"Well," Elmira said. "I apologize for that outburst. She's always been rather shy with strangers, but - " Her bulging eyes reeled from one wall of the room to another, then down to her own fidgeting hands. Sarah realized that she hadn't made eye contact for the duration of this introduction. "I'm afraid Daniel is napping, so why don't I show you to your room?" she offered.
"Alright," Sarah replied, unsure of a more appropriate response. Up a wrought-iron staircase, down a dark and cramped hall, they passed door after door after shut-and-bolted door.
"This will be your room," Elmira threw open a door toward the end of the hall. "Candace Kinney, that's our housekeeper, should have it all ready for you." Without stepping inside, she mumbled some excuse and left hurriedly, presumably to have a word with Emily. Someone would send for her when dinner was ready.
Sarah unlatched her suitcase, which had been left by the maid on a simple twin bed, far nicer than the cot she was accustomed to. She couldn't wait to get unpacked and have a look around the house on her own. She had always been the curious type and she was never really afraid of getting caught, especially since she never got caught.
The lid of her luggage flipped back to reveal a crumpled leaf of paper, a single word scrawled in chid-like handwriting: LEAVE. Sarah thought for a moment and shrugged. It was written by Emily, no doubt. That child certainly was odd, but Sarah couldn't blame her. She tossed the note into a wastebasket and went about her business.
Dinner that night was short lived. Apparently, Daniel wasn't feeling well and Emily was on punishment, although Sarah really didn't understand why, so they all went to sleep early that night. Sarah usually kept to herself, so the dusk curfew didn't really bother her, but she couldn't help but think what an uninviting household this was.
The next morning, before the crack of dawn, Sarah was asked to go into town for a few groceries. In a hushed voice, Mrs. Dalton explained that the housekeeper was beginning to feel her age, although she'd never dare admit it. Sarah accepted the task with a smile, although to her Miss Kinney was beginning to seem more useless with each interaction.
Brick shops lined either side of Main Street, vying for the attention of passerby and tempting them with their goods through windows that sparkled in the sun. Sarah focused on the goal at hand, removing a list of items from her pocket. Marty's Food Mart appeared to be a good place to start. Once inside, she almost instantly regretted this decision. Her entrance was met with stares and whispers all around. Only one shopper was bold enough to speak, however - a housewife in a regal purple blazer.
"You must be the new help at the Dalton place," she greeted.
Sarah couldn't tell if these words were meant to be welcoming or intimidating. "Yes, that's right."
"Where are you from, dear?"
"Well, my family lives in Thomaston, but I was born -"
"Oh, just as I suspected - she's a Clarence County girl," the woman commented to a bystander on the next aisle.
"Why yes, I am from Clarence County," Sarah responded, "and I obviously have better manners than you." A pretentious attitude was one thing Sarah could not stand.
The woman seemed unfazed. "With that attitude, you won't last long around Lady Dalton," she said, moving a finger in a line across her own neck in cut-throat motion.
The rest of the shoppers fell silent. The cashier, a middle-aged man who stood behind a counter nearby, spoke up. "Come on, Sandra, that's enough."
"I'm just giving some friendly advice," Sandra continued. "Ask that Sanford girl. Oh, that's right -"
"Such a pretty girl, too," Sandra smiled as she reached out a hand to Sarah's cheek. "It really is a shame."
Sarah swatted the woman's hand away from her face. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, nothing. It's just that when Mr. Dalton was around, working class girls had a certain reputation around that house. And they didn't last long..."
As much as this stranger had piqued her interest, Sarah wouldn't be made to look like a fool in front of a store full of people. "I'm sure this working class girl can more than handle herself. It's nice to know that a woman of a certain age is looking out for me."
If looks could kill, Sarah Breneman would have dropped dead then and there on the floor of Marty's Food Mart. Instead, Sandra turned on her heel and sauntered out of the store, the welcome bell jangling behind her.
Sarah turned to the man behind the counter. Their eyes met, neither of them speaking for several seconds until the man broke the silence.
"Look, you didn't hear it from me, but something's up over at that place. Sandy's got her panties in a bunch, but she does have a point. Old Lady Dalton's got a major screw loose."
"You can say that again, on both counts."
The man chuckled. Sarah couldn't see his lips for the scraggly mustache that covered them. "Anyway, just be careful and you'll be fine."
What exactly did those words mean? "...be careful and you'll be fine?" Sarah was determined to find out. She decided that now would be an opportune time to investigate. She wouldn't be summoned to dinner for another twenty minutes, and the room at the end of the hall seemed like the perfect place to start. The sewing room was kept in immaculate order. A series of shelves lined the walls to Sarah's left and right. Nude and formless doll parts stood along these shelves, empty sockets staring back. Articles of clothing, in varying stages of construction, hung from a corner rack. So this is how Mrs. Dalton, the ultimate lady of leisure, spent her ample free time.
Sarah's attention was drawn to a rust-colored trunk opposite the hanger rack. Glancing over her shoulder, she proceeded to the far end of the room. Treating the trunk with care, she unfastened the hinges on either side and lifted the lid. The acrid-sweet scent of cherry tobacco made her catch her breath. Inside she found a pipe, the initials JRD inlaid in gold. Underneath the pipe lay a collection of folders full of yellowed pages.
Reaching in to grab the top folder, Sarah recoiled in pain. She examined an inch-long cut on her index finger, trying her best to catch any blood from dribbling onto the stack of paper below.
The cut came from jagged glass that filled the space between folders. Carefully, Sarah reached in and pulled out the source, a busted picture frame. Part of the photograph inside was missing, empty space where a man's head belonged, leaving behind only a portion of his necktie and thick shoulders. Broken glass rattled as she traded the frame for the top folder.
Flipping through its contents, she found a typical collection of documents: family birth certificates, a deed to the home (which had been purchased for an obscenely high price), a secondary school transcript...and a death certificate, followed by a stack of newspaper clippings.
"What are you doing?" Sarah let the paper drop and slammed the lid of the trunk, turning on the balls of her feet simultaneously. A wave of half-relief swept over her as she realized that the woman behind her was not the lady of the house, but instead Miss Kinney.
"Oh, I-I-" Sarah fumbled for an explanation. For once, she found herself at a loss for words.
"If the Missus caught you up here, she'd be terribly upset," the woman scolded. "Dinner's on the table."
Sarah nodded in understanding as the woman left. She lifted the lid of the trunk one last time, slipped out the top sheet of paper, and exited the room.
Dinner that night was, once again, spent with the Dalton family noticeably absent. To Sarah's surprise, Miss Kinney invited her to have dinner in the kitchen. The family had already retired to their separate rooms and Sarah began to wonder if she would ever interact with the children. After all, she was hired as a nanny. Sarah and her companion sat in silence for most of the meal, until they were almost finished.
Having worked up enough courage, Sarah decided to break the silence. Removing the certificate from a skirt pocket, she said, "I found this in the attic."
Miss Kinney checked over her shoulder. "You must be careful."
"Pardon?" Sarah asked, knowing full well what she had heard.
"Watch your back. Don't go snooping around here any more."
"Candace, I'd like some answers. Was Mr. Dalton's death really an accident like this slip of paper says, or - ?"
"Like I said, no more questions. It ain't my place to gossip and it ain't my place to judge. I'll leave that up to the Lord. But you watch your back."
With that, she stood abruptly and carried her plate to the sink.
Now more confused than ever by this odd place and its even odder inhabitants, Sarah took her leave as well. For the first time she came to the house, she would be interacting one-on-one with Emily. It was time for her bath.
Although Sarah initially agreed to come to Dalton House to care for Daniel, she hadn't seen him once. She had only heard him moving around his room, at times pacing the hardwood floors playfully or slamming a closet door. Until now, Sarah assumed he was an unusually fickle child, as Mrs. Dalton explained that he begged for his old nanny at bed time. Whatever the excuse, after nearly a week of employment Sarah was determined to find answers to her unattended questions, however unethical her methods of obtaining them would be.
"So what do you like to do for fun?" Sarah asked, sponging a matt of wet hair away from Emily's sad eyes.
Emily stared back. Sarah knew she would have to try a different approach.
"Have you ever had a pet, like a kitten or a puppy?"
Emily nodded. Yes.
"That's nice." Sarah had achieved a minor success, but she'd have to proceed with caution. "Do you like having an older brother?"
Emily thought for a moment, then shook her head. No.
"Oh my, I'm sorry to hear that. Do you get to play with your brother a lot?"
"Oh, I see. Do you like having a new nanny?" Sarah smiled.
"What happened to your old nanny, Miss Sanford?" She would have to rephrase. "Did she go away?"
"Why? Did she get a new job?"
"Did she move to another city?"
"Did she get sick?"
Sarah swallowed hard. "Did she...die?"
The little girl confirmed her worst suspicion. Yes.
This story originally appeared in Frightful Fables: Volume I.
Frightful Fables: Volume I is an anthology of original horror and suspense tales with plenty of twists and turns that lurk around every corner. From a young woman who fakes her own death with disastrous results, to an elderly pet lover whose demise is avenged by a cat’s restless spirit, this collection includes something delightfully dreadful for every aficionado of the macabre.
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