Nervous about the waning light, I slid the silver key into the lock and twisted it. I’d wanted to come here by myself first so I wouldn’t get all emotional in front of the real estate person, but maybe I’d made a mistake in venturing here alone.
About ten years ago, my father had turned our rambling farmhouse into a restaurant. He made a go of it for a good long time until the economy turned bad and his health failed him.
Now I stood in the entranceway staring at the hostess station with its oak counter that my father had made. The grains matched perfectly; dad would have had it no other way. The lemon scent of the wood polish he always used transported me right back in time. I felt the tears rush to my eyes. Now I was an orphan. No brothers and sisters, no spouse. Get a grip, Laura.
A sudden noise made me nearly turn around and run. It was the grinding of the old water pump we used to have when I was a kid. It whirred and labored to siphon fresh water from our well every time the retaining tank emptied. But there was nobody here, and surely Dad had replaced that water pump years ago.
Struggling to superimpose the layout of our old house over the renovation, I stepped into what we used to call the music room, which Dad had turned into a small dining room.
I heard a creek like a footstep overhead and all of the memories flooded back into me of how I used to sit in that room, terrified as the light faded at four in the afternoon in the winter in Connecticut. In was in fifth or sixth grade and my dad was starting up a new business in the next town over. My mom helped him with his bookkeeping so I was often left alone in the old house until seven or eight at night.
I’d sit and watch The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Hitchcock Presents, trying to scare myself silly. I’d read the Stranger than Science books about invisible vampires sinking their teeth into innocent victims, houses that disappeared into alternate dimensions, but the worst of all was the case of the man who encountered his own doppelganger, which was an evil twin created by diabolical means.
After that, my biggest fear became getting off the school bus, coming home in the afternoon and finding myself already there. At that point I’d know I was mad and life would no longer be worth living. But one thing saved me: my best friend, Tippy.
The light receded more quickly now as I moved into the next room, our old living room. Beautifully carved wooden tables lay in the center of the room like abandoned ships afloat on a post-storm sea. The chairs were piled up carelessly on the right side of the room. A chill went through me as I thought about all of my nights alone, terrified of the unseen things in the attic.
To neutralize my mood I thought about Tippy, the tuxedo cat who had greeted me daily and joined me in my solo walks through the woods in the back of our house. He’d come to us in a unique way. We had a boy cat who had shown up one day holding a perfect little copy of himself by the scruff of the neck. We named the adorable cat Tippy and kept it as our own. We wondered what had made him rescue the kitty? A dysfunctional mommy cat? A pending custody suit?
There it was again. The creaking footsteps from above. I flipped the light switch next to the doorway. Just my luck, the electricity had been disconnected. How did that water pump go on then?
I walked up the stairs and looked around. Nothing. I was being silly, getting too caught up in my childhood memories.
Tap, tap, tap. I’d quickly finish my surveillance of the place and leave, go back to my nice, bright shiny room at the Marriott and forget about all this maudlin silliness.
My mood changed from fear to melancholy as I thought about my dad. Exhausted from my flight, I sat on a chaise lounge at the side of the room. Like the waves from a distant ocean, all of the stress drained from me and I realized how tired I was. I’d rest for just a minute before I drove to the hotel. Since the chaise felt especially comfortable, I leaned my head back and rested.
I awoke to a pitch black room, so black it felt like it was in my throat strangling me. I sat bolt upright trying to get my bearings. When I reached out to feel the tapestry texture of the couch, the memories flooded back. I was at Secundo, our old house.
Barely able to discern outlines of the windows, I got up and bumped my shin against some table. Ouch. I rubbed it and put my hand against the wall for support. I felt a light switch and flipped it on out of habit, knowing full well there was no electricity.
But the lights came on. When I looked around I started to hyperventilate. I saw a small television with knobs, a forest green couch that was fringed at the bottom. The scent of a Swanson turkey TV dinner wafted in from the kitchen. The house of my childhood.
I was dreaming of course. Was I a little girl again? I looked down at my hands and saw long painted nails. No, definitely not little girl hands. It was time to wake up, so I pinched myself. Nothing happened. I went in the bathroom and gazed in the mirror expecting to see something weird, but I saw a middle aged woman dressed in a black velour travel outfit from Talbot’s.
Then I rummaged through my purse, saw my iPhone, my red Mac lipstick, my business cards. This was all too real. I walked into the kitchen as though in a dream and saw Formica countertops, the cantilevered table my dad had built that jutted out of the wall. In our old dining room, I ran my hand over the mahogany table my dad had built that folded down into a coffee table or up into a full dining room table. I felt the smooth surface that my dad had so lovingly sanded and varnished.
I climbed the stairs to my old bedroom and saw my Chapman Chipmunks pennant on the wall, the stack of books I was reading at the time, the top of which was Ray Bradbury’s, Farenheight 451. I remembered devouring that book.
Tap, tap. I stood, frozen, terrified like the twelve-year-old girl who’d been left alone after school. It was coming from the attic. Could it be my dad? Was he caught in a nether world he couldn’t get out of? I needed to go and comfort him, tell him that it’s all right to go on to the next world, to reassure him that I love him and I’ll sell the restaurant to someone who will lovingly restore it and make it a living business again. Or could there be someone hiding up there? I hadn’t looked up there when I came in. This wasn’t a dream after all. I should just go. I gathered up my purse and made for the front door. But when I turned the handle, it was jammed. I tugged, twisted banged on it, but it wouldn’t open. I tried to open the windows but nothing. They were all stuck.
Again I heard the noise in the attic. I couldn’t get out, so I’d have to face it. I went out to the kitchen and pulled a knife from the drawer, to make sure I’d have ample protection, just in case.
I climbed up the stairs and noticed the window made of glass blocks that repeated the outside image in an abstract pattern I’d been so fascinated with as a girl, past the bedrooms and up the narrow staircase to the attic. I paused at the door and heard something within, a rattling around. Something breathing.
Gathering up all my nerve, I flung the door open and saw a figure hiding in the darkness. I gasped thinking it was some kind of misshapen gnome. My fight or flight instinct nearly took over until I heard a soft meow. A little girl with black bobbed hair dressed in a blue turtleneck sweater and black pants clutched a little tuxedo cat.
My paralyzing fear turned into tenderness at seeing the scared little girl.
“Laura,” I said. “Laura, don’t be scared.”
She burst into tears as she tried to make herself smaller and hide behind a stack of boxes.
“Laura, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to grow up and things will be just fine.” Realizing I was still brandishing the knife, I let it fall to the ground.
I knew what I had to do then. I had to leave. Had to get back to my own life. I bent to hug the little girl, but she scampered away. I walked down the stairs, past the bedrooms with their shag carpeting, past the television with its knobs.
I twisted the handle to the outside door and miraculously it opened. I knew it would, so I bolted out of there, nearly tripping over my own feet, got back into my car, and started the motor.
As I drove out, I saw a tuxedo cat holding a smaller cat by the scruff of its neck. I slammed on the brakes and backed up to take a closer look. But when I glanced again, it was gone.