When we pull up in front of the old cottage, it’s as if the two shuttered windows on either side of the front door stare at us like eyes. Not ominous exactly, though my cousin has claimed this place has been haunted for years, but intent, serene even, as if it’s mimicking the gaze of the ocean before it. Though I know my cousin’s family used to vacation here, I’ve never been out here myself, and the place has been empty for years. The porch steps are crumbling a bit out front, and the clapboard is weathered and gray, the process most likely accelerated from the salty wind of the ocean spray blowing from across the street.
It’s January, bitter cold and the world is bare, and though I would have loved it if my husband and I were actually here in the middle of summer for a vacation of our own, I’m sorry to say that isn’t the case. The truth is, we were buried in bills in New York City, and after Eric was laid off at the graphic design company he worked for, and I couldn’t get a job in the field I majored in, we decided we needed a change. Not a fresh start, to be exact, but a leg up to dig ourselves out of our student loans and credit card debt. So we came here to Connecticut, to stay in my cousin’s old vacation home by the sea.
Oh, well. It could be worse, I suppose. Both of us are twenty-two, and Eric and I are recent college grads. It’s not like we’re the only people our age in such a predicament. Many of my friends and acquaintances moved back in with their parents after graduation, into their childhood bedrooms or renovated basements. At least here we’ll have privacy, though the sleepy Connecticut town of Harborside is a far cry from Manhattan.
“Eric, wake up. We’re here!” I reach across from me and swat at my sleeping husband in the passenger’s seat. Though the drive from the city takes less than two hours, since Eric stayed up late last night surfing the web and playing video games, he conked out about five minutes into the drive. It irritates me slightly, only because he knows I hate driving. Especially driving pulling a large, cumbersome trailer filled with all our worldly possessions behind us.
“Arrg… five more minutes,” Eric mutters, turning away from me, using his arm to block out the rays of the sun piercing the window.
“Eric!” I chirp, my voice shrill. “Now! We need to get this trailer unloaded and returned to the U-Haul place.”
“So tired…” comes Eric’s muffled voice through his shirtsleeves.
“Fine! Make me do all the unpacking myself while you sleep in the car like some homeless bum,” I say abrasively. “It’s not as if I already didn’t orchestrate this whole move by myself up until this point anyway.”
“Alright, alright, I’m up.” Eric finally manages to rouse himself from the reclined position of his seat chair. “Don’t see why you always gotta be such an uptight nag, Alysa. Five minutes isn’t going to make much difference.”
I let out a long, disgruntled sigh through my clenched teeth. Of course, I know full well I’m being a nag, and the truth is, I hate it. But it’s not like my dear husband leaves me much choice. Believe me, I would love to turn the reins of life over to him once in a while, but I know if I did that, we’d probably still be sitting in our apartment in New York right now, an eviction letter taped to the door. Or worse, homeless in Central Park or something.
“Come on,” I say, trying my best to even out my voice. “We’ve got to find the key to the front door. Isabelle said it should be on the top of the left window frame, so let’s hope she’s right. Like we really need to be locked out right now!”
“Take it easy, Lyssie,” Eric says with his usual devil-may-care attitude. “We’ll find it.”
He’s right, for once, and a few minutes later we find ourselves standing in the doorway of our new home. It’s dusty, that’s for sure—and dark. My cousin Isabelle said we’d have to sort out getting the electricity turned on and switched into our names, but with how pressed for time we are, I don’t see that happening until tomorrow.
“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.” I feel myself getting overwhelmed already as I stamp around the house pushing open curtains and pulling open blinds. Unfortunately, the light doesn’t do much to add to the place, except to reveal more dust and cobwebs. I see mouse droppings in one corner, and the sheets used to cover up the furniture are moth-eaten and stained yellow with age.
“Brrrr!” My husband voices a complaint as usual. “It’s freezing in here.”
“Yeah, well, it’s going to be dark in here too soon enough, so we better hurry up and bring our stuff in. By the time we’re done, the electric company will be closed. Guess we better stop off at the drugstore or something and buy some flashlights and candles.”
“Jesus, Alysa, you didn’t think to call ahead of time and have the electricity turned on?” Eric gives me a look of annoyance as he blows warm air into his cupped hands.
“You didn’t either!” I blurt accusingly. “Why do I always have to be the one to do everything?”
“It’s your cousin’s place!” Eric says, as if that should have made it obvious.
I know this could easily turn into a full-blown screaming match, but I’m in no mood to argue so I only shake my head. “Just help me get the stuff moved in. Maybe we can build a fire in the fireplace after we’re all through…”
“You need wood to build a fire, Alysa,” Eric interrupts me in a sarcastic, condescending tone. “I guess I’m supposed to chop a tree down today as well.”
“Just shut up and help me!” I scream as I bustle out the front door. Unfortunately this happens to be at the exact same moment I spot our new neighbor, a middle-aged mom-type glancing our way while out getting her mail, and I can’t help but cringe inside. We’re already becoming that couple—the one everyone within a five-mile radius could hear yelling and screaming at each other at all hours of the night and day.
It hadn’t always been like this with Eric and me. When we met, we were both freshmen in college. With his Buddy Holly glasses and shaggy sandy-colored hair, I was smitten from the moment he first walked into the on-campus café where I worked as a barista. At first, it was just a bunch of flirting between the both of us, along with frustration on my part that he wouldn’t make a move. Finally, I got up the nerve to write my number down on the paper cup of his latte. To my surprise and pleasure, he called me that night, and the rest is history.
Well, not quite history. We married less than a year later, and though I said at the time it was mostly so we could enjoy the perks of the cheap marital dorms, it was also meant to be a dig at my parents. A chance at teenage rebellion, if you will. They’re both highly educated microbiologists, and their only dream for me was to spend half my life in top-notch universities like they did. So I got my degree in gender studies, though really all I wanted to do was go to a technical school for the culinary arts. Of course my parents wouldn’t hear of it (or pay for it), and so I married Eric, to prove I was in control of my own life after all.
Little did I realize how soon the bickering and fighting would start. I always knew me and Eric were polar opposites, him dreamy and silly, as well as disorganized and—as my parents put it—a slacker. On the contrary, I am somewhat of a perfectionist with my feet firmly planted on the ground and my head out of the clouds at all times. The things I found cute and exciting about Eric in the beginning stages of our relationship slowly began to irritate me. Resentment grew on both our ends as we came to terms with the fact we weren’t the people we had hoped the other would be, and at this point, all hopes of salvation have seemingly been lost.
It turns out it takes us much quicker to unload the trailer than it did to pack it up. In order to utilize as much of the small space as we could, cramming our belongings inside had been like a game of Tetris. It had taken us several attempts of packing and repacking till I was finally satisfied. Despite our small apartment in New York City, I underestimated how much we actually owned, and we ended up dumping a lot of stuff on the side of the road before we left; a bunch of old kitchenware and clothes along with some other random junk. Since the new place is furnished, we only needed to bring the mattress from our bed, selling the rest of the furniture off on Craigslist before the move.
When we finally finish unpacking and get the trailer returned to the U-Haul place, it’s a giant load off my chest, considering there’s an extra charge for not getting the thing dropped off in time. “See, we had plenty of time,” Eric doesn’t hesitate to point out once we’re back on the road without that thing attached to our car anymore. “Once again, Alysa was freaking out about nothing. When are you going to learn to chill out, anyway?”
“Maybe when you learn to take some responsibility in this relationship,” I say in a low, steely voice as I maneuver my way in and out of rush-hour traffic.
Eric throws his hands in the air in exasperation. “Oh, here we go again!” he bemoans. “Can’t we go one freaking day without talking about how damn irresponsible I am? How I waste all my time designing a video game no one will probably ever buy anyway? How I’m a loser who’ll never amount to anything? Really, Alysa… just one damn day. That’s all I ask for. It’s not like you had people banging on the door to give you a gender studies job in the city. You’re just as unemployed as I am, but you don’t hear me griping about it.”
“Fine,” I say in a tight voice, letting the subject drop. He’s right anyway. Talking about this will just lead to a fight, and I’m too exhausted for that. “What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t know.” Eric seems relieved, falling back into his seat and folding his arms across his lap. “Let’s just pick up a pizza or something.”
I let out a groan of disgust. “The one good thing about leaving New York is I thought maybe we could take a break from pizza for a while. That’s all you ever want.”
“That’s not true!”
“Oh, right. That and Chinese. You know, it’s not like Harborside is popping with fancy takeout places. No all-night delivery either. Looks like once in a while you’re going to have to actually let me cook for you.”
“Oh, yeah, I’d like to see the home-cooked meal you’re going to prepare with no electricity,” Eric scoffs at me.
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, well, we should still stop at the grocery store in town on our way back. We need candles and flashlights, and I saw they were selling bundles of firewood out front when we passed by before.”
“Selling firewood outside the grocery store?” Eric repeats, incredulous. “We must really be in the sticks out here.”
I shrug my shoulders as I drive, the sky darkening in the distance. “I think it’s nice. Quaint, you know?”
He doesn’t answer right away, just frowns out the window at the little village green, the spindly trees still lit up with flickering white lights leftover from the holidays. Finally, he says, “So we still didn’t decide what to do about dinner?”
“We can get stuff at the store to make sandwiches. Deli meat, peanut butter and jelly. It will last longer than takeout, and be cheaper too. You know we’re trying to save…”
“Awww, but I wanted pizza!” Eric whines out, interrupting me. I swear, he sounds more and more like a teenager and less like a grown man every day. Just once I want to be the immature one, and sit back in the passenger’s seat while someone takes care of me.
That night, after Eric finally gets done sitting in the car with his iPhone attached to the charger, we decide to do a little poking about in our new home. After setting up our mattress in the living room in front of the fire, we first get to work uncovering all the old furniture. When we’re done, it’s like we’ve gone back a couple of decades to the eighties, from the overstuffed couches to the floral wallpaper borders in the living room, to the vinyl flooring and white laminate cabinets in the kitchen.
“Aww, look at this,” I exclaim upon opening a closet and pointing my flashlight at a shelf filled with classic board games like Life and Trivial Pursuit. “This was back when people actually spent time together instead of staring at their iPads all the time.”
“Cool, Battleship!” Eric whoops, reaching over my shoulder, the light of his own flashlight arcing wildly about. “Me and my brother used to play this. Hey… what’s this?”
From in between two of the game boxes, a flat piece of wood falls out and clatters to the floor. Both of us go to point our flashlights at it. Automatically, I make a move to pick it up, only when I realize what it is, I quickly recoil in trepidation.
“What’s the matter?” Eric asks, picking up on my anxiety. “What is it?”
“It’s a Ouija board,” I say in a hollow voice, taking another step back. “No wonder Isabelle thinks this place is haunted, her family keeps stuff like that lying around.”
“Aw, dude! This is that thing from The Exorcist!” Eric reaches down and picks up the board with abandon, clearly not getting the hint that I want nothing to do with the thing.
“Eric, put that back,” I spell it out more plainly. “This house is dark and creepy enough without adding ghost conjuring to the mix.”
But my husband just waves a dismissive hand at me. “Oh, come on, it’s just a toy. Now what’s this about your cousin saying this place is haunted?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I say shortly. Already, I’m sure I feel a chill running up and down my body, although that might be because this whole house, aside from the area just in front of the fire we built in the fireplace, is so cold you can see your breath in the more drafty parts.
Of course Eric gets a real kick out of this, laughing at me and calling me ‘scaredy cat’ like we’re in the fifth grade or something. “You know whatever story your cousin told you isn’t real, right? There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“How do you know?” I retort back. “They make all those shows about ghost hunters and mediums and stuff, and I don’t want to go getting myself all freaked out on my first night sleeping here, with no electricity no less.”
I can’t really say I blame Eric for laughing at me, as I feel pretty foolish myself. Usually it’s him coming up with crazy stuff like this, while I’m the more level-headed one. But there’s just something eerie about this house—like there’s someone else here, watching us.
“Come on, Alysa,” Eric presses. “What are the family ghost stories on this place?”
“Nothing really,” I finally admit with a deep sigh. “Just… Isabelle’s family always noticed weird things around this house. Y’know, the usual stuff. Something out of place, or the sound of a door closing in the middle of the night. And Isabelle even claimed she saw her…”
“Her?” Eric raises an eyebrow at me, his flashlight pointed at his face just like we’re kids at a slumber party. “Who’s her?”
“Isabelle and her family have seen just glimpses of her. A woman with long red hair, in a long nightgown…”
For a moment, Eric stands there pondering this, and then he reaches out and tweaks a sprig of my own hair. “Are you sure it wasn’t you they were seeing?”
I shake my hair back, annoyed. Yes, I have long red hair, wavy and thick as brambles, but I’ve never even been in this house before, and Eric knows that. “Yeah, because I go around in nighties all the time,” I say haughtily, annoyed he won’t even take my story seriously when he’s the one who wanted to hear it. “Come on, put that thing back and we’ll play cards or something.”
For once, he actually listens to me, sliding the foreboding-looking Ouija board back onto the shelves, and then following me to our floor-bed to play a game of Hearts instead.