Contemporary. A mysterious connection, a hint of magic. Simmered over a lot of NOLA heat.
Sebastian (Sen) Holt is an artist currently in New Orleans. He’s always been a wanderer, believing in fate and following signs to guide his destiny. Although he itches to pull up stakes, getting a painting into a gallery keeps him rooted. One morning his good friend calls him in desperate need of help with her cleaning business. Her regular cleaner flaked, she can’t lose her client, and there’s no one else.
The job is at a large and recently restored house—and the owner, Morgan Ballard, comes home unexpectedly. They are immediately drawn together, as if they know each other, but they’ve never met. As they grow closer, Morgan behaves like two people. Sometimes he’s friendly and casual, and other times intimate and demanding. Sen juggles his painting through bursts of vision-like inspiration, the cleaning job, and an unexpected commission—all while trying to unlock the growing mystery of the intense connection he feels to Morgan. He’s not sure which scares him more—the strangeness surrounding their growing bond or that he’s found someone to make him reconsider his lifelong wanderlust.
SEN WIPED away the funky sweat only New Orleans conjured—even in early spring—and studied the corkboard of his guiding signposts hung next to the door. Vintage postcards, a rumpled napkin, and two paw prints marked Mardi and Gras stamped on a paper truck-stop placemat.
“You brought me here,” he said to them. His annoyance over the murky heat couldn’t undo his fondness or conviction in them. He tapped the orange ball-tipped straight pin that secured the postcard depicting a famous corner in the French Quarter, and he sighed.
In two years no new signs had arrived to lead him elsewhere, though he waited for them. Two years represented an eternity in his life, and the lack of signs made him nervous, but he tried to be patient during the silence.READ MORE
Sen made quick work of putting away the groceries he’d forced himself to get. He stuffed everything in the fridge, reusable bags and all, and then drank his requisite two glasses of water.
His mother had instilled the water ritual in Sen’s family. She advocated hydration as the key to clarity and overall good health. Hungry? Start with water. Bored? Quench your thirst and focus returned. Headache? Always a dose of H2O before any meds. Since just running a quick errand in New Orleans stripped its fair share of everything from the body even on a cooler day, he had picked the habit back up.
Sen set the alarm on his phone and left it on the deep window sash overlooking the tangle of green vines obscuring any view, and shuffled to bed. With the deadline looming for a commissioned piece, he’d had a short nap some days before and then pushed around the clock to finish the painting. His eyes burned and his limbs were heavy, but the ache had its rewards—job done, deadline met, and a pleased customer—very satisfying things. Even better were getting paid and his plan to sleep past dinner the next day. Best of all he didn’t hate the painting and cover it over with gesso halfway through. Every artist had their phases and struggles, but his creative block, as high and long as the Great Wall, made him wonder whether the universe knew his fate to be that of an artist-turned-barista, instead of the other way around.
Sen yawned. “At least I make good coffee.”
Pulling multiple all-nighters wasn’t too different from his norm, of late. He hadn’t slept well the past several weeks, and work provided a welcome distraction from fatigue and remnants of strange dreams. If he couldn’t sleep, he could get stuff done.
Sen kicked off his shoes, stepped on the cuff of his jeans, wriggled just so, and slipped them past his lean hips to slide to the floor. He stood teetering on his feet awhile, stop-started, and lurched forward again. The world pitched as he stumbled toward the bed. He could practically feel its cushy embrace. He had his T-shirt half-stripped and caught around his arms when the phone rang.
Sen closed his eyes and sighed. Then he shucked his arms free and crossed back into the kitchen area.
“What is it, Adriane?” he answered, voice thickening around a yawn.
“Oh my gosh, Sebastian! It’s the middle of the day already. You should be up and moving,” Adriane scolded, but sounded amused.
Sen scowled and read the clock over the faux fireplace opposite the kitchen. Twenty after ten.
“Adri, hello and good morning. And I am up and moving, unfortunately. But I’m about to remedy that by diving under the covers, so make it quick.” He looked with longing at the cocoon of blankets waiting on his amazingly comfortable bed—the one true splurge he’d made in life—and batted aside any guilt the mundane, workaday world insisted he should feel.
It wasn’t as though he stayed awake binge watching junk TV and was about to waste a whole day sleeping. The nature of the beast he fought had him keeping odd hours and odd jobs, and in between, with whatever stolen minutes he could cobble together, he painted. He was on the long end of a few all-nighters as he clawed ever closer to success as an artist who could actually make a living from painting alone.
“Hopefully that’s negotiable.” Adriane laughed. “Don’t fall asleep yet.”
“Hmph,” Sen grumped. Adri calling instead of texting was a bad enough sign. She wanted something, and he probably wouldn’t like it.
Adriane and Sen had been buddies almost since he arrived in New Orleans. They met through mutual friends who had since drifted away, but they’d stuck to each other like glue. Adriane liked to tease that they were a picture in ironic contrasts. Sen was a neat and tidy artist, while Adriane was a powderpuff explosion who happened to run a successful cleaning service. They made up for that contrast with his devotion to instinct and following his gut—he even chose donuts based on what serendipity and fate seemed to present—and her pragmatic, methodical approach to everything—including always getting the same donut, despite having thirty flavors to choose from, because she knew it was what she liked, so why mess with success.
“Sorry for interrupting your decline, sweetie, but this does work in my favor.”
Sen scrubbed his eyes and yawned again. “Why does that not reassure me in any way?”
“It shouldn’t. Your defenses are totally down, and I’m totally taking advantage.” Adriane paused for effect. “I need a huge favor. Please.”
“On a scale of one to Everest, how huge are we talking?”
“I’d say it’s an eight. Think Mount Saint Helens. No, wait—Pompeii—because that’s a disaster mountain.”
“Those are volcanoes, not mountains.” Sen leaned against the refrigerator and closed his eyes.
“Sure, whatever. Disaster mountain is my point.” Adriane clucked her tongue. “One of my fairies has completely flaked. I haven’t seen or heard from her in a few weeks, and I’m on the verge of losing all the clients she looks after. The best is today’s and I literally can’t afford to let it go. The gig is weekly, a full four hours, and the client is easy. I just need you to fill in today. A house—and not even too far away from you,” she said as her drawl rose in pitch.
Adriane called her employees fairies, short for the name of her business. The Fairymaid Brigade made cleaning happen by magic. The name also sexed things up a bit. Everyone liked magic, and few people got excited about life’s mundanities. Her business plan worked, her fairies were sought after, and the Brigade took off.
“What’s the catch?” Sen dumped the grounds from a reusable coffee pod and started a fresh mug brewing. The urge to hang up on Adriane and crawl into bed was strong, but he’d do the job, and they both knew it.
“No catch. Promise. Well, maybe Ballard, but that’s another matter entirely.” Adriane snickered.
“Wait. What or who is a Ballard?” Even with his brain running full speed Sen wouldn’t know what that meant.
“Never you mind—for now.” Adri cleared her throat. “Aaaanyway, please, can you, Sen? Normally I’d just go do the job myself, but I’m swamped here, and I can’t go into why, but you know. Dan can’t even stand up yet, and Phoebe kept me up until two this morning, and I’m still manning the office like usual. I’m at my wit’s end.”
“I think you just went into it. And I’m feeling guiltier by the second, although I haven’t done anything.” Sen rubbed his forehead. “Didn’t Dan start physical therapy and it was going well? And only last week, you were crowing about Phoebe sleeping through the night.”
Adri grunted, and Phoebe’s baby noises filled Sen’s ear and then retreated.
“Sorry. Changed arms. Who knew newborns weighed a ton? And the doctors and nurses assured me you were only seven pounds, four ounces, sweetie.” Adri made nonsense sounds at Phoebe and sighed. “Her being a good sleeper was last week. Each week is a whole new ballgame. Hell, each day is. And Dan threw his back out again—more or worse or something—when I went into labor and he had to heft me to the car. So he’s back to square one on the injury rehab.”
“Ah.” Sen stifled a yawn. “I’m getting the picture.”
“I haven’t even gone into all the people I called before you to sub this house cleaning today. It’s a difficult gig to staff, because it’s midday Wednesdays, and most of my fairies take the evening work as a second job to make a little money on the side. But I know with your flexible schedule you can swing it.” She lowered her voice as though to impart a great secret, and Sen could just see her eyes, all sweetly rounded but ready to shine with triumph. “You’ll do such a good job, and I can just send you over without having to worry about a thing. I can trust you to save my butt and this gig. Please?”
“And that please makes three. Plus the guilt. And imagining Phoebe going hungry and Dan never being able to walk again. I’m sunk,” he groaned. “And hold those dulcet tones for a real emergency, like asking me to watch Lucy and Desi Cockatiel when you’re out of town again. I’ll do it.” Sen gulped down most of the coffee, set the maker to brew another cup, and went in search of clothes.
Adriane cheered. “You’re a hero. Thank you, thank you. I so owe you after this one. But you’re already late. Job starts at ten sharp.”
“Already late?” Sen made outraged noises. “You’re the one who called me at twenty after, lady.” As he passed the dining table—a huge old oak door he rescued and put on reclaimed pipe fittings—he considered curling up on it and falling asleep while she listened, just to spite her. “You should be giving me a bonus, not demerits.”
“I know, but I’m trying to keep you motivated. And I had to be sure my other fairy had definitely flaked for sure before I bothered you. Just get there fast as you can, work the rest of the four hours, and we’ll call it even for today.”
“Call it even. Nice.” Sen stood in his studio/living room/dining room, thinking about the job, getting dressed, and wanting sleep all at once. “It’s a good thing I like you, Adri, and that I’m doing this for the higher calling and pure motivation of protecting your baby’s security. No wonder your worker went AWOL,” he muttered. “Is there a uniform? Like deely boppers? A wand? Gauzy wings?”
Adriane snort-laughed. “Nah. Wear what you won’t mind cleaning in without looking like you need to be tidied up yourself. You know. Do you still have that lapel pin I gave you? Do wear that.”
Sen got back into the old blue jeans and a clean T-shirt and then poked through a shoebox in the bottom drawer of his dresser for the pin.
“Right, got it.” The small square pin had the Fairymaid logo etched in pink on an iridescent background. Glittery cutout wings were attached to the top corners.
“Anything I need to know for being there? Dogs, cats, free-ranging lizards? Does this person have any quirks I should worry about—say, rooms not to go in or things they don’t like touched?” Sen tried to drag his sandy hair into a ponytail one-handed, but the fine strands defied his attempts. He gave up, got socks and comfy sneakers, and then sagged onto the edge of his bed.
Since they met he had substituted for Adriane on occasion. It wasn’t something either of them wanted to become full time and get in the way of Sen’s painting or their friendship, but Adriane appreciated the reliable last-minute help, and Sen couldn’t argue the extra money.
Too late he realized the mistake of making contact with the bed. The mattress called to him and dragged him down until he lay, phone tucked under his chin, so he could stretch both lanky arms wide and grip the hardwood floor with his toes. Adriane rustled some papers importantly. Probably a blank notebook, but it sounded good.
“No. I don’t see anything in my write-up that’ll jump out and bite you. There’s a key code for all the doors, a note to clean out the fridge once a month and the bed linens once a week, but no special instructions.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Sen breathed as sleep beckoned.
“Hey,” Adriane yelled. “Wake up, loser. You can’t save my bacon if you fall asleep.”
“Mmm, bacon.” Sen lay another minute, let out an aggrieved sound, straightened to sit, and slapped his thighs. “Yeah, yeah. I’m up.” He shook his head, put on his socks, and then willed himself to start moving. “This sounds easy enough. I can do this.”
“Of course you can. I have every faith in your remarkable abilities. Don’t even worry about deep cleaning. Showing up and sprinkling your particular magic will be enough.”
He laughed. “Butter me up all you want, babe. I’m really fine with that.” He stood, twisted back and forth until his spine cracked, and then went to pack a snack and a travel mug of coffee.
“If you can stay awake for it, I’ll buy you dinner later, as an extra thanks. We can meet at Casa Burrito and have too many cheap and delicious margaritas. By then Phoebe should be down for the night, and Dan isn’t going anywhere. And you can tell me about the renovations done to the house. Deal?”
“Deal. Provided that after I face-plant in my tamale platter, you don’t take any pictures and post them to social media.”
Sen packed essentials into his messenger bag and stuffed in a book and sketchpad on a whim. “Tell me the key codes and where I’m going, and I’ll be on my way.”
“I could just text them.”
“I like pencil and paper. As you’re aware.”
Adriane read the info out twice as he scribbled in a notebook. He jammed it into the bag, grabbed his keys, and pushed outside. He kept his bike locked to the rickety landing outside his apartment door, and he fiddled with the lock to get the just-so twist until it surrendered and opened. Sen trotted down the stairs and wove around the trees and overgrowth to the alley that backed onto the listing carriage house he rented.
“If you don’t show to Burrito tonight, I’ll send out a rescue party. In case you’ve passed out in a swamp or something.”
Sen straddled the bike and hitched his bag to rest on the small of his back. “I’m a better friend than you deserve, Adri.”
“You really, really are. Thank you, peaches. Phoebe sends spit-bubble kisses, and if Dan weren’t stoned on painkillers, he’d totally send spit-bubble kisses too. Or maybe since he is stoned he sends extra. Anyway, it should go fine, but let me know if it doesn’t or if you have questions or—”
“I’ll text when I’m there and inside. Okay?” Sen waited and then made a prompting noise.
She agreed, and he hung up and got moving.
He left the blocks with some houses still bearing Katrina-inflicted damage behind, and crossed into a better neighborhood of tony streets lined with mansions nestled among live oaks and huge lawns. Sen turned down a cross street and banked a sharp left, then a right, and slowed as he ticked off address numbers. Well into the neighborhood, he pulled in front of the house set back from the others at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Sen shivered. The stately and imposing house, cloaked in low-hanging tree branches, presented a dramatic picture. He wasn’t intimidated, but reverberations of déjà vu rattled his mind and breath. He shivered again.
He biked down the winding driveway to find the side door he’d been told to use, and admired the place—all stately, imposing, and gorgeous. Sen had never lived in a real house and liked that fine, but he could imagine making a home there. The style and setting made it too modern to be an original plantation house, but old enough to have lots of character. Sen preferred worn edges and imperfect lines, and he hated plantation houses—too much bad history, too much patched-over sorrow, too many shadows powerful enough to creep in and steal the light.
Places steeped in terrible history had ghosts—impressions and energy if not poltergeists. He’d known that his whole life.
As if reading his thoughts, a rush of wind cleared the clouds from the sun, and warm pools of yellow dappled across the house and the live oaks with their shawls of Spanish moss.
The house was really a mansion, and New Orleans to its roots—a layer cake of Greek revival pillars and ornate wrought iron. The wraparound porch and balcony were verdigris and white. Along the front, windows big enough to walk through were aproned by charcoal-gray shutters, and a third floor had dormers and boxy eaves. Over the double main door was a terra-cotta frieze of fruit, acorns, and leaping stags, along with the name Greycote.
The side entrance was almost as grand as the rest of the house, serviced by a circle drive protected by a portico that ran around the turreted gable at the corner of the house. A three-tiered fountain bubbled at the foot of the gable, and a path led into a narrow garden bordering the drive. Sen stashed his bike, found the keypad, and opened the door. He ran his fingers over the carved side panels as he went, delighted at the continuation of the fruit and acorn theme—a doe and her yearlings posed in readiness to leap among the ivy, and a serene rabbit crouched in the bottom corner.
Sen had never been impressed by wealth, had no urge to pursue it, and considered showplaces boasting an obviously high price tag ostentatious and unwelcoming. But a quality imbued this house, and he couldn’t quite pin it down—in the bigger yard, the considered details that sparked his imagination and tactile sensibilities, and an indefinable feeling of familiarity.
The door opened on silent hinges to an equally silent hallway. He hesitated before crossing the threshold, suddenly reluctant and awkward about just going in. A foolish thing to feel, all considered, but he did.
“Hello?” he called into the darkened house and waited a long moment. When no answer came, he took in a long breath and went inside. Prickles danced across his skin when both feet made contact with the floor, and he shook with a full-body tremor as the door closed behind him.
“Silly,” he said to dismiss the strange feeling. It almost worked. He focused on the tangible reasons why he was there and began to explore.
A narrow hall ran the length of the house, split at the center by a curving double staircase that met upstairs at a balcony. He circuited the whole first floor to get his bearings. Each room he glanced into was well-appointed and gave the impression of being untouched. The only room that seemed lived-in was the study at the back of the house just off the side door, dominated by a teak desk parked in front of a fireplace and loaded with the latest and greatest in computers and gadgets.
The house kept going and going, from the two-story foyer and enormous cinnabar-colored sitting room on one side to the Wedgewood-blue parlor on the other. Of course there were more fireplaces, but the rooms were empty of anything soft or enlivening, like throw pillows, scattered rugs, art, or knickknacks. As he poked around, he found a full bathroom, a powder room, several closets, and then a mudroom and utility space complete with a third bathroom. The huge and rambling kitchen had vintage appeal and modern conveniences. Sen would bet his meager savings account the stainless steel industrial oven had never been used.
He pursed his lips, disappointed. The house, although beautiful, had no warmth or welcome, no art or personal pictures and objects. Someone had nodded at arrangements in a showroom and forgot about it all once they were delivered, including most of the vast rooms. The study offered a glimmer of hope, with crammed bookshelves and patterned parquet flooring that creaked underfoot, but there were still no pictures or softening details.
Sen wandered into the foyer, planted his feet, and wondered why he was there. He figured he could give the whole downstairs a white-glove test without cleaning anything, and it would pass with flying colors. How he would find four hours’ worth of work was anyone’s guess—unless he wasn’t supposed to be there. Was it accidentally the wrong day? Or house?
“The key code worked,” he said aloud to tamp down growing anxiety. “And this is definitely the correct address, and the house matches Adri’s description. So.” Sen sighed. “So it’s fine, and I’ll just find something to do and no big deal.”
He jumped when his phone chose that moment to chirp, and answered Adri’s text to say that yes, he’d found the place and gotten in without a problem. He didn’t mention there was nothing to do or that he both loved the house and was super uncomfortable there. He didn’t text to ask if he could just leave, because she’d freak and call, and he had no explanation beyond a feeling. She sent back a thumbs-up emoji.
“Okay, then, how about that fridge?” Sen pocketed his phone, left his bag on the island, and opened it.
He took in the bag of gourmet coffee beans, the partial case of craft beer, and the pathetic white Chinese takeout box with a wry huff.
“How very inspiring.” He checked the freezer and shook his head at the neat stack of low-calorie frozen dinners, but the huge box of off-brand ice cream sandwiches made him smile.
At the back of the house, a narrow service staircase adjoined the kitchen and the utility room. He climbed the boxy spiral to the second floor’s long hallway, line of doors, and light from the balcony that overlooked the foyer. All but two rooms were bare. One was obviously the owner’s and the other a guest room—and Sen’s imagination ran wild speculating.
The third floor wasn’t just empty, it was unfinished. Drywall was up, and the walls were crisp, primer white, but there was no crown molding, no trim, and the fixtures were plain. Sen spun on his heel to trot back downstairs when something glittering caught his eye. He couldn’t resist investigating. At the far end of the house, where the gable peaked, he found a beautiful space and breathed out an enchanted whistle. Windows wrapped the curved room, which was glazed with the morning sun, and looked down over gardens and green oak boughs and swaying moss.
Sen knew the room was why the house had been built and why Ballard had decided to buy it. It added to the mystery of the house and its owner. Ballard paid to have a pristine house cleaned, set up the downstairs like a magazine spread, and slept in an indifferent bedroom, but had brought a single deep chaise to this room. Maybe without fully understanding the draw to be up there.
Just the chair—plush and wide, and covered in a charming and unfashionable 70s-throwback plaid. There wasn’t even a side table or a lamp, only the chaise plunked in the middle of the room and situated to have a good view out the windows. Sen sank into the chair and itched to sketch in the wonderful light and ambiance, so different from the indirect, watery light that made it into his apartment. It would be somewhere to concentrate and get lost in full absorption without being disturbed—rather than the bustle of a park or a coffee shop.
Something rustled when he crossed his feet and tucked them under the chaise. He dropped to a knee and investigated.
“Finally,” Sen said, relieved to find a trace of imperfection. He reached for the object and pulled out a balled-up sock, soft and misshapen from being worn.
Sen’s fingers itched, and his palm burned. Heat swept up his arms—through his veins—and circled his heart. The room darkened as if shutters had closed, and he jerked upright and stumbled to the windows. Quick-moving black clouds roiled across the sky and spread to obscure the sun and envelop everything in their path.
He choked on air so heavy it suffocated him and fumbled with opening a window. Thunder clapped, and a torrent of rain unleashed, pummeling the ground. Fast-running rivulets and deep puddles formed in the grass. Dizziness lurched Sen sideways. He clamped his eyes shut and shook his head. When he looked outside again, the storm continued to rage.
Indistinct yelling forced his attention to a circle of trees and the cluster of people gathered within them. A figure ran toward them in the downpour. Sen watched in horror as the gathering turned on one among them, felling the person with blows from fists and weighty, blunt sticks. Lightning flashed and glinted off a sharp line of metal. Sen recognized it as a long, thin dagger, and he grimaced in anticipation of the stroke.
He gasped as searing pain twisted in his guts. Instinctively he pushed a hand against his side, and it came away wet and sticky with blood. He grunted and fell backward as the figures he’d seen from afar loomed over him. His swollen tongue filled his mouth and disorienting blurs of color and light filled his mind, preventing his answer to the continued calls of his name. Sen’s lungs ached and he coughed. It rattled around in his chest. Cold water seeped into his clothes, and he curled onto his side. Sen held out his hand, expecting it to be taken, but grasped only emptiness.
Someone shouted his name, and he searched and met an anguished, piercing gaze. Recognition hit him like a bolt, and a tumult of emotions stronger than the storm shot through him, ricocheting down his limbs and echoing in his mind. The storm clouds pushed through the windows and boiled to fill the house, stealing him into blackness.
Sen startled awake and fell off the chaise.
He groaned and used the windowsill to help him stand. His head pounded, his throat was dry, and his heart beat too fast. The sun shone bright and merry, and he squinted out into the yard. No menacing figures, no trace of an attack or rain. Spanish moss swayed peacefully, and birds flitted between the trees and the dry ground. Sen patted his side and found it whole.
His breath sped as he remembered the storm clouds, churning and angry like a living thing, and the familiar gaze and splinter of emotions it left behind in him. Thick shadows began to gather like fog in the corners of the room, and he didn’t wait to see if they were real.
Sen scrabbled into the hall, skidded down two flights of stairs, grabbed his backpack from the kitchen, and careened out the side door. Sand and gravel churned as he ran, and he got halfway down the cul-de-sac before he slowed.
“My bike,” he groaned as he stood and sucked wind.
Sen watched the house for a long while. Nothing about it changed, nor did the sky behind it. Despite his sharp and wary reluctance, he trudged back to the side door.
“It’s fine. It’ll be fine. I need the bike. I’ll get the bike, and….” He licked his lips. Then he could go. Given the benign neglect Ballard treated the house with, his not cleaning probably wouldn’t be noticed.
He grabbed his bike but didn’t move. Gusts of wind scudded the clouds clear, brightening the sun. The carvings on the door swirled, and the figures danced. Sen closed his eyes and rocked on his feet. A full-body yawn overtook him, followed by another. That had to be it—extreme fatigue plus buzzing on too much caffeine had him seeing things.
Sen propped his bike back against a pillar and walked to the door. He ran his fingers over the carvings, which were hard and unforgiving and definitely not dancing, and stilled his touch on the rabbit. Exhaustion had seeped into him, taken over, created the illusion from dissatisfying days trying to paint and fitful sleep filled with bad dreams.
He should leave. Sen curled his hand into a fist. He could stay and clean, and it would be fine.
Sen squared his shoulders, opened the door with purpose, and retraced his route all the way back to the turret room. The mellow, sunny day offered no threat, but Sen stayed on the lookout for shadows. He kicked over the forgotten sock and hesitated to pick it up, but no burning or stabbing or storm cloud dramatics assaulted him. Grabbing the sock used up the last of his bravado, and he flopped onto the chaise and let out a long, long sigh.
“Holy shit. Holy shit,” he said and scrubbed his face.
Sen lay listening to the breeze. But he couldn’t stay there, so he gathered his reserves and trudged downstairs to the kitchen, taking the lonely sock with him.
He chased snatches of the brief, intense vision, but couldn’t pin anything down. Sen dug a sketchbook from his bag and filled a page with rapid doodles and impressions of what he’d seen, and the angry voices raised in threat whispered behind his ears and in his mind. The rabbit appeared, as did circle motifs and interlocking jagged lines that felt sharp as he drew. He stopped himself from further deepening the groove on the paper as he retraced a pair of piercing eyes over and over. He pushed away from the counter and stood, hands on hips.
Adri counted on him, and the house hadn’t turned black again, so he devised a plan. He’d clean the high-traffic spaces and then reorganize something, because reorganizing always calmed him.
“Okay, then. See? It’s cool,” he told himself and went to find the pantry.
There were bottles and wipes and sprays of every type imaginable, and no food—not even a forgotten, desultory pack of ramen noodles. The barrenness made the fridge seem glutted. There was more craft beer, a wine cooler, and some protein-shake mix. His phone chirped. He squawked, dropped everything, and rolled his eyes.
Sen read a text from his mom.
Just checking on things. Dad says hi. How’s the persistent ennui?
His dad hated cell phones, and his mom was a technophile. She was in the “technology will eventually make the world a better place” camp. His dad just wanted to be left alone, but more in a pioneer spirit than survivalist paranoia, thankfully. It had shaped a lot of how Sen was raised—separate from the mainstream but not radical or isolationist.
He wondered whether hallucinating was a step past ennui or a step toward curing it, and he replied. Things fine. Doing stopgap cleaning for A & still pushing to paint. Ennui is… is.
Sen wasn’t prone to funks, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t happen. Once he had a breakthrough with painting or collaging, he’d be fine. Then the upcoming group show would happen, his pieces in it would be great, and he could move on from New Orleans. Maybe without guiding signs, as long as his internal compass cooperated and told him a general direction to go.
Rooting for you. Add ginger and honey to some green tea for balance. And try some freeform writing!
Sen smiled. Will do. Thanks, Mom.
His mother believed tea cured all ails and brainstorming resolved most problems. She had been right about it many times, but he doubted even tea could stop the skull-splitting action currently happening behind his face.
Sen located a glass, drank water, and then, a refill down, mindful of and deliberate with each step of the process—the sound of the flowing tap, the solidity of the glass, the lukewarm water not at all like cold rainwater—grounded himself back in the here and now. Curiosity prodded him to check the other cabinets. The one next to the sink had table settings for four. One drawer had some towels, another held silverware, and all the rest were empty. How depressing—or he read too much into the signs of a bachelor who preferred going out.
He retrieved the scattered bottles and wipes. Cleaning might not take him four hours, but he’d do a good job, and then put the day and the house behind him.
The master bedroom seemed a good place to start, as impersonal as everywhere else, but at least it was obviously used. The walls were restful gray, setting off the earth tones in the heavy brocade comforter and dark mahogany furniture. Expensive cologne lingered in the air, expensive suits hung in the closet, and an expensive king-size bed was angled to make the most of the view into the back garden.
Despite the zillion-dollar mattress, covered with zillion-count linens, the bed and its thrown-back blanket and two squashed pillows didn’t inspire any desire to crawl in and get comfy. Sen shrugged and stripped it bare, hoped he wouldn’t find any nasty surprises lost in the sheets, and then found a nearly empty hamper in a closet. He stuffed the bedding, along with a T-shirt discovered rumpled in a corner of the bathroom, into the hamper and ran it downstairs. The T-shirt didn’t summon any storms but, like the sock, it showed a hint of normalcy and someone actually living there. Sen dumped everything in the washer, punched the digital readout to what seemed a good setting, and stood there until water began to flow.
He tramped back upstairs and donned the frilly pink cleaning gloves left by a previous Fairy and scrubbed and polished the master bathroom from the ceiling down. Then he organized the spare toiletries in the shower and on the sink into neat lines, all labels turned to the front, blotted the sink dry, and called it done.
Sen roamed the hall, found the linen closet, and grimaced at the actual horrors it revealed. Blankets and sheets and pillowcases were wadded and shoved onto two middle shelves. The upper shelves were bare, and a pile of pillows sat on the floor. He decided to be cheerful about the second hint of personality, and yanked everything out to spill onto the floor.
Sorting didn’t take long, because he’d have to refold it all, so he tossed everything into three piles—sheets, blankets, and small stuff. Then he decided on a dark blue sheet set and went to make the bed.
When Sen finished, he stepped back to admire his work. He’d layered a crisp white blanket under the brocade comforter and turned back all three layers so they folded over in striking lines of color. He unwrapped pillows from their store packaging, put shams that matched the comforter on them, and propped them against the curved headboard. Then he pounded the two remaining pillows back into shape, stuffed them into blue cases, and leaned them against the new pillows. On a whim he stuck a pewter-colored bolster pillow in front of those four and flicked its tassels into wide fans.
“Might as well, right?” he reasoned.
Sen decided there was no more to be done in the bedroom and tackled the linen closet. He found true joy in bringing order to chaos and got great satisfaction from folding everything into crisp squares and laying them in very organized piles. He stashed an extra duvet on the top shelf, used another for blankets, and then matched sheet sets and pillowcases on the remaining two shelves.
After that he trailed back downstairs and washed the lonely coffee cup tucked into the corner of the farm sink. Then he was at a loss. He paced the length of the house twice, peered around with an avid eye for fierce inspection, but didn’t see anything out of place—no dust on the mantles, no lint balls under the sofas, not even any recycling to take out.
With about an hour remaining of the promised four, he had done a good job cleaning, and that had cleared his mind. Ghost sensations of the cold rain and knife in his belly lingered, and if he closed his eyes, he could still hear that voice calling for him in an English accent—a name he didn’t recognize but knew meant him. But their strength continued to fade along with his headache. Sen considered texting Adri to ask if he could cut out, but the contrary desire to see the turret room tempted him, so he brought his sketchbook and snacks upstairs.
The shadows had lengthened as the sun dropped and cooled, but diffuse light warmed the room with a gentle glow. Wide-eyed, Sen perched on the chaise and waited. Nothing happened. No beastie leapt out at him, no cold spot formed around his shoulders, and there wasn’t an orphaned sock in sight.
He thought about the house and its owner and their histories. The ice cream sandwiches and disorganized closets might reveal chinks in the pristine façade, but the turret room represented something more. It spoke of sentimentality and appreciation, and the single chaise bought for comfort indicated someone unafraid of being alone.
Sen didn’t want to contemplate whether something else compelled Ballard to be up there.
As he glanced around the room, an unexpected detail caught his attention. Above the top left corner of the doorframe sat a carving no bigger than his palm—a small rabbit perched upon an acorn. It matched the rabbits carved into the main entry doors.
“And what are you doing, little fella?” he asked and got up to stroke its long ears.
It gave no answer, of course, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.
“I’ll confess, I’m glad I found you. It’s nice to have some company.” He regarded the rabbit. “Have you seen anything here? Know about any ghosts?” he asked, because it felt good to say it aloud, but its sphinxlike expression gave nothing away.
His thoughts slid into daydreams, and his daydreams into dozing. He saw the flash of a knife and that familiar, burning gaze. Then rain washed everything away and condensed into an impenetrable fog. The alarm he’d set buzzed, and as he lurched upright, he swore he saw the last of the fog slink from the room in sinuous, blue-white tendrils.
Sen pushed from the chair, the room, and then the house, and back to his bike. He turned and gazed at the house from the street.
“Thank God I’m not coming back here,” he said. The sun was shrouded in clouds, save for a slant of light, like a beacon leading to the turret, as if to contradict his words.