Authors: J.M. Miller
I scoped the room, searching for traces of insects and small mammal droppings, then hauled my boxes upstairs when I felt it was safe. I found some cleaning supplies inside of the storage closet beside my room and got to work. When I turned the silver faucet in the bathroom, only a few drops of water trickled out. I snatched my phone from my backpack. It was one of the only things I kept.
The water isn’t working
I texted Dad.
I finished cleaning whatever I could then checked the water again. It spurted hesitantly with pockets of air then finally poured steadily. I gave the bathtub a thorough scrubbing and filled it for a midday bath. Its glamorous size was too tempting to pass up, not to mention I needed to rid my body of the chill from this house.
As the water climbed the slanted porcelain, I rooted though the overstuffed boxes. Someone had left hangers in the walk-in so I grabbed a few and started hanging. The more I unpacked, the more my life started to shift. I stared at the designer clothes draped on the mismatched hangers and the realization of my new life jostled into focus. I couldn’t wear this stuff. We’d passed Amish horse and buggies five miles down the road, not fancy high-rise resorts. This was the country. My old self, privileged and private schooled, would not fit in here, especially wearing my old clothes. I should’ve sold the rest of it in Vegas with everything else: the school uniforms I’d no longer wear, the shoes with new tread, and the bags with price tags. The rest of the clothes could’ve yielded another month of groceries. Out here, I’d be lucky to make a few bucks over what it’s going to cost to restock my closet with low-end or secondhand.
I tore all of the clothes from the hangers and shoved them back into the boxes, unpacking only a few middle-end brands, underwear, pajamas, and socks. I went back into the bathroom and opened the cupboards under the single vanity to stash my toiletries. A box of hair dye was partially hidden behind the pipes.
My natural color. I picked it up and stood to face myself in the framed oval mirror. The stylist from the club, Fynn, would punish me with a three-hour touch-up and deep conditioning treatment if he could see the root length and the dullness of my fake-blonde head now. I pictured his frozen face, his forehead struggling to portray the same amount of disapproval deep inside his eyes, losing its ongoing battle to show emotion with Botox.
There would no longer be regularly scheduled trips to Fynn, or any hairstylist for that matter. I wasn’t even sure it would be an issue anymore, though, because no matter how much or how little I wanted to be her, I was no longer the blonde who resided in every picture I’d been in since I was fourteen. I was starting over. It was forced, but maybe it would be good to shed that skin, whether it was real or fake. Maybe I’d find the truth. Maybe I’d find myself.
I checked the date on the box and resolved to use it later after I spent some well-deserved time in the tub. Luckily, the cupboard also had a stash of bubble bath. I smelled the contents and poured enough under the water to host my own foam party. When the fluffy bubbles threatened to double the tub’s height, I hopped in, inhaled the delicious lavender scent, then leaned back and closed my eyes.
“What was the problem?” Pop asked when I stepped through the front door. The permanent scent of pipe tobacco greeted me like always, even though Pop hadn’t touched the stuff in two years. It was as if the walls had refused to give up his habit, and that probably made quitting easier for him─he still got to enjoy the smell without the concerns of killing himself.
I unlatched the tool belt from my waist and slid it onto the entry table next to the door, careful not to drop anything. “A PVC elbow cracked under the side garden. I had to shut down one of the main lines so I could fix it. The garden flooded a bit, but I didn’t find any other problems,” I replied through my wired jaw. After I’d fractured it while riding my bike six weeks ago, I was worried about talking at first but was surprised how clear my voice sounded though clamped teeth. Most people could understand me, if I chose to speak. The whole ordeal made me wonder if it was some form of karmic justice for being a smart ass. If something of a higher power wanted me to shut the hell up, I’ve obliged. Mostly.
“Good. Simone called from the event house.” Pop’s eyes shifted automatically to the well painting above the fireplace, contemplating it as he’d done at least once a day for the past seven years. “The Waydes arrived today.”
I let his words sink in. They were the words both of us had been wishing we’d never have to say, or hear, and they were as weighty as I’d imagined.
“What did Simone say?” I asked, wondering if there was some normal task she needed me to work on so I could ignore the horrible news. I was still pissed that Janine hadn’t left most of the property to Pop or Simone. They were her family, her friends, and her loyal employees. They’d been here for her. The people moving into the main house now weren’t her family. They didn’t know her.
Pop ran his fingers over his white mustache and sat straighter in the dining chair. “She was at the event house with Mr. Wayde … Carson. I believe that’s his first name. He inquired about the house’s lack of water so she called me.” He stared at me for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Look, Ben, I’m grateful that you humored me this summer searching Genie’s house. I know this isn’t your problem or concern, and you might not even believe it all to be true, but I’m going to need more help. I can’t do it by myself.” The look in his heavy eyes supported his statement.
I was never sure what to believe, but I loved my grandfather enough to help him. After all, he was the one who helped me escape my alcoholic father. In many ways, I owed him. I owed Janine, too. She allowed me to move here and treated me like family from the start. “I’m not sure what else I can do to help, but I’ll do whatever you want.”
He sighed and leaned back into the chair, which squeaked under his weight. “It’s times like this I wished I still smoked.” He snatched a toothpick from the holder in the center of the table and stuck it between his lips. “I know we tore through the house this summer and found nothing to explain why Genie left most of the estate to LJ. She wasn’t a cruel woman; she wouldn’t have wished her fate on her worst enemies, let alone any part of her family. That means she had a reason. It would have helped if we’d found some information about the well itself. All I know is what she told me, and that’s not much.”
I nodded, processing all of the information, remembering him saying the same things as we dug though countless journals and loose papers boxed inside the basement, the bedrooms, and the kitchen. We’d also found papers stashed in random places, like above cabinets and inside the bathrooms. Janine had a habit of hiding things, and it was exhaustingly obvious how easy it was to lose stuff in that house, even with a good memory. The housekeeper, Claire, wasn’t much help before she’d left. She’d cleaned and moved a lot of the random junk to the basement, which could have buried what we were searching for.
“It’s going to be difficult to get back in there now so we’ll have to take advantage of any opportunity we get.” Pop shifted in his chair as he paused. The wrinkles on his forehead creased with consideration as his eyes settled back on mine. “LJ should be going to your school. Maybe you could befriend her … Don’t give me that look,” he said gruffly when I scowled at him unconsciously. “If she’s anything like Genie she’ll be really nice. Besides, it covers multiple angles. You could help steer her away from the well and anything she might find regarding it. Just in case.”
I growled and gritted my teeth, hard. The pressure shot waves of pain from my jaw down to my neck and up into my skull, each nerve surging with crippling current. I shouldn’t have put that much force into it. My appointment for wire removal was scheduled for Monday and I’d hate to screw that up, but in this case I had to make an exception. I needed to feel that pain to cope with what Pop was asking me to do. When I told him I’d help, I thought I’d be digging through more of Janine’s stuff, not hanging out with Ms. Uptight Skinnyass. This was not how I’d planned to start senior year. I didn’t mingle with the preppy kids. No, that’s not exactly true. I no longer mingled with the preppy kids
while at school
. I mingled with one preppy kid who worked at the event house. Though, I wouldn’t call Emily Crimson a kid. She had the body to prove she wasn’t, and I’d enjoyed her body enough times to know.
What Pop was asking me to do was definitely foreign territory. If he wanted me to hang out with LJ, I’d have to find another way because once she got into the popular group at school there was no chance I’d speak to her.
“I guess I could try,” I mumbled, shrugging as I walked into the kitchen.
“Good,” he mumbled back from the dining room, acting as nonchalant as me, though I heard him release a low sigh and the chair squeaked again in response to his relief. “Since the water is back on, you should head up to the house just to make sure everything is working correctly.”
I took a swig from a water bottle, letting the water flow between my clamped teeth before swishing it around my mouth. I eyed the beer bottles in the fridge, already predicting how I’d soon spend my nights. This ordeal was bound to give me headaches aspirin couldn’t handle. If so, I’d have to raid the event house’s refrigerator for any refreshments left behind by careless wedding parties. It was an activity that started fairly innocent. Years ago, Harper would ride her bike over to hang out and we’d steal a few beers to get buzzed out in the barn. Now, it was my last resort to combat stress, but I also indulged when I couldn’t get Harper off my mind. It’d been a while since I was pained with either, and that should be a good thing, except it also meant I was thinking of Harper less often.
“The water is already back on so why would I have to go check the main house?”
“Any opportunity we get, remember?”
I pressed my eyes shut and capped the water bottle. “Right,” I replied, passing back through the dining room and grabbing the tool belt from the table. “I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to mow by the gazebo.”
He flicked the toothpick between his teeth, its tip rolling beneath his mustache slow and steady. “Simone has a wedding booked tomorrow so it’ll have to wait until Monday.”
I shut the door behind me without another word. I wasn’t sure what he expected me to find inside that house without him.
was Janine’s friend. He had a better chance at finding her secrets. He was with her until the end, even if she didn’t remember him. I ran my hand over my head, thinking about the pain he’d experienced in her final years. I felt bad for him and understood his loss. I’d lost Harper three years ago, though her death was entirely different than Janine’s. Harper’s was quick, painless for her alone, leaving the pain to torture her family and me instead. Janine’s was long and torturous for both her and Pop. In either scenario, the pain never really disappeared. It continued on, reappearing with every profound memory, every realistic dream.
I was always willing to help him. I owed him a lot for my life. But he was asking me to get involved, to become some secret agent. Infiltrate the family and search the house. This wasn’t me. I’m cumbersome and blunt, not crafty and secretive. Not popular and charming. He knew all of this already. He knew I stayed away from all of the usual, the normal, especially after Harper died. He also knew he wouldn’t get many opportunities of his own. I guess that made me the one who could create new opportunities.
Janine’s house, LJ’s house, looked deserted. After crossing the grounds, I knocked on the back door. No one answered. They were probably still with Simone at the event house. I peeked into the mud room window. No movement or noise. The doorknob turned without hesitation and I walked through the mud room’s clutter and into the kitchen. I glanced around as I opened the faucet, testing the water I already knew worked. Nothing seemed important enough to stand out. Though, there were new papers sitting on the farthest corner of the granite countertop. I flipped through them. They were signed legal documents of the trust. I recognized Upton’s signature, appearing the same as it did on my own paperwork.
The main entry and hallway were also empty. I took the stairs two at a time and said an aimless “Hello” when I reached the top. No one answered. I glanced down the corridor and noticed that all of the well paintings, including the one at my feet, had been removed from their hooks and left on the floor. It didn’t take long for them to hate the twisted paintings. I couldn’t blame them. The one in our place was strange enough; I couldn’t imagine living in a place with a collection that probably numbered a hundred.
After I tossed my head into all of the other bedrooms, I passed the upstairs office and went to the back bedroom that Claire used to stay in. Pop and I had only searched this room once since Claire left. Simone had insisted Claire stay after Janine died, giving her plenty of time to find a new place to live and work. She finally moved a few weeks ago.