When she saw the house from the road, Leslie Weiner groaned and stopped the car. She hadn’t driven up to this end of town for years. She was beginning to remember why.
The house was old. Parts of it were supposed to date back to the Civil War. But it was a strange structure, built in one era and added onto at two other times. The front part of the building was all brick, but the middle and rear sections were covered with white wood siding. At least, Leslie thought, it used to be white. Now it was more moldy green. The metal roof wore patches of rust, and it looked like the chimney was a few bricks shy of whole. It was hard to believe she had played here almost every day of her fifth year of life.
Leslie went down the driveway at a slow five miles per hour, trying to remember whether her grandmother had ever mended fences with Rita, who owned the home. If the women had not revived their friendship before her grandmother’s death last year, she thought she could be more blunt than if they had grown close again. But then she saw Rita’s pixie-like face staring at her over an unkempt garden hedge, and her mind changed all over again. How could she tell someone whose elfin ears crooked improbably away from her narrow skull that her house was worthless? She parked and got out of the car.
“Isn’t this the most wonderful old heap?” Rita came around the hedge with gardening shears tucked under one arm. She extended the opposite hand in greeting. A cat peered out from a depression under the untidy shrubbery.
“Oh, wasn’t that my secret hideout?!”
“Yes, yes!! You and that old tomcat used to go up under there for hours. Your grandmother would go out and look in on you, and you’d be drawing in the dirt or peeking back out at her like you were looking out a window.”
Leslie took the hand that Rita was still holding out to her. “I’d forgotten all about that old cat,” she said. “I used to talk to him like a person, and I had myself convinced he talked back. He’d be… he’d be close to twenty years old if he was still alive.”
“Oh he’s alive all right.” Rita squeezed Leslie’s hand. “Spends most of his time curled up in my front window these days. That’s one of his grandsons there.” She pointed over to the feline under the bushes. “Come inside dear. I made us up some sun tea.”
The kitchen looked the same as it had in Leslie’s childhood, the careworn linoleum floors still patched with duct tape in the same places, and a bouquet of zinnias on the table. She said, “It hasn’t changed a bit!”
Rita set her shears on the counter. “That’s an illusion, of course,” she said. “Everything changes. It’s just how we color the memories that makes things seem to match.”
“And you’re going to sell it.” Leslie heard sorrow creeping into her voice and shut her mouth quickly. What could possibly be sad for Leslie about Rita Collins moving into an apartment in town? What could be sad about earning a commission, even a small one, from the sale of a family friend’s home?
“Now.” Rita set out the tea and patted the table in invitation for Leslie to join her. “Let me go over the things I already talked with that stupid man about, so I don’t have to cover the same ground twice.” Before Leslie could say yay or nay or ask which stupid man Rita meant, Rita plunged on. “Now I know perfectly well that it would be more profitable to sell the property for the land value. Any repairs I make around here are going to be lost money. I’m doing it anyway, because I don’t want some young couple to come in here, mow down my gardens, and tear down my house. I’ll bankrupt myself to sell the place to the right buyer.”
Leslie said, “Oh.”
“Now that we’re clear on that, let’s discuss what needs to change.” Rita took a long drink of her tea.
Leslie tried to find a third perspective somewhere between her internal real estate agent who agreed with the stupid man, whatever he might have said, and her inner child, who suddenly didn’t want any of it changed at all. She rummaged in her briefcase and came out with a yellow legal pad. She numbered it one through ten, but the numbers didn’t give her any ideas. “Let’s do a walkthrough,” she said. “We should probably talk about this room by room.
They started in the kitchen with the patchwork floors and moved through the house. Leslie looked at the old Buck Stove. She crawled under counters to examine piping, and she clambered into the attic to examine outdated wiring. And when they had finished inside, they went to look at the outbuildings. Rita’s ancient Husky greeted them at the back door, its body ramrod straight, except for the tail that curved over its body. It bolted indoors around them, but as soon as it saw its owner going out, it joined them.
“What are you going to do with your animals?”
“Oh, they come with the house.”
“You aren’t…it doesn’t… I mean…”
“Don’t worry, dear. I just have to find the right buyer.”
Leslie took one look at the sagging barn and said, “You’re going to have to get a professional to do this part. I’m not sure how to save this.”
“Well that’s alright dear. Look at you, all dusty already, and the day’s completely gone by. You’ve given me plenty of ideas to work with. Come back in a couple of weeks, and I’ll show you what I’ve done with them.”
Exactly two weeks later, Leslie came back. This time, when she stopped in the road, it was for an entirely different reason. The house no longer appeared to be made of three parts. Now, it was a contiguous whole, mostly brick with a little vinyl siding in front. The bay window looked freshly installed, far more stable than the one she had seen before, and Rita had added a large transom above her front door. It was as though the entire building had moved up from the 19th century into the 1970s. The unruly hedge now abutted an orderly row of impossibly blooming roses, and the barn looked like it had never been sliding off to one side of its foundation.
“Pretty neat, isn’t it?” asked Rita when Leslie finally drove on in and got out of the car.
“I really don’t know what to say. How did you do it all in two weeks?”
“Oh, these are just the ideas, honey,” said Rita as she led Leslie into the kitchen. “It’s all illusion right now. I’ll have to hire a contractor to make it real. But I’m starting to think this isn’t modern enough. I’ve been driving around up in that new Baring Brook Subdivision, and I think people want more open spaces than I’ve got here. I’m still a good thirty years behind the times.” She cackled at the end of the sentence, as if she’d just told some joke that Leslie ought to understand.
Leslie nodded to all of it, but she barely heard a word after ‘illusion’. Her body had followed Rita indoors and taken a seat at the kitchen table, but her mind was back under the hedge twenty years ago, listening to her grandmother’s voice become quarrelsome and shrill. “What have you done with her! You come out, Leslie! Oh your mother will have my head child. Rita, where is she? I know you’ve done something to her.”
In the present, in the kitchen, Rita was running through the things she wanted to change to implement her next set of ideas. Leslie said, “Well you told her you hadn’t done a thing to me! And I came right out when she called.”
Rita stopped enumerating her list and smiled. “Yes,” she said. “But the mind colors things in its own hues, and in her memory, it took hours before you crawled out of your hiding place.”
The old cat, who had been sleeping in the big window got up and stretched while the women studied each other across the table. It hopped down from its spot and came to wind around Leslie’s legs. It said, “So sorry I slept through your last visit. I do that a lot lately, sleep.”
Leslie swallowed hard and tried not to let her amazement show. But was she really all that astounded? The memories tumbled over one another now, talking to the cat under the hedge, learning from him how to make those leaves and branches look like a playhouse that only she could see.
She didn’t think, now, that her grandmother and Rita had ever revived their friendship. She thought her grandmother had been wary of this end of town until her dying day. “What did you and my Nana quarrel about?” she asked.
Rita smiled. “You, of course, my dear. She didn’t like it a bit when I told her you were my natural heir.”
“But we aren’t related.”
“Oh no, dear. Witches rarely are. My gift didn’t pass to any of my girls. But then you walked into the yard and started chatting up old Parsifal here, and I knew exactly who you were.”
“I’m never going to be listing this house, am I?” Leslie reached down and collected Parsifal into her lap. Although older and not as meaty as he had once been, he was still a substantial cat. She stroked his back and he began to purr.
“Real Estate is a nice sideline for a witch, you know.” Rita added a little purring sound for Parsifal, or perhaps it was supposed to mean something to Leslie.
“You never planned to sell it, did you?” Leslie scratched under the cat’s left ear, exactly where he liked it. He amped up the rumbling in his chest and began kneading biscuits on Leslie’s leg.
“Well, not when I already had the perfect buyer right here,” said Rita, and she went to get them some tea.
The older home is my childhood home, where my mother still lives. She has made considerable changes, though none quite so drastic as Rita’s here. The more modern home is Scott’s and my first house in Lexington Kentucky. I MISS that house.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.