“This is where you grew up?” my boyfriend, Heath, asked me as our van came to a stop.
I stared up at the large plantation home of my childhood and tried to see it through Heath’s eyes. The stately six-bedroom, five-bath home sat atop a large hill that I used to roll down when I was little. I had found such joy in rolling down that hill. And the grand, ancient sixty-foot oak tree that dominated the far right side of the yard, where I’d had a swing that I used to ride for hours. And the long wraparound porch where I’d spent lazy summer days cuddled up with a good book and glass after glass of pink lemonade.
Of course, all of that was before my mother died. Before all the joy went right out of my life and right out of that house.
Looking up at the dark redbrick manor with black shutters and a gleaming white porch, I could see that not much had changed about the house in thirty years. It still looked as grand, charming, and pristine as ever, but inside I could feel the ghosts that haunted the old Southern home. Literally.
“Are we there yet?” Gil yawned from the backseat. Gilley is my BFF. He’s been my best friend for over twenty years, so he knows my history well.
“We’re here,” Heath said, arching his back and stretching. It’d been a long drive from Boston to the southern Georgia city of Valdosta. “I didn’t know this place was gonna be so . . . big.”
Gil sat up and leaned forward. “M.J. didn’t tell you?” he asked, like I wasn’t in the van. “Her daddy’s a very wealthy man.”
I scowled. Gil made it sound like that was something to be proud of. But since my mother’s death, Daddy had always put his work before me, so I hardly thought it a positive thing. Plus, he’d never once offered to help me out in all those years Gil and I had struggled to make ends meet in Boston.
“Yeah, he’d have to be to afford this place,” Heath said. My gaze shifted to him. He looked intimidated, and I thought I knew why. Heath came from far humbler—but perhaps more honorable—circumstances.
“Hey,” I said, reaching for his hand. “It’s his money, not mine.”
Heath tore his eyes away from the house. “Yeah, but, Em, I mean . . . look at this place.”
“It’s just a house,” I said, leaning in to give him a quick peck before getting out of the van.
As we walked from the van toward the house, the front porch door opened and out stepped Daddy. My breath caught in surprise at the sight of him. I barely recognized the man standing there.
My father had always been a tall and imposing figure. Well over six feet, he’d been a big barrel of a man who’d gone gray, then silver prematurely, and whose countenance had always appeared to be tired and overworked. The man on the porch, whom I hadn’t seen in several years, was still tall and imposing, but he’d trimmed down by at least forty pounds—pounds he’d always carried around his middle and which he really had needed to lose. His hair was also darker, but it suited him and made him look ten years younger, and his face, always set in a deep frown, was actually lifted into an expression I hadn’t seen him wear since I was ten. The man actually looked happy.
“You okay?” Heath whispered, and I realized he’d taken up my hand.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head a little. “He just looks . . .”
“Amazing,” Gil said on the other side of me. “Lord, M.J., is that really Montgomery Holliday?”
“Hey there, Mary Jane,” my father called from the porch with a wave. “I was expectin’ you a little later. Y’all must’ve made good time.”
“Hey, Daddy,” I replied as we started up the walk toward the stairs. “We did make good time.”
My father nodded and adopted something halfway between a grimace and a smile, but I couldn’t really fault him for it. If you don’t ever smile even once in twenty years, I expect you’d be out of practice.
The porch door opened again and out stepped a lovely-looking woman perhaps in her late fifties or early sixties. She had a regal quality about her with short-cropped and perfectly coiffed blond hair, bright blue eyes, and a trim figure. Her smile was brilliant and contagious and she clapped her hands at the sight of us. “Ooo!” she exclaimed. “Monty, is this your daughter?”
I had climbed the steps and now stood in front of Daddy and the woman who must be his new fiancée, Christine Bigelow. “This is her, dear,” Daddy said, stepping forward to open up his arms to me.
For a moment I just stood there confused. Daddy hadn’t hugged me since the day my mother died. In fact, that was perhaps the last time he’d ever touched me tenderly, so this open display of affection was throwing me a little and I didn’t know how to react.
Next to me I heard Gil clear his throat, then push me with his hand a little, and I sort of took two awkward steps forward and Daddy hugged me with three neat pats to the back before letting go. He continued to wear that strange half smile, half grimace.
And then I was wrapped up in another hug from Christine. She squeezed me tight and added another “Ooo!” Then she stepped back and held me at arm’s length. “Mary Jane, I have heard so many wonderful things about you! Your father simply raves about how smart and amazing his little girl is!”
“You have?” I said. “He does?” I wasn’t trying to be a brat—I was actually really surprised that Daddy would say anything even remotely kind on my behalf. He’d spent decades letting everyone else know what a disappointment I was to him.
“Well, of course!” she said, and then her bright eyes turned to the two men at my side. “Now, don’t tell me. Let me guess,” she said to them. Pointing to Heath, she said, “You must be Heath Whitefeather, Mary Jane’s boyfriend, and you,” she said next, pointing to Gil, “must be Gilley Gillespie, Mary Jane’s best friend—am I right?”
“What gave it away?” Gil said, and I wanted to roll my eyes. Gilley was actually wearing mascara and blush today, along with blue nail polish. He loved flaunting his flamboyant side in my conservative Southern Baptist father’s face.
“Your mama described her handsome son to a T,” Christine told him slyly. The tactic worked; Gil blushed and I knew she’d just claimed another ally.
“It’s very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Heath said, extending his hand to her.
Christine laughed lightly and shook her head, stepping forward to hug Heath. “Oh, none of that formal stuff for family!” she said.
I hate to admit it, but the lovely warmth and charm of the woman had an effect on me. I liked her. A lot. And I couldn’t understand what she’d first seen in my father, but looking at the dramatic change in him, I had to be grateful, because it was a world of difference.
Once she’d had her fill of hugs, Christine took up my arm and Gilley’s and said, “Now! Let’s all step inside and have ourselves a proper lunch, shall we?”
We began to follow her and Daddy inside when a pickup truck came barreling up the drive at an alarming rate of speed, honking its horn to get our attention. Daddy’s posture and countenance changed in a second and he stepped forward to the edge of the porch, ready to handle whatever came next.
Heath moved over to stand next to Daddy, and I could tell that my father approved of the move and perhaps even of Heath in that moment. The truck came to a stop and out jumped a man in jeans, a plaid shirt, a stained cowboy hat, and work boots. “Mrs. Bigelow!” he called urgently.
“Clay,” my father said, his voice full of the authority that used to send me scurrying.
Clay removed his hat and nodded to my father. He looked out of breath. “Mr. Holliday, sorry to trouble you, but we’ve had another situation at the work site.”
Daddy moved down two steps toward Clay, and Heath followed him. Next to me Christine stood rigid, biting her lip as if she knew the news was bad.
“It’s another accident,” Clay said.
“What happened?” Daddy demanded.
“The scaffolding in the ballroom gave way, sir. Two of my men were sent to the hospital.”
“Oh, no!” Christine exclaimed. “Clay, are they badly injured?”
Clay clenched and unclenched his hat. “Not real bad, ma’am, but bad enough. Boone’s got a busted ankle, and Darryl might have a broken arm.”
Christine’s posture relaxed a fraction. “Oh, that’s dreadful,” she said. “But I’m so grateful it wasn’t worse! Monty, after lunch we should go straight to the hospital to see the men. And of course I’ll cover their medical expenses.”
“Now just hold on here,” my father interjected. “Clay, that scaffolding is your responsibility. If it wasn’t properly put together, Christine ain’t gonna be responsible for no medical expenses.”
It was Clay’s turn to stiffen. “Mr. Holliday, sir, that scaffolding was put together correctly. Why, I checked it myself this morning. Just like I checked all the other equipment and rigging that’s somehow managed to come apart, or blow up, or fail on us and cause nothing but accidents at this jobsite. It ain’t us, sir.”
“Well, then who’s responsible?” Daddy snapped.
Clay fiddled with his hat and looked at the ground. “It’s like I told you last time, Mrs. Bigelow,” he said, avoiding my father’s sharp gaze. “We think your place is cursed, and, ma’am, I truly am sorry, but I’m pulling my crew.”
“You’re what?” Daddy roared loud enough for Clay to jump.
But the foreman wasn’t backing down. Donning his hat, he looked directly at Christine and said, “I’m real sorry, ma’am. But that estate has something bad creeping through those hallways. I’ve tried to tell you that I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep messing with it, and maybe you’d best to cut your losses too, before you or someone you love gets hurt same as my men. Anyway, we’re leaving. I just wanted to come tell you in person, is all.”
With that, he turned and headed back to his truck, even though Daddy called after him to come back and talk about it.
As Clay’s pickup drove away, I turned to look at Christine. She looked stricken.
I knew from the gossip mill that Daddy’s new fiancée—a wealthy widow originally from Florida—was also fairly new to our small city. She’d told folks here that she had come on a retreat to Valdosta with her then-ailing husband a few years back and had fallen in love with the place. After Mr. Bigelow’s death, she’d sold her home in Naples, which was also rumored to have been a sizably valuable property on the water, and she’d set her sights on the estate of what had once been a prominent family here, the Porters of Valdosta.
The Porters had made their money in tobacco, but as smoking declined beginning in the late 1970s, so had the family’s wealth. Through mismanagement and family greed, much of the once vast fortune had been squandered, and many of the two dozen or so Porter family members had fled Valdosta in shame.
Only one group of Porters had stayed in the area after 1985 to keep up appearances and inhabit the once proud estate, but I’d heard that the mansion had fallen into disrepair of late, ever since the only two remaining Porter family members—a brother and sister—had moved out in the early 2000s. Still, no one had ever expected the remaining Porters to put their family’s estate up for sale—the house came with over three dozen acres of gorgeous woodlands, and I think everyone in town thought that either the brother or the sister would eventually start a family and move back in, but the years went by and that never came to pass. And then there were rumors of the heavy tax burden that the Porter estate carried, and ultimately, that, and the fact that neither sibling seemed interested in moving back home, could have been the motivation for the sale.
Whatever it was, the house and its surrounding land had been put on the market, and Christine had promptly jumped on it. I’d been told that’s how she’d met Daddy, in fact. She’d hired him to handle the transaction, and he’d asked her out to coffee after she’d signed the closing documents. Gilley’s mom had said that they’d been inseparable ever since.
Still, Mrs. Gillespie also said that the Porter house needed to be gutted and completely renovated, which made me wonder if Christine had known what she was really in for when she’d purchased the place. And now there seemed to be a troublesome ghost in residence as well.
“That’s the third contractor to quit on us in as many months, Monty,” Christine said, her voice holding a slight note of panic.
Daddy turned and came back up the steps, reaching out for her hand, which was still looped with mine. “Now, now, Christy, don’t you worry. We’ll find another, better contractor. As I recall, you had half a dozen contractors bid on Porter Manor. After lunch I’ll look at the list and pick the contractor with the most experience. Someone who won’t be using any rickety scaffolding, unskilled labor, or poorly kept tools.”
I could see that Christine’s eyes were beginning to water, and she blinked rapidly to fight the tears. “But what if Clay’s right?” she whispered. “Monty, what if there really is something in that old place causing all those accidents?”
Daddy adopted a patient look, but I could see he didn’t believe a word of it. That didn’t surprise me—even though I’d shown him enough evidence through the years to convince most anybody, Daddy never admitted that he believed in ghosts. “Bah,” he said. “Christy, Clay’s just covering his tracks, is all! He’s trying to avoid gettin’ sued by his workers, honey. I’ll bet money he or his crew didn’t rig that scaffolding right, and it’s his fault it fell down.”
“We could check it out,” Heath said. “M.J. and I could go over there and tell you for sure if there’s a spook haunting the place.”
My gaze cut to him and I shook my head subtly. But he was focused on Christine, who was obviously distressed. I knew he wanted to help, but he didn’t know my father.
And just as I suspected, I saw Daddy’s eyes narrow, and his lips compress into a disapproving scowl.
But Christine had already stepped forward and reached for Heath’s hands. “Oh, would you?” she asked. “I’d be most grateful, Heath.” Turning to me, she added, “Most grateful to both of you!”
I stood there dumbstruck, not really believing what’d just happened. One minute we were headed in for a nice get-to-know-you lunch, and the next Heath was committing us to a ghostbust on our vacation. Which of course was just my luck.
“It’d be our pleasure,” Heath assured her, nodding his head and smiling encouragingly at me.
“Of . . . of course,” I stammered. Christine clapped her hands happily, then hugged first Heath, then me and showered us with thank-yous.
Daddy cleared his throat, his irritation quelled but barely below the surface. And then Christine turned to him and said, “Oh, Monty, your daughter and her beau are angels! I’ll sleep well tonight knowing a pair of experts can put all this craziness to rest!”
“I’ll go too,” Gil offered, and Heath and I both widened our eyes. Gil seemed to realize what he’d just committed himself to, because he followed that quickly with, “You know. I’ll monitor things from the van. Like usual.”
Christine put her hand on his cheek and smiled sweetly. Gil, like Daddy, seemed to melt under her charms. “Thank you, Gilley. That would be most kind of you.” Gilley blushed and Heath and I hid smiles.
Then Daddy did something most unexpected. He chuckled and gave Heath a good-natured pat on the back. “Well, now that’s settled, maybe we can all go in and enjoy our lunch. Heath, you sit next to me. I hear you like to drop the occasional fly come salmon season. It’s been a long time since I had someone to talk fly-fishing with. . . .”
As we filed into the house after Daddy, Gilley sidled up next to me, wearing a mocking grin. He was enjoying this a little too much. “Shut it,” I warned.
Gil adopted an injured expression. “I didn’t say a word!”
My eyes narrowed. “Oh, but you will.”
“Well,” Gil replied. “That’s a given, sugar.”
We entered my childhood home and I was stunned to find that so much had changed since I’d last been to see Daddy. For the past twenty years Daddy had left the home exactly as it’d been on the day my mother died. It’d been like living in the moment of her passing for most of my childhood, and I’d probably resented Daddy for making us stay in such a sad place. But now as we all stepped into the foyer, I was struck by the fresh coat of light beige on walls that had previously been a dull yellow.
Gilley widened his eyes a bit at me and nodded his head, like he had also noticed the change and approved. Daddy led the way toward the back of the house, saying, “We’ve set up on the back porch for brunch. There’s a nice cross breeze and you’ll have a chance to admire the gardens. Christine’s done wonders back there.”
As everyone trailed behind Daddy, I held back for a moment and turned to look toward the entrance of the parlor, and there too the walls and the trim had also received fresh coats of paint, in a slightly deeper shade of beige. A new set of deep brown leather sofas and cream-colored accent chairs had also replaced the dingy blue couches that’d once occupied the room. Additionally, built-in bookcases had been installed, turning the parlor into something more like a library, but I saw that Daddy’s extensive book collection had been organized and assembled in such a clean, crisp way as to beckon fellow book lovers to run their fingers along the volumes.
My head swiveled then to the left and I took in the new dining room with a gorgeous oak table and beautifully upholstered burgundy chairs. Like just about everything else, the curtains were new, replacing the dusty peacock blue window coverings from before. The look was lovely and elegant and exactly reflected the full potential of the space. I sighed and turned my attention back to the parlor, taking a few steps forward to investigate it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Christine had come up next to me. “Your father finally let me tackle this old house and bring it into the twenty-first century,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice. “I’ve let my decorators loose in every room including yours, which I hope you like, Mary Jane. I didn’t want to change too much in there, but it desperately needed some fresh paint and updated furnishings.”
I turned to face her, feeling that warmth for her at our initial greeting expand even more in the center of my chest. “Your taste is lovely. I’ve wanted Daddy to fix up this old house for decades.”
Christine wrapped an arm around my middle. “It took him a long time to get over Madelyn,” she said, almost as if she knew how truly hard it’d been for both of us. “And he sure made me use all of my charms to break through that big bleak wall of his. But when I first met him, I thought there was something so sad about Monty, and I couldn’t let him carry on like that without trying to find the good heart I knew was inside. As I got to know him, it was like someone just coming out of a deep sleep, you know? Like gently shaking someone awake from a place so dark and withdrawn that even the smallest acts of kindness worked on him like sunshine peeking through the blinds.”
I looked up at Christine and I couldn’t help the water that filled my eyes. She was radiant and beautiful and I knew exactly what she meant by the sun finally waking Daddy from that long slumber. In that moment I felt my mother’s presence so intensely that I wanted to weep, because I knew . . . I just knewshe’d been the one to place Christine Bigelow on my daddy’s path.
Thanks, Mama, I called out to her in my mind, and I felt her presence come even closer for a moment, as if she were giving me a hug before withdrawing again.
“You all right, Mary Jane?” Christine asked me, obviously noticing how emotional I was getting.
I swallowed hard and blinked a few times, but I still had to wipe at my cheeks a little. “Yes,” I said, with an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”
“Aww,” Christine said, squeezing my middle a little. “Coming home is always such an emotional thing. But we’re so glad you came for our wedding. It wouldn’t have been the same without you, honey.”
I inhaled deeply and nodded, still a little embarrassed. Trying to change the subject, I said, “So, where will you live after you’re married?” I couldn’t imagine Daddy in any house other than the one I’d grown up in, but then I also couldn’t imagine Christine spending all that money on renovations to Porter Manor if she didn’t intend to live there.
Christine seemed to know I was treading on a potentially touchy subject because she looped her arm through mine as she led the way out of the parlor and said, “Well, now, that’s something that Monty and I have talked a great deal about, and I think we’ve decided to live here until renovations are complete at the Porter house, and then he’ll go ahead and put this place up for sale.”
I nodded, and tried to tamp down the tinge of bitterness that rose inside me as I heard that my childhood home would soon be sold. “I guess it’s time Daddy moved on,” I said with a sigh.
Christine squeezed my arm. She seemed to understand. “If it helps, renovations won’t be complete for at least two years, Mary Jane. We’ll be here awhile yet.”
I smiled. That did help. “So, what’s the plan for the wedding?”
“Well, it’ll be a very small affair. Your father and I are both veterans of the big wedding, so this time around we’d like just a few very close friends and family to gather here next Saturday. Monty’s friend Judge Michaels will be doing the honors, and we’ll have a lovely catered dinner afterward. With any luck the whole thing will be over by eleven o’clock!”
I eyed her with surprise. “Really? That’s it? Just a small ceremony and a catered dinner with only a few friends and family?”
Christine laughed lightly. “Yes, that’s all! Why? Did you really think your father and I would have a big, grand affair?”
I shrugged. “Well, maybe not really big, but, I mean, between the two of you, you’ve got to know a whole lot of important people.”
She laughed again. “Well, the only important people we absolutely needed to be here were you, Heath, and Gilley, and of course my son and his family. Speaking of which, Tom will be here Saturday morning, and I just know you’ll adore his wife, Kelsey. She went to school in Boston, you know. . . .”
Christine continued to chat happily at me while we made our way out to the garden for brunch. As she spoke, all the reservations I’d had about attending the wedding melted away. For the first time in forever, it felt good to be home again.
• • •
A few hours later I was hugging Christine and Daddy good-bye. “You sure you won’t stay with us?” Christine asked me again.
“Oh, no—thank you—but we’ve already settled in at Mrs. Gillespie’s. We’ll be back in the morning, though, and we’ll let you know what we’ve discovered at the Porter house.”
Christine bit her lip. “I’m nervous about you going there alone, Mary Jane.”
Heath put a hand on my shoulder. “She won’t be alone, ma’am. I’ll be with her and we’ve done plenty of these investigations. We know what we’re doing.”
Except that we didn’t have any of our equipment or safety gear. I’d had one too many mimosas at lunch, and I’d promised Christine that I’d check out Porter Manor that very afternoon. Now that the buzz was wearing off, I was beginning to wonder if I’d done something stupid in committing to investigate without the proper equipment.
Judging from the size of Gilley’s current frown, I’d probably done something stupid.
“Well, then,” Christine said with a sad smile as she gave us a little wave. “Y’all be safe over there and come back first thing in the morning. I’ll have Ruby send over some of their croissants and Danishes.”
Daddy seemed a bit aloof as we said our good-byes for the night. I knew he and Christine were disappointed that Heath and I had decided to stay with Gilley’s mom instead of at the house with them, but I also knew that Daddy would’ve thrown a fit over Heath and me wanting to stay together in the same bedroom. He’d been pretending to overlook the fact that Heath and I were living in sin up in Boston, and as that was an argument just waiting to happen, I’d cut it off at the pass by asking Gil’s mom if we could stay with her. She’d been more than happy to host us.
As we got ready to take our leave, Christine squeezed my hands one last time and let me go, but before I could get into the van with the boys, Daddy stepped forward and gave me a buss on the cheek. My breath caught and I stood there rather stunned for a moment. I could remember exactly the last time Daddy had given my cheek a kiss. It’d been the night before Mama had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. From that moment on, he’d never bussed my cheek again.
While I stood there, a twinkle came into Daddy’s eyes, and he smiled like he knew he’d caught me off guard. “Y’all have a good rest of your day, Mary Jane,” he said, laying a hand on my arm to squeeze it gently. “Drive safe and we’ll see y’all tomorrow morning.”
I waved to Daddy and Christine as I got into the van, and then we were all waving at them as Gil took us back down the long drive toward the road. For several moments no one in the van spoke until Gil said, “Who was that man masquerading as your daddy, M.J.?”
I laughed. His question was so earnest that it fit exactly the train of my thoughts. “That was Daddy,” I said, and felt my voice quaver. “At least, the Daddy I remember from before Mama died.”
“I like him,” Heath said.
I sighed happily. “He likes you too, honey.”
“Oh, hell,” Gil scoffed. “He loves you, Heath. I mean, M.J., did you see the way Monty was asking Heath about the fly-fishing in New Mexico?”
“I did,” I said, my brow furrowing. Daddy had always been hard on my boyfriends, and by hard I mean awful, terrible, and despicable. “I can’t get over the change in him.”
“Was he really that bad before he met Christine?” Heath asked.
“Yes,” Gil and I said together.
“Huh. Well, he seemed nice to me. And, Em, I didn’t want to bring this up at brunch, but your mom was all over me from the minute we stepped outside for brunch. She talked me up the whole time we were eating.”
“What’d she say?” Gil asked eagerly.
I felt my stomach muscles clench. I often felt Mama close to me in spirit, but she rarely communicated directly with me the way she did with other mediums like Heath, which is a common practice for the spirit world. I think it’s because the way we hear spirits is often so subtle that it can feel as if it’s imagined, and when we hear from our own loved ones, there’s that seed of doubt that plants itself in our brains and begs the question, is this really my loved one, or me just making it up?
The fact that she communicated to me so clearly through Heath made Mama’s words real and undeniable, but I will admit that I both loved and hated hearing him relay her messages. I loved it because I missed her so much, but I hated it because it always reminded me that she was physically absent from my life, and no matter how often I “heard” from her, I’d still never feel her arms wrap around me or hear the lilt of her sweet voice in this lifetime again. Unless of course she came to visit me in one of my dreams, but even that fell short of having her here with me in this world.
“She said that she loves Christine,” Heath said. “And she loves the way your dad has come out of his shell, Em.” Looking meaningfully at me, Heath added, “She also said that she’s happy you and your dad are talking to each other again. She’s super proud of how you’re handling all this.”
My eyes misted and I blinked furiously. Nothing touched me more than hearing that Mama was proud of me. “Thanks, sweetie,” I whispered, and had to look away until I could compose myself.
The van fell into companionable silence as Gilley drove us through Valdosta’s beautiful streets. I had a sudden pang of homesickness for the place that, only a dozen years before, I couldn’t wait to get away from, and found myself leaning my head toward the window to catch the lovely breeze and the sweet smell of fresh peaches, which was so much a part of my history. Summer was just gearing up and the smell more than the sights of my home city was taking me back to a time when I was young and carefree. Before Mama died and the gray cloud of sadness settled into our lives.
“Hey!” Gil exclaimed, jerking me from my thoughts. “There’s Christine’s place—Porter Manor! They cut down all the trees along that ridge, M.J.”
I turned to look out Gilley’s window, and sure enough, the massive house could now be clearly seen at the top of a ridge that’d once been thick with trees. The Porters had been a very private family, and they’d done nothing in the hundred and fifty years of owning the manor to make it more visible to the people of the town. “Huh,” I said, a little sad to see all the trees gone, but also impressed by the size of the place, which I’d never realized was as big as it now appeared.
“Whoa,” Heath said. “It’s at least as big as any castles we’ve investigated overseas.”
“It’s the largest single home in Valdosta,” Gil said smartly. “Mama sent me the listing when it went on the market. It had all the historic details, and the square footage posted at ten thousand square feet.”
Heath whistled his appreciation. “That’s huge. Have either of you ever been inside?”
Gil pulled over just below the ridge and we all gazed up at the manor. “No,” Gil said. “But I’ve always wanted to take a peek.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “You have?”
He nodded. “Haven’t you?”
I squinted up and nodded. “Yeah. I suppose I have.”
“Well, we told Christine that we’d investigate it today, so we’d better get to it,” Heath reminded us.
Gil put the van into drive and pulled away from the curb. I could see his curiosity was getting the better of him.
Gilley had gotten a little braver about interacting with spooks in recent months and I thought that his boyfriend, Michel, was responsible for the change. Michel wasn’t fazed by much and that seemed to calm Gil down considerably on all fronts. Of course, I fully expected him to wait in the van until Heath and I completed the investigation and gave the all clear, but still, his enthusiasm for a ghostbust was something to be noted.
After winding our way up the hill, we finally arrived at the bottom of the drive leading to Porter Manor. The entrance of the manor was a dirt drive flanked by two huge crumbling brick pylons. The drive was at least a quarter mile long and lined with ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. At the end of the road was the manor, a regal-looking three-story Greek Revival plantation home, with white paint and black shutters, which was now a bit haggard with age and neglect. Only a large section of the middle was visible through the trees. Even so, what could be seen was impressive. As Gil hesitated at the bottom of the drive, I felt goose pimples rise up along my arms and I glanced back at Heath only to see his brow furrowed.
“Cool, isn’t it?” Gilley said, his enthusiasm never waning.
“It is,” Heath agreed, his gaze darting to me, and when I held out my arm to show him the goose pimples, he smiled and nodded. The place was ringing with spectral energy all right. “Let’s have a look, then,” Heath said.
Gil took his foot off the brake and we made our way slowly down the drive, kicking up a good cloud of dust as we went. The closer we got, the more intrigued I became. The house was even bigger up close than it had appeared from down below at the bottom of the hill. It loomed like a behemoth at the end of the drive, growing in size as we approached until, when we parked near the front door, it seemed to block out the sun and cast us in shadow.
An involuntary shudder snaked its way down my spine and I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve spent many years now creeping through haunted spaces, and what I used to fear, I’ve now come to appreciate in a way that only repeated experiences with the spirits of the dead can foster: namely, a wealth of admiration for historical landmarks that soak up the memory of the living so intensely that some spooks find it hard to leave. I love the mystery of digging through the ether to figure out the history of a haunted space; the identity of the ghosts haunting the hallways and why they haven’t moved on are the mysteries that continue to captivate me.
“Do we have anything in here for protection?” Heath asked from the backseat, and I saw him looking over his shoulder into the back of the van.
“I doubt it,” Gil said. “M.J. made me get rid of everything not nailed down in here before we set out from Boston.”
He said that like it was my fault we didn’t have any of the magnetic spikes or the gear we normally used to ward off the more aggressive spooks. “The van was filthy, Gil, and you know it. Besides, I only told you to clean it out, not get rid of everything useful in it.”
“How was I supposed to know we were gonna do a ghostbust down here?”
I put a hand on his arm. “You didn’t. So this isn’t your fault or mine.”
“Do you want to wait?” Heath asked, turning back to me.
I eyed the house. “Nah. At most it’s probably some crotchety old relative of the Porters who just needs a good talking-to. We’ll be fine.”
Gil offered me a level look. “You know who else always says stuff like that?”
“Velma, right before she, Shaggy, Scooby, and the rest of the gang go running for their lives.”
I chuckled. Since our show, Ghoul Getters, had started to air on cable, Gil had become obsessed with the comments section of the show’s Web site, and a few of the “fans” who had compared us to Scooby-Doo. I’ll admit that it’d stung a little at first, reading their less than kind jabs, especially when I kept getting compared to Velma, but now I could actually see the humor in it. Gil was also starting to come around, to a lesser degree of course, but that was likely because most everyone compared him to either Shaggy or Scooby.
The three of us stepped from the van in unison, and in silence, each of our chins tilted upward toward the second and third stories. High overhead was a circular balcony and my attention seemed drawn by it in particular. As I squinted to the black ironwork railing, a flicker of movement made me suck in a breath.
“What?” I heard Heath ask.
I pointed toward the railing and said, “I thought I saw something up there.”
Heath said, “Huh. I saw something in that window.” And he pointed toward a large picture window to his right.
In the next second I felt a great force hit me from the side and I was airborne, flying sideways into Heath, who let out a grunt of pain as we both tumbled to the ground in a heap. Somewhere behind me I heard a loud crash, and a spray of rocks bit painfully into my back and shoulders. “What the . . . ?!” I cried, just as I realized Gilley was also lying next to me, his arm still wrapped around my middle.
Bewildered, I watched him shake his head and try to untangle himself from me. “You okay?” he asked.
I brushed a little of the debris out of my hair and lifted my left arm to allow him some room. “What happened?”
Gil brushed at his own head, and small chunks of black debris clinked to the ground. Instead of answering me, he pointed behind him. “That planter,” he said, a little out of breath. “The second you turned your head, it came off the balcony and headed straight for you.”
My eyes widened. The remnants of a large black planter lay smashed and broken exactly where I’d been standing. If that thing had hit me, there’s no way I would’ve survived.
“Whoa,” Heath said, but I was too shocked to speak. “Em, you okay?” he asked after a moment.
I nodded dully, still amazed that I’d come that close to death and hadn’t even known it. And then I focused on Gilley, who was looking a bit pale and shaken himself. Throwing my arms around him, I hugged him fiercely. “Thank you, sweetie!”
Gil let out a small chuckle. “It was nothing,” he said humbly.
I released Gil, and Heath helped me to my feet. We all moved tentatively over to the planter to inspect it, our gazes moving from the planter up to the third-story balcony, where it must’ve come from.
“I’d say that somebody in there isn’t so happy we’ve stopped by,” Heath whispered. “Maybe we should go and come back another time? Like when we’re covered in magnets.”
“You know,” I said, still staring up at the balcony, “I think that’s a great idea.”
The three of us turned back to the van and got in. Gil’s hands were shaking a little as he reached down to turn the key, but all of a sudden there was another gigantic crash and the front windshield imploded.
I screamed and so did Gil. In the next moment the three of us were back out of the van, and Gilley and I were shaking the broken glass off us. “Guys!” Heath said, pointing our attention back toward the van. “Look!”
I was so stunned that all I could do was stand there with my mouth agape. On the top of the hood was another huge planter, which had cratered itself on the hood and imploded the windshield.
“Another six inches and it would’ve killed us!” Gil exclaimed.
“There’s no way we can drive out of here now,” Heath said. He was right. The van was at best inoperable and at worst totaled.
“So what the hell do we do?” Gil squeaked, his gaze moving from the van to the house and back again.
I turned toward the front door of Porter Manor, anger fueling my thoughts. “We find the son of a bitch throwing planters at us!”
“We can’t go in there!” Gil screeched, and suddenly there was another loud crash and I ducked low, covering my head with my arms. Slowly I craned my head to look back at the van, which had been struck on the right front quarter panel by a third planter.
Heath came up next to me and grabbed my arm, pulling me toward the front door. “At some point whoever’s up there has to run out of pots.”
Hurrying to the door, we were passed by Gil, who streaked up to the porch and trembled pathetically next to the door. “What the hell is going on?” he practically shouted when we joined him.
“Don’t know,” I said. “You might wanna stay right here, though, honey. At least until we know what else could come flying off the balcony.”
I then put my hand on the door and Gil said, “What if it’s locked?”
I hadn’t thought of that, and tried the knob only to discover it was locked. “Dammit,” I muttered. “I should’ve gotten a key from Christine before we left.” No sooner had I finished that sentence than the front door suddenly clicked and swung open with a loud creak.
“Whoa!” Heath whispered again.
We stood there for several beats, frozen to the spot while we contemplated the fact that the door had just unlocked itself and opened wide. “I think maybe I should make a run for the road,” Gilley said, his eyes wide with fright.
I grabbed his arm to stop him; something told me not to let him out of my sight. “Hang on,” I said, that foreboding getting stronger. A moment later a paint can came flying from somewhere above, hit the drive, and paint splattered everywhere. A second after that, several bricks smashed to the ground, kicking up debris that found its way to the porch and hit our legs.
Both Gilley and I shrieked while Heath grabbed me around the waist and hauled my butt through the door. As I was still holding on to Gilley, he had no choice but to stumble along with me. The second we were through the door, however, it slammed behind us and we were plunged into the dim interior.
“What the hell?!” Gil cried, his voice now quavering with fear.
I let go of him and pulled away from Heath to go back to the front door and give it a tug. I wanted to know what’d happened outside, but the door was now locked again, and no matter what I did to the lock, it wouldn’t open.
“It’s stuck!” I growled, yanking on the handle.
Heath moved up next to me and I let him try, but he couldn’t get it to open either.
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Leave it. We’ll find another way out.”
“I don’t like this place, M.J.!” Gil said, sidling up next to me close enough to share my shirt.
I took his hand again and squeezed it. “It’ll be okay, Gil. We just need to find another exit and we’ll be on our way.”
“How’re we gonna get out of here, though?” Gil pressed. “We can’t drive the van in that condition.”
I lifted my cell phone. I’d been clutching it the whole time we’d been at the house. “I’ll call Daddy,” I said. But as I pressed the HOME button, the screen remained dark. I pressed it again, with no luck. I muttered under my breath and tried to think of what to do.
“Please don’t tell me your phone’s dead,” Gil whispered when I covered my eyes with my hand.
“Try yours,” I told him.
Gil reached into his back pocket, but his hand came up empty. Then he began to pat himself. “Where’s my phone?”
“You don’t have it?” I asked.
Gil shook his head even as he continued to pat himself down.
“Here,” Heath said, handing me his cell. I pressed the HOME button, but his phone wouldn’t come on either. Meanwhile, Gil had dashed to a nearby window to peer through the pane. “It’s out there!” he wailed. “I must’ve dropped my phone when I pushed you fools out of the way.”
“We’ll get it back,” I reassured him, moving up next to him to look through the pane to see where he’d dropped his cell.
“Come on,” Heath said, taking charge. “Let’s find an exit and get the hell out of here.”
I took his hand and grabbed up Gil’s hand too. Silently I berated myself for being so foolish as to arrive here so unprepared and unprotected. “We should’ve geared up before coming here,” I muttered angrily.
“Well, we’re in the thick of it now,” Heath said, his head swiveling back and forth as he considered which way to go. “There’s nothing left to do but find a way out as quickly as we—”
At that moment there was a loud slam from somewhere above us.
“What was that?!” Gil squeaked.
Heath tilted his head toward the stairs at the end of the entrance hall. “A door slammed shut somewhere upstairs. The spirit energy in here is pretty active.”
“The ghoulies in this house don’t waste time, do they?” I asked.
As if in reply there came another slam!
Next to me, Gil jumped and squeezed my hand hard. “Where’s the exit?” he whispered.
Heath moved forward a few paces with us in tow. “Kitchens always have exits,” he said wisely. “And they’re usually at the back of the house. Come on, maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll be down this hallway.”
But luck wasn’t with us. The hallway we were in passed several large, empty rooms before it came to a dead end with no obvious sign of the kitchen or an exit. Heath frowned when we came to a stop and muttered an expletive. “I would’ve bet the house there’d be a door leading out down here.”
“Let’s open a few of these doors and see if one of the rooms has an exit,” I suggested, pointing to the few remaining rooms between us and the end of the corridor.
Heath nodded, but as we headed to the nearest closed door, we heard another nearby door open, then slam. Next to me Gilley jumped. “That wasn’t on the second floor!”
“The spook is on the move,” Heath whispered, and he glanced at me as if to gauge my reaction.
I pointed to my bare arms, which were lined with goose pimples. “I don’t like it,” I mouthed, careful not to let Gilley know I felt we could be in even worse danger. He was scared and trembling enough as it was.
Heath still had ahold of my hand and he stepped a little closer to me before whispering, “Stick tight by my side and keep your antennae up.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. We walked quickly but quietly to the next doorway, which was the last one on the right, and peered in. To my relief I spied what looked like an exit in the far right corner of the room. “There!” I said, pointing to it so the boys would see. “That window looks big enough for us to get through. Let’s just open it and hop out.”
“Oh, thank the baby Jesus!” Gil cried, letting go of my hand and dashing into the room. Heath and I were about to follow when the door slammed shut in our faces. It happened so abruptly that I cried out and stumbled back.
Heath held his composure and reached for the door handle, but the second he laid his hand on it, he pulled it back and hissed through his teeth. “Dammit!” he swore, shaking his hand back and forth as if he’d burned it.
“What happened?” I tried to reach for his hand to see.
But he was already focused back on the door. “It’s nothing,” he said, using his shirt to cover his hand this time as he reached for the handle again.
From inside the room we heard Gilley yell, “Guys? What’s going on?”
“Gil!” I called as Heath struggled with the door handle. It appeared to be locked tight. “Can you let us in?”
There was a slight pause, and I had a feeling Gilley was weighing whether to come back to the door and unlock it for us, or dart out through the window to save his own skin.
“Gil?” I called, trying to ignore the fact that the air all around us had taken on a fetid sort of odor.
To my relief I heard footsteps approach the door, while Heath tried in vain to get the handle to turn. And then there was a click, a creak, and another slam. Heath and I both jumped. “That was right behind us,” Heath whispered, pointing to the door opposite us.
No sooner had those words left his lips than there came another slam! and then another, and another, and another, until it seemed that all the doors in the entire house were opening and slamming closed one after another with enough force to shake the walls and rattle the floorboards. Startled and more than a little scared, I pressed myself against Heath, who wrapped me in his arms while we waited out the percussion of sound. But it seemed to go on, and on, and on, echoing all over the house, and so violent in its nature that I wondered if it ever would stop.
And then . . . abruptly . . . it did.
A silence fell upon us that was startling, given the cacophony of noise from just a moment before, and I noticed that both Heath and I were breathing heavily. My heart was pounding away against my rib cage and I felt clammy and dizzy. The air was oppressive and thick with something dark . . . something evil.
Heath squeezed me in his arms and whispered, “We gotta get out of here, Em. Right now!”
I nodded against his chest and pulled back slightly, reaching for his hand. He hissed a little when I took it, and I turned it over to look at his palm. That’s when I saw raised red blisters on the inside of his hand, and I winced too. But we didn’t have time to discuss what’d happened to his palm. We needed to get out of that house, so I stepped back to the room where Gilley was and gave a light tap. “Gil?” I called softly.
There was no reply.