It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark.
There was a silence hanging in the air between us that was palpable. She was my sister, and I knew I couldn't stop her from making the worst mistake of her life. When Gwenn had her mind set, there was no stopping her. She was in love.
We hadn't spoken in almost a year since our fight after the wedding, but I received a mysterious letter in the mail just days ago. I knew I needed to see her to ensure it was true. In her beautiful handwriting, she had written a short letter that read:
To my dearest baby sister,
Things are even better than I could have dreamed here. Graham has the most beautiful house by the sea. You would love it here. Sometimes it gets cold at night. Graham says that's just part of the charm of living in this old place. I miss you. I hope you will come for a visit soon.
All my love,
Gwenn had printed her address on the envelope. I plugged it into my phone and discovered it was closer than I had initially thought. It was only about an hour from the city, and I knew I could make good time since I had been able to leave work early.
The city was alive in a different kind of way today. The sounds of traffic and blaring horns could be heard in every corner of town. People were agitated, and it was as if there was electricity in the air that only I could feel. A sudden tap on my shoulder makes me spin around.
"Did I spook you?" A husky voice whispers next to my ear. It's immediately recognizable as my sister's childhood best friend.
"Damon, why do you always have to scare the living daylights out of me?" I say as he holds his side in an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
"There would be something seriously wrong if I didn't try to mess with you," Damon shot back quickly. "You know you would be bored without me."
"I guess you'll keep me company on this drive, at the very least," I respond. "Plus, you kind of owe me after you made me go on that terrible blind date with your boss."
"Come on, it wasn't that bad," Damon says. "You did get a decent meal out of it, but I know the guy is a complete bore."
"You can say that again," I say as Damon opens the passenger-side door to let me in. I swallow back my anxiety. I do not like driving, and I'm so thankful that Damon agreed to this little adventure after our phone call last night.
He turns the car's ignition on, and we're on the road quickly. We sit in traffic for what seems like a millennium before finally hitting the countryside's open space and curvy roads. Things become quieter, and small towns are speckled here and there. Damon and I mostly sit silently as we pass the picturesque seaside villages.
I appreciate that we don't need noise to fill up the space because the lump in my throat is taking up more space than I would like to admit. Damon and I have known each other since we were children. He lived in a big white victorian house on the corner from us, and his mom always made the most amazing chocolate chip cookies.
Gwenn and I lived with our mom. She was a widow after our dad died in a hit-and-run accident when we were kids. Our mom was the hardest-working and strongest person we ever knew. She worked as a nurse and often had to work nights in the emergency room, so we spent a lot of time with Damon and his family. We sometimes stayed with our grandparents on the outskirts of town in their small cabin, and as we got older, Gwenn and I mostly took care of ourselves.
I sighed as we passed a place that reminded me of my childhood and grandparents. Gwenn and I would spend hours swimming in the pristine lake and exploring the woods near their house. We would catch fish, and our grandpa would tell us the best stories, while grandma would pretend to have not heard those stories for the hundredth time.
It was absolute perfection for many years, but eventually, my grandparents passed away, and my mom couldn't bear to keep the cabin since it was written to my dad in their will. It made her too sad to reflect on the memories, so she decided to sell it one day without telling us.
Damon let out a long whistle in admiration as we pulled up to the wrought iron gates. They were intricately designed with two hearts sitting in the center and a tangle of wrought iron vines delicately connecting them.
"Do you think there's a call box?" He asks.
"It doesn't seem like they would have that kind of technology out here," I whisper, the words barely audible. I get out of the car, and I jiggle one of the gate doors. It slowly creaks open.
"I guess it's unlocked," I say as I push the other gate open so our car can fit through.
As we pull farther into the driveway, the oak trees grow together as if embracing in a hug, blocking out the world from a secret only they can share. The path continues to get narrow, and there's a point where I want to tell Damon to turn around. I know it's just my anxiety getting the best of me. We finally come to the end of the driveway, where a rambling white house with a sprawling porch sits picturesquely among mossy-covered boulders and a well-manicured lawn.
Suddenly, a man with a shotgun appears on the porch.
"Get off this land!" He shouts, waving the gun in the air. I'm so stunned that I just stand gawking at the car. I try to look at Damon, but he's already walking toward the man with his surrendering hands.
"Excuse me, sir, but we're looking for a woman that lives here." He says as he holds up my sister's letter.
"I'm sorry, but no one has lived here in about ten years. My name is Milton, and I'm just the caretaker for this property hired by the family to keep it in order."
I swallow hard. I'm unsure what I expected when we drove to this mansion by the sea, but it wasn't this. I look pleadingly at Damon to help.
"Do you mind looking over the letter to make sure we have the right address?" Damon asks the man. He hands the letter to the older man, who scratches his head and hands it back to him.
"That's right; this is the Greenwood mansion, but sorry to say no Greenwood has lived here for going on ten years, though," He explains. "I think whoever sent this letter to you must be playing a trick."
"My sister sent the letter," I say. "Are you sure there aren't any other Greenwood residences around here?"
"No. This is the only one I'm aware of." Milton says, shaking his head. "It seems you've had a journey; why don't you come in, and I can make you some tea. Or something stronger if you prefer."
"I might take you up on something stronger," Damon hesitates before he continues. "We're looking for a woman named Gwenn Greenwood or her husband, Graham Greenwood."
"I did know someone by the name of Graham a long time ago," Milton explains as he pours water into a tea kettle. "Would you like a hot toddy? Sorry, I wasn't expecting company, and there isn't much here."
"I'd love a hot toddy," we both say.
"Graham lived here with his parents up until the day he went missing," Milton says. "It tore the entire family apart. They left this house and everything untouched but couldn't bear to live in it from the painful memories."
"The family kept me on as a caretaker for the house," he continues, "They kept saying the house needed to be in perfect order in case Graham ever came home. He never did come home. They never found his body in that lake where he disappeared, so he was classified as missing and has been ever since."
"But that doesn't make any sense," I whisper. "My sister married Graham exactly one year ago today."
I take my phone out and show Milton the pictures of the blissfully married couple. Graham is happily smiling as he holds my sweet sister in a loving embrace. Her dress flows elegantly around her, and her veil blows in the wind while she laughs joyously. She looks free.
"Well, my sincere congratulations to your sister and her new husband on their marriage," Milton says, "Unfortunately, whoever she married wasn't Graham or not the one that once lived here."
The house groans suddenly as if it wants to speak as if it wants to unlock a secret. I quietly stir the honey and lemon around in my hot toddy.
This can't be it?
Milton and Damon talk about landscaping for a while, and I can hear them laughing. In a way, they feel like they're on another plane of existence.
I can't stop thinking about my sister.
I knew Gwenn was there, but more than that, I knew she needed me.
I could choose to find her, but instead, I decided to leave with Damon. I did what she asked in the letter. I went to the house. I saw the beautiful old house by the sea. It was just like my sister always dreamed it would be. It was like all the pictures she drew up at our grandparent's cabin. I hoped she was happy. Even if it was cold some days.
I love you.
I whispered those words that she would want to hear into the wind.
As I passed by a tree, I swear I heard a faint whisper and a slight giggle rustle in the passing leaves:
"I love you, baby sister. I told you it was better than I could have dreamed here at my house by the sea."
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