“Don’t be fooled by new houses. They sit on old ground.” Matilda had no idea who had dropped the note in her mailbox, and she didn’t care to find out. There was too much unpacking to be done.
There were boxes for the upstairs, boxes for the downstairs, and boxes that were meant to go straight into the basement. It was her mother’s things, mostly, that went into exile down there — vintage lace dresses, crystal earrings, leather-bound collections of Shakespeare and Ibsen, things Matilda couldn’t bear to interact with, but didn’t have the heart to cast out. Matilda’s mother had been a stage actress with a considerable following and had died young. At the time, it struck Matilda as just the kind of thing her mother would do — slip away early, with no warning, just as she used to do at theater parties, heels pounding sidewalk before anyone had the chance to say a real goodbye. Over the years, the loss had done the opposite of what it was supposed to do; the wound grew deeper, echoing with old stories, jokes, her mother’s garrulous, self-assured laugh. How could someone who had been so alive be so very dead?
Matilda had a practical job and what she liked to think of as an uncomplicated life. Not for her were tumultuous affairs with directors, children by different, loutishly handsome fathers, champagne in the morning, tussles with the press. Matilda didn’t think of herself as boring. She’d had plenty of men, and women, for that matter, she just “wasn’t interested in drama,” as she put it in her online dating profiles. Was she betraying her mother’s legacy? Maybe.
After the moving men had gone, an inky twilight settled over the new house with its granite countertops and gleaming, virginal floors. Matilda opened up a bottle of wine. The pinot grigio tasted tingly, like she felt. A glass and a half in, there was a knock on the door.
“Welcome to the neighborhood!” The woman holding a store-bought pie on the doorstep was her mother’s type. Peacock eyeshadow and aggressive cleavage. Matilda didn’t know they made them like this out in the suburbs. Out of politeness and curiosity, she invited the woman in.
“Gorgeous.” The woman’s verdict on Matilda’s new place was succinct and satisfying. “So glad someone finally knocked the old ruin down and built something presentable in its place.”
“Old ruin? I thought it was just a little cottage that was here before,” Matilda said, temporarily invigorated by seeing her new place through another person’s eyes. Yes, it was very well done — she was glad to have hired a proper architect after all. All of the friends who had encouraged her to cut corners were wrong, she could see it clearly now — in the airy open spaces, in the way the second fireplace hemmed in the kitchen and made it cozy as opposed to just practical.
“Oh, it was little, but intimidating enough,” the neighbor woman shivered theatrically as she cut into the pie. “Say, are you planning on living alone here?”
“Well.” In the absence of anything concrete to say, Matilda shrugged. She hadn’t planned for solitude, it just happened to her. She had never been one of those women who were obsessed about getting married by a certain age, she hadn’t been desperate for children, but she hadn’t discounted these domestic possibilities either. They just never presented themselves, and she wasn’t about to aggressively chase them.
“Oh, I did’t mean to pry.” The neighbor woman said hurriedly. “It’s just… well. I’m sure you know the story of the old cottage?”
“I don’t, actually.”
The woman gave her an odd look.
“Go on,” Matilda said.
It turned out that the hideous place that had to be knocked down to pave the way for Matilda’s new house had somewhat of a reputation. “It all goes back to the 19th century, if you can believe it,” the neighbor said, and Matilda wasn’t sure if she could, but manners dictated that she shouldn’t say otherwise.
The old man who had built the original cottage had many sons and daughters. The sons grew up and moved away, but the girls “had been guarded fiercely,” whatever that meant. The jealous old man wasn’t interested in seeing his little darlings be married off, convinced that they had to remain in order to take care of him after his wife passed away. One by one, when they reached a marriageable age, the girls had died, “under mysterious circumstances.” Well, the “mystery” sounded more like the flu, with an unfortunate accident thrown in for good measure, but it had all been “very suspicious.”
“Their brothers left them in that house to die,” the neighbor woman said accusingly. After the last sister perished at sixteen, one of the brothers made his way home and had words with the old man, apparently, and shortly thereafter the old man himself had died, albeit it had been no mystery. His neck had snapped clean when he hanged himself from a ceiling beam in the kitchen.
“Yikes,” Matilda said.
“Various families owned that house later — and you know what?”
Matilda didn’t know what.
“It all went OK until their kids moved out to go to college, or went into the military, or whatever. The empty nesters could never stay on. They either died or sold up, complaining about being uncomfortable here. The local legend goes that the ghost of the old man gets pretty aggressive if no kids are present.”
“Well, not here, not exactly. The creepy old house is gone.” Matilda wasn’t sure why she felt the need to argue that point. She didn’t believe in ghost stories. She wasn’t fucking five years old.
“Of course,” the neighbor woman seemed almost too eager to agree with her. “Still, you’re not at all worried about living in this house by yourself?”
“I have a security system,” Matilda said, affronted.
“Of course. Of course.”
The visit turned awkward after that. The neighbor woman begged off eventually. Matilda felt vaguely irritated, and she wasn’t even sure why. A superstitious housewife had gotten to her. How ridiculous. How stupid to suggest that a woman couldn’t live alone in this day and age! It was sexism masquerading as concern. Just an hour from the city, and it was like living in a different century altogether. “Ugh,” Matilda said to her empty kitchen, toasting her new surroundings with her wine.
She was already feeling the first inklings of a hangover when she made her way to bed. Thank God she worked remotely now, no need for a bleary-eyed commute first thing in the morning. Life was grand. Maybe not grand in a way that annoying people could appreciate, but she didn’t have to care what anyone thought. Caring was a choice.
In her bedroom, pictures of her relatives were already grinning at her from her dresser — her good-looking, irresponsible musician brother, her model sister, coasting her way through life and marrying rich for having inherited a softer, more readily commercial version of their mother’s dramatic looks, no climbing the corporate ladder for that princess, oh no, her other brother, a drunk who, appropriately, owned a fashionable bar, the film producer father she barely knew on account of his “real” family. It struck her, standing in the dim light of her crystal floor lamp — just one of the subtly expensive items she began to collect when she hit her stride as a professional — that she didn’t really know any of these people anymore, and didn’t much care to know them. Who was she to them? Just boring, dependable Matilda, not the black sheep in their rarefied circle, more like the beige sheep, a creature that blended with the surroundings. Well, fuck it. She had nothing left to prove to any of them.
She awoke in her nest of fine sheets with her head pounding. Dawn seemed to be a long way off. She groped for a bottle of painkillers on her nightstand before realizing that they were probably downstairs with all of the other stuff she planned to move to the bedroom before she got so drunk. Ah, shit. The night was disturbingly silent outside, as if a smothering blanket had been laid across the land. No sirens, no laughter. Well, she wasn’t in the city anymore. Was this what people referred to as “peace and quiet”? She was certain she’d grow to like it eventually.
She told the lights to turn on, but of course, the smart home system wasn’t set up yet. Great. Groping her way downstairs, irritated at herself for forgetting where the light switches are, she checked the security system. All was well. All was well, until she became aware of a rhythmic creaking noise.
The sound of something heavy (a body) swinging from a rope (Matilda, stop it) in the kitchen that, she was certain, the architect said was built in the exact same spot as the old house’s kitchen (so what), the same kitchen where a bitter old man once hung himself after being called out for his evil crimes (ridiculous).
The creaking stopped. She was certain now that she was seeing something. A shape lowering itself from the ceiling onto her nice new granite countertop. No, just a shadow from a tree outside. No, a shape. Was she still drunk? The door to the basement stood wide open. Was it supposed to? Matilda spied a bottle of painkillers within reach of her hand, grabbed it, and bounded back up the stairs. Something occurred to her. “I’m not alone in here!” She yelled down the stairs. Because she wasn’t, not really. She believed it in that moment, believed it fiercely.
She was going to get a dog, that much was certain.
She was going to get a dog, and she would tell everyone, and everyone would offer their suggestions, and the right dog would be found. A German shepherd with watchful eyes, loyal to the very last bone in his graceful body. Yes, that would happen, but before it did, something else would occur, something she would not talk about. Because as the dawn began to bleach the skies after the first night in her nice new house, she would get up again and look out from her bedroom window onto the great expanse of her lawn, and she would see them.
A woman in a lace dress, as beautiful as the day she saw her last. Standing with her back to the house, waving off another figure, a stooped and defeated-looking thing. The woman’s elegant hand slowly raising a middle finger as the other figure retreated. A hint of rich laughter on the lawn where the dew already lay scattered like crystals. A new, gorgeous morning.
“And is the house treating you well?” Matilda blinked up in surprise. At first, she couldn’t place the woman accosting her by the meat counter. The peacock makeup was absent that day. But she remembered, eventually.
“Oh yes,” Matilda said as she accepted a wrapped steak. A gift to herself, for later. She would light the kitchen fireplace and leave an empty wine glass on the table. It was going to be a delicious dinner.
“Oh yes. I love the place. I have this feeling that it loves me back.”
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