The singing of the birds, the rushing and rustling of the leaves in the wind made her more at ease. A chilly breeze soothed her skin as she made her way up the hill. Nevertheless, she was reluctant to go back to that house. It seemed even more of a cage now she had been out with the free birds. She shrugged slightly and went in.
In the entrance hall she met with the housekeeper who, with an inevitable disapproving look, informed her that lunch would be served in an hour, in a haughty voice. Her initial “Ah, look who decided to drop in after all” did not go down well. She wondered what it was exactly that the woman had against her apart from the fact that her mere presence seemed a nuisance to her, which was weird, she did her own cleaning after all. Perhaps she was annoyed with her tardiness, but what was that to her. It’s not like she was waiting around for her to come back. That woman is such a pain. Why the hell did he hire her of all people. Then again, who’d want to work here?
She went to her room to unpack her bag and freshen up and was at the dinner table long before Hawkins and Julian arrived, just to make a point.
Julian took little interest in his food, toying with it rather than eating it, but unlike herself he wasn’t a great lover of vegetables. She waited till the cook had given him his portion of potatoes and beef, but his appetite didn’t improve.
“You look a bit pale, Julian. Are you alright?”
“Huh?” Julian looked at her through eyes that were turned towards another world entirely, hiding a yawn in his fist. She heard a light beep and knew he was playing his Nintendo under the table cloth. Hence his mental absence.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, I think. I dreamt a bit strangely though.”
“I don’t really remember clearly. I was lying in my bed and all of a sudden there was this guy...”
“Julian, could you please leave your Nintendo upstairs next time?” Henry interrupted.
“Yes, it really isn’t decent to bring that thing along for dinner, young man. It is an insult to the cook.” Hawkins, of course, had to add her opinion to Henry’s. Bootlicker.
Still, it perplexed her that she and the housekeeper from hell were of one mind for once, though she wouldn’t have expressed her sentiment quite so strongly. Her dislike for the piece of electronics was more of a grudge than a concern about her brother’s manners. She just loathed the thing. Almost like jealous. She shook her head. Ridiculous.
Julian shrugged and sunk back into reverie, without his annoying toy, that was ‘confiscated’ by Hawkins.
They take his Nintendo and he doesn’t even say a word. Where is his spunk? She looked at him over the table, to the feverishly bright eyes in their dark, puffy sockets, glanced at his pale, rosy-cheeked face. He looks so tired.
Maybe it was just an oncoming flu or bad cold. Things like that were always going around in elementary schools. He must have got some kind of bug from one of his classmates. It would probably wear off with a good meal and some sleep. She’d make sure he turned in early today.
Julian had a few more bites and excused himself, saying he didn’t feel too well and wished to retire to bed, without even asking for his plaything.
The cook brought in pudding for desert and they ladled on in silence until her uncle, who had kept himself rather on the background in a pensive fashion, addressed her.
“Had fun last night?”
“Oh, uhuh. It was okay.”
“You didn’t have to use your, uh...”
“No, I didn’t need the spray at all. It isn’t that dangerous around here.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. You shouldn’t go out alone, not at night, you wouldn’t believe what’s creeping around out there.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“By the way, I met the mother of that friend of yours, this, uh...”
“Right. I met her mother at the baker’s this morning. Apparently Ann’s parents are leaving next week.”
“Leaving? She didn’t mention any of that.”
“They’ve only just decided to go.”
“And is Ann going with them? In the middle of school?”
“No, no. Her parents are going by themselves. She said something about a second honeymoon in the Bahamas or whatever, somewhere tropical. And then Italy, Venice. They’re going to be gone for at least two weeks.”
“And they just leave Ann behind, all by herself?”
“Well, that’s the thing. We have a lot of vacant rooms here and since you and Ann get along so well... You could probably use someone your own age to talk to rather than two old hounds like Mrs. Hawkins and me.” Hawkins nearly choked in a potato and stuck her nose up in contempt, “so I suggested to her mother that Ann could stay with us while they were away. She was glad to accept the offer.”
“That’s great! I’ll go call her right away.”
She dashed out of the dining room so fast she missed how Hawkins bent over to Henry and said in a muttered voice: “I don’t know if it’s prudent to bring in another one. Two of those girls might cause even more trouble for us.”
“Nah. It’ll keep her off our back and out of the attic. We can’t have her snooping around any longer. Ann will surely keep her busy, too busy.”
“Maybe, for one or two weeks. How are we going to keep her occupied after that? We can’t inevitably keep her from seeing...”
“Shush! The walls have ears. Besides, in a few months time the new academy year will start and she’ll go to college, somewhere far away.”
“Anywhere far away.”
Eliza rushed up the steps and stopped. Should she ask Julian to join her for TV or something? He was alone too often, not that it bothered him, unfortunately. It couldn’t be healthy for a boy his age to be so isolated. And she really missed his company... She knocked, but there was no reply. The poor thing must have fallen asleep already. Hopefully he would be more lively in the morning.
It wasn’t long, it was never long, before Ann arrived. She had readied her room herself and lead Ann up the stairs to see it. Ann didn’t seem to be too down about being dumped at a friend’s house like an unwanted dog. Then again, she already guessed she wasn’t too close with her parents, though they gave her whatever she desired, except what she really needed.
“Here you go, Ann. This will be your room. Like it?”
“I know that it’s not really your style but hey, you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got, right?”
“Any place would do to run to when that bitch crosses your path.” She eyed the housekeeper, who just walked by at the bottom of the stairs with a sour glance in their direction.
“Charming, isn’t she.”
“More like ‘hexing’. I suppose that’s the overage Morticia you were talking about? You know, when she answered the door, I was afraid she was going to eat me! But I’m sure she would have spat me back out, judging by the way she looked at me. I’m telling you, that hag is evil.”
“Yes, she’s a nasty old witch.”
She only missed my foot by an inch
“You can say that again.”
“She makes me wanna snap my fingers and go Tadadadam...”
“Well, guess I’ll just leave you to your unpacking. Don’t worry, I’ll try to keep that freak away from you.”
“Not me. If she comes after you, you’re on your own, I’m not going to take her on, no way. She scares me far too much.”
“Yeah, I’m such a good friend...”
“Yes, it’s heart warming... Just knock on my door when you’re ready for a tour, okay?”
Eliza showed her the gardens, or rather pointed them out from behind the window, Ann wasn’t exactly the type to enjoy green stuff. Then she lead her through the house, from the basement to the second floor.
“Well, that’s it.” She said, patiently waiting to introduce her own bait.
“And where does this go?” Ann asked, gazing at the peculiar wooden staircase with a curious eye.
“Oh that, that goes up.”
Ann rolled her eyes. “I can see that, it’s a staircase for crying out loud, up where?”
“It’s nothing you’d be interested in, just some old stuff.”
“Eliza, do I have to drag it out of you? I can see that you’re about to burst, so tell me already: what’s up there?”
“Fine then, that, my dear Ann, is the infamous attic.”
“We’re not allowed to go up there.”
“Why not, it’s just an attic.”
“A very dangerous attic.” Ann looked at her and raised an eyebrow in mockery. At least according to my uncle and his hawk. When they caught me nosing around, they got so mad... They claim it’s for my own good, but I find that hard to believe.”
“Are they afraid the spiders are going to attack or something? Or worse, that the cardboard is going to gang up on you.”
“They should put up a sign: caution, killer boxes.”
“You may laugh now, but they will box you to death.”
“No joking around, those things are fierce. I can totally see it now: new in theatres, ‘Revenge of the cardboard boxes’, that’ll be something.”
“It would be a hit.”
“It could be the next ‘birds’.”
“They’ve got rats?”
“Ieeuw. I don’t like rats...”
“Ann, you crack me up.”
“I really wasn’t kidding, stop laughing, Eliza, it’s not funny!”
Ann punched her shoulder playfully.
“Aw!” She laughed.
“But seriously, I’d like to go up there. I like infamous things.”
“Geez, I never would have guessed...”
“Don’t play dumb, I can see in your face that you’re dying to check it out, too.”
“You bet. I just know they’re hiding something, and whatever it is,” Eliza pointed up, “that’s where the answers will be.”
“We have to get in.”
“Oh, we will. Have a little patience. After all, they can’t guard it forever, can they?”
“They sure are guarding it now, someone’s coming!”
They stumbled down the two flights of stairs and into Eliza’s room chuckling. They were determined. Curiosity spread through them like wildfire, lighting stars in their eyes.