When he was a kid, a woman in white gave him a hammer.
He didn't know it at the time, who she was—he was only about nine, and dad hated talking about Rose Red then and mom never gave a shit about the history, just wanted to gut the place for money. Rose Red was a legend, a horror story but mostly, it was large, beautiful house, empty even if it scared him.
(Rose Red always scared him.)
When he saw Ellen Rimbauer for the first time, all Steve saw was a beautiful woman, calling out to him. Her dress was all white lace and soft fabric, her face hidden behind an old fashioned fan before she lowered it and smiled at him.
Hello, great grandboy.
Steve couldn't talk. He felt frozen. He wasn't even sure how got here, in this room, just that his little legs lead him here. She was beautiful and soft and gauzy around the edges, like she wasn't real, a hallucination, brought on by the bright colored lights in the room. The smell of sawdust was stuck in the air and under it, sickly sweet roses.
Wouldn't you come closer? Let me look at you.
She seemed to speak without speaking out loud. Steve heard the words echo in his skull. Without thinking, he found himself stepping forward. She bent down and smiled at him, grabbing his cheek in her hands, glancing at him. Staring him down. Studying him. She was cold to the touch. Steve’s insides felt cold, like it was spreading into him, just by being near her, he'd be as cold as she was.
“Great grandma?” He ventured out, still not sure what that meant, who he was seeing.
You are quite lovely, she said, again without moving her lips. It was more than talking—it was pushing up against his mind, filling his insides with her. There's a twinkle in her eyes. Wouldn't you like to help me build?
He let out a soft whimper.
Gently, she took his hand into hers, her fingers shockingly strong.
Don't be scared. You'll like it. It'll be fun.
His mother came to get him then, angrily pulling him along, mad that he wandered off.
Great grandma was gone. Mom never saw her. But Steve could hear still her, inside his head, as they drove away, staring back at the giant mansion.
I'm waiting for you.
Steve forgot all about her, as soon as he left Rose Red, as soon as he stepped foot off the grounds. The memory faded and dwindled the further away he got from the old homestead family house.
He kept the hammer though. He didn't remember her giving it to him, just that it was there, in the seat of his car, sitting next to him.
Steve cradled it in his hands, twirling around his fingers, trying to remember when he got it.
When he was twelve, he got lost on the way home from school, and found himself at Rose Red.
He stood at the gates—iron wrought gates, beautiful and elegant once, now overgrown with vines and weeds, as if it were trying to suck the house back into the earth.
This house used to be out in the countryside, but the city had grown around it, popped up in an urban sprawl, Rose Red surrounded by cars and freeways and newer, shinier buildings.
Steve peered through the gaps in the fence. The statue of Ellen Rimbauer stood in his line of sight, her stony face unnerving him. He turned away, and looked into one of the windows instead.
There she was, in the window to one of the bedrooms, waving at him. She looked the same as she did the last time he saw her, even if that memory was fuzzy and too hard to grasp to fully remember.
Steve smiled at her.
You've come back, great grandboy, she says. Her smile was beautiful. He could feel her, like she's right here with him, her voice sliding around his insides.
Steve couldn't remember how he got here. He couldn't remember leaving either.
Whenever his mom went to Rose Red, he followed along. Mom never seemed to see her, great grandma, as if her apparitions were reserved for him and him alone.
You're special, she tells him, stroking his hair. Steve shuddered. He thought he liked it, her touching him, treating him like a prized grandson, but it still unnerved him to the bone as well.
“Why do you want to know so much?” His mom asked him, while he read one of the history books about Rose Red.
“School project,” he told his mom. The lie came easily. “Family history.”
She turned away, going back to her drinking with a shudder. “Don't know why you even like that spook stuff. That place gives me the willies.”
When Steve slept, he could hear great grandma call his name across the city.
When he was fourteen, Ellen kissed him.
She cupped his face in his hands and told him how good he's been, how much she missed him, back at Rose Red.
Come home, Steve, she said, you don't visit us anymore, and kissed him softly on the lips. It's his first kiss. He sighed softly, leaned into it. She ran her tongue over his lips and Steve felt something lurch in his belly, grab him by the guts and pull.
Come help me build.
He was freefalling, spiraling down, weightless and lost.
When he pulled away, her hands were bone, skin withered and aged and shrunk and died out. Her face was rotten and mummified. His mouth tasted of sickly sweet flowers.
Steve woke up, clutching his throat, a scream trapped in there.
He came all over himself, red faced, flushed all over. He couldn't tell if he was scared or turned on. It seemed impossible to be both.
He couldn't remember her later, not her name, not her face, and soon he didn't even remember he had that dream, fading away into the recesses of his mind.
But he could feel something inside him, pushing under his skin. Waiting.
He was sixteen and shitfaced, the kind of drunk where you think you're fine but you were absolutely not fine, and you don't realize it until later, when you puke over a bridge. His friends from school cajoled and pushed him until he took them to Rose Red, out of some drunken desire to sneak into somewhere they shouldn't be, break into a historical monument.
They've stopped the tours a long time ago, no one but caretakers and repairmen and cops have been here in so long--and of course, him, him and his mom, his dad always refused to take a step on the property.
Steve, we've always wanted to see a haunted house, one of them said--Brett, he thought--but he wasn't sure who did the talking.
“It's not haunted,” he said, his mouth strangely dry. Dehydrated. He did not feel like playing ghost tour guide today. “I've never seen a ghost.”
Privately, Steve suspected they're not really his friends, that they only befriended him to see the house up close and personal, point and laugh, if not at him, then at the ruin and tragedy of his family, like every misfortune that befell his family was something to gawk at, someone's entertainment.
All Steve wanted to tell them was that it's really not that big a deal, back off, but he took them to the gates and then to the front doors and it was so horribly familiar, from the moment he stepped inside.
He thought it'd be harder to get in here, to slip the family keys away from his dad, but no one was paying attention to Rose Red anymore.
Brett, Charlie and Tony wandered around. “This place is a trip,” they said.
“I want to see a ghost! C’mon ghostie!”
Steve couldn't even tell who was talking. They blended into each other, drunk assholes all turning into a single entity, one giant drunk asshole.
Steve rolled his eyes and walked away. He thought it would serve them right to get lost, in one of the endless corridors of the house.
Steve’s legs took him down a hallway and he when turned back around, they were all gone.
“Oh my,” he heard a soft, feminine voice, a familiar voice. Steve turned back around and nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Great grandma,” he exhaled, remembering, as something started to slot into place in his head, pieces falling together but he couldn't quite read the conclusions.
Everything came back to him slowly, while he stood in front of her.
“You've come back,” she said. “I knew you would.”
Her voice made him shiver but he wanted her to keep smiling at him. He wanted her to be happy. Ellen's had such a hard life. He thought she deserved some kind of happiness, more than most people.
Ellen Rimbauer is dead, he reminded himself. He should know this by now.
“You've grown,” she said, cupping his chin in her hand. Steve shivered. She's cold to the touch, but he didn't want to pull away. In fact, he pushed his face against her hand, further chasing her touch. “You're a man now.”
“I'm sixteen,” he corrected her.
She laughed. “Like I said,” she said, stepping closer, in his space until he felt surrounded. “A man.”
She was very close to him now, nose to nose, eye to eye. Her features were soft and delicate, her skin pale, stark against her dark hair. Great grandmother didn't look a day over twenty five.
Steve was frozen, but he didn't want to move. He didn't move as she closed the distance and pressed a kiss to his mouth and Steve knew, this isn't a dream.
He made a soft moan into her mouth, the noise punching its way out of his chest. This was different than the last kiss, not a chaste press of lips but deeper, harder. Her hand cupped his chin, her nails dug into his skin. The more she kissed him--mouth wide and wet--the less cold she felt, more alive.
She wanted him, and that filled him up with a strange sort of desire, a not-quite lust, a sense of belonging, that he could barely contain.
Someone screamed behind him and Steve leapt away. Ellen was gone, no one standing before him. Someone kept screaming behind him.
Steve has no desire to really go looking for anyone in the main house, but as if being led, he found Charlie and Tony hunched over Brett, who was curled up in a ball on the floor, shaking, his skin nearly blue from an impossible cold.
Steve’s mouth froze in a wordless cry.
They don't speak to him the next day. They don't speak to him again.
He's fine with that.
When he was seventeen, he went to see her, and by her, Steve didn't know if he meant great grandma, or Rose Red, or if they're one in the same, at the end of the day.
Rose Red hummed softly when he entered her. The wind picked up as he walked through the empty foyer, whispering to him.
Hello, hello, welcome home, welcome home.
The mansion breathed and sighed softly in his wake, and Steve trended carefully, lightly, not wanting to disturb the mansion more than he already had. It felt more alive and vibrant here than it did the last few times Steve was here. He could feel Rose Red, nudging against his mind, like a wave crashing over, before receding from the cliff edge.
Steve picked a direction and went. He's studied the floor plans before but it didn't really matter. Rose Red changed and shifted depending on her mood. Steve was sure he'll find his way where he needs to go.
He ended up in a bedroom, once resplendent and luxurious, now a shadow of itself. It was surprisingly well taken care, less dusty and moldy than an old place like this should be. The blanket was soft against his skin, the sheets silk smooth, the room, large and canaverous.
Steve didn't know what he was doing, lying down on it, like he lived here. Like he belonged here.
He closed his eyes and fell asleep, and his head danced with images of women in white. Around him, the house groaned.
He woke up to great grandmother straddling him, sitting on top of his thighs. The image was so startling, Steve gasped. She looked different--her hair has been let down, no longer pinned back in a respectable style, and her white dress was now a lacy white nightgown. He's never seen her like this before, and looking around, he finally realized he fell asleep in the master bedroom.
“Will you help me build?” She asked him. She leaned down, hair falling in a curtain over them both, enclosing him around her, locked in together. One hand rested on his collarbone, a feather light touch.
Steve’s breath caught in his throat. He felt very vulnerable suddenly, and exposed, under her. He forgot what words are, how to talk.
“Please, great grand boy,” she said, and another hand slid and pressed down against his cock.
Steve exhaled sharply, mutely horrified to find he's hard, his cock throbbing and coming alive under her touch. He shuddered. Steve didn't know if it was with arousal or revulsion, or some languid, fluid mixture of both, all warring inside him. He didn't know if it mattered more to him that she was his ancestor, his great grandmother, or that she's dead--or if any of that mattered at all.
His hips bucked up into her hand, desperate and touch starved and horrifically aroused. His words were gone, his face flushed with heat, and he stupidly decided to kiss her instead.
She kissed him back, her mouth hard and devouring on him, like she had been waiting for him, tongue sliding in between his mouth. She made a sound like a growl and it startled him so much to hear coming from her and her slight form.
“You're beautiful,” he said, his voice soft and awed, when she pulled away. Her eyes softened as they gazed at him, and her hand stroked the lines of his cheekbones, the slope of his jaw. If he saw anything else when he looked at her--a skeleton, a corpse, something not alive and rotted-- it was only for a second.
Slowly she removed her nightgown--it slipped off her shoulders easily and then it was gone for good, off her body, the fabric just gone. Steve felt his entire brain screech to a halt at the image, freezing up at the sight of her--naked, dark pink nipples on pale skin, smooth curve of her breast. His eyes were drawn to the apex of her legs and the dark curls in between. Outside of print media, sneaked off playboys he'd gotten his hands on, Steve had never seen a woman naked and for a moment, he had no idea what to do.
She shouldn't look so solid. She shouldn't look like a woman. He knew this. He was almost afraid to touch her, worried she'll disappear in his hands, under his touch, or worse. Much worse.
An overwhelming sense of wrongness filled his belly, squirming ugly inside him, but he couldn't stop himself, couldn't pull away, still seized by a desire to please her and make her smile and make her happy, with him.
If Ellen sense his trepidation, she didn't say anything. Or she didn't care. She reached for him, grabbed his hand and dragged his fingers in between her legs, and she pulsed under him. Her cunt felt soft and warm and alive, which was perhaps the most shocking thing of all.
Ellen gasped when his fingers made contact, and maybe Steve did too, not sure anymore. Still holding on to him, she urged his fingers upwards, until his fingertips pressed against a soft, slick nub. She gasped, sighing softly, her face relaxed and open. Steve still had no idea what he was doing but he continued to do what she wanted him too, pressing down on where she guided him too, rubbing softly against her clit.
At some point, his pants came off, not all the way, but shuck down to mid thigh along with his boxers. He wasn't prepared, or expecting, for her to slide onto his cock, even though maybe he should have, maybe that's what she wanted this whole time. It suckerpunched him in the stomach, the feel of her, the sensation of her warm cunt, squeezing around his cock. Steve couldn't think at all, couldn't remember why he should have felt scared and ran off, instead of staying here.
“Oh god,” he moaned, not quite believing it, still wondering if this was another wet dream, another dream-nightmare combination. He waited for any moment, for her to turn into something dead rather than alive and soft and oh god oh god.
“Steve,” she moaned, her hands on his shoulders, moving herself on him.
His hands found her hips, but he didn't grip hard, just lingered there, delicately fluttering against her skin. He was helplessly twitching and rutting himself against her and he didn't feel like any great lover, but Ellen had her head thrown back, her long hair down past her shoulders, all wild dark curls. She held him down by the shoulders, and took her pleasure from him.
She brought his head up, holding him by the back of his head against her breasts and he knew just enough about sex to open his mouth to her, licking along the curve of her breasts, sucking a nipple into a mouth. The noise she made was low and throaty and completely delighted, and she tightened up around his cock in response, squeezing and bearing down on him.
Steve slipped a hand into her cunt, rubbing his fingers over her clit, thinking maybe that's what he should do, maybe that's what she wanted. She's so slick and wet. He didn't think it could be like this.
When Ellen came, Steve felt it shake through him, throughout the house--like a jolt of electricity, pumping throughout them all. He thought he screamed with her groan as it overwhelmed him, his orgasm painful as much as it was pleasurable, almost too much for him.
“Will you stay?” She asked him, after. Breathless, her chest rising up and down, even though she's dead. Covered in a sheen of sweat, even though she's dead.
Steve panted, out of breath. His come was all over her thighs, dripping down. He blinked but everything was still there. Real or real enough for them both.
“Please,” she went on. “You make me feel so much stronger.”
We’re family, she said, without saying it. He could feel that, in his head.
“This is your house too,” she said out loud.
“I don't think anyone can own Rose Red,” he replied.
When Steve left Rose Red, Rose Red went with him.
Years later, Rose Red wants to keep growing, and Steve allows Joyce Reardon to do her experiments in the house. He doesn't tell her it's not a dead cell. He doesn't tell her Ellen is waiting for her.
Rose Red is waiting for her, for them all.
He doesn't tell her he knows exactly how this experiment will end.
On the day of the start of Joyce’s experiment, Steve goes to check on the mansion and finds Bollinger in the health room. Somehow, he isn't surprised to see him. The wannabe journalist was sneering at him, despite the panic in his eyes. He can feel the house’s desire to swallow him whole. His skepticism only meant he had no defense against her, and he didn't have the benefit of Rimbauer blood to help him out.
“I suppose you're kicking me out,” Bollinger says. He swats a bee away from his face. His face is twisted in a disparaging glare.
Steve walks over to the other side of the solarium and picks up a shovel the house provided.
“You know, great grandmother wants you here,” he tells him, swinging it around in his hands. It was an old tool, rusted along the edges, but it would still work.
Bollinger scoffs. “Excuse me?”
“She wants us all,” Steve goes on, leaning in to smell a dead flower. “She wants this place to grow bigger. Stronger. Like it was in the old days.”
“Wanted,” Bollinger arrogantly corrects him.
Steve doesn't let it get to him. He doesn't really care. He smiles, small and sharp. “No. Wants.”
He brings the shovel down on Bollinger’s head, so fast, he doesn't see it coming. He should have, but it never occurred to him that Steve was going to hurt him, that a shocking act of violence would come from him.
“I promised I'd help her build,” he tells him. Bollinger’s eyes bug out, unseeing, as he twitches on the ground, blood disgracing the floor. Rose Red extends her vines and leaves, and slides him away, out of sight.
Behind him, Ellen slips her hand into his. She kisses his cheek and Steve lets out a soft sigh.
Bollinger isn't dead, and he won't die, not as long as he's here. No one ever really dies at Rose Red.
The house will keep growing.