The Book in the Dollhouse (working title)
A 2015 NaNoWriMo project
by Guinevere Jacques (a nom de plume)
©2015 Jennifer Stone
It was a horrifying, ghastly sight. She'd only known the elderly woman a few short days – had just begun to learn the tragic details of her long life – and now, there she was, lying inert at the bottom of the wide staircase, her neck and right arm twisted in an unnatural position.
It had been the housekeeper who found the woman. Serena, in her third-floor bedroom, had awoken to shrieks of terror coming from the bottom of the stairs. She'd leapt out of bed, sure one of her children was hurt, thrown on a robe, and rushed down to the ground floor. Her heart stopped when she caught sight of her guest's body – stopped in a strang combination of revulsion at the sight before her, mourning for the loss of her new friend, and relief that at least it was not a member of her own family.
The housekeeper said she'd been on her way to the kitchen to start breakfast when she found the body. She was shivering. Serena led her to the sitting room, sat her down on the sofa, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, then excused herself from the room to dial the local police department.
The phone at the precinct rang six times before someone finally answered.
“Police department,” a sleepy-sounding woman intoned.
Serena hesitated, her voice stuck in her throat. She coughed to clear it, and said, “Yes,” weakly. Then, gathering her strength, “Yes, I need to report an... accident.”
“What kind of accident?” the woman asked in a bored tone. Did she not understand the gravity of the situation? She soon would.
“It's a – a death,” Serena replied. “At my house. A visitor. I think she fell down the stairs.”
When the woman on the other end of the line responded, her voice had perked up. “All right, ma'am. I'll direct you to the proper officer. What is your address?”
“It's 115 Oak Grove Lane. The old Clark residence,” Serena said, knowing that the house was famous – or perhaps infamous was the better word – in town.
There was silence on the other end for a moment, and then Serena heard a sharp intake of breath. “Yes ma'am. Hold please.”
The next voice she heard was that of a man with a deep, gravelly drawl. “You live in the old Clark place?” he asked her.
“Yes, that's right,” Serena confirmed.
“And you've called to report a death?”
“Yes. It's an elderly woman. She told me she was related to the Clarks, and came to see the house one more time. She arrived two nights ago, and asked to stay – she'd been telling me her family story. My housekeeper found her this morning, dead at the bottom of the stairs. She must have fallen.”
“All right, ma'am. My name is Sergeant McLellan. I'm on my way now. Please just stay put – and don't touch anything,” the officer told her.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Serena said. “I'll see you shortly.”
Moments later, after she had directed the housekeeper back to her bedroom to rest, Serena spotted red and blue lights coming down the oak-lined drive, disappearing intermittently as they dipped behind the leaves of the trees. She stepped out onto the wide porch, pacing back and forth and gnawing at her thumbnail as she waited for them to arrive.
A stocky man in a gray suit was the first to step out of the car and walk toward Serena.
“Ma'am, I'm Sergeant McLellan. Are you the person I spoke with on the phone a few moments ago?” he asked.
She reached out her hand for him to shake. “Yes, I'm Serena Bradford. My husband and I own the home now.”
“Bradford, eh? Your husband grow up around here?”
“Yes, he did. Should we go inside?”
McLellan unbuttoned his jacket and put his hands in his pockets. “I suppose we should You'd better show me the scene, and then we can talk about what happened.”
Serena turned and led McLellan and the two officers with him into the foyer. The old woman's body could just be seen through the railing of the staircase. The three investigators walked over and looked at the body for a few moments, then McLellan walked back over to Serena as one of the officers began taking photos and the other pulled out a small notepad and began jotting details.
“You got somewhere we can sit and chat?” McLellan asked Serena. She gestured toward the sitting room and led the way in, directing the sergeant to an overstuffed wingback chair next to the fireplace.
Serena sat on the sofa, where the terrified housekeeper had left her blanket bunched up when she left the room, and waited on McLellan to begin speaking.
“So, you say your housekeeper found the body this morning? Where is she now?” he asked.
“She's in her room. I thought she should get some rest. She couldn't stop shaking. I woke up this morning when I heard her screaming. I came down the stairs and saw the bo- I saw our houseguest. Ellie said she was on her way to the kitchen to start breakfast when she found her.” Serena felt her own hands begin to tremble, remembering the sight, and clasped them tightly together to control the shaking.
“All right. I'll want to talk to her, but there's no real rush. It looks like this will be an open-and-shut case. I don't have much doubt that the woman accidentally fell. You say she told you she was related to the Clarks who used to own this estate?” McLellan sat forward onto the edge of his chair and leaned toward Serena, looking at her intently.
“Yes, that's right. She arrived here on Monday night and introduced herself as Madeleine Clark. She told me she'd grown up in this house, and wanted to see it one last time and tell someone her story, before...” she hesitated.
“Before what, Mrs. Bradford?” the sergeant asked.
“Madeleine said she didn't have much time left. She seemed to know that something was going to happen to her. Honestly, I brushed it off as ridiculous, but considering some of the things she told me, maybe I should have listened.” Serena paused. “Maybe I could have protected her, somehow.”
“Ma'am, please don't give yourself too much trouble about it,” McLellan said gently. “I don't know how much Ms. Clark told you, but she's not the first member of her family to meet an – untimely demise. In fact, the Clark family is something of a local legend.”
“Yes, I'd noticed that. My family has received a certain reputation since we bought the estate. Some people in town have gone out of their way to avoid us; the rest seem to treat us with this strange amount of reverence. My husband says he knows the old legends, but always chalked them up to just that – legends.” Serena looked directly at McLellan. “But after talking to Madeleine, I'm starting to think there's something to the stories. I'm just not totally sure what to make of everything she told me.”
“Well, Mrs. Bradford, I should tell you, it goes beyond a simple local tale. Many people around here believe the Clark family was cursed. I don't know that I necessarily agree with that, but there were definitely a lot of strange, tragic occurrences that family faced over the years.” McLellan sat back in his chair.
“Sergeant McLellan, I agree with you completely. But I think I'd probably better tell you everything Madeleine told me.”
“I think you're right. I'll call the station and let them know I'll be here a while.”
The woman gazed out the car window at the rain coming down. She'd always loved a good, cleansing Southern rain, and even though it was decades since she'd been home, the overcast skies, low clouds hanging over the distant mountains, and the mist clinging to the windows made her feel as though she'd never left. Hard not to feel the years slip away, returning to her hometown, every sight a vision that elicited some memory, made her feel like just a girl again.
She sighed and adjusted herself, knowing the drive would not last much longer. She smoothed her pale blue, wool skirt over her knees, reaching just under the hem to ensure the silk lining was in its proper place, straightened the cloche hat that sat atop her neatly curled white hair. She was as well-dressed as always, just as her mother had taught her, a habit that hadn't faded with the passing of years or sadness of the events that comprised her life.
A sudden, sharp intake of breath as the first glimpse of the brick tower caught her peripheral vision. It truly would not be long now; best that she prepare herself – best as anyone could under the circumstances, anyway. Soon enough, all of this would be at an end. She would finally be at peace, able to let go of the past and say her final goodbyes.
The driver made a sharp left turn and slowed as he entered the oak tree-lined lane leading to the house. The woman felt her heart quicken, knowing in just a few short moments the trees would thin, the lane would broaden, and she would see the lake glistening in the distance. The red bricks of the house were now clearly visible, and now she could see the wide, wraparound porch and the large bay window of the parlor.
As the driver swung around the final curve of the drive and slowed in front of the mansion, she could swear she saw two little girls running through the woods edging the lake. Just a phantom, though, a memory; she shook her head to clear it and closed her eyes briefly, allowing herself one more deep breath. She nervously smoothed her skirt one more time, pulled a bill from her pocketbook and handed it to the driver, telling him to keep the change, then opened the door and gazed up at the wide staircase leading to the heavy mahogany door.
The driver jumped out and removed her traveling case from the trunk of the car, as the woman swung her legs around and placed her feet as firmly as possible on the ground. She glanced down in surprise, expecting the gravel that had always been there, and found that at some point in recent history, the driveway had been paved, the concrete stained red to match the brick of the house. She stood slowly, grasping the edge of the door to steady herself – she swayed, partly from nerves, partly from age – then reached for the case the driver held to him, and gave him a nod of thanks and dismissal.
Taking a moment to gather her bearings, the woman noticed that the grounds had been lovingly restored to their former glory. A fountain peeked out from the side of the house, no longer in an obvious state of disrepair and flowing freely with clear water, all traces of the moss and mold that once covered it now cleared away. The garden on the opposite side, which her mother had so carefully tended in the English style but had allowed, in her grief, to become overgrown, now burst with neatly manicured bushes and colorful irises and lilies. She spotted a row of rose bushes at the back of the garden, ready to blossom later in the summer. Two wrought-iron benches faced each other on the path through the garden, providing a peaceful place to sit and enjoy the natural beauty.
Farther back, she spotted what looked like a new boathouse and dock on the lakefront behind the house. She remembered the old dock from which she and her brother and sister would jump into the cold water on a hot day, and how their mother would no longer allow swimming after her sister's death, terrified of any danger that could cause her to lose another child.
As the driver pulled away, the woman stood at the base of the steps, gazing up at the porch, gathering her courage. No more time to waste, she told herself, and placed a foot firmly on the first step, reaching for the banister that she remembered sliding down as a girl, shrieking in delight as her father stood waiting to catch her at the bottom. The woman blinked away a tear she felt welling in her eyes, and continued climbing.
Finally, the moment had arrived. She saw a brand new doorbell to the side of the heavy door; obviously an installment that came with the latest owners of the house. She reached a finger toward it, then recoiled as though it would bite, instead choosing to knock on the door – timidly at first, then with more power as she felt her impatience gnawing at the back of her mind.
Sounds came from inside the house: a shout, the slam of a door, several sets of footsteps – some quick and light, like those of children, others steady, adult. More voices, and then she heard locks begin turning. Multiple locks, more than there had been in her childhood; a sign of the times, she supposed.
The door finally opened and a young woman peered out warily. She was clad in jeans, a loose sweatshirt, and sneakers. She wore a rubber glove on one hand and held the other, which she'd obviously removed to open the door. Her thick, curly hair was tied at the nape of her neck; a few strands had escaped and framed her round, friendly face. She gazed at the elderly woman on the other side of the door, her striking, bright green eyes beaming out, made even more vibrant by the caramel-colored skin and thick, black lashes that framed them. Something about those eyes, thought the woman; something was very familiar, almost eerily so. She couldn't place it yet, though.
“May I help you?” the young woman asked in a quiet, timid voice.
“Yes, dear – are you the lady of the house?” the elderly woman asked, leaning forward so she'd be sure to hear the answer.
The young woman smiled. “Oh, no,” she said. “I'm the housekeeper. Do you need to speak to the homeowner? She's in the kitchen.”
The elderly woman nodded, and the girl opened the door wider, beckoning her into the foyer. “Please wait here,” she said. “I'll be right back.”
Memories came flooding back to the elderly woman's mind as she looked around the foyer. The walls had been painted a modern pale gray, the thick wooden baseboards covered with white paint rather than their original varnish, and a contemporary brushed nickel light fixture hung in place of the old chandelier; but the black and white parquet floor remained the same, as did the original walnut staircase sweeping up and out of view at the back of the foyer, its steps and banister polished to a glossy sheen. Two closed doors faced each other on either side of the foyer; one led to the parlor, the other to the formal dining room, she knew. The younger woman had disappeared down a hallway that stretched beyond the staircase, leading to the kitchen, a library, a ground floor bathroom, and the small staircase that led to the old servants' quarters.
It couldn't have been more than a few minutes, but it felt like it could have been hours, when the elderly woman looked up to see a slender, middle-aged woman making her way toward the front of the house. Her full, wavy, auburn hair floated around her head like a halo, and a wide, toothy grin welcomed her unexpected visitor. Wire-rimmed glasses framed her bright blue eyes.
“Hi there,” she said as she approached the elderly woman and held out a hand in greeting. “I'm Serena Bradford. My husband and I live here, with our two daughters. May I help you?”
The elderly woman took the proffered hand, surprised at the firmness of Serena Bradford's handshake.
“It is certainly a pleasure to meet you,” she said, feeling her nerves suddenly melt away. “My name is Madeleine Clark.”
The other woman started, then looked at her guest in amazement. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Clark? As in the Clark family that used to own this estate?”
“The very same,” the elderly woman said, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “I lived here as a girl. I've been away for so long, and I – well, I thought I'd better come see the house one last time.”
Her voice faltered on the last words, and feeling herself unsteady again, she reached out and placed a hand against the wall.
Serena rushed over and placed a gentle hand under her guest's elbow. “Well, Ms. Clark,” she said, guiding her toward the door leading to the parlor. “I think you'd better come in and sit down. Let me get you some tea.”
Moments later, settled in on the soft, overstuffed sofa in the parlor, a cup of tea on the table in front of her, Madeleine Clark looked around the room, seeing it as though for the first time.
The room had been completely updated, with restored hardwood floors, a large gray area rug, and minimal furniture – just the sofa, low coffee table, and two leather wingback chairs. The walls had been painted a soft moss green, hung with a few pieces of abstract artwork, and the brick and wood mantel surrounding the fireplace had gotten a coat of whitewashing.
A few family pictures lined the mantel; she spotted her hostess in them, along with a man she assumed was her husband, and two young girls that must be their children. In one wedding photo in particular, something in the man's face struck her as familiar, but she couldn't place why, so she shook it off and looked back to the younger woman who had introduced herself as Serena Bradford.
“So, Mrs. Bradford, you live here with your husband and daughters?” she asked her hostess.
“That's right,” the woman said. “Please, call me Serena. My husband, David, grew up here, and said he always loved this house and was fascinated by the mysterious stories that surrounded the previous owners.” She paused and looked at her guest sheepishly. “I suppose that would be your family,” she finished quietly.
Madeleine smiled at her. “Please, don't worry about that. What led your husband to want to come back here, and bring his own family?”
“We met in California,” Serena said. “San Francisco. He'd come out there to work in technology. I was attending art school there, and the gallery where I worked at the time hosted an event for his company. We met and hit it off. Shortly after we got married, he sold some software he'd developed to a major tech company and decided to take an early retirement. Our first daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with us. David liked California, but I think he always wanted to come back to Tennessee, so after we had our younger daughter, he started looking at homes in this area, and when he found out that we could afford this house with our new fortune, he jumped at the opportunity. We bought it and spent about a year restoring it to a livable condition. We officially moved in about six months ago.”
Madeleine smiled. “And how do you like it so far, Serena?”
Serena returned the smile. “I love the house. It's just beautiful, and I feel like every day I discover something new. We're still updating the house, and there's a lot left to do. The area is nice, too. People here are much friendlier than they are in California.”
“Yes, that is true. There is really no replacement for Southern hospitality.” Madeleine picked up her teacup and took a sip.
The two women were silent for a moment.
Madeleine turned her gaze to the large bay window, looking back over the oak lined lane that gave the home its address. “So strange to be home,” she murmured, seemingly to herself.
“Ms. Clark? Are you all right?” Serena was very concerned about her mysterious new guest.
Madeleine looked back at her, a vaguely surprised expression on her face, as though she'd forgotten another person was in the room. “Oh, yes dear, I'm fine. I've had a long life. I'm nearing the end, and the memories are becoming more vivid as time goes on. Being here has brought on a great rush of those memories – many very happy, many very sad.”
Serena gave the older woman what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “If you need to talk about anything, I'm happy to listen. I've heard some of the stories of your family, of this house – but I'm sure many of them are exaggerated. If you feel up to it, I would be very interested in hearing the truth.”
“I assure you, my dear, those stories are not exaggerated. In fact, there is almost no way they could even come close to the truth, for as you know, truth is often stranger than fiction. Oh, I do not wish to burden anyone further with the sad truths of my life – but my dear Mrs. Bradford, how I long to share these tales, to finally be free of them – to finally find some peace.”
Serena, unsure how to respond, sat quietly gazing back at her guest. Madeleine slowly raised her own gaze to meet Serena's, and though she smiled, the smile could not overtake the sadness in her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, seemingly coming to a decision. “Yes, I believe it is time to tell my story.”
Serena nodded encouragingly, then leaned forward and poured each of them another cup of tea. She settled back into her chair and waited.
Madeleine cleared her throat, paused another moment, and then began.
“If it hadn't been for that dollhouse, things might have turned out so much differently.”