Preview: The House on Chestnut Circle

I moved into the house on Chestnut Circle on a warm day in mid-May. My name is Trent Cooper, and I make my living as a graphic designer—which in my case means lots and lots of freelance stuff like book jackets, logos, and product packaging now that I’d left the advertising agency where I’d worked for over ten years. Going freelance had seemed attractive after years of nine to five, but I hadn't truly considered how hard it would be. I had to constantly seek work and keep busy to make any money at all.

The two-story house I was renting until I could decide if I wanted to buy it was forty-seven years old and had been occupied twice before, first by a married couple who’d sold it after twenty years when they'd been unable to get rid of their freeloading grown children, and then by a man named Lance Harrington.

Lance had bought the house and then lived in it alone until his death two years before. The neighborhood, aptly named Chestnut Grove Estates after the stand of chestnut trees that had once grown behind the subdivision, was an aging one and had dwindled to mostly widowed women. I had Patsy, a 72-year-old, on one side and Lorraine, an 81-year-old, on the other. Walking over from their respective homes the day I flew up to check the place out, they had told me Lance’s story. Or the part they knew, anyway. The rest I would find out later.

Lance had been engaged at one point early on to a woman named Valerie, but nothing had ever come of it. He had lived there alone for twenty-five years. Never marrying. And never going out much, according to the girls. That's what I called my finely aged neighbors: the "girls."

And so it had come as no surprise to them, really, they had confided to me, that one bleak night in March—undeniably a dreary, depressing time of the year—Lance had sat down in a recliner parked in the den, stuck a .40 caliber pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. He hadn’t bothered leaving a note. Who would he have left it to? He and Marty, the man that still lived two houses up, whom he'd once been friendly with, no longer associated and there were no other friends or relatives that anyone knew of. Outside of the girls, only the Campbells from across the street and some man he'd worked with had shown up for the funeral, which had been handled by a distant second-cousin after no one else stepped forward to take possession of the body.

I climbed the steps to the porch that ran nearly the length of the house, fit the key I’d been given into the lock, and shoved the door open. I stepped inside, and warm, stale air hit me in the face.

It didn’t look like anyone had bothered to turn the AC on. Unless the electricity was still off. I quickly went into the parlor to my left, absently noticing the contents that remained, and unlocked and wrenched up the nearest set of windows to let in the slight breeze that was blowing.

I walked back out of the smallish room and looked around the entryway, searching for the thermostat.

I found it below the staircase. Flipping the switch up on the wall, some of the shadows dropped away as dim yellow light spilled out of a bug-filled dome above me. At least there was power. I turned back to the old thermostat. Just as I’d thought, it had been left in the Off position. I switched it over and immediately heard a satisfying click and the rush of air as the unit kicked on.

I moved farther into the house and started down the hall, catching glimpses of half-empty rooms and dingy windows framed by shabby curtains.

Unable to take the heat anymore, I reversed direction, took one more peek at the den where Lance supposedly shot himself, and made my way back out of the house. There’d be plenty of time later to explore it more once it cooled off.

I unhitched the car, and then sat down for a moment on the steps for a few sips of the iced tea I’d picked up at the small diner on my way through what was left of the town I now resided in.

The nearly defunct community of Springville, once a favorite summer retreat for North Carolina planters because of the higher altitude and subsequent relief from the heat and the mosquitoes, now consisted of only a few still-operating establishments surrounded by closed restaurants and vacant storefronts along the remaining strip of Main Street.

I could have moved even closer to Missy, but I had no wish to live in a large city again. Faced with taking a much smaller house with an even smaller yard in a questionable neighborhood, or even worse, an apartment I couldn’t really afford that I’d been incapable of visualizing Wes and myself in, I had decided it was worth the forty-minute drive each way if it meant a better environment and room to go outside and toss a ball around. Wes and I were alike in that regard. We had both always enjoyed the outdoors whether it was tossing a frisbee, grilling out, or merely gazing through a telescope. Or trying to; it had been difficult to cut through the urban skyglow where we’d lived on the outskirts of Atlanta. But at least we’d had a yard. Despite being located in a congested area, the lot had been fairly large at our old house—a house that hadn’t been nearly as big as the one I was now renting.

Missy will be jealous, I thought, then immediately corrected myself with a familiar sick feeling, remembering that Rick, the new man in her life, made considerably more money than I did and had recently bought her a new home. The man who was now her husband since they’d made it official in Myrtle Beach of all damn places. That location had to have been chosen by him. He was a real estate broker fond of dressy clothes and hair mousse I secretly suspected was Rogaine, whose idea of getting back to nature entailed a round of golf. I hadn’t actually seen the new house yet; I’d only heard about it from Wes. But it sounded like a contemporary marvel that would put this shabby place to shame, a place that the old Missy, my Missy, would have killed to have.

I set the iced tea down, walked around to the back of the truck, and opened it up. I stared at the contents stacked inside. It wasn’t much to show for an entire lifetime. Of course there was still my parents’ place and everything in it that had been left to me when my dad followed my mom, but that wasn’t saying much. My childhood home, and pretty much everything in it, was so old and run-down I had no wish to live there, especially now that it would be so far from Wes. Had I wanted to get rid of it, which I did not, the value had plummeted to the point where I doubted it would even sell.

My father had never recovered from losing my mother. When I was younger, I used to wonder why older people didn’t try more. Why couldn’t they cheer up and make an effort? I would think can’t they see what they’re missing? Now I knew. That was just it—they did know what they were missing. Sometimes a person’s spirit failed over time as well as their body. They became too sad or tired to put forth the effort. One minute my mother had been her usual self, albeit a little more weathered and a little more forgetful, and then she was gone, dead of cardiac arrest, and my dad, wracked by grief and guilt for not making her go for regular checkups, had turned into a shambling wreck of a man waiting to follow her. And he hadn’t had to wait long. He had passed away a scant two years later. It had been ruled an accidental overdose of the pain medication he occasionally took for an old shoulder injury, but I had my doubts as to how accidental it had actually been. He may not have taken a certain amount in a purposeful attempt to kill himself, but I guarantee there had been a distinct lack of concern as to how many he had ingested and the possible consequences.

I felt the sting of tears as the reality of my situation struck me anew. My father had lost my mother and now I’d lost Missy. She still lived but someone else was lying with her at night—and someone else was acting as father to our son.

My face twisted as I once again felt the punch of Missy’s betrayal, and I spun around, fearing I was going to burst into tears right there on the lawn.

I hurried up the steps and into the house. Stopping inside the entryway, I scrubbed my hands over my face and took a couple of deep breaths to collect myself.

Movement in my peripheral vision caught my eye, and I jerked my head around. A tallish woman with short curly brown hair toting a plant had just started up the steps. I looked up the driveway. A white truck was parked at the end. I could see the form of a man waiting in the driver’s seat.

The moving truck had entirely blocked my view, and I had been so deeply involved in my thoughts, I hadn’t heard them pull in.

Blinking my eyes rapidly, I pushed the screen door open and stepped out as she made it up onto the porch.

“Hi, I’m Winona.” She held the plant out. “I brought you a hosta.”

I took it from her, trying to return her smile. I had no idea who this lady was but deduced she must be from the neighborhood.

“I’m Trent.” I looked down at the hosta, attempting to seem appropriately appreciative. “Thank you.” I held onto the plant, not wanting to set it down right away.

“That’s my husband, Ray.” She pointed at the waiting truck. “We live over on the other side.”

The neighborhood was a small one, comprised of only one long road that looped back around on itself, and I knew she was talking about the houses lining the straightaway right past the sharp curve on the other side of Patsy’s house.

I threw my hand up at her husband, not even sure if he was looking, and caught a glimpse of a pale hand lifted in return.

“It was nice of you to stop by. I’ve only met Patsy and Lorraine so far.”

“I like Patsy. She’s a trip, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is.” I noticed she made no mention of Lorraine. Patsy was definitely the more outgoing of the two, but Lorraine, though quieter, had seemed nice enough. I wondered if Winona and Lorraine had experienced some kind of falling out.

“We can’t stay,” she said, turning. “I just wanted to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighborhood.”

“Well, it was nice to meet you. And thank you for the plant.”

I finally let myself place it on the wooden boards of the porch. I used my foot to slide it back a little and then turned back to Winona, expecting her to have started down, and was surprised to find her still standing in the same spot, staring back at me with a strange expression on her face.

“Did they tell you what happened?”

My brow twitched. They? Patsy and Lorraine? “About the man who lived here before?”

She nodded.

“They told me he killed himself.”

She nodded again, slower this time. “We all felt terrible about it. If we had known…” She looked away, glancing over at her husband waiting patiently in the truck.

Well of course you knew, I thought. They had all known he was sitting there alone day after day, year after year. But then a lot of people live alone. And sometimes we aren’t aware of the level of despair someone was feeling.

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said.

She glanced up sharply, focusing in on me with faded gray eyes. From a distance she had appeared to be in her late forties, but seeing her now up close, I figured she was probably half way to sixty.

“I lost my dad,” I said. “They claimed it was an accidental overdose.”

“But you don’t believe that?”

I stared back at her and then lifted my shoulders. “Sometimes I’m not so sure,” I replied, admitting to a near-total stranger something I had never voiced to anyone before. “I’ve never told anyone else that,” I murmured after a moment.

She shifted down onto the top step. “Then I’ll share something with you I’ve never told anyone. It might be true that we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves and our own happiness, but sometimes… sometimes there’s a little bit of blame left to go around.”

Bemused, I watched until she had made it halfway up the drive, then raised my hand again at her husband, and turned away.

I lifted the plant and placed it on the scarred wooden table beside the weathered rocking chair, and went back inside.

EXHAUSTED FROM THE long drive, I didn’t bother trying to unload everything. I took in the bare minimum to get through the night: clean clothes, toiletries, and bedclothes and pillows for the king-sized bed in the master bedroom I had chosen. I wasn’t happy about sleeping in a dead man’s bed, but he hadn’t passed away on it, and the mattress looked all right, like it had been replaced recently. So I let it go. I was simply too exhausted to care.

As tired as I was of driving, there wasn’t a scrap of food anywhere in the house and I had long since drained the iced tea, so I climbed into my car, a 1979 GTO I had bought against Missy’s wishes, to head into town. The car that got you into this whole mess. Exactly as she had predicted. I squelched the thought. I had made a mistake. Once, in sixteen years I had been weak. It was not the same as what she had done. I twisted the key, and the engine turned over smoothly.

But still, my mind whispered to me as I backed out of the driveway, thinking about what Winona had said. Sometimes there’s a little bit of blame left to go around.

After I got back, I sat down in the rocking chair and had my dinner, a big, nasty, delicious bacon double cheeseburger, something else Missy wouldn’t have approved of.

I couldn’t get my mind off what Winona had said. I didn’t like what I was feeling. I didn’t want to feel sympathy for Missy. What she had done was unforgivable.

I balled up my empty burger wrapper, tossed it into the sack at my feet, and stood up. I couldn’t put it off any longer. Back at the old house, with Wes there half the time and me still working at the agency, things hadn’t seemed so radically different. But now, in this strange house, with Missy married to another man…

I grabbed the sack to throw it away, pushed open the front door, and stepped inside to start my new life.

My new, pathetically lonely, practically jobless single life.

I JERKED AWAKE sometime in the middle of the night. I sat up in bed, picked my phone up off the nightstand, and read the time.

2:15 a.m. What had awakened me? I waited, listening. A few seconds later I was on the brink of lying back down when the faint sound of voices reached my ears.

I got up and padded over to the window I had left cracked in an effort to air out the musty room. I leaned into it, peering to my left. All I could make out was the roof and side of Patsy’s house, but I could hear a faint murmuring punctuated by low laughter.

Someone was over there by the dark expanse of forest on the other side. Someone who was apparently unaware of how easily sound traveled in the country at night.
I pulled the pair of pants I’d worn that day on over my boxers, shoved my feet into my shoes, and made my way down the staircase.

I unlocked and opened the front door and walked out into the darkness of the porch. Except for the buzz of some insect, the neighborhood was quiet. Then I caught another snatch of low laughter. I crossed the wooden boards and descended the steps.

At the bottom I paused, wondering if I had been detected. All was silent for a moment, and then I heard the snap of branches and the rustle of leaves as someone moved into the woods.
I crossed the surreal landscape of Patsy’s sloping green lawn and stopped at the tree line. I was picking up a man’s voice now. Please. Come on… not far. There, see… beautiful.

The wind blew across the woods, whispering through the tops of the trees. Then another voice, a woman’s, floated out to me. No. I waited, and heard the voice again. You don’t understand. The tone had changed and now held an element of panic.

The male snarled something I couldn’t make out and I heard the woman shout Don’t! I started into the forest, stepping over downed trees and moving branches out of my way, following the noises I was hearing—the increasingly desperate sounds of someone thrashing about and crying out.

I burst out of the trees into a clearing and pulled up sharply. Ahead of me, staged under a beautiful harvest moon, stretched the gentle hills of the chestnut grove.

Wait. Wasn’t the grove long dead from blight? The moonlit scene before me seemed to shift sideways and I blinked my eyes. The tall, thick trees sharpened and came into focus. All the leaves had turned a lovely shade of yellow. My feet seemed to move of their own accord and I walked forward, entering the nearest row.

I felt something stick the edge of my heel and looked down. I had barely missed stepping on a prickly chestnut bur. An actual chestnut, just like from the olden days.

Where the hell are my shoes?

I was still pondering how I had managed to lose my shoes between the house and there, when the woman, sounding like she was behind me, let out an agonized shriek.

I whirled around and abruptly came to.

Instantly wide awake and alert, my heart lurched in my chest as I realized where I was. The last remaining wisps of the dream lifted, and I stood there wide-eyed in shock at where I found myself.

I was in the old grove. I was in the old grove in the middle of the woods.

I shifted around in disbelief, then cried out as sharp pain lanced through my foot. I looked down, my mouth falling open. I hadn’t dressed like I thought I had. I had walked out barefoot in only my boxers. I could see several scratches running across my legs. Reaching down, I grabbed the piece of glass I had thought was a bur and yanked it out of my heel. Blood, black in the moonlight, immediately bubbled up out of the wound.

Jesus! I had slept-walked right out of the house.

I turned my head left and then right. The twisted, diseased remnants of the dead chestnut trees surrounded me, still reaching for the sky with the stumps of their broken, leafless limbs.

Shaking, I started forward, wincing at the pain in my foot, aiming for the direction I hoped the neighborhood lay in.

Flinching and heart lurching with every sound, I concentrated on traversing the desiccated grove, ignoring the fresh spurt of fear that surged through me as I stepped into the darker forest beyond. The thought of blindly walking through these woods, oblivious of the spider webs no doubt trailing across my face, or any other danger, made me shudder.

Something made a loud snap behind me and I fought the urge to run. There is nothing behind you, I told myself. Nothing.

After several long minutes while I worked to navigate the woods without tripping or running into a tree trunk, I finally made it out and started across Patsy’s lawn, which was illuminated by a porch light and one of those standing lanterns by the driveway. As I limped my way across, I prayed one of the neighbors didn’t look out their window for some reason. It would be difficult to explain without a certain degree of embarrassment why I was roaming around in the middle of the night in my underwear. This was not the kind of impression I had been hoping to make upon my neighbors.

I crossed Patsy’s driveway, hobbled across the front yard, and climbed the steps.

Had I locked the door? I grasped the knob and was relieved when it turned in my hand.

I moved inside, flipping on the overhead light, closed the door, and locked it.

It suddenly occurred to me that someone might have gotten in.

Feeling my lack of sleep and the aftereffects of adrenalin, I gave a deep sigh as I realized what I was going to have to do. Every inch of the house would have to be checked. The thought of it was almost too much for me in the state I was in.

Sighing again, I moved on into the house and up the stairs to the bathroom to look for a Band-aid, switching on lights as I went.

End of sample