The house was old, rambling, and overpriced. A “classic fixer-upper” in realtor lingo. A smart developer would tear it down and build a little row of shops with pre-fab walls on a concrete slab, slap on a charmingly quaint facade, and call it a day. “There’s quite a bit of interest in this property,” said the agent. It gave me a lump in the pit of my stomach to think what they’d do with it.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“You don’t want to see the inside?” asked the agent.
“No need,” I said. “Just draw up the papers.” Her relief was laughably obvious, but the other buyers hadn’t asked, either, I was sure. Why bother if you’re just going to bring in bulldozers and a wrecking ball?
I might be eating nothing but generic, canned beans for the next fifteen years, but as I turned the key in the lock and heard the familiar creak of old, wooden floorboards in the foyer, my brain conjured the mouthwatering smell of rosemary-and-garlic lamb; new potatoes drizzled in parsley and homemade butter; strong black coffee served with thick, vanilla-infused cream. Unlit by jewel-toned Tiffany lamps, the dining room looked dark and cramped. Mouse droppings clung to the stucco walls and littered the floor near the baseboards. I was going to need a broom.
The perfume of “old people” clung faintly to the peeling wallpaper in the bathroom; dried shaving cream mixed with oil of wintergreen and a persistent hint of iodine and Mercurochrome. The glaze on the porcelain tub had worn thin; it was showing signs of crazing. The tile was in decent shape. Caulk? Non-existent. Fortunately, there was no hint of mold, either. The construction was solid; the walls were thick. The lead pipes, the inspector assured me, weren’t likely to kill me or drive me insane – they were heavily coated with mineral deposits. The house, apparently, had atherosclerosis. “Just let the water run a bit before you drink it,” he said. I smiled, remembering how the cold water from the bathroom tap tasted of rust and sulfur, like scabby knees and fried eggs. It sounded awful, but it brought back happy memories. I was glad I would not have to replace all the plumbing with sterile PVC.
The ghosts of several hundred books still wafted with a reverent hush about the sitting room. I heard them in the sound of dried leaves brushing against the bay window. Though its built-in floor to ceiling shelves were now dusty and barren, I detected that curious mix of sweat and oil, face cream and dirty fingertips, dust mites and dry paper, printing ink and the glue used to bind them. It was the smell of old libraries and hidden treasures. I was determined to fill these shelves with books again. Their ghosts spoke volumes.
I moved in with my meager belongings as soon as it was cleaned up and safe to do so. I couldn’t afford the old house and rent on an apartment, so I’d camped out in the back yard, near what used to be my grandmother’s tulip beds. The whole place looked sad and dilapidated without those bright splashes of color she had insisted on planting, herself, each year. Tulips, roses, hedgerows of hydrangea and honeysuckle, with little surprises around the edges, like marigold to discourage bugs and chipmunks, crimson dangles of bleeding heart, pink oleander bushes, and deadly little belladonna blossoms. One small bed had been devoted to my personal favorites: snapdragons. My grandmother had pinched off the little flowers, squeezed their cheeks together, and made the tiny “dragons” snap playfully at my nose. She, Queen of the Dragons, would sometimes waggle her thumb between her middle and index finger to convince me that the dragons had succeeded in their quest to deliver to her the impertinent little nose of the Garden Princess.
The Gnomes, sworn to do my bidding, always sneaked into the Queen’s chambers by moonlight to return the stolen schnozz to me. Rubbing the tip of my nose, I winked at the fading garden gnome that still stood guard near the door.
Jennie Cricket and I found the secret passageways and hidden attics, the cubbyholes and crawlspaces, the second and third basements. No one minded our nosy explorations or scolded us and told us, “No, don’t touch! Don’t play in there!” No spot in Grandma’s house was ever off-limits or out of bounds in our games of hide-and-seek. We learned how to hide among the boxes and clothes so that the grown-ups could open the closet door, look straight at us, and not see us. The light would come on and we would stand still as mannequins, struggling not to breathe or giggle. I was sure they were just pretending not to see us, until the day Gran’s worried voice yelled up the stairs, “Lyla Jo, you and Jennie come out now. It’s not funny any more!” We emerged from the closet under the stairs, right behind Gran, and I tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned, all the color drained from her lined face. I knew, then, that the grown-ups weren’t playing make-believe.
Sometimes we’d crawl from one cubbyhole to the next, only to emerge in a different closet in a different bedroom.
One summer, when she was thirteen and I was eleven, Jennie Cricket and I had what Gran called a “falling out.” I don’t remember what it was we quarreled over, but she had begun saying how stupid it was to play hide and seek, and once I caught her reading Cosmo and sneaking a smoke in the third basement. She’d started hanging out with boys and feigning an interest in cars. I just wanted to crawl into the attic and trade scary stories. We were drifting apart, and it didn’t help that I was leaving for a month at summer camp. I remember her saying, “Fine, one more game. Then we’re done.” She hid while I counted.
“…ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. Ready or not, here I come!” I looked in her usual favorite spots – the third basement, of course, because we’d tricked it out with bean bag chairs and an old lamp with tassels on it, and that’s where she kept her stash of women’s mags and cigarettes. I checked the window wells over the second basement, too. Jennie liked to slip out and hide up there, blinking at me like a ground owl while I searched under the wet bar below. The first basement held all the appliances and a big storage closet; she knew I was scared of the old gas incinerator, so of course I checked between it and the stone wall. No Jennie. She was good.
I searched the closets, the cubbyholes, the secret passageways we’d found behind the bedroom walls. I wondered if Jenny was playing the trick we’d played on Gran, moving from one cubbyhole to another as we heard footsteps outside. But we’d agreed, long ago, that was cheating. You had to hide, hide well, and stay put. No moving around once you’d picked your spot. Finally, I opened the door to the closet beneath the stairs. It was empty.
I don’t mean that Jennie wasn’t in it. I mean that it was completely cleaned out. The boxes were gone, the old winter coats were gone, the records and books and blankets we’d dragged into the back to keep us occupied during lengthy searches and sieges were gone. I closed the door. It made no sense. “Jennie?” I called out. “Where are you?”
Gran walked by, just then. “What’s the matter, Lyla Jo?”
“Why did you empty out our closet, Gran?” I asked. It felt like a betrayal. All that wonderfully familiar junk with all its comforting smells of leather and wool and mothballs – gone.
“What do you mean? What are you talking about, Lyla Jo?” Gran reached out and turned the doorknob and pulled. The light came on, illuminating a wooden dowel curved under the weight of overcoats and filled with a jumble of boxes.
“I don’t understand…” I squeezed past her and crawled into the back of the closet. “Jennie?” I whispered. I moved the blankets, checked under an empty box, and sat back on my heels, trying to figure out where else Jennie might be hiding. I was ready to give up.
“I think she went home, Lyla Jo.” Gran gave me a peculiar look and reached out to press the backs of her fingers to my forehead.
Maybe she had. Maybe she just figured it was easier to end our friendship that way, leaving me to find the girl I’d lost, and eventually to figure out that she wasn’t coming back. I felt a tear slip down my cheek, and turned so Gran wouldn’t see me cry. I wasn’t in the mood for chocolate brownies, and I wasn’t in the mood for Cosmo. I wasn’t sure where to go from there. The month-long summer camp I’d been dreading was starting to look good. I was in the mood for a good sulk, but at least I could do it by the lake.
While I was at camp, Jennie disappeared. The police thought she’d run off with a boy she met. Kelly Thatcher was sure she’d been abducted by outer space aliens. Her parents were distraught, naturally; they were sure that she’d been kidnapped. No one had the heart to point out to them that anyone with a lick of sense knew the Cricket family barely had two dimes to rub together and almost anyone but Jennie would’ve been a better target for kidnapping.
It scared me, though, and made me sad. I hoped she had run off with a boy, but none of the usual suspects were missing. I’m pretty sure I’d have known, if Jenny’d had a real love interest anywhere outside the pages of Cosmo and her own head. Or would I? Towards the end, Jennie hadn’t confided in me much. Maybe she’d run off to New York to be a fashion model for Cosmo.
I dragged a lamp into the closet below the stairs, curled up, and read. I missed my friend. I’d been missing her since before she vanished; this just made it feel more tangible, more socially acceptable to mourn.
I fell asleep. In my dreams, Jennie and I were still friends – we ran through the house like we always had, playing hide-and-seek and sharing new discoveries like the window wells and the trap door that we decided must have been used by the old underground railroad. We were as close as twins, as happy as we’d ever been. I snuggled down for a deeper sleep, smiling all the way to my toes.
I didn’t hear the grown-ups searching.
The next morning, I went down to the kitchen for breakfast. Officer Royden stood in the breakfast nook with Gran. “Where have you been?” they both shouted at me.
“Sleeping.” I grabbed a Pop-Tart and tossed it into the toaster. “Why?”
“Where?” asked the officer.
“I was reading,” I looked over at my grandmother and lowered my eyes. “I fell asleep in the closet under the stairs.”
“We looked there,” said Gran. “We looked everywhere.” She gave me a pointed look. I know all your hiding places, Missy, and you weren’t in any of them.
“I must’ve been curled up under the blanket. I didn’t hear you.”
“Well, she’s safe and sound, that’s the important thing. Lyla Jo, I suggest you sleep in your own bed from now on,” said Officer Royden, hinting that I might’ve been in someone else’s, rather than in the closet.
“Yes, Sir,” I said, rolling my eyes at my grandmother. She knew I was telling the truth.
After he left, Gran asked if I’d really spent the night in that closet. I nodded. She dragged me down the hallway and pulled open the door. The closet was empty. “I cleaned it out over the summer,” she said quietly.
I stepped inside the closet. I held my arms outstretched, expecting – what? To feel invisible coats, boxes, and knick-knacks? It was exactly as I’d described it that day before summer camp.
“You said you slept in it last night, under a blanket, Lyla Jo.”
“I swear I did, Gran.”
“I believe you.”
I ran my hand along the locked bolt Gran had fastened to that door before leaving Connecticut for good. Gran had said that a change would do us both good. It had. I’d made lots of new friends in Atlanta, but I missed this place. I missed snow. I missed the hills covered in a patchwork of color and the smell of apple cider and caramel in the fall. I missed grass so soft my toes craved the tickle of it as I walked barefoot across the lawn. When my company said they might have an opening here, and asked if I was interested, some part of me – some wiser, saner part of me, urged caution. But no, I couldn’t resist.
I’d wondered, over the years: Was this the closet Jennie hid in last? What if I opened the door? Would it be empty, as Gran and I had left it, or would Jennie blink as the bright overhead light came on, asking, “What took you so long?”
The metal felt rough and warm beneath my fingertips. It smelled of rust, like dried blood. As long as that bolt was there, I could believe anything I wanted to believe.
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