The Bucks MansionbyYDB95©
"I'm glad to hear that," Jesse let slip, then burst into nervous laughter. "I'm sorry!" he said. "That was inappropriate!"
"No, Jesse, it was very funny!" Penny reassured him. "And if you do have the time and the patience, our time for that may well come. As I told you, I do get lonely in here on my own with so few visitors, and a nice young man like yourself is rarer still. I've waited a long, long time for a mate, though I'm confident it is written down somewhere that one day I will have one to share my home and my garden and, yes, my body." Seeing Jesse growing tense and clearly aroused at her words, Penny allowed a nervous laugh of her own. "Jesse, I believe my world is only open to those who are on the same wavelength as me. Mother and Father always told me I lived in my own little bubble, nothing like my sister who was always so concerned with everybody else's business -- most of all mine -- and since I ended up here I've had all the time in the world to create my own corner of heaven. If you're here, you must have seen the same glimpse into heaven that I did."
Jesse was now thinking afresh of the tales from the bar. Just what had he stumbled into? And was it dangerous? It didn't look that way from Penny's beautiful bedroom and the colorful growing garden just beyond. He was feeling as much drawn to the wonderful landscape as he was to Penny.
"Would you like to take a stroll outside?" Penny invited.
"I feel like I could spend all day out there," Jesse replied. Stepping to the door, he asked, "May I?"
"I've said you may, haven't I?" Penny asked. She hooked her arm through his, a strong but gentle hold, and they emerged into the warm sunshine. A stone path lined with flowers on either side led deep into a clutch of robust trees and bushes, and wordlessly Jesse admired the incongruous summer foliage as they walked. He craned his neck to see where the property ended and what might be visible of the chilly weather he'd left just outside Penny's front door; but there was no sign of a boundary. No fence, no driveway, and certainly no sign of the busted down houses of Hall Street.
"You can't see next door from here," Penny told him, having easily deduced what he was looking for. "It's our world, or at least mine and maybe yours as well one day."
"How is that possible?" Jesse asked. "How is any of this possible? October out there, June over here, ugly out there, beautiful in here -- what gives?" He asked it, then realized he didn't necessarily want to know...what if understanding it would burst the bubble and cause him to waken from his dream?
"In fifty-five years of decorating one's own purgatory, Jesse, nearly anything is possible."
"It may look like heaven to you," Penny said, "But you haven't had to spend fifty-five years alone in here."
"You can't be fifty-five!" Jesse exclaimed. They had come to a clearing beyond the trees, and a beautiful pond lay before them. Jesse stopped to admire it and try to guess what Penny was really saying.
"I'm not," Penny said, now with a twinge of sadness in her lively voice. "I'm twenty-one, but I've been twenty-one for fifty-five years."
"What?!" Jesse paused. "I take it this is part of what you're not going to tell me because I need to learn it myself."
"You'll be better off if you do," Penny agreed. "Then if you're still willing and able to come back here, we'll know you're right for my world and we'll be free."
"Free?" Jesse asked. "You can create anything you want out here, any kind of weather, and you don't feel free?"
"I've told you I'm stranded here alone, haven't I?" Penny reminded him. "And although I can create my own wonderland here in my back yard, there is a limit to just how far I can go in my imagination and the landscape it creates." She kicked off her sandals and stepped up to the edge of the pond, and dipped one foot in the water. It was warm and clear and the ripples made a lovely pattern. "I've always envisioned teaching my children to swim here," she said.
"It looks like just the sort of place I'd have loved to ride my bike to and then gone for a dip," Jesse said. "Maybe even the kind of place you'd try to talk a girl into skinnydipping."
"You wouldn't have to talk me into it," Penny said. "That sounds wonderful."
"But the time isn't right," Jesse guessed.
"When I've allowed myself to get that close to a visitor before, that's what I've always discovered," Penny confirmed.
Jesse looked up above the trees beyond the clearing. "What's over there?" he asked. "Or is that beyond your limits?"
"Depends on what I'm reading," Penny said.
"What you're reading?"
"I can go beyond the trees in my imagination," she said. "For a while. I just can't stay, not until I'm freed. When I am, then I'll be free to travel the world, with whomever I want to join me." She slipped her hand into Jesse's as she said it. "But for now, we can only visit."
Jesse knew by then not to ask for clarification. Besides, it all made some sense to him anyway. "I feel that way too sometimes when I read. I'll be working on some old French novel for class, and imagine I'm in Paris, but as soon as I close the book I'm back in my little dorm room. It's frustrating, isn't it?"
"Yes," Penny nodded, "But it's a gift that we've both got, if we're able to imagine ourselves into the places we want to go. And in life, that's only the beginning."
Penny held Jesse's hand tighter, and gazed serenely into his eyes. He saw intense longing in her eyes and was sure it was reflected in his own, and he ached to hold her. But somehow he knew she would only say the time wasn't right -- or worse, she would disappear. Jesse would not risk that. Not now.
"How would you like to join me for a journey now?" Penny asked.
"Anything to stay together," Jesse replied with a nervous grin.
"My thoughts exactly." Still holding his hand, Penny started back for the house.
"Now, what would you like to read?" she asked in an almost businesslike tone. "Would you rather have autumn out there, since that's what you're used to?"
"You can really just change it," Jesse said incredulously.
Penny turned and faced him, hands on her hips, and all at once the summer scene outdoors vanished in favor of a mosaic of flaming leaves on the trees. She slid the door shut against a brisk chill that only just reached Jesse, and her dress was now a warm-looking dark green one.
"Beautiful," Jesse admitted.
"Me or the garden?" Penny teased.
"Both," Jesse said. Looking around the room, he now saw that the decorations had changed as well, to a more autumn-oriented look. The bed and chairs were swathed in darker colors, and suddenly there was a brisk fire in the fireplace he hadn't even noticed before.
"Want a drink?" Penny asked. "I have warm apple cider waiting over by the fire."
Jesse looked, and sure enough, there were two steaming mugs on a small table next to the fireplace, which was now hosting a roaring fire that hadn't been present a moment before. Penny walked past him to the table and picked one up to hand to him. "Thank you," he said. "This...is beautiful, both the summer and all this. How do you do it?" He couldn't believe the absurdity of the question, but neither could he deny his curiosity.
"I've told you everything will be revealed, Jesse."
"And in the meantime you've got me more confused than ever," Jesse confessed, though he was now comfortable enough to sit down on the sofa beside the fireplace.
Penny sat down as well and snuggled up beside him. "For now, let's just enjoy the time we have together. As I've said, I fear it's not your time yet. But I hope one day it shall be." She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, and Jesse gave up his defenses, for her touch was warm and welcoming. From the floor beside the sofa, she picked up a Patrick O'Brian paperback. "Do you like adventure?" she asked. "I love to go to sea myself now and then, probably because girls weren't supposed to think like that when I was a kid."
"I love adventure," Jesse confessed. "Growing up in a dull suburb, it was a great way to make a slow day go by."
"Don't I know it!" Penny concurred. She opened the book and began to read, and soon Jesse found the bedroom and the view of the garden fading away in favor of with the HMS Surprise being tossed on some distant sea, with Penny and himself aboard and experiencing all the joys and sorrows of the crew. The scene did snap back to the bucolic clutch of trees outside and the warm bedroom inside whenever Penny set the book down on her knee to talk of other matters, but Jesse had no complaint. By then it all felt like one wonderful fantasy to him, and he could only hope that wasn't all it was.
Hours passed, or so it seemed to Jesse, and when their interest in the novel faded they were left with nothing to do but talk. And talk they did, about nearly everything except just who Penny was and where her bizarre lifestyle and powers had originated. Jesse didn't dare ask; and recalling Mike's warnings, he wasn't sure he even wanted to know. As the time passed, Jesse noticed that Mike and all his other ties to the outside world seemed to be fading as quickly as a dream at morning. Penny was magnificent, perched humbly at his side on the sofa with her arm around his back. She wanted to know all about Jesse's life, good and bad, and she was sympathetic to both. However much time may have passed, the conversation never hit a lull.
They were still lost in deep conversation when the doorbell gong echoed from upstairs. Jesse was jerked back into reality. Penny remained calm, but Jesse was sure he saw a bit of concern in her eyes as they made contact with his.
"Mike," Jesse said under his breath. "He said something about going to get help.
"You don't have to go just because of that," Penny said. "You can stay as long as you want, as long as your imagination is open to it. Honest, Jesse, if you put your mind to it you can keep those thoughts at bay! Believe me, I know."
"Oh, I want to," Jesse said. "But..."
Penny could see his resolve was wavering. Suppressing her concern beneath a smile, she stood up before him. She knew there was at least one surefire way to keep his attention focused on her rather than the invasion upstairs. "How'd you like to go for a swim?"
"In this cold weather?"
"Very funny, silly," she said, and the scene outside instantly snapped back to summer. In the silence of the moment while he regarded the garden door, he heard footsteps approaching their lair. In a panic, he turned to see Penny in the midst of doing the one thing that was guaranteed to make his attention to her overcome the encroaching reality: taking her dress off.
A gentleman even in the midst of his panic, Jesse turned his head aside. "Oh, Penny, I'm sorry. I can leave the room while you change."
"Oh, I don't mind," Penny said with a faux-innocence as she pulled the dress over her head. "Life's too short to hide in one's clothes all the time. I learned that a long, long time ago." She stood before Jesse in her underwear and smiled at him, even as she could see he was struggling to avoid looking at her. The footsteps outside the door were getting louder and they could both hear the noise, but Penny wasn't giving up.
She took his hand and he stood up, and finally gave into the temptation to admire her body. As he did, the noise from outside receded for the moment. "They're fading away," he said.
"Of course they are," Penny said. "As long as you're happy here, what's going on outside doesn't matter."
"And I am happy here," Jesse admitted, longing to help Penny off with the last of her clothes although she looked wonderfully elegant in the matching pale green bra and panties.
Penny laughed and put her arms around him. "Of course you are, Jesse, and so am I." Drawing back, she saw his eyes once again revert downward. She drew both his hands up in hers and placed them on her breasts. "Don't be shy!" she ordered. "I've longed for this touch for ages, and I hardly would have undressed in front of you if I hadn't wanted you to join me for a bit of fun." Jesse's inexperienced hands fumbled a bit with her satin-clad flesh, but he soon found just the right caress and amount of pressure for them both to enjoy. "You are a fast learner, Jesse," she said. "That feels wonderful." For both of them, the noises from upstairs had receded back to nothing now. Feeling emboldened, she reached down and untucked his shirt from his pants. "Now let's get you off with your clothes too and then we can enjoy a swim."
"Certainly!" Jesse said eagerly, and he began to pull his sweater off.
But as he drew it over his head and Penny was temporarily out of his sight, his concentration slipped and he was excruciatingly aware of the door bursting open. "There he is, guys, c'mon!" came an unfamiliar male voice.
"What the hell..." Jesse began, looking around toward the source of the voice as he pulled his sweater the rest of the way off. As he did, he saw three policemen walking gingerly but quickly towards him across the floor, which he suddenly realized was no longer carpeted but strewn with dusty refuse. Instinctively he threw his sweater over Penny to provide her with some modesty against the new audience, only to whip around and realize she was gone along with all the other wonderful elements of her room. He was in a ruined, unfinished basement and the tiny window across the room afforded only a view of a bleak, overgrown backyard. The warm dryness offered by the fire was now a perverse memory, and in his t-shirt Jesse found himself shivering in a cold sweat. As for his sweater, it was now draped over a dresser dummy.
"I don't think that thing minds if we see it naked," teased the lead cop as he grabbed Jesse by the arm. "Come on, you're trespassing and I want to get the fuck out of here!"
Jesse had no clue how much time might have passed, but as he was escorted outside to the waiting police car, he found it was still broad daylight and there were still kids out and about in their costumes. Had time stood still for all those hours? He had little time to wonder, for he soon found himself stuffed in the backseat of the cruiser and racing to the police station.
He was brought straight to a spare, miserable waiting room where Mike was waiting for him. "You moron," Mike said in lieu of a hello. "I told you not to go in there."
Jesse was silent, still processing the awful awareness of all the beauty he had enjoyed and then lost just as quickly.
"What have you got to say for yourself, man?" Mike snapped. "I bring you home and have my parents put you up, introduce you to my friends, put up with your warbling about how wonderful a shitty neighborhood is, and you repay me by scaring the hell out of me and getting arrested?!"
"She held me."
"What?" Mike demanded.
"Not for long, but she did. Just before the cops busted in, she held me in her arms. Mostly naked, too, and I'm sure she was going to take the rest off. So was I. we were going to go skinnydipping in her private pond."
"Oh fuck, not you too?" Mike was more frightened than angry now, though he sounded more the latter.
"I wouldn't bother trying to make sense of it, Mike," said a young cop who had appeared in the door. Still feeling woozy from the adventure, Jesse only looked dully up at him. "Same thing happened with your cousin when he went in that house. You're probably too young to remember that, but..."
"Don't be a moron, of course I remember it!" Mike said. "That's why I flew over here for help! Jesse, this is Officer Preston -- Jimmy Preston, he was a few years ahead of me in school -- and he knows what happens when you go messing around in the old Bucks mansion."
"The place is haunted," Jimmy told Jesse. "I guess you see that now, but you probably don't know how lucky you are that we got you out as quickly as we did."
"Lucky?!" Jesse snapped, standing up and shoving the chair away. "I was in heaven, and you snatched it all away from me!"
"No, we got you out before you could get totally brainwashed by whatever's in there!" Jimmy insisted. "Didn't you hear Mike? I'm surprised he didn't tell you, actually. His cousin, about ten years ago, he wandered in there on Halloween just like you, he just had to visit the spookiest place in town, and his friends were too scared to report him. He was in there for a day or more, and when he came out he was just like you, only worse. Constantly moaning about how he had to go back there and life could never be the same now that he'd had so much joy in that hellhole! And you know what? He tried to go back in, the fool. Again and again. His folks finally had to move him out of town and as far as I know, he's never been the same. Never. You want that for yourself?"
"No," Jesse whispered. "I just want to be with Penny again."
Jimmy grabbed Jesse by the shirt and looked him in the eye. "Don't you ever say that name in public in this town! That's taboo! You got that? Nobody ever talks about her. Especially not when Mike's around, since we know what that thing did to his cousin! Do I make myself clear?"
Jesse started to cry, but managed an answer. "Yes, officer."
"People never even name their daughters that here, that's how dangerous that name is! Understood?"
"I said I did!" Jesse howled, now crying uncontrollably.
Jimmy threw him back down in his seat. "Now, the only reason why we're not pressing charges, is no one wants to have to go back there to take a statement from Lydia Bucks. No one ever goes near that old hag if we can help it, and she won't come out and complain now that we got you out of her house. But if you try to go back there, the gloves come off. You got that?"
"Yeah," Jesse whimpered, clinging desperately to images of Penny and barely stopping to wonder who Lydia was.
"Mike, get him out of here, please," Jimmy said. "Happy Halloween." And he banged out the door.
There was a taxi waiting by the time Mike coaxed Jesse out into the lobby, still looking haunted and not appearing to care that he'd nearly been arrested. The first few minutes of the ride were passed in stony silence, as Jesse slowly adjusted to the chilly reality of the October afternoon. Finally, he spoke up. "Mike, what is it --"
"Man, shut up!" Mike snapped. "You think I'm in the mood to talk?"
"I have to know!" Jesse shot back. "What is it about she who must not be named anyway? And who is this Lydia Bucks?"
"Okay, fine," Mike relented. "Lydia Bucks was -- is, I guess -- the last member of the Bucks family to live in that house. She was an old hermit, never came out in daylight, and really I thought she was dead by now. The other woman, I don't know, related to Lydia somehow, and something horrible happened to her a long, long time ago. My mother was just a little kid when it happened, whatever it was, and she still won't talk about it. That's why no one ever goes near that house. It's fucked up. I tried to warn you!"
"Something horrible may have happened to her, but she's fine now," Jesse said sadly.
"Stop thinking about it, you'll probably be fine in a few days," Mike advised. "That's what the cops always tell the latest stupid kid who stumbles into that place. I just never imagined it'd be you, Jesse."
"But you should've seen..."
"Stop it!" Mike snapped. "That's also what the cops told my cousin, and he wouldn't listen, and now he's messed up for life! Let's go get ready for the party, and then I never want to hear you mention this again! Just shut up about it!"
And for the time being, Jesse did. He knew when he was outgunned.
Jesse was still feeling woozy and disoriented when they got back to Mike's house, which was decked out for the party with paper spiders and bats and pumpkins everywhere. Mike's brother, Joe, was busy taping up a few more black and orange streamers when they came in. "Hey guys," he said with a quick look at Mike and Jesse...and then did a prompt double take. "Jesse!" he exclaimed. "You look like you've been hit by a train! Mike, you didn't let him get drunk or anything, did you?"