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The Haunting Of Winchester Mansion Book 0

The Haunting Of Winchester Mansion

Alexandria Clarke

 

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2017 by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

 

Chapter One: A Fresh Start

 

Bailey and Bodhi: Flipping Out

 

We’re on the move again! If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you already know that Bodhi and I just finished renovating an adorable beach house in Fort Lauderdale. (If you’re new to Flipping Out, click here for before and after pics of our favorite projects!) It was a doozy, but we learned so much. For instance, I now know that I would never want to live in Florida. First of all, it’s hot. Secondly, it rains a lot. What kind of propaganda is the “Sunshine State” feeding us anyway?! But the weather doesn’t compare to the third thing I learned: sinkholes are the monsters under your bed. Literally. A Jacuzzi-sized crater opened up in the room we were sleeping in and swallowed our mattress whole. Thankfully, we weren’t at the house when it happened. Check out the full story (and terrifying photos) of our sinkhole struggle in my February entries. Anyway, we went into this project thinking it would be a quick flip. Instead, we spent a lot of money and a lot of time repairing the foundation of the house, which will definitely take a toll on our net return. Seriously, everyone. Fear the sinkhole.

On a more cheerful note, the sinkhole house is now on the market! Don’t worry; it is now sinkhole free. We made sure of that. If you love a searing sun, ravenous mosquitos, and hurricane-force winds, this beach house is perfect for you. Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. Florida is pretty great in some ways. The sunsets are straight out of a cruise commercial, and let me tell you, it’s pure paradise knowing that when you wake up, you can throw on a bikini and head out to your backyard… because your backyard is the beach! If you’re interested, click on the links below for pictures, a virtual tour, and pricing.

Now that the beach house is waiting to be sold to a happy owner, Bodhi and I are in search of a new property together! You know the drill, people. We love a challenge, so drop a message in my inbox if you have an idea in mind for our next project!

 

Until next time!

Bailey

 

I attached a photo of Bodhi and I posing proudly in front of the completed house, clicked the link to publish the new blog post, and lay back on the cool tile floor of our tiny apartment. I stared up at the stucco ceiling. The leak in the corner of the living room had started dripping again, staining the cheap white paint with a tinge of garlic yellow. I sighed, tilting my head toward the sliding glass doors. The vertical blinds were broken, and Bodhi wouldn’t bother to repair them. Outside, the pouring rain blanketed our usual view of the complex’s algae-infested swimming pool in a monochrome gray sheet. The fan palm on the patio folded sadly under the weight of the water and wind, its leaves bent like broken fingers against the concrete in a feeble attempt to hold itself up. Thunder drummed in the distance, and every few minutes, a flash of lightning illuminated the small apartment with a ferocity that went unchallenged by the weak lightbulb of the overhead fan. My own face peered back at me from the reflection in the glass door: tanned, freckled cheeks, chin-length light brown hair, and hazel eyes that used to have a little more sparkle in them. Without sitting up, I reached for the nearby plastic trash can and relocated it to catch the steady plop of rainwater from the ceiling.

Thankfully, our living situation was temporary. We had moved out of the sinkhole house a few days ago. The apartment was a go-between, a shelter from the rain while we decided where to go next. With any luck, it would be someplace dry. Phoenix, maybe. Or Las Vegas. I was always impatient between projects. In theory, moving to a new city every few months and living out of half-built houses seemed appealingly bohemian—especially toward the end of the renovations when the houses we flipped really started to come together—but I had developed the poor habit of forgetting what life was like during the hiatus between projects. Without the distraction of blueprints, construction crews, and the eccentric catharsis of filling one of those massive industrial dumpsters with the guts of an old house, my mind tended to settle on things that I didn’t want it to settle on. Like why it took Bodhi an hour and a half to bring home Chinese food from a restaurant that was five minutes away.

My laptop chimed from its perch on the cardboard box that currently served as our coffee table. Someone had already read and responded to my newest blog post. I closed my eyes, listening to the rain pitter patter on the roof. I liked to wait until my inbox was full. Then I went through all of the messages at once. It was a process I had learned at the beginning of my journey into blogging. I used to read an e-mail, get distracted by a new message, and never get back to the old one. I missed some great opportunities that way, including a historic property in Boston that had apparently belonged to one of the Founding Fathers and an old firehouse in Brooklyn that would have made the most fabulous apartment. Nowadays, I spent hours poring through my inbox and real estate websites. The best properties weren’t easy to find, but I had a knack for unearthing a good deal.

I heard the key turn in the deadbolt, followed by Bodhi’s familiar grunt as he shouldered open the door. It regularly stuck to the frame, a result of the humidity levels in Florida. The ever-thickening air was another reason to get out of town as soon as possible. Water cascaded off of Bodhi’s raincoat as he trekked inside, leaving a trail of puddles from the door to the living room. At some point, the wind had caused his hood to abandon his head. With each hand occupied by a paper bag full of Chinese food, he had no way of pulling it back into place. His mane of black curls was plastered to the olive skin of his face, and though his forehead crinkled, a sure sign of grumpiness, a glimmer of longing dared to flash inside me at Bodhi’s appearance. It was a memory of a feeling, a tiny spark of hope before it flickered out, extinguished by the careless way Bodhi dumped the food on the floor. A plastic container of wonton soup escaped from the paper bags, rolling across the tile and settling against my bare foot. Bodhi shook out his hair, showering me with rainwater.

“Bodhi, my laptop!”

“Sorry. Why are you lying on the floor?”

“It’s not like we have any chairs.”

He meandered into the bedroom and returned with two pillows, plunking them down on either side of the cardboard box. “Welcome to Southeast Asia.”

“I suppose that’s appropriate,” I grumbled. I wedged one of the pillows beneath my butt and opened the wonton soup.

“China is in East Asia, actually.”

“Don’t people sit on the floor in China too?”

“I’ve never been to China,” he called, disappearing into the bathroom.

“I know.” I set my laptop aside, made a grab for the damp paper bags, and reached inside for the first plastic container. It was scalding hot. I hissed, retracting my hand to suck on my burnt fingers.

Bodhi emerged from the bathroom. He had stripped out of his soaked clothing and down to his boxers. A blue-and-white towel was draped over his damp shoulders. I steeled myself, biting my lip. I told him ten times a day not to pilfer the pool towels. The apartment complex was anal about it. We had already been charged additional laundry fees.

“Everything okay?” he asked, scrubbing his hair dry with the pool towel.

“It’s hot.”

“Go figure.”

He sat opposite me and gently toppled the bag, spilling the contents across the surface of our cardboard table in a messy jumble. Carefully, I righted each container. Bodhi handed me a pair of chopsticks and a two-liter bottle of soda.

“Cups?” I asked. He shook his head. I unscrewed the cap and took a swig from the bottle, crinkling my nose. The carbonation made my eyes water.

As Bodhi sifted bourbon chicken into a container of egg fried rice, he gestured with his chopsticks toward my open laptop. “Any luck?”

“I just posted the new blog entry a few minutes ago.”

The e-mail feature chimed three times in a row.

“Sounds promising,” said Bodhi. “Why don’t you check it?”

“I like to see the messages—”

“All at once,” he finished. “Yeah, I know.”

“Plus, I’m eating.” I dipped a spring roll into a dollop of duck sauce and took a liberal bite.

“Fine.”

But when silence fell and the crunch of the spring roll’s crispy exterior between my teeth echoed to the far corners of the miniscule apartment, I relented. I dusted off my hands and drew my laptop toward me.

“Crap. Crap. Crap,” I declared, flipping through the first few property suggestions with practiced ease. “Too expensive. Too ugly. Too Stepford Wives.”

“Hang on. Go back,” said Bodhi. “What about the blue one?”

“It’s in Detroit.”

“Hard pass.”

A notification for a new message popped up. I squinted at it. The thumbnail showcased a sizeable home nestled between brilliant green trees. In the lower left hand corner of the photo, sparkling reflections of the sun glinted off a body of water. I clicked on the e-mail.

“That place is for sale?” asked Bodhi. He leaned forward to get a better look at the picture, but the cardboard box caved in beneath the weight of his elbow, and the food containers slid inward. Quickly, Bodhi sat up straight, popping the box back into place from the underside.

I flipped through the pictures attached to the new e-mail. This house had potential. It was immense compared to the properties we usually tackled, but it would be an easy renovation. From a cursory glance, the house was in decent shape. Its only flaw was that it had been built well over twenty years ago. For real estate these days, it was severely outdated.

“Well?” Bodhi prompted.

“Just a minute. There’s a message attached.”

I read it out loud:

 

Dear Ms. Taylor,

 

I recently discovered your blog, and I think you would find great interest in a property in my possession. It has been vacant for quite a few years, and I fear many critters have taken up residence in the meantime, but other than that, the house is in admirable condition. I have no use for the house myself, and I’ve simply tired of the responsibility that comes with owning such a stagnant piece of land. As such, I’m willing to come down as low as possible on the price. If you are interested, please let me know as soon as it is convenient for you.

 

Courteously,

Milo Holmes

 

“Where is this place?” Bodhi asked, squinting at the mountainous scenery in the background of the exterior shots.

I double-checked the listing. “Some tiny town called Black Bay. It’s in Washington.”

“You know it rains like hell in Washington too, right?”

“It might be worth it, if he means what he said about the price.”

He ate the last bite of my abandoned egg roll and dusted his hands off. “I have to admit I’m interested, but it seems too good to be true. A house like that? Something has to be wrong with it if he wants to sell it for so little.”

“What if we don’t bite and end up letting another great opportunity go to waste?”

Bodhi tipped his head back, swishing soda in his mouth. He was thinking. The veins in his neck—his lifelines—stood at attention. He swallowed. “Can you do a little digging? This Milo fellow. Ask him for more information.”

It was as close to a consensus as we were going to get at the moment. I wrote a short reply to Milo Holmes, requesting additional information. At the bottom, I left my cell phone number, signed off, and hit send. As the e-mail application swooshed, the familiar anticipation of acquiring a new property settled in. I tapped my chopsticks rapidly against the cardboard box to get the jitters out.

Bodhi trapped them beneath his own chopsticks then lifted a piece of bourbon chicken to my mouth. I almost veered away, thrown by this rare display of affection, and studied the man sitting across from me. He was familiar but blurry, like I was looking at him from beneath the depths of the murky water in the community pool. This was an older version of Bodhi, a more playful version that hadn’t made an appearance in quite some time. I missed this version.

I ate the chicken. I saw the ghost of his smile. My cell phone rang.

 

Chapter Two: Welcome to Black Bay

 

Bodhi hated Washington.

He declared his hatred over the anguished groan of the landing gear deploying from the belly of our cramped plane as the pilot lowered us through Seattle’s dreary atmosphere, aiming for the SeaTac airport. As the ground rushed up to meet us, the muscles in my stomach clenched. Landing was the worst part of flying. It was the idea that you could make it all the way to your destination, the safety and solidity of the tarmac teasing you from the view outside the diminutive oval window, and still die in some inexplicable calamity that befalls the aircraft in the last five minutes of flight. That would be infinitely more tragic than dying during a fatal take-off procedure. At least if you bit the bullet during take-off, you hadn’t spent the last few hours of your life with your knees crammed against the vinyl seat in front of you, eating stale peanuts and breathing recycled air within a glorified tin can as your husband reads SkyMall with a level of concentration unwarranted by such expensive and useless materialism. In any case, Bodhi’s immediate animosity toward Washington State did not do any wonders for my aching low back, full bladder, or general anxiety.

His seat belt loosened as he leaned across me to peer out of the window. “Have you ever seen a place this gray? It looks like a painting I saw in the Tate Modern once. Giant canvas—must’ve been at least eight feet tall—and the artist covered the entire damn thing in one shade of gray paint. Who does that? How is that art?”

“The trees are green.” Anything to get Bodhi to shut up about the painting.

“If you can see them through the clouds.”

I didn’t care about the clouds. They were a safe haven compared to the apartment in Florida. One bedroom. A full-sized mattress. Innumerable accidental touches followed by hasty awkward apologies. There was an inch and a mile between us.

Milo Holmes’s first phone call was a blessing, as were the following ones. It was the easiest buying process I’d experienced thus far. Milo was polite yet persistent. I had offered him a price that was borderline disrespectful, but he hadn’t blanched. On the contrary, he insisted on taking care of everything from drafting the closing papers to supervising the inspection. He had walked me through each detail over the phone, tirelessly e-mailed me copies of the paperwork, and shortened the entire process by at least fifty percent. All that was left was for Bodhi and I to make an official site visit. If everything went to spec, the house in Black Bay would be ours to rebuild.

Blissfully, the plane touched down without going up in a fiery inferno. We deplaned, picked up our bags, and rented a car from the airport. The drive to Black Bay was quiet save for the navigation application on Bodhi’s phone barking out directions. I rested my forehead against the window, watching the trees, which in fact were not gray, blur together as they rushed by.

“There it is.”

The car crested over a hill. Black Bay lay before us, a quaint town nestled at the base of an enormous bluff. It spread out delicately and in tremendous hues, as though someone had painted the entire scene in watercolors. Nature remained greatly undisturbed here. The residents of Black Bay had taken care to build their houses and businesses between the reaches of the tall trees and flowering plants. The bay itself curled around the town in a tight hug. Despite the cloud cover, the bright blues and whites of windsurfers and sailboats drifted languidly about, a stark contrast to the navy background of sparkling water. We passed a weathered sign with chipped paint as the car trundled toward the main street: Welcome to Black Bay – Population: 7324.

“It’s quite colorful,” Bodhi admitted, letting off the gas to cruise down the hill.

The main street was rife with activity. Women shopped in boutiques, men chatted amiably on street corners, and children laughed as they flew kites past a fountain in the town square. The marina was busy too. Fishermen hauled in their catches from the early morning while teenagers played catch or lounged on the docks, dangling their bare feet over the water. It was a Saturday, and it seemed all of Black Bay wanted to spend their day in the summer breeze.

Bodhi drew to a stop, gesturing for a gaggle of high schoolers to cross the road in front of us. “What time did you say we were supposed to meet this Milo guy again?”

“Eleven o’clock.”

It took less than ten minutes to drive from one end of Black Bay to the other. The far side was quieter, more subdued, as though the thick forest ate sounds and swallowed them deep in its belly. A narrow road invited us into the misty retreat of the overlooking rock. I craned my neck, peering through the windshield. Somewhere above, our potential property loomed, but the only hint of its existence was the faint outline of a widow’s walk, barely visible through the thickening fog. Still, the familiar flutter of anticipation spun in my stomach.

The car climbed up the slender street, winding back and forth through the trees until the land leveled out. As the house appeared in full view, I inhaled sharply. The plethora of pictures Milo had sent me hadn’t done it justice. The coastal home’s design might have been outdated and its derelict exterior run down by years of saltwater erosion and constant rain, but its soaring columns, grand doorways, and multiple wooden decks were breathtakingly gorgeous. I stepped out of the car before Bodhi put it in park, planted my hands on my hips, and took in the sights.

“How do you like it?” a voice called.

From the side yard of the house emerged a tall, lean man in jeans, deck shoes, and a tan windbreaker. He was a few years younger than me and Bodhi, in his late twenties maybe, with fierce blue eyes and fair hair so sundrenched and windswept that he would not have looked out of place in a J. Crew catalogue. He jogged toward us and offered a tanned, calloused hand.

“I’m Milo,” he said. “You must be Bailey.”

“That would be me.” I grasped Milo’s warm hand in my own. “Your house is beautiful. This is my husband, Bodhi.”

Bodhi shook Milo’s hand as well. “Aren’t you a little young to own a property like this?”

Milo chuckled. It was a deep, low sound, a man’s laugh that didn’t match his boyish appearance. “Probably. Would you like to see inside?”

With a bounce in his step, Milo led us to the front doors. They were unlocked. Apparently, there was no need to worry about break-ins. After all, the house was alone on the bluff. The rest of Black Bay’s suburbs, if you could call it that, was interspersed in the town below.

“The original owner’s things are all still here,” Milo explained, swinging the double doors wide to reveal the foyer and living room.

The house was fully furnished and decorated. Every surface—polished wood tables, an outdated stereo system, a collection of porcelain horse figurines on the mantle—was blanketed with a layer of dust. There was a palpable stillness in the house, as if it had gone undisturbed for so many years that it no longer remembered how to interact with living creatures. Our entrance stirred the dust particles. They danced through the sunbeams streaming in from the front door, swirling about like a welcoming shower of off-brand confetti.

I trailed my fingers through the grime of a narrow table by the door, pausing to examine the contents of a small crystal tray. Car keys. I picked them up, dangling them in Bodhi’s direction. “I don’t suppose the car comes with the house, does it?”

Bodhi snatched the keys and put them back in the tray. “Don’t, Bailey.”

Milo remained on the threshold, a silhouette framed against the white sun of the late morning. “I know it’s a little odd,” he admitted. “The house was put up for auction several years ago. My father bought it originally. No idea what he wanted to do with it. Anyway, when he died, he left it to me.”

I crossed the living room, the lush carpet muting my footsteps. A cashmere throw blanket was tossed casually over the arm of a dark leather sectional, as though someone had just been here watching something on the bulky, big-screen television. A grandfather clock lorded over the room, both hands still and silent. In the far corner, a grand piano posed proudly with a yellowing booklet of sheet music open on its shelf.

Tentatively, I touched a rigid page. “Claire de Lune. Debussy.”

“You can do whatever you want with the piano,” Milo said. “And the furniture. Sell it, trash it. I don’t really care. We meant to have an estate sale, but it never happened.”

“What a waste,” I murmured. “It’s so beautiful.” I pressed a key on the piano. A shrill note punctured the stagnant air. I winced. “Out of tune, but beautiful.”

Bodhi crossed his arms, gazing up at the exposed wooden beams of the living room. The crinkle in his forehead appeared. He was contemplating the possibilities, mapping out potential changes in his mind for renovations. “Where’s the kitchen?”

Milo pointed. “Through there.”

Bodhi ventured off. His voice echoed into the living room. “Bailey, we could knock out the wall and open this entire room up.”

“Okay!”

Milo massaged one of his hands with the other, anxiously kneading the muscle between his finger and thumb. “Does that mean we can officially close today?”

“It means we’ll have a look at the rest of the house.” Bodhi poked his head in from the adjacent room. “If you don’t mind.”

“Be my guest.”

Bodhi wandered off. He was that type of person. He preferred to explore alone and at his own pace, which often left me to kindle a conversation with the seller about the remainder of the closing process.

“Would you like the grand tour?” Milo asked. He indicated the wide staircase stationed beyond the foyer, its intricately carved balustrade ascending into a Cimmerian second level.

“Actually,” I countered, “I’d love to see the view.”

With an athletic fluidity, Milo altered his path and ushered me through the snug kitchen and out a back door. On the decrepit wooden deck in the backyard, I didn’t know where to look first. The house had a spectacular garden. It was wild and overgrown, but at one point, it might have been the pride and joy of whomever had lived there. The view beyond the garden caused the warm summer air to catch in my throat. To the right, the dense forest resumed, cloaking the steep ascent in swarthy green. To the left, the bluff dropped off suddenly, leaving nothing but open air. Sea spray ricocheted up from below. The sun dyed the clouds pale yellow and pink, like pastels painted across the sky. I opened my arms wide and took a deep breath.

“Nice, isn’t it.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Heavenly,” I agreed. Milo stared wistfully out at the water. “Seriously, Milo. Why would you want to sell this house?”

“I don’t find Black Bay quite as idyllic as the everyday man.”

“Ah, yes. I can see why. Horrible place.”

The massive deck creaked and groaned as he walked toward the edge. “This house is too big for me anyway. What am I going to do with four bedrooms?”

“Four bedrooms.” I looked up at the second level of the house, musing. From one bedroom in Florida to four in Washington. Bodhi and I would hardly cross paths in our spare time.

“And an office, a library, a wine cellar—”

“I didn’t realize I was buying Jay Gatsby’s house.”

Milo winked at me. “All that’s missing is the American Dream.”

“Isn’t it always?”

We fell silent. The wind whistled over the rocks. Below, the waves crashed against the bluff. I wondered how Bodhi was getting along. The final leg of our short journey was in his hands. If he decided the house wasn’t worth it, it was back to holing up in whatever hotel room or inexpensive apartment was available. At least a town like Black Bay was bound to have a pretty bed and breakfast with a view of the water for us to stay in. If the house fell through for some unpleasant reason, I had found a backup property in New Mexico, but as I gazed across the water, I desperately hoped for Bodhi’s approval.

“It’s not that big, really,” Milo said. He looked at me. “As Gatsby’s mansion, I mean.”

“If it was, we wouldn’t be here.” The wind blew hair into my face where it stuck to my lips. I brushed it away, bristling. There was no graceful way to spit hair out of your mouth. “Bigger houses are harder to flip. There’s more work to be done, and they’re less likely to sell. We’re going out on a limb for this one.”

“We can knock a little more off the price if that will help,” Milo said.

A hint of doubt colored the short distance between us. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” I asked. “Most people would do their damnedest to wring us dry on a house like this.”

“Like I said, I inherited this house,” Milo answered. “I don’t lose anything by selling it. I don’t want the responsibility. It’s been a thorn in my side already, and I don’t need an extravagant wad of cash to get out of Black Bay.”

“Are you moving?”

“As soon as possible.”

He tucked his hands into his jeans and hunched his shoulders against the wind. Even though it was early June and summer was in full swing, the breeze was cool enough to ruffle the sleeves of his windbreaker. I rubbed my palms together, watching Milo out of the corner of my eye. He bounced on the toes of his deck shoes, his calves bulging against his jeans. It wasn’t anxious per se. It was more like he didn’t realize he was doing it. His heels tapped against the rotting wood of the deck. Tap, tap, tap. Like a determined woodpecker.

“What’s not to like about Black Bay?” I asked him.

“Who said I didn’t like it?”

I made a face. “You did.”

“I don’t hate it.”

“Okay.”

We were quiet for another minute.

“But why don’t you like Black Bay?” I asked again. “I’m sorry to badger you. It’s just—I do a lot of research before we buy these houses, you know? We have to make sure we don’t purchase some place in the middle of nowhere. Black Bay checks out. Low crime rates, good job opportunities, highly rated schools, great local culture—”

“Bailey!” Bodhi’s voice floated out from somewhere above. The wind carried it down to us then swept it over the edge of the bluff.

We turned. Bodhi stood on a smaller deck that protruded from the second floor of the house. He leaned over the railing. “This is the master bedroom! Can you imagine?”

I gave him a smile and a thumbs-up. “What do you think?”

“I think I’m excited to get started. How’s it going down there?”

He wasn’t asking about the view. He was referring to my conversation with Milo.

“We’re still talking,” I called up to Bodhi.

“Talk faster. Demo and reno!”

“Demo and reno,” I said back. With a grin, Bodhi retreated into the master bedroom.

Milo lifted an eyebrow. “What’s demo and reno?”

“It’s what I call demolition and renovations on my blog,” I explained. “It’s clever. It rhymes. Kind of. People like that. I thought you read it?”

He ducked his chin into the front of his windbreaker like a shy tortoise. “Honestly, I came across your blog during a web search. I mostly looked at the pictures. It’s pretty impressive what the two of you can do.”

“Thanks.”

Bodhi emerged into the backyard, interrupting Milo’s praise. He stomped heavily on the wooden deck. “This will have to go. And the railing on that second level is falling apart. I’m thinking glass panes instead. Modernize the place, you know? Open spaces, big windows. Maybe an industrial kind of vibe. What do you think, Bay? You’re the one with the designer’s eye.”

“I could see that happening. We’ll draw something up together.”

Bodhi joined me and Milo, but unlike us, he didn’t look out at the view. He draped a heavy arm across my shoulders, turning me to face the aging house. I rounded forward, compensating for the extra weight. “Everything check off?”

Bodhi nodded, tucking me into his side. “I’m ready to close if you are.”

“I’m ready.”

Sunlight glinted off Milo’s eyes—just like the water below, they shimmered bright white and blue—as he smiled. “I’m glad this all worked out.”

“As am I,” I said, ducking out from under Bodhi’s arm. “Milo, would you like to join us in town for lunch? We wouldn’t mind a local’s perspective.”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” he said. “If you like, I can expedite the closing process. I just need a little time to do so. Meet me back here around two?”

“Perfect. Before you go, will you do us a favor?” I opened the camera app on my phone and handed it to Milo. “Will you take a photo of us in front of the house? I need one for the blog.”

“Absolutely.”

I stationed Bodhi at the corner of the deck, hoping that Milo could capture both the house and the horizon in the photo. Milo trampled a rose bush searching for a good viewpoint, chewing on his lip as he tilted the phone this way and that for the best angle.

“Ready?” he called across the yard.

We moved robotically. I linked my arms loosely around Bodhi’s waist. He perched his chin on top of my head. I smiled, working to extend the expression to my eyes. Bodhi smiled, the muscles of his jaw rustling my hair. The phone faked a camera noise. We drew apart.

“One more for safety,” Milo called out.

Back toward Bodhi. Click. Away from Bodhi. Sigh.

Milo bounded up to the deck, holding out my phone. “There ya go. And—” He reached into the pocket of his jeans, extracting a single key. “There’s that. Feel free to get comfortable. I don’t mind. I’ll meet you back here. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t want to drive to town, there’s a pathway around the southeast corner of the house. It’s a nice walk. Twenty minutes or so.”

“Sounds great.”

With a curious sense of finality, Milo dropped the lonely silver key into my palm. It lay against my skin, cold and still like a dead sardine. My fingers curled around it, clutching at the American Dream.

 

Chapter Three: Sanctuary

 

If possible, Black Bay was even warmer and more welcoming on foot. By the time Bodhi and I reached the center of town, most of the clouds had cleared out, leaving a radiant sky with a few decorative wisps of cotton candy. I shed my jacket, tying it around my waist. In Fort Lauderdale, my shoulders had burned and peeled so many times that I’d started wearing long-sleeved, UV-protection shirts outdoors. In contrast, the subtle affection of Black Bay’s sun tickled my tanned, freckled skin with such ardor that I cuffed my jeans and rolled the sleeves of my T-shirt up as far as they would go.

Beside me, Bodhi shone with a fine coating of perspiration. It tugged at his dark curls and highlighted the angle of his cheekbones and called attention to the hollow at the base of his throat. The golden sun flirted with his golden irises. I caught his index finger in mine and squeezed. That we could handle.

The high street swept us up with an enviable ease. The breeze from the bay played with my hair as we strolled past a grocery market advertising locally grown produce, farm fresh meats and cheeses, and an abundance of other enticing items. We paused, chuckling, to allow a gaggle of children playing tag pass by, then continued on our way, glancing into the bright, welcoming shop windows. There were no chain restaurants here, no looming supermarkets or wholesale stores. The businesses were small and crowded. One storefront boasted homemade ice cream and cookies. A used bookstore advertised two for one classics. There was even an archaic office for the local newspaper, the Black Bay Banner, a new edition of which was published every other Sunday.

The locals themselves were infectiously joyous as well. They smiled or tipped the brim of their hats at each other, pausing to chat or say a quick hello in doorways or on street corners. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it, Joyce?”

“Sure is, Bobby. Say hello to your wife for me, will you?”

In fact, the locals were so familiar with each other that mine and Bodhi’s presence in town almost seemed to elude their understanding. Though they met my gaze with the same polite smiles they afforded their neighbors, there was a vague impression of confusion in each passing glance. Black Bay, however amiable, was not accustomed to new faces.

On the corner of the cross section at the town square, the warm aromas of fresh coffee, sizzling sausage, and cinnamon scones wafted from the open doors and windows of a bustling cafe called Sanctuary Coffee House. I tugged on Bodhi’s finger.

“I smell hotcakes. And real maple syrup.”

“Sold,” he said, steering me inside.

The Sanctuary was a popular place. There were no tables available, so Bodhi and I settled in on two bar stools at the counter, squeezing between an elderly gentleman who smelled faintly of fish and a high schooler immersed in a bruised copy of Catcher in the Rye. I hummed contently as the cappuccino machine happily pulverized fresh coffee beans and tapped my fingers on the countertop in time with the upbeat acoustic guitar music emanating faintly from the overhead speakers. Soon, a middle-aged woman in a denim shirt and a green apron sidled toward us. In a practiced move, she filled two glasses with ice water, garnished them with lemon, and slid them across the counter.

“Everyone in town must be getting a load of you two,” she said with a warm smile.

“Why’s that?” Bodhi asked.

She tightened the bright red bandana that held her shock of blonde hair away from her face. “Beautiful new couple? I’m surprised Pam hasn’t whisked you away for a photo shoot already.”

“Sorry, but who’s Pam?”

The woman set two menus next to our waters, each one emblazoned with the Sanctuary’s signature swirly font and a depiction of a fierce eagle eye. “Pam Lopez. She’s the editor of the Black Bay Banner. Not a lot of news to print in such a small town, you know? She loves newcomers. Newcomers are news.”

Bodhi tugged his stool closer to the counter and sipped his water. “As much as I’d hate to disappoint Pam, we probably won’t be here long enough to warrant front page news.”

“No? Just passing through?”

“In a way,” I filled in. “We flip houses. We’ve just bought the house up the road.”

The woman blinked. “The Winchester house?”

“If that’s the one on the bluff.”

“With the widow’s walk?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh.”

She pursed her lips. Bodhi and I exchanged loaded looks. I shuffled closer, raising my voice to be heard over the buzz of the cafe. “Is there something wrong with that house?”

“No, not at all! It’s just been empty for years.”

“What happened to the owners?” asked Bodhi.

A server dashed by, balancing a tray of salads and sandwiches on his shoulder. The woman made room for him before answering Bodhi. “He’s a strange fellow. Doesn’t come into town.”

“Milo, you mean.”

“Is that his name?”

“You didn’t know?”

She shook her head. “Like I said, he’s a bit off-kilter. Never even seen him in person. But where are my manners?” She wiped her hands on her apron and shook one of mine. “My name is Ava.”

“I’m Bailey,” I said. “This is Bodhi.”

Ava beamed, patting Bodhi’s hand affectionately. “Welcome to Black Bay! And to the Sanctuary. Best coffee in town, roasted right here on the premises. Then again, I own the place, so I’m a little biased. Can I get you something else to drink?”

Bodhi flipped over the menu, perusing. “I’ll have a cold brew.”

“Sweetened?”

“Sure. Bailey?”

“The cappuccinos smell amazing,” I said.

“A cappuccino and a cold brew coming up.”

As Ava drifted away, busying herself with our drink order, Bodhi pivoted toward me. “Okay, is it me or was that a little weird?”

“I thought she was nice.”

“Nice, sure. Still weird.”

I unfolded my menu. Though it was lunchtime, the column of breakfast food drew my attention. “It’s a small town, Bodhi. Don’t be so judgmental.”

“I’m not. And who are the Winchesters?”

A swell in conversation near the door of the Sanctuary turned my head. A stout man with a full beard had entered the coffee shop. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance, but he was greeted with enthusiasm by every person within shouting distance. He was of average stature but broad and muscled throughout his shoulders and chest. He wore faded jeans, workman’s boots, and a white T-shirt. His age only showed in the crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the salt-and-pepper of his beard. He swept off his baseball cap, revealing an impressive amount of voluminous, solid gray hair, and tipped it in acknowledgement of the Sanctuary’s effervescent patrons.

“Mayor?” I guessed in an undertone to Bodhi.

“Local drug dealer,” he joked. I elbowed him, suppressing a laugh.

“One cappuccino,” said Ava, reappearing with a steaming cup. “And one cold brew. Anything to eat?”

“Whatever they order, put it on my tab,” boomed a voice. A meaty hand clapped down on my shoulder as I glanced up. The mayor, for lack of a better word, had approached us from behind. He grinned at me and Bodhi, displaying a spirited smile. “I heard through the grapevine that Black Bay had visitors. Least I can do is treat you to a meal.”

Bodhi shrugged out from under the man’s weighty grip. “That won’t be necessary—”

“I insist.” He took a few dollars from his back pocket and offered them to the nearby high schooler. “Budge up, if you don’t mind, darlin’.”

The younger girl bounced off the stool without argument, tucking Catcher in the Rye beneath one arm. “Thanks, Ethan. See you at the sailing competition tomorrow?”

The man winked. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

As she bounded away, the man hoisted himself on her vacated stool. “I wasn’t kidding, you know. Order something to eat. It’s on me.”

I took the bait, asking Ava for a platter of hotcakes and eggs. Bodhi followed suit and ordered a roast beef sandwich. As Ava placed our order, the man dumped several packets of artificial sweetener in a gargantuan glass of iced tea.

“I’m Ethan, by the way,” he said, stirring his beverage with a plastic bendy straw. “Ethan Powell. I run the lumber mill south of here. And the nearby warehouse. And a few of the businesses in town. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I passed by the Banner and Pam Lopez said there’s a new couple in town. Bailey and Bodhi, is it? My grandfather had a dog named Bodhi.”

“Word sure does travel fast here,” said Bodhi.

“Small town, sir. People talk.”

“We’re renovating the house on the bluff,” I explained again.

“The Winchester house?”

Déjà vu. As Ethan’s deep voice resonated across the cafe, a few customers looked up from their coffee cups. I nodded. “That’s the one.”

Our food arrived. I slathered maple syrup across the hotcakes and took a bite. Like the rest of Black Bay, breakfast was heavenly too.

Bodhi plucked out the toothpicks that held his sandwich together. “Who are the Winchesters?”

“Who were the Winchesters,” Ethan corrected, shaking his head. “Tragic, really. You have to know the history first. Twenty-odd years ago, Black Bay was suffering. Our town always relied on timber and fishing, but with better technology and bigger companies moving in, a lot of our factories and mills were being shut down. It was bad. A lot of locals lost their jobs or went bankrupt. People moved out to the cities for more opportunities, and Black Bay felt like a ghost town for a while.”

I swallowed another bite of my hotcakes. “Looks like it’s doing all right now though. What happened?”

Ethan bowed his head politely. “The Winchesters happened. They built that house of yours. Beautiful family. Two great kids. Christopher Winchester was a businessman, but not a deplorable one. He consolidated what was left of the businesses in Black Bay. Saved the small-town economy, you know? And he worked real hard with the locals to restore Black Bay without sacrificing our own ideals. Top-notch fellow, really. His wife Elizabeth was lovely too. She kept morale up. Started a book club and volunteered for whatever cause needed her most.”

Through a full mouth, Bodhi mumbled, “What was so tragic then?”

Ethan’s eyes darkened, as though one of the clouds from earlier had suddenly appeared inside the cafe. “They died. All four of them. Boat accident.”

The sandwich dropped from Bodhi’s hand. I choked on a sip of my cappuccino, my nose dipping into the foam. My heart ached. It was as though someone had reached into my chest, wrapped my organ in their fist, and squeezed. Bodhi’s calloused palm found my knee. I stared down at it, focusing on the heart-shaped birthmark on the back of his hand.

“It’s their house,” I murmured to Bodhi.

“We can bail,” he offered. He kept his head bowed, his back turned to Ethan in an illusion of privacy. “We haven’t signed the papers. We can just go.”

I dropped my forehead into my hand, shielding my eyes. The coffeehouse was too loud, too busy. Voices called, plates clanked, machines whirred. The hotcakes smelled too sweet. My stomach heaved. Everyone was looking. Was everyone looking?

Ethan stood on the leg of his stool to peer over Bodhi at me. “Everything all right?”

“I’ve got it,” said Bodhi firmly. Ethan sat down. Bodhi rubbed my back. “Bailey?”

“We should stay,” I whispered. I cleared my throat and spoke up. “We should stay. It shouldn’t— it’s fine. We should stay. The house is too gorgeous.”

“Are you sure?” Bodhi asked.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Ethan interrupted before I could answer. “The Winchesters passed a long time ago. No one in town is going to fault you for buying their house.”

“That’s not it,” Bodhi said.

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand—”

“It’s fine,” I said again, this time louder. I wiped the cappuccino foam from my nose. Smiled at Bodhi. Smiled at Ethan. “It’s no big deal. Thank you for your concern, Ethan.”

Ethan offered me a napkin, which I used to mop the sticky sweetness of maple syrup from my fingers. “Sure, darlin’.”

I pushed my plate away. My appetite had abandoned me. I resented it. The hotcakes lay sad and half-eaten. I rotated the plate so that only the untouched part of the stack was visible to me.

Bodhi had stopped eating too, instead rubbing my back in slow, comforting circles. I pointed to his sandwich. “Finish that. I know you’re still hungry.”

“Are you sure?” he asked again.

“Of course.” I cleared my throat once more. “So, Ethan?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you’re pretty popular around here.”

As if in example, a small child trundled by with a sippy cup full of orange juice and called up to the bar stool. “Hiya, Mister Powell!”

Ethan grinned and waved before returning his attention to me. “I grew up here,” he explained. “The lumber mill was a family business, see? It was my grandfather’s then my dad’s. I would’ve lost it all if it weren’t for Christopher Winchester. He did so much for Black Bay. Ever since he passed, I like to think it’s my duty to take care of the town. Someone’s got to, you know?”

It made sense. Ethan Powell was the unnamed father of Black Bay. In my opinion, every small town needed someone like him to keep things running smoothly. Otherwise, the close quarters and local gossip was bound to come to a head at some point.

Bodhi dusted his hands off on his napkin. “We’re going to need some guys to help us out with the construction up at the house. Do you know of anyone who needs work?”

“You’ve asked the right man.” Ethan finished off his iced tea then tipped back the glass to chew on the ice cubes. As he crunched, he said, “I got a bunch of guys who’re always looking for a couple extra bucks. Just say when.”

“It won’t be right away,” Bodhi answered. “I need to do some work on my own first. Draw up the plans. We haven’t even signed the closing documents yet.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, checking my watch. “It’s one-thirty. We should head back up to the house soon.”

“I’ve kept you. My apologies.” Ethan waved Ava over, lumbering off his bar stool to extract his wallet from his back pocket. He handed a twenty to Ava and a business card to Bodhi. “Call me anytime. And not just for construction work. If you need anything at all, feel free to let me know. I was serious about looking out for the people of Black Bay. Even if you’re only around for a couple of months, I’m here for you.”

I stood up and patted Ethan on his broad back. “Thank you for that, Ethan. And for lunch.”

“Anytime, darlin’. Take care now.”

 

Bailey and Bodhi: Flipping Out

 

So this is the first time Bodhi and I have ever participated in a private sale, and I have to admit, there’s a certain finesse to it. Our new buddy, Milo, had prepared all of the necessary documents in advance, which we signed in mere minutes. What a relief! There was no hassle. No last-minute negotiations. No real estate sharks or loan officers. If only every transaction we made was as simple and stress-free as the one for the Winchester house.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, our new house officially has a name, but unlike The Pit in Fort Lauderdale (jk!), our project had already been christened before we arrived in Black Bay. The Winchester House. Sounds regal, doesn’t it? It looks regal too. It’s not a palace by any means, but the Winchesters were definitely blue-blooded. This place has a ballroom. A ballroom! Okay, so it’s more of a big, empty hall, but you could absolutely hold a modest ball in there.

And did I mention the view? Right now, Bodhi and I are sitting out on the deck of the master bedroom, drinking wine and watching the sunset. Talk about ridiculously romantic. It’s literally all ocean and mountains here. The sky is purple. PURPLE. Don’t worry, I’ll attach pictures.

 

Eat your hearts out, flippers.

Bailey

 

I uploaded the pictures from my phone to the new blog post, including the one of me and Bodhi outside on the lower deck. I zoomed in on it, studying our expressions. As long as my followers didn’t look too closely, no one would notice how our bodies didn’t quite connect at the center. Or how, despite my best efforts, my smile faltered around my eyes. I zoomed out, uploaded the picture, and published the post before I could second-guess myself.

After our meeting with Milo, we had spent the rest of the day tidying up what we could of the Winchester house. It was a good thing the family had left an entire cabinet full of cleaning supplies. Even better, the 90s-era vacuum cleaner still worked. My afternoon consisted of the simple yet daunting task of ridding the house of its thick layer of dust. I emptied the vacuum bag at least ten times, covering my nose and mouth as it coughed ashy clouds into the trash can. My dedication lasted long enough to clean the kitchen, one bathroom, and two of the upstairs bedrooms. The rest, I planned on tackling during the next few days.

For now, I sat on the bare mattress of the king-sized bed in the master bedroom. The sky really was purple, a light lilac hue near the surface of the water that stretched up into a dark plum color before conceding to the twinkling stars. Beyond the open French doors, Bodhi propped himself up against the railing of the second story deck. He gazed out across the open ocean with a bottle of beer—some kind of local brew that we picked up at the market on our way back up to the bluff—perched nearby. The fabric of his shirt danced in the breeze. It rode up above his jeans, revealing a stretch of his tanned back and a strip of paler skin at his waistband. As though he could feel my eyes on him, he turned away from the water.

“You okay?”

I nodded.

“All done with the blog post?”

Another nod.

He yawned, stretching his arms overhead as he came inside. “I know it’s early, but I think I’ll head to bed. Flights always wear me out.”

“Can you close and lock the doors please?”

He eased the stiff French doors shut and pulled the curtains over the windows.

“Night.”

He paused as he passed me. There was a barely noticeable stumble in his step as though he thought about kneeling down to kiss the top of my head. He didn’t though. He walked away. I watched his reflection on the screen of my laptop. At the door of the bedroom, he looked over his shoulder at the space left beside me on the massive bed.

I waited.

Bodhi left. I rolled my shoulders out, realizing how tense the muscles in my back had been while he’d considered his sleeping arrangement. I closed my laptop, no longer able to look at the happy crap I’d posted on the blog. It was all a farce. The only time Bodhi and I shared a bed these days was if we had no other options, ergo the apartment in Florida. It was easier on all parties involved if we slept in separate rooms. That was why I had made sure to clean two of the upstairs bedrooms. I needed space.

As soon as Bodhi was out of sight, I stripped off my jeans, too tired to root through my poorly packed suitcase for a pair of pajamas. The purple tinted light of the beckoning evening filtered through the diaphanous white curtains, casting a lavender glow across the plush carpet. I fell onto the bare mattress of the king-sized bed and stretched diagonally from one end to the other.

Flights didn’t make Bodhi tired. He loved them. Before we met, he traveled to whatever country struck his fancy, worked unpleasant jobs to pay for his room and board, and owned a grand total of five shirts. When he was on the ground, he talked incessantly about how he missed the “in between” feeling of being in the sky.

I stared at the ceiling. The Winchesters did not believe in stucco ceilings. It was smooth, painted a creamy off-white that reminded me of French vanilla ice cream. I closed my eyes. Purple skies and empty airplane aisles and French vanilla ice cream floated through the darkness behind my eyelids.

 

I woke with a scream lodged in my throat. It was stuck there, bubbling. I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning. Or I had been.

A gust of wind brought me to my senses. The bedroom was dark. I unfurled my fists. My fingers were cold, but my palms were damp and warm. I had dug my fingernails into the flesh there, drawing blood. Another breeze swept through the room, chilling the layer of sweat on my body. I shivered and looked up.

The French doors were open, the black night beyond luring me into its depths.

 

Chapter Four: The House on the Bluff

 

At dawn, the woods around the Winchester house came alive. Through the glass panes of the windows, I heard the happy whistling of waking birds, the rustle of the ocean breeze through the leaves on the trees, and the subtle, ever-present hush of waves kissing the rocks below. The French doors to the balcony were closed. I propped myself up on one lonely pillow. Last night’s disruption slipped away. It was like holding a memory in a sieve. Remnants lingered, but the details were flushed out. It could’ve all been a dream, but the crescent-shaped grooves and dried blood in the palms of my hands said otherwise.

I was no stranger to nightmares. They were my closest acquaintances these days. As soon as I drifted off, they came for me. I fought it at first. I quit drinking coffee for a while, participated in sleep studies, and went to therapy. Bodhi tried to help too. He held me or supervised me, but he never woke me up. For some cosmically ironic reason, waking someone from a night terror was considered a no-no. I never understood it, but I had accepted it. Now I greeted my dreams as co-workers: Hello. I see you. I accept you. Let’s get this over with. And in the morning, I left the terror to linger in the space between the fitted sheet and the duvet cover.

Downstairs, Bodhi was already awake. He was a morning person. He rose and set with the sun. I padded softly into the kitchen in socks to find him sitting cross-legged on the counter, a mug of instant coffee between his hands. He had opened the window above the sink, and as he gazed toward the lightening horizon, his back rose and fell with each rhythmic, lengthening breath. I lingered in the doorway. Bodhi alone was a foreign species. As soon as he was aware of other people, his shields went up. I savored the rare opportunity to see him unprotected.

I stepped heavily into the kitchen, rewarded with a loud creak from the aging floor. As Bodhi turned, I over-exaggerated a yawn. “Morning.”

“Hi. How’d you sleep?”

“Well enough.”

“Even with the—?”

I looked down at the linoleum. “Mm-hmm.”

“Good. Coffee?”

“Please.”

He hopped off the counter, opening a cabinet beside the quiet refrigerator. It was stacked with ceramic mugs in various earth tones. Bodhi caught my eye as he reached for one the same color as the blue-gray ocean outside.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” he asked, rinsing dust off the mug in the sink before filling it with hot water from a kettle on the stove. “Time forgot about this place. The mugs. The kettle. There’s an entire set of fine china locked away in a display cabinet in the dining room.”

“Please tell me you didn’t find the coffee here too.”

He cracked a smile. “No, I walked into town earlier this morning. Picked up some fresh biscuits too. The bakery even had clotted cream and homemade jam.”

“Wow.”

The mug passed from his hands to mine. He lifted a paper bag on the counter. “Would you like one?”

“Maybe later.”

“Okay.”

There was a fleck of dust floating in my coffee. I picked it out. Took a sip. Wrinkled my nose. Instant coffee might have done the trick for Bodhi, but to me it tasted like dirty water. I set aside the mug, wondering if its previous user would gasp in horror at the thought of it holding anything other than the highest quality whole bean brew. Something told me the Winchesters woke up to their coffee made for them.

“What are we supposed to do with all of this stuff?” I asked Bodhi. “Milo doesn’t want it, and it seems like such a waste to throw it all away.”

“Donate it?” suggested Bodhi.

“That piano is Steinway and Sons. Those things cost about as much as some of the houses we’ve rebuilt.”

“Then sell it. We could use the extra cash. Milo doesn’t care, remember?”

“I don’t know. It feels wrong. I can’t explain it.”

Bodhi kicked himself up onto the counter again, the heels of his bare feet bouncing against the cabinet doors. “The sinkhole house had an entire collection of vintage surfboards.”

“Yeah, but the owner came back for them, remember?”

“I think it’s safe to say that the Winchesters won’t be back anytime soon to collect their stingray.”

“Steinway.”

“Right.” He dipped his finger into the open jar of jam. “It’s going to take us forever to clear out this house. We’ll have to work the house section by section. That will give you time to figure out what you want to do with Mr. Stingray over there.”

There was a flash of teeth. He was pulling my leg. “I guess since we didn’t get the opportunity to name the house, we’ll have to settle for branding the piano.”

“It does have a nice ring to it.”

“Mr. Stingray it is.”

Bodhi offered me the jam jar and a spoon. I took a bite. “Apricot?”

He nodded, licking a rogue dollop of jam from his pinky finger. “They’re in season. What are you planning today? I called Ethan Powell earlier, and he wants to meet with me.”

“For what?”

“He’s already recruited a couple guys to work on the house. Carpenters and such. I figured I’d check them out. Plus, he said he would take me on a tour of the lumber mill. It was refurbished a few years ago, so he knows the town’s guidelines for this kind of stuff.”

“Wouldn’t the guidelines for houses and lumber mills vary a bit?”

“It’s still nice to meet someone who knows the process,” said Bodhi. “He’s got connections, this guy. We shouldn’t run into any problems. Remember that lake house in Tahoe with the jackass next door?”

“Vividly.”

“Knowing a guy like Ethan Powell helps us avoid confrontations like that.”

I lifted my mug. “To Ethan Powell.”

Bodhi clinked his glass against mine.

“Hey, Bode?” I ventured carefully. “Don’t forget to lock up at night, okay?”

Coffee sloshed over the lip of his mug as he set it down on the counter. “I did.”

“I saw you close the French doors, but I don’t think you locked them.”

“Bailey, you asked me to lock the doors, so I locked the doors.”

“Well, they flew open in the middle of the night, so I’m not sure you did.”

He stared at me, quiet. His eyes, usually a rich amber, looked black beneath the shadow of his messy curls.

I swallowed hard and lowered my gaze. “Maybe the lock’s busted or something.”

“I’ll check it later.”

I sipped my instant coffee and instantly blanched. In my periphery, Bodhi rolled his eyes. “I think I’ll stay here today,” I announced. One more sip. Tight lips. No flinching. “I want to get to know the house better. Take pictures for the blog, sketch out some ideas, clean a little more.”

His cell phone chimed a reminder tone. “That’s for my meeting with Ethan,” he said, dropping from the counter and sliding into his shoes. “You’re staying here then?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine. Have you seen my keys?”

“You left them on the counter.”

“They aren’t there.”

Any excuse to abandon the acidulous beverage. I left my mug of seawater on the kitchen counter and joined Bodhi in the living room. He checked behind the sofa cushions, but I spotted his keys right away. They were in the crystal tray on the table by the front door, nestled carefully next to the twenty-year-old car keys that I had found yesterday.

I rescued Bodhi’s set, jingling them overhead.

He made a grab for them. “Where were they?”

“In the tray.”

“Don’t put them there. It’s weird.”

“I didn’t put them there.”

“I left them on the counter, and only one of us sleepwalks.”

Before I could reply, he briefly kissed my forehead and left through the front door. I heard the rumble of our rental car firing up. When the hum of the engine faded down the hill, I took a biscuit from the kitchen and went back upstairs. With Bodhi occupied, the house was mine to explore at my leisure.

Yesterday, I investigated the first floor. Like Milo had said, the house had more than enough rooms to entertain. Beyond the kitchen and dining room, there was an office with a mahogany desk, a high-backed chair, and a velvet pool table. The next room over was a modest but extensive library, the spines of the books faded by the sunlight from the window. The ballroom—or whatever it had been—was the only one empty of furnishings. At the end of the hallway, an unmarked door hid a set of stairs that led down to the basement. I assumed the wine cellar was down there, but the swinging lightbulb flickered and died when I coaxed the switch upward, so I left the depths of the Winchester house to explore another day.

The second floor was mostly bedrooms and bathrooms. Bodhi had laid his suitcase out in what appeared to be a guest room, with generic decorations and no personal touches, but when I swung open the door to the next stop on my exploration, my stomach heaved at the sight.

A four-poster canopy bed dominated the room, framed between two curtained bay windows. A stocked bookshelf attempted to contain a collection of literature that looked as though it had been pilfered from the library downstairs. The books were stacked haphazardly, placed at any angle to fit chaotically within one another like a bizarre game of Tetris. The wardrobe was open, revealing racks of evenly spaced hangers. They clung to cashmere sweaters, polo shirts, tennis skirts, and elegant dresses that were fit for high tea. A pair of riding boots peeked out from beneath a pile of discarded laundry. The room blatantly belonged to a girl—a young one, I assumed at first—but an open copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity in the original French lay spread-eagled on the dusty duvet. How many teenaged girls made a habit of dabbling in foreign existentialist literature?

I left without touching anything. The Winchesters’ possessions had gone undisturbed for twenty years, and I wasn’t ready to change that quite yet. I took a picture of the room for my blog and moved on. At the next door, I braced myself, anticipating what I might find on the other side. I turned the handle.

And screamed.

A parade of rats scurried out from under the bed, their devious little fingers whisking across the hardwood floors as they disappeared into an open vent in the wall. I pressed a hand to my chest, urging my lungs to work properly again. Rats were easily taken care of—Bodhi and I had dealt with them at a number of properties—but no matter how often we came across them, their beady eyes and sharp teeth never failed to set my pulse racing.

The rats’ room had previously hosted a high school athlete. Black and gold posters, emblazoned with Black Bay High School: Golden Eagles, adorned every wall. A collection of trophies—football and track—stood in formation along a shelf by the door. A small work desk, covered in ancient issues of Sports Illustrated and Car and Driver, looked like it had rarely been used for homework. I tiptoed over the threshold and reached for the nearest trophy.

“Forgive me,” I muttered to the tiny, faceless gold man. And then I chucked the trophy toward the bed. It thunked to the floor. All was quiet. No more rats.

Gingerly, I knelt down, lifted the red plaid duvet, and peered under the bed. It smelled atrocious, and it was no wonder why. The rats had made themselves comfortable amidst a pile of yellowing football pads and cleats. I withdrew, holding my breath, and took another picture for the blog. I could edit out the rat droppings later.

In the hallway, I skipped the last door. My heart—and nose—could only take so much. Craving fresh air, I went downstairs, out through the back door, and into the garden. As I pushed through a thicket of high grass and weeds, working my way toward the edge of the bluff, wild rose bushes snagged my T-shirt. The fluffy tendrils of dandelions took to the wind when I passed by, tickling my nose. I looked up at the sky. The garden could swallow me, and I would let it. Let the vines hug me into the ground. Let the flowers flourish in my pores. As long as I had a view of the stars at night, the earth would hear no complaints from me.

I stopped twenty feet short of the bluff. There, a delicate tree in full bloom undulated in the breeze. It was a plumeria tree, with shimmering flowers as pink as a hummingbird’s throat. It would not have been unusual aside from two things. First of all, plumerias were a tropical flower. I had seen them in Florida and Hawaii, but plumerias weren’t likely to fall in love with Black Bay’s dreary climate. Secondly, though the rest of the garden was wild and overrun, the plumeria tree looked as though it had been carefully tended to. The weeds did not snake up its trunk to smother the flowers, and its silky scent, reminiscent of coconuts, wafted unhindered across the sole patch of neatly trimmed grass.

I approached the plumeria tree, plucked a bloom, and held it beneath my nose. With one hand on the trunk to steady myself, I stepped as close to the edge of the bluff as I dared. There was no fence, no barrier between me and the open air. The horizon boasted a solid, straight line, a peaceful dichotomy of sea and sky. I looked down.

Below, the water was far from tranquil. Waves gathered farther out, collecting energy as they rolled inward. Whitewash erupted as the rock interrupted each curl’s path, a violent surge of static that intensified with every ill-timed swell. The stone at the base of the bluff was jagged and raw. It split the waves to pieces without remorse.

My head swam. The water swam. No, that wasn’t right. It was the effect of my relaxed vision, the separation of body from mind. The water and rocks were alive. Awake. Breathing. Mortal. I stepped forward.

“Bailey!”

My shirt tightened against my throat as someone took hold of the fabric and yanked me away from the bluff’s edge. I woke from my stupor, spinning on my heel.

Milo, his blue eyes wide and burning, stood in the garden, his fingers still outstretched, reaching for me. For something that wasn’t there.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

I feigned innocence. “Looking.”

“Looking? You were about to step off!”

“Oh, please.”

I brushed by him, but he followed along after me, navigating the fickle garden with practiced dexterity.

“Wait, wait,” he said. “Hey, I’m sorry, okay? The winds up here can be rough. It’s not safe to stand that close to the edge.”

“I wasn’t that close.”

“Look, if you need someone to talk to—”

“I don’t.”

“Okay, but if you do, I’m around.”

Milo trekked diligently after me as I stepped onto the deck. I whirled to face him. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I just wanted to know how you guys were settling in.”

“We’re fine, thanks.”

The wind blew his hair into his eyes. He squinted across the deck at me, sweeping a hand through his blond locks to tame them. “What usually makes you feel better?”

“Excuse me?”

He indicated the bluff’s drop-off. “At times like this, what makes you feel better? I like thinking about the future. Where will life take me? Where will I go? There are so many places I haven’t explored. Machu Picchu. Easter Island. Las Vegas. That’s a dream of mine.”

He babbled like a brook, a constant stream of words.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, turning away from Milo to march into the kitchen. To my dismay, he followed me like a persistent puppy.

“Sure you do,” he said. “I know what depression looks like, Bailey. I know what suici—”

“Cold water,” I blurted out. Milo fell silent. “A tall glass of cold water. Freezing, really. I have to be able to feel it, like it’s flushing out the rest of me.”

Milo opened a cabinet next to the sink, drew out a clear glass, and set it on the counter. His fingers brushed the back of my hand. “Good?”

I took the glass. “Good.”

“Good,” he said again. “I’ll let myself out.”

I waited until the front door closed again before unclenching my other fist. The plumeria bloom fell to the kitchen floor, its petals crushed and broken.

 

Bodhi returned in the early evening with takeout from an Italian restaurant in town. We ate chicken parmesan and drank wine out of the Winchesters’ cups on the big seat of the bay window in the living room.

“How was your meeting?” I asked Bodhi.

“It went really well,” he said, pausing to wipe marinara sauce from his chin. “Ethan’s going to be a real asset. His guys are great, you know? Smart and hardworking. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve been this excited to get started.”

“I’m so glad.”

“What’s on your mind?”

I sipped from my wine glass. “What do you mean?”

“For the house. Any ideas?”

“Oh. Well, I think we should keep the bay windows.”

“Agreed,” he said. “Some of them anyway. The ones upstairs. This one might have to go. I think we should open up the entire first floor and install those massive sliding glass doors. That way, you have a view of the bluff no matter where you stand.”

“Open floor plan?”

“Exactly.” He jabbed his fork in my direction for emphasis. “At least for the kitchen, living room, and dining room. I haven’t decided about the rest of the first floor yet.”

I speared a piece of chicken. “What about upstairs?”

“I quite like how cozy it is up there, actually,” Bodhi said.

“Me too. Have you been in those other rooms? The Winchesters’ kids’ stuff is still there.”

He tore a slice of crusty Italian bread in half, decorating the windowsill with a shower of crumbs, but paused before sweeping it through the sauce on his plate. “Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“I can clear those rooms on my own,” he offered. “You don’t have to—”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Really. It just… got me thinking.”

“About?”

My wine glass was empty. I reached for the bottle. “About how Black Bay might be the perfect place to raise a family.”

Bodhi stiffened. “What?”

I poured the wine and swirled the contents of my glass, keeping my gaze on the tiny bubbles that popped and fizzled in the alcohol. “I don’t know. Don’t you get tired of moving so often? I want a home. A place to be.”

“I thought you didn’t mind moving around.”

“It was adventurous and fun when we were younger, Bodhi. Now it just feels like we’re running away.”

“From what?”

“You know.”

He shoved his unfinished plate away. “No, Bailey. I don’t know. Please enlighten me.”

I gambled a glance in his direction. It was like looking into the barrel of a roulette revolver and knowing that the bullet had just clicked into place. “I just thought, maybe, if we were on the same page—”

“I heard you screaming in your sleep again last night.”

I closed my eyes. “You did?”

“Yeah. And I’ll make you a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

He leaned across the window seat, gently tipping my chin up so that I would look him in the eye. “When you stop screaming in your sleep, we’ll try again.”

I jerked out of his grasp.

He picked up his plate, cleaning up the rest of our meal. “Otherwise, I don’t want to hear about it. We’ve been in Black Bay for a grand total of two days. It’s probably not as perfect as you think it is. Not to mention, even if I did want to think about what you’re thinking about, this house is far too big for us. We couldn’t afford the upkeep…”

I stopped listening as he disappeared into the kitchen. We avoided each other for the rest of the evening. I perused the small library, collecting a few books to read before bed, but I ran into Bodhi in the hallway outside the bathroom. He had just showered, and the sharp scent of his lemon-coconut bar soap lingered in the steam around his body. Without thinking, I reached out and trailed the tips of my fingers across his damp forearm and over his bicep.

He pressed me to the peeling wallpaper. The chair rail molding dug into my lower back as he kissed me once on the lips. The old books dropped to the floor. I slid my hands up to his shoulders. Then, before I even opened my eyes, he vanished into the guest room. Cold and empty, I picked up the books and slipped into the master bedroom, but when I made to stack the titles in alphabetical order on the bedside table, I paused.

A tall cup of water sat centered on a marble coaster. Beads of condensation pooled on the glass, dancing in the low light of the table lamp.

 

Chapter Five: Priorities

 

Bailey and Bodhi: Flipping Out

 

The day has come! It’s been a few weeks since we arrived in Black Bay, Washington, but we are almost ready to start Demo and Reno. It’s taken us a little longer than usual to start clearing out this house, but if you checked out my pictures from a few days ago, you’ll understand why. This place is basically the Winchester Family Museum. No one’s touched it for twenty years, and in some ways, it feels like we’re committing some kind of sin against nature by disrupting it. It’s borderline macabre.

Anyway, we still don’t know what to do with all of the Winchesters’ stuff. Some of it couldn’t be saved. We threw out an entire rat-infested bedroom set, and don’t even get me started on the rotting pool table we found in the office. It practically disintegrated when we tried to move it. On the upside, there are a lot of beautiful things in this house that were relatively well-preserved. Bodhi and I have decided to list whatever’s in decent shape. If you’re interested, click the link below for our eBay page. I’m talking a top-of-the-line cappuccino machine, several boxes of cigars that smell damn good, and a bunch of sporting equipment too. We really need to get rid of it, so everything is priced rather reasonably. Please help us!

Tomorrow, we tackle the beast that is the attic. It looks like the Winchesters used it for storage, so I can’t wait to find out what we’ll unearth up there. I’m still keeping an eye out for the pesky and elusive family of rats that lives in the walls. Stay tuned, flippers. It’s bound to get crazy.

 

With love,

Bailey

 

The Winchesters’ attic was hot, stuffy, and without openable windows. To make matters worse, it was jam-packed with whatever the Winchesters had deemed unnecessary for everyday use, from cardboard boxes full of old photo albums to file cabinets to Christmas decorations. There was hardly room to walk, let alone work, and the steep, narrow staircase from the attic down to the second floor was a hospital trip waiting to happen. I had already stumbled twice, but it was near impossible to watch your footing when your vision was obscured by boxes of place settings and doilies. Bodhi, who was usually the level head in scenarios like this, lost it around mid-morning. He stormed down the stairs, drenched in sweat from head to toe, brandishing a hammer and threatening to light the entire house on fire. Thankfully, his case of the vapors was likely a result of dehydration because as soon as I cajoled him into drinking a full bottle of water, he returned to himself. We took a quick break—I had bought homemade ice cream sandwiches in town which were the perfect remedies for our woes—then headed back up to the infernal attic.

“Business papers?”

“Trash.”

“A box of deflated footballs?”

“Trash.”

“Oh, God. This one’s full of sock puppets.”

“Definitely trash. What kind of kinky shit were the Winchesters into?”

“They had kids, Bodhi.”

Little by little, we made headway. By late afternoon, when the sun had sunk low enough to stop baking us like sticky hotcakes through the roof of the house, we could almost see the attic floor. I opened up yet another cardboard box. It was full of Styrofoam peanuts. I sifted through them, my fingers connecting with some kind of circular ring. I hooked my pinky around it and gently tugged upward.

Out came a baby mobile. It rotated serenely as I shook it free of the peanuts. The ornaments were tiny whales, hand-blown from different shades of blue glass. The sun refracted off of them, and they twinkled in the light, winking at me as they swam in their infinite circle. I smiled, wondering what lucky baby got to sleep under such a beautiful piece of artwork every night.

“What the hell is that?”

Bodhi stood at the top of the stairs, wound up like a spring. He stared at the baby mobile, but his eyes were blank. Dead. Or furious.

“It’s a baby mobile.”

“Throw it away.”

“No, it’s handmade!”

“I don’t care,” he said. He remained rooted in place, as if the sight of the mobile had paralyzed him. “Throw it out, Bailey.”

I lowered the whales back into the box of peanuts. “That’s such a waste. We should add it to the eBay page.”

“I said throw it out!”

His voice boomed through the attic, rattling the window panes. My mouth dropped open. In all the time that I had known Bodhi, he had only raised his voice at me three times. Four, now.

“Fine. Fine. I’ll throw it out, Bodhi.”

I made sure the glass whales were securely nestled in the peanuts before folding the top in and popping one corner beneath the other. Then I carried the box to the pile of junk we had labeled as our trash pile and delicately set it next to a cracked laundry basket full of hand-me-down clothes.

“There,” I said. “Are you satisfied now?”

He said nothing but finally moved, shuffling toward the opposite end of the attic to resume his task. I kept an eye on the box of peanuts, and that night, when I was sure that Bodhi was asleep and oblivious in the guest room, I snuck up to the attic, rescued the mobile, and hid it in the closet of the master bedroom.

 

When Bodhi finally deemed the kitchen and living room fit for demolition, Ethan Powell’s crew of construction workers showed up in full force. The low roar of voices and the buzz of machines punctuated the walls of the master bedroom one morning before the sun had crested over the horizon. I lay in bed, listening to the machinery overpower the natural hum that usually accompanied my mornings and examining a scar that encircled my right thumb. Years ago, Bodhi had rushed me to the hospital after a run-in with a circular saw. Everything had turned out all right, but after that, Bodhi was hesitant to let me within five feet of anything with a blade. Once the heavy-duty construction work began, I steered clear of the site. I had plenty to do—there was more than enough of the Winchesters’ possessions left to keep me busy—but the barrage of noise outside was already giving me a headache.

The town itself had gone vastly unexplored for the past few weeks. We had spent the majority of our time in Black Bay laboring in the house. It was easy to throw myself into the dirty work of it all. Ripping up carpets, scraping wallpaper off, and digging through drywall was cathartic in a way. Destruction was simple; rebuilding was hard. We were so caught up in the demolition that we only ventured into town if we needed to. Nevertheless, we were still the hot topic of Black Bay. Whether I was picking up materials at the hardware store or swinging by the Sanctuary for lunch, the locals stopped me to chat. Everyone wanted to know what was going on up at the Winchester house. Usually, I slipped out of the conversation by jotting down the URL of Flipping Out.

I used the morning to catch up on the blog. Ever since the first night I’d contacted Milo, my followers had been more active than usual. Direct messages and e-mails overflowed my inbox every night, and I was finding it hard to keep up with it all. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, the blog was one of our best sources of revenue. Not only did we profit off the advertisements in the sidebars, but Flipping Out’s followers were keen to buy up the items from the house that we had listed on our eBay page. On the other hand, it was getting more and more difficult with the number of eager fans to please. They weren’t just interested in the house; they were interested in me and Bodhi. I did my best and posted a myriad of photos, but there were only so many times I could sneak a candid picture of Bodhi sweating through his T-shirt as he pried up loose boards in the backyard deck before he realized what I was doing.

“Take pictures of yourself,” he’d say, pushing his damp curls away from his forehead.

“Our entire website operates on our happy couple vibe,” I’d argue back.

Whatever the circumstance, working on the blog was slowly beginning to eat away at me. At this point, it felt like I was running mine and Bodhi’s ad campaign rather than actively participating in the renovations for the house. Bodhi’s attitude continued to spiral downwards. Ever since the baby mobile incident, we rarely spoke unless it had to do with joists or sliding glass doors or electrical wiring. At night, I held my breath when I heard his footsteps in the hallway and let out a sigh of relief when they faded toward his own room.

Shortly before noon, I waved goodbye to Bodhi and the rest of the construction crew and walked into town. For once, I had no errands to run, and the white tips of the waves in the bay below coaxed me down from the tension at the house. I wandered into one of the cute boutiques, bought a scoop of mint chocolate chip at the ice cream shop, and steered a mini remote-controlled sailboat around the fountain in the square, laughing as a devious seven-year-old crashed his boat into mine.

I walked south. Ethan Powell’s lumber mill loomed in the distance. I considered stopping by to ask Ethan if he’d give me a tour—at least it would fill a few hours of my day—but the sign of a nearby restaurant caught my eye. The name, Lido’s, sounded familiar to me, and my stomach was grumbling in protest, so I headed inside and slid into an empty booth. A waitress, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with Lido’s stamped across the front in white font, strolled over with her order pad.

“Bailey, right?” she asked. “What’ll it be?”

“Just a soda, please.”

“Eating lunch? Got a fried fish special.”

I perused the menu for a brief moment. “Fried fish sounds great.”

“Back in a mo’.”

As she ambled off, I looked around Lido’s. It was a bar and grill of sorts, with big windows in the back that opened up to the bay and even bigger television screens to display whatever football or baseball game was being broadcasted in that moment. Along the wall, there were dozens of group photos. Apparently, Lido’s was in the business of sponsoring Black Bay’s high school football team as well as the Little League. A trophy case at the far end of the bar displayed an oversized MVP award, along with a framed photo and a plaque too far away for me to read.

The door to Lido’s swung open, and as soon as Ethan Powell walked in, he noticed me sitting alone in my booth. I waved jovially.

“Hey there, darlin’,” he said with a grin. “Mind if I join?”

“Not at all.”

“Where’s that husband of yours?”

“Working on the house,” I said. I lifted my disfigured thumb. “I was banned from the heavy-duty stuff a few years ago.”

Ethan winced appropriately at the odd angle of my finger. “Can’t see why.”

The waitress reappeared and set a glass of soda in front of me. “Hi, Ethan. Wanna order something?”

“An iced tea and a burger, my dear.”

“Coming up.”

I sipped my soda through a straw, rotating the glass around until I realized why the Lido’s logo had looked so familiar to me. The water glass that had appeared on my nightstand that first night—the one that I’d made a habit of refilling before I went to bed—was identical to the one that sat in front of me now.

“Hey, Ethan.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Did the Winchesters ever come to this restaurant?”

“Every Friday night, after the big game. Why?”

I held up the glass. “We have one of these up at the house.”

Ethan’s eyes crinkled as he chuckled, as though he had remembered a fond memory. “That would’ve been Patrick’s doing. He and his buddies were always nicking stuff from businesses in town. Bit of harmless fun.”

I thought of the room full of football paraphernalia at the house. “Patrick. He was their son, right?”

“Yes ma’am. Black Bay’s true MVP. That trophy over there is his. Wanna take a look?”

Together, we slid out of the booth to approach the trophy case. The plaque read: In Loving Memory of Patrick Winchester, 1979-1996. Below, there was a quote from Thomas Campbell.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die,” I read aloud.

“Seventeen years old,” said Ethan, shaking his head. “He was the town’s golden boy. Good grades, good manners, and a hero on the football field.”

I leaned in to get a closer look at the framed photo. It was a group picture—similar to the ones that hung on Lido’s walls—of Black Bay High School’s Golden Eagle football team, each of the athletes smiling ear to ear.

“Which one is Patrick?” I asked.

But before Ethan pointed, I knew that Patrick Winchester was the grinning towhead of a boy kneeling between his teammates at the exact center of the faded photograph. His hair was a mess, as though Patrick had removed his helmet and tucked it beneath his arm just prior to the photo, and sweat smeared eye black across both of his plump cheeks. He looked familiar in that way all notable quarterbacks of high school football teams looked familiar. Patrick was the epitome of the all-American boy, and from the looks of Lido’s shrine, all of Black Bay missed his boyish buoyancy.

“They lost the championship the following year,” Ethan said. “It would’ve been Patrick’s senior year. I think his death traumatized every boy on that team. A collectively broken heart. They just didn’t have it in them after that.”

“You said he died in a boating accident?”

Beneath Ethan’s bushy beard, a noticeable frown appeared. “Yes ma’am. I know you’re not too keen on the subject though. I don’t mean to upset you.”

It was then I realized that a silent tear had tracked down my cheek. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. “I’m all right. Just curious. Do you mind telling me what happened?”

Back at our booth, the waitress had delivered my fried fish and Ethan’s sky-high burger. As we dove in, Ethan explained about the Winchesters between bites.

“The Winchesters loved sailing,” he said, offering me an onion ring. “They had a beautiful boat, the biggest one in the marina. They were out on the bay every weekend. Christopher and Elizabeth were gracious people. They liked to take the locals out for a spin every once in a while. Patrick and Caroline used to compete in the races with their own boats. They were all very well-acquainted with the water.”

I dipped a fork full of fish into a ramekin of tartar sauce. “Then how did everything go so wrong?”

“No one really knows,” Ethan answered. “No bad weather. No rough waves. The Winchesters took their boat out on their usual weekend family trip. Next thing we knew, they’d crashed against the rocks right beneath their house.”

My stomach lurched as I remembered the ethereal feeling of nothingness near the plumeria tree. “Against the bluff?”

“Yes ma’am. It was suspicious to say the least. Everyone knows it’s not safe to sail around there. We never quite figured out why they went up that way.”

I sipped my soda, letting the carbonation distract me from the nervous churning in my gut. “Who found them?”

“Retired member of the Coast Guard,” said Ethan. “Sam Williams. He works in the lumber mill now. But he didn’t find everyone.”

“What do you mean?”

“Christopher and Elizabeth were still aboard the wrecked boat, in a manner of speaking, but the kids’ bodies were never recovered.”

“Oh.”

He paused in lifting the last bite of his burger to his mouth. “I’ve upset you again.”

“No, it’s just… rough, you know? To bury a child to begin with is tragic. To bury two? And in empty caskets?”

“You can’t imagine.” Ethan wiped mustard from his fingers with a paper napkin. “The town was in pieces. Took a while to put everyone back together again.”

I pushed the remnants of my half-eaten meal around my plate. A familiar weightlessness lifted my mind from my body as thoughts of how the Winchesters’ last moments together as a family had gone. Did they see the crash coming? Or did they die happy and oblivious to the inevitable calamity?

Despite my protests, Ethan picked up the check again. As we exited Lido’s, he patted me on the back. “Can I walk you back to the house, darlin’?”

I looked up, squinting in the sunlight to see the kindness in his eyes. “No, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Ethan.”

But as we parted ways, Ethan to his lumber mill and me toward the center of town, I found myself dreading the walk back up the bluff. Bodhi would still be working, and therefore, he would still be stoically ignoring me. The day was young, and it begged to be filled with plans that involved something other than silently arguing with my husband. Making up my mind, I dialed a number on my phone and waited for the other end to pick up.

“Hello?”

“Milo? It’s Bailey.”

Immediately, his voice brightened. “It’s nice to hear from you! How have you been?”

“Good, good,” I insisted. “Listen, I was wondering. Would you like to meet for coffee at the Sanctuary?”

“Is there something wrong with the house?”

“Not at all. But Bodhi’s busy, and I don’t really know many people in Black Bay. I just wouldn’t mind the company.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I’d love to meet you, but I don’t care to walk into town unless I have to.”

“Do you have somewhere else in mind?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 

Chapter Six: Uphill, Downstairs

 

I waited for Milo at the top of the southeast pass, keeping to the shadows of the ever-thickening forest. Beyond the trees, the ruckus of construction continued, but the pops and bangs of work were dulled by the woods’ natural soundproofing. I spotted Bodhi standing on the roof of the Winchester house, prying shingles off and inspecting whatever was underneath. His white T-shirt clung to his broad shoulders as he chucked garbage into the dumpster below. From this distance, it was easy to pretend that Bodhi was ten years younger. We were naïve and carefree then. I’d barely met Bodhi, but he so enraptured me with his nomadic bohemian lifestyle that I’d foregone my senior year of college to backpack through Nepal with him on a quest to trace his ancestry. Life was simpler then. It had to be when you carried all of your possessions on your own back. Maybe it was the effect of getting lost on a foreign continent or maybe it was because I’d never connected with anyone before Bodhi, but it was in Nepal that I realized love was a falcon. It dove headfirst, furiously and without caution, but no one ever warned me about what would happen when it finally hit the ground.

“Bailey?”

Milo’s mellow tone roused me from my reminiscence. His shock of sun-bleached hair played in stark contrast against the dark trees. His usual deck shoes were absent, replaced by a sturdy pair of hiking boots.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes. No.”

He scanned me from head to toe. “Well, which is it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I thought of Bodhi, the silent sufferer. He did not talk, so neither did I. “Not particularly. Just forget it. Where’s this place you told me about?”

Milo pointed above us, where the rock careened skyward at a declivitous angle. “Onward and upward.”

“You’re kidding.”

His daredevil grin assured me that he was not. For half an hour, Milo led me from the path, boosted me over obstacles in the terrain, and clambered through shrubbery to carve an unencumbered route for me until we sat in a crevice chiseled out of the highest part of the bluff. The little grotto lorded over the ocean and the house. From this height, Bodhi and the other workmen were faceless pawns on a chessboard, and the house itself looked like a model. I pressed myself against the rock, simultaneously riveted and horrified by the steep drop, and ignored the chill of damp dew against my shoulder blades through the thin cotton of my T-shirt.

“Don’t worry,” Milo said, tucking his knees into his chest. “There’s an overhang just below us. I’ve fallen off here before.”

You have?

“Yup.” He peeked over the ledge, precariously close to the edge. “The trees caught me on the way down. Other than a few scrapes and a fractured wrist, I made it out okay.”

“How did you find this place?”

“I have a bad habit of exploring without thinking of the consequences.”

The construction equipment in the yard looked like toys that a child had forgotten to put away after playtime, bright yellow sunshine spots amidst a gloomy green background. On the roof, Bodhi ran the show, shouting orders and wiping his brow as I reclined lazily above.

“So what’s bothering you?” Milo asked.

“What makes you think something’s bothering me?”

“Just a hunch. Also, it’s pretty obvious. You get a crinkle between your eyebrows when you’re upset.”

“You’re annoyingly perceptive.”

“It’s a gift.”

I sighed, rubbing my arms to warm myself up. Our hideaway was sheltered from the sun, and in the shade of the rock, the breeze flirted coolly with my skin. “Did you know about the Winchesters?”

“Everyone knows about the Winchesters,” Milo replied matter-of-factly. “What about them?”

I chewed on my bottom lip, thinking. “This is going to sound insane.”

“I’ve probably heard worse.”

I glanced at Milo. He watched me attentively. There was no expectation in his expression, no obligation for me to speak. Maybe that was why I admitted my morbid thought so easily to him.

“I think I’m jealous of them.”

There was a note of surprise in his voice. “Jealous? Of dead people?”

“I mean, I don’t envy their current state or anything,” I added hastily. The kink in Milo’s eyebrow spoke of judgment, even if his voice didn’t. “I just think that, if they had to die, at least they died all together. Other than the rest of the people in town, there was no one to mourn them. No family at least. To be left over—to be the survivor—hurts worse than being the person that leaves everyone else behind.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I closed my eyes, letting the rush of wind fill my ears like the calming static of white noise. It drowned out Milo’s even breaths, but I felt him beside me all the same. He was quiet and pensive, and as the time stretched out between us, he remained blessedly silent.

 

Truth or dare.”

Dare.”

I dare you to go into Patrick’s room and steal a pair of his boxer shorts.”

Ew, gross. I’m not stealing my brother’s underwear.”

I turned over without opening my eyes, plumping the pillow beneath me. The whispered conversation carried on, punctuated by occasional outbursts of giggling.

You said dare!”

That’s because if I said truth, you’d ask me about who I like at school again.”

Just admit you’re crushing on Alex.”

I said dare!”

Fine, I dare you to admit you’re crushing on Alex.”

The voices flitted in and out of my dreams, floating hazily along like smoke in a summer breeze. I fixed the pillow over my head. My kingdom for a dreamless sleep.

The tropical scent of plumerias washed over me, so overwhelming that it was as if the tree from the backyard had inexplicably relocated to the master bedroom. In reality, the French doors had probably swung open again. Blearily, I opened my eyes.

Blue glass whales revolved above my head, twinkling like shooting stars in the dimly lit room.

I stared at the baby mobile suspended in midair. I had not taken it out of the box. I had not even taken the box out of the closet. Yet here it was, dangling just a few feet above me with no visible means of support.

Suddenly, whatever was holding the mobile in place snapped. The whales nosedived, careening toward my face. I shrieked and wrenched the duvet up over my head.

The mobile never landed.

I woke with a start to the sharp rap of knocking on my bedroom door.

“Bailey?” Bodhi called out. “Are you all right? It’s eleven o’clock. You’ve been asleep for ages.”

Sunlight touched every corner of the room. I squeezed my eyes shut, watching red and orange flashbulbs dance behind my eyelids. It had all been a dream, from the murmured conversation to the smell of the flowers to the whales in the air, but when I swung my feet out of bed, my heart stopped.

The baby mobile lay in a heap on the floor, unbroken but tangled.

“Bailey?” Bodhi called again. “I’m coming in.”

“No!” I gathered up the fallen mobile and carried it to the closet. The box of peanuts had tipped over, spilling Styrofoam across the floor. Hastily, I swept the peanuts up with my hands, replaced the mobile in its box, and closed the closet. Not a second later, Bodhi inched the door open, peeking in through the small gap.

“What’s going on in here?”

I stood guard in front of the closet, pulling my long T-shirt down to cover my bare thighs. Bodhi’s eyes flickered downward, noting my discomfort, but he didn’t comment on it.

“Nothing,” I said.

“It’s eleven o’clock.”

“I heard you the first time.”

Bodhi opened the door fully. He was already sticky with sweat. As he surveyed the bedroom, he asked, “Have you been moving the construction equipment around?”

“Yeah, I took the forklift for a joyride actually.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

I dragged a pair of running shorts out of my suitcase and tugged them on. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “I’ve tried to stay out of the way. Do you need help with something?”

“Not yet. We were going to start taking the tiling up in the kitchen, but we can’t find the jackhammer. And all the shovels have gone missing.”

“I didn’t touch them, but I’ll help you look.”

After pulling on a pair of dirty sneakers, Bodhi and I swept the house from top to bottom for the missing equipment. The construction crew had been working since dawn, preparing the first floor for renovations. I nodded politely to each of the men Ethan Powell had provided to us. In the past few weeks, I had grown more familiar with their sunburnt, weathered faces than that of my own husband. Unfortunately, none of them had any idea as to where the jackhammer and shovels had gone either.

“Do you think someone stole them?” I asked Bodhi, out of earshot of the other workers.

“Why would anyone do that?”

“I don’t know. They could sell the jackhammer. Make a quick buck.”

Bodhi looked over my head to study the crewmen. “I can’t see any of them doing that. Ethan pays them well, both here and at the lumber mill.”

“The only place we haven’t looked is the basement,” I said. “And I haven’t been down there since we relocated all of that junk from the attic.”

“Neither have I. I suppose we should check it out just in case.”

Armed with a pair of flashlights to combat the murky depths of the basement, Bodhi and I tentatively crept down the creaky stairs and into the labyrinth below. I felt for each step with my toes before placing my weight down. The basement had gone untouched. After our struggles in the attic, Bodhi and I had decided to leave the worst for last. Maybe it was the lack of light, or the stacked relics of the Winchesters’ past fortune, or the musty scent of the stagnant air, but neither one of us trusted the basement’s eerie vibes enough to work alone down here.

“There,” I said, sweeping the beam of my flashlight across the only part of the basement floor that wasn’t obscured by filing cabinets or ancient sailboat accessories.

“What the—?”

Five shovels and the jackhammer had been laid out in a neatly organized line, one right next to the other, across a wide patch of concrete a few shades lighter than the rest of the house’s foundation.

“Really, Bailey?” Bodhi wedged his flashlight beneath his armpit so that he could haul the jackhammer upright.

“What?”

He shouldered past me, grunting as he lifted the jackhammer up the first couple of steps. “You seriously need to get your sleepwalking habit under control.”

My lips parted in awe. “Do you actually think I got up in the middle of the night, pilfered a bunch of shovels and a jackhammer from the yard, and lugged them down to the basement all while I was dead asleep? Bodhi, I can barely lift the jackhammer on my own.”

“No one else would’ve done something this weird,” Bodhi countered. “Get some help, Bailey. And bring those shovels with you.”

I did as asked. Outside, I arranged the five shovels in the front yard end to end, carefully recreating the pattern from the basement. But when I stood back to admire my handiwork, the blatant pettiness was so overwhelming that I kicked each shovel out of line before going back inside.

 

Around lunchtime, I sat in the window seat of the master bedroom with my laptop perched on my knees. The screen had gone to sleep. For a while, I’d been researching the area in and around Black Bay. Though it would be several months before we finished renovating the Winchester house, it couldn’t hurt to get to know the market for when we finally put it up for sale. It would be my biggest challenge yet. Black Bay drew the attention of modest families with modest incomes, and those were not the type of people that would be interested in buying a miniature mansion. Then I’d gotten distracted and searched the common symptoms of sleepwalking, but when I pulled up a web page detailing the link between sleepwalking and post-traumatic stress disorder, I quickly clicked out of it. I had been staring out of the window at the plumeria tree in the distance ever since.

Footsteps passed by in the hallway outside the bedroom, but I ignored them. I hadn’t spoken to Bodhi since hauling the shovels up from the basement, and I strongly suspected that he had no interest in speaking to me either. However, when a loud banging noise reverberated through the wall from the room next to mine, I wondered what the hell Bodhi was doing upstairs. The renovation plans were only finalized for a certain section of the first floor. He had no business working on one of the bedrooms without consulting me first. The banging paused for a moment then continued in full force. I closed my laptop, set it aside, and stormed from the bedroom.

“Bodhi, what the hell—?”

I threw the door to the adjacent bedroom open. It ricocheted off the wall with a disruptive smack. Bodhi was nowhere to be seen, and the banging noise ceased as soon as I set foot in the bedroom. This was one of the rooms that we hadn’t had the chance to comb through yet. The canopy bed, full closet, pale pink wallpaper, and stacked books remained as a reminder that this house did not and probably would not ever feel like it belonged to us.

The banging returned in full force, emanating from the seat in the bay window, directly above an air vent that I knew the rats were so fond of traveling throughout. With bated breath, I crossed the room. The drumming quickened and crescendoed with every step that I took, but when I lifted the cushioned seat below the window and immediately jumped back in anticipation of whatever lay trapped inside trying to get out—

All was quiet. The storage area was free and clear of anything alive. There was no explanation as to what had been banging on the underside of the seat. When I gathered my courage and peeked inside, half-expecting to see a rabies-crazed raccoon, I instead found an assortment of leather bound journals arranged in neat stacks. I reached in, my fingers grazing the cover of the topmost notebook.

A shrill scream pierced the air, resonating from somewhere outside. The window seat slammed back into place, nearly trapping my hand as I drew the diary out. I spun on my heel, dashed out of the room, and down the stairs to the first floor. My heart hammered against my rib cage as I raced through the reasons for a scream like that. Someone was injured—there was no doubt in my mind about that—but what had happened? Was it Bodhi’s vocal chords stretching to make that awful sound?

Except on the first floor, the construction crew was nowhere to be seen. The jackhammer lay abandoned near a pile of jagged tile pieces and on a sticky note on the dusty countertop, Bodhi’s handwriting told me that they had gone into town to get lunch.

Another scream tore into me like a shard of glass, this time echoing from beyond the basement door. I sprinted down the hallway, wrenched the door open, and stumbled into the darkness, fumbling with my cell phone. I dialed 911 as I blindly took the stairs, but the line never rang. I should’ve known that the service in the basement was spotty.

The next scream chilled my blood. I clapped my hands over my ears. So close. As if the victim was standing beside me. In the murky gloom, a hunched figure lurked near the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m here!” I called. The splintered stairs bit at the soles of my bare feet, but I didn’t slow my pace. On the last step, something caught around my ankle. I yelled as I fell forward, my own voice mingling with the prolonged, terrified wail. I threw my hands out to break my fall, but my knees hit the concrete foundation first, sending a shock wave of pain through my bones.

All at once, the screaming stopped. The overhead light—a dirty fluorescent tube that had stoically refused to cooperate with me and Bodhi in the recent past—flickered on. The basement quivered beneath its oscillating gleam, still and silent.

I pushed myself to my feet with a groan. Blood ran down both of my knees, dripping onto the concrete in desultory patterns. I scanned the room carefully for movement of any kind. “Hello? Who’s down here?”

Not even a rustle.

During the fall, the leather-bound journal had escaped my grasp. It waited with its pale pages spread and exposed until I knelt to scoop it up again. I sat down on the bottom step, resting my forehead on the glossy leather cover.

No one was screaming. No one ever had been. I shook my head, wondering how much sleep deprivation could interfere with day-to-day life. Maybe Bodhi was right. Maybe I did need help.

Apparently, my auditory hallucinations were far from finished. Overhead, the doorbell chimed. Three low, long, gong-like tones, muffled but discernible, echoed through the house and down to the basement. My eyelids fluttered shut. The doorbell didn’t work. I was sure of that. Bodhi had moaned about replacing it. I had suggested that we install an intercom instead.

That conversation happened. I swore to myself it did. I swore to myself that both Bodhi and I had tried the dingy doorbell button, only to be met with silence.

Above, the sepulchral tones knelled again.

 

Chapter Seven: Music of the Night

 

When I answered the front door, Ethan Powell smiled in greeting before his gaze wandered south to the ragged skin of my knees. His brows knitted together in worry.

“Dear Lord. What happened to you, darlin’?”

“Took a spill. Did you ring the doorbell?”

“Yes. Why?”

“We thought it was broken.”

As I waved Ethan inside, I caught a glimpse of myself in the hallway mirror. The woman staring back was unfamiliar. Gaunt. Drawn thin. As though an artist once known for graceful, unbroken brush strokes had used a cheap mechanical pencil instead.

“Let me look at those knees,” said Ethan, leading me through the living room. “Thought I’d stop by and check out the house. See how you and Bodhi are coming along. Good thing I did. Look at that kitchen!”

He gazed with wonder at the demolished wall between the kitchen and the living room, treading carefully amongst the debris.

“Bodhi’s not finished,” I said. “Obviously.”

“How long do you think it will be until it’s all done?”

Ethan patted the countertop beside the kitchen sink. I hopped up, rolling the hem of my shorts away from the bloody mess as Ethan ran a clean dish towel beneath the steaming stream of tap water.

“This is our biggest project yet,” I said. “Usually, it takes us anywhere from four to eight months to completely renovate a house, but who knows? We could be here for a good year.”

He dabbed tenderly at my shredded skin, cleaning dirt and dust from the wounds. “How do you and Bodhi decide what to do with the renovations?”

I sighed, massaging the bags beneath my eyes with the pads of the fingers. “Depends on what sells, the trends in the housing market, et cetera. Lots of research. Bodhi handles the construction side of things. I focus on design and real estate, so we don’t clash often.”

Ethan wiped off my shins methodically. Professionally. Perhaps he’d dealt with similar injuries at the saw mill. Perhaps he’d dealt with worse.

“That’s lucky,” he said. “You got a first-aid kit, Bailey? These knees are going to need some bandages.”

“Under the sink.”

He fished around in the kit, extracting a roll of gauze and a tube of antibacterial ointment. In a few minutes, he’d expertly wrapped my knees in the clean white bandages. As he rinsed off the bloodstained dish towel in the sink, he gestured to where my left hand rested on the countertop. “Whatcha got there?”

The leather journal was pinned beneath my fingers. I had carried it like a torch from the basement, taking comfort in the texture of its weathered cover. I showed it to Ethan. “Someone’s journal. I found a bunch of them in one of the upstairs bedrooms.”

Ethan patted his palms dry on the thighs of his jeans. “May I?”

“Sure.”

He flipped through the first few pages of the diary, his beard bristling as he combed the contents, then shut it swiftly. “Hmm.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Caroline’s personal diary.”

“The Winchesters’ daughter?”

“Surely,” he confirmed. “I can’t say I feel comfortable reading them. It’s an invasion of privacy. You said there were quite a few of them?”

“I found a whole stack of them in the window seat of her old bedroom.”

“I can take them,” Ethan offered, tucking the journal into the back pocket of his jeans. “I’m sure you’re uncomfortable with them in the house. Besides, the library might be interested in preserving them. History of the town, you know?”

“Actually,” I said, levering myself off the counter. My knees ached as I planted myself between Ethan and the staircase, blocking him from the path to Caroline’s bedroom. “I’m going to hold on to them for a while longer.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I respect that this house belonged to someone else before we got to it,” I said, holding my hand out for the journal. “And—I don’t know—I feel connected to the Winchesters somehow. It might be interesting to see what life was like from the perspective of one of Black Bay’s most prominent residents.”

Ethan, somewhat reluctantly, handed over the journal. “I suppose that’s admirable.”

“Don’t worry, Ethan. The library can have them when I’m done.”

In the inside flap of the journal, Caroline had signed her name in neat, loopy cursive. Beside that was a to/from date. This particular diary detailed Caroline’s inner catalogue of thoughts from January of 1995.

“I know Patrick was the golden boy, but what about Caroline?” I asked Ethan. “What do you know about her?”

Ethan straightened out his blue collared shirt and sat down on an overturned cabinet that Bodhi had been using as a saw table. “She was precocious. Fifteen years old and only a year behind Patrick in school. She was as smart as a whip and headed for the Ivy Leagues.”

“I noticed her bookshelf.”

“Intimidating, wasn’t she?”

“To say the least,” I said, recalling Caroline’s copy of The Ethics of Ambiguity. “I don’t think I even knew who half of those authors were when I was fifteen. I was still reading young adult fiction.”

“I think Christopher and Elizabeth had always expected Patrick to take over the family business,” said Ethan. “And then Caroline declared that she would be the one to learn the tricks of the trade. Somehow, I don’t think Patrick minded.”

“What did her parents think of that?”

Ethan stroked his beard. “I think they were thankful to have two healthy, intelligent children who both had a passion for something productive. They were proud of Patrick and Caroline. A football star and an intellectual prodigy, both on their way to bigger and better things. How could a parent complain?”

“I certainly wouldn’t.”

The rumble of an engine outside disrupted our conversation. Raucous voices filled the air as Bodhi and his crew pulled up in the workman’s truck we had borrowed from someone in town. They piled in through the front door, carrying takeout containers from the Sanctuary and other restaurants. Bodhi chatted boisterously with a few of the other men, a half-eaten hamburger cradled in one hand. As he took another bite, he noticed me and Ethan in the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” he asked through a full mouth. He looked at my bandaged knees. “What happened to you?”

“She fell,” Ethan answered, saving me from having to explain my nightmarish basement adventure. “Nothing major. Got her all patched up.”

But that didn’t stop Bodhi from leading me down the hallway, out of earshot of Ethan and the rest of the crew. I rested against the basement door, my mind wandering to the bottom of those stairs where my blood now decorated the concrete slab.

Bodhi forgot about his hamburger. It idled wistfully between his clenched fingers, dripping some kind of pepper sauce onto the hardwood floor.

“What happened?” Bodhi asked again. “Are you all right?”

“I fell, like Ethan said. I’m fine.”

In actuality, the skin of my knees already felt stiff as it began the process of scabbing over, and if the dull ache was any indication, I’d wake up the next day with a colorful array of bruises.

“Where?” Bodhi demanded. “How?”

“Don’t worry about it.” The scent of the burger wafted up between us. My stomach growled. I hadn’t eaten at all that day. “Did you happen to pick up lunch for me?”

A sheepish expression crossed Bodhi’s face. “No. I’m sorry. Honestly, I got caught up with the guys.”

“They seem like a good group.”

“They are.” He offered me the rest of his burger. “Want this?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’ll eat the pickles.”

We performed a familiar choreography, Bodhi dislodging the pickles from the bun before trading the burger off to me. The sour taste of dill lingered. I crinkled my nose as I chewed. Bodhi almost smiled.

“Do you mind if I chip in today?” I asked him. “I need a distraction.”

Bodhi hesitated. “I don’t think that’s the best idea.”

“Bodhi, come on.”

“Do you not remember slicing your thumb off? Or the hair incident?”

I fingered my shorn locks, cropped short around my chin. I wore it that length for a reason, ever since I’d found myself on the wrong end of a blowtorch. “That was years ago.”

“Still.”

“You act like I’m incompetent.”

“I know you aren’t incompetent,” he countered. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt. You should rest anyway.”

“I want to work,” I insisted. I wanted to knock down a wall or jimmy up tiles or even transport loads of garbage out to the dumpster. Anything was better than dwelling in the recesses of my own thoughts.

“Look at your knees, Bailey. Not today.”

“Seriously? You can’t tell me what to do.”

Bodhi crossed his arms. “I wouldn’t take that bet.”

I shoved the burger into his chest, splattering his shirt with pepper sauce, and stormed off. In the kitchen, the construction crew still rowdily devoured their lunches. Someone had offered Ethan a chicken sandwich, which he munched heartily between anecdotes. They quieted as I passed, the conversation dying like a candle flame on a windy night. Had Bodhi confided in them? How much did they know?

“Bailey—” began Ethan, but I plowed through the workmen, kicked open the back door, and emerged onto the gray wooden deck outside.

I didn’t pause to marvel at the blanket of clouds that encompassed the sky. It matched my mood, and I marched through the wilderness of the backyard without a specific location in mind. I only knew that I had to get away from Bodhi and the Winchester house. At the edge of the garden, as I plunged through the overgrown weeds, I ran straight into Milo.

“Ooph!”

“Whoa there.” He held me by the shoulders to steady me. Today, he wore a blue-and-white striped nautical shirt. A captain’s hat balanced jauntily on his head, as though he had planned on spending the day on a boat in the bay with everyone else. “Everything okay?”

I shook him off. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“Maybe because you’re making that face.”

“What face?”

“With the crinkle.”

I smacked a palm to my forehead in an attempt to hide the crinkle. “There’s no crinkle. What are you doing here, Milo?”

“It’s a small town, Bailey,” Milo said. He tipped his hat, swept his unruly hair back, and trapped it again beneath his headwear. “And you’re forgetting my indifference toward most of Black Bay’s population. You, though. You, I like. I thought I’d ask what you were up to.”

“Nothing, apparently.”

“You’re bleeding.”

I looked down. Sure enough, the gauze around my knees was already discolored. Milo took me by the elbow, guiding me to the smooth surface of a nearby tree trunk.

“Sit,” he said. It wasn’t an order, but it didn’t seem like I had much of an option to resist either. I sat. Milo knelt down and began to rearrange my bandages to cover more skin.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?”

“I figured if you wanted to tell me, you already would have.”

“Milo, please pass that nugget of wisdom on to my husband.”

Though my view mostly consisted of the top of Milo’s head, I saw his cheeks plump up in a smile. “Not sure it would help. I was never much of a relationship guy.”

“Why not?”

“You may not have noticed, but I’m a bit of a loner.”

I had noticed. Milo wasn’t exaggerating when he said he never went into town. The people of Black Bay didn’t even know what he looked like. His Walden-esque existence warred with his handsome smile and amiable personality. To me, Milo looked and acted like a guy who would’ve been popular and adored in high school, especially in Black Bay.

“Did you have an argument with Bodhi or something?” he asked, helping me to my feet.

I gingerly tested my weight on each leg. “Of sorts.”

“I don’t mean to pry,” Milo said. He extended an arm for me to balance on as I checked his handiwork. “But the two of you don’t seem like you’re entirely on the same page. Or am I reading that incorrectly?”

It became evident that Milo did not care to keep up with Flipping Out. If he did, he would be solidly convinced that Bodhi and I were ensconced in a blissful life of love and construction. There was a metaphor in there somewhere, one that I’d exploited regularly online, but Milo wasn’t falling for it. I considered shutting him down. There was no point in confiding in a temporary someone. On the other hand, I boiled over with the hot turmoil of my mental state in the thick silence between me and Bodhi so often that maybe talking about it with someone else was exactly what I needed.

“Bodhi and I,” I began. Separate. There was no “we” anymore. Or at least it didn’t feel like there was. “—were perfect. Were. Past tense. Honestly, as soon as I met him, I felt at ease. It was like that at first. Easy.” Milo lowered himself to sit on the tree stump as he listened. I paced back and forth, carving a pattern of footprints in the earth. “We went everywhere. We did everything. I don’t have a lot of family, and neither does he. We bonded over that. We became each other’s family. Did I ever tell you that we got married six months after we met each other?”

“No, you didn’t,” Milo said softly.

“I just knew,” I declared. “I knew it was him. No doubt. It wasn’t hard to believe in the concept of soulmates then. We got married in Nepal.”

“Exotic.”

“And then we got married again in the States because the ceremony in Nepal didn’t officially count.”

Milo laughed. “It sounds like the two of you had quite the adventure.”

“We did,” I said. I snapped a branch off of the nearest tree and swung it through the air like a director’s baton. “We had a ton of adventures, one right after the next. We surfed big waves, white-water rafted, climbed mountains, explored ancient ruins. You said you wanted to go to Machu Picchu, right? I’ve been there.”

“Wow. How was it?”

“Magical. Like everything else we did.”

“Past tense?”

I nodded sadly. “Past tense.”

“What happened?”

“I got pregnant.”

Milo’s eyebrows shifted upward in surprise. “Oh.”

“It was unexpected,” I blathered, circling around a tree Singing in the Rain style with the jagged stick as my umbrella. “We were young still. Or we felt young anyway. I was twenty-five. We had a decision to make.”

“Did you—?”

“No,” I replied sharply. The twig snapped. I’d been bending it at an extreme angle without realizing it. I threw the pieces to the ground. “We had a daughter.”

Milo must’ve sensed that he was venturing into dangerous territory because his voice barely rose above a whisper as he asked, “What was her name?”

My throat tightened. I hadn’t said it in so long. “It was Kali.”

“Past tense?”

“Past tense.”

I made the mistake of looking at Milo. His eyes had darkened with a sorrowful understanding. I looked away.

“It’s ironic really,” I said with a choked laugh. “I thought the name was pretty, but Bodhi warned me not to call her that. Kali was the Hindu goddess of destruction, and my God, was our Kali a destroyer herself.”

Milo waited patiently for the other shoe to drop. I dropped it.

“She was three when she died.”

There was a shine in Milo’s eyes now, his lips pressed tightly together.

“It was an accident,” I plowed on, determined to get through my story. “One that could’ve been prevented. Bodhi blames me. I blame Bodhi. Things are easier that way, you know? If there’s someone to take the blame.”

“Did you see someone? You know, did you talk to anyone?”

“We went to therapy together,” I said. “It didn’t help much. Bodhi wouldn’t talk, not even to me. He internalized everything. That was when I knew things were going to change. He used to never shut up.”

“That’s why the two of you seem so distant.”

“I don’t remember the last time I had a genuine conversation with him.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Me, too,” I mumbled, wiping my eyes with the collar of my shirt. “Me, too.”

 

It was the soft melody of piano music that woke me from my slumber that night. I pinched myself hard enough to bruise the tender flesh of my inner arm just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming again. Nothing happened. All was at peace in the master bedroom. The French doors remained closed, the baby mobile was hidden away in the closet, and the light of the moon tickled the cozy carpet. Still, the music drew me out from under the bedsheets like an enchantress in the night.

I padded down the steps to the first floor. We had moved everything that we hadn’t sold from the living room to the office near the rear of the house. I followed the gentle peal of piano notes down the hallway, lingering outside the closed door of the office to listen. Then I twisted the doorknob and peeked inside.

The music petered off as soon as I opened the door, yet another illustration of my woefully scant sanity. The piano waited beneath the moonlight of the window, its keys unmoving. Tired and sad, I wandered over to it. The music was so beautiful. I wished that it had continued to play. I rested my finger on the middle C key then pressed down. It was still out of tune. There was no possibility of this piano producing such a lovely song.

I sighed, running my fingers along the length of the keys. Near the bass end, something warm and wet met my wandering touch. I examined my fingers, squinting in the pale light of the moon to see what coated them.

It was blood.

A loud creaking noise caused me to whirl around. The grandfather clock teetered forward, balancing for a moment on its front edge before crashing to the floor with a boom. The glass pane shattered. At the same time, the piano bench slid out, sweeping my legs out from under me. I landed with a grunt, banging my head against a spare dining room chair. My vision swam as a folder of sheet music launched itself into the air. Pages swirled around me like a tornado, filling the room with crescendos and codas. I gripped the piano bench, desperate to hold on to something real. A small, shadowy figure stood in the open doorway of the office. Watching me.

I blacked out.

 

Chapter Eight: Post Trauma

 

“Bailey. Bailey!”

I woke to Bodhi furiously shaking my shoulders. His worried frown glided gradually into focus as though my eyes were two camera lenses that had to be adjusted manually. The office was a disaster. Broken glass from the toppled grandfather clock glittered on the floor. Torn sheet music blanketed every dusty surface. The piano lay tipped over, its strings exposed and ripped from the soundboard. The black and white keys were smashed in, and some of them had fallen off the instrument, as though someone had taken a baseball bat to them with a vengeance.

“Blood,” I gasped, gripping Bodhi’s arm in a feeble attempt to sit upright. “There was blood on the piano. Was anyone hurt?”

“Are you kidding me?”

It was then I realized that Bodhi had wrapped a T-shirt around my wrist, applying steady pressure. He pulled the T-shirt away briefly, just long enough for me to get a glimpse of a stretched, serrated gash that ran from my wrist to the inside of my elbow. It was shallow—I wouldn’t need stitches—but I had lost enough blood for my head to feel woozy and unstable. Bodhi quickly covered the wound again, securing the shirt so tightly around my arm that my fingers began to tingle.

“This is getting out of hand, Bailey,” Bodhi said, shaking his head. “Look at this room! It’s a wreck. It’ll take us ages to clean all of this up.”

“Hang on a minute,” I said, trying to find my way around the English language again. “You think I did all of this?”

“Who else?”

“It wasn’t me.”

He tilted his head to look at me with a skeptical expression. “Just like you weren’t the one who kept moving my keys to that crystal tray by the door? Just like you weren’t the one to carry all the shovels down to the basement?”

“I’m not sleepwalking, Bodhi!”

“Baby, you probably aren’t even aware that you’re doing it.”

I yanked my arm away from him, tucking it into my chest to keep the bloodstained shirt in place. “I’m not crazy.”

His amber eyes softened. “I never said you were, but when I got down here, you were screaming your head off like some kind of lunatic. Then you passed out—just went completely limp out of nowhere—for no reason. Something’s going on with you, Bailey. And this—” He choked up as he indicated my ruined wrist. “—did you try to hurt yourself?”

“No!” I insisted. “I told you. It wasn’t me.”

“Then who made this mess?”

I didn’t have an answer for him. He already thought I was losing my mind, and telling him that I’d seen a strange figure in the doorway before passing out was surely to confirm his theory. My silence, unfortunately, didn’t work to my advantage either.

“I want you to see someone,” he declared. He took my uninjured arm, swung it across his shoulders, and lifted me from the floor.

I leaned heavily on him as we picked our way through the minefield of demolished glass. “I don’t need a psychiatrist, Bodhi.”

He carried me into the nearby bathroom and set me down on the closed lid of the toilet. He washed his hands in the sink. “I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do, but you can’t honestly believe that this hasn’t evolved into a full-blown problem. I’ve been ignoring it for a while, but ever since we arrived in Black Bay, something’s changed.”

“You’ve been ignoring what for a while?” I challenged as Bodhi disappeared into the kitchen. He came back with the first-aid kid, balanced it on the countertop, and popped it open.

“You’re different now. Ever since—”

“Are we actually talking about this?” I interrupted. Bodhi wouldn’t look at me. He busied himself with the first-aid gear, unwrapping the shirt from my arm to check if the bleeding had stopped yet. “Are we, Bodhi?”

“Ethan was telling me that the psychiatrist in town is really easy to talk to,” he said as he cleaned my wrist and unwrapped a packet of butterfly closures.

“Why are you talking to Ethan Powell about my mental state?”

He pinched the edges of my skin together and secured it with a bandage. “You think I want to see you like this, Bailey? I know we’ve been distant with each other, but that doesn’t mean watching you walk around like someone in a trance, hurting yourself, doesn’t eat me alive. I care about you. I can’t believe that I even have to say that.”

“Sometimes, Bodhi, it doesn’t feel like you care.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it. Bodhi’s carefully constructed mask fell for a fraction of a second, and I saw the hurt in his eyes. Hurriedly, I added, “And by the way, I have been talking to someone.”

Bodhi paused in applying the butterfly stitches. “Really? Who?”

“Milo.”

“Milo. Milo? As in the guy who sold us the house?”

“Yes, that Milo.”

He didn’t bother to disguise his scorn as he asked, “Is he a psychiatrist?”

“Is Ethan Powell?” I shot back.

Bodhi smacked the last bandage into place. “Real nice, Bailey. You won’t talk to me, but you’ll blab our entire life story to some random stranger in town. That’s just great.”

“You won’t talk to me.” I snatched a roll of gauze from him and began wrapping it around my arm on my own. “And he’s not a stranger.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean he actually listens to me,” I said, ripping off a piece of medical tape with my teeth and securing the gauze. “These days, I see Milo more often than I see you.”

Bodhi went still. The first-aid kit fell off of the counter, spilling a box of Band-Aids across the checkered tile floor. “Are you—?”

“Am I what?” I demanded, confused by Bodhi’s inexplicable paralysis.

His next words dropped from his mouth like a poison dart, piercing my soul and contaminating my very being. “With Milo, Bailey. Are you sleeping with Milo?”

I stared up at him. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”

“I didn’t hear a no.”

I stood up, clutching the counter to prevent myself from falling over. I was still shaking from the night’s events, but that didn’t stop me from pushing past my husband and into the hallway. I climbed the stairs, gripping the banister to steady myself. At the top, I paused and looked over my shoulder. Bodhi watched me from the ground floor.

“You don’t deserve the relief of hearing me say no. Good night, Bodhi.”

Sleep refused to take me for the remainder of the night. I stayed awake, lounging on the balcony outside the master bedroom until the sun crept over the edge of the horizon, and read through the first of Caroline Winchester’s journals.

 

Bailey and Bodhi: Flipping Out

 

All right, flippers. I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, so please forgive me. My inbox is loaded, which is why I haven’t been able to accept any new mail, but I promise to go through all of your messages in the next few days! I’m sure the majority of you are wondering what kind of hilarity has occurred during our renovation of the Winchester house over the last couple of weeks, but before we get to that, I need to propose a question.

Let’s go into this with an open mind, shall we? You’re going to need it. What I’m about to share with you is straight out of the Twilight Zone. You might think I’m crazy or you might think I’m making all of this up. For my sake, please try to consider the possibility of this being real. Is everyone ready? Here goes nothing.

I think the Winchester house is haunted.

Are you laughing yet? Rolling your eyes? Wondering if I’m pulling your leg? I don’t blame you. In all honesty, I don’t even know if I believe it myself, but there doesn’t seem to be any other explanation for all of the weird crap that’s been happening around me. Check out the attached pictures of the office. The room is demolished, and I was there when it happened. The twist? I didn’t touch anything. And I swear I saw someone standing in the doorway. A girl, maybe.

This isn’t the first eerie thing that’s happened. Bodhi’s keys keep disappearing. The piano plays itself, and not in that “on display at a department store” kind of way. I’ve seen things levitate in midair. And don’t even get me started on the basement. Hands down, it’s the creepiest room in the house. The back of my neck prickles just thinking about it. I swear there’s something down there. Like an aura. Or a presence.

So I’m begging you, flippers. Hit me with your best conspiracy theories. Have any of you had a brush with the paranormal? If so, how did it all turn out? I’m open to any and all stories, advice, cleansing rituals, etc. Do I burn sage? Hold a séance? Please help!

 

Does anyone have a Ouija board?

Bailey

 

My cursor hovered over the “publish” button on the blog post. How many Flipping Out fans would I alienate with my plea for information? Would they think it was just a ploy to get more readers? My absence from the blog had already taken its toll, and I couldn’t afford to lose many more followers. It took forever to build up an online presence, but losing it all could happen in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless, I needed answers. I clicked publish.

“Knock, knock.”

I looked up from my seat on the kitchen counter, where I’d been munching on leftover bagels, cream cheese, and a bowl of red grapes. Milo hovered just outside the back door, which I’d propped open so that the cool breeze might gush through the musty house.

“Hey,” I said. Instinctively, I smiled, but when the image of Bodhi’s face from the night before reared its ugly head, my expression faltered. Thankfully, Bodhi was away for the morning, buying materials in town. “Come in.”

He stepped over the threshold. His cheeks were flushed, and he brought an inherent warmth into the kitchen, as though he collected sunshine like a solar panel and reflected it upon the others around him. I didn’t care what Bodhi said. Spending time with Milo was refreshing, like taking a dip in a cool lake on a summer’s eve. Even in the mysteriously sentient Winchester house, Milo managed to lighten the mood.

“How are you?” he asked, plucking a grape from the bowl and popping it into his mouth. He took my hand, stretching my arm out to examine the length bandage. “Did you get hurt again?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Did you have a disagreement with a hacksaw or something?”

“Not quite.” I chewed on my bagel, looking Milo over. “Milo, if I tell you something, will you promise not to automatically assume that I’m insane?”

He leaned against the kitchen counter, rolling the sleeves of his shirt past his elbows to rinse more grapes in a colander in the sink. “I don’t make promises that I can’t keep.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine then. Never mind.”

“All right, I’ll do my best,” he relented, playfully tossing a grape at me. “What’s up?”

I caught the tiny fruit, absentmindedly massaging it between the palms of my hands as I wondered how best to put my conundrum into words. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Whoa. That came out of left field. Why do you ask?”

“Some weird stuff has been happening to me here.”

He tapped his hands on the side of the sink to shake off the excess water then tipped the colander of grapes into the bowl I was eating out of. “Well, I don’t know about ghosts precisely, but I’ve always thought that energy was a real thing.”

I popped the skin of a grape between my teeth, enjoying the sweet rush of fruit juice across my tongue. “What kind of energy?”

“You know. Vibes, auras, cosmic energy. Whatever you want to call it.”

“What, like chi? Prana?”

“Why not?” he asked. He filled two water glasses and handed one to me. I nodded my thanks. “Don’t you feel something when you first meet someone? Maybe it’s just me. I can tell right away whether or not I’m going to like a person.”

“I guess so.”

“Not to mention, there are places where reality just feels a bit altered,” Milo went on, sipping water between sentences. “Rooftops in the early morning. Empty parking lots. Laundromats at midnight. Your own bedroom at five a.m.”

I looked sharply at him.

“Ring a bell?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders. “Energy.”

I thought of the baby mobile dangling above my bed. “But can energy move things? We keep losing things in the house.”

“I imagine energy manifests in different ways depending on the situation. Do you mind?” He lifted a bagel from the package. I nodded, and he began frosting it with cream cheese. “For instance, some people believe that poltergeist activity doesn’t have anything to do with noisy ghosts at all. Things disappearing, objects levitating, electrical interference, unexplained noises—”

A shiver ran down the length of my spine, but I tried not to flinch as Milo casually called out everything wrong with the Winchester house.

“People think occurrences like that are actually psychic manifestations due to stress or anxiety,” he explained. “That type of energy comes from a living person who doesn’t realize how or why they’re channeling it.”

Before I could fully digest this information, the steady hum of Bodhi’s truck sounded in the front yard. I dropped my handful of grapes, hopped off the counter, and shoved Milo toward the back door. “You need to go.”

His bagel dropped from his grasp, smearing cream cheese across the unfinished flooring. “All right, but why, may I ask, are you suddenly acting like I kicked your dog?”

“It’s complicated,” I said as I nudged him out of the kitchen.

“Was it something I said?”

“No. Bodhi’s mad at me. It’s just easier this way.”

He hesitated in the doorway. “Is everything all right? Maybe I should stay.”

I heard the key turn in the front door lock. “Please, Milo,” I begged. “Just go.”

I watched through the blinds of the window above the sink as Milo sprinted away through the garden, vanishing within the greenery just in time. Bodhi wandered into the kitchen, dumping his keys and a plastic grocery bag full of hardware next to the coffee maker. When he saw me, he paused. Looked at the bagel in my hand. The bagel on the floor.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

He nodded toward the second bagel. “Hungry?”

“Dropped the first one.”

“Whatever.” Bodhi cleared his throat and pointed over his shoulder. “Ethan’s here.”

Somewhere in the front yard, Ethan cursed as he hauled construction material out of the flatbed of Bodhi’s truck. I resisted the urge to chuckle. “Okay.”

He sighed and combed through his curls with his fingers. His hair was getting long. Usually, I cut it for him, teasing him for not having it done himself, but he always claimed that he had better ways to spend his time and money than in a barber shop.

“Is this how it’s going to be, Bailey?”

He took a hesitant step across the kitchen, then another, until he was close enough for me to see the laugh lines around his mouth. When I didn’t scurry off, he lifted one hand and brushed a strand of hair away from my face, the calloused tips of his fingers ghosting across my cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“For what?”

There were so many things to be sorry for.

He rested his forehead against mine. “For the way I spoke to you last night. For accusing you. For being so wrapped up in this house.”

Not everything, then.

“I love you,” he murmured. “Don’t you know that? It hurts me to see you this way. I can’t stand it. I only suggested you see a psychiatrist because I really do think it might help you cope, Bailey. Just meet with her. Hear what she has to say.”

I thought about what Milo said about poltergeist activity. Maybe the odd vibes in the Winchester house were my fault after all, amplified by the thoughts that haunted my dreams at night. Meeting with Black Bay’s shrink would do me no harm, other than dulling my shiny badge of pride. Maybe, if therapy sessions became a regular thing, I could convince Bodhi to come along eventually.

Ethan cleared his throat, causing Bodhi and I to split apart like shrapnel, and came into the kitchen. “I apologize for eavesdropping, folks. Bailey, if you like, I can make a call to Doctor Marx and have her work you in this afternoon. She’s a lovely woman. Easy to talk to. I spent a lot of time in her office after my father died. There’s no shame in it.”

I looked at Bodhi, who nodded encouragingly.

“All right, Ethan,” I finally agreed. “Call up Doctor Marx.”

 

Doctor Marx was a well-preserved woman in her sixties who claimed to have postponed her retirement due to the fact that she was the one and only resource for mental health questions in the tiny town of Black Bay. She was tall and thin, wore a dress that I’d seen in the window of a Black Bay boutique and deemed too tight-fitting for my own figure, and sported impeccable winged eyeliner. In addition, she spoke with a tiny hint of a mid-Atlantic accent, as if she had watched a few too many Katharine Hepburn movies in her youth. As I took her through the last ten years of my life in exquisite detail—I figured if I was going to dive into therapy then I might as well commit—she listened carefully, didn’t interrupt, and jotted notes on a clipboard. But the scratch of her ballpoint pen across the paper and the steady drip of her desktop Zen waterfall lulled me into a sleepy daze, and I fought to keep my eyes open as Doctor Marx finally said her piece.

“Now I don’t want you to worry,” she began, removing her glasses from her nose. I wondered if she really needed them or if she simply thought they tied together her ensemble. “But from the sound of it, you are experiencing some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The Zen fountain bubbled.

“PTSD?” It wasn’t the first time I’d considered it, but the concept was still daunting.

Doctor Marx nodded. “Hallucinations, night terrors, triggers. In fact, it sounds like you’ve been suffering for quite some time now. It likely began shortly after your daughter passed away. Do you feel you found closure after Kali’s death?”

My stomach clenched. My voice shook. “Does any mother ever find closure after the death of her child?”

She reclined in her office chair, crossing one long leg over the other. “The world changes for them, no doubt. Are you familiar with the five stages of grief?”

“Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance,” I said, ticking them off on my fingers. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Doctor Marx.”

“Even so,” she said. “Sometimes we get stuck in one of those stages, which prevents us from making it to acceptance.”

“So I’m stuck in depression.”

“It sounds to me as if you never found a healthy enough environment to recover in.” Doctor Marx checked the notes on her clipboard. “No close family or friends due to the fact that you moved around so much. You only had your husband to lean on, but he was suffering from the same trauma that you were. Therefore, he was unable to help you. It’s a common misconception that all marriages fail after the death of a child, but the couples that stay together talk with one another. They communicate. It’s not a guessing game. And from what you’ve told me, all you and Bodhi do is guess around each other.”

“So my marriage is failing?”

Doctor Marx shook her head. “Another conversation for another day, Bailey. Unfortunately, our time is up and I have another client waiting. For now, I want you to focus on yourself. Don’t shut Bodhi out, but don’t pester him to let you in either.”

“In other words, do exactly what I’ve been trying to do.”

Doctor Marx opened a desk drawer, extracted a prescription pad, and began scribbling. “There is no guaranteed cure when it comes to mental health. In the end, you have to decide to take the steps toward getting better. Meeting with me was a great first step.”

She ripped off the topmost prescription and handed it to me.

“What’s this for?” I asked, attempting to decipher her illegible handwriting.

“It’s an antidepressant,” she replied. “Low dosage. Take it once a day and see how it goes. It takes a little while to work its way into your system, so we’ll check in with each other in a few weeks. Sound good?”

I nodded, folding the prescription in half and tucking it into the front pocket of my jeans. The local pharmacy was on my route home. I could fill the prescription there. Maybe a pill could push me through to that acceptance stage. Maybe the Winchester house would settle down long enough for us to finish the renovations without any more disruptions.

But a pill wouldn’t bring back Kali.

 

Chapter Nine: Two for One

 

That night, I lay in bed, propped against the headboard, reading Caroline Winchester’s diary in the dim yellowish light of the lamp on the bedside table. I’d lost track of the time. The sun had set hours ago, and Bodhi’s footsteps had long since faded from the hallway outside the master bedroom. A new object now sat on a shelf across from the closet: an orange prescription bottle filled with tiny capsules guaranteed to boost my serotonin levels. It glowed like a beacon just beyond my periphery, but as I became more and more immersed in Caroline’s fifteen-year-old musings, the orange bottle melted away from my thoughts.

Caroline wrote in swirly, elegant cursive, weaving her personality seamlessly into the fibers of the thick paper. She wrote about everything, from book reports to the students and teachers at her high school to the family business. One page detailed just how “delectable” her brother’s best friend looked during the most recent sailing competition in the bay, while the next contained a line-by-line literary analysis of a complicated Yeats poem. Still other pages boasted calculations of the Winchesters’ various business deals. Were it not for the fact that her handwriting remained consistent, I would have assumed that the frisky teenager shared her journal with a college student and a forty-year-old business professional. I devoured her words and sketches, learning about Caroline’s view of the world, her family, and the town of Black Bay. I was so engrossed by Caroline’s day-by-day that the first flicker of the table lamp went unnoticed.

Then the room went dark.

As my eyes adjusted, I set aside Caroline’s journal. I jostled the lightbulb in the lamp and toggled the switch on its base. It remained unlit. With a defeated sigh, I slid out of bed to find a replacement bulb, but just as I opened the door and reached the landing, the lamp brightened again.

Three short flashes. Three long flashes. Three short flashes.

The lamp paused then the sequence repeated itself.

Dot dot dot. Dash dash dash. Dot dot dot.

It was an SOS call.

In the hallway, someone—or something—sprinted past the master bedroom. I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye and whirled around. The hair on my arms rose. I was shivering. The temperature inside had dropped far too low for a warm summer night.

I stared at the wall in the hallway opposite my open door. Frozen in place. Waiting. Time went by the wayside. I stood in the same spot for a minute. For an hour. Finally, I gathered whatever courage I could muster, took a deep breath, and stepped forward to peek into the hallway.

It was empty.

And then a sound like a gunshot went off.

I shrieked, instinctively ducking down and covering my head with my hands, but there was no immediate danger in the hallway. However, behind the closed door of Caroline Winchester’s childhood bedroom, a thunderous ruckus went on unhindered. Bodhi careened out of the guest room, clad in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded, racing down the hallway to pick me up from the floor. “Are you all right? What the hell is that noise?”

Without preamble, he reached for the door to Caroline’s room.

“No!”

Too late. He threw the door wide, revealing the pandemonium inside.

Caroline’s extensive library avalanched from the shelves. Books poured to the floor or flew through the air in an array of worn covers and torn pages, bouncing violently off of the walls and each other. Dust whirled through the room like gray fireworks as the canopy bed rattled and shuddered. The bench in the bay window tore clean from the walls with a cacophonous rip, leaving jagged plywood and ruined wallpaper in its place. Caroline’s journals shot skyward, carving a savage path through the literary anthologies, calculus textbooks, and poetry collections.

Then, with no explanation, everything stopped.

The books rained to the floor. The bed came to rest at an uneven angle. The noise ceased. The journals settled to the topmost pile of rubble. Not a page turned. Not a breath was drawn.

When one of the journals flopped open, Bodhi grabbed my hand as though he expected the entire room to start heaving again. I looked at him.

“Do you believe me now?”

“There’s got to be… an explanation…” he breathed, gasping for air in between phrases. “Magnetic pull. Or the house is on an incline. Something.”

“Sure, that makes sense.”

I stepped toward the books, but Bodhi yanked me back. “Don’t go in there!”

I shook him off. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Tentatively, I walked into Caroline’s room. I held my breath, carefully plotting each step so as to not tread on any of the wounded books. When I reached the pile of journals, I knelt down to examine the one that had fallen open, gathering its pages with a tender touch.

It was dated July of 1996. Roughly twenty years ago. Ethan’s voice echoed in my head. The Winchesters’ boat accident had occurred in the summer before Patrick’s senior year at Black Bay High, which meant that this particular journal may have been the last one that Caroline Winchester had ever penned. I flipped the pages. Two-thirds of the way through, the entries stopped and gave way to blank paper.

“What is it?” asked Bodhi, still waiting in the doorway.

I collected a few other diaries and stacked them on top of the first. “More of Caroline’s diaries. I’ve been reading through them. This is the last one she wrote before she died.”

“A little morbid, don’t you think?”

“You have your coping mechanisms. I have mine.”

“Please, Bailey. Can we just get out of this room?”

I did as asked, joining Bodhi in the hallway again. As soon as I cleared the threshold, he slammed the door to Caroline’s room shut.

“You know it’s the whole house, right?” I told him as he escorted me back toward the master bedroom. “Or are you forgetting the office downstairs? You can’t just close the door and pretend like none of this ever happened.”

“We are hallucinating,” Bodhi said determinedly. “This house is old. Maybe the fumes are finally getting to us.”

“There are no fumes.”

My hands were shaking. I thought of the shadow in the hallway, too humanoid to be a trick of the light. Something lived in the Winchester house, and it had grown tired of staying quiet. Had it always been there, lurking in the night? Or had mine and Bodhi’s presence somehow woken it?

When we entered the master bedroom, Bodhi’s arm tight around my waist, the first thing I noticed was that the orange prescription bottle had somehow moved from the shelf to the small wastebasket near the French doors. The second thing I noticed was the bedside table. A fresh glass of water and a vase of plumeria flowers stood beneath the lamp, which now illuminated the entire room as though the bulb had never faltered to begin with.

It wasn’t until the shadows moved that I realized we weren’t alone in the room.

A gust of cold wind engulfed us. It was as though someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over my head. The figure was a shadow itself, or perhaps its essence sucked up the light in order to power itself. It had been lingering on the dark side of the bed, but now it flashed across the room with a speed that was distinctly not human. The vase of plumerias tipped over, a victim of the shadow’s haste, and shattered on the floor. Cold water gushed over my toes, soaking the hem of my pajama pants, but I hardly felt it. The French doors burst open so violently that the hinges gave way. As the doors fell, the glass windows smashed, and the umbral figure darted out of the room, disappearing into the black night.

I had never heard Bodhi pray before. Now he chanted unintelligibly under his breath, his eyes glazing over as he braced himself on either side of the doorway. I stood rooted to the same spot, unable to move. Unable to comprehend. Like a snapping rubber band, Bodhi suddenly came to. He took my hand, pulling me away from the master bedroom.

“Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“I don’t care,” he said as he took the stairs two at a time. “The inn. The truck. A cardboard box. Anywhere but this house. You were right, Bailey. There’s something in here, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to sit and twiddle my thumbs and wait for it to decide what to do with us like an idiot.”

His car keys lay once again in the crystal tray. For once, he seemed happy to see them there, easy to pick up on our desperate escape through the front door and into the breezy night. Bodhi scanned the skies as he ushered me toward the white workman’s truck, as if surveying the landscape for any hint of the rogue presence that did not adhere to the rules of reality. He opened the passenger door for me then circled around to the other side and climbed in. His hands shook as he fumbled the keys into the ignition. I could see the whites of his eyes. He revved the engine with an impetuously heavy foot, throwing the truck into reverse. I jerked against the seat as Bodhi wrenched the steering wheel. Then we were off, trundling down the winding road toward the center of town at a breakneck speed.

When we pulled into the parking lot of the local inn, a quaint bed and breakfast across from the Sanctuary, the windows were dark. A vacancy sign hung near the door.

“Stay here,” Bodhi ordered, clambering out of the truck. I watched through the windshield as he approached the inn and tried the door. He hadn’t even put pants on before evacuating the house. Even if someone was manning the front desk of the bed and breakfast, I doubted they would let Bodhi in looking like a naked vagrant with dirty feet. He knocked, peeking in through the window, but when no one answered the door, he slammed a fist against the vacancy sign and turned resolutely back to the truck.

“No one’s answering,” he said, clambering into the driver’s seat once more. “What the hell did you bring those things for?”

I looked into the foot well to where Bodhi was pointing. Caroline’s journals lay in a heap at my feet. I didn’t even remember taking them from the house, but an odd sense of comfort washed over me at the sight of their leather covers.

“Never mind,” said Bodhi. “Do what you like. But I guess we’re sleeping in the truck tonight.”

We did just that—the doors securely locked and the windows rolled all the way up—reclining the seats as far back as they would go. I drifted off, keeping Bodhi in my line of sight, our hands fastened together across the center console.

 

For the first time in months, I slept without nightmares.

A rapping on the driver’s side window woke us up. Bodhi sprang into action. His core muscles clenched as he ripped himself from sleep in a panicked frenzy, but the fraughtful night was long over. The cab of the truck smoldered pink with the sunrise, and in the harmonious morning, as birds chirped and the residents of Black Bay began to stir, the details of the previous night slipped through the cracks.

Bodhi relaxed when he realized we were in no immediate danger then rolled down the truck window to greet our personal wake-up call.

“Oh, I’ve got to hear the story behind this,” said Ethan, chuckling as he took in mine and Bodhi’s attire. Or lack thereof. “You two drink a little too much booze last night?”

“Not even close,” growled Bodhi.

Ethan stripped off his jean jacket and handed it to Bodhi through the window. “Wait here. I’ll find you some pants. Then, if you don’t mind, you can kindly fill me in on your evening.”

A half hour later, our curious trio occupied a small table near the open window of the Sanctuary. Bodhi, dressed in Ethan’s jacket and a pair of borrowed sweatpants that were loose around his waist but too short for his long legs, nursed a cup of hot coffee as he explained to Ethan what had happened to us the previous night. I tried to ignore the wandering glances of the other customers in the cafe. Once again, we were the talk of the town. Word had traveled fast about the peculiar state we had been found in, but I suppose when you slept half-dressed in a truck outside the local bed and breakfast, people were bound to gossip. I kneaded a packet of artificial sweetener between my fingers to keep myself busy.

“A ghost,” Ethan was saying, one eyebrow cocked in skepticism as he surveyed Bodhi over the lip of his coffee mug.

“Something,” Bodhi confirmed. “A specter or poltergeist. I don’t know, but it was definitely there. Ask Bailey. She’s been seeing it for weeks.”

“I haven’t been seeing it,” I said. I didn’t appreciate Bodhi calling me out or Ethan’s probing gaze. “I caught glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye, but weird stuff has been happening ever since we got to that house.”

Ethan set his mug down and folded his hands on the tabletop. “Now I don’t mean to be rude,” he said. He kept his voice low, and his eyes shifted around the room as though to make sure no one else was listening in on our conversation. “But ghosts don’t exist, darlin’.”

I didn’t blink, staring Ethan down. “You think I’m seeing things.”

“I didn’t say that,” Ethan backtracked. “But let’s face it, the two of you are under a lot of stress. Again, I mean no offense or harm, but maybe it’s all starting to pile up. You did say you haven’t been sleeping lately. Hallucinations may be a factor here.”

“Bodhi sleeps fine,” I pointed out. “And he saw it too.”

But Bodhi stayed quiet, swirling his coffee around. It swished over the edge of the cup, crept across the table, and stained the paper napkins near Ethan’s folded hands.

“Bodhi?” Ethan asked. “Anything to add?”

“I haven’t been sleeping much either,” he muttered.

“You haven’t?” I asked, surprised.

Bodhi shook his head. “I can’t. I listen for you every night. The slightest sound wakes me up. Besides, the bed is cold.”

“There you have it,” Ethan answered, tipping his chair back so that it balanced on its hind legs. “The house isn’t haunted, darlin’. The two of you just need a good night’s rest.”

“I know what I saw,” I said sharply. “Right, Bodhi?”

There were purple circles beneath Bodhi’s red-rimmed eyes, so dark that it looked like he had been punched multiple times. Was it just this morning that he looked so worn out, or had I missed the signs before now? Maybe I was so wrapped up in my own head not to notice Bodhi’s constant exhaustion. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to notice it. After all, problems were only problems if you acknowledged their existence.

“Maybe he’s right, Bailey,” he said, slumping in his chair. The coffee, which the Sanctuary continually boasted as the best wake-up recipe in the Pacific Northwest, hadn’t done him much good. “Neither one of us has been at the top of our game lately.”

I huffed in disbelief. “Bodhi, are you kidding me? Are you forgetting the avalanche of levitating books? Or the doors in the master bedroom being inexplicably forced off their hinges? The mess will still be there when we get back.”

“I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for all that,” Ethan cut in. “You do know we get earthquakes here in Black Bay, correct?”

“See?” said Bodhi. He reached out to pat my hand in what I assume he thought was a comforting manner. “That’s probably what happened.”

“Do you really believe that?”

He heaved a sigh, withdrawing to his side of the table again. “I don’t know what to tell you, Bailey.”

“You can tell me that you’re being an idiot and trying to convince yourself that everything is all right.” I threw the packet of artificial sweetener across the table at him. “As always.”

Ethan’s chair scratched against the tile floor as he pushed himself away from the table. “This sounds like a conversation between husband and wife. I’ll see myself out.”

As he crossed the cafe and joined a couple of men sitting at the countertop, I studied Bodhi. When he noticed my gaze, he spoke up.

“Bailey, come on,” he said. “You have to admit it. An earthquake is way more likely than some random ghost haunting the house we’re renovating.”

“You weren’t so convinced last night. What about that thing we saw in the master bedroom?”

He gave a half-hearted shrug. “Hallucinations brought on by lack of sleep. Like Ethan said.”

I wasn’t buying it. “So you think that we had some kind of joint hallucination?”

Bodhi pushed his coffee mug to the opposite side of the table and rested his forehead in his hands. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I’m dead tired.”

I pressed my lips together. There were so many things I wanted to say to Bodhi, but in that moment, all of the things that crossed my mind were bound to cause a fight.

Bodhi tilted his head to look at me. “I have an idea.”

“What might that be?”

“Call Milo.”

The suggestion threw me off. “Why?”

Bodhi perched his head on the palm of his hand. “He’s owned that house for a while, and his dad owned it before him. If anything weird happened, he would know about it, wouldn’t he?”

“Don’t you think he would’ve told us about something like that before we bought the house?”

“Not necessarily. He was pretty desperate to sell it, remember? Maybe he already knew that something was going on in there.”

The thought had never crossed my mind. Sure, Milo’s insistence on selling the Winchester house had been a little out of the ordinary, but he seemed honest about his desire to move out of Black Bay. Then again, it had been nearly two months since we had officially signed the closing papers, and Milo hadn’t mentioned anything more about relocating.

“I’ll call him,” I decided, taking out my cell phone.

“Good.”

I dialed Milo’s familiar number, never having entered his contact information in my cell, but instead of ringing, an automated voice message answered instead.

We’re sorry,” said the pleasant female tone. “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”

 

Chapter Ten: Dead End

 

I hung up. Maybe I had remembered Milo’s number wrong. I punched it in again.

We’re sorry. The number you have dialed—”

“He didn’t answer?” Bodhi asked as I lowered the phone from my ear.

“Wrong number,” I said. “That’s weird. I could’ve sworn—”

Bodhi stretched over the back of his chair. Ethan’s borrowed jacket swung open, revealing Bodhi’s bare chest. He groaned then fastened the first few buttons. “I say we head back up to the house.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Look, Bailey. Let’s entertain the thought that the house is haunted for a moment.” He sat up, swinging his legs around so that our knees kissed. “But it’s daytime. So far, nothing bad has happened in the daytime.”

“That’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“The day I skinned my knees. You weren’t home.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.

“Oh, sure. ‘Hey, babe. Just thought I’d let you know that I heard someone screaming in the basement, but when I got down there, I realized it was all in my head.’’’

“You heard screaming?”

I nodded, staring down into the dregs of my coffee.

Bodhi stood up, tossing his used napkin into an empty mug. “Okay. Let’s go. We’re never going to figure this out if we cower in a coffee shop all day. We’ve already put a lot of time and effort into this house. I won’t waste that over a few good scares.”

There was no point in arguing. Bodhi had made his decision, and I knew from experience that talking him out of it wasn’t an option. We left the Sanctuary, thanking Ethan on our way out, and got back in the pickup truck.

The ride up to the bluff was quiet and tense. Bodhi’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel as we slowly ascended through the trees. I didn’t dare to break the silence. There was a spell over the cab of the truck, an illusion of safety and normality, and if we allowed it to exist for long enough, maybe it would spread to the Winchester house.

It worked. When we trundled into the front yard, there was nothing inherently wrong with the house. There was no eerie vibe. No evidence of struggle. The front door was wide open, but we had left it that way in our rush to get out. All in all, other than the construction materials out front, the Winchester house looked just as it had when we first arrived in Black Bay: stately and serene.

“Here goes nothing,” Bodhi said as he kicked open his door and hopped out of the truck.

We approached the front door warily, peering inside for any hint of discord. The entryway and living room were still, so we edged over the threshold. Once inside, Bodhi seemed to relax, his shoulder blades flattening against his back rather than hugging his ears.

“See?” he said, indicating the silent space around him. “Nothing. We should call the crew. It’s not too late to get some work done today.”

I wasn’t so sure. I followed Bodhi into the kitchen, where everything was as it had been the night before, but the real test would be upstairs. If my past experience in the first floor office was any indication, Caroline’s room would still be wrecked and the French doors would not have magically repaired themselves.

“We should check the bedrooms,” I said.

“In a minute. I’m buzzing and anxious from all the caffeine.”

He filled two water glasses at the kitchen sink and turned to offer one to me.

The glasses slipped from his grasp. Crashed to the floor.

Bodhi’s eyes went wide, his pupils blown. He whispered:

“Someone’s standing behind you.”

The words had barely dropped from his lips before his amber eyes flooded with black. I screamed as he lunged toward me.

This was not Bodhi.

His hand covered my mouth as he forced me into the hallway. The length of his body heaved against mine. I felt every one of his muscles contract as he crushed me against the wall. His eyes weren’t just black. There was nothing left. No iris. No whites. Just liquid pools of pure hell.

An inhuman sound escaped my throat as his face neared mine. Bodhi tilted his head, listening. The hand over my mouth loosened ever-so-slightly.

“Please,” I whispered against his fingers. “Please let us go.”

Bodhi stared vacantly back at me, but the creature inside him seemed to pause, considering my request. I drew a strained breath, waiting for the decision.

And then Bodhi whirled me around, wrapped an arm around my neck, and began to drag me down the hallway.

“No!” I choked out, wrestling against Bodhi’s grasp. The crook of his elbow mashed against my windpipe. I cough spasmodically as we neared the door of the basement.

He threw me down the stairs.

A flash of light burst behind my eyelids as the back of my head hit something on the way down. My ankle caught the edge of the handrail and snapped. At the bottom of the steps, I lost the concept of reality.

My cheek rested against the cool concrete foundation. There should’ve been pain, but as my vision blurred in and out of focus, I could only register the sound of the basement door lock clicking into place.

Bodhi’s footsteps thundered toward me. I squeezed my eyes shut, bracing myself for whatever came next.

“Bailey! Bailey!”

Gentle hands embraced my face. I looked up.

Bodhi’s eyes were brown again. He was crying.

“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. That wasn’t me, Bailey. I swear on my life.”

My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. “I know.”

He situated himself on the bottom step and lifted me to lie down in his lap. “The door’s locked,” he gasped. “From the outside. We can’t get out.”

“Your phone.”

He fumbled in Ethan’s jacket pocket and took out his cell phone. “Shit. Shit! There’s no fucking service in this godforsaken pit.”

Bodhi lifted the phone above his head in the hopes of finding a bar or two. Suddenly, it was smacked from his hand. It flew across the basement and shattered against the opposite wall.

Bodhi cradled my head in his arms, folding over me like a protective shell. “Leave us alone!” he yelled. A blood vessel burst in his eye. Somehow, the deluge of red around his iris was more terrifying than the black holes that had been there a few minutes ago.

My head throbbed, but my vision was clearing. If I had sustained a concussion, it was a mild one. I could see enough. I could see the basement come alive. Boxes upended themselves. Pool cues snapped and splintered. Spare boat sails ripped to shreds. The toolbox spat nails and screws like a loaded gun. An invisible child pedaled past on a pink bicycle with tasseled handlebars.

A baseball smashed through the one and only storm window, set at the very top of the basement wall. Through the opening, an object flew in from outside, navigating the turmoil until it landed at my feet.

It was Caroline Winchester’s most recent journal, flipped open to the last page she had written.

As soon as my fingers touched the leather binding, the basement quieted. Objects paused to hover in midair, as though waiting on my reaction before deciding whether or not to resume the slaughter. I willed myself to focus on Caroline’s polished penmanship.

 

August 16th, 1996

 

Well, so much for our weekly boat trip. In an unexpected twist of fate, Mom and Dad grounded us both. Patrick and his dumb football cronies stole the mascot head from Black Bay’s rival school. It might have been funny if he’d managed to pull it off, but the principal caught him. I told him that he should have brought me along. I never would have gotten caught.

Anyway, he deserves to be grounded. I don’t. All I did was point out to Mr. Powell that the sawmill would generate a lot more revenue if he stopped being a prick long enough to take Dad’s management advice. Apparently, my tone was considered “rude.” Give me a break.

I was actually looking forward to this week’s outing too. Miss Watson scolded me for finishing the summer reading list for the upcoming seniors instead of the juniors. I told her I’d already read the juniors’ list last summer. To make matters worse, Alex walked right by me in the lunchroom without a passing glance. So much for getting noticed for something other than my staggering wit this year.

The point is that it would have been nice to get my mind off of everything out on the water. Instead, while Mom and Dad get to gallivant about on their own, I have to spend my Friday night alone in the house with Patrick. He always orders anchovies on the pizza. It’s disgusting. In fact, I might tie him down if he tries it tonight. Details to come.

 

“Oh my God,” I breathed, reading over the words again.

Bodhi’s gaze remained fixed on the levitating basement items. “What is it?”

“Caroline and Patrick Winchester were grounded on the night they died.”

“So what? No offense, Bailey, but does it really matter right now?”

I propped myself up against the stairwell, balancing Caroline’s journal on my knees. “Don’t you get it? They never got on the boat, and if they never got on the boat, then they didn’t die in a boating accident that night.”

“What happened to them then?”

Before I could reply, the toolbox shot across the floor and bounced off the bottom of my foot. I howled in agony, dragging my broken ankle inward. The toolbox popped open, and a carpet knife lifted itself from the mess of hammers and wrenches. Bodhi tried to grab it out of the air, but it flashed toward me so quickly, I had no time to register the rough cut that it opened in the palm of my hand until after it already happened.

Something pressed into the wound like freezing cold fingers attempting to stanch the flow of welling blood. Then it began to write on the concrete, etching out two words in what could have been mistaken for dark red paint.

Bodhi swore beneath his breath. I took one look at the message before my head filled with rushing white noise. The world dissolved around me, but the words written in blood haunted the dark place behind my eyelids.

Help us.

 


The Haunting Of Winchester Mansion Book 0

  • ISBN: 9781370138920
  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2017-03-28 21:35:11
  • Words: 30237
The Haunting Of Winchester Mansion Book 0 The Haunting Of Winchester Mansion Book 0