Once upon a time, there was a girl on her way to her grandmother’s house.
My first impression of the house was that it knew something I didn’t, and wasn’t going to tell me any time soon. The flaking shutters could have been winking. The aged front deck sagged ever so slightly, as if in a knowing smile. The yard was freshly mowed but mostly composed of things that weren’t grass. Clover predominated, and there were several other little flowering weeds I couldn’t name. I didn’t know much about southern plants. Three days ago I didn’t even know I had family in Havenwood, Alabama.
I lifted my suitcase from the cab. The old Victorian home had certainly seen better days, I’d wager. The forest pushed in from either side of the yard as if it were trying to reclaim the land. Ancient farm equipment jutted from the lawn like tombstones. I couldn’t begin to guess what the spindly, rusted metal devices had once been used for. They looked more like torture devices than ploughs or harvesters.
An elderly woman came out the front door and descended the steps with arthritic hesitation. This, I presumed, was my grandmother. My heart thumped in my chest. I hadn’t known I possessed any family at all besides my father. He’d never mentioned any. But when he’d disappeared, child services in New York had done some digging, and found that my dad’s mother was still living in Alabama. Apparently this was where he’d come from.
I knew he couldn’t always have been a university professor, but this wasn’t what I was expecting.
Her face was wrinkled and stern. She wore one of those faded cotton dresses patterned with tiny geometrical shapes that had probably been hanging in her closet since the 80s. Her silver hair had been starched into a veritable helmet of curls.
Bea Graham, the child service people had told me before putting me on a plane. Your grandmother’s name is Bea Graham.
I wanted something to hide behind. She couldn’t want to suddenly have to take care of a teenager. Who on earth would want that? I was loud and messy and always in the way…
Her face set into a frown, she didn’t even look at me. She ambled up the walk to the cab driver, and they settled up the fare. It wasn’t until all my bags were unloaded and he was driving away that she looked at me directly.
“Juliet,” she said.
I swallowed. “Yes ma’am.” I didn’t like being called my full name, but I wasn’t about to correct her. She barely looked at me for half a second, and then was fussing with my bags.
“Well, let’s get your things inside,” she said, pulling one of the rolling bags with her down the sidewalk. I followed with the other two bags and a sinking heart. She clearly didn’t like me. How could she? I was invading her life. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. There was nowhere else for me to go.
The interior was like stepping into a museum. Clean, but nearly everything inside was a step away from falling apart. The furniture must have once been beautiful, but time had rendered it faded and threadbare. Sepiatone photos in chipped frames lined the walls. Rugs covered extensive wood floors. Old floral wallpaper curled where it met the baseboards.
“Through there is the kitchen,” she said, pointing down the hallway bisecting the house. “Your room is upstairs.”
We dragged my things up to the second floor, which smelled even mustier than the first. A stray fluff of dust cartwheeled through beams of light from the windows. The hall held several doors on either side of the landing. She led me to the right, opening a door to a room that was clean, but nearly bare. It had basic furniture – a dresser, a bookshelf, and an old four-poster bed, but beyond a faded rug and a small lamp it really had nothing else. The walls were blank, the closet was open and empty, and even the bookshelf was vacant. A thin quilt and sheets sat in a folded stack on the end of the bed. A small electric fan sat on the floor, moving the air slightly. Even with that, the room was rather warm, I noted. But then I was starting to think that was a trend in the south.
“I had always intended to rent some of these rooms out,” Bea said, by way of explanation. “This house really is too big for me. So far haven’t had any takers. Hope it’s alright.”
“It – it is, thank you,” I stammered.
“The air conditioner doesn’t always reach all the way up here,” she said. “So I brought up a fan for you. That there – ” she pointed to the other door in the room – “is the bathroom. It connects to the other room. There’s towels and things in there for you.”
She looked at me shuffling awkwardly around the small room. My bedroom back in New York hadn’t been any bigger, but there I’d had my own things – my own soft comforter, my posters on the walls, my twinkle lights strung up around the ceiling. Here, there was nothing but blank whitewashed walls, the creaking of the wood floor under my feet, and the soft whir of the fan.
“Well,” Bea said, “I better finish up dinner. I hope you like pork chops,” she said shortly, and left. She was a small woman, but the stairs creaked loudly as she descended. There would be absolutely no moving quietly around this house, I thought.
I lifted my suitcase onto the bed and began unpacking clothes with trembling hands. Bea didn’t want to be anywhere near me. That was clear enough. I suppose it was stupid of me to have thought things might go differently. I’d read too many books with the kindly little old grandmothers who stuffed little children full of pie, knitted them ugly sweaters every Christmas, and bought them piles of dolls. Not that I wanted dolls or any of those things really…it was the idea behind it. That someone doted on you. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. It was stupid, really. I was much too old for this. I opened one of the drawers, intending to stuff my socks into it. Something at the back clattered. I reached in and pulled out a leatherbound journal. This isn’t mine, was the first thought across my head. I looked at the door. I had already opened the journal when I looked back down.
The pages were an aged yellow, but still sturdy. Of good paper stock. The cover was old and weathered, but the pages inside were blank. I flipped through the pages. Who on earth would let something like this get this beat up, with nothing on the inside?
Maybe there’s something stuck in it, I thought, shaking it, but nothing fell out.
“Juliet,” I heard Bea call, “dinner.” Startled and guilty, I put the notebook back into the drawer and descended the stairs.
I had never felt less like eating in my life. My stomach knotted as I entered the kitchen at the back of the house. The room encompassed a breakfast nook as well, which had a wide window overlooking the backyard. The yard ended at a line of trees so orderly they must have been planted that way. I spotted fruit in several of them. An orchard?
Bea glanced at me standing in the doorway, and waved a hand toward the plain wooden table in the breakfast nook. “Go on, have a seat,” she said.
The chair creaked loudly as I settled into it. I felt useless, waiting for her to hand me the plate of food she was putting together. I was accustomed to serving myself. I did all the cooking at home – what little we did. My father mostly lived on take-out. He would pick something up on the way home from the university, take half of it, and disappear into his office for the rest of the night. I never knew what he was working on. The times I had worked up the courage to ask, I either got “Research,” or “None of your business.” He barely said anything to me unless I was in his way.
The police kept asking me, when I reported him missing, had he acted strangely lately? Had things changed somehow? Had he recently become secretive? Irritable? It would help the investigation, I knew, if they had something to go on. But the truth was that my father had always been secretive and irritable. Had he ever been otherwise? I didn’t know. Perhaps Bea did. Or perhaps he learned it all from her.
The appearance of a plate in front of me broke me from my reverie. Bea sat wordlessly at the other end of the table, with an identical plate. They were piled with mashed potatoes and a thin brown gravy, green beans, and a pork chop. The warm, rich aroma should have enticed me, but my insides recoiled at the idea of food. Then again, I hadn’t eaten anything but the in-flight peanuts in the last 24 hours, and it would probably be rude if I didn’t at least try something. I reached for my fork.
Bea coughed a rebuke; I recoiled from the silverware.
“We say grace first, young lady,” she said. “Bow your head.”
I obeyed, and as she spoke a blessing over the food, I wondered if this was really my father’s mother. As far as I knew he had never set foot in a church of any kind. I also wondered if I could grow accustomed to a long pause before eating while a small speech was given.
“Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies, amen,” she finished, and lifted her head. She picked up her utensils, so I assumed that was my cue that it was safe to proceed.
We ate our dinner in silence. Well, I say “we.” I spent most of my time sculpting my mashed potatoes, sifting through my green beans, and avoiding the pork chop. I had a problem eating anything that used to have a face. Finally Bea seemed to notice my stalling.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
I mumbled a response.
“What was that?”
“I-I’m not really hungry,” I stammered.
“Don’t let good food go to waste now,” she said. “I don’t know what kinds of snacks you’re used to in the city, but I don’t keep them. We have three square meals a day. If you wake up hungry in the middle of the night don’t come looking for anything.”
“I won’t,” I said, wanting to disappear. I just wanted to hide somewhere until my dad came back. Which he would. He just had to.
She frowned at my untouched plate, commented, “Wasteful,” and continued to polish off her own. She then stood, and excused herself by saying, “I have to make a call.”
I stared out the wide breakfast window, eyes unfocused on where the trees met the sky. The orchard trees weren’t as tall as the ones that grew naturally in the forest on either side of the house. The sky was only just now showing hints of a sunset. I suppose I had the time difference to adjust to as well.
What was I doing here? Who would kidnap an anthropology professor? He had been prone to staying overnight at the university sometimes, sleeping on the couch in his office, so if it weren’t for the wreck the apartment had been in, it might have taken me days to realize something was wrong. But despite the chaos, there had been no sign of a break in. No forced lock. Because of that, the police weren’t treating it strictly as a kidnapping; they mentioned it was possible that he had run away.
Even if he had – even if he had up and left me without a word, without a note – surely there was a good reason. Something horrible must have happened. Something to do with his research, I was certain. He wouldn’t have abandoned me unless something extraordinary had intervened. But how could I find out what that was? Maybe there had been a clue at home, but I hadn’t been able to find one before they’d shipped me here. How could I help him half a country away? How could I go home again?
My gaze moved back to the table. Maybe I could make up for not eating anything by washing up. Then I realized that I had no idea what I was expected to do with the plates. Put them in the dishwasher? Wash them by hand? Leave them on the table? I went in search of the woman who was my grandmother.
Passing the door to a room full of beautiful, delicate teacups with saucers, I heard her voice towards the front of the house. I would ask her what to do.
I approached the front sitting room and saw her pacing, phone in hand. “You can’t expect me to deal with this alone,” she was saying. “Have you seen her?”
I stopped, and took a step back, where I was out of view. Eavesdropping wouldn’t help her to like me any better. But I was glued to the spot.
“If you saw her, you wouldn’t say that,” she said lowly. “I’d swear it was that girl. You’re certain she’s…?” Silence. “Well, that’s as certain as you can get, I reckon. Yes, I know what I said…I take it back. She has to go.”
I had to go…? All the muscles in my chest froze rock solid.
“G-grandmother?” I said, as if I were just walking up.
She spun, and for a second I thought I saw fear in her eyes, but it vanished immediately. “Expect her tomorrow,” she said brusquely into the phone, and hung up. Then to me, “Yes, Juliet, what is it?”
I had to go. Tomorrow. My head spun. What had I originally come out here for? “Um…the plates…should I…?”
“Leave them, I’ll take care of it,” she said.
I had to go. “If – if you don’t mind,” I said, “I’d like to go to my room. I know it’s early, I’m just really tired.” Tomorrow.
“Alright, settle in and get some rest then,” she said. She gave me a hard look, like she was deciding whether or not to say something else. “Good night,” she finished, and strode quickly past to the kitchen.
I looked after her blankly, and then climbed the steps. One foot after the other. The sun was finally setting outside, casting shadows down the hall. The floorboards creaked underfoot and every horror movie I’d ever seen was rolling around in my head. Had my father really grown up here? He had only ever expressed at best disdain and at worst open loathing for small towns and countrysides. “If you can’t handle the city, you deserve the country,” were his exact words. Yet this house was at least three times as large as our apartment, and the extra unknown space unnerved me. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep without at least looking at the other rooms. After all…this was probably my only chance.
First I went to the room that connected to mine. It had no closet, but a larger dresser, and a vanity with an oversized oval mirror. An inspection of the adjoining bathroom proved equally lacking in ghostly activity.
I passed the landing to the other side of the hall. There were two rooms on this side, mirroring the other. I opened the first door. It contained furniture very similar to mine, though was even stuffier from the lack of a fan. The closet was open and vacant. The emptiness comforted me. I closed the door and went to the second one. The handle wouldn’t turn.
I twisted harder, but the knob wouldn’t budge. I looked up. Carved into the door in crude letters, as with a pen-knife, was a name. Simon. My father’s name. I released the handle and backed away. The floor creaked under my feet. There was a loud call of a bird outside. Startled, I raced back to my room, shutting the doors to both the hall and the bathroom. I sat on the bed, knees tucked up. Insects screamed outside. I recalled the wide, yellow eyes I’d seen in New York – I’d been hysterical when the police had come in, babbling about monsters. They’d sworn that it must have been a cat, that I’d been seeing things. But cats didn’t have teeth like that…I pressed my forehead into my knees, trying to block it out.
Five minutes later there was a knock at my door. She must have heard me running. “Juliet?” Bea said. “Are you alright?”
“Y-yes,” I responded.
She opened the door, and I realized I didn’t look alright, sitting like that on an unmade mattress.
Her look softened slightly. “It’s an old house,” she said. “You’ll hear things creaking, but it’s nothing more than boards settling.”
My father’s room is locked from the inside. “What are those bugs?” I managed to ask instead. “They’re so loud…”
“Crickets,” she said. “And cicadas. Completely harmless. They live out in the woods. Afraid I can’t do anything about them either. If you get used to them, they can be mighty soothing.”
I swallowed. “I guess…” I wasn’t sure I could find anything that loud to be soothing. Traffic outside our apartment in New York woke me up constantly.
She gave me another of those looks, like she was measuring me against something. “Here, get up,” she said, moving the stack of linens. “Help me put sheets on this.”
I obediently took the other sides of sheets as she handed them to me, and soon the thin, faded quilt was in place.
“I doubt you’ll get cold,” she said, “but extra blankets are in the vanity in the other room. I should tell you,” she stood briskly, “you’ll be starting school tomorrow.”
My eyes widened. Tomorrow. Had I heard wrong? Assumed too much?
“Tomorrow is Monday, after all. I figured the sooner you got into a normal routine the better. It’s not the public school. There’s a private school down the road that has…different entrance requirements.”
I couldn’t begin to guess what she meant by that, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Anything to get me away from her, I guessed. But at least I wasn’t getting turned out of the house entirely.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted.
She looked at me curiously.
“For all of this,” I said. “For suddenly being here.”
She seemed surprised by my apology. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You didn’t choose it.”
She didn’t say I wasn’t a burden. I hung my head.
Bea rose, looking uncomfortable. “Good night, Juliet,” she said, shutting the door.
With everything that had happened, one thing baffled me the most: she hadn’t said one word about my father. Not the whole time.
I reached into the drawer of the dresser and withdrew the blank journal. I inspected the cover more closely, this time, looking for some kind of mark. The exterior was just some random scratches, but on the inside, just near the spine, there was the imprint of a name, sunk into the leather. Kyra.
My breath left me. This was my mother’s – I was holding something of hers! What was it doing in the back of an empty dresser, in this house? Maybe it was something she’d left behind, something that didn’t matter. It was empty, after all. My thumb stroked the blank page. Maybe it was meaningless.
But what if it wasn’t?
I lay back on the bed, journal clutched to my heart, and listened to the insects scream out a lullaby.