"Hi Lyle. Hi Gail. Hi Bartholomew," I recite, kicking open the door, my arms heavy with boxed donuts and paperwork.
"Hi Wilbur. Hi Marcy. Hi Daphne."
I kick off my heels, taking the opportunity to let my aching feet breathe before it's showtime.
"Y'all gonna be good today?" I ask even though I know they won't be. They never are.
I left a couple of names out of my traditional greeting, but they know why. They know what they did. People say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Others say that that's the definition of the scientific method. By those estimations, I'm either a lunatic or a scientist. Though the picket sign driven into the green lawn advertises me as a realtor. What can I say? I contain multitudes.
I let the door hang open, knowing a queer inhalation of wind will slam it shut. Right on cue, the door closes with a bang, reverberating in its frame.
"Watch those hinges," I warn. "Can we please keep damage to a minimum?"
Number 34 Hillcrest Drive has been empty, on and off, for twenty years. Its periods of vacancy accelerated over time, the space between owners ever narrowing. I suppose it started when Daphne died. She'd owned the property since 1972. Raised her three children within these walls, saw them through elementary, junior, high school and college. Met their significant others and held their babies. Daphne lived a full life in this house, the memories of which strain against the seams to this day. When her husband passed, she feared the silence of her home. The emptiness. I suppose she found solace in the ghosts. They became her family. And when Daphne died, she joined them. And, like the others, she continued to live in this house. Straining at the seams.
Today I find Daphne in a hopeful mood. Hopeful to find new owners, new babies for her to dote on. The last owners promptly fled when, waking late at night, went to check on their infant only to find her rocked in Daphne's spectral arms. If you ask me, free babysitting is a perk we ought to be advertising. Unfortunately, most homeowners take a different view when it comes to hauntings.
I pull bouquets of fresh flowers from my car, arranging them artfully about the house. An easy mix bag of dough is added to water, briskly kneaded, and fed into the awaiting oven. Coffee is brewed, donuts plated, and a convivial atmosphere of homeliness manifested. A large part of selling a property is the creation of a fantasy. You want buyers to walk through the door and immediately see the next fifty, sixty years of their lives spread out before them. It's more than brick and mortar. You're selling safety, security. You're selling family, promotions, summer vacations and holiday parties. In large part, you are selling them a life.
I find myself distracted from my tasks by the ghastly rattling of pipes. Suddenly, the faucets of the kitchen sink turn, and the spout spews forth with tar-black fluid. The stench is intense, overpowering my carefully cultivated notes of peony, dark roast and rye. It's a classic move of Bartholomew's, and one for which I have no patience today.
Bartholomew built the house, in a manner of speaking. He neither drafted the blueprints nor laid the bricks, but he dictated his vision loudly and with all the menace befitting a man of his wealth. It was intended to house both him and his betrothed, Miss Amelia Hardwick of the East Coast Hardwicks. She was an heiress of a lumber mill dynasty, and his distant European aristocratic relatives had bequeathed to him a sizable fortune. Their marital home was to be the envy of all their contemporaries, with dramatic vaulted ceilings, exquisite crown molding and elegant parquet flooring throughout.
Sadly, Amelia passed during the pandemic of 1918, only shortly after the pair were wed. In addition to his grief, Batholomew was left to grapple, to his dismay, with a house that seemed to rot from the inside out. The labourers, rightly incensed at their poor treatment at the hands of the lord of the house, cut corners wherever they could. Draughts plagued the building, rattling the fixtures during gales. The plumbing was a nightmare, funneling more thick dark mud into the house than water.
I scrub at the dark earthy echoes of poor Bart's despair, returning the Belfast sink to its gleaming porcelain. In the end, the cost and heartache of the repairs proved too much for Bartholomew. He saw little value in restoring the home he designed for his beloved, when she would never again grace the premises. And so, one night when a gale blew with ghostly wailing through the walls of 34 Hillcrest Drive, he found himself a rope and tied the knot at the end of his life.
My first viewers arrive at two, it is now one-thirty. Just enough time to pull the bread from the oven, place it on the island counter where its scent can waft towards the front door. I treat myself to a shot of espresso, immediately rinsing, drying and returning my cup. Everything in its rightful place. It's all a matter of finding the balance between homely and lived-in. Nobody wants a home that bears the marks of prior owners. The ideal is a blank canvas, but one that doesn't feel too clean, too sterile. Inviting enough to allow the projection of a future, without bearing the hallmarks of any pasts.
Bart is not the first ghost of number 34, though he was the first to die upon the land while a building stood upon it. There are older ghosts, of course, much as there are anywhere. Faded, quieter, dimming with the passage of time. But still there, certainly. With any luck, the new owners will never encounter them.
From my position in the kitchen, I can hear Lyle and Gail launch into one of their infamous arguments. Without throats to shout forth their grievances, they've taken to slamming doors and windows, upturning furniture. I rush upstairs, hoping to intervene and separate them as best I can, at least for the duration of the viewing. It works, sometimes. Occasionally I can corral Gail into the guest bedroom, where she is content to weep silently before the mirror of the en suite bathroom. Lyle can often be lured towards the basement, where he busies himself corking and uncorking the spirits of the bar. He cannot imbibe, but the scent is enough to send echoes of past intoxication.
Gail inherited the house following Bartholomew's suicide. His favourite niece, she would grow up to cause quite a stir as a jazz baby socialite. Rather than take her chances at the many speakeasies dotting the coast in her heyday, she instead took the spirit of the age to number 34. She was sociable enough to know a wide network of musicians and artists, all of whom were only too pleased to lend a certain bohemian clout to her rich girl's refuge. Booze, however, proved trickier to source. Through many clandestine conversations, she was eventually directed towards Lyle. Lyle had been sitting on the lowest rung of petty criminality for most of his life, but prohibition provided him with ample mobility. Though he had not been properly schooled, he was shrewd and quick on the up-take. Enough to understand that pretty much anything sweet could be fermented, and fermentation meant booze.
Before long, Lyle had set up shop in the master bathroom of number 34, where the brass-footed bathtub became his laboratory. In addition to the alchemical endeavours of the bathroom, chemistry between Lyle and Gail found its way to the bedroom, and the pair fast fell into a routine of tumultuous fighting and breathless fucking.
The party, of course, eventually came to an end. During a police raid on the premises, Lyle produced a snub-nosed pistol from his jacket pocket and let them have it. Gail rushed to his side, urging him to drop his weapon, but it was too late. The police opened fire on the pair, as their many guests fled the scene.
I find the master bedroom in disarray. Bedsheets thrown from the mattress, nightstands upturned, the closet emptied of its hangers, which now fan about the floor.
"That's enough!" I yell, hoping the pair are still in the room with me. "Gail -- guest room! Lyle -- basement!"
I wait until I hear the soft plodding of phantom footsteps before I hastily tidy my surroundings. They're not bad kids, but they are very much still kids. Gail was just eighteen when she was gunned down, Lyle barely twenty. I sense Daphne come to Gail's aid, ever the mother. I can almost feel her soft hands mopping the girl's tears. An elderly woman, consoling a girl fifty years her senior.
The doorbell rings -- shit. I give the comforter one last sweep to straighten out any creases before scurrying down the stairs. I slip into my heels, wincing, and take a breath. Time to smile. Sell the fantasy. No time to shoot off another warning.
The door opens to reveal a young couple, no more than thirty. They're cute, likely monied. I stand aside, allowing them entry.
"Trippy, right?" he says to his wife? Fiancee? Girlfriend? My smile is frozen. I attempt to welcome them, tell them to make themselves at home, but my throat constricts.
"You're really that impressed by an automatic door?" she scoffs. "You work in blockchain."
He laughs, full-bodied. I try to join, but there's a creeping coldness coursing from my feet to my face.
They venture further into the house, leaving the door open. I look beyond the gaping entrance, wondering if more visitors are parallel parking at the boundary of the property. I notice that my picket has fallen, so I rush out to re-erect it.
My heels sink into the lawn, driving deep into the dirt. As a result, I walk in laboured steps, pulling my sunken feet as I cross the green expanse. The sign rests face-down, only the white backing looks up at me. I turn it, and the same cold sensation courses through my throat.
Wilbur and Marcy found number 34 in an extreme state of disrepair. It had lain empty for twenty years, a blemish on the otherwise sunny suburban face of the neighborhood. Yet for them, it was love at first sight. A home so full of history and character, a project to throw themselves into with the utmost passion. Marcy knew it was a steal, they'd never find a home of this caliber for such a low price. Wilbur, keen to hone his skills as a handyman, took little convincing.
It was a slow process, the renovations depending largely on their meagre earnings. But it all felt worthwhile. Seeing the house bloom before them, restored to its original glory, was a satisfaction neither Wilbur nor Marcy could have anticipated. They sanded and resealed the parquet flooring. They restored and repainted the exquisite crown molding. They buffed the brass feet of the master bathroom tub to a golden sheen, then luxuriated in that same tub, gazes held in the warm candlelight. Strawberries and champagne, a treat bought with the promise of Marcy's promotion.
They never had the chance to start a family, not the way they wanted to. Marcy worked so hard -- too hard. Long hours, setting up properties and guiding hopeful buyers through the halls. Staying after hours to close deals, finalize paperwork. By the time she noticed the lump, it was too late. From diagnosis to death, it only took three months.
Wilbur kept the home as best he could. Made it beautiful, the way he knew Marcy would want it. He baked dark loaves of rye and brewed aromatic coffee. Arranged peonies and scrubbed the Belfast sink. He kept number 34 as a testament to their vision, the embodiment of their love for one another. And then, after thirty years without his Marcy, Wilbur's heart stopped. He could only love so much in her absence, before he could join her again.
I turn the sign over in my hand and find a face and name I do not recognize. A man in a suit emerges from the backyard, stepping quickly to the open door. His face matches the one on the picket sign.
"Hello!" he calls out. I hear him apologize, and the young couple laugh. He tells them about the vaulted ceilings, the crown molding, the parquet floors and the Belfast sink. My breathing stops.
I turn and in the front door is Wilbur, older than I ever got to see him. Wilbur with his arms spread wide, almost as wide as the smile on his face.
"Come back inside, honey," he says, so I do.