Hannah Taylor leaned her finger on the doorbell of Colin’s house, listening to the silvery chimes echo inside the sprawling Victorian. The July sun was setting behind her, firing the sky orange and lending a soft pink glow to the stone and clapboard house.
No answer. Her boyfriend’s shiny Ford pickup was parked in the driveway, so he had to be home. Colin had even told her to stop by after dinner. Hannah rang again and tried the door. Locked. She pressed her face against the side window, but all she could see was the darkened foyer. Finally she tipped up a flowerpot of pansies at the corner of the porch. There was a key taped to the bottom. She unlocked the door and stepped into the Oriental-carpeted foyer. Over her head, a vaulted ceiling soared to the second story. The downstairs lights were off, and the purple twilight shadows filtered through the windows.
Hannah set the spare key down on the antique farmhouse table cluttered with piles of mail. “Hello?” she called into the quiet. There was a rustle and a thump from the back of the house. Hannah’s heart gave a little skip. “Colin?” she called again. She padded into the darkened dining room.
Suddenly the foyer blazed into light. Hannah squeezed her eyes shut against the glare. When she opened them, Colin Byrd was standing in the doorway, his hand on the light switch. His hair was rumpled and a book dangled from his hand. “Oh, hi. I fell asleep.”
Hannah exhaled and went over to embrace him. “It’s so dark in here.” She followed him back into the den, where the deep suede couch still held the imprint of his body. She flopped down on the couch, leaning her head against the back. Colin put his book on the coffee table and stretched out on the floor, interlocking his fingers behind his head.
“My mom and dad went to some cocktail thing. How was dinner with the fam?” he asked. He started doing sit-ups.
Hannah blew out her lips. “Fine. The usual. Just me and David.”
“Did you cook?”
She nodded. “Tuna casserole this time. I should teach David how to make it. Ten is old enough to cook, right?” She rocked her head back and forth, feeling the kinks in her neck. “My mom had to stay late. Cleaning up the stockroom.” Her mother’s new job at a big chain bookstore had great benefits, but it also meant that she worked about fifty hours a week and was rarely home before nine.
“Nineteen, twenty,” Colin counted. “What’s David doing?” He switched to crunches.
Hannah leaned forward and grabbed the book Colin had set down. It was a big volume of black-and-white photos. “I told him he could watch a movie after his homework was done.” She paged through some shots of factories from the 1940s. “Where’d you get this?”
Colin looked over from his prone position on the carpet. “Oh, it’s great. I checked it out from the library. Look at this one.” He sat down next to her on the sofa. Hannah felt her pulse increase at the warmth of his body next to hers. Even after a whole year of being together.
Hannah thought of the very first day she saw Colin, at the beginning of her junior year, alone in the art room at school, holding a strip of negatives up to the light. She’d stood across the room, forgetting the ink drawing she was supposed to be putting on Mr. Walter’s desk. Instead her eyes were riveted to the play of the muscles in his broad shoulders, and the span of his big-knuckled hands holding the film. Then a group of obnoxious guys had passed by the hall, the big, bluff types who seemed to take up all the air in the hallways when they swaggered by on the way to classes.
“Colin!” a big blond guy in a Yankees cap had called in. “Get your ass out here!”
Hannah’s heart sank. He was one of them.
Colin wheeled around, and his face was momentarily angry. Then, as Hannah watched, he laid the negatives down with a resigned sigh and headed toward the door. Hannah wasn’t surprised he hadn’t noticed her on the other side of the room. She’d perfected being invisible since freshman year. But just before he left the room, he turned around and met her eyes squarely.
Her breath caught. And then he’d been gone.
Now, Hannah smiled at the memory and gazed at her boyfriend’s bright blond head, which was bent over the book as he flipped through the pages.
She examined the picture he pointed out. “Cool lines in this one.” But Colin didn’t answer, and she looked up. He was watching her and his earnest expression made her stomach clench in anticipation. He was going to say it again.
“Hannah, I love you.” His voice held just the slightest pleading note.
Hannah’s fingers tightened on the book spread across her lap. She gazed down at it. “I know,” she mumbled. A panoramic shot of Detroit stared up at her.
A little silence stretched between them. She heard him swallow. “You still can’t say it? I thought, maybe you’d had time to think it over by now.”
Hannah rose to her feet abruptly, and the book slid splayed onto the carpet. She crossed the room to the upright piano and tapped out “This Old Man.” She focused on her fingers pressing each shiny key so she wouldn’t have to look at Colin’s wide, hurt eyes.
“I still need some time,” she mumbled to the piano. “The moment has to be just right, okay? Maybe if we could be alone.”
“I’m leaving for Pratt orientation in a week.” The frustration in his voice was palpable. “Anyway, we’re alone right now.”
Hannah turned around. “No, I mean like really alone. Not here at your parents’ house. Not in your car. I feel like every time we turn around, someone’s”—a car door slammed outside—“interrupting,” she finished.
Hannah saw Colin’s jaw clench. “Damn it. I thought they’d be home later.” They heard the front door open.
“It was a stupid thing to say, Carl.” Colin’s mother’s voice cut into the quiet like a rasp.
“Don’t talk to me like that, Brenda.” His father’s words were slightly slurred. There was a clank and then a muffled exclamation. “Who put that chair there?”
“That chair has always been there, Carl.” Hannah heard the creak of the coat closet door. “Honestly, I was embarrassed—”
“Excuse me!” Colin’s dad roared thickly. “I don’t need you to play cop with me.”
Colin stood up and grabbed Hannah’s hand. “The fun never ends.” He didn’t look at her. “Come on, let’s go out.”
They stood up, but two forms suddenly blocked the light in the doorway. Hannah’s heart sank, and she felt Colin stiffen beside her. Not fast enough this time.
“Oh, Colin.” His mother’s refined voice was higher than usual, as if she’d been tilted off balance. She gave a little laugh and smoothed her blond bob. “I didn’t realize you were here. Hello, Hannah.” Colin’s silver-haired father stood beside her, swaying slightly on his feet, breathing alcohol fumes into the room.
“We were just leaving,” Colin said roughly.
“Oh, Colin, we saw Mary Turner tonight,” his mother called to their backs as they headed up the stairs. “She was asking about your photos and—”
Colin tugged Hannah down the hallway. He opened the door to the attic and closed it with a bang, cutting off his mother’s plaintive strains from the floor below.
Hannah faced her boyfriend. He stood with his eyes closed and his fingertips pressed to his temples, as if to erase the scene from his brain. Hannah leaned against the wall and folded her arms. It was always best not to talk to him right away after an encounter with his parents.
Finally he lowered his hands and opened his eyes. They watched each other for a second, and then Hannah started.
“I don’t know why you’re so mean to them.” She kept her voice neutral. “They don’t seem that bad—”
“That bad!” Colin almost exploded. “The drinking, they’re out all the time, and then when they do come home, it’s ‘Oh, Colin, how was your day? How are you? Let’s talk,’ like they have any idea what’s going on in my life at all. But I can tell all they want to do is get away from me. They can’t stand to be in the same room with me.” He sank down slowly on the attic steps and leaned his head against the faded wallpaper. A pattern of green lattices hung in strips, revealing a blue and white striped paper beneath.
Hannah sat on the step beside Colin and took his hands. She peered into his face insistently until he met her gaze. “You know this is really strange, what you’re saying, right? Parents don’t just hate their own kids for no reason. And it’s not like you’re a bad person. You’re so good and sweet.”
Colin stared at their joined hands. His face was a mask of sadness, but the lines of anger had softened. “You don’t understand. It’s been like this forever—well, ever since Jack died.”
Hannah bit her lip. He hardly ever mentioned his brother.
Colin rose abruptly and turned around. “Whatever. I don’t want to talk about my parents anymore. Come on. I was going to show you this tomorrow, but it’ll be even better at night. Do you have your camera?”
Hannah nodded and patted her big bag. “Yeah. It’s so heavy to drag around, but I’m doing what you told me.”
“Right. The best photos happen when you’re not even looking for them.”
“I know, I know!” Hannah rolled her eyes mockingly. “I’m just a beginner, okay, Great Expert?”
“Okay.” His face was alight now. “Let’s go.”
“You’re going to show me something in your attic?”
He flashed her a blinding smile. “Just wait.”
Hannah raised her eyebrows but followed him upstairs anyway, the scarred wooden steps creaking under their feet.
The big attic loomed as they neared the top. There was a wide-open space in the middle, with a few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, throwing concentrated spots of light on the floor. Dust-cloth draped furniture sat like monoliths in the corners. Off to the sides, several doorways led to smaller rooms.
Hannah edged past an old mattress propped against one wall. Pieces of chipped paint gritted under her feet. She followed Colin into a room on the right. The doorway was smaller than the others and oddly askew. Hannah had to duck her head to avoid smacking it on the frame.
The room was piled with junk. Boxes of vinyl records were shoved against one wall, which sloped toward the eaves. Pieces of an iron bedstead were stacked against another. Several old footlocker trunks were lined up near a smeary window, under which dead moths were heavily sprinkled. The room had that hot, combustible smell of old paper and rotting plaster.
Hannah walked over to a tiny closet door. “What’s in here?” she asked, putting her hand on the worn metal knob.
Colin didn’t hear her. He was standing near the window, peering through the viewfinder, leather camera strap around his neck. The strap had been his grandfather’s, he’d told Hannah once. He showed her the monogram, LSB, on the frayed leather. His grandfather had given it to Colin on his tenth birthday, just two weeks before he died.
“Colin? What’s in this closet?” Hannah repeated, louder.
“Elves,” he said, without looking up.
“Ha-ha,” Hannah said automatically, but as she swung open the door, she half expected to see someone small crouching inside. Nothing though. Just strips of peeling wallpaper lying on the floor.
“So what did you want to show me up here?” she asked, closing the little closet door. “Other than elves.”
Colin pulled his face away from the viewfinder and beckoned her over. “Come see.”
Hannah crossed the room and looked through the window. “Oh, nice,” she breathed.
The entire city was spread before them, twinkling between the black bulks of the hills. But the old glass of the window was warped, so the city lights appeared to be rolling like waves across the landscape. Hannah looked away. It made her dizzy to look through the glass—like wearing someone else’s eyeglasses. She glanced over at Colin, who was grinning proudly.
“Pretty cool, huh?” He raised his camera to the window and clicked off a shot. “I noticed it the other day when I was looking through my dad’s old vinyl. But I waited to take pictures until you could see it.”
“Pretty cool,” Hannah agreed. She raised her Pentax to her face. But she couldn’t get a clear view. She kept focusing and refocusing, but still, she could tell the shots were going to come out blurry. Something about the trick of the window glass. Finally she lowered her camera. “I can’t get it. The glass is too messed up. You take some for us.”
“The glass is exactly what makes the effect so cool.” Colin was already clicking away. Hannah let her camera drop on the strap around her neck. She wandered around the crowded room, avoiding the creepy little closet door. The air was still and unmoving. She could feel a bead of sweat start at her forehead and trickle down the side of her face.
She brushed her fingers across the tops of some medical textbooks stacked in a box. Her fingers left clear trails in the dust. She paused at a long spotted mirror and took a shot of her own reflection. A dented olive-green file cabinet stood next to the mirror. Hannah bent down and peered at the label on the top drawer. FAMILY, it said in black ink. The drawer opened with a screech when she tugged it.
The inside was crammed with old papers and files. Hannah glanced over her shoulder at Colin. He was in full photographer mode—down on his knees now and completely absorbed in the window. Quietly she lifted her camera from around her neck and laid it on top of the cabinet. She pulled the first file from the drawer. The manila folder was soft with use, the edges fuzzy. Hannah leafed through the yellowing papers idly. Bank statements, a couple of expired passports showing Colin’s parents at much younger ages. His brother Jack’s old elementary school report cards. Hannah pulled out a large stained piece of paper folded in half. A photograph that was tucked inside slid out and tumbled to the floor.
“Oops.” Hannah knelt to pick it up as Colin looked over at her.
“What are you doing?” He sounded vaguely annoyed, probably because she wasn’t as into the window photos as he was.
“Nothing. Just poking around.” She glanced at the picture—an old black and white shot, the kind with a deckled border around the edge. It showed a house perched at the edge of a lake, surrounded by pine trees. One of those big old places with a wraparound porch and a million windows. Her eyes wandered over the gabled eaves and the big bay windows. The porch was covered with elaborate curlicues. A flagstone path led up to the door, and there were pinewoods on either side. She could make out rocking chairs and a swing on the porch. At the edge of the water, there was a pale smear that Hannah guessed was a small beach. She could make out a rowboat pulled up on the sand. “Colin, where is this place? It’s gorgeous.” She extended the picture out to him.
He glanced at it briefly. “Was it in that file? That’s nothing. It’s an old vacation house my family has. We used to go up there in the summers.” He turned back to the window. “Honestly, I barely remember the place.” He was peering through his camera again. “All I remember is that it was ugly and boring. I hated going up there. It’s probably rotting now.” He focused and pressed the shutter. “I’m getting some great shots here. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“That’s good,” Hannah said absently. She unfolded the piece of paper the photo had fallen out of. It was a rough hand-drawn map. She traced her finger along a network of labeled roads. Little triangles on the sides indicated woods. Her finger with its chewed nail followed one thin line up to the top of the map where an X was labeled PINE HOUSE in shaky script. The place even had a name, like something in a book. A circle just beyond the X was labeled LAKE. Hannah flipped the map over. “1915” was inscribed on the back in the same writing. Jesus, this thing was about a century old.
She picked up the photo again. But before she could examine it more closely, Colin turned from the window. “I think I’ve got everything here,” he said. He looked at her hand. “Those things have probably been in that cabinet for ten years.” He walked past her toward the door.
The map felt heavy in her hands. Hannah’s fingers itched to lay it out once more. But Colin was already turning out the lights in the main room. Quickly she folded the picture into the map again, shoved the file back in the drawer, and hurried toward the stairs. She didn’t want to be left alone in the dark.
© 2011 Emma Berne