Rose pushed the wild hair out of the little girl’s face. She always had one stray hair that Rose could never tame no matter what she tried.
Rose would say goodbye to her granddaughter for one last time. The little girl was the mirror image of her beloved—now dead—daughter.
“I never could control this hair,” she commented, trying to make a smile touch her lips, although it was impossible.
The little girl turned when a middle-aged couple came back through the front door after they finished packing up their car.
Stay strong, Rose thought.
Rose closed her hands into fists and dug her manicured nails into the delicate skin of her palms. She needed to keep her emotions in check. If she didn’t, she would change her mind and not let her go.
The little girl’s eyes brimmed with tears. She didn’t understand now, but she would when she was older, and Rose was long gone.
“Why do I have to go Mom-mom?”
“Because sweetie, Mom-mom can’t take care of you anymore. I need you to live with your other Grandma and Grandpa. They will take good care of you,” Rose said.
“No,” the girl wailed and threw her arms around Rose’s neck, holding on tight.
Rose pried the little arms from around her neck. “No, Claire. It’s time for you to go.”
The little girl sobbed while Mary bent down in front of Claire and said, “It’ll be fine, sweetie.”
“But, I don’t want to leave,” Claire continued to sob.
“You have to,” Rose said.
Little Claire Westcott tried to grab a hold of her grandmother again, but this time Rose stood and gently pushed her away. Her heart shattered into a million pieces when she gestured to Clay to pick Claire up and put her in the car.
Clay tried his best to calm the sobbing girl, but she resisted until he finally had to throw her over his shoulder and leave the house.
Both of the women watched as Clay placed her into the car with kicking and screaming.
Mary Westcott turned to Rose and asked, “Do you want to go say one final goodbye?”
Rose lowered her head and sighed. “If I do, you’ll never get her out of here.”
“This is horrible Rose, and you know it,” Mary said to her only son’s mother-in-law.
“I’m doing this to protect her. Please, Mary, this is for the best,” Rose turned pleading blue eyes to the other woman.
Mary tried to hide her disgust underneath a faceless mask, but Rose saw right through it. Who could blame her? “If you weren’t so good about Bobby’s funeral, I wouldn’t have agreed to this. Eventually, the truth will come out, and eventually, Claire will remember.”
“I hope she never remembers,” Rose said, knowing it wasn’t true. Claire would remember and she would come to hate Rose for what happened.
Mary’s eye turned sharp. “You know damn well that will not happen. We’re all aging, and you’ll leave everything to her. What will happen then, huh?”
Rose lifted her chin trying to keep some of her dignity while Mary questioned her.
“She’ll be a grown woman, and with God’s mercy, we’ll all be dead,” Rose said. Mary blinked, knowing the double meaning behind that statement.
Mary scoffed. “If she ever asks—if she ever remembers—I will tell her the truth. But, we’ll both be paying for our sins one day.”
Rose knew Mary was right, but her own stubbornness prevented her from admitting it openly.
Rose fingered the brooch in her hand and looked up the stairs. She thought she saw a face looking through the spindles of the staircase, but she was to distracted to talk to him right now.
Rose wanted to run away from her granddaughter’s sobs and close herself off from the world. She didn’t want her last memories of her only granddaughter to be her screaming in a car for her.
But it was the only way. The only way she could protect her.
She would be fine with Mary and Clay. They would raise her in a stable home because Bobby had been the best thing that ever happened to her Janie, and Rose couldn’t have been prouder to call him her son-in-law.
“We have to go,” Mary commented.
Rose nodded and said, “Remember the account is in your name for her tuition. If you need anything else, I’ll provide it.”
Mary shook her head. “Not for now, but I promise to keep you updated.”
“She’s been two grades above everyone else in her class for reading, and she’s trying to write stories,” Rose said with a proud smile. “I would encourage her to pursue that talent.”
Mary nodded and the two women embraced. It was awkward from the recent past, but it was one they would always share.
“I’ll be in touch,” Mary said.
Rose watched as Mary and Clay piled into the car and started the engine. The noise mercifully drowned out little Claire’s sobs.
She only peaked through the curtain as the car drove down the driveway and out of sight.
Rose turned away from the window and broke down into gut-wrenching sobs.
She stumbled into the special room, clutching her stomach as the salty tears blinded her and her despair overwhelmed her.
She sank to the cold concrete floor letting all her hidden emotions pour like running water all over the floor.
Rose opened her palm to gaze on the butterfly brooch.
Her eyes turned up when she felt the familiar presence inside the room with her.
She didn’t even flinch when the child appeared. She was used to his presence. She was used to how the temperature would lower twenty degrees every time, and how the world turned dark and gray around her.
And, the reason this poor soul couldn’t move on was all her fault.
Rose didn’t move from her spot for hours.
“I’m sorry,” Rose whispered repeatedly until her throat constricted from her grief.
“I promise she’ll come back,” Rose added.
“This house will be hers for the taking. I can’t free you, but she will,” Rose said, gesturing with her hand.
The presence faded from the room, but Rose wished it hadn’t left. It somehow comforted her.
Rose would grow old in Kinsey House alone. She would die in Kinsey House, taking all the secrets of this accursed house with her. She hated this house with every fiber of her being. From the moment she was forced to marry that… simpleton named Arthur Kinsey, to the moment she had the police show up at her door when David died, she despised this home.
All the money in the world couldn’t change the life she lived. It never brought her any happiness. She turned to the wall and vowed to live out the rest of her life in this house. There was too much she held dear within these walls, but one day this house would fall, and she would laugh from her place in hell.
All Bill Saunders remembered about that day was his father’s angry yells and his mother clutching him to her chest as she tried to calm her husband.
Bill swung his oxygen tank over his shoulder as he gazed at the large brick house. A house that had become his burden and his curse after so many years.
A house he kept secret because that’s what his father told him to do.
Now, those secrets would come out of the shadows and into the light.
Bill took a deep breath of oxygen that blew into his nostrils. His mouth turned down as he stepped onto the creaking wooden porch and approached the front door.
Bill debated telling his kids over the years about it. He almost did quite a few times. He wanted to sell it, abandon it, and let someone else deal with the burden of it, but something inside him always held back.
Bill grimaced when he placed the key into the lock and swung the front door open. Disturbed dust particles glinted in the early afternoon sun, only to be sucked back into the darkness inside.
Bill waved his hand around and entered the darkened foyer.
Memories of the years past came flooding back to him as his eyes adjusted to the living space just beyond the foyer.
He closed the front door behind him and gazed around. That familiar feeling hadn’t risen inside his gut just yet, but it was only a matter of time.
The house looked the same from his last visit around the same time the year before. White sheets covered furniture; plastic was wrapped around the chandelier above him. He’d tried to preserve as much as he could so he could pass whatever money the house sold for to his children.
“You should have told them, dumbass,” he muttered. However, he’d been a single father with four young children after Dottie’s affair and her abandonment of her family.
Bill sighed. He wondered over the years if he should have been a more attentive husband, if he should have gotten better work, or asked his wife sooner if she’d been happy.
Anne–his eldest daughter–tried to reconcile with her mother, but it was hard on her.
“Dad, her excuses get worse every time I bring it up,” she said.
Bill shook his head. He swore he’d never leave his children like their mother once did, and that’s why he never talked about or told them the truth about the house.
However, his burden would soon be over, and he hoped his children wouldn’t hold it against him once they discovered the truth.
Sighing, Bill made his way farther into the living area. Echoes of children floated around him as more memories came back from that time in his life.
His aunt had owned this house. She ran the home for abandoned children, but she never did it out of the kindness of her heart. She did it purely for riches and the town of Lingate, North Carolina, was happy to look the other way as long as she shared some of those riches.
That was until her evil deeds came to an abrupt end.
“It had to be done,” Lyle said, gripping the steering wheel that fateful day.
Lyle told him to never speak of the incident again, but they were stuck with the house now.
Lyle found out about his sister’s activities the hard way.
“She was never right in the head,” Lyle told his young son. “From an early age, Grandma and Grandpa knew she would never be right. She left and never came back when she was sixteen. They were relieved she was gone, though they’d never admit it. It wasn’t until your grandma passed that she tried to reconcile with me.”
Lyle’s muscles flexed in his face as he turned away from the road and stared at his son. “I didn’t want to trust her, but your mama said family is family. She came to visit us when you were no more’n three years old. One day we woke up and you and Meredith were gone.”
Bill flinched as his dad told his story. “Took us a week to find out where you were since Meredith gave a wrong address on purpose. I only found out where she was from a friend.”
Lyle set his eyes back on the road. “I shoulda shot her, but I couldn’t kill my sister. She tried to argue that you were better off with her and find you somethin’ better. She said she’d share the money.”
Lyle shook his head. “It wasn’t until I shot the gun into the air that she gave you back to us. It was your mama that stopped me from killing her because of all the children inside the house.”
“She kidnapped me?” Bill couldn’t believe his ears. “Did you report her to the sheriff?”
Lyle smiled bitterly. “I did but son, sometimes not all people are brought to justice and Meredith was one of them. She had money, I didn’t. It was our word against hers, and she had a lot of people in her pocket that I never knew about. I found out the hard way that I would live and let live by threats against us. We had you back, and that’s all that mattered to us.”
That was until Bill got older and some people in town had enough of Meredith’s control.
Bill remembered them pulling up to the house and Lyle said, “Son, your mama disagrees but I think you’re old enough now to handle what I’m about to show you.”
Bill walked deeper into the house as the memories continued to flow. He found himself at the back door and gazed over property now choked with overgrown grass and weeds. Saplings had started to sprout since the last time he set foot on the property.
He would usually clean up a bit, but this year was the last time he would ever step foot in this house, and soon the burden of it would be lifted from his shoulders.
Did he go into the forest beyond the overgrown weeds for one last look?
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking back to when his father showed him the home’s deep, dark secret, justifying what they were about to do.
Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed several times so he wouldn’t go into a coughing fit. Those fits could put him down for several minutes, and he didn’t want to spend any more time in this house than he had to.
Bill placed his hand on the cool, grimy glass. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and decided to stay indoors since his breathing had become ragged and he needed to let the oxygen saturate his lungs.
Lyle guided a young Bill into the forest and that memory was seared on Bill’s brain forever. He should have run. He should have demanded that his father try another way and let someone else bear the burden of what he’d seen that day. Even after Lyle passed away, he should have sold it, and let the truth come to light, but he didn’t. He’d promised his father on his deathbed that he would continue to guard the house until his time came.
The doctors gave Bill less than a year.
Guilt racked his mind. There were so many should haves over the years with this house and now he thought of how he should have told his children about the house. He could have brought Brian and the girls here to make them understand why, but he never did. He thought of himself as a coward for not doing it sooner, but then he tried to convince himself that he’d been a single father raising four kids on his own and that time had slipped by before he could reveal his secret.
Bill’s breath caught in his throat when he spotted the figure in the distance. No matter how many years he’d been visiting this house, that always took him by surprise.
“Goodbye,” he said with a small wave of his hand.
Bill turned to give the house one last walkthrough before he said goodbye forever.
He turned and exited the dining area. The familiar heaviness came over him as he entered the main room.
He set his gaze to the top of the grand staircase and smirked.
A pale face stared back at him while the rest of its body was hidden in shadow.
“I was wondering when you’d show yourself,” Bill said.
He learned over the years not to fear it. Yes, it. That’s all he’d ever call the thing at the top of the stairs because it never deserved to be called anything else.
The thing never moved, it only watched him as he moved to the bottom of the stairs to return its stare.
Bill lifted his oxygen tank from his shoulder and held it up for the thing to see.
“This is it for me,” he explained. “My children will be here one day soon and they won’t be able to keep your secret.”
He slung the tank back over his shoulder. “I’ve been having a lot of dreams about Pop lately.” Emotion tugged at Bill but he tried to stifle it. Never show weakness to the thing Lyle had always told him. Once you show weakness, it will try to take you.
“He’s waiting for me. He’s expecting me,” Bill continued. “My children will expose you. What will you do then?”
Bill and the thing stared at each other. He thought he heard a raspy breath escape the thing but he couldn’t be sure.
Bill smiled. “I hope you burn in the rotten pits of hell as you deserve.”
Bill stood his ground and stayed in the same spot as the thing became more agitated by his words.
The way the thing moved at the top of the stairs and the way it rasped and screeched, he thought it would finally attack him.
He was wrong. After a minute, it stopped and a grin spread across its face.
Bill scoffed and shook his head. “I don’t know why you’re smiling.”
“Soon,” it managed to rasp. “You will be dead, boy.”
Bill blinked. In all the years he’d been visiting the home, the thing never spoke to him. He had spoken to it but never received a response until today.
Bill’s heart pounded in his chest and when it did, it triggered a coughing fit that lasted several minutes.
Bill sank to the first step trying to catch his breath and removed his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth.
After he caught his breath, he said, “It’s true.”
With shaky legs and hands, he stood up once again to face the thing. It continued to stare at him from the landing. Its smile had left its face and no emotion remained.
Bill lowered his head and let the emotion flow through him. He tried to fight back tears as he said, “Goodbye Aunt Meredith. It’s a shame it came to this.”
Bill turned away from the thing and as fast as his weak body would let him, he exited the house and locked the door behind him.
He stepped down from the porch and turned to gaze at the house one more time, trying to memorize the size, the structure, and the shape of it before he departed it forever.
His eyes scanned the dark windows when he caught the pale face staring down at him from the second floor.
He smiled and gave a salute before entering his car and driving away.
He removed his phone from his pocket when it beeped as he drove to the end of the driveway.
Abby, his youngest daughter, sent him a text.
Dad, where are you?
Bill smiled. Abby… always the worrier.