In late August, the tidewater lowlands should not have been cold, but the first storm of the new hurricane season brought a wind that roared through Fearing like an arctic gale. Courtney Edmiston felt its belligerent caress the moment she slid out of the Jaguar's passenger seat and came face to face with the Blackburns' plantation house, which looked as if the winds of several centuries had tried, with partial success, to batter it down. It was a sprawling, three-story mongrel, mostly Victorian, half-hiding behind a barrier of centurion oaks, obviously built to convey grandeur but reduced almost to grotesqueness by the ravages of time and the elements. Its peeling gray walls and warped roof looked as if they might collapse with the next big gust. Several large drops of rain smacked Courtney rudely in the face without registering, and only when Jan Blackburn emerged from the behind the wheel, calling, "It's going to be a big one," did she turn her attention from the hulking mansion to her bags in the backseat. With some difficulty, she tugged out the two large suitcases and started up the flagstone walkway to the porch, one in each hand, until Jan rushed to relieve her of the heavier one.
The footlocker in the trunk could wait until later, since there was nothing in it she would need right away. Still, she hesitated to leave it, for these three cases contained everything left in the world that she owned. For anything else she might need to survive, at least for the foreseeable future, she would be relying on the generosity of this house's inhabitants.
They reached the shelter of the massive, wraparound porch just as the bottom fell out and the wind rose to a train-like roar, the likes of which Courtney had heard only once, many years before — when a tornado had swept across the north Georgia landscape less than a mile from her parents' home. Her family had fared all right, though some of their neighbors had been less fortunate. The memory of that storm gave her a shudder. Jan, however, appeared to take the weather's mounting fury in stride and shoved open the front door, through which Courtney could see a warm and inviting oasis of golden light. With a last shiver, she stepped across the threshold into the Blackburn family's ancient keep: the closest thing to home she might know for quite some time to come.
"Just leave your bag here," Jan said, setting down her burden and brushing back a few dripping blonde locks. "We'll take them back to your room in a few. First things first. Drinks are calling."
"Good plan," Courtney said, carefully placing her suitcase next to the other on the hardwood floor and glancing around at her surroundings. Whatever the exterior's dilapidated condition, the interior appeared very much the opposite. Quaint electric candles illuminated the rich gold and crimson wallpaper, and a profusion of hanging mirrors turned the relatively small foyer into an expansive, multifaceted chamber. Above, an ornate crystal chandelier hung on a polished brass chain, its brilliant aura lending the impression that, inside the house, gold was the predominant color. Courtney followed Jan down a narrow, maze-like hall, through an elegantly appointed dining room, to a warmly lit great room, one end of which had been converted to a full bar, larger than most of those in the Atlanta restaurants and taverns Courtney once frequented.
Jan stepped behind the counter and produced a tall bottle. "Still partial to Cabernet Franc?"
Courtney smiled and slid comfortably into one of the tall, swiveling chairs. "Absolutely."
Jan uncorked the bottle and selected two glasses from the overhead rack. As she poured, Courtney pulled off her rain jacket, laid it over the back of the chair next to her, and ran a hand through her shoulder-length sienna waves to break up the clinging droplets. Outside, the wind buffeted the house with the sound of a giant's fist pummeling overstressed wood, and rain clattered on the roof two stories above like a barrage of machinegun fire. "That sounds killer," she said, glancing at the ceiling. "I hope you don't have any leaks."
Jan smiled, handing over a brimming glass. "Don't let the façade fool you. This house has stood up to hurricanes, twisters, floods, and storms in general for over a hundred years. If it starts leaking now, I'll have to blame you. Cheers."
She stiffened a little before her face broke into a smile. "Just like old times. Blaming me, I mean."
Jan took a sip from her glass and glanced at the ceiling before coming to sit beside Courtney. "I want you to be comfortable here," she said, her face turning earnest. "You're my guest, so don't feel obligated to do anything but relax and enjoy yourself. Worry about getting back on your feet later."
Courtney felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. She didn't want get teary, but with even a little wine, it was almost inevitable. "Thanks," she said, cupping her hands around her glass, as if it contained something precious. "You know I hate to impose. But right now, I'll take any help I can get. And I do appreciate it."
"You're not imposing. I invited you. And tonight, we're going to forget everything but this." She lifted her glass and drained it.
Courtney couldn't help but laugh a little. "Tell me you don't still drink like that all the time."
"Only with you."
"Now I'm worried." She took a modest sip. "So where's the rest of the household?"
Jan's face darkened a little. "David's around somewhere, who knows. And Aunt Martha, she'll be where she always is — up in her room. She almost never comes out anymore except at mealtimes." Jan glanced at her watch; it was almost seven o'clock. "Arlene left a while ago. She's our housekeeper. Lives in the cottage at the back of the property. We couldn't do without her anymore."
"Just how much property do you have?"
"Oh, a hundred acres, give or take a few. You know, Mom and Dad farmed it all their lives — up till the end. David and I have threatened to try starting it up again, but . . . well, we just haven't had the motivation."
"I understand. Believe me."
"Someday." Jan's eyes turned inward for several long seconds.
The wine was delicious, and Courtney resisted the urge to down the last half of her own glass in one gulp. She knew Jan harbored deep wounds from the not-so-distant past. Both her parents had been killed the previous year, and only a few months earlier, her fiancé. All in automobile accidents.
But Jan still had a home, at least.
Courtney and Jan had met during their freshman year at Duke University, almost fifteen years ago. Since then, Jan had visited her in Atlanta several times, but this was Courtney's first trip to Fearing. She had met Jan's parents and younger brother, David, at their graduation ceremony, but that had been only a day-long encounter, and her attention had been divided between too many people to take in much beyond the superficial. She remembered them as very sweet, unassuming people, and had she not been aware of their status, she would never have guessed that the Blackburns were the wealthiest family in Fearing, North Carolina. Jan, certainly, had been a fairly typical college student, unmistakably well-bred, but untainted by the almost prerequisite snobbishness of kids whose families' blood ran blue.
Courtney had noticed a large, framed portrait of Jan's parents over the huge fireplace at the opposite end of the room. She glanced over at it and was struck by the couple's rather sad smiles, and particularly Jan's mother's eyes, which seemed to be fixed on some unhappy future moment. Mr. Blackburn was an attractive, slender man with silver-blond hair and a long, aquiline nose. His violet eyes were warm, but they appeared somehow haunted, as if he, too, foresaw some great tragedy. "When was that taken?" she asked, pointing to the photograph.
"About a year before they died," Jan said, giving the portrait a wistful look. "That was the last picture they took together."
"It's nice. You favor your mother." She gave Jan a thoughtful glance and noticed that she, too, wore a distant, preoccupied look. "You've got your dad's eyes, though."
"Yeah. And his big feet."
She chuckled, and Jan refilled their glasses. Courtney went at this one with a little more gusto, for sitting here with her longtime friend, she could almost pretend that these past, turbulent years had been illusion, and that she and Jan were as young and carefree as when they had shared drinks at the first Tri‑Delta mixer. Still, though she loved seeing Jan again and had always longed to visit the Blackburns' opulent home, the reason for being here now was a bitter pill, and it burned too virulently in her stomach to ignore.
As ever, Jan could sense the darkening of her mood. "Have you talked to Frank's parents lately?"
She shook her head. "They still blame me, believe it or not. And I'm beyond even wanting to reconcile anything with them. It's just not going to happen."
"This is you I'm talking about. You can't go on thinking someone you were close to hates you. It'll eat you up."
"No. I'm beyond caring about them. At all."
"You don't mean that."
She took a long swallow. "Pretty much."
"Well. Let's not dwell on that." Jan sighed and glanced over her shoulder. "I know David will want to see you. No telling what he's up to."
"You sure he's home?"
"No. But there aren't many places around for him to go."
"So I figured." Courtney smiled a little. The drive from the Newport News Amtrak station had been easy enough, but once they had turned off U.S. 17 toward Fearing, they were in the most desolate country she had ever seen. The town's population was a mere two-thousand, and the Blackburns lived a couple of miles out from the town proper, on a tiny, two-lane road that only led deeper into the Great Dismal Swamp. Fearing's little downtown, with its trio of stoplights and handful of antique buildings, looked like a picture postcard from the 1940s, sleepy beyond belief, and devoid of attractions for anyone who sought more excitement than fishing in the Moratok River. To Courtney, such a place seemed a refreshing novelty, though she could hardly imagine growing up in such an isolated, lethargic environment.
She finished her second glass of wine and Jan wasted no time refilling it. By now, the alcohol was warming her blood and loosening the restraints on her inner rage. She gave her friend a long, searching look, and said, "You know, there's something in me that isn't all that sorry about Frank. I loved him — you know that. But he could be so cold. Colder than anybody I've ever known." Her voice softened as the pain of old memories took hold of her heart. "He used to hit Sheila sometimes. When he'd get frustrated with work, or me, or anything, he'd take it out on her. I called the police once, but he managed to smooth talk them. Nothing ever happened to him. Nothing."
"I remember," Jan said. "But that was so long ago, and from everything you've told me since, it seemed like things were going okay."
"Mostly, they were. When Sheila started first grade, he seemed to mellow out — almost as if that were some benchmark, some catalyst for him to straighten himself out. He knew he had anger issues, and I really think he worked at getting better. Until he lost his job. That was the end of everything."
She had seen the flashing lights outside her house first. Somehow, she knew what had happened before she even turned in the driveway.
"That would send a lot of people over the edge," Jan said, touching her knee sympathetically. "And for somebody with problems like he had . . ."
She could no longer even see a blue flashing light without having a panic attack.
She didn't want it to happen, but she felt the burning at the corners of her eyes. A tear began to well, and a moment later, it trickled down her cheek. She wiped it away quickly, even though it was her best friend here with her.
"And those people said it was my fault. That I somehow drove him to it. To kill my child. How could they not know what was wrong with him? They were his parents. That son of a bitch killed my little girl, and they blamed me for it."
"They were just so distraught," Jan said, bringing her hands up to Courtney's shoulders. "They just couldn't believe it was in him. Parents can be like that about their children."
"'Distraught' passes. It hits you hard and then goes away. But they still hate me. They said so. It must have been festering there, I don't know how long. And after they said I was so good for him. That I helped him, that I did what they never could."
"People can be blind when it comes to their loved ones," Jan said, her eyes again turning inward. "Some people have to blame someone else, or they simply can't deal with their own pain. They implode."
The dam had crumbled, and Courtney's tears were pouring now. "I'm almost glad he killed himself. I am glad he's gone. But it was too easy an out for him. Too, too easy." She wiped her eyes, but it didn't staunch the flow. "You know, his father said he should have done it to me as well. How could anyone say something like that? How could they?"
Jan held her close now, and whispered into her ear, "They loved their son too much. That's all. I know it hurts. But if they truly meant what they said, it's because they never really knew you. Not on the inside. And that only makes the tragedy worse."
She had been reining in her emotions for months, and now, swept up in the cataract, she wept with her face buried in her friend's neck. Jan's arms encircled her firmly but tenderly, transmitting both sympathy and strength. Long ago, when a kitten they had taken into the Tri‑Delta house had been hit by a car, Jan had held her the same way. Jan's grief was no less intense, but her ability to comfort others was a gift she offered freely and generously. But even with Jan, Courtney could only release so much, and after another moment of drawing reassurance from her friend's embrace, she pulled away, wiped her eyes again, and reeled in the pain.
She picked up her glass and sipped the wine, again with reserve, her hand trembling only slightly. Then, looking back at Jan, she said, "You know, with me, men have never been anything but raving assholes. Even my dad, bless him. He could be such a son of a bitch." Jan smiled darkly and wiped a last tear from Courtney's cheek. "From the beginning, I knew Frank had problems. I almost didn't marry him. But I did. Now, I regret the day I met him."
"I know. I'm so sorry."
"Men," she said, holding up her glass. "Fuck the lot of them."
Jan's eyes had adjusted their focus over her shoulder, and her lips began to widen into a wry grin. "I'm sure you don't really mean that."
Slowly, Courtney became aware of the subtle change in the air that signaled the presence of another person in the room.
She grimaced slightly and gave Jan an apologetic look. "David?"
"Hello, David," she said without turning around, trying to stifle any expectations she might have regarding Jan's brother. Consciously, she knew he would no longer be the gawky, somewhat sullen teenager who had behaved crudely around her all those years ago, but that impression lingered so stubbornly that when she did swivel to regard the young man standing in the doorway, she could barely keep her jaw from dropping.
"Hello, Ms. Edmiston."
A sardonic humor lit his brilliant blue eyes, and the thin, almost cruel smile on his finely drawn lips suggested more disdain than respect in his greeting. A thick crescent of dark hair hung low over his forehead, casting a shadow that accentuated the brightness of his eyes. He was tall, something over six feet, she thought, very slender, but graceful rather than gangly. He wore jeans and a silver-gray button-down shirt, which bore numerous dark splotches from the rain.
"I take it back," she said softly, just for Jan to hear, as she rose to her feet. Then, to David, she said, "I was wondering if I'd get to see you tonight."
"Wonder no more." He stepped forward and took the hand she extended to him, gently clasping only her fingers. "Nice to see you again. I'm sorry if I caught you in a moment of…frustration."
He looked more amused than apologetic. But if circumstances had been reversed, she thought, her reaction might not be so different. "Sorry about that," she said with sincerity. "Long story. Things haven't gone so well lately."
His expression softened a little. "So I understand. What a shame." Then, giving her hand a final squeeze that she interpreted as compassionate, he stepped around the bar, dropped a few ice cubes into a tumbler, and poured himself a tall scotch on the rocks. He pointed to the near-empty wine bottle. "You two look to be well on your way."
Jan ignored the remark. "Where have you been?"
"Down at Arlene's cottage. She was having computer problems and asked me if I'd help her out with it."
"Yeah. Spyware. All clean now."
Jan pressed a hand to her chest. "You mean you actually made yourself useful?"
Jan glanced at Courtney. "It's against his religion to at least act like a decent human being for more than a few minutes every day."
"It's a constant struggle," he said. "But I like Arlene. Thought I'd make an exception and try to behave for an hour or so." He looked at Courtney. "Arlene's a senior, not very tech-savvy. You'll meet her tomorrow, no doubt."
"How about you? Are you spoiled for modern technology?"
"Well, my life doesn't revolve around electronic gadgets, like most of the people I know, if that's what you mean."
"Good. There isn't much around here to rely on. But you can get on the Internet, and if you climb out on the roof on a cloudless day, you might get cell phone service."
"That's good to know."
"I've got an extra laptop you can use anytime you want to," Jan said. "In fact, I'll leave it with you tonight once you're settled in your room."
"That'd be great. Thanks."
David took a long swallow of his scotch and said, "Well, I think I'll scrounge up something for dinner. Courtney, have you eaten?"
"We stopped in Elizabeth City for Japanese on the way in," Jan said, before Courtney could answer. "But Arlene left a pot of shrimp in the kitchen for you and Aunt Martha."
"Ah yes, she mentioned that." David gave Courtney a long, appraising look and then his wry smile returned. "It'll be grand having you here. I trust you'll enjoy our company."
"Even the fucking men?"
"Some of them, anyway."
"Then I'll see you later." He bowed mockingly and disappeared into the hallway.
"Sweet, isn't he?" Jan said, crinkling her nose.
"Well, he's not as crude as when I first met him."
"I guess that's something."
"So what's your Aunt Martha like?"
"She's actually Great-Aunt Martha. Goes back a couple of generations on Dad's side. The third floor belongs to her. She is — how shall I put it? — a bit eccentric."
"I don't recall you ever talking much about her."
"She's been around forever. I mean forever. But we almost never see her. She lives her life and we live ours. She usually shows up for meals and that's about it, so I doubt your paths will cross much. But just to warn you — she may be a bit crotchety. She's like that."
"So am I."
Jan chuckled and drained the last of her wine. "Well, shall I take you to your room? You can freshen up, go to bed, watch television, anything you like. Or we can always open another bottle."
"I think I'll pass on the latter. I've had twice too much."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "You? What, are you getting old on me or something?"
"No, I'm just delicate. You know that."
"Yeah. Delicate like a wildcat. Well, come along, dah-ling."
Courtney followed her out to the foyer, where they picked up her bags, and then — rather than upstairs, as she might have expected — down a long hall toward the back of the house, past the kitchen and several closed doors, to a wing that in recent years must have been used infrequently, if at all. The ancient wallpaper was stained and peeling, the air smelled faintly musty, and a few cobwebs hung in the corners, which thrilled her not at all. However, when Jan came to the end of the hall and opened the last door on the left, Courtney stepped inside to find a small but comfortable-looking suite, with a neatly made single bed, a small television on a stand at its foot; a chest of drawers with a large mirror; a well-used fireplace; a nook with a microwave and coffeemaker; and tiny, private bath with a shower stall. Wide, louvered windows took up most of two walls, and outside, in the dying daylight, she saw only the close-pressing woods and a tiny patch of purple sky overhead. The storm had blown through violently but quickly.
"This used to be Arlene's suite until we decided to let her have the cottage. I figured you might appreciate the privacy."
"It's nice," Courtney said, shoving her suitcase into the corner next to the bureau. "I was beginning to wonder if you were leading me down to a dungeon."
"Sorry. We haven't kept this wing up since Arlene moved. But the room is in good shape, and I think you'll have everything you need to stay with us a while. There's no AC back here, but you've got a ceiling fan." She pointed upward. "The room stays pretty comfortable, even in the summer."
Courtney smiled gratefully and wrapped her arms around Jan's shoulders. "You don't know how much I appreciate this. I'll never be able to repay you."
Jan returned her embrace and whispered, "You know better than that." Then, as they parted, she said, "Well, make yourself at home. If you need anything, just shout, and we'll get you fixed up. If you change your mind about that bottle, or just want to sit up for a while, I'll be in the great room."
"Okay. I think I'll just freshen up and maybe read a little bit before bed. I am about worn out."
"I know. It shows." Courtney scowled indignantly, and Jan laughed. "Don't worry, you're still ever so beautiful."
She gave Jan a little shove toward the door, and when her friend had gone, she closed it and hefted her smaller suitcase onto the bed to unpack her most necessary items. Once she had hung some clothes in the closet and stowed the rest in the chest of drawers, she started to undress, only to realize then that the one thing missing in the room was curtains or blinds for the windows. Night had fallen completely now, and the light in the room would make her plainly visible to any eyes on the other side of the glass. Well, there was nothing out there but woods, she thought, and the only eyes that might see her belonged to animals and insects that couldn't care less about spectacles unfolding inside her room. She went ahead and stripped off her clothes, but as soon as she did, she realized that the trees pressing so close to the house actually made her uncomfortable. The shadows seemed too deep, the sounds of chirping and buzzing a little too loud, and she could almost feel the gaze of countless eyes that seemed more curious, more intent, than they should have.
She wasn't accustomed to being surrounded by true darkness. In the city, even in the dead of night, lights shone brilliantly from far and near, and for most of her life, it had been all she could do to shut out the light that crept incessantly from the world outside.
She was just about to step into the bathroom when a sound rang from outside that froze her in mid-stride. It sounded like an old woman shrieking, she thought, and she stood motionless, listening for the sound to come again. No further screams came, but after a long, almost disturbing silence, a sharp, feminine voice began babbling, nonsensically but rhythmically, its timbre shrill and piercing, as if someone was calling out in panic in a foreign language.
Hesitantly, she moved closer to the windows and soon realized that the sound was coming from above.
It must be, she thought. But what in God's name did such caterwauling mean? Was the old woman truly in anguish up there, or was this some random outburst of a sort that Courtney had better get used to?
"A bit eccentric," Jan had said by way of warning. Christ, if that actually was Martha making such noise from her third-floor sanctuary, it was much worse than that. The woman had to be stark, raving mad.
She debated throwing her robe on and going to find Jan, just to be on the safe side, but then she decided against it, certain that if there really were a problem with the old woman, Jan or David would already be aware of it.
Her shower didn't last long. The day's travel and the dredging up of her most intimate pain had exhausted her — not to mention more wine in the course of an hour or so than she had consumed in months. After she had dried off and finished her nightly ablutions, she pulled on a long T-shirt that doubled as a nightgown and slid beneath the sheets of her bed, which she found firm and reasonably comfortable. She usually read for about half an hour before bed, but tonight, her eyelids were on their way down before she had even turned off the bedside lamp.
As consciousness slipped rapidly away, she heard a few distant babblings, which might have been the voice from upstairs, but by then, she was too far gone to care. Her last waking thoughts were of her dead daughter, whose image followed her into her dreams.Unfortunately, they were not pleasant.