Sample: Pact 1
Damn me, damn them, damn it all.
There was a car, my parent’s or my uncle’s, no doubt, parked in the middle of the gates, at the foot of a long driveway, leading up to Hillsglade House. Symbolic, really, of everything that had gone on for most of my life. Symbolic of everything I had walked away from.
My uncle… I was guessing it was my uncle, had parked the car at the entrance of the driveway to force everyone else to find a place to park.
I looked down the length of the street. The property was framed by a short stone wall, shoulder height, along with an elaborate iron fence of roughly the same height, shaped into curling vines with metal points at set intervals. It had been covered in some black paint or coating, but rust and peeling paint made for a mottled texture. ‘No parking’ signs, a good distance in every direction. I was already regretting coming. Damn me, I thought, not for the first or second time.
Pushing my motorcycle, I guided it through the gap between car and fence, pushed it onto the lawn, and rested it against the inside of the fence.
I wasn’t in a rush. I had made promises to myself. I wouldn’t get caught up in their tempo. Taking my time, I removed my helmet, wiped the sweat from my forehead and scalp. Putting my hands in my pockets to be sure I had my keys, I felt paper crumple. I went through my pockets, removed the directions I’d printed out, the receipt from Dead Tim’s, and put the leftover five in my wallet, the change in my other pants pocket.
Looking up at the namesake hill, I could see the house. Not big, but it drew attention because of the way it looked down on the two-theater podunk town. It wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t ominous. Barring a slightly overgrown garden, trees that had grown well beyond the quaint, tidy little decorations they might have been when the house was built, and the railing, it was nothing more than a nice house. I’d dated a wannabe-architect at one point, a brief-lived fling. I didn’t remember much, but I didn’t feel confident labeling the place as Victorian. Three stories, with a one-room tower standing one floor higher, off one corner. Gray-painted wood siding, decorative ‘lace’ in carved wood beneath the eaves and around the railing on the porch, tall, narrow windows with open shutters.
Somehow, I had conflated the place into being something it wasn’t. My childhood imagination had taken ideas and run loose with them, and I’d never turned my more adult mind to the subject.
I pulled off my jacket, then my sweatshirt. Unlocking and lifting the seat of the motorcycle, I retrieved the shirt I had stowed away. Leaving the other clothes behind, I buttoned up the shirt over a black t-shirt while I made my way up the driveway.
If my uncle had parked nearer to the house, he could have spared himself and his family the walk. But no, the inconvenience he could pose to everyone else was apparently the top priority. I wasn’t surprised. I would have been stunned if there hadn’t been anything like this.
My boots were heavy on the floorboards of the porch as I approached the front door. I stopped to wipe them on the doormat. No ‘welcome’ was printed on the mat. Instead, there were stencil images of roses and thorny stems, as well as the initials ‘R.D.R’.
It fit, somehow. No consideration to the guests, only self-aggrandizement.
The door was unlocked. I kicked off my boots and made my way past the front hallway and into the actual house, tucking my shirt into my jeans as I went.
My lingering impressions of the house were soon banished. Only a house. Books lined shelves in nearly every room with an available wall, some old with cracked spines, some new, recent bestsellers. It was all sorted more like a library than a home, clearly by some arrangement of age and alphabetized.
Anachronistic. That was a good word, to describe it. Old and new. A box of colorful cereal sat between the toaster and television in the kitchen, across from a small table with a crimson, lace-edged tablecloth.
A litterbox, with a toy. Not a dirty litterbox, to look at it, which struck me as odd. I couldn’t imagine my family had emptied it. It didn’t fit them.
I reached the end of the hall, and I could hear voices from upstairs. A crowd, angry, not shouting, but saying hard words, loaded words. I sighed, putting my hands in my pockets, and made my way up.
Photographs. Not a single family picture, I noticed. Instead, there were pictures of nature, blue and green to contrast the dark-lacquered cherry floorboards and furniture, the burgundy curtains. It made for a startling intensity, but it was jarring, overly saturated.
When I crested the top of the stairs, I saw them. One family, divided into four factions, all dressed in black.
“Jesus fuck,” Paige said, her eyes going wide. She was the first to recognize me. Then again, we’d been close, as cousins went.
“The prodigal son returns,” Uncle Paul said.
That was the last coherent thing I made out before it devolved into a mess of bickering.
“Ten to one he needs the money for drugs.”
“If you want to talk about that sort of thing, Steph, we could talk about Ellie.”
“Fuck you, Irene,” Ellie practically spat the response at her aunt. “You don’t know anything. Uneducated bitch.”
Hard words, drawing lines in the sand, striving to establish new ground rules, to hold on to perceived advantages, to garner new ones, or strike at weak points.
For three years, I had been gone. All of this, it had been going on when I left, and it was continuing now.
It never stopped.
Nine cousins, spread into three camps. Uncle Paul, his ex-wife, and my Aunt Irene.
My Uncle Paul had a wealth of kids, four by his first wife, two by his second. Kathryn was old enough to have a child of her own, a broad, businesslike woman, holding her child and looking as unmotherly as possible, her husband beside her, listening as she looked at me and murmured an explanation. Uncle Paul’s youngest, by contrast, was Roxanne, twelve. Six in all, with Paige and her twin brother Peter in the middle. Those two would just be partway into college, I was pretty sure.
Paige looked like she wanted to approach me, but doing so meant getting between Uncle Paul and Aunt Irene, as they pointed fingers, digging at each other.
I caught the words ‘failure’, ‘welfare mom’ and ‘slut’ thrown out there, by Uncle Paul, in clear earshot of his fourteen and twelve year old kids.
Aunt Irene retaliated with something along the lines of ‘at least I actually raised my children to be functioning members of society.’ I couldn’t make all of it out in the chaos, with people talking over one another.
She had three kids, but I only saw two. Molly was close to me in age, and I’d known her well, once upon a time, but I hardly recognized her now. She looked physically ill, her fingers twisting into one another in her lap, barely noting my existence. It seemed to be rubbing off on young Christoff, who was looking equally anxious. Both had brown hair, but Molly was paler than usual, and the black dress she wore only added to the effect.
And, finally, the fourth faction. My parents.
They approached, and I saw that my mom was holding a baby, swaddled in a blanket. I wasn’t good at judging the ages of babies… but I’d left three years ago. I felt my heart skip a beat.
“Everything alright?” my father asked.
“S’alright,” I responded, not taking my eyes off the baby.
“You’re not in trouble?” my mother asked.
“No trouble,” I said. “I try to avoid trouble.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” my dad said. I glared at him. “Nevermind. I can’t help but notice you got tattoos.”
I looked down. The shadows of my tattoos were visible through the sleeves of my dress shirt. I pressed my sleeve down so it was flat against my arm, making the tattoos, clear. “Watercolor tattoos, by an artist I owe a lot to. She offered to outline them, another friend inked them.”
I had set rules for myself, to avoid getting caught up in this energy, yet I was baiting my father. I could see him squirm, wanting to say something. Question was, would he be willing to criticize the tattoos so soon after my homecoming?
“What?” I asked.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said, with almost no affect. “You know I never harbored any ill will.”
“I know you didn’t. But that wasn’t ever the problem, was it?” I shrugged, my hands in my pockets, and looked at the baby. “Who’s this?”
“Ivy,” my mother said. “She’s one and a half.”
“Hi Ivy,” I said. She responded by pressing her head against our mother’s shoulder. “Busy soaking it all in, kiddo, so you have some good stories to tell your therapist, ten years down the line?”
“Blake,” my dad said, the word a warning.
Without looking away from Ivy, I kept my voice calm, the tone almost light, so the vibe wouldn’t upset her. “How hard did you look, Dad? Mom? I got in touch with some of my old friends, you know. Seeing what happened. Ben and Heather, the only ones you actually called, said you stopped asking about me after a month.”
“You were almost an adult, and the police weren’t interested or helpful. We called around, trying to figure out where you were staying, but nothing turned up. I’m not sure what we were supposed to do.”
I smiled a little as Ivy reached out for my offered hand. Her hand seized my index finger, and I wiggled it, ‘shaking’ her hand. “Besides, why devote any more attention to your son, when you could just start over? Have that beautiful baby girl you wanted, right?”
“Blake!” My father said, raising his voice.
Ivy recoiled at the sudden shout, withdrawing her hand from my finger as her face screwed up. Tears imminent.
Damn it. It was too easy, to lash out, to retaliate, to get sucked into this atmosphere.
“Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. My bad, Ivy,” I said, my voice soft. I didn’t wait for a response. I walked past them.
I stopped in my tracks as a door opened and Callan stepped out of the nearest room. Aunt Irene’s eldest. A man in white scrubs followed him.
“Ellie?” the man asked.
Ellie was Uncle Paul’s second oldest, at twenty-four, give or take. They were going down the list, from oldest cousin to youngest. I watched as Ellie stood, looking out of place and deeply uncomfortable in a dress that didn’t suit her. Her eyes had thick eyeliner, her lips had lipstick too red for her complexion. She slouched badly, with a narrow, flat-chested figure. I couldn’t help but think ‘ferret’ or ‘weasel’. She was visibly nervous, but not in the same way Molly was.
The door wasn’t the hollow plywood door that you saw in most homes. It was wooden, through and through, and it closed behind Ellie with a heavy thud.
“No kidding. Blake?” Callan asked, as I started to walk around him.
“Hey,” I responded.
“You’re wearing jeans? Paint-covered jeans? Now?”
I looked down at the jeans, the lap striped with narrow streaks in various colors, then met his eyes, shrugging. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Why the hell did you come?” he asked. “Most of us thought you were dead or something.”
“Got a call,” I said. I glanced back at my parents. “The lawyer found me, alive and well, without much trouble. I was wondering how the family was doing, and figured this was maybe the last time we’d all be together. Thought I’d check in, see how things were, say what needed to be said.”
“If you think you’re going to worm your way in-“
“If I was, do you think I’d be wearing these jeans?” I asked. “Fuck off, Callan. Save your energy for attacking the others. I’m a non-threat. Promise.”
He scowled a little, then summarily fucked off. He took a seat on the deacon’s bench, beside Molly. His hand settled over hers, and he leaned over to murmur in her ear.
I made my way out of the small crowd that had gathered around that heavy wooden door.
Paige fell into step beside me as I walked to the end of the long hallway. I stopped by the narrow window, where the dim light of the setting sun filtered between the curtains and through the sheers.
“Jesus fuck,” she said, for the second time.
She reached out, arms extended for a hug, and I flinched. I stepped back, and nearly knocked a picture off the wall behind me as I bumped into the wall.
She looked stricken. Her arms dropped to her side. Her hair was done up in a french braid, and she looked as comfortable in her clothing as her older sister hadn’t. It was how she’d always been. Prim, proper, preppy. She was almost into her twenties, now, but I could see where she could easily be at home in the world of ties and pantsuits.
“No, I just-” I said. “I… reflex.”
I made myself reach out to hug her. It was clumsy, not natural in the slightest. Her head banged against my ear hard enough to be painful, her arms squeezed me in the most careful hug-reciprocation ever.
“What happened?” she asked, quiet, as we parted.
I knew what she was asking, but I answered a different question instead. “I didn’t see any reason to stay, so I left.”
“You ran away.”
“I always think of little kids leaving with a bundle on a stick, when I think of ‘running away’. I got fed up with all of this, I went.” I shrugged. It was getting to be habitual. No more shrugs, I told myself.
“Not a word, not a call? I mean, I know we weren’t close. We’d say hi, if we met in the hallway at school. Hang out at events and stuff, maybe. You dated one of my friends. I thought maybe you’d say something, let me know you were okay.”
“I didn’t make it hard to find me. I figured if anyone bothered enough to track me down, I was wrong, and I’d go back or whatever. But they didn’t, so I didn’t.”
“Did you go someplace, or…” she trailed off, as if afraid to broach another boundary, as she’d done with the sudden hug.
“I was on the streets, just for a bit. It was bad. Awful. But I’m stubborn, and I’d set the rules for myself, that I wouldn’t go back unless someone asked me to… eventually I met people, and one of them was lucky and stubborn enough to get off the streets. She offered me a hand, and I took it. I know how lucky I am, I know how lucky I was that I found work. I’ve been doing well. A few days ago I treated myself to my first big nonessential purchase.”
I had to lean against the wall, to angle myself so I could see it, leaning against the inside of the fence. I pointed, then stepped out of the way.
“And the license and insurance. It’s about the shittiest, smallest, cheapest bike ever, and it’s used, but that doesn’t matter. I’m happy, I’m liking where I’m at. What are you up to? University?”
“Second year. Business, hopefully law a bit down the road, if I can finagle it.” She showed me her crossed fingers.
“You still keep in touch with the people from high school? Shannon? Miracle?”
“Mira. She’s finally going by a different name. No longer a testament to why immigrants shouldn’t let their kids choose their English names. She still asks about you, you know?”
“At least someone did,” I said, smiling a little.
Paige looked like she was going to punch me, then stopped short. Remembering the issue with the hug. “I did, you jackass. Fuck.”
Molly stood from the bench and approached us.
“Here we go,” Paige said. She smiled, quirking her shoulders as she showed an uncharacteristic excitement. “Us three, back together after… nine years?”
“Ten,” I said.
Paige was a year older than me, Molly a year younger. We’d always hung out, when the family had gotten together. That had been a long time.
Molly didn’t look happy, though. She hugged her arms against her body. She still looked almost ill.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I want this to be over,” Molly said. She leaned against a doorframe. A moment later, she stood, shifting position. Restless.
“Remember how we used to make up stories about this place,” Paige said. “Gruesome stories?”
“Yeah,” Molly said, hugging herself tighter. “They weren’t all made up. That bit about Great-grandpa and great-grandma being related?”
I shivered a little. “Thanks. Thank you for that reminder.”
“The duel where one of our ancestors murdered someone?” Molly asked.
“Killed,” Paige said. “I don’t think it counts as murder if it’s during a duel.”
“Semantics,” Molly said.
“I love arguing semantics,” Paige said, smiling mischievously. “Don’t get me started.”
The murmur of conversation further down the hallway dwindled. Silence, and the sound of footsteps.
Ellie, making her exit.
“Paige and Peter,” the man in scrubs said.
Paige’s eyebrows went up.
“Lumped in with the twin,” I noted.
Paige forced a smile to her face. “I’m a little terrified. Here goes. Wish me luck.”
“Paige,” Molly said.
“Don’t. I can’t explain it. It would sound dumb if I did, but don’t take the offer.”
“Paige?” the man in scrubs asked. Peter was standing next to him. Blond, like Paige, the same height and build, even the same general shape to his face. But when Uncle Paul and Aunt Steph had split up, each one had taken one of the twins. Peter was a little rougher-edged, at a glance, somehow older, and very much like Ellie, who had joined him in going to their mom, he didn’t look like he’d ever worn anything remotely formal.
He and Paige entered together.
Molly and I were left alone, at the end of the hallway. The volume of conversation in the hallway gradually rose. Whispered words to allies, barbs directed at enemies.
When I spoke, my words were closer to a whisper, a murmur. “Hey, Moll? What’s going on?”
“Don’t know if you remember, or heard, but my mom moved us here. Podunk nowhereville, so we’d be closer. Another play, a maneuver, to try to get an advantage. So Callan, me and Chris, we’ve actually been here regularly. Usually when mom invited herself over.”
“I figured it was something like that,” I said.
“I don’t think Callan really gets it, but he moved a few years in. Chris and I have gone to school here. There’s a vibe. Too many things that don’t fit. Complete strangers knowing who I am and not liking me right off the bat. Does that make sense?”
“Sure. It’s about the property.”
“More than the property. It’s about old ladies glaring at me. Kids going after Chris on the playground, and it’s too quick, too mean, too intense, for me to feel like it makes any sense. Feeling like I’m surrounded whenever I’m outside. Like a third of the people around here have decided we’re their mortal enemies.”
I could remember my nights on the streets. Finding a place to set up camp, out of anyone else’s way. Even with the city lights, it was hard not to feel like danger was lurking just out of sight, waiting until my eyes were closed. In quieter areas, where the glow of the city hadn’t been there, where deeper shadows could have hidden anything, the feeling had been all the more intense.
Twice, I’d even been right. Both times, it had been people. The worst types of people. I still had scars. Some were physical.
I could imagine how Molly might feel, facing a watered down version of the same situation. Being bullied by a whole community, being somewhere where anyone could be hostile without the slightest provocation.
“You are their mortal enemy, Molly. We are. It’s a small town, people obsess over the smallest things, and this is a big deal to people. When you’re alone, feeling vulnerable to begin with, it’s scarier. I don’t want to make it out to be less than it is-”
“That’s not what I mean,” she interrupted.
“It’s… what it is, Molly. Trust me. Small communities have done scary stuff before, with little rhyme or reason. You’re spooked, you have a reason to be spooked. It’s legit. But don’t lose sight of the issue at the root of this whole business.”
She looked so abjectly miserable, standing there, restless, nervous.
“It’s almost over,” I tried to reassure her.
“I’m-” she started, then she stopped. She glanced back. “I’m going to go sit. I need to get my head clear before my turn comes up.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m really glad you’re okay, Blake,” she said.
“Thanks,” I responded.
I watched her make her way back to her seat.
Damn them. Damn it all.
I could feel the anger stirring, again. Anger at my uncle and aunts, at my parents, at everything here.
It got worse instead of better, as I waited.
When the door opened and both Paige and Peter stepped out, the arguing started right away.
“Fuck you, Peter. Fuck you!” Paige said. Even from the far end of the hallway, there were tears in her eyes.
Peter smirked. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
“You don’t know anything, you asshole. Fuck you! I needed this.”
“Ellie needs it more.”
“Ellie needs it because she’s a fuckup that hasn’t worked a day in her life. I’m trying to go to school, Peter! You make up bald-faced lies, to sink me? You’re supposed to be my twin!”
Her voice went a little shrill at the end there.
“What? You thought I’d be on your side? You only need money because Paul had too many kids to take care of any of them. Isn’t that right, Dad?”
“I think you and Ellie have demonstrated you aren’t worth the effort,” Uncle Paul said, his voice low. He’d approached Paige, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder.
She stepped away, instead. She was crying, now. “I thought you’d at least play fair, Peter. Maybe you have to be loyal to Ellie because you grew up with her, but I thought you’d be fair, with me. We’re supposed to have a connection.”
“You hear about twins eating one another in the womb,” Peter said. “Maybe I got some of your brains, huh? Because that’s fucking stupid.”
Paige stared at him, incredulous. Then she slapped him, hard.
It was the catalyst for this entire thing to become a full-on fight. Not sniping one another, not lacing casual statements with words meant to cut. Shouting, Aunt Steph trying to grab Paige, and Paige ducking out of reach, running instead.
I was already running, myself, trying to catch up.
The man in scrubs, the bystander, stepped in, getting in my way. He bellowed a single word. “Stop!”
All fell momentarily silent. There was only the sound of Paige’s feet hitting the stairs as she made her way down.
I made my way through the group, and Molly did too.
“Molly,” the man at the door said. “She’s asking for you next.”
Molly and I both stopped. She looked paler than before.
Paige was emotionally wounded, Molly deathly afraid.
All of the rest of them, too, bristling, on edge.
“It’s my turn,” I said. “I’m Blake Rosine. Go after Paige, Molly. I don’t think I’ll be long.”
“Cutting in, Blake?” Callan asked. “I think you were lying, about not wanting any of this.”
I gave him the finger. When I looked, Molly gave me a nod, before breaking into a run to chase Paige.
The man in scrubs ducked behind the door to say something, then reappeared. “She says it’s fine, Blake.”
I made my way into the bedroom, and the door slammed shut behind me, more because of the weight of the solid wood than any intention on my part.
Grandmother doesn’t look like someone who’s about to die. The room smelled of flowers and fresh air, from the windows that opened just above the garden.
She had been propped up in a sitting position in her bed, leaning against an arrangement of pillows. She was dressed in an old fashioned nightgown that extended to her broomstick-thin wrists, her hair tied back in a tight bun. Her eyes were sharp as they studied me, and her hands were steady as they raised a teacup to her lips. Her nurse stood to her left in his scrubs, her lawyer to her right was an Indian man in an immaculate suit. Her cat, maybe the largest housecat I’d ever seen, gray and well groomed, lay with its head in her lap.
She studied me, judging me, with a cool, calculating gaze.
“Well, this is refreshing,” she finally said. Her voice was clear. Not an old person’s voice. Certainly not a ninety-year old’s. “It feels like all the rest of them are dressed like they can’t wait for my funeral. Or maybe they’re too cheap to buy two outfits for the occasion.”
“With all due respect,” I said, picking my words carefully, “I don’t give a flying fuck, you disgusting, evil, rancid cunt.”
I could see the nurse tense, though the lawyer didn’t react. The feigned politeness disappeared from my grandmother’s face. Again, she raised the teacup to her mouth to sip from it. She handed it to the nurse, who turned away very reluctantly, to prepare another cup on the trolley beneath the window.
“Are you done?” she asked.
“I’m thinking both of us are very lucky you have these two men here,” I said. I put one of my feet up on the wooden chest at the foot of the bed, pointing at the trolley. “Because I’m angry enough I wouldn’t be above throwing that pitcher of water in your face.”
“I think that’s crude,” she said. “A more civilized person would use words to attack me.”
“What words are going to matter? What am I going to say that’s going to make an impact on you? Honestly, what am I going to do that’s going to make you recognize even an iota of the pain you’ve caused everyone out there?”
“And the pain I’ve caused you?” she asked. “You’re most likely right, I suppose. There’s very little that someone could say that would shake me.”
“You don’t deserve to die with dignity, you bitch,” I said. “And none of them are going to say it, because you’re playing them. Since I’m the only one that doesn’t give a fuck about the money, I figure I’m the only one that can come here and say it how it is. You’re scum, and you’re the one thing at the root of everything that’s going on out there.”
I pointed at the door. I could almost hear the shouting on the other side.
“I would argue they are at the roots of their individual problems. I didn’t make them petty, I didn’t make them greedy,” she said. She sighed a little. “This ridiculous money business.”
“You took advantage of those things, making all of this one big fucked up game. Laying down the rule, that only one person gets the property and the millions from selling it. Then you say it has to be a grandchild-“
“My children are useless,” she said. She was so dismissive and casual about it.
“-And then you drop the bomb that it has to be a girl. You broke up this family, you did it strategically. You set us tooth and nail against one another, and now you’re enjoying tearing the others down, ruining their hopes.”
She sniffed, but she smiled. I almost wanted to hit her. I wouldn’t, but I wanted to.
The nurse handed her the cup of tea. She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Rich.”
‘Rich’ turned my way. “I can offer you a cup as well, if you promise not to throw it at her.”
“Don’t offer me anything, then,” I said. I looked at my grandmother. “I don’t want anything she has to offer. Not tea, not the inheritance-“
“To clarify,” she said, “I’ve stressed repeatedly that it’s a female grandchild that will get the inheritance.”
“I’m not about to rule out the fact that you’re messing with us, Grandmother. I could see you handing something over to Callan just to see our reactions. Not to mention the trouble I’m having with the ‘I’m dying’ bit, which you’re doing a really bad job of selling.”
If anything I’d said had an impact, it was that. I could see the faint amusement drop away from her. “Are you accusing me of being a liar, Master Blake?”
I’d never heard anyone say something archly, but she pulled it off. She even said ‘Master Blake’ like it was nothing, as though she used titles as a matter of habit.
“I’m saying there isn’t anything I’d put past you.”
She sighed, a faint sound, and her cat reacted to the movement. “Close to the truth, I admit, but I consider myself honest, if nothing else.”
“Weren’t you a lawyer?”
“I am a lawyer, Master Blake, and I expect to be one until I pass on. I’m disappointed that you would make assumptions about a whole profession.”
I didn’t have a ready reply to that. I glanced at the nurse, who was shifting from foot to foot nervously. Was he uncomfortable with the friction?
“Well,” she said, “I take it you’re not going to apologize?”
“You first,” I told her. “It’s going to take you a while, so you should start sooner than later.”
She sipped her tea, winced at the heat, licking her thin lips with her tongue, and then leaned back against the arrangement of pillows.
“You remind me of my father,” she said. “He had passion, and an interest in justice.”
“He fucked his cousin, if I remember right.”
She smiled a little, “You heard of that? Yes. That would be him.”
“What are you doing, Grandmother? You want to build a rapport? Form a connection, when you’ve ignored us from the beginning?”
“I only want to understand my grandchildren before I make my decision.”
“Too bad. You’re not going to figure us out in the next day or so. What you should do is sell the property. Let the town knock down the house, level the hill, drain the marshland and expand like they need to, make them happy. Split the money between your kids and grandkids, make us happy. You want to light a fire under everyone and see them react? That’s how you do it. Then, maybe just a bit, you’ll earn a measure of forgiveness.”
“Not an option,” she said. She stroked the cat, scratching him at the lowest part of his back, just in front of his tail. “The house stands. I’m picking the young lady who I feel can look after it.”
“Then pick Paige,” I said. “She’s smart, she’s hard working, she’s independent. If you’re looking for a clone of yourself to inherit the place, to look after it, I’m betting she’ll fit the bill pretty well. She’s not a bitch, but I imagine you’ll have to make some concessions. Besides, if anyone can squeeze a few dollars out of this stone, without breaking the rules you set, it’s her. Get bribes from people, maybe, or figure out a way to keep the house while still draining the marsh, so she can go to law school.”
“Paige is out of the running,” my grandmother said. “Who else?”
I stared at her.
“You’re enjoying this. Playing us,” I finally said.
“I wouldn’t recommend jumping to conclusions, Blake. Dangerous business.”
“Look me in the eye, then, if you’re so honest, and tell me you don’t. That you don’t get some measure of glee or satisfaction out of this.”
She looked me square in the eye.
Yet she didn’t say a word.
“Thought so,” I said. “Bye, grandmother. When you do die, I hope it sucks.”
I turned to leave.
“Blake,” she said.
I stopped, my hand on the doorknob. I regretted it the moment I paused..
“When you first spoke to me, you said, ‘All due respect’. Did you mean it?”
I didn’t look at her. “All due respect, you’re a festering old cunt? One hundred percent.”
That said, I opened the door, and I slammed it behind me with enough force that pictures rattled on the walls.
My family was there, staring.
“If anyone needs me,” I said, very deliberately looking at Paige and Molly, who were standing together at the edge of the group, Molly’s arm around Paige’s shoulders. “I’m going to be outside, by the entrance.”
I made my way out of the house, down the long driveway, and settled with my back to the wall beside my bike.
I couldn’t bring myself to nap. A good night’s sleep in my place with the doors and windows firmly locked was hard enough. But I dozed, my eyes half open, a bit of a burden lifted from my shoulders.
It was well after dark when someone stepped outside to talk to me. I closed out of the puzzle game I was playing on my phone. The brightness of the screen made for a dark patch that lingered in my vision as I looked up.
Eleven-fifty at night.
“She wants us all together,” Paige said.
“Do you want to give her what she wants?” I asked, not moving.
“I’d really like some backup,” she said. All of her confidence from before was gone. “If it’s Molly that’s picked, then I can’t get the support from her, you know?”
“I know,” I said. I stood, stretching, and I was pretty sure that I’d feel stiffness in a spot or two tomorrow. “No explanation needed. I get it.”
“Thanks,” she said.
We made our way back up the driveway. I wished I had an idea of what to say, but nothing sprung to mind. Paige was too much of a stranger, in some ways. Three years was a long time.
This time, everyone had gathered in the bedroom.
Paige and I joined Molly. Paige and Molly held hands.
“I have to say, I’m painfully disappointed,” my grandmother said.
Nobody had words to reply.
“Don’t worry. The feeling is mutual,” I said.
My aunts and uncle, along with several of the older cousins, stared at me.
“Molly,” my grandmother said.
“No,” Molly responded.
“Until you’re twenty-five, the estate and all materials herein, my accounts, and all other pertinent materials enclosed in the documents,” my grandmother tapped the papers the lawyer held, “will be managed by Mr. Beasley and his firm. For that time period, you retain control over those assets, with free access to the full funds, modest as they are, and full access to all things relating to the property, excepting the ability to sell it. When you turn twenty-five, you may do with it as you wish.”
“I don’t want it,” Molly said, stepping forward.
“Molly! Don’t be rash!” Aunt Irene admonished her.
“I don’t want it,” Molly said, again. She grabbed the footboard of the bed. “No.“
“Molly, don’t be silly.”
“If you don’t want any of it, then you remain free to ignore it,” my grandmother said. “Mr. Beasley? Is everything in order? Provisos, follow-up?”
“Everything’s signed and arranged.”
My grandmother nodded. “Rich, you’ve been wonderful. I set aside some money already, to thank you.”
The nurse looked stunned. He looked at my family. “No. It’s not allowed.”
“I insist. Take it and give it to a favorite charity, if you must.”
Even then, he looked a little taken aback.
He probably thinks my family’s going to come after him if he accepts.
She probably plotted this. Hurting us by favoring the nurse over us.
“If Molly doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” Callan said. “She can sign over the rights-“
“Fuck you,” Ellie said.
“Granny? Why didn’t you pick me?” Little Roxanne piped up.
I felt Paige clutch my hand tight.
“You okay?” I murmured.
Grim, her mouth set in a line, eyes on the floor, Paige nodded.
“Granny!” Roxanne raised her voice, more than a little shrill. “You don’t love me enough to give me anything?”
So that was her angle. Everyone was making a play, and the youngest of the grandchildren that could speak was making the ‘sweetheart’ play. Or the entitled brat play, depending on perspective. Misdirected, considering who my grandmother was, but that hardly mattered.
My grandmother hadn’t reacted. I frowned.
“Blake?” my dad asked. “Where are you staying tonight?”
“Going home,” I said.
“If you wanted to have a late dinner and stay over-“
“No,” I said. “I don’t want that.”
“Alright,” he said.
I watched as the nurse approached the bedside. He touched my grandmother’s hand.
Things went quiet very quickly.
Nurse Rich looked at his watch. “Two past twelve.”
The arguing had distracted him. The time was off by two minutes.
My grandmother and her cat were both dead.
“I need to go make a phone call,” the nurse said. He strode from the room.
Silence followed, broken only by the footsteps of the nurse in the hallway, and the shuffling of papers as the lawyer put things away in a messenger bag.
“Listen,” my uncle said, broaching the near-silence. “We should have a sit down, talk about the sale of the property, when the time comes, a division of the funds-“
Aunt Irene barked out a laugh. “Oh, now you talk about dividing up the proceeds? I seem to recall, only a few hours ago, that you told me it wouldn’t work.”
More arguing, more stupidity.
Why had I told myself it would be over?
“Get out,” Molly said, her voice hard.
“You heard my daughter,” Aunt Irene said. “Out. It’s her house and her say.”
“You too,” Molly said. “Everyone out.”
“She can’t do that,” Uncle Paul said. “We were invited here.”
“I could call the authorities, Miss Rosine,” the lawyer suggested. “For the time being, I’m at your service.”
“There wouldn’t be a point,” Uncle Paul said.
“Just go,” Molly said. “Go. You’re not going to scheme your way into any deals here. You’re not going to get some advantage or screw me out of my deal. Not tonight. I’m done talking, I’m done listening. Go, and leave me alone, and when you’ve figured out a plan of attack, run it by my lawyer first. Not me.”
Slowly, the aunts and uncles, my mother and father, and the various grandchildren filtered out of the room.
Paige squeezed my hand, and then broke contact, leaving the room.
“Molly,” I said. “Hey.”
She looked up at me. She looked spooked, even now.
“Why is the cat dead?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was dead all along, and she was fucking with us.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Listen, Molly, family’s supposed to support each other. I figured I’d offer some support. I don’t have anywhere to be, no obligations. If you’re worried about locals giving you a hard time, whatever you need, I can stick around.”
“Uh huh,” Callan said, from the doorway. “Clever bastard. You don’t want the property. You want to scheme your way in with whoever else gets the place.”
“Fuck off, Callan,” I said.
But I could see the expression on Molly’s face change.
Doubt. Only a little doubt.
“I don’t want to deal with any of this. With any of that. Of this.”
“Okay,” I said. “The lawyer has my number. Ask him, get in touch, anything you need. Okay?”
I was the last one to leave. Molly followed me down, and stood in awkward silence as I pulled on my boots.
“Bye,” I said. “Good seeing you.”
“Bye, Blake.” she said.
The door swung shut. My view of her and the lawyer in the background narrowing, then disappearing entirely.
I made my way down the path. My Uncle’s car pulled out, and I saw the younger kids in the windows, staring at me.
I stopped short as I saw my bike.
Tipped over in a way that had scraped it hard against the stone wall. Headlight and taillight broken.
Trying to think of whether I had seen any garages nearby, or whether they’d even be open at this hour, I started the agonizingly slow journey to downtown Jacob’s Bell.
Four months later.
There was a pause. Glances were exchanged down both lengths of the table. On one side, women and girls of varying ages, all blonde, in matching shades of green, white and blue. On the other, appearances varied. Men and women, old and young. Hair color and appearance varied, but there was little doubt they were a family.
“Huh,” the man at the one end of the table said. A member of the family. “I’d hoped she would slip in her old age. A shame, she made other arrangements.”
The blonde woman opposite him folded her hands in front of her. “That was… noteworthy in scale. Kind of her to point the way, but she was never crude. We’ll need to know what she did before we move on.”
“Agreed,” the man said. He opened a pocketwatch, glancing inside. “For now, let it be. There is enough at stake here that someone is bound to make a play.”
The blonde woman nodded. She turned her attention to the pair on either side of her, a blonde girl and a dark haired boy. reaching out for their hands. “I believe we were talk about wedding plans?”
Another scene, not too far away.
Lopsided, everything turned to a right angle. A house, messy, with pizza boxes and garbage here and there. Two twenty-something individuals, a boy and a girl, approached, getting so close their faces filled the field of vision.
A lurch, and the view was righted.
“Something big just happened,” the girl said. “Told you. Just now, I told you.”
“You’ve been ‘telling’ me for a while now. This doesn’t mean we should do anything.”
“You’ve got no balls, Andy. No balls. We should investigate, and, just to be safe, we should investigate with weapons in hand.”
“I don’t- no, Eva. This is dangerous, and-”
“And what? We should ignore it all?”
“So are we, little brother. So are we,” she said. She opened the ledge beneath the living room window, hefting a crossbow. She threw it at him.
“Fuck!” he shouted. “Eva!”
“It’s not loaded, dink,” she said. She picked up a revolver, then spun the chamber. “What should we bring? Silver bullets, inscribed bullets, incendiary bullets…”
“Cold-forged iron,” he responded, a little sullen. “Bone. Paper. Every other follows different rule. What looks like a goblin could be a demon, or a wraith, or a glamour. I mean, you remember those ‘vampires’ from out west.”
“Faerie with a thing for boring teenage virgins? Sure.”
“You’re not getting what I’m saying. If they can fool themselves into thinking they’re vampires, and believe it to the point it becomes sort of true, sparkly skin aside, then they can fool us. This is what bothers me about all this. You can’t make any guarantees, you can’t slap on convenient labels. It’s why we call them others. You can’t plot-”
“We can try. And if we can murder self-deluding faerie, we can murder whatever this is.”
“Even if it’s human?”
“You’re supposed to be the smart one in this partnership. Anything that can knock the metronome over isn’t human anymore, or it won’t be for long. Let’s assume I’m going out anyways, what do I need?”
Andy sat down, leaning back. He sighed heavily. “Bring everything? Might as well bring me.”
“Now we’re talking,” Eva said, smiling.
A third scene.
“What the drat was that?” A girl asked. She stood in the snowy field, her checkered scarf frozen hard. “It felt like something moved.”
“Someone moved,” a young man responded. “Come on, now. You know better. Everything has a price when you’re dealing with this world, Maggie. Even answers to stupid questions.”
“Right. Thanks,” she said. “I’ll figure it out myself, Padraic. I hope it’s a noob. Be nice to not be the rookie on the block.”
“Funny thing, Maggie,” Padraic said, and when he smiled, the expression extended further than it should have. The smile too wide, the eyes too long and narrow. “When something momentous occurs, it can be the equivalent of lighting up the night sky, scattering fog and clouds to the horizons. You can see more clearly… but when you look, they can look back, too.”
Maggie went stiff. “They’re watching. And listening. Darn it. Now I’m going to have to do something.”
“I’ll give you that one for free. It was worth it, to see that expression on your face.”
He reached out, to touch her face, and she slapped his hand aside, hard. The small impact banished the scene.
A girl or a woman, swaddled in winter clothes. Shouting, pointing.
The individual on the receiving end was a rabbit, sitting on a snow-covered rock.
The rabbit turned, and the girl turned to look in the same direction.
Bending down, she reached through the snow until she found a stone. She threw it right for the center of the ‘image’, breaking the ‘picture’.
A weathered aboriginal woman, brushing a young girl’s hair with a broad-toothed comb. It might have been an ordinary scene, except it was the dead of night.
She picked up a chain, then shackled the girl at the wrist. She noted the observer, then scattered the image with a wave of one hand.
A man, sitting on a throne, a tall, long-nosed, long-haired dog at his side. The room at the top of the tower was subject to strong winds, and his long hair blew as the dog’s did.
Below, the small village sprawled. Jacob’s Bell. Except things were different. A twisted reflection of the buildings, with embellishments and decorations. Arches, steepled roofs, pointed roofs that curled and bent in zig-zags. All lit up in crimson sunset.
The other visions had been at night.
The dog looked up. “Johannes.”
“Mm,” the man in the throne said. “‘Lo, stranger. Listen, I don’t think you should believe what any of them say about me. If you need help, I can offer it.”
“For a price,” the dog added.
“For a price. Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw, you’re in a bad enough situation as it stands. Now do yourself a favor and wake up.”
I sat up in bed.
That feeling Molly had described, four months ago? Being surrounded? I could feel it.
I felt like I had when I had been homeless, sleeping under the bridge, where there weren’t any lights to break up the oppressive darkness.
Resist the urge to dismiss what you just saw.
I stood up from bed, staggering for the bathroom.
It wasn’t my face in the mirror above the sink. Nor my body. A girl looked at me, her forehead creased in worry. She was wearing a camisole and pyjama bottoms. She looked strangely familiar.
I had to touch my own chest and face to verify it wasn’t my reflection. I was shirtless, wearing different pants. Her movements didn’t follow mine.
Instead, her fist struck the other side of the mirror. When she spoke, it was only a little muffled.
“Run,” she said. “Get to the house, now.”
“Which house? Who-”
“Molly’s dead,” she said. “You’re next.”
The conviction in her voice left me with no doubt she was telling the truth.
My voice was thin as I responded. “Molly’s dead? She was supposed to call if there was trouble.”
“Blake, I get it. I do. But you’re next, understand? Grandmother made other arrangements, and those arrangements just came into play. The house is in your custody now, and so are all of Grandmother’s enemies. Understand? She has a lot. The house is sanctuary, Blake. Molly died because she panicked, and she left the safe ground. Don’t make that same mistake. Move. Run.”
“Run!” She hit the mirror, and it cracked from the point of impact. Pieces on my end fell, landing on the countertop and sink.