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Get What You Need: A haunting short short story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #21
Ian Hays pulled the pickup up to the wrought iron gate of 857 Wicker Street and hit the brake. He saw a bit of the design on the gate, but his gaze was drawn past it to the house crouched in front of them.
"Shit, baby," Mal said from the passenger seat. "That's creepy as fuck."
Mal always had a way with words—and she wasn't wrong. The glaring August sun that had baked them all the way here almost seemed to dim as it reached the fancy gabbles or whatever they were called. It was one of those Victorian houses (the word always made him think of Victoria's Secrets and Mal modeling lingerie for him, but this was something else). The building was all angles and protruding bits. Two towers—that he could see from the front, one shorter and fatter than the other, with roofs that swept up from four sides to turn a circular shape into a square one. The tops lined with short iron spikes, like miniature versions of the spikes decorating the solid stone wall surrounding the property. Wood shingles that hadn't seen paint in too many years; colors fading beyond pastels to gray-hued versions of yellow, green, and red. The color that remained brought to mind being sick in the toilet.
The house—Nana's house—brought a similar nauseated feeling. The longer Ian studied the house, the more he noticed that was wrong with it. Moss grew in thick cancerous clumps along the north-facing slopes of the various roofs. Branches, dried leaves, and other debris clogged all of the roofs thanks to the ancient and twisted limbs of the surrounding oaks. One of the weathered gray posts holding up part of the porch had cracked, splitting and shifting downward several inches, twisting the porch roof. Several lower windows—those within easy throwing distance of the cracked sidewalk—were covered with battered and split wood shutters. One hung drunkenly against its neighbor. Splats across the shutters and walls suggested stains from hurled eggs or other substances.
Out in front of the decaying house, the yard was a tangled overgrowth of weeds, grass, and brambles. Many of the brambles weighed down by swollen blackberries in clusters protected by the sharp thorny vines. A drive, not much more than a path, led up from the closed gate to a roundabout in front of the house. Bits of statuary or a fountain peeked out of the hazelnuts and other tangled vegetation growing up around it. From the look of things, someone had gone in with a brush trimmer to clear the drive enough to get into the house. Ian could make out a few hints of another part of the drive going off around the house but the oaks and other growth had consumed any clear view of where it went.
"She lived here alone," Mal said. "Right?"
Ian realized he was leaning on the steering wheel, studying the house. "That's what the lawyer said. I didn't even know she was alive. I would have helped her, if I'd known. Maybe seen to getting the place taken care of—it's going to be a lot of work now."
"But not your problem." Mal placed a sympathetic hand on his arm. "I'm kinda glad, you know? It's got to be haunted."
He wanted to laugh, but nothing came of it. How could he laugh? A grandmother he hadn't met, didn't know was alive, right here in the same city. Why hadn't she taken him out of foster care? The things he'd had to get through, all of it, and he could have been living here in this big house with his Nana. Obviously she hadn't wanted him. It shouldn't hurt that a woman he hadn't met didn't want him, but it twisted the knife. His mother must have known about Nana—wouldn't she? But she didn't want him either.
"I don't know why I'm even here," he said, glancing over at Mel. "She didn't know me. What's the point of scrounging about in that place for some bits of whatever she had left?"
Mel's hand stroked his arm. "It's terrible, how you were treated. But this might be the only chance you have to learn something about your family. You don't have to take anything away—unless I see a sweet antique and then we're loading it in the back of the truck."
He laughed. His eyes stung and he blinked them clear. Mel was his true family. The one that stuck with him, no matter what. If she hadn't been here, he would have left well enough alone and told the lawyer to forget it.
He said, "Okay, let's get this over with. And hey, maybe Nana had a wine cellar?"
"Ooh," Mel said, flashing him a wicked grin. "I like how you think. We could raise a glass to the old girl."
"I don't know about that," he said, opening the pickup's door.
Her grip tightened on his arm. "No. She deserves a toast. If she hadn't been such a bitch as to leave you in foster care, we wouldn't have met."
He put a hand over hers and squeezed gently. "You're too smart."
"Just smarter than you."
He pulled her close and kissed her. Their lips played together in soft caresses. When the kiss broke apart, he said, "True. Very true. Come on."
Ian slid out of his side of the truck while Mel climbed down from the other side. They met around the front of the truck where the wrought iron gate blocked their path up to the house. Really seeing it, it was obvious that the pattern on the front of the gate was something like a coat of arms made with thinner metal, pieces broken and twisted away. Enough remained to show something like a shield. There was more to it—maybe roses?—but much of the material between the stout iron bars was battered away. A few bits of colored glass glinted in between the metal pieces.
He touched one, a fragment of green glass, and it pricked him. "Ow!" He jerked his hand back, turning it to look at his index finger where blood well from the tip.
"You okay?" Mel said, as he watched a fat red drop well and drip from his fingers to splash on the drive.
"Mr. Hays," said a deep voice.
Mel gasped and Ian looked up, then up more, seeing the tall, cadaverous man standing on the other side of the gate. The man looked more apparition than alive, age impossible to guess but it might rival the oak trees leaning over the house. He wore a dusty black suit, almost as if he had been sitting unmoving in the house beyond waiting to wake with their arrival.
He wasn't going to go crazy now. The pieces fell together. The lawyer. He said that he would meet them at the house. And the voice was right, except Ian had pictured a black man when they spoke, not this skeletal ghost. "Mr. Van Gundy?"
"The same," the lawyer said, inclining his head. "Just let me open this for you."
Mr. Van Gundy produced a large key from a pocket and fit it into the gate lock. A clank, and then he removed the key, pocketed it, and grabbed both sides of the gate. His arms flexed and the gates swung soundlessly open.
Someone oiled those hinges. Probably had to so they could get in and cut the wild growth over the drive.
"This house is something," Mel said.
Mr. Van Gundy nodded and folded his hands in front of him. He hadn't moved from the center of the drive. "You recall the terms, Mr. Hays?"
Right. It had sounded crazy. Something must have shown on his face because Mr. Van Gundy nodded, though he didn't smile. "Your grandmother's will left everything to charity. The house and grounds. Most of the valued assets she hadn't liquidated already. Given the condition of the place, it isn't worth much but she left it all to a charity meant to help foster children."
"You've got to be shitting me," Mel said, even as Ian felt something of the old familiar vise close down on his heart. "The old bitch just had to twist the knife, huh?"
Mr. Van Gundy cocked his head a bit, looking at Mel. "Colorful, but I believe she only meant to help children the way she hadn't been able to help Mr. Hays."
"Sure," Mel said. She turned to Ian. "Let's just go, hon. You don't need this."
He wasn't sure he agreed. She was the smarter one, but maybe this time, her desire to protect him was getting in the way. He slid an arm around her waist and pulled her close, making his face into at least an approximation of a smile.
"No, it's fine. Sorry, Mr. Van Gundy. I know you've got a job. And you told me that I have an hour as Nana's only surviving relative to select any personal memorabilia I might want. Correct?"
"Correct, Mr. Hays."
Ian gestured. "Then let's get on with it. Time's wasting."
If Ian had a week, a month, it wouldn't have been enough time to discover everything in the house. A sense of despair swept over him as soon as they stepped inside and he saw—
—paintings hanging on the rich red walls of the entryway—
—statues carved of marble gleaming in lit nooks and alcoves—
—cold glass eyes of African wildlife, lions snarling in frozen rage—
—the steady ticking of an ornately carved grandfather clock—
—intricate weavings in the rugs and tapestries on the walls—
"Holy shit," Mel said.
Right. Ian stepped past Mr. Van Gundy where he stood to one side of the entrance. Ian turned, taking it all in and the crystalline chandelier gleaming above. All of it spotless and sparkling. From the outside the place looked like a wreck, but in here, time hadn't touched it at all. It was a level of luxury that Ian hadn't ever imagined seeing in person. Much less than he'd been led to expect by Mr. Van Gundy's description of the estate.
"Stripped it down to the floorboards," Mel said. "Surprised they didn't pull out the nails. And when was it last cleaned, Mr. Van Gundy?"
Ian turned and looked at her wrinkling her nose, hand over her mouth with her fingers pressed up against her nose. It was a look of disgust quickly becoming anger again as she looked at Mr. Van Gundy.
"Is it a joke? There's nothing here for him." She gestured at Ian.
Mr. Van Gundy said evenly, "The lady was hospitalized for more than a year before she passed. She had movers remove anything of value, as I've said."
"Yeah, right," she said sourly, turning to Ian. "Let's go, Ian."
They weren't making any sense. The place was beautiful and rich. Not his taste, no, but he'd grown up throwing his things in garbage bags. But none of this was his. Never had been, never would be. What he was seeing, it was a glimpse of another life—but who would be have become then, growing up with all of this? He didn't know except Mel had been right. They wouldn't have met. He wouldn't be who he was now.
He reached out and took her hand. He nodded and looked at Mr. Van Gundy. "She's right. There's nothing here for me. Thank you, but we'll be going."
It almost looked like Mr. Van Gundy smiled. "A wise man knows what he needs."
Mel kissed his cheek. "Yep. Couldn't agree more."
As Ian backed the pickup out of the drive he looked back once. The seal on the gate was intact, a beautiful stained glass coat of arms with roses and a sickle over golden hay. He smiled and turned his eyes to the road.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
This is a new challenge. I’m writing short short stories, under 2,000 words, many under 1,000 words. I’m sharing them to my Instagram stories several times a week. They’ll drop off that, but premium READINARY subscribers can read the full archive of stories here. When I have 100 stories, I’ll publish a collection of them all.
Best wishes, always — Ryan
GET WHAT YOU NEED
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