THE SUMMER PEOPLE
[...] When you do for other people (Fran's daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves, but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.
Sometimes they don't even pay you, and that's charity. At first, charity isn't comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain't doing for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you're valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you're on one side of that equation, and sometimes you're on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y'all stay.
Fran, dosed on NyQuil, feverish and alone in her great-grandfather's catalog house, hidden behind walls of roses, dreamed — as she did every night — of escape. She woke every few hours, wishing someone would bring her another glass of water. She sweated through her clothes, and then froze, and then boiled again.
She was still on the couch when Ophelia came back, banging through the screen door. "Good morning!" Ophelia said. "Or maybe I should say good afternoon! It's noon, anyhow. I brought oranges to make fresh orange juice, and I didn't know if you liked sausage or bacon so I got you two different kinds of biscuit."
Fran struggled to sit up.
"Fran," Ophelia said. She came and stood in front of the sofa, holding a cat-head biscuit in each hand. "You look terrible." She brushed her knuckles over Fran's forehead. "You're burning up! I knew I oughtn't've left you here all by yourself! What should I do? Should I take you down to the emergency?"
"No doctor," Fran said. "They'll want to know where my daddy is. Water?"
Ophelia scampered back to the kitchen. "You need antibiotics. Or something. Fran?"
"Here," Fran said. She lifted a bill off a stack of mail on the floor, pulled out the return envelope. She plucked out three strands of her hair. She put them in the envelope and licked it shut. "Take this up the road where it crosses the drain," she said. "All the way up." She coughed. Dry things rattled around down inside her lungs. "When you get to the big house, go round to the back and knock on the door. Tell them I sent you. You won't see them, but they'll know you come from me. After you knock, you go in. Go upstairs directly, you mind, and put this envelope under the door. Third door down the hall. You'll know which. After that, you oughter wait out on the porch. Bring back whatever they give you."
Ophelia gave her a look that said Fran was delirious. "Just go," Fran said. "If there ain't a house, or if there is a house and it ain't the house I'm telling you 'bout, then come back and I'll go to the emergency with you. Or if you find the house, and you're afeared and you can't do what I asked, come back, and I'll go with you. But if you do what I tell you, it will be like the minnow."
"Like the minnow?" Ophelia said. "I don't understand."
"You will. Be bold," Fran said, and did her best to look cheerful. "Like the girls in those ballads. Will you bring me another glass of water afore you go?"
Fran lay on the couch, thinking about what Ophelia would see. From time to time, she raised a curious sort of spyglass — something much more useful than any bawbee — to her eye. Through it she saw first the dirt track, which only seemed to dead-end. Were you to look again, you found your road crossing over the shallow crick, the one climbing the mountain, the drain running away and down. The meadow disappeared again into beds of laurel, then trees hung all over with climbing roses, so that you ascended in drifts of pink and white. A stone wall, tumbled and ruint, and then the big house. The house, dry-stack stone, stained with age like the tumbledown wall, two stories. A slate roof, a long slant porch, carved wooden shutters making all the eyes of the windows blind. Two apple trees, crabbed and old, one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black. Ophelia found the mossy path between them that wound around to the back door with two words carved over the stone lintel: BE BOLD.
And this is what Fran saw Ophelia do: having knocked on the door, Ophelia hesitated for only a moment, and then she opened it. She called out, "Hello? Fran sent me. She's ill. Hello?" No one answered.
So Ophelia took a breath and stepped over the threshold and into a dark, crowded hallway with a room on either side and a staircase in front of her. On the flagstone in front of her were carved the words: BE BOLD, BE BOLD. Despite the invitation, Ophelia did not seem tempted to investigate either room, which Fran thought wise of her. The first test a success. You might expect that through one door would be a living room, and you might expect that through the other door would be a kitchen, but you would be wrong. One was the Queen's Room. The other was what Fran thought of as the War Room.
Fusty stacks of magazines and catalogs and newspapers, encyclopedias and gothic novels leaned against the walls of the hall, making such a narrow alley that even lickle tiny Ophelia turned sideways to make her way. Dolls' legs and silverware sets and tennis trophies and mason jars and empty matchboxes and false teeth and still chancier things poked out of paper bags and plastic carriers. You might expect that through the doors on either side of the hall there would be more crumbling piles and more odd jumbles, and you would be right. But there were other things, too. At the foot of the stairs was another piece of advice for guests like Ophelia, carved right into the first riser: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.
The owners of the house had been at another one of their frolics, Fran saw. Someone had woven tinsel and ivy and peacock feathers through the banisters. Someone had thumbtacked cut silhouettes and Polaroids and tintypes and magazine pictures on the wall alongside the stairs, layers upon layers upon layers; hundreds and hundreds of eyes watching each time Ophelia set her foot down carefully on the next stair.
Perhaps Ophelia didn't trust the stairs not to be rotted through. But the stairs were safe. Someone had always taken very good care of this house.
At the top of the stairs, the carpet underfoot was soft, almost spongy. Moss, Fran decided. They've redecorated again. That's going to be the devil to clean up. Here and there were white and red mushrooms in pretty rings upon the moss. More bawbees, too, waiting for someone to come along and play with them. A dinosaur, needing only to be wound up, a plastic dime-store cowboy sitting on its brass-and-copper shoulders. Up near the ceiling, two armored dirigibles, tethered to a light fixture by scarlet ribbons. The cannons on these zeppelins were in working order. They'd chased Fran down the hall more than once. Back home, she'd had to tweeze the tiny lead pellets out of her shin. Today, though, all were on their best behavior.
Ophelia passed one door, two doors, stopped at the third door. Above it, the final warning: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD, LEST THAT THY HEART'S BLOOD RUN COLD. Ophelia put her hand on the doorknob, but didn't try it. Not afeared, but no fool neither, Fran thought. They'll be pleased. Or will they?
Ophelia knelt down to slide Fran's envelope under the door. Something else happened, too: something slipped out of Ophelia's pocket and landed on the carpet of moss.
Back down the hall, Ophelia stopped in front of the first door. She seemed to hear someone or something. Music, perhaps? A voice calling her name? An invitation? Fran's poor, sore heart was filled with delight. They liked her! Well, of course they did. Who wouldn't like Ophelia?
She made her way down the stairs, through the towers of clutter and junk. Back onto the porch, where she sat on the porch swing, but didn't swing. She seemed to be keeping one eye on the house and the other on the little rock garden out back, which ran up against the mountain right quick. There was even a waterfall, and Fran hoped Ophelia appreciated it. There'd never been no such thing before. This one was all for her, all for Ophelia, who'd opined that waterfalls are freaking beautiful.
Up on the porch, Ophelia's head jerked around, as if she were afraid someone might be sneaking up the back. But there were only carpenter bees, bringing back their satchels of gold, and a woodpecker, drilling for grubs. There was a ground pig in the rumpled grass, and the more Ophelia set and stared, the more she and Fran both saw. A pair of fox kits napping under the laurel. A doe and a fawn teasing runners of bark off young trunks. Even a brown bear, still tufty with last winter's fur, nosing along the high ridge above the house. While Ophelia sat enspelled on the porch of that dangerous house, Fran curled inward on her couch, waves of heat pouring out of her. Her whole body shook so violently her teeth rattled. Her spyglass fell to the floor. Maybe I am dying, Fran thought, and that is why Ophelia came here.
From the book Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link. Copyright 2015 by Kelly Link. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.