From Fix You
The drive was two dirt tire tracks with a strip of grass between, so unremarkable Jess would have missed it had she been the one driving. But three-hundred-year-old Millie Marshall the real estate agent saw it, bifocals and all, and her boat of a Cadillac hit the rut at the curb with a jump that sent Tyler bouncing up out of his seat. Jess saw his head in the rearview mirror and was grateful the weight of Willa’s carseat kept her from smacking against the roof.
“Whoa,” Tyler said with a laugh, and Willa giggled. So at least they weren’t bothered by the whiplash.
“The house sits on the back of the property,” Millie said. She had a voice like the rustling of bird wings, too quiet and indistinct. “It has a beautiful view of the lake.”
“Okay.” Jess grabbed at the dash as they bobbed down into a pothole to the sound of more giggling from the backseat. “Where’s the guest cottage?”
“Right beside the house, dear.”
The drive snaked between thick copses of pines and birches, climbing slowly upward, and then the Cadillac waddled its way over the crest of a hill and left the trees, emerging into a several acre clearing that did, in fact, on either side of the house, go all the way to the muddy brown edge of the lake. Jess saw the waving, tall stalks of grass, the overgrown gardens, the falling-apart outbuildings and the little white cottage for caretakers, but it was the mansion itself that pulled her eyes: a monolithic, decaying beast of a structure.
It had been white once, before the mildew had taken over. Before the windows had cracked. Before the soffits had swollen with water and begun to sag. And it was indeed a Victorian mansion: the sloped eaves of the roof, the wraparound porch, the turret, the spires, the gingerbread and sheer slap-you-in-the-face, unapologetic size and grandeur of the place. It had settled on the grass long, long ago and made itself comfortable, its wings outstretched, its footprint bold. It had been grand, it had been beautiful, it had been, at some point, worth a pretty million dollars or two. But time and weather and a lack of love had ruined it.
Jess had sucked in a deep breath before she realized it, because suddenly Tyler was out of his seatbelt and leaning up between the front seats. “What?” he asked, peering through the dash. “That is a big house, Mama. Are we gonna live there?”
“I don’t know,” she said absently, and even if her answer should have been no, she truly didn’t, because her need to do something was throbbing inside her like a second heartbeat.
Millie took them all the way up the end of the drive that circled around what had once been a fountain – but was now a tiered bundle of weeds and vines that startled birds fled from –and braked the Caddy to a halt. Jess almost leapt from the car, suddenly anxious in a way that left her palms clammy: first date anxious, new job anxious, something special anxious. Tyler tumbled out too.
“Stay right here with me,” she warned him and went around to fetch Willa from her carseat.
“Essie, Essie, Essie,” Willa was saying like she did when she was excited or nervous. Jess propped her on her hip and walked around the front of the car to wait for Millie. “Go home?” Willa asked.
“Not yet, baby,” Jess soothed, and rocked her and stared at the house because her eyes didn’t want to leave it.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Millie asked as she eased her ancient way out from behind the wheel.
“In a falling-down sort of way,” Jess said with a quick, disbelieving cough of a laugh. She hadn’t comprehended how such a place could be so cheap, but she was beginning to understand.
“The owner inherited it from her parents, and them from their parents before,” Millie said. “She’s getting on in years – the owner, bless her – and she has no one to leave it to. She doesn’t want to turn a profit off the sale, just to see it put in good hands.”
And what would you call the hands that let it go to shit? Jess wondered. “How long’s it been empty?”
“Ten years, maybe.”
“Let’s go inside.”
The porch groaned under their feet. The “original hardwoods” were in dire need of refinishing, maybe even replacing. The “vintage charm” consisted of garish eighties-era wallpaper, all of it clashing, all of it hideous, some of it velveteen to the touch and spotted with mildew. The kitchen was once-white, filthy, caked with grime, the sink full of rust, trash lingering in the corners. The plumbing didn’t work. A smell of decay pervaded the place and gave Willa the instant sniffles. Exposed wires curled like snakes from holes in the wall. Teenagers had broken in and left cigarette butts and graffiti behind. Old beer cans and, most likely, a used condom or two if she chose to search for them.
But the sheer size and number of the rooms was staggering. The ceilings were high. The fireplace in the great room was a breathtaking feat of sculpted marble that needed a good polishing. The windows – all of the windows – poured butter yellow summer sunlight across the sad, lonely interior and warmed the shifting glamour of what had once been. Like a ghost, Jess saw the shine of the floors, the former splendor of the finishings, the furnished grandeur of the place as a thin film overlaying the broken reality, an echo of the past and the beauty that had once lived within these battered walls.
It was broken. It was haunted. Just like her.
But it had bones, and it had memories, and it had the ability to be something strong again. Just like her.
Millie rattled and wheezed the house’s history as they went from room to room. Tyler found a dead mouse and tried to put it in his pocket, pouted when Jess swatted it out of his hand. Willa babbled and pieced together nonsensical, two-year-old sentences. And finally, the tour came to an end, emptying them into the front parlor where they’d begun.
“What do you think?” Millie asked, little blue-veined hands clasped in front of her.
Jess shook her head. “I think my sister’s gonna shit a brick.”
“One’s cool and the other one’s…not so much,” Jordan Walker had warned of his sisters. “But I guess I have to give the standard ‘be good to them or so help me God’ thing. So, yeah. Sorry in advance if they drive you nuts.”
In the fifteen years that he’d been redoing houses, Chris had never entered a new job with that kind of information. He wasn’t sure if he should be worried, or if he should laugh it off, so he settled for neither and went to a neutral place in his head as his GPS alerted him that his destination was five meters ahead on the right. “Thanks, doll,” he told the automated female voice as he reached up and switched off the Tom Tom.
The street was flanked by sprawling, million dollar lake houses, but the drive he turned up was two ruts in the grass, trees crowding close at its edges. It wasn’t the sort of thing he could see as attracting two women, but the house he saw as the forest fell away, was. Or, at least, it had been, once upon a time.
The lawn looked like it had been too long and wet when it had been cut, all chewed up and clumped with the clippings. The little house off to the right didn’t look half bad, but the mansion – and it was that – had been left to decay and die. He’d seen worse, but this wasn’t pretty.
There was a late model black Tahoe and a gorgeous, cherry blue Chevrolet in the drive; the small woman with a kid on her hip and another at her side had to be one of the sisters. Chris parked his truck, killed the engine and went to meet her at the foot of the porch steps.
She was just barely over five feet, if even, with a shower of wavy, dark blonde hair down her back. The Timberlands were all that kept her white tank top and cutoffs from looking like a Gretchen Wilson song come to life, and the toddler on her hip was black-haired and blue-eyed and didn’t really look anything like her, nor did the little boy next to her.
“Chris, right?” she asked, and extended a tiny hand for him to shake. “I’m Jo Wales.”
“Nice to meet you.” Her grip was sure and her palm was callused; this was the “cool” sister. “I’m guessing this isn’t Jessica,” he said with a nod toward the little girl.
Jo grinned. “My daughter Willa,” she hefted the toddler up higher on her hip, “and Jess’s son Tyler.”
The little boy waved and said, “Hi.”
“Hey, Jess!” Jo called. “He’s here.”
“Are you gonna fix the house?” Tyler asked, his eyes going out to Chris’s truck.
“Gonna try to,” he said, and then the porch groaned and his eyes lifted to the door and the other sister.
Wow was his first, unwanted thought. Thirtyish, she was taller than Jo, her bone structure more defined. Jeans and a loose black t-shirt did nothing to detract from the long and lean lines of her body. With her sun-kissed golden hair, she was the kind of woman that inspired automatic double-takes. She wasn’t sort of pretty, not subtly alluring, not the kind of girl who had to grow on a man. She was traffic-stopping, wolf-whistle, trip-over-your-own-tongue beautiful, and judging by her expression as she looked down at him from the top step, none of that beauty came with friendliness.
“You’re Chris?” she asked, hands settling on her hips.
You’re the uncool sister? She looked so serious he wanted to grin. “Yeah.”
She nodded. “Good. Jessica.” Her head tilted back toward the house. “Come in and see.”
Jo stepped aside to let him pass, and whispered, “Prepare yourself,” to him under her breath.
As he would later learn, she wasn’t talking about the house.
Jordan’s contractor wasn’t the stereotypical slob with his ass crack showing, which was at least one mark in his favor. He was either late thirties or early forties, tall and big-shouldered like Mike, clean, his dark hair wanting to stand up on top, goatee neatly trimmed. “He’s not creepy,” Ellie had said, and no, he didn’t seem so, though Jess knew that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
He looked in every room, every closet, under every sink, behind every shredded shower curtain, making notes on a clipboard and muttering, “whoa,” every so often. Things were measured, plumbing was frowned at, old newspaper pages in corners were toed over and more rat droppings were found. In the long, long upstairs hall that was a dark tunnel of peeling indigo wallpaper and big blocks of light streaming through open bedroom doors and patterning the damaged hardwood, Chris tucked his pencil behind his ear. He gave her a cautious look, because, in addition to being generically friendly with her, he was cautious too, and Jess wondered what her lovely little brother had told the man about her.
“This is a big job,” he said, “but I don’t have to tell you that.”
“No,” she agreed. “Can you handle it?”
One of his eyebrows gave a little twitch. “I can if your checkbook can. This is gonna be a huge, expensive job.”
No shit, she thought, but nodded. “I won’t use sub-par materials, but anywhere we can save money, I want to. You’ll draw me up an estimate?”
His expression became apologetic. “I can, but it’ll only cover what I can see. Shit knows what I’m gonna find in the walls when I open ‘em up.”
“’Shit knows’. Informative,” she muttered before she could stop herself, and his eyebrow did the twitch thing again. “Well…”
“Look, why don’t you girls talk to your husbands and you can get back to me when you decide.”
Jess shook her head. “No – there’s no husbands involved.” His eyes did an up/down sweep of her and she folded her arms across her chest. “Jo has one,” she amended coolly, “but this is our venture, so it’s our decision.”
He smiled – one of those obnoxious, disarming, little-kid smiles. “Okay, then.”
“Yes,” she said, thinking nothing she’d said was funny and warranted his too-familiar grin.
He checked his clipboard again; it was full of cramped tiny writing, all the house’s many, many flaws made all the more official. “Tell you what,” he said, “you gimme your email address and I’ll send you a copy of this. You can figure out which rooms are your top priority and we’ll start there and keep going for as long as you can afford to. I sub out plumbing and electrical, and I’ve got a two-man crew, but whatever you and your sister want to tackle yourselves will be stuff you don’t have to pay us for.”
Jess nodded. “We’re not afraid to get dirty.”
This time the eyebrow twitch and smile were a package deal. “Good to know,” Chris said, and Jess rolled her eyes when she realized her innuendo.
“Here,” she reached for his clipboard, “I’ll give you my email.”
Board and pen were passed; she wrote and handed back.
“If you want to go ahead, I can start next week,” he said, and her stomach was flooded with butterflies for some reason.
The house was a ruin, and she had this bright and shiny mental image of what it would look like eventually, but the thought of the transition – of the plaster dust and rat shit and holes in the roof, the rotting floorboards and insidious mold growth in the walls – left her almost breathless with nerves. This was an enormous undertaking, and if she couldn’t even make a relationship work, who was to say she could succeed here?
But she had always been proud, too proud for her own good, so she told Chris Haley the spiky-haired contractor, “yes,” and committed her mind to next week.