Friday, August 24, 2012
Sensitive to an unusual mood in the air, Mia couldn’t shake the suspicion something more than a new house waited for them in Spring Falls, New York.
She resisted the temptation to stare at Adam until he confessed, and kept her eyes on the road. Not only did being so high up in their new Chevy Tahoe feel weird, she had also never before driven anything with a trailer attached. Her husband gave off far too much enthusiasm for someone who’d resigned from a job he’d held for three years—and could’ve kept forever—to move two hours west. Despite having already secured a position teaching at Syracuse, he should have been at least somewhat nervous about such a big change in their life, especially considering they’d committed to a new mortgage when they’d only bought the Tahoe a few months ago. Fortunately, the place Adam found sold well under market for the area. What they’d be paying each month the house came in significantly lower than their rent in the suburbs of Albany. Perhaps the oddly low price had been what put her on edge. Something had to be wrong with the place. The eerie-as-hell feeling she’d gotten from it the first time they went to tour it didn’t help either.
Mia eyed the rearview mirror, again struck by the amount of space between her and the back window… quite a change from the Chevy Malibu she’d been driving since college. It had been older than Adam’s Nissan Sentra, which presently sat on the trailer behind them, so they decided to trade it in.
“Something bothering you, hon?” asked Adam. “It’s not the trailer, is it?”
“No. Well, maybe I am a little on edge from it. Not used to handling something this big.”
He kept quiet for a few seconds before he cracked up.
“Now I know why you wrote your master’s thesis on Freud. Everything’s a dick joke. You’re hung up on the phallic phase.”
He wiped laugh tears from his eyes. “Sometimes an innuendo has nothing to do with deep meaning. But you know what they say about Freud. If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes amid relatively light traffic. Pastoral trees rushed by on both sides, gaps offering the occasional glimpse of open grass or tiny lakes on the rolling fields beyond.
“Okay. I have to ask. Why are you so excited?”
“We’re moving into our new house.” He grinned at her. “What’s not to be excited about?”
She snuck a sideways glance at him. “That’s true, but you seem too excited. Aren’t you the least bit worried about anything?”
“Oh, of course. Just not enough to diminish how thrilled I am.”
She kneaded her hands on the wheel, wondering if she’d ever get used to driving the Tahoe. How did we wind up getting talked into buying this enormous thing? A sudden, sharp twinge of pain stabbed her in the left foot.
“Gah!” Mia jerked her leg back. Her foot appeared to be fine. The pain stopped as abruptly as it had started.
Adam jumped at her yell and looked wide-eyed out at the road for a few seconds before glancing over at her. “What happened? You okay?”
“Yeah. Guess I’ve just been sitting too long in the same position. Random muscle cramp or something in my foot.”
He patted her knee. “You really need to stretch to reach the pedals in this thing. It’s nice having so much room, though.”
“Tell me about it. Remind me why we got this monster?”
“We’re going to be out in the country more or less. The roads out there aren’t nice to small cars in bad weather. Four-wheel drive is almost required.”
“Do you believe everything a car salesman tells you?” She let out a weak laugh.
“Something is really bothering you and it isn’t the truck.” Adam’s smile faded. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m only worried about all the what-ifs.”
Adam stretched, smiling out at the passing greenery. “The only thing we need to worry about is Syracuse University not working out for me, since that’s an unknown. There’s nothing to make me think it won’t. And even if things don’t pan out there, I can easily get back in the door at U-Albany. Only real difference then is it will be me with the long ride each way to work.”
Mia laughed, picturing two years’ worth of that commute beating the crap out of her Malibu. Not that she went out of her way to find a position so far from where they used to live, but fine art restoration jobs didn’t exactly pop up all that often, especially a full-time position at a museum. “We can’t afford to go through a car every three years, so you better do everything you can to make the new job work here.”
“You’d think they would’ve just shipped you the paintings to restore at home. It’s not like you’re working on priceless masterpieces.”
“I wouldn’t have even asked them to. The last thing we need is to be considered responsible if something happened. While they’re not masterpieces, some of them are still worth more than the house we bought.”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. So, really. What’s bothering you?”
“Why are you pressing?”
“Because, hon, I know something’s bothering you, and for some reason, you’re dodging the question.”
“You’re going to take it the wrong way.”
“Hmm. That means you expect me to attribute it to your very real talent.”
Mia sighed. “I’m about as psychic as the air freshener the dealership forgot to give us.”
He smiled in silence at her.
After two minutes, she gave in with a shake of the head. “Fine. Ever since we left this morning, I’ve had this strange feeling of dread. Remember when you were a kid how it felt getting sent to the principal’s office… that mood that hit you on the long walk down the hall?”
“Can’t say I do. They never sent me to the principal’s office, my dear, delinquent wife.”
She smirked. “You expect me to believe you were a perfect angel?”
“Hah. No. I was merely careful enough to avoid detection when committing my nefarious deeds. Do tell. I never pictured you as much of a troublemaker.”
Upon noticing their exit coming up, Mia triple checked the mirrors and guided the ponderous vehicle over one lane to take the off ramp. She’d driven this route every day for years to get to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, but today, she’d be skipping the exit for the city and going farther north. Having only a twelve-ish mile ride to work would make her days so much longer. Life during the week could be more than work, driving, or sleep.
Memories of grade school brought a frown. “I wasn’t a troublemaker. The most unforgivable thing I did as a kid was think critically. Let’s just say I didn’t get along with the nuns. They really hate the term ‘Catholic mythology.’ I’m honestly surprised I didn’t get expelled.”
“I also have the weirdest feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“Assuming there is, in fact, some piece of information I haven’t shared with you, the reason would be due to objectivity in observation.”
Mia shook her head. “Did you marry me because you loved me or because you think I’m psychic and wanted a ready test subject?”
“Definitely because I love you. That you are gifted didn’t even occur to me until long after.”
“Okay. I’ll forgive you.” She smiled, slowing for a traffic light. “We’re almost at the point where I don’t recognize the area.”
Adam turned the GPS on, keyed in the address to their new house, and set the device on the dash. “There you go.”
“So it’s something about the house you’re not telling me?”
He twiddled his thumbs, grinning like a boy at Christmas.
“You’re not at all worried about me having an ominous feeling that something isn’t right?”
“Perhaps I should be, but I’m not. More excited.” He pulled out a notebook and jotted a few lines. “Can you describe the feeling?”
“I already did. Dread mostly. Like I’m about to get into a whole bunch of trouble… but it’s strange.”
“Stranger than a random bit of intuition?”
She chuckled. “No, I mean it’s dread, yeah, but… it also feels right somehow. Like I have to do something really unpleasant that I’m afraid of doing, but the end result is going to be worth it.”
“You’ve just described higher education.”
“Right…” Mia laughed. “It’s eerie, like I’ve wanted to move out here for a long time.”
“Well, you have been dealing with a horrible commute.” He nodded, humming as he wrote a few things down. “What about the unexplained pain in your foot?”
“Adam, honey, sometimes a muscle cramp is just a muscle cramp.”
“You’ve been taking this ride twice a day for two years—thereabout. Have you ever had a similar muscle cramp?”
“You’re impossible.” She sigh-laughed. “Look, if one of us drops something on our foot in the first couple days, maybe I’ll believe you.”
“What were you thinking about when you got the twinge?”
“Uhh, I dunno. Mostly about the truck being so big and unfamiliar.”
He continued writing without a word.
“What do you think it means?” she asked.
“Not sure yet. I’m merely taking notes in case it does wind up meaning something.”
* * *
After nearly three hours driving, Mia turned onto Minstrel Run, the street upon which their new house waited.
A few minutes of winding tree-lined road later, she pulled into their driveway, a long sloped stretch of asphalt up to a two-car garage, and parked beside a silver Mercedes. Their realtor, Joe Dello, hopped out of the car and flashed a huge grin. He had a vaguely Italian look to him with short spiky brown hair and a goatee that hadn’t quite fully grown in yet. Short, he only came up to Adam’s shoulder. His shirt and pants seemed somewhat big for him, so she figured he’d recently lost a good deal of weight. The man’s contagious smile and warm demeanor had won them over while they’d been checking out various realtors, but something about him felt off.
They’re supposed to be happy when they sell a place, but this guy looks like he just earned a commission on Buckingham Palace. The instant Mia looked at the house, at the large 6 on the wall by the door, an unexplained sense of gloom came over her. She tightened her jaw, glancing around at the woods. This place was a lot cheaper than anything else in the area. There has got to be something wrong with it.
Adam had been equally distrustful of the price at first, and paid for three separate inspections. None of them found any problems. It didn’t seem likely that an owner with something to hide could’ve bribed all of the inspectors… so they proceeded to make an offer.
Except for having forest on all sides and a small creek running behind it, the two-story home resembled most suburban houses she’d seen, albeit noticeably larger. Its front porch spanned the full width, shaded under a roof extension held up by plain white columns. A prior resident had left a pair of giant wicker chairs there, but they were in dire need of cleaning. The beige siding looked immaculate, perhaps even new or at least no more than two years old. New-ish rain gutters trimmed the sides and roof. None of the windows had curtains, drawing the emptiness of the interior out into stark obviousness.
Mia froze with her foot on the brake, not even shifting into park. The instant she took in the entirety of the house, an ill malaise swirled around the bottom of her gut. It had to be all of Adam’s talk of psychic stuff and not wanting to tell her anything about the property that could ‘taint’ her impression of it. She mentally rolled her eyes. He probably didn’t even have information he’d withheld. Merely saying he did would have primed her into expecting there to be strangeness here. Of course, she couldn’t deny the pronounced sense of foreboding in the air around the apparently innocuous home.
It reminded her of the same dread she felt back home as a child living with her parents every time she went into the basement. The laundry machines had been down there, and whenever she went to them, she kept her head down, too terrified to look off to her right into the darkness. It always felt like a person she couldn’t see glared at her in anger. Even at nineteen, being in that basement alone got her hands shaking. She hadn’t been anywhere near that house for eight years, though the creepiness of the basement had nothing to do with it.
Her gaze fell from the house to her hands on the wheel, knuckles white. Adam had already hopped out of the Tahoe to talk to the realtor, not having noticed her frozen there. She glanced over at them. Joe shook hands enthusiastically with her husband, grinning as wide as if he’d won a massive lotto jackpot.
That man is far too happy.
Fragments of conversation about ‘how much they’d love the place’, ‘how perfect it was for them’, and ‘no problems at all with the inspections’ pierced the fog in Mia’s thoughts. She shifted her gaze back to the house, still gripped by the sense that someone—or something—malign stared at her.
Joe handed the keys to Adam and gestured at the front door. “C’mon, let’s do a quick walkthrough. Just got a few things for you to sign and we’ll be all set.”
Mia eased the Tahoe into park and put the emergency brake on due to the inclined driveway. The instant her foot touched the e-brake pedal, the same sharp pain stabbed into it. Mia gasped in shock, gritting her teeth for the few seconds it took the cramp to go away. I need to walk around a bit. She killed the engine, unable to peel her eyes off the house.
“Great.” Adam turned toward the truck. He finally appeared to notice the look on her face—and grinned from ear to ear. “Yeah, Joe. I think we’re going to love it here.”
She gingerly opened the door and climbed down. A soft breeze laced with the fragrance of forest and wood smoke teased at her hair, long, straight, and brown as it had been her whole life. Joe and Adam hurried inside, her husband emitting a delighted squeal at the keys working. It took her a moment to break the mesmerizing spell that staring at the house put on her. She looked down while following a footpath made of irregular flat stones in various colors from the driveway to the front porch. Three steps led up to a painted hardwood deck, the house’s front door a short distance directly in front of her.
Air in her lungs thickened to a dense mass, heavier and heavier with each step she took forward. By the time she crossed the threshold, she couldn’t breathe in or out. Mia pressed a hand to her chest, wheezing under a burden like she had a man sitting on her shoulders.
Seconds before she collapsed, the feeling abated. She coughed and took a few huge gulps of air before lifting her head to gaze around at the stark, empty room. Plain white walls and new beige carpet the only remnants from the former tenants. An archway connected the living room to the dining room and the same carpet continued out the other side down a short hallway leading to the kitchen. Standing inside the front door, she could see straight through the house to the back door and a hint of the countertop. To the right, stairs against the wall led up to the second story. Left, another small arch led to a room with hardwood floors and a huge bay window.
“This is awesome,” echoed Adam’s voice from the kitchen. After the squeak of a door hinge, he walked into view, Joe the realtor behind him. He grinned at her while entering the little hallway between kitchen and dining room, stopping to poke his nose into a side passage. “Wow, that’s kind of a small bathroom. I could wash my hands while sitting on the darn toilet.”
“Technically, it’s a toilet closet,” said Joe. “No tub or shower. There’s a full bath bathroom upstairs.”
“Right.” Adam backed out of the doorway. “I forgot about this little one down here.”
Joe shook hands with Adam. “Everything looked good to me. What do you think?”
“Perfect.” Adam grinned. “Absolutely perfect. Mia?” She scratched at her chest, still a touch dizzy from whatever spell came over her. “Uhh, yeah. Perfect.”