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Three in the morning, and once again Emma Beck stood in her bare feet, in her sleep shirt, with her eyes almost closed, painting. The gessoed board sat unsecured on her easel, bouncing as her palette knives gobbed paint onto the board in a dark, impasto style she would barely have recognized as coming from her hands. The painting that grew out of her frenzied work was of a subject she would never have chosen to paint—one man dressed in the style of the mid-nineteenth century feeding wood into a bonfire on which burned the bodies of a young woman, and a small child. The painting, technically proficient, was ugly, angry, frightening, disturbing.
More disturbing, though, was the fact that Emma Beck had arisen shortly after falling asleep every night since she had moved into the house two weeks earlier, and each of those nights, she had created at least one angry, strange painting. Each night when she finished, after no less than three hours but no more than five, she cleaned up her supplies and hid the canvases away in a secret room in the rambling old house—a room her waking self did not know existed. She then returned to bed, unaware of anything she had done since going to bed the first time.
THE FIRST DAY—Saturday
Emma pulled to the side of the road as she came over the rise. Down below, white against brown, old and friendly and weary and rambling and waiting, it sat. The House. Her new home.
She got out of the moving van and walked to the overlook. A chill breeze bit through her thin sweater, her feet crunched in the gravel, her hands slid along the cold metal of the guardrail. She stared, unbothered by the cold, unworried by occasional passing traffic. She was coming home—in ways she could not rationally explain, and to a place where she had never lived— and she discovered she was having to get there in steps, because doing it all at once felt overwhelming.
The house below was a classic southern farmhouse, pre-Civil War though just barely, two stories high with a tin roof, hand-scrolled gingerbread, a wraparound front porch and a big separate back porch, and small-paned hand-blown glass windows. There had once been a swing on the front porch. She intended to see that there would be again. There was still a fine row of live oaks along both sides of the front drive. An old carriage house and a livestock barn sat to the north, on the back of the cleared property, covered in briar tangles that in the summer would be a mass of wild rambling roses. On the south side of the land, a stream cut its banks in meandering curves through one of two large pastures.
She smiled, almost afraid to get back into the moving van, almost afraid that if she turned away from the scene below, it would disappear behind her.
But she got in anyway because she couldn’t stand on the overlook forever, and she finally steadied her hand enough to turn the key in the ignition. She drove down the little rise, around the curve where the trees still grew up to the road and arched over it, and then turned right. Going home, she told herself. Going home.
She hadn’t known anything about Benina, South Carolina until her mother died of a heart attack when Emma was twenty, and her mother was fifty-three. That was when her father, then nearly sixty, told her that she probably didn’t have to worry about a bad ticker because she’d been adopted.
Five years later, when Emma was twenty-five, her father died, too, leaving her a great deal of money from the sale of his prosperous Wisconsin dairy farm, and an old folder she’d never seen before, containing a detective’s report. In it she’d learned, as her adoptive parents had, that Emma’s birth mother had been from Benina. It also disclosed her birth mother’s name—Maris Kessler—and the fact that she had died at Emma’s birth.
Though Emma had always loved her parents, she’d never felt like she belonged in Winconsin. From the time she was old enough to legally do so, she had traveled, painting and subconsciously searching for the place where she did belong. She was a professional artist, not well known, but she had managed to eke out a living doing science fiction and fantasy cover paintings for a few publishers, and doing commissioned portraits of people’s children and pets when things got really tight.
Only now things wouldn’t be tight anymore. She’d set up most of the money from her inheritance so that she would recieve a small monthly stipend—enough to cover her basic needs, not enough to touch the principle or prevent her nest egg from growing. Frills she would pay for with her artwork, which she would be able to pursue without the constant fear that she would be unable to pay bills, buy food, keep her car on the road or a roof over her head.
The remainder she had spent buying The House, and setting aside a healthy remodeling fund to pay for the renovations.
Finding the old home had been like walking around a corner and crashing headlong into her muse.
She’d been painting since she was five. She’d been painting variations of The House just as long.
Twenty years, and in those twenty years, she had slipped echoes of the graceful front gables, the deep wraparound porch, the broad wash of azalea and rhododendron bushes and the twin rows of live oaks into almost every painting she’d done. She hid the images, and those fans she had acquired over time found pleasure in finding them. Hers was an odd obsession, but harmless. It amused her, it amused the people who bought her work. Where else might they find fierce aliens or elves and fairies and in the same picture, shadows and hints of a mysterious house?
When she was a child, she hadn’t realized the style of The House was purely southern. She never considered the fact that it looked nothing like the house where she lived, or any of the houses she saw every day. The gables, the porch, the tin roof, the broad swaths of flowering shrubs, were all imprinted in her mind as “House,” as if that form were the template from which all other houses had evolved.
As she got older and began studying art and architecture, she discovered the origins of the style she’d painted so many times, and came to wonder at her affection for it. It hadn’t come from personal contact.
Her parents had never taken her out of Wisconsin. She had never seen a structure like The House in her life, except, perhaps, on television or in a photograph. But how could even a glimpsed image of a house have so captured her attention as a young child. It was a simple country farmhouse, most likely built by the hands of the people who then lived in it. Not the sort of house that would enrapture most people.
She found The House—now her house—driving into Benina the first time. It sat on the left side of the road, neglected, shabby, abandoned. She saw the oaks lining the driveway first, and slowed because they seemed so familiar. Then she caught sight of the old home itself, crouched behind its swag of overgrown azaleas, its porch in sad disrepair.
Her heart had thudded and seemed for a moment to stop completely. She’d pulled off the side of the road and stared at it. And then she’d driven down the weed-choked drive, and sat parked with the house on her right, with the old carriage house and stable straight in front of her but set back a ways, and she’d started to cry.
She couldn’t explain the tears, anymore than she could explain the wild elation that overcame her after the tears had passed. Anymore than she could explain the moment when she’d taken complete leave of her senses, had gotten out of the car and walked up to the door and knocked. No one lived there—she could see by peeking through the sidelight windows that the place was empty. One of the door’s sidelights had broken, so, she did something she never would have considered before; she reached through and worked the old-fashioned lock, and let herself in.
The house had been neglected, but the inside was not as bad as she’d feared it would be from its outside appearance. All of the upstairs windows were intact, most of the downstairs ones were, and the deep porch had kept water damage from the few that were broken. In fact, she found no indication of water damage inside. No vandalism. No signs that the house had been disturbed since the previous owners left, taking most of their belongings with them.
She’d walked through the house, alternately laughing and crying. She’d touched the doorframes, looked out the windows, pressed her face close to the walls and inhaled the old-wood scent of the place, as sweet to her as the scent of old books in a library.
All of the rooms were in the right places. She could not explain how she defined right places, except that this house fit her. She stood in the center of the front room, and felt the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the west windows, and the house—The House—had whispered “home.”
Her heart listened.
Emma hadn’t even considered moving to Benina. The trip was simply to see the place where she had been born.
But The House changed everything.
She’d thought, This must have been where my mother lived. This must be why I’ve been seeing this place all my life.
She’d gone into town, walked into the office of the first real estate agent she located, and said, “I want to buy the abandoned house out on Bricker Road.”
There’d been a bit of a furor, and a few legal hassles with deed checking and land surveying and searching for anyone who might have had a claim when the house fell empty. That was when she found out that her mother had never lived there—that the house had been in the possession of members of the Barnett family since it was build, and that it had been sitting empty since the last Barnett died. No one came forward to claim it, no one wanted it, and in the end, it had become hers.
The House had called to her, and she’d answered. She still couldn’t explain why. But she’d answered. And here she was.
Emma pulled into the driveway.
Her driveway. She’d never owned a driveway before. She stopped again, right by the mailbox, and just sat there staring at the three live oaks on the left and the three on the right, trees that were so old the almost had to have been planted by the original owners some time in the early eighteen hundreds. And now those magnificent trees were her trees, and she’d never owned trees before, either. Or a porch, or doors, or windows.
It was stupid, she knew it was stupid, she had promised herself she wouldn’t do it. But she did. She started to cry again.
Between the last time she’d seen the place and this time, the man she’d hired at her real estate agent’s recommendation had already started to fix the place up. He’d removed and reglazed the broken windows, he’d scraped off the peeling paint and covered the exterior with a coat of fresh white and—at her request—had painted the shutters dark green. He and his crew had fixed the porch and the outside stairs, put new locks on the doors, trimmed the overgrown shrubs, cleaned and swept up the indoor living areas, and mown the grass around the house.
Beyond the neat square of the area where they’d worked, the place still looked wild. She owned ten acres, half of it in woods and meadows, half of the remainder in overgrown pastures, and the rest in yard.
From the overlook, the grasses of the pastures had looked like the gold-tipped waves of a sun-drenched alien sea. Up close … well, they would have been a lot prettier if the real estate agent hadn’t mentioned the varieties of poisonous snakes in the area.
Thanks to her contractor and his crew, she would have running water and electricity, and the floors would be safe to walk on, and she would have heat in the winter, and the dust bunnies wouldn’t choke her in her sleep. It was livable, so long as she was willing to be flexible about her definition of livability.
She had an enormous amount of work ahead of her, though, because she intended to restore the place to its original condition. She wasn’t concerned about the size of the task she’d taken on; one thing she’d learned from her childhood on a Wisconsin dairy farm was how to work. She’d make the place gorgeous again, piece by piece, in between doing her paintings and travelling to shows and the conventions where she sold some of her work.
She started unloading the few things in the rental moving van, and a thought struck her. She hadn’t even mentioned—to her real estate lady, Lorelei Bushhalter, or the contractor she’d spoken to over the phone—that she’d been born in Benina.
She laughed a little. It seemed an odd thing to forget.
Mike Ruhl saw the rental moving truck in the drive as he drove past the old Barnett place on the way home for lunch.
He was surprised. The moving van was small, one of those little rentals that wouldn’t accommodate much in the way of clothes or furniture. A battered pickup truck was hitched to a carrier behind it. Mike had assumed the new owner would have a huge moving van there, and a nice car of some sort, or maybe a flashy SUV—people who renovated old houses always seemed to Mike to have a lot of money when they started in.
He considered stopping by, just to see if Ms. Beck was satisfied with his work. The real estate agent had told him she was young and pretty, and that she thought Mike would like her, but Lorelei was pushy that way. She was always recommending this girl or that girl to Mike, because, as she put it, “I can’t stand to see you with your heart broken.”
His broken heart was entirely in her imagination, a fact he’d reminded her of more than once. Worse, though, Lorelei was working her way through her fifth marriage, and rumor had it she was already holding tryouts for husband number six. So Mike wasn’t inclined to look too hard at candidates she proposed for him.
Besides, the house had always given him a sick feeling—from the time he was a kid, he’d hated even riding by it on his bike. He’d had the creeps the whole time he and his crew were shoring it up and making it livable. Mike figured if the new owner had any comments about his work, she had his card. Lorelei told him she had made sure of that.
Emma’s cell phone rang while she was dragging her boxes of paints out of the van. It made a nice excuse to put the current, very heavy, box down and breathe for a moment.
She didn’t recognize the number on the screen, but it was local.
“Emma,” she said.
On the other end of the connection, she heard a throat clearing, and a stiff, precise voice, pitched deep. “Ms. Beck, this is David Halifax. I’m getting things caught up in the office today, and it has come to my attention that the paperwork for your house, including your deed and plat, are still here. Are you planning on picking them up, as you said you would, or should we mail them to you?”
The weight of the disapproval in those words—as you said you would—dripped like acid across the connection. Emma’s heart sank. David Halifax had been the late-fortyish, upscale local lawyer who’d handled her closing on the house, and while he had been polite, the way he’d looked at her while they were going through the endless forms had left her so uncomfortable she’d hoped she would never have to see him again. She couldn’t say what it was about him that had made her skin crawl, exactly. He never did or said anything that was anything less than utterly professional.
But when she was done, she had to force herself to shake his hand, and to walk out of the office, rather than running.
She almost had to thank him for calling, though. He’d handed her the perfect excuse to not see him again. “I’m just moving in today,” she told him. “And I have a deadline that’s going to make it impossible for me to get by the office anytime soon.” This was only marginally true—she did have a tight deadline, but she could also have diverted herself from a grocery run to pick up the papers. “Mail them to me, would you?”
Even the pause that followed sounded disapproving. “Of course,” he said after a moment. “To your old address, or your new one?”
“The new one. I’m here for keeps.”
“I see. I’ll have them in the mail to you on Monday.”
She hung up and shook her head. There hadn’t been too many people in her life that she’d met and instantly disliked. He was, however, a memorable example of one she had.
Emma jammed her cell phone back into her pocket and hoisted the box again.
And, thanks to his call, she never had to deal with him again. Exhausted as she was, that was still good news. She grinned.