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Authors: J.M. Miller

Tags: #Contemporary

The Line That Binds (3 page)

BOOK: The Line That Binds
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“Oh, no. Genie,” Pop whispered beside me, tenderly scolding Janine’s spirit.

I didn’t move until Pop shoved me toward the desk. Upton handed me a pen and pointed to the signature line on the page. Without reading, I scrawled a barely legible signature. Then he handed me a stack of paperwork with land surveyor notes and raised notarized seals, which I ran my coarse fingers over while I tried to understand what was happening.

“You can sign here,” Upton told Lila, pointing to another stack of papers.

The clicking of her heels echoed in the silent room as she closed the distance to the desk. The shoes set her at eye level with my six-foot frame, but her eyes remained focused on the papers Upton was pointing to. She stopped just shy of touching the desk with her thigh then leaned over to sign. Her thin legs remained propped straight and tall, creating a curve in her back and ass that kick-started my pulse. I inhaled, catching a soft hint of almond instead of some pungent designer perfume I’d expected to surround her. It was oddly appealing, reminding me of the almond muffins I’d loved as a kid. I kept my eyes down on my own paperwork, carefully stealing glances of her under my half-closed lids. It was almost impossible to tell she was under eighteen. Black liner encased her green eyes, aging her a few long years past legality. Up close, she was too thin. She had no muscle tone to speak of, and the bones of her elbows jutted out so far they looked broken. She wore a tidy white blouse with the thin black skirt, like some professional business associate. I pictured her being class president or homecoming queen at whatever high-end high school she attended. Rich and popular.

Pop waved a hand from the back of the room and I walked back to him as Lila’s father joined her at the desk to look over the paperwork.

“This last bit is going to take some more time,” Upton said to them as Pop and I walked through the doors. “The business side of the Stockton Estate will still continue under the usual supervision of Ms. Simone Platt even though you will be owner after your birthday. You can discuss matters further with her─” We cut off Upton’s coarse voice when we closed the doors behind us.

No one met us in the hall. Simone and all of the other employees had already dispersed. Pop and I stepped through the carved oak door and into the cloudless afternoon. I loosened the tie immediately and unbuttoned the top buttons of my shirt, happy this ordeal was finished. As we walked across the lawn, I glanced down the sloped hill toward the event house. Simone’s petite body was dwarfed by the large stone archway as she greeted a rehearsal group who had rented the mansion for their wedding tomorrow.

“Do you think all of this will change without Janine?” I asked.

Pop released a slow sigh. “I think it will be much of the same.” He tilted his head toward the bright sky for a moment. “I
fear
that it will be all too much the same, in fact,” he whispered, his voice pained with all of the sorrow he’d endured over the last several years.

I watched a tear run from his eye before I turned toward the event house again, giving him a quiet moment as we continued to walk. The rehearsal group was already inside, somewhere behind the mansion’s rugged stone exterior or the enormous paneled windows of its ballroom. They were happy, at least. The rest of us had the chance to be happy again soon, though now all of our happiness depended on the intentions of an unfamiliar family. “Do you think they’ll come here to live?”

“That’s my greatest fear. I can’t believe Janine would do this. She should’ve just left it all to Simone instead of dragging her family back here. She was too good of a person to do this to them.” He paused with a soft breath. “We’ll have to talk to Simone and find out the family’s plans. They haven’t been here in ages so I don’t see them having any interest in this place, especially since Rina isn’t involved anymore. This was her family, not her ex-husband’s. Besides, the kids are of that age where they’d be hesitant to move. I’m sure they are established wherever they currently live. With any luck in the world, they’ll stay away and sell their portion to Simone when LJ turns eighteen.”

LJ?
Even in Janine’s last years, when she was mostly incoherent, she often said those initials. I’d never asked Pop what they meant, and now I understood. LJ.
Lila Janine.
She was a partial namesake. “Let’s hope that’s what happens,” I muttered, agreeing with all of the excuses he’d come up with for them to stay away. I stared past the stone gazebo as we made our way back to our house. The well was hidden somewhere behind it, through yards of trees and tangles of brush left purposely unkempt. “I guess it would be in bad taste to wish for it,” I said, giving Pop a sideways look.

“Maybe,” he replied without looking back. “But the scary thing is, if I could, I most certainly would.”

 

 

 

“I wish you would just shut up about the paintings, Gav,” I screamed as I climbed the enormous wooden staircase. “I have eyes, too.” Perfect vision, in fact. Not that my vision needed to be perfect to see all of the paintings in this place, they were everywhere. I’d lived here for ten minutes and I already despised them. It might’ve been different if they were interesting abstracts, even if they were
prints
of interesting abstracts. Instead, they were nearly identical originals with varied shades of gray dried onto their canvases, scattered all around this freaking house. The main difference was the dark red numbers smeared onto the bottom corners. It was all so bizarre.

I looked at the painting at the top of the stairs, sliding my finger along the edge of the canvas─this one numbered fifty-six. Its gray hues muddled the same way as the other twenty I’d seen since I left the normalcy of the main hallway. The landscape was almost identical, though the trees’ branches were thin and bare, already past the fall transition, well into the dormant stages of winter. Nevertheless, they held the same position around the well, the focal point, which appeared the same in each painting. Its blurred stones and roof fell somewhere between reality and a dream. I stared at it, waiting for a revenge-seeking little girl to crawl out from its smudgy depths.

I should’ve taken a full tour of this house before agreeing to move
, I thought, my eyes still trapped in the well.

I’d only visited this house a few times when I was younger. The first couple, I was a toddler. The last time was the only one I truly remembered. Mom needed to talk to Aunt Janine during our spontaneous trip back east, but Dad, Gavin, and I remained outside during the visit. The house was so beautiful. Vines sprawled up the sides of its unending walls, which spanned so high they seemed to end inside the clouds. I decided it couldn’t be a normal house; it had to be a castle. I begged to go in. I wanted to explore the stone castle and look down upon the grounds from its enchanted windows. But I was not permitted, so I contented myself by daydreaming about the castle’s history while we played outside. It was an hour before Mom returned and we said goodbye to Aunt Janine. Her teary eyes wet my cheeks when she squeezed my face to hers. She hugged me like she’d known me every day of my life. But I barely knew her.

The next trip was the will reading, where the main hallway and the office were the only areas I’d seen─not an accurate representation of the rest of the house. The hallway had less terrifying still-life paintings. They weren’t the quality I’d seen in the casinos and in some friends’ houses back in Summerlin, Nevada, but they also weren’t mentally disturbing or in duplicate, triplicate, or infinite forms. And the office where I’d signed the property paperwork was apparently the only room without any paintings.
How deceiving.

“There’s more, Lila. There’s more in the kitchen!” Gavin’s yell traveled through the main hall and up the wooden staircase to me. “This is like the start of a cheap horror movie. It’s a freak show,” he said, a little quieter.

I heard the last part, even if he didn’t want me to. I knew exactly what he meant; this whole house was chilling, creepy, and old. If it weren’t for the upgraded interior─obviously required to meet regulation building codes after the dawn of the new millennium─I could probably reach my hand through some large cracks to the stone exterior. I could probably dump my chamber pot outside, too, after I lit a lantern to see where I was going. Yes, this place was ancient, and cold. Goosebumps pricked every inch of my flesh at the thought. It was September for crying out loud! Was this place immune to late summer heat?

If I had to live here, things would change, soon. Starting with the paintings.

I grabbed number fifty-six and placed it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. I did this to the other ten I passed while searching the rooms upstairs. I stuck my head into each doorway for a quick view, unsure of which space I wanted to call “mine.” When I got to the master suite, I wasn’t surprised to see a well painting hanging next to an antique four-poster bed. I glanced at the medical equipment crammed alongside the bed, remnants of her final days. I didn’t step inside. There was no reason to since there was no way I’d sleep in a dead woman’s bed.
No way
. I didn’t care if she left me this place or not. I hardly knew her. I wasn’t close to her. There was no way I’d stay in there.

The room I settled with was located at the back of the house, past the hallway to the master suite, another office, and a storage closet. It was a corner room, separated from all of the others, making it the best option. The afternoon sun streamed through two curtainless windows. Their pane divides cast twelve squares onto the bare queen bed and hardwood floor, pressing heat into the room that I welcomed greedily. I could only hope the tall windows would curb the vitamin D deficiency I’d likely endure after moving away from the desert. The first window faced Stockton Mansion, or what the employees here call the event house. The other faced the back of the property. It showed a decent view of the state park beyond the groundskeeper’s house and a barn, both built with brown and beige stones that matched all the buildings on the property. The forest stretched to the horizon. I wasn’t used to seeing so many trees around my house, so close together, so all-encompassing. The trees behind our old place were bundled in a small group, bordering the sand pit near the seventh green. They were sparse and failed to block stray balls clipped off course, costing Dad a few broken house windows and some blood-pressure-raising dents in his precious Audi.

Another bonus to my new room was the attached bathroom. The vintage footed tub was deep enough to fit five people, with a hand held shower head and a circular curtain rod attached overhead. The whole room was definitely upgraded, possibly for visitors, though I doubted Aunt Janine had many. Maybe she’d dabbled in interior decorating before she’d lost her mind. If so, it had to have been a while ago given the number of tasteless, scary well paintings that now littered the house.

“Dibs,” Gavin said, jumping into the room. For once, his hands were detached from his game. The delight of living in a new place was exciting to him. It blazed inside his crystal blue eyes. I wish I shared his enthusiasm. The whole ordeal was bound to be easier for him since he got to keep most of his stuff. Game systems, laptop, eReader, all of it packed nicely in the few boxes stuffed into the back of our new,
pre-owned
, Ford Escape. Most of my stuff, however, now belonged to a Super Pawn back in Las Vegas. The wad of cash it yielded would feed us for a month. At least, that’s what Dad and I were hoping. Other items Dad sold would add another month, as long as we conserved. Before the move, we’d agreed Gavin would keep his stuff no matter what. He needed the material comfort more than us.

“No chance, dork. This one’s mine. There are five others that can accommodate all your junk just fine.” I hated dealing such a low blow, but there was no chance I’d give up this room.

He dropped his crystal blues to his two-hundred-dollar sneakers and nodded. “It’s cool,” he replied with a smile, recovering almost immediately. “I think there’s one of those dumb waiter things right next to the room at the top of the stairs. I’m gonna go check it out then go over to the mansion. I bet there’s some really cool stuff over there. Wanna go?”

“I’ll check it out later. I want to get situated first.” I turned in a circle. “I’ve got some cleaning to do before I can call this place habitable.”

“Whatever, clean freak. Oh, Dad told me to tell you he’d unload all the boxes in the hallway then he was gonna go to talk to that Simone lady about a job.”

“Great,” I said to the back of Gavin’s scraggly head as he left the room. “You need a haircut!”

He needed a haircut as bad as this place needed cleaning. I told him it looked better short, but the older he got the less he listened to my advice. I wish we could’ve had a normal sibling relationship for the last four years. Instead, I’d packed his lunch and helped him with his homework because Dad was too busy working, and Mom was too busy doing lines and getting nailed in the guest house by every new pool boy hired at the clubhouse.

So Gavin was stuck with me, whether he liked it or not. After seeing Mom at the reading of Aunt Janine’s will, he’d been a bit more appreciative. I’d hoped seeing her wouldn’t have affected him, but deep down I knew it would. When a mother doesn’t bother slurring a word to her children, whom she hasn’t seen in over a year, it would undoubtedly stir some unwanted emotions. It stirred mine plenty. I wanted to punch her in her junked-up face. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right venue for that. Maybe I’d have another chance in the future.

BOOK: The Line That Binds
6.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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