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Ms. McMartin was definitely dead. It had taken some time for the neighbors to grow suspicious, since no one ever went in or came out of the old stone house on Linden Street anyway. However, there were several notable clues that things in the McMartin house were not as they should have been. The rusty mailbox began to bulge with odd and exotic mail-order catalogs, which eventually overflowed the gaping aluminum door and spilled out into the street. The gigantic jungle fern that hung from the porch ceiling keeled over for lack of water. Ms. McMartin’s three cats, somewhere inside the house, began the most terrible yowling ever heard on quiet old Linden Street. After a few days of listening to that, the neighbors had had enough.
The authorities arrived in a big white van. They marched in a group up the porch steps, knocked at the door, waited for a moment, and then picked the lock with a handy official lock-picking tool. A few minutes went by. All the neighbors held their breath, watching through the gaps in their curtains. Soon the uniformed group reappeared, rolling a white-sheeted stretcher onto the porch. They locked the ancient front door behind them and drove away, stretcher and all.
Rumors soon began to fly regarding where and how Ms. McMartin had finally kicked it. Mrs. Nivens, who had lived next door for as long as anyone could remember, told Mrs. Dewey that it had happened in the hallway, where someone—or something—had startled Ms. McMartin so badly that she fell down the stairs. Mr. Fergus told Mr. Butler that Ms. McMartin had collapsed on the living room rug in front of the fireplace, while a sheaf of secret family papers went up in smoke behind the grate. Mr. Hanniman decreed that she had died of old age, plain and simple—he had heard that she was 150 years old, after all. And there were various theories as to just how much of Ms. McMartin’s face had been eaten by her cats.
Ms. McMartin had no close family. Her nearest relative was a distant cousin who had recently died in Shanghai, after a severe allergic reaction to a bowl of turtle and arsenic soup. There was no one to come and collect an inheritance, or to dig through the rickety attic for long-lost treasures. The old stone house, covered with encroaching scarves of ivy, was left full of its antique furniture and strange knickknacks. Ms. McMartin’s yowling cats were the only items to be removed from the house, wrestled into kitty carriers by three scratched and bleeding animal shelter workers. And then, according to Mrs. Nivens, who saw it all through her kitchen window, just as they were about to be loaded into the animal shelter truck, the three kitty carriers popped open simultaneously. A trio of gigantic cats shot across the lawn like furry cannonballs. The sweaty shelter manager wiped a smudge of blood off his cheek, shrugged, and said to the other two, “Well—how about some lunch?”
It wasn’t long before someone heard about the old stone house for sale at an astonishingly low price and decided to buy it.
These someones were a Mr. Alec and Mrs. Alice Dunwoody, a pair of more than slightly dippy mathematicians. The Dunwoodys had a daughter named Olive—but she had nothing to do with the housebuying decision. Olive was eleven, and was generally not given much credit. Her persistently lackluster grades in math had led her parents to believe that she was some kind of genetic aberration—they talked to her patiently, as if she were a foreign exchange student from a country no one had ever heard of.
In late June, Mr. Hambert, Realtor, led the Dunwoodys through the McMartin house. It was a muggy afternoon, but the old stone house was dark and cool inside. Trailing along behind the rest of the group, Olive could feel the little hairs on her bare arms standing up. Mr. Hambert, on the other hand, was sweating like a mug of root beer in the sun. His cheeks were pushed up into two red lumps by his wide smile. He could smell a sale, and it smelled as good as a fresh bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. As they walked along the firstfloor hallway, he kept up a flow of chitchat.
“So, how did you two meet?” Mr. Hambert asked Mr. and Mrs. Dunwoody, pulling the chain of a dusty hanging lamp.
“We met in the library at Princeton,” answered Mrs. Dunwoody, her eyes glowing with the memory. “We were both reading the same journal—The Absolutely Unrelenting Seriousness of Mathematics for the New Generation —”
“Or ‘Ausom’—get it?” interjected Mr. Dunwoody. “ ‘Awesome.’ Very clever.”
“—and Alec asked me, ‘Have you seen the misprint on page twenty-five?’ They had written that Theodorus’s Constant—”
“Is the square root of two!” interjected Mr. Dunwoody again. “How their copy editors missed that, I can’t imagine.”
“Oh, we both laughed and laughed,” sighed Mrs. Dunwoody with a misty look at her husband.
“Well, you must be a regular math whiz, with parents like yours—am I right?” said Mr. Hambert, leaning his sweaty face toward Olive.
Mr. Dunwoody patted Olive’s shoulder. “Math isn’t really her thing. Olive is a very . . . creative girl, aren’t you, Olive?”
Olive nodded, and looked down at the toes of her sneakers.
Mr. Hambert kept up his shiny-cheeked smile. “Well, good for you,” he said, stopping in front of a pair of dark wood doors, carved into shiny raised squares. He pushed them open with a grand gesture.
“The library,” he announced.
Through the doors was a large, dusty room, almost the size of a small ballroom. The wooden floor was a little scratched, and the tiles around the giant fireplace were chipped here and there, but these flaws made the vast room seem cozier. In fact, it looked as though it might have been used yesterday. Long shelves, still covered with rows of embossed leather volumes, stretched from the hardwood floor to the stenciled ceiling. Ladders on wheels, the kind that Olive had only seen in old paintings, were leaning against the shelves so that the very highest books could be reached. There were hundreds, maybe thou6 sands of books, obviously collected by several generations of McMartins.
“The managers of the estate have decided to sell the contents along with the house. Of course, you can dispose of these however you choose,” said Mr. Hambert consolingly, as though so many books would be a terrible bother.
“This room would be just perfect for studying, correcting papers, writing articles . . . don’t you think?” said Mrs. Dunwoody to Mr. Dunwoody dreamily.
“Oh, yes, very cozy,” agreed Mr. Dunwoody. “You know, I don’t believe that we need more time to make up our minds—do you, dear?”
Mr. and Mrs. Dunwoody exchanged another misty look. Then Mr. Dunwoody declared, “We’ll take it.”
Mr. Hambert’s face turned as red as a new potato. He burbled and shone and shook Mr. Dunwoody’s hand, then Mrs. Dunwoody’s hand, then Mr. Dunwoody’s hand again.
“Excellent! Excellent!” he boomed. “Congratulations— perfect house for a family! So big, so full of history . . . A quick look around the second floor, and we can go back to my office and sign the papers!”
They all trooped up the mossy carpet of the staircase, Mr. Hambert in the lead, puffing happily, Mr. and Mrs. Dunwoody following hand in hand, smiling up at the high ceilings as though some lovely algebraic theorem unfolded there. Olive trailed behind, running her hand up the banister and collecting a pile of thick dust. At the top of the stairs, she rolled the dust into a little ball and blew it off of her palm. It floated slowly down, past the banister, past the old wall sconces, into the dark hallway.
Her parents had disappeared into one of the bedrooms. She could still hear Mr. Hambert shouting “Excellent! Excellent!” every now and again.
Olive stood by herself on the landing and felt the big stone house loom around her. This is our house, she told herself, just to see how it felt. Our house. The words hovered in her mind like candle smoke. Before Olive could quite believe them, they had faded away.
Olive turned in a slow circle. The hall stretched away from her in two directions, dwindling into darkness at both ends. Dim light from one hanging lamp outlined the frames of the pictures on the walls. Behind Olive, at the top of the stairs, was a large painting in a thick gold frame. Olive liked to paint, but she mostly made squiggly designs or imaginary creatures from the books she read. She had never painted anything like this.
Olive peered into the canvas. It was a painting of a forest at night. The twigs of leafless trees made a black web against the sky. A full moon pressed its face through the clouds, touching a path of white stones that led into the dark woods and disappeared. But it seemed to Olive that somewhere—maybe just at the end of that white path, maybe in that darkness where the moonlight couldn’t reach—there was something else within that painting. Something she could almost see.
“Olive?” Mrs. Dunwoody’s head popped through a doorway along the hall. “Don’t you want to see your bedroom?”
Olive walked slowly away from the painting, keeping her eye on it over her shoulder. She would figure it out later, she told herself. She would have plenty of time.×