The Cavanaugh House Excerpt
This might be the biggest mistake I’ve made yet, thought Jesse Graham.
She climbed out of her three-year-old yellow 1965 Volkswagen Beetle and waded through tall grass and weeds that scratched at her sandal-clad feet. Looming before her, the two-story house—her house—hovered, insinuating more height than it could actually claim. Wrapped in chipped and peeling greenish-yellow paint, the house looked weary, and the once-red front door had faded to a dull russet. The roof sagged, and the tiny porch seemed to be giving up the fight to hold up the small roof above it. Jesse stared at the house, and the windows stared blankly back. Above the front door, two windows mirrored her dismay as the wood trim above them bowed down. In her twenty-eight years, she had never seen a sadder looking house.
“Oh my God, what have I done?” she breathed. She closed her green eyes, as startlingly brilliant as her mother’s. She suspected they were all she had inherited from the aloof, career-focused woman, for she could see no other similarity. Once again the fear that she had been the cause of her parents’ divorce in her early childhood reared its ugly head: did her father leave because of her? Jesse always supposed that her father had wanted a boy, and when she arrived, his disappointment caused him to flee. She shook her head.
“That’s nonsense. People don’t run away because of the gender of their baby,” she said aloud.
She combed her fingers through her thick auburn hair, a gesture she made when concentrating or trying to work through a difficulty. So much sorrow had entered her life recently both on a personal level and a national level with the assassination of Robert Kennedy two weeks earlier and Martin Luther King just months before that. Too much sorrow, and now she faced the consequences of her recent break-up with her fiancé, Robert.
She scanned the yard, which deepened her apprehension. Overgrown bushes hugged the house as if begging it to remain, and the lawn had conceded the fight with weeds years before. Now crabgrass, nutsedge and dandelions grew knee-high, hiding even a path to the door. Age-old maple and oak trees dotted the property, providing shade from the June sun, their leaves motionless in the early summer air…
Whatever existed on the other side of the door was now a part of her existence, too. Abandoned and rejected, she was all this house had. And this house was all she had. We’re in this together. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath and selected the key. She was surprised that the Yale key worked so easily in the old lock. Her heart pounded as she turned the doorknob and entered the house.
It took a moment for Jesse’s eyes to adjust to the dim interior, for the windows were thick with grime, and the trees filtered out most of the sunlight. The centrally located door opened into a small foyer, a room on either side. Straight ahead was a staircase, and beside it, a hall led to the kitchen. Musty air invaded Jesse’s nostrils, dust turned everything a dull pale gray, and she felt ancient, powdery motes settle upon her like a second skin. Lacy cobwebs stretched from the high corners to the brass light fixtures hanging in the middle of the ceilings. She heard scurrying at the far end of the hall and resisted the urge to run outside.
To her right was the dining room with a door on the far wall that led back to the kitchen. Turning left, she entered the living room, sparsely furnished with drop cloths draped over the pieces. It appeared that a chair sat perpendicularly to a sofa with a round coffee table in front. A floor lamp hung its head in the space between the sofa and chair, and nestled in a far corner was an oak secretary with a fold-down desk. Drooping at the windows were barkcloth drapes that once had boasted white gardenias on a rose background, but now hung in faded tatters, eaten away by dry rot.
Jesse turned slowly, surveying the room.
“Wow,” she said. “Wow, wow, wow.”
Her thoughts traveled to Robert’s apartment with its white leather furniture, glass and chrome accent tables, and carpeting so thick it was like walking on moss. She always felt like she was on a “Rat Pack” set when she was there; everything was sleek and modern, tasteful and expensive. She had lived in that world for the past two years. And like its furnishings, that world had turned out to be less ideal than it seemed. A world more than just miles away from this dilapidated house.
Mustering her courage, she pulled the fabric off the sofa. She shrieked as a flurry of grey shapes scattered in all directions—one straight toward her. Panic shot through her at the feel of the paws scurrying across her sandaled foot. Mice! Her skin prickled with goose-bumps and adrenalin shot though her body. Heart pounding, she ran out the front door, off the porch and bolted to her car. Her knees gave out and she collapsed, trembling.
“Are you okay?”
Grabbing the door handle, Jesse pulled herself up and looked around for the voice’s owner.
“I’m over here,” he said.
She looked toward the road and saw a blue pickup truck at the end of the driveway. Leaning out the driver’s-side window was a man about her age, with tousled red hair and hazel eyes. Humor lit up his mouth and softened his strong jawline and rugged face.
“Are you okay?” he repeated as he climbed out of his truck and started toward her.
Jesse brushed herself off and ran her fingers through her hair.
“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” she said.
The first sentence of The Cavanaugh House seeped into my brain as my husband Rich and I were driving back to upstate New York for a family reunion. This house held secrets… It was a brain-whisper, an earwig, floating and teasing as I drove along a busy stretch of highway in Hamilton, Ontario. Along with the whisper came an image from my childhood of a house where tragedy struck and I knew the house would almost be a character in my book. How was I going to remember all of this? But I did and as soon as possible, I wrote it down.
Rich suggested I set my mystery in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York, and as we were driving through the area, I saw the house by the side of the road–deserted and decrepit– just as I’d pictured it. I knew this was the beginning of a very special book.