Okay, this does seem weird to be swiping chapters of a book that has nothing to do with the DWD or our favorite dick. Regardless, for your perusal, the first two chapters of Squatter follow. If you read it, you hereby vow to donate to the Get Kate Out of the Pokey Fund, if needed.
Trinity MacNeil scolded herself for feeling so excited, and yet, she could not stop the smile spreading across her freckled face. Seizing a deep calming breath, she dropped her leather satchel onto the porch, and then, her trembling hand aimed a silver key at the front door’s lock. A twist, a pull, and a timid push brought a creak that punctuated the moment, this new beginning.
Her smile widened even further when she made her first steps into the house. She spun in a circle, her eyes taking in the huge foyer. Then, she plopped onto the second last step of the staircase and released a tremendous sigh.
This was hers. All hers. Despite its drab walls and lusterless woodwork, it looked luxurious to her, the proverbial dream come true. While it hadn’t cost her a cent, it came at a very high price.
Instantly, her excitement dissipated, and sadness rushed over her. Her aunt Ronnie had died here just three weeks prior. She was her mother’s sister, and now, they were both gone. Trinity hadn’t been that close to her aunt, or maybe her regret made her believe that. They had regularly exchanged long, handwritten letters and sent birthday cards. On holidays, they had talked on the phone. Yet, she had declined her aunt’s every invitation to visit, and now, she had to live with the fact that she hadn’t seen her since the day she graduated from college, nearly six years ago. The time before that was at her mother’s funeral, only months earlier. She believed that not being a physical part of her life had a consequence: Her aunt hadn’t even told her she had ovarian cancer. The lawyer said that by the time she got diagnosed, they had given her six months to live. She chose the treatment-less route and made it barely two before she died—in this very house, this house that was now Trinity’s.
She turned and tilted her head to the upstairs landing, a U-shape that touched all but the front wall. Having visited only several times as a child, she couldn’t remember much about the house. She wondered which bedroom had belonged to her aunt. Had she died up there, or had she been too ill to go up the stairs anymore?
That question brought her to her feet with a desire to look around. She slid open the doors closest to the front and found what she figured had been called the study. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves took up an entire wall and held hundreds of books. As a librarian—a now unemployed librarian, she found the sight soothing. A loveseat and two recliners sat in the room, and next to the most worn one, stood one of those floor lamps that jutted out of an end table. She smiled, imagining that was where Aunt Ronnie spent her evenings: lost in a good book.
Another set of sliding doors in the study led to a dining room, she discovered. She flipped on the light, and in an instant, she realized it had probably not seen life in decades. A thick layer of dust covered everything, from the huge dining table with its upholstered chairs of blue, to the large China cabinet on the far wall, to the chandelier barely letting light through its five filmy globes.
Once more, she maneuvered through sliding doors, this time coming out into a pantry and laundry room that spilled into the kitchen. The appliances seemed surprisingly new, and the entire area was meticulously clean. On the far wall, a breakfast nook butted a huge bay window that looked out on the backyard. She figured it safe to assume her aunt had all her meals there. Several yards from the window stood a tall feeder, and she imagined her sipping coffee and watching the birds that had come to take her offerings.
She exited the kitchen, which brought her back to the foyer. To her left, a door led to a screened porch, and in front of her, she spied the living room. She headed that way to find a space large enough to have contained her entire apartment. Aunt Ronnie seemed to have created two distinct yet cohesive areas: one for television, one for something more formal. A fireplace sat off-center in the room, giving a view to each side.
On the informal side, there was yet another set of sliding doors. These led to Aunt Ronnie’s sewing room, a spacious area with a half-bath. She had made her living as a seamstress, and Trinity spied quite a few unfinished projects, including one that looked to be on its way to becoming a wedding dress. She hoped the poor woman knew that Aunt Ronnie would never be able to finish it.
She headed back to the foyer, and once more, her eyes ran the circuit of the upstairs landing. She dreaded going up there, and yet, she reminded herself that this was now her home—at least for the next long while. It was a stipulation Aunt Ronnie had put on giving her the house: If she accepted it, she had to live there for at least two years. She didn’t quite understand why she did it that way, or why she had given it to her to begin with. Trinity had two younger brothers, at least one of whom would have welcomed an influx of property or cash.
After retrieving her satchel from the porch and closing the front door, she stood before the staircase, willing herself to go up there. She winced when she took the first step, but then, with a confident stride, she marched.
Immediately at the top of the stairs was another bathroom, a full one. Its back window was made of stained glass, and she realized she remembered it. This Midwestern day was gloomy and threatening to sleet, but she recalled how the window lit up in the sun and how rays leaked into the room from around the lead, shaped like a sunflower. Her uncle Gene had made it, if she remembered correctly, which she doubted because she barely even remembered him. He and Aunt Ronnie divorced a short time after their son, Luke, died.
Speaking of Luke…
She turned and glanced again to the landing and the two doors on each far side. Could she remember which room belonged to him? She was a year older than he, and he died when he was seven. So that would have been … 23 years ago! She remembered barreling up the stairs with him, her young brothers not allowed to follow. Which way did she turn at the top of the staircase? She couldn’t remember, but suddenly with perfect clarity, she saw them taking turns with a clown punching bag, its nose squeaking if hit just right.
Her head pivoted left to right. Which door? Which way? Still, she couldn’t remember. Taking a chance, she walked right and approached the first door, but she could not have been more wrong or regretful about her choice. A sick feeling overtook her as soon as her hand touched the doorknob.
A simple glance inside proved this was Aunt Ronnie’s room: an unmade bed with an IV standing next to it still holding a half-empty bag. A small wastebasket overflowed with plastic wrappers that had probably held syringes for drugs meant to keep her comfortable. How could you be comfortable? How could you know you had moments left before being forced to leave this world and be comfortable?
The thought made her shudder, and then, tears filled her eyes. She hadn’t been close enough to her to actually miss her physical presence, and yet, she recognized that her sense of the world was different. She had been a tether to her in some strange way. Maybe like a kite flying so far off on its own that it couldn’t even see who held it there, kept it from soaring too high or drifting off into oblivion, yet it knew someone did. Aunt Ronnie did, and much more so after Trinity’s mother died. Who tethers me now? “No one,” she said aloud as she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her.
She made for the stairs but then stopped with a sudden realization: The house had to be her tether. Maybe that was why Aunt Ronnie had willed it to her, forced her to live in it.
Letting her tears fall, she sat on the top step for a moment. She hurt. She grieved. First, she had lost her aunt, and then in order to move here, she had given up the life she led. Not that it amounted to much, and that realization made her even sadder.
Yet, this house, this chance, held that dream-come-true quality. She felt alone in her other world, but here, she’d be alone with herself, not in the midst of a crowd. That was a relief, and that made her rise to her feet with the vow to make this work, to accept the new tether and hold onto it as tightly as she could.
Her eyes shot to the door on the opposite side of Aunt Ronnie’s room. Now she knew it had been Luke’s, but instead of rushing headlong into another scene that had the potential to send her reeling with emotion, she chose to check out the room down the hall from Aunt Ronnie’s.
As she walked, she felt queasy looking over the railing and down into the foyer. If this was truly her house, she’d build walls there or at least much higher railings.
With far more confidence, she entered the room to discover what Aunt Ronnie had apparently used for storage. It held a plethora of boxes, old lamps, two chests, and several end tables. It was a thrift store without patrons.
She exited and followed the landing all the way to the room opposite that one.
Another confident turn of the knob brought something she hadn’t expected. The room was immaculate and perfectly decorated with dark wood and a beautiful blue comforter on the canopy bed that matched the drapes on the large window. There was not a speck of dust or a cobweb to be seen. On the far wall, empty bookshelves butted a fireplace, and in front of it, a tan chaise lounge held a beautiful quilt she suspected Aunt Ronnie had made. Next to it was a small white cardboard box, and a peek under the lid revealed a mass of photographs. She promptly closed it, deciding to save it for another day. It probably contained pictures of her mother and aunt, and she needed a better state of mind to delve into what she figured was a Pandora’s box.
As she turned to leave, she spied a piece of paper on the bed pillow. Seizing it, she recognized Aunt Ronnie’s handwriting—but obviously by way of a feebler hand. The date indicated it had been written three days before she died.
Make yourself a good life here.
Do what I couldn’t do.
I love you and am with you—always.
Immediately, she understood that the room had been prepared for her. Aunt Ronnie had been near death, and this was what she used her strength to do or have someone do for her. Why was this so important to her? How had she been so certain that Trinity would willingly abandon her life just to move here for two years? The whole thing confused her. So much so that the room, the house, this new chance at life did not feel at all welcoming.
“I love you, too, Aunt Ronnie,” she said, “but I sure wish you had better explained this.”
She tossed the letter onto the bed and left the room.
A moment later, another sick feeling overcame her when she touched the knob to the remaining room, Luke’s. She would have bet her life that his room was the same as the day he died, that Aunt Ronnie could never have brought herself to remove any of his things. As she turned the bronze doorknob, she braced herself.
A strong mustiness hit her as the door slowly opened. The room was dark, with curtains closed to the gloomy day. She hit the light switch and was not at all surprised to find a little boy’s room: a comforter with race cars, walls painted blue, a model airplane hanging from the ceiling, a stack of comic books next to the bed. It seemed only vaguely familiar to her, and she was grateful that she had not been forced back in time.
She walked through the room to the far wall that had an entryway. This, she remembered, led to a playroom, one that had seemed more like a toy store to her when she was little. Without turning on the light, she gave the room a cursory glance, spun around, and left. She felt as though she was snooping, invading someone’s space. Or maybe it was that she simply did not want to remember. Maybe another day. Maybe not ever.
In the hall, she closed the door and felt sad, incredibly sad. The remnants of other people’s lives were all around her. She did not belong there, and the house did not seem to be a tether she wanted to clutch.
Yet, she had to. Obviously, because this was now where she lived. But, she also knew she had nothing else—no one else, either, really. She had to make the house hers, and she hoped that moving her things inside would help. Her eyes went to the door of the room Aunt Ronnie had prepared for her. But not in there, she thought. At least not yet. For now, she’d simply make a space for herself downstairs. In the living room, she decided. The formal side. Its fireplace would help minimize the heating bill if she didn’t have to heat the entire upstairs. “Perfectly plausible,” she said and made her way downstairs.
After removing the dark green tarp covering the bed of her pickup, Trinity grabbed the first box. Everything she owned now fit in a six-by-four foot space. Her other things were probably still being sorted at the thrift store where she had donated it all. And, she owned a pickup. That was hard for her to believe, yet it had made sense to her to sell the new car she had, pay off the loan, and buy something she could own outright. Choosing a pickup gave her the ability to move her things and seemed fitting since she was about to live in the country—well, a mile outside a city with a population of 2,870.
As she turned with the box, she looked at the house, still disbelieving it was actually hers. It was monstrous with four bedrooms and two and a half baths. It sat in the foreground of 25 acres. She had no idea how old it was, but she felt safe in assuming it was well over a hundred. Its siding was a dark mustardy color, and the trim was a flat, weathered burgundy. But, the size of it seized her more than anything: a monstrosity she was responsible for maintaining, not some landlord she called only when there was no other choice. Again, she hoped she wasn’t in over her head.
Knowing the box she held probably contained clothing, she took it directly to the living room, but then, she decided to keep that area clear for a makeshift bedroom. She’d neatly stack everything in the sewing room and take care of it little by little.
In less than an hour, she had accomplished the task. She headed into the kitchen, desperate for coffee, and she quickly rummaged in the cupboards to find only instant decaf. She was not quite that desperate.
She emptied and wiped the refrigerator and decided a trip to the grocery store had to be the next order of business. A bit of time to explore the town seemed intriguing, as well. She had seen a bit of it that morning when she went to the lawyer’s office to sign papers and get the house key, but she had been overwhelmed: nervousness about the lawyer and then anticipation of getting to the house. Everything had been a blur.
The house was on Asher Road, but as soon as she crossed the city line, the signs indicated Main Street. No longer having a gym membership, she hoped that since it was the city’s artery, there’d be stores within walking distance. At first, it seemed entirely residential, but then in the blink of an eye, the commercial district took over—if you could really call it a “district.” It spanned five blocks at the most, and she suspected it didn’t go much deeper.
She made mental notes: a shoe store, two bars, the post office, the court house, City Hall, a clothing store, a drugstore, and right next to it: Midtown Market. She took a right and parked in front of a small jewelry store. A cinema owned the rest of the block, and on the other side of the street, an antique store sat next to an art gallery. She laughed, figuring this must have been the arts and entertainment district.
But, it was now home. She wondered how long until it felt like it.
She put in her earbuds and chose her “shopping” playlist. Then, she headed into the market that surprised her by being much larger than its storefront indicated. She took a basket instead of a cart, wanting to be both quick and frugal.
Before she even made it through the first aisle, one patron smiled at her, two said hello, and a clerk asked whether she needed help finding anything. She had never lived in a small town; this one had 80,000 fewer people than Belding, from where she came. Obviously, it was friendlier, and the pace was far less hurried. She took the cue and slowed down.
The checkout lane was blazing fast, and the clerk pleasant. She didn’t seem to pass judgment on her purchases the way some did. She hated that. It was an invasion of privacy to her, no less rude than going through her cupboards at home. She left with two bags containing what she hoped was enough to see her through a week: coffee, milk, yogurt, dried fruit, oatmeal, bread, cheese, and turkey from the deli.
Memorizing the same buildings she saw on the way into town, she headed home and took her supplies inside. As she unpacked, she realized she hadn’t even thought to purchase sundries. She remembered seeing a box of tissue in one of the rooms. She couldn’t remember which, but she’d find it in a hurry if it needed to become toilet paper.
She filled the sink with hot sudsy water and washed the drip coffeemaker’s basket and carafe. Luckily, she found a mountain of coffee filters and quickly got half a pot brewing. While she waited, she washed some dishes, not knowing how long they had sat unused in the cupboard. Then, she made herself a sandwich.
When everything was ready, she took her plate and cup to the breakfast nook. As she had done before, she imagined Aunt Ronnie sitting there, watching out the back window. It made her sad, and she tried to focus on what she had yet to see on the property. She hoped there was a fire pit, as she had learned to love sitting by a fire when her mother took her brothers and her on long road trips during the summers, state park to state park. It had probably been ten years since she enjoyed a fire. Indeed, she hoped there was a fire pit. Then, it dawned on her: If there wasn’t, she could make one. She could do anything she pleased. Had she ever been able to say that?
She remembered Aunt Ronnie writing to her about her garden and the canning she did in the fall. She wrote about her roses, too. So, she expected there were many discoveries yet to make. Exhausted from an anxious day, though, she was tired and wanted nothing more than to get some sleep. The journey out back would have to wait until morning. Weren’t people in rural settings supposed to go to bed when the birds did? She glanced to her watch, and she doubted they did so at 4:30 in the afternoon.
After she ate and cleaned up after herself, she began to go through her boxes, leaving the clothes in place, but removing sheets, two pillows, and a blanket for the night. She put her toiletries and some towels in the downstairs bathroom, but with it being a half-bath, she realized she would need to bathe or shower upstairs. She didn’t like the idea, but there wasn’t much choice. She wondered where the other full bath was and quickly assumed it was part of the ‘master suite,’ Aunt Ronnie’s room. Using that one would have been far more difficult than the one at the top of the stairs.
Arms laden with bubble baths, soaps, oils, and towels, she headed for the staircase. Her foot had just alighted the fifth step when a sense of dread overtook her. She stopped, and her eyes glanced to Aunt Ronnie’s door and then to Luke’s. She knew it was the thought of them—two who had passed—that caused her to feel this way. How was she to stop this place from feeling like a mausoleum? More important, how could she make herself want to expunge their presence here—from this their home? Their things were all that was left of them. If Aunt Ronnie couldn’t get rid of Luke’s things in over twenty years, how could she? And worse, how could she remove Aunt Ronnie’s when she had been gone a mere three weeks? And how could Aunt Ronnie just assume she could make herself at home here? In a room right down the hall from Luke’s and one over from her aunt’s deathbed. Perhaps she was in over her head.
She hunched over, put her toiletries on the seventh step, and went back downstairs.
After snagging her jacket from one of the hooks by the front door, she turned on the porch light and went outside into the dark evening. The pile of wood next to the detached garage was her destination, because what little warmth there was inside would soon be replaced by late March’s cold. A fire in the living room’s fireplace would do her good on many levels.
She brought several logs inside, got a fire going, and then made her bed on the couch. She climbed in with the book she was halfway through for the hundredth time: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It was her mother’s favorite book—more so, her favorite possession. Her mother’s name was Penny, and on the inside front cover was inscribed in barely legible handwriting: A Penny for my thoughts. Love, Peter. Her first love, she said he was, her very own Heathcliff. She used to joke that Peter had obviously never read the book, otherwise, he’d have inscribed: I hope you’re not a Kathy.
After shoving in her earbuds, she chose her “sleep” playlist. Then, she aimed the book toward the firelight and began to read. Tonight, she needed a Penny for her thoughts.