Note from Michele: This is Part 2 of a complete short story that takes place in the Secrets of Redemption universe. However, if you haven’t read the free novella, The Secret Diary of Helen Blackstone, you may want to start there as this short story builds on what was revealed there. You can also check out Part 1 here.
Helen shot up in bed, panting and blinking violently, desperately trying to remember where she was.
Too soon, it came back to her. She was in her bed, same as always. It was the middle of the night. Another nightmare had woken her—the third this week.
She slid out from under the covers and leaned over to grab her robe. Even though she was exhausted, she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore.
Bending down, she found her slippers, put them on, and stood up. Midnight, her cat, turned to look at her, blinking his dark-green eyes. He was still curled up in the folds of the blankets.
“You coming?” she asked.
He yawned, revealing a mouthful of sharp teeth, before lazily getting to his feet.
“Trust me,” she said as she watched him stretch. “I don’t like this anymore than you do.”
He grumbled a “meow” in response.
It had been nearly six months since Henry died. Nearly six months since she hovered in the graveyard, apart from the main crowd, and watched them lower the casket of her baby brother into the ground.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t welcome. Henry’s wife had called her personally to extend the invitation, but she didn’t feel like she deserved to be near the front of the congregation.
There was one thing and one thing only responsible for Henry’s death.
The family legacy.
That’s what caused him to be taken way too young.
And now, they must all suffer.
Helen shuffled into the kitchen, Midnight at her heels, and started heating the water for tea. The darkness pressed tightly against the windows, as it was still hours before dawn. She wondered how long her body could handle night after night of constantly interrupted sleep.
She wondered if she even cared.
The whistle of the kettle broke through her thoughts, providing a welcome interruption. She finished making the tea, and then, even though it was a little early for Midnight’s breakfast, filled his dish with a snack.
Staring out the window, she sipped her tea and tried to empty her mind of any thoughts related to anything other than her plans for the day. But it was no use. The others came, unbidden and unwelcome.
Henry’s voice echoed in her mind. Then, her last promise to a dying man. And she was ignoring it.
How could she live with herself? It didn’t matter that what she did was for the best, she knew it didn’t make it right.
And, every day, her lie hung heavier and heavier over her.
She wished she had a friend she could talk to … someone who would help her sort out her thoughts and feelings, and understand the decisions she had made and why.
She had never been in a situation like this before—one that kept her doubting herself, and so full of guilt and angst that she wasn’t able to think properly. Before Henry’s last visit, she had been sure of herself and her choices, confident she was doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing, and that when it was time to make a change, it would be clear and obvious.
But, in the days and weeks following Henry’s death, everything had changed. She felt lost in a murky sea of confusion, despair, and grief.
A part of her was sure she needed to stay put. It was not yet time to sell.
But another part of her wavered. Maybe the indecision was there for a reason. Maybe it was the sign she had been looking for.
You’ve sacrificed enough. You deserve a life.
Henry’s voice seemed to echo in the kitchen. Maybe she had sacrificed enough. Maybe now that Henry was gone, it was time to move on.
Was it possible?
The more she pondered it, the more she started to think that maybe Henry WAS right. With everyone gone, what could possibly be the purpose of her rattling around in that huge house by herself? The curse had to be lifted by now. She had done everything she was supposed to, except for the one, final act.
Finding a new caretaker for the house.
Maybe it really was time.
An unfamiliar emotion began creeping across her chest. It had been so long that she had felt anything close to it, decades really, she didn’t even recognize it at first.
It was hope.
Hope for a fresh, new life.
“It is the sign,” she murmured out loud. “Henry was right all along. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
She whirled away from the window, excited to get started, when she noticed Midnight.
He was crouched on the floor, his green eyes fixed on her. There was still food left in his dish.
“You feel it too, don’t you? It’s time for me to move on,” she said.
The cat didn’t move, his eyes unblinking as he stared up at her.
Pinpricks of unease started piercing the back of her neck, but she ignored them. This was what was supposed to happen. Of course there would be some hiccups. Change always brought a certain amount of chaos. It didn’t mean it wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I find a good owner for you,” she said. “Or, if you want, you can come with me. Maybe it’s time for you to move on, as well.”
Midnight flicked his tail. He didn’t appear convinced.
“Well, no matter,” she said to herself as she headed for her office to make a list of things she needed to do to sell the house. “He’s a cat. Of course he won’t like change. Animals thrive on routine. Doesn’t mean it’s not the right decision.”
Determinedly, she thrust the negative voices down and marched up to her office. This was the right thing to do. She was sure of it.
“No! You can’t sell!” Sherry, her client, stared at her in horror. They were sitting at Sherry’s kitchen table, both with cups of tea in front of them. Helen had just dropped off Sherry’s order and figured it a perfect time to ask Sherry for a referral for a real estate agent.
“I’m not selling,” Helen hastened to reassure her. “I just want a professional to take a look at the house to see what’s it worth. That’s all.”
Sherry didn’t look the slightest bit convinced. She straightened her gold-rimmed glasses and gave Helen a hard look. “If you’re not going to sell, why does it matter what it’s worth?”
Helen bit her lip. She had already decided she was going to keep her plans to herself as long as she possibly could. The last thing she wanted was a bunch of people traipsing through her house, pretending to be interested in buying when in reality, they just wanted to be able to say they had been inside the famous “Witch House.”
She had assumed she could make a few calls, quietly line up a realtor, and let him or her take care of everything. She hadn’t expected her clients to jump to conclusions. She really hadn’t thought they would react like Sherry.
“I’m just … updating my financial planning,” Helen said, hoping that sounded believable. “With Henry gone, I just … I got to thinking, and figured it was time.”
Sherry’s face immediately softened. “Oh my dear.” She reached out to pat her hand. “Of course you’d want to do that. I completely understand.” Her expression sharpened into anxiety. “You’re not sick or anything.”
“No, no, nothing is wrong with me,” Helen said quickly. “Really, it’s just a desire to get my affairs in order. I’m fine! I don’t expect anything to happen to me for a good long while, but you just never know.”
“Of course. That’s very smart of you,” Sherry said.
“So, I was hoping you could give me a name of a realtor who could help. I have no idea where to even start.”
Sherry shook her head. “You don’t need a realtor. You’re looking for someone to give you an appraisal.”
Helen gave her a blank look. “Appraisal?”
“Yes, they come in, inspect the house, and give you an estimate as to what they think it’s worth. Here.” Sherry started digging in her massive white purse that was never far from her side. She pulled out a small notebook and pen, scribbled a name down, tore the paper out and handed it to her. “I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard excellent things about him. He should be in the book.”
Helen glanced down at the piece of a paper and the scrawled name on it. She forced a smile. “Thanks. I appreciate the help.”
“Anytime.” Sherry sat back and sipped her tea, a worried frown still creasing between her eyes. “You’re sure you’re not thinking of selling.”
“Because I don’t know what I’d do without my tea.”
“You won’t have to find out,” Helen assured her, pushing away the uneasy niggling she felt about lying to her client and friend. I’ll find some way to make it up to Sherry, she told herself. Maybe she could find someone else to take over her tea business, or maybe she could somehow keep making teas even if she didn’t live in the house. She’d figure it out.
The first step was trying to sell it.
Sherry gave her a faint, doubtful smile as she took another sip. Helen smiled back, trying to project as much reassurance as possible. The last thing she needed was for Sherry to start telling everyone she was selling.
“Wait, this is Helen Blackstone?” The real estate agent said in her ear. “You really are selling?”
Helen closed her eyes. This was exactly what she had hoped wouldn’t happen. “I just wanted to talk to someone about the house. How much it’s worth, that sort of thing.”
“So you can sell it?”
“I just want to get my affairs in order.”
After Sherry’s reaction, Helen hadn’t dared ask any of her other clients for referrals. Instead, she decided to just call around to a couple of real estate agencies. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working out as she had hoped.
“You may have trouble selling it,” the woman said. Helen thought her name was Mandy or Randi or Brandi. Some sugary-sweet name. Whatever it was, her perky cheerleader voice was a perfect match for it. “It’s a noted haunted house. Not everyone wants to live in a haunted house.”
“I’m just looking to get a sense of what it’s worth,” Helen tried again.
“If that’s what you want, you don’t need a real estate agent. An appraiser would make more sense. Here, let me give you a name.”
Helen listened as the woman on the other end of the phone shuffled through some papers and rattled off a name and number. She thanked her and hung up.
Now what? She drummed her fingers on the kitchen table. How could she possibly put the house on the market quietly if everyone in Redemption knew she was selling?
Midnight strolled through the kitchen, glancing at her as if to say, “I told you so.” He leapt up on one of the kitchen chairs and began to groom himself.
She glared at the cat. “You’re no help.”
The cat paused and gave her a look that clearly said, You have no business selling.
“Probably not to anyone in Redemption,” Helen responded. “I suspect I need to find someone else. Someone outside this town. There are millions of people in this country. One of them will make for the perfect owner of this house. I just have to find her.”
Midnight went back to cleaning himself.
“Outside of Redemption,” she said again. “Maybe that’s the key. If I want to sell it outside of Redemption, I need a real estate agent outside of Redemption.”
Her excitement renewed, she picked up the phone to dial information.
“Your house is gorgeous,” Buffy the real estate agent gushed as she stepped into the living room, her neck craning as she tried to look every which way.
“Thank you,” Helen said, stepping discreetly aside to keep from breathing in the thick scents of perfume and hairspray.
“You should have no problem selling it,” she continued.
“I’m not completely sure about selling it yet,” Helen quickly corrected. She needed to make sure this heavily made-up doll of a realtor was the right person for the job first.
Buffy, who was the first out-of-area agent to jump at the chance to see the house, seemed not to have heard her as she was still talking out loud, saying something about the wood. Maybe the hardwood floors? Helen wasn’t completely sure. She was still stuck on her name. “Buffy.” Honestly, what was it with real estate agents and sorority girl names?
“I’m just going to leave my card right here,” Buffy said, dropping it on the end table next to the couch. “It would be great to start with a tour.”
“Of course,” Helen said. She guided Buffy through the house, listening to the clicking of her heels that accompanied her “oohs” and “ahhs.” When she reached the room at the top of the stairs, she paused, her hand on the doorknob. There was something … not right about it, but she could never really put her finger on it. “Have you heard the history of the house?” she asked the real estate agent.
Buffy shook her head. “I’m not that familiar with Redemption,” she said. “But I’m excited about branching out.”
Helen had a feeling the real reason she was excited about branching out was because she was pretty new to the industry and didn’t have a lot of clients. Hopefully, that wouldn’t turn out to be a problem, if she chose to list the house with her.
“This is one of the bedrooms,” Helen said, opening the door and letting her take a quick peek. But she stayed in the doorway to block the entrance. “It’s not used much,” she said apologetically. “I have to clean it.”
“Looks clean to me,” Buffy chirped.
“There’s a bit of an issue with the floor in there, as well,” Helen said smoothly. “But it’s getting fixed next week. Best to stay out for now.”
She showed Buffy the rest of the house before leading her back to the kitchen and offering her tea.
“This would be such a wonderful house for a family,” Buffy said as she pulled a bunch of papers out of her briefcase. “And the yard! My goodness, I can see the possibilities.”
“Right now, I’m just wondering what it’s worth and what I need to do, if I do decide to sell, to get it ready,” Helen said, putting the tea down and sitting across from her.
“Of course, of course,” Buffy murmured, jotting down a few notes. She took a quick sip of tea. “Oh, this is wonderful! What brand is it?”
“Oh! Have you thought of turning it into a business?”
“Actually, I do have a few clients who buy my tea.”
“Wonderful,” Buffy said absentmindedly as she continued to scribble. She reached back into her briefcase and retrieved a tape measure. “Mind if I take a few measurements?”
“Go ahead,” Helen said, but Buffy was already up and walking out of the kitchen. “Just stay away from that one room at the top of the stairs,” she called after her.
Buffy’s reply was muffled, but Helen thought she said “Okay.” She couldn’t be sure though. She contemplated going after her, but she was feeling a slight headache. She picked up her own tea. While she appreciated Buffy’s … enthusiasm, was she the right person for the job?
She could hear Buffy moving around the house and wondered again if she should go make sure Buffy didn’t go into the room at the top of the stairs. She hadn’t felt comfortable in that one for years. Too many bad things had happened in there.
It did feel a little silly, though, keeping Buffy out. It was her job, after all. Plus, when she sold the house, the new owners would likely use it.
Still, something felt off.
Suddenly, she realized how quiet it had gotten. Too quiet.
“Buffy,” she called out. “Everything alright? Do you need anything?”
There was no answer.
A prickle of unease fluttered against the back of Helen’s neck. She put down her tea. “Buffy?”
Maybe she’d better see what was going on. It was possible Buffy was somewhere where she couldn’t hear Helen’s calls, like in the master bedroom, which would also explain why Helen couldn’t hear her.
Still, the feeling that something had gone very wrong crept up her spine.
She had just gotten out of her chair when a whirlwind of commotion that was Buffy rushed into the room. “Oh! I just realized I have to go … I have … I’m late for an appointment. Sorry,” she stammered as she swept papers back into her briefcase.
“Is everything okay?” Helen asked.
“Oh! Yes, of course. I just … didn’t realize the time. So sorry.” Buffy’s cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were wild. Her bubble gum pink lipstick was smeared across one cheek.
Helen took a step toward her. “Maybe you should sit down and take a breath. Just take a moment to gather yourself.”
“No!” Buffy shrieked, jumping away from her. Then, as if she realized how she had sounded, she took a breath, running a hand over her stiff, hair sprayed hair. “Sorry. I’m just … I’m so late. I have to go.”
“Okay,” Helen said, trailing after her as she hurried to the door. “Do you want to make another appointment to come back and finish?”
Buffy fumbled with the door. “I … ah … I don’t know if that’s going to be possible. I’m really busy right now. But I can give you a referral. Actually …” Buffy backed up to where she had dropped her card on the table. “I’m really too busy right now. But I’ll be in touch. Or I’ll have someone else get in touch.”
“Okay,” Helen said to Buffy’s back as she flung the front door open and practically ran out without closing it behind her.
Helen moved to close it, marveling at how fast Buffy could move in those heels. She couldn’t get into her car fast enough, throwing her briefcase in the back as she leaped in, her tires squealing as she pulled away from the curb.
What on earth had happened? Had she gone into the room after all?
Helen shut the door and turned around to investigate. As far as she could tell, nothing was disturbed on the first floor, so she started climbing the stairs to the second. Everything looked the way she had left it; the door to the room at the top of the stairs was firmly closed. Of course, Buffy could have shut it herself. But wouldn’t Helen have heard it?
A soft movement interrupted her thoughts, and she turned to see Midnight strolling down the hallway, a self-satisfied expression on his face.
“Did you do something?” she asked, hands on her hips.
Midnight shot her a contented look as he ambled by.
“What did you do? What happened?”
Midnight kept going, tail flicking in the air, as he headed down the stairs, probably in search of his favorite sunny spot.
Helen shook her head, exasperation mingling with despair. It didn’t appear as if she was going to find any answers. Worse, it was starting to look like she was going to be forced into breaking the deathbed promise she had made to her brother.
She wondered if he would ever forgive her.
Want to keep reading? Part 3 here.