2716 words (10 minute read)

The Cottage

In the onset of twilight, two lights flickered beyond a small orchard. As Vincent moved nearer, he could make out a two-story house with a large porch and an iron fence, its gate and several sections fallen to the ground. An oasis of color surrounded the house—a lush manicured garden, vibrant rows of pumpkin, kale, chard, spinach and peas—contrasting with the fallen and withered leaves and the brown, muddied floor of the hillside.

Helen walked several paces ahead of him. She’d spoken barely a word since he’d asked about the old Sulphur Cure.

Something that should have been destroyed years ago.

“So you aren’t merely drifting to the next town,” she’d remarked. “What’s your business here, Mr. Rhodes?”

“Don’t misunderstand,” he’d said, “but someone in town referred to the building, and as an artist, I was curious.”

She’d scanned him suspiciously for a few moments, until he reminded her of his sketchbook, and it seemed proof enough.

“Well, a story best told after we’re out of this storm, safe and dry.”

Through the open front door of the house he noticed peeling blue and white wallpaper glowing in firelight.

“Please follow me in,” she said, climbing the porch steps.

He spotted a boy of about six or seven peeking out from behind the door. The boy’s mop of blond hair rustled in the wind. The hems of his frayed dark pants rested above his ankles, and his oversized cream-colored sweater stretched at the neck. In the foyer stood a girl, several inches taller than the boy, about fourteen or fifteen years old, with dark shoulder-length hair. She wore a black dress with matching stockings, and she too, sported an oversized sweater, this one dark blue. A deep purple splotch ran from her left temple to her collar bone. He stared at the girl and when their eyes met, he looked away, ashamed of himself for focusing on her condition.

The aroma of meat—venison or rabbit—filled the house. His stomach rumbled as he stepped into the foyer. The girl backed away, while the boy held his ground and keenly studied him.

“Is he back?” a raspy voice called down from the top of a staircase to the right of the foyer.

“A lost traveler, that’s all, Grandpapa,” Helen replied. “In need of a hot bath, dry clothes, and a meal.” She regarded Vincent. “He disembarked at the wrong train station and became confused.” She put her finger to her lips, cautioning him and the children to say nothing. She smiled, continuing to gaze at him, and spoke more softly, directing the words to him though meant for her grandfather to hear. “But this visitor is an artist.”

The upstairs floor creaked as the old man moved, but he remained out of sight, mumbling in complaint.

“We both need to change into some dry clothes,” she said, prying the boy’s hands from her arm. “Timothy, why don’t you show Mr. Rhodes upstairs and draw him a hot bath.”

“But he’s the artist,” the girl said, giggling.

“Kate, go set the table please, and be certain our dinner isn’t being overcooked.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Vincent said. “If I could just wait for the rain to—”

“Nonsense. I won’t have you leaving here wet and hungry.”

He realized there wasn’t much sense protesting. And where else would he find a hot meal? He’d not eaten anything of significance since the previous morning. “I promise to pay you back for your hospitality.”

“We’ll worry about that later.” She picked up a folded cloth from the top of a bureau behind her, and dropped it to the floor. She pushed it around with her foot, mopping up puddles of water. “Timothy, please, I asked you to show Mr. Rhodes to the guest room.”

Wood crackled and popped in the fireplace as Timothy stepped over and took his hand. The boy looked up at him with a broad grin and pulled him toward of the staircase. As they approached the first step, a figure appeared on the landing—a thin, hunched, elderly man. His hands trembled, and his unkempt silvery hair shone under an electric light, the globe cracked in half.

“Helen!” her grandfather shouted.

She hurried over, stepping between Vincent and the staircase, resting her hand on Timothy’s head. “Don’t be alarmed,” she whispered. “We’ve had so much trouble with burglars here in the last year. And my grandfather, I’m afraid, isn’t quite—”


She started up the stairs. “Grandpapa, you’re yelling needlessly and scaring our guest, as well as the children.”

The old man glowered. “Yes, the children. Now just when is that other vagabond you let in here coming back to claim them?”

“Grandpapa!” Her burst of anger startled everyone in the room, including Vincent, who grew increasingly uncomfortable as the object of the confrontation. “Listen to me. Mr. Rhodes will be dining with us this evening, and you’re to be on your best behavior.” She tilted her head at Timothy, and the boy again pulled on Vincent’s arm.

“Well,” the old man said, “well, anyway, he’s not to touch my chocolates.”

As Timothy led them up the stairs, the old man turned to avoid eye contact. When they neared him, Vincent took Timothy by the shoulders and stopped him from climbing the next step. “I’m not here to cause you any trouble, sir, and I will find a way to pay back your hospitality. I like to earn my keep.”

The old man, with his back to them, dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He took hold of the railing and slowly climbed up to the top of the stairs, disappearing around the corner after he stopped to catch his breath. A door slammed shut.

Vincent didn’t know which he felt more intensely—embarrassment, anger, or regret for having agreed to stay when instinct told him it wasn’t the soundest idea. He felt all three to some degree, really, until Timothy tugged on his sleeve and he looked down to see the boy tap his forehead twice, roll his eyes, and tilt his head toward where the old man had been standing. He thought the performance precocious, but nevertheless it amused him, and his discomfort softened with the boy’s humor.

The second floor of the house had weathered far more than the first, with rotted floorboards, fallen plaster, and leaks in the roof at the far end of the hall. Two rusted tubs collected water, with alternating plink plink plinks.

Timothy pointed to a room on their right. The voices of Helen and Kate—discussing table settings—filled the house.

A faded curtain flapped against the wall in the guest room. The boy hurried over to close the window. As Vincent placed his satchel on the bed, he scanned the room, its light blue walls intact except for two holes and several cracks under the windowsill. The only piece of furniture other than the bed was a small table with a brass lamp and an empty vase. On the wall next to the closet door hung a framed photograph. He walked over and studied its subject: a large brick building with a wooden lacework portico entrance that tapered into a tower. Windows atop two other towers on either end of the building formed Gothic arches. A circular drive ran under the entrance to a basement-level access. A formal garden replete with roses spread across the front yard, bordering the drive.

Beneath the photograph, above the edge of the frame, someone had written NorthEast View, Fallen Springs Sulphur Cure.

A grind, a squeak, the clanking of metal rang out from a small bathroom to his left. He followed the noise and saw Timothy bent over a claw foot bathtub, the white porcelain in pristine condition. Water spurted from the faucet, then flowed in a steady stream. A pungent sulphurous odor filled the room. Timothy seemed to take no notice, but Vincent covered his nose and mouth.

“Is that from the sulphur springs?” he asked the boy, keeping his hand in place.

Timothy glanced back over his shoulder and smiled. Whether or not he’d heard the question remained unclear.

“The water,” he said, briefly removing his hand from his face. “Is the smell normal? Does it come directly from the springs?”

Timothy turned away. He churned the water a few times, then cranked the faucet back and forth, finally settling on a position. He rose and walked to a shelf next to the sink. There he took down a towel and washcloth, creamy white and neatly folded, and put them on the edge of the tub.

“Timothy,” Helen called from below. “Please don’t dawdle up there. Give Mr. Rhodes his privacy. Besides, we can use your help down here.”

The boy hurried back to the faucet and watched the water for a moment. He turned the knob and the water trickled to a stop. As he stood upright he extended his arm to indicate the bath was ready. Methodically, rehearsed, perhaps performing the routine for the hundredth time, the boy walked back through the room toward a closet. He pulled open the door, where several suits hung, a variety of colors and styles, some in good condition, others frayed and torn. Three white shirts, yellowed but neatly pressed, hung beside them.

Vincent spied a pair of shoes on the floor. Italian. Almost identical to a pair his brother had given their father for Christmas years ago. How many people owned shoes like this? And here, of all places, so isolated, so far from any large city?

After making certain the guest had seen the variety of clothing options, Timothy leapt into the hall and gently closed the door behind him. Vincent spotted the boy’s feet at the edge of the door. The boy lingered a moment, until Helen called out again. The feet vanished.

As the sound of Timothy’s footsteps faded down the hallway, Vincent walked over and opened the door a crack. He glanced about. The hallway was empty, and he heard no activity from below.

Though less pronounced than before, the scent of sulphur still overwhelmed him as he moved closer toward the bathroom. He stopped to glance out the window, and noticed, through the dispersing mist, faint lights illuminating three towers. The same configuration depicted in the photograph.

He pressed his head against the glass. He couldn’t discern much, given how quickly daylight slipped away. After momentarily losing his train of thought while watching a spider stumble along the windowsill, he turned and wandered back toward the photograph. He leaned closer to it, peering until his vision blurred. Several small cottages and three fairly sizable houses surrounded the building. The house situated farthest to the right was clearly the one he stood in, for the design of the porch was the same, so too the iron fence, though intact in the picture.

The doorknob clicked. The door opened a crack. He saw Timothy’s blond head. One of the boy’s bare feet nudged the door an inch farther. Vincent pulled it open and Timothy gasped, the first sound the boy had made. Timothy seemed confused. He first stared at Vincent, then at the bathtub. He hurried over and felt the water, then nodded and motioned toward the bathroom, assuring the guest everything was fine.

Vincent smiled. “Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste.” He pointed to the window. “Tell me, the building in that picture….”

Timothy scowled. He shook his head.

“Is it out there?” he continued. “At the top of that hill just outside?”

Timothy pointed to the bathtub again.

“Yes, yes, all right,” he said, smiling, but troubled by the boy’s refusal—or inability—to speak. He unbuttoned his coat as Timothy headed for the door. The boy stepped backward and kept an eye on him. “I’ll be down in a little while.”

Timothy nodded. He turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Vincent watched the faint prints of perspiration from the boy’s bare feet fade away.

The humidity from the bath filtered through the room. He removed his coat, still damp and heavy, and hung it on the bedpost. He unbuttoned his shirt, but before he could slip it off the room went dark. Was it the boy playing tricks? He looked toward the door; no light came in from the hallway. The towers outside were also dark. At first he heard nothing, aside from the rain. Gradually, clamor rose from below, and he heard Helen’s voice.

He walked past the bed, the floorboards creaking beneath him, and opened the door to see flickering light from the direction of the stairwell.

“Mr. Rhodes?”

He stepped into the hall. “Yes, over here.”

“The generator, I’m afraid.”

Her face rosy in the glow of a candle, she tilted her head to one side, like a bird listening for the answer to its call. “I’m sorry we’ve deprived you of your bath.”

“It can wait,” he said. “Can I help you with the generator?” He caught sight of Timothy lurking in the shadows. “Maybe Timothy and I could—”

“No, oh, no,” she said at the same instant Timothy shook his head. “Timothy’s not allowed near that horrid place.” Almost as an afterthought she added, “Nor is Kate.” She glanced at his open shirt, then at the window. “But I could use your help. I don’t look forward to traipsing through that building during a storm. I’d just as soon wait until tomorrow and rely on candles this evening, but since we’ve the rare luxury of a refrigerator, I’d hate to see all our food go to waste.”

He picked up his coat from the bedpost. Though wet, it would offer at least some protection, and he felt hesitant about taking something from the closet. “Is there anything I should know about this building we’re heading to?”

She glanced toward the picture, the flame from the candle dancing in the frame’s glass. “You asked about it earlier, I know,” she said absently. “I will caution you, however, that should you really wish to go with me, once you enter, it will haunt your mind forever.” She smiled, but it wasn’t punctuated with humor. “Everyone who’s walked through those corridors has been strangely affected by the atmosphere of that wretched hellhole.”

He studied her, puzzled by her odd choice of words and her sudden detachment.

“Listen to me,” she said, with a forced smile. “I sound like a gypsy fortuneteller, don’t I?”

She turned back toward the staircase. Timothy came into the candlelight. She nudged him forward and they headed down the hallway. Vincent followed behind, keeping his hand against the wall to guide him. He felt as though he were stumbling through a cave.

So many twists and turns, Vincent! Dark hallways and hiding places the likes of which, as children, we’d never have imagined could exist. Our empire expanded beyond our wildest dreams. We might lose each other for days before we turned a corner and found each other again, you having burrowed beneath rivers, me scaling over crevices, Mrs. Henderson watching the two of us from a clandestine vantage point. And all in one building!

Had Theo walked these same corridors? And if so, were the letters his way of steering Vincent here, or warning him to stay away? He wished there were a gypsy fortuneteller to consult.

Oh, how melodramatic it all sounded. The old building—this Sulphur Cure—was simply a powerless and decaying shell of brick and mortar.

Then again, his mother had always insisted the bricks used to build the House of Rhodes were under some terrible curse. When he and Theo were younger, they thought it a joke, a fable, whimsy on her part.

Their mother had promised them that their perspective would change over time.

For Vincent, it had. But hardly in the way his mother would have dreamt.

Next Chapter: The Resort