I walked into Aldritch well past midnight. Although I hadn’t been here in six years, it hadn’t changed much. It was still small and sleepy. My memories were a little hazy, but I knew I needed to walk down Main Street and turn left at Izzy’s Ice Cream Parlor…if it still existed.
It had taken more than two days to get here, hitchhiking and walking most of the way. My sneakers were falling apart, my feet aching with every step. I considered walking barefoot for a second but decided against it. I was almost there.
The streetlights cast a dim and eerie glow. I shivered involuntarily. The storefronts were dated. The writing faded; no glaring LED lights. I adjusted my backpack as I silently walked on.
Izzy’s was still standing. I stopped and looked through the window. The counter was the same as I remembered, and the ice cream posters on the walls were unchanged. I shook my head. It felt a little creepy, like Aldritch hadn’t moved on with the times. Just like me.
I hurriedly turned left at the corner. I was bone weary. All I wanted was to quench my thirst and sleep for days.
Four blocks down, I turned onto Spruce Street. It was a cul-de-sac with only three houses, including my gran’s. Her house was in the middle, bordering the forest. It had no fence, and the porch looked like it was in dire need of repair.
One single streetlight sputtered on and off. As I moved closer to the house, my eye caught the decorative owl fixed to the wall, and I hoped the spare key was still in there. The last thing I wanted was to break into the house and wake the neighbors, although all three houses looked to be unoccupied.
Holding my breath, I removed the owl from the wall. Luck was on my side. I pulled the key out of the little hole and unlocked the front door. I had to use all my weight to push the door open, as though the door had grown too big for the frame.
I pushed it closed, cringing at the loud noise, before locking it. I was finally here. I made it.
My eyes took in the familiar furnishings: the couch where I would watch movies with my gran, the kitchen table where I would see her cook. I inhaled, breathing in the scent that I hadn’t smelled in six years. This was where I’d been happiest.
She was gone now, and no one had bothered to let me know when it happened.
I reached for the light switch, snapping it up and down a few times. Nothing happened. The electric company probably cut the power after she died. It didn’t matter. The moon was almost full and shined bright in the house, making it so I could see well enough without the lights.
I made my way to the kitchen. Crossing my fingers, I tried the faucet. Water sputtered, then came out in a steady stream. Grabbing a glass, I filled it before downing the contents, the water soothing my parched throat. I refilled it, sipping slowly this time.
I pulled my backpack off and chucked it on the floor. I was beyond tired. The stairs creaked loudly as I made my way upstairs and down the hall. I had only ever spent summers here, but my bedroom looked as if I’d left it yesterday. The same quilted bedspread covered the single bed. The tall dresser stood against the far wall.
I toed my shoes off, finished the water, and threw myself onto the bed. Dust tickled my nose, but I was too tired to care, falling asleep in the blink of an eye.
I woke up sweating and disoriented. Sitting up, I instantly remembered where I was. After hastily removing my hoodie, I breathed in deeply. A musty smell permeated the room. I winced in agony when my feet hit the floor—my soles had blisters on top of blisters.
I hobbled to the window, pulled up the blinds, and opened the window as wide as it would go. There was a slight breeze, which cooled my overheated body. As I stood in front of the window, I looked down at the street. The front yard looked unloved and uncared for, the lawn overgrown, and the flower beds full of weeds. Spruce Street was as empty and silent as the house.
Memories flooded my mind, but I pushed them away. This was not the time for reminiscing.
I hadn’t showered in days, so that was at the top of my priority list. The bathroom was like everything else in this house, old and in need of renovation. Since there was no electricity, the water was ice cold, and the showerhead had very little pressure.
Neither of these things bothered me. I stood under the spray for twenty minutes before washing my hair and body with the toiletries that still stood on the shelf from my last visit over six years ago.
The towel was as dusty as the bed, but that was something I could remedy once the power was back on.
I stared into the tarnished mirror. My face looked pinched and tired, with gray eyes that made me look older than my eighteen years. My ash-blond hair badly needed a cut. I looked critically at myself. I couldn’t really see me anymore, just a shell of who I used to be. Guilt seeped from every pore.
I angrily turned away from the mirror. Locating my old hairbrush under the sink, I started to brush the tangles out. I was tempted to find a pair of scissors and hack it all off. It reached my lower back, and the length irritated me.
Once I felt almost human, I retrieved my bulging backpack from the kitchen and dressed in a pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt. I put on a pair of sandals, wincing slightly when they rubbed against the blisters.
I briefly wondered whether this attire was too casual to see Steve Morris, the lawyer who contacted me about my grandmother and the house, then dismissed it. It wasn’t like I had much choice on what to wear anyway.
I took a quick tour of the house. My gran’s room was just as musty as mine and had an unlived feel to it. The en suite bathroom had changed since the last time I was here. The bathtub was gone, replaced by a large shower.
Tears threatened my eyes, but I angrily pushed them away. The living room was just as I remembered: the old sofa threadbare and the TV that belonged in the dark ages. But I didn’t care; I was free, and this was mine.
I grabbed the letter from Morris & Morris from my backpack and double-checked the address: 26 Main Street. I made it this far. I should be able to find that.
I locked up and made my way into town. I got a few curious looks but ignored them. It wasn’t difficult to find the office of Morris & Morris. I opened the door to a cool, air-conditioned office. The lady behind the desk looked up and greeted me.
“What can I do for you, young lady?” she said, smiling.
“I would like to see Mr. Morris, please.”
“Uhm, Steve Morris,” I said.
“And who might you be?”
“Erica Baxter.” The minute I said my name, her friendly expression turned frosty. Well, fuck. I guess she knows who I am.
“Let me see if he is available,” she responded. Turning her chair slightly, she picked up her phone and pushed a button.
“I have an Erica Baxter here to see you. Do you have time?” She nodded once. “Right away.”
She turned back to me. “He’s expecting you. It’s the first door on the left,” she said coldly.
I didn’t bother responding and walked down the hall. After a short knock on the door, I let myself in.
Steve Morris sat behind a large, cherrywood desk, glasses perched on the end of his nose, and a mountain of paperwork was piled in front of him.
“Erica,” he said softly, appraising me. “How are you, my dear girl?”
His friendliness gave me a start.
“I… Have I met you before?” I asked curiously.
“Only in passing, but you were so young then.” He gestured for me to sit. I pulled out the solitary chair and sat down.
“When did you get here? Must have been yesterday because the bus only comes once a week. Where have you been staying?”
“I didn’t come by bus,” I responded.
His eyebrows rose. “Then how did you get here?” he asked.
“I walked and hitchhiked,” I stated flatly. How the hell else would I have gotten here? It’s not like I owned a car or even knew how to drive one.
“But why didn’t you use the money I sent?”
“What money? There was no money. The letter was opened before it got to me.”
He looked at me incredulously.
“That’s standard procedure in a juvenile detention center,” I added. My lips thinned in annoyance. He’s an attorney. He should know how the system works, I thought. “How much money did you send?” I asked.
“Oh dear, I am so sorry. I sent three hundred dollars, thinking that you might need to stay at a hotel since the bus service is rather irregular,” he murmured apologetically. “Maybe I should have sent you a bus ticket. I didn’t think they would open a letter from a lawyer.”
I just looked at him pointedly. He had no idea what happens in juvie.
“Well, you’re here now. Let’s get to the matter at hand. Your grandmother left you the house and everything in it. She already paid this year’s property taxes, so you don’t need to worry about that. In addition, I have a letter from her. It’s sealed, so be assured that I haven’t read it.”
I nodded my thanks as he passed me an envelope. Now I get a letter, after her death. Why couldn’t she have written while I was locked away?
“I need you to sign a few documents, and then you are free to go.” He pushed a folder across the desk and handed me a pen. “Sign in all the places I have marked with an X.”
I bent forward and signed in all the designated places. I didn’t bother to read any of it, except the heading, which said Transfer of Title Deed.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s it. Now let me get you the house keys.” He rummaged in a drawer and handed me two keys on a key ring. I recognized them as the keys for the front and back doors.
“Thank you,” I said, standing up. The key ring was the one I had made for my gran so long ago, with purple and red beads. I felt my chest tighten. I had to get out of here before I cried.
“Any problems, feel free to contact me,” Mr. Morris said.
I nodded and hightailed it out of there. I walked briskly back to my gran’s—no, to my house. Even though I hadn’t heard from her for six years, I was thankful that she had left me the house.
As my scheduled release approached, I had been worried, not knowing where to go or what to do after juvie. I had no contact with my mother, so as much as this hurt, at least it gave me some direction.
I sat on the sofa and held the envelope in my hands. It wasn’t bulky. There were no markings beyond my name printed on the front. I opened it with trepidation, my heart hammering. As I pulled the contents out, a bank card fell on my lap. I unfolded the page and started reading.
My darling Erica,
Believe me when I say that I have missed you and thought of you every single day. I know that when you read this, you will finally be where you belong. This is your home now, and I wish that I had been here to welcome you.
I wrote you a letter every month, but your mother gave strict instructions that you weren’t to have any communication with me and returned the letters. I eventually gave up sending them, but I never stopped writing them. You will find them all in a box in my closet, should you ever have the urge to read them. I suggest you do!
I know what happened was an accident. I believe that it was self-defense, but your mother was beyond reason. She could not fathom that her new husband had illicit ideas about you, but I know he did.
When I met him, I saw how he looked at you. At the time, I tried to convince her to leave you with me, but he persuaded her otherwise, saying he always wanted a family, and he would love you like his own.
The rest is history, as you kids say.
Don’t let what happened define your life.
This envelope should contain a bank card. I have been saving for you since the day you were born. There is enough money for you to get started, but you will eventually need to find a job. You should speak to my good friend Walter.
I hope you remember him. He owns a business in town and promised me he would help. You can find him in the Delight Diner every Sunday morning at 8. He is tall with a scraggly beard and looks rather unkempt. You can’t miss him.
You’ll need to activate the bank card, so a trip to the bank is inevitable. Ask them to teach you how to use the ATM machine. Don’t be shy, there is no way you could have learned these things while locked away.
I have had minimal contact with your mother, and I strongly suggest you stay away from her. She has become a bitter and twisted soul, and I fear she would do you harm. I expressly asked for no obituary to be posted in the Aldritch Chronicle. I do not want her finding out that you got the house and not her.
Having said that, dear Erica, don’t hide yourself away. You are young and beautiful, and I love you more than I can ever express. I want you to be happy! Aldritch is a good place, minus a few people…
All my love,
Tears streamed down my face. She hadn’t forgotten me. I thought the world had forgotten me when I was sentenced, a twelve-year-old who had no clue what was happening. A twelve-year-old whose family had completely forsaken her. A monster that needed discipline and harsh treatment because that is all I deserved.