A CURIOUS HOUSE
The worst christmas break ever. That’s what Ethan Moseby was thinking as he looked out of the car window at the bare, rolling countryside. An ancient oak tree stood alone on a hill, its skeletal black branches in stark contrast to the overcast gray sky. His parents were dumping him and his sister somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere. He shook his head and returned to the comforts of his video game.
His younger sister, Jynx, was doing a search on her iPad. “Listen to this—he lives in Deadmoor, Virginia. That’s a creepy-sounding name for a town, don’t ya think? It says he’s a famous artist.”
“His art looks as if it were painted by a baboon.” Their father, Reginald Moseby, checked his hair in the rearview mirror. As always, there was not a blond hair out of place. “Ethan, look at his picture. He looks freaky,” Jynx whispered, holding the tablet so he could see.
Ethan took his eyes off the screen for a split second, not wanting to miss any of Alamein Clash, his favorite game.
“Yeah, Jynx, he looks like a hippie with that long hair,” he said, and then kept playing.
“We do not use that butchering of Jynelle’s proper name, Ethan,” said their mother, Phoebe.
Ethan rolled his eyes. His mother was always trying to keep everyone and everything sounding proper. He looked at Jynx and noticed how sad she suddenly looked—she really hated the name Jynelle. Ethan shut down his video game and opened his drawing app. He drew the word jynx and showed it to his sister, who gave him a big smile.
“By the way, enjoy your iPads now, children, because you won’t be able to use them at my brother’s house,” Phoebe continued. “He said they simply won’t work there. He prattled on about some peculiar hocus-pocus—couldn’t understand a word of it. He has no internet, so I was forced to call him on the phone. Terribly inconvenient.”
Ethan groaned. “No internet? That sucks! Who doesn’t have internet access?”
“Ethan, if you hadn’t terrorized your cousins, you could be back at the Minge’s this year, with internet,” said Phoebe. But Ethan’s bratty cousins had made Jynx cry. He thought they deserved every prank he’d played on them.
Maybe his uncle’s house would be better. “Why haven’t we ever met this uncle of ours anyway?”
“He’s, well, not like us,” said Phoebe. “Socrates is reclusive and prefers the country. He was one of father’s ‘lost boys.’ Father volunteered at the orphanage and grew fond of Socrates, adopting him before I was born. Oh, how my father just adored Socrates—thought he was so charming. I can’t see it myself. He and I were never close; Socrates is ten years older than I am. I was surprised when he turned prematurely gray, though. I think it had something to do with an accident he had. Anyway, he’ll look after you well enough.” Phoebe looked with disdain at the countryside around her.
Ethan knew his mother preferred the manicured lawns of the country club and the fine shopping districts in Washington, DC, to the open pastures of Virginia.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the car turned into a driveway, passing under a broken wrought-iron archway. Ethan looked out and saw a large black bird perched on a rusted mailbox with the word mAUpIn painted on it in black letters. The bird flew into the air as the car passed. For a twelve-year-old boy, the prospect of life without friends or video games was grim.
“This will be the worst Christmas break ever,” Ethan whispered.
The man stood at the window of the great house, watching the black bird fly and then suddenly turn into an updraft. As the car made its way closer, he glanced up to the ceiling and said to no one in particular, “Gramarye House, please behave yourself while these kids are staying with us.” Then, sighing, the gray-haired man rubbed his bearded chin. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hello, children.’ No, nobody talks like that. Hmmm, what about ‘Hi, kids, I’m your uncle.’ No, that’s just stupid,” he said as he walked to the foyer. There he found the butler peering out of one of the room’s windows.
“They’re here, Mr. Maupin,” the butler said as he opened the front door.
Socrates’s cane clicked against the stone pavers as the luxury SUV pulled up in front of the house.
Phoebe climbed out of the car, her heels making her stumble on the gravel driveway. “Dear brother, how are you? You look, err, splendid? It’s so good to see you!”
Socrates raised an eyebrow and then replied, “Phoebe, welcome. I hope y’all had a good drive.”
Ethan slumped down into the car seat, trying to disappear. Jynx had her nose pressed against the car’s rear window, her large brown eyes surveying the house. “What a curious-looking house—looks like it’s falling down. It needs to be painted,” she whispered.
“Yep.” Ethan watched as his parents approached the rumpled man waiting for them in the driveway.
Ethan’s father, impeccably dressed in a hand-tailored sport coat and shirt, shook Socrates’s hand. “Maupin, old boy, we really can’t thank you enough, taking the children like this. I just hate that we must dash off without them this Christmas.”
“Reginald and I just abhor traveling this time of year,” Phoebe said. “It’s all so tedious with the crowds, the presents, the tourists.”
“But didn’t you say this is the fourth year in a row y’all have done this? My, the sacrifices we all must make,” Socrates said with a wry smile.
“Children, do get out of the car and come greet your uncle,” Phoebe said.
The two children slowly emerged from the vehicle. Like his father, Ethan was immaculately dressed, his dark brown hair sculpted to perfection with pomade. Small for her age, Jynx was a little over a foot shorter than her brother; her light blond hair contrasted sharply with the leaden afternoon. “Socrates, this is Ethan and Jynelle. Come, come, darlings.”
Phoebe waved a manicured hand at the kids.
Jynx winced when she heard Jynelle.
As Socrates stepped forward, the children noticed his limp and saw his unusually gnarled cane. His wrinkled clothes made him resemble an unmade bed.
“Welcome to Gramarye House!” said Socrates, his voice creaky and thin. “I hope y’all had a wonderful drive through the Virginia countryside. Let’s all go inside. I’m sure y’all must be hungry.”
“Dearest brother, I’m so sorry, but Reginald and I just can’t stay,” said Phoebe. “Our flight is leaving tonight, and it’s a three-hour drive to the airport. Somehow, I must find the time to pick up my fur coat from storage before the flight.”
The children gave brief, awkward hugs to their parents. Ethan knew their mother considered public displays of affection to be uncouth and their father wouldn’t want to risk messing up his hair.
Phoebe handed Socrates a packet of instructions in a manila envelope. “It’s all there, dear brother; just call if you need us.”
The SUV sped off down the driveway. The children stood with bags in hand, and a tall, gangly man with sandy blond hair and freckles appeared. “Let me have those bags, and I’ll take y’all to your rooms,” the man said with a heavy Southern drawl.
Socrates said, “Thanks, Fergus. Please ask Mrs. Gooch to fix them a snack after you’ve got them settled.”
“That’s right—they named me Fergus after my grandfather, Granddaddy Bugg,” the butler said to the children, leading them into the house. “Do y’all like cookies? Boy, I sure do. My favorite is the snickerdoodle, or is it the macaroon? Although there is chocolate chip . . .”
As Fergus rattled on, the children took in their new surroundings. To Ethan, it looked like a haunted house. The inside of the mansion had an old and worn look about it, and the walls were in need of a fresh coat of paint. But it did look better than the outside. Colorful Persian rugs were spread over the hardwood floors. A fire burned in the carved stone fireplace, and Ethan noticed a large piano in one of the many rooms they passed. Jynx was busy looking at the paintings— canvases covered in blotches and blobs of bright color.
“Y’all’s rooms are right up these stairs,” Fergus said, tripping on a step and just catching himself to keep from falling. As they climbed the stairs, the boards under Ethan’s feet creaked. On each side of the staircase were small niches in the walls where taxidermic birds were displayed. Their glass eyes seemed to follow him as he walked. “Jynx, those birds give me the creeps,” he whispered.
“Yeah, I think it’s creepy too,” the butler shouted, stomp- ing up the long staircase.
Ethan wondered if Fergus had superhuman hearing. “Just so y’all know, I got incredible ears. My daddy says
I’m like a turkey—I hear everything. Sometimes drives me nuts. Just the other day, I heard a squirrel . . .”
Fergus started rambling again, and Jynx couldn’t take her eyes off the stuffed animals. Ethan watched her eyes get bigger and bigger. He knew how much Jynx loved animals. They once had to leave a restaurant because a mounted deer’s head was hanging on the wall.
Ethan whispered, “It’s okay, Jynx. Just keep moving and don’t look at them.”
“Who would do such a thing? Killing an animal just because it’s pretty—displaying it under a glass thingy?” Jynx said.
“Well, Jynelle,” said Fergus, “them animals died of their own accord. Them birds were all pets. Mr. Maupin liked ’em so much, he had ’em mounted. You know, taxidermy. I read once the Egyptians used to mummify their cats and bury them with the ol’ Pharaoh.”
“That’s nasty,” Ethan said.
“That’s just horrible,” Jynx whispered.
They reached another landing, and Fergus turned around to look at the kids. “Now, y’all listen very carefully to me. That staircase there leads up the third floor. That’s off-lim- its. No one goes up there except for Mr. Maupin. Well, Mrs. Gooch goes up there to tidy up. But that’s it.”
“But what’s up—”
“Off-limits,” Fergus emphasized. “What kind of off-limits?” Ethan asked. “Off-limits is off-limits.”
Jynx asked, “Oh, Fergus, can’t you tell us, please?” She looked up at him, making her brown eyes larger and flashing a bright smile.
“Look, you two, this ain’t fair. Mr. Maupin gave strict orders that no one enter his private solar, and I can’t tell y’all what’s up there. Just know you ain’t—I mean, you are not allowed,” Fergus said.
Ethan wrinkled his nose. “What’s a ‘solar’? Are there solar panels up there or something?”
Fergus chuckled. “To be honest, someone had to tell me what it was too. You see, the solar’s a room on the top floor of the house. What makes it cool is that it has a glass ceiling to let in sunlight. ”
Ethan and Jynx followed silently, taking their minds off the third floor and wondering what their rooms would be like. Ethan was hoping for a TV, while Jynx looked nervous that something taxidermied might be in her room.
The children’s rooms looked much better than the other parts of the house—the walls had been freshly painted, and there were no mounted animals in sight. Jynx gushed about the canopy bed, chandelier, and cushioned window seat in her room. And even though there was no TV in his room, Ethan had to admit that the fireplace was pretty cool. He was looking at the ornately carved mantle and thinking how great building fires was going to be when Fergus interrupted his daydream.
“There will be no fire building by you, young man—you’d burn the whole place down.”
Ethan’s eyes widened. He wondered if Fergus could read minds.
As the butler exited the room, he announced, “Refreshments in a few minutes if y’all want ’em. Dining room!”
Jynx opened his door. “I’m hungry,” she said, smiling.
“Me too. Let’s go down,” Ethan said.
Ethan walked ahead of his sister as she rattled on about how much she loved her room. As they entered the main hall on the first floor, they heard a loud BONG! Both children jumped.
“What in the world was that?” asked Jynx.
“That’s probably the bell for the refreshments.” Ethan laughed, imitating Fergus’s country accent.
The children found the dining room, where a roaring fire was blazing in the huge fireplace. Their uncle was perched in a chair with a tiny Japanese teacup in his hand.
Socrates Maupin’s khakis and T-shirt were covered in drips and splotches of paint, and on his feet he wore a pair of old sneakers with no socks. He was chubby, with wiry, shoulder-length gray hair that tangled on his head and blended together with his gray beard. He wore round wire-rimmed glasses, which magnified his unusual eyes: one eye was brown, and the other blue.
On a large sideboard sat two teapots and all kinds of pastries, cookies, and what looked like biscuits. Ethan was reaching for a cookie when a short and very plump older woman entered the room.
“Kids, this is Mrs. Gooch,” said Socrates. “She’s the boss around here, and I strongly recommend doing whatever she tells you to do. I always do.” He nodded with a mischievous smile on his face.
“Socrates Maupin, you never listen to me, you rascal!” Mrs. Gooch said and laughed. Her brilliantly red dyed hair contrasted sharply with her pale skin.
Mrs. Gooch and Fergus joined them for a break, and they all sat together near the fire. As he piled more cookies on his plate and munched on a scone, Ethan thought it odd that his uncle’s servants had tea with him. Their servants never ate with them. His hand paused in midair over the cookie platter when he noticed Jynx glaring at him.
“Now that we’re all together, let’s talk about Christmas. I want to continue the tradition of hosting a small Christmas Eve party. Mrs. Gooch, would you be in charge of the preparations again? Last year’s party was brilliant,” Socrates said.
Mrs. Gooch smiled and blushed at Socrates’s compliment. “You just leave everything to me. Fergus, I’ll need your help with the decorations.”
“Yes, ma’am, it’d be my honor,” Fergus said, puffing out his chest.
Ethan noticed there was an older man—accompanied by a large, mangy-looking hound—sitting in a chair beside the window. The man glowered at him and took a large gulp from the earthenware jug he cradled in his gnarled hands. Socrates saw that Ethan had spotted the man. “Children, please forgive my bad manners. Scafell, this is my niece and nephew, Jynx and Ethan Moseby. They’ll be staying with us for Christmas. Kids, this is our gardener, Mr. Scafell Crag. His faithful companion is Silas.”
On hearing his name, the dog opened his eyes.
Scafell Crag stood up and nodded to Socrates. “Mrs. Gooch, Mr. Maupin, thanks for having me. Time to get back to choppin’ wood,” the old man said. “It ain’t gonna split itself.”
The gardener narrowed his eyes once more at Ethan and left the room. The gray late-afternoon light outlined his thin, sinewy frame as he stepped through the door.
A chill shot through Ethan. Why had Crag looked at him like that?
The rest of the afternoon the children unpacked and settled into their rooms. Mrs. Gooch had told them that supper would be at eight o’clock, so they had some time to themselves.
“Jynx, let’s go look around outside,” Ethan said. The lights in the second-floor hallway suddenly dimmed. “Hey, why would they do that?” he whispered.
“Uncle Socrates said it’s just an old house—that’s all. You go ahead. I want to chillax,” Jynx said, lying back on her comforter and opening one of her always handy books.
It was growing darker outside. The waning fall sun was a blurry orange that couldn’t quite break through the fuzzy gray of the clouds. Ethan tasted the cold, fresh air as he closed the side door of the house and walked out onto the porch. He hoped Crag wasn’t around. Ethan couldn’t forget the mean looks the man had given him.
Gnarled ancient trees surrounded the house, their black branches in dark contrast to the gray sky. Lining the entire width of the expansive backyard was a tall, overgrown hedge. Ethan wondered what was behind it.
Walking to the end of one side of the hedge, he came to a wrought-iron gate set in a stone wall. The gate was chained, but he could see that the wall enclosed an old graveyard. The gravestones looked centuries old, and with the setting sun hitting them just so, the green-and-turquoise lichen on the stones glowed softly.
From behind him, he heard the strangest sound he had ever heard. It was a cross between a fan’s low hum and the amplified purr of a cat. Turning quickly to see what could be making the noise, he found nothing. But the hair stood on the back of his neck, and he could feel sweat on his scalp. A feeling welled up inside of him that he was in danger, and he ran for the house. The rattling buzz behind him became a growl. Ethan ran faster. Reaching the side door, he found it locked. He knew he was trapped and braced himself for the attack, but none came. Then as quickly as it came, the hum was gone.
Thoroughly spooked, Ethan ran around the house to the front doors and, after entering quickly, slammed the door behind him. Ethan exhaled with relief and sat on the stairs. He looked at his hands and saw they were shaking. He had never been so scared.
A shrill burst of crying from the conservatory made him jump.
“What’s that?” he asked, scrambling to his feet.
“Sakes alive!” shouted Mrs. Gooch. “That child’s raisin’ Cain—turnin’ blue from crying!”
Ethan ran to the conservatory to see what was wrong. “Thank goodness, Ethan! Please help me with your sister,” said Mrs. Gooch.
Socrates, Mrs. Gooch, and Fergus ringed the sofa, parting as he approached. He saw Jynx, whose shoulder-length blond hair was matted to her wet face. Her eyes were red from crying.
“Jynx, what happened? You okay?” Ethan asked.
“I decided I wanted to watch TV. Guess what? They don’t have a single TV in this house, and I’m not okay!”
He was used to Jynx’s tantrums and knew she would later be fine. But no internet and no TV at all? How could they live like this? He never thought anything could be worse than three weeks with their cousins, the Minges, and having to wear matching sweaters and sit through their many family sing-alongs. With everything that had already happened, he almost felt like crying too.
The adults were looking at Ethan in desperation as Jynx continued to cry and flail her arms and legs.
“Jynelle, all this fuss over a focused stream of electrons pouring off a heated cathode into the vacuum of a glass tube?” their uncle asked. His question caught her off guard, and she quieted down some.
“I don’t know what any of that means. Anyway, Uncle Socrates, who doesn’t have a TV?” Jynx asked between snorts and sniffles. “And I wish you’d stop calling me Jynelle. It’s an old-lady name. Sorry, Mrs. Gooch, but I’m only ten years old. I like Jynx, short for Jynelle Xyla.”
“Jynx . . . Hmmm, I like Jynx better than Jynelle too.
Look on the bright side; your name could be Socrates. We don’t have a TV, and there’s a very good reason. All I’d do is watch game shows. Have you seen Jeopardy? Simply addictive, I tell you—I’d never get anything done.” Socrates gave her a mischievous smile and pushed his paint-splattered glasses up the bridge of his nose.
Ethan watched his sister’s face as their uncle spoke. Miraculously, she started calming down. She still didn’t look happy, but at least she was quiet. There was something calming in their uncle’s gentle smile.
“But what’s there to do here?” Jynx asked.
“Mrs. Gooch, you can find something for Jynx to do, can’t you?” Socrates asked.
Mrs. Gooch gave Socrates a frustrated look and then said, “Jynx, sugar, you can come talk to me in the kitchen.”
“Gooch, awesome idea. Jynx, before you go, let’s you, me, and Ethan go to the library and have ourselves a talk,” Socrates said.
While they walked down the long hallway from the conservatory, sugary cinnamon and nutmeg aromas filled the air. Evening had dimmed the light in the house. When they entered the library, they couldn’t believe their eyes— the room was beautiful.
Dark wood shelves lined every wall, except for the two-story windows on the rear wall. The shelves ran floor to ceiling with a balcony extending around the perimeter of the room. Ethan noticed a smaller room to the left. To get to it, you had to walk under a portion of the ornate balcony. Soft leather chairs, sofas, and a large desk with heavy brass lamps were positioned on oriental rugs. Wheeled ladders, used for reaching the higher books, completed the room.
“Please grab a seat near the fireplace,” Socrates said. He carefully lowered himself into a leather club chair, extending his leg.
The logs in the fireplace suddenly caught fire. Ethan and Jynx exchanged looks of amazement. Could Socrates have hit a button somewhere?
Socrates looked at them and grinned.
“Ethan and Jynx,” he began, “let’s not beat around the shrub. I’m glad y’all are staying here over the Christmas holidays. Your mother and I were never very close, with me being older and a stepbrother, after all. That’s why I was surprised, to say the least, to hear from her concerning you two. I’ve only seen photos of you. I don’t imagine you’ve seen any of me?”
The children looked at each other and shook their heads no.
“The thing is, we don’t know each other very well. I’ve been a bachelor most of my life, and much of that has been spent wandering here and there, hither and yon, up and down, and away over yonder. Anyway, I’m not your parent, a principal, or a policeman.” He adjusted his glasses. “My four eyes have a great deal to look at, so I can’t be spying on you and infringing on your rights of piracy—I mean privacy. I’m going to trust you two to be cool, okay? I’m going to treat you like I want to be treated. Please grant me and the other good souls who inhabit this menagerie the same.”
The room was silent except for the crackling of the fire. Ethan thought about what he’d just heard. Usually their other relatives gave them long lists of rules and punishments if they were not followed. This could be one of the best Christmases ever!
“No questions, rebuttals, conditions, or outrages?” Socrates asked. There was no sound from either of the two children. “Good, then we have an accord.” Socrates got up from his chair and walked toward the library door.
“Um . . . sir, what do we call you?” Ethan asked. “Anything you want to, kids—even Aloysius, but definitely not Mordred,” he replied before exiting to the hallway.
Ethan was sitting on the window seat of Jynx’s bedroom, staring out the frosted panes.
Jynx broke the silence. “Ethan, that meeting had nothing to do with the fact that there is not one TV in this house. What are we going to do for three weeks?”
“We may not have any TV, but we also don’t have any rules—how awesome is that?” Ethan said.
“But Ethan, no internet and no TV? Even I can’t read forever,” Jynx said.
“I bet there’s tons of stuff to do around here. I want to look around this freaky house.”
When Ethan said the word freaky, the fire in the fireplace suddenly went out and the electric lights flickered. They heard a loud bang as one of the shutters on Jynx’s window slammed against the house.
“Whoa! Has that happened before?” Ethan asked. “Funny—it did. I was unpacking, and while I was hanging
up some clothes, the closet door shut on me. I thought it was just an old-house thing.”
“Did you say something before the door shut?” “Well,” Jynx said, “just that the closet is small.”
“Maybe Gramarye House is like Socrates—different,” Ethan said.
They heard Fergus shout from downstairs. “Dinner’s ready!”
As they left Jynx’s room, the door slammed shut behind them. Startled, they ran downstairs, Jynx reaching the dining room before Ethan.
Owen R. Minter was inspired to write The Shrouded Sword, a fantasy story filled with ancient magic and time travel, after creating a drawing based on Arthurian legend. The Shrouded Sword is the first book in the Gramarye Cycle series. When he’s not writing, Owen makes paintings with a leaf blower, reads, and enjoys coaching Special Olympics Athletics.
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