©2022 Michael Raven
“Wow. Just — wow.”
Zelda knew her mouth hung open and didn’t rightly give a shit that it hung open as she took in the back acreage of the lot. Waning sunlight filtered through the bright emerald trees as they swayed in the light breeze that blew from the west. She saw motes of cottonwood or dandelion spinning in a mad dance where the sunlight caught each bit of fluff and the parade seemed almost endless. Dodging the airborne seeds were small midges, gnats and probably more than a few mosquitos knocked from their lazing on perches of tall grass between her and the woods. The scene might have been nightmarish to most city-dwellers, but she was looking to move for exactly this — to get away from the soot and noise of the city and grow closer to the earth, even with its allergens and insects.
She fought the urge to check her phone, to make sure she had read the property listing correctly. She had; lord knew she had, as she must have read the listing a thousand times since she first stumbled onto it in the app. It had sounded far too good of a deal to be true, so she knew something must be wrong with the house, or that the house sat on some environmental disaster full of curiously unmarked steel drums leaking bright green goo. The listing had mentioned the house was a “fixer-upper”, but even that description turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, nothing that a few coats of paint and some minor repairs would not solve.
Not trusting her eyes, she tested her ears this time.
“How much is this place going for again?”
The real estate agent, a nice enough man, if a bit sweaty in the armpits as evidenced by the dark stains already forming in each, repeated the price she had already read and reread myriad times, disbelieving the whole time what she read. She decided it was time to be blunt.
“That’s what I thought. That’s an awfully good price for this place and… how many acres?”
Again, he confirmed the listing as she had read it all those times.
“So what’s wrong with it?”
“Well, ma’am, as the listing indicates, there are some repairs that are needed to bring the house to its former glory, but most of it is cosmetic.” He took out a handkerchief and wiped sweat away from a hairline that had evolved past receding at least ten years before, leaving a shining pate covered my spider-leg wisps of hair in the comb-over fashion popular with many men of his generation. The heat of the day had reached its peak in the evening hours, and he’d grown too fond of fast food and driving from potential sale to potential sale and his physique suffered as a result. He pulled out his cheat-sheet from the breast pocket of his dress shirt to scan for details, although she suspected he was as familiar with that listing as she had gotten. “Nothing much more to be said, other than the current owner is, well a motivated seller,” he said, looking up at her after the quick scan.
“But why are they so motivated? This seems like too good of a deal, no matter how motivated they are, in this market anyway.”
“Well,” he started, then hesitated, as if deciding just how much to say about his client. “He did say before he went back to New York that he wanted to be done with it, that he’d just as soon burn it down, but that his wife wouldn’t let him. Apparently, she insisted they at least sell the place for at least a token amount.”
“Why ever would he want to burn it down?”
The agent fiddled around his fingers and refused to meet her eyes.
“Tell me,” she demanded.
Still refusing to make eye contact, his eyes drifted over to the wooded acreage behind the home. At some point well behind the house it because State Forest, but that was quite a distance back, if the description was correct. She’d have to hire a surveyor if she bought the place to make sure just how much of it was hers, but it was no small amount, that much was clear.
“Bad memories… about…?” She let the question linger in the increasingly humid air.
His eyes were lost in a dream-like state until they snapped back to hers and stared her down, two smoky shards of granite fixed firmly on her own. “Jeff grew up in the house and, well, his pa was a drunk wife-beater, and his ma was a cold-hearted bitch just so she could put up with the man. She didn’t have much love left for Jeff after his pa beat it out of her.”
Zelda too an involuntary step back. “You knew the previous owner?”
“Everyone in town knew the Parkers. We all knew what went on too, even at this distance from town. Jeff and I were even friends for a spell until about the time we graduated.”
“So, you used to hang out here?”
“Sometimes. When his pa wasn’t around, anyways.” He didn’t elaborate.
“Why didn’t anyone do something about the father? Have him arrested for battery or, I don’t know… Something.”
“Well, he wasn’t about to arrest himself, ma’am. He was the only law this town knew for forty-some years and, aside from a few benders and beating on his woman, he did his job and people were able to overlook his less savory habits. I know things have changed and all but, back then, people just minded their own business… That… that was the ways things was done back then.”
“Okay, I get the motivated seller part, but why now?”
“Well… Shit… I’ve got to disclose it anyhow, but they found his pa dead in the house a few months back. Jeff’s ma had died a decade or so back, but that cussed old bastard lived on just to spite everyone. Being next of kin and no will, well, Jeff Parker became the owner of a home he’d just as soon forget. He cremated his pa, and would have torched the house afterwards, save for his wife wanting to at least see if it would sell to cover the old man’s costs of inconveniently dying and making Jeff foot the bill.”
Zelda shook her head. Typical tiny Midwestern town in the middle of noplace, nowhere, as far as she could see, but times were changing — however slowly.
“Well, just let me wander a bit over in the woods. Seeing as they would be mine if I bought this place, I should probably make sure things seem relatively kosher before I make any decisions.”
The agent looked at the height of the sun, the sky growing orange with fingers of violent starting to make inroads into the gold.
“I can’t recommend that, ma’am. It’s getting dark and no woods anyplace are completely safe after nightfall.”
Zelda waved him off and started to walk towards a trailhead that appeared in the glow of the dying sun. “I’ll just be a few minutes, I just want to see what’s close.”
She looked back at Jeff’s former friend. He looked as if he might have shat himself.
“Don’t,” he said again. “I’ll drive you back to your hotel and you can sleep on the house and, if you want, I’ll bring you back here in the morning. But don’t go into the woods, ma’am. You could lose your footing in the dark, or stumble into a wild animal who takes offense at you getting to close to it’s children. Just… don’t go when it’s getting dark. It’s not safe.”
Zelda shrugged. It wasn’t as if she had any grand plans for the next day. If they came out early enough, she’d still get back to the cities with plenty of time to take care of her Sunday chores.
“If it makes you feel better, I guess we’ll just have to come back tomorrow during the day.”
The agent let out a loud breath, as if he’d been holding it the entire time.
“I appreciate it, ma’am. I really do. Maybe I’m a nervous Nelly, and never got used to wilderness, but I’m telling you, the woods around here can get dangerous. Everyone says so and, well, I’m one for listening to the wisdom of my elders and all.”
He opened the passenger door of his cherry red Highlander for her and closed it after she settled in. Soon, the familiar sound of the gravel was under the tires and Zelda could but help to look back at the old farmhouse and the extensive woods behind it. She played the game with herself of pretending to wait to make a decision on whether or not to buy it, but she was already wondering where the nearest place might be where she could buy paint and cleaning supplies.