I’ve been waiting for some time for Mr. Wendig to post another flash fiction challenge that strikes my fancy, and finally he has delivered. This week’s challenge is to write a flash fiction story (1,000 words and under) about Real Estate. Being a law graduate this challenge made my wheels turn ever so slightly. If you’ve been reading my blog posts you may know that I do not practice law, so I remember about fuck-all from law school. However, one of the three things I do remember is a legal principle called adverse possession. In adverse possession, if certain elements are met (I’m not going to go into them. You can google that shit) a “squatter” (someone who does not have legal title to the land) can obtain legal ownership of the land.
Now a few disclaimers before reading the story:
- This story is technically a short story, not a flash fiction story. I cheated. Sorry, not sorry.
- This is amateur hour, folks, so bear with me. I’m still working hard to improve my writing.
- I purposefully left out any setting details mainly because I didn’t feel like performing legal research over the weekend on adverse possession in different jurisdictions and the presumption of death based on absence. If any of you lawyer friends are reading this, then you may have to swallow a heaping scoop of willing suspension of disbelief in the case of any legal accuracy. I just wanted to have a little fun this weekend, ok? Ok.
The back tire of Zach’s Honda Civic slipped on the damp gravel road, sending the back end of the car sideways as it struggled up the hill. A short, angry July thunderstorm had just passed through the area creating jungle-like conditions. Steam laced through the car’s windows like smoke, soaking Zach’s and Ashley’s sweaty shirts and causing their tempers to flare.
“Jesus,” said Ashley as she gripped the side of the car, “I feel like we’ve been on this hill for fucking ever.” She reached again to turn on the air conditioning.
“Babe, I’ve told you like five times, do not turn on the air conditioning,” Zach yelled. He took a deep breath and lowered his voice, “There’s no way we’re going to make it up this hill with the a.c. pulling on the engine, ok?” The front tire hit a small hole, sending a splash of water onto the windshield. “We’re almost there,” Zach said. The words repeated in his head like a mantra.
“How do you know that? We don’t even have service,” snapped Ashley.
“Because I know.” Zach looked at Ashely and cupped his hand to his ear, “Probably going to start hearing banjos soon. That’s how you know you’re gittin’ close.” He smiled at her as he mimicked the Deliverance banjos.
“Shut up,” said Ashley as she pulled her wet tank top off of her stomach and waved it.
As they crested the hill, the road widened slightly and the trees thinned. On the right was a meadow with bunches of golden rod surrounding a brown barn with a mossy roof that had collapsed. The neighbor’s barn roof had been collapsed the last time Zach had visited his uncle twenty-five years ago. Ahead on the left sat the familiar mailbox that always marked the entrance to his uncle’s cabin.
Zach stopped in front of the white mailbox before pulling into the driveway.
“Why are you stopping?” asked Ashley, stretching her feet out the car window.
“Nothing, it’s just this mailbox used to be black. I mean, most of the paint was peeling off of it and the mailbox was all rusted out, but it was black, not white.”
“Sooo, maybe he painted it,” said Ashley reaching over again to turn on the air conditioning while Zach was distracted.
Zach looked over at her with his brow furrowed. Sometimes he wondered if Ashley ever stopped to think about what she was saying. “Yeah, but Uncle Rob’s been missing for ten years. This looks like it was painted recently.”
Ashley let out a loud sigh, “Look, I don’t know. Can we just go and get this over with please?”
Zach slammed his foot on the gas, jolting Ashley back into her seat. “Jeeesus!” she cried.
As Zach drove down the driveway his mouth gaped open as he passed by well manicured grass on either side of the driveway. Instead of being overgrown by weeds, like it normally was when he visited as a kid, someone had been maintaining it. Was Uncle Rob here all along? He couldn’t be. Ahead sat the cabin, which looked about the same as Zach remembered it, except now there were pots of red begonias and purple and white petunias that lined the small porch. Chicken wire and pink rose bushes lined the perimeter of a small garden behind the cabin. To the left of the house three goats grazed aggressively on the grass in front of the small barn. Zach stopped a safe distance away from the cabin and slowly got out of the car.
“You sure this is the place?” asked Ashley as she slammed the car door, “Looks like someone lives here.”
Zach rubbed his hand through his hair, “I mean, I’m pretty sure this is it. It has the same set up and everything.” He looked over at the barn and saw the same orange, red and white barn quilt above the door and the same rusted horse shoe his uncle let him nail on the door so many year ago, “This is it.”
The sound of a shot gun cocking sliced through the thick, steamy air. Ashley’s and Zach’s heads snapped back toward the house. A petite woman in a floral-patterned tank top and overalls and pixie-cut grey hair stood on the porch with her gun rested on her hip “Can I help you?” she called.
Ashley stood frozen by the car with her hands up as if she was being robbed. Zach’s hands shook as he became aware of every movement he made. Don’t move too quickly. He thought. He took one step forward and put his hands up in front of his chest to show he didn’t have a gun on him, “Um, sorry,” he yelled, “I think there’s been some mistake.” The woman put her gun down from her hip but continued holding it.
Zach just wanted to tell the woman they were lost and they were just on their way out, but he reluctantly continued, “I’m Zach Greene. I’m Robert Greene’s nephew. My Dad was Daniel Greene. Um…” Zach knew he had to be delicate. There had to be some kind of mistake. “I thought my Uncle owned this land. Did he sell it to you?”
“You’re Rob’s nephew?” called the woman.
Zach looked from side to side, wishing he had some sort of proof. Ashley started crying. “Um, yeah,” said Zach, his heart pounding in his throat. Zach suddenly missed his Dad terribly.
Finally the woman put the gun down and rested it against a post on the porch, “Well come on in then. Any family of Rob’s is a friend of mine,” she waved them in and walked back in the cabin. Zach and Ashley darted wide-eyed glances at each other, then followed behind her.
“What the fuck is going on?” whispered Ashley before stepping into the cabin.
“I don’t know,” whispered Zach, pausing before the doorway, “Let’s just talk to her and figure out what’s going on. There’s got to be some kind of mistake.”
The inside of the cabin looked nothing like what Zach had remembered. Instead of being surrounded by the dark brown color of natural wood, the inside had been painted an off-white creme color. Each window had pink and yellow floral curtains. A red cloth couch sat in the living room, which had replaced the torn leather one Zach remembered sleeping on when he would visit.
“Place looks a little different, don’t it?” asked the woman standing in front of a box fan, rolling the pants of her overalls above her knees.
“Yeah,” said Zach still trying to adjust to the brightness of the interior.
The woman pushed herself off of the kitchen counter and moved toward them, “The name’s Beth, by the way. Well actually it’s Bethany, but you can call me Beth,” she shook Zach’s and Ashley’s hands. Ashley didn’t introduce herself. “Rob and I started, well what do you kids say? Seeing each other?” she looked at the Ashley and Zach who gave no response, “Well we started seeing each other about a year before he went missing. Ever since then I’ve been keeping up the place, tending to the goats and the garden, you know. I guess just waiting for him to come back…” her gaze looked out the window toward the barn for a moment then back at them, “So what brings you all the way down here?” She moved into the living room taking a seat on a matching red arm chair. Ashley and Zach sat on the couch.
Zach didn’t know what to say, but luckily Beth broke the silence first with raised eyebrows, “I guess you know your Uncle’s been missin’, right?”
It had been twelve years since Zach last saw his Uncle, but he had been missing for ten. Zach took a deep shaky breath, “The court has determined that Uncle Rob has been missing for so long that he is presumed to be dead,” he paused for Beth to say something but she didn’t, “Since my Uncle died without a will, my family’s been going through the probate process. My father, Daniel, died a month into the process, so now I’m Robert’s only surviving heir, which means…” Zach looked down at his feet, wishing he could disappear.
“Which means I gotta move out, right?” Beth gave a laugh that was more like a cackle. Zach shifted uncomfortably on the couch. Beth pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up. “Now, according to the sheriff,” she blew out her first long puff of smoke, “I actually own this place. Something called adverse possession…or maybe it’s repossession? Hell, I don’t know. Anyway, this is my land now because your uncle’s been gone for so long.” Zach hadn’t expected this and sat frozen, unsure of what to say. He looked toward the door and thought about leaving. He didn’t need this stupid cabin anyway. Beth took a big puff of her cigarette and slowly blew out the smoke, “Now, out of respect for Rob, I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s family business. If this cabin rightfully belongs to you, then I don’t want to keep it from ya.”
Zach blew out an exhale of nerves and rubbed his hands on his shorts, “Oh, wow, thank you, um, ma’m. That’s very kind of you.” Zach glanced over at Ashely who still sat wide-eyed and frozen, “And you know, we could sell it back to you. I don’t even want this place. I’d rather just have Uncle Rob’s state championship football ring to be honest,” Zach gave a nervous chuckle. “Um, and we could sell it to you for a very cheap price. You know, kind of as a thank you for taking such good care of the place and everything.”
“That’d be nice,” said Beth. She smiled with her mouth closed. Suddenly she slapped her hands on her thighs as if to signal things were settled, causing Ashley to jump, “Ya’ll want some lemonade? I just made some.”
“Um, sure,” said Zach.
“It’s my special recipe,” said Beth as she walked into the kitchen.
Zach looked over at Ashley who hadn’t moved, “You ok?” he asked. Ashley only nodded.
Beth shuffled back into the living room with two light blue glasses filled with ice and lemonade. “Thank you,” said Zach as he took both glasses and handed one to Ashely. Out of nervousness, and the heat, both he and Ashley gulped it down as quickly as they could.
“So,” Beth sat back down on the armchair, “now that the court has gotten involved, did they ever find any leads regarding your Uncle? They never told me shit since we wasn’t married or nothin’. Just searched the place to hell and back.”
“No,” Zach shifted in his seat. The ice cold lemonade hit him like a kick in the gut, “They never found anything.”
“Hmm,” Beth took a drag from her cigarette, “Well that’s small town law enforcement for ya. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.”
Ashley waved her hand in front of her face and tugged at her tank top, “I’m not feeling so well. I think I’m going to outside.” Sweat beaded along her hairline and her face was flushed.
“Yeah, sure babe,” Zach didn’t think anything of it as he watched Ashley slightly trip over the front step. She had always been a clumsy girl who shuffled her feet too much.
“I sure hope she’s ok,” said Beth as she drank what looked like tea out of a clear glass.
Zach crunched on an ice cub, “She’s fine. She gets motion sickness really easily. Probably just needs to walk around a little bit.”
“Hm,” Beth took a sip of her sweet tea followed by a puff of her cigarette, “You know, your uncle disappearing and everything is so him. Just kind of suited his personality.”
“Yeah, I guess he was a little eccentric. Just wished we knew what happened…” Zach wiped a drop of sweat that fell down the side of his face, headed for his neck.
“Shit, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that your uncle’s been hiding out in Mexico for the past ten years.”
Zach chuckled at the remark, but then something tickled his throat and burned his lungs, sending him into a coughing fit. He stuck another piece of ice in his mouth and took a deep breath, momentarily soothing himself.
“You alright, son?” Beth asked lighting up another cigarette.
Zach cleared his throat, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just allergies.”
“Might be this too,” Beth said as she blew out a puff of smoke in Zach’s direction, “Sorry. Old habits die hard, I guess.” She craned her neck to look out the window then quickly got up, “Shit. I’m sorry, I forgot that I let Billy Bob out this morning.” She took two steps toward the door then looked back at Zach, “He’s a goat. That son of a bitch will headbutt you into next Tuesday if you get too close to him. Don’t want him to get that pretty girlfriend of yours.”
Zach’s stomach flipped violently and sweat dripped past his eyebrows, causing a salty sting in his eyes. “Can I use your restroom?” he asked Beth as she was about to walk out the door.
She poked her head back in, “Yeah honey, down the hallway to the left,” she laughed, “Well hell, you know where it is.”
As soon as Beth walked out the door, Zach shot off the couch and ran to the restroom with his hands to his mouth. Finally in the bathroom, with his hands clutched around the toilet bowl and his hair soaked in a cold sweat, Zach felt a moment relief after he vomited. “What the fuck just happened?” he said to himself. Too weak to walk out of the bathroom, and afraid he would get sick again, Zach put the toilet seat down and sat on top of it. On top of the toilet were stacks of various women’s magazines and a few of Uncle Rob’s old hunting and fishing magazines. Zach grabbed one of them and flipped through the pages. The cool glossy pages felt heavenly on his sweaty fingertips.
As Zach flipped through he felt something heavy toward the end of the magazine. In between a story about bass fishing before thunderstorms and a sunglasses ad, was a stack of photographs. The first one was a photo of Beth and Uncle Rob, at what looked like a bar. Uncle Rob sported a Hawaiian shirt and overalls. His eyes were glassy and he wore a wide drunken smile. Beth wore a bright red tube top, that she was far too old to wear, and permed amber hair. She was kissing Uncle Rob on the cheek, and held a cigarette in her hand. The next photo was similar, but looked like it was taken on their front porch. Each of them wore the same outfit, but Beth’s hair was straight with a medley of frosty blond and amber highlights. Again Beth was kissing Uncle Rob on the cheek. Rob wore the same outfit as the photo before, but he didn’t smile and his eyes were closed. The next photo was almost identical to the last one. Again Uncle Rob’s eyes were closed, but he looked as if he had lost weight and had lost some of the coloring in his face. Zach’s brow furrowed as he stared as the strange photo of his Uncle. He shuffled to the final photo.
“Oh fuck!” Zach stood up quickly and dropped the photo on the floor. He threw the toilet seat up and vomited. He began shaking violently. Using all of his strength he grabbed the doorway and pulled himself up, letting out a loud grunt. He sprinted to the doorway, almost tripping over the same step that Ashley had tripped on, and ran toward the barn. On the bathroom floor was the last photo which was almost identical as the ones before it, except Uncle Rob’s cheeks were completely sunken in, his skin was the color of ash and his mouth gaped open. Instead of his eyes being closed, both were open, but one of them was an empty socket instead of an eye.
Inside the barn Ashley slouched against a hay bale that was being picked at by one of the goats. A small stream of blood ran from her mouth to chin. The goat casually looked up at Zach as if it was bored by Ashley. Zach’s field of vision blurred and shrank as he wavered in front of Ashley.
“Ashley?” he called out weakly, kneeling in front of her. He shook her shoulders, “Ashley! Can you hear me?” Her skin was cold. The burning returned to Zach’s lungs and he fell to the floor in a coughing fit. Blood splattered onto his hands.
“She ain’t gonna wake up,” said Beth standing in the doorway of the barn with her shotgun.
“Get away from me,” gurgled Zach as he tried to crawl away from her. Suddenly pain shot through his ankle as he felt Beth’s boot heel grind itself into the bone.
“You ain’t going anywhere and I ain’t going anywhere,” She let her heel off of Zach’s ankle and walked a few feet behind Zach. She moved a few hay bales out of the way and brushed some of the pieces off the floor, “I told you they said this is mine now. I took care of it,” she lifted a cellar door that had been hidden beneath the bales, “Hell, this place used to be a shithole and now look at it. It’s real nice.” She grabbed the collar of Zach’s shirt and drug him toward the cellar. A sharp pain radiated through Zach’s ribs and he felt himself fall several several feet. As he hit the floor he heard two bones crack, but he didn’t know which ones they were. Pain washed over his entire body, making him nauseous again.
Beth’s head poked through the opening at the top of the cellar, “But hey, like I said, I don’t want to get in the middle of any family business. So why don’t you hash it out with your uncle down there?”
Using all of his strength, and with a scream in pain, Zach propped himself up on his elbows. To his left sat a skeleton casually sitting in a chair wearing a Hawaiian shirt. As Zach felt his body sway and his vision tunnel into nothing, the cellar door above him shut. The clanking sound of a lock was the last thing he heard.