By Wendy Corsi Staub

Young adult, Children's, Historical fiction

Paperback, eBook

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9 mins



June 14, 1963
Dear Brian:
I know we just said goodbye, but I had to write and tell you how much I miss you! I don’t know how I’m going to get through a whole summer away from you when I’m already going cuckoo and it’s only been a few hours! Right now, we’re stuck in this Friday night traffic jam outside Boston. My parents are making us listen to Glen Miller on the radio, and it’s not even coming in that well. Peter and Paul keep fighting over some stupid comic book they both want to read – as if they aren’t loaded down with hundreds of them. And all I’m doing is staring out the window at the dumb honking traffic and thinking about how much I miss you. This summer is going to be so—

“Hey, cut it out!” I holler at my brothers, who are battling over the comic book on the seat next to me. One of the little monsters just nudged my arm and made my pen draw a jagged line off the edge of the stationery and onto my bare leg. “Look what you made me do! Mom!”
I spit on my finger and rub at the ink mark, thinking about how Josie Kurtzenbaum told me that if ink gets on your skin it can seep through your pores and into your blood and poison you.
My mother looks into the back seat and sighs. “Boys, how about if we play the license plate game again?”
“That’s no fun. They’re all Massachusetts,” Paul says, scowling and tugging the comic book again. Peter is gripping the other side and scowling right back at him.
“That’s not true. Look, I see a Rhode Island one right there,” my mother points out cheerfully. “And there’s Maine…”
No one is interested in the game, which she made us play all the way out of New York City and into Connecticut, where my father finally overthrew her as leader of the car and demanded silence so he could concentrate on the traffic.
I don’t know why they had to be in such a rush to leave the city. They should have known traffic would be bad on the Friday night before the first summer weekend since school got out. I don’t see why we couldn’t have waited until tomorrow morning – or even Monday.
Or maybe even never.
I think about Brian Burleigh, the boy who finally asked me to go steady on my birthday just last month. I’ve liked him ever since last summer, when he broke up with Linda Kramer, but he didn’t seem interested in me until my best friend Josie Kurtzenbaum told his best friend Louie Colettini that I liked Brian. And even though it took him almost the whole school year to ask me out, it was worth the wait. I bet he’ll give me his class ring to wear around my neck when he gets it in September. I can’t wait -- I keep picturing Linda Kramer’s face when she sees it.
Anyway, everything was just about perfect until my father’s Great Uncle William – whom I’d never even heard of before – died a few weeks ago and left some big old house in Massachusetts to my grandparents. But Grandma and Grandpa Harmon, who moved to Miami last year, didn’t care about the house and told my father he could have it if he wanted it. If you ask me, it was their way of helping us out without offering a handout, which my father would refuse. But they know how hard it is for him to feed a family of five in New York City on a teacher’s salary.
My parents drove up to the house in Seacliffe to take a look at it a few weeks ago. When they came back, they announced that we were going to spend the summer there and they were going to fix it up so they could sell it.
They acted like the news would thrill my brothers and me.
“Just think,” my mother said, “we’ll be out of the hot city for the whole summer.”
“I don’t want to be out of the hot city. I love the hot city!” I hollered, even though I’d spent the past few summers complaining about how most of my friends got to go to camp up in the Catskills and it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t. I knew that was kind of selfish of me because I know darn well my parents can’t afford to send me, but I couldn’t help it.
But this year, even though most of my friends are still leaving for camp, I would have Brian, who spends the summers working at his father’s clothing store on Eighth Avenue, and Josie, whose parents can’t afford camp either.
I pleaded with my parents to let me stay in New York with Josie’s family or with mother’s sister, my aunt Donna. But my mother pointed out that there are already seven kids in the Kurtzenbaum family and they’re spilling out of their three-bedroom apartment.
Also, ever since Aunt Donna left Uncle Nicholas and started working as a cocktail waitress at some supper club downtown, we haven’t seen much of her. I guess my parents think she’s a little crazy, and letting me stay with her was out of the question.
So here I am, in the back seat of the Chevy on a stupid highway leading to stupid Seacliffe, Massachusetts.
“Who are you writing to, Abbey?” my mother asks, turning around again to peer into the back seat. “Siobhan?”
Siobhan is my pen pal. She lives in England, in this small town called Liverpool. She’s the one who told me about this swell new singing group from her town. They’re called the Beatles, and you should see how gorgeous they are! The moment I saw their picture in the newspaper clipping Siobhan sent, I was in love. For my birthday, she even sent me their first record called Please Please Me and a beautiful silver Beatles pendant on a chain that I’ve been wearing around my neck day and night. Ringo, the drummer, is my favorite. I kiss his carved little silver face every night before I go to sleep.
“Right, I’m writing to Siobhan,” I lie to my mother. The last thing I need is for her to get started in on Brian and how I’m only sixteen and too young to be going steady.
“That’s nice,” she says, smiling and turning back to look at the road just in time to shriek at my father, “Turn here! This is it! Frank, slow down! That was it…back there!”
And he slams on the brakes and we all go flying, and as he grumbles and backs the Chevy along the shoulder toward the road we just missed, the road leading toward Seacliffe, Massachusetts, I groan and wish I were back in good old hot, sweaty New York City.
* * *
“You’re kidding, right?” I ask my parents. “This isn’t it.”
“This is it!” my mother repeats happily, and my father pulls the Chevy into the driveway alongside the big old house – the ugliest, scariest house I’ve ever seen.
“This place looks haunted!” Paul echoes the words that are running through my mind. “Neat-o.”
Peter, the more timid of the twins, just stares at the house, his blue eyes round and worried.
“It’s not haunted,” my father says, turning off the car and stretching. “It just looks a little scary because it’s nighttime. When you see it tomorrow morning in the sunshine, you’ll love it.”
The three of us in the back seat glance at each other doubtfully.
Then I look back out the window. When my parents described the place to us, I had pictured a quaint old house with a gingerbread porch, shutters and window boxes, and maybe cupolas and a widow’s walk.
Yeah, not the case.
This gloomy-looking place is two stories high and shaped like a big ugly box. There’s no porch, no window boxes, and the shutters at the paned windows are mostly missing slats and some of them are hanging crookedly. The walls are made of horizontal narrow wooden slats that look weather-beaten and are covered in some peeling, drab paint, the color of which is impossible to tell in the dark.
“Just think…the house is almost three hundred years old!” my mother chirps.
“Great,” I mutter. “Just great. Does it have indoor plumbing?”
“Of course it does,” my father reassures me, opening his car door. Instantly, a chilly, damp breeze blows in. It smells like fish and salt and algae. I guess we’re right next to the ocean. I wrinkle my nose.
“It may have a bathroom but it doesn’t have a hi-fi,” I grimly remind my father. Was I ever upset when he told me that! I brought my Beatles record anyway – I didn’t want to leave it back in New York, where someone might break into our apartment and steal it.
My father ignores me and slams his door behind him.
“Come on,” my mother says, getting out of the car, too. “Let’s unload the trunk.”
Sighing, I open the door and step out into the pitch-black night. Paul does, too.
We don’t notice that Peter has stayed put until we’re standing by the open trunk and my father is handing out bags.
“Where’s Pete?” he asks, picking up my brother’s little blue duffel bag.
“He’s being a big sissy,” Paul informs us. “Says he’s not coming out.”
My mother and I walk back around and look inside the car. We see him huddled in the back seat with his arms wrapped around his knees and his eyes all big and spooked.
“Petey, what’s the matter?” my mother asks, opening the door.
“Come on out honey,” she coaxes, showing him his duffle bag. We need you to carry this inside.”
“I’m not going in there,” he says stubbornly.
“I don’t blame him,” I put in.
My mother shoots me a look and then says to Peter, “Why not, honey?”
“Oh, Petey, it is not. You’re going to love this house.”
Both my brother and I look dubiously at the wooden monstrosity looming above us in the dark sky.
“I don’t think so,” I say helpfully. “I think we’d better not stay here. It doesn’t look…safe. Let’s go back to New York.”
“Abbey, stop that,” my mother says as my father comes up behind her suddenly and says, “What’s going on here?” which make us all jump out of our skins.
I guess even my mother is a little jittery about this creepy old house.
“Petey is afraid of the house,” my mother says, stroking my brother’s stubbly blond summer crew cut.
“What? Don’t be silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Come on, Pete, be a man.”
“Yeah, be a man,” Paul echoes. “Who’s afraid of a few ghosts?”
“Ghosts?” Peter squeezes his eyes shut.
“Paul, you know there’s no such thing as ghosts,” my mother says firmly. “Now, Petey, if you’ll come inside, I’ll let you have first choice about which bedroom will be yours.”
My brothers, who sleep in bunk beds in our apartment back in the city, had been all excited when they found out they each get their own room in the summer house.
Now Peter’s eyes snap open and he protests, “I don’t want my own room! I want to sleep with Paul.”
“Uh-uh,” Paul says firmly. I get my own room.”
“Then I’m not going in,” Peter says again, setting his jaw.
My parents look at each other. Then my father says, “Pete, you’re ten years old, going on eleven. You don’t want anyone to call you a sissy, do you?”
Personally, I think that’s mean of my dad to say.
Poor Petey just shakes his head miserably.
“Well, then, come on inside.”
“And if you’d like to sleep with Paul just for tonight, you can,” my mother says.
“No, he can’t,” Paul says immediately. “I get my own room. You said.”
“He can sleep with me,” I offer, patting my little brother’s shoulder.
Peter looks up gratefully. “I can?”
“Thank you, Abbey,” my mother says as my father shakes his head, takes out his key ring, and walks toward the house, followed by Paul, who’s also shaking his head.
“It’s no problem,” I tell her.
I’m not willing to admit that I’ll be glad to have Peter around.
There’s something strange and foreboding about this big old house. I can’t put my finger on it, but I get the feeling that something isn’t quite right here.
My heart is beating really fast and I can’t shake this weird sense of apprehension as I walk toward the front door.
* * *
I hate old stuff.
By that, I mean this house.
If it looked bad on the outside, it’s even worse on the inside. The first thing that hits me when I step into the front hall is a musty, stale scent that my mother poetically describes as “aged wood and antiques and memories and history…and isn’t it wonderful?”
Personally, I think the place stinks.
And the place is ugly, too.
Almost every room has this faded old-fashioned wallpaper that’s torn away or curling in some spots. There are exposed beams everywhere you look, and the ceilings are so low that even I feel as though I have to keep ducking, and I’m only five foot six.
There aren’t any overhead lights, and the lamps are ancient and throw off a yellowish glow that doesn’t reach into the shadowy corners of the rooms. And there are so many rooms that I can’t keep track and I keep getting lost.
Not to mention the fact that the rooms all seem cramped and are much smaller than the ones in our apartment back on East Eighty-Third Street. There’s one exception: a long room that runs along one whole half of the first floor, which my mother proudly refers to as the “keeping room.” I guess it’s sort of a seventeenth century version of a Rec room. It has a gigantic fireplace I can stand in, and lots of built-in cupboards and shelves. There are more windows in this room, too, and they run almost from the floor to the ceiling, so it doesn’t seem as depressing as the others.
To get to the kitchen, you have to go through a narrow passage off the keeping room. There’s another enormous fireplace in there, and my mother told me people actually used to cook in it. There’s a little brick oven built into the inside wall, too.
“Hey, where are the bedrooms?” I hear Paul asking my father from the front hall, where they’re coming in with more bags.
“Upstairs. Here, hold onto this for a second,” my father replies.
Paul groans audibly. “Hey, this is heavy! Come on, Dad. I want to pick my room before Abbey gets the best one.”
“In a minute, Paul. You have to be my helper right now.”
Naturally, I make a beeline back to the front of the house and up the narrow staircase. It’s so steep it’s practically a ladder, and the steps are uneven. Nice. Real nice.
At the top, I see a dark, close corridor lined with doors and lit only by a naked bulb. It looks pretty creepy.
Gathering my courage, I start opening doors and peeking into the dark rooms. They’re all small and crowded with ugly old furniture, and everything is musty-smelling and silent. I’m feeling more and more jumpy, as though a ghost is going to pop out at me any second now.
I’m just closing the last door when I hear Paul’s footsteps pounding up the stairs, followed by my mother’s. I hear her saying, “Be careful, honey, these stairs are treacherous.”
Instantly I make my decision. I’ll take one of the larger rooms at the back corner of the house. It’s only about ten by ten and there’s no closet, but it’s better than the rest of the rooms.
The bed is a narrow, creaky iron contraption that my mother, predictably, refers to as “quaint.” But the mattress is so lumpy – and so are all the others – that my father comes upstairs, takes one look, and agrees to buy new mattresses and box springs first thing tomorrow.
My mother, the eternal optimist, points out that I have “a rustic view” from my windows, but all I can see are a bunch of trees shrouded in fog.
Everyone else goes downstairs to have some Pepsi in the kitchen. I spend a few minutes opening drawers in the tall old dresser between the windows. They’re all empty and lined with thirty year-old newspapers that have headlines about the Great Depression.
I can’t put my clothes in there. Everything I own will stink. I’ll probably start to smell like a big mothball myself.
My room is such a disappointment that I don’t explore it for very long.
All right, maybe the real reason I don’t want to be there alone is that I’m a little spooked. There’s something strange about this house and I don’t like it one bit. I don’t know how I’m ever going to sleep in this room every night if I can’t even stay for five minutes. Thank goodness Peter will be with me tonight, even if it is going to be a tight fit on the narrow bed. Maybe I can talk him into sharing a room with me for the whole summer.
I hurry back downstairs, telling myself to stop being so silly. It’s just an old house. And maybe my father was wrong and there really is a hi-fi. If I could just hear “Love Me Do,” I’d feel a lot better.
But there’s only an old radio set in the keeping room that’s almost as tall as I am, kind of like the one my grandparents threw away when they moved out of their apartment in the Bronx. At least there’s a television set – chalk one up for Great Uncle William – even if it is at least ten years old with a tiny round screen.
All in all, the whole place is depressing. I keep thinking of our up-to-date apartment back home with its Danish Modern olive green and brown living room furniture, the brand new Frigidaire and twenty-three inch television set my father just bought at Macy’s, and, most importantly, the hi-fi.
But even worse than the outdated furniture and appliances is the strange, creepy feeling I can’t seem to shake. This old house just isn’t normal.
I stand alone in the keeping room, just looking around and half listening to the voices of my parents and brothers in the kitchen, and half to the wind outside, and in the distance, the crashing ocean.
And as I stand here, the back of my neck prickles like crazy.
I know it seems ridiculous, but I’m really starting to get scared.
I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we never should have come to Seacliffe. It’s not just that I miss the city, or Brian and Josie, or the hi-fi.
It’s something more than that. Something much more serious.
I’m certain – and I don’t know why, but I am – that something bad has happened in this house. Either that, or…it’s about to.




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