#1 - Flip
Two hosts of a house flipping programme discover bizarre letters addressed to old tenants in their troubled new property.
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“This week, Stevie and Marc are looking for a way to get Back to the Future. They’ve found a two-storey, three-bedroom relic that hasn’t seen an update since 1975 for only $660,600 in one of the most sought-after neighbourhoods in the city. Our team has their work cut out for them if they want to turn this blast from the past into a home fit for a family to call their own.”
Marc found the first letter wedged between two shelves inside a defunct pantry hidden behind the fridge. As if the cramped kitchen layout wasn’t enough of a hassle, Stevie figures the secret pantry was a product of a lack of oversight and planning from tenants that are probably long dead. No wonder the kitchen is so damn small: they built it inside another kitchen.
To call it a pantry would be disrespectful to pantries everywhere, Stevie thought. It’s half a closet that’s seen famine (understocked supplies) and fire (a very literal fire). The walls were still charred and the shelves were barely holding it together. When Marc yanked the letter between those shelves, they collapsed.
“You know it’s a federal crime to open other people’s mail, love?” Stevie says, making sure the camera crew caught her eyebrow raise.
“Not if it’s already been opened,” Marc retorts, “but don’t quote me on that.”
He makes a show of opening the envelope, delicately unfolding the seal, its paper a faded pink with blue ink scrawled onto the front.
“Oh, whoa,” Marc says after a glance at the letter, “Babe, check this out.”
The letter is addressed to “THE FAMILY HADLEY”. Stevie, English as ever, rolls her eyes at the bizarre choice of grammar.
As Stevie scans the page, the first thing she notices is the shoddy penmanship, as if the Zodiac Killer couldn’t decide which hand to write with. The ink is the same blue as the address, only runnier, smudged all over the place. The actual body of the letter is written at a slant, like a child needing a ruled sheet as a guide but ignoring the lines anyway. It’s the message that makes her eyes go wide.
It starts with: “TO THE FAMILY HADLEY OF HILLBORNE HOUSE”
Hillborne House was the name of this place before it was renovated for the first time in ‘75. According to their realtor, it used to be a manor in the ‘20s that burned down during the war. Which war, she couldn’t really say. She doesn’t remember asking. Only the first floor survived the blast, and they built the second during the big renovation as an afterthought. Perhaps, that’s why there’s a kitchen within a kitchen.
Marc decided to read the letter out loud for the cameras:
“March 9th, 1998
TO THE FAMILY HADLEY OF HILLBORNE HOUSE,
Welcome to Oakwood. We are The Order. Congratulations on your purchase of Hillborne House. You have selected a fine place to settle in. We, The Order, have been the Gardians of Hillborne House for many, many years. Rest assured, with our wachful eye, you are under our Protechsion.
We will be keeping a close EYE on YOU.
“Who says ‘watchful eye’ anymore, anyway?” Marc asks.
Stevie doesn’t think much of it, but from the way his voice shot up at that last question, she knew that Marc was on his way to a full-blown obsession.
Her husband has always had a fascination with the occult. Not that anything about this so-called “Order” is remotely occult, but Marc has always made it his mission to let the little weirds of life crawl their way into his mind, and, eventually, his heart.
It was what made their show work, after all. An eerie, almost supernatural sense of kismet lead them to each other. Someone at the network knew that putting a cold and wry Englishwoman with a spunky little American man together would be an odd couple sleeper hit. When they’d gotten married, it was only a matter of time before their producers handed them another pile of contracts to sign; this time for a house flipping gig of their own. No more one-and-done renovations, no more picking up where someone left off, and no more not knowing where their money is going or coming from.
So far, creepy letters are the least of Stevie’s worries. If her husband’s focus is divided, however, that opens up another can of worms, delays, and setbacks. It was bad enough that their shoot was already behind schedule, even before they started demolition. Crowds of protesters have been camped outside of Hillborne House since their first estate agent viewing. There were more during their location recce–as discreet as their crew tried to be, the Hollywood stink seemed to draw all sorts of weirdos to their soon-to-be build site, all claiming to protect Hillborne’s cultural heritage. As far as Stevie was concerned, this place came from a long line of design disasters. How’s that for heritage?
This neighbourhood was in dire need of revitalisation anyway, it was a miracle they managed to snag the house off the market in the first place! It’s areas like these that are going to turn the most profit for Stevie and Marc, more money to pour into their show, their projects, and maybe someday into a franchise. Their very own network of shows or whatever will be ‘in’ in ten years time.
As Stevie continues to whack grimy countertops into smithereens, her eyes can’t help but wander to Marc opening yet another letter. Where he found it, she doesn’t even want to know. He hides away from the camera to read it this time, like a child trying not to get caught reading in the dark after bedtime.
“Marc?” she calls out.
He doesn’t respond.
“Huh? What?” He pops his head up, “Sorry, what did you say, babe?”
He seems to have found another letter. She doesn’t bother to ask him where from.
“Are you going to help me with this or are you just going to read through some dead people’s mail?”
“Wait,” he says, “how did you know they were dead?”
Stevie sets her sledgehammer down. Unfortunately, this is piquing her interest. Before she could say another word, Marc was by her side, shoving a ratty, yellow piece of paper with The Order’s unmistakable handwriting:
“June 11th, 1998
THE FAMILY HADLEY,
We are OUTRAJED. We THE ORDER hereby decree your immediate REMOVAL, EXPULSION, and INVERSION from Hillborne House. As the Guardians of this Manor, we have find your behaviour REPULSIVE and UNBECOMING.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
“This doesn’t mean they’re dead, Marc,” Stevie said, dryly.
Marc isn’t convinced. He shoves the letter into his back pocket and walks away. Stevie doesn’t like seeing him so rattled, he usually takes all the freaky deeky stuff in these old houses in good fun. Sometimes, he even looks for ghosts, much to Stevie’s dismay. She watches Marc as he fidgets on the otherwise of the house, ripping out drywall she’s not even sure needs to come down.
As the sun starts to set on their demolition day, Stevie does her confessional alone. The producers couldn’t find Marc anywhere. Standing outside the house they were going to spend the next few weeks transforming, Stevie took a deep breath:
“I’m not really sure what’s up with Marc and those letters, but I know one thing for sure: if that ‘Order’ or whatever messes with this build, with my flip—there’ll be hell to pay.”
“And cut!” Hannah, their director, yells, “That’s a wrap for today, y’all, see ya tomorrow, bright and early!”
Stevie tries not to look at the weirdos picketing their build site, hurling whatever fresh insult they’ve managed to plagiarise off of some Twitter microtrend about her and Marc’s presence at Hillborne. A part of her is actually flattered that their work–her work on this house has got the public so riled up. At the very least, this small subset of the public. Infamy is still fame, shares a few of the same letters, even.
Speaking of letters, she hasn’t seen Marc since that last letter. She doesn’t even see him at home. They take separate cars to work, it’s just easier if they have to source a lot of things in the middle of the day. It’s also easier for Stevie if she needs time to herself. As she pulled into the driveway, Marc’s car was nowhere to be found.
She doesn’t see him until the following day, his car cool to the touch. Some of the builders said he was already there when they arrived, still chipping away at that drywall. Lucky for them, that wall needed to go anyway; the water damage gods had not been kind to this house, nor their crew. To take Marc’s mind off the repairs and those darned letters, Stevie hopes a little tile shopping will keep him preoccupied.
In the car, Marc doesn’t say a word. In fact, he hasn’t said a single thing to her since yesterday. She hates airing out their issues on camera, especially those ridiculous GoPros Hannah mounted inside her car, she’d much prefer to deal with things like this between themselves. It does, however, make for good television to air out all their dirty laundry in front of the entire nation and wherever their show streams online.
She tries to study his face in between glances at her mirrors and the road; his sharper features muddled, brows perpetually furrowed, and his eyes–his usually warm, brown eyes–affixed to his scuffed-up shoes against the dull floormats. Stevie can’t help but notice a slight quiver in his lips, a tremor to be. His left knee won’t stop bouncing, no matter how many featherlight touches or outright pokes she sends his way.
“You still thinking about those letters?” she tries to ask him casually.
“Huh?” he snaps out of his own thoughts, “Oh, uh, yeah. They’re a little weird. I found a lot more in the house.”
“Yeah?” Stevie entertains him, “Where’d you find them? What did they say?”
“Could we talk about something else?” Marc says, his voice a little shaky.
“Alright,” she doesn’t push him for more, at least not this time. She steers the conversation back to backsplashes and swatches all the way to the tile warehouse.
“Marc and Stevie are looking for the right set of tiles and countertops to turn that spooky Inception-kitchen into a multipurpose entertaining and cooking space fit for a family to make some memories in. Let’s see if they find what they need!”
To her surprise, Marc was camera-ready by the time they needed to start shooting; back to his old self—overexcited about ceramic and marble combinations. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he was just quiet. They paid for their new kitchen backsplash and countertops off-camera. This was always Stevie’s job. Part of her felt a little guilty for being a little angry. In such a short amount of time, she’s always gotten the busy end of the gig whilst her husband was essentially becoming an ornament for the camera crew to gawk at. The two of them were like a mullet—Stevie was business in the front, Marc was the party in the back.
The Marc of this week was no party at all. The enthusiasm he had for those letters had faltered as the build went on, flattened like all the bubbles leaving an open Coke can. She doesn’t prod him when they get home for the weekend, only watching from their bedroom door at a restless version of Marc, debating with himself on whether or not he should open a new envelope sitting on his lap.
She doesn’t bring the letters up again, especially not at the build site. Once they set foot inside Hillborne House, it was as if Showtime Marc was in the building, with Scared Marc simmering just under the surface of his eyes.
Sometimes she’d catch a glimpse, when he’s off in some corner on his lunch break, of Marc just pacing. Pacing with an undercurrent of muttering. There was a day when she caught him kicking in some freshly-set plaster, before proceeding to guiltily patch up the damage he made. Whenever she’d try to speak to him, Marc would brush her off. The only time he’s said as much as two words to her was when the cameras were on. Showtime Marc could talk to her, but the actual Marc couldn’t.
She considered bringing this up to Hannah, to ask her and the producers if they could take a short break, even if that meant pushing back their deadlines some more. Stevie didn’t mind coughing up a bit more cash just to give her and Marc a little room to breathe. Before Stevie could even get a word in, Hannah pulls her aside to propose a big set piece for Hillborne’s episode.
“I told Marc and he’s down, what do you say?” she asks.
Stevie hasn’t fully processed Hannah’s request, nor the fact that Marc has somehow agreed to it. Right off of the house’s driveway is a placard sitting in stone welcoming visitors to Hillborne. Hannah’s proposal involved razing the welcome placard to the ground with a pair of sledgehammers as a form of “couples therapy”, hoping to play well narratively in the edit with their audience. Stevie imagined the sign looked quite regal and a little intimidating when Hillborne House was still a proper manor house, and not in its current shape–akin to those houses from a seventies sitcom starring a chirpy family.
Maybe that’s what the Hadleys were like. Stevie can’t help but think about them sometimes. She tries her best to shove those thoughts to the back of her mind, but there are moments–especially like this one–where she wished she knew how the Hadleys felt about all the changes happening to their former home.
That was the only other time Stevie saw Marc within that week; taking a sledgehammer to a pile of rocks and a gold-plated sign whilst uneasy onlookers watched from behind a barricade.
“I think Stevie and I will be okay,” Marc says to the cameras, flashing his silver screen smile and hooking his arm around Stevie’s waist. She can feel him tense against her. “We can get through anything right, babe?”
Stevie only nods. As soon as they call cut, Marc runs off.
As the weeks went on, more letters were found, although not by Marc. And they weren’t opened either. Different crew members would stuff whichever letter they found in the mailbox outside. And they found them everywhere, from the floorboards to junk drawers left behind in a hurry, there’s at least one letter in there. All faded. All from The Order.
One day, curiosity got the better of Stevie. She snuck off after filming one of her talking heads and rummaged through the mailbox before anyone could see. Hearing footsteps behind her, she yanks a letter out and hides it behind her back. Just a couple of carpet guys coming through, not Marc, not the cameras. It was a close one.
Walking to her car and settling in, Stevie notices something odd about the letter she grabbed. For one, it wasn’t addressed to the Hadleys.
It was addressed to them. In big letters: MARC & STEVIE JARREAU.
The handwriting was still scrawly, but the ink was fresh. The paper, Stevie’s own crinkling notwithstanding, was relatively crisp and bleach white. The back of the envelope had a wax seal. The Order must have really stepped their game up, she thought to herself.
Careful not to rip the envelope, Stevie pulls out the letter. Instead of the blue or black The Order used in the letters Marc found, this letter was written in red:
8 APRIL 2022
MARCUS AND STEPHANIE ‘STEVIE’ JARREAU
YOU MUST LEAVE HILLBORNE IMMEDIATELY. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. YOU ARE DESTROYING SACRAL HISTORY. YOU HAVE THREE DAYS TO COMPLY OR WE WILL REMOVE YOU FROM THE PREMISES THROUGH INVERSION.
THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING.
Somebody must be fucking with them. For one, there were no mistakes. Stevie’s no expert, but something about the way the words were written still felt authentic. The same slant and awkward lettering as the original letters. It could just be some protestors messing with them. The episode hasn’t even aired yet, Stevie has no idea how this business with “The Order” would’ve gotten out. It’s also the 11th today, so since they haven’t “been removed from the premises”, it must be a sorry excuse for a prank. Just an oddly aggressive joke. That’s all this is. A joke.
‘Inversion’ stood out to her, though. She still has no clue what that’s supposed to mean. She didn’t make anything of it in the earlier letter, but seeing it in this one made her skin crawl.
Someone tapping on the glass made Stevie jump, the tip of her finger lightly grazing the edge of the letter as she dropped it. She hisses. Papercut.
“What are you doing in there?” Marc asks.
Stevie rolls her window down, “I was, erm, reading.”
“What were you reading?”
“We got a letter of our own.”
“From The Order.”
“You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Marc?”
“What?” He says, “What are you trying to say?”
Stevie doesn’t need to say another word.
“You think I’ve been writing us letters?” Marc continues, “That’s insane! Just drop it, okay?"
“I thought you’d love this sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Creepy letters in an old house.”
He goes quiet and storms off from the car, pacing again.
“They’re going to kill us, Steve,” he says, finally.
“No, they are fucking not.”
“Tell that to the Hadleys.”
“They’re not dead, they just moved away to God knows where,” Stevie says, “They may not even exist.”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Marc snaps.
She’s never heard his voice do that before. A staccato that’s both riveting and terrifying. Marc usually has a laid-back drawl to his voice, one born out of far too many years in Eve Babitz’s Los Angeles. Whoever just came out of his mouth wasn’t that. It was angry. It wasn’t Marc.
“What the fuck are you even talking about? Why have you gone all freaky on me? Why don’t I ever see you when we get home?” She asks him. She knows she shouldn’t have. She doesn’t like her own voice now. Shrill, like the couples they used to make fun of.
“Please,” he begs, “Can we not do this now?”
“Just be straight with me, hun.”
Marc looks out the window, eyes darting back and forth from the side view and the rearview mirror.
“It’s not safe.” He unlocks the car and gets out. As she watches him walk back into Hillborne House, she forgot her finger was still bleeding.
“With tensions rising between Stevie and Marc, the deadline to finish flipping Hillborne House approaches closer and closer. Will our power couple be able to pull it together?”
Stevie didn’t register the rubble at her feet until Marc let her go. She didn’t even notice she was on the floor until Marc pulled her up.
The rubble was what was left of the ceiling. The last thing Stevie remembers before shock took over was walking in to check on the master bedroom, another problem area in the house hemorrhaging their budget. Their plaster crew are seasoned veterans, wrapping up the ceiling job with very little muss or fuss. The odds of shoddy craftsmanship being the cause of the collapse are very slim. But Stevie still couldn’t even consider the alternative, she refused to believe it. Or rather, she couldn’t let herself believe it.
Once Stevie gathered her bearings, Marc was already gone. She searches the house only to find him pacing in the unruly back garden, reading and re-reading what she assumes to be a letter before crumpling it up and tossing it aside.
She retrieves it once she knows for sure Marc is nowhere in sight.
“Fucking ridiculous,” she says, straightening out the sheet and reading for herself.
This one was addressed to the Hadleys. Stevie’s eyes scan the letter over again as soon as she reaches the end. Over and over again to make sure she got it right: today wasn’t the first time Hillborne House caved in on itself.
According to the letter, now re-crumpled by Stevie’s doing, the matriarch of the Hadley family, Maria, died from a blow to the head when the ceiling came down on her in the exact same spot—
“What was that?” Marc asks, out of nowhere like an apparition,
“Nothing,” she says, “some light reading.”
He picks up the letter and shoves it in his pockets, clouds of sternness overtaking his already dark eyes.
“You should go,” he says.
“Excuse me?” Stevie replies, “You want me to abandon the show we’re shooting? The house we’re renovating? What a great idea, Marc!”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” He retorts.
“At least I’m giving you something,” Stevie bites back, storming out of the room.
As if they weren’t already burning through cash, production and the build stopped in their tracks as two more freshly-completed ceilings came crashing down on unsuspecting crew members. No one was seriously harmed, Stevie was repeatedly told by Hannah and people from the network, but they all thought it was best if everyone called it a day.
Stevie drives home alone again.
Watching Hillborne House disappear in her rearview mirror, an uneasy feeling swirls in the pit of her stomach. She’s not left anything behind, clearly, Marc needs to sort his own shit out, but something felt amiss as she gripped onto her steering wheel a little too tightly.
The car’s engine begins to sputter. Stevie slows to a halt, and as she brakes, smoke billows from underneath her chassis. She gets out and opens up the hood, not willing to pretend like she knows what the problem is enough to look around. It’s probably a bad idea to light a cigarette anywhere near her sorry excuse for a car so Stevie decides to walk back to Hillborne.
It’s a decent night for a walk. Not too cold, not too breezy.
Clinging to her cigarette, Stevie spots the top of Hillborne in the distance. The lights are on.
They shouldn’t be.
Electricity in the house was shut off to save money after they called it a day, Stevie thinks as she ramps up into a jog, and no actual light fixtures have been installed on the upper floor in the first place. Full speed ahead now, Stevie sprints for Hillborne’s front door, faceplanting onto the new hardwood of the foyer. No one should’ve left the house unlocked.
“Fuck,” she huffs. A metallic tang hits the roof of her mouth. Blood. Stevie carefully feels around the inside of her mouth, unable to yet distinguish if what she was feeling was blood or just saliva. She knocks her nail against a loose tooth and winces. These new floors really let her have it.
She hauls herself up the stairs, following the buzz of the lights she didn’t install. Her footsteps sound even louder, but that could be her head injury talking. Fucking hell, did this house always have this many steps?
Stevie feels around for the step in front of her and is met with jarring, cool air. There’s a hole where the floor should be. She steps over the hole carefully and turns into the bizarrely well-lit room.
“You have to go,” Marc’s voice startles her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” She asks, “What the fuck is going on?”
“Steve, just get out of the way!” he bellows, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her to one side. She was blocking a camera, its red record light piercing, invasive. She reaches for the camera and Marc lunges for her.
“Don’t you dare,” he says, “it has to stay on! People have to see this!”
“See what?” She asks. Marc lets her go and takes three steps back, slowly lowering his arms to the side. He’s deliberate with his movements, looking up at the warm, orange light above him. Stevie cranes her neck to look at it as well and discovers that it’s not a light they didn’t install—it’s an orb, suspended in the air.
“Marc, what’s going on?”
“Whatever happens,” he starts, “I want you to know that I love you, and I want you to move on.”
“Hon, you’re scaring me,” Stevie says.
Marc lets out a scream, a pained wail from the pit of his stomach. Stevie wanted to run to him, but she couldn’t will her body to move. She just watched. Watched as tears began to well and cascade down Marc’s cheeks as if each drop burned his skin.
When Stevie finally manages to reach him, stretching to touch his fingertips, they char hers, her prints reduced to blackened flesh. She only registers the pain for a second, as Marc’s fingers begin to stiffen against hers. His skin stretches of its own accord and splits at his nails. They peel backward but not off of his hand entirely, they fold back and tug at the rest of his skin, across the expanse of his forearm to expose every tendon, vein, and bone to the heavy air now setting inside Hillborne.
It wasn’t just his arms, either. Marc’s skin peeled and folded across his entire body, traveling inward towards his screaming, gaping mouth. His pupils rolled to the back of his head, no blood fell from his revealed innards, and his screaming persisted, even as the skin of his face tore itself free from him.
Marc’s body falls unceremoniously onto the floor, a loud thud rippling through the loose floorboards. Steam emanates from his back, now rolling hills of taut, unearthed muscle. Marc is quiet now, his movements limited to little spasms in his fingers and toes. Stevie approaches cautiously, but she can’t bring herself to touch him, the smell of burning flesh pushes her away. His body starts propping itself up agonizingly slow, gathering whatever is left of Marc’s strength to point right at Stevie. A chill runs down her spine.
“Beh.. buh.. b-b—”
“Don’t try to speak, honey, please—”
“Behind you,” Marc whispers, “behind you—”
A shrill screech floods Stevie’s ears, sending her tumbling forwards right next to Marc’s semi-corpse. Wind slams through every open crevasse in the house, tossing Stevie into the air and suspending her there.
“STEPHANIE JARREAU,” a voice booms through Hillborne, “BY DECREE OF THE ORDER, YOU HAVE HEREBY BEEN SENTENCED TO INVERSION FOR YOUR CRIMES.”
“What crimes?” Stevie chokes out, the air in her lungs compressing in on itself.
“FOR CRIMES AGAINST HILLBORNE HOUSE.”
“But we haven’t done anything wrong! We’ve just been–”
“YOU HAVE DONE ENOUGH.”
That screech returns, filling up Stevie’s skull and rattles around inside her head, building up excruciating pressure. She sinks like a lead balloon, her knees no longer able to hold her own weight. She can feel her blood boil, rising to the surface of her skin before pushing the skin away from her bones. Stevie can’t even scream, she can’t gather enough energy in her body. She’s being pulled in every direction, every part of herself then shoved down her own throat until she’s less than a shell, less than an animal skinned alive, but every single feeling inflicting her body compound against one another.
It wasn’t until the morning after next that their bodies were found. Hannah, for once, showed up earlier than both the camera crew and the build crew. She followed the smell of burnt flesh up the stairs and fainted from the sight of two ‘inverted’ corpses hunched over each other on the top floor of Hillborne House. When she came to, she screamed so loud even the neighbours gathered around.
The police arrived within the hour, for some reason it took them longer to believe there were real dead bodies at Hillborne House, not just some punk kids capitalising on a local legend. Protestors soon turned into mourners once word got out that the hosts of a popular home renovation show were killed inside their own project. The crew vacated not long after Stevie and Marc were removed. Everyone knew not to ask questions, Hillborne House’s reputation spoke for itself.
No one dared venture into the house from then on. No letters appeared inside the house. No realtor, contractor, or architect in their right mind went near the place. Certainly, no other home makeover show came anywhere close. Not when The Order had made their presence so painfully, unequivocally clear. Not since they flipped everything on its head.
“Join us next season where we remember some of Stevie and Marc’s best moments in a tribute to their time together, plus a brand new unstoppable duo takes on some of the market’s spookiest properties!”
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Thank you for reading! I hope you liked my freaky little tale. I started writing this a few months ago when I was in the hospital and all my mum and I watched was HGTV. Let me know what you think! If you like what you read, feel free to buy me a cuppa on Ko-fi <3