Story by Rebecca Zornow
Photo Credit to Nolan Issac on Unsplash
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of The Manors last month. Part 2, the final piece of this story, is posted down below. Before you start reading, I want to congratulate Adriana M. from Wisconsin on winning the signed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel. It’s always a happy day you get a new book for your personal library.
Also, a quick note about The Manors.
If you live in the Fox Cities area, you’ll recognize the setting—the immediate area around the Fox River. The waterways around here were important to Native populations and spurred on development through fur trading, hydroelectricity, and paper mills. I wanted to imagine how the river would shape our area in the future. If we think of it at all, we imagine it is content to remain in the background of our lives, but the river has so much power and influence on life here.
There are a many large homes on the banks of the Fox River, but North Lake Drive in Milwaukee is more similar to what I imagined. That particular area has huge mansions you could spend hours looking through—if the lights were turned on and the doors were unlocked.
If you want to talk about The Manors and writing, hit up the comments section below with questions, advice, and what you thought about the story. I’ll respond to comments as they come. Thanks for reading.
Darry’s stomach hurt. It hurt so much. There wasn’t much to do except think about how much it hurt.
Except there was. There was a key to find. There were questions to ask the girl. If he found usable paper and pen, he’d write down as much as he could.
The pain in Darry’s stomach was ever present, only overshadowed by the possibility that this entire fiasco could jumpstart his career.
The room they searched glowed from the afternoon sun. Everything above the first floor was stuffy and hot from mid-morning onward. If they could just get a damn window open.
Darry threw out a few questions as they searched.
He dug through a canister of nuts and bolts and asked, “What happened to North Korea’s food crisis?”
Darry ran his finger across the top of a doorframe and asked, “Is global warming ramping up in 2030? How are the coastal cities?”
As the three left a freshly searched walk-in closet he demanded, “Is King William still dealing with protests?”
Miranda responded to his queries with weak shrugs accompanied by a feeble reason why she couldn’t answer—she wouldn’t study Current Affairs until high school, she didn’t know which movies won Oscars that year, and she’d never heard of Brexit, but she flat-out refused to name the President.
Darry played it cool, like he was only asking out of curiosity or to pass those slow moving hours. He knew if he made a big deal out of it, she’d clam up entirely. Analyzing the response to the question, no matter the answer, was the game. The girl said she didn’t know what Stephen King’s most recent book was, but the fact that she knew who he was, meant that he was still alive and writing, at the ripe old age of 83.
Darry’s stomach gave a pitiful growl, like a small, moist animal that knew it wouldn’t be fed. Darry and Harrison split their last protein bar the night before.
Darry was so excited about the possibilities and in so much pain in his stomach that he almost forgot about the key. It seemed like a minor problem. They would find the key eventually. The bigger problem was finding proof. How would he prove that he entered a house capable of its own actions, met someone from the future, and heroically located the key to release them all?
When the door swung shut behind him and Har at the entrance of the house, Darry felt a wisp of fear run through his chest. There was a flavor about the place, a taste of something old and powerful.
With his mind on his story, Darry shoved feelings aside and stood in the middle of the foyer, gesturing around himself. His speaking voice, the same one from childhood forensics, turned on, “Everyone I’ve talked to in the city assures me that, once inside, finding the key is the only way to escape these terrible Manors. It sounds unbelievable, yes? But Darrian Bayer and Your Story NBC 18 is here to see how much of this fairy tale is true.” Just then Darry noticed that Harrison no longer had the camera trained on him.
The camera was on the ground and Harrison dug through his bag, grumbling about an extra battery.
Darry chewed Harrison out a bit for good measure, it was already going to be a long day, and then walked to the front door to remake his entrance. Perhaps this time he would end with, “and see if this is a story from the pages of Hans Christian Anderson.” It was tough coming up with a phrase that carried the weight of “see how far the rabbit hole goes,” but sounded utterly unique—
“I just don’t get this.”
“What?” Darry asked, glancing over at Harrison.
“None of the batteries are working. The first just plum shut off and the rest are completely dead.”
“Well, you’ll have to go charge them in the van. I’m not going through this whole bit again. I’ll look around for some backdrops.”
Harrison reached for the doorknob and tried to twist it, but the doorknob didn’t budge. He used both hands, wiggling the door in its frame. The door stayed tightly shut.
Darry tried it himself but nothing happened.
“These houses don’t belong to anyone anymore, right?”
“Huh, no. They’re abandoned.” Darry stepped back in alarm as Harrison gave the door a great kick in the center.
There was a shallow thud and a responding echo from somewhere in the house.
“Har, that’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. That door’s nearly a century old!”
“Well, you give it a go then.”
“Let’s try something that won’t be obvious to our viewers.” Darry walked to the closest window. He reached out to unlock it and his great aunt’s house came to mind. Dreadful old place. Much smaller than this one, but had the same hoity-toity feel. She was only alive for part of his childhood. His mother always insisted he join them for tea when Aunt Helen visited. Even though Darry told his mom he hated tea. It smelled like goldfish food. Aunt Helen would take up the entire afternoon, asking him to recite the multiplication table—
“Darry. Did’ja hear me? I said I guess it’s true then.”
“Hmm? What are you going on about?”
Harrison pointed at the window and continued, “The houses. The Manors. They really do lock you inside.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a story about urban legends and teenage exploits. There is no magic,” Darry scoffed at that last silly word.
“Then open the window.”
“That sounds like a dare, Har. That’s what gets teens in here in the first place.”
“You forgot drinking and girls. But go on, open the window, if you please.”
Darry turned again to the matter at hand. He didn’t want to lose the light before they collected enough footage.
It was an old looking window, with its leaded lines. Just like at Mrs. Wilfred’s house. When Darry was a few days shy of 13, he and three friends turned up at Mrs. Wilfred’s house to rake her yard. It wasn’t a pro bono venture for sure. Mrs. Wildred gave them each a 10, and his mother gave him a 20, under the impression that Darrian was cleaning up her yard for the good of the community. Mrs. Wildred was a widow, but when her husband was alive, he was the most hated teacher in town. People thought—
“Darry, man, snap out of it.” Harrison said loudly and lightly shook Darry’s shoulder.
They made several other attempts at windows as well as the back door and a crawl space, but nothing worked. There was a vicious possum in the crawl space, smelling slightly of animal rot. Something happened at the back door, but Darry couldn’t remember what. All he knew was Harrison yelled at him and he yelled back, as they walked away.
Many things made Darry uneasy about their early search, but hunger was overcoming them all. He wanted to get out, get food, and get the camera rolling.
Darry walked to the window and ripped down the drapes, shaking them out before throwing them in a pile. The tearing sound made Harrison and Miranda turn.
“Mr. Bayer, I don’t think you should do that.” Miranda’s face was disapproving.
“Miranda, we’ve been in here for two days now. I’m finding that key so we can leave, get new batteries, and—and your mother. Then we can go visit your mother.”
Darry heard Miranda say, “I want….” but his attention was on a movement out the window. Darry gave a sharp rap-rap-rap on the glass with his knuckles. He saw two women, middle-aged from the look of their clothes and hats, walking along the side of the greenhouse a little ways out in the overgrown yard.
The women didn’t look up at Darry’s knock so he knocked louder and Harrison, who moved to the window to see what caught Darry’s attention, cupped his hands and shouted, “Hey! HEY, up here! Look up here. CALL FOR HELP!”
One of the women gave a slight start, as if she heard something, but, just at that moment, a large black pig rounded the corner of the green house running and slid on its back quarters from the shift in momentum. Both women’s mouths opened in gasps as the pigged rushed towards them. One woman did her best to plaster herself against the wall; the other managed to turn around, ready to run away, when the pig rushed by and knocked both of them to the mossy ground before disappearing from sight.
“Oh no,” Miranda said, but the women stood up, laughing at their quick and absurd adventure. They continued on and around the corner where the pig came from.
The three stood at the window for a few quiet moments, waiting to see if anything else would happen. Darry wondered what the women were doing at the Manors. Probably along for a weekend adventure, but wise enough not to go in any of the houses.
Darry had a strange inkling that the pig came purposefully to distract the women from his plea for help. Or else, if he hadn’t been standing there watching the women, the pig would have run them down completely.
It was another few hours of searching for the key. Harrison, Darry, and Miranda entered the last room, slightly buzzed. Harrison felt jittery as he pulled up a red patterned rug and then reached under a wardrobe. They systematically searched every inch of the room, looking for the key.
When they ran out of places to check for their salvation, Miranda sat down and slouched against a wall.
Harrison’s tongue was dry. It was way too dry. A patch at the tip felt like sand. He tried to wet it, but it stuck gamely to the roof of his mouth. Harrison took a few deep breaths and mentally ran through the house again. He wondered if there was a room they missed. Or maybe access to an attic or a laundry shoot.
He couldn’t come up with any ideas. They followed every lead.
No, that wasn’t true. He remembered the basement, with its watery depths. When he peered down with Darry during their first search, Harrison saw that the second half of the stairs were gone, probably rotted away and long sunk. They were going to have to go down there, and he had a good guess who would have to jump into that murky water….
It seemed strange that so much water remained in the basement. This Manor was on the outskirts of the original flooded area.
Harrison told Miranda and Darry to follow him and they all went slowly down the stairways and through the too-tight hallway.
The wooden stairs ended two feet above the water. The water was darker than anything Harrison ever saw. Harrison wasn’t sure if that was because so little light came through to that part of the house or if the water itself aged and fermented and moldered while it was trapped over the years.
“You really think the key is down there?” Miranda asked.
“Well, it can’t be anywhere else. We’ve checked every room four times.”
“It just seems so unfair. That the Manor would not only hide the key, but keep it out of reach of us.”
Darry said, “It’s only a lost key. These doors probably automatically lock.”
“You still don’t believe in the Manors? You think that I came from the future but you don’t believe in the Manor?” Miranda asked heatedly.
“It’s not about believing,” Darry said loftily. “It’s about logical thinking. Time is just one of the planes of our physical world. We can move forward on it. Some people think we can move backward too. But, no, I don’t believe in an inanimate object doing whatever it wants and screwing with teenagers—“
They were giving Harrison a headache. It pounded slightly, accompanying his dry tongue. They continued to bicker and his head throbbed, making his skull feel a size too small.
He was so thirsty. Even that dirty water looked a little good.
Harrison talked over the other two and said, “Alright. That’s enough. I’ll do it. I remember seein’ rope in that closet full of paint cans. We should get that so you can pull me back up.”
They backtracked two hallways and a short staircase to find the rope and then returned to the basement.
“If only we could get in that greenhouse, we could find a rake for you to pull across the floor and drag everything up,” Miranda said.
“Well, if we could get in the greenhouse, we wouldn’t need to go in the water!” Darry shot back.
“I wouldn’t need to go in the water. I’m the one who volunteered, Darry.”
Everyone finally shut up.
“I think I can jump in, it’s got to be deep enough.”
Darry and Miranda were still looking at him, but Harrison kept his eyes on the water. It was time to get in the water and out of the house.
Harrison bent his knees slightly and, wishing for the vibrant smell of clean chlorine, leaned forward and fell into the water below.
Instead of the loud sound of water accepting a visitor, there was a muffled, indescribable poof and small tendrils of mist rose where Harrison disappeared.
There was quiet for a few moments and then Darry burst, “You were telling the truth! This is a portal. That’s it, I’m going for it.”
“Wait! It wasn’t like that when I was in the fireplace!” I clutched at Darry’s arm, terrified of what swallowed up Harrison and terrified of Darry leaving me as well.
It was too late, Darry’s momentum was eager for the free fall. I tripped forward, my heart frozen in my chest, as I tumbled over the side.
I screwed my eyes up tight and shut my mouth. I fell in but never got wet. Instead of landing in the dirty water, I sensed light beyond my eyelids and air around me. I landed on my left leg and collapsed as the rest of my weight slammed down on it and hit the ground with my hands.
I heard noises off to the side and felt something move from under my shoulder, a part of Darry. My cut screamed angrily at the additional abuse. The fall wasn’t that far, but the rock floor was brutal to land on.
I took in the scene around me in shock as I rolled over on my side and let out a large sob.
Harrison half stood, half leaned against the wall of what I assumed was the basement. It looked like a basement after all. The floor was concrete and the walls built from large rough blocks.
Darry made his way off the ground, swearing all the while.
“What happened?” Harrison asked.
The room we fell into was empty, but there was a door. The doorknob turned and the door opened.
One woman walked through and another hovered in the doorway, between two rooms.
“Oh, hi,” The first said brightly. She had long dark hair to her waist, but trimmed neatly as if it could grow a lot longer if she wanted it to. “Well, now that you’re down here, let’s see what’s what.”
“Who are you?”
Harrison and Darry spoke over each other.
She laughed, but kindly. The woman behind her said, “Come through here.” Her voice was older and a bit disinterested. They went back into the room they came from.
I finally staggered to my feet. Darry, Harrison, and I looked at each other. With the appearance of new people, especially such mysterious ones as these, I felt more aligned with Darry and Harrison than moments before. Darry was the first to move towards the door, clearly eager. Harrison solemnly nodded at me and we both went through.
The room was much like the one we left but full. Large wooden tables lined one wall, filled with papers and books. Above one table, carefully taped up, was a drawn image of a benevolent looking women and her strong, brave counterpart. I smelled the remaining clouds of a sour smoke. In the center of the floor was a large chalk pentagram.
The older woman walked straight to a chair and sat down, poised on the end of it. She spoke directly, “What are you doing here?”
The three of us hesitated. It sounded like an easy question, but it was a hard question. We were there because we went inside a strange house, called a Manor, but anything beyond that got weird. But, I thought, maybe these women were okay with weird, hanging out in a disguised basement and all.
Darry took a stab at explaining, “We’re here in this house doing a story. Hi—”
I wondered dully if Darry was a real person, or if he was operating on business-focused autopilot all the time.
“—Darrian Bayer from Your Story NBC 18. I’m going to ask you some questions now.”
“Yeah, and then we’re going to ask them on camera too!” Harrison finished sternly.
The two women looked at each other. The younger burst out laughing. Even the older woman gave a small, thin smile.
She sighed, “A reporter. Huh, he acts just like I thought a reporter would. Jenta, how did they get in?”
The younger woman, Jenta, shifted, thinking carefully. “They weren’t blocked. I guess there was a loophole in the spell.” Her amused personality shifted into something more hawk-like. “You’re a television reporter?”
“Yeah. Well, yes. I am.” I was surprised to hear Darry unsure for the first time. “This is supposed to be my first story. I’m trying to leave the editing room.”
“Oh, well that will do it. Can’t ban a reporter if he’s not a reporter.”
“And what are you doing here, girl?”
“I was going to go through the Manor with my dad. I got lost. Can you let me out of the Manor?”
“Is he still in the…Manor?” the unnamed woman asked me.
“I don’t know. We’ve gone through the entire thing, but we can’t find him and we can’t find the key.”
“She came down through a chimney,” Harrison clarified.
“No! I fell in the fireplace, got dizzy, and then I was in a different room with these two but my family was gone.”
“Oh, dear.” The older woman said as if she was scandalized but she didn’t look surprised. Jenta too looked pleased at this news.
They scared me. I wasn’t sure why, but they did. I wanted to stop whatever was happening, “My dad’s already outside the Manor. He’s getting help!”
“Dear, we both know that’s not true,” the woman said, finally truthful.
The strange women told us to sit against one of the walls and not to touch anything or she’d pull out our fingernails. She said all of that in a bored voice. Darry started to interject, but she gave a look, breathtaking in its sudden anger, and he paled.
The women retreated to one of the tables and talked quietly. I looked around while they talked and noticed two more doors besides the one we came through. These women and their offhand threatening manner made me truly frightened. They knew something about this house and I wanted to get away from them, regardless of key or information.
A strong smell of incense overtook the air around us. One of them lit a stick in one of those long wood holders I saw in hippie stores.
The oldest women came back to us and asked me to tell my story again, pausing to ask questions about why I came to the Manor and how long before what happened in the fireplace happened and where I cut myself. Whenever Darry and Harrison added something, she would let them start what they wanted to say, but then shut them up if it wasn’t of interest to her.
Meanwhile, Jenta was still at the table, writing something down. With a start, I saw she was writing on a mirror. I couldn’t see what she wrote but when she got to the bottom of the mirror, she started at the top, completing the circuit a few times.
Finally, it was quiet. I couldn’t think of anything else to tell and Darry was fuming from being told to shut up so many times.
The woman took my hand and unraveled the cloth. She stared at my hand for a moment and then abruptly stood up.
“Jenta, what did she say?”
“She thinks it’s more a matter of the house malfunctioning than the girl showing a talent for voyaging, but perhaps the voyage was instigated from her high emotions.”
“As I thought. Did she say what she wanted to do with them?”
“One second chance and two refusals, with, er, essentially one pat on the head.”
“A…pat on the head?” The woman said slightly taken aback.
Jenta laughed lightly, “Well, he did try.”
“Alright,” all business again, the older woman looked at Harrison. “We’ve never had anyone jump through an illusion barrier before. Who would want to jump in scummy old water? Well, you I guess.”
“So, nice sense of adventure, Harry!” Jenta smiled at him.
“Is the key down here then?” Harrison asked.
“No, the houses always hide the keys above basement. We ask them to.” Her statement struck me. The key wasn’t downstairs with them. Suddenly I knew where we hadn’t checked above ground.
Darry seized this bit of concrete, though fantastical, information to try to make sense of things, “Who are you? Are you the ones who have been hiding keys? This story affects a lot of people.”
The strange woman responded, “We are two of the caretakers of the Manors. They are under our jurisdiction. This land has the remnants of old power. Earth power. Even though it is 10,000 years distant, we can draw on the remnants of what was left behind.”
“10,000 years? You mean glaciers?” I asked hesitantly.
She smiled, not enthusiastically like Jenta, but in an assessing way. “Good intuition. Maybe you do deserve a second chance. Jenta, get the doorway and the soil. And something passable.” She returned her attention to me. “The river and valley here are all that were left of the enormous glaciers that carved this landscape. They were full of the Earth’s force. Made up of water, they used their own intuition to mold and form. And the river left behind, it flows south to north, a most auspicious location.”
Jenta called across the room from a table where she was setting something up, “This place was a real find! A perfect location with so much raw Earth power left. It enables us to do our work.”
“You, did you flood this area?” Darry stammered.
The older woman took up the vein again, “We cannot control the Earth.”
Jenta giggled, “But we did set into motion a series of, um, events that brought copious amounts of water and left them here.”
I saw Harrison looking back at the door we came through. It was clearly time to leave. To get away from here.
“Now, girl,” the old woman began, “we use this place as a secure location to do our work unbothered. Our experiments work best under the soil. An unusual side effect of our magic was the interest of these houses to play in some key finding. It’s all a very rudimentary form of locational transfer combined with simple object focus. The houses, the Manors as you called them, get to have their fun, and we are undisturbed. But an added benefit is our ability to find and test those that show some magical aptitudes while exploring the Manors.”
“It’s all set,” Jenta singsonged.
“Come here,” the woman commanded. When I didn’t move, she added nastily, “You may have a gift that allows you to see your mother again. What would she think if she knew you didn’t even want to try?”
The hair prickled on my neck as I cautiously went over to the table. There was a small arch made out of stone, about two feet high, placed on top of the scratched table surface. Next to it was a gourd, smeared with dark clumps of black soil.
“What is this?” Harrison asked.
The woman ignored him and continued speaking to me, “You apparently have some aptitude for voyaging.”
Seeing my blank look, Jenta clarified, “Time travel. You used the stone fireplace to travel backwards, away from your father, towards your mother.”
“But I, I didn’t do anything. I just felt dizzy and fell down. Or asleep maybe.”
“It may not be a strong enough aptitude to train. But, then again, it may be. We can test it with this stone structure and this gourd: a living thing covered with soil from the area.” Jenta pointed down at my feet, dried from the walk in the mud.
“All you need to do is pick up the gourd, and try passing the object through the arch.”
I hesitated and the older women added, “If you do have this gift, our circle can teach you extraordinary things. Did you not bring yourself back to your mother? What else can you do?”
“I don’t know. This isn’t right. I just want to go home.”
“Go home? What would you do there? Pine away for your mother? Go to school? You won’t even be friends with Minnie by the end of the year. You will never have the control you want if you give up this moment.”
“Premonition,” Jenta said, pointing at the other woman’s head.
Her words rang clear in my head. My life was painful and it was ever changing. I wanted control over something. Some ability that would strengthen me.
In one quick motion, I picked up the gourd. Everyone held their breath. I tried to focus on doing something, whatever it was, with the gourd, and pushed it through the arch.
The gourd poked its nose out through the other side.
The woman sighed, “Well, that’s too bad. But I’m not surprised. Jenta, we’re done.”
“Sorry, Miranda, you failed.” She looked genuinely sad for me. “You just don’t have enough of the gift. Darry, you weren’t supposed to make it down here at all. And, nice try Harry! You don’t have any aptitude either, but, wow! Sheer gumption.”
Harrison started to smile back just as the older woman stuck a silver dagger in the meat of his neck.
I screamed as Darry made to run past the woman but Jenta slashed across his neck with a second dagger, just above the Adam’s apple.
I had to move. I had to run. I chose a door at random and tried the knob. It was stuck—my breath knotted in my throat—no, it opened! I ran down the short hallway past other doors and chose the last one.
I heard the women behind me moving at a normal speed. They must know that there was no other way out.
“Oh ho ho, we’ve got a runner!”
“Jenta, go back and collect the blood,” I heard the woman bark as she pursed me alone.
In a matter of moments, I processed pieces of things around me in the new room. Images drawn on the wall. A shelf with candles of all colors hung directly over a chair. A stone dog sitting in the corner. I spotted a fireplace. It was my only choice. I felt more than saw the woman enter the door behind me.
I thought of my dad and my brother, and me, me in control where I should be, and leapt into the fireplace.
I was woozy and scared. I threw up on my shirt and I looked around frantically. Still where I left them stood my dad and brother and our friends, all wide eyed.
“Dad,” I cried.
He ran across the room to me. “What happened? Are you sick? How did you hurt your hand?”
“I want to go home. I want to go home with you. That’s where I’m supposed to be.”
“Okay, okay, we’re looking for the key,” he said in his best soothing dad voice. “How did you get so dirty so quickly? Miranda, what’s going on?”
I stood up shakily and walked over to where my brother’s friend stood and dug through the pile. I opened a black camera case and searched the pockets until I found a brass key, grimy and sticky and finally in my hand.