Slowly I climbed the old wooden stairs that lead to the attic. My heart pounded harder with each step. It took me a moment to get up the courage to grip the knob. The heavy door creaked as I pushed it open. I reached around the corner and fumbled for the light switch. The room was exactly the way I remembered it, although it smelled a little stale and dusty.
Five years had passed and Auntie Em hadn’t moved a thing. The Eliss family portrait still hung on the wall beside the door. The white linen draped over the little brass bed, and the fine lace curtains had yellowed slightly from the sun. Annabella’s china face and painted blue eyes glared up at me from her throne in the corner of the room. The framed photograph of Jonathan, Belinda and me echoed fond memories. I wondered if Jonathan was still around and if he was as gorgeous now as he had been back then.
I gazed at the torn wallpaper that exposed the cubbyhole where the gruesome discovery was made. I was a mere child of fourteen back then, but the memories of what happened here are as vivid as if it were only yesterday. A cold ripple of intense fear tricked down my spine as I recalled the events of my last bittersweet holiday at Merryweather Lodge.
Five years earlier
It was a long and uncomfortable ride from the airport, especially after being cramped in the window seat of a jumbo jet for nine hours. The old car smelled like pipe smoke and the hot humid air made the black leather seats stick to my skin. Uncle Reg never stopped talking; his bald head bounced back and forth like a bowling ball in front of me. The conversation was mundane and had become a boring hum. Until:
“Took an axe to her, I heard.”
My ears perked up.
“Oh my God, any suspects?” Dad asked.
“Not yet, but they’re looking for her stepson. Never was right in the head, that lad.”
Uncle Reg was looking at my dad, who sat next to him. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the road, which was nerve wracking, considering it curved, looped and dropped like a roller coaster.
“How’s Emy taking it?”
“It’s stirred up some old memories, if you know what I mean.”
A gruesome murder was interesting, but I wasn’t about to ask any questions, just in case Uncle Reg turned around and looked back at me. We would have ended up in the ditch for sure then. I glanced at Mom; she had fallen asleep with her head pressed against the window, cushioned by her glossy red purse. I was glad she hadn’t heard the conversation because Mom smokes when she’s anxious, and the last thing we needed was smelly cigarette smoke stinging our eyes. I gazed out of my partially opened window, as the fresh earthy smell of newly plowed soil drifted in. My body was uncomfortable and weary but my mind was in a world of fantasy, captivated by the enchanting view. There were cottages with thatched roofs hemmed in by manicured hedges, clusters of cone shaped trees topped with ice-creamy pink and white blossoms, snake-like rivers flowing through rich vegetation, gentle rolling hills dotted with sheep and crowned by dense woodlots, all against a backdrop of warm pale blue. So this was England.
I had waited for this day for as far back as I could remember. My dad’s parents immigrated to Canada when he was sixteen years old. His older brother, my Uncle Reg, stayed in England with his wife, my Auntie Em. When Auntie’s dad died, she inherited the farm and Merryweather Lodge.
It is situated on Salisbury Plain, not far from historical Stonehenge. My parents had come here a couple of times before I was born and once when I was a baby. Uncle Reg and Auntie Em have visited us twice, at our country home just outside of Edmonton. My mom adores her sister-in-law; she calls her a “hardy English rose” although I have never quite understood why, as Auntie can be harsh and unkind to Mom at times. Perhaps it’s because, like the rest of us, she knows that her sister-in-law is tough on the outside but all soft and mushy on the inside. I was named after her, Emily Anne Fletcher.
“Almost there,” Uncle Reg announced.
We drove up a narrow dirt road shadowed by tall trees. An old wooden sign pointed the way: 1/4 mile Merryweather Lodge. I rolled the window all the way down to get a better look. It was just as I had imagined, enchanting and blissfully romantic, like a scene from a fairy tale. Ivy and climbing wild roses draped the gray stone cottage; its tiny windows were complemented by diamond divisions and black wooden shutters. Massive clumps of shrubs, flowers and lilac bushes showed splendid color and gave off a delicious perfume. A white picket fence surrounded the cottage, adding to its charm. Just beyond the cottage, on one side, sat lush green hills patched with bushes and sprinkled with sheep. On the other side, in contrast, was a sea of flowing meadow with an island of thick, dense wood in the center.
“Come on, m’ luvs, let’s have a look at ya,” Auntie Em demanded loudly, as soon Uncle Reg turned off the ignition. She was standing at the cottage door, waving with one hand and wiping the other down her gingham apron. We squeezed our stiff bodies out of the car. The air was fresh and fragrant. Mom ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair and inhaled deeply with an air of satisfaction. Dad lifted his arms, stretched, yawned, and then proceeded to unload our luggage.
“Never mind them there cases, Ron, Reg will fetch ’um,” Auntie shouted. “Come on in; take a load off yer feet.”
I swung open the little wooden gate and walked up the cobblestone path. As I gazed up at the straw roof, I noticed an odd little window just under the thatch. It was different from the others. Newer, I thought. It gave me a strange, uneasy feeling. Just then, Auntie Em reached up and threw her short chubby arm over my shoulder. She smelled like apple pie.
“My, haven’t ya grown and ya don’t look a day over sixteen.”
Was she joking, I wondered, or had she forgotten that I was only fourteen? It’s really hard to tell with English people. My mom said that they have a weird sense of humor. Everyone giggled so I guessed she was joking.
Inside, the cottage was cluttered but cozy. The walls were covered with old paintings, black and white photographs and heavy floral wallpaper. An elegant antique sideboard displayed an array of delicate figurines and cat ornaments on top of a dainty white doily. An oversized stone fireplace sat in the corner, accompanied by a chunky rolled-arm sofa, a chair dressed in chintz and an elegant wing-back holding a worn patchwork blanket. Colorful woven rugs warmed the rustic oak floors. The smell of lemon polish, mingled with old wood and pipe smoke, hung in the air.
Dad put his hand on Auntie’s shoulder, and said, “We were sorry to hear about Lizzy Lunn.”
Auntie swallowed and glanced at me. “We’ll talk about it later.”
This must be the murdered woman they were talking about, I thought. Obviously it was too shocking for ‘sensitive’ ears.
“These are our kids,” Auntie said, pointing to the cats.
“Can I pet them?” I asked.
“Of course. I’ll introduce you.” Her jolly round face beamed, like a proud mother. “This is Wooky. Gotta watch him, he’s cantankerous.” The large black male was stretched out on the back of the sofa, glaring at us. I walked over and stroked him carefully.
“That’s Winky over there. She’s the shy one.” She pointed to a black and white ball of fur buried in the fireside rug. “And this is our baby.” Auntie crooked her finger. “Come ’ere, Winny, come and meet our Emily.” She puckered her lips and made a kissing sound.
Like a well-trained dog, the cat jumped off the window ledge and came over to me. She arched her back and started weaving through my legs, purring and demanding attention. I picked her up gently and stroked her soft, snow-white fur.
Uncle Reg piled our luggage on the floor, next to the shiny polished sideboard.
“Time for a cuppa, Mother,” he said, wiping his bushy brow with a large white handkerchief. I wondered why he called his wife “Mother.” They didn’t have any children but my mom did tell me that Auntie had given birth to a stillborn baby a couple of years after she and Uncle Reg were married, and there were the cats, I suppose.
In the kitchen, a crisp white cloth covered a rough wooden table; on top, a blue earthenware jar displayed a bunch of golden daffodils. Their delicate fragrance mingled with the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked pastry. We gathered around the table, drank lemon tea from tiny china cups and ate warm powdered biscuits, covered in strawberry jam and thick Devonshire cream, off of pretty floral plates. After tea and what seemed like hours of babbling, Auntie showed us to our rooms.
“You two can sleep in ’ere,” she said to Mom and Dad.
The parlor, like the sitting room, was snug and old-fashioned. She pointed to a plain couch in the corner; it had dark knobby fabric, wooden arms, and looked out of place amongst the antique furniture.
“This is one of them there new-fangled pullout beds. There’s sheets in the airing cupboard, and I’ve made room in the bathroom for Penny’s paraphernalia.” She was referring to Mom’s endless supply of cosmetics. My mom is a beautician and gets everything at discount prices. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to try it out, but I wasn’t sure if I would ever wear it in public. It just seems too fussy for me.
“Thank you, Emy,” Mom said sweetly.
“The hot water tank’s full, if anyone wants to take a bath,” Uncle Reg shouted from the other room.
“They’ll be too tired for that,” Auntie shouted back abruptly. Then, in a lower voice, “Keep the door shut or you’ll have a bed full of cats.”
Mom cringed; she hated cat hair, or anything else that might flaw her perfect appearance.
“I’ve done the attic up for you, m’ luv,” Auntie said as she pulled the handle of my suitcase out
of my hand. The stairs were narrow and steep.
“Let me carry that, Auntie Em,” I said, feeling guilty.
“I’ve carried many a load up these ’ere stairs, Emily Ann, I ain’t afraid of a bit of hard lifting.” She grunted and struggled with every step. The heavy wooden door creaked open as she pushed it, sending a strange wave of apprehension washing over me.
“Here we are, luv, hope ya like it. We’ve been using it as a storeroom. Took me and your Uncle Reg a fortnight to clean up the rubbish.”
“It’s… It’s beautiful, Auntie Em!” I assured her, but there was something odd about this room…something ominous.
“The furniture was left here by the folks that owned the farm before Dad bought it. It’s very old and worth a bob or two.” Auntie nodded her head and strolled toward the door. “Let me know if you need anything. And don’t lock the door.” She turned and gave me an odd grin. “It’s old and can be tricky to open.”
I felt a vague uneasiness.
The walls were covered in pink and blue candy-striped wallpaper. A small crescent-shaped window was curtained with white ruffled lace. Low wooden beams crossed the sloping ceiling. A kidney-shaped dressing table with a huge oval mirror and a tiny cushioned stool sat against one wall, a single brass bed draped in lace and embroidered linen against the other. In the corner, a toy rocking chair cradled a porcelain doll, dressed in faded red velvet. She seemed to be scowling at me with her painted blue eyes.
A large gold framed portrait hung on the wall beside the door. It looked like something you’d see in an art gallery. I walked over to take a closer look. In it, a tall dark-haired man with a curly moustache stood stiff and starched. A beautiful woman with blonde hair and piercing green eyes sat in a high-backed chair in front of him. Beside them stood a young red-headed girl, wearing a long green dress and holding two snow-white kittens. At the bottom in bold handwriting were the words “The Eliss Family”.
Suddenly I felt a presence behind me. Slowly, cautiously, I turned; no one was there. Then I felt a cool breeze coming from the window. That’s strange, I thought, the window was closed when I came in. As I pushed back the delicate curtains, I took a deep breath to clear my anxious, overtired mind.
A whiff of wild roses and lilac drifted in with the cool, damp air. I grabbed the latch to close the window. It wouldn’t budge. I checked the hinge; it looked okay. I pulled again, but still it wouldn’t move. It felt like someone was pulling it back from the other side. I pulled; it pulled back. I swallowed hard, let go and stood back, perplexed, shaking my hand as if to rid myself of whatever it was. Too nervous to change into my nightclothes, I crawled into bed fully clothed and pulled the covers snugly around my neck. For comfort, I decided to leave the light on.
* * * *
I awoke to the sound of a cock’s crow and the smell of bacon. Slanted rays of early sun filled the room with light. I assumed that someone had come in to check on me during the night as the light was off and the window was closed. I gazed around the room suspiciously. All seemed well.
Brushing off the events of the night before, I proceeded to unpack my suitcase. There was no closet or wardrobe, so I placed my clothes neatly in the dressing table drawers. The huge mirror in front of me reflected a tired, pale face, with fading freckles and puffy green eyes, surrounded by a messy mop of ginger hair.
On top of the dresser, a tarnished silver tray displayed a beautiful brush and comb set with the initials M. E. engraved on the back. I picked up the brush and started to untangle the knots. I hated my red hair. As soon as I was old enough, I was going to dye it golden blonde, like my mom’s or jet black like my best friend’s, Skye Jenkins. As I stared at my reflection in the ornate mirror, it started to become blurry, distorted. I dropped the brush and narrowed my eyes, trying to focus. For a moment it looked like there were two of me, but the other one was older and much prettier. I blinked rapidly. My image became clear again. Must be prolonged jet lag. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the doll that had been sitting on the rocking chair was gone. That did it! I grabbed a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, threw them on and rushed out of the door.
“Well, good morning, young lady,” Dad said cheerfully while mopping up his egg yolk with a thick piece of homemade bread. I pulled out a chair and sat beside him. Auntie Em slapped two pieces of crisp-fried bacon on the plate in front of me. I screwed up my nose, looked at Mom and then at Dad.
“Our Emily has become a tree-hugging vegetarian,” Dad said, in a sarcastic tone. I gave him an evil eye.
“Well, I never. What brought this on?” Auntie asked.
I paused, then sat up straight. “I watched a program on TV that showed how animals were slaughtered. It was barbaric. I swore I would never consume the flesh of another species again.”
Auntie rolled her eyes. “Sorry I asked.”
She slid my bacon onto Dad’s plate, then dumped a couple of eggs, sunny side up, on a clean plate and shoved it in front of me.
“Ya do eat eggs, don’t ya?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Watch for the little chicky inside,” Dad said, then he chuckled. My dad can be a real jerk. He ridicules anything that goes against his conservative views.
I gave him another evil look.
“What’s up, honey? You look pale, like you’ve seen a ghost,” Mom asked, changing the subject while she poured me a cup of tea from a large brown pot.
“I’m fine, just a little tired, that’s all. Where’s Uncle Reg?”
“He left for the fields, of course, ages ago,” Auntie said as if I should have known. Winny jumped up on my lap under the table. I stroked her fur; she purred contentedly. Auntie Em came over and lifted the corner of the tablecloth. Winny’s innocent blue eyes glared at her.
“Don’t you think for a minute that I can’t see you under there. Ya know yer not allowed near the table.” She shook her finger at the disobedient cat. Now I knew why they’re called “the kids”.
With a Visitors’ Guide and map in hand, Mom and Dad started to plan our agenda.
“Tomorrow, we’ll get the bus up to Portsmouth. Friday, we’ll visit Stonehenge. On the weekend, we’ll…” Dad paused and looked over at me pitifully. “But today, we’ll stay here and recuperate,” he said, giving me a nod and a smile.
After breakfast Auntie suggested that we all go for a walk.
“Grab your macs and wellies,” she said. “My legs have been playing me up all morning. Must be a storm brewing.”
My coat was in the attic room. I felt nervous about going back up there. “I don’t need a coat,” I announced, heading for the door.
“You’ll do as you’re told, young lady,” Dad ordered.
I sighed loudly, stomped into the sitting room, lifted Wooky off the back of the sofa and draped him over my shoulder like a fur stole. He gave me a lengthy, indignant meow. I did not want to go back up there alone and a cat was better than nothing. The stairs groaned. I ran my fingers down Wooky’s silky coat and hummed, to comfort myself. The foreboding wooden door stood before me, like the portal to a dark kingdom. Without warning, Wooky let out a piercing hiss and scurried down my back, digging his claws into my flesh for support! I winced and screamed.
Mom came running to the bottom of the steps. “Emily, what’s wrong?”
“I’m okay. The cat scratched me, that’s all.” His claw marks tingled painfully on my back.
“Hurry up, honey. We are all waiting for you,” Mom said, as she walked away.
To ease my anxiety, I visualized Mom still standing there as I ran up the remaining stairs.
I flung open the door, rushed over to the bed, grabbed my coat from the brass bed post and headed for the door. As I did, I noticed the Eliss Family portrait was hanging upside down. This is creepy, I thought, but for some unimaginable reason I felt impelled to stop and move it. Lifting it carefully off the hook, I turned it the right way up. The young girl’s painted face seemed to draw me in. It looked angelic, almost radiant. Mesmerized, I gazed into her bright green eyes; as I did, an intense feeling of utter sadness gripped me. Tears filled my eyes. A cold draft and the scent of lavender drifted by me. Something brushed against my back. Too frightened to turn around, I flew out the door and scurried down the stairs as fast as I could.