[Remember to read the instructions before jumping in!]
It was early enough in the day, he decided, to start with the worst place—the kitchen. There was a good chance the fridge would be full of old-ass food well in need of disposal, and better to get it over with than have it hanging over his head. Besides, even though he planned to order food in tonight, he’d need somewhere relatively uncontaminated to put his leftovers.
After that, he could check out both the living room and bedroom, decide which seemed like a more viable immediate sleeping option, and go from there.
With that plan in mind, he grabbed his bag of cleaning supplies from the car, and started up the steps to his new house.
The lock fought him for a moment, resisting turning; he assumed due to how long it had been since the mechanism had been used regularly. But it turned, so oiling it was a problem for later. He pushed the door open, fighting down the rather sad desire to call out for Aunt Grace, and stepped inside.
The air smelled heavy with dust, but the lights worked when he flipped them on, illuminating the familiar hallway. The front hallway opened to the left into the living room, and to the right immediately into stairs up to the second floor, a faded red runner still neatly in place over the old hardwood. Grace’s shoes were still in the hallway, along with her umbrella in its stand, and he sighed at the old grief that stirred on seeing them.
It seemed, for a moment, as if the house sighed back, the wind outside picking up and the house settling around him. But, he decided, that wasn’t so bad; at least they were in agreement.
He headed to the kitchen, dreading what he might see, but was relieved that no smell was at least immediately apparent. Then, Aunt Grace always liked to be clean, if not tidy. “Because I put everything everywhere,” she’d said cheerfully, “if I get lazy about chores, I’ll get bugs in no time.” The garbage had been taken out, it seemed, and while the counters were heavily laden, it wasn’t with dirty dishes but with all sorts of appliances that he doubted Aunt Grace had ever used. It wasn’t just the standard microwave and toaster oven, but blenders, a breadmaker, an ancient standmixer, and several things he couldn’t identify—things like a crank press that was either a pasta-maker or a meat grinder, and a bucket with some sort of crank which he absolutely couldn’t identify. It was meant to churn something, he suspected—Cheese? Ice cream?
The fridge was in worse condition, but, thankfully, not unsalvageable. Still, the level of mold in some of the bottles and tupperware containers made him gag. Fuck recycling, he decided, grabbing the first with rubber gloves and tossing it into a garbage bag.
He let his mind wander as he worked, trying both to ignore the grossness of what he was doing and the strange feeling that he was intruding in someone else’s space. She’d willed it to him, he reminded himself—and she’d always seemed fond of him and how he’d responded to her stories. “You’ve got a good balance of common sense and appreciation for the fantastic, Jay,” he remembered her telling him as he’d chatted with her about one of her stories. “That’s what we really need. Too many people have too much of one or the other.”
Which story was it? Probably the door in the basement, he decided. She’d said it was how she got to the dream world—she’d go downstairs, and through the door in the basement, and find herself in the dream world, where she’d go on her strange, inexplicable journeys to strange, inexplicable places full of strange, inexplicable people. When she’d wake up, she’d find herself in her bed.
“Why the basement,” he’d asked, not mocking her even as a teenager, but trying to figure out why that was part of her story. “Wouldn’t it make more sense in your closet? Or is that too, you know, cliche?”
She’d laughed. “I don’t know why the door’s there,” she’d said. “I guess it’s because it’s underground. Dreams are buried, you know. They’re buried in the human mind.”
He sighed, pushing the memory away. A few lysol wipes and an empty fridge was enough for now, he decided; the food he ordered would at least stay cold in there and not pick up too many smells. The rest of the kitchen, he could attack piecemeal.
It wasn’t like he could do it all right now anyway—not with all those old appliances all over the counters. He’d already called ahead to an antique store in town about taking his aunt’s old goods, and that it would take numerous trips. That was something he could get started tomorrow; now, by four, it was too late.
A good time to order in, though. There weren’t a lot of options—it was a far cry from Seattle, where he’d moved from, for sure. A small sleepy town like Kingsport relied on tourism, and so although there were a reasonable number of restaurants, they were ones that expected people in their chairs. But still, there were some of the usual chains, if he needed pizza or bad chinese food.
He decided on the former, giving a call, then did a quick glance into the living room before immediately deciding that the bedroom, unless it was in a terrible state, would be a better option. There was only a chair and a loveseat in the living room, and he didn’t really fancy fitting his lanky body into either to sleep. Besides which, although Grace had left herself something of a path, it was filled with furniture—little end tables piled high with knicknacks of all sorts of materials, a coffee table he couldn’t see for books, lamps all over the place, a spinning wheel, knee-high statuettes, and more.
On top of all that? No curtains covered the windows. He tried to imagine sleeping in a strange place where his great-aunt had gone missing and staring out at the darkness and just shook his head. Nope. Not at all.
Instead, he headed upstairs, the runner almost muffling the creak of the wooden stairs. On the second floor, the main stairway lead to a narrow hallway, with several rooms off of it—one door he recalled headed to the stairs to the attic, another to some kind of closet, and a third to Grace’s office. Toward the end, the last two doors lead to Grace’s room and the bathroom.
Jay hesitated outside the office door. She’d forbidden him from going in there ever since he was old enough to read, he remembered. He’d always resented it a little, because she kept some fascinating things in there—a miniature model of the sword in the stone he’d been obsessed with pulling out, a brass dial that he had never figured out the use of, and more. “These books aren’t for you, baby,” she’d said to him, which hadn’t made sense to him at the time, eight years old and obsessed with reading everything he could get his hands on. “They’re dangerous, so stay out.”
He supposed it was probably porn, actually.
Making a face at the thought, he carried on, opening the door into her bedroom. It still smelled, faintly, of the perfumes that she’d spray around, that still littered her dresser. Clothing covered the four-poster bed and the floor, along with makeup compacts, tubes, and similar things, jewelry scattered around as if she’d been looking for the perfect piece to disappear in.
His heart clenched and he sighed again, heading over and pressing down on the mattress with a hand. The sheets gave off a smell of dust, but the bed felt soft and usable. He’d sleep there tonight, he decided. He could haul his sheets in from the car so it wouldn’t be too weird, then replace the mattress later.
The sound of the doorbell made him jump, heart pounding. It seemed too soon for food, though he supposed that the pizza place must not get too much business. It rang again, urgent, and he pulled away from his memories, thumping down the stairs to the front door. “Coming!”
But the person on the other side of the door, when he opened it, wasn’t wearing a uniform or carrying anything. Jay glanced up at the man’s face, confused, then froze.
The stranger’s unkempt appearance took Jay aback—hair that was clearly once thick hung down stringily, swollen eyes twitched past Jay into the house before focusing on his face again. He had sallow, pale skin and a too-wide mouth with doughy lips.
And then the man grimaced, clearly in response to Jay’s response, and he felt absolutely shitty for his first reaction to the guy’s appearance. “H-hi,” the man said.
“Hi,” Jay said. He drew a deep breath, and focused on the bigger picture. The man was around his own age, and cleanly-dressed, in jeans and a nice polo. “Sorry, you surprised me—I was waiting for pizza and, uh, wasn’t expecting… anyone?”
The man grimaced again, but turned it into a smile. “Y-yeah,” he said. “I, uh, I. Miss Grace has, uh, been gone so long, and I. I saw her lights on? S-so, I uh.”
[Please suggest an action in the Comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, or deeds!]