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Excerpt for Gnarled Hollow by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Gnarled Hollow

By Charlotte Greene

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Charlotte Greene

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Gnarled Hollow

Unemployed English professor Emily Murray has been given a chance of a lifetime: to work and study inside Gnarled Hollow, the former estate of one of her favorite authors. She doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but by the end of her first day, she knows something is wrong. The house has a disturbing habit of changing dimensions--and nor just physical ones. Rooms go missing, doors close on their own, and time has a strange tendency to disappear. Emily is joined by other scholars, among them the beautiful art historian, Juniper Friend. Together they begin to research the history of the house, refusing to abandon their work despite the appearance of a mysterious, frightening presence. Spurred on by their desire to uncover the mysteries of Gnarled Hollow and its ghostly inhabitant, they’re determined to uncover the truth, even if it means risking their own lives.

Gnarled Hollow

© 2018 By Charlotte Greene. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-236-2


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: September 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (hindsightgraphics@gmail.com)

By the Author

Palette for Love


Love in Disaster


Canvas for Love


Pride and Porters


Gnarled Hollow

Dedication

For you, always.

Chapter One

Emily’s sister Marion insisted on giving her the map that morning, and she’d taken it from her with a groan of impatience. Ever since their parents had retired to Costa Rica three years ago, Marion, though younger than her, had fashioned herself into the new “mom” of the family. The map was clearly “mom” behavior, even if, in truth, it was something their real mother would never have offered. Marion produced it, along with a packed lunch for the trip, as if Emily were incapable of stopping somewhere and finding food on her own.

“You never know,” Marion had said. “You might not find anywhere to stop. And anyway, homemade is healthier.”

Now, hours later, Marion’s sandwich in one hand, peering down at the map, she had to quell a flash of resentment. Marion had been right, as usual. Not only had her GPS and phone quit functioning, but she also hadn’t passed a single place suitable for lunch in the last couple of hours. A few minutes ago, she’d simply pulled over on the side of the road, barely off the edge of the pavement.

Having a map, however, was no real help. Emily was hopeless with directions and place names. She’d been driving for the last hour, but the place names along that road on the map were unfamiliar. Surely if she’d passed a town called Persistence, she would have remembered it. Or a river called Sorrow. Or a lake called Lost Hope. Her sister, clearly trying to be helpful, had made little black circles at points along the road where she could turn and save time on her journey, but at this point Emily was less concerned with saving time and more concerned with actually arriving at her destination. She couldn’t even remember the name of that last tiny place she’d driven through. Something with Falls in the name? But that couldn’t be right, as she saw nothing with that in the name on her map, unless she’d somehow managed to drive completely off course.

She peered up and down the road. Maybe she might spot a sign to suggest that she was on the road she thought she was on, but she didn’t. It didn’t help that the road was curved and steep, the woods dense, the trees hiding the horizon in either direction. She sighed. The map was next to useless. She would finish her lunch and keep driving. Something must be ahead of her, and if she didn’t see anything in half an hour, she could always retrace her route. Even she could do that, as she’d been on the same road for at least an hour without turning.

She leaned back on the hood of her car, munching the apple slices her sister had packed. Despite being lost, she had enjoyed the beautiful drive almost from the moment she’d left town this morning. She was unfamiliar with this part of the country. She’d grown up in New Mexico, where the woods, even when thick, were nothing like this. She didn’t recognize the trees here—oaks or elms, maybe. The leaves and branches above her were so dense, they cut off sunlight. Only a soft-green light filtered through, catching motes of pollen and dust as they floated through the trees. The road itself was strangely out of place, foreign in this setting. One season without maintenance and the woods would take it back. Water ran down the hill behind where the car was parked, gushing in a stream nearby. It was marvelous here, almost like a fairy tale.

Her sister was living in New England temporarily with her husband on a military base, and Emily didn’t know another person besides her and her brother-in-law for hundreds of miles. It was a peaceful feeling. No one around here needed anything from her or was counting on her for anything. No one was disappointed in her. Here, in these dense woods, she didn’t need to answer to anyone. Even lost, she felt better than she had in a long time.

As she stuffed the little plastic baggies into the larger paper sack, she heard it: a strange sound—both familiar and unfamiliar—as if she’d forgotten how that sound was made. She froze, cocking her head, her heart rate unaccountably increasing. The sound was coming from the woods.

She turned in that direction, suddenly afraid she would see it, but saw nothing. The landscape remained the same thick wall of trees in all directions. She felt as if she were being watched. Despite the warmth of the day, she shuddered, still peering into the woods. Movement caught the edge of her vision, and she spun toward it, almost cringing as she tensed.

A bicycle finally came into view, making that strange whirling sound she hadn’t been able to recognize. The trees must have caught the sound and thrown it somehow, as it had seemed to come from the forest rather than the road, but there it was. The cyclist spotted her almost the second she spotted him and stopped pedaling. For a moment, Emily was frightened. She’d lost a lot of weight recently during her depression, and the man, though average, dwarfed her short frame by a foot or more. He smiled broadly a moment later and then aimed for her, pulling up a few feet away. He was an older man—her grandparents’ age or close to it. White hair peeked out from under a checkered, woolen fisherman’s cap, and in his tweed blazer and flannel shirt, he seemed overdressed for both his activity and the warm summer day.

“I’ve been on this road nearly every day at this time for years, and do you know you’re only the second person I’ve ever run into out here?”

She forced a laugh. “I haven’t seen anyone in a while, too, if that makes you feel any better. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and my phone’s not working.”

“No, it wouldn’t, not up here,” he said, as if that explained things. He glanced behind her and saw the map on the hood of her car. “Can I help you?”

Shame quickly followed Emily’s rush of gratitude. She hated feeling helpless, hated depending on anyone for anything, but this was clearly a special circumstance. “Could you? I’m completely turned around.”

He smiled and dismounted before setting his kickstand. The bike, like his clothes, was antique, strange. She couldn’t imagine pedaling something that old and heavy up the hills around here.

“Let’s see where we’re at then,” he said, indicating the map. Emily took a couple of steps away to give him room, and he peered down at it, then rooted around in his breast pocket and removed a pair of spectacles. He perched them on his nose and bent, staring at the map before leaning back and placing his finger on a spot.

“Here we are,” he said.

Again, Emily felt a flash of relief. At least she was on the map. He moved his finger a little to the side, but once she saw where he was pointing, she looked up at him. “But that’s impossible!”

His bushy eyebrows shot up. “How do you mean?”

Before the cyclist had shown up, Emily had been examining the lower right side of the map, at Persistence and Sorrow and all the other bleakly named places she’d been trying to remember. The man was pointing to the upper left corner.

She shook her head. “There’s no way I’m there already. I timed it this morning on the computer and shouldn’t have been here for hours.”

“Yet here you are,” the man said, again as if this explained things.

“But how can it be?”

He seemed baffled—clearly by her and not by her situation, and she made herself look at the map again to make sure she understood what she was seeing.

“But that would mean I’m almost there!” she said, still unable to accept what she was seeing. The man had taken a step away from her and the car, his face now troubled and wary. Emily held up her hands in a calming gesture. “I’m sorry—I’m having a hard time accepting what you’re telling me. I believe you, of course. I just don’t understand. I left this morning at eight and wasn’t supposed to be in this area until three or four.”

“Well, then, you’re right on time,” the man said, his posture relaxing a little. He glanced at his watch. “It’s only going on four now.”

Emily had to stop herself from grabbing his wrist to look at the time herself. Some of her doubt must have shown on her face, as once again the man took a slight step away. He held up the watch for her to see at a distance, confirming what he’d said. It was almost four in the afternoon. She’d stopped for lunch shortly after one. That had been, at most, half an hour ago, not three hours. She opened her mouth to say as much and then snapped it closed. Why would this man believe her? She didn’t believe it herself.

The man had walked away and back to his bike. “Well, I’ll be heading off then, if you’re all sorted out.” He kicked up the stand and climbed onto his bike.

“Wait,” she said, holding out a hand. “Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m obviously more lost than I thought. Could you tell me if you know Gnarled Hollow?”

Again, his eyebrows shot up. “Know it! Of course. You can’t live around here without knowing about that place.”

“Can you tell me how to get there?”

“What on earth could you want with it? It’s been closed for years now—decades even. They don’t allow sightseers. I’ve never even been on the grounds. They’ve locked the gate like they’re hiding the Crown Jewels in there.”

His attitude seemed strange, almost hostile now, as if he resented having to admit this situation. Emily didn’t want to have to explain why she was going to Gnarled Hollow—it was too complicated.

“I’ll keep that in mind. But could you tell me the best way to get there?”

He studied her for a moment, as if weighing the option of denying her request, then finally sighed. “You’re close to the main gate now. It’s maybe five minutes from here. Keep going the way you’re headed. You’ll cross a small bridge at the bottom of this hill. Right after the bridge, you’ll see a dirt road on the right. Follow that, and you’ll come to the main gate. You can’t miss it—there’s nothing else down that road.”

“Thanks again.”

He shook his head, his face pinched with something like disgust. “You’re wasting your time. You’ll never get in.”

“Okay. Thanks again.”

He didn’t respond beyond tipping his hat, turning his bike around, and pedaling off. Emily watched him for a moment, still confused and distinctly unsettled by what he’d told her. She looked at the map again and felt a strange dip in her stomach when she remembered where she was. And what time it was.

She pulled out her now-useless phone and confirmed that it was now after four. How had she gotten here? How had she lost three hours? She touched the hood of her car. It was cold now, but that didn’t mean anything. Newer cars didn’t stay hot like they had in the past—better engines, or whatever. And even so, forty minutes would cool any engine. Either way, she would have remembered standing here for three hours. She clearly remembered glancing at her phone and seeing 1:05 when she turned off the ignition. But she must have made a mistake. There was no other explanation. She’d stopped for gas around eleven this morning and had somehow driven for almost five hours without a break. She’d been lost in thought but apparently taking the right roads, as she was nearly there.

She shook her head again and tried to swallow her unease. None of this mattered now. She would be there soon and would forget all this nonsense.

Chapter Two

Emily had been let go last December, three days before Christmas. That’s what they called it now—“let go”—as if she’d been captive and released, as if she’d even remotely wanted her freedom. The phrase didn’t reflect her awful panic when the chair of her department broke the news. It also didn’t capture the absolute horror she’d felt when she finally accepted what it meant for her and her career. She’d had no idea the layoff was coming. The university she worked for had been threatened with budget cuts before, and she’d made it through the last batch of them.

But, as her chair had explained, these cuts had been deeper, more fatal. Whole departments were being lopped off, as were several junior faculty members from various non-STEM and non-business departments. Her friend Carol in engineering had survived, of course, but almost everyone Emily had started with in humanities and social sciences had been let go. None of them had achieved tenure yet, so their contracts were easier to terminate. She’d been given six-months’ severance and a very good letter of recommendation, but that was it. Her career as an English professor was over.

Her chair had recognized this fact when he broke the news. He didn’t even attempt to cover up his resentment with the powers-that-be, the nameless bureaucrats at the state level that didn’t seem to understand that hiring poorly paid adjuncts to replace actual professors was not to the school’s or students’ benefit in the short or long term. Her chair was, in fact, livid—livid, but helpless. With universities making cuts across the country very much like the one that had “let her go,” it was unlikely Emily would see the inside of a university classroom anytime soon, or possibly ever again. It also didn’t help that most new academic jobs were posted in the autumn, which meant that when she was terminated, Emily had missed her best yearly, if very slim, chance to get something for the next school year.

The months that followed her layoff had resulted in a serious existential crisis. Who was she if she wasn’t a professor and a scholar? Why had she suffered through twelve painful years of higher education? She’d done well at her three-year review, she’d had all her ducks in a row for her tenure review next year, and all that torture had been for nothing. The crisis had quickly devolved into a serious depression that, by March, had settled into a quiet, apathetic sort of nihilism. For a while, she found no point to anything. She spent most of the early spring binge-watching bad television shows, avoiding the phone, and hiding from her neighbors.

Then something strange happened. Two years ago, unaware of her career’s impending doom, when she’d first proposed her book, she’d naively sent off a letter to the only living relative of an author she studied and taught in her American-literature courses.

Margot Lewis, the author, had been a tangential part of the Lost Generation of American writers in the years following World War I. While not part of the core group of (mainly male) authors living in Europe, Lewis had known most of them personally, and her work concerned many of the same themes as theirs. Her fiction, like that of other American and European modernists, was experimental, difficult, and often bleak. In part because of her femaleness, and in part because of her work’s bleakness, Lewis had not enjoyed the same notoriety as the others in the Lost Generation. She was barely known then or now outside of feminist scholarly circles.

Lewis had returned to the States before the outbreak of World War II, by all accounts disappointed and bitter by her lack of fame. She’d disappeared into her family estate, Gnarled Hollow, in the woods of upstate New York, and never publishing another word. During the decades she lived at Gnarled Hollow before her death, she refused contact with anyone, relied on deliveries for food, and apparently died alone, her body rotting in the family house for days before someone noticed.

The estate and Lewis’s legacy had passed on to a cousin, the woman Emily had contacted in her letter. Her book explored several American, female modernist authors, including Lewis, and she had contacted the cousin in the hopes of seeing the house firsthand. Emily’s scholarship focused purely on Lewis’s literature, not her life, so she had no specific reason for wanting to see the house beyond what was perhaps prurient curiosity. Her naïveté at what she’d thought was an innocent request had been immediately shut down by a cease-and-desist letter from the cousin’s lawyers, which promised a lawsuit if Emily attempted to contact her again.

She hadn’t.

Then, three weeks ago, a new letter had appeared in her mailbox, this one written on plain, if expensive, stationery with no return address. Emily almost hadn’t opened the letter, addressed as it was to her at her former university. Someone on campus had forwarded it to her home address. She’d almost thrown the letter into the trash, unopened, sure it would simply be more salt on her wounds, but just before she let it drop onto the top of her coffee grounds and apple cores, she saw its New York postmark and hesitated. She’d applied for a grant in New York, which came with a small stipend and housing for the summer, but she’d forgotten all about it.

Hands shaking, she opened the envelope, but the letter she pulled out was not, in fact, in any way related to the grant. Instead, it was from another relative of Margot Lewis—a distant one—who had inherited the house after Lewis’s cousin died the previous winter. This relative was contacting Emily after an inventory of the cousin’s effects and after seeing the letter Emily had sent asking to see the house. This relative was opening the house that summer for scholars and wanted to invite her. A phone number was included in the letter, and Emily was asked to call as soon as she could.

Again, she started to throw the letter away, certain that if she followed up with this person and explained her new joblessness, the letter-writer would have to turn her down. Still, Emily was too curious to pass up the chance.

“Hello?” The voice was soft and shaky. Emily pictured a very old woman, wrapped up in a pale-pink, hand-knitted shawl.

“Hello. My name is Dr. Emmaline—Emily—Murray. I received a letter with your phone number. You asked me to call you regarding Gnarled Hollow and Margot Lewis.”

“Oh, well, that’s marvelous!” the woman said. “I was very much hoping I would hear from you.”

Emily hesitated, surprised by the change in the woman’s voice. It sounded stronger now, more certain. Perhaps instead of the hand-knitted shawl, she was wearing a silk blouse and holding a dry martini.

“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “I didn’t get your name—I couldn’t quite make it out in the letter.”

“Oh, forgive me. My handwriting’s gone to shit. My name is Ruth Bigsby—and please, call me Ruth. I inherited Gnarled Hollow, though I couldn’t begin to tell you how it happened. My lawyers tried to explain my connection to that family, but it’s very distant. The Lewises had less of a family tree and more of a trunk, if you catch my drift. Lots of cousins marrying cousins and all that, and very few children. I know it was like that in those days, but it does give you pause to see people with the same last name marrying each other over and over again!” She barked with laughter that devolved into a hacking cough. Now Emily pictured a woman with a deeply plunging T-shirt showing off an overly tanned décolletage, a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other.

“Anyway,” Ruth said, “the house also came with a great deal of money, which is something I certainly don’t mind, except for all the damn taxes.” She barked with laughter again. “I’ve been working all spring to get things in order—figure out what to do with it so the damn government can’t take it all from me—and one of my lawyers suggested setting up a kind of trust in the house itself, opening it up to scholars for study. The former owner had hundreds of letters over the years from people asking to see the house, and I asked my lawyers to find a few people in there who didn’t seem like kooks. Your name rose to the top of the list.”

“Glad to know I’m not a kook,” Emily said, smiling.

Ruth barked again. “And how! You wouldn’t believe all the weirdos out there trying to get inside. Bunch of whack jobs, let me tell you.”

“I can imagine.”

“Most of them want to see where she died. Want to touch her bed, that kind of thing.”

“Right.”

“Anyway, I had the place cleaned, top to bottom, and there’s plenty of room for people to use it as a work space. Margot Lewis had a library, too, and she left all of her papers there, along with her family library.”

“Her papers?” Emily asked, her heart pounding. No one had seen a single thing written by Margot Lewis in over fifty years. It would be a significant boon to modernist scholarship to find new work.

“Yes—and there’s a ton of it. Stacks and stacks, journals and folders of things, some of it handwritten, some of it typed. I don’t even know where to start. That’s why I want to get some experts out there to start going through it all. Experts like you.”

For a moment, the last few months fell away, and Emily felt a tremendous surge of hope and triumph. While her own scholarship had been well received in modernist-studies circles, she was too junior to have made much of a mark before she’d been let go. Being the person to release and study new work by Margot Lewis would certainly put her back on the map. Her hopes died a few seconds later when she remembered her changed circumstances. Ruth would be much better served, after all, by someone with a university to back up her work.

Ruth must have taken her silence as hesitance. “I can pay you, of course. Whatever you would normally be paid at your university, I mean. That’s what the lawyers suggested. That way you could take a leave of absence, or whatever, and not be out anything.”

Emily hesitated again. This was the chance of a lifetime. In fact, had she been in her old position at the university, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to accept the offer. Junior faculty were very rarely given leave or sabbatical. Her joblessness, in fact, would allow to her to go—if Ruth still wanted her. Emily decided to see what the offer would involve before she confessed to her current situation.

“When could I start?” she asked.

Ruth barked again. “As soon as you wanted! In fact, the sooner the better. The house is so old, it doesn’t have air conditioning or central heating, if you can believe it, so working there in the summer would be much more tolerable. It’s in the woods, you know, so it doesn’t get very hot there, even in July. I don’t know how people in those days stayed warm with only fireplaces, but that’s all you’d have come October or so.”

“And how long would the project last?”

“Heck if I know!” Her bark was more of a yipping chortle now. “Like I said, I need the experts to tell me that. I imagine you’ll spend the first couple of months getting a handle on the situation before you can determine how long it’ll take.”

The temptation to accept pushed at the back of her tongue. Not only was this offer a lifesaver—her savings would be depleted by July, at best—but she would find the project itself incredibly fascinating. She had completed and submitted her latest book last autumn, but her chapter on Lewis had been the most interesting part of the whole project. Now that she knew what would be required of her—something she was, in fact, uniquely qualified to do—she didn’t want to confess that she was currently without an institution. Ruth would likely turn her down if she fessed up.

Accepting the wild impulse that rose in her heart, the one that closed off all good sense, Emily said, “I’d love to do it. And I’d like to start as soon as possible—early June, if that’s okay.”

Ruth barked so loudly Emily had to pull the phone away from her ear, and they spent the next half hour covering the initial details. At no time was Emily tempted to admit that she was unemployed. The opportunity was simply too good. She would have to hope Ruth would forgive her omission later.

As they wrapped up their conversation, Ruth said, “Oh, before I forget, I wanted to mention the others.”

“The others?”

“The other scholars that will be there with you. I wouldn’t want you to be surprised when they show up. Most of them won’t get there until after you, but don’t worry. You won’t be by yourself all summer in that big old place.”

Emily’s hopes sank. Very likely one or more of them would know who she was and what had happened to her. After all, academia was a very small world. Her charade would be up before she’d even had a chance to prove herself.

“Now let me see,” Ruth said, and Emily heard her shuffling papers. “I have a note around here somewhere. Ah, here it is. First, there’s a man from New York, Dr. Mark Somner.”

“Dr. Somner? I’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s in architecture, if I remember correctly. An historian. He’ll be studying the house. Then there’s a Mr. Christopher Wu—I don’t think he has a title, but I could be wrong. He’s a landscape engineer, and he’ll be studying the gardens and grounds. There’s a Dr. Juniper Friend—what a name!—an art historian. And another one of your lot—Dr. Jim Peters, an English professor.”

Emily’s hopes had risen with the list of people from other disciplines, but they crashed on this last one. She and Jim had been on panels together at various conferences over the years. He knew her and would have heard about her layoff. Still, she decided to let this adventure play out. Perhaps she could, if it came to it, pass herself off as an independent scholar, should Ruth actually ask.

“Finally, there’s my niece, Lara. She’ll be there for a few days, sometime in mid-to-late June, I think. So you’ll have company, but believe me, in a house that big, you’ll barely notice each other.”

This last addition made Emily pause. Would the niece be there as a kind of spy? She couldn’t think of a way to ask about this possibility politely, however. She would wait and find out. A niece seemed like a very minor obstacle, especially since she apparently wouldn’t be there very long.

“I might stop by once or twice myself, but you’ll all have plenty of warning when I do. And as I said, the others won’t join you until after you’ve gotten there. You should have the place to yourself for a few days, maybe more.”

“It all sounds wonderful, Ruth. I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity.”

“The pleasure is all mine. What good is money if you have to give it all away to the IRS?”

Chapter Three

The gravel road to the estate was exactly where the cyclist had said Emily would find it—just beyond a little stone bridge. She didn’t find a marker of any sort from the main, paved road. Without his directions, she would never have discovered the road to the house, so she was grateful to him despite the strangeness of their encounter.

Much to her surprise, the road leading to the gate was well maintained. When the cyclist had told her it was unpaved, she’d expected a rutted, muddy mess out here in these wet woods. She’d grown up on a dirt road, and it had always been in a state of sloppy disrepair. If you don’t take care of dirt roads—and their father rarely had—they quickly devolve into something most drivers have second thoughts about. This road, on the other hand, had been carefully raked recently, with new gravel laid down, although she didn’t see a mark on it to suggest anyone had driven here recently. The trees had been trimmed back enough that they didn’t brush her car, another monumental task with a road this length. Clearly Ruth was paying a lot to keep it in good condition.

A few minutes later she arrived at the gate, where she could finally see the large fence that encircled the estate. From the road, it had been hidden behind the trees, but here she noticed that the fence was high and formidable, a black wrought iron with tipped points. The gate was locked, of course, and she had to park and get out to unlock it. Ruth had sent her a large package the previous week containing keys and information, and it took her a moment to find the right key on the ring. The lock opened easily, and she released the chain that held the gates closed. It took a great deal of effort to swing the heavy gate, but she needed to open only one side to make enough room for her little car. She got back in, drove through and past it, then got back out and closed and locked the gate and chain again. Ruth had been very particular with her warnings about keeping the gate locked, to avoid the “kooks” getting in.

The gravel road past the gate was even nicer, made of what appeared to be crushed seashells. It was bright and white, and, as Emily neared the house and the trees began to thin, the road seemed to glow in front of her in the sunlight.


* * *


Later, when Emily tried to remember the feeling that came over her upon first seeing Gnarled Hollow, she wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what made her slam on her brakes and stop. At first, for less than a full second, she experienced something like fear—even horror. Turn around, she thought desperately. Turn around right now. Forget you were ever here. Leave and never come back.

Seconds later, she was hit with a surge of joy and exhilaration, a happiness so hot and sweeping that she had to blink back tears. Her heart began to race, and she flushed with heat and excitement. She could no longer see for the tears and clasped her hands to her chest, gazing at the house with blurry eyes.

She had expected Gnarled Hollow to be awful and ugly, hideous in a terrible, Victorian style of neo-Gothic or neoclassic. Despite its age and a vague kind of notoriety, she hadn’t found any pictures of the house, so she shouldn’t have been surprised to find something different out here in these woods. Yet she was. The house had been built in the late 1870s by a family with an unimaginable amount of money. Usually rich Americans in that era modeled their homes on European classics, sometimes going so far as to copy them outright. Gnarled Hollow was something else and totally, unexpectedly original.

White and stately, it had none of the trappings of other horrible large houses of the era: no columns, no marble, no flying buttresses or unusual gables. It was, in fact, something like a large, English-style cottage. However, the enormous windows made it entirely different—huge, eye-like squares across the entire façade of the house, seemingly hundreds of them at first glance. The wide lawn in front contained no fountains or statues to disrupt the open, empty green, and the white road curved around it in a graceful arc. The house was, in a word, one of the most beautiful things Emily had ever seen.

Embarrassed now, and glad she was alone, she put her shaking hands back on the steering wheel and followed the road around the green on the right, parking directly in front of the main door. Ruth had told her about a converted carriage house somewhere that she and the others should use as a garage, but she decided to find it later. She was compelled, somehow, to look at the house now.

Emily got out of her car and walked across the large lawn, back to the road where she’d stopped upon seeing the house. She turned around to take it in again as a whole, holding her breath. She wanted, in part, to feel that same rush of happiness she’d experienced when she first saw it. The sensation was weaker now, but still there, and heat and gratitude rushed through her. This is mine, she thought. I live here now.

Movement caught her eye, high up in one of the windows on the right, and she sought out the spot. The trees were far away from the house, the whole yard and some surrounding area on both sides leveled completely, but for a moment she was certain she’d seen merely the reflection of a branch or a cloud. She couldn’t make out anything through the sunlight’s glare, and she stepped to the side to avoid the direct path of the light.

A woman stood there in the window upstairs, staring down at her.

Emily’s heart leapt, and she froze, so surprised she had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. She put a hand to her chest and laughed a little before lifting it in a wave. The woman continued to stare at her without moving or responding. Emily let her hand drop down at her side, confused, and a moment later the woman turned and disappeared into the room behind her.

Puzzled by this behavior, and curious to see who she was, Emily walked back across the lawn and to the front door, rooting through her key ring for the one to the front door. On impulse, she turned the knob and found the door unlocked. She pushed the door wide and went inside.

She was in a large foyer, and the marble she’d expected to see outside lay here on the floor. It stretched out from the foyer and around a main, central staircase. Near her toward the front of the house stood two sets of double doors, one to her left and one to her right. Farther away, to the left and right of the stairs, she could see more doors. All of them were closed. The stairs that led up were covered in a thick, pattern-less, maroon carpet. She closed the front door behind her, but the huge fanlight transom window over the door and two smaller windows on either side of it let in ample sunlight. She’d left the instructions for finding her bedroom in the car, but she wasn’t concerned with that right now. Before she settled in, she wanted to find the woman she’d seen in the window. Clearly one of the others had arrived earlier than expected.

After climbing the stairs, Emily reached a landing from which two smaller sets of stairs led off to the left and right. She took the set to the right, in the general direction from which she’d seen the woman. It led up to a balcony-like platform that ran the length of the house. A short railing on the side overlooked the main foyer and stairs, and four doors to her left were spaced evenly the along the length of the house. Turning around, she peered across and over the main staircase and spotted another balcony at the top of the other set of stairs, to the left of the main landing. It seemed almost identical to the one she was standing on now, but she saw a fifth door on that side. The carpet here on the balcony was, like the stairs, thick, maroon, and fairly new, judging by its condition.

Unsure which door the woman was behind, Emily knocked on every one she walked past, and after she’d hit the last door at the end of the balcony, she tried to open it. It was locked. Confused, she glanced at her key ring but saw only four keys there—one to the front gate, one to the front door, one that was probably for her bedroom, and a smaller key that might be for a mailbox. She didn’t have any others.

Emily decided to try the third, larger key, and when it slid into the lock, she somehow wasn’t surprised to find that this was the key to her bedroom. She unlocked the door and opened it, once again nearly blinded by the light streaming in from outside.

Hers was a large corner room, with a comfortable sitting area and four chairs around a small round table, a tall wardrobe, and a huge canopied bed. The big, square, purple area rug on the floor complemented the lilac canopy and bedding. The light, canary-yellow walls had been papered with cloth in a paisley design. She touched the wall nearest her and pulled her fingers away a moment later, afraid she might damage it. Velvet paisley on top of silk.

Walking across the room to the window facing the front lawn, she realized she was in the room where she’d seen the woman—from this very window, in fact. The perspective matched completely. But where was the woman? Further, how had she gained access to a locked room unless she had a key? Ruth had told her a couple of staff members would be in and out of the house to tidy up and bring supplies, so that must have been whom she’d seen.

“Hello?” Emily called out. She walked out of her room onto the balcony. “Hello? Is anyone here? I’m Dr. Murray.” She felt stupid using her title. She walked farther, back toward the stairs. “But you can call me Emily.”

She was at the top of the stairs now and paused, listening. Had she heard footsteps, or were they her own?

Nothing.

“Hello?” she called, louder this time. The house wasn’t so big that whoever it had been couldn’t hear her—Emily was certain of this. Still, no one replied. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to be in my room, Emily thought. Maybe she’s afraid she’ll get into trouble. From the little she’d seen of her, she’d been fairly young, so maybe this was a new job for her, too.

Emily turned around and tried opening all the other doors along the balcony. The first two were locked, but the third, the one next to hers, opened easily, and she found a small, old-fashioned bathroom, likely the only one on her side of the house. Unlike her bedroom, it had clearly not been renovated, or possibly it had been kept in its original condition for the sake of preservation. A small, stained tub—no shower—and a green porcelain toilet and sink hunched together. An overhead light consisting of a harsh, uncovered bulb hung from a bare wire in the windowless room, its peeling paint a pale, sickly gray.

Considering how nicely the rest of the house had been refurbished—at least what Emily had seen so far—this room seemed out of place, strange. She hoped there was another bathroom somewhere nearby, as she couldn’t picture herself using this one except in an emergency. The thought of bathing in this creepy room—naked in that hideous little tub—made her shudder, and she closed the door behind her when she left.

Back downstairs, she decided to explore the rooms to the right of the main stairway first. She found only two doors: one a double set, the second a single close to the back of the house. The doubles led into a nicely decorated sitting room that featured a small upright piano in one corner and a sofa and chairs arranged in various configurations for group gatherings and smaller, more-intimate conversations. Two chairs near the windows faced each other across a little green card table. A well-stocked bar cart stood in a nearby corner. She saw no TV, the only type of media an old record player on a tiny wooden cabinet. The walls were covered in paintings in heavy frames, some portraits and some land and seascapes, all of which looked older, pre-Impressionist. Everything had been done in maroon and gold, with silk wallpaper behind all the paintings.

A small door connected to the only other room on this side of the stairway, and rather than go back through the foyer, Emily walked through it and into the library. It was much darker in here, the windows tiny and high. Bookshelves covered every wall and stretched from floor to ceiling. A wheeled ladder could be pushed around the room to reach the books above.

A surprisingly large, rolltop writing desk sat in the center of the room, but when Emily reached the front of it, she found it closed. She tried to open it and then pulled out her key ring again and slid the last of her keys, the small one, into the lock. It opened easily, and she rolled up the top of the desk to reveal a miracle.

Ruth had prepared her for the Lewis papers, but it was one thing to picture them and another thing entirely to see them firsthand. She found stacks of green file folders stuffed with paper covered in tight, small handwriting. There were also stacks of notebooks, the kind used in schools in the forties and fifties, and flipping one open, Emily saw that these too were filled with handwriting, covering every inch of blank paper inside. This hoard was a treasure trove—so priceless to Lewis scholarship that studies of her work would be forever changed.

She sat down on the old desk chair heavily, exhilaration making her, for a moment, feel almost faint. This project would be a huge undertaking. Despite her misgivings about Jim Peters, the other English professor that would be here this summer, she was suddenly glad he was on his way. She couldn’t possibly do this project on her own, not unless she had years to work on it.

The door swung open with such swiftness and silence, Emily wasn’t aware it was happening until it did. She had to bite her lip to stop from crying out, and she tensed, digging her fingers into the arms of the chair.

The woman who stood in the doorway was older than Emily by some twenty years, her dark hair striped with gray and piled onto her head in a loose bun. She was wearing a long skirt and a dark blouse, both fine and well-made. Emily knew instantly this wasn’t the woman she’d seen in her window. This woman was much older, her hair markedly different. The woman seemed unsurprised to see her here, and it took Emily a moment to realize she was waiting for her to say something.

“Hi?” Emily finally managed, her heart still pounding.

“Hello, Dr. Murray,” the woman said. “My apologies for being late. I didn’t anticipate that you would be here so early.”

“No problem at all.” Emily rose and held out her hand. “Please, call me Emily.”

The woman shook her hand. “I’m Mrs. Wright, the general housekeeper. Mr. Wright is the gardener. We come on Mondays and Fridays, normally, but Mrs. Bigsby asked me to be here today to greet you and show you around. I take it you’ve found your bedroom?”

“Yes. It’s lovely.”

Mrs. Wright turned without comment, and with a small gesture of her hand, she suggested that Emily follow her. Emily got up, but Mrs. Wright paused in the doorway and looked back behind them.

“You might want to lock that,” she said, pointing at the desk.

“Of course!” Emily returned to the desk and did as suggested. “Thanks.”

The woman continued without further comment, and Emily trailed her silently out of the room and back into the foyer.

“Does your assistant normally come today? On Tuesdays, I mean?” Emily asked.

Mrs. Wright paused and turned her head toward Emily, her eyebrows lowered in apparent confusion. “My assistant? You mean Mr. Wright?”

“No—the younger woman I saw earlier. In my room. Is she normally here on Tuesdays?”

Mrs. Wright turned more fully around to face Emily. “I don’t have an assistant, Dr. Murray. No one else works here.”

Chapter Four

“But you must be mistaken,” Emily said, then felt foolish. “I’m sorry. I mean it’s just that I saw her. In my room.”

“In your room? But how on earth could anyone she be in there? You’re the only one with the key besides myself and Mrs. Bigsby.”

“Well, the front door was unlocked. Maybe she has her own keys?”

Mrs. Wright’s eyebrows lowered even further. “The front door was unlocked? But that’s impossible! I locked it myself yesterday.”

Emily shrugged. “It was unlocked.”

“Was your room locked?”

“Yes.”

“What did this woman say? Did she explain why she was in your room?”

Emily hesitated. “I didn’t speak to her. I saw her from the front lawn. I waved and then she left.” She didn’t use the word “disappeared,” though that was more or less what the woman had done.

Mrs. Wright’s face cleared a little, her expression now a little knowing and skeptical. “I see. Well, perhaps you were mistaken, Dr. Murray.”

“How do you mean?”

“Maybe no one was there at all. The light on those windows makes it fairly hard to see inside the house this time of day.”

Emily laughed, incredulous. “I know what I saw. And how do you explain the front door?”

Mrs. Wright sighed and shook her head. “That I have no explanation for. I’ll have to ask Mr. Wright. Maybe he came inside and forgot to lock up after himself when he left.”

“But I saw her!” Her chest felt tight—panic warring with something like anger. Her excitement was obviously making her seem ridiculous, but she was desperate to be believed.

Mrs. Wright seemed impatient now. “And what did this woman look like?”

Emily paused again. She’d seen the woman from a distance, and at an angle, but she’d had a fairly good glimpse of her head and shoulders. “She’s pale, maybe in her twenties or early thirties, with dark, long hair. She was wearing a gray shirt, I think. I couldn’t see her outfit very clearly, but it was dark and plain.”

Mrs. Wright shook her head decisively. “There’s no one like that around here, Dr. Murray. It must have been a trick of the light.” She turned again and started walking toward the set of double doors on the left side of the stairs. “Please follow me. I’ll show you around the dining room, the pantry, and the kitchen.”

Emily stood unmoving for a moment until she realized Mrs. Wright had effectively ended the conversation. Either she genuinely believed that Emily had imagined the woman in the window, or she simply didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of having, perhaps, left the door unlocked. Either way, for Mrs. Wright, the discussion was over.

“I’m sorry to hurry you, Dr. Murray,” Mrs. Wright broke in, “but as I said, this is not my usual day here, and I’m anxious to go home.”

Emily let it go for now and followed her into the dining room. The older woman closed the doors behind them, but, like the sitting room and library, the dining room wasn’t locked.

The room had a large, twelve-place table made of heavy dark wood that had long since become unfashionable. An enormous, electric chandelier hung above the center of the table, a small serving table was set up on the side, a towering grandfather clock stood in one corner of the room, and a full-length portrait topped the fireplace. Smaller paintings dotted the walls between the windows, very much like in the sitting room.

“The table’s a bit grand for regular use,” Mrs. Wright explained, “but this room hasn’t yet been fully restored. Mrs. Bigsby plans on replacing this table at a later date. As far as I understand, most people in the past, when this house was built, would have eaten their breakfast in their rooms. This room would have been used only for supper.”

“Do you know much about that time period? For the house, I mean? What the family was like back then?”

Mrs. Wright shook her head. “I’m not aware of the history, I’m afraid. I’m not from around here. My husband and I were hired long after the writer lady died.”

“And no one in town talks about the house?”

Mrs. Wright’s eyes darted away from hers. “No one says anything about this place, Dr. Murray. They wouldn’t know.” She looked strangely guilty.

Emily opened her mouth with a follow-up question, but Mrs. Wright had already turned and was walking toward a door to the right.

“The dining room connects through the pantry into the kitchen. Mr. Wright and I will keep you stocked with basic foods here and in the icebox in the kitchen. If you require anything else, simply let one of us know, and we’ll bring it when we return. Of course, you can always pick things up in town yourself if you prefer. I don’t do any cooking, and all of you will have to keep the kitchen somewhat tidy. I can do only so much, coming twice a week.”

The pantry lay off to the left of the little connecting hallway between the kitchen and dining room. Given the tall ceilings in the house, it too required a ladder to access its various baking, boxed, canned goods, and bread. They walked farther, into the kitchen, which, while clearly updated in the last century, was still old and dark—the kind of room the people who actually lived here would likely have never frequented. The dark-slate floor sloped slightly toward a drain in the center of the room. She noticed a large butcher-block table, an old fridge, an even older gas oven, and no microwave. Two new appliances sat on the counter: a coffeemaker and a toaster.

“Dishes are in those cupboards there,” Mrs. Wright pointed, “silverware in the drawers below.” She walked toward a small back door that led outside and waited until Emily approached. “Your key to the front door also unlocks this one. You’ll find the garage in the back of the house, where you can put your car.”

About fifty feet away from the back door, Emily saw an old carriage house with three doors that had been converted to allow entry for cars. With six visitors planned this summer, Emily couldn’t imagine how they would all fit.

Mrs. Wright turned around. “Past the gardens, you’ll see the path to the greenhouse and the pool. The main house key also opens those locks. I can take you out there if you like.” She said this last part with a clear note of reluctance, and Emily had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. This woman didn’t hide how she felt about things.

“That’s fine, Mrs. Wright. I’m sure I can find it on my own. It all seems very straightforward. Thanks for the tour.”

Mrs. Wright indicated the third doorway in the kitchen before she walked through it. It led back into the main foyer, and they walked together to the foot of the stairs. Mrs. Wright pointed at the third, middle door to the left of the stairs. “You’ll find a small powder room there.”

Remembering the grim bathroom by her bedroom, Emily asked, “Where are the other bathrooms?”

“Two are on your floor, one on each side of the stairs. There is also one in the attic, but it’s not in very good shape.”

“There’s an attic?”

“Yes. You can access it on the men’s side of the house. But I wouldn’t recommend going up there, especially alone.”

“Is it unsafe?”

Mrs. Wright seemed momentarily confused and shook her head. “No—I wouldn’t say that. Dirty, but not unsafe. It hasn’t been renovated yet, and it’s full of a lot of the old furniture and fixtures from the rest of the house from over the years. No one goes up there.”

“I see.”

Mrs. Wright paused and then moved toward the front door. “Well, I’ll be off then. I trust that you can give the others the same tour should anyone arrive before Friday, when I’m back. I collect laundry on Fridays and return it on Monday. You’ll find a laundry bag in your wardrobe.”

Mrs. Wright’s hand was on the front doorknob when Emily said, “Wait.” The woman turned toward her with a look of wariness. “I did see someone in my window, Mrs. Wright. In my bedroom. I didn’t imagine her.”

Mrs. Wright shook her head, her face pinched with impatience. “It’s impossible, Dr. Murray. No one else is here.”

“She was here.”

Mrs. Wright shook her head again and left, closing the door behind her with more force than necessary. Emily assumed she was angry with the implications of this mystery woman. It meant that she’d been neglectful and left the door unlocked. But Emily could give a damn about that. Someone had been here and left. Or, worse, someone was still here. Hiding.

She shuddered and rubbed her arms to dismiss the goose bumps on them. She was not a superstitious person, had never believed in anything like ghosts or spirits, but she did have an acute phobia of being watched or listened to without her knowledge. And, now that she was alone, she couldn’t stop that feeling from creeping over her, a tingling suggestion that someone stood just behind her, staring at her back.

“Get it together, Murray,” she told herself. Whomever she’d seen would eventually appear and explain herself.

All of these closed doors didn’t help matters. Anything—or anyone—could be behind them. And they blocked the light. She opened the two sets of double doors—those into the dining and sitting rooms, and the effect was immediate. The feeling of being watched disappeared, and the light was much better. Both rooms had seemed a little stuffy, as well, so this would help air them out.

“That’s better,” she told the rooms.

She decided to get her luggage and then park her car in the garage. She at least had the benefit of not worrying about parking since she was here first. She grabbed her small suitcase and laptop from her trunk, put them inside the main door, and then drove over to the garage. The door rose from the ground and was difficult to hoist it on her own, but she managed. Her car barely fit inside the tiny stall, and she had to turn sideways to scoot around it and back outside. Anyone with a larger car would be out of luck, anyway. She closed the garage door and walked around to the front of the house again to get her bags.

She was halfway up the stairs, luggage in either hand, when she stopped, her heart seizing. For a moment, she stood there, frozen. An icy sweat broke out on her arms and neck, and she hunched over as if to protect herself. Slowly, moving a fraction of an inch at a time, she turned her head and peered back down into the foyer below her, afraid to see what her brain had registered a few seconds late.

The doors to the sitting and dining rooms were closed.

Chapter Five

Juniper Friend made a mean G&T, just the way Emily liked it. The flavor of the tonic was there, but not overwhelming, the strength of the drink relying entirely on gin and lime. She’d also added the right amount of ice, neither too much nor too little. Normally, when Emily ordered this cocktail in a bar, she prepared herself to be disappointed, but this one was better than any she could have made herself.

Juniper raised her eyebrows. “Is it good?”


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