The woods were beautiful in autumn. They were also off limits, but sometimes Luke and Nell would sneak out to a spot that only they knew, away from everyone else. There, they made a fort among the red trees, dragging sticks and pieces of bark up against a tree to create just enough space for two small children. Nell filled in the gaps with clumps of grass and flowers, but dappled sunlight still snuck through, casting little spots of light across the dirt. She put a button in each sunspot, pressing them into the damp earth with her fingers. One of the spots fell on Luke’s paper, so she put a button there, too.
“Hey! I’m drawing there.”
“I’m helping, see? This yellow button is the sun!”
He scowled and pushed it off with his crayon. “I’m not drawing the sky. I’m drawing a tree.”
She sighed and flopped to the side. “Trees are boring. I want you to draw me again.”
“I’ve already drawn you, like, fifty million times.”
“Not dancing!” She hopped to her feet and struck a ballerina pose, one leg held out to the side and her arms in a loose circle above her head. “Here, draw me like this!”
“You couldn’t stay still long enough.”
“I can too, watch me.” She held the pose for about three seconds before toppling over. Luke laughed at her and Nell laughed, too. She crawled back over on her hands and knees. “Okay, then draw all of us. We can use the buttons for heads. I’ll have a purple one, Shirl can have blue, Theo can have red, and Steve can have … um…”
“Pink!” Luke said. They broke into giggles again.
They stayed there until the sun started to set, drawing and playing. When the sunspots started to fade, Luke shivered. “It’s getting cold.”
“Yeah.” Nell glanced over her shoulder. Back through the trees, she saw the lights of the house flash. Once, twice. She stuck her lower lip out.
“Do you have to go?” Luke asked, his voice going quiet and sad.
“Uh huh. Mommy wants me to come home.”
He looked at her hopefully. “Maybe Mommy can come see me next time, too?”
Nell wrapped her arms around her knees and shook her head. “Mommy’s sick right now. She can’t see anyone.”
“Yeah. But it’s okay, I’m looking after her. I’m gonna make her better. I make her tea in my cup of stars, and it fixes her. Mrs Dudley showed me how.”
“Are you sure you won’t get sick, too?”
She scratched at the dark spots of dirt on her hands. “I won’t. I get to come out and play with you, so that makes me stay healthy.”
He sniffed. “Okay.”
They both stood up and wrapped their arms around each other’s necks, squeezing tightly and rocking back and forth until they nearly fell over again. “Bye Nellie,” Luke said as he let go. She waved at him and started walking away, back home towards the house.
It was fully dark by the time she reached the front porch. The windows glowed with warm light, and though she couldn’t see anyone, there was a low murmur of voices as everyone came home. Her mom had made the house so much nicer and comfier than before. Everyone loved her mom. Now that her dad was here too, it was almost as good as a forever home.
Nellie ran through the front door, her bare feet echoing across the floor. She knew by now which rooms were nice and warm, and which were bad and cold. The nicest room was the lounge with the fireplace. This was where her mother sat, a book open on her lap. She looked up and smiled at her daughter entered the room, putting the book aside to let Nellie climb onto her knee.
“Hi, baby girl,” she said, wrapping her arms around her. Her sleeves were the softest green velvet. “Did you have a fun afternoon in the woods?”
“Yeah. I made a house, just like this one.”
“With Luke?” Mom stroked her hair, combing out the knots and tangles.
“That’s wonderful. You should have invited him around for dinner, so I could see him.”
Nellie frowned and pulled back. “Mommy, Luke can’t come here yet. Remember?”
“I’d make all his favourite things,” she said, staring ahead with a wistful smile on her face. “We’d have a nice family dinner, and everyone could come. Steve, and Shirley, and Theo, too. But I’d so love to see Luke …”
The room was not quite so warm anymore, and her mother’s arms weren’t so soft. She could feel eyes on her from the shadows, predators sensing prey. Nellie put her hands on her mother’s face, trying to hold her attention. “They’re very busy, Mommy. They’re happy and safe, but busy with their jobs and families. They can’t come to the house yet. Okay?”
Nellie slid off her lap. Her mother’s fingers fell from her hair, the long strands catching on her nails. Nellie hugged herself. “Where’s Daddy?”
“Hmm? I’m not sure, sweetie. He’s around somewhere.” Her eyes focused suddenly on Nellie, razor-sharp. “Where are you going?”
Nellie backed out of the room. “I’m gonna find Daddy. I’ll be back for dinner.”
Her mother didn’t say anything, just kept watching. Another pair of eyes hovered over her shoulder, but Nellie couldn’t see who they belonged to. She ran out of the room and down the hall, past the rows of statues.
There was no answer. As she ran, she grew bigger. She still felt like a little girl, but this was not the time for innocence. She had to find help, her mother needed help. She held up the hem of her dress to avoid tripping, darting from room to room, wild and desperate. Dark figured loomed at her from the doorways and corners. She dodged around them, not stopping long enough to see their faces. One of them suddenly appeared in front of her, and she slammed right into it with a shriek.
“Hey, hey? What’s going on, why are you running?” Her father’s hands held her shoulders, solid and stable. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said. “It’s nothing, just … Mom’s not feeling well. Have you seen my cup of stars?”
He squinted at her. "I don't think so."
Nell felt her eyes well with tears. "I need to find it, okay, Mom needs it. I need to give her stars."
He wrapped an arm around her. Already, she could feel the house growing lighter and warmer once again. “Yeah, sure, we’ll go find it. We’ll help Mom. Don’t you worry.”
Nell leaned into him, soaking up his warmth with the same plaintive need that she’d held Luke earlier. Her dad was here and present, but Luke was alive and vibrant. She was missing pieces of both of them, and pieces of herself. Nell knew it would always be that way for as long as she stayed in this House. Even now, she could feel herself splintering across its rooms and layers, spread across time and space. Its walls stretched endlessly around her, eternal and omnipresent.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven, she whispered to herself, and heard Luke echoing it back across the void. Not infinite. Not forever. Just for now. Just one moment in time.
Alan’s favourite part of the day was after school. This was because it was his only opportunity to truly be alone. It was a twenty-minute walk home, for someone with enough motivation and a sprightly step, but Alan always took his time. He dawdled through the quiet suburban streets, kicking up rocks and gravel as he went, thinking of nothing in particular. When he got to their tiny, ramshackle house at the end of Winifred Lane, there would be chores and questions and loud little brothers and sisters all wanting his attention. But for right now, he belonged to no one but himself.
Steve squinted at the last paragraph he’d written, re-reading it a few times. Each time sounded more awful than the last. Swearing to himself, he leaned back and rubbed his eyes.
“Everything okay?” Leigh asked, leaning over from the kitchen to look at him. She was doing a few quick dishes before heading off to work, stacking them carelessly on the draining board.
He waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah. Just forgotten how to use the English language.”
“Bullshit,” she laughed.
Steve shook his head. “I don’t get it. Everything I was writing before was basically fiction. Why is actual fiction so much harder?”
Leigh came over to stand behind him and read over his shoulder, drying her hands on a towel. Once upon a time, she would have flicked some water playfully at his ear and draped her arms around his neck. Now, she tucked her elbows in and didn’t touch him. They were still figuring out how to do ‘second chances’ and she was always careful not to throw too much of herself on the line. He ached for their old, easy familiarity, but didn’t say anything, allowing her to read in silence.
“It’s good,” she said, straightening back up.
“It’s shit. You know it’s shit. Don’t pretend this isn’t shit, Leigh.”
“It’s different,” she corrected. “You’re trying something new, so it’s bound to be a little stilted. But it’s only a first draft, you’ll get there.”
He swung around to give her a sceptical look, but she just raised an eyebrow. “Hon, if I thought it was actually shit, I’d tell you.”
Steve huffed a laugh. “Yeah, okay.”
Leigh dropped a kiss on his head and then went back to the kitchen, gathering up her phone and keys. “Ok, so I’m not going to hang around here and participate in a famous novelist’s pity party. I’ll see you at the appointment after work, okay?”
Steve, who was already distracted with the word document again, had to do a double-take. “Appointment?”
“Yeah, at the clinic. To talk about donors. Remember?” She paused, eyeing him warily.
Steve felt an old, painful swoop in his stomach, but it was easy enough to ignore. “Of course. I’ll see you there.” He smiled reassuringly.
Once Leigh had left, he sighed and turned back to what was supposed to be his new, ghost-free, exploitation-free novel. The characters were all original, and there would be no Based on a Terrifying True Story! heading up the blurb once it was published (if it ever got published). And yet, no matter how hard he tried, Steve still felt like he was plundering his own childhood for inspiration. It was a self-insert in everything but name, and he was slowly being forced to confront the fact that he didn’t have an original bone in his body.
He could never show this to Shirl. She’d laugh her ass off at him.
Procrastinating, Steve opened up his email account. There was a new message from his agent, asking for an update (you and me both, pal, Steve thought bitterly), and a new batch of fanmail that went unopened. Most of it was from the same three or so people anyway. He was in the process of deleting some of the creepier ones, when a new message popped up. At first glance, it looked like another piece of fanmail, with lake house Haunting written in the subject line. But when he clicked on it, he found something else entirely.
Dr Mr Crain,
I am writing to you with a proposal. I admire your work on hauntings and other preternatural phenomena, and wanted to talk to you about an experience I had.
Steve rolled his eyes. Worse than fanmail, then. A pitch. He’d tweeted months ago that he wouldn’t be writing about hauntings anymore, or in fact, anything biographical in nature. He didn’t have what one might call a thriving fanbase, but that tweet had managed to upset a lot of people. It seemed that some of them refused to get the memo.
For a few years, my fiancé and I rented a house in Maine, which was by a lake. It was owned by the Quell family, but we never met them. I don’t think they lived there for years. It was a beautiful little place, built around the turn of the century. For the first couple of months after we moved in, it was perfect. We even thought about starting a family there. But then, everything changed …
Steve didn’t bother reading past the printed ellipses. Even if he was still publishing people’s ghost stories, he wouldn’t give this one the time of the day.
He was about to delete it, when something drew his eye back to the text. Quell family. He frowned. The name snagged on the edge of a memory, but he couldn’t place which one. He was certain he didn’t know anyone with that surname. And yet …
Steve’s eyes were drawn to a family photo on his desk. It was one of the seven of them, before they’d moved into Hill House. It was sun-bleached and cracked with age, a relic of a time he barely remembered. He’d very deliberately placed it there a few months ago, despite the bittersweet sting it caused. He’d allowed himself to feel comfortable for far too long, secure in his knowledge of the world and his family, and he’d almost lost them as a result. So the photo stayed, and as he forced himself to look at it every day, it got a little easier to remember and to grieve.
He avoided his father's face. It reminded him of all the secrets he'd inherited, which he barely understood but drove yet another wedge between him and his siblings. Instead, he focused on his mother. She looked beautiful and happy, caught mid-laugh as she struggled to hold a squirming Nellie.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Steve pulled his phone out and texted Shirl. Weird question but do you remember mom’s maiden name?
It took her less than a minute to reply. Why?
That one little word contained so much suspicion. He rolled his eyes again. Passing thought. Not for writing purposes.
Another few seconds passed. McAllister. Jesus Steve, you can’t remember our mother’s maiden name?
He let out a breath and ignored the rest of her text. McAllister. Not Quell. Of course.
He tried to get back to his shitty, not-family-related novel, but the photo kept catching his eye. The name fluttered in his mind like a loose thread. Sighing, he texted Shirl again. What about her mother? Grandma Mary, what was her maiden name?
One minute turned into two, and then three. Steve tapped his fingers on the desk, trying to ignore the low whine in his ears and the itch beneath his skin.
Still, when Shirley finally replied, he nearly dropped the phone. I think it was Quill or something. What’s this about?
Heart in his throat, Steve opened up the email again and read it through. It was a fairly drab story of strong wind and flickering lights, with the odd laundry basket upended in the bedroom. But the name was there, and the location was close enough. He had a distant memory of his mom talking about her family in Maine. They’d never met them, though. Aunt Janet was the only extended family they’d really had, after Grandma Mary passed away.
His phone rang, Shirley no doubt looking for answers. He ignored the call and waited a minute before texting her back. Just looking at some old photographs. Thanks. Well, it wasn’t a lie.
Steve shouldn’t bother with this. He knew that. What did it matter if some idiot twenty-something rented a house that their distant family happened to own? He needed to focus on his current work, this novel that would be the renewal of his career. Whatever information this woman wanted to share, it wasn’t for him to know.
He looked at the photo again, and it seemed for a moment that the room was too still and too quiet. He went very still and tried not to look too hard at the corners of the room. It seemed likely, inevitable even, that there might be something watching him from just beyond his peripheral, waiting for him to take the next step. Maybe there were dozens of ghosts at his back, or just a couple who really mattered. He could feel a headache coming on. The buzzing in his ears got worse.
There was a sharp bang behind him, and he spun around.
There was no one. Of course. There never was. It was just one of the chopping boards Leigh had left out to dry, slipping off a pile of wet crockery onto the bench.
Steve swore to himself and slammed the laptop shut, pain throbbing in his head and his chest.