Slightly non-PG for Sexual Content
It was hard to sleep. The bed was too soft. Bernbriar manor was too far from the street. I had never slept without the lullaby of sirens and drunks right outside my window. Here on the moor, there were no lights or noises to reassure me that the real world was still out there.
My room smelled a little too tastefully of freesia. Anais did it that way. My sinuses burned—a wish for an allergy. I sucked at the back of my throat until my tonsils felt red and raw, imagining the headache I would have in the morning. I turned over on my back, put my scented pillow over my face and bit into the silk and feathers.
It was no help.
Short of running away, there was nothing I could do. And what kind of idiot would runaway from this? Bernbriar made celebrity mansions look like dog houses. My older sister and her husband were giving me a world class education; all of my nephews were perfect-little-instrument-playing-spelling-bee-winning-children-of-the-corn. Soon, maybe I would be too. Everything was perfect.
I tossed aside the handmade duvet and began to pace back and forth before the mantle. The fire had faded to ash, but the room was still warm. My stomach growled.
I could never eat much at their table. Every meal was too lavish. There were ice sculptures at dinner, fruit carved into animals that I had never even heard of—before me, nothing but a blur of forks. I had no idea that any one home could own so many forks, let alone use them all at one meal.
Sometimes I would find my way to the kitchen on nights like this. Without a word on my part, a pair of silent white gloves would deliver a mug of warm soup and a platter of crusty cheese sandwiches. But Anais had taken to joining me. There was only so much sisterly bonding I could take.
Instead, I opened a window hoping that the cold wind howling over the moors would come in and dissipate my sleeplessness. Maybe I was wrong for wanting to avoid my perfect sister. But I couldn’t think her as family yet. We had only really known each other a few weeks. Ama Josephine, our grandmother, had not mentioned her existence before she died.
I leaned out of the window as far as I could without letting my feet leave the floor. Tendrils of wind wound through my couture silk pajamas, raising goose bumps on my chest. The winds spoke like a person and it was easy to pretend that it was Ama talking to me.
“Woooooeeeeeeee!” she howled.
“Don’t be sad.” I murmured to my imagined grandmother. The cold wind brought icy tears to my eyes. “You’re at peace now.”
“But everything is okay now,” I told her. She deserved peace, no matter how much I would miss her. “Annais is taking care of me. I’ll be alright.”
“Goooooooo!” The window panes began to shake and lightening split the sky. In the after burn of that crack of lightening, I thought I saw Ama standing in front of me. She didn’t look the way she did before she died, but I knew the frown on her face too well. I remembered it from when I was small and my grandmother could still be the adult, before the pneumonia and the dementia and the cancer, back when the words ‘opportunistic infection’ meant nothing to me. She even smelled the way she used to--of cigarettes and cheap perfume. I stumbled back into the room. “Runnnnnnnnnnnn, Sooooophie, runnnnnnnnn!”
And with that, the window slammed shut in my face, the lock jamming down so hard that when I tried to wrench the window open once more, I couldn’t. It was as if it had been rusted shut all these years.
Suddenly shivering, I sat on my bed with my duvet wrapped around me. Sterling, the oldest of my perfect little nephews, had said that the old house was haunted. It didn’t occur to me to believe him in the light of day.
I jumped out of bed and rushed for the door. Anais or no, I didn’t want to be alone in this room a second longer. There would be no sleeping now.
It was my intention to head for the big formal dining room by overlooking the garden. That’s where I always went in my late night wanderings. I knew how to get there even in the dark, though I brought a small flashlight with me.
But the second that I opened my door, I heard it. A rhythmic growling and banging echoed throughout the house.
Growing up with paper thin walls, I was no stranger to the sound of two people going at it, but this was intense. The thick, ages old walls shook with the couple’s abandon. Animalistic moaning competed with the sound of thunder. It sounded as if someone was being eaten alive.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. My sister did have nine sons. All of that birds and bees stuff should have been nothing new.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. My sister did have nine sons. All of that birds and bees stuff should have been nothing new.
At least she wouldn’t be waiting for me at the dining room table. Tonight was a free pass.
But as I tiptoed out past all of the sleeping chambers in the west wing, the sounds became louder and louder. The noises sounded as if they were coming from the east wing.
The wing Sterling had told me was haunted.
Would they still have those kinds of urges?
Something in me highly doubted it. But then, who? A couple of the servants? They were practically ghosts themselves. All I ever saw of them were occasional flashes of white gloves. Even when I tried to catch a face or two in the corner of my eye, I would find nothing but shadow. Why would they go through all of that trouble to remain inconspicuous only to risk exposing themselves like this?
No it couldn’t have been the servants.
For the first time since my first morning here, I followed the corridor to the east wing. The noises grew louder and louder. The walls were positively shaking here as if they were being battered by a fallen tree over an over. Instead of human cries of delight or pain or even ecstasy, it sounded as if two bears had set up a boxing ring.
I let my flashlight beam wander over the forbidden wing. It was different from the west wing. Less flashy. Less stuffy.
Instead of the collections of old sinister paintings of laced up women from a hundred years ago and portraits of boys dressed in their Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, the walls here held simple collages of black and white photographs. In one of them, a beautiful blonde woman stood staring out at the ocean while the breeze rippled in her hair. In another, I saw a picture of my sister’s husband, Honore.
He was an ugly man. Small. Squat. With a slightly hunched back and misshapen nose. Most of his face was covered with an unruly white-streaked beard. Santa Claus, he was not. I had only seen him once or twice since I moved to Bernbriar a few weeks before. But Honore was unmistakable.
It was the bearskin. My brother-in-law goes about wearing a bearskin. It’s practically fused to his body. The poor bear’s fur is matted together with the human hair that has grown through the tattered hide. Honore looks worse than something that crawled out of the Ozarks in the year 1806.
The beam of my flashlight skipped over my ugly brother-in-law and came to rest on a new picture.
A man with shoulder-length blonde hair stood leaning against a snow white horse. He was stripped to the waist and sunlight gleamed off of his lean muscles. With one eye he looked at the camera, but with his other, he looked up at the horse as if the two shared some kind of secret.
And that one eyed inside joke with the horse broke my heart. I knew that I would never know what they found so funny. It was so weird and lonely living at Bernbriar. A single hot tear threatened to spill out of the corner of my eye.
I had to shake myself. Was I loosing my mind? This place was making me soft. I had never cried over a picture before. There were so many things in my life more worthy of grief. It was stupid to long for something so stupid and two dimensional.
It was then that I had noticed the noises had stopped. The lovers were done. The ferocious bears would probably go to sleep.
So I let my flashlight wander the photos again, my heart leaping every time I found the man with the horse. I found with once with a surfboard tucked under his arm. In another photograph, he leaned against the door of an old-fashioned race car. In other places I saw him as a young boy. I dreaded finding the requisite awkward prom picture. Not because I didn’t want to see him all dolled up, but because I didn’t want to see him with his arm held stiffly around another girl. A muscle unclenched around my heart when I realized that it wasn’t there. Of course not. The photographs on the wall were too tasteful.
Who was this guy? And what relationship did he have with ugly, bear-wearing Honore? I scanned the photograph in hopes of finding some answers.
The guy seemed to have two older brothers. They each had the same blonde hair and the same joking eyes. The beautiful blonde woman on the beach was probably his mother. But what did that make Honore? His uncle?
At long last, I found an old family tree, penciled by one Wyvern de Hoof, age eight.
But before I could begin to decipher the eight-year-old’s tiny writing, a set of footsteps came shuffling towards me. I was overcome with a sense of guilt for wandering around the manor this late at night. Sterling had all but told me that this wing was off limits. I dove into an alcove, hiding myself behind a dying potted plant.
The light grew brighter and brighter. It struck me that this was one of the lovers. What could they possibly want, now? But who else would be down this wing? I’m not sure whether I was curious or repulsed.
It was probably just a couple of squatters. I mean, who leaves half a house completely unoccupied? This would have been a gold mine for some of the folks I had known back in the tenements.
Still, I watched.
What would Anais want me to do? Tell her, so that she could have them forcefully removed? Would she think that they were a threat to the boys? A threat to me?
Inwardly, I scoffed. That would be silly. There was more than enough house here to share with a couple of luckless bums. And how many times had someone over looked my presence and Ama’s presence after the bank had taken our home? I had a debt to pay forward. Maybe I also owed Anais something for taking me in. But it would have to be something else.
Actually, I thought. I can afford to be even more generous now. There was so much food at every meal, my closets are bursting with hand-made one of a kind couture and I have more books than I know what to do with. Maybe, just maybe, if I got a glimpse of them, I would know just how to play fairy godmother.
Maybe I could also advise them to keep it down.
The thought broke off in my head. The light filled my dark hallway. It stung the back of my retinas. I blinked hard to focus them.
Honore. It was Honore. Ugly, dead bear wearing Honore tottering down the hallway as if he had been riding a horse for the last two days.
In the name of all the things I never wanted to know. My brother-in-law had a mistress. A mistress that he hides on the ‘haunted’ side of the house. He lied to his own kids. He lied to my gorgeous, overzealous sister.
Who was she? Was it this woman in the pictures? I turned my flashlight back on and studied her face, trying to figure out what she had that Anais didn’t. The woman was beautiful, in a sharp, devastating sort of way, but her face lacked something. She didn’t look capable of love, I decided. There was nothing soft about her. She looked like the sort of woman who served babies’ eyeballs on crackers as appetizers. Maybe I was a little biased on behalf of my sister. So what, if she was the horse-guy’s mom? Blood is still thicker than water. Even thicker than the guy's shiny golden curls.
Slowly, I made my way over to the faded old family tree. It was funny. I didn’t even know Honore’s last name. Was Honore the guy’s father or step-father? Step-father, probably. I wanted the guy to have nothing of Honore in him.
De Hoof. I rolled the words in my mouth. It reminded me of the old meat packing plant on the south side of the city. Boil de Hoof to make stock. Use de Hoof and the bones to make gelatin.
The paper was old. Like a thousand-years-should-be-in-a-museum-somewhere-because-it’s-about-to-crumble old. But Honore’s name was there. Someone must have added it with surgical equipment or something equally as delicate and precise.
But something was wrong.
Her name was de Hoof too. There were two little rings that joined them together. Wedding ring symbols. A year scratched out so that I couldn’t read it. Estelle de Hoof. Mother to Luca, Forester and Wyvern de Hoof.
Estelle. She would have a name like that.
And then I knew the truth.
There was a wedding band on his hand, but I never saw one on my sister’s.
Honore was not my sister’s husband.
We were the squatters.
This was someone else’s house.
And my sister had taken someone else’s husband.
I spun around at the sound of my name. The guy—the one from the pictures—the one that really belonged in this house—was looking up at me from the bottom of the stairs.