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Fuck This Shit Manor - Laurel Hightower




The house was waking. On every level of the ageless monstrosity, things were stirring, sentience returning, hunger rising. In the deepest, darkest corners of the hidden cellar, accessible only by a broken dumbwaiter, skeletal limbs grasped at shadows. On the grand ground floor, dust motes stirred as the grandfather clock whirred and clicked and began to chime an erratic tune. Figures made of thirst and nightmares flitted up the wide staircase, trailing cold fingers along neglected banisters. Nameless, hulking, drooling creatures skittered and lumbered close to the ground in the empty second-floor bedrooms. In the cursed and empty nursery, a cradle rocked on its own, while tiny, webbed digits crept up the sides. The bolted attic door creaked open, and something ancient sighed within.

Voices rose through the house, and all that walked, lurched, and crawled there stilled to listen.

“You’re sure this rent is right?” said the one they wanted, the fresh voice, the woman. 

“Completely certain. The owners want tenants of a certain caliber—”

A snort interrupted the caretaker, but the woman shushed it. 

“Ahem. As I was saying, tenants who will care for the place while they cannot. They don’t require money, so the rent is a token figure to—”

“Look, I’m sorry, it’s a very good deal but utilities have to be at least twice that, and a place this old’s got to be gas heat, right? So even with the low rent, there’s no way we can afford it.”

“My dear madam, didn’t I say? That price includes all utilities, and my services as groundskeeper, to boot.”

The woman’s voice took on a tone. “Meaning you live here, too? Uh uh, no offense but I’m not rooming with some weirdo.”

There was a pause before the caretaker continued. “Oh, no madam. I don’t stay here. I won’t be caught here after dark, you understand. I’ve been serving here for more years than I can count, but I never have, and never will.”

“Right. Well, that’s good, I guess. And I’m expected to, what, fix it up or something? Clean?”

“No more than you would any other home you lived in. Merely keep it neat, and your children will do the rest.”

“My children? Ha. I can’t even get them to keep their bedrooms picked up, so don’t be counting on them for manual labor. Anyway, an arrangement like that would be in violation of state and federal labor laws, so that’s not gonna fly.”

The house was becoming restless, impatient. It wanted fresh blood, and it wanted it now. Ridiculously low rent and all utilities paid on a mansion like this? What was this woman arguing about?

The caretaker laughed, a creaking, wheezing sound that made even the denizens of the hidden cellar wince. “Oh no, nothing of that kind. They will simply bring life to the old place. That’s what the owners want, very much. That, and the small bit of caretaking we discussed earlier.”

“Mm hmm. So the old lady’s bed bound? She got a home health aid or something, because my diaper changing days are over.”

“All she requires are three meals daily, placed outside her door, and to be left alone.”

“Mom, did you see the size of the backyard? We could have a swing set out there!”

“Yeah, and there’s gotta be like twenty bedrooms—Cassie and I wouldn’t have to share.”

The house loomed closer, held its breath. The deal was nearly made.

“You think I’m dumb, old man?”

“What? No, I told you, the owners are looking for a special kind of—”

“Moron. Right. I bet they are. You’d have to be to take on a place like this.”

“Mo-om, come on!”

“No. We’re going. You know how I always say there’s no such thing as a free lunch? You’re looking at a prime example. Come on, we’re leaving.”

Anger rose through every level, muttering discontent spilled through the vents and down the stairs. The caretaker loomed large. “I don’t think this is a deal you can afford to turn down, madam.”

“Think again, creeper.” There was a hissing sound, then the caretaker screamed. “Go on kids, head for the door.” A thunder of footsteps signaled the departure of dinner. “Fuck this shit,” was the last they heard of the woman, as the door slammed behind her.

***

The house sagged, and its residents pulled themselves from the shadows to gather in the decrepit kitchen. One of the second-floor ghosts knelt beside the writhing caretaker. 

“You let another one get away, Francis. You suck at this.”

The old man sat up, pushing long and stringy hair behind his ears, tears streaming down his face. “She sprayed me with something,” he said, gasping. “My eyes are on fire.”

Wet, squishy hands lifted him under his armpits and into a chair. “I think she maced you. We got any milk? That’s supposed to help.”

A corpse opened the fridge. “It’s all expired. Just use water.”

A dark-eyed woman with a noose mark around her neck lit a cigarette. “That’s the last time you’re the public face, Francis. She’s the sixth one you failed to close the deal with. We’re all gonna starve at this rate.”

Max, the Hell Hound, whined and pressed his flank against her leg. She leaned down to stroke his head and his fiery eyes rolled back in pleasure. 

Francis sniffed and pressed a cold, mildewed rag against his streaming eyes. “You think you can do any better? I’m the only one with a pulse. This used to be easier.”

The giant peered out between gauzy curtains. “The world is changing.”

A vampire lifted his lip. “That’s as useful as it was the last time you said it.”

The giant turned and frowned. “My point is, we need to change with it.”

The hollow eyed twins stared up at him, lips quivering. “You mean, leave here? Move on?”

The giant sighed and turned back to the window. “No, I mean we need to get help, from someone who knows more than we do about the way things work now.” The twins joined him at the window and followed his pointing finger. “A specialist.”

Each resident in their turn approached the window and looked, and each nodded and smiled at one another, their hope renewed. A specialist was just what they needed. 

“Any of the phones still working?” asked the hanged ghost. 

***

Lottie Frazier had seen some dud houses in her time. Houses right next to train tracks, houses falling to rack and ruin, even houses where murders had taken place. She’d sold every one of them, which was why she was the Real Estate Queen of the Southeastern Quadrant, but this place was going to be a challenge. 

She climbed the stone steps littered with leaves, her lips pursed at the dingy porch. She pushed the doorbell with one knuckle, scribbling a list as she waited. Minutes later, a sunken eye peered at her through yellowed lace curtains. She didn’t bother smiling, raising an eyebrow instead. These people needed to get with it – time was money.

Locks were heard clicking and clacking, then the enormous door swung into darkness and a stooped man with jaundiced skin and a revolting suit stood before her. “Ms. Frazier, I presume?”

“Oh my God, please don’t tell me you’re the one who’s been showing the place. Jesus, no wonder no one’s rented from you.” She waved a hand at him. “Back up, back up. You ever heard of a space bubble?” 

The man frowned, but stepped back to allow her to enter. 

Lottie stepped inside and wrinkled her nose. “What the hell? When was the last time this place had a good airing out?” She heard the door swinging shut behind her and raised one orange-tipped finger. “Oh no, you don’t. Leave that unlocked.”

The caretaker raised an eyebrow, but he obeyed.

She looked him up and down. “You the one that called my office?”

He gave a sour smile and held out a hand. “Francis. I’m hired with the manor.”

She looked at his dirty nails and declined to shake. “Francis, huh? You the only one here?”

He opened his mouth and she leaned in closer. 

“Don’t even think about lying to me, Francis. I hear them moving. Where’s everybody hiding?”

Francis closed his mouth again and stared, then lifted his shoulders. “Any input here?” he asked the house at large. 

Slowly, with many creaks, groans, hisses and snarls, the denizens of the manor crept into the light. Lottie subjected each to a critical glance, then scribbled on her list again with a sigh. Once they were all assembled in their nightmare glory, she pushed the hair from her forehead. 

“This everybody?” she asked, and Francis nodded. “Fine. Y’all stay here, Francis is gonna give me a tour. I catch any of y’all sneaking up on me, you’re going to be sorry, you hear me?”

The threat the diminutive woman uttered was left unspoken, but there were none among the gathered dead that doubted her word. They waited in a silence punctuated with glances at one another, listening to her exclamations of annoyance as she went over the house, top to bottom. When she came back down the stairs, Francis trailing dejectedly in her wake, her features were scrunched. She made her way to the largest sofa, waved the twins out of her way, then sat and made notes in silence for several minutes. 

Finally, the creatures could stand it no longer. 

“Well?” asked the hanged woman, as she lit another cigarette.

Lottie looked up and frowned. “That’s the first thing to go. Put that shit out, and go outside to smoke in the future. You can’t get that smell out of upholstery for love or money.”

The ghost gaped. “I can’t go outside the bounds of the house—I’ll disappear.”

Lottie’s expression remained unchanged. “Not my problem. You asked for my help, and I’m telling you what you need.” She grimaced down at her list. “Which so far is taking up three pages.”

The giant spoke before anyone else could. “Tell us. We’re willing to learn.”

She eyed him. “For starters, y’all have got to give this place a good cleaning. Cobwebs? Dust? The smell of decay? Nobody wants to live with that shit. I’m surprised you got anyone over the threshold.”

They grumbled, but there were nods all around. Max lifted a lip and a growl started to shake the room, the stench of sulfur choking the spirits still capable of smell.

Lottie waved a hand in front of her face and looked at the beast. “Lord have mercy, what the hell have you been feeding him?”

The vampire sputtered. “That’s not gas, he’s a Hell Hound!”

Lottie snapped her fingers and Max’s ears dropped. He stopped growling and came to sniff at her hand. She leaned close to scratch under his studded collar and he pressed close to her side. “Whatever it is, you’d best put stinky boy outside before you bring anyone else in. Who’s a gassy Hell Hound? You are, aren’t you, boy.”

The fire went out of the dog’s eyes and his tail thumped. Everyone bit their lip at the sight of one of Hell’s most feared enforcers brought low by scritches and a ridiculous voice. 

Lottie straightened and swung to face Francis. “Next, there’s you. You need to clear right the fuck off when you’ve got a potential renter here.”

He sniffed and straightened. “Madam, I am the only one here who is capable.”

“You’re capable of giving people the creeps, that’s for sure.” She waved a hand to indicate his whole person. “Your look just screams rapist, okay? I don’t care who has to do it, you stay out of sight. And this whole, ‘I come with the house’ thing is over as of now. No one wants a skeezy guy beating off in the shrubbery, okay? People value privacy.”

“I would never-”

“Not interested. We’re talking an aesthetic here, and yours is fucked.” She eyed the hanged ghost. “You’re visible inside the house, yeah?”

The woman frowned. “I am, but—” 

“Cool. Get you a turtleneck and some makeup, you’re golden. You want a woman anyway. Less threatening to other women, more enticing to male renters. Don’t overdo it with the sex kitten thing, though.”

“But I—”

Lottie mowed her over. “As for the rest of you, and I can’t stress this enough, stay the fuck out of sight. And not just that, ease up on this whole needy vibe you’ve got going here. You lean in like vampires as soon as someone comes in, people are going to get edgy.” 

Everyone made a studious effort to avoid looking at the vampire, while he stared at the scuffed wooden floor. 

Lottie sorted through her stack of paperwork, brought a fresh sheet to the top. “Now, let’s talk rent, and marketing. How much are you charging for this dump?”

When someone muttered a number from a dark corner, she turned slowly in her seat until she faced them. “Are you kidding me. Why not just put up a blinking neon sign that says “This is a trap!” 

Francis coughed. “Excuse me, that low rent figure has been instrumental in getting applicants through the door. No one can resist—”

“Right, they get through the door, but do they stay?”

Silence answered her, and she nodded. “That’s what I thought. You can’t make it astronomical, but you have to make it believable.”

A second-floor ghost spoke up. “There is the matter of the caretaking—that makes it more realistic, doesn’t it?”

Lottie frowned. “Caretaking? You mean Lurch over here?” She jabbed a thumb at Francis.

The ghost cleared its throat. “No, it’s part of the rent arrangement. The tenants are responsible for light caretaking of Mama.”

Lottie set down her stack on the couch beside her. “Who the fuck is Mama?” Her gaze fell on the web fingered infant, who shook her head.

“Don’t look at me. No relation.”

The resident of the third-floor bathtub spoke up wetly. “Well, it’s just what we call her. She doesn’t leave the attic rooms, so she doesn’t bother anyone, but she requires three meals a day.”

Lottie crossed her arms. “That shit’s gotta go, too.”

They gaped at her. The hanged ghost cleared her throat. “What...what should we do with her?”

“Once again, not my problem. I’m just telling you, no one, but no one, is going to want to rent a place that comes with an unseen attic roommate who needs babysitting. People like to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in their homes. That means being able to relax, unwind, be themselves. Screw. And no one is going to want to have sex with that hanging over them.”

“She doesn’t—”

“Doesn’t matter. Get rid of her. Moving on. Now, where are you advertising?”

At first, no one answered her, as everyone struggled to catch up to the image of a mansion without Mama. There was a guilty amount of relief in the picture. 

“The usual places,” said Francis at last.

That eyebrow went up again. “Meaning, where?”

More glances were exchanged, and Francis petered out under her gaze. 

The twins spoke up, in unison. “The newspaper classified ads, of course. And the community message board.”

Lottie whipped around to look at them, raised a finger again. “Do not, under any circumstances, do that again. You’re separate people, no matter what tired tropes have told you, so act like it.”

The girls exchanged stunned looks, then slowly, let go of one another’s hands. 

Lottie nodded and looked back at Francis. “Newspaper classifieds, for fuck’s sake. The city paper, at least?”

Francis lowered his gaze. “No, the...there’s a free community paper...”

Lottie dropped her head into her hands, eyes squeezed shut. “You’re advertising in this neighborhood?”

“Is...is that wrong?” asked the giant.

Lottie lifted her head. “When was the last time any of you looked outside? Do you know where you live? The median income in this area?”

Francis smiled, back on safe ground. “Of course, that’s been the key to our success. These people have never been inside a mansion like this, let alone lived in one. And to be able to do so for less than the lowest rent of one of those...homes that surround us, why, every time we post one of those fliers with the little strips of paper, every last one gets taken.”

A wizened corpse tapped its chest. “Those were my idea,” it said with a grin.

Lottie massaged her temples. “These are working-class people. Folks who’ve struggled. With poverty, addiction, cycles of abuse and neglect—not all of them, but everyone here has had to work for what they have. And every one of them is going to give the side-eye to something that seems too good to be true. They might be tempted, they might even come look, but in the end, their sense of self-preservation is going to save them.”

The room was silent, the words fuck this shit ringing in their ears. The phrase they’d heard far too often of late. As unpleasant as it was to hear, Lottie was right. And this was, after all, why they’d called in a specialist. 

The giant straightened his great shoulders. “Okay. Then tell us what to do.”

“Any of you even remotely familiar with social media?”

Francis shook his head and began to answer when one of the twins raised a hand. He glared at her, but she shrugged. 

“A kid dropped a phone once—I don’t use much data and it was one of those pay as you go ones, so I’ve just been adding like five gigs every six months. And there’s literally nothing else to do.”

Lottie gave her a nod. “Good. So, your targets are going to be easier to find on social media venues. You can narrow by geography if you want, but honestly, you’d be surprised how many of these types of people are willing to pick up and move their whole lives cross country just to take advantage of a windfall.” She took out her own phone and began scrolling, one twin at either shoulder, several other residents gathered behind her.

“Okay, see, here’s what I’m talking about. Ambyr Bradley. Look at the number of tweets she has complaining about wait staff and foodservice. Her fucking breakfast taco was delayed three minutes and she’s literally crying over it.” Lottie scrolled further. “You can tell she’s never held a real job in her life, but there’re tons of photos of expensive vehicles, vacations, meals that cost more than my commissions.”

The vampire frowned. “So, rich people?”

Lottie shook her head. “No, entitled people. There’s a difference. You’re looking for folks so privileged they don’t even realize they are. The kind of people who won’t think it’s sketchy to be able to rent a whole friggin’ mansion for a few hundred bucks a month. And you don’t even have to charge rent if you want to go another angle—pick a specific target, then tell ‘em they’ve gotten an inheritance.”

“From who?” asked the hanged ghost, her brow furrowed.

Lottie laughed. “Who cares? Make up someone old and obscure. Tell ‘em they were chosen because...oh hell, I don’t know, make up something to make them feel special.”

The twins had continued scrolling through the feed. “Ugh. This woman looks awful. Look how long she rants because they misspelled her name at Starbucks.”

“Sounds like an ideal tenant.” She stood, brushed off her bottom and handed her list to the hanged ghost. “I think that about covers it—that’s a detailed list, and there’s more information in the booklet. Y’all have a lot of work to do, but this place has potential.”

The giant stepped forward, holding out an envelope stuffed with cash. “Ms. Frazier, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you coming out.”

Lottie stuffed the cash into her purse. “You just did,” she said, and shook his hand. “I want to see this place in tip-top shape next time I drive by. I have other properties in this neighborhood, you know.”

They all gathered to wave her off, and as Lottie adjusted her blouse in the reflection of her Kia’s window, she shook off the chill and dank of the haunted mansion. “Fuck that shit,” she muttered, then gave a wide smile as she placed another of her signs in the mansion’s weed-choked yard.

“And long live the Queen of the Southeastern Quadrant.”



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