“You don’t want to be here, do you?”
There was nothing coy about the shrink’s question, and Kat answered it just as directly as it had been asked, if more succinctly. “No.”
“Then why did you make this appointment?”
Was that meant to be a trick of some kind? Something to elicit a subconscious slip on the part of the unsuspecting patient? “I didn’t.” Gran had, and this latest doctor, Dr. Latimer, knew that fact perfectly well.
“Ah, yes, but you did keep it, didn’t you?”
Only for Gran’s sake, but Kat didn’t say so. She kept her lips pressed closed instead.
The woman sitting across from her scribbled something down in the notepad that she held on her lap. Brilliant insight already? And after only five minutes. All of Kat’s other therapists would have been green with envy.
She resisted the urge to shift in her seat and remained still, suspecting that even the smallest movement on her part would be analyzed and picked apart. Her gaze went where it wanted to, though, taking in the bland cream color of the walls, soft lighting, and the framed still life that hung just a little higher than eye level. That was bland, too. And safe. Or at least she guessed that it was meant to inspire that feeling in the patients who sat here. It did not succeed. Not with Kat, anyway. No shame in that, though; better rooms than this one had failed.
The scratching sound of the pencil, so loud in this quiet room, stopped. “And why do you think your grandmother made this appointment for you?”
It was tempting not to answer. What was the point? But there were still another forty-five minutes to get through, and silence would not make them pass by any faster. “Because she knew I wouldn’t,” Kat returned finally, knowing that wasn’t quite the insightful answer the doctor was trying to get at but in no mood to make things easy for her. She’d agreed to come; she hadn’t agreed to cooperate.
“Yes, but why do—”
No help for it. “You should ask her that.”
“I did, actually. I just wanted to know what your take on it is.”
She was studying Kat in a way that was entirely too familiar. Like she was a lab specimen or a puzzle to be solved. Kat’s fingers dug a little deeper into the faux leather upholstery of her chair. Dr. Latimer sat right across from her in another one just like it, with no desk or other barrier between them. Another deliberate choice on the doctor’s part? Probably. Maybe other patients welcomed it. “She made the appointment because she’s afraid.”
“Of what I might do.”
More scribbling. How much had Gran already told her? “Are you afraid of what you might do, Katherine?”
The sound of her full name was jarring. “It’s Kat.”
“Sorry, yes. Kat. Are you afraid, Kat?’
More intrusion into her head. Attempted intrusion, anyway. Kat stared at the other woman and said nothing.
Maybe Dr. Latimer realized that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with that particular line of questioning, because after a moment of silence she switched to a new one. Odds were that she’d bring things around to the first topic again eventually, thinking that she was being subtle. “You have a birthday coming up tomorrow. It’s a significant one for you, isn’t it?”
“Won’t have to worry about getting carded anymore, if that’s what you mean.”
No, of course it wasn’t, which was why the palms of Kat’s hands were sweating. She released their hold on the chair arms and folded her fingers together in her lap instead.
“I’m referring to the house, the one you grew up in back east. Legally it’s yours as of tomorrow, isn’t it?”
Kat nodded. Just once.
“How do you feel about that?”
How do you think? She nearly snapped out the words but managed to bite them back just in time. God, she was sick of these kinds of questions. How do you feel? What do you think? Why do you think that? What do you remember? Shall we poke and prod your mind a little bit more and see what falls out? So she lifted her shoulders in a barely perceptible shrug instead of answering and pointedly stared at the clock on the wall above the doctor’s head.
“Your grandmother says you’ve been having trouble sleeping recently.” A moment later the doctor cocked her head. “You find that funny?”
“What? No.” Not even remotely. Just the part about it being recent. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in years.
Was she? Yes, she supposed her lips had curved up slightly at the corners, but there was no real humor in the expression. She let it slip from her face again.
Another long silence. More rustling of notes. But if she hoped Kat would be tempted to fill the silence, the doctor was in for a disappointment. She waited a few more moments, then: “Do you think you’re having trouble sleeping because of the house, Kat?”
The frequent use of her name, as if to force some sort of camaraderie on her, grated almost as much as the question. Of course it was because of the house. The past six years’ worth of therapist visits and endless medications and worse were all because of the house, and she’d been haunted by far more troubling symptoms than a lack of sleep in that time. But all Kat said was, “Maybe,” and tried not to notice how the scent of the potpourri on a nearby bookshelf was cloyingly sweet and growing more so with each passing second.
“Maybe? Considering what happened there, I’d say it’s more than a maybe, wouldn’t you?” The woman leaned forward and fixed Kat with a look that was probably meant to be sympathetic and induce her to spill her secrets but only ended up making Kat instinctively lean back and away. She’d seen that same look many times before, and on many faces. It was the look that usually came right before a particularly personal and prying question. “Do you remember much about what happened to your mother?”
“No. Nothing.” Mercifully. Although she’d been told that she was the one who’d found her. “I was only five.”
“What about your father?” The doctor checked her notes. “You were older then, right? I believe—”
“Fifteen.” Kat’s voice was clipped as she interrupted. She didn’t apologize for it. “Yes, I remember.” Because you people won’t let me forget.
“That must have been very traumatic for you. Would you like to talk about that a little more?”
“Not really, no.”
“No.” No more than usual anyway.
“You don’t think it might be helpful for you to talk about what happened?”
“I don’t know—is picking at a scab helpful?” Even Kat could hear the bitterness in her voice.
“If there’s something festering underneath it? Maybe.”
The potpourri was truly overpowering now. Her head started to ache, and the knot that had formed in her stomach the moment she’d set foot in this place drew tighter.
“Your father,” the doctor started.
Kat reached for the chair arms and dug her fingers back into them. And silently pleaded for the clock hands to move faster.
* * *
The hinges on the doctor’s office door were well-oiled; they made no noise when Kat finally opened it to leave. Gran was seated right where Kat had left her with a magazine in her hands—was that the same page she’d started on nearly an hour ago?—but her grey-haired head was turned absently toward the lone window in the room, overlooking the street outside, and she wore an expression on her face that suggested she wasn’t really seeing anything on the other side of the glass. No, her thoughts were somewhere else, and Kat could guess where. Or at least on whom they were focused.
She’d insisted on coming along. It was no bother, no trouble at all. There was nowhere else she had to be that afternoon, and company was always nice, wasn’t it? Not that her words fooled anybody, of course. Not Kat and not her grandfather certainly. Had she feared Kat would go back on her word and drive right by the place without a witness there to make sure she actually went inside? Probably. To Gran’s credit, it wasn’t that farfetched a concern.
Guilt pricked at Kat, the same guilt that made her agree to today’s visit in the first place. She was not the only one still struggling with certain things. She closed the door behind her with an audible click to announce her presence even as she hid a folded slip of paper inside one closed hand.
Gran started and looked away from the window to see Kat. She closed the magazine. “All done?”
“Was it helpful?”
Her forehead settled into familiar creases, and there was such a desperate hopefulness in her voice that Kat lied and said, “Yes,” and some of the creases relaxed. A little, anyway.
“Oh, I’m so glad. I have a good feeling about Dr. Latimer, Kat.”
There was no reason to disillusion her; it would be unkind more than anything else. But on her way out behind her grandmother, Kat crumpled the prescription for sleeping pills that the doctor had given her and let it fall unseen into a wastebasket as she walked past.
It was only a birthday.
Liar, Kat mouthed, and she rolled over to stare up into the darkness of her room. Somewhere in the kitchen was what was left of the cake that Gran had made for her yesterday, barely touched in spite of the fact that Gran was no slouch when it came to baking. No one had been much in the mood for it last night or for any other birthday festivities, although Kat’s grandfather had done his best to crack the usual lame jokes and pretend that nothing was out of the ordinary.
But it was impossible to miss the fact that Gran had chosen to put only one candle on the cake instead of the twenty-one that should have been there, as if by doing so she could somehow change which birthday it was. To please her, Kat had said nothing about it, and she suspected her grandfather did the same thing for the same reason. But the solemn little excuse for a party ended early anyway, and Kat had finally chosen to slip off on her own to town to spare them all more uncomfortable silences. Well, to spare her grandparents, at least; uncomfortable silences seemed to follow Kat wherever she went.
Only a birthday...
She rubbed one hand over her tired eyes. Dawn must not be far off now, because the darkness had begun to fade to the murky grey that meant the sunrise was only minutes away. She glanced at her bedside clock. So much for sleeping. Her thoughts flickered to the crumpled up prescription slip she’d tossed into the trash the other day, but only for a moment. No more pills. She’d already had enough to last her a lifetime, and where had it gotten it her? As screwed up as ever, and, at best, living in a haze. Maybe the haze was preferable to the alternative. Maybe it wasn’t.
Her eyes turned back to the ceiling.
The faded but serene angel that was painted on it grew more visible as the greyness of predawn lightened the room even more. It was a lovely if wispy sort of thing. Gran had painted it up there years ago when Kat’s mother was just a child and was nervous about bumps in the night and monsters under the bed. Something to comfort her and remind her that she was being watched over, was the way Gran told it, although her smile was sad when she did. No wonder. Apparently even angels had their limits, or at least this one did.
But maybe that wasn’t being fair. It had kept watch over Kat for the past six years, after all, and those six had been better than the ones that came before them. Well, the ones she could remember anyway. Or rather, the parts of them she could remember. Some parts still had holes, and she’d been told by more than one shrink before Latimer that they likely always would, at least until her brain was ready to deal with them. Some days those holes in her memory were a relief. Other days they were not. Lately, it was more the latter.
Especially with it being her birthday, and this birthday in particular with everything that came along with it. No surprise that it would start old memories swirling. Even now as she stared up at the painted angel, another angel’s face seemed to pop into her head from out of nowhere, this one carved out of cold stone and wet from rain. It was gone from her mind again just as quickly as it had appeared, leaving her to wonder as she so often did whether it was an actual memory or the work of her imagination. Or possibly something worse.
She threw back her covers and sat up, forcing her thoughts to something—anything—else that might drown out that inner voice. Run. That’s what she would do. Go for a run. Clear her head in the fresh, salty air. To that end, she traded her nightshirt for a t-shirt and shorts before picking up her running shoes in one hand and tiptoeing out into the hall.
Careful to avoid the floorboards that creaked, she paused outside her grandparents’ bedroom and listened. Nothing. Just the occasional whistling breath that served as her grandfather’s snore. Satisfied that they were still asleep, Kat crept onward over the smooth oaken floor and into the kitchen, where she unlocked the back door and stepped out onto the porch of the weathered beachfront cottage.
A black lab that was sleeping on a pile of blankets lifted a muzzle that was almost entirely white with age to greet her and thumped his tail. His eternal optimism was nothing short of a marvel, because in all these years, she’d done little more than ignore him. Not because he was a bad dog or even a nuisance, because he wasn’t. But he was an unwelcome reminder of another bundle of fur, smaller and softer and long gone. And when his cold, wet nose touched her hand as she slipped on her shoes to tie them, she couldn’t help but flinch back.
He seemed not to notice her reaction or at least to be offended by it. Instead, he stretched his arthritic limbs and followed her off of the porch amiably as he so often and inexplicably did, and when Kat broke into a jog on the sand, he trotted behind her in his usual place.
The air was cool this time of day, even early in the summer as it was now; it woke her up as thoroughly as she’d hoped. The running warmed her quickly, though, even before the rising sun could get its chance, and it wasn’t long until she was sweating. Her side began to ache, but she sped up instead of slowing down as if speed alone could clear her head. She needed a clear head. There would be decisions to make soon, big decisions involving lots of paperwork and things she’d managed to avoid thinking about for years. Mostly, anyway. Like the fact that the house was hers now, whether she wanted it or not.
She stumbled over an uneven patch of sand, catching herself just in time to prevent a fall and muttering a curse beneath her breath. Stupid. She was being stupid. It was just a house, she told herself, resuming her run along this deserted stretch at an even brisker pace than before until she was panting for breath. Stone and wood, no more and no less. To believe anything else was to give in to foolish childhood fears that she should have outgrown by now. And it was a house that her father at least had loved, even if she had not. But when an image of grey stone and cool grandeur started forming in her head, she thrust it from her mind out of habit.
A bark that was full of reproach made her draw up short and turn to see the lab galumphing after her, too stiff to run any faster. “Sorry, Pete,” she acknowledged, waiting for him. He seemed to accept her apology, because a moment later he wagged his tail and trotted off to play in the waves that lapped at the shore nearby.
Kat sank down onto a piece of driftwood to watch him and make sure that he didn’t get himself into trouble by wading in too deep. She’d run farther today than she’d intended to already. Any farther and she’d likely wind up having to carry Pete home. Not a good plan.
She picked up a handful of sand and let it trickle out between her fingers. Well, they could rest a while. She wasn’t in any hurry to get back home anyway and see the anxious looks her grandparents exchanged when they thought she wasn’t looking. She wasn’t the only one who had lost a lot to that house.
It had a name, one that she shared. Delancey Manor. She mouthed the words without actually saying them aloud, and somehow they still managed to leave a sour taste in her mouth. Her gut tightened. She’d been told before by more than one well-meaning person that it wasn’t rational to let the place continue to have such a hold over her, and of course it wasn’t rational. Rational had nothing to do with it. Which was probably what scared her grandparents most of all. She didn’t blame them. It scared her, too.
The manor flickered into her mind’s eye again, but this time she stopped herself from forcing it right back out. Just a house, she reminded herself when her hands grew clammy, and if one of them was going to be master over the other, it was going to be her, not it. From now on, at least. She closed her eyes and let the image in.
It was tall, its triple stories towering above even the few trees close to it. A massive structure of carefully shaped stonework. She’d thought it a castle the first time she’d seen it, but she had only been five years old. Any home that large would have seemed grand to her. And elegant. Graceful lines, from its tapering porch to its elongated windows.
Dark windows. And shadows moved in them.
Her eyes flew back open again before she could help it, fixing on the ocean horizon like a lifeline. The sharp sting of a cut made her look down to see that she’d scraped her hand on the roughened edge of a break in the driftwood. Small wonder. Her hands were shaking worse than those of a nervous teenager out on a first date. The only real surprise was that she hadn’t scraped them any worse than she already had. She forced them into fists to stop the movement.
Her father was enamored with the house from the first moment he saw it, the three of them standing hand-in-hand and staring up at it in awe after being used to a cramped two-bedroom apartment. But he’d loved it more for the history it represented, a link to his family’s heritage. Her mother, though...
Kat wrapped her arms around herself as the breeze off of the ocean picked up, sheltering her fists as much as she could against her body and steadying them further.
Her mother had exclaimed with pleasure over everything when they stepped inside the house that first time; as fuzzy as Kat’s memory was about things that had happened so long ago, she could still remember that part clearly. The graceful staircase, the charming antiques hidden beneath old bed sheets that protected them from dust, and, of course, the gardens.
The stab of grief that Kat felt was startling in its intensity considering how long her mother had been gone and how little she could remember about her in the first place. The truth was, she had trouble recalling her face clearly without the aid of a photograph, and if anything, she would have expected memories of her father to weigh on her. Well... the day was young, though.
The breeze died down, and with the sun up past the horizon now and shining on her fully, she shouldn’t have been as cold as she was. Getting to her feet, Kat called to the dog still frolicking in the surf. He dipped his muzzle in the water one last time and then trailed behind her as she began jogging toward home.
The position of the sun in the sky by the time they returned to the cottage made it likely that Kat’s grandparents were up by now; the scent of bacon in the air confirmed it. Judging by the way Pete bounded up the steps before her—stiff joints and all—he must have smelled it, too. He danced impatiently on his paws until Kat caught up with him, and as soon as she opened the door, he slipped inside. Kat followed.
“Ah,” her grandfather greeted her, looking up from where he sat at the table in his faded plaid bathrobe and with the morning paper spread out before him. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles and gave her a once-over. “There’s the birthday girl. Can’t have done too much barhopping last night if you’re vertical and moving at this hour.”
His wife shot him a dirty look from where she stood at the stove, scrambling eggs in a pan with a spatula. “Abe!”
“What? She’s of an age now, my dear. Shall I remind you of what we did on your twenty-first birthday?”
Gran picked up a nearby piece of toast from off of the chipped Formica counter and tossed it at him with more flair than actual force. He dodged it with an unrepentant grin, and the toast landed on the floor, to the dog’s obvious delight.
Taking the plate of food that Gran held out to her, Kat joined her grandfather at the kitchen table. “No bars. Mostly just walked around town a bit.”
Maybe Pete got his sense of optimism from Gran. A lie was no good here; she’d press for details, and Kat wouldn’t be able to provide convincing ones. Instead, she mumbled something noncommittal around a mouthful of bacon and refilled her grandfather’s glass of orange juice, pretending that she didn’t notice the glance he exchanged with his wife.
But Gran wasn’t one to give up easily. “You know, I was chatting with Marie Callahan a few days ago, and she said something about a party that her son and his friends were having on their stretch of beach this Saturday. Brad? No, wait—Brian, that’s his name. He was in your grade, wasn’t he? Anyway, there’ll be lots of college kids your age there. She said she was sure you’d be welcome to join them if you want.”
That was doubtful. Not that the woman had made the polite offer, but that her son and his friends would be pleased to see Kat there. She’d finished high school with most of them, but none of them were what she would have called friends. Her presence on the beach would only make them uncomfortable, just as it had in high school. And their presence would have the same effect on her. “Some other time.”
Gran nodded and turned back to the stove, but her shoulders slumped as she did so. For a few minutes, the only sounds in the kitchen were the clinks of forks against plates and the occasional snuffling of the dog as he waited hopefully for more food to drop on the floor. And then just as Kat’s grandfather cleared his throat as if to take another stab at chitchat, the phone rang.
They all froze, all but Pete, who continued searching for dropped scraps. The phone rang again, its sound tinny and harsh in the silence of the room, and Kat’s grandfather finally reached for it where it hung on the wall while his wife and Kat watched. “Hello?” he greeted the caller, his face expressionless, and even before he said the name, Kat knew who it was on the other end of the line. “Ah, Grace. We thought we might hear from you before long.” A pause, and then, “Kat? Well, let me check.” Covering the mouthpiece of the phone, he gave his granddaughter a questioning look.
After a moment, Kat nodded and reached for the phone with more steadiness in her hand than she’d expected. Thank God for small favors. Taking a deep breath, she greeted her stepmother. “Hello, Grace.”
Kat was ten years old when her father returned from honeymooning with his new wife to move her and her two children into the manor with them.
That day was easier to remember than the day she’d actually first met Grace, maybe because Grace on her own was rather easy to forget. She was a pale wisp of a woman, and the stylish and tailored clothes she wore—tasteful as they were—couldn’t disguise the fact that she was actually quite plain, a fact that was even more apparent whenever she stood next to her husband. Kat’s father had always turned heads even when he hadn’t wanted to, like during the first year or two after the death of Kat’s mother, Lily. When he finally began to smile again, he turned heads even more. Why he settled on Grace, Kat never quite understood, except that she knew he had a soft spot for things that needed rescuing. After the way her first husband had discarded her and their two children, maybe Grace qualified.
There were few things Kat remembered about that day, other than being pleased to have her father back home again; her grandparents stayed with her while he was away, which was fine, but not the same. They had followed Kat out the front door to greet the new arrivals, their greeting polite but reserved. Small wonder, considering just whose shoes Grace was there to fill.
But a few things did stand out in her memory, even now. The way Grace’s eyes followed her new husband around like those of a shy schoolgirl with a desperate crush; the disdain on her teenage son Michael’s face when he noticed, although it seemed directed more toward his new stepfather than toward Grace. And the then nine-year-old Alexis sticking out her tongue, of course, when she seemed sure no one but Kat was watching. Michael at least went off to college two months later, and other than a few stiff visits during holidays, he was seldom around after that. Too bad the same couldn’t be said about Alexis, and the unwelcome surprises she delighted in leaving for her new stepsister. The rats and mice at least had been dead; the spiders usually were not.
No, the two girls had not become the fast friends their parents hoped they would. Be patient, Kat’s father had pleaded with her. Be forgiving. Given the way her own father had all but drop-kicked her out of his life, Alexis was an unhappy child after all.
She wasn’t the only one.
Remembering that now, Kat couldn’t quite suppress the prickle that went down her spine. She turned her eyes toward the ocean and let the porch swing sway beneath her in a lulling kind of way.
“Thinking things over?” came Gran’s voice from the doorway, and a moment later the older woman emerged to sink down onto the swing beside her granddaughter, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. It was warm out for a drink of that kind today, but old habits clearly died hard. She blew on the coffee, cradling it in hands that were beginning to show the knobbly bends of arthritis.
“Well, I suppose it probably is worth a fair bit. You could even pay off your student loans, you know, with a little something left over for a nest egg. Wouldn’t that be nice? History buffs would probably go for a place like that. Or... other types of folks.” Gran frowned into her coffee, and Kat suspected she was remembering a particularly callous reporter who’d pestered them for gruesome details and an interview after her father’s fall. “Grace planning on moving along, or is she after you to be her landlord in an official capacity now?”
“We didn’t cover any of that.” Not yet. She’d seen no reason to dredge that kind of thing up at this point. A different thought had taken hold instead, a nagging, uncomfortable one pre-empting all others about the house.
“Can’t imagine why she’d want to stay in that house anyway. Why she did to begin with is beyond me. Not exactly the homiest place, and after what happened to Jonathan, you’d think she—” She bit her lip then and took a sip of her coffee, casting a sideways look at Kat.
Walking on eggshells again. Poor Gran. Would there ever come a time when she’d no longer feel it was necessary?
“No rush to work out the details yet, I guess,” Gran said a moment later, gamely trying again, and she patted her granddaughter’s knee. “Sign whatever needs to be signed, and then forget about it for a while. Enjoy the summer first and rest—or wait until next year, even, after you’ve graduated. Decide what you want to do with it then. I’m sure Grace won’t mind putting things off a little longer.”
Kat shifted in her seat wordlessly.
Her silence seemed to unnerve Gran, because the older woman turned her head sharply to look at her. Uncanny, the way she so often seemed to have a sense of when she was about to be delivered news she wouldn’t like. Or maybe Kat just lacked a decent poker face.
How to tell her? Especially when Kat was struggling so much with it herself. She opened her mouth to try, but her grandmother cut her off before she could, sudden comprehension dawning on her face.
“Oh, Kat, no. No.”
“I think I have to.”
“Nonsense. This is the twenty-first century. If they have paperwork they want you to sign, there’s no reason why they can’t just fax it all to you or something.”
“I’m not talking about the paperwork.”
From the look on her face, Gran had been well aware of that fact; she’d just been hoping otherwise. “It’s too soon for that sort of thing, though.”
“Too soon? It’s been six years.”
“Six years is nothing. Wait until you’re my age, then you’ll see. You should wait until, well... until you’re...” She trailed off and looked away, her fingers fidgeting with the coffee cup.
“Better?” Kat finished for her, unoffended.
“If you’d just give Dr. Latimer a chance first, honey. Give her a few months and see if things turn around. Couldn’t you?”
“Funny. That’s exactly what you said about the last one.” The last three, actually.
Kat shook her head.
“Stubborn girl,” her grandmother muttered beneath her breath, and she set her cup down on the porch as if she’d lost her taste for the coffee that was inside it. “All right, have it your way. Just give your grandpa and me a couple of weeks to get someone lined up to cover the shop for us and to look after Petey, and then we can go.”
The offer to accompany her ought to have come as a comfort and a relief to Kat, knowing that she wouldn’t have to face stepping over the dreaded threshold alone. Instead, the thought of her grandparents being at the house sent a sharp stab of anxiety through her, and it didn’t matter that she knew it was irrational—houses couldn’t really be unlucky. Her gut lurched anyway. “You’re not coming with me.”
“Oh, yes, we are! I don’t care how old you are now, young lady. I am still your grandmother.”
“I don’t want either of you anywhere near that place.” The words came out more harshly than Kat intended, and she could tell by the expression on Gran’s face that the older woman was startled. She couldn’t have been completely surprised; she knew Kat’s feelings about the house, and she even shared them to some degree. For different reasons, though. She had only ever visited the house, never lived in it. There was a difference. “Sorry,” she said after a moment, softening her tone.
Her grandmother was silent. Not, Kat suspected, because she had been offended, but because she worried what Kat’s outburst meant about her state of mind.
“I’m not going to try to hurt myself again, Gran, I promise,” Kat added, looking the other woman in the eye to show that she meant it but knowing words could only do so much to reassure. And if her grandmother had known the full truth about what had happened before, she would have been even less reassured. “I’m better now. You know that.”
“I know you’re better when you’re here,” her grandmother said tersely, and although it was hardly a direct reference to what had happened six years ago, it was far less tiptoeing around the subject than she usually did.