At 59 years old Hilda had thought her life would be different than it had been at 55, 50, and 45. At 40, 35, and 30, and she had thought then that her goals would have been different than when she was 25 and 20. But at 59 years old Hilda was unmarried, helping her partner to be the best man he could be, and waiting for someone to sell her a $500,000 home for $20,000 and a lifetime of prayers. Granted, she was realistic, she obviously had to buy her own home, for full price, and make it work. If anyone could do it, it was certainly Hilda, but that didn’t stop her from fantasizing that maybe one day the unheard of Angel of Real Estate and Returned Kindness would just find her the perfect home for her and her family at the heavenly price of free, pending a small down payment of $20,000. That was was what on Hilda’s mind and she parked her new white sedan on the curb in front of, but not too in front of, the yellow “For Sale” and “Open House” signs.
Getting out of the car, Hilda thought of her sick husband for whom she cared greatly and greatly cared. He was back in the hospital and unable to come with her on this venture. Her mother was thankfully visiting her brother in farm country and not available to check out this house either. In one way it allowed her the peace and quiet she usually sought out by hiding in the bathroom. On the other it meant that neither of the two people she would be living with were around to see the house. The property, she determined, was promising from the front. A quiet street, populated but not crowded or busy. Leaves littered the road, building up around the gutter halfway down the block. There were no trees in the front yard, and the large trees on her neighbors’ properties were both on the far opposite sides. Hilda reflected how helpful this would be for maintaining the yard herself, at least while her husband was still sick and her mother remained in her early 90’s.
Hilda looked up at the house – the lights were all off and the front door was closed. It was only 3:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon. The air had chilled down enough to remind everyone to crack out their winter coats, but the sun hadn’t dropped completely from her view point. Maybe the back of the house had more natural lighting Hilda mulled as she rationalized the strange setting of an open house. Having once been a realtor herself Hilda always took an extra interest in open houses and houses for sale. Especially now that she was in the market. She studied the outside.
The house appeared to be a sugar maple split, not exactly a ranch, nor a regular split level. The outside paint had some wear to it. From the end of the driveway it appeared a slightly dirty white, but the closer she got Hilda could see the house had once been a soft, eggshell blue. Not bright enough to make the neighbors complain, but just enough to add something different. It was they kind of color people remembered but couldn’t remember why they did so. The wooden shutters were a much darker, bolder blue. In various lighting Hilda was sure they had to appear black, but she didn’t hate it. Instead, Hilda felt drawn to the tricks of the house’s coloring. She would have felt generally better and more drawn if the lights were on, or if she knew the realtor was already here. Hilda ran her eyes down the block once more, there was one car somewhat close to them, but it was parked on the far side of the bend in the road. Seemingly the car belong to a house further down the block, past the clusters of red and orange fallen leaves.
Hilda reached the door, taking in every stone on the path from the driveway to the front door. The stairs, while beautiful, had excessively rough edges even for the material and pieces missing. Somehow it all added to the appeal of the place. What kind of appeal remained to be seen… it could be anywhere an Addams vibe to something out of Leave it to Beaver. Hilda was excited to check it out from the inside. She could only imagine what the decor looked like; if there was something she loved maybe she could talk the owners into selling it with the house. One could hope. Hilda attempted to open the old, almost ornate golden handle to no avail. Hilda leaned in toward the glass window and pushed down on the button attempting to pull open the door one more – nothing. She squinted, in hopes of having her eyes adjust to the dim light faster. It appeared that the lock-box was sitting on the hallway table. Certainly no realtor could be careless enough to lock themselves in or out of an open house. Hilda thought about some of the people she knew from her Real Estate days. It was certainly possible that some people could pull that disaster off.
“Are you the realtor,” a man’s voice spoken over Hilda’s shoulder caressing it with a foreign accent she was too startled to identify.
“What the,” Hilda whipped around, clutching her chest and her purse.
“I’m sorry. Did I startle you?”
“Yes, you did,” Hilda started. Looking at the man she realized he was very handsome. “But it’s okay. No, I’m not the realtor. Were you here for the open house as well?”
“Yes. My wife and I are recently married. We’re looking to buy our first home.”
Hilda resisted the urge to roll her eyes. There was nothing less intelligent than young couples in love. Hilda thought of her sick “husband.” They had been married for eight years, same as Hilda’s first marriage, but there was an incident – it’s always something, they got divorced, remained the best of friends, and were currently right back to where they had been: living together, taking care of each other, loving each other in their own ways, and looking for a place to live. It was like she was in her late 30s or late 20s once more, but with a much better partner this time. Would she ever not be with a man who desperately needed her looking for a home of their own instead of a dinky apartment? She had a sickly feeling that the answer was no. She also had a feeling that the man was staring at her.
“I’m sorry, reflecting on young love. You’ll understand when you’re older,” Hilda said to the young man who was in fact staring at her.
“Ah, it’s okay,” he said with a wink. Hilda wanted to kiss him and then slap him. Perhaps slap him first and then kiss him. She pretended to herself that her indecision was what ultimately prevented her from just doing it. Her daughter always told her to embrace her feminine wiles and stop obeying every man or patriarchal rule like it was directly from God the Father, but Hilda was not Bethy. Bethy was her own person. She liked that about her daughter. She sometimes wished she could be more like her herself.
“I don’t really have time for this,” Hilda said mostly to herself.
“Me neither. I must be getting back to work. I’m going to call my realtor, if you want to wait and see what she has to say before you take off,” the young man added.
Hilda nodded at him, “I’m going to sneak a peek of the backyard. I’ll be right back.” In attempting to move around each other, Hilda and the young man collided. Hilda felt both the young man’s arms leave her body as they righted themselves. She blushed as she ducked around him on the left – his arm once more grazing her side. Hugo, Hilda decided his name should be Hugo, gave her a glace as she walked away. A smile brushed Hilda’s face. Maybe I can be more like Bethy after all, she thought.
Hilda checked out the air conditioner as she walked closer to the fence. A somewhat newer model – not brand new, but not something that seemed to need replacing in the next few years either. She looked at the row of bushes, long deserted from any blossoms or buds, but still full and beautiful. There was a root attempting a slow rupture from the ground trailing its origin back to the other side of the fence, but no tree in sight. The fence seemed to be all natural wood, made into points on the tops painted a shade lighter than the house. Either that or it had not been as layered or cared for as the house had been. Chips of the faded paint had fallen away from the overused areas, exposing strips of the original wood surface. Nothing a good coat of new paint and sealer couldn’t fix, Hilda imagined.
The backyard mirrored the front yard with its manicured lawn, stone path way leading to larger pieces of stone. In this case, the larger pieces formed a floating patio of sorts. Co-mingled with the grass and the dirt, large oddly shaped stones were laid like mosaics tiles to form a larger kidney shape. Each large stone had natural strokes of grey, blue, brown, red, and dust running over and through them. They were a perfect match to the stones in the front. Hilda saw a fireplace made from the same stone inside the home. Certainly no homeowner with this kind of budget or knack for design could be so short sighted to not have built a matching, custom fireplace. Perhaps even two if materials were stretched. Hilda had to get inside this house. After spending an extra few minutes attempting to stretch out her short frame to see over the fence and to the other side of the yard, Hilda surrendered and turned back facing the main road.
Hilda shook her head at herself. She really had thought she was significantly taller than the fence, but her efforts had proved her mistaken. In shaking her head, a reflection caught her eye. It was then Hilda noticed a window on the side of the home. Two actually. One had been on the other side of the fence, the back half of the house. But this one, this one was on the front half of the house, and the blinds were open. The shades had also been drawn to the side. It reminded Hilda of how she used to stage her open houses when she had them back in the day. The days of being a young 30 something and trying to make it, small child and all. Hilda smiled to herself and she shuffled into the bushes. The sign said “Open House” no one was going to care if she was catching a view from the side. As she raised herself up on her tippy-toes and began to lean in to get a good look she heard the loud slam of a door followed momentarily by another door closing, and the sound of a car taking off.
Hilda nearly fell over herself in the excitement and rushed toward the front of the house. Hugo was nowhere to be found. Hilda raced to the door, but it was still locked. She peered into the window once more. The lock-box was no longer on the counter. Her hand dropped from the nob gently bumping into a hard object – the lock-box was back on the door. Maybe something bad had happened. Hilda searched for her phone. It wasn’t in her jacket or jean pockets. She rummaged through her purse. Thankfully she only carried a smaller, more manageable one these days. Not like Bethy who always carried around a bag big enough to carry a Christmas goose. Bethy! Maybe Bethy could help her. She was always reading those mystery novels, both the lighthearted ones for young women and the horrifically gruesome ones for people with strong stomachs. Those were the ones that she felt the need to relay in great detail to Hilda. But how could she call Bethy – she couldn’t find her phone. Hilda took a moment. Perhaps she just left her phone in the car. That would be the first place she would look. If it wasn’t there, then perhaps she could allow herself to panic.
Hilda returned to her car and searched through the center console and even under the seat. Her phone was lost. Hugo was gone. The lock-box managed to end up on the outside of the house. And now Hilda was panicking. She had a landline. She was probably one of the only people in the continental US who had a landline because they wanted one, and not because it was part of a bundle deal from some provider. Hilda’s apartment was only 10 minutes away. She would go home and call Bethy. Better yet, maybe she should call the police. Her mind raced back and forth from Bethy to the police, from the police to Hugo, from Hugo to Bethy, from Bethy to her phone, from her phone to the police, and so on until finally Hilda arrived in her own apartment. Instinctively Hilda went to call her mother first and was five digits in before remembering that her mother was at her brother’s house until Tuesday, and was generally useless in these situations. Hilda called Bethy.
“Hi Mama,” Bethy sung as she answered the phone.
“Hi honey,” Hilda said quickly, “do you have a minute?”
“Of course. What’s wrong,” Bethy’s tone shortened.
“Nothing, Bethy,” her mother began, “it’s just…” a beeping interrupted Hilda’s thought. She glanced at her called ID, “honey, I have another call. Can I call you right back?”
“Sure. But seriously, is everything okay?”
“Yes, Bethy,” Hilda said as calmly as possible, “I’ll call you right back.”
Hilda braced herself, the number that was calling was her own.
“Hello,” Hilda said with trepidation.
“Hi, not my realtor,” a familiar voice inquired.
“Hugo? No, my name is Peter,” Not-Hugo continued, “we met today at the opened house? I saw a phone on the ground, picked it up, put it in my pocket. My wife called while you were in the back and said she got a flat tire – I rushed from the opened house without realizing I had two phones. I wanted to return it to you. Is that possible?”
Hilda exhaled. Maybe she had spent too much time listening to Bethy’s crazy stories. Nothing bad had happened to anyone. And most certainly not inside that house.
“Yes, of course. Are you free now?”
“I am not, no. My wife and I are leaving the tire place now for a family party. It’s the one on Acre. Can I leave it at the front desk for you?”
Hilda thought it over. It was clearly safer than having a stranger come to her house, “that’s fine, Peter. Thank you!”
Hilda hung up the phone with Peter and called Bethy back. While Hilda straightened out her hair, and brushed some dirt from the bushed off of herself she told Bethy the whole story about the not-open house. Bethy teased her for not flirting enough and for panicking and loosing her phone. For a moment Hilda felt like as happy as she had 54 years ago, when her five-year-old daughter and her danced in the kitchen to the songs from musicals that should have been too grown up for Bethy to understand, but even at five she knew of hardship. Hilda told Bethy she would call her from the car the second she and the her phone were back in the driver’s seat.
Hilda parked her car in the spot furthest from the door, the same way she always parked in busy parking lots. Not that the tire place had such a large parking lot, but she preferred to be away from all the bad drivers and even worse parkers. Hilda smiled upon hearing the ding of the bell as she walked into the store. The man behind the counter greeted her. Hilda introduced herself and asked the man if he had her cell phone. Within a few minutes the man brought out a cell phone in an icy blue and grey protective case, “that’s it,” Hilda said! “My daughter’s old case,” she added with a chuckle. “Got to be more careful, Miss. Was an awfully strange fellow who dropped this off here. Have a nice day now,” the older man said as she walked away from the counter and toward the opened door. “Awfully strange fellow indeed,” he whispered once more.
Four days later, Hilda and Bethy were sitting on the couch at Hilda’s apartment eating dinner getting ready for watch their favorite prime time show when suddenly the program was interrupted, “BREAKING NEWS: Realtor found dead inside local home.” The newsroom cut to a field reporter standing in front of an off white, almost blue, older home with dark blue or black shutters. There were no trees in the front yard. Instead a stretcher with what appeared to be a sheeted body was being wheeled awkwardly over a stone path leading to the driveway. Bethy looked at her mother as she jaw slackened. A strange sound escaped her mother’s throat, as Hilda herself felt her body turn to rubber. Hot tea splashed down her leg, off the couch and onto the floor. Bethy looked from the TV to her mother and back once more. “The house,” her mother said as she fainted, “issstthhhou…”