Carolyn Steele Agosta
Down the Rabbit Hole
Updated: Mar 20
Part 2 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
He didn’t enjoy driving at night on these dark country roads, especially if it was raining. Snow was even worse. He knew, despite appearances, that it was him driving through the snow and not the snow driving through him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling. He could barely see the road and although he knew it well, a sense of unreality began to take root.
Unreality and uncertainty – they went hand in hand, and for the past month, it seemed more and more so in Drew’s life. First that creepy experience in the farmhouse attic. A sense of someone watching him, disapproving, even angered. And now a strong unease every time he was around the elderly woman who owned the farmhouse.
She was a nice lady – he knew that, had known her since he was a kid – but lately she seemed, well, a little bit witchy. She invited him to come over again, assess more of the antique furniture on the first and second floor of her house and they’d discussed terms, but she hadn’t come to a decision until this evening, after his third visit. She invited him to stay and have a cup of tea while they signed the contract. Then she began talking about her rental properties along Juniper Row and how she’d like to retire from managing them, and then she asked if he’d consider taking it on.
She’d pay him, of course, and Drew could always use another stream of income, but he just wasn’t sure. It’d be an easy workload, but no, he had enough on his plate already. But she just kept urging him. In her faded, lined face, her eyes were still intensely blue, sapphire blue that cut right through you. Her hair was white now, but her eyelashes still as black and thick as ever, and the combination was mesmerizing. He felt himself nodding, almost sliding into acquiescence, his excuses running down like an aged battery. He could barely remember saying good night to her or driving away. And now, this snowy half-hidden road made him feel as if he were driving into an unknown land, in which anything could happen.
Oh, stop it, he told himself. You already made a fool of yourself that day in the attic, don’t do it again. He really had felt like there was a ghost that day, but when he went back, everything seemed fine. The old wardrobe stood open and empty and placid. It probably had been just a rogue cold stream of air down his collar. And Miss Vonna was just an old lady – not even that old, around seventy – asking for some help. He didn’t have to say yes. Except he already had. Drowning in her gaze, he’d have signed his life away.
He considered phoning her right now, to tell her he’d changed his mind. He would, by gosh. Call her up and tell her it was all off. He even reached for his cell phone when suddenly he felt his tires go off the edge of the nearly invisible road. He swerved and went off the other side, fishtailing and sliding, fighting to regain control. His headlights flashed across a small stand of trees, and he swung the steering wheel again, hitting the brakes and sliding in slow motion, spinning in a circle. He managed to stop and, for a few seconds which seemed like hours, tried to figure out where he was. No lights anywhere except his own headlights and the lights on his dashboard. There should have been a half moon, but it was behind the clouds. Everything was dark except for the swirling, dancing snow. He opened the door of his truck and stood on the runningboard, hoping to see better, but was almost immediately blinded by cold, wet snowflakes. He must be, he had to be on that stretch of road between the Hoffmann barn and Route 10, where there was nothing but trees and fields for about a mile. He stepped down to figure out if he was on pavement or not, but the snow had already accumulated at least four inches and he couldn’t tell until he dragged the toe of his boot and stirred up gravel.
So. Not on the road. But how far off? He moved in front of his truck, feeling his way, somewhat comforted to know that if anyone approached, they’d be able to see his truck lights.
Just as he had that thought, his truck went dark. Headlights, taillights, nothing. No radio. No . . . no engine noise. He was in complete darkness, utter silence, slowly being covered by snow.
He reached for the truck, thinking he’d better at least get back inside before he froze to death. Where was his cell phone? He’d been digging in his pocket for it, just before he went off the road, but had he actually pulled it out? It wasn’t there now. Had it flown out of his hand? Drew reached again for the truck. It wasn’t there.
Oh my God, he thought, this is ridiculous! His truck was there, right there, right behind him when it suddenly went dark. Scared, angry, Drew whirled in a circle, stretching his hands out to each side. The moon finally came out behind the cloud and Drew stopped. Stared. But there was nothing to see. Just snow. Thickly falling, sound-muffling, driving, pelting snow on snow. No truck, no road, no trees. Just black beyond the snow and that half-moon, brighter than the snow, almost blindingly white, mesmerizing. As mesmerizing as . . . Miss Vonna’s eyes.
“Oh, Miss Vonna,” Drew whispered. “Have mercy.” He didn’t know what he meant. He didn’t know what he meant. But somehow, the moon, the snow, the disappearance of his truck, it all was connected and led back to that woman, and the bottomless pools of her eyes.
And then he thought of his wife. Waiting for him at home. And his three teenage children. They would be worried about him, out in this storm. Waiting for him to show up. They counted on him! In his gut, he felt the deep fear and desperation of a man who couldn’t, wouldn’t let them down.
Whatever I have to do, Drew vowed, I will do it. Just let me survive this night. He threw out his hands in supplication and came into hard contact with something on his left. The moon chose that moment to hide behind a cloud again, but it didn’t matter. He’d found his truck, and in a moment, he was back inside, turning the key, hearing the engine roar to life, seeing the headlights send two clear beams through the snow. A fence could be discerned as the snow lessened, and Drew followed this long enough to find his way back to the highway.
The snow stopped as he drove home and by the time he reached his driveway, there wasn’t even a trace on the ground. The moon came out again, this time a benevolent friend. He pulled into the garage and turned off the ignition. For a moment, he just sat there, listening to the pinging and sighing of the engine, feeling his heart slow down to a normal beat. It was just all coincidence, he told himself. He was being overly dramatic. Drew looked down and saw his cellphone on the floor. He picked it up and saw that he had started to call Miss Vonna but hadn’t quite entered all the numbers. It wasn’t actually that late yet. He could still phone her and turn down the job.
But he just didn’t think he would.
The next morning, Drew did what anyone would do who had lost all sense of reality. He played along. He shaved, showered, said good morning to his family, drove to work. There was no account of the snowstorm on local radio. None at all. Had it even happened?
The early morning hours at the store were his alone, when he dealt with correspondence and paperwork and planning before his employees arrived and the store opened. This morning he paid a few bills and looked at his calendar to see what was coming up. There was the Abernathy estate house to look over, an upcoming online auction to track, and he’d need to schedule the furniture removal at Miss Vonna’s.
He experienced a slight moment of dizziness at the thought. All kinds of questions came at him. Why was she getting rid of everything? Well, not everything. She’d still have a bed, a table and chairs, a recliner and a TV, a desk, but almost everything else would go. She said that she wanted to clear the second floor and move her bedroom to the first floor, so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs all the time, but he wondered. For a seventy-year-old woman, she seemed in good shape. Mentally alert, upbeat. Arthritis, she’d told him. Both knees. But why not just have surgery, he wondered.
For fifteen years now, he’d been clearing houses for the executors of various estates, and he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised by anything. When you begin digging through the remnants of someone’s life, all kinds of things got unearthed. Surprising stashes, strange obsessions, secrets. All kinds of secrets. He wondered about hers.
Over the next few days, he did the preparations to remove and store her furniture. Even figured out which pieces he’d highlight in the store. Finally, the day came, and the guys carried everything out to a small moving van, and he sat down once again at that kitchen table to talk with Miss Vonna.
“I do really appreciate everything you do,” she told him, pouring the inevitable tea. “It will be such a load off my mind, knowing you’ll take over the property management. Now, I’ve written everything down – all the tenants’ names, the rent they pay and when it’s due, all the regular items for which I get billed like the water bill, trash pickup, grounds maintenance, insurance – and here’s a list of people I turn to when any repairs need to be made. Plumber, carpenter, electrician, appliance guy, and so on. I do think it would be a good idea for you to come with me and meet all the tenants. You already know some of them, anyway, but now they’ll know who to contact if they need to. I’ll still be around,” she said. “If you can’t find me, I’ll probably be at Nance Winslow’s or the Y. We take a water aerobics class together.
“Really? Good for you,” he said, acutely aware that he was avoiding her eyes. “And Nance, too.”
“Yes, especially for Nance, with her back problems and all. We’re no synchronized swimming team, but we have fun.” She laughed comfortably. “Afterwards, we go to lunch and together solve all the world’s problems. If only the politicians would listen to us.”
He grinned. “They couldn’t do worse than they’re doing now.” He glanced at Vonna, forgetting his vow of avoidance for the moment, and was immediately sucked in by those blue eyes.
“I know you have doubts about taking this on,” she said, and her expression was wholly sympathetic. “But you’ll see, it will be a good thing. When we send out good into the world, it comes back tenfold. I promise.”
Drew stared back. He wondered – did her words mean more than they said? Was he just getting ridiculous, doubting everything? Could he – and then, his questions drifted away, and he found himself relaxing. She was just a nice lady, he was just the nice guy helping her out, everything would be fine in the end. He finished his mug of tea and got to his feet. Time to go. They agreed on when they’d meet again to get him introduced to all the tenants, and he left.
He still needed to stop at the Abernathy house, to sign the contract whereby he would take possession of everything in the house and clear it completely, leaving it “broom clean”, so that the family would then be able to put it on the market after any needed repairs or renovations. He’d walked through it twice and felt confident that this would be a profitable job. The two sisters and one brother who had inherited the house were themselves no spring chickens and lived out of town to boot. They just wanted things settled quickly and easily, so it would be a win-win all around.
The papers signed, the legal advisor left, and Drew prowled through the closets and cupboards of the 1960s-era brick ranch house. There were collectibles everywhere. The old woman who’d lived there never threw anything valuable away. It was relatively clean. Dusty, but no garbage. Neighbors had cleared out whatever food items and medications had remained, even the bed was stripped, and trash removed. But in every drawer, in every cabinet, he found treasures. High-quality hardbound classic books. Record albums. Jewelry. Vintage clothing. The furniture, too, was valuable. Mid-century modern, with a sprinkling of later pieces. Those lamps would fetch a good price. So would the collection of sterling silverware. Drew felt his heart lift. With three teen-aged children, he was very aware of needing to set money aside for rising expenses. Cars, college, maybe eventually weddings. His kids were great. Smart, well-behaved (mostly), hard-working. They all helped out at the store, and his oldest, Mick, had a part-time job at a printing company. He wanted the best for them. The profit from this job would really help.
Over the next two weeks, he and his employees and even his wife, Joan, cleaned out the house. Joan was his jewelry expert and she kept exclaiming over the items they found. “This is amazing stuff,” she said, showing him things she had spread out on a table. “Designer stuff – Boivin, David Webb, Hermes, Pierre Sterlé. Real gold, real jewels. Early Svarovski crystal. And watches! Look at all these watches!”
Drew had to take a deep breath. They’d already found a large supply of antique coins, stamps, rare porcelain and fine china. Cash hidden in odd places. This estate was going to be even larger than he’d expected, and he couldn’t help thinking of Miss Vonna’s prediction about goodness being repaid tenfold. Was this what she meant? Was it some kind of reward? No, that was ridiculous.
And, yet. . . he couldn’t deny that things had gone smoothly the past two weeks. Uncommonly so. He enjoyed meeting the various tenants and getting a peek into their extremely charming vintage cottages. There’d been no unexpected repairs required. Everything was going well. Business at the store was thriving, even in this off-season of winter. In the evenings, when he sat with Joan in their living room, enjoying a glass of wine and some relaxation, there was a sense of contentment that was so pleasant. He knew it wouldn’t last, but he’d enjoy it while he could.
His only area of concern right then was his oldest son, Mick, who seemed pretty intense about his new girlfriend CeCe, a definite beauty who seemed to be leading Mick by the nose. Drew didn’t like the way she called the shots, playing Mick like a puppet on a string. There would be trouble, sooner or later. It was too bad – Mick was a great kid with real potential, but his life could soon be completely upended and there was nothing Drew could do. Mick wouldn’t listen to him.
On Saturday morning, he got a call from Nance Winslow that her garbage disposal wasn’t working. It was early, before store opening, so he corralled Mick and went over there. It sounded like the kind of thing he could manage, and he was even glad of the chance to show his prowess. Sure enough, the disposal was just jammed, and he was able to clear it in a few moments. Afterward, he got talking with Nance and Miss Vonna, who was visiting her friend. Mick took himself out to the lake’s edge, clearly bored to death, and Drew couldn’t help voicing his concerns about his son. “I remember being seventeen myself, and I know full well how a girl could twist me around her finger. But I just have this sense of dread about where it’s heading. Mick’s supposed to go to college in the fall. I don’t want anything to derail that.”
Nance and Miss Vonna both nodded. “It’s a scary age,” Nance said. “You’re so stupid at that age – you think nothing bad is ever going to happen, and you take incredibly idiotic chances. If my parents had known everything I was up to . . .” She chuckled, remembering.
“You need to talk with him,” Vonna said.
“Maybe I could have a word,” she continued. “I mean, he doesn’t know me very well, but . . . ”
“I wish you would,” Drew said, realizing as he did so, that this was what he really wanted. Was it wrong, asking for this kind of help? Was he setting something into motion? He met her gaze and repeated, “I wish you would talk to Mick. Get him to think sensibly.”
She smiled. “Oh – sensibly! That might be too much to ask from a seventeen-year-old boy full of hormones. But maybe I can get him to take a good long look at how she treats him.” Drew nodded at her, and she rose stiffly from the table. “Oh, these knees. They need some WD-40, for sure.”
He and Nance watched from the window as Miss Vonna walked down the path to the pier. Mick was skipping stones on the lake, but he turned as she approached. Tall and skinny, he had to bend his head to speak to her and they watched as she touched Mick’s arm and spoke for several minutes. At one point, he seemed to pull away, but then stood and politely listened until she finished. He nodded, at the end, and watched as the woman slowly made her way back to the cottage. Saw his father at the window and waved.
Drew and Nance looked at each other. “Well, that’s settled,” Nance said. “He’ll be alright now.” She met Drew’s surprised glance and added, “I’ve known Vonna for a long time. She’s a real force of nature, isn’t she?”
So, Nance knows, he thought. She’s seen things. I’m not the only one. I’m not crazy.
It took a week or so, but finally Mick broke it off with CeCe. Drew and Joan finished the clear-out of the Abernathy home and arranged for sales of various categories of items. By the time everything was sold and paid for, the profit on this one job was equal to nearly a year’s worth of store sales. He’d gone through the first round of rent collection and bill-paying for Miss Vonna, and the weather had warmed up.
One day, he ran into Miss Vonna in town. She had just purchased some big bags of grass seed and he helped her get them into her car. “Getting ready for spring a little early, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Well, I’m just in the mood. Now that the house all tidy, I’m going to start on the yard.”
“Do you need any help unloading these when you get home?”
“Oh, Drew,” she said, mirth in her eyes, in her devastatingly blue eyes. “I’m fine. You don’t need to do a thing.”
He drew himself taller and smiled. “Miss Vonna, I’d be honored to do anything you need. Your wish is my command.”
“Well, isn’t that nice,” she replied. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
And so she would.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read the other parts of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. Or visit my blog to find other stories, here, and my books, here.