But strange things keep happening. Figures watch them through the fog. Objects move on their own. Tara begins to believe the unbelievable... that the house could be haunted.
When a storm cuts the phone line, May shifts from doting to obsessive. Tara and Kyle try to keep up the pretext of a happy family, but a forgotten journal and a locked room provide clues to the desperate lies and secrets entwined with the Folcrofts' legacy.
Something is horribly wrong with this family.
Release date: January 10, 2017
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 165
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The Folcroft Ghosts
Specks of rain hit the windshield and evaporated within seconds. It had been a clear, warm day when Tara and Kyle stepped into Mrs. Jennings’s car outside Plymouth Hospital, but the farther they drove, the worse the weather became. Coastal trees slowly gave way to heavier, thicker mountain growth, and the wide paved roads were swapped for twisting dirt trails.
“It will probably only be for a couple of days, anyhow.” Mrs. Jennings took a bend slightly too fast, and Tara braced herself against the door. “Just long enough for a fun little visit.”
“Yeah.” Tara stared at the knotted pine trees shifting past the window. Her brother had dipped out of the conversation by keeping his attention fixed on the book in his lap. Not for the first time, Tara wished she could read in the car without becoming sick.
“I’m sure they’ll be lovely. They seemed very excited when they called.” Mrs. Jennings drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and snuck a glance at Tara in the rear view mirror. Her voice had a bright, energetic lilt, but a quiver belied the carefree words.
Tara tried to return the older woman’s smile. She knew Mrs. Jennings was trying her best. She’d already let Tara and Kyle stay in her too-small house with her own children the previous night, and she was spending nearly a full day driving them to their grandparents’.
Mrs. Jennings cleared her throat. “And when your mother’s out of hospital, I’ll bring lots of pre-cooked meals so she doesn’t have to worry about food.”
When, not if. Everyone was being so optimistic. But Tara couldn’t think about her mother without seeing the ghost-grey, slack face with the incubator tube strapped to her mouth, artificial breaths filling her lungs, and the body that was unresponsive when the doctors prodded at it.
Mrs. Jennings licked her lips. “You know I wish you could stay with us. But we’ve had this holiday booked for months…” She quickly added, “And the house is being fumigated anyway, so even if we cancelled—”
“I know. Don’t worry.” Tara tried again to smile, but the muscles in her face weren’t obeying her. “You’ve been really generous.”
Mrs. Jennings was all but sweating guilt. Tara couldn’t understand why; their families were friends, but not very close ones. She was lucky if they saw each other twice a month. But Mrs. Jennings had been the only person to visit when their mother was admitted to hospital, and more because of proximity than merit, she’d taken on the role of surrogate mother.
And now we’re being passed to our grandparents.
It would be her first time meeting May and Peter Folcroft. Her mother had talked about them only once, when Tara had asked. Her mother had said they lived a long way away and didn’t keep in touch. Tara was surprised they’d volunteered to take her and her brother.
Tara glanced at Kyle. He was small for an eleven-year-old, and his hair was overdue for a cut. He kept his eyes fixed on the book, but he hadn’t turned a page in several minutes.
“I think…” Mrs. Jennings squinted at a wooden letter box jutting out by a narrow driveway. “I think this might be it. Yes, good, number forty-eight. Isn’t this pretty!”
Giant shaggy trees lined the driveway. Unlike the coast’s manicured gardens and neatly spaced palm trees, the mountain property’s plants had been allowed to grow wherever and however they liked. Maples, oaks, pines, and liquid ambers grew scattered about the area, sometimes so close together that they strangled each other. Vines and shrubs tangled through the gaps between the trunks, and late season wildflowers created splashes of colour.
Mrs. Jennings’s four-wheel-drive, which had only ever seen suburban roads, lurched over the winding driveway’s bumps and potholes. Kyle looked up from his book to scan the area with a quick glance then raised the novel higher to block out the view. Tara understood. For him, a fantasy world was easier to cope with than their new reality.
The driveway seemed to stretch on forever. When it finally opened into a clearing, Mrs. Jennings made an appreciative “ooh” noise. “This is lovely. I’m sure you kids will have so much fun here. Look, there’s even a swing.”
Tara twisted to see the wooden board suspended from a great oak near the front of the house. Shifting in the breeze, it looked old enough to be from her mother’s time. On their other side, an angular concrete structure rose out of the ground, partially hidden by a copse of trees. Tara thought she saw the outline of a door.
The two-story house built of stone and wood stood a little apart from the surrounding forest. The mountain rose up behind it, blocking out much of the late-afternoon sun, and leaves littered its sharply peaked roof. Tara strained to see the two figures standing in front of the house, but shadows hid their faces.
Mrs. Jennings swung the car around the circular driveway and pulled up near the house’s front. Her voice was bordering on unnaturally eager as she said, “Here we are, kids. Let’s get you unpacked.”
Kyle pretended not to hear, so Tara kicked his leg when Mrs. Jennings wasn’t looking. “C’mon,” she whispered. “Be polite.”
He frowned but closed his book and slid out of the car. Mrs. Jennings popped open the boot and pulled out their suitcases, leaving Tara and Kyle to face their grandparents.
“Hello.” The woman, May, stepped forward first.
Tara was surprised; when she’d heard her grandparents lived on a rural property, she’d pictured weather-hardened, stout people. But May looked closer to a grandmother in a Hallmark ad. Her long, silky grey hair had been tied into a bun with a blue ribbon that matched her checked dress and white apron. Her face was heavily wrinkled, but the creases all seemed to fall in the right way and bunched up around her sparkling eyes when she smiled.
“You must be Tara,” she said then nodded to the boy hiding behind Tara. “And Kyle. I’m so, so happy to finally meet you.”
“Hi.” Tara swallowed, unsure of what she was supposed to do or say to give a good impression. “Thanks for having us.”
“Ooh, poor thing.” May pulled Tara into a hug. She smelt like cinnamon, and the unguarded affection, so different to the distanced pity the nurses and even Mrs. Jennings had offered, made Tara’s throat tighten. May withdrew just far enough to include Kyle in her hug, then she patted both of their backs. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. But you’re welcome to stay with Peter and me for however long you need to. Come in. I baked a cake; I hope you like apples.”
Her husband, Peter, extended a hand first to Tara then Kyle. He was taller and gaunter than his wife but dressed neatly in jeans and a button-up shirt. His smiles were more guarded and his handshake brief, but there wasn’t any of the reluctance or irritation Tara had been dreading. He gave them both a gruff “Welcome” then took the suitcases from Mrs. Jennings.
“Come in,” May continued, gently guiding them into the house. “You’re probably tired from the drive. I have your rooms made up, but I hope you’ll join us for a chat. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for so, so long.”
Mrs. Jennings followed them as far as the doorway then shrugged to adjust her cardigan. “Would you like me to stay for a bit, kids?”
May beamed at her. “You’re very welcome to join us for some tea, but it’s getting late. I’d worry if you were driving home in the dark.”
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Jennings frowned slightly as she glanced at the sky. “I suppose… Will you be okay from here, kids?”
Kyle kept his eyes fixed on the wooden floor, so Tara spoke for both of them. “Yeah. Thank you. For everything.”
“Of course, of course. Couldn’t leave you kids fending for yourself.” Mrs. Jennings edged towards the door. “You’ve got my number. Call me if you need anything. I’ll keep an eye on your house, too, take a loop past it during the school run to make sure everything’s okay.”
Mrs. Jennings gave a final tight-lipped smile, waved, then hurried back to the car. Tara had the impression that she was glad to be gone—her duty was done, and she could get home and focus on her own family again without guilt.
As the engine revved, Tara turned back to face her grandparents and the building that was going to be her home for the foreseeable future.
Rooms for Two
“What do you like to drink?” May clasped her hands together as she smiled at Tara and Kyle. “You might be a little young for coffee, but I have hot chocolate, tea, milkshakes… I even bought some of that soda teens seem to like.”
“Luggage first,” Peter said. “You’ll have plenty of time to feed them later, May.”
Tara moved forward to pick up her suitcase, but Peter had already lifted both. “I’ve got it,” he grunted and nodded towards the stairs at the back of the hallway.
A small tug on her jacket made Tara look over her shoulder. Kyle had grabbed the hem and was holding it as he followed. He hadn’t done that in years.
The narrow staircase groaned, but Peter moved up it with a speed that belied his age. At the top, he turned down the hallway and stopped in front of a door. “Here’s yours,” he said to Tara. “It used to be your mother’s.”
The hinges creaked as the door opened. The room wasn’t large, but it was clean and welcoming. A colourful quilt added life to the otherwise-plain room, and the window overlooked the forest behind the house. Peter put her suitcase at the base of her bed then led them back down the hallway. They passed the door next to Tara’s and stopped at the last room down the hallway.
“Yours,” Peter said, squinting at Kyle over Tara’s shoulder.
Kyle nodded mutely but didn’t look inside as Peter placed the suitcase at the bed’s foot. Peter’s grey eyes tightened slightly as he peered at Kyle. “What’s the matter? You’re not mute, are you?”
Tara bristled. “No, he just gets shy around new people.”
“Hmm.” Peter shut the door. He examined them for a second, shrugged, and turned back to the staircase. “I guess it’s better to say nothing than risk saying too much. Let’s get you some of that cake.”
The man’s tone hadn’t held any hostility, and Tara relaxed a fraction. As Peter went down the stairs ahead of them, she whispered to Kyle, “Try to be friendly. They seem nice.”
He didn’t answer but kept a hold of her jacket.
As Tara followed the stairs to the ground floor, she ran her hand along the wooden wall. The house felt old, as though the passing years had made it heavier. Every floorboard groaned, and the glass panes in the windows had warped. It was clean, though, if a little cluttered.
May was shedding her apron as they entered the kitchen. A glazed cake took up the centre of the white-clothed dining table, surrounded by plates and cups, a vase of flowers, and two parcels wrapped in brown paper and string.
“I didn’t know what drink to make,” May said as she hurried to pull out two seats. “So I made three types of tea. There’s spiced fruit juice and soda, too, or I can make you something else.”
Tara slipped into one of the seats. “Any kind of tea’s good for me, but Kyle might want the soda.”
“Oh, good. I asked the store manager to give me whichever type is most popular. If you don’t like it, you can blame him.”
For the first time since the police officers had knocked on their door, Tara laughed. May flitted around like a hummingbird, pouring their drinks and cutting cake, while Peter reclined at the head of the table and blew on his mug of coffee.
“We really are glad you could visit.” May finally settled into her seat opposite the siblings, her long fingers tracing invisible patterns on the tablecloth. “Despite the circumstances.”
“It’s a shame we couldn’t come before,” Tara said. She tried the cake then went back for another spoonful. “You have a really lovely house.”
May beamed. “Thank you. Peter’s parents built it close to… well, eighty years ago, I suppose. It’s held up well.”
“Got a lake out back,” Peter said. “I’ll take you fishing sometime.”
Kyle peeked up from his plate. He’d been asking their mother to take him fishing for years, but their mother, Chris, had always said it was too expensive or too far to travel.
“I can’t believe how quickly time passes.” May’s eyes were shining as she looked between them. “You turned fifteen a few months ago, didn’t you, Tara? And you’re nearly twelve, Kyle? We really should have visited a long time ago—been a bigger part of your lives—but your mother… well…” She shifted forward, a hint of nervousness tainting her smile, and picked up the paper-wrapped shapes. “We can be a family now. Here, we bought you some presents.”
Tara dropped her spoon to take the parcel, equal parts surprised and touched. She slipped the string tie off and unwrapped the paper.
“I hope you like it,” May said.
“Oh—yes! Thank you!” Inside the parcel was a small Polaroid camera. Tara grinned as she turned it over. “This is really cool.”
She looked towards Kyle and found him holding a fantasy novel. May had found his weakness, and his face brightened as he read the blurb. “Thanks.” It was the first time he’d spoken all day.
May bit her lip to hide a grin as she glanced at Peter, and he gave her a lazy smile in response. “May picked them out for you.”
“I’m glad. It was so hard to guess what you might like,” she said, rising to clear away their plates. “I’m sure you two must be hungry. I’ll make a start on dinner. Settle in, and feel free to have a look around. I’ll call you down when we’re ready to eat.”
Kyle trailed after Tara as she climbed the stairs. He held two books close to his chest—the novel he’d brought for the car ride and May’s gift. Tara crossed to his room at the end of the hallway and went to the window to look over the lawn below. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah.” He placed the books on his bedside table, lining them up parallel to the edge, then sat on his bed. “You’re right. They seem nice. But I still wish we could’ve stayed at home.”
Tara turned back to the room. Not for the first time, she wondered how different things might have been if a nurse hadn’t realised they didn’t have a father and if Mrs. Jennings hadn’t visited the hospital. She didn’t even know what happened in situations where minors were left without a guardian. Kyle insisted they were put in foster homes, but she wasn’t sure how much of that was real knowledge and how much was fiction from his books.
“Cool presents,” Kyle said, nodding to the novel. “I haven’t read this one yet. And you can take pictures for that awful drama blog of yours.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not a drama blog. It’s a blog that contains drama. Ve-e-e-ery big difference.”
“It’s an echo chamber.” He was mimicking both their mother’s voice and words. “And an excuse for antisocial behaviour.”
She laughed, but the silence that followed felt hopelessly empty.
“Is Mum going to be okay?” Kyle asked.
It was the first time they’d had a chance to talk privately since arriving at the hospital. Uncertain how to answer, Tara returned to looking out the window. “The doctors say she will.”
“But even if she comes out of the coma, there could be brain damage, memory loss, physical impairment—”
“Stop it.” Tara’s tone was harsher than she’d intended. Kyle was probing for reassurance from the only remaining person he trusted, and Tara wished she could give it to him. But she hadn’t understood the hospital notes she’d read, and the doctors had only ever made general, non-committal statements. Kyle the bookworm probably knew more about their mother’s state than she did.
“Things are going to be okay,” she said at last. It was the best she could offer, even though she knew it was horribly inadequate for both of them. “Remember what Mrs. Jennings said. Worrying won’t help Mum. We just need to look out for ourselves for a couple of days while she rests.”
Kyle stood and opened his suitcase. He began hanging up the four identical shirts with robotic precision, and Tara knew she’d frightened him back into his shell.
“I mean it. We’ll be okay.”
“You should unpack. Don’t want to leave it too late.”
Tara sighed. “Okay. You know where to find me.” She gave his hair a ruffle on the way past then stepped back into the hallway.
Even with four people in it, the house felt strangely empty. She counted the doors up and down the hall. The house would easily accommodate ten people; compared to their old apartment, the Folcrofts’ home was a mansion. But the air felt still, and although noises echoed from the kitchen below, the upper level seemed too quiet. Tara moved to her room with quick steps and released a held breath as she crossed the threshold. She closed the door and turned back to the space that was supposed to be hers.
The suitcase lay on its side. Tara frowned, put her new camera on the dressing table, and picked up the suitcase. She’d seen Peter place it on its end, she was sure.
She set it upright again, tilted her head, and waited to see if it fell. It didn’t. She nudged it with her foot—first in one direction then the other. It didn’t even rock.
Weird. She looked towards the closed door. Was someone up here while I was talking to Kyle? I didn’t hear anyone, but then, I wasn’t listening…
A shudder ran up her back. She snatched the suitcase off the ground, laid it on the bed, and opened it to unpack. Her wardrobe was a little more varied than her brother’s, but still basic and embarrassingly outdated. Before the accident, she had an allowance and a part-time job at a fast-food outlet but was using her earnings to save up for a new computer. Kyle had good grounds to tease her about her blog, but Tara didn’t care. She’d grown an immense network of friends through it. On the internet, no one cared how she spoke, what clique she fit into, or whether her jeans ended two inches above her ankles. She was proud to be a part of the misfits.
Tara finished her unpacking quickly then shoved the suitcase under her bed. She flopped back on the quilt and stared at the wooden ceiling. Peter had said the room had once been her mother’s. How many times must she have looked at the same patterns in the boards? Then the idea occurred that the ceiling might be hers for the next three years, until she was old enough to move out. Her throat tightened. She rolled off the bed, returned to the hallway, then turned to the stairs. Company—even awkward company—was better than being alone.
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