A/N: This is going to be a part of a short story collection that I will be publishing with my creative writing group. I really need feedback so please, R&R and let me know what you think!
Also, needs a title. Feel free to shoot me those ideas as well :)
"I think you'll really like the house," My mother says. Her words break two hours of tense silence.
"It's very big. You have your own room and bathroom. There's a nice yard." My mom grew up in Mexico City. Large yards covered in grass and trees are an anomaly to her. Personally, I hate them. Houses with yards, especially ones shielded by picket fences, are taunting reminders of the kind of life we don't have.
More silence. We pulled off the highway over fifty miles back and now we're winding our way down a narrow road, framed by fallen stone walls that barely hold back the leafless branches that reach for us like skeletal hands. I've lived in cities most of my life and despite the pavement under the car tires I feel like we're lost in the woods.
"Do you know where we're going?" I ask.
"Yes." The road winds and turns but I haven't seen any other options except to follow it. Or turn around. That would be my first choice.
We crest a hill and come around a turn. The landscape breaks into low- lying dirt fields scattered with thin trees and bordered by wood and stone fences that haven't fallen into rubble. The occasional white farm house dots the horizon. My mother's shoulders unclench and the hard line of her mouth softens. I guess she had thought we were lost.
"Are we there yet?" I try to sound deliberately childish, even though I'm fifteen and too old to whine. And a long car ride is hardly the worst situation we've ever been in. At least its daylight, and we have a full tank of gas, and I'm not hungry or cold. Apparently we're not even lost.
"We're almost there." My mom almost smiles. She turns the car down a road marked "Old Oak Lane" ironically lined with green pine trees. It's the first green we've seen in miles; everything else has been brown, black and dead. "Clara... I just want... Thank you." I know what she's thanking me for. She's thanking me for coming with her. She's thanking me for not fighting her when she announced that once again we were picking up and moving.
"It's a really good job." She says, as if she needs to remind me why we're doing this. Reminding me why she pulled me out of a school that I didn't actually hate, loaded what we could into the back of our old Ford, and moved a hundred miles across the state.
The employers, an elderly couple, offered her a lot of money for a year's work. And free room and board. They had even paid for half the year upfront. The money was sitting happily in a savings account where the balance was above three digits for the first time in years.
I wasn't supposed to know how bad our money situation was this kind of stuff, but I always found out.
My mom's a hospice care home health aide. Her salary is abysmal and she has the worst job in the world. She cleans up dying people's shit. Wipes drool off their faces. Tries to get them to drink water even as their eyes tell her they're already gone and it would be kinder to just let them die. She has to nod sympathetically and look sad as families cry, complain, rage, or just sit their numbly. Most never say thank you.
"I was thinking, we'll probably save a lot of money this year. Maybe we can put some away for your college fund?" My mom is obsessed with the idea of me going to college so I don't end up changing adult diapers for a living. I don't have the heart to tell her it's not going to happen.
I'm not the college type. Girls who have been to five different high schools by their sophomore year, who like to read but don't own books, who have never used a laptop, and who steal makeup from drug stores, don't go to college.
My mom pulls the car off the road and starts up a long, winding road that I think must be the driveway because I can see an old mansion glaring at us in the distance. I wonder how our little Ford Escort with bald tires will ever make it down this road come winter. And then I think of what a long walk it will be every morning to catch the bus to school.
The house is an enormous sprawling brick monstrosity with a black shingled roof and faded gray shutters. Exactly the sort of house where people have died and now their spirits "linger." I hesitate getting out of the car but my mom springs from it. Her tiny feet dancing up to the steps.
One thing I will say about my mother, she's tough. Nothing ever breaks her spirit. I guess that's how she can wipe drool all day and come home still smiling.
I follow, somewhat reluctantly. When I join her, she pushes the door bell and I can hear the sound echoing. We wait. Maybe the old man and the old woman are already dead.
My mom lifts her hand, ready to knock, when the door swings open. Oh God. This is how like every horror movie starts. The door opens. The main characters walk in. They call out "Hello? Hello?"
An old woman steps out from behind the enormous oak door. "Hello." She blinks as the bright sunlight streams in from behind us. A giant entry way looms behind her, swallowing the light cast by chandeliers that hold mostly burnt out bulbs.
"Hi, Mrs. Cuthbert? I'm Maria. This is my daughter, Clara."
"Yes. I see. Well, come in." She closes the door behind us.
Mrs. Cuthbert takes us on a tour of the house. She introduces us to rooms with names like "the parlor" and "the library." All of the rooms seem dusty and. Maybe she just names them so she feels less lonely. "Hello, Drawing Room have you met my friend Solarium?"
Upstairs, she takes us to our rooms, which aren't as cold and drafty as those below us. My mom was wrong, we have to share a bathroom, but we have our own bedrooms and an extra room, with a desk and a sofa. My mom is beaming.
"Maria, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Cuthbert. Sarah, I think it's best if you stay here."
"It's Clara." I correct her.
My mother gives me a sharp look. "Of course Mrs. Cuthbert." She even bows her head slightly.
"Clara, why don't you start unpacking the car?" My mom suggest. Unwillingly I leave my mother's side and head out to the car.
They're gone a long time. I don't want to unpack the car. I want to grab my mother by the hand as soon as she reappears from the third floor where Mr. Cuthbert resides "in his apartments" and drag her out to the car and force her to drive us the hell out of here. But I know she doesn't need me making our lives more difficult.
I empty the car and sort our stuff out between our rooms, which are bigger than our entire old apartment. I have an enormous four poster bed that swallows me in its depths of pillows and a soft down mattress. I used to sleep on a futon.
Alright, maybe I can survive this creepy old house for a year.
"Clara?" My mother pokes her head in my door. Her face is white. "I'm going to start cooking dinner. Will you help me?"
"Yeah, sure. You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost." I half- joke. I really expect this place might be haunted.
"What's that? No, of course not. There's no such thing as ghosts," she tells me.
"What's Mr. Cuthbert like?"
"Oh, he's very…" She seems to choke on the words. "He's very sick."
"You're contract is for a year, right? Do you think he'll live that long?"
"Clara! That's rude!"
"None of your patients ever live past a few months."
"He's... This is different."
"Okay, so why can't I meet him?"
"You might give him your germs. Did you empty the car?"
"So what happened to the old caretaker?" I ask my mom as she drops a sliced carrot into the soup she's making for dinner. My mom said the Cuthberts receive a weekly grocery delivery so the house is always full of food. Which I'll admit seems nice. I'm totally okay with giving up McDonalds or Pop Tarts for dinner.
"Nothing. She left." The steam from the soup has put color back on my mom's face but she still seems distracted.
"It just didn't work out."
"I don't know."
"Didn't you ask?"
"It's none of my business!"
"Mom, she's your new employer. It's totally your business!"
"If I say I'll ask her tomorrow will you stop asking?"
"Yes. So you'll ask her tomorrow?"
"Go finish unpacking."
Apparently in addition to taking care of Mr. Cuthbert, it's also my mother's job to cook for Mrs. Cuthbert. I thought she would eat alone in her precious "formal dining room" while we ate in the kitchen, but she comes in when we're almost done cooking. She shows me where she keeps the China and silver and tells me to set the dining room table for dinner.
"Aren't you worried we'll steal the silver?" I ask.
"You'r mother seems like a nice lady and I'm entrusting her with my husband's life. Why should I worry about some old silver?"
"I don't know, most people do though. Actually, they usually care about more about their stupid expensive things then about the old person my mom's taking care of."
Mrs. Cuthbert looks at me for a long moment. "Well, I think that's rather sad, don't you?"
I shrug. "I guess." As long as we're building a rapport, I decide to ask the question that's been haunting me. "What happened to the other lady who worked here?"
"It didn't work out."
"I didn't like how she was caring for my husband."
"What was she doing wrong?"
"Clara, come help me bring food to the table. And stop bothering Mrs. Cuthbert."
"Whatever." I turn away from the old lady but then claw-like fingers suddenly wrap themselves around my arm.
"You seem like a curious little girl. And sometimes curious girls get themselves in trouble. And I like your mother. So please. Stay away from the third floor. And stay away from my husband." The claws clench, surprising strong for such brittle looking things, and I can only stare and nod dumbly.
My new school is about to start their winter break next week, which means there's two weeks until I start school. Two long empty weeks living in the middle of nowhere with no one but my mother and an old lady to talk to.
Mrs. Cuthbert is rarely around during the day. In the morning she drinks coffee and eats a hard boiled egg then disappears back into her rooms. She reappears at lunch time and then again at dinner.
My mom says that sometimes she goes and reads to her husband but mostly she stays in her rooms.
My mom takes care of Mr. Cuthbert although she won't talk about him. Which is weird. Usually she tells me about her patients. Like Mr. Bridger, who liked to go "oof oof" before he pooped. Or Mrs. Calvin, who would only eat carrots, grapes and boiled chicken. I'm not saying old people are particularly interesting, but usually she has something to say about them.
Thinking back on it, maybe she should have said something. Anything. Because it was her silence that made me curious more than anything. Mrs. Cuthbert's weird warning, well, I just chalked it up to her probably being a little senile and thought nothing of it, but it was my mother's silence and well, the other thing that happened that really made everything else happen.