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Starter House

Chapter One

It was already June, and the Miszlaks still hadn’t found a house. Eric wanted guarantees: no lead, asbestos, mold, termites, crime or trouble. Lacey wanted triangles.

“Triangles,” Eric said, as if he’d never heard of such a thing. They shared the back seat of the Realtor’s Tahoe, he with his binder of fact sheets organized by street name, she with her sketchbook, outside of their one hundred and eighth house. Lacey wanted to like it. She wished she could say this is the one, I love it, for Eric’s sake, because he was getting anxious as their list of houses dwindled from the twenties to the teens, but she just couldn’t. This house with its square utilitarian front, so naked and so poor—if Eric settled for it, he’d be miserable it by Christmas. They’d had enough of square houses, bland rooms no better than the motels she’d grown up in and the apartments they’d lived in together, houses without memory. They couldn’t live that way anymore, with the baby coming.

“Triangles,” she said, shaping one in the air with her hands. “Gables.Dormer windows. Look at that thing, a person could die of actual boredom. What about the one with the bay window?”

Eric flicked through his binder. “Bad neighborhood. Two title loan stores and a used car lot right around the corner.”

The Realtor turned in the front seat. She was on the phone with her office, trying to find another house in the neighborhoods acceptable to the Miszlaks. Although three thousand homes were for sale in Greeneburg County this first week of June, the Miszlaks’ requirements limited them to Forrester Hills, on the northeast side of town. Lacey, three months pregnant and planning her baby’s perfect childhood, had mapped the attendance zones of the good schools. Eric drew a circle around his uncle’s law office, so he would have no more than a twenty-minute commute. The circles crossed only here.

CarolAnna Grey, the Realtor, had become steadily less blond over three weekends of driving the Miszlaks from house to house. Lacey felt sorry for her; she kept taking them to houses that failed one or more of their criteria, usually Eric’s. He had grown up in Glenaughtry, Greeneburg’s finest golf neighborhood. He had standards.

“This is my neighborhood,” CarolAnna said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“I’m not buying anything that’s walking distance from Austell Road,” Eric said.

“You’re going to have to open up your search.”

“No,” they said together, and Eric turned pages in his binder and said, “What about the blue house around the corner, Lacey, it had those windows you like.”

Lacey fanned her sketchbook and found her impression of the house: a toadstool with fumes rising from its gills. “Smelled of mold.” It smelled like a basement apartment with sticky carpet. She’d spent too much of her life in rooms like that already.

“Why don’t you just look at this house,” CarolAnna Grey said.

Eric and Lacey got out of the Tahoe. “We could look,” Eric said.

Lacey looked. It was a square, no question. She dug in her purse for the bag of pistachios. In the last three months, besieged by morning sickness, she had gained ten pounds, though the baby itself was smaller than her thumb; she had to eat all the time, dry salty food, to keep the nausea under control. She wandered to the corner, seeking shade.

The neighborhood was exactly right. She loved the way the streets curved. She loved the cul-de-sacs and the big trees, the gardens all flashed with pink and white as the last dogwood flowers withered in June’s green heat. She loved the big lawns prettified with gazebos, fountains, swings, wishing wells. A flock of little boys on skateboards flurried through the next intersection. Their voices hung in the air behind them like a flight of bells. She could live here forever, in the right house.

Forrester Lane curved counter-clockwise, an arc of lawns and trees. She poured the pistachio shells back into the bag and walked along the sidewalk. It was broken in places, shattered from below by the heaving roots of oaks and maples. She liked that. It showed that the people who lived here valued trees more than concrete. Here was shade, under the biggest maple she had ever seen, effortlessly shielding two houses at once.

She looked up suddenly, her eye drawn to some motion not quite seen, and there was the house. She looked at it and her heart turned, like a key in a lock. Her house: a Cape Cod, dusty rose, its face naked and bruised. The shutters were piled on the porch, a sheet of plywood sealed the upper right dormer window, tire tracks rutted the lawn, and a blue dumpster stood crooked on the grass, filled with rolls of brown carpet and green foam-pad. A rust-stained clawfoot bathtub lay upside-down on the porch.

Eric came up behind her and touched her arm to pull her away. “Look,” she said. It spoke to her. Its brokenness and emptiness called her, and the discarded carpet was a mark of hope. This house had been someone’s home; it had suffered and been damaged, and it was ready to be a home again. “Look, this is our house,” Lacey said.                                                                      

“It’s a mess.”

“You’re not looking.” She pointed to the house on the left. Also a Cape Cod, it gleamed immaculate in the shadow of the big maple. Its siding was a yellowed cream, the shade of egg custard, and the shutters were golden caramel. Three white rockers sat at friendly angles on the porch, under hanging ferns. Someone had mowed the lawn in perfect herringbones. “They’re just the same. It could look like that, if we took care of it.” She couldn’t turn her back on this house; there was something in its expression, the angle of the dormers, so quizzical and innocent and appealing. It needed her. “It’s just so cute.”

“Cute? Be serious. The down payment, it’s all the money we have.”

The porch steps were broken. Lacey got her left knee onto the porch and hauled herself up, ignoring Eric’s protests. The front door, scraped of its paint, swung open to her hand, and she walked in.

The entrance was surprisingly wide. To the left, an open arch led to the formal living room: two big windows and a gray marble fireplace. The floor was bare wood, with a sander standing in the middle. Lacey was glad the carpets were gone; they must have been horrible. To the right, another open arch, and a smaller room, with the same big windows. A roll of carpet stood in one corner, its underside stained in broad circles of brown and black. Straight ahead was the bright heart of the house, a staircase beautiful even under its mud-colored Berber. A porthole window, a quartered circle, shed yellow western light down into Lacey’s eyes. The last six steps broadened and curved out and back, and the lowest step describing a complete circle around the banister post.

Lacey could see her someday children there. They would sit on that round step in the sunshine. She saw a boy folding paper airplanes, which he meant to throw from a bedroom window. She saw a girl leaning against the post with her head bent over a book. The girl tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She read as Eric did, biting her upper lip, her eyebrows tucked into a frown. The light hid their faces from her, but she already knew them. Someday, here. They had chosen their home in this house.

Eric took Lacey’s elbow and pulled her out of the house. “You can’t just walk in to someone’s house,” he said. “You don’t even know if it’s for sale.”

Lacey let Eric help her off the porch, where CarolAnna Grey caught up with them. “This is the house I want.”

“You don’t want this house,” CarolAnna said. She looked as if she could say more, but Lacey didn’t want to hear it. After one hundred and eight shoeboxes, she knew a real house when she saw it.

“We don’t want a fixer-upper,” Eric said. “I won’t have time to work on it, and you can’t, not by yourself.”

“Someone’s fixing it up already. Fixing it to sell.”

“You can’t know that,” Eric said, but Lacey knew it by the house’s emptiness. Her someday children would never have appeared in another family’s home. A family would have moved their furniture from room to room, not taken it all away. This house was getting ready for a new life.

The maple cast a green darkness over the lawn, a whisper of busy hands, and CarolAnna shuddered and moved away from it. “There’s a real cute condo in a new development west of the mall,” she said. “With a swimming pool.”

Eric walked backward across the lawn, squinting upward. “Roof looks good.”

“They’re getting ready to paint,” Lacey said. “If we make an offer fast, we can choose the colors. Inside and out.”

If the shutters were green, dark mossy green . . . . she wanted a green door, like the door of Grandpa Merritt’s house, which had closed behind her forever when she was six, her last real home. They’d paint the baby’s room sky blue and stencil stars and butterflies on the ceiling. They could do whatever they liked, and not have to ask a landlord’s permission or worry about the damage deposit. They would have a dog. She added a golden Labrador to her vision of the someday children on the staircase; then she pulled out her sketchbook and roughed in a drawing of the house’s face and the maple.

The house looked happy in her picture. This was why she preferred to take sketches of the houses, rather than photographs. Snapping a picture was quick and easy, but the drawing told the truth, like the difference between email and real conversation, websites and books.

“You could rent an apartment and wait a couple months,” CarolAnna said. “Come July, there’ll be thirty more in your area.”

“Is there something wrong with this house?” Eric said.

Next door, in the twin Cape Cod, the front door opened and a tall white-headed man came out onto his porch with a watering can. He looked over and said in gentle surprise, “Well, it’s you, CarolAnna Grey. This isn’t Tuesday.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“And how’s little Madison, is she practicing?”

“Not so you’d notice.”

The tall man courteously left a space in the air for CarolAnna to introduce Eric and Lacey. She set her mouth and said nothing. Lacey stepped into the painful silence, folding her sketchbook open on the picture of the house, and said, “I’m Lacey Miszlak and this is Eric. What do you know about the house next door?”

“Harry Rakoczy.” He smiled at CarolAnna. “I’ve known this one since she was tiny, and now her little girl’s taking lessons with me. Violin. You’re interested in the house? I’m getting ready to sell.”

Lacey said, “Yes,” but Eric said, “Maybe. What’s the history?”

“Harry, they don’t want it.” CarolAnna touched his arm. He looked at her hand until she let go. “It’s not right,” she said.

Harry ignored CarolAnna and smiled at Lacey. “It’s been a rental for years. Roof’s two years old, heat pump’s practically new, and I’m renovating.” He waved his watering can at the old bathtub. “Get that thing out of there. It’s time.”

“Harry,” CarolAnna said. She glanced at the upstairs window of the empty house and moved away, as if someone might see her. “Harry, no. She’s pregnant.”

He set down the watering can and smiled at Lacey. “Looks good on you.”

“The second trimester begins today,” Lacey said. “And my due date’s Christmas.” She told everybody she met, now the first trimester was over and it was safe; she wanted the world to know.

“What are you asking?” Eric said. He was never lost, not in a confusing map or a meandering conversation. Eric always knew where he was going.

“A hundred ten.”

Lacey was surprised. The other houses in Forrester Hills ranged from a hundred fifty to over two hundred.

“Harry,” CarolAnna said anxiously.

“Is there something wrong with the house?” Eric asked again. Lacey wished he wouldn’t. The house was obviously perfect. They could deal with anything—termites, mold, radon—but they could never make an ugly house their true home.

“Yes,” Harry said to CarolAnna, “is there?”

CarolAnna licked her lips, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked at the bathtub on the porch and said to it, “People died here.”

“People die everywhere,” Lacey said, though the words gave her a shiver. Poor house, no wonder it was lonely. “When did it happen?”

“A long time ago,” Harry said. “It was very sad.”

“If it doesn’t bother you,” Eric murmured, and Lacey shook her head—she didn’t care at all. These houses were thirty, forty years old. People must have died, had babies, gotten engaged, married, divorced, hurt each other in a thousand ways, reconciled and forgiven, passionately hated and desperately loved; if you abandoned a house whenever something significant happened, people would live in tents. This house had known life.

“Ninety-five,” Eric said to Harry. “Pending the inspection.”

“Ninety-five,” Harry said thoughtfully, as if he might actually consider the offer—it had to be worth a hundred seventy at least. Lacey felt she should tell him so. Just then a green Hyundai pulled into his driveway. “Here’s Lex and the baby, I’ve got to go. CarolAnna, send me the offer and we’ll talk. And you tell your Madison, ten minutes of bow exercises every day, and I’ll know if she hasn’t done it.”

A tall man got out of the Hyundai and unbuckled a baby from the back. He stooped under her weight, and she seized two fistfuls of his colorless hair and pulled his face up. The baby’s voice pealed in a high wordless cry of greeting, bright as a bird.

Harry shook Eric’s hand again and hurried back to his own front door before Lacey had a chance to ask about the bathtub. She loved old-fashioned furniture, and the clawfoot tub was beautiful. She wanted to know if it was rusted out, or if it might be refinished and re-installed. While Eric and CarolAnna returned to the Tahoe, Lacey picked a few flakes of white enamel off the tub and rubbed the rusty iron beneath. The tall man stared at her from Harry Rakoczy’s front porch, the baby squalling impatiently, until Harry urged him inside.

The Tahoe honked. “Come on,” Eric said. “She says there’s a new subdivision zoned for Burgoyne Elementary.”

Lacey patted the bathtub. She already knew everything that mattered about the new subdivision: small lots, no trees, the houses all alike. “You stay right here,” she said to her house. “Wait for me.” They’d have to be quick; if Harry meant to accept Eric’s offer—ninety-five thousand, practically giving it away—they’d have to grab the chance. There was no time to waste on condos and subdivisions.

Starter House
by by Sonja Condit

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062283057
  • ISBN-13: 9780062283054