It was cappelletti day at Grandma’s house and I was there to help make them. My grandmother never used a recipe. It was like watching an artist at work.
We spent the morning rolling the pasta dough, stuffing pasta squares with chicken and prosciutto, and laying them out on the wax paper-lined dining room table to dry. Tomorrow, she would make a homemade chicken broth for the little hat shaped pasta. My mouth watered just thinking about it.
Finished, we collapsed onto her green sofa in the back parlor. My new puppy Boo jumped up to join us. Grandma and I spent many hours in that room sipping tea and talking. That day, I had something I wanted to ask.
“What’s on your mind, Anna?” She was always perceptive.
Absent-mindedly petting Boo, I asked, “What do you know about the Vale House?”
Her face paled, and I immediately regretted the question. “Why do you want to know?”
I hesitated, not sure how to tell her that last night, a hellhound, disguised as my friend’s cousin, tried to lure me into the house. It sounded crazy but nothing I recently experienced could be labeled normal. And Grandma wasn’t exactly new to the concept of the supernatural. I launched into a detailed account of the experience. “I need to know why the demon hound wanted to get me to that house.”
“Stay away from that place.”
“Marion Vale was a psychic and a necromancer. She and her son specialized in curses and conjuring evil spirts.” She stopped and I got the impression that was all she planned on saying.
She sighed. “The boarding house we lived in after Caesar died was Vale House.”
Caesar Fiori was my grandfather. He died when my mother was a toddler. I raised my eyebrows. “That was where Grandpa started visiting you.”
“Some places are gateways where ghosts and other creatures can pass into our world.”
“The Vale House is one of those places?” She nodded. “Other creatures as in demons, like hellhounds?”
“Yes. When I lived there, it was run by Alison Vale – the widow of Marion’s grandson, Thomas – and her thirteen-year-old-daughter, Penelope. Penelope was an only child, born to the couple after twenty-years of a happy but barren marriage. She was a quiet and reserved girl, in a way that wasn’t normal for someone that young.”
“She was the same age as Adele and Frankie.”
“She was nothing like the twins. She never sought out their company. She didn’t gush over the latest album or celebrity crush. And she didn’t have any friends – her own age or otherwise.”
“What about school?”
“Adele said she kept to herself. Sat alone at lunch and went straight home after school.”
That was strange. “What was it like in the house?”
“The boarders were transient. No one stayed very long. The house wasn’t welcoming.
“When I moved in, there was gossip about Penelope. It was said her father was a cuckold.”
She shrugged. “It took twenty-years for Alison to conceive her, and some people have nothing better to do than speculate on other people’s lives. Neither Alison nor Penelope encouraged confidences, so no it was just talk.”
It sounded mean and spiteful to me. “Speculation like that hurts the victims.”
“There is more truth there than you know. Penelope overheard Gladys, one of the other boarders, talking about the circumstances surrounding her birth. Gladys was found dead in her room a few days later.”
I leaned forward. “Murdered?”
“The doctor said it was natural causes; her heart stopped beating. I had my doubts.”
“Why?” I prompted.
“She was only thirty and in perfect health.”
“That must have caused a stir.”
“We couldn’t talk about anything else. Well, everyone but Alison and Penelope. They never mentioned Gladys. It was as if the woman never existed to them.” Her forehead wrinkled. She didn’t like talking about this.
“Sorry grandma, but I need to know. Especially since there’s a family connection to the house.”
She continued telling her story, “One night, I couldn’t fall asleep after Caesar’s visit. The room was cramped and I didn’t want to disturb the children so I decided to go to the kitchen for a drink of water.
“I didn’t bother to putting on my slippers and regretted it as the floor was like ice. Alison was frugal. The only light came from a window at the far end of hall.
“As I moved towards the steps, I thought I saw a figure step out of the shadows and go downstairs. It was dark, and very late. I decided my eyes were playing tricks on me.
“I slowly made my way down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“I stepped through the door when a voice asked what I wanted, nearly making me jump out of my skin. When the light flickered on, I was clutching my heart.
“It was Penelope. She asked if I was looking for Caesar. I almost fell over.
“I told her my husband was dead. She said, ‘That doesn’t stop anyone from visiting Vale House.’”
I got goosebumps as she spoke.
“I should have gone back to my room, but she was young and I was too tired to be frightened.
“I asked why she was up. She said, ‘I haven’t been able to sleep in our rooms since my mother’s murder.’
“I thought Gladys death might have affected her more than she let on, and she had a nightmare. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Your mother is fine. She was at dinner this evening.’
“She pulled away. ‘That woman is evil.’
“Most teenagers feel that way about their mothers, but there was fear in her eyes. It was the first real emotion I had seen from her. I told her to come to me if she needed anything.
“I went to bed and she remained in the kitchen warming milk.
“When Caesar came the next night, he was furious. He told me to avoid the Vales; not to talk about them or to them, to just mind my own business.
“I carried on as usual, although I paid more attention to Alison.
“During the three-months that followed, four tenants left unexpectedly leaving all their belongings behind. One died of natural causes. All of the individuals who left had gossiped about the Vales.”
“Did people go missing that frequently before you moved in?”
“I have no idea. Remember, no one was there long enough to notice.”
“Vale House is huge. Alison would have needed help maintaining the property. Wasn’t there a gardener or a maid you could ask?”
“Vale House was run down at the time. The yard was overrun with weeds, and tenants were required to take turns cleaning. Alison did the cooking and we served ourselves.
“After that night, Penelope and your Aunt Adele became friends. They were soon inseparable. Penelope started sleeping in our room. It was a tight fit, but at least she slept. Your grandfather wasn’t happy, and reminded me not to get involved.”
“Didn’t Alison want her daughter in her rooms at night?”
“If it bothered her, she never said anything. The woman only left her rooms for meals and evenings in the parlor. Instead of socializing, she would sit in a dark corner observing her boarders.
“Soon a year had passed since we moved in. We were there longer than any non-Vale.
“On Palm Sunday, Penelope asked if she could join us at church. I agreed and extended the invitation to Alison.”
“She refused, didn’t she?”
“I thought she would, but she surprised me by agreeing to go. All dressed up, we marched down to St. Andrew’s Church. We walked up the steps, and through the vestibule without a problem. The moment we stepped foot in the sanctity of church, Alison collapsed.”
“No. She sat up, dazed. Penelope said, ‘She’s gone!’ and Adele called, ‘Now, Father!’
“Father Zini, one of our parish priests, jumped out of the sacristy, holding a Bible in one hand and spraying Holy Water with abandonment with the other. He chanted prayers in Latin as he moved around the room.
“The doors started rattling, and the shelves holding the bulletins fell, but Father prayed on. I had never seen anything so brave.
“Then the figure of an old woman materialized. She looked wild. She cursed at us, then she ran at the priest, her hands forming claws. Father Zini finished his prayer before she got to him. She was thrown back and disappeared before hitting the wall.
“’She’s gone,’ Father said as he joined us. We helped Alison to a pew. I was almost as bewildered as she was.
“’Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?’ I demanded.
“Penelope started talking. It all began the night she thought her mother died. They had just moved into the house, after inheriting it from her grandfather. She was eight-years-old.
“Alison found spell books. She thought the old man had lost him mind, and ordered Penelope to stay away from them.
“The grandfather wasn’t insane. He was a necromancer, trying to bring his mother back. He failed, but that didn’t stop Marion. She possessed Alison’s body the first night they slept in the house.”
“Why didn’t she possessed her son?” I asked. “Why wait?”
“According to Alison, who spend five years trapped in her own body, privy to all of Marion’s evil thoughts and actions, she didn’t want to hurt her own blood-line. Possessing Alison, gave her control of her great-grand daughter. She wanted to train Penelope in the dark arts.
“Penelope resisted. She thought Marion had killed her mother.”
“Why did Penelope think Alison was dead?”
“She inherited some of the Vale’s psychic ability. She saw Marion’s soul every time she looked at her mother. Marion didn’t anticipate that.
“Marion tried to control Penelope by isolating her. That’s why, like the boarders, her friends disappeared.”
“Some, she would feed to the demons. Others, she practiced spells that caused them to stop breathing in their sleep. In any case, Penelope stopped making friends.
“After we spoke in the kitchen, she was hopeful for the first time in ages. She befriended Adele and then our family. Although she was nervous at first.”
“She had no friends so her Grandmother’s ghost didn’t harm them?” That was a lonely way to live.
“Why did Marion let her get close to Aunt Adele?”
“Penelope always refused to let Marion train her. Marion realized her method of controlling the girl wasn’t working. She tried something new.”
“Catching a fly with honey?”
“Something like that. During this time, Penelope told her story to Adele who convinced her to speak with Father Zini. He believed her. He had experience with demons and ghosts, and knew what to do.”
I wondered if there was someone in the church who could help me. I wanted to be prepared the next time I encountered something other worldly. Boo barked and wagged his tail, as if he could read my thoughts and agreed with me.
“After Mass, we returned to Vale House. Father Zini blessed the place, but warned it was built on a spiritual gateway. He narrowed the opening, but couldn’t completely close it. Spirits and demons would always take advantage of the spot.”
“The good Father was right.” I learned that lesson the night before.
“We stayed in the house as Alison’s guests, until I bought this place. Alison put the housed up for sale and moved a few doors down.”
“Are they still alive?”
“Penelope is. After everything that happened, she and her mother converted to Catholics – I sponsored them – as a thank-you to Father Zini. They changed their last name to Flowers to become part of our family.” Flowers was the English word for fiori.
“As in Penny Flowers?”
That was my best friend Katie’s grandmother’s maiden name. Katie was a Vale.