My stepdad Steven’s job is largely remote, so it was no problem for him to relocate. Mom is a stay-at-home mom for Tabby; her job “traveled” too. As for me, they unenrolled me from school just a month before sophomore year ended.
When you’re a major screw-up, it helps if your stepdad has an ancestral mansion in England ready to move into. Well, not exactly ready. It’s been uninhabited for a long time and needs some sincere TLC, I heard him tell Mom. He’d been trying to sell it for years. But at least it’s a place to live, and a place for me to reflect on my behavior and improve it.
My therapy would be a lot more effective if I could remember what I did.
* * * * *
Emerging from the tunnel of trees to the clearing where we could finally see my stepfather’s manor, I let out a moan of disillusionment. This wasn’t the crumbling but still impressive castle surrounded by broad, grassy lawns I’d imagined back in California, with swans wafting snootily around a lily-ponded lake. Instead, it was a grim, stone-walled prison with the grounds so overgrown they were nearly impenetrable.
I had allowed myself to become interested, had thought there was a lovely poetry to the phrase, “ancestral mansion in England.” But nothing could quell the immediate sense of grinding apprehension the manor gave me. Nothing about it felt right.
As we drove up into its shadow, the manor leaned down over us to look. More than idly curious, it was practically rubbing its leathern hands together in glee. Visitors. Finally.
It was built in the shape of a U, and it was hard to see where exactly one of the wings ended since it was lost somewhere to our left in a thick group of trees. The central courtyard that we inched along was cobblestoned, the size of a grand but cheerless park.
“Um, how many ancestors did you have?” I asked.
“It does seem large for one family,” Steven answered, sighing and looking at Mom. “The Arnauds were very powerful and wealthy in the early 1700s when this was built.”
“And the size of our family….” said Mom. Steven reached over and touched her cheek.
“We’ll make it work,” he said. He parked the car, turned off the engine, and got out. Mom sat there for a while, then turned around to check on Tabitha, my little sister, still sleeping in her car seat.
I got out and looked up at the Arnaud house while Steven started pulling luggage out of a hard plastic carrier atop the car. When I looked all the way to the top of the manor, my neck strained with the effort, my head hanging back heavily. God, how big is this place? There were hundreds of windows, dozens of gables and a million stone designs of birds and beasts carved into the dark stone walls.
The manor’s heavy breath stirred the hairs on the back of my neck. It surveyed me. It examined Mom and Steven and Tabby. Each of the windows looked smeared with time, but it seemed like the house could still see through them.
It would be easy to get lost in a house that size – and no one would find you.
I turned around and looked at the forest that surrounded it, ragged with illicit shrubs. It didn’t look like any gardeners came to take care of this overwrought mess.
“No neighbors?” Mom asked.
Steven shook his head. “I think the original landholdings were even larger. There’s no one else around for miles. This is the only house on Auldkirk Lane.”
Mom unbuckled Tabby and pulled her out. “Welcome to your new home, sweetie,” she said. My little sister rubbed her gray eyes, which were huge in her tiny face. She was wearing a headband with a pink flower on it, crooked from her nap. When she turned her head to look at the manor, I could see a tuft of snarled auburn hair in the back.
Steven grabbed the biggest suitcase, my mom’s. I expected him to head towards the double wooden doors that clearly marked the main entry, but he ducked into a smaller door on the right wing, marked with a small stone roof.
“You’ll be relieved,” he called over his shoulder, “to see our quarters aren’t quite as ancient as the rest of the house. The information the real estate people sent me was that there is a very comfortable living space in the east wing.”
Mom and Tabby went inside directly behind him, and I heard Mom coo in amazement. I hesitated outside, unwilling to go through the portal and enter the house’s influence. I waited, listening to the wind sing through the tree canopy. This was our new home. Because of me.
I lowered my head and followed them in—and saw why Mom was so surprised.
It was completely modern inside. Well, modern as of the 1970s. The living room had plaid and leather sofas, adorned with small circular pillows. The rug was a shag sunrise, as the colors moved in a rippling line from pale yellow to bright gold. Giant orbs hung on linked chains from the ceiling, hovering over the furniture to provide lighting.
Mom and I walked into the kitchen, which had avocado-colored appliances. She tried out the stove’s gas burners with a little smile. “Well, at least I won’t have to use a cauldron,” she murmured.
Behind the kitchen was a den, with a pigeon-holed desk, a leather armchair and a standing floor lamp whose lampshade was decorated with orange and brown stripes.
I looked for the bedrooms next. Oddly, there was a nursery already with a crib and a dresser with waddling ducks painted on each drawer. I had to think: had Steven said he’d been born in this house? Maybe this had been his room once.
There was also a master bedroom, oversized and smelling slightly stuffy, that was clearly not for me, and then my room.
It had a twin bed covered in a bright green spread, with matching carpet. If the room had windows, I was sure the drapes would have been the same glaring green. The effect was that I was a worm that had burrowed into the dark heart of a lime.
On the plus side, the room was as large as a master suite, and the tiny bed viewed from the door looked like a forgotten slipper in a queen’s dressing room. My room in California had been pretty small; this had possibility. I could have a lot of friends over. That is, if I could make some here in Grenshire.
I didn’t mind leaving behind my stuff; everything was from Ikea anyway. Maybe Mom and I could cruise yard sales and do a shabby chic thing for my room.
A mirror hung above the dresser. I didn’t look that bad, considering everything I’d been through. My long auburn hair was still reasonably wavy and I didn’t need concealer to hide circles under my green eyes.
I’m not a knock-out but last year I did manage to snag one of the hottest guys in school, Richard Spees. Total surprise to me because I’m not the kind of girl that makes guys stop in the hallway at school and pivot to keep their eyes on you. I’ve seen that happen a lot, but never to me.
Luckily, I’m an athlete—a swimmer—so at least I don’t worry about my weight, although I would really, really like to get rid of that one huge mole right in my cleavage. What little there is of that, that is. I definitely fail the pencil test Bethany told me about–it’s when you put a pencil horizontally under your boob and see if it stays by itself.
I read constantly, and subsequently have the kind of vocabulary that makes English teachers’ eyes light up (which doesn’t exactly help with the guys, but I can’t prevent the stuff that comes out of my mouth). Last year I took a creative writing class, and found something I thought I could be good at. I could be a swimming author. A literary mermaid.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t mind the color scheme, but there was hardly any light in the room. Why no windows? It sucked not to be able to get some fresh air. Maybe whoever designed this was worried about teens sneaking out the window at night.
I returned to the living room with a big sigh. “My room’s acid green,” I announced. No one said anything, and I grit my teeth. They would see it as a complaint, and here I was trying to be a better daughter. Mom and Steven’s parenting technique: anything verging on whining was ignored. “It’s okay,” I amended. “Green’s good.”
Still no response.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Steven rescued me. “Any interest in seeing the rest of the house?” he asked, holding up what looked like floorplans.
“Yeah,” I said. I gave him a big smile, but he wasn’t ready to return it. Parents are so big on that punishment thing.
“Not right now,” said Mom. “You go along. I’ll stay with Tabby.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “My guess is, it’s not the safest place for babies. You scout it out first.”
“I don’t imagine it’s babyproofed,” he said drily, and she laughed.
“Tell me if you see those medieval outlet covers,” she said.
“Medieval? It’s not that old,” he protested.
“Could’ve fooled me,” she said with a grin.
“All right,” he said. “If I’m not back in an hour, call the fire department because I’ve probably fallen through a rotten floorboard.”
“That’s all I need,” she said. “Seriously, be safe.”
He kissed her and Tabby, and went back outside, with me following behind. The air was a little cooler now that it was late afternoon. I straightened my back; was someone watching me? It didn’t help that the light was fading prematurely thanks to the intense foliage. The shadows of leaves agitated by the wind made strange patterns on the ground.
“Twilight at the haunted mansion,” Steven intoned in a deep voice, and then he chuckled.
“Not so funny,” I said. “There’s a legitimate creep factor here.”
He led me towards those big main doors I had seen before, and pulled from his pocket an enormous, antique-looking key. A man’s anguished face made of iron was the lock; the key went into his open mouth. He looked like he was in the midst of a scream, and the key was meant to be his gag.
The doors were heavy. Steven’s face turned red as he pushed one of them inward. It groaned like it hadn’t been opened in centuries.
“Are you sure we should go in?” I asked.
“It’ll be good to get some fresh air circulating,” he said quietly.
Inside, holy crap. Huge. Dynastically huge. The entry hall with its vaulted ceiling was so large I could have thrown a rock with all my strength and it would only get halfway across the floor. The stones forming the floor were arranged in patterns of dark gray and lighter gray, creating a somber chessboard stretching into the distance.
The grand staircase at the other end was wide enough to hold dozens of people on each riser, and the chandelier hovering over us was so full of glass and iron that if it fell it would plow through the bedrock beneath the flooring, like a meteor. A fireplace filled most of one wall, large enough to roast several standing horses—you know, if you ever wanted to.
The air felt museum-like. Cold. I tried to imagine the hall filled with life, lots of people in high ruffled collars smiling and laughing, and the sound of carriages rolling up to the entry outside, but all I could think was that all of them were long dead, and their dresses and breeches had rotted into sticky threads.
“Hello!” shouted Steven to the ceiling. It echoed back at him seconds later.
I wished he hadn’t done that. It seemed—I don’t know—just really wrong somehow. He started towards the stairs, and when he was halfway there, I ran to catch up with him. It was a long enough run that I was out of breath when I got there—and I’m the girl that can hold her breath. My lungs are hard as canteens from all my years of swimming.
I practically needed my passport to cross that room. The leaded glass windows, at varying levels in the walls, let in a filtered sunlight that made the place more disturbing. Gigantic cobwebs, or maybe they were spiderwebs, hung everywhere stretched between light sconces like an ethereal tapestry.
The stairs were steep but seemed to draw me upwards. Come in, come in.
I remembered my initial aversion to entering the manor…and now I was climbing up into its timeworn center. Some sort of invitation was being issued to me. Something lonely was made glad by our visit.
Steven climbed ahead of me; I kept some distance between us in case he started to fall. I didn’t want to be a pair of dominos with him.
Halfway up, I turned and looked down. Vertigo overcame me, wavering there on the steps. For a second I was so sure I was going to fall that I clutched for the banister, furred with grime. After I steadied myself, I rubbed my hands on my jeans.
At the top of the stairs, I took a good look at the stained glass window that presided over the landing. Etched at the bottom was “XXX,” which made me snort because the image depicted was hardly X-rated. It showed two medieval knights. One was thrusting a spear into the other, who was rearing up with his sword. It looked like the one being impaled was going to seriously damage the other one when the sword came down.
Steven turned left, where he opened another double set of doors. We entered what had once been a ballroom. The curtains covering the floor-to-ceiling windows hung in shreds, their fibers simply too old to keep their shape against the sun’s endless onslaught. The floor was parquet, of black and white marble.
A trickle of sweat rolled from my temple. I felt like we were trespassing and were about to get caught at any minute. I wished Steven would walk a little more softly, but his heavy oxford shoes created their own small echo.
At the other end of the long room was an organ, large as a church’s. It dominated the space looking like a miniature factory with all its pipes and bellows.
Steven took off his sweatshirt and used it to sweep dust off the organ bench. A cloud enveloped him and he began sneezing. “This better be worth it,” he said. “I actually really like this shirt.” His voice sounded brittle in the huge space.
He sat down and began pushing his feet alternately on two large, slanted wooden panels on the floor. I could hear a sort of wheeze or breath deep within the organ as it came to life. He pressed down one of the keys. Nothing happened, but as he continued to work the pedals, he pressed again and a slender noise came. As he pumped life into the mechanism, music emerged, his fingers moving swiftly over the keys, jumping from octave to octave. He performed something I recognized from the classical music station he always played in the car.
He pulled a round lever that said “Vox Humana” and the sound instantly changed, became eerily like monks singing in the distance, their voices drifting up from the monastery walls.
“I didn’t know you could play,” I said. He was a master, and I’d never seen him so much as look at a piano before, other than Tabby’s four-key toy in the shape of a blue hippopotamus.
“God, it’s been a long time,” he said. He pressed another pedal and the sound became louder.
“You’ll wake the dead,” I said. I leaned over his right shoulder and tried to play my own chord. To his credit, he didn’t try to rearrange my fingers like my old piano teacher used to. But he had already stopped working the pedals, so I didn’t get to hear how monstrous and discordant my guess was.
The profound silence of the vast house settled around us. I had the strange feeling that the house or maybe the organ had not appreciated his sudden, forceful playing… as if he hadn’t been respectful.
Please, get real, I told myself. The house isn’t angry at us.
Steven stood up and the organ bench gave a stilted screech at the redistribution of weight. He tied his filthy sweatshirt around his waist and led me through an arched wooden door set in the side wall.
“Holy shit,” I said, and then clapped my hand to my mouth. I waited for his usual “Watch your mouth,” but maybe he was thinking the same thing. This room was probably as big as the ballroom, but divided into three levels of bookshelves, ascending all the way up to the ceiling. The number of books was overpowering, and so was their odor. They were moldering, page by page, moisture making its way from the preface all the way through to the epilogue. Railings fenced in the three levels, making them resemble Spanish balconies. Narrow, rickety staircases—almost more like ladders—led up to each floor.
I climbed one of the staircases to see what kind of books rich people read in the 1700s. At the top level, I looked down at Steven, noticing the bald spot that his height normally hid, at least from me. He was reading the titles on one of the shelves, so I did the same, turning randomly to stare at the spines. Surprise: they were in French. But as I walked carefully across the balcony I saw some English titles too, like The Governance of Servants and Quelling Insubordination.
After I came down, we walked room to room in silence, as if a deaf-mute real estate agent led us. The glut of rooms was dizzying: some chambers elevated by a few steps, other sunken. The house was a beehive with these dark cells, interlocking and all part of one cohesive whole. I imagined a gigantic queen bee, mistress of the hive, loping ahead of us, dragging her useless wings, to not get caught.
Once, after consulting his map, Steven knelt at a paneled wall and exposed what looked to be a cupboard but was actually the beginning of a passageway. After staring into its black depths for a moment, he closed it and said, “No thanks.” I laughed in agreement. Too claustrophobic.
At times, he jogged forward; at times, I had to stop and wait for him. I kept imagining hearing the swish of those giant bee wings, or maybe more like the sound of skirts, the way a small train would drag along the floor.
Finally we emerged somehow back in the Great Hall. It took me a second to recognize it from the different perspective.
“And that was just one wing of the house,” said Steven. “Holy Christ.”
I raised my eyebrows. Steven didn’t usually swear in front of me. “You want to do the rest?” I asked. “I’m not tired.”
He matter-of-factly folded his floorplans up and tucked them under his arm. “We’ll save the rest for a rainy day,” he said.
* * * * *
We went back to the apartment, where Mom and Tabby were playing with spoons on the living room floor. They hadn’t been able to bring many of her toys, so apparently the flatware drawer was the new Babies R Us.
Now that I knew some of what lay beyond the zany brightness of these 1970’s walls, I found it wasn’t as easy to relax as before. Decay breathed behind the macramé. That’s pretty good, I thought to myself. ‘Decay breathed behind the macramé.’ I could use that in a story.
“What’s it like?” asked Mom. Steven sat down on the floor next to her, while I crashed on the sofa. He began drawing lines in the shag’s pile with a soup spoon for Tabby’s amusement.
“Huge. Beautiful in a really decrepit way.”
“So it won’t be easy to make a showplace out of it.”
He snorted. “It would be the project of the century.”
“Sounds like just what we need,” she said.
He snorted again.
“No, honestly,” she said. “I need something to focus on. Anything we could sell to fund a renovation?”
“There’s quite the library,” said Steven. “I should get a rare books expert in here to inventory it.”
“How come your mom didn’t?” she asked.
“A common sense thing like that would never have occurred to her. And she was never here long enough to put something like that into action.” I saw the muscle at his jaw clench, just for a second.
He didn’t like to talk about his mom. I had never met her.
“How long did she live here?” I asked.
“She and my father lived here less than a year, I think. She got pregnant with me, and he was abusive, so she fled back to the States to protect both of us.”
My jaw dropped. I had never heard this. And from the look on Mom’s face, neither had she. Steven was secretive about his family.
“He died soon afterwards, so he was a non-event as far as I’m concerned,” Steven added.
“I’m really sorry,” I said lamely. I didn’t know what else to say. I was lucky that although my parents had separated, it wasn’t until I was 10. And then pretty much immediately Steven was on the scene, so I never went dadless.
“For anyone who would lift a hand to a child,” said Steven, “death is a good answer.”
“You mean… he hit her when she was pregnant?” Mom asked.
“That’s what she told me.”
That was a weird way to answer, especially with the tone of voice he used. He stared down at the runes his spoon had made. “Well, anyway, ancient history. It makes me think about the life I might’ve had if he was a different person. That nursery was meant for me, you know; I would have been raised as an Arnaud heir on the palatial grounds of his forebears.”
“Would you have wanted to?” she asked dubiously.
“Well, things were much more in order back then,” he said. “The estate has been neglected for as long as I’ve been alive.”
Personally, I didn’t think the manor’s crumbling was just from the last half-century… things had been declining here for way longer than that.
“It’s sad not to know your father,” said Steven. “And that’s the last I’m going to say on that.”
Mom nodded sadly, glancing over at me on the sofa. This was as much info on his family as we’d ever gotten. Mom had once warned me not to ask. It didn’t make sense to press for more. He’d talk when he wanted to.
* * * * *
That night, I went to my lime-colored room. On a whim, I opened the dresser drawers to see neatly-folded piles of my clothing. I hadn’t had time to unpack, but Mom, god bless her, had done it for me. She must’ve filled the drawers while Steven and I were exploring the house. A little unnerved, I searched for my diary until I found it, still safely locked with the key in the toe of my candy-cane Christmas socks.
I sat down on my bed and let my mind drift back into a memory: Richard Spees stopping by our table in the cafeteria.
He’s a senior and hot beyond belief. He stands right beside me, and I’m immediately thinking, “No way! He’s standing by me?” Uma freezes, her French fry, coated with ketchup, halfway to her mouth. I straighten my posture and tuck my hair behind my ears.
“Hey Phoebe, you looked good yesterday,” he says.
“You were there?”
“Thanks,” I say, wishing I could come up with something cooler to say. Yesterday had been the swim meet against Oakland High. I had torched them in the 100-meter freestyle, touching the wall what seemed like hours before anyone else. I think about how I must have looked from his eyes as I launched myself out of the pool in my school-colors red-and-gold Speedo (last year, a few of us had petitioned for sexier, yet still aerodynamic, suits) and took all the high-fives and wet hugs from my teammates. Finding out he had been looking at me when I didn’t even know it made me feel self-conscious.
“You looked good,” he repeats, and suddenly I see it as a compliment to my body, rather than a sports-based comment on my performance.
I’m not going to say I completely take it in stride, because that doesn’t happen. My cheeks burn with a really big blush, but I do manage to give a huge and hopefully sassy grin. Luckily, Bethany rescues me.
“Do you usually go to the swim meets?” she asks.
I throw her a grateful look, but before he can answer, she adds, “Or was there someone there you wanted to see?” I try to kick her under the table but only get her chair leg. She jolts backward a half-inch in her plastic seat and laughs.
And then as I wait mortified for his response, it happens.
Stars swim up from behind my eyes, lazy and spectacular, taking the place of Bethany’s gleeful face. The stars convey lightning bolts too, and I’m dazzled and trying not to get hit. It’s a slow lightning storm across the landscape of my vision, and finally as air creeps into my lungs, I submit.
Bethany tells me later that Richard said meaningfully, “There was someone I wanted to see,” but then all hell broke loose and people were yelling.
I wake up a few minutes after I passed out, Bethany says. Dozens of people cluster around me, and I’m lying face down on the table. Ketchup from Uma’s fries coats my hair. I raise my head, and the cafeteria aide helps me walk to the nurse’s office.
I had fainted. Pretty dramatically.
It didn’t cost me Richard Spees, even though I’d drooled while I was unconscious. “It didn’t look great,” admitted Bethany when I’d pressed her. Plus, there had been that ketchup masquerading as hair gel. Yet Richard had risen above all his gentlemanly disgust and somehow considered me attractive, even while lifting me from the table like a beached jellyfish and slapping me.
We dated for three excruciating months. He turned out to be a darb (dramatically asinine random boy) who prattled on and on until I had to admit my two year old sister was a more insightful conversationalist. But I was glad I dated him; I learned some skills I could put to better use with some other guy down the road. The kind of skills you have to write in code in your diary in case your mom reads it.
The memory was over.
I brushed my teeth in the bathroom (my own! Score one for England) by the light of the 1970s big-eyed owl nightlight. The wallpaper was gold foil depicting wheat stalks: so retro.
I pulled back the jade-colored bedspread, and got in bed. I missed my quilt from home, a red-and-white thing my grandma made from a pattern in a book of Amish quilts.
I lay there looking at the ceiling, the kind of plaster that shows semicircular sweeps from some kind of tool. Like little white rainbows. I counted them. Wasn’t sure if I should count the half-sweeps over by the walls.
Come on, you must be tired, go ahead and sleep, I coached myself.
I was drifting restlessly when I heard the organ. It was playing low and quiet, a plodding, rhythmic bit of music. It was so subtle I thought for a while it was just noise in my head.
When I realized what I was hearing, I sat bolt upright, my heart pounding. The music seemed to disappear the more I concentrated on listening, like trying to figure out what a newscaster is saying on TV a room away.
I wandered out to the living room where Steven was reading. The room was dark and he sat in the light cast by the gigantic hanging orb. Mom must have already gone to bed.
“Did you hear that?” I asked him.
His gaze didn’t waver from the page. He was like that; he’d get caught up in whatever he was reading
“I thought I heard that organ playing, Steven,” I said louder. “Do you think there’s someone else in the house?”
He closed the book, letting it lie in his lap, and rubbed his face with both hands. Exhausted. Maybe sad. “Just forget about it,” he said. “Let it go.”
“Seriously? But if there’s someone in the house…”
He sighed. He knew how to make gestures like that speak volumes. That sigh said, “You’re a hysterical teenager, chill out.”
Insulted, I almost said something pissy, but I stopped myself. We had moved to England because of me. I had done something so very, very awful that we had to leave the country. If he didn’t think the organ was anything to worry about, it wasn’t anything to worry about.
“Okay,” I said, with a little smile. “They’ll come for you first.”
I had imagined the organ because I was jetlagged and out of sorts. Freaked out about living in a different house, a different continent. I went back down the hallway, opening the door to my own personal scarab-green room.
I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes, but I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t relax enough.