Fantasy Romance lesbian magic Lovecraft Witchcraft thanksgiving

Eldritch Brown Houses

By Claire Humphrey
Nov 3, 2019 · 3,133 words · 12 minutes

Mansion entrance

Photo by Matt Jones via Unsplash.

From the author: Paige works as a docent in a historical house in Salem. She's about to close up the house for the season and return to her lonely dorm for a Thanksgiving estranged from her family, when Maya Wu arrives: bristly, familiar, and convinced that there's magic somewhere here if only she can find it.


This is Salem at its oldest and spookiest: cold fog off the ocean, daylight dimming early, gables and gambrels looming at odd angles.  I'm gazing out from the upstairs window of the Corwin place, from beside a case of age-yellowed cloth dolls.  The streets are empty except for the tail-lights of a single car, receding.

The season ends today.  I've already cartoned up the books and brochures and souvenir prints and stacked them under the admission desk, and returned the consignment soaps and candles to their suppliers.  Mrs Gilman will come tomorrow to remove the textiles to cold storage for the winter.

I haven't seen another human being all day, except at a distance.  I made coffee and toast in the kitchenette of my dorm, which the other students had already left for Thanksgiving.  I didn't have anyone else on duty with me since visitor count was expected to be low--and it has been, not a single tourist so far.

I ate my bagged lunch at the admission desk, spilling bagel crumbs on one of the papers I was reading for class.  I'm going to have the same thing for lunch tomorrow, unless my family suddenly decides to mend fences.

The house sways and creaks around me, wind-buffeted.  Water trickles down the distorted glass.  I check my phone: half an hour until closing.

Someone's struggling up the walk: a small person encumbered with a couple of gigantic bags.  God, I hope we haven't forgotten to cancel a brochure delivery or something.

I scramble down the narrow stairs to hold the door open.  It's a small door built for seventeenth century people, but this girl doesn't have to duck at all.  Tiny, Asian, wearing orange Chucks dark with wet.

"I can take pictures in here, right?" she says, heaving one of her bags off her shoulder, and then the other.

"Sure, hon.  School project?"

She cuts her eyes at me.  "How old do you think I am?"

Voice crisp and grown-up, and oh.  Shit.  "I've seen you around," I say.  "You're in my year, right?  Sorry about that.  I didn't recognize you at first."

"Was," she says.  "Was in your year.  Dropped out."  She's looking down now, unzipping her duffels, pulling out a battered tripod and a heavy-looking camera.

"You were in my lit class," I remember.  "You gave that seminar on Lovecraft."

"That was my last day," she snaps.

Awkward, Paige, awkward.  I grope for a different subject.  "Will you have enough light to work?"

"Don't need it."

"You sure?  It's pretty dark in here.  We keep it low so we don't damage the textiles and documents."

"Light meter," she says, waving a smallish box with a window on one side.  She doesn't look at me, tight lines around her eyes as she pops open a canister of film, hinges the back off the camera and tucks the film inside.  She snaps the camera shut and thumbs a lever on the top of it.

"What kind is that?" I ask.  "It looks like it's made of metal."

"Yep."

"I can't even see the screen.  It's like a stealth camera.  How do you see what you're shooting?"

"It's analog."

"So if it's not for school, then--"

And a couple of last-minute tourists come through the door, two middle-aged women and a boy.  The woman with the camera doesn't even look, just kicks her bags out of the way a little and keeps prepping.

I don't see her again until I'm nearly done showing the family around.  I've got them clustered around the doll case upstairs, when I hear her clunking around in the next room.  I'm partway through my tour spiel: "Several of these dolls were among the effects of the Corwin family when they sold this house to the state in 1940.  They probably aren't old enough to have belonged to the daughters of Judge Corwin himself, but--"

"Creepy!" the boy says.  "Why doesn't this one have eyes?"

"It would have, when it was new.  They would have been embroidered on by hand--"

"It looks evil," the boy says with delight.  "Like it's going to come to life and murder you!"

"It's not," says Camera Girl, from the doorway of the Corwins' master bedroom.  "There's nothing creepy about it.  Nothing special at all."

The boy looks disappointed.  One of the women ruffles his hair and says, "Why don't we take a look in here, Jayden?  There are some interesting herbs and things that I'm sure this guide can explain to us."

So I have to follow them into the apothecary room and talk about blood and bile and phlegm and the way people had thought to manage them with dried rats and toads, which the boy seems to find thrilling.

By the time the family's had enough, I figure Camera Girl must be long gone, but once I've let them out, I return to the master bedroom and find her still there, pointing her box at things and shaking her head.

"Worthless," she says.

"The Corwin House is an important historical--"

"Yeah, whatever.  Where's the magic?"

"All around you," I say in my best spooky voice.

"Hang on!" she says, clutching at the light meter.  It's pointed toward me, and I can see the little red needle swinging.  "Wait--ah, fuck."

"What?"

"You were right," she says, voice going flat again.  "It's too dark in here."

And without another word, she picks up her tripod and her camera and her light meter, and lugs it all back downstairs.

I follow.  It's time to close.  I staple the day's receipts--all two of them--while she packs her duffels.

"You didn't get the shots you needed, did you?" I finally attempt.  "If you want to try on a brighter day, I can arrange to let you in.  Some of the artefacts will be stored for the season but the furniture will stay here."

"What do you care?" she says, turning on me.  Her eyes look brilliant and dark and really pissed off.  "Why are you hassling me?  Don't you have a family gathering to get to?"

"No," I say.  I take a breath to explain, or something, but it just kind of gets stuck in my lungs.

"Oh.  Ah.  Sorry."

"It's fine--"

"Look at you.  It's not fine.  Come on, sorry, I'm being a jerk.  I should know better--"

And her arms wrap around my shoulders, gentle and firm, while I sob into my hands.

 

 

Her name is Maya Wu.  She tells me not to feel bad, she didn't remember mine, either.

All I do remember--other than the intensity on her face when she led that seminar--is the camera kit, which I saw her carrying around the green a few times.  I always wondered what she saw in the campus architecture.

She gives me the lighter duffel to carry and leads me toward the sidewalk.

I follow, watching the night come all the way down over Salem, damp chill moving off the water and hazing the streetlights.  The keys of the Corwin place jingle coldly from my free hand; I've left it locked and lonely, windows dark, and I won't see it again until spring.

Unless I let Maya in secretly for more photos.  What am I thinking, offering to risk my job for a woman I barely know?

I'm about to fall back, tell her I'm going back to my dorm instead, but she stops in the doorway of a pub, holds it open for me, and inside there's heat and the smell of dinner and a low hum of music, and she's inviting me to go inside.

And she's smiling.

 

 

Maya orders a salad and a Coke.  "Can't drink with my meds," she says, when she sees my questioning look.  "You go ahead."

So I ask for a pint of Sam Adams and a burger.

While we wait for our food, Maya tears little bits off her napkin.  I check my phone; nothing, as usual.  Maya draws on the table with her fingertip.  I clasp and unclasp my bracelet.

"That story," Maya finally blurts.  "Do you remember it?"

"The Witch House story?  Well, yeah, I should--you know what my workplace is called, right?  I remember the guy in it has a nervous breakdown, studying too much, and he starts seeing weird meaning in architecture, and then, like, something eats his heart?"

"Yeah, pretty much.  That's why I dropped out."

"Lovecraft wasn't your thing?  Mine either--"

"I started seeing meaning in architecture," Maya says, eyes dark and serious.

I don't actually remember the story that well, except that it used the word "indescribable" to describe way too many things.  So I'm not quite sure what Maya means.  I take a careful breath to ask.

"I'm bipolar," she says.  "Manic episode.  Had to take some time off to get my shit together."

"Oh.  So you weren't really..."

"You've spent plenty of time here--what do you think?" she says.  "It's a bit too much like Disneyland, right?"

"Except Disneyland wasn't built on murder," I say.  Probably a bit sharply, from the look on her face.

"I just meant..."

"That there's no magic here?"  For some reason that kind of makes me feel like crying again.

Fortunately our food comes right then, and I have an excuse to look down at my plate while I spread mustard on my burger.  When I look up again, though, Maya's watching me.  She hasn't lifted her fork.

"You don't think I'm crazy," she says.

I shrug.  "I mean, clinically, you are, right?"

She laughs at that, thank God, but she still waits for an answer.

I shake my head.  "I don't think you're crazy."

"Good," she says.  "Because you don't have plans this weekend, and I need some help with my research."

 

 

Maya's staying at the Ocean View Inn, which doesn't have an ocean view unless you stand somewhere on top of the roof, up by the rusty old lightning rod.  I hold the duffels while she pulls out the key, an old-school metal one on one of those plastic diamond keychains with the room number stencilled on it.

"Atmospheric," is all I can come up with, surveying the room: red and beige striped bedspreads, chartreuse floral carpeting, and a clutter of esoteric equipment.  Jugs of brown liquid on the counter by the sink, rectangular trays laid out on the dresser and desk.  TV disconnected and tucked in the corner, replaced by some kind of adjustable lamp contraption.  And are those blackout curtains over the windows?

"My brilliant plan," Maya says, with a self-consciously  dramatic flourish.  "I've been researching how to capture magic on film.  I've figured out a new coating for my camera lens that will magnify the refraction of magical energy through the aetheric layer--"

"Whoa, Lovecraft."

She clears her throat.  "Point is, I know I'm mentally ill, but some of what I saw was real.  And I think I can prove it."

"Awesome," I say, because it is.

"Only there's a problem with my meter.  I couldn't get much of anything in the house."  She pops the back off the little box, probes a fingertip at whatever's inside.

"Maybe the house just doesn't have it.  I mean, it wasn't really a witch house at all.  It was the home of one of the judges in the trials."

"Huh," Maya says.  "I knew I'd be happy I picked up a tour guide."

"Was that a pickup?"  I can feel myself blushing.  "You weren't just feeling sorry for me?"

"Bit of that too," she says.  "You still haven't told me why you're spending Thanksgiving alone."  She snaps the back on the meter and jiggles it.

"It's kind of a long story..." I start.

"Holy shit!" Maya interrupts, jumping up.  She points the box at me.  Points it away toward the wall.  Points it back.  "Maybe that's it..."

"What?  What's what?"

"Paige," she says.  "Paige.  Want to be in some pictures?"

 

 

Maya sits me on a chair in front of the blank wall where the TV would normally be.  She sets up a light on a tripod near me, and gets me to turn my face half toward it.  I can feel the heat of it on my cheek.

All I have to do is follow Maya's instructions, and if I don't get it right, she just gently moves me into place, hands warm through my cotton blouse.  Between that and the two pints I had at the pub, I'm as relaxed as I've been all week.

I smile at her, easy.

"Just like that," she says, from behind the camera, and I hear the sliding click of an old-fashioned shutter, and then the whir of the film advancing.

A lock of hair tickles my cheek.  I raise my hand to brush it back.

"Right there.  Hold," Maya says, and I do, pinned in place by her voice, her eyes.

 

 

Maya processes the rolls of film in a canister of chemistry, each one wound onto a spindle so that none of the surfaces will touch.  She does this in complete darkness, narrating it to me while I sit on her bed.  It's hypnotic, her voice and the crackle of the film and then the sharp smells of developer, stop bath, fixer.

We each drink a bottled coffee from her bar fridge while we wait for the negatives to dry.  Then she clips the negatives into a frame inserted in the enlarger, which casts an image onto the desktop a couple of feet below the lens.

The rectangular box by the sink glows dim red, throwing weird upward shadows on the contours of Maya's face.  The other lights are off, the blackout curtains pulled tight.  I watch over Maya's shoulder as she looks at each of the images in turn.  My features are weird in reverse: bright white eyebrows, bright white bangs, black teeth showing between my parted grey lips.

"How can you tell what it's going to look like?" I say.

"You get used to it after a while," she says.  "Here, this one."  She draws her finger through the beam from the enlarger, its shadow pointing to a crackle of darkness in the image.

"What's that, a flaw in the film?"

"Nope," she says.  "That's what we're looking for."

She gets out her photo paper from a thick black plastic envelope, sets it in place and exposes it for a carefully chosen length of time.  She does a few more at slightly different settings.  Then she slides all the papers into a tray of chemistry.

"Whoa--won't they be wrecked by the wet?" I ask, and then I see, in the dull red light, the images begin to form.

 

 

Maya and I sprawl on our stomachs side by side on one of the beds, facing the array of still-damp photos spread out over the bedspread.  They all show pretty much the same pose, me seated, half-turned, eyes looking right into the camera.  I snicker a little at the look on my face; Maya doesn't.

In more than half of the images, I see something I've never seen before.

"Why do I have a halo?" I ask.  "How did you do that?"

"I didn't," Maya says, rolling onto her side to look at me.  "That's all you."

It isn't exactly a halo, because it's all around me, stronger in some pictures than others, nearly obscuring my features in a couple of cases.  Kind of crackly pale light, like aurora borealis.

"Do I have a halo all the time?"

Maya shakes her head.  "I'm not about to go off my meds to find out."

I roll half onto my back to look at her face.  I want her to tell me what happens next.

She doesn't hold my gaze, turns away and goes to the window, pulling the curtain open, showing an inch of pale early light.

"Holy crap, have we been up all night?"

"Come on," Maya says.  "Let's walk."

 

 

The sun must be rising somewhere behind the fog, because I can see colours now: Maya's purple jacket fuzzed over with tiny beads of mist, curling red leaves drifting at the edges of the street, a blue and white flag on one of the few yachts still in the harbour.

Hands in jean pockets, I follow Maya downhill toward the water.  She walks quickly, head down.  I can't quite see her face.

Then she reaches the seawall and turns to me, flinging her hair back in the rising breeze.  "Paige!" she says.  "I really did it, right?"

"Nah, it was all me.  You said so."  I grin, and I watch the answering grin blossom on her face.

"Witch," she says.  "Come here, come here."  And she wraps her arms around my ribs, squeezing tight.

Behind Maya's head, the sun is starting to burn through the harbour fog.  Her eyes are puffy and red from being up all night in the reek of chemistry, and probably mine are too.

"Hey," I say.  "It's Thanksgiving."

"Which you're spending with me."

"Yeah."

"I'm going to buy you breakfast," Maya says, "and we're going to figure out where there's witchcraft in your family tree."

"I had no idea--"

"And then we're going to take a nap," Maya goes on.  "And then we're going out for pie."

"Yes," I say, and as I say it I can feel the weight of my body settling heavier in her arms.  It's delicious.

She looks up at me, squinting in the brightness.  Seems like she's looking for something in particular.  Whatever it is, she smiles, satisfied, and slips her cold hands into mine.

"I know a great little diner over by the Common, with a three-ninety-nine breakfast special," she says.

We walk away from the harbour, up past the House of Seven Gables, in the clearing mist.  We pass wax museums and houses of horrors and purple-draped Magick Shoppes and palm-reading stands, but all of them are closed for now, and the streets of old Salem are ours alone.

I haven't told Maya the long story of my family's estrangement.  I'm pretty sure I will, if she tells me to.  I'm starting to think I need a safeword with her; and somehow I can see she'll know what I mean by that, and she'll be careful with me.

I can smell cinnamon and burning leaves on the morning air.  The frost on the Common is melting into sparkling dew.  I tug Maya to a stop for a moment, gesturing.

She gazes.  Takes in a breath.  Then she's on her tiptoes in her orange Chucks, hands wrapped around the back of my head, pulling me into a kiss.

And I can feel it, the halo, bright with promise, crackling around me.

This story originally appeared in Daughters of Frankenstein.