Vacancy – 2.03 – Harvest Fest (Part 2)

 Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

v 2.03

“I can’t believe you!” Lorelei touched her forehead, a vein pulsating beneath her fingertips.

Grier’s mouth was hanging open excitedly, the paper clenched in his fist. She’d managed to drag him away from the booth before Ziah or Conrad could count the rest of the supply or the money gathered as one shift ended and the other began, and they ended up in a quiet spot just at the edge of the festival grounds. “I know,” he was grinning stupidly, ear to ear, “This is amazing!”

Lorelei sighed, squeezing the bridge of her nose. It absolutely was not amazing. Grier had traded one of their most expensive ciders for not legal tender, but a piece of parchment, aged, torn, and with an almost illegible writing scrawled over and even less recognizable drawing. Evening was settling in around them, lamplights flicking on, and shadows were growing tall in the setting sun. She only had a few hours to rectify this.

“That man, where do you think he went?”

Grier shrugged, “I dunno, home? He’s not got the map anymore so why would he hang around?”

“That’s what that is? A map?” She pointed to the paper.

“To treasure!” He was eighteen now, but acting more like a child than she’d ever seen.

“You think that’s a legitimate treasure map? And someone just handed it off to you?” Crossing her arms, Lorelei sighed, “Was he wearing an eye patch too?”

“No. And he didn’t just give it to me, we did a trade,” he rolled his eyes, “He said the treasure is worth more than the bottle, don’t worry, we’ll be able to pay it back. Come on!”

He turned from her, unfolding the paper and burying his nose in it as he walked.

“You realize how ludicrous this sounds, right?” She was watching him as he started across the street.

“What’s ludicrous?”

Lorelei jumped at the sound of Hotaru beside her. The short girl winced and offered her an apologetic look.

“Treasure hunting,” she snarled, the hurried after him.

They were headed down a wide sidewalk along Main Street, the buildings packed together tightly, but their doors and shutters close; it seemed everyone was at the festival. Lorelei and Hotaru were rushing to keep pace with Grier, until he stopped suddenly.

He looked up and spun around, “I don’t understand. This is it. That was…short!”

Lorelei glanced up at the building they were in front of. It was painted a bright magenta with yellow awnings and flower boxes spilling over with pansies. A kettle-shaped sign hung above the door reading Eleanor’s Tea Room, and another in the window read Closed.

Even with the nagging thought that the man had give up the map too close to the end to be a coincidence, Lorelei found herself poking around the flower boxes alongside Grier, though she had no idea what they were looking for. Then Hotaru plucked the paper from Grier. “No, it doesn’t stop here, not exactly.”

She wandered away from them for a moment, down the sidewalk, then back and turned sharply toward the building, disappearing into the hedge. At the edge of the sidewalk, there was a small arch, drowning in ivy and white flowers, and Hotaru had dipped under and through it. Grier followed, and Lorelei found herself alone on the sidewalk, her question of “Should we be doing this?” left unanswered before she ducked under the ivy as well.

The walkway between the tea room and its neighbor was just wide enough for her to squeeze through, though it was dark and stray vines tugged at her sweater. There was light at its end, from the back of the building, and she stepped out onto a patio scattered with mismatched tables and chairs, surrounded by a fence covered in the tendrils of rose bushes just at the beginning of their hibernation.

Hotaru stood at the center of the space where an oak tree was growing, its branches spread out above them, adorned with lanterns and twinkling in the darkness the tree created. “You have to get to the right spot before it will tell you where to go next,” she reached a hand out and placed it on the tree, and as Lorelei came up behind her, she saw a line crawling itself across the map.

“Of course! That man didn’t know Moonlit Shores well enough to use this,” Grier grabbed her upper arm and spun her toward him, “You’re so smart!” Then he snatched the map from her and headed out. Hotaru’s face flushed deep red, and she smiled for just a second until her eye’s met Lorelei’s, and she hurried off into the darkness after Grier.

The sidewalk took them down away from Main Street, and the smell of the ocean intensified. Grier led them like a hound–though Lorelei would never say that–to a big, square building with shaker shingles and a high mansard roof. When Lorelei stepped inside, she paused, feeling how cavernous the place was immediately. She faltered on the threshold then pulled her head back out, glancing at the facade of the place, how at sat on a corner lot looking ordinary and unobtrusive, and then popped back in. It was definitely bigger on the inside, but she’d come to realize that pointing these things out didn’t seem to matter.

The library smelled like she’d fallen between the pages of an old book. Each row of tomes was lit from overhead by an orangey bulb nestled into a stained glass lampshade, casting warm blocks of color all over the leathery spines. Their footsteps echoed into the otherwise empty place, floating off into the impossibly high ceiling.

“Where in here?” Grier’s voice pierced the quiet.

Lorelei shushed him, but wondered if it mattered in the emptiness of the place.

“Probably something old,” he stopped and looked around, “That doesn’t narrow it down.” Then his face lit up and he bolted across the room and out of sight.

Hotaru looked after him, then turned back to Lorelei, “Where did he get that map?”

“Some man at the booth,” she ran a finger along one of the books and thought she heard a giggle. She jerked her hand back and shuffled away from the stacks.

“Was he dressed in a black cloak?”

“Yes,” Lorelei narrowed her eyes at the girl, “Why?”

“Kind of tall and skinny?”

The anxiety on Lorelei’s face told her the answer.

“I saw him following you around this morning. Ren even seemed kind of interested, but the man disappeared before you two took over for us, so I didn’t think much about it after that.”

Lorelei felt a queasiness in her stomach, “What do we do?”

“Found it!” Grier came thundering back to them with the map held high over his head, “It was the archway into the old record’s room. Made of reclaimed wood from the Argo. Next stop!”

They watched him march past and back out the door.

“I don’t think he could be convinced to stop,” Hotaru bit her lip, “There’s really only one thing we can do–”

“Knock him out.”

“Protect him.”

Lorelei grimaced, “Oh, okay, yeah, protect him. That’s a good option too. Let’s do that.”

Grier was almost sprinting as he headed down the road. Barely keeping up, Lorelei turned the corner to finally see it: the ocean. Out past a line of red and white stilted houses, the smokey blue of the water reached up and melted into a hazy, yellow sky. The clouds were resting against the water like long swaths of cotton candy in pinks and blues, and the sun was slipping down behind the sea.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing there when she remembered she was meant to be following Grier and Hotaru. She saw them bustling along a stone retaining wall ahead and hurried passed the stairs that would take them down to the beach, catching up with them near a thicket.

It looked especially dark beyond the treeline, and again Lorelei stopped, “Grier, are you sure you’re going in the right direction?”

“Oh yeah,” he forged ahead to the edge of the trees, “Next spot is the old fishing shack.”

“Isn’t that over there?” Hotaru pointed back the way they’d come to a sort of terrifying, but admittedly less terrifying than the wood, dilapidated hut at the edge of the beach.

Grier shook his head, “I don’t think it means there.”

He disappeared amongst the trees, and with a little groan, Lorelei went in after with Hotaru. The girl was muttering to herself about what else the old fishing shack could possibly refer to, but her voice was swallowed up in the branches.

Sinking into the ground, Lorelei pulled each foot after another, bending over and pushing old branches away from her face. She came upon Grier before she realized in the dark, finding him kneeling in the muddy sand beside a few planks, broken in a small stack. There in the shadows she could just make out the outline of a foundation of what was once, long, long ago, something one might have called a fishing shack.

“How did you know this was here?”

Her voice seemed to pull him from a bit of a trance. “Oh, you know, it’s part of Moonlit Shores. Got it!” He popped back up and hurried past them, shouting after himself in the dark, “Come on, ladies, we’re near the end, I can feel it!”

She looked to Hotaru for clarification, and the girl smiled in the dark, “He made this place his home. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, but I think he’ll always know more about it than I do.”

With a sigh, they pressed on.

 

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If you’re enjoying Vacancy, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

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Vacancy – 2.02 – Harvest Fest (Part 1)

 Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

v 2.02

The cart bumped along in the forest’s heart to the sounds of stag hooves on crispy leaves. When a breeze managed to wind its way through the dense branches, Lorelei pulled the sleeves of her chunkiest sweater down over her hands and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was finally on her way to Moonlit Shores.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” From the front set of the cart, Ziah turned back to the others. Ren raised an eyebrow in the seat beside her where he held the stags’ reins. From her small bag, she pulled four matchsticks, “We’ve got to draw babysitting straws.”

“Ugh, why you gotta call it that?” Grier snarled at her, crossing his arms with a pout.

“Because that’s what it is,” Ziah looked to Lorelei with a smirk, “Those two can’t man the booth alone. Age restrictions.”

Hotaru, who’d been sitting just next to Lorelei, sighed but said nothing. They would be taking shifts in twos at Moonlit Shores’ harvest festival selling the manor’s house-made mead and cider which was clinking gently along in crates beside them, but the rest of the day was free for them to explore. Lorelei was surprised Arista and Seamus were so keen to let them go, but Ziah advised that most guests would be at the festival themselves, and the two would likely spend the day by the fire unbothered. Regardless, Lorelei had never been to the town from which her workplace derived its name, and she nearly shivered with anticipation.

“Anyway,” Ziah went on, “If you get the short straw, you’re with Hotaru, and if you get the shortest straw, you’re stuck with Grier.”

“Hey!” the boy who, if Lorelei was honest with herself, could barely be called that anymore, snorted, “I’m taller than almost all of you!”

Ziah looked thoughtful for a moment then grinned, “You’re right, you have had a weird growth spurt recently. Well, congrats on finally hitting puberty. Conrad?” she offered the sticks to him, their ends hidden within her fist, reaching past a very visibly insulted Grier. Lorelei pulled second and held hers up, but she didn’t need to compare them to know she had the shortest.

“Could be worse!” Grier rolled his eyes at the front of the cart–he certainly didn’t hate her anywhere near as much as when she started–and pointed at Ziah, “But we get the midday slot, yeah?”

“Fine,” Ziah shrugged and turned back.

The cart emerged from the wood and crested a hill, the path widening. There were signs of life here, the outskirts of a town, fencing and farm animals, mailboxes and gravel driveways, but one paved a brilliant white, caught Lorelei’s attention. She followed the winding drive to its end where a house sat high on a hill, boxy and a bit out of place with its perfectly straight lines, and massive rectangular windows. Lorelei had never seen such a large, modern house, as if it were out of some magazine that had slipped backwards in time to them. It glowed oddly in the dull morning lights, half of the exterior a bright white stone, the other half black slate.

“Blackburn Estate,” Hotaru whispered next to Lorelei’s ear, and she recognized the name. This must be where Britney lived. “One of the oldest houses in town. Well, oldest foundations, at least.”

Past the farms, the homes sat closer together, and the road straightened. Set off from the main road, atop another hill, a low stone fence surrounded a patch of gravestones, a mausoleum flanked by statues in its center. There was more order here, but still a sense of whimsy. Nothing was exactly right, nor was it exactly wrong. They passed others carting in their own goods, and Lorelei wondered where on earth these people could possibly be living, but then realized that answer might not be earth–her idea of it anyway–at all.

Lorelei was hit with the salty smell of the nominal shore as the road narrowed and dipped between two rows of tightly packed buildings. If you didn’t know better, you may have thought Moonlit Shores was just like any sleepy, seaside town, but on closer inspection the pharmacy beside the coffee shop was actually an apothecary, and it wasn’t a therapist, but a palm reader set up between the tavern, where absinthe was notably served per the front sign, and the daycare, which accepted children as young as two and with up to seven limbs only.

At the center of the town, a park had been decorated for the occasion, lampposts strung with violet lights, stacks of bright pumpkins and rough-skinned gourds at their bases, and the people milling about were dressed in jewel-toned cloaks and flowing dresses, though Lorelei thought perhaps the attire wasn’t significant.

As they unloaded the hefty crates of cider, the vendors around them were lighting fires in small wood stoves and cinnamon breads and roasted corn mingled with the salty air, though Lorelei still hadn’t glimpsed the ocean. When the table was set, she finally sidled up to Ziah, “How does this stay…private?”

“From humans?” she dropped her voice low, “Well, they sort of just…don’t show up? On occasion there’s a story about a lost traveler or a vacationing family gone astray, but the forest that surrounds this place, well, it’s got an aura about it. Kind of wards them off.” She gave her a wink. The forest did have a distinct eeriness to it that set Lorelei’s stomach on edge, but she’d managed to ignore it this go around.

Relieved immediately by Ren and Hotaru who had the first shift, Ziah grabbed Lorelei’s arm and guided her from booth to booth inside the sprawling park. Grier trailed behind, eating absolutely everything he could get his hands on, and Conrad kept suggesting they visit areas outside of the grounds, but was shut down by Ziah each time much to his confusion until Britney showed up and whisked him away. The morning passed in a blur of handcrafted athames and purportedly ancient spell books, and eventually Lorelei found herself behind the cider-laden table with Grier just as the sun reached its midpoint and warmed the park.

The boy unwrapped foil from the roasted, bright-red leg of what Lorelei assumed was a turkey and sunk in his fangs, pink juices trailing down his chin.

“Lord, you’re a mess,” Lorelei pressed some of the paper they’d used to buoy the bottles into his hands and gestured to his face, “How are you even still hungry?” Her own belly was bloated from a stop at a candied apple booth and cheese from an animal she’d never heard of before, and he hadn’t stopped stuffing his face since they’d arrived.

“You’re not?” he looked genuinely confused, but it only lasted a second, “Eh, you know, it’s lunch time!”

She watched him devour the meat quicker than he should have been able to then quickly denied him when he begged to run across the grounds to grab another, “I need you to help me. Someone’s bound to say something I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you need me, huh?” he smirked at her and moved his chair closer, “Well, I’m at your service, milady.”

She curled a lip at him, “Ew.”

The mead and cider proved to be quite popular, and the customers proved to be quite engaging, keeping them both busy. Ziah had been right about babysitting, however, as of the two of them, Grier turned out to be more apt to say the wrong thing, but he couldn’t be watched the entire time. As Lorelei closed a sale with a group of very chatty old witches–she guessed by their wide-brimmed hats though they were the only ones around donning them–she caught Grier in a deep conversation with a lanky man in a black cloak. The man hurried off with a bottle before Lorelei could free herself of the women and their discussion about which equinox their mead choices were best suited.

“What’d he get?” she leaned over to watch what Grier did with the cash he’d been handed, but gasped when she saw what he held.

“The la pomme noir,” the boy butchered the name.

“That’s the most expensive!” she yelled at him in a whisper, her heartbeat quickening, “He didn’t give you any money?”

Grier held up the scroll he’d accepted, “Oh, no. He gave me something much better.”

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

If you’re enjoying Vacancy, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

For updates, you can follow the blog or my Twitter or Instagram for reminders of new posts.