Suspicion: A Novelby Barbara Rogan
Novelist Emma Roth was convinced that New York City was the only place to live, until the day she encountered the old Victorian mansion overlooking the Long Island Sound. Her/b>
In the common course of events, people choose houses. Sometimes, though, it doesn't work that way. Sometimes houses choose people: They reach out, they whisper, they entice and enfold.
Novelist Emma Roth was convinced that New York City was the only place to live, until the day she encountered the old Victorian mansion overlooking the Long Island Sound. Her husband, Roger, a chaos physicist, was entranced by the ever-changing convergence of land, water, and air; their son, Zack, by a backyard large enough for a real game of soccer. But for Emma, it was the octagonal tower library, whose panoramic view suggested a sort of omniscience no writer could resist.
Yet no sooner do they move into their dream house than the seemingly impossible occurs. Characters in a computer game address cruel personal remarks to Emma. Her manuscript is tampered with, her home invaded, her family threatened. Before long it is obvious that her tormentor not only has access to her home and her computer's hard drive, but also to her innermost thoughts, secrets, and fears. Hers is an intimate enemy, both vicious and elusive.
Because these things happen only when Emma is alone in the house, she is driven to question her own sanity. Could Roger be right when he hints that it's all in her head? Local rumor has it that the house is haunted, but Emma, a writer of ghost stories herself, no more believes in real ghosts than professional magicians believe in magic. As the trespasses into her life grow more bizarre and more dangerous, suspicion is cast in ever-widening arcs, until Emma is left to question every relationship she has, including her marriage.
Suspicion is an irresistible and addictively compelling tale about a woman who is both haunted and hunted.
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Read an Excerpt
Maggie orders a double black espresso, earning a nod of approval from the Starbucks altar boy. He recognizes Emma and greets her with a marked diminution of enthusiasm. "Let me guess: house brew?"
Emma orders espresso to spite him. They find a quiet table by the window and sit down.
Maggie nods toward the counter. "Does that kid have something against you?"
"Nah, he's just a coffee snob. House brew doesn't cut it."
"Well," says Maggie, who supports an eight-cup-a-day caffeine habit, "it is a bit like ordering Dubonnet with a twist in a trucker's bar." She's dressed for work in a charcoal suit with a pencil skirt and black stockings, severe yet sexy. Emma feels a prime suburban frump in jeans and a pink sweatshirt. The shirt, a gift from Roger and Zack, reads, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
Roger took an earlier train, and Zack is in school. The sisters have half an hour before Maggie's train takes her back to the city for her twelve o'clock class. "I wish I could stay longer," she says for the third time.
"It's okay," Emma says. "I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. In fact, you look like shit."
"Thank you so much."
Emma looks at her, then down at the table. She doesn't want to tell Maggie about last night. What's the point, she asks herself. Who does it help? But the fear is so great inside her, it exerts so much pressure, she doesn't trust herself to speak.
"What?" Maggie says.
"Don't nothing me, girl."
Emma slides her chair closer to Maggie's. "Promise you won't laugh if I ask you something?"
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Maggie leans back and looks at her. "I don't believeorgan Peak's Main Street. Checks out the storefronts, stops in a bakery for a loaf of corn rye and a blueberry pie. The clerk is young, cheerful and chatty. "Have a nice day," she tinkles as Emma leaves. Next door is an art gallery featuring an exhibit of book illustrations. She considers going in, decides to return sometime with Zack. Then she comes to the library.
She has not yet set foot in the library. For weeks it's been on her list of things to do: She needs to apply for a card, scope out the reference facilities. In addition, there's a piece of research she's been meaning to get to -- an unexceptionable excuse to malinger.
The library is housed in a large stone edifice, vaguely Gothic in aspect, set back from the street and raised above it by six wide marble steps. Just inside the entrance is a circular check-out desk staffed by bustling women, rather like a nurses' station. To the right is a children's room, to the left, the fiction stacks, where Emma is cheered to find two of her older books and a copy of her latest on the "Recent Releases" shelf. At the far end of the stacks she emerges into an open area of tables and chairs, presided over by the research librarian's desk in the corner.
The man behind the desk looks like no librarian she's ever seen. A regular Adonis, her mother would have called him; Emma imagines that the teenage girls of Morgan Peak must make assiduous use of the library. He's a young guy, mid-twenties perhaps, with wide shoulders and a massive neck, black hair, blue eyes, and a square chin shadowed by a day's stubble. His hands dwarf the book he's holding. He looks up as she approaches. "Hi, can I help you?"
"I'm doing some research on a family that used to liv e here," Emma says. "I wondered if you could suggest some resources."
"Sure." He marks his spot in the book, closes it, and swivels toward his computer. "What's the family's name?"
He looks more closely at her. "Welcome to Morgan Peak, Ms. Roth."
Does she know him? No, she'd remember. "How do you know my name?"
"Small town. I heard the Hysop place went to a writer. Figured you'd turn up here sooner or later. We've got a whole bunch of writers living in the village."
Emma checks the nameplate on his desk and ratchets up her smile a notch. A well-disposed research librarian is a writer's best friend, as essential as ink. "Then I'm surprised at your welcoming another. You may come to regret it, Mr. Harris; I am forever needing help."
"It's Jeff," he says.
"Emma." She holds out her hand, which he shakes without rising. "Pleased to meet you," he says, and sounds it. "The Hysop family were longtime local residents, so your best bet's probably the Morgan Peak Observer, and after that Newsday. They're both available on microfilm, and the MPO has an index. Newsday does, too, of course, but they make you pay to use it. You could also try the Long Island Studies Institute over at Hofstra. They've got a special genealogy section and a huge collection of Long Island newspapers going back well over a hundred years."
Emma asks to start with the Morgan Peak Observer. Jeff rings a bell on his desk and in a moment a teenage page is dispatched to fetch the MPO reels. "Do you know how to use the microfilm machine?" Jeff asks.
"I've used them before. I'll figure it out."
"Ours is a little tricky. I'll show you when the kid brings the films."
Moments later the boy is back with a stack of six reel boxes. It's only then, as the librarian emerges from behind his desk, that Emma realizes he is in a wheelchair.
He shows her how to work the machine, then withdraws. In the index, Emma finds three references to Hysop, one for Arthur, two for Virginia.
Arthur's is an obituary. Arthur Hysop, distinguished educator, beloved husband of Virginia, died October 21, 1991, at the age of seventy-one. Cause of death "a long illness"; cancer, no doubt. The more recent of the two articles on Virginia Hysop is dated November 3, 1997, half a year before Emma and Roger bought her house, and it, too, is an obituary. Mrs. Hysop is described rather tersely as a former teacher at Morgan Peak High School, seventy-five years old at the time of her death. Cause of death an accident, unspecified.
Emma wonders what kind of accident. Auto, perhaps; people that age make dangerous drivers. Or some sort of household mishap, the kind common to elderly people living alone. She thinks about the stain at the foot of the library stairs, the crashing sounds last night, and a chill runs through her veins.
The earlier article, dated June 29, 1989, announces Mrs. Hysop's retirement from Morgan Peak High School after forty-five years as an English teacher. "Mrs. Hysop was the guest of honor at a farewell banquet given by the English department. The dinner, at Morgan Peak Hall, was attended by many notable former students, including Dr. George DeSica, principal of the high school, and Mr. Henry Larkin, chairman of the Morgan Peak School Board. Asked to sum up her career, Mrs. Hysop replied succinctly, 'Short but sweet.'"
That's it: three articles. Not much for two lifetimes of work. Strange t hat the paper didn't report Mrs. Hysop's fatal accident. A teacher for forty-five years: She must have known and been known by the entire town.
"How're you making out?" says a voice behind her.
Emma swivels and finds herself knee to knee with the librarian. "Not great. I don't suppose you happened to know Virginia Hysop?"
"Hell, yeah," he says feelingly. "Had her my senior year in high school. Last year she taught; just my luck."
"Tough teacher?" Emma asks.
He snorts. "I've known football coaches who were softer. She had a real bug about grammar and punctuation. Woman would crucify you for a missing comma. Scared the dangling participles out of me, I'll tell you that."
"You didn't like her."
"Not at the time. In retrospect, though? At least she cared. So many just phone it in. That one came to teach, and God help you if you weren't there to learn."
Emma smiles. "Not a bad epitaph for a teacher. I was surprised by how little coverage there was in the local paper, considering how well-known she was. The obituary mentioned that she died of an accident, but there was no report of the accident."
"Not surprising. The Observer's motto is 'All the news that's nice to print.'"
"What happened to her?"
"Please. I want to know."
"There was an accident," he says, looking away. "She fell down some stairs."
She nods as if she's known it all along, which in a way she has. "Who found her?"
"The police. Eventually."
Eventually. What a lot of pain and suffering can fit into a word. Did the old lady die instantly, or did she lie there, helpless and alone, until the end came? Emma can't bring herself to ask.
The phone is ringing as she walks through the k itchen door. Emma submits to Casey's boisterous greeting, drops her bags on the table, and plucks the cordless phone from its mount. "Hello?"
"Emma, my love! Playing hooky, are we?"
"Hey, Arthur," she says. Cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, she pours herself a cup of coffee and settles down by the fireplace for a talk. Her editor doesn't call frequently -- she hasn't heard from him since the housewarming -- but when he does, the conversations tend to be long and gossipy.
"You've been on my mind," he says. "How are things going?"
Emma's guilty conscience translates this civil inquiry into How's the book going? "A little behind schedule," she says defensively, "but moving ahead."
"No doubt the move set you back."
"You could say that," she says; then, conscious of a certain wryness to her tone, asks, "So tell me, are you and Alison back on line?"
"Sadly, no." He sighs. "This time she seems determined to destroy our happy home."
"Happier for you than for her, apparently."
"Et tu, Emma?"
"I really am sorry," she says, swallowing a laugh.
"So am I, for all the good it does me. The woman is relentless. And to make matters worse, I have gotten absolutely nowhere with that wench of Roger's. I begin to fear I am losing my touch."
"India is Roger's assistant, not his 'wench.'"
"Whatever. Couldn't you put in a good word for me, Emma?"
"I could put in a true word."
"Now that is unkind. And I rather think we share a common interest there."
Coolly, she asks, "What would that be?"
"Well," says Arthur, "once she has sampled my charms, she's hardly likely to go on making sheep's eyes at your husband, is she? Not to cast any aspersions on Roger, of course. "
There's a brief pause. She hears him sipping something. "Ah well," he says, "if you won't, you won't. Never mind my troubles; tell me about yours. How are you adjusting to life in the provinces?"
"Early days yet. It has its points."
"And that wonderfully eerie old house of yours? Any skeletons turn up in the attic?"
"The house," she says, "is just a house." But she lowers her voice, as if it might hear.
"You sound nervous. Why do I get the feeling you're holding out on me?"
"I'm not," she says.
Silence. Arthur is good at silences.
"It's an old house," Emma says defensively. "All old houses have noises. It just takes getting used to."
"I knew it," Arthur purrs. "Come on, Emma. Tell Uncle Arthur all about it."
She's tempted. Arthur's a great listener, a gift that serves both his craft and his arrested-adolescent libido. But if she tells all, he will think her mad. All those strange little incidents, each a minor puzzle in its own right, taken together form an ominous cloud. And none of them witnessed by anyone other than Emma! How can she help but feel singled out? But the delusion of persecution is the sine qua non of paranoia, the very emblem of insanity. If she tells him everything that's happened, Arthur will exclaim in wonder, he will exude sympathy; but the moment he hangs up, he will buzz his secretary and say, "Lilith, we need to fill a hole in the spring schedule. Emma Roth has lost her marbles." And who can blame him?
"Emma," he says, "I'm waiting."
"There was a noise last night," she says. "Huge crash, like something falling down the stairs from my office. This morning I did some research. Guess what I found out?"
"The previous owner d ied falling down a flight of stairs."
Another silence, then Arthur says, "Emma, love, I'm going to make a shidduch. Remember the psychic I told you about, Ida Green? I'm putting you two together. You'll enjoy her, Emma, and I assure you she's the real thing. If anyone can suss out this ghost of yours, she can."
Emma's reply is automatic. "You know I don't believe in ghosts, except as plot devices."
"I know you've always said so," says Arthur in the tone of one making a distinction. "Though you certainly write them convincingly. Anyway, love, what have you got to lose?"
It is a telling sign of Emma's distress that she allows herself to be persuaded. If nothing else, she tells Arthur, the experience will be useful. She's never seen a psychic in action. Emma does quail a bit at the prospect of telling Roger; but didn't he himself say they must consider all the possibilities?
Later, still malingering, Emma decides to go down to the beach. It's not much of a beach, really, more a rocky alcove between the bay and the bluff leading up to her house. She sits Indian style, her back against a rock, a fresh notebook on her knee, while Casey frolics beside the water, barking indignantly as the waves lap his paws. The afternoon is brisk, but Emma is dressed for the chill in a tan anorak she's purloined from Roger.
Before he hung up, Arthur had offered some parting advice. "Write it all down, Emma," he said. "Keep a journal. Document everything. If I know writers, which I do, you'll thank me someday."
It's not as if he'd suggested a naked stroll through the village; writing things down is second nature for Emma. She begins with a question -- "What the hell is going on?" -- and a li st of three possible answers. "Poss. #1: There's something in the house." By something she means a ghost, though she can't bring herself to call it that. Because even if ghosts exist, which they don't, how likely is it that she of all people should acquire one? If this were fiction it would be pulp fiction, resting as it does on the sort of coincidence that sets critics howling. But it sounds more like something dreamed up by an overzealous flack.
Nevertheless, Emma is committed to leaving no stone unturned, no explanation unexplored. And she has the advantage of knowing the genre. The conventions of ghost stories are the parameters within which she works; the traditions, the folklore, the literature of "true encounters" are the palette from which she concocts her fiction. In short, she knows the form; and the more she thinks about it, the more her experience seems to fit the mold. She runs through the indications: the fact that nothing of a similar nature occurred before they moved here; the inexplicable sounds corresponding to the house's history of sudden traumatic death; the recurrent sensation of an unseen presence in the library; the cold spot at the foot of the steps; even the dog's aversion to the spot, all classic signs of haunting.
And then there's the house itself, big and old and isolated, a house that, as Arthur said, cries out for a ghost, a house that would surely top the wish list of every discerning spirit: the ghostly equivalent of a three-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. If this were fiction, there would be no doubt but that this house was haunted. But Emma is not convinced. Real life is so much messier than fiction that haunting seems too tidy an expl anation to be true.
Casey runs up, crouches at her feet and barks an invitation to play. Emma takes his ball from her pocket, lets him sniff it, and chucks it down the beach. The dog leaps off in pursuit and she returns to her list.
"Poss. #2: Someone is targeting me." The most favored hypothesis, though how it could be carried out Emma cannot begin to imagine. The advantage of this explanation is that it accounts for the personal nature of the incidents, as the first cannot. Ghosts, by all accounts, do not target individual people; they offend simply by existing.
It would explain something else, too. Not all, but some of the incidents have reeked of malice. The message, "Something's happened to the boy," was meant to frighten. Worse yet was yesterday's invasion of her manuscript. It strikes her as a kind of rape, a way of attacking from the inside. There was a creepy sort of intimacy to it; she'd felt as if unseen hands were touching her beneath her clothes. These are not acts of haunting, but of hatred.
But if there is a real person behind all these manifestations, it would have to be someone with access to her computer, probably with access to the house: by implication, someone close to her. This is something her imagination refuses to encompass. No one close to her would do this, thinks Emma, which leads her to her third and final hypothesis:
"Poss. #3: I'm losing my mind."
Painful even to contemplate, but she has to consider a possibility that, looked at from the outside, is by far the most likely of the lot. After all, there is a history; Emma has been there. That door is closed, but it doesn't lock. She'd have to be crazy not to consider the possibility that she's crazy.
EEverything that has happened has seemed as real to her as the beach she's sitting on, as solid as the rock behind her back; but isn't that the nature of hallucination, to seem real? When she was sick before, she didn't realize how sick she was. She kept denying and denying, going through the motions of her life like a wind-up toy, until suddenly she couldn't anymore and she just stopped. If Emma is delusional now, she wouldn't know she was delusional; she would think everything was real. She would conclude that either her house was haunted or someone was targeting her.
Emma rereads the first two entries on her list and snaps the notebook shut. She hugs her knees and rests her chin on them. What if it's true? she wonders. What if I hallucinated the noise last night and the message in the hearts game? What if I put those words into my characters' mouths, called myself a talentless hack and cried for a way out, then forgot I did it? What if I imagined the cough in the library and the feeling of someone reading over my shoulder?
Why then, she thinks, I'd be mad, totally, hopelessly psychotic.
She's not. Deep inside she knows she's not. But then what is going on? Tears well up in her eyes, tears of self-pity and frustration. After a moment's woeful indulgence, she dries her face on her sleeve, gets up, and picks her way to the water's edge. Today the bay is emerald green, the surface lightly shirred by an off-shore breeze. Casey comes bounding up. He nuzzles her hand with his velvet nose and she bends down to embrace him, burying her face in his thick ruff. Sitting on a boulder, Emma removes her sneakers and socks and rolls up the legs of her jeans. Then she gets up and wades into the water .
It's freezing. She has to stop herself from jumping back. The cold is eminently real. The tingling shock it produces in her feet and calves is real. The pebbles underfoot, the dog pacing anxiously behind her, the bright September sky, the tang of saltwater in her nostrils: all real. Emma, too, is real; she is herself, the same self all the time. No stranger dwells within. The cold water clarifies all; her thoughts are washed clean of self-doubt, her will strengthened.
Caroline Marks, sensibly dressed in Timberland boots, Levi's, and an L.L. Bean lumber jacket, clambers onto the rock jetty that divides Emma's beach from its neighbor in time to see Emma step into the water. Emma has removed her shoes and rolled up her pants legs, but to Caroline's mind she's picked a cold day to go wading. Emma takes another step, and water swirls around her calves. Caroline considers calling out, but thinks better of it. Emma's eyes are open, but she has a sleepwalker's look about her. Then the dog begins to bark and Emma turns around.
They meet halfway. "Great day for a walk," she says.
"Beautiful." Emma is smiling, but Caroline can see from her eyes that she's been crying. It's not the first time she's come across Emma looking distraught. Perhaps it's time to reach out.
"Right now," Caroline says, "I crave a really hot cup of coffee. Can I interest you in some?"
"I'd like that," Emma says. "Why don't we go to my house? I have a pot on."
The path up the bluff is narrow, so they climb single file, first Caroline, then Emma, with Casey at her heels. Emma carries her notebook in one hand and her socks in the other. Her feet are wet and squish unpleasantly inside her sneakers, but s he hardly notices, for she's deep in thought. Caroline's fortuitous appearance has given her an idea. Emma desperately needs to talk things through with someone. Roger and Maggie are disqualified by love; they are too close, too vulnerable. Arthur is her friend but also her editor; she has a business relationship to protect there. But Caroline Marks is a stranger, impartial and unprejudiced; she is, moreover, a trained psychologist. If the worst is true and Emma is crazy, Caroline would know.
They reach the house and enter through the kitchen door. Emma gives Casey a fresh bowl of water. She pours two cups of coffee and carries them over to the kitchen table.
Caroline hangs her jacket on the back of a chair and sits down. "Your feet must be frozen," she says. "Why don't you put on something dry? The coffee will wait."
Emma leaves her and goes upstairs. She dries her feet and slips on the shearling moccasins Roger gave her last winter. When she returns to the kitchen she notices Caroline hasn't touched her cup. "You shouldn't have waited for me," she says.
"Do you have any sugar?"
"Oh, sorry!" Emma takes the sugar bowl from the cupboard and a quart of milk from the fridge and brings both to the table. As Caroline lifts the lid of the bowl, movement from within it catches both their eyes. It's a squirming, primordial sort of motion, so incongruous in the context of a sugar bowl that comprehension falters. Moments later, two shrill screams rent the air.
The sugar bowl is alive with worms, fat, ugly, blood-red worms, coursing through the sugar.
Caroline's hand arches away from the bowl, and the lid flies across the room and shatters against the fireplace. She presses her hand to her chest, backs away. The worms are beginning to crawl out of the bowl and drop onto the table. She looks at Emma. The younger woman is pale as death, swaying on her feet. Seeing that she is about to faint, Caroline hurries to her side, puts a strong arm around her shoulders, and leads her to a seat by the fireplace. She pushes her head down to her knees, then goes back and deals with the worms. She sweeps them, bowl and all, into a trash can, then ties up the bag and dumps it outside. She gathers up the pieces of lid. When these, too, are disposed of, she joins Emma, who sits hunched over with her hands between her knees.
"Those were bait worms," Caroline says. "The kind you buy for fishing."
Emma does not reply.
Caroline takes her left hand and presses it between her palms. The hand is icy. "Emma," she says, in a firm, calm voice, "tell me what's going on. Who did this?"
"I don't know." Emma raises her face. Her skin is pallid, with the waxy sheen of fake fruit, and her eyes are black holes. "You saw those worms?"
"Of course I saw them."
"Thank God," she says.
Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Rogan
Meet the Author
Barbara Rogan is the author of five previous novels, Changing States, Café Nevo, Saving Grace, A Heartbeat Away, and Rowing in Eden. Her books have been translated into eight languages. She lives on Long Island, New York, and is currently at work on her seventh novel.
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