Mandy-Lynn Snow was running for her life, her crimson real estate blazer flapping in the wind, when her cell phone beeped that a text had come in. She didn’t even try to read it, let alone respond. ‘Death by texting while being chased by a tiger’ was just about the last thing she wanted headlining her obituary.
The tiger that was chasing her swerved left. She swerved right. The tiger wasn’t fooled. In two strides it was breathing down her neck again. She spotted the swimming pool dead ahead, but hopefully not dead ahead. Yup, the real estate info had said that there was an in-ground pool. But it hadn’t said anything about a tiger in the solarium.
Could tigers swim? Of course they could, but they probably didn’t like water. They were cats after all. Mandy-Lynn dodged around a perfectly trimmed ornamental shrub and leapt feet-first into the pool. Her sensible heels broke through a wafer-thin layer of ice on impact. Well, it was mid-November in the Northern Hemisphere, so ice was to be expected. Give it a few more weeks and she probably could have skated on the swimming pool.
Mandy-Lynn managed to haul in one deep breath before she sank under water that was every bit as cold as the ice that had capped it. She had landed in the deep end, and was in over her head, in more ways than one. Perhaps because of the adrenalin surging through her veins, and the 100-yard dash she had just sprinted, the frigid water did not feel quite as shocking as it might.
She held that precious breath as she sank to the bottom of the pool, waiting to see if the tiger was inclined to join her for a swim. Nothing happened for the longest time, so she read her text. Her phone was water-resistant enough to still be functioning.
The message was from Select Real Estate—her employer—the employer who had sent her to have a preliminary look-see at their newest and most affluent listing, so she could compose those captivating descriptions that she was so good at. She had been enjoying her first stroll through the fantastic property, poetic phrases dancing through her head, when she had come face-to-face with a furry, striped, and snarling face. A tiger.
In spite of the snarling, her first thought had been, ‘A house tiger, it must be tame.’ It was a cat after all. She had a cat at home and it was perfectly tame, if a whole lot smaller. She had extended her hand and said, “Here kitty- kitty. Nice kitty-kitty.”
As it turned out, the tiger wasn’t a nice kitty-kitty. It was a wild, bloodthirsty kitty. She had run for her life, and now she was at the bottom of an icy pool, reading a text that said, ‘BTW—do not enter solarium, guard tiger in solarium’.
The text was about five minutes too late. And guard tiger? Was that a real thing? Then again, there were guard dogs, so perhaps a guard cat wasn’t such a stretch. And a guard tiger would be much more effective than any old guard dog.
‘Found tiger attacked by tiger,’ Mandy-Lynn texted back—or so she thought.
‘Attracted to tigers?’ said the text that answered hers.
Stupid auto-correct. She did not have time to type everything twice. ‘Attacked hiding in pool drowning help!!!!!!!’ she keyed, including an unknown number of exclamation points for emphasis. She had just pressed send when the gigantic cat joined her. It roared when it hit the water. It probably didn’t like the frigid temperature any more than she did. The cold was permeating her body now, stabbing icy needles deep into her bones.
The tiger’s enormous paws dogpaddled, or catpaddled, above her, churning the water into foam. Mandy-Lynn kept holding her breath, not daring to surface with the tiger overhead. Her lungs cramped painfully. She couldn’t feel her hands or her feet anymore. She saw shooting stars zipping through the water, and knew they were only inside her head.
Mandy-Lynn lived such a humdrum and routine existence, she had half-expected to die of boredom someday in the nebulous future. She certainly hadn’t expected to die so bizarrely, and in her prime, but that’s exactly what was happening.
The stars imploded and blinked out of existence. Mandy-Lynn died.
She was dead for quite a long while before she was fished out of the water. Well, there was a tiger to corral before she could be rescued. And then there was a rather prolonged discussion between the two paramedics, over whether or not to attempt a resuscitation given the amount of time she had not been breathing. In the end, they gave it a half-hearted try, since extreme cold had been known to stop cellular degeneration and preserve a body. Regardless, they were more surprised than Mandy-Lynn when she revived. Based on the time of the last text she had sent, she had been clinically dead for 42 minutes.
There are some places you’re never supposed to come back from. Dead is one of those places. And Mandy-Lynn didn’t come back alone.
There’s no place like home,
unless it’s haunted.
Chapter 1. The Hoarder’s House
Picture yourself in this country setting!
Located in a cozy valley, yet close enough to the city for an easy commute. This quaint home will need some updating. Features include a dining room that seats a dozen with ease, and a living room with an expansive window to enjoy the view of a spacious treed yard. Some landscaping will be necessary - a great project for a gardener with a green thumb. A handy mudroom and powder room adjoin the kitchen, which sports hardwood cabinets and is plenty large enough for a family-friendly table. The second level offers 4 sizable bedrooms and a delightful reading nook. The home is still structured to take advantage of the rain water collecting system in the basement with a large cistern. Plenty of potential for the right homeowner. Priced to sell!
Mandy-Lynn was showing a rundown, two-storey house to a squabbling young couple, who was clearly on the fast track to divorce, when she noticed an odd smell. It was her first client appointment since the two weeks of sick leave that had followed ‘The Tiger Incident’, as it was being referred to at her office, which was certainly preferable to ‘The Dying Incident’, or the inevitable zombie jokes.
The smell was distinctly gassy, and not in an automotive way. Had one of her clients farted? After eating a bowlful of beans for breakfast? She glanced at the couple, but neither the young man nor the young woman gave any overt sign of having farted. And neither seemed to have noticed the odour, perhaps because they were too busy bickering over the size of the closet in the master bedroom, as they had argued about some detail in every single room in the extremely cluttered house.
503 Caramel Crescent had been a country home, until the city encroached. The house now existed in a sort of no-man’s-land, or no-house’s-land, that was neither country nor suburb, but something in-between. It had a large yard and plenty of mature trees, and while its neighbours were close enough to shout at, they weren’t close enough to infringe on the owner’s privacy—a definite selling point.
503 Caramel Crescent had also been the home of a hoarder, now deceased—a definite selling deterrent. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the former owner’s motto had probably been something like, ‘Twenty teapots are much better than one’. And the same rule applied to every item a person should, and should not, own. In Mandy-Lynn’s opinion, nobody needed twenty teapots, or two hundred and forty-six mugs to pour that tea into. Yes, she had counted. She had been curious.
Once the house was sold, there was going to have to be one heck of an estate sale, plus a couple of oversized dumpsters to cart off the stacks of old magazines and newspapers, and the mind-boggling amount of detritus, like plastic food containers and Styrofoam containers and rags and bags of elastic bands and corks and … it hurt her eyes to simply look at all the junk a person could accumulate over a lifetime, if they didn’t throw anything away.
Mandy-Lynn wandered out of the bedroom, to give the squabbling couple time to settle things, and to avoid the unpleasant odour, which was lingering. She could almost see it, like a green wavy haze, or her eyes were playing tricks on her.
In truth, she hadn’t felt like herself since she had drowned—died. Maybe two weeks of recuperation hadn’t been enough. She probably had PTSD—Post Tiger Stress Disorder—or something, something that caused minor hallucinations and took longer than fourteen days to get over.
Her co-workers had welcomed her back to work warmly enough. There had been tepid applause and muffins. Bought, not homemade. A bouquet of slightly droopy flowers had decorated the desk where she usually filled out paperwork, looking more funereal than celebratory to Mandy-Lynn’s eyes. The agents who happened to be in the office at the time of her return, had asked the expected questions, such as, ‘How are you feeling?’ and, ‘How are you doing?’
Mandy-Lynn had answered, “Fine.” She hadn’t answered, “Odd,” which would have been the unvarnished truth.
The offensive odour was stronger out in the hallway, and the green haze was denser. Was there somebody else in the house? Somebody who was hiding and farting up a storm? Which might have explained the odour, but not the putrid green haze. She couldn’t think of one rational explanation for that, aside from a PTSD hallucination, of course.
Mandy-Lynn had been born with a streak of curiosity as wide as an elephant’s backside. It had gotten her into an endless stream of trouble as a child, so she had learned to curb it by the time she reached those awkward teenage years. Yet, it was always lurking inside her, eager to be unleashed. Mandy-Lynn unleashed it now.
She plugged her nose and followed the haze down the hallway, skirting around overflowing bookcases, and little tables crowded with dusty knickknacks, and even a dressmaker’s dummy, of all things. It was certainly preferable to listening to Tyler and Lisa, who were now kissing and making up after their latest little spat. Hopefully they weren’t doing more than kissing, like giving their potential future bedroom a test drive. The house was furnished, abundantly, so there was a bed in there. It might have forty-three pillows on it, but they could be tossed off if one was sufficiently motivated. Apparently the hoarding homeowner had died in the house, but of natural causes, so Mandy-Lynn was not legally bound to disclose that little tidbit to potential buyers. People could be funny about a house that someone had died in.
“Don’t you think about death,” Mandy-Lynn muttered, “or Tyler and Lisa unzipping in the master bedroom. And stop talking to yourself.” She seemed to be doing an awful lot of that since ‘The Tiger Incident’.
Mandy-Lynn trailed the green fog into the bathroom. Of course that’s where it was coming from. Bad pipes or a sewage leak? Yet, when she had showed the bathroom to her clients mere minutes earlier, it had been as fresh as the eight cans of floral air spray that sat on the back of the toilet.
She surveyed the bathroom and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. There was no denying that she was looking better than usual. Her hair, normally a limp mud-puddle brown, appeared bouncy and shiny, as if she had super-conditioned it—which she hadn’t. Her brown eyes looked brighter and more golden somehow, almost lit from within. And her face looked less pudgy, as if she had been on a diet, one that she had stuck to, and one that had actually worked. Maybe she had dropped a few pounds due to her ordeal. Death becomes her and all that. Her clothes were feeling looser.
She smiled at her new and improved self, and the reflection in the mirror shifted, as if it was a TV and someone had changed the channel. Suddenly, Mandy-Lynn was looking at herself standing in a dark field … no, there were gravestones. She was standing in a graveyard, so close to a freshly dug grave that one misstep and she would have tumbled into it, if it was really there. The reflection was so real that she glanced behind her back, surprised to find herself still standing in the undeniably ugly bathroom, with its baby blue toilet and tub, framed by flesh-coloured pink tiles and mouldy grout, and edged with twenty-two bottles of shampoo and conditioner and six bars of soap and twelve razors.
Mandy-Lynn turned back to the mirror, which still reflected a creepy cemetery in the dead of night. Was the grave hers? Because she had died? Her reflection began to flicker and waver and spark, and it changed into someone else. Her reflection wasn’t of her anymore. It was someone taller and thinner, and slightly stooped. Because of the night darkness of the image in the mirror, it was hard to see exactly who her reflection had transformed into, although it looked to be a skinny old man.
She leaned forward and squinted, trying to discern details. Her hand reached out slowly to touch the mirror, and employ one more of her five senses. A ghostly moan of pain stopped her hand. Mirrors did not normally moan. Then again, mirrors did not normally reflect scenes and people that weren’t there before them.
She stepped away, fast, and the back of her knees hit the tub. She fell in, landing on her bottom with a painful thud, and knocking several bottles of shampoo and conditioner onto her lap. Luckily the tops were closed. “Oh good grief,” Mandy-Lynn groaned. She struggled awkwardly out of the tub. Rubbing her bruised backside, her eyes immediately sought the mirror.
It now showed a flushed Mandy-Lynn, and the unsightly bathroom. It showed exactly what it should. Had she just experienced another hallucination? First green smelly haze and now a graveyard at midnight in a mirror? Mandy-Lynn gave her head a mental and a physical shake, as if to clear out the cobwebs. Again, she leaned a little closer to the mirror, squinting at it suspiciously. It remained true. She winked one eye, then the other, and so did her reflection. She stuck out her tongue and winked some more and flapped her arms as if she was doing the chicken dance, and so did her reflection. The mirror was definitely back to normal.
“Are you okay?” asked a deep voice—not from the mirror, but from the doorway.
She spun around to find Tyler and Lisa looking at her as if she was as nutty as a squirrel’s winter stash. “Uh, yes, everything is as right as rain. I just had something in my eye.” Her explanation might have explained away the winking, but it did not address the flapping chicken dance arms, or the sticking out tongue.
“Sure,” Tyler drawled. “Ya, right,” Lisa said, in that tone that means quite the opposite.
Mandy-Lynn mustered up a smile and herded her clients away from the bathroom. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that the mirror was still behaving itself.
“Ready to see the yard?” she said, sounding only a wee bit frazzled and freaked out.
“I guess,” Tyler said, without enthusiasm. Lisa shrugged. If Mandy-Lynn was any judge, her clients were not interested in this perfectly suitable house for their limited budget. Once the years of accumulated hoarding were cleared out, the house would be a perfectly nice fixer-upper. It had good bones, a dry solid foundation, hardwood floors, a spacious property, and four bedrooms. But a person had to be able to look past the hoarding and piles of newspapers and magazines and … and everything else. Many prospective buyers lacked the imagination to do so.
She escorted Tyler and Lisa outside anyway. The fenced yard needed a lot of TLC, just like the house. Larger items were piled outside, things like broken lawn furniture, lumber, old crates, a collapsing shed stuffed with who knew what, and so much more.
The grass that was visible to the eye was weedy and patchy, and the narrow flower bed was defiantly scraggily. To be fair, no lawn or garden looked anything but neglected in November, when the vegetation had been killed by frost and it could snow at the drop of a toque. But all the garbage and broken junk did not help this yard put its best foot forward. It made the yard look like a hillbilly haven.
Lisa and Tyler glanced around. “A lot of garbage,” Tyler said. “A lot of garbage,” Lisa parroted, with emphasis. The young couple looked completely overwhelmed.
“All of it will be cleared away before the new owner takes possession,” Mandy-Lynn assured them. They mulled that over until Lisa began to shiver. “It’s cold out,” she whined. Tyler turned back toward the house.
Mandy-Lynn took the hint. “Let’s go visit the next property,” she said. They still had three more places to view, but in Mandy-Lynn’s opinion, this one had the most potential.
“I need a coffee,” Tyler said. “Ya,” Lisa said.
“We’ll stop at a drive-thru.” Mandy-Lynn dredged up another smile, although it required a Herculean effort. Annoying clients didn’t usually bother her, at all. Annoying clients were simply part of the job, water off a duck’s back and all that, but for some reason, Tyler and Lisa were getting on her last nerve, and they weren’t even overly annoying.
Around the real estate office, Mandy-Lynn had a reputation for having the patience of a saint. If a client was particularly skittish or in need of anger management classes, or just wanted to visit hundreds of houses without ever buying one, they were usually assigned to Mandy-Lynn. Tyler and Lisa were saints in comparison to some clients she had dealt with, and yet, she wanted to tie the couple to a rocket and launch them into outer space, just like in a cartoon. ‘Blame it on PTSD,’ she thought. She locked the front door, then replaced the key into the attached lockbox. The system allowed other real estate agents to show the house at any time, without the inconvenience of tracking down a key. Lockboxes made a real estate agent’s job so much easier.
She drove her clients to the next property, via a drive-thru that served steaming cups of takeout coffee. She treated, including a box of a dozen assorted doughnuts, endeavouring to sweeten the pair’s mood. And she ordered a large coffee for herself, hoping the caffeine might stave off hallucinations as well as fatigue. She really didn’t want to have another hallucination, especially while behind the wheel. That could kill them all.
They arrived safely at the next property. Tyler and Lisa were even less impressed with the small, two bedroom bungalow. Things went downhill from there. Tyler and Lisa weren’t pleased with any of the properties she showed them, and grew increasingly pouty and petulant, in spite of the coffee and doughnuts. Mandy-Lynn wanted to smack them both, but she restrained herself admirably.
With an inner sigh of relief, Mandy-Lynn dropped them back at their car, which was parked outside the Select Real Estate office. Before they parted ways, she promised them she would ferret out some new and improved listings for their budget. If such properties existed, she would find them, but she had her doubts.
The couple drove off in a brand spanking new Audi, taking the remaining doughnuts with them. She had insisted. If they had bought an older, used car, they would have had more money to put towards a down-payment on a house. Oh well, their priorities and financial decisions were not her business. Finding them a house that would make them happy, that was her business.