The Bucks MansionbyYDB95©
"You took him past the Bucks place on the way here, didn't you, Mike?" Tim asked between gulps of beer. "It ain't Halloween without that."
"The Bucks place?" Jesse asked, looking back and forth between Mike -- his college buddy -- and Mike's old high school friends. "What's that, the local haunted mansion?"
"Dammit, Tim! Don't give him any more big ideas!" Mike slammed his beer mug down on the table loud enough to be heard throughout the mostly-empty barroom. It was early afternoon, and though the bar was decked out in cheesy orange and black decorations and cotton strung out to look like spiderwebs, only a few early revelers had begun the holiday festivities. Most of the other adults, Mike figured, were busy supervising the trick-or-treating kids they'd seen everywhere on the walk over.
"Chill out, man," said Christian, Mike's other old friend, who had in fact mellowed out a lot since high school now that he had a steady job at some insurance office downtown. "He's just enjoying his first real Halloween, isn't that right, Jesse? It ain't like you do it out in the suburbs, is it?"
"Sure isn't," Jesse said, once again casting a ridiculous -- Mike thought -- wide-eyed glance around the seedy bar where his friends were enjoying their first legal drinks together, having all turned twenty-one that spring and summer. "Anyway, the Bucks place, is that the local haunted mansion or something?"
"Jesse!" Mike snapped.
"Yeah," Tim said. "That's exactly what it is. And you don't want to get too close on this day of all times. People always have to go poke around in there just to say they were in the spookiest place in town on Halloween, and they come out all fucked up, seriously, talking about heaven and paradise and how they've got to get back in there, only you can't just go back in, they say. God only knows what happened to them, they can never really explain it. That's if they come out at all. Every now and then somebody doesn't."
Mike tried a new tactic now. "Dude, you don't believe that crap, do you?"
"Your own mother does, Mike, remember?" Christian piped up.
"She does?" Jesse was more interested than ever now.
"Yeah," Christian said. "You see, Mike had --"
"That's enough!" Mike snapped. "You know I don't talk about that on Halloween, man!"
"Dude, we're your friends," Christian said, his inhibitions lowered by the beer.
"Nah, he's right," Tim said. "We never go there, especially not on Halloween. Sorry, Mike."
Mike sighed and nodded his thanks, and wished he could make use of the holiday's supposed magic and make himself and Jesse disappear. It was his and Jesse's senior year in college, and fall break was late that year so it overlapped with Halloween. In years to follow, Mike would never be able to recall just why the holiday had been late, though he would remember nearly every other moment of the several days he'd spent back in his hometown with Jesse.
By that afternoon several days into the visit, Mike knew inviting Jesse home with him was a mistake. Jesse was his best friend at their elite, exclusive college; but like most of their classmates, he was from a much ritzier background than Mike was. Mike had never actually seen where Jesse had grown up, but he gathered it must have been awfully deep in the leafy green suburbs. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and Jesse was anything but a snob. No, Jesse's problem was the exact opposite of snobbery. He romanticized the relative poverty he saw everywhere in Mike's working class hometown. "Man, just like in a Springsteen song!" he'd said, again and again, through those first few days. "This is something else!"
"Not if you had to grow up seeing it every day it isn't," Mike replied, a bit less patiently every time.
"Man, it's just...poetic!"
"I can't explain," Jesse said. "You either get it or you don't, I guess."
"My thoughts exactly," Mike had finally said out loud the night before. Poetic. That had been the last straw, and in that moment Mike had made a decision. He had already accepted an invitation from Tim and Christian to meet at Kelly's Pub, just over on the wrong side of the tracks, for some beers on the big afternoon. "Our first legal drinks together with my oldest friends," Mike had explained to Jesse. "You're going to love Tim and Christian, and they'll probably bring a girl or two along as well." Jesse had eagerly agreed, naturally, no doubt imagining some sordid fling with a girl from the slums or something. But there was one thing Mike had not shared with him. Though Kelly's was in a rough neighborhood, there was a circuitous route through downtown by which they could get there fairly safely from Mike's house. But Mike would not be bringing Jesse via that route. He would take the direct route, straight down Hall Street, through some of the worst slums of their city, and see if Jesse liked it so much getting a close-up look of what he was so quick to romanticize.
Naturally, and much to Mike's frustration, he had loved it. All the way down to the bar just after noon, he had ogled the weatherbeaten storefronts and run down houses. "So earthy and real, man," he'd pronounced it all.
"I'm warning you, don't say things like that in front of Christian and Tim," Mike had told him. "They're not like us, they haven't been to college, and they still have to live with this shit every day. They're not going to like your attitude at all, man."
"Understood," Jesse said. "I'll keep it on the down low."
"On the down low?!" Mike snapped. "You're going to get us mugged or worse."
Miraculously, he hadn't. Even more surprisingly, Jesse had hit it off fine with Tim and Christian, although the promised girls had not appeared. Through their hour and a half and the accompanying legal pints, Jesse had been remarkably well behaved. He and Mike had to cut off fairly early in the game, as they had agreed to chaperone Mike's brother's Halloween party that evening. "We don't want to be wasted for that," Mike had explained.
"Yeah, your mom wouldn't be too happy," Tim had agreed. He had matured more than Mike had expected as well.
But if there was one topic Mike did not want to broach, it was the Bucks mansion. An irresistibly dangerous novelty this time of year for most locals, a source of real pain and horrible memories for a few including Mike's family, it was not something he cared to explain to a starry-eyed romantic like Jesse. But now the secret was out. Leave it to Tim to spill the beans on that of all things, just when they were about to make their escape! Mike was livid, but at least Tim had made it clear the place really was dangerous. Surely even Jesse would know to draw the line there.
Mike tapped at his watch and stood up. "Time to go, guys," he said. "Sorry." Jesse shook hands with Tim and Christian and said it was nice meeting them, and soon they were back out in the hazy October sunlight. "Feels so strange to be leaving a bar in daylight," Mike said.
"I know, man," Jesse agreed. "Say, are we going to pass that Bucks place on the walk home?"
"Christ, not that!"
As they were a bit tipsy now, Mike had already given serious thought to taking the safe walk home, and Jesse's curiosity about the Bucks mansion sealed it -- they would indeed have to walk right past it, and Mike did not want that. But Jesse wouldn't hear of it. "I want to drink in more of the ambiance," he insisted, starting up Hall Street. "And I've just got to see that mansion they were talking about." Mike was frustrated, but he gave in. As it was still broad daylight and there were children out trick or treating, even this neighborhood was fairly safe, he concluded. As long as he could keep Jesse away from that house.
And safe it was for the time being. Children everywhere, dressed up as witches and ghosts and angels and all sorts of creatures, delighted with their wares and dragging tired but happy looking parents and older siblings up and down Hall Street, where a few of the old houses even had some jack-o-lanterns and other decorations on display. It could be worse, Mike admitted silently as Jesse prattled on about how magical he found the working-class charm he saw everywhere. "Nothing back home with this much character!" he gushed. "This is so real!"
"Too real," Mike agreed. "You have no idea."
"Yeah, I probably don't, man," Jesse admitted. "That's why I want to drink it all in now."
Mike gave up. Jesse would get over it sooner or later, or he'd see some shit go down and get over his romanticism just as quickly as Mike had back in junior high when he'd seen a kid get busted for drugs for the first time. He walked on in silence, no longer protesting Jesse's constant fascination with everything, until they came to the block where the old Bucks place sat decaying. Please, God, don't let him get any more fascinated with that! Mike thought to himself as they came up on the abandoned-looking mansion he had learned to hate all those years ago. Maybe if he didn't make a big deal of it to Jesse, they could get past it without incident. With that thought in mind, he didn't even point out the place to his friend.
His prayers were of no avail. "Wow!" Jesse exclaimed, drinking in the once-magnificent house that now stood tumbledown before them, hints of pink paint streaked among the weatherbeaten gray shingles. "This must be the place! I can see why people get scared of it." While Mike was still groping for a suitable response, Jesse made an important discovery that renewed Mike's hope a bit. "Hey, none of the kids are going anywhere near there. Is it abandoned? No way that stuff Tim was saying is true, is it, about people disappearing in there?"
"No one knows for sure," Mike managed to say in an even tone. "I mean, yeah, Tim was blowing smoke..." A lie, but Mike felt it necessary. "Everyone knows to stay the hell away from there either way, though, because something really horrible happened there once upon a time, long before we were born. I don't know what and I don't want to know. And neither do you, Jesse, seriously!" He could tell Jesse about his cousin -- that surely would knock some sense into Jesse -- and he nearly did. But that was a topic Mike found it physically painful to talk about, and the words wouldn't form. Not in time anyway.
"What, you believe in ghosts?" Jesse asked incredulously. "All this stuff about how dangerous this neighborhood is and you're worried about a haunted house? On Halloween, even."
"You don't want anything to do with that place, Jesse." Mike grabbed his friend's arm and tried to hold on to it.
"No, man, you don't want anything to do with that place!" Jesse wriggled out of his friend's grasp. "Me, I at least want to sneak a peek in the window." He started up the crumbling steps.
"Jesse! No!" Mike yelled it loud enough for the trick-or-treaters to take notice, and several of them then saw where Jesse was going and gasped in fright. "You're crazy, man!" Mike warned, and a few of the kids out in the street echoed his sentiments. But Mike did not start up the steps after his friend -- no use in endangering himself on top of everything else; and he knew better than most how hazardous the place could be.
"It's okay, you can be the head pallbearer at my funeral," Jesse cracked as he strode fearlessly up to the solid oak door. Seeing nothing in the windows because the curtains were drawn, he rang the doorbell and was rewarded with a deep, loud gong from far within the big house.
"I'm going for help!" Mike called out. It was the last thing Jesse heard as the heavy door swung open and he felt a pull to walk in. He did not look back to see the numerous children staring at him from the street in fascinated horror.
Eagerly anticipating a horror show of dusty, broken furniture and maybe even a dead animal or two, Jesse was instead rewarded with a brightly lit, stylishly decorated living room full of well-kept retro furniture. A huge wood-framed television set like he recalled from his grandparents' house stood just before the picture window, beyond which he saw a serene sunlit meadow rather than Hall Street, a console record player sat majestically beside it, and the walls on the other side of the room were lined with well-stocked bookcases. Jesse, a bookworm beneath his devil-may-care exterior, was as delighted as he was bewildered.
The scene looked vaguely familiar to Jesse, but he couldn't quite place it. It reminded him of something he'd seen in a photograph -- not a terribly old one, but something from at least a few years before he was born. Then suddenly he placed it. A photograph of the living room of his mother's house from her childhood. Jesse had seen it in a photo album somewhere and the bright, sunny view and quaint looking furniture had been love at first sight. In his days of teenage angst when he wanted to be anywhere but he was, Jesse had often found himself gazing at the picture -- snapped on some nondescript long-ago afternoon, for reasons he had never determined -- and wishing he could climb inside somehow.
"It's Grandma's place," he whispered reverently to himself.
"Well, I'm nobody's grandmother, but welcome," came a woman's voice from the far end of the room.
Jesse looked up in shock. There she stood, tall and well-fed but not fat, swathed in a vivid floral print sundress, her long brown hair falling neatly down her shoulders and back. "I'm sorry!" he said. "The door opened, and..."
"The door opened because I opened it," the woman explained. "I have this handy remote control for that." She held up the device. "And don't be sorry. I haven't had a visitor in far too long. But this is the time of year when they're most likely to turn up, so I was hoping you would drop by."
"Hoping I would drop by?" Jesse asked. "But you don't even know me!"
"No, but I know you're brave to come here, and you have a love of learning just like I do, I can tell from the way you admired my books. You also share some of the same yearnings I do for some idyllic place and time. That's why my living room reminds you of your grandmother's, whoever she is." She toned down her smile in a shy fashion. "And from what I see, I'd like to get to know you." She walked gracefully out into the room and extended her hand. "I'm Penny," she said.
"I'm Jesse," he said, his fear somewhat tempered by her beauty and grace. Though he was now painfully aware of Mike's numerous warnings, he found himself compelled to stay. He shook her hand, and it was warm and firm to the touch. Penny, he now saw, was slightly taller and heavier than he was, and despite her gentle feminine appearance he felt a bit more intimidated as he drank in the scene. Intimidated, but also tremendously attracted to her big, beautiful, vivacious presence. Their introductory moment over, he looked out the window again. "How..." he began to ask, but the words wouldn't come.
"All will be revealed in good time," Penny assured him. "All you need to know now is, you're safe. I can just imagine what you've heard about my house, but you're safe here with me, I assure you."
"Well, that's good," Jesse said. "But, I mean...what's the story? For that matter, who are you? I know you're Penny, but who are you?"
"I'm a woman who loves a book and a glass of wine and a beautiful day," she said. "Nothing diabolical, just that I have a few talents you weren't expecting."
"I'll say I wasn't."
Penny laughed. "I was just going to settle down for an afternoon in the backyard. Care to join me? You won't need that heavy coat, though."
"It's pretty cold out there," Jesse protested.
"Only where you came from," Penny said. "Come on, I'll show you." She took his hand and led him out into the back hallway, down a well-kept stairwell to a finished basement where a king-sized bed with a red canopy sat majestically at one end of the room. More laden bookcases stood guard on each side of the bed. "My bedroom," she explained, pointing him towards the sliding door across from the bottom of the stairs. "I like being close to the backyard. The upstairs gets so lonely, but here it's more like a peaceful solitude than loneliness." A beautiful garden beckoned just beyond the door, alive with flowers of every hue. As Penny slid the door open and stepped out on the patio, a warm fragrant breeze greeted Jesse. It also blew Penny's dress enticingly around her bare legs as she turned and smiled a welcome into the garden.
"Heavenly," Jesse said, more confused than ever.
"You're getting warmer," Penny said.
"The weather got a lot warmer all of a sudden," Jesse said, having missed her point in his foggy amazement.
"Oh, it didn't just get warmer. I've been on a summer kick for a few weeks now," Penny explained. "Goes well with the novel I've been reading."
"You control the weather, do you?" Jesse said. Absurd as it sounded, it made as much sense as anything he could think of.
"In here, I do," Penny said. "That's the way it works in my situation." She did not elaborate, as though expecting Jesse to understand perfectly. He was silent, so she went on. "To tell you the truth, I'm always in a summer mood when Halloween comes around. Such a creepy time, and when you've been through the things I went through, you don't want to celebrate that sort of thing. I'd rather celebrate summer. The peak of life and all that."
"The things you went through?" Jesse asked.
Penny looked uncomfortable for the first time since he'd seen her. "You're not from here, are you?" she asked, a slightly wary tone in her voice now.
"No," Jesse confirmed. "I'm just visiting a friend from college."
"I see." Penny looked slightly relieved now, but her smile had not returned. "College. I enjoyed that for the brief time I was there before...well, Jesse, let's talk." She stepped back inside the room, leaving the sliding door open, and sat demurely on the bed, spreading her skirt out enticingly on both sides. "You've probably heard my house was dangerous."
"Yes," Jesse said.
"Well, I can assure you it's not dangerous for you. You're free to leave anytime you want, Jesse. I can tell from your aura that it's not your time yet, unless you want it to be, and that would not be wise of you. Take it from one who knows, life is not a gift to be given up."
"My aura? Giving up life?" Jesse was once again getting scared, though he was still mesmerized by Penny's gentle beauty.
"When you go back out in the world -- not if, but when, Jesse, for we both know you must -- I have no doubt you will hear a great deal about me," Penny said. "I can only urge you to recall what you have actually seen and heard here, and what I told you: I am a woman who loves a book and a glass of wine and a beautiful day. I'm not a witch or a monster, Jesse. What I am, is lonely, and I would love some company for now. I know you can't stay indefinitely for now, but I'd like very much for you to stay a while and get to know me before you go back out in the cold."
"Just what am I going to hear about you when I do?"
"I don't know exactly what they will tell you, or what they believe about my family and me," Penny said. "I'm not going to tell you. There are things you must learn on your own, and for me to tell you anything just now would only scare you. I will tell you this: you've come into my home and seen me, so please remember the truth no matter what you hear." She stood up and sauntered to the bookcase between her bed and the door to the garden. "I don't know how long we have," she said. "My last visitor was here for less than an hour before the...before he had to leave. But he was spooked anyway, and I think he just wanted to jump in bed with me."
"Jump in bed with you..." Jesse repeated. "When you'd just met?"
"Thank you, Jesse!" Penny said with a grin just before turning her attention to her books. "There is a time and place for that, and it had not arrived just then. But it would have." Shamelessly she took both her breasts in her hands and rubbed them playfully. "I assure you, it would have."