“You’re right. It’s perfect for us. I’m so glad we’re here,” I said, lying through my carefully pasted-on smile.
I tried to make my voice bright and cheery, but it sounded brittle and forced, even to me. I sucked in my breath and widened my smile, though my teeth were so clenched, my jaw hurt.
Stefan smiled back—actually, his mouth smiled but his dark-brown eyes, framed with those long, thick lashes any woman would envy, looked flat … distracted. He hugged me with one arm. “I told you everything would be okay,” he whispered into my hair. His scent was even more musky than usual, probably from two straight days of driving and lack of shower.
I hugged him back, reminding myself to relax. Yes, everything is going to be okay. Remember, this move represents a fresh start for us—time for us to reconnect and get our marriage back on track. It’s not going to happen overnight.
His iPhone buzzed. He didn’t look at me as he dropped his arm and pulled it out of his pocket, his attention already elsewhere. “Sorry babe, gotta take this.” He turned his back to me as he answered the call, walking away quickly. His dark hair, streaked with silver that added a quiet, distinguished air to his All-American good looks was longer than normal, curling around his collar. He definitely needed a haircut, but of course, we couldn’t afford his normal stylist, and not just anyone was qualified to touch his hair.
I wrapped my arms around myself, goosebumps forming on my skin as a sudden breeze, especially cool for mid-May, brushed past me—the cold all the more shocking in the absence of Stefan’s warm body.
He has to work, I reminded myself. Remember why we’re here.
I remembered, all right. How could I forget?
I rubbed my hands up and down my arms as I took a deep breath, and finally focused on the house.
It was just as I remembered from my childhood—white with black shutters, outlined by bushy green shrubs, framed by tall, gently-swaying pine trees and the red porch with the swinging chair. It sat all by its lonesome in the middle of a never-developed cul-de-sac, the only “neighbors” being an overgrown forest on one side, and a marshy field on the other.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly the way I remembered it. The bushes actually looked pretty straggly. The lawn was overgrown, full of dandelions going to seed, and the porch could definitely use a new paint job.
I sighed. If the outside looked like this, what on earth waited for me on the inside?
I swallowed back the bile that rose in the back of my throat. It slid to my stomach, turning into a cold, slimy lump.
The house of my childhood.
The house of my nightmares.
Oh God, I so didn’t want to be here.
Stefan was still on the phone, facing away from me. I stared longingly at his back. Turn around, I silently begged. Turn around and smile at me. A real smile. Like how you used to before we were married. Tell me it’s going to be okay. You don’t have to leave tonight like you thought. You realize how cruel it would be to leave me alone in this house the first night we’re here, and you don’t want to do that to me. Please, tell me. Or, better yet, tell me we’re packing up and going back to New York. Say this was all a mistake; the firm is doing fine. Or, if you can’t say that, say we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work. We don’t need to live here after all. Please, Stefan. Please don’t leave me alone here.
He half-turned, caught my eye, and made a gesture that indicated he was going to be awhile.
And I should start unpacking.
I closed my eyes. Depression settled around me like an old, familiar shawl. I could feel the beginning of a headache stab my temples.
Great. Just what I needed to complete this nightmare—a monster headache.
I turned to the car and saw Chrissy still in the backseat—headset on, bobbing to music only she could hear. Her long, dark hair—so dark it often looked black—spread out like a shiny cloak, the ends on one side dyed an electric blue.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wouldn’t be alone in the house after all.
Chrissy closed her eyes and turned her head away from me.
It just kept getting better and better.
I knocked on the window. She ignored me. I knocked again. She continued to ignore me.
For a moment, I imagined yanking the door open, snatching the headset off and telling her to—no, insisting that—she get her butt out of the car and help me unpack. I pictured her dark brown eyes, so much like Stefan’s, widening, her pink lip-glossed mouth forming a perfect O, so shocked that she doesn’t talk back, but instead meekly does what she’s told.
More pain stabbed my temples. I closed my eyes and kept knocking on the window.
It’s not her fault, I told myself for maybe the 200th time. How would you act if you were sixteen years old and your mother abandoned you, dumped you at your father’s, so she’d be free to travel across Europe with her boy toy?
I squelched the little voice that reminded me I wasn’t a whole heck of a lot older than said boy toy, and started pounding on the window. Stefan kept telling me she was warming up to me—I personally hadn’t seen much evidence of that.
Chrissy finally turned her head and looked at me. “What?” she mouthed, disgust radiating off her, her eyes narrowing like an angry cat.
I motioned to the trunk. “I need your help.”
Her lip curled as her head fell back on to the seat. She closed her eyes.
I had just been dismissed.
Great. Just great.
I looked around for Stefan—if he were standing with me, she would be out of the car and helping—a fake, sweet smile on her face, but he had moved to the corner of the street, still on the phone. I popped the trunk and headed over to him. Maybe I could finally get him to see reason—that it really was a dreadful idea to leave the two of us alone in Redemption, Wisconsin, while he commuted back and forth to New York to rescue his failing law firm. “See,” I could say, “She doesn’t listen to me. She doesn’t respect me. She needs her father. I need you, too. She’s going to run wild with you gone and I won’t be able to deal with her.”
Stefan hung up as I approached. “The movers should be here soon. You probably should start unpacking.” Although his tone was mild, I could still hear the underlying faint chords of reproach—what’s going on with you? Why haven’t you started yet? Do I need to do everything around here?
“Yes, I was going to,” I said, hating my defensive tone, but unable to stop it. “But there’s a problem I think you need to deal with.”
His eyes narrowed—clearly, he was losing his patience with me. “What?”
I opened my mouth to tell him about Chrissy, just as her voice floated toward us, “Can I get some help over here?”
I slowly turned around, gritting my teeth, trying not to show it. Chrissy stood by the trunk, arms loaded with boxes, an expectant look on her face. The pain darting through my head intensified.
“Rebecca, are you coming?” Stefan asked as he headed over to his charming daughter, waiting for him with a smug expression on her face, like a cat who ate the canary. I took a deep breath and trudged over, the sick knot in the pit of my stomach growing and tightening.
What on earth was I going to do with her while Stefan was gone?
Chrissy threw me a triumphant smile as she followed her father to the house. I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at her, as I heaved a couple of boxes out of the trunk.
Really, all the crap with Chrissy was the least of my worries. It was more of a distraction, than anything.
The real problem was the house.
I turned to stare at it. It didn’t look menacing or evil. It looked like a normal, everyday house.
Well, a normal, everyday house with peeling paint, a broken gutter and a few missing roof shingles.
Great. That probably meant we needed a new roof. New roofs were expensive. People who had to rescue failing law firms tended to not have money for things like new roofs. Even new roofs for houses that were going to be fixed up and eventually sold, ideally for a big, fat profit.
Would there be any good news today?
Again, I realized I was distracting myself. New roofs and paint jobs—those were trivial.
The real problem was inside the house.
Where all my nightmares took place.
Where my breakdown happened.
Where I almost died.
I swallowed hard. The sun went behind a cloud and, all of a sudden, the house was plunged into darkness. It loomed in front me, huge and monstrous, the windows dark, bottomless eyes staring at me … the door a mouth with sharp teeth …
“Rebecca! Are you coming?”
Stefan broke the spell. I blinked my eyes and tried to get myself together.
I was being silly. It was just a house, not a monster. How could a house even BE a monster? Only people could be monsters, which would mean my aunt, who had owned the house, was the monster.
And my aunt was dead now. Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Or, in this case, the monster.
Which meant there was nothing to fear in the house anymore. Which was exactly what Stefan kept telling me back in New York, over and over.
“Don’t you think it’s time you put all this childhood nonsense behind you?” he asked. “Look, I get it. Your aunt must have done something so dreadful that you’ve blocked it out, but she’s dead. She can’t hurt you anymore. And it couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly for us—we have both a place to live rent-free right now, while I get things turned around. And, once we sell it, we can use the money to move back here and get a fresh start.”
He was right, of course. But, still, I couldn’t drop it.
“Why did she even will the house to me in the first place?” I persisted. “Why didn’t she will it to CB? He was there a lot more than I was.”
Stefan shrugged. “Maybe it was her way of apologizing to you all these years later. She was trying to make it up to you. Or maybe she changed—people said she was sick at the end. But, why does it matter why she willed it to you? The point is she did, and we really need it. Not to mention this could be a great way for you to finally get over whatever happened to you years ago.”
Maybe. Back in New York, it had seemed so reasonable. So logical. Maybe the move wouldn’t be a problem after all.
But, standing in the front yard with my arms filled with boxes, every cell in my body screamed that it was a really awful idea.
“Hey,” Stefan whispered in my ear, his five o’clock shadow scratching my cheek. I jumped, so transfixed by the house that I hadn’t even realized he had returned to me. “Look, I’m sorry. I should have known this would be rough for you. Come on, I’ll walk in with you.”
He rubbed my arm and smiled at me—a real smile. I could feel my insides start to thaw as all those old, exciting, passionate feelings reminiscent of when we first started dating swarmed over me. I remembered how he would shower me with red roses and whisk me off to romantic dinners that led to steaming, hot sex. He made me feel like a princess in a fairy tale. I still couldn’t fathom how he ended up with me.
I met his eyes, and for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I felt the beginnings of a real smile on my lips. See, he does care, even if he doesn’t always show it. This is why the move was the perfect thing for our marriage; all we needed was to get away from the stress of New York, so we could rekindle things. I nodded and started walking with him toward the house. Over her shoulder, Chrissy shot me a dirty look.
The closer we got to the house, the more I focused on my breathing. It’s going to be okay, I repeated to myself. It’s just a house. A house can’t hurt anyone. It’s all going to be okay.
An owl hooted, and I jumped. Why was an owl hooting in the daytime? Didn’t that mean someone was going to die? Isn’t that what the old stories and folklore taught? My entire body stiffened—all I wanted to do was run the other way. Stefan hugged me closer, gently massaging my arm, and urged me forward.
“It’s going to be okay,” he murmured into my hair. I closed my eyes for a moment, willing myself to believe it.
We stepped onto the porch, Chrissy impatiently waiting for Stefan to unlock the door. He put the boxes on the ground to fumble for his keys as I tried hard not to hyperventilate.
It’s just a house. A house can’t hurt anyone.
After an eternity that simultaneously wasn’t nearly long enough, he located the keys and wrenched the door open, swearing under his breath.
His words barely registered. I found myself compelled forward, drawn in like those pathetic moths to the killing flame.
I could almost hear my aunt excitedly calling, “Becca? Is that you? Wait until you see this,” as I stepped across the threshold into the house.
It was exactly like I remembered.
Well, maybe not exactly—it was filthy and dusty, full of cobwebs and brittle, dead bugs lying upside down on the floor with their legs sticking up. But I remembered it all—from the overstuffed floral sofa where I spent hours reading, to the end table covered with knick-knacks and frilly doilies, to the paintings lining the walls. I found myself wanting to hurry into the kitchen, where surely Aunt Charlie would have a cup of tea waiting for me. It didn’t feel scary at all. It felt warm and comforting.
Like coming home.
How could this be?
Stefan was still muttering under his breath. “I can’t believe all this crap. We’re going to have put our stuff in storage for months while we go through it all. Christ, like we need another bill to worry about.” He sighed, pulled his cell phone out, and started punching numbers.
“Dad, what do you mean our stuff is going into storage?” Chrissy said, clearly alarmed.
Stefan waved his arms. “Honey, look around you. Where are we going to put it? We have to put our things into storage until we get all this out of here.”
“But Dad,” Chrissy protested. I stopped listening. I walked slowly around, watching my aunt dashing down the stairs, her smock stained, arms filled with herbs and flowers, some even sticking out of her frizzy brown hair, muttering about the latest concoction she was crafting for one of the neighbors whose back was acting up again …
“Earth to Rebecca. Rebecca. Are you okay?” I suddenly realized Stefan was talking to me, and I pulled myself out of my memories.
“Sorry, it just …” my voice trailed off.
He came closer. “Are you okay? Are you remembering?”
There she was again, the ghost of Aunt Charlie, explaining yet again to the odd, overly-made-up, hair-over-teased, forty-something woman from the next town that no, she didn’t do love potions. It was dangerous magic to mess around with either love or money, but if she wanted help with her thyroid that was clearly not working the way it should be, that was definitely in my aunt’s wheelhouse.
I shook my head. “No, not really. It’s just … weird.”
I wanted him to dig deeper, ask me questions, invite me to talk about the memories flooding through me. I wanted him to look at me while I spoke, really look at me, the way he did before we were married.
Where had it all gone wrong? And how could he leave me alone in a lonely, isolated and desolate house a thousand miles away from New York? Sure, Chrissy would be there, but the jury was still out as to whether she made it better or worse. The memories pushed up against me, smothering me. I needed to talk about them, before they completely overwhelmed and suffocated me. And he knew it—he knew how much I needed to talk things through to keep the anxiety and panic at bay. He wouldn’t let me down, not now, when I really needed him.