Ruby carefully took a seat at the kitchen counter. She accepted the cup I passed her. “Oh, I almost forgot! I made you a present.” She fished inside her bag then handed me a loose parcel of crepe paper. I unwrapped it and found a small doll, its repainted face smiling up at me. The long brown hair had been given a fringe and plaited. Ruby had dressed it in a cute blue-checked dress and a cardigan with an oversized button. “Wow! You made it for me?” “Yeah.” Her smile was small but excited. “I put a lot of care into it. I mean, I put care into all of my dolls, but this one especially—” “Thank you. I love it.” I set the doll on the windowsill and arranged it carefully so that it sat upright. “Does it have a name?” “That’s up to you.” “Oh, no. I’m awful at names. I named my cat Tinkerbell because she had a collar with a jingly bell.” I laughed. “I took the collar off once she decided to be an indoors-only cat, so now the name doesn’t even make sense.”
“I think it’s a cute name.” Ruby blew on her drink. I sat opposite, and for a minute, neither of us seemed to know what to say. “Is everything going well with the new house?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, I mean, it’s been good. A lot of work. I cleared out the clothes and toys from the last family. I just didn’t feel comfortable with them there— like it was still their house.” She brushed her long hair behind her ear. “I tried to find their contact details to see if they wanted any of it back, but the agent had lost touch with them, so I donated what I could and threw out the rest.”
“I bit, I think.” She shrugged. “I’m still getting used to it. And still getting lost, can you believe? Whoever designed the building’s floor plan must have been insane. Rooms open into other rooms you wouldn’t expect, and the hallway does this weird loopy thing that disorients me.” “I hope you at least decided on a workroom.”
“Oh, yes, I did! That lovely blue room at the end of the hallway, the one that frightened us. Remember?” I wouldn’t forget that place in a hurry. “Yeah. Glad you’re getting settled.” We lapsed into another silence, which lasted almost uncomfortably long. Ruby stared at her tea. Her face had lost its earlier brightness, and I guessed there was something she wanted to tell me but couldn’t bring herself to say.
I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Is something wrong?”
She startled then gave a hesitant smile. “No. I mean… no. I’ve just been a bit rattled; that’s all. You know, new house, new neighbourhood, and we are the only person here I know in this haunted house. I tried to say hello to my neighbour on the other
side when she was watering her lawn yesterday, but she just glared at me and went back inside.” “At least it’s not just me, then.” She chewed on her lip. “A bird flew into the window.” “The sparrow a few days ago? They do that sometimes.” “No. I found the sparrow and threw it out. This was an owl last night. It hit the window while I was painting a doll. Scared me so badly, I ruined the face and had to redo it.” “That’s sad. I love owls.” “Me, too. It’s a big one. I’m surprised the glass didn’t shatter.” She looked down at her cup. “It’s such a beautiful bird it, feels wrong to throw it in the bin. I was thinking of burying it.” “Hey, that’s a good idea.” I looked at Marwick House through the kitchen window. “Did you want company? I don’t have plans for today.” “Yes! Yes, please.” I’d found Ruby’s real motive for visiting. She was afraid and lonely and didn’t want to carry out a funeral service on her own. I washed up the cups, then we collected our jackets and followed the circuitous route from the garden. Once again, I was struck by just how different her property’s atmosphere was. I could almost feel the temperature drop.
“It’s just around here.”Ruby led me down the side of the house. Vines
grew between the stones of the path, taking up the spaces where even grass refused to thrive, and their brittle stems crackled under my shoes. We found the owl crumpled at the side of the house, one wing threw out, its head tilted back. I didn’t know birds well, but I thought it might be a young barn owl. I looked up. A smear of white powder marked the second-floor window. “You’re right. It’s lucky it didn’t break through the glass.”