03 1 / 2012
The air in Belcorte, Pennsylvania tasted like death.
It swooped among the gambrel roofs and crouched behind the panes of dormer windows.
Jill sensed it watching her, grinning at her. Death hid behind crumbling chimneys, jumped across rooftops, and prowled between the locust trees along the river. Death climbed a building, rang the town hall bell three times and stuck out its forked tongue to savor the light-falling snow.
In Belcorte more than twenty years ago, Jill’s grandfather had kidnapped a teenage girl and locked her in the spare bedroom of his Victorian home. He’d murdered her with scissors and a chef’s knife.
Prior to his visceral proclivities and suicide, Grandfather had been a college professor. In his preface to Modern Anthropology, he’d written the following:
Belcorte resides in the Southern Catskills, but Pennsylvanians call these mountains the Poconos. Belcorte is ancient; roofless shards of abandoned mining shelters spring from the hillsides as intrinsically as veins of anthracite jettison through the soil beneath.
Belcorte’s Victorian homes crouch in disrepair. One should expect state-tax dollars, if the fools we elect send them here, return Belcorte to her prestige. This once beautiful maiden is a muddy-faced ghost, a dirty doll, a receptacle for flies.
Stopped at a traffic light at the end of a suspended bridge with her dad’s pickup truck growling beneath her thighs, Jill took in the town and sensed she’d driven back fifty years. Because her dad slept in the passenger’s seat, a dream’s dusty flavor fell on her tongue, and a withered hand beckoned from the wall of sleep. As if in a dream, time moved as slowly as pebbles in a gentle current.
Mountains, trees, and buildings leered at her, as though she intruded on Belcorte. The municipal building, its rugged stones painted mauve, stretched into the sky. A block over, a chrome diner huddled near the wide concrete steps of city hall. Across the intersection in a fenced terrace, a crowd of tourists gathered as a man carved ice blocks into dolphins and Christmas trees. His chainsaw roared and kicked a pirouette of ice in the air.
This was like a set from an old film in which horses pulled carriages along the streets. She imagined sleeping under an afghan in some light-starved living room from the 1950s. In her mind, sleep’s dreary aura festered: memory-scented wood, carpet fiber, and air speckled with gleaming particles of dust.
She blinked, and the traffic changed to lollipop-green, and the truck drifted forward like a growling beast. She turned left, defying a Ford Explorer coming straight through the intersection. The Explorer rocked to a stop, and its pantomiming driver, a silhouette behind the tinted windshield, pressed the horn three times.
Chill out, she thought.
After merging on the adjacent street, she slowed to turn left. A beige sedan waited glumly behind her, the androgynous driver shaking its head in frustration. When traffic cleared, she rolled the truck into a parking space near the old train station. The dusty red engine sat idle along the bank of Indianhead River.
She tapped her dad’s shoulder. “Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey.”
She climbed from the car and unfolded the directions she’d printed from the Internet. Dad knew the way, but she felt more secure with her own directions. Grandfather’s house stood two miles east. She sensed that the place would be a disaster.
If so, she wouldn’t panic. She would hire a real estate agent. Her Dad, who ran his own contracting crew, had offered to do the repairs. Well, she had to see it first. There was no point investing in a dilapidated old house. Too bad she couldn’t move the clock back thirty years when the Victorian had been in pristine condition.
Dad climbed out and lit a cigarette. The air was cooler here than in Poughkeepsie, the last place they’d stopped.
She shivered and tucked her chin into the fold of her coat. If God gave mankind a single gift—how about turning off winter. Forever. “I think we passed through a time machine.”
“You should’ve been here years ago,” he said. “Town was collapsing with the mines.”
She shoved her mittened hands into her pocket. He forgot that she had been here years ago. Twenty-three years, to be exact.
A giant cuckoo clock, adorned with red ribbons and candy canes, clung to the brick above the train station’s entrance. Another “joyous holiday season” was ahead; how exhilarating and festive. This would be her first Christmas without her mother. Death habitually swept down around the holidays, staining memories with coal-dust glum.
Her mind drifted to the accusations against her grandfather: a kidnapped girl, a murder, an investigation, a suicide. Questions spawned questions. Had he been a lunatic behind the guise of a college professor, or had his sanity snapped like a branch under a boot?
“You coming?” Dad asked, starting toward the train station.
She nodded. Maybe she should smile and just enjoy this trip—enjoy his company. She hadn’t seen much of him recently, as he’d been away on a construction job in Alexandria Bay. Meanwhile she’d brooded in the spare bedroom, lamenting that her relationship with her mother would never be rectified.
Since her grandfather’s death and Gram’s move to Rochester, the house had been a multi-unit apartment, then a dormitory for the university where grandfather had lectured.
Now that struck her as odd. A professor goes mad, murders a girl, then himself. Why rent his former residence to students? Didn’t people talk about what had happened in that house, how he’d tied the girl to a bed, amputated her hands and feet, cut out her fetus?
In the square, the ice-sculpture artist had disappeared, and the crowd had dispersed. Lonely skeletal trees shook in the wind. Beneath the Christmas decorations and charming mountain-town facade slinked the underbelly of a dying dragon, the smoke billowing from the chimneys its last round of gasps.
She entered the train station. Adjacent to the entry, the ticket window was a pretense, selling short, tourist trips along the shore of Indianhead River. Brochures for skiing, white-water rafting and historical excursions populated tiered shelves. The radiator puffed scorching dry air, turning her tongue to cotton. After using the dingy bathroom (the antiseptic reminded her of Mother’s hospital room), Jill walked back outside. The cold wind pelted the side of her face, relieving her from the sweltering station.
When Dad returned, the thick glass door slammed. He pointed opposite the direction they’d come. “There’s an Italian restaurant down the road a few miles. You hungry?”
“Let’s see the house first.”
She should not have agreed to this trip, but she often had difficulty refusing him. Damn her idealism. If she didn’t adore Victorian architecture, they wouldn’t be here.
Why had her mother kept the house? Why hadn’t she sold it to a slumlord? She did tend to cling. God knows, you might need that issue of Life Magazine from 1981 someday.
Jill climbed into the car first. She started the Honda and smiled. “I’m buying dinner.”
Fussing with the seatbelt, he frowned. “Let’s pray the restaurant’s clean.”
Just when he’d stopped talking about his germ anxiety. Well, no, it wasn’t so much an anxiety as a self-parody.
She sighed. “The house will be in ruins.”
“You don’t know.”
Look around, she thought, take in all the hundred-year-old buildings, some of them condemned. Observe the general cheesiness and the grotesque paint bubbling on the old houses.
“I do know, by the way.” She flashed a smile. “Remember my great instincts.”
“Invest that money,” he said. “Ever think about a vacation home? Spend a week or two there, pay a company for the upkeep, and you make money on rentals. Friend of mine made a killing on a place in North Carolina. Rentals funded a second home.”
She sighed. This was the mountains, not beach-land in North Carolina. Ideas, ideas, ideas: Dad was full of them. “In the mountains?”
“No. Get something down south. Although—”
“And do what with this place?”
He scratched behind his neck, a sign that he was contemplating. His blue eyes acted as both windows and doors. He was a tough man to read, even for her. “Winter rentals. Everyone skis.”
That or, well, a bed-and-breakfast. The idea, of course, was her fanciest of fancies. Even if the house were in stellar condition, she couldn’t cook. She could barely make her own bed. Feeding coins at the Laundromat in her townhouse complex—it represented the pinnacle of her domestic marksmanship. A bed-and-breakfast was idealistic. Why fantasize? She wasn’t a hostess. She was content to live alone and would likely die alone.
Despite her fantasies, she could imagine her writer-self living in Belcorte. This small, isolated town would nurture her creativity. Her grandfather, for instance. Wouldn’t it be fun to tell his story?
What happened when the townspeople of Belcorte found out she was the granddaughter of Arthur Townsend, madman extraordinaire?
“You think about a vacation home somewhere,” her father reiterated. “You writers love to travel and whatnot. Just don’t go where you need Malaria medicine. Here’s my rule: if I need a mosquito net, I stay home.”
She couldn’t hold back her laughter. He imparted hundreds of ideas that he never applied himself. In the theater of life, he was a mere spectator. “Dad, you’re such a trip. Honestly.”
He patted her knee. “Sweetie, I want you to be happy.”
“How happy can a girl be?”
Why had the university leased the house, the scene of a horrific murder? Hmm, just imagine. One bright sunny day in April of 1979, grandfather descended into madness—or removed his well-manicured disguise—and murdered a teenage girl.
The girl’s name was Lydia Jarvings. Fourteen years old. Pregnant. Her family had been one of the wealthiest in the state—they apparently still were, indicated by the Rolls Royce in which Nikolaus Jarvings, the girl’s grandfather, had been transported to her mother’s funeral. Odd that Mr. Jarvings himself had showed up at her mother’s funeral. Wasn’t that a bit like saluting the enemy? Further, when she’d inquired about Mr. Jarvings’s presence, her dad had been elusive—to say the least.
Jill and her mother had lived at her grandparent’s house for several years when Jill was young. Had she been cuddled by her grandfather, a madman in disguise?
The town already resembled the world’s ugliest frosted cake, and more snow began to fall.
Jill turned right down an unmarked road, the wiper blades rapping and thumping. Winter frustrated her: icy roads; your windshield was always too dry or too wet. She stooped forward and peered through a tiny dome of unfrosted glass.
“I think this is it,” Dad said, pointing at a road adjacent to a mailbox labeled University Campus 3.
Paying tuition plus room and board only to find out you were living in a killer’s house—she couldn’t imagine.
Briars and dead-looking pines smothered the road which, from a bird’s eye, must have been the width of a black snake. She drove into a lightbulb-shaped clearing and parked in the snow-covered gravel leading to an old, detached garage. Mountains framed the garage and the house.
Those snow-covered peaks and cupolas—she imagined a Christmas tree standing in the living room window, sparkling with pale, blue lights. She smiled involuntarily.
To her amazement, the house was more amiable-looking than the town. Nature isolated the house in a wall of trees—apples and oaks and maples and pines—all drowsing under a thin layer of snow. This was a self-contained world with its own set of rules.
She’d seen photographs of this house. In one, her mother, six months pregnant, had been standing on the veranda in a flowered hat—the kind they wore back in the Victorian age. Her mother had been smiling in the photograph, but she hadn’t smiled much after that. Had experiences with Grandfather plucked away her happiness?
Despite the photographs, Jill was unprepared for the sheer size of the house, its aesthetic, and its eccentricity. She stepped through the snow, squinting. Cupolas, sharp spires, triangles, cones—a puzzle of geometric disorder, intricate as a watch, towered monolithically. What amazed her most was the window dressings, which were only on the first floor. Somehow, she hadn’t expected window dressings, but maybe they were ancient and dust-covered. Despite her expectations, the house wasn’t in horrible condition. The window frames and veranda spindles needed painted, but at least the house wasn’t falling down.
She climbed the stone steps and entered the cool shadows under the long veranda roof. Paint had separated from the pillars. The double front door, obviously a replacement, looked too contemporary for the venerable Victorian. Beside the front door was on old metal milk box. She tried to open it, but it was either frozen or rusted shut.
Oh no, the keys.
She stood, her face heated, and began digging through her pockets—her jeans first and then her coat. Nothing.
Fiddling with one of the spindles on the veranda, he looked over at her. “What’s the matter, sweetie?”
“I think I forgot the keys.”
He drew a deep breath in his nose. “Try my set.”
“Your set? Why would you have a key for this house?”
He scratched his face and walked toward her. “We better talk. Before we go inside, I want you to promise you’ll keep an open mind.”
What was he talking about? “An open mind about what?”
“What happened here—” He averted his eye. “—it’s done. In the past.”
He most assuredly was talking about the accusations against her grandfather. But why? She studied the keys.
“It’s a new time. Things have changed.”
She was gazing at her dad when something on the other side of the veranda caught her glance. In a window, the largest window on the front of the house, was … a Christmas tree?
She crossed the veranda, keys rattling in her grasp. Behind the curtain was the culprit in question: gold and silver and red ornaments, all gleaming in the sun. Tinsel wrapped around strands of lights. A Christmas Tree? “I thought no one lives here?”
“Let me see the keys.”
Before she could submit the keys, they were gently pulled from her grasp.
He walked to the front door, placed a key in the lock, and opened the door as though he’d been here before.
“Dad, are you pulling my leg?”
He walked into the house without response, leaving a frosted-glass door shifting in the wind, and a gape-mouthed doorway as gray as ash.
Snow, sticking to her pant legs, tickled her ankle with an itching cold. Jill crossed the veranda and entered the house.
An ancient chandelier with pedipalp-like extensions dangled from the two-story tin ceiling like a spider from a strand of silk. The smell of paint, new carpeting, and spent firewood stuck in her nose and subdued the scent of the house—an venerable house that had sat too long alone with moisture seeping in its plaster and floors. The walls, painted mint-green, were mostly blank, except a ceramic Jesus, nose chipped off, nailed above the staircase.
Shivering, she grasped her arms.
When she walked across the foyer, her footfalls echoed into the balustrade above and into darkness. The secrets of one-hundred years flapped their leathery wings.
Had her grandfather kept Lydia Jarvings up there? When Gram came home, shopping bags in her arms and her hair freshly done, could she hear the girl’s cries? Did she call the police immediately or wait for Grandfather’s eccentric explanation?
Jill followed her dad into a room to the right. The Christmas tree, meticulously decorated, sat in the center of the room between vacant, red walls.
“Somehow, I don’t think you’ve been working in Alexandria Bay,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she turned.
Leaning against the built-in bookshelves, he fished a cigarette from his pocket. “They don’t make them like this anymore. Architected.”
“So you did all this? And decorated the tree?”
“You’re not allowed to be mad.”
She looked around, her gaze spinning across the red paint and intricate crown moldings. “Not what I expected. What did it look like before?”
“Not good,” he said. “Like a place where college students lived.”
“I can imagine.”
He pointed into the next room, which conformed to the octagonal shape of the turret. Unlike the current room, the walls were cream-colored, and she liked the way sunlight played on the floor around the area rug. Inside was a vintage couch, a lounge chair, a love seat, a coffee table, end tables. A glass screen covered the hearth.
“Was some old Victorian furniture in there,” he said. “I couldn’t decided if it smelled like piss or vomit. Maybe both.”
“A stinky mess. You shouldn’t have done all this.”
He finally lit his cigarette. “Anyway, let’s take a walk around.” The upstairs, he explained, wasn’t quite done yet. Well, except for one bedroom. That’s what he called it, one bedroom, except she knew what he wanted to call it: her bedroom.
The walk through became a numbing journey into a maze of doors and hallways tucked in odd places. Especially disorienting was the large kitchen, which had two pantries, a bathroom, and another hallway which descended into the sleepy blackness of the cellar.
A single bulb illuminated the rickety basement stairs. A dusty sheet draped over an old piano. The pot-bellied furnace stood at the bottom of a small set of crumbling steps. Shivering, she buttoned her coat. Shaped liked a riveted diver’s helmet, the furnace resembled a thing from hell’s crematorium. She imagined the furnace squeezing through a portal between consciousness and sleep, giving her a fiery kiss in the dark.
Her mind seemed paralyzed as she followed Dad back up to the kitchen. An ancient, familiar smell stuck in her nose. “Was I ever down there before, as a child?”
The question was rhetorical. She’d lived here as a child, right before Gram and Mother took her to Rochester, escaping the madman.
He pushed the cellar door shut behind her. “Your Grandmother”—he glanced up at the ceiling—“wanted to see the house again. This was … nineteen eighty-three or four, you would’ve been … ” He rubbed his temple.
“Five or six.”
He nodded. “Your mother was busy chasing you all over the house. You had a good old time.”
She wondered about the Stygian furnace, which seemed darkly familiar—as did the smell. It was a memory wrapped in a dream.
“I remember,” Jill said. “Why did Mom keep the house?”
“I asked myself that same question.” He winked at her. “Some things happen for a reason.”
For you, she could almost hear him saying. She raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to finish his sentiment, but he left the room.
She followed him to the foyer and up the stairs to the second floor. The bedrooms were vacant except that “one finished bedroom” which had a four-poster bed, dresser and chest from an older era, and a roll-top desk. He’d gotten most of the furniture from an estate sale in White Plains at a house similar to this one—a Queen Ann Victorian. When he’d found time to do all this, even considering his time away in “Alexandria Bay,” she wasn’t sure, and she didn’t know what to think. She didn’t even know if she wanted to live here.
In two of the bedrooms, wide fissures traversed the ceiling, exposing the house’s lathe-board bones. The house was falling apart, disintegrating. It was an old man dying of cancer—or, in the spirit of her mother, a middle-aged woman dying of cancer. She remembered the first time Mother had told her. She’d been in her mother’s hospital room, and mother had grabbed her hand and rubbed her fingers. “They say it’s pancreatic cancer.”
Jill blinked at the cracked ceiling, pulling herself away from the reverie. He could fix those cracks, he promised. Her dad, the optimist.
Jill trailed Dad up another pair of stairs to the third floor. At the top was a white room with a sloped ceiling. The single window offered a view of the snowcapped mountains, barely visible through the haze of winter. Though the room was empty and the paint faded, it pacified her. She imagined herself up here, curled in a rattan chair with a novel.
She climbed narrow stairs to the attic. Crude and unfinished, the attic crouched in the dark with ancient boxes and folding chairs. Jill ambled through the darkness. In the remote corner, where the ceiling was pitched too steeply for her to stand upright, she spotted boxes on the floor.
Why were these things still up here? She bent over and picked up an ancient tin snow shovel. Grandfather, an obviously eccentric man—never mind his compulsion to murder—liked to wash the snow shovel in the kitchen sink, a habit which had annoyed Gram. Was this the same shovel?
What had happened to her grandfather? His textbooks, when you ignored his political axe-grinding, were delicate, articulate. They talked about butterflies and octopi and the savagery of the Nazis. Yet, he’d allegedly mutilated a teenage girl.
He’d forced Gram, a woman steadfast in traditional values, to abandon him. Events in this house had affected every member of her family. Grandfather had drowned in furtive madness, Gram in sadness, Mother in anger.
Even with fresh paint on the walls, even with dreamy window dressings, the house built monsters.
Jill followed her dad back to the main stairs, turning her head from side to side. Which bedroom had imprisoned Lydia Jarvings?