“It was a dark and stormy night…” Such a cliché, and not the way to begin a proper story. But the fact remains that it was both dark and stormy on the night I returned to my hometown—an ominous beginning, if you believe in that sort of thing.
And I truly did.
The rabbit’s foot hanging from my rearview mirror swung in crazy arcs as Gladys, a Volkswagen outdated enough to have earned a proper old dame moniker, bounced over the potholes I couldn’t avoid at the end of the causeway. It had been a harsh winter this year. I knew this because my mother’s daily demotivational emails kept me on top of all the Fairbrook gossip during my years away. She had, however, neglected to remind me of how the local crews didn’t bother to fix anything at this end of the island until it was time to prepare for tourist season. Small town charm was a bankable commodity only from June to November. The rest of the year, the island curled up in curmudgeonly isolation in a sheltered spot off the northern shore of Newfoundland, secure in the knowledge that those seeking the illusion of a simpler lifestyle would return in the summer to spread their dollars and snap their photos.
I took the rabbit’s foot down and tossed it on the passenger seat. Not a cheap trinket, that. This was the real deal—left hind foot, shot by a cross-eyed man in a cemetery. The lucky limb (Not so lucky for the rabbit, I reflected) landed on the leather cover of my Filofax. They might have seemed like an odd pairing to some. My perfectly organized life, planned to the hour and plotted years ahead, versus the implication that fate and bad luck could screw it all up at any moment. But the thing is, both are about control. Why would I worry about my detailed plans and then run the risk of them being derailed because I walked under a ladder?
Plans. Fail-safes. Lucky charms. It’s all superstition, when you think about it. All ways to make us feel better about the future when in reality we have so little control. Lack of control made me jittery. I grabbed onto it where I could.
I squinted through early spring rain that Gladys’s windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with. Coming at night had been a stupid idea.
But then, I hadn’t planned to come back to Fairbrook at all. My sneakers had left tread-marks on the road as I tore out of town after graduation, and by October I’d lost touch with everyone from high school. I had cared for my friends on the island, as they had for me, but the larger world beckoned some of us. I’d planned a successful academic career that would finally make my parents proud, followed by… Well, I’d never really decided that, but I knew it didn’t involve Fairbrook. I went to school, I did well, and I even allowed a boyfriend to worm his way into my life on the basis of common interests, a promising future, and crazy attraction.
And then I got sick and took a year off, not in any position to care that doing so would mean I had to start paying off my student loans. I’d hopped from job to meaningless job, struggling to make ends meet, telling my parents that everything was fine so I wouldn’t have to hear the sighs and the why didn’t yous and the I told you that you would nevers. Those lies fell apart when Jake and I broke up and I lost my home. I’d managed to set myself up in a short-term rental for a few months, but money quickly ran short.
I tried to put a positive spin on things, but I knew my mother had seen through it when she mentioned that Uncle Harry needed someone to manage the dairy bar. The seasonal job with great pay and solid benefits was mine for the taking.
I took it. Where else was I going to go?
The best laid plans, and all that.
Maybe it will be fine, I told myself, ignoring the churning of my stomach as my headlights picked out the big “WELCOME TO FAIRBROOK” sign. Work here for the summer, take long-distance courses over the winter, get out again when things look brighter.
I knew it was bullshit. You can’t escape a town like Fairbrook without a certain amount of momentum. I had big scholarships when I blew out of there the first time, and even bigger plans. I was dragging my ass back on a quarter tank of gas, a load of debt, and a heart that probably resembled the dented cans on the discount shelf at McMurtry’s Grocery.
I could live without Jake. It was my shattered confidence that had me wondering where I’d find the will to leave again.
The road improved as it wound through the old forest. It was skeletal-looking now, but it would have been a breathtaking view back in the autumn, when the last of the sightseers camped or lodged their way through and tagged their works #Fairbrook #fall #BimbleIsland #AweInspiring and, I assumed, #PayAttentionToMe. I knew they had, because I’d heard all about the town meeting regarding which hashtags to encourage and the ensuing confusion over what the hell these “hashbag” things were, anyway.
Fairbrook. A nice place to visit, but God, I did not want to live there.
Gladys picked up speed as I shifted gears. Not too fast, not too high. Jake had never liked the old girl. But then, he’d never bothered to learn to drive standard. I should have taken that as a sign.
The headlights found more signs. The Old Brook Inn, Nana’s Nook (Home-Cooked meals, Seafood our specialty!!), Barb’s B&B. All hand-painted, all homey and quaint, just like Fairbrook was supposed to be, at least when it had its tourist-welcoming makeup on. I paid no attention to the wave of nausea that came at the sight of the Walsh’s Dairy sign.
It’s going to be great, I promised myself for the hundred-and-twelfth time that day. You have a plan. You have a promising future ahead of you. You have—
Gladys hit a bump, and the rabbit foot slid to the floor.
Good luck, I finished sheepishly. I knew it was silly. I didn’t care. It made me feel better. And helping Uncle Harry out should be great karma, or something. And maybe—
I never got to the maybe. A dark shape moved at the edge of my light. I slammed on the brakes as a mostly grown moose darted into the road and then froze, bright eyes staring at me. Gladys spun sideways, and I fought the urge to wrench the wheel back around. Cold coffee soaked my jeans as the paper cup next to me spilled and my bags tumbled in the back seat.
The car stopped, engine stalling as the moose trotted off into the forest, his path illuminated by my lights.
I cranked the window down, too flustered to think straight. “Thanks, asshole!” I bellowed after the retreating rump. A face full of blowing rain was my only answer. I grumbled to myself as I rolled the window up and pushed my thick hair into place behind my ears.
After some gentle coaxing, Gladys agreed to restart. We made it half a kilometre down the road before the engine light blinked to life.
“No. Not now. Just a little more.” My parents lived at the far end of the island, through town and past the farms.
The engine coughed and clunked, but kept running.
“Gladys. Save your hysterics for when we stop. I’m begging you.”
“Really? After everything we’ve been through together?”
She didn’t answer.
“Crooked old bitch.”
I had to keep going. No one would be along until morning, and maybe not even then. I’d feel silly calling for a taxi at this hour, though I would if I absolutely had to. There was no way I was calling my parents. I eased the car over the bumps without slowing down too much, dodging potholes when I could.
I waited to see the lights outside of Wood’s Service Station, but the place was dark when we rounded the corner. Of course, I thought. No point keeping things open late at this time of year. If I recalled correctly, Jimmy Wood was running the place now. He’d been in my class. Excessively popular, very big-fish-tiny-pond, with fantastic college prospects. Nice to everyone in public, but kind of a presumptuous dick if he got a girl alone. He’d made sure everyone knew what a prude I was when I rejected him in eleventh grade. Three months later, he’d knocked up Jenny Goss. No one had batted an eye, save for the blue-haired ladies of the local church women’s guild. It was just how things went in Fairbrook. Kind of a local tradition. One in every class.
I considered stopping to knock at the door of the two-storey house behind the service station, but all of the lights were out. I gritted my teeth and urged Gladys over the next hill.
The first lights we reached shone bright and warm against the dark, but they weren’t exactly a welcoming sight. Old-fashioned lanterns illuminated the wide porch of the Old Brook Inn, a place of local legend. Tourists always heard the pleasant stories about the seasonal workers who had once been housed in the massive structure, the fire that later destroyed the mill, and the way the other townsfolk cared for the workers afterward. They heard about the fairy rings that still appeared every so often on the lawn, and the local story about the little girl who saw the wee fairies dancing on summer nights.
They didn’t hear the darker legends. They knew how many lives were lost in the fire, but not the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fire itself. No one talked about the string of suicides that occurred at the inn not long after, or the ghosts that were supposed to haunt the halls.
Or how the little fairy girl went mad before she turned ten, babbling on about monsters and devils, screaming in her sleep.
I shivered and pulled into the roundabout driveway. Any port in a storm, I told myself. The outside lights were on, so maybe Mr. or Mrs. James was still awake. If not, I’d be in for a tongue-lashing the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since our graduation party, when the innkeepers realized we were all wandering the halls looking for ghosts, scaring the crap out of each other with squeaky floorboards and flickering lights.
Gladys coughed and swooned into silence as she rolled into the empty parking lot, her mental and physical breakdown apparently complete. Guess that decision’s made then. I fished my rabbit’s foot out from under the seat, stuffed my planner into my purse, and located my overnight bag in the back seat.
I was soaked and shivering by the time I reached the door, but seriously considered spending the night on the porch rather than invoking the wrath of Mr. James. The man had devil eyes, my grandmother had once said, and a temper to match.
Maybe I’d count as a tourist now. He’d always been nice to them.
I tried the door and found it locked. The knocker, an old brass thing cast in the shape of a grotesquely squashed fairy face, was heavier than I expected. I rapped three times, and waited.
Lights flicked on inside the inn. I couldn’t hear what was happening, but I imagined the heavy thump of elderly feet descending the dark wood staircase that faced the front doors and the muttered curses of an old man rudely wakened from his slumber by someone senseless enough to be out in this weather. A silhouette appeared, shorter than I remembered, and a moment later the deadbolt thunked.
The door swung open, and Mrs. James stared up at me. She had her pleasant, grandmotherly face on as she squinted at me through her round-rimmed spectacles, but her expression shifted as she recognized me. Probably not by name, but the downturn of her wrinkled mouth and the furrowing of her brow told me she had identified me as not-a-tourist.
“Hello, Mrs. James,” I said, and held out my right hand. She glared down at the tiny puddle forming as rainwater dripped off my sleeve onto her floor, and I pulled my hand back. “You probably don’t remember me. Hazel Walsh. I lived in Fairbrook until about three years ago?”
Not a question. Speak with authority. Control your voice.
“Three years ago,” I repeated more firmly.
“I heard you the first time,” she said. “What do you want? We’re closed for the season.”
“I know, and I’m sorry to disturb you. My car broke down, and I wondered whether you might take me in for the night.”
She chewed her lower lip. “You can pay?”
I considered reminding her of the inn’s legendary hospitality to those in need, and thought better of it. My bank account could take the hit, though I’d never hear the end of it if I had to borrow from my parents later. “I can, thank you.”
Mrs. James held the door open, and I stepped over the threshold. “You’ll have to make up your own bed,” she said, and locked the door behind me. “Got the arthritis in my fingers.”
“I can do that.”
She shuffled to the desk, a massive and heavy-looking affair that matched the decor of the rest of the inn: dark wood, stiff furniture, black and white photos framed on the walls. Smaller touches added during renovations in the seventies did nothing to make the place look less like something out of a horror movie. I set my bags on the emerald green diamond-patterned carpet.
Mrs. James shuffled through cards in a Rolodex behind the desk, then plucked a key off the wall and handed it to me.
“I hope I didn’t wake your husband,” I said.
She snorted. “I should hope not. He’s been dead two years. Hate to see him come around now.” She knocked on the wood of the desk, and I felt a small spark of superstitious camaraderie.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“I’m not.” She motioned toward the staircase. “Third floor, hallway to your left, room 313. Linens in the closet right beside your room. No breakfast will be served.”
Before I could request a different room number, she’d disappeared through a door next to the desk and locked the door behind her.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, and headed up the stairs.
* * *
I’d expected to fall into a coma-like sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. A heart-stopping fright, a white-knuckle drive, and a strange welcome back to town had exhausted me, but my brain wouldn’t obey my commands to shut up and go to sleep. I left my room to scout for something to read from the collection of abandoned books that the Jameses kept as a constantly renewing lending library. Most people’s vacation reads didn’t appeal to me. Lots of romance, a bit of fantasy… same thing, really. Totally unrealistic. I preferred to keep my dreams of adventure and freedom grounded in reality. To my mind, sexy billionaire stalkers were no more real than dragons and ogres, and I’d dismissed both genres as a waste of time when I’d worked at the used bookstore in town. I glanced over the travel literature, memoirs, and mysteries, but found nothing I hadn’t read before.
I trudged to my room empty-handed, careful to avoid the creaky bits of the stairs. It wasn’t so much that I worried about waking Mrs. James—though that was a concern—but that the creaking seemed a lot more creepy and a lot less oogy-boogy hilarious than it had when the halls were filled with friends.
After an hour of tossing and turning (helpfully counted down by the ticking of the old-fashioned alarm clock on the bedside table), I got up again. Might as well find something interesting to do. My thoughts had become a jumble of unknowns, of shattered dreams and plans that would never come through, all of it sending my heart fluttering up into my throat. My brain was headed into Irrational Panic Land, and that was never a fun trip. I pulled my thick socks on, threw a black hoodie over my t-shirt, and pulled my mousy brown hair into a messy ponytail.
One distinct advantage of the off-season was the fact that I wouldn’t have to worry about meeting the future love of my life as I roamed the halls in my pink polka-dot pyjama pants. Still, I took a minute to wash a dozen spots of acne mask off my chin and forehead. No need to frighten Mrs. James if she did come up.
The oldest section of the inn was the creepiest by far, so naturally I headed there. I’ve found that the best way to escape my semi-rational fears is to let myself get scared by something I know to be harmless, something I can let go of more easily than my anxieties. Like the spirits or monsters roaming these halls. Just a legend. A game.
And that little fairy girl… My stomach tightened. A coincidence that it happened here. She was obviously off her rocker to begin with, poor thing.
I tried a few of the numbered doors, interested to see what the older and more expensive rooms looked like inside, but all were locked tight. The only knob that turned belonged to a door with no number on it. The door swung toward me on silent hinges, revealing a dark staircase heading up.
The attic. There had to be something interesting up there. My grandmother’s attic had been full of weird old shit like mink shoulder wraps (complete with paws and faces) and rusted strap-on roller skates. The inn was bound to have even older stuff.
I hurried back to my room to grab the flashlight from my bag, then headed up the stairs. They creaked horribly under my feet. The musty air turned colder as I climbed, and I pulled my sweatshirt tighter.
My tiny light picked out dark shapes when I reached the top, none of them welcoming. A hulking, monstrous form to my left nearly made me retreat down the stairs, but it was only a mannequin with blankets tossed over it.
“Hush now, girl,” I whispered, a soothing phrase my grandmother had used when I was a nervous child. She’d been more of a comfort to me than my own overbearing parents ever had, and was probably the only reason I was a remotely normal and functioning person. God rest her soul.
I moved around the perimeter of the massive attic, stepping from beam to beam in case the floor—or rather, the ceiling—wouldn’t hold my weight. My physique rested somewhere in the middle of what my friend Lisa Flanker had once called the Waif-Whale Spectrum. Healthy and normal, unless you were in movie-and-magazine world. Athletic enough to climb the ropes in gym class, but not nimble or dainty enough to take anything but the utmost care as I sneaked around a dark attic.
I found a string hanging down from the centre of the roof and gave it a tug. The light startled me. I hadn’t expected it to work. Now the attic became something more interesting and less frightening, and my heartbeat slowed to normal as the light chased away the darkness.
A door to a partitioned-off area caught my eye, only because it looked so out of place. Everything else in the attic was covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, but this door—dark polished wood carved with gorgeous floral patterns—was clean. I leaned closer and set my hand on the cut-glass knob, which didn’t match the brass fittings on every other door in the inn. It seemed to vibrate briefly under my fingers, then stilled.
My mental exhaustion was obviously catching up with me. I turned the knob, but the door wouldn’t open.
Go back to bed, I advised myself. But I still didn’t feel sleepy. Just drained, bored, and not ready for a tomorrow full of disappointed glances from my mother—not to mention the “I told you so” looks from classmates who had never left the island.
I turned to the chests and boxes that lined the walls, searching their contents to distract myself. A tiny part of me feared finding the skeleton of a young child who had become trapped during a game of hide and seek decades before. Grandma always warned me and my cousins about that danger when we played at her house. The skeleton would still be wearing clothes, tattered with age and moth-eaten. Her eyes would stare up at me, empty sockets filled with—
I opened a chest, screamed, and let the lid slam shut as I stumbled back and fell onto my arse. Shit, shit, shit. Oh God. Grandma was right. Fuck.
I forced my breathing to be calm, and my mind soon followed. That was not a dead child. Take another look.
“I don’t want to,” I answered out loud, but crawled back to the round-topped chest, not trusting my trembling legs. My hands were faring no better, and I almost let the lid fall again before I hoisted it all the way open.
A doll stared up at me. A baby doll, but oversized. Its hard face was painted with what might once have been charming features, but time had not been kind to her. The doll’s lips were brown, not the rosy pink I suspected they’d once been, with a cold tone to them that lent much to the impression of her being a dead child. Empty glass eyes stared up at me, unblinking, with spider-leg lashes painted around their peremiters. Her skin was white, save for a faded spot of orange on each cheek and a crooked crack lightning bolt crack that marred her from her hard-haired scalp to the middle of her left cheek.
I had no urge to touch her, but someone must have once loved this horrifying monster. Some little girl had thought her beautiful. And now she’d been discarded, closed away forever. I shuddered and reached up to close the chest.
As I did, the light from the bulb overhead caught a flash of something bright, nearly hidden beneath the doll’s filthy skirt. A collection of jewellery, all jumbled in a box. Costume stuff, and probably worthless. I held my breath as I shifted the doll sideways and plucked out the tin box that had lost its lid somewhere along the years.
This was a much more pleasant find than the doll. A brooch caught my eye. Even in the dim light of the attic, the colours of the gems stood out bright and bold, forming the shape of a beautiful long-tailed bird. I reached into the box to scoop it up.
“Ouch!” I dropped the pin and shoved my bleeding finger into my mouth. Not a deep cut, but it stung badly. The faint, coppery taste of blood washed over my tongue.
Pretty, but not worth it, I decided, and hoped it hadn’t given me tetanus in the bargain. I picked more carefully through the box. The only other thing that caught my eye wasn’t a brooch or a necklace, but a key.
It wasn’t made of metal, like the keys used by the hotel, but of glass or crystal, and felt unexpectedly heavy when I lifted it. It was about ten centimetres long, with only two teeth at the bottom. Nothing complicated, but the head of the key was certainly something. Formed in the shape of a skull, it grinned blankly up at me. I wrapped my fingers around the top, covering the toothy smile.
“Freaked out enough to sleep yet?” I asked myself, and opened my hand again. The key wasn’t as creepy as the doll or as dangerous as the jewellery. In a way it was quite pretty. The overhead light cut through it and made the glass glow softly, and there was something appealing about its soft lines.
I stood and closed the chest, but kept the key in my hand. It’s not stealing if it doesn’t leave the building, I reasoned, and turned to head down to bed.
The pretty door caught my eye—the one with a different knob. Could the tall key slot match the skeleton key? I suspected the key was strictly for decoration, but tried it anyway.
The lock clicked and the door popped open toward me, showing a sliver of darkness beyond.
“Go to bed,” I ordered myself, but didn’t listen. Instead I pocketed the key, reached for my flashlight, and opened the door.
The beam refused to cut through the utter blackness beyond.
“Weird,” I muttered. I stepped one foot in, following the rafter I’d been standing on, moving cautiously. The blackness didn’t abate, and my flashlight didn’t pick out any odd shapes. Not even walls.
I shone my flashlight upward and caught sight of a dangling string high overhead. Maybe out of reach. Maybe not.
I stepped forward to reach for it, and screamed as the floor disappeared and I plunged into darkness.
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