“I don’t know about this,” Aaron murmured, eyes peeled on the bushes that surrounded the front of the cottage. The bushes had thinned from the drought that summer leaving him and Caleigh exposed to any passing neighbours. Aaron didn’t really want to get caught for breaking and entering, even if Caleigh insisted that she had gotten her father’s permission.
“Cal,” Aaron said, louder. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Relax. We’re gonna be fine once I get this door open.” Caleigh sighed and pushed past her friend. She walked down the porch, took a left around the corner and headed towards a window. She pushed two white chairs out of the way for better access. “This key isn’t working so I’m just gonna pop open the window and unlock it from inside.”
Aaron folded his arms with a huff. “Great. That won’t look suspicious at all.” He rounded the corner and approached Caleigh. He peered over her shoulder, willing her to hurry up with breaking into her great-grandmother’s house.
The house, or cottage as Caleigh’s family called it, was situated in a small neighbourhood just outside of the city. The buildings here were old, as such, they were smaller than houses in newer villages like where Aaron’s and Caleigh’s families lived. Aaron was used to fences and closed quarters, not bushes and less-than-private yards.
Although Aaron knew they were far from the street, he still felt like he was being watched. His imagination sent visions of neighbours glancing through their windows only to see him and Caleigh cracking open the front door, and now the side window. Soon after that, the police would show up and they’d both go to jail! Or, if by some miracle the police believed their bizarre story, then Aaron and Caleigh would get into trouble with Caleigh’s father. Aaron gulped. That was much worse.
“Got it!” Caleigh exclaimed.
Aaron felt his heart jump from his chest.
Caleigh slid the window upwards. “Hold this,” she ordered.
Aaron nodded and grasped the old wooden frame in his hands. He positioned himself awkwardly to the right of the window, leaving room for Caleigh to climb through. Caleigh dropped her bag onto the front porch then lifted one leg over and sat on the window frame. She ducked her head in next, then swung her other leg inside. Aaron stuck his head in and watched Caleigh fumble with the locks on the door. He let the window slid shut, yanking his fingers away before they got crushed. This resulted in a soft bang from the window.
Aaron held his breath and slowly glanced around, hoping no one heard the noise. He shrieked when someone grabbed his shoulder.
“Coming?” Caleigh teased with a chuckle, the corner of her lips curled upwards in a smirk.
“Don’t do that,” Aaron snapped. He wiped his hands on his jeans, paint chips from the window now clinging to the denim. He hoisted Caleigh’s bag from the ground and tossed it to her.
She laughed, her voice soft and expression guilty. “Relax, will ya? We’re gonna be here for another thirty minutes, tops, and then we can go home.”
Aaron sighed and followed her to the front door.
As soon as Aaron was inside, he began to hack. The air was almost unbreathable, the dust coating Aaron’s throat and making him cough.
“Shh!” Caleigh hushed as she slowly shut the front door. “Don’t be so loud or else we’ll get caught.”
“I thought you said we were allowed in here?”
“We. . . aren’t, technically. Dad said he didn’t want us going inside, so I had to steal the key, but it looks like I grabbed the wrong one. Dad also said we were allowed on the property. We’re still on the property, so we’re kind of following his instructions.”
She placed her hands on her hips. “Look, I knew that if I told you the truth, then you wouldn’t come inside. You’re a big scaredy-cat!”
“Am not!” Aaron bit his tongue and glanced around. He lowered his voice. “I just don’t want to get into trouble.”
Caleigh glanced at the room to her right. “So, what if you think of it this way: I’m going to get into trouble with my history teacher if I don’t find what I need for my project. I need clothing from inside the house and I couldn’t tell Dad that I was going to be snooping through my great-grandmother’s house. Not after what happened with Mom.”
Aaron’s eyes softened in understanding. “Alright. Gotcha.”
Caleigh flashed him a smile. If there was one thing she liked most about Aaron, it was that he could sense when something was important to Caleigh.
“So,” Aaron sighed, “what are we doing here?”
“I’m not sure yet,” she replied, walking past Aaron and into a sitting room. Caleigh glanced around with a frown. “I’m looking for something unique for my assignment. I’ll know when I see it.” She shrugged off her jacket and tossed it onto one of the chairs.
“That sounds promising,” Aaron remarked. He followed Caleigh with his eyes until she disappeared into the kitchen. He glanced to his left. There was a mostly-empty shelf built into stairs that led to the upper floor. Aaron touched the shelf, dust coating his fingers. He wiped it on his pants.
He jumped and his body rushed to join her before his mind has even processed moving.
Caleigh stood by an open door, gazing down at something. Aaron thought it was a closet until he got closer, then he could see the stairs. It was dark at the bottom. Aaron could barely see the last step.
“I remember Dad saying that they put all great gran’s documents into her basement for storage. We should check it out!” Caleigh tested her weight on each step first to make sure it wouldn’t break. Once at the bottom, she tiptoed to the side to make room for Aaron.
Aaron took his time with each step. He could feel the humidity increase with each drop. He felt moisture cling to his skin while each breath felt more like he was trying to breathe water.
A window was the lone source of light into the basement. Caleigh pulled a flashlight out of her backpack and shone it against the wall opposite the window.
Caleigh ducked under a low beam and crouched around some boxes before turning back to Aaron. “It’s mostly storage now,” she murmured.
Aaron leaned on a stack of boxes next to him. “You don’t say?”
Caleigh rolled her eyes and shone her flashlight around the basement. Aaron cleared his throat, trying not to cough, then covered his mouth with his shirt.
“Oh, look.” Caleigh pointed to a photo hanging on the wall. She danced around boxes and toppled stacks of papers to grab it. She set her flashlight down then reached into her bag and fetched a Kleenex to wipe the dust off the photo.
“What is it, Caleigh?” Aaron asked as he squeezed through the same path Caleigh took.
“A photo of my Uncle and great-grandmother. Do you recognize Uncle Rob?”
“That’s your Uncle Rob?”
Caleigh snickered. “I know. Isn’t he young? If I hadn’t seen his grade 6 graduation photos, then I never would have recognized him here.”
“Hm.” Aaron turned his attention away from the photograph and crouched to the ground. “You said these were documents, right?” He shifted through the papers that had fallen.
“Yeah. What are you doing?” Caleigh questioned without turning around to look.
“Oh, you know, just searching. We’re here on a history assignment, remember? Mrs. Beal won’t be happy if you turn up to class Monday empty-handed.
“God, you’re no fun. This is my chance to get some embarrassing photos of my uncle, and you want me to pass it up?”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Whatever, Caleigh. It’s your grade, not mine.”
“Ugh, you sound like my Dad.” Caleigh put the photo down and grabbed the flashlight from the table. “Besides, I am doing research. They’re wearing clothes in this photo, aren’t they?” When Aaron didn’t respond, Caleigh grumbled, “If you really want to work on my assignment, then we have to go upstairs. I’m doing it on clothing from the past, not paperwork.”
“What are we doing down here, then!?”
“I thought it would be cool! Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Aaron rolled his eyes and stood up. He locked an annoyed glare on Caleigh.
“C’mon, don’t tell me you’re not the least bit curious.” Caleigh’s stare turned to the documents in Aaron’s hands. He immediately dropped them back into the pile at his feet. He spun on his heels towards the exit. Aaron took three and a half steps before his foot was caught by a box and he fell over, taking two towers of boxes with him.
“Shit!” Caleigh gasped, forgetting about being quiet as she rushed towards her friend. “Aaron? You alright?”
He coughed violently as dust swarmed his head. “Yeah. . . ack! I-I’m fine!”
Caleigh extended her hand and Aaron grasped it. She pulled him to his feet. He gave her a sheepish grin, gaze lowered to the floor like a puppy cowering. “Sorry Cal, didn’t mean to take the whole basement down with me.”
She chuckled, “Lucky for you, it was just a few boxes. Think you can help me stack them again?”
Aaron nodded and bent over to pick up a box. He grunted and it slipped through his fingers before he had even gotten it off the ground. With a grin, Caleigh joined him and they both lifted as hard as they could. They dropped the box down on top of another with a thud.
They did the same with two other boxes, but the third tore open.
“Aw, crap,” Aaron muttered, lowering himself to pick up the papers that had spilled onto the floor.
“Don’t worry about it,” Caleigh sighed. She brushed her dust-coated fingers against her shirt. Then she picked up her flashlight and turned it towards the pile of papers. “Eh, we can just leave those there. I’m sure no one is gonna care about any mess we make down here for at least another 20 years.”
Aaron chuckled, his eyes locked onto where Caleigh had pointed the light. He blinked and narrowed his focus onto some papers that had been tied together. Upon closer inspection, they seemed to be letters. Caleigh turned her light towards the stairs but Aaron stopped her, “Wait a minute! Shine your light back over here for a sec.”
Caleigh did as she was told.
Aaron scanned the page on top of the stack. “Who is. . . Mary?”
“Mary? That was, uh. . .”
“She’s the one who wrote this letter. And look, it’s to your great-grandmother, Ann.”
“Naw, my great-grandmother’s name was Louise. I’m not sure who Ann is.”
“Text your dad, then.”
Caleigh scowled, feeling the weight of her phone in her back pocket. She thought about it for a moment before she took it out and sent a message to her dad saying, ‘Can you tell me about g-gran’s family? Her friends too, if you know any. I need it for a family tree-like thing.’
Aaron picked up the package of letters. “‘My dearest Ann,’” he read aloud as Caleigh typed, “‘I am writing to let you know that I have made it safely to E’s home. It’s unfortunate that you are not allowed to come with me. Soon, my dearest, as you work your way up the ranks, you shall be allowed to attend meetings at the council table. I should hope by our next meeting, in roughly six-months time, you shall be by my side in E’s manor. You’ll love it here. The garden, the wide-open space, the mountains on the horizon, I should think it would make for a romantic getaway. Until I return, love Mary.’”
Aaron raised his brow at Caleigh, searching for answers in her blue eyes. She seemed just as, if not more, lost than he was.
“Should we open the rest?” Aaron questioned.
Caleigh nodded, retrieving her pocket knife from her backpack. She seized the package from Aaron and sliced open the rope holding the letters together. She glanced around the basement, as if the walls were watching her, then she gathered her things into her arms. “Let’s read these upstairs. There’s more light up there,” she said before rushing towards the stairs.
With his light source leaving him, Aaron stumbled through the dark after Caleigh. He made it to the stairs and used the railing to guide him. Caleigh was already halfway up the staircase as Aaron took his first step.
“C’mon,” Caleigh muttered impatiently. She grasped the door with one hand while her pocket knife, flashlight, phone, and the letters were tucked in her other arm.
“I’m almost there! Jeez, relax!”
As soon as Aaron exited the basement, Caleigh shut the door. She wandered through the kitchen and into a hallway. Then she wandered into an open sitting area and plopped down onto one of the chairs that she had placed her jacket onto earlier.
Aaron wandered to the seat beside her, limping from his fall and somewhat relieved by the lesser amount of dust upstairs. He took a deep breath in through his mouth, allergies still protesting.
Caleigh returned to the sitting room and dropped the letters down on the side table. She spread them out across the wooden surface as Aaron took the seat on the other side. She selected another letter at random and started reading.
Aaron followed suit.
The final letter Caleigh read left her in a state of shock. Her hands trembled as she held the page and a sense of dread weighed down her gut.
“What is it?” Aaron asked. “You look pale, Cal.”
Caleigh gulped and handed the letter to Aaron.
His eyes scanned the page. When he was finished, he too felt uneasy.
“So, Mary was. . .”
“Burned at the stake? Yeah.”
“Whoever wrote this signed only her first name at the bottom. ‘Margaret’.”
Caleigh found herself only able to nod.
“What do you think she means by ‘Mary was found out’?”
“No idea,” Caleigh replied. She gasped as her phone buzzed against the table. She picked it up and said a moment later, “It’s from dad. Ann was Louise’s mother. Mary was Ann’s friend.”
“More than friends, based on these letters.”
“Shut it,” Caleigh snapped. Then she continued reading her father’s message, “Dad also said that Louise was adopted by Ann. There were other children that she took care of, but Dad will need more time to find those names. He. . . also says that I might be grounded for entering the cottage.”
Aaron frowned, “Bad time for an ‘I told you so’?”
Caleigh stood up, leaving the letters behind on the table. She took her backpack from Aaron and moved towards the upward stairs.
“What are you doing now, Cal?”
“Getting what I need for class. The sooner we can get out of this freaky building, the better.”
Aaron nodded, enthusiastically. He couldn’t wait to get out of this dumb place.
Aaron practically sprinted up the stairs after Caleigh. He followed her down the hall. While she seemed determined to reach the end, Aaron stopped to gaze into some of the rooms they passed by.
First was a bathroom with a hole where the toilet should be and a sink that had turned red from years of rust. There were long-forgotten shower curtains and a decaying carpet. The next room had only a bed and a candle holder which had been wired and had a lightbulb fastened to the top. The third door lead to the closet, which was empty save for some books and dried flowers. Lastly, there was another bedroom, which is where Aaron found Caleigh.
She rustled through a trunk, pulling out pants and dress shirts to carefully lay them on the bed.
“Found the clothes you need?”
“Well, I found clothes,” Caleigh huffed, “but there aren’t any dresses in here. I need some old dresses. Girls lived here, but all I see are pants.”
“Well, you’re wearing pants, why couldn’t your grandmother?”
Caleigh huffed and clapped her hands together to get rid of the dust. “Well, I figured I’d find dresses since that’s what it says people wore back then. I told Mrs. Beal that that’s what I’d be looking for and she said she couldn’t wait to see such a ‘fine specimen of past culture’.”
Aaron chuckled. “She used those exact words, huh? Yup, you’re screwed if you can’t find exactly what she’s imagining.”
Caleigh scowled at the clothes on the bed then shot a glare in Aaron’s direction. “You’re not helping.”
Aaron yelped and Caleigh screamed as the trunk suddenly slammed shut, both of them whipping their heads in the direction of the trunk.
“Can we just get out of here now!?” Aaron cried.
“Yes.” Caleigh stuffed a dress shirt and a pair of pants into her back pack then slung it over her shoulder. “We can go. I’m sick of this place.”
Aaron marched back downstairs with Caleigh close behind. She stopped only to gather up the letters. To save time she didn’t bother to put the letter into her bag. Instead, she gripped them with a white-knuckled fist and rushed outside.
Aaron tugged the door shut and Caleigh bit her bottom lip. “I can’t lock it, so. . . this’ll have to do.” She seized one of the porch chairs with her free hand and shoved it in front of the door. “I’ll ask Dad for the key when we get home. We’ll come back and lock it.”
“We? You mean you,” Aaron muttered as he hopped off the porch. “I’m done with this place. It’s been giving me terrible vibes all day.”
“Sure, whatever.” Caleigh rolled her eyes as she headed towards the gate. She yanked it shut and forced the bolt in. Then she turned down the sidewalk. Aaron was marching at a fast pace, slowly quickening. Caleigh forced her legs to keep up.
As they rushed down the sidewalk, Aaron and Caleigh plowed right into a man.