The first time Claudia Hall saw the house, she fell in love.
It was a white, Victorian-style home with green shutters and a large bay window. At the foot of the hill was a large oak tree, with old, sturdy branches and petite green leaves.
It was a coffee house called Cuppa, but despite the number of people camping outside of the shop on wicker chairs, there was a “For Sale” sign staked into the grass at the bottom of the hill. After ordering a caramel latte, Claudia stood outside and read the notice next to the door announcing the sale.
“Friends and neighbors, after 16 wonderful years, the time has come for Cuppa to say goodbye. We simply cannot thank you enough for being loyal to us, and for all the memories we’ve shared with you. We will close on December 6. If you or anyone you know is interested in buying this lovely home, please contact Fiona (Cuppa’s owner) at 770-457-8962. Thank you for all your business over the years.”
Claudia pulled out her phone and texted Jamie, fingers working furiously over the screen.
“Baby doll, I think I’ve found the house of our dreams.”
They drove to the home the next day. Though Jamie was never one to show her feelings, Claudia could see her eyes light up when she saw it. Outside stood Cuppa’s owner, Fiona. She was a short, round woman who wore baggy khaki capris and a bright yellow shirt with a glittery butterfly on the front. Standing next to her was a woman in cherry red, her black bob as sharp as the lines on her skirt suit. Her name was Colleen Dubois, the real estate agent tasked with selling the cafe.
“How did you find out about this place?” Fiona asked. Her voice was gravelly, smoke-filled.
Jamie nodded towards Claudia.
“Claudia came here for coffee yesterday and fell head over heels for it.”
“Oh, how wonderful! I was hoping to get some traction from the letter and the sign out front.” Fiona said as she ushered them into the coffee house, which she shut down specifically for the occasion.
“This house was built in 1865 by Isaiah Mosley,” Colleen began. “He was a successful textile maker. After he died, the house passed to his oldest son, Era Mosley.”
They walked into the first room on the right. The room was large, the size of a master bedroom. Three bay windows looked out onto the street and the oak tree at the foot of the hill. In the center of the room was a large desk. Piles of papers and books balanced on either side of the desk, which was covered in detritus.
They walked out of the office and passed the stairs, into the main section of the cafe. The registers, counter, and pastry cabinets lined the left side of the staircase. Tables, wooden folding chairs, and large, leather wing backs littered the cafe space. Across from the registers, two large windows looked out to the street and beyond that, a church.
“Now, Era became successful in his own right, and in 1897, Era married Phebe Pannabecker, whose father was -“
“Elias Pannabecker, the painter?” Jamie said.
“Why, yes, how did you know?” Colleen asked.
“Jamie was an art major, and she teaches at SCAD,” Claudia said. She leaned into her for a second, catching the scent of her orange ginger conditioner.
“Yes, well, Era and Phebe moved into this house shortly after marrying,” Colleen continued, oblivious to Claudia’s previous statement. “They lived here for quite some time. Here’s the kitchen.”
It was a long room that took up the rear of the house. It was painted a sunny yellow. Drapes hung over the windows that faced out onto a modest garden, and the space beyond that had been reclaimed as a parking lot for the cafe. Claudia mused about what the garden would have looked like before the bulk of it was paved over with asphalt. What could they do with the empty lot? Surely ripping up the pavement would cost a fortune.
Fiona ran up the back stairway to the restroom, leaving them to stand with Colleen and make awkward chitchat.
“So, how long have you two… lovebirds been together?” Colleen asked.
Claudia and Jamie looked at each other. As a same-sex couple in the South, they were used to the occasional weird comment. Sometimes people just didn’t know how to take them.
“Four years,” Jamie said. She slid an arm around Claudia’s waist. Colleen smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach her eyes.
“Oh, that’s lovely. And you’re engaged? Can I see the ring?”
Claudia smiled and held out her hand for Colleen to take. The woman cooed over her ring, a vintage rose gold band with an opal stone in the center.
“You’ve got wonderful taste,” Colleen said, looking at Jamie.
“Do you have a date set?”
“Yes, we’re planning for May-”
The woman looked up as Fiona trotted down the stairs, her face flushed with the effort. Colleen cleared her throat and transitioned from the curious woman to the hawkish real estate agent.
“So, are you ready to talk numbers?” Colleen asked.
“Wait,” Claudia said. “We haven’t seen the rest of the home.”
Fiona and Colleen looked at each other.
“There’s not much to see, just an additional bathroom and two other bedrooms,” Fiona said.
Jamie crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side.
“Well, if you expect us to live here, we’d like to see the rest of the home. I want to know more about this place. I grew up around here, and I remember this place being deserted for a long time before Fiona set up shop. What happened with the Mosleys? Did they move? Why weren’t there any previous owners?”
“You’re completely right, Ms. Winters. I’ll take you upstairs and we’ll discuss this home’s provenance.”
They walked up the tight back staircase, leading them to the darkened hall on the second floor. Directly across from the stairs was the bathroom. It was a modest size, with simple decorations.
There was a room at the end of the hall on the left, one beside the bathroom, and one caddy-corner from the bathroom.
Jamie felt a bit of unease as they stood before the bathroom. The hallway felt as cold and oppressing as a cave. The women stood there for a long moment, neither Fiona nor Colleen stepping towards the rooms.
“And down the stairs, we go,” Colleen said.
“Wait,” Jamie said. “What about these rooms? You still haven’t mentioned anything about the previous owners. Ms. Dubois, if you don’t start telling us what happened in this house before Fiona turned it into some hipster café, we’re going to leave.”
Claudia shot her fiancé a look of surprise but held her tongue. When Jamie was on the warpath, it was best to get out of the way.
Colleen heaved an exasperated sigh.
“Look, I like you, Ms. Winters, I really do. I can tell your fiancé really wants to buy this place, and it’s our goal to sell it as soon as possible. But these rooms, the home’s history, it’s best that you just leave well enough alone.”
“What kind of shit show are you running?” Jamie questioned. “Either you tell me about this place, or I’ll call your branch manager on our way home and explain to him you’re deliberately withholding information from us. We’ll see how he feels about that.”
The look Colleen gave Jamie was full of venom.
“Era and Phebe lived in this house until 1912 when they both died. There were no surviving heirs of the Mosley family, so the house went to the state. It sat empty until 2000 when Fiona here took it over. As far as the rooms go, you’re welcome to take a look yourselves. I’ll be downstairs waiting to discuss price, that is if I’ve provided everything to your satisfaction, Ms. Winters.”
Colleen walked down the stairs before anyone could respond. Fiona stood on the landing while Claudia and Jamie explored each of the bedrooms on the top floor. The room on the far end of the hall was the master bedroom. It took up most of the left side of the house and was large enough for a bedroom and a sitting room. The room was empty, but the wallpaper was dingy and worn from the elements. Despite her excitement about the house, Claudia couldn’t help the unease she felt in this room. Though there were windows facing the street and the yard, it felt dark, somehow desolate.
They moved to the other rooms, which had the same dreary feeling. The one next to the bathroom had a door that seemed to be stuck, and when Jamie opened it they were met with an intensely stale smell.
They walked down the main set of stairs and into the living room. Colleen sat at a table checking her phone. She looked up and offered a tight smile. To Claudia, she looked deflated, upset that she might be losing a sale. To Jamie, she looked like a liar who was only upset because she was caught.
“So, ladies? Are we ready to discuss price?”
Claudia looked at her fiancé, hopeful. She wished she could communicate with her lover mentally because if she could she’d say just relax, this place is great, don’t do anything stupid. But all she could do was squeeze her hand and smile, hoping Jamie knew her non-verbal cues.
Jamie looked at Claudia and nodded. She knew what her mild-mannered fiancé was thinking – that she was being too noisy, too brash, that if she didn’t pipe down they’d lose the house of her dreams. It was probably obvious to Colleen and Fiona that she wasn’t thrilled about the place, or about either of them. But Claudia meant the world to her, and so she’d do just about anything to keep the petite blonde happy.
“Okay,” Jamie said, putting on a smile that she hoped was friendly. “Let’s chat.”
Thirty minutes later they were sitting at a Shoney’s near the SCAD campus. Claudia was brimming with excited energy, and Jamie couldn’t help but smile at her. It was times like this when she really loved Claudia, when she was excitable and without care, talking a mile a minute, her blue eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
“Well, there’s so much we could do with the house, and it’s not too far from work for me, and it’s an easier commute to campus than what you’re doing now.”
“What do you think?” Claudia asked. She stretched her arm across the table and Jamie grabbed it, entwining her long fingers with Claudia’s petite hand. She felt Claudia’s nails press lightly into the back of her hand, something she found strangely comforting.
“Well, it’s definitely in our price range, but, I don’t know, babe. Didn’t it give you the creeps, being upstairs? And what was up with that real estate agent? She seemed to avoid the top floor.”
“Sure, I mean, the rooms haven’t been used in so long. And Colleen was a little weird, but after we make the offer we wouldn’t have to see her or Fiona again. I don’t know, there’s something about this place that feels right.”
“But, you have to wonder why they kept trying to avoid telling us the history of the place… I mean…”
Jamie looked at Claudia. She could see the longing in her fiancé’s eyes. Claudia was totally in love with the property. Despite her misgivings, Jamie nodded.
“Okay. We’ll make an offer.”
“Yes! Oh, I’m so happy, baby! This place is going to be so good for us!”
She leaned across the table and kissed Jamie, her heart fluttering in her chest as their lips touched.
They moved into the house a month and a half later. In that time, Fiona had all of the trappings of the cafe removed, including the signage out front.
When moving day came, the women rounded up a few friends to help with the heavy lifting. Jamie’s only request was that they use the room downstairs, which Fiona had used as an office, as their bedroom.
“The other rooms are creepy as shit,” she said when Claudia protested. “You wanted the house and we got it. The least you can do is let me choose the room.”
Claudia nodded then, not used to the vitriol in Jamie’s voice.
Jamie got her wish, but the room wasn’t meant for two people, a queen-sized bed, and their large furniture. Their furniture was so big the closet door wouldn’t open all the way without hitting the nightstand. But it made Jamie happy, so Claudia grinned and bared it.
That night as they prepared for bed, Jamie thought of the last thing Fiona told them as she handed over the keys:
“Make sure you use earplugs when you sleep. The street around the house can get pretty active, especially on the weekends.”
At the time, Jamie scowled at this. She’d never seen the type of activity in this area that would require earplugs, but she remained silent, not wanting to argue. She bought two sets of earplugs. After brushing her teeth, braiding her hair, and kissing Claudia goodnight, Jamie slipped the earplugs in. She soon fell asleep as the silence washed over her.
Claudia, however, thought that the earplugs were stupid and that wearing them was unsafe. What if there was a break-in? Or a fire? What if the plugs got stuck in her ear canal? She stared at them on her nightstand, defiant. I lived in Little Five Points for three years, she thought. I can sleep through any sound this tiny ‘burb will make.
Sometime around two, Claudia woke up to the sound of footsteps. She rolled over, thinking that Jamie was up and roaming around, but her fiancé was still there laying on her side, her long, dark hair snaked over her shoulder.
These footsteps sounded hurried and heavy. There was a clicking sound with each step, like the sound of a high heel hitting the wood floor. She heard the jiggle of a door handle and held her breath, thinking that any minute whoever was on the other side of the door would come bursting in.
But when the door remained closed and she heard another set of footsteps, these ones harder than the last, she sat up, her heart pounding loudly in her chest. Claudia remained still, afraid to move. What if the people on the other side of the door heard her? What if they came in and then took her and Jamie hostage? What if they were killed?
She heard muffled voices. The voices rose in timber, but she still couldn’t quite understand them. Out of curiosity or nihilism or both, Claudia pulled back the blankets and tiptoed towards the door. She pressed her ear against the old, faded wood.
“I will not stand these accusations, Phebe,” she heard a man say. The heavy footsteps sounded again, ambling down the hallway.
“I don’t much care what you cannot stand, Era Mosely. Henrietta McKay said she saw you and some floozy walking in Marietta Square not two days ago.”
Claudia scowled. Was she really hearing this? It sounded more like a lover’s spat than a break-in, but she didn’t dare open the door. She was stock-still, afraid that if she made any noise they’d come busting down her door and steal her stuff and beat her and possibly kill her.
Claudia heard the footsteps retreat towards the kitchen. She cracked the door open.
The woman that walked past her was wearing a long, flowing white gown. The sleeves were billowy and tightened at the wrist, only to extend in frills over her hands. The collar of the dress was high, and more frills extended above it. She wore heeled slippers and her hair was tied into a long side braid. She was pacing back and forth, her arms crossed over her nightgown.
“Phebe,” the man started. He stepped before her and cupped her face in his hands. He was still dressed in daytime clothing – a gray suit, a white dress shirt. Dust-covered black boots. Claudia could see what looked like a pocket watch dangle from his vest pocket. His dark hair was parted down the middle and slicked back, and he had a thick, bushy mustache. “Phebe, my darling, you know you’re the only one for me.”
Claudia pulled the door open further as Phebe brushed Era’s hand away and walked back towards the kitchen.
“But how can I believe you Era? You leave me on my own every day, and don’t I care for the home? Don’t I take care of you?”
“Of course, you do.”
“But I am not enough, am I?”
Claudia could hear the hurt in Phebe’s voice and wanted to reach out to her.
“Dammit Phebe, don’t you understand? A man has needs, he has-“
“Curse you and your needs!” Phebe spat. She turned towards a large wing back chair.
“I’ve given you everything you’ve asked of me, Phebe! I provide you with a home, lavish gowns, jewelry! You want for nothing, and yet you paint me as a cad! You give me anger when I would have love!”
There was a table against the side of the staircase, the top covered with glass cups and bottles of liquor. Era grabbed a thin glass decanter and poured the amber liquid into a glass. He took a long draw, then turned back to Phebe.
“You will take my anger because it is all I can give you! I want a child Era, but how can I lay with you, knowing where you have been? Knowing that you’ve been with every whore in the state!”
Era slapped Phebe across the face. Claudia flinched. She took a step back into her room. What was happening? Was she having a hallucination? A vivid, violent walking dream? She was stirred out of her thoughts by the sound of a thud. She looked into the hallway to see Phebe on the ground.
“You’re a coward, Era. You’re a goddamned coward!”
“Shut up, damn you! How dare you speak to me this way,” Era spat. “I am your husband, and I deserve your respect.”
“You deserve nothing!”
He stood over her and tried to grab her arms, but Phebe fought back, clawing and scratching at his arms. Eventually, her right hand connected with his cheek, and Era stopped cold. The couple looked frozen in time, Claudia blinked and rubbed her eyes, still trying to determine what was real.
Era’s right fist connected with Phebe’s cheek, knocking her down to the ground. He grabbed her left arm and dragged her across the floor. Phebe shrieked, and the sound echoed through the house.
“Era, please!” Phebe screamed.
He pulled her up by her arm, and Claudia heard a pop as her arm disconnected from its socket. Phebe was sobbing now, her right hand covering her face while her left arm hung limply, awkwardly at her side.
“Shut up!” Era bellowed. He pushed her against the closet wall. There was a sharp bang as Phebe’s head hit the wood. His right hand covered her mouth.
Phebe pawed at Era’s face with her good arm. She managed to scratch him across the eye, making Era yelp. He punched her again, this time in the eye. He took several steps back, and the smell of sweat and bourbon filled Claudia’s nostrils.
Her breath hitched. She pressed against the wall next to the door, afraid that Era would turn around and exact his violence on her, too. She could hear Phebe whimper and the sound of her sliding down to the ground.
Era walked towards her and Claudia peeked around the corner. Era tried to cradle Phebe. He was apologizing, blaming the booze, telling her that if she hadn’t questioned him, none of this would have happened.
“Leave me,” Phebe said. She had her left arm cradled in her lap.
“But, Phebe,” Era said.
“I said leave me!” Phebe said. She spat in Era’s face. That same quiet again, and Claudia knew this time that it was the calm before the storm.
Era pushed Phebe on the ground and hit her over and over and over again. Claudia whimpered as she saw the blood, heard Phebe choke on it. Era wrapped his arms around Phebe’s throat and began to squeeze.
“No,” Claudia said. She clamped her hand over her mouth.
Era stopped and looked up, turning his head slowly towards Claudia. His eyes met hers and she could see the hatred, the rage in his eyes. He turned back towards Phebe and continued to choke her, lifting her head and slamming it on the ground.
Phebe’s right arm fell to the ground. Her white nightgown was soaked in her blood.
Era stood up and stared down at his wife for several seconds before walking into the kitchen. As she heard his footsteps coming back down the hall she closed the door, locked it, and ran towards the bed.
“Jamie! Jamie! Wake up!” She shook her fiancé awake.
Jamie rolled over with a grunt and opened her eyes. Once she saw the terror on Claudia’s face she sat up and removed her earplugs.
“What’s wrong?” She said. She started at the sound of footsteps outside the door.
“What the hell?” Jamie said. She tossed off her blankets and leaped out of bed.
“No, no don’t go out there!” Claudia cried. Tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t remember ever being this terrified.
Jamie put her hands on the door handle, but before she could unlock it she heard the front door open and shut with a loud thud. Footsteps thudded down the front stairs, and across the grass. The women ran to the window and Jamie cautiously peeled back the curtain. She saw the silhouette of a man walk towards the oak tree, carrying what looked like a rope. He tossed one end over the tree and then repeated the motion. Once he tightened it, he began to climb the tree.
Jamie turned and slid into a pair of flip flops.
“What are you doing?” Claudia asked. She heard the terror in her own voice, heard how shrill she sounded. All she wanted was for this nightmare to be over.
“Some weirdo broke into our house and now he’s trying to kill himself. I have to stop him.”
“Stay here,” Jamie said. She strode towards the door, unlocked it, and opened it. Before she could take a step outside there was a large cracking sound.
Jamie looked at Claudia and they both hurried to the window. The man had jumped from the tree and now his body dangled from the cracked limb, swaying in the breeze.
“Oh my God,” Jamie said. She flung open the bedroom door and then the front. Claudia ran into the hall, wondering why Jamie hadn’t noticed Phebe’s brutalized body on the ground. But there was nothing there. No body, no blood. The bar that stood against the staircase was gone. The red wing back chair that Phebe had leaned against was replaced by Jamie’s blue velvet recliner. There was no sign of the violence that had occurred moments ago.
Claudia stepped onto the porch, wrapping her arms around her. Jamie was halfway down the hill, staring at the tree that had, only seconds ago, bore the weight of Era’s body.
Now, it was empty.