Read the first part of Autumn Fever (a selection from Home, Sweet…Death)
Eliza didn’t know the woman who moved into her head around the middle of September. Whoever she was, she’d made Eliza come back here. To the house. The house that waited for her.
Gravel crunched under the tires as she pulled off the dirt lane into the driveway, already taken over by weeds and not even a year since Aunt Birdie’s death. The rebuilt Volkswagen bug sputtered and died. It wasn’t much of a car in Darryl’s opinion, but it was a classic, and it was all Eliza’s. As was this house.
She emerged from the car, and tears welled with a life of their own. She blinked them away. Leaving Darryl and their loft behind in the city had been a good decision.
Even if she wasn’t sure she’d been the one to make the decision.
Cicadas buzzed, then suddenly stilled. The air hushed, holding its breath. A chill crept across Eliza’s flesh, even though sweat gummed her tank top. Aunt Birdie used to say someone was walking across her grave.
Eliza never understood such words, because clearly, she was alive. But Auntie didn’t have to make sense. Auntie was “eccentric.” She was Eliza’s father’s elder spinster sister in a time when a woman was supposed to be dependent on a man. Aunt Birdie wasn’t.
Neither was Eliza.
She dragged the wheeled suitcase that Darryl had chosen for her up the walk to the front porch. From her purse, she dug out the skeleton key, a bit of iron that weighed down her palm. As she stared at it, childhood scenes flitted through her mind, reminding her of the times she’d come here seeking refuge with Aunt Birdie while her parents battled through their divorce.
Eliza, alone on the porch, was still running here from divorce. She stabbed the skeleton key into the keyhole and rattled it around until the lock tumbled. The door opened with a creak, and she could smell the dark inside.
No, she told herself, hesitating on the threshold. Darkness didn’t smell.
Yet, it reminded her of something…wet rocks she’d pulled from the creek as a child. Or the damp smells coming from the cellar where Auntie sometimes disappeared, a place forbidden to Eliza. The steps were too steep, and it was too dark, Auntie used to say. Eliza might fall and hurt herself.
A tunnel of daylight penetrated the dark interior of the closed-up house. Dust motes floated in the beam, and she followed them inside with Darryl’s bag. From habit, she stood to one side of the floor vent, which occupied the middle of the entry and had always reminded her of the maw of a giant, ready to swallow her into the depths of the furnace monster that resided in the bowels of the forbidden cellar.
Maybe she was hearing her own pulse. Maybe there was something wrong with her ears.
The sound was too faint to make out what it was. In fact, now that she concentrated, she couldn’t hear anything at all. Still, her skin prickled with the feeling that something disturbed the air, some rhythmic beat that was coming from deep within the house, from the shadows beyond this entry, where Eliza stood shivering.
She shouldn’t shiver. Temps today were in the upper eighties, baking the air inside the closed-up house into a thick, stuffy, unbreathable medium. Stale air, not the cinnamon or lavender-laced air from Auntie’s day.
Well, the window shutters had been closed for a year. That’s why the air didn’t move and darkness swathed the house. Leaving the suitcase by the door, she filled her lungs with stale air and walked around the floor vent’s square perimeter, careful not to step on the grill work. The floorboards creaked beneath her tiptoey movement.
The front bedroom, where Aunt Birdie had slept, was a room of three doors. It was also the largest and most central room of the house – the house’s heart, she liked to think. Auntie’s three doors accessed the hall, the dining room, and Great-grandmother Elisabeth’s private, back bedroom, where Eliza always preferred to sleep.
Eliza stood in the hall now, pressing her ear against the closed door to the front bedroom. Heard nothing. The china knob rattled when she turned it, and the door creaked open. Then the ticking sound came to life, even though darkness smothered the room. Fingers shaking, she groped dusty wallpaper for the electrical switch, one of those ancient ones with buttons. Found it, and punched. A ceiling light flooded the room through a pink globe painted with red roses.
Beside Auntie’s four-poster bed sat the grandfather clock, its pendulum swinging back and forth with a slow, steady tick tock.
Eliza breathed, not realizing she’d been holding her breath. She laughed at herself, a shaky sound. She’d forgotten about the grandfather clock. The tick tock had always been a comforting sound to Eliza the child.
Auntie used to wind up the weights as soon as she rose each morning, whether or not they needed winding. Staying on a schedule, she’d always said, put order into life.
Who had wound them up this time, Eliza wondered, her breath catching in her throat. Now that the clock sounded when it shouldn’t, something tickled the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder, but what did she expect to find? The owner, accusing her of trespassing?
She was the owner now. Aunt Birdie had left the homeplace to her, after all.
She could almost hear the restless murmurs of Auntie’s old women friends from church and her sewing circle. Why Eliza? Why had Birdie left the homeplace to her, when there must be other nieces, nephews, cousins, and even a sibling or two who still survived? There must be someone else, someone who hadn’t forgotten Birdie in her golden years. As Eliza had forgotten her.
She’d had no other choice, Eliza thought, her cheeks flaming. At first, she’d been a student, always with something more important to do than tending to family. She’d taken this place for granted back then, assuming it’d always be here later, when she was ready. When later came, she started her career, married Darryl, and later was simply never convenient for her to come. Seven years passed between Eliza’s wedding and Aunt Birdie’s funeral, and during that time, she saw none of the extended family. That didn’t mean she’d stopped caring.
Now, it was too late. Now, the woman in Eliza’s head chose for her.
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