The Secret of Seashells (Pt. 2)

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Chapter 2 of my first attempt at a novel.

Nera walked up the steps to her parents’ home, noticing that the stairs were new. Perhaps they weren’t new wood, as Nera could hear the faint creak on the third step as she always had in her childhood, but they had been painted a light grey, as had the wraparound porch. The entire exterior of the house seemed to have been given an update of lighter, more inviting colors. All except the front door, which stared at her in its dark, somber, almost black original wood stain.

Her father had wanted to paint that door a bright vibrant white, while her mother had preferred the darker wood, both indoors and out. In the end, her mother had won, and now the dark wood grain gave Nera a feeling of foreboding, like the mouth of a cave that threatened to swallow her whole if she entered it. It was not an inviting sight compared to the light and airy new paintjob of the rest of the exterior. Especially with the bright yellow crime scene tape across the door standing out like a reverse “welcome home” sign against the dark wood.

A broken planter box sat just to the left of the door, accidentally smashed, presumably, as the detectives and paramedics came to remove her father and investigate the circumstances around his death. Nera picked up a shard of the vibrant green ceramic from amidst the sod and the now near lifeless flowers whose roots couldn’t withstand being exposed to the salty air. Everything here is dead it seems, she thought as she used the bit of planter box to slice through the bright yellow tape.

The creaky old door gave a sigh, and in the faint light of dusk, Nera watched the dust settle in a film across her living room. With no one to wind it, even the oversized grandfather clock sat motionless and silent in its place in the corner, a sad silent sentinel, guarding the emptiness, but weaponless against the passage of time and the encroaching dust bunnies.

It was strange for her to be back in her old house, especially with the stagnant air and the feeling of a lack of life echoing through each empty room.

The lights didn’t work. In the small town, news traveled fast and the electric company seemed to have decided to shut off the power, lest no one should come and pay them for the trouble of lighting the house of a dead man. Nera used the tiny light on her keychain to light her way, though barely, as she traversed the somewhat familiar path from the living room to the kitchen for the emergency candles that should be in the pantry there.

The path took her by the dining room, but thankfully the door, which had been permanently propped open while there had been living souls in the house, was now shut. Nera wasn’t ready to confront what she’d find there, though she’d been told that a cleaning crew was coming soon to remove the signs of death there, she could tell from the smell that they hadn’t been there yet. An odor of stale blood, rotten food, and offal seeped through the shut door, and she could hear the squeaks and shuffling of rodents feasting on the mess.

No, she didn’t want to see the room where her father had died in that state. She wanted to remember it as the joyous room that hosted many a birthday party and a festive Thanksgiving, and a handful of really enjoyable family game nights, back when her parents were still in love and they did such things.

They had been in love once upon a time. Nera remembered it, though it was still just one really strong memory among a hundred or so not so good memories, they had the pier, and that one kiss. She had seen images of them happy at other times, too. There were pictures from before she was born, when they travelled and before her father’s life became mostly business. When her mother would go with him on his trips to see the world. There were pictures of them smiling and riding a Vespa in Rome, throwing beads off of a balcony in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Nera’s favorite was the kiss in front of the Eiffel tower, which she had always accused them of posing for because it was so much like a still from a Romantic Comedy.

Yes, they had been happy once. Whether or not she had seen it with her own eyes, there was photographic proof of their good times.

There were little reminders throughout the house as well, like the carved heart on the pantry door. Her father, perpetual teenager that he was, had apparently carved it when they first bought the house. “Storhmy and Phin, together ‘til the end of time.”

Nera looked at it now, wondering how does one go from that level of happy to the hatred she could remember seeing in her mother’s eyes whenever they talked about her father. It didn’t make sense. Love was supposed to last forever, like the carving said: “’til the end of time.”

The pantry was full, food several rows deep on every shelf. Twelve jars of icing sat next to six boxes of cake mix. Neither should have been in the house. Her mother had never allowed sugar into the house except on special occasions, and yet here were boxes and boxes of cake mixes, muffin mixes, baker’s chocolate, and marshmallow fluff. On another shelf, rows and rows of pasta of varying shapes and sizes: elbow noodles, penne pasta in both wheat and white, egg noodles, spaghetti, angel hair, linguine, and some she didn’t know how to pronounce. Then on another, canned goods to last until the end days. There was food everywhere, even in piles along the floor making it near impossible to get to the items in the back.

She found the tin with the emergency candles still on the lowest shelf. They had put it there so she could reach them as a little girl. In the box were a dozen medium sized taper candles, with 3 matching holders that could be carried or placed on a flat surface, and 2 lighters and box of matches, in case Nera’s little kid fingers couldn’t work the lighters. She took the whole box with her, one candle lit and in a holder, with the rest safely tucked in their box under her arm as she walked back past the dining room door and right up the stairs to get to her room.

Each step groaned a sigh of mourning as she crept up the stairs. The whole house seemed to be mourning the loss of its keepers. Images of her parents flickered in the candle light with intermittent images of her high school and college self staring at her in the darkness.

The pictures were a lie. All of them. They told a story of love and happiness, of the perfect couple living the perfect life, with the perfect daughter. They catalogued years of paper mache smiles, fabricated to hide the lines and wrinkles and disappointment of a house-wife struggling to love her successful husband. In each picture, Nera saw a hint of the small owl clip peaking just over one ear. For family photos, her mother had insisted on using the clip to hold her up in an upsweep, pinning the clip just over her ear so that some small part of it showed in every picture.

When she’d been younger, Nera had thought the owl was cute, friendly almost. It seemed soft, even though it was made of cold, sharp metal and jewels. The tiny feathers seemed to tinkle and jingle with a happy sound in Nera’s memory of her youth. As Nera’s mother aged, the owl seemingly aged with her. The bright, inviting shine of the silver had tarnished from years of hairspray, and some of the jewels had fallen out, leaving it looking a little weathered around the edges, like a bird left out in the rain, or one whose feathers had been violently plucked by a feuding fellow foul, like in a cockfight. Through the years, it began to leer and scowl from atop Storhm’s head. Nera’s father had referred to it as the “scowling owl” behind Storhm’s back.

Now, in the dim light of the house, Nera couldn’t escape the scowling owl, whose eyes blinked at her in the winking light of the candle. It followed her every movement and Nera could feel the disapproval seeping out of each picture frame.

“Where have you been? Why did you stay away so long?” Why do you intrude on the silence of the house now?”

Nera’s room, thankfully, was just at the top of the stairs to the right. At least it should be a sanctuary. Her father had promised that it would remain untouched, except for an occasional dusting. It had been years since she’d been in that room.

When she left, she had decided never to come back, and she’d stuck to it, making her parents take the trip to meet her in the city for major holidays. The last few years, she’d even foregone inviting them for Thanksgiving, as she’d rather spend it with her friends than with her bickering parents. Last year, she spent the holiday feeding the homeless, so her parents couldn’t come and disrupt the meal like they had tried to do the year before. Now she wished she’d spent more time with them. How could she know that it would be her last opportunity to have Thanksgiving with them both?

The door to her room opened easily, smoothly, and without the creak of every other part of the house. It felt like the room had been waiting for her. Her pink comforter and the boy band sheets were still on the bed, ten years old now, but still in good condition. Her father had stayed true to his word. Her posters were still on the wall, even the alien wearing a red and white Suessian style hat. The corkboard over her desk still had pictures from high school, including the one of Bobby and her in their prom outfits, all smiles. Looking now, she could see the outline of a hard on in his tux pants. She remembered now her father talking to Bobby about soldiers and war and helmets and guns. She hadn’t understood then, but seeing him “at attention” in the photo, it made sense.

No wonder Bobby had decided not to sleep with her that night.

Her father had been a rather intimidating man when he chose to be. Standing at only five foot ten inches, he was stout. His shoulders were broad and he had a large, barrel chest that made him look quite threatening. He had large hands with stubby fingers, workman’s hands, her mother had called them once, not gentleman’s hands like Bobby’s slender fingers. Her father’s hands had engulfed hers when he tried to teach her how to dance to prepare for the dance. Why he thought she would need to know how to waltz, she still didn’t understand, but she could hear the music in her head now, and could almost feel his monstrous hand tentatively on her back as he explained that a gentleman would keep his distance. Nera had stepped on his feet several times during the lesson, but he hadn’t said even so much as an ouch.

She remembered the crinkle of a smile at the corner of his deep brown eyes when he’d seen her in her dress.

“There’s my light in the darkness, you brighten the whole room with your beauty. Boys are gonna fall all over themselves for you!” he’d said. “Maybe I should chaperone instead of your mother.”

Instead of going to the dance, he’d taken Bobby to show him the family gun collection. Bobby had seen it before, as he’d been in the house many times before, but this time her father had wanted him to actually touch them and see that many of them stayed loaded.

Yes, her father knew how to intimidate.

She couldn’t reconcile that image with the husk of a man she’d seen in the morgue. That man, while he’d had her father’s bone structure, he’d been frail, skinny, with his bones protruding at the collar, and his wide shoulders seemed knobby with a lack of meat on them. What had happened in the last couple of years that had made him dwindle away so?

Nera set the candle down on the bed side table, next to a small box she didn’t remember. It was slightly larger than a ring box, and had been wrapped some years ago, gauging by the layer of dust covering it. A small card was attached with a bright red ribbon. Nera read it in the candlelight there: “For my dearest daughter, I’m so sorry, but you’ll understand one day. –Storhm”

Nera nearly threw the box she dropped it so quickly, and she heard a faint jingling sound come from within. The sudden movement snuffed the candle on the bedside table. In the darkness, the only sound she could hear was the pounding of her own heart.

Surely the cops had been through her room as well, and they must have seen this present. Nera wanted nothing to do with it, not with a note like that. Was this a test? Should she take it to the cops to be analyzed or X-Rayed?

To do so would be admitting she thought her mother was guilty, and she had spent most of the morning trying to convince them of her innocence. No one would come right out and say it, but the way her father had died, wasting away in a house full of food, it screamed of some sort of neglect or abuse. Nera had thought perhaps it was poison, or cancer, but no signs of either had been found during the autopsy. He just simply had quit eating, while food was all around him, and without her mother around to explain how such a thing had happened and why the authorities hadn’t been called, everyone thought the same thing, though no one would come right out and say it.

Nera’s parents hadn’t been happy for years. The money was plentiful, even after her father retired, which he’d done early, in spite of a lucrative career. He’d told Nera he had wanted to spend more time with her mother, to try to rekindle the romance. He had a nice bit of money saved up, they owned the house outright, and there was no reason why they shouldn’t take time and travel the world together. Yet, they never traveled further than into the city to see Nera, and even that was only when she’d allowed them to come see her.

Everyone thought something was seriously wrong, but no one wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to admit that they had thought Nera’s mother was capable of starving her husband. Yet, he died in a house full of food, and she had simply vanished.

After she had identified her father at the morgue, officers questioned her about her mother and her mother’s family. Nera was ashamed to admit she knew very little about them at all. She knew her mother had sisters, but she couldn’t tell how many or where they lived now. Her parents had completely isolated themselves from their families in order to start their own family and their own life. She got the impression that Nera’s father’s family didn’t approve of the match, and as he’d been the heir to the family business, he’d been disowned for marrying her mother.

“You mean to tell me that you have no knowledge of your family history?” a gruff, pudgy officer had asked her.

He had been the officer that took her to the morgue to ID her father. Even his name sounded like a cop name, like Knickerson, or Jefferson. Sergeant Dickson, or something to that effect. He wore his hair slicked back, showing his deepening widow’s peak, and the combed in hair color in his mustache ran a little in the heat of the overhead lights, leaving a little line of black dribbling in the creases of his mouth. 

Nera twisted the tissue in her hand as she shook her head, the tears had ceased momentarily in her fear.

“Why aren’t you looking for whoever it is that took my mother?” Nera asked him then.

“We aren’t certain she’s been taken, Nera—Miss Attwater” said the younger cop who sat in the corner. Nera recognized him from school, he’d been a few years younger than her, Scott, Scott Michaels. He offered her a fresh tissue.

She took the tissue, but she didn’t look at him.

“What do you mean, you’re not certain she’s been taken? My father is dead, my mother is missing, she hasn’t contacted me or anyone; there must be foul play. Isn’t that what they say in the shows?”

“No one doubts that there was foul play, as they say, Miss Attwater,” the older cop lifted an eyebrow at her, his eyes gleaming making his whole face look as oily as his hair.

Nera could feel herself getting angry, the lilt in her voice was unnatural to her. Her tone sounded off to her own ears, and her heart beat irregularly. “Then why isn’t anyone looking for her?”

“We are looking for her, but we’re running out of places to look,” the older cop barked. “Why do you think we’re asking you about your family?”

“Are you implying that my mother—“ Nera stood up, the blood rushing to her face.

“No one’s implying anything, Nera,” Scott, the younger cop, said placing his hand on her shoulders tenderly. “Please have a seat.”

The older cop glared at her. They had both placed their hands on the table between them, in a silent standoff of wills.

Nera stared him in the eyes, deep blue eyes. He’d seen things, she could tell. There was a bloodshot quality to them. She could follow the redness in his eyes like a map. Here the body of a hooker from the city washed up on the shore. Follow this vein and you could see the sadness of a woman burying her only daughter, killed in a gang shooting on her way home from school. This red line followed all the way back to his first case, where he learned that sometimes children could commit horrible crimes without remorse. A new track was forming as she stared at him, and she could see her father, face down in a plate of untouched food, bird droppings all over the room, and holes in his clothes where the carrion feeders had attempted to get to what little juicy bits were left of him.

The cop broke the gaze with a sigh. She had won, but at what cost?

“Your father was dead in that house for a few days, Miss Attwater,” the old cop said as he turned to face the mirrored wall behind him. “No one reported him missing because he had quit his job, so no one was looking for him.”

“Not quit, retired, but yes, I knew that,” Nera countered.

“Call it what you will, he was no longer employed, and had no routine that anyone would notice a change in,” he told her. “No one had seen him for months, it seems. Your mother did the grocery shopping, and bought the hardware supplies he’d been using to fix up the house. Everyone in town saw her on a regular basis. But no one saw your father. No one even heard from him since he retired.”

She could see in the mirror that he was looking at his hands, as if there was an answer sheet there that could make sense of it all.

“What are you telling me?” she asked.

“That no one knows what happened to him,” Scott said. “I remember your dad going to the football games, Nera. He was a big guy…”

“And the body they pulled out of the house,” the old cop took over, “wasn’t. And nobody can explain that, except maybe your mother, but she’s missing.”

“And you think she did this? You think she was capable of doing that to him? My tiny mother? You just pointed out what a big guy my dad was. What makes you think she even could do that to him?”

The old cop looked at her in the mirror, then. “That’s why we need to find her, Miss Attwater, to make sense of it.”

Nera couldn’t admit it to herself then, while in the station, but now, at home, seeing all the food in the pantry and finding a cryptic little gift in her room, she knew she believed it, whether the cops did or not. She believed her mother was capable of starving her father to death.

The air seemed hot and stale then. The realization that her mother was a killer had caused a sweat to break out on Nera’s brow. She needed to open the window, but she was afraid to touch anything in the room, lest she somehow disturb some evidence the cops might have missed. Better to have some light first.

While she fumbled with the emergency candles and the lighter, she made up her mind to tell the cops tomorrow that her mother was guilty. Nera needed to distance herself from her mother, and that present, no matter how guilty it made her feel inside to do so. After all, she was planning on turning on the woman who had given birth to her, such decisions didn’t come lightly.

Shaking, she lit the candle and placed it back on the night stand, the little gift box on its side, but practically in the same spot as when she first noticed it. There was lettering on the bottom, dark letters that couldn’t be seen on the rest of the wrapping, the sun and the dust had worn away the letters through the years. Only now that she tipped it, did she see the words “Congrats Grad,” on the paper. Just as the paper had faded to obscure the words, the tape had yellowed through the years.

Nera began to swoon in the heat of the room. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. She tried to recall if her parents had given her a graduation gift when she graduated college, or had this little box sat here for the past ten years waiting for her to return home and find it?

The lock on the window popped open; the room was as in need of fresh air as Nera was, and as she yanked the window open, she could hear the screech of the sea birds coming home to roost for the night. The tree outside her window, the one she had often used to climb down to visit Bobby in the middle of the night, had become home to several birds, in various states of settling, some staring at her, as she gasped for air, half hanging out the window.

In the uppermost branches sat a pair of big birds, much too big to be the normal variety of seabird indigenous to the area, even larger than the albatrosses that occasionally flew this far north. They sat, staring, their steely eyes fixed on Nera. The smaller of the two hopped closer, as if she was going to fly in the window, a bit of silver glinted from around her leg where a small silver figure of a little girl dangled from a delicate chain that had been wrapped around the leg. The larger bird let out a small warning squawk and the bird hopped back to her spot to stare at the woman now closing the window behind her all but a crack, just enough to let a breeze in. The two birds stared intently until they saw the candle light go out, and then they flew off in the direction of downtown. 

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