The sun is sinking fast over the horizon as I hurry through the woods. It’s a relief when I finally spot some familiar sights.
My mind keeps taking me back to my interaction with those insufferable jerks. I wish I’d never encountered them.
I don’t know how I ended up on their property. How could have I strayed so far from my normal path? There’s no trail to follow, but I know this land like the back of my hand. I grew up here.
Eerie cries of the crows pierce through the evening sky as I step out of the woods into the clearing. It’s an uphill walk all the way home from here.
A gust of chilly autumn wind causes me to shiver when I stop to look back. I’ve almost reached the top of the hill.
From my vantage point, I can see past the woods to the stream that cuts through the property to the valley beyond.
My grandmother’s estate goes on past the stream—240 acres of land to be exact. It used to be bigger, and a good portion of it used to be a working farm.
My great-grandfather, Thomas Blackwell, used to hire Dutch immigrants as farmhands. Agriculture used to be one of our sources of income, apart from other lucrative businesses.
Most of the land was sold to the Gauthier family after my grandfather’s passing. The remaining acres are now left to grow wild, like a private conservation area.
Reluctantly, I slowly turn back around. The silhouette of moss-covered tombstones becomes visible against the purple sky as I slowly make my way home.
The rusted metal gate creaks on its old hinges when I push it open. There are only a few tombstones behind the black metal fence—twelve to be exact.
Several generations of Blackwells lie here. A few of these tombstones are more than two hundred years old and crumbling.
I step around them and let my finger idly trace the wing of the praying angel statue as I walk past.
At the end of the front row are the newest ones, those of my parents. They died when I was just a toddler.
I have no memories of them, but every time I walk past their headstones, I pause for a second or two. Frankly, I don’t know why. It’s just a habit. Somehow, it feels like a disrespect not to do so.
A few yards away is a small guesthouse that stands empty. Dust clings to its glass windows. The water fountain in front of it has been standing dry for years.
I think I see a figure disappearing behind the guesthouse. Probably our groundskeeper, Norman. He’s getting on in years, but he keeps everything outside in shape . . . mostly.
Have you ever imagined the windows are the eyes of a house?
Well, that’s how I feel when I approach the imposing Blackwell Estate—a three-story monstrosity of a gray stone structure that rises from the ground and looms in the sky with its five turrets.
The mansion is over two hundred years old, inherited from one generation of Blackwell to another. Not unlike those tombstones, some parts of the mansion are crumbling.
Ivy grows through the crevices of the uneven stones to cover some parts of the wall. A ghostly touch of chill skitters down my spine when I bring my gaze up to the pitch-black windows.
There’s a big part of me that screams for me to stay away—like what I was doing earlier today. But I swallow those feelings down as I climb the stone steps that lead to the heavy front doors.
“Katherine, is that you?” Aunt Agatha’s voice echoes through the massive foyer as soon as I slam the door shut.
“Yes, it’s me, Auntie!” I call back. Who else could it be?
Aunt Agatha’s face appears at the top of the stairs. Strands of her graying brown hair escape the bun that sits at the nape of her neck. “You stayed out longer today.”
I toe my shoes off in the foyer. Grandmother hates muddy footprints on the floor.
“It’s getting dark. I was getting worried,” she adds, coming down the curving wooden staircase. She stops at the landing.
Her back is straight, her tall, slim figure sheathed in a long-sleeve black dress. The pearl buttons are done up to her neck. The lines around her blue-gray eyes deepen with weariness and concern.
“I’m sorry, Auntie. I didn’t go too far into the woods; I just forgot the time.” Aunt Agatha is always worried I might get lost in the woods after the sun has gone down.
“I waited to have supper with you, but you . . .” She trails off. I stayed out too long. We generally have dinner at five. “I’ll get Mary to heat up the food for you.”
“That’s okay, Auntie. I’m not hungry. I’ll go clean up then I’ll come and say good night to grandmother.”
The house is like a museum, very grand and majestic . . . and old. Some parts are drafty, so there’s always a chill in the air even in the summer.
Dark mahogany wainscoting and crown molding decorate the whole house, heavy damask and velvet curtains covering the windows.
The house is constantly shrouded in coldness and darkness. Sunlight steals in just to die; the house swallows all the light.
After my shower, I put on a knitted navy-blue Aran sweater over my white cotton sleeping gown.
Even then, I still feel the chill as I walk down the dimly lit hallway to my grandmother’s bedroom.
Portraits of Blackwells in gilded frames stare loftily down at me from the walls. My grandmother’s room is on the second level, at the end of the hallway.
The door to my grandmother’s room is slightly ajar. There are whisperings coming from inside. There are always whisperings. There are whisperings in the walls.
“Tell her . . . do it soon . . .”
“Yes, tell her . . .”
“But she’s not ready . . .”
“But you must . . . you must tell her . . . do it soon . . .”
The door creaks when I push it open. The whisperings stop. Aunt Agatha and Mary turn their heads. The two of them are standing at the foot of the bed.
“Come in, Katherine,” says Aunt Agatha quietly, walking to stand beside the bed.
The room is dimly lit by a single lamp on the nightstand.
My grandmother has an enormous fireplace on the wall opposite the bed, but there’s no crackling blaze in the hearth despite the chill.
The musky odor of the room is masked slightly by the smell of Chanel my grandmother favors so much.
Mary nods when she passes me on the way out as I slowly approach the bed. She’s balancing several plates in her hands.
Mary is our house manager. She’s been working here since before I was born. When Aunt Agatha lets all the other staff go, Mary remains.
Lying on the queen-size four-poster bed, draped in a thin white sheet, is Victoria Edith Blackwell, my grandmother.
My heart aches when I look at her. She fell in the greenhouse two weeks ago and has been bedridden since.
Victoria Blackwell used to be a beauty. I’m told I’m the spitting image of her when she was younger, from the color of my hair and eyes, down to height and bone structure.
Now, her skin is wrinkly and sallow, her cheeks hollow. Her once glossy strawberry-blonde hair is fanned out on her pillow, all gray, flat, lifeless, and dull.
Aunt Agatha leans in and whispers in her ear, “She’s here, Mother. Katherine is here.”
Eyes of my grandmother that used to be piercing ocean blue and kind are now red-rimmed, murky, and wild.
They roam the ceiling before they settle on me, then they follow my movement until I reach her bedside.
“Hi, Grandmother. How are you feeling? Did you eat well?” I ask as I stop near her bed. My clenched fist is just a few inches shy of her bony hand that’s resting by her side.
“Oh yes, she eats very well,” Aunt Agatha answers on her behalf. As usual.
My grandmother doesn’t talk anymore, nor does she move. The only parts of her that move are her eyes and mouth when she eats.
On the nightstand are stacks of empty bowls and plates. That reminds me of the plates Mary was carrying out of the room.
My grandmother’s appetite for food is unbelievable. She lost so much weight she’s mainly skin and bones now, but she’s ravenous all the time.
“Anyway, the weather’s getting cooler. It rained last night, and they said it’s going to rain again tonight. Apart from that, nothing else is different. School is still the same,” I tell my grandmother.
They say your eyes are the windows to your soul, but I no longer see my grandmother when I look into hers. It’s like something else is lurking inside her, peering out through those eyes.
The hair at the back of my neck rises whenever they fall on me.
My gaze slides to the side of the bed to avoid looking into those sinister eyes for too long. It lands on a walking cane propped against the wall next to the nightstand.
The cane has a smooth, tapered black ebony shaft with a gold-plated serpent’s head handle. That too makes me uneasy.
Before my grandmother became bedridden, she used the cane to get around. Somehow, she managed to look stylish and dignified with it.
Victoria Blackwell was always poised, refined, and sophisticated. She was alluringly charming when she wanted to be and classily and calmly biting when she needed to be.
She’s graceful and elegant. A proper lady and a true socialite.
“Well, speaking of school, I have a lot of homework to do,” I add. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Grandmother.” I move closer to the bed and gingerly lean down to plant my lips on her forehead.
Her skin is cold, clammy, and unyielding. I spring up immediately.
“Good night, Grandmother,” I tell her before I turn to Aunt Agatha who was watching. “Good night, Aunt Agatha.”
“Good night, Katherine,” says Aunt Agatha, adjusting the flimsy sheet that covers my grandmother.
Once out in the hallway, I quickly wipe my lips with the back of my hand. I immediately feel guilty for doing so.
I love my grandmother, but revulsion fills me every time my lips touch her skin now.
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