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Originally posted in Novels & Novellas, I decided this submission was a better fit in the Taboo category. Thank you for your patience since this is a longer story.
*For repeat readers, due to feedback, the one small scene of non-consent at the end has been revised.*
A huge thanks to LadyMireille for your original edits and suggestions on improving Zoe’s tale. And to Egri for your continued honest opinions and support despite my occasional rantings.
I was Snow White, but I drifted.
It was a saying I’d read on a T-shirt once, but it really was an appropriate self-description. At least since I’d turned eighteen last year. It seemed like I had been used to my current lifestyle for so much longer…
My name is Zoe McConnell. I am an only child, as are my parents. Like them, I was supported by a trust fund and primarily raised by people who had no blood relation to me. My family’s money mostly came from strategic stock market decisions and old inheritances from both sets of grandparents who were long deceased. All of which had happened before my surprise arrival when my mother and father were thirty-five and thirty-seven, respectively.
Now, before you call me the proverbial “little rich girl,” know that I didn’t brag or flaunt our wealth. I preferred to blend in, not stand out. This was made possible by my parents’ choice to live in a middle-class neighborhood and send me to a public school. They spent their fortune instead on more frivolous things like dressing to the nines, wining-and-dining with the upper crust, and supporting foundations with large donations.
They had both been very successful at their jobs, due in part to their standing in society and willingness to put work first, family second. I remember they traveled a lot for their respective employers when I was very young. By the time I entered junior high, they had retired. They continued their habit of frequent traveling, but now for their own pleasure. Reaping the benefits of their labor.
I’d not had a nanny or an au pair, although we did have a gardener and a maid who came once a week to make the place pristine for the sake of appearances. With no other relatives to watch me in my parents’ absence, I was watched by the Mitchells before I could even walk. They were the closest thing I had to an aunt and uncle. And they quickly became my surrogate family.
Dave and Mallory had moved in next door when I was four. They were fifteen years younger than my parents were and had trouble having children of their own, so they were elated to take care of me. They even decorated one of their spare rooms to make me feel welcome whenever I stayed over, which was more often than not. It’s a wonder I didn’t suffer from some form of identity crisis.
Once I reached high school, the adults all agreed I was old enough to stay home alone. The Mitchells were always available if I needed them, and I wasn’t too proud to eat dinner with them most of the time. But I was enjoying my freedom as a teenager and began to keep to myself more often.
The summer after my freshman year, my parents took their first “seasonal vacation,” as they called it. They were gone for three whole months. I think they went to Mexico. Or was it Morocco?
Not that I was close with either my mother or father, but those first two weeks with no school and no authority figures in the house seemed very lonely. Though we didn’t talk very much at all, just knowing they were nearby—at least some of the time—kept me from worrying. At least on the subconscious level. Now? It was unsettling that they’d considered me independent and they weren’t needed at all except to provide the funds to pay for anything I might need.
I had always been more of a bookworm than a girl into cliques. I don’t think you could really call the people I socialized with ‘friends’…acquaintances maybe…but only during class. I didn’t “hang out” with any of them after school or on the weekends, therefore, there were no expectations to do so during the summer months. But even a regular schedule of sleeping in, watching TV, and reading books got old quickly.
To battle my boredom, I wandered over to the Mitchells’ house and helped Mallory in her garden or around the house. Somehow, she made chores seem fun. In the evenings, I helped her make dinner, then the three of us would play board games or watch movies.
Dave ran a photography studio out of the first floor of their home. He was the one all of the local schools hired to take pictures for yearbooks, sports, and milestone events. He said once that he used to travel professionally, but after he got married, he’d chosen to stay home and help the community when he wasn’t doing weddings and other special occasions. I think Mallory appreciated that since she was a kindergarten teacher and couldn’t travel with him most of the year. Plus, it allowed them both to be there for me.
Three ataşehir escort weeks into my summer vacation, Dave asked me to help him in his studio. He paid me cash to make the little kids smile, manage his books, and run errands. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do once I went to college, but this position worked well for now.
During my sophomore year, shortly before Christmas, Mallory found out she had stage-four breast cancer. Dave tried to balance running his business and taking care of her, but I could tell it was wearing him thin whenever I was over. He took on fewer appointments, and I was mostly alone in the studio at the back of the house while he stayed upstairs with his wife.
Mallory fought hard. She made it through the New Year, but she lost her battle just before Valentine’s Day. I gave Dave space to bereave but reminded him I was there if he needed anything. When the Junior/Senior Prom came around, I convinced him that he needed to not back out on the shoot and insisted on making all of the arrangements for him. It was one of his biggest contracts. Not only did his books say he needed the money to get back into the black after paying for all of his wife’s medical bills, I also knew it was important to honor his commitments. He’d taught me that much.
Dave seemed to cope well. And he constantly told me he was grateful for my help and support while we prepared for the rite of passage. I think it was good for both of us. He was distracted from his pain and sorrow, and I as able to go to the prom for the second year in a row as his assistant. While I was pretty, the only older boys who tended to show an interest were the ones who I knew only wanted me for help with homework…or because of my family’s wealth. I just tried to avoid them in general.
That summer, Dave wanted to upgrade his filing system, which included a new computer with better software. I spent every day at his house helping him while my parents were in South America. When school started again, his studio became my place to do homework, write reports, and work on projects when he wasn’t teaching me the fine art of photography. The field was growing on me, and I was hungry to learn more. Plus he gave me a raise, though we both knew I didn’t need it. If my parents had their way, I wouldn’t work a day in my life. But I wanted to.
After Thanksgiving, Dave seemed to be depressed again. I guess it was because it had always been an important holiday for him and Mallory, and this year he was spending it alone. The week before Christmas, he told me he was going out to California to visit his brother. He was gone until mid-March.
I spent those long three months feeling as though I’d been dropped like a sack of potatoes. Rotten ones at that. Especially since my parents took off before January.
I hadn’t told them that Dave wouldn’t be there for emergencies. I knew I could manage just fine on my own. Though the snow and colder weather made me feel pent-up with nothing to do. Working for Dave had given me a purpose. It made me feel wanted. With him not around, I felt…useless. But what I missed most was his companionship. He was my someone to talk to, no matter what the issue.
When finally he returned, he didn’t explain his extended holiday, and I didn’t ask. All he did say was he planned to finish his basement. It had always been used for storage and only had cinderblocks for walls and open beams for a ceiling. I was afraid he was getting the house ready to sell. I kept quiet about my thoughts during the week of spring break while the contractors filled the house during the day.
I guess I was too quiet because Dave approached me one afternoon and asked if I was okay. I denied anything being wrong, but he kept pressing. Eventually, I admitted my fears. He’d tilted his head to the side and had given me this soft smile, his hand resting on top of my head. Then he assured me he wasn’t going anywhere. He just needed something to keep occupy his time other than work.
We went to prom again that May, which was only slightly strange that I wasn’t attending with my classmates since I was a junior now. I received a few sneers from some of the girls, but I was tough and let it slide. It wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to during the rest of the school year, anyway.
When we shot graduation in June, it felt surreal going to the ceremony knowing that next year, I would definitely be on the other side of the camera. I wasn’t sure if I was depressed or excited. Because after that was college. I now knew I wanted to study photography, like Dave. But I was afraid…I guess of moving away. Of growing up. Both of which I’d have to, do based on the schools I was looking at.
The basement project had some setbacks. Dave told me not to go down there despite my curiosity on the progress. So, I spent the summer up in the studio wondering what was going on downstairs. Especially when two guys showed up with large boxes of new photography equipment.
The fall kadıköy escort of my senior year, I seemed to be overloaded with homework. Although I was an excellent student, I was unable to balance both school and working for Dave as much as I had been. He said he understood. And I did still help him with his books and appointments on the weekends when I could. But I spent more time at the library or in my own house studying than in his studio. Despite how swamped I was, I was always concerned that he was okay by himself.
Thanksgiving came, and Dave went off to California again while I was left to my own devices for the winter once more. I was beginning to feel that he was heading down the same path as my biological parents, and that made me mad. I’d never been close to my parents who were never around at all anymore, and I’d already lost Mallory. I wasn’t ready to lose Dave, too.
The winter seemed longer than usual. Spring finally arrived in late April. Though Dave did not.
Everyone talked about prom at school, and I was depressed that I didn’t have a date. Or a group of female friends I could go stag with. I considered going alone, but I knew it wouldn’t matter whether I went to the lavish ritual with no one to talk to or stayed home. My misery was based on the absence of something else. Someone else. I was tempted to ask our class sponsor who she had hired to take pictures—maybe she’d been in contact with Dave—but I chickened out both times I went to ask her. I ended up sulking in my bedroom all night, wishing I’d gone…and that Dave had been there to take a picture of me looking beautiful in an expensive dress.
I was even more miserable the next month when Dave had still not returned. My parents surprised me with dinner at a fancy restaurant for my eighteenth birthday. The atmosphere felt stuffy, and we didn’t talk about me at all…because they just didn’t do that. If I’d had my way, I would be with Dave. Probably ordering a pizza and watching a movie. He would give me some words of wisdom about heading off to college in the fall while I felt nostalgic over where the last decade of my life had gone. There would be laughter and tears. I would have enjoyed every minute.
Instead, I listened to my father reminisce about the cruise they had just gotten back from the day before. Then my mother shared the latest gossip on an upcoming gala some of their friends were attending. I sat quietly like a lady and daintily ate the elaborately plated and overly priced food set before me, as though this was what we normally did as a family. All the while knowing that the “formal dinner with a black cocktail dress” girl sitting beside them wasn’t who I was at all. And they really had no clue.
I wondered why they even bothered to put on the façade. They were well known for their grand travels. Their frequent absences. Every time I started to wonder why I didn’t speak my mind, I remembered my father’s words.
“You’re such a good girl, Zoe. Always doing what’s right. It’s a rare quality to have. Never forget that.”
It was the only advice either of my parents had ever really given me. I believed they both loved me. They just didn’t know how to show it properly.
I spent my first evening as an official, legal adult brooding alone in my bedroom. I was certain that every other girl who turned eighteen went out with friends, partying it up at a movie. Probably sneaking a beer from an older friend…maybe even a kiss from a boy. For the first time, I wished I had friends.
I could see Dave’s house outside my window. It was raining, and I pressed my forehead to the cool glass, my breath making a circle of fog whenever I sighed heavily. Below, the lamppost at the street-end of the sidewalk leading up to the Mitchell’s front door stood like a silent sentinel. A dull, yellow orb glowing in the mist.
My eyes drifted from window to window, searching for any sign of life in case Dave had come home while we were out. But the house was dark. Just as it had been for months.
Over the next hour, I paced…first the length, then the width of my bedroom, pausing at the end of each pass to glance out the window. I prayed for Dave to come home. And then I prayed he wouldn’t.
A plan was forming in my head, and I didn’t want to be caught. But I was also scared to proceed. Good girls didn’t do what I was thinking about doing. They left well enough alone.
I should have just gone to bed. I really should have.
I was going to be quick about it. Yet I stood on Dave’s front porch, the key to the front door in my hand while the rain pelted my backside.
I could still turn around. It wasn’t too late. I should run next door, take a hot shower, and crawl beneath the dry sheets and blankets of my bed. Damn my curiosity.
Three deep breaths later, I was standing in the foyer of Dave’s house, my wet shoes and jacket discarded on the mat beside the door. A sudden feeling of loneliness enveloped me. The house felt bostancı escort bayan abandoned. Just like me. It made my chest ache.
I didn’t turn on any lights. I didn’t want to alert anyone outside that someone was in the house. Besides, I knew every inch inside and out. Even in the dark. Well, all of it except for one area.
I walked slowly down the hall. Past the small library with French doors on my left. An entrance to the dining room on the right. Just past the wide doorway was the staircase with a hand-carved railing that led to the second-floor bath and bedrooms and the third-floor master suite. The great room on my left spanned most of the north side of the house. It had a huge fireplace that I used to stand in when I was a child and a vaulted ceiling that extended to the second floor.
Tucked under the stairway was a small space. When I was younger, Dave had made it into a playhouse with a Dutch door. After I’d grown too tall to fit in there comfortably, he converted it for storage. How I missed being a kid with no cares in the world. Having two parents who doted on me and tried to make my childhood fun. Normal. Even if they were the neighbors.
Stopping and turning right past the stairs, I stared into the kitchen that opened to a patio out back and flowed around into the dining room again. If it hadn’t been raining, moonlight would have shown in through the sliding doors to the backyard. But now, the room was as dark as the rest of the house. Still, I could imagine all the times I’d baked cookies with Mallory or helped the two of them make dinner. If I concentrated hard enough, would I smell the cranberry-scented candle that seemed to perpetually burn on the peninsula between the two rooms?
Behind me was the studio at the far end of the great room. It had originally been the master suite before they added the third floor and Dave had converted the first-floor space to include a private office, dark room, and an in-home photography studio. I had not been in there since before Christmas. I had not been in any of the rooms.
The house, as a whole, had become foreign in such a short time.
Turning toward the front of the house again, I faced the door that led to the basement. It was built into the back wall under the stairs behind the storage room. And for the past year, it had been locked. I hadn’t tried to open it, but I had seen Dave use a key.
That was my brilliant plan: check out the basement. But it suddenly occurred to me that this plan might have been slightly flawed. Dave most likely kept the key on his keyring, which was in Timbuktu for all I knew. And I did not know how to pick a lock.
I struck the doorjamb with the side of my fist out of frustration. To my surprise, the door creaked opened an inch.
More darkness greeted me when I opened the door the rest of the way. I ran my hand along the wall just inside the frame until I found the toggle switch, and then a yellow glow filled the stairwell. The once unfinished stairs were now stained wood. And a sturdier railing had been installed on the wall with an enclosed light fixture above.
I’d been up and down these stairs numerous times during my childhood. Helping the Mitchells pull out and put away holiday decorations and seasonal clothing. Preparing for rummage sales. Or searching through knickknacks on rainy days. I held my breath while I descended, not sure what I expected to find below me.
When I’d reached the lower level and opened a newly installed second door, I scratched the back of my head. I didn’t understand what all of the secrecy was about. It looked like a normal, furnished basement.
The immediate area was filled by an extremely large L-shaped couch with a chaise lounge at one end. An equally oversized ottoman sat inside the ninety-degree angle, like a table. Both pieces were upholstered in smooth, black leather. Parallel to the couch was a glass-fronted fireplace framed in black, marble tiles. The mantle held only a framed black-and-white picture of a waterfall situated just off-center and a tall, hammered-silver vase, void of any flowers. There were no end tables. No other decorations. Even the floor was a smooth, dark, lackluster material.
Upstairs, everything was warm and welcoming. The furniture was lightly-stained wood arranged over carpeting or soft area rugs in the rooms with hardwood floors. The upholstery was covered in soft, cream-colored fabric accessorized with pillows and blankets in hues of blues and yellows. And there were plenty of knickknacks to prove each space was lived in. The basement was a severe contrast to the theme of the house above. Almost as though Dave was afraid to redecorate what his wife had done, so he had created his own space down here to reflect his own, true tastes.
Several recessed can-lights provided ample—if not excessive—lighting for the whole basement area. I played with a variety of switches and dials on the wall at the foot of the stairs. Some made the lights dimmer and allowed different sections to be shut off while others remained on. One switch operated the fireplace.
The rest of the room was just a wall with four doors. All were painted white with white trim that blended into the white walls. And all were closed.
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