The Stranger Upstairs
Chapter 1 April 26
Welcome to Black Wood House.
This is the front door Janet Campbell burst out of. This is the barren yard she ran across, fleeing for her life. Those are her cries echoing down the lonely street for forty years now. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.
Upstairs is a bedroom with bloodstained floorboards. This is where Susan Campbell bled to death, and this is where I’ll sleep. Some people think that’s messed up.
I am not some people.
I carry a stack of moving boxes up the long stretch of dirt driveway snaking through the yard like a scar. It’s silent except for the musical warble of a lone magpie and the half-hearted squabble of the cockatoos in the blackwood tree.
My eyes drift past it to the house. Not for the first time I wonder, Why the hell did someone build a Victorian Gothic in a stuffy country town like Beacon?
Black Wood House is sharp and strange and utterly silent. Its flaking paint reminds me of peeling skin, and the steeply pitched spire looks like a towering black sword. There’s only one window on the front of the house: a pointed arch overlooking the lounge room and matching the front door. Whoever built Black Wood clearly did not want anybody peeking in. A private, sprawling estate.
That’s how the probate realtor described it. It sounds beautiful, and it would have been. Back then. I can imagine it—pea-green lawns large enough for a dozen families to picnic on.
But after forty years of neglect, all that’s left are stark, flat grounds ravaged by kangaroo shit and echidna burrows and choked with knee-high weeds. The property has a barren feel to it, like the very ground is grieving. Like it’s stuck in the memory of that day.
And yet the house itself seems detached from the misery. Like it doesn’t give a shit what happened here all those years ago. Like it wouldn’t care if it happened again.
I haul the boxes inside, up the stairs, to my new bedroom. The murder
I don’t know what’s more sinister about this room, the faded bloodstain by my bed or the concrete-gray wallpaper. Corpse skin—that’s what it reminds me of. And worse.
Etched into the wallpaper is a massive forest. The black trunks are taller than me, and high above the canopy is a sky dotted with stars. Back in the day, I bet it was a peaceful scene. I imagine Susan propped up in her bed, sipping a hot cup of tea and staring at the forest after a long day of cooking, cleaning, and whatever the hell women did back in the seventies.
Maybe she even felt like she was inside
it, breathing in the clean air, far away from the pressures of motherhood and her soon-to-be homicidal husband. It would have been dove gray then. Pretty.
I dump the boxes on the floor and reach up on tiptoe to trace my index finger over a diamond-shaped leaf. It instantly flakes off and death spirals to the floor.
Nestled in the crook of a low branch is a family of blackbirds, staring at me with dead eyes. The baby birds look underfed and frightened; their rib cages seem to poke through their papery skin. The mother bird hovers over her children, her eyes sad and desperate. But she can’t help them, because both her wings are missing.
My husband heaves our marriage bed against the back wall, then straightens up and wipes his hands like he’s touched something filthy. He stopped sleeping with me months ago, and our queen-sized velvet bed stares at him reproachfully. Instead, he sleeps quite happily on our couch, though I never once asked him to. He plays the Xbox until the early hours, while I lie awake at 3 a.m., reflecting anxiously on all the things I need to fix. Like my marriage.
I don’t like sleeping alone, but God, it’s better than the crushing loneliness of sleeping next to someone who doesn’t want you night after night.
“Thank you,” I tell him awkwardly. “For bringing it up here.”
My husband’s eyes drift to the pillow-sized bloodstain on the floor. It’s impossible not to stare at it. I wonder if he’s imagining it—the morning after the murder, the blood all glossy red like lipstick.
Maybe it’s Maybelline.
Or maybe it’s murder.
“We’ll need to replace these floorboards.” He steps back, grimacing. “For now, just buy a rug to cover it with.”
I nearly snort my laughter. That’s him. Let’s throw a rug over the issue. If you can’t see it, then maybe all that ugliness isn’t even there.
Maybe it’s why he can’t stand looking at me.
I follow him toward the door, thinking of the moving truck waiting outside, jammed full of our five-year life together. We’ve spent nearly everything buying this house, and the renovations will have to be spread out over the next year. And even though we’ve lived in Melbourne for two years, we don’t exactly have any close friends we can stay with while we renovate. . . . Well, maybe Joe does, but I certainly don’t. The fact that he was willing to make this move with me meant a lot. He’s still here. Still willing to invest in this house and, more importantly, us.
I haven’t lost him yet.
I pass by the only window in the room, about the size of my laptop screen. It’s a fixed window, so there’s no way to open it unless I smash my fist through it. And I’m sure I’ll be tempted after breathing in this stale air every night.
I stop and squint through the grime, looking out to my backyard, and the first thing I see are the graves. They’re draped in ivy, stained sickly green, and covered with little scabs of moss and mold. Susan. Bill. Twin headstones for the former owners of Black Wood House. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to bury Susan Campbell next to her husband. Her killer. But there they are, out my bedroom window, side by side for eternity.
I asked the realtor about it, but he didn’t know who buried them. No one knows what happened to poor Janet Campbell after she fled the town. She could be dead. All she is now is a piece of folklore. A ghost story before she even died. Poor girl.
“Are you sure you want this
room?” Joe asks. “What about the others?” He nods in the direction of the hallway, where three other garage-sized bedrooms lie dormant.
I shake my head and move to brush past him. He stopped kissing me this year, but he still lets me hug him sometimes. I have to time those coveted hugs correctly, or he’ll rear back like a pissed-off horse.
A year ago, I would’ve tackled him to the bed. Or maybe I would’ve just thrown my arms around his neck, looked him full in the face, and said, “I’m so proud of us, Joe. Look how far we’ve come.”
Now I slink sadly past him, a goddamn ghost of a wife.
I pad down the staircase, a spiraling black masterpiece that made me gasp the first time I saw it, and made Joe wince and murmur, “Bloody hell, what a nightmare.” It’s wrought iron, cool to the touch, and every time I descend, I feel like a Disney villain.
Joe calls down, “Don’t you want a bedroom a bit less . . . I dunno, murdery?”
I reach the second-to-last step, breathing through my mouth. The house has been shut up for decades, and it smells like a sweaty sheet. “I’m good, thanks.” I don’t know how to tell him the truth, because it’s strange even to me.
I didn’t choose that room. It chose me.
Just like the house.
I pull open the front door, grunting from the weight of it. It’s heavy oak, and once we get some linseed oil into it, it’ll look like a flame-red candle in the dark. My flat-faced cat, Reaper, bolts out before I can stop him. He screamed the whole forty-minute car ride here while Joe turned up the radio and yelled, “Do we have to bring him with us?”
I ignored them both. Joe’s been trying to get rid of Reaper ever since I stubbornly brought him home five years ago. I wandered around an adoption center, staring at wire cages and reading cutesy taglines: Meet Lynny, a quiet and sweet cat! Jack is the loveliest boy!
I stopped in front of the last cage, and the tagline simply read, Free
. Underneath that in apologetic text, it said, This cat doesn’t like kids, dogs, loud noises, being picked up, and he’s been known to get into fights with other cats. He’s very possessive of his blanket and his food.