The Bucks Mansion


"Course not, man," Mike said. "You know I wouldn't do that for your party. No, Jesse here stumbled into the Bucks mansion."

"Mike! How the hell could you let that happen to your guest?" Joe was dumbfounded.

"Can't always save people from themselves, Joe," Mike said. "Haven't you ever heard Dad say that?"

"Yeah, yeah, and I don't need to hear it from you, man," Joe grumbled. "Jesse, I think you ought to get some sleep before the party. And do me a favor, don't tell any of my friends you were in that place. Half of them are gonna want to hear all about it, and everyone's parents'll be furious with our whole family."

"He's right, Jesse," Mike added. "I told you, it's seriously taboo, especially in our family. Whatever you think you saw in that place, forget it. Or at least pretend you forgot it."

"Tell me one thing," Jesse said, collapsing on the couch. "Why does everybody want to forget something that beautiful?"

"Beautiful?" Joe snapped. "Hasn't Mike told you --"

"I've told him all he needs to know," Mike interrupted. "Jesse, he's right, you do look like shit and you do need some sleep. Go lie down, and then I don't want to hear another word about where you've been today. Seriously, man, just trust me on that."

"Yeah, whatever," Jesse grumbled, and he heeded the order to go up to Mike's room and lie down -- not because he agreed with Mike but because he wanted to be alone with his memories of Penny while they were still fresh.

As soon as he was off upstairs, Joe turned on Mike. "You didn't tell him about the sisters? How else is he gonna know how dangerous that place is?!"

"I don't know about the sisters, any more than you do, Joe!" Mike replied. "You don't know what actually happened, do you? No one our age does! You know how Mom and her friends won't even talk about it!"

"You still could've told him what we've heard! Some of it must be true!"

"What, about an unsolved murder and living the afterlife in the cellar? And Lydia still being alive up there and keeping her sister in limbo by some crazy bond? You don't believe that shit, do you?"

"Not all of it, but some of it must be true. Where there's smoke, there's fire, man."

"I'm pretty sure Jesse knows that, whatever he saw," Mike said.

"Didn't you hear what he said just now? About how beautiful it was?"

"The cops got him out in time. He'll sleep it off. And don't worry, I yelled at him."

Upstairs, Jesse had found his way into a restless sleep. But he was in no danger of forgetting Penny. All the pieces of the puzzle floated around in his mind -- fifty five years without aging, changing the weather at will, the comments about it not being his time yet...none of it made any more sense as the hours of dreaming went by. But Jesse didn't care about that. He cared about beautiful Penny and her equally beautiful surroundings and the sense that her home was just what he'd always envisioned the most for himself, a land of peace and contentment and joy and one wonderful woman to share it all with.

Time and again, he tried to pick up where the reverie had left off, with him undressing for Penny. After he got his sweater off and kept the evil outsiders at bay this time, he saw her pushing his t-shirt off after it and grazing his chest playfully as he went back to doing with hers, and he saw Penny guiding his hands to her back now so he could remove her bra, gently and reverently, and he leaned down to kiss and caress her beautiful breasts while she undid his jeans and he soon found himself naked before her, and with a knowing smile she beckoned him back onto her bed. "A little fun before our swim, perhaps," she cooed. And she lay back enticingly and began to slide her panties off.

Time and again he tried...but he failed. Every time Penny reached for her panties to remove them and reveal all to him, a noise burst their bubble and he found himself shivering in the dilapidated basement he'd seen so briefly before being carted off. Sometimes he was naked when the cops arrived. Every time, he somehow escaped and made his way back to Penny's sanctuary, and every time she was waiting for him, fully clothed once again but ready to talk or dance or frolic in the sunny backyard or just snuggle with him on the couch or even the bed. Sooner or later things would begin to get more intimate, and before long Jesse had all the outlines of her body -- every curve, every beauty mark -- memorized. But every time they came within an inch of making love, the moment was shattered.

"Why?" he asked her finally.

"Perhaps it's not our time," she replied with a sad smile. "I know all too well how these things go. Someone wonderful finds his way to me, only to be dragged back to the real world because it's not his time yet. It's not my time yet."

"How can it not be your time after fifty-five years?"

"My time was not fifty five years ago. I have no clue when it really should have been. My life was cut much too short," Penny said, her radiant disposition now giving way to an ashen longing gaze into Jesse's eyes. "And she who was responsible, still survives. As long as that remains the case, I fear I can never be truly free. I have literally had all the time in the world to imagine all that I wanted in life, and to create it right here. I can create a heavenly wonderland for myself and my special one, whomever he may be. But the hate that caused my demise is a powerful one indeed, and as long as it still lives and breathes, the true joy I long for can never be mine. And it cannot be yours either, should you be the one for me."

"Then how do I know if I am?"

"When at last my time arrives, Jesse, we both shall know. I don't know how, but we will." On that optimistic note, Penny appeared to cheer up again. She stood up and, with a bounce in her step, bounded around the room which was now decorated in warm colors against the winter outside. "Just imagine how lovely that will be, too! Home at last, and free to do as we like!"

"I'm sure it will be worth the wait," Jesse said with a longing gaze at Penny in her latest winter dress, a lovely dark blue one. "How could it not be?"

"How indeed," Penny agreed, standing at the foot of the bed. "How I long for that day, Jesse. To be together, and home!" The tension being palpable once again, Penny broke into a hungry grin and reached down to begin pulling her dress over her head.

"Don't!" Jesse exclaimed.

"You don't want me?!" Penny was shocked and saddened.

"I do! More than you can imagine. But every time you undress, that's when I get called back to reality!"

"If you are the one, then one of these times you won't be called back," Penny reassured him, and ignoring his continued warnings she lifted her skirt up around her hips.

"Oh God, not again..." Jesse whimpered. But as usual he was too taken with her beauty to go on complaining once she had the dress off.

"Fifty five years is a long time to be alone, my friend," Penny said, now pushing down her stockings one by one. "I want so to make love to you, it scarcely matters to me if it's but once for now."

"But it won't even be the once!" Jesse warned. "You always disappear as soon as you're about to take off the last of your clothes!"

"Perhaps it's only in your mind," Penny teased, now removing her bra once again. "Have you considered that the fantasy might go on in my case?"

Jesse had to admit he hadn't thought of that. He made no further complaint as Penny hooked her fingers into her panties and pushed down, though he was not at all surprised that he got only the tiniest glimpse at the first wisps of her golden-brown pubic hair before yet another flashing light brought him crashing back into Jesse's dim room.

"Suppertime, dear, if you're feeling up to it," came Mike's mother's voice.

If I'm feeling up to it? Had Mike told her? Somehow Jesse knew he'd better not ask. He sat up and focused, and recalled what he could of the precious dream. She who was responsible still survives... What did that mean? As the warm smells of dinner and the sound of everyone clambering to the dining room table made their way upstairs, Jesse began, for the first time, to think perhaps Mike was right, and he should try to forget about Penny.

Right. Focus on real life and not your silly dreams. Starting with dinner and then admiring the girls in their Halloween costumes, he told himself as he descended the stairs to the dining room. You can do it, he told himself halfheartedly.

But even halfheartedly was optimistic by the time Mike's family was gathered around the table. Mike and Joe were abuzz with plans for the party, their kid sister Lexie was bubbling over with energy from the candy she'd collected that afternoon (remnants of face paint from her costume were still visible, and she was wonderfully indifferent to it), and their parents were looking all too content with the chaos. "There's Jesse!" their mother announced cheerfully as he arrived. "Mike told us you had a busy afternoon watching out for the trick or treaters downtown. Good for you! Glad you got some sleep too."

So she didn't know. What a relief!

"Um. Yeah!" Jesse said. "I just remember all the warnings about safety when I was a kid, and I figured anything we can do to help, you know."

"Mike, you ought to invite more friends like him home," their father added from his end of the table. Mike and Joe exchanged knowing glances, but spared Jesse any dirty looks.

They were a close family, Jesse had been aware of as much ever since the day he and Mike had arrived, and through the meal Jesse felt his own warm and fuzzy memories of the afternoon bubbling to the surface again. Every adorably precocious comment from Lexie, every pleasant rejoinder from Mom to any of the brood including Jesse, the sense of home and safe and warm -- even with a paper skeleton and a half-dozen spiders hanging from the chandelier at the ready for the party -- wore down his resistance to keep the memory of Penny at arm's length. He wanted that bond and that safety they'd shared, that he'd never felt anytime or anywhere before. That feeling of living in a safe place with those closest to you, even in a town like this -- Jesse wanted all that afresh. He had to get back to Penny. And he would.

Lexie and her parents were off to a kids' party somewhere after dinner, so it was left to Jesse and the brothers to wash the dishes before the party started. Jesse knew, of course, that he was better off not broaching the matter of Penny or the Bucks mansion with Mike again. But he did feel it necessary to thank him for the cover story. "Helping with the trick-or-treaters, Mike, that was brilliant," he said as they carried the dishes out to the kitchen.

"You've been through a lot today," Mike said. "You didn't need my parents getting all upset on top of that." Mike then answered Jesse's next question before he had a chance to ask it. "And yes, they would have been really upset. Remember what I said about my cousin. That's my mom's big brother's kid, and she still feels guilty she couldn't put a stop to it all somehow. If she knew her own kids couldn't even keep their friends safe? You don't want to go there, dude."

Jesse mumbled another round of thanks and dropped the subject. Or at least let Mike think he had.

Joe's friends started showing up not long after they'd loaded the dishwasher. By then Jesse was already planning on an escape route back to the Bucks place. But there was plenty of time and he did have a job to do first, so Jesse cooled his heels in his post by the stairs. His job was to keep the guests on the first floor -- "My mom would freak if she even suspected anybody was sneaking up to my room to mess around," Joe explained -- and the vantage point was perfect for Jesse to admire the girls in their many and varied costumes. Initially Jesse felt a bit perverted for admiring them, for three years in college made them look awfully young by comparison; but once the sugar and caffeine started flowing, their youthful shrieking and carrying on meant Jesse wasn't the least bit attracted to any of them anyway. Joe was, Jesse could see that, but he and his buddies kept them appropriately busy on the makeshift living room dancefloor. So Jesse was free to daydream of Penny and his triumphant return.

And daydream he did, through an hour and a half of bad music and sugary snacks, from his safe perch on the stairs. Mike was tasked with keeping the music playing and the snacks replenished, so he was in and out of the living room throughout the night. Joe pitched in now and then, usually, Jesse noticed, as an excuse to jump from one clutch of girls to another. It didn't take long for Jesse to settle on his plan: just wait for Mike and Joe to both be out in the kitchen at the same time. No one else in the room even knew who he was, much less why he shouldn't be allowed to leave the house. But for the occasional lame flirting from some girl or other, Jesse was free to watch and wait.

It was just past ten o'clock when the big chance came. One of the guys spilled his drink on the living room floor, luckily just missing the rug. Mike jumped out from behind the snack table with a paper towel, but he was clearly going to need more. Joe saw the same and, not wanting to incur the wrath of his parents if the cola should reach the rug, went running for the kitchen as well. Jesse had little time to think, but he needed even less. As soon as both brothers were out of sight, he jumped up and made a beeline for the door, neatly stepping around the spilled drink. None of the kids even seemed to notice him.

Jesse was free. He took off running down the block, trying to retrace the steps he and Mike had taken to Hall Street earlier that day. Though he couldn't recall it with any real certainty, he felt a certain pull across a few blocks, right at one corner, left at the next, and to his great surprise, he soon found himself standing beneath the coveted green HALL ST sign. Then it was just a jog down to the seedy end; he had little trouble determining which way that was. All through the trek, he had no sense of how he knew where to go. Maybe, just maybe, Penny was calling out to him! Jesse hoped so. Though the streets were seething with drunken early-evening revelers and loud music and the occasional menacing-looking Halloween display, Jesse knew no fear. Penny would be worth whatever happened next.

Jesse would soon find himself having second thoughts about that. But as he arrived on Penny's block, the bond was unstoppable. Partiers were out and about among the rowhouses across the street, but given the dark and the occasion and the house's reputation, everyone was steering clear of the side of the street where the mansion waited. Everyone except Jesse, in any case, and fearlessly he started up the steps.

Once again, this did not go unnoticed. He heard cries of terror and warning -- "Oh my god, look at that guy!" "Hey, what are you thinking?!" "Get the hell out of there!" -- but he ignored each and every one, and he knew no fear as he bounded up the walk to the front door where that serene setting from his childhood awaited him. With fearless anticipation, he flung the door open and leapt inside.

It was dark. Jesse tripped over something, perhaps an old cinderblock, and landed face down on a dusty hardwood floor. The living room was empty and lit only by the streetlight filtering through the dirty windowpanes, and the floor and stray bits of furniture were coated with an inch of dust. Picking himself up off the floor, he found himself at the foot of a rickety old stairwell. Through his disappointment and fright, it now occurred to him that Penny had never mentioned a second floor.

Penny. Where was she? What had happened to her living room?

Jesse straightened up and stepped into the living room. Still empty. "Penny?" he called out warily.

"She couldn't be here tonight."

Jesse whipped around. An old woman in a flannel nightgown stood glowering at him from the landing above. "Wh...who are you?" he whimpered.

"Who am I?!" the woman snapped. "This is my house, I shall ask the questions! But I know who you are. The latest sucker Penny has seduced. I hate so to disappoint you, dearie, but you shan't be seeing Penny again. No one of this earth shall."

Tears came to Jesse's eyes, equal part despair and terror. "What do you mean? Have you...?"

"I have told you, I shall ask the questions!" The old lady started down the steps. Jesse leapt for the front door and tried to let himself out, but the knob came off in his hands. While he was still flailing about for another escape option, the old woman swept down upon him with agility belying her apparent age, and soon had him pinned against the door with what felt like a knife lodged between his shoulder blades. "Now then, Jesse, let's get you upstairs."

Feeling like his heart was going to leap out of his throat, Jesse allowed himself to be guided up the steps from behind, as if in a daze. "You know my name..." he mused while praying he would wake up in Mike's bedroom any minute now.

"I know all your names," she told him as she nudged him up the stairs. "Every gullible young man Penny lures into her little limbo warp down there. For fifty-five years now, it's always the same. In death as in life, it's her gentle beauty they crave -- if only they knew what a conniving little wretch she was in life. But none ever did see her true colors. That's why I had to kill her, but even that didn't put a stop to it all."

"You bitch!" Jesse heard himself snap, though he knew it was a foolish thing to say with her knife at his back. His eyes welling with tears of rage, though, Jesse was not in control.

The old woman spun him around and pinned him against the wall, and grazed the knife across his chest. He felt his shirt fall open and a trickle of blood drip down across what was left of it. "Any more of that, and your fate will be even worse than it already is, I assure you!" she yelled. Not waiting for a response, she grabbed Jesse again by the collar and dragged him down the darkened hallway to the door at the very end. Her bedroom, Jesse gathered, as soon as she had him inside. She gave him a final shove and he sprawled out on the ancient brass bed.

Weakened from his injury and despairing from the news about Penny -- but was it really news, he mused now? Surely he'd gathered that Penny was dead, or at least somewhere between life and death -- Jesse was too disoriented to fight back when the old lady cut away the remainder of his shirt, and made equally fast work of his jeans and boxers. Before Jesse could even gain control of his thoughts, the old woman had him naked and tied to the bedposts, his arms and legs spread helplessly to each corner. He yanked at the ropes that held him, but that only strengthened the knots she had tied. "Go ahead, Jesse, wriggle all you want. But you shall never be free while I have anything to say about it." Setting down the knife on her dresser, she turned on a lamp and turned to admire his body, now rigid with fear. "I suggest you relax and accept the inevitable. It's too bad Penny didn't, really. Imagine you're with her on that ship again if that will make you feel better."

"You saw us," Jesse seethed. "I guess you saw everything."

"I saw everything," she confirmed. "I see everything. All these years, I've had to sit through it all with that bitch, all her sweetness and light and big adventures and lovely afternoons in the garden, and the visits from a lovely boy like you. Every bit of it!" What had started in a whisper grew to a shriek by the time she was done. "I gave my goody goody sister what she so richly deserved, and I've been cursed with watching her make an almost-happy life out of the hell where I tried to cast her!"

"You're Lydia Bucks," Jesse realized out loud. "The one they thought was dead."

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