Today's Reading

"Long, long ago, you came to Matilda Tillerman's," Mr. Usher continued, "she, the last surviving heir of all that Tillerman wealth—you came to her house to drink and to dance, to laugh and to talk, to be alive, together, in this glorious house. They all came here, were well met here, from every corner of this city, every nook and cranny. But something happened, nobody can say for sure what, and Matilda shut her doors. Shut out the entire world and made of her house a tomb." He sighed and laid a hand gently on one of the columns supporting the upper gallery. "And a beautiful tomb it is." Plaster flaked beneath his fingertips.

He tipped his head to the side. "Young man," he said, "I'm going to buy this house. I won't keep you in suspense any longer, so you can stop looking so frightened. But I would ask a favor. I make it a point of putting a serious question to a man whenever I meet him. Would you permit me?"

The agent, relieved to the point of tears that this showing was nearly over, would have permitted the buyer anything. "Yes," he said. "Of course."

"Marvelous." Mr. Usher dropped his furry hat to the floor. It sent up a puff of ancient dust. "I have lived for a good long while. Enough to have borne the world," he said. "And sometimes, the world is far too much for me. Too great. Too painful. Too lonely. I expect, if Ms. Tillerman will allow me to interpret her past actions, she may have felt the same. Is it selfish then, or self-preserving, to shut oneself away? At what point does one give up, so to speak, the ghost?"

The agent swallowed. He didn't know what to say. No one had ever asked him a question like that before. It made him almost as uncomfortable as the house. It was too personal. It was too—

He had, once or twice, imagined it. How it would feel to say, to his bank account and his car and his condo and his girlfriend and his job, Go away. Leave me alone. So he could rest, and listen, and think, and maybe have a chance, one last chance, to remember what he'd been meaning to do before all this life he was living got started.

"I'm not sure," he told Mr. Usher, "what to say."

"An honest response," Mr. Usher replied. "I appreciate that. I—"

A gust of frigid wind howled through the still-open door and lifted clouds of dust and spider webs from the walls and the floor. Delicate debris filled the air. The buyer coughed. Then the breeze caught the door and slammed it home with a crash.

The agent felt his entire body electrify. Mr. Usher jumped, and laughed.

Then: a second crash.

Smaller, closer, nearby in the house, off to the right. The agent's body twitched violently and he doubled over, hands on kneecaps. He couldn't stay here. This house was too much for him. He heard Mr. Usher walk across the great hall and pick something up off the floor and mutter to himself. Oh, you clever house, the agent thought he heard. What else are you hiding?

"Come on, dear boy," said Mr. Usher, suddenly at his side, helping him upright and clapping him gently on the back. "It's enough to frighten anyone, opening a tomb." He smiled, the curls of his mustache lifting almost to his eyes. "Makes one feel a bit like Lord Carnarvon."

The agent didn't know who that was.

"Best hope there's not a curse," said Mr. Usher, walking back down the steps toward the door and the light, "for disturbing her."

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