A sticky gloom wraps Aunt Willa’s house like a blanket, as if the life of the three-thousand-square-foot mansion died when she did.
I park at the curb. The front porch and grounds showcase her flamboyant decorating skills, covered in pumpkins in all shapes and sizes. Mums in burgundy, orange, and white add pops of color, surrounded by gathered and tethered corn stalks.
The lawn, bleached by the hoar frost, is enclosed with a black wrought iron fence, a fleur de lis on the top of each waist-high spike. A miniature wagon sits in the front yard, kissed with frost, holding hay bales and gourds.
The wide, wrap-around front porch is decked in garlands of fall leaves, weaving around the white columns. The two large windows on the first floor are filled with a display of what appears to be a woodland wedding, complete with gnomes with red hats and a bridal Snow White. Over the door is The Wedding Chapel sign showcasing the business in white letters. The Sorry, we’re closed! notice hangs limply from its hanger inside the glass door.
Leaving Arthur and Lance in the car, I cringe when the ornate gate lets out a hair-raising squeak as I tug it open. The ground is damp and smells of wet leaves and fresh soil, the big magnolia tree near the sidewalk dripping water from a brief shower an hour ago.
Plop, plop, plop. Fat drops fall, a couple landing on my head, as I take the stone-paved walkway to the house. The eastern sky eases into a pink-tinged gray, and everything is veiled in a dull pallor of fog.
I don’t plan to stay long, just enough to check on Tabitha, my aunt’s cat, and make sure the place is locked up tight. I also have an urge to walk down to the creek, near the old homestead, in order to see if I can find any trace of Aunt Willa and her possible guest.
Did Mama imagine it? Was Aunt Willa simply chiding Tabitha or one of the dozens of wild animals she often fed? Was there actually someone with her when she died? If so, why didn’t they try to save her?
A sickening thought, and subsequent chill, ripple through me. No, I tell myself. No one in Thornhollow would ever do my aunt harm.
At the top of each porch railing sits a gargoyle-shaped black cat. Part of the original house, the twins suit it perfectly for this time of year. Growing up, my aunt always told trick-or-treaters to pet the cats’ heads for good luck. I stroke the top of one of them when I reach the top step, an old habit.
A fake apple has rolled off the cornucopia display on the nearby wicker table. Picking it up, I realize it’s real, a slight bruise blooming on its highly polished red skin where it smacked the wooden floor boards when it fell. Aunt Willa must have just created or freshened up the display in the past day or so.
My heart squeezes at the thought of her bustling around, creating the beautiful display and smiling over it. Fall was her favorite season, and she reveled in the decorations.
The emotions I’ve been holding back in order to be strong for my mother crash over me. “Oh, Aunt Wilhelmina, what happened to you?”
For a heartbeat, the air seems to shimmer. “She was murdered,” a raspy voice says on my left.
I jump, dropping the apple.
It rolls toward the steps, my pulse skidding with it. I whirl to face the sidewalk and street.
There’s no one there.
“Hello?” I scan the yard, the mass of woods on my right, Mr. Uphill’s place on the left. The last of the night has given up to the rising sun, but all I see is the murky fog covering trees, a few bushes, and the empty street.
Plop, plop, plop, the rain resumes, falling lazily and rolling off the porch roof. I scan the entire yard again, more slowly this time, and the well-manicured flower beds edging the porch. Mums, green ferns, trailing ivy, and jasmine plants covered with fake spiderwebs sit quietly, the murkiness of the morning making everything heavy.
“Over here,” the thin, raspy voice says, and I jump again, turning toward the sound.
It’s coming from the door.
I edge closer, narrowing my eyes. The antique knocker—a cat head that matches the gargoyles—licks its lips.
My feet scramble backward and I blink. Then shake my head as if I can clear my vision by doing so. The foggy gloom is playing tricks with my eyesight, that’s all. The voice?
Um, yeah. I’m hearing things, too.
While everything in me wants to run, I ignore the flight instinct, move closer once more and peer at the knocker. “Hello?”
The antique cat head, complete with pointy ears, doesn’t change this time. It doesn’t move at all, even though I sense it’s watching me back. When it doesn’t reply, I blow out a sigh of relief. Straightening, I chuckle at myself. “You’re losing it,” I reprimand myself. “Totally bonkers.”
And then the cat’s lips curve in a snarky smile. “You going to stand there all day and talk to yourself, or are you going to go in?”
I’m so freaked out, I leap like a jackrabbit, feet scrambling, arms flying, in an attempt to get off the porch.
Something rolls under my right foot and I fall, cartwheeling through the air. My feet fly up, the rest of me careening down. For a moment, I’m suspended, all three gargoyle cats watching with amused expressions, and my butt smacks the bottom step.
The wayward apple, also thrown into the air, lands on my stomach as my head whacks hard on the stone walk.
Pain like an ice pick ricochets through my skull. Above me, the last star blinks out in the sky as rain dampens my skin.
But the stars on the edges of my vision are bright and hot, until everything whites out in a brilliant flash, and I plunge into darkness.
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