Welcome to FROST HARROW, my new modern (1990s) gothic horror series! If you’d like to support this and my other work, go to www.CushingHorrors.com and become my patron! You may also enjoy the Scribe Award-Winning MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE – In print, for kindle, and for all e-book formats. And check out my retro-horror-comedy classic CANOE COPS VS. THE MUMMY as well as my other books. Now… On with the show!
FOURTEEN – THE FIRE INSIDE
Ivy stood outside the Winslow mansion as the cab drove away, thoughts and emotions swirling inside her head. She felt nervous and excited; all warm inside, but at the same time chilled to her bones. An empty pit yawned in her stomach. And, yes, she felt more than a little afraid.
This last she attributed in part to the long-standing feud between the two families. Frost children had been told that venturing inside the Winslow home would surely mean being popped into a cook pot for the Winslow family’s dinner. Just the sight of the place was said to be enough to turn a young Frost into stone.
But the Winslow residence didn’t look frightening. In fact, compared to Frost Harrow, it looked rather small and cozy.
Ivy smiled at the absurdity of the thought. It must have at least thirty rooms, she said to herself. Still, every room of it could have fit snugly within one of Frost Hall’s wings, with plenty of space to spare.
But despite its size, the house looked cheery and welcoming, not imposing and forbidding. The Victorian facade had been decorated in the “painted lady” style. Its trimmings, balconies, and porches flashed with bright colors, like a rainbow. Warm lights shone from within many of the mansion’s windows. The place looked very different from the last time Ivy had seen it.
Of course, every young Frost had to steal an occasional look at the forbidden structure. Ivy had driven by just a couple of months ago in her now-deceased Honda. She’d wondered at the time whether she’d ever seen Grant again. Now she was meeting him for dinner—in the verboten manse itself.
Despite an occasional wistful, furtive glance, Ivy had avoided the mansion since she’d returned home. Old Abner Winslow gave her the creeps. Every time she saw Grant’s uncle, she felt as if he were leering at her. There had been something unwholesome about the man—as if hating the Frosts all those years had rotted away the old miser’s soul.
Of course, the feud did my family so much good, Ivy thought sarcastically.
When Abner Winslow had been alive, his towering edifice had a Spartan, imposing look—despite the Victorian trappings. The exterior had been shock white—with never an extra bit of paint for the shutters or the many small details that decorated the facade. Though the home had never been abandoned, it had looked haunted while Abner lived there. Now it looked… happy.
Ivy could smell fresh paint in the cool evening air. Peeking toward the back of the house, she saw painters’ scaffolding silhouetted against the setting sun.
Obviously, Young Master Winslow had been busy redecorating.
Ivy took a deep breath and fought down the butterflies in her stomach. She hadn’t seen Grant since their rendezvous at the tea room, and they’d only talked briefly on the phone. She walked tentatively up the curved driveway toward the house’s front porch and main doors.
I hope he doesn’t eat me, she thought glibly.
Isn’t that what you’d like most? replied a voice inside her head.
Ivy looked around. Now where the hell did that come from? she wondered. It was almost as if she’d heard someone else say it, rather than thinking it herself. But she saw no one—no one who looked like a mind-reader anyway. The street in the high-class neighborhood where Grant lived was nearly deserted. Long shadows painted the pavement in shades of deep purple. Far down the road, Ivy could just make out a jogger walking his dog.
Ivy shook her head. She’d felt a little odd since lunch time—warm and tingly. It was a distracting sensation, almost like a sexual yearning. Ivy didn’t think she was that hard up, yet. At the time she’d written the feeling off to nerves.
That’s what it is now, too, she thought. Nerves. C’mon, Ivy, chin up. No backing out now. A servant’s probably been waiting to open that door for you since your cab drove up. No sense keeping him or her waiting any longer. I wonder what Grant’s butler will look like.
Amazingly, the large double doors did not open of their own accord when Ivy set foot on the porch. She tried to peer through the frosted windows set in the doors, but she could make out nothing behind the glass. She frowned and waited a minute, tapping her foot impatiently. Still nothing.
More than a bit puzzled, Ivy reached out and rang the doorbell. She jumped back at the boom of an oriental gong from somewhere inside the house. The sound lingered until one side of the double doors swung open.
Grant held the doorknob in one hand and beckoned for Ivy to enter with the other. “Welcome to Chez Winslow,” he said, smiling. “Enter freely and of your own will.”
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” replied Ivy, smiling back.
She stepped inside and looked around. The inside smelled of fresh paint, too, as well as new varnish. The Winslow mansion had beautiful oak floors and trimming, lightly stained—not dark like the oak in Frost Harrow. The walls inside the foyer had been painted white, and a large cut-glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. Something about the lights in the chandelier looked odd, but Ivy didn’t want to gawk long enough to figure out what. A long curving wooden staircase wound upstairs on the right-hand side of the room. Doors opened off from the entryway on both the left and right. Though the furnishings in the entryway were nearly as lavish as those in Frost Hall, the overall effect felt far less oppressive. Ivy decided she could come to like it here.
“Where are the servants?” she asked, looking around.
Grant eyed her skeptically. “Servants? To open the front door when I’m expecting company? Surely you jest. I’ve got a few folks bustling around in the kitchen, but I gave most of the staff the night off.
“Won’t you step into my parlor?” he added with a wink, indicating a room to the left.
“Said the spider to the fly,” finished Ivy.
Grant smiled, and his green eyes flashed at her. “I promise I won’t ask you up to see my etchings tonight.”
Ivy smiled back, though a secret, warm part inside of her felt disappointed.
The parlor had obviously been redone, as well. The walls were white and the wood trim a light brown. Judging from what she’s seen of the house so far, some of the old furniture must have been replaced with these more modern pieces—though an antique silk sofa dominated the room. Japanese prints hung on the walls, giving the room a pleasant mixture of oriental and western influences.
“How do you like my little redecorating scheme?” asked Grant.
“I love what you’ve done with the exterior. But the insides are a bit white, aren’t they?” said Ivy.
“Just doing my bit for energy conservation. White walls require less lighting to make the room seem bright.”
“Well, you’ve got the whole place lit up like a Christmas tree right now.”
“Just in your honor. I’ll have the butler turn off most of the lights now that you’re here. I didn’t want you to think you were walking into a cavern. I’m having motion detector switches put in to turn off the lights automatically when the rooms are empty, but most of the gadgets haven’t been installed yet.” He pointed toward a new, high-tech light switch on one wall.
“Until then,” he continued, “the compact fluorescents are a good start. I can probably light this whole floor for the cost of lighting just one room in your family’s old place.” He smiled. “Of course, I’ve only seen Frost Hall from the outside, and then only from a distance. Maybe someday you’ll show it to me.”
Ivy nodded. “Maybe if someone gives my uncle a new soul.” She looked back out the parlor door at the chandelier. “Compact fluorescents. That’s why the chandelier looked odd. I always thought about trying fluoros, but I wasn’t sure how they’d look.”
Grant swept his arms around the place. “And now that you’ve seen them?”
“They’re kinda ugly, but the light is pleasant enough. Probably worth putting up with for the planet’s sake. My uncle will hate them, though.”
“Well,” said Grant, “everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion.”
“Not according to Uncle Dan.”
Grant chuckled and smiled at her. He indicated a nearby stuffed chair. “Take a seat,” he said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“Do you mind if I sit on the couch?” she asked. “It’s a little more like what I’m used to.”
He bowed slightly from the waist. “Be my guest. I’ll even join you if you like. But first I want to put on some music. Do you still like Bobby Darin?”
“He’s my favorite. I guess I take after my mother that way.”
Grant smiled again. “I thought you might. Hang tight while I pop some on the CD player. Can I bring you a Coke on the way back?”
Grant nodded and disappeared through a door on the north side of the room. Soon the strains of Bobby Darin singing “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans” wafted through the air. Ivy smiled to herself. Her plans had changed a lot recently.
The late singer had just begun to belt out “Dream Lover” as Grant returned with the drinks. He had two cans of Coke in one hand and two plain-looking glasses in the other.
“I brought glasses, in case you prefer,” he said, handing one can to her.
Ivy shook her head. “No. Cans are fine. Might as well save the dishes.”
He seated himself on the opposite end of the couch. “The staff will appreciate that. I just spoke to the cook. Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“If it’s as good as that picnic was, I’ve something to look forward to,” said Ivy.
Grant smiled and took a sip of his drink. “I guarantee it. I may be an old softy, but I’d rather pay for an early retirement than retain incompetent staff.”
Ivy leaned toward him, gazing into his green eyes. “And what color parachutes do the staff have?”
“Golden, of course. Nothing but the best for Winslow ex-employees now that I’m in charge.” He smiled. “I haven’t let that many people go, really. Most of the folks working here seem happier now that I’m in charge.”
“I’m not surprised,” Ivy said, taking a drink of her Coke. “Your uncle was pretty creepy. No offense.”
“None taken. I wasn’t too fond of the old bird myself. You can’t pick your relatives, though.”
Ivy sighed. “Don’t I know it.”
“So, do you want to do anything special before dinner?” Grant’s eyes sparkled as he asked it.
Ivy looked around the room, ignoring a faint, warm buzzing in the back of her head. She’d seen some game boards when she came in. Her eyes found a number of games stacked on some side tables near the front windows. “Well, I don’t think we have time for chess…” she said.
“I was always more of a checkers man myself, anyway—but I don’t think there’s a board in the house. How about backgammon?”
Ivy smiled. “Sounds great.”
Grant fetched the board from a side table and set it on the coffee table in front of the couch. They played for half an hour, with neither gaining any serious advantage on the other over the course of several games. Bobby Darin sang “Don’t Dream of Anybody but Me” and a number of other songs softly in the background.
“Dinner, Mr. Grant,” said an impeccably-dressed servant who appeared at the room’s north door.
Grant nodded. “Thank you, Curtis.” He stood from where he and Ivy had been seated. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten to introduce you. This is Ivy Frost. Ivy, this is Curtis Hall, my butler.”
Hall crossed to where Ivy was sitting and extended his hand. She rose and took it. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Frost. I hope we’ll be seeing more of you—and perhaps some other members of your family, too, in time.”
Ivy smiled. “Well, me at least.”
“We’re doing our best to end the feud,” Grant said lightheartedly, “but Rome didn’t burn in a day.”
“Lucky for the Romans, sir,” Hall said, smiling.
Ivy chuckled. “Yes. If we keep our noses tuned for smoke, maybe all of us can come out of this truce alive.”
Hall nodded. “It is to be hoped.” He arched an eyebrow. “Your dinner, sir, miss?”
“Lead on, Curtis,” said Grant.
Hall walked back through the north door and into the dining room where two other servants were finishing laying out a magnificent repast.
“Ivy, this is Violet, my cook, and Wells, my steward,” said Grant.
Ivy nodded in their direction. “Pleased to meet you.” The cook smiled; the steward merely nodded back.
“Will you be requiring anything else, Mr. Grant?” asked Hall. He pulled out Ivy’s chair, and then Grant’s, and pushed them back in once the two were seated.
Grant shook his head. “I think we can take care of ourselves from this point on,” he replied. “You can all take the rest of the night off, if you like.”
Hall nodded. “Most generous of you, sir.”
Grant waved at the three of them. “Enough. No more standing on ceremony. Get lost. Have fun.”
The servants chuckled and left the room. Violet lingered behind a moment. “I could stay a bit, just to make sure the food is okay,” she said.
“I’m sure it’s up to your usual standards of excellence, Violet,” said Grant. “Go. Enjoy yourself.”
She curtsied. “Thank you, sir.”
Grant chuckled after she’d gone. “Sometimes, good help is hard to get rid of.”
“Mmm,” said Ivy. “Something smells delicious. I caught a whiff of it from the other room before Hall fetched us.”
“Usually, everything is delicious. The trick has been getting the staff to rely less on red meat and rich food,” said Grant. “On the other hand, why argue with success?”
“You can always run off the calories in the morning,” said Ivy. “You do still run, don’t you?”
“Religiously. You still ride your bike?”
“When I can,” Ivy replied, a trace of sadness in her eyes. She flapped her arm in its sling. “When this busted wing’s better, I hope to get back on the road.”
“Maybe we could ride together sometime.”
“I’d love to, but let’s finish dinner first. Where do we begin?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.
“Anywhere you like. Should I serve you?”
“I think I can handle this myself, thank you very much.”
Ivy picked up the plate nearest her and began to dish some out for herself. Grant did the same. They exchanged plates and kept working through the table until they’d sampled some of everything—thought they left the dessert for later. Bobby Darin continued to croon softly in the background.
Violet had chosen a Middle-Eastern theme for the meal. They had shish kabob, couscous, flat bread, saffron rice, several kinds of vegetarian meatballs, and honey pastries for desert. Grant’s cook had also prepared a wonderful lemonade made with rosewater for them to drink.
“There’s enough food here to feed an army,” said Ivy.
“I’ve tried to get them to cut back, but it seems there are several grocers depending on our largess. And the staff gets to eat what I don’t.”
“Mightn’t that encourage excess—or even stealing?”
“I’ve never been big on separation of class or station.”
“Grant, it’s a wonder they respect you at all,” Ivy said, shaking her head and smiling playfully. “I shouldn’t be surprised if you’re on the street penniless in a month.”
“Actually, I think they’re planning to get rid of me,” he said. “It’s an insidious plan to get me to eat myself to death.”
“Can I help?”
“Can you help eat, or help kill me?”
“Be my guest.”
She smiled at him with her eyes. “I already am.”
They ate for a while, talking quietly about work and the weather and other things of little consequence. The dinner was wonderful.
“I’m stuffed,” said Ivy, pushing her chair back from the table.
“Shall we retire to the parlor?”
“Only if we can take the rest of the lemonade with us.”
Grant smiled. “Of course. You can see why I’m fighting the battle of the bulge.” He got up and pulled her seat back the rest of the way for her.
“Honestly, Grant Winslow, I don’t think there’s an ounce of fat on your body.” She picked up the lemonade pitcher; he fetched the glasses.
“I think it’s a little early for you to find out,” Grant noted.
A warm flash rushed through Ivy’s body. Early in this relationship, or early in the evening? she wondered. But she didn’t say it. Instead, she asked, “Have we been listening to the same album all evening? I think I’ve heard this song before.”
Bobby Darin was belting out “Dream Lover” again. Grant nodded. “I set the machine on repeat. I take it as a compliment to Violet’s cooking that you hadn’t noticed before.”
“It’s as much the company as the food,” she said, gazing into his green eyes.
Grant flushed and looked away from her. “I’ve been thinking about getting one of those 100-disc changers, but it just seems so…” he trailed off.
“Decadent?” she suggested.
“Maybe you should start with a five CD changer.”
Grant shook his head. “Ah, but that might be just as bad. A five CD changer is only the first step on the road to rampant consumerism.”
“Grant, I don’t think you have to worry much about turning into a capitalist pig.”
“Well, I seem to have inherited the capitalist half of that equation,” he said, grinning. “But I’ll try to keep the pig part under control.”
Something in his eyes made Ivy’s head swim. “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” she asked.
“Doesn’t seem hot, but we could retire to the porch if you like. Should I turn the music off before we go?”
Ivy shook her head. “No. I like it, even in the background. Hearing Bobby Darin singing always makes me feel like my mother’s nearby.” She smiled at him, a warm feeling welling up inside. “I’ll meet you outside in a moment. But first, point me to the bathroom.”
Grant gave her directions and then headed for the porch. Ivy walked down the hall to the bathroom, fighting back the strange, warm sensation that had sprung up within her. It began in her crotch and spread quickly through her limbs. It felt vaguely like an orgasm, but less pleasant; more like an anticipation that couldn’t be fulfilled.
By the time she reached the bathroom, Ivy felt dizzy. Images of Grant played incessantly in her mind, and a strange buzzing filled her ears. It almost sounded like someone talking—but she couldn’t make out the words.
She drew a bowl of cold water and splashed her face in it. Then she sat on the toilet until she felt more calm. She peed and washed her hands, then brushed her hair. Upon leaving the room, Ivy made a brief phone call to Cassie and then went to look for Grant.
She found him outside on the lawn near the porch. He’d turned off the front lights and stood staring up at the stars.
“What do you see?” she asked, walking up beside him and craning back her head.
“The usual. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”
Ivy smiled at him. “Thank you, Mr. Spock.”
“Plus some light pollution, of course.”
“Is the whole world an ecological cause to you, Grant?”
He smiled and shook his head. “No. I just try to stay mindful of the way things are, and what I can do to improve them. You can see so many stars when you’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Here in our private castles with our electric lights and technological marvels, I sometimes think we forget just how small we really are.
“We’re all just tiny ships, wandering an endless, lonely ocean on a moonless night. It’s as much luck as anything else when we find another ship in that darkness.”
She touched his arm and said softly, “Your ship’s at port now, Grant. You’re home.”
He turned and glanced at her, then turned his gaze back to the stars. The warmth in his green eyes made the fire shoot up inside Ivy again. She stepped forward, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him.
He seemed startled at first, but soon put his arms around her and kissed back. His mouth tasted sweet and warm. He was a good kisser.
Ivy pulled back from the kiss and took a deep breath, trying to clear her head.
“You know, I really don’t know why I did that,” she said, blushing.
“I’m glad you did,” said Grant. He smiled warmly at her, his green eyes sparkling. “I’d like to do it again.”
Ivy turned away and stepped back into the light at the edge of Grant’s porch. Overhead, the stars twinkled in the night sky. Ivy felt hot inside, as if she’d been running. She realized she’d been fighting this same feeling since just after lunch. It was a pleasant sensation, but it also made her feel out of control. She didn’t remember love feeling like this before.
“I’m really not ready for anything serious yet,” she said. “I hardly know you.”
Grant chuckled. “Bullshit. You’ve known me for ages. What you mean is, you’re still not sure if I’m the same guy who wrote to you all those years.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, I am, but I respect your feelings. And I’m willing to wait.”
Ivy looked at him over her shoulder. “I’m glad. Thanks.”
“You want a lift home?”
Ivy shook her head, ignoring the fire she felt inside. “No. I called Cassie to give me a lift right after I went to the bathroom. I’m feeling a bit funny.”
Grant sighed. “You know they’ll find out you’re seeing me sooner or later.”
“I know,” said Ivy. “But I’d like to pick the time and place.”
Grant sat down on the porch swing. “Your prerogative. Care to join me for a swing?” Seeing her trepidation, he added, “No hanky-panky. I promise.”
They sat quietly on the swing and chatted and drank lemonade until Cassie drove up in her Taurus. Then Ivy pecked him on the cheek, waved goodbye, and hopped into the car. Grant scratched his head as he watched her go.
“Jesus, Cassie,” said Ivy when they’d gone a couple of blocks down the road, “it was all I could do to keep from jumping him right there on the porch.”
“Well, for God’s sake, why’d you hold back?” asked her friend. “I wouldn’t have.”
Ivy furrowed her brow. “It just didn’t feel right, somehow. I didn’t mean to kiss him, but it was like an invisible hand shoved me into him.”
“Is that guilt from your Jewish or Anglican side?”
“That’s not it. It’s just… ever since I got out of the hospital, I’ve had these odd feelings. It’s like I’m getting hornier every day, and I’m not sure what to do about it.”
Cassie smiled at her friend. “Well, one or two options spring to mind.”
“But I’ve never felt this way before. Not this intensely. Do you think the accident could have fucked up my brain somehow?”
“You mean like a near-death experience kicking in your biological clock or something?” asked Cassie. She turned over the Museum Bridge and headed the car into the east side of town. “I doubt it. I think it’s just been a long time since you got laid.”
“But when I was with Grant tonight, I almost felt as if something inside was pushing me to do things I don’t think I’m ready for.”
“It’s called hormones, dear. We all have that.”
“No. No. Something inside that wasn’t me.”
“The only thing that’s ever been inside me that wasn’t me was one of my boyfriends,” said Cassie. She winked. “Or maybe two or three.”
Ivy frowned at her friend. “Shit,” she muttered. “Cassie, you are no help at all.”
TO BE CONTINUED…