Sacrifice, (Alternate Ending)

(Horror. This was just something I toyed with, even though I prefer the Part 5 ending. This picks up from the end of Part 4, and is a bit longer.)

The smell was what hit her first, followed by the nasty sound of something metallic clanking against something else.  Her flashlight cut through the darkness, tracing through lines of chains and hooks and other things less clear to her.  She could not make out a stairway, ladder or other door; her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her chest in raw panic.

“Colin,” she whispered hoarsely, “is someone else here?”

“Yes,” Colin half whispered, “well, kind of.”

A figure, vague and luminescent, appeared in the corner of the room.  A powerful, nearly overwhelming, feeling of hatred poured from it.  Although the image was faint and misty, it looked like a tall man in a long coat.  His eyes were the only clear thing about him.

“Wouldst ye cheat your grandfather, Colin,” the thing spoke, shocking Macy out of her paralysis, “or hast thou been deceived by a wicked woman?”

“Speak plainly, grandfather,” Colin responded.  “No riddles tonight, of all nights.”

“This creature has known a man,” the figure replied, pointing at Macy, “and ‘twas our agreement she be a virgin.”

Macy was locked in a combination of panic and fascination.  Colin’s grandfather was long dead, and yet Colin acknowledged it as his grandfather.  She wanted to believe this was some trick, an extremely distasteful joke being played on her.  The entire thing was too preposterous to believe.  She was too shocked to even pray, or call out to God for strength.  And yet the feeling of hatred and rage from the figure was intense enough to be visceral.

Colin was looking at her.  “Macy,” he asked, “is it true?”

She looked back at him, confused at his question but anxious to answer.  It was a long moment before the matter of her virginity was being questioned.

“What?” she said, with a touch of her own anger.  “How could you question that?  I told you on our second date.  Do you think that has changed or something?  What is this?”

“Long story,” Colin said, and pointed to the dim figure across the room, “but he has a funny way of knowing these things.  Is there any way he could be wrong?”

Macy was deeply afraid.  Nothing was making sense; it was so overwhelming that it was all she could manage to not scream and run.  The walls felt as though they were closing in on her.  The glare from across the room was starting to freak her out.

“I don’t know,” Macy said, trying to think through a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.  “Maybe.  When I was little, a man might have, you know…done something, but I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?” Colin reproached.  “You mean you were molested?”

“Yes, maybe,” Macy said, more confused than ever.  She did not remember anything, but a cousin had let her in on the rumour.  It was such a flimsy story she had not even bothered to tell Colin.  She barely thought about, and really did not believe it.  “It would have been a long time ago.  I don’t know if it happened, even.”

Colin looked carefully at her.  His eyes seemed to search hers for a real answer.

“So that would be it?” he asked, harshly.  “Someone diddled you as a kid.  Nothing else?”

“No, Colin,” she said, noticing the tears in her eyes for the first time.  “I would never lie to you.  What’s happening?”

Colin looked across the room.  “Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouted.  “You can’t seriously count that against her.  It’s not the same thing.”

“I shall account as I will,” the figure spat.  “Our bargain ist not complete.  Ye owest me a betrothed maiden, pure and untouched.  Doest thou forget our arrangement, young Colin?  Time is short, boy.”

This has turned into an impossible task, Colin thought.  Grandfather, his childhood companion and tormentor, had cursed the family to misery and failure until a sacrifice was made.  The family had suffered numerous setbacks and early deaths for generations, supposedly from accidents or poor health, on account of grandfather Charles’ curse.  In this moment of failure, so close to a resolution, Colin was through with it.  Only a moment ago, he was prepared to kill Macy to shake off the family curse; to give himself a chance in life.  He could not go any further down a road of madness.

“Macy,” Colin said, his voice commanding and firm, “we are leaving.  Stay close to me.”

Colin heaved at the door, slowly opening it.  “What is happening, Colin?” Macy asked, clinging to him, afraid to look away from the ghost in the room.

“The family has been under a curse, imposed by one of its own patriarchs many generations ago,” Colin explained.  “You see, Charles, the grey haired man in the portrait in the master suite, came into conflict with his son over…business matters.  The old man wanted to continue illegal practices as part of the regular business.  His son wanted to phase that out.  Things became tense between them, threatening to divide the family.  Charles was making plans to kill off anyone opposed to him, family or not.  Things turned worse when the family got wind of this old Charles and his plans.  They took him into this very room, one night, and tortured him into a confession.  It practically killed him, but not before he cursed the family to ruin.”

“And he needed a sacrifice…” Macy said, starting to put everything together.  “You were going to…”

“That’s finished, Macy,” Colin said as he got the door open enough for them to pass.  “It’s all finished, now.”

Charles, who had only watched and listened to this point, suddenly stirred.  The change in his emotional state was palpable.  Rage was being tempered with suspicion and blame.

“Ye shall not flee without tasting my pains, boy,” Charles said, angrily.  “The Hardwick name shall die with ye, if thou barest not the terms of our bargain.  I will see to it.”

Colin pushed Macy through the doorway and turned to flee.  Charles screamed and surged with the power of the unrested.  The chains, hanging quietly, rattled to life and struck out at Colin, slicing and gouging him before he quitted the room.

Macy was too terrified to scream; only keeping enough wits to escape through the secret passage with all the speed she could muster.  Colin was close behind, and though Macy hardly noticed, he was being battered.  Charles was unleashing over two centuries of hate; Colin was running on adrenaline, hardly feeling the physical effects of the attack.

When they reached the master bedroom, Colin was a mess; his body covered with bruises and cuts, some dangerously deep.  Macy hesitated for a moment, troubled by Colin’s wounds.

“Keep moving!” he shouted, pushing her out of the room.  “We have to get out.”

They ran down the corridors, nearly tumbled down the stairs, ending face to face with Charles at the front door.  The old spirit had materialised in front of them.  Macy got a clear look at the haggard figure, features clear and more fearsome than ever.

“Thou shall not escape my wrath whilst Hardwick House stands, boy,” Charles seethed.  “Ye bear my blows well, yet I have more to give.”

The adrenaline rush was just beginning to slide from a peak, and Colin knew it.  Charles was more powerful that he imagined.  Still, he had a couple of cards left to play.  He pulled out the dagger he had intended for Macy, brandishing it before him.  It was old, but in perfect shape considering its history.

“Remember this, you freak?” he taunted.  “This bring up any fond memories from your last minutes as a mortal?  You were the one who told me about it.  I expect it might hurt you, still.  Willing to test that theory?”

Charles hesitated, fading slightly.  For a moment, the emotional energy he had been projecting wavered.

Colin charged the door, dagger first.  Charles flinched and disappeared before Colin reached the door.  He pushed through, Macy close behind him, until they were outside.  The night was a welcome sight.

“We made it,” she said, panting.  “We made it.”

Colin was about to say something when stones from the ground tore free of the ground and began to fly.  They were aimed squarely at the car; one destroying a tire, another smashing the steering wheel, and another one crushing the hood into the motor.

“What do we do now?” Macy cried.  “This is crazy!”

“He doesn’t like the dagger,” Colin reasoned aloud, “but it won’t keep him at bay for long.  He loses strength away from the house, though.”

“Then let’s get out of here!” Macy said.  “Let’s get way out of here!”

“No,” Colin said, a look of resolution crossing his face.  “You get out of here.  I have to finish this.”

“I am not leaving you here,” Macy said, panic creeping into her voice, again.

Colin choked out a dry laugh.  “I’m not worth it,” he said.  “What I was going to do tonight…I am not worth it.  Just get away.  He doesn’t care about you.”  The pain of the wounds was starting to hit.  Colin was thinking, though.  Charles had made a revelation, perhaps slipping up in overconfidence, that changed the game.  It was risky, but Colin strangely felt no fear; like death would only be welcomed.

Macy stood there, shocked and afraid.  She understood what Colin had intended, but running down a country road, alone in the night, was too much.  Beyond the fear, she still loved Colin.  Leaving him was not an option.

“No,” she said.  “I won’t go alone.  What do we do?”

Colin was too weak to argue with her.  “We have to be quick,” he explained.  “It took a lot out of him to wreck the car, but he is recuperating.”

“Why didn’t he just kill you?” she asked.

“Not sure,” Colin said, approaching the ruined car.  “He probably wants to drag it out, torture me like the family did to him.  The house has to go.  Got to burn it down.”  Colin fished out the emergency kit from the battered trunk.  He removed the pair of road flares, the old school kind.

Macy’s eyes widened as she realised what he intended.  “You’re not going back in there?”

“It’s the only way,” Colin said, lighting both flares.  He felt lightheaded as he approached the open door.  He had lost much blood, and time was against him.  Macy stayed back.

“I’m afraid,” she cried.

“Just stay, then,” he advised as he plodded on.  It felt as though Charles was egging him on, tempting him to return.  Colin moved steadily, bracing for any possible assault.  Charles was not about to lose his house so easily.

Colin gained entry and moved to the nearest set of drapes he could find.  They would be dry enough to start the place up, especially if he could get several of them lit.

Something struck him hard in the back, knocking him to the floor, face first; the flares tumbled from his grasp.  His eyes were clouded with tears, brought on by a broken nose.  A wicked laugh filled the room.

“Ye know not the suffering I can deliver upon the living, wee Colin,” Charles whispered in his ear.  “Drain me, though it dost, there is nought else left for me.  I am cursed to an existence of no pleasure, lad, though your final torment will bring me near to it.  Damned or not, boy, know well your last earthly moments will like unto hell!”

Colin was lifted from the floor and flung across the room, bouncing off a cabinet on his way back to the floor.  Charles struck him several more times before his energy waned.  It was at that moment the old ghost shrieked and faded, swirling down the hall, howling.  Macy stood over him, dagger clutched in both hands.

“Heavenly Father, give me strength,” she muttered with a quavering voice.

“Looks like he already did,” Colin noted.  “Get the flares…light the drapes.  Quickly!”

She ran to the task as he struggled to his feet; broken ribs working against his every move, now.  His head swam as Macy got a fire started.  “What now?” she asked, seeming more confident.

“Another set,” he said, hurting him to speak while hobbling to the next room.  “That should do it.  Go quick.”

She darted to the next room and lit the drapes.  She also got a couple of painting going.  Smoke was starting to fill the area.  “What now?” she asked, running to him.

“Out,” he croaked, feeling nauseous; breathing in shallow breaths.  “Fast.”

She threw the flares into the hall and helped him struggle back out, into the safety beyond the house.  Charles, who had been a wisp of a presence since Macy had stabbed him, stirred.  Colin and Macy both felt it.

“Keep…going,” Colin gasped, hoping he would not collapse too soon.

“I know,” Macy confirmed, half afraid of what Charles’ last effort would be.  She stayed focused on the idea he got weaker as he got farther from the house.  They were past he car, moving to the road.  Colin was nearly unconscious, barely carrying his weight.

Charles appeared before them, yet again.  His form was blurry and vague, just luminescent enough to see in the light of the burning house.  His rage still burned, but his weakness was clear.

“Young Colin meant ye to die this night, to finish our bargain.  Know ye this?”

“I know it,” she said, out of breath and emotionally drained.  Charles wanted her to abandon her fiancé at his moment of greatest need.  It would mean a sure death for him, and she could not be certain of saving him, anyway.  She felt the first tingles of heat from the house, beginning to properly burn, and noticed Charles, still hoping she would walk away, fading in tiny increments.  She needed to stall him.

“I don’t even know why I am helping him now,” she said, noticing a flicker of hope from Charles.  “He was going to kill me, sacrifice me.  Our life together was nothing.  I should leave him.”

“Yes, child,” Charles groaned, even that tiny effort testing his endurance.  “Leave him be.”

Colin’s legs gave out, and she lowered him to the ground.  He was barely conscious.  Macy laid him on his back, stunned at the horrid look of his wounds in the fire light.

“Fly, now,” Charles instructed, impatiently.  “He will receive what he hath earned.”

Macy was not sure what more she could do without being obvious.  She leaned over Colin and gently kissed his forehead.  She looked up at the house.  Most of the ground floor was burning, casting a macabre light on grounds.

“Look at the house,” Macy said, just for something to say.  “It is finished, just like you.”

Charles doubled over, fading; weakly reaching out to grab Colin.

“You…dirty…harlot…” Charles groaned, fading to nothing, his presence leaving like a bad smell blown away by a breeze.

She wondered if she was in shock.  She lay down next to Colin, happy he was still breathing.  The fire continued to throw heat; and yet Macy could not stop her shivering.

Sacrifice, Part 4

(Horror. Things get properly weird when Colin reveals a new secret of the Hardwick House)

They lingered in the woods before returning.  The presence, as if sensing Colin’s fatigue and resentment, returned with less urgency and intensity, giving him room to breathe.  The day was starting to pass away, the sun dipping toward the tree line.  They walked through cellars with care.  “The newer wings of the house,” Colin explained in the dim light of the first cellar, “have separate cellars because the original never had one.”

Macy was actually relieved when they finished seeing the cellars.  The low, dark rooms were dusty and filled with odd, creepy tools and devices that looked frightening in the poor lighting.  She kept close to Colin and tried to imagine she was in a museum.

They ate sandwiches and drank some wine for their supper.  The evening seemed to take root earlier than usual.  “The valley,” Colin said when she mentioned it.  “It makes it seem like the sun comes up later and goes down earlier.  I had forgotten.”

The darkness brought on an entirely new feel to the building.  As the light retreated from the sky, and the full moon took over, what had been a cosy, odd house felt forbidding and eerie.  Macy noticed the change quickly, while Colin barely felt it.  Some of the lights in the house were not working and Colin could not tell if they were burnt out or had other issues.  Macy decided it would be best to stick close to the master suite until morning.

Colin made the pretense of working on his laptop for a while, supposedly recording his observations of maintenance.  Macy played a game on her phone to kill time.

It was beginning to feel quite late when Colin, now starting to feel a growing urgency from the house, closed his laptop and moved closer to Macy, trying his best to be mischievous and charming.  “I almost forgot to show you something very important,” he said.  “It just occurred to me when I was recording all the maintenance stuff.”

Macy was equally interested and suspicious.  “And what’s that?”

“The secret passage!” he said.  “It is really neat.  I used to love it as a kid.”

A few hours earlier and she might have gone for it, straight away; now, the house had bad feeling about it.  Something just did not seem right and she could not explain it.  Colin was looking at her with keen excitement for the first time since they left, making her challenge her instincts about staying put.  She was pleased to see him looking happy and did not want to spoil the moment.  She let her guard down, pushing her instincts aside.

“Really,” she teased, not wanting to give him no fight on the matter, “and why would this place need a secret passage?”

Colin had expected the question in the way a professional tennis player expects the ball to return to them at a certain place on the court, hitting it back with seeming comfort.  “The family had been smugglers,” he began smoothly, still working his charm.  “When they build the place, Charles Hardwick, the grand old man of the family, got it into his head he should have a comfortable way out in case they had issues with the law.”

“You’re not going to tell me there is an underground tunnel leading off the property,” Macy challenged, drawing the line at creeping through a dark, icky hole in the ground.

“Nothing like that, although there were plans for it,” Colin explained, trying not to sound too forced.  “The old man wanted to build an escape tunnel, but never got around to it, and his successors didn’t think it was needed.  Of course, they were slowly moving away from the illegal work and focussing on legitimate business by then.  Anyway, old Charlie had his secret passage though the house and it stayed, even without the tunnel.”

“And you want to see it now?” Macy asked in a negative tone, hoping he would settle for seeing it during the day.

“Call it an adventure,” he said, smashing the ball back in her court as he had expected he would have to.  “It was a fond memory for me when I was a kid, playing around in the secret passage, even if it was not a secret anymore.”  This was partly true.  Colin did enjoy the mystery and adventure of the passage when he was young.

Macy tried to think of some way to bail on the idea, but Colin was so excited and she wanted to make him happy.  In some way or other, she had lingering guilt about sexually withholding herself from him, and it was times like this when she felt the pang of it.  Her heart gave way and she agreed to go.

“You have to stay with me the whole time,” she said, setting limits as soon as she agreed.  “And no fooling around, I’m already a little scared about it.”

Colin soothed, “I will be with you the whole way,” he said.  “It will be all right.”

She instinctively grabbed her phone, until she remembered it was no use.  Colin, still playing the game as if it were practiced, grabbed one of the camping lights he had packed in case of power failure; brandishing it for her to see.  She used the bathroom before they were to go, finally preparing herself by taking a flashlight of her own.

“Okay,” she said, after a deep breath, “where does it start?”

“Right here,” he said, grinning.  He moved to one of the paintings and gently pulled it back.  The man in the portrait was typically grim and practically frowning; he looked almost angry with his high collar and dark eyes.  “Excuse me, Charles,” he apologized, pressing a small notch in the wood trim behind the scowling picture.  “Yes, that is the old man himself,” Colin remarked.  As he approached another wall and ran his finger along the base board until it reached a specific groove, pressing it firmly.  A loud set of clicks and one of the panels opened, just an inch or so, like a door.  Colin gave her his best, reassuring smile and pushed the panel back, revealing the passage beyond.

“Shit,” was all Macy managed to say.

Colin turned his light on and shined it down the corridor.  The walls were rough wood but dry and clean, even less dusty than the rest of the building.  He stepped through the door, ducking slightly through the entry.  Macy grabbed his arm, “We will be okay, right?”

He turned back to her, ready to win another point in this planned tennis match, “I have done this many times as a kid.  The passage is nothing to be afraid of.”  Her eyes looked carefully into his, as if searching for some doubt; when she found none, she relented.

The passageway was smaller than he remembered, though he was nine when he last set foot in it, but roomy enough for an adult man to walk upright with a little shoulder room to spare.  They took a turn ten feet in, leading to a steep stair that felt more like a ladder to Macy; this lead to a series of short passages, ending in stairs.  Macy was a bit disoriented, but knew they were trending down in their travels.  “Where does this come out?” she whispered ahead to Colin as they reached another stair leading down.

“The exit is just below us,” he said, whispering back.  The presence, which had mostly given him some space since their walk outside, was starting to build again; it was growing anxious, Colin could tell.

The final set of stairs was the easiest set, leading to a small room with stone walls and floors.  “Are we in the basement?” Macy asked in sudden panic.  She had not liked their earlier trip to basement and her nerves were not taking the return well.  It was an unreasonable fear, she knew, yet could no longer contain it.

“Macy,” Colin said, a little harshly, “it will be all right.  Just calm down and understand we are safe.”

“I just want to go back to the bedroom, okay,” she said, a little franticly.  “The adventure has been awesome, now it’s time to fucking go back, okay?!”

“Macy,” he said, rather firmly, “We are almost out, now.  It is faster if we just go to the next room and go straight back into the house.”  The presence was growing agitated, as if anticipating things to come, spurred on by Macy’s burst of emotion.

“Okay, okay,” she said impatiently, “then just go quick, I can’t stand it.” She was shaking, now.

A heavy, wooden door was the only other exit in the room.  Colin turned an ancient latch and shouldered the door open.  Macy stayed right with him as he pushed though.  She squeezed past as he closed the door behind them.  The room was just wrong.

Sacrifice, Part 3

(Horror)

            Colin fussed with the keys before finding one that worked, commenting on how they were all using skeleton keys when he left.  The door opened to a fairly modest entrance, strangely small for the size of the house.  It smelled old and a bit damp.

            “Seems a bit small for such a big place,” she commented.

            “This is part of the original house, before they expanded it,” he said, trying to ignore a familiar, awkward presence.  “Some of the old house was changed around, just not the entrance or halls.  When I was growing up, the decor was very much a rustic, old style.  Most of the furniture and wood is original.”

            “It looks in decent shape,” Macy commented, looking over the walls and windows as they passed through the halls.  “Are these paintings all originals?”

            “Yeah,” he said leading the way down the hall, “and only a few have needed restoration work.”

            “And these are family portraits, then?” she asked, slightly awed by the stern folk, depicted in rigid, firm stances.  They were like something out of an early Victorian museum.

            “Pretty much,” he said, hardly looking at them.  “The odd one is some family friend or something.  They were a tight knit clan from all the history I was ever told.  And here is the staircase.”

            The oak stairs were in perfect shape, other than a bit of dust, and curved up to meet a landing that branched off into the upper floors.  The wood was not ornate or decorative.  It was a simple, sturdy construction meant to last; similar to the rest of the house.

            “So far, it doesn’t look like Cyril took anything from the place,” Colin said, finding it better to talk than address the growing presence stirring around him.

            “I can’t wait for a proper tour,” Macy said, starting to forget her earlier concerns and enjoy the moment.

            “Cyril probably lived in the master suite while he was here, so that is where we are headed,” Colin explained as they moved through another dusty hall.  “It should be set up for modern living, or close.”

            The master suite was large without being expansive.  It had a full bathroom, sitting room and study.  It was all right out of a history book.  Of all the things in the room, only the bed struck Macy as being over the top.  It was high and deep, with immense oak posts supporting a velvet canopy.

            Colin pulled gently on a cord that hung down from the high ceiling and the lights came on.  Macy gave him a looked of awe and surprise.  “That is so weird,” she said, “and cool at the same time.  What the heck?”

             Colin laughed at that.  He had taken the strange light switches for granted as a kid; in fact, normal wall switches took him a while to get used to.  “They used to have these connected to a bell downstairs for the servants.  They never got rid of them, so now they turn the lights on and off.”

            Macy gave the cord a short tug and the lights went off.  She laughed, too.  It was all so strange and wonderful; and it helped her connect with Colin’s unusual past.  She felt closer to him than ever.

            The room had fresh bedding and was otherwise set to live in.  Colin took Macy on a tour of the building, checking the state of things as they went.  The house had changed very little since he left so many years ago.  The odds and ends repairs that Cyril had made really took care of the worst issues; the rest was all a matter of details.  The rooms were in order, drop cloths protected anything worth protecting, and the worst cleaning needed was some dusting.  The returning memories helped Colin manage the increasing pressure from the presence in the building.  It took them nearly two hours to see everything except the cellars, by which time he had a headache from focussing on the tour and denying the presence.

            “We don’t have to see the cellar,” Macy said, noticing his changed temperament, assuming fatigue or emotional strain.  “We can just rest a bit, if you want.”

            “Actually,” Colin said, “how about I show you the old stable house?”  They had seen the building from the windows facing the back of the property.  Macy agreed, thinking the fresh air would be a good change.

            The presence in the house had less strength when Colin was out.  He found a bit of clarity and release as they crossed the yard to the stables.  He found the key for that lock and opened it up.  There wasn’t much to see.  The family only kept a couple of horses when he was kid, and they were older animals kept mostly for the nostalgia of it.  Faint traces of manure and damp wood lingered.  The wall was littered with traps, chains, tackle and harness, tools and supplies.  Most hung on nails or hooks.  Not much to see, but the distance from the house was a relaxing change for Colin.

            “How about a walk around the grounds?” he asked her.  The weather was pleasant enough and they toured the remnants of the garden.  It had completely grown over and gone wild.  Some failing fruit trees had suffered greatly from strangling ivy.  They walked through the path into the forest beyond the garden.  The stones were covered in moss and forest litter, but the path remained clear enough to pass comfortably.  The pair of stone bridges over the creek stood strong as ever, adding a pinch of civilization to the forest.  They walked in silence; Macy trying to give Colin some space to deal with whatever was ailing him.

            For Colin, the ground past the last foot bridge was safe ground from the nagging pressure within the house.  His mind was completely clear after they crossed it.  He recalled, as a youth, that it was so.  He was not sure if the presence had become stronger, somehow, or he was simply not used to it after the long absence.  The respite would be short lived, he knew, though it was welcome.

            He looked at Macy like he had not seen her before.  She was not an ugly girl, to be sure, though modelling would never be an option.  She was slim and kept good care of herself.  Her personality was generally pleasant, though she was a bit needy and tended to nag.  She was from a working class family with no major red flags for him.  In all, not a bad girl; but not one he really cared to marry.  He regretted her part in the events to come.

Sacrifice, Part 1

(I return from holidays a little refreshed and ready to kick off 2020. I hope everyone had a happy and restful time. Thought I would switch gears from the long, sci-fi and jump back to some shorter, spooky stuff. This is a horror/ghost story with just a hint of mystery thrown in. Hope you enjoy.)

“You have been putting this off for forever, Colin,” Macy nagged playfully.  “Like so many other things.”

            Colin was getting used to the nagging; it was growing more frequent as the wedding day approached.  He put up with it, on account of the bigger picture.  “The old house isn’t going anywhere, so a few more minutes will be okay.”

            “I guess so,” she agreed, keeping things playful.

            The car was already packed and ready for the short drive to the Hardwick House.  Even though he had only brought up the family house recently, the trip to see it was high on both their priority lists.  Macy already knew she liked Colin; he fit her check list so well that it sometimes scared her.  His family had dwindled from several accidents and tremendous ill luck, true, but that also meant fewer in-laws to interfere or quarrel with.  Colin was a junior partner in a mediocre law firm, clean cut and God-fearing.  He was a little older than she had hoped for; that being the worst thing about him.  He had not immediately told her about the family estate in the heart of New England he had recently inherited, perhaps concerned that she was a gold digger, yet this seemed a reasonable precaution to her.  She had not accepted his proposal for his money, but the additional security it provided was welcome.

            For Colin, the house had some value beyond childhood memories.  He had been raised there until he was nine, when his father whisked Colin and his mother away to New York City.  Life had been good at the Hardwick House, a remote, Victorian mansion in a magnificent state of upkeep; especially compared to a busy, loud and crowded New York City.  Twenty five years later, Colin was in a tight spot.  Despite relative success as a business lawyer, his lifestyle and some questionable investments had set his finances back.  Debts were crippling, nearly to the point of breaking.  The family estate came to him as an early surprise; the recent passing of an estranged uncle being the last in a string of unusual deaths.  The place was worth a fair chunk of change; at least, enough to pay his mounting debts and give him a fresh start.  Still, there was always a price, even for an unexpected gift.

            The plan was to spend Saturday night at the house in order to check it out.  Colin’s Uncle Cyril had been keeping the place as a summer residence.  Uncle Cyril had been carrying out some upkeep toward selling the place, so the property would keep them dry enough for a weekend.  They brought camping gear, just in case.

            “How long since your uncle stayed there?” Macy asked as they got underway.

            “Almost a year,” Colin said, sure he had told her before.

            “I still can’t believe it took so long for the will to go through,” she said, mostly to make conversation.  Colin had only told her about it a month ago.  She had been dying to see Colin’s childhood home ever since.

            “It was a pretty screwy will,” Colin said, playing along with the idle conversation.  “I think he probably didn’t want the place going to me.  He did everything except exclude me from the will.  If he had, there would be an auction right now.”  Cyril had willed his entire estate to a series of friends who turned out to have passed away or disappeared.  The will was clearly old; the old man had not expected to kick off so soon.  When it was clear that no one in the will was available to take it, Hardwick House passed to the next available family member.

            “You were kind of vague about his break with the family,” Macy went on.  “He didn’t get along with your dad, somehow?”

            “The reason I was vague is because I never had it explained to me, either,” Colin explained.  “No one talked about it, really.  What I know came in bits and pieces.  Mom and dad were already dead before I left law school, so there wasn’t a lot of adult discussion of family politics.  Who knows, they might never have told me, anyway.”

            “Your uncle was mad that your dad left the estate,” Macy probed.  “Seems like a weird thing to fight over.”

            Colin smiled.  He had wondered about the full connection to his own understanding of the house and Uncle Cyril’s rift with his father.  “It could be anything, I guess.  For all I know, dad left because of the fight.  The bits and pieces suggest Cyril felt dad owed it to my grandparents to stay.  I just don’t have enough information to say, really.”

            Macy smiled and put her hand Colin’s shoulder.  “You’re funny,” she said, almost giggling, “with your legal need to have it all evidenced out.  You don’t even want to try a few theories?”

            “Not really,” Colin said, really not caring about the details of an event that no longer mattered.

            “Okay,” she said, trying to find a new angle to keep the conversation going.  “What did your uncle do for a living?”

            “He was a building contractor,” Colin said.  “As far as I know, that was all he ever did.”

            Macy nodded.  “And did he have much money of his own?  He was keeping up a pretty expensive property for a few years.”

            “He was planning on selling it in a few years, according to the paperwork.  His contracting business didn’t make a ton of money, but he seemed to manage.  For all I know, he was selling family heirlooms to make the difference.  As it stands, I already sold his business to one of his senior employees to cover the legal costs related to the stupid will.  He was worth that much, at least.”

            “Hopefully he kept the plumbing up,” Macy said, looking to lighten things.  “I don’t really want to do my business in a pot all weekend.”

            “I think the place is livable, including plumbing,” Colin said, checking his blind spot as he pulled onto the interstate.  “A local caretaker was keeping the place up until a couple of weeks ago.  Another provision of the will.”

            “Why did he stop?” Macy asked.  A caretaker was news to her.

            “A short term contract provided for in the will,” Colin said.  “It’s part of why I wanted to see the place now.  If the place is good enough to sell, as is, I may hire him on again until a deal closes.”  He had already explained his intention to fix the house up, if needed, to maximize the price.

            “Would you ever consider keeping it?” she asked.  She had brought it up before, briefly, but never really discussed it beyond that.

            Colin smirked.  “Part of me wouldn’t mind.  The truth is that my life is based in the city.  The commute is almost manageable, except for the winters.  I couldn’t justify the place as a summer residence, considering what year round taxes and insurance would cost.  Besides, just keeping the place up would be a job.  There must be a dozen bedrooms alone.”

            Macy smiled again, suddenly feeling close to him.  “Maybe, when we finally stop waiting to do the deed,” she said, half serious, “we could work on filling those rooms.”  She had casually referenced their state of celibacy.  Macy was not altogether the most religious girl, however she had a strong desire to remain celibate until her wedding night; which was, for Colin, the only thing that mattered.

            Colin looked away to hide the look crossing his face, obvious sadness and regret.  When he turned back, smiling, she seemed not to have noticed.  “That’s a lot of rooms,” was all he said.

            The expressway gave way to a short run on a secondary highway before leading to a genuine side road.  The road was hilly and winding at stops, seeming to hug the landscape.  Irregular intervals of houses and farms quickly gave way to trees and brush.  For Macy, a true city girl, they were suddenly in a wilderness; and she was uncomfortable with it.  They had been fairly quiet for a while, and she needed the comfort of conversation.

            “You weren’t kidding about the place being in the middle of nowhere,” she said, hoping he would converse.