Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen Honorable Mention

The Mistress of the House

by Mei Knutson

Author Bio

Mei Knutson is currently a seventh grader at Fletcher Middle School. She has lived in Palo Alto her entire life. She enjoys creating worlds and telling stories based on the worlds she creates. Her other hobbies are drawing and reading. She takes swimming and guitar lessons and is currently learning four languages.

Inspiration

My story was inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as environmental themes. I wondered what would happen if plants were sentient, and if they might try to take revenge on humans for polluting the Earth. I decided to explore this idea, but at the same time, incorporate elements of horror into my writing.

The wind howled as the rain struck the windshield of the car. Lightning flashed in the distance. Briar sat in the backseat, hugging her knees as the car's wheels bumped over stones. She looked through the sunroof and stared at the black clouds billowing over the sky. When she was younger, she had dreamed of being a pilot. Today, that dream felt especially far away. She fidgeted with a piece of origami paper, folding it into a plane.

Her aunt was focused on the road. Her golden earrings bounced around as she attempted to regain control of the vehicle. The instructions that a local farmer had given them were fastened to the dashboard. Briar checked her phone. There was no service. Briar scrolled through her old messages, and her heart slowly broke as she thought of all she'd left behind. It's okay, she thought. As soon as I'm with Mom and Dad, I'll feel better.

The car slowed. Briar looked up. A large country home stood in the path. Its wood was decayed, and it was half covered by vines. The gale screamed around them. Briar's aunt checked the instructions. "This should be it."

Briar shuddered. "It looks kind of creepy. You sure this is it?"

"Your parents did say they were renovating it. I'm sure it'll feel like home in no time at all." Briar's aunt grinned.

Briar gazed at the attic window. She could see a figure standing at the window, but she didn't know if it was her mom or dad. Briar waved to the figure. She yanked her backpack onto her shoulder.

Her aunt revved up the engine. "Tell your mom and dad I say hi. You guys can come over anytime you want." She pressed two peppermints into Briar's hand, twisted with stripes of candy-apple red and creamy white.

Briar smiled to tell her aunt that she was okay. "I'll call you soon." Hopefully, there was some sort of landline inside the house, she thought.

Her aunt drove off, leaves flying behind her. Briar picked up a leaf. It was dry, colorless, and dead. She flicked it away and trekked up the mud path to the manor. The figure had disappeared from the window.

She waited for the door to open. The wood was peeling, but she could still see ornate engravings behind the chipped paint. Nobody answered. There were wings carved on the door, and half of Briar wanted to fly away.

She knocked again. Then, giving up, she tugged at the door handle. With a musty clink, it gave way.

The inside of the house was elaborate, from the tiled floor to the shadowed, arched ceiling carved with floral designs. Everything was covered in a layer of dust and cobwebs. White sheets covered pieces of furniture, drooping in the stale air like Halloween ghosts. Briar brushed aside a spider from her face, disgusted. She spotted a thin, spiraling staircase in the corner of the chamber and made her way to it, playing a complex game of Twister as she tried to avoid touching anything that wasn't the floor.

Some renovating, Briar thought. The place was barely suitable to squat in. "Mom? Dad?" She called. Nobody answered.

She hadn't seen her parents in a month. They'd insisted that she finish the school year before visiting them. They said that they would check in with Briar two weeks ago, but they never did. They never even replied to her calls. Briar and her aunt were left to work out the details on their own.

The stairs creaked horribly, but she made it upstairs. The cream-colored carpet had dark stains on it. She peeked in the first door. Great, thick vines swallowed up what was left of the walls, floor, and ceiling. Half of the room was gone, pale light pouring in. The rain had stopped outside. Briar closed the door. Definitely not her room. She shuddered. What had happened to this place?

There was a large portrait mounted on the wall of the hallway. It was of a young couple and their child. The child was wearing a glittering circlet made of silver and diamonds. There was something slightly off about all three of their faces; their eyes were looking away from the painter and their skin was devoid of color. What a weird painting, Briar thought. She moved closer to inspect it, and the family's eyes seemed to move with her. She jumped. You're just imagining it, Briar, she told herself.

Briar turned away from the painting, shivering. When had it gotten so cold? It's like a morgue in here.

She was in the hall again, but there was a door that she hadn't noticed before, a rundown, splintered entryway shaped slightly like a gaping maw. A dull thud came from beyond the threshold.

Mom and Dad, Briar thought. She swung the door open and dashed inside.

The room was barely lit, thick curtains covering all the windows but one. There was no movement. "Dad? Mom?" Briar called tentatively. "Are you in here?" She took another step, and there was a crunch. Briar screamed as she realized she had stepped through a ribcage. She closed her eyes and carefully lifted her foot out of the mess of bones. Her heart hammered inside her chest.

Suddenly, a large chandelier just above Briar's head flickered on. She jumped back as the room was illuminated. A putrid smell wafted into the air, and Briar covered her nose and mouth. A mountain of bones surrounded a dark and intricate throne. Sitting atop the throne was a girl so pale she looked like a doll. She was about Briar's age, but the most unsettling thing about her was her eyes. The sockets were empty, with black chasms instead of eyeballs. A circlet sparkled in her tangled black hair, and she wore a lacy Victorian dress the color of charcoal. Was she the child in the portrait?

The girl moved, making Briar scream again. The world blurred. "Don't come near me!" Briar yelled.

The girl tilted her head to one side, lifted the skirt of her dress, and waded ankle-deep in the pile of bones towards Briar.

Briar turned and ran. The chandelier swung above her head like a pendulum.

The room seemed to extend on endlessly, or maybe it was all just in Briar's mind. She looked back, which was a mistake-- the girl was a few steps behind her. Briar stumbled to the ground a few inches from the open door, gasping for breath.

The girl loomed over her. "Are you done yet?"

Her voice was not whispered from her lips, but seemed to come from the very veins of the house, from the rushing of the pipes, the creaking of the floorboards, and the clattering of the window panes.

The darkness seethed with motion. A sea of tiny black spiders scuttled towards Briar. She shrieked, and tried to get up, but webs bound her to the floor.

The spiders scaled down the walls from the ceiling, and Briar looked up. She almost choked. Corpses hung from the ceiling, covered in webs. They gave off a rotten smell. The cocooned bodies of a man and woman hung in the center, their mouths open in silent screams. She knew who they were, but she didn't want to believe it. She felt vomit rising in her throat.

Briar couldn't breathe. The air was thick with the smell, and the spiders were crawling up her legs. Normal spiderwebs shouldn't be this strong.

The girl was holding a knife. She eased Briar's chin upwards with the sharp edge of the blade, drawing crimson drops of blood. "How interesting," she crooned.

Briar stared defiantly at her, mustering up every ounce of courage she had in order to not collapse.

The girl looked at Briar curiously. The knife protruded from her hand.

The spiders crawled over her face. Her panicked mind turned to the first thing she could think of--- a project she'd done in fourth grade about spiders. Spiders are repelled by... chestnuts, diatomaceous earth, vinegar, and peppermint oils. In a fit of desperation, she nudged the mints from her pocket. They fell out onto the floor. The spiders receded back into the darkness, and the girl spun around, eyes following the spiders' trail. Briar strained against the webs, tearing them. She staggered to the doorway and ran down the hall. The girl turned around. Surprised, she chased after Briar, long dress billowing.

Spiderwebs covered the stairway, making it impossible to access. Briar found herself ducking inside the first room that she'd been in, the one with the busted ceiling and wall. The rain had started again, and the girl had disappeared. She reappeared inside the room with Briar. The girl's face was twisted into an expression of fright. She lunged towards Briar with superhuman speed, tackling her to the ground. The vines twitched underneath Briar's palms.

The girl wrapped her hands around Briar's neck. "Don't touch them!" Her voice was shrill and panicked. "They'll kill us both!"

Briar kicked her off.

The girl lunged back at Briar. "You don't know how dangerous these vines are. I have to protect my house!" She whipped out the knife and slashed Briar's arm. The blood trickled over Briar's fingers. She stifled a scream.

The girl charged towards Briar again. Her knife pierced the wall next to Briar. The girl howled in rage and shoved Briar over the edge of the building. Briar's feet slipped, and she frantically grabbed for a hand-hold as she fell. Rain poured down the walls, and her hands smeared blood all over the vines. As her blood soaked into them, they stirred.

Briar closed her eyes. Did falling count as flying? She'd always wanted to fly. In slow motion, she plummeted through the air.

Something caught Briar. She opened her eyes again. Was she dead?

In disbelief, she realized that she was, in fact, alive. The vines were wrapped around her, and they had formed a cradle around her. Gently, they deposited her back into the room.

The girl stood there, horrified. A trickle of dried blood ran down her painted red lips. Her black eyes were wide, wild, and scared. She hissed, standing her ground.

"These vines are not like normal vines! If I don't kill you, they will take over the entire house!" She crushed a vine into pulp under her heel.

Spiders surged into the room in massive waves. The girl faced Briar, fury in every action. "Outsiders like you bring these vines to life. I'm trying to break this cycle by killing you, don't you see?"

The vines slithered past Briar, and towards the girl, pinning her down. The girl thrashed wildly as a vine squeezed around her throat, dark tentacles against pale skin. The girl gasped for breath. "Don't get tricked into thinking the vines are on your side--" Another tendril smashed her spiders into dust. She coughed out another sentence. "They just want our blood."

The vines snapped the girl's throat. She shrieked, loud and long. Even after it was over, echoes of the scream still lingered on the wind.

The girl fell to the ground in a shower of spiders. They swarmed up the walls into shaded cracks and crevices, leaving the girl's dress and crown strewn on the floor.

Adrenaline coursed through Briar's veins. She stood in the rain with her arms out, the wind pelting her. Tears ran down her face. The vine grabbed the glittering diadem and placed it carefully on her head.

It stroked her ear. Maybe it was just the wind, but she heard a voice whisper, "You're the mistress of the house now."

~ ~ ~

Officer Susan Decker pulled up to the house. She had received a phone call from the worried aunt of a young girl. The young girl's family was supposed to have moved in months ago, but they weren't answering the woman's calls.

A family who wishes to avoid their relatives is no excuse to file a missing persons report, Decker thought.

She scrolled down in her files on her phone, trying to find the article she had downloaded about the house. Apparently, in the early 1900s, a well-to-do couple with one child was strangled in their bed, and the murderer was never found. The father was a revered scientist who had grown eccentric in his later years. Allegedly, he was a geneticist doing unauthorized experiments on plants and arachnids. The couple was given an elaborate funeral, but the child's body was never recovered. Since then, the house had been left uninhabited.

Decker stepped out of the car. She could see the figure of a girl in the attic window. She wore a Victorian dress and a glittering crown. Decker squinted. Were those vines draped around her neck?

She walked to the stoop of the house, and lit a cigarette. The smoke drifted into the air. She dropped the cigarette and ground it into the vine-covered pavement. She tried to walk towards the front door, but her foot was stuck. In horror, she realized that the vines had wrapped around her shoe. She tried to yank it away as vines started creeping off the walls of the house. They dragged her down, and her head hit the stony drive.

The last thing that Officer Susan Decker saw was a torn, stained origami plane lying on the drive next to her. Then, the world went black.