Chapter 1: Dormant

I walked through the door of my family’s stately mansion in the English countryside and instantly felt seven years old.  The cavernous foyer and polished marble floor greeted me with the same hollow echo from ten years earlier.  The air in the space was cold and clammy.  If the temperature were to drop a few degrees, I would be able to see the mist of my own breath.  The house smelled like the centuries of history it had endured; it was a familiar and heady scent.

Painted portraits captured in frames of all sizes lined the darkened hallway as it disappeared around the corner.   Each brush stroke brought the former occupants to life as they stared at all who entered their ancestral home.  For anyone else the sightless eyes would probably seem disturbing.  I had always thought of the previous owners as gatekeepers and guardians of the old home.  The stories of their lives, although written long ago, made the house feel… occupied.

Above the pictures, suspended from the vaulted ceiling, the chandelier glittered and sparked the room with enchantment.  Thousands of crystal jewels caught the last rays of the evening sun and tossed rainbows into the shadowy recesses.  Colors churned and danced, vibrating out of reach along the winding staircase.  The wide wooden steps curved in an elegant swoop and connected with the marble tiles below. 

It wouldn’t have been surprising to see a woman, wearing an ornate ball gown and powdered wig, appear at the top and descend from the family rooms above.  Barnard Hall, its history and mysteries, made events like that feel possible. 

I shook my head to dispel the fanciful notions the old brick structure had lodged in my mind. 

I was exhausted from my flight but I wasn’t ready to go upstairs just yet.  Instead, I escaped to the first room on my left.  The formal parlor was decorated in the height of Victorian style; the sheer opulence made it feel as though the Queen of England would be stopping by for tea at any moment.  The thick plaster walls were enhanced with a satiny wallpaper of tiny blue flowers tangled with a mess of scrolled stems. 

The spacious room felt overcrowded, crammed with lavishly feminine antiques.  From the furniture and patterned wallpaper to the valances and tea set, everything mimicked the elegant curves of a woman.  A deep buttoned sofa with an undulating back and luxurious chairs with heavily lacquered wooden accents surrounded a low rosewood table.  A chaise lounge waited patiently, abandoned beside the unused white marble fireplace.  Every flat surface overflowed with knickknacks, paying homage to various art movements throughout history.

Despite its beauty, the room, like most of Barnard Hall, had remained unused for too long.  The drawing room had been meant for entertaining; that purpose hadn’t been fulfilled in the twenty-first century.   The lifelessness filling the space was palpable.  Each seat cushion was glaringly empty and the lush carpet lingered, hoping for footfall.  I steeled myself against the damp air and crushing emptiness.

In the stillness faint voices wafted from some other room down the hall.  In a house this old, one couldn’t help but hear unexplained noises amidst the silence.  So many lives had played out on the stage of these rooms and the residual effects were understandable, expected.  People had laughed, stolen kisses, and drawn their last breaths here.  Who could blame their memory for enduring?  But there was nothing otherworldly about these sounds.  Immediately I recognized our housekeeper’s voice; her heavily accented English brought a smile to my otherwise expressionless face. 

I closed my eyes and was taken aback at how much the house had not changed in the past ten years.  Why had I been expecting a difference?  Perhaps it was because I was different. 

When I had been seven, my stepfather had bought Barnard Hall.  Jim Burns had always dreamed of living abroad and had acquired the means to do so when he married into my father’s fortune.  My mother, Jim, and I had moved fromGeorgiatoEnglandthat May.  I had just finished fourth grade and I’d had to leave the only home I had ever known—and the sunshine—to move to a foreign country and live in a mausoleum. 

Surprisingly, the experience had not been distressing for me.  Incessant rain had kept me from playing outside as I had at home, but this house had held secrets and treasures to be uncovered.  Every day had been a new adventure, its ending unwritten.  I’d had no friends inSavannahto speak of so there had been no one to miss—besides my dad.  But he was never coming back so missing him had been futile. 

Back inGeorgia, my parents had insisted that I attend public schools instead of the private schools prized by members of the upper class.  “It will help you socialize with a broader range of kids from all economic backgrounds.  I don’t want to raise a snob,” my dad had said. 

It was ironic that I had been the one ostracized—like it was a bad thing my family had been wealthy.  I was overly intelligent too, which was another mark against me.  Skipping the third grade meant I was a year younger; none of the other students had wanted to befriend the baby in class.  To make matters worse, I had been quiet and I had sat in the front of the class willingly, which classified me as a nerd.  Everyone around me had come to the conclusion that I was weird and to be avoided.

Not two months after my dad had passed away, my mother married Jim Burns.  Jim had worked alongside my dad at the firm for years.  They hadn’t been more than business acquaintances; my dad had been established, and Jim had been a new hire.  From a distance, the two had looked very similar.  Both were tall with blonde hair and beach-worthy tans.  But there had been many differences between the two that were not visible—vital differences.  My dad had been a good man possessing a strong moral compass, liked by his co-workers and everyone around him.  Jim… well, Jim hadn’t been any of those things.

“Miss Callista?”

Rosa Santos, Barnard Hall’s housekeeper, stood in the doorway and offered me an unsure smile.  It was unsettling that, after all these years, I was back.

“Rosa?”  I stood and walked somberly to her.  We waited a beat, not sure how to progress.  This was a morbid reason to be reunited; I had come home to bury my mother and her husband.  However, I had not seen this woman in ten years and was relieved to my core to be near her again. 

The dead could wait.

I collected Rosa in a hug and squeezed with all my might.  At first she was startled with my lack of propriety and overwhelming enthusiasm, but the tension in her body soon eased.  It felt good to be held, to feel welcomed.  I pulled away to give her a slight smile.  The tightness around my face made the movement feel awkward; the muscles in my lips were unused to the motion.

“Rosa, it is so good to see you again.”  The relief in my voice surprised me.  We had only been acquainted for that summer long ago; it was remarkable how three months could impact a person’s life so completely.  The woman in front of me had assumed the role of my champion back then.  I had a feeling she would do so again if I needed her to.

“The same to you, Miss Callista—although not under the present circumstances.”  She squeezed my hand reassuringly. “It has been much too long.”  When I shifted nervously she sensed my unease.  The reason for my absence was not the subject for a homecoming.  “What have you been doing all of these years?”

“School mostly, then college.”

“I have spoken with your Aunt Mildred off and on through the years.  She had said you were graduating from university this year.”

“Yes.”

Rosa tightened her grip on my hand.  “I cannot believe you are graduating already!  You are much too young to be finishing your education.”        

“I skipped a few grades along the way.”  And I had taken classes in both summer semesters and during intersession.  It was astonishing how quickly a diploma could be obtained when a person possessed a one-track mind—and no social life.

“You always were a clever child.”

A lump of emotion had found its way into my throat and blocked my response.  It really had been too long an absence.  At first the separation had been forced, an edict no amount of begging had been able to overturn.  Later though, I had accepted my place away from Barnard Hall and what the old structure had represented.

“Here I am, chatting endlessly.  You must be hungry from your journey, Miss Callista.”

Was I hungry?  At this point I was too disoriented to feel anything.  We’d had meals on the plane, but I could not remember if I had eaten them.  Airplane food—even in first class—was average at best.  Microwave ovens weren’t among the best ways to prepare chicken breasts or salmon filets.  I didn’t think I was hungry so I shook my head, not trusting my voice to remain steady.

“Poor dear, you’re dead on your feet.  Off to bed with you.  I have the yellow room prepared.  There’s wood in the fireplace, and I took the liberty of having your luggage brought up.”

Wordlessly we both started toward the staircase.  My fingers trailed along the banister, smoothed to an unnatural texture from years of countless palms sanding with the grain.  It was a relief that Rosa did not expect me to stay in the master bedroom.  Being in the room where my mother had spent the past ten years, knowing she would never return, was not something I was prepared to face now—or ever.  The longer I could put it off the more likely it was that I would survive the whole ordeal.

The door to the master suite remained closed as we continued down the darkened hallway.  I followed Rosa into the yellow room and sucked in a deep breath; the night-chilled air stung my lungs. At first glance it appeared as though one-hundred years had not tainted the room.  The walls were brightly painted with liquid sunshine.  Crown molding stopped the walls from continuing on to heaven, announcing a clear separation from the textured plaster above.  Abstract shadows were cast on the high ceilings and quivered around the poorly lit edges of the room.  The quilt covering the bulky sleigh bed was dotted with the same pale roses from my childhood memories.  

I turned from the bed to stare at the logs in the cold fireplace.  They were dormant, waiting for a spark to bring them to life. 

That’s how I felt… dormant.  Always waiting.

Rosa lit the kindling, and I watched the tinder catch.  The logs turned red with sparks, and eventually the flames warmed the air in the increasingly-cozy room.  The fire was blazing before I found the energy to move from my spot by the hearth.  The heat felt good against my chilled skin and my goose bumps finally smoothed out, but the warmth did not penetrate deeper.  My heart remained cold, unlit.

Upon closer inspection of the cheerful room, hints of aging were apparent in the glowing firelight.  The gleaming wooden surfaces weren’t dusty—Rosa would never have tolerated that.  But there were some distinct scrapes and dings in the solid furniture.  The floor-length velvet drapes were slightly frayed at the ends; the golden tassels used to pull them back were unraveling. The thick Aubusson carpet had a few more stains than it had ten years ago.  The small imperfections made the space more real, lived in.  It was hard to believe that Barnard Hall had housed families who had used the rooms for something besides existing.

Before bed, I walked over to the built-in window seat.  The yellow room afforded one of the best views of the wide back lawn and the carriage house that stood against the wooded property line.  The smaller building was a miniature replica of the larger house, paying homage to the clean lines and 18th century Georgian architecture of Barnard Hall.  Slivers of moonlight seeped through the ever-present clouds and reflected off the windows like mirrors, making the empty structure look occupied—or haunted.  My eyes involuntarily searched the night-darkened glass for some form of life.  The skin along my spine prickled like someone had dusted my back with cobwebs.  I had never liked the building but there was no explanation for the uneasy feeling that now settled into the pit of my stomach. 

As I stared out into the faded day, light raindrops converged on the solid pane and chased one another toward the sill.  My breath fogged the glass, and I resisted the childish urge to draw in the grey moisture; there was no need to be a pest and create more work for the staff.

A draft made the windows groan, and I shuddered.  Choosing not to freeze all night, I changed quickly into my night clothes and sought the warmth and comfort of my bed.  I snuggled under the covers and rubbed my legs together, using the friction as a primitive source of heat.  The mattress was lumpy, but it didn’t matter.  The endlessness of the last few days had taken its toll, and my weary body quickly succumbed to sleep.

Click HERE to keep moving forward…

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