Her mother had said the house was built by ancestors. That it was a century and a half old. That it was "in the middle of nowhere" and that the rooms and hallways were full of portraits of long-dead relatives. There was a library full of letters and journals and books from the past. But Gretchen's mother had told her almost nothing else about the Axton mansion, not about the years she'd lived there as a child, not about any of her other relatives, nor why her parents had left it behind.
Only once had Gretchen seen an image of her mother's family at the place; a snapshot of her mother as a child, standing on the large round front porch with her parents, a rose trellis growing up the side, and a smaller child running through the frame, looking like nothing more than a blur, a smudge in the background. The photograph was focused on the porch and the immediate foreground, and honestly, it could be any house. The picture she liked better was an old sepia-toned print they'd had hanging in their apartment in the East Village, taken from farther away down a little slope. You could see the whole house, the rounded cupola, the balconies, the rosebush, up to the top of the front porch.
She could barely tell it was the same front porch the driver was pulling up to now, it bore such little resemblance to the house in the picture. The Axton mansion was waiting at the end of a long dirt road surrounded by trees. The entire place leaned undeniably to the left, bricks uneven and precarious, porch columns no longer straight, shedding their paint like some kind of molting bird. Kudzu and ivy and clematis climbed up one side of the porch and part of the front of the building, and on the other side was a thicket of thorny roses, untended and untrimmed for maybe a century, grown into an unwieldy monstrous tower as high as the third f loor. She could smell their dense, smothering sweetness without rolling down the car window. The place had been beaten by the wind and the rain, and the heat of the sun had bleached and cracked it. The roses—so tightly ingrown with the pillars—may have been one of the only things providing structural support to that part of the house.
She knew the place would be old—ancient, even. And that it wouldn't be well kept up. It wasn't like she expected a real mansion. But she in no way expected this.
It was so different from the image she'd had in her mind all these years, she wasn't sure if she wanted to utter a cry of horror or burst out laughing. Then the driver doublechecked the address on his phone and said Nah, seriously? in a heavy Bronx accent and she really did start laughing.
He'd picked her up at Eighty-Eighth and Park Avenue in the city and the job was to drive her all the way to Mayville. She must have seemed like some spoiled rich girl, but there wasn't really another way to get there; her aunt had paid for the long car ride because Gretchen didn't have a car in the city, there were no trains to Mayville, and buses rarely ran there. The landscape had gotten stranger as they drove, and part of the trip was through a deep wood.
A scrawny gray cat sat on a weathered rocker on the front porch, eyeing them blankly. Then the front window curtains parted and a pale face with fierce dark eyes peered out.
The driver cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders involuntarily, then glanced at Gretchen in his rearview mirror. She could only see his eyes, but his expression looked remorseful and a little incredulous. "You gonna be a'right here?" he asked.
She smiled at him. "Yeah, totally," she said, still laughing. The question was ridiculous; of course she'd be okay—she was a city girl, used to doing things on her own. "I'm fine. Thank you."
"You sure?" the driver asked, putting the car back in gear.
"I'm sure," she said, though the house had been startling, even to her. "That's my aunt."
He shrugged. "A'right then, I'll pop the trunk."
But as she got out to help him with her suitcase Gretchen fought her own creeping sense of astonishment and unease.
This was indeed the place. Her aunt Esther's house: the mansion her family had owned for centuries, but she had long stopped thinking about the mansion, and had barely even heard of this aunt until yesterday. When the landline rang.
Gretchen and Janine had looked at each other in surprise. "I forgot we even had one of those," Janine said on the third ring. Then she went back to their argument.
"You can't use Pythagoras," Janine said. "I'm sure you can't because it's a proper noun. Totally against the rules!"
Scrabble marathons, Chunky Monkey ice cream, and reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were what they did in the evenings when Gretchen's dad was away for more than a few weeks and her mother's best friend, Janine, came to stay at their place. This time he was away for a few months building a hospital in Guatemala.
On the eighth ring Janine looked pointedly at Gretchen and raised her eyebrows—like she should get up and answer the damn phone.
"Not it," Gretchen said, putting a finger on her nose.
Janine sighed and walked over to the kitchen while Gretchen flopped back on the couch and watched Will Smith talking to Geoffrey the butler. She didn't like the laugh track, she didn't know if she really liked the show at all, but Janine did, and it had become a kind of welcome, if not so interesting, routine.
She texted Simon while Janine was on the phone. Fresh Prince night!
Two seconds later he texted back: Chunky Monkey??
Can I come over??
Since he lived in the building he could achieve this by a simple elevator ride. "Simon's coming over," she yelled to Janine—who put her hand up and scowled. Janine pointed to the big ridiculous house phone and mouthed the word "Wait."
Wait, sorry. No, Gretchen texted Simon, who replied with a brief u suck see u tmrw :P
Gretchen expected it would be a sales call and Janine would hang up right away, but instead she was silent, listening intently, and then there was a series of "Mmmhms" and then "WHO?" and then "Yes. Wow; no, of course I've heard of you. Of course, I totally understand. Oh really? That's . . . mmmhm . . . Well, I'll ask her."
Then she held the phone out to Gretchen. "It's your aunt," she said.
"You're inheriting a house." She shrugged, then mouthed the words "I don't freaking know" and handed Gretchen the phone.
"Hello?" Gretchen said skeptically.
"Hello, sweets. This is your great aunt, Esther." When she heard the low, melodic voice so full of authority, her heart skipped a beat. It sounded so much like her own mother it made her eyes immediately fill with tears. The woman even used her mother's nickname for her.
"You don't know who I am, do you?" her aunt asked.
"Did your mother ever tell you about me?"
"Yes," Gretchen said, though she was pretty sure that wasn't true. She struggled to remember anything at all about an aunt Esther. "My mother said you . . . ah . . . I remember . . . You were a . . . She wrote you letters." She groaned inside at how lame that sounded. She racked her brain. Was Aunt Esther an artist of some kind? Was it Aunt Esther who sent that box of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs years ago? Those rare Victorian photographs that her mother had hung in the gallery alongside contemporary work? Suddenly Gretchen was wondering why this was the first she was hearing from Aunt Esther. If she was close to her mother, why didn't she get in touch when she'd disappeared?
"I'm leaving the Axton mansion," her aunt explained bluntly. There was a strange buzzing sound, more like insects than a bad connection, that seemed to be coming from somewhere on the other line. "I don't want to, but I have to and I need help. Janine can tell you my proposal, but it would require your coming here to Mayville. And soon."
"Oh," Gretchen said. "Uh . . ."
She turned and glanced at Janine, who was eating ice cream out of the carton with a spoon and looking glassyeyed at the TV. She thought of Simon, and their plans for the summer, which mostly involved going to all-ages shows down in the Village and talking to boys. Her father wouldn't even be within cell-phone range for the next three months. The city was hot as hell and the country would be cool and breezy. And she could finally see the mansion she'd only imagined. And what was this about a inheriting a house?
"You're next in line," Esther said. And Gretchen wondered, embarrassed, if she'd asked the house question out loud.
"There's only you," Esther said. "After me—there's only you. I can't do this by myself, sweets."
Gretchen had always wanted to see the mansion. See where her mother had started out.
"Um . . . okay!" she blurted out, surprising herself. "Great. That sounds great."
The abruptness of her own decision startled Gretchen and seemed to startle the old woman as well.
"Really?" Aunt Esther asked, sounding relieved. "Oh! Wonderful! Thank you, thank you. I have a darkroom here, of course, but I suppose you're all digital now, huh? Well, bring your camera anyway."
"I don't go anywhere without it," Gretchen said, wondering how this woman even knew she was a photographer or would be interested in a darkroom. The idea of living in the country in an old mansion and taking pictures, being able to develop them herself, was growing on her by the second. It sounded very posh. She could tell kids at Gramercy Arts, where she and Simon went to school, that she was going on an artist's residency this summer. She could take photographs all day, wander dewy fields of f lowers, find a swimming hole . . . Maybe her aunt had a cook or a butler. It was a mansion, after all.
"I'll send a car for you tomorrow," Esther had said.
"Tomorrow?" Gretchen asked.
"There an echo in here? Yes. Tomorrow." Then she abruptly hung up.
Gretchen stood there with the phone in her hand until it started making a loud, low beeping noise; then she also hung up. "What did my aunt tell you I'd be doing in Mayville for the summer?" she asked Janine.
"She said she needs help moving." As usual, Janine didn't think anything strange or exciting was going on. This was Janine's thing. She had been Gretchen's mother's best friend, but she was the total opposite of Gretchen's mother. Where Mona had been sensitive and passionate about life and art and pretty much everything in the world and even out of this world, Janine was meticulous, orderly, and yet somehow very laid-back. "Unflappable" was how Mona used to describe her. She'd worked as a scientist for a pharmaceutical company.
"You sure she wasn't getting high on her own supply?" Simon had asked when he first met Janine. "Seems like she was taking drugs all that time instead of inventing them. Doesn't she seem a little, uh . . . too calm? Like, permanently calm?"
But Gretchen was sure these were the very qualities that her mother had loved in Janine. Mona had been a kind of cult figure in the art world—Mona Axton Gallery in Chelsea was renowned. She dealt constantly with the woowoo personalities of the artists who showed in her space, or came to her as an authority on paranormal ephemera— photographs and objects they believed were "haunted." Mona was deeply interested in all things otherworldly, but she also wanted to substantiate these things—make sure they weren't just made up. Maybe it wasn't that odd that she'd had a scientist for a best friend, someone who could keep things in check. Once the gallery was doing really well, her parents moved from their creaky walk-up apartment in the East Village, with its strange artifacts and incessant weirdo visitors, to the clean, cool splendor of their place near Central Park. In their new apartment there was more room, a doorman, an amazing view—and wildeyed photographers didn't show up at all hours claiming to have seen the ghost of Allen Ginsberg levitating above a tree in Tompkins Square Park. Collectors of Victorian ephemera didn't show up on the doorstep unannounced trying to sell them necklaces made out of human hair, or "haunted objects."
It was six years ago that they'd moved. And four years and eight months since her mother disappeared. Gretchen missed her mother so much she still didn't know if she would ever be happy again. She had been frightened and worried, then finally she'd felt a terrible mix of guiltridden anger, thinking that her mother had left her and her father. She started thinking that couldn't be true and she was awful to think it—especially if something terrible had happened.
Police searches and private detectives turned up nothing. Mona's picture was all over town and in the paper. The story of her disappearance was even on a television show about unsolved mysteries. They implied that her close ties to the occult were responsible somehow—like there was some otherworldly mystery to her disappearance.
"That stuff in the papers, it's nonsense," Janine had told her. "There is a logical reason for why people go missing, and we might not know what it is, but it is certainly not because of the work she did with spiritualist photographers. That's art, Gretchen. Don't let these people confuse you. Your mother may have been an artist and a spiritualist at heart—but she believed in evidence as much as any scientist."
From then on Janine had taken Gretchen to school, babysat when her father was out. If Gretchen needed special film or art supplies or weird clothes from the thrift store, or anything at all, Janine got it for her. And if Gretchen had a bad day thinking about her mom, Janine would tell her to stay home from school and just hang out. Janine was the queen of hanging out. She'd take Gretchen to movies or ice-skating or on trips upstate to go apple picking.
"Do you think Mom's dead?" Gretchen asked her once.
"I don't," Janine had said.
"Because you have evidence?" Gretchen asked. "Because there's some evidence she's alive?"
At that Janine looked right into her eyes. "There's no evidence one way or the other, but what I feel, what I know about your mom, I think she's out there somewhere. We just don't have enough information. And until there is proof otherwise, I choose to believe she's alive."
Gretchen had wanted to hear that Mona was alive, but once Janine said it, it made her feel worse. The idea that someone had taken her mother and was holding her somewhere was terrifying. But the idea that her mother had simply left them, had walked away and never come back, no good-byes, no explanations—that hurt like a dull throb in her heart.
Janine had seen the pain in her eyes and put her arms around Gretchen.
"The truth is," Janine said, "we just don't know. But you asked me how I feel. And I feel the force of your mother's life around us. Sometimes you have to follow your gut to get to the proof you're looking for." At the apartment, after Aunt Esther's call, Janine looked right into her eyes again. "You sure you want to spend the whole summer upstate in Mayville?"
"Yeah," Gretchen said. "It sounds like it'll be a good vacation."
Janine looked a little skeptical. "It'll be interesting, anyway," she said.
"Can I inherit a house if I'm only sixteen?" Gretchen asked.
"Sure you can," Janine said, laying down some Scrabble tiles that spelled the word "pickle." "You just can't do anything with it yet."
The next day Gretchen barely had a proper good-bye with Simon before the car arrived. He came downstairs and lay on her bed with his big feet propped against the wall, telling her how he had a crazy conversation about poetry with the guy who owns that vintage clothing store with the neon pink sign down on St. Marks Place.
"The guy has a big tattoo across his chest that says I Need More," Simon said. "I'm like, more what? Did he just get bored and not go back to the tattoo shop for the final word?"
"More shirts?" Gretchen said. "How'd you see his chest?"
"'Cause he was showing me the tattoo."
"More modesty?" Gretchen suggested, making Simon laugh.
"Maybe just more wrinkle cream," Simon said. "I think he's like a million years old. He talked about going to see Iggy Pop play in the 1960s!"
"That's cool, though," Gretchen said.
Simon sighed. "I know. I wish we could have seen him back then." He watched her pack up her makeup. "I can't believe you're leaving me here by myself all summer."
She lay down next to him on the bed, looked into his dark eyes, rested her forehead against his. "I will text you every day."
"You better," he said.
Then he got up and helped pick out her "going to the mansion" outfit: gray vintage cotton slip, her Doc Martens, an old rhinestone necklace that had belonged to her mother. She wore bright-red lipstick and put her long hair up into a topknot on her head. He stood back and sighed again. "So, so beautiful," he said.
Janine went down in the elevator with her to see her off, handed Gretchen a wad of cash as she was getting into the car, and kissed her on the cheek.
"Upstate is pretty weird," she said. "Take some good pictures."
"Wait, what do you mean, weird?"
Janine shrugged. "Depressing. Provincial. Creepy. Insular. Ignorant. . . ."
"Okay," Gretchen said, looking nervous. "I think I got it."
"There's a reason eight million people live in New York City and not in the surrounding countryside," Janine said. Then, "If you feel like coming home—do it." Then she patted the top of the car and the driver headed out through a jam of rush-hour traffic. Gretchen gazed into the orange light of morning that reflected off the tall buildings surrounding Central Park. How very strange, Gretchen thought. She hadn't thought about Axton mansion for years, and now she was heading there—about to inherit the place her mother's family had once called home.
She'd had eight hours sitting in the back of the car to dream of what the mansion might be like, and now here it was: a ghostly relic at the end of a dark forest road. No houses nearby, not a soul in sight. On the porch the scrawny cat stared, an empty chair rocked back and forth from the breeze, and a stiff piece of smudged and ancient newsprint scuttled across the porch and lodged itself in the thorns at the base of the rosebush.
Thank you for sending the North Star along with your letter. It means everything to me! I have hidden it beneath my mattress for fear Father discovers it. There is such anxiety over these topics. My parents have always found it best to keep their heads down—I'm sure you know why. But as for myself I hope you will tell me of any opportunity that might arise for me to help. I only wish that I had been able to be there and see Mr. Douglass speak myself. Maybe one day people will understand that no matter the plight, it's the very same people holding everybody down.
I think about his life and journey and, like you, am inspired. Were that I not forced to stay in my father's home and care for my nieces, I would be at school, like you, or maybe even helping in the cause. Just to be surrounded by those who can speak so bravely about freedom, and fight for it.
I share all your sentiments, James, even the ones we shouldn't be so careless to speak about in letters. Would that you were here and we could talk more plainly face-to-face. I think about the day you left for school, and the things we said. It's all true, James. I have never had a better friend. And my feelings grow ever stronger in your absence.
Life at home in Mayville is as you would imagine. Pretty and airy and oh-so dull. I ran into your brother George while picking berries with my nieces. He was out hunting with some friends and seemed well and red cheeked and jovial. George is charming and well liked, isn't he? Splendidly suited to take over the Axton family business, and always dressed in the finest cotton.