There was someone in the house, and this time I didn’t even kid myself about it being my great-aunt Melody’s ghost. This was completely different from the usual creaks and groans of the ancient rambling farmhouse, and I felt in my gut it was an intruder.
I rolled out of bed as quietly as I could before squat-walking to the master closet.
Please don’t let the hinges screech.
After opening it as slowly as I dared, I made my way in and closed the door behind me before pushing through my hanging suits and button-downs to find the built-in ladder on the back wall of the tiny space.
I remembered a visit to Melody’s old house the summer after I finished first grade. She’d shown me the secret passage to the tiny attic space as if it was my very own Harry Potter understairs hideaway. I’d fallen so in love with the nook, I’d secreted blankets, pillows, and picture books there as often as I could. And each summer after that, when my parents sent me “to the country for some fresh air,” I’d spend hours curled up in my own private hideaway, not even caring that them sending me there was an excuse to have my beloved sister to themselves for a little while without her awkward brother trailing behind.
Only this time instead of being relaxed and happy, I was shaking with fear and terrified. Was this what it was like living all by oneself in the middle of the Texas countryside? Had my great-aunt ever had to fend off intruders? Was I going to have to actually consider purchasing a firearm to defend myself?
I shuddered at the thought. Due to a debilitating fear of firearms, I was the kind of person who’d more likely become a statistic of having one’s own weapon turned against him.
The sharp crack of the front door slamming back against the living room walls was recognizable only because I’d accidentally done the same thing the day I’d moved in three weeks before. The movers were busy carrying my giant writing slope display case, and I was so nervous about damage to the ancient beauty that I accidentally threw the door open to make sure they had plenty of room.
Oh, why hadn’t I thought to grab my cell phone before coming up here?
The hatch to my hiding place was closed, and I sat as heavily on top of it as I could just in case someone was savvy enough to find it. As if my pint-sized frame would really keep an intruder from popping open the old wooden door and tossing me to the side.
I brought my knees up to my chest and hugged them, burying my face in my arms and trying not to hyperventilate. More thuds and crashes sounded from far below me on the main level of the house. What could they possibly want? Surely rural Texan burglars had no idea the worth of my antiques collection. Maybe they hoped to find the three sets of vintage sterling I owned? If so, they’d be disappointed to learn the sets were stored in a giant floor safe in the barn.
Melody hadn’t trusted banks. She’d kept half her fortune under the damned horse shit. While I was usually grateful there wasn’t horse shit in the barn any longer, I thought for a brief moment the old gal had been smart. Maybe I needed to get some horses after all, if only to add another layer of protection over my most valuable antiques in the vault.
There were plenty of other fence-able valuables in the house. My writing slope collection, for one. If those assholes took my favorite sixteenth-century Elizabethan slope from the center slot of the display case, I’d lose it. I could only thank my past self for having the foresight to keep my most treasured one with me instead of in the case.
I felt my jaw begin to wobble remembering my time curled up reading the ancient love letters with Melody.
Crying is for babies and women, August.
My mother’s words were as clear in my head today as they’d been in my ears when I was twelve and had lost my father in a sudden, unexpected way while on vacation in Manhattan. He, my little sister Rory, and I had been walking back to our hotel after seeing a show on Broadway when we’d ducked into a convenience store to grab some drinks. It had all happened so fast. One minute Dad was humming one of the songs from the show while deciding what color sports drink to pick out of the cooler, and the next minute two armed men were waving guns around and screaming for everyone to get down.
My dad shoved Rory and me to the ground and huddled on top of us, moving the three of us into a far corner of the store and as far away from the violence as possible. It wasn’t until all the noise was over and the cops came in that I realized Dad wasn’t moving anymore.
Mom had allowed me exactly one week to mourn him after the accident before insisting I was now man of the house. It hadn’t even been enough time for Dad’s body to have been shipped home from New York. I remembered cursing our family’s wealth because without it, we never would have been able to afford to leave Texas. He never would have been in the store that night.
By the time his body had arrived home, I’d done as Mom had asked. I’d stopped crying. In fact, I’d stopped feeling altogether. Numbness had been my stalwart friend in those days, carrying me through the following years at boarding school in a padded haze. What little emotion I had left was spent making sure my sister knew how loved she was since neither my mom nor my grandfather were the affectionate type. When I wasn’t with Rory, I was like an automaton.
If only I could have that numbness back now. Then maybe I wouldn’t feel like I was going to piss myself in terror. Hundreds of visits to a psychologist during my early adulthood finally helped me come to terms with most of the effects of my father’s murder, but tonight it was as if I was back in that horrible moment listening to violence surrounding me.
The wretched noises were followed by the telltale sound of glass breaking. I prayed it wasn’t the few remaining original exterior farmhouse windows or my great-aunt’s beloved Tiffany lamp in the study. Anything else could be replaced, and I’d never been a fan of the delicate crystal in the dining room corner cabinet anyway.
It took hours for the noises to stop. At least it felt like hours. In reality, I had no way of knowing. I sat curled up in a scared ball for a long time after the sound of gravel spitting indicated whoever it was had left. I still didn’t have the guts to emerge from my hiding place until I heard the distant sound of the train passing by. Since the train rumbled through around half past six in the morning, I realized I was most likely safe to come down and assess the damage.
The first thing I did after scrambling for my phone was to call 911 and promptly hide under the bed until the dispatcher told me the responding sheriff’s deputy was at the front door.
I threw a big hoodie sweatshirt on over my lounge pants and T-shirt before slipping on running shoes and making my way out of the bedroom to greet them.
The house was just as wrecked as I’d feared. I felt guilty for being grateful most of the damage was to my great-aunt’s shabby old farmhouse furniture rather than the truly valuable pieces still in her penthouse in Dallas. Even though my great-grandmother had grown up on the Hobie farm a million years ago, it hadn’t been anyone’s primary residence for over eighty years. I’d only ever known it as Melody’s summer home—a place to kick back and let go of real-life stress like worrying about protecting the surface of a Louis XV occasional table or hiring housekeepers specially trained in how to care for antique walnut and mahogany surfaces.
I’d fully planned on bringing all the nice furnishings to the farmhouse in Hobie since it was my permanent home now, but I hadn’t yet secured the appropriate systems and insurance yet to move the most valuable pieces from the city.
Before answering the door, I spared a glance toward the far wall of the living room where my giant display case stood seemingly untouched with the exception of every writing slope it had held in its open cubbies. They all lay in broken pieces on the floor beneath the armoire—hundreds of years of history and thousands of dollars of precious antique collectibles as good as gone thanks to some North Texas assholes who didn’t even know what the fuck they’d had their hands on.
I let out a shaky breath and made my way to the front door. The uniformed sheriff stood in the open doorway with a deputy off to one side.
“That’s me,” I said.
“I’m Sheriff Walker and this is Deputy Diller. We’d like to make sure the premises is secure before conducting an assessment of what’s missing. Would you mind stepping outside with my deputy while I get started?”
I nodded and stepped out of the house, already wondering what it would take for me to ever feel safe in my own home again.
It was only a few days before my sister came up with a suggestion.