The Keeper

Updated: Mar 8

Macy never liked having the top down. She couldn’t stand having a scarf around her face and pins in her hair to keep it from tousling into a tangled nest by the end of the drive. Alexander had insisted, however. He said he loved the feeling of flying free in his BMW. The engine purred like a majestic, powerful cat, bringing a smile of deep satisfaction to Alexander’s face. He would often drive and forget she was even there. Macy was sure that if he was made to choose between loving power and loving her, Alexander would choose power. He hadn’t always been like that.

They got married the day after they graduated from college. When they returned from their honeymoon, Alexander went to work in his father’s company and, in an act of indiscreet nepotism, was immediately installed as a Vice President of Acquisitions even though he had no experience. Macy became a society wife. Everyone expected they would have children right away, but when it didn’t happen, the unspoken disappointment became a cavernous divide in their marriage.

Alexander bitterly threw himself into his work, and Macy packed on a few extra pounds which Alexander didn’t find appealing. She had grown bored (and perhaps a little boring, she thought) with her socialite lifestyle, spending time with catty, wealthy women who gossiped while they drank too much wine. She had wanted to be something before they got married, but she couldn’t remember what it was anymore. The tedium of life had dulled her mind and soul, and yet, Macy was determined to save their marriage.

Inspiration came in the form of a brochure left on their doorstep. It depicted an elegant Victorian-style house that had been turned into a charming inn nestled in the Adirondacks next to a private pond. The inside of the brochure detailed the amenities of peace and quiet, expertly cooked meals, fishing, rowboats, nature walks, and comfortable accommodations. Macy went back inside and tried to find information online about the inn but had no luck. It was indeed private and remote. She called the number and got a response on the fourth ring.

“Yes, hello. I am calling to see if you have any rooms available in the next week.”

“Yup. I do. I just had a cancellation,” the male voice said happily.

“Oh, so I’m in luck. The reservation would be for my husband and me.”

“How long will you stay? It’s a little late in the season, but the weather is still fairly good,” he said.

“I think two weeks will do. Yes, that will be lovely. Is that ok?”

“Yes, ma’am. Glad to have ya. Can you arrive next Thursday?”

“I will see to it,” Macy said.

“The cost will be $1,400, but I only take cash. I’m a bit old-fashioned.”

“That’s not a problem. We’ll see you next week. Thank you,” Macy said.

Macy broached the subject of a vacation with Alexander that evening. He was very much against the idea and dismissed her as if he was sending away an employee. She sulked for a couple of days; Alexander did not notice. Finally, she told him that if he didn’t go and attempt to repair their marriage, that not only would she go by herself, she’d return with divorce papers ready. It was a bluff, but she knew it would make him calculate the cost of a divorce.

“One week,” Alexander said. “I have important projects at work to manage.”

“More important than our marriage?”

“Don’t be so dramatic. One week. I really don’t understand what the problem is here. Everything is fine.”

Tears formed in the corners of Macy’s eyes.

“Really? It’s worth all that?” Alexander said. “You are far too sensitive, Macy. Anyway, I’ll tell my father I’m taking time off starting tomorrow. Happy now?”

Macy spent the day packing their bags and daydreaming about a perfect vacation. She envisioned long walks, making love in the forest, and evenings next to the lake with a glass of red wine while watching the stars. They would talk, find out what went wrong, and figure out how to fix it. She hoped she could find the old Alexander that she fell in love with back in college. Macy looked at the worn brochure again and smiled. She was sure it would be a turning point in their lives.

Alexander slowed to take a right turn onto a dirt road that led deeper into the forest. He looked at the trees looming over them, grimaced, then raised the top to keep out any falling foliage. Macy’s cheeks and nose were windburned a bright red, almost the color of her lips. She took off her scarf and unpinned her hair with a sigh of relief. Her loose, blonde curls fell across her shoulders and down her back, small ringlets tickled her cheeks. Alexander used to twirl her curls. She missed the tender familiarity of that touch.

Macy was shocked out of her reverie as one tire of the car dipped jarringly into a hole and back out. Alexander slowed the car to a near crawl. He pursed his lips and strangled the steering wheel. She knew she would never hear the end of it if there was even one small scratch on the car. She prayed that it would be fine.

“This place is a little more remote than I anticipated. I thought the road would be better,” Macy said cautiously. Alexander stared straight ahead.

The sun was low in the sky when they finally pulled up to a large, colonial-style home with tall white pillars along a wide porch. It was fronted by a row of rose bushes that appeared to be struggling to survive. Red brick steps led up to a black door with a bank of black shuttered windows on either side. Five similar windows lined the second story, and three dormer windows crowned the top of the building. The paint that should have been white was a sickly pale gray. Macy pulled out the brochure again and glanced between it and the house. Alexander looked over at Macy.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“Yes, this is it. It doesn’t look quite as inviting as it does on the brochure,” she said with disappointment.

“Well, you chose this place. It’s late, and I don’t feel like heading back,” Alexander said as he cut the engine.

A man who looked impossibly old stepped out onto the porch. He carried a cane in one hand and walked with a slight hunch in his back. He smiled and waved with his free hand. Alexander and Macy gave an unenthusiastic wave back then exited the car. The old man started down the stairs with tentative steps as if he was unsure about finding the next one.

“Welcome! Let me help you with your bags,” he said.

“No, no thank you. I’ve got them,” Alexander replied as he pulled two suitcases from the trunk then closed it gently.

“The weight of a single bag might snap his arm,” Alexander mumbled to himself.

“Please don’t come down for us,” Macy said. “We’ll be there in a moment.”

The man paused on the middle step. His smile didn’t wane as he waited patiently for their approach. Macy clutched her sweater close around her and looked up at the house then at the old man as they neared him. An uneasy feeling washed over her.

Macy noticed that the bricks of the stairs looked like they’d been weathered for a hundred years and were crumbling at the edges. The red was no longer the classic orange-red color that bricks have but rather a faded russet color leaning toward brown. Macy and Alexander were only a foot or two away from the old man, and he seemed even more ancient than before. He looked to be about five feet and ten inches tall, and at least a good twenty pounds or more underweight. Macy estimated that he could probably fit his whole body into one of her plus-size pant legs. The skin on his arms was the palest color possible without being dead, and a downy layer of white hair covered them.

His face was wrinkled like a piece of crumpled paper that had been smoothed out. There didn’t seem to be a single spot that wasn’t affected by a ridge or valley. He had a thin mouth and a beak of a nose with large nostrils. His eyebrows were like two fuzzy gray caterpillars resting on his broad forehead. Earlobes drooped from ears that were disproportionately too large for his head. All of this was crowned by a full head of white hair coiffed in a tall sweep back from his forehead.

He’s such an odd-looking old man, and if he weren’t standing and smiling, I’d swear he is too old and frail to be alive, Macy thought.

At the conclusion of this thought, the old man looked directly at Macy and smiled more broadly. She was momentarily taken aback by the confederate gray color of the man’s eyes; they fixed on her as if the man were aware of Macy’s every thought. She looked at Alexander to determine if she had said it aloud and not just thought it, but he was oblivious.

“You must be the Templetons,” he said with a distinctly upstate accent. His voice was warm and cheerful.

“I’m Macy, and this is my husband, Alexander.”

The old man shook their hands and said, “I’m happy to have ya. My name is Alden Stuart. Welcome to Paradise Inn. I’m the keeper here.”

Macy looked around and asked, “I don’t see any other vehicles here. Are we the only guests?”

“Ayup. As I said before, it’s a bit offseason. Had another couple scheduled to arrive, but they canceled, so it’s just you two. Hope you don’t mind having the place to yourself for the most part. Let’s get you inside where it’s warmer. I’ll show you around.”

Alden turned and walked up the stairs using the same care with which he descended. Each step he made was cautious and searching. They arrived at the open door, and Macy surveyed the state of the porch. It was clean but worn. The paint on the shutters looked less black and more charcoal up close. There were several chairs, benches, and a couple of small, round tables set along the length of the porch along with a wooden two-seat swing at one end. All the paint had tiny cracks and flakes. The house desperately needed a powerwash and a new coat of paint.

Alexander hustled their bags inside, but Macy took her time and lightly fingered the knocker on her way in. It was a large brass bird ornament with the tail acting as the knocker. The metal should have been cold, but it had a peculiar warmth that felt good against her chilled fingertips.

“Just drop them here. I’ll show you around the first floor, then I’ll show you to your room,” Alden said while motioning for Alexander to set the suitcases down.

They stood for a moment taking in the foyer as Alden shut the door. It was a grand entrance with a tall staircase in the middle. A giant crystal chandelier hung over a dark wood floor that looked original to the house. The walls were lined with a delicate floral wallpaper that was probably a hundred years old, as evidenced by the subtle buckling of the seams and one corner discreetly peeling near the ceiling.

On either side of the foyer stood two rooms. To the left was a dining room outfitted with a mahogany table long enough to fit sixteen people. To the right was a sitting room filled with plush furniture covered in a one-time red fabric that had become faded and dull. A massive fireplace dominated the wall at the far end with a face and mantel that mimicked the columns of the house.

Two large wingback chairs covered in a green and gold patterned fabric sat at angles in front of the fireplace. In one corner of the room stood a black baby grand piano. The sofas in the middle of the room flanked a large coffee table sitting on top of a pale red rug bearing a floral pattern with small gold birds perched on vines throughout. Several Tiffany-style lamps dotted the room; their colorful glass was as bright as ever, but the metal accents were tarnished.

“The house was built in 1840. I’m afraid it hasn’t been updated to include central heat and air, but you’ll be cozy. I make a fire in the morning here, and there’s another in the dining room. Your room has one too, and I’ve got a heater in the bathroom. It’s enough to take the morning chill off. Afternoons are still pleasant,” Alden explained in a matter-of-fact tone that assumed understanding and agreement.

He then pointed to two large pocket doors. “There’s a door here that leads to the library. Feel free to help yourself to any books. Just don’t take them past the porch, please. Many are first editions, and it would be a shame to lose one. Been workin’ on that collection for a long while,” Alden admonished Alexander and Macy with a kind but serious look.

They exited to the foyer next to the staircase, and Alden turned to the right to walk down the hall.

“My room is here in case you need me,” he said as he motioned to a door on the right, walked a few more paces, then turned left behind the stairs and pointed to another door. “This one takes you out to the small rear porch and toward the garage. Alexander, you should park your car there. Don’t want the birds messin’ it up.”

Alexander nodded grimly.

Several more paces took them into the kitchen. It was big enough to accommodate a full kitchen staff preparing to serve a banquet. The appliances were antiques but were clean and in good condition. The stove was massive with eight burners and an oven large enough to fit two turkeys. White cabinets lined the walls, accented by bits of yellow in decorative dishes, and a yellow vase that was sadly devoid of flowers.

“I’m the chef here. I’ll be cooking your meals. You’re welcome to sneak down for a midnight snack if the cravin’ hits,” he said with a wink to Macy. “I keep some treats in the fridge just in case. Just whipped up a chocolate chiffon pie today. The dishes are here, and the silver is here,” Alden said while opening the cupboard doors and drawers.

Macy smoothed her hand over her still flat but comfortable belly. “Oh, I’ll have to be sure to forget about that pie,” she said.

“Don’t see why missus, but it’s your prerogative,” Alden responded with a direct gaze and a broad smile.

Alden guided them from the kitchen through a large butler’s pantry and into the dining room. “Meals are served here. If you prefer to eat on the porch or in your room, let me know. Got a dumbwaiter that can send up the food quick enough.” He lifted his chin and smiled. It seemed like a strange point of pride; as if the simple dumbwaiter was more valuable than anything else in the house. “Right, let’s see your room.”

Alden walked out to the foyer toward the stairs. Seeing him navigate the porch steps earlier, Macy was worried and exasperated about Alden ascending the staircase.

“Alden, I’m sure we can manage. You don’t need to go up. We’ll find the room with directions,” Macy said.

“Nope, nope, gotta do the tour. It’s good for the ticker and keeps the joints limber,” Alden laughed. He took measured steps and leaned heavily on his cane. They ascended at a pace that could have been bested by a tortoise.

“There are no other employees here?” Macy asked.

“Nope, just me. The house doesn’t need much. I bring people in when it needs freshening,” Alden replied.

This place needs a whole crew twenty-four hours a day for a month to refresh it, Macy thought.

They paused at the top of the stairs before two large oil paintings. A young woman of about twenty-five had brown hair and wore a vibrant red gown with an elegant ruby necklace. Her arms draped elegantly at her sides. The man was significantly older, approximately sixty or seventy years old, wearing an elegant blue suit with a long jacket and holding a cane like the one Alden carried. The man’s pointed chin and nose were raised in a proud manner. His thin mouth was set with the seriousness typical of the era long before instant cameras and selfies. He even had gray bushy eyebrows on a broad forehead and a tall sweep of gray hair. If it wasn’t for the old-fashioned clothing and obvious aging of the portrait, the man could have been Alden.

“Is this a relative of yours? He looks strikingly similar,” Alexander asked.

“Ayup. That’s Doc. He built the house. It was Paradise Manor back then. Been in my family ever since,” Alden replied.

He seemed to consider the portrait. When he spoke again, he said, “An old house wouldn’t be complete without a ghost story of sorts. They say that after he built the house, his wife and child died. They were buried on the land. He swore he’d live here forever and never leave them. Some rich guy kept trying to buy the place. He wanted to buy up the whole lot—house and surrounding land. The town too. Wouldn’t give up. Doc knew of some witches in the area and got them to cast a spell that would protect it from selfish, heartless people. Only those who were invited could find the place. Doc invited the man back and he was never seen again.”

He paused for dramatic effect and then continued. “But everyone knows magic don’t last forever without sacrifice. It’s a force that needs to be fed,” Alden said. He laughed then continued down the left hall.

As they reached the second door on the right, Alden pulled out a brass skeleton key then slid it into the timeworn brass keyhole. The lock made a solid, satisfying click as it unlocked. Lights illuminated a generous space large enough to accommodate a queen-size four-poster bed, a sofa by a large window looking out to the back yard, an ornate wardrobe, and a fireplace that took up nearly a third of one wall. Macy toed at the beginnings of a threadbare spot on the rug, but her attempt to point it out to Alden discreetly went unnoticed. A door on the right wall led into a bathroom with a luxurious clawfoot tub and antique pedestal sink sitting on penny tile flooring.

Alexander dropped their bags with finality. “I guess you’ll be wanting this,” he said as he reached in his pocket and pulled out a stack of hundred dollar bills and thrust it at Alden.

Alden took the money with a gracious tip of his head.

“I’ll be downstairs preparing dinner if you need me. I used to be a chef at one time, so I think you’ll be satisfied with the fare. You’ll get plenty of good food here. Feel free to explore the grounds. Alexander, the garage is open to park your car.” Alden turned to leave, but Alexander stopped him.

“I’m sorry, it seems I don’t have any signal on my phone. Do you have a house phone I can use?”

“Nope. Line is down. They won’t be around to fix it for a couple days. Don’t worry about calling anyone. You’re on vacation. Enjoy it,” Alden said cheerfully then walked away.

“Great. I need to call my dad,” Alexander grumbled.

“Why do you need to call him?” Macy asked.

“Business, Macy.”

“But you agreed, no work for a week. This is supposed to be about us,” Macy said. She waited for a response but got none. “Alexander, you agreed.”

Alexander rolled his eyes and went to park the car. Macy frowned at him as he walked away jingling the car keys. Macy huffed then dragged the suitcases to the wardrobe. She stopped before opening it and retreated a step to view the heavily carved front. The image was an exquisite bird rising straight upward with tail plumes that looked like flames. Macy ran her fingers along a delicate curve and felt a curious sensation. She placed her palm on the door.

A hazy vision swirled behind her eyes. A woman in a long, red gown stood next to a pond. Her face was puffy and red from endless sobbing. She glanced back to the house for only a second then walked into the pond; her gown floated and billowed at first, spreading like a pool of blood, then the heavy, soaked fabric pulled her deep under the water. Macy’s trembling hand withdrew to her chest as she gasped for air. She felt woozy and rubbed her forehead. A light sheen of sweat had developed.

“What was that? I must be either hungry or having elevation sickness. Get a grip, Macy,” she said to no one but herself.

She unloaded the contents of their bags into the wardrobe, taking care to hang Alexander’s shirts and pants exactly as he liked them. She washed her face with cool water then decided to read until dinner. She laid on the plush mattress, pulled a heavy knit blanket over her, and opened her book.

Macy woke to a high-pitched tinkling wafting up from downstairs somewhere. It was the call of the dinner bell. She scooped up her book that had fallen on the floor and grunted as she pulled herself out of bed. She checked her face in the bathroom mirror before going down to eat, dabbed some cream on her puffy eyes, applied a rose-colored lipstick, and fluffed her hair. Her cheeks were bloodless, so she gave them several good pinches to wake up the rosy color.

Macy entered the dining room to find Alexander standing at the windows with a glass of wine. The only thing to be seen was darkness. Two places were set at one end of the table nearest to the fireplace where a fire energetically crackled and popped. Black chargers were paired with silver flatware that appeared to be the only thing in the house to have received a good polish recently. The crystal had a cut diamond pattern that sparkled under the light of the gold candelabra holding twelve tall tapers.

“Where have you been?” Macy asked gently.

Alexander snapped out of his dreamy state and faced her. “In the library checking out some of the books.”

Macy rubbed her hands. “I had an odd dream that I can’t remember.”

“Huh. Well, here,” Alexander said as he handed her his wine glass. He went to pour another for himself, and Macy sipped thoughtfully.

The velvety, dark cherry flavor of the cabernet sauvignon coated her tongue and dried out her mouth. Her stomach growled and insisted on immediate satisfaction, but her tongue felt thick. Alden entered from the butler’s pantry with a bone china plate in one hand and his cane in another. Macy worried that the dish would slip from his tenuous grasp, and all the precious food she needed would be lost to the floor, but somehow he managed to make it.

“It looks like that nap perked you right up, Mrs. Templeton. You’re practically glowing,” Alden said as he indicated for her to sit.

“Please, call me Macy,” she said with a smile.

Macy sat and placed a napkin in her lap as Alden placed the food before her. He had prepared a beautiful steak with a side of garlic mushrooms that had been deeply caramelized. Two fondant potatoes with golden brown tops were glazed with fragrant thyme butter. A bacon-wrapped packet of roasted asparagus graced the outer edge of the plate. Macy looked up as Alden set down Alexander’s dish.

“Alden, this looks delicious. It’s as beautiful a meal as I’d find in the city,” Macy offered graciously.

“Thanks much, ma’am. I’ve had many years of cooking. It’s one of the few pleasures I have left,” Alden replied with a wink.

The food was delicious, but the conversation was not. Every time Macy spoke, it seemed to cause Alexander annoyance. He could sit and talk about himself and his work until the end of time, but he didn’t want a response to what he said; he wanted an audience. Macy refilled their wine glasses as he droned on about some author he was trying to steal from another publisher. Alden walked in as they finished the last bit on their plates.

“Seems like it was good, yeah?” Alden asked.

“I haven’t had a steak that good in years. By my experience, home cooking is usually bland, overcooked, and boring,” Alexander said with a glance at Macy.

Macy choked on her wine as flames of indignation rose to turn her cheeks bright red. She waved off a look of concern from Alden.

“Well, sir, that’s generous of you, but I can't beat any meal that's made with love. If you two want to sit on the front porch, it’s mild outside. I’ll have some of that chocolate chiffon and coffee ready for you in a few minutes,” Alden said.

“Oh, none for us. Thank you,” Alexander said.

Macy frowned at Alexander’s presumption but didn’t say a word. She planned to sneak out of their room and down to the kitchen to get a generous slab of the pie later in the evening so she could eat it without the critical glances from him.

“A nightcap then. I’ll whip up a hot toddy,” Alden stated. It was clear that it couldn’t be refused without seeming rude.

Alexander and Macy settled into chairs on the porch and sat in silence for a long while. Macy finally spoke after several false starts.

“What do you think of this place?” she asked.

“It’s fine, I guess. That dinner more than makes up for the way the place is rundown,” Alexander replied.

“So you see it too? I’m not being picky? Everything looks like it’s on the verge of being worn beyond repair. I mean, it’s clean, and perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical because it is a country house after all, but it seems strange for an inn.”

“I get it. It’s not the luxurious surroundings you’re accustomed to,” Alexander said.

“That’s not it at all. Why do you do that? Why do you have to be so snide? Whatever. As I was saying,” Macy said pointedly, “is that there’s something a little weird. Like a feeling. I can’t place it though.”

Alexander laughed. “What? Do you think Alden is dangerous? I could overpower him without even exerting myself. Hell, for that matter, so could you.”

“No, I don’t think he’s dangerous. He seems genial enough. It’s just, I don’t know. A vibe.”

“A vibe? That’s the wine talking. Apparently, you drank too much. I'd think you'd have better tolerance by now.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you spend an awful lot of time hanging out drinking with those sponges at ‘brunch,’” Alexander said with the dramatic effect of air quotes.

“Excuse me?” Macy said.

“You know, the other executives have wives who are successful. They run businesses and charities. They actually enhance their husband's name, but I have you. It's embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing? So it's embarrassing that I've created a home for you, hosted parties, and cooked for your colleagues.”

“So? The other wives do that too, on top of everything else. You're just a housewife. Hell, I can't even blame it on having kids,” Alexander said bitterly.

“And there it is. That's it, isn't it? You're mad about not having kids yet. Did you think it would be easy? That we'd get married and I'd just get pregnant immediately? Do you think it's my fault?”

“Look, I'm not saying it's your fault. I thought we were on a similar path. I thought you'd make something of yourself. I'm just saying that, if we're going to make this work, I need you to be better. Get in shape. Find a job. Start a business if you aren't hireable anymore. Do something.”

“Why did you even come up here with me if you regret marrying me?”

“Because I wanted to give you a chance to fix this before you make a huge mistake. Also, my father's lawyers are working on moving assets where you can't touch them. I'm not giving you half of everything I've earned while you sipped bellinis.”

Macy was incredulous. This was not the Alexander she knew in college. He had been sweet and kind then. He had bought her flowers every week and proudly introduced her to everyone he knew as his future wife. Macy couldn't see even a sliver of that man left. He was gone, or maybe he never existed.

Alexander got up from his chair and went inside. He met Alden at the door and lifted a drink from his tray before continuing on. Night had fully enveloped the house and concealed her on the swing at the far end, but it creaked as she swung again in the self-soothing motion of a baby rocking itself. The light from inside illuminated Alden’s face. He frowned after Alexander, but upon hearing the swing move, he smiled then headed toward Macy.

“It seems like you could use this,” Alden said. He handed her the drink then sat in a nearby chair.

“Thank you,” she said as she wiped tears from her cheeks.

“You and Mr. Templeton having problems?”

“It seems more like one big problem, and that problem is me.” Macy didn’t know why she was opening up to this strange old man except that she couldn’t see him well, and it made her feel like she was confessing to a priest.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” he said, shaking his head. “A beautiful young woman with a good heart such as yourself, any man should be proud to have you. I know I would be. You deserve a man who appreciates you.”

Macy smiled the way young women do when receiving compliments from an old man exercising his flirtation skills. “Thank you, Alden. You’re too kind.”

“I’m just sayin’ that if a man can’t see the diamond amongst all the glass, then he has no right to lay claim to it.”

Macy laughed and sniffled. Her tears were drying up.

Alden reached over and put his hand on hers. “Don’t you worry. The ash of destruction brings about new life.”

A jolt coursed through Macy from her fingers to her head then down her spine. Her head began to swim like she was on a merry-go-round. She pulled her hand away and shivered.

“Are you cold? You should come in by the fire. I’ll make you another drink. It’ll warm you right up.” He stood and held out his hand to help her up.

“No, thank you. I need to sit here for a moment. I think the elevation is getting to me,” she said.

“Alright, dear,” he said and patted her hand.

Macy’s head began to clear within seconds of Alden leaving. She decided it would be best to sleep it off and headed to the bedroom. Alden was playing the piano in the sitting room, and she lingered a moment to listen to the faintly familiar tune. It was a mournful melody and yet it had a hopeful feel. She was about to compliment his playing when the queasiness in her stomach returned. She ascended the stairs as the music drifted behind her.

Alexander was already in bed with his back to her when she exited the bathroom. His back was strong, and she remembered feeling it the first time they made love. Macy snuggled up to Alexander and kissed his shoulder. She rubbed her hand across his chest and pushed her breasts into his back.

“I’m tired,” Alexander snapped.

“But it’s been so long. Maybe we just need to reconnect. Make love to me, please.”

There was no response from Alexander except his steady breathing. Macy turned away from him, and a tear slid down her cheek onto her pillow.

A couple of hours later when Macy awoke. It wasn’t Alexander’s snore that roused her; it was the call of the chocolate pie. She slid out of bed and pulled on her robe then slipped out the door. One small light lit the stairs several feet away, but the hall was utterly black otherwise. Macy began to imagine monsters lurking in the dark, waiting to snatch her at any moment. The sound of a floorboard creaking to her right made her freeze and listen. No more sound came. She felt childish and ridiculous for believing in monsters.

Macy made her way to the landing of the stairs and paused to look up at the portrait of the doctor. She hadn’t noticed earlier the patches of dark brown hair at the man’s temples contrasting with his gray mane. There was a subtle easing of the deep lines on his face, and brown speckled through his gray eyebrows. Now she estimated he was probably closer to fifty.

She was perplexed by the image but continued on to the kitchen. Macy thought briefly about turning on the light, but even she didn’t want to see what she was about to do. It was something best enjoyed in denial, and darkness helped. She skipped the cupboard with the plates and went straight to the silver drawer to get a fork. Macy winced at the light as she opened the fridge door, pulled out the pie, and shut the door too quickly. Things rattled inside the door, and she froze, listening to see if it had woken anyone. All was quiet.

She placed the pie on the counter and dug a heaping forkful out of the center. The pie was as divine as the dinner they had that night. Each bite delivered a chocolate dream better than the last. She couldn’t stop eating and gorged herself until every bit of the pie was gone. Macy found a glass and poured a little bit of milk from a jug to cut the feeling of chocolate overload. She walked the glass and the empty pie dish to the sink and set them quietly inside. Macy gazed sadly at the moonlight reflecting off the pond.

Maybe we should just give up and leave tomorrow, she thought.

She left the kitchen to return to her room and was at the base of the stairs when she heard a whisper behind her.

Stay.

“Alden?” she asked quietly.

No response.

“Alexander?” she asked. Macy began to tremble.

Stay.

“Who is that?” Macy cried.

She ran up the stairs, down the hall, and slammed the bedroom door. Macy’s ears filled with what sounded like a hundred voices trying to speak all at once, but one distinct voice came through.

Forever ours.

Macy screamed, and Alexander jumped out of bed ready to run.

“Macy! What the hell?” Alexander yelled as he turned on the light.

Macy looked around the room and saw nothing amiss. “I...I’m sorry. I must have had a nightmare.”

“Great. You scared the crap out of me. I’m going to get a drink. Get a hold of yourself,” he scolded.

Macy plopped into the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She reached for the light, then thought better of it and left it on. Laying there listening to the old house, she drifted into a deep sleep and dreamt.


She stood next to the pond. Bluest sky, cool breeze. A curious-looking bird cocked its head and watched her. Thunder growled, and black clouds menaced the horizon. Storm is coming. The bird was dead in her hands. She squeezed it tight. She turned to the house. A figure stood in the window of the kitchen. Darkness choked the blue sky. A baby cried. She pulled her red gown nearly up to her knees to run. Mud clogged grass sucked at her feet. Lightning, not in the sky, but inside the house. She was in the house. Clean feet. Dead bird. Thunder shook the walls. “Where are you?” she said. A dark figure stood looking out the kitchen window. “Alexander?” The figure turned to her. Youthful with confederate gray eyes. He smiled, gently moved a curl from her face, and twirled it back. His hand caressed her cheek. She looked at her hands. The bird was burning.

“The house is on fire.”

No, my darling. You are.

He took her in his arms and kissed her deeply. They were in bed. He was between her legs. She stared into his eyes as he entered her, and the world became a ball of light.


The next day Macy woke up feeling nauseated. The details of the dream fluttered away, but she was left with a general sense of malaise. Alexander was already up and in the shower. She began to lay out her clothes when a wave of dizziness hit. Macy felt everything ripple around her like she was seeing it was underwater. She leaned on the wardrobe to steady herself. Someone was crying. Macy heard long, mournful sobs, at first only one, then another and another. They mixed and mingled, ran into and over each other. Words she couldn’t make out what sounded like pleading. There were so many finally that it became a ghostly howl of misery. Tears streamed down Macy’s cheeks as she sunk to the sofa.

Alexander came out of the bathroom and gave her a questioning look. “What in the world is wrong?”

“Come feel this,” Macy said.

Alexander rolled his eyes and came to feel the wardrobe. “So?” he said.

“Don’t you hear it?” she asked.

“I’m supposed to hear something with my hand? You’re losing your mind.”

“I am not. I heard people crying,” Macy said.

“Either you’re losing your mind or you're messing with me. I don’t find either amusing,” Alexander said.

Macy noticed dark circles under his eyes, and his skin had a sallowness that was unusual for his robustly healthy nature. A couple of gray hairs seemed to have sprouted overnight on his temple.

“Maybe we should go home today,” Macy said.

“No. You threatened me with divorce to come here. I’ll drive to town tomorrow to check on my father’s progress with my assets, then I’ll decide if we leave or not. I don’t mind telling you that it was only a matter of time, but your threat accelerated things. You are weak and pathetic. I regret my decision to marry you. You’ve held me back and you deserve nothing for it. If you want to leave, feel free to walk home,” Alexander said.

He slammed the bedroom door as he left. Macy jumped from her chair and threw a pillow at the door.

Go die, asshole, she thought.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. She walked back over to the wardrobe and hesitantly put her hand on it again. Nothing happened. Macy shook her head and began to think maybe the stress was causing her to crack up. She dressed and appeared downstairs at the dining room door for breakfast even though she wasn’t hungry.

“Ah! Mornin’. Right on time. Though I do miss ringing that little bell,” Alden said and punctuated with a laugh.

“Sorry to ruin your fun,” Macy said and tried to sound light-hearted.

“Not at all! Just cracking wise. Have a seat. I’ll bring breakfast,” Alden replied. He was gone only a moment before he returned carrying two plates. His stride was a little more sure than when they first met.

“No Mr. Templeton?” Alden asked.

“I don’t know where he is. I’m sure he’ll come soon.”

“Right. I’ll go check for him. You eat.”

Alden placed the plates of eggs, bacon, and fresh biscuits in front of Macy.

“Alden? Where is your cane?” Macy asked.

“Ah, I’m feelin’ good today. Having you two here is rejuvenating my spirit,” Alden replied.

Macy eyed him closely and saw a rosiness in his cheeks. His physique looked fuller like he put on twenty pounds overnight. Alden gave her a wink and left the room. She looked at the plate of food and couldn’t bring herself to eat. Instead, she sipped strong, black coffee and grimaced at her churning stomach.

Alden returned and said, “I found Mr. Templeton. He said he isn’t feeling well and doesn’t want to eat.”

“Maybe I should check on him,” Macy said with concern.

“Ah, he’ll be fine shortly. It’s probably just the elevation. Leave him and enjoy the beautiful day. Maybe you could walk with me. I’d like to get out of the house a bit.”

Macy hesitated. “Actually, I’m not feeling well. I think I’ll just take some time on the porch to read if you don’t mind.”

Alden looked disappointed but nodded and left. Macy got a book from the library and sat on the porch, settling into a white Adirondack chair. She surveyed the yard and was about to open her book when she noticed one of the rose bushes in front of the porch. A single red rose appeared to have bloomed overnight. The plants looked half-dead the day before, but less than twenty-four hours later, there was new growth. Macy brushed off the curiosity from her mind and opened the book.

Macy was engrossed in the novel when she heard the front door and glanced up to see Alden go out and head toward the side of the house. He practically danced down the steps. Macy felt a slight vibration throughout her body as if something were trying to attach to her, trying to own her, and nausea made her stomach churn. Alden heard her groan and called up from the yard.

“Alright, missus?” he said with a look of concern.

“I’m fine, I think. I’m just feeling queasy. I think I’ll go in and lie down.”

Alden came up the steps. “Can I help you?” he offered.

“No, I can manage. I think I’m just catching something,” Macy snapped.

“Macy, if you feel bad, you let me know. I used to be a doctor. I can help.”

“I thought you used to be a chef,” Macy said with suspicion.

“Ayup. Been a long life. I was a doctor for a time, then got tired of it and decided to become a chef. I may not look it, but I still remember how to do medicine. Come now, let’s sit you inside,” Alden said.

He guided Macy through the door. She had a slight stumble and steadied herself on the door. She slid her hand up to touch the brass bird.

“Why is it warm?” she wondered aloud.

“Ma’am?” Alden said.

“It’s warm. The knocker. Why is it so warm?” Macy asked while lightly caressing it.

“It’s metal and a sunny day. Suppose the sun warmed it,” Alden said dismissively.

“But the door is shaded,” Macy said.

Alden ignored her comment and guided her toward the living room. He sat her on the sofa and said, “I’ll bring some tea.”

Macy sat dumbly. Her mind felt like a whirlpool with all her thoughts spinning around, indiscernible from one another. She had zoned out when Alden suddenly appeared before her holding a cup of tea. He lifted her hand and placed the cup in it. Macy sipped gently without any consciousness of action. Three sips later, she looked at Alden sitting next to her. She studied his face as if she was desperately trying to remember him, but it wasn’t that she was forgetting; it seemed Alden’s body was forgetting it was old. Tufts of dark hair had appeared near both temples, and his skin had a luminosity that was previously absent. The deep crevices of his wrinkled face were softer and not as pronounced.

“I don’t feel right,” Macy murmured.

“I suspect it might be that pie you polished off last night. Maybe it was too much. You just need to rest. Doctor’s orders,” Alden said, soothing her like a child. He delicately brushed a tendril of hair from her face.

“I need to lie down. I’m going to my room.”

“I’ll take you. You don’t seem so steady.”

She climbed the stairs almost as slowly as Alden had the day before. Macy paused to look at the portrait again when they reached the landing. He was a tall man about forty years old with spots of gray in his dark hair and wearing an elegant blue suit. The wrinkles on his face had softened considerably, and the cane that had been in his left hand was leaning off to the side.

Macy looked at the woman’s portrait. Her hair was a light brown, and her face looked fuller. In fact, she looked a little fuller all over. The woman’s arms crossed her body, and her hands laid protectively on her belly. Macy’s hand trailed down to the frame of the woman’s portrait and brushed a metal plate she didn’t notice before. Macy couldn’t focus and only vaguely made out the inscription: Mrs. M. Stuart.

“Come, Macy,” Alden said.

“But there’s something. I don’t know. There’s something,” Macy mumbled.

Alden laid Macy in bed. Alexander laid with his back to her and breathed shallowly. Macy fell into a deep sleep within a minute.

When she awoke, Alexander was gone. Macy was unsure of the time, but the entire day had slipped by; the house was dark again with the exception of a dim light illuminating the stairs and portraits. The paintings of the couple were now so changed that she felt as if she were seeing them for the first time. The man appeared about thirty years old with a full head of dark brown hair and dark, bushy eyebrows. His skin was smooth and vibrant as if he was at the peak of his life. The woman in the other portrait now looked like a companion piece of a young married couple. She was blonde and curvy, much like Macy herself, and dressed in a corseted, red gown with a ruby necklace gracing her neck.

Panic rose in her chest. Her mind whirled with confusion and questions. She ran down the stairs and was about to turn down the hall but froze mid-step.

Macy.

Her name floated into her ear as a breathy, haunted sound. She turned around, but no one was there. Macy fumbled along the wall for the light switch and flipped it on. Everything looked perfect, even better than the day before. No buckling wallpaper or faded fabrics or dull woods. Everything seemed to gleam with newness. Her mind whirled, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. She stumbled to the front door thinking that the cold air would clear her mind. She placed her hand on the knob but immediately retracted it when she heard a sound from the sitting room.

“Alexander?” Macy croaked weakly.

No reply came.

Macy moved across the floor as if she were trudging through knee-deep mud. She passed the sofas upholstered with a luxurious blood-red fabric. She crossed the emerald green carpet with the bright gold vines and birds. It looked as vibrant as a garden in the full glory of summer. Her whole body vibrated. Crossing the room felt laborious, but she finally reached the chair.

The thing in the chair looked like a husk of what had once been Alexander. Dried, peeling skin was pulled tight across his skull, and blood formed flaky streaks from his eyes down to his chin. His mouth gaped open horribly, revealing a tongue that had shriveled like a raisin. His chest and belly were concave which made his clothes drape from his body like someone trying to clothe a skeleton. A groan escaped his mouth. He was still alive.

“Alexander!” she screamed.

She turned to run but came face to face with Alden. He stood tall and strong and appeared to be in his early thirties. His luminous skin smoothed over a pointed chin and beak-like nose. A lustrous mound of dark hair swept back from a broad forehead accented by two overly full brown brows. His eyes were a cold blue-gray and warmed only by the flush of his cheeks. Macy gasped and tried to step back, but he caught her arm.

“Alden?” she gasped.

“Yes, my darling?” Alden replied with concern.

“How? You’re young. How?”

“Courtesy of Mr. Templeton. He really did liven me up. I feel good as new.”

“Alexander,” she said.

“Shhhh. Don’t worry about him. He’ll be gone quick. Quicker than I would have liked. He didn’t deserve you and should have suffered more. Such a terrible person. Selfish and greedy.”

Macy groaned.

Alden pulled her close and said gently, “But, now you are free to be ours, darling.”

“What are you talking about? What’s going on?” Macy cried. Tears streamed down her face, and she struggled to breathe.

Alden moved a damp curl from her cheek with the affectionate touch of a lover. “You’re getting your wish, my love. He’s dying. Come rest. You’re in shock. I’ll help you forget. Everything will be fine.”

“Get away from me,” Macy cried as she tried to pull her arm from his hand. He held it firm in his strong grasp but released her with a smile like a cat freeing a mouse that it knew couldn’t escape.

Macy felt something moving underneath her. Vines twisted up from the carpet to her legs and encircled them like sneaky serpents. She leaned down and ripped them away, but little golden birds burst up from the floor to peck at her arms and hands. They swirled around her in a cyclone of flapping wings. Macy swatted wildly, making contact with nothing. She freed herself of the vines and ran toward the foyer. The lights of the grand chandelier flared suddenly to an immense brightness and cast dizzying spots of light everywhere like faeries darting about. She tried to gather her wits and remember what she was seeking. Macy turned to the front door and bumped hard into Alden.

“You can’t do this,” Macy wailed. “People will come for us. I’ll see you in prison until you die.”

“Now, now. Nothing like that is goin’ to happen. We’ll be just fine, my love,” Alden said. “I knew from the moment you arrived. I finally found you, Marilee. You’ve come back to me. We will never be apart again, and the life growing inside you now is testament to that.”

Horror set into her mind as Alden placed a ruby necklace around her neck. Alden picked Macy up without any effort and carried her into the living room. He placed her gently in the chair. Across from her where Alexander had been was a gray mummy barely resembling Alexander. He was drying and falling apart before her eyes. Macy groaned and tried to lift her hand but was unsuccessful. Everything seemed futile.

Alden leaned down, kissed her forehead, nose, and mouth, then walked away whistling. When he returned, he carried a steaming teacup that smelled of roses, mint, and cinnamon.

“Here, sweetheart, drink this, and you’ll be new too,” he said.

He placed the teacup at her mouth and tipped it gently. The fire flashed, and her eyes watched a flame rise to the ceiling in the shape of a bird.

A phoenix. That’s what it is. The ash of destruction brings about new life, Macy thought.

The next morning, all that remained of Alexander Templeton was an odd pile of ash.



— Epilogue —

The strapping young man of thirty-two named Alden Stuart carried a bucket of ash from inside the house. He poured it over the rose bushes in front of the porch and worked it into the soil. The flowers hung heavy on the stems and filled the air with a heady fragrance. Alden whistled happily then stood and wiped his brow as he looked up at the house. It was pure white with glossy black shutters and deep red brickwork. The windows gleamed in the sunlight. He walked to the porch and kissed Macy on the swing. She smiled at him. Macy had long forgotten Alexander. In her mind, she had always been at the inn and always would be.

“Are the McMurrays gone, sweetheart?” Macy asked.

“Yep. All done. The house should be fine for a while and not bring us anyone else. Terrible people,” he said shaking his head.

“Yes, but look how happy the house is. She’s practically glowing.”

“Ayup, that she is. Glowing and beautiful. So are you darling,” he said and rubbed her pregnant belly of eight months.


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