I stopped walking under the sprawling green leaves of the oak tree and gazed up at my new home. It was as pretty as the pictures we’d seen – a three-storey white timber house with a much-loved garden. But there was something else about it as well. For a split second, it was as though the house were no longer made of timber and glass, but instead were a living thing – with eyes and ears and heart – that had been waiting for me to arrive.
‘First one in gets to pick their room,’ said Elijah, my twin brother, before he raced past me, his packing box jiggling around in his arms.
Elijah may have been bigger and stronger, but I was faster. Even with a box digging into my arms, I caught him on the stairs leading to the veranda, and we dashed through the wide double doors, side by side, and into the house. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mum and Dad in the kitchen. They looked up, small smiles on their lips. I smiled back and before I knew it, Elijah reached the internal stairs before me, his large frame making him impossible to overtake.
‘Ha!’ he yelled, taking a left at the top of the first turn in the stairs and claiming – according to the house plans – the biggest of the two bedrooms on offer to us, and the only one with its very own en-suite bathroom.
I followed him into his pale-blue room with oak floors and wide windows that ran along the front and side of the room. Grinning, he put his box down in the middle of his ridiculously large room and surveyed his kingdom.
‘You know, every seventeen-year-old girl needs her own bathroom,’ I snarled, sounding like a five-year-old.
‘All’s fair in love and war, sis,’ said Elijah, a goofy smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile back. Honestly, even after us spending every single day of our lives together, I could never stay mad at him.
‘Well, in that case, adios,’ I said, before sighing as I thought about my new bedroom in the attic, at the very apex of the house – no doubt dusty, stuffy, cramped and forgotten.
I made my way back onto the landing outside of Elijah’s bedroom and looked down at the heavy box in my arms. In large black writing across its top were the words BOOKS – CELLARand below that in faded writing, the word DESTROY. Clearly, the box had been given a second life. My skin prickled as I took in the word CELLAR. No one had mentioned a cellar.
After taking one last glance up towards my room, I walked down the stairs. Sure enough, there was another set of stairs twisting down underneath the house.
‘I’m dropping this box in the cellar,’ I called out. And then getting the heck out of there, I added silently.
‘Okay, honey,’ my mum replied, still in the kitchen, no doubt unpacking. ‘Be careful down there.’
I made my way down the stairs and opened the creaking old timber door that appeared to be even older than the two-hundred-year-old home. Darkness and stale air greeted me. But there was something else too – something that made me crave light and fresh air. I told myself that I was being ridiculous and made myself stand still as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Slowly the light turned grey and I saw an empty room – a room with no life and not one happy story to share. A place I had no intention of staying in for longer than absolutely necessary. I took a few quick steps inside, feeling as though some invisible nasty presence had jumped straight onto me. In my haste, I dropped the box and several of the books tumbled out onto the concrete.
‘Damn it,’ I grumbled before collecting the books, then shoving them back into the box. I was about to bolt when I saw one large, thick book still on the ground. I leaned over and picked it up. The moment it was in my hand, a pulse of electricity passed through me. Standing, I brought the book close to my face. Dominating its velvet-clad cover was an embossed silver symbol of a star, surrounded by a circle; the same symbol that was on the necklace I’d been given as a little girl, but was never allowed to wear. There were no words on the front or the back. I ran my hand over the soft fabric, the urge to open the cover as strong as the currents in the sea. I was about to do so when Mum yelled, ‘Eva, darling, can you come and help me?’
My twitching hand froze. Just one peek.
‘Coming, Mum.’ I ran my hand over the symbol one last time before carefully putting the book back in the box and pushing it into the corner of the cellar. I shivered before dashing out the door, slamming it shut, and taking the stairs, two steps at a time, until I was back in the house. I took a few moments to calm my thudding heart and walked into the kitchen, where my mum and her beautiful smiling face waited for me.
By the time I visited my new bedroom, the sun was sliding towards the horizon. I’d spent the rest of the day helping Mum unpack downstairs. My legs ached as I climbed the stairs. There’d been no pictures of the attic in the real estate photos, so I knew the attic couldn’t be good. I told myself that it didn’t matter, that I only had one year left of school before college. It wasn’t as though I’d be stuck there for years and years.
I stopped on the landing at the top of the stairs outside my new bedroom, surprised that both sides of the door had long panels of stained glass with patterns of the moon and the stars, sunlight reflecting through them.
Taking a long breath, I entered the open door and stepped into my room. As I looked around, my mouth dropped open. For starters, my room was not small and stuffy – it was what real estate agents would call spacious. It spanned the whole width of the house and was generous in size and proportions. And it was full of light.
Running all the way across the front of the house and down both sides were enormous casement windows. I strolled across the empty room, my every step drawing a groan from the honey-coloured floorboards. One by one, I pushed open the perfectly-cared-for windows. Sweet, warm summer air that smelled like roses and freshly mowed grass blew into my room. Outside, the sturdy branches from the oak tree sat just under my windows, leaving an uninterrupted view of our quiet street, which was soaked in pale-pink afternoon light.
I turned, a smile spreading on my face as I took in my simple, beautiful white room with a stunning crystal chandelier that hung in its centre. Warmth surged through me; I knew that I was welcome here and this room – sans bathroom – had claimed me as much as I had claimed it.
As I walked around my room, I pictured where my furniture would go and how it would look. In the far corner of the room, I saw a flash of light and the face of a young woman staring back at me. I gasped as I realised I was staring into a mirror and the young woman – with long dark hair that was untamed and curly in the heat, ivory skin, and the same violet-blue eyes as Elijah’s – was, in fact, me.
It dawned on me that with my braces gone, my skin cleared and my curves eventually showing up, I had FINALLY lost my awkward teenage look that had hung around for years. I had grown into myself and was sitting on the edge of adulthood.
When had I changed? Over a day? A year? Just now, in this moment? Would I finally fit in?
My entire life I’d felt one step behind or ahead of everyone except for my immediate family. It was as though everyone knew something I should and nothing of what I did. A tiny bud of hope bloomed in my chest. Maybe my parents were right. Maybe moving house, school and life in my final year of school, away from our extended family and all that we had ever known – a concept I had fought belligerently – would be a good thing after all. I’d tell my parents it was all going to be okay – take them out of the misery I’d put them in. Maybe it would stop their anxious late-night conversations that had been creeping through the cracks in my bedroom door and windows.
I heard Pearl’s soft purring before her pure-white body strutted into the room. As she sidled up to my leg, I squatted beside her and started to gently pat my cat, who looked as though she’d lived in this house forever. ‘And what do you think of our new room, precious Pearl?’
Pearl purred even louder, as though she knew exactly what I was saying, making me laugh out loud. That was impossible, of course. Pearl stepped forward, the floorboard under her feet rising from the ground. I moved her aside and raised the floorboard to find a cavity that would easily fit a few books or a box. As I looked inside this secret cavity, I realised what I’d sensed in the cellar. It was something that no one in my family spoke about, yet felt as familiar to me as the skin on the backs of my hands. Just like this cavity, inside the darkness of the cellar lay secrets that were hidden from the world, just waiting for the right moment to come to the light.