Volume 1: CAGES
Chapter 1: The Mansion
Rain pelted the windows of the car. It had been pouring non-stop for the last hour or so. The unpleasant mood within the car was only dampened further and made fouler by the darkened sky and dreary weather.
A happy piano ditty was being played over the radio. The song had an upbeat tempo which only made the tension worse.
As the song faded out and a new song began to play, Aunt Helen reached over and turned the car stereo off. “Kairyna! Kairyna, can you please take your nose out of that book? You’ve been reading ever since we started driving.”
Kairyna didn’t even look up. “No.”
“─I don’t want to move, and I won’t stop reading.”
It had been three years since the death of her parents. She had been only twelve at the time. Often were her dreams still influenced by that day. She could remember every emotion that had fled from her when the accident stole them away from her life. Even at the funeral, she had been little more than empty. Instead of accepting condolences from her friends or people she hardly knew, she had secluded herself in a solitary corner with a book. Books had continued to be her escape since then, allowing her to remain distracted from grief. But even books could not keep at bay the anger and bitterness that had risen to take the place of the joy she’d once had.
With the death of her parents, her Aunt Helen stepped in as guardian over her. Perhaps once they’d been able to see eye-to-eye, but these days they hardly got along. She blamed her aunt, but deep down she knew it was the bitterness of her own heart that separated them. It had caused a rift between herself and everyone she once cared for, including the friends she no longer had.
“I know you don’t, but we have no choice,” her aunt said with an exasperated sigh.
“My parents would have never made us move,” she said in hopes of making her aunt feel guilty.
“Well, your parents aren’t here. Why do you have to make this more difficult than it already is?” By the quiver in her voice, she was close to tears. “I’ve told you that jobs are scarce these days. For your sake, I looked and looked everywhere I could back ho. . ..” Her voice cracked on the word, forcing her to choke it back. “Back where we used to live. But there was nothing. I tried, okay? We’re lucky I got this. Or would you rather be thrown out on the streets?”
For the first time the whole car ride, Kairyna looked up from her book to glare at her aunt. “Rather that than with some strange old woman who may as well live on the moon for how far her house is from the rest of humanity,” she spat. “Maybe she’s secretly some sort of psychotic maniac who lures people in so she can fulfill her demented fetishes by hacking off their limbs and storing their skulls in the china case in her basement.”
“Kairyna!” Helen said in horror. “What? Why would you. . .? That’s beyond disgusting!”
The look on her aunt’s face was satisfying to the point she could almost have smiled.
“Just because Madam Sporra’s home is located in the countryside does not permit you to rudely force your imagination on the situation. You read too many books. Her age is the reason why she sent out the ad in the first place. She needs someone to help her take care of her home. That’s all there is to it. And might I remind you of the fact that she has graciously offered us room and board as payment for keeping the place clean, preparing her meals, and maintaining the yard. This is exactly what we need. Any longer and we would have been homeless. Madam Sporra is our blessing. I won’t have you speak ill of her.”
Kairyna stuck out her tongue and then slouched back as far as the seatbelt would allow, bringing the book back up to her face. She ignored the look she knew her Aunt would be giving her and instead allowed her mind to slip back into the story.
Finally, the rain stopped as they pulled up to vine over-grown iron gates.
Kairyna put her book down and looked out the window. She squinted but because of a slight mist she couldn’t see the house yet. Well, there was also what appeared to be a formidable forest. She turned around to glance out the back window and saw that the fields and distant greenery were all perfectly clear. Looking back at the gate, it seemed the trees here were purposely holding the fog in place. “Yay,” she muttered under her breath.
“Wait here,” her aunt said and exited the car.
“Duh. There isn’t anywhere to run to.”
She watched as her aunt went over to a small box beside the gate and made a motion as though pushing a button. After a few moments, and a few attempts at hitting the box, she returned to the car.
At the same instant, with a heavy groan that could be audibly heard from the car, the gates slowly peeled open. It seemed to take a great deal of effort.
As they drove along the curving driveway, Kairyna got a better view of the forest. The trees looked ancient. They were twisted in ominous ways with heavy green moss draping from their branches. Once they made it past them, the overgrown gardens and run-down mansion came into full view. It looked, in her opinion, like one of the creepy houses from a murder mystery or horror novel. Boards had been nailed haphazardly over half the windows, the dark gray paint was chipped and peeling, and the grounds were consumed by decay. In the middle of the wrap-around drive was what might have been a magnificent fountain, but whatever statue had once stood at its center was horribly damaged beyond recognition.
She shivered and rolled her eyes at her aunt. “Still think she’s not going to murder us out here where no one can hear our screams?”
Her aunt looked out the window as she stopped the car in front of the house, an uncertain expression on her face. “Well, when she said her house was in need of major repair she wasn’t exaggerating. Talk about job security,” she said with a nervous laugh. “It looks like we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
“It looks like we’ll have our work cut out for us?” Kairyna said incredulously. “Are you insane? This place looks like it should be returned to whatever filming studio used it for its last horror movie. The only way we could do anything to make this place look better would be if we bulldozed the whole yard!”
Her aunt sighed and looked over the place again. “I don’t disagree with you.”
Just then, Kairyna saw motion in one of the upper windows. “Aunt Helen, did you see something in that window?”
“Hmm?” Helen looked where Kairyna pointed and shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”
“Strange . . . just like in a book.”
“Stop it with the books, Kairyna! Just stop! I know you aren’t happy about being here but since you are, I suggest you suck it up and just deal with it!” With that, Helen stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. She then proceeded to march toward the front porch.
Kairyna, after overcoming her shock at the outburst, glared at her aunt’s back, and then sulkily got out of the car to follow her. As she walked, she allowed her gaze to wander over the dried weeds that inhabited the gardens and a disgusted expression washed over her face. On her other side was the dried fountain. It was taller than she expected now that she was standing next to it.
“Hello, are you Madam Sporra?” she heard her aunt say.
“That I am.”
Kairyna turned at the voice and saw a wrinkled old woman standing in the doorway. She wasn’t very tall, and all her hair had been tucked into a strange net hairpiece that sat on top her head. She wore a faded yellow dress that looked like it had once fit her but now hung loosely on her thinned frame.
“My name is Helen,” her aunt was saying as Kairyna made her way up the stairs. “And this is my niece, Kairyna.”
A prodding elbow found its way into Kairyna’s arm. “Hi,” she said grumpily.
“Kairyna, don’t be rude,” Helen scolded her. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized to Madam Sporra. “She’s at that age where things that aren’t according to her plan are the end of the world. Moving here wasn’t in her plans.”
“Oh, that’s quite alright, dear. I perfectly understand. Sometimes life likes to give us challenges that we have to overcome.” She winked at Kairyna as she said this.
Kairyna looked away.
“Please, come in. Allow me to show you the house. As you can see, it is incredibly old. Some have described it as ancient. Either way, like me, it has seen better days.”
“No kidding,” Kairyna said under her breath.
“You are free to go anywhere in the house, of course, but be mindful. Not just this house but everything in it is also old. There are many valuables and collectibles that I would rather not have broken.”
Kairyna put down the glass ornament she’d been holding.
As she gave them a tour of the house, Kairyna imagined that she had been propelled into one of her books. When she thought in those terms, the house didn’t seem quite so boring. There were a lot of side hallways and she bet that if she looked hard enough, she’d be able to find all sorts of secret passages.
“And this will be your suite.”
Madam Sporra opened a door and ushered them into the musty smelling room. It was of a decent size for two people. The main area upon first entering had two cloth covered couches, as well as three covered chairs. Across from the entrance on the other side of the common space were two doors leading into separate rooms. Each of these contained a single bed and dresser. There was another door between the two bedrooms which revealed a washroom.
“I’m sorry it isn’t terribly clean. You will notice, however, that I was able to put clean sheets on the beds. There are also fresh towels in the washroom. I would have done more, but age prevented me.”
“It’s very nice,” Helen said politely. “Thank you very much, Madam Sporra.”
“It is I who should be thanking you. I’ve been lonely lately. No one else has been in this house for many years. It will be nice having young blood running around again.”
Kairyna looked around the room, scrunching her nose at the smell.
“What do you think, Kairyna?”
“Even if I tell you what I think, it won’t make a difference. I’ll be stuck here anyway.”
Madam Sporra chuckled. “Lively young thing, isn’t she? And very pretty, too. Is that your natural hair colour? It’s bright like the sun on a clear day.”
“No,” her Aunt Helen responded not bothering to hide the disapproval in her voice. “Her hair is not such a white blonde. It is naturally a darker blonde, like her mother’s was. And I believe the red was meant to spite me, as that’s my least favourite colour.”
Kairyna shrugged. Her aunt wasn’t wrong.
“Well, I think it looks adorable. If we had the ability to colour our hair back when I was young, I think I would have had darker hair. I never liked having light brown hair. It was too mouse-like. Anyway, I do hope you find everything to your liking. I know that you won’t at least for a while yet, dear,” she added to Kairyna. “I’ll leave you two to get settled then.”
They waited silently until Madam Sporra’s footsteps could no longer be heard in the hallway.
“You know what.”
Kairyna smiled at her sarcastically. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I always wanted to live in a place that smelled of dust and looked like someone’s forgotten attic. Maybe later we can have a tea party with possessed dolls. It’s like a dream come true.”
“Don’t you roll your eyes at me, Kairyna. I’ve had enough of your attitude. Until further notice―”
“─What? Are you gonna punish me? Look around! My parents are dead, and now you’ve succeeded in taking me away from everything and everyone I ever knew! My life is a living punishment!”
“We are not going to do this again,” her aunt said threateningly.
“Or what? What else can you possibly do?” Hot tears began rolling down her cheeks. “Ever since my parents died everything has gone wrong. And congratulations, you’ve only ever helped in making it worse. Do you want to know why I read all the time? It’s because in my books I can escape this black hole that has become my life. I have freedom from the things that really suck in this world. And do you know the best part? In my books, there’s no you!”
They glared at each other silently. Then, without another word, her aunt ran into one of the bedrooms, closing the door behind her.
Not knowing where to go but not wanting to stay, Kairyna ran from the suite. Blindly, she followed the hall to its end, up the nearest flight of stairs, and along another long hallway. This one came to a dead end where she crumpled on the floor in tears. In her frustration, she pounded her fist into the carpet, grinding her teeth together to fight back the sobs.
When the flow of tears began to ebb, she sat back against the wall and wiped her eyes. She sat silently, staring off at nothing. Slowly, she turned to look out the tall window next to her. It was set in a small alcove in which was a cushioned bench. She pulled herself onto this and stared out at the forest surrounding the mansion. Though the trees were covered in moss, from this vantage point she could see that none of them bore any leaves though it was the middle of summer. The yard was similarly dead with its browned grass.
“I see now. You’re like me,” she said to the house quietly. She looked back at the dark hall in its neglected state. The paint and wallpaper were peeling, and the paintings were hidden behind a protective layer of dust and cobwebs. “My life has fallen apart, too.”