The Grownup, Page 2Gillian Flynn
“I’m a psychological intuitive,” I began. “Do you know what that means?”
“You can read people well.”
“Yes, to a degree, but my powers are much stronger than just a hunch. All my senses play a part. I can feel vibrations coming off people. I can see auras. I can smell despair, or dishonesty, or depression. It’s a gift I’ve had since I was a small child. My mother was a deeply depressed, unbalanced woman. A dark blue haze followed her. When she was near me, my skin plinked—like someone was playing a piano—and she smelled of despair, which presents itself to me as the scent of bread.”
“Bread?” she said.
“That was just her scent, of a desperate soul.” I needed to pick a new eau de sad girl. Not dying leaves, too obvious, but something earthy. Mushrooms? No, inelegant.
“Bread, that is so strange,” she said.
People usually asked what their scent or aura was. It was their first step to committing to the game. Susan shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t mean to be rude,” she said. “But…I think this isn’t for me.”
I waited her out. Empathetic silence is one of the most underused weapons in the world.
“OK,” Susan said. She tucked her hair behind both ears—thick diamond-scattered wedding bands flashing like the Milky Way—and looked ten years younger. I could picture her as a kid, a bookworm maybe, pretty but shy. Demanding parents. Straight As, always. “So what do you read off me?”
“There’s something going on in your house.”
“I already told you that.” I could feel the desperation coming off her: to believe in me.
“No, you told me your life was falling apart. I’m saying it’s something to do with your house. You have a husband, I sense a lot of discord: I see you surrounded by a sick green, like an egg yolk gone bad. Swirls of a healthy vibrant turquoise on the outer edges. That tells me you had something good and it went very bad. Yes?”
Obviously this was an easy guess, but I liked my color arrangement; it felt right.
She glared at me. I was hitting on something close to the bone.
“I feel the same vibrations off you as my mother: those sharp, high piano plinks. You’re desperate, you’re in exquisite pain. You’re not sleeping.”
The mention of insomnia was always risky but usually paid off. People in pain don’t generally sleep well. Insomniacs are exquisitely grateful for people to recognize their weariness.
“No, no, I sleep eight hours,” Susan said.
“It’s not a genuine sleep. You have unsettling dreams. Maybe not nightmares, maybe you don’t even remember them, but you wake up feeling worn, achy.”
See, you can rescue most bad guesses. This woman was in her forties; people in their forties usually wake up feeling achy. I know that from commercials.
“You store the anxiety in your neck,” I continued. “Also, you smell of peonies. A child. You have a child?”
If she didn’t have a child, then I just say, “But you want one.” And she can deny it—I’ve never, ever even thought about having kids—and I can insist, and pretty soon she leaves thinking it because very few women decide not to procreate without some doubts. It’s an easy thought to seed. Except this one’s smart.
“Yes. Well, two. A son and a stepson.”
Stepson, go with the stepson.
“Something is wrong in your house. Is it your stepson?”
She stood up, fumbled through her well-constructed bag.
“How much do I owe you?”
I got one thing wrong. I thought I’d never see her again. But four days later Susan Burke was back. (“Can things have auras?” she asked. “Like, objects. Or a house?”) And then three days later (“Do you believe in evil spirits? Is there such a thing, do you think?”) and then the next day.
I was right about her, mostly. Overbearing, demanding parents, straight As, Ivy League, a degree that had something to do with business. I asked her the question: What do you do? She explained and explained about downsizing and restructuring and client intersects, and when I frowned, she got impatient and said, “I define and eliminate problems.” Things with her husband were OK except when it came to the stepson. The Burkes had moved into the city the year before, and that’s when the kid went from troubled to troubling.
“Miles was never a sweet boy,” she said. “I’m the only mom he’s known—I’ve been with his dad since he was four. But he’s always been cold. Introverted. He’s just empty. I hate myself for saying that. I mean, introverted is fine. But in the past year, since the move…he’s changed. Become more aggressive. He’s so angry. So dark. Threatening. He scares me.”
The kid was fifteen, and had just been forcibly relocated from the suburbs into the city where he didn’t know anyone, and he was already an awkward, nerdy kid. Of course he was angry. That would have been helpful, my saying that, but I didn’t. I seized an opportunity.
I’d been trying to move into the domestic aura-cleansing business. Basically when someone moves into a new home, they call you. You wander around the house burning sage and sprinkling salt and murmuring a lot. Fresh start, wipe away any lingering bad energy from previous owners. Now that people were moving back into the heart of the city, into all the old historic houses, it seemed like a boom industry waiting to happen. A hundred-year-old house, that’s a lot of leftover vibes.
“Susan, have you considered that the house is affecting your son’s behavior?”
Susan leaned in, her eyes wide. “Yes! Yes, I do. Is that crazy? That’s why…why I came back. Because…there was blood on my wall.”
She leaned in and I could smell the mint masking sour breath. “Last week. I didn’t want to say anything…I thought you’d think I was crazy. But it was there. One long trickle from the floor to the ceiling. Am I…am I crazy?”
I met her at the house the next week. Driving up her street in my trusty hatchback, I thought, rust. Not blood. Something from the walls, the roof. Who knew what old houses were built of? Who knew what could leak out after a hundred years? The question was how to play it. I really wasn’t interested in getting into exorcism, demonology church shit. I don’t think that’s what Susan wanted either. But she did invite me to her house, and women like that don’t invite over women like me unless they want something. Comfort. I would breeze over the “blood trickle,” find an explanation for it, and yet still insist the house could use a cleansing.
Repeated cleansings. We had yet to discuss money. Twelve visits for $2,000 seemed like a good price point. Spread them out, one a month, over a year, and give the stepson time to sort himself out, get adjusted to the new school, the new kids. Then he’s cured and I’m the hero, and pretty soon Susan is referring all her rich, nervous friends to me. I could go into business for myself, and when people asked me, “What do you do?” I’d say, I’m an entrepreneur in that haughty way entrepreneurs had. Maybe Susan and I would become friends. Maybe she’d invite me to a book club. I’d sit by a fire and nibble on Brie and say, I’m a small business owner, an entrepreneur, if you will. I parked, got out of the car, and took a big breath of optimistic spring air.
But then I spotted Susan’s house. I actually stopped and stared. Then I shivered.
It was different from the rest.
It lurked. It was the only remaining Victorian house in a long row of boxy new construction, and maybe that’s why it seemed alive, calculating. The mansion’s front was all elaborate, carved stonework, dizzying in its detail: flowers and filigrees, dainty rods and swooping ribbons. Two life-sized angels framed the doorway, their arms reaching upward, their faces fascinated by something I couldn’t see.
I watched the house. It watched me back through long, baleful windows so tall a child could stand in the sill. And one was. I could see the length of his thin body: gray trousers, black sweater, a maroon tie perfectly knotted at the neck. A thicket of dark hair covering his eyes. Then, a sudden blur, and he’d hopped down and disappeared behind the heavy brocade drap
The steps to the mansion were steep and long. My heart was thumping by the time I reached the top, passed the awestruck angels, reached the door, and rang the bell. As I waited I read the inscription carved in the stone near my feet.
The carving was in a severe Victorian cursive, the two juicy o’s dissected by a feathery curlicue. It made me want to protect my belly.
Susan opened the door with red eyes.
“Welcome to Carterhook Manor,” she said, fake grandeur. She caught me staring—Susan never looked good when I saw her, but she hadn’t even pretended to brush her hair, and a foul, acrid odor came off her. (Not “despair” or “depression,” just bad breath and body odor.) She shrugged limply. “I’ve finally stopped sleeping.”
The inside of the house was nothing like the outside. The interior had been gutted and now looked like every other rich person’s house. It made me feel immediately more cheerful. I could cleanse this place: the tasteful recessed lights, the granite counters and stainless-steel appliances, the new, freakishly smooth wood paneling, wall upon wall of Botoxed oak.
“Let’s start with the blood trickle,” I suggested.
We climbed to the second floor. There were two more above it. The stairwell was open, and I peered up through the banisters to see a face peering down at me from the top floor. Black hair and eyes, set against the porcelain skin of an antique doll. Miles. He stared at me for a solemn moment, then disappeared again. That kid matched the original house perfectly.
Susan pulled down a tasteful print on the landing, so I could see the full wall.
“Here. It was right here.” She pointed from the ceiling to the floor.
I pretended to examine it closely, but there was nothing really to see. She’d scrubbed it down completely; I could still smell the bleach.
“I can help you,” I said. “There is a tremendous feeling of pain, right here. Throughout the whole house, but definitely here. I can help you.”
“The house creaks all night long,” she said. “I mean, it almost moans. It shouldn’t. Everything inside is new. Miles’s door slams at strange times. And he…he’s getting worse. It’s like something has settled on him. A darkness he carries on his back. Like an insect shell. He scuttles. Like a beetle. I’d move, that’s how scared I am, I’d move, but we don’t have the money. Anymore. We spent so much on this house, and then almost that much renovating, and…my husband won’t let me anyway. He says Miles is just going through growing pains. And that I’m a nervous, silly woman.”
“I can help you,” I said.
“Let me give you the whole tour,” she replied.
We walked down the long, narrow hall. The house was naturally dark. You moved away from a window and the gloom descended. Susan flipped on lights as we walked.
“Miles turns them off,” she said. “Then I turn them back on. When I ask him to keep them on, he pretends he has no idea what I’m talking about. Here’s our den,” she said. She opened a door to reveal a cavernous room with a fireplace and wall-to-wall bookshelves.
“It’s a library,” I gasped. They had to own a thousand books, easy. Thick, impressive, smart-people books. How do you keep a thousand books in one room and then call the room a den?
I stepped inside. I shivered dramatically. “Do you feel this? Do you feel the…heaviness here?”
“I hate this room.” She nodded.
“I’ll need to pay extra attention to this room,” I said. I’d park myself in it for an hour at a time and just read, read whatever I wanted.
We went back into the hall, which was now dark again. Susan sighed and began flipping on lights. I could hear a patter of feet upstairs, running manically up and down the hallway. We passed a closed door to my right. Susan knocked at it—Jack, it’s me. A shuffle of a chair being pushed back, a snick of a lock, and then the door was opened by another child, younger than Miles by several years. He looked like his mother. He smiled at Susan like he hadn’t seen her in a year.
“Hi, Momma,” he said. He wrapped his arms around her. “I missed you.”
“This is Jack, he’s seven,” she said. She ruffled his hair.
“Momma has to go do a little work with her friend here,” Susan said, kneeling to his eye level. “Finish your reading and then I’ll make a snack.”
“Do I lock the door?” Jack asked.
“Yes, always lock your door, sweetheart.”
We started walking again as we heard the snick of the lock behind us.
“Why the lock?”
“Miles doesn’t like his brother.”
She must have felt my frown: No teenager likes his kid brother.
“You should see what Miles did to the babysitter he didn’t like. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have money. Medical bills.” She turned to me sharply. “I shouldn’t have said that. It wasn’t…major. Possibly an accident. I don’t know anymore, actually. Maybe I am just goddam crazy.”
Her laugh was raw. She swiped at an eye.
We walked to the end of the hallway, where another door was locked.
“I’d show you Miles’s room, but I don’t have a key,” she said simply. “Also, I’m too scared.”
She forced another laugh. It wasn’t convincing; it didn’t have enough energy to even pose as a laugh. We went up to the next floor, which was a series of rooms, wallpapered and painted, with fine-boned Victorian furniture arranged haphazardly. One room held only a litterbox. “For our cat, Wilkie,” Susan said. “Luckiest cat in the world: his own room for his own crap.”
“You’ll find a use for the space.”
“He’s actually a sweet cat,” she said. “Almost twenty years old.”
I smiled like that was interesting and good.
“We obviously have more room than we need,” Susan said. “I think we thought, there might be another…maybe adopt, but I wouldn’t bring another child into this house. So instead we live in a very expensive storage facility. My husband does like his antiques.” I could picture him, this uptight, snooty husband. A man who bought antiques but didn’t find them himself. Probably had some classy decorator woman in horn-rims doing the actual work. She probably bought those books for him too. I heard you could do that—buy books by the yard, turn them into furniture. People are dumb. I’ll never get over how dumb people are.
We climbed some more. The top floor was just a large attic space with a few old steamer trunks all along the walls.
“Aren’t the trunks stupid?” she whispered. “He says it gives the place a little authenticity. He didn’t like the renovation.”
So the house had been a compromise: The husband wanted vintage, Susan wanted new, so they thought this outside/inside split might settle things. But the Burkes ended up more resentful than satisfied. Millions of dollars later, and neither of them were happy. Money is wasted on the rich.
We went down the back stairs, cramped and dizzying, like an animal’s burrow, and ended up in the gaping, gleaming modern kitchen.
Miles sat at the kitchen island, waiting. Susan started when she saw him.
He was small for his age. Pale face and pointy chin, and black eyes that reflected twitchily, like a spider’s. Assessing. Extremely bright but hates school, I thought. Never gets enough attention—even if he got all of Susan’s attention it still wouldn’t be enough. Mean-spirited. Self-centered.
“Hi, Momma,” he said. His face was transformed, a bright, goofy smile cracking through it. “I missed you.” Sweet-natured, loving Jack. He was doing a perfect version of his little brother. Miles went to hug Susan, and as he walked, he assumed Jack’s slump-shouldered, childish posture. He wrapped his arms around her, nuzzled into her. Susan watched me over his head, her cheeks flush, her lips tight as if she smelled something nasty. Miles gazed up at her. “Why won’t you hug me?”
She gave him a brief hug. Miles released her as if he were scalded.
“I heard what you told her,” he said. “About Jack. About the babysitter. About everything. You’re such a b
Susan flinched. Miles turned to me.
“I really hope you leave and don’t come back. For your own good.” He smiled at both of us. “This is a family matter. Don’t you think, Momma?”
Then he was clattering in his heavy leather shoes up the back stairway again, leaning heavily forward. He did scuttle as if he bore an insect’s shell, shiny and hard.
Susan looked at the floor, took a breath, and looked up. “I want your help.”
“What does your husband say about all this?”
“We don’t talk about it. Miles is his kid. He’s protective. Anytime I say anything remotely critical, he says I’m crazy. He says I’m crazy a lot. A haunted house. Maybe I am. Anyway, he travels all the time; he won’t even know you’re here.”
“I can help you,” I said. “Shall we talk pricing very quickly?”
She agreed to the money, but not the timeline: “I can’t wait a year for Miles to get better; he may kill us all before then.” She gave that desperate burp of a laugh. I agreed to come twice a week.
Mostly I came during the day, when the kids were at school and Susan was at work. I did cleanse the house, in that I washed it. I lit my sage and sprinkled my sea salt. I boiled my lavender and rosemary, and I wiped down that house, walls and floors. And then I sat in the library and read. Also, I nosed around. I could find a zillion photos of grinning-sunshine Jack, a few old ones of pouty Miles, a couple of somber Susan and none of her husband. I felt sorry for Susan. An angry stepson and a husband who was always away, no wonder she let her mind go to dark places.
And yet. And yet, I felt it too: the house. Not necessarily malevolent, but…mindful. I could feel it studying me, does that makes sense? It crowded me. One day, I was wiping down the floorboards, and suffered a sudden, slicing pain in my middle finger—as if I’d been bitten—and when I pulled it away, I was bleeding. I wrapped my finger tightly in one of my spare rags and watched the blood seep through. And I felt like something in the house was pleased.
I began dreading. I made myself fight the dread. You are the one who made this whole thing up, I told myself. So cut it out.