A House by the Water
by Ron Van Sweringen
The day Holly Withers turned fifty years old, she sold her small bakery and closed the door for the last time. The “Closed” sign swinging back and forth seemed to smile at her as she turned away.
“So long, old friend,” she whispered, “I’ll miss you, but it’s time for me to start living my dream.” Holly had longed for one thing her whole life: a house by the water. Her vision was simple, a cottage on a lake, surrounded by forest so that she could watch the leaves change in the fall, a quiet, lovely place to spend the rest of her life.
The bus ride to Barrington, Massachusetts took eight hours by Holly’s watch. Eight hours of anticipation and more than a few heart palpitations as the full impact of what she was doing hit home.
Three suitcases holding a lifetime, she thought as the bus pulled away, leaving her standing in front of a small filling station in Barrington. A second thought also occurred to her. What life? All you’ve done is work hard for thirty years. She smiled. True, but you bake the best hot cross buns in the state of Massachusetts.
“Hi there, you must be Miss Withers.” A voice suddenly brought her back to reality. “I’m Gladys Thurman, your realtor. Welcome to Barrington.”
Holly had a hard time processing the picture before her; a woman attired in a nun’s habit, complete with a large rosary swinging at her side.
“Hello!” Holly replied, waiting for her brain to give her a clue of what to say next.
“Don’t let this get-up fool you,” Gladys said, pulling her skirt up to expose a pair of bright red jogging shoes. “I’m rehearsing to play Sister Margaret at the Community Theatre just down the street. I couldn’t interest you in playing Sister Purity, could I? We’re one nun short.”
Oh God, Holly thought, What have I done?
Ten minutes later, over the best cup of coffee Holly could ever remember drinking, the panic was gone and a glow of relief had taken its place. The tiny Black Cat restaurant was utterly charming, except for the moose head over the restroom doors. Every time someone flushed the commode a red lightbulb lit up its nose.
“Tuck Barber, who owns the place, is a real practical joker,” Gladys said, noting Holly’s dismayed expression. “He used to have a fog horn go off every time, but we finally talked him into the light bulb instead.”
Holly couldn’t help bursting into laughter at the remark and just as suddenly thinking, You’ve done the right thing, old girl. Who knows, maybe you’d even be good as Sister Purity.
Barrington seemed too good to be true. For some reason, at that moment, Holly remembered her mother’s favorite saying when Holly was a child: “Beware of things that seem too good to be true; they generally are.”
“Suppose we take a look at the cottage. Are you up for it after your trip?” Gladys inquired.
“Absolutely!” Holly smiled. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.
Ten minutes later Gladys’ car pulled into a gravel driveway at the edge of the lake. “Just like the photo I sent you,” Gladys smiled, opening the car door.
Holly was quiet as she viewed the building and more than a little disappointed. “Somehow it doesn’t look the same in the photo,” Holly finally replied. “It’s larger and really not very attractive in person.”
“Let’s take a look inside. Maybe you’ll change your mind,” Gladys said, unlocking the front door.
The first thing that struck Holly was a musty odor. “It could use some fresh air and more sunlight. But what bothers me most is the distance from town. I don’t drive. I use a bicycle, and that presents a problem. I thought you said it was located in Barrington.”
“Well, technically it is, just four miles from the courthouse,” Gladys replied.
“I’m heartbroken,” Holly said, “but it won’t do. Is there anything else you can show me on the lake?”
Gladys’ face reflected her disappointment at Holly’s reaction. “I’m afraid not. Cottages on the water don’t come up for sale very often.”
“Are you sure?” Holly asked. “We passed a ‘For Sale’ sign on this road a while back, much closer to town.”
“I don’t think you’d be interested in that property, a woman alone and all,” Gladys replied quickly. “It’s pretty run-down and needs a lot of work.”
“Still, I’d like to see it,” Holly insisted. “If you’re not comfortable showing it to me, maybe another real estate company would be happy to.”
“I’ll show it to you,” Gladys replied with a sigh. “But remember: I warned you, I don’t think it’s right for you,”
Five minutes later at her first glimpse of the cottage, Holly felt faint. After years of imagining, suddenly it was standing there before her. Cedar shingles and antique brick made it look enchanted, like an illustration out of a child’s fairytale. True, it was a little unkempt on the outside with overgrown landscaping and a neglected garden; but nothing she couldn’t manage, she was sure of it.
“Well, what did I tell you?” Gladys asked, opening the car door. “Was I right or not? It needs work.”
“Let’s see the inside,” Holly replied, her anticipation growing.
“All right, if you insist,” Gladys replied, fumbling with the front door keys.
The inside needed elbow grease and a lot of love. The idea of hard work didn’t faze Holly. In fact, she welcomed it as a way of becoming friends with the little cottage. Oddly enough, it felt like a living thing to her.
“How much are they asking for it?” Holly smiled.
“Ninety thousand dollars,” Gladys answered. “A lot of money, in my opinion. And then there are the rumors about ghosts.”
“How soon can a contract be drawn up?” Holly asked. “It’s sold.”
* * *
A week later, Holly was ensconced in the small cottage and up to her elbows in scrubbing and polishing. When the shutters were thrown open, sunlight beamed through every room. Luckily, an assortment of well-used furniture had come with the cottage. It was best described as quaint and suited Holly except for a slipcover or two, which she could manage on her own. She counted her blessings, wondering what had taken her so long to start her new life.
He made himself known one day at lunchtime by simply walking in through the cottage’s open door. Holly admired his sheer bravado as he stood in the middle of the kitchen floor meowing at her.
His shining black coat and yellow eyes were showstoppers to say the least, not to mention his size. She decided that he was probably the most handsome cat she had ever seen.
“Are you lost?” she asked, “If so, you are welcome to stay for lunch.” A half can of tuna fish soon disappeared followed by the cat’s graceful bound onto the window ledge and then a lazy stretch before going to sleep.
“If that doesn’t beat all,” Holly murmured to herself. “You’d think he owned the place.”
As the day wore on, her new visitor gave no indication of leaving. By evening the two had settled down before a fire in the hearth while Holly devoted herself to one of her favorite pastimes, reading mysteries.
A knock at the door startled Holly until she heard Gladys’s voice. “Anyone home? I have your insurance papers and the deed.”
Her conversation suddenly stopped when Gladys saw the cat at Holly’s feet. “Lucifer,” she scowled, backing away.
Holly was completely confused by Gladys’ reaction to the animal. Even more puzzling was why she called him Lucifer.
“Do you know who owns him?” Holly asked. “He just wandered in here by chance this afternoon.”
“Ever since I was a little girl, there’s been a belief among some folks here that he belongs to a coven of witches.”
“That’s preposterous.” Holly started to laugh. “Are you saying that this is the same cat you remember as a little girl? Excuse me but cats just don’t live that long.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Gladys replied. “Some think he’s over two hundred years old, going back to the time when they tortured witches. In fact, we’re standing on the spot where they constructed a dunking chair. Four witches were drowned here because they wouldn’t recant their love of Satan.”
Holly was dumbfounded at Gladys’ remarks. Ghosts were one thing, but drowned witches and Satan, if historically correct, were something else again.
Very little else was said, and Gladys left almost immediately. Holly watched her go down the walk with the moonlight reflecting on the black water. A slightly sick feeling came over Holly; she could almost imagine the acts of horror committed two hundred years ago exactly where she was standing.
By the time Holly put the lights out and got into bed, a hard rain was beating against the windows, and the air in her room was chilly. She was grateful for Lucifer’s warmth as he pushed against her back, but getting a good night’s sleep was not going to be easy.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Ron Van Sweringen