By Jill Hand
Danae left for work one morning only to return to find that her house was gone, fallen into a sinkhole. She stood on the sidewalk amid a gaggle of curious onlookers, staring at the place where her house used to be. There was nothing there now but a ragged hole in the ground cordoned off by wooden barricades strung with yellow police tape. All my stuff was in there, she thought dazedly.
Not quite all. Danae’s cat, a black Persian named Evil George, was at the vet’s. He’d swallowed the squeaker from one of his toys and had to be operated on to have it removed. The surgery put him in an even fouler mood than usual. Danae had to pay the vet seven hundred and fifty dollars that she could ill-afford. Evil George thanked her for saving his life by biting her savagely on the arm.
Danae’s friend Alice said she could stay with her, but she made it clear that it was only temporary. Her apartment was a studio so Danae had to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor next to Alice’s futon. It was hard to get comfortable and she woke up every morning with an aching back. Then there was the problem of Evil George. Alice’s dachshund was terrified of him to the point that he’d taken to hiding behind the TV stand and refusing to come out.
Danea often wondered why she put up with Evil George. It was probably because no one else wanted him.
She looked at twelve houses before finding the cottage on a cul-de-sac at the end of Greenwood Lane. It had once been occupied by the head gardener on an estate belonging to a man named Amos Gildersleeve who derived his fortune from the manufacture of buttons and zippers. The main house had been torn down in the nineteen-sixties. By the time Danae looked at the cottage, it was the only structure left standing in a field where grass grew knee-high.
“Two acres of land comes with it, including part of the wooded area over there,” the realtor said, pointing to where the tall grass gave way to trees.
The cottage’s kitchen had last been updated around the time Sputnik was launched, judging by the look of the scarred knotty pine cabinets and the green linoleum on the floor. A path had been worn between the stove and the sink, giving coy glimpses of the stained and moldy plywood subflooring. The bathroom was even more depressing. It had tiles the color of calamine lotion and was so small that someone sitting on the toilet could easily rest their feet in the rusted pink tub. It was not the kind of place that Danae had envisioned as her new home, but the price was right and she’d have plenty of privacy. The adjoining land had been deeded over to the state as public open space and would never be developed.
Danae pictured herself waking up to the sound of birds chirping, unlike at her old house, where she frequently awoke to the sound of the neighbors screaming at each other, followed by slamming car doors and revving engines as they each sped off, shouting that they were done this time and were never coming back. They always returned, however, and the screaming and the slamming and the revving would be repeated all over again. Danae bought the cottage and moved in with a few pieces of furniture that she found at a garage sale, and of course, Evil George.
One spring evening, as she was carrying groceries in from her car, Evil George escaped. She was holding the back door open with her hip while fumbling for the kitchen light switch when he darted past her and made for the woods at a determined trot.
“George! Come back!” she shouted.
He ignored her. At the edge of the woods, his bushy black tail disappeared beneath a tangle of forsythia bushes. “Damn! Now I have to go get him,” Danae muttered. Evil George was an indoor cat. He had no sense of direction. Having gone into the woods, he might never find his way out again.
Danae got a bag of cat treats and George’s cat carrier. She went into the trees, shaking the bag so that the treats rattled temptingly. “Yummy treats! Come on, George! Come get the yummy treats,” she called.
To her surprise, from quite close by, a man’s voice spoke, “Oh, look, Mister Thornapple! A kitty!”
“Don’t frighten it, Mister Bramble,” a second voice cautioned. “Approach it gently. Come here, dear little puss. Don’t be afraid. We mean you no harm, we…ahhh!” The voice broke off in a shrill scream.
Evil George had struck again. Danae stepped into a clearing to see him clawing furiously at the legs of a man who was making ineffectual shooing gestures at the enraged feline. Danae wasn’t surprised to find Evil George attacking someone. It was what he liked to do. What surprised her was the man’s appearance. He was dressed in lime-green knee breeches and an emerald-green jacket trimmed with lace. His white silk hose were torn and his powdered wig was askew. His long, narrow face was powdered and rouged and he wore a diamond-shaped beauty patch on one cheek. “Do something, Mister Bramble!” he implored his companion, who was similarly powdered and bewigged, and wore garnet-colored knee-breeches and a lavender velvet jacket.
“I’d rather not. I fear it would spoil my hose,” the other replied apologetically.
Danae grabbed George and clapped him into his carrier. He glared out through the wire grill in front and hissed menacingly. “I’m sorry,” she told the men.
The one called Bramble airily waved a lace handkerchief. “La! No need to apologize.”
“Speak for yourself,” grumbled the one called Thornapple. “Look what it did to my hose.”
“Don’t you carry a spare pair? I always do.”
“Then let me have it,” Thornapple commanded.
Bramble fished in his pocket and came up with a neatly folded pair of white silk hose and a little filigreed silver bottle, which he passed to Thornapple. “Here,” he said. “Try this scent; it’s very refreshing.”
Thornapple dabbed some on his wrist and gave a sniff. “La! Divine!” he exclaimed.
Danae studied them in confusion. They were dressed like eighteenth-century fops. What was going on?
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
Thornapple and Bramble exchanged glances.
“We’re going hunting,” Thornapple said.
Bramble said, “We’re hiking.”
Neither one seemed likely. They weren’t carrying guns and they were clearly not dressed for the woods. “Why are you dressed that way?” Danae asked.
“What way?” asked Bramble. “Give me back my scent bottle,” he demanded crossly of Thornapple.
“Like fops,” Danae said.
“Fops, is it? Macaronis? Popinjays? Those are nice words, madam,” said Thornapple indignantly, his hands in fists on his hips. “For your information, we’re dressed this way because we’re men of fashion. Are we not, Mister Bramble?”
“No,” said Bramble. “We’re dressed like this because we’re going to a costume party.”
Thornapple shot him a look of gratitude. “Of course, that’s it; we’re going to a costume party.” He seated himself on a rock and began taking off his ruined hose. His legs were thin and stork-like. Bramble, who was studying Danae through a pearl-handled lorgnette, was built along sturdier lines. “What are you doing here?” Thornapple asked her, busily adjusting his hose. “I suppose you work for old Gildersleeve. How is he, by the way?”
“He’s dead,” Danae said.
Thornapple looked up at her keenly. “Dead, you say? Really? Was he murdered?”
“Did you murder him?” Bramble asked, regarding her through his lorgnette.
“Of course not,” Danae said. “He died a long time ago. I bought the cottage where the gardener used to live.”
Thornapple nodded thoughtfully. “I see. So who owns these woods?”
Danae said she did, at which point Thornapple and Bramble exchanged a significant look in which an unspoken understanding seemed to pass between them.
Thornapple finished putting on his hose. He slipped on his highly polished dancing pumps, stood up and adjusted his wig. “All right, then,” he said briskly. “As owner of these woods, you’re entitled to ask something of us in exchange for our passing through your property on our way to the party.”
“The Countess of Oakgall’s party,” Bramble cut in, as if that should mean something to her, which it didn’t. “Lady Belinda, the Countess of Oakgall, is a superb hostess,” he continued enthusiastically “Her parties are legendary. The music, the flower arrangements, the distinguished company, the food and the wine are all perfection.” He kissed his bunched fingertips to demonstrate the perfection of Lady Belinda’s parties.
“There are mock sea-battles on the ornamental lake and the most stupendous fireworks you could possibly imagine,” Thornapple enthused. “To see Lady Belinda presiding graciously over the festivities one would never suspect that she comes from humble beginnings.” He leaned closer to Danae and whispered, “Her father was a rat-catcher, you know, and her mother did pirates’ laundry.”
“That’s not true,” Bramble snapped. “I have it on good authority that her father was a poacher and her mother was a wicked murderess who was hanged for poisoning four people, including the Bishop of Uttoxeter.”
Thornapple raised a languid eyebrow, seemingly unimpressed. “Whatever the case, the party is about to begin and we would like to be there before the ladies’ dance cards are filled,” he said.
“And while there’s still a good selection of canapés, especially the little yellow ones with candied violets on top,” added Bramble. “So what will it be? Do you want us to give you a glorious singing voice or naturally curly hair or what? Just name it and it’s yours.”
These guys are nuts, Danae thought. Aloud, she said, “I don’t want anything.” It was beginning to get dark and her arm was starting to ache from holding George in his cat carrier. Thornapple and Bramble seemed harmless enough. She’d leave them to play out whatever fantasy they’d dreamed up and then return to wherever they came from.
“Nonsense,” said Thornapple. “It’s part of the deal. Didn’t Gildersleeve explain it to you?”
Danae shook her head. It was no use pointing out that Amos Gildersleeve had been dead since long before she was born. She set the cat carrier down and folded her arms. “Explain what?” she asked.
Their explanation was perfectly absurd. It seemed they’d come through a portal into the woods behind Danae’s cottage while taking a shortcut to Lady Belinda’s party. Danae decided to humor them.
“What I’d really like is to have my house fixed up,” she said.
“Is that all? That will be easy,” said Bramble. He and Thornapple looked in the direction of the cottage, just visible through the trees in the gathering dusk. They made a series of passes with their hands, spoke what sounded like a string of nonsense syllables, then turned to Danae with broad smiles.
“Done!” said Thornapple triumphantly.
“Let’s go look! I want to see her expression when she sees what we did,” Bramble said, rubbing his hands together excitedly.
“Oh, yes! The reveal is the best part!” agreed Thornapple.
They set off for the cottage, with Danae following, lugging Evil George in his carrier. The cottage looked the same as it always did. She hadn’t expected anything different. She decided to humor them by pretending to be amazed by its dazzling transformation. Opening the back door, she said heartily, “Wow! Thanks, you guys!”
Then she took a good look inside and her mouth fell open in shock. Instead of the worn linoleum floor of her little kitchen, there were now what appeared to be acres of gleaming parquet. Glittering crystal chandeliers hung from a vaulted ceiling high overhead. The walls stretched into the distance, covered with enormous mirrors.
As if from far away, she heard Bramble saying to Thornapple, “Look how surprised she is! It turned out well, don’t you think?”
“Indeed,” replied Thornapple cheerfully. “I always liked Versailles.”
Danae stepped backwards onto the porch, her knees shaking. The exterior of the cottage was unchanged. Just to make sure, she walked completely around it. From the outside, it looked the same as always. There was no way that palatial room could be inside it. She stepped back into what used to be her kitchen. She recognized it now; it was the Hall of Mirrors from Versailles.
“What did you do?”
“We fixed up your house, as you requested. You’re welcome, by the way,” said Thornapple.
“You put the palace of Versailles inside my house? How could you do that?” The house was tiny. It was impossible that Versailles could be in there.
“Relax,” Bramble said cheerfully. “It’s not the real Versailles. That would be unfair to the people of France. It’s an exact copy. It’s quite good, don’t you agree? Just wait until you see the ballroom!”
Danae thought it had to be some kind of trick, although she couldn’t figure out how they’d managed it.
“How did you do it?” she asked.
“A simple manipulation of matter, using a technique that you wouldn’t understand,” said Bramble. “And now we must be off.”
“Wait!” Danae cried. “Put it back the way it was.”
Bramble and Thornapple looked at her in consternation. Thornapple asked, “Why? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s too big. I can’t live in there all by myself, and I can’t possibly clean all those rooms,” Danae said, feeling desperate.
“Well, invite people to come and live with you, and get some servants to clean everything. My goodness, you’re not very good at problem-solving, are you? Most people would jump at the chance to live in a house like this. And now we really must go,” Thornapple said. Danae sat down on the porch steps and put her head in her hands.
“Hold on,” said Bramble. “We can’t leave until she’s satisfied. It’s in the contract.” He withdrew a vellum scroll from the breast pocket of his jacket. Unrolling it, he scanned it rapidly before stabbing at it with a forefinger. “Here, see! Paragraph twenty-eight, section nine: ‘In the event that the party of the second part is displeased with the results, he or she is entitled to demand of the party of the first part an alteration or exchange.’ That means if she doesn’t like it, we have to fix it.”
Thornapple frowned. “Very well, although I can’t understand why she’s not ecstatic with what we’ve done. Ah, well! De gustibus non est disputandum.” He told Danae to explain exactly what she wanted done to the house. She said she wanted it put back the way it was, with a few changes.
“I’d like a new kitchen floor made of Mexican tile, a dishwasher and a garbage disposal and marble countertops and some solid oak cabinets, the kind with glass fronts, and off-white subway tile in the bathroom, and a pedestal sink….” The list went on and on. More closet space! And make the bedroom closet cedar-lined! It took Danae almost five minutes to explain everything she wanted done, at which point Thornapple and Bramble were tapping their feet impatiently.
“Is that all? Are you sure you don’t want solid gold doorknobs?” Bramble asked sarcastically. No, Danae replied. Just the things she specified. Thornapple and Bramble again made passes with their hands and repeated a string of mysterious words.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you,” Danae said, surveying the results. The cottage now looked exactly the way she’d envisioned it if she’d had the money to fix it up.
"You certainly are hard to please,” observed Bramble. “Not like old Gildersleeve. All he wanted was a superior zipper design, one that would make him rich. Good-bye. It was nice meeting you. I don’t suppose we’ll meet again. We don’t come out this way very often.” He and Thornapple turned to go.
“Wait!” said Danae. “You could have made me rich?”
“Yes, but you didn’t ask for that. Adieu!” said Bramble, waving his lace handkerchief. He and Thornapple set off for the woods as Danae stood there, stunned. She could have been rich! Why hadn’t she asked for wealth instead of home improvements? Now that she thought of it, why hadn’t she asked to be a movie star? Now that Thornapple and Bramble were gone, she could think of many things she should have asked for. Fame! Fortune! Beauty! Genius! Why hadn’t she chosen more wisely?
“Because you didn’t think they were for real,” said her friend Alice, when Danae invited her to come and see her new and improved home. Alice had been there the week before. She knew there was no way the transformation could have been accomplished so quickly, even if Danae had enough money to pay a crew of carpenters, plasterers, and plumbers to work around the clock, which she didn’t. They sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and admiring the marble countertops, the new appliances and the Mexican tile floor.
“Do you believe me that two guys came through some kind of portal and did all this?” Danae asked her.
“Sure. Why not? Maybe the portal was some kind of wormhole to another dimension or something. The main thing is they fixed your house the way you wanted,” Alice said.
Danae said she wished she’d asked for something better.
“Like what? Whatever you asked for, it wouldn’t have been enough. You’d be satisfied for a while but then you’d think of something you wanted more. Be grateful that you got all this,” said the practical Alice.
“I guess so,” Danae said. “More coffee?”
"Okay,” said Alice. “They really put Versailles in here? I wish I could have seen it. It must have been like the T.A.R.D.I.S.: you know, bigger on the inside.”
Unlike Alice, Danae wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who. Science fiction seemed kind of silly to her: all those space aliens who somehow spoke perfect English, and yet she’d been visited by two extraordinary gentlemen who could casually manipulate matter. Maybe there really were other worlds. Something certainly had happened to transform her house. She poured her friend more coffee and decided not to worry about it.
Jill Hand's work has appeared in several anthologies, including Urban Temples of Cthulhu. Her work has appeared recently in Bewildering Stories, Jersey Devil Press, The Literary Hatchet, Nebula Rift, New Realm, Silver Blade Magazine and The Sirens Call, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @jillhand1_gef.