Decisions at Christmas

Yvonne Lang

It couldn’t be the same place. Yet, the red door looked identical…

There was a wreath on the cottage door and a huge evergreen dripping with humongous baubles outside. There was even a smattering of snow on the ground. It wasn’t Paris, but it was still Christmas away, just the two of them as they tried to make their marriage work. Part of the reason Rose was still married after such a whirlwind romance was just to avoid her mother’s smug ‘I told you so’ after all of her lectures on ‘marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ A French air traffic control strike had dashed their eagerly awaited romantic Christmas and left her and Tom scrabbling for an alternative. He had found this place and booked it without consulting her. Not involving her in decisions, as usual.

“Well, this looks lovely,” Tom said as he parked the car.
It looked dull and isolated to Rose, but she didn’t want to rain on his parade when he was trying so hard. Rose realized she had placed a protective hand on her stomach and quickly moved it. She smiled at Tom as she got out. Rose had seen nothing but woodland for the last 30 minutes of the drive here. It was just her, her con artist husband, and the unnamed beginnings of a baby. Tom had no idea Rose had found out about his checkered past – or present if the police who had approached her were to be believed; or that she was pregnant. She may tell him nothing, or the full story. She may walk away from him and his criminal record and turbulent mood swings. She had some big decisions to make.

Rose’s boots crunched on the frost; it was a satisfying sound. It felt fresh out here, maybe a good place to get some thinking done, such as deciding whether to cooperate with the police. How much to tell the police, especially a certain officer.

Tom was swearing profusely at the bright red front door.

“Do you want a hand?” Rose offered.

“I can unlock a door, Rose. Unless there’s a knack to turning a key that you’re a specialist in?”

So she’d got Mr. Hyde for this trip. Rose let him be and rubbed her arms to keep warm.

Just outside of the garden a throng of sparrows hopped around looking for sustenance and a squirrel scurried about, his tailed fluffed up gloriously. There wasn’t any movement next to the cottage though, as if the wildlife respected the property line. There weren’t any tracks in the thin snow except hers and Tom’s. All around the cottage was pristine, with the haphazard markings of various animals and birds scattered all over a bit further afield. Nature seemed to be giving the cottage a wide berth. A shiver ran down Rose’s spine. Tom had given up jiggling the key and was delivering a few hefty thumps to the post box red door.

He turned around; his face flushed with frustration when the door swung open with an ominous creak. Tom looked triumphant.

“Stiff thing just needed some encouragement,” he announced as he gathered up the bags.

It didn’t look that way to Rose though. It looked as if the door had opened of its own accord. She had an uneasy feeling about this, but it was probably just because she was going to be spending a lot of time alone with Tom.

The cottage was small but quaint. There was no carpet downstairs – it was all bare floorboards that creaked as they entered. The house seemed to be readjusting to their presence. Rose chastised herself for such a ridiculous thought and told herself she just wasn’t used to old houses.

“Quaint, how old is this place?” She asked as she walked over to a huge ornate mirror in a bronze polished frame.

“How on earth would I know?” Tom snapped as he emptied his pockets onto the nearby dresser.

“I just thought it was the sort of thing they would mention on their website,” Rose sighed, regretting coming.

“I didn’t look at the website. It was somewhere free Christmas weekend at the last minute. I just bagged it before someone else did.”

“So you didn’t read any reviews about this place?” Rose asked.

Tom looked up from fiddling with his phone, his green eyes gleaming with anger.
“What can they say? It’s a cottage, available at the last minute. What could have been written that would have made us stay home? If all its walls and roof are intact, it has a bed and running water, it will be fine by me.”

Rose waited him out. Sure enough, his face softened.

“I’m sorry. I’m tired from the drive. I shouldn’t have taken my frustrations out on you though. How about we relax for a bit?”

“That sounds nice.”

Tom nodded and looked around, momentarily confused,
“You’d think in a holiday let they would put dial for the central heating somewhere obvious?”

“I can’t see any radiators anywhere. I think it’s all firepower,” Rose answered, managing to resist adding, ‘which you’d have known beforehand if you’d read up on the place.’

Tom looked most put out as if he’d been conned out of something he’d been promised and Rose mentally prepared herself for a weekend of tip-toeing on eggshells. She felt like she was edging closer to a decision about her marriage.

“Right, well I saw a woodshed as we pulled up. I’ll go fetch some.”

“Good idea,” Rose agreed, desperate for a bit of warmth.

Tom nodded, put his phone down, and went back outside. Rose went to look around but had barely made it a few steps when Tom’s angry shout caused her to come running back, “What’s wrong?” She asked as she joined him in the doorway.

He was leaning down and rubbing his shin through his jeans, muttering obscenities. “Banged my leg on this damn coffee table. I swear it wasn’t here moments ago.”

“It must have been. Maybe you just didn’t see it because all the cases blocked your view?” Rose suggested.

“Possibly. Good thinking sweetheart,” he straightened up and kissed her on her forehead.

Dr. Jekyll was back. If he stuck around that would make this weekend a lot more bearable, maybe even fun. She’d try to keep him in a good mood.

“I’ll move some of the bags upstairs, out of the way whilst you fetch the wood.”

“OK. Maybe leave the big ones for me?”

Rose smiled and gathered up the two canvas holdalls.

She was slowly making her way up the creaking wooden stairs when she felt the floor shift beneath her. She was falling! Then Rose realized she was going up, not down. She was deposited on the top floor as if she had ridden the crest of a wave. She looked back, confused. How had she got up the stairs? Her feet hadn’t moved past stair three? Maybe she was just dizzy? Breakfast had been a long time ago. She’d have something to eat soon. She looked at the three closed, wooden doors. The one at the end swung open, inviting her in. Rose tentatively approached, maybe a breeze had moved the door if Tom had left the front door open? She didn’t believe her own reasoning but could think of no other explanation, so she clung to it. This house gave her the creeps.

The bedroom was cold, sparse but clean. The king-size bed dominated the room and looked very inviting. The duvet was even red and green – very festive.  Rose didn’t want to linger on her own though. She put the bags down and dashed out. As she made her way to the stairs, she could have sworn that the walls were pulsating ever so slightly, as if the house were breathing. She really needed to sit down, warm up and get some food in her.

There was a hammering sound and Tom was shouting again. Rose went to the door and opened it to find an angry Tom on the doorstep with an armful of wood.

“Why did you lock the door?” He demanded.

“I didn’t. It wasn’t locked. It must have blown shut.”

Tom looked at her in disbelief, seemed to decide against arguing, and pushed past her to put the wood in the basket next to the fireplace. His haul barely filled it halfway. He stood glaring at it.

“How much wood do you need for 24 hours?”

“No idea,” Rose answered, “I have as much experience of wood fires as you do.”

Angry that Rose didn’t have answers, although experience taught her if she had known he’d be mad at being shown up, Tom barged past her to snatch up his phone.

“Maybe it says in the reservation email?” He scrolled silently for a few moments, “No, but at least I’ve got the Wi-Fi code. To be safe I’ll go grab another armful.”

With that, Tom walked off. Rose picked up his phone, she wanted the Wi-Fi code and the email he had been reading was still open, ‘Thank you for booking a stay at Grindyll.’ She scrolled through and got the code she was after.

She didn’t want to explore this place without Tom, even if he was in one of his volatile moods. Grindyll made her uneasy. She wondered if it had bothered others and that’s why it had been free on such a key date? She opened Trip Advisor – but could find no record of it. She Googled ‘Grindyll’ instead.

All the results were from news sites, about people disappearing whilst staying at Grindyll. Rose clicked on the top link. A news story about a couple who had vanished from a cottage called Grindyll in Northumberland. She was down near Wales. It couldn’t be the same place. Yet, the red door looked identical, and one of the photos showed off a living room with an open fireplace under a huge brass framed mirror. It looked like the same place, but they were hundreds of miles apart. It must just be a decorative template they stuck to. The couple who had stayed there had simply vanished. There were no signs of a struggle or violence, nothing had been stolen – all their possessions were left at the house. Yet, the couple was never seen again. Rose swiped to the next story. The same bizarre disappearance but in a totally different area.

Rose felt sick. Her sixth sense was screaming to run. She got up in a flash, she needed to leave. Her path was suddenly blocked by a drawer shooting out, stopping mere millimetres from her stomach. She froze as the dresser drawer edged out slowly. It ever so gently touched her stomach and Rose held her breath, she would swear the house was inspecting her. It appeared to make its judgment and the drawer retreated.

Breathing heavily, Rose stood rooted to the spot, her eyes on the drawer, but it remained still. Tom’s phone was still on the dresser and lit up to show he’d received an email, with the preview indicating it was about his life insurance policy. Rose didn’t know they had such policies. Was this one of Tom’s cocksure, I know best, and here’s the fait accompli? She was livid, he really didn’t understand the concept of partnership. Maybe their marriage was doomed after seven short months.

She snatched up her husband’s phone, which asked for a code. Tom knew hers but she had never known his. Taking a punt on the code they used for their house alarm Rose tapped in the digits and was relieved to see how unimaginative her husband was.

Tom had not just taken out a life insurance policy on himself, he had taken one out on her too. They had a couple’s policy for an insane amount of money, with more premiums paid so it would pay out after a shorter term, apparently. The original documents were attached and showed Rose’s ‘signature’ at the bottom of several. Why would her husband, for whom the police had concerns about currently, fake her signature on life insurance documents? Rose couldn’t think of one good reason. Suddenly this house wasn’t the thing she was most afraid of. She closed the attachments and marked the email as unread. She backed away from the phone as if it could grass up her snooping to Tom.

She paced the floor, thinking through her options. One thing was clear, she had to get out of here. Tom was her only way out though, and she didn’t feel safe around him. Maybe she should ring DI Feather who was investigating Tom? He may come and get her? Would he be working Christmas? She did have his personal number though… Was it morally justifiable to use a police officer as a taxi based on nothing more than an uneasy feeling?

Her thinking was interrupted by Tom’s reappearance. He strode over and deposited his armful of wood into the basket.

“There, that should keep us warm until the morning!” He beamed as much as if he had discovered fire.

“I don’t want to stay,” Rose blurted.

“What?”

“Something about this cottage makes me uneasy.”

“Something makes you uneasy so you want me to drive the three and a half hours back home and lose the money I paid for this? Are you insane or just completely selfish?” Tom roared.

“I just want to go home. I don’t feel safe!!” Rose replied tearfully.

“Unsafe? What on earth could happen in this poxy little cottage?”

Tom’s rant was interrupted by the house groaning. Both he and Rose fell silent as they looked around. Then a huge pair of yellow, glowing eyes appeared in the large mirror, blinking slowly. Rose screamed, Tom spun around to see the eyes and witness the huge fireplace open up like a gaping mouth. The floorboards buckled, rolling like waves as they catapulted Tom into the dark abyss. He didn’t even have time to scream. The house righted itself, settled back to normal and a merry little fire sprung up in the fireplace.

Rose stood dumbstruck, waiting to see what would happen next, but the house left her alone. She shakily backed away and picked up Tom’s car keys. Well, that made some decisions for her. She didn’t have to worry about a divorce, or telling Tom about the baby. The house had presented her with a fait accompli and for once she was glad to be on the receiving end. She didn’t have to explain to Tom that the police had told her about his long list of financial crimes, frauds, and confidence tricks. Or, how she had grown close to the investigating officer and was pregnant with his child. She wouldn’t tell the insurance company her signature had been forged, that policy looked like it was going to be very beneficial to her. Something good had come from her marriage to Tom. She gathered her bags, bid goodbye to the house, and loaded up the car.

Yvonne Lang‘s work has featured in a range of publications, from Your Cat Magazine to Siren Magazine, as well as ranking highly in competitions. Her debut book is published as part of Demain’s Short Sharp Shock Series. She resides in Yorkshire, England with her partner and cat. website: http://www.yvonnelang.co.uk