t was a time for hauntings, close to midnight in early November . A time the House on the Hill anticipated . Its body crowded massive on the land and from afar resembled the dried carapace of a giant beast . On its side, like a gash through its belly, kitchen windows bled light and conversation disturbed its characteristic sullenness . They had named it the House on the Hill even though it was hardly a house but a mansion—now a B&B—and sat not on a hill but in the dense forests of Maine.
It had been meant as a home once, but had lost all its hospitality . They might have repainted, rebuilt, and refurbished, but there was little to do to remove ill will from its foundations . Gabriel loved the house exactly for its refusal to be loved . He had fallen in love with the oppression in the walls, and how willingly it conspired to terrify its guests—each one of them in search of a fright and eager to pay Gabriel and his husband a handsome booking fee to stay in a “haunted house” .
Tonight would begin their most important booking to date . One assignment would determine the trajectory of their business . He found something thrilling in the dramatic stakes, so he channeled his giddiness into meal prep . The following two days would be nothing but sandwiches, energy drinks, and protein bars, while they entertained the rich, old woman who’d booked the entire B&B for a bespoke haunting.
Bernadette. That’s all he knew about her . The sound of a name .
He slathered slices of bread with homemade tuna spread, tiled slices of pickles on top, and assembled each sandwich with a satisfying smack . Gianna sat to his left on the kitchen table and ladled the last of the olla de carne he’d made for dinner into Tupperware bowls . The after-warmth of gas cooktops undercut the chill inside.
“Seconds?” Bryan asked as he brought his plate across the table in one of his massive palms .
“It’s thirds, man . Haven’t you eaten enough?” Gianna said, ignoring his plate altogether .
“Come on, G . I’m starved . I’ve earned my thirds!”
“Questionable,” she shot back, but relented and poured him a ladlefull .
Bryan grinned and set out to devour the stew . The way the boy ate reminded Gabriel of a starved dog—in greedy bites that distended his throat in order to accommodate so much food at once . He ate with his entire body, back hunched over and jaw working furiously . He wrestled with the spoon and made the round muscles of his arms jump . They strained against the white fabric of his uniforms’ shirt, drawing the eye instantly to his forearms . Those great big arms reminded Gabriel of a particular boyfriend from his rebellious days . The memories made him blush . It was the intended effect . Hire young, beautiful people as servants, and complement the terror of Thanatos with the desire of Eros. Disarm with flirtation, then scare half to death. It never failed, though this haunting didn’t call for seduction .
Once Bryan scraped the last drop of soup clean, he heaved demonstratively and pulled out his Juul . Sugar tufts of smoke pistoned out of his nostrils and ruffled around his neck like a collar.
“And stop smoking that piece of shit . The smoke is nauseating,” Gianna admonished as she proceeded to close the containers .
“Yeah, yeah .”
“One more puff and you’ll have that thing far up your ass .”
Bryan puffed out another cloud of smoke . “I hear butt stuff feels really good . Right, Mr . Corsaro?”
Gabriel snorted in surprise, and let out a belly laugh at Gianna frozen in place . Her complexion turned a bright red, which only intensified the shine of her bleached buzz cut.
“My sex life is for the bedroom, Bryan, and stop calling me Mr . Corsaro, when it’s just us . I am yet to become my father .” It was his husband’s rule to deepen the clients’ immersion . Always be in character. Our guests pay a lot to be scared. Address us by last name even if there is no one to hear.
“You might not be your father, Gabe, but you’re my dad now,” Bryan said and tapped his chest with a closed fist.
“Very funny, Bri . You’re grounded, young man .” Gabriel earned a few chuckles and then he checked his watch just in case—a little before eleven pm . Good, though Kalle should be here already . “Is Kalle still in HQ?”
“Yeah, testing the video and sound equipment . Do I go tell him to come?” Bryan offered .
“No need .” They still had time . Kalle had a one-track mind and try as he might to make him slow down, the closest Gabriel had come to get him to take care of himself was to force feed him on the go like a temperamental child .
“All right .”
They resumed their work . Gabriel packed provisions in a basket, while Brian busied himself with his black bowtie . Gianna turned her attention to a wig stand to her left. Nimble fingers ruffled the black bangs and combed through the strands of human hair with care . Once satisfied with the result, she removed the wig from its stand and eclipsed her golden head with it . The gesture lasted no more than a few seconds, but fully erased her face and redrew her features . The addition of long hair softened her expression and imbued her with a shallow layer of sweetness that told guests all they thought they knew about a person like her without looking into her eyes . She looked herself over in her phone camera . “How to become a racist stereotype of Asian women in one step,” she said .
“I think you’re forgetting step two—”
“Finish that sentence, and I’ll skin you alive .”
“Only if you wear me as a coat after .”
“That gives me ideas about the attic . Garment bags with skin suits,” Gabriel said in hopes to nip the conflict before it escalated. Confrontation sat ill with him, and he didn’t want to start a job feeling like he couldn’t find his calm in his stomach.
Mercifully, Kalle chose that moment to saunter into the kitchen with an unenthusiastic “Hello” and beelined straight to the moka pot, diffusing the tension .
“What do we think about good old Bernadette? Other than, you know, she has a death wish,” Gianna asked .
“You know what I know . The client is a woman and she’s travelling with a companion,” Kalle answered, dry as ever, and prepared his coffee with great tenderness .
“Probably a recluse . Old money . Not really all there . Really messed up in the head,” Bryan added, and he had a point . The level of detail in her request for a bespoke haunting had raised eyebrows, and Gabriel was curious to meet the woman, who had specified her arrival time as simply “midnight”. The only reason they knew her first name at all was because she’d submitted a line-by-line script for the ghost call she’d requested in her room . “But she pays well . I’ve bought a new washing machine and stove for my momma for Thanksgiving with the advance .”
“The money is really good…” Gianna joined in, hands busy rubbing off her black nail polish . Almost too good, Gabriel read on her face . “My parents had a meltdown when I showed them the tickets to Korea . We’re spending Thanksgiving with some uncles and aunts they haven’t seen since they were kids .”
If the advance was generous, the pay upon completion was astronomical. Sufficient enough to close the B&B until January and take off with Kalle to Costa Rica, where they’d spend the whole of December with relatives in Heredia . Once back, Mr . Pavich—their benefactor—would sign over the House on the Hill in their name and they’d run it as they wanted . No more bespoke requests from oddball ultra-rich clients Mr . Pavich dragged their way every so often .
Gabriel appreciated the technical challenge . It kept his imagination alive to reimagine the house’s soundscape and invoke new horrors . But he was past the point where he needed to prove himself . He preferred the natural stream of guests as it ebbed and flowed.
“All we have to do is live through this and we’ll collect the rest of the payment,” Kalle said . He sat himself next to Gabriel, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand . They kissed and Gabriel tasted the hints of bitter mint .
“Kal, you’re kissing me with snus in your mouth again .”
“Right. Sorry,” Kalle reached his spider-leg fingers into his mouth, and dislodged the worn out packet of tobacco from the inside of his cheek, then wrapped it carefully in a paper napkin .
“Boss, that’s gross .” Bryan made a face . Kalle glanced at the Juul in Brian’s hand, and looked back at the boy to make his point .
“You all look in order . Where’s Jodie?”
“Somewhere on the upper floor. She told me she wanted to practice walking in her dress some more, but she’s ready . The prosthetics on her face turned out great .”
“Then it seems we’re as ready as we’ll ever be .” Then they went over the brief one final time. As far as bespoke hauntings went, this one required meticulous timing . The woman would stay a total of two nights, counting her arrival, and remain entirely in the house . The brief mentioned nothing about dietary requests, which further increased speculation about the client . The ultra-rich always indulged in weird foods . It’s like they use eccentricity to separate themselves from those who can’t afford it, Gianna had once said.
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