By: Kelly McDonald
There was a ting of metal bouncing against metal and then against stone. My heart stuttered and I let out a rush of air. I knew better than to take Mother's things from the library, to touch the one that hung on the hook was not allowed under any circumstance. I had learned that lesson the hard way as a very young child once. I still remember the burning heat where her hand had landed on my cheek. And that time all I had done was touched the key. Now, I tried to be more careful and not get caught. That is one reason I love the privacy of this forgotten space. I was on the third floor, back side of the house, with only the broken patio flagstones in the empty garden below it. Only I ever used this balcony. No one else liked the quiet view of the woods beyond the neglected garden and yard. "It's too dark back there" they would say. I didn't understand why they thought that until just then. Maybe if it had been a little brighter, I would have seen the crack before it was too late.
I had the key in my hand when there was a faint rustling crunch of dried leaves and a brief shadow darted through the tree line. There was something moving around back there. Branches swayed as it moved through the undergrowth. It wasn't often that people ventured into the woods. Too many whispered stories about the creatures that roamed back there. I thought it all a bunch of nonsense. Well, at least I did most of the time. Sometimes I would hear low screams, loud crying, growls, and voices that sounded like they were arguing in the garden outside. It made me wonder if there may be some truth to the rumors about the darkhaired man and the wolf that people had seen. The woods were also off limits to me. That rule I followed, going no closer than the thorny evergreen bushes planted by the back gate.
Aunt Sara, Mother's older sister, had gotten lost in the woods when they were younger. She was missing for twelve days before they found her. Mother said Aunt Sara was never the same after her time in the woods. She was curled up in the leaves under a fallen tree trunk when they found her. Four long scratches traced down her right arm; bruises across her back and legs. There were bits of rabbit tangled in her long blonde hair and fur underneath her nails. Aunt Sara rarely spoke again, sometimes only in odds phrases that no one understood. The only time she seemed to come out of her shell was when Father came to see Mother. The three of them would have long conversations in front of the library fireplace talking about all the places Father had seen on his travels. Sometimes Mother would join him if it wasn't far away. But Aunt Sara never left the house. She spent the rest of her life secluded in the house.
The sound of mother's car snapped me back to the current predicament I was in. I wouldn't have enough time to get to the garden and search before she made it into the house. Peering over the railing, heart racing, I strained to see if I could find where it had landed. Maybe I could sneak down tonight after she was asleep and retrieve it. I could return it to the small metal hook that hung between framed portraits of Mother and Aunt Sara. For now, I just needed to distract her so she wouldn't go in there. I flew down the hallway, doing my best not to make too much noise on the stairs.
I skidded to a stop at the bottom. "Hello Mother."
She stood just inside the heavy oak door, light spilling across the marble floor from the porch light behind her. Black leather gloves dangled from her left hand; the matching purse hung from the crook of her arm. I pressed my fingers into my palms behind my back, the nails biting into my skin. I tried to keep from shuffling my feet. A smile flickered on her face, just a hint of the woman I remembered from before father's accident. A small bubble of hope warmed my chest. It was gone in the next heartbeat. Her blue eyes narrowed; lips tight as she studied my dress and shoes. I risked a glance down, a cold sensation constricted my throat, making it hard to breathe.
"Mud. How many times have I explained the reason we do not track mud into houses?"
"And that dress! If you're going to have such little regard for the clothes I buy you, then I might as well stop doing it." She shoved her belongings at Vincent, a mildmannered older man who had the unlucky (and often thankless) job of being our butler. He was her silent shadow. Always just out of sight, but close enough in case she needed him.
Slapping her gloves down on top of the packages from the butcher, she barked at me. "Clean up this mess at once. There had better not be any more dirt tracked through this house. Honestly child, I don't know what gets into your mind to act like such a fool. And do something about that hair."
She turned, long legs striding across the polished floor into the kitchen. Her long coat flowed behind her as she went. Heels clicking a steady beat. Vincent gave me a knowing look as he passed. He had worked for the family since Mother was a child. I pretended not to notice.
The full moon was rising slowly over the trees. It would lend more light for me to search for Mother's key. I wouldn't have to risk being seen. I waited until I heard soft, even breathing coming from mother's room before slipping on my shoes and jacket. The occasional snore broke the silence. Peering around the edge of my door I made sure the hallway was empty. I tiptoed down the hall, past the room that used to belong to Aunt Sara. I traced the parallel lines in the faded red carpet to the back stairs. They led to the rarely used study on the first floor. The garden was just through the study's French doors and a short walk around the corner to the patio where the key should have landed. There was a soft creak behind me. I stiffened. The house fell quiet and after a moment I moved down the stairs.
The doors to the study were cracked open just enough for me to squeeze through. A large dark walnut desk was to the right of the door with the black chair pushed underneath. His papers were still spread across the desk untouched, waiting for him to come back. The faint scent of coffee and cedar smoke haunted me like a dream. How many times had I snuck in here just to feel close to him again? I had to be careful so that mother didn't find out. She didn't like me "messing around where I didn't belong" as she called it. This had been Father's study before he died.
Moonlight pooled through the windows, shadows from the trees dancing a twisted ballet on the carpet. Their silhouettes twisted and twined around one another. The hoot of an owl yanked me from my memories and back to the task at hand. I couldn't keep wasting time. I trotted across the room to the back doors. Saying a quiet prayer, I turned the handle. They opened with a quiet groan of protest and a puff of dust from years of disuse. My chest clenched; it was hard to breath, tears pooled behind my eyes. I had not noticed the layer of dust that now covered everything in the room. I stepped into a muted world of browns, yellows, and greens. Tangled weeds, trees struggling to survive, the random bush here or there. A cold breeze whipped up out of nowhere, throwing my tangled hair into my face.
A light flashed on upstairs and I ducked against the wall. Inside the house a door opened and closed. My heart was beating in my ears. I just needed a few more minutes to get the key and get back to my room. There was a sudden, distant yell that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside the house. I bolted around the house, desperate to find the key. I dove to the ground not caring about the mud that I knew was now clinging to my shoes, pants and coat sleeves. Dried leaves crunched beneath my hands as I dug through the ground litter. I tossed sticks, broken rocks and shattered pots to the side. After a frantic few minutes, my hand closed around a piece of metal, jagged teeth scraping my thumb. I scrambled to my feet and brushed off as much of the dirt as I could while rushing back to the doors. They were open just a crack so I wouldn't make any noise.
I stopped just beside the doors, crouching as I scanned the room. Nothing moved. I jerked off my shoes. Grasping the key tightly, I slipped between the doors and paused. The room was silent, my rapid breathing the only sound. I raced across the carpet and into the hall. Turning the lock with a tiny click, I pulled the doors closed. There were voices in the kitchen. Mother was arguing with someone; their voices raised, talking over each other. Twisting and twining around each other like the branches of the trees. Then there was another voice. This one a man. I knew it wasn't Vincent because he would never raise his voice to Mother.
From the kitchen I heard the banging of pots and then the shattering of glass. The hair on my arms stood up, goosebumps crawled across my skin. The voices were getting louder, angrier. I set my shoes down outside the office doors and tucked the key into my pocket. I glanced at the back stairs, it would be easy for me to head to my room and forget about the commotion in the kitchen. But I thought I heard Mother say my name and I wanted to know what I had done to cause such a fuss. A faint noise to my left told me Vincent couldn't fight it any longer either. His room was at the foot of the back stairs across the hall from the cellar door. We crept down the hall, staying to the shadows as much as possible to avoid being seen. He put up his hand to stop me at the corner and peaked around into the kitchen. I felt a smile start across my lips and I wanted to giggle at the image of this grayhaired old man in his red flannel pajamas and matching slippers spying on my mother. I couldn't say much standing there in bare feet with my pants and jacket covered in mud.
"We wouldn't have come here if we'd had any other choice." The man snapped.
"You need to leave her out of this," Mother said.
"She has a right to know. And you can't keep the truth from her forever Kathryn." She spoke in a quiet voice, trying to calm my mother down.
Glass shattered against the tile.
Vincent ducked back around the corner, a startled look on his face. "Ok child. Back to bed with you. You needn't interfere in this one. Don't concern us none." He tried to move me back the way we came. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me away from the corner.
"Stop!" I hissed, jerking away. "What is it? What's going on? Who's in there?" I bumped into the table against the wall, causing the vases on top to rattle, the white carnations swayed. We froze. Vincent stared, eyes wide, hand over his mouth. I shrank back into the shadows as far as I could hoping that mother hadn't heard the commotion. A brief silence from the kitchen before the voices resumed their arguing. We crept closer to the doorway.
Mother stood in front of the stove arms crossed. Her scarlet robe striking against the shiny black appliances. Hair had escaped her tight braid and curled around her head in a soft gray halo. She didn't have any makeup on. She looked both older and younger at the same time. Circles under her eyes acted as witnesses to the frequent sleepless nights. A tall darkhaired man in jeans and a green sweater stood across from her, his back to the door. The door to the pantry closed. The woman looked exactly like Mother only this version was blonde. She wore her hair loose over her shoulders, the color a sharp contrast to the dark dress she had on.
Mother shouted at the woman. "What are you even doing here? I thought we agreed that things were better this way. With the two of you safely hidden away." Her voice cracked, her breathing ragged.
"We just need the key to the cellar. We can stay there for a few days and no one will know. It's the safest and only option we have," the man replied.
Vincent let out a breath. He closed his eyes and sagged against the wall, deflating like a balloon with a slow leak. Rubbing his forehead, he turned to look at me. "Stay here." He stood, straightened his pajamas, doing his best to look presentable and walked into the kitchen.
"Is there anything I can help you with Mrs. Winters?" Vincent stopped beside the kitchen island.
"No. I think we are alright Vincent. Oh, wait. There is one thing. Do you know what happened to the cellar key I keep on the shelf in the library? It wasn't there when I looked earlier."
My hand went to the key in my pocket. My mouth was dry. My heartbeat a roar inside my ears.
Vincent cleared his throat. "No ma'am I don't know where that key would be if it isn't in its proper place. I can go look to see if I can find it." He took a step backwards toward the doorway.
Mother frowned, gritting her teeth. She shook her head. Her eyes closed as she pinched the bridge of her nose. "That's ok. You can go back to bed now."
"Good night then Mrs. Winters." He hurried back through the kitchen to the hallway, passing both the man and woman on his way. "Charles. Sara." He nodded at them as he passed like they were not two strangers standing in our kitchen after midnight.
Charles? I stepped past Vincent into the kitchen and looked at the man standing across from my mother. He was taller than her. His eyes stared back at me, green to my gray. Dark hair in disarray, small curls above his ears. I looked from him to mother. My face flushed hot. I trembled. Mother moved away from him toward the door where I stood. I drew my hand from my pocket and unfolded my fingers. Mother's eyes widened.
I looked at Mother. "You said he was dead."
Father pulled out a chair at the table. "Sit. We have a lot to talk about."