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Fear and Guilt Are Sisters

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“Doesn’t it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?”

It was past midnight when Theodora returned, exhausted, to her apartment after a week in Hill House. She stayed awake just long enough to make things up with Evelyn, who was more than ready to apologize and get everything back to normal in their apartment. Back to normal was exactly what Theo needed, she thought as she crawled into her own, blessedly familiar bed. She would put Hill House and all that happened there behind her until it she couldn’t remember it, even in her dreams.

There was a moment of confusion the next morning when she opened her eyes and saw not the monotonous green of her room at Hill House, or the relentless blue of Eleanor’s, but the stuffed chair she’d rescued from a yard sale and reupholstered in a soft, dusky rose. I’m home, she thought. God, what a relief. I got away just in time.

Back in Hillsdale Doctor Montague would still be answering questions about Eleanor’s accident. No, he didn’t know how it happened. No, she hadn’t been drinking. No, she hadn’t indicated any desire to kill herself. Well, not in so many words, thought Theo. But Nell was nervous. The house had disturbed her from the first. She would have turned around and fled the minute she saw the place if she’d had anywhere else to go. She didn't stand a chance against it. Once the house had found the weak link, there was nothing any of them could do.

Someone was cooking waffles.

Theo pulled her dressing gown out of her still-packed suitcase and followed the scent into the kitchen. Evelyn was at the table with the morning crossword. She had set a place for Theo.

“I ought to run away more often,” Theo said, reaching for the syrup. “If it gets me breakfast.”

“I don't intend to make a habit of it,” Evelyn said fondly, but without looking up from the paper. Back to normal, yes, thought Theo. I might never have been away. There was nothing nervous about Evelyn. She was competent and straightforward. There was a time when Evelyn was just what Theo needed and she'd imagined it was love. That illusion was gone now, but the friend remained. Theo wasn’t always so lucky.

“So tell me what's been going on since I left,” she said. “I feel like I've been away for years.”

“Leif’s showing tonight at the studio,” Evelyn said. “He just got back from New York. Says he's going to change the world.”

“Again?”

They laughed together in the red and white kitchen and once more Theo thought, I got away just in time.

* * * 

Leif’s showings always ran late. A small group remained after the other guests had gone, drinking cognac and smoking grass. “It’s not just art, man, it’s life,” Leif said, fingers moving through the air as if he was trying to conjure something out of the smoke. “The tire, the goat, the tennis ball. Separate in themselves, but united on the planet.”

“United how?” asked the girl with strawberry blond hair. She was sleeping with Mitch. Theo couldn’t remember her name.

“That’s for you to decide,” Leif said wisely.

“Rauschenberg’s genius,” said Gabriel. He was a young, doe-eyed creature Leif had brought home from New York. Leif plucked the joint from his fingers and took a drag, leaning back against his shoulder. “Especially Bed,” Gabriel said. “It’s really really way out.”

Theo shuddered. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever come home to find your own bed splattered with paint.”

Leif blew twin streams of smoke through his nose like an old dragon. “Do tell, Theodora. Who’s been throwing paint in your bed. Evelyn?”

“Not me,” said Evelyn. “Must have happened while she was away.”

“Yes, where have you been, Theo?” said Leif. “Poor Evelyn was beside herself.”

Evelyn gave him a shove with her foot.

“I told you,” Theo said, settling back into a pile of pillows on the floor. “I was participating in a science experiment.” She waved away the joint Leif offered.

“Yes, but what kind of experiment, darling,” asked Leif. “More ESP?”

“Something like that.”

“Theo’s a mind reader,” Leif explained to Gabriel. He looked alarmed. “Don’t leave us in suspense, Theo. Tell us all about it. I’ve never known you to turn down the chance for attention.”

“I just wouldn’t want to bore you, dear,” said Theo, annoyed. “You don’t have a head for science.”

It was Eleanor who was always begging for attention, Theo thought. Theo didn’t need anyone.

“This was quite a show tonight,” she said, changing the subject. She gestured to the pieces of art around her, mostly minimalist paintings. “However do you pay for it?”

“Leif’s found a patron,” said Mitch, winking at him. “A lovely old society matron in furs. She thinks Leif’s a charming young man and he’s helping her raise money for the poor children of… Korea?”

“Bangladesh,” Leif muttered.

“We’re all donating pieces for a silent auction,” said Mitch. “You ought to give something too, Theo. One of those watercolors you do with the young men and the swans. The old ladies will loves those.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Well, they will,” said Mitch.

“They’re no Bed,” Leif agreed. “But I wouldn’t count on Theo giving you one. My little gamine has never been keen on charity. Or Bangladesh. Or children.”

“I am so keen on all of them!” Theo said. She looked around for support but found only smirking faces.

“You’re adorably selfish, Theo,” said Mitch. “We wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Even Evelyn was laughing and agreeing with them all, and suddenly, in the haze from the brandy and smoke, Evelyn was Eleanor. “No possible appeal for help could get through that iron selfishness of yours, Theo.”

“When’s your charity show, Leif?” said Theo coldly. “I intend to paint you something special for it. We must give the old ladies what they want.”

Leif blew another stream of smoke. “Science has made you more amusing, Gamine.”

* * *

“Coming, Nell, coming!” Theo said, rolling over in bed. She must have overslept. Grey morning light was coming in the window and Eleanor was calling her from outside. Mrs. Dudley cleared the dishes at ten. “What, Nell?”

She blinked at the ceiling. She was in her own apartment with her tasteful furniture and Evelyn in her bedroom close by. The voice she thought was Eleanor was one of the children from the building next door crying over something.

Eleanor had heard a child crying, once, in the dark. Theo was in the same room and heard nothing, but afterwards Eleanor had told her about a burbling laugh that became cry for help while Eleanor had clutched a hand she only thought was Theo’s.

There was no going back to sleep now. Theo threw back the covers and went to take a bath. When she was dressed and drinking coffee it was still ghastly early and to her surprise she felt like painting. She’d dismissed her intention to paint something for Leif’s auction before she went to bed—duty was for girl scouts, not Theo—but now, with nothing else to do, she was almost inspired.

Looking at the empty paper on her easel, she thought of Hugh Crain’s horrible book: Goya etchings and Foxe martyrs and Crain’s own twisted snakes and blood. Blood!

“Dirty old man,” Theo muttered. She knew what she was going to paint. The little Crain sisters in an open field, enjoying a picnic far from Daddy. These were the girls as they were meant to be, before they squabbled over men and Hill House and gold-rimmed dishes. She felt she’d barely started when she heard Evelyn leave for work. She wandered back into the kitchen for more coffee and flipped through the morning paper to the obituaries.

Eleanor was there. No details, of course. Just her name, the date she died, and information about the funeral that afternoon across town. Theo had plenty of time to get there.

* * *

It seemed like it should be raining, but the sky over the cemetery was robin’s egg blue. It only emphasized the lack of mourners at the graveside. There was no one to come outside for Nell even on a sunny day. Only the sister she had mentioned, Carrie. She had Nell’s chin and a judgmental expression Theo was sure made her look just like Nell’s mother. Her husband stood beside her trying to project an air of importance. There was also a child who looked about five, sucking a lollipop and pressing herself to her mother’s side. Looking at the little girl Theo knew—the way she knew things sometimes, like what card someone was holding up where Theo couldn’t see it—that that morning the girl had broken her mother’s compact and hidden it amongst Eleanor’s things.

She approached the family after the ceremony. “I just wanted to say I’m so sorry,” she said. “I was Eleanor’s friend.”

“Eleanor’s friend?” Carrie said, as if that couldn’t be possible. Her face hardened into suspicion. “Are you a friend of that doctor? Part of the experiment that killed my sister?”

“I was at Hill House,” Theo said quietly.

“You’ve got some nerve coming here,” Carrie went on. “I told Eleanor when she wanted to take the car. She stole it, you know.”

“She told me,” said Theo. She thought, Good for her.

“Smashed it up, too,” Carrie’s husband said, as if Theo hadn’t watched it happen or been there when Eleanor was pulled—lifeless—out of the car.

“I can’t imagine what you thought in coming here,” Carrie went on. “If you’re after money…”

“I don't want anything,” said Theo. “I only hoped to understand what happened.”

“Police said it was an accident,” the husband said.

“I’d like to understand too,” said Carrie. “Eleanor stole my car, drove off to God knows where to do God knows what and died under suspicious circumstances. I’m not sure I want to know exactly what happened, what you all got up to in that house. I know what goes on.”

“Mommy,” the little girl whined. “Aunt Nell isn’t coming home, is she?”

“No dear,” said Carrie. She turned back to Theo. “This is hardly a fit conversation to be having in front of a child. Come along, Bill.” She marched off, pulling her husband by the arm. “She’s going to haunt us,” she hissed. “I’m just glad Mother wasn’t alive to see this kind of shame brought on the family. It makes me sick to think of Linnie growing up under this shadow.”

Linnie, the little girl, hung back, looking Theo up and down with her mother’s judgmental eye. “My Aunt Eleanor stole my mother’s car,” she said. “Then she killed herself.” There was a nasty note of satisfaction in her voice. Like her mother, Linnie could only see Nell’s death as a mark on the family name. Only where her mother saw the stain of scandal, her daughter saw a dashing splash of blood. “She went mad.”

“It’s not nice to speak that way about the dead,” said Theo. “Don’t you know that?”

The little girl shrugged. “Aunt Nell can’t tell on me anymore,” she said. “And I don’t have to share my room.”

Linnie turned to run after her mother. Theo grabbed her arm and whispered in her ear. “I know you broke your mother’s compact. Your Aunt Nell told me. Aunt Nell can see everything you do now. Your Aunt Nell will always see everything you do.”

Linnie dropped her lollipop and ran crying to her mother. Theo almost thought she could hear Nell laugh.

* * *

Theo returned to work the next day at the consignment shop she ran below her apartment. She was irritated. The night before Evelyn had found her working on her painting of the Crain girls—who now looked unmistakably like Eleanor and Theo—and cracked a joke about how Theo must be determined to prove Leif wrong about being selfish.

“It’s for the children of Bangladesh!” Theo snapped and felt ridiculous. Of course she was painting it to prove Leif wrong. But sometimes she wished she wasn’t.

“Miss?” Across the shop an old woman was waving at something on the shelf. “Miss, is this one of a pair?”

Theo came out from behind the counter to see what the woman was holding: a stone lion.

“I found it on this shelf. It looks like a bookend, but there’s only one.”

“It’s…it’s one of a kind,” Theo stammered. She had never seen it before. She would have remembered receiving it. She would have mentioned it to Nell.

“It’s also overpriced,” the woman said, flipping it over to see the tag. “So I assumed that there must be two.”

“Come back in a few weeks,” said Theo. “If it’s still here the price will have gone down.”

“I don’t see why I should have to wait,” the woman said. “It’s simply not worth what you’re asking for it now. I know you’re waiting for some ignorant girl to buy it at full price, but even secretaries aren’t fooled that easily these days.”

“I happen to know someone who would be glad to have that stone lion for her mantel at any price,” Theo said, snatching the lion out of the old woman’s hands. They were wrinkled and thin, lined with thick, green veins under papery skin, with blood red nail polish that matched Theo’s own. She was grotesque in her well-fitted suit, her chunky jewelry, her dyed hair. Once she’d obviously been handsome, even stylish, but the beauty had dried up, leaving only a tailored Chanel husk. One couldn’t be a gamine forever and one shouldn’t try.

“Oh, come dear, I’m not going to fall for that,” the woman said. “If she exists, the girl must be a fool.”

“She is not!”

Eleanor was foolish sometimes, but what could you expect with that family? Theo couldn’t say why she was so furious on Eleanor’s behalf, as if any slight against the stone lions was a slight against Nell. For a wild moment Theo wondered if Eleanor hadn’t somehow been the one to bring the little lion to the shop from her own little apartment—before she remembered that Eleanor was dead, she’d killed herself, and that her stupid little apartment had never really existed. “I made it up, Theo. I sleep on a cot at my sister’s, in the baby’s room. I haven’t any home, no place at all.”

So Theo couldn’t wrap up the little stone lion and send him to Eleanor with a teasing note. “Dear Nell, You’ll never guess what wandered into my shop. I think he was looking for you…”

“Miss?” the old woman said. “Why are you crying?”

Theo wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I’m not.”

* * *

“What’s that supposed to be?” asked Theo.

“Antlers,” said Leif, sawing the branching horns in his workshop. “Even you can see that, Theo.”

“Yes, I recognized they were antlers,” she said, reclining on the floor on a pile of pillows. “But what do they mean?”

“That’s for the viewer to decide,” said Leif. He grinned. “The Celts associated antlers with masculine power and virility.”

Theo rolled her eyes. “Things going well with Gabriel, I see.”

“He likes my antlers. Let’s leave it at that.”

Theo went quiet and watched Leif work until he put down his saw and pulled off the safety goggles. “Out with it, my little gamine.”

“Out with what?”

“Whatever’s been bothering you,” said Leif. “You’ve been under a black cloud ever since you got back.”

“Have I?” said Theo.

Leif sat down beside her and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Don’t think Evelyn and I haven’t noticed,” he said. “Come on, Gamine. What kind of science experiment was this anyway?”

Theo had vowed never to tell anyone about Hill House, but suddenly she needed to tell someone. “It was a haunted house,” she confessed. Leif laughed, but she expected that. She kept her eyes on a blotch of paint on the floor. “The thing is, Leif, it really was haunted.”

“Really?” he said. “Ghosts? Rattling chains? Ectoplasm?”

“Nothing like that. The house was…diseased. It hated us. Most of us.” She looked cautiously up from the splotch of paint on the floor. “One of us died. She tried to leave and drove her car into a tree.”

“My god, Theo. Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

She shrugged. “Because I think it was my fault.”

“Theo, darling, I know you like to be dramatic, but the only person driving the car was the one behind the wheel.”

“I’m not so sure. Doctor Montague said the house was trying to separate us,” she said. “And I let it. I helped it. That’s why Eleanor died. We should never have let it separate us. I gave the house exactly what it wanted.”

* * *

That night Theo dreamed she was back at boarding school. The school seemed extra big and empty so she knew it was vacation. It was lonely and humiliating being left behind. The other girls saw through her cynical jokes about preferring a near-empty school to Christmas dinner with her parents and pitied her. She turned over in her dreams and the sagging dormitory bedsprings screamed.

“Theo?” someone called. “Help Eleanor come home. Eleanor. Lost. Lost. Lost.”

She opened her eyes in the dark of her own bedroom as Evelyn slipped into bed beside her. Strictly speaking they didn’t do this anymore, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’d slept together since they broke things off.

“Did I wake you?” Theo whispered. Evelyn slipped warm arms around her, her nightgown sliding smoothly over Theo’s skin. “I was dreaming about school.”

It was at boarding school that Theo had first shared a bed with anyone. She’d once told a psychiatrist about that first time with a senior girl she’d never spoken to until they found themselves practically alone during spring holidays. The doctor told Theo her sexual deviancy was no doubt due to the distant and domineering mother she nevertheless longed to please, and a weak, effeminate father she couldn’t respect. Theo quit analysis after that.

“I’m horrible,” Theo sighed, curling her toes under the sheets. “I’m horrible and beastly and no one can stand me.” She stretched long like a cat, curled herself around Evelyn and buried her face in her hair.

She woke alone the next morning and padded into the kitchen where Evelyn was drinking coffee. “No cup for me?” she said, pouting.

Evelyn blinked. “There’s some left in the pot.”

“Only teasing,” said Theo. She took the chair opposite Evelyn’s, tucking her feet up beneath her on the red cushion. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, resting her chin in her hands. “Last night was fun, baby, but we shouldn’t do it again.”

Again, Evelyn just blinked. “What are you talking about?”

Theo sighed. “I’m talking about you coming into my bed last night, sweetheart. It was fun, I don’t regret it, but we shouldn’t do it again.”

Evelyn held her gaze a long moment. “You must have been dreaming, Theo,” she said. “I wasn’t in your bed last night.”

* * *

The Crain girls were in danger. The more Theo worked on her painting the more threatened they felt. She added thick trees around their picnic spot to protect them.

She was still furious at Evelyn. What kind of prank was she playing at, pretending she hadn’t come to her last night? Did she think she’d convince Theo she’d imagined the whole thing? Did she want Theo to think she was going mad?

They’d fought terribly before Theo went away. Evelyn had seemed sorry when Theo got home. Obviously, she was still angry about the things Theo had said. But gaslighting her? It was insane.

She covered the trees around the little Crain girls with leaves to shield them from any eyes that might be watching. To protect them from anyone who might want to harm or divide them.

She wondered if Evelyn could know about Nell. Perhaps she thought Nell was mad, and so Theo was too. Well, that wasn’t going to work. If Hill House hadn’t been able to drive Theo mad, Evelyn was wasting her time.

The Crain girls were looking happier, Theo thought, together and safe, protected by the trees. The lighter-haired one was Sophia. That was the older sister. The one who looked like Eleanor. The one who had refused to share the dinner plates. The two girls had spent most of their lives scratching at each other when they could have been sisters. If only Sophia had given up the plates like she promised. If only the younger sister hadn’t stolen her boyfriend. Sophia had no choice but to hold on to the plates and the house and the silver. Hill House was all she had left after her sister’s betrayal.

Perhaps she’d asked for help, though, Theo thought, painting faster. Perhaps she’d tried to tell her sister that the house was driving her mad, and her sister was too busy being petty and spiteful to listen. Ditching her on walks and teasing her about her stone lions, expectations and cups of stars.

“I am going to follow you home,” Eleanor had said.

“Do you always go where you’re not wanted?

“I’ve never been wanted anywhere.”

* * *

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Evelyn asked the night of Leif’s auction. They walked around the gallery, drinking red wine in cheap glasses, taking in the items up for sale. Leif was busy playing host to his rich patrons, so Theo and Evelyn studied the art on their own.

“Why do you keep asking me?”

“You just seem…distracted,” said Evelyn, choosing a different word at the last second. “Maybe painting watercolors for orphans doesn’t agree with you.”

“I sure showed Leif, though,” said Theo.

She moved off by herself. Leif’s new combine was set up on a table-a welder’s mask with antlers overlooking a family of dolls without heads. The next wall was oil paintings, including an abstract of Mitch’s. There was a wire hanger sculpture and a series of photos with the subjects’ eyes blacked out. A crowd had gathered around Leif in the far corner and Theo drifted over.

“You ought to insult her more often,” Mitch was saying.

Leif laughed. “Don’t look at me, I was expecting more swans.”

“It hardly seems appropriate,” sniffed a thin-lipped woman in a flower patterned suit. “We’re raising money for children.”

Theo moved in closer to see what they were looking at and bumped into Leif. “Theo!” he said. “We were just talking about you. Your painting has disturbed some of the ladies and don’t think that doesn’t make me jealous. My excoriation of the Presbyterian Church went completely over their heads. Anyway, I love it. I might buy it myself. Give it to my nephew. A few nightmares might make him more interesting.”

Theo had no idea what Leif was on about. She looked around his shoulder at the watercolor on the wall, her picture, just the way she had painted it, with the Crain girls at their picnic, surrounded by a thick wood. Leif saw her looking at it and turned to admire it too.

“Poor things,” Leif said. He grinned wickedly at the little girls at their picnic, one a copy of Theo, the other Eleanor’s twin. “So unsuspecting, and yet you feel they’re about to be eaten alive. Is that your haunted house, Gamine?”

“What?” Theo said. “What about my haunted house?”

“In the picture, dearest.” A tall woman with her hair piled high moved aside, giving them an unimpeded view. “You’ve got these innocent little tykes having a picnic in front of this great, dark house that almost seems to be watching them.” He gestured to what Theo had drawn as a vague but sturdy forest, pointing out bright gaps in the trees he saw as a sunset glinting off high windows. And all at once she saw it, just as he did, just as she’d painted it without even knowing: Hill House. It lacked detail and precision. But even in the abstract the face of Hill House was unmistakable: arrogant, mocking and triumphant.

“They haven’t got a chance,” Leif said with a chuckle. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve got to go, Leif,” said Theo. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

* * *

When Evelyn got home that night, Theo was already in bed, lying in the dark and waiting. She listened to her roommate go to into her own room, just as she’d done every night since Theo got home. It wasn’t Evelyn who’d put her arms around Theo in the dark. It wasn’t Evelyn she was waiting for. Pale, sickly worm shapes swelled, shriveled and curled in front of her eyes in the darkness, the product of an overactive optic nerve. She thought of the twisting snakes in Hugh Crain’s book, writhing in his hellish legacy of enlightenment. The doctor had warned them that the house would try to separate them. He warned them not to let it happen. Theo hadn’t listened. Eleanor would never escape Hill House now. Why should Theo be allowed to get away?

The house has what it wants, Doctor Montague had said. But what about what Nell wanted?

Someone was in the room. Theo thought she might have always been there, waiting for Theo to notice. The light switch was only inches away, but she didn’t reach for it. She simply waited for the presence to move closer, for the rustle of the blankets, the sound of someone sliding underneath the sheets and the terrifying but familiar feel of a warm body next to hers.

“Nell?” she whispered.

Faithless Theo had been no friend, no cousin and no sister. She had left Nell to wander the twisted halls of Hill House, trapped her inside its ugly windowless rooms. But clever Eleanor would not be trapped again.

She would not be trapped alone.