After years away, Laurie returns to the home where she was raised by a cold, distant father who recently exorcised his demons. But no amount of cleaning can wipe away the troubled past. She feels it lurking in the broken moldings, sees it staring from an empty picture frame, hears it laughing in the moldy greenhouse deep in the woods . . .
At first, Laurie thinks she’s imagining things. But when she meets her daughter’s new playmate, she notices her uncanny resemblance to another little girl who used to live next door. Who died next door. With each passing day, Laurie’s uneasiness grows stronger, her thoughts more disturbing. Like her father, is she slowly losing her mind? Or is something truly unspeakable happening?
“Much more than a haunted house story.” —Cemetery Dance Magazine
“Takes well-known tropes and completely turns them around.” —IHeartReading
“Slowly but surely creeps under your skin.” —The Horror Bookshelf
“The perfect ghost story.” —HorrorBuzz
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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They had been expecting a woman, Dora Lorton, to greet them upon their arrival, but as Ted finessed the Volvo station wagon up the long driveway toward the house, they could see there was a man on the porch. Tall and gaunt, he had a face like a withered apple core and wore a long black overcoat that looked incongruous in the stirrings of an early summer. The man watched them as Ted pulled the station wagon up beside a dusty gray Cadillac that was parked in front of the porch. For one perplexing instant, Laurie Genarro thought the man on the porch was her father, so newly dead that his orphaned spirit still lingered at the house on Annapolis Road.
"Glad to see Lurch from The Addams Family has found work," Ted commented as he shut off the car.
"It looks like a haunted house," Susan spoke up from the backseat, a comment that seemed to underscore Laurie's initial impression of the ghostlike man who stood beneath the partial shade of the porch alcove. Susan was ten and had just begun vocalizing her critical observations to anyone within earshot. "And who's Lurch?"
"Ah," said Ted. "When did popular culture cease being popular?"
"I'm only ten," Susan reminded him, closing the Harry Potter book she had been reading for much of the drive down from Connecticut. She had been brooding and sullen for the majority of the trip, having already pitched a fit back in Hartford about having to spend summer vacation away from her friends and in a strange city, all of it because of a grandfather she had never known.
Who could blame her? Laurie thought now, still staring out the passenger window at the man on the porch. I'd pitch a fit, too. In fact, I just might do it yet.
Ted cupped his hands around his mouth. "Thank you for flying Genarro Airlines! Please make sure your tray tables are up before debarking."
Susan giggled, her mood having changed for the better somewhere along Interstate 95. "Barking!" she cried happily, misinterpreting her father's comment, then proceeded to bark like a dog. Ted wasted no time barking right along with her.
Laurie got out of the car and shivered despite the afternoon's mild temperature. In the wake of her father's passing, and for no grounded reason, she had expected her old childhood home to look different — empty, perhaps, like the molted skin of a reptile left behind in the dirt, as if the old house had nothing left to do but wither and die just as its master had done. But no, it was still the same house it had always been: the redbrick frame beneath a slouching mansard roof; Italianate cornices of a design suggestive of great pinwheels cleaved in half; a trio of arched windows on either side of the buckling front porch; all of which was capped by a functional belvedere that stood up against the cloudy June sky like the turret of a tiny castle. That's where it happened, Laurie thought with a chill as her eyes clung to the belvedere. It looked like a tiny bell tower sans bell, but was really a little room with windows on all four sides. Her parents had used it mostly for storage back when they had all still lived here together, before her parents' separation. Laurie had been forbidden to go up there as a child.
Trees crowded close to the house and intermittent slashes of sunlight came through the branches and danced along the east wall. The lawn was unruly and thick cords of ivy climbed the brickwork. Many windows on the ground floor stood open, perhaps to air out the old house, and the darkness inside looked cold and bottomless.
Laurie waved timidly at the man on the porch. She thought she saw his head bow to her. Images of old gothic horrors bombarded her head. Then she looked over her shoulder to where Ted and Susan stood at the edge of a small stone well that rose up nearly a foot from a wild patch of grass and early summer flowers on the front lawn. Yes, I remember the well. Back when she had been a child, the well had been housed beneath a wooden portico where, in the springtime, sparrows nested. She recalled tossing stones into its murky depths and how it sometimes smelled funny in the dead heat of late summer. Now, the wooden portico was gone and the well was nothing but a crumbling stone pit in the earth, covered by a large plank of wood.
Without waiting for Ted and Susan to catch up, Laurie climbed the creaky steps of the porch, a firm smile already on her face. The ride down to Maryland from Connecticut had exhausted her and the prospect of all that lay ahead in the house and with the lawyer left her empty and unfeeling. She extended one hand to the man in the black overcoat and tried not to let her emotions show. "Hello. I'm Laurie Genarro."
A pale hand with very long fingers withdrew from one of the pockets of the overcoat. The hand was cold and smooth in Laurie's own. "The daughter," the man said. His face was narrow but large, with a great prognathous jaw, a jutting chin, and the rheumy, downturned eyes of a basset hound. With the exception of a wispy sweep of colorless hair across the forehead, his scalp was bald. Laurie thought him to be in his late sixties.
"Yes," Laurie said. "Mr. Brashear was my father."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." She withdrew her hand from his, thankful to be rid of the cold, bloodless grasp. "I was expecting Ms. Lorton...."
"I'm Dora's brother, Felix Lorton. Dora's inside, straightening up the place for you and your family. She was uncomfortable returning here alone after ... well, after what happened. My sister can be foolishly superstitious. I apologize if I've frightened you."
"Not at all. Don't be silly." But he had frightened her, if just a little.
Across the front yard, Susan squealed with pleasure. Ted had lifted the corner of the plank of wood covering the well, and they were both peering down into it. Susan said something inaudible and Ted put back his head and laughed.
"My husband and daughter," Laurie said. She recognized a curious hint of apology in her tone and was quickly embarrassed by it.
"Splendid," Felix Lorton said with little emotion. Then he held out a brass key for her.
"I have my own." David Cushing, her father's lawyer, had mailed her a copy of the key along with the paperwork last week.
"The locks have been changed recently," said Felix Lorton.
"Oh." She extended her hand and opened it, allowing Lorton to drop the key onto her palm. She was silently thankful she didn't have to touch the older man's flesh again. It had been like touching the flesh of a corpse.
"Hi, there!" It was Ted, peering up at them through the slats in the porch railing while sliding his hands into the pockets of his linen trousers. There was the old heartiness in Ted's voice now. It was something he affected when in the company of a stranger whom he'd had scarce little time to assess. Ted was two years past his fortieth birthday but could pass for nearly a full decade younger. His teeth were white and straight, his skin unblemished and healthy-looking, and his eyes were both youthful and soulful at the same time, a combination many would have deemed otherwise incompatible. He kept himself in good shape, running a few miles every morning before retiring to his home office for the bulk of the afternoon where he worked. He could work for hours upon end in that home office back in Hartford without becoming fidgety or agitated, classical music issuing from the Bose speakers his only companion. Laurie envied his discipline.
"That's my husband, Ted," Laurie said, "and our daughter, Susan."
Susan sidled up beside her father, her sneakers crunching over loose gravel. Her big hearty smile was eerily similar to his. She had on a long-sleeved cotton jersey and lacrosse shorts. At ten, her legs were already slim and bronze, and she liked to run and play sports and had many friends back in Hartford. She was certainly her father's daughter.
"Nice to meet you folks. I'm Felix Lorton."
"There are frogs in the well," Susan said excitedly.
Lorton smiled. It was like watching a cadaver come alive on an autopsy table, and the sight of that smile chilled Laurie's bones. "I suppose there are," Lorton said to Susan. He leaned over the railing to address the girl, his profile stark and angular and suggestive of some predatory bird peering down from a tree branch at some blissfully unaware prey. "Snakes, sometimes, too."
Susan's eyes widened. "Snakes?"
"Oh, yes. After a heavy rain, and if it's not covered properly, that well fills up and it's possible to see all sorts of critters moving about down there."
"Neat!" Susan chirped. "Do they bite?"
"Only if you bite first." Lorton chomped his teeth hollowly. Then he turned his cadaverous grin onto Laurie. "I suppose I should take you folks inside now and introduce you to Dora."
"Yes, please," Laurie said, and they followed Felix Lorton into the house.
She had grown up here, though the time spent within these shadowed rooms and narrow hallways seemed so long ago that it was now as foreign to her as some childhood nightmare, or perhaps a threaded segment of some other person's life. Her parents had divorced when she was not much older than Susan, and she and her mother had left this house and Maryland altogether to live with her mother's family in Norfolk, Virginia. Subsequent visits to the house were sporadic at best, dictated by the whim of a father who had been distant and cold even when they had lived beneath the same roof. Her mother had never accompanied her on those visits, and when they stopped altogether, Laurie felt a warm relief wash over her. In her adult life, Laurie had chosen to maintain her distance, and she had never returned to this unwelcoming, tomblike place. Why should she force a relationship on a father who clearly had no interest in one? Even now, despite the horrors that had allegedly befallen her father, Laurie felt little guilt about her prolonged absence from his life.
"This place could be a stunner if it was renovated properly," Ted commented as Lorton led them through a grand entranceway. "I didn't realize the house was so big."
"Is it a mansion?" Susan asked no one in particular.
"No," Ted answered, a wry grin on his face now, "but it's close."
The foyer itself was large and circular, from which various hallways speared off like spokes on a wheel. There was an immense crystal chandelier directly above the entranceway and a set of stairs against one wall leading to the second story. The floors were scuffed and dulled mahogany, with some noticeable gashes dug into the dark wood. Some of the floorboards creaked.
Laurie paused at the foot of the stairs. She felt Lorton hovering close behind her. A cool sweat rose to the surface of her skin and the nape of her neck prickled hotly. "I'm sorry," she said, reaching out and grasping the decorative head of the newel post for support. "I just need a minute."
Ted asked if she was okay.
"It's just a bit overwhelming, that's all."
Frightened, Susan said, "Mommy?" Laurie offered the girl a tepid smile, which Susan returned wholeheartedly. "Mommy's okay, sweetheart," she said, and was glad when her voice did not waver.
Ted came up behind Laurie and squeezed her shoulder with one firm hand.
"It has been a while since you were last here, Mrs. Genarro?" Felix Lorton asked.
"It has, yes," she confirmed. "I spent my childhood here but haven't been back in many years."
Felix Lorton nodded. "Understandable."
After Laurie regained her composure, Felix Lorton led them into the parlor. The walls were drab, the paint cracked and peeling. A comfortable sofa and loveseat sat corralled on a threadbare oriental carpet before a dark stone hearth. A few books stood on a bookshelf, while an ancient Victrola cabinet squatted in one corner, its lacquered hood raised. Beside the phonograph was a small upright piano, shiny and black. A tarnished candelabrum stood on the piano's hood. At the opposite end of the room, a liquor cabinet with a mesh screen for a door displayed a collection of antediluvian bottles. The windows in this part of the house faced a green yard and, beyond, a wooden fence that separated the side of the house and backyard from the neighboring property which, from what Laurie was able to glimpse, looked overgrown with heavy trees and unkempt shrubbery. The whole room smelled unsparingly of Pine-Sol.
"Strange," commented Ted. He was staring at a large gilded frame on one wall. The frame held no lithograph, no portrait, though bits of it still clung to the inside of the frame. Aside from that, it framed nothing but the blank wall on which it sat. "What happened to the picture?" Felix Lorton cleared his throat and said, "I wouldn't know, sir."
"Did you work for my father as well, Mr. Lorton?" Laurie asked as she walked slowly around the room. Beneath the cloying smell of Pine-Sol, she could detect the stale odor of cigar smoke, and for a brief moment she was suddenly ushered back to her youth. Her father had often smoked the horrid things. The parlor had been arranged differently back then, her mother having brought to it a domestic femininity it now sorely lacked. Cigar smoking had not been permitted in the house, and Laurie recalled a sudden image of her father standing just beyond the windows of this room, firmly planted in the strip of lawn that ran alongside the fence while he puffed away on one of his cigars. The vision was so distant, Laurie wondered if it was a real memory or some nonsense she had just conjured from thin air.
"No, ma'am, I did not. My sister was assigned to take care of your father from the service. When things got ... more difficult ... the service brought on another girl to assist with the caretaking responsibilities. A night nurse. You're aware of this, I presume?"
"I had been coming around on occasion in the past few months, Mrs. Genarro, mostly to do minor repairs. Old houses like these ..." There was no need for him to complete the thought. "When Dora said the locks needed to be changed, I came and changed them. That sort of thing."
"Why were the locks changed?" she asked.
"You'll have to speak with Dora about that."
Laurie frowned. "If it was necessary to have someone maintain the property, I wish the service would have told me. I don't like the idea of you having to take care of my father's things for free."
"It wasn't like that at all, ma'am. My sister had simply requested I come with her so she wouldn't have to be here alone."
"What about the other girl?" Laurie asked. "The night nurse?"
"They were never here at the same time. They worked in shifts. Toward the end, your father required around-the-clock care, as I've been told. I presume you were kept up to date on all of this?" "Yes. I was aware of my father's condition." Then she frowned. "Why wouldn't Dora want to be here alone?"
"You'll have to ask her, ma'am," said Lorton. It was becoming his automatic response. "If you don't mind my asking, where do you folks currently reside?"
"Hartford, Connecticut," Laurie said. She feigned interest in the crumbling mortar of the fireplace mantel. As a child, there had been framed photographs and various other items on the mantelpiece. Now, it was barren. "It took us longer to get here than we thought," she added, as if the distance excused her absence from this place and her father's life.
What do I have to feel guilty about? she wondered. He was never there for me; why should I have been there for him? Anyway, what business is it of Felix Lorton's?
"Understandable. Please have a seat and I'll go fetch my sister," Lorton said, extending a hand toward the sofa and loveseat. "Would any of you like something to drink?"
"Ice water would be great," Ted said. He was examining the spines of the few books on the bookshelf.
"Do you have any grape juice, please?" Susan asked.
The question caused Felix Lorton to suck on his lower lip while his eyes narrowed to slits. A sound like a frog's croak rumbled at the back of the man's throat.
"Water will be fine for her, too," Laurie assured him.
"Very well," Lorton said, then disappeared down the hall that led to the kitchen.
"All these books have pages torn out of them," Ted said, replacing one of the leather-bound editions back on the shelf. "How strange."
Laurie went to one of the windows and looked out onto the side yard. The lawn was spangled with sunlight and the wooden fence was green and furry with mildew. Tree branches drooped over the fence from the neighboring yard, the trees themselves all but blotting out the house next door. She could make out shuttered windows and dark, peeling siding. A green car of indeterminable make and model was parked in the neighbor's driveway and there was another vehicle with some sort of emblem on the door parked on the street. The Russ family had lived there when she was a girl. Laurie wondered who lived there now.
"This house smells funny," Susan said. She was crouching down to peer into the black, sooty maw of the hearth. "It reminds me of Miss Tannis's house back home." Bertha Tannis was the elderly widow who lived two houses down from the Genarros in Hartford. When she was younger, Susan would sometimes go there after school if both Laurie and Ted weren't home to greet her.
Excerpted from "Little Girls"
Copyright © 2015 Ronald Malfi.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for the work of Ronald Malfi,
PART I - Homecoming:,
PART II - Sparrows Point:,
PART III - In the House of Many Windows:,