Morning Star Mansion – Part 1

Photo by Modesta Žemgulytė on Unsplash

Zoe pushed her fiery-red hair back behind her ear a moment before she turned down a familiar winding driveway. The once pristinely maintained road resembled more of a track now, overgrown with ferns and nettles, while untrimmed silver birch trees formed a domed canopy. The interlocked leaves created an eerie dimness as they blocked the bright sunshine.

It felt like a blink of time passed since she stood as a twelve-year-old girl beside her grandmother, soaking in the surrounding beauty. Nana had an innate affinity with nature, and Zoe was the recipient of that gift, though she didn’t understand it completely. Dementia stole her nana’s memories before she could finish teaching her granddaughter. Papa became her caregiver until his passing, when Zoe was twenty and too busy with college life. Nana was lost in her own world in a nursing home for twelve more years… until last week when she’d joined papa.

The house stood as neglected and depressing as the rest of the property. Her property. The letter from her nana’s lawyer was secure inside her suitcase, along with a safe deposit box key. She intended to be at the bank when it opened on Monday morning.

The car navigated the weed-covered circular drive and Zoe parked outside the faded red door. The three steps leading up to it looked dicey, but there were no other entrances into the antiquated house that had been in her family for three generations. 

Zoe gathered her suitcase and the small rubber tote containing a few groceries she’d grabbed on her way through town. With her face set resolutely, she placed her right foot on the sturdiest part of the bottom step and picked her spots before climbing the three stairs. A second later, Zoe stood on the rickety front porch. The faded red door was only a few more steps in front of her. Yet she could hear her grandmother’s laughter as she swung on the porch swing, her sweet voice singing as she tended the plants in her flower beds and garden. There were bees buzzing and lights twinkling. Sunlight reflecting through the leaves…

As if in answer, a twinkling light appeared between her and the door. It seemed an odd place for a firefly, but before Zoe could focus, the tiny light vanished as quickly as it appeared, breaking her free from the memories imprinted in this place.

Get a grip girl! You’ve been driving for hours!

The old skeleton key turned stiffly in the lock. Once the tumblers submitted, there was an audible click. With one push, the rickety door swung inward, creaking on ancient hinges. The sound made the little hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up. 

Breathing a silent prayer, Zoe reached up and flipped the light switch on. The hallway lit up with dim dust-covered light, revealing the ghostly outlines of furniture draped in canvas dust covers. Her footsteps echoed behind her as she walked carefully down the hall toward the kitchen. 

The yellow cabinets had faded to a dark, dirty beige. In contrast, the newer fridge hummed like a kitten. She opened the door to find it empty and clean. Zoe removed the lid from the rubber tote filled, grabbed the milk, eggs, and orange juice, and placed them in the fridge. The rest of the non-perishable items were safer inside the tote, which fit perfectly on top of the counter. 

It took a while to check the rest of the house, but the inside turned out to be in much better shape than the outside. The door hinges all needed oiling. She explored her old room and found the twin bed exactly as she remembered it. Like the porch, this room echoed with memories of summers long ago. 

Zoe walked across the hall and opened the door to the master bedroom, which felt different. The closets were empty, and her nana’s hairbrush and mirror were not on her dresser. She tugged the heavy dustcover off the bed, rolled it up, and put it on the pile with the others in the far corner of the hallway, out of the way. 

A homemade crocheted bedspread covered the bed. She remembered her nana working on it during her last summer here. Zoe stood in this very spot and admired it with her nana the day she finished it. The golden sunflowers were still as vibrant as they were then. Impossible! Underneath the bedspread, the two feather pillows had matching yellow pillowcases and bedsheets. 

 “Nana, it’s like you knew I was coming and made the bed for my arrival.”  

Her voice echoed a bit in the quiet space. A comforting peace filled her being, and Zoe recognized the waft of warm apple strudel on the breeze coming in the open window. The sun was almost down when she walked toward the window. Hold on; I unlocked the front door. Who opened the window? All thoughts ceased the moment the twinkling golden ball disappeared behind the overgrown hedges and twilight’s indigo descended.

She yawned and called it a night. Sleep took her to dreamland before she could wonder about anything else. 

~~~

The next few days passed by quickly. As planned, her first stop was the bank, where she opened her grandmother’s safe deposit box. Inside, she found a small cast-iron skeleton key and a letter with her name on it. Zoe recognized her nana’s faded handwriting on the yellowed parchment paper. The bank manager insisted she sign for the items, handed her some documents, and sent her to a bank teller. It was there that she learned her nana’s bank account balance. Normally, the lawyer would provide that information, but her nana had given explicit instructions that the bank was to release it when she arrived in Haven.

The documents turned out to be the title deed to her nana’s house, with its four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and five acres. Included was the most recent property assessment of one and a half million dollars. Add that to the ten million dollars in cash and bonds that now belonged to her, and time shifted into slow motion as the information lodged in her brain. 

Zoe wasn’t aware she was staring at the back wall until the teller cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, forgive me. I wasn’t expecting this amount. Did you need anything else from me?” 

“No, you’ve signed all the paperwork, Miss Meir. Is there something else I can help you with?”

“Yes, I need to get some cheques and make a withdrawal so I can attend to the most pressing needs at the house first.”

“Certainly.”

Once she’d tucked the wad of money safely inside the inner pocket of her purse, Zoe turned toward the front door and made her way back to the car.

~~~

The next three months passed by in a blur of contractors, arborists, gardeners, and carpenters. The sun poured in through her bedroom window, waking her out of a deep sleep. She got up and went to the window… it was a beautiful day! The sun’s rays were no longer impeded and revealed a much different scene than the one she saw outside the same window on the night of her arrival.

All the trees were trimmed back, and the flower beds were beautiful rows of vibrant colour again. The outside of the house was complete, with a new front porch, white wicker porch swing, and three new stairs. All the windows were new with double-paned energy-efficient models that resembled the originals. Every slat of wood siding looked as close to the original design as possible, as did the new shingles on the roof. The carpenters and other tradespeople had restored each room inside the house according to the required heritage standards. It felt as though she’d stepped back in time… back to when her nana had been a little girl. 

After breakfast, Zoe spent time in her office, sitting at the antique roll-top desk she’d placed against the room’s far wall. The only thing on it that seemed out of place and time was her laptop computer. She’d hidden the Wi-Fi modem. There were some things from the present world that Zoe simply could not do without now that she was the new mistress of Morning Star Manor. 

The name was barely legible on the original title to the house. Her nana never referred to the house by name while she was present. However, when she saw the name for the first time, Zoe felt a stirring deep within her being. It was time Morning Star Manor took its rightful place in the community. 

She’d written the final cheque for the gardeners and was sealing the envelope when a loud knock echoed through the house. She hurried to the front door and opened it. The fresh red paint on the exterior looked so much better than when she’d first arrived.

An old man stood before her with his hat in his hands. “Pardon my intrusion, are you Miss Zoe?”

“You’re not intruding, sir, though you have me at a disadvantage. I’m Zoe Meir. How may I help you today?”

“My name is Adam McEwen. Your nana and I grew up together on this land. My father was the original gardener, and I took over when he passed on. I remember your visits every summer, though I doubt you remember me.”

“Please come in, Mr. McEwen,” Zoe said, throwing the door open wide and stepping to the side to allow the elderly man room to pass. He hesitated for a few seconds and then bowed as he passed by her into the hallway. 

“Aww, lass, the old house is new again.”

She showed him into the main parlour, and he stood looking around in awe. Finally, he took a seat in her papa’s big chair. 

“May I get you something to drink? Tea, iced tea, coffee…”

“Aye, lass, a cuppa tea would be very nice.”

It didn’t take long for the kettle to boil on the new gas stovetop. She warmed the teapot with water first before placing the loose leaf tea inside the strainer and closing the lid for a full minute. Once the leaves had steamed, she poured the remaining water over them. Two teacups, milk, raw sugar, and a plate of freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies completed the tray Zoe carried back to the parlour.

Mr. McEwan was standing by the window looking out at the trees and gardens behind the house when she set the tray down on the coffee table. She poured the steeped tea carefully into both teacups. Zoe took hers black.

“Would you care for some milk or sugar in your tea, Mr. McEwen?”

“Aye, a spot of milk and one spoon of sugar, please,” he said as he took a seat on the sofa. 

Once the old gardener had his tea and cookie, Zoe helped herself and sat on the edge of her papa’s chair.

“What were you thinking about as you looked out of those windows?”

“Och, I lifetime of memories, lass. Whoever you hired to restore the grounds did a masterful job. Are they going to maintain them for you?”

“Yes, they’ll come monthly to attend to the gardens and keep the weeds at bay. Why do you ask?”

Mr. McEwen nodded. “What about the other garden? The secret one I helped your nana tend until you grew old enough to join her?”

“I remember her special garden, but not the way to it,” Zoe mused. “In fact, I’d planned to look for it today.”

“You will nae find it without the key, lass.” 

“What kind of key?”

“An old cast-iron key. It would be quite wee.”

Zoe leaped to her feet, ran to her desk, opened the drawer on the right side, and grabbed the small skeleton key from its hiding place before hurrying back to her guest. 

“Like this one, Mr. McEwan?”

“Aye, that’s the one!”

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