“Jesus, Dad. You said it needed work, but this is ridiculous.”
“I didn’t know it was this bad, Mattie. It’s been years since I’ve been here. I was in junior high the last time I saw Aunt Tillie.”
The house looked smaller than I remembered. Gaping windows stared in silent disbelief, bewildered at being abandoned so many years ago. A bay window puffed out its chest in forgotten pride. A small dormer timidly jutted through rusted metal roofing.
Whatever paint there had been had worn away ages ago. Several clapboards had disappeared, leaving stark wounds in the building’s exterior. Scraggly bushes clung to the weathered siding, their branches exploring the home’s inner secrets. An unruly tree trunk grew close to the structure and rudely blocked a doorway.
We left the pickup and approached the house. Chill winter air and leafless vegetation increased the sense of lifelessness and decay. An air of foreboding filled the dusky gloom beneath an overcast sky.
Mattie stopped. “This looks like a lot of work, Dad. Can you tell me again why you wanted this place?
“I don’t know that I wanted it so much as no one else did. By the time they declared Tillie dead, and the cousins stopped fighting over the estate, the house had deteriorated, and no one wanted it. I was the last man standing when the music stopped.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
I turned around. “It’s a beautiful spot—you can see the whole valley from here.” I waved at the scenery below. “It would be a great summer getaway. It’ll just take a little work to get it in shape.”
“That’s my Dad—King of the Understatement.” Mattie looked back at the dilapidated house. “Okay, so a little work. Where do we start?”
“We open her up and check her bones. The framing on these old homes was often hickory or oak, so it should still be sound. We’ll go from there.”
The next morning, breakfast at the B&B wasn’t fancy, but it was plentiful. Mattie and I took second helpings of the home-cooked fare. We would not have time for lunch. We chatted about Aunt Tillie’s place and our plans for it.
The cook serving us coffee suddenly stopped and said, “That’s who you are!” and pointed at me.
“You’re Tillie Sawyer’s nephew. I knew I recognized you.” She snapped her fingers. “Randy, right?”
I shook my head and smiled. “Close—Ronnie. I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”
“That’s all right. You wouldn’t. I was a couple years younger.” She extended her hand. “Linda Bolton—Linda Johnson back then. I heard you were coming to claim the house. My mother and your aunt were great friends. I remember your visits. You and I played together once or twice.” Her face clouded over. “It was really sad about Tillie.”
“I don’t know much about it,” I said. “I was away at school when it happened.”
Linda shook her head. “She just up and disappeared in the dead of winter. It was quite mysterious. My mom got very upset.” She sat down with us. “My uncle was the sheriff, so we heard all about it. One day the mailman found her house wide open with no sign of her anywhere. It was bitter cold, and all the doors and windows were open. It snowed the night before and there were no tracks into or away from the house.”
I made a helpless gesture with my hands. “All I knew was they never found her.”
“That was the mystery. Her car was there, and nothing was missing. They searched for days. They put her picture in the papers—the town even offered a reward. They never solved it.”
“What happened to the house? It’s a wreck.”
“I don’t know. No one ever came to take care of it. The police locked it up. Over the years vandals broke in and wrecked it. It’s a shame.”
Linda Bolton said she was happy someone was finally going to take care of the old house and was glad it was me. We promised to keep her updated on our plans.
“You begin in the living room, and I’ll start upstairs,” I said. Mattie and I had our hammers and wrecking bars and were ready to begin gutting the timeworn building. She had helped me with handyman projects before, so I had confidence in her skills. I was pleased she had sacrificed her college holiday for this project. It was always safer working with two, and I was thankful for the company. I’d had too many lonely days since her mother died.
We wore goggles and surgical masks to protect us from the musty plaster dust and animal droppings. Rodents and birds had occupied the house for years. Unidentified critters scuffled and scratched in the walls. The noises were unnerving, but the bright sunshine helped dispel our irrational fears. Even so, we were careful whenever we opened a new wall.
I had just uncovered an old oak beam upstairs when I heard Mattie scream.
I tore down the stairs two at a time and ran into the living room. “Mattie! What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
Mattie stood transfixed, whimpering, a fist in her mouth, her other hand pointing at the wall behind the antique wood stove. A brick chimney stood kitty corner to the room with diagonal wing walls on either side. A broken panel of lath and plaster hung at a crazy angle, exposing the wall cavity. At first I couldn’t comprehend the image facing me.
A blackened skeleton stared back at us, its arms raised in fear. Wisps of coppery red hair curled from a gruesome skull with desiccated skin pulled back over snarling teeth. She wore a faded floral housedress, greyed with decades of dust, everything covered in a diaphanous mesh of cobwebs.
I grabbed Mattie and hugged her to my chest as she burrowed her head in my shoulder. She trembled and sobbed while I uttered soothing sounds that seemed empty in my ears.
“I’m Tom Johnson,” the deputy said as he stuck out his hand. He was tall and lean, and I liked him immediately. Mattie and I sat on our pickup’s tailgate, wrapped in ambulance blankets, sipping hot coffee. We had been there for two hours while a forensic team scuttled about the house like ants.
I shook his hand. “Ron Sawyer. This is my daughter Mattie.” I gestured and she gave a wan smile as he tipped his wide-brimmed hat to her. “Any relation to Linda Johnson—Linda Bolton?” I asked.
“That would be my sister,” he said. “She mentioned you were out here working on the old place.”
“We were gutting it to inspect the framing. Mattie seems to have found Aunt Tillie after all these years. Any idea what happened? How she ended up inside that wall?”
“We’ll never know for sure, but the forensic team has a theory. Linda said she told you about your aunt’s disappearance…” His voice trailed off as he looked at the house. “Like most folks around here, Tillie heated her place with wood. The only reason anyone might open the doors and windows on a cold day would be if the wood stove was smoking and they wanted to air out the house.”
“That might explain the condition of the house, but not Tillie,” I said.
“I’m getting to that. A stove will smoke when the chimney is clogged with creosote. Our guys checked and it’s still plugged up. She must’ve gone through the attic on her way to inspect the chimney. There’s a dormer up there with a porch from which she could reach the roof.” He used his hands when he talked. “We found rotten floorboards in the attic. She must have fallen through, into the gap between the chimney and the wall and knocked herself out. That would explain why her arms were over her head.” He demonstrated the position. “That’s why no one found her or heard her the day they searched for her. She was unconscious. And that’s why there were no footprints in the snow. She never left the house. She died in the wall.”
Mattie shivered. “How horrible.”
“With any luck she never woke up.”
I grimaced. “Wouldn’t there have been—an odor?”
“Remember it was bitter cold that day. Freezer cold. By the time the body thawed and started decomposing, the house had been abandoned.”
Mattie shuddered again.
We thanked him for the explanation, and he left.
“We’ll have to plan a funeral for your namesake,” I said to Mattie.
“Yes, didn’t you know? I named you after her—Matilda. You chose the nickname Mattie, but she preferred Tillie.”
“No, I didn’t know. Poor Aunt Tillie.” She looked at me. “But I still want to be called Mattie.”
I assured her that was fine. I wanted Mattie to be Mattie. We didn’t need another Tillie in the family, disappearing or otherwise. One was enough. Poor Aunt Tillie.
Note: A version of this story won 1st Place in the Granbury Writers’ Bloc monthly contest in March 2017.