Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(4)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(4)
Author: K.F. Breene

Except, even as I sat there, looking up at it, something flowered within me. My heart beat solid thumps, pushing warmth through my body. Pushing a feeling of home, of safety, of belonging. Something about this house tugged at me. Begged me to come closer and rest my weary head within its walls.

I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “I’ve cracked, that’s all there is to it. Living with my parents—even for just a couple days—has finally driven me insane.”

Still, there was plenty of oddity to go around, from the way that attic light was emitting a glow despite the bright afternoon sunshine—magic—to that strange shadow from nowhere—dark magic—to the lovely grass—diligent gardener.

My imagination was still active and this beast would feed right into it. I almost felt like a teenager again.

“This is an honest to god mansion,” I said into the heavy hush as I pulled into the driveway. “Things looked bigger to ten-year-olds, my butt. This is just plain big!”

What was it about middle age and muttering to oneself? Was that a mom thing, or an age thing? I didn’t know, but it had become a me thing, and if I didn’t watch it, I’d embarrass myself with the super-old-yet-never-seemed-to-die Great Uncle Earl.

I stepped out of the car slowly and a tingle of excitement worked through my body. A smile played with my lips, I could feel it. Something about this move felt right. The house was big, weird, and creepy, but it was exactly what I needed right now.

Struggling to contain a manic grin that would probably scare people, I stepped up to the door and found myself staring at a large gargoyle knocker. It looked silently at me with its strange brass eyes and a mouth full of metal.

“It better not talk,” I muttered, remembering the movie Labyrinth from my childhood.

But what would I do if it did?

The manic grin spread wider.

Forget scaring people, someone would probably call the cops on the deranged middle-aged lady loitering on private property.

Diana had instructed me to knock first. If no one answered, I had to report to the first house on the left to get the key.

With a quick glance behind me at the quiet street, making sure no one was gawking, I wrapped my fingers around the cool ring of metal and thumped the knocker three times. The sound reverberated through the house, bouncing along the floors and up to the various levels. I could feel it, like a tangible thing. My imagination was already in overdrive.

I took a deep breath as adrenaline coursed through me.

“You rang.”

“Oh!” I jumped and spun around, clutching my purse to my chest like some old biddy at an unexpected peep show.

A tall, gangly man with more wrinkles than hair stood in front of me, his eyes a deep midnight, his scowl possibly etched into his face from years of use, and his height topping mine by at least a foot, putting him somewhere in between six and seven feet tall. A moth-bitten suit clung to his bony shoulders and a tattered cape dusted the back of his thighs, fluttering in a breeze I couldn’t feel.

I didn’t know where he’d come from, but he’d snuck up behind me silently.

“Ha-ha,” I laughed warily. “Good one. From the Addams Family, right? Lurch?”

I pointed at him for no reason, kind of just needing something to do with my hands. His stare was unnerving.

Silence stretched between us. I lifted my eyebrows, hoping he’d pick up the conversational baton and run with it. When he didn’t, I cleared my throat.

“I’m Jess. Jacinta.” I shrugged. “Jessie. Usually.”

“Are you usually the one person or do you switch between all three?” the ancient butler said with no hint of humor.

I smiled unconvincingly and half-chuckled anyway. The guy was weird.

“So…I’m the new caretaker,” I said, trying not to sound awkward. And failing miserably. “Are you Great Uncle Earl?”

“I am not your great uncle anything, but my name is Earl, yes. You may call me Tom.”

“Tom,” I said, searching his face for a joke. If it was there, it was hidden behind the scowl.

“Mr. Tom,” he said.

I was pretty sure my eyebrows had gotten lost in my hairline. “Mr. Tom.” I squinted at him. “Are you kidding, or… I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”

“I am a butler. I never kid.”

“Right. Of course.”

“Mr. Tom.”

“Yes. Right. Mr. Tom, then.” I cleared my throat for the second time. “Mr. Tom, should I just…” I jerked my head at the door.

He stared at me. He didn’t even blink.

“Should I just…go in?” I jerked my head again, pointing at the door for emphasis this time.

“To whom am I speaking?” he asked.

Oh good, his memory didn’t work. We’d get along just fine. We could have the same conversation for days and be none the wiser.

“Jessie,” I answered, now pointing at my chest.

“Jessie, you need to report to Ms. Murphy’s house. She’s a God-awful old woman from a dreary land, but she is the holder of The Key. Visiting her cannot be helped, I’m afraid. Don’t ask me to go with you, I simply cannot stomach it.”

“Oh. Sure. Ms. Murphy—”

“Yes, Ms. Murphy’s house. She is just…” He turned in a crisp movement that spoke of agelessness and pointed at the first house on the left. This was the neighbor I’d been told to visit if no one answered the door at Ivy House.

“Great.” I glanced at the car, debating, then shifted my gaze to the deserted street. “What’s the crime rate around here? Probably pretty quiet, huh?”

“Only if we’re not raided. Or hunted. The uncrowned alpha has been all the protection we need, though I fear we are adrift. Someday he won’t be enough, and then where will we be? Dead, that’s where. Dismembered, flayed, burned alive, what have you.”

Was it just me, or was this guy completely bananas?

“Okay. I’ll just take my purse with me.” I edged around him.

“We are only safe because no one is interested in our lowly residents. But mark my words…” He let the silence stretch as his crisp gaze beat into me. I inched backward, wearing a polite smile usually reserved for the drug-addled homeless asking weird questions in the check-out line at the grocery store. “You will not want to take the sandwich. You might take the tea—she’ll force it on you—but refrain from the sandwich. It’ll keep you there all day.”

I stopped dead for a moment, really unclear on what was happening right now. How could I possibly share a roof with this nutter? He’d be unpredictable at best and might end up burying me in the yard at worst.

This might’ve been a terrible, awful idea. Worse than staying with my parents.

Four

I made my way up to the stoop of the neighbor’s door. Two rocking chairs sat on the porch—one heavily used with a neat pile of rocks beside it, the other brand new in appearance.

The polished door knocker on this door was a lovely horse head with a bump on the forehead, like a budding unicorn or something. I used the doorbell instead. Pounding a door knocker seemed more intrusive, somehow. It reminded me of the way police entered a crack house. Not that I would really know.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’.” The voice was muffled through the door.

I stepped back, giving the owner some space.

The door swung open and a pleasing floral aroma wafted out. An older woman stood in the doorframe, her hair short and white, her back slightly hunched, and her pale blue eyes lined with crow’s feet. Her thin lips curled up at the corners, as though she were smiling about a secret, and her lily-white skin looked baby soft.

“Hi—”

“What in the holy bejesus are you at?” Ms. Murphy demanded, her voice scratchy and coarse and not at all in keeping with her dew-drop appearance.

My eyebrows got lost in my hair line again, trying to decipher the thick Irish brogue.

“What, are ye peddling somethin’?” the woman said into the silence. “Well, sure, you better come in and have some tae.”

“Oh, uh…” I felt the pull of her expectations but didn’t bite. Just needed that key. I’d had tea on the way up and really needed to pee, but it seemed rude to ask to use the bathroom when my new residence was right next door. “I’m the new caretaker. Earl—uh, Mr. Tom sent me.”

“Mr. Tom, me arse.” She pushed out onto the porch, reached down, scooped up a rock, and rushed to the side of the railing closest to the mansion. She cocked her arm, ready to throw.

Mr. Tom still stood where I’d left him, facing us.

“Ye eld bugger, ya!” Ms. Murphy yelled. “Could ye not have let her in yerself? Yer as useless...” She let fly, the rock slicing through the air as though thrown by a prized quarterback.

Mr. Tom took one step back. The rock landed precisely where he’d been standing—the distance incredible, the aim unbelievable, Mr. Tom’s nonchalance about having an old woman throw a rock at him disconcerting. This sort of thing clearly went on all the time.

“It is your job, after all,” Mr. Tom said, and though he was across the street and up the walk, I still somehow heard him.

So did she.

“It’s my job da feck,” Ms. Murphy said. Or so I thought. I couldn’t quite make out the last couple of words. “Well, now I’ve got her. And I’ll be tellin’ her all about the real goings on over there. Just you wait, ye gobshite.” She turned and stomped into her house. “Well?” She turned back. “Will ye have a cuppa tae? Ye will, ye will. Come on. I’ll put the kettle on.”

Her expectations won out. Hard to say no to a retreating backside.

The spacious inside was wholesome and homey, with pictures of green fields laden with cows on walls, little knickknacks on shelves, and a frightening number of slightly off doilies. They looked to have been handmade by someone who both didn’t know how to crochet and couldn’t see very well.

   
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