***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Simone St. James
The sun vanished below the horizon as the girl crested the rise of Old Barrons Road. Night, and she still had three miles to go.
The air here went blue at dusk, purplish and cold, a light that blurred details as if one were looking through smoke. Squinting, the girl cast a glance back at the road where it climbed the rise behind her, the breeze tousling her hair and creeping through the thin fabric of her collar, but no one that she could see was following.
Still: Faster, she thought.
She hurried down the slope, her thick schoolgirl’s shoes pelting stones onto the broken road, her long legs moving like a foal’s as she kept her balance. She’d outgrown the gray wool skirt she wore—it hung above her knees now—but there was nothing to be done about it. She carried her uniform skirt in the suitcase that banged against her legs, and she’d be putting it back on soon enough.
If I’m lucky.
Stop it, stupid. Stupid.
Her palms were sweaty against the suitcase handle. She’d nearly dropped the case as she’d wrestled it off the bus in haste, perspiration stinging her back and armpits as she glanced up at the bus’s windows.
Everything all right? the driver had asked, something about the panic in a teenage girl’s face penetrating his disinterest.
Yes, yes— She’d given him a ghastly smile and a wave and turned away, the case banging her knees, as if she were bustling off down a busy city street and not making slow progress across a cracked stretch of pavement known only as the North Road. The shadows had grown long, and she’d glanced back as the door closed, and again as the bus drew away.
No one else had gotten off the bus. The scrape of her shoes and the far-off call of a crow were the only sounds. She was alone.
No one had followed.
She reached the bottom of the slope of Old Barrons Road, panting in her haste. She made herself keep her gaze forward. To look back would be to tempt it. If she only looked forward, it would stay away.
The cold wind blew up again, freezing her sweat to ice. She bent, pushed her body faster. If she cut through the trees, she’d travel an exact diagonal that would land her in the sports field, where at least she had a chance she’d meet someone on the way to her dorm. A shorter route than this one, which circled around the woods to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. But that meant leaving the road, walking through the trees in the dark. She could lose direction. She couldn’t decide.
Her heart gave a quick stutter behind her rib cage, then returned to its pounding. Exertion always did this to her, as did fear. The toxic mix of both made her light-headed for a minute, unable to think. Her body still wasn’t quite right. Though she was fifteen, her breasts were small and she’d started bleeding only last year. The doctor had warned her there would be a delay, perfectly normal, a biological aftereffect of malnutrition. You’re young and you’ll recover, he’d said, but it’s hell on the body. The phrase had echoed with her for a while, sifting past the jumble of her thoughts. Hell on the body. It was darkly funny, even. When her distant relatives had peered at her afterward and asked what the doctor had said, she’d found herself replying: He said it’s hell on the body. At the bemused looks that followed, she’d tried to say something comforting: At least I still have all my teeth. They’d looked away then, these Americans who didn’t understand what an achievement it was to keep all your teeth. She’d been quiet after that.
Closer, now, to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. Her memories worked in unruly ways; she’d forget the names of half the classmates she lived with, but she could remember the illustration on the frontispiece of the old copy of Blackie’s Girls’ Annual she’d found on a shelf in the dorm: a girl in a 1920s low-waisted dress, walking a romping dog over a hillside, shading her eyes with her hand as the wind blew her hair. She had stared at that illustration so many times she’d had dreams about it, and she could recall every line of it, even now. Part of her fascination had come from its innocence, the clean milkiness of the girl in the drawing, who could walk her dog without thinking about doctors or teeth or sores or scabs or any of the other things she had buried in her brain, things that bobbed up to the surface before vanishing into the darkness again.
She heard no sound behind her, but just like that, she knew. Even with the wind in her ears and the sound of her own feet, there was a murmur of something, a whisper she must have been attuned to, because when she turned her head this time, her neck creaking in protest, she saw the figure. Cresting the rise she’d just come over herself, it started the descent down the road toward her.
No. I was the only one to get off the bus. There was no one else.
But she’d known, hadn’t she? She had. It was why she was already in a near run, her knuckles and her chin going numb with cold. Now she pushed into a jog, her grip nearly slipping on the suitcase handle as the case banged against her leg. She blinked hard in the descending darkness, trying to make out shapes, landmarks. How far away was she? Could she make it?
She glanced back again. Through the fog of darkness, she could see a long black skirt, the narrow waist and shoulders, the gauzy sway of a black veil over the figure’s face moving in the wind. Unseen feet moving beneath the skirt’s hem. The details were visible now because the figure was closer—moving only at a walk, but already somehow closing in, closer every time she looked. The face behind the veil wasn’t visible, but the girl knew she was being watched, the hidden gaze fixed on her.
Panicked, she made an abrupt change of direction, leaving the road and plunging into the trees. There was no path, and she made her way slowly through thick tangles of brush, the dead stalks of weeds stinging her legs through her stockings. In seconds the view of the road behind her disappeared, and she guessed at her direction, hoping she was heading in a straight line toward the sports field. The terrain slowed her down, and sweat trickled between her shoulder blades, soaking into the cheap cotton of her blouse, which stuck to her skin. The suitcase was clumsy and heavy, and soon she dropped it in order to move more quickly through the woods. There was no sound but the harsh rasp of her own breathing.
Her ankle twisted, sent sharp pain up her leg, but still she ran. Her hair came out of its pins, and branches scraped her palms as she pushed them from her face, but still she ran. Ahead of her was the old fence that surrounded Idlewild, rotted and broken, easy to get through. There was no sound from behind her. And then there was.
Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land . . .
Faster, faster. Don’t let her catch you.
She’ll say she wants to be your friend . . .
Ahead, the trees were thinning, the pearly light of the half-moon illuminating the clearing of the sports field.
Do not let her in again!
The girl’s lungs burned, and a sob burst from her throat. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t. Despite everything that had happened—or perhaps because of it. Her blood still pumped; her broken body still ran for its life. And in a moment of pure, dark clarity, she understood that all of it was for nothing.
She’d always known the monsters were real.
And they were here.
The girl looked into the darkness and screamed.
The shrill of the cell phone jerked Fiona awake in the driver’s seat. She lurched forward, bracing her palms on the wheel, staring into the blackness of the windshield.
She blinked, focused. Had she fallen asleep? She’d parked on the gravel shoulder of Old Barrons Road, she remembered, so she could sit in the unbroken silence and think. She must have drifted off.
The phone rang again. She swiped quickly at her eyes and glanced at it, sitting on the passenger seat where she’d tossed it. The display glowed in the darkness. Jamie’s name, and the time: three o’clock in the morning. It was the day Deb would have turned forty if she’d still been alive.
She picked up the phone and answered it. “Jamie,” she said.
His voice was a low rumble, half-asleep and accusing, on the other end of the line. “I woke up and you were gone.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“So you left? For God’s sake, Fee. Where are you?”
She opened her door and swung her legs out into the chilly air. He’d be angry, but there was nothing she could do about that. “I’m on Old Barrons Road. I’m parked on the shoulder, at the bottom of the hill.”
Jamie was quiet for a second, and she knew he was calculating the date. Deb’s birthday. “Fee.”
“I was going to just go home. I was.” She got out of the car and stood, her cramped legs protesting, the cold air slapping her awake and tousling her hair. She walked to the edge of the road and looked up and down, shoving her free hand into the pocket of her windproof jacket. Back the way she’d come, she could see the road sign indicating thirty miles to Burlington and the washed-out lights of the twenty-four-hour gas station at the top of the hill. Past the hill, out of her sight, she knew there was the intersection with the North Road, with its jumble of fast-food restaurants, yet more gas stations, and a couple of hopeful big-box stores. In the other direction, ahead of the car’s hood, there was only darkness, as if Old Barrons Road dropped off the face of the earth.
“You didn’t have to go home,” Jamie was saying.
“I know,” Fiona replied. “But I was restless, and I didn’t want to wake you up. So I left, and I started driving, but then I started thinking.”
He sighed. She could picture him leaning back on the pillows, wearing an old T-shirt and boxer shorts, the sleek muscles of his forearm flexing as he scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He was due on shift at six thirty; she really had been trying not to wake him. “Thinking what?”
“I started wondering how much traffic there is on Old Barrons Road in the middle of the night. You know, if someone parked their car here and left it, how long would it be before someone drove by and noticed? The cops always said it wasn’t possible that Tim Christopher could have left his car here for so long, unseen. But they never really tested that, did they?”
And there it was: the ugly thing, the demon, coming to the surface, spoken aloud. The thing she’d become so good at keeping buried. The idea had been niggling at her for days as Deb’s birthday approached. She’d tried to be quiet about it, but tonight, as she’d lain sleepless, her thoughts couldn’t be contained. “This isn’t healthy,” Jamie said. “You know it isn’t. I know you think about your sister a lot. I know you mourn her. But actually going to Idlewild—that’s different, Fee.”
“I know,” Fiona said. “I know we’ve been over this. I know what my therapist used to say. I know it’s been twenty years. I’ve tried not to obsess about this, I swear.” She tried to keep the pleading from her voice, but it came out anyway. “Just listen to me, okay?”
“Okay,” he replied. “Shoot.”
She swallowed. “I came here and I parked by the side of the road. I sat here for”—she checked her watch—“thirty minutes. Thirty minutes, Jamie. Not a single car passed by. Not one.” By her calculations, she’d been here for forty-five minutes, but she’d been asleep for fifteen, so she didn’t count those. “He could have parked here and done it. The field at Idlewild Hall is only ten minutes through the trees. He would have had plenty of time.”
On the other end of the line, she heard Jamie breathe. They’d been together for a year now—a fact that still surprised her sometimes—and he knew better than to say the usual empty words. It doesn’t matter. This won’t bring her back. He’s already in prison. It was twenty years ago; you need to move on. Instead, he said, “Old Barrons Road wasn’t the same in 1994. The old drive-in was still open on the east side of the road. It didn’t do much business by the nineties, but kids used to party there, especially around Halloween.”
Fiona bit back the protest she could feel rising in her throat. Jamie was right. She swiveled and looked into the darkness across the road, to where the old drive-in used to be, now an abandoned lot. The big screen had been taken down long ago, the greasy popcorn stand razed, and now there was only a dirt clearing behind the trees, overgrown with weeds. She remembered begging her parents to take her and Deb to the drive-in as a kid, thinking with a kid’s logic that it would be an exciting experience, a sensory wonder. She’d soon learned it was a fool’s quest. Her intellectual parents would no sooner take them to the drive-in to see Beverly Hills Cop II than they would take a walk on the moon. Deb, three years older and wiser, had just shaken her head and shrugged at Fiona’s disappointment. What did you expect? “There wouldn’t have been many kids at the drive-in on a Thursday in November,” she said.
“But there were kids there,” Jamie said with the easy logic of someone whose life hadn’t been ripped apart. “None of them remembered seeing Christopher’s car. This was all covered in the investigation.”
Fiona felt a pulse of exhaustion behind her eyes, countered by a spurt of jagged energy that wouldn’t let her stay still. She turned and paced away from the hill and the lights of the gas station, toward the darkness past the hood of her car at the other end of Old Barrons Road. “Of course you think they covered everything,” she said to Jamie, her voice coming out sharper than she intended. “You’re a cop. You have to believe it. In your world, a girl gets murdered, and Vermont’s greatest minds come together to solve the case and put the bad guys away.” Her boots scuffed the gravel on the side of the road, and the wind pierced through the legs of her jeans. She pulled up the collar of her coat as a cold shudder moved through her, an icy draft blasting through the layers of her clothes.
Jamie wasn’t rising to her bait, which was one of the things that drove her crazy about him. “Fiona, I know they covered everything because I’ve been through the file. More than once. As have you, against all the rules and regulations of my job. It’s all there in the murder file. In black and white.”
“She wasn’t your sister,” Fiona said.
He was quiet for a second, acknowledging that. “Tim Christopher was charged,” he said. “He was tried and convicted of Deb’s murder. He’s spent the past twenty years in maximum-security prison. And, Fee, you’re still out there on Old Barrons Road at three o’clock in the morning.”
The farther she walked, the darker it got. It was colder here, a strange pocket of air that made her hunch farther into her coat as her nose grew numb. “I need to know how he did it,” she said. Her sister, age twenty, had been strangled and dumped in the middle of the former sports field on the abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall in 1994, left lying on one side, her knees drawn up, her eyes open. Her shirt and bra had been ripped open, the fabric and elastic torn straight through. She’d last been seen in her college dorm thirty miles away. Her boyfriend, Tim Christopher, had spent twenty years in prison for the crime. He’d claimed he was innocent, and he still did.
Fiona had been seventeen. She didn’t much like to think about how the murder had torn her family apart, how it had affected her life. It was easier to stand on the side of the road and obsess over how Christopher had dumped her sister’s body, something that had never been fully understood, since no footprints had been found in the field or the woods, no tire tracks on the side of the road. The Idlewild property was surrounded by a fence, but it was decades old and mostly broken; he could have easily carried the body through one of the gaps. Assuming he came this way.
Jamie was right. Damn him and his cop brain, which her journalist brain was constantly at odds with. This was a detail that was rubbing her raw, keeping her wound bleeding, long after everyone else had tied their bandages and hobbled away. She should grab a crutch—alcohol or drugs were the convenient ones—and start hobbling with the rest of them. Still, she shivered and stared into the trees, thinking, How the hell did he carry her through there without leaving footprints?
The phone was still to her ear. She could hear Jamie there, waiting.
“You’re judging me,” she said to him.
“I’m not,” he protested.
“I can hear it in how you breathe.”
“Are you being serious?”
“I—” She heard the scuff of a footstep behind her, and froze.
“Fiona?” Jamie asked, as though he’d heard it through the phone.
“Ssshh,” she said, the sound coming instinctively from her lips. She stopped still and cocked her head. She was in almost complete darkness now. Idlewild Hall, the former girls’ boarding school, had been closed and abandoned since 1979, long before Deb died, the gates locked, the grounds overgrown. There were no lights here at the end of the road, at the gates of the old school. Nothing but the wind in the trees.
She stiffly turned on her heel. It had been distinct, a footstep against the gravel. If it was some creep coming from the woods, she had no weapon to defend herself. She’d have to scream through the phone at Jamie and hope for the best.
She stared into the dark silence behind her, watched the last dying leaves shimmer on the inky trees.
“What the fuck?” Jamie barked. He never swore unless he was alarmed.
“Ssshh,” she said to him again. “It’s no one. It’s nothing. I thought I heard something, that’s all.”
“Do I have to tell you,” he said, “to get off of a dark, abandoned road in the middle of the night?”
“Have you ever thought that there’s something creepy about Old Barrons Road?” she asked. “I mean, have you ever been out here? It’s sort of uncanny. It’s like there’s something . . .”
“I can’t take much more of this,” Jamie said. “Get back in your car and drive home, or I’m coming to get you.”
“I’ll go, I’ll go.” Her hands were tingling, even the hand that was frozen to her phone, and she still had a jittery blast of adrenaline blowing down her spine. That had been a footstep. A real one. The hill was hidden through the trees from here, and she suddenly longed for the comforting sight of the fluorescent gas station lights. She took a step, then realized something. She stopped and turned around again, heading quickly for the gates of Idlewild Hall.
“I hope that sound is you walking toward your car,” Jamie said darkly.
“There was a sign,” Fiona said. “I saw it. It’s posted on the gates. It wasn’t there before.” She got close enough to read the lettering in the dark. another project by macmillan construction, ltd. “Jamie, why is there a sign saying that Idlewild Hall is under construction?”
“Because it is,” he replied. “As of next week. The property was sold two years ago, and the new owner is taking it over. It’s going to be restored, from what I hear.”
“Restored?” Fiona blinked at the sign, trying to take it in. “Restoring it into what?”
“Into a new school,” he replied. “They’re fixing it up and making it a boarding school again.”
“I didn’t want to mention it, Fee. I know what that place means to you.”
Fiona took a step back, still staring at the sign. Restored. Girls were going to be playing in the field where Deb’s body had lain. They would build new buildings, tear down old ones, add a parking lot, maybe widen the road. All of this landscape that had been here for twenty years, the landscape she knew so well—the landscape of Deb’s death—would be gone.
“Damn it,” she said to Jamie as she turned and walked back toward her car. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m going home.”