Mena sat on the soft green grass, shaded by the old oak tree against which she rested. The long skirt of her sky-blue, satin party dress—now ruined—billowed out around her. A smile danced across her face as she stroked the cat in her lap, listening to the sounds of her parents’ party drifting with the breeze. The melodic tunes of the string quartet mingled with the steady flow of conversation. Friends and family had travelled far and wide to see the grandest house in the province. Completed at last—an architectural marvel, her father called it. Many of the guests were residents from local towns, and most of them Mena had never seen or heard of before.
Raising her hand, she pressed her thumb to her finger, marvelling at the stickiness of the blood. She found it fascinating how it changed from warm and fluid to thick and cool in such little time.
“Here you are,” her father said. “We’ve been looking all over for you. Everyone’s asking after you. That nanny of yours…” He stopped when he realised what she was doing.
Mena grinned up at him. “Hello, Papa. Kitty and I are having our own party. The grown-ups were boring.” She wiped a stray piece of her ebony hair off her forehead with the back of a hand, leaving a streak of blood in its wake.
“No. Not again…” Her father’s voice trembled with anger. Mena could see the weight of the sadness in his eyes, but she felt nothing for it. He stepped forward and grabbed his daughter by the wrist, yanking her to her feet.
Mena gasped when the dead cat tumbled from her lap. “Kitty!” she cried. Her father stormed off, pulling her along behind him.
“Wait, Papa. I want my kitty!” she wailed, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. In her distress, it took her a while to realise they weren't headed back to the house. Instead, her father led her toward the woods behind their estate. “Papa? Where are we going?”
“Somewhere I should have taken you sooner.”
Confused by the unsuspected turn, Mena soon forgot her tears—and her Kitty—and hurried along after him. Her tiny feet scurried across the grass as she struggled to keep up.
They slowed when they entered the woods so her father could better navigate his way through the trees. He paused here and there, as though unsure of his bearings. Mena took the time to marvel at her surroundings. Her parents had always forbidden her to enter the woods, but now, she knew it was the perfect place to play with her animals.
Her father came to an abrupt stop, causing Mena to run into the back of his legs. When he didn’t move, she peeked around him to find a wall of rock before them. She blinked at it with wide eyes; it rose quite high—at least twice as high as her Papa—before curving at the top. It made her think of a giant, sleeping monster hibernating in the woods. Moss and plants spread out across the stone in patches of damp greenery, and a small stream trickled down the front. She wondered where the water came from; it hadn’t rained in weeks. As she followed the water downwards, she noticed a narrow opening in the rocks.
“Papa, is it a cave?” she exclaimed, looking up at him. He stared straight ahead, unmoving for so long, Mena was unsure if he’d heard her. Only when she tugged on his hand did he give a small nod.
“I do love you, Mena.” His voice trembled, and he released her hand. She ignored his sentiment and dashed toward the cave. Without hesitation, she got down on her knees and poked her head into the darkness. When her father gave no further protest, she took it as permission to explore and scurried into the cave.
The darkness enveloped her. Mena wondered what kind of animals she would find inside. Then something shoved her from behind, her hand slipped forward, and she lost her balance. Before she could call out, she was falling.
Camille LeRousse stared out the window of their hired car and stifled a yawn. After over twenty-four hours of travelling, they were almost there—their new home. Her father drove them down the main street of Woodville, and Camille scanned the different shop names, catching glimpses of signs and storefront windows through the numerous trees lining both sides of the street. She could see enough to determine there wasn’t a single franchise on the whole street—no Zarraffas Coffee, no Dymocks Books, none of her favourite clothing stores.
Leaning back against her seat, Camille sighed and caught another of her father’s intermittent glances through the rear-view mirror. She tried to keep her expression neutral, to hide her disappointment and sadness. Her parents were excited by the move and had welcomed the opportunity to pack up their lives and travel halfway across the world. Unlike her parents, Camille was less than thrilled. As far as she could tell, Woodville, England was a far cry from her beloved city of Melbourne, Australia. She loved the hustle and bustle of the city, the busyness and the people everywhere at all hours of the day and night. The city never slept. In comparison, Woodville looked as though it were still waking up. To add insult to injury, her friends back home were living it up on their spring school holidays. They’d be gearing up for their last school term before summer holidays spent on the beach under the hot Aussie sun, the smell of salt and sunscreen in the air, while they pondered their up-coming senior year. Unlike Camille, shipped off to one of the coldest towns in England, forced to finish year eleven early and with no holidays to speak of, start her senior year in September at a new school. The whole concept of the school year starting that late in the year seemed completely foreign to her, only adding another layer of anxiety that she wouldn’t fit in.
Biting her lower lip, she did her best to quash the tears before they could become anything more than a painful sting in her eyes. She knew she was judging their new town harshly, but they hadn’t reached their new home yet, and already, she was homesick for the old one. While her mother had pointed out it was the age of social media and keeping in touch had never been easier, Camille knew it wouldn’t be the same; the time difference felt enormous. She closed her eyes, suddenly feeling exhausted. But it didn’t help her empty her mind; instead, thoughts of having to start at a new high school—in her senior year—bombarded her. Knowing the answer before she’d even asked, Camille had tried to convince her parents to let her stay behind to finish school—or even to let her skip senior year altogether. Of course, they would have none of it. The fact of the matter was, an estate was left to her father—on the condition that he live in it.
Camille turned back to the window and yawned, longing to stretch her limbs. “Is it much farther?”
“Shouldn’t think so,” her father answered as he veered the car slightly off the main street and onto a narrow side road. He shot a dubious glance at his GPS.
About thirty metres in, tall trees now lined the road on either side, their barren branches reaching up out, waving in a macabre welcome. The road inclined, and Camille leaned forward for a better view through the windscreen. Then their new home appeared up ahead at the top of the small rise.
“Language,” her mother warned.
“Sorry, Mum, but this place is crazy huge.”
Her mother ignored her, and her father chuckled. “Pretty impressive, isn’t it? Welcome to our new home. LeRousse Manor.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence, mostly because Camille was speechless now. In front of the manor stood an enormous round fountain with a statue of a woman standing in the middle, tipping an empty jug. Camille imagined how it must have looked when it worked, and a smile crept over her face. The only thing ruining her view was the over-sized delivery truck awaiting their arrival.
“I’m guessing a quick nap is out of the question?” Camille asked as her Father pulled the car to a stop beside the fountain.
“Not if you’re planning on napping on an actual bed. Yours is still in the truck, remember?”
“I’m not fussy. I’m pretty sure I could fall asleep on the floor right now.”
“It’s just the long travel and the jetlag, honey,” her mother said. “But we do need to try to stay awake to help our bodies get used to the time difference. We’ll be so busy unpacking, the day will fly by.” Camille rolled her eyes, opened the door, and got out of the car.
Staring up at the house towering before her, she twirled her long auburn hair around her fingers and squinted. With a fuzzy view of the manor, she tried to imagine what it had looked like in its prime. But she knew the state of the house was a far cry from its glory days. The building rose four stories high, topped by a dark, ornate roof of black slate. The roof rose and fell in numerous peaks and spires, complete with a weathervane. Camille strained to work out what shape the weathervane took, but it was too high. Small windows across the top floor made her think there must have been an attic space, and she felt both intrigued and unnerved by the concept. Detailed stonework made up the manor’s façade, but it was dark and discoloured with age and decades of grime. A sweeping semi-circle porch fanned out from the front of the house, supporting four majestic columns rising to the height of the first two stories before ending below a full-length balcony. The enormous double front doors of intricately carved wood had seen better days.
Camille thought about all the people who had stepped through those doors since the manor was first built, and an icy chill ran down her back. That was odd, but she quickly shook it off and continued her inspection. The windows were beautiful arches, designed to capture as much light as possible, if it weren’t for the thick drapes closed behind every one of them. The building looked like something straight out of a vintage horror movie, and she half expected to see Bella Lugosi peering out from behind the drapes. Camille couldn’t believe they’d be living here permanently; it left their two-bedroom apartment in the city for dead.
“How old did you say this place was?” she asked her father as he crunched along the gravel path behind her.
He struggled to see around the boxes stacked in his arms. “Oh, I think it’s at least a hundred and fifty years old. Perhaps more. You know, you could help out with the boxes and save the history lesson for when everything’s unpacked.”
Camille gave her father a wry smile and turned toward the truck. There, she grabbed a box and scuffed her sneakers along the path. Still unimpressed by the move to a new town and soon a new school—like any teenager would be—she still knew she had to at least give it a shot. Now that she’d seen the manor in person, she could see why her parents had been so eager to move. Their excitement, though, had just been fuel for the heated argument the night they’d made the announcement.
Camille had arrived home from school later than usual, and found her parents waiting for her in the loungeroom. The fact that they were both home before her was enough to raise alarm bells as she slowly took her backpack off and lowered it to the floor, not taking her eyes off them. They sat close together, her father’s arm around her mother’s shoulders, her mother’s hand resting on her father’s leg. This in itself wasn’t unusual—it was the look on their faces that made Camille approach the adjacent lounge chair with caution. Her father appeared solemn, yet there was something akin to a twinkle in his eye and her mother bit her lip as she flicked sideways glances as her father, her free hand fidgeting against the seat cushion beside her. Her father all but rushed through the announcement of the death of her Great Uncle Charles—Camille hardly had the chance to register her own detached reaction to the news before rushed on. As the only living adult relative, the LeRousse estate was now theirs. Her father paused and her parents looked at her expectantly as she failed to make the connection. Her mother squeezed her father’s leg and he continued—they planned to move across to the other side of the world and embark on a renovation of the aged mansion.
Camille had not shared an ounce of their enthusiasm, and still didn’t.
Her mother smiled as they passed each other on the porch. “Have you had a look to see which bedroom you want yet?”
Camille shook her head. It hadn’t occurred to her there would be a choice after living in a two-bedroom apartment. “How many are there?”
“Twelve. Not counting the master—which is ours!” her mother called back, already down the steps and heading back to the truck.
With a new enthusiasm for the house, Camille set the box down and out of the way, then dashed up the enormous, sweeping staircase, taking them two at a time. At the top of the stairs, she could either go straight or continue up the staircase to her left or her right. With a grin, she dashed up the staircase to her left. It led to a wide hallway with doors along one side. She took her time, strolling from one room to the next, trying to get a feel for them.
It didn’t take long before she started to feel a little uneasy, almost like déjà vu. But that wasn’t possible. She tried to shake it off and focused on the rooms before her. They were all grand, furnished with large beds boasting ornate headboards and posts. Most rooms had either large, three-way mirrors, or large, elaborate-looking dressing tables—though the mirrors, like everything else, needed a good cleaning and dusting. Camille could see herself set up in any of them, yet as she entered the last one, her mouth fell open at the sight.
Compared to the other rooms, this one was all but empty. To her right stood a grand four-poster bed, devoid of a mattress or curtains. Camille only saw this as an opportunity to make it her own. The only other piece of furniture was an oddly large wardrobe on the other side of the room. It was as wide as the king-sized bed and higher than she could reach. It was made of the darkest wood, so dark it was almost black, with gold-filigreed handles on the double doors. She walked toward it and opened those doors, surprised to find that it could either open normally or fold back like French doors to expose the wardrobe in full. While it looked like an independent piece of furniture, it appeared to be fixed firmly to the wall.
Camille firmly closed the wardrobe doors and continued her inspection of the room. The wooden floors were bare, while the walls were decorated with an ornate wallpaper barely discernible through so much dust. She moved to the wall beside the wardrobe and with the sleeve of her jumper wiped a patch of dust and dirt away to reveal a deep green with large silvery swirls. As she stepped back, she wondered how the pattern would look once the walls were clean. Turning to the wall opposite the doorway, she saw two magnificent arched windows, side by side, rising majestically toward the ceiling, each with a generous window seat nestled at their base. A length of wrought iron ran up the centre of each window before peeling off in opposite directions to form two decorative swirls. Two panes of glass completed the arch above, and at the base of the window where the seat met the glass, ran two rows of individual squares of coloured glass framed by the wrought iron.
Camille hurried toward them and pressed her face to the glass, her hands curved around her eyes to darken the glare. The overgrown estate grounds stretched out before her. The rear of the estate was bordered by a dense forest of towering trees. This was far better than her previous bedroom view of the buildings across the road. This was it. Her new room. Just beside her, she heard a faint sigh, as though someone had been holding their breath and finally exhaled. She spun around, her eyes wide in anticipation of whoever had snuck up on her. But there was no one there.
A loud creak—almost more like a crack—made her jump, and she scanned the room for its source. Frowning, she noticed one of the wardrobe doors was ajar, though she was certain she’d closed them both. It was old, she told herself, and the hinges must be worn. Even still, Camille stepped toward the wardrobe and felt a sudden breathlessness, unsure why she was suddenly so anxious.
“Is it a coincidence you’ve chosen the room farthest from the rest of the house?” her father asked from the doorway.
“Dad! You scared me!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard a noise…”
“Honey, this is an old place. You’re bound to hear a lot of noises you’re not used to. Eventually, you won’t notice them at all. Old houses like this shift and settle, that’s all.”
Camille gave her father an embarrassed smile, feeling a little silly for being so jumpy. It was just a house, after all.
“Come on, then. Still plenty more boxes in the truck.”
Camille gave another quick glance around the room, then followed her father. In her new bedroom, the wardrobe door creaked open a little farther.
The full moon sat like an enormous floodlight in the sky, and even the grime covering the windows couldn’t prevent its light from straining into the room, bathing everything in an ethereal glow. Camille marvelled at the ghostly pallor it gave her skin as she sat in the window seat. The height of the moon in the sky told her it was late, yet she still felt too wired to try to go to sleep. She’d thought she would crash at the first opportunity, but there was just too much to take in—too much to look at and explore.
She found the silence a little unnerving, too—stifling, like a heavy blanket wrapped around her in the summer. It made every creak and groan of the house seem all the louder, startling her every time, and she missed the background noise of endless traffic and a bustling population. In the thralls of the night, she slightly regretted choosing a room so far from her parents. Hugging her knees to her chest, she peered back down at the grounds below her.
A red pane of glass beside her knee seemed clearer than the rest, and she leaned forward for a better look through it. Wiping the dust away, she was surprised she could see outside as clearly as if this were a brand-new pane. A light wind stirred the trees at the edge of the woods, and Camille followed its path toward the manor, sweeping through the overgrown grass and sending a shudder through the shrubbery.
Camille gasped, pressing her hands against the window as she angled for a better look. A woman stood out in the gardens, looking up at the manor. The wind picked up, making the black skirts of the woman’s dress billow around her. Camille struggled to swallow as she and the woman stared at each other, her throat suddenly feeling like sandpaper. The high black neck of the woman’s dress topped with a white, lace collar was outdone in severity only by the woman’s strikingly white hair piled atop her head in a tight bun. Despite the hair, the woman didn’t look that old—unless the moonlight played tricks on Camille’s eyes. This stranger stood with a rare poise, her hands clasped in front of her, as though she were posing for a portrait. The red hue of the glass in Camille’s window made her seem all the more menacing. There was no mistaking the intensity of her gaze. She knew Camille was there.
Unable to look away, Camille started to feel as though the room was slowly spinning around her. Thick clouds drifted across the moon, bringing an icy shudder through the girl’s neck and back. She strained to see the woman in the sudden darkness cast over the grounds, but the moon’s previous brightness had all but blinded her. By the time the clouds parted enough to let the moonlight spread across the grounds again, the woman was gone.