What the Dead Want - Norah Olson



HER MOTHER HAD SAID THE HOUSE WAS BUILT BY ANCESTORS. That it was a century and a half old. That it was “in the middle of nowhere” and that the rooms and hallways were full of portraits of long-dead relatives. There was a library full of letters and journals and books from the past. But Gretchen’s mother had told her almost nothing else about the Axton mansion, not about the years she’d lived there as a child, not about any of her other relatives, nor why her parents had left it behind.

Only once had Gretchen seen an image of her mother’s family at the place; a snapshot of her mother as a child, standing on the large round front porch with her parents, a rose trellis growing up the side, and a smaller child running through the frame, looking like nothing more than a blur, a smudge in the background. The photograph was focused on the porch and the immediate foreground, and honestly, it could be any house. The picture she liked better was an old sepia-toned print they’d had hanging in their apartment in the East Village, taken from farther away down a little slope. You could see the whole house, the rounded cupola, the balconies, the rosebush, up to the top of the front porch.

She could barely tell it was the same front porch the driver was pulling up to now, it bore such little resemblance to the house in the picture. The Axton mansion was waiting at the end of a long dirt road surrounded by trees. The entire place leaned undeniably to the left, bricks uneven and precarious, porch columns no longer straight, shedding their paint like some kind of molting bird. Kudzu and ivy and clematis climbed up one side of the porch and part of the front of the building, and on the other side was a thicket of thorny roses, untended and untrimmed for maybe a century, grown into an unwieldy monstrous tower as high as the third floor. She could smell their dense, smothering sweetness without rolling down the car window. The place had been beaten by the wind and the rain, and the heat of the sun had bleached and cracked it. The roses—so tightly ingrown with the pillars—may have been one of the only things providing structural support to that part of the house.

She knew the place would be old—ancient, even. And that it wouldn’t be well kept up. It wasn’t like she expected a real mansion. But she in no way expected this.

It was so different from the image she’d had in her mind all these years, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to utter a cry of horror or burst out laughing. Then the driver double-checked the address on his phone and said Nah, seriously? in a heavy Bronx accent and she really did start laughing.

He’d picked her up at Eighty-Eighth and Park Avenue in the city and the job was to drive her all the way to Mayville. She must have seemed like some spoiled rich girl, but there wasn’t really another way to get there; her aunt had paid for the long car ride because Gretchen didn’t have a car in the city, there were no trains to Mayville, and buses rarely ran there. The landscape had gotten stranger as they drove, and part of the trip was through a deep wood.

A scrawny gray cat sat on a weathered rocker on the front porch, eyeing them blankly. Then the front window curtains parted and a pale face with fierce dark eyes peered out.

The driver cleared his