Authors: Darcy Coates
By Darcy Coates
“You’re gifted, my dear. The spirits are clamouring to speak with you. Come.”
The woman stretched her hands towards Mara. They were contorted by rheumatism, their skin papery and spotted from age. Mara didn’t want to touch them, but her mother stood behind her and nudged her forward with one hand.
Mara turned her head. She didn’t dare speak in anything more than a whisper. “I don’t want to.”
The clink of jewellery echoed in the small room as Mara’s mother bent to murmur into her ear. Her mother always dressed elaborately for their seances: strings of pendants from deceased relatives, bangles with skulls and occult words notched into them, and the heavy, powerful perfume she wore on significant occasions. Mara hated the perfume. It permeated whatever room they were in, building up in the atmosphere until it turned her stomach and made her dizzy.
“Be polite.” Mara’s mother kept her voice low and soft. Her breath tickled Mara’s ear. “Miss Horowitz has offered to be your mentor. It’s a huge honour. Take her hands.”
Mara was struggling to breathe. The dimly lit sitting room, with its mess of antique and arcane objects, unsettled her. The small, round seance table was draped in an off-white crotchet cloth. A single candle sat in its centre. Animal skulls, ancient books, jars of dead insects, and a slow, ticking metronome filled the shelves. Complex, ragged ink paintings covered every gap in the walls. The curtains were drawn, but they couldn’t muffle the roar of the storm outside.
“Take her hands,” Mara’s mother repeated. Her long fingers squeezed Mara’s shoulders. It was offered as a comforting gesture but held a hint of warning.
Mara tried to swallow, but her throat was too tight. She raised her hands. If Miss Horowitz noticed their shaking, she didn’t show it. The old spirit medium thrust her own hands forward like a praying mantis snatching its victim out of the air, and the fingers pinched Mara’s firmly enough to hurt.
“Now, my dear, concentrate.” Miss Horowitz pulled closer to her so that they both leaned over the round table and Mara had nowhere to look except the sagging, blotchy face. The candle sent hard shadows dancing through the skin creases and collected gloom around Miss Horowitz’s eyes. “You’ve inherited incredible talents. I can feel your power swelling inside of you. To unlock it, all you need to do is focus. I will channel, and we will see which spirits answer our call tonight.”
Thunder shook the windowpane. Mara flinched at the noise, and Miss Horowitz’s hands tightened, sending sparks of pain through the girl’s fingers. The jingle of jewellery was warning of her mother’s movements, and Mara glanced towards her out of the corner of her eye. Elaine’s face glowed in the candlelight as she watched her daughter. “Try, darling,” she whispered. There was a deep, hungry need in her voice. “Miss Horowitz says you could be the most powerful medium of your generation. You just need to realise your gift.”
Thunder cracked again. Mara couldn’t stop shaking as she closed her eyes. Miss Horowitz had said to focus, but she had no idea on what. She didn’t want to imagine the spirits her mother said lived around them. She’d seen them enough in her nightmares: skeletal, neither human nor corpse, they were trapped in a twilight space without reprieve as they watched the mortal realm with angry, coal-black eyes…
“They’re coming,” Miss Horowitz crowed. Mara dared to inch her eyelids open. The older woman was swaying, her head rolling so violently that Mara was afraid her neck might have broken. The medium’s bloodshot eyes were turned far back in her head, exposing the whites.
The storm, already severe, seemed to redouble its efforts. The rain’s bellow nearly drowned out Miss Horowitz’s gurgling, croaking voice. “Speak with us, living ones! What messages do you wish to share with your mortal vessels?”
I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to see any more
. Mara tried to pull away but couldn’t free her hands. She turned towards her mother, but Elaine’s eyes were focussed completely on the spirit medium. Reverent trust filled every feature of her face.
“Come!” Miss Horowitz’s voice rose into a wail above the thunder. “Speak!”
The table shook, causing the flame to flicker. Mara smothered a scream. She hadn’t been aware of crying, but wet tracks tickled her cheeks.
The shaking intensified. Miss Horowitz’s mouth gaped wide to expose heavily worn and irregular teeth in gums that had receded nearly to their roots. She threw her head back and forth, her floating grey hair coming free from its knot to hang about her face in oily strands. A string of saliva dripped over her jaw.
Then Miss Horowitz snapped forward as though an invisible being had hit the back of her head. She gasped. Her eyelids fluttered, and her hands trembled. Then she said, in a voice deep and guttural and wholly not her own, “
Beware the home that craves you, child. Your gift and your curse are the same. Beware the home that craves
The last words were expelled as a bellow that matched the thunder’s crushing volume. Mara’s heart fluttered. Terror had frozen her. She couldn’t draw breath. As Miss Horowitz’s eyes rolled down to fix on Mara, fear and shock and oxygen deprivation swarmed together to grant her reprieve from the seance. She passed out.
“Ughhh.” Mara dug her thumbs into the bridge of her nose. The dream was hanging around her like a bad odour. Worse, her neighbour’s television was set far too loud. Its tacky laugh track felt as though it was boring into her brain.
This is a good day, remember? You’re going to get your own house today—probably, maybe—and you’ll be out of this dump by the end of the month. It’s good. We’re good.
A child somewhere farther in the apartment complex shrieked, and Mara had to fight the impulse to beat her forehead against the window. Instead, she slumped into the plastic chair. She didn’t own much furniture, and most of it—the chairs, the folding table, and the mattress—were arranged in front of the window. The little square of natural light was her relief from the stark grey-plaster walls and threadbare carpet. It also gave her a good view of the avenue’s entrance. Neil wasn’t due for another ten minutes, but she fervently hoped he would be early. Now that she was so close to escaping the tacky downtown apartment, she couldn’t bear to spend another hour inside it.
You’re gifted, my dear.
“Get a grip,” Mara growled. She chewed at her thumb as she watched a crumpled newspaper sheet blow through the ally.
It’s been four years since you moved out. You’re in control now. Don’t waste another minute thinking about the crazy bat.
A glitter of silver caught her eye, and Mara exhaled as Neil’s large car cruised towards her apartment. She snatched her jacket off the back of the chair, stuffed her keys into its pocket, and left her room at a brisk jog. She had to kick the door on the way out to make it lock properly, and one of her neighbours yelled, “
—keep it down out there!”
Mara took the stairs two at a time, passing the room with the wailing child and the seemingly incessant rumble of laundry machines. The apartment door’s hinges squealed as Mara pushed into the sunlight. The weather forecasts had been predicting a sudden slide into a drizzly, cold autumn, but the day was warm and clear enough to still be deep summer.
Neil’s car idled in the street. In sharp contrast to the grimy stacks of budget apartments, the car was large, clean, and obviously cared for.
Neil leaned across the seat to pop open the passenger door for Mara. He looked unashamedly delighted to see her, and Mara’s insides gave a little flip. Suddenly, that morning’s dream didn’t seem so important.
“Good morning.” He pressed a warm kiss to her cheek as she settled into the passenger seat. “How’d you sleep?”
. “Can’t complain. You?”
“Great, thanks.” Neil waited for Mara to buckle herself in before putting the car in gear and pulling away from the curb. He navigated them out of the narrow lane and then reached behind his seat to pull out two paper bags and a thermos. “I’m guessing you skipped breakfast.”
The scent of something hot and good filled Mara’s nose, and she grabbed the bags and shook them open. “Sweet mercy. This is the sole reason I’m dating you, you know.”
Neil laughed. “There’s hot chips in that one. And a salad in the other. I thought you might eat some healthy food if I bribed you with something bad.”
“Fool’s hope,” Mara said through a mouthful of chips. “But thanks anyway.
Oh my goodness—you got ginger biscuits
“I figured you’d like that.”
“You’re a saint.” Mara snuck a glance at Neil as she ate. Approximately the size of an ox and twice as gentle as a kitten, he needed the oversized people mover just to sit comfortably. His fresh-pressed shirt sat well on his broad shoulders, and she thought he might have actually bothered trying to comb his sandy-brown hair that morning, though it seemed incapable of holding any sort of style. He was trying to smother his grin, and a tint of colour around his ears told Mara he was enjoying her reaction to the food.
The car’s speedometer hovered a fraction below the legal limit as Neil wove out of the downtown streets and into the wider, prettier suburbs with practiced ease. The house they were viewing was near the outskirts of town. It had been put on the market just the day before and ticked all of Mara’s boxes—it was affordable, not a complete dump, and in a good neighbourhood. Mara was prepared to buy it that same day if the real building looked as good as the photos.
Neil was coming with her as moral support and to give his opinion of the building. He worked as a carpenter and had offered to keep an eye out for symptoms of termites or shoddy building.
She sometimes wondered how she’d ended up with Neil. In Mara’s eyes, he was nearly—not quite, but nearly—perfect. But Neil was religious. And the concept of religion grated against every fibre of Mara’s being.
They were mirrors of each other in many ways. They’d both been raised in spiritually focussed homes. But Neil had embraced his family’s beliefs as he’d become an adult whereas Mara had left home the day she’d turned eighteen.
I suppose our situations aren’t quite identical. He never had to sit through all-day seances or listen to a drugged-up medium tell his mother she was Cleopatra reincarnated.
“What’s up?” Neil had pulled up to a set of lights and was watching Mara out of the corner of his eye.
She realised she’d been frowning and cleared her face. “Nothing. I’m good.”
Neil smiled at her, but he let the silence stretch.
Mara sighed and leaned back in the chair. “I had the dream about the seance again.”
“Damn.” Neil’s hand found hers and squeezed. Mara felt a flutter of pleasure at the sensation of the large fingers wrapped around hers. Neil was steady. Neil was safe. He respected her and her beliefs. That was more than she could have hoped for in a partner.
“It’s fine.” She squeezed back as Neil rubbed his thumb over the backs of her knuckles. “I’m over it. Today’s going to be a good day. This house could be the one. I mean, it probably has a woodlice infestation for the price they’re asking, but…”
“Ha!” The lights turned green, but Neil let his hand linger on hers for a second before moving it back to the steering wheel. “I’ll just be glad to see you out of that apartment, woodlice or no.”
Mara wrinkled her nose. “It’s not a
“Sweetheart, you live next to a meth addict, and the police detained your landlord three times in the last month.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s a terrible apartment.” Mara leaned against the window to watch the large elms rush past. She didn’t want to say it out loud, but she desperately, crushingly hoped that the building they were viewing could be hers. Deadlines were squeezing in all directions, and she needed to find a place to live quickly.
She’d been working as a packer in a warehouse, but the company had recently laid off half of its staff, Mara amongst them. On the downside, she was jobless. On the upside, when coupled with four years of scrupulous saving, her severance package was enough to pay for a small house. That was all Mara had ever wanted: a place to call her own, where she wouldn’t be curtailed by an irate landlord’s whims or forced to move if she didn’t want to. And the rental agreement for her current apartment was up at the end of that month. If she renewed, she’d be tied to the tiny, shabby building for another three years. She didn’t think she could survive it.
Neil had already asked if she’d like to stay in his house, but Mara had shot that idea down before he’d finished speaking. When she’d left her parents’ home, she’d promised herself she would never again sleep in a building tainted by spiritualism, astrology, clairvoyance, or religion. And Neil’s childhood home stank of religion. A cross on one wall, church music mixed into playlists, religious books stacked amongst the thrillers—they were all things Neil barely noticed after living around them his entire life, but they made Mara’s skin crawl.
Despite that, Neil and his mother, Pam, were genuinely nice people. Neil was a relaxed Christian. Mara knew he attended church and had like-minded friends, but his faith didn’t saturate his life.
The topic hadn’t even come up until their third date. Mara had nearly walked out of the restaurant when he’d told her he was a Christian. But by that point, she was too attracted to him for an easy break, so she’d cautiously given him a chance. She was glad she had. He’d sympathised with her feelings about growing up in a spiritualist household and understood why she didn’t ever want to repeat the experience.
Neil’s phone started blasting a bright pop song. He pulled onto the dirt strip beside the road and pressed the speaker button on his mobile. “Neil here.”
“Oh, good; I caught you.” The voice on the other end was breathless. Mara recognised it instantly. Jenny, their real-estate agent, seemed to live in a perpetual state of oxygen deprivation. Neil either didn’t notice or pretended he didn’t, but Mara found it fascinating. She liked to think of their agent as Breathless Jenny. “I’m so sorry about this, honey, but the apartment’s gone.”
“What?” Mara dropped an uneaten chip back into the bag. “But it was only listed last night!”
“Oh, hello, Mara.” Jenny’s apologetic voice took on a note of anxiety. “I wish I had better news for you. But it was a really good deal, honey. A couple viewed it this morning and gave us their deposit on the spot. I’m so sorry to disappoint you.”
“It’s okay,” Neil said.
Mara seethed. “It is
Neil grabbed a biscuit out of the bag and pressed it into Mara’s mouth to silence her. “It
okay, Jenny. Do you have any other places we could see today? We’re in the car right now.”
Mara glared daggers at Neil as she chewed through the biscuit. He gave her a contrite smile in response.
“Well… well…” A sound of rustling paper came through the speaker, and Mara could imagine Breathless Jenny’s desk, cluttered and chaotic, just as it had been when they’d first met her. “Ah… I’m sure… no, the Westbrook house is already bought, isn’t it…?”
“Take your time,” Neil said gently.
“Okay… there’s a really nice place in Reddington, but it’s a bit outside your budget.”
Mara swallowed the biscuit. “How much?”
“Well… it’s nearly double…”
“Nope.” Mara was frustrated almost to the point of tears. The loss of the apartment stung. If she didn’t find a home within the next few days, she’d be forced to either renew her lease or find a short-term alternative—and both of those options would leech her savings. She snatched the thermos out of the cup holder to give her hands something to do. Neil had made her chamomile tea. She suspected it was the expensive, organic, loose-leaf stuff his mother kept for special occasions. The thought warmed her slightly but not enough to cut through the disappointment.
Neil pressed a hand over the phone to muffle his voice. “Mara, I could lend you—”
“I’m not looking for handouts,” Mara barked. Neil blinked then gave a slow nod and removed his hand from the phone. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Crap, did I hurt him?
“W-well.” Jenny was clearly feeling the pressure. “There are empty plots of land—or, uh—”
She broke off, and the rustling stopped. The silence stretched out for so long that Mara began to worry the call had been disconnected.
“There is one place,” Jenny said at last. Her voice held a strange, cautious tone. “It’s been on the market for ages. It’s a little bigger than you were looking for but under your budget.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Mara asked automatically. She kept her eyes focussed on the thermos lid so that she wouldn’t have to see Neil’s face.
Why’d I have to snap at him? He was only trying to help.
“I’m going to be up-front with you, honey. It’ll need a bit of work. And… and it doesn’t have a very nice history.” Mara waited impatiently for Jenny to collect herself. The paper noise was back, but this time, Mara thought their agent might be fanning herself with a stack of loose sheets. “Are you familiar with Robert Kant?”
Neil inhaled sharply, but the name was new to Mara. “No. Should I be?”
“He—uh—he wasn’t a good man, honey.”
“He was a serial killer in the early 1900s,” Neil murmured to Mara before turning back to the phone. “Jenny, are you saying the house is connected to him?”
“I’m afraid so. He spent the last four years of his life living there before he… well… hung himself.”
“Shoot,” Neil said.
“No, hung,” Jenny corrected patiently.
Mara, intrigued, chewed at her thumb. People could be squeamish about living in a building that had once housed a killer, as if the very walls had somehow been tainted. Her parents, especially, had been big on the concepts of spiritual residues and bad energies. But to Mara, a house was nothing more than a collection of bricks and wood. Simply being in proximity to an unpleasant human shouldn’t materially reduce the building’s worth. And if no one else wanted it…
“Where is it?” she asked.
Jenny sounded surprised. “Well, if it doesn’t bother you… it’s called Blackwood House, and it’s a half-hour drive from town. We could meet there now, if you like…? Let me give you the directions.”
Mara snuck a glance at Neil as he typed the address into his navigation. His face was placid, but a faint tightness around his lips told her he wasn’t entirely happy. She returned her gaze to the thermos.