(Missed the last chapter? Go to 32: Savages in my House.)
I DESCENDED THE stairs feeling calmer, but my blood pressure spiked right back up when I surveyed the dismantled first floor. I took a deep breath and reminded myself, yet again, that I had agreed to this. And more importantly, that it was only temporary.
I found Carter eating subs on the porch with two other workers. They eyed me warily as I came outside. “Okay,” I said, and held up my hands in surrender.
“All right!” Carter said, and got up to give me a tour of the renovations.
At the back of the double parlor, formerly my dining room, they’d added a full bath. The floor, toilet and sink had already been installed, and the workmen were in the process of tiling the wheelchair-accessible shower. All of the details were historically accurate and tasteful. Gleaming stainless fixtures, penny tile on the floor, white subway tile with black accents at the bullnose.
The rest of the space along the back wall of the dining room would become a walk-in closet, and the remainder of the room would become John and Dorothy’s bedroom—I saw their mahogany four poster bed and dresser stacked against the wall, along with a number of boxes labeled in Dorothy’s spidery scrawl.
The workers had already hung an antique double-door between the dining room and the hall for privacy. Somehow they’d found one that matched the original pocket doors that lead to the living room.
The pocket doors had been in pretty bad condition, and shoved back into the walls because the rollers were bent. Now they were refinished to a luster, and Carter demonstrated the new mechanics. They rolled open with the lightest touch to display the living room, newly painted a dusty rose color and crammed full of John and Dorothy’s things.
I drew in a breath so sharp it hurt. Although those overstuffed floral couches were a beloved part of my childhood, they didn’t belong here. This was my house, my sanctuary.
Seeing my reaction, Carter rushed to reassure me that they had only moved my furniture to the porch because the van had arrived that morning with John and Dorothy’s things. He said workers were coming any minute to repaint the front bedroom upstairs, which would become my living room. By this evening, my things would be safely installed upstairs.
“I don’t want the room painted,” I said. “I like it the way it is.”
“Not a problem.” Carter fired off a text as he spoke. “Your uncle made it very clear that he wanted you to have as little stress as possible during this transition. When you’re home from work, we won’t start until nine a.m. To make up for lost time, we’ll have a double crew on those days. The whole job is scheduled to be finished by the end of this week.”
“Wow,” I said weakly. “So fast.” I had to admit it was a well-designed solution. Each element that had been added was sleek and seamless.
Carter nodded. “Mr. Savage pulled us off another job last week to start here the same day. Your uncle’s a friend of his?”
“My uncle seems to know everybody who’s anybody in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” I said morosely. “I wouldn’t be shocked if the governor stopped by just to see how things are going for John.”
As if I’d conjured him, John rolled in. I flinched, feeling guilty—but of what, exactly, I didn’t know.
“Hello!” John frowned around the room. “Are we working today?”
“Just, just an early lunch,” Carter stammered. “Your niece….” He cast an imploring look my way.
“I asked them to take an early lunch so I could make some phone calls in peace.”
“Fine, fine.” John waved his dismissal and Carter slid from the room. “So what do you think?”
I tried to smile. “You know I’ve always wanted a bathroom on the first floor.”
“Is that all?” John’s face went stiff. “I spent twenty hours designing this with the architect Alan Fulton. He won an AIA gold medal a few years back. I’ve had Shelia Watson, the best interior designer in Richmond scouring the city. Did you even notice the doors?”
I nodded, trying to summon the appropriate gratitude. “It looks like it’s going to be beautiful. An elegant solution to our problem.”
John gazed at me intently—his myopic gray eyes behind those thick glasses created the impression that he was looking through me, past me, somehow. As if he could see parts of me even I wasn’t aware of. “Maybe the problem is that you see problems instead of opportunities, Lacy.”
I nodded in defeat. I was in no condition to spar over semantics today. I felt as fragile as a bird wing, and I’d learned a long time ago that if you wanted to challenge John on anything, you better bring your A-game.
“John, where are you?” Dorothy called.
“In here, where else?” John snapped.
Dorothy came into the living room wearing crisply ironed khakis and pink sweatshirt with an embroidered heart on the front.
“Oh, honey, you’re back! I’m here to clean and arrange. How do you like it? Oh, what am I saying, it’s still a mess, isn’t it? And you just off of work! You need to rest. They say it’s going to be done this week, can you imagine?” Dorothy paused her breathless recitation just long enough to give me a kiss. “I’m sorry all your things are on the porch, I never intended….” She widened her eyes with the shocked facial expression of a silent movie star.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Somebody’s coming to move it all upstairs. I guess we’ll just put the dining room table, and the extra bed and dresser in the storage shed out back. Should be plenty of room, if you need to store anything.”
Dorothy threw her hands in the air. “Oh, Lordy, I don’t know what I have right now. It’s been such a whirlwind this past week. While John was handling plans with the contractor, I sorted, packed and had the biggest yard sale Birch Lane ever saw.” Dorothy’s eyes looked too bright and I could see her hands trembling again.
“I hope you’re not overdoing it,” I said.
Her eyes flicked in John’s direction and she turned up the wattage on her smile. “I’m just thinking of this as a great adventure!”
“Don’t be dramatic, Dottie.” John wheeled over to the bathroom doorway and began examining the trim work. “In the pioneer days, people lived in covered wagons and traveled through the wilderness with small children and all their earthly possessions for months at a time, over uncharted territory full of hostile natives and wild animals. Now, that was an adventure.”
Dorothy smiled again, a bit too brightly. “You’re right, it’s silly to call it an adventure. I guess it just seems that way, because I’m tired.”
John rolled his chair back and forth in one place, a sign of impatience. “Dottie’s been saying for years that she wanted to simplify our lives, get rid of all the junk that’s been accreting in that house forever. Now it’s a big flap. Such an adventure. Such a mess. ‘Oh, I just don’t know how we’ll get through it.’” John spoke with a falsetto voice and batted his eyelids.
He glared at us. “I am at my limit with nattering over nothing. In a week, this will be done, we’ll all be settled, and that will be that.”
“But what’s the rush?” I said. “You still have to sell your house, and that could take months.”
“Ha!” A hoarse, very un-Dorothy-like bark of a laugh burst from my aunt. Startled, I looked from her to John.
John smiled proudly. “I didn’t want to say anything before you left, but I had a feeling that Richard would buy the houses.”
“The same guy….”
John nodded. “…who’s doing the work. He’s investing heavily in Midlothian. I made it part of the deal that he fast-track this renovation.”
I felt dizzy. Both of my childhood homes—gone. I looked at Dorothy who seemed smaller, skin loose as if she had literally deflated. “I’m sorry you had to sell your house to help me!”
“Oh, honey, I wanted to. Don’t mind me. I’m just acting like a silly old fool.” She reached out her arms and I hugged her tight to me.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” John propelled himself toward the hall with a ferocious push. “You two can have your pity party. I’ve got to run down to Caravati’s with Carter. The bathroom light fixture is all wrong.
I watched John make a smart left pivot and vanish into the hall, as Dorothy and I held each other, there in the doorway between the living room and the new bedroom, between one life and another.
In my arms, my aunt trembled almost imperceptibly, like a leaf about to fall from a tree. She’d always been petite, but over the past year she’d seemed to shrink smaller and smaller, as if to efface her physical presence along with her personality.
“Jerk,” I murmured, more to myself than her. But, of course, my mouth was right by her ear.
Dorothy pulled back and stared at me reprovingly. “Lacy! He’s doing this for us.”
He stole your house, now he’s stealing mine. I shook my head to clear the notion. It wasn’t fair. John and Dorothy had been married eighteen years. Even if the house was still in her name, it was his home, too. And they were using the proceeds to help pay down my father’s debts—a man neither was related to by blood.
“I appreciate his help, but I don’t like the way he treats you, sometimes.”
Dorothy’s eyes flicked toward the front room and she lowered her voice to a whisper. “That’s just his way, Lacy. You know he doesn’t have much patience with women’s talk. It’s a different generation.”
I shook my head. “It goes beyond that. He quashes just about everything you say.”
“That is just not true!” Dorothy’s whisper had become ragged with urgency. “How can you criticize him, after all he’s done for this family. And after what this family’s done to him.” Dorothy gave me a meaningful look, as if she needed to. As if I could ever forget.
I stared out the front windows at my furniture piled on the porch. The twining vines produce the sweetest rose.
I flinched and eyed Dorothy. Had she said that? Had she seen me hear? Her face was a mask of reproval and concern.
The workmen walked through, nodded at us, and fired up the tile saw.
“Let’s go into the kitchen so we can hear ourselves think,” I said.
In the kitchen, I pushed the swinging door shut and collapsed at the table. “How long do we have to keep paying?”
Dorothy shook her head. “I’m not paying for anything. I love him. And he loves us. I know he doesn’t show it the same way we do, but you must believe it, Lacy. He talks about you all the time. He’d do anything for you.”
The look on her face was so sincere—and so wounded—that I felt a stab of remorse. At the same time I felt the familiar claustrophobic panic welling up. Leave, leave, leave. He wants to plant the seed. Twining vines. Viperous vines.
The image of two snakes thrashing and twisting, biting each other with fangs bared, burst into my mind. Their bodies twisted into vines, and their fangs blossomed into rotting roses atop of which rabbits copulated, squealing and vibrating as one held the other down with giant white teeth. A raptor swooped down to neatly clutch the pair in its talons. Red blood against fur.
“Stop it!” I said, out loud.
“What?” Dorothy flinched.
“Not you,” I said. “I…I’m getting a migraine.” I pulled out the old excuse one more time. It would still work on Dorothy, though I could no longer convince myself.
“Oh, you poor thing. Go upstairs and rest, if you can with all this noise. Should I ask them to stop?” Dorothy’s sweet, delicate face twisted with concern. I felt the sudden urge to curl up in her arms like I had after Kat was sent away. I wanted to let her rub my back and sing Greensleeves to me.
My parents had always thought the song was depressing, but Dorothy and I loved it. Greensleeves was all my joy, Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves was my heart of gold, And who but my lady Greensleeves.
The memory coated me with sticky fibers of nostalgia and self-pity.
“Can I make you some chamomile tea, honey? You go get into bed and I’ll bring it up.”
“Thanks,” I choked out, and fled the kitchen.
I managed to make it to my bedroom without having to speak to anyone. I shut the door, feeling like a prisoner in my own house. I took a few deep breaths, then pulled out my laptop and started researching therapists. I was sure John could recommend someone excellent, but I wasn’t about to confess my problems to anyone but a professional sworn to confidentiality.
There wasn’t one person in my life I felt a hundred percent sure wouldn’t change toward me if they knew I’d been hearing voices. Branson was sweet and nurturing, but we hadn’t been together long enough to expect him to shoulder that kind of trouble. Dorothy would try, but would fear that I’d turn violent like Kat creep into her mind? And John? No way. I’d spent too many years trying to demonstrate my sanity to him. I wasn’t going to fold without a fight.
“Medication and therapy, medication and therapy,” I muttered like a mantra. I scrolled through a database of Richmond therapists, scanning qualifications and photos. I had the notion, I’d know the right one when I saw him, but nobody appealed: too young, too handsome, eyebrows too bushy, smile too toothy … maybe a woman. Too corporate, too smug, too earth mother…. I sighed as I heard the floorboards creak outside of my door. I shut the computer as Dorothy came in with the mug of tea.
“Are you sure you should be on the computer if you have a migraine?”
I felt a pang of guilt at my deception as I reached out for the steaming mug. “I’m sorry. I’m not having a migraine. I’m just an emotional wreck.” It felt good to tell at least part of the truth.
“Of course you are.” Dorothy nodded and sat down on the bed next to me. “Anybody would be, all that’s happened…happening, still.” She reached out to smooth a lock of hair back from my face. A mother’s gesture.
“I’ve never figured out how to thank you for everything you did for me when I was a kid. And now you’ve gone and saved my ass again.”
Dorothy rolled her eyes in mock dismay at my language. “I haven’t done anything. The whole plan was John’s idea. I never would have dared anything so bold.” She looked sad. “I wouldn’t have known how to do all this. I couldn’t have helped you.”
My worries about her emotional state flared again. Kat was right about this much, Dorothy did seem defeated in some way—or maybe depressed, as John feared. “That’s not true! If it was just the two of us, we’d have figured it out. Shared the upstairs or, I don’t know, run off to Tahiti! If it was just the two of us—”
“Don’t say things like that!” Dorothy jumped up from the bed and backed away, wild eyed, like a deer about to bolt at the first rustle in the bushes.
“I didn’t mean—” I started, and then stopped, unsure. “I only meant we could survive without—”
“That’s just enough! I don’t like that kind of talk. I need to get busy cleaning anyway. You rest.” Before I could say another word, Dorothy slipped out the door and shut it noiselessly behind her.
I’d only meant to say that we could survive without any man. Had I sounded too enthusiastic about the prospect? Or maybe Dad’s death had brought forth the inevitable fact of John’s mortality to the forefront of Dorothy’s mind.
I groaned in frustration and fell back onto the bed. I spent the next half hour drinking chamomile and practicing deep breathing, but my heart was racing in time with the sounds of saws and hammers from downstairs.
In the back of my mind, a strange litany flickered in and out, so low at first I hardly noticed. Fear, anger, lust, violence, fear, anger, lust, violence. Drink of the Superior. Drink the tea. Drink of the Superior. Drink the tea.
The tone of this voice was not angry or violent. The bizarre, disturbing phrases were delivered in a monotone, like a chant. It faded in and out, but kept repeating, over and over. I had the nagging feeling I knew that voice. It was a man, but I couldn’t place him. Between that and the construction noise, my resolve not to drink began to crumble. With a few drinks in me, the world would take on the fuzzy glow that smoothed away the ugly details, the unanswerable questions.
But I hadn’t forgotten my prime objective.
I opened the computer and picked a therapist almost at random—an elegant, kindly looking woman in her sixties who specialized in working with adolescents and families. When I called, her receptionist said the earliest appointment was the following week. I took it, but asked her to let me know if anything opened up sooner.
There. I’d accomplished at least one thing. Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I texted Branson that I was coming to wherever he was at that moment—and that there had better be booze. If not, I’d bring that, too. I left the house without saying another word to anyone.