Boarding school was easy. Zach was a good student, and the rigid schedule always gave him something to do. He didn’t really appreciate it until he left to go to college. Not that college wasn’t easy. He decided to start at a local two-year to be closer to his best friend, Mary.
But Zachary Ellis couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place. He was a tourist in his own town for ten straight summers, only coming home to his foster family on holidays and summers since he was nine years old. Mike and Janice were nice people, and Zach knew they wanted the best for him, but being sent to boarding school on account of his trust seperated him from his siblings there. He was a temporary fixture. Welcome, but temporary.
He was always closest to Mary, who he saw nearly every day of every summer since he left. The two of them went to primary school together and stayed in touch ever since Zach’s first year away at school. Now school was over, and while Zach spent 9 months out of the year as a hard-studying wallflower in a prep-school uniform, Mary grew up a social eclectic, jumping clique to clique and getting along with pretty much everyone.
It didn’t stop her from picking up with Zach right where they left off every summer. She’d do her best to drag him out anywhere, and he’d do his best to stay shelled up--though he’d always be polite as possible about Mary’s efforts.
Rainy days suited them best--sitting on Mary’s porch watching thunderstorms roll through as they’d talk about all sorts of things. Life. Growing up. The unknown.
Zach was always looking for patterns, meanings in the things that happened in his life. He knew he was lucky--Mike and Janice were clear that he was given an opportunity for a great education because of his inheritance, but they could only tell him what they knew--which wasn’t much. When he was sixteen, they finally told him the rest of what they knew: that his trust documentation had been sealed, that they had no knowledge of any benefit beyond his prep-school tuition, and that depending on the paperwork, Zach might be thirty or older before the rest of the trust was revealed to him. It was all up to whoever left it to him and how they arranged it.
The mystery of Zach’s trust spun all sorts of tales in his head. Maybe his real parents were spies. Maybe they were lost in an accident that no one could talk about. Whatever the case, the obscurity behind it and the odd, lonely situation he found himself in made him a seeker.
He’d be the first to admit he was superstitious, despite being fairly proficient at science and math in school. He believed there were things beyond the accepted natural world that influenced the way things worked, and since he was young, Zach had been looking for a way to prove it. No one could explain his situation, so of course he had a strong attraction to the unexplainable.
So far, though, life in college so far was pretty droll. He was in the third month of his college semester and he hadn't found anyone that really shared his interests other than his friend Mary. Now that he was around all year, he let her have a bit of space.
Zach read up on everything supernatural. He buried himself in new compilations and old tomes of mystical knowledge, even sneaking off once in a while to try a harmless ritual here and a spell there. To Zach, it was experimentation--he was looking for a stimulus/response from the universe that came from something unexplained.
He hadn’t found anything promising so far. Celtic mysticism, the I CHING, Runes, Codices...people everywhere in history were pointing to something greater, and it all took the same sort of shape. It couldn’t be possible that they were all wrong, and just groping in the darkness. He searched for something in the ether as he searched for himself while other guys his age talked about sports or cars or...whatever. He wanted to know more about the unknown, a proud fantasy geek with no trouble daydreaming.
His cell rang. The number was unfamiliar, but it looked local, so Zach decided to answer it.
“Zachary Ellis?” It was a formal sounding voice. Someone official.
“Yeah, speaking. Who is this?”
“Mr. Ellis, I’m Mr. Green from Berger, Brecker and Bailiwick. I represent the Elsterbrook Estate. According to the living will of the primary owner of Elsterbook, I’m instructed to turn over power-of-attorney to you at this time.” He was some kind of lawyer or actuary...Zach could tell by how he was talking, because he barely understood a word.
“Sorry--are you sure you have the right person?”
“Zachary Aleister Ellis, born September 7th, 1997?” Zach felt a warm pulse. Was he in trouble? What exactly was this guy talking about?
“Yeah, that’s me--but...what’s power-of-attorney, exactly?”
“Mr. Ellis, it means that you are, for the time being, responsible for the extensive grounds that belong to my client, Serecia Elsterbrook. I am required to meet you in front of the main property to confirm your identity and pass on the master keys, title, and other items entrusted to me.”
“So, like--you’re handing over a house to me?”
“We’re not ‘handing it over’, Mr. Ellis, our client is--and they are only doing so in a limited capacity. You may not sell the estate, you are limited to a personal stipend funded by the trusts which fund the property tax and maintenance...but they are legally yours, save these limitations, until our client returns.
“And--it’s not just a house. The estate consists of a mansion with servants’ quarter and staff kitchen, a guest house, a stable, an indoor/outdoor pool cabana, three cabins in the back 200 acres, and nearly two dozen barns and other structures, some remodeled and repurposed, others in their original estate.”
This was a lot for Zach to swallow. The guy sounded all too serious for it to be a gag, but all the same, he didn’t understand…
“Why me, Mr. Green?”
“It’s in the document, Mr. Ellis--thirty days after your eighteenth birthday, I was instructed to contact you. Beyond that--you’ll have to ask my client. Even if I knew, I’m only here to fulfill the document.”
That seemed like a nasty thing to add.
“So where are we meeting?”
After driving the better part of an hour out of the city and into the suburbs, beyond a big state park and into the boonies, Zach reached a clearing in the woods that was outlined by a massive gate, opened and marked with a blinking LED.
I guess this is it, Zach thought. There’s the marker. Zach drove down a gravel driveway, winding around a left turn, then a right. When he approached the massive mansion, he realized that none of this place could be seen from the road. What was more, there didn’t seem to be any other driveways after the park. Zach wondered exactly how much land this estate included--clearly there weren’t any close neighbors.
When he got out of his car, Mr. Green was still in his SUV. Not until Zach approached did the suited lawyer exit the vehicle. He gave Zach a short nod.
“I trust you brought a license,” He asked, holding his hand out for Zach to produce it. Zach couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well--Mr. Green--how many people did you give the address to...and ask them to meet you here at 6PM?” Zach’s chuckle died in Mr. Green’s silence.
“It’s just procedure, kid, I’m sorry. I need to be sure you are who you say you are. For your sake too.”
“Kid?” Zach’s brow furrowed as he pulled out his ID and handed it over.
“Listen, I don’t mean anything by it--let’s just sign the papers and get this over, okay? I’d like to be out of here as soon as possible.” It was weird to see the formality crack in this guy--he almost seemed uncomfortable. The last time Mr. Green looked up at the mansion windows, Zach did the same, following his gaze. The main building was imposing, but it wasn’t dark inside.
There were lights on in the main and guest houses.
Mr. Green sped through the important parts of the document, watched Zach sign them and filed them away one by one. Zach saw a shadow flutter when he looked up through one of the windows.
“Oh--I didn’t know anyone was home in there,” Zach said. “Are there guests--or like boarders or something?”
Mr. Green seemed to go pale.
“No idea...I have no idea. Last one, sign, sign, initial.” He nervously shuffled his papers again as Zach signed.
“Almost like that old gag, you know?” Zach chuckled. “Spend a night in this haunted house, and it’s yours.” Once again, Zach’s laughter was not reciprocated.
“Main keys, gate key, servo remotes, car key.”
“It’s a classic in the main garage. I wouldn’t touch it if I were you.”
“So where’s...did you say Ser-e-ci-a?” Zach liked the name--there was something that sounded familiar about it--comforting. He almost felt he could imagine a picture of this woman based on her name.
"Ms. Elsterbrook is still...in correspondence, but otherwise indisposed." Mr. Green immediately packed up his papers once Zach had signed everything.
“Well, what am I supposed to do if there’s people staying here? Introduce myself?” Zach watched a shadow dance across a second floor window--something fluttering and red. He didn’t get a clear view.
"Not my problem, Mr Ellis. In the absence of the owner, you're charged with all affairs of land and property management, code and tax compliance, and all accounts relating to the property and the estate. If you need assistance, I suggest seeking it from whoever runs the books."
Mr. Green shrugged.
"Lady Elsterbrook's staff," he said nervously. "I've only spoken with them over the phone. Very efficient from what I see of my records, but I'm afraid I don't know much else." He straightened his lapels and looked back at the house, dimming in the dying light of the woods. "If there's nothing else, I need to be off."
Zach shrugged, looking down at his copy of the paperwork and his new keys.
"Sure, no problem," Zach said. "Um--you don't have a contact number to reach Serecia, do you? In case I have any issues?" Mr. Green shook his head as he got back into his SUV.
"I can give you the number for the land line here," Mr. Green said, "But I suspect you'd rather talk to them yourself." Zach looked back at the house.
"Uh, sure. Is there always someone staffing the place?" Zach asked.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ellis, but I have no idea. Best of luck to you." Mr. Green shut his door and started up his SUV. Before Zach knew it, he was rolling down the driveway and out of sight. Suddenly, the mansion seemed a lot more lonely.
Zach approached the front door, ringing an old-looking electric doorbell.
"Wonder if it even works," Zach muttered. "Edison himself probably built that button." Zach waited a few moments, but when nothing happened, he knocked on the great oak door gilded in copper. He thought he saw a flutter from the window to his left, but when he looked he found the sash swinging slightly.
He found an ornate brass key on the main chain and guessed it belonged to the main lock on the French entry doors. He knocked again and slipped the key in, turning it over as the door popped open.
"Hello?" He shouted from behind the door. "I'm not sure who's here, but--uh--I'm the new...caretaker. Don't wanna surprise anyone, so if you don't mind, I'm going to come in...?" He pushed the door open, and warm air wafted around him, scented like bergamot tea, polished wood and delicate perfume.
It was an imposing place--warm and homey, but decorated opulently. The entry hall looked as if it had been dusted and polished that day--the floors gleamed and the brass fixtures shined in the glow of an electric chandelier.
"Wow..." Zach murmured, swiping a finger over the edge of a small table. Not a speck of dust. "He wasn't kidding about the help." There were lights in a room to his left and another down the hall. When he looked up at the grand staircase down the hall--he found light coming from the 2nd floor landing as well. "Okay, so someone's here," he said to himself. "Hello?" Full voice again, enough to echo off the walls. "Um...Zach Ellis here--I'm just looking for whoever's in charge." Nothing. "Hello?!"
Zach wandered into the hall, heading down it and peeking into the well-lit room. It looked like a living room, but without a home theatre as the centerpiece. It didn't exactly look old-fashioned...more like classy.
He wandered to the end of the hall, where he found a dense library. Shelves were built into the walls that went nearly to ceiling height. A dark imposing desk carved from hardwood sat in the middle of the space with a couple other reading chairs throughout the room.
"Lordy," Zach said. "This place really is impressive." He slowly approached the desk, looking at every well-appointed detail. There was a Tiffany lamp, stationery headed with a great seal reading "HOUSE OF ELSTERBROOK", a delicate fountain pen and inkwell, and a single, massive tome on the desk bound in black leather and gold leaf with the gilded name ELSTERBROOK appearing on the cover. When Zach reached out to touch it, he felt a little jolt against his skin, making him draw back.
He reached out again, placing his hand against the book. There was no shock this time, but he felt an off vibration emanating from it--at least he thought. The book started to glow with a faint aura from his touch.
“Whoa,” he backed away again, and the aura faded. He brought his hand closer again without touching the book, and the glow returned. He shook his head and let out a little laugh, confused.
He drew back entirely.
“Weird. Weird, weird.” He stepped back from the desk, looking to the doorway opposite his entry. After one step away from the desk, he paused. Rather, he was stopped. He sucked in a deep breath, gasping as he thought he felt something holding him in place.
In another second it was gone, and he took the next step like it hadn’t even happened. It felt like someone was stalking him, but there was no one else in this house except him. Green was in a hurry to leave the house for some reason, so Zach was starting to see why. But that didn’t keep Zach from wanting to see what else this large mansion had to offer.
The curious teen went to explore down the main lobby and see the large stairs that occupied the center of the room. It looked like it could go up through two or three floors in the whole place. He turned his head around to see the architecture, but as he was distracted, he felt a slight tugging underneath his feet. Zach didn’t realise that he was standing over a large rug with an archaic like pattern sewn into it. He felt that the carpet gave a quick sweep under his heels, causing him to trip and fall on his back.
Zach grunted in pain as he held the back of his noggin. “Ow...What the fuck was that?” He slowly picked himself up and rubbed his head while looking at the carpet underneath him. Did the rug actually swept him off his feet? Or was he so entranced by the decor of the house, that he lost his balance by accident? Either way, he decided to shrug it off with the pain and walked up the stairs to find out more what the mansion had in store.
He turned the corner of his head to make sure there wasn’t any more moving objects or anything creeping up on him.The idea of being inside a huge haunted house made him lose any sense of direction in this mansion.
Zach walked around several hallways and peaked through a couple doors, trying to keep his bearings on where he was in the house. It felt like hours until he came across a set of steps that lead to a secluded room. He slowly crept through the door, peeking through edge to see if anyone was inside. It was silent and no one was around, so Zach opened the door all the way and entered the room. It was a large bedroom filled with pristine and plush antique furniture, gas lamps on the walls, and an allover gothic atmosphere, complete with arcane books on a carved in-wall shelf and purple satin sheets covering a four-poster bed.
What caught Zach’s eyes against a far wall was a large, elevated wooden chest with silver lined plating adorned to it. What was inscribed in the center was the same name Zach read on the tome from the other room, “Elsterbrook.”
He walked over to it slowly, looking at the name and knowing that it had something to do with his family. Why couldn’t anyone (or wouldn’t anyone) tell him about his parents? How was it that the jittery guy that handed over the keys seemed to know so much but say so little?
“Elsterbrook.” Zach said aloud, letting it bounce off the room. He wasn’t sure why, but he tried it on as he put his hand on the chest, admiring the craftsmanship. “Zachary Elsterbrook.”
The moment he said the words, he felt the same energy he felt from the book before. It wouldn’t have freaked him out as much this time, except that the press-clasp on the chest popped itself open the moment he uttered those two words. It was enough to make him jump back a meter and hold stock still in front of the chest.
His heart was pounding. He looked around the room at the flickering gas lamps and the dimming outside light coming from under the eaves through a great window. Those gas lamps. Weren’t they a fire hazard unless someone was here watching them?
“H-Hello?” Zach tried again, feeling silly. He was wandering through a house that wasn’t technically his, at least if he understood the guy’s legalese. Maybe Zach had an aunt? “Um--I didn’t mean to poke around, it’s just that I’m the new caretaker…?” He tried to penetrate the walls of the house, appealing to anyone who might hear him. “I’m actually pretty lost in here!”
Zach’s eyes went right back to the chest. It opened. It opened on its own.
When he touched it.
Freaked out as he was, nothing was going to keep him from digging a little. When the pulsating feeling returned again as he poised over the chest, he took it to be anxiety and just kept moving.
On lifting the lid he saw it was a classic steamer trunk. A lift-out compartment containing papers, photo albums, jewelry and mementos, and under it, a bunch of clothes. Most of them looked like they belonged to a woman, and Zach blushed a bit, going back to the paperwork.
He stopped feeling like an intruder when he cracked open a photo album to a random page to see a little blonde boy staring back at him. Zach’s jaw hung open when he realized that Mike and Janice had the same photo. Zach knew he was the boy in the photo. It was the earliest picture they had of him, they always said--and here it was in a photo album deep inside this odd mansion.
“That’s...me.” Zach muttered, flipping back. Another photo--looking like the same toddler a month or two younger--this time sitting ON THE FLOOR of the same room he was in. He could place the photo, and suddenly he felt deja vu.
“That’s me too--and...I’ve been here!” He looked around the room, which suddenly felt warmer. Not in a temperature way--which seemed perfect for being a drafty old mansion--but in a familiar way. There were nothing but gaps in the details for him, but the photo confirmed it--he himself was here something like sixteen years ago. Living here.
Now he flipped the pages faster, looking for photos of others. Nothing. Him in a high chair. Him crawling. In a crib. No pictures of parents moving forward, either--the pages after his first random look were all that same bright-eyed Zach that couldn’t have been more than three.
He kept looking through a stack of papers. He found letter after letter written in a script he couldn’t read--something that looked like it had extra letters worked in with the ones he knew to form some sort of cypher. Some were signed ‘S’, others ‘G’.
As he flipped over the last of the cypher letters, he ran into more pictures. Construction and renovation at the mansion. Rooms that appeared to be modernized, unlike the one he was in, which retained what looked like original features. Receipts for materials and delivery...as recent as a couple of years ago. All these pictures of construction with not a person in them--no owners, no crew…
As Zach looked through all of this seemingly unconnected paperwork, something stirred in the chest behind him. A black felt point lifted silently from the chest. A broken conical shape followed, expanding down until a wide brim rose out. The point of the hat righted itself, and the felt plumped out, removing the creases and putting the hat into perfect shape. After the brim, two scoop-like shoulders rose from the chest next, flowing down two slinky black sleeves and a plunging neckline. As the dress lifted out, it inflated like the hat, blowing up like a fabric balloon and accentuating a particularly voluptuous shape around the chest and hips. All the gaslamp shadows from this haunted outfit cast away from Zach, landing far out of his notice.
At the end of one of the sleeves hung a lacquered and polished dowel--it was narrow, looking like a wand. It lifted with the sleeve, rose to within inches of Zach’s shoulder and hovered there, even when the sleeve retreated.
Now both sleeves reached for the hem of the dress, pulling it all the way up to its chest. The outfit sprang into the air over Zach, and the dowel tapped him on the shoulder. Zach jumped, dropping the stack of photos in his hands and turning around. The dowel snuck behind him, leaving only the hat--hovering ominously over the chest and leaving Zach to stare.
“Wh-what the f--” Zack stared and pointed at the floating hat and tried to push out syllables of surprise, but a half-second later, it felt like something grabbed a hold of both his shirtsleeves and yanked them up over his head. He yelped and tried to get a look at his assailant, but he couldn’t see anything--it was almost as if his sleeves themselves were forcing his hands into the air. Just as he tried to contemplate this, a ring of black fabric swooped over his body.
Zach’s arms were frozen in the air by his own sleeves as if they were under the control of an unseen force, just like the outfit that now swarmed around his upper torso. The smooth fabric that continues to blind his sight moves downward over his chest as it keeps on restricting his movements. Zach was terrified as he tried to move his legs in an attempt to shake the possessed costume off.
It was fruitless; his own jeans and shoes were keeping him from budging even his toes. It was like his entire outfit was rebelling against him, as desperate as he was to get the satiny wraith wrapping around his body.
Every form of struggle was meaningless as the costume finally let him see his surroundings. He looked into the nearby mirror across from the chest. As he glanced into his reflection to see what became of his appearance, he now found himself trapped within a purple dress.
The haunted clothing from earlier was shaped to the frame of a curvaceous and womanly figure instead of the skinny, shapeless frame of his own body. On top of that—literally—was the same witch’s that that appeared in front of him before the dress swooped down on him.
Zach was awestruck. He was not only dressed from head to toe in a witch’s costume, but it had somehow changed his shape. A sexy woman’s expansive bosom hovered over his chest, and he felt the swing of the dress behind him when it gave him a quarter-turn. He took a slow glance down at his neck and saw his own skin underneath the costume. He gasped as his own clothing began swelling, seemingly filled out by air as it began taking the same curvy shape as the dress.
When it finished, not only was the witch’s dress filled out to proportion by ghostly forces, but even his clothes filled the dress’ shape as if his entire body was surrounded and possessed by a ghostly apparition in female form.
Zach felt his own right arm move under it’s own accord with the sleeve of the dress. The wand flew into his hand, and as soon as it did, Zach’s hand was all pins and needles, sailing up his arm. The wand seemed to gain control of his hand itself, because he watched his syrupy numb fingers grip the wand on their own and swing it about.
“W-What’s going on with my hand? What’s with this wand?” Under the wand’s control, his hand held steady and started to hum with a faint glow coming around it. Zach started to feel a surge of unknown energy springing forth from every part of his body, as if the wand was acting as a conduit for this mysterious power. The energy surged through the wand as it was being waved in a circular motion by his hand. Even the witch’s hat and dress which trapped him was also moving in synch with the magical force emanating forth. The magic energy shot out from the tip of the wand and flew around the room like a glowing wisp in the air.
The glowing light flew around the scattered papers and photos that Zach was sorting through before being dressed in the possessed costume. The light faded into the photos and papers, which gave a little shake by their corners.
Slowly they started to drift along in the air, as if a silent wind was holding them aloft. Zach watched in awe. There were no open windows, and the papers weren’t flying around in random directions. They were all being rearranged in order, as if by an unseen secretary. The ghostly wind sent the photos of Zach’s lineage into the air, pulling them all together in a neat pile. Zach would have rubbed his eyes if he could gain control of his hand, and for a moment he wondered if this was just a delusion brought on by all this revelation in the mansion. Hell, maybe the mansion wasn’t real. Maybe it was a dream.
“This can’t be real!” Zach finally said aloud. “Witch’s hats, magic wands, and now flying papers?! It’s--it’s not...” He stuttered in surprise as the paperwork floated gently down into the chest and closed itself shut. He took deep breath after deep breath, trying to catch up to his own racing heartbeat. That’s when the tunnel vision shank his world to a pinhole.
* * *
When Zach woke, he found himself in the bedroom, on the bed, staring down at the chest on the floor. He gasped when he realized where he was and what he was looking at. Something about a dress--some warm, hugging feeling like…
He looked sharply at the chest and leapt out of the bed, making his ankles tingle a little when he crouched on the floor to open it. He hesitated a second, and then popped the latches. When he looked inside, he was both relieved and a little freaked out. Sure enough, all the paperwork he thought he dreamed was there. The photographs too. When he pulled out the shelf, the scent of lignin and clean laundry permeated the room, and Zach’s heart raced as he shuffled through the clothes. There seemed to be a nightgown, some hosiery and a few blouses, but nothing like the dress and hat he saw earlier.
Nervous to find them at first, now he searched the trunk hard to confirm they were there. They weren’t. He even sorted back through the pile carefully as he placed clothes back in, but he didn’t see anything that forced its way on him.
Zach looked down at his own clothes, showing signs of being a little looser than before. When he started examining his shirt, he heard something bump in the closet. He looked up, grabbed a couple of photos of him as a baby and bolted from the room, mentally vowing to come back.
“I’m gonna go crazy if I’m here by myself for another second,” Zach said. “It’s time I go and get Mary out here.”