By Andrea McDonald
A dying fly buzzed futilely against the grimy window pane as Susan scanned the yard. She wrapped her arms tightly around her waist, clutching her knobby green cardigan in her fists, but one hand found its way up to press tightly against her mouth as her eyes riveted on the spot at the end of the long lane where the school bus would stop.
A van approached, and braked. She tensed. A man with a mailbag slung over his shoulder jumped out, pried open the mailbox, and pushed in a letter. She didn’t exhale until his van rumbled down the gravel road out of sight. She chewed her lip and waited.
When the school bus stopped and the doors folded open, she strained to hear if there was laughter as her daughter stepped down and trudged up the rutted lane toward the house; the trapped fly buzzed too loudly. She watched Amy, twelve years old, blonde head down and with arms crossed, kick the dust as she plodded up the hill. Were the kids making fun of her, and the house?
Susan didn’t call to Amy to ask her to go back and fetch the letter. She’d face that herself.
The screen door squealed. “Hey,” Amy said, shaking off her jacket. Susan glanced down at the murky bruises on both her daughter’s arms where her husband Derrick had grabbed her. They were fading at least. Soon they’d be gone, and she’d never be hurt again. She pulled her own sweater tighter.
“How’d it go?” Susan asked, looking away.
“Okay I guess,” Amy muttered. She turned toward the table. Her shoe caught on a scrap of raised linoleum and she tripped. “I hate this house,” she mumbled, and shivered. “It gives me the creeps.”
Susan sighed but said nothing, and after peering across the yard and into the woods, scurried down to the mailbox. As usual, her thoughts turned back to the day- the day that had led them here to this run-down house: the day Amy’s twin Amelia was taken. The girls were only six then. A man had lured them to the curb with a lame puppy. Amy had sensed something wrong and run home, but Amelia stayed and was gone when a frantic Amy returned with her mother.
Amelia was never found, alive or dead. Amy was cut in half without her twin. Susan never forgave herself for not protecting the girls. Derrick crumbled, but over the years the evil that had befallen his child, the evil he couldn’t fathom, somehow crept into him. He began to drink, and then his fury erupted. The pushing, the grabbing, the slapping started.
The tin flag on the mailbox squeaked as Susan yanked it down. She peered in the dark box, and pulled out a letter addressed to her. She turned it over. No return address.
No one knew she and Amy were there. She’d been so careful not to say a word to anyone. When her widowed and childless sister died of cancer, Susan kept her death secret from Derrick, and when the small inheritance came, she knew she had a way to protect Amy. Strangely, she had spotted the ad in the newspaper that same day. Private sale. House on two acres. Secluded. Furnished. Owners transferred. Priced to sell.
It was a shell of a house, grayed, with shreds of old paint hanging like psoriasis flakes on infected skin. It smelled like old cheese. Dense, dark woods surrounded it and it was far from town.
It was all she could afford, but more importantly, it was safe. She and Amy packed up a few belongings when Derrick was out drinking, and left without telling him their whereabouts. She knew it was cruel, but heartache and stress and fear had scraped away any love she had felt, and she swore she’d never see her daughter cower under the stairs again.
The letter burned in her hand as she hurried back up the hill. Once in the kitchen she slit it open with a knife and began to read.
“Dear Mrs. Wilson,
My name is Mary. My husband and I sold you the house. He made me swear not to say anything to anybody, but I haven’t slept since we moved out, since before we moved out in fact, but when I saw that it was just you and your young daughter who would live in it, all alone, I knew I had to say something.
Susan slumped into a rickety chair. Her stomach twisted.
I’m so sorry, really I am. But you see, and I’m sure you can tell by the house, my husband and me, we don’t have much money. We never got insurance or anything like that. And my husband, he’s a good man, but he got in trouble with the police a few times, and he couldn’t risk the cops coming around in case they thought he did it. He might lose his job, or even go to jail, and then where would we be?
Amy was sitting on the stairs, ripping up the linoleum with her heel. “What is it Mom?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Susan replied.
We weren’t really transferred. I can’t tell you where he works. He made me swear. We couldn’t have a real estate fellow sell the house because he’d ask questions, and we’d have to tell what we found, and then he’d have to tell anybody wanting to buy the house, and who’d buy it then? We’d be stuck in that place, and I couldn’t live there a minute longer. Not with what we found.
“You’re sweating Mom. Are you okay?”
“Yes. Yes Amy. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
My husband made me swear not to tell. He said if we didn’t get enough money out of the house we’d be broke. He doesn’t make much and I can’t work on account of my knees. So I’m real sorry but we had to do it. But I never thought in a million years that someone like you would buy it.
Susan felt a familiar sick dizziness coming over her. It was the feeling she had when the street was empty and no matter how loudly she yelled her name, Amelia didn’t answer. It was the same as when Derrick hit them, swinging and yelling and crying. The same as all the times she discovered Amy, wide-eyed and staring from between the treads of the basement stairs. Utter helplessness. A fly buzzing against the glass.
“It’s about this house, isn’t it Mom? I can feel it.“
Susan ran her hand through the strings of her hair and looked at her daughter. She saw Amelia there too. She dropped her head and tried to read, but her vision was blurring.
God, I hate to tell you. It’s just so awful. Promise me you won’t sue us or anything. I know we should have gone to the police but my husband said no. Just get out, he said. Let someone else deal with it. So we did. I’m so sorry. Really I am.
We bought the house private-like, from a man with a crippled dog, because it was cheap and it was all we could afford. One day a few months ago, when we were trying to put in a sump pump under the basement stairs, my husband was digging out the dirt floor and he found- God I hate to tell you- he found a little skull with long blonde hair. You know that little girl, the twin, that was abducted some years back? We think it might be her.
“Mom! What’s the matter?! Mom!”
Susan dropped the letter. She collapsed onto the floor. Amy stared in horror at her mother’s face and backed silently toward the basement stairs.
“Amy!” Susan wailed, as she watched her trip and tumble backwards.
Amy screamed as she thumped and rolled down the steps. Susan froze, her mouth gaping open. Then, in a frenzy she crawled to the edge of the basement stairwell and stared down, straining to see into the dim light.
Amy lay still and silent, at rest in the disturbed dirt by the bottom step.