Sukie’s been lonely since the death of her big sister, Kitty—but Kitty’s ghost is still with her. At first that was comforting, but now Kitty’s terrifying anyone who gets too close. Things get even weirder when Sukie moves into her family’s ancestral home, and an older, less familiar ghost challenges her to find a treasure. Her classmate Cole is also experiencing apparitions. Fortunately, an antique broom’s at hand to fly Sukie and Cole to the New-York Circulating Material Repository’s spooky Poe Annex. As they search for clues and untangle ancient secrets, they discover their histories intertwine and are as full of stories of love, revenge, and pirate hijinks as some of the most famous fiction.
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“Almost there,” said Dad as we crested the last hill.
The old Thorne Mansion stood black against the sky, bristling with gables and laced with leafless vines. Crows quarreled in the skeletal trees. I couldn’t see the ocean, but I smelled its salt. The truck, heavy with everything we owned, lurched and bumped up the steep drive. My new home did not look welcoming.
“It’s been a long time,” said Mom. “I feel bad I didn’t visit more often. Cousin Hepzibah was always so good to my brother.”
“Well, you’ve had a lot on your mind,” said Dad. “At least we’re here now.”
“Come in, child,” said Cousin Hepzibah. She was sitting in a wooden chair by the window. Pale daylight slanted down over her, making gray streaks in the air.
I hadn’t seen her in years—not since before my sister got sick—but she looked just the same, straight and thin and pale, like a birch tree. She had her white hair pulled back from her face, but her eyebrows were still black. The dark horizontal stripes made her look even more birchlike. Underneath them, her eyes were sky blue.
“You must be Hepzibah,” she said. “The one they call Kitty.”
“What? No! Kitty is . . .” I couldn’t say it.
“Of course,” she said after a moment. Despite her age, her voice was strong and low. “Forgive me. I remember now, Kitty is the redhead. You’re Susannah—they call you Sukie, don’t they?”
I nodded. Did she know Kitty was dead?
Evidently yes, because she went on. “There’s always been a Hepzibah in this house, but now it seems I’m the only one living. Come closer so I can see you.”
I stepped forward into the gray light. Taking my hand, she studied my face. Her fingers were cold, thin, and hard. They caught me as tight as a blackberry vine when it tangles your sleeve.
“You have the Thorne look,” she said. “You favor my aunt Hepzibah. It’s good to see her chin again.”
“Yes, I look like Mom,” I said. “Kitty looked like Dad.”
Cousin Hepzibah nodded. “I’ve given you the tower room. Second door to the left and up the stairs. I would show you myself, but those stairs keep getting steeper. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said. “Thank you.”
The wind in the branches outside gave a long moan.
“That won’t disturb you, will it?” Cousin Hepzibah asked, then shook her head. “No, of course not. Nothing in this house would threaten a Thorne. If you’re cold, draw the curtains—the window frames could use some caulking, but the curtains are nice and thick.”
“I could fix that,” I said. “I’ve helped Dad lots of times.”
Cousin Hepzibah smiled and squeezed my hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”
When Kitty died, I thought things couldn’t get any worse. But they did. Mom had left her job at East Harbor Middle School to take care of Kitty, and she couldn’t find a new one—all the schools had hiring freezes. And business was very slow for Dad too.
“Things will pick up in the spring,” he said. “They always do.”
Except that year they didn’t. Nobody wanted new houses built. All Dad could find were small jobs like rebuilding kitchen cabinets so the owners could try to sell their house. Everyone near us was trying to sell their house, but nobody was buying.
The next spring, things didn’t pick up either. Mom found a part-time job working at the Easymart, and Dad did whatever small jobs he could. I would hear them talking in the kitchen when they thought I was asleep.
“What if you went back to school for nursing?” asked Dad. “There’s always work in health care.”
“I don’t think I could,” said Mom. “It would just remind me, all the time . . .”
I heard Dad’s chair scrape as he went over to her. “I know. Sally, Sally, it’s okay.” They were quiet for a while, but I could tell Mom was crying. “Well, I could go to nursing school, then,” Dad said. “Lots of men do that now.”
“How would we pay for it? The bank’s not going to give us another loan.”
“No, you’re right,” said Dad.
I pulled the covers over my head, but it didn’t help. I wished I were old enough to get a job. I wished there were something I could do now! I helped Mom and Dad with their weekend work, finding interesting old things at garage sales, auctions, and thrift shops to take down to New York City and sell at flea markets. I helped them pack the things up, and sometimes I went along to the city and helped sell them. But it wasn’t enough.
The thing is, I was the one who was supposed to die.
Some Thornes live practically forever, like Cousin Hepzibah. Others die young. In my mother’s generation it was her youngest brother, George. He died of the Thorne blood disease just before he turned twenty. In my grandfather’s generation, it was my great-aunt Caroline and a first cousin of theirs, one of the Hepzibahs.
I was born prematurely, and everyone thought I was the doomed one in our generation. I spent the first two months of my life in the NICU with tubes attached, wearing a tiny knitted hat, which Mom still has.
“You looked like a little baby bird before it gets its feathers,” Kitty used to tell me. “I was worried a cat would come and eat you.”
“No way you could remember that, Kitty! You were only three.”
“Oh, I remember! That’s not something you forget. You were so weird and red, with your twig arms and your big, blind kitten eyes. All the time in the hospital, you looked like you were seeing ghosts. Everybody was so worried, and it seemed like forever before they let us bring you home.”
I was always small for my age, and I kept getting sick—earaches and strep throat and everything anyone in a three-mile radius came down with. Mom used to make me wear two wool scarves long after the ice melted on the puddles in the backyard. I still had training wheels on my bike a year after I stopped needing them. I wasn’t allowed to jump off the diving board by the waterfall, even though all the other kids did it, and forget about swimming in the ocean, even on the few days when it was warm enough.
It was Kitty’s job to take care of me. I liked having someone so strong and fearless to stand between me and the barking dogs and rowdy boys. To me, the smell of Kitty’s favorite watermelon soap was the smell of comfort. Still, sometimes I envied kids like my best friend, Jess, who was always tearing around without anyone trying to stop her. Mom made Kitty protect me from pretty much anything fun or exciting.
It didn’t help that I had the pale, bony Thorne look. I used to slap my cheeks and puff them out, hoping it would make me look more like stocky, rosy Kitty, who took after Dad’s family, the O’Dares.
And after all that, Kitty was the one who got the Thorne blood disease and died.
“Oh, here you are,” said Mom, knocking on the door frame of the tower bedroom. “Can I come in?”
“I always loved this room,” said Mom. “The Round Room, that’s what your aunt Jenny called it. It’s so high up, with all the windows.” She pushed aside the gauzy inner curtains on the four-poster bed and sat down on the end. “Jenny and I used to fight about who got to sleep here. How do you like it?”
I shrugged. “It’s fine,” I said.
Actually, it wasn’t. Nothing was fine, and I was sure nothing would ever be again. Fingers of bare vines—ivy or something—scraped across the windows as if they were picking at a scab. The wind whistled and seeped through the cracks, making the curtains move aimlessly. Cobwebs floated in the air high up where the curved wall met the ceiling. I wanted to go home to my own room in the clean, warm house that Dad had built, the house where I knew all the sounds, where my feet knew every tile and corner. But that was someone else’s home now, not mine.
I didn’t say any of that, of course—Mom already felt bad enough. But I didn’t have to. She came over to the window seat and hugged me. “I know it’s a big change,” she said. “Things’ll look better once you get used to it. We’re lucky Cousin Hepzibah has all this space. We’re lucky she’s so generous.”
“Well, it’s not like she can live here alone anymore,” I said. “She can’t even really climb stairs. She needs our help.”
“That’s right. She’s helping us, and we’re helping her. We’re both lucky,” said Mom.
I knew Mom was right. But I still just wanted to go home.
That night I sat up suddenly, absolutely certain there was a ghost in the room.
At first, when I opened my eyes, I thought I might be the ghost myself. The world was as velvety black as it had been with my eyes still shut. Maybe, I thought, I have no eyes. Maybe I have no body at all. But I reached out and touched cloth, which meant I had hands. The cloth was the reason I couldn’t see anything. I had pulled both layers of bed curtains closed for warmth, the white gauzy inner ones and the heavy brocade outer ones.
When I parted the curtains, the velvet blackness sank into gray shadows. I had closed the window curtains too, but moonlight seeped through around the edges. A figure was kneeling in the window seat, outlined dimly in moonlight. She had her back to me. The room filled with a sweet smell, like cloves and roses.
I wasn’t scared. I was used to ghosts. Well, I was used to one particular ghost, anyway. “Kitty?” I said. “Is that you?”
She didn’t move.
“Hepzibah?” I asked.
The ghost turned around slowly. Light glowed softly from her and I could see her face.
She didn’t look a thing like Kitty. She looked like me.
I didn’t scream. Neither did the ghost. We stared at each other for a few moments. She faded slowly, like fog lifting until there was nothing in the window but moonlight and shadow.
I pulled the bed curtains closed again, but it was a long time before I fell asleep.