Chapter One: Sarah
CHAPTER ONE SARAH
I watch people.
With a voyeur’s keen eyes, I peer out the window of our rental car as Daniel pulls up to our new house at 227 Lilac Lane. This is the house we’ll be living in for the next six months until we find one we want to buy. I’ve seen only grainy pictures of the inside. The new consulting firm my husband will be working for found the home for us—an incentive to bring him on board. It makes this sudden move across the country easier. Easier but still hard.
At twilight, the detached two-story blends into the others on this quiet suburban Toronto street, like I hope we will. At the end of the block, there’s a cul-de-sac, and a set of boxy town houses across from a ravine. I shiver, not from the bitter mid-September chill but because the woods feel too close. They remind me too much of everything we left behind in Vancouver.
Our son, Jacob, and I exit the car, sneakers squelching in the puddles from an overnight rain. The sound centers me in the present, far from Holly Monroe, our babysitter over the summer, and the reason I agreed to this unexpected move. Daniel is ahead of us, dragging a suitcase behind him. Every few seconds, he looks over his shoulder, smiling. I smile back, but inside I’m crying over everything I’ve hidden from him—and everything he might be hiding from me.
Jacob stops in front of the three-bedroom redbrick home looming before us.
“It has eyes,” he says. His voice is flat, his body trembling through his thin coat. The wind is sharper in Toronto than North Vancouver, something else my son is now forced to get used to. “The windows are the eyes, and the door is the mouth. It has no nose, though.”
I pull him close. A six-year-old’s imagination, but still, his words haunt me.
Jacob isn’t aware of the real reason we’ve left Vancouver. All he knows is that Daddy got an exciting new job as a business consultant in the city where he grew up, and Mommy supports Daddy. Neither my little boy nor my husband knows anything about the nights I hid in the thick cluster of trees outside our pool enclosure because it offered the perfect view of our babysitter’s house.
I wanted to be her. Holly—young, beautiful, her whole life an exciting blank slate. But then I stopped trusting her. And in the end, I wanted only to protect what was mine.
I turn to my son as he slips his thumb into his mouth, a habit I thought he’d gotten over this summer. My heart constricts at how vividly the freckles dotting Jacob’s nose stand out against his chalk-white skin. He looks terrible. We took the red-eye so he would sleep, but he was devastated about the move, about being uprooted so suddenly, that he cried for almost the entire flight. It’s been said that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. I have just one child, and he’s shattered, so that’s how I’m feeling, too. He’s lost his home and left behind everyone he loves, except me and Daniel.
“Ready to see the house?” I ask, trying to sound upbeat.
Jacob pulls his wet thumb out of his mouth. The skin around the nail is ripped and chapped. “I want to go home.”
Well, that’s impossible, I think to myself, but I don’t say it out loud. Two weeks ago, Daniel sold our beautiful cliffside home in Forest View to a private buyer from his exclusive golf club. Our home doesn’t belong to us anymore. My husband has taken care of everything, for once, a far cry from the man who doesn’t make his own lunches for work and who has left child-rearing our son mostly to me. All I have to do now, in this new place, is be Jacob’s mother. I should have been content with that all along rather than yearning for more, for my own sense of self.
A porch light flicks on when Daniel gets to the front door. Jacob and I follow him up the three steep steps, and I peer through the decorative glass, our ghostly reflections staring back at me. Daniel rummages for the key in the lockbox, inserts it, and turns it. There’s no click. The black oak door wasn’t locked.
“Wow. The property manager forgot to lock it,” Daniel says.
I feel eyes on me and spin around. Under the dim yellow glow of a streetlamp, a curtain twitches in the house across the street. A face appears, then disappears. I will not overreact. I refuse to give into the foreboding dread that’s been pressing on my chest since the last time I saw Holly sixteen days ago.
I trail behind Daniel, pushing Jacob inside and locking the front door behind us. Before I can even look around the main floor, Jacob lets out a howl—a low, agonized wail that twists my insides. Daniel looks at me, shutting his eyes for a moment like he always does to try to make it all disappear.
I take over as usual. “What’s wrong?” I ask Jacob as I kneel on the hardwood at his eye level.
“Mr. Blinkers! I can’t live here without him!” He punches his fist over and over on his skinny thigh. I take his tiny hand and hold it between mine.
There’s no pain greater than your child’s pain. I’ve made so many mistakes that I can never undo. My sole focus now is making my son happy again. But I can’t because we lost his favorite toy, Mr. Blinkers—the soft, gray stuffed bunny he slept with every night, all summer long. It disappeared while we were packing up the few items of clothing, toys, and electronics we brought with us. I blame myself. I probably threw it out by accident. It’s my fault, like so many things that happened over the summer.
“Maybe we can find a new Mr. Blinkers at a store here, sweetheart.”
Daniel drops our bags, and the house keys hit the small ebony table at the door. The clang makes me jump.
He crouches with me in front of Jacob. “Buddy, we’ll get you a new bunny, and we’ll take him to see the CN Tower. It has a restaurant at the top that spins.”
Daniel’s trying too hard, and Jacob sees right through it.
“I want the bunny Holly gave me!” He leans into my shoulder, and the tears come so fast and furious my coat is damp. I hug him fiercely and let him cry, my rainbow baby, my miracle after my miscarriage. Jacob is the only child I’ll ever have.
Daniel locks eyes with me, his full of regret. Regret about what? How strained and distant our marriage has become? How invisible I’ve been to him for the last year? How friendly he and Holly were when they didn’t know I was watching? No, I won’t go there right now. He’s reassured me—I had it wrong. It was all in my head.
Since the day Daniel suggested moving across the country to fix everything, he’s been making such an effort to be more attentive, to make me feel like I matter, like when we got married fifteen years ago. I’ve chosen to believe him that nothing was going on between him and Holly. I’ve chosen to believe it, but do I actually?
I have to be rational, for once. Daniel is the man who massaged my feet every single night when I was pregnant with Jacob. Daniel cried with me when we lost our first baby, our daughter, at sixteen weeks because her heart had stopped beating inside me.
I can’t lose anyone else. It would break me.
Jacob keeps bringing up Holly, and every time, it puts my teeth on edge. Daniel is the first to answer him.
“Jacob, it’s better we don’t talk about Holly, okay? We need to move on.”
There it is again: my husband is trying. I run my hand over his thick brown hair, just starting to gray at the temples. Of course the gray suits him, while my hair, which I dyed platinum at the end of July, is pulled back in a greasy ponytail, but the dark roots are already showing.
“I want everything the way it used to b-b-be,” Jacob stutters.
“Honey,” I say. “Change is hard, but everything’s going to be okay. It will be even better than before.”
My voice cracks. It was so hard to say goodbye to my mom, my brother, Nathan, sister-in-law, Pam, and nieces Sienna and Lily. Before this, I’d never left Vancouver for more than a couple of weeks. Now the mere idea of ever returning fills me with dread. I lost all control this summer. I saw things I should never have seen. I did things I should never have done.
I stroke Jacob’s cheek before stepping out of the foyer toward the first doorway. There are two more doorways ahead, a creepy fairy-tale house of endless doors. The darkness immediately overwhelms me. Our old house boasted a large open-concept design with long windows, through which the morning light shone bright and happy. From our pool deck, we were mere steps from the forest of stately Douglas firs overlooking the Capilano River that swirled just beyond our backyard. Here the main floor is all dark molding and narrow windows. Eerie shadows spill onto the dusty, sable-colored hardwood.
I blow out a heavy breath and snuggle Jacob, whose teeth are chattering. “We should turn on the heat.”
“Sure. Jacob, come with me. We’ll find the thermostat. I forgot how much colder it is in Toronto. Even in September.” My husband’s skin is pallid. He looks as exhausted as I am. I feel another sharp pang of guilt, but I try to focus on Daniel, who seems happy to be back in Toronto, where he was raised, beginning a new consulting career after a decade as a COO in Vancouver, handcuffed to his desk.
I hold the black banister all the way up the curved staircase, leading to a spacious landing covered in brown hickory flooring. The master bedroom is large, with expensive, somber oak dressers and headboard. I itch to snoop in the nooks and crannies to discover who lived here before us and what skeletons they might have hidden in this house. Old habits die hard.
I close the door and glance in the full-length mirror on the back. My cheeks are hollow, and the circles under my eyes are a deep purple. I don’t care. Here I can go back to being Sarah Goldman: just a mother and wife, no longer a photographer and a woman who was obsessed with her twenty-two-year-old babysitter.
My fatigue is debilitating. I’ve never slept well, but the frenzied rush to leave Vancouver has drained me.
With Daniel and Jacob downstairs working on the heat and hopefully bringing in the few boxes in the trunk, I lie back on the king-size bed, bare of sheets or a duvet. This maudlin house isn’t to my taste, but at least it’s furnished. I’m glad to see a smoke detector on the ceiling, but the tiny light in the middle isn’t on. I should check the batteries. At only five foot one, I need to grab the black chaise next to the window that overlooks the street.
I drag it under the smoke detector, releasing dust motes into the air. I stand on it, sighing, because my fingers can’t possibly reach high enough to take it down. But I can at least see it clearly now.
It’s not a light in the middle, not a light at all. But there’s something round in the center of the smoke detector.
It’s a camera.
The house has eyes.
Someone is watching me.