The dilapidated Galli Manor loomed over Agnes and made her step back. Inheriting the mansion from her grandfather—a grandfather she hadn’t known existed—was supposed to be good fortune. But, she felt certain if she put one foot on the aged steps her future would end with a decayed board through her chest.
For the love of chocolate—RETREAT!
She stepped back with her mother, brother, and a non-related lanky lawyer and gazed at the ghastly stairs. The wrought iron spindles stretched to the railing and wrapped it like bony fingers—each holding a globe-shaped glass light. Several globes had broken, littering the stairs with shards of glass—a hazard to walk around to get to the entrance. The leaning paint-chipped columns stood three times her height, taunting they’d crush her if she got past the steps.
Agnes glanced at her mother and wondered if the poor woman had gone blind. The widow Galli gaped at the manor with fretful eyes. Her thin body, long black hair and pale skin mimicked a taller version of Agnes, or so it’d been said. She squared her shoulders and squeezed Agnes’ hand. “It’s not as bad as it looks. I promise.”
Agnes hoped her mother was right. She cringed at the thought of going back to the shelter. The old geezer who’d slept by her snorted like an elephant and kept her up most nights. Plus going back meant returning to her old school where the kids called her a Dirch (dirty-child) because she didn’t always get to shower. Most of them didn’t know what it was like to lose a home, or what it was like to lose a father like she had. Still, Agnes wanted to punch her classmates square in their snooty noses.
Moving into the manor and starting fifth grade at a new school in Harbor, Illinois would be better; she could reinvent herself and find friends. She had been excited until her older brother Gus gave her the heebie-jeebies by talking about deaths at the place. The original owner, Frederick San Galli, had been found dead on an exterior broken staircase spindle, a few months after his eight year old daughter mysteriously disappeared. His wife had been found hanging from a rope.
Agnes scanned the spindles and imagined a body skewered by the black iron. She shook her head and tugged on her mother’s hand. “I want to go.”
“Quit being a baby,” Gus said, passing her with a small box. Their mother had given them one each after their home had been foreclosed. She’d said to fill the cardboard with what they wanted to keep from their rooms. Agnes had saved a few family photos and enough clothing to get through five days before washing, as did Gus and Mrs. Galli. Really, it was all anyone could’ve fit inside a tiny box. Everything else that the bank hadn’t taken, their mother had sold to pay bills. Her mother had explained this a thousand times, but Agnes hated not having all their belongings—especially her father’s architecture books. Releasing them to the lady from the auction house was like mourning his death all over again.
“Don’t call your sister names,” Mrs. Galli scolded, and Agnes stuck her tongue out at her I-know-everything-because-I’m-in-seventh-grade brother. “Things will be okay. With the inheritance money, we’ll fix this place into a bed and breakfast. Then we’ll be back to the status of when your father provided for us, maybe even better.”
Mrs. Galli smiled bright and Agnes’ chest warmed. Perhaps just a little spit-n-shine and this place would be as good as new. She turned and gave the manor another look. Okay then, one step forward. Agnes walked in unison with her mother upon the shabby steps—hesitation in their stride. The boards squeaked and caused them to inhale. With each solid footstep, they exhaled. Two. Three. Four…eight. They stopped in front of the door unscathed. “See,” said Mrs. Galli, putting a large key in the antique wooden door. Straightening her back, she unlocked the entrance.
Agnes waited for a sign the inside was in worse shape as the door hinges creaked in disapproval. Her mother must’ve waited for the same since she stood outside the opened doorframe with her. Gus grunted, snapping their attention to him. He rolled his eyes and elbowed his way past them. Once inside, he slipped on a tattered piece of cloth on the marble floor. He landed on his butt and Agnes giggled; served him right for being an impatient name-calling hippo. Mrs. Galli helped him up and all three of them stood in the opening of a two-story foyer where sunlight fought to get through the dusty windows. A double-wide mahogany staircase—covered in cobwebs—stretched before them and split in opposite directions halfway up from a landing. Decorative wrought iron spindles cradled thickly carved mahogany balusters. At the top of each ornate newel perched an enormous lion’s paw, making Agnes more confident these stairs had more strength than the exterior ones.
“How long has this place been empty?” Gus asked. He moved the black bangs out of his eyes.
“By the looks of things, too long,” Mrs. Galli said with a frown.
Agnes imagined the house had looked grand once upon a time, especially on holidays when you’re supposed to hang out with family. She imagined a twenty foot Christmas tree—like the one she’d seen at her dad’s office building—fitting perfectly inside the entryway, lights sparkling brilliant colors and humongous size presents surrounding the base. But really, she imagined anything pleasant to try and shake the willies from Gus’ scary tales. She scanned the foyer for ghosts of Christmases long past. “How come we never knew grandpa?”
“I’m afraid your father led me to believe he was an orphan. I’m not sure why he never told me, especially after my parents passed away in that awful train wreck years ago. It would have been nice to spend time with other family members.” Mrs. Galli’s mouth turned down and she expelled a heavy sigh.
A man cleared his throat from behind Agnes. “Electricity and water are on, but are you sure you want to stay here tonight?” Mr. Mantle, the gray haired lawyer asked. Agnes had almost forgotten he was still with them. Her mother nodded and thanked him for everything as he handed her a folder and his business card. “Remember, if you need anything at all, just call.” As the man backed out to shut the squeaking door, his eyes searched the room as though he waited for something to pop out.
Agnes searched the empty air too, wondering what he was afraid of—what she should be afraid of. Her eyes looked left and right, up and down, this way and that way but only dust, dirt, and cobwebs lurked over ancient furnishings. Double doors hung at either side of the foyer and a long hallway wrapped around the base of the steps, leading underneath the staircase into the shadowy unknown. Agnes believed something rested in those dark corners. The truth crawled beneath her goose-bumped skin that something watched her—maybe waiting to get her. She shook her limbs, attempting to brush the fear away.
“You okay Aggie,” Mrs. Galli asked.
“Fine,” Agnes responded. She didn’t want Gus teasing her for being afraid.
“Okay then, let’s open some windows for fresh air and get busy. I suggest you each find a room to clean to sleep tonight. I’ll get the rest of our things and the cleaning supplies out of the car.” Mrs. Galli went out the door, leaving it open to let the breeze blow inside.
Agnes followed Gus, but before he opened the double doors to his right, he stopped and faced her. “Go get the windows on the other side, scaredy-cat.” he snapped, pointing in the opposite direction.
“But it’ll be faster if we’re together,” she suggested.
“We’ll move faster if we’re in different rooms. Now get outta here.” He waved her away and Agnes went to the other side of the foyer. Each opened a set of double doors causing the room to brighten. Dust swirled in the air. Tobacco and long ago dinners absorbed into the old lacquer and fabrics wafting her nose. She stood in front of a long dining room containing an enormous eating table with twelve chairs. The corners of her lips turned up thinking about the birthday guests she’d entertain. The high back chairs were covered in golden fabric. The honey-toned wood had been carved all fancy, reminding her of tables and chairs she’d seen in family pictures of royalty—minus the dust. Oil paintings of people and landscapes lined the walls. There were four windows, two on each wall. Larger ones faced the front yard with two smaller ones at the adjacent wall. Agnes pushed up on the old wooden frames until all were opened.
A gentle breeze filled the room, making her more cheerful. She brushed the dust off her hands and breathed the fresh air into her lungs. She wanted to play outside where things looked livelier—sunnier, and squirrels hopped from tree limb to limb. But, she knew her mother would throw a fit if she asked. Yes. Agnes knew to do her duty. She had promised to help clean.
She walked across the foyer, past the boxes her mother had hauled inside, and into a vast sitting area. Gus stood in front of a wickedly sculpted fireplace. Wrought iron wove between carved flagstones, appearing to grow from the floor. The metal rose and gathered to create an ominous mantel. The stones continued to the ceiling with rock shelves protruding on both sides. Gus stared at a painting of a man over the mantel.
“Who’s that?” Agnes asked, noticing the deep set eyes and squared jaw resembling her father.
“That was our grandfather, Frederick San Galli the seventh,” Gus answered, pointing to a golden nameplate at the bottom of the portrait.
“What happened to the first six?” Agnes asked.
“I dunno, but the first died on a spindle.” Gus smirked. He knew she spooked easily. Ever since their father died two years ago, his taunting had increased.
“You’re such a doofus.” Agnes said, punching him in the shoulder, “I meant their pictures.”
“How would I know?” Gus answered.
Agnes stared at the black curls of the man in the painting. She remained deep in thought for a few seconds. Tilting her head, she asked, “If Frederick the first, his daughter and wife all died, where’d Frederick the seventh come from?”
Gus shrugged and scratched his head, perhaps thinking Agnes had a good point. A son would have carried on the San Galli name, but the lawyer hadn’t mentioned a boy. But surely there had to have been one. Gus gazed at the picture as though he waited for his grandfather to lean out of the portrait and whisper the answer to him.
Of course, the old man didn’t.
“Why are we called Galli and not San Galli?” Agnes asked.
“Do I look like a history book?” Gus responded, locking his arm around Agnes’ neck and forced her to bend over. “Noogie!”
Agnes squirmed as his knuckles dug into her scalp. Not again! She grabbed his hand and tried lifting it away, but he was much stronger. Grunts formed in her throat as strangled words told him to stop. Willing the heat on top of her head to set his fingers on fire, she scratched against his hand. But he continued rubbing her noggin, chuckling the entire time. With her head throbbing, she stomped on his toes until he yelped and released her. Gus crouched in pain, hopping and holding his foot. She didn’t care. Her cheeks puffed with anger.
“You’ll pay for that,” Gus said, hobbling behind Agnes as she ran around the camel-back sofa. She circled it a few times, pushing forward on the scrolled arms for acceleration. Once she leaped onto the green upholstered cushions and sprinted over the arched back. She wove in and out of the other furniture in the sitting room, narrowly escaping Gus’ grasp. Agnes’ screamed, her voice laced with giggles. Living in the manor might not be so bad. She zipped by the corners of beautiful tables with elaborately carved monopodium feet. Agnes praised the stars she ran faster than her brother.
They ran in front of the fireplace for a fourth time. A metallic groan came from within the flue. Both children stopped in their tracks, heavy breaths escaping their lips.
“What was that?” Agnes asked with wide eyes.
“Maybe the ghost of Frederick the first,” Gus teased, raising his eyebrows with enthusiasm.
Metal scraped and creaked as something moved inside the fireplace. Agnes stepped backward wanting to scream but a lump formed inside her throat. Something wasn’t right inside that vent. She wanted to run but Gus wasn’t afraid, so maybe she shouldn’t be. She tried to be brave and looked at Gus for an answer, her limbs trembling.
Gus stepped closer to the fireplace and knelt down to peek inside the flue.
“Don’t get so close,” Agnes warned.
“You’re such a chicken.”
A louder metallic groan came from inside the flue and a large black object fell out, landing at Gus’ feet. Puffy black smoke billowed from the fireplace and filled the sitting room. Agnes screamed at the top of her lungs as Gus fell away from the fireplace. She ran out of the sitting room and straight into her mother.
“What’s all the noise about?” Mrs. Galli asked.
“Something came out of the fireplace!” Agnes exclaimed, pointing toward the thinning puff of smoke.
Gus sat on the floor—a few feet from the object—coughing as his mother stepped toward him. Agnes moved behind her mother for protection. But when her mom got too close to the object, Agnes slid behind her brother. Mrs. Galli grabbed a poker and leaned over the solid object on the floor. She jabbed it a few times and dirt fell off, revealing a blackened stripe across its eyes. “Why it’s a raccoon,” Mrs. Galli said. “The poor thing must’ve crawled in there and got stuck.”
The raccoon lied motionless. “Is it dead?” Agnes asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Mrs. Galli said, sighing.
“Cool,” Gus said, leaning to get a closer look.
“In that case, why don’t you clean this up?” His mother instructed him. “And find someplace to wash your face.”
Agnes stepped to get a better view of her brother, bursting into laughter at his blackened face. She grabbed her stomach, attempting to hold in the swell of tickling bubbles that erupted from her mouth. Surely, she’d explode with fantastic energy, which was much better than thinking about ghoulish ghosts. With his large—somewhat pointy—ears, her brother’s face looked like a giant bat, and she made the mistake of telling him so.
Gus stood to put her in a headlock again and mumbled mean things under his breath. His mother eased him away. “That’s enough from both of you,” she said. “Agnes, you can either help him clean this mess or find a room to dust off.”
Agnes stopped laughing. Neither option sounded good. She stepped into the foyer and looked at the dark passages at the top of the stairs. Biting her bottom lip, she turned back to Gus. He grinned impishly. Agnes knew if she stayed he’d torment her worse. Glancing back at the stairs one more time, her fear of the unknown was better than the pain Gus would inflict upon her. She turned and walked away, inching toward the dreaded steps and announced, “The room.”