Stoketon, Wisconsin, 1845
THE WOMAN is alone in the woods, now more than ever. Above her the boughs of naked winter branches clatter together with the force of the wind. They remind her of people whispering as she passes. In the air is the promise of snow by morning, and the dark sky is cloaked with gray clouds. She peers upward, searching for the moon. But it, like so many others, has deserted her this cold night.
She kneels and sets the baby in her arms upon the hard, frozen earth. She looks down at his face, ghostly white in the pitch blackness, and a single tear drips from her eye, splashing the little face, cold and pale as polished marble. Angrily she wipes at her eye with the back of her arm, cloaked in black wool. There have been enough tears and sorrows. Enough cursing them for their neglect and fear. They could have saved him. She will not succumb any more.
Now it’s time for revenge.
She looks up once more and at last locates the moon, a sliver of pewter glowing dully before a cloud rolls over it, obscuring it once more. Bending, she lifts the child and raises him to the moon, as if in offering. She whispers words in an ancient tongue and keeps the child aloft until her arms grow weak. She sets him back down, looks one final time into his eyes, green now turned milky. One last time she strokes the chubby cheeks and runs her finger over the parted lips, which will never draw breath again.
She picks up the shovel lying next to the baby and begins to dig. Her work, damn it, is punctuated by sobs. She digs tirelessly, the shovel breaking into the hard, icy earth with precision and a force of will that is almost beyond human. At the end of her labor, there is a small trench, about three feet long and deeper than that—its sides come up to the woman’s waist. She climbs out of it, picks up her child, and gently lowers him into the grave.
“Punish them for what they’ve done to us both.”
She begins whispering furiously once more, ancient words, ancient curses. She reaches to her right, and her hand wraps around a small vial. She uncorks it and sprinkles the dark liquid on top of the child. It is black, wine-colored when the moon reveals its hue.
She wipes her hands on her coat. “Avenge us, my son.” She picks up the shovel again and begins the hard work of refilling the hole. It’s easier once she can no longer see her boy. By the end of her toil, she is drenched in sweat, no longer cold, even though the first flakes of a winter storm have begun to fall and the sky has begun to lighten in the east.
She stoops to cover the little grave with pine needles and leaves, then stands and wipes her hands on her billowing black coat. In the forest a wolf howls. She hurries away from the grave, passing a sign as she goes.
CONSTRUCTION SITE. KEEP OUT
Anton Beaumont, Owner
HUNTER BEAUMONT awakened drenched in sweat, striped sheets twisted around him. His heart pounded, and an irrational fear coursed through him, disproportionate to the calmness of his dark bedroom.
He sat up, rubbing his hand over his slick face, and reassured himself with the same words countless nightmare sufferers have told themselves since the dawn of time: “It was only a dream. It was only a dream.” But it was that same dream again. The one that was part memory, part horror movie. The one where he is camping with his parents and he can see the glow of the campfire flickering on their faces. It’s a lovely scene at first, romantic and warm. His parents’ voices are hushed, his mother’s laugh tinkling as the two of them huddle together, the fire keeping the darkness of the woods surrounding them at bay. But then a shadow falls over his mother’s and father’s faces, and their eyes turn in an instant from contented and adoring to terrified. Then come the screams… and the blood, all the blood. That was when Hunter always awakened.
But this time something more than the nightmare had awakened him. Was someone knocking on his bedroom door? Yes, there it was again, an almost tentative tapping. In his postnightmare state, Hunter imagined the worst—that a monster lurked outside, something needing to be invited in. And once inside it would rip him limb from limb, gorging on his flesh and drinking his blood.
Hunter allowed himself an embarrassed laugh and attempted to pull himself together. He sat up straighter against the headboard and used a corner of the top sheet to dab at the beads of sweat still gathering on his forehead. “Yes?” he called out.
With a creak the door opened, and Lori Schmidbauer, his grandmother’s nurse, peered in. Even backlit, Hunter could see the kindness in the woman’s dark brown eyes and the concern and sadness on her face. She glanced down the hall and then back toward him, gave him a tentative smile.
“Hunter? Honey, I’m so sorry to wake you. Can I come in?”
Hunter pulled the sheet up farther, covering his chest. A new kind of alarm had begun inside, the dread beginning to churn like something alive in his guts. “Is everything okay?”
Lori didn’t respond. She simply tiptoed into the room and sat down gingerly on the edge of his bed. Hunter leaned over and switched on the nightstand lamp. Lori still wore her scrubs, and her curly brown hair was pulled loosely into a ponytail. She looked like the most tired woman in the world. Hunter repeated his question and added to it.
“Is everything okay? Is Nana all right?”
Lori clutched his hand, squeezed it, and let it go. “I don’t think so, dear.”
She stared off at a point over Hunter’s head, and he could see her eyes glistened with tears.
It felt like his stomach dropped a couple of feet. He bit his lip. “Is it time?”
Lori drew in a quivering breath before responding. “Yeah. I think it is. You better come now if you want to say good-bye.”
“Okay,” Hunter whispered, barely able to find breath to put behind the single word. For his whole twenty-two-year life, his grandmother had been his savior, protector, shield, comforter, mother, father, playmate, and teacher. And now it looked like there actually was a monster outside his door, and its name was cancer. Now it appeared that monster was about to rip all he held dear away from him.
Lori waited on the bed, watching him. He could tell she was trying to gauge his reaction, to see if perhaps he would need a hug. Lori was the kind of nurse who was free with her hugs. A good woman. But right now, Hunter needed a moment to himself, and he told her that.
“Sure, sweetheart. Just don’t be too long.” She got up and paused at the door. “I don’t know how much time we have.” Sorrowfully she nodded, her lips coming together in a line indicating sympathy. She took her time leaving his room. Then he heard her quickened pace as she hurried down the long hallway to his nana’s bedroom.
Hunter didn’t know if he could do this. Part of him thought if he just stayed there in bed he could delay or prevent the inevitable. If he could only freeze time at this moment, he would never have to face a world without Nana in it. He shook his head and chastised himself for being weak. To every season, he thought, there is an end.
Feeling numb, Hunter roused himself from bed. He slid into the jeans and sweater he had left on the rocker by the window. He looked outside, where the inky darkness revealed nothing, a void. He knew Lake Michigan was out there, and in the morning it would reveal itself in aqua or gray, depending on the quality of light, but right now it seemed as though the huge body of water had vanished. The night’s darkness pressed against his windows like something palpable, aching to get inside.
Barefoot, he padded down the hall to his grandmother’s bedroom. Ever since he had lost his parents at the age of five, this had been his home, and suddenly the big old house seemed strange and unfamiliar to him, as if he were seeing it for the first time. There was the portrait of his father, painted when Daddy was sixteen, looking young and vibrant and not that much different from Hunter, the same smile and auburn hair. And there was the old Oriental rug, its pinks, blues, and grays faded, leading the way to the door to his grandmother’s bedroom, which yawned open. Hunter stood for a long while, staring at that doorway and breathing in the smell of sickness that emanated from the room. “Go,” he whispered.
He ducked into the room. Nana lay propped up on her old four-poster bed, the one she’d had since marrying Hunter’s grandfather about six decades ago. She looked small and shriveled, vulnerable and nearly lost among the pillows, blankets, and quilts that never could keep her quite warm, not once she took ill. Her hair looked like gray straw, and parts of her scalp peeked through. A few days ago, they had taken her off the IVs and the oxygen, knowing there was no hope. The medical detritus stood in a corner of the room, looking like defeated soldiers.
Lori stood near the bed. When she saw Hunter, she leaned down and whispered to Nana, whose eyes fluttered open at the sound of the nurse’s voice in her ear. Although she had not been really coherent for the past couple of weeks, a combination of the morphine she took to manage her pain and her own failing memory, her eyes brightened when she saw her grandson. She even managed a weak smile, which vanished almost as soon as it arrived, as if the effort to maintain it was just too much for the old woman.
It probably was.
Lori stepped away from the bed and donned a fleece jacket she had left on a chair nearby. She hugged herself and then said, “I’ll leave you two alone. I’m going to run downstairs and call Dr. Blackstock.” She squeezed Hunter’s shoulder as she left the room.
Hunter sat down beside his grandmother on her bed. “Nana?”
“Hunter,” Nana croaked, her voice only an echo of the vibrancy it once had. She tried to lift her hand to his face, and it appeared she didn’t have the strength, letting it drop back down to the bedding. She closed her eyes and swallowed. The latter action looked painful, and Nana winced.
“Don’t talk, Nana. If it hurts, don’t talk.” He picked up one of her withered hands and covered it with both of his, trying to impart some of his own warmth to the frail appendage, feeling now as if it had been made of parchment and bird bones.
She nodded, staring up at him. She licked her lips. “I just want to go to sleep now. I’m ready. Can you tell the nurse?”
“Sure.” Hunter smoothed her hair away from her forehead and leaned in close. He bit his lips, not wanting to cry in front of the old woman. What if she didn’t know this was the end? He couldn’t be so cruel as to reveal that to her. And even as he thought these things, he knew—deep in his heart—that Nana knew perfectly well what was happening.
“Sleep. That sounds good.”
Nana’s eyelids fluttered and closed. Hunter thought she had fallen asleep and simply sat with her for several minutes, holding her hand. Finally he thought maybe he should creep away, hoping against hope that this was not the final moment. Lori could have been wrong, after all.
But then Nana opened her eyes, and Hunter thought he should say what needed to be said while there was still time and before he gave in to the tears and sobs that were clamoring inside to get out. He gathered the old woman up in his arms and pulled her close. Placing his lips close to her ear, he thought for a moment, grasping for something profound to say, but finally decided on only this.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” Nana whispered. He released her and she slumped back against the pillows.
Hunter covered his mouth. Was she gone? But her eyes opened once more, only about half-mast, seeking him out even though his face was only inches from her own.
“Beaumont House,” she croaked.
“Beaumont House. Promise me you’ll burn it.”
“What are you talking about, Nana?”
The old woman simply shook her head, and he could see a spark in her blue eyes.
“Sure, Nana. Anything for you.”
The old woman closed her eyes, and a tremble coursed through her. She turned very pale, and then, as Hunter watched, color seeped back into her cheeks, almost rosy. Had she rallied?
But Hunter knew it was over. He bent to place a kiss on her forehead.
Downstairs the doorbell chimed. Nana’s doctor, Jay Blackstock, had arrived. Not that there was anything he could do now. He gazed down at her, touched her once more, then turned away.
In the hall he passed Lori bringing Dr. Jay Blackstock to his grandmother’s room. The three stopped to regard one another. The young man—who only the year before had replaced the doctor his grandmother had seen most of her life—had worry stamped on his dark features. He was only a bit older than Hunter himself, and Hunter had to wonder if he had seen many deaths yet in his new career. He felt a stab of pity for him.
Lori spoke. “Is she…?”
Hunter wondered where the calm he felt was coming from. Where were the tears? The anguish? Somehow, he thought, they waited patiently for him, gathering together in a round room with dim light, a kind of emotional way station. Hunter exchanged somber glances with both of them. “She just passed,” he said softly, biting his lower lip. He stared into the doctor’s brown eyes for a moment. “You’ll want to verify that, of course. But she’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry.” Lori Schmidbauer came toward him, arms outstretched.
Hunter stepped back, not ready yet for the comfort the older woman had to offer. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” He nodded and smiled but knew the smile for the lie it was, and he was certain Dr. Blackstock and his grandmother’s nurse did as well.
The doctor hurried into the bedroom, and Lori followed. She looked back at Hunter.
“I know. It’ll come.”
She turned and left him standing in the hallway. Purposely he did not glance into the bedroom, not wanting to see them hovering over his nana’s body. She wasn’t there anyway.
He hoped she was in a better place, free at last from the pain and agony of the last six months, free from invasive treatments and drugs that made her sick, most of all free from the beast that went by the name of cancer.
He returned to his bedroom, still feeling next to nothing. When he had imagined this moment coming, as he had over the course of Nana’s illness, he had envisioned hysterical sobbing, choking, a torrent of tears, reddened eyes, and difficulty breathing. When his grandfather had died, many years ago, Hunter had still been a child, and the loss really hadn’t registered. In a way it had been only Hunter and his Nana alone in the word for so long. And now he faced being completely alone in the world—no parents, no grandmother, no grandfather, no one. Nana had seen to it that he led a very sheltered life, and he knew her intentions were good. She wanted to protect him from a world that had murdered his parents.
He sat down heavily on the bed, as if drunk, although he had yet to experience that particular sensation firsthand. The bed itself was a mess, and Hunter realized he must have been thrashing around like a caged wild animal to do this much damage. Besides the sheets and pillows being damp from sweat, the fitted sheet had pulled away, revealing the striped ticking of the mattress below.
The nightmare images paraded through his mind, a macabre circus. The campground. Their tent pitched in the woods, where five-year-old Hunter had lain huddled inside a sleeping bag. The looks of terror on his parents’ faces. The screams. The struggling. Blackness. Dull morning light and his parents lying together, no longer alive, the gory ruins of their corpses….
Hunter gasped. No matter how hard he tried, he could not remember the actual event. Not really, not the details. He had only been five, and he knew shock could block or even erase horrible trauma. But over the years cops, psychologists, and even a professional hypnotist had tried to get him to remember details about the carnage. All to no avail. The memory, as far as Hunter was concerned, was gone.
The case had never been solved.
And Nana, God rest her soul, had never allowed mention of the slaughter in her house, not after the first few weeks, when the police and media had been relentless in pursuing the two of them in and out of Nana’s Evanston home. Nana, over the years, chose not to remember that she’d had a son and a daughter-in-law who had died. Hunter wondered, leaning back on the bed to lie flat and stare up at the ceiling, if she was in denial herself, or if it was all part of her master plan to shield her grandson from further grief and horror.
Whatever it was, she had held Hunter away from the world. He had never seen the inside of a school. Nana had arranged for a succession of private tutors to come to their house. Hunter had never been allowed to play outside unsupervised. Nana had tried to make up for it by being Hunter’s best friend and lavishing him with expensive toys, electronics, and carefully guided tours of world capitols.
And now Hunter was alone. Really, truly alone. And with his grief and despair at the loss of his grandmother held temporarily—he thought—at bay by shock, he had the luxury of wondering just what the hell he would do now.
He was twenty-two years old and—he supposed—rich, an heir to a fortune once made from something as fragile and insubstantial as paper.
The world was his. He thought of a cliché: the world was his oyster. He could do anything. Travel. Go to college. Work. Engage in long overdue rebellion and fall headfirst into hedonism.
He shook his head, and the first tears coursed out of the corners of his eyes to dribble down his face and run into his ears. He sat up and wiped them away. He didn’t know what he would do. He had no idea what he was good for or good at. He didn’t even know what he wanted. He glanced at the window, where the sky was just beginning to lighten, a band of pink at the horizon. The first day without Nana was beginning. The world out there was not his oyster; it was an enigma.
There was a gentle rap, once, twice, at his closed bedroom door. Thinking Lori had come by once again to see if he was ready for a hug or some words of condolence, he said simply, “Come in.”
Dr. Blackstock entered. Hunter noticed for the first time—and he thought how inappropriate this was—how handsome the doctor was, with curly black hair cropped short, an olive complexion, and the darkest eyes. His whole look was Mediterranean, belying the white-bread Blackstock name.
He smiled at Hunter and took only a step or two into the room. “I just wanted to say I was sorry.” The doctor chewed on a corner of his lip, glancing rapidly from Hunter on the bed back out into the hallway. Hunter was touched by the anxiety and overcome by the desire to offer sympathy.
“I appreciate that. Lori has all the information about, um, final details, so if you’d just take care of….” And Hunter hunched over, the onslaught of tears taking him completely by surprise. The grief hit him like a physical blow. It was a sneak attack; he didn’t have any time to prepare.
Dr. Blackstock laid a hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
Hunter thought that statement was easy for the doctor to say.
What would he do now?
HUNTER AWAKENED to bright sunlight streaming into the room. Last night he’d thought he would never sleep, but Dr. Blackstock had given him an Ambien, and it knocked him right out. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and saw it was nearly noon.
Outside, the sun was shining in a pure, unadulterated-by-a-single-cloud sky. Hunter got up and stared out his window at the back lawn of the house, a pristine expanse of green leading down to their private beach. Beyond the sand and pebbles stretched Lake Michigan, an expanse of aquamarine that appeared almost tropical. The day seemed out of sorts with what had just happened, as if the sky should be heavy with storm clouds and the lake should be a roiling mass of muddy waters in deference to Nana’s passing.
Hunter sat down on the window seat and stared out at the day, wondering once more what he would do with himself now that the foundation of his whole life had been knocked out from under him.