When I moved away three years ago, I’d sworn to myself that it would be the last time I would ever set foot into Kendrick House. Unfortunately, as I sit on a rickety train on its way to the small town of Ramblewood, it seems that fate has other plans for me.
My name is Calista Morrison, and until a couple of weeks ago, I was in a pretty good place in my life. I had a stable job working at a university, and housing that was provided by that job. Then they had a system malfunction that erased all of their data. Naturally, that included my information and proof that I’d been working for them for the last year and a half. So I found myself homeless and unemployed, and desperate measures needed to be taken. This involved calling my brother, Carlos, and getting him to help me move back into our stepfather Robert’s family estate, which is a mansion called Kendrick House.
I stare out my window at the evergreen trees passing by in a blur, and an intense dread churns in the pit of my stomach like a fish in swampy water. I can’t explain the nagging dread I feel about going back to Kendrick House, but I know that some of the things I’ve seen and felt while living there have affected me in ways that I can’t begin to describe.
At last, the train stops at Ramblewood station. It’s a wooden platform and building that looks as rickety as the name feels. Carlos is standing in place, rocking back and forth on his feet. His grey windbreaker is unzipped and baggy, and he’s wearing a ridiculous orange woolen hat with ear flaps. I can’t help but smirk. His quirky fashion sense is still uniquely his. I can only hope that our relationship has managed to stay intact too.
As I stumble off the train with my luggage, he rushes over and helps me collect myself. He wraps me in his arms and squeezes. “I missed you, Callie.”
I hug him back. His chin whiskers tickle the top of my head. “Missed you too.”
He drives us home in his old beat up sedan. A feeling of unspoken unease hangs in the air between us. “So...how’s your job at the auto shop going? Is Murphy still giving you a hard time?” I’m no good at small talk, but I’d give anything to avoid this uneasy silence.
“Not anymore,” Carlos replies with a smirk. “He just likes being a hardass to break in the newbies.”
In the end, it’s a useless endeavor, since the silence settles back into place immediately. I sigh and scratch an itch on my head.
“I know you’re just trying to distract yourself,” he says suddenly. I look over at him, and he gives me a knowing glance. “You’re not that hard to read, Callie. I know you don’t like Ramblewood, and I know that you never liked Robert.”
I can’t help but cringe at the mention of our stepfather. Carlos doesn’t seem notice.
“The point is, that I want you to try as best as you can to get along with him in the time you’re here. I know it’s not easy, but mom missed you, you know,” he murmurs. “We all did. It would suck if everything just went back to being miserable.”
As much as I want to tell him about the things I experienced at Kendrick House,- the inexplicable, confusing things- I can’t. He won’t understand. He’ll just chalk it up to paranoia on my part. Instead, I give a defeated nod. “Alright.”
He smiles and we continue our silent drive. After what feels like forever, we pull up in front of Kendrick House. It’s a massive building, as grey and gloomy-looking as a manor in the woods would be. The bricks that resemble stone; the weathered shingles of the roof; hell, the dozens of windows looking down at us like eyes send a shiver down my spine.
From day one, I always got a bad feeling from this place. I can still remember the moment I stepped out of our mother’s minivan, as a seventeen-year-old brat, and got the all-too-familiar tingle down the spine looking up at it.
Mom, of course, chalked it up to me just being nervous about moving in with a near-stranger. “It’s not that bad,” she’d said. “You just need to get used to it.” If only it were that simple.
“Home sweet home,” Carlos sings as we step out onto the gravel road circling in front of the place. I wrinkle my nose and go to get my bags. We carry the stuff up to the front doors. Gothic mansion style, they’re big mahogany doors with brass knockers. They’re in pretty good shape, despite the age of this place. Robert probably has them updated every couple of years or something.
Carlos takes his keys out of his pocket and unlocks the doors. With a shove, they creak open. Aren’t these new? I wonder as we enter the foyer. Why do they creak like they’re over a hundred years old? Whether the doors really are new or not, I can say with certainty that the insides of the manor are old enough to be from my great-grandmother’s time. The huge staircase is in the center of the foyer, and there are archways on either side that lead to different parts of the house. The foyer itself is all burgundy walls and mahogany floors, like being trapped inside a dark meaty prison. It’s not hard to imagine the walls pulsating like a beating heart, and I shudder.
“Carlos? Callie? Is that you?” Mom calls from the sitting room, which is through the archway on the right. I wonder why she doesn’t come out and greet us. Carlos gives me a nudge between my shoulder blades to go forward.
“Yep! We’re coming in!” He replies. I sigh and walk into the room with him. It’s a few shades lighter than the rustic red of the foyer- more of a rosy hue- and the drapes are tied back, letting the faint light of the cloudy sky flood the room. Mom’s sitting on the old sofa in the middle of the room, a knitted blanket wrapped around her. The TV against the wall next to her is playing an episode of Alias Grace. She looks at us and smiles warmly. Her right leg is resting on the coffee table, and I see that she’s wearing a grey brace on her foot. I realize that’s probably why she didn’t come out to greet us, and I feel a twinge of guilt for the snark.
“It’s been a while,” she says as I give her a hug.
I wince and she hugs me back. “Yeah…”
“I’ll go put your bags upstairs, sis,” Carlos says. “You two can catch up in the meantime.” He gives me the same pointed look as he did in the car, and I roll my eyes. Then he leaves the room. I sit in the loveseat next to the couch, facing the TV. “So...how have you been?” I ask.
“Well, apart from this,” she gestures to her brace. “I’ve been alright. I was at work when I fell down a flight of stairs and fractured my ankle.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t fun. But I’m okay now.” She smiles. “Robert’s been taking care of me. Isn’t that sweet?”
A snort escapes me. Robert and the word “sweet” do not belong anywhere near each other, based on my experiences with the man. Mom gives me a disapproving look.
“I know that he and you haven’t gotten along ever since we moved here, but please try to be nice to him? I talked to him after you left, and he agrees that he can be a little...intimidating sometimes. He really doesn’t mean it, you know.”
Somehow I find that hard to believe, but I nod anyway.
“How are things going for you right now?” She asks, changing the subject. “Carlos told me about what happened with your college. How they managed to lose all that information is beyond me. And wouldn’t somebody have vouched for you about living there for three years? I mean, seriously!”
“I don’t have a lot of friends,” I say. “You know that.”
“Yes, I know. You’re a good old-fashioned introvert, just like your dad.” She stares down at her hands in thought. I know what that gesture means- she’s trying not to think about something. Probably the divorce- things didn’t end well between her and my dad, and they haven’t talked to each other since. Hell, he hasn’t talked to any of us since, no matter how many times I’ve tried to contact him.
Sometimes I worry that she thinks I was trying to get away from her by moving out, just like him. But how could I explain the truth to her? She wouldn’t believe me. No one does, not even Carlos.“I wasn’t trying to abandon you, you know,” I say. “By moving out, I mean.”
“I know, sweetheart.” She smiles, but it feels pained; forced. “You should go unpack. I’ve got to get back to my show!” She smiles and winks, and I smirk.
“Sure. See you later, mom.” I hug her once more before leaving and going upstairs.
My old bedroom feels like a safe haven in the middle of a prison. Its walls are the same dark crimson as the rest of the house, but the bed with a purple leaf-patterned comforter and the umber desk under the window beside it are mine, and they give it a uniquely comforting familiarity.
I go over and plop myself face-down onto the bed. Carlos left my luggage near my pillow, but I can’t be bothered to put it all away right now. The stress from today’s travel hits me hard, and before long, I start to drift away to the realm of sleep.
A sound pulls me back awake. It was a faint sigh, like someone softly whispering into my ear. My eyes snap open and I raise myself up on my elbows to look around. I’m alone in the room, but I know that I heard something. Maybe somebody left my window open or something, I think. But when I turn to look behind me, I see that the window is closed, and the red-and-gold drapes are tied back. So there’s no way that it was just wind whistling through fabric. So what was it?
I frown, confused. I hadn’t been asleep for long enough to dream, so there’s no way I could’ve just imagined it…right?
As if to answer me, another sigh hisses through the room. I leap to my feet, spinning around to survey the room. Okay, that was not my imagination, so where the hell is it coming from? I brace myself, waiting for the next sigh, and hope that I’ll be able to follow where it’s coming from.
Nothing. I wait for what feels like ages, but nothing comes. I let out a sigh of my own and run my hand through my hair. Maybe I’m just going crazy. Being in this place for too long can do that to a person. I let out an exasperated laugh.
Deciding that I need some fresh air, I walk over to the duffel bag on top of my large suitcase and unzip it. I fish out my phone and earbuds, and then I head out the door. I make my way down the hall and barrel down the stairs. When I reach the landing, I freeze in my tracks like a deer in headlights.
Robert is staring up at me, just a few stairs down. His dark eyes are as magnetic and repulsing as peering into the void, and I fight the urge to shiver.
“Hello, Calista,” he says in his usual creepy monotone.
I stare at the space next to his ear to avoid eye contact. “Hi,” I reply curtly.
“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” He continues.
He smiles, or rather, he turns up the corners of his mouth to mimic a smile. It doesn’t feel genuine. “I know that you and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I hope that we can agree to get along, for your mother’s sake.” He tilts his head slightly, still staring directly at me. “Don’t you agree?”
I feel an involuntary pull to look into his eyes, as if I’m being willed to by something out of my control. I do, but only briefly, for fear that if I look for too long the dark pools of his irises will swallow me whole. I break away again and nod slightly.
He continues up the stairs, eyes still locked on me and false smile still plastered on his face. In a few seconds, he's standing inches away from me on the landing. “Have a nice walk,” he says. Then he turns and continues walking up to the next level.
I run, grabbing my jacket off of the cushioned bench in the foyer and practically flinging myself out the door.