I Won't Tell if You Don't
Episode Nine of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
They stopped at Nance’s cottage and she gave them the key for the farmhouse. “I don’t have the spare for the barn – I think Ryan does. And, um, I really have to hit the john. You guys go ahead without me.” She hurried back into her place and shut the door.
“Muggle,” Gina muttered. “I knew she’d wuss out. She always does.” She drove on down to her own cottage and they got out of the car, Dee struggling to get her long legs out of the back seat of the 2-door.
“Why a Mini-Cooper?” she grumbled. “It’s so little.”
“I saw ‘The Italian Job’ at a young and impressionable age.” At Dee’s uncomprehending look, she said, “Really? You don’t know it? Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg? No? Honestly, your education has been neglected.” She opened the tiny little trunk area and pulled out a giant empty IKEA bag. “We should take this, and the crowbar, and I’ll get some gardening gloves, and – hmmmm – maybe some face masks? In case it’s real dusty up there?”
Dee just stared at her. “Oh yeah. Those will protect us from the Prince of Darkness all right.”
Gina gave her a look and pulled out the taser again, slipping on the wristband. “Don’t you worry. I’ve done dozens of Escape Rooms. Whatever’s up there, I’ll have it whimpering in submission in no time.” She handed the IKEA bag to Dee. “You grab the photo albums and the letters, I’ll look for anything else that seems useful. In and out, zip-zip. Let’s go.”
They had to break the boards off the back door, using the crowbar. After waiting a couple of seconds to make sure everything was peaceful inside, they unlocked the door and went in. On the second floor, all was quiet. Gina glanced around at the delicate décor of Antonia’s rooms and mimicked gagging.
Up the stairs to the attic they went, Gina with her taser at the ready. The room was quiet. A bit cold. Most of the potted herbs had died for lack of water and they smelled disgusting. Dee quickly began shoving the photo albums and letters into the IKEA bag and Gina headed for the old wardrobe.
“I don’t know if we should open that,” Dee said, but it was too late. Gina had thrown both doors wide open and a blast of cold air and nasty odors rushed out, grabbing both women by their throats. Gina began coughing violently and started pointing the taser in all directions. She pulled the trigger and the two darts shot out. A spasm of blue light erupted and she dropped the device, howling.
“Oh, great, now it’s pissed off!!” Dee cried, barely choking out the words.
Gina got thrown against the wall, but she managed to swing the crowbar and smash a window. All the air in the room seemed to whoosh out and both women fell to the floor. After a few seconds, they crawled toward each other, drawing in huge lungsful of uncontaminated air. “Holy mother of Pearl,” Gina croaked. “Oh man, I peed my pants.”
Dee abruptly vomited on herself. After she spit out the last of the bile, she said, “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
They wearily got to their feet. The empty shelves of the wardrobe seemed to mock them. Maybe they’d just made things worse.
Across the room, the humpbacked trunk began to vibrate. Gina and Dee froze and then warily looked at each other. “I’m not opening it,” Dee whispered. “You open it.”
The trunk was padlocked with the key in place. As they watched, the key began to turn. “Oh, no you don’t!” Gina shouted and dove for it, jerking the key out before it could release the lock. She threw the key out the broken window. The trunk began to jump and jerk, the lid straining to open. Gina climbed on top of it and motioned to Dee to join her.
Even with both women sitting on it, the trunk continued to vibrate and began shimmying across the room. Dee screamed and Gina shouted, “You son-of-a-bitch!” Think you can outsmart me??!!” She pushed Dee off and grabbed one end of the trunk, hoisting it up to the windowsill. “I’ll show you who’s boss!” With one sudden move, she flipped the trunk out the window and watched it fall to the ground, smashing open.
A whirling, dark cloud erupted from the flattened trunk and flew up to encircle the outside of the house, like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz. It sucked all the light out of the attic and Gina crouched on the floor, wrapping her arms over her head, but feeling Dee’s hot breath in her ear. A rattling noise filled the air and almost seemed to lift the roof.
After a moment, things began to settle. The noise died down, the cloud moved on. Gina looked up from her position on the floor and saw that daylight once again streamed in through the window. “Probably shouldn’t have done that,” she croaked. “Too much adrenaline.”
“Ya think?” Dee asked.
Gina’s head snapped up. Dee’s voice came from across the room, over by the door to the stairs. She was all the way across the room, Gina realized. Must have landed there after being pushed off the trunk.
So then, Gina thought, with a shiver that ran all the way down her back and out her ass, who was breathing in my ear?
Dee and Gina rocketed down the stairs, falling all over each other, and made it out to the yard. The flattened trunk, split wide open and reeking of sulphur, smoked gently despite the light, pattering rain that had begun to fall. The women stumbled down the driveway, Dee carrying the IKEA bag of papers and books, and as they reached the end, she said, “We need to tell the others.”
“Those mouth-breathers? Please. They’ll just freak out.”
“They deserve to know!”
“Agggghhhh!” Gina exclaimed. “Listen, Puke-Shirt, we fixed it. We released the Whatever into the void and it’s gone. You should be thanking me. Go home and soothe your little researcher’s heart with those letters and move on. Personally, I feel great! I haven’t had a rush like this since the time I went bungee jumping off the Verzaska Dam in Switzerland. Real James Bond stuff. Man! I feel like She-Hulk, you know?”
“We have to tell them. Probably should tell Nance and Vonna first.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll send ’em a group text. Hey y’all, just FYI, did an exorcism at the farmhouse, all is well, Holy Smoke has moved on out. Group hug. Think that’ll do it?”
“Oh, go to hell.” Dee marched down the road to her own place. She took a lightning-quick shower and changed into clean clothes and then dumped the IKEA bag out on her table.
The photo albums fell out with a clatter, and one opened immediately, its pages dropping flat as if magnetized to the table. There were two exposed photos, both from the same era, probably early 1900’s. Black and white, quite sharp and of good quality, although they’d yellowed some. Both of a man and woman. The one on the left showed them both staring at the photographer with an intense gaze, faces grim. The other was creepier – the man had his hand wrapped around the back of the woman’s neck and her eyes were closed. He was looking down at her with a trace of a sinister-looking smile. Was it simply a moment caught when the woman blinked? Or did his expression indicate some kind of control he had over her? Dee didn’t like it.
The letters had scattered out of order, fanning out on the floor. As she gathered them, her gaze was arrested by scraps of words, phrases. For the past year, she had been deciphering the diaries of an American woman who had married into the British nobility after World War II. She had become accustomed to the fact that people writing under strong emotions sometimes became rather cryptic. They used initials to indicate certain people, or abbreviations or even code words. Their handwriting became erratic, they made spelling mistakes and sometimes transposed the letters within a word. But this handwriting, although a bit spiky due to a very fine-nibbed pen and fading ink, was quite precise. Orderly. Instructive. Indeed, these weren’t letters at all, despite being written on expensive stationery with an ornate, embossed B at the top. They appeared to be poems, or song lyrics, perhaps, without rhymes, but with a certain rhythm. Dee began reading the words under her breath.
Antonia sat at her desk, finishing her latest watercolor. It had been two weeks since her father dragged her out of Vonna’s house, since he’d shown his true colors.
Oh, he’d always been a tyrant, ranting and raving when things didn’t go his way, browbeating his wife until Mama had melted down into a pool of inertia and finally passed away as if glad to leave this life. But the idea of him having magical powers had never previously entered her mind. She hadn’t a clue about magical powers at all until coming into her own, and never considered that her father might possess them. She just thought he was a bully, through and through.
She looked down at her painting, at the paintbrush in her hand gently adding color and texture to the sketch of Robert’s cottage. Well, apparently it was Vonna’s cottage now. When this dried, she would use colored pens to add more details, to give a sharper edge to the soft watercolors. Already, the cottage was clearly delineated – the Craftsman design, the shallow gable and covered porch, the tapering columns – but she would want to give more detail to the garden area. She knew that by now, more of the flowers would be blooming, the greenery deepening and becoming more complex, entangling. Antonia swirled the tip of the paintbrush in a jar of water and mixed more combinations of green and brown and yellow, creating layers in the vegetation, highlights and shadows. She glanced from this painting to the others, a row of finished paintings pinned to the wall, a portrait of each of the cottages on Juniper Row. They were all quite lovely and accurate. And in each of the pictures, hidden eyes looked out, concealed in the shadows, keeping a watch on things.
Two weeks ago, on that day when her father dragged her home, she’d been terrified. Overwhelmed. With a single wave of his hand, he’d been able to silence herself and Vonna, and reduce them to quivering lumps of humanity, stripping them of any will of their own. It was shocking and frightening. She hoped never to experience such a complete loss of autonomy again.
But now . . . she thought again about that day. When they got home, he’d sat her down at the kitchen table and she’d stared at the salt and pepper shakers, the napkin holder, anything but him. “You have no idea of what you’re doing!” he’d snapped. “Vonna’s always been a fool, thinking this thing is a Gift. It’s not! It’s a curse! You start out thinking you can control it, but you can’t, and meddling with stuff you can’t understand is dangerous. Dangerous, you hear me?” He pulled out a chair and sat next to her, his face so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. She couldn’t look at him, just down at her own hands, locked together to keep them from shaking. The force of his voice was so strong that she had to lean away, hunching up her shoulder. “You’ve always been just a dreamer, floating through life without any direction, ignoring realities. Well, you can’t do that anymore! This shit is real.”
He reared back in frustration and anger. Antonia sat perfectly still, trying to marshal her thoughts. “I don’t ask much,” she began, her voice low and quavery. “I never have. Just to be left alone to do my own thing. Live my own life.”
“Yeah, well, you and your friends are meddling where you don’t belong.”
“They’re not my friends.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I bet they’re not. You never were able to make any friends, were you. Too weird. Useless, your whole life. No one ever liked you.”
And that did it. At those callous words, Antonia’s spine had stiffened. His voice carried on, hissing and thundering and snarling, the whole repertoire. He should have been a Shakespearian actor, she thought. All this drama.
A cold shell formed around her and she let his words slide right over her, like blades on ice. There might be scars but he couldn’t cut through. This was over. She was done letting him bully her. From that moment, she began to build a plan, and there would be no looking back.
Finally, his litany of all the ways she’d disappointed him complete, he sent her to her room like a rebellious teenager. The irony was complete when she saw that nothing had been changed in there since she’d moved out at eighteen. Posters on the walls, a decade-old desktop computer and TV, practically dinosaurs. Her old jeans and t-shirts in the drawers and closets, old DVD’s of Lord of the Rings and Hunger Games. Prowling restlessly, she’d gone through every drawer and cupboard, and that was when she came across her art supplies. Some of them were dried out and ruined – she’d been so careless as a teenager about cleaning up after a project – and she couldn’t help being slightly disgusted with her own aimless and unfinished pictures, but still, the thought came to her that in every life, no matter where you found yourself, you still needed to make good use of whatever strengths and skills you had. It was the beginning of a thought process that had led her here, to this moment, to this row of paintings of the dwellings of Juniper Row. And all those watching eyes.
That morning she phoned Jake. Over the past two weeks, she had been tempted many times to call him and ask him to help her escape, but she really had nowhere else to go, so it seemed best to stay put, make her father think she was penitent – or at least too cowed to put up a fight – and develop her plan. She regretted having had to leave behind all the work she’d already done in the attic, the ‘homework’ she’d assigned herself, to learn more about her powers. Vonna might have relied on one or two tricks to get what she wanted, but Antonia wanted so very much more.
Jake would arrive soon with her car, and he’d offered to let her stay at his place if she wanted, but she knew that would be unnecessary. Once she was able to get back into the attic, she could take the final steps needed to reach her goal. Independence and her own quiet style of life. That was all she’d ever wanted. Was it so much to ask? But independence requires resources, and that was where the Gift would come in. That and her paintings.
She had resorted to wearing her old high school clothes since arriving home, but now she showered and pulled on the vintage dress she loved so much. It was beautiful – printed in pale green and yellow flowers with a mid-calf hem, and it laced up the back like fashions from the 1800s. It made her feel like some kind of delicate woodland creature – a fairy or sprite – and as she braided her long hair, she stared at herself in the mirror. Admired her beautiful eyes, her long eyelashes. She was truly beautiful now, not the washed-out wallflower of old. Not the girl who made no impression on anyone, the one whose name people always forgot.
Antonia gathered the few belongings she cared about, including the paintings, and went silently down the stairs to the kitchen. Her father’s home was one of those big old houses in the historic Myers Park section of Charlotte. The outside was well-tended and dignified. Inside, it had been ignored. He didn’t particularly care about creature comforts. The kitchen was dingy and outdated, he rarely ate at home. He was gone now, off to his job, whatever that was. He’d never said much about it and now she realized she didn’t really know how he spent his days. All that mattered was that he was gone.
Jake pulled up outside the house at exactly 1:30, as promised. She climbed into the passenger seat and, leaning over, gave him a swift but passionate kiss. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re my hero.” They drove out of the city, toward the lake and Juniper Row. The lassitude caused by her father’s spell had long worn off, and she was ready for some action.
Jake drove her to a lakeside motel and dropped her off, leaving her car and walking the half mile or so back to his cottage. He kissed her before he left, and she knew he would do whatever she asked, with no need of magic. She would wait until after dark and then sneak into the farmhouse and retrieve her most important belongings. By this time tomorrow, she’d be back in control of her life.
The motel had a restaurant on the first floor, overlooking the lake, with boat-docking facilities and a long fishing pier. Antonia walked out to the end of the pier to breathe in fresh air and savor the sight of the clear blue sky. As she allowed her gaze to wander, she caught sight of smoke rising. Or maybe not smoke, but something, some black swirl of air suddenly rising in a coil and then just as quickly spreading out and dissipating until it was a mere haze above the lake. At the same moment, she felt as though an electrical charge had run through her body, from head to foot, and an expansion in her chest as though her heart had just burst its chains. She grasped the railing and stared as everything within her view became extremely vivid and focused, the colors enhanced. Something had happened. Some force had been released, and she knew it would be life-changing. She didn’t know what it was, but something important had happened. Something horrible and terrible and wonderful, all at once. A line had been crossed and things would never go back to what they’d been.
She wondered if her father felt it too.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
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