Can't lose the taste of this river mud, black water in my lungs.
They say even the weariest river in the end will find the sea
but here among the cat tails all we discuss is breaking free.
After they scare the first family out of the house, Violet begins to punish Tate.
There’s no other way – he has to be punished. He’s done too much, caused too much pain. Anything else would be wrong. Not wrong legally or morally, or like they’d bullshit you in church or school, or like her parents would say. Violet doesn’t care about any of that; she was never much for taking a stand. But she feels strongly about this. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if he wasn’t punished. She’s never felt that way about anything before.
Tate has to pay for what he’s done. And she is the one to make him pay, she’s sure. There’s no one else.
In those early weeks that roll seamlessly into months, she contemplates the thought of luring boys into the house somehow – living, breathing boys – and bringing them up to her room. She knows if she did, he would watch. He wouldn’t be able to help himself, and he would hate it. But the thought of some clumsy-handed boy pawing at her is no more appealing in death than it was in life, never mind that the thought of doing it while Tate watches from inside the walls or wherever he goes is more nauseating than it is gratifying.
The one time she tried, standing at the wrought-iron front gate, cigarette in hand, the skater boy she beckoned over just gave her a long look.
“No fucking way am I going into that place with you, freak,” he said before giving the sidewalk a kick and rattling away down the pavement.
Frustrated, Violet switches tactics. She tries mocking Tate aloud a few times over peppermint tea with her mom and Moira in the kitchen. She harnesses the meanness that has always crouched inside her, and she calls him pathetic and disgusting, says that the thought of his kisses, his professions of love, make her stomach turn. She tells them things he told her, private things, tender things that must bear little resemblance to the monstrous boy they believe Tate to be. They laugh.
They laugh, and Violet tastes ashes on the back of her tongue.
And still there is no sign of him.
The complete lack of response from Tate makes it impossible to know whether her words have any impact. She supposes they do. But what does that matter if she can’t see him suffering? Her nastiness makes Violet feel that she’s the pathetic one. In those moments, she’s like the others, gripping tight to past injustice, cherishing it like a treasure.
Violet understands for the first time why the ghosts are the way they are. How over time their lives – or existences, at least – have become concentrically smaller, drawn inward by their grief and their bitterness, until the house’s spirits are little more than broken records, replaying the ugliest episodes of their former lives over and over and over, without end or hope of absolution.
So Violet punishes Tate the way she knows best, the way she punished her parents when she was alive.
She punishes him with her silence, with her indifference.
Tate avoids her.
It’s a strange feeling, knowing that he’s avoiding her without ever actually seeing him. It’s the familiar scent of his sweaters and his hair that lingers on the air, the soft scuff of a sneaker on the hardwood when she enters a room and finds it empty. But most of the time there is no trace of him at all. She suspects he spends most of his time down the basement.
For a long time she assumes he watches her sleep, watches her shower. Creepy shit like that. He probably jerks off to it, she thinks, in whatever way invisible ghosts jerk off. Asshole. And how does he do that, anyway, the staying invisible thing? She’s tried, but she can’t quite seem to make it work. She can conceal herself from the living at will, but the other ghosts in the house can always see her, whether she wants them to or not. She wishes she could ask Tate; he’s still the only person she trusts not to bullshit her.
Which is laughable, really. Trusting him not to bullshit her when everything they had together was based on his lies. Fucking hilarious.
Still, she wishes she could talk to him, because really, she has a lot of questions. Why does she still become ravenously hungry at times, craving things like kung pao chicken and Buffalo wings, things she didn’t even like in life? Why is it that every time she gets to the end of a pack of cigarettes, she finds another open pack, two-thirds full, in a drawer or on the kitchen counter or on the mantelpiece, as though it was placed there just for her to find? Why are all the ghosts, her parents included, so goddamn obsessed with babies?
“Someone in this dump really ought to write a Haunting for Dummies book,” she quips to her parents one evening on her way through the kitchen to get a glass of water. Neither of them finds it particularly amusing.
She starts loitering in the hallway by the basement stairs, sitting on Moira’s polished floors with the rich, lemon-scented wood panelling at her back, pack of cigarettes by her thigh, reading that book about birds she never returned to the Westfield High library. No one seems to notice that she stops having tea with her mom and Moira in the afternoons, that she stops spending her evenings by the fireplace with her parents. They’re all occupied with their own grievances. Even her parents, who are happier now than she can ever remember them being when they were alive, now that they have her eternally newborn, perfect baby brother Nicholas to fawn over.
How sick is that, anyway, that her brother will stay a little ghost baby forever? Everything is so fucked.
Nora’s soft, wavering voice floats up the stairs from the basement sometimes, and Violet thinks she might be talking to him. More than once she stands at the door and strains to listen, only for Nora to fall silent.
When she goes downstairs, there’s no one there at all.
One afternoon she hears his voice in the kitchen, and manages to sneak down the hallway and hide in the shadows before he can disappear. He’s talking to someone, and when that someone answers, Violet realises it’s her father.
“The answer is no, Tate. The answer will always be no.”
“But you’re the only one who can help me,” Tate pleads, and Violet can hear the tears in his voice. A thread of pity weaves its way through her chest, but she’s not sure what kind it is. Is it the kind where you feel sorry for someone and wish you could take their pain away, or the kind where you find them pathetic, without dignity enough for your genuine sympathy? Maybe it’s both. Maybe there’s no difference.
“Don’t waste your energy, Tate,” Ben says, his voice cold and firm. “It’s not happening. It’s not going to work. It’s never going to work.”
Tell him to go away, Violet thinks. Only she’s not sure her dad even knows about that trick.
“Please,” Tate begs, his moaning voice cutting itself off with a hitched sob. “I really think our sessions are helping. I really think I can get better.”
Violet frowns. Is he for real, or is it a trick? She can’t tell. She wonders if her dad can, if he cares about the difference.
Probably not. His answer would remain the same regardless. After all, her dad’s not the one in love with the monster.
“You can’t get better, Tate. I told you that. You’re beyond help. And even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t help you.”
“But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and what if I find the people I’ve hurt and tell them how sorry I am?” Tate’s voice rises, excited. “And how I’d take it back if I could?”
“It would take you a lot of Halloweens of searching to find everyone you’ve ever hurt, every loved one of every person whose life you cut short.”
“I know, but –”
“Do you even remember everything you’ve done?” Ben snaps. “Could you even tell those people what you’ve done to them, or would they have to tell you? Do you even really care? Do you understand why what you did was horrendous?”
“I don’t –”
“I told you before, Tate,” Ben says, his voice becoming steely. He’s losing patience. “Psychopaths lack remorse for their actions. You’re not sorry for what you did. You don’t understand why what you did was wrong. You’re sorry for yourself. You’re sorry that what you did has left you alone, all alone forever, even in a house packed to the rafters with ghosts. Pretty ironic, don’t you think?”
There’s a long pause punctuated only by the sound of sniffling. An old urge to comfort him stirs in Violet, followed by a wave of self-loathing. If only he weren’t so convincing. If only she were indifferent to his suffering, the way he was indifferent to the suffering of others.
Everything is so completely fucked.
“I think I’m making progress, Dr. Harmon,” Tate presses. “I think the meds are starting to work. I’m taking them every day, honest. I’m sorry I let myself into the house the other night. I know it was wrong, and I swear I won’t do it again.”
“The other -? Tate, that was months ago, and, frankly, your complete disregard for boundaries is the least of my concerns as far as your crimes go.”
“Months?” Tate repeats, sounding bewildered. “Months?”
He’s losing it, Violet thinks. He’s becoming like the others. He hardly knows where he is.
A hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, she wonders if she will be like that someday too, if they all will. If with the passage of enough time, reality will melt and smear like Vaseline on a lens, blurring the weird little horror movie of their lives into one endless loop of replayed scenes.
Fuck him, she thinks, it’s his fault we’re stuck here.
Violet takes a deep breath and steps into the shaft of sunlight in the doorway. But before she can utter a word to banish him, Tate’s head whips around, and he sees her. She blinks, and he’s gone, and she’s left staring at the far wall of the kitchen while her dad looks at her.
“What the fuck?” she spits.
Ben runs a hand through his hair, and Violet sees that despite the calm in his voice while he was talking, he’s agitated.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “It’s very difficult to know when he’s telling the truth.” Ben is silent for a moment, staring down at the spotless countertop, and then he seems to remember himself, giving her a rueful smile. “Best to just assume he never tells the truth, Violet.”
“I guess,” she says slowly. “We don’t talk, anyway.”
Ben comes around the island and pulls her into a sudden, firm hug. He kisses the top of her head, rests his stubbly cheek there.
“Good,” he says. “That’s good.”
Those obnoxious little twins take to jumping out at Violet, and she’s grateful that she never had any younger siblings who survived long enough to annoy her. A cruel thought, but she can’t help it. She finds herself telling them to go away several times a day, and wishes she could make it permanent. She just wants to be left alone.
Finally, she can’t stand it anymore and goes to the chalkboard in her room. She scrawls, how the fuck do you disappear so other ghosts can’t see you? I don’t get it.
It takes Tate three whole days and nights to respond. She’s not sure whether it’s because he didn’t see the message for three days, or because he wants her to think he didn’t see the message because he doesn’t habitually lurk in her bedroom. It’s incredible to her that she ever trusted him, that she ever took even the slightest thing on faith.
But one evening she wanders into her room, and there’s a message from him. Her question has been wiped away and replaced by a reply in his weirdly perfect, tidy block printing: EASY. FOCUS ON WHOEVER AND THINK: DON’T SEE ME.
Violet stands in the middle of her room, arms crossed over her chest, staring at his sharp white words in the semi-darkness, considering a number of nasty replies. How can it be that easy? Of course, she’d never have guessed that you could make a ghost go away by simply telling it to go away. Eventually she sighs and wipes away his words with a musty towel from the floor. She writes TY and nothing else, wondering whether Tate ever got caught up on his internet slang.
The following afternoon she finds her message wiped away again, replaced by a trio of question marks. She can’t help it; she smiles, and picks up the chalk to reply.
TY means thank you. Ever heard of Google?
OK he replies simply that night. Nothing more. Violet feels disappointed, and then alarmed. She’s not supposed to be exchanging notes with him, flirting, for Christ’s sake. She’s disgusted with herself, and spends the night painting over the board with dark purple paint she finds in a closet in the nursery, left over from one of Chad’s home makeover projects. On top, in bright white, she paints an elaborate garden of vines and flowers and birds and spiders and snakes until there’s not a square inch left for words.
Standing back to survey her work as dawn climbs toward the horizon, Violet admits that she was nowhere near this artistic when she was alive.
With no response from her and no place to write a follow up, Tate falls silent. Violet stops catching even the barest trace of him lingering in the house. Violet trains herself to stop looking for him.
She almost succeeds. Almost.
One winter a retired couple buys the house at a bargain, planning to convert it into a bed and breakfast. They boldly tell Marcy the realtor that they plan to capitalize on the house’s gruesome history, make it a tourist attraction. Appealing to the target market of weirdoes with money to burn, Violet supposes. The couple is harder to get rid of than most; they’re stubborn and convinced they can harness the mysteries of the house for their own ambitions.
For the first time since her death, Violet has genuine contempt for the living. Human beings are so arrogant, so painfully stupid. She’s surprised to find that she can still be disappointed.
The couple leaves, eventually, after Ben locks them in the basement one night. Violet wakes to the sound of screams, of the house groaning as if in pain, and of squealing tires as the couple flees.
They leave lots of interesting things behind, and no one comes to collect it all. Mostly replaceable stuff like books and music, so Violet sees why no one bothers, but she appreciates the influx of new things, especially the music. When her mom comes into her room and finds her sitting on her bed painting her toenails black and listening to Heart, she smiles.
“I could have told you Heart was cool,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed. Together, they mumble their way through the last verse of “Magic Man,” and Vivien laughs.
“At least they had good taste in music, even if they were kinda stupid,” Violet says. “How’d you guys finally get them to leave, anyway?”
Vivien’s smile fades, and she clears her throat. After a moment, she speaks. “I’m not sure, to be honest with you. Neither’s your dad. We were going to lock them down the basement and scare them ourselves, but it’s like we never even got a chance. Your dad had barely locked the door on them and they were frantic to get out of there. They broke the door down.”
“There’s lots of weird shit in the basement,” Violet reasoned.
“Yeah,” Vivien agreed. “But the others don’t usually help us scare them off. They want them to stay, become like us.”
“True,” Violet says, and they turn mutually to a new topic of conversation.
But Violet wonders. She wonders.
It’s all moot, in the end. The historical society can’t get insurance on the house, and the whole deal falls through. The doors are padlocked again, the windows shuttered, and it often takes Moira the whole day just to keep up with the dusting.
A real estate developer comes to see about dividing the house up into condos. But that falls through, too, on account of zoning laws and the house being designated a “historical place” or something like that. Violet listens to Marcy ranting about it on her cell phone, standing on the front porch, ruing the day she was ever cursed with this albatross of a house.
Violet can relate. She doesn’t listen to the rest of the conversation; she retreats to the attic and sprawls out on the dusty floor for the rest of the afternoon, smoking her way through the last of her cigarettes.
When she goes downstairs, she finds an open, partially-smoked pack sitting on the very last step. She takes it, and repeats the cycle.
A couple of years pass and the house falls into disrepair, as Marcy becomes unwilling to invest in its upkeep beyond the bare necessities, its former owners willing to let it rot. Ben tries to keep up with it, but it’s difficult when you’re limited to the supplies already in the house. He’s the only one of them willing to go down the basement to fetch things; Vivien has refused ever since the retired couple fled.
Every time her dad goes downstairs, Violet takes up her vigil by the basement door. She can hear voices down there, Ben talking in low tones. But not to himself. Another male voice replies, and who the voice belongs to is one thing in the house that is not a mystery at all.
It doesn’t take long at all to discover that the man’s wife and another daughter died in an accident only a few months ago. The family’s grief holds the house and its inhabitants in a strange kind of thrall. Even Violet’s parents hesitate to frighten the family away, lost as they already are.
The teenage girl gets Violet’s bedroom, much to Violet’s annoyance. She has to hide all her stuff up in the attic, but she spends a lot of time in her room anyway, observing the girl. She doesn’t change the colours on the walls to anything cheerful, which Violet appreciates. She just leaves it the way it is, the way it’s been for years.
Violet finds out lots of things about the girl. She likes dogs better than people. She’s good at math but she hates school. She gets picked on at Westfield High. She misses their old house in Oregon. Her name is Keeley.
She cuts herself using razorblades she hides under her mattress.
Violet decides that the family needs to go. It will be cruel, but the house will only drain them of what little hope and joy they have. Besides, she thinks bitterly, she owes it to the girl to get her out before Tate takes an interest in her.
The father is out with the boys, and Keeley is alone. She stands at the bathroom sink, the door unlocked, not even closed. It’s all so familiar to Violet that she almost laughs at the cliché playing out before her.
“Don’t do that.” The words are out of her mouth before Violet can help herself, and the girl spins around to look at her standing there in the doorway.
“Who the fuck are you?” the girl gasps. “How did you get in here?”
“You shouldn’t do that,” Violet says. “It’s a pretty fine line between cutting yourself to deal with all the bullshit, and doing yourself enough harm that you die. Whether you really want to or not.”
The girl’s eyes go blank. “I’m not stupid,” she snaps. “I wouldn’t accidentally kill myself.”
The tremulous bravado in the girl’s voice stirs something in Violet that has been dormant a long time, and she’s suddenly sad, terribly sad for herself and for this girl and for every person who was ever in pain, all alone.
She thinks of Tate, wonders where he’s hiding himself at this exact moment.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Violet repeats, her eyes burning. Tears well up, and she’s crying, a keening sound escaping her body. She’s not sure if she meant to cry or not, but she supposes it’s just as well. It’ll only help. She pulls up the sleeves of her sweater, holds her scarred wrists out. “I didn’t think I would either,” she sobs, “but that’s exactly what happened.”
Then she disappears, retreating to the attic, unwilling to witness the girl’s terror, even though it’s the best thing for her. Violet hides there for a while, pressing her face to her knees and crying. When her tears dry, she visits with Beau, rolls his red rubber ball to him as he crouches in the shadows.
The family abandons the house two days later.
Violet grows lonely. She supposes it could be worse; there must be ghosts out there trapped in places where they’re completely alone. At least in the house she has plenty of company. Moira is there to share a cup of tea, when she’s not busy polishing the banisters and beating the rugs. Chad’s okay, once you get past his pathological need to find flaw with everything about you. Travis never has an unkind word for anyone, and he’s much better with the little ones than the rest of them are. Beau is her real favourite, though, now that she’s gotten to know him, and she spends hours up in the attic in his company, idly rolling his ball back and forth with him while she reads a novel propped up against her knees.
She’s grateful that her parents didn’t manage to escape the house, in the end. This way, they’re all together. Ben and Vivien are preoccupied with Nicholas and with each other, but Violet supposes it’s better than it was before. Back when the only time they seemed to remember she existed was when one of them wanted to move her around like a piece on the chessboard of their bullshit marriage.
But being seventeen forever has its downsides when you’re stuck with your parents. They forget that she’s not a little girl. They talk down to her. They don’t listen. They’re so much more interested in the baby than in her. She thinks they might be retreating into some kind of happy family fantasy with Nicholas. She thinks they’re becoming like the others, sad carbon transfers of their former selves.
It makes her feel lonely, their retreat into blissful oblivion. She tries to join them, but it doesn’t work. She’s still curious about the people who pass by the house outside, about new potential owners, about the electric cars that people drive now, about new wars over old disputes, about the reunion tours of her favourite bands.
Part of her is still resisting death, is still reaching out curiously to the world. A world where she doesn’t belong, a world that she can never explore.
When Violet stops talking for a week, no one notices.
It’s worse than it was before, when her parents were fighting all the time, so caught up in their pain that they didn’t even notice when she died. It’s lonely and hopeless, and Violet knows with absolute certainty that if nothing changes, one day she will lose her mind completely.
Most of the time, Violet just wishes she had someone to talk to.
One evening her parents are cuddled up in the living room, in front of the fireplace. Violet watches them from the hallway, obscured from their line of sight. Ben says something and Vivien laughs. They’re like they were long ago, years ago now, when Violet was just a little girl. She turns away to retreat upstairs, and the basement door swings open without a sound.
She only hesitates a moment before going downstairs.
It’s utterly dark in the basement, and it smells of smoke and burnt hair. With a grimace, Violet guesses that Lorraine or the little girls must have been there recently. The only sound is the soft chug of the furnace.
She stands still, straining to listen. There’s no reply. She’s not sure how long she stands there, but eventually she sighs and turns to go back upstairs. If she stays still any longer, she suspects Thaddeus will sneak up on her and take a chunk out of her ankle.
One hand is on the banister when she hears it.
She stops, and turns around. Her eyes have adjusted to the darkness, but she can’t see him.
“Tate?” she says again, letting her voice rise. “Are you down here?”
There’s another pause, and then he speaks. “Yes,” he says. His voice is muffled, far away. “What do you want?”
Violet follows the sound of his voice deeper into the basement, around the corner and past the dusty shelves that line the walls. Enough moonlight comes in through the small window at the ceiling that she can actually see in here. Some broken furniture and boxes are stacked in the corner, and that’s where she spots a scuffed sneaker poking out.
“Tate, is that you?”
“Who else would it be?” he replies. He doesn’t get up. Violet goes closer, and sees him properly for the first time in years, since that day in the kitchen with her dad. He’s sitting with his back against the damp stone wall, his arms around his knees. He looks at her from under his unkempt hair, his dark stare as arresting as always.
“What do you want?” he asks again.
She doesn’t have an answer, or at least not one she’s willing to say aloud. She looks down and scrapes the toe of one shoe through the dirt and grime that cover the floor.
“I dunno,” she says finally with a careless shrug. She clasps her elbows in her hands and adopts her familiar mask of boredom and indifference. “What do you do down here all the time, anyway?”
Tate shifts forward, easing slightly out of the shadowy corner, but he still doesn’t stand. “Nothing,” he replies. “I sit around, mostly. Nora’s down here a lot, so I talk to her sometimes.”
“What, no cards? No books?” Violet snipes. She feels the urge to sit down by his feet and light a cigarette. Old habits, she supposes. She digs her nails into the flesh of her arm.
“All the books are in the attic or the office. Or your room.”
“I know you go in my bedroom, Tate, so don’t bullshit me.”
“Not anymore. Not for a long time. I swear, Violet.”
She stares at him, stares and stares and stares, trying to uproot the truth with only her eyes. But Tate stares back, doesn’t blink or flinch or look away for even an instant, and it’s Violet who gives in first.
“This is so fucking stupid,” she says. She turns away, and goes back upstairs.
None of it was ever healthy, ever ideal. Her dad’s a shrink, for Christ’s sake, and Violet isn’t stupid. She understands what the word codependent means. She understands what low self-esteem is, and depression, and how people rationalise their self-destructive behaviour.
Violet also knows what a psychopath is. She read a proposed clinical definition once in one of her dad’s books, and thought, hey, Tate. She knows she can’t trust what he did, who he appears to be, even what he himself seems so earnestly to believe.
She knows what she is not supposed to want.
But now she wonders what healthy is, what ideal might feel like. She doesn’t know. She wonders if anyone really does. If someone does, they sure as shit don’t live in this house.
This time she finds him in that weird old rocking chair in a corner, facing the wall.
Jesus Christ, she thinks. Norman Bates Jr. is right.
It’s only when she gets closer, when her eyes adjust to the dark, that she sees Nora sitting on a wooden crate across from him, their knees together, leaning in to speak with him.
Violet feels strange, like she’s interrupting something intimate. She has no idea what. She turns to go, but Nora glances over and sees her, a crease forming between her thin, perfectly groomed eyebrows.
“Are you here for an appointment?” Nora asks. “I’m afraid you’ve gotten the time wrong. The doctor is indisposed.”
Tate looks over his shoulder and sees her. He turns back and says something to Nora, too low for Violet to hear. Nora nods, and stands, and brushes a finger against Tate’s cheek.
“I must check on the baby.” As she passes Violet, she says, “Don’t tarry here too long. Cocktails are at 7, dinner at 8. You’ll need time to freshen up, do something with that lank hair.”
She walks on, and disappears.
“I used to come down here to play when I was little,” Tate says, without turning around. “Nora would protect me from the others down here. She’s the one who taught me how to make them go away.”
“Them?” Violet asks. “You mean us.”
“Yeah,” Tate replies, a mere exhalation of breath.
Silence falls between them, and Violet begins to feel awkward. Finally she rolls her eyes and walks over, taking up Nora’s seat and pulling out her pack of cigarettes.
“Smoke?” she asks. Tate shakes his head. Violet is rummaging through her pockets for her lighter when there’s the soft pop of a match being struck, and a tiny flame illuminates the space between them. Tate is cupping the match, holding it out to her. Violet leans forward and accepts it, inhaling deeply as her cigarette catches on.
She bites her tongue before she can thank him, and sits back.
Tate says nothing, flicking the match through the air where it lands in a corner, extinguishing with a hiss. The sharp smell of the burnt phosphorus on the match head fills her nostrils.
“Constance used to have me light her cigarettes,” Tate says, after a moment. Violet eyes him, trying to figure out what he hopes to gain from this admission.
“Sorry to hear about your childhood trauma,” she says drily. “Was that the start of your pyromania?”
Tate scowls, rolling a dark, withering glance her way. She wonders whether he thinks he can scare her. Despite her declarations to the contrary, he has before. He scared her, once upon a time, when she discovered what he was, what he had done. Back when she began to scratch the surface of his ugliness. But now she’s dead, she knows what he is, and she holds all the power. She has nothing to fear from him. It’s a strange feeling.
“Did you scare that couple away?” she asks, apropos of nothing. “The ones who wanted to turn the house into a bed and breakfast? Tell me the truth, Tate.”
Tate just stares at her for a beat, and then he nods.
“What did you do to get rid of them?” Violet presses.
“Whatever it took,” Tate says vaguely, looking away with a shrug of his shoulders. “Nora and Thaddeus helped me.”
“Why would you do that? What do you care if the house kills more people?”
His stare is so blank, so bottomless, that Violet wonders how she never noticed before. The wheels in his head are turning, no doubt, but he’s so good at hiding it that you can’t even tell.
You can’t tell unless you already know what he’s like.
“I did it because you don’t want anyone else to die here,” Tate replies finally. He blinks, as if surprised by what he’s said. “Just now, I wanted to tell you that I did it because I don’t want anyone else to die here, because I know that’s probably what you want to hear, but the truth is that I don’t really care. You’re the only person I ever wanted to save from being trapped here, even though I wanted to keep you forever. You’re the only one, Violet.”
Violet closes her eyes as the pinching sensation there starts to become a headache. Why couldn’t he just be fixed? Why couldn’t he just not be the way he is?
When she opens her eyes, he’s watching her.
“You’re hurting,” he says. It’s not a question. “Your head hurts.”
“Yeah, it does,” she replies. It’s not only her head that hurts, of course.
There’s a long pause as he stares at her, and then he abruptly stands.
“I’m tired of hurting people,” he says. Before she can reply, he walks around the corner, and disappears.
That night, when she lies in her bed smoking a cigarette and contemplating putting it out on her wrist just to see, she can hear him raging down in the basement, breaking furniture and glass jars filled with dark things, rattling the pipes.
She appreciates that he doesn’t go to the trouble to hide it from her.
Anything will do, if it keeps her from descending the basement stairs.
But eternity is a long time, and not even a mansion filled with dozens of restless spirits is a large enough space to contain it. She can’t avoid him forever, no matter how easy he tries to make it.
She doesn’t want to.
Violet doesn’t hate him. She wishes she did. He doesn’t even disgust her, really. Things he’s done disgust her, but she loves him. Strange, how her heart still wants to separate him from his deeds. It still wants to justify him.
She wonders if she wouldn’t love him if he wasn’t the first to love her. If she had survived the pills and kept living her life, if she’d grown up and moved away and met some other boy. Maybe everything would have been different.
Or maybe not. Maybe she was doomed from the moment she said they would take the house.
“Tate?” she calls, walking down the narrow basement steps. She rounds the corner and runs into Dr. Montgomery, standing there in his surgical smock, holding a pair of blood-streaked forceps. Violet’s stomach turns over as she remembers the night her mom died.
“Do you have an appointment?” the doctor asks, peering at her through dark, ether-fog eyes.
“Go away,” Violet says sternly, and between one breath and the next, he disappears.
“What do you want?”
Violet turns to see Tate standing in the middle of the room, watching her. His dark eyes are hooded and he stands uncomfortably, shoulders hunched and his fingers pulling the ragged sleeves of his too-large striped shirt over his hands.
“Why, am I bothering you? Jesus, Tate. Am I butting into your busy schedule of moping down here in the cobwebs?”
Tate doesn’t reply. He glowers at her.
“You can always tell me to go away, you know,” she says, nonchalant.
“I would never tell you to go away,” he replies. There’s no entreaty in his voice, no tears, no pleading. It’s a fact, nothing more, and she believes him.
Violet takes a deep, bracing breath. “I want to talk to you. Meet me up in my room.”
Tate’s face twists with confusion, with suspicion. “Why?”
“Just meet me up there, Tate. Unless you’d rather assist the doctor with his next imaginary patient.” She turns and departs, finding herself immediately back in her bedroom.
Violet paces a moment, anxiously running a hand through her hair. She’s stupid, really. She could have just given it to him downstairs and left. She didn’t have to make a big thing out of it.
“Make a big thing out of what?”
Violet spins around, and there he is, standing in the middle of her room. The room seems smaller somehow with him in it once again, as though the walls are leaning in to embrace him. It’s a ridiculous thought, but then she hasn’t learned every one of the house’s secrets yet, and it was Tate’s room years before it was hers. Maybe it’s happy to see him.
“What? Nothing,” Violet replies, feeling her cheeks redden.
“You know,” Tate says, his voice mild and his face expressionless, “talking to yourself is a sign of insanity. Maybe you should make an appointment with your dad.”
“Yeah, maybe. The way this house is, I’m pretty sure he’s all booked up.”
Tate nods, and his fingers pick at a loose thread on the cuff of one sleeve. “So,” he says, after a lengthy pause.
Violet remembers herself, and goes to her bureau. She picks up a book and turns to hold it out to him. He takes it gingerly, long fingers dragging across the dusty cover. Violet swallows.
“I found it in the attic last week when I was up there playing with Beau,” she says. “I thought maybe you might want it.”
It’s a picture book, an old hardcover filled with beautiful, rich illustrations of exotic wildlife, including an extensive section on birds. And inside the front cover is pencilled tate langdon in a child’s hand.
“I haven’t seen this in a long time,” he says, gently turning the pages.
“It was in a box with some other stuff your mom must have... There are a lot of things up there that have been forgotten about. Left behind.”
Tate is silent a moment, leafing through the book. Finally he looks up at her. “You still go see Beau?”
“Yeah, of course,” she replies. “I like Beau. He doesn’t ask a whole lot, you know? He just wants to play. He’s good company.”
Tate examines her, a slight frown on his face. “Is this how you’ve decided to do it?”
“Do what?” Violet asks, confused.
“Is this your new way of punishing me? Of making me pay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Being nice to me,” he says, closing the book with a soft snap. He sets it aside. “Is this your new way to punish me?”
Violet swallows, and finds she cannot look away from him. He knew, all this time. Of course he did.
“You said I had to pay for what I did,” Tate prompts. “So I’m paying.”
“It’s not enough, Tate.”
“Okay,” he says, tipping his chin in an agreeable nod. “What will be enough?”
“Nothing, Tate!” she exclaims, suddenly angry. “You murdered people, and you raped my mom! Nothing will ever be enough to make up for that. Those aren’t things you can make up for.”
His face crumples, and he looks down. “Then why did you tell me to come up here? I’m trying to do what you said. I’m trying to be away from you.”
“I thought -” Violet looks away, her heart in her throat. “I thought maybe you might be lonely.”
“I am,” he replies. He sounds so tired. When he looks up, his eyes are tearful and rimmed red, as though he’s been scrubbing at them.
“I’m lonely, too,” Violet says. She clutches her elbows, folding in on herself with a shudder. “Tate, I’m so lonely here.”
“I love you,” he says, taking a step towards her.
“You always say that like it’s an answer,” Violet replies wearily. “Like it’s the solution to a problem.”
He stares, perplexed. “Isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not. If it was, everything would be different.”
“Maybe,” he replies. “But I do. I do love you, Violet. I always will.”
She smiles sadly. “I know, Tate. I believe you. I love you, too. I’ve tried... I’ve tried not to. Really hard. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just decide to turn it off.”
Tate stares at her, his expression miserable, and says nothing.
“This is so hard,” Violet says. “It would be easier if I could blame you for my being stuck here, but it’s my own stupid fucking fault.”
“Don’t say that,” Tate says, coming another step closer. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s mine; I should have gotten there sooner. I should have saved you.”
“Now who’s stupid? You’re not the one who swallowed a bottle of pills.” Tate doesn’t reply to this, he just looks at her. “Funny, isn’t it? That I stood there and took pill after pill, but I still didn’t really mean it. I didn’t want to die. I just wanted... I don’t know what I wanted. A break, I guess. A rest.”
“And now you’re stuck here forever,” Tate says, his voice cracking. “Stuck with me. I’m so sorry, Violet.”
Violet doesn’t reply, she just shrugs her shoulders.
“I’ll leave you alone,” he says, “if that’s what you want.”
Violet sighs, exhausted. She has the strangest feeling that he’s being completely honest. That he’s trying, that he’s not just saying what he thinks she wants to hear.
It’s more likely that he’s simply that talented a liar, but she’s not sure she cares anymore.
“I don’t know what I want,” she says. “I’m so tired of this. I thought it would be better. I thought we figured it all out. My family would be together, and we’d protect anyone who came into the house, and we’d be kind of happy. But I’m not happy. I’m just... I’m so tired.”
There’s a long silence, and when Violet finally lifts her head to look at Tate, he’s crying. She wonders how many buckets they could fill with the tears that have fallen between them. The corner of her mouth tugs rebelliously at the trite sentiment, and she fights a smirk even as hot tears begin to slide down her cheeks.
“Tate,” she says, “I don’t know what to do anymore.”
He gives his head a shake and makes a pained sort of sound. “I don’t know what to do either.”
“About what?” Violet asks.
“About you,” he says. “I don’t know what you want anymore. I thought you wanted me to go away. But now I don’t know, and... And I know I could make you be happy, make you stop being so sad, if I could just figure out the right things to say. I could make you.”
Violet swallows. “And what do you want?”
“I want to hold you,” he says. “I want to tell you everything will be all right, that you’re smart and strong and you’ll figure it out and nothing will ever hurt you.”
The lump in her throat is painful. “So why don’t you?”
“I don’t know if you want me to,” Tate replies, his voice hitching. “I can’t tell, Violet. I can’t tell. I don’t want to do something you don’t want me to do. Please. I’m tired of hurting people. I’m tired of hurting you. I’m so tired.”
Violet doesn’t bother agonizing over it; she knew what was going to happen when she invited him back into her room, when she began seeking him out.
She steps into his space, brushes his hair out of his eyes and lets her hand linger on his cheek.
“It’s okay, Tate,” she says. “Right now, I want you to.”
He hesitates for an instant, and then he’s pulling her to him, wrapping his arms around her and tucking her head under his chin. She presses her hands to his back, feeling the ridges of ribs beneath his skin. Hard to believe he’s dead, and has been for nearly thirty years. It’s still hard to believe she’s dead, too.
None of it has ever felt real.
“I miss you, Violet,” he mumbles into her hair. She closes her eyes, presses her nose against his collarbone.
“I miss you, too.”
They stand there holding one another for minutes, hours – Violet doesn’t know. All she knows is that letting go of everything else in favour of him affords her the most profound sense of peace she’s had since her parents’ deaths. Feeling the sluggish beat of his heart under her cheek, she thinks she could fall asleep like this, standing up, leaning into him.
Tate sighs, the exhale ruffling her hair and sending a scattering of goose pimples down her arms. He kisses her softly by her ear, and at her temple, and then pulls back to look at her, brushing her hair out of her face.
Before he can speak, before he can ask, Violet pushes aside the mess of emotions between them and leans up to kiss him.
Violet enjoys a brief thrill at still being able to take him by surprise, and then he’s kissing her back, holding her so tightly to him that he almost lifts her off her feet. Her arms are around his neck, her hands in his hair, and she feels the edge of the bed against the backs of her knees before she realises they were moving.
Tate tumbles her back onto the bed and he’s hurried, as though he expects at any moment for her to push him away and end this. She supposes that must be exactly what he expects.
He kisses her and kisses her and kisses her, and it’s like it used to be, long ago, when she met him and he overwhelmed her and all she could think was: you are the one I’ve been waiting for, the one who really understands.
“Violet,” he says, right in her ear, soft and hushed, “Violet.”
She shushes him and presses her lips to his, pulling his shirt up over his back, yanking at his belt buckle. They grapple awkwardly; the long years apart have made their bodies strangers to each other. But the way his hand cups her jaw and skims her thigh is familiar, painfully so, and then he slides her tights and her underwear off, brushes gentle fingers against her, and he’s inside her, and it’s just like it used to be.
It’s just like it used to be, and Violet has no idea whether that’s a good thing or not.
They move together in tense silence, still partially clothed, and Violet watches emotions roil beneath his surface. He closes his eyes, frowning, as though he’s trying to keep something inside. He can’t hide like this, she realises. He can hide a lot of the time, act a part, but like this he can’t.
Tate’s head drops to her shoulder as he pulls her leg higher on his hip, grips her hips harder between his hands. “Violet,” he says hoarsely as she rakes her fingers through the curls at the base of his neck.
“What?” she asks.
“I want to fuck you like this every day,” he whispers, his breath short, “I want to eat you out until it hurts. I want to -”
“Stop,” she tells him, her stomach twisting. She can’t decide whether she finds his words erotic or disturbing. “Just – stop that.”
He stills, lifts his head to meet her eyes. “You don’t like it.”
“No,” she replies. “Well – no. It’s creepy, the way you say it.”
“I just want you, Violet,” he says, his voice shaking. “I want everything about you. I love you. I love you more than anything.”
Violet leans up and kisses him to stop him from talking. It’s too much. He’s too much. He’s always been so much more than could ever be good for her.
She thinks of Boston, of damp winters and lunch hours spent hiding in the girls’ bathroom. She thinks of her baby brother’s funeral and her family’s cold, silent house and the crushing, pressing loneliness. She thinks about the hundreds of times she wished desperately in her childish ignorance for someone who would understand, for someone who would be hers alone, who would choose her above everything else.
She got what she wished for.
She shifts her hips against his and scratches her nails up his back, and he digs in and fucks her so hard that for one perfect instant, she forgets to be sad. She comes with a shout muffled into his shoulder as he shudders against her, chanting her name like a mantra, his fingers hard and tense where they clutch the back of her head.
After, he holds himself off her on shaking arms, and she can’t look away from him although she wants to. She wants so badly to turn away.
“I’m so sorry for everything,” Tate whispers. “Violet. I’m so sorry.”
“I believe that you’re trying to be sorry,” Violet replies, her voice hoarse. “But that’s not the same as really being sorry.”
“It’s not?” he asks, dark damp eyes searching hers. Violet can only shake her head, swallow the painful lump in her throat. Tate watches her miserably for a beat and then he blinks and looks away.
Violet leans up and kisses his forehead, and then turns onto her side before he can see that she’s crying. She feels him hesitate, and then he shifts and curls up behind her, his arm over her waist.
They don’t speak, and the only sound is of the wind dragging tree branches back and forth against the eaves, and of the distant murmurs of the others in the house, caught up in their own nocturnal wanderings.
“Nothing’s changed,” Violet eventually whispers into the darkness.
“I know,” Tate replies.
“I don’t forgive you,” she continues. “I can’t forgive you.”
“I know.” He kisses the back of her head, the spot behind her ear. She remembers the night she died, the pelting cold water and the sour vomit, his nails scratching the back of her throat, and the sound of his frantic voice crying her name.
“And I’m going to tell you to go away again,” she says. “I’ll mean it, and you’ll have to go back to the basement.”
Tate gives a shuddery sigh behind her, presses his mouth to her bare shoulder. “I know,” he whispers.
“Okay,” she says, threading their fingers together over her heart and closing her eyes. “As long as you know.”
They fall asleep.