, but the strength in his own clutch surprised me.

“Cullen Tomkins.”

“Well, Cullen,” I said, reclaiming my hand, “I’m Royce Pastal. Your neighbor.” I threw a hand in the direction of my place. “Guess you could say I’m your friendly welcome.” Smile, now. I hoped it didn’t look as strained as it felt. “Old Trevor was a great man. Made one helluva lamb pie. Sorry for your loss.” I cracked another smile at Cullen. “Let me show you around the place. I can help you make sense of the mess.”

I bit down on a response as Cullen trampled into the house without removing his boots. What disrespect to the magnificent wooden floors.

He wove around boxes half packed with old Trevor’s junk until he came to the bookshelf, which I’d have replaced with an antique. Dark wood would contrast nicely with the lighter frames in the walls.

Cullen gave a soft hmmm as he plucked one of the books. “Restless spirits and other paranormal phenomena.” I caught a moment of hesitation, and then the edge of his shudder. “Not exactly what I was expecting my great Uncle to have been into,” he said. He shoved the book back into its spot and wiped his hands on his pants.

I knew for a fact old Trevor had bought the book as a joke. He’d snorted his way through reading it. But Grandnephy here looked spooked. I didn’t think myself a sinister man, but the look was priceless. I allowed a small grin at Cullen’s uneasiness.

We entered the kitchen, by far my most favorite room. I loved the old tiles, some cracked with age; the bench in the middle a perfect space for working; the light that streamed through the large windows. I’d scrape off the white paint on the frames though. Get it back to its original state.

“So,” I said, leaning back on the gas stove, “what are your plans? Do you intend to sell because I can imagine you’d get a fairly good sum for it,” an idea formed in my head, and I found myself adding, “considering.”

“Considering, what?”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing really. Just a myth the place has a ghost or some crap.” I gave a casual shrug. “I don’t believe it myself. I mean, it’s an old house—it makes sounds, windows rattle, floorboards creak. It’s just part of the place’s . . . uniqueness.”

Cullen stared at me for a moment, and then swallowed appearing none too relaxed. “Yeah, sure, it’s an old house.” He frowned and checked around him.

Excellent, he’s already almost jumping at his own shadow.

“I, ah,” he continued, “won’t be selling, though. I’ve worked through most of the paperwork, changing of ownership, insurance etcetera. Think of me as your new neighbor.”

I schooled a scowl. “Of course, well, I won’t tell you about any of the silly myths then. No need to scare you, first night in a new place.” I gave a guttural laugh. “Not that you haven’t heard your fair share of ghost stories, I bet.”

I could see his eyes flicker as if he thought on what some of those were.

Just give me a week.

“There’s no food stocked here,” I said. “Would you like to eat with me tonight?”

Cullen’s shoulders fell as he nodded. “That’s kind of you.”

“No worries. Besides, if we’re neighbors we should get to know each other. Hope you like mushroom omelet.”

“Sounds good.”

I did a quick tour of the rest of the house. On our way out I grinned at the ugly metal sculpture on a ledge in the hall, a cross between a bull and man dancing. You’ll be one of the first things to go.

 

* * *

 

He’ll be in bed by now. I crept around the corner of the cottage. Yup, all the lights were off. We’d had a good dinner and a pleasant chat—surprisingly so, for a city guy. And while we did, I’d given him just enough wine to make him sleepy, but not drunk. He won’t think he’s making this up.

With a light step, I climbed the ladder to the attic window. Using a crowbar I wedged it open and climbed in. The boards squealed in protest at my landing. Would he jump at that sound? I made quick work of the bulb, unscrewing it and placing it in my pocket. I paced the attic, empty save for a giant old wardrobe. Huh it was quite nice a nice one. I’d put it in the guest room.

Creaks and groans of the old wood disturbed the quiet house. I paused, one ear at the door, listening. I smiled at the undeniable squeak of the bottom stair. As quickly as I could, I shut myself in the wardrobe. Once I’d counted to ten, the attic door opened.

Click—the flick of a switch. Cullen cursed. Was that a shaky voice?

Once he left, I waited a few moments and then made a quiet escape.

 

* * *

 

After the second night doing much the same, Cullen came around to visit. His silhouetted figure strolled to the porch. “Royce.”

“Cullen.” I offered him a cigarette.

“No thanks. I don’t smoke. Bad for your lungs.” I exhaled away from him, turning my making sure the smoke didn’t reach him. I might have wanted his house, but I didn’t want to disrespect his principles. Besides that, he was probably right. It was a disgusting habit. I stubbed out the rest of my cigarette. “What brings you around here?”

“Why, the pleasant company, of course.” Cullen stepped onto the porch. “Actually, I thought to return the favors. Would you like to come around for dinner tonight?”

I stretched, and got to my feet. “Let me get myself washed up, and I’ll be right over.”

A half hour later, I was at the cottage door. I gripped the rope hanging from the bell and rang. Cullen opened and invited me in.

Jeez, he still wore boots in the house. I thought he’d got the hint the last couple of times I’d carefully removed my shoes at the door.

“Hope you like lasagna.”

“Lasagna sounds great.” I shimmied past a wall of boxes en route to the kitchen. Dammit, new wicker baskets holding spices and grains hung from the ceiling over the counters. Looked like he was settling. “I see you’re cleaning things out.” I motioned to the hall.

“Yeah. I’m trying to make the place my own, you know?” Repress the urge to narrow eyes. Cullen tasted the tomato sauce and hmmmed. “Tell me what you think of this.”

I took the wooden spoon he held to my lips and tested. Oh—“Actually, that’s some good stuff. You a cook or something?”

Cullen grinned, combing the hair out of his eyes with his fingers. He almost looked . . . sweet when he did that. “I’m only good at two things. Lasagna and popcorn.”

“Popcorn, eh?”

“My favorite snack.”

I leaned against the counter and watched him some more. He moved lithely as if every movement were a part of a dance. “Pity you don’t have a microwave.”

He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Tastes better if you make it on the stove.”

Over the layers of pasta and mince he poured the sauce, and then dumped the pot in the sink with a clunk! Careful, Grandnephy.

“What’s the best hardware store around here?” Cullen asked. “I had to chuck the old hose out and need a replacement. I also need some more tools for setting this place up. Possibly some paint too.”

I nearly blanched at the word paint. Time to up the ante.

“Just going to the boy’s room.” I exited the kitchen and made my way to the lounge. Old Trevor’s small CD player, covered in a fine layer of dust, sat in the bottom of an old shelf. Plugging in the thing, I set the alarm to CD. A nice little wake up call for you, Grandnephy. You don’t wanna live here.

 

I slept well that night. And even better the night after, when Cullen crashed at my place, totally freaked. Claiming he’d drunk too much to shuffle across the field, he’d slept on my couch. I went to bed, satisfied and dreamed of the story I’d told him over dinner.

“The woman was a widow. She killed her husband. Apparently she didn’t like men at all.” With the hardest straight face I’d held in my life, I told him about her ghost. How she liked to mess with guys’ minds. I didn’t tell him too much, just enough to have him on edge. “It’s a ridiculous myth. I mean, Old Trevor lived here for years and he was fine. It’s just some crock the kids make up on Halloween to freak themselves out.”

In the morning, I woke with a smile. I spent the day sketching designs, planning my cottage. Whistling substituted my every cigarette. After tonight, I’d make him the offer. No doubt I’d save a buck through this prank as well.

“C’mere kitty, kitty.” I threw down some kibble at the hole in the fence separating my property from Mrs. Trollier’s. “C’mon.”

I strained to see the small cat in the dark. Shook the box again. Heard a rasping cry answer me. Perfect. I grabbed the small animal by the scruff of its neck. The cat struggled wiggling out of my grip. I cursed as I chased it around the garden. Damn cat, stay still. I lunged once again, seizing it. It let out a yelp and scratched me as I contained it.

With it protesting under my arm, I made my way to the cottage and up the ladder. I dropped the cat into the attic. “Don’t pee in here, got it? Scare the shit out of him. Show me there’s something you’re useful for. There’ll be treats in it for you.” I climbed back down with a grin and headed home.

It took less than an hour and only three beers before fists pounded at my door. I opened it to a stuttering Cullen. “Oh my God, come in. What’s happened? You look” like you’ve seen a ghost “pale, man.”

He wobbled, and I clutched him around the waist as he sank against me. He was warm and trembling. Shit. I’d gone too far. He was meant to freak out and sell the house, but I didn’t want to . . . damage him or anything. “You’ll be all right,” I said calmly, and steered us both to the couch.

We sat down, him close to my side. Very close. Very warm . . .

I jumped up. “Is there something I can get you? Cup of tea, coffee, whiskey, perhaps?”

He swallowed and dumbly nodded. “Tea.”

I walked as if on a trapeze. On the one hand, I wanted to give a triumphant whistle; my plan seemed to have worked! On the other . . . maybe I was having second thoughts. I brought him tea and watched as the hot liquid spilled over his pants as he took it. He looked too shaken to notice. It’ll all be worth it in the morning. I’ll offer him a good deal . . .

“Now, what happened?”

“I was, ah,” he bowed his head in shame “frightened. I just ran straight out when . . .” He took another breath. “I was just”—gulp—“just making popco—” Terror shone in his eyes as he met my gaze. Different from being shaken up, there was something in the look had my gut clenching. He said, “I think I left the oil on the stove.”

He lurched to his feet. But he didn’t move anywhere as fast as I did. I leaped off the porch. “Oh God.”  Thick plumes of smoke and a brilliant orange licked the cottage. “Nooooo!”

I raced towards it; aware Cullen called the fire brigade on his cell.

Where was the frigging hose? Like a death sentence I heard Cullen’s words replay in my head. I had to chuck the old hose out.

I grabbed an old tin bucket, the closest container nearby and filled it with water from the trough. But my efforts did nothing to tame the beast consuming my cottage.

By the time the fire brigade got here it was too late. Too much wood. Too quick to burn.

After hours at work, one firefighter strode over to us. “Unfortunately, this was the only salvageable thing we can find so far.”

I let out a curse as I reluctantly took from him that ugly-ass bull-man metal sculpture. A movement behind him caught my eye, and I looked up to see Mrs. Trollier’s cat trotting across the field.

I dropped the sculpture, searched for a cigarette. Damn, I needed one. With a shaking hand I brought it to my mouth. In control, Cullen dug a hand in his pocket and pulled out a silver lighter. I leaned toward him as he lit it for me and frowned at . . . at the slightest trace of a grin on his face.

Well shit, I’d been played by a city slicker.