By: Celia Aaron


THE GRAND HOUSE ROSE from the ground as if it grew in that one spot, nurtured for years by the sun and rain. Trees encroached from all sides, their branches leaning toward it, as if seeking to gain some of the same sun and air. Despite time and neglect, the building remained strong, the corners sharp and the roofs perfectly angled. Whoever had built the Victorian masterpiece in the woods had done so with painstaking precision. It was meant to last.

The Blackwood Estate was the last stop on my survey, and I intended to get permission to search the extensive grounds and do a few digs. Acres and acres of woods, unused farmland, and various creeks and river branches would provide months—if not years—of interest. But my main focus at that moment was the immense home hidden in the dark forest.

I’d pushed the main gate open, the hinges screeching in disrepair. The driveway was mostly clear, the cracks in the concrete streaking like dark lightning. I’d rolled steadily forward, eyeing the gentle hills and wondering what archaeological treasures lay buried beneath the fertile Mississippi Delta dirt.

At the end of the drive, I’d found the faded mansion, vines growing along the sides and a front porch swing rocking in the breeze. Despite its strong bones, time had worn away much of the home’s superficial beauty—the gray and white paint peeled, dark green shutters along the first floor hung askew, and the windows carried a film of dirt, making it hard to tell if someone lurked inside, watching.

A shiver ran through me at the prospect. Slowing, I took in the house’s worn façade and maneuvered around a fallen limb. I eyed the second floor windows, but nothing moved. It was as if the house was holding its breath, waiting for something. For me?

I drove to the side of the structure, the driveway continuing further into the dark property. Gathering my notepad, I climbed out of the car and took the full brunt of the winter wind. Fall had come and gone, leaves littering the ground and crunching beneath my feet. A surprisingly cold winter had followed in its wake, the low temperatures often the first subject of any conversation I’d had with the locals.

The sun flirted with the tops of the trees to my left, throwing dappled shadows against the turret that rose three stories along the side of the house. A weather vane sat atop it, though it seemed frozen, the direction signifying nothing.

Pulling my red pea coat closed, I climbed the front steps and knocked on the dark brown front door with as much authority as I could muster. The wood was too thick and seemed to absorb the sound from my knuckles so that only someone standing right next to it would even hear it.

“Hello?” I banged on the door with the side of my fist. A solid thunk of flesh on wood was my only reward.

I glanced around for a doorbell or a knocker. Nothing.

The wind picked up again, whistling along the eaves of the house like an unruly ghost.

I swore under my breath and knocked again. “Is anyone home? I’m Elise Vale from the university. I just have a few questions.”

No luck. The house remained silent, watching me. Turning, I walked along the front porch, past the rusted swing, and to a set of dusty windows. I bent over to peek inside.

The interior was so dark that what little sunlight filtered through the surrounding trees was still too much. The gold reflection blinded more than it illuminated. I dropped my note pad onto the swing and cupped my hands on the chilly glass to peer inside.

When I saw a face only inches away from mine, I shrieked and stumbled backwards, falling on my ass with a thump.


THE FRONT DOOR CREAKED OPEN, but not enough for me to enter or the man to come out. Relief flooded my veins. The man I saw through the window wasn’t someone I wanted to meet face to face, not when I was out in the boonies alone.

I scrambled to my feet and clutched my notebook. The county records indicated the land was still in the Blackwood family, now owned by Garrett Blackwood, thirty-two years old. Could this be the same man? Surely not.

“Mr. Blackwood?”

“What do you want?” The voice was low and gruff, scratchy from disuse.

“I’m Elise Vale from the university.” I brushed off my pants.

“I’m not deaf, Red.” His voice boomed through the crack in the door. “I heard that part. What do you want?”

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