Chapter 2: Whisper

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I hear Rita snort beside me and I want to just die of embarrassment. Hot, indignant anger bubbles up in my throat. "Ms. Arden, I'll have you know I am a married woman now, with a child of my own. I don't have to seek permission from my Mama for every little thing that I do."

She arches a brow. "Good to hear it." The smile is back in full force. "Now, ladies, won't you please come in?"

She steps aside to let us through and Rita and Connie almost fight for who goes in first, giggling as they stumble into the hallway. I follow behind, flinching again as Mr. Faustus runs in after us, snaking through our legs and rushing off into a room at the end of the hallway, where I can see candlelight flickering through the gap in the partly-open door.

Behind me, Barbara slides the bolt back into place, with an ominous click that snaps off the walls and floor and I can't help but wonder why she feels the need to lock herself in. If I lived here, I'd be itching to get out and I wouldn't want no stupid lock stopping me from escaping.

Inside the house, the hallway is dark and foreboding and all the décor seems to clash in a way that is headache-inducing. Black and white square tiles pave the hall. Dark, heavy-patterned paper lines the walls, which are crammed full of framed pictures of all shapes and sizes. The photographs are random and a little odd-looking. I spy a little girl in some of them, probably no more than eight years old and always staring sullenly at the camera. Some are landscapes, glum-looking scenery that looks like it's never seen a day of summer sun.

Barbara's heels – red to match her lipstick – click against the tiles as she ushers us towards the room at the end of the corridor and we follow her, Connie and Rita nudging one another and whispering like schoolgirls, and me tagging along behind as I stare about. I catch the faint scent of incense, candle wax and sage which grows stronger the closer we get to the end of the hallway.

The parlor room, where Barbara conducts her business, is like an extended exaggeration of the hallway. The smells are stronger in here and I spot an incense burner and a bowl containing remnants of smoldering sage close to the sash window, which makes me wrinkle my nose as the heady scent infuses my nostrils. Looking around, I feel the weighty touch of claustrophobia pressing in on all sides. There's so much clutter in here, I can barely understand how anyone can fit into this room. On one side, there's a huge floor-to-ceiling curio cabinet, crammed full of all sorts of strange and frightening objects. Bird skulls of differing sizes. Plastic dolls heads stuffed into a small glass box. Blackened candles thick at the base with melted wax. Apothecary bottles filled with mysterious dark liquids. Crude ornaments that look oriental in origin. A stuffed crow sits amongst it all, staring right back at me with dead, beady eyes. And, Mr. Faustus, who has taken up residence on the cabinet counter top, his twitching tail curled around his fat body, stares too.

The rest of the room is much the same. White church candles cluster every available surface. A small chintz-edged table lamp draped with a purple scarf emits a muted, mauve light in one corner. More pictures line the walls in here, only these ones are more unsettling than the ones in the hallway. Two old women sit at a table, empty bowls in front of them, tartan cloth shawls wrapped around their shoulders and in between them, a ghostly apparition with its face blurred. A small boy wearing a gas mask, clutching a stuffed toy to his chest. Three young girls posing together wearing ankle-length skirts, their long dark hair covering their faces completely. A cemetery, fallen headstones blocking the pathway, hardy tufts of long grass jutting out from between the broken slabs. A girl with tousled ringlets, holding what appears to be a dead flamingo as she stands on a garishly-patterned rug.

And as I look around, I'm suddenly struck by how staged this all feels. This room, the hallway, none of it seems to fit with the woman who now stands behind the table. It's like she's trying too hard to put the heebie-jeebies into her guests and I can see how it must work, because everything in here is peculiar and creepy and just plain wrong. But it isn't Barbara. It isn't who she is, the woman with the movie star hair and clicking red heels, and I get immediately why people say that she is nothing but a charlatan. It all just seems so fake and my mood lightens a little and I don't feel so uneasy about being here.

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