“See, it’s not so different. Open your window and smell the air,” my father instructed as we turned off the highway. He pressed a button somewhere to the left of the steering wheel, and my window rolled down by itself.
I cringed at the thought of what I might see out there and turned my back on the warm, summer breeze cutting through the stale odor of the rental car.
“Do you smell the ocean air, Sara?” my father asked, a little too eagerly. “Just like home. I mean, like California. They smell the same, don’t you think?”
I didn’t think so. The Atlantic Ocean smelled heavy and thick and salty. The Pacific didn’t have a smell, or at least it didn’t have one that I could remember.
I stared at my chipped purple nail polish, unwilling to look out the window, unwilling to inhale more East Coast air. My dad was trying so hard to make me happy. But I had this huge knot in my stomach that just wouldn’t go away and I couldn’t pretend to be happy, not even for my dad. Not today.
Pressing the automatic window button on my side, I heard the glass close, cocooning us once again in our bubble against the world.
“Do you want to talk about it?” my father asked, for what was probably the hundredth time. His voice was gentle. “Come on, Sara, the move will be good for us.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, shifting my gaze from the oblong stain of unknown origin on the gray-blue upholstered seat to the gray faux-leather dashboard. I held tight to the belief that if I didn’t look outside, New Jersey wouldn’t exist. “I liked California.”
My dad ran one hand through his curly brown hair. “You’ll like it here, too. Give it time.” He turned his attention back to the road through the small town, clogged with late-summer beach traffic.
Discussion over. That was classic Dad. He didn’t like to dig too deep, or push too hard. He preferred to wait for me to come to him, which was fine when I was little, but it’s a little more complicated now that I’m twelve.
What I didn’t get was why—now—were we suddenly diving in and moving across the country to some strange shore town where we knew no one?
Dad said it was his job. But, seriously, although my long blond hair and blue eyes make a lot of people assume I’m a flake, I’m way smarter than that. New Jersey doesn’t need another insurance claims adjuster, no matter how great my dad may be at his job. There was more to it. I just didn’t know what.
We drove in silence. A lot of people get freaked out by silence. I don’t mind it. Dad and I often hang out together without talking. Dad’s not a big sharer of thoughts or feelings. At my old school, the teachers always called me shy because I didn’t speak much. I don’t think I’m shy. I just realized early on that not everything needs to be vocalized. There’s a difference between shy and quiet.
“Our street’s coming up,” my dad announced. “I’m pretty sure I remember it from last time.” He’d flown out last month to meet his new boss and find us a place to live. I’d stayed behind at Aunt Charlotte’s house. We didn’t visit my dad’s younger sister much, and after four days of living with her and my crunchy uncle Dexter on their organic avocado farm, I could see why.
Dad slowed the car, raised his aviator sunglasses, and squinted at the map from the rental counter at the airport. Then he turned right onto Seagate Drive. So my new street was called Seagate Drive. . . .
I wrapped my arms around my knees and stole a look out the window. I couldn’t help it. My curiosity was too intense.
Old Victorian houses painted pastel colors lined the narrow street. I stared in amazement at a three-story lavender house with powder-blue trim. I’d never seen a house like that before! It was so different from the simple stucco house I’d grown up in.
“Nice street, right?” my dad asked, driving slowly.
“Nice” isn’t the word I would have chosen. “What kind of people paint their house pink?” I asked instead, pointing to a pink house on our left.
He let out an exasperated sigh. “Happy people.”
I wanted to reply, to say something nice so I didn’t sound like such a brat, but the tingling had started. In my left foot. Always my left foot first. Go away, I prayed. Oh, please, go away. My heart beat rapidly.
I knew what the tingling meant.
Three houses down, a group of dark-haired kids played on a circular white-pebbled driveway. Bikes, skateboards, and jump ropes lay scattered about, and shrieking laughter wafted through my closed window. I watched them chase one another, certain they were all related. A girl about my age ran after a younger boy. I wondered what she was like. Then the tingling spread to my right foot and began to creep up my legs.
“Here we are,” my dad announced. He waited nervously for my reaction as our car stopped in front of a weathered gabled house.
I blinked several times, struggling to focus. Willing the feeling to go away, I tried to focus on the details of the house. The sea air had weathered the once-vibrant siding. The painted burnt-orange trim was faded and peeling. A huge covered porch with decorative railings wrapped around the front. The second-floor windows opened to several small walkout balconies. Three large windows protruded from the roof, and an octagonal turret rose along the right side of the house.
The tingling rippled through my entire body. My dad was saying something about Victorian architecture, but I barely heard him. They were here. I couldn’t see them yet, but I could sense them. I knew they were here.
So many of them.
I squeezed my eyes tight, hoping to block them out. Then the nausea came over me, and I felt like I might throw up right there. The force of their presence pushed against me. I could feel them reaching for me . . . needing me.
“Sara? Do you feel all right?”
I opened my eyes and shook my head. “Must have been the airplane food,” I managed to croak.
“The house needs some work,” my dad said. “Except for the little storefront, the house has been totally empty for quite a while. But what do you think?”
My breath caught in my throat as they finally came into view. The old, hunched woman rocking in the swing on the porch. The young man in the cap hanging out the dormer window. The angry-looking man with the mustache by the front door. The slim woman in the long nightgown staring out the bay window. Everyone shimmered and vibrated slightly in the midday sun. My head throbbed.
My father was wrong. The house wasn’t empty.
Dead people still lived there.
And I could see them.