The house smelled of stale cigarettes and booze. Memories of harsh voices, dishes breaking, and slamming doors made my stomach ache. Just like that, I was a kid again. Not a grown man of thirty-three, but a terrified child wrapped in rough cotton sheets, burying my head under the covers and pretending I was somewhere else—someone else.
Glass and sand crunched under my Italian leather shoes as I made my way from the enclosed porch into the living room. I stared at the huge, gray stone fireplace, now cold and black. I used to sit for hours on that brick hearth, mindlessly feeding wood into the hot, orange flames, worrying what mood he’d be in when he got home. If he was happy, and things had gone well at work, there was a chance the evening would be quiet and calm. I’d do my best not to misspeak or upset him. I’d be a good little boy.
But I couldn’t control her words. Her belittling vitriol was constant, always trying to tear him down. Sometimes, when her words weren’t enough to get a rise out of him, she’d throw things at him, egging him on. She seemed to enjoy his rage, while I died inside with every bitter word and slurred insult.
I jumped as the Realtor, Mrs. Burdge, cleared her throat behind me, bringing me back to the present with a jolt. “Well as you can see, Mr. Johnson, she didn’t keep the house up after he…died.”
I found my voice. “Was it like this when she was alive?” I pointed to the large cracks in the windows where the brocade curtains fluttered as the cool autumn breeze sifted into the room.
“My understanding is she stayed mostly to her room and the kitchen.” Mrs. Burdge’s tone was apologetic—as if she was sorry she had to tell me what a fucking lunatic my mother had been.
“She had a girl who came in to help her, I think, right?” I asked. My foot caught on the leg of an overturned side table, and I stumbled slightly before catching myself on the back of a chair. His chair. I lifted my hands away quickly as if the piece of furniture was hot.
She nodded, watching me with a curious expression. “Alice. She’s the one who found her.”
Poor Alice. She might never recover from the shock of walking in on the still, cold body of a dead person. Or was that just me? I found myself staring at the floor as if my mother’s corpse might appear there. Mrs. Burdge had her gaze on me, so I pretended to be the grownup lawyer I appeared to be. The people here didn’t know me anymore. It was safe to play the part of the normal, successful son of the pathetic town crazies. I’d escaped Bayville and made something of myself in Los Angeles, and I needed to remember that.
“Are you going to sell the house?” Her voice was sharp, birdlike, making me think of vultures and twittering hyenas. The place was in shambles now, but the rambling old home came with twenty acres of prime real estate. There wasn’t a Realtor around who wouldn’t give their left arm to earn the commission on this multimillion dollar sale. “Or were you thinking of moving back to Bayville and living here yourself?”
I know I looked horrified at her suggestion, but I quickly gathered myself. “I won’t be living in this house ever again, Mrs. Burdge,” I said confidently. She couldn’t realize the personal triumph I felt at merely walking inside the place.
She brightened as she spoke. “I can handle all the details for you if you’d like?”
I thought for a moment I heard the cha-ching of a cash register in her head. “It would sell for more if I had cosmetic repairs done, correct?” I asked, squinting at the vaulted ceiling. It had good bones and could no doubt be restored to its original splendor with a little effort and money.
She frowned. “Yes. That would of course bump up the asking price.” She tapped her foot. “However, it would delay putting the home on the market also.”
“That’s true. But, I want to get as much money for it as I can.” I didn’t want to hang on to this place, but I wanted to be smart about the sale.
I didn’t need the cash quickly, but a little extra dough never hurt anybody. I made good money from my work in LA as a criminal defense attorney. I had a very successful practice there. Several high-profile celebrities, who shall remain nameless, had padded my bank account nicely over seven of the last fifteen years. “I’ve seen the comps in the area, and if I can get around five hundred thousand extra out of the deal by making the house presentable, then it’s worth the wait.”
“Whatever you think is best,” she said smoothly.
“I plan on hanging around town a couple of weeks to keep an eye on the renovations. I haven’t taken much time off in the last few years, and I could use a short break.” I had no intentions of sitting by the pool sipping drinks with umbrellas in them, and I doubt I’d know how to enjoy a real vacation if I tried. But I needed some rest whether I wanted it or not. I’d been having debilitating migraines lately, and my doctor felt it was probably stress related. I’d grudgingly agreed to take a few weeks off, mostly to get him off my back, but I’d been careful to bring my laptop.
“Would you like to see the rest?”
“No. I’ve seen enough for today.” I moved awkwardly toward the door, and she followed. “As you know, it’s been a while since I’ve been here. Would you be able to give me some names of contractors who are reputable?” I asked.
“I know several. I’ll have them meet you here tomorrow if you’d like. There are two I especially like, and they could give you a bid on the spot.” She paused next to my car and pinned me with her bright gaze. “Do you think I’ll be the Realtor of choice when the time comes to sell, Mr. Johnson?”
I nodded. I liked people who didn’t beat around the bush. Secrets and games made me nauseated. “Absolutely.”
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