"One hundred! Ready or not, here I come!" The echo of my cry bounced around the hall in Henrietta’s house for a moment before dying out. As silence returned I could hear the creaking of the parquet floors upstairs. It was my cousins looking for places to hide.?We played hide-and-seek nearly every day, but I rarely got to be the seeker. Both Wilma and Erland said that it wouldn’t be fair, as I could find my way around Henrietta’s house so much better than they could. I suppose they were right, as Dad always let me tag along when he was looking after Henrietta, but it’s still not much fun when you hardly ever get to be the seeker.
And, besides, you’d have expected my cousins to know their way around by then. Wilma and her mum, Dad’s sister Kajsa, had arrived over three weeks before, and Erland and Signe had been here since school broke up. Their dad, Uncle Daniel, worked at the university, so he had the summers off.
But no one had been at Henrietta’s house as long as me and Dad. Apart from Henrietta herself, of course.
The afternoon light fell through the stained-glass mosaic in the window up above the stairs and seeped out in pale-coloured stains across the floor in the hall. The floor was black and white, like a chessboard, and sometimes I remembered playing a sort of pretend chess there when I was little. I remembered the feeling very clearly, and I remembered that somebody else was there with me. Henrietta, perhaps, in the days when she could still walk on her own.
I quickly searched the ground floor. There weren’t that many places to hide, as Henrietta had sold or given away most of her furniture since she’d been living here alone. Dad says that she’d been preparing for death for a long time.
Many of the rooms were completely empty now; just some junk against the walls, or a cupboard too heavy to be moved. When you’re playing hide-and-seek, that emptiness is good for the seeker and bad for the hiders.
I slunk through the dining room, the parlours and lounges and the corner room, which was called the Office, and continued towards the conservatory, which was a large, glassed-in room at the back of the house.
There was no one there, and no one in the kitchen or the pantry either. Not even Signe, my youngest cousin. Signe usually hid close to the kitchen because she was a little afraid of the dark.
On the great stairs leading up to the first floor and the drawing rooms, I stopped and listened. The creaking had stopped; they had probably all found places to hide. They could be anywhere.
Dad said that he hardly knew how many rooms there were in Henrietta’s house, but that was just him talking. He knew as well as I did that there were nineteen. Twenty with the conservatory. Ten of the rooms were bedrooms—if you counted the two tiny ones behind the kitchen that used to be the cook’s room and the maid’s room, when Henrietta and my great- grandfather were kids nearly a hundred years ago.
I had barely started looking through the drawing rooms when I saw somebody standing on the stairs leading up to the second floor. At first I thought it was Erland lurking there in the shadows on the landing with his arms hanging down beside him. But luckily it wasn’t. It was Signe, Erland’s little sister.
"What’s up, Signe?" I asked. "Can’t you find a place to hide?"
Signe shook her head. She looked frightened. Both Erland and Uncle Daniel treated Signe as if she were a dimwit, just because she never said anything. She wasn’t. She just didn’t like talking.
I went up to the landing where Signe was standing and reached out my hand towards her.
"Come," I said. "I’ll help you."
Signe took my hand and together we climbed the stairs towards the bedrooms. When we reached the dark corridor leading to my room, I could feel Signe’s hand tightening around mine. I squeezed her hand back.