This story is by Kristin Skelton and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I couldn’t wait to show mama what I found. I brought the placemats and wooden chest down from the attic. “Mama!” I called excitedly, tossing the placemats onto the table as I entered the kitchen. “Have you seen this?” I showed her the chest.
“Sí. Some of your abuela’s old things.”
“Yes, but have you seen this?” I showed her the map which had been hidden in my abuela’s old pocket journal.
She glanced at it while wiping her hands on the kitchen towel. “A map of our town?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Mira!” I pointed to the X marked in pen.
Mama took the map, then turned it over and read the words: Para mi familia (For my family). She handed it back to me. “I’m not sure why your abuela kept that map, but it must have been important to her.” The oven beeped and she took out the timba pie.
I pocketed the map, an idea forming in my head.
The next day I recruited my best friend Mia and we took the bus across town. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of an old house. “Are you sure this is it?” Mia repeated. I checked the map again. This was definitely the right spot. “Why would your grandma mark the Bixby place? Isn’t it supposed to be haunted?” She eyed the house warily. An old shutter clattered against the siding just to make its point.
“Uhh…” I looked at the map again and then up and down the street. “I don’t know.” Maybe abuela had made a mistake? But this was the only place of interest nearby; it had to be here. I felt an inexplicable pull toward the house. “Let’s check it out.”
“What?! No way. I am NOT tangling with any haunted spirits,” Mia said.
“Aw come on, how do we know it’s really haunted? It’s run down which is probably why no one has bought it yet.” I peered over the gate at the chipped paint and vines encircling the doorway.
“UM it’s definitely haunted. They had this place on that ghost hunters show a couple years ago. Didn’t you see that episode?” I shook my head. Mia shivered and continued, “It was so spooky. Apparently its haunted by the Bixby’s daughter who wants revenge for being cut out of their will. She won’t leave this place until she gets her due…whatever that means for a ghost!”
I looked at Mia’s wide eyes. She really believed this stuff.
I weighed my options. “Okay, if you’re worried I won’t make you, but I have to check it out at least…for my grandma.” I paused to give her a chance to change her mind. She didn’t move. I shrugged and pushed open the gate. It creaked on its hinges as I stepped onto the walkway.
“Wait! Don’t go in by yourself! What if the ghost does something bad??”
“Like what? If there’s really a ghost it won’t be able to hurt me if I think positive thoughts.” I think I had read that somewhere.
“I’m not sure that’s how it works….”
I ignored Mia and started walking toward the door.
“Wait!” She caught up to me. “I’m coming with you. What kind of friend would I be if I let you go in alone?”
I gave her a smile.
We knocked on the door together. No answer. I pushed it open carefully. “Hello?” Other than dust and a couple pieces of old furniture, the entryway was completely empty. “See? No one’s here. We’ll just take a quick look around.”
SNAP! The door closed behind Mia as she stepped inside. She gasped and tried to open it. “See! Now we’re trapped in here! I knew this was a bad idea!”
I examined the lock. “Mia it’s okay,” I said turning it carefully. It unlocked. “It’s a self-locking mechanism. We’re fine.” I opened the door to prove my point.
Mia took a steadying breath. “Okay, but why does a door that’s supposed to be 100 years old have a modern lock on it?” I frowned; she had a point. “And anyway, do you even know what you’re looking for?”
“Not exactly,” I responded, “but I’m thinking it must be something special to my family…so maybe something Cuban? Or a secret message or something.”
We scoured the first floor but found little more than cobwebs and a few spiders.
Crrreeeeaaaakkkk. As soon as I put a foot on the spiral staircase, the old wood groaned. I was halfway up the stairs, Mia just behind me, when I heard a CRACK!
I whipped around. Mia’s foot had gone through one of the floorboards. Oh man, that almost got me for a second. “Are you alright?” I asked as I tried to pull her loose, my heart beating fast.
“Yeah, I think I scraped my ankle though.” She was bending to check it out when we heard something that sounded like footsteps upstairs. We looked at each other. A shadow appeared at the top of the stairs, distinctly human-shaped. We both screamed.
A face appeared, very human-like and not ghost-like at all. “Hello?” The woman peering over the banister had a worn, but friendly face. “Oh, those stairs are the worst. I’ve had to repair a few other spots.” She gestured to two spots we hadn’t noticed. We stared at her. “I’ve been living here for a few weeks because I thought it was abandoned, but if I need to leave it’s okay!”
“Oh, we aren’t cops!” I said quickly. “We are just looking for something.”
“Oh! I’ve seen most of the place, even found a hidden door. Maybe I can help you.”
“Ooo show us the hidden door!” I said, intrigued. The woman’s face split into a grin and she disappeared.
I went to follow her, but Mia grabbed my arm. “Are you sure this is a good idea? We don’t know her.”
“It seems she’s a squatter,” I said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Famous last words,” Mia warned.
“We’re together,” I reasoned. “If anything is suspicious let’s book it out of here.”
“Alright, anything even slightly suspicious.”
With Mia satisfied, we followed the woman to an upstairs room. It was quite large. By the looks of it, it had been the study or master bedroom. It even had a fireplace. I gasped when I noticed a portrait on the wall. It had a regal-looking man sitting on a large armchair with a woman with dark hair standing next to him. The woman was my abuela! When she was younger at least. “Oh my God, that’s my grandma!” I said, pointing to the portrait. “I didn’t realize she knew the Bixby’s!”
Mia looked at me wide eyed. “For real? Then you must be right! This place IS special to her.”
The squatter woman was standing next to the fireplace. She smiled and beckoned quickly with her hand three times. I was reminded of my abuela. She used to gesture like that too when she had something special to show us. “Watch this!” The woman grasped one of the bricks and pulled it to the side. It opened just enough to show a small chamber inside. There were empty bottles of rum that looked ancient. I lifted one of the bottles. 1929. Wow.
“Look!” I followed Mia’s gaze to a brick on the wall of the chamber. There, etched into the side of the brick, was the shape of a small Cuban flag.
“No way…” I murmured, tracing the outline with my finger. The brick itself was loose on the sides. I maneuvered it away from the wall. When it came away, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Behind the brick were three beautiful pieces of jewelry with different gemstones on each: rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. I lifted them out carefully. Behind was a folded piece of paper. I opened it with trembling fingers: in Spanish it read “To my beautiful family. These are heirlooms from Cuba. Take good care of them xoxo Maria” (my abuela). Tears welled in my eyes. It had been almost a year. I missed her so much. I smiled though, marveling at her mischief even now.
I turned around to thank the woman, but she wasn’t there. “Hey, where did she go?”
Mia looked around. “…The bathroom maybe?” she said uncertainly.
As we left the room, still no sign of the woman, I glanced up at the portrait again wanting to see my abuela…but she was gone! I stared. My heart beat wildly. How could this be?! I had just seen her there not five minutes ago! I looked around the room wondering if I had looked at the wrong portrait but there were no others. Suddenly the jewelry grew warm in my pocket. As I reached in to touch them, I gasped. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I could’ve sworn I felt a gentle breeze on my cheek accompanied by a barely whispered voice, Gracias.