Suggested by: Kelly Blanchard
The old Crawford mansion
A music box
*image prompt provided
Three friends walked a dry, shaded forest path. The grey, somber skies covered the green foliage like a thick wool blanket. One of them, a girl with light brown hair falling easily over her navy cotton infinity scarf, stopped short and pulled the edges of her flyaway sweater closer around her.
"Okay, guys, this is far enough," she said in a shaky voice, her eyes scanning the loose green canopy threatening to enclose them overhead.
The others, two young men, paused and glanced back at her. The redheaded fellow smirked at her. "Whatsa matter, Jess? You scared?"
"I'm not scared, Jimmy!" She snapped, a little too loudly. She pulled back her sleeve to check her watch. "I just—it's getting late, after all, and I don't want to be stuck in the woods after dark."
"Come on, Jess," said the other boy, running his hand through his curly dark hair. "It'll be fine. We'll stay on the path—"
He reached for her hand, but Jess jerked away. "But that's the problem! There's a reason they call this Crawford Road, remember?" She glanced between them.
"So what?" Jimmy shrugged easily, shoving his hands deeper into the pockets of his leather jacket. "It's just an old mansion."
"That's haunted," added the other boy. "They say that the whole family was murdered, and whoever killed them all left the bodies and locked the door, so nobody has ever been in there. Old Man Jones says that he wouldn't be surprised if the whole family were all ghosts, still going through the motions of their final days, doomed to repeat it over and over till someone unlocks the door and releases them..."
"You shut up, Jason Whitfield!" Jess snapped. "I'm just worried about the integrity of the old house. I don't want to be inside if it decides to fall over! If you two have a death wish, that's fine with me," her hands trembled as a gust of wind evoked a gasp. "But I'm going home!" With that, she turned heel and marched away.
Jason and Jim stood there watching her till the grey sweater and slim dark jeans nearly rounded the bend out of sight.
Jason sighed and scuffed the ground with the toe of his shoe. "Girls," he scoffed. He glanced sidelong at his friend, who hadn't stopped staring at the bend in the road so recently occupied by Jess.
"So, Jim," he said, "you coming?"
Jimmy finally tore his gaze away, but as he looked into the deepening shadows of the wood, he grimaced.
Jason let out a heavy sigh. "Not you too!" He groaned. "Jim, this was your daredevil idea!"
"Yeah, but," Jim stammered, the fear showing up in red blotches all over his face and neck, "what if we get there, and we find out it really is haunted?"
A grin split across Jason's face, and his brown eyes twinkled. "Then of course we'll have quite the story to tell!"
Jimmy looked away from the forest, watching the path run in the opposite direction.
Jason shrugged. "Ah, what the heck," he groused. "Get after her, if you don't want to come with me!"
Jimmy flashed him a grateful smile and two thumbs up before scurrying down the path to find Jess.
Jason stood alone in the path, waiting just on the edge of the unknown. Finally, he steeled his resolve, and marched down the road to the old Crawford mansion. The trees overhead let in just enough light to see by—but the grounds around the mansion were as clear as ever. It stood, grey and mouldering, like an old mountain daring him to climb it. Jason crept up the dusty veranda steps, his shoes crunching on dead leaves, although it was late summer. Ivy clung to almost every available surface. The front door bore a huge, rusty knocker, but the latch had already rusted away, so he carefully pushed the door open and stepped over the threshold.
All around him were the trappings of decayed opulence: rotting picture frames and wainscoting, curtains and rugs practically consumed with mildew, once bright and vibrant decor, discolored by mold. Parts of the floor above and walls lay collapsed on the floor below him. It was as if the family had gone on a trip and all died suddenly, leaving the house to stand unnoticed till it fell. Jason shivered as a gust of wind wafted through a hole in the floor. It really did feel like somebody's cold, bony fingers wrapping around his shoulder. He moved deeper into the house, noting the stronger smell of age and mustiness.
The dim grey light filtering through dirty windows cast strange shadows over everything. A grandfather clock stood next to the staircase. The time read precisely four minutes after twelve, stopped forevermore. The floorboards groaned in protest as Jason ascended to the second floor. Aside from the relentless sensation that there was someone else there with him, he detected none of the signs verifying the spooky rumors of what the haunted mansion should look like. On the whole, it was more like a trip back in time, imagining the Crawford family residing happily in their huge, decadent home. There weren't even any corpses in sight, and no ghosts either. Altogether, a pretty harmless--though somewhat macabre--tour.
"Jim would have loved this,” he murmured to himself.
The upstairs was full of rooms with old, ratty, moth-eaten sofas and beds. Jason entered one of them, just to see what it was like. The curtain over the bed hung in tatters from the rods. The bed spread, in spite of the freckling of mildew covering the stark-white surface, looked soft enough. Jason tentatively reached out and touched the delicate surface. With all the grace of a deflated balloon, the material sank into a deep depression in the shape of his fingers. A chill wind blew past him, and Jason flinched, taking a step back from the bed. The window at the back of the room stood open. Jason could see another room across the way from it, with windows all around, forming a sort of tower. The ivy mostly obscured his view.
“What are you doing?”
Jason jumped two feet in the air and screamed as the voice issued from the doorway. He turned to face the newcomer, a young girl in a simple, pale-blue jersey dress. She stared at him. Her red lips and dark hair contrasted with her porcelain-fair skin.
“I—ah,” Jason stammered numbly. “What are you doing?”
One eyebrow arced upwards. “I live here,” she stated.
Jason gestured to the grand ruins. “In this old dump? Why would anybody want to live here?”
The girl shrugged. “I like it. Nobody bothers me here.” She leveled her gaze back at him. “Until you came along. So what are you doing?”
Jason shrugged and edged past the strange girl. “Dunno… exploring, I guess.”
She trotted after him. “Mind if I join you?”
Jason snorted and rolled his eyes. “I guess.” He sighed and wandered down another hall where one of the rafters had collapsed through the roof and lay crossways in the hall.
“By the way,” the girl continued blithely, “my name is Juniper. What’s yours?”
“Jason,” he answered.
“Pleased to meet you, Jason,” replied Juniper, as if they were two strangers meeting at a park, instead of an old, dilapidated mansion.
He entered another doorway. This room had smaller furniture, and so much old, cobwebby lace that it must have been a girl’s room. There was a small box on the bedside table. Jason scooted over and gently pried back the lid. The mechanism had long since rusted and disintegrated, but there was a name carved into the underside of the lid. Jason tilted the carving toward the window, running his fingers over the delicate, curved trenches of the etching “Crawford, with love 1938” The words before it were more smudged than these. He squinted closely at it, acutely aware of the soft presence behind him, now peering over his shoulder.
“What is it?” Juniper asked.
Jason felt the blood rush out of his face as his heart rate accelerated. “What did you say your name was?” He still did not turn around. He could not tear his eyes away from the name carved into the lid of the music box. Downstairs, the grandfather clock abruptly began ringing the twelfth hour.
“Juniper,” the girl said. “Juniper Crawford. Would you like some tea, Jason? I think we could become great friends.”
Previously in This Series:
#15 "Rendezvous"("Soul Mates" Part 6/"Serenity's Light" Part 2)