THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
“Wake up, Liam. We’re here,” Mr. Finn whispered from the driver’s seat. “Our new home.”
The eight-year-old boy rubbed his eyes, groggy from the long drive. He looked out the car window, blinking into the dark. “What time is it?”
“Around midnight,” his father said. “You three have been crashed out for hours.”
Liam became aware of the warm body pressed against him. His hand fell on the sleeping dog’s neck. On the other side of the dog, Liam’s older sister, Kelly, slept with her head pitched forward. Even in sleep, Kelly’s hand clutched her necklace. It was once her mother’s ring, a parting gift that Kelly wore on a chain around her neck.
“Let her rest,” Mr. Finn said, as if reading Liam’s mind. “I’ve been enjoying the peace and quiet.”
Kelly had been against the move. She’d crossed her arms and vowed, “Nuh-uh, I’m not going. I like it here in Hopeville.” She’d argued, threw tantrums, said horrible things. But Mr. Finn decided that it was time for a fresh start, and that was that. Their mother would have wanted it this way.
Liam felt his chest tighten at the thought. Even after eighteen months, her memory caused his heart to swell and his breath to grow short and shallow, like the early signs of an asthma attack. He fingered the inhaler in his pocket. Breathe in, breathe out, he told himself. Breathe in, breathe out.
The road was quiet, with dim streetlights and a few darkened homes across the way. Each house was set apart on high, rolling lots, not as crowded as Liam’s old neighborhood. He looked back at the battered old house on the hill. It was big, larger than he’d imagined from the photographs. The two windows on the second floor—with half-drawn shades like lazy yellow eyelids—reminded Liam of watchful eyes. He imagined that the house looked down upon them out of those eyes. Looming, waiting, watching. The front door’s brass knocker looked like a nose.
The dog, Doolin, rose stiffly on ancient legs. She stretched, sniffed, and whined softly in the dark of night.
“What’s the matter, girl? You need to do your business?”
Liam opened the door. He stepped into a bath of warm, late-summer air. He beckoned to the dog. “Come on, girl. Let’s check out the new place,” Liam urged.
The dog did not budge. Instead, she backed away, pressing into Kelly.
Liam’s sister stirred, grumbled. “Shut up, Liam, will ya? I’m trying to sleep.”
She pushed the dog away.
Mr. Finn popped the trunk, moved around to the back of the car. The big moving van with all their belongings would be arriving tomorrow. “Don’t expect a palace,” Mr. Finn called out brightly. He pulled out three sleeping bags, pillows, a flashlight. “It’ll be fun, like a camping trip. Just remember, guys. This place needs a lot of work.”
A flicker of light caught Liam’s eye. He glanced up at the house. And a zipper of fear ran down his spine. Just darkness, silence, and an empty road. It was nothing, he told himself. But the sudden flash appeared again, a flicker of light from one of the windows. On, then off. Liam glanced at his father. Mr. Finn didn’t see it.
The light came from the window on the right. Maybe my bedroom, Liam guessed. It felt to Liam as if the house’s great eye had opened and shut. A wink. As if to say, I know a secret.
“There’s no one inside?” Liam asked.
“Don’t be a dweeb,” Kelly grumbled. She climbed out of the car, unfolding her long limbs. “I seriously doubt that anybody besides us would live in a dump like this.”
Liam ignored Kelly’s comment. The death of their mother had changed his sister. Nowadays, she seemed angry all the time. Liam missed his sister, the good times they used to share. These days she shut herself off, spending hours alone in her room. Maybe things would get better in the new place.
Ed Finn put a strong arm around his son’s shoulders. “This old house has been empty for two years,” he said. “It’s a fixer-upper. That’s why I got such a great price.”
Text copyright © 2013 by James Preller.
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Iacopo Bruno