Offered for immediate sale: outstanding 18th-century stone
manor built in 1721 for French expatriate family. In failing
condition, the house is nonetheless a must-see for history
lovers. Three grand stories sit on 30,000 acres, with plenty of
room for development. Offered at a bargain by American heir
overseas. Please enquire at Hamilton & Sons Estate Agents,
9 Princes Square, Grenshire.
September 30, 2009âpresent
ou know you've done something pretty awful when your family moves because of it. Not just within San Francisco, nor within California . . . not even within the country.
My stepdad, Steven, has a remote job, so it was no problem for him to relocate. Mom is a stay-at-home mom for Tabby; her job “traveled,” too. As for me, they unenrolled me from school just a month before sophomore year ended.
When you're a major screwup, it helps if your stepdad has an ancestral mansion in England ready to move into. Well, not exactly
. It's been uninhabited for a long time and needs some serious TLC, I heard him tell Mom. He'd been trying to sell it for years. But at least it's a place to live, and a place for me to reflect on my behavior and improve it.
My therapy would be a lot more effective if I could remember what I did.
Emerging from the tunnel of trees to the clearing where we could finally see my stepfather's manor, I let out a moan of disillusionment. This wasn't the crumbling but still-impressive castle surrounded by broad, grassy lawns I'd imagined back in California, with swans wafting snootily around a lily-ponded lake. Instead, it was a grim, stone-walled prison with the grounds so overgrown they were nearly impenetrable.
I had allowed myself to become interested, had thought there was a lovely poetry to the phrase, “ancestral mansion in England.” But nothing could quell the immediate sense of grinding apprehension the manor gave me. Nothing about it felt right.
As we drove up into its shadow, the manor leaned down over us to look. More than idly curious, it practically rubbed its leathern hands together in glee.
Visitors. At last
It was built in the shape of a U, making it hard to see where exactly one of the wings ended since it was lost somewhere to our left in a thick group of trees. The central courtyard that we inched along was cobblestoned, the size of a grand but cheerless park.
“Um, how many ancestors did you
?” I asked.
“It does seem large for one family,” Steven answered, sighing and looking at Mom. “The Arnauds were very powerful and wealthy in the early 1700s when this was built.”
“And the size of our family . . .” said Mom. Steven reached over and touched her cheek.
“We'll make it work,” he said. He parked the car, turned off the engine, and got out. Mom sat there for a while, then turned around to check on Tabitha, my little sister, still sleeping in her car seat.
I got out and looked up at the Arnaud house while Steven started pulling luggage out of a hard plastic carrier atop the car. When I looked all the way to the top of the manor, my neck strained with the effort, my head hanging back heavily.
God, how big is this place?
There were hundreds of windows, dozens of gables, and a million stone designs of birds and beasts carved into the dark stone walls.
The manor's heavy breath stirred the hairs on the back of my neck. It surveyed me. It examined Mom and Steven and Tabby. Each of the windows looked smeared with time, but it seemed like the house could still see through them.
It would be easy to get lost in a house that sizeâand no one would find you.
I turned around and looked at the surrounding forest, ragged with illicit shrubs. It didn't look like any gardeners came to take care of this overwrought mess.
“No neighbors?” Mom asked.
Steven shook his head. “I think the original landholdings were even larger. There's no one else around for miles. This is the only house on Auldkirk Lane.”
Mom unbuckled Tabby and pulled her out. “Welcome to your new home, sweetie,” she said. My little sister rubbed her gray eyes, which were huge in her tiny face. She was wearing a headband with a pink flower on it, crooked from her nap. When she turned her head to look at the manor, I could see a tuft of snarled auburn hair in the back.
Steven grabbed the biggest suitcase, my mom's. I expected him to head toward the double wooden doors that clearly marked the main entry, but he ducked into a smaller door on the right wing, marked with a small stone roof.
“You'll be relieved,” he called over his shoulder, “to see our quarters aren't quite as ancient as the rest of the house. The information the real estate people sent me was that there is a very comfortable living space in the east wing.”
Mom and Tabby went inside directly behind him, and I heard Mom coo in amazement. I hesitated outside, unwilling to go through the portal and enter the house's influence. I waited, listening to the wind sing through the tree canopy. This was our new home. Because of me.
I lowered my head and followed them inâand saw why Mom was so surprised.
It was completely modern inside. Well, modern as of the 1970s. The living room had plaid and leather sofas, adorned with small circular pillows. The rug was a shag sunrise, as the colors moved in a rippling line from pale yellow to bright gold. Giant orbs hung on linked chains from the ceiling, hovering over the furniture to provide lighting.
Mom and I walked into the kitchen, which had avocado-colored appliances. With a little smile, she tried out the stove's gas burners. “Well, at least I won't have to use a cauldron,” she murmured.
Behind the kitchen was a den, with a pigeonholed desk, a leather armchair, and a standing floor lamp whose lampshade was decorated with orange and brown stripes.
I looked for the bedrooms next. Oddly, there was a nursery with a crib and a dresser with waddling ducks painted on each drawer. I had to think: Had Steven said he'd been born in this house? Maybe this had been his room once.
The master bedroom, oversized and smelling slightly stuffy, was clearly not for me.
My room had a twin bed covered in a bright green spread, with matching carpet. If the room had windows, I was sure the drapes would have been the same glaring green. The effect was that I was a worm who'd burrowed into the dark heart of a lime.
On the plus side, the room was as large as a master suite, and the tiny bed viewed from the door looked like a forgotten slipper in a queen's dressing room. My room in California had been pretty small; this had possibility. I could have a lot of friends over. That is, if I could make some here in Grenshire.
I didn't mind leaving behind my stuff; everything was from IKEA anyway. Maybe Mom and I could cruise yard sales and do a shabby chic thing for my room.
A mirror hung above the dresser. I didn't look that bad, considering everything I'd been through. My long auburn hair was still reasonably wavy and I didn't need concealer to hide circles under my green eyes.
I'm not a knockout but last year I did manage to snag one of the hottest guys in school, Richard Spees. Total surprise here, because guys don't stop in the school hallway and pivot to keep their eyes on girls like me. I've seen that happen a lot, but always to someone else.
Luckily, I'm an athleteâa swimmerâso at least I don't worry about my weight, although I would really, really like to get rid of that one huge mole right in my cleavage. What little there is of that, that is. I definitely fail the pencil test Bethany told me aboutâit's when you put a pencil horizontally under your boob and see if it stays by itself.
I read constantly, and subsequently have the kind of vocabulary that makes English teachers' eyes light up (which doesn't exactly help with the guys, but I can't prevent the stuff that comes out of my mouth). Last year I took a creative writing class, and found something I thought I could be good at. I could be a swimming author. A literary mermaid.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn't mind the color scheme, but the room had hardly any light. Why no windows? It sucked not to be able to get some fresh air. Maybe whoever designed this was worried about teens sneaking out the window at night.
I returned to the living room with a big sigh. “My room's acid green,” I announced. No one said anything, and I gritted my teeth. They would see it as a complaint, and here I was trying to be a better daughter. Mom and Steven's parenting technique: ignores anything verging on whining. “It's okay,” I amended. “Green's good.”
Still no response.
“I'm sorry,” I said.
Steven rescued me. “Any interest in seeing the rest of the house?” he asked, holding up what looked like floor plans.
“Yeah,” I said. I gave him a big smile, but he wasn't ready to return it. Parents are so big on that punishment thing.
“Not right now,” said Mom. “You go along. I'll stay with Tabby.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “My guess is, it's not the safest place for babies. You scout it out first.”
“I don't imagine it's babyproofed,” he said drily, and she laughed.
“Tell me if you see those medieval outlet covers,” she said.
“Medieval? It's not that old,” he protested.
“Could've fooled me,” she said with a grin.
“All right,” he said. “If I'm not back in an hour, call the fire department because I've probably fallen through a rotten floorboard.”
“That's all I need,” she said. “Seriously, be safe.”
He kissed her and Tabby, and went back outside, with me following behind. The air was a little cooler now that it was late afternoon. I straightened my back; was someone watching me? It didn't help that the light was fading prematurely thanks to the intense foliage. The shadows of leaves agitated by the wind made strange patterns on the ground.
“Twilight at the haunted mansion,” Steven intoned in a deep voice, and then he chuckled.
“Not so funny,” I said. “There's a legitimate creep factor here.”
He led me toward those big main doors I had seen before, and pulled from his pocket an enormous, antique-looking key. A man's anguished face made of iron was the lock; the key went into his open mouth. He looked like he was in the midst of a scream, and the key was meant to be his gag.
The doors were heavy. Steven's face turned red as he pushed one of them inward. It groaned like it hadn't been opened in centuries.
“Are you sure we should go in?” I asked.
“It'll be good to get some fresh air circulating,” he said quietly.
. Huge. Dynastically huge. The entry hall with its vaulted ceiling was so large I could have thrown a rock with all my strength and it would only get halfway across the floor. The stones forming the floor were arranged in patterns of dark gray and lighter gray, creating a somber chessboard stretching into the distance.
The grand staircase at the other end was wide enough to hold dozens of people on each riser, and the chandelier hovering over us was so full of glass and iron that if it fell it would plow through the bedrock beneath the flooring, like a meteor. Most of one wall was taken up by a fireplace large enough to roast several standing horsesâyou know, if you ever wanted to.
The air felt museumlike. Cold. I tried to imagine the hall filled with life, lots of people in high ruffled collars smiling and laughing, and the sound of carriages rolling up to the entry outside, but all I could think was that all of them were long dead, and their dresses and breeches had rotted into sticky threads.
“Hello!” shouted Steven to the ceiling. It echoed back at him seconds later.
I wished he hadn't done that. It seemedâI don't knowâjust wrong somehow. He started toward the stairs, and when he was halfway there, I ran to catch up with him. The run was long enough that I was out of breath when I got thereâand I'm the girl who can hold her breath. My lungs are hard as canteens from all my years of swimming.
I practically needed my passport to cross that room. The leaded glass windows, at varying levels in the walls, let in a filtered sunlight that made the place more disturbing. Gigantic cobwebs, or maybe they were spiderwebs, hung everywhere, stretched between light sconces like an ethereal tapestry.
The stairs were steep but seemed to draw me upward.
Come in, come in.
I remembered my initial aversion to entering the manor . . . and now I was climbing up into its timeworn center. Some sort of invitation was being issued to me. Something lonely was made glad by our visit.
Steven climbed ahead of me; I kept some distance between us in case he started to fall. I didn't want to be a pair of dominoes with him.
Halfway up, I turned and looked down. Vertigo overcame me as I wavered there on the steps. For a second I was so sure I was going to fall that I clutched for the banister, furred with grime. After I steadied myself, I rubbed my hands on my jeans.
At the top of the stairs, I took a good look at the stained glass window that presided over the landing. Etched at the bottom was XXX, which made me snort because the image depicted was hardly X-rated. It showed two medieval knights. One was thrusting a spear into the other, who was rearing up with his sword. It looked like the one being impaled was going to seriously damage the other one when the sword came down.
Steven turned left, where he opened another set of double doors. We entered what had once been a ballroom. The curtains covering the floor-to-ceiling windows hung in shreds, their fibers simply too old to keep their shape against the sun's endless onslaught. The floor was a black-and-white marble parquet.