Life at the Amberhouse Manor was… interesting, to say the least. It was not often you heard of a staff so dedicated to keeping their comatose masters’ house in order for nearly three decades as the one serving the Laciturnes. Of course, many of them had moved on, but those who stayed all had a special bond with the manor. There was old Ulrich, the butler who had served four generations of Laciturnes. There was Emile and Oliva Burnett, who had met each other, fell in love and got wed after being introduced by the late Lord Laciturne, and therefore felt an eternal debt to the Laciturnes. There was Vega Potts, who, despite a perpetual limp and stutter, was employed by Lady Laciturne as her personal assistant.
And then there was Maggie. Maggie had grown up a child in Amberhouse Manor when her father was head of the kitchen. She spent more time at the manor as a child than at home, and had discovered all the secrets of the manor alongside her best friend, the daughter of Lord and Lady Laciturne, Arabelle.
Arabelle was the main reason Maggie had remained at the manor for twenty-five years, even after her father got another job at a fancy (at least it used to be) restaurant. Not because she felt any personal obligation to, she had made and lost many more friends during this time, but because of curiosity.
When Lady Laciturne and Arabelle entered what was called by several doctors an “unnatural” coma, everyone thought they’d eventually pass away due to deteriorating functions. However, to the surprise of most of the then much larger staff, the Laciturnes seemed to remain alive and well. In fact, they stayed so perfect that they didn’t even seem to age, which was most apparent in Arabelle, who remained a fifteen-year-old girl, while Maggie, who had been the same age as Arabelle, grew and aged as normal.
This phenomenon is what kept Maggie at the manor for so long. Would they ever wake up? Why weren’t they aging? These questions echoed through her head every morning and evening she went to check on them.
This was one of those mornings. Maggie woke at five, got dressed, and got ready to go about her duties. Making a cup of tea, she proceeded up the stairs from her cellar room to Ulrich’s quarters. The old man was nearing eighty-five and struggled with his back in the mornings (and a lot of other things). After making sure he was fine, Maggie went to the kitchen, where she helped Oliva make breakfast for the five of them, with an extra portion for if Lady Laciturne and Arabelle decided to awake from their coma.
‘Morning dears,’ miss Potts said as she entered the breakfast room, carrying today’s rolled-up newspaper under her arm and three letters.
‘Mornin’ miss Potts,’ Emile said, taking a sip of the tea Oliva and Maggie had poured. He pointed at the letters with his spoon. ‘The usual suspects?’
‘Who else would it be?’ They had all grown to expect three letters on the fourth of each month (except if that month’s fourth was a holiday, then on the fifth) One was from the bank, stating that the Laciturne fortune was still growing steadily from some unknown source. Another from the retirement home in the city (“We would be honoured to help mister Ulrich Williams make the best out of these final years of his fruitful life”), and the third from the nearby university, enquiring every month whether they could purchase the manor to use as the residence for one of their Deans or as the groundwork for a new college.
‘I don’t know why they keep sending these things if we always send them back unopened,’Ulrich said in his slow, sage-like voice, ‘they are a persistent lot, I will give them that.’
They finished off breakfast in relative peace, after which they all set about their usual duties. Maggie helped Oliva clear the dishes, and then made her way into the entrance hall and up the central staircase. The pine floor was speckled with rays as the autumn morning sun shone on the crystal chandelier above her.
Maggie took the familiar path up the emerald-carpeted staircase to the second floor. At the top of the staircase a set of double doors led into the former Lord Laciturne’s office, maintained by Oliva and miss Potts. Turning right down the hallway, Maggie passed two doors on either side before knocking (through habit, not necessity) and entering the room of her mysterious friend, Arabelle, left as it was when she and Maggie still played in it.
A tall armoire stood against the wall opposite the door, a pair of vines painted on both the white doors. Beside it, an old floor lamp stood, the bulb changed every so often by Emile. Along the wall next to the door, a bookshelf stood proudly treasuring its several dozen unread books and oddities brought for Arabelle by her mother and father. In front of the bookshelf, as well as in a few other places in the room, some remnants of Maggie and Arabelle’s childhood stood: a green bicycle here, a pair of kites there, exactly as it was twenty-five years ago.
Maggie made her way over to the window and drew the curtains to reveal the still-misty back garden of the manor. Taking a bowl of water and towel from the desk by the window, Maggie sat down in the chair beside the four-poster bed, looking down at the serene face of her young friend.
Arabelle’s auburn hair seemed a reddish-gold in the morning light, made slightly more prominent by the floral bedding of her covers and pillows. She had been taller than Maggie when they were the same age, standing at sixty-one inches to Maggie’s fifty-seven, yet the bed was still quite long compared to the fifteen-year-old.
After checking for a pulse (still there, still the same, almost bell-like rhythm), Maggie dipped the towel in the water, and carefully washed Arabelle’s slightly freckled face and hands (which laid on either side of her above the covers in every season but winter) She also straightened out the creases in the covers where they always seemed to appear overnight, before sitting back down and picking up a small leather-bound notebook and pencil.
This had become a daily ritual for Maggie, ensuring Arabelle was alive and kept clean, and then keeping a diary of sorts of anything that came to mind while watching the sleeping anomaly. Outside in the garden, the songs of waking birds mingled with Emile pushing a wheelbarrow along the gravel path from the shed to the vegetable and herb garden. Somewhere in the distance a rooster (no doubt Lord Palton’s) was welcoming the sun, and even further away a train’s whistle chimed cheerfully.
Maggie sat there for some time, just listening to the every-day sounds and her own pencil scribbling. As she reached the end of the page (a page a day), Maggie closed the notebook, set it on the desk near the bed, and stood with the bowl and towel in her hands.
She was halfway to the door when something struck her as odd. She stood there, trying to figure out what was different, when it suddenly hit her: everything had grown silent. Where she could hear the birds and Emile working outside just a moment ago, now there was nothing. A thick, almost smothering silence seemed to have risen up in the autumn morning, anxiously holding its breath for something to break.
Just then, three long bell tolls shook every cell of Maggie’s body, each more deafening than the last. As the final toll echoed out, what sounded like four voices, three in unison and one in discord, spoke simultaneously.As each line was spoken, the fourth voice became more dissonant until it seemed to no longer fit the unison of the other three, burning Maggie’s ears as she was forced to listen to their gibberish:
Ketnap ieguhp iegam
Ielmoksahp soerhc iehtorelp irhcem
Kehtopna teng ioz ek
Ienehtsaz unorhc an iatehc
As the last syllable faded out, and the garden sounds returned, a woman’s cry from somewhere in the manor brought Maggie back to reality. She was about to leave the room, when a voice which she hadn't heard for twenty-five years in the room behind her paralyzed her, making her drop the bowl clattering and splashing on the floor.
* * *