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Grace emerged from the bedroom, disheveled and restless. The position of the moon let her know there were still many hours of night left ahead of her. She watched from the window as it traced its path across the clear sky, wrapping its cool embrace around the house. Its gaze remained fixed on her even as it traveled, silently
passing from one window to the next. No clouds broke the trance of its insistent stare.
She trod barefoot through the hallway and into the kitchen, taking no precautions to avoid the shards of shattered glass that littered the filthy linoleum. Her ears registered the crunching of the chunks she stepped on, but her brain refused to transfer that information to her eyes or her feet.
Blood pooled from the inside arch of her right foot, leaving a watery trail of droplets behind her. She paid no attention to them. Like breadcrumbs strewn upon the ground, they would help her stumble through the forest of the empty house, back to her bed, when sleep finally decided to visit her.
Olivia squealed with delight as Jeff stepped into the kitchen of their apartment. She knew by the way he was grinning that he already heard the news. The Daltons had accepted their offer. They were going to be homeowners.
From behind his back Jeff produced a bouquet of wildflowers. Coneflowers, day lilies and asters all bobbed their delicate heads as Olivia leapt into his arms. He managed to save most of them before Olivia crushed them with her embrace.
Dropping the bouquet on the cluttered countertop, he wrapped his arms around her, and twirled her around the room. They giggled as they made impromptu plans for the house – her childhood rocking chair would be restored and refinished, they would need a new television to hang on the living room wall, they would entertain their friends on the patio. They needed a color scheme. They needed new pillows, new furniture, new curtains…
Later that evening, they sat on mismatched chairs and toasted to the beginning of their future with plastic cups and cheap champagne.
Three states away, James and Alice Dalton also celebrated the pending sale of the house. Theirs, however, was a more somber affair. Alice sat stiffly on the brocade duvet, and James slowly paced across the plush carpeting. Each held a crystal flute in their hands. Neither one of them spoke. The pain each felt was palpable to the other, and no words were needed to express their thoughts.
A tear trickled down Alice’s cheek, where she dabbed at it with a kerchief, before tilting her hear back and choking down the contents of her glass. James watched, in anguish, as tears slid from beneath her closed eyelids. He knew there were no words that could soothe Alice’s grief, or his, for that matter. Instead of speaking, he took her cue, downing the champagne in one hasty gulp, before refilling each of the glittering flutes.
The sun emerged, in the bluest of skies, to the sound of songbirds rejoicing its arrival. A faint breeze fluttered the flimsy curtain of the window where Grace stood transfixed. She watched with detached fascination as a pair of doves flittered around on the lawn, frolicking and playing as if their lives would never end.
A tom cat lurked by the fence, and Grace secretly willed it to snatch up one of the pair, if for no other reason, than to remind them that life is fleeting and unpredictable. The tom, whose interest had been peaked by something hidden from Grace’s limited view, slunk away in the opposite direction.
A scowl of disappointment briefly darkened Grace’s face. She let the thin gauze of the curtain settle back into place, as she stepped away from the window. The light that filtered through its material accentuated the crimson trail of her blood from the night before. She followed it back into the bedroom. Once there she closed the door, drew the blinds, and sank into the king size bed, accepting its embrace like a cocoon.
Moving day came like dervish. The remaining debris in the house had been hauled away, and the few salvageable belongings were donated somewhere by the Daltons. To Olivia it seemed she had just received the call letting her know the house was theirs, and now it was time to take ownership.
The formality of signing the paperwork did nothing to dampen Olivia’s enthusiasm. She was only slightly dismayed that the Daltons did not appear for the closing, choosing instead to have their paperwork handled by their attorney. Olivia had wanted to thank them in person, but she made the firm decision to not let their absence darken her mood. She would just drop a note in the mail.
For the rest of the day Jeff and Olivia trekked back and forth across the front lawn, depositing their sparse belongings into their new home. Olivia waved to the kitty that watched their intrusions with disdain from the safety of the fence. The orange striped cat’s presence delighted her as she tried to coax it into the yard.
As dusk approached, they sat together on the disheveled couch, grimy and weary from the day’s efforts. They held hands while watching the sun set through the living room window. The shadows it cast in the evening’s amber light spoke of promise and comfort and new beginnings.
Jeff was already on his way to the office when Olivia awoke the next morning. The sheer curtain of the bedroom window ballooned in the morning breeze. She smiled, thinking Jeff must have opened it before leaving for work.
Olivia wound her way among the boxes that lay scattered throughout the hallway. Her job this week would be to find the perfect place for their belongings. She hummed to herself as she brewed a pot of coffee, making mental notes of where she would place each of them.
As she settled into a patio chair, she caught a glimpse of something shining in the sunlight. She placed her ceramic mug on the glass top table and reached into the crevice of the threshold. Wedged into a crack in the cement was a tiny silver cross. Olivia pried it from its hiding place and carried it to the table. It was dainty and delicate, and looked to Olivia like something a child might wear on a charm bracelet. The front was unadorned, but on the back a girl’s name was engraved in an elaborate cursive. Grace.
Olivia stared at it while sipping her coffee, trying to recall if the Daltons had any children. She never asked, but she was sure by now the trinket had long been forgotten. Shrugging her shoulders, she unclasped the chain she wore around her neck and slipped the cross onto it, before snapping the hasp closed. It lay safely nestled against her skin, perfectly hidden beneath the larger cross she already wore.
By the time Jeff came home from work, Olivia had everything unpacked and put away. The aroma of garlic and roasted chicken filled the cozy kitchen. They ate dinner and chatted happily about the day, Olivia omitting the discovery of the tiny cross. It was her special secret, a gift from the house for her to enjoy.
Two weeks later a mysterious letter arrived in the mailbox. It had no return address on it. Olivia’s name and address were hastily scrawled across the front of the crisp envelope. The spidery handwriting looked out of place amongst the computer-generated bills and junk mail.
Olivia absentmindedly fingered the tiny cross at her neck, a gesture she’d become accustomed to as of late. She plopped the rest of the mail on the counter, taking the letter with her into the den. She had chosen the back bedroom as the den because it felt the most inviting to her. It looked out upon a weathered oak tree, upon
which squirrels frequently chittered and scampered. She fancied one day starting a rose garden near the edge of the fence behind it. She could envision the stark white trellis beautifully laden with scarlet roses and lush green leaves. It readily became her favorite room in the old house.
Last week she purchased an antique rocking chair, which she planned to refinish. It perfectly complimented the small rocker that had been handed down in her family for three generations. Both now sat like mother and daughter, astute and beckoning to her from within the den.
Intrigued by the letter, Olivia settled into the chair to unwrap its mystery. She carefully slid the edge of an ornate letter opener she reserved for special documents under the tightly sealed flap of the envelope. The intoxicating scent of ink on paper, the pungent tang of the glue used to seal the envelope deserved such extravagance.
These were delicacies to be enjoyed and savored.
Olivia peered into the envelope and glimpsed the expensive stationary which rested inside it. Embellishing it was the imprint of a rose. In the same scrawling penmanship were a few confusing words: Please tell Grace I love her. The letter contained nothing else. No sender name, no greeting, no closing, just those few sparse words. Olivia folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope, then clutched it to her chest, as she pondered its cryptic message.
With the fingertips of her left hand she toyed with the tiny cross again. A sob escaped her lips, as she inexplicably began to cry, hot tears coursing down her enflamed cheeks.
Grace stood over the bed and watched as Olivia and Jeff slept. She reached out to softly graze her fingertips against Olivia’s sleep slackened face. Olivia’s eyes fluttered open, then crinkled in recognition when she saw Grace’s face. With one finger placed to her lips, Grace turned her back and exited the bedroom.
Olivia slid out of the bed carefully so as not to awaken Jeff. Quietly she tiptoed to the den, where she stood silently in the doorway for a moment. Sitting in the smaller of the rockers, looking back at her with precocious eyes, was Grace. Olivia took the book of fairy tales down from the shelf where she had left it the prior night. She sat next to Grace in her rocker and opened the book to a slightly earmarked page and began quietly reading to Grace.
She read tale and after tale until hours passed and dawn approached. It was time for Olivia to sneak back into bed before Jeff awoke for work. After returning the book to its shelf, she planted a kiss upon Grace’s blond head. They waved good night to each other as Olivia stepped into the hallway, closing the door to the den behind her.
Months had passed since Jeff and Olivia moved into the house. In that time, Jeff’s career seemed to flourish, and he easily spent more time at the office. For Olivia, his longer periods of absence were more welcoming than she would have imagined. At first, she spent the days tending to the domestic tasks related to home ownership. Preparing dinner. Mowing the lawn. Scouring bathtubs. Refinishing the rocker. Planting the rose garden.
At night, shortly after Jeff fell asleep, Olivia would vanish from their bed, disappearing into the den to read to Grace. As summer came to an end, and the nights grew longer, Olivia spent more and more time in the den. Sometimes the whole night would pass by, and Olivia would be startled to hear Jeff getting ready for
The first few times this happened, he had poked his head into the den to find Olivia feigning to sleep in the rocker, the book draped open in her lap. He lovingly chastised her, saying she would get a stiff neck if she kept falling asleep in the rocker, before kissing her goodbye and leaving for work.
As autumn progressed, Olivia found herself increasingly distracted throughout the day, her thoughts constantly shifting to the upstairs room at the back of the house. Sometimes a few days passed before she thought to shower or brush her hair. She lost an alarming amount of weight, and though she knew she should eat,
no food seemed to tempt her waning palate. She spent many days drifting listlessly throughout the house, perfunctorily performing the tasks she used to relish, until finally retreating into the comfortable confines of the den and her rocker, where she anxiously awaited nightfall.
Just this morning she awoke in her chair, Jeff stirring in the bedroom across the hall. Instead of feigning sleep, she preoccupied herself with the view outside the window. Winter arrived in the night, and a dusting of snow coated the brittle grass and scattered leaves in the yard. The oak stood amongst them like a sentry. Its sturdy trunk making a stark contrast with the pristine white of the newly fallen snow. She could feel Jeff’s presence in the doorway behind her. She already knew the look she would see on his face if she turned around.
In recent months he had quickly moved from amusement at finding her this way, to concern, then anger, and finally settling upon resignation. Minutes passed without a word passing between them. She didn’t even realize she was speaking until she heard the creak of the floorboards as Jeff retreated from the doorway. She had
been repeating the words “Grace needs me” over and over in her head for so long, they finally escaped her lips in a whispered mantra.
A faint smile played across her lips, as she heard the front door close behind him. She shifted her gaze to the small rocker beside her, taking the delicate hand of the child in it into hers.
James opened the front door with a sigh and was startled by Jeff’s appearance. His suit was wrinkled, and his jaw was in desperate need of a shave. The man clearly had not been sleeping well for quite some time. The skin beneath his eyes was dark and discolored. His body looked gaunt and his shoulders slumped beneath his jacket.
“Nice to see you again,” James said, remembering his manners. Reaching forward to shake Jeff’s hand he said, “Please come inside.” Jeff returned the handshake and stepped into the hall. His eyes scanned the room behind it, and he mumbled, “Is Mrs. Dalton home?” James lowered his eyes before responding. “No,” he replied, after pausing to regain his composure. “I’m afraid she has fallen ill again.”
He cleared his throat before blurting out, “I have a feeling I know why you are here. I would like to say I’m surprised to see you, but the truth is, I’ve been expecting you for quite some time. I’m actually surprised it has taken this long for you to come.”
James took Jeff’s jacket and gestured towards the living room. Jeff stared at the flames in the roaring fireplace, trying to find a way to begin. Before he could speak, James began for him by saying, “I’m sure you are here about Grace.” At the mention of the girl’s name, Jeff visibly winced, and James knew his worst fears were true.
“Grace is,” he began before pausing, interrupting himself to correct his word choice. “I should say, Grace was, our daughter. Alice lost her early in her first trimester. She was in the middle of preparing for the baby’s room when it happened. Sorrow tinged James’ voice, and Jeff could see him forcing back tears as he related the story. James continued to tell Jeff about the room they had chosen for the baby, how Alice had loved the view of the oak tree from the back window.
He spoke of their excitement at having a child so late in their years. He told of Alice’s difficult pregnancy, of their plans for the child, of the beautiful charm bracelet Alice had bought for the baby, even without knowing the baby’s sex, of the delicate cross with her name engraved on the back of it. James’ tale turned from joy to sorrow as he related the events that transpired after the miscarriage.
James’ tale turned from joy to sorrow as he related the events that transpired after the miscarriage. He spoke of Alice’s illness, of the long nights she spent isolated in what was to have been the baby’s room, of the discussions he heard her carry on with no one.
He spoke of the room itself, how he could barely bring himself to enter it. Up until then he spoke in monotone. But as he became more agitated, his voice rose, startling Jeff as he slammed his hand down on the end table.
“Alice became obsessed with that room. No matter what I tried I couldn’t keep her from going in there. I tried locking the door from the inside, barricading it from the hallway, begging her to stop torturing herself.” He paused for a few moments before picking the monologue up again.
“Day after day she sat in that room, murmuring to herself, crying in long, jagged spates, bursting into bouts of hysterical laughter. After a few weeks, I just finally packed up our things and moved us away from there. We left what we couldn’t move in a hurry. Alice completely lost it. She was hospitalized for a year before being able to come home. That’s why I was so surprised when she suggested this past spring that we sell it. I thought maybe we were finally going to be able to move on, but she relapsed shortly after the two of you moved in.”
Fear overwhelmed Jeff as he stood outside the den door. His hand turned the doorknob, but the door refused to yield. It took a few minutes before he realized it was locked from the inside. His stomach lurched as he thought of Olivia sitting in there.
There was something cold and dark in there. He could feel the draft through the gap between the door and the floorboards. Why hadn’t he noticed it before?
Jeff pounded on the door, calling Olivia’s name. Only silence answered from inside the room. Jeff’s knocks became more frantic. He heaved himself against the door, finally snapping the frame and falling into the room. Olivia’s back was turned to him.
Something – “EVERYTHING,” his brain screamed – was very wrong in here. The tilt of her head was odd. The empty rocking chair beside her was moving back and forth. The window was wide open even though it was freezing it outside. Jeff stumbled across the room to where Olivia sat. One look at her pale face told him he was too late. She was already dead. Her eyes stared blankly ahead. A hint of a smile traced her lifeless lips. In her lap her hands lay clasping the book of fairy tales.
It was soaked with the blood that had gushed from the jagged wounds in both of her wrists. The letter opener lay on the floor beside her, having fallen to the floor after she had used it to slit her wrists. On the desk next to her was a note. It simply read: Grace needs me. Jeff backed out of the room sobbing, scrambling for the cell phone in his back pocket. As he dialed 911, he heard the distinctive tinkle of a child’s laughter, echoing in the hallway around him.