Through the downpour, Sharon Mahoney
stared at the Victorian house. She hadn’t expected it to be
so massive, three stories of bay windows and gables with a small
balcony jutting out near the roof. Beneath a slanting sheet of
water, the light gray walls darkened in streaks, as if trying to
return to some former age.
The only sign of modernization was
a small skylight on an outthrust section of the second floor.
From the street, no one could have told that the place had been made
over into apartments. The Victorian was an anomaly in Southern
California, where most of the homes dated from the 1920s or later.
Wipers streaked the windshield, blurring
the house. She remembered her sister’s comment about the
place having atmosphere. Maybe a little too much atmosphere,
she thought, fighting off a sense of oppression.
“Mom?” said her seven-year-old son,
Greg. “It’s spooky. Let’s go home.”
“This is home now.” She tried
to sound more confident than she felt.
Tears glistened on his face. “I
won’t get out!”
She understood his reaction. Since
his father’s fatal heart attack nearly a year ago, Greg’s
familiar world had crumbled.
In addition to devastating them
emotionally, Jim’s death had left only a small insurance policy.
Then last summer the private school where Sharon taught had laid her
off. Months of searching and a lucky connection had finally
landed a midyear position teaching first grade at College Day
School. They’d left Buffalo, N.Y. a few days after Christmas
and spent New Year’s on the road.
Sharon was tempted to drive a
mile to her sister Karly’s apartment, but they’d already
arranged by phone to meet tomorrow. Tonight, after four days
of driving cross-country, she wanted to get their stuff inside and
see the place where they were committed to stay for a year.
She appreciated her sister’s
coup in finding the two of them an affordable place to live in
Fullerton. Rents in Orange County had skyrocketed since Sharon
left eight years before. She only wished Karly hadn’t felt
obligated to sign a one-year lease in order to make sure another
would-be renter didn’t snag the place first.
She slipped an arm around her son.
“Aunt Karly wouldn’t have picked this place if there was
anything wrong, would she?”
“Maybe.” Greg shifted closer.
“Pretend this is Hogwarts.”
The place slightly resembled the wizard’s school in the Harry
Potter films. “Ready to go in?”
“What about our stuff?” he asked.
Sharon was too tired to unload a
mini-van full of possessions tonight. “We’ll fetch our
suitcases after we meet the landlady. We can collect the bulky
Greg’s mouth twisted.
Huddling beneath a shared umbrella, they
scurried from the van to the wide, old-fashioned porch. Water
splashed the hems of their pants and Sharon felt her hair losing
what remained of its curl.
“I thought the sun shined all the time
in California,” Greg grumbled as they reached the overhang.
Sharon struggled to keep her tone light.
“It’s January, and practically the middle of the night. Go
on, ring the bell.” When he obeyed, rich brass notes echoed
While they waited, Sharon checked out
the sturdy glider, a window box thick with begonias and four
mailboxes, labeled J. Fanning; Gaskell; I. Fanning; and no. 4,
Mahoney. The landlady, an elderly woman named Jody Fanning,
had posted their name already.
According to Karly, most of the tenants
were related to the owner. She’d mentioned a couple in their
sixties and Jody’s grandnephew, Ian, a disabled former policeman.
Sharon hoped sharing a kitchen wasn’t going to be too awkward.
Greg hugged himself.
“Maybe nobody’s home. Mom, I’m cold.”
Sharon doubted the landlady expected
them at this hour, nearly eight o’clock. “It’s an
apartment building. Maybe we’re supposed to let ourselves
The knob turned in her hand.
She half expected the door to creak as in some old movie, but it
swung open on well-oiled hinges. They stepped into an entryway
lit by an electric wall sconce.
To their left lay a parlor illuminated
only by a streetlight shining through the window. Sharon made
out rose-patterned wallpaper, a braided rug and a settee.
From outside, a bolt of lightning
illuminated a large, finely detailed painting above the mantel,
showing a Gothic mansion set on a hill. From an attic window
stared a man’s face, his expression so agonized that Sharon was
relieved when the room fell back into shadow.
Thunder boomed through the floorboards.
Greg moved closer. “Can’t we find some place else?”
“Not for such low rent.”
Sharon sighed. “And there’s an easy commute to the school.
It’ll be much more pleasant in daylight, I’m sure.”
Greg chewed his lip, unimpressed.
He was staring ahead at a staircase that disappeared upwards into
Any minute now, he was going to
start crying again, Sharon thought in dismay. The only sign of
life was a sliver of light seeping beneath a door to their right.
In the hope that they’d found the landlady’s unit, she rapped
Out of habit she tugged at her earlobe,
fingering the pearl set into the deep crease. Jim had given
her the earrings for their seventh anniversary, a month before his
heart attack. Touching it provided a measure of comfort.
The door cracked. The old woman
who faced them had eyes undimmed by age and a straight figure only
an inch or so shorter than Sharon’s five-foot-eight.
“Mrs. Fanning? I’m Sharon
“Sharon?” the woman repeated.
She didn’t sound confused or forgetful, simply reflective.
“You talked to my sister Karly,”
Sharon prompted. “You’ve got my name on the mailbox.”
Spotting the boy, the landlady broke
into a smile. “Oh, yes, of course! Please forgive my
rudeness. I’m Miss Fanning. Call me Jody.”
The door swung wider. Jody, who
wore a crinkly peach-colored pantsuit that almost matched her fluffy
beige hair, moved back to admit them. “Sorry about the
weather. Please come in and get warm”
Stuffed with country-style
furniture, the cheerful room smelled of laundry softener and
peppermint tea. Instead of the usual knickknacks, a large
china cabinet displayed model spaceships and fighter planes.
On the far wall hung watercolor
paintings of skateboarders and street-hockey players. “Did
you paint those?” Sharon inquired. “They’re
Jody nodded indulgently. “My
grandnephew made them when he was much younger. He’s quite
“He’s a painter?” Sharon
wondered how disabled the man was.
“A very good one,” his great-aunt
An electronic beep made them turn.
“Hey!” Greg broke into a grin. “Mom, look at
On an antique table by the front window
blinked a computer, the screen dotted by tiny spaceships hovering
against a special-effects background of swirling galaxies.
“We’ve interrupted your game. If you’re anything like my
son, that’s a criminal offense.”
“Laser Space Attack!” Greg
“Third edition. A recent
acquisition.” Jody spoke with pretend solemnity.
“Haven’t gotten beyond the second level. You should come
help me tomorrow, young man.”
Greg beamed. “You bet!”
“I’m amazed you enjoy such
things,” Sharon blurted.
Jody didn’t appear offended.
“My family owned a toy store for years. I knew the business
inside and out. I used to take my nephew, and later Ian, to
the product shows at the Anaheim Convention Center. It was
better than anything Santa’s elves could dream up, believe me.”
“The chains drove us out of business.
Not that I sit around. I keep active in service clubs, and I
pay attention to new products. At heart I’m a kid myself.”
The landlady handed them two keys. “That’s to the front
door. Please lock up once you’ve brought your things inside.
The other’s to your suite, upstairs and down the hall on the
Jody explained that her grandnephew
occupied the unit across from theirs. Her cousins, the
Gaskells, who lived directly above Jody’s apartment, were spending
the weekend in Palm Springs.
“What about the third floor?” Greg
“That’s the attic.”
“Does anybody live there?” he
“Only the ghosts.” Jody
winked. “Now, you’ll find the kitchen through the parlor
and the dining room. We’re pretty informal here. Feel
free to borrow sugar or whatnot. We can cook some meals
together if you like. Oh, the laundry’s just off the
“Thanks.” The warmth of the
greeting dispelled Sharon’s initial unease. “You’ve made
my son feel at home. And me, too.”
“It’s good to have a little boy in
the house again.” The computer beeped. “Duty
“Good luck.” Sharon shepherded
her son into the hall.
“I like this place,” Greg said after
the door closed behind them.
“I told you Aunt Karly uses good
judgment.” Usually, anyway. Sharon remembered during
their teen years when her sister used to sneak out the window at
night to sing with a rock band. Lucky their parents hadn’t
Karly had been the only
freewheeling member of the family. Sharon had followed her
share of impulses too when she was younger, but she’d put that
She felt grateful to be back in
California. She’d never really adapted to the icy climate or
the winds that blew off Lake Erie. Even the rare sight a few
weeks ago of Niagara Falls framed by cascades of ice had been as
much a demonstration of nature’s raw power as a vision of
At least now she’d be near Karly, her
husband and their baby. No one else was left. Since
their mother’s death ten years earlier, Sharon’s father had
remarried and moved to Hawaii, and she’d lost track of old
As she and Greg climbed the stairs in
semi-darkness, she felt the smoothness of the well-worn banister.
She began to appreciate the charm of the creaky old house, which
Karly had said dated back to the 1890s.
She wondered if Jody would be willing to
visit her classroom and tell the children the background of the
place as a living history lesson. That depended on what
lessons their former teacher had been covering, of course.
Sharon had been hired to complete the year after the teacher’s
husband was transferred to Seattle.
The steps reversed angle at the landing.
As they mounted the final flight, a wall fixture revealed a man’s
figure standing at the top, half shrouded in mist and half sharply
in focus. Shocked by the malevolence in his gaze, Sharon
reached instinctively to shelter Greg before registering that it was
“Mom!” He shook off her hand.
“I’m not a baby.” Apparently their visit with Jody had
restored his confidence.
“I know. Your Daddy would be
proud of you.” Vacillating between childishness and
independence seemed normal enough at this age, although she had to
admit that the past year’s disruptions had intensified the swings.
At the top, Sharon examined the painted
figure in the dim light. Almost life-size, it appeared real
enough to step from the canvas. Up close, what she’d taken
for malice changed into wary suspicion.
Sharon checked the signature—Ian
Fanning. His style certainly had changed since the youthful
watercolor days. Although she admired his talent, the painting
made her wonder what sort of man she had for a neighbor.
The Gaskells’ apartment, number two,
lay to the left. To the right stretched a dark-paneled
“Our rooms are this way.”
Sharon hurried Greg along the hall and unlocked their door.
Flipping on the light, she surveyed the front room with a twinge of
Tiny and windowless, it formed more of a
wide passageway than a parlor. The only furnishings were a
couch across from them and a low TV stand next to the entrance.
No wonder the place rented below market.
With a pang, Sharon thought of the
years she’d spent making crafts and browsing through shops to
decorate their old home, a rental that had felt as if it belonged to
them. She’d been forced to sell or donate most of their
furnishings before the move.
Well, Sharon could whip up
decorative pillows on her sewing machine. She’d find posters
to brighten the walls as well. .
“Kind of small,” Greg muttered.
“Cozy, or it will be when we fix it
up,” she responded a shade too brightly. “Let’s check
out the rest, okay?”
To their left, they found what
apparently passed for a master bedroom, filled by a double bed and a
bureau, a modest desk and chair. Branching off the room,
tucked behind the parlor, stretched a tiled bathroom dominated by a
“There’s a room on the far side.”
Greg dashed through to the second bedroom.
The small space held a dresser and a
desk made of chunky blond wood, plus a loveseat. “This is
Her son frowned. “Where
do I sleep?”
“That loveseat must open into a
bed.” Barely the width of a cot, though. Hardly ideal
for a growing boy.
“How does it work?”
“You remove the cushions, then
pull on the handle.” She showed him. “Let’s wait
until you’re ready to go to sleep or we’ll trip over it while we
“Okay.” Greg walked to
the door and peered into the parlor. “Where’s the rest?”
Sharon swallowed. “No
more, I’m afraid.”
“I guess this is kind of like a
play house,” the boy said slowly.
“Exactly.” They ought
to be cozy. And she wouldn’t need to spend as much time
Outside, a gust of window rattled
the window and sent a chill through the damp wool of Sharon’s
coat. A second later, something scraped the glass.
“What’s that?” Greg held
still, as if embarrassed to show that he was frightened again.
“A branch, most likely.” She
peered out the window. “What a big tree!” Through
the branches, she surveyed a rear parking court and a lawn that
sloped to what she hoped was a large garden.
The boy ventured closer.
“Wow! That tree’s huge. I bet I can climb down.”
“Don’t you dare!”
He grinned. “I wouldn’t
really. Scared you, huh, Mom?”
Sharon wrapped her arms around him.
“You sure did.”
He squirmed away. “Can we go get
our stuff? I want to play with my Game Boy.”
Drops spattered the pane. Despite
the intensity of the wind, however, Sharon no longer heard a steady
thrumming. “The rain may be letting up. Let’s delay
a couple more minutes. Why don’t you figure out where
you’d like to put everything, and I’ll do the same in my
She left Greg to explore. In the
front room, she noticed a small painting over the TV stand.
When they’d entered from the opposite direction, she’d missed
Through a sunlit meadow, a woman in a
long skirt and peasant blouse ran away from the viewer toward a
house in the distance. Auburn hair about the same color as
Sharon’s streamed behind.
She drew closer. The figure seemed
eerily familiar, from the set of the shoulders to the angle of the
hips. The painting was so realistic she almost believed the
woman was turning her head, but surely the curve of a cheek and one
ear, set close to the head, had been visible all along
The woman in the painting showed an
unusually deep crease on her earlobe. Just like Sharon’s.
The effect of a long day and the
unsettling weather must be what gave her the sensation of freefall.
Dizzily, she grasped the doorframe for support.
How ridiculous to let imaginings carry
her away. This was nothing more than a coincidence. So
what if Ian Fanning picked a model who resembled Sharon?
If the painting bothered her, she would
simply remove it. Sternly, she proceeded past to the bedroom.
Ian flung the paintbrush across
the room. The contact left a flesh-toned splatter on the wall.
He glared from the painting to the
photograph he’d shot of an ivory-skinned model. Why did he
keep mixing the hues wrong? Why did the golden hair keep
coming out red?
The gallery owner had been right to
accuse him of falling into a rut. Jane Argyle, a sixtyish
bohemian who’d gained a reputation for recognizing new talent, was
the best thing that happened to Ian’s career. She’d sold
half a dozen of his paintings and she was trying to guide him.
She’d insisted he paint no more
canvases of that mahogany-haired woman and no more scenes of Gothic
houses. The subjects were keeping Ian in a rut.
Choosing a blonde model marked the
first step toward exploring a less hard-edged style. Yet how
the hell was he going to strike out in a new direction when he
couldn’t paint the colors he envisioned?
The problem, Ian reflected, was that he
was painting what he envisioned. Maybe he lacked the ability
to make a transition. Maybe Jane was wrong and the gallery
owners who called him dated and limited were right.
From across the hall came the
scrape of a key and the sound of soft voices. That must be the
widow and her son. Ian visualized a middle-aged woman and a
teenager. He hoped they weren’t going to play loud music.
He didn’t like having new people
in the house. Not that he’d been fond of the previous
occupants. The young couple had bickered constantly.
He should have gone out tonight.
Mingling with a loose-knit local group of artists, writers and
filmmakers stimulated Ian and drew him out of himself. He’d
decided to work instead. Bad choice.
Going to sponge off the molding before
the splatter dried, he was crossing the room when a wave of
dizziness hit. As Ian grabbed a chair, bands of color and
noise throbbed through his head.
For months, he’d thought the
seizures were gone. Until this week.
He eased into the chair, hating the loss
of control, the helplessness. He wanted back the tough,
athletic man he used to be.
After a few minutes the throbbing eased.
The memories that descended in its wake, however, proved scarcely
One day five years ago, he’d climbed
into the patrol car with a distracted mind. That had been the
twenty-fifth anniversary of his parents’ deaths.
When dispatch sent him on a pursuit, his
twenty-nine-year-old self had hit the gas without an inkling that
his world was about to get smashed into a jigsaw puzzle lacking
several key pieces. According to the report, the stolen pickup
truck had rammed him broadside and sent his car careening down an
embankment. A Jaws of Life had required half an hour to pry
For weeks, he lay in a coma. The
doctors nearly gave up on him. Only Great-Aunt Jody persisted,
visiting every day, talking, scolding. Finally one morning Ian
For months, he couldn’t use his body
with any confidence. Gradually, he’d built up physical
strength and he still worked out at a gym three or four times a
week. Even so, the recurring dizzy spells barred a return to
Eager to get off disability, he lived on
the income from odd jobs, occasional freelance graphic designs and
the sale of his paintings. Although the report cleared him of
blame, he was haunted by the guilty sense that he’d brought this
situation on himself through inattentiveness.
Painting, a talent his grandfather
had shared, changed from a hobby to an outlet for pent-up energy.
He’d become obsessed with capturing his inner turmoil on
canvas, hoping at some level that exposing it would free him.
So far, no luck.
At last the spells had diminished.
Abruptly, this week, they’d returned full strength. Sunday
would mark the anniversary of too many tragedies, including his own.
The strange perceptions hadn’t
started with the crash. Intermittently since childhood, Ian
had heard strange whispering in the house. But they were much
During an attack, Ian felt as if he were
being physically assaulted—from within. He sensed someone
invading his mind.
Trying to take over.
He hesitated to consult Dr. Finley, his
therapist. The medications she prescribed produced unpleasant
side effects when they worked at all. He also remembered how
she’d reacted once when he’d mentioned his sense that inner
forces were struggling for control.
From her subtle tensing, he’d known,
as clearly as if she’d spoken, that she feared he might be going
off the deep end. He’d backtracked quickly. Even if he
was delusional, he damn well didn’t want anyone else knowing.
Ian sat up and discovered the dizziness
had passed. He was getting to his feet when a wordless howl of
pain and fear burst through the air.
For a moment, he thought he’d made it
he heard the cry again. Down the hall, someone was in trouble.