Don Russell jingled the key in his hand and shouted to his approaching family with an exuberance he had never felt before. “Who wants to do the honors?”
“Go ahead honey,” Maria told him, “You’re already standing there with the key.”
With his wife and two children watching, Don inserted the key into the lock and turned. The lock opened without difficulty and the front door to the Russell’s new home opened.
“Yay!!!” The family clapped and cheered, and entered the abode one by one, taking in the smells of fresh paint, plaster and wood as they came inside.
“It’s so beautiful, and it’s so ours!” Thirteen-year-old Tiffany scrambled down the main hallway and looked inside the spacious kitchen with new, shiny appliances and gorgeous black marble countertops.
Her brother, fifteen-year-old Patrick, took immediate interest in an empty room near the back door. “This will be a great room for a gaming den! We can have a computer over there, a big TV with an Xbox over there, and a big leather couch by that wall!”
“I love this huge living room!” Maria marveled as she gazed at the high walls that rounded up to the cavernous ceiling, with a second-floor loft looking over it. “Can you imagine what we can do with it? And there’s a bar dividing it from the dining room and kitchen, which will be perfect for entertaining!”
Don traipsed merrily around the house. “I can’t possibly pick a favorite room. It’s all so magnificent. I know you all got impatient waiting for the house to be built, staying in that cramped apartment for so many months. But this is proof that good things come to those who wait!”
Maria looked out the kitchen window at the front lawn, looking to see if the moving van had arrived yet. “I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but those movers are coming soon and we’ll have a lot of work to do to really make this a home.”
“I’m gonna check out the basement before they get here!” Patrick ran to the door that led to the basement stairs and bounded down them. He wasn’t surprised by how cold and dark it was, but was taken aback at the size of the cellar. It was almost as big as the entire first floor.
“Oh screw the gaming den, this place is gonna be the bomb hangout!” He licked his lips as he looked around, seeing nothing at first except for a big empty room that permeated with that undefinable yet irresistible “new home” smell.
“Patrick,” his father called from upstairs, “Do you and Tiffany want to pick rooms before the movers get here? The two smaller bedrooms upstairs are pretty much the same but one is closer to the bathroom and I thought you two might want to do rock-paper-scissors for it.”
“I’ll be there in a sec, Dad.” Patrick walked over to the back wall of the basement, having seen something that caught his eye. In the corner was a small black object. He looked at it with curiosity, then picked it up. It was shiny black, round, felt like smooth plastic, and had faded writing on it.
It was then that he heard loud honking noises outside. “The movers are here!” His mother yelled. Patrick put the object in his pocket and ran up the stairs to join the rest of his family.
* * *
Night fell well before the Russells had finished moving all of their boxes and furniture into the house, but the four of them were too excited to stop for the night until every one of their items was inside. Finally, as the truck departed and the family was finishing up a dinner of delivery pizza while sitting on the living room floor, an unspoken agreement was reached that it was time to call it a night.
“You kids gonna be okay to sleep in your beds tonight?” Don asked Patrick and Tiffany. “I know your rooms are a little overcrowded right now.”
“I think I’ll be fine,” Tiffany answered, “I just hope the house doesn’t have any weird noises or creaks that keep me up all night.”
“Hey you guys, that reminds me,” Patrick took out the black object he had found earlier. “I found this in the basement today. I have no idea what it is.”
“Let me see that.” Don took the object and examined it. “This looks like a roll of film! How did that get in this house?”
“A roll of film?” Tiffany asked.
Don smiled slightly. “Back in the days before camera phones and digital cameras, people took photos using cameras that captured the image onto film. Once a roll of film was used up, you took it to a place to be developed. They would take your roll of film and give you back an envelope full of the photos that were taken.”
Patrick looked at his father with horror. “So you couldn’t even see the pictures until you got them back from the photo-developmenty place? How did you put it on Instagram?”
“They didn’t have Instagram back then, you moron,” Tiffany told him. She turned to her dad. “Nobody takes pictures that way anymore. How did this get into our basement?”
“That’s what I want to know,” her father said. “This is a newly-built house. This roll looks like it’s older than both of you put together.”
“Is it possible that one of the builders had an old roll of film for whatever reason, and it just ended up in this site?” Maria pondered.
“Mom, why would a construction worker carry around an undeveloped roll of film while building a house?” Tiffany turned to Don. “Dad, is it possible there was a home on this plot of land before our house was built?”
“No, no chance of that at all,” Don insisted before his daughter finished her query. “I was shown all the papers before I bought the property. This is a brand-new development. Most of the houses around here are.”
“Could there have been a sinkhole here?” His wife asked. “Did this film somehow end up here from a nearby house?”
“No sinkhole here. The plot is completely up to code. The realtor provided me with all the documentation and assured me everything was on the up-and-up.”
“Well, something’s definitely up, because there’s no way this object is anything but really, really old.” Patrick picked it back up. “I think we should go get this film developed, so we can at least see what pictures are on here.”
“That’s a great idea Pat.” Maria began cleaning up the paper plates and putting the leftover pizza in the fridge. “When we finish putting everything away I’ll go take the pictures to be developed.”
“Hope you won’t need a time machine to find a place that still develops film,” Tiffany quipped as she retreated to her bedroom.
* * *
Maria pulled into the driveway and after stopping and shutting off the car, ran out with an envelope in hand and entered the house. The drive home from the pharmacy had been a bear; she had looked at the contents of the envelope as soon as she received them but immediately wished she hadn’t. Though the photos were fully developed and clear as day, Maria had no idea what to make of them and could not remain the only person shouldered with the mystery.
“I’m back,” she yelled to whomever was in the house, “I got the pictures made.”
Tiffany appeared from upstairs, followed by Patrick and Don from the gaming room. “Let’s see them Mom!”
Maria removed the stack of photos from the envelope and placed them on the only empty portion of kitchen counterspace available. She carefully arranged them flat on the surface so that they could all be seen. “Well, here they are. I – I’m at a loss for words.”
The other three looked at them quizzically. Patrick and Don began pointing at individual photos and glancing around the house. Tiffany simply stared at them with intense concentration.
“Looks like a very happy family,” she finally said. “Parents, three kids, a dog; looks like they knew how to have fun.”
“These were all taken such a long time ago,” Don observed. “Of course, that’s to be expected – these were taken in the days before digital cameras. But these pictures have got to be at least thirty years old. Too bad there are no dates on them.”
“Don’t any of you notice the big deal with these pictures?” Maria pointed at one of the photos. “This one, with the mother and daughter baking a cake? They’re in a kitchen that looks exactly like this one.”
“Hey… yeah, this one,” Patrick pointed at a different photo, “It’s a birthday party, and the kid’s blowing out candles on a cake in a dining room that looks just like ours.”
“Their backyard looks like ours too,” Don noticed. “I mean, the fence is a slightly more faded color, but that’s our yard, no question about it.”
Tiffany’s eyes bugged out and she held her head. “These pictures… were taken in this house. Everything but the furniture looks the same as ours.”
“Honey,” her father pointedly told her, “This is a brand-new house. There’s no way the family lived here before we did.”
Maria snorted dismissively. “So there’s another house out there that’s an exact duplicate of this one? And a roll of film that this family took and never developed just ended up in the basement of our newly-built house?”
Don shot her a piercing glare. “Hold on Maria, just what are you insinuating?”
“Face the facts Dad, these old pictures are of this house.” Patrick pointed at several of the photos for emphasis. “The kitchen, the living room, the dining room, the yard, it’s all the same as ours. And this one, where the kids are playing with the dog in the front yard? You can clearly see that this is our street.”
“Dad, what the hell did you lie to us for?!” Tiffany exploded. “This ain’t a new house after all!”
“Yes it is, and don’t curse at me, young lady!” Don stacked up all the photos and put them back in the folder. “These are just photos of people we’ve never met. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this house!”
“You didn’t do an inspection of the plot beforehand, didn’t you?” Maria talked without looking at her husband.
“Didn’t need to. I got a guarantee from the realtor and the developer. You know how hard it would have been for them to put one over on me? The county had to approve all the construction and land usage permits as well. Trust me, we are the first ones to live here.”
Maria and the two teens left the kitchen without any additional words being said. Don leaned over the counter, staring at the folder without actually seeing it. It took all of his willpower to turn his head around and finally look at his new home again.
* * *
The next day no one in the family bothered to put any items away, despite the whole house still being crowded with boxes and disassembled furniture. The exuberant magic that had filled the home for the past several days had disappeared, and with it the motivation to unpack. Most of the family was seated in the living room watching a baseball game on the TV, though none of them had much interest in baseball. Tiffany was the exception – she was occupied with her laptop in her bedroom.
“We should probably get the kitchen put away today,” Maria dared to suggest. “You know, it’s about time this family actually started cooking meals again.”
“Uh huh,” Don answered.
“Dad, can I see the channel guide?” Patrick asked. “I think there’s supposed to be a Ghost Hunters on right now.”
Tiffany called down to the room from the second-floor loft. “Pat, can I see you for a bit?”
“Uh, sure.” Pat rose and walked up the stairs to join his sister while their parents continued to stare at the TV in silence. Eventually Maria got up and helped herself to a glass of malbec at the bar, but was barely able to enjoy it.
One hour later Tiffany and Patrick came down the stairs, Tiffany carrying her laptop. “Mom, Dad,” she announced, “Pat and I have something to show you about the house. It ain’t pretty, but you have to see it.”
Don and Maria walked over and looked at the computer. Don sighed deeply, “Okay Tiff, what did you find out?”
Tiffany took a deep breath, swallowed, then continued. “I did a search on this house’s address. I looked up the real estate listings, public records, news reports, everything. You were wrong Dad – there was a house on this property before we moved here.”
Don stammered. “There’s – there’s just – no way –“
“I was able to learn the names of the family that was in those photos from that roll of film. They were the Madigans. Husband, wife, three kids, a dog. They lived in a house on this address up until about twenty-five years ago.”
“Then what happened?” Maria asked. “Did they move away?”
“No,” Tiffany said blankly. “They were all murdered.”
“MURDERED?!” Maria’s eyes shot wide open and her mouth could fit a softball.
“Yes. The dad apparently was indebted to the mob. Took out some bad loans and made some investments that didn’t pan out. He was threatening to go to the FBI. They came one night to the house and he was never seen again. The next night they came back to get the wife and children, probably so they could never conduct a search for their father. Shot them all up right in their living room.”
Patrick nodded slowly as he watched his father’s face turn every shade of color imaginable.
“So you’re saying that, in this room, four people were gunned down?” Don squeaked out. “In this house that we spent over six hundred grand on?!”
“No,” Patrick informed him, “It wasn’t this house. But it was an exact replica of this house.”
“From what we can piece together, the developer knew the house would never sell after the grisly murders happened, so they had it demolished. Well, mostly demolished – they still left up the foundation. When you had the house built, they simply rebuilt it on the old foundation, using the original blueprints, to save money.”
Don glanced around the house, whipsawing his head around in rage. “They – they assured me this was newly built. THAT’S WHAT WE PAID FOR. Now my own kids, who aren’t even old enough to drive, are telling me that I got taken.” He balled his hands into fists, breathing heavily through his nostrils. “GODDAMMIT!!!!”
“Thank you, Tiff and Pat,” Maria motioned for her kids to get up. “Why don’t the two of you get out of the house and go to the movies or something? Your father and I have a few things to talk about.”
The two teens needed no convincing, hurrying out of the house as their father picked up the laptop and stared at the information on the screen. Sure enough, the pictures of the family in the newspaper clippings were a clear match with those of the happy suburbanites in those old photos. Struggling to hold back tears, Don opened a new browser tab and began a search for real estate attorneys.
* * *
Maria held the paper in her hand so tight that it almost ripped. She had waited anxiously for her husband and kids to come home that day to read it to them, and the delay almost made her explode. Finally, by six PM, they were all present. Maria read them the letter with as little emotion as she could muster:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Russell:
I have investigated the history of your newly-acquired property and the parties responsible for the sale of it to you. I’m afraid the situation is even more dire than we first thought.
Kurt Madigan did not actually owe any money to the mob nor did he have any willing relationship with any criminal elements. The persons responsible for the deaths of him and his family operate within the real estate developer that commissioned the construction of his home, as well as yours. The slayings were carried out in order to create a media spectacle that would sink the worth of their home enough to justify its demolition. As you have already surmised, your home was built on the existing foundation that remained of the Madigan’s home. It was sold to you as a newly-built property by means of fraud and misrepresentation.
Your home appears to not be the only property subjected to this scheme, as the developer has marketed other rebuilt homes in this fashion in order to sell them at inflated prices. Whether the county government and realtor willingly cooperated with them or were merely grossly negligent, is a matter we will need to examine further.
The safety of your family should of course be your highest priority. I strongly advise you to vacate your home immediately. Once you are somewhere safe please advise me as to what steps you want me to take next. I am willing to explore all avenues to help you obtain redress for this outrageous and criminal scheme.
The Russells did not begin to pack right away. They took in the news with several minutes of silence, glancing around at their “new” home with dread and sorrow.
Don Russell stood in complete trepidation, jumping at the slightest noise that came from outside. The sun was beginning to set, and he knew there was no time left.
“C’mon everyone,” he intoned, “Time to say good-bye. Let’s get packing.”