Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(3)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(3)
Author: K.F. Breene

“Oh no,” Diana said, her eyes twinkling with delight. She had always loved visiting my parents’ house and hearing crazy stories about them. Having normal parents with a normal house, she couldn’t relate.

“My cashmere sweater is two sizes too small, and the silk shirt is ruined.”

“No!”

I told her about my dad’s new addition to his morning routine.

“No!” She fell against the table in a fit of giggles. “What the hell?”

“I do not know.” I shook my head, wishing I could find it funny. “I really do not. But I can’t stay there. I can’t. It’s too much. All my mom does is wash dishes and read, and she stacks the books a mile high in my room. If there’s an earthquake, I’ll be crushed. Fire? Forget it. I’m toast. The whole place would be ablaze by the time I even opened my eyes. No wonder my brother only stayed for a couple months.”

She couldn’t contain the belly laughter. Or maybe she wasn’t trying.

“You clearly don’t see how dire this is,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She fought her smile. A fight she lost. “Sorry! But listen to this. My aunt called yesterday, asking if I knew anyone who would be a good fit for the caretaker role of Ivy House. What a coincidence, right? You’d be perfect for it. You wouldn’t need to stay with your parents, you’d have a job, and you’d get to go back to that nightmare house that you loved so much. I told her I’d ask you.” Her eyes twinkled. “Just think, no morning begonias.”

Memories came trickling back. I’d gone on a lot of vacations with her family. She was an only child and I loved to travel, so she got a playmate and I got to see new places. Win-win.

“That place in that small town near the Sierras? What were we…like, ten, right?” I asked.

“Yeah. The big old house in that tiny town.” She clucked her tongue. “What is the name of that town? I always forget. I think I block it out. It’s an Irish name. Murphys or O’Connors or Bollocks or… That big old house with all those rooms and that creepy gardener we thought was a vampire?” She shivered. “I hated that place. I still don’t understand why you liked it so much. You didn’t want to leave, remember?”

A mental image of the guy popped into my head. Pasty white, yellowed teeth, long face, loose jowls—

A sense of euphoria came over me out of nowhere, followed by a strange sense of urgency.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a creeping smile curve my lips. More images came through, somewhat hazed with age. Big rooms with old-fashioned furniture, dark wallpaper, and a foreboding feeling that wasn’t exactly unpleasant. A strange trap door that led outside, only it was three floors up without a ladder. The attic floor had been covered with random silver gardening spikes we weren’t allowed to play with and a strange old-fashioned mechanical bow and arrow. I didn’t have many memories still clunking around my head from thirty years ago, but that house was hard to forget. “That place scared the hell out of you. You’re such a scaredy-cat.”

“Scaredy-cat? That house was creepy as hell. You’re just nuts.”

“Well yes…” I laughed at her, my mood lightened.

“I have no idea why my parents even took us there. What kind of vacation is that?”

My grin widened, remembering the secret passageways we’d found. It had been so incredibly cool to wander into the hidden places, exploring the house from within its very veins. One spot still throbbed in my memory, a room in subterranean depths.

Blue light from a suspended lantern painted the rough rock walls. Below the lantern stood what looked like a gothic pedestal filled with beautiful crystals, beckoning me closer. My mind had raced, my imagination active, thinking that patch of crystals acted like the organ that kept the house running. That the light glowing within the iron frame of the lantern magically lit all the passageway corridors. That the crystals had whispered to me—wait, Jacinta, you’re not ready. It isn’t time. Try again later.

I shook my head, those brief snippets of time jumbling up, crusty with age. I’d had many adventures in my youth, remembering tree houses in gnarled old trees, or trekking through the creek behind my elementary school, but that house had been a favorite. Nothing else could compare to that creepy factor, to the point that, as I thought back on it, I wondered how much I was dreaming up and how much had been real.

“We didn’t stay in that house long,” I said, sipping my drink.

I hadn’t wanted to leave, I remembered that. Unlike Diana, I hadn’t wanted to part with the strange old place.

Then again, I was a great lover of Halloween and Diana was more of a Christmas person. Scary movies didn’t scare me. I could watch The Gremlins or The Exorcist without batting an eye. New horror flicks? I condescendingly judged the effects and the often-shoddy work of the director.

“She wants a caretaker, like…a house sitter?” I asked. “Or like…someone who is going to continually clean it from top to bottom? Because I remember all the spider webs. That place is huge. That would be a nightmare to look after.”

“Firstly, we were ten, so things appeared bigger to us than they actually were. That’s just logic.”

I rolled my eyes at her.

“Second, it would be just you living there and maybe a butler. How much mess could you make?”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up my hand. “What’s this about a butler?”

“Oh yeah. Great Uncle Earl. He’s been old as long as I’ve been alive, but he hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. He stays there. He was let go from his position in England because he was creeping out the kids, so my aunt lets him stay at the estate. It’s an old family joke, the fact that he’s still alive. Everyone says he’s afraid he’ll die if he ever retires.” She must’ve seen my look of confused horror because she waved her hand in the air, wiping the thoughts away. “Who cares about him? He’s clean. He wouldn’t have made it all those years as a butler otherwise. And maybe he’ll wait on you, who knows? That would be cool, right? Either way, at least he won’t be walking around naked.”

“I don’t know. I kinda want to live alone for once. I’ve never actually had my own place.”

“Jessie, come on, I’m not saying live there forever. Good lord, no. Being raised here and then moving to Los Angeles—you’d go crazy downgrading to a tiny town like…O’Kieff? Was that the name? Hoolahans? Still, the place is available if you want to get away from your parents and figure things out. You could even make a little money. Think of it as a begonia-free transition.”

Trading up one crazy living situation for another didn’t sound all that great, especially since I’d have to leave Diana to do it. But not having to look for a job right away…

I sighed and took a sip of my iced tea. It was probably best to just stick it out with my parents. The stress of being there would push me to figure things out pronto. If I put my mind to it, I knew I could do it.

Something niggled at the edge of my thoughts, though. A pulsing. A…beckoning.

My heart sped up and a light sweat coated my brow. The words fell from my mouth before I’d known I was going to say them.

“Sure, why not. When can I start?”

Three

Saying goodbye to my parents had been easy. My dad complimented me on my quick ability to find a new job, and though my mom hugged me and said she was sad I couldn’t stay longer, I had a sneaking suspicion she was happy to get the spare bed back—a place she could retreat to when my dad was snoring.

I nearly changed my mind about this venture when I rolled through the tiny town of O’Briens, named after the founders, a couple of Irish guys who’d come over the Sierra Nevada mountains and settled in to mine for gold. Since then, wineries had sprung up like a plague, their tasting rooms dotting the itty-bitty downtown strip like chicken pox.

The wine I did not mind. At all. I was rather excited about it, to be honest.

It was the size of the town that concerned me. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

I grew up in a city of over a hundred thousand people. Then I moved to L.A., getting into the millions. I’d never lived in a place where I could drunkenly stagger from one end of the downtown strip to the other. And given the number of adorable boutique wineries, I’d absolutely do that in this town. I’d do it, and then all three thousand residents would soon know about it. It’d probably be printed in the town paper. With pictures. I’d never been great at following convention, even back when I was trying. Maybe especially when I was trying. It had annoyed Matt to no end.

The windy road the GPS told me to follow veered off from the downtown strip and cut through the trees, gaining a tiny bit of altitude. Dainty little houses pushed back from the road, with large porches, white pillars, and well-kept gardens. Newish cars parked in driveways, their surfaces glittering in the golden afternoon sun.

At the end of the street with no outlet rose a monstrosity of a house.

My eyes widened and I slowed before I reached it, needing to take a moment before I pulled into the driveway

Despite the sunny day and bright, electric blue sky, it seemed like there was a black cloud looming over the three-story structure. The gothic-style building rose to a point at the center, and a little glowing attic window could be seen at the top. Dark shadows draped over the front from some unseen source. The large windows curved elegantly at the top. The decorative shutters, curtains, and trim were all black.

At least it’s better than turd brown.

Now that I was here, more distant memories came flooding back. The dark rooms, the ominous feeling, the creepy exterior, and the strange feeling of belonging.

Strange, indeed. On first inspection, this place, so different than everything else on this street, was anything but welcoming. It exuded an undeniable get lost vibe, from its positioning at the dead end, pushed well back from the road, to its dark and foreboding colors. It crouched like some gigantic beast, a warning written into its wood frame. A chill given out to every visitor who might pass.

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