The dead girls of hyster.., p.1
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       The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, p.1

           Katie Alender
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The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall

  For Eve, a true friend












































  Every fairy tale starts the same: Once upon a time.

  Maybe that’s why we love them so much. We all get to be part of that story. Just by existing, you get your once upon a time. It’s part of the deal.

  What’s not part of the deal, it turns out, is the happily ever after.

  You know that feeling when someone’s eyes are on you—watching you, studying your movement, your breathing? And how it gives you this whole new awareness of how much effort it takes to just stand there like a normal person?

  Well, that’s basically how I’d felt for the past three months. Like I was being watched. Stalked …

  By my own parents.

  Even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, Mom hovered about three feet away from me, her eyes constantly darting in my direction, as if at any second I might decide to run for the hills. But every time I glanced up, she whipped her gaze to something else—a can of Spam, a magazine about crocheting, a package of tropical-fruit-flavored candies.

  It was almost like a game. Could I catch her? Tag! I got you! You’re it! I never caught her. But I still knew she was looking.

  A sinking, suffocating feeling came over my chest.

  They were never going to trust me again.

  I hunched over my phone and typed SAVE ME, then held my breath as the “sending” bar made an agonizing crawl across the top of the screen. Finally, the text went through, and a few seconds later, my best friend Nic’s reply popped up: <:(

  A clown-hat sad face. The saddest kind of sad face there is.

  EXACTLY, I replied, but this time the message failed. I felt a shock of anxiety. I was intellectually prepared to be entering a cellular dead zone, but I hadn’t prepared myself emotionally to be cut off from society for two whole months.

  Mom leaned toward me, holding up a can of bean dip. “Does that say partially hydrogenated corn oil?” she asked. “I left my reading glasses in the car.”

  “Mom,” I said. “You’re a million miles from Whole Foods. Everything here is made of toxic waste. Get used to it. Embrace it.”

  She suppressed a shudder, then reluctantly tucked the bean dip into the crook of her elbow.

  “You wanted to do this,” I said, an edge of accusation in my voice. I wasn’t going to let her class herself in my category—in the victim column.

  Unintentionally, her eyes flicked over to my father in the next aisle. “I guess just get whatever you want,” she said. “We’re not going to make it to the grocery store tonight.”

  I gave her an aloof shrug and went to troll the aisles, where I passed my little sister, Janie, jittering around with a month’s supply of sugary cereals in her arms. Perfect. Just what she needed, more unnecessary energy. In a family of academics, Janie stood alone. My parents were professors, and I hoped to major in some Romance language (I just hadn’t decided which one yet) and become a scholar of obscure European literature.

  Janie’s dream? To someday have her own reality show.

  Even her looks set her apart—willowy, with white-blond hair and crystal-blue eyes, where the rest of us were average height, with dirty-blond hair and eyes ranging from gray-blue (Mom) to blue-gray (Dad), with me in between, sporting a color you could probably call “dishwater,” if dishwater had a few redeeming qualities.

  Janie was a performer. She was the prettiest, wittiest, most sparkling complete twerp of a human being you ever wanted to backhand on a daily basis. And with all that sugar to fuel her, she’d be insufferable. But what else was new?

  Continuing through the aisles, I came across my father, studying a can of chicken. He shook his head. “How can they legally call this food?”

  “Spare me,” I said, grabbing a bag of Doritos and a jar of bright-orange queso dip.

  My parents were welcome to pretend this was some grand family adventure, but I knew better. We all knew better. I was the only one of us willing to admit it.

  Mom, Janie, and I converged on the register, Mom’s cheeks flushing pink as the clerk, whose name tag read TOM, surveyed our purchases.

  “We just drove up from Atlanta,” she said. “That’s why we have all this junk.”

  The clerk looked up at her, blank incomprehension on his face.

  “Mom, Tom doesn’t care,” I said. “As long as you don’t try to steal anything.”

  He grunted gratefully in my direction.

  For some reason, my mother assumes strangers are interested in our lives. Maybe because her students spend all their free time kissing up to her and pretending to care about insignificant details of her existence. Mom never met a situation she couldn’t kablooey into an awkward overshare.

  “We’re actually going to be staying the whole summer near here,” she went on. “In Rotburg.”

  Tom looked up—not at Mom, but at me. “Rotburg, huh? You got family there?”

  “Kind of,” my mother said. “My husband’s great-aunt recently passed away, and we’re going to her house.”

  “Cordelia Piven,” I put in. “I was named after her.”

  Abruptly, Tom stopped messing with the cash drawer. “Her house?”

  “Yeah,” Janie said, picking a Ring Pop out of a box on the counter and adding it to the pile. “She died and left it to Delia. It’s so unfair. She didn’t leave me anything.”

  Tom seemed to know that I was Delia, and he set his gaze squarely on me. “You been up there before?”

  “To the house?” Mom answered. “No.”

  “We couldn’t even see it online,” I said. “The satellite image was all cloudy.”

  Pretty frustrating, actually. To inherit a house from one’s old great-great-aunt and not even be able to see what it looked like. The picture in my head had come to resemble a little cottage full of overstuffed floral chairs and ceramic cats (or possibly actual cats).

  I’d never met Aunt Cordelia in person, but still, her death had made me a little sad. Back when I was in the sixth grade, she and I had exchanged a series of pen-pal letters for one of my school assignments. We’d long since fallen out of touch, but our brief correspondence had given me a sense of connection with her.

  When Mom and Dad had shared the news that she’d passed away and left me everything she owned, I had gone back and looked over her letters. She seemed like a nice old lady, always overflowing with excitement about the tidbits of my life I’d sent her (of course, that could have been nice-old-lady manners). But there was nothing that indicated she felt some deep bond—certainly nothing to suggest that she
might someday blow right by my dad’s possible claim to his family’s property and bestow the entire cat-and-crocheted-blanket-filled house on me, a sixteen-year-old.

  I suggested we all go to the funeral, but Mom and Dad said there wasn’t going to be one. Which was pretty sad in itself, I guess.

  “Oh,” Tom said now. “There’s plenty to see. Where are you all staying?”

  Mom and I exchanged a glance. “At the house,” she said.

  Tom’s jaw dropped. “You’re staying at Hysteria Hall?”

  “Where?” I asked.

  Just then, Dad plopped his bags of cashews and roasted almonds on the counter.

  “Did you say Hysteria Hall?” Mom asked.

  “I don’t mean any disrespect,” Tom said. “But that’s what folks call it, on account of the … ah … the women.”

  “The women? Brad, have you heard this?” Mom asked.

  I sensed a change in my father’s energy—a sudden rigidity in his posture. “We should get back on the road, Lisa,” he said. Dad, for his part, had a way of making authoritative pronouncements as if we were all his royal subjects. Probably from being treated like a minor god-figure by his eager-beaver students. (Sadly, when your parents are professors, college loses a lot of its mystique.)

  “But what does it mean?” Mom stared at the counter, as if the answer might lie in the Pick Six lotto tickets displayed under the glass.

  “Well, people kind of forgot about the place for a long time,” Tom said, sounding apologetic. “But now they’re all talking about it again because of how she died.”

  “And what does that mean?” my mother asked Tom. “How did she die?”

  “It’s starting to get dark,” Dad announced. “There’s supposed to be a storm this evening.”

  “Wouldn’t you like to know, Brad?” Mom turned to him. “I just assumed she passed away peacefully in bed or something. The lawyers never said anything, come to think about it.”

  “I’d definitely like to know,” I said.

  When I spoke, my parents realized that Janie and I were listening to every word of the conversation.

  Dad glanced from my little sister to me and then handed his credit card over the counter. Tom swiped it and passed it back.

  “They did, actually,” Dad said to Mom, a tight smile on his lips. “And we can talk about it later.” He grabbed all the bags and started for the door.

  “Have a nice day,” Tom called as the door closed behind us.

  As we settled back into the car, I sent what I figured might be my last text to Nic in a long time:


  I watched it send, and then I added one final message:



  Things weren’t always bad with my parents. For a lot of my life, we actually got along great. I was a huge nerd, they were huge nerds … I was the daughter they could relate to, whereas Janie was this beautiful blond creature who moved among us like a Barbie doll among Star Trek figurines.

  We used to talk. And laugh. And just … be people, without all the tension that comes from not understanding, not trusting, not bothering to try to know who someone really is.

  If I could go back, I know I’d do things differently, but I don’t even know exactly what that means. I’d still get annoyed by my parents’ overbearing watchfulness. I’d still find Janie about the most irritating person on the planet. Maybe we’d have a couple of idyllic days, but before long, I’m sure we’d be back to our old ways.

  But maybe all that doesn’t even matter—the day-to-day stuff. The important thing is that you know, at your core, that you love someone and are loved.

  Not getting along perfectly isn’t a huge flaw.

  It’s just … life.

  But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

  It was the longest driveway I’d ever been on—practically a road all by itself.

  And it’s mine, I marveled, watching the trees go by in a blur.

  All of it—the ten-foot brick wall, the rusted metal entry gate, the untended brush and the unending ribbon of bumpy, decaying asphalt. My head spun at the thought of actually owning something so real, so significant. My own house. What would it look like? Would it be cute and well kept, or falling apart, in disrepair? Seeing as we planned to spend the whole summer getting it ready to sell, my hopes were pretty realistically in the “glass half-empty” range.

  We rounded a corner and the structure came into view.

  Janie was the first one to speak. “Delia gets that?!” she spat, her long-simmering jealousy boiling over. “Are you kidding me? That’s not a house! It’s a hotel or something!”

  Our parents didn’t answer. They were staring (we all were) at an immense gray building that resembled a giant stone monster that had perched on a hill to rest.

  It was easily a hundred feet wide and three stories tall—four, if you counted the space under the roof gables, which must have been an attic. Wings extended off each side, and each floor was lined with a dozen windows. The entrance was an imposing pair of double doors under a stone overhang.

  It was so big that I had to duck down in my seat to see all the way to the faded gray roof tiles that blurred into the misty late afternoon sky.

  “Nice house, Deedee,” Janie said darkly, using what had been her nickname for me when she was little, and which she now used to drive me to the brink of sisterly homicide. “It’s probably haunted.”

  “Your face is haunted,” I said.

  My sister let out a warning squeal, but before we could get into it, Mom cleared her throat. “There’s a storm coming. Let’s get everything inside, please.”

  Dad parked underneath the overhang and we all climbed out of the car. Mom opened the trunk and loaded my sister up with air mattresses and pillows, then grabbed a pair of suitcases. They disappeared through the front doors together.

  When Dad and I were alone outside, he looked up at the building. “I must say, Delia, this is not what I expected.”

  Yeah, join the club. “How’d Aunt Cordelia die, Dad?” I asked. “For real.”

  My father sighed as he began handing me duffel bags. “She killed herself,” he said. “But please don’t tell Janie. Hysterics are the last thing we need.”

  I was surprised that I wasn’t very surprised. In a way I felt like I’d known it. Poor Aunt Cordelia. “Why do you think she did it?”

  He thought for a second. “She was old … and probably very lonely. And sick. Apparently, there was some dementia toward the end.”

  Very lonely. There was a sad weight in my stomach. If I hadn’t stopped writing to her, would she have been a happier person? Would she have stayed alive?

  “Where did she do it?” I asked.

  My father brightened. “That’s the good news. She wasn’t even on the property. She swallowed a bunch of pills and went for a walk along the highway. They actually thought she’d died of natural causes until they found the empty bottles and did a postmortem.”

  The good news? “God,” I said, imagining an old lady limping down that endless driveway, growing dizzy and weak. “That’s terrible.”

  “I appreciate your compassion, but you didn’t even know her. Don’t resort to melodrama.” Typical Dad—nothing was worth caring about unless it affected him directly.

  “I did know her,” I said, scowling out at the decrepit fountain in the center of the driveway. “I still have her letters. And I’m not being melodramatic. Did she leave a note?”

  My father ran his hand over his chin. “Not that I know of,” he said. “But look around … maybe you’ll find something.”

  I nodded and started for the doors, intending to do just that. In fact, I’d already decided to make learning more about Aunt Cordelia my number one priority. She’d cared enough about me to leave me her house—not just her house, her mansion. How long had it been since somebody had cared about h

  Besides, what else was I going to do with the endless days that stretched before me? Clean toilets? Repair the plumbing? Play Yahtzee with Janie? Scroll through old pictures of me and my ex-boyfriend Landon on my phone?

  As I crossed the threshold into the house, my father called to me. “Delia,” he said.

  I turned, one foot in, one foot out, to look back at him.

  “Don’t get too attached to this place, okay?” he said. “It’s not like you can stay here forever.”


  Can’t stay forever, eh?

  Wanna bet?

  A sweet scent filled my nose the moment I crossed the threshold. I couldn’t place it right away, but it clouded the back of my mind with memories of sunny summer walks with Mom when I was younger—the bright blue sky overhead, the two of us picking tiny wildflowers …

  Buttercups. That was the smell. Little yellow buttercup flowers.

  After I figured that out, I could focus on looking around. The foyer was spacious, with a high ceiling, an elaborate chandelier, dark red wallpaper, and an antique couch off to the side. It didn’t resemble any foyer I’d ever seen, actually. It looked more like … a lobby.

  To my left was a door. I looked at the metal plaque, darkened with grime, screwed into the wall next to it.


  Hmm. I had no idea what a wardress was.

  “Delia?” Mom’s voice startled me. She and Janie stood oddly still on the far side of the room, staring at the wall.

  “What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s a wardress?”

  Mom let out a bitter half laugh, half sniff. “You’ll find out in a minute. Come here.”

  I walked over.

  On the wall before them was a large wooden plaque caked in a layer of dust. Hanging above it was the portrait of a handsome, severe-looking man in a suit and bowler hat.

  Embossed on the panel, in old-fashioned block letters, were the words:




  “Hysteria Hall,” Mom said, her gaze locked on the writing. “The word hysteria originated from the Greek hystera, meaning ‘womb.’ Female hysteria was a blanket diagnosis applied to women for everything from schizophrenia to having too many opinions.”

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