Familiarity overwhelmed her like heavy perfume, fogging her senses for a moment. Shelby gulped a breath, and the sensation passed. She blamed fatigue: too many houses in one weekend—nine yesterday and seven more scheduled today. Their condo had sold more quickly than expected, and now they needed to find a place and fast.
They’d concentrated at first on tidy Cape Cods and small Georgians close to the city but when they seemed too cramped, they expanded to slightly bigger houses in suburbs farther out along the commuter train line. But they’d seen nothing like this old Victorian in the most distant town on their map of tolerable commuting distances. It must have been beautiful in its day: a sharply pitched roof with a filigree inset of gingerbread woodwork at the peak; a wide porch with an overhang supported by fat columns with graceful curves. But the peeling paint and sagging shutters made Shelby wonder how far it was from move-in condition.
Janet, in her realtor uniform of beige slacks and navy blazer, flipped through a folder of printouts. “Five bedrooms, two baths. Structurally solid but clearly in great need of renovation. Almost didn’t show this to you. But you haven’t seemed that interested in anything—”
“I liked that ranch with the stone front,” Brian interjected. “You did too, right Shel?”
She hadn’t said anything to him about wanting to live in that house. “It certainly didn’t feel like home.”
“You can’t expect that, not until we’re there with our stuff. We’re looking for a property that meets our needs.”
Shelby rolled her eyes at him. “I got that part. But I also know I don’t want to live in a house I hate.”
“Who said anything about hate?” Brian’s face splotched red, which happened when he was embarrassed or upset.
The realtor broke in. “This house was built in 1871, back when this was all farmland. See that house over there?” She pointed to a 1960s Colonial next door. “That’s where the horse barn stood. But over time, the village grew, and the farms vanished.”
Shelby tried to picture a cherry red barn, but the image changed like a flip of a page in a photo album to a brown building with black crisscrosses on the doors, like chestnut horse with a dark mane.
As Brian asked questions about building codes and clear titles, Shelby reached over the picket fence and released the latch. Morning glories. The thought popped into her mind when she was halfway to the house, but held no meaning, until she approached the French doors set with narrow windowpanes. With her fingertips, she traced the pattern of twisting vines and trumpet-shaped flowers etched around the glass. How had she known? Had she been here before? Logical, but impossible; she’d never visited this town and had grown up in the next state, four hours away.
Shelby turned her attention to the lattice at the far end of the porch, which needed paint, like every other part of the exterior. Nothing grew there now and a few of the slats were missing. But for an instant, she could see wisteria leaning against the lattice, dripping clusters of purple blossoms. It was just her imagination, she scolded herself. Of course, an old house like this should have wisteria growing beside the porch, just like ivy on the chimney or tiger lilies sprouting by the foundation.
She was glad for the intrusion when Brian grabbed the porch bannister and tugged. It moved under his hands. “This house isn’t old, it’s ancient,” he complained. “The electrical probably isn’t even to code.”
Janet checked the folder again. “Yes, upgraded about ten years ago. Plumbing about then, too. The owners had plans to redo the place; then he died, and she couldn’t keep going with the renovations.”
“Well, at least the toilets flush.” Brian shook his head.
Shelby spoke up. “I’m very interested in this place.”
Brian’s mouth gaped. “Really? You have any idea how much it would cost to fix up a place like this?”
“Probably a lot, but I have my grandmother’s money.”
Brian turned away, muttering. “You just love saying that.”
Sore point or not, it was true. Without the money her grandmother had left her, they’d be living in that condo for another five years. While she’d never say it, Shelby believed that the money made her choice matter even more than Brian’s.
The front doors swung open into a dark foyer and a staircase to the right. To the left was a narrow door; opening it, Shelby walked into the dining room with its broad bay window overlooking the side yard. “We can take off this door. It will bring more light into the hallway.”
Brian said nothing.
Another door at the far end of the dining room led to an old-fashioned kitchen with tall cupboards that went right up to the ceiling. A built-in china hutch had morning glories etched on its glass panels. The parlor was a disaster: hideous gold wallpaper with olive green flocking and a stain in the corner that spread like a tie-dye design.
“I suspect that’s from the flashing around the chimney,” Janet told them. “I’m sure the seller will have that fixed.”
“What about the wall? Mold, for sure.” Brian picked at the curled edge of a strip of wallpaper, peeling it back an inch. “I’m handy, but this place is beyond me. Seen enough, Shel?”
“New paper and paint will help a lot, even I—” Shelby stopped. Overhead, a chair scraped the floor. “Did you hear that?”
“No, what was it?” Brian made a face. “I’m not dealing with mice in the walls.”
Shelby retraced her steps back to the foyer and headed upstairs. She looked around for whatever had made that noise, but the rooms were completely empty. Not even hangers in the closet. Maybe she’d heard something outside.
Four of the bedrooms were small, although the master was a decent size. Two of the smallest rooms should be combined for sure—one day, but not now. The bathrooms were livable, although the bright pink fixtures would have to go.
Janet’s footsteps sounded up the stairs, then into the master bedroom. “There’s a lot of value here,” Shelby heard her say to Brian, “and it’s below the top of your price range.”
Brian wore a neutral expression. “It’s cheap because everybody knows it’s going to take a fortune to upgrade it. How long has this been on the market, anyway?”
“Eight months,” Janet answered. “There was another buyer, who wanted to tear it down. But the seller balked—”
“The seller is going to dictate what someone does with this property?” Brian threw his hands up in the air.
Janet continued, nonplussed. “The local historical society had asked—nothing legal, mind you, just a request—that the house not be torn down. The house is of historical value. A former congressman lived here.”
“Yeah, a hundred years ago.” Brian reached for Shelby’s hand. She held on limply. “Look, Shel, nobody wants this albatross.”
“But I might. This is the first house I’ve really liked. It’s interesting.”
When Brian sighed loudly, Shelby knew what it meant. His patience was gone, and resentment was filling the gap.
“Okay, I get it—this is a cool property, if money weren’t an issue and we could hire contractors to do the whole thing.”
“It’s not much of an issue.” Shelby said the words as gently as she could.
“It’s going to take everything your grandmother left you and probably more. Whatever the contractor estimates, we’d have to budget double to cover problems we can’t see now.”
Shelby strengthened her grip on his hand and tugged at him. “Let’s see the backyard.”
Shelby smiled at the first positive thing Brian said about the property. The garage had to be fifty feet behind the house. She counted four towering maples and two tall pines in the overgrown backyard. In the far corner of the double lot, a clump of lilacs in full leaf had started to bud.
Then she noticed it: the garden shed with a Dutch door and tiny paned windows. An image began to form, but Shelby tried to block it—this had to stop! The more she struggled, though, the more clearly she could see a little girl with hair as dark as her own pretending to have a tea party with miniature cups and a doll with a china head.
Was she having some kind of episode? Shelby rationalized that this house must have triggered some picture stored in her subconscious, maybe even a storybook illustration she’d seen as a child. Behind her reassuring self-talk was the unshakeable conviction that this was the house, the one she was meant to live in.
Shelby looked at Brian, thirty-five years old to her thirty-three, a software engineer, practical and grounded. He’d never understand her connection to the place. “I want to buy this house.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Shel, this is too much for us.”
She took a step closer and reached for his hand. “You and your dad could make a project of it. I can help. We do it one room at a time. Use a contractor for what we can’t do ourselves. Who cares how long it takes?”
Brian didn’t respond right away. “It’s like HGTV Fixer Upper.”
Shelby seized on the comment. “And you love that show.”
“Your mother will have a fit.” Brian snorted a short laugh.
“My mother will have to get over herself. I’m living here—not her.”
Brian’s voice finally softened. “It will eat up all of our time and your money. You’re sure this is what you want?”
Shelby pressed her head against his chest. “Yes, but you need to want it, too.”
“I got to be honest, it’s not my first choice.” Brian gathered her into a hug. “But I do understand why you like it. This must have been an incredible house once.”
“And it can be again. With this nice big yard, you could get a dog. Big, friendly mutt from the shelter.”
Brian tipped his head back and laughed. “So, you’re bribing me with a dog?”
Janet appeared behind them, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight with the folder. “Any decisions?”
“We’re interested,” Brian said. “But we want to see rest of the houses. Just to be sure.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Helen, Shelby’s mother, made a disgusted face when she got out of the car.
“Hi, Dad.” Shelby greeted her father first. “Drive okay?”
“Construction. Otherwise, would have been here sooner.” Her father, Stan, put his arm around her.
Shelby led them up the sidewalk and head-on into the inevitable conflict over just how bad the house looked.
Paint-spattered drop cloths paved the hallway, now a creamy ivory color, the first thing they’d done after closing two weeks ago. Most of their furniture was in storage, but their bed was upstairs, and their clothes hung in the closets.
The dining room doors were off their hinges, which helped with light and ventilation. The kitchen was under siege. Brian and his father had taken all the doors off the cupboards to paint them. A contractor was coming in a week to replace the countertops and install new appliances.
Shelby steered her parents out of the kitchen mess and upstairs to the master bedroom where she’d been wielding a long-handled paint roller, getting quite the hang of it. The first two coats were off-white. Then she’d sponge it with creamy yellow for a textured effect. She held up a board where’d she’d been practicing the technique, learned on YouTube.
“Impressive,” Stan said. He picked up a roll of blue painter’s tape and put it around the windows. Then he made his way back downstairs to where Brian and his father worked.
Dusting the back and seat of a folding chair with a clean rag, Shelby presented it to her mother. “You can sit and talk to me.”
Helen perched on the edge in her trim slacks and a nautical print top, with all the ease of someone enduring an interrogation.
The rhythmic squeak of the paint roller smoothed over her mother’s cadence of complaints: so much work, not just cosmetic, what was underneath, mold for sure, they didn’t know what they were doing, hire contractors, burn through all that money…
Nothing her mother said surprised Shelby. Three therapists and a stack of self-help books later, Shelby had come to accept the fact that her mother was an extreme perfectionist. Growing up, she’d come with all A’s on her report card and her mother would wonder if the classes were too easy; she’d get a haircut, and her mother would either say it was too short or else the stylist left it too long. Arguing did no good and neither did accusing her mother of being critical. Eventually, she knew from much experience, her mother would stop the loop of negative comments and go silent. Perhaps, although this was rare, she’d find one nice thing to say.
Shelby dipped the roller in the paint tray and, as she straightened, felt the brush of fingertips against her cheek. The sensation was so real Shelby turned quickly to see if her mother stood behind her. Helen remained on her folding chair, now silently texting someone. Shelby pressed her palm against her cheek where the feeling of a loving touch remained.
Early one Saturday morning in June, Shelby and Brian lingered in bed. A kiss ignited their mutual longing, and later as they lay with their arms around each other, Shelby inhaled the sweet breeze from the open window. The house smelled faintly of paint and sawdust, an improvement over mustiness and mice.
When they finally got up, an hour later than planned, they ignored the ladders in the living room—as they had begun calling the parlor—and the half-stripped wallpaper. It was too nice to work inside.
As they drove to the nursery with the windows down on Brian’s SUV, Shelby teased that he should trade his faded Cubs cup for a straw hat with a brim. “Farmer Brian.” She reached over and touched his forearm. “You glad we have the house?”
He glanced over. “A little late to worry about that.”
Shelby tried to read into his expression. “I still want to know.”
“To be honest, I’ve had my doubts. But now that the kitchen is done, and the master bedroom looks good—yeah. I’m glad you could see something in the house that I didn’t get at first.”
So many times, she’d come close to telling him what she really did see and feel in the house, the flickers and sensations that still came to her occasionally, like shadows crossing the room. She was tempted now, but that would take a longer conversation than they had time for. Brian pulled into the gravel driveway of the nursery and took the last parking space.
Back home again, Brian planted boxwoods along the newly painted picket fence, while Shelby claimed the farthest corner of the backyard where a towering clump of lilac bushes overshadowed what had once been a garden planted under it.
Brian eyed the heavy trunks of the lilacs. “Let me cut them down.”
“You just want to use your chainsaw.” Shelby’s comment held the pinprick of truth, but they both laughed. She shooed him away playfully. “This is my corner. You have the rest of the yard to play in.”
Having been a competitive swimmer in high school and college, at the pool by five o’clock each morning for eight years, Shelby had a deep well of resolve that couldn’t be depleted by stubborn sumac growing in the core of the lilacs. She worked all weekend, trimming back the lilacs, cutting deadwood, and trying to shape the bushes into civility. Over the next week, even after long days at work, she spent every evening in the Bower Garden, as she called it now: digging up crabgrass, coring out long taproots of giant dandelions, and spading the earth. Then one evening her shovel struck what sounded and felt like a rock. Shelby probed the edges and began to dig. Seeing a smooth, arched shape, she carefully cleared away a hummock of dead grass and three inches of soil and garden matter. Letters softened by age and weather spelled out a name as faint as a whisper: Dorothea, Age 4. The date was 1881.
The ground came up to meet Shelby, and she sank to her knees to fight off the swoon. Her face felt hot and sweat beaded her forehead. Shelby braced herself against the trunks of the lilacs and called for Brian. When he didn’t answer, she ran for the house.
Shelby winced at her mother’s comment, grateful that she’d told her over the phone instead of having to see the disappointed face that went along with it.
“An historic grave—a hundred and thirty-eight years old.” Shelby kept her voice even.
“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t dig up those lilacs like Brian wanted. You’d have found a coffin—or worse.”
Her mother was a history buff, so Shelby had hoped this would spark interest. Instead, she sounded even more disgusted than Brian, who avoided the Bower Garden as if the ground there were toxic.
Two days later, Shelby took an afternoon off to visit the local historical society, where a volunteer named Belle became quite excited when Shelby showed her a photo of Dorothea’s gravestone.
“It was common back then for a family plot to be on the homestead,” Belle explained, “but no one knew there was one on the Smithley land. John and Genevieve are buried at the town cemetery. Theirs is one of the biggest markers.”
Scrolling through old newspapers on microfiche, they found death notice easily: Smithley Family Mourns Beloved Dorothea. The cause of death was diphtheria, which had claimed several lives in the area.
The Smithley family was well-documented in other news accounts: John Smithley, a lawyer and gentleman farmer, had served two terms in Congress; Genevieve Rutledge Smithley was the daughter of a local doctor and a member of several ladies’ societies. Given the prominence of the family, Shelby wondered why the house hadn’t been preserved. Belle explained that the Smithley family held it for three generations, but with each transfer, the property fell into greater disrepair.
“Money troubles somewhere along the line,” Belle said. “The last owners bought it from the Smithley family and tried to fix it up, but never got very far. Guess the house was waiting for you.” A smile deepened her wrinkles. “We’re so glad you’re restoring it, not tearing it down.”
As they kept looking through the old newspapers, Shelby stopped at a grainy photo taken a year before Dorothea died. The caption read Mrs. John Smithley, but even without the name Shelby instantly recognized the dark hair swept up in a soft updo Gibson Girl-style, the high-necked blouse, and a cameo at her throat. She’d glimpsed this face around the house and once, when she was very tired, saw it over her shoulder as she gazed into a mirror.
Suddenly Brian turned on Shelby, siding with her parents to see what could be done about the grave. Without telling her, he’d gone to the attorney who’d represented them when they bought the house to see if they could force the seller to pay for the transfer of Dorothea’s remains to the Smithley cemetery plot.
When Shelby found out, she was incensed. “Why can’t she just rest in peace!”
“Because it’s weird and creepy.”
“A little girl—not an ‘it.’ She had a name—has a name.”
Brian accused her of being hysterical, illogical, and then fired the shot she’d always feared. “I don’t know how you talked me into buying this dump.”
Shelby refused to go to bed that night and stayed awake on the thin cushions of the living room sofa. When Brian came downstairs at three in the morning, she turned her face away from him. The next morning, they were both sullen and exhausted. Brian left for work as usual, but Shelby called her office to say she was working from home. By ten she slammed the laptop shut and headed out to the Bower Garden.
Compulsion propelled her into action, digging furiously with a shovel and then a trowel. She kept digging holes in the garden, just to the depth that she’d unearthed Dorothea’s gravestone. Near the base of the lilac trunks, a small lacquered box came up with a clump of dirt. The hinges detached and the cover came off before Shelby could lift the lid. Inside, was a length of silk, crusty and stained. At its center, was a cameo—the same one, Shelby knew, that Genevieve wore in the photograph.
In a flicker, she saw—or thought she did—Dorothea sitting on Genevieve’s lap, touching the cameo at her mother’s throat. She could never imagine herself and her mother in the same pose. Although Shelby knew intellectually that her mother loved her, that affection was always meted out in the smallest doses. But here was evidence of a mother’s love beyond death. Dorothea had loved the cameo so much, Genevieve gave it to her, the way she might have presented it to Dorothea on her wedding day, as a family heirloom passed on unconditionally.
Shelby sat with her back pressed against the trunk of the lilacs as their heart-shaped leaves fell like teardrops. The sun moved higher in the sky, and she dozed off. Awakening, she saw Brian in front of her.
“Shel, I don’t want us to fight like this.”
She opened her hand and showed him the cameo. “I found this. It was Genevieve’s.”
Brian sat on the grass beside her. He waited for her to speak first, and so she told him everything—each sense of knowing and recognition—since they first saw the house.
When Brian finally did speak, he only asked one question. “Why do you think you can see them?”
Shelby didn’t know how he’d take the answer but was through keeping secrets from him. “Most of the time, it’s more feeling than seeing, although I do get images in my mind. I kept thinking it was my imagination. But today, I just had to go out and dig. I had to find something.”
Brian fingered a mound of upturned dirt. “Maybe Dorothea needed to be found. People forgot she was here, but you found her again.”
Shelby’s eyes filled, and she rested her head on Brian’s shoulder. A light breezed played with her hair, lifting her bangs from her forehead and fanning her face. “Let her stay, Brian.”
He gathered Shelby into his arms and held her tight. “It’s her home. Same as ours.”
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Tricia.