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House at the End of the Street
By David Loucka
PoppyCopyright © 2012 David Loucka
All right reserved.
The house at the end of Sycamore Lane was a split-level with a half-moon window in the front, its thin gray curtain always drawn. The weeds had grown up around the porch, the grass sprouting through the warped floorboards. Its shingles were splintering. Long strips of faded green paint peeled away from the frame. A rusted playground set stood in the backyard. The slide was still there, along with the metal frame, but all that was left of the swings were two broken chains. The seats had fallen off long ago, the rubber breaking apart in the sun.
It was not always this way. Things change in moments, each piled on top of the next. The family that lived in this house was chased by unhappiness, the tragic moments coming faster than the joyful ones. The fall of their youngest child and only daughter, Carrie Anne, from the swing in the backyard interrupted their lives. The blood pooled beneath her head, congealing in the nest of her long blond hair. The neighbors learned the poor thing suffered brain damage in the fall, and most of her time afterward was spent indoors. She was constantly monitored by her parents. They policed what Carrie Anne ate, what she wore, and never let her out of her bedroom for more than a few hours a day. There were rumors that she was dangerous.
Years passed before another tragic moment. It was a muggy August night when it happened, a decade after Carrie Anne’s accident. Her parents slept with the windows open, the air still damp from an afternoon rain shower. Mary Jacobsen, Carrie Anne’s mother, awoke to the sound of footsteps in the hall. It took her a while to decipher whether it was real, or if it was part of a dream. She watched the light flicker by the crack beneath the door. John Jacobsen rolled over, noticing his wife was awake.
“How is she up again?” John asked.
Mary rubbed her eyes. “Okay, okay. I’ll go,” she said, an edge in her voice. They barely talked anymore. Their marriage had collapsed after the accident, with everything—every conversation, every day, every month—revolving around the girl. What would Carrie Anne eat today? Who would stay home with her while the other went into town? Unable to focus on anything except their daughter, they’d both lost their jobs in the preceding months. If they had been outside when she fell, could they have prevented it? Why hadn’t John put sand on the ground underneath the swings, as he had originally promised? How many times had Mary asked him to do that?
She was always the one to console Carrie Anne when she awoke in the middle of the night. The girl needed constant comfort and guidance. Though Mary couldn’t say it aloud, she’d become more callous toward her daughter. Her nerves were frayed. She scolded the girl more than she liked. In the past months she’d found herself taking too many of the pills prescribed by her doctor. She’d started seeing other physicians, desperate to get more—the supply was never enough. She and John fought most when the bottles were nearly empty.
Mary stood and walked toward the door. Her head hurt from the combination of sedatives and antianxiety medicine. When she stepped into the hallway, Carrie Anne was standing there at the edge of the stairs, her hands clasped behind her back. Mary closed the door tight behind her, knowing John would complain if they made any more noise than they already had.
“Carrie Anne,” she said sternly. “You have to go back to bed.”
The girl’s long blond hair was tangled. It fell over her forehead, hiding her face in shadow. Her nightgown came down to just above her ankles, a dried stain on the front of it. She had lashed out during dinner, sending her plate flying across the table. Gravy had spilled over her lap. Mary simply had not had the patience to clean it up or change her clothes again.
“Carrie Anne?” Mary asked again. The girl was hunched over. She didn’t respond. Mary took a step toward her, starting down the narrow hall. She hated when the girl did this—she could recognize Mary’s voice. She knew she was speaking to her. Why wouldn’t she just listen?
Mary took another step, reaching out her arm. She grabbed Carrie Anne’s wrist, harder than she intended, and then she saw it out of the corner of her eye. Carrie Anne raised her other hand, the hammer visible in the dim hallway light. For a brief second her blue eyes shone in the dim light as she looked her mother full in the face. Then the blunt end of the hammer came down just above Mary’s eye, again and again. Mary Jacobsen fell back, her face unrecognizable.
In the bedroom, John sat up, sensing something was wrong. He could hear the muffled whimpers, then the silence that followed. He was edgy from the drugs, a strange cocktail that kept him relaxed for several hours before causing rebound paranoia. He watched the door, wondering if he was imagining it. He felt for the bottle on the nightstand, but there were no more pills left.
He waited, pushing back on the bed. He watched the shadows move beneath the door, wondering if Mary had managed to get Carrie Anne back to sleep. Sometimes she had to hold the girl close to her chest, wrapping both arms around her for several minutes to subdue her. Sometimes they had to lock her into her room, listening to the screaming until it subsided. The screaming was what he hated most. He couldn’t take it, the constant shrill cries, or the way the girl pounded her fists and kicked the door.
He watched the shadows move over the floor. Outside, thunder cracked. The rain started again, drenching the curtains. He squinted into the darkness, about to call out, when the door swung open. The girl rushed in, her hair in front of her face, the bloody hammer in her hand.
FOUR YEARS LATER…
Elissa sat on the dusty hood of the beat-up SUV, her guitar settled into her lap. She leaned forward, strumming a G chord over and over again. That one had always been her favorite. Maybe it was the warm, open sound of it, or the way her fingers felt on those specific strings. Or maybe it was because it was the first chord she’d been taught. Her father had given her the guitar four years ago, when she was thirteen, as a birthday present. That was when they lived outside Chicago. That was before the divorce and all the vicious fighting that came after.
The summer that her father stopped calling, stopped coming by or writing, she couldn’t put the guitar down. She’d filled the silence with music, the only thing loud enough to drown out her own thoughts. Now she eyed Sarah, who was lying back on the hood, her head resting at the bottom of the windshield. Since her father left it had felt silly to call her “Mom” or “Mother” anymore. In his absence they felt more like roommates, moving around the shared apartment like strangers. They barely spoke to each other except to discuss household chores—who would take out the trash, who would pick up the groceries, who would wash the last dishes in the sink. It had been like that for nearly three years, until her mother announced that she’d found a house online, in a “nice” suburb of Seattle. She said it would be better for them, that they could use the time together—this fresh start—before Elissa went off to college. Elissa wanted to believe it, that being somewhere new would somehow be able to change them. But she couldn’t stop thinking about something her grandmother used to say. It had been following her on the two-day road trip, trailing them across so many states. Wherever you go, there you are. How could a new town, a new house, make anything different? Wasn’t it too late for that?
Elissa switched chords, playing the refrain of an old song by Bleeker Street. Her father had given her the album at ten, as part of her “music education.” As she played she glanced over the high wall of hedges. She could just see the top of the stone house. “You must be the Cassidys!” a voice called out. She turned, looking down the road. A black luxury sedan pulled up alongside them and a short, balding man got out. “Dan Gifford. So sorry I’m late. I left my cell at the office. I’m sure you tried to call.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead as he spoke.
“Only about a dozen times,” Sarah said, sitting up. Her wavy blond hair fell just past her shoulders, her skin pink from the hour and a half they’d spent waiting in the sun.
“Sorry about that,” Dan mumbled. “Let me show you your new home.” He fumbled with a set of keys, looking for the right one. Then he unlocked the wooden gate and pushed it open, revealing the two-story stone house beyond it.
Elissa nearly laughed at the sight of it. It was ten times the size of their apartment in Chicago. The front wall had three large windows, and ornate beige pillars framed the entranceway. It wasn’t enormous, it definitely wasn’t a mansion, but it would still be the biggest house she’d ever lived in. She was starting to think maybe Sarah was right—maybe this would be the year things changed.
They popped open the back of the car, and Dan helped them with a few small boxes, his sweat dripping all over them. “How was the drive?” he asked, as they started up the front steps.
“We’ve been on the road for two days,” Sarah said, leaning a box on her hip. “We’re anxious to get settled.”
Elissa raised her arms to grab a box of kitchen stuff and caught a sudden whiff of B.O. “And have a shower,” she laughed.
Dan started up the stone steps, which were lined by hydrangea bushes. “I think you’re going to be very comfortable here. And you’ll love the neighborhood.”
They pushed into the foyer. Elissa couldn’t help but smile. When she was a kid, she used to draw elaborate pictures of her “dream house,” a two-story palace with wood floors, huge TVs, leather couches, and enough bedrooms for four kids. (She’d always imagined her parents would have more kids, when they finally stopped fighting.) This was similar. It had granite countertops in the kitchen, simple but elegant furniture, and a large deck out back. Sarah turned around, raising her eyebrows as if to say, See?! I told you so!
They set the boxes on the kitchen counter and started through the house, Dan showing them the three bedrooms upstairs, all furnished with queen-size beds—a luxury compared to the twin mattress Elissa had grown up with. He talked about good water pressure, some details of the rental lease, and pointed out the state park just beyond the back property line. When they were done with the tour, he pulled the keys from his key chain and pressed them into Sarah’s hand. “Tomorrow the Reynoldses a few houses down are having a spring fling party. You should bring a dish and come over.”
Sarah hadn’t stopped smiling since they’d walked through the door. She was a terrible cook, but she nodded, as if baking some casserole was her ideal first-night-in-the-new-place activity. “We’ll give you a call if anything comes up,” she said, her eyes on Dan as he shut the door behind him.
Elissa looked around, taking in the sliding glass doors, the curtains that were perfectly pleated, the throw pillows arranged neatly on the couch. “This is weird,” she said, half laughing. “It’s like a real house.”
Sarah leaned in, pointing the keys at Elissa. “It is a real house,” she corrected.
“But where are all the other houses?” Elissa asked. “Where’s the bodega? Where am I gonna score my forty?” she joked, knowing her mother hated when she made any reference to underage drinking.
“That’s all state park,” Sarah said, gesturing out the back windows and ignoring the remark. “Pretty good backyard, huh?”
Elissa’s eyes fell on the run-down estate nearly thirty yards off. It was settled into the trees, at the edge of the park’s border. “Hey, we can see Mr. and Mrs. Dead People’s house.”
“Don’t say that,” Sarah said, leaning her elbow on the counter. “That house is the reason we can afford to rent this house. Double murder is kind of a drag on the real estate market.”
Kind of? Elissa thought. Even if this mini mansion was perfect, there was still something a little creepy about living less than a mile away from a house where two people were killed. She’d asked Sarah to tell her the story three times on the road trip west. Parents with a violent daughter who’d suffered some sort of brain injury. She’d woken them up in the middle of the night, then murdered them both with a hammer stolen from the tool shed. The bodies hadn’t been discovered for days, and by that time no one knew what happened to the girl. They said she was fifteen, but her mental state was more like that of a small child.
“Come on,” Sarah said, nudging Elissa in the side. “Let’s unload the rest of the boxes.”
Later that night, Elissa dumped the pasta into the strainer, letting the steam rise up in front of her. It made the hot, sticky kitchen seem even hotter. Sweat beaded on her brow. When the spaghetti had cooled, she used the tongs to carefully set a serving on each plate, making sure to keep it in the center as her dad had once instructed her. Then she added a heaping ladle of sauce and a sprig of parsley.
On the simple white plate it looked perfect—exactly the way you’d see it in a magazine. She remembered the night she’d cooked with her father, how he’d showed her these little tricks, pretending their apartment was some high-end restaurant they’d never be able to afford. He’d called the spaghetti “delectable” as if it were caviar, lobster tail, or filet mignon. He’d even faked a French accent, which always made her laugh.
She spun around, gently setting one plate down in front of Sarah, and the other right across from her. It was just seven o’clock, but Sarah had traded her jeans and sweaty T-shirt for her worn pink pajamas. Her wavy blond hair was pulled back into a bun, making her look like she could’ve been a senior at Elissa’s high school. She held a Zippo lighter, flicking it open, then closed, letting the flame appear and disappear.
“Thanks for cooking,” Sarah said, setting the lighter aside.
Elissa slid into her seat. “You can thank Dad. He taught me how to make this.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “No kidding? The whole boil-the-water, throw-in-the-spaghetti, open-the-jar thing? Wow. What a great dad.”
Elissa tightened her fist around her fork, feeling like she might stab it into the smooth tabletop. Why did Sarah always have to do this? It was impossible for Elissa to talk about her father without Sarah getting tense, adding some snarky comment, or rolling her eyes. Elissa was the one who didn’t have a father anymore. Elissa was the one who hadn’t heard from him in over a year, who didn’t even get a phone call on her birthday. He’d left because he could not stop fighting with Sarah. Everything between them was an argument. If anyone had a right to be angry, it was Elissa.
She looked down, blinking back tears. Wasn’t there a statute of limitations on how long you could cry about your estranged father? She’d promised herself she wouldn’t let this consume her the way it had in the months after he left.
Elissa twirled spaghetti around her fork, feeling less hungry than she had just a few minutes before. Her eyes settled on the silver Zippo. It had been a fixture in her home for as long as she could remember. Back when her parents were still together, when the fighting wasn’t yet intolerable, they’d sit on the window ledge and smoke cigarettes—just one before they went to bed. While it was a gross habit and they finally quit, it was something they did together. Sarah still brought it wherever she went.
“It’s not like you carry that lighter around because you miss smoking,” Elissa muttered. Maybe Sarah wasn’t willing to admit it—but she hadn’t let go of him either.
Sarah sighed. She turned the lighter over, studying it. “There are things I miss, sure. But when we were married, he was always on the road, and when he wasn’t, we were always fighting. You saw it. It’s better this way. Now he gets to write songs about me, and I get you.”
Elissa pushed the spaghetti around on the plate. She’d heard the songs too, though she’d never tell Sarah she spent several hours a weeks on her father’s band’s website. “Blue Eyes,” “She Said, He Said,” “Back There”—those were three of the songs. She’d listened to their lyrics, waiting for there to be some hint of him coming back, of him regretting what he’d done. But in the end, it always felt like the songs were about shedding excess, letting go, embracing the freedom that comes with loss.
Neither of them spoke for a long while. Sarah swallowed down a few forkfuls of pasta before looking back up. “Liss… this place,” she said, glancing around the house. “This is new. This could be good for us.”
“It’s going to take me a while to get used to having you around.”
“Come on, I gave you the biggest room,” Sarah joked. “How hard can it be?”
At that, Elissa smiled. She wanted to believe her mom. Sarah had promised her that after her night shifts at the hospital they’d make dinner together, they’d watch old movies, or spend time on the back porch, working through Sarah’s old record collection. She promised Elissa a whole week of Joni Mitchell, where they’d go through all her albums, Sarah playing her favorite songs as they downed Arnold Palmers in the late summer air. But part of Elissa was always waiting for things to return to the way they were—the edgy silence that always settled between them. How could a new town really change that?
Sarah stood, clearing the dishes from the table. Elissa moved to help, but Sarah shook her head. “You cooked, I’ll clear,” she insisted. “Go finish unpacking.”
Elissa glanced up the stairs, where a stack of cardboard boxes still awaited her. She could unpack tomorrow. The sun was still hovering in the sky. There were only thirty more minutes left before it went down, maybe less. Now that she finally had a backyard… she wanted to use it.
“I just want to look around first,” Elissa said. She slid open the back door and started down the steps, toward a path that wound up into the trees. She kept her eyes on rocks and twigs, careful not to trip as she kept going, moving farther up the hill, into the higher land of the state park.
The sun was lower in the sky. The abandoned house was a few yards below, a broken swing set visible from up high. She kept going, pushing beyond more trees, trying to get a vantage point to see how far back the park went. This was her new home now. Everything was going to be different—at least that was what Sarah hoped. They’d never spoken about it, but Elissa knew that beyond what had happened with her father, part of the reason they were here was because of Luca. Elissa had met him the winter before, and within fifteen minutes they were skipping seventh period to smoke a joint in his faded gray pickup truck. They’d been in school together since fifth grade, but Elissa still remembered the day she first noticed him—or noticed him noticing her.
He sat beside her in study hall, carving something into the desk with a Swiss army knife hidden in his palm. He dug into the wood, the tiny shavings falling down around his feet. When he was done he uncovered it, curving his palm so only she could see. This blows, it read. Wanna get high?
Luca was the kind of guy all the girls at Rossmore High School wanted to know, if only to say that they did. He was undeniably attractive, with toned biceps and dirty blond hair that fell into his green eyes. He always wore gray T-shirts and ripped jeans, sometimes also throwing on a wrinkled button-down on better days. He did things—smoked pot, drank, skipped class, had sex—and everyone knew it. Being around him propelled you out of whatever boring sphere you occupied and into his world, where everything was more exciting, more dangerous.
Elissa pushed through the woods, remembering the feel of Luca’s hands on her skin, how he held the sides of her face as he kissed her hard on the mouth. She’d curl up in his lap, letting his hands get lost in her hair. After three months, she’d come home one night to find Sarah, red-eyed and exhausted, sitting up at the kitchen table. We’re moving, she’d announced, without offering any discussion. They’d fought until two thirty that morning, with Sarah saying that they needed a new start, that Rossmore wasn’t for them anymore. Didn’t Elissa want to live in a bigger house? Go to a better public school? Moving would increase her chances of getting into a good college.
Elissa knew her mother could see it happening—how Elissa could so easily become her: pregnant at seventeen, married at nineteen, with a daughter who looked more like a sister. She wanted to say it wasn’t possible, that things with Luca were never serious, but she was afraid of something she’d suspected all along—that Sarah and her father hadn’t been serious either. That part of those first years, when they were so young and when her mother had gotten pregnant, had been a mistake.
She agreed then. She didn’t want to repeat her mother’s mistakes.
The sky grew darker. Elissa looked back, suddenly realizing how fast she’d been walking. She was far out into the woods, and all the trees looked the same. The birds were quiet. She heard a twig snap somewhere behind her and spun around, staring into the darkness. The hair on her arms bristled. She scanned the horizon, looking for signs of which way she’d come from, when she saw her mother in the kitchen window, so far below. She turned and ran, sprinting as fast as she could, not knowing what exactly had frightened her.
“Bombs away!” a tan girl in a purple bikini screamed. She ran over the brick patio and leapt into the pool. A giant wave surged out around her, rippling the water’s crystal surface. The Reynoldses’ house was three times the size of Elissa’s, complete with a pool, waterfall, and hot tub. These people had money. A few guys and girls lounged around the kidney-shaped pool sunbathing, while others played Marco Polo in the shallow end.
Bonnie Reynolds dragged Elissa away from her mom, insisting Elissa just had to meet her son. “That’s Tyler,” she said, pointing to a muscular boy with electric green swimming trunks. “You should get him to show you around. Tyler’s captain of the swim team, and he’s just a junior. He and his friends started an after-school club for famine relief and raised over a thousand dollars last year.” She raked her manicured fingernails through her highlighted hair. “Was it Africa or Tibet? Don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it was one of those starving places.”
Elissa nodded, trying to focus on the cheeseburgers sizzling on the grill or the inflatable pool ball that flew over the picnic table. She’d been in Bonnie’s presence all of three minutes, and she couldn’t stand her any longer. You could tell Mrs. Reynolds was the type of parent who thought whatever Tyler did (tying his shoes, making his bed, blowing his nose) was worthy of a standing ovation. Elissa was about to break free when Tyler—the man, the myth, the legend himself—strode over. He narrowed his gray eyes at his mom, and she sauntered back toward the adults.
“Sorry about that,” he said coolly. “She give you the full treatment?” He patted himself down with a towel, flicking back a few strands of wet hair.
“Don’t sweat it—moms can be like that.” Elissa smiled, thankful that Tyler was at least semi-normal. “I’m sure you’re really a total loser.”
Tyler laughed—a real, genuine laugh, and led her over to the buffet table. There were plates of coleslaw and French fries, a tray of hot dogs, and her mom’s rancid-looking potato salad. Sarah had decided to put pickles in it, despite Elissa’s warning against it.
Tyler passed her a plastic plate and they both loaded up, settling down beside some of the adults. Bonnie looked up from her small heap of salad. “So how are you settling in?” she asked, her eyes glancing from Sarah to Elissa.
“Have you met Ryan Jacobsen yet?” Tyler asked. His mother glared at him, but he ignored it.
“Not yet…” Elissa said, a little confused. She recognized the last name—the Jacobsens were the couple who’d been killed in the house. But she hadn’t heard anything about a relative living in town. “Is he coming today?”
“Here?” Bonnie sputtered, her voice rising three octaves.
Excerpted from House at the End of the Street by David Loucka Copyright © 2012 by David Loucka. Excerpted by permission.
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