“You are looking very Rosie the Riveter today.”
Sylvie adjusted her grip on her iPhone to take a brief glance down at the overalls she was wearing, the dark denim soft and faded and recently purchased at her favorite neighborhood vintage place just before she left Brooklyn. Her brows furrowed at the amused tone in his voice. She glanced back up, pressing her lips together as she studied her best friend’s pixelated face on FaceTime.
“Are you making fun of me?” she asked, tilting her head just slightly, ignoring the messy bun and bandana she did, in fact, have wrapped around her head.
“What? No, no- you look cute,” Garrett replied. “Like Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia-”
“Ah, so this is what thirty brings me,” Sylvie sighed. “Comparisons to Meryl Streep.”
“She does look incredible for her age.”
“Did you call for a reason?” she asked, in exasperation. “I am trying to be productive here.”
“Just checking in,” he said, his hand curving under his chin innocently. “It’s not everyday your best friend abandons you and moves to fucking England.”
Sylvie sighed and allowed herself to fall backward onto the leather sofa she had been wiping down when her phone rang, tucking her body into the same worn spot she used to curl up in during her summer visits to Cookham Dean- not a single book in her grandfather’s collection went unread. The den had been his favorite place in the house, the record player going through Roy Orbison’s discography, and the scent a distinct mixture of whiskey and wood shavings from his work in the studio out back. But now, it was Pine Sol and dust, the house musty after months sitting empty.
“I’m okay,” she told him, arm outstretched as she let her eyes flicker to her reflection on the phone. She cringed at the angle and shifted her position. “The house reeks of bleach and I think I might’ve inhaled a bit too much ammonia but otherwise, I’m fine.”
“Have you thought anymore about what you’re gonna do?”
She shook her head.
“No,” she said, her free hand rubbing at her face. “Selling it seems so fucked- I mean this house has been in my family for like 100 years. And the real estate agent is such a vulture, I swear she’s called me at least three times this week.”
Garrett shifted and the camera hovered at his shoulder before he righted himself and Sylvie could see the coffee mug in his other hand as he sucked in a breath. “So, Tess and I were talking-”
Sylvie met Garrett and Tess during her freshman year at Fordham, the three of them in the same orientation group. They had bonded immediately over their mutual love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jenny Lewis and been inseparable ever since, Tess and Sylvie even sharing their first post-college apartment together in Park Slope. With the little family Sylvie had, Garrett and Tess had become her chosen crew.
“We actually think you should stay,” he said, hesitantly. “At least for a little while- I mean, this could be a really great opportunity for you to take a little break.”
“Really?” she asked. “What happened to my ‘ abandoning you ’?”
Garrett sighed, “Listen, you know I’m a dramatic bitch when I want to be, but I don’t think I could convince you in good faith to just sell the place and come back home. Not after everything that’s happened-”
He didn’t even have to say his name for Sylvie’s chest to tighten.
“Yeah,” Sylvie nodded, swallowing over nothing. “Yeah, I know- look, I’ll figure it out. There’s still some paperwork to go through from the inheritance, and I have a meeting with my grandmother’s estate lawyer next week. At the very least, I’ll have a few weeks in dear old Cookham to make a decision.”
“Good,” Garrett said. “Just take it easy, okay? And Slyvie?”
She raised her brows.
“Hire a cleaning service before you asphyxiate.”
“Your concern is astounding, truly,” she laughed.
But as much as she hated cleaning, Sylvie couldn’t leave the task in anyone else’s hands. This was the home her mother was born in, the home that welcomed her every summer and every Christmas holiday, the home that she spent countless hours exploring when she was younger. She tried not to think of how long it had been since her last real visit, before the hospital and the doctors and the goodbyes.
Now, she had all the time in the world and her grandmother was gone.
It happened quickly, the cancer settling into her bones faster than anyone had thought possible. Even the doctors had hopes she would hang on a little bit longer. But Julianna Wright had lived too long without her husband, and the diagnosis only meant she was that much closer to reuniting with him or so she said. It was hard for Sylvie to accept, hard to come to terms with the fact that after her grandmother passed it would only be her and her brother Russell left in the Wright family. They had been dealt too much loss over the years, lived through too much tragedy.
It was her father leaving before Russell was even born. It was her mother dying in a freak car accident just as Sylvie was graduating from college. It was her grandfather succumbing to a heart attack just after Christmas in 2015. It was too much. It was all way too much.
And her grandmother had always been the rock, steadfast and strong and present.
Who was that role supposed to be filled by now? Sylvie?
She sighed as she turned back on the record player and resumed her cleaning, grabbing the spray bottle from the coffee table and working at the nooks and crannies of her grandfather’s book shelf, removing his collection of Philip K. Dick novels carefully as she wiped around the oak shelving. Her grandmother had spent the last few months of her life in hospice, the house only seeing life in the form of a friend who would collect the mail and check the locks every once in a while. Sylvie had been furious when she found out the extent of her grandmother’s condition, remembering all the phone calls they’d shared before Julianna finally admitted just how sick she really was.
Sylvie and Russell took the first flight out of Laguardia, the two siblings in a panic about what to do, how to prepare- what would come next? They had three days together before she finally passed, as if their presence was permission enough for her to go.
“The cottage- my darling, it’s yours,” Julianna whispered one morning while Russell was down the hall, on a mission for a croissant from the kitchens. “You have always belonged in that house-”
“Grandma, you’re being silly-” Sylvie leaned forward in her chair, waving her hand at the idea.
“It’s already in the will,” Julianna smiled. “There’s no use in arguing.”
“What about that second round of chemo? Dr. Tanner thinks-”
“Dr. Tanner can sod off frankly, I’m quite fine as I am,” Julianna said, her eyes clear as she held her granddaughter’s gaze. “I miss my George.”
“But what about Russ? And me?” Sylvie asked, feeling sick to her stomach, feeling like all the wind had been knocked from her chest. “I don’t know if I can-”
But her grandmother clutched at Sylvie’s hand, her skin soft and cool as she held tightly.
“You can,” she said simply. “You two will be just fine. I know it. Do you know how I know it?”
“How?” Sylvie asked, voice catching in her throat.
“Because you always have been. My two tough little darlings."
Her phone began to vibrate against the coffee table, a sounding alarm competing with the soft melodies of Aretha Franklin and she was thankful for the distraction. Her throat felt tight and her eyes stung with tears that now seemed to spring up out of nowhere these days. She rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her palm as she twisted, reaching to grab her phone-
Severe Weather Alert: Storm Warning in effect for London until 22:33
Sylvie crossed the room, fingers prying at the curtains as she glanced out the window, eyes glancing up at the sky. The clouds were drawing near, dark and heavy. She cursed, realizing any outside work would have to wait until tomorrow.
But the grocery store could not.
The pantry was incredibly bare and the fridge empty. She couldn’t subsist off of takeout alone, as much as she had already tried in her few days here.
The keys rattled against the ignition as Sylvie revved the engine, listening as the station wagon coughed up to a start. She was amazed it still ran after all these years, the car one of the most consistent fixtures at the cottage in her childhood. She sucked in a breath as she put her foot to the gas, the gravel of the drive spitting out under the tires as she turned onto the main road. She fiddled with the radio dial until she settled on a New Wave station, Robert Smith’s vocals the perfect soundtrack as she traveled toward Marlow.
Living in Red Hook, she didn’t do much driving- mostly weekend trips with rental cars and it was always Ben that did the bulk of the driving, anyway. He was a control freak about road trips, and hated the way Sylvie would drive with her leg propped up on her seat. She shifted as the song changed, the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield next as a British voice introduced them.
She rolled the window down while she still could, the air heavy with the promise of rain but still dry enough that she could enjoy the wind on this summer afternoon. She hummed along to the song, hair blowing around her face as she tapped her hands against the steering wheel. The grocery store wasn’t far, not much more than a mile or so from the cottage, and she was glad for its close proximity- it left her little chance of getting lost.
The Sainsbury’s was bright and chilly and left Sylvie kicking herself for not bringing a proper list. All she had was a reminder to “buy food” in her notes app which helped her not at all as her stomach grumbled. She had accidentally skipped lunch in her commitment to wash all the floors. It was a deadly combination- grocery shopping while hungry and that was made apparent as Sylvie lingered in front of the cracker aisle, her cart already filled with an odd array of things, and quite a few bottles of wine.
“What is that- a malbec? But we’re serving filet mignon-”
“Does it matter?” she asked, fingers gripping at the neck of the bottle. “It’s just Russ and his girlfriend- I don’t even think she drinks-”
“I do,” Ben replied tartly. “And you know I prefer a Syrah-”
It was funny, the way memories replayed themselves, little details becoming more clear as time went on. Sylvie grabbed a bag of Goldfish from off the shelf, a snack Ben despised, and tossed it into her cart. Her brow furrowed as she remembered the last time she saw her ex-fiance, the two of them awkwardly dancing around each other as their landlord completed the walk-through for their security deposit, their footsteps on the hardwood echoing against the bare walls, their harsh whispers no doubt carrying much further than either of them would have wanted.
They hadn’t been engaged for very long when her grandmother passed and she should have known when Ben didn’t come to the funeral, his law firm in the middle of a case so big they couldn’t give him bereavement for someone who “wasn’t really family,” a punch to the gut considering how quickly Julianna and George had welcomed Ben into their home. She should have known when he wasn’t there upon her return, a late night at the office collecting evidence. She should have known well before she finally did.
But she didn’t.
And when she did, when she finally learned of his affair, of the way he had so quickly fallen for one of the paralegals in his office, it made her decision to leave New York swift, and even simple.
It was one of the last gifts her grandmother could give her, a chance to escape.
“Are you havin’ a party?” the clerk asked as she rang through the different varieties of cheese Sylvie had piled up on the conveyor belt.
“Something like that,” Sylvie mused as she pulled her wallet from her purse.
She tried not to cringe at the total, remembering the difference between the dollar and the pound certainly weighed in the UK’s favor. But she was building the cottage pantry back up from nothing, and who didn’t need at least three kinds of cracker and four kinds of cheese and a little jar of fig jam for the brie she planned to snack on later? Maybe her newly single life in England meant she could build herself charcuterie plates for every meal and maybe it didn’t matter which wine paired the best with cured sopressata.
Sylvie glanced back up at the sky after filling the trunk with the grocery bags, thankful it shut at all with how much she stuffed inside. The rain had yet to unleash itself but she saw flashes of lightning across the sky, the summer heat no doubt to blame. Siouxsie and the Banshees were playing on the radio and Sylvie held the button down to program the station as a favorite, pleased to hear the low rumblings of Siouxsie Sioux as lightning lit up the sky.
She propped her leg up on the seat, a smirk pulling at her lips as she pulled back onto the road.
Ben could go fuck himself.
Sylvie’s hand patted across the leather cushion as she searched for the remote, her eyes glued to the screen as the investigator sat the suspect down, a low sigh emitting from the older man. She finally curled her hand around the object, finger frantically pressing at the volume. She was halfway through a crime documentary about a husband who murdered his wife and he had just taken a polygraph test. He looked so sure and so confident.
“So, let’s talk about the polygraph-” the investigator said as he puffed out his chest. “Ya didn’t pass, son.”
The husband stared at him. “What, I don’t understand- I didn’t lie-”
“Well, this thing says ya did, so you might wanna tell us what really happened now-”
“I didn’t hurt her, I swear, I have no idea where she is-”
“There’s a woman in the other room who says ya do, son. She says she’s your girlfriend,” the investigator continued, raising his bushy eyebrows knowingly. “Funny how ya didn’t mention you was havin’ an affair.”
Sylvie’s eyes lit up as the rain continued to assault the windows, the storm in full effect as she curled up under the blanket, her legs tucked underneath her body as she watched the husband break down and begin to cry. Of course , she thought. Of fucking course he was cheating .
She could feel the way the wind whipped outside, tree branches grazing against the windows as the cottage creaked ever so slightly. That storm warning was no joke, and Sylvie was relieved she got her groceries in just before the skies opened up. It had been raging for hours now, the night sky lighting up every so often with flashes of lightning, bright enough to illuminate the woods just behind the house. The raindrops spilled down the glass, creating a sort of watercolor effect on the view outside, even as dark as it was.
She reached for her glass of wine, just as the husband finally gave his confession, a teary-eyed monologue about how the wife, the actual victim, had stifled his masculinity, had made him feel less than. She rolled her eyes, tongue swishing around the cold sauvignon blanc. Then you divorce her, you psycho , she thought as she settled back against the cushions.
Suddenly, the tv screen went black and the little lamp on the side table clicked off.
Sylvie was engulfed in darkness.
“Fuck,” she grumbled.
She sat there lamely for a moment, harboring a flicker of a hope that the power would come back on. But after a minute of nothing but the sound of rain against the roof, Sylvie put down the glass of wine and rose from her spot on the couch. A chill crept through her skin and she kept the blanket wrapped around her shoulders as her bare feet padded across the floor and into the kitchen.
She was rummaging through the junk drawer as she tried to remember where the fuse box was, her teeth catching at her bottom lip as she finally found a box of matches, a faded imprint from her grandmother’s favorite Indian restaurant emblazoned on the lid. Some may call Sylvie a “basic-candle-buying-bitch” but it certainly came in handy for moments like this, the heady scent of cardamom and palo santo wafting through the room as she shuffled toward the the other end of the cottage, tugging the blanket a bit tighter around her as she stepped into the garage.
The idea of parking a car inside the garage had been a running joke throughout the years, the space otherwise occupied by holiday decorations, lawn mowers, weed whackers, a few boxes of things Sylvie’s mother had left behind before moving to New York for college, all kinds of undesirables that were still somehow desirable enough to avoid being thrown into the bin- and Sylvie was carefully climbing around all of them to reach the fuse box with the flashlight of her phone guiding the way.
She flicked at the switches a few times, resetting the main breaker to see if that would jolt the power back. Nothing. She prepared herself for a quiet night scrolling on her phone until the battery died just as a mighty flash of lightning illuminated the space around her. She began to count the seconds but hardly got to two-mississippis when she heard a crash just outside the cottage, the boom so loud it shook the walls around her.
“Shit, shit, shit-”
What the fuck was that?
It was the old oak tree in the backyard, and one of its heavier branches was now swaying at an awkward angle. She tried not to panic as she traded in her blanket for the bright yellow rain slicker hanging in the entry closet. Her grandfather’s woodworking studio was just beside that oak tree and although it lay dormant since her grandfather’s passing, she couldn’t fathom waiting until morning to see the damage that had been done.
She hopped toward the back door as she pulled on her rain boots, juggling a portable lantern in one hand as she adjusted her heel in the one boot with the other.
“Home ownership is shit,” she muttered to herself as she flipped up the hood.
She was not prepared for just how brutal the wind was as she stepped onto the back patio, her hand holding firmly at her hood to keep it from whipping back. The studio was at the edge of the yard, just before the property turned into woods. She knew the cottage sat on a couple of acres but she had always preferred the actual landscaped backyard over the unknown- the firepit, the lounge chairs, the quiet little hammock that hung in the middle of the garden.
She grimaced as she flicked on the lantern, her quiet little hammock a twisted up knot thanks to the storm. She carried on toward the studio, frowning as she noticed the way the branch dragged itself across the roofline. It had a large crack at the base and she wondered if that flash of lightning hadn’t been right here in her own backyard.
But she was relieved to see most of the damage was superficial, no cracked windows or apparent holes that she could see as she lifted the lantern, stepping backward just slightly as she tilted her head for a better view.
Just then, another bolt of lightning lit up the sky. Or so Sylvie thought.
She shook her head, the whiteness swallowing her feeling distinctly different from any lightning she had seen before- and it lasted longer, too. She raised her arm to cover her eyes, feet taking another step back as something heavy landed against her. She let out a weird mixture of a yelp and a scream as she went down, the lantern slipping from her grip as she landed on her side.
She had been hit not by a something, but a someone .
She scrambled backward, hands slipping in the wet grass as she heard a quiet groan from the body on the ground beside her. Sylvie lunged for the lantern, shaky hands wrapping around the handle as she held it up in front of her, knees sinking in the soft, wet earth, her hair soaking wet and sticking to her face now as her hood fell back in the fall.
She swallowed as she took sight of the body the voice belonged to, a man- with dark hair and a thick beard, currently rolling to his side, face screwed up in pain as he slowly brought himself to his knees, his arm pressing against his stomach. He paused, his eyes squeezing shut for a moment before he slowly opened them again. Sylvie could feel her heart thudding in her chest, her body frozen in fear as she stared at him, brow furrowing as she realized he was wearing some kind of leather vest- like he was an extra in Game of Thrones.
Great, I’m going to be murdered by Jon fucking Snow.
His eyes finally met hers and he jolted back, not dissimilar to Sylvie’s own actions just a few moments ago. He tilted his head, a flash of confusion settling over his features before twisting his neck, as if he was looking for something.
“Did ya see a Dane come through here?”
He was Irish, his accent thick enough that Sylvie wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly but she did not miss the slight bewilderment in his voice.
“A what ?”
“A Dane-” he repeated loudly as he competed with the howling of the wind, his eyes searching the grass around them. “A big, burly lookin’ fella with a scar across his eye- listen, Lady, yer in danger, there are raiders on the loose-”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she shouted, as she tried to scramble to her feet.
He looked back at her, head tilting up as she stood over him, and Sylvie couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t running for the cottage, or why he wasn’t lunging for her. Instead, he lifted his arm to shield his eyes. “Do ya mind not shinin’ that thing right in my face-”
She didn’t move, instead peering down at him curiously.
“Who are you?”
He squinted, his lips curling slightly into a grimace as she brought the lantern closer to him. “Finan, Lady- but not for much longer if I don’t find my sword-”
Sylvie sucked in a breath. “Your what ?”
“Can ya not understand me?” he asked, affronted, shifting to bring himself to his feet.
But he didn’t make much progress, his body doubling over as he winced, his hand once again clutching at his waist. He was hurt. Without thinking, she took a step toward him but her brain was screaming at her to stop. So, she did.
He managed to straighten without her, grunting as he finally brought himself to his feet, his hand pressing against the trunk of the oak tree to steady himself. Sylvie took a step back as she took in the full view of him, her eyes rubbing at her face to clear the raindrops from her eyelashes. He was tall, a head taller than she was, maybe, and broad, the size of him intimidating even in that ridiculous costume. He pressed himself up against the tree for a moment, his eyes traveling to the edge of the forest behind them.
She could see the cut in his side, the fabric of his shirt torn. Was he in the tree? Is that what happened? Did he fall from a branch and that was how he hurt himself?
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked, her voice feeling horse as she tried to hear herself over the storm. “Because if this is some elaborate trick to murder the unsuspecting new girl in town I am going to be really pissed off that I helped you-”
“Am I gonna what ?” Finan snapped his head back toward her. “No, Lady, I’m not gonna kill ya- why would I-”
But whatever words were going to come next died on his lips as he seemed to look past her, suddenly very interested in what was behind her. There was that confusion, that bewilderment flashing across his face. He stepped forward, beside her, his hand clumsily brushing at her shoulder as he sucked in a breath.
“What’s that?” he demanded.
Sylvie turned around, following his gaze as it rested on the cottage.
“That Hall- that wasn’t there before- this- this is just woods, I don’t- I don’t understand-”
Part of her felt like she was being pranked, like this was some weird welcome into Cookham Dean. Was Russell hiding somewhere? Was this all a joke? But as she turned toward him, there was something in his face that worried her, her stomach twisting into knots when she remembered the flash of light and the way he suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“What are you talking about? This house has been here for like a hundred and fifty years-”
“Where am I?” he asked, then, his voice soft, his gaze fixed on the cottage.
“You’re in Cookham,” she said. “Cookham Dean.”
He turned to face her, and even in the darkness, even in the torrential downpour they were both subjecting themselves to, she could see the fear in his eyes. They held her gaze for a moment before flickering down to the rain slicker wrapped around her body, to the rain boots on her feet, frown lines deepening as he studied her- as if he was really looking at her properly for the first time. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and she watched as he ran his hand across his face, fingers tugging at the thick beard that covered his jaw.
“A hundred and fifty years?” he repeated.
“Yeah- 1860 something,” Sylvie replied, wrapping her arms around her chest.