Too soon, I was startled awake. My Yorkshire terrier’s whining and scratching at the side of the bed finally registered. I came to, clutching my blanket. Almost immediately, the bomb sirens went off, followed by my parents shouting to get to the pavement. Mechanically, I bolted from bed, counting out loud. One, I put on my coat and shoes. Two, I snatched up Piper with one arm. Three, I grabbed the bag.
Next thing I knew, we were out of the house and into the night. Under the faint moon, the row houses looked like soldiers in formation, standing stalwart amid the unfolding chaos. Merging with the stampede of people, we rushed down the road toward the Underground, my heart thumping against my ribs as hard as Piper’s. Though we had the routine established by now, fleeing for our lives was never easy. I pressed my hand tighter against Piper’s chest to comfort her.
I felt for my little friend. This was much different from the peaceful evening strolls she had been accustomed to. The star-filled nights accompanied by a soft, calming breeze sweeping the streets of London were a thing of the past. Along with that, my job as an assistant teacher at the school had also gone. Last week a bomb had erased much of its south wing and its inner court, prompting its closure indefinitely.
Complicating matters, being unemployed destroyed my hopes of securing my own flat and becoming independent anytime soon. For irremediably, while I lived under my parents’ roof, they would continue to regard me as a child. And at almost twenty years old, I was hardly one. Not surprisingly, they did not favor the idea of me living on my own, unless, of course, I left London altogether.
Calling me back to the escalating commotion, Father encouraged in a wheezy voice, “Almost there,” as the rumbling of the airplanes filled the sky. At any moment, the bombers would start their brutal attack, lighting up the city in flames.
“There it is,” Mother exclaimed as the staircase into the Underground materialized as if from a dream. It was strange to think that hell was above us, heaven in the ground below.
“Mum, where are you? Please don’t leave me,” a faint yet poignant voice pleaded.
Piper’s ears pricked and pointed, and a soft growl grew in her throat. I came to a halt, searching for the owner of the voice.
“Mum, where are you? Please don’t leave me. Please.”
“Seraphina, what are you doing? Keep moving!” Father ordered.
“Do you hear that?”
“A child. There is a child.”
My parents listened for a moment or two, and though the child cried again, I could tell from their blank looks they could hear nothing beyond the sound of the feet scrambling past us.
Mother shook her head. “Come on, we mustn’t linger. It’s not safe.” As if fulfilling her words, the first blast sounded in the distance, followed by a successive wave of smaller explosions. The Nazis came in waves, dropping explosives over the city and then incendiary bombs on the already burning warehouses.
As my parents moved down the stairs, I lingered, still listening for the child. Piper began to kick, and before I could stop her, she leaped out of my arms to the ground, dashing toward the shops.
“Please don’t leave me!” pleaded the voice again as I turned to rush after Piper.
Then I saw him—a boy huddled by the window of the chemist shop. The wretched appearance of the tiny creature made my heart ache. He was not more than five or six years old, and still in his pajamas and barefoot, he had not been prepared to leave his house. His fist was clenched between his teeth as he sobbed.
“Seraphina, come back here!” I heard my parents desperately calling behind me as I hurried to reach the boy.
“Have you lost your mum?” I asked, halting but a few feet from him.
His large teary eyes stared back at me, but he said nothing.
“Listen, it’s all right. I can help you.”
Piper emerged from behind a magazine kiosk and suddenly barked at the boy with a fury I hadn’t seen from her.
“Piper, stop! You’ll frighten him!”
The boy turned his head to look at her, and she pranced backward, retreating a considerable distance.
“Come on. Come with me,” I invited, extending my hand to him.
“Will you help me find my mummy?” the child sobbed in a high, piercing voice that brought a chill to my body.
“Yes, I’ll help you find her.” Seeing his hesitation, I knelt to gather him, but he vanished. There was nothing in my grasp but air. He had not been a child but one of…them.
Rampant chills cut through my skin—I’d tried to embrace a ghost—and there was nothing but a frosty emptiness in its spot.
“Seraphina, what in the world are you doing?” Mother’s voice rang in my ears, and I turned to face my parents, who had hustled after me. They stared at me in confusion, their eyes flitting to the empty spot upon which I knelt.
“I…” I stuttered but never found the words.
The bewilderment of the moment was interrupted by a bomber flying overhead. And almost instantly, the ground shook as a bomb lit the night sky, much too close to our street. Grabbing my wrist, Father said, “Enough,” not giving me a chance to protest.
“Piper, come on—let’s go,” Mother called.
At her command, Piper, who had cowered under the awning of a shop at the explosion, joined us. I gathered her trembling body in my arms, aware that I wasn’t fending much better.
While we marched back to the underground, my situation became clear; as I looked at their faces and could see the old debate was lost—after tonight, I would have no choice but to be sent away from London. Air raids were one thing, but my life was doubly vulnerable to the death and destruction they brought, for I could see the dead.
And, it appeared, they could now see me.
Brockenhurst, the New Forest, England, 1942
As the train creaked into the station, my thoughts remained on the incident that had landed me here. I was not sure when I first became aware I could see the dead. In my nineteen years of life, they had hovered around the edges of my awareness like a faint melody heard from another room. When I was younger, they’d blended with the living well enough—the girl in an old-fashioned dress in the park who’d ignored my invitation to play, the old man with a blank look who’d stood on our porch one moment and was gone the next. The sightings were rare, and as an adult, I treated those old memories as dreams. That was, until the war started. The overwhelming number of disembodied spirits roaming the streets of the city could not be ignored.
Thankfully, most spirits—at least those I’d encountered—seemed oblivious to the world of the living, completely absorbed with whatever it was they did. They paid me no heed, and though seeing them had been slightly disconcerting, I considered them mostly benign. That was, until the boy called for my attention.
Being deceived to the point of endangering my family made me realize I might have to look more closely at this ability, for if I failed to comprehend what lay beyond the veil separating the living from the dead, I could find myself on the wrong side of it. The thought was grim. For if I were to ever understand the supernatural world, I would have to step farther in. But as I considered the possibility, goose bumps crawled up my arms, and fear of the unknown made me think better of it. I decided to brush away the uncomfortable thought as the train finally stopped, and I rose to gather my belongings. After all, I was here to escape the ghosts.
Alighting from the train, the first thing I noticed was the sky. Compared to the hellish brew of London, it was vast and endless—paradisal to behold. Yet dragging my suitcase across the platform, I felt the part of a vagabond, a refugee from the land of the dead. Piper sniffed the air, which had the refreshing scent of recent rain.
The other travelers brushed past me, impatiently trying to get on with their journeys. Feeling a little of that impatience myself, I readjusted Piper in my arms and took a fruitless lap around the station, avoiding the puddles as best I could. The groundskeepers of All Hallows, the Goswicks, were supposed to fetch me. But no one appeared to be looking for me.
Within minutes, I was the only person in sight except for the clerk behind the ticket window and a man wiping the water droplets off a black car in the parking lot. “Excuse me, sir,” I said to the clerk. “Is there a way to call for a cab?”
His dark eyes rose to meet mine as he put down the pipe he had been smoking apparently nonstop, for he stood in a cloud of fumes. “How far are you going?”
“Burley. I understand it is a neighboring town?”
“That’s correct, and Albert Craven”—he pointed at the man by the car—“offers local transportation.” Looking at his wristwatch, he added, “You might want to speak to him right away. He usually leaves about now.”
“I’m most obliged, sir.”
Mr. Craven was a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and bushy eyebrows. Folding the cloth in his hand, he took a step back from his vehicle—an unmarked, older car I would have never guessed to be a cab—to make sure he hadn’t missed any water spots. Piper growled as we approached, capturing his immediate attention.
“Good afternoon, sir. The clerk told me you are a cab driver. I’m in need of a lift to Burley.”
“Indeed, I am.” He extended his hand to me. “Craven, miss. Albert Craven.”
“Seraphina Addington.” I met his strong grip with my own.
“Burley, you said?”
“Not too far from here, about five miles. We can be there in a jiffy.”
“Thank you.” I was relieved, hoping that once I reached the Goswicks, I would regain a bit of that security which came from belonging somewhere.
After the incident in London, Father had contacted General John Lewis, an old comrade of his from the Great War, and accepted his previous offer to let me stay at his country house, away from the chaos of the conflict. Prior to becoming a general, John Lewis had been a familiar face, the image of an uncle in my mind. He was a wealthy and influential man but also acquainted with grief, having lost his wife at a young age and never remarried. Of course, we hadn’t seen him since the war broke out.
“If you’ll permit,” the man said as he hefted my suitcase into the boot of the car. I settled into the back with Piper snuggled against the folds of my blue dress, which Mother insisted I wear, arguing that it matched my eyes and contrasted with my brown hair. I had acquiesced only to avoid an unnecessary confrontation on the day of my departure. Under any other circumstances, I would have worn slacks despite her disapproval. She was one of those who clung to the past, shunning twentieth-century styles.
The car left the station, making all sorts of racket and complaining of long-needed maintenance. The roads were lined with thatched-roof cottages that sat far back from the street, some with hydrangea hedges, others with evergreen shrubs. When we reached the end of the paved streets, Mr. Craven turned onto a rural road guarded by trees of every shape and sort. Through them, I caught glimpses of meadowland flowing through the ancient yews. It was breathtakingly green.
I was surprised to feel the unexpected beauty and calmness of my surroundings flood me, the contrast with what I had left behind startling. The war had taken so much from us, and we had quite rapidly adjusted to its ugliness—the sky dotted with black-and-red clouds of smoke as if heaven itself cried over the world; the explosions of the bombs followed by the shattering of windows; the mangled corpses; and for me, the spirits of the dead who walked aimlessly amid the rubble.
The New Forest, brimming with life, reminded me that our world was still beautiful, our people resilient. The war would end, and we would rise stronger and rebuild all that had been lost. Now that I was away from my family and needed a steadiness to allay my fears for them, I resolved to hold on to this belief more than ever.
Piper rearranged herself on the seat as we bumped along the muddy road. I ran my hand reassuringly through her fur, steadying my emotions at the same time. No doubt she would prefer the country to the air raids, which spared no one, tormenting humans and animals alike.
Apologetically, Mr. Craven explained, “The main road to Burley gets particularly nasty after a rainstorm. You must forgive me, but I’m taking a detour. A longer route through the forest. We don’t want old Harvey getting stuck in the mud—no, surely not.”
The car has a name. I smiled.
Up ahead, trotting gently along the roadside, a group of soldiers on horseback headed in our direction. Mr. Craven steered Harvey to the side of the road, if road was the proper name for this patch of mud in the woods.
“That’s the Mounted Home Guard,” he informed proudly. “They are volunteer soldiers operating out of Breamore. Great lads, they are. We also have both British and American troops stationed here, but thankfully, no bombs have fallen yet. Well, apart from Southampton, that is. The port is a target, but we’ve been spared farther inland.”
“That’s a mercy from heaven. Let us hope it remains like this.” I had seen firsthand the erasure of history, brick and mortar, paper and binding. Hundreds of years destroyed in a matter of minutes.
“Where in Burley are you staying? Where should I let you out?”
“I’m not sure how to find it. I’m afraid I don’t have an address.”
“Don’t fret, miss. In these parts, places have names. That’s how we find them, not by numbers or anything like that.”
“The name escapes me at the moment, but I’m a guest of General Lewis.”
“Oh, I see. He is well known in the region—he owns the Burley mansion. The largest structure in the region.” Just as he said that, a new thought seemed to startle him. “Wait, are you certain? The mansion currently serves as a military post—soldiers coming in and out all day. Not a good destination for a young lady, if you know what I mean.”
The straightforward honesty of country folk was something I could get used to. “Agreed. No, I’m not going to the mansion. I understand the general owns a country house as well.”
“You aren’t speaking of All Hallows, are you?” His gaze found mine through the rearview mirror. For a split second, a shadow of disbelief crossed what I could see of his face.
“Yes, that sounds about right. I’ll be staying there until things settle down in London.”
He reached to loosen the collar of his shirt as if it suddenly strangled him. “That could be a long time…a long time indeed, to be in a house like that.”
Was there something wrong with the house? Leaning forward, I asked, “Mr. Craven, what do you mean, ‘in a house like that’?”
When he took longer than needed to respond, I knew he would not disclose the truth; however, I kept my gaze on him through the mirror until he did answer.
“It’s one of the oldest houses in the region. Hundreds of years of history, you understand. I’m afraid All Hallows’s fame will live forever. But it has been deserted since…”
“An awfully long time…I didn’t think it was habitable anymore.”
“For my sake, I hope it is. But why is it famous? I imagine there are plenty of old houses around here competing for fame.”
“Actually…since I’ve never been to the manor, I’m afraid my opinion wouldn’t be an educated one.” He cleared his throat, obviously unhappy with my questioning.
“I would still like to hear it.”
“It’s better that you wait to hear it from those familiar with the place.” These last words he said with finality, putting an end to the subject.
His reason for not sharing was simply an excuse. Just as I considered pressing him further, the car slowed to almost an idling stage, but I couldn’t see any reason for it. Piper lifted her head as high as she could, ears pointed, eyes wide open, in response to the unexpected change.