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those who walk there

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Steve was six years old when Luke and Eleanor (they just called her Nell) were born.

His father carefully handed him Luke’s squirming form to hold, and said, “Be careful, and don’t let anything happen to him.” He ruffled Steve’s hair. “Remember, Steve, it’s the first rule of Big Brother School.”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, looking down at Luke’s scrunched face. “I won’t let anything happen to them.”

The family moved to a place called Hill House, and it was the beginning of the end.

Starting in their very first week there, Nell began to have terrible nightmares. Steve was often woken by her cries in the middle of the night since his room was just down the hall. He went to check on her those times and listened to her tales of the ghost that seemed to haunt her every move. He knew it was just nightmares and daydreams and always left when his dad came to reassure Nell of this fact.

Steve never noticed the ghosts that followed in the footsteps of every Crain that walked the halls of Hill House.

(The man repairing the clock was just that, a man.)

What Steve did notice was how his mom changed. She went from a kind, caring woman to one who spoke to vacant beds and smashed the mirrors of gifted vanities.

As a kid, he didn’t know how to make sense of her behavior. He believed his dad when he said that she just needed some time to herself.

When he was older, he could finally put a word to it. His mother had been sick.

Steve was woken by an urgent hand on his shoulder in the middle of the night - the last night. Blearily, he blinked his eyes open and saw his mother crouched beside his bed, staring at him through tear-filled eyes. He pushed himself up and looked at her, tired and confused.

“Mom?” he mumbled. Wasn’t she supposed to be at Aunt Janet’s? He didn’t say that though, instead asking, “Are you okay?” after observing the strange look on her face. A look that reminded him of empty rooms and shattered glass.

“Stevie,” she whispered, bringing both of her hands to his face and trailing her fingers across his cheeks. Steve couldn’t deny that he was unsettled by the touch of his mother’s cool fingers, but he didn’t move to stop her. Something told him it would be a bad idea. After a few seconds, his mom removed her touch from his face and grasped his hands. “You’re still here. He didn’t take you.”

“Who is he, Mom?” Steve asked, trying to keep his voice level.

She ignored his questions, instead murmuring, “You’re dreaming, Stevie. You need to wake up.”

“I am awake, Mom,” Steve replied stiffly. “You just woke me up.”

“No,” she breathed, shaking her head as a tear streamed down her face. “You’re dreaming.”

An icy feeling that Steve would later be able to place as fear settled over him at the look his mother gave him. She looked determined. Resolute. And yet there was something broken in her gaze. Something off.

Slowly, Steve withdrew his hands from hers, wanting nothing more than to inch away from the woman masquerading as his mother.

“I think we should get Dad,” he said, attempting to keep his inner turmoil from creeping into his tone of voice. But he was just thirteen years old and couldn’t prevent the words from shaking.

Olivia Crain’s gaze hardened at that. She placed her left hand on Steve’s cheek again, her grip cold and unrelenting. Voice low, she said, “He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what’s out there waiting for you. I have to wake you up, and he doesn’t understand.”

Steve froze at her words, dread icing up his limbs. This wasn’t his mother.

Something banged in the distance, and it was only then, as his eyes flicked to his bedroom door, that Steve realized it was closed and locked.

The next thing he knew was darkness and pressure as his own pillow was suddenly shoved over his face, pressing him down onto his mattress. He panicked and tried to scream, but the sound was only a muffled garble through the pillow. He tried to breath but couldn’t through the restriction.

Vaguely, he was aware of himself thrashing in an attempt to get free, but hands pressed down on his arms and a pressure on his legs stopped him from struggling.

(He never realized that his mother didn’t have enough hands to restrain him by herself.)

The world began to grow dark as absolute panic flooded Steve’s system. Through the fog of hypoxemia and hysteria, he heard his mother gently whispering, “It’s okay. The pain will be over soon. You’re going to wake up.”

Black dots danced across his limited vision as Steve tried painfully, pointlessly to breathe. Everything began to fade, and just as the world went black a crash like the breaking of a door echoed through Steve’s unconscious mind.

Hugh ran back into the house after ushering his four youngest, screaming children into the car. For the first time, he was aware of the figures looming in the dim hallways of Hill House, but he could not pay them much more attention than a pause and glance before he heard a muffled cry from the direction of the kid’s rooms.

“No,” he breathed before sprinting through the halls as fast as his legs would carry him.

He reached the door to Steve’s room, and the sounds of struggle inside filled Hugh with such dread that he didn’t even bother trying the handle. Instead, he kicked the door with more strength than he ever thought he could muster, and it splintered open at the contact.

Inside was the second scene from his worst nightmares that he had witnessed that night. Steve was motionless on his bed. Olivia stood over him, pressing a pillow down over his head while a woman with short red hair lurked over her shoulder.

Hugh took this in in less than a second. And for the second time that night, he threw himself at his wife and flung her across the room. Her body thudded against the wall, but Hugh didn’t spare her a second glance.

Holding back tears and nearly breaking at the mere idea of what he may find, Hugh removed the pillow from Steve’s limp form and pressed shaking fingers to his neck. A broken breath of relief left his lips at the faint but present feel of a heartbeat beneath his fingertips. He let out a sob as Steve’s chest rose in indication of breath.

Hugh gathered up his oldest boy in his arms and ran, doing his best not to jostle Steve too much. Behind him, he heard his wife release a broken cry of, “No!” and more tears fell down his cheeks at what had become of her.

He ran down the steps of Hill House and out the door without a glance back. Outside, Luke cried, “I saw Abigail in the window! She was in the window!” as the rest of the children screamed for answers.

“Get back in the car! Theo, move to the back!” was all Hugh gave in response. At his tone, the children complied, but their crying only grew louder.

Once Theo had scrambled into the back of the car, Hugh laid Steve down in the passenger’s seat and buckled him in before rushing to the driver’s side.

“What’s happening? What’s happening? Where’s Mom?!” Shirley demanded through her tears. Hugh didn’t have the heart or words to answer her.

“What’s wrong with Stevie?” Nell asked, sniffles marring her words.

“Steve is fine,” Hugh answered in what he hoped was a convincing way. “He’s just sleeping.”

Hugh pulled out of the driveway, glancing at the house in his rearview mirror as the whimpers of his children filled the car. He couldn’t allow himself to think about Olivia right now. He had to take care of the kids and get them somewhere safe. He would go back for her. He would fix it. He just had to make sure the kids were safe first.

He looked over at Steve. His thirteen-year-old son’s head was lolling against the headrest of his chair, but Hugh was reassured by the steady rise and fall of his chest. He was just unconscious and would wake up in a few minutes, if that.

Hugh’s heart broke at the thought of what he would have to ask Steve to do when he woke up. Steve’s memory of their mother was ruined, but her legacy was still one of love and comfort for the other kids. Hugh couldn’t let that change. At least not yet. Obviously, he could not allow Olivia near the kids any time soon, but the four youngest didn’t need to know the specifics of why. Luke and Nell didn’t understand what had almost happened to them. Shirley and Theo had no idea how far gone their mother was.

It was only Steve.

Hugh wished he could have protected him too. Wished he could have fixed it before that had happened to his oldest.

He would have to do his best to fix what he could now.

Steve woke up with a gasp, feeling a restriction across his chest that sent his mind into a frenzy. He scrambled to get it off, but a hand suddenly fell on his knee and caused him to freeze.

“Stevie,” said his dad’s voice, and Steve looked over to see him at the wheel of their car. He only then became aware of the fact that he was in the car, and his siblings were crying in the backseat. Confusion swept over him like a wave, and his dad must have noticed this as he said in a placating tone, “I’ll explain in a bit Steve. We’re going to a motel right now so you kids can spend the night there while I fix things. I need you to remember the first rule of Big Brother School right now, okay?”

“Don’t let anything happen to them,” Steve whispered, his voice scratchy.

“Right,” his dad said in a cracked voice. “That’s right, Stevie.” His father stared ahead at the road. “You do that, and I’ll fix it.”

Steve looked out his window, remembering his mother’s broken look and the cold hands that had held him down as he struggled. His rubbed at his bruising arms and thought, shell-shocked, I don’t think you can fix this, Dad.

They arrived at the motel, and his dad instructed Steve to wait with his siblings as he checked them in. They had quieted down by this point, although Steve could still hear sniffles coming from the backseat every once in a while.

Steve glanced at the rearview mirror to see how they were doing but immediately looked away when instead he saw the figure of Olivia Crain sitting in the middle seat of the back of the car. His breath grew short as he stared down at his feet. A knock startled him out of his panic, and Steve looked up to see his dad tapping on the car window.

Steve opened it, still feeling dazed, and his father said, “I got us a room. Steve, I’m going to have you stay here with the car while I take the others to the room.”

Steve just nodded, not trusting himself to speak. His father nodded in return, and he led Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell to a nearby room while Steve waited in the passenger seat. While he waited, Steve kept his gaze directed downward, not wanting to see what may be in the back mirror.

After a couple minutes, another tap sounded, and Steve once again opened the car door.

“You can come out now, Steve,” his father instructed. “I just wanted to get your siblings to the room so we could talk.”

Steve climbed out of the car door, not looking at his dad as he replied bitterly, “Talk about what? How mom just tried to kill me?”

His father gripped his shoulders, spinning Steve around to look him in the eye. His face was set as he said, “That was not your mom, okay Steve? It wasn’t. I’m going to get your mother, and I promise you that I am going to fix it.”

Steve was still young and naive, and he wanted to think that his mom could be helped. He found himself believing his dad. He was good at fixing things. Surely, he could help fix Mom too.

“Okay,” Steve whispered. But the aching fear still weighed him down, and he asked, “You’re . . . you’re not gonna bring her here, right?”

His father shook his head solemnly. “No. I won’t”

“Good,” Steve mumbled, feeling bad for feeling that way. She was his mother, and she needed help.

His dad sighed, removing his heavy (but not restricting like his mother’s had been) hands from Steve’s shoulders. He looked down at Steve and said, “I know this is hard, but I need you to keep what happened to yourself. Your siblings . . . it will just scare them. I don’t want them to think of their mom that way.”

But what about me? Steve thought idly. Out loud, though, he just answered, “Yeah, I get it. First rule of Big Brother School.”

“First rule,” his dad repeated with a smile. He turned to get back in the car. “You go stay with your siblings now. I’ll be back soon.”


His dad gave him one last nod before he was driving away. Steve watched the car disappear down the road, thoughts swirling like a storm in his mind. He could hardly process everything that had happened. If his dad hadn’t gotten to Steve in time, then his mother would have kept holding the pillow over him. Steve. . . Steve would be. . .

He couldn’t think it. Couldn’t fathom it.

How was a thirteen-year-old supposed to comprehend the thought that he had nearly been killed by his own mother?

He understood why he couldn’t tell his siblings. They didn’t need to know right now. Steve had to look out for them because he was the oldest, and that meant protecting them from everything bad.

Steve turned away from the road and headed toward the room he’d seen his father take his siblings to. He knocked on the door once he got there, and Shirley opened it, ushering him inside.

“What did Dad say to you?” she demanded, worry lacing her inquiry.

Steve gave his most nonchalant shrug. “He’s going back to get Mom.”

“I still don’t get why we left her in the first place,” Shirley muttered in anger.

“That wasn’t Mommy,” Nell’s soft voice spoke up.

Steve looked at her in alarm, wondering why she would say that. He couldn’t hold back his curiosity and asked, “Why do you say that Nell?”

“She was acting weird at our tea party.”

“We left Abigail,” Luke complained, but Steve brushed the comment off. Abigail wasn’t real.

“Tea party?” he questioned.

“Yeah,” Nell replied. “She wanted us to have a tea party to wake us up. But she wasn’t acting like Mommy, and Dad stopped us from having the tea party.”

Steve’s blood ran cold at that comment. Their mother had said the same thing to him before trying to smother him with a pillow. He had a horrible feeling that what she was going to give to his younger siblings wasn’t tea at all. His dad must have known this as well.

But he couldn’t let that show. Instead, he forced a smile and said, “Well, Dad is going to fix it. We should go to sleep while we wait for him to get back.”

Shirley shot him a look that clearly said, Who put you in charge? but complied and plopped down on a bed anyway. Theo had no complaints, silently taking the spot next to Shirley. Luke and Nell were already sitting together on a bed, so Steve figured they could take that one. He could wait in a chair for their dad to get back. That way he could watch over all his siblings.

Steve didn’t think he would be able to go back to sleep anyway.

Steve did end up dozing off but awoke to the slightest of thumps. His eyes snapped open and his body tensed, but Steve relaxed upon seeing that it was just Nell climbing out of bed. Soft light filtered through the blinds, and Steve realized that a full night had passed.

Nell began to walk toward the door, glancing at Steve and giving him a little beckoning wave as she went. Steve smiled at her innocence and got up to follow. The two were quiet and careful so as to not disturb their siblings and slipped out the motel door.

“I wanted to wait for Daddy outside,” Nell explained.

“Good idea,” Steve said. “We can sit here together and wait for him.”

The two siblings sat side by side, Nell swinging her feet back and forth. They waited in silence, Steve leaning back into the bench and enjoying the warm sun on his face. It was a nice contrast to the stuffy motel room that had just been a reminder of not being able to breath.

“Stevie, were you really just asleep when Daddy brought you to the car?” Nell asked.

“W-what? Yeah, of course I was,” Steve stammered out.

Nell looked at him quizzically before turning away. “You didn’t seem asleep.”

Steve didn’t answer her. Sometimes it was uncanny how perceptive Nell could be, but Steve hoped that she didn’t end up saying something that made one of the older siblings realize that Steve was unconscious and not asleep. It was going to be difficult enough hiding the finger-shaped bruises on his arms. He was lucky that he was wearing long sleeves.

He was spared any further questions or observations from Nell by the appearance of their family car turning into the motel lot. The two siblings watched their father pull into a parking space and turn the car off. One thing Steve was instantly aware of was the lack of another person in the car with Dad. He was alone.

Their dad opened the car door, and Steve’s stomach dropped upon seeing the state of his clothes. They were covered in blood.

Hugh Crain turned to face his children, and in that moment Steve knew that he hadn’t been able to fix it.

Hugh lost the custody battle for the kids, and Steve found himself in the position of having to reassure his siblings that living with Aunt Janet would be fine even though he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea himself.

His dad was the only one who knew what had happened between Steve and his mom. He hadn’t told anyone during all the police interviews or court meetings, not even any of his siblings. Who was Steve supposed to talk to when he had a nightmare if his father wasn’t around to actually understand what he’d been dreaming about?

Steve couldn’t deny that a bitterness toward his father had begun to fester inside him. He was the one making Steve keep what had happened a secret, but he was refusing to say what had made his mom act that way. He blamed it all on Hill House, claiming it was haunted.

The tabloids called him crazy, and, with his father offering no evidence to the contrary, Steve couldn’t help but subconsciously agree with them.

How could he blame the house? It was just a house. It had been Olivia Crain that had tried to kill three of her children and killed herself when her attempts failed. No structure made of simple wood and stone had caused that.

Steve remembered what Mrs. Dudley had told him about William and Poppy Hill, the two previous owners of the house who had been hospitalized for being insane. It seemed pretty obvious to Steve that that was what had happened to his mother. She’d gone crazy, and now Dad was following in her footsteps by choosing to blame what had happened on Nellie’s ghost stories and not telling the truth.

And because of that, now Steve was alone.

Their father saw them off on their way to Aunt Janet’s. He gave each of Steve’s younger siblings a fierce hug and whispered words of encouragement in their ears. Shirley, Luke, and Nell were all softly crying as Hugh finally approached Steve.

He crouched down to be at Steve’s level, but Steve avoided looking into his eyes. Hugh sighed and pulled Steve into a hug. Steve couldn’t help but relax into the embrace, despite the ever-present feeling of bitterness lingering inside him.

His dad pulled away and placed both of his hands on Steve’s shoulders. This time, Steve made himself make eye contact with his dad as he said, “I’m so proud of you for being so strong, Stevie. Keep looking after them for you, will you?”

“Yeah,” Steve managed to reply. “Okay.”

Hugh gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and stood up. He began saying his final goodbyes to everyone, but Steve wasn’t really listening. He just kept thinking about what his dad had told him.

Keep looking after them.

Keep what happened a secret.

Aunt Janet’s house was small, especially compared to Hill House. There were only three bedrooms, and six people to split them between. Aunt Janet remained in her room, while Shirley and Theo shared the larger of the two remaining bedrooms and Luke and Nell got the other.

Steve ended up in the attic. Aunt Janet did her best to clear the clutter out of it, but Steve was still basically sleeping in an isolated storage room with a bed and dresser. She apologized for the situation, but Steve was grateful for it in a strange way.

He was separated from the others, and that way none of them would notice when he woke up gasping in the middle of the night, struggling to breath because he’d had a dream about being suffocated. None of them noticed how Steve left a lamplight on when he fell asleep because he didn’t like the dark. None of them noticed how a lot of nights Steve barely slept at all because he was staring at his mother’s looming, murmuring figure in the corner of the room, willing her to just leave.

Steve never had to explain away his nightmares because no one ever knew that he had them.

When he was sixteen, Steve started writing a book, and he called it The Haunting of Hill House.

It was his way to talk about what had happened since mentioning the house to any of his siblings was a bad idea (and he had to protect them). Luke and Nell still believed it really was haunted, Theo had nothing to say about the matter, and Shirley just got angry anytime it was brought up.

The process of writing the novel was slow-going. Steve didn’t have a typewriter anymore or anything so fancy as a computer, so he handwrote the story in a notebook that he kept tucked away in his attic bedroom.

He wrote about the family moving in, the strange things that Nell and Luke saw, the incident with Shirley and the kittens, his mom growing stranger and stranger, but what he didn’t write was the truth.

Even in his own story, Steve couldn’t bring himself to write about what had really happened that last night at the house. He wrote the story that he’d always told and been told. That he had been asleep and that ghosts had driven his mother to her death.

It was better than writing the truth.

Steve wished he could believe it.

A month before Steve left for college, he was in his room rereading The Haunting of Hill House and making edits to it when a gentle knock tapped on the trapdoor that lead into the attic. He hastily stuffed the notebook under his pillow and replaced it with an actual book before calling, “Come in!”

The trapdoor creaked open, and Nell climbed up into the attic. She shuffled inside and came to sit on the end of Steve’s bed.

“What is it, Nell?” Steve asked, setting his book aside.

“Do you really have to leave?” she asked in a whisper.

“I’ll only be an hour away,” Steve reassured her. “And you can talk to me over the phone still.”

Her eyes were downcast. “I just don’t like that you’re leaving.”

Steve frowned and scooted over to sit closer to his youngest sibling. “Let me tell you something, Nell,” Steve started. “I’m not really leaving. I just won’t be here as much. But I can come home every couple of weekends or you guys can visit me. I won’t be gone.”

“Good,” Nell said. “I don’t want anyone else to leave like Mom and Dad.”

Steve felt a flare of anger arise in his chest at the mention of their absent father, but he kept it internal. Instead of letting the anger overtake him, Steve pulled Nell into a side hug and said, “I’m not going anywhere. Promise.”

He kept his promise about keeping in touch with his family all through college. Shirley and Theo he never talked with that much because their relationship had grown distant with age and they were content to just hear how he was doing, but Luke and Nell were different.

They were still young, only eleven, and looked up to him a lot. Steve had no idea why they seemed to idolize him so much when he had spent a lot of time holed up by himself in his room instead of hanging out with them but idolize him they did.

Despite Nell being the one worried about Steve leaving, he ended up talking to Luke the most during his phone calls.

It reminded him of being at Hill House in Luke’s treehouse. His younger brother was always so excited for Steve to hang out with him and adamant about enforcing the No Girls Allowed rule. At eleven, Luke was more grown up now, but he still enjoyed hanging out with just Steve, just the two boys. Cool kids.

The next time he was home, Steve took just Luke out for ice cream, getting Aunt Janet to back him up by roping his other siblings into a girl’s night (which exasperated Theo to no end).

Luke chattered away about school and his drawing while eating his Rocky Road, and Steve listened with a smile.

Luke trailed off at one point before saying, “I bet Abigail would have liked this place.”

Steve fought back a sigh. Luke did this sometimes. He mentioned Abigail, who Steve really thought he would have figured out wasn’t real by now. Not trusting himself to speak, Steve just hummed as an answer. Luke went quiet, taking a few spoonfuls of his ice cream before speaking again. When he did speak, it was hesitant.

“Stevie . . . do you see that man back there? In the hat?”

He gestured with his spoon to someplace over Steve’s shoulder. Steve turned around, but the only people behind them were a couple teenagers on dates and a family with young children. Steve frowned and turned back around.

“No, I don’t. What man, Luke?”

“The tall man in the hat. He’s always turned around, and I can never see his face. But he always follows me.”

Now that worried Steve immensely, and he turned back around again to check and see if he’d somehow missed a tall man that was stalking his younger brother. His attention was drawn back to Luke as he said, “I saw him in Hill House first. He’s a ghost.”

Steve felt a bit of tension leave his body. The man wasn’t real then.

“Luke,” Steve said in what he hoped was a comforting tone. “The man isn’t there. He’s just in your imagination, buddy. He’ll go away if you just don’t think about him.”

What bullshit advice. Olivia Crain had never stopped following Steve around despite his best efforts to shove her out of his mind. But Steve had to try something to help his brother.

Luke just looked at him before focusing back on his ice cream. “No, he won’t.”

After that, Luke stopped talking to him as much on the phone.

He researched mental illness his sophomore year of college for a project. What he found cemented the facts of what he’d always instinctively known. His mother had been sick. She had been sick and hadn’t gotten the help she needed.

He was angry. Angry at his father for not doing more. Angry at his mother, still, even though now he knew she wasn’t entirely to blame for her actions.

He was angry because the book said that mental illness was in people’s genes, their DNA.

He was angry because he had seen his mother and heard her whispering to him long since she was dead and gone, and that must mean he was crazy too.

Rotten genes.

When Steve graduated college, the whole family came to see the ceremony. Shirley and Theo had traveled from their own colleges to be there, while Aunt Janet had brought Luke and Nell. Steve tossed them a smile as he walked across the stage, diploma in hand, but the grin faltered when he noticed who sat behind them.

His father who he hadn’t seen or talked to in more than half a year. At his shoulder, his mother who had been dead for almost a decade.

It took everything Steve had not to stumble at the sight. He averted his eyes and briskly walked off stage, returning to his seat.

The rest of the ceremony passed quickly. Too quickly because now Steve had to deal with his father showing up out of the blue. He hesitated for as long as he could but soon was making his way through the crowd of graduates and their families to find his own.

He saw Theo and Shirley at the same time they saw him. The two of them walked toward him, and Shirley gave him a quick hug upon reaching him. When she pulled away, she said, “Try to be nice. He’s just here to support you.”

“How thoughtful of him,” Steve replied dryly. “Too bad he didn’t think of doing that nine years ago.”

Shirley gave him a disapproving look and opened her mouth to argue, but Theo swooped in between them. She gave Steve a playful punch on the arm with her gloved hand (no hug - Theo didn’t like hugs) and said, “Hey, who cares? Congratulations to you. You graduated.”

“Steve!” sounded Nell’s excited voice. She appeared through the crowd and practically tackled Steve in a hug that he quickly returned with a laugh. Over her shoulder, he saw Luke grinning at them. When Nell finally released him, Steve grabbed Luke in a hug and ruffled his hair a bit. He had been worried about his younger brother as recently he’d been even less willing to talk than normal, so it was good to see him looking well and happy.

“Congrats or whatever,” Luke joked with a shrug.

“Gee, thanks for the enthusiasm,” Steve replied with a grin.

In that moment, with all his younger siblings smiling around him, Steve forgot about the elephant in the room. But it quickly reintroduced itself.

“Steve?” a familiar voice asked behind him. Steve grimaced but turned to face his father anyway.

(Olivia Crain, thankfully, was nowhere to be found.)

His father looked much the same as the last time Steve had seen him. His hair was longer and unruly, and his clothes looked slightly disheveled. Steve wasn’t surprised it was the state he’d shown up to Steve’s graduation in.

Inhaling every ounce of pride within him, Steve approached his father first and gave him a brief hug. He didn’t want to upset Luke and Nell by being too short with their dad. He had to keep up appearances and all. Had to protect them.

“You’re so grown up,” was what Hugh said after Steve ended the hug.

“That tends to happen when nine years go by, Dad,” Steve couldn’t stop himself from answering.

Hugh winced but forged on, “I’m proud of you. You’ve done well for yourself, and you’ve watched after your siblings.”

You never told them.

“Yeah,” Steve couldn’t stop the bitterness from leaking into his tone. “First rule of Big Brother School. Right, Dad?”

He didn’t wait for the answer and turned away from a guilty-looking Hugh back to his nervously grinning siblings. They had been joined by Aunt Janet, who was casting looks between Hugh and Steve. Steve figured it had been her that had invited him to the graduation. She always had wanted the kids to maintain a relationship with their father despite her personal distaste for him.

Steve smiled at them and didn’t let it waver when he saw their mother walk up to stand between Luke and Nell, tears in her eyes and that broken smile on her face.

Chapter Text

Steve met Leigh when he was twenty-three and working a shitty job writing shitty articles. He got the job to provide some income while he worked on writing his historical fiction novels, and the only good thing that came out of it was meeting Leigh, a publisher he happened to work for once.

Steve had never been one for dating throughout high school. He’d been too wrapped up in trying to watch after his siblings and writing his secret novel to care all that much about it. He’d had flings in college but never anything serious.

Leigh was different, and Steve fell in love with her.

It made the fight about kids much worse than Steve could have anticipated.

Steve had known since his sophomore year of college that he never wanted children. It wasn’t that he didn’t like kids. Kids themselves weren’t the problem. It was his DNA. Mental illness had consumed his mother, and Steve refused to pass on those genes to an innocent child. Not when he knew the illness was in his genes too.

(He didn’t want to end up trying to kill his own child.)

So he got a vasectomy right out of college and never looked back. That was, until he was twenty-four and had been dating Leigh for nearly a year.

The fight came out of nowhere. They had been at a cafe, eating at one of the outside tables when a family of four strolled past them.

Leigh smiled at the two young children, giving them a wave that they returned. Steve didn’t look up from the paperwork in front of him.

“They were cute,” Leigh said. She took a sip of her coffee and continued, “I’ve always wanted two kids. A girl and a boy.”

“I’m never having children,” Steve said with vehemence but without thought.

“What?” Leigh asked sharply, and it was only then that Steve realized what he'd just said so carelessly.

His pen dropped out of his hand, and he looked up to see Leigh regarding him with some mixture of shock and anger. Taking a calming breath, Steve raised a placating hand and said, “That came out wrong.” He took his glasses off and rubbed a hand across his face. “Okay, it didn’t. I don’t want to have kids.” Leigh’s face went stony, and she opened her mouth to say something. Before she could, Steve pleaded, “Can we talk about this at one of our apartments? Not here.”

Leigh considered him for a second with disapproving eyes but eventually relinquished.

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”

They went.

They were both silent the entire drive back to Steve’s apartment, and Steve mulled over his thoughts. He couldn’t believe he’d just said that. He and Leigh had never talked about kids before, but Steve knew that was not the way he should have told her he didn’t want them. Now he had to figure out a way to explain himself that hopefully wouldn’t make her run for the hills.

He looked in the rearview mirror before a lane change and saw his mother smiling at him from the back. The lingering hope he’d had that Leigh would stay vanished.

To Steve’s everlasting surprise, Leigh did stay. He’d been mostly truthful in his explanation to her on why he didn’t want kids. He told her about the mess of a relationship he had with his own father and how his mother had been so sick that she decided she couldn’t live anymore. He told her he couldn’t do that to a child, and that he couldn’t even have kids.

He didn’t tell her that he himself was sick. That he often saw his mother whether he was awake or dreaming, and that he could hear her whispering to him in the night hours.

Leigh had yelled. She’d been angry he hadn’t been honest with her sooner. But, in the end, she had stayed because she understood his reasoning.

(Later, he learned she really stayed because she thought she could love him enough to change his mind.)

Luke never went to college.

He disappeared a week before he and Nell were supposed to leave, taking all of Aunt Janet’s cash with him and sending the rest of the family on a frantic hunt for him.

Steve was the one who found him, high as a kite on heroin in a back alley off Mass Ave. He dragged his younger brother to his feet, tilting his head from side to side as he looked into his reddened eyes.

“You idiot,” Steve breathed. Luke just giggled hysterically in response.

Steve manhandled Luke (who had grown at least an inch taller than Steve now) through the grimy alleyway and into his car. He closed Luke in and rested his head against the cool metal of the car, taking deep breaths to try to calm himself.

How had they let this happen? How had he let this happen? When did Luke get so far gone that he’d stick a needle in his arm? It was a known fact around their household that Luke had a fondness for alcohol even though he was underage, but Steve had never expected to find him like this.

Steve pushed himself up and dialed Shirley’s number into his phone.

“Steve?” she answered frantically.

“I found him Shirl.”

“Oh, thank god,” she breathed into the phone. “Is he okay? Is he safe?”

“Not. . . not exactly,” Steve said, wishing he could be saying something else. “I found him off Mass Ave, Shirl. He’s high.”

“Fuck,” Shirley whispered. She must have gathered herself then because the next moment she was all business. “Bring him here. We’ll sober him up and get him help. We can do this.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied. “On my way.”

He hung up and hoped that Shirley’s optimism wasn’t misplaced.

When Steve got married a year later, Luke wasn’t there. When Shirl got married two years later, Luke still wasn’t there.

Between those two times, they had tried to enroll Luke in a rehab center. He disappeared the night they suggested it.

Luke resurfaced a few months after Shirley’s wedding, claiming to want to get better. All four of his siblings gathered to help him pick out a rehab center, and all four of them went to see him off.

Steve hated that he couldn’t help Shirley pay for the treatment after Luke’s insurance didn't cover as much as they thought it would.

They each hugged Luke goodbye and wished him good luck. After Luke had been led off, Steve considered his remaining three siblings. Shirley was tucking her things away into her purse, holding herself together in an attempt to look strong and dependable. Reliable Shirley. Theo was standing a good few feet away from the rest of them, hands gloved and face blank. A brick wall, as usual. Nell was holding back tears, murmuring something about the center having horses. She was twenty-one and shouldn’t be worried about this.

Steve wondered when they had become so fractured, and how he had let it all go so wrong.

Luke didn’t even last two months at the center.

When Steve was twenty-eight, he was tired of trying to sell historical fiction novels. He enjoyed writing the first and second one, but after that the task just felt meaningless.

Even when he had enjoyed it, he had never been as passionate or invested in them as he had been about writing The Haunting of Hill House when he was just sixteen and didn’t even know how to truly write yet.

This made it easy for Steve to agree to write a book about the house when a publisher approached him at an event he and Leigh were attending. The publisher was thrilled that Steve agreed and even more thrilled that Steve said he’d only need a couple months to write it.

He’d already written it after all.

A month later, Steve had typed the entirety of The Haunting of Hill House, transcribing it from the ratty old notebook he still kept with him. He’d made edits of course and even changed whole sections, but the book was in essence the same one that he’d written at sixteen.

It was still a lie.

“You finished it,” Leigh’s voice said.

Steve turned to see her entering the room, two plates in hand. She handed him one, and Steve took it gratefully.

“I finished it,” Steve confirmed. “Sixteen-year-old me would hardly believe that I’m about to publish this.”

Leigh smiled. “I think sixteen-year-old you would be proud.”

He sent the manuscript to the publisher, and they were ecstatic. The advance that they offered him for the novel was a staggering number, one that Steve never would have anticipated. He and Leigh would be able to move to Los Angeles like they’d always dreamed. He could use the money to pay for treatment for Luke. A better treatment this time, so that Luke would actually be able to quit.

It was strange to be getting something good out of Hill House. He thought it was the least that damn place owed him and the rest of the family.

He asked the publisher to hold off while he sent the manuscripts to his available siblings. He recognized the fact that they might want him to rewrite some of their parts and sent it as a courtesy.

He didn’t expect Shirley to hate it so much.

They argued, with Shirley accusing him of demonizing their parents and not considering how Theo, Nell, and Luke would feel. Steve couldn't quite understand those points, given how Dad had demonized himself and their mom was dead. And he’d sent the manuscripts to Theo and Nell. It wasn’t his fault he had no address to send it to for Luke.

What sent him over the edge was Shirley saying, “What you’re doing to Mom. . .”

“Mom was mentally ill. It’s a fact,” Steve interrupted her fiercely. And Steve found he didn’t care much about ‘what he was doing to Mom’ considering how much she’d screwed him up and how she still lingered in his peripheral vision even in that moment. Without thinking, he continued, “I’ll be damned if the apple didn’t fall too far from. . .”

Leigh squeezed his hand, and Steve realized what he’d said. He looked up to see Shirley looking at him with betrayal and hurt written across her face. She’d thought he’d been talking about her. Or one of the other siblings.

He hadn’t. He’d been talking about himself.

He stood and desperately said, “I-I’m sorry.”

But Shirley didn’t want to hear it. She just said, “Wow,” and soon she was gone.

Steve wanted to make some amends between his siblings and offered them each significant royalties on the novel. Shirley called it blood money and downright refused, and Nell expressed the same sentiment a second later.

Theo didn’t say much of anything while the others were there (other than that she didn't care), but she came to him afterwards and agreed to take the royalties. It didn’t make him feel any better.

He still published the book.

The book was a hit, and Leigh and Steve moved to California. Shirley didn’t want to see them before they left, but Steve did get to see Theo and Nell. He saw Theo when she came to collect her check and left to, in her words, “Get her fucking PhD.”

Nell stopped by their empty apartment a couple hours before they were supposed to leave for the airport.

Leigh made herself scarce, leaving Steve and Nell to have a conversation alone.

Nell was biting her lip, and Steve remained silent until she worked out exactly what it was that she wanted to say to him. After a few moments, she said, “You know, I remember a lot about being a kid.” She looked up to make eye contact with him. “One thing I remember really well is you writing in this old red notebook all the time.” Steve froze at that. “You only ever wrote when you were in your room, but I came up there a lot to visit you because I didn’t like how you always wanted to be alone. You tried to hide it, but I saw anyway.”

Steve decided to try to play it nonchalant and asked, “What about it? I was probably doing homework or something.”

Nell gave him a look and shook her head. “You weren’t. I read the notebook, Steve.” His blood went cold. “Well, only the first page. But you did have it titled. The Haunting of Hill House. You wrote that book when you were a teenager.”

There was no point denying it.

“Yeah. I did. What difference does it make?”

Nell shrugged. “It makes a difference to me.” She looked at him then, and it was like she saw right through him. Nellie always had been perceptive. After this moment, she said, “I have a lot of student loans. Next time there’s a royalty check . . . I’ll take my 8%. But only once, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve agreed, not quite sure what he was feeling in that moment.

Nell gave him a quick hug and said, “I hope you like California, Steve. Remember to call, alright?”

Then she was gone.

They moved to California, and Steve received a multi-book offer from his publisher. They would fund him to do research on haunted areas, and he would turn them into novels. Steve agreed in a heartbeat.

It would be something interesting and new after years of slaving away at fiction, and Steve always had liked research.

And maybe, just maybe, he’d actually end up seeing a ghost. Maybe one of the stories would be able to convince him that the supernatural was out there, and that him seeing his mom everywhere wasn’t just the product of his deteriorating mind. Maybe something could convince him that he wasn’t crazy.

The first book after Hill House didn’t, and neither did the second or third.

Steve was thirty-one, and he still woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath and panicking further when a vision of his mother told him, “It’s time to wake up, Stevie.”

Occasionally, Leigh would wake up and sooth him back to sleep, but more often than not he didn’t wake her. She was a heavy sleeper. Steve wasn’t sure if he was grateful for this or not. Leigh wasn’t aware of the extent of his nightmares, but Steve missed her comfort on the nights she didn’t wake.

In the end, the exact opposite of what Steve hoped would happen when they moved to California was, of course, what ended up happening. He’d hoped that being away from Massachusetts and being away from his siblings who were a living, breathing reminder of his past would decrease the number of nightmares he had. He only had more.

Steve bought sleeping pills, and they did help him go to sleep.

Then he was just trapped in the nightmares.

The flight from California to Massachusetts was appropriately tumultuous. Nell had called Steve a few hours before, weeping about Luke being in the hospital. He had nearly overdosed, and it was a miracle he was still alive. He'd almost died at only twenty-six years old.

The incident was enough to bring the whole family together, even their dad. Steve was the last one to arrive to the hospital, and by the time he got there they had been allowed in Luke’s room. Steve burst through the door to see a somber scene.

Luke was hooked up to all kinds of machines. Nell and Shirley sat on either side of him, each holding one of his hands. Theo stood apart from the others, as usual, but the normal blank look on her face was replaced with a bitten lip and concerned eyes. Hugh was sat in a chair in the corner of the room, eyes sweeping over each of his children before they landed on Steve.

Steve ignored his father and went to the foot of Luke’s bed. Shirley considered Steve for a moment before fixing her gaze back on Luke. Steve wasn’t surprised at the cold shoulder. Nell, though, reached for Steve’s hand, and he grabbed it.

“Do we know when he’ll wake up?” Steve asked.

“The doctor said sometime within the hour,” Theo answered.

Steve nodded in response, and the room fell back into silence. Steve examined Luke’s face, seeing it was surprisingly clear. Luke looked like he was sleeping.

A rustling sound caught Steve’s attention, and he looked over at the door to see it was just Theo settling into a chair. His sister didn’t hold his attention though. His eyes settled on the foggy glass window on the door. Through the haze, Steve could make out the figure of a woman, her fingers ghosting across the frosted glass.

Olivia Crain must have wanted to see how Luke was doing too.

They took Luke to Shirley’s house three days later. He had been living in her guest house anyway, something Steve was unaware of, and it seemed the best place for the family to figure out how to help him. Kevin and the kids had gone to Kevin’s mother’s house to accommodate them.

To Steve’s chagrin, their father was still lingering to be part of the conversation. Steve did his best to ignore him. He didn’t want Shirley to yell at him for treating their dad poorly on top of yelling at him for publishing a story that had already been told anyway.

Steve, Shirley, Theo, Nell, and Hugh assembled in the kitchen while Luke was passed out on the couch in the next room over.

“We have to get him back in a center,” Shirley said. “A good one. With a competent fucking counselor this time.” She looked at Theo in an almost desperate way. “Do you know of someone, anyone, that could be good for him?”

“Maybe,” Theo replied. Her arms were curled around herself as if she was shielding herself from them. “I can look into it more, but a couple of names come to mind.”

Shirley nods curtly. “Good. That’s good. Wherever you find, it’s fine. I can pay for it.”

Steve knew it was probably a bad idea to talk but decided to go for it anyway. “Shirl, let me this time. You paid for his treatment centers in the past when I couldn’t help so let me do it now.”

Her eyes snapped to his, and Steve knew what happened next wasn’t going to be pretty.

“With your blood money?” she snarled. “No way.”

“Shirl,” Nell pleaded.

Shirley whirled to face her. “No way, Nell. No fucking way.”

Steve fought the urge to roll his eyes. Shirley had no idea that every sibling but Luke had used Steve’s money. Theo was still receiving the royalties, Nell had ended up taking two to pay off her loans, and Kevin had come to Steve a year ago to accept the royalties secretly but on Shirley’s behalf.

“Shirley,” Steve tried. “I just want to help Luke.”

“Help him?” Shirley scoffed. “Then you shouldn’t have written that book.”

“Really, Shirl? Just because I wrote a goddamn book that you didn’t like, doesn’t mean I can’t use the money to help my own brother.”

“Are we really having the book fight again?” Theo interjected. “Because we’re all pretty sick of the book fight.”

Her interruption did nothing to stop Shirley from taking a step closer to Steve and raising her voice as she continued, “That I didn’t like? None of us took your blood money, Steve!” Oh, how wrong she didn’t know she was. “And Luke doesn’t have to take it either. You exploited us and all the paranoia to jump-start your writing career!”

“Shirley,” Nell said urgently with a tug at her sleeve. Shirley pulled her arm away and continued to stare Steve down, fuming.

And Steve? Steve laughed.

Because there in the back of the room staring at them all was Olivia Crain. And Shirley had no idea how wrong she was.

“What the fuck? You’re laughing at this?” Shirley demanded. Through his haze, Steve could see that Nell and even Theo were looking at him in absolute confusion. His father with something like fear.

As he should. Because Steve was tired of lying.

When Steve was able to gather himself, he said, “Yeah, Shirl. I’m laughing. Because you have no idea how fucking wrong you are.”

“Oh, really?” Shirley growled. “Please, enlighten me on how I’m the one that’s wrong!”

“Well, for starters, I didn’t write the damn book for a profit. I wrote it when I was sixteen. Right, Nellie?” He gestured at her, and the whole family turned to look at their bewildered youngest member.

“Right,” she whispered, her eyes wide.

“Right,” Steve affirmed. “It just happened to be a nice bonus when a publisher wanted something to do with it.”

“Just because you wrote it at sixteen doesn’t justify what it is or how it makes the family look. How it makes Mom look,” Shirley wagered but not with her usual strength. She was confused.

Steve let out another small laugh. “How I made Mom look? If I had wanted to demonize Mom, Shirl, I wouldn’t have written the ghost stories. I would have written the truth.” He paused. “But even writing it for myself I couldn’t get myself to say it. Because I had to keep it a secret, right Dad?”

Everyone’s attention then turned to the eldest Crain. His face looked horrified yet resigned to what was about to happen.

“Steve. . .” he tried, but Steve just held up a hand and said, “No, Dad. We’re not kids anymore, and they deserve to know. Luke and Nellie deserve to know, so they’ll stop believing in the ghost stories.”

“Know what?” Theo questioned. She had taken several steps forward, for once closing the distance between her and the rest of the family.

Hugh gave Steve one last imploring look, but Steve turned away from him to face Shirley. She was the one he was the angriest at in the moment, and the one who was the most angry at him. She would have to be the one to look him in the eye as he told them.

“You should all know just how far gone Mom was,” Steve started. He opened his mouth to continue but found he had no idea what to say. He’d been holding this secret inside himself for almost twenty years. He’d never said it out loud. Had never truly acknowledged the truth.

“Steve,” Nell spoke into the silence softly, “what do you mean?”

Steve took a shaky breath. He decided to just start talking. It was all he could do.

“That night. The last night. I wasn’t asleep when Dad brought me to the car.”

“You were awake?” Shirley asked, confusion evident in her tone of voice. Nell shushed her, and Shirley gave her an exasperated look.

“No, Shirl,” Steve continued, voice bitter. “I wasn’t awake. I was unconscious. A couple more minutes, and I would have been dead. Right, Dad?”

Hugh took a step forward. His eyes were dull, and they reminded Steve of Mom’s. He didn’t try to say anything though. Maybe he couldn’t find any words.

Theo was glancing between them, concern written across her normally expressionless face. She settled on looking at Steve and asked, gentler than Steve had heard her in a long time, “Dead? Steve, we don’t understand.”

“God, Theo, what do you think I mean?” he snapped. He then rubbed a hand across his face. “Sorry, I’m not mad at you.” He took another breath. “Yeah, I would have been dead. Because Mom was off the rails and decided to come into my room and try to smother me with my own pillow. Because, according to her, I was asleep and needed to wake up. Which apparently meant she needed to kill me.”

He ignored the looks of horror on each of his sibling’s faces to look at his dad. “And Dad was the only one who knew. Because I couldn’t tell anyone. I had to protect what everyone else thought about Mom, right? First rule of fucking Big Brother School.” He thought someone might be trying to say something, but Steve just kept talking. “And no one ever knew that I would constantly wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I couldn’t breathe or that I’d see Mom everywhere. And I wrote the fucking book when I was sixteen because I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.” Steve laughed bitterly. “But I wrote about the damn ghosts because that was easier to write than the truth.”

“Steve,” Shirley whispered.

He shook his head. “I’m not done. Because Mom didn’t just try to kill me that night.” He looked up to meet Nell’s eyes, and by the look in them he knew that she knew.

“The tea party,” Nell said, voice shaking. “Mom said we needed to wake up. We were dreaming and. . .”

“And soon there wouldn’t be any pain,” Steve finished for her.

“It wasn’t tea,” Nell breathed. Her eyes were wide and fractured. “Abigail. . .”

“Abigail,” said a new voice. The whole family turned to see a stunned and shivering Luke standing in the doorway leading to the living room they’d left him in.

“Luke, you need to sit down,” Shirley urged, starting toward him.

Luke just shook his head. “No, I don’t. I heard everything you said.” He looked at Hugh. “Nell and I weren’t the only ones at that tea party. Abigail was there.” His voice broke. “She was choking. Her mouth was foaming, and she couldn’t breathe. She died, didn’t she?”

Steve fully expected his father to deny this and say that Abigail wasn’t real. Instead, Hugh confessed, “Yes. She did.”

“What?!” chorused Steve, Shirley, and Theo.

“I knew she was real,” Luke said, voice shattered. “She was real, and she died.”

“Oh my god,” Steve raged, stepping into his father’s personal space and gesturing wildly with his hands. “You didn’t just cover up Mom’s attempted murder of three of her kids. You covered up an actual fucking child murder.”

Hugh shook his head and muttered something unintelligible over his shoulder.

“What is that? What’s that?!” Steve demanded, voice loud and breaking. Now their Dad had gone and truly lost it as well.

“I didn’t cover it up,” Hugh finally said, completely disregarding how he’d just been talking to himself. “Abigail was the Dudley’s daughter. They found her when I found. . . when I found your mom. They didn’t want to tell. We made a deal.”

“A deal? Steve questioned. How the hell would two parents agree to let their child’s death go like that?

“Yes,” is all that Hugh said in answer.

Steve shook his head, taking several steps back to get away. “Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable. You convinced me not to talk, and then you somehow managed to swindle them too. Just because you didn’t want to acknowledge the truth that mom was sick. She was sick, and you ignored the signs!”

“The house-” Hugh began, but Steve scoffed and stomped away before he could say anymore. Steve didn’t want to hear about the fucking haunted house.

Voices called after him, but Steve paid them no attention.

He stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him as he fumbled for his keys. After all that, he needed to put some distance between himself and the rest of his family. He couldn’t even stand to look at his father right now, and the pitying looks his siblings had been giving him before Luke had drawn the attention to himself made Steve immensely uncomfortable.

He finally found the right keys, pressing the button to unlock his rental car. He climbed inside, starting it quickly and throwing it into reverse. As he pulled out of the driveway, he glanced back and saw his mother standing there on the porch with one arm raised toward him.

“Fuck you,” Steve said, driving away from her and from everything.

Chapter Text

After a sleepless night spent in a hotel room, Steve knew that he needed to go back to Shirley’s. He didn’t particularly want to deal with the fallout and emotional ramifications of the night before, but he knew that he had to.

Not for himself. For Luke.

God, Luke had almost died only a few days ago. And now his younger brother, along with Nell, knew the truth about Olivia Crain’s motivations for her midnight tea party. They knew that their mother had tried to kill them, just like she’d tried to kill Steve, and that she actually had killed a young girl. Abigail, who had been real the entire time.

It was no wonder that Luke had turned to drugs and alcohol, and Nell to any new fad or phase that could take her mind off the past that still haunted her present and future.

(They all had their coping mechanisms - anger, writing, walls.)

When he reached Shirley’s house, Steve noted the presence of three cars in the driveway. One was missing, and Steve wasn’t surprised that it was his father’s. From what Steve had seen last night, the patriarch of the Crain Family was spiraling down the same path his wife had walked. Talking to no one had been one of Olivia’s first signs of illness.

All the disappointment and bitterness that had festered inside Steve for years, coupled with the revealed knowledge that Hugh had known Olivia had killed a child and still chosen to defend her, made it difficult for Steve to feel any real sympathy for the man.

Steve shoved thoughts of his father far away and headed toward the front door of Shirley’s funeral-home-house. He knocked lightly, and the door swung open not seconds later.

Shirley was there - she had probably been pacing in front of the door awaiting Steve’s late arrival - and she pulled Steve into a fierce hug.

“I’m sorry,” she said into his shoulder. “I’m sorry that I didn’t notice.”

Steve pushed her back gently. He and Shirley had a lot of anger between them the past couple of years, but he knew he couldn’t blame her for this.
“It’s not your fault, Shirl.” He tried for a smile. “I hid it well.”

That just made her frown.

The conversation was cut off, though, as Theo appeared behind her. Her blue eyes flicked between them briefly before she said, “Luke and Nellie are in the kitchen. Want some breakfast, Steve?”

Grateful to her for acting ordinary, Steve agreed, “Yeah. That would be great.”

Shirley moved to let him in, and Steve followed Theo into the kitchen. Luke and Nell were seated at the table, two bowls of untouched cereal in front of them. They were conversing quietly, hands laced together on the table. At the sound of footsteps, the twins looked up at their three older siblings and pulled apart. Nell shot them a small smile, and Luke, his face still ashen, nodded.

“God, this is awkward,” Theo said, breezing past them to retrieve her own bowl from the cupboard.

“Deep, dark family revelations will do that,” Steve quipped back as he took a seat at Shirley’s table. “I see that Dad isn’t here.”

“He thought it would be best if he didn’t come today,” Shirley explained. She pushed a cereal bowl in front of Steve and sat in the chair next to him. “We all agreed.”

“Hmm,” was all Steve managed in response.

“Steve,” Nell spoke up. He met her eyes reluctantly. “Thank you for telling us.” She looked at Luke, giving his hand a squeeze. “We needed to know.”

Steve shook his head. “I should have told you sooner. I’m sorry I waited so long.”

“It’s not like we ever gave you a chance,” Theo input, ever reasonable.

“We shouldn’t blame each other,” Shirley said. “What’s important is that we do know now. Maybe we can all. . . move past it and start to heal.”

There was a pause in the conversation when Luke took a deep breath, as if to steady himself.

“I always knew Abigail was real,” he revealed quietly. “But I didn’t realize what had happened to her, really.” He looked down at Nell’s hand holding his. “I think. . . I think I can finally move past some things, like you said. I want to get better.”

Nell beamed at him, and the rest of the siblings couldn’t help but do the same. Despite Luke’s past tendency to vanish out of rehab, this time it truly felt like he could change.

Shirley stood and moved to Luke’s side, rubbing a comforting hand against his arm. “That’s great, Luke. Do you want to start looking for centers nearby?”

Nell gave him an encouraging nod, and Luke agreed, “Yeah. I would.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you in the living room in a few.”

The twins stood together and left for the living room, Nell whispering to Luke as they went. Steve watched them with a smile. It was good to see the twins together again with Luke looking like he might truly get better.

Shirley’s voice drew him out of his musings.

“So, the center.” She looked between Steve and Theo, cleared her throat, and said, “If you still want to, you can help cover it, Steve.”

“I don’t just want to help,” he countered. “You’ve paid for, what, three centers now? I can handle it on my own for at least a few months.”

Shirley looked like she was going to protest, but a look from Theo silenced her. She gave a curt nod and agreed, “Okay. For a couple of months.” Her gaze lingered on Steve, and she sighed. “I. . . I’m still not okay with the book. I understand why you wrote it, but I just. . .”

“It’s okay, Shirl,” Steve replied honestly. “It’s better than always fighting about it.”

“Yeah,” she concurred. “It is.” She paused for a moment longer. “I’m gonna go help them narrow down the choices. Let me know about good counselors, okay Theo?”

“Roger,” Theo answered with a little salute of her gloved hand.

Shirley disappeared through the doorway, leaving just Steve and Theo in the kitchen with their soggy bowls of cereal.

“So, childhood trauma,” Theo said as soon as Shirley was out of earshot. “It’s a bitch, huh?”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“I can,” Theo affirmed, “because I’ve studied it.” She leaned a bit closer to him. “You said you’d constantly wake up not being able to breathe yesterday. That hasn’t stopped, has it?”

There was no point in lying. Theo would see right through it, like she always did, so Steve just answered, “No, it hasn’t. It still happens,” he shrugged, “once or twice a week I’d say.”

“And how often do you still see Mom?”

Steve started at that, turning to see Theo looking at him intensely. He squirmed a bit at the gaze. This was something that he didn’t want to admit. But Theo just raised her eyebrows at his hesitance, and Steve knew she wouldn’t give up until he confessed.

He sighed. “It depends. Sometimes I go weeks without seeing her. Sometimes I see her a couple times a week. Take these last few days for example. She was at the hospital,” he gestured around, “then here and then outside when I left.”

Theo’s brows furrowed as she frowned. She let out a breath and leaned back.


“Yeah. Damn.”

“Does Leigh know?” Theo asked.

“She couldn’t not know about the nightmares.” He hesitated. “I haven’t told her about seeing mom.”

“You have to talk to someone,” Theo instructed in what Steve had come to know as her psychologist voice. “Keeping all of this bottled up for so long wouldn’t be good for anyone, Steve.”

You’re one to talk about bottling up emotions, Steve thought. Out loud, he said, “Yeah, I’ll find someone. Promise.”

“I’ll know if you don’t,” Theo warned.

Steve had to grin at that. “I know.” She’d fly out to California and manhandle him to therapy herself if she had to. That was just how Theo was when she got serious about something.

They piled into Shirley’s minivan and took Luke to a center later that day. The process wasn’t an unfamiliar one, but the feeling behind this time was completely different. There was more hope for Luke now than there had ever been, even more than when they’d first taken Luke to a center.

The place Luke, Nell, and Shirley came to an agreement on was nice. Theo gave her stamp of approval on the psychiatry program, and Steve knew he could afford the cost. It would mean canceling the trip he and Leigh had planned for later that year (Steve wasn’t looking forward to telling Leigh this), but Steve couldn’t bring himself to be too distraught over that.

Luke was going to get better this time.

Steve and Shirley dealt with most of the registration process for the last centers, and the same was true for the new one. They worked through the paperwork, and the process was finally complete when Steve signed a check for (an unreasonable amount of money) Luke’s stay.

On their way back to the lobby, Shirley whispered, “I really hope this is it.”

“It will be,” Steve replied, giving her a smile that she returned faintly.

In the lobby, Nell and Luke were pulling apart from a tearful hug while Theo watched the two of them. Luke looked over to see Steve and Shirley approaching. His face set at the sight of them, and Steve recognized that it was the most determined he’d seen Luke in years.

“It’s time?” Luke asked once the two eldest had reached them.

“Yeah,” Shirley answered, “it is.” She moved forward and wrapped Luke in a hug, his taller frame engulfing her. They separated after a few moments, and Shirley went to stand by Nell and Theo.

Steve moved first, then, giving Luke a brief hug. He pulled away first as well, keeping his hands on Luke’s arms as he said, “You got this, Luke.”

The corners of Luke’s mouth twitched up. “Yeah. Yeah, I really think I do.”

Two months later, Steve was back in Massachusetts to celebrate with his family. Luke had just earned his sixty-day chip.

At Theo’s behest, Steve did find a therapist by the name of Dr. Montague for him to see in California. Steve went once every other week, and, by the grace of doctor-patient confidentiality, found himself actually being able to talk to the man.

The science of the mind that Montague lived by was a comfort to Steve, even if he hated the idea of putting a label on his own mental condition.

(PTSD, Dr. Montague explained, was known to cause flashbacks and hallucinations.)

He got a prescription to fill and more appointments marked on his calendar. He explained the sudden interest in therapy to Leigh as a side product of almost seeing his brother die and being reminded of his mom. She was supportive, as always.

A month went by, and Steve only had three nightmares. Olivia Crain stayed locked away, and Steve could hardly believe the improvement after so short a time.

He was. . . happy.

(For a time.)

When Luke had returned to the center after his celebratory dinner, there was still clean-up to do. Steve and Nell volunteered to do the dishes, leaving just the two of them alone with the soap and bubbles.

They chatted about Luke for a bit, but Nell eventually grew silent.

Sensing something off about her, Steve set down the plate he was drying and asked, “Nellie, you okay?”

She chewed her lip, not answering, and Steve raised an eyebrow at her in a classic, I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s wrong, older sibling look.

“I’m really fine,” Nell eventually said in a low voice. “I’m happy to see that Luke is doing so well after all this time. Finally knowing the truth about Abigail has really helped him, but . . .”

Steve gave Nell a nod, encouraging her to go on.

Nell sighed, averting her eyes. “Abigail wasn’t the only thing we saw in that house. I. . . I know you don’t believe my ‘ghost stories,’ but I still see Him, Steve. And I know that Abigail wasn’t the only thing that followed Luke from Hill House either.”

The tall man, Steve thought. Luke had only mentioned him once, but Steve hadn’t forgotten. And he knew of the other ghost Nell apparently still saw. She’d seen him all the time when they were kids.

Before Steve could say anything in response, Nell continued in a whisper, “I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can’t move. I can’t talk or scream. And I still see Him, and He talks, Stevie. And I can’t do anything. I’m just frozen.”

“Sleep paralysis,” Steve said softly.

“What?” Nell asked, bewildered and sounding a little off-put.

“When that happens,” Steve explained, “it’s called sleep paralysis.” He sighed. “I’ve been seeing a counselor for two months now at Theo’s recommendation. Sleep paralysis was one thing we went over when he was diagnosing me. It’s actually normal for people to see things when they’re having an episode. There’s no ghost, Nellie.”

“Oh,” was all Nell offered in response, her voice unconvinced. A small smile then lit her face. “I’m glad that you’re talking to someone. You never would talk with us when we were kids.”

“I never could,” Steve corrected absently.

Nell grimaced, and Steve quickly expressed, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

She tilted her head in acknowledgment. “I know. I just wish everything could have been different. That we all could have been happy.”

Her eyes were wistful, filled with the broken promise of a happy childhood that never was. Nell had only been six when everything had gone wrong. She and Luke had more memories of a fractured family than a whole one.

Steve wished it could have been different for her too. She deserved to have had a normal, joyful childhood. But, if there was one thing that Steve had learned, it was that he couldn’t fix the past. All he could say was, “We’re happy now. That has to count for something.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, turning back to the dishes. “It does.”

Two weeks later, Nell called Steve to tell him she’d gone to a sleep clinic and had started getting help for her sleep paralysis. Shyly, she added that she had gone on a date with the sleep technician who’d interviewed her, and they’d really hit it off. His name was Arthur, and they had another date scheduled for the next week.

“I’m happy for you, Nellie. That’s great,” Steve said, smiling into the phone. “But if he tries anything, I won’t hesitate to fly all the way there.”

Nell laughed. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Besides, I’m pretty sure Shirley’s death glare would do the trick far before you got here.”

Having been on the receiving end of that particular look multiple times, Steve could fully agree, “You’re probably right about that.”

“You know,” Nell said tentatively, “we miss you here. California is just so far away.”

“Far away from all the terrible weather and snow, you mean,” Steve deflected.

“I’m serious, Steve,” Nell forged on. “We like having you here.”

Steve scoffed. “Even Shirley?”

“Steve,” Nell scolded, “you know that she does.” She paused for a moment. “Just think about it, okay?”

“I will, Nellie,” Steve replied. “Promise.”

They said their goodbyes, and Steve hung up the phone. A few minutes later, Steve’s phone rang again. He glanced at the caller ID and stiffened when he saw that ‘Dad’ was displayed across the screen.

Steve pressed deny in the next second.

He watched the phone warily, seeing a voicemail notification pop up after about a minute. Against his better judgement, Steve picked up the phone and played the voicemail.

“Steve,” his dad’s voice began, “I, uh, just wanted to talk. I wanted to say sorry for everything. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when no one else could be.” Hugh drew in a distinctive breath. “It’s the regret of my life. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t fix it. I hope . . . I hope you and Luke are doing well.”

The voicemail ended with a beep, and Steve was torn between wanting to fling his phone across the room or, bizarrely, to call his father back.

The decision was made for him when he looked up and saw Olivia Crain standing on the other side of his living room. She looked the same as she had that last night, except for one jarring detail. The left side of her face was a smashed mess, and blood trailed across her skin, dripping onto Steve’s hardwood floors. Steve watched, frozen, as she raised a hand to him and murmured through blood-stained teeth, “Wake up, Stevie.”

That broke him out of his stupor, and Steve grabbed at his phone, throwing it across the room at the hallucination pretending to be his mother.

She disappeared before the phone even reached her, and instead it shattered against the wall. Breathing heavily, Steve grabbed the chair in front of him to stop himself from collapsing. He hadn’t seen his mother since the night of the fight. He thought he was getting better.

He slid to the ground, staring at the broken remains of his phone that were scattered across the floor like the drops of his mother’s blood had been.

That was the state Leigh found him in, Steve didn’t know how long later.

She crouched down next to him, fear on her face as she whispered, “Steve, what’s wrong? What happened?”

He just shook his head, hating that Leigh had to see him this way. For her part, she pursed her lips in worry and grabbed one of Steve’s hands with both of hers.

They sat like that for a few minutes, Leigh rubbing comforting circles on the back of Steve’s hand. Eventually, he took a deep breath. Leigh looked at him expectantly, but all Steve said was, “I need a new phone.”

Steve didn’t move back to Massachusetts like Nell wanted. He couldn’t bring himself to live closer to that house, but he did start visiting his siblings at least once a month. Leigh tagged along at least every other month. She was happy to see Steve getting along better with his family members, but he noticed that she had begun to treat him differently after finding him in such a panicked state.

She was careful around him, tentative even.

She’d insisted that he started seeing Dr. Montague once a week instead of every other week. Steve agreed, mainly for Leigh’s sake. He didn’t want her to be scared of him or for him.

It reminded him too much of how his family had felt about Olivia in her last days.

Steve visited Luke in his facility when his younger brother was nearing five months clean. He looked well and told Steve about the different activities the center offered, how much he appreciated what the family was doing for him even though he didn’t feel like he deserved it.

“Luke,” Steve said, “we want you to get better. And you do deserve it, of course you do. Don’t think like that, okay?”

Luke gave him a sheepish smile. “Yeah, okay.” He fidgeted in his seat. “You know, with all the progress I’ve made they think I might be able to leave here around the six-month mark. Get back into the world.”

“That’s great, Luke,” Steve replied earnestly.

“Thanks.” Luke rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “I’m still figuring out exactly what I’m going to do. Shirley said I can go back to living in her guest house, but I don’t want to do that forever, you know?” He met Steve’s eyes and continued, “I want to get a degree and actually start a life. I just have to figure out how to do it.”

The look on his face was determined, and Steve knew that Luke meant it.

“If you want, I could help with that.”

“What? Steve, no. That wasn’t what I was trying-”

Steve held up a hand, stopping Luke’s sputtering. “Luke, listen.” His younger brother’s mouth closed, lips twitching downward in a slight frown, but he remained silent as Steve explained, “I saved the royalties that were supposed to be yours from the book in a separate bank account. I used some to help pay for this center, but there’s still a lot left, Luke. Enough for you to use to go to college.” He paused. “Well, not a private college but college, at least.”

Luke was silent, staring at Steve with bewilderment.

Steve’s stomach dropped, and he quickly stammered, “Of course, you don’t have to take it if you don’t want it. Blood money, or whatever. Just forget I offered, and you can -”

Steve was surprised as Luke lunged forward and wrapped him in a hug. He returned it hesitantly, confused.

“Thank you, Steve,” Luke whispered into his shoulder. “For everything.”

“Uh, yeah. No problem.”

Luke pulled away, staring at him intently. “I’m serious, Steve. What you told us. . . it’s what helped me move on. I never understood what happened that night with Mom and Abigail.” He took a deep breath. “And it was painful, finding out. But not as much as it was not knowing or understanding what really happened.” He had a faraway look in his eyes as he continued, “I used to see the tall man following me. All the time. He was on the streets, in alleys, anywhere I went. The drugs were the only thing that made the fear of him and of not knowing what happened to Abigail go away.”

“Luke. . .”

Luke focused back on Steve. “After you told us, I saw the tall man again, here in the center. And I thought, Hell, I should just face my fears, so I didn’t turn away when he got closer. But when he turned around, it wasn’t the tall man at all. It was Mom. I think it’s always been Mom. The part of me that subconsciously knew what had happened to Abigail was afraid of her, all this time.” He leaned back, shaking his head.

“I see her sometimes too,” Steve confessed quietly. “It’s, uh, well my therapist told me it’s normal with PTSD.”

He still didn’t like acknowledging his diagnosis, even if it was a natural reaction to his childhood trauma, or whatever Dr. Montague had said. It still just made him feel damaged. Sick.

(Just like Mom.)

“Yeah,” Luke said, “I’ve heard that too. But that house, Steve. It wasn’t -”

Whatever Luke was going to say was cut off as one of the facility’s staff came to tell them that visitation time was up. Steve gave Luke a hug farewell, wishing him luck, and then he was fleeing the facility.

He felt bad about it, but Steve was glad the worker had interrupted when she did. After how far Luke had come, Steve didn’t think he could handle him still spouting the same nonsense that their father did about Hill House being haunted.

The only thing haunting the Crain family was their own minds.

Nell visited Luke a couple weeks later, elated to see her twin finally looking happy again. She could tell he was doing better because she felt happier than she had in years. It was a twin thing.

The two of them talked, Nell excitedly reporting her ongoing relationship with Arthur and Luke smiling as he told her about some of the others he’d become friendly with in the center. They laughed and grinned, and Nell felt at peace.

As they neared the end of their visitation time, Luke said, “It’s been really nice having everyone visit.” He paused. “I appreciate all of the support. But Nell. . . you know and so do I that that house wasn’t normal.”

The smile flickered off Nell’s face at the somber words.

“I know,” she answered. “I think Theo knows in some ways too. I think she felt it, while we were still there.”

“But Steve and Shirl. . .”

“Steve and Shirl,” Nell affirmed. She pasted a smile back on her face. “But we’re happy, Luke. We’re all getting along better than we have in years. The house. . . who cares about the house?” she said boldly. “We can beat it. We are beating it. Together.”

“Together,” Luke agreed.

He was cleared to leave the center two weeks later. Every Crain sibling gathered to have a small celebratory party, and Nell couldn’t keep a smile off her face for the entire night.

Chapter Text

Nell and Arthur’s romance was a whirlwind one. The two were engaged within seven months of knowing each other and scheduled to be married eight months later.

Nell was the happiest Steve had seen her in years, and it was for that reason that he held back most of his protest when she’d insisted upon inviting their father to the ceremony. She explained that he was still family and that she wanted him there, despite his mistakes.

Nell always had been about forgiving and acceptance. But Steve couldn’t look past everything that Hugh had done. In the aftermath of the fight months ago, the siblings had agreed not to do anything about the Abigail situation because there was nothing they could do, but Steve still refused to let it go. Just like he couldn’t let go how Hugh’s negligence had nearly led to Nell and Luke’s deaths. Had nearly led to his own death.

(The voicemail apology was all but forgotten to him.)

So, for Nell’s sake, Steve simply resolved to avoid Hugh as much as he could.

The six months passed, and the day of Nell’s wedding arrived.

The ceremony was lovely. Hugh, thankfully, remained distant from Steve the entire time, and Luke walked a radiant Nell down the aisle.

At the dinner afterwards, it was easy to have a good time. Hugh stayed across the room, and Steve focused on his siblings around him. Luke, now a year sober, was doing fantastic. He’d moved out of Shirley’s guesthouse (Theo promptly moved in) and was registered to begin college classes in a couple weeks. Theo had her fucking PhD and a practice of her own. Shirley no longer treated Steve with bitterness and resentment every time they were together. Her kids, Jayden and Allie, were now seven and three, and Shirley smiled after them fondly.

Beside him, Steve noticed Leigh watching Shirley with the kids, a wistful look on her face. Aunt Janet had asked them earlier when they had plans to start a family of their own, and he hadn’t missed the look she’d given him when he’d awkwardly laughed the suggestion off.

It was sad, longing.

They hadn’t discussed having kids in years, not since the initial fight over the subject. Steve had thought that Leigh had agreed with his decision.

But that was the problem. It was his decision.

When Nell approached their table looking for her Maid of Honor, Steve welcomed the distraction of helping her search for the wayward bridesmaid and picked up a glass of some sort of alcohol along the way to further shove the intrusive thoughts from his mind.

They found Stacey in a bedroom upstairs, apparently having quite a good time. The two lingered after Stacey made her hasty retreat and were stunned to see none other than Theo exiting the room after her.

Steve and Nell spent the rest of the night taking bets on if Luke or Shirley would notice Theo’s preferences first.

Luke surprised them both. After noticing the two watching him, he asked, “Is there something on my face?” with a smile.

“Ah, no,” Steve replied with a grin. “We were just. . . waiting to see if you’d notice.”

“Notice what?”

Both Steve and Nell glanced at Theo, who was now dancing with Stacey, and Luke followed their gazes with his own. He took a swig of the drink (non-alcoholic) that he was holding and turned back to them, an eyebrow arched.

“What, Theo?” He smiled. “I’ve known for years.”

He then walked away, leaving his siblings to stare after him in bewilderment. Determined to at least see a reaction out of Shirley, the two set about dancing together on the opposite end of the dance floor where they could see Shirley in perfect view.

They weren’t disappointed. It took Shirley forever, but finally, finally the information seemed to click in her mind, and she urgently tapped at Kevin to get his attention. Steve and Nell shook with laughter as they watched the scene, and Shirley shot them a look and shrug.

The two continued to dance to the song, and Steve said, “I’m happy for you, Nellie. You deserve this.” He grinned, giving her a hug as he corrected, “I mean, Eleanor Vance.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nell mused smugly, a playful grin on her face. “Thank you.”

Her attention was drawn over Steve’s shoulder, the grin falling off her face. Concerned, Steve turned to see what she was looking at.

He started at the sight. Their father was watching them, and there over his shoulder was Olivia Crain, blood flowing freely from the massive wound to the side of her face. It dripped down onto Hugh, and Steve wondered how he didn’t notice.

Olivia’s eyes were pure white as she looked at the two of them, her mouth stained red as it slanted upwards into a smile.

He turned away, not wanting to hear the words he knew she’d say.

Time to wake up.

“Steve. Steve,” Nell’s urgent voice drew his attention, and he focused on her face. Her eyes were wide as she said, “You saw her too. You did. She was here. She looked. . . whole and happy.”

“Then we didn’t see the same thing at all,” Steve replied harshly. “That Mom is long gone, Nell.” He rubbed an anxious hand through his hair. “You have to know that, Nellie.”

“Maybe,” Nell answered. “But, Steve, you’re missing the point. We both saw her. Don’t you see that she’s real? The house-”

Steve raised a hand to stop her. “No, Nell. No.” He sighed. “I don’t want to do this right now. It’s your wedding day. You should be celebrating.


“Go find Arthur, Nell.”

He pulled away from her, ignoring the hurt look on her face as he walked away. Why couldn’t Luke and Nell just understand that the problem wasn’t some house?

He went back to the bar, hoping alcohol could numb the negative thoughts from his mind. He didn’t notice how his father watched him go, or how Hugh approached Nell soon after he’d left.

It was two weeks after the wedding, and Steve knew that he couldn’t continue his feigned ignorance toward Leigh’s feelings about children. She had been quieter than usual recently, speaking to him in only short sentences.

One night, while she was reading on the couch and he was writing, he decided that enough was enough.

He closed the laptop and said, “You still want kids.”

Leigh looked up from her book, expression surprised. She quickly wiped the emotion off her face and set her book aside. She leaned forward, hands clasped in front of her. “I do. Yes.”

“Leigh,” Steve sighed, “you know how I feel about kids. I can’t even have kids.”

She frowned. “Have you ever even considered another option? We could adopt, Steve,” she urged. Her hands gestured as she continued, “We would be good parents. I know how you feel about your own parents, but that’s not us.”

“Not you, maybe,” Steve scoffed and shook his head fiercely. “Me? You know that’s not true. And I won’t bring some kid into our lives just so I can go and fuck them up as much as I am.”

“God, Steve, that’s so,” Leigh paused, maybe unsure about what she was going to say, but she soon raged on, “selfish. You’re not the only one in this relationship! I would be there, Steve!”

“That doesn’t matter! My dad was there and look what happened to my mom and the rest of the family. We can’t know if it would be okay. And I won’t risk it. I refuse.”

“So, I’m just nothing then?” Leigh asked, her voice clipped.

The two of them were standing now, and Steve wasn’t sure when that had happened.

“That’s not what I’m saying. You know that. I love you. I just can’t-” he shook his head. “I can’t have kids, Leigh. I can’t.”

Her mouth thinned into a tight line. “You can’t. For once, Steve, I wish you’d think about me. About us.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. Leigh observed him, and she turned away, hands wiping at her cheeks.

“I need some time alone.”

“That’s fine,” Steve said tentatively.

Leigh remained facing away as she reiterated, “I mean alone, Steve.”

And that was how Steve ended up packing away his life into a suitcase. He had a few book readings to go to anyway, so he resolved to live out of various hotels for the next two weeks. Then he had a planned visit to Massachusetts to stay with Luke for a few days. It was a convenient time for their separation to happen, a thought which Steve felt horrible for thinking.

Leigh remained in the living room as he packed and prepared to leave, only whispering a small goodbye as he walked past and out the door.

Steve wondered if he’d ever walk back in as the door shut behind him.

Steve distracted himself with research for his new book and the meet-and-greets his publisher had scheduled for him. He had to deal with a few of them a year, even though Steve generally disliked them.

It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate his fans. He did. They were the ones supporting his livelihood, after all.

It was just that he couldn’t go a single event without half of the questions being about Hill House. People were always curious to hear what he had to say about it since that was actually his experience. They wanted to know if he’d write a follow-up, or how the rest of his family was doing.

Steve brushed the questions off every time, but they dredged up old memories or made Steve think about how half of his remaining family still actually believed the house was haunted.

A week after the fight with Leigh and the night of the second book reading, Steve was brushing his teeth in his hotel room bathroom when he realized that he’d missed his appointment with Dr. Montague. It was supposed to be that day, and Steve was supposed to get a refill on his prescription.

“Shit,” he murmured past the toothbrush. He’d have to call the office the next day and explain that he was out of town. Morosely, he realized that he wouldn’t be making it to his next two appointments either.

But it was fine. He was fine.

He finished brushing his teeth and looked up, freezing at what he saw in the mirror.

Behind him smiled his bloody mess of a mother. Her dripping red hand raised toward him in what felt like slow motion. Her mouth opened, and when she spoke it was with a demand and not a whisper.

“It’s time to wake up, Stevie.”

Steve smashed his curled hand into the mirror, a flash of white-hot pain shooting up his arm as the glass fractured. Breathing hard, Steve stared at the shattered mirror. His mother had disappeared from behind him, but he could see his own scattered reflection.

The look in his eyes was the same as the one he remembered seeing in his mother’s.

“Fuck,” he breathed. He looked down at his bleeding hand, and reiterated, “Fuck.”

He turned on the sink water, scrubbing the blood away even though it stung like hell. He had to get rid of it. Had to get rid of the signs that he was just like her.

He wasn’t sure when he’d started crying.

Explaining the broken mirror to the hotel staff wasn’t a pleasant task, but, if Steve was anything, he was a storyteller. He apologized and paid for the damage, and that was that. He didn’t need to dwell on the incident. It was just the PTSD acting up because he hadn’t gone to his appointment with Dr. Montague. That was all.

He went to the next book event, moving past the questions about Hill House in an even more brisk manner than normal.

When he stayed in various hotels as he continued to travel, he avoided looking at any mirrors.

After days that felt like weeks, Steve found himself at the airport waiting for his plane to Massachusetts. He texted his siblings in their group chat to let them know he would be on his way soon. Nell responded immediately in an emoji-laden message, and Luke affirmed that he’d be at the airport to pick him up.

Steve scrolled through his phone aimlessly, ending up on Leigh’s contact information. Before he could decide not to, Steve hit the call button. He brought the phone to his ear and waited as it rang. Unsurprisingly, there was no answer.

Steve sighed and hung up. He and Leigh had talked once since he’d left, and it had been a short, awkward conversation. Steve hadn’t expected her to be okay yet, but the separation still stung.

A voice over the speakers announced it was time to board his plane, and Steve turned off his phone, heading to the gate.

Luke was at the airport to pick Steve up, and he greeted his younger brother with a hug. When they pulled apart, Luke’s attention was drawn to Steve’s bandaged hand. He considered it then looked to Steve, concerned, and asked, “What happened?”

Steve had rehearsed this answer and replied, “Oh, this? It’s nothing. Stupid accident with a kitchen knife.” He waved his hand as if waving off the question.

“Some accident,” Luke quipped, but he dropped the subject.

The two embarked on a quest to find Steve’s luggage, heading to Luke’s very old, very used car after finally locating it. Once the luggage was in the trunk, they began the lengthy drive back to Luke’s apartment. Steve kept the talk focused on Luke the entire time.

Luke was doing well. After leaving the center, he’d lived in Shirley’s guesthouse for two months while working a part-time job at a library so he could save money. He then moved to his own small apartment, the library job and royalty money helping pay for the rent, groceries, and tuition for the local college he was attending. He happily reported that Nell and Shirley had been teaching him how to actually cook for himself, and that he was enjoying starting to provide for himself but knew his siblings would be there as support if he needed it.

Steve was glad to hear that Luke was doing well, but a small, bitter part of himself couldn’t help but think, If Luke is doing so well, then why is my life falling apart?

Another part of himself, a guilty part, answered, You did this to yourself.

They reached Luke’s apartment and, after unloading Steve’s luggage into Luke’s guest room/office, spent the rest of the evening simply watching television.

Steve couldn’t deny that he was grateful for the companionship. He far preferred Luke’s company to that of the discomforting presence of his own mind.

The next day, Luke had class, and Steve used the time to secure a rental car for himself. Luke had been adamant about picking up Steve himself, but Steve would have to return to the airport alone since Luke would be at his library job. Hence, the rental car.

Nell came over shortly after Steve had arrived back with the rental. Arthur was out of town for a medical conference that his boss had dragged him to, and she had the day off work. With her, she brought the food they’d be having for their planned family dinner that evening, and they set about preparing it.

She asked about his hand. Steve gave her the same answer he’d given Luke. Nell looked unconvinced but still playfully demanded that she chop all the vegetables because of Steve’s apparently horrible luck with kitchen knives.

They finished all the meal preparation that they could and spent the time waiting for the rest of the family playing a game with a deck of cards that Nell had conjured from a drawer in the living room. They chatted as they played, and Steve again resorted to keeping the focus on the person he was conversing with so as to avoid talking about himself.

Nell, though, wasn’t one to let this go unnoticed.

After Steve had gotten her to talk about how she and Arthur were considering adopting a puppy for a substantial amount of time, Nell suddenly turned the conversation on him by asking, “How’s Leigh, by the way? I haven’t gotten to talk to her since the wedding.”

“Fine,” Steve said with a shrug, hoping he didn’t sound too tense. “The same.”

Nell quirked an eyebrow at him, and Steve thought, Damn it.

Just then, the door unlocked, and Steve was saved from Nell asking any more questions about Leigh by Luke’s timely arrival. His younger brother walked into the kitchen, setting down his bag on the way, and inquired about the state of the food.

Nell was drawn into conversation with her twin, and her curiosity about Steve and Leigh was momentarily forgotten.

Soon after, Shirley and Theo arrived. Over dinner, the siblings all swapped stories of what they’d been up to since Nell’s wedding since this was the first time they were all together again. Steve was filled in on their shared experiences in Massachusetts and reported that California was much the same as always. He saw Nell giving him a look at that, but Shirley drew the attention away by reporting that she wasn’t, in fact, blind and had seen a number of women leaving her guesthouse in the night hours. Theo punched her on the arm for that revelation as the rest of the siblings snickered.

Late in the evening, Steve found himself alone with Nell in Luke’s living area. Shirley, Theo, and Luke had insisted upon doing clean-up since Steve and Nell had prepared most of the food. They’d happily allowed it and retired to the couch, listening to their siblings bicker blithely in the next room over.

Steve hoped that Nell would have decided against asking after Leigh again, but she, of course, hadn’t.

She swirled the spoon in her teacup before looking over at Steve and saying softly, “There’s something you aren’t telling us. When I asked about Leigh earlier, you were . . . weird. Is everything okay?”

Steve knew she was just trying to be kind by asking, but it was hard not to be annoyed by her inquiry. Nellie was perceptive. Why couldn’t she see that Steve didn’t want to talk about it?

“Everything’s fine, Nell,” Steve replied, his voice clipped and all of him hoping that she’d get the message to drop it.

Judging by the look she leveled him with, she had no intention of doing such. She opened her mouth to talk, but Steve raised a hand to stop her, a sigh on his lips.

“Wait, you don’t have to ask again.” He set aside the magazine he’d been perusing absentmindedly and took off his glasses so he could rub his eyes. “We had a fight. About kids. She wants them, and I don’t.” He leaned back. “Which is something I thought we had an understanding about but apparently not.” He couldn’t stop the words from coming out bitter.

“You don’t want kids?” Nell inquired. She’d scooted a little closer to him, and the look on her face was curious and, Steve thought, a bit sad. “I always thought you’d be great with kids.”

Steve snorted at that. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious,” Nell insisted. “That you don’t want kids just surprises me is all.”

“Nell, why the hell would I want kids? After Mom and Dad-” he shook his head, cutting himself off. “I’ve known that I didn’t want kids for a long time, Nell. Probably since I was thirteen.”

“Oh,” Nell whispered. Her voice then became fiercer, louder in volume, as she continued, “Dad did the best he could with a bad situation.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “His best was pretty shit, Nell.”

“Maybe,” she wagered, “but, Steve, you know what happened with Mom wasn’t normal.”

The look on her face was set, and Steve wanted to scream. He restrained himself, but only slightly, as he retorted, “Really, Nell? That again?”

“Yes. That. Because I know that you know that house wasn’t right, Stevie,” she pressed, her hands clenched tightly into fists. “I talked to Dad. He said that in your book you wrote about ghosts, Steve. Real ghosts that you saw, and you didn’t even know it.”

“Oh, did he?” Steve asked sarcastically. “Forgive me for taking anything he happened to say with a fucking grain of salt.”

“What’s going on here?” Luke’s hesitant voice cut into their conversation. Behind him stood a wary Shirley and expressionless Theo.

Steve took the opportunity to stand from his seat and get away from Nell and her delusions. He turned toward his other siblings and said, “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

Nell surprised them all by rising to her feet and shouting, “It’s not nothing!” They each turned to her, Luke inching forward to try to calm her down. She brushed him off and looked straight at Steve. “You can’t keep ignoring it or trying to explain it. That house wasn’t right,” she repeated. “It was. . . loud. I felt it and so did Mom and so did Theo,” she gestured at said sibling with her statement.

The purse of Theo’s lips into a thin line was her only reaction.

“And we saw things,” Nell continued urgently. “Even after the house.” Her attention was focused solely on Steve as she said, “We both saw Mom at my wedding. How can you explain that rationally, Steve?”

“God, Nell, do you even hear yourself?” was Steve’s frustrated answer. “Everything that’s happened to us, that you’ve felt, isn’t because of some house. It’s a house, Nell! Just a fucking house.” He gestured around at all of them as he continued, “This is just how we are. The whole fucking family is sick. The Crazy Crains.”

“Steve,” Shirley chastised hotly, and he whirled to face her as he retorted, “Don’t, Shirl. You don’t believe in any of that either.”

“No,” she agreed. “But this,” she waved a hand around, “is not the way to talk about it.”

“Oh, is there a right way to say that there’s no such thing as haunted houses? Because I’d love to hear it!”

Shirley opened her mouth to counter, but Luke’s soft voice spoke first.

“It was real.” He was standing next to Nell, arms wrapped around himself and a frown on his face. “Nell and I know it. So does Dad, even if he won’t talk about it.” He looked at Theo expectantly. “Am I lying, Theo?”

Theo didn’t reply immediately. She took a breath and removed the gloves that covered her from hand to upper arm. Luke extended a hand to her, and Theo moved to take it tentatively. Her eyes closed, and she took a sharp intake of breath at the contact, pulling away after a few seconds.

The bizarre scene finished, Theo turned back to look at a highly confused Steve and Shirley. She slipped her gloves back on and said, “He’s not lying.”

“What. The. Fuck,” was the only response Steve could come up with. “What the hell was that supposed to be?”

Theo’s attention was on Shirley. “Shirl, you know what I can do. You’ve seen it.”

Shirley didn’t answer. Her eyes were confused, and she shook her head.

Steve was feeling a dangerous combination of emotions. He was livid; angry at Luke and Nell for still believing in the haunted house and at Theo for feeding into their delusion. He was terrified; scared of what it might mean for his siblings to be acting this way. He’d thought they were doing well, and that they were moving past these thoughts. He was heartbroken; morose at the thought that he hadn’t been able to do enough for them to help them realize the truth.

“Can’t you just believe us?” Nell pleaded, and Steve was reminded of a different voice from twenty years ago that urged him to trust right before betraying it entirely.

And he couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t stay there and listen to his siblings spout nonsense just like their mother.

His head was shaking.

“No, Nellie. No. I can’t,” he managed to say. Her eyes were heartbroken at the words, while Luke’s were sad.

Steve looked away from them and started walking. It was easier to run than stay. It was easier to look away than watch Theo, Luke, and Nell willingly follow their mother’s path when Steve had struggled his whole life not to.

“I need some air,” he tossed over his shoulder as he collected his bag and slipped into his shoes.

He was aware of Shirley urging the other siblings to give him space and was grateful that they were mostly on the same side for once.

The outside air was cool, and Steve practically collapsed onto the steps leading into the apartment building. His head fell into his hands as he thought about everything that had just happened.

He couldn’t understand how so many of his siblings were convinced that ghosts and the house were behind their wrecked sanity when the real answer was so obvious. They were all fucking nutjobs.

It wasn’t like he was happy about that. But it was the truth. Mental illness was coded into the family’s DNA, and no amount of trying to explain their sickness away with ghost stories would change that.

Nothing would change it.

Steve felt movement beside him and looked up, prepared to demand whichever sibling that had followed him out go back inside; instead, he threw himself backwards at the sight of his mother sitting right next to him.

Her face was unmarred, no blood staining her white dress. There was a smile on her lips as she looked at the street ahead. Steve did nothing but breathe unevenly and watch her warily as she turned to face him, her watery eyes locking on his face.

“Come home,” she urged, a cold hand reaching up to brush his cheek. “It’s time to wake up, Stevie.”

A car horn blared from the street, and Steve jumped violently at the sound. The apparition of Olivia Crain disappeared, displaced by Steve’s sudden movement.

He continued to stare at where the figure had just been, mentally reminding himself that she only seemed so lifelike because he’d run out of meds. She was just in his head. She wasn’t real.

The words she’d said (he’d said?) stuck with him, though, and Steve realized what he needed to do.

Glad that he’d grabbed his keys on his way out, Steve pushed himself off the stairs and walked to his rental car, determined.

His family thought the house was haunted. What better way to prove them wrong then by going back there? He had his wallet on him, so Steve knew he could get a hotel room somewhere between Luke’s apartment and the house.

He would go there tomorrow, first thing in the morning. And Steve knew that all he would find was an old, rotting house. A building made of stone and wood, nothing more. And he would tell the others this, and then maybe, maybe, they would start to believe in the truth of their condition.

Steve started the car and drove, not questioning how he knew the way back to the house instinctively.

After all, how could he forget?

He wound up at the same motel they’d stayed in that last night when everything had gone to hell. Steve briefly wondered what the hell he even thought he was going to accomplish by going back to that place, but the thoughts were shoved aside by Nell and Luke’s echoing voices in his mind proclaiming that the house was haunted.

He needed to prove to them that it wasn’t.

Steve checked in to a room and settled into one of the chairs in the corner, hand massaging his temple. It was nearing 2:00 in the morning, and Steve knew that he should try to sleep. His racing thoughts would never allow it.

Sighing, he pulled his phone out of the bag he’d stuffed it in. As it powered on, Steve observed that he had several missed calls. Most were from Nell and Shirley, along with a couple from Luke and even one from Theo. (He ignored the fact that there was also one from his father.) Shirley and Nell had left voicemails, and he clicked Nell’s first.

“Hi, Steve,” Nell’s agitated and apologetic voice spoke through the speaker. “I hope you’re listening to this. I’m sorry for fighting with you. Please, just let us know where you went? We’re worried.”

The message ended, and Steve didn’t even have to listen to Shirley’s to know it would express the same general sentiment, only in a more stern and frustrated fashion. That was just how Shirley was when she was concerned.

He opened the sibling group chat and typed out a quick message: I’m fine. Just staying at a motel. I’ll see you guys sometime tomorrow.

He silenced the chat afterwards, not needing to see the responses because he could guess what they’d be. Nell would be relieved, but still worried, and send several texts in a row. Shirley would be annoyed at his prolonged silence but secretly glad that he’d broken it. Luke would type a short message of acknowledgment, neutral because he wasn’t one for conflict. Theo would read the message and send a one-word reply, if that.

Steve set his phone aside and rubbed a hand across his eyes. He needed to figure out exactly how to prove that Hill House wasn’t haunted to his siblings. He knew that he would go there and find no ghosts, but the question was how to truly convince Nell, Luke, and now Theo of this fact.

Maybe he’d call them from the house?

That seemed like a start.

Steve leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers restlessly against the armrests. His body was rife with nervous energy and sitting around practically felt like torture. And it only left him with his own thoughts. Thoughts of how guilty he felt since he hadn’t been there enough for his siblings (he hadn’t been able to steer them away from their parents’ paths - he hadn’t protected them). Thoughts of how all he wanted to do now was try to fix what he could.

He drummed out a few more taps on the side of the chair before standing. Steve grabbed his phone and his wallet, heading for the door leading out of the motel.

Hill House would be the same decrepit old mansion now as it would be in the morning. Sleep was out of the question and having nothing to do but mull over his own tumultuous thoughts was not an idea that appealed to Steve.

Besides, Nellie had always complained that the house was different at night so going at this hour may help to convince her of its true mundane nature. And if he convinced Nell his other siblings would be more likely to listen to him as well.

He closed the motel door behind him, not even bothering to lock it.

The drive to Hill House was quiet. It was nearing 3:00 in the morning and the house was in the middle of nowhere, so Steve wasn’t surprised by the lack of other cars on the road as he made his way. Finally, he reached the woods leading to Hill House and, after quickly unlocking the gate, pulled the car into the mansion’s drive.

It rolled to a stop, and Steve observed the house in front of him.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.**

That was what Steve had written about Hill House, not when he was sixteen, but when he was older and rewriting the introduction. Now, as the building loomed in front of him, cold and quiet as death, he thought that the words didn’t do Hill House justice. No words ever could.

As he stared at the shadowed outline of Hill House in the black hours of early morning, Steve felt. . . he wasn’t sure what exactly he felt.

Disquieted, perhaps. (Agitated, unsettled, disturbed, his mental thesaurus supplied.)

A part of him rebelled against the idea of going back inside the house. He had nearly died there, and his mother, or whatever was left of her, actually had. The house held no fond memories for him that weren’t tainted by what had eventually become of them.

The more rational half of himself knew that the house was just a house.

That was, after all, what he was there to prove.

Steve still didn’t get out of his car. The unsettled feeling within him had given way to a flare of anger, and he was compelled to lash out at the source of it.

Steve unlocked his phone and called his father.

The phone rang a couple of times before Hugh answered. “Hello? Steve?” His voice was slightly distorted, as if coming through a speaker.

He’s driving, Steve’s mind supplied, and he didn’t care enough to question why his father would be driving so late.

Instead, Steve demanded, “Tell me about the house, Dad. The truth this time. Nell and Luke aren’t around so no bullshit about ghosts.” His voice cracked as he continued, “I want to know what really happened to Mom.”

Steve heard his father take a shuddering breath. “That wasn’t your mother, Steve,” he insisted. “Not in the end. Not after what that place did to her.”

“God, Dad! It wasn’t the house. Why can’t any of you understand that?” Steve exclaimed, knuckles white as he gripped his phone in frustration. “Mom was sick.”

Hugh was silent for a few moments. “Why did you call, Steve?”

He laughed, short and bitter. “I thought for once you might quit with the bullshit, but I was wrong.” He breathed out a breath laced with disappointment. “That was it, Dad. Go back to sleep.”

Steve made to hang up the phone but stopped as Hugh’s voice called, “Wait! Steve, wait.”

Reluctantly, he raised the phone back to his ear. “What?”

“The tree house,” Hugh said. “Luke’s tree house that you wrote about in your book.”

“What about it?” Steve asked, utterly confused.

“I never built you kids a tree house,” Hugh proclaimed with a gravitas that Steve thought was unbefitting of the situation.

“What are you talking about? Luke was in there all the time. I used to go and fetch him for dinner-”

“We were there flipping a house,” Hugh interrupted. “We were going to be there maybe eight weeks.” His voice grew stronger as he continued, “How would I even have the time to build you kids a goddamn tree house?”

“Maybe it was already there,” Steve reasoned, although he wasn’t entirely sure why he was arguing the point. There had been a tree house.

Hugh’s voice countered his thoughts with, “There was no tree house.”

“Sure. Right,” Steve replied sarcastically.

“Steve-” Hugh tried, but Steve cut him off, saying, “Goodbye, Dad,” and hanging up the phone.

He shook his head, mad at himself for expecting any different from his father. The man had warped his own memories so much that Steve could never expect to get an honest answer from him. Hugh would always end up going on tirades about ghosts, hauntings, and, now, fake tree houses.

Steve’s phone rang, and he hit decline immediately. Not wanting to have to deal with any more calls, he powered the phone off and shoved it in his pocket.

Taking a breath, Steve opened his car door and exited into the hazy night. Fog swirled about the silhouette of the house before him, the only illumination coming from moonlight. Steps determined, Steve made his way toward the dark house, mist curling around him as if in an embrace as he walked forward.

Hours away, Nell slept restlessly on Luke’s couch. After everything that had happened, she hadn’t wanted to go back to her empty apartment. Guilt gnawed at her incessantly. Nell and the others had pushed Steve too far, and he’d run away, as he always did whenever Nell tried to confront him with the truth.

She had done just what her father had warned against when he’d approached her at her wedding only a little over a month ago. Nell and Steve had both seen their mother, and Hugh came to her after Steve had closed his eyes to the truth and walked away. He’d told her in quiet, fast words that Steve had seen ghosts, written about them in his book even, but he didn’t know how to distinguish them from reality.

It was dangerous, he had explained, to confront Steve with truths that he simply couldn’t accept. He had repeated the same sentiment to her tonight when Nell had called him after Steve had disappeared.

But that idea was one that Nell couldn’t accept.

She, Luke, and their father knew the truth. Nell had always suspected that Theo had, and her sister had confirmed the suspicion that very night. Shirley, Nell believed, would acknowledge it in her own time.

Steve, though, had his own beliefs. His rationalization of mental illness and disease.

And Nell couldn’t bear to watch her eldest brother fall apart because he believed there was something wrong with him and with all of them. The words had spilled from her mouth before she could think about them, and with Luke and Theo backing her, Nell had thought that he might come around.

He had run. Again.

His message that he was fine had done little to alleviate Nell’s anxiety over the situation. Shirley, ever reliable, had placed a comforting hand on her arm and urged Nell to give Steve some space. After all, Steve would come back. He always did. He just needed time.

Nell still couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that what she had done was irreparable.

Shirley and Theo had driven away, but Nell refused to go. She wanted to be there when Steve returned the next day. She needed to apologize and figure out a way to convince him that the disease that plagued their family wasn’t a disease at all, but Hill House and that which lurked inside.

Luke had bid her a hushed goodnight, retiring to his own room as Nell settled on his lumpy couch. She didn’t want to take the guest room in case Steve happened to return that night.

Her eyes stayed open as she laid on the uncomfortable couch, only drifting shut in the early hours of the morning when her fatigue finally overcame her troubled thoughts.

At 3:03 in the morning, Nell’s eyes slowly opened. Her body was frozen, and she felt tears brim in her eyes instantly at the sensation. She attempted to move, but her finger merely twitched in response.

Not tonight, she thought desperately. She hadn’t had a sleep paralysis episode without Arthur there to comfort her in months.

Tears trailed down her cheeks in icy lines as Nell’s eyes darted around the dim room. A muffled sob whimpered through her clenched teeth when she saw the figure lurking in the corner of her vision.

No, no, no, her thoughts raced. She hadn’t seen Him in over a year. Not since she’d begun getting help for her sleep paralysis.

Her eyes were wide with terror as her mind searched desperately for the steps she’d been taught to break herself out of the episode; it came up blank when faced with the insurmountable fear of once again seeing her childhood nightmare.

The Whispering Man, Nell had named Him at six years old when He had first appeared. A grey, shadowed figure always hidden in darkness. She could never see Him clearly but always heard His mumbling voice. The words He spoke trailed together into a jumble, and Nell had never been able to distinguish clearly what He said.

Not until now.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” the murmuring voice repeated over and over again.

“Nellie, I’m so sorry.”

It was as He said her name that Nell recognized that the voice was familiar, and her already limited breathing hitched at the realization.

No, it can’t be. Please, Nell pleaded, to whom she wasn’t sure.

Her petitions were useless. The grey figure that Nell had only ever seen obscured by shadow stepped forward, and his ashen face was that of her eldest brother. Their eyes locked, Steve’s glassy and pale, and he uttered one last broken, “I’m sorry,” before stepping backward into the darkness and vanishing from her sight.

Nell’s silent scream echoed in her mind, loud and unceasing.

Chapter Text

Stepping into Hill House was anticlimactic.

Steve saw exactly what he had expected to see. The house was cold and empty, the musty air suffused with mildew and decay. His eyes swept over the foyer, a distant memory superimposing an image of the room back when it was clean and whole over its rotting remnants.

The house had once been beautiful.

Steve blinked, and the image vanished. All that remained was ruin.

He shook his head and continued to look around, unsure of exactly what he should do now that he was in the house. He’d planned to call his siblings, but Steve had an incomprehensible feeling that he needed to do something, to see something, first.

Pulled by a longing deep inside, Steve turned left. His steps echoed through the empty halls as he made his way, coming to a stop as he stood at the base of a familiar winding staircase, staring at the carpet at his feet. He knelt down, hand brushing against the threads.

Flecks of red danced across his vision, pooling at his fingertips. His hand stilled in the air, and he fell backwards as the gruesome figure of his deceased mother appeared on the ground; her eyes were open and pure white as she stared at Steve, blood trailing down the corners of her smiling mouth.

She was gone in the next instant, and Steve was alone, the sound of his panicked breathing filling the room. He drew in on himself and closed his eyes, trying to get his breathing under control.

Coming to Hill House had been a bad idea. The memories were too much for him.

After calming down enough to breathe evenly, Steve cautiously opened his eyes again, relief sweeping through his entire being when all he saw in front of himself was the patterned carpet. He stood slowly and resolved to do what he came to the house for so he could leave it sooner.

His hand reached for the phone resting in his jacket pocket but froze as movement flickered in the corner of his vision. His first instinct was to look away, to run, but Steve found himself turning to better see the figure.

There on the staircase sat a child Steve had only seen in drawings. Her hair was a short blonde, and she wore a blue dress, just as she did in all of Luke’s drawings. It was Abigail, the girl his mother had murdered with poisoned tea.

Her large blue eyes were wide as she stared at Steve. He did nothing but look back at her, a feeling like dread or regret swirling inside him. Because he had never seen Abigail before, and he was horribly certain that she wasn’t a creation of his mind.

She was. . . a ghost.

“You’re here,” a soft, familiar voice murmured behind him.

Steve turned, the rotting room giving way to a whole one around him and saw Olivia Crain mere feet away. Steve had seen his mother for years since that night, looking broken and wrong, but the woman in front of him was not that version of her. This was his mom, her blue eyes shining and a comforting smile on her face.

“Mom?” he whispered, voice cracked. After all the years of being plagued by what his mother had become, seeing her as she should have always been broke him.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Stevie,” Olivia said, red dress flowing about as she took a step closer to him.

Steve stepped backward. Something about her words seemed off to him, seemed like a warning. The picturesque room rippled around him, and Olivia’s look went blank at Steve’s hesitation.

“How. . . how are you here?” he managed to ask.

A smile was pasted back on her face. “Because there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio-”

“Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Steve finished automatically, accepting the explanation as if he’d always known it.

“That’s right honey,” Olivia affirmed, fake smile brightening into a real one.

She walked forward again, and this time Steve didn’t move away. This was his mother. He could trust her. She brushed past him, and Steve swiveled to watch her. Her hand brushed the staircase railing as she ascended the first step.

In the back of Steve’s mind, he wondered where Abigail had gone, but the thought was forgotten as his mother spoke.

“Are you coming?” Olivia asked. “There’s so much we need to talk about.”

He nodded in response, trailing after her as she climbed up the winding staircase. His hand slid along the cold railing, and he paused close to the landing, looking down at the room below. He gripped the railing as the world lurched, cobwebs and dust blinking into his vision before disappearing in the next second.

He shook his head and continued to climb. His mom was waiting, after all.

At the top of the staircase, Olivia stood on the right side of the landing. Her hand extended out to him, and Steve walked a step to close the distance between them.

He raised his hand to meet hers, but it hovered in the air uncertainly as Olivia said with a stretched smile, “Soon your siblings will come too. We’ll be a family again.”

Steve could imagine it, could almost see his younger siblings walking into the room and joining them. But something inside him protested at the thought. Something told him he shouldn’t trust his mother, and that he didn’t want his siblings anywhere near her.

He was supposed to protect them. Why did he feel that he needed to protect them from her?

It’s time to wake up, echoed in his mind. A memory. A warning.

He withdrew his hand, watching as the expression on Olivia’s face turned cold and disappointed. The red from her dress bled upwards, and Steve looked on with dread as the side of her face became disfigured, horribly familiar. Blood dripped from her fingertips as her hand lowered to her side. Yet, she still smiled a broken smile.

A smile Steve had seen for years.

The wrongness of everything suddenly filled his entire being, and the perfect house around him peeled away to reveal the dark, rotting truth underneath. The walls, dark and wallpaper peeling, were the sides of a cage; the staircase was cold and rickety, unsteady beneath his feet. In front of him, his mother stood, driven to death and twisted into a shade of her former self.

Steve stepped back warily, remembering the night years ago when she’d believed what had been best for him was to die. He needed to leave, needed to get out, but he was conscious of his situation. Atop a staircase, the fall from which had ended his mother’s life. Before him, the thing that was left of her.

Olivia’s form flickered, her face clearing of blood and gore. Her eyes were full of tears as she urged, “You just need to wake up.”

“No, Mom,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice level. He had to face her, had to dissuade her from longing after the family that should not and could not ever join her. He looked into her fractured gaze and insisted, “You have to let us go.”

“No,” Olivia answered, her voice firm, “I don’t.”

She moved forward, and Steve immediately scrambled back into the hall, keeping his eyes trained on the door as he moved backward. His back hit the adjacent wall, the Red Room they’d never been able to open to his left.

He watched for a sign of his mother, but she never appeared in the doorway. Letting out a breath, Steve reached for the phone in his pocket. He needed to call someone, to call Nell. He had to warn his siblings about their mother and what she might be capable of.

He needed to apologize for not believing.

Phone in hand, he turned to take the hallway back out to the main foyer but froze upon seeing a woman with grey, decayed skin and short red hair directly in front of him, her teeth gleaming in a sinister smile. Her hand reached for him, cold fingertips pressing into the center of his forehead.

The phone clattered out of his hand as he crumpled backward into darkness.

His last thought before the dark consumed him was, inexplicably, of Nell. He had so wanted to tell her he was sorry.

Hill House knew, and it pulled.

Miles distant, Shirley stirred in her sleep, muttering, “Steven’s in the Red Room,” without waking or even knowing she’d said anything at all.

Awareness returned to Steve slowly. He was standing in Luke’s living room. It was nighttime, and Steve, confused at how he’d gotten back, wondered if everything with the house had just been a dream.

His eyes swept the room, gaze halting when he saw a blanketed figure on the couch. The person made a muffled, horrified cry, and the realization that the person was Nell turned Steve’s blood to ice. His youngest sister’s eyes were filled with terror, unrecognizing as she stared at him.

And Steve felt something inside him, something red, compel him to begin speaking. Didn’t he need to apologize to Nell for never believing her? That was the reason he so wanted to speak with her.

Now, as the words left his lips in a whisper, Steve found himself apologizing for something else entirely.

Because he knew the stories of Nellie’s Whispering Man and knew that she’d seen him for years of her life. Now he also knew that he - alive, dead, or somewhere in between - was the source of that terror.

He couldn’t stop himself from speaking. Couldn’t move or leave. All he could do was repeat the whispered apology.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Tears filled his eyes as he observed Nell’s silent struggle before him. He felt an ounce of freedom given and used it to change his words slightly to, “Nellie, I’m so sorry.”

He was able to move and took a step forward. Nell’s eyes locked with his, recognition and horror evident in how they widened.

Steve wanted to talk again, to warn her against trying to go to Hill House, but the force he could not fight instead made him say, “I’m sorry,” before leading him to take a step backward and lurching him again into utter darkness.

He ended up in a different time but the same situation. Nell before him, terrified, and words spilling uncontrolled from his mouth.

And it happened again and again and again.

With each shift to a different stage of Nell’s life, Steve felt himself grow more hysterical, more guilty. The forced words blurred together as they fell from his lips, incomprehensible even to himself.

After what felt like years, Steve found himself in Nell and Luke’s old room at Hill House. Luke slept soundly, but a six-year-old Nell was awake and sitting up on her bed, clinging to her blankets as she looked at him.

She screamed then, high-pitched and guttural, and the world seemed to fracture at the sound.

Luke startled awake, a scream dying in his ears before turning to wretched sobs. Hurriedly, he climbed out of bed, throwing his bedroom door open as he ran the few steps to his living room.

On the couch, Nell was struggling to get her blankets off herself, crying hard.

Luke moved to help her, crouching down next to the couch as he untangled her from the blankets. As soon as his twin was free, she threw herself at Luke, embracing him in a crushing hug.

Luke returned it and asked, worried, “Nell, what happened?”

Through her tears, Nell cried, “I saw him. I saw him. But, oh God, it was Steve. It’s always been Steve.”

“Nell, you’re not making any sense,” Luke said into her shoulder. “Steve isn’t here.”

She pulled away from him, her tear-filled eyes locking with his as she explained, “The Whispering Man, Luke.”

His stomach dropped. Nell hadn’t seen that ghost in over a year, and she’d said it was-

“It was Steve,” Nell confirmed with a shaking voice. “I heard him, and I saw him. He must have gone to the house, Luke.” Her voice cracked as she continued, “He was just saying sorry. Over and over again.”

Luke didn’t know what to say. His heart and mind were racing. If Steve had gone back, and if Nell had seen him, then did that mean that Steve was. . . that he’d. . . No. He couldn’t accept it. Luke refused to believe that Hill House had taken anyone else from him.

“No,” he voiced aloud. “No way.”

“You don’t believe me?” Nell questioned brokenly.

He shook his head. “That’s not it. I believe you. But Hill House couldn’t have taken him.” He stood, hands clenched into fists beside him. “We have to go after him and get him out.”

Nell rose too, quickly wiping away the tears from her eyes. She looked determined yet hesitant. “What if it’s too late?”

“It won’t be,” Luke declared, hoping he sounded more confident then he felt.

Steve woke up gasping. He lurched upright, mind trying to process everything that had just happened. Nell’s screams still echoed in his head, and Steve knew what he’d just experienced had been real. That somehow the house had used him to torment Nell for years and years. Twisted his desire to apologize to her in the worst way.

Steve felt sick.

A part of him hoped the feeling meant that he was still alive. That whatever the red-haired ghost - Poppy Hill, a distant memory supplied - had done to him hadn’t killed him.

(How easily he thought the word ghost now after truly seeing one. How hypocritical.)

He took a shuddering breath and looked around. The room was familiar. He’d spent hours upon hours in it when the family had lived at Hill House.

It was the game room.

Looking at it now, it was obvious that something wasn’t right. The TV was turned on with a game running when it shouldn’t even have power; there wasn’t a single trace of decay in the room when it should be falling into ruin; and, most notably, the vanity Steve had once repaired and painted for his mother sat in the corner of the room. The center mirror was still shattered, but Steve knew for a fact that his dad had gotten rid of the vanity in an effort to help Steve move past the incident.

The room had a single, small window. Its door was red.

Cautiously, Steve stood up and went to the door. He tried the handle, unsurprised to find that it was locked. He then tried to force the door, throwing his weight against it. All he got for the effort was an aching shoulder.

He huffed out a breath laced with frustration and panic. Because he was stuck in this room and had no idea how to get himself out.

“What are you doing, Steve?” chastised his mother’s voice from behind him.

Steve turned slowly and saw that Olivia Crain had appeared in the room, standing next to the vanity she’d broken in life.

He wanted to inch away from her but there was nowhere to go.

“We still need to talk,” Olivia insisted, mouth pulling upward into a smile.

Shirley picked up her incessantly ringing phone, demanding, “What?” as soon as she’d brought it to her ear. It came out harsh, but it was half past 3:00 and Shirley was tired. Why was Nell calling her at this hour?

“Shirl?” Nell sniffled through the phone, and her foul mood instantly sobered. Nell sounded upset. Really upset.

“Nellie, are you okay?” Shirley asked, shooing away Kevin as he stirred beside her with a question on his lips.

“I’m fine,” said Nell’s shaking voice. “It’s Steve. He went back to the house.”

“What?” Shirley questioned sharply. That didn’t make any sense. “What do you mean he went back to the house? How do you know?”

“I know, Shirl,” was Nell’s explanation. “He’s in trouble. Luke and I are going after him. We’re going to Hill House.”

Shirley had never believed any of the ghost stories about Hill House. Nor was she a fan of Steve calling the whole family crazy, but Shirley did recognize that the family’s belief in ghosts probably stemmed from the mind covering up traumatic memories. That being said, she also knew that Luke and Nell going back to the house couldn’t be a good idea.

She made to voice this, but Nell spoke before she could.

“You can’t stop us. We’re going to get him back. We just thought you and Theo should know, but Theo wouldn’t answer her phone.”

Shirley didn’t bother to be offended by the fact that Nell tried to call Theo first. She was too worried. Desperately, Shirley said, “Nell, wait a -”

“Bye, Shirley.”

The phone hung up, and Shirley instantly threw her covers off herself. Kevin protested beside her, asking what was happening. Shirley’s response was, “Family thing. Go back to sleep.” Kevin, thankfully, didn’t ask anymore questions, even as Shirley threw on clothing.

“I’ll wait up for you,” he called as she practically ran out the door toward her guest house, intent on waking Theo and dragging her after their wayward siblings.

Steve watched cautiously as his mother turned toward the vanity beside her. Her hand trailed across it, coming to rest on the shattered glass in the center. Her face was turned away from him, but Steve could see her scattered reflection in the broken mirror twist into an expression of sadness as she said, “I’m sorry I broke this. It was such a thoughtful gift. You always were a kind child, Steve.”

The glass creaked as Olivia pulled a shard of it free, her fingers remaining unblemished by the sharp edges. She turned back to Steve, brandishing the glass like a weapon.

He took a step back.

Olivia considered him ruefully, dropping her hands to her sides but keeping a tight grip on the glass. She spoke and her voice was filled with regret.

“He took you from me. Took you out into the world, and it broke you. All of you.” She waved her hands around, light glinting off the shard of glass as it moved through the air. “Can’t you see that? I just want to help you. I have to wake you up.”

So he wasn’t dead then. Not if his mother still believed she had to wake him up. He was, however, still locked in a room with her while she held what he suspected to be a very sharp piece of glass.

“The world didn’t break us,” Steve countered in as level a voice he could, hoping beyond belief that whatever was left of his mother inside of the apparition in front of him would be able to hear reason. “This place did, Mom. This house broke our family when it took you away from us.”

Her head was shaking. “No. No. This house saved me.” She smiled, looking at the room around him. “Do you know where we are right now?”

“The game room,” Steve answered hesitantly.

“For you it was a game room,” Olivia said. “It was my reading room. Luke’s tree house. It was whatever we wanted it to be. It still can be,” she implored, stepping closer to Steve. As she moved, the room shifted. The game room disappeared to reveal a clean, white room, empty besides the vanity still perched in the corner. His mother gestured at the room and continued, “It can be whatever you want. For me, it’s been empty these past years. All I want is for my family to be back. For you all to join me. Here.”

“We can’t stay here with you, Mom,” Steve argued, even though he had a feeling it was pointless. “The others are happy. They have their own lives, jobs, people who love them. You can’t take them away from all of that to be here.”

“What about you?” Olivia asked, her eyes knowing.

“What?” Steve questioned back, confused.

“The others are happy,” Oliva repeated, the look she gave him full of understanding and kindness. “But not you. I’ve watched, Steve. I’ve watched you grow up alone and bitter. You’ve pushed everyone away.”

The words, truthful as they were, stung. He had pushed everyone that bothered enough to care about him away. His vitriol of Nell’s opinions, his refusal to listen as three of his siblings confronted him with what he now knew to be true, his denial of even considering Leigh’s feelings on an issue so important to her, all had led him to where he was now. Alone. Locked in a room he could never leave with the ghost of his mother who wanted him to die to be with her.

Steve started to feel that the conclusion of his life, brought about by his own denial and decisions, was inevitable. Maybe it always had been. Maybe he could find some peace in that.

He remembered being handed a squirming, infant Luke and being instructed to protect him. It was the first rule of Big Brother School. And Steve had tried to protect his younger siblings, he had. He had lied for years, thinking that he was. He had finally told the truth, hoping it would help. He had tried to be supportive of them over the years.

Yet so many years had been spent fighting. He had made mistakes and pushed them away. He hadn’t been there enough for Luke to stop him from sticking a needle in his arm time after time.

He was the reason that Nell had been so terrified for so many years.

Maybe. . . maybe staying was how he could protect them. He couldn’t leave the room anyway and didn’t have much to go back to even if he was able to escape. But if he appeased his mother, appeased Hill House, maybe his siblings would finally be safe.

“The others,” Steve said slowly, quietly, “they’re happy.” He looked up at his mom. She had moved closer to him, and Steve didn’t try to move away. “You can’t try to bring them here. If I. . . If I stay here, you’ll leave them alone?”

“You’ll stay here?” Olivia breathed, smiling wide with tears of joy in her eyes. She nodded as an afterthought.

Steve frowned. It wasn’t the answer that he wanted, but. . . but he knew he’d have time after to dissuade his mother from tormenting his siblings into coming back to the house. And if they somehow ended up in Hill House anyway, then Steve could get them out.

He would remain himself, and he would protect them.

So he closed the distance between himself and his mom and confirmed, “I’ll stay here.”

Her hand extended to him, offering the shard of glass. His hand shaking, Steve took it. The sharp edges cut into his fingers as they curled around it, drawing blood. He stared down at the piece of shattered mirror, and his own broken eyes stared back.

His mother’s hand fell on his shoulder, and he allowed himself to sink to the ground with her, resting on his knees. He looked up as her cool fingers brushed against his cheek, finding that she was still smiling at him. Still crying.

“You’re just waking up,” she said soothingly. “The pain will be over soon.”

You’re doing this for them. This is what’s best. It’s what’s best, Steve reminded himself.

The glass hovered over his left wrist. Thinking was so much easier than doing.

His mother’s hand wrapped around his, pushing it down so the glass kissed flesh. Her voice, now demanding in a way it wasn’t before, rang in Steve’s mind as she urged, “It’s time to wake up, Stevie.”

“Time to wake up,” he murmured.

Her form disappeared from in front of him, leaving Steve alone with his decision. He took a shaky breath, then another.

All sound seemed to silence around him.

I have to protect them, Steve thought, and his wrist flared with pain as he made the cut.

Luke and Nell stepped out of the car after parking in the driveway in front of Hill House. They had been unsurprised to find Steve’s rental already there but seeing it still made Luke’s stomach drop. If Steve had gone to the house directly after fighting with them, then he would have been in there alone for hours now.

Luke knew what the house was capable of and knew what it had twisted his mother into. She’d haunted him for years, and the fear had been so present, so all-consuming that Luke had turned to alcohol and then to heroin to drown it out.

And Luke knew she’d haunted Steve too. His brother may have thought it was just his own mind conjuring images of her, but Luke and Nell knew the truth. They’d been haunted themselves and recognized that what Steve was seeing couldn’t just be a hallucination.

Olivia Crain had been following Steve for years, and Luke could only hope that she hadn’t managed to finally catch up with him.

He shared a look with Nell, and the two set off toward the house, steps quick with urgency. When they reached the door, Luke paused. He turned to Nell and said, “Nell, whatever we see in there, we have to stay together. We can’t let it trick us.”

She nodded in agreement and extended her hand to Luke. He took it, and together they pushed open the door to Hill House.

Inside, the house looked as it had when they were kids. Luke was already wary but seeing the house this way gave him pause. Beside him, Nell was looking around in wonder, and Luke squeezed her hand in the hopes of grounding her back to reality. She started, glancing at Luke with a bitten lip.

“Just focus, Nell,” Luke instructed. “We need to find Steve.”

“There you are!” a horribly familiar voice said.

Luke and Nell turned as one, eyes fixing on the figure before them. It was Steve. Not Steve as he was now, but Steve at thirteen years old. The sight filled Luke with dread.

Young Steve grinned at them. “Mom and I have been waiting for you. Come on!”

Nell moved to follow him as he darted out of the room, but Luke pulled her back and said, “I’m not sure we should follow.”

Nell gave him a look. “We have to Luke. We’re not letting the house trick us. I know that wasn’t actually Steve, but what else are we supposed to do?”

Luke sighed. “You’re right. But just keep being careful, okay?”

She nodded, pulling him along by their joined hands. The two followed after where thirteen-year-old Steve had gone, turning left out of the main foyer and heading to the spiraling staircase.

When they entered the room, Luke’s breath hitched. Steve was nowhere to be found, but there upon the staircase sat Abigail, the same as she had been in life. Her large blue eyes considered them, and she smiled.

“Abigail,” Luke breathed, releasing Nell’s hand as he took a step toward her. “I’m so. . . I’m so sorry for what happened.”

She only smiled in response, no blame on her face.

Nell came to stand beside Luke and asked tentatively, “Abigail, have you seen Steve? We have to find him.”

The smile vanished from her face at that, and her eyes darted around the room as if she was checking for something. Luke and Nell watched with bated breath as she finally seemed to settle, looking back at them before pointing her hand upward.

“Thank you,” Luke said. “For. . . for everything, Abigail.”

She gave them one last considering look before vanishing in the next instant.

Luke stared at where she’d just been mournfully. A hand squeezed his shoulder, and he turned to see Nell giving him a sympathetic look.

“We have to go, Luke,” she implored.

He nodded. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

With that, the two started up the stairs. Luke was taken back to a distant memory of following their mother up the same stairs, a tea tray in her hand. He shuddered at the thought but kept climbing. He had a horrible feeling about where they would find Steve.

The Red Room.

He reached the top of the staircase and came to an abrupt halt. In the doorway in front of him stood his mother, wearing a flowing red dress and looking at him with wonder. Behind him, Nell gasped.

“Mommy?” she said with awe as she stepped around Luke and onto the landing, hovering uncertainly near the railing.

“Nell,” Luke scolded, and the jittery energy the hope had given her bled out of her posture. She regarded their mother with caution, and Luke was reassured that she hadn’t gotten lost. Luke turned to their mother and demanded, “Where’s Steve?”

“Oh, Luke. Nellie,” their mother whispered. “You’re so big now.”

Luke ignored the comment, asking with more force, “Where’s Steve, Mom?”

“He’s waking,” she answered, and Luke’s mind, horrified, translated, He’s dying.

Urgently, Luke grabbed Nell with one hand, pulling her along as he used his other arm to sweep his mother’s smaller frame away from the doorway. She disappeared as he made contact with her, and Luke dragged Nell behind him as she looked around for her.

In the hallway, Luke immediately turned right, and Nell’s gaze followed his. The Red Room’s door was ajar. Inside, Luke saw Steve and relief swelled inside him at the sight. Said relief instantly turned to terror when Luke’s eyes flicked down to Steve’s hands, and he realized what was happening.

The information seemed to click in Nell’s mind at the same time. (It was a twin thing.)

Luke shouted, “Steve!” as Nell simultaneously cried, “Don’t!” both running for the door in an attempt to stop their brother from making the worst decision of his life.

Red filled Steve’s vision as he lifted the glass away from his wrist, the area flashing with pain as blood flowed freely from the wound Steve had just made. He could hear nothing but the sound of his own hectic breathing as he tried to force his aching hand to take the glass from his unmarred one. He had to do the other wrist. It would be faster then, and the pain would stop. He would wake up.

Something crashed into him, and the glass clattered out of Steve’s hand as he fell sideways. He was steadied, and white-hot pain flared across his wrist as something was shoved over it, applying pressure. He became aware of someone talking, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit. Fuck! Fuck, Steve!”

He recognized the voice, and his heart seized. The red cleared from his vision as he turned toward the sound.

At his side, steadying him and holding his own hand over Steve’s bleeding forearm was Luke. Behind him stood a gaping Nell, tears streaming down her face.

“Luke? Nell?” Steve rasped. He used his free, uninjured hand to push Luke off himself, only succeeding because his younger brother was so startled by the action. His head was shaking. “You’re not supposed to be here. That was the whole point. You can’t be here. You have to leave!”

Luke merely pushed himself back up, pulling off his jacket and manhandling his way past Steve’s weak protests to press the garment over Steve’s wrist. His younger brother’s voice was taut as he said, “Fuck that, Steve. We’re not going anywhere without you.” He pressed the jacket tighter, and Steve hissed with pain. “God, Steve. Why would you. . . Why would you even-”

“You don’t understand,” Steve said desperately but without trying to fight Luke off. He was feeling dizzy and knew that trying would be pointless. “You have to leave. I was trying to protect you.”

“Fuck that!” Nell exclaimed, startling them both. She was still standing, her hands clenched into fists beside her. She repeated, softer, “Fuck that, Steve. You don’t just get to die on us. We won’t let you. We’re getting you to a hospital.”

The two hadn’t even realized that the door had closed behind them. Now they were all trapped, and Steve was dying for nothing.

“You don’t understand,” Steve repeated again, wearily. “Now you’re stuck too.”

“What?” Nell asked, confused. She turned to look at the door but crumpled instantly once her back was to them. As her form fell, the decaying figure of Poppy Hill was revealed, smiling wickedly.

Luke tensed but didn’t release the pressure from Steve’s wrist as he demanded, “What did you do to her?!”

Poppy Hill just smiled and strode forward. Luke glanced at Steve then down at Steve’s arm before looking back at Poppy, staring her down with determination. He didn’t try to move as her hand reached for his forehead, only falling backward as her fingers made contact.

His grip on Steve loosened, and Steve numbly used his uninjured hand to apply pressure himself. Poppy knelt down next to him, her white eyes looking at the blood-soaked jacket on his wrist. She grinned at him knowingly before vanishing into thin air, leaving Steve alone with his two unconscious siblings.

He breathed out harshly. Everything had been for nothing. He’d thought he was finally protecting his siblings for good, but this is what had happened.

“Fuck,” he muttered, slamming his good hand down on the ground. “Fuck.”

Theo felt her entire body go cold as she and Shirley stepped into Hill House. She tugged her jacket tighter around herself as she looked around, but it did nothing to fight the unnatural chill.

She hated being back but had not hesitated to come when Shirley had told her what was happening. Somewhere in the fucking house were her three siblings, and Theo had to do what she could to find them and get them out.

Shirley trailed in front of her, her steps slow on the shambled remains of the carpet. Her voice was shaky as she called, “Nell? Luke?” She paused for a moment. “Steve?”

There was no response, and the two sisters shared a worried look.

Suddenly, Nell’s voice cried, “We’re up here! Quick!” and Theo took off running toward where it had come from. She climbed the winding staircase at record speeds, only pausing when she got to the top and saw no one. Confused, her eyes swept the area before coming to rest on a cracked phone lying on the ground inside the hallway. She recognized it as Steve’s and turned around, yelling, “Shirley!”

Her sister was still at the bottom of the staircase, attention drawn to something in the next room. Theo’s brows furrowed in confusion, but she turned back around.

In front of her was a woman with short red hair, and that was all Theo could register about her before a frigid hand touched her forehead, sending her falling into a deep, dark nothing.

Steve blinked, and suddenly Shirley and Theo were in the room as well, out cold as they leaned against the walls. His brain then registered that the room was no longer a clean white. It’s true form was revealed, a rotting room with dim light and mold creeping up the walls.

The room had a single, small window. Its door was red.

Steve looked helplessly at his younger siblings. They appeared to be sleeping, but Steve knew the truth was much more sinister. He knew what had happened when Poppy had done the same to him and was terrified at the thought of what Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell were experiencing.

Luke was the closest to Steve. So close that his hand was brushing against Steve. He’d tried to help Steve for as long as he could. Hadn’t even defended himself when Poppy had approached.

God, how had Steve been so stupid? How had he let the house trick him into thinking death was how he could protect his siblings?

He wanted to scream. He wanted to pound against the door and demand the damn house let them out.

But his vision was growing black around the edges, and Steve knew what that meant. He stared down at Luke’s jacket that he’d wrapped desperately around Steve’s forearm. It was soaked with blood.

Steve looked at Luke again, wondering if his brother would wake to find him dead.

He shook his head. There had to be something that Steve could do. He looked around the room desperately.

The room had a single, small window. Its door was red.

Just like Luke’s tree house. The trapdoor had been red, and it only had one window. Steve had hung out in there with Luke several times or gone there to fetch him when other family members needed him. At the time, it had never seemed strange that the rest of the family always laughed when Steve brought up the tree house. Now, he understood that Luke had been in the Red Room. They’d probably all been in the Red Room for extended periods of time without ever knowing it, if Steve was to go by what his mother had told him and believe that it had changed for each of them.

But Steve hadn’t just had the game room. He’d been in Luke’s tree house too, several times. There had to be a reason for that.

He shifted the jacket on his wrist so that he could tighten it, wincing as he did so. He needed time. Needed time to pull Luke out of whatever he was seeing, and Steve would not allow himself to die before he helped his other siblings.

Satisfied that the jacket was secured as tight as it could be, Steve looked back to Luke. With his good hand, he reached out, concentrating on Luke - who he was as a person, his dreams, his fears - and placed his hand on his forehead. He closed his eyes.

The world shifted, and Steve’s stomach turned at the sensation. His eyes snapped open, and he instantly recognized where he was: Luke’s tree house, with drawings of what Steve had called imaginary friends and monsters displayed over every wall, pressing in on the room. Luke sat in the middle of it all, head in his hands as his body shook with sobs. Beside him was a needle, glinting dangerously.

Luke’s voice filled Steve’s ears, whispering, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”

Steve approached him cautiously, kicking the needle away with his foot when he was near enough to do so. He crouched down next to his brother, placing a hand on his shoulder. Luke started at the contact, moving to throw him off. His eyes snapped up, and he stopped fighting as soon as he realized he was looking at Steve.

“Steve?” he asked. “How are you here?”

“Because this isn’t real, Luke,” Steve explained. “This is just the house. We can leave it. Together.” He extended his hand toward Luke, realizing that neither of his wrists were bleeding inside this vision.

“Together,” Luke repeated, taking Steve’s hand.

As soon as they touched, the world shifted again. Steve and Luke woke simultaneously, each gasping a breath as they came back to reality. Steve then let out a hiss as the pain of his cut, bleeding wrist returned to him, and he pressed his hand against it.

“Steve, you got me out,” Luke said, bewildered. His eyes flicked down to Steve’s arm. “Shit.” He looked around the room, seeing the condition of their three other siblings, and muttered, “Shit!”

“You can wake them up,” Steve said weakly. “Like I did for you. I’m not sure if I can handle trying someone else. . .”

“Yeah, no way,” Luke agreed. “I’m gonna move you to lean against a wall, alright?”

Steve nodded as an answer and soon found himself resting against one of the room’s molding walls. Luke pulled the jacket tighter over his forearm, and Steve flinched.

“Sorry,” Luke murmured, resting a gentle hand over the jacket. He took a breath. “Just stay awake while I get Nell out, okay? Stay awake.”

It’s time to wake up.

“Yeah,” Steve whispered. “Yeah. I will. Promise.”

Luke hated leaving Steve, but he scooted over to Nell’s side anyway. As soon as he woke her up, he could go back to looking after Steve while Nell handled Theo and Shirley. He just had to figure out how Steve had done it.

“Just focus on her,” Steve’s weak voice said, as if he’d heard Luke’s question. “This room becomes what we want it to become. So just focus on her.”

Luke nodded. That would be easy. Nell was the person he knew best in the world. His twin, his best friend. He focused on all that made Nell her unique, amazing self and reached out for her, grabbing her hand.

He opened his eyes to find himself in the reception hall of Nell’s wedding. Nell was dancing with Arthur in the center of the room, as every member of the family looked on, even their mother. There was another Luke too, who disappeared as soon as Luke made eye contact with him. The rest of the illusion seemed to flicker at that, and Luke noticed something odd about the hall.

The room had a single, small window. Its door was red.

That wasn’t how it had been in life. Nell wouldn’t notice because she was so happy.

(He briefly wondered why the room had tormented him with monsters and his failures while it chose to give Nell happiness.)

Luke pushed aside all other thoughts, striding forward toward Nell and the fake Arthur. Her eyes met his over Arthur’s shoulder, and she smiled, pulling away from her husband.

“Luke!” she exclaimed. The smile on her face was wistful as her eyes wandered over to look at their gathered fake family members. “Isn’t this amazing? Today is better than I ever could have imagined it.”

“Nell, this isn’t real,” Luke said cautiously. “You had your wedding day a month ago, and it was lovely. Don’t you remember?”

“What?” Nell asked, smiling playfully. “Don’t be silly, Luke.”

The illusion of Arthur looked at Luke dangerously, and Luke forged on, “Look at the room, Nell. This isn’t the reception hall you picked.” Gentler, he continued, “Mom can’t be here. She’s gone, Nell. You know that.”

“I don’t want her to be,” Nell whispered. The fake people were flickering, and Luke knew that he was getting through to her.

“I know, Nell,” Luke implored. “But you can’t stay here with her. It’s not real. I’m real. And we have to get back. We have to help Steve, remember?”

The expression on her face grew horrified, and she whispered, “Steve. Oh, god. I remember.” Her tearful eyes met Luke’s. “How do we get back?”

Luke extended his hand to her. “Just come with me. That’s all it takes.”

Nell nodded, and the moment her hand met his they were lurching awake in the true Red Room. Nell gasped beside him, pulling herself upright and placing a hand on her chest. Tears were streaming from her eyes, and Luke had a feeling they were tears of mourning.

He sat up, instantly turning to look at Steve. His brother was leaning against the wall where Luke had left him, eyes closed. Panicked, Luke rushed over to him, shaking him on the shoulder. Steve’s eyes opened slowly, and he croaked, “What?”

“Don’t close your eyes,” Luke demanded. “Eyes open, you hear me?”

“Eyes open. Got it,” Steve answered wearily.

“Good,” Luke affirmed, slightly hysterical. Nell had appeared beside them, her hand resting on Steve’s other shoulder. Her voice was soft as she said, “Remember when you told me you wouldn’t leave? I’m holding you to that now, Steve.”

Steve snorted a bit. “That was when I was going to college.”

“Well it applies now too,” Nell insisted. She glanced backward. “What do we do about Theo and Shirley?”

“You have to wake them up while I watch Steve,” Luke said. He quickly explained to Nell how Steve had woken him up and how he’d gotten through to her. He told her they were in the Red Room, and that it was going to be different for each of them. She nodded in understanding, rushing over to kneel next to Shirley.

As Nell slumped to sleep beside her, Luke focused back on Steve. His eyes were open, staring vacantly at the red door.

“We can’t get out,” he said. “The door won’t open.”

“We’ll find a way. Once the others are awake, we’ll find a way. Okay?” Luke insisted. There was no way he was going to accept the fact that they’d all be stuck in this damn room in this damn house for the rest of their lives.

(Which wouldn’t be very long for Steve if it were true.)

Steve looked doubtful, but he mumbled, “Okay,” anyway.

Shirley was in her funeral room, staring on as a version of herself sat up in a coffin and peeled away at her face. The sight filled Nell with disgust and horror at what the house was doing to her.

Hill House had shown Nell happiness beyond belief. If Luke hadn’t been there to pull her out, she would have gladly accepted it as truth. All she’d ever wanted was for her family to be whole and happy, and that was what the house had given her.

Why was it doing this to Shirley?

Nell couldn’t dwell on it. She had to act quickly and wake both Shirley and Theo so they could get Steve to a hospital. How groggy he’d been acting made Nell nervous, and she let her emotions fuel her as she stepped forward, ignoring the fake Shirley to stand in front of her true sister.

Shirley’s eyes flicked to hers, and she asked, “Nell?”

“This is just the house, Shirl,” Nell explained. “Whatever it told you, it’s not real.”

“You don’t know what I’ve done,” Shirley whispered, her eyes glancing to the illusion of Kevin standing at her side. She murmured, “Shirley never wants to look.”

“Whatever you did, Shirl, it’s okay,” Nell reassured. “I love you. So do Luke and Theo and Steve. So does Kevin, no matter what.” She raised a hand. “You have to come with me. We can face whatever it is together.”

“Okay,” Shirley said, her head nodding. “Okay.”

The two woke together. Nell sat up slowly, her head reeling slightly, as Shirley floundered beside her. Her sister abruptly settled as her eyes focused on the other side of the room.

“The fuck?” she exclaimed, pushing herself off the ground in a hurry so she could move to crouch next to Steve and Luke. Her voice was clipped, urgent, as she asked, “What happened? What is this?”

“Hi, Shirl,” Steve quipped, and Nell was amazed that he was somehow making light of the situation.

She couldn’t focus on it though. Theo was still unconscious, and, now that Nell had seen what the house was doing to Shirley, she knew her sister needed her to act quickly, along with Steve. So Nell moved next to Theo, concentrating on her sister as she touched her forehead, one of the only places Theo wasn’t covered in layers of clothing.

Nell found Theo in her bed, hundreds of grey, clawing hands touching all over her body as a horrified Theo struggled to get away. She knew how much Theo hated being touched due to her sensitivity, and Nell reached her own hand out instantly, offering Theo a lifeline.

“It’s not real, Theo!” Nell urged. “Come with me.”

Theo’s panicked eyes met hers, and she raised her arm, struggling to reach for Nell’s hand even as she was restrained. Nell met her halfway, pulling Theo forward with as much force as she could muster.

Hill House would not win against them.

Hugh Crain was filled with dread as he parked his rented car outside of Hill House. Three other cars were parked in the drive, just as he had feared.

When Nell had called him earlier that night, Hugh knew that the day wouldn’t end well. It was a feeling deep in his gut, one he associated with some instinctive paternal signal. He’d had the same kind of feeling the night his wife had tried to kill three of their children.

He’d booked the first flight to Massachusetts that he could, but it still took him several hours to reach Hill House. It was nearing 6:00 in the morning. Dawn would soon be breaking.

Hugh slammed his car door shut, rushing into the house without care of thought. He knew where the kids would be, where Olivia would have led them. He ascended the winding staircase, barely taking note of the broken phone in the hall as he turned toward the Red Room. It was sealed shut, as always, but it felt different.

Hugh knew that his children were inside.

He strode forward, turning the handle desperately. It wouldn’t budge, and Hugh pounded at the door, frustrated tears springing to his eyes.

From behind him came his wife’s voice, “Everyone is home.”

He turned to look at her, heart nearly breaking in two at the sight. She looked so lovely, so like she had in life. His Olivia. The love of his life.

But as she spoke, words about how the house was their forever home and how the kids would be safe there, Hugh knew that it wasn’t truly her. Even as he reasoned, as he pleaded, she would not relent.

“I’ll be alone again!” she cried, and Hugh considered her sadly, pulling the apparition of his wife into an embrace.

For years he’d been trying to hold shut a door from the outside. Trying and failing to prevent the monsters from coming through. He had wanted what was best for his children, but he had failed them in so many ways.

But now. . . now he knew what he could do.

Holding the door shut from the outside hadn’t worked. His grip hadn’t been firm enough. But if he held the door from the inside, then he knew, he just knew, that his children, his babies, could leave. And they had each other. They didn’t need him anymore.

He could keep them safe. He could fix it.

Steve’s eyes fluttered shut, and a sharp demand of, “No way!” from Shirley caused them to snap back open reluctantly.

“So bossy,” he whispered, wondering if it was the blood loss making him say such things.

“Call me fucking bossy all you want,” Shirley snapped. Her voice softened as she continued, “Just don’t go to sleep, Steve. Fucking don’t.”

Across the room, Nell and Theo suddenly came to, each gasping as they woke up. Nell recovered quickly, probably used to the ordeal by now, and rushed over to where Steve, Luke, and Shirley were. Her eyes were glad upon seeing Steve still awake, but her bitten lip betrayed the anxiety she must be feeling.

“I’m fine, Nellie,” Steve reassured. “Not going anywhere.”

“Oh, my god,” said Theo’s voice. There was a rustling sound as she moved closer, her eyes fixing on the bloodied jacket Luke was still pressing to Steve’s arm. “What happened?”

“Mom persuaded me to off myself,” Steve mused, and his siblings each stared at him with horror. His foggy brain caught up with what he said, and he groaned. “Fuck. That wasn’t-”

“What you meant?” Shirley finished for him. “Well, what the fuck did you mean?”

He was quiet, and it was Theo who spoke up. “We’ll talk about that later. Right now, we have to get him to a hospital.”

“Yeah,” Luke agreed. “Shirl, take over applying pressure while Theo and I try to get the door open.”

Shirley nodded, pressing her hand over Steve’s forearm as soon as Luke had let go. Steve was so used to the pain by now that he didn’t even flinch at the contact; instead, he just rested his head on the wall behind him. There was movement beside him, and Nell settled on Steve’s other side, grabbing his uninjured hand in hers.

“I’m sorry, Nellie,” he found himself saying.

She looked at him, concerned. “What for?”

He sighed heavily, “You know.”

She had to know. She had seen his face. She had to know that he was the one who’d been haunting her for all those years.

Her hand squeezed his. “It wasn’t your fault. It was this place. But if you need to hear it, I’ll say it. I forgive you.” Her words were sincere, and Steve was amazed at her capacity for forgiveness.

“Thanks, Nellie,” he managed, and she leaned against him, still holding his hand.

From across the room, Theo’s angry voice complained, “The door won’t fucking open. All this time we tried to get into this room, and now we can’t get the fuck out.”

A pounding then echoed through the room, and Theo and Luke sprung away from the door. They looked back at the others, confusion and concern written across their faces.

“I don’t think the house wants us to leave,” Steve said quietly, repeating what he'd told Luke earlier. “The door won’t open.”

“We’re going to make it open,” Shirley insisted. She turned back to Theo and Luke. “Try again! Try fucking again.” Her voice was laced with desperation.

Theo and Luke shared a glance, unsure. Luke walked back over to them, kneeling down to look Steve in the eyes. His voice was thick as he said, “I’m sorry.”

Steve tried to smile at him. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

Nell gripped his hand tighter but didn’t say anything. Shirley wavered anxiously at his side, still holding pressure but not speaking. Theo considered them for a moment before closing the distance between herself and her siblings, coming to sit next to Luke and in front of Steve.

All five of them together. Just as Mom had wanted. The only person missing was. . .

The door swung open. As if is conjured from Steve’s thoughts, in its opening stood Hugh Crain, the light behind him illuminating his frame.

Steve was the only one looking his direction and was the only one to say, bewildered, “Dad?”

His siblings snapped around at that, and Shirley and Luke instantly moved into action. Luke hoisted Steve up, Shirley moving with him to keep the pressure, as she exclaimed, “Oh, thank fuck. We have to go now.”

Theo got to her feet and said, “Give me the keys. I’ll start the car.”

Nell complied numbly, staring at their father.

“You came,” she breathed, her eyes fixed on his face. “But how did you open the door?”

“That doesn’t matter right now,” Hugh answered. His gaze flicked to Steve, eyes landing on his injury. “You have to get Steve out of here.”

At those words, Luke and Shirley began guiding Steve out of the room, and he let himself be led, unsteady on his own feet. Nell trailed along after them, and Theo was waiting restlessly in the hallway. As they passed their father, Steve noticed the regret in the man’s eyes.

He didn’t move to follow them out of the room.

Nell paused. “Dad, are you coming?”

Hugh smiled at them, and all at once the room he was still inside changed. It became clean and white again, with a table resting in its center and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Olivia Crain stepped out from behind the door, coming to stand beside their father and taking his hand.

She stared at Hugh with affection as he said, “I want you to know that you were the best part of my. . . my. . .” he trailed off but gathered himself as he continued, “I’ve never been prouder of anything. Anything, ever. Take care of each other.”

“Dad?” Nell pleaded.

“And be kind to each other,” Hugh instructed fondly. His form wavered, and the unruly man that their father had become was replaced with his younger self, his eyes blue and bright. “If nothing else, be kind. I was so lucky to be your dad.”

He turned then, pulling Olivia into an embrace as the red door swung shut.

Nell was crying softly as the rest of the siblings looked on in shock.

“Dad. . .” Steve whispered, unbelieving of what their father had just done for them after how each of them but Nell, and maybe Luke, had treated him with disdain or disinterest over the years.

“We. . . we have to go,” Shirley whispered. She cleared her throat of any emotion. “Theo, go start the car.”

“Okay,” Theo said numbly before jogging off in front of them.

Shirley and Luke guided Steve through the house, Nell walking slowly in front of them and glancing back periodically. Steve didn’t miss the way her eyes widened when they got to the foyer. He knew why. In his peripheral vision, Steve could see them too.

Ghosts. The residents of Hill House that could never leave, watching the living walk out the door and wishing it was them.

None of the Crain siblings looked back as the doors to Hill House closed behind them.

Steve was placed in the back of Nell’s car, Luke taking the seat beside him so he could keep pressure. Theo sat in the driver’s seat, having already navigated to the closest hospital. With Steve and Luke taking up most of the back, there wasn’t enough room for Shirley and Nell, so they hurriedly went to Shirley’s car in order to follow after them.

As Theo sped down the road, Luke kept up a constant stream of talk, urging Steve to stay awake and the like. Steve nodded along, occasionally humming in response, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak.

He couldn’t stop thinking about their dad. Trapped in that house with Olivia. He had done just what Steve had planned to do. Died so that the others could live.

They hadn’t even seen his body. Steve wondered how it had happened.

“Steve? Steve!” cried Luke’s voice, and it was the last thing he heard.

Steve’s eyes opened slowly. His mind felt muddled and waking was like breaking through a fog. Confused, he looked around to find himself in a hospital room. There was movement around him, and each of his siblings appeared beside his bed.

The relief on their faces was obvious, and Nell had tears falling down her cheeks.

“Welcome back,” Shirley said, the waver in her voice betraying how worried she must have been that he wouldn’t be coming back.

His throat was scratchy, but Steve managed to whisper, “Good to be back.”

Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell were forced to leave the room as the doctor checked over him. He was sparse with the details, but Steve could recognize just how close he’d come to dying. The doctor went on to gently explain that Steve had a scheduled meeting with a psychologist, and that they’d work on getting him better as soon as possible.

Steve nodded along, not surprised. The cut wrist obviously appeared to be a suicide attempt only barely stopped by his siblings.

They hadn’t stopped their father from dying, and Steve wondered what his siblings had done about that matter.

God, the tabloids would be all over the story of Hugh Crain dying in Hill House, the place he’d called haunted all those years ago. With Steve’s near death on the same night added to it, the media would be in a frenzy.

Steve thought of Leigh and hoped that nothing would reach the news before he could talk to her himself. They had a lot to talk about.

When the doctor finally left, Steve’s siblings filed back in the room, each taking a place beside his bed. He smiled at them, glad that he was at least sitting up now.

“Don’t ever scare us like that again,” Shirley warned, but her tone was light.

“I don’t plan on it,” Steve answered, knowing that he meant it. He had a feeling that Olivia Crain would be leaving the family alone for the foreseeable future. Their father was holding the door, ensuring their safety from the inside.

Steve knew from his doctor that he’d been out a day, so he asked, “What all have you told?”

They each exchanged looks with each other. Theo took the initiative, explaining, “Not much. The Dudley’s found Dad in the house.” She didn’t elaborate on how they’d found him.

“I called Leigh earlier today,” Nell spoke up, and Steve turned to her. “She’s on her way here now.”

Steve nodded, glad that Nell had talked to her before anyone else.

He leaned back with a sigh. “Well, this is a mess. Any news outlets tried to get your stories yet?”

“Tried, but not succeeded,” Luke replied firmly, his arms crossed. The annoyance in his tone was practically palpable.

“We’ll deal with that when we have to,” Shirley said, reaching out to squeeze Steve’s hand. “We can handle it together.”

With each of his siblings standing around him, determination on their faces and their father’s final words echoing in their minds, Steve believed her. He smiled, a true, genuine smile and agreed, “Together.”

Chapter Text

They planned to hold their father’s funeral about a week later. Shirley handled most of the arrangements, insisting on fixing Hugh’s body herself even when her siblings tried to convince her not to. She’d said that he had done so much for them that it was the least she could do and refused to consider another option.

Shirley, along with Theo, had gone to handle the transfer of the body, leaving Steve, Luke, and Nell alone in the hospital. His two youngest siblings were sitting in the chairs set up next to Steve’s bed, Nell leaning against the armrest with her eyes closed and Luke absentmindedly watching the television as it droned on in the background.

The silence gave Steve time to think, and he wasn’t certain if this was a good thing. His thoughts kept going back to Hill House. Immediately following his waking, Steve had just been glad to find himself still alive and hadn’t had time to dwell on all he’d experienced. Now, it was all he could think about. Ghosts were real. What he’d been seeing for most of his life was not a hallucination but his mother’s ghost, wanting him to come back to the house. Steve had nearly died in the house (again). Hugh actually had died.

It was easy to feel guilty. Steve was the one who’d gone back. The one who’d dragged the rest of the family after him, and the reason that Hugh had to die to keep them safe from Hill House.

His mind would trail off, wishing that he’d been the one who’d made the sacrifice, and that scared Steve more than anything. Because he knew that ultimately the decision to end his life had been his. He’d felt hopeless and lost, and his mother’s words had all too easily convinced him it was the right thing to do. But she’d left when it came time for Steve to actually make the decision. And he had.

He knew he didn’t want to die now. His siblings were safe, and his father had wanted him to live. But the fact that Steve had just mere days ago made him afraid for his future. Because how could he guarantee the feeling wouldn’t come back?

He shoved the intrusive thoughts away, instead focusing on Luke and Nell. They looked exhausted.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said without prompt, causing Luke and Nell’s attention to snap to him. Steve looked down, fiddling with the scratchy hospital blanket just to have something to do with his hands as he continued, “I was so wrong about so much. And I’m sorry I never listened to you. Maybe if I had-”

“Steve,” Nell cut him off. “Don’t even go there. What happened was the house, okay? It was all the house.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, although he didn’t quite believe it. “Okay.”

It was quiet for a few moments before Luke spoke up. He took a deep breath and said, “I know a lot about guilt. When I was on heroin, I took advantage of all of you. I made a lot of mistakes. And that guilt? It just made me worse.” He looked up, meeting Steve’s eyes. “None of us blame you. Dad didn’t blame you. We’re just glad you’re okay.”

“But Dad isn't,” Steve whispered.

He was dead. After so many years of being treated so poorly, he had walked into the arms of a monster, embraced it, to save the ones that had scorned him.

“Dad made his own choice,” Nell said softly. “He told me once that we were like an unfinished meal to the house. I think. . . I think us ending up back there was inevitable. And I think Dad knew it too. You heard what he said. He wouldn’t want you to feel this way.”

“I know,” Steve sighed. Because she was right. And yet - “It’s just difficult.”

The conversation was cut off by a knock at the door. A doctor had appeared, and Steve quickly recognized that it must be the psychologist his physician had mentioned would be coming earlier that day.

After a quick introduction, Luke and Nell had to leave the room.

Steve was as honest as possible with the doctor. He omitted any and all details involving ghosts because he had no interest in being admitted to an institution, but he did explain that he’d gone back to his childhood home where his mother had died. That he’d been diagnosed with PTSD and hadn’t been taking his medication.

The doctor made notes and checked boxes on the forms, listening intently. When the meeting reached its conclusion, the doctor stood and promised Steve that the hospital would work with him to get him home and feeling better.

Steve nodded and agreed, and soon the doctor was gone, promising to let his siblings know they could return. The meeting, combined with his talk with Luke and Nell, made Steve feel a little lighter. Less burdened.

There was still a lot of healing to do and a lot he still had to face, but Steve was hopeful. With time, he knew he would get better.

Nell and Luke waited in the lobby near Steve’s room while he talked with the psychologist. Nell wished they could have stayed with him but understood why it wasn’t allowed. Being apart, though, made her feel restless. She’d felt jittery ever since Shirley and Theo had left, not liking the idea of any of her siblings being too far away.

A part of her knew this was irrational. She couldn’t realistically expect to be near her siblings at all times, but her heart longed to. After losing Dad and nearly losing Steve, Nell couldn’t help but worry.

Luke seemed to notice her distress and said, “Hey, don’t worry so much. Steve is going to be fine. We’ll make sure of it.”

“Think we can convince him not to move back to California?” Nell asked in a slightly joking tone, trying to make light of the suggestion in case Luke thought it was silly.

But Luke just nodded, and Nell wondered why she ever doubted him as he answered, “I think we can try. California is too far away, and we all need each other right now.”

Nell smiled but didn’t say anything else. She was glad that Luke agreed with her but knew there were a lot more factors to the situation. Leigh, for one. Nell wasn’t certain how Steve’s wife would feel about moving back, although she suspected that Leigh would be okay with it in time.

Nell had called Leigh the night before to no answer and left a message urging her to call her back. When morning came, Nell had grown restless and called again, only shortly before Steve had woken up. Leigh had answered, her tone as worried as Nell had ever heard it. The conversation following had been difficult. Nell had tried to be light on the details, but Leigh insisted upon knowing everything. She understood this, as Nell would want the same if anything ever happened to Arthur, but telling Leigh that Steve had nearly died, nearly killed himself - because what else could she say - wasn’t something Nell had ever wanted to do.

Leigh had gone silent, and all Nell could hear was her shaking breaths before she said she was on her way and promptly hung up the phone. Leigh probably hadn’t wanted Nell to hear her cry.

Nell had texted her the hospital’s address, and Leigh had thanked her, letting Nell know her flight time and when she should get there. Checking the clock now, Nell realized that Leigh would be arriving within a couple of hours or less.

She also realized someone else would be arriving imminently.

Just as she thought this, a voice called, “Nell?” and her head snapped toward the sound, eyes instantly tearing as she saw her husband.

She was off her chair in the next second, running toward Arthur to tackle him into a strong embrace. He returned the hug firmly, rubbing consoling circles into her back as he whispered, “Hi, gorgeous.”

“Hi,” she murmured back, pulling away from the hug so she could draw Arthur into a fierce kiss. In that moment, the world melted away as she absorbed Arthur’s comforting presence, but he soon pulled away.

She frowned, but Arthur placed a hand on her arm, reassuring her as he asked, “How is everyone holding up?”

“Okay,” Nell answered. “Shirley and Theo went to go pick up. . . to pick up Dad’s body. Shirley is handling the funeral arrangements.” Arthur nodded, the look in his eyes urging her to go on. “Luke and I have been here with Steve. He’s doing better.”

Arthur gave her arm a comforting rub, sliding his hand down to grab Nell’s. “That’s good to hear. How are you doing with everything?”

Nell bit her lip, looking down at Arthur’s hand holding hers. “It’s hard. Losing Dad. And I’m still worried about Steve. I think things will be better now that. . .” She paused. Nell hadn’t told Arthur the complete truth about Hill House because it wasn’t really something that could be told. It had to be experienced. So she couldn’t tell him that Steve finally understood Hill House.

“It’s okay, Nell,” Arthur said gently. “You don’t have to finish.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m here for you. Whatever you need, I’m here.”

“Just sit with me, will you?” Nell asked.

“Of course,” Arthur answered, giving Nell a quick but loving peck on the lips before they made their way back to the waiting chairs where Luke had remained.

Arthur and Nell settled on a double seat next to Luke, Arthur wrapping an arm around her so she could lean into his side. She closed her eyes and let the sound of Arthur and Luke’s conversation wash over her as she finally relaxed.

Arthur was safe. He was steady. He was blissfully unaware of the true horrors of Hill House, and that somehow made his presence that much more of a relief. Soothed by Arthur’s warmth, Nell began to doze off. She hadn’t had much rest for the past two days and all sound soon drifted away from her as she fell into a dreamless sleep.

A few minutes after the psychologist left, Luke returned to Steve’s room alone. Steve quirked an eyebrow at his younger brother in a clear question, and Luke said, “Arthur got here a few minutes ago.” He settled back in to one of the chairs next to Steve’s bed and explained, “Nell fell asleep on his shoulder out in the waiting room.”

Steve smiled at that, glad his sister was getting some rest and comfort. Arthur was a good man, and Steve was glad that Nell had him.

“That’s good,” he voiced aloud. “You two look dead on your feet. You should consider getting some sleep too, Luke.” He shrugged. “I’m not going anywhere. You don’t have to stay here with me.”

“I may not have to, but I want to,” Luke countered. “One of you was always with me when I was in the hospital so until Leigh gets here you’re stuck with me.”

Steve’s heart panged at the mention of Leigh because oh god she was probably getting here soon and what was Steve even supposed to tell her-

“Hey,” Luke’s gentle voice broke through Steve rampant thoughts. “Don’t freak out on me, here. I’m sure everything will be fine with Leigh. She’ll just be glad that you’re okay, same as all of us.”

“But what am I going to tell her?”

“The truth,” Luke answered solemnly. “Or as much of it as you can anyway.”

Steve breathed out deeply, nodding. He had never been fully honest with Leigh about why he had to see Dr. Montague or why he didn’t want kids. He had never told her about seeing his mom. He knew now that hadn’t been fair of him. With everything that had happened, Steve knew she deserved to know. She always had, but Steve had been too afraid of her reaction if he did tell her. Too afraid of being just like his mom.

Now, though, he knew he wasn’t his mother. He could tell Leigh. And he would.

The two sat in silence, and Steve was the one to break it.

“Luke, I, uh, don’t really know how to ask this, but. . .” he trailed off, and Luke just looked at him, content to wait until Steve continued. He took a breath. “After you quit and got clean, how did you know you’d never want the drugs again? That those thoughts wouldn’t come back?”

Luke didn’t answer immediately. He took in Steve’s words and considered them, finally answering, “I didn’t, really. I just knew that if they did I’d have people to talk to and rely on. I knew that I was stronger than my addiction, and that I wouldn’t let it consume me again.”

Steve nodded, grateful for the honesty. He opened his mouth to speak his thanks, but a knock on the door drew both his and Luke’s attention. As it opened, Leigh was revealed, and Steve’s breath hitched.

The best way to describe her appearance was disheveled. She wore no makeup and her hair was done in a quick updo. Her eyes were red-rimmed. She had clearly been crying.

Steve still thought she looked beautiful.

Luke stood, greeting Leigh quietly before stammering something out about checking on Nell and Arthur and bolting for the door. He cast Steve a pointed yet reassuring look as he went, closing the door gently behind him.

The room was silent. Leigh lingered by the door, arms folded around herself as her eyes flicked around the room to look at all the machines and monitors before finally landing on the pristine white bandage covering Steve’s forearm. Beneath it, a jagged vertical incision Steve had made himself.

Steve briefly thought that he should have asked Nell exactly what she’d said to Leigh, but the thoughts were interrupted as Leigh strode forward, grabbing Steve’s right hand with both of hers. Her voice was shaky as she whispered, “God, Steven. This is - this is just, god.”

“Leigh, I’m okay,” Steve said in what he hoped was a soothing way.

“Okay?” Leigh questioned brokenly. “Steve, when Nell left me a message saying that you were in the hospital, I was worried, but I never imagined that she would tell me it was because of this. And all I could think about on the way here was that we hadn’t truly spoken in weeks. Our last conversation was a fight. And I-” she cut herself off, shaking her head.

“This wasn’t your fault,” Steve spoke quietly. Leigh’s tearful eyes met his as he continued, “This was me. And I know now that it was the worst mistake of my life.” He sighed. “Closely followed by not being honest with you.”

“What do you mean?” she asked hesitantly.

Steve took a breath, readying himself. “You may want to sit down. This will probably take a while.”

Leigh complied, pulling one of the chairs closer so she could keep her fingers intertwined with his as he spoke. He started at the beginning, finally telling her the truth about his near-death at thirteen and how he’d seen his mother ever since. He explained the real reason behind never wanting kids, and the purpose of him going to therapy. She listened quietly as he talked, clearly absorbing everything but not wanting to interrupt.

It was near the end of the story that Steve had difficulty. Because he couldn’t bring himself to tell Leigh about the ghosts he knew were real. But he knew the words he needed to say - he’d said them to the psychologist mere hours ago.

“I went back to the house,” he started, his voice low with hesitation. “And it was too much. Everything was too much, and I thought. . .” He shook his head, not able to speak the words. “Luke and Nell came after me, and Shirley and Theo came after them. And Dad knew too, knew that something was wrong. They got me out, but Dad. . . they told us his heart gave out. He’d had issues for years, and it must have been too much for him.” It had been too much for Hugh to watch all of his children die. So he’d died instead.

Leigh leaned forward then, wrapping Steve in a hug as best she could in their position. He was startled by the contact but returned the embrace once the shock had passed.

“Thank you for telling me,” Leigh murmured into his shoulder. “And I am so sorry about your father.” She pulled back but raised a hand to touch Steve’s cheek. “I know we fought, but I never stopped loving you. I love you. And I want to face this. Together.”

Steve grabbed her hand, pulling it down so their fingers lay intertwined in the space between them.

“I love you too.”

They would fix this.

Shirley backed away from the table, observing her father’s body. She had fixed him. She had covered the traces of death with chemicals and makeup, and he looked. . . whole. In death, Hugh was peaceful. He had spent so much of his life worried that Shirley thought it was well deserved.

But she wondered if he truly was at peace. He was in that house, and Shirley couldn’t quite convince herself that peace was possible inside Hill House. The vision they’d all seen of him had been smiling as he embraced their mother, but that was only a moment. They’d had good moments in Hill House in the beginning. By the end, every moment had been a nightmare.

She wondered how long the peace would last before the house again revealed itself for the horror it was.

“You’ve been down here a while,” a voice spoke, and Shirley jumped at the sound. She turned to the door to see Theo leaning against it, her gaze fixed on Shirley.

“I just finished,” Shirley explained. “I wanted to get it done.”

“And now it’s done,” Theo said. “You need to get out of here for a while. Go eat something. Talk to Kevin. Do anything but stare at Dad.”

Talk to Kevin, rang in Shirley’s ears. She had so much she needed to tell him. So much she needed to confess to. But she was scared. Scared of losing her best friend, and the best thing that had ever happened to her. She loved Kevin, and she loved her kids. How could she tell him about her greatest regret? How could she tell him about that one night a year ago that Shirley wished beyond belief that she could just erase?

“Shirl,” Theo’s firm voice drew her out of her thoughts. The look her sister was giving her was slightly worried now. “Come upstairs with me. I’ll make you a sandwich or something.”

Shirley nodded, saying nothing as she trailed after Theo. When they reached the kitchen, Shirley settled next to the counter as Theo went about collecting ingredients. It was late in the evening, so the house was quiet as Kevin had already put the kids to bed. Kevin himself was probably in the office going over details for Hugh’s funeral because he didn’t want Shirley to have to handle it all.

Theo handed Shirley half a turkey sandwich, taking a bite out of the other half as she leaned against the counter. Mechanically, Shirley took a bite. The sandwich was dry and tasteless in her mouth, but she chewed at it anyway.

“I’m moving out,” Theo suddenly said, and Shirley looked at her in surprise. Theo lowered her sandwich as she continued, “I came here to be close to you so you wouldn’t isolate yourself after Luke moved out.” Shirley bristled at that but wasn’t given a chance to ask about it as Theo kept talking. “But after everything, I think I need to actually start my own life. I moved here because I wanted you not to be isolated, but really I just isolated myself. I think it’s time to give the world a try.”

Shirley then realized that Theo’s hands were bare. No gloves.

She couldn’t help but smile as she answered, “I think that’s a great idea. But don’t expect me to help you move all your furniture.”

Theo grinned. “I’ll just have to enlist Luke and Kevin, then.”

At the mention of Kevin, Shirley grimaced. Theo noticed and sobered immediately. There was a question in her eyes, and Shirley answered it before Theo could even speak.

“There’s something I have to tell him. Something that could change everything. And I don’t know if we’ll be able to get past it.”

“You have to tell him,” was Theo’s response. “Whatever it is, it’ll just keep eating at you until you get it out.”

Shirley sighed. “You’re right.”

She stood up straight, setting down what was left of the sandwich. Theo gave her a considering look and a thumbs up as Shirley made to walk away, heading toward the office she knew Kevin would be inside.

Sure enough, he was sitting at the desk pouring over paperwork, and Shirley knocked on the entryway to get his attention. He looked up at her and smiled softly. Shirley’s heart nearly broke at the expression because she loved that smile. And she didn’t know if she’d ever see it again.

“What is it?” Kevin asked, and Shirley sat in the chair across from him, pulling his hands into hers.

“I have something that I have to tell you,” she began, fighting back the tears that had gathered in her eyes. Kevin looked at her with concern, gripping her hands as she struggled to speak. She was standing over a precipice and talking would mean jumping to the uncertainty that lay below. But Kevin deserved to know the truth.

She jumped, and he continued to hold her hand.

The funeral was going to be small, a fact which Theo was grateful for. Her decision to get rid of her gloves was not one that was made lightly, and Theo knew that being exposed to all the emotions the funeral was sure to bring was going to be difficult. The less people there were, the easier it would be for her.

Even now, her arms prickled at the swirl of emotions around her. It was the night before the funeral, and the family was gathering to privately honor their father. Kevin was bustling about, setting up an unnecessary amount of food and drink while Shirley watched him fondly. Theo wasn’t positive on what it had been that Shirley had to tell Kevin just days ago, but the couple was doing well. There had been a distinct awkwardness the day after, but it had faded to love and acceptance within another day.

Nell, Arthur, and Luke were sat in the entryway of the funeral home, conversing lightly even as Nell’s eyes flicked to the door anxiously. They were waiting for Steve and Leigh to arrive. Steve had been released from the hospital that day with follow-ups scheduled and with instructions on how to care for his stitches and pill bottles in hand. The two had then gone to secure formal outfits for themselves for the funeral, insisting that no one else needed to tag along. Afterwards, they’d be staying with Nell and Arthur since they were the ones with a large enough guest room.

Steve was doing better. Theo was certain of this as she no longer felt tense when she stood close to him, her empathy picking up on his inner turmoil. His emotions now were much more positive, that much Theo knew.

When the two finally arrived, Nell sprung up to greet them. Theo continued to watch as pleasantries were exchanged. Despite the situation, the family wasn’t bickering, and conversation wasn’t strained. Sure, they were all a little nervous around Steve, considering everything that had happened, but it was a feeling that came from love. They had finally all come together.

Theo walked forward to join her siblings, a smile on her lips and no gloves closing her off from them, feeling that their father would be proud of how far they’d come and how far they would go.

Steve hadn’t cried at his mother’s funeral. The rest of his siblings had, even Theo who was normally so closed off. Steve had sat with them, let Luke lean into his side, but he hadn’t cried. He couldn’t bring himself to cry over Olivia when he wasn’t even sure if the person in the coffin had still been his mother.

His tears would come later. When he was alone and what his mother had become haunted him relentlessly. Then, he cried. Whether it was out of fear or out of longing for something he’d lost, he wasn’t sure.

Over the years, the tears had stopped and were replaced by anger.

Now, at his father’s funeral, Steve didn’t cry. Nor was he angry. If he was honest with himself, he wasn’t sure what he was feeling. He’d spent so many years being furious with his dad and letting bitterness fester inside him that the grief he did feel over Hugh’s death didn’t seem genuine. Steve didn’t feel that he’d earned the right to mourn. Not with how he’d treated Hugh.

He knew his father wouldn’t want him to feel that way. Hugh had made mistakes, had apologized for them over voicemail so many months ago. He had died for them, using his last words to urge his children to live and express his pride in them.

It was as Nell had said in the hospital. Hugh made his choice and was content with it.

Steve’s inner turmoil wasn’t helped by the staring. The funeral was small, but the people that had been invited weren’t exactly subtly with their glances at Steve. As the siblings had expected, the story of Hugh’s death and Steve’s near-death had ended up on the news, the media drawn to the story of Hill House and how their family had called it haunted. Clearly the guests had seen and, judging by the curiosity in their gazes, were wondering how much of what they’d heard or read was true.

Aunt Janet was just about the only one who’d shown some grace in the matter, simply giving Steve a hug and expressing her relief that he was okay.

Luke remained at Steve’s side, the two of them acting as greeters of some sort, and commented after some particularly blatant staring, “You’d think they’d realize they were being so obvious.”

Steve chuckled at that. “You’d think.”

“It’ll get easier,” Luke added. “I got pretty used to all the staring when I would come to things while in and out of rehab.” He shook his head. “People still stared at Nell’s wedding. I think they just can’t help themselves. Nosiness is a curse.”

Steve thought of all his readers and how they’d constantly ask very personal questions about his family or Hill House no matter how many times Steve tried to dissuade them from the topic. That in mind, Steve agreed, “That it is.”

Time marched on, and soon the ceremony was set to begin. Leigh came to collect Steve and Luke, taking Steve’s hand and leading them to the front row of seats. Luke settled next to Theo, Steve and Leigh taking the seats next to him. Nell sat with Arthur across the aisle, a seat between her and Kevin reserved for Shirley.

Shirley began the service, reading from a poetic passage about death that Steve didn’t really listen to. Being an author himself, he knew that sometimes words on a page were rather meaningless. They were something to cover the pain in flowery prose, an ultimately fragile band-aid.

Her words trailed to a stop, and she invited anyone who’d like to speak forward. Luke surprised them all by standing and striding toward the podium with an uncharacteristic confidence. He turned to face the gathered people, his gaze set.

And then he spoke.

“Dad got a lot of shit from a lot of people. Including myself. People who didn’t understand what he went through or how he felt, but they’d still have an opinion on him. And for the longest time, I let that affect how I felt about him. But,” he smiled, “hindsight has given me some clarity. My dad was good at fixing things. It was what he loved to do. And even after everything, he would support us however he could. No matter the hour, he’d answer any phone call or get on any plane if it meant helping us.” Luke’s eyes swept over each of his siblings. “And he loved us. That much I know. He was always our dad, and he always will be.”

Luke stepped away from the podium to stunned, emotionally charged silence, and Steve realized, as a tear slid down his cheek, that he was finally crying.

Luke tossed his handful of dirt into the grave, watching as it fell through the air and sprinkled itself atop his father’s coffin. The action felt like a final goodbye, and Luke remained crouched at the graveside for a few moments. He stared down at the coffin below before standing, moving out of the way so Nell could collect her own dirt to throw. Luke took his place next to Theo as Nell kneeled down, watching tears fall from her lashes as the dirt left her hand.

She righted herself and came to stand next to Luke. All five of the Crain children stood side-by-side, the early October breeze rustling their hair and clothing. In that moment, Luke felt at peace. They may not have their mother or father, but the five of them had each other, now more than ever. And that was enough.

The peaceful scene was broken by a tap on Luke’s shoulder. It was Nell, and she gestured to the right when Luke gave her a quizzical look. Luke turned, seeing that Aunt Janet was engaged in hushed conversation with Shirley. Steve and Theo were clearly listening in from either side, and it was Steve who turned first. Luke followed his gaze, breath hitching at what he saw.

There, only a few graves away, stood Horace and Clara Dudley. They were graying with age, but Luke still recognized them.

He turned back to his siblings, seeing the same expression of shock mirrored on each of their faces.

“Aunt Janet said they want to tell us something,” Shirley explained, her tone marked with uncertainty.

“I think we should hear what they have to say,” Nell expressed. “They wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t important.”

“It’s probably about the house,” Theo reasoned, a frown on her lips.

Steve sighed. “Then it’s definitely important.” Even after everything, it was odd to hear Steve express such a sentiment when he’d spent so many years denying what Hill House truly was.

“We should talk to them,” Luke agreed with a small nod of his head.

“Fine,” Shirley said, and Theo gave a shrug to express her compliance.

They waved off hovering spouses, and the five of them walked over to the waiting Dudleys. As they made their way, an old guilt gnawed its way to the surface of Luke’s mind. The Dudleys. They were Abigail’s parents.

When they reached them, Luke blurted out, “I’m sorry!” before the two could even speak. The couple looked surprised, and Luke stammered on, “Abigail. I invited her to the house. I didn’t know what would happen. I-”

Mrs. Dudley held up a hand to stop him and gave him a gentle smile. “What happened to our girl was no fault of yours.” She shared a glance with her husband. “But Abigail is one of the reasons we wanted to speak with you. With all of you.”

The siblings were silent, each unsure what to say. Mr. Dudley took this as permission to continue, and he said, “It’s also about your father.” That definitely got their attention, and the Crains stood a little straighter as Mr. Dudley continued, “That night when he found your mother. . . we found Abigail. Your father wanted to burn the house to the ground to ensure that it could never harm anyone else again. We convinced him not to.”

“Why?” Steve questioned sharply. “You know what that place is.”

Mr. Dudley nodded solemnly. “Yes. That’s why we stayed on at the house and why your father never sold it. It was the agreement that we came to.”

A distant memory arose in Luke’s mind. A memory of their father telling them he’d made a deal with the Dudleys and none of them truly believing him.

“Abigail is still in the house,” Mrs. Dudley explained. “We’d already lost our first child. . . we couldn’t bear to lose her as well. We know what the house it, but we also know that our Abby is still in there. We can still see her.”

Her voice broke, and Mr. Dudley spoke instead.

“We’d sheltered her for most of her life, so we agreed not to speak of her death if your father wouldn’t destroy the house.” He paused and took a breath. “That way he could preserve what you kids felt about your mother, and we could continue to see Abby. When we. . . found him in the house, we knew that we needed to tell you. I imagine that the house will pass to you now. You have to keep it sealed, but please keep it whole. That’s all we ask of you.”

None of them spoke for several moments.

Eventually, it was Nell who broke the silence. “We won’t. Our parents are in there too.” Numbly, Luke nodded in agreement. As much as he disliked Hill House, he couldn’t see himself destroying it. Not when he knew that Abigail and his parents were inside.

Mr. Dudley looked at her, his eyes then sweeping over the rest of them. He tipped his head in gratitude and said, “Thank you.”

The two housekeepers joined hands, walking away through the cemetery as the Crains stared after them. A beat passed before Shirley muttered, “Fuck.”

“Yeah. Fuck,” Theo agreed.

Steve was shaking his head. “All those years of wondering why Dad never got rid of that damn house. . .” he trailed off, wincing before placing his right hand over his still healing forearm.

The others had noticed the flinch too, and Nell gently said, “We should be getting back now. Everyone is waiting for us.”

That said, the group walked to rejoin the others next to Hugh’s grave. When they reached them, the siblings with partners were immediately greeted by their worried spouses. Luke and Theo lingered behind, letting them have their moments. Soon, what was left of the funeral goers headed back to the cars.

Luke trailed along at the rear of the group, casting one last look back at his father’s grave. His steps halted at what he saw.

There, standing behind the makeshift headstone, was Hugh and Olivia Crain. They looked as they had in life when they were young and happy. Hugh’s arm was wrapped around Olivia, holding her close as they looked after their children, expressions full of love and pride.

Luke turned back around, a smile on his face as he joined his siblings.

Five months later, the extended Crain family had gathered at Steve and Leigh’s new-ish house in Massachusetts to celebrate Luke’s second year sober. They stood and sat around him, clapping as Luke blew out the giant candle shaped like a two, a grin on his face.

Steve smiled too, watching his family members with amusement.

Shirley was leaning into Kevin, laughing at something he’d said and looking happier than she had in a long time. Theo, no gloves covering her hands, rolled her eyes at the antics around her but the twitch of her lips into a smirk gave away her amusement. Luke was doing a poor job of cutting the cake, claiming that his college classes hadn’t taught him any sort of home-ec. Behind him, Nell had playfully smeared frosting down Arthur’s nose and giggled as he pretended to be offended.

Leigh’s hand was on his shoulder, and Steve brushed his fingers across her knuckles before reaching forward to take the slice of poorly cut cake that Luke offered him.

The ropey scar displayed on his forearm was a stark reminder of what had almost been, but not something Steve felt the need to hide. In the months following that day in Hill House, Steve had done a lot of healing, his siblings and Leigh serving as constant sources of encouragement and strength.

He no longer saw his mother, and he and Leigh were finally able to talk honestly with one another. He was closer with his siblings than ever, no petty squabbles or otherwise causing them to forget what their father had told them.

Be kind to each other.

And they were. Just as their dad had wanted.