The minivan turned off the main road and wound through streets lined with shaggy trees, weathered cottages and tangled gardens. Mr. Nunios shook his head. He sounded pretty disgusted, “I’m telling you, I haven’t seen one road sign since we left the highway.”
“It’s a beach town,” Alison’s mother offered as an explanation, “There aren’t that many roads.”
Mr. Nunios turned his head for a better look at one especially run-down house. “I can see why tourism is down. All the tourists got lost.”
Olivia knew how meticulous Mr. Nunios was about maintaining his house and yard. She also heard enough of his rants to know that he had no tolerance for homeowners who slacked off. As if on cue he began, “You know what I always say…”
“Unkempt means contempt,” Michael, Alison and even Olivia all chanted dutifully.
Mr. Nunios looked surprised. “That’s right. Contempt for yourself and contempt for your home and especially contempt for your neighbors who have to put up with your eyesore of a house.”
“We know, Dad,” Michael sighed. “It’s a life lesson.”
“Are you saying that to make fun of me?”
Olivia laughed quietly to herself at Michael’s overstated sincerity. “No, Dad, of course not,” he said, while also nodding his head with an exaggerated yes motion.
“In any case,” Mr. Nunios continued, “this place sure fell apart.”
“It’s a dump, Dad,” Michael said. “I tried to tell you guys that when you booked the trip. Nobody comes here anymore. We should have gone to Grimmyland like I said.”
“Is Grimmyland free this week or something?” His father asked with heavy sarcasm. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go there?”
“Do you?” Michael shot back.
Mr. Nunios turned down the corners of his mouth. “More than we got.”
“Things will look a lot better in the sun, after we’ve had a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep.” Olivia smiled at Mrs. Nunios and her positive outlook. She really was a grand master of the tactful subject change.
According to the voice on the GPS, the address was coming up on the left, but all Olivia could see was a dense tangle of ancient trees and a thick overgrowth of wild underbrush.
“Wait. I think that’s a driveway.” Alison’s father pointed to their left.
Olivia could make out a break in the trees that formed a natural arch. The minivan lurched, splashing through puddles in the unpaved driveway. Low branches of the huge old trees, heavy with rainwater, hung down scraping the roof and sides of the minivan. There was a sudden, thwapping crack.
“Now what?” Mr. Nunios moaned.
Hitting the brakes, Mrs. Nunios tried to look through the rain on the shattered windshield. “Antenna I think. Must’ve gotten caught on a branch and snapped off.”
“Perfect.” Alison’s father leaned his head onto the headrest heavily. “Put it on the bill for this trip. Michael, don’t say one word.”
It was especially dark under the canopy of leaves. Olivia heard Alison’s mom clicking the high beams, the low beams, the fog lights, but it was almost impossible to see. The knot of woods stretched back at least a hundred yards from the road until it thinned out to a weedy, overgrown lawn that Olivia could only see in pale, ghostly bursts with every flash of lightning. In between the flashes, the world disappeared.
A few old trees sat here and there around the lawn like old ladies feeding pigeons in the park. Olivia thought these trees probably would have decorated the lawn and added character once, but it had been so long since anyone had taken care of them, that they had grown into huge, bony fingers against the flashing sky.
The driveway opened to a gravel plaza that wound around a large, circular stone fountain. The headlights lit up a tower of three fish that stood in the middle of the fountain. Each crumbling fish jumped out of the mouth of the larger fish below it. Or maybe each larger fish was swallowing the smaller prey.
Big fish eats little fish? Olivia wondered. Or little fish lives to swim another day? Hope or despair? She loves me. She loves me not. I would ask the artist about the theme, but he or she has probably been dead for fifty years. If not longer.
The fish at the top looked like it used to spit out the water that made the fountain. But the only water in it now came from the rain. Mosquitoes must love it. Zika virus, anyone? But then, she reasoned, if there are mosquitoes, there must also be birds, dragonflies and bats to eat them.
How many microorganisms live in that water? A tiny ocean full of all kinds of creatures. I should have brought my microscope. I don’t care how dorky Alison thinks it is. We could have seen dinoflagellates whipping around. Maybe some protozoa. Like a private zoo.
The minivan stopped. Wondering what the latest disaster was, Olivia leaned over to look out the window. Under the strobe lights of the storm Maggie’s Mansion suddenly sprawled into view. A long, wide flight of steps led up from the gravel plaza to the wooden porch that stretched across the entire front of the building. A square, flat-roofed tower stretched up four stories taller than the square, flat-roofed shoulders of the three-story base.
Alison wrinkled up her nose, “Great! A haunted house!”
Clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth in disgust, Alison’s mother said sharply, “Stop being dramatic. It’s charming. They don’t build places like this anymore.”
“Because they’re creepy?” Alison asked. “Nice sign.” She pointed to a large sign lit up in the beam of the headlights. The words Maggie’s Mansion appeared in an elegant, but fading script. Painted above the name, a jagged, red proofreading caret indicated an insertion between the two words on the sign. Above that, in red, drippy letters, somebody had scrawled in the word Haunted.
“Great, Mom,” Michael moaned. “You actually booked us at a haunted house.”
Olivia laughed to herself. She didn’t want to add to the tension by making Mrs. Nunios think she was piling on, too, but she had to admit, Michael was pretty funny sometimes. And he had a point. She turned to Alison, who looked miserable.
“Knock it off.” Mr. Nunios sounded commanding and curt. “Don’t everybody get excited because some knucklehead thought he was being funny and defacing private property. So let’s everybody relax.”
“I’m totally relaxed, Dad,” Michael breezed. “I’m sure we’ll sleep like the dead here.”
“Enough with the smart remarks,” his father warned. “It’s just an old hotel.”
“Yeah,” Michael added, “it’s not like any horror movies ever take place in old hotels.”