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The place was a broken, bloody maw. Teeth were knocked out in the shattered windows and piano-key-crooked front steps, and no amount of flossing could ever scrape away the over one hundred years of decay and rot they left behind. Washed out paint bled through the gums of the foundation and the chimney was asphyxiated with cobwebs as thick as cotton. The iron fence resembled more of a busted bracket on braces than anything that could keep anyone out. But then, she thought, so did barbed wire at first glance. The door was a shade of coated tongue, cracked. It was with great trepidation that Rowan’s fingers clasped the knob delicately and, fearful at the time that it might break, or worse, that the squeak of the door would awaken something that ought not to be disturbed, turned it.
As expected, inside it was ash-lung black, and despite the diminutive size, the darkness was cavernous. Miniature furniture jutted out like ominous stalagmites. She fiddled with a flashlight she had brought along for the inspection, and yet her nerves continued to quake with the rhythm of the jingling batteries even as light stretched across the room. It never quite reached far enough or illuminated everything. They never do. She didn’t move further in but craned her neck, feeling like a fool peering into a crystal ball despite the dust therein. And no doubt looking more like the bird her old school mates often compared her to. She took in the dust-blanketed living room and breathed deep as her heart struggled between wanting something to happen—to get it over with— and nothing to move save for maybe a spider.
The truth of it was that Rowan wanted nothing to do with the house, but that was the uneven trade of death. Losing one priceless thing, usually, and in exchange getting an undertaker’s worth of debt and junk that had been an amalgamation of what was once yours, in some capacity. Usually. Grandfather had kept it and, as the only remaining heir, so too was she tasked with its care. That was the how of things. The why was something that had continued to elude her, as he left no note or explanation. Even if he had, Rowan wasn’t entirely sure it would have justified it. Perhaps he had done it out of some nostalgic love, or maybe more realistically, because he hadn’t found a way to destroy it. Either way, Rowan could only speculate what she didn’t know. What she did know did not a pretty picture paint.
The business was a harbinger of ruin, yet it did not start that way. Few did. Like a seed, it had been planted, and if left to its own devices maybe things would have turned out alright. Smothered before it could take root. However, the constant watering of the kind of isolating misery only a broken family could generate nursed that seed to a full, tragic bloom. Her great aunt Rose had been the unfortunate soul to be the soil.
The house had been a gift to Rose, and she had poured her all into it, but forgot to leave some for herself. Rowan supposed that if the crumbs of stories had any substance of truth in them, she couldn’t blame her great aunt. It was a scrap of salvation in what sounded like a hurricane, and if it kept her head above water all the better. The décor was picked with care and not a mite of dust was permitted life, no matter how small the cranny. Visitors were especially vetted before they were allowed in her sanctuary, never mind the more rigorous process residents went through. Hair was combed, clothes were pressed, and each had to be posed just so. Her dedication had been charming until slowly, the veil had been lifted to reveal its less welcome cousin, obsession.
Obsession is what kept Rose up in the witching hour, adjusting a frame here, repainting the living room there, and washing the dishes that were never dirtied. Broken wine bottles were repurposed for wall art, old clothes were sacrificed on the altar of the sewing machine for the sake of blankets, curtains, and rugs. It was when she heard voices that ought not to speak that people became worried. Yet like Cassandra’s fierce prophecies, any concerns brought up went unheeded, smoothed over with platitudes that were as transparent and flimsy as Tupperware. There’s a difference between a house and home and maybe the fact that hurt was pressed so firmly and so flatly in the pages of her psyche from a young age is what allowed the thorns to catch on her, like her namesake.
Rowan’s flashlight stopped cold on an old stain splashed on the pine floor, the sort all humans instinctively recognize, an heirloom of knowledge our ancestors pass down to us. It sits on the shelf next to the horror of the unknown the dark conceals beneath its skin. The blood had crusted into the cracks and dyed the rug in front of the fireplace a light pink hue, and it was all Rowan could do to swallow. The beam of the flashlight stuttered to a start and Rowan swept it across the room, fast, then slow, undecided on whether she should yank the band-aid off and get it over with and go inside or peel it back slowly to get a better look. Still more caked the walls and if she didn’t know better, Rowan would have thought a murder had taken place.
Consumption, the doctor had said, or so the story went, black bag in hand and shoulders slumped underneath the weight of the repetitive diagnosis, likely not knowing just how right and wrong he was. By the time the end came, the house had more life than Rose had. They tried to pry what was left of great aunt Rose from the floorboards, the shutters, the crevices of the fireplace bricks, and oh how she had screamed. To her dying day, Miss Muriel next door swore up and down the whole town heard it. That she could remember that but not her son’s name said something Rowan didn’t want to think about. Even as her earthly remains were carefully packaged away and packed down into the earth, her great aunt never left. Maybe if things had been different, if it had only stopped there, that would have been followed up with the teasing laughter and soft reassurances of cousins that never got to exist during late night sleepovers, told by the very flashlight she held.
Something scampered toward the kitchen. Warily, unthinking, Rowan stepped closer, broke the threshold in a way that shouldn’t have been possible…and was only cognizant of it when her boots thudded hard against the welcome mat and the door slammed shut behind her. Spinning on her heel, she reached for a knob that wasn’t there and her fingers dug into the edges of the exit only to find the entire thing may as well have been a painting. Scarlet painted her nails as she clawed and scraped uselessly. The flashlight fell dead to the floor in her panic, and with it, the light. It was only when it felt like stinging nettles had made a home beneath her skin that she stopped, turned, and slumped.
As she stood with her back to the door that would not open, Rowan hiccuped her breath and her vision fogged with tears. There was no one coming to save her, the others had already been taken, and for the first time in her life…she had no one to rely on but herself. Knowing she was the only one that could finish this and knowing she was the only one that could finish this were two different things. Footsteps fell like raindrops on the floor above, getting closer to running down the stairs like a downspout, and Rowan made a sound that her throat wasn’t too sure of. Half hysteria, half gasp, her hand came up to cover her mouth as she tried to settle her breathing. Just tried to breathe, to not suffocate in this mausoleum. She scrubbed at her eyes stubbornly, and gathered as much courage as she could, though it continued to slip through her fingers like cards stuck to the floor.
In the darkness, a pearl-studded smile hovered at the landing, tarnished with that damnable color, and grinned down at her. Others materialized, curved knives in the night. Rowan sought aid from anything in herself and the room, courage, clues, hell, divine intervention from something she hadn’t believed in for years. In the depths of her pocket, Rowan found her matches first and grit her teeth in determination. A light flickered to life in desperation, in defiance, and could be seen from the attic window of the antique dollhouse.
Interview with Jennifer Wonderly, Author of “A Family Heirloom”
What inspired your story?
I’ve often associated the gothic genre with castles and stately manors decaying with time and ruinous secrets yet to be uncovered. It’s one of my favorite tropes. However, I wanted to do something a little different with the idea of a haunted home. I’ve read articles and watched videos about supposedly haunted dolls, but never about a haunted dollhouse. I wondered what that would entail, all that misery being stored in such a deceptively small package, and it snowballed from there.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Right now, my favorite gothic story is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was introduced to it, and subsequently Poe himself, in middle school English lit class. My teacher showed us a video someone had animated to The Alan Parsons Project’s song of the same name, and the horror of it has lingered in my mind ever since. Much, I assume, like Fortunato’s bones did in that wall.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Lately, I keep returning to the theme of new beginnings, though grief and love, and how all three can affect one another make frequent appearances. Often the supernatural plays a hand in it.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I was listening to a podcast and something the guest said struck me, and I’ve been trying to find the source ever since. But they said something along the lines of “People make more decisions out of fear than love.” It’s good to be cautious but you can’t let fear of things like rejection, judgment or failure hold you back from making decisions that could possibly help yourself or others. Reaching out a hand into the world has all kinds of risks, but I’d rather do that than try to hide away from the world.
What are you working on now?
As of right now, I’m researching to write a story that marries the ghost story with a fairy tale, or fable.