Read an Excerpt
By Richie Tankersley Cusick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Richie Tankersley Cusick
All rights reserved.
All her life Olivia had had nightmares like Devereaux House ... huge, crumbling monstrosities haunted with unfulfilled desires and unhappy regrets. So when she first saw the old plantation house rising up out of the mist on that sluggish southern evening, she wondered for just a moment if she'd wandered accidentally into the realm of some macabre dream.
"I thought she was supposed to be rich," was the first thing Olivia said, but the cab driver was mopping his face with a handkerchief and didn't seem to hear.
"I don't know if I can get any closer." He darted a quick, almost reluctant look toward the overgrown driveway and shifted in his seat. "See that? Weeds thick as a goddamn field."
"This can't be it," Olivia mumbled.
"Can't be what?" In the rearview mirror his stare was curious, and she tried to sound casual as she answered.
"I only meant ... that it doesn't look like I expected a plantation to look. That it looks ... haunted."
"Some folks say it is." He seemed nervous and drummed his fingers rapidly on the steering wheel. "So how come you wanted to come out here in the first place?"
"I like old houses." She could still feel his eyes in the mirror, and she avoided them. "Can't you please try to get through? I'd really like to get a better look."
Another hesitant glance toward the driveway. "Did you ask anyone else at the station about this place? Did you ask anyone else about driving you out here?"
Olivia regarded him in surprise. "No. Yours is the only cab I saw when I got off the bus, so I asked you. Why?"
"No reason. I'll just go in a little ways, then. It is private property, you know."
As he steered beneath a sweeping tunnel of arched oak trees, she looked out at the tall weeds scraping the sides of the car and thought how ironic it was that this godforsaken place could be the end of all her hopes.
She'd had a lot of time for thinking lately—too much time—standing for hours, just staring at Mama's grave. And then during all those long nights afterward, lying in bed, when peace of mind wouldn't come, when nightmares had hammered at her with memories and mistakes she'd rather have forgotten. Sad, wasted childhood days. Mama's frenzied ravings. An endless succession of leering stepfathers.
She could still remember the face of the one who'd tried to rape her—his sweaty hands fumbling up under her dress, his thick lips crushing back her screams—only he hadn't counted on her instinct to survive. To keep intact the one thing that was still private and still hers.
She'd never regretted what she'd done to him.
And afterward ... after Mama had hidden him where no one would know ... Olivia had actually grown to love her own private solitude. The endless hours alone locked away in the tiny attic room. Where no one ever ranted or screamed or tried to hurt her ... where people seldom remembered to come, except sometimes when Mama thought clearly enough to bring a tray or brought the men to look at her. It had been a comfort to Olivia then, just dreaming her long, wonderful dreams ... and gazing down between the bars of her window—down, down into the cool, green yard below.
And she'd had other times to think, too. All those days and days on the bus ride here. Hating each stop on those country back roads. Making such big plans along those miles and miles of scorched highway. Imagining a better place, a brighter place, where someone would welcome her in and care for her, where she'd never have to worry about life, or need anything—ever again—
She almost laughed out loud, considering it now. It seemed to Olivia that she'd lived countless lifetimes in her eighteen years—and every one of them empty and aching and afraid. So when fate had stepped in unexpectedly, she'd just considered it her due. A welcome and generous gift from a grandmother she'd never even known.
She'd been so depressed that day, going through Mama's things, finding nothing of any real value or sentiment to even justify her mother's life. And when the box had fallen from the closet, spilling papers over the floor, one had landed right at Olivia's feet, almost like an omen. And she'd seen the letter there, old and yellowed, scrawled and signed in a spidery hand—and the envelope with a place marked on it in the upper left-hand corner—and all those years of Mama's hating and blaming suddenly congealed into a person—someone who actually existed—a mysterious woman with a beautiful name—Rosalee Devereaux.
"You better get out here, if you're getting out."
With a start, Olivia came back to the present and saw the cab driver watching her. He was probably not much older than she was, and as he rested his right arm along the top of the seat, she could see a tattoo of a snake crawling along his elbow.
"You did want to get out, didn't you?" he said, turning away again. "To look around?"
She hesitated, and he glanced back over his shoulder.
"You sure you didn't come here to town to see somebody?" he asked suddenly. "You sure nobody's expecting you?"
They were much closer to the house now. It loomed up behind waves of overgrown vines and untrimmed hedges, beyond straggling clumps of azaleas and a twisted border of banana trees. Through a gray veil of dripping moss, she could see it framed there in a grove of ancient oaks—the sagging roof, the chimneys crumbling softly—even the ivy choking its eight front columns looked wilted and tired. Deep, stagnant shadows sweltered beneath the eaves of its galleries, and the air hung without moving, thick and sticky and hot, heavy with magnolias and the stench of rotting damp.
"No. No one. Why do you ask?" She couldn't stop staring at the house, and a peculiar feeling of dread began to creep over her.
"Just seems kinda funny," he said. "Getting off a bus and wanting to come straight out here like you did."
"I ... only heard about this place on the trip," Olivia lied. "Another passenger was talking about it. He said there was an old plantation outside of town, and since I liked old houses so much, I should try and see it while I was here. That's all." The driver was looking at her so intently that she almost panicked, thinking that in some bizarre way he'd seen right through her story. "So who lives here?" she asked innocently.
He shrugged, picking slowly at his dirty fingernails. "Folks say old Miss Devereaux still owns it, but you couldn't prove it by me. Hell, old man Hatcher has the store in town, he gets a letter from her four times a year and makes deliveries out here with supplies. Been doing it as long as anyone can remember. Always leaves the stuff by the front door, sometimes he hears her talking inside, sometimes not. Leaves the bill, then gets his money in the mail. Last trip out here was nearly two months ago. I expect she could be stone dead by now, and nobody would know a thing about it. Or care."
Olivia's heart leapt into her throat and fluttered there. The thought that her grandmother might actually be dead by now had never even occurred to her.
"Can you tell me anything about her?" she asked. Through the mist, the house gazed back with a vacant stare.
"Who, Miss Devereaux? Nobody knows anything about her. She wants to be left alone, and that's what folks do—leave her alone. Well, just look at the place."
Olivia did so, her hands twisting in her lap. "I just assumed that anyone who owned a plantation must be very rich," she said again.
"Rich," he said sarcastically. "Yeah, you're looking at the height of luxury here. The old-timers in town—they'll tell you, all right. Generations of them Devereauxs—all crazy as—"
He broke off abruptly. She saw his eyes move to the mirror, flick to the windows on each side of the car, settle uneasily back on the windshield.
"What is it?" she asked, unconsciously moving closer to the middle of the seat.
"Nothing." His voice was almost surly. "Look, this is all just gossip. People say the Devereaux women never leave this house—since the War. Except for that last one. Miss Devereaux's daughter."
Olivia's heart quickened. An image of Mama's face ... her wild, sad eyes.
"What about the last one?"
"Way I heard it, she ran off, and no one ever saw her again. But then," he shrugged, "how would I know about that? Folks say the old lady disowned her—hated her so much she put a curse on her, maybe. So she couldn't ever come back even if she'd wanted to. Hell, some folks say maybe the old lady's really a witch. But who believes stuff like that? It's all old wives' tales, anyhow."
"So no one's ever seen her? Miss Devereaux, I mean? Surely she couldn't live here all by herself. She must have help?"
There was a moment of silence. He gestured toward the house, and his laugh sounded forced. "Now why would you ask that? You lookin' for work?"
Olivia tried to keep her tone casual. "Well ... I could use a job right now. I don't really have anywhere to go, and I'm almost out of money."
She noticed his shoulders stiffening ... his eyes darting back to her again in the rearview mirror.
"You got family?" he asked. "Friends around here?"
"No. I told you before. I'm not from around here, and I don't have any family. I'm just ... passing through town."
"Where you headed?"
"Nowhere in particular. Do you know someplace I might be able to get a job?"
"I'm not sure I can help you with that one. Some folks say the old lady hires girls out here sometimes. If you want to go knock at the front door and ask, why don't you?"
Olivia hesitated. "Will you wait for me?"
"Sure." He reached around and shoved open her door. "I'll park back there on the road. But it's almost dark, and we're about as far away from town as we can get, so hurry up. And watch where you step. It's perfect hiding for snakes out there."
She saw his eyes sweep over the driveway, the house, the mist-shrouded grounds, then slide back to focus on her face. Uneasily she swung her feet out onto the ground.
"Thanks for the warning. I won't be long."
She stood and watched as he backed out of the drive, and a sudden feeling of panic caught in her chest. Just look at this horrible place ... maybe I've wasted my time ... maybe I should go back now ... maybe I shouldn't even have come here at all ... Lifting her eyes to the ghostly scene before her, she wondered why, in the hundred-degree heat, she suddenly felt so cold.
The house was even more pathetic up close. As Olivia waded through the weeds, she could see the walls and columns of plastered brick, peeled away like open sores, old paint faded to a dying pink. A rickety wooden banister ran along an upper gallery, and above that level, a third, smaller story was lined with broken shutters. On either side of the front entrance, tall windows reached nearly to the crumbling brick of the veranda, and on the second level, a filthy row of glassed and transomed French doors lined the gallery like so many lifeless eyes.
And I've seen that look before, she thought with a shock—on Mama's face, in my own mind, I've seen that emptiness before—and as the shadows gathered and deepened across the windows, she turned and ran back down the drive, fighting her way through the tangled overgrowth back toward the road, overwhelmed with a terrible fear.
"I've changed my mind!" she called out, running toward the cab, where she'd seen him back up, where he'd promised to wait. "I've changed my mind—I want to leave—"
But the road was empty.
And as Olivia stood there in horrible realization, the house began to fade ... to disappear behind her in the falling darkness.CHAPTER 2
"No ..." she whispered. "Please come back ..."
There was no one to hear.
Silence lay around her, deep and final, and as a muggy breeze crept slowly through the leaves overhead, she whirled around, swallowing a scream.
The house had practically disappeared now at the end of the drive. Beneath the tunnel of oaks, shadows gathered and swelled, leaving nothing but a yawning black hole. Olivia stared at it helplessly, fighting off a fresh wave of panic. There was no question of trying to walk back to town—the cab had come miles and miles on twisted dirt roads, through thick woods, past dead fields and swampland—there was no way she could ever hope to find the way back at night and alone. With a sick feeling, she realized she'd left her purse and suitcase in the cab, too—her few clothes, what little money she still had—everything she owned in the world. Not that it amounted to anything, she thought wryly. Mama'd never let her get a driver's license, and what money they'd managed to scrimp away had been buried under a rock in the backyard.
What am I going to do now?
She hadn't planned for it to be this way ... hadn't planned it this way at all. She'd only wanted to get a look at the house first—just to convince herself that it really did exist. That Rosalee Devereaux was still alive and still lived there. What was it the cab driver had said ... "hated her so much, she put a curse on her ... she couldn't come back even if she'd wanted to."
But I'm back, Grandmother, Olivia thought, and a surge went through her, half defiance, half fear. And Mama hated you more than you could ever have hated her ... but I'm different ... I don't think like Mama or even look like Mama—and I don't feel like Mama either—I belong here ... it's my right.
But not like this. She'd wanted to work into it slowly ... have time to think what to do. Get a cheap room in town. Ask discreet questions around. Not like this. It's too soon—I'm not ready—
She refused to cry. She squinted through the dark, looking for some sign of light in the distance. It was easy, standing here alone in the road, to tell herself that none of this was really happening ... that the house she'd seen only moments before hadn't been real at all ...
She was good at making up things like that.
It was one of the things she'd always done best.
Forcing herself to move at last, Olivia turned back to the driveway. As she passed beneath the first overhang of trees, a slow crawl of mist went over her face, and she gasped for breath. The air had grown unbelievably thicker. As she tried to push forward, she could feel long, wet tentacles coiling around her body, pulling her determinedly into the fog. She put out her hands, afraid to reach too far ahead or to her sides ... afraid of what she might touch. The quiet was deep—unnatural—yet as she tried doggedly to keep on the path, Olivia suddenly heard something beneath the layers and layers of silence—something that sent a stab of ice into her veins.
It came from nowhere ... yet everywhere ... like the roaring that came sometimes deep, deep in her mind. Only it wasn't the roaring this time—this was outside her head, she was sure of it. A faint rustling of grass ... a soft stirring of leaves ... a whisper of air along the ground.
As though something had passed very close to her.
Hiding itself in the fog ...
Olivia froze, her ears straining through the stillness. And suddenly she could hear it—its unhurried breathing—the slow, steady beating of its heart—yet she couldn't be hearing it—it was impossible!—because the night was so quiet, so totally, frighteningly quiet.
Something trailed across her face, and she struck out at it wildly. Moss? But the tunnel was wide and vaulted, and she knew the moss didn't hang down this far—
"It's perfect hiding for snakes ..."
She tried to run. She could feel the weeds catching at her skirt, scratching down her legs, and as she pushed recklessly ahead, she stumbled over a twisted knot of exposed tree roots and sprawled facedown. For a long moment she lay there, stunned. But then, as she rolled over onto her back ... she felt her blood slowly chill.
Excerpted from Blood Roots by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Copyright © 1992 Richie Tankersley Cusick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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