Unreal Estate: This was going to be a short story, I thought. Instead, thousands of words poured out describing a rambling mansion where nothing happens, so the story goes nowhere except off a steep cliff. I’ll return to this draft, maybe in a few months, and see if I know by then what’s going to happen.
Carol hadn’t gone into real estate because she liked helping people find their dream homes. She hadn’t gone through the training and certification because she wanted to do paperwork and wrack her brain calculating percentages. She hadn’t chosen the career because she was good at sales; although she did have a knack for listening and matching desires to domiciles.
Carol had chosen to sell real estate because she liked exploring other people’s houses.
Pure curiosity borne in her childhood led to her career choice, and she hadn’t regretted it for a minute. Her access over the years had allowed her to stride legally through hundreds of homes. Not just walk-throughs with her clients, either. She had a peculiar habit of spending her weeknights inside the unoccupied houses, where she could explore for hours and no homeowners were there to stop her.
If a neighbor knocked on the door, or asked her what she was doing there by herself, Carol whipped a tape measure from one pocket, a notebook from another, and assured them she was taking measurements for “the listing.” The ruse worked every time, not surprisingly, especially since she wore a badge on her jacket as backup. No one was going to chase her away from her adventures.
Carol’s own “home” was a small, bargain of a place at the back end of a country road. To her, it was mostly a place to sleep. She couldn’t just sit around in her house — which was small enough for a five minute tour and intimately known to her. If she wasn’t sleeping, and wasn’t with clients, she was off wandering in whatever empty places she had access to — satisfying her urge to explore.
A few times, she had been wandering other people’s hallways when another agent came by with their own clients. Carol was prepared for that, too. “Just double checking the fixtures. A potential buyer had questions,” she’d say, and the other agent would become so distracted by trying to talk their own clients into purchasing “before her people snap it up” that Carol could say her good-byes and leave — off to another empty place to continue her personal treasure hunt.
She wasn’t really on a treasure hunt, she knew. She wasn’t going to buy even the most amazing of the houses that she toured. They were for other people, and she gladly, and regularly, passed on even her favorite properties to her buyers. That was fine. It wasn’t about owning the houses. She knew for her it was about exploring the corners, delighting at the architectural choices, running her hands over unique woodwork, and moving on.
Until the Johnson home came on the market.
The Johnsons had lived in the home for decades. In fact. Mr. Johnson had grown up there when it had been his parents’ home. His parents had inherited it from old Grampa Eli, and Mr. Johnson had never planned to leave it.
Sadly, Mrs. Johnson’s mother had fallen ill, and they were moving to New England to take care of her mother and to take on her mother’s old home — which had been in her family for a hundred years.
In the tug of war between the husband and wife, the wife had won. She had in her favor that her family home was in considerably better shape that Mr. Johnson’s childhood home.
While Carol wouldn’t exactly call the spacious manse a handyman’s special, it did need repairs and updates, and she was to sell it As-Is. She assured the Johnsons that she would find someone willing to save the old place from further decline, to love it and make it shine again.
“Needs must,” Mr. Johnson had said, as they walked out of his family home forever, dropping a ring of keys in Carol’s hand. She snapped the heavy ring onto the stretchy bracelet she wore for just such occasions, and their weight stretched it to its limit, bouncing there.
When the Johnson’s car drove out of sight, Carol closed and locked the front door. A line of drool ran from the corner of her mouth as she turned the dozens of keys over against her palm and wrist, plucking at each key as it she were a predator towering over its prey.
She started her private tour of the home in the living room. Certainly, she had walked through quickly with the Johnsons the day that they’d first met with her. From what little she’d seen — keeping pace with the husband and wife marching hand-in-hand before her — she’d felt the urge to explore rising. Now, she moved as a sloth through the living room. She touched each wall as she passed, ran her hand across the stone mantle above the fireplace, and noted each doorway and arch leading from the room. There were four doors, plus the arched opening to the front door entryway from which she’d come. Having encountered that door first, she labeled it Door A, with no letter assigned to the front door. Pulling out her notebook, she drew an overhead sketch of the room and lettered each opening.
She labeled the closed door at her far left as Door B, then grabbed the doorknob. Attempting to turn it, she found it locked. Shifting her notebook in her hand, she began fumbling through the key ring. The third key that she tried worked. She removed a short marker from her jacket pocket, and wrote “B” on the key as best she could. Replacing the marker, she turned the now-moving knob and walked through the doorway.
A light was already on in the room, which was mostly empty. A sewing machine, for some reason left behind, stood in the corner next to a window. The curtains were drawn, and Carol was thankful that the Johnsons had at least closed them, despite their leaving the light on. Looking over her shoulder toward the living room, she realized that every light she could see was on. Most homeowners switched them all off when they left, and she was used to fumbling for light switches in the dark.
She stood in the room and flipped to a fresh page in her notebook. She sketched the room’s layout, noting the window, Door B behind her, and the sewing machine. Maybe she’d check with Mrs. Johnson and find out if she’d meant to leave it behind, or if a friend or relative would be coming to claim it. So many clients over the years had set plans like that and forgotten to tell Carol, but she knew her job and would be thorough and ask.
No other doors led out of the sewing room. Carol retreated through Door B back into the living room. She did not lock the door, but moved on to what she’d labeled Door C and wriggled the doorknob. Finding it locked, she shuffled through the keys again until one fit. She used the marker to label the key “C” and stepped into the room.
She laughed. Again the lights were on, this time all four of the lights in the bathroom. She couldn’t remember ever entering a locked room and finding the lights on, yet the Johnsons had done so. Shaking her head, she flipped another notebook page and sketched the room layout. It was an opulent bathroom, with gorgeous fixtures that looked like they’d come out of a 1950s catalog yet shone brightly, untarnished. This is nothing like a fixer-upper, she thought, recalling that term from Mr. Johnson’s initial phone call to her.
She sketched the bath, separate shower, matching sinks, and noted that the trash hadn’t been emptied. Flipping to a page at the back of her notebook, she began a bulleted list with “sewing machine plan” and “empty Door C bathroom trash” before finishing her sketch of the room. Beyond the sinks were two doors, one of which opened onto a spacious, private toilet area as big as Carol’s entire bathroom at home. She gave the door a letter, then left it ajar and opened the other door in the bathroom. It led to a linen closet twice the size of the toilet area, and had another door at the end. Marking the door on her sketch as Door H, she walked through the linen closet with its empty shelves and swirling dust, and opened Door I, which she happily found unlocked.
The bedroom she found herself in burned brightly with the over head light, two table lamps, and a half-dozen small bulbs surrounding the vanity’s mirror. In her mind, she pictured the electricity meter on the side of the house whirling.
A four-poster bed, likely older than Carol’s forty-five years, stood along the far wall. She added “antique bed and vanity plan” to her bulleted list and began sketching the room on a new page in her notebook. The bedroom looked, to her trained eyes, to be over twenty-five feet wide and as much as forty feet long. Even with the left-behind bed, she had plenty of space to move along the walls, touching each, sketching occasionally. In addition to the door into the linen closet from whence she’d come, there was one other door. It was locked, but the key sticking from the lock. She turned it and peered beyond, finding a well-lit hallway lined with more doors.
She left the door open, pocketed the lone key — after marking it with an “I” — and walked back through the linen closet.
As she returned to the living room, she chastised herself for not bringing sticky-notes to place on the doors. She’d only been in a few rooms and a closet, and was already at Door I. She went outside through the front door and walked to her car. After rummaging through the trunk for a few minutes, she found a pad of sticky-notes that she thought might contain enough pages to label all the doors.
Climbing into the car, she started it and pulled onto the driveway and parked. No sense leaving it on the street. Besides, she planned to be there for some time longer and believed an empty house to be safer if the drive looked occupied.
The last item she removed from the car, before locking herself inside the house again, was the listing details.
Standing in the living room, she flipped through the details. The house was over four-thousand square feet, according to the Johnsons and the tax records. There were six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and various other rooms. Finding the bedroom where she’d just been on the house layout sketches, she confirmed that the bedroom’s dimensions were exactly as she’d guessed: 25’ by 40’. She rolled the paperwork into a cylinder and stuffed it in her front pants-pocket, the top edge poking up several inches for easy grabbing.
Retracing her steps, Carol placed sticky-notes on both sides of each door with their letter designations in black marker. For a moment, she considered taking Door I into the long hallway, then changed her mind and returned to the living room. Next she decided to explore through Door D, also locked. It took five tries to find the correct key, which she marked with its letter; then, she opened the door.
Door D opened onto a long, well-lit hallway. She slowly made her way down the hall, touching the walls, and checking each doorknob as she passed each door. Halfway down the hall, she found herself face-to-face with a sticky-note bearing a bold “H” and peered through the open doorway into the bedroom to ensure she had her bearings.
Sliding her hand across Door H, she continued to the end of the hallway, sketching it along with the doors on both sides — including an arch near the far-end that led to another hallway. The arch ended up with an “O” sticky-note, the Door I looking out of sequence; but, she was used to discovering spaces out of order, and she returned to the living room.
Decisions, decisions, she thought. Finish the doors in the living room, or begin opening the doors along the hall.
She decided to take the hallway. Doors E and F leading out of the living room would wait.
At each door, she unlocked, labeled the key, attached a sticky note with its appropriate letter designation, stepped inside, found lights on, and placed a second sticky note on the inside of the door.
It took her over an hour to traverse the hallway, as she sketched each room, noted any forgotten contents, touched every wall, and noted other doors leading from rooms J, K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q — finding three bedrooms, two bathrooms (one opening through to another bedroom through Door R), a den (she called it) with floor-to-ceiling windows and a dozen lamps on, a basement, and — through the arch “O” — a hall leading past a staircase and into a kitchen larger than Carol’s entire house.
Of course, she’d walked through the kitchen with the Johnsons a few weeks ago, but with the counters cleared of toasters, bread, dishes, and a million other things, the kitchen appeared gigantic. The newest thing in it was a glass-front refrigerator that had to be brand new, and it contrasted poorly to the shiny, decades-old fixtures, dual ovens, and hand-carved woods throughout. She realized for the first time that the cabinets bore hardware that was obviously antique, but somehow blended with the 1950s off-white cupboards lining two walls.
Augmenting the last-century cabinets were several free-standing cupboards including an ornate, heirloom-quality pie-cooler with metal panels, hole-punches forming shapes of various birds. Pausing for a moment, her hand run halfway across the wall, she departed from her wall-outlining path and jaywalked across the kitchen to the pie cooler. She’d seen more than a few in her life, accented with metal panels that usually were adorned with floral or poultry shapes — made with uniformly sized holes through the metal, which allowed the pies to cool, steam escaping through the holes. This particular cooler was taller than she, the largest she’d ever seen, and the bird-shapes created by the punched holes were not the usual, old-fashioned roosters and hens. They were ravens, maybe crows, with the largest pie-door across the top bearing the form of what Carol thought must be an eagle. No, it’s a griffin.
The beast looked as if it were screaming out into the kitchen, creepier than it was kitschy. She opened each of the pie doors. No pie smells greeted her, just decades of musty, dusty air. Mrs. Johnson must not have been much of a pie maker, she thought.
She opened the griffin panel last, for a moment imagining the large animal might nip her fingers, and then peered onto the empty shelf by standing on tip-toe. More musty, dusty air kicked out, and she closed it with a heavy click.
Returning to the far side of the kitchen, she ran her hands along the walls until she was back at archway O by the staircase. She sketched the room in her notebook, marking the appliances, cupboard counts, free-standing cabinets, the stairs, and the doorways.
One end of the kitchen opened to the outdoors through two curtained glass doors. She marked them with a single letter, then checked to make sure they were locked since they led outside. They were. Out in the yard, she could see tall lantern lights surrounded the grass and gardens. All of the lights were on. She pulled the listing papers from her front pocket and unrolled them. The house and grounds exceeded nine acres, and from what she could see, the post-lamps outside lit up over an acre. Again, in her mind she saw the electricity meter spinning like mad.
Locating the switches for the outside lights — all ten of them neatly labeled — she thought about switching them off. Seeing how dark it was beyond the lights, she struggled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket and saw that it was nearing one in the morning. Deciding to leave the lights on, Carol added another bullet to her list, “ask if outside lights always on overnight” to ensure she knew best how to make the house look like it was not empty. Better safe than sorry.
Placing sticky-notes on both sides of the doors leading off from the kitchen — except the already-marked glass doors leading outside — she found herself at Door X. Have I ever run out the alphabet on a house before? She’d sold several houses of this size before, even a house that exceeded 5,000 square feet, but couldn’t remember ever reaching Door X before, nonetheless Door Z, or the Door AA to come.
Spreading the listing papers across the kitchen counter, she traced the doors and found that the kitchen led to a game room, family room, and another hallway with the master bedroom and bath. The master wrapped along the entire right side of the house, to end by the front entrance-way. She had all of these rooms left to explore, and the thrill of it made her heart skip a beat.
Before taking the stairs up to the rest of the bedrooms, and several rooms labeled merely, Bonus Room on the paperwork — the all-encompassing phrase used for spaces that cannot be counted as bedrooms for whatever code-related reason, or are finished, unheated spaces not named on the official public records.
Retracing her steps to the living room, Carol quietly went outside to her car and retrieved a sleeping bag and pillow from the back seat. Grabbing a large bag from the front passenger floor, she locked her car and stealthily returned to the living room; again, locking herself inside.
This wouldn’t be the first time she’d slept in someone else’s empty house. She ensured the curtains were thoroughly closed, changed into pajamas she carried in her bag, ate a quick meal of cheese and crackers, chugged an entire bottle of water, and settled in for the night.
It took her an hour to fall asleep, as excited as she was to explore the rest of the Johnsons’ house. She listened to the creaks and groans of the structure, wondering which rooms were settling, and picturing the well-lit outside of the house. She felt safe. When the furnace kicked on around 2AM, it lulled her to sleep. She dreamed of house sketches and builders’ drawings, and of sticky-notes on more doors than she’d ever expected.
She awoke close to mid-day, surprising herself. Yes, she’d stayed up late, but had expected to rouse around seven o’clock as usual. It was approaching noon, according to her cell phone, which was blinking to be charged. She pulled a charging cord from her bag and plugged in the phone along the living room wall.
Carol dressed, used the Door C private toilet — mused at the lengthy flush but healthy-sounding plumbing, then washed her hands with soap from her bag and sat on the carpeted living room floor to peruse her notebook.
At length, she decided to start today’s expeditionfrom the kitchen; not only because her adventurous spirit drew her that way, but because she’d left her paperwork on the counter. Retrieving it, she explored each doorway to its end, marking keys as she used them, sketching rooms as she found them, and placing more sticky-notes.
Every light she found was on and, since the curtains were closed and it wasn’t where she was really supposed to be, she left them on. She also left each door ajar after placing sticky notes on both sides.
After a quick break at one o’clock for lunch — granola bar and warm apple juice from her bag — she ascended the staircase from the kitchen. There were two other staircases that she’d found along the way that would have to wait. One set of stairs led up from the far-left side of the house, and the other spiraled from the master bedroom up to the second floor.
That was another touch she found odd in the house. Who wants a staircase leading down into a bedroom? The room above was marked Bonus room, giving her no hints as to what would be above. She’d get there, eventually.
Turning at the top of the stairs so that the front door and driveway would be below and behind her, Carol saw that a hallway ran in one direction to where the far-left stairs came up from that side of the house. To her right, she saw three doors. She knew from the house layout included with the paperwork that the center door would lead to a bonus room above the bedroom, but couldn’t remember to what the other doors led. Whatever was behind them would be long and thin, as shown on the map, and because the doors were so close to the stairway.
Attaching sticky-notes to the outside of the doors, she went through the keys and unlocked each, then turned and went down the hallway to the left. When she reached the stairs — ornately carved wooden railings topped by heavy wooden balls — she turned back and sketched the hallway. She placed sticky-notes on the inside of the doors — now up to “NN” thanks to a number of closets including one bedroom with two separate closets. She left the doors ajar just as she had on the lower floor.
In one of the center rooms, which had been marked as a bonus, Carol found a second four-poster bed. Much older than the first, she added it to her bulleted list to sort out later, and began sketching the room.
She ran her hands along the wall of this room a second time before leaving. Somehow, the room didn’t feel squared-off right. The corners weren’t exactly right-angles along the far wall, and she wondered if the space had been divided at some point… by someone perhaps not as good a builder as they should have been.
By the time she’d returned to the top of the center staircase, her stomach was rumbling. She pushed her notebook into her jacket pocket and bounced down the stairs to the kitchen. The heat kicked on again, furnace blasts from the vents pushing dust around the house as she retrieved her bag from the living room. Microwaving a hand-held soup, she stood watching the dust swirl while she drank her early dinner. It seemed like a lot of dust for a house that had been emptied only the day before. Then again, moving out all the furniture likely stirred up the house. She finished her soup, and to her bulleted list added “bring in cleaners ASAP.”
Checking the lower kitchen cupboards, she found a trash can. She pulled it out into the center of the kitchen and tossed her empty soup container into it. She’d take it out with her when she left later, she told herself, not adding it to her list. She didn’t want to inadvertently note that the trash wasn’t empty, as that was her doing and not the homeowners’.
Ascending the center stairs, she turned toward the three doors and walked through the one closest to the back of the house. Inside, she found a long room with three sets of glass doors leading to a balcony that ran the length of the room, stopping several dozen feet from the end of the house. As she ran her hand along the walls, she wondered about what was on the other side in the bonus room above the master bedroom. She’d find out soon enough.
Returning to the stairs, she skipped the center door and opened the other. Here was a windowless room, just as long as the balconied room she’d just left. The flooring had to be a hundred years old, she thought, crouching to touch it. Probably original to the house, she thought, like so much of what she’d seen. Even in rooms that had been updated to the 1950s, or to the kitchen with its mix of 1950s cupboards, ancient cabinets, and shiny millennial refrigerator, the woods and walls reflected the house’s age. This room in particular, she thought as she encountered more than a dozen cracks running down its plaster walls.
She added a bullet to her list, “Door OO-bonus room needs plaster work,” and flipped to a blank notebook page to sketch the room. With no windows, and only a small fixture in the center of its length, she found herself squinting in the dim as she sketched. When she walked out of the room, she closed the door rather than leave it ajar. Shuffling through the key ring dangling from her bracelet, she locked the bonus room door. No sense letting a potential buyer see that bland place until I’ve had a chance to get the plaster repaired. Maybe she’d talk with the owners about putting in a window, though she doubted they’d go for it.
Finally taking the center door, Carol pushed it wide to find a room not only long, but wide. The room was, as expected, windowless along both sides due to it being in the center. At the end, however, was another door. What in the world had the builders been thinking?
She skipped running her hands along the walls and ignored the gorgeous old wood that made up the floor, instead walking purposefully to the door. The knob turned, which surprised her. All the locks and doors in the house, and this one leading to the room above the master bedroom was not only unlocked, but lock-less.
She forgot to label the door and walked through into an amazing space. Windows lined three sides of it, and at the back was the spiral staircase leading down to the master bedroom. The floor was without scratch, as if no one had walked up here in all of its years.
Sunlight filled the room, filtered by lacy curtains that looked as if they’d been handmade yesterday, but of a craftsmanship that Carol thought pointed to their creation at least a hundred years ago.
With no walls to run her hands along, only window-after-window, she moved to the spiral staircase and peered down. There, she saw the plush carpeting of the master bedroom ringing the bottom of the staircase. She leaned back, raised her head, and looked at the ceiling above the spiral staircase.
Instead of a ceiling, she realized with wonder that the staircase continued into an upper loft. It ended at that third floor, which was as bright with sunlight as the room within which she stood.
She closed her eyes and tried to picture the outside of the house. She’d thought it had two stories plus a basement, but the staircase continuing meant that there must be a turret or other embellishment above the second floor. Converted attic space, she guessed, then realized she hadn’t come across an attic door, nor noticed any attic access panels in the ceilings. Maybe this staircase was the attic access. But, then, who would attach it to the master bedroom?
She reached for her front pocket, finding it empty, and remembering that she’d again left the house paperwork with floor plans in the kitchen. Quickly, she sketched the sun-drenched bonus room above the master, decided to wait to climb the stairs, and returned to the kitchen.
She finished another bottle of water and checked the time. It was approaching 5PM and would be dark soon. She snatched the paperwork from the counter and raced upstairs. She jogged through the center door, long room, and second, unnecessary (she thought) door to the spiral staircase. Crumpled papers in her hand, Carol climbed up the spiral staircase to the third floor, possibly an attic, or a loft.
She gasped aloud as she stepped off the staircase and only the wooden floor. It was the attic! The flooring ran the length and width of the house, with the exception of the staircase end, which was surrounded on three sides with windows, much like its surroundings on the second floor.
She knelt on the floor and straightened out the papers. They contained layouts for the first and second floors. There was a rectangular sketch of the basement, where she hadn’t been yet, with furnace, water tank, and other utilities marked. A similar, rectangular sketch of where she was — marked Attic — did not show any windows or the spiral staircase.
Recent additions? She thought it impossible, given the high ceilings on the second floor. She wanted to have a look at the house from the outside.
Carol rolled the papers up and stuffed them into her pants pocket. She began to descend the spiral and, thinking of an idea, she returned to the top room. Pulling a sticky-note from her pad, she reached through the curtains and stuck it to one of the windows facing the side-yard. A second sticky note, she placed high on the window facing the front of the house, peering down and confirming her bearings as she spotted her car below.
Racing back to the center staircase, rather than descending the spiral, she weaved her way to the front door. She opened it slightly, peered around the neighborhood to ensure no neighbors were outside, left the door open, and walked down to the street. Standing by the mailbox, her car almost directly in front of her, she looked up. Second floor. Peaked roof, which would be over the attic. No windows.
She walked down the street until the right side of the house was directly in front of her. Trees blocked part of her view. She walked into the side yard, her eyes fixed on the roof.
There. Finally, she could see both windows adorned with the sticky notes in the attic-level room. Despite having windows on three sides of the room, from the outside they looked like roofing. Somehow, the windows had been coated with something dark that helped them blend in among the shingles. It was incredible. Despite the light flooding in from outside, the bright room was barely visible from the outside.
She shook her head. Whatever the architect, or the remodeler, was thinking, it was strange. She pulled out her notebook and added a bullet point, “what year was attic sun-room outfitted with windows?”
Returning to the kitchen, she retrieved another granola bar from her bag and tried opening the doors to the patio. She flipped the bolt and swung booth doors wide, stepping into the breezy backyard, then dropping onto one of the many chairs left-behind on the patio. She made a mental note to add the chairs to her bulleted list later, and slowly crunched her way through the granola as she scanned the view. Gardens, flowers, grass — framed by expertly trimmed trees — stretched for hundreds of feet. Somewhere, a bird called; another answered. By far, she thought, this is the most beautiful yard I’ve ever listed.
When she finished eating, she rose from the chair and returned to the kitchen, carefully shutting and locking the doors. The light was dimming, and she saw the lampposts suddenly switch on. She pulled out her notebook and added a note to ask about timer controls on the outside lights.
She spent the rest of the evening retracing her steps through the house. She skipped the basement, deciding she’d stay over again and check it out during daytime. She changed into her pajamas, then on a whim climbed the spiral staircase from the master bedroom up to the second floor, then to the attic, and walked the length of the space. For the first time, she noticed sconces lining both walls for the length of the attic.
As she returned to the living room floor and her sleeping bag, she plugged her phone back into the charger, and set an alarm for 7AM. Carol spread out the house paperwork on the floor. She flipped through her notebook, matching each of her sketches to the official diagrams. Except for the windows in the attic, it appeared to match.
She drifted off to the sound of rain pounding the outside of the house, muffled by the double-paned windows. The next thing she knew, the alarm on her phone was sounding.
Yawning, she stretched and looked around her. Last night I’ll stay, she thought. Her own house needed to be her destination as soon as she’d finished sketching. Besides, she hadn’t checked her email for over two days. Other clients might be waiting for her to respond.
The last part of her adventure would be the basement. She scanned the diagram of the rectangular space, then pulled the door wide and carefully descended steep steps into the basement. She found herself about two-thirds of the way down the space, with the furnace and waterworks to her right. Concrete started where she’d come down, and spread under the mammoth equipment. To her left, ancient wood floor stretched to the far end. Window wells at ground level lent sunlight to the space, which stirred with dust.
Back in the living room, Carol’s phone pinged with voicemail from the Johnsons. Another ping joined it the following afternoon. Carol hadn’t been in contact with them for three nights since they’d left, the latest voicemail message said, and they’d been expecting to hear from her.
By sunrise on the fourth day, Carol wished she’d left as planned.
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