Carolyn Steele Agosta
This Would Be a Mistake
Updated: Mar 20
Part 5 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
One of these things is not like the others, Dee thought as she trudged along Juniper Row early one morning. All the other cottages were similar – smallish Craftsmen-style dwellings painted in colors from Nature. Soft greens, golds, and blue-grays, with charming porches and gardens, and each with its name on a plaque above the door - Harlequin, Evangeline, Swallow’s Nest, Resonance, and Zeke. Hers was the oddball, a white and black ‘tiny home’ that had been built at a factory and trucked to its spot where the street ended at a field.
And sometimes Dee felt she was the oddball who didn’t belong. Everyone else who lived in the row of cottages seemed to have their own particular passion – there was crabby old Gina who built museum-quality miniatures, Nance with her mania for armchair traveling, Ryan and Amy, the May-December couple (well, maybe June-November) who sometimes practiced their cellos out on the porch for the benefit of all the neighbors, and Jake, who she hadn’t met yet but who apparently was into LEGO. Even Robert, that sweet, sad man who had passed away, loved to work in his garden and do simple but beautiful carpentry. What did she have for a passion? Her work, which she did love, but what did she have outside of that? She was spending her life reading, researching, and writing about the diaries of a woman who died decades ago, but there was nothing in her own life worth writing about. No mysteries, no romances, no surprises.
She pondered on this as she walked that early March morning, enjoying the sun on the streetside faces of the cottages, and the lake beyond. On the opposite side of the road, Vonna’s farmhouse rose in silhouette, the sun behind it, with overgrown trees and bushes obscuring the outline. Beyond the house, an old barn, dark and brooding. Dee wondered what secrets it kept. Oh stop, she told herself. Living here has made you fanciful. Why would a barn have secrets?
Dee was almost home when she heard her name called and saw Vonna leaning over the railing of her front porch. “Dee! Can you help me?” the older woman asked. As Dee came up to the porch, she saw that Vonna appeared to be ill. She was wearing a sweater over her nightgown, her long white hair all wild and straggling, and her face very pale. Dee ran up the two front steps and grabbed her arm. “Oh, sweetie,” Vonna said. “I think I need to go to the hospital. Could you take me?”
An hour later, Dee was still in the waiting area of the Emergency unit. She had phoned Nance to come to the hospital – she’d know more information about Vonna than anyone else.
Nance finally arrived, all in a huff. She’d phoned Vonna’s cousin, Oliver. “He’s the closest family member she has, but my golly, he’s a jerk! Says he won’t get involved. All I want him to do is call the hospital as next of kin, just to see how she’s doing. They won’t give out information to anyone else, but he refuses. What a poopstick! Now I’ll have to try and contact his daughter Antonia. I don’t have her number and all I know is she works in a bookstore in Asheville. I don’t even know which one.” She dug in her shoulder bag and pulled out a package of Twizzlers, selected one of the candy twists and viciously bit off a hunk. Chewing meditatively, she offered the package to Dee, who declined.
Dee told what she knew. “She looked really pale and washed out. Like someone had just knocked the stuffings out of her. Not bruised or anything, but just weak and limp. No strength. She wasn’t confused, though. Remembered to grab her purse with her insurance cards and lock her house, but while we rode over here, she suddenly slumped down in the seat and passed out. I was almost at the hospital then, and they took her in on a gurney. She didn’t respond when they said her name. I dunno. It looked scary to me.”
They each tried calling bookstores in Asheville, asking for Antonia, and Dee found her on the third try. “We thought someone from Vonna’s family should know,” she said, “and your dad doesn’t seem to want to be involved.”
Antonia seemed hesitant herself. “Did you tell him you were going to try to reach me?”
Nance said no and took the phone. “They won’t tell us anything. You need to come over here. Now.” She gave directions to the hospital and Antonia said she’d head out as soon as possible.
“Well, that’s something,” Dee said.
“It ain’t much,” Nance replied. “All we can do is wait. I hate waiting.”
Eventually a nurse came out and spoke with them. The doctor would want to talk to Antonia as soon as possible, but they were definitely admitting Vonna and would keep her overnight at least. That was all she could tell them.
Nance and Dee each drove to their own homes, and Dee tried to concentrate on her research work for a couple of hours. In mid-afternoon, her cell phone chimed. It was Nance, whispering hoarsely. “There’s someone over at Vonna’s barn. Right now! One of the barn doors is open.
They’re never open.”
“Are you there? Why are you whispering?”
“I don’t know! Just meet me at my driveway. I’m calling the other neighbors.”
Dee hurried over. She wondered if she should have brought something. A baseball bat? She didn’t have a baseball bat. When she got to Nance’s driveway, Ryan the hunky cellist was there and a red-haired guy who introduced himself as Jake. “Nice to meet you!” he said, holding out his hand to shake, strangely cheerful and upbeat at such a moment. Dee gave him a startled glance and turned to Nance who came down to greet them.
“None of the other neighbors are home,” she said, “but I guess we can handle it.” She looked Ryan up and down. “Have you got a baseball bat? We might need a baseball bat.”
“No, luv, more of a soccer man, m’self.” he replied.
Dee said, “Let’s just go over and see what’s what.” The four of them walked up Vonna’s side yard and around back. Vonna’s car was parked back there, silent and cold, and the house seemed undisturbed.
The barn, on the other hand, did not. It was old and weathered and leaned slightly to one side. One of the big sliding doors was open, but it was dark inside and nothing could be seen from where they stood. Ryan and Jake motioned to the women to stay back, which Dee ignored. Someone was in there, for sure. She could hear stuff being thrown around, loud bangs and thuds as though the place was being ransacked, but it was too dark to see clearly until they were right in the doorway.
But the thing was, once their eyes adjusted to the dark, there was nothing to see. Nothing. The noise had stopped, and the barn was completely empty, except for dust motes swirling in the air. The floor had been swept clean, the two stalls were bare, not so much as a stray whisp of straw remained.
So, the question was, what had all that noise been?
Goose bumps ran up Dee’s arms as she stared more intently into the semi-darkness. The two men on either side of her were also silent, all of them collectively holding their breath. From behind, she heard Nance’s voice. “Well?”
There was a ladder leading to the hay loft. “Guess I should climb up,” Ryan said, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. “Just ’ave a look.” He slowly reached the top of the ladder, glanced all around and quickly climbed back down. “Nothin’.” He bent to pick up the heavy chain and padlock lying on the ground. “Look ’ere,” he said, and showed them to Dee and Jake. The ends of the chain were still padlocked together, but one of the links was twisted and split wide open, as though it was no more than cheap plastic.
“That’s not good,” Jake observed. And they all three backed away from the barn.
“I’m going home now,” Nance announced, staring at the broken link. “See ya.” She turned and marched back across the street and disappeared into her cottage.
Dee, Jake and Ryan all looked at each other. Ryan shrugged and tossed the broken chain to the ground. “No good now,” he said. “I’ll pick up another and bring it over.” He nodded at them and walked away.
Dee glanced at Jake. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she said slowly.
He grinned. “Star Wars! Man, I love Star Wars!”
“No, idiot! I have a bad feeling about this,” and she gestured toward the barn. “Don’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. It’s weird, right? Why don’t you come over and we’ll have some coffee and talk about it?” He grinned and nodded at her, like a happy little puppy. Practically wagged his tail.
Oh no, she thought. Not another one of those, a nerdy little man-child. “No, I’m going home. I’ll wait to hear about how Vonna’s doing. See you around.” All her damned life, she’d attracted nerdy little man-childs. Men-children. Whatever. Besides, she really felt disturbed by the empty barn. Because, strangely enough, no matter how empty it looked, she’d felt a presence. Something had broken into that barn with enough force to rupture the heavy chain. Something that wasn’t one bit happy.
Just as she approached her driveway, she had another thought, one that urged her to scamper right quickly up the porch steps and into the house, locking the door behind her. What if the something hadn’t been breaking in? What if the something had been breaking out?
Later that afternoon, Ryan kept his word about picking up a new chain and padlock. He walked over to Vonna’s and warily approached the barn door. The right-hand door was still open. This time, there was no noise or sense of disturbance. He wasn’t particularly superstitious but liked to keep an open mind. He wouldn’t just dive blindly in, and he wasn’t above showing a bit of respect.
“I’m closin’ the door now,” he said loudly. “Just so you know.” He waited a moment, and then pulled the heavy door across until it met its neighbor. He waited another moment but didn’t hear or see anything, so he wrapped the heavy chain around and through the old-fashioned door pulls and snapped the padlock shut. He turned and then just about jumped out of his skin. A woman was standing on the driveway right behind him. “Oi!” he shouted. “Sweet’eart, don’t be sneakin’ up on a man like that. Nearly gave me a ’eart attack!” He pressed his hand to his chest and took a couple of deep breaths. “Oo are you?”
The young, slender woman stared right back. “I’m Vonna’s cousin. Who are you? What are you doing?”
“Lockin’ things up. I remember – Vonna brought you to the restaurant.”
The girl nodded, surveyed him carefully and said, “Yes, you and your mother were playing cellos.”
“My wife. Amy is my wife.” He was used to this kind of mistake, but he didn’t enjoy it.
The girl’s eyes widened, but all she said was, “Oh.”
She was a strange-looking girl. Her posture was rigid, with her arms pressed tightly to her sides, wearing an old-fashioned military style coat that came almost to her ankles and a pair of granny boots. She had arresting eyes, the irises almost gold in color, but ringed by deep green, and edged with thick lashes. He asked if she knew how Vonna was doing.
“They’re keeping her a while longer.” She didn’t contribute anything further, but suddenly held out her hand. “The key,” she said when he stared uncomprehendingly at her. “To the padlock.”
“Oh! Right.” He handed it over, not really sure it was the correct thing to do, but she was Vonna’s cousin, right? Next of kin? He nodded at her and left.
He walked on down to his cottage, beyond Nance’s, and let himself in. Amy was at the stove doing something complicated, and he wrapped his arms around her. “Smells good,” he said, nuzzling her neck. “And you too, luv.” He set about creating a salad and while they worked, he told her of the day’s events. “Gotta say, luv, this whole thing gives me the willies. Never believed in ghosts, but me granny did. Used to talk to ’em all the time.”
Amy laughed. “Well, there could be other reasons for that. By the name of Johnny Walker.” She placed the casserole in the oven and turned to lace her arms around his waist. “Look, there’s some real-world explanation for the events at the barn. Something fell or maybe that old wreck is starting to fall apart, but it’s not ghosts. No such thing.”
He kissed her forehead, but couldn’t really get the barn off his mind, and that cold chill down his back. And now this girl over at Vonna’s. Not exactly freaky, but odd and off-putting. After they finished doing the dishes, he said he needed some fresh air and would go for a walk. It was already dark out, but there was a full moon, and it wouldn’t be difficult to see his way.
Most of the cottages had lights on inside. He could see Nance’s big-ass TV through her uncurtained window. Looks like Venice again, he thought as the image of gondolas filled the screen. I thought she’d moved on to Scotland.
He looked carefully at Vonna’s place as he walked past. The girl’s car was gone and the house dark. He could see that the barn doors were still padlocked. He reached the end of the road and doubled back and this time, he was almost past Vonna’s place when he saw a light in the attic. Bluish-green, dancing and flickering. He stopped and stared, trying to figure out what he was seeing. Flames? Candlelight? The color seemed too cold for that. What could be going on up there? Maybe a security light that was motion-activated? Triggered by a mouse or a bird or something? As he stared, the light suddenly went out.
Okay, he thought, walking quickly home. That was spooky. But he sure didn’t feel like investigating.
The next morning, Ryan told Nance about the girl showing up at the house. “It’s good she’s here, I guess, but – ”
“We’ll see,” Nance said, grimly. “She’s a bit off, if you ask me, but Vonna was just crazy about her. No, what worries me is what set this all off? Vonna was perfectly fine, two days ago. Now she’s in a coma or something, and all of a sudden there’s this business with the barn, and now you say some strange lights.” She gave Ryan an assessing look. “You’ve lived around here long enough. Surely you’ve noticed that Vonna is . . . special.”
He just grunted. Couldn’t pretend he didn’t understand, but some things were better left unspoken. He just said, “She’s been a good friend to us. Don’t want nothin’ bad to ‘appen to her.”
“Something bad has already happened! She’s in a freakin’ coma, for chrissake! I’ve been Googling about how to wake up someone who’s in a coma, and you can’t, not really, but you can help. People like that sometimes respond to hearing familiar voices talking about familiar things, over a period of time. So I’m gonna insist that they let me do that. Put it on a recording or something that she can listen to even if I’m not there.”
“I could ’elp with that. Got a recordin’ studio, you know.” He and Nance made plans for her to come over later that morning, and Ryan went home. Maybe if Vonna revived, she’d be able to come back and all the spooky things going on would stop. The whole thing felt surreal. Ryan didn’t like surreal. He liked stuff to be solidly, emphatically feet-on-the-ground.
He left Nance and April working on the recording and went out to collect the mail. Gina, the miniaturist from next door, was also out at her mailbox and she said, “I hear Vonna’s in the hospital. In a coma.” She frowned up at him. “I hope she’s going to be all right.”
“We do too.”
“Because my lease is up soon, and if that new manager tries to raise my rent, there’s gonna be hell to pay.” She turned, sorting her mail, and returned to her house.
Yeah, you’re a sweetheart, Ryan thought. True to form for her. He carried the mail inside and set off for the gym. His daily workout was where Ryan thought things through and made decisions. He got his best musical inspirations running on the treadmill or pedaling away on the spin cycle. Today, his thoughts were full of the ‘Vonna Situation’. He’d told Amy about the attic light last night and she suggested that he keep an eye on things at the farmhouse while Vonna was away. “I’d hate to find out that someone had broken in while she’s in the hospital. Hey, why don’t you get Jake to help you?”
Ryan just grunted. He was not a fan of Jake.
“Oh, come on. He’s a good guy, I think. Just because he got drunk that one time, doesn’t mean he’s a jerk. You and he could keep a casual watch on things.”
Ryan had no enthusiasm for any of it. Didn’t like spooky stuff, never watched horror films, just wanted to mind his own business and concentrate on his work, but this was something that couldn’t be ignored. He felt like those kids at the beginning of “Stranger Things”, trying to figure out what was going on, and knowing they wouldn’t be believed if they told anyone. He had to do an extra rotation of chest, shoulder and triceps workouts to clear his mind. Just do a routine check of Vonna’s yard, early morning and late night, until she was back home, he told himself. If she ever got back home. Bollocks.
He knew all along this would be a mistake. He never intended to bring Jake with him, but Amy had called and invited that joker to help. Now, it was like bringing along a frisky young pup who wanted to shove his nose in everywhere and stop to pee on each twig and plant. Not that Jake was peeing, of course, but he kept asking all these questions, answering them himself, and generally getting on Ryan’s nerves.
“So, like, if that light was on a motion sensor, what turned it on, do ya think? A squirrel in the attic? A bat in the belfry? Dr. Strange making an energy orb? I wish I’d seen it myself. Hey, what do ya think of Dee, huh? She dating anyone, ya think? How old do ya think she is? Late twenties? Early thirties? Hard to say with a girl like her. She just seems cool to me. You know, she’s kinda got that Trinity vibe from the Matrix. I just dig the spiky hair. I mean, like, ya know, how she - .”
Ryan turned to him in exasperation. “Mate! What are you, twelve?”
“Hey, dude, no sweat. Be cool. I’m just sayin’, ya know?” Jake dialed it back about three clicks but appeared undismayed by Ryan’s outburst. “So, what are we gonna do, like, if that other girl is there? I haven’t seen her yet. What does she look like? Nance says she looks like a Holly Hobby doll, but I didn’t know what that was so I Googled it and - .”
“We’re just goin’ to walk past the ’ouse, see if ’er car’s there, see if there are lights on or any sign of anyone bein’ there or at the barn. That’s what we’re doin’. Period.”
“Yeah! Okay, cool! I mean, Mrs. Spencer’s car is there. I mean, ya know, Vonna’s. She always says call her Vonna but it doesn’t seem right to me, she’s like older than my grandma. She’s real nice, though, and – .”
Ryan glared at him again. “Oi!”
“Yeah, cool, okay. Don’t get pissed off, I mean, I’m just a little jumpy, ya know? I - .” Jake shut up abruptly when Ryan gave him another evil look. They walked on past the farmhouse to the end of the street and headed back. “See? Look. No car, no girl, no lights, no beans.”
“Right. ’Bye.” Ryan stalked off to his house. Oi, that guy was a pain. “Never again,” he told Amy when he got inside. “Not for a million quid. I’d rather deal with a ghost than that idjit.”
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read the other parts of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. To read my blog posts, go here. Or to learn about my books, go here.