Carolyn Steele Agosta
Nothing Good Would Come of That
Episode 8 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
Jake stumbled through the next few days like a cow on locoweed. He couldn’t concentrate and he couldn’t figure out his next step. The thing with Gina had blown his mind. He’d never given her much thought, not crabby old Gina, but then she showed up at his cottage, asking him to show her how to create an end card for a short video she was making. “I don’t usually do videos,” she said, “and this is a one-time thing for a client, so I just need to know how to do it fast and get it over with. And I know you do videos all the time.” It wasn’t a big deal, took him probably less than fifteen minutes, but when he was done, she thanked him by pulling her shirt over her head. She was not wearing a bra.
He truly had never looked at Gina that way (other than admiring her ass), but shit! He’d dreamt of this kind of scenario with a woman since he was in middle school, and he certainly could rise to the occasion. After the first go-round, they’d shared a beer, and then after the stupefying second match, when she showed incredible flexibility, he’d tried to blurt out some kind of thanks. She just good-naturedly tossed his clothes at him and said she had to get back to work. He’d thrown himself facedown on his bed and slept for the next six hours.
Since then, he’d dropped by her place twice. The first time, she said she was too busy working. She was always working. Her living room was entirely given over to tables and shelves and lots of clutter. Miniatures in finished scenes, miniatures in the midst of manufacture, a whole row of little heads modeled out of some kind of clay, and just a lot of clutter. “Yeah, I’m in demand now,” she said, showing him around on his second visit. “Everything I do has been commissioned beforehand, contract and all, but I never know if it will last. I always have to stay on top of it, keep coming up with new ideas. Everyone and their mother are making miniatures now. It’s a very competitive scene.”
Jake nodded. He could relate. It was the same with LEGO, he told her. Lots of folks were trying to monetize their hobby and if your audience numbers began to slip, net income could dive. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. Did she want to try any further videos?
Gina gave him an amused glance. “Horny, are we?” she asked. “Well…I guess I could use a good rush of endorphins.” She pulled off her shirt again.
Later, putting her clothes back on, she said, “Do you have a regular sex partner? I’m too busy for a relationship, but a good lay now and then would be helpful.”
“I – I – wouldn’t want to take advantage,” Jake stuttered.
“Oh, please. Robert and I used to get it on regularly, but of course, he’s dead now.”
“But. . . my god, Gina, he was over sixty!”
“Yep. Hey, men his age, they last. And I liked him. He was smart. It was nice to have an intelligent conversation. I miss him.” She paused to consider that. “Yeah, I think I do. Interesting. I’m not really a people person. You have any food at your house? I’m starving.”
He’d taken her out for a meal, but it didn’t take long to realize that she just really wasn’t interested in him except for sex and food. Which honestly was pretty fantastic, but not particularly flattering.
He hadn’t heard from Antonia in days. Her car was still parked behind Vonna’s house, but there didn’t seem to be any activity there. She didn’t answer her cell phone, so one day he walked over and knocked on the front door, risking her wrath since she’d told him never to come by without asking first. It didn’t matter, no one was home.
He finally went over to Nance’s to see if he could learn what was up and found Vonna there as well. “Yep, Antonia’s gone,” Nance said shortly, standing with her arms folded. “Just dumped Vonna out on the front porch in her wheelchair and took off.”
“But how? Her car is still there.”
Nance shrugged, but Vonna said softly, “She left with her father. We don’t expect her back.”
Jake felt completely staggered. Why would she leave so suddenly, when they had all these plans for the barn and everything? Why would she leave her car behind? Why didn’t she let him know? It made no sense.
“Maybe you could help us,” Vonna said, watching him carefully. He’d had to control himself when he first saw her – she looked so old, suddenly. Whatever she’d been sick with, it had sure done a whammy on her. “We need to go over to my house and check on things, but it’s a lot to ask Nance to push my wheelchair that far.”
“Nonsense,” Nance barked. “I’m strong as an ox.”
“Seriously,” Vonna said, giving Nance a look, “we could use some help.”
Jake agreed, whatever they needed. He was kind of anxious to see for himself anyway. They made their way over there and carefully up the porch steps. Nance seemed astonished at the changes Antonia had wrought. The sunny room, the flowers, the light and cheerful décor. He’d already seen it, and the sight only made him miss Antonia even more. Didn’t she care for him at all?
“Look for Vonna’s checkbook and wallet,” Nance advised. “They’re missing.”
Jake was shocked. “Oh . . . Antonia wouldn’t have taken them. Come on. She was here to help Vonna.”
“Yeah, sure. Right. Help Vonna right into her grave, if you ask me,” Nance snorted. “I’ll look in the bedroom, you go upstairs.”
Troubled, Jake climbed to the second floor. He’d been up there on the day that Antonia moved in, but not since. The front bedroom was fitted up like a living room/dining room – table and chairs, sofa, coffee table, bookshelves. How had she moved all this stuff in without his help? The colors were garden-like. Soft greens, blues, yellows. Plants at the windows. Old-fashioned flowery sort of fabrics. Lots of little decorative pieces. He glanced over the books on the shelves – the titles seemed very Antonia too. The Girls’ Book of Flower Fairies, The Magical Secret Garden, A Time to Keep, a whole pile of books by someone named John S. Goodall. Books about dollhouses, books about gardens, books about folklore and fairies and magical villages. Almost all of them were hardbounds, with ornate covers and lots of illustrations. About the only titles he recognized were the Narnia books and Lord of the Rings. The whole room seemed whimsical and dreamy. Like Antonia herself, a person from a different and gentler time. A magical creature, in her own way.
He went across the hall to the back room which was her bedroom. Her clothes still hung in the wardrobe, and a faint scent emanated from them. Her scent. He pressed his face against the delicate fabrics. He missed her. He missed her. Gina just didn’t compare. She was all reality and hard edges. Antonia was like a mist he couldn’t quite hold onto, but she was the one he wanted.
Jake moved to the window to stare down at Antonia’s car on the back driveway. Why in the world would she leave it behind? From there, his gaze traveled to the barn, dark and brooding in the April sunlight. What had he been thinking? There was no way it would have been useful as a LEGO display area. The light was all wrong, there was no heat or air-conditioning, it echoed something terrible which would make it useless for creating videos. Not to even mention how creepy it felt in there.
Jake shook his head. He felt dizzy and confused, unable to put all the pieces together. As he stood at the top of the stairs, Nance came up. “Anything?” she asked. He shook his head. She put her hand on the knob of the door leading to the attic. “I guess we should look up here.”
Jake followed her up. The attic was cold and unfriendly. That wasn’t just his reaction, it was a fact. Like a slap in the face. Where the downstairs rooms had become sunny reflections of Antonia, this space felt foreign, dark and brutal. One window, on the shady side of the house, was opened an inch or two and cold, damp air flowed in, only slightly mitigating an overwhelming scent of bitter herbs and mildew. The trunk that he’d helped Antonia carry up from the barn sat hunched in one corner and he felt no desire to try to open it. A big old wardrobe sat in another corner, and in the center of the room was a large pine table, the old-fashioned kind with a drawer underneath. On top were potted plants, a bowl of polished crystals, a tea kettle on a metal stand, and a stack of photo albums, the kind his grandmother had, with black pages and leather covers. One was open to a faded photo of a man and woman from long ago. She wore a high-collared dress and her hair was pulled back in a knot. The expression on her face was stern, the mouth grim, her eyes staring at the photographer almost belligerently. The man stood behind her, no expression on his face, with dark and troubling eyes. Next to the photo album was a sheaf of old letters covered with spiky handwriting.
He didn’t like this room. He didn’t like knowing that Antonia had spent time up here – it seemed so foreign to her nature. Yet she must have come up to water the plants, at least. And a number of candles stood scattered around – on the table, on windowsills, even on the floor, melted wax dribbled down their sides.
“Ugh, the herbs,” Nance commented, rubbing her arms as if she was cold. “They smell like shit.” She glanced around. “All she’s missing is a black cat. And a broom.” She caught his eye and indicated the wardrobe and the trunk. “Should we look in these?” He shook his head and she seemed to agree. Nothing good would come of that. They abandoned the attic and headed downstairs.
Vonna sat in her wheelchair, rocking back and forth. “We need to go,” she whispered hoarsely. “We need to go now. The house doesn’t want us here.”
“What are you talking a-?” Nance began to ask, but Vonna hushed her.
“We have to go,” she repeated.
Jake didn’t need to hear anything further. They grabbed a few items and he pushed Vonna’s chair across to Nance’s place. “I can’t stay,” he said, “but let me know if you need anything.” He just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. He just didn’t want to think about anything. How could Antonia be so dark as well as light? How could she be the girl who baked scones, and also the girl who . . . did what? Cast spells? Hex people? It blew his mind.
That afternoon, he tried to shoot a new video – he was working on a series of clips about creating a large amusement park, using both LEGO-designed fairground sets and also creations of his own – but he kept getting off-subject and rambling around like an idiot, talking brokenly about girfriends and promises and dashed hopes. He got so frustrated, he just let go with a backhanded smack of his arm and the ferris wheel went flying, hundreds of LEGO pieces scattering everywhere. And then he was so pissed off with himself, he just uploaded the damn thing without any editing. The resulting video was bizarre, to say the least. His fans seemed to find it fascinating, though, watching a man fall apart brick by brick. They couldn’t wait to comment and the whole thing began going viral. Bastards. Finally, he just drank his dinner and went to bed.
Over the next two weeks, things started to settle down. Easter came and went. Spring arrived along with green leaves, dogwood blossoms, and spectacular Carolina blue skies. Vonna grew stronger and decided she couldn’t be a burden any more on Nance. “You’re not, you ass,” Nance kept saying, but Vonna was adamant.
At the same time, she refused to move back into the farmhouse, saying it didn’t want her there. She refused to even go into the house to get her belongings and neither would she let anyone else go in there. At first, she talked about moving into a furnished apartment somewhere, but Nance finally convinced her to move into Robert’s old place. They fillled it with furniture from thrift stores and IKEA, and at Vonna’s request, boarded up the farmhouse doors and first-floor windows. “This place is off-limits, from now on,” she said, staring up at it from across the street. “Honestly, there’s a good chance we should all just move away from Juniper Row. This whole place is tainted now.”
The second floor, with all of Antonia’s belongings, remained untouched, and as for the attic, it was anyone’s guess what was going on up there. No one had seen any lights or activity, but Vonna held stubbornly to the conviction that bad things were afoot. Meanwhile, Antonia’s car remained parked out back, slowly being covered with a dense layer of yellow pollen.
Although they didn’t realize that it was so all-pervasive, every neighbor on the street began to fall victim to a series of bad dreams. Amy dreamt she was playing a cello solo for Yo-Yo Ma himself, when her right hand suddenly went numb and she was completely unable to hold the bow. Every time she thought she’d woken from the dream, she hadn’t and it continued. By morning, she was exhausted and weepy. Dee dreamed that all her research notes had gotten erased from her computer and she kept waking in panic, checking to make sure they still existed, only to dream the same thing all over again. Nance kept finding herself driving along muddy roads that were washing out beneath her, and Gina experienced the horrors of sixth grade hygiene class with ditzy Miss Grindstaff over and over again. She kept waking up shouting, “For God’s sake, stop calling it my monthly flower!!!” Ryan’s one and only dream had been a horrific one of finding himself having sex with Antonia and being walked in on by Amy. The heartbroken expression on his wife’s face was enough to keep him impotent for weeks, which was in itself a nightmare of epic proportions.
No one knew what was up with Jake. He remained holed up in his cottage most of the time, although occasionally he could be seen out on his road bike, peddling off for God-knows-where. His videos online resumed after a short pause, resolutely devoted to LEGO-only topics.
Gina, Dee and Nance began meeting every Tuesday morning to watch South Korean TV shows together on Nance’s big-ass TV. Afterwards, they’d go out to lunch, crammed into Gina’s Mini-Cooper. Gina had created a spreadsheet of every restaurant within a 12-mile range so that they could visit them each in alphabetical order and not have to repeat a meal for the next three months.
On the final Tuesday in April, Dee, Nance and Gina went to La Colazione, an Italian restaurant that specialized in all-day breakfasts. Gina ordered the avocado toast and plowed her way through it with zest. “I can’t believe I never came in here before,” she said, after swallowing her final bite. “It’s such a little hole-in-the-wall, I never noticed it. Even though it’s right here on Main Street. You have to wonder, what kind of stupid-ass business model they have, if no one knows they even exist.” She closed her eyes, savoring the last remnants of flavor. “So freakin’ good. I feel like ordering another.”
Dee just toyed with her food. She hadn’t had much appetite lately. She stared glumly out at traffic passing by, noting without enthusiasm another grey, overcast day with gusty winds. She was only half-heartedly listening to a debate between Gina and Nance about the new girlfriend of one of the doctors in Hospital Playlist when the traffic light at the corner changed, and cars came to a halt.
“Hey, y’all,” she said. “Look.”
Nance turned toward the window but Gina was busy reiterating her point that the new girlfriend was a drip and not worthy of the cute doctor’s devotion. “And what’s more, I don’t think he even loves her. He’s just sorry for her and – ”
“Gina, look. It’s Antonia’s car. And Jake’s driving it.” The three women stared out the window and watched as the light turned green and he drove away. “How’d he get the key?”
“Is he still seeing her? What an ass,” Nance took off her glasses and vigorously rubbed the lenses with a napkin. “He’s a flake, but I thought he was smarter than that.”
“The bigger question is, where’s he going? And why?”
Gina chugged her third cup of coffee and swiped a hand across her mouth. “I don’t give a crap. Whatever he’s up to, he’s too busy for me these days. Like I even care. Which I don’t. Honestly, I’m worn out enough with crappy dreams every night. Every night! The same damned stupid dreams!”
“Me too,” Dee said slowly, turning to Nance.
“Yeah,” Nance replied, her eyes opening wide. “Me three.”
Gina leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Is it just me, or do you think Antonia could be behind it? Like, maybe, retribution? She struck me as the type who could really enjoy some creative retaliation. You know, that’s the plot behind a lot of fantasy stories. Revenge. I should know, I’ve been designing miniatures of scenes from sci-fi and fantasy books for a long time now.”
“I didn’t know that,” Nance said, easily distracted. “I thought you did stuff for kids’ books. Like the Little House books and The Borrowers.”
“That’s how I started,” Gina replied. “But now, it’s all fantasy series. I love it. Magical kingdoms and beasts and imagined worlds. Clients pay big money for it. I’ve done the Shadow and Bone series, Artemis Fowl. Some Harry Potter, of course. Completely different from those dopey illustrations they used. They’re the worst. And I’ve done the whole Ten Lists of Aleppa series. Seriously, I’m fabulous! A zillion times more creative than any of those hacks out there. And I read these books, and watch the movies, and I’ve learned a lot about magical possession and casting spells and dream-binders and stuff like that.” She leaned even closer, forcing Dee and Nance to meet her halfway. “I keep thinking about what you said about the attic – all the candles and those photo albums and the letters. What if Antonia was studying up there? Learning her craft, so to speak. You said Vonna was afraid of her powers. Well, what if Antonia isn’t? What if she’s been sending creepy dreams to all of us, just as a starting point? Before she really doubles down and magics the shit out of us? That’s what I’d do, if I got kicked out of a good gig. Make everyone pay.” She leaned back with a satisfied expression on her face, glanced at Dee’s plate and asked, “You gonna finish that?”
Dee watched her scarf down the leftover French toast and considered what she’d said. After a while, she asked, “So do you seriously think Antonia is up to something or is this just lunchtime blather? For fun? I mean, those books are fiction.”
Gina nodded. “I mean it. I do. We’ve all seen enough crazy shit to believe in Vonna’s powers. Which apparently now are Antonia’s powers. So, use me as your guide to the magical worlds. Your eminently capable guide. I’ve read stuff that would make your hair stand on end. It’s not that complicated. Nance has the spare key. We just casually sneak over there some afternoon and go through the place. Really go through it, barn and all. Figure out if the place is safe or not. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if it’s possessed or something, I’d like to neutralize it ASAP. Burn it down, if we have to.” She ran her eyes over Dee. “You strike me as up for a challenge. What do you think?”
Dee replied slowly. “I don’t like thinking that there might be something lurking there, but I have no idea how we should proceed.”
“Oh, come on! You project that whole tough-girl vibe – the black eyeliner, the tatts, the piercings. Don’t tell me you only have the heart and stomach of a dweeby researcher.”
“A forensic archivist, if you must know. And I’m not a feeb, I just like to think things through before diving in. I would like to get a look at those letters. . . ”
“So, let’s do it! You, the eminent researcher, me, the daring adventurer. What could go wrong?”
“You want me to make a list? We don’t know what we’re walking into! We’re not prepared.”
“I am. Ideally, we’d have an amulet or talisman, or at least a wand, but this’ll do.” Gina dug in her oversized handbag and pulled out a taser. She gazed down at it fondly. “Been wanting a real good excuse to use it.”
“Put that away, you idiot!”
“So, what then?” Gina demanded, stowing the taser back in her purse. “We just live with this threat hanging over us? Maybe you don’t mind, but I’d like to sleep peacefully once in a while. Trust me! We just gotta deal with it, and soon, before Mr. Big and Tall returns. I worry about him more than puny little Antonia. Whaddaya say? Let’s hit it on the way home.” She scrubbed a napkin across her face and groped in her giant bag for her credit card. “And after, we can celebrate with cake.”
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read Parts 1-7 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. To read my blog posts and other stories, go here. Or to learn about my books, go here.
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