by Yasmine Galenorn
originally published in the Once Upon A Ghost anthology
Rapunzel glided through the tower, aware of the ceilings that loomed high over her head. Each one was painted with a different mural. And each level of the tower was a different room, large and circular, with windows that looked out on every side. The central stairwell was steep, stone steps with an ornately carved handrail that ran the entire length from bottom to top. Five stories high, the tower sat in the center of a woodland clearing, a mossy lawn surrounding the stone structure.
On the basement level was a storeroom, with bags of grain encased in protective bins to guard against rodents, and stacks of wood for the stoves, and ropes and tools and almost everything she would need for a long period of internment. The kitchen took over the main level, with a stove and sink, a table and chairs, and an array of vining plants. The third level was her bedchamber and bath, filled with quilts and pillows, a gigantic bed and mattress, a wardrobe full of clothes, and a vanity where she could sit and putter with her paints and potions. A bathtub and toilet hid behind a screen, and thanks to the miracle of modern magic, she had running hot and cold water.
The fourth level of the tower was her library, with floor to ceiling bookshelves that circled the entire room. A rocking chair and divan offered the perfect place from where to sit and read, and a desk and chair gave her a place to sit and write. Level five of the tower was her greenhouse, encased with glass to catch the rays of the sun, filled with plants—both edible and ornamental—and it smelled green there. It smelled like life.
When she finished inspecting the tower, she returned to the kitchen level where Bertie, her mother, was waiting. The old witch had found her when she was a baby, and had been her mother as long as she could remember. Rapunzel had never wanted for anything—either physically or emotionally. She was incredibly happy. Bertie, her mother, had never refused her a single request, except for one.
As she grew older, Rapunzel and her mother had to face a reality neither one of them liked. For Rapunzel was one of the most beautiful young women in the world, and men literally knocked down their door to try to carry her off. Bertie had fought them away every time, using any means necessary to protect her daughter. They had moved from town to town. Rapunzel had shrouded her beauty, but no matter what she did, it still shined through.
And from the time she was fifteen, Rapunzel had asked her mother every year to hide her away. “I don’t want to go out in the world, Mother. I don’t want to marry. I want to sit with my books and thoughts, and hide from the dragons out there. They frighten me, and all I want is a quiet home safely tucked away, where nothing will ever harm me, where no one will ever try to possess me like some porcelain trinket or a like a chest full of gold.”
But when Rapunzel asked to be locked away, each time Bertie had refused.
“No, child. Your beauty is your curse, but it’s not your fault. I won’t lock you away simply because the dolts will not listen to reason. I promised the day that I found you, when you were so very little, that I would protect you. And I will keep that promise, as long as need be.”
Over the years, Rapunzel had watched her mother fight to keep her free. Bertie had turned men into toads. She had killed more men who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer, than most warriors had ever killed in battle. Bertie had committed unspeakable acts in order to protect her daughter, and she had done so uncomplaining.
With every kill, Rapunzel’s heart sank. She knew how much taking life wounded her mother. Not only had the years taken a toll on Bertie emotionally, but they had aged her before her time. As Rapunzel grew older, it only got worse. Every year more princes arrived, determined to win her as their bride. Every year, pigheaded suitors would ignore her “I’m not interested” and attempt to drag her away.
Finally, Rapunzel couldn’t take anymore. So she had made a plan.
When she approached her twenty-first birthday, Bertie asked her what she wanted.
“Will you give me anything I want? Do you promise?” Rapunzel said.
Of course, Bertie agreed. “You’re my heart, child. I would do anything for you.”
“Then give me my haven. Lock me in, and live the rest of your life in peace. This I ask. This I want.” Rapunzel took her mother’s hands. “You’ve given me everything I could wish for. You’ve protected me since I was young. But you need to rest. You need to focus on your own life. I want you to be happy. Please, Mama, please.”
Reluctantly, Bertie gave in. She would never go back on a promise to her child.
She hired a team of carpenters and masons—all women. They had built the tower in a secret location and stocked it with everything Rapunzel asked for. Finally, on the eve of Rapunzel’s twenty-first birthday, the tower was ready.
She sat beside her mother in the kitchen, and felt the peace of the tower surround her.
“Are you sure about this, child? Are you positive?” Bertie shook her head. “I’m afraid you’ll regret this. That you’ll resent me for giving you what you think you want.”
“I’m sure, Mama,” Rapunzel said. “This is what I want. You can come visit.” She stroked back her hair. It was golden, falling to twice the length of her body, and she kept it braided. “When you want to come in, I’ll let down my hair for you and you can climb up.”
“What happens if there’s a fire?” Bertie asked.
“I’ll jump. The grass below is soft and will break my fall.”
“What if you get lonely?”
“I have my books to comfort me, and I know you won’t stay away for long. But I’ll be safe and no one will bother me.”
“What if some foolhardy knight decides to climb the tower? You know how persistent some men can be.” Bertie shook her head. “I simply don’t see this working, child.”
“I can throw a dagger at him. You taught me to hit dead center. Or I’ll shoot an arrow—you taught me how to hunt. This has to work, because I have no other choice. I can’t continue to let you fight my battles, and I’m so tired of the unwanted advances. If I change my mind, I can always climb out the tower and…do whatever it is I might take into my head to do. But for now, solitude and peace seem like paradise to me.” Rapunzel kissed her mother on the forehead. “Can’t you see, this makes me happy?”
And for the first time, Bertie realized that her daughter really did want the solitude she had begged for. She wasn’t cut out for relationships, or motherhood.
“Very well, little bird. I’ll visit you every month. Look for me on the morning of the dark moon. We’ll talk and have tea and I’ll tell you of the outside world, and you can read your new poetry to me.”
Rapunzel kissed her mother and the old witch left the tower. She waited while the mason bricked over the entrance, leaving a secret lever in place that would open a panel and allow the witch in, just in case of an emergency.
And then, because she loved her daughter so very much, and she worried that the mason might fall for a bribe and give out the location of the secret level, she dragged the woman into the woods and slit her throat, crying over the last blood she would ever have to spill because of her daughter, the most beautiful woman in the world.
Or, so she thought it would be the last blood.
Bertie knelt by her daughter’s side, weeping. “Rapunzel…if I’d only been here.”
For ten years, Bertie had visited Rapunzel, twelve times a month, staying for a week each time. And each time, she begged her daughter to come out of hiding. But the longer Rapunzel stayed in her tower, the happier she seemed. No one bothered her. No would-be suitors could get in, no rogues could threaten to carry her off. In fact, the world seemed to have forgotten she existed, except for her mother.
Now, Bertie stared at the lifeless form, lying at the bottom of the stairs. Her hair, a fountain of gold, coiled around her body like a golden shroud. It was obvious what had happened. A stair near the top had cracked. Rapunzel was wearing heels. And the back of her skull had cracked when her head met the pavement.
Bertie would forever blame herself for giving into her daughter’s wishes. She closed up the tower with Rapunzel’s body inside and settled in to guard her daughter’s remains.
Over the years, the forest reclaimed Bertie, swallowing her with its vines and tendrils, and then it devoured the tower, tearing down the stones, ivy and ferns creeping over the marble, grass breaking through the mortar, until nobody ever remembered that a tower had once stood there, save for some broken rubble that littered the land. Nobody remembered Rapunzel, the most beautiful girl in the world—so beautiful, it was once said she drove men mad with longing.
It would be a long, long time before anybody ever built there again.
The house appealed to James.
He had never noticed it before, but then—during the middle of a thunderstorm—he suddenly looked up when a fork of lightning split the sky, and there it was. A large Victorian, weathered and abandoned, waiting to be brought back to life.
James loved to renovate houses, and this was the loneliest house he had ever seen. Yet the beauty beneath the surface shone through, and he was mesmerized.
He had just moved to the town of Evermore, and was renting a room in a local boarding house. What had drawn him to Evermore was the history. It was rumored that the town was built over some ancient archaeological site. Ruins had been found scattered in the woods, but nobody knew what they had been.
But to James, the rumors meant gold.
Not in the literal sense. But archaeological gold. Historical gold. Gold in the realm of storytelling and uncovering hidden treasures. And ever since his divorce, James was looking for some sort of hidden treasure. Something that would bring him back to life.
“What’s that old house down on Sycamore Lane?” he asked Gary, the bartender, when he stopped into the Evermore Pub & Grill House.
“You mean the abandoned Victorian? It’s been empty for years.” Gary slid a beer in front of him and added a bowl of pretzels. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Grilled cheese and tomato soup. Pickles on the side.” Every night, James ate his dinner at Gary’s grill. He wasn’t much of a cook and wasn’t that interested in learning. “Yeah, that’s the one. On the very end of the cul-de-sac.”
“Order up,” Gary called back through the kitchen window. Turning back to James, he said, “I think the last owners left abruptly. Does it still have the faded for-sale sign in the front yard?”
“I’m not sure. If it does, I didn’t notice. I just happened to see the house thanks to the storm. I’m not even sure why I went down that street.” He waved off Gary’s curious look. “In my former life as a not-so-happily-married man, I restored houses for a living. Until my ex decided to run off with our business and I lost everything. I don’t miss her, but I miss the work. I miss bringing life back to outdated homes.” He played with his beer mug, sliding it along the counter. “I wonder…”
“I wouldn’t. There’s never been anyone who actually moved into that house, as far as I know. There’s a rumor that it’s haunted.” Gary gave him a long look. “Besides, what would you want with a house that big? You’d just ramble around there all by yourself.”
“True,” James said. “But renovating it would help me pass the evenings. I don’t have a girlfriend, and my job bores the crap out of me. Maybe this is what I need to get some semblance of control back in my life.”
Gary slid another beer in front of him. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
But James wasn’t listening. He was adrift in a sea of thoughts about just how he’d reno the place. She would be a showplace when he was done, the most beautiful house in town.
And maybe, just maybe, he could get back into flipping houses full time instead of selling hoses and hammers at the local hardware store.
The house seemed so quiet when they opened the doors…
Caitlin Barnes, the real estate agent, seemed both relieved and reluctant to hand over the keys. “Bear in mind, nobody’s been inside in over two years. But the bones are good. It’s a sturdy house, and most of what’s wrong—what I know of—is all on the façade. With sweat and elbow grease, she’ll shine like the Painted Lady she once was.”
James didn’t even hear. His attention was riveted on the house. He had done something he would never advise anybody to do. He had bought the house sight unseen. He scrounged together every spare dollar he could get his hands on, walked into the agency’s office, and offered to buy the house for two-thirds the asking price. An all cash offer. And they had jumped at the chance to unload it. Except Caitlan seemed concerned that he might regret his decision.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked him one last time. “I feel obligated to tell you that we’ve had a lot of reports of…unnatural activity in the house. In fact, most of the renters we’ve had come through there since we took over managing the property haven’t lasted more than a couple months. They’ve paid the lease through, moved out of town, and never looked back.”
James wrinkled his nose and flashed her his most winning smile. “I’m not afraid. I don’t believe in spirits, Ms. Barnes, except the ghosts we carry with us. Now, as a thank you for working with me on this deal, would you care to go out to dinner with me next week?”
She blushed, the faint red flush rising through her face. “I suppose I can. I’m not seeing anybody right now.”
They agreed to dinner a week from Saturday, and she handed him the keys and headed back to her car. For his part, James entered the date into his calendar and turned back to the house. Hidden beneath the grime and the grit was a magnificent skeleton. He had no doubt he could bring her back to life. The house had lived in the shadows too long. It was time to put her on display again.
The basement called to him…
From the moment James took possession of the house, the basement had called to him, but the door was locked. He couldn’t find a key to fit the lock, and he couldn’t seem it with his credit card, so after the first night he left it alone.
Instead, he explored the attic, which was underwhelming except for a few trunks left from former owners who never returned to pick up their belongings. There were three bedrooms and two baths on the third floor that made him strangely uneasy. On the second floor he found what appeared to be a sitting room, a bathroom, and a parlor room. The main floor held the kitchen, dining room and living room, a powder room, and what looked like a den.
The thought crossed his mind that, with enough elbow grease, he could turn the old Victorian into a bed and breakfast. But he instantly shied away from the idea. He didn’t want strangers coming through the doors of his house.
In fact, even though he had bought it with the idea of flipping it, maybe he should just fix it up and live in it. But when he thought of settling in, a feeling of unease washed over him, like he was being watched. He made his way through all the rooms to convince himself that he was alone in the house.
You’re a fool, he told himself. You bought this house with the last of your savings, and you don’t even know if it’s livable. You didn’t even ask for an inspection.
How the hell was he going to make his motorcycle payment next month? As far as rent, he could move in and live here while he worked on it, so he wouldn’t be paying double rent. But the uneasy panic continued. He fumbled in his pocket for his inhaler. He’d been a light asthmatic from childhood on, and it usually didn’t flare unless he was around flowers or mold. But now, his lungs burned and he sucked on the inhaler, holding the medicine deep in his lungs before letting it out in a slow stream.
“Calm down,” he said aloud, mostly for the sound of hearing a voice. “Everything will be fine. You’re just having cold feet because you made a decision without thinking it all the way through. Everything will be fine. Wait and see.”
The words hung in the air, and they seemed to do the trick. He relaxed, and once again, found himself mesmerized by the house. The wallpaper was beautiful, the scrollwork that had been carved into the fireplace mantle was exquisite. The corbelled arches were intricate.
When he next looked at his watch, he was surprised to see that he’d been wandering around, lost in the beauty surrounding him for three hours. It was nearly midnight, and if he didn’t get to bed, he’d be running ragged the next morning.
“I guess…I sleep here tonight,” he said.
The house shuddered.
He thought about choosing one of the bedrooms, but a cold sweat swept over him and he decided instead to curl up on the sofa. He pulled an old blanket off the back of the couch and dragged it outside to shake the dust loose. Coughing, he returned to the house and stretched out on the sofa. A few moments later, he had fallen asleep, but his dreams were uneasy, and the next morning he couldn’t remember anything about them except that they had been filled with shadows and flames and the ever-present feeling of greed.
Every evening that week, when he got home from work, he stood at the basement door, hand on the knob, willing it to open. He searched the house for keys again and again, but couldn’t find any. And still, it remained locked…
Gary poured James another beer. “You could hire a locksmith.”
James shook his head. “No, I know it sounds crazy but I don’t want anybody else prying around in the house.”
“Then you’ll either have to buy a skeleton key and hope that works, or maybe get a set of lock picks. Or you could take the door off its hinges.” Gary wiped the bar with his rag. In the space of a week, James had developed a haunted look and it worried the barkeeper. He had never seen a man change so fast.
James stared at the foam head on his beer. “I don’t think the house would like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, to tell you the truth. Anyway, I’ve picked up a second job so I can pay for the renovations. I can do some of them myself, but I’ll have to hire a plumber and an electrician.”
“How did your date with Caitlan go?” Gary asked. “It was supposed to be last night, wasn’t it?”
James gave him a sheepish grin. “I cancelled it.”
He didn’t want to tell Gary that he had phoned Caitlan Barnes the morning after he had made the date and called it off. For some reason, it felt like he’d be cheating on the house, even though that seemed ridiculous. He’d made up some feeble excuse and got off the phone as soon as possible.
“Are you sure you want to keep that place?” Gary asked. “There are reasons it’s stood empty all these years. People have come and gone, but no one—not even the original builder—stayed for long. I wish you would rethink it. You can talk Caitlan into canceling the deal.”
“I know, but…” James shrugged him off. He finished his burger and left the bar. How could he explain that he was obsessed? That, as his love for the house grew, the less he cared about anything else?
As the weeks went on, odd things began to happen.
James turned on the water in the shower and as he stepped in, the faucet handles moved on their own and the water almost scalded him. He managed to get out with only a light burn, but it could have been much worse.
The next night, the range turned on by itself, and he managed to catch it before the teakettle boiled dry. A few days later, he tried to open a window to get some fresh air in, and it refused to budge. He finally pried it open with a screwdriver and, as he turned away, it slammed down behind him with an angry thud.
James chalked it up to the house being old, even though a feeling in his gut told him there was more to it. But he didn’t believe in spirits, and he was tired by the time he got home. It was a trick of the light, a slip of the memory…it had to be.
One night, three weeks after he had moved in, he found himself standing in the middle of the room, swearing. He didn’t know what came over him.
“You think you’re too good for me, don’t you? You want to drive me away, but it’s not going to happen. You’re mine and nobody else is going to have you!”
There was a silent hush, and then very faintly, from somewhere deep in the basement, James thought he heard a door slam. He hurried over to the sofa, and closed his eyes against the dark.
A month after he bought the house, James decided it was time to start in renovations.
He convinced Gary to come over to take some ‘before’ pictures. But when the bartender started up the steps to the front porch, James suddenly swung around, blocking the way.
“No. I don’t want you inside.”
“Dude, you asked me over. What’s going on?”
James wiped his hand across his eyes, conflicted. He wanted Gary to see the house, to show him what he planned on doing, but the thought of another man entering the door set him on edge. He tried to shrug it away, and just said, “Sorry, man. I’m just tired. I’ve been working eighty hours a week.” He relented, showing Gary around the house, but was relieved when the bartender had to leave early.
The house took a deep breath, riding a wave as it began to wake up. Slumber disturbed, it opened its eyes…
When he started on the kitchen renovations in earnest, James tore out the old cabinets and appliances, planning to build new life into the Victorian. The basement was still locked, but by now, he had trained himself to just stand at the door for awhile, then focus on something else. The urge to explore was still there, but living in the house on a daily basis helped quell the intense desire to break through the barrier. He could wait. For awhile.
But then, the workmen he hired began to call in sick, and finally, they quit. James found himself hip deep in a pile of unfinished renovations. Without a working kitchen, he wasn’t sure what to do. He’d already paid the men for the work and they left in the middle of the job. He didn’t have the money to hire somebody else to finish the basics. He could put in the cabinets and finish the drywall, but the wiring and plumbing were another matter.
So, he continued to eat at the bar, leaving the kitchen in a shambles as he crossed his fingers that things would turn around. They had to turn around, because he loved the house, and even though the house didn’t love him, he knew his love was enough for the both of them.
James was still sleeping on the sofa. At night, he would dream of a golden haired beauty, and somehow, he knew she was connected with the house. He would reach out to take her hand and she would run from him. No matter how hard he tried, he could never catch her…it was enough to drive him mad until he woke up the next morning and realized he was dreaming. Again…
He had meant to take over one of the bedrooms, but every time he ventured into the upper floors of the house, he heard whispering and it unnerved him.
“I know she’s talking about me, she doesn’t like me and nothing I can do seems to please her.” He sat on the barstool, spooning chili into his mouth as he shook his head.
Gary stared at James. The carpenter had lost weight and looked far too gaunt. “She, who?”
“The house. She’s angry at me, and I don’t know why. All I ever wanted to do was love her and fix her up and show her off. But I can hear her whispering away, sniping behind my back. She thinks I’m an intruder. But damn it, I own her. She’s mine.” James frowned. He often felt confused these days, and he knew he sounded crazy but he didn’t care.
Gary poured him another beer. “You need to move. Get your butt out of there,” he said as he slid the mug in front of James. “It’s not safe.”
But James refused to listen to him. “She’s mine,” he whispered again. “She’s mine and I own her.”
The basement door was still locked.
James stared at the door. He’d had enough. He decided to brave the blockade, to bust through the door and find out what was at the bottom of the stairs.
Don’t you dare. You’ve already done enough damage…
James blinked, looking around the kitchen. The voice was so clear that he knew he wasn’t imagining it.
He grunted, a swell of belligerence rising up. He jiggled the knob again. “I’ll do what I want. I own you. You’re mine.”
Leave us alone. No man owns us. We don’t want you here…
Narrowing his eyes, James shook the knob. “Open, damn it. I bought you. You have to do what I say.”
Obsessed by what was behind the door, James grabbed his screwdriver and a hammer and began to pry at the hinges. He slid the flat-tipped screwdriver in between the top of the hinge and the bolt that secured it to the door and began to pry it open. As he popped first the top hinge, then the lower one, the house stirred and a loud susurration echoed through the rooms, a stirring of old memories and long-repressed anger.
The door wavered, and he eased it off the door jamb, dragging it away from the threshold. The house shuddered and cried out, but he was too deep in his obsession to listen to her protest. He propped the door against the wall and returned to the open arch, shining a flashlight down the steep stairs. Spiderwebs stretched across the steps, and dust an inch thick littered the wood.
A strange sense of foreboding hit him and he almost turned away, almost let the house be. But the greed to possess, the frustration being thwarted swept over him again and James began to make his way down the steps in the basement.
There were no electric lights—at least none that worked, and so he kept his flashlight pointed into the depths. He was halfway down when he paused, thinking he saw someone at the base of the stairs. He squinted into the darkness.
An old woman, hunched over but still standing, was guarding a young woman behind her. The girl had hair that trailed around her feet, spun sunbeams, golden as the morning. She sat on a divan, reading a book, taking no notice of him.
James couldn’t take his eyes off her. He wanted her more than he had ever wanted any woman in the world. Her radiance filled his sight and he was dazzled.
The older woman shook her head.
I told you to leave. I told you to leave this house and go.
James wiped his eyes. The logical part of his brain tried to figure out how the women had gotten down there. They were transparent like holograms, or images on an old film. But he didn’t notice. He barely heard what the old woman said, he was so fixated on the girl.
He took another step.
“I just want to get to know you,” he said, his words drifting, caught by a sudden gust of wind that swept past. “I just want to be with you. You’re so beautiful…Please, let me in.”
Bertie shook her head, sighing.
She had long given up hope that she could ever let down her guard. Her daughter was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even now, even in spirit, she was still a beacon, and men still fell over themselves trying to possess her.
Rapunzel sat reading, oblivious to James. She was rooted into the land, inexorably linked with the surrounding earth. She wasn’t even aware that her mother still stood before her, protecting her. Rapunzel had passed through the veil, but the strongest part of her—her vibrance and her incredible beauty—had remained behind.
But Bertie knew. Even in death, men still sought to possess and to conquer.
So she stayed, her bones now the bones of the land. The houses had come and gone over the centuries, and she and Rapunzel were woven into the walls and the floors and the heart of every home that had stood on the land. And Bertie forever stood guard against any man who threatened her daughter’s rest.
Now, she stared sadly at the young man on the staircase. She had nothing against him, really. She had tried to drive him away, but like the others, he wouldn’t go. So she did what she needed. She reached out with the memory of her magic, and James lost his footing and went tumbling down the steps to land at the bottom. He cracked his skull on the concrete floor, and as Bertie watched, he rose up and wandered away from them.
After the police came and took him away—Greg had reported him missing when he didn’t show up for dinner three nights in a row—the house lay silent.
Bertie wandered the halls, thinking about how many times this had happened. Next time, perhaps it would be a family, and she really didn’t want to kill any more children in order to drive their fathers away. So she crossed to the furnace and focused on a valve that, when pressed, would release the gas into the air. Then, all it took was one shift of a loose wire to spark it off. When the house exploded, it sent both her and Rapunzel into a deep sleep.
But they were still there, and someday, someone would build again. And the old crone would return to protect her daughter with the golden hair, who was the most beautiful woman in the world. And Rapunzel would still wander the ghostly façade of her tower, reading her books, hiding from the world of men.