When Guy finds the deed to a house in his mother's attic, it seems like an incredible stroke of luck. Sure, it hasn't been inhabited in years and vines strangle the age-stained walls, but Guy's convinced he can clean the building up and sell it. He'd be crazy to turn down free money. Right?
Rookward House may be hours away from its nearest neighbor, but he can't escape the feeling that he's being watched. Still, he doesn't believe in ghost stories and decides to camp in the crumbling old mansion while he does repairs. Surely nothing too bad can happen in the space of a week.
But there's a reason no one lives in the haunting house, with its twisting shadows and whispering walls. The dilapidated rooms aren't as empty as they seem. Forty years ago, a deranged woman tormented the family that made Rookward its home. Now her ghost clings to the building like rot. She's bitter, obsessive, and fiercely jealous... and once Guy has moved into her house, she has no intention of letting him go.
Release date: September 22, 2017
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 298
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The Haunting of Rookward House
An aged floorboard groaned somewhere deep in the house. Thomas lay still in the bed but let his eyelids drift open. He knew he shouldn’t give in to the paranoia, but it was hard at night when the branches scrabbled at the shingles like brittle fingernails and the wind rattled the doors as though demanding to be let inside.
A distorted shadow slid across the bedroom ceiling. Thomas tracked it without moving a millimetre, his slow breaths and racing heart in disharmony. Sweat made his palms itch.
Louise shifted at his side. Strands of her sandy-brown hair slid across her cheek as she made a low humming noise of disquiet at the back of her throat. Thomas wondered if she sensed it, too—the pall of unease that descended over the house nearly every night. The one that made him check on the children a dozen times in an hour, even though the baby monitor played only even, sleeping breaths into the room.
It’s Amy. She’s here again.
His itching palms became unbearable, and Thomas broke the stillness to squeeze his hands into fists. The floorboard groaned again, and he tried to tell himself it was only the wind tugging at the house, but it wasn’t easy to disregard the muted warnings. Louise’s brows were pulled together, and a muscle twitched in her jaw.
Thomas extended his feet over the edge of the bed. Only scattered patches of moonlight struggled through the clouds, leaving his room doused almost entirely in black. As his toes hunted across the wooden boards, a part of him expected to feel clammy, scabbed fingers fasten around them, with nails as long as the scratching tree branches and a grip like iron to drag him underneath the bed.
Instead, he found the soft wool of his footwear. He slid his feet inside with a silent exhale. The slippers were cool but would warm quickly. Thomas stood and wrapped his arms around his torso. His bathrobe hung nestled in the wardrobe to his left, but he preferred to brave the cool air for a few moments rather than face the patch of death-black inside.
Monsters lurking under the bed. Evil living in his closet. They were childish fears, ones he’d thought he was long past before meeting Amy. But somehow, she’d brought them all back. Now, when his children begged him to check under their beds before they went to sleep, he had to steel himself for the task.
The baby monitor rested on the table closest to his side of the bed. He nudged the volume up a fraction and listened to three pairs of lungs working through the night. A few months before, when their youngest turned one, Louise had suggested they box it up and store it in the attic. But Thomas had insisted on keeping it in their room and changing its batteries regularly. He felt safer having that small measure of contact with his children, even when he couldn’t see them. And Louise’s complaints had fallen silent soon after she’d first seen Amy.
Thomas moved towards the window. He rolled his feet to keep from disturbing Louise, even though she was a deep sleeper. Tiny tendrils of frost coiled across the corners of the glass, and when he exhaled, Thomas’s breath arced out in a cloud. He squinted into their yard, hunting amongst the patches of garden and the heavy shadows for signs of movement.
He could have sworn Louise had put a little violet plant in the corner of their stone edged garden that morning. He’d seen her digging the hole, her floppy sunhat not quite large enough to hide her smile as she knelt in her sanctuary. And yet, the space he’d seen her working was now only bare dirt.
Maybe she found a better spot for it.
Thomas brought his thumb up to his mouth and worried at it. He never needed to clip his fingernails anymore; the compulsive habit kept them too short.
He moved his attention from the garden and towards the edge of the woods. There were no clear patches of light and dark in there; the two shades tangled together into a riotous, hysterical mess where the speckles and flecks blended as the wind moved branches. It was madness to search for motion inside them, though he’d spent enough hours trying to.
A muffled, hiccupping gasp interrupted the smooth exhales floating through the baby monitor. Thomas picked up the blue instrument and rotated the volume switch to its highest setting. He stared at its speakers, waiting, holding his own breath. After a quiet moment, a woman spoke, so softly and smoothly that it sounded like an exhale: “Hush, baby.”
Thomas’s heart turned to lead. He dropped the monitor, and Louise’s frown contracted as the one-way radio hit the floor with a resounding thunk. She didn’t wake. Thomas tried to call to her, but his mouth was dust dry. He felt his heart restart, but with an aching pulse, the kind that hit his ribs and made bile rise in the back of his throat.
He dragged his feet into motion, instructing them to carry him past the wardrobe and its inky black centre, past the bed with its invisible scrabbling hands. He nudged Louise’s shoulder but didn’t wait for her to stir. His bedroom door creaked as he opened it. He hit his palm on the switch beside the door, and the hallway was filled with a light that should have felt comforting but somehow failed. The glow that came from the single bulb hung above his head couldn’t reach far. Both the end of the corridor to his left and the twisting staircase to his right were left in shadows. It created a tiny oasis, though, and gave him the courage to quicken his pace towards the room beside his own.
The door was ajar. He’d shut it when he’d put the children to sleep—he was certain of it. Trembling fingers nudged at the wood, opening it further. Inside was nearly perfectly dark; he’d blinded himself with his oasis of hallway light, and the bulb’s influence couldn’t extend into his children’s bedroom. He felt the wall beside the door, hunting for the switch he’d pressed a hundred times but could never seemed to find at night.
“Thomas?” A floorboard groaned behind him as Louise, her voice clouded by sleep, approached. “You okay?”
He found the switch. Light doused the two beds and the cot, the toy chest, the wooden trains, the drawings taped to the walls, and the shelf of brightly coloured books. Thomas realised he’d been holding his breath and drew one in a rush.
“Thomas?” Louise stopped just behind him. She didn’t touch his shoulder, like she used to, but her presence was still a comfort. “What is it?”
“Heard something in the baby monitor.” He stepped into the room. Dan, their oldest, wriggled onto his other side but didn’t raise a fuss. Becca was still. And Georgie, nestled in the crib, continued to sleep.
He braced himself and bent to look under the beds. The spaces were empty, of course, like they always were.
Thomas stared at the baby monitor positioned on the edge of the crib then crossed to the wardrobe. He tugged open the door and glanced across the paint-splattered clothes, the blankets, and the miniature suits and dresses reserved for Sundays. No monster lurked amongst them.
“Thomas. You’re going to upset their sleep again.” Louise leaned against the doorframe, her hair hanging about her face in dishevelled loops. As she rubbed at the side of her nose, shadows highlighted the crease between her eyebrows.
“It wasn’t a dream this time.” Thomas closed the wardrobe. He scanned the room, but there was nowhere else to look; there was barely enough room to walk since he’d moved all three beds into it. “I—I thought…”
Louise squeezed her mouth into a grim smile. Dark hollows around her eyes spoke to her own disturbed rest, and Thomas made a resigned noise.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been jumpy—”
“And I know it’s not fair on you or the kids—”
“Thomas.” She reached towards him and waited until he took her hand before speaking again. “You can apologise tomorrow. Right now, I just want sleep. And so do the kids. She’s not here.”
He scanned the room a final time, checking for the reassuring rise and fall of his children’s chests before he turned out their bedroom light. “You’re right.”
They kept their hands laced as they moved along the hallway, then Louise pulled ahead to collapse back into their bed. Thomas lingered in the hallway to turn out the light, feeling the familiar pull of anxiety in his chest as darkness surrounded him.
Louise had already thrown the blankets back over herself, and Thomas moved to follow her but stopped on the room’s threshold. He stared towards the patch of darkness hiding the stairs. It was empty, but he could have sworn, for a fraction of a second, he’d seen the glint of two eyes.
“Eight pictures of a rock.” Guy held up the stack of photos for his mother to see. “No location or date listed. Bin ’em?”
“Oh…” Heather nudged her glasses farther up her nose. “Those might be significant to someone. We’d better keep those.”
Late-afternoon sunshine poured through the attic’s windows to bathe Guy and his mother and heat the space a few degrees above what would have been comfortable. Guy crouched on the dusty floorboards, the contents of a cardboard box scattered over the floor in front of him. He drummed his fingers along the edges of the pictures. “Mum, we’re the last in our family tree. If they’re not significant for you, no one’s going to want them.”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s just such a shame to throw out perfectly good pictures…”
Guy raised his eyebrows.
Heather cleared her throat. “Why don’t we put them in the ‘maybe’ box?”
Guy sighed and walked past the nearly empty “throw out” box to place the pictures on top of the overflowing “maybe” carton. When his mother had said the attic didn’t need cleaning, he’d assumed she’d forgotten how cluttered the space was. But after two hours of sifting through the leaning towers of filing papers, long-forgotten mementos, and badly broken furniture that “just needs a new coat of paint,” he was starting to suspect his mother was secretly a hoarder.
This was meant to be a way to pay her back. Guy returned to the carton and began sorting through thirty-year-old tax invoices. All I’m doing is shifting things from one side of the room to the other. It’s not going to help her at all.
“This is cute! Do you remember this?” Heather straightened and wiggled a stuffed lion toy at Guy. “What did you call it again?”
Guy had to chuckle. “Tiger. I was neither a creative nor smart child.”
“I thought it was cute.” Heather beamed as she patted the lion’s threadbare mane. “Did you want to keep it in your room? It’s so stark and bare in there. It might be nice to move some of your old furniture back in.”
The familiar sting of failure soured Guy’s stomach, but he kept his smile in place. “Thanks, but I like it the way it is.”
“Oh, well, if you’re sure… Tiger and his friends will be waiting up here if you ever need them.” Heather placed the stuffed toy back into the box and resealed it.
Guy watched her move on to a folded stack of hand-knitted sweaters and waited until her back was turned before he let his smile drop.
She didn’t deserve to see him discontented. She’d been the only person on his side after what had happened to Savannah. She’d let him move back into her home, fed him, clothed him, and loved him like only a mother could. It was the kind of debt he didn’t think he would ever be able to pay back—and it was increasing every week. Heather’s pension wasn’t designed to feed two people, and Guy’s ever-rising stack of rejected job applications wouldn’t pay the bills.
Burning anger rose in his throat, but he swallowed it and pushed it back down to where he kept it locked in the small, acorn-sized space in his chest. Anger had gotten him into this mess, and it wouldn’t do a thing to get him out.
A large, heavy stack of papers was nestled under the receipts. Guy fished it out, anticipating a tax return or possibly an annual report, and blinked at the dusty cover sheet. He saw an attorney’s logo, his mother’s name, and an address in large bold letters: 189 Greenhaven Street, Faulconbridge.
“Mum?” He flipped to the second page. “Do you know what this is?”
Heather had unfolded a gnarled maroon sweater with an off-centre pink heart and only spared Guy a glance before returning to admire the monstrosity. “Oh, I don’t know, dear. Your father used to manage the paperwork.”
Incredulity and a small, burning kernel of hope were growing inside Guy as he continued to read. “Mum, this says it’s the deeds to a house. In your name.”
“Oh, that would be for this house, I suppose.” Heather refolded the sweater and dug deeper into the box. “Here’s a lovely blue top, Guy. It would bring out your eyes.”
Guy licked at dry lips. The papers in his hands bore an address located hours away from them. “They’re not for this place. It’s for a building somewhere in Faulconbridge. Signed over to you in 1985. You must have been young then—”
“Oh!” Realisation lit Heather’s eyes, and she lowered the blue sweater. “That was the year my father died. He left everything to me. Yes, I think I can remember something about a house now…”
“You’re kidding.” Guy tried not to gawk. “You’ve owned a house most of your adult life… and you forgot?”
She picked a thread off the sweater. “Well… when my father died, we were still living in his house and didn’t really need a second one. I was so young back then, and it was all a rush of funerals and changing accounts and trying to help my mother through her grief. I guess I planned to do something about it eventually, but…” She chuckled. “Yes, I forgot.”
Guy’s throat had constricted, and he struggled to speak as he turned the pages. “Mum, do you know what this means? We own land. It’s talking about nearly two acres of property here, and there’s a house on it, too. That’s going to be valuable.”
“Do you really think so?” She blinked through her thick lenses. “It’s got to be a bit old by now, surely?”
Guy rose and wrapped an arm around Heather’s shoulders, squeezing her tightly. “I bet it would be worth a fair bit just for the acreage. And if the house is salvageable…”
“What a nice surprise!” Heather patted Guy’s shoulder with one hand as she held up the blue sweater in the other. “You know, this really would suit you.”
“I’m sure it would.” Guy laughed and let go of his mother so that he could run a hand through his hair. “But this house. This could mean—we could—”
Heather beamed up at him. “It’s nice to see you so excited over something. You’ve been down since Sav—since moving back in. Why don’t you have that house, if it cheers you up.”
Guy shook his head incredulously. She really doesn’t understand what this might mean for us. Money to pay off her home. Or… Tingling excitement made goose bumps pop up over his arms. It might even let us move to a new town. One where I’m not known. One where I can get a job. We could both get our lives back on track.
“I want to have a look at it.” Guy ran his thumb over the address on the top sheet. “I’ll drive out as soon as we’re done here.”
“Yes, I’d say we’re just about finished.” Heather gave a pleased nod towards the mountains of unidentified clutter. “We’ve had a poke through and found a few things to clear out, but it’s pretty tidy, all told.”
“If you say so, Mum.” Guy might have been tempted to protest if the abandoned property hadn’t been whispering to him. He picked up the “maybe” box and balanced it on his hip as he prepared to take it to the bins.
“Oh, don’t throw those out! I think I’d like to keep them after all.”
Guy sighed. Heather knit her fingers together and gave him a hopeful smile—one he returned.
It’s her attic. If she’s happy with it the way it is… “Sure. Where do you want me to put them?”
“Over by the mannequin, honey. Now go on, you can get out of my hair for a bit. I’ll cook your favourite pasta for dinner.”
“Love you, Mum.” He pecked her cheek on the way past, dropped the box off, and moved to the attic’s entrance.
I’ve spent so many disturbed nights dreaming about a fresh start. And all the while it was hidden within twenty metres of where I slept. Guy clutched the papers close to his chest as he bounded down the stairs and snagged his car keys off the hook by the door. Fancy that.
Where’s the driveway?
Guy looked from the papers in his pickup truck’s passenger seat to the cloistering woods around surrounding the long, rural road. He had passed the last driveway nearly ten minutes before. Potholes jolted him, and bare branches scraped at the truck’s sides. Paranoia had started to set in, and he was asking himself if the house even existed. No one he knew had laid eyes on it; he prayed the property hadn’t been swallowed up by the forest during its neglect or condemned and razed by the government for being a health hazard.
Dull metal stood out amongst the muted greens and browns of the forest. Guy slowed his car as he neared it and shuffled forward in his seat. The shape must have once been a wrought-iron gate. The rusted structure was built a little higher than a man stood, but age hadn’t been kind to it. One side of the gate had broken free of its hinges and hung at an angle, supported only by a gnarled tree branch and the chains linking it to its twin.
Guy jumped out of his truck but left the door open. He had to climb through brambles and vines that snagged his boots to reach the metal. Thick flakes peeled off where rust had eaten away at the structure, and a crumbling stone fence ran into the woods on either side. Guy tugged vines away from the plaque across the gate’s front to read the words there. 189: Rookward House.
The trees overhead were too old and dense to let much light through, and Guy shivered in the cooling breeze. He peered through the gate, trying to see past the leaves, but if there was a house there, the foliage shielded it perfectly.
If this really is ours, I can’t get in trouble for damaging it, can I? Guy planted one hand on the stone fence and put his boot to the upright half of the gate. When he applied pressure, the metal screeched. Two solid kicks had it bowing inwards, and a third broke the bolts and sent it crashing to the ground.
Weeds grew high, and the woods encroached on either side, but Guy could still see the remnants of a path leading through them. He appraised his pickup truck. She’s a tough girl. She’ll handle it.
Guy jumped back into the driver’s seat, turned the vehicle to face the gate, and began creeping it forward. The wheels dug into the groundcover then mounted the collapsed gate. A painful shriek escaped the metal as it was crushed. Guy sat on the edge of his seat, alternately pressing his face to the front screen and the driver’s side window to watch his progress. The metal shuddered under his vehicle, sending the vines and weeds trembling. Then the pickup truck dropped off the end of the gate and back onto solid ground.
“Good girl.” Guy grinned, patting the dashboard, then increased the speed as his vehicle forced its way into the long-forgotten path.
The crackle of crushed plants and the scrape of branches across already-chipped paint filled the truck. More than once, a sapling blocked the way. Guy eased his car around the larger growths and used his utility knife to cut down the smaller ones. As he pressed farther into the forest the connection with the outside world felt fainter. Birdcalls echoed from the canopy, and occasionally, small animals bounded across the path or disturbed the plants alongside the trail.
It was a long, agonizingly slow drive. Despite the air conditioning Guy started to sweat. He’d brought a water bottle but no food, and the niggling worry that his hardened pickup truck would become stuck grew worse as the ground began to slope downwards.
Why would anyone build a house so far from the town? Guy squinted into the dappled patches of light that managed to struggle through the overhead coverage. Mum didn’t inherit the place until twenty years ago, so it must be even older than that… was it a farm? Or maybe a holiday house on the edge of a river?
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