Chapter no 4

Hidden Pictures

Teddy’s parents have strict rules about screen time, so he has never seen Star Wars or Toy Story or any of the movies that other kids love. He’s not even allowed to watch Sesame Street. But once a week the Maxwells gather in the den for Family Movie Night. Caroline will make popcorn and Ted will stream a film with “genuine artistic merit,” which usually means old or tagged with foreign language subtitles, and I promise the only one you’ve ever heard of is The Wizard of Oz. Teddy loves the story and he claims it is his favorite movie of all time.

So when we’re outside in the swimming pool we’ll often play a make-believe game called Land of Oz. We’ll cling to the inflatable life raft and Teddy will play Dorothy, and I’ll play everyone else in the movie—Toto, the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch, and all the Munchkins. And not to brag but I pull out all the stops, I sing and dance and flap my Flying Monkey wings and carry on like it’s Opening Night on Broadway. It takes us nearly an hour to reach the end of the story, when the raft turns into a hot-air balloon that carries Teddy-Dorothy back to Kansas. And by the time we finish and take our bows, I’m so cold my teeth are chattering. I have to get out of the water.

“No!” Teddy exclaims. “Sorry, T-Bear, I’m freezing.”

I spread a towel on the concrete deck at the edge of the pool, then lay out to dry in the sun. Temperatures have soared into the low nineties—the sun is strong and quickly

bakes away my chills. Teddy keeps splashing nearby. His new game is filling his mouth with water and then spitting it out, like he’s a winged cherub in a fountain.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I tell him. “There’s chlorine.” “Will it make me sick?”

“If you swallow enough, yes.” “And would I die?”

Suddenly he is very concerned. I shake my head.

“If you drank the whole swimming pool, yes, you would probably die. But don’t drink even a little, okay?”

Teddy climbs onto the raft and paddles to the edge of the water, so we’re both lying parallel—Teddy on the raft and me on the deck.

“Mallory?” “Yeah?”

“What happens when people die?”

I look over. He’s staring down into the water. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, what happens to the person inside the body?”

Now obviously I have strong opinions on this subject. I believe in God’s gift of eternal life. I draw a lot of strength from knowing that my little sister, Beth, is surrounded by angels. And I know that someday, if I’m lucky, we’ll be reunited in heaven. But I don’t share any of this with Teddy. I still remember my job interview and rule number ten: no religion or superstition. Teach science.

“I think you should ask your parents.” “Why can’t you tell me?”

“I’m not sure I know the answer.”

“Is it possible some people die but stay alive?” “Like ghosts?”

“No, not scary.” He’s struggling to express himself—the way we all struggle, I guess, when discussing these things. “Does any part of the person stay alive?”

“That is a big, complicated question, Teddy. I really think you should ask your parents.”

He’s frustrated by my nonanswer, but he seems resigned to the fact that I’m not going to help him. “Well then can we play Land of Oz again?”

“We just finished!”

“Only the melting scene,” he says. “Just the ending.” “Fine. But I’m not getting back in water.”

I stand up and wrap my towel around my shoulders, holding it like a witch’s cloak. I curl my fingers into claws and cackle maniacally. “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” Teddy splashes me with water and I scream loud enough to scare the birds from the trees. “Oh, you cursed rat! Oh, look what you’ve done!” With incredible dramatic flair I sink to the patio, waving my arms and writhing in agony. “I’m melting! I’m melting! Oh, what a world, what a world!” Teddy laughs and applauds as I collapse onto my back, close my eyes, and stick out my tongue. I give my legs a few final twitches and then I’m still.

“Uh, miss?”

I open my eyes.

There’s a young man not five feet away, standing on the far side of the pool fence. He’s wiry but well built, dressed in grass-stained khakis, a Rutgers T-shirt, and work gloves. “I’m with Lawn King? The landscapers?”

Hola, Adrian!” Teddy exclaims.

Adrian winks at him. “Hola, Teddy. ¿Cómo estás?

I try to pull my towel over my body, only I’m already lying on top of it, so I end up thrashing and flailing like a beetle flipped onto its back.

“I’m gonna bring the big mower around, if that’s okay. I just wanted to give you a heads-up. It’s pretty loud.”

“Sure,” I tell him. “We can go inside.” “No, we have to watch!” Teddy says.

Adrian leaves to get the mower and I look at Teddy. “Why do we have to watch?”

“Because I love the big mower! It’s amazing!”

I hear the mower coming before I see it, the loud gasoline engine ripping through the silence of our backyard sanctuary. And then Adrian comes tearing around the side of the house, riding atop a machine that’s somewhere between a tractor and a go-kart. He’s standing in the back and leaning over the steering wheel, like he’s racing an ATV, leaving stripes of fresh-cut grass in his wake. Teddy climbs out of the pool and runs to the fence so he can see better. The landscaper is showing off, taking turns way too fast, driving in reverse, even pulling his hat down over his eyes so he’s driving blind. It’s not the best example to set for a little kid, but Teddy is riveted; he watches in openmouthed astonishment like it’s a performance of Cirque du Soleil. For his Grand Finale, Adrian speeds up in reverse, slams the gearshift into drive, and then hurtles toward us, popping a wheelie, keeping the mower aloft for three terrifying seconds so we can see its furiously spinning blades. And then with a loud crash the whole machine comes down, stopping inches shy of the pool fence.

Adrian hops off the side and offers the keys to Teddy. “You want to take her for a spin?”

“Really?” Teddy asks.

“No!” I tell them. “That is definitely not happening.” “Maybe when you turn six,” Adrian says, winking at him.

“Are you going to introduce me to your new friend?” Teddy shrugs. “This is my babysitter.”

“Mallory Quinn.”

“It’s great to meet you, Mallory.”

He pulls off his work glove and sticks out his hand and there’s something oddly formal about the gesture— especially since I’m in a one-piece and he’s covered in mud stains and grass clippings. It’s my first hint there might be more to him than meets the eye. The inside of his palm feels hardened, like leather.

Suddenly Teddy remembers something and he starts fumbling to open the pool’s child-proof gate.

“Where are you going?”

“I made Adrian a picture,” he says. “It’s inside. Up in my bedroom.”

I lift the latch so he can get out, and Teddy sprints across the lawn. “Your feet are still wet!” I call after him. “Be careful on the stairs!”

“Okay!” he shouts back.

Adrian and I are forced to make awkward conversation until Teddy returns. It’s really hard to pinpoint his age. His body is all adult—tall, lean, tanned, muscular—but his face is still boyish and a little shy. He could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-five.

“I love this kid,” Adrian says. “He learned some Spanish in Barcelona so I’ve been teaching him new phrases. Do you watch him full-time?”

“Just for the summer. He starts school in September.” “How about you? Where do you go?”

And I realize he’s mistaken me for a fellow student. He must think I’m a neighbor, that I live here in Spring Brook, where all the young women attend four-year colleges and universities. I start to correct him but I don’t know how to say “I don’t go anywhere” without sounding like a failure. I know I could share my whole awful backstory, but for the sake of small talk I just go along with his assumption. I pretend that my life hadn’t gone off the rails and everything had happened according to plan.

“Penn State. I’m on the women’s cross-country team.” “No kidding! You’re a Big Ten athlete?”

“Technically, yes. But the football team gets all the glory.

You’re never gonna see us on ESPN.”

I know it’s wrong to lie. A big part of recovery—probably the most important part—is owning your past and acknowledging all the mistakes you’ve made. But I have to say it feels pretty nice to embrace the fantasy, to pretend I’m still a normal teenager with normal teenage dreams.

Adrian snaps his fingers, like he’s suddenly made a connection. “Do you go running at night? Around the neighborhood?”

“That’s me.”

“I’ve seen you training! You’re really fast!”

And I’m wondering why the landscapers might be working in the neighborhood after dark but there’s no time to ask because Teddy’s already running back across the yard, clutching a sheet of paper. “Here it is,” he says, winded and out of breath. “I saved it for you.”

“Oh, buddy, this is amazing!” Adrian says. “Check out those sunglasses! I look pretty good, right?” He shows me the picture and I have to laugh. He looks like the stick figure from Hangman.



“Very handsome,” I agree.

Muy guapo,” Adrian says to Teddy. “That’s your new word for the week. It means super-good-looking.”

Muy guapo?”

Bueno! That’s perfect!”

Across the yard, an old man walks around the side of the Maxwells’ house. He’s short, with wrinkled brown skin and close-cropped gray hair. He shouts Adrian’s name and it’s clear he’s not happy. “¿Qué demonos estás haciendo?

Adrian waves to him, then shoots an amused look in our direction. “It’s El Jefe. I gotta go. But I’ll be back in two weeks, Teddy. Thank you for the picture. And good luck with your training, Mallory. I’m gonna watch for you on ESPN, all right?”

Prisa!” the old man yells. “Ven aqui!”

“Okay, okay!” Adrian shouts back. He jumps onto the mower, starts it up, and crosses the yard in seconds. I can hear him apologizing in Spanish but the old man just yells over him, and they continue arguing as they disappear around the side of the house. I have a rudimentary grasp of Spanish from high school—I still remember el jefe means “the boss”—but they’re talking too fast for me to keep up.

Teddy seems concerned. “Is Adrian in trouble?”

“I hope not.” Then I look around the yard and marvel at the fact that—for all Adrian’s high-speed daredevil antics— the newly cut grass looks fantastic.



The Maxwells have a small outdoor shower on the back of their house so they can rinse off after swimming. It’s a tiny wooden stall about the size of an old-fashioned phone booth, and Caroline stocks it with absurdly expensive shampoos and body washes. Teddy goes first and I shout instructions through the door, reminding him to rinse his hair and shake out his bathing suit. When he’s finished, he

shuffles outside with a beach towel wrapped around his body. “I’m a veggie burrito!”

“You’re adorable,” I tell him. “Go get dressed and I’ll meet you upstairs.”

I’m hanging my towel and getting ready to enter the stall when I hear a woman calling my name. “It’s Mallory, right? The new sitter?”

I turn and see the Maxwells’ next-door neighbor hurrying across the lawn, a short old woman with wide hips and a wobbly gait. Caroline has warned me that she’s very flaky and rarely leaves her house and yet here she is, dressed in an aquamarine muumuu and covered in jewelry: gold necklaces with crystal charms, big hoop earrings, jangly bracelets, and gemstone rings on her fingers and toes. “I’m Mitzi, honey, I live next door? And since you’re new to the neighborhood I want to give a bit of friendly advice: When those landscapers come around? You shouldn’t sit out by the pool. With everything on display.” She gestures at the full length of my torso. “This is what we used to call a provocation.”

She steps closer and I’m hit by the skunky smell of burnt rope. Either she needs a bath or she’s very high, or possibly both. “Excuse me?”

“You got a nice figure and I understand you want to show it off. And it’s a free country, I’m Libertarian, I say do what makes you feel good. But when these Mexicans come through, you need to show a little discretion. A little common sense. For your personal safety. Are you following?” I start to answer but she keeps talking: “This might sound racist, but it’s true. These men—they’ve already broken the law once, when they crossed the border. So if a criminal sees a pretty girl all alone in a backyard, what’s stopping him?”

“Are you serious?”

She grabs my wrist to underscore her remarks, and her hand is trembling. “Princess, I am serious as a heart attack.

You need to cover your fanny.”

Above us, Teddy calls through the screen of his open bedroom window, “Mallory, can we have Popsicles?”

“After my shower,” I tell him. “Five minutes.”

Mitzi waves to Teddy and he ducks out of sight. “He’s a cute kid. Such a sweet face. Not a big fan of the parents, though. A bit uppity for my taste. Do you get that sense?”


“The day they moved in, I baked a lasagna. To be neighborly, okay? I bring it to their front door and do you know what she says to me? ‘I’m sorry but we can’t accept your gift.’ Because of the chopped meat!”


“I’m sorry, honey, but that is not how you handle that situation. You smile, you say thank you, you take it inside, and you throw it away. Don’t fling it back in my face. That’s rude. And the father’s even worse! He must drive you crazy.”


“Ecch, you’re still a child. You can’t read people yet. I’m a warm person, very empathetic, I read auras for a living. You’ll see clients knocking on my door all day long but don’t worry, there’s nothing shady going on. I lost all interest after my hysterectomy.” She winks at me. “But how do you like the guest cottage? Do you ever get nervous? Sleeping out there all alone?”

“Why should I be nervous?” “Because of the history.” “What history?”

And for the first time in our conversation, Mitzi finds herself at a loss for words. She reaches for a lock of her hair, twisting it in her fingers until she’s isolated a single strand. Then she yanks it from its root and tosses it over her shoulder. “You should ask the parents.”

“They just moved here. They don’t know anything. What are you talking about?”

“When I was a kid, we called your cottage the Devil House. We’d dare each other to peek through the windows. My brother offered me quarters if I would stand on the porch and count to a hundred, but I’d always chicken out.”


“A woman was murdered. Annie Barrett. She was an artist, a painter, and she used your house as her studio.”

“She was murdered in the cottage?”

“Well, they never actually found her body. This was a long time ago, right after World War Two.”

Teddy’s face reappears in the second-floor window. “Has it been five minutes yet?”

“Almost,” I tell him.

When I look back at Mitzi, she’s already backing across the yard. “Don’t keep the little angel waiting. Go enjoy your ice creams.”

“Wait, what’s the rest of the story?”

“There is no rest of the story. After Annie died—or went missing, who knows—her family turned the cottage into a garden shed. Wouldn’t let anyone stay out there. And it’s been that way ever since, seventy-some years. Until this month.”



Caroline comes home with a minivan full of groceries, so I help her unload and unpack all the bags. Teddy is upstairs in his bedroom, drawing pictures, so I use the opportunity to ask about Mitzi’s story.

“I told you she was cuckoo,” Caroline says. “She thinks the mailman steams open her Visa bills so he can learn her credit scores. She’s paranoid.”

“She said a woman was murdered.”

“Eighty years ago. This is a very old neighborhood, Mallory. All these houses have some kind of horror story.” Caroline opens her refrigerator and loads the crisper drawer

with spinach, kale, and a bundle of radishes with soil still clinging to their roots. “Plus the previous owners lived here forty years, so obviously they didn’t have any problems.”

“Right, that’s true.” I reach into a canvas grocery bag and pull out a six-pack of coconut water. “Except they used the cottage as a toolshed, right? No one was sleeping out there.”

Caroline looks exasperated. I sense she’s had a long day at the VA clinic, that she doesn’t appreciate being ambushed with questions the minute she walks through the door. “Mallory, that woman has probably done more drugs than all my patients combined. I don’t know how she’s still alive, but her mind is definitely not right. She is a nervous, twitchy, paranoid mess. And as someone who cares about your sobriety, I’m going to strongly suggest you limit contact with her, okay?”

“No, I know,” I tell her, and I feel bad, because this is the closest Caroline has ever come to yelling at me. I don’t say anything else after that, I just open the pantry and unpack boxes of arborio rice, couscous, and whole grain crackers. I put away bags and bags of rolled oats, raw almonds, Turkish dates, and weird shriveled-up mushrooms. After everything is unpacked, I tell Caroline I’m heading out. And she must sense that I’m still upset because she comes over and rests a hand on my shoulder.

“Listen, we have a terrific guest bedroom on the second floor. If you want to move over here, we’d be thrilled to have you. Teddy would go bananas. What do you think?”

And somehow, since she already has one arm around me, it turns into a kind of hug. “I’m fine out there,” I tell her. “I like having my own space. It’s good practice for the real world.”

“If you change your mind just say the word. You are

always welcome in this house.”



That night I put on my good sneakers and go out for a run. I wait until after dark but the weather is still muggy and gross. It feels good to push myself, to run through the pain. Russell has a saying that I love—he says we don’t know how much our bodies can endure until we make cruel demands of them. Well, that night I demand a lot of myself. I do wind sprints up and down the neighborhood sidewalks, running through shadows of streetlamps and clusters of fireflies, past the ever-present hum of central air conditioners. I finish

5.2 miles in thirty-eight minutes and walk home feeling deliriously spent.

I take another shower—this time, in the small, cramped bathroom of the cottage—and then fix myself a simple supper: a frozen pizza heated in the toaster oven and a half-pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert. I feel like I deserve it.

By the time I’m finished with everything, it’s after nine o’clock. I turn out all the lights except for the lamp on my nightstand. I get into the big white bed with my phone and put on a Hallmark movie called Winter Love. I have a hard time focusing, though. I can’t tell if maybe I’ve seen it before, or maybe the story is just identical to a dozen other Hallmark movies. Also, it’s a little stuffy inside the cottage, so I stand up and open the curtains.

There’s a large window next to the front door, and a smaller window over my bed, and at night I keep them open to generate a cross-breeze. The ceiling fan spins in slow, lazy circles. Outside in the woods, the crickets are chirping, and sometimes I’ll hear small animals pacing through the forest, soft footsteps padding over dead leaves.

I get back into bed and start the movie again. Every minute or so, a moth smacks against my window screens, drawn to the light. There’s a tap-tap-tapping on the wall behind my bed but I know it’s just a branch; there are trees growing close on three sides of the cottage and they scrape at the walls every time the wind picks up. I glance at the

door and make sure it’s locked, and it is, but it’s a very flimsy lock, nothing that would stop a determined intruder.

And then I hear the sound, a sort of high-frequency humming, like a mosquito flying too close to my ear. I wave it off, but after a few seconds it’s back again, a gray speck flitting around my peripheral vision, always just out of reach. And I think back to the doctor from the University of Pennsylvania and the research experiment that didn’t actually happen.

And it’s the first night I feel like someone might be watching me.

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