CHAPTER FOUR – UNWELCOME
“Are we almost there yet, Momma?” Sarah asked as she squirmed her way between the front seats, blue eyes wide with interest.
“I think so – Oh! There it is! There’s the turnoff!” Anna said, as she yanked the wheel to her right.
Aidan grasped the door just in time to stop himself from sliding across the car and into his mother’s lap as she performed a nearly 90-degree turn onto a small dirt road. Sarah flew backwards and bounced between the suitcases like a pinball.
“Sorry, guys. Is everybody okay?” Anna asked sheepishly. When both of her children nodded she gave out a sigh of relief.
“Are you sure this is a road, Mom? It looks more like a trail,” Aidan said, his green eyes narrowing at the thick foliage that practically encased the SUV. At least the temperature had dropped as the sun was blocked out.
“Yes, honey. I did live here for a little while before we, ah, left.” She frowned. “I’m sure this is it.”
“You lived here, Momma?” Sarah asked, crawling forward again, her tatty Barbie gripped tightly in one grubby hand.
“For about a year. When I was seventeen then I – well, I met your father and we got married and had a home of our own,” Anna explained, her voice artificially cheerful.
A home of our own? C’mon, Mom, not even Sarah’s going to believe that lie. They had never had a home of their own. They’d had only cruddy rental apartments while Riordan had tried and failed at yet one more get-rich quick scheme. There wasn’t a con Riordan Walsh wouldn’t fall for. He probably thinks there’s gold at the end of the rainbow, and if only he could invest our life savings in the proposition, we’d be set for life! Aidan’s jaw clenched. Thinking of their father was ulcer-inducing.
He glanced back at Sarah. Her blonde curls fluttered in the hot wind coming through the windows. He felt a stab of pity when he looked at her. There was so much bad stuff going on that he and Anna had to hide from her. Sarah was essentially living in a world that didn’t exist. How long could they continue keeping the truth from her?
Aidan turned to face forward again, but as he did his eyes caught sight of the fast falling gas gauge. He hoped Grandfather Patrick’s house was nearby or his fear about pushing the SUV would become reality. But just at that moment, they rounded a switchback and a large Victorian house loomed into view.
“There it is!” Anna said.
“Wow. It’s, ah, bigger than I thought it would be,” Aidan said. And that was true. He hadn’t realized it would be three stories with a gabled roof and two cupolas. What he had counted on was the sense of gloom and neglect that hung over it. From the way Anna had described Grandfather Patrick earlier he also expected to see perpetual black clouds over the house and hear the occasional grumble of thunder, but the sky was still cloudless cerulean blue.
“He’s going to ask you to paint those shutters, Aidan. I just know it,” Anna said, pointing towards the peeling forest green shutters that flanked every window. There looked to be twenty of them at least in need of a good scrape and paint and that was only on one side of the house. “He hates heights, though he won’t admit it.”
“Great. I hope I don’t break my neck in the process,” Aidan muttered as he looked at the topmost shutters three stories above them.
Anna pulled the car under the covered portico before turning the key off in the ignition. The engine ticked for a few moments and that’s when Aidan got to appreciate how quiet it was up here.
“We’re really in the country, you guys. Isn’t it amazing? Imagine how many stars you’ll be able to see away from all of Chicago’s city lights,” Anna said, but then she rubbed her hands nervously on the fronts of her jeans.
“People to see and places to go or stars? Easy choice,” Aidan said, trying unsuccessfully to keep the bitterness out of his voice as he scrambled out of the car.
Sarah hopped out of the car beside him and immediately took his hand. He squeezed it reassuringly and was rewarded by one of her gap-toothed grins. They both then stared at the double front doors. Aidan let out a low whistle when he caught sight of the elaborate stained glass inlay in both. The image in the glass was of interlocking vines and flowers done in deep jewel colors. At one time, this place must have been a real show-piece, but not now. He could see the rust on the doors’ hinges, the flaking paint on the siding and the rotten concrete front step.
“Do we ring the bell or can we just go on in?” Aidan asked as he drew Sarah with him around the front of the car towards the imposing doors.
Anna looked stricken for a moment. This was never her home, Aidan realized. Just a place she escaped from and now the only place we have left to go. She’s not sure we’re welcome. Aidan hated himself for earlier having made this any harder for her than it already was.
“Well, I think we’d better – ” Anna started, but was interrupted by the front doors opening.
Grandfather Patrick, I presume, Aidan thought as a large figure stepped out onto the front stoop. Patrick gave the impression of old strength, like a gnarled tree trunk. The huge hands at his sides flexed convulsively and reminded Aidan of thick roots. He was tall, well over six feet, and heavily built. His hair was pure white, but it was still thick and robust. His craggy face with its heavy jowls and generous mouth might have once been handsome, but now he looked more forbidding than anything else. Oddly, he was wearing a heavy plaid flannel despite the heat.
But it’s not hot in there. It’s cold. So cold, Aidan realized as an icy breeze whistled out of the front doors and wrapped itself around him. The air smelled of still water and old stone, not the ozone scent that came from air-conditioning. Aidan’s nose wrinkled in disgust. It smells like a dank cave.
Patrick’s deep-set blue eyes fastened immediately on Aidan and the boy fought the urge to step back or flinch away from that gaze. It raked over him from his toes to the top of his head. Aidan tasted bile in the back of his throat as finally those eyes met his and a cruel smile lighted his grandfather’s full mouth.
“So this is him,” Grandfather Patrick said, his voice deep and rumbling. “I’ve never met one so young. I think they must hide them away in their city until they mature.”
The skin between Aidan’s shoulder blades began to crawl. The way his grandfather had said ‘young’ and ‘mature’ seemed vaguely wrong to him. Even the way the older man’s eyes seemed to fasten on the rips in his t-shirt, as if he wanted to see beneath it, made Aidan want to cover himself with a hoodie, something, anything, to block the old man’s stare.
We can’t stay here. Not with him. We can’t! Part of Aidan wailed, but the other part of him, the cool, logical part of him answered: We have to. We have nowhere else to go. We don’t have the gas or money to even get back to the main road. We're trapped here. Oh, shit.