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The Haunting Of Quenby Mansion: Book 0

The Haunting Of Quenby Mansion: Book 0

 

 

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2017 by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Chapter One

Last Will and Testament

 

It was dark, and the moon was full. Georgia bugs chirped in the humid air. A breeze rattled the leaves of fat Southern oaks. At the end of the brick road, ominously named The Path, stood the momentous Antebellum relic. Seventeen rooms, 2.5 stories high, and a survivor from a bygone era, the Quenby House was rich with history and had a set of colonnades on both the first and second floor. Spotted with little white flowers, vines and ivy climbed the mansion’s chipped white paint and around the tall glass windows. More roses and thorns bloomed around its base.

In the night, silhouettes of neglected cabins and a struggling cotton field were visible beyond the massive building.

A dim glow leaked from one of the mansion’s upper windows.

Apart from the flame dancing on a candlewick, the study was dark with tall bookshelves, chairs with cracked leather cushions, and a number of wilted flowers that decorated the windowsills and tabletops. There were other antiquities too, but none were a concern to Maxwell Quenby.

Hunched over his great grandfather’s desk, Maxwell, a forty-eight-year-old man with sunken cheeks, a patchy beard, and red-rimmed eyes, heard movement in the long halls of his Antebellum-era home. In the candlelight, sweat glistened on his creased forehead and greasy black/gray hair. He hadn’t bathed in days, and though the study was spacious, his natural odor seemed to hang in a cloud over his head. His calloused hand scribbled feverishly on the page before him.

It was the most important note of his life.

The first and last thing he’d say to the daughter he never knew.

Since the widow Cecilia and her lover Abel Quenby I completed the plantation decades prior to the civil war, every important document was signed on this heavy wooden desk. From the purchase of the first slave in July of 1843 to the final cotton sale in March of 1875, the deep scratches and ink stains on the desk’s wooden surface ran as deep as the family’s blood.   

Muffled voices leaked through the walls.

Maxwell twisted back at the sound. They found a way into the corridor. His nearly black, beady eyes returned to the page. His vision blurred from his lack of sleep. A bead of sweat raced down his nose. Moving his lips, Maxwell read his draft. It was garbage. He balled up the page and tossed it back to the mountain of crumpled paper.

He pulled another sheet of paper from the pile and let his pen go to work. His hair tumbled down over his tired eyes. He should’ve cut it ages ago, but time escaped him. Time always seemed to escape him.

The doorknob to his study jiggled violently.

Maxwell’s heart throbbed in his chest. His breath quickened.

The next draft of the letter dragged. He crumpled it up and threw it with the rest.

Light seeped through the bottom of the door.

More indistinguishable voices. They got closer.

Last time, Maxwell promised himself and made the note brief. It wasn’t loving. It wasn’t rude. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what it needed to be. Maxwell forwent that perfectionist’s voice and folded the letter with his trembling hands.

The door rattled on it hinges. The lock wouldn’t hold much longer.

Maxwell slid the letter into a red envelope. His tongue traced the envelope’s lip, and he sealed it tight.

Wood cracked behind him as something heavy slammed into the door.

Maxwell scribbled the day and time he wished the letter to be opened. If all else failed, the delivery must be precise.

Crack!

He set the letter aside and pulled open his drawer. His trembling hand withdrew a dusty snub nose revolver. Candlelight bounced over the tight frame. He checked the cylinder. Six rounds. He prayed to God it would be enough.

With a crash, the door swung open.

In the threshold, the figures looked like shadows, but Maxwell knew they were so much more. His finger squeezed the trigger desperately. The gun misfired. Maxwell leapt from his chair, knocking it over. The figures charged him. Their hands grabbed at him and tore the weapon from his grasp. He reached desperately for something to grab onto, but his efforts failed him. He was yanked from the study, screaming the only name that came to mind: his daughter’s.

 

Chapter Two

Evelyn

 

Detroit had its own pulse and noise. Sirens, shouting, and the bays of unseen dogs were the natural sounds of the manmade habitat. Iron clouds blanketed the stars, though even on a clear night, the city’s glow would hide them.

With shifty eyes, Evelyn Carr watched the multi-story tenement from the opposite sidewalk. Her hair was blonde and her body slender. The pockets of her belted, black, double-breasted raincoat warmed her hands. Through the coat’s lining, she felt the extendable baton concealed under the jacket.

An ambulance screamed down the damp road, splashing water on the curbside and on the toes of Evelyn’s black heelless ankle boots.

Standing between the glow of two hooked streetlights, Evelyn withdrew the picture of the girl a final time. Twenty-two years old, raven black hair, and floral tattoos up her arms, upper chest, and neck, Molly was a college dropout, a societal failure, and another shadow in a city of faces. No one cared that she had been missing for seventy-two hours except her high school friend Alice, a good Christian girl, and the burnt-out thirty-three-year-old private investigator Evelyn Carr.

Evelyn refolded the picture and tucked it away. Looking both ways, she crossed the street. A granite-faced man smoking a cigarette on the tenement steps glared at her as a wisp of smoke seeped from his busted lip. His hard look was one Evelyn was used to. Just like most places, she wasn’t welcome here.

Evelyn pushed through the double doors. The sound reverberated through the entrance hall followed by her boots clacking on the scuffed tile floor. She reached the elevator without passing another soul. It hummed and rumbled as it climbed the building, finally spitting Evelyn out on the seventh floor. The ceiling light flickered in the hallway that ended at room 712. Muffled heavy metal music thumbed through the closed door. Evelyn hammered her fist on its face and took a step back. Harsh bass and wicked guitar riffs replied.

She knocked again, much harder this time.

The doorknob jiggled, and a moment later, Evelyn faced a skinny man wearing only tight jeans unbuttoned above the zipper. Though not muscular, the pasty-skinned twenty-something year old had a toned body painted with skulls, naked ladies, and other decadent tattoos. A happy trail climbed from his beltline and to his innie belly button. His jet-black hair was combed to the side of his roguish face. Casually, he rested his forearm in the frame of the door. His dark eyes licked Evelyn from head to toe. The foggy haze lingering in the dimly-lit apartment behind him drifted over her.

“I’m here for Molly,” Evelyn stated.

The shirtless punk smirked. “You her mom or something?”

Evelyn ignored the comment. “Tell her to come out here.”

“She fine where she is.”

Evelyn shook her head slightly. “No.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Evelyn pushed past him. Their shoulders knocked together, and the unsuspecting boy stumbled back.

“Hey!” the punk shouted.

Evelyn stepped into the apartment den reeking with the stench of all sorts of herbal substances. Poster of various metal bands and scantily clad woman were tacked to the wall. Old food and used heroin needles sat on the glass coffee table in plain view.

The punk yelled at her again. Evelyn guessed he was commanding her to leave, but the overwhelming music drowned out his words. There were empty beer bottles in the kitchen sink and pizza on the stove, but no sign of Molly. Wasting little time, Evelyn bustled down the hall that became further mystified by thick smoke. From behind, a hand grabbed Evelyn’s forearm. She turned back to the punk. He screamed over the speakers. “I will call the police!”

Evelyn stared at him with a cold face. “Really?” she asked sarcastically, bouncing her eyes to the drugs before yanking herself from his grasp. The punk stood dumbfounded as Evelyn reached the bedroom door and shoved it open.

The room was painted crimson like blood, with cheap red candles glowing on the dresser. It was like a scene out of some low-budget vampire movie. At the edge of the bed, Molly rested her head on the shoulder of another shirtless punk. She held a burnt spoon in one hand and a lighter in the other. Both of the twenty-something year olds sat up in alarm at Evelyn’s approach.

The punk behind Evelyn spoke up, “She just walked in, man. I don’t know what to do.”

“Molly,” Evelyn said, revealing her P.I. license. “You’re coming with me.” She grabbed the girl’s wrist.

“Ow!” the girl shouted as she was pulled from the bed. “What are you doing?” she said with angst.

The punk on the bed rose to his feet in defiance. “Hey, let her go!”

Evelyn gave him a look that caused him to sit back down. He mumbled a few unpleasant words. Molly’s wrist in hand, Evelyn twisted back to the shirtless punk who greeted her at the door. With her free hand, she withdrew the baton from under her coat and extended it with the flick of a wrist.

The punk’s eyes widened.

“Excuse me,” Evelyn said, feeling his tension. The ball of the baton pushed up the man’s chin. He raised both hands and stepped aside.

“Jared?” Molly called as she was led out of the room, expecting the punk to do something.

The punk didn’t move.

Taking Molly with her, Evelyn hustled out of the apartment and back to the elevator. When the door closed and the rumbly descent began, Molly wrenched free of Evelyn’s grip. The goth girl rubbed her sore wrist. “You a cop or something?”

Molly’s lack of resistance spoke volumes. There was hope that she’d be saved after all.

“Alice sent me to find you.” Evelyn watched the digital floor numbers tick down. “She was worried that you relapsed.”

“Alice?” Molly scoffed, but then averted her gaze.

Evelyn put away her baton. “When this door opens, I’m going to my office to meet with your friend. You can come with me or stay in the elevator.”

“You didn’t give me much of a choice back at the apartment,” the girl mumbled.

“I thought you could use some persuasion, but I can’t hold your wrist forever.”

The elevator dinged. Evelyn stepped out without looking back. The girl’s fate was her own. The elevator door closed. Quiet footsteps followed behind Evelyn. In silence, the two women walked the sidewalk together.

Black hair tossed by the wind, Molly crossed her arms over her chest. Goose bumps speckled her pale skin. “What are you? A private investigator?”

Evelyn stepped in a puddle. “Something like that.”

“Are you allowed to be dragging people around?”

Evelyn didn’t reply.

Two blocks down, they reached the parking meter and dingy minivan. Corrosive spots and peeled paint revealed the metal of the hood.

“You’re taking me in that?” Molly complained. “Will it even run?”

“I didn’t take you as a woman of class,” Evelyn climbed into the driver seat, not waiting to see the girl’s reaction. Reluctant, Molly took shotgun. They drove on damp streets and by skyscrapers spotted with glowing windows. The Tuesday night crowd gathered in long lines outside of nightclubs. Hobos and other street crawlers huddled under awnings that still dripped from the evening rain forty-five minutes ago. Cop cars zipped by, rushing to the scene of a crime.

Evelyn turned the car through an alleyway beside a cheap buffet restaurant. A gruff chef with an apron stained with greasy fingerprints tossed a bag of trash into the growing mound outside his back door. A skeletal cat ran out from behind it.

Evelyn parked her van in the small lot behind the adjacent office building: an old brick structure that had been standing for nearly a century.

“Do my parents know that I was…” Molly’s voice trailed.

Evelyn turned the key in the ignition. The car sputtered off. “It was Alice that reached out to me. I’ve heard nothing from your parents.”

“Figures,” Molly replied. She covered her eyes with her palms. “Ugh. I’m so high right now.”

The comment didn’t surprise Evelyn. She turned to the girl. “Ready to go up there?”

“No,” Molly replied. “I mean, I don’t know. All my stuff is still at the guys’ apartment.”

“I’ll pick it up in the morning,” Evelyn replied.

Molly met eyes with her. “Why?”

Evelyn didn’t have an answer. After locking the car, they hiked up the metal stairs at the back of the brick building. Evelyn sifted through her key fob and tried the lock. She had to jiggle it a few times before it opened. The room was little more than a metal desk and few chairs. Rusty street light oozed through the window blinds faded from exposure to the elements. Cinnamon caches placed through the room gave it a lively smell.

Dressed in a floral-patterned blouse, nice jeans, and spotless white tennis shoes, Alice stood by the desk and chewed her nail. She was a cute girl with a bob cut and an air of naiveté.  

“Molly!” She squealed and hugged her tattooed friend. Molly didn’t reciprocate the warm embrace.

“How did you know where I was?” Molly asked.

“I didn’t,” Alice replied. “She found you.”

They both turned to Evelyn silhouetted in the doorway. Evelyn could’ve explained how she used the location finder from Molly’s social media pictures to lead her to the various nightclubs, bribed the bouncers, reached out to club regulars, jotted down descriptions of the men, found one of their angry exes, got the punk’s address, and waited until they had settled in their flat before making her move. Instead of saying all that, Evelyn smiled with pursed lips.

“Stay with me tonight,” Alice said, taking Molly’s hands in her own. “We’ll take you back to rehab tomorrow.”

“I got out last week,” Molly replied. “I can’t go back like this.”

“This is the best time to go back,” Alice replied. “Before you backslide any worse.”

Molly grunted. “I’m not backsliding. I was only having fun.”

“That fun almost killed you last time, and if not for Mrs. Carr, it may have killed you this time,” Alice said. “Did you even know those guy’s names?”

Molly didn’t reply.

“Oh,” Alice perked up. She pulled a white bank envelope from her back pocket and handed it to Evelyn. “I almost forgot this.”

Evelyn took it and opened the tab. She counted a few fifty dollars bills inside. “That’s very generous of you.” Evelyn reexamined the money. I really need to raise my fee.

The two girls said their goodbyes and exited. Evelyn closed and locked the door behind them. She removed a cash box from her desk and studied the contents within. It was never a good month when she could see the bottom of the box. The last few months were bad. It wasn’t a matter of how hard she worked or how good she was. Her livelihood depended on the client and how much they were willing to pay for her services. It sucked, but that was the reality of her business. Evelyn finished locking up the office and headed upstairs to her rented apartment.

The familiar sour stench of wood polish splashed Evelyn as she entered. After all these years, it was a surprise the chemical hadn’t killed her sense of smell. Her husband Terrence stood amidst curled wood shavings littering the floor beneath the kitchen table. His large hand brushed a stained rag across the body of a freshly carved violin. A half-dozen violas and fiddles dangled from a taut metal wire connected to two walls. A wide wooden tool rack was nailed to the adjacent wall. It held chisels, clamps, wire cutters, strings, and other luthier tools.

“Hey,” Terrence said without looking back.

“Hey,” Evelyn replied and pressed her body against his back. She wrapped her arms around his chest, snuggling herself ever closer to the love of her life. “Hungry?”

“I have rice on the stove and the crock pot going.” Terrence put down the rag. He turned to Evelyn, keeping his stained palms on the table’s rim. Terrence stood over six feet. He had dark skin and a little chin beard he took pride in. As a blues and country lover, his shirt always had some sort of instrument pattern decorating them. Tonight, it was little guitars—the first instrument he learned to build—that were the size of polka dots. “How was it today?”

“Long,” Evelyn replied. “You?”

“Made a sale,” Terrence said with a smile.

Evelyn didn’t want to remind him that bills come early tomorrow morning.

They enjoyed their meal in relative quiet. Conversation hadn’t been either one of their strong suits. Both of them worked odd hours, and even though they thought about having a child, the timing and cost never seemed right. After they finished clearing their plates, they took a shower together. Water cascaded down the deep grooves on Evelyn’s back. The scars reminded her of the “accident” all those years ago. She thought the crash would be the end. Instead, she met Terrence. The man who had saved her life. They were very different people. Evelyn bent the rules. Terrence was by the books. Evelyn folded to the back of most crowds. Terrence liked to be front and center. Pessimist: Evelyn. Optimist: Terrence. Evelyn could go on and on with their differences, but it was their commitment and love that kept them strong.

The sun came up too early. Evelyn untangled herself from her strong husband. She flipped on the kitchen lights and made an omelet filled with red peppers, diced ham, and shredded cheese. She glanced at the cluttered dining room table that had slowly become Terrence’s workshop over the last few years.

Evelyn slouched on the couch and put her plate on a cheap collapsible table. She sifted through the bills and rubbed her brow. It would be another close month. How many more of those would she have left before the close calls caught up with her? As she sealed away paid bills, she found a letter addressed to her by an attorney named Duncan Peters. Evelyn stared at it for a moment. The name didn’t ring any bells. She opened it and pulled out the document.

The letter began, “I write to you in regard to your father’s estate…” Evelyn paused. Rays of the morning sun climbed across the carpet floor and her pale cheek. She re-read the sentence and stopped at the word “father.”

She had no memories of the man, or her mother. Evelyn was an ugly baby. A little pink screamer no one wanted. Her youth was a blur of orphanages, where she was too “unruly” to get adopted. At eighteen and with no parents, she was on her own.

Until she met Terrence.  

Evelyn continued reading the letter. Its contents were vague about the inheritance and who her father was. It seemed more like an invitation than a legal document. Evelyn gave the lawyer a call.

I’m sorry, but I’m under specific obligation not to discuss the contents of the will over the phone,” Duncan Peters said.

“You expect me to drive two hours with no information about my father or his will?”

If you wish to collect your inheritance, you will need to arrive in person. That was the deceased’s final wish. I must adhere to it.

After the call ended, Evelyn let the couch swallow her up.

“What was that about?” Terrence said, standing in the hallway in his boxer briefs, toothbrush in his mouth.

“My father,” Evelyn said, almost disbelieving.

Terrence stopped mid-brush. He stepped back to the bathroom, took out his toothbrush from his mouth, and spat in the sink. “Babe, that’s great.”

“I suppose,” Evelyn put the letter aside. “It seems fitting that the only contact I’ll have with the man is reading his will.”

Terrence folded onto the couch next to her. “I’m sorry, but hey, maybe you’ll finally get a chance to find out who he is.”

Evelyn rested her head on his shoulder. A stir of emotions swirled inside. She didn’t know if she should weep or rejoice. Why leave her the inheritance when he never once reached out to her? Was the letter a mistake?

Evelyn made a trip to the punks’ house to clear her head. They opened the door slightly. “You know why I’m here,” Evelyn said.

The punk slammed the door in her face. Evelyn kept her hands in her coat pockets until the door reopened and the bundle of Molly’s clothes was thrown haphazardly into the apartment’s hallway. Evelyn made the trip to the rehab center and dropped off Molly’s stuff. The girl said some kind words and ended with the conversation by saying “I hate this city.”

Of that, Evelyn agreed.

Terrence and Evelyn made the trek to the lawyer’s office. The room had been painted a drab gray and displayed several paintings of large ships and beautiful mountain vistas. Duncan Peters was a heavy-set man with a droopy face, graying brown hair, and rimless glasses. He sat with fingers locked on the table. Terrence and Evelyn sat opposite of him in cushioned chairs designed to make the process easier. Evelyn found them uncomfortably soft.

Peters gave them both a pitying smile. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Carr.”

“I didn’t know him, but thank you,” Evelyn replied.

“Let’s begin,” Peters lifted the weathered red letter from the top of his desk and cleared his throat. He read the handwritten print on its front. “To Notary Duncan Peters. Whether or not my body is found, deliver this letter to daughter Evelyn ten years after I’m presumed dead. Only on the tenth of March.”

Evelyn leaned forward. March 10th was the day I was put up for adoption. “Ten years?”

“Yes,” Peters said stoically. “I’ve had this letter in my possession since that time.”

“Shouldn’t you have told me about this?” Evelyn asked.

“I was left clear instructions not to,” Peters replied. “Shall I proceed?”

Under the table, Terrence squeezed Evelyn’s hand. Evelyn nodded.

Peters ran the sword-shaped letter opener across the envelope. He removed a single sheet of paper from within. “To Evelyn, my daughter. My heir. I failed you in life. I will not make excuses or justify my actions. That time is dead and gone. I will leave you with the only thing I have to give: my estate. Enclosed within this note is the key to our family home. May it give you more peace than it did me. Your father, Max.”

Silence hung in the room for a moment.

“Is that all?” Evelyn asked.

Peters nodded and handed her the old gray key. “The address as well. 1 Quenby Avenue, Adders, Georgia.”

“Adders? Never heard of it,” Terrence said.

“Most people haven’t,” Peters said. “It’s hardly a blip on the map.”

“You lived there?” Terrence asked.

“I got out as soon as I could,” Peters said, leaving no room for further questioning.

Evelyn took the key. It was heavy and spotted with rust. She locked eyes with Peters. “In his will, he said that if he is presumed dead. What does that mean?”

“Maxwell vanished from his home ten years ago. All of his possessions were accounted for. However, the body was never recovered.”

“What happened to him?” Terrence asked.

Peters shrugged. “The police have been asking that question for many years.”  

On the drive back, Evelyn pinched the key between her finger and thumb and spun it slowly before her eyes.

“I didn’t expect that. I wonder what happened to your father?” Terrence kept his eye on the road as he turned right.

Evelyn had about as many answers as Terrence. None. “If he was alive, someone would’ve known. But it’s been ten years… and he wrote a will.”

They drove farther up the road. Terrence smiled. “I wonder how big the estate is?”

Evelyn tucked away the key. “I don’t know. Either way, we can try to flip it.”

“It’s your family home,” Terrence said, as if Evelyn didn’t know.

“It’s in Georgia. What are we going to do with a house in Georgia?” Evelyn asked rhetorically. “I’ve never been south of Tennessee.”

“I say we check it out,” Terrence said, smiling. “It could be an adventure.”

“Who’s paying for it?” Evelyn replied, harsher than she had anticipated. Maybe the ordeal was doing a number on her after all.   

“We have a little in savings,” Terrence replied. “I thought you’d want to know more about your heritage?”

“I do, but… the timing’s wrong,” Evelyn replied. She studied the key again. The timing’s always wrong. Her investigative instinct pulled at her like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She knew practically nothing about her father and even less about her mother. “Ah, hell, let’s do it. I could use a vacation.”

“Now you’re talking,” Terrence said with childish glee.

They took a stack of money from the lock box and packed up the minivan with a month’s worth of supplies and Terrence’s luthier tools. If they were traveling that far down, they needed to clean the place and get it ready to put back on the market. Evelyn didn’t know if she’d make it back down to Georgia again.

It was a long drive down south. Evelyn and Terrence spent most of it on highways that descended into woodland areas. Terrence woke her up when they passed the state sign. Welcome to Georgia: the state of adventure.

Following the GPS, they reached Adders without a hitch. Established in 1837. Estimated population: seven thousand. Once they got to town, Evelyn had to rely on a map to find Quenby Avenue. They drove through the small downtown area made up of farmer’s markets, old brick and wood buildings, and rubbernecking locals. Beyond the town were sprawling cow pastures and horse farms.

The rusty minivan turned into a street flanked by pastures outlined by wooden fences similar to what one would see surrounding a civil war reenactment sight. Clusters of sprawling old trees spotted the outcropping. Evelyn lowered the window and allowed herself to take in the breeze. Unlike the city, the air was fresh, cool, and seemed to revitalize the soul.

Evelyn watched black and white spotted cows blur by. Her mind wondered as it did when she was a child. Were her parents rich or poor, happy or sad, nice or cruel? She stopped asking questions in her teens when she realize no one would adopt her. Back then, she was the ugly kid with long limbs, pepperoni face, and a bad attitude. The last part was an act. Evelyn didn’t want to be adopted. She wanted to wait for her real father to return. After high school, Evelyn got a woman’s body and well-structured, beautiful, but intimidating face. It didn’t make her very approachable, and the reality set in that she’d be alone. Focus on the house, Evelyn reminded herself. If it was worth something, it could be the big break she needed to start her family.

They continued down a single lane road. Terrence pulled to the side of the street, allowing a big truck with a dead buck tacked down in the bed to pass by. The tobacco-chewing locals gave them curt nods and kept on.

“We aren’t in Detroit anymore,” Terrence said.

“What gave it away?” Evelyn said with a small smile.

Terrence playfully squeezed her knee. “There’s that smile I’ve been missing.”

“Keep your eyes on the road, buster,” Evelyn said.

They drove by an old, two-story farm house. “You sure we’re going the right way?”

Evelyn studied the map. “This is Quenby. It should only be a matter of finding the address.”

A small road came into view. A white wooden sign was staked in the ground beside it. “The Path,” the engraved blue text read. Below was the number 1. Terrence turned in, driving between rows of ancient, mossy-covered oaks that curled over the road.

“Look at this place,” Terrence said with wonder.

Evelyn straightened her posture, awed by the beauty that she almost didn’t notice the massive three-story plantation house at the road’s end. Green vines with little white flowers climbed its walls and colonnades. Untamed bushes and weeds sprouted from its base. It looked like it came right out of Gone with the Wind.

“This can’t be it,” Evelyn said. The white paint was chipped but well-kept. The windows were dusty but intact. Acres of farmland sprawled out behind it along with a half-dozen wooden cabins and a vast cotton field.

“Is that what I think it is?” Terrence asked as he parked.

“It looks like it. Come on,” Evelyn climbed out of the van. The spring Georgia air was soothing. Plump white clouds surfed across the indigo sky. Weeds grew between the cracks of the red brick road. The large shadow of the house cast over them as they approached. The set of colonnades on the first and second floor gave the building a look of unparalleled grandeur that captured the Georgian ideals of symmetry and order. Evelyn and Terrence stopped before the massive house.

“There’s no way,” Terrence said and chuckled. “There’s no freaking way!”

Evelyn smiled at him. “Race you to the door.”

They bolted between the pillars, laughing until they stopped at the door. Evelyn fished out the key. Taking a deep breath, Evelyn slid the key into the lock and twisted.

Click.

The door opened with a rickety groan. The mansion smelled of dust and old books.

“This is your father’s house?” Terrence asked and rubbed both hands up his shaved head. “Holy crap.”

They stepped into the large foyer big enough to host forty people. Clouds and angels were painted on a vast mural on the domed ceiling. Two sets of symmetrical stairs bowed up to a balcony with a hand-carved railing. Paintings in gold leaf frames decorated the walls boasting images of the mansion, the pastures, and the cotton fields in their prime. The floor had a thin red carpet over hardwood. It was dirty and dusty, but nothing important had been damaged.

“I’ll get this out in the open,” Evelyn said. “If we learn that my parents were a bunch of slave-owning bigots, you can’t divorce me.”

“Deal.” Terrence craned his head back to one of the paintings on the wall. “I’m no art dealer, but that—if it’s original—is worth at least four grand.”

Evelyn wasn’t the crying type, but today seemed the exception. “Terrence…” She wrapped her arms around her husband and turned her gaze to the painted angels on the ceiling. They had sly smiles, rosy cheeks, and long golden trumpets. Their soft eyes seemed to follow Evelyn as she moved. Age gave the mural the texture of cracked dirt.

Terrence finished speaking for Evelyn. “We’re standing in a gold mine.”

There were flame-shaped bulbs on the massive, multi-tier silver chandeliers overhead. Evelyn flipped the light switch. No luck. That wasn’t unsurprising since the last resident hadn’t paid the bills in a decade. Evelyn would be relying on fans and open windows to cool her. Even if she did have access to air conditioning, cooling this house for a day would cost more than her monthly rent.

Terrence and Evelyn grabbed some flashlights from the car and explored the halls. They were decorated with portraits of various men through the last two centuries. Their faces were stern and handsome with similar noses and jawlines, though some were inclined to plumpness and their eye colors were all a little different. Evelyn shined the light over each face, looking for a similarity between her and the men she assumed were her ancestors. The last portrait was from the 1930s, but the years descended down the hall ending at the oldest painting. It was a woman with long, braided blonde hair, alluring blue eyes, and small nose. Terrence looked at her and then Evelyn. “Yep. There’s the one.”

They continued the tour through the house, finding rooms where modern life clashed with the Antebellum era. They found stock investment books from the nineties, modern lamps, and updated plumbing in a few bathrooms. By the time they finished the tour, hours had passed. The house had seventeen rooms. These included three bathrooms. One needed new floors. Another appeared to be never used and had leaves filling the tub from an open window. The final bathroom was usable, but they’d need to get the water running before risking it. There were five bedrooms that were in various states of disrepair. All had different sized beds, wallpaper, and furnishings. Her father must’ve lived out the master bedroom because that was well-kept with a king-sized bed covered with an awning, a massive wardrobe, coat closet, two seater table, and more. The rest of the rooms included a study, billiard room, a bedroom containing objects like arcade machines and pool tables, two living rooms, a lounge, an art room, kitchen, and walk-in pantry. Finally, there was the basement that was a maze of clutter. There was an area in the center of the dark, sprawling, and dusty basement that had a couch, a TV, and two shotguns sitting upright on the cushion. There were a few boxes of shotgun shells that wore a coat of dust and were sealed.

“Oh,” Terrence said and picked one up. He examined it. “It’s loaded.”

“Try not to blow a hole in the wall,” Evelyn said, half-joking.

Terrence flipped on the safety and handed it to Evelyn. She was surprised by the weight and readjusted her posture to get a better grip on it. Terrence retrieved the other gun. “Let’s see if these work.”

“I don’t know if we should be messing with them,” Evelyn said.

“Everything here is yours, Evelyn,” Terrence reminded her. “We can do whatever we want.”

Evelyn rolled the gun in her palms. She smiled at her husband. “See if we can find some old cans.”

“Now we’re talking,” Terrence replied and rushed up the stairs. Gun in hand, Evelyn followed soon after. This house has got everyone acting spontaneous.

They headed out the back and walked through the garden. It was lively, with all sorts of roses and other colorful flowers. There were a number of stone statues set up across the other grown brick path. Terrence would mimic their poses to get Evelyn to laugh. It worked. It was a good day to be alive.

They saw the cotton field to their left and the cabins nearby. There was also a stone building with a cotton gin and extra storage. Terrence found a nice spot on the rolling green plain spotted with oaks older than the plantation and roots so firm that they’d never be removed. Terrence set up a stand from scrap wood in one cabin and lined a few cans on top of it. He was a good shot. Evelyn was better. They were a little nervous someone would call the cops, but this wasn’t a big city. Shooting a gun in the backyard was a rite of passage.

By the time they finished, it was sundown. Evelyn put the guns back downstairs and noticed a black spot on the ceiling. Terrence and Evelyn went upstairs and tried to find the room that had a leak. It seemed like it was beyond the hallway with the paintings, but there was no room behind that wall.

Terrence’s stomach growled. They decided to head out.

On their way to dinner, Evelyn reached out to the local power company. The worker was a kind man with a Southern twang.

Please, call me Jimmy.

It was dark when they rolled into town. “My husband and I recently moved into the plantation on Quenby.”

Maxwell’s place. I know it.

“You knew my father?”

I sure did. My family knew most of the Quenbys. They always paid for electricity years in advance. It ain’t the smartest business decision in my opinion, but it kept us loyal to them.

“What can you tell me about Maxwell?”

He was a reclusive man. Kind, though. Sad he went out the way he did.

They pulled into a mom-and-pop restaurant parking lot. “What do you mean?”

Folks say he had enough. Went out to the woods one day and killed himself. No evidence of that, but it makes the most sense. I wish I knew more.

“Well, Jimmy, I’m his daughter. You think you can spot me a month’s worth of power, just until my husband and I decide what to do with the house?”

Daughter? I thought… never mind. I’ll take care of you. Tonight hopefully. For Maxwell’s sake.

“Thank you, Jimmy. You’re really going above and beyond.”

I wouldn’t treat a Quenby any other way.

Evelyn said her goodbyes and hung up, noticing that Terrence was staring at her with his handsome dark eyes.

“You get a lot done when you’re nice.” Terrence smiled.

“There’s a time for war and a time for peace,” Evelyn replied.

That night, they enjoyed some Southern deep-fried food, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Terrence nodded along with a Southern blues band playing in the corner and joked about buying a cowboy hat. After they finished eating, he purchased a seventy-dollar white cowboy hat from the shop next door.

“Howdy, partner,” he said when they climbed into the van.

“I don’t mean to ruin your hootenanny, but shouldn’t we be saving our money?” Evelyn said as they drove to the plantation for their first night.

“Eve, baby, it’s all good. We own a mansion. We should live like it.”

“That’s what I call flawed logic,” Evelyn replied.

“Come on now, girl,” Terrence said in his best redneck accent. It was comically bad.

Evelyn laughed. “Fine. You can keep the hat. Only because it makes you look like a sexy cowboy.”

“They call me the Black Stallion.”

Evelyn couldn’t remember the last time she laughed so hard. Terrence chuckled too, but it was clear he thought the name was much cooler than it was.

As the car rumbled down the red brick road flanked by symmetrical trees, light streamed from the mansion’s upstairs windows.

“That was quick,” Evelyn said, eyeing the house cautiously.

“I thought things moved as slow as molasses in the south,” Terrence said and parked the car. “I guess they must’ve really liked your father.”

“I guess.” They stepped out on the circular brick driveway next to a stable house fit for a carriage and an accompanying hitching post. The grass around the brick was unruly and sprinkled with wild flowers just like the vines that climbed the dirty white walls. They pushed through the groaning double doors and flipped the switch. After flickering once or twice, the chandelier and various stained-glass covered lamps glowed with light and gave the house an elegant glow. By the dimmed shading, the chandelier’s creator was going after the illusion of natural candlelight.

Evelyn tried out the sink. Water gushed from the faucet. It was dirty and brown for a few seconds and then became clear like crystal.

“This Jimmy guy, he’s something else,” Terrence said.

“I’m going to call him. Make sure he knows how grateful we are.”

Evelyn left a voicemail and traveled upstairs to where the light streamed through the window. She couldn’t find its source. Odd.

It was way past dark and Evelyn was tired. She climbed into the bathtub and washed her scarred body. The water was hot and steamy, filling the room in fog. How many elegant ladies had bathed in this tub? Evelyn felt giddy to think herself as one of them.

Suddenly, the faucet stopped and the power cut out. Evelyn soaked in hot water, with the room completely shrouded in darkness.

“Terrence?” Evelyn called out, letting water slosh out the side of the tub. She stood and felt her way to a towel. Wrapping it around herself, she tiptoed into the hall, careful not to slip.

“Terrence? Are you there?”

The hall light switch didn’t work, either. The house was a black void. Evelyn felt her way to an oil lamp stand she’d seen earlier in the day, shook it to see if it still had oil, and then lit it up with the match set next to it. Being able to see about six feet in front of her, she navigated to the bedroom and pushed open the door. Terrence wasn’t there.

“Terrence?” Her call echoed through the house.

“Down here!”

“Where are you!” Evelyn shouted back, heart pounding.

Using the lamplight, she carefully trekked through the creaking halls, by the odd vases and sculptures, and down to the foyer. She looked around, spotting the open basement door.

“Baby? Are you down there?” Evelyn said into the abyss before her.

No reply.

Carefully, she inched downstairs. Her light shined over the shotguns on the bed. She heard something through the adjacent red brick wall. It was a faint scratching noise.

Evelyn put her ear against the cold brick.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Scratch.

There was something behind the wall much bigger than a rat.  

 

Chapter Three

Cool Down

 

It sounded like someone was clawing on the other side of the wall. Evelyn couldn’t bring herself to stop listening. The clawing was mesmerizing. Calming. Evelyn felt the scratching getting closer, like it was burrowing through the wall and toward her.

“Evelyn!” Terrence yelled from upstairs.

The lights flickered back on. The power returned to the house.

The scratching noise silenced. Evelyn pulled away from the brick wall. Her head was throbbing. She took inventory of herself. She still held the lamp. She was still wet from her bath. Hurrying upstairs and away from the long shadows of the basement clutter, Evelyn blew out the lamp and rested it on a nearby vase stand.

Terrence, dressed in his briefs and white t-shirt, looked back and forth through the hall until he spotted Evelyn.

“What were you doing down there?” Terrence asked

“Looking for you,” Evelyn replied, holding her towel in place with her free hand.

“I went searching for the breaker box,” Terrence admitted.

“I guess you found it,” Evelyn replied, glancing at the lightbulbs illuminating the hall and foyer beyond.

“Yeah,” Terrence replied “Still, we should get an inspector in here tomorrow. I don’t want to be living in a house with faulty electricity. Even for a month.”

“I heard something down on the other side of the basement,” Evelyn confessed.

“What was it?”

“I don’t know it. An animal maybe. It’s hard to describe.”

Evelyn led Terrence back down to the wall in the basement where she heard the noise. “Here?”

With pursed lips, Evelyn nodded.

Terrence knocked on the brick. “It feels solid.” He put his ear against it. “Weird. I don’t hear anything.”

Always a little superstitious, Evelyn decided to give the basement a wide berth for the remainder of her visit. She reminded herself that she was an adult and should not be scared of such things. Nonetheless, she jogged up the stairs upon leaving the basement. She got dressed into her fitted but comfortable pajamas. As she put on her top, she studied her scars in the bedroom mirror. The deep etchings curved around her ribs just beneath her breast. She could shut her eyes and see the hazy fog lights of the semi-truck blasting toward her. The truck’s horn blared like death’s toll.

“You shouldn’t be alive,” the EMT said when they pulled her from the car that was crushed like a soda can. Terrence, a handsome stranger who stumbled upon the wreckage and called the ambulance, smiled genuinely at Evelyn as the EMTs took her away.

Evelyn curled in next to Terrence on the massive king-sized bed. She didn’t know how old it was, but the mattress was more comfortable than anything she’d ever slept on. Terrence’s snores slowly filled the silent house. Wind rattled the windows. Every time she closed her eyes, she could hear the soft scratching in her ear canal. Before Evelyn knew it, morning birds sang outside the window.

She twisted out of bed and opened the blinds to the acres of rolling land. It was all hers now. From a dingy P.I. office to living like Vivien Leigh, Evelyn could barely make sense of it all. With a house this big, it made Evelyn wonder why her father put her up for adoption. Surely he could’ve hired a nanny.

She took a morning run down the red brick road. The air here was clean and crisp, something that was foreign to Evelyn in the big city. If not for the years of wear and tear, the house would’ve been perfect.

Evelyn jogged under the shadows of the large oaks that ran parallel to the private road. She could imagine planters nurturing small seeds in the surrounding ground nearly two centuries ago. Now, the trees were mammoths. Evelyn reached Quenby Avenue and took a breather. A street named after my ancestors, now that’s a story to tell, Evelyn thought with a smile. She didn’t realize how badly she needed a vacation until now. No more cases. No more stresses. Only a big private house, at the end of a private street, where she was completely free.

On her way back, Evelyn thought about Terrence and how he might be feeling. With the cabins and cotton field in the back, Evelyn wondered if that made him uneasy. Terrence was of African-American descent but from the north. Most of his family were musicians, entertainers, and later factory workers. Like Evelyn, Terrence never had much money growing up. That was probably why both of them didn’t fret scraping by every now and then. As Evelyn jogged back to the monumental three-story house, she wondered if she’d be spoiled by the extra space. At the moment, she was still inclined to sell the mansion for boocoo bucks and get a nice house in Birmington, outside of Detroit.

At Terrence’s behest, the inspector made the drive over. He was a Georgia boy through and through with meaty muscles, scraggly beard, and a bent bill ball cap. Evelyn and Terrence traded looks, trying not to judge a book by its cover but hoping for a studious-looking person to inspect their electricity.   

Stepping out of his white van, Inspector Hanson made a whistling noise at the sight of the mansion. “This is what we call a Twinkie.”

“A what?” Evelyn asked, unsure if she heard him correctly.

“Like the treat,” Hanson replied. “Clean on the outside. Messy on the outside. See, houses like this were never built for the twentieth century or any century beyond their own.”

“Well, you could at least see the place before making an accusation,” Evelyn replied. To rewire the house would be very costly.

They walked under the massive colonnades and into the foyer. Hands in his pockets, Hanson stared up at the mural. “Tell me what your issue is.”

“Last night the power went out,” Terrence explained. “I was able to restart the breaker, but we want to make sure the electricity is sound before we run into any more issues. Evelyn can state that I’m much better with instruments than electric stuff.”

Hanson cracked an unassuming smile. They hiked down to the basement. Hanson flashed his small flashlight over the wiring on the ceiling. He mumbled a little bit and continued touring through the house until he found an outlet.

“Let’s see,” he said, and unscrewed the outlet casing. Crouching low, he flashed his light through into the hole in the wall. He did this at a few more locations before finally turning back to Terrence and Evelyn.

“Y’all got quite the house. The electric setup here. It’s not just functional, it’s neat. That’s a rare thing for many houses,” Hanson said.

“Can you tell us when it was last upgraded?”

Hanson thought for a moment. “Just looking by the wiring and set-up technique, possibly in the last twenty or twenty-five years.”

Terrence wrapped his arm around Evelyn, pulling her closer to his side. “Maybe your father redid it.”

“Seems logical,” Evelyn said.

The inspector stayed for a few more hours, checking out the foundation, plumbing, and the rest of the house’s essentials.  “It’s old, but as solid as any house. I’ll say this, y’all found yourself a treasure. Touch up the paint, replace a few tiles, and clean up the clutter and this house could be ready to be put on the market.”

Terrence paid him in cash, and they waved goodbye from the exterior second-floor balcony. They pulled up old metal chairs and scooted in front of the railing. They could see the tall oaks and red brick road that branched into Quenby Avenue. At one point, horses and carriages walked this path. Some were guests to parties, others transported servants. Evelyn found it cool to think about.

“It seems like a dream, don’t it?” Terrence leaned back and rested his feet on the railing. “I mean this place, it’s gorgeous.”

“Once we get it cleaned up, we can start looking for a realtor,” Evelyn said.

“Is that what you want?”

“I thought it’s what we both wanted.”

“Sure, but when are we ever going to live in a place like this?” Terrence asked. “I mean how many of these houses are still around and habitable? I could clear out the shed and set up my workshop. Blue grass is a big deal here. I’m sure it won’t take long to get established. You can get an office in town, that way work and home don’t get mixed together.”

Evelyn sighed. “It is dreamy, I’ll give you that, but… I don’t know. How are the two of us going to take care of a place this big? If we sell, we can get a nice cozy home that’s roomy but not overbearing. Do we really need a mansion to be happy?”

Terrence squeezed her hand. “As long as I’m with you, I’ll be happy. But to live in a mansion—isn’t that what people work hard for? One just fell in our laps. I can see it now, little Terrence and little Evelyn running through the front yard. Our own private chef in the kitchen. Cold beers under the starry night. Shotgun shooting. Horseback riding. County fried steak.”

Evelyn smiled at her husband’s positivity. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My father didn’t leave us any money. He only left us the property. We’re still dirt poor.”

“I prefer the term financially challenged. We sell half the stuff in that basement, and that will change. ‘Sides, aren’t you interested in learning more about your father?”

Evelyn felt that. “He’s dead, Terrence. I track living people.” She got up. “We can make a decision after we clean the place up.”  

Evelyn put on some old stained clothes and got to work. She grabbed her dust mop, broom, and box of trash bags and started in the bathrooms, knowing they would be the worst. Getting the leaves out of the bathtub, scrubbing away the mold with a sponge, and running the water until all of the dark gunk was out of the faucet, she realized that the cleaning would take much longer than she thought. She grabbed her tablet from the master bedroom and took pictures of the rooms. Using a picture-taking app to draw colorful circles of various damages of the room, she was able to take inventory of every nook that needed cleaning and tile that needed to be replaced.

Terrence headed outside to see what needed to be rebuilt or repainted. It didn’t look like all of the paint was original, so another few touch-ups shouldn’t hurt the resale value.

As Evelyn traveled between two upstairs rooms, she got a sudden chill. Her skin crawled like she was blanketed with baby spiders. Slowly, carefully, she followed the cold breeze to a closed door down the hall. It was a room she’d yet to explore. She gave the knob a twist. It didn’t budge. She felt the breeze escaping through the cracks, pushing her away.

Evelyn put her shoulder into the door. It slung open into… a nursery. It wasn’t what Evelyn expected to find. The wall paint was pink and chipped. The bed was tiny and broken in on itself. The mattress had no blanket and was stained. Toys and dolls from a bygone era littered the floor. They were posed in odd ways. A doll faced the corner of the room. Another had both of its arms folded behind its back. Set off to the table was a massive dollhouse, reminiscent of the plantation where Evelyn stood. There were a number of hand-sewn dolls positioned through the miniature replica. However, the tiny replica of the nursery appeared to empty.

Evelyn approached the open window at the end of the room. Did Terrence open it, had it been open since they moved in? Using the tips of her fingers, Evelyn dropped the window like a guillotine. She stared at the cotton field beyond. It was acres of weeds and cotton plants that tangled into one another like a rat’s nest. In the center of the field was a massive scorch mark.

Evelyn set aside her cleaning supplies and headed outside. A number of blackbirds cawed at Evelyn from the tops of cabins. Terrence smiled at her from atop his ladder as he sprayed down a hornet’s nest.

The cotton field was just far away from the house that it made it an unpleasant journey. Evelyn stepped through the tangle of weeds and thorns, catching a few in her elbow. Why was there a scorch mark? No one had any reason to start a fire here. The question buzzed inside of Evelyn’s head as she pulled a thorn from her arm. A teardrop of blood trickled down her forearm as she stepped onto the burnt earth. Lying in the center of blackened dirt and weeds was a doll of a little girl. It had no legs and was made of fabric. The eyes had been carved out, leaving beneath plooms of dirty cotton on the sockets. Its dress was white and red plaid, reminiscent of the Antebellum era.

Suddenly, the world tilted. Evelyn became lightheaded. Something about the doll was familiar. It was like the key to an old memory that Evelyn couldn’t quite recall. She scooped it up and returned to the nursery. The black birds watched her with cocked heads. Doll in hand, Evelyn approached the dollhouse. It fit into the nursery, completing the set. Evelyn took a step back. She couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity.

Evelyn and Terrence reconvened and made a trip to the grocery store. They stocked up for the month, knowing that the house required more than just a basic cleaning. Walls needed painting, faucets needed to be replaced, and a number of rat infestations were found throughout the basement and first floor. Evelyn and Terrence made a plan to take it a day at a time. “To mitigate stress,” Terrence explained. They weren’t in a rush, but if Evelyn knew anything about time, it’s that it caught up to you when you least expected it.

That night, they cuddled under the covers and sighed simultaneously.

“I took care of most of the wasps,” Terrence said.

“Good,” Evelyn replied. “I can’t stand it when you get stung.”

“Hey, I only cried for a few hours last time,” Terrence joked.

They chuckled and lay back.

“There’s something about this place, Terrence,” Evelyn said, her hands behind her head as she lay flat on the bed.

“Yeah, I feel it too,” Terrence replied. “It’s too good to be true. Heh, if my pops could see me now, lying in a plantation master’s bed with his sultry daughter—”

“Sultry?” Evelyn interrupted with a cocked brow.

“Hey, let me finish. My pops would be proud of me for sticking it to the man. He was all about that, working in a union factory and all.”

“And you?” Evelyn snuggled up next to her husband.

“I’m just looking for a good time.” Terrence kissed Evelyn on the forehead. “Come on. Let’s get some rest. Big day tomorrow.”

Evelyn closed her eyes. She dreamed of the scorch mark in the cotton field, of smoke in her lungs, of fire licking her skin. She felt herself sweat. First normally and then blood. The crimson droplets snaked down her burning, thorn-pierced skin. Just out of view, shadowy figures watched her.

“Evelyn,” one said, his voice deep and almost demonic.

Evelyn’s body was scalding hot now. She needed to cool off. The flames rose. The pain started to become real and the smoke palpable.

“Evelyn!”

She thrashed against her will. Her dream was incomplete. She didn’t know if she was on a stake or on the ground. All she knew was fire and the silhouettes watching her from beyond the waving flames.

“Wake up!” The demonic voice became Terrence’s.

Suddenly, there was no more fire. She stood in blackness. Freezing-cold blackness. Her body kept swaying back and forth. Her eyes shot open.

Evelyn stared at white shelves. It took her a second to realize she was looking inside the open refrigerator. The contents were thawing around her bare feet. The liquids were swirling between her toes in a concoction of milk, orange juice, and beer. It stank. Her body was goose-skinned. With wide eyes, Terrence stood behind her. His hand was on her shoulder, shaking her awake. “Are you okay?”

Evelyn stepped away from the fridge and nearly collapsed. Terrence caught her. Evelyn’s legs felt like jelly.

Terrence steadied her and shut the refrigerator door. “What were you doing out here?”

 

Chapter Four

Neighbors

 

“I don’t know,” Evelyn replied. Her head throbbed and her body trembled. She didn’t realize it until now, but she was naked.

Throughout the multi-colored puddle, Evelyn felt various cool liquids swim between her toes and plop on the floor like a leaky faucet. Fog had tumbled from the open refrigerator and rolled across the wood floor. An eerie light shined over her snow-white skin, as if the large appliance was a portal to some otherworldly plane.

Terrence helped Evelyn steady herself. She could sense his fear and confusion. The feeling hitchhiked onto Evelyn. She clung to him, her fingers clenching the loose fabric of his shirt. He rubbed his hand down the scars of her back. “Were you sleepwalking?”

“I never sleepwalk.”

“Not even as a kid?”

“Terrence,” Evelyn looked him in the eye. “I’m telling the truth.”

They had been a couple for three years and married for two. Terrence should know better than anyone. Surrendering his shirt to Evelyn, Terrence led his wife back to the bathroom to take a shower in the bathtub. She washed away the gunk from yesterday’s groceries and strung her fingers through the blonde hair on her scalp. She sniffled and sneezed so hard that it hurt her chest. How long had she been standing out there to catch a cold, she wondered as she watched the water spiral down the drain between her feet. After she got dressed, Evelyn joined Terrence back in the kitchen. Groggy and mumbling to himself, he soaked up the liquid concoction with a hand towel. Evelyn squatted next to him, picking up lunchmeats and empty beer bottles.

“You get some sleep,” Terrence said. “Please.”

“ I’m sorry-- I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Terrence said, but his tired inflection said otherwise. “Go on, I’ll clean this up.”

Not in the mood to argue and feeling a wave of fatigue, Evelyn returned to the bedroom and covered herself. Outside, the moonlight bled through the windows, gales howled in the night, and owls screeched. It’s stress. It must be stress. Evelyn tried to make sense of the situation as she stared at the droopy canopy over the bed. Still, stress was part and parcel in her everyday life. This vacation was probably the best thing that had happened to her in years.

Evelyn didn’t sleep that night. Maybe it was fear she’d sleepwalk again. Maybe it was the scratching sound that dug deep into her ear canal.   

The sky turned from indigo to crimson to gold and then to blue. Evelyn forced herself out of bed. Shuffling could be heard in some nearby room. Terrence cleaning, most likely. After all, Evelyn saw him get up before sunrise. Feeling his gaze on her, Evelyn had closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. She knew it was childish, but she couldn’t escape the shame from last night.

She felt her stomach rumble and realized that there was, unsurprisingly, nothing in the refrigerator.

Evelyn walked outside to the balcony to clear her head. Green meadows, tall oaks, and red brick road. Birds fluttered on the blue cloudless sky. She closed her eyes and let the morning wash over her. Evelyn took a deep breath and exhaled all her worries. It didn’t work. She decided to take a walk.

The backyard was breathtaking. Dozens of flowers of different shapes and colors tumbled out of raised garden beds and sprawled across the ankle-high grass. Fat-bodied bees sucked on nectar while beetles chewed the lush green leaves. Leafy vines climbed the back wall of the mansion, masking most of the chipped white paint. Evelyn stepped out into the back lawn. She could see the rows of cabins, six in all, three on one side and three on the other. A skinny dirt path snaked in between them and to the cotton field and cotton press that was a wall-less wooden structure with a pyramid roof and a massive wooden screw that ran into a box where the cotton was fed. The arms jutting out from the side of the structure were designed to hitch donkeys.

Evelyn walked the dirt trail, wondering what sort of people her ancestors were. They had slaves certainly, not more than ten by the looks of it, but were the masters cruel or just? Did they free the slaves after the civil war or lie to keep them like some plantation owners did? Adders was closer to Augusta in the center part of the state. If Evelyn remembered correctly from her college history classes, Major General William T. Sherman swept down to Atlanta and set the city ablaze along with many other plantations and cities. That was a hundred and forty-five miles west of here. Quenby seemed to have avoided the fires. Still, what did her family do after they lost? Were they broken like much of the Confederacy or stronger than before? Evelyn had no answers.

She found latches outside of the cabin doors, to lock the slaves in at night, Evelyn assumed. The wood door pulled out toward Evelyn but got stuck halfway on the dirt path.  Evelyn sucked in her belly and slid through the crack. The cabin had a floor of packed dirt and featherbed mattress that was disintegrating. Fleas and other winged bugs crawled across the natty covers and feathers. They buzzed away at Evelyn’s approach. There was a small wooden chest tucked against one wall, a wooden chamber pot on the other, and a small barred window too small for a child to fit through. Evelyn closed her eyes, seeing a family of three curled up in the sorry excuse of the bed. A mother and father huddling with their child in the middle of a cold night. They were covered in fleas and coughing.

Was this my origin? Evelyn shivered at the thought.

Slam!

A strong breeze slammed the door shut, causing Evelyn to jump. She walked over to the entrance and tried pushing the door open. It didn’t budge. The latch had closed her in.

“Terrence!” Evelyn shouted and put her weight into the door. “Terrence, can you hear me?”

No reply.

“Perfect,” Evelyn mumbled with an angry scowl.

She pulled out her cell phone. One bar of service. Of course. She dialed him and listened to the ringing until the call dropped.

“Just wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” Evelyn paced and slammed her shoulder into the door. It rattled the latch, but it didn’t open. A shadow moved by the window. Evelyn twisted back to see… no one.

“Terrence. Is that you?” Evelyn asked, feeling for her extendable baton but realizing that she left it in the bedside drawer. “Can you hear me? Hello?”

Evelyn tried the door again. Her efforts were futile. Not the type to wait around, she slammed her shoulder into the door again and again and again, building frustration and anger with every painful hit. Finally, the nail in the latch wiggled loose and Evelyn got the door open a foot. Taking a breath, she squeezed through the gap and back outside. Her shoulder pulsed in pain. A few loose bangs tumbled on her face. She brushed the strands away and massaged her bruised arm.

She saw a large diesel truck rumbling down the red brick path and pulling up to the front of the mansion. A man and woman got out and stood outside the front door. Evelyn looked around for Terrence. He wasn’t outside. Evelyn walked around the side of the house and greeted the strangers. Middle-aged and graying, the man was tall and lengthy with a hooked nose and boil-ridden face. The woman was a similar build with a similar nose. They were twins, but the woman had a lazy eye.

“Can I help you?” Evelyn asked as she approached.

“You live here?” the man asked, taking off his cap and holding it against his belly. He wore a polo and slacks. The woman had a jean skirt and button-up shirt. His legs and arms looked like twigs jutting from the clothing.

“Yeah, this is my place now,” Evelyn replied. “It was my father’s house. Did you know him? Maxwell Quenby.”

The twin exchanged looks.

“No,” they said simultaneously.

Awkwardness hovered for a moment.

“Say,” the man started. “You got any water?”

“I’m sure we do,” Evelyn said. “Tap water, if that’s alright.”

“That’ll do,” the woman replied.

Evelyn entered and closed the door behind her. She rubbed her throbbing shoulder. What do these people want? She trekked through the large foyer, through the hall of portraits, and into the massive kitchen once tended to by a handful of servants. She turned the faucet knobs added in the late fifties. Evelyn knew this because of the research she’d been conducting since she moved in. She grabbed two dusty glasses from the cupboard and washed them out before filling them with water.

She heard a door open in the foyer.

“Hey, Terrence, we have guests at the front door. I think they’re neighbors or something!” Evelyn yelled through the house.

Glasses in hand, Evelyn returned to the foyer to see the two siblings inside. The man was halfway up one of the two curved staircases while the woman snapped photos of the various paintings with a small camera.

“Uh, what are you doing in here?” Evelyn asked, feeling the hairs on her neck rise.

The twins turned to her at the same time.

“Taking pictures,” the woman replied.

“I can see that. Why?” Evelyn said.

The woman shrugged off the question.

“Don’t go harassing my sister,” the man said.

“No one’s harassing anyone,” Evelyn said as calmly as she could. “But, I never invited you inside.”

The twins traded a look like Evelyn was crazy. They went back to doing what they were doing, whatever that was.

“Excuse me,” Evelyn set the glasses aside. “I want you to tell me why you think it’s okay to come into my house without my permission.”

“It’s not your house,” the man said casually as he continued walking up the red-carpeted stairs.

Evelyn felt her blood pressure rise in a mix of fear and frustration. Before Evelyn could reply, the woman snapped a picture of her face. The strobe blinded Evelyn for a moment, prompting her to blink away the flash.

“No more pictures,” Evelyn commanded.

The woman took one of her twin hiking up the second-story inner balcony.

“Hey, stop that,” Evelyn ordered.

More photos.

Walking speedily, Evelyn grabbed the camera by the lens and ripped it from the woman’s hands. The woman staggered back, horrified and with teary eyes. From the railing, her twin glared at Evelyn with hawk-like eyes.

“Get out of my house,” Evelyn said, unsure what to do with the camera now that she had it.

In a feat of rage, the male twin stomped down the stairs. Evelyn took a step back while the twins joined each other in front of Evelyn. With nearly identical eyes, they glared at Evelyn.

“Leave,” Evelyn commanded.

“Not till we get the camera back,” the male said.

Evelyn smiled angrily. She opened the camera settings and clicked FORMAT. All the pictures were erased in an instant. “All yours,” she replied.

The woman’s face went red as cherry. “Do you have any idea what was on that?”

“I don’t care,” Evelyn replied. “Out.”

The back door opened. Footsteps traveled through the downstairs hall. The double doors between the double curved staircase opened and Terrence entered the room, sweaty and sticky from yard work.

Neither the twins nor Evelyn turned to him.

“What’s up?” he asked the crowd.

“Is this your wife?” the male asked him.

Terrence nodded slowly, still trying to comprehend what was happening.

“She deleted my sister’s photos. We demand compensation.”

Evelyn boiled and turned to Terrence. “They were taking pictures of our house, Terrence. I never invited them inside.”

Terrence stepped closer, palms out in a nonthreatening manner. “Everyone needs to calm down.”

“No one’s doing anything until we are compensated for our damages,” the male said.

“You’re not getting anything,” Evelyn replied.

“Clearly there was a misunderstanding,” Terrence said and fished out his wallet. “Will a twenty make you feel better?”

The twins scoffed.

Evelyn turned to her husband. She wanted to scream, What are you thinking?

Terrence picked up the hint quickly. He pulled out the twenty and handed it to the woman. “Twenty is all you’re getting. Now please excuse yourself from our property or we’ll call the police.”

The woman quickly pocketed the money.

The man studied Evelyn for a moment and then Terrence, as if committing their faces to memory. He grabbed his sister by the arm and hurried out the front door. Terrence quickly locked the door. Evelyn pushed aside the curtains and looked out the window. She watched the pickup grumble to life and screech down the brick path, leaving behind two nasty black tire marks on the red brick.

Wide-eyed, Terrence shook his head. “Weird people.”

Without a word and with gnashed teeth, Evelyn started toward the bedroom.  

“Where are you going?” Terrence asked with genuine concern.

Evelyn turned back to him. “Why did you give them money? You know they’re going to come back, right? That’s the type of people they are. The more we give them, the harder they’re going to press.”

“Hey, I’m not the bad guy here,” Terrence said.

“Save it,” Evelyn replied and hiked upstairs.

“Evelyn, I’m sorry!” Terrence shouted as she got farther up the stairs.

Evelyn headed into the bathroom and washed off her face. Purple circles curved under her blue eyes. She was feeling her two nights without sleep. If she could only get rid of that scratching noise in her head. After taking a moment to collect herself, Evelyn walked back to the balcony railing. Terrence was no longer in the foyer. He must’ve gone outside to keep on working.  

Evelyn checked out of the window to make sure the truck hadn’t returned and then started down on the right-side hall that didn’t have portraits like the hallway adjacent. Frankly, the hall was quite drab with peeled paint and a rickety floor. It was like Maxwell never walked this way to this side of the house. Now that she thought it about, Evelyn could piece together her father’s daily path by which rooms were up-to-date and which had fallen into disrepair. The kitchen, portrait hall, foyer, master bedroom, and master bathroom seemed to be the most well-maintained. The study followed, and then the bedroom full of arcade machines, trinkets, and other hoarded items.

Still feeling her heart racing, Evelyn sniffled. She used her phone to snap pictures of the hall’s wall. Grabbing the van’s keys from the countertop, she drove into town. She arrived at the paint shop and picked up proper supplies and a few cans of different shades of paint. She needed them for other rooms and decided to kill three birds with one stone. She arrived back at the mansion to see Terrence out beside the house and trimming weeds. He smiled sadly at her as the van rolled to a stop. When he saw the paint cans, roller, and brushes, he threw aside the hedge trimmers and rushed to Evelyn’s aid.

“Thanks,” Evelyn said, and handed him a paint can.

“Of course.” Terrence followed her to the dingy hallway. “Have you decided what shade you’re going to paint it?” he asked, obviously trying to put the fight behind them.

Evelyn admired his effort even if she couldn’t let go of her irritation. “I guess I’ll match the original.” She stared at the off-white shading. Other rooms had a baby blue or light khaki tint. That or patterned wallpaper.

“Can I lend you a hand?” Terrence asked.

“I got it,” Evelyn replied. “Keep it up with the back yard. You’re doing a good job.”

Terrence nodded to himself and slipped away from the hall, cracking the door to the foyer behind him.

Evelyn set out the plastic sheeting on the hardwood floor and popped the top of the paint can. She pulled out her stepladder, got the roller lathered up, and got started on the fresh coat. Somewhere deep in the basement, she heard a faint scratching. She forced herself to ignore it and kept on painting. It grew louder, like fingernails picking at her brain.

She closed her eyes, trying to ignore it. You’re just tired. You’re only stressed. The scratching grew louder. Evelyn clenched her eyes tighter. The noise subsided. She reopened her eyes and stumbled back, falling from the stepping stool and landing on her bottom on the hardwood floor.

Painted over the old drab coat of paint was a mural the length of the wall, displaying the cotton field, the black scorch mark at its center, a man with a featureless white mask, and a little girl standing amidst the thorny crops. The details were immaculate. Two black smudges like black holes were the eyes on the man’s featureless white mask. The little girl had a yellow dress with a belt around her petite waist. Her hair was sandy blonde like Evelyn’s. Her expression was neutral.

Slowly, Evelyn examined her own palms. They were crusty and dry with different shades of paint. She cursed under her breath and noticed the diminished paint cans nearby. One of them was tipped over and running white away across the plastic sheeting and into the gaps between the floorboards.

Evelyn got to her feet, keeping her wrists curled and her hands from smearing paint on anything. She rushed to the kitchen and washed away the paint. Dry chips clung to the bottom of the sink. She looked out the window, noticing it was nearly sunset. Her heart raced, and she realized that her fear kept her blinking and her mouth dry. She trembled lightly and, without drying off her hands, she walked out the front door.

Dirty and sweaty, Terrence was making quick work of the tall weeds and bushes around the front of the mansion. Wiping his brow, he squinted at Evelyn standing on the covered porch. After a second, he noticed her ghostly expression and rushed up the stairs.

“What happened?”

Evelyn parted her lips, but no words came out. She led them through the foyer and into the freshly painted wall. Terrence’s eyes bounced from the spilled paint to the mural dripping down the wall.

He turned to his wife before going back to the impressive piece of art. “You painted that?”

“I… I don’t know,” Evelyn whispered. “I don’t remember.”

Terrence rubbed his hand up his bald head and studied the mural that leaked on the plastic sheeting. The little girl and masked man were turning into runny blobs of color before their eyes.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Terrence asked.

Evelyn thought about it for a moment. “Yeah. Yes.” She nodded.

“Let me get changed,” Terrence said and kissed her on the forehead.

Evelyn stared at the cotton field, the little girl, and the masked figure that made her skin crawl.

Terrence returned downstairs wearing a shirt covered with miniscule violins. He brought Evelyn a nice shirt. She changed out of her paint-stained garb, and they climbed into the van.

She looked out the Georgia meadows and flatlands, chewing her fingernail. The ride was silent. Terrence fidgeting proved that he had questions, but he didn’t voice them. Good, as Evelyn had no answers. An hour later, and they arrived at the hospital one town over. Adders didn’t have one of their own. The doctor took the last-minute call and allowed them both to enter. He was a tall man with hollow cheeks, blue eyes so light they were almost silver, and thin white hair. His smile was small, secretive in a way, and his glasses were circular with a gold rim.

He shined a small light over Evelyn’s pupils. “Have you ever experienced blackouts before?”

“No,” Evelyn said, staying as brave as she could. “I’ve never painted anything in my life either.”

“Has your diet or sleep schedule changed in the last few weeks?”

“Neither have been particularly ideal for the last few years. Worse lately, though. No sleep the last two nights,” Evelyn admitted.

The skeletal doctor nodded to himself. “Does your family have a history of blackouts?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said. “I’m an orphan. My father passed away recently. I don’t know anything about my mother.”

“I’m going to prescribe you some medication,” the doctor said after a moment of studying her. “It’s still undergoing tests, but I believe it will nip the problem in the bud.”

Terrence squeezed Evelyn’s hand.

“Okay. I’ll take it,” Evelyn replied.

“Get lots of rest too,” the doctor warned. “Blackouts are sometimes caused by sleep deprivation. Painting while in such a state is highly uncommon, however.”

Evelyn took the signed prescription paper for a medication with a name she could hardly pronounce. As she stood, the doctor cleared his throat. “Oh, one last question.”

Evelyn lowered herself back on the bed. Terrence awaited the doctor’s words.

Tube ceiling lights reflecting in his glasses, the doctor’s silver eyes met Evelyn’s. “You’re Quenby’s girl, right?”

Evelyn nodded. “You knew my father?”

“In passing,” the doctor said. “He stuck to himself. Many people stayed away from him.”

“Why?” Evelyn asked, her interested piqued.

“He’s a Quenby. None of your family has been liked in a very long time. Now, go home and rest,” the doctor said, leaving no room for further questions.

Evelyn persisted anyway. “You’ve got to give me more than that.”

“I’m not an Adders local. There’s not much I can say.” Off Evelyn’s look, the man said, “Maxwell visited me a few times. Mostly for antidepressants. If there was ever a closed book, it was him.”

Unable to get any more information out of him, Terrence and Evelyn went to the pharmacy and then headed back to the mansion. It was dark then and Evelyn felt wired. Terrence offered to clean up the paint and plastic sheeting.

“What about the mural?” Evelyn asked.

“I don’t see why we should get rid of it at the moment,” Terrence replied. “Paint’s expensive, you know.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Keep it,” Evelyn said, feeling uneasy even thinking about what she drew. After showering and putting on her nightclothes, she got a glass of water and drank one of the huge sleeping pills. She climbed into the bed and drifted quickly to sleep.

She didn’t hear any scratching that night and could scarcely dream. All would’ve been well that evening if she didn’t wake up in a cow pasture fifteen miles from her home.

[
**]Chapter Five

Raw

 

The first emotion Evelyn felt when she awoke was fear. Quickly, she pushed her palms against the cold, hard earth and rose from the tall grass. In the night, the cattle pasture seemed like an endless sea of dark green waves. The grass on top of them bent their will to the wind. The icy gales caressed Evelyn’s skin like death’s cold touch. Evelyn twisted about where she stood, trying to make sense of where she was and how she got here. She had a million questions and no answers.

Sleeping cows spotted the field. In the far distance, the silhouettes of fence posts could be seen jutting from the earth. Evelyn looked at her dirty and wrinkled pajamas. Dirt caked in her blonde hair and under her fingernails. She felt her pockets. No cell phone. No wallet. No car keys. Did I walk here? Evelyn wondered. By the soreness of her calves, thighs, and bare feet, it felt like she had run a marathon.

Evelyn overcame the initial shock of the situation the only way she knew how: not thinking about it and focusing on what was in front of her.

“Get home, I just have to find my way home,” she mumbled to herself. Her small voice seemed like the only noise in this dark night. Under the blanket of stars, Evelyn hiked to the fence. Dirt and rocks bit into the bottom of her heels throughout her trek. She reached the metal mesh of the fence and forced herself over. Hugging herself, she kept forward in search of a road. Her teeth chattered. The stress made her heart hurt.

It took a while to find the street. It was a single-line asphalt road stretching forever between the Georgia fields. There were no road lights or telephone booths. Evelyn craned her head to the stars, trying to make sense of what direction she was going. Astronomy wasn’t her strong suit. She picked a direction at random and started walking.

The farther Evelyn traveled, the colder the night seemed. Insects chirped out of sight. Something scurried in a nearby bush. Evelyn kept shifting her eyes. Georgia and the south in general was still a foreign place to her. She didn’t know what dangers or what beasts lurked in the darkness. Part of her was glad she didn’t know, for sometimes the truth was scarier than fiction.

As much as Evelyn tried to keep a clear mind, fears and anxieties poisoned her thoughts. The mural, the blackouts, and the scratching in the basement made her chest tighten. Was she stressed out, or was she losing her mind? Was this hereditary? Did mental illness course through the veins of her father or mother? How would she ever know? Maybe it was a stress thing. Was she too young to have a mid-life crisis at the age of thirty-three? Evelyn had no qualms admitting that she wasn’t the most stable person, but she’d never experienced anything quite like this before, and that terrified her. For the first time since she arrived Georgia, she missed her apartment and dingy office in Detroit.

Lights showed in the distance. Evelyn held her dirty hand in front of her eyes to keep from being blinded as the vehicle hastily approached. She waved her other hand. The truck rumbled to a stop beside her.

“Looks like you could use a ride,” the hook-nosed man from the driver seat said. Evelyn felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, realizing that he was one of the twins that came to her house the day before.

“Don’t you look at me like that,” the man hissed. “You should be happy I even pulled over.”

Evelyn turned back to the road. She still didn’t know if she was even walking the right way.

“What are you doing out this late?” Evelyn asked.

The man looked her up and down. “I could ask you the same thing. Does anyone know you’re out here?”

His question made Evelyn squirm. “My husband,” she lied.

The man smirked. “I’m sure he does. Well? Are you coming along or are you walking?”

“Will you take me back home?” Evelyn asked.

The man looked at her with a neutral face. “No. I’m going to blow your brains out across my dashboard.”

Evelyn’s eyes went wide.

“That was a joke,” the man clarified and looked at the road. “Last call. You in or out?”

Biting her lip nervously, Evelyn walked around the back of the truck and hopped into the passenger side. She had no means of defending herself. Her hair rose when she looked at the man in profile. His eyes were buggy, his jaw was sharp, and his hair was clearly cut and silky smooth. He wore a blue and white two-tone polo, khakis, and slip-on shoes. Apart from his twangy accent, the man didn’t fit the Southern look. Still, he sped down the roads like someone familiar with the land.

“I don’t forgive you for deleting my sister’s photos,” the man said.

“What did you think would happen?” Evelyn retorted.

The man’s face became stern. “Remember who’s driving this truck.”

“Why did you come to my house anyway?” Evelyn asked.

“Something there belongs to me,” The man said.

“What?”

The man didn’t reply.

“Whatever it was, you had ten years to get it back,” Evelyn replied.

“You think I was going to break in?” the man said, taking offense. “I’m not some two-bit criminal.”

Evelyn stopped herself from reminding him there was little difference between breaking in when no one was home and walking inside her house uninvited.

They drove a little farther. In the dark, Evelyn couldn’t tell if the roads were familiar or not. She looked at the glowing digital clock on the dashboard. 4:05 a.m. She cringed, thinking about how much sleep she was losing. Even worse, on where she had spent the last six hours if she’d been sleepwalking.

“I never got your name,” Evelyn broke the silence.  

“I’m not going to fall for that,” the man said.

He turned onto Quenby Avenue and rolled to a stop at the beginning of the red brick path to Evelyn’s mansion. “Is this far enough or are you going to call the cops?” the man asked sarcastically.

Evelyn ignored the snide comment. “Thanks for the ride,” she said and opened up the door.

“I suggest you be careful out here this late at night,” the man said. “Not everyone’s nice to strangers intruding on their pastures.”

Evelyn twisted back to him. “Those were your cattle fields?”

“Who did you think owned them?” the man asked rhetorically. “Now, get out of my truck. I don’t want to see you nosing around my property again.”

Evelyn hopped out and slammed the door behind her. Burning rubber, the truck roared down the street, hitting sixty miles per hour in a thirty-five.

With sore feet, Evelyn limped down the cool brick path to the plantation house. No light shone from it. The sprawling branches that flanked either side of the road and made a canopy overhead waved at her. Evelyn passed under the white colonnades and tried the front door. It was unlocked. That made her feel uneasy. Like all noise in a quiet house, even opening the door felt extremely loud. No lights were on. It didn’t look like Terrence was awake. Good. She climbed into the shower and put on a fresh change of clothes before climbing into bed with her snoring husband. It felt good to rest her legs, but she couldn’t keep her eyes closed.

The sun came up much faster than she would’ve liked. Sleepily, Terrence rolled over to face her and scratched his cheek. Keeping his eyes closed, he whispered, “Sleep well?”

“Yeah,” Evelyn lied, not wanting to tell him that the medication failed and that she took a ride with their creepy neighbor.

“Good,” Terrence said with a small smile.

“I was thinking that we can hire some locals to clean this place while we go back home,” Evelyn said.

Terrence opened his eyes. “Why would we do that?”

Because this place terrifies me. “It feels like the right time.”

Elbow planted firmly on his pillow, Terrence rested his head on his knuckles. “Baby, we still got mountains of work to do here before we’re ready to sell. If we do sell. The view, the space, the idea of my own private workshop… this place is growing on me, Eve.”

“I’d rather just have the money,” Evelyn admitted.

Terrence gawked at her a moment. “It’s… look, let’s agree not to make a decision until we get the place cleaned completely up. If you’re still not comfortable, then we’ll sell. Deal?”

Evelyn was too tired to argue. “Sure. Deal.”

Terrence kissed her on the forehead. “Thanks. I’ll make you some breakfast.”

Evelyn watched him leave the room and then fell feebly back to her pillow. She stared at the bed canopy and sighed. When Evelyn finally forced herself up, she ate her breakfast quickly and, with a half can of paint, returned to the hall with the mural. She looked at the faces of the little girl and masked man that leaked down the wall in multicolored tears for a final time and used the paint-dipped roller to create a white stripe down their vestiges. A half an hour later, and it was like Evelyn had never painted the mural.

Picking up her painting supplies, she went to the next room and got started. After she finished touching up the downstairs rooms, she started taking inventory of the furniture. She snapped photos of every room before she got started, thinking it would be a neat selling point to see the before and after of the house. Outside the window, Terrence kept on with the yard work. He piled bushels of weeds and trimmed branches in a few tall stacks next to where he pruned bushes and flowers.

Evelyn stepped into the lounge. It was a wide room with velvet red furnishings, a large bookshelf, carpeted floors, fluffy curtains, and a fireplace with hand-carved wooden finishes. A four by four foot painting of the house hung above the desk. It displayed a horse and buggy parked out on the brick path with a number of well-dressed patrons waving from the second-story balcony while others were in mid-strut to the front door with their lady in hand. There was a sense of family and community. Evelyn looked at the painting with longing and then estimated its worth.

She started by adjusting the chairs and candlesticks into their proper locations. As she dusted, her mind went back to the cattle field and what would prompt her to go to such a place. Evelyn vacuumed the floor and fluffed the pillows. She checked the wallpaper, finding small tears on its surface but nothing that would diminish its value. Evelyn shut the door behind her, not planning on returning until the first open house. She tackled the cleaning process like her private investigative work: systematic and with the least amount of backtracking as possible.

The guest bedroom marked Evelyn’s next stop. It was equipped and ready to settle in, dust notwithstanding. Evelyn approached the dresser’s drawers that had been left open for who knew how many years. She studied the old clothes within. The shirts and pants were reminiscent of the seventies. They appeared to be owned by a female. Were these my mother’s or my aunt’s? Evelyn sifted through them in search of some clue to the owner’s identity. Nothing. She made a pile on the bed and a mental note to wash them later. When the room was cleaned, she headed out into the laundry room in search of a hamper.

When she returned to the bedroom, all of the dresser’s drawers were open again.

Evelyn eyed the room cautiously before stepping inside. She slowly pushed the drawers back into the dresser, watching the wheel track within to see if it was slipping. It was not. In actuality, the drawers would stick inside the dresser. She reminded herself that she needed sleep and tossed the pile of laundry into the washer. As the machine rumbled, Evelyn turned about the large basement. Her eyes went to the wall where she heard the scratching noise on their first night in Adders. The more she looked at it, the more claustrophobic the basement felt.

She headed outside for the first time since she got out of bed. The breeze was nice and the sky was blue. Terrence listened to blues playing from an old music player. The sound was slightly muddled but the soul was still there.

“Like my new toy?” he asked as he yanked a deep root from the ground.

Evelyn looked at the old music player. “Where did you find it?”

“In one of the storerooms. I found a record player as well. One of the good ones.” Terrence said with a wide grin.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Evelyn said, squinting next to him.

Terrence yanked up another weed. A clump of dirt hung on the dangling root. “I don’t want you getting any blisters.”

“Oh please,” Evelyn chuckled.

Smiling, Terrence gave her a hand spade.

They started on the brick road, stopping for a moment to study the skid marks left by the twins a day prior.

Getting down on their hands and knees, they began pulling patches of grass growing between the cracked bricks. “I was thinking that we should see the town some night. I hear they have great live music.”

“That’ll be fun,” Evelyn said with a little less enthusiasm than she had hoped. Terrence noticed.

“Can I bribe you with a deep-fried country-style funnel cake?”

“Do you want to give me a heart attack?” Evelyn jokingly replied.

Terrence leaned in close. “I want to go on a date with you, that’s what I want.”

Evelyn scooted away. “I’d rather focus on the house right now. We can go out after we’re all done.”

“That’s probably the smart way of doing it,” Terrence said, trying not to sound disappointed.

 His phone rang. Trying not to get the phone dirty, Terrence held the device gingerly and answered. “Terrence Carr speaking… Leo, how’s it hanging?… Oh yeah, I know that feeling,” Terrence chuckled and got up.

He muted the phone against his shoulder and whispered to Evelyn. “It’s the blues musician from the restaurant we went to the other night.”

Evelyn gestured for him to take his call. Terrence put the phone back up to his ear and returned inside.

Alone, Evelyn kept on working. The afternoon sun baked down on her. The air became humid and buggy as the day went on.

Dressed in a nice blue button up and slacks, Terrence hustled out the front door. Still on the ground, Evelyn brushed a strand of hair away from her eye and gave him her attention.

“We must’ve made an impression. The guy wants me to make him a guitar. I’m going to head over to his place and hash out the details,” Terrence said. “It will only take a few hours.”

“You don’t need my permission,” Evelyn replied.

“Thanks, baby,” Terrence replied with a smile. “I would kiss you, but you’re all dirty and sweaty.”

“Oh, you’re such a romantic,” Evelyn teased.

Terrence rushed over to her and planted a wet one on Evelyn’s lips. “There,” he said in accomplishment and unlocked the rusty bucket minivan. “Relax for the rest of the day. I can’t have my beautiful wife working in this heat.”

“Enjoy yourself,” Evelyn said and rose from the brick pathway. From inside the minivan, Terrence waved her goodbye and putted down the road. When he was gone, Evelyn returned to de-weeding the bricks. She was able to knock it out much quicker than she thought she would. After filling up a glass of water in the sink, Evelyn thought about the next project that would get her mind off her abnormal sleeping habits.

Not wanting to do work inside the house, Evelyn headed to the toolshed. The door was loose on its hinges, and Evelyn thought it would be a good time to learn some new skills. Finding a few old nails and a hammer within the shed, Evelyn got to hammering the door properly on its hinges. It didn’t take too long before she stubbed her thumb. It swelled and throbbed, and her fingernail turned black. Walking off the pain and regretting that she didn’t listen to Terrence’s words, Evelyn caught a glimpse of someone standing out in the cotton field.

She pulled her thumb out of her mouth and called out, “Hey!”

The figure took off into a sprint in the opposite direction. Keeping the hammer with her, Evelyn took off after them. She brushed against the untamed cotton crops as she gained on the stranger. The person moved too quick for Evelyn to catch a good look. What are you doing? Evelyn asked herself as she ran. Call the cops. Yet, her P.I. instincts kept her tailing after the stranger.

She slowed to a stop on the black scorch mark dead center of the field. Her pulse quickened and her breathing staggered.

Standing amidst the cotton plants was a blonde little girl and a tall man in black wearing a white mask with button-size slits cut over the eyes. The world spun under Evelyn’s feet. She tried to steady herself but could find nothing nearby to prevent her from falling. So, she fell.

By the time her bottom hit the packed dirt, the figures vanished, and a wave of tiredness hit Evelyn suddenly. Her head cramped. I need sleep, she told herself. Abandoning the work on the shed, Evelyn returned inside via the back door. She noticed something was amiss when she entered the foyer. All of the priceless paintings were scattered across the carpeted floor, the chairs and sideboards were turned on their heads, and flower vases were in shattered heaps.

Evelyn froze, wondering if whoever did this was still in her house.

She dialed Terrence.

“Pick up. Pick up,” Evelyn muttered, afraid to go any farther into the house.

Hey—”

“Terrence, listen.”

“[_ -- You’ve reached the voicemail of… _]”

Evelyn hung up and tried again.

Voicemail.

The floor above her creaked. Someone was walking around up there.

In her line of work, Evelyn had been to some shady places and encountered an assortment of suspicious individuals, but none had ever been in her home before. The threat felt real, tangible, something that she wasn’t used to.  

Something smashed upstairs.

The smart thing would’ve been to get out of house, but the knife in the kitchen called Evelyn’s name. No part of her wanted to go up the curved foyer stairs, but letting someone destroy her father’s things wasn’t something Evelyn was going to allow. With the knife’s cold hilt in hand, she conquered the first step.

SMASH! Something else broke.

Evelyn conquered the next step. She kept her fear hidden behind her stone-like expression. The steps groaned under her shoes. Her clothes stuck to her from the cold sweat dosing her body.

More movement. It was something big.

Evelyn had the element of surprise on her side.

Then, her phone rang. The noise echoed through the house.

The movement upstairs instantly ceased.

Stopping halfway up the stairs, Evelyn pulled out her screaming phone and answered, keeping her eyes on the balcony above her.

Hey, it’s me,” Terrence said. Laughter sounded on his end of the line.

“Terrence,” Evelyn whispered, “There’s someone in our house.”

There was a pause on Terrence’s end.

Call the cops. I’m on my way home now. Wait outside.

“Okay. Okay. Hurry,” Evelyn stepped down from the steps and fled out the front door.

Keeping the knife with her, she faced the plantation. Her eyes bounced between the upstairs windows in search of moment. None. Her phone must’ve scared the intruder. She dialed 911.

In six minutes, a squad car came screaming down the road. A burly officer with short gelled gray hair stepped out. His face was square and flat with two different colored eyes: one green and one brown.

“Michaels,” he introduced himself and stared up the house with a small confident smile on his hard face. “I’m here to help you. What can you tell me?”

“I last heard them upstairs,” Evelyn explained. “I didn’t see them. I believe there’s only one, but there could be more.”  

Officer Michaels nodded to himself. “Wait here.”

Before Evelyn could reply, the officer was pushing through the front door.

Evelyn awaited his return. She sucked on her swollen and bruised thumb. Minutes went on like hours. Michaels was nowhere to be seen.

Five minutes passed.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes.

Evelyn heard the radio crackle inside the police cruiser. “Michaels. This is Dispatch. Over.”

Evelyn stared at the vehicle. Its blue and red lights reflected in her blue eyes.

Report in, Michaels. Over.

The front door of the mansion opened. Officer Michaels stepped out. His face was neutral and unreadable.

Evelyn awaited his response. “Well?”

The officer snapped out of his daze. “It’s clear. There’s no one there.”

“You’re sure?” Evelyn asked.

“See for yourself.”

Evelyn walked into the house and down the hall.

“Anything missing?” Michaels asked.

Evelyn looked over the clutter. It made it hard for her to take inventory over everything. “It doesn’t look like it.”

She searched upstairs. Chairs were tipped on their sides, windows were open, and bedsheets were pulled from their mattresses. The vandalism seemed random and reckless. Evelyn walked through the master bedroom and bathrooms. “It looks like all of it is here,” Evelyn told the officer as they marched down the stairs. She picked up a painting and hung it back on the wall. Thankfully, it was not damaged.

They headed into the basement. It was the only part of the house untouched by the rampage. That’s what Evelyn thought at first until she noticed that both shotguns and all the shells were missing.

“Whoever was here stole our weapons,” Evelyn told Michaels.

“Is there anyone you’d suspect?” the officer asked her.

“I’ve not communicated with too many people since I got here. The only ones that come to mind are these twins in their thirties. I never got their names. They stopped by yesterday. I never got their names.”

Michaels jotted down a few notes as they returned to the foyer. “I’ll see if I can’t find them. Call if there’s any more issues. Even if something feels wrong. We’ll be here as fast as we can.”

“Thank you.” They returned outside as Terrence arrived.

He hustled out of the minivan and gave Evelyn a hug. “I got here as fast as I could. Tell me what happened.”

“Someone broke in,” Evelyn explained. “They took our guns and trashed the place.”

“Are we safe, Officer?” Terrence asked.

“We’ll be ready to answer your call at a moment’s notice,” Michaels promised. “I’ll look into those twins and see if I can’t find anything.”

Holding hands, Evelyn and Terrence watched the police cruiser drive away.

“I can’t believe this happened,” Terrence said. “I’m sorry for leaving you here alone.”

“It’s not your fault,” Evelyn replied. “Let’s get this cleaned up. I want to make sure nothing’s damaged.”

The vandalism was not as costly as they thought. Most objects were just tossed across the room, not stomped or smashed. A few vases were shattered, but nothing irreplaceable suffered heavy damage. Evelyn tried looking at that as a positive, but it was still hard to get over the initial shock that someone broke into her home.   

“You think we should get a hotel?” Evelyn asked as they put drawers back into a dresser.

“Leave all our stuff here? No way.” Terrence replied.

“They have weapons, Terrence.”

“I’m not going to let them do any more harm.” Terrence said sternly. “This house is our only chance to live big in this world. I’m not leaving.”

Evelyn gawked at him for a moment. He kept on working, but his motions were jerky and motivated by anger.

That night, they double-checked all the locks and kept a baseball bat under the bed. Neither one of them spoke or slept for a long while.

Evelyn’s sleep deprivation finally caught up to her well past 1 a.m. She closed her eyes for what seemed like an instant and then woke up three hours later. Terrence wasn’t beside her.

Groggy, she sat up and called her husband’s name. She tried the light switch. It flickered, but the lights didn’t turn on. Grabbing the oil lamp and matches, she walked out of the room. “Terrence. Answer me.”

No reply.

Evelyn heard a scratching noise seeping out of the basement.

Her heart raced. The hairs on her neck stood. She turned the glass knob. The basement door creaked open. She took it one step at a time. “Terrence?”

She held the lamp high, illuminating the vast basement and blanket-covered objects within. The scratching noise got louder. Was she dreaming? She pinched herself. This was real. She saw someone standing by the far brick wall. Evelyn stopped. The person’s back was turned to her. Their fingers scratched the coarse brick. The skin on the fingertips was raw and bloody.

“Terrence,” Evelyn said quietly. She stepped closer.  “What are you doing?”

Something inside told her to run away.

She put her hand on her husband. He didn’t react to her touch, just kept on clawing until tears of blood snaked down the wall’s coarse surface.

 

Chapter Six

The Key

 

Terrence’s eyes were shut. Drool trickled down his lip. His fingers kept raking across the wall. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Evelyn shook him. He didn’t stop clawing.

“Terrence. Terrence. Wake up.” After a moment of hesitation, she slapped her husband across the face with as much strength as she could muster.

Terrence didn’t react. A red handprint formed on his cheek.

Evelyn felt the world spin. She grabbed her husband and pulled him away from the wall. Terrence’s arms desperately reached out to keep on clawing, but the moment they were a few feet away, both his arms fell limply to his sides. Evelyn stared at him. She put her hands on his cheeks and turned his face to her own. He was still asleep.

Evelyn looked around the basement for something to stop his peeled fingertips from bleeding. She pulled a white sheet from atop a pagoda lampshade, shook out a cloud of dust, and swaddled Terrence’s fingers with the cloth. She tied both of his hands together, unsure if her pacifist husband would turn violent. Grabbing his wrists, she led him up the rickety stairs. He shambled behind her. Using the oil candle to navigate the massive mansion, Evelyn guided Terrence through the large foyer and up the curving staircase.

Evelyn narrowly missed a shard of glass she failed to clean after the break-in. Every few steps, Evelyn forced herself to look at her sleeping husband. The wrappings around his fingertips were staining maroon. Breathing heavily, Evelyn reached the interior balcony: a place where the Quenby greats would watch over dozens of patrons attending an evening dance. She walked through the long hallway, flanked on both sides by closed doors, and then into the master bedroom.

Terrence tore his wrist from Evelyn’s grasp and toppled face first on the king-sized bed. Evelyn stared at him with bloodshot eyes. He began snoring. Tense, Evelyn sat in a nearby chair and watched her husband sleep until the oil lamp flickered out.

Terrence called her name.

Evelyn jolted awake. The oil lamp fell at her feet and spilled across the hardwood. Feeling the sun beating down on her back, Evelyn got to her feet and wiped her drooling mouth with the top of her hand.

Terrence sat at the edge of the bed. With a horrified expression, he bounced his gaze between her and the maroon-stained rags on his fingers. “What happened?” he said with a hoarse voice.

“You were sleepwalking,” Evelyn told him, joining him by the bed.

He raised up his rag-bound hands. “How…”

“You hurt yourself,” Evelyn said, unable to bring herself to tell him about the specific cause of his injuries.

“And my face?” he asked, grimacing.

Evelyn smiled tiredly. “I slapped you.”

Terrence looked at her, dumbfounded.

“Come on, let me get those bindings off of you,” Evelyn said and untied the knot. Terrence winced when his hands were free. He went into the bathroom and washed his fingers in the sink, sucking air as the water touched his tender and broken skin.

Hands dripping, he returned to the bedroom. “Do we have any Band-Aids?”

“There might be some in the minivan. Inside the first-aid kit.”

Terrence groaned and headed for the door. “This doesn’t make sense. I’ve never had a blackout in my life.” He cursed under his breath and left Evelyn’s sight. Her beaten-down reflection looked back at her in the makeup table’s mirror.

She went outside. Her husband’s body was halfway out of the van. He grumbled to himself as he sifted through the contents under the seats. Defeated, he pulled himself from the vehicle and faced Evelyn. “I can’t find it. I’m going to make a store run.”

“Do you want me to drive?” Evelyn asked.

Terrence shook his head. “No. Get some sleep. I need to clear my head anyway.”

He walked around the front of the vehicle and climbed inside. The minivan sputtered to life and disappeared down the road. Once Evelyn knew it was gone, she hunched over and felt her chest tighten. She controlled her breathing. In and out. In and out. It seemed to help the panic and confusion that was flooding over her.  Was there something in the water? Are we both sick? Evelyn straightened her posture and inhaled as deeply as she could. Part of her knew that wasn’t the answer. There was something wrong with this house. She needed to find out what.

The power had returned at some point during the night. It reset all the clocks, causing them to flicker at 12:00. Evelyn pushed open the basement door and gazed into the abyss below. She flipped the light switch, watching the large room flood with light. Slowly, carefully, she descended a single step at a time. It seemed much smaller in the daytime, and the shadows didn’t stretch as far. Most of the articles within were odds and ends pieces of furniture stored for a later day. The couches were moth-eaten and the leather chair cushions were cracked. The small lounging area where Evelyn discovered the shotguns seemed to be the only place that had been used in the last decade. The couch there was stained. A box TV sat on its stand. A sheet of dust clouded its black glass face. Evelyn approached the brick wall. The few droplets of her husband’s blood hardened on the ridged surface.

Why here? Why this place? she wondered. She traced her finger across the surface. There was nothing intricate about the brick. Nothing unique. Was there something behind it? Evelyn pressed her ear against the wall and listened. No sound. It was rock solid. Still pushed against the wall, she knocked on different points of the brick. No sound. No hollowness. Was the clawing random? Maybe, but this was the same place Evelyn had first heard the scratching sound that seemed to cling to her psyche like a parasite. As she turned back to the basement, she caught a glimpse of the black spot on the ceiling. It was a stain of sorts, possibly from an old leaking pipe.

She headed upstairs and into the portrait hall. She glanced up at the nameless man immortalized by paint. Many of them had stern faces and intense eyes, much like Evelyn, though none were blonde except the intriguing and beautiful woman that began the Quenby line. Terrence and her had been through this hall before, looking into the origins of the black stain but finding nothing. The wall behind the paintings had a hollow quality. There was something back there, but Evelyn had no idea how to access it without taking a sledgehammer to the wall. Something told her that wouldn’t help the resale value.

She slid up the corner of one of the paintings in search of a breach in the wood that she could glance through. A few paintings later and without results, Evelyn stopped before the portrait of a chunky man dressed in a caramel-colored tailored suit standing next a cotton gin. She checked behind it and found something she never expected: a keyhole.

Evelyn peered through it but could only see blackness. She pulled herself away. What did this have to do with the blackouts, the scratching, the scorched cotton fields, the masked man and the little girl in the mural, and her father’s demise? Evelyn didn’t know. This could mean nothing, but she wouldn’t know until she found the key unless… she rushed back to the master bedroom and tore apart her travel bag. She grabbed her lock-picking tool that she used in her P.I. business and the key her father left her.

She tried the key first. No luck. It wouldn’t even fit into the tiny hole. She fished out the lock-picking tools and gave them a try. They met resistance partway through. Something was stuck in the keyhole. Evelyn shined a flashlight within, making out what seemed like part of a key that had snapped off. She searched her husband’s tools, finding some glue. She slathered it on the back of her lock-picking tool and jammed it inside the keyhole. After a minute, she jiggled the lock pick out. The tip of the key that was once lodged there was now glued to the lock-picking tool’s end. Evelyn peered through the keyhole. There was a room back there, but it was too dark to make out details. She tried unlocking it with her lock-picking tools again. However, the intricacy of the lock made it impossible. What was he trying to hide back here? Evelyn wondered.

She searched the floor of the hallway, the ring posts in the kitchen, the drawers in the master bedroom, and the desk in the study before returning to the portrait empty-handed. She stroked her chin. Searching every nook and cranny of the house would take weeks. She thought back to her private investigative work. Every missing person leaves a trail intentionally or unintentionally. It was inevitable. Secret keys were a different matter entirely. The owner would intentionally leave a trail, but one only he could follow. Evelyn knew nothing about her father, so digging into his past would not help her here. She had to rely on her own experiences and ask herself the fundamental question that began with “If I were trying to BLANK, how would I do it?”

Evelyn started with the obvious: leave a subtle reminder in the surroundings. The door was hidden behind family portraits, did that matter? Evelyn didn’t know their names or their gravestones, so seeking the dead wasn’t practical, plus that would be too obvious. Evelyn would want to hide the answer in plain sight, but not so plain that one searching would guess at first. Evelyn looked for subtle clues. She gazed at the portrait with the rotund man and the cotton gin behind him. It must’ve been painted when the cotton gin was still new. Evelyn studied the other portraits. None of them had buildings in their background, so why would this man choose to put one in his portrait’s background? Evelyn snapped a picture of it with her phone and went outside. She walked through the tall grass and toward the cotton gin house. It was a wooden two-story structure by the cotton press. Its wood was dark, nearly black and gray. The first floor looked like a car garage with multiple ports where workers would pile cotton. Evelyn hiked to an outdoor ramp that connected the ground to the second-story door. She pushed open the old wooden door and stepped inside the building. Dust, hay, and a sparse amount of cotton littered the groaning floor planks. Some were broken and others were thin and weak. At its center was a crude cotton gin. The device was made entirely of metal, with an opening on top to feed the cotton and an area in the back to receive it once it had been funneled through. Evelyn withdrew her phone and studied the picture. At the time the portrait was drawn, the cotton gin was outside. She approached the metal tool and spotted something within its metal teeth. Nearby, stuck in the metal, was a key that had been lodged inside.

Evelyn saw that the tip of it had been broken off. This is the one.

She reached her hand inside and pinched the key with her fingers. She felt a sharp tug, and suddenly her arm was being pulled into the gin. Before she could realize what was happening, the metal teeth within were flaying her hand and wrist, sucking her deeper into the machine. Evelyn gasped, unable to scream from shock, and attempted to tug her hand free. It only went deeper. With her free hand, she grabbed her captured wrist and pulled with all her might. The metal teeth bent for a moment and then snapped as her hand was yanked out. Evelyn fell on her bottom and gawked at her hand, expecting to see tattered flesh and bone. Her hand was perfectly fine and held the broken key.

Evelyn closed her eyes. I’m losing my mind.

Key in hand, she returned inside, washed her face, and returned to the portrait hall. She took the piece of key glued to the lock-picking tool and glued it to the rest of the key. After it set, she gave the keyhole a try. A tall and skinny three-feet wide portion of the wall opened. Evelyn stepped back and peered into a tight corridor. Dust flakes danced. The walls and floor were unpainted wood. I guess my father had secrets. She stepped inside and walked through the hall that ended at a door. The door wasn’t fully closed. The hinges were warped. The wood around the doorknob was splintered. The lock was broken.

Like every door in the old mansion, it groaned as Evelyn pushed it open. Inside was an office about a quarter of the size of the other office, but dense with objects. There were piles of old books spilling out of a dusty bookcase, a desk covered with documents, an old globe, a rusty bed frame and lived-in mattress, and dirty plates, cups, and silverware. There was a scattered pile of balled paper that rested on the floor. It looked like rats took a bite out of it.

Evelyn knelt down and picked up one of the balled pieces of paper.

It read, “To my beloved, in a less cruel world, we could’ve been together. It was never my desire to send you away, but sometimes sacrifices must be made for your safety and for mine. I write to you with my final breath. Come home. Take what is yours and do with it as you please. You are free of the burden of this town and family. Enjoy it, Evelyn, and know that I will always love you. Sincerely, Maxwell, your father. P.S. by the time you read this, I’ll be ten years gone. I know you do not understand nor will you, but know this is better for us all. Wounds will be healed. Life will be stable.

Evelyn read the note again before swiftly unballing another paper wad. “I am in great danger, which is why this must be brief. I surrender my estate and everything I own to Evelyn Quenby, my daughter. Burn this house or sell it. Nothing good will come from this place.Maxwell.

Evelyn picked up another. “Evelyn, there’s so much I wish I could’ve told you. There’s so many things I wish I could’ve seen. From your first step, to prom night, to your wedding, I would’ve loved to be there for all of it. I imagine you grew up to be beautiful and smart, like your mother. Though I’m ashamed that I never got to see you personally. Enclosed in this letter is my will…

Eyes watering, Evelyn read another and another and another, learning about her father’s love for her, his guilt, and this ominous danger that prevented him from telling her more. Evelyn felt her heart twist and a conflicting stir of emotions tear at her insides. If Maxwell loved her so much, why surrender her to the foster system? Why not reach out? Evelyn’s frustration grew the more she read. Every draft of his letters was vague and filled with regret. She flattened them out on the old mahogany desk. Part of her wanted to burn them. The other part of her wanted to hug them close to her chest and cry.

Sniffling, she thought back to the danger Maxwell mentioned. It sounds like he was murdered. Evelyn shivered at the thought. If so, no one knew. A body was never found. By the smashed door into this private study, it may well have happened where Evelyn stood. An overwhelming sense of dread filled her. She wanted to run as far as she could from the room. Suddenly, she noticed something nailed on the desk panel. Cautiously, she approached. Her mouth dried. She turned the photograph towards her. It was sepia tone and showed a little girl, between seven and ten years old, with sandy blonde hair, freckles, and a wide smile. Evelyn recognized her from the cotton field and from the mural she drew.

Evelyn took a step back and covered her mouth. She looked around the dusty room cluttered with clothes, odd philosophical books, and a number of rolled papers. The walls seemed to close in on her. The old, rusty bed made her mind go to dark places. She thought about the scorch marks in the cotton field. The child’s toy she’d found. What was the connection?

Evelyn felt like she was going to faint. She bolted out of the room and back into the hall of portraits. The front door opened.

“I’m home,” Terrence shouted.

Evelyn shut the secret door panel behind her and put the painting back in place. She pocketed the key, composed herself, and walked out into the foyer to meet him. She knew her face was still stark white, but she did well to hide it. None of this made sense, and bringing Terrence into the fold would be a distraction she couldn’t afford. Like in Detroit, Evelyn would work her cases alone unless she needed help.

Terrence had Band-Aids around each of his fingers. He held a large camera bag in his hand.

“You were gone for a long time,” Evelyn said, followed by asking, “What’s that?”

Terrence unzipped the bag and pulled out the massive video camera. “I rented this for a few days to monitor our sleeping habits. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“No,” Evelyn said. “I think it’s smart.”

Terrence smiled at her. “Good. I’ll set it up.” He bounced up the steps.

Evelyn looked outside the window. The sun was falling. Her mind went in circles, thinking about the blonde girl. Today was full enough already. She’d look first thing in the morning when she was better rested.

Terrence and Evelyn heated up some soup and ate in the vast dining room fit for twenty patrons. They didn’t say much. Both were lost in thought. Between the break-in and blackouts, Evelyn could see the toll on Terrence’s face. There was a tension in the air, fearful of what the night would bring.

After dinner, they went to bed. Evelyn felt odd having the dark camera lens watching her as they slept. Both of them doubled down on the doctor’s recommended medication and drifted to sleep.

Evelyn dreamed of fire licking her skin.

She awoke before the sun came up and took a shower. When she got out, Terrence was awake. He had the video camera on his lap and was reviewing the footage on the small screen. Evelyn scooted in close to him. Terrence’s Band-Aid-wrapped finger pressed the play button. They fast-forwarded through the first hour of tossing and turning, and then they both got out of bed with closed eyes. They walked out of the room.

Evelyn and Terrence traded worried looks.

They continued to fast-forward the footage until they watched themselves return to the frame an hour ago. Sleepwalking, both Evelyn and Terrence carried the missing shotguns. They stowed the weapons under the bed and returned to their sleeping positions. Terrence pressed pause. Evelyn stood up from the edge of the bed and peered under. A moment later, she returned with two shotguns.

“What did we do last night?” Terrence asked.

Evelyn knew she wasn’t going to like the answer.

 

Chapter Seven

Gunner

 

Evelyn checked the cartridge of the shotgun. One shot had been fired. The second gun told the same story.

Evelyn and Terrence sat in quiet for a moment, overwhelmed by the mansion’s silence. Outside, trees swayed calmly in the wind. The unmowed grass spotted with dandelions, weeds, and other wildflowers bent as if bowing to the high sun.

Without a word, Terrence grabbed one of the guns and unloaded the shells within. By the time he finished, ammo was spilling from his palm onto the painted white floor. He trembled slightly and started on the next gun, getting frustrated when one of the bullets jammed in the chamber. Evelyn put her hand on his thigh to calm him. Terrence tensed up.

“I don’t know what the hell we did last night,” Terrence said with a trembling voice. “But I’m not going to take any chances.”  

“We need to stay levelheaded,” Evelyn said.

Terrence shook his head, ignoring her words. “I’m getting rid of these guns.”

Before Evelyn could say a word, her husband was choking a shotgun in each hand and his pajama pockets were packed with ammo. Evelyn followed his march out the door. They walked out into the expansive backyard and far beyond the cotton field. Morning dew wetted their feet in their open toe slippers. Evelyn chewed her nails as she walked. Her other hand clenched a shovel. Terrence never asked her to pick it up, but Evelyn took the initiative. Sleepwalking with a high-powered weapon was not something she’d ever want to do again. Terrence dug a shallow hole, wrapped the weapons, and tossed them in. While Evelyn kicked the dirt over the shotguns, Terrence buried the ammo half an acre away, swaddling them in a towel before placing them in the hole.

After throwing their dirty clothes into the wash and showering, they put on their day clothes, sat on the walnut-colored sofa with green and gold floral upholstery in the living room, booted up their portable Wi-Fi hotspot, and opened their laptops. For a good hour, they browsed the local news in search of murders or gun crimes committed the night before. She found articles regarding an upcoming farmers market special and other small local events. There was nothing about murder or shots heard in the night.  Evelyn didn’t count her blessings. The day was still young.

“Maybe we’ll never know what happened,” Terrence said, his dark eyes glued on the computer screen. “Maybe it’s for the better.”

Evelyn nodded. In most cases, she’d want to know all the gritty details, but something about what happened last night made her stomach churn. She was hoping she’d have some recollection, but that hadn’t happened for the other blackouts, and she knew that it wouldn’t happen for this one.

“Life goes on,” Terrence said, talking to himself more than Evelyn. “We move on. No need to talk about it. We’ll get some medication, clean the house, and hit the road back to Detroit. Simple.”

“We can’t go back,” Evelyn said, watching the news anchor with unblinking eyes.

Terrence turned to her with his lips slightly parted.

“If we committed a crime, and I pray to God we didn’t, fleeing is the last thing we want to do.”

“Just yesterday, you were the one who wanted to leave.” Terrence turned her words against her.

“That was before the shotguns. Now let’s delete the footage from last night and finish our month here, and then we get the hell out of this house and don’t look back.” Evelyn thought that her words were a little extreme, but ninety-five percent of the time, someone got arrested for a crime because they acted hastily. Whether they did anything nefarious last night or not, she needed to play it safe. Only for a few more weeks.

Hair pulled back into a ponytail and wearing a white zipped-up track jacket, Evelyn went on a morning run through the property. With blackouts, the break-in, the revelation that her father may have been murdered, Evelyn needed something constant in her life right now. The pain shooting up her calves with every swift step and the sweat on her brow were her salvation at the moment. Acres away, Evelyn could still see the monumental Quenby House. Its tall white walls, Greek-style pillars, and blanket of flower-spattered vines nearly stole her breath every time she took a second to look at the artifact. A blessing and curse, that house. A heart-stopping beauty built on the back of slaves.

Drenched, Evelyn began her journey back. She hadn’t traveled far in terms of the scale of the property. She guessed they had between 20 and 25 acres total. A large portion of that was the cotton field, and another portion was for hay and livestock, of which there was none.

She returned inside and used a cloth in the large kitchen to dry her face. Resting her bottom against the countertop, she looked at the wooden kitchen island, the pantry the size of a small bedroom, and a small door leading to the meat freezer. Like the basement, the walk-in icebox was an extension added a century after the mansion’s inception. Overall, the kitchen looked like it could fit five chefs and servers.

Following the sound of tools scraping wood, Evelyn stepped into the one of the empty spare bedrooms Terrence had converted into his office. Thought usually slow and precise, Terrence worked furiously on the guitar frame with the wood shaver. Dripping with perspiration, he turned his gaze up to Evelyn. His shirt with different instruments was unbuttoned partly down the chest, and the sleeves had been rolled up past his elbows. The laptop was open nearby, still displaying generic news articles.

“Whenever you’re ready, let’s visit Dr. Waxen,” Evelyn said and walked away.

Terrence refreshed the browser page and went back to working on his newest guitar.

An hour and forty-five minutes later, and they were back at the hospital. Skeletal and silver-eyed, Dr. Waxen welcomed them into his office. He sat behind his imposing desk. On the wall, diplomas and certificates hung over his gray head. Skinny fingers locked on the desk’s top, he bounced his drooping but lively eyes between them.

Evelyn slid the pill bottle across the desk. “It didn’t work.”

“You’re still experiencing blackouts?” Dr. Waxen asked with his soft voice.

“We’re still sleepwalking,” Terrence injected and presented his Band-Aid-wrapped fingertips. “And we’re hurting ourselves while we do it.”

“Huh,” Waxen said with acute fascination. “How about you, Mrs. Carr? Any unexplained phenomena?”

Too many to count. “I believe I’m hallucinating. I find things I thought I moved back in their original location. I’ll see things I know aren’t real. I’m not crazy,” Evelyn thought she should clarify. “I think there’s something in the water or maybe a gas leak in the house.”

Terrence shifted in his chair. “The home inspector would’ve told us that, and when were you planning on telling me about all that stuff?”

“I thought it was sleep deprivation,” Evelyn replied. “I didn’t want to worry you with it.”

“Well, I’m worried now,” Terrence huffed.

Doctor Waxen cleared his throat. “The medication I prescribed you is the strongest I have. I can up the dosage and see if that helps, but I must say that the side effects are less than favorable.”

“What are we talking about?” Evelyn asked.

“Nausea, headaches, cramps, drowsiness. Some find themselves steering the toilet seat every now and then. In summation, it’s not a fun time, but you’ll sleep like babies.”

“Screaming and crying at 3 a.m.?” Terrence said to lighten the mood.

Waxen stared at him with hollow eyes. “Soundly.”

Evelyn traded looks with Terrence. “We’ll take it.”  

“I would suggest you stay somewhere other than your home for the next few days. Stress plays a large role in these types of situations,” Dr. Waxen said as he wrote them another prescription and had a coughing fit. Evelyn and Terrence traded looks.

With most of their clothes still packed in their suitcases, Evelyn and Terrence found the Sunnyside Motel on the outskirts of town. It was a cute place, single story, and owned by a nice elderly couple with friendly smiles. At 44 dollars a night, the price couldn’t be beat. The room was as “quaint” as the owners described, with a queen-sized bed, 20-inch TV, outdated microwave, and mini fridge. Evelyn knew she wasn’t going to be storing much food in there. It appeared she’d be enjoying the continental breakfast for the next few days. Though neither one of them said it, their massive room in the Quenby House was miles better. Evelyn didn’t like that revelation, knowing that adapting back to her low-income Detroit lifestyle would not be easy.

Sitting at one of two chairs on the circular table, Terrence checked his wad of cash and rubbed his creased brow. “We need to start selling stuff.”

“I agree,” Evelyn said, plopping down at the corner of the bed. “The break-in did a number on us. The paintings survived, thankfully, but a lot of the vases broke and the furniture that got pushed over is chipped.”

“It’s a good thing we’re getting a few days away from the house. It keeps us humble.”

“Half glass full?” Evelyn smiled tiredly.

Terrence returned the grin. “Always.”

The light-heartedness helped push the horror of last night from Evelyn’s mind, but only for the moment. The stress returned. She opened the small spiral-bound notebook she kept in the inner pocket of her black double-breasted raincoat. Chewing on the end of the eraserless pencil, she thought of the best way to clean up the plantation. They needed landscapers and to research what was actually worth money. After all that was finished, they’d need someone trustworthy to put an estimate on the house and property. It would be smart to search Maxwell’s desk for any documents regarding the house’s history. Evelyn guessed that would be a big selling point if the person could look past the ideas of slavery. Terrence seemed to be doing a good job of it, or at least a good job at not expressing his concerns to Evelyn. They never took the time to broach the topic seriously, and Evelyn was happy for that.

They spent the next three days at the Quenby House, cleaning, organizing, and getting the landscapers to start on the yard surrounding the house. Wearing green polos and driving a green van, they hustled out and worked swiftly at mowing and pruning the bushes. When the leader approached Evelyn in regards to the vines growing on the mansion, she replied. “Leave them. I think they’re pretty.” The workers were quick but not cheap. Thankfully, Terrence lucked out with the tractor owner. It was a friend of the musician from the bar, and he offered to cut the hay for free as long as he could keep the bales. Wearing his white cowboy hat, Terrence signed off on that and subtly directed the man to avoid part of the patch of grass behind the cotton field. Terrence didn’t need to explain the reasoning to Evelyn. No one needed to know about the guns they buried.

During the evenings, Evelyn and Terrence set up the video camera and took the medication. When they woke up, they felt like they were experiencing the worst hangover ever. The dimmest light blinded them, their limbs felt weak, and their heads throbbed. As Dr. Waxen had promised, there were no blackouts and no sleepwalking. They checked the news. Still no word on any sort of gun crime committed. Terrence thought they might dodge a bullet. Evelyn was still holding her breath.

With all the activity, the Quenby House lost its signature silence. The tractor hummed in the distance, lawn mowers rumbled, and yard workers shouted instructions to one another. Evelyn snapped pictures of every antique she could find and felt convicted when she compared them to similar items on the Internet. Though she didn’t know her father or her family, it felt like she was guilty of some sin by selling the family relics.

When no one was watching, Evelyn slipped into the portrait hall, turned the key, and snuck into her father’s secret study. She clenched the little circular knobs on the desk drawer and pulled it out. Sharp ink pens and unorganized old documents lay within. Evelyn removed a black and white photo of a family of three standing out in front of the mansion and a 1960s Duesenberg car. There was a massive crease down the middle of the picture where someone had folded it many times. It showed a nicely dressed middle-aged couple with black hair and dark circles under their eyes standing behind a boy of seven wearing a sweater vest and slacks. Like his parents, his hair was dark, his eyes were underlined with black, and he didn’t smile.

Evelyn turned over the photo. In cursive, a message said, “The Quenbys. John, Alice, and little Maxwell. Spring 1966.” Though they were her grandparents, all Evelyn could think was that this was a big house for a small amount of people. She rested it on the stack of unfinished wills and removed the other documents. There were sales records for cotton and livestock, plummeting in price and quantity since the end of the civil war. By the looks of it, the Quenbys couldn’t maintain the place after slavery was abolished. Their final cotton sale was in 1875. The closer she got to the bottom of the stack of documents, the more brittle and stained the pages became. Evelyn was surprised that the paper had survived as long as it did. With a gentle touch, she removed the original land deed dating back to July of 1824. The mansion was completed in 1832 and the first slave was purchased in 1843. When Evelyn searched the town of Adders on her phone, she realized that the Quenby property was older than the town itself.

With surviving receipts from every cotton auction, it was a wonder how this place hadn’t been converted into a historical landmark. That’s why Maxwell must’ve wanted to keep this gem hidden. Evelyn assumed. The locals say he kept to himself. Continuing her procrastination streak instead of cleaning, she shifted through the other documents. Money was funding the plantation from some unknown source. Evelyn wondered what it could be without the sales of cotton to support them.  

As she sifted through legal and sales papers dating back one hundred and fifty years, Evelyn caught glimpses of the picture of the little blonde girl nailed onto the desk’s backboard. She felt dread crushing her and pulled the photo from the nail. She looked into the little girl’s eyes. For a moment, it was like the little girl was looking back. Evelyn shuddered and put the photograph face down. Focus on the sale, Evelyn reminded herself, yet like an itch she couldn’t scratch, her mind went back to the girl.

The fourth night at the Sunnyside, Evelyn and Terrence scooted close together on the bed, with only illumination from the TV to light the small room. It felt like their Detroit home. The medication began to kick in, and Terrence rushed out of bed and into the bathroom. He dry-heaved for a little bit before returning to bed. Neither one of them had vomited as Dr. Waxen had said, but they’d gotten close.

They fell asleep a little bit before ten o’clock. Evelyn dreamed of Quenby House backed by the hot sun. One moment, she was standing before the massive house and next she was running from it. Suddenly, someone or something grabbed her by the neck of her shirt and dragged her down the hall. She realized that she wasn’t her adult-self but a child. Her small hands reached desperately for something to grab onto while she was being taken, but there was no hope. She was dragged across the yard. Her screams were muted by a dry rag. Her legs and arms thrashed as she was pulled through the tall grass and into the cotton field. She was picked up and thrown down. Her little body thumped on the hard earth and the wind left her lungs. She smelled lighter fluid and gasoline, heard laughter, and was doused with liquid. It dripped through her blonde locks.

Evelyn thought she’d wake up from the nightmare when she saw the match produce a flame. A shadowy figure flicked at her and flames burst across her body. She screamed as loud as she could but out here, no one could hear her. Her flesh melted and her little heart raced. She thought she’d be dead by now, but the flames only grew hotter until all she knew was fire and agony.

Evelyn jolted awake, drenched in a cold sweat. Her heart sank when she looked at the cow pasture around her. Millions of stars speckled the sky. Cold air cut right through her pajamas.

Terrence sat cross-legged behind her. His eyes were closed and he was rocking back and forth, mumbling to himself. Evelyn pushed on his shoulder. “Terrence. Get up. Terrence.”

Her husband’s eyes shot open. He stared at Evelyn with a horrified expression, and then twisted around to study the field of rolling grass behind them.

“What—where?” Terrence tried to stand, but his knees buckled and he fell down to his shins.

Evelyn put her hands on his cheeks and turned his scrunched-up handsome face to her. “Shh. I know where we are.”

“Wha… how?” Terrence said.

“Trust me,” Evelyn replied. “Come on. We need to move.”

Evelyn helped Terrence up. Her leg wobbled beneath her. A throbbing headache rattled her brain and she started seeing double. The drug hadn’t worn off yet and the side effects hit her like a train.

“For all his diplomas, Dr. Waxen doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s talking about,” Terrence said through chattering teeth. He was only wearing a wrinkled white t-shirt and boxers. The only warmth they found was from each other’s hand.

They raced across the cattle field, avoiding cow patties like landmines, until they reached the road. Evelyn recalled the path that the twin had drove down and started that way. They grimaced as they stepped on the rough road with their dirty bare feet.

“Where are we going?” Terrence asked, struggling to keep up with Evelyn’s speed walk.

“Home,” she replied. “It’s a few miles down this way.”

Terrence cursed. “It makes no sense that we walked that far without waking up.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Terrence. You know as much as me.”

“Whatever we have, it’s not a normal medical condition.”

“Really?” Evelyn said sarcastically.

“This is way past screwed up,” Terrence mumbled.

“Hey, at least we don’t have guns this time,” Evelyn said to make up for her husband’s lack of optimism.

“We might have. Who knows anymore? I sure don’t.” Terrence grumbled. “Hell, it might be good to have weapons in the middle of nowhere.”

“You’re acting uncharacteristically grumpy,” Evelyn pointed out.

“I feel grumpy,” Terrence retorted angrily.

Evelyn kept her mouth shut. About a half mile into their journey, their jog died into a painful walk. No cars drove by. No lights illuminated the street. They navigated inky blackness, feeling their hairs stand whenever they heard a critter or movement just out of sight. An hour passed, or at least what felt like an hour, it could’ve been more, before they reached Quenby Avenue. With lazy footsteps, they stayed on course until they reached the red brick path. Evelyn sneezed and Terrence coughed. Despite the walk, the cold never seemed to leave their bodies.

Through the long columns of trees, the mansion slowly revealed its tall, white colonnades. Panting, Evelyn and Terrence shambled towards the house. A crescent moon hung above it. There was a light on the second-story window. Evelyn and Terrence turned to one another.

“Did you turn that on today?” Terrence asked.

Mouth still dry from the long walk, Evelyn said, “No.”

Cautiously, they pushed open the unlocked front door and stepped into the dark foyer. She marched to the kitchen and armed herself and Terrence with knives before proceeding up one of the curved stairways. Evelyn walked on the sides of her feet or heels due to the tenderness of her soles. They reached the second floor and silently walked through the long hall. The floor groaned and creaked, causing them to pause and trade looks with one another. Evelyn wished she had the shotgun as she approached the closed door with light streaming out from its seams.  

Getting on either side of the door, Terrence turned the knob slowly and opened it into the nursery. The light was on. The toys were in the same place Evelyn saw when she last visited the room. Not seeing anyone inside, Terrence entered. Evelyn followed. The ceiling fan whirled above their heads.

“There’s no one here,” Terrence said with relief.

They turned back to the door, only to see the little blonde girl and the tall man in a white mask staring at them from the doorway.

Evelyn opened her mouth to scream. The light suddenly cut out.

With a gasp, Evelyn shot out of bed in her Sunnyside Motel room. She looked at Terrence, who was sleeping soundly beside her. She took inventory of herself. It was a dream, she said, feeling her heart pounding.

Drenched in sweat, she swiveled her legs over the edge of the bed. Her tender feet touched the cheap-carpeted floor. Evelyn didn’t like that feeling. She lifted one foot and studied the bottom of it. It was bruised, raw, and dirty. Panicking, she pulled the covers off of Terrence. His feet were dirty too.

“Terrence,” Evelyn rolled her husband over. His body was limp. His head was covered by a featureless white mask.

 

Chapter Eight

The Call

 

The tight cotton mask encased Terrence’s face, almost as if sucking at his skin. The point of a crude knife had cut out the two crude eye holes the size of buttons, and the two ear holes the size of peas. A burnt musk lingered on the mask. Terrence’s stomach rose and fell with every breath. Band-Aids decorated his fingertips. Evelyn looked at her husband with fear and uncertainty. Her muscles were tense and her breathing ragged. She brushed her fingers across the smooth cotton texture before clenching the mask in her hand and tearing it off her husband’s face. Still sleeping, Terrence’s head rolled limply.

Evelyn faced the mask as if it were a decapitated head. When she looked into the dark eye holes, the crackling of fire and the screams of a little girl filled her ears. Without hesitation, Evelyn threw the mask at the wall. It hit with a soft pat and plopped to the ground, wrinkled like a tissue. She turned back to Terrence.

Like worms, red veins reached to brown irises as Terrence stared at her with wide eyes.

Evelyn scooted away from him as a horrifying thought snaked into her mind. Whoever she was looking at wasn’t really her husband. He may look like him, he may smell like him, but he wasn’t her Terrence.

“What happened?” Terrence asked. “Baby, you look worried.”

Evelyn didn’t speak. She stared at him, ready to bolt out of the room in an instant.

Sensing Evelyn’s worry, Terrence sat up.

Evelyn got out of bed.

“Babe—”

Evelyn interrupted him. “What happened in the child’s playroom last night?”

Terrence cocked his head in confusion. “Playroom?”

“Don’t play coy. The nursery.”

“I don’t—” Terrence swiveled his feet out of bed.

“Stay there!” Evelyn shouted.

Terrence put his hand up in a non-threatening manner and stayed in the bed. “Okay, okay, I’m not going anywhere. Evelyn, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Were you thinking about hurting me?” Evelyn asked with frustrated suspicion.

“What? No, Eve, of course not. I’d never.” Terrence replied. “Why would I?”

Evelyn didn’t have a solid answer. “Something happened last night when we were at Quenby House. Whatever it was caused you to wake up with that on your face.” She pointed to the white mask scrunched up on the floor.

Terrence gulped when he looked at it. “I was wearing that?”

Chewing her thumbnail, Evelyn nodded.

Terrence’s eyes turned to glass. “The last thing I remember is taking the medication and going to bed with you.”

Evelyn felt the breath leave her for a moment. “The pasture, our walk, the little girl and masked man, you don’t remember any of that?”

“I’m telling you the truth. I can’t remember anything. You gotta believe me, babe.” He looked at his dirty and raw feet with horror.

Evelyn paced, trying to get control of her frustration and fear. It only made it worse. Usually, she was good at hiding her emotions. Not now. She swept away a tear before it could fall.

“I’m scared,” Terrence wiped his eyes. Where those real tears or was it an act? Evelyn wondered. She couldn’t shake the pit in her gut that said this was not her husband.

“What the hell is happening to us?” Terrence asked.

Evelyn hated the words she spoke, but she could find only one explanation. “It’s that house.”

Terrence turned to Evelyn, giving her his undivided attention.

“Before we arrived, we lived normal, crappy lives, but not a single thing has made sense since we walked through that mansion’s front door.” Evelyn forced herself to be honest. “I don’t know if demons, or karma, or spirits, or any of that unexplainable hocus pocus is real, but there is something going on here that defies explanation.”

“Evelyn, maybe we’re just sick,” Terrence said softly. “Or the side effects of the medication—”

“Let’s be honest with ourselves, Terrence. This happened way before we met the creepy doctor. Sick people don’t paint the Sistine Chapel on their hallway when they can hardly doodle. They don’t claw on the basement wall without reason.”

Terrence stretched out his bandaged fingers. “That’s what I was doing?”

Evelyn glared at him.

Terrence pursed his lips and averted his eyes.

Evelyn continued, “This all ties back to the girl, the mask, and somehow my father.”

“Girl? Mask? I don’t understand,” Terrence said honestly.

Evelyn felt herself squirm. “Just trust me, all right?”

“I do,” Terrence said feebly. “But… what should we do? Run? Burn the house down? Call an exorcist? How does any of this information help us if we don’t have a solution?”

Evelyn ran her hand through her disheveled blonde hair and up her scalp. “We’ve been out of the house for a few days. Waking up with that mask proves that there is still a connection to the mansion even when we’re away.” Evelyn didn’t know if her words were phony or gospel, but it sounded right and made a miniscule amount of sense in some weird way.

Startlingly quick, Terrence got out of bed and bee lined for the deflated-looking suitcase on the ground.

Evelyn took a step back, hitting her spine against the wall behind her. “What are you going?”

“Getting the hell out of here,” Terrence said with vigor as he jammed dirty clothes into the suitcase.

“I just told you it won’t make a difference,” Evelyn argued.

“I get you want answers,” Terrence said as he began putting on new clothes. “You’re an investigator, I don’t fault you for that, but, at the moment, I don’t care about truth or the explanation. I care about my safety,” Wearing his shirt on backwards, he shoved the wrinkled pajamas into the suitcase. “And I care about yours. To hell with the rest. Get packed. We’re leaving.”

Not since Terrence pulled Evelyn’s broken body from the crashed car all those years ago had he ever been so demanding. Not wasting time to take a shower, Evelyn threw off her pajamas and put on jeans and an orange and black striped long-sleeved shirt. Holding a bobby pin between her teeth, she put her hair into a loose bun. Terrence zipped up the bag and reached for the wad of cash next to the Gideon bible. Evelyn grabbed the money before Terrence could touch it. Off his confused look, Evelyn replied. “I’ll hold on to it. You get the suitcases.”

Not wanting to argue, Terrence heaved up both suitcases. The cords of muscles in his arms went taut as he hustled out the door. Evelyn slung on her double-breasted raincoat and shoved the money in the inner pocket. If there was something wrong with Terrence, she needed to make sure she was prepared to survive on her own.

The grass was still dewy and the sun was low and golden. In the nearly desolate parking lot, Terrence shoved the suitcases in the back cargo hold of the minivan. He slammed the truck so hard that the van’s windows rattled, and he clambered into the front seat. Evelyn took shotgun with hesitation, hoping that her suspicions of her husband were wrong as he turned the key in the ignition.

The minivan puttered to life and reversed so fast that the tires screamed and another hubcap fell off. Terrence put the vehicle into Drive and raced down the road flanked by pastures and a few pine oaks. The car wasn’t a speed demon, but that didn’t stop Terrence from stomping the gas. They had left so quick that Evelyn forgot to return the room key… and pay the landscapers. Running away from it all felt weak and impulsive, but her life was on the line. Evelyn rested her head against the window and watched spotted cows and red tractors reaping hay blur by. Less than an hour later, the green sign for Adders, Georgia was in their wake.

They drove in silence and slowed to the speed limit. In a few hours, they would be out of the state. Many hours after that, they’d be home. Evelyn wondered what she’d tell her kids, if she could ever have children, when they asked about their grandfather. She thought she’d lie to them, tell them she knew nothing about the mysterious Maxwell or where he lived. All of what happened in Adders would be mere memory. One locked away till the end of her days.

Evelyn watched the road and felt a wave of tiredness flood over her. Must stay awake. Must keep an eye on Terrence. She tried to blink the sleep away. It didn’t help. The rumble of the road calmed her much more than the mansion’s bed ever had. She wanted to shut her eyes.

Only for a second.

She awoke to the smell of gasoline and fumes. Another nightmare. Her neck cried out in pain. Her nose throbbed. She opened her eyes to the cracked windshield and the tree beyond it. It was dark outside. A gasp of pain escaped her lips as Evelyn sat up and rubbed her neck. She tasted blood on her lips and noticed a crimson smudge on the dashboard in the shape of her nose. A million questions raced through her mind. She twisted to Terrence before answering them. Her husband’s face was buried in the deflated airbag. His arms were limp by his side.

“Terrence.” Evelyn’s voice cracked. “Wake up.”

She shook his shoulder, causing his whole body to rock. He didn’t react. Dread fell over Evelyn. She pushed her fingers on his neck. Nothing.

“Oh God,” Evelyn whimpered and readjusted her fingers.

Nothing.

“Oh God,” Evelyn felt herself cry as she readjusted her fingers again.

The faintest pulse thumped against her fingertips. Evelyn inhaled deeply. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. She unbuckled her seatbelt and fished her hand into her pocket. The simple action caused pain to shoot through her body. Dialing 911, Evelyn staggered out of the car, leaving her unconscious husband to rest.

State your emergency,” said the mechanical-sounding dispatch lady.

“Car crash. My husband and I.” Evelyn felt the ground move as she put her feet down. The world tilted. She blinked a few times, finding her balance.

What is your current location?

Evelyn waddled around the side panel of the vehicle. Over the white fumes wafting out the crumpled and corroded hood stood the mighty Quenby House backed by a pregnant moon and thin, drifting clouds.

“My house,” she said with defeat before she gave the dispatch lady the address and let the phone fall from her hand with a clack on the red brick road.

Fate stabbed her with a knife and twisted the blade in her chest. Her car, her only means of escape, was jammed into an oak tree running alongside the path to the house. Her husband was unresponsive and possibly a replacement of his true self, and the theory about her connection to this place was unfortunately true.

She sank to her knees.

“What do you want from me?” she mumbled to whatever force was toying with her.

The midnight wind shrieked in reply.

 

In a fury of flashing lights and screaming sirens, the ambulance and police cruiser arrived. The young and strong EMTs that looked like poster boys for 1950s America dragged Terrence from the car and loaded him onto the gurney. Grabbing either side of the stretcher, they carried Terrence into the back of the ambulance.

“Have you ever been in a car accident before?” The brown-eyed and brawny EMT standing by her asked.

“Once. Years ago,” Evelyn said, her eyes a thousand yards away and looking at the house. “When I tried to kill myself. Terrence saved me.”

She had no clue why she told the boy her darkest secret. Not even Terrence knew the cause of the accident.

“Well,” the EMT said, unsure how to reply. “Your neck appears to be okay. It’s just a minor sprain. Likewise with your nose. All things considered, you’re very lucky. We’ll take you to the hospital while a tow truck takes care of your vehicle.”

“And Terrence?” Evelyn asked.

The EMT gave her a pitying smile. “He’s alive, but we can’t say much else right now.”

A police officer approached Evelyn after the EMT left, asking how much she had to drink that night.

“My husband and I are sober, Officer,” Evelyn replied with a little more attitude than she intended. “We got distracted on the way home and he hit the tree. I think it must’ve been deer.” Evelyn lied with a straight face.

The officer eyed her for a moment and then jotted down the answer.  

In the sterile-smelling white walls of the hospital waiting room, the nurses gave Evelyn aspirin and a small neutral-colored cup of water. She quickly downed the items and slouched back in the uncomfortable but cushioned chair. With every heartbeat, her nose throbbed. Did Terrence black out or did he mean to drive us home? Both answers scared her.

“Mrs. Carr?”

Evelyn didn’t hear the man approach. The handsome doctor had a square jaw and big eyes with streaks of natural silver in his dark hair. Putting her palms on the arm rests, Evelyn tried to stand, but he said otherwise. “You need your energy.”

“Dr. Gregory,” Evelyn read his nametag. “Any word on Terrence?”

“He’s still unconscious. The airbag cushioned most of the impact. We believe the force of the accident rattled his brain, but honestly, we don’t have a definitive answer. His vitals are fine. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be waking up.”

Evelyn had nothing to say. If Terrence were here, he’d make a positive quip. “Hey, at least I’m alive.” But Evelyn didn’t have much optimism before, and there was even less now. Maybe it was good he wasn’t waking up. Evelyn shunned that thought the moment it passed through her mind. After spending five years with the man, she couldn’t imagine a world without her good-natured husband.

“I noticed that your health insurance is out-of-date,” the good doctor said. “Would you like to discuss payment plans now or tomorrow?”

Evelyn almost laughed at the amount of crap being dumped on her.

“Now,” she replied, and felt the wad of cash in pocket that would be much smaller come this time tomorrow.

“You may stay here for the night if you wish. We have a few extra rooms,” Dr. Gregory said as he handed her the proper paperwork. Evelyn glanced about the empty waiting room.

“Is it free?” Evelyn asked cynically.

“I’m afraid not.”

Evelyn nodded to herself, paid her dues, and vanished out the hospital’s double doors.

She saw a nurse approach Dr. Gregory before the machine doors shut.  With the breeze brushing her hair against her cheek and lip, Evelyn pulled out the picture of the little blonde girl, torn at the top where the nail had been planted.

The doctor raced out of the door. “Mrs. Carr!”

Under the streetlight and with apathetic eyes, Evelyn turned back to the winded doctor.

“I’ve decided to cover your expenses.” Dr. Gregory handed the money back to her.

“Why?” Evelyn asked skeptically.

Gregory stared at her. “I didn’t realize that you’re a Quenby. Come back inside. I’ll get you something to eat.”

Her cramping stomach replied for her. Gregory opened up the cafeteria door and flipped on the lights.

“No one’s supposed to be in here this late,” Gregory said as he slipped behind the counter and into the kitchen. “That never stops the nurses though.”

Evelyn stood in the large room with rows of tables. “I didn’t realize my family name carried so much clout,” Evelyn yelled to Gregory.

Gregory returned with a few yogurts, apples, and juice cartons. “For many years, the Quenbys donated to this hospital. We’re indebted to you.”

Evelyn was taken back by that, wondering how much sway her family had over this town. “Do you know about Maxwell’s disappearance?” Evelyn said while she accepted the food.  

Dr. Gregory paused at the question. “My guess is that he ran away. He probably went stir-crazy in that mansion and wanted to say goodbye to it all. See, Maxwell wasn’t the most well-liked of the Quenbys. When he vanished, things were… better.”

“Tell me about him,” Evelyn insisted.

“Prideful,” Dr. Gregory said with venom. “He thought he was untouchable in his big house. Never worked, took whatever he liked and, unlike his father, he was stingy with his money. That’s normally not an issue, but the Quenbys had a reputation for generosity, and many facilities relied on their annual donations. When Maxwell decided to withhold his support, he lost a lot of friends.”

“You don’t seem to like the man very much,” Evelyn said.

Dr. Gregory’s smile betrayed him. “I did, actually. At one time.” His fingers drummed on his juice carton before he gulped it down. “It’s nearly 11. I must get going, Evelyn. Do you mind if I call you that?”

“I don’t see why not,” Evelyn replied.

The handsome doctor smiled in a way that would melt many girl’s hearts. “Enjoy your meal, Evelyn. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Taking her food with her, Evelyn ventured down the hall into the room the nurses had prepped for her. She requested that the nurse lock the hospital door while she slept. Suspicious, the woman granted the request.

In the clean and crisp hospital room, Evelyn flopped onto the stiff mattress. She couldn’t sleep even if she wanted to, which she didn’t. She locked her fingers together on her slender stomach and thought how best to find the blonde girl or her body.

Sunlight crawled over the carpeted floor, up the bed, and across Evelyn’s determined face. The nurse unlocked the door and entered with a metal tray. An orange juice carton and eggs rested on the tray top. Evelyn ate quickly, for energy over taste. “Tell Dr. Gregory I said thanks,” Evelyn said mid-bite.

“You sure you don’t want to tell him yourself?” the nurse replied.

“No time,” Evelyn said and slung on her jacket. “Call me if Terrence wakes up.”

She took a cab back to Quenby House. The landscapers were working feverishly as always. The tractor rumbled in the hay fields. Everything seemed… normal. Evelyn glanced at the plastic bumper left behind at the base of an ancient oak and went inside of the mansion. She marched to the foyer and through the hall of portraits. Moving aside the corner of one painting and turning the key, she slipped into her father’s private study. She scoured every inch of it, finding a wide-brim fedora from the 1940s, stacks of old National Geographic, and various religious texts and textbook examinations of the supernatural. Was Father looking for answers too? Evelyn pulled open the drawers of the desk, put aside the documents, and opened various travel brochures. One was from Hawaii, and the original stamped plane tickets were tucked away inside.

Evelyn kept sifting through old knick-knacks and Antebellum-era artifacts stored away for safekeeping. She found two ruby earrings covered in a sheen of dust and an empty ring box. Evelyn wondered if they were owned by her mother. She discovered a large stash of crosses hidden under the bed and a slit in the mattress used to store small objects. Evelyn reached her hand inside, feeling feathers and cotton but not finding anything. As she walked around the room, Evelyn felt a loose floorboard under her foot. Stopping, she looked at the wooden plank before putting her fingertips underneath and pulling it up. Inside was a green hair ribbon and a lock box. Evelyn removed both objects and blew on them. The dust rolled off like a miniature sandstorm. She clenched the hair ribbon and re-examined the photo of the little girl. Atop the girl’s sunny hair was the vibrant green ribbon tied into a bow. Evelyn used her lock-picking tools to open the box and found a stack of children’s drawings. It showed a tall man and a blonde girl standing out of a crude rendition of the Quenby House, another with them in the cotton field and in a series of other locations. The hairs of Evelyn’s neck stood when she realized they shared the same orientation as the blonde girl and masked man in the mural Evelyn had painted.

Evelyn flipped the drawings to their back. Written in crayon, the text read, “Max and me.”

Evelyn lowered the children’s drawings.

“What did my father do to you?” Evelyn asked aloud.

The house was silent. She needed more evidence. She needed to know this girl’s name. She researched “Adders, Georgia murder” on her phone. There was a story about a husband who shot his cheating wife in 90s, but that had nothing to do with a little girl or Maxwell. She tried more in-depth searches but found nothing under murder. She leaned back in the leather desk chair and scratched her swollen nose. She winced at the action and searched, “Adders, Georgia kidnapping.”

No results.

Adders, Georgia missing girl.”

A hit. Actually, multiple hits. But one with a familiar face stood out. Evelyn clicked on it.

Evelyn opened the photocopied version of a news article on her small phone screen. June 29, 2003 was the date on the news article, over a decade ago. It displayed a picture of a cute blonde girl with big blue eyes, a wide carefree smile, and faint freckles on the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. Mary Sullivan, seven years old, left in the morning to visit friends, the report said, before vanishing. She was known to bike everywhere and frequently left the house. Her guardians didn’t report her absence until 8:42 pm that night. No trace of her was ever found.

Evelyn glanced through the rest of the web pages. There were reports of other girls missing over the last three decades, but nothing more on Mary.

Using a photocopied version of the Mary’s missing person poster, Evelyn found the names and contact information of Jack and Angie Sullivan, her aunt and uncle/legal guardians.

Evelyn dialed the number.

After a few rings, she heard a “Hello?” It was a male’s voice, gruff and brutish like a frontiersman.

“Mr. Sullivan?” Evelyn’s voice echoed slightly in the hidden study.

Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.

“It’s about Mary.”

She could practically hear the air leaving Jack’s room. “What about her?

“I want to help you find her. My name is Evelyn Carr. I’m a private investigator.”

Mary’s long gone. Don’t waste your time.

“All I need is a few moments with you. It won’t cost you anything, I swear.”

It will cost me, Investigator Carr. Only I’ll be paying with my peace, not my wallet.”

“Can we meet this afternoon?” Evelyn asked, not willing to take no for an answer.

Sealing up the secret study, Evelyn headed to the Sullivan residence. It was a single-story house with drab paint and junk-littered front yard. Multiple big dogs barked at Evelyn from a wide, fenced-in pen beside the house. Jack opened the screen door upon Evelyn’s approach. He was a tall man with a keg-like torso, more muscle than fat, and a bushy, soot-colored beard that covered half of his face and fell a few inches past the V-neck of his white t-shirt. Deep lines were etched around his unreadable blue eyes, and wrinkles snaked over his untamed brows and across his forehead. His breath smelled like PBR and, from what little Evelyn could see beneath the mustache that ran over his upper lip, his teeth were slightly crooked and yellow.   

“What happened to your nose?” Jack asked.

“My husband’s a bad driver,” Evelyn replied, stepping past him and into the dirty home.

“I’ve heard that one before,” Jack said behind her.

Dog fur and dirt gathered in the corners of the house, a handful of dirty dishes jutted from the sink, and a black splinter crack disrupted the image on the large living room TV screen. The home’s sour scent combatted the cheap air fresheners plugged into nearly every outlet. Evelyn noticed there were no pictures of Mary on the walls or anywhere for that matter. When asked about it, Jack replied, “You wouldn’t want to be reminded of your failure all day, either.”

Evelyn took a seat on the couch with cat claw marks on the lower portion of the armrest. In between the cushions, she could see powdery Doritos fragments and loose change. Was the messiness a reality of Mary’s childhood, or a result of her vanishing? Evelyn wondered.

A willowy woman stepped out of the bathroom and seemingly floated to the nearby recliner. Angie’s arms and leg looked like sticks of skin and bone jutting out of her yellow floral dress and sandals. Her upper ribs pressed hard against her pale skin and could be seen at her neckline. Sunken and touched by age, her green eyes spoke of sorrow. Her hair was cut evenly just below her jawline and was splashed with the color of wet ash.

The Sullivans waited for Evelyn to say the first words. “I want to know about Mary’s disappearance.”

“You aren’t local, and never has an outsider cared what’s happened in Adders. Why does my niece concern you?” Jack lingered nearby with his arms crossed over his broad chest.

“I make my living looking for the forgotten,” Evelyn said.

“You said this was free,” Jack reminded her.

“It is,” Evelyn retorted. “Mary has some significance in my life, let’s just leave it at that. Now are we going to talk or waste even more time?”

Jack and Angie traded looks and then gestured for Evelyn to proceed.

“Tell me about Mary. What was she like?”

A tiny, sad smile formed on Angie’s hollow face. “Mary loved to play. She loved the outdoors. Every summer day, she’d ride that bike of hers. Up and down. Up and down. It had little tassels on the handlebars. Do you remember the tassels, dear? The little ones on the handlebars?”

Jack stared at her a moment. “Yeah,” but the word sounded more like a grunt than anything.

“Did she act any different leading up to and on the day she vanished?” Evelyn inquired.

“No,” Angie replied, her reminiscing smile fleeting. “The only change is that she never came home for supper.”

“Describe her home life,” Evelyn asked.

Angie gave Jack a sharp look. “Peaceful. Happy. Normal.” Something about her tone suggested a more sinister reality.

“Discipline and order, that’s what keeps a house in line,” Jack said with gruff resolve.  

Evelyn began to realize why Mary was away so often. “Was there anyone who wanted to hurt Mary?”

“Apparently someone did,” Jack said.

“Did she have any stalkers or people you suspected after she vanished?”

“There was one,” Angie said, looking Evelyn in the soul with her jaded eyes. “Maxwell Quenby.”

 

Chapter Nine

The Trio

 

Jack boiled at the mention of Maxwell’s name. He grumbled what seemed like the foulest assortment of curse words he could muster.

Evelyn ignored him and spoke to Angie. “Tell me about Maxwell.”

“He lived in that old plantation house outside of time,” Angie said. “Some days, Mary would bike down his street. Maxwell would give her candy and other gifts. We thought he was harmless, truly, but then Mary vanished.”

“That police, incompetent as they are, wouldn’t arrest Maxwell,” Jack said. “Not enough conclusive evidence, they said. To hell with them. Everyone knows that the Quenbys donate to the department every year.”

Evelyn jotted down the information, realizing that her family had their hand in a lot of honeypots. “Did Mary visit Maxwell often?”

Angie and Jack traded looks.

“I don’t know,” Jack admitted. “Mary would bike all over the place. God knows the people she met during her travels.”

Evelyn tried pressing them for information regarding Mary’s other friends and the times she’d stay out late. Jack and Angie answered the best they could, but time had clearly muddled their memories. None of the information was useful. Before she left, Evelyn asked a final question. “What happened to Mary’s parents?”

“One’s in jail, and the other is dead.” Jack glared at Evelyn. “Don’t have an affair.”

He let Evelyn piece the rest of the story together. After the meeting, Evelyn called a cab and thought of her next move. Her mind drifted back to her father, a man she’d never seen, and his odd reputation. She wondered what it must be like to live under a parent’s shadow and to shoulder that burden alone. Maybe he did run away? Or did he become the man in the white mask and Mary was his victim? If that was true, what did that mean for Evelyn? Would the revelation be enough to end her and Terrence’s plight?

She returned to Quenby House. The white flowers on its vines shimmied in the breeze. Such a beautiful place for such evil. Evelyn entered the house. The afternoon sun vanished as she shut the door behind her. She rested her back against it and took a deep breath. Her busted nose throbbed and had her head pounding. If my father is a monster, what am I? Evelyn struck down the thought. She’d never defined herself by her parents or lack thereof. Why start now?

She glanced up at the mural of trumpeting angels painted across the domed ceiling.

“Help me,” Evelyn mumbled to the cracked mural of heaven. She noticed something shift on the ceiling, almost as if the paint was moving. Suddenly, the baby-faced angels began to swirl around the inside of the dome. Their little mouths opened to scream, but no sound escaped. Within seconds, their snowy skin blackened as if they were being grilled. The paint blue sky turned black. The puffy white clouds turned blood red. All the angels screamed and burned, yet no sound escaped their lips.

Evelyn clenched her eyes shut. The air inside the house became thick. Stop. Please stop.

After counting to ten, Evelyn reopened her eyes. The ceiling painting had returned to normal. The atmosphere was normal. Evelyn hunched over, feeling like she’d vomit. She was uncertain if this was a vision or a hallucination.

She noticed that the foyer had grown dark around her. It was 1 p.m. when Evelyn arrived. She twisted back to the door and windows, seeing the sunset. No way. She looked at herself. Specks of dried paint were splattered on her fingers and shirt. She noticed the door to the hall was open. She stared at it cautiously. Half of her wanted to see what lay within; the other half wanted her to run like hell. Remembering that the car would put her back in the house no matter what, she carefully approached the door. Heart racing with fear and anticipation, she peeked her head into the pitch-black hall.

Evelyn found herself holding her breath as she flipped the light switch. The bulbs flickered in ceiling-mounted glass cases. Across the very same wall where she had painted the last mural, there was another, fresher painting that was triple the size and stretched over the entire wall, door to door. Ceiling to floor.

With the ceiling lights still flickering, Evelyn stepped into the hall. With each flash, a portion of the mural revealed itself. The nearest showed a road that looked a lot like Quenby Avenue. A blonde girl on her pink bicycle was in the process of stopping in front of three people wearing white masks. Black splotches had been used for their eye holes. From them, inky tears dripped down the wall and unto the hall’s floor.

Another light flicker later, and Evelyn saw the next part of the mural. The girl was riding her bike into the woods as three masked figures chased after her.

The light kept strobing.

The third part of the mural showed the masked figures carrying away the blonde girl while her bike was abandoned by a fat tree with an owl hole.

Evelyn walked through the hall that seemed to blink out of this existence every other second.

The fourth showed three figures dragging the girl by the plantation house and towards a cotton field.

The fifth and final aspect of the mural displayed an orange, yellow, and red fire blazing up from the center of the cotton field. The masked figures stood around it. Two looked into the flame. One looked directly at Evelyn.

Evelyn covered her mouth, involuntarily tasting the paint on her palm. She felt herself shake. Her steel resolve shattered. The lights suddenly stopped flickering and returned to normal. The wet mural began melting away the images.

“What do you want me to do?” Evelyn asked the house, which felt like the most insane and most sane things she’d done since she first heard that scratching sound in the basement. A cold breeze drifted through the house. She felt her chest tighten as she looked at the painted fireball dripping away.

Evelyn exited the house and allowed the clean Georgia air to circulate through her. “If I find those men, will you set me free?”

Silence. Like always.

Evelyn tucked her blonde hair behind her ears. She knew she was on her own.

She walked down the red brick road and onto the street. Evelyn tried to imagine herself as Mary. The little girl’s hands on the bicycle handlebars. Her tiny feet churning the pedals. Evelyn turned to her right. The single-lane street ran in a line, well past Quenby House and into a more heavily trafficked street that was too far away to be seen.

Evelyn kept on, keeping an eye out for any evidence left behind after a near twenty-year murder. The odds were slim, but she had to try. She walked into the trees opposite of her property.

Twigs cracking beneath her shoes, Evelyn marched deeper into the woods. Soon the road vanished in her wake and only sentry oaks surrounded her. Their points reached to the cloudy heavens. Their shadow cast over Evelyn in oddly-shaped blobs while unseen birds screamed out of sight. Beetle and other ground bugs scurried under felled leaves upon Evelyn’s approach. Evelyn stopped in front of a massive oak with an owl hole. Evelyn twisted about the wooded area. No bike. Figures. With a case this cold, she was grasping at straws. If the killers were smart, they would’ve hidden the evidence.

That’s when she saw it. The pink plastic casing from a handlebar pressed into the earth by time and nature. Tattered but glittery plastic tassels streamed out of the end of the casing. Just like Angie said.

Evelyn was alone, yet she felt someone’s eyes on her, seemingly watching her from all directions at once, if that was possible. Evelyn shut her eyes, collecting herself. You’re tired. That’s all, Evelyn lied to herself. Deep down, she felt like a pawn in someone else’s game, meddling with forces of which she had no comprehension.   

Digging her fingernails into the packed dirt, Evelyn removed the handlebar’s plastic casing from the ground. The rest of the bike was nowhere to be found. On her hands and knees, Evelyn crawled and dug around the area, looking for more of Mary’s items.  She saw a corner of a half-inch binder sticking out from the earth. Evelyn pulled at it, removing the white, three-ring binder from the soil. The papers inside were completely washed out and decomposed into small misshapen squares. One laminated page survived, with faded Sharpie writing. “6-29-2003.”

Evelyn shook off the loose dirt on the drawing and used her hand to get rid of the rest. Created with crayon, it showed a little blonde girl clutching a doll in one hand and using her other hand to hold the hand of a beardless man in front of a huge house with pillars. Maxwell and the Quenby House. Evelyn recognized the doll, too. If she wasn’t mistaken, it was the same one she found in the scorched cotton field. A shiver danced down Evelyn’s spine.

The picture included three more stick figures in the background. They had frowns and angled brows, watching in the distance. All three looked nearly identical, except one had long brown hair and the other two had short hair.

Evelyn brushed her thumb across the three jealous stick figures and removed some excess dirt from their faces. Mary knew she was being stalked. Why didn’t she tell her guardians?

Evelyn studied the back of the drawing. She re-read the Sharpie note. The date stuck out. June 29, 2003. The day Mary vanished. Evelyn removed her phone and reviewed her picture catalogue. She opened the photos she took of her father’s secret study and swiped through the images until she found one of Maxwell’s plane tickets to Hawaii. That was dated 2003. He left June 27th and got back on July 2. Her father couldn’t have taken Mary during that time. Unless, Evelyn thought of another possibility, Maxwell returned home during that vacation time. It was unlikely, but he had a few days to do so. Also, Hawaii seemed like such a random destination.

Evelyn focused on the three stick figures. These were the people she needed to find.

Brushing the dirt off herself, Evelyn left the woods and contacted the cab driver.

“Have you lived in Adders for a while?” Evelyn asked the driver as he rolled to a stop twenty minutes later.

“My whole life,” the man replied. “This town has a way have sucking people in and keeping them forever.”

Evelyn tried not to be creeped out by the man’s cryptic answer and asked, “Do you know about the disappearance of Mary Sullivan?”

The man thought for a moment, pulling at one side of his thick mustache in a provocative manner. “Many believed she was murdered, not kidnapped.”

“Why say that?”

“Because Mary wasn’t the only person who vanished. None of the others were ever found either.”

Evelyn remembered the Missing Persons reports from all those decades ago. “You think the same guy took them all?”

The cab driver shrugged. “I have no idea. Besides, that’s old news. The little girl was the last one to go.”

Evelyn processed the information. “Did anything else happen that year?”

“I don’t think so. If you’re so curious, I can take you to the police station. Sheriff Yates knows more about it than anyone.”

“Take me to him,” Evelyn commanded.  

Looking at Evelyn’s paint-stained hands and swollen nose in the rearview mirror, the drive said. “You’re not very normal, you know that?”

“Good, I’ll fit right in.”

The driver took Evelyn to the sheriff’s office. The building was rectangular and brick with an American flag post jutting out of the front lawn. Unsure how long the meeting would take, Evelyn told the cab driver to go on.

Evelyn bounced up the steps and pushed through one of two glass doors with the sheriff department decal on it. She approached the young woman at the receptionist’s desk, who didn’t look a day over twenty-one. She had short blonde hair, a cute, naive face, and a yellow blouse. A deputy wearing a green uniform and black felt hat leaned on the counter with a lusty grin on his face. “Come on, Sunshine. Come out with me tonight. I’ll show you my secret spot.”

“I’d love to, Deputy, but Avery’s already invited me to go line dancing tonight.”

The deputy frowned. “Your loss.”

He straightened his posture and brushed by Evelyn, turning back to check out her bottom before he left.

Evelyn approached the desk.

The girl smiled sweetly. “My name’s Claire. My friends call me Sunshine. How may I help you?

“I’d like to discuss something important with the sheriff. Is he available?”

“Can I have your name?”

Evelyn told her and waited by patiently while the receptionist picked up the old cord phone and dialed one. She smiled at Evelyn as she waited. “Yes, Sheriff. It’s Sunshine. There’s a woman here who’d like to discuss something with you. She says she has evidence for a case regarding Mary Sullivan… Uh huh… Thank you… Yes. I’ll get you coffee too… Thank you.” Sunshine hung up. “He’s ready to see you.”  

Sheriff Garrett Yates opened the door for Evelyn and allowed her passage into his office. Yates had red hair and a red beard touched with gray on its sides and seemingly painted on his face. By the air of maturity about him, Evelyn could tell he was much older than he looked.

“What can I do for you?” he asked and sat at the rim of his clean desk.

Evelyn showed him the laminated drawing. “Mary Sullivan drew and had this laminated the day she vanished.”

Yates grabbed the drawing in both hands and studied it.

“I believe the three men in the background are responsible for her disappearance,” Evelyn continued.

Yates set the drawing on his desk. He put his hands in his pocket. “Could be. But this was drawn by a seven-year-old. It’s not exactly foolproof.”

“I guess you’re not going to reopen the investigation?” Evelyn said.

“I never closed the investigation,” Yates replied. “But we’ve hit enough road blocks that it’s not a priority at the moment. May I ask why it concerns you?”

“My father was Maxwell Quenby. He may be responsible.”

“You are a Quenby, huh?” the sheriff said. “I didn’t know there were any of you left.”

“Here I am,” Evelyn replied. “Will you help me prove my father’s innocence? My family gave a lot of money to this department over the years. I think it’s time to cash in on the investment.”

Yates chuckled. “Just like a Quenby. I’ll tell you what: you bring me something solid, I’ll prioritize this case. Deal?”

Evelyn let out a sigh. “Deal. Can you answer a few questions first?”

“Sure.”

“Who were the suspects?” Evelyn asked.

“Maxwell for one, but the plane tickets proved otherwise.”

“How about the scorch mark in his cotton field? Was that evidence?”

“Never noticed it.” Yates replied casually.

Evelyn nodded, suspicious of the man. “Any other suspects?”

“Andrew Doyle,” the sheriff replied.

“Where can I find him?”

“In the Adders cemetery. Six feet underground,” Yates said, charmed by his own wit.

Evelyn wasn’t amused. “How did that happen?”

“That’s another case, Mrs. Carr.”

“Cut me some slack,” Evelyn pressed. “Why did you suspect him?”

“Because his body was recovered the morning after Mary vanished with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. There was evidence that he was moved and dumped there,” the sheriff said. “My wife says I’m forgetful, but I never forget a case.”

“There was no information of the murder online,” Evelyn said.

Sheriff nodded. “You must be new to Adders. Let me give you a tip. We live in a bubble. It’s a nice bubble, but a fragile one. One poke and POP, the whole town goes poof.”

Sunshine walked in and gave Yates his coffee. He sniffed the steam in ecstasy. “Look into Doyle or don’t,” the sheriff said. “It’s not going to change the fact that Mary Sullivan is long gone. If you’ll excuse me, Mrs. Carr. I have work to do.”

Suspicious, Evelyn left the sheriff’s office. She looked up Andrew Doyle on her phone’s Internet web search and, after about twenty minutes, found his obituary. He was thirty-two when he died. Andrew was a stone-faced man with a big nose, soft eyes, and silky hair. Something about him looked familiar. Evelyn noticed the date of his death. June 8, 2003. The day after Mary vanished. At least she knew the sheriff wasn’t lying. No cause of death was listed. The obituary read, “lived on by his brother and sister: Catherine and Stephen Doyle.” Evelyn searched for them as well, finding a picture of Stephen on a farming website. She recognized him as the twin who entered her house uninvited. Evelyn felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, starting to connect the dots.

Evelyn couldn’t find Stephen’s address. She recalled the place where she woke up in the cow pasture and headed that way in a cab. After driving down a single-lane country road, she spotted an old two-story house tucked away at the end of a long driveway. She had the cab driver pull up to the front, and Evelyn knocked on the door. Hands in her pockets, she waited for someone to answer.

After a moment, Stephen opened the door. His bug-like eyes scrutinized her. His mouth was tightly closed above his sharp jaw. His short hair was silky smooth and nicely cut. He wore a white polo, khaki shorts, and gray slip-on shoes.

“Hi Stephen,” Evelyn said.

“What do you want?” he asked, looking past her and at the cab. “Did you leave something in my pasture when you were sneaking around, or are you here to threaten to call the cops again?”

“Nothing like that,” Evelyn reassured. “Have you ever heard of Mary Sullivan?”

“No.”

“She went missing years ago. Your brother died the day after.”

Stephen clenched his fist so tightly that the blue veins bulged. “Get off my porch.”

“Stephen—” Evelyn said.

The man stepped out of the door frame and glared down at Evelyn. He shoved his finger at her. “Go!”

“Can’t we—”

Stephen did not wait for her to finish before he turned back around and slammed the door in Evelyn’s face.

Evelyn looked like an idiot standing on his front porch. Any other case, she would’ve pressed him for more information, but this was a delicate game. She needed to rethink her strategy.

Ring!  

Evelyn’s heart nearly stopped at the sound of her own phone. The light ceased its flicker. Evelyn didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello?” she answered, unable to take her eyes off the mural.

Mrs. Carr, this is Dr. Gregory. I have some good news. Your husband is awake.

“Tell him I’m on my way,” Evelyn said and hung up. She gave the Doyle house a final look before rushing to the hospital.

Terrence rested against the backboard of the hospital bed, dressed in patient’s garb. His dark face seemed gaunter since Evelyn last saw him. A nurse stood by, checking his vitals on the monitor.

“Could you excuse us?” Evelyn asked when she entered. It came out much ruder than she would’ve liked. Giving Evelyn a disgusted look, the nurse exited, keeping the door open. Evelyn shut it and turned back to her husband.

“They said I was in a car accident on the way back,” Terrence said, almost disbelieving. “Is your nose hurt because of that?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter.” Evelyn replied.

“Of course it matters,” Terrence retorted. “I could’ve killed you. Eve, this is—”

“Shut up and listen to me, Terrence,” Evelyn said quietly as she moved towards him.

Terrence opened his mouth to speak but then shut it and reluctantly gave Evelyn his attention.

Evelyn still felt that heavy, inexplicable feeling inside that she couldn’t trust him. Nonetheless, she needed an ally. She twisted back to the hospital hallway to make sure no one was listening and then turned back to Terrence.

“I think I understand what’s happening now.”

 

Chapter Ten

Death at the Doorstep

 

Evelyn paced as she explained the case to Terrence. “Three people killed Mary. Two had short hair. One had long hair. That translates to two guys and one girl. Andrew, Stephen, and Catherine Doyle. When Maxwell was away, they came to his house and committed the murder. Maxwell wasn’t arrested, but his reputation was destroyed. He ran off or maybe killed himself. I don’t know, but I feel this is more about the girl than my father. If we catch these killers, the girl finds peace and all our problems end.”

“Evelyn,” Terrence said with hesitation. “Should we be getting involved in this?”

Evelyn glared. “Yes, Terrence. It’s the only way.”

“But how do we know?” Terrence asked.

“The murals, as I explained. It’s all linked together. Don’t give me that look. You were the one who drove us home.”

“You can’t blame me for that. You know I had no control over it,” Terrence argued.

Or did you? Evelyn wanted to ask but knew it would get her nowhere. For the sake of her sanity, Evelyn needed to trust that the man was her husband.

Terrence averted his eyes. “I only want us to be safe. Confronting someone who burned a seven-year-old for no reason doesn’t sound very safe.”

Evelyn approached, got on her knees, and took his hand in her own. She looked into his eyes. “Please, Terrence. I have never begged for anything in my life.”

Terrence looked at her with empathy. “I’m with you, Evelyn. I’ll always be with you. I only—”

Evelyn pulled close to him and planted her lips on his. She felt her courage returning. Their kiss ended when the door opened. Dr. Gregory stood in the threshold. “Am I interrupting?”

“Yes, but we’re finished now,” Evelyn said, turning back to him.

“I’m going to have to steal your husband away,” Dr. Gregory said.

Evelyn and Terrence traded concerned looks.

“Why?” Evelyn asked.

Dr. Gregory replied, “There are still tests to be done. His condition, it’s an abnormality and must be evaluated before he can leave.”

“How long will that take?” Terrence asked.

“Three or four days at the most,” Dr. Gregory said. “It’s for your safety.”

Terrence leaned into Evelyn and whispered, “Can you wait that long?”

Evelyn whispered back with fiery determination. “We need to end this, Terrence. Once and for all.”

For a moment it looked like Terrence was going to protest. Instead, he turned to the doctor. “We’re checking out now.”

“I would not recommended it,” Dr. Gregory said, friendly but stern. “The hospital has already taken care of the fee. Take advantage of the opportunity.”

“We appreciate everything, Dr. Gregory, but we have something we must do.” Evelyn rose from the floor.  

“This is not a jail. I’m not going to lock you up,” Gregory said, trying to keep a lid on his frustration. “But if anything happens, like another car accident perhaps, it’s on your heads.”

“We understand the risks,” Terrence replied. “Can I get my clothes back?”

Once Terrence had changed back into his jeans and tan button up shirt with little instruments on it, they exited the hospital.

“How are you feeling?” Evelyn finally asked as they waited for the cab. Stars speckled the night sky.

“Could be worse,” Terrence said. “I’m still in one piece. What’s the plan?”

Evelyn explained it to him.

 

Even at night, the flat Georgian landscape was alive with green grass and wildflowers outside of the small town. Clusters of ancient trees spotted the fields. The cab driver let them off on the side of the road, flanked by two cattle pastures. Evelyn fished out some cash and thanked the driver for his services. He drove off. Terrence approached the fence. It had wooden pins connected by wire mesh. A number of black and white cows grazed on the tall grass spotted with dung. Terrence turned back to Evelyn. “I should’ve brought my cowboy hat.”

“Just climb the fence,” Evelyn said, a small smile betraying her seriousness.

After checking the streets for any oncoming cars, Terrence planted his hands on top of the post, put his feet into the mesh, and heaved himself over. His feet landed on the other side, narrowly missing a cow paddy. Evelyn followed Terrence over. Under the cover of darkness, they scurried across the open pasture. Terrence had suggested they bring a flashlight, but Evelyn knew that would draw unwanted attention.

They swatted off bugs and steered clear of the livestock. Evelyn wondered if the blackout led her here because the supernatural force knew the Doyles were guilty. It seemed plausible. Were the shotguns for the Doyles too? They said they were looking for something. Evelyn didn’t know. She felt dread sink in, still unsure what Terrence and her shot that night.

Jogging until their calves were sore and their shoes were stained with dried poo, they noticed the silhouette of a two-story house in the distance. Light streamed from its windows. There was a sedan parked in the driveway. Terrence and Evelyn hunched low to the ground as they neared the property. By the time they reached the fence, they were completely prone and crawling up the itchy grass on their bellies.

“House or shed?” Evelyn asked herself.

“This is my first breaking and entering, but I’d say shed. If we find what we need, there’s no reason to go inside,” Terrence whispered, keeping his eye on the house. It was an old building made in the thirties with a covered porch, wooden window shutters, and a symmetrical box design.

“Stephen’s truck is not here,” Evelyn noticed.

“Do we come back later?” Terrence asked.

“No. The night Stephen picked me up out here, he was driving around at 4 a.m.”

“Doing what?” Terrence asked.

“I have no clue,” Evelyn replied honestly.

They waited a half an hour, but it felt much longer than that. Finally, the lights in the house shut off. After a moment, Terrence and Evelyn hurried over the fence. They ran up the driveway and to the shed. It was a rectangular structure made of unpainted wood. There was a window on each side made up of four glass panes. The door had a wooden X on its front and a master lock on its rusty metal latch. Terrence flipped over the surrounding rocks.

“Looking for a key,” he replied off of Evelyn’s look. The moon reflected on the sweat of his bald head.

Evelyn checked her pockets and pulled out her lock-picking tool. “Never leave home without it.”

She fiddled with the lock until it popped. Keeping the open lock on the latch, she opened the shed door. The interior was musty and cramped with tools, lawn mowers, and old car parts.

“Keep guard,” Evelyn told Terrence.

He nervously looked around while Evelyn pulled out her smartphone and turned on the flashlight. Every sharp rake or paint can that the light brushed across cast long shadows through the room. Evelyn tiptoed across the dirt floor. She spotted a few gasoline tanks over varying capacities and liquid levels. One of them had rust spots on its tin frame and dated back to 1988. Still, there was no possible way she could link that to Mary’s death. Evelyn headed to the back of the shed. She glanced at the wall of hammers, screwdrivers, and other tools. There was a heavy-duty metal tool trunk beneath it. Evelyn popped the latch and opened it. She removed the tray of tools from inside. Her eyes widened and her heart quickened as she looked down at the white cotton mask lying at the box’s bottom.

It’s him. Evelyn knew at once.

“Evelyn!” Terrence called with a loud whisper.

Evelyn twisted to the door in time to see the large truck pulling into the driveway. Its headlights grew closer by the second. “Close the door!” Evelyn commanded.

“What?” Terrence replied, panicking.

“Do it!”

Reluctantly, Terrence shut Evelyn inside and fiddled with the lock to make it look like it was set. He rushed by the right-side window and vanished behind the shed. Evelyn turned off the light on her phone and ducked down. The truck’s high beams sliced through the slits between the shed’s plank walls and created jail bars over Evelyn’s chest and face. She held her breath as the vehicle shut off.

The door opened, spilling country music into the night.

Evelyn stayed still.

The music died with the headlights.

The door slammed. Someone yawned.

Footsteps neared the shed.

Turn around. Evelyn silently commanded as the figure approached the shed’s door. Why are you coming here?

A key ring rattled together.

Evelyn looked for a place to hide. She ducked behind the ride-on lawn mower.

The figure outside hesitated as he saw the door. He lifted the unlocked lock and pushed open the door. Evelyn hunched low and covered her mouth. The figure was silhouetted in the door frame. He glanced around the room and lifted his t-shirt. A holster with a small pistol was tucked between his belt and pelvis. He withdrew it, clicked off the safety, and took his first step inside.

Evelyn frantically looked for a weapon as beads of sweat trickled down her brow. Her hands found a hand shovel made for gardening. It had a pointed edge. It would have to work.

The man took another step inside, fully entering.

Evelyn could hear his nasal breathing. His hand reached for the beaded string dangling from the ceiling light bulb. His fingers wrapped around it, preparing to tug.

Evelyn clenched the small spade in her paint-stained fingers, ready to lunge the second the light turned on.

Crash!

The man and Evelyn both twisted back.

The noise sounded behind the shed.

The man rushed out of the room and ran around back.

Evelyn leapt to her feet and started running. She slipped on something, nearly smashing her face on the paint cans. She looked at what caused her to stumble.

It was her minivan’s hubcap.

Evelyn didn’t investigate further. She ran like hell out of the shed and over the pasture fence. She dropped prone in the tall grass and watched the man walk around the shed in search of the cause of the noise. Evelyn spotted Terrence crouching behind the air-conditioning unit behind the house.

Gun raised, Stephen approached Terrence’s hiding spot.

Don’t move, Terrence. Don’t move. Evelyn wished she could yell. She could see Terrence tense up and get looking for a place to run.

Stephen got closer and closer. Evelyn picked up a rock, ready to throw it at the truck in hopes the car alarm would deter him.

Stephen stopped about six feet from Terrence, scanned the area, and holstered his gun. He walked back to the shed and entered. The light flicked on and he closed the door. Keeping low, Evelyn moved up parallel to the shed and, at a distance, peered through the window as Stephen lifted the cotton mask and looked it in the eyes. By the time Evelyn pulled her phone from her pocket and got the camera ready, Stephen had put the mask away.

Terrence clambered over the fence and gestured for Evelyn to run his way. Reluctant, Evelyn followed after him. When the house was just a black blob in the distance, they slowed their sprint and caught their breath.

“That was too freaking close,” Terrence panted, drenched in sweat.

Hunched, Evelyn rested her palms on her knees. Perspiration glued her blonde hair to her forehead. “It’s him, Terrence. I saw the mask.”

“So him and his twin are the other two killers?”

Evelyn nodded. “That’s my theory. They had our hubcap, too.”

“What? How?”

“He followed us to the motel,” Evelyn said, her mouth still dry from the run.

“But no one knew we were there,” Terrence replied.

“He did,” Evelyn said. “Let’s get back home before he starts looking for us. Tomorrow, we’ll call the cops, tell them about the hubcap robbery, and get them to search Stephen’s shed. If they find the mask, pray to God they arrest him.”

The walk was long and sticky. By the time they reached Quenby House, Evelyn’s feet were screaming to get out of her shoes. With slumped shoulders and defeated eyes, the couple shambled toward to the plantation house.

“I’m not going to be a happy camper if we sleepwalk tonight,” Terrence said as they stumbled through the front door.

“I don’t know how you can still joke after all this,” Evelyn hiked the foyer stairs, using the railing to heave herself up. They reached the master bathroom and climbed into the tube and turned on the upper shower head, washing away the sweat, dirt, and cattle dung.

Still wet, Evelyn and Terrence flopped on their bed and stared at the canopy. Evelyn’s heart still pounded, though she couldn’t tell if it was from the excruciating walk or the encounter with Mary’s killer. A small fear pinged in the back of her mind. Stephen saw you. He is coming.

Under the watchful eye of their Sony video camera, Terrence and Evelyn struggled to keep their eyes shut. Evelyn gripped Terrence’s calloused hands and waited anxiously for dawn to break.

At 3 a.m., something broke.

Evelyn and Terrence shot out of bed at the sound of glass shattering.

They turned to one another, only able to see each other’s silhouette and the whites of their eyes. Evelyn opened the dresser drawer, feeling around for her extendable baton and smartphone. Terrence leaned over the bed. He returned with his fingers coiled around the grip of a wooden slugger.

“Wait here,” Terrence whispered.

“No,” Evelyn replied.

That was the extent of their argument.

Together, they headed for the door. Terrence flipped the light switch with a Band-Aid-wrapped fingertip. No light came to their aid. Before they left the room, Evelyn headed for the oil lamp. Terrence grabbed her wrists and shook his head. He picked up the camera off of its tripod, fiddled with the buttons, and turned on night vision.

Pressed shoulder to shoulder, they looked at the monitor of the camera. Its verdant glow illuminated their sharp chins and eyes. On the screen, the room before them was shades of dark green and black, but clearer than that, the abyss in which they currently stood. To ensure they could both see their path, they needed to walk closely together, constantly bouncing their eyes between the monitor and the real world. If Evelyn had it her way, she’d hold the camera and be on the offensive. But in reality, it would be too jarring. Terrence must’ve realized this, as he handed the camera to Evelyn before tightening his grip on the baseball bat.

One hand on the baton and the other on the camera, Evelyn was ready to see what they’d find. The bedroom door creaked as Terrence pushed it open. They stepped into a hall, hearing the old floorboards groan beneath their weight. Apart from that, the house was as silent as death.

Side by side, Evelyn and Terrence walked the hall, scanning the walls and doors with the camera’s large black lens. They approached the grandiose inner balcony that overlooked the foyer and stopped at the railing. The window nearest the front door was shattered. The howling wind stirred the large curtains, causing them to flap like crimson capes.

Before Evelyn could say call the cops, she saw a figure clad in black with a white cotton mask staring at her from the base of the curved foyer stairs. She didn’t see the gun until the muzzle flash flickered, and the gunshot thundered through the house.

“Run!” Terrence yelled before Evelyn knew what the bullet hit.

They twisted back around, noticing all the hallway doors were slung wide open. What the— Evelyn couldn’t finish her thought as she heard footsteps racing up the foyer stairs. Evelyn and Terrence ran past the first door: a bedroom with an old bed frame and 19th century marble-topped dresser, but nothing else. In the monitor screen, Evelyn saw the back of a gorgeous woman, late 30s, in a glossy jade dress that accentuated her hourglass body. The woman peered over her shoulder, looking at Evelyn with sultry green eyes. A rivulet of thick blood seeped from her jade neck ribbon into her bosom.

Evelyn’s jaw dropped. She wanted to scream, but nothing escaped her lips. Not even the faintest breath. She kept running and glanced in the next room. It was a spare bathroom that once had a tub full of leaves. In the monitor screen, there was a naked fat man with an oblong head, stretch marks, and sagging tits watching Evelyn run by. A long horizontal slash across his meaty belly revealed his innards.

Evelyn felt her eyes water. Instinctively, she followed Terrence into the third door.

The nursery.

As soon as they stepped through the door, it slammed shut, along with every door in the hallway. Terrence cursed. Evelyn shushed him. The blood had left her face and she couldn’t remember the last time she blinked.

The wall paint was pink and chipped. The bed was tiny and broken in on itself. A massive dollhouse—an exact replica of the plantation—rested on a big table. On the floor, toys and dolls from a bygone era sat in a semi-circle facing Evelyn and Terrence.

Through the thin walls, they could hear footsteps moving through the hall. A nearby door opened and slammed shut.

Stepping over the spectating toys, Evelyn rushed to the window. She put down the camera and the baton and tried to slide open the window. Seeing her struggle, Terrence rushed over to assist her. He grimaced as he put his damaged fingertips under the window.

“It’s jammed,” Terrence barked.

Evelyn tried to lift it again. Her face turned cherry red. A vein bulged in her neck. The window didn’t budge. Winded, she turned to Terrence. “Hide.”

Another door opened. It was closer. Much closer.

Terrence rushed behind the dollhouse and ducked under the table. Grabbing her equipment, Evelyn rolled under the broken bed. Feathers from the split-open mattress brushed across her swollen nose.

The doorknob jiggled.

Evelyn laid on her belly. She watched the door swing inward and the masked figure step inside. In the darkness and clad in black, the stranger looked like a floating head. He kept his gun in both hands. He slowly scanned the room, eyeing the corners. His muddy boot stomped a doll. Cocking his head, he studied the odd arrangement of toys. He stepped toward the bed.

Click.

Down the hall, the bedroom lamp flickered on and spilled golden light across the hall. The masked figure turned back and walked out of the nursery to investigate.

Evelyn crawled out from under the bed, and Terrence removed himself from behind the dollhouse. He removed his cell phone and dialed 911. A mechanical high-pitch screech rang into his ear. Terrence quickly pulled it away and looked at the phone that had just spontaneously fried its circuitry. His already horrified expression became ten times worse.

Grabbing the camera and the baton, Evelyn tiptoed to the doorway and peeked her head out, seeing the lights on in the master bedroom but no sign of the figure. With her baton, Evelyn gestured for Terrence to follow her into the hallway. Sprinting silently, they ran out into the hallway and to the balcony railing.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Bullets zipped past their heads. Staying low and zigzagging, Terrence and Evelyn separated and dashed down the left and right side of the stairs. Evelyn tripped on the third step and watched the world spin as she careened headfirst down to the bottom of the steps. She landed with a thunk! She mouthed a scream and clenched the top of her head. Hundreds of black specks danced in her peripherals. Eyes watering, she looked up from the floor and the muddy boot in front of her.

Trembling, Evelyn glanced up at the figure with a white mask arcing a woodcutting axe over its head. The glistening edge cut through the air and down on Evelyn’s pretty face. She rolled to the side as the axe head slammed into the wood.

Still on the ground, Evelyn reached out for her baton that had rolled against the wall.

The female figure yanked the axe from the floor, leaving behind a two-inch deep notch in the hardwood.  

Evelyn swatted the baton against the figure’s knee. The stranger grunted as their leg bent inward.

“Get away from her!” Terrence shouted as he charged the axe woman and swung the bat. The slugger bashed in the figure’s forehead and it staggered back, a crimson rose blooming on the white cotton mask. Terrence brought the bat down on the figure again, knocking the stranger prone.

“Terrence,” Evelyn screamed.

Her husband turned back to the inner balcony railing and the mask aiming a gun at him. He opened fire.

Suddenly, all the lights in the mansion flickered. The jiggles of arcade machines screamed through the house, louder than the gunfire that rained down on Evelyn and Terrence. The front door was too far. They ran for the nearest exit, leaving the cracked video camera at the bottom of the stairs. The masked gun looked around at the chaos, cursed aloud, and then headed for his limp partner’s axe.

Evelyn and Terrence dashed through the hall of portraits. The lifeless, painted eyes seemed to follow their trek.

“This way,” Evelyn commanded and stopped before the portrait of her overweight ancestor. She pushed aside the corner, revealing a keyhole. She pulled out her key fob and shoved the proper key within. Terrence guarded her back. The key clicked and a three-foot wide rectangular portion of the wall opened from floor to ceiling, revealing a tight, dusty corridor with walls made of unpainted wooden slats.

“He’s coming!” Terrence yelled. Evelyn didn’t look back. She pressed onward toward her father’s hidden study. Terrence slammed the secret door behind them and followed.

THUMP!

An axe battered the portrait wall.  

Evelyn and Terrence pushed through the study door that was already battered from an assault a decade ago. The hinges were warped. The wood around the doorknob was splintered. The lock was broken.

THUMP!

The flickering light and screaming arcade sounds seeped through the new hole in the wall behind them.

Evelyn and Terrence slammed the door behind them and shoved a chair under the knob. Terrence rubbed his hand up his bald head. “He’s going to smash through that wall within the next five minutes.”

Evelyn felt her heart cramp. She put her hands on her father’s desk, shifting her thoughts away from the horrific and the unexplainable to how she would survive.

“We’re going to need to make a stand,” Evelyn declared.

Terrence’s jaw tightened. He nodded. “Two of us. One of him.”

“We get rid of his gun, we win,” Evelyn said, wiping sweat from her brow.

THUMP!

She turned back to Terrence. “I’m sorry I brought you down here. We should’ve stayed in Detroit.”

“Hey,” Terrence brushed aside a hair from Evelyn’s cheek with his bandaged thumb. “No time for regrets. Besides, we’ve faced worse odds.”

Evelyn cracked a smile. “You only lie that bad when you’re trying to get into my pants.”

“Can you fault me?”

Wood cracked and the mumbled curses of the masked figure could be heard through the three-foot wide corridor.  

Evelyn and Terrence turned to the concealed study door.

“He’s here,” Evelyn said, their moment ending.

Boots thumped through the corridor and an axe head slammed into the study door. Evelyn and Terrence stood on either side of the doorway, ready to hit the masked man the moment he breached.

Evelyn’s skin crawled as the room temperature plummeted twenty degrees. She noticed Terrence’s teeth chattering and felt someone’s eyes on her. Both Terrence and her twisted back to the seven-year-old little blonde girl and the tall, white masked figure standing beside her.

Both Evelyn and Terrence froze in fear.

The axe splintered the door’s face inward.

While looking at Evelyn with emotionless blue eyes, freckle-faced Mary Sullivan raised her right arm and pointed at the mahogany desk.

Evelyn and Terrence turned to one another. The axe head punched a hole between them. It started to wiggle free.

Mary kept pointing at the desk.

The man with the white mask watched Evelyn through the black button-sized eye holes on his tight white cotton mask.

Evelyn dashed to the desk and looked across the piles of old documents on top. “What is it?” she screamed at Mary.

The little girl remained emotionless and silent.

The axe punched another hole into the door, spitting splinters on the floor.

Terrence readied his bat. He bounced his eyes between the door and his wife.

Evelyn saw a finger-sized hole on the floorboards beneath the desk cubby. Using her index finger, she opened the trapdoor, revealing a circular pit, tight enough for a person, black as tar and similarly endless. Evelyn gulped and turned back to Terrence.

The axe smashed through the door. One more hit and the gunman would have enough space to aim his gun.

Evelyn didn’t wait for that. She nodded at Terrence and slid into the abyss.

She slid down the slick metal chute, feeling jets of wind against her face. Maybe she was a fool to trust the little girl. Evelyn would know when she hit the bottom. The tunnel twisted and a moment later, she was free falling into a black pit.

Bottom first, she hit the ground. She gasped in pain as something jabbed into her thigh. Her hands felt something hard, dry, and chalky. Her eyes tried adjusting to the darkness. They didn’t. The world was black and cold. She lifted her thigh and grabbed hold of the curved pointy thing that nearly pierced her flesh. She pulled it free. The wound was tender but didn’t feel deep.

The ceiling grumbled and spit Terrence out. Evelyn moved to the side to allow him to crash down nearby. He groaned. “The trapdoor shut behind me… Where the hell are we?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn whispered. “I can’t see anything.”

Evelyn felt someone grab her shoulder.

“It’s me,” Terrence said.

Evelyn stayed tense.

Around the room, lantern hinges on pointed metal hooks lit up. Their tiny flames cast an amber glow throughout the massive room, across its brick walls, and down its cratered floor. Evelyn and Terrence sat at the center, bathing in dry bones. Evelyn dropped the curved pointy thing—a human rib—into the rest of the pile of human vertebrae, pelvises, femurs, and skulls.

Before she could process the horror, footsteps approached from all sides. Evelyn looked up from the pile of bones and saw the emotionless people surrounding her: the sexy slashed-throat woman in a green dress, the naked fat man with a horizontal cut across his torso, a teenage goth girl bleeding from the back of her head, an old man in a sweater vest with blood flowing from his lips, a seventeen-year-old boy in a football jersey missing his right wrist, and sweet Mary Sullivan.

Terrence pulled close to Evelyn and stuttered. Evelyn held him tightly, feeling his warmth for the last time. Tears streamed down her face. “What do you want from us?” she screamed.

Mary locked eyes with them. With her small, childish voice, she said, “Help us.”  

The others echoed her plea. “Help us. Help us. Help us.”

Their cries grew louder and louder, echoing off the brick walls where Evelyn first heard the sound of scratching.  

 

To be continued…

 

 


The Haunting Of Quenby Mansion: Book 0

Mystery and horror surround the seventeen-room vine-covered plantation house. What was thought to be the solution to all of Evelyn Carr’s problems is only the beginning of her nightmare. Creepy neighbors arrive unannounced, the town hates her for inexplicable reasons, and there’s something inside of the basement. As a determined private investigator, Evelyn is hell-bent on learning the truth before the house tears her and her husband apart, figuratively and literally.

  • ISBN: 9781370267064
  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2017-09-06 21:20:13
  • Words: 37141
The Haunting Of Quenby Mansion: Book 0 The Haunting Of Quenby Mansion: Book 0