A/N: Just a note for new and old readers alike, this story will be undergoing a bit of editing and revision (again), as I've been away from fanfiction for quite a while due to health issues and lost my final few chapters for Cursed, and the best way for me to rewrite them and finish the story once and for all is to go through what I've already written and fix it up for the best conclusion possible. It's been a while, I know, but I want to get back into writing fanfic again and I will finish this, even if nobody ends up reading it through to the end, though I hope you will! And while the story may start out slow here, it begins to pick up a lot more after this introductory first chapter, so please bear with me. I apologize for the interruption and my ineptitude at updating stories in a timely fashion.
Chapter 1: Strange Advice
"And we're here!"
The mustachioed little man threw out his arms enthusiastically, nearly toppling the large, bright red top hat off his own head in the process. As he lifted his arms to steady the absurd headwear, Claire peered over his shoulder expectantly (which wasn't difficult, taking the man's short stature into consideration), then looked back at the short newspaper clipping clutched in her left hand.
'Would you like to enjoy a peaceful and refreshing farm life?' she read for what seemed the hundredth time. 'Then consider purchasing Sunshine Farm in Mineral Town! For more info, contact this number:," followed by a series of numbers and the address of a certain Mayor Thomas's house in the aforementioned Mineral Town where Claire now found herself.
The young woman glanced up again at the spacious acres of land before her, cluttered with boulders and rotting logs, overgrown with weeds. A tiny, rundown cottage stood at the edge of the field nearest them, along with matching barn and stable. Further away, at the other end of the field, stood an equally worn out henhouse.
Not quite what she would describe as 'peaceful and refreshing.'
When Claire had first discovered the ad for Sunshine Farm in the newspaper back home, her impulses had brought her to call the listed phone number immediately, and she soon imagined herself lying in a meadow of wildflowers, the gentle sound of a stream trickling nearby and a soft breeze rustling through her golden hair. Green grass tickling her bare toes, and fluffy sheep and chickens wandering the fields, dotting the verdant pasture like small white clouds. Row upon row of corn stalks, cucumbers and tomatoes and turnips and Goddess knows what else.
It was the life she had always dreamed of. A chance to escape the city she so disliked and finally run a farm on her own, a chance to make her dreams a reality at long last.
But this? This just looked like a hell of a lot of work.
"So…" Mayor Thomas inquired cautiously, "What do you think?"
He had put the ad in the paper himself, knowing full well that any potential buyer would find it deceiving to call this farm anything but shabby, at the very least. But how else was he to get this useless hunk of land off his hands? Thomas chuckled at his own daring. It was the perfect plan, really, even if he did have to stretch the true just a bit.
"Well… it's not really what I had in mind…" Claire acknowledged with the hint of a sigh, "But I guess it will have to do."
Not that she had much of a choice, considering that, in a flurry of excitement, she had already foolishly sold her own modest, one-bedroom apartment back in the city.
"Ah… really? Good, good!"
Thomas chuckled again. He hadn't counted on this young lady to give in so easily, and had been expecting some more... reluctance on her part. He was prepared for that, but this just made it so much easier for him.
"Well then, that will be… 60,000G, yes? I'll give you a discount, what with the farm being in such bad condition and all. Oh yes, it's going to take a lot of work to fix this place up, but don't worry yourself, all right? A little hard work never hurt anyone, eh?"
He chuckled once more, and Claire found herself becoming increasingly annoyed with this little man and his silly mustache. However, seeing as she had nowhere else to go, she decided she might as well admit defeat. Besides, she could make this work – a sizeable farm in a lovely countryside small town had to be better than where she had come from.
Claire handed Mayor Thomas the money she had prepared just for this occasion, and was turning back to further survey her new home when he called out, "Welcome to Mineral Town, Claire! I do hope you enjoy it here, by all means! We really are quite a lovely community, as you will soon see!"
But...," his expression grew somewhat more somber, or perhaps it was just a trick of the light, "Please bear in mind- be careful in the dark. Don't want you to get hurt now, do we? In fact, it might be best to avoid going out at night at all. Just... a precautionary measure."
Before Claire could open her mouth to respond or even fully process what had been said, the mayor scurried away with a "Well, goodbye then, and I'll see you around town!", leaving the girl alone in her field and unable to voice her growing concerns.
Lugging her overstuffed suitcases to the cottage (her new cottage), Claire froze at the front door, deep in thought. Be careful in the dark? What is that supposed to mean? Kind of an odd thing to tell someone, especially when they just moved in...
Claire snorted, pushing the uneasy thoughts to the back of her mind. It's not like I'm twelve years old or anything. I can take care of myself, and I don't need some nutcase old mayor's advice. She took a deep breath, bracing herself for the worst, and turned the doorknob. The door stuck a bit at first, but she gave it a good hard push and it swung open rather easily.
To her surprise, the cottage's interior wasn't nearly as bad as she had feared. A bit dusty, if anything. The house had one large rectangular room, with a door leading off on each side, presumably toward a bathroom and a closet. There was a small kitchenette and refrigerator in the back left corner of the room, and a bed and bedside table in the back right corner.
An already well-stocked bookshelf, floor-length mirror, and television set lined the walls, as well as an old grandfather clock and large wooden chest. In the center of the room stood a simple round table with two chairs. All in all, it was about the same size as her apartment in the city, though with distinctly more rustic furnishings and a much more preferable location, in her opinion.
At least there's actual grass outside, Claire thought, if only to make herself feel a bit more confident in her recent investment. And trees, and fresh air, and lots and lots of open space. Much better than that smelly, crowded apartment building.
After dragging her bags over to the bed and tossing them onto the neatly-folded bedspread with a huff, Claire headed toward the door on the right wall and opened it, finding that it was, in fact, a closet. After rolling up her sleeves and quickly pulling her long blonde hair back in a messy but nonetheless effective ponytail, Claire grabbed a broom from within and set to work. She might as well make the most of her time, and begin the task of transforming this shack into something that she could actually call home.
About an hour later, there came a knock on the door, and Claire set down her cleaning tools to answer it. The house was already coming along quite nicely. Once the dust was cleared away, it had turned out to be almost cozy. Almost cozy, but definitely quaint, the very opposite of her ultra-modern apartment in the city. But, in all honesty, this was what Claire had always preferred. This had a more natural, earthy, organic feel to it; a homely feel. And she had even discovered a pretty vase in the closet to keep flowers in, which she placed on her bedside table. Now all she needed was the flowers, which should be easy enough to find.
Claire's visitor turned out to be an elderly man with a white beard and glasses, holding a small cloth bundle in his arms. A young girl in a simple red dress stood by his side, her raven tresses tied in two thick braids.
"Hello," the old man introduced himself, as the strange bundle squirmed – actually squirmed – in his arms, "I'm Barley. I live at Yodel Ranch just down the road, along with my granddaughter here, May. I heard from the mayor that someone was to be moving in to this old farm, so I decided to stop by to pay a visit." He lifted one hand toward her in greeting, the other arm keeping his oddly restless bundle steady. Claire eyed it suspiciously, and noticed a small tuft of what looked like brown fur peeking out.
Slightly flustered, Claire took the old man's hand in her own and shook it, ignoring how wrinkled and callused his skin was from years of farm work. "Oh... well, thank you. I'm Claire, by the way." She went on to introduce herself to her new neighbor, explaining just how she had happened across the farm ad in the paper, and soon moved from the big city into Mineral Town, the type of village she had always dreamed of. It was a beautiful small town, indeed- though Claire decided not to mention her complete thoughts on the farm itself.
Barley nodded as a small grin spread across his face. "Well... since you're new here, I thought you might like a little welcoming gift." He lifted up the bundle for Claire to see, and the cloth gave way to reveal a furry, innocent-eyed puppy.
"Our dog Hanna recently had puppies, so we thought you might like one. He could be a big help on the farm when he grows up."
"Oh… for me?" Claire squeaked. The puppy was incredibly cute, with his big brown eyes, floppy ears, and soft auburn fur. To top off the adorableness factor, a little red bandana was tied around his neck. Claire had always wanted a puppy, but her old apartment in the city didn't allow pets. But obviously, those rules didn't apply here.
However... most people she knew would give a home-cooked meal as a housewarming gift, a pie or a pot of curry or maybe a fresh batch of chocolate cookies. Not a dog.
But, maybe that's what people do around here, she thought. Oh well, I can't complain!
She scooped the puppy into her arms, beaming. "Thank you so much! That was so thoughtful of you! I absolutely adore animals, especially dogs!"
She glanced down at the puppy, inspecting him. "I'll call you… Bailey!"
The puppy barked once in response, and Claire grinned even wider.
Barley paused in thought for a moment. "You love animals… what would you say to a horse? I have a nice young horse back at the ranch, but he doesn't get much work out there. May's too young to ride him, and I'm much too creaky in my old age. But you look like you could put him to good use."
Claire nearly fainted on the spot. She had loved horses ever since she was a child, and had taken riding lessons for years, on summer breaks away from the city, but never did she think she would ever have a horse to call her own!
"Oh, thank you, that would be wonderful! When can I take him?"
Barley beamed at the young woman's obvious enthusiasm. "Well, you could take him now if you like. Just follow me to the ranch."
Excitedly, Claire rushed inside and set the puppy down gently on her bed, where he sniffed the blankets and then curled contentedly into a ball.
"Stay here," she cooed, giving him a quick scratch behind the ear. "Good boy!"
Still grinning, the blonde hurried back outside to follow Barley and May down the road to their ranch. The day had taken an interesting turn, that was for sure. First a new town, then a new house, new neighbors, and now this.
Little did Claire know, that would soon come to be the last thing on her mind.
At Yodel Ranch, which was notably much better kept than Sunshine Farm, Claire stood and waited by the fence lining the farmland with little May while Barley went into his barn to prepare the horse. She leaned against a fence post, enjoying the mid-afternoon sunshine, while May twirled around dreamily in the grass beside her, the way children often do. Cows and a few fluffy white sheep grazed in the large grassy pasture beyond the fence, peacefully content.
"So, May…" Claire decided to ask the girl, in an effort to make conversation, "How do you like living here in Mineral Town?"
May paused in her twirling and narrowed her eyes in thought for a moment before responding. "...I like it here. Grandpa is nice to me, and sometimes he lets me go play at the church with Stu!"
Claire was about to ask who exactly 'Stu' was when May abruptly turned away from her and leaned down to pick a stray dandelion from the cluster of weeds at the edge of the fence. She squinted down at the flower she picked thoughtfully.
"But what?" Claire inquired gently.
May stared up at her. "Promise you won't tell? Not anyone?"
The older girl smiled, prepared for the usual childish confession. "I promise."
The young girl's expression immediately darkened. "Well… sometimes, I hear things at nighttime, after I go to bed. Scary noises. It... it wakes me up when it's still dark out, and I hear growling and stuff from under my window, and I get scared, so I pull the blankets over my head and close my eyes real tight. I think it might be monsters. But Grandpa says it's just my 'magination."
May sighed and allowed the dandelion to fall from her hand. Then she smiled. "Grandpa says I have a really good 'magination. Better than Stu even!"
Just then, Barley returned, carrying an enormous bag of pet food and pulling a large, dark chocolate brown horse behind him by the reins. "Here's some food for the pup," he said, handing the heavy bag to Claire, who quickly wrapped both arms around it, "And this is the horse! His name's Thunder, and he's yours now. I assume you know how to care for a horse?"
Claire nodded excitedly. Her lessons had taught her everything she needed to know about horse care, from feeding to bathing to riding.
"All right," Barley continued, "Then you'll be needing this." He pulled a large brush out of his front pocket and handed it to the girl.
"This is an animal brush, as you probably know. Use it on Thunder here every day, and on any other livestock you get on your farm. Judging from the looks of that barn you have, I'd say that you'll be planning to buy some cows, maybe a couple sheep. Both I'd be willing to sell to you from my ranch at a modest price, as well as animal fodder and more pet food for the pup."
He glanced around nervously, as though to make sure they were not being overheard, before continuing his speech at a much lower tone. "But I must remind you- always, always bring all your animals inside at night. And lock the doors while you're at it. Otherwise, they may never be seen again."
Claire felt a chill run down her spine, despite the springtime warmth of the afternoon. "What? But why?"
Barley gave her a strange look. Was that pity she saw etched on his lined face, or something more? "Just take my advice. Keep them locked up at night, and you'll be spared a whole lot of worry."
And with that, he turned and lumbered back to his house. May waved goodbye to Claire and followed her grandfather inside, leaving the young blonde rancher alone with her new horse.
"Oh-okay… bye then," she stammered, and turned to give the stallion a pat on the head. "…What is going on around here?"
Thunder, being a horse, could only snort in reply. Claire sighed and turned away.
Something strange is happening here, she thought to herself, and I'm going to find out what it is.
Shaking her head, Claire took hold of the horse's reins and led him back to the farm, where she could continue her cleaning efforts and finally unpack her things.
That night, Claire lay asleep in her bed, Bailey curled up at her feet. Thunder was asleep as well, safely locked up in his new stable on a comfortable bed of fresh hay.
Clouds had been hovering in the sky nearly all evening, but now they had begun to clear out, leaving a rounded, glowing moon in their wake. Thick beams of shining moonlight fell across the fields, their source surrounded by stars like pinpricks in a swatch of dark silk.
And as the clouds drifted away over the nearby forest, there came a lone wolf howl, long and low, carried on by the wind.
Thunder pricked his ears and whinnied nervously, while inside the house, Bailey lifted his head and growled at the front door. Claire however, being a very sound sleeper, did not stir, and the noise went on unnoticed by her, cutting off for good only when the first early morning rays of sunlight appeared on the horizon.
A/N: Yes, perhaps this first chapter wasn't the most eventful, but as I said before, the plot will definitely begin to pick up in later chapters. Next chapter, Claire will be meeting many more of the other villagers in Mineral Town, and things may get a little stranger as we delve deeper into the mystery.
Also, I'd like to thank anyone reading this right from the start, and hope that you continue reading Cursed right until the very end. Any thoughts, suggestions, opinions, and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated!