Authors: Darcy Coates
Huge raindrops hit Adrienne’s exposed arms and face as her mother carried her out of the porch’s shelter and down the groaning wooden steps. Her ears were full of pounding feet and gasping breaths, and her mother’s arms held so tightly it hurt.
She turned to see her mother’s face. Pat’s eyes were huge. Tracks of mascara ran down her blanched cheeks, and she flinched when lightning cracked across the sky, blindingly white behind the house’s silhouette.
Ashburn rose huge and twisted above them. Its white paint was flaking off to expose grime-streaked grey wood underneath, and the black windows seemed like dead eyes watching over the lawn. The sun had not long set, and traces of deep, angry reds and pinks tinged the undersides of the storm clouds. Wild animals screamed in the woods around them, and insects flicked out of the long grass as Adrienne’s mother ran through it, carrying her to the car parked off the side of the dirt driveway.
She fell into the passenger seat, and the door slammed shut. Her mother didn’t buckle her in, and that frightened Adrienne. Her mother had never forgotten to buckle her in before. She twisted to glimpse the house through her window and caught sight of the front door gliding open.
Her mother jumped into the driver’s seat, the ignition roared, and the bald tyres screamed against the dirt as they struggled to find purchase. As the house grew smaller in the rear-view mirror, Adrienne thought she saw a figure appear in the open doorway. The silhouette was incredibly tall and dressed in a long black gown. Adrienne and the woman watched each other through the mirror until the car rocked around a corner, taking the turn far too quickly, and the house was hidden from sight by a thick copse of trees.
Adrienne’s mother didn’t speak but sucked in thin, panicked breaths as the tears continued to bleed mascara down her cheeks and mix with the drops of blood sprayed across her neck.
Seventeen Years Later
Every time Wolfgang wailed, the taxi driver grinned and chuckled as if it was the funniest thing he’d heard all day. Adrienne tried to match his smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. Wolfgang was normally an even-tempered and silent cat; he had to truly hate the drive to protest so often. He was even ignoring the treats she’d poked through the cat carrier’s bars, and he
“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered when he mewled for what felt like the hundredth time. “Not long now.”
The massive grey tabby turned his sea-green eyes towards her and projected abject misery in the way only cats are capable of.
“Got family in the area?” The taxi driver, a young, cheerful man who was a little too forceful with the accelerator, had tried to start a conversation several times during the drive, but Adrienne was terrible at small talk even on her best days, and that morning was shaping up to be a long way from her best.
“No—I mean—apparently, I used to, I think?” It was an awful way to answer his question, but Adrienne wasn’t prepared to explain that she’d been bequeathed a house by a relative her mother had claimed didn’t exist.
He seemed ready to follow up with a second question, but then Wolfgang wailed again, and the driver settled for chuckling and shaking his head. She was grateful; the previous week had been so hectic she felt as though she hadn’t had a second to herself, and a cacophony of anxious thoughts cluttered her mind.
Ms Edith Ashburn has bequeathed you her property…
Adrienne had never expected to receive any inheritance. She’d daydreamed about it, of course—light fantasies of discovering her father was secretly a king or that she had accidentally befriended a lonely millionaire—but those dreams had become increasingly rare as she’d grown up and loan repayments, medical bills, and debt had become her reality.
What made the bequeathing even more unexpected was how adamantly her mother had insisted they had no surviving relatives. According to the harried solicitor, Edith Ashburn was Adrienne’s mother’s grandmother’s sister’s daughter. She thought that made Edith her great-aunt, but she felt as if she would need to see a flowchart to be certain.
The taxi driver took a corner too fast, and Adrienne had to grab the cat carrier to stop it from being jolted against the door. Wolfgang wailed, Adrienne mumbled an apology she knew wouldn’t be accepted, and the taxi driver grinned and chuckled.
“Here’s the village, looks like,” he said, and Adrienne glanced up from the carrier to see a patchy collection of buildings spread out below them.
Ipson was a tiny country town. According to online sources, its population was somewhere between eight and nine hundred. It struck her as unexpectedly pretty—large green trees lined the streets, and the properties were relatively clean and well tended. A small school stood beside the town hall two blocks away from the main street, which was full of small shops. Even from that distance, Adrienne could see a shining bronze church steeple. Houses spread outwards from the city centre, patchily shifting from suburban near the core to hobby farms at the outskirts.
They dipped into the valley. For a few minutes, the road ran alongside a river—a brilliantly blue twisting watercourse with willows clustered about its shore—and then they were entering the town proper.
With one hand pressed to the cat carrier’s roof to stabilise Wolfgang against the worst of the car’s jolts, Adrienne peered through the windows to catch glimpses of the settlement that was going to be her home. Snapshots of village life raced past her: a greengrocer stacking avocados, two elderly women having a cup of tea outside a café, and a florist’s shop so packed with flowers that they spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk. Then the taxi screeched to a halt at a pedestrian crossing, and Wolfgang mewled as Adrienne scrambled to keep him on the seat.
“He’s quite the chatterbox, isn’t he?” The taxi driver laughed.
“Wolf doesn’t like cars. Too many trips to the vet.” Adrienne’s attention had been pulled to a group of four well-dressed ladies gathered outside what looked like a second-hand bookstore-slash-coffee shop. They were in their early twenties—about Adrienne’s age—and chatting animatedly. A tiny voice in the back of her mind suggested they could be friend potential. There would only be a certain number of ladies her age in this tiny town, and she might be looking at the majority of them.
The tallest lady turned towards the car and raised her eyebrows. Her lips, painted deep red to contrast with her blonde, shoulder-length hair, stretched into a mischievous smile as she tilted her head towards her companions and spoke. They laughed, their manicured hands rising to cover pearly teeth and their eyes shining with secretive delight.
The taxi screeched forward before Adrienne had time to turn completely red.
They were talking about me. Why? They couldn’t know who I am, surely?
That might be a very real possibility. She sunk back into her seat. The town was likely too small to have a dedicated taxi service, so the clearly marked car would signal a new arrival like a beacon.
That led into a series of questions that Adrienne had no answers for.
How well did this town know Edith Ashburn? Was she a regular at the café, perhaps, or a key part of the social committee or the owner of a popular business? How many in this town know she died? Have they watched her empty house and wondered who would move in? Has the town been watching for the taxi that would bring Edith’s replacement?
The idea that they were waiting for her made a band of anxiety tighten over her chest. She clutched the cat carrier a little closer, and Wolfgang, apparently feeling as uncomfortable as his owner, hissed.
They zoomed past more shops, and now that Adrienne was looking at the residents rather than the buildings, she was painfully aware of how much attention she was drawing. Heads turned towards the car as it neared, and flashes of understanding lit up faces. Adrienne could picture them turning towards each other as the car passed and whispering,
This’ll be her. She’ll be in Edith’s house.
“How—uh—” Her mouth was dry, and she had to lick her lips before she could speak clearly. “How far is it now?”
The taxi driver tapped the satnav on his dashboard. “Looks like we’re headed to the other side of town. Pretty place this, eh?”
“It sure is.” The quaint shops, tidy houses, and large green trees were certainly attractive, but they also worked to increase the sensation that she was an invader asking to be let inside a pristine bubble. She didn’t know the town’s quirks, hadn’t shared in any of its memories or experienced its history. She wasn’t welcome there.
Knock it off.
She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to dodge the feeling of dozens of eyes fixing on the bright-yellow car.
You’ve got a home, and that’s a darn sight better than where you stood a fortnight ago. The only thing you have any right to feel is gratitude.
The car screeched around a curve, and suddenly, they were on the other side of town and leaving suburbia behind them. Bushes and trees crowded more thickly along the road’s edges, and the stream reappeared to their left. Adrienne took a slow breath. The squeezing anxiety had lifted once she was out of the townspeople’s eyesight, but a surreal sensation had replaced it. The houses were thinning and giving way to empty fields.
Adrienne leaned forward and squinted to see the satnav. “Um, sorry, but… did we pass the house by accident?”
“Not according to this thing.” The driver jabbed the screen. “Says to keep going.”
“Oh.” Adrienne sat back. She’d assumed she’d been bequeathed one of the small suburban properties, but at the moment, they were leaving even the farmhouses behind.
The taxi slowed then turned into a patch of bushes. Adrienne, thinking the car had gone off the road, clutched Wolfgang closer then exhaled as she realised her driver had found a narrow, well-disguised dirt driveway.
“Jeez,” the driver grumbled. He’d leaned over the wheel and was squinting to make out the path. Adrienne didn’t blame him; it was badly overgrown. For the first time since picking her up outside her friend’s apartment, the taxi had slowed to below twenty kilometres.
A sign loomed on her left-hand side, and Adrienne pressed herself to the window to read it. The wood looked at least fifty years old, and its post tilted dangerously. The paint had peeled until it was almost illegible, but the phrase was familiar enough to piece together: PRIVATE PROPERTY.
Another sign came up on their right-hand side, this one nailed to a tree with a huge, rusted metal spike: STAY OUT. And a third had almost fallen off its post: TRESPASSING IS FORBIDDEN.
“Looks like this was the town’s social hub,” the driver said, grinning so broadly that he almost distracted Adrienne from a fourth sign: TURN BACK NOW.
She managed a laugh, but it sounded hollow. Wolfgang began crying again, but unlike his previous mewls, this was a drawn-out wail. Adrienne bent to check on him. His ears were flat against his head, and his fur, already fluffy, had bristled out to fill the carrier. “Hang on a few more minutes,” she pleaded. “We’re nearly there.”
The dirt driveway was leading them uphill, and the winding road created an uneasy, heavy coldness in the pit of her stomach. It took her a minute to realise why: the trees in the town had all been green and healthy and spreading, but the plants bordering the driveway were growing increasingly wild and dark as they drove. The bark had deepened from a pleasant tan to a cold grey, leaves faded from emerald to dark khaki, and thick shrubs were swapped for thin, spindly, sickly things that struggled to survive amongst the weeds. It was as though the town had sapped all of the goodness out of the driveway and given it everything bad or sick in return.
They topped a ridge, and the taxi crawled around a bend. The woods finally parted, and Adrienne gasped as Ashburn House loomed ahead of them.
In her mind’s eye, she saw lightning crackle across the sky, tracing the building’s silhouette. Her mother’s breaths, thin and desperate, echoed in her ears, and the heavy raindrops stung as they hit her arms.
Then she blinked, and she was back in the taxi, staring up at the leaning three-story wooden house.
“Bit of a fixer-upper, huh?” The taxi driver turned to grin at her, but this time, Adrienne couldn’t even manage a smile in response.
I thought it was a dream. It felt so surreal, so bizarre… and yet, this is the same house…
The driver pulled to a stop and cut the engine. “I’ll get your luggage, okay?”
“Huh? Oh, right, sorry—”
Adrienne carefully eased the cat carrier and its precious contents out of the car. She carried Wolfgang away from the driveway and set him on a patch of grass under a tree. The huge tabby grumbled deep in his throat but kept still.
The driver had already dumped her two travel cases out of the boot by the time Adrienne returned to him, and he was dusting his hands. When he told her the fare, Adrienne almost choked. It was higher than she’d expected, and it hurt to pass over the majority of the bills left in her wallet.
This is a fresh start,
she reminded herself as the driver gave her a wave and slid back into his seat.
Good things rarely come without a cost.
The car did a three-point turn then accelerated towards the driveway, leaving Adrienne standing alone in the patchy yard. As the screeching wheels and rumbling engine faded, nature’s subtle symphony moved in to take its place. Birds chattered amongst the trees, and insects hissed and hummed in the long grass. Adrienne stared up at the dilapidated house, her mouth dry and pulse racing, as the memory of that night replayed in her mind like a stain she couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard she scrubbed.