“You’re going to have a wonderful time with us while your parents are abroad, Skylar.” She put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes with a sympathetic little pout on her face. Like she knew how I was feeling.
She had no idea how I was feeling.
“Come in, come in,” she said, leading us out of the stuffy foyer and into the living room.
The smell of their house hit me right away: old carpet and boiled cabbage. My mom called their house “a Malibu mansion,” when she talked to her friends about what a catch my uncle had been. When she spoke to my dad in private she used words like “dated,” and “needs remodeling.” I thought the place was pretty creepy, but it was kind of cool, too. Like there’s this spiral staircase that starts in the corner of the living room and leads up to a round mirror on the ceiling. When you look up the stairs and into the mirror it looks like the staircase goes on forever. But it really leads nowhere.
There are other spooky things about the house that you wouldn’t notice right away. One of them has to do with my dead Great-Aunt Evelyn, and the attic. It makes the hair stand up on my arms. Worse yet, there’s a rumor that people do wicked things up in the hills at night. A trail leading into Shadow Hills starts a little way past a row of pines at the end of the backyard. You could see those trees through the kitchen windows, if you wanted to.
My uncle walked in and set down his briefcase. Uncle Jim was still in his business suit but he’d loosened his tie. He was an entertainment lawyer, so sometimes he had to meet clients on Saturdays. When he turned to talk to my dad I saw the shiny bald circle on the back of my uncle’s head. My cousin slouched against a dark wall between two huge paintings, eating ruffled potato chips out of a jumbo-sized bag. Gwendolyn scraped potato off a back tooth with one finger, examined the morsel, and ate it. “You’ve had enough chips, Gwendolyn,” my aunt told her.
“OK,” my cousin said pleasantly. She tipped her head back and poured the last few crumbs into her mouth, then crumpled up the empty bag. “Pick your room carefully,” Gwendolyn warned me. “Hope you’re not afraid of the dark.” She let out a cackle and left the room.
My mom glanced at my dad and then they both turned toward me. I gave them a look like, “See what you’re doing to me?”
Aunt Caroline called after my cousin’s back. “Subtle threats? No bullying, Gwendolyn, remember? Consequences,” she hinted.
Gwendolyn shrugged as she turned a corner. The dark hallway swallowed her up like a frog gulping down a chubby fly. She knew there would be no consequences.
My dad leaned into me and talked softly, as if no one would notice. “Bullies thrive on making people angry. Don’t let her get to you.” Then he ruffled my hair like I was four years old. I looked at my feet, brushing my pink sneaker over a stain on the carpet.
“Pay no attention to Gwendolyn,” Aunt Caroline told me. “There’s nothing wrong with any of the bedrooms. Let’s go pick out yours.”
“Go ahead, Honey,” my mom said. Then she and my uncle started discussing curfews, check-in times, and house rules. If my aunt was anything like my mom, I was sure to get a written list.
Looking past the living room and out the kitchen windows, I saw the mountains stretching up behind the end of the long backyard. The sun was overhead, and Shadow Hills looked shiny and bright in spots, shaded and dark in others.
I followed Aunt Caroline up the stairs to the second floor and down a narrow hallway. We passed a row of cave-shaped nooks that held ugly knickknacks. My aunt showed me two of the guest rooms, and they were both dark and kind of creepy. The first one looked old-fashioned. Its pale bedspread was printed with dainty flowers, and the little table in front of a framed mirror was wrapped in a heavy skirt. On the shelves, thick boring books were layered with dust. The windows were tiny and too high up to look out of.
I shook my head.
“Gwendolyn’s room is at the end of the hall, so if you want to be near her, you might like this one.” Aunt Caroline turned a corner and opened the next door. I looked into a gloomy room with dark wood paneling, maroon curtains, and a brown bedspread. An ancient floor lamp stood in the corner. A thick spider web with a bug stuck in the middle of it spread from the shade to the post. Next to the lamp, a wooden chair with stick legs held a thin cushion. There was a painting on the wall of a stern farmer holding a pitchfork. He glared at me. Not only was the room awful, but I wanted to be as far away from Gwendolyn as possible.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Or there’s the rose room, but I’m afraid it’s kind of small.” We walked down another hall, my aunt opened a door, and I knew I’d found my room.
This bedroom was narrow, with a slanted wood beam ceiling that was real high on one side and sloped down sharply to meet the opposite wall. The bedspread and pillow covers were patterned with wild roses. Their swirling dark green vines matched the color of the carpet. At the end of the room there was a cozy alcove with a cushioned window seat. Its bay window opened to a twisted oak tree growing right outside. I thought it would be a perfect place to start writing a mystery story while I waited for the summer to be over. I could call it, “Trapped in Malibu: No Way Out.” It would star a junior detective who had just turned thirteen, and had brown hair and dark blue eyes, like mine.
“I like this room,” I said, and Aunt Caroline smiled.
We walked out of the bedroom and turned a corner, passing a narrow door that my cousin said hid a steep staircase. The hidden staircase led up to the attic. I had never been up those stairs, even when Gwendolyn dared me.
“You know the rule, right?” my aunt asked, and I shrugged.
“Stay out of the attic. Please.” Then the smile dropped off her face. “More importantly, Shadow Hills are off limits. Especially after dark.”