Realty Checkby Piers Anthony
Penn and Chandelle, an older couple, rent a house in the city at a bargain price and discover that its back door opens onto an endless forest. Now they know why others were scared off. That’s only the beginning of the oddities about this particular piece of realty. They decide to call in experts: their grandchildren, Lloyd and Llynn, who pitch in with a will, to… See more details below
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Penn and Chandelle, an older couple, rent a house in the city at a bargain price and discover that its back door opens onto an endless forest. Now they know why others were scared off. That’s only the beginning of the oddities about this particular piece of realty. They decide to call in experts: their grandchildren, Lloyd and Llynn, who pitch in with a will, to try to discover what and why. But it may be more of a challenge than they can handle.
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By Piers Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Piers Anthony
All rights reserved.
"Remember, the Realtor warned us the key card can be used only once," Chandelle reminded him. "Don't let that door close before we're inside." They had been married forty years, but she still felt compelled to remind him of details.
"Got it," Penn agreed. The door opened, and they stepped into the house.
It was beautiful. They stood in the living room, gazing at the carpeted floor, the picture window at the side, the couch, chairs, and the large television set. "It's really furnished!" she exclaimed, surprised.
Penn nodded. "The ad did say it was. But I assumed it would be token, or junky. This is all new."
"I hope we can afford it." She paused, then added: "Assuming we want it." But the truth was that she liked it already. It was in the right location and the neighborhood was good. Unless there was something drastically wrong with the house, it would do for their summer.
"The ad said one month's rent free," he reminded her. "If the second month turns out to be exorbitant, we can move out. I wonder why the other prospects turned it down? It couldn't have been the price, if they didn't even know it."
"Even if the price was too high, that free month should have made them stay that long," she agreed.
"And why wouldn't Ms. Dunbar come with us?" he asked rhetorically. "Realtors always show the houses. They want to clinch the sale."
"She said the proprietor left strict orders," Chandelle said. "Prospects have to look at it alone. Maybe the owner doesn't want any sales pressure."
"You know what? We're stalling. We're afraid something's wrong with it, so we're standing here telling each other what we already know, instead of checking out the house."
She nodded. "Yes we are. We had better go ahead and discover the reason this remains open, so at least we'll know."
They moved through the living room to the adjacent small dining room, and the kitchen beyond. Chandelle stood in the center and turned slowly around, while Penn opened the door to the garage and went in. "Hey, there are tools here—and bicycles," he exclaimed. "Mountain bikes. The prior renter didn't clean out all his stuff."
"There was no prior renter, dear," she said, reminding him again. "Nobody wanted to rent."
"Then the owner is storing stuff here," he muttered.
Was he? Chandelle checked under the gleaming kitchen sink. Sure enough, it was equipped with a quality garbage disposal unit. She pulled open a drawer. There was silverware in it, neatly sorted, of good quality. She opened a cupboard. There were assorted canned goods. She went to the freezer. It was well stocked with frozen foods. She recognized the brand names: all top quality, the kind she favored. All unused, with current "sell-by" dates. This could not be an accident. "The rent must be astronomical," she breathed. "If all this is part of the furnishings."
Penn came back into the kitchen, shaking his head. "Those tools have not been used. It's as if the owner set it up to please himself, then changed his mind. And those bikes—brand new, lightweight, in perfect working order. Not cheap equipment. He couldn't have forgotten those."
"The kitchen is completely stocked," she said. "Food included. Even a furnished house does not include that."
"With food?" He opened the refrigerator door. There was a jug of milk, a can of fruit juice, a head of lettuce, packages of cheese, and assorted other items. "We could make sandwiches right here. This has all the makings I like."
"Yes, there's a loaf of bread in the breadbox," she agreed. "Fresh today, and the kind we prefer. So we know it isn't accidental. The owner must really want to rent this house."
"Maybe when the others turned it down, he decided to make it more appealing. But it's a nice enough house regardless. Why would anybody turn it down, without even taking the free month?"
They kept coming back to that. She was as mystified as he. She went to the stairway to check the bedrooms, while he went out the back door.
She paused at the base of the stairway. There was a small picture, or plaque, on the wall there. On it was inscribed a simple circle. Did it have a purpose? She would have to call it to Penn's attention. She went on up the stairs.
She was hardly surprised to find the master bedroom set up, its bed neatly made, the top sheet turned in the manner of a hotel room setup. She checked the closets: sure enough, there were suits in one, dresses in the other. There was linen in the linen closet, and socks and underwear in drawers.
On an idle fancy, she took down a hanging dress and tried it on over her own. It fit her almost perfectly. She tied the sash and buttoned the blouse, then tugged the hem straight. She walked to the master bathroom and looked in its wall-sized mirror. Yes, were it not for the slight lumpiness occasioned by the clothing beneath, this would be a perfectly useful and attractive dress. Certainly as good as the rack items she normally bought.
She returned to the closet and looked below. There were shoes: men's under the suits, ladies' under the dresses. Could they possibly fit? They looked as if they might. Yet shoe sizing was a personal thing; every foot was different. A perfect fit was unlikely to be by chance.
This was getting scary. Coincidence could hardly account for it. Someone wanted the two of them here. She was beginning to appreciate why the other prospects had been scared away. This was too much like the spider inviting the fly into its parlor.
Then she became aware of a noise. It was a measured beating or pounding, as in someone banging against a wall.
Suddenly she was frightened. Penn! Where was he?
She ran down the stairs to the kitchen. The sound was coming from the back door. She hurried to open it.
There stood Penn, looking abashed. "Honey, come out here a moment," he said. "But prop open that door."
"Whatever for? We don't want to let the bugs in. And why didn't you just come back in yourself? Did the door lock?"
"Not exactly. Just come out."
She hauled a kitchen chair across and propped the door open. Then she stepped outside. And stood amazed.
She faced what looked like an endless forest. Large old trees were everywhere, extending as far as she could see. "But this is in the middle of the city," she protested somewhat inanely. "The back yard can't be this big!"
"Now turn around," he said tightly.
Obediently, she turned. And gasped. The house was gone. There was only a boulder there—with the propped-open door in it. Beyond it she could see the forest, extending endlessly, in all directions.
"I walked all the way around that rock," Penn said. "There's nothing but forest here."
"But—but it's a two story house. It can't possibly fit inside that stone. And the city—where's the city?"
"Now we know why the other prospects turned it down," he said. "I'm just glad I had the wit to pound on that rock."
"I'm glad too," she said weakly. "Penn, there is something very strange here."
He made a droll face. "You're telling me?"
"Upstairs, the bed's made. There is linen, and clothing. In fact–" She paused, realizing that she was still wearing the dress she had been trying on. "There is clothing. I tried on a dress."
"And it fits," he said, recognizing the unfamiliarity of the outfit.
"Maybe we should go in and try on the shoes," she said.
"Maybe we should." For he knew as well as she did that shoes were highly individual.
They entered the boulder, which was the house, inside. Penn paused to poke his head back out, while holding one hand up inside, verifying that the house was larger inside than out. "I can see out," he reported, "but not in. There's no window on the outside." He wiggled his fingers inside. Then he reversed, looking out the door window while wiggling his fingers outside. They showed clearly. He shook his head, bemused.
Chandelle knew Penn would never rest until he fathomed that mystery, as well as that of the forest itself. But right now he was working on her mystery, and in a moment he moved clear, removed the chair, and carefully closed the door.
They went upstairs to the bedroom. Then she took a pair of lady shoes, and he took a pair of man shoes, and they sat beside each other on the bed and tried them on.
They fit. Chandelle didn't know whether to feel satisfied or alarmed. "How can this be?"
"It is possible," Penn said. "Maybe we were targeted. Maybe they wanted healthy uncommitted retirees in their sixties. We made an appointment to come today. These days nothing is truly private. They could have known our sizes. Is that alarming?"
"Is it?" She wanted the reassurance of his logic.
He nodded. "Yes, I think it is. I would rather be anonymous, until I know what's going on. It is evident that I'm not. Have we plumbed the depth of the strangeness of this site, or is there more we need to know?"
"If it's a spider luring a fly, would it show the fly the strangeness?"
Penn put the shoes carefully back in their places. "This seems entirely too elaborate for anything inimical. Why didn't the spider simply grab the other prospects before they could leave?"
"Because the Realtor would know, and stop showing the house." Still, she was allowing herself to be reassured.
"I think it's selective, but not inimical," he said. "The proprietor is looking for folk who find a house like this appealing." He glanced at her. "Do we find it appealing?"
She considered. "The layout is nice. The facilities are nice. The location is ideal. Yes, it is appealing. But it scares me."
"Maybe it's supposed to."
Penn spread his hands in the way he had, to indicate the shaping of a concept. "Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the proprietor wants a certain type of occupant. One canny enough to recognize the oddity of the site, and nervy enough to use it. So stupid or timid applicants need not apply."
"Then he wants you and not me," Chandelle said with a forced shudder.
"I don't think so. There's the house and the yard. That forest scares me, because I know it's impossible, but fascinates me for the same reason. Just as you caught on to the targeting of the food and clothing, which frighten yet intrigue you. He wants you too."
"But the house is ordinary. Scary only because of all the things it provides that Scrooge never offers. It's that forest that's impossible."
Penn reconsidered. "Well, maybe it wants folk who feel challenged by the impossible. But I won't stay without you. So the house has to make things nice for you, too."
Now Chandelle reconsidered. "Suppose the house is just as strange as the yard? Only we haven't seen the impossible aspect yet?"
"Then we'd better find out. We don't want to make a mistake either way."
They went downstairs and poked around more thoroughly. There was a den with a computer, so Penn turned it on. Chandelle watched over his shoulder. She had never quite gotten the hang of computers. In a moment the screen lighted, with a printed message. PLEASE SELECT DESIRED OPTION. Below was a list of programs, some of which she recognized. "This is pretty fancy," Penn said. "It seems to have a choice of about six operating systems, and it's very fast." He chose one, and it took over the screen.
She didn't inquire how he knew its speed. "Can it do letters?"
"Oh, yes. And it can surf the Internet. And more. This is too big for us; we need a teenager."
"Well, we will have one to entertain. Would this hold Llynn?" For Llynn was their elder granddaughter. They had come to this city in order to be near enough to take her off her family's hands for a while, because she was a handful at fifteen.
"It might, for a while. But I think she's more of a video freak."
"Next stop," she said, smiling. He shut down the computer. They went to the living room, where she turned on the TV set. It came on to a local station. She found the remote control and flicked through the channels. They were endless, and all were quite clear. This must be on a superior cable or satellite service. Some were even foreign language. "Couch potatoes and wild teens will love this," she said, turning it off.
Now she noticed that there were book shelves lining the walls. She went to look at the books, and saw that a number of her favorite titles were there. She saw a sound system, with a small library of compact disc albums. Some of her favorite music was there. There were pictures around the room. All of them appealed to her taste. "This proprietor is good," she murmured. "He has done his homework." But this, too, sent a quiet chill through her. Why should anyone study them so carefully, and offer such a phenomenal house, free?
Penn examined the window. It showed a scene of a weird alien landscape. "This is odd," he murmured.
As if they hadn't encountered oddity enough already! She joined him. "It must be a painting behind glass. A true window would look out on the dull wall of the adjacent building. And no window on Earth would look out on a scene like that."
"But this one does. Try moving back and forth, and you'll see the perspective shift."
"They have three dimensional pictures now, holographs, that show perspective."
"I don't think this is a holograph." He went and rummaged in the garage. He returned in a moment with a long flashlight. He shone it through the window. The light passed through the glass and splashed across the sill, touching the dark earth beyond. A spaghetti shaped plant turned several strands to catch the light better.
"Point made," she said. "That thing is alive and aware."
"And it doesn't grow on this world, I think."
She felt a chill. "I agree. I think the window is sealed because the air out there isn't breathable. Not by us."
"Not by us," he agreed. "It must be a special animation, but a sophisticated one." He gazed at it a moment more, then glanced down. "What's this?" He indicated a panel beside the window.
"Air conditioning control?" But it didn't look like it. It had numbers 1 through 0, and a bar. A tiny screen showed the number 14.
He touched the key labeled #1. Nothing happened. Then he touched the ACTIVATE bar below. The number changed to 1. The window scene changed. Now it was a dark sky filled with stars. In the foreground was a great moon. It wasn't Earth's moon.
They stood and gazed out, awed by the depth and power of the scene. "I don't recognize those constellations," Penn said.
"That moon is moving against the stellar background," Chandelle pointed out. "This is either a remarkable animation, or another actual scene."
"Maybe it's more cable TV. But then, how to explain that plant we just saw react?"
"Try another setting."
He touched #2, and the bar. A seascape appeared, with the waves surging across the rocks in the foreground. One large wave came, and its spume spattered against the window and slid down.
"This is something I shall want to explore farther," Penn said. He touched #1 and #4, and the bar, returning the scene to the original setting.
"Should we try the other panels?" she asked.
"The one beside the back door. And the front door."
"I hadn't noticed." He walked to the back, and she followed. There was the panel she had seen. It was set at #6.
Penn touched #7 and the bar. The forest changed. It had been large oak trees; now it was large pines.
"I've just got to check that," he said.
"I will guard the door. Don't go out of sight."
He opened the door and stepped out. She watched him go to the nearest pine tree. He reached out and touched it. But she already knew it was real, for the faint pleasant scent of pine sap and rotting needles wafted in. This was the confirmation that the scene really had changed. It wasn't just an illusion.
She saw Penn try to rip off a piece of bark, but it resisted his effort. So he bent to pick up some fallen needles, and came up with nothing. Why was that? He found a low twig and tried to pull some live needles from it, but couldn't. He turned and walked back to the house, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"I can't budge anything," he said as he entered. "I can see it, feel it, smell it, but not affect it. I almost thought that pine bough was swaying slightly in the wind, but I couldn't move it at all. Not half an iota."
"I saw. It's as if you aren't really there."
He laughed. "It's there, for sure! But I'm not. I'm a ghost." He turned to the panel, and moved it to #8.
This time the forest seemed to be formed of giant ferns, each the size of a tree. He shook his head and touched #9. The landscape became barren rock, with an ugly mountain in the background. #10 brought a scene that looked like molten lava.
"Turn it back!" Chandelle said, alarmed.
He hastily touched #4 and hit the bar. That was a modern city scene.
"You got the wrong number," Chandelle said nervously. But now she wasn't quite sure which was the right one.
He tried #5. That was an ugly plain of brush and tree stumps. He touched #6, and the oak trees returned.
They stared at each other. "This is really strange," Penn said.
Chandelle didn't care to advertise how foolishly alarmed she had been when they almost lost the original setting. "We had better try the front door knob," she said tightly.
He tilted his head. "Are you sure you're up to it, dear?"
Excerpted from Realty Check by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 1999 Piers Anthony. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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