The Writing on the Wall A Novel - By W. D. Wetherell


HAUNTED house, haunted woman, haunted country, haunted hills.

The match was perfect enough to make Vera smile for the first time that summer, the first time all year. In the dark, stooping, she reached for the key her sister had left under the lilac closest to the porch. The moon found it before her hand did, a nickel with a silvery nose. The house groaned when she applied it to the lock, but halfheartedly, as if it were tired of scaring, having done it for so many years. A creaking floorboard under her shoe, a film of cobweb against her cheek, the garlic smell of wood rot, and then she was in, there was nothing the house could do but accept her, saving its scarier tricks for later.

Jeannie had told her where the switch was for electricity, but she had neglected to write it down, and she was too exhausted to search. Exhausted from decisions, not big ones, nothing major, but the dozens of minor ones needed to get herself onto the plane in Denver, fly across the continent, drive north three hours from Boston and find her way here. She could sleep now—for the first time in months her heart sent permission to her head. She groped her way down the entrance hall, found moonlight again, used it to climb steep stairs to the bedrooms. The largest had a mattress on the floor, a light cotton blanket, and, centered on the pillow, Jeannie’s welcoming little joke, a Snickers bar, the kind they always begged for as kids.

It was Jeannie’s vacation house—their “shack” they were calling it, Tom’s fixer-upper, a place they could go to when the pressures of the city got too great. Built in 1919, it had stood empty for the past sixteen years, taxes had gone unpaid, and the town was more than happy to sell it to them cheap. It was a forgotten kind of place, with no ski areas nearby to jack up prices, no pretty lakes, just a shallow stream running toward Canada which gave Tom visions of learning how to fish. Our “retreat” was the other term they used, without saying what they were retreating from, though Vera knew that the news of the world hit them hard. Terrorists wouldn’t find them there, even if they took New York— and in the meantime, Tom could do his fishing, Jeannie could have a garden, and anyone who needed solace more than luxury was welcome to borrow it anytime they wanted.

“You can have it for two weeks,” Jeannie told her when she called in June. “Three weeks. Right into August if that’s what you need. We won’t be able to get up there until after Paris and maybe not even then.”

“I’d like to stay thirty days,” Vera said. The precision was deliberate.

“There’s no furniture yet. The yard is a jungle, I haven’t touched the garden, and the vines look like they’re gobbling the house. But it’s interesting enough inside. Whoever built it must have had lots of birds-eye maple, because the floorboards, when we peeled the linoleum off, turned out to be gorgeous. Will Dan be coming?”

“No. Just me.”

“He must be busy with his contracting again, good for him.”

That was always Jeannie’s way, to supply the white lie herself.

“I can’t emphasize that enough,” she said, when the silence went on a little too long. “How much work it all needs. The worst is the walls. They’re plaster, original probably, but the wallpaper is straight from hell. The front rooms have something that resembles knotty pine, and whoever lived there in the Sixties put up something in the hall that looks like what wedding presents come wrapped in, this hideous white velvet with blood-colored veins. Stripping it off is going to be a major ordeal.”

“Let me help.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Let me do it.”

It surprised her, the quick and powerful way the asking surged through her throat.

“Strip the wallpaper?”

“I’m terrible with tools, but I’m sure I can do it.”

“It would take months.”

“I’ll work hard.”

“Uh, Vera? It isn’t easy.”

“I know what you’re thinking, that Dan is the carpenter and I’m just a teacher. But I’m not so klutzy I can’t strip wallpaper.”

“We’ve already talked to someone in town, an old French Canadian who does anything.”

Surprising, how much she needed Jeannie’s yes—enough so she brought out her most powerful argument, the one there was no refusing.

“It will do me good. To have something like that to focus on. It’s what I need right now. I’ll do a good job for you, I promise.”