The Story of Old Chestnut House
It started a dreary, blustery day in Wales when Mother, Sister and I made our way to the Old Chestnut House, owned by our great aunt Lydia. She was a widower, as was Mother. Mother decided we should stay with great aunt Lydia to keep her company, as the manor was lonely. Old Chestnut House was gloomy against the grey sky. The brick was darkened with age and dead rose bushes surrounded the house. I assumed the upkeep died along with our great uncle.
Pulling our trunks with us up the old, brick steps, we gave the door a knock. Great Aunt Lydia opened up, sitting politely in her wheelchair. Her grey hair was put into an updo, dark purple dress buttoned up to her neck. Somehow, she still made herself as presentable as possible, even applying lipstick to her thinning lips. Charlotte gave me a look while great aunt Lydia small talked with Mother.
“I don’t trust this place,” Charlotte said, red dress fluttering behind her as she stomped up the steps. Her boots made clunky echoes throughout the manor.
I followed close behind, not wanting to be left alone in the eerie house, even if it was still daylight. Every step was met with creaking hardwood. I couldn’t fathom how great aunt Lydia stayed there alone.
Charlotte and I had rooms across from one another. Hers had the faint scent of mildew and wet wood while mine smelled of dead roses. It was pungent, but I didn’t complain for Mother’s sake. I inspected the room more carefully to give myself something to do. Dust had accumulated in all the nooks and crannies from a lack of occupancy. A cracked handheld mirror resided on the dresser with a torn piece of yellowed lace. With Great Aunt Lydia in a wheelchair, I figured she hadn’t been up there in ages. I cracked open the door to the bathroom, flies buzzing past my head. In the waste bin was a bouquet of rotten roses. Quickly, I opened the window of my bedroom and tossed them into the yard to be with the other dead flowers.
“Lovely,” Charlotte said from behind me. She stood in the doorframe, arms crossed.
“Just some old roses,” I said. “Nobody was up here to throw them out properly.”
“Aldon, this place is creepy,” Charlotte whined. “I’m telling Mother I want to go home.”
“You can’t!” I warned. “Returning home will remind her of Father.”
“I’d rather be reminded of Father than be here.”
As Charlotte scoffed and stalked back to her room, I looked out the window again at the decaying roses and wondered if I could help turn this place back from ruins.
Dinner was quiet, the clinking of spoons in our soup bowls and tea cups sliding against saucers the only sound. Great Aunt Lydia stared off into space, as did Mother. Charlotte and I snuck glances at one another, unable to find any words.
“I do appreciate you allowing us to stay with you, Aunt Lydia,” Mother finally said.
“Yes,” I piped in, “the manor is lovely.”
Charlotte shot me a look and I shrugged.
“It gets rather lonely here during the day,” Aunt Lydia said, hand shaking as she raised her teacup to her thin lips.
“You have us to keep you company now,” I said, reaching for Aunt Lydia’s hand, but she pulled away.
“Don’t come down here after supper,” she said. “I like it to be only me at night.”
I got myself ready for bed, Charlotte bursting into the bathroom. She still wore her same scowl as she had all evening.
“She’s bonkers,” Charlotte said.
“She’s old,” I replied.
“There’s a fine line between old and bonkers,” Charlotte argued. “I’ve met other elders who aren’t nearly as insane as she.”
“Keep in mind she recently lost her husband.”
“You’re so naive, Aldon.” Charlotte stormed into her room, slamming the wooden door as loud as she could.
While I read in bed to wind down, I heard the buzzing of a fly. Looking over at the nightstand, I saw it sitting there as if it were looking at me. I swatted it away, watching it disappear into the dark of the corner. A chill ran through the room, sending goosebumps up my arms. The house creaked and it seemed the shadows within the room were growing. Quickly, I turned out the light and buried my head under the covers. I imagined my dead uncle, staring down at me, breath stale and cold. If I lifted the covers from over my head, he would be there, grey and rotten.
No, I was acting unreasonable. Nothing was wrong with the house, just like nothing was wrong with Great Aunt Lydia. Both were only old.
The days following at Old Chestnut house were pretty cohesive. A routine had been established which we all followed. We would have breakfast together—always porridge, roam the house, have lunch together, roam the grounds, have afternoon tea, and have dinner. After dinner we each retired to our bedrooms as Great Aunt Lydia did not want us on the lower level of the manor.
Charlotte and I, after lunch, decided to explore the grounds further. Her and I stuck together while Mother had her time with Great Aunt Lydia. Charlotte’s attitude changed day by day, until she finally accepted that, for the time being, we were stuck at Old Chestnut house. We came across a pathway leading to an apple orchard. Like most of the things within the grounds of the manor, the trees were dying and rotten apples were strewn on the ground.
“Is there anything here that isn’t dead?” Charlotte asked, turning her nose up at me as I picked up one of the spoiled apples.
“Us,” I joked.
She smiled for the first time since we’d arrived.
The night persisted the same until I fell asleep, only to be awoken by the low hum of the piano from downstairs. Disobeying my great aunt, I took a candle with me as I slowly crept down the steps. The same key was being played over and over again. I turned the corner into the piano room, Great Aunt Lydia in her wheelchair, pressing the same key with her bony finger.
“Great Aunt Lydia?” I asked. “Don’t you realize the time?”
“You threw away the roses,” she said, staring straight ahead of her.
Great Aunt Lydia stood, bones cracking.
I froze, petrified at her demeanor. She picked up a bouquet of dead roses from her wheelchair.
“You threw away the roses,” she said again. She ran toward me then, thrusting the roses in my face. I reached my hand out, thorns sticking into my palms.
“Great Aunt Lydia stop!”
I awoke, sweating buckets as the events from the night before replayed in my mind. I ran to Charlotte’s room, startling her awake.
“Bloody hell!” Charlotte said.
“Charlotte,” I sighed. “I had the worst nightmare last night.”
“Calm yourself,” she said, clenching her chest. “It was only a dream.”
I knew it wasn’t when I looked at my palm and saw the holes the thorns had made when they pricked my skin. My body went cold, heart sinking into my stomach. I rubbed my eyes, figuring my mind played tricks. But the indents stayed, as did my paranoia.
I tried to convince Mother we had to go. I had told her what I saw, which only made her darken. She claimed I was making stuff up in order for us to leave. Charlotte thought I was insane at first, until I showed her the palm of my hand.
Charlotte decided we would stay awake and see if great aunt Lydia acted the same that night.
After many hours of waiting, Charlotte and I grabbed our candles to make our way downstairs. Mother was sleeping and the low hum of the same piano key played again. Charlotte held onto my hand, afraid of the scene we were about to witness.
Great Aunt Lydia wore the same black dress and was in the same position she had been in the night before. Her bony finger pushed the same piano key over again, staring straight ahead. When she noticed mine and Charlotte’s presence, she turned her head toward us.
“You threw away the roses,” she said.
“Great Aunt Lydia?” Charlotte asked, carefully approaching her. “Are you alright?”
Great Aunt Lydia quickly stood, striking Charlotte in the head with a candelabra. Charlotte fell to the floor, head bloody from the impact. I rushed to her side as Great Aunt Lydia hit me with a bouquet of dead roses. She repeated the same phrase as she beat me with the roses. I tried fighting back but somehow great aunt Lydia gained great strength. Suddenly, when I looked back at her, her hands were grey and bugs crawled on her skin. Her face had sunken in and her eyes had been replaced by black, empty sockets.
I awoke the same, sweating and panting. However, it was still dark out. I grabbed a candle, rushing to Charlotte’s room. The bed was empty and completely made up. I charged into Mother’s room, her bed the same as Charlotte’s.
“Charlotte!” I called, getting no response. “Mother!”
All was silent throughout the manor. I quickly ran downstairs, the creak of a rocking chair coming from one of the rooms. Great Aunt Lydia rocked back and forth with her back to me. There was a saucer of tea next to her that looked like it had gone cold.
“Great Aunt Lydia?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“You threw away the roses,” she said, voice low and shallow.
I walked toward her slowly, getting to a point where we were face to face. It was quite dim in the room so I placed the candle closer to her face. Just as she was earlier, her face was grey and sunken, eyes nothing but black sockets. A fly flew out of her eye socket, landing on her cheek. I backed away slowly as great aunt Lydia continued to rock. Running out of the room I bumped into Charlotte.
“Aldon, you have to help me!” Charlotte sobbed. She still had her gash on the top of her head, but the blood was completely dry.
“We need to find Mother and get out of here,” I said, trying to get Charlotte to follow.
As I grabbed her wrist, I felt something crawl over my hand. I pulled back; Charlotte had the same grey skin as Great Aunt Lydia. Her eyes drooped downward, casting a melancholy glare at me. Her nightgown had transformed into the red dress she had on days prior.
“Charlotte?” I asked, stunned and backing away.
“It really hurt, Aldon,” she cried. “Why?”
My decaying sister began to sob and turned away from me. In doing so, I saw that her whole back was covered in maggots. Leaving Charlotte crying, I ran into the garden outside, looking for a way to escape. I couldn’t find Mother nor could I explain what was going on. Was it a nightmare I wasn’t waking up from? I couldn’t tell.
I tripped on a rotten apple, falling to my knees in the dark mud, sinking. I sobbed into my hands, reality escaping me.
“Aldon, baby?” I heard Mother say, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Mother, what is going on?”
She placed her loving hand on my shoulder. I took her hand in mine, finding comfort that she was there. The feeling diminished when I saw her hands looked the same as Great Aunt Lydia’s. I stood, spinning quickly to look my mother in the face. She was grey and shrunken, bones prominent. She was bruised in many places, mostly on her neck.
“Aldon, don’t cry.”
“What the bloody hell is going on?”
“We’re with Father now,” Mother said, taking a step closer to me.
“Stay away from me!” I yelled.
“It wasn’t our choice, Aldon,” Mother said. “You know that.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
The sun shone through the curtains for the first time at Old Chestnut house. Charlotte was in her room, combing her matted hair. Great Aunt Lydia still rocked back and forth in the parlor room while Mother sat with her and read a book. I walked through the house, collapsing on the piano bench, playing the key great aunt Lydia had played just a couple nights prior; it was the only one in tune. I waited, just as Mother had said, until I heard the sirens in the distance.