Harmony house, p.1
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       Harmony House, p.1

           Nic Sheff
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Harmony House


  DEDICATION

  To Bert V. Royal and Karen DiConcetto . . .

  for being the most incredible, kind, brilliant people I know.

  I admire you both very much.

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Harmony House November 1867

  Prologue

  Harmony House November 1997

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Harmony House May 1961

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  HARMONY HOUSE

  November 1867

  Cornelia Baron

  17 years old

  PROLOGUE

  There’s a feeling like my stomach is trying to climb out my throat. I drop on my hands and knees in the tall grass and retch. The sun is hot and bright overhead, so I’m sweating through my clothes. I take off the heavy topcoat and unbutton the shirt around my neck.

  A pain cuts in along my thigh and I pull up my petticoat and see the vibrant shock of red turning dark and sticky along the white of my skin. I must have fallen on a sharp rock in the grass. There’s a purplish bruise already forming there.

  I spit on the cut and rub it with my thumb.

  I stand.

  A snake, black and glinting in the sun, slithers past.

  I jump back and start to cross myself.

  But it’s too late.

  I let my arm drop.

  From the branches of the low-hanging willow tree a kestrel falcon darts out into the clear morning—its markings black, painted around its eyes like a bandit. The bird flies high up over the field and I watch it silhouetted against the yellow-orange sun. It dives down in a flash and grabs a small wood rat from out of the dandelion. The rat screams a terrible, piercing scream as the falcon’s claws dig in and it is carried off over the dense forest.

  My cat, Jonas, comes running from under the white-painted front porch at the sound of the wounded animal. He scans the yard, but sees nothing.

  From inside I hear my mother calling.

  Her voice carries through the still air.

  She calls my name. Again and again.

  “Cornelia? Cornelia Barron?”

  The windows are pushed up all around the house because of the warm weather and I can hear her getting closer.

  I grab my coat off the ground and limp back behind a line of white-blossoming cottonwood trees.

  My breath feels sharp in my lungs and I taste blood, like tin, at the back of my throat.

  Mother steps out onto the porch, calling my name again. Her long hair is pitch-dark, curled, and tied with ribbon. She wears a crimson dress, bound tight around her waist. Mother and father are taking the kit and buggy into market this morning. I can’t face seeing her again—not now. I’ve already said good-bye.

  So I ignore her calls and slip away down the worn deer trail through the tangled blackberry and poison ivy and pale beech trees with the bark peeling white. Her voice fades behind me and soon I am out in a field of sweet-smelling lavender and sunflowers grown up taller even than I am. The pain in my leg is gone and I run fast—trying to get clear of the house and the sickness and my mother and father and this sin growing here, inside of me.

  I run until I cross the wide dirt road and then I double over sick again. I vomit and taste more blood, but my stomach is empty, so only a little yellowish liquid comes up.

  I am very thirsty now.

  I have no choice but to cut down through the woods to where the stream pools in an almost perfect circle of brackish water and mossy rocks. The cut over my knee opens up and I can feel the warm blood drip down my leg as I drink the water from my cupped hands.

  The taste is nauseating.

  Everything seems to be.

  The demon has taken hold of me.

  It lived dormant all these years—waiting—biding its time—until I was weak enough. Then it came upon me in my sleep, crawling spiderlike up the outside wall and coming in through my open window. It lay with me. It drank my blood. It covered me with its damp, rough body. It kissed me so my face was red and swollen. Its breath was hot and stank of whiskey. It drove itself into me. And it left this curse behind. The curse that swells my belly and makes my bleeding stop and turns the world stinking and noxious.

  The curse that damns my soul to burn in white-hot flames.

  For all eternity.

  There’s no going back now. I deserve all the pain and the nausea and the swelling. I deserve more.

  On the road above me I hear the jangling of the bridle and the creaking wheels and the heavy gait of my father’s bay horse. Mother and father riding to town in the bouncing carriage. They travel fast and soon are out of hearing. I whisper good-bye to them one more time. I whisper good-bye to the big bay.

  The demon takes my hand. I grab a fist of my hair, long and black like my mother’s. I scream and pull down hard and fast so my scalp tears away in a bleeding mass of black hair and skin and black blood. The clump of scalp I’ve ripped away is only the size of a small gold piece, but it burns and bleeds steady.

  I bury the hair in the damp clay earth beside the pool.

  I spit and cross myself three times.

  But there is no penance left.

  The curse is too deep inside me.

  I drink again and get slowly to my feet.

  Jonas has followed me. He watches, crouched, from beneath the nettles. He is gray with long hair and golden eyes. I coax him out, making a clicking noise with my tongue on the roof of my mouth. He swishes his tail and arches his back. I pick him up and kiss the top of his head. He swishes his tail even more, though he doesn’t run away.

  We walk together through the darkening forest.

  There is a wind now making a sound like the ocean in the trees. It seems to grow ever louder—the leaves and branches beginning to thrash wildly.

  Dark clouds appear to cover the fading brilliance of the midday sun.

  The dry field pops with blue flashes of electric currents like lightning across the yellowed grass.

  The wind seems to come from all directions.

  Jonas and I run to the barn door, the horses stamping and snorting restless inside, the goats bleating loudly.

  The hay smell is sour and rotting and I can hear the rats squealing shrilly in the loft above us. Jonas goes off to hunt, unafraid of the storm. A barn owl, white-faced and green-eyed, peers out from the rafters.

  I walk past the gray colt, Texas, and my mother’s sorrel mare, both horses pacing back and forth, agitated, kicking at the floor. Lancer stands trembling in the last stall, while the black-and-white goat with the bowlegs takes refuge in the straw behind him.

  A clap of thunder sounds all around us and I go to Lancer to try to calm him down. He’s a tall horse, lean and sinewy—a painted Indian pony—with thick veins bulging up and down his neck and legs. His eyes roll white in his head and he stamps and trembles. I take his reins out from my coat pocket and loop them over his muzzle and whisper in his ear:

  “It will be all right.

  It will be all right.

  It will be all right.”

  Even though that is a lie.

  I gather the thick coil of rope from off the stall door and secure it firmly over my shoul
der. I lay the saddle blanket across Lancer’s heaving back and lead him out through the barn. Lancer bucks and rolls his eyes more, but I hold the reins tight.

  Outside the wind is strong so the branches bend nearly to the ground. The sky is black now beneath the clouds.

  I think then that if Lancer would only buck me off—or if I were to set him at a gallop and just let go—I could maybe break my leg or arm or back and lose this evil festering inside me.

  But it wouldn’t matter.

  The evil here cannot be cut out—no matter how hard I try.

  It is in me.

  And there is no escape.

  Tears burn in my eyes. I unhitch the bridle and feed Lancer a cube of sugar from my outstretched hand. I kiss him on his wet, lathering neck and hold him to me, whispering all the time in his ear.

  I take the saddle blanket off and wrap it around my shivering body.

  Another clap of thunder sounds.

  Lancer rears up on his hind legs.

  “Go,” I tell him. “Go on.”

  He looks at me with his dark, bugging eyes.

  “Go.”

  I strike him once firmly and then he understands.

  He runs north, toward the river.

  He is set free.

  I turn and walk back to the house.

  Rain falls like frozen sheets across the field.

  I walk with my head down—crying hard so I can barely catch my breath.

  The cold cuts into me.

  I gasp and work my hands at the rope unconsciously as I walk.

  I am soaked through and dripping wet by the time I reach the house. I climb the dark wood staircase to the third floor—leaving a trail of mud and my discarded clothing.

  The rain against the stained glass windows and shingled roofs sounds like rocks falling.

  There are paintings done in oils of Jesus among the Romans and Lazarus risen from the dead. There is Jonah and the Whale and the Virgin Mary with Child and the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah. There are silver crucifixes mounted on every door.

  I keep myself from looking.

  I cannot face my own failure to God, to His son, to my mother and father.

  I have failed them all.

  The rope itches rough around my throat as I tighten the noose.

  Tears stream down my face.

  My heart beats loudly in my ears.

  There is nothing else for me now.

  I climb up onto the banister.

  My legs tremble.

  I close my eyes.

  A fire courses through my blood.

  Fire that will consume my body for all eternity.

  A fire hotter than the center of the earth and sun and planets colliding.

  I breathe.

  I breathe.

  I step off the banister.

  I fall.

  HARMONY HOUSE

  November 1997

  Jennifer Noonan

  CHAPTER 1

  There’s a feeling like my stomach is trying to climb out my throat. I choke the nausea down and breathe and try to block out the smell of grease and frying bacon. I take a sip of coffee and sit back in the corner of the torn vinyl booth.

  Dad reads the paper, looking tired, with dark circles cut deep under both eyes. His hair has gone almost completely white in the past few months. There are lines set deep around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes—his eyes, which are almost transparent blue, gray and clouded. He’s grown weak and pale.

  The waitress, a haggard, aging blonde with her roots grown out dark, sets a plate of eggs and hash browns in front of my dad and a chocolate donut in front of me.

  “Thank you,” my dad tells her.

  And I say, “Thanks.”

  She asks if we need anything else. My dad says no, thank you. She walks off to the next customer. She doesn’t smile.

  My dad puts his paper down and folds it neatly on the bench seat.

  “We should be there before dark,” he says.

  I roll my eyes without really meaning to.

  “Great.”

  “Come on, Jen,” he tells me. “You’ve gotta try.”

  “I am,” I say.

  I tear off a piece of the greasy-feeling donut.

  “Wait,” my dad says, placing his hands on mine.

  I put the donut back.

  “Come on,” he says. “You know better than that.”

  I take another sip of coffee.

  “It’s all you,” I tell him.

  He lays his palms down flat on the cracked linoleum table. He bows his head. His heavy eyelids flutter and close.

  I glance around at the other customers in the dingy, smoke-filled diner. None of them seem to notice my father with his bowed head. Mostly they look like local farmers or long distance truckers. There’s one mother with a little boy at a booth in the corner. Her jaw click-clicks back and forth. The boy looks very dirty.

  “Our Father,” my dad says, “Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen. Thank you for this food, and God bless the soul of our Maggie. We miss her very much.”

  “Dad,” I say.

  There are tears in his eyes.

  “She’s in a better place now,” he says.

  I tell him I don’t doubt it.

  He wipes the tears away with his long, knotted fingers.

  “We can’t be selfish, wanting her back with us,” he says.

  “But I do. I do want her back.”

  He shakes his head.

  “It was God’s will for her. And it was God’s will for us.”

  “Then God’s an asshole,” I say.

  He strikes fast across the table like a snake and smacks me in the mouth.

  I hold my jaw and look around the restaurant again.

  No one seems to have noticed.

  The farmers and truck drivers stay hunched over their plates.

  “You watch your mouth,” he tells me.

  “Cocksucker,” I say, but not loud enough so he can hear.

  “What’s that?”

  “Nothing,” I tell him.

  I eat the chocolate donut and drink the weak coffee.

  “I’ve tried with you, Jen. I’ve tried and tried.”

  He breaks the bright orange, toxic-looking egg yolk so it goes dripping out over the ham and potatoes. He smears it around with his knife and takes in big mouthfuls as he talks. It’s enough to make me sick.

  “When are you going to learn?” he asks. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

  I swallow the last of the coffee down and stand, pushing the table back toward my dad roughly.

  “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom,” I say.

  I don’t look at him.

  The waitress comes over to ask if everything is all right.

  I know what the answer is.

  But I don’t say it.

  I walk on past her.

  To get to the diner bathroom I have to walk outside and around to the back of the building. The sky is clear and cold, so I can see the steam of my breath in the early morning. Already the leaves on the trees have changed colors—from green to red to gold and brown. Smoke drifts from the chimneys of the surrounding farmhouses and there’s a layer of frost on the grass—glittering bright in the faraway sun.

  The bathroom door is off its hinges up top, so it drags on the concrete. There’s a thick sludge across the floor. I almost slip, catching myself on the stained metal washbasin. I can feel the grit crunching under my boots. I go pee and smoke the butt of a cigarette I’ve been saving for a few days. I smoke and look at my reflection in the graffitied mirror.

  My eyes are red and bloodshot around the blue. My skin is pale, framed by black, dirty-looking hair—since I didn’t want
to take a shower at the Super 8 motel before we left this morning. In the corner of the mirror someone has scratched FUCK YOU in all capital letters. I say it out loud.

  “Fuck you.”

  I drop the cigarette in the sink and try to breathe, but this nausea won’t leave me alone—this nausea that’s been with me since she left. Since as long as I can remember.

  There’re oil fires burning through my insides.

  I dig my nails into the palm of my hand, feeling the pain cutting in. At least it’s a pain I can understand.

  “Fuck. You,” I say again. This time drawing out each word—my voice shaking.

  From outside I hear the loud screeching of tires on wet pavement and then the sound of a heavy impact.

  I struggle against the door and go running out into the shock of cold air.

  On the one-lane highway in front of the diner, a pickup truck sits idling, gray smoke rising from the road behind it. The driver opens the door and steps out slowly. He is a stocky man, wearing a flannel shirt and a thicker flannel jacket. Steam comes in great gasps from his crooked nose and wide-open mouth.

  Directly under the front tire of the pickup, a man wearing tattered clothes, with dark skin and matted dark hair, lies motionless—crushed between the black rubber and the black asphalt. There is no blood. The man could very well be just sleeping there.

  But he’s not sleeping.

  The driver walks over to the dead man. He stares down at the lifeless body. Then he looks up at me. His dark eyes stare straight into mine. His hands make little grabbing motions in the air. And he screams out. He screams louder than I’ve ever heard anyone scream in my whole life. He screams from somewhere deep in the very center of him. He screams from the center of him to the center of me.

  “GET HELP!” he screams.

  I turn back to the diner and burst into tears.

  My dad has come running over. He presses me tightly against him, covering my eyes.

  “Don’t look,” he whispers. “Don’t look. Don’t look.”

  But it’s already too late.

  The driver screams again.

  I press my hands against my ears.

  My dad rocks me back and forth in his arms.

  “Shh,” he tells me. “Shh.”

  I cry and cry.

 
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