"Oh shit, it wasn't actually a scam?" Dana said, leaning forward to peer through the windshield.
"Huh. Exactly how it looked in the posting," Juniper said, steering a car held together by duct tape and sigils through the wrought iron gates of the property. "First time that's happened."
The tall, spiked black fence around the four-and-a-half acre lot was topped with elaborate crows punctuating each fence section. The decade-old sedan lumbered noisily over the long, overgrown gravel driveway leading up to the house.
Dana gave the passenger side door a reassuring pat. “Come on girl. We’re almost there.” Out of the corner of her eye, Juniper saw her friend send a little bit of magic along with her words. Dana looked at her and chuckled. “I can already think of one reason why this house isn’t going to work out for you. The potholes are going to finally be what sends this contraption up to car heaven.”
Juniper gritted her teeth. She’d already gone to see nearly two-dozen houses. “Potholes can be fixed. I’m not writing this place off yet.”
Dana unfolded the crumpled scrap of paper that had Juniper’s list of all the houses she was considering, most of them crossed off. “Well, there’s still the one-bedroom near downtown, the bigger house with a suspicious lack of pictures on the listing...” she rambled, counting off Juniper’s remaining options on her fingers. “I mean... this place is by far the biggest out of all the legitimate posts that were in your budget. Did you already tell me what the catch was with this one? If you did, I forgot.”
She parked the car under a row of willow trees and looked out at the unkempt yard surrounding the sprawling Victorian. The house was gorgeous, but the listing’s emphasis on it being a “fixer-upper” had been an understatement. It looked like a battle had taken place there. Dana looked up from the page of notes, taking in the torn off shutters, ripped up landscaping, broken windows, and suspicious stains on the outer walls of the house.
“Oh. The whole thing is the catch.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Juniper breathed, flexing her fingers around the steering wheel. It had been a long drive.
The house really was in poor shape. It almost looked like it had been vandalized, but not in any way she’d ever seen before. It had good bones, though, she noted. The roof was in perfect condition, and the chimney looked well-maintained. She spotted a greenhouse in the distance as well as several other outbuildings. She could fix this. So far, it was just cosmetic.
“Are you sure we should be here?” Dana asked, always thinking through all the possibilities. “There aren’t squatters in here, right?”
Juniper laughed, unbuckling her seatbelt and shutting the car off. She felt a prickle of relief from the vehicle as it was finally able to rest after their fifty mile drive. She’d put enough miles into it and woven enough magic into the hunk of metal that they had a little synchronicity- as much as a witch and a car could have, anyway.
“Dana, I don’t think the realtor would be showing the house without checking that it’s empty first.”
Her friend said nothing, nor did she move to exit the car. Juniper looked over and saw that she was frozen, hair on her bare arms standing upright the way it did when she had a premonition. They were usually simple things, just hints.
She looked to the driver’s side with a grave expression, only offering, “No squatters doesn’t mean the house is empty,” before shaking it off. She shook her head, undoing her seatbelt as well. “Huh. That was a vague one. Just... got a funny feeling and then it was gone. Well, now I’m cold and I want to feel the sun on my skin.”
They stepped out of the car into the warm August air. It was one of those pleasant days where the sun was warm and full of life, but the small breeze made it so the heat wasn’t stifling. Juniper and her best friend marched through the shin-high grasses and weeds to meet the realtor, who was waiting for them at the end of the driveway. The realtor was a woman who looked to be in her thirties, with hair the color of autumn leaves. She had a forced smile and the pinched expression of someone who had done this song and dance too many times. Juniper got the feeling she had probably shown the house too many times to count, but hadn’t been able to make the sale.
Juniper considered herself a practical, resilient person. It was hard to rattle her. In the past year, she had been in a car crash, failed enough of her college courses that she had finally resorted to dropping out, and just a few months prior, her mother had passed away in her sleep due to complications from a chronic illness. She trusted that if this was the house that was meant for her, it would show her some kind of a sign. She wasn’t going to be dissuaded by the place needing some new screens or lightbulbs. It would take more than what it had shown her so far.
“Hi, you must be Ms. Warner,” the realtor said with a voice that was dripping with politeness. Juniper wished she would drop the act. She could give a shit about her demeanor. She was here for the house, not small talk. She’d had enough of that in the past few months to last her a lifetime. That was one thing she appreciated about Dana- when everyone else had been saying “it’s okay,” “this will pass,” and “she was such a wonderful woman,” (all lies), Dana had just sat with her. She hadn’t said a word. She’d just taken her to the back room during the funeral for a few minutes and sat quietly. Dana knew when Juniper just wanted to be left well enough alone, and that was why she was her best friend above all others.
“Juniper,” she corrected, polite but not matching the realtor’s sickeningly sweet tone. “Pleasure to meet you. I’ve brought my friend Dana with me. She won’t be living with me, it’s just me, but she has a good eye for things. Nothing’s slipped by her so far,” she said with a sly smile, shaking the realtor’s hand. Juniper spotted a tattoo on the realtor’s wrist of a flower that danced in the wind. Ah, so she was a witch too.
“Fern, pleasure to meet you,” she said, reaching out to take Dana’s hand. “I’m going to take a guess by the fact you weren’t turned off by some of the details in the advertisement that you know the craft?” She looked between Juniper and Dana, unsure if she should be addressing one or both of them.
Juniper nodded. “Fifth generation. Not sure of my path yet,” she added hesitantly. She also decided to leave out that she had been asked to leave the coven she had been in since she had been born. Only Dana and her grandmother knew the story behind that, and few others knew it had happened at all.
Dana added in a chipper voice that she was a tech witch, “if you couldn’t tell by the blue and black hair.” At twenty-four, her mother had finally caved on her “my roof my rules” ban on unnaturally colored hair. In the twelve months since, Dana had gone through more colors of hair than Juniper knew existed.
The small talk continued while they danced around the edge of the driveway. They hadn’t even reached the porch, which was actually a quite stunning wrap-around. If she didn’t know any better, Juniper would almost think that Fern was stalling. Well, it was as good a spot as any to take in the lot, or at least what she could see from where she was standing. The listing had said the house was on ten acres. It was an enormous amount of property for one person to keep up. It would be beyond impractical to buy a place like this, but if she started some sort of home-based business that used the land, maybe Juniper could make it work.
The lot was dotted with trees and meandering footpaths peeking through the overgrowth. This had once been a lively, well-utilized space. She recognized mugwort, cooking sage, and thyme in little patches here and there that looked like someone had been selectively cultivating wild plants. All the signs on the listing had pointed to the previous owner of this house having had some connection with magic. But if so, why had the house gone up on the market? It was unusual for anyone to relinquish a house like this, for it to go to just anyone. Juniper had heard of hauntings or even dimensional rifts causing people to vacate their estates in a hurry, but even things such as that could be fixed.
Her grandmother always told her that there was no such thing as a problem without a solution. You just had to weigh whether or not it was worth keeping after the problem to see it through to its conclusion. This house had something, some blemish on it somewhere, that made it so that no one even wanted its three floors, basement and attic for the price of a one-bedroom in the suburbs.
Fern droned on about particulars about the house that Juniper had no interest in. She talked about when the driveway had last been redone, the craftsmanship on the wrought iron fence that surrounded the lot, and many other things that she tuned out. Dana dutifully swooped in and responded to the small talk while Juniper tried to tune in with the house.
They made their way up to the porch. The wooden banister going around it really was beautiful. This house had been built by someone with an artistic eye, and maintained by someone who appreciated the character of the house. A divet under her hand caused Juniper to pause as she ran it along the banister. Long claw marks marred the surface of the wood near the steps leading from the driveway to the porch.
“You get a lot of critters in this area?” Juniper asked, tapping the claw marks when Fern turned to look her way. She kept up the smile, but Juniper saw her face pale a shade.
“Oh, yes, raccoons especially,” she said, quickly moving on to talk about the kind of wood used to make the railing.
Juniper looked around and noted that the porch light was on. Porch lights, she should say, as there were a number of them, all on. In addition to that, in the areas covered by the deep overhang, there were portable camping lanterns turned on. It was an odd thing to have on in the middle of the day, especially just to show a house. She knew she wouldn’t get a straight answer out of the woman. She just hoped that Dana would keep her occupied long enough to get the house to spill its secrets.
She closed her eyes and rested her palm flat on the front door, trying to forge a connection with the house. It let her in willingly enough. She got the impression that the house had not been built with magic or by a magic user, but that it had at least one as an owner. It didn’t have enough will of its own to really resist or invite her in. It was just a house. Well, that was a good enough start.
“So, M- Juniper, what interested you in this house? Five thousand square feet is a lot for one woman to own by herself.”
Biting down the urge to reply with a blunt “my mom died,” she answers evenly, “I came into some money. My older sister got the childhood home.”
“Ah,” Fern responds, looking embarrassed. “Well, you will find your budget will go a long way with this house. The kitchen has space for three people to work in there and not bump hips. As you already know, there are three bedrooms, two and a half baths, a number of additional rooms that have been converted to work spaces, and the outbuildings. If you have an inclination towards the botanical, the greenhouse and the root cellar might be of interest to you.”
Juniper takes in her words and nods. “Most of the places in my budget were unfurnished. There’s... a surprising amount of furniture here.” She looks around at the benches, tables, and swing set on the porch. There’s pots with dead plants, a faded door mat, and wind chimes along with other bits and bobs.
“Yes, it’s being sold as is. You’ll be delighted to know that the estimated value of the equipment in the house is somewhere in the high tens of thousands. Not every house comes with a full library and alchemy lab.”
“A library sounds nice,” she mused, forgetting her suspicions for a moment.
As they entered the house, she lost herself in a memory of her sister reading a story about three crows to her as a toddler. Simpler times, before she’d been old enough to disagree with her mother about things and she could just enjoy the good parts that came with families.
The inside of the house was just as well-lit as the porch. Ceiling lights, wall lights, table lamps, floor lamps- maybe the realtor had a fear of the dark? Or this could be some new trend in house-showing about well-lit spaces being more attractive to buyers.
Dana glanced at her and raised an eyebrow. At least they’d both noticed it. She inclined her head as if to say ‘*this is weird, right*?’ Dana nodded before engaging Fern in a conversation about what kinds of books had been left in the library.
They continued on with the tour. The house really was amazing, but she wasn’t going to let herself get attached to a house she had only spent a few minutes in. There were still other options. She hadn’t exhausted everything yet. They toured enough rooms that Juniper knew if she did pick this house, she would be able to start any magic-based business she could conceive of and not need to buy anything to start it other than fresh ingredients. They peeked in the attic and basement, but didn’t go far in. The realtor had offered, but Juniper had seen enough of attics and basements in old, magical houses that she knew to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. As they made their way down the second floor hallway where the bedrooms were, she realized there was a room with a shut door they hadn’t been shown yet.