The House of Bradbury

Chapter One

Mia stood outside the house and exhaled. Something about this moment called for deep breathing, a cleansing. Her arms felt as if they would collapse from the weight of the overfilled packing box, and its jagged corners were poking into her ribs. She needed to set it down, but her feet remained rooted. This was it. Time to walk through the door and begin the rest of her life. If only she could move.

“It’s so yellow,” Emma said, scowling at the house as she made her way along the narrow, buckled sidewalk. She stood beside her younger sister and gawked.

“It’s supposed to remind you of sunshine,” Mia said, feeling her cheeks flush.

“Well, it reminds me of something, all right. You’re going to have to invest in some paint.” Emma reached around and relieved Mia of her load. “Go on,” Emma nudged her. “Take the key out and unlock your new house.” With one more inhale, Mia climbed the stone steps, gripping the chipped white railing. With the turn of a worn key, she stepped inside.

“Why you would want to live in some dead writer’s house is beyond me,” Emma huffed, plunking down the moving box at her feet. The women lingered in the front hall, gazing at the void. Mia wrapped her arms around herself, barely able to contain her joy. Emma’s arms were also locked into a tight fold as she eyed her surroundings, afraid to touch anything for fear of getting dirty. The two remained silent for a long moment. Little beams of light poked their way through slits in the window coverings. Loose particles of dust danced in the air like glitter, giving the front room a mystical feel.

As she brushed her long chestnut bangs aside, Mia’s eyes drifted to the wide rafters of the tall, arched ceiling. Her skin tingled. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. It was like being given a private pass into a museum and granted permission to reach out and touch every treasured surface. “Because it’s Ray Bradbury’s house, that’s why,” she said, as if that was explanation enough. Emma stared quizzically at her sister.

“You don’t get it, but I do. This house has history. This house has a story. All kinds of important works were created here.” As Mia spoke she crossed the wood floor to run her hand along a lean, ivory-colored mantel, trailing a finger across the intricate molding. A welling of sentiment lodged firmly in her throat. Breathing in the faint leathery perfume of aged books, she rubbed a layer of fine dust between her forefinger and thumb and thought about what it took to arrive at this moment.

At thirty-eight years old, she had finally purchased her first house. Her own house, yes, but more than that, a house that for the past fifty years belonged to Ray Bradbury, science fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and literary genius. He was someone who was driven by his love of books. He had seemed to care about stories more than any author she’d come across, and that’s what Mia found most endearing. When she’d first read the LA Times article announcing that the esteemed author’s house was up for sale, wonky bookshelves, ancient kitchen, claustrophobic basement, and all, Mia wanted nothing more than to get inside that house. She pored over every detail of the real estate section, hoping to glean some kind of secret about the late author’s home located in the historic Cheviot Hills neighborhood where the likes of Lucille Ball, Stan Laurel, and other Hollywood greats once resided. Without thinking, she’d jotted down the west Los Angeles address and eagerly hopped in her green hatchback to seek it out.

Two months and $1.5 million later, Mia Gladwell was the proud owner of that very house, warts and all. She was charmed by its rough edges and timeworn finishes, because they represented well-loved imperfection. This quality was what made the place feel real, unlike all the other pink stucco cookie-cutter developments that were suffocating the Southern California landscape. And while the price was ridiculously beyond her freelance writer’s budget and the property needed a lot of care (a full gut job, according to her sister), Mia felt like she’d landed a bargain.

When the realtor first let her inside, Mia’s hair practically stood on end. She’d felt jittery and dizzy, like she was meeting a celebrity for the first time. She was sure Bradbury’s creative spirit had seeped into every nook and cranny of the split-level home. From the dark old floorboards to the much-utilized kitchen cupboards, Mia could envision Bradbury making his way from room to room, pulling beloved hardbacks from the bookshelves and retrieving a favorite snack from the refrigerator, with its well-worn handle. There had been so much grime in the grout of the blue-tiled counters, she wasn’t sure if anyone had bothered to take a cleaning spray to any of it. But none of this mattered to her; she recognized the home’s magic and felt a strong connection right away. On a high from her initial house tour, she’d sped across town to her ex’s office and convinced him to lend her a substantial sum of money to be paid back at a much later date.

As if she was reading Mia’s thoughts, Emma wondered out loud, “I still don’t understand how you felt okay borrowing money from Carson. You’ll be forever tied to him now.”

Carson Cole was not only Mia’s ex-fiancé, and dirtbag extraordinaire, according to Mia’s family, but he was also one of the West Coast’s most successful movie producers with an absurd amount of cash, which he usually didn’t know what to do with. After three years of courtship, one hefty engagement ring given then taken back, and multiple not-so-discreet affairs with young Hollywood starlets, Mia convinced her ex that he owed her.

“We have an agreement,” Mia said, doing her best to avoid eye contact. “He gets why this house is important to me. Not everyone has to understand.”

“And what else does he get in return?” Emma could be like a pit bull sometimes, grabbing hold of something with her teeth, unwilling to let it go. “By partnering up with him, you’ve committed yourself to something and you don’t even know what it is!”

Mia shooed the air with her hand and moved past the reproach. She had no interest in engaging in yet another argument with her sister regarding the topic of Carson. But Emma’s concern gnawed on the edge of Mia’s mind nonetheless. Initially, she’d dismissed the question of just what her ex was expecting in return for his generosity. She’d been too caught up in the euphoria of the house-buying frenzy to give it any levelheaded thought.

But now that the deal was done, the proposition was proving difficult to ignore, especially since a cascade of Carson’s missed calls were currently filling up the screen of Mia’s cell phone like tiny red alerts.

Determined to keep busy and postpone the blinking messages, Mia shook her head and made her way through the formal dining room and into the kitchen. Flipping yellowing light switches as she went, she noted Emma scurrying behind. It grated on her nerves to hear her sister audibly clucking her tongue like a nervous hen, calculating how much cleaning product it was going to take to rid the house of its previous tenants.

“Oh dear,” Emma sighed. “When, exactly, are you going to remodel this kitchen?” Emma had a point maybe; the finishings looked their age. The robin’s egg blue countertops had seen better days, and the appliances appeared as if they were on their last legs. Brown and navy flowers danced along the wallpapered room, giving it an old-fashioned but cheery feeling. A discolored louvered corner window let in the midday light. There wasn’t a dishwasher, and the cabinets were mismatched. The floor in the breakfast nook and kitchen featured a prominent floral-patterned tile that complemented the wallpaper. It was as if the house had been frozen in time since the 1970s, or even earlier, to when the Bradburys purchased the home in 1958. To Mia, all of these nuances were like a roadmap of the Bradbury family’s daily life. Placing her palm over a cabinet knob, she closed her eyes and envisioned a family getting out their breakfast and starting their day together. She imagined someone making tea, someone making toast. It felt homey and pleasant and the opposite of lonely.

“Listen, I know you’re Martha Stewart’s clone and all.” Mia turned toward her sister. “But I’m going to need you to stop bashing my new house and be supportive. I bought this place for a reason and I happen to like everything that comes along with it.” Emma opened her mouth, her lacquered lips a perfect pink shimmer, but nothing came out. If she were at a loss for words, it would be a first.

Detecting commotion from somewhere outside, Mia jerked her head. “Let’s go. I think I hear the moving truck pulling up.” She jogged out the front door without waiting for Emma to follow.

Outside, she found her only brother-in-law climbing out of his 1982 rust-colored Volvo wagon. Tom Hutter was the only person Mia knew who still drove a diesel engine. Tom liked things old-school. He liked his bad Sanka coffee, which he always drank from the same mug, his chinos that frayed at the cuff, and his rickety old car, but most of all he loved Mia’s sister.

“You came!” Mia wrapped him in a tight hug. He smelled of rye bread and coffee. She linked her arm through his and excitedly led him up to the house.

“So this is the famous Ray Bradbury’s house,” Tom said, as they crossed the front path. Mia knew that since Tom was a devoted history professor he could appreciate the old estate. “Wow, this is cool.” He opened his arms to their full span, gesturing to the space around him. “Congratulations, kid.” He met Mia’s gaze with an approving nod. Mia never had a brother, but she imagined this is what it would feel like. When she was small, she used to wish for a brother. She dreamed of having someone to tromp around with and build forts, someone who would always have her back, no matter what. She craved a sibling who would not boss her around like Emma did, but would encourage her to be bold and brave. To have Tom’s endorsement meant a great deal to her.

Just then a shriek came from inside. “Emma?” They both hurried through the foyer.

“There are bookshelves in the shower!” She hollered from one of the bathrooms as if she had just discovered a dead rat. “And they are built-in!”

Mia shook her barely brushed brown hair and let a giggle escape. “Wait till she finds the blue toilet.” Tom gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Mia admired the late author for his passionate devotion to literature. Who else would forgo shower space to make room for so many books? But not everyone agreed. Clearly, the lack of function was too much for Emma Hutter’s Container Store sensibilities. She was probably stretching out a measuring tape in the bathroom at that very moment and checking her smartphone for how quickly she could schedule a contractor.

“I gotta go see!” Tom bounded up the half flight of stairs, his loafers making soft thuds on the hardwood as he went. Mia sat down on the bottom step and listened to their muffled mumbling echo through the walls. Balancing her elbows on her bare knees, she soaked in the reality of her new home. Everything had a stuffy oak smell like a neglected old attic that’s been flung open for spring-cleaning. Lazy golden sunlight streamed in through the wooden shutters, and a muted hum of cars could be heard just beyond the front door. Everything felt peaceful and welcoming, like a warm hug. Mia looked upward and mouthed a thank you to the universe.

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