My mother used to tell me the moon sang when I was born; that the stars danced around it and the ocean cheered. The leaves rustled and lifted from the ground to spread the joyous news to the trees and the animals, and the animals whispered it into each other’s ears, and my grandmother who could talk to the birds heard when a raven sat perched on her windowsill and squawked three times. She wrapped herself in a colourful shawl she had knitted herself and made her way through the forest to our house and smiled at her new-born grandchild, covered in blood and wrinkled and blue, screaming her little lungs out upon perceiving the world she had been placed in.
My mother used to tell me that the waves screamed and the wind howled like a wounded animal when my sister was born, only a few minutes later. The leaves hid under tree roots and tried to ignore this new life that came like a thunderstorm; the animals dug themselves into their holes and covered their little heads with their paws. My grandmother took one look at my twin sister; took one look at her eyes like mine, the single cry she uttered after which she was silent, and at the bright green snake coiling around my mother’s bedpost, and turned around. She left and was never seen again.
My mother, by the way, was quite the dramatic. I didn’t believe her story – not at all. My father actually used to wink and whisper to me, tell me that my mother had been feverish with birth and was just confusing my grandmother’s actions with something that had meaning instead of the actions of a confused old woman. He said my sister was not wicked, nor was I some holy being that could do no wrong. I was nine at the time. It was the last time I embraced him. My father was warm, so warm, his own personal little oven. In the winter my sister and I curled up against him and fell asleep, and he had to carry us to bed, careful not to wake us.
As I wander around our parental house now I realise that even if we were, it wouldn’t matter, not at all. I love my sister, she loves me. We have each other. That’s all we have; that’s all we need. I didn’t think I’d ever come back here. This house holds good memories, sure, but it holds much more pain and screaming and blood than it does happiness. I carefully put my suitcase on the worn wooden floor. My old bedroom. It still smells of lavender – I used to burn the purple candles every day.
Some things never fade.
Before I can stop myself I wander downstairs, to where my sister stands, and stare like she does. Years of neglect have done little to wear away the dark stains in the wooden floor and walls. Blood, so much, though in my mind it was much more. A child’s memory. A tendency to exaggerate. It seems like so little now, when in my mind the blood covered the entire floor and ceiling like a gruesome fresh coat of paint.
“Suppose we can’t wash this,” my sister mumbles.
I smile. “It’s a little bit too late.”
“A little bit.” She kicks the wall. “I hate this.”
“So do I.”
“I want to leave.”
“So do I.”
“Why don’t we?”
I sigh. “Because we have nowhere else to go.”
“This place is haunted.”
“Well, if it is,” I say, turning away from the dark red stains, “we’ll have a great chance to talk to our parents again.”
She smiles, but doesn’t laugh. I’m sure it’s a tasteless joke, but our way of dealing with loss has always been... inappropriate humour. It’s weird. It’s hard. It’s who we are. But moving into our old home, well... it’s harder than I had imagined. All these memories flooding back like a tidal wave.
I push them away for now.
It’s an old house, a strange house. The children who live in the village down the mountain used to break in before we came here As soon as they see cars they leave, angry at the unexpected presence and the theft of their chance to show off. I understand why they break in – the house looks positively haunted, a gothic masterpiece, with large pointed stained glass windows and a huge old wooden double door which creaks when it opens. The wood it’s been built out of is dark and worn, and the porch looks like it can collapse any minute when you look at it for too long. It has tons of strange little towers and ornaments and roofs that don’t go anywhere and seem out of place. Some doors just open into nothing, some open into empty rooms. Deep red roses cover most of the east side of the building, smothering the walls like an overbearing mother.
It is strange to be back here.
We moved in today. Carrying our suitcases up to the front door is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had. I was afraid of strange looks from our neighbours, but they don’t seem to be home, though several cars line the driveway up to the crisp white modern building, a stark contrast to what my sister and I own. Our house is on one side of the hill, their house on the other side, but we can see each other’s driveways. That is all we share.
“We should go say hello,” I offer.
My sister shakes her head. “No way. Not in the mood. We’ve just arrived in the house in which our parents were brutally murdered. I’ll need a few days.”
She’s right, of course. We need time, more than just a few days. Perhaps a few weeks, a few months, a few years, perhaps. A few lifetimes. A few lifetimes that are happy, and careless, and without worry or care. I can hardly recall days that were like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely depressed every single second of every single day, but happiness is more of a happy coincidence rather than a fact, or goal, or way of living.
I can’t remember much from my childhood. It’s mostly the standard haze, snippets and polaroid pictures jumping around and suddenly popping up when you smell that certain vanilla smell that reminds you of your aunt’s perfume. The vague recollection of the colour of your favourite swing in the local playground. The warmth of your old, bad television and the poor graphics that dance and pop and crackle like embers in the air above a summer campfire. I care very little for those memories, though many cherish them. My childhood is a taboo topic somehow. Even the thought of the feeling of my father’s arms around me, warm and kind, and the vague smell of coffee and old paper that always surrounded him, is enough to make my eyes fill with unwelcome tears. My sister – she’s different. She’s hardened over the years. She was the one who talked at their funeral. I couldn’t even stare at the coffins because I knew my parents were in there, in pieces. I just buried my head in my aunt’s jacket and cried.
This isn’t a very happy beginning of this story – I’m sorry. I promise, there are lighter bits to come. Think of this as staring up at the night sky. First, it seems dark, but the longer you look, the more stars appear, and before you know it the Milky Way clouds most of your vision and the universe dances before your eyes.
But first, the dark things. Let us dive in.
My sister and I had spent a lovely week at our aunt’s, and our much older cousin had just driven us back. Her name was – is – Diane, and she used to wear vintage white leather gloves when she drove. She said it made her feel classy, like in those old-timey Hollywood films. That particular day she had even opted for a thin, frilly scarf to cover part of her hair, meticulously embroidered with vines and flowers, and a pair of thick-rimmed white sunglasses. I had stared at her from the passenger’s seat, flabbergasted at her carefully thought-our glamour. She had smiled, her dark red lipstick slightly smudged at the corner of her mouth, and had stopped the car in front of my parents’ manor.
“Your house is such a mess,” she had sighed. “But it has a good aesthetic, I suppose. The Addams Family could live here and be happy.”
I didn’t know who the Addams Family was. I just nodded, starry-eyed, and watched her get out of the car with that well-practiced elegance.
My sister in the backseat had snorted. “She has a stick up her ass.”
I stared at her in shock.
“You can’t say that!”
“Can’t! It’s a bad word.”
She had shrugged. “You’re the only one here to hear it. And it’s true. Cousin Matteo said so.”
And with those words she had jumped out of the car, too, stomping in the mud on purpose so it befouled our cousin’s convertible.
We had walked to the front door. We had almost run at full speed. I was excited to see my parents again after only a week, excited to tell them about all the fun things we had done, about how we had both shot arrows with a cheap wooden bow and how we had made a campfire in the woods.
Cousin Diane stopped in front of us. I almost ran into her.
“That’s strange,” she had said, more to herself than to us. “The door is open.”
My sister had ignored her. She had pushed past Diane and had run inside, yelling for our parents, giggling and jumping. I had quickly followed her. I hadn’t wanted to seem ill-behaved to our elegant cousin but I was too impatient, too hungry for my parents’ attention and love. I wanted to tell my mother about the dress I had tried on, and the wooden figurine I had whittled our of a piece of birch with a big sharp knife. I wanted to tell my father about how we had gone to the lake in the middle of the night to see the glow worms in the cave nearby.
My sister’s scream rang through our house like a fire alarm. I had covered my ears in a reflex but quickened my pace nonetheless, because my sister was stumbling back like someone had punched her in the gut, her face a horror-stricken mask. She was trailing something red along the floor with her shoes. I only realised later it was blood. I pushed her aside and jumped into the room, ready to attack whoever had frightened her so, and almost fainted. The whole room was red. Fully red. Red on the floors and ceiling and walls, and red on the table and sofa and television. A hand reached for me, the fingers still neatly covered with cheerful blue nail polish – the arm lay several meters to the left, shards of glass from the coffee table sticking from the elbow. Against the back wall two heads had been mounted, staring at me with big empty eyes, blood as red as the roses that covered our house dripping from the severed necks like melting ice cream. My ears rang with screams once again – my own this time. I stumbled back. Into my sister. We fell and went down and crawled against the wall like we wanted to crawl through it, gripping each other, clawing at each other’s arms and legs like that would stop the visual of our parents’ torn apart bodies.
Cousin Diane reached us. She took one look to the left and her spine went slack, finally, every semblance of elegance and perfection leaving her as she bent over and vomited on the floor. Before she had even properly finished she turned to us, face pale and green and eyes rimmed red. She grabbed us both by the waist and started hoisting us away. I fought her, tooth and nail, suddenly desperate to reach my parents again. My sister did the same. Cousin Diane ignored our screaming and crying and the beating of our fists on her body and ran, ran, ran through the hallway, our of the door, from the porch to her car, and almost threw us into the backseat.
“We’re going,” she breathed. “We’re going, we’re going, we’re going, we’re never coming back here, oh god, oh, god-“
My sister and I just screamed until our throats went numb. I don’t remember what happened after.
There. That’s me. My sister and I, traumatised children raised by an aunt and uncle who really did not want them but tried their hardest anyway. I appreciate them, I love them, but my parents... well, they were my parents. I can’t explain it properly, so I won’t try anymore. It would be boring.
My sister carefully touches my shoulder. I jump, shake my head as if trying to shake the memories out, and attempt a smile, but to no avail. She worries.
“It’s nothing, Demetria.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Sure. You were thinking about them, weren’t you?”
“How can I not?”
I carefully touch the stained wood. My parent’s lives, rubbed into the walls like varnish.
“I know it’s hard,” she says softly, “but this is where we live now. We’ll find paint tomorrow, okay?”
Demetria and I are here to repair the house where necessary. The haunting structure has been in our family for ages, but neither of us want it anymore, and we are the official owners. Our aunts and uncles and cousins are angry at us for wanting to sell it, but they have been afraid to voice their disagreement, solely because they know how sensitive the subject is for us. Still, we haven’t heard from any of them ever since we announced our plans during the last family weekend.
“Making this house ready for the market is impossible.” I sigh. “Perhaps this was a bad idea.”
Demetria smiles. “It will be hard. A challenge. But... worth it. I hope. Besides, we have to sell it. We have no money left and we can’t keep living off our family.”
A moment of silence for our failed business. Before coming here as a last, desperate resort, we lived in Brighton, a bustling city full of life and wonder and ran a moderately successful book store annex cat cafe. It failed when a bigger and better version of our cute little store popped up across the street. Bills piled up, customers stayed away. We managed to barely break even, took our cats and the books we had left and moved up North. With barely any savings and two English degrees we quickly realised we had nowhere to go but home. The idea of living with our aunt again made me want to walk into the ocean. So we loaned as much money as we could, which wasn’t much since neither of us even had a proper job, and decided to sell the house that had seen such horrors.
“A few months,” Demetria says. “That’s all we need. A few months and a few stupid, desperate buyers.”
“There must be some gothic teenager somewhere desperate to live in a haunted house,” I mumble. “One with rich parents.”
Demetria grins. “That’s the spirit. Come on, let’s unpack.”
With shoulders burdened with more than just the suitcases I’ve taken with me I turn my back to the blood-stained wall, shuddering despite myself, and follow her upstairs.