I sit on the sofa in what I suppose is the office. It’s got that vibe to it. Books shelves, a desk, tacky furniture. I don’t know why everyone decided that the office would be a good place to come to a consensus about the house. I always thought the foyer was the given gathering spot in a house tour.
“What do you think, Lily?” my dad’s girlfriend asks. She has her arm looped through my dad’s, leading him into the room. Dad is trying to look as amused as possible, for her. I notice pink lipstick on her perfect teeth as she smiles obnoxiously. Their brat, Vance, jumps on the sofa next to me and I stand, stepping an unnatural distance away from my seemingly happy family. He starts bouncing a ball he got out of a machine at the gas station on the way here. Marcy, the realtor, looks on in suppressed annoyance at the boy.
“It’s cool,” I respond, void of any actual opinion. I do have an opinion, a valid one at that, but I know Alice is only asking to make me feel as if my opinion actually matters. I know it doesn’t. Dad would care but she has him so far up her ass he doesn’t see that she doesn’t actually care about anybody’s opinion but her own.
“Big enough for the four of us.”
Dad catches the deeper meaning, shooting me a disappointed look. I don’t know why he expects me to be nice to her, I never have been before. I shrug and give him a slight grin. Alice doesn’t notice my cruel indifference toward her and smiles widely at the realtor.
“It’s perfect,” she gushes, “The kids can have their own room. There’s more than one bathroom. You can have the office you’ve been wanting,” she addresses my dad, “It’s a beautiful house.”
That’s something Alice and I can agree on. It’s beautiful inside and out. I’m amazed at the upkeep of the real wood and the authenticity of the house. The only modern thing about it is the kitchen. And the furniture. The furniture is a part of the house, it wouldn’t look right without it. Though it isn’t ours, there’s no way the furniture from Alice’s apartment would look right. Stepping into the house I felt as if I were walking into my home. A warm feeling enveloped me. The apartment isn’t home. It’s just a place Dad decided to move us after a tragedy.
“Though I do have to ask, Marcy,” Alice starts cautiously, “The price is incredibly low for the grandeur of the house. There isn’t a problem with mold or pests we aren’t seeing is there?”
“I’m afraid not. Mr. and Mrs. Strickland in the interest of full disclosure I need to inform you that the previous owners passed away in this house. As did the owners before,” Marcy is grim and I am intrigued. I ignore the fact that nobody made the correction that Alice isn’t married to my dad and she is not a Strickland. Vance stops bouncing his stupid ball and looks to his mom. Alice’s face falls ever so slightly.
“No shit? How?” I ask.
“Language, dear,” Alice chides. I ignore her.
“The wife died during childbirth and soon after her husband, out of grief, committed suicide. He hung himself from the second-story balcony.” She knew these people. I can tell by the grief on her face. “The owners before were murder-suicide.”
“Mom, we shouldn’t live here,” Vance whispers. He walks over to his mom and places his small hand in her jeweled one. Alice’s eyebrows knit together, looking up at Dad for reassurance. He looks indifferent -- he doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
I crouch down to the five year old’s level and look him in the face, offering a comforting smile. “Maybe it’s haunted,” I tease. He throws his ball at me and it bounces out of the room. I wouldn’t tease him relentlessly if Alice wasn’t spoiling the fuck out of him. She treats him as if he is God’s gift to the world. If he doesn’t learn to defend himself now this world is going to eat him alive. The day he comes back at me with words of defense is the day I will applaud him.
“Lil.” Dad shakes his head at me. Now is not the time is what that means. I sigh and stand.
“I was only teasing,” I huff, moving to the couch.
“How long ago did they pass, Marcy?” Alice inquires, hugging Vance to her side as if protecting him from the ghosts of the previous owners.
“About three years ago,” Marcy mutters.
“And nobody has bought the house?” I ask.
“We had a couple move-in, but they packed up and left their first night here,” she says it painfully. A chill crawls up my spine. “We have had prospective buyers, but none to stick for longer than eight months.” Alice looks horrified as Marcy speaks regretfully. Poor lady. She’s just trying to do her job.
“I’m not sure,” Alice frets, “Colin, what do you think?” The grip she has on Dad’s arm has tightened.
“It’s a great house, babe. It’s amazing. It’s bigger than the apartment and it’s exactly what we need. And the price is half of what we would be paying anywhere else,” Dad says. He’s right, and he knows he’s right, it’s just a matter of changing her mind back to how it was ten minutes ago.
“If you’d like I can show you other houses in the Valley, but I’m afraid your husband is right --”
“He’s not her husband,” I snap. It earns a glare from Alice and an awkward tension fills the room. My face is growing hot with rage the longer this goes on.
“Alice, are you serious?” I seethe, “You were just going on about this place two seconds ago. She tells a ghost story and you change your mind? Everybody likes the house, just burn some fucking sage to ease your soul if it’s that big of a deal.”
“Lilith, that’s enough,” Dad reprimands. I don’t back down from his hard stare, standing and crossing my arms.
“We’re buying this house.” I look at Marcy and she looks to Alice and Dad. Alice is speechless and rage burns behind her brown eyes.
x x x x x x x x x x
“Thank you so very much,” Marcy says as she walks us out. “You can start moving in as soon as tomorrow. I’m sure you will be very happy here.”
“Yes. I’m sure,” Alice says sharply.
“Thank you, Marcy,” Dad says. I smile at the realtor and she gives me an exasperated one back. We get buckled into Alice’s car and I could cut the tension with a knife.
“Wait, my ball!” Vance exclaims.
“We’ll get you another one on the way home,” Alice sighs.
“No! My ball!”
Dad, in the passenger seat, lays his face against the window of the car. As much as I hate the way he caters to Alice, my defiance has pushed him to the point of shutting down into a quiet panic attack. He can’t handle Vance right now.
“Vance, it’ll be there tomorrow. We’re are coming right back here as soon as we wake up and eat breakfast,” I comfort.
“No, I want it, we can’t leave yet!” Vance whines. A collective sigh is heard throughout the car as Vance starts to whine incomprehensibly. Alice rubs her temples and Dad’s jaw is clenched.
“Jesus, fine I’ll go get it.” I say. I unbuckle and run up to the house. Marcy is in the office filing paperwork on a laptop. I wave at her as I walk by the room.
I don’t see the stupid red ball anywhere in the hall. I make my way back to the kitchen, checking under the furniture along the way. I get on my hands and knees to check under the counters and island. When I stand I catch a glimpse of something outside through the window above the sink. A boy is standing in the backyard with his back to the window. He tosses a ball up in the air and catches it. It takes a couple times for him to toss it up for me to realize it’s Vance’s ball. I open the door in the kitchen.
“Hey!” I shout. He turns around, his blonde shaggy curls falling just above his eyes. Nothing is said between us as he tosses the ball to me before flashing me a kind smile.
I don’t know what came over me at the house. It’s not uncommon for me to be mean to Alice, but I’ve never outright defied my dad that way. I know it hurt him but I also know for a fact he agreed with me. I know he wanted the house and I know Alice would’ve convinced him to buy a different, smaller house for triple the price. I’ll probably be in trouble later, but I don’t care. I got what I wanted. I found a home and I’ll be damned if I let that woman take it from me.
The sense of home I got when stepping into that house was everything I’ve wanted, everything I’ve been looking for since the accident. The sense of warmth and comfort that washed over me isn’t something I was going to give up. I need that house, and I think it needs me, too. I felt a rush, a push, a gentle nudge gliding me through the beautiful interior. It just needs someone to care for it, despite it’s oddities. And that neighbor boy in the backyard. What was his --
“Can I come in?” Dad is at my door with a cup of tea. I close my journal and shove it under my pillow. I glance over at Vance. He has headphones pulled over his ears and a tablet in his lap. The boy is too intrigued with the screen to eavesdrop. I nod and sit up into a sitting position. Dad sits on my bed, just a mattress on the floor. There was no way we were going to fit two entire beds into Vance and I’s tiny room. We store the mattress under his bed in the morning until I’m ready to settle in for the night. Making a five year old boy’s room my own wasn’t going to happen, not with Hot Wheels posters and toys strewed everywhere.
Dad hands me the tea and rubs his hand over the quilt at the end of my bed. A patch quilt, my favorite.
“Alice is ordering take-out,” he says, his eyes glued to the quilt and his hand still running over the comfortable fabric. He looks up at me with glazed over light gray eyes. He’s had a couple drinks, just as he always does when he’s stressed. Dad isn’t an alcoholic. He doesn’t drink enough to get drunk, just enough to get numb.
“She ordered your usual, that okay?” Dad asks. I nod. Orange chicken and brown rice. It’s not that hard to remember but I’m not going to take away his pride in Alice for remembering my take-out order. Whatever Vance is watching is seeping out of his headphones, creating a white noise in the empty space between Dad and I.
“You know, she wasn’t against buying the house. Just curious about it’s past. It is a little fucked up,” Dad says. He’s keeping his voice low. Alice has been known to eavesdrop on our private conversations. Not that we can ever truly have private conversations in this tiny apartment.
“Bullshit,” I scoff. “Marcy’s story freaked her out. You know she would’ve convinced you that it isn't the place for us. It wasn’t a fight you were going to win. You had already halfway lost when I said something.”
“You were rude and you humiliated her.” He stops rubbing the quilt and brings his hand into his lap.
“In front of who? The ghosts? Marcy?” I take a sip of my tea, scalding my tongue. “She didn’t give a shit about our issues. The lady was just trying to do her job.”
Dad gives me an exasperated look. I’m wearing him down. I have been the moment I moved in.
“Dad, it’s not that big of a deal. I know you wanted the house, too.” I look down into the steam rising from my tea and the patterns it makes on the lip of the red mug.
“That’s not the point, Lil,” He sighs. “The point is that you’re holding something against her that isn’t her fault. You’re acting like what happened is her fault.” I look up sharply.
“And you’re acting like it didn’t happen at all,” I snap. I take a deep breath, stifling my temper. “My point was that she always gets her way. You know I’m right. You had a perfectly fine house we all could have moved into in San Francisco. But she refused to move so here are stuck in a tiny apartment with two bedrooms.”
“You don’t have to like her,” Dad interrupts, frustrated. “But you need to understand that she is a part of my life. Just try, Lily. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m not apologizing if that’s what you’re saying,” I seethe. He does this every time Alice gets her feelings hurt about something. Just try, Lily. He runs a hand through his graying auburn hair.
“We are moving into that house. I want to start this new chapter off right.” We sit in silence. Vance climbs down from his bed, his headphones still pulled over his ears, and leaves the room. Ideally, I know Dad is right. Realistically, I know my apology won’t do anything but bring him peace of mind. I guess that’s going to have to be enough.
“Fine. I’ll apologize. But I get my own room and Vance isn’t allowed in my space,” I demand. A smile spreads across Dad’s face.
“I’m sure you’ll have your own room,” Dad says. “Come here.” He holds out his arms for a hug. I lean into him and wrap my arms around him. He smells of alcohol and pine. The warmth of him eases my tension and I relax. I will apologize for his sake, not for hers.
x x x x x
It’s been four days and I still haven’t apologized to Alice. I’ve been making excuses to Dad that we’ve just been busy packing and loading moving trucks. The trucks have been going back and forth for the last couple days and Alice and Dad have been going with them to tell them where to put stuff, leaving me to babysit Vance. I have had numerous opportunities to apologize. I just can’t bring myself to do it.
The drive from the apartment to the house isn’t a long one. Dad thought we could start staying at the house tonight since all that is left in the apartment is stuff that can fit in Alice’s car. Vance is kicking the back of Dad’s chair and whining about the box between us being too close to him. I take my earbuds out and place a hand on the child’s arm.
“Hey, we’re almost there,” I say. I smile at him and he stops kicking the seat in front of him. “You’ll get to pick your room, and I’ll help you hang your posters. If we’re good maybe Alice -- Mom will order pizza.” Vance sighs and hushes up, turning his little head to look out the window. Dad turns in his seat, looking at me quizzically, and Alice smiles at me in the rearview mirror. I roll my eyes and shrug. I only called her Mom because Vance doesn’t know Alice as Alice, not to cause a big breakthrough in our “mother-daughter” relationship.
The rest of the drive is a quiet one. We pull into the driveway and Alice, Vance tagging closely behind, goes straight to the house, presumably opening doors because she’s the type of person to think that far ahead.
“Has she burned the sage yet?” I ask as Dad gets out of the car. He laughs. I pull the box marked L’s Things from the backseat and onto the ground outside of the car. I put the shoebox that was resting at my feet on top. That’s all I brought in the move from Mom’s house to Alice’s apartment, one medium sized box and a shoebox.
“OOhhh my God,” I strain, lifting the box. It’s heavier than I expected.
“Do you need me to grab that?” Dad asks, peeking around the hood of the trunk. He’s trying not to laugh at me.
“No I got it,” I huff, “Independent woman and all. Making a stance for my sisters.”
“If you say so,” Dad chuckles. I struggle across the lawn and up the couple steps into the house. As I’m walking through the door Vance pushes past me quickly, running back outside. The box hits the doorknob.
“Shit.” The shoebox on top falls and the big box slips from my grip before it’s caught.
“Careful.” Someone holds up the other side of the box. It's the boy from the backyard. “I can take it,” he says, taking the box from me. He smiles that same kind smile. It reaches his brown eyes, the corners crinkling. I stare probably a little bit too long, baffled at the fact that he’s just in my house.
“Um, thanks,” I mutter, a delayed response. I kneel to the ground and pick up the shoebox and spilled contents, letters spread over the hardwood floor. I hurriedly pick them up and throw them back in the shoebox, careful not to leave any behind.
“Oh goodness Tate, thank you,” Alice says, coming into the foyer from the kitchen. Her sleek brown ponytail is mussed. She almost looks like a regular housewife. “You can just take that up to Lily’s room.”
“Lead the way,” he says, the damn smile still on his face. He follows me up the stairs to my room and the door is open. He sets the box on my bed and sits.
“I’m Tate.” He holds out his hand but I don’t take it. I cross my arms and nod.
“Yeah, I caught that,” I say. “How do you know Alice?” He leans back on his arms.
“Your dad and Alice have been in and out the past couple days. I’ve been around to help.”
“Do you live next door?” I ask. He hesitates a split second before nodding. I nod back.
“I like her,” he says, not looking anywhere but at me. It makes me uncomfortable. Why the fuck do I have a strange boy in my room? Why the fuck is he sitting on my bed? If I could get past the fact that he seems almost too comfortable, I’d probably take advantage of the fact that a cute boy is in my bed.
“Well, you’re the only one,” I mutter. I put my hands in my back pockets and kick the carpet awkwardly.
“She talked about you a lot while we were moving stuff in.” This makes me look up.
“What about me?” I ask.
“Just that she has a daughter around my age, personality traits, ‘You should get to know her, you’d like her,’” Tate affirmed. He stands pushes a hand through his shaggy hair.
“She was right, I do like you.” He starts to leave the room. Thank God.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I remark. He pauses at the door and turns around.
“Not yet.” He winks and leaves the room.
I have more space in this room than I know what to do with. I make a mental note to go shopping for things to fill the space as I’m lining up the books and old journals from the box on top of my dresser. At mom’s I had string lights and a tapestry. Lounge chairs filled some floor space along with a bookcase and a floor lamp. All I have left from my old room are a few books, my old journals and a patch quilt. Dad needed the money for the funeral. Whatever he couldn’t sell, I just threw away. I know Alice doesn’t like clutter.
My heart pulls at the memory of my old room, my old house, the way things used to be. The pressure of tears begins to build behind my eyes. I make my way to my bed, an actual bed not a mattress on the floor, and sit. A lump forms in my throat as I hold back sobs. I close my eyes and wrap my arms around my body, breathing deep to focus on pushing the pressure of anxiety building in my chest away. Hot tears push their way past my closed eyes and I push the heels of my hands into my eyes, as if I can push them back in.
I know I’m only making it worse. I know it’s because I haven’t grieved the loss of my mother. I haven’t given it a chance to sink in and really pull me apart until I’m nothing but a mass of grief. I know I can’t heal until I allow this to happen. It’s as if my heart, my body, is trying to force me into the healing process that I’ve been avoiding for over a year now. And if my brain can find something to try to force my body, my heart, into a shattering grieving process, it will. But now is not the time for this. I don’t know when it will be, but I’m not ready.
“Knock knock!” Alice chirps and opens my door without actually knocking. I sit up quickly, wiping my face. She stops, just for a moment to take in my tear-stained face. “Oh hun,” she exhales and comes quickly to my side, wrapping her arm around me and hugging me to her side. I tense under her grip but she doesn’t notice.
“I’m fine,” I mutter, pulling away from her hug and scooting over to leave a good foot between us on the bed. Her eye twitches as she wrings her hands, her rings clacking together.
“What happened?” She’s staring at me and my skin crawls under her stare.
“Nothing.” I cross my arms across my stomach, willing the pressure that is building to go away.
“Honey,” Alice starts softly, “You can talk to me. I’m here.” She takes one of my hands in hers. Her rings are cold on my clammy hand. I look up at her and her eyebrows are furrowed in concern. Her dark blue eyes are searching my face, as if the answers are written there. I don’t want to talk to her. I’d rather sell my soul to Satan himself than talk to her about my issues. But with the way she is staring at me, I know I’m not getting out of here until I spill some sort of emotion. I regrettably remember the promise I made Dad and I internally groan. She’s going to take it as an opening to try to be a motherly figure and that’s the last thing I want. But I promised.
“I’m sorry,” I force out. She straightens her posture and I repress the urge to roll my eyes. “The way I talked to you at the house tour wasn’t really fair and I shouldn’t of done it.” Alice squeezes my hand between hers.
“I understand. You’re going through a lot right now, and you took it out on me,” Alice says earnestly. I stare at her with raised eyebrows and take my hand away from hers.
“Great.” I say, rather shortly. Alice looks taken aback, as if she didn’t know what she did wrong.
“Sometimes we act out when we are going through trauma. I understand your behavior,” Alice chides.
“Don’t patronize me,” I mumble, looking down at my hands.
“What was that, dear?” Alice leans in. I shake my head.
“I didn’t say anything.” Alice stands and wipes her hands on her jeans, smiling that stupid fake smile that contorts her face.
“We’re ordering pizza soon, be down in no less than fifteen minutes.” She turns back to me before exiting. “I’m glad we had this talk.” She closes the door and I throw my pillow at it.
x x x x x
I take a shower before going down for pizza in the new kitchen. The water pressure here is so much better than it was at Alice’s apartment. The second floor bathroom alone is bigger than the room Vance and I shared.
I wipe the condensation off of the mirror with my towel. My pale skin is red from the heat of the water. I stare back at myself in the mirror, scrunching my red hair into a smaller towel, wringing it out. I’m not a bad looking girl. The dark red of my hair makes my pale skin look porcelain. When my hair is dry, it poofs out in big curls, framing my angular, fox-like face. My cheekbones are higher than they should be, and my nose is narrower and longer than most people’s. My hazel eyes differ in color from anywhere to light brown to green. I look like Mom.
When getting dressed, I notice I’m thinner than I should be. My collar bones are more prominent than usual and my ribs are just slightly visible. I sigh, pulling on an oversized t-shirt, to hide my frame, and varsity shorts. I straighten up to moisturize my face and my heart leaps out of my chest. I turn around quickly, to face what I had seen in the mirror, a woman standing in the bathtub. Nothing is there. I place my hand on my chest and take a moment to breathe.
x x x x x
Everyone is sitting around the island by the time I get to the kitchen. Alice and Dad are watching Tate play thumb war with Vance. He looks up at me and I suddenly feel very self-conscious. He smiles and I look away, hiding the blush that’s crept up my neck into my face. I occupy myself with finding a glass for water. “
I should probably head out,” Tate says, “I’ll see you guys around.”
“Aww no, stay for dinner,” Alice says, “The least we could do for all your help is feed you.” I turn and lean against the counter by the sink with my glass of water. Tate pulls his hands into the sleeves of his sweater, shyly, and looks at his feet.
“I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not at all, come sit.” Dad places a hand on Tate’s shoulder and leads him back to the stool he was sitting on. “We really appreciate all the help.” The corners of Tate’s mouth raise a little bit.
“You looked like nice people,” he says, simply.
“So, what school do you go to?” Alice asks, leaning on the counter. Tate’s face falls slightly.
“Oh, I uh - I’m home-schooled,” he says. Alice nods. The doorbell rings and Dad grabs his wallet and leaves the kitchen. I almost follow him.
“Oh, well we plan on homeschooling Vance,” Alice says, too exuberantly. “Maybe your mom can give me some tips.” She winks at him and Tate chuckles uncomfortably, looking to me as if for comfort. I shrug and sip my water.
“We plan on enrolling Lily at Westfield this fall. She’s a year behind, but the board is willing to work with her.” I choke on my water at Alice’s bluntness. She looks at me and smiles pitifully. I look down into my water, suddenly embarrassed.
“It’s understandable,” Alice recovers, trying to fix her statement. “After such a tragedy we couldn’t expect her to recover in such a short amount of time. We gave her a year off, to deal with the depression of course but --”
I breathe heavily and drop my water glass in the sink. I hear it break, but I don’t look at it. Alice jumps at the noise. I curl my fingers into my fists and cross my arms. How dare she talk about me as if I’m not even here. And to a stranger at that. Who does she think she is? Talking about something that she can’t even begin to understand. I start to walk away when Dad comes in.
“Where you going?” he asks. “The pizza’s here.”
“I’m not hungry,” I snap.
“What happened?” I hear Dad ask. I don’t hear anyone answer by the time I’m up the stairs, blood pounding in my ears and the pressure building in my chest once again.