It was a Sunday afternoon in deep summer and Minnie just finished describing how she French kissed Benjamin last Friday night, a boy we’ve both known since second grade.
I thought about what she said for a moment, then asked, “Don’t you remember the time Benjamin superglued Mrs. Harmon’s stapler to the bottom of her desk?”
“Our third grade teacher,” I said quickly, surprised she didn’t remember.
“Oh, yeah. So?”
“Weren’t you thinking about that when you kissed him? I think about that stapler every time I see Benjamin in the hall at school. Remember Mrs. Harmon left it superglued there?”
Minnie laughed, “Oh, right, and she had to duck under her desk whenever she wanted to staple something! I guess I forgot all about that.”
My best friend twirled on the old tire swing in my backyard while I sat, leaning against the oak tree. I hadn’t had a first kiss yet but I imagined, right as they leaned in, you’d suddenly remember everything you knew about them—the way they smelled in gym class, the number of other girls they kissed, the snide remark they’d made to a teacher the week before.
Minnie kicked her feet off the ground for a bigger swing. Until a month before school ended, Minnie never showed any interest in boys. I was alarmed at how fast we went from talking about the Science Club field trip just a few months ago, to these physical displays of whatever was happening between Minnie and Benjamin. I didn’t want anything else to change and I was definitely sure I didn’t want the school year to start. With its newness and forward motion, I sensed that things would be different this year.
Across the lawn, my brother and his friend drank sodas on the patio. The day was hot and sunny in a way that, rather than illuminating the world, it blinded you. The patio door slid open and my father came outside. He stood on the porch for a moment, talking to the boys.
Then, he headed our way and I shushed Minnie, which she did with a giggle.
“You guys want to go on a trip?” he asked with an excited smile.
Ignoring the question in favor of the first two words, Minnie shouted back, “Mr. Westley, I told you, ‘young women’ or ‘all-powerful females’ is the preferred way to address us. ‘You guys’ is so sexist and archaic.”
“All right, you members of the supreme gender, do you want to take a ride? I already asked the guys, the actual guys that is. We’re going to the Manors.”
Minnie instantly perked up, despite the humid warmth. She clambered down from the tire and I reluctantly stood up and brushed off my jeans. “Are you sure?” I asked my dad.
“Yeah, I haven’t been before, but Rusty was talking about it at work last week. You’re going back to school soon and I need a better story to share at work than how many Oreos I ate today.”
I didn’t let on that I knew my brother, Devon, went with a few friends when they were supposed to be swimming. I was sure they didn’t go inside, just circled a few buildings, but it was still a blatant toe into darker, teenage waters.
Devon and his friend came over in time to hear me say, “Dad, I don’t know…maybe we should stay home. People aren’t really supposed to go to the Manors. There’s signs and everything….” I trailed off lamely.
My dad launched into an explanation of how we would be with him and everything would be the proverbial fine, but I was looking at my brother standing behind him. He had a look on his face, clearly saying, “Come on, Miranda, just go with it for once.” Devon was always the pushy, bossy one, especially for being two years younger.
And so, the five of us gathered our shoes and drank one more glass of lemonade before hitting the road. My dad whistled as he rounded us up and out the door. He liked doing things like this: taking us and our friends out and, for a brief moment, filling a role more akin to the kid he used to be before I was born.
The Manors were a thirty-minute drive from our house. Originally, they were just large homes built along the riverbanks a generation ago. Those families could take in the view and, I imagined, sigh in relief at their wealth. Their good fortune lasted until the day the Fox River rose, breached its wooded banks, and forced those who once claimed that land to return it to the wild.
The change was complete and sudden. No one expected a river that had flowed the same way for the entirety of human memory to make a change, but one day it did and instantly became a threat to our town.
If something like that happened now to my neighborhood, my family and everyone around us would have been sleeping in our cars the same night, nowhere else to go. But it hit a different time and a different neighborhood. A better one with the sort of resources and luck that wasn’t afforded to the Westleys. The affected families used insurance money to build newer, but equally large homes further out in what our town used to call the country. New neighborhoods, roads, and bridges popped up on that side of town. Even at that young age, I understood catastrophe affected some people differently than others.
As for the flooded area, little enough was done besides posting no trespassing signs. The large homes and miniature castles were still there. Some standing in rippling water and slowly crumbling, others too close to the fickle water way for comfortable human habitation. There wasn’t much incentive to reclaim the space; there was more than enough farmland to encroach on. If you looked at our town from above at night, you’d see bright lights and speeding cars save one dark, dank circle in the middle, an urban doughnut.
My father drove as close as he could and parked on the side of the deserted road under some large sturdy trees. 50 feet out, the road disappeared under murky water. Worn houses stood on either side of the street with crooked and misshapen, but strong, doors. I looked at the leafy looking moss that covered one large stone home while my dad double-checked our locked car doors. It would have been a nice neighborhood, save that some of the houses were in standing water and the rest showed obvious signs that they too once stood in the middle of a waterway.
We walked away from the road and around the water’s edge, as if it were a large pond. There were muddy areas that sucked you down an inch and I was grateful I changed into my rain boots. I felt a little bad all I lent to Minnie were a pair of old hiking boots, firm, but not waterproof.
Everyone assessed each house as we walked.
“What about that one?” Devon asked, pointing to a red brick Manor.
Minnie nixed it quickly, pointing out the graffiti under the window. My dad added, “I doubt anyone’s still in there, but, just in case they left something, let’s pick one that looks like it hasn’t been bothered with in a while.” We saw graffiti on many of the homes. Class of 2032. Fuck the MAN. RD heart OZ. The believers were here. A few cartoony images.
We walked through the streets and eventually, the truck long out of sight, we came across what everyone else deemed the perfect one. An immense black fence ran around a jungle of overgrown hedges and flower plants that thrived in their man-free space. Water stains climbed almost to the lower windows of the brick house. Minnie pointed out the turret at the back of the house.
I relaxed a bit while tramping around the Manors’ grounds, but going inside was altogether different. I tried one last time, “Are you sure, Dad? We could just go get ice cream.”
My brother’s friend had a few choice words about what type of baby I was and even Minnie seemed a little impatient.
“Okay, okay, I’m going!” I barked at Devon as he gave me a little prod between my shoulder blades with his index finger. I swiped back at him, but my dad snuck his arm around my shoulders.
My dad ushered us all through the front gate and up the cement path. When we walked inside the front door, I felt the change. The Manors long ago adapted to their environment. I smelled some musty, feral flavor in the air. Once all five of us were in the house, the door swung shut. It didn’t slam or quickly bang closed. It was as if the wind happened to be blowing at just the right time and the door couldn’t help but shut. Or perhaps the door was closed for so long after its tenants left, it naturally drifted closed into a more comfortable position.
My dad tried the handle. It was locked.
A laugh and a little cheer went up. Even I couldn’t help but smile. It was no more than we expected.
Once inside, the only way to leave the Manors, any of them in the flooded or previously flooded areas, was to find the key for the door and let yourself out. If you couldn’t find the key, you weren’t leaving. It was the greatest urban legend of our town, but the fantastic part was that it was real. Some refused to believe the tales that delinquents brought back from the banned area, insisting that such lies were told for attention, but testing out this legend was a rite of passage for everyone in our city.
You would think everyone would know about the Manors. Several years ago, a TV station showed up on the outskirts of the Manors. I was too young to know much about what was going on but the reporter was putting together a special story on them. The city responded and groups of kids and adults went out to the Manors in droves, most hanging around outside rather than entering, simply hoping to get on TV. It was a disappointment when they crew left without finishing the story. It never turned up on TV or in the national papers. I don’t know, maybe it was too unbelievable.
There were several disappearances linked to the Manors. Low profile cases that minimal reporting linked to youth who could have runaway or homeless people who were hard to keep track of anyways.
I looked around the inside of the Manor. The foyer was the size of my own house’s living room. Dull, used-to-be-white crown molding traced the perimeter of the high ceiling. A staircase off to the right led up to more rooms. My brother sneezed twice, quickly; it was stuffy and dusty.
Devon’s friend went through a wide doorway on the left, leading to a formal sitting room. The rest of us followed. A piano stood half collapsed in the back along the streaked windows. Everything looked filthy.
A mirror with a gilded frame hung along one wall. It had dim looking glass made even darker by dirt and fingerprints. I looked at my reflection and saw my worried self, a shadow over my face.
I heard a crunch and turned to see Minnie looking down at what she stepped on: a pair of spectacles among the rubbish. It was the sort of house that made you want to use old words, like spectacles.
Devon and his friend started messing with a jumble of electronic equipment in one corner while my father hunched over to rifle through a box on what used to be a stately desk.
“Dad, who do you think lived here?” I asked.
He replied without looking up. “I guess a rich family. And probably someone very old.” He held up a paper covered with collectable stamps, alike in size and color.
“Do they still own the house? I mean, are we going to get in trouble?”
“Miran-deran, don’t worry about it. These homes are abandoned. Most of the stuff is wrecked. They didn’t want it.” Now he glanced up, “And don’t worry about those people either. They’re safe in new houses.”
“Some of this stuff is okay though,” I said, pointing at a small but elaborate piece of stained glass mounted in one window. “Wouldn’t they want to come back and get their things?”
Absentmindedly he answered, “Well, maybe they thought it was too dangerous to come back.
“What!? So it is dangerous here!” I thundered as soon as the words were out of his mouth. “I really think we should leave.”
I heard a snicker from where the boys were standing.
“Miranda, come on, you’re being a bit dramatic. No one else is worried. If you want, go ahead and talk with Teresa tomorrow about this. But, right now, chill out.”
I felt a flush of heat in my cheeks and ears. “Mom wouldn’t make me do this,” I muttered, too low for him to hear, unwilling to over-antagonize. I wish I were with her, I thought.
I marched over to the fireplace away from my father and looked through the items on the mantle. I used my index finger to push aside a frame and heavy candlesticks, feeling for anything hidden. Everything left traces of itself on my finger. I bent down to look inside the fireplace. I leaned further in to look in the dark corners. I felt a very soft touch on my back and felt it run along my spine towards my neck. It felt like a caress….
My head went light and black at the same time. My head swam and I froze where I was, feeling that to move would wipe away my consciousness completely. My entire body was heavy and dumb.
Just as suddenly as I left, I came back to my true self and found myself laying on the floor of the fireplace. I fainted? What happened to me?
I sat up slowly because I felt nauseous. I turned back towards the center of the room to tell my father we never should have come.
He walked my way and said, “Who the fuck are you?”
It wasn’t my dad. This guy was too young. He was wearing dress pants and shoes covered in different colored layers of dust, mold, and mud.
“Dad! Dad! DAD, help me!” I threw my head back and forth looking for my dad. Where was everyone else?
The man quickly backed away from me and banged into a wardrobe. “Whoa whoa whoa. I didn’t touch her!” Trying to get as far away from me as he could, he swiveled around the wardrobe, and finally fell back against the wall.
I heard rapid, heavy footsteps and seconds later, a man with a beard came through the door.
“Jesus Christ!” the new man exclaimed. “Where did she come from?”
I surprised myself by uttering a mix between a squeal and a shriek.
“Darry!” the second man commanded. “Come away from there, you’re scarin’ her.” That man, Darry, took a few long strides over to the other man.
They stood in the doorway of the only exit I saw. I tried to gather my wits and ask “Who are you?” It came out a little tremulous.
“Ok, ok, let’s start again. My name is Darrian Bayer.” Darry said, speaking slowly and enunciating his letters. He had a smooth voice, calming, though a little reedy on the long vowels, “This is Harrison.” Harrison gave a cheesy little salute with two fingers.
I got up, stooped until I stepped out of the fireplace. “My name is Miranda Lauren Milton Westley.”
“Geez, what a mouthful,” Darry said.
My eyebrows furrowed. “It’s my name.”
“A beautiful name it is,” Harrison said gaily, holding out a hand towards Darry, making him wait. “What are you doing here, Miranda?”
“I’m with my family and friends. They were right here in the room.” I looked around a felt a sour dip in my stomach. There was no dismantled desk or high backed chairs or broken piano. This room had flowered wallpaper, peeling off like drooping petals. A bed frame with no mattress stood in one corner.
“Well, they aren’t here. I’ve been this room for a while,” Darry said, accusatory, as if I was lying. He turned to Harrison, “She was just suddenly in the fireplace, crying.”
“I wasn’t crying!”
“Why did you sneak in here like that?”
“I wasn’t sneaking either! I was just suddenly here. I was with my family, I looked inside a fireplace, and I think I fainted.”
“You weren’t hiding somewhere and tiptoeing around? Then how’d you get there, sweetheart?” Darry asked.
Harrison saw the anger on my face and stepped in. “We just want to figure out what’s going on. How long were you in the fireplace? Where did you come from?”
I didn’t really know how to answer their questions. “I was with my dad, my brother, and our friends. They wanted to do the Manor together.”
“And how did you get up here, Miranda?” Harrison asked.
“I—well, I guess I fell down?” I turned to look back at the fireplace next to the clearly third floor window. “I fell…up?”
“Okay. Okay.” Harrison said slowly, taking that in. “We’ve been in this house for two days. We can’t get out.”
“We need to find my dad. They might even have the key by now.” I wanted to get back. I didn’t know how I got separated, but I felt weird being with two people I hardly knew. “They’re downstairs,” I said to prompt action.
We all moved towards the door and out into the hallway. Something struck me, “You know about the key, right? That you have to find it?”
Darry responded for the two of them. “We’ve heard about the key, but we’ve never been in a house like this before.”
“It’s called a Manor.”
“Okay, this Manor. We’re supposed to be taping a story for television but our camera batteries wouldn’t work and we’ve been all over this house—”
“Manor,” Harrison interrupted.
“—looking for the key the past two days.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking. “They tried to do a news story several years back.”
“I’m a camera guy,” Harrison put in lightly.
“Their station must have dropped it,” Darry said, pulling the conversation back. “I couldn’t believe no one’s ever done a story on this before. We met with the Mayor, Sherry Carlton, the day before we came in, and she advised us not to go through any of the houses. She wasn’t good on camera either. Never answered a single question with a complete sentence.”
“That’s not the Mayor,” I said, glancing up at the two men. “She used to be the Mayor. It’s Wilson Evert now.”
Harrison and Darry exchanged a look. “We were just in her office,” Darry said.
I stopped moving and insisted, “Carlton’s not the Mayor anymore.”
Darry started up again, “You might not—”
“Carlton is not the Mayor because she died. She died from breast cancer. Evert’s been in office for three years now. I know because my mom, uh, my mom knew Mayor Carlton.” They stared me. “Evert’s been Mayor since 2030.”
Harrison cleared his throat, “What year did you say?”
“2030. Three years ago,” I repeated.
“Holy fuck in Virginia,” Harrison said, letting it sound out slowly.
“What? Are you a moron, Harrison? Of course it’s not 2033, it’s 2028,” Darry said before rounding on me. “And you. I want you to tell us exactly what’s going on.”
I didn’t know what was going on, but I was almost to the bottom of the grand staircase. I ran down and jumped the last few stairs, swinging into the door on the side.
I entered the parlor, but no one was there.
The three of us made a quick pass through the house, not stopping to search for the key, but almost running through rooms, looking for any sign someone was still there or had recently been through, calling for names when we had the breath. There were 32 rooms in the Manor, I counted. 12 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms, the formal parlor, a study, an informal living room, a kitchen, a three-season room, a dining room, an exercise room at the back of the house with rusted equipment, a library, another sitting area, a sunroom, a strange little room filled with broken glass, and a rec room complete with pool table, in addition to a large walk-in pantry and many, many closets. We stopped in a skinny hallway that lead to the basement. The men said they went down there on their first walk through of the house, but they didn’t seem to want to talk about it. I gave a tentative call downwards but it garnered no response.
We filed back up to the kitchen. Harrison slumped against a stained marble island and I stood a chair upright and sat down in it.
For some reason Darry and Harrison thought the year was 2028. They helped me search the house because they could only assume I was with someone, but Darry vehemently disagreed with me about what year it was. Harrison kept asking me if I hit my head when I fell.
I was worried about a lot of things right then, much more than two guys I just met, but it occurred to me that they could be dehydrated. I wondered when they last had something to eat, and quietly felt the now smashed granola bar in my pocket my dad handed out back in our kitchen.
Darry continued to stand in the kitchen, not affected by our fatigue and worry. He made me go through everything again: how many people were in my group and who they were, how long I had been in the house, and what exactly happened to me so far.
“But let me get this straight, you think the year is 2033?”
“The year is 2033. Did you guys, like, have anything to drink recently?”
“Listen, Mandy, the last thing we need is a little girl to complicate things here.”
“Aww, Darry, come on,” Harrison hesitantly stuck up for me.
I couldn’t believe this guy. Little girl. Complicated. He sounded like my therapist at school, Teresa. My blood boiled so fast, I didn’t think twice before I shot off the chair. I yelled, “Don’t treat me like a little kid. You’re the ones who have been stuck in the Manor for days, bumbling around—”
Harrison nodded his agreement with a bemused look on his face.
“—NOTHING is wrong with me. I don’t have an overactive imagination. I’m not some little baby, who needs to be taken care of. My development isn’t negatively impacted by traumatic grief—”
This last one stumped Harrison, who had been with me so far, “Wait, what? What’s developed?”
I continued on, raging, while I took out my Star Wars Velcro wallet, laying out my student id, a coupon for Culver’s that expired two weeks ago, a receipt from when I bought an ice cream from the gas station, and a crumpled movie ticket—all with the year 2033 printed on them.
Darry sifted through them, holding the ticket up to the light, while I rolled my eyes. He reciprocated by taking out a scratch piece of paper with the time and date of their meeting with Mrs. Carlton.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” I said scathingly. “It’s not even an official document. You could have written that earlier today.”
“Yeah, he could have, but he didn’t,” Harrison quietly said and got up to examine the small kitchen window, reaching out as if he were going to touch it, but then pulled his hand back. Morning light streamed through, not afternoon like I expected.
Darry broke the silence, “If this had happened, you would have traveled somehow back to us. Harrison and I have been together this whole time, we didn’t just appear in a fireplace. You’re the only one who’s been unaccounted for.” He saw that I was about to argue but continued, “But something strange is going on. We haven’t been able to get out of this house and you suddenly appeared behind me in that room. So, if we all really think we know what year it is, it would follow that it’s actually 2028, not 2033. I know Harrison and I didn’t go anywhere. Your group would still be in 2033, or perhaps another year. Or even just a week away from us, but we would never know until we’ve been here a week!” He sounded energized by the idea. “Old houses…missing keys, it’s just a bunch of kids messing around. But time travel is physics. We think we know all the laws, but maybe some bend. We just need proof and when we get out of here—”
“If we get out of here,” Harrison interjected.
“—I’ll have the biggest story of human history. Mary, exactly what date did you come from again?”
“It’s Miranda.” I didn’t bother keeping the scorn out of my voice, I couldn’t believe this guy. He was talking as if it didn’t bother him that they had been searching for a key for two days and still couldn’t find it. Or that I was completely separated from my family. Time travel was an easier concept for him to dream up than the Manors. My head spun, trying to take it all in.
“August 18, 2033,” I finally said.
“Dear God! You know who’s going to be the next president. You know the next terrorist attack. I could be there for those stories” It seemed an imaginary promotion was all Darry needed to believe in world altering ideas.
“Stocks,” Harrison said, looking at me with a little more interest.
“This story will define my career and then I’ll be at the forefront of the industry. Tell me everything,” Darry said with eager eyes.
“I don’t know…I can’t…If this is true, what if things change because you know? Or you go and change something on purpose?” My ideas of fate and consequence were shaky at that time, but I had a picture in my head of ripples in a pond, interrupted by a spoiled boy, splashing.
“What? No. They wouldn’t,” sensing my doubt, Darry pushed harder. “They couldn’t. This will give me, us, proof. I’m just asking what you see on the news. What do your parents talk about?”
“My mom’s dead,” I said in a small voice. “She died two years ago. That’s how she knew Mayor Carlton. They were in a cancer group together.”
Harrison made a little sound of sympathy in his throat.
“Two years? Miranda, don’t you see? She’s not dead. She’s still alive! She is, or rather she was, alive in 2028, right?”
The world blurred in front of my eyes. It was like my physical body stopped all essential and nonessential functions, while my mind fixated on that one question: my mom’s alive?
I took a deep breath and ran to the window, as if she could be standing right outside in the long marshy grass. “We NEED to find the key! Let’s go find the key! I need to get out of here!” I moved away from the window to rummage through cabinets. I grabbed bowls, tossing them into a corner of the room.
“Whoa, Miranda, you were just worried about changing things. You want to go see your mother? Don’t you think that will upset that balance you were thinking of?”
“Darry, give the kid a break.”
“OUCH!” The inside of my right hand throbbed painfully. I instinctively pulled my hand out of the cupboard, bringing with it shards of ceramic that fell to the floor with a tinkling sound. My hand was bleeding and I immediately grasped it with my other hand to staunch the flow.
There were no clean cloths in the kitchen to wrap my hand in. Harrison walked us back to the front parlor where he said he had an extra lens cleaning cloth in his bag. Inside the parlor, still strangely empty, he walked straight to a pile of clean electrical equipment on the floor—camera, wires, black case, laptop.
I felt a jolt in the pit of my stomach. “What’s that doing there?”
Harrison frowned, “My camera batteries wouldn’t work the moment I set foot in the Manor. I didn’t get a single second of footage.”
“No, I mean. Uh….” Harrison and Darry turned my way. “Those things were here, here in this room, when my family came through. They looked older, but those were the exact same things. I’m sure of it.”
I spoke into the empty silence, “Harrison. If you got out of the Manor, wouldn’t you take your bag with you?”
The Manors – Part 1 By Rebecca Zornow
Photo credit to Valor Kopeny on Unsplash