Misty Hargraves stared up at the house’s dim windows and fiddled with the keys.
The Sun twinkled above and left half the building in shadow. The blue door sat beneath an eave, its letterbox mouth a straight line, its glass eyes black. The front windows showed the same, in that they showed nothing but darkness. Misty squinted, but the upstairs rooms offered no further insight. Finally, her gaze rose to the attic window in the middle of the pointed roof. Her eyes played a trick on her, and something shifted behind the glass. But that would be ridiculous because they had lived alone. Misty wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans.
“I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you, girl.”
She jumped and let out a squeak. Her hands flew up to her face, and the housekeys clinked to the garden path. She cringed away and came closer to falling over than she’d care to admit.
A wrinkled man in a faded cardigan stared at her over the fence. A few wisps of grey hair clung to his liver-spotted head. He raised his eyebrows and nodded as if her response confirmed what he’d said.
She issued a short, high-pitched laugh. “O-Oh, my goodness, you scared me!” She smiled but found that the corner of her mouth twitched. The older man did not return the smile, and he continued to watch her. His watery eyes bored into hers, and Misty glanced away. The keys glinted in the sunshine. She darted down and retrieved them. “Do you live around here?”
He hooked a thumb over his shoulder to the house adjacent. He said nothing. Then, from the entrance, a woman in hair curlers looked out. When Misty raised her hand in a wave, she shut the door.
Misty nodded and twisted her lips in a way that she hoped looked friendly. “Well, I guess we’re sorta neighbours now then, huh?” She hooked her chin towards the house. “That was my grandparents’ place, but they, ah—” She cleared her throat. “What with Mom and Dad being gone, the house went to me.” Misty rattled the keys in the air. The regular one and the other one dangled before their eyes. “I’m here to, y’know, figure out what needs keeping and what needs clearing. Busy busy.”
The neighbour scowled at the house. “All was not as it appeared on the outside with them.” He looked back at her and sucked on his teeth.
“R-Right, right.” Misty chewed her inner cheek. “Well, I still gotta—” she waggled the keys “—y’know?”
A low-pitched grumble dribbled over his lower lip. He shook his head and made his way up the path towards his own home. The woman inside peered out between the crack in the door.
“It was, er, nice to meet you! I’m Misty, by the—”
The door slammed shut.
Misty turned back to the house and frowned. As if she needed another reason to feel nervous about this whole thing. Had the man heard about the circumstances in which they died? Or had he held a grudge against them for some minor infraction years ago, which they never resolved? Say, a hedge-cutting dispute?
The report she’d received said that both Grandpa Norman and Grandma Amaya passed away on the same day. Curious, but not that weird. Misty had heard of similar things before. Couples who spent their whole lives together couldn’t live without the other. So when one passed on, the other soon followed — death from a broken heart.
The thing that made the skin around Misty’s eyes tighten had occurred after their deaths. What the funeral director told her would have sounded like a sick joke had it come from anyone else. But the man’s grave tone and long-winded preamble dispelled any such notion.
Grandma Amaya’s corpse had disintegrated on the way to the funeral home.
To hear how the professionals described it, she crumbled into nothing but dust. An investigation from the Medical Examiner found that Norman died of natural causes. They suspected no foul play. They tried to examine the soot from Amaya and declared it indistinguishable from ash.
And now their neighbour came to tell her that she shouldn’t go inside.
Misty fiddled with the keys between her sweat-wet fingers. She rolled the traditional shape of the house key back and forth. The other, longer and more ancient one she could hardly touch. Black and crooked, it reached forward like the charred bones of a skeletal hand. When asked what it opened, the will’s executor only offered a shrug.
She pulled in a breath and held it as her pulse thrummed in her temples and pounded in her eardrums. She counted and exhaled between her pursed lips. “Grown woman. You’re a grown woman.”
With a glance at next-door’s twitching curtains, Misty approached her grandparents’ house.
· · ─────── ·𖥸· ─────── · ·
A long-held breath wheezed out of the home when she opened the door.
The smell didn’t offend her nostrils. Instead, it reminded her of things forgotten. She inhaled the staleness and tasted the perfume of unopened windows. Fireworks lit up across her brain: faded photographs, sepia memories, childhood nostalgia.
Board games lay scattered on the floor of a dark room, the curtains drawn. Soft yellow light spilt from inefficient bulbs. She and Grandpa laughed as the dice rolled and the little pieces tip-tapped across the board. Grandma grinned as she took a sip of her tea. “You better watch him,” she said, eyebrows arched. Her eyes danced. “He cheats.”
Misty smiled, but the shadows tainted the reminiscence with a bitter undertone. They spilt from the doorway and stained the world, clawed for the light and pulled it inside. She stared into the gloom as motes of dust drifted across. With each shudder of her heart, her eyes adjusted.
The hallway, decorated with a Turkish carpet, stretched to the kitchen’s closed door. The lounge where Misty’d played games with her grandparents sat in shadow to the right.
She stepped inside and flicked on the lights. It didn’t surprise her to learn that the same old bulbs remained in use. She shut the front door behind her with a muted click.
Darkness descended like nightfall.
Misty’s breath hitched, cloth snagged upon a thorn. She inspected the door and found plywood nailed over the panes of glass. Not even a shard of light pierced through the barrier. She gnawed her lip. Had it always been like that? Her memories only offered fragmented, unreliable glimpses. Older people could sometimes become frugal to the point of strangeness. Had Grandpa Norman covered up the cold glass to save on heating bills? The thought drove a shard of ice through Misty’s heart.
Misty glanced into the lounge, with visions of game boxes and manuals over every surface. Only a rug sat in the centre, between the couch and the outdated television. The ornate patterns crept up to the blank grey screen. A bulky thing, it had been out of date even when Misty had been a girl. An overstuffed newspaper rack dropped magazines to the floor like autumn leaves. Two lap trays leaned against it, their cushions threadbare. A coffee table stood by the sofa’s armrest, with two mugs side by side. Remnants of some fruit tea marked the ceramic. A billion circular water stains overlapped one another into infinity.
She almost turned for the kitchen when inspiration struck. With a hand that trembled, Misty reached for the curtains. Heavy velvet things, the dust clung to them like a second skin. When she pulled one aside, no light flooded into the lounge. Her grandparents had covered up these windows with bits of wood as well.
She made her way down the hall to the kitchen, ears tuned for every groan and creak of the household. Photographs of families, babies, weddings, birthdays, Christmases and new years lined the walls. Grandpa Norman appeared with that big silly grin in many of them. Yet, by the time Misty had reached the kitchen door, not a single picture of Grandma Amayahad passed her eyes. A worm of unease stirred in her gut, and the strange key continued to burn ice into her palm.
Misty pushed the door, which screeched as it swung open. More gloom, as here too boards blocked out all the windows. An old fridge towered above all, and when she opened it, she found only expired milk and a jar of jam. Clean plates and pieces of cutlery waited in the dishrack, ready for the cupboard. Only nobody had ever put them away. A handful of bowls and mugs sat in the sink, still dirty. A rusty, black mould encrusted their surfaces. It had spread to the metal of the drain, too — she would have to scrub that clean.
The stairs grated and rasped as Misty climbed them. The bannister beneath her hand slid by — worn smooth from a lifetime of use. The landing ahead loomed in the murk. When she placed her weight upon that final step, the boards beneath issued a frog’s croak. Misty paused, tensed and catlike. But nothing rushed her from the artificial twilight.
The bathroom revealed another blocked-up window and a pharmacy’s worth of medicine. Creams, ointments, and lotions dotted the tiles like unconventional chess pieces. A raised seat for seniors sat atop the toilet. Black mould crept up the shower curtain, and when she pulled it aside, the state of the bathtub did not shock her.
A door decorated with her late mother’s name called for her from one end of the hallway. The pink letters bubbled out of a cartoon unicorn’s mouth. But, unfortunately, both animal and name had faded to a pale shade of what they once had been. Misty scrunched her eyes shut, counted to three, and opened the door. Amber light trickled in through the gaps in the curtains. The only room in the house in which they’d not covered up the glass. Once she confirmed no squatter lurked inside, she pulled the door shut again. The sight of the teddy bears on the bed had been too much.
At first glance, her grandparents’ room had no bed. Instead, a large crate hugged the wall, pushed up into the corner. At its foot, two sets of well-used slippers anticipated feet that would never come. And a twin-bell alarm clock gathered dust on the bedside table, along with a framed painting of the pair.
Misty approached the crate and slid her fingers along its perimeter. She found a break in the wood, along with clasps and hinges. A frown etched onto her face, she grasped the edge and lifted it. The lid swung open with almost no resistance. Inside, a mattress covered the bottom, along with two pillows and a crumpled duvet. The sheets had an out-of-fashion but pretty floral pattern. Misty raised and lowered the top several times, but the questions remained.
Why did they have a lid on their bed? She’d never seen anything of the sort in all her twentysomething years on the planet. Had they slept under the top? Did it serve as a space-saving device? Or did it come from the lingering PTSD with which she suspected many children of the war suffered? With nobody to ask, she’d never know. Misty brought the lid to a rest, kissed her fingers and touched the top of the wood.
Only one room remained in the house.
Misty tugged at the cord, which dangled from the hatch in the ceiling. A pull-down ladder extended, and Misty gazed up the stairs into a square of endless night. Her mind replayed the movement in the window; a film jammed on a single scene. “Well, you’re here now,” she said through deadened lips.
She peeked her head above the hatch’s lip, inch by inch.
The room had more light than the rest of the house, and her acclimated eyes took in every detail.
In the middle of the space, something box-shaped sat hidden beneath a blanket.
But beyond that, the attic stood empty.
No monsters or madmen gripped lead pipes, prepared to bash her skull in.
Misty relaxed and climbed up. Another plywood board smothered the far window. One corner of it had come loose. Rays of sunlight sprouted up from the edge like the roots of some golden plant. She had indeed imagined the figure. Misty laughed, but sound chilled her in the silence.
She skirted around the obscured object and reached the window. She dug her nails beneath the gap, grunted, and pried the wood away. Faint light set the attic aflame. The Sun had dipped below the horizon.
Misty turned back to the thing beneath the blanket. She shook her hands loose and muttered to the cobwebs. “Do it. Do it. Do it.” In a single swift motion, she grabbed the edge of the cloth and yanked it away.
A cloud of dust particles rained like fairy powder over the item: a black trunk.
It looked like a pirate’s treasure chest, lock and all. She moved on instinct, her forebrain relegated to backseat chatter. Misty discovered she’d already selected the twisted skeletal key. It slid inside without a hitch. When she twisted it, the unlatched mechanism thudded throughout the house. Then, with more care than she’d ever done anything before in her life, Misty lifted the heavy lid and set it down.
A heart-shaped box rested at the top among old papers and other trinkets. Grandma’s name marked its surface. Where the red paint had chipped and faded, oxidised metal glinted beneath. She picked it up with hands that didn’t belong to her. Below, something with Grandpa’s name caught her eye, but the box maintained her attention. Misty flicked the latch and popped the lid and—
She screamed and almost dropped it.
Misty couldn’t put the box down fast enough and backed away as her heart hammered its fists against her ribs. With every beat, her whole body shuddered. Her eyes stayed glued to the box and what lay within. Try as she might, she could not stem the flow of questions that flooded her seized-up mind like arctic water. Numbness tingled her fingers and toes. Ice crackled through every nerve and vein.
Had Grandpa killed Grandma? Had that been the reason they’d departed together — murder-suicide?
“Oh my God.” The words wheezed from her. Misty’s lungs turned to stone. No air would rush down her windpipe. Nothing would expel. She could not breathe. Misty fell to her knees and gulped at the air like a fish. A plume of dust rose from the floorboards.
She thought she’d inherited their house. But had she inherited a crime scene instead? Grandpa’s crime scene? Misty shook her head like a drunkard. “No. No.” She gasped and forced oxygen down her narrow gullet. “Th-That’s impossible.” Her voice creaked in the stillness of the loft, and an overhead spider retreated into its web. “He loved her. He would have never—” Misty struggled for words, swallowed. “No.”
If they had indeed gone out that way, there must have been a reason for it: an illness. Grandma Amaya couldn’t do it herself. She had to ask her husband of over five decades to do it for her. And, as her loving soul mate, he obliged. After the fact, he wouldn’t have been able to go on, and so he would have taken his own life as well — that very day.
Misty rose on her knees and stared down at the box within a box.
But then why cut out her heart?
And why keep it?
The envelope with Norman’s name beckoned from beneath Grandma’s desiccated organ. Misty gritted her teeth and steeled herself.
She would get to the bottom of this.
· · ─────── ·𖥸· ─────── · ·
Misty held the brittle letter up to the last of the day’s light as it filtered in through the window’s dust.
“My sweet Norman,” she read aloud. “Now you know the truth about me, and yet your love has never wavered. You even offered me your essence, which, as you remember, I declined. This life isn’t for everybody. I do not know if it is for you, too. That may be something that we discuss later on down the line. But know this: one cannot take the deed back once done. This irreversibility leads me to my next point, my sweet.
“I will always be what I am. But in this box is my ultimate weakness. If you were to drive a pencil through it, I would perish in the way many novelists have described. So here is my ultimate gift to you, for you now have the power to end me with one swift motion. You now hold my heart in your hands.
“In giving you this part of me, I tie myself to you. We are now two balloons knotted together. If one balloon breaks free from its tether and floats off into the ether, it will never do so alone.
“In giving up eternal life, I pledge myself to you for all eternity. Happy Valentine’s Day. Forever yours — and beyond forever still — your Amaya.”
She lowered the letter and stared at the street outside. The oddities of Misty’s life clicked into place. All her quirks. Her aversion to garlic, her love of the night, her fantastic sense of hearing. An ex-boyfriend once called her heightened senses supernatural. Now it looked as though he hadn’t been far off. After all, she received a quarter of her genes from Grandma.
“No wonder I never saw her outside during the day,” Misty said to the ghosts. “Did the whole family know?” A lightbulb went off in her mind. “Would Mum and Dad have told me when the time was right, had they not—” She scrunched her eyes as her vision blurred. And when she reopened them, the box that held her heart rattled.
A silhouette stood in the exact place she had been when she stared up at the house.
But when Misty wiped the tears away, only an empty road bathed in the sunset’s orange-pink hues remained.