Simon whistled. "So this is where you grew up. The pictures don't do it justice."
"They really don't," Mom said. Her shoulders tensed, like she was thinking about flooring the gas and peeling out of there.
I knew that if I asked her to, Mom would turn around—but she needed this. I was going to be there for her at her father's funeral and support her and not make her life any harder than I already had just by existing. I wasn't a normal kid. I didn't have friends. Couldn't be in school. Couldn't be in one place for too long, or . . . things started to happen. Things we didn't talk about.
And there was another reason not to leave. Harrow had haunted me since I left its gates ten years ago.
I wanted to know why.
And so I didn't say anything as she wrenched the parking brake up. We clambered out of the car, all stiff limbs and stumbling. I tilted my head back to look up. The peaks of the house stretched toward the sky, and with my head tilted back, all I could see were gray clouds and those slashes of roof. It left me dizzy, like there was no ground at all, just a sky to fall into.
"Have you ever seen such a spooky old house?" Simon asked. I fell back down to earth and looked at him. He gave me an easy smile. "Gives me the heebie-jeebies for sure." He was the sort of guy who could say "spooky" and "heebie-jeebies" without a trace of irony and thought 'Jumanji' was "a bit on the scary side." I loved him for it.
The front door opened, and a man in a black suit stepped out. His hair was peppered with gray, and his beard had patches of white at the jaw, but all the lines on his face only made his smile look warmer. Uncle Caleb, Mom's older brother.
"You made it," he said. "I wasn't sure you would."
"It's not that long a drive," Mom said. Her fingertips brushed the back of my elbow, just a soft touch to say 'I'm here. You're here.'
"You know what I mean," he said gently. He stepped forward. They didn't hug. They did an odd sort of forearm clasp-cheek kiss combination that was smooth and practiced but still intensely uncomfortable. I fixed a smile on my face and prepared to stumble my way through this ritual, but Caleb put out his hand instead. "Helen. I'm Caleb."
"I know." When I shook his hand, something in his firm, friendly grip eased the tension in my shoulders.
"I wondered if you'd remember me," he said.
"I don't. Remember you," I said. "But I've seen pictures." Was that rude? I couldn't tell. I didn't exactly have a lot of practice talking to people.
"Well, it's very good to see you again," he said, gracefully ignoring my fumbling. His expression was friendly and open.
It wouldn't last, I reminded myself. It never did.
"And, um. This is my—this is Simon," Mom said, gesturing. Simon stepped forward. He and Caleb shook hands, nodded at each other, and stepped back. And then we were done with introductions, and there seemed to be nothing else to say.
Caleb cleared his throat. "We've got rooms made up if you want to claim a couple before things get started."
"No," Mom said immediately. "We're staying in town. Heading home in the morning."
"At the Starlight?" Caleb asked skeptically. "You'd be a lot more comfortable here."
"I'm not spending another night under this roof," Mom said. "I'm here to pay my respects.
Then we're gone. You can't ask anything more of me, Caleb. You can't."
"I won't," he said reassuringly, hands upheld in surrender. "But it's been a long time, Rachel.
It might be time to make peace."
"When has this family ever been able to let something go?" Mom asked.
He rubbed the back of his head. "Fair point. Change isn't easy. But it's possible. At least I have to believe so."
"We'll see," she said tightly.
A young man in a suit vest trotted down the steps. For a moment, I thought he must be family, but then he spoke in a deferential tone. "Ma'am, I'll take your car around back for you," he said. Right. This place had help. We didn't even have a functioning dishwasher.
"Hold on!" I said. I scrambled back to the car and grabbed my backpack, a green canvas bag that had been scuffed, ripped, and patched over the years. It didn't exactly go with the subdued blue dress and pumps I'd chosen for the funeral, but I didn't go anywhere without it.