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Excerpt

Excerpt

Amber House

Chapter One

I was almost sixteen the first time my grandmother died.

It was mid-October. Warm still, like summer, but the trees were wearing their scarlets and golds. Back home, in Seattle, we had evergreens and faded browns. Those absurdly vivid colors along the banks of the Severn River were the first thing I fell in love with — autumn the way it was intended.

It’s hard, now, to remember that first day, like looking at a photo underwater — the image shifting, in motion, never quite in focus. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t forget. And it’s important to tap into that part, to will myself to remember. Sometimes, if I really
concentrate, the memories come flooding back. All of them. Beginning to end. Then back again to the beginning. A full circle.

It started at the funeral. We were standing on the hill just west of the house, inside an iron fence filled with tombstones. Everyone in my grandmother’s family had been buried in that graveyard, all the way back to the first immigrants. Gramma had picked out a plot for herself when she was still a little girl. Which gives you some idea about my grandmother’s family and their morbid obsessions.

It was one of the few conversations I’d had with my grandmother that I actually remembered. I was nearly six at the time. She told me about her chosen resting place and then said, cheerfully, “One day, you’ll be buried there too.” I’d burst into tears.

Ten years later, I found myself clustered with a few dozen strangers on the exact spot Gramma had described to me, beneath the living half of a skeletal tree blasted by catastrophe long ago. The new slab of marble that stood in its shade, waiting to be moved into place, read simply, IDA WARREN MCGUINNESS ~ AT LONG LAST REUNITED. We stood in ranks beside the open grave like starlings on an electric wire, listening to the priest remind us there was indeed a “time for everything under the sun.” One old woman dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, sniffing loudly. The rest of the group seemed frozen, including my mother. Dad tried to take her hand at one point, but she pretended not to see. Her eyes were focused on something in the distance.

Sammy, my five-year-old brother, was playing hide-and-seek among the headstones — humming the same six notes he always did — and I thought fleetingly of joining him. I guess that sounds like I didn’t have proper respect for the dead. But I’d hardly known my grandmother — I could count the number of times she’d visited us on one hand. And we’d never been to see her here. My mother had always treated Gramma more like a distant acquaintance than a family member. So it was a little hard for me to get caught up in the proceedings.

I felt bad that I didn’t feel bad.

Up the hill a bit, apart from the group, there appeared to be a father-son pair, both blond, bronzed, and sculpted, in matching black suits. I noticed a few of the other mourners covertly pointing them out to one another, and I wondered who they were.

Closer by, on the other side of the rectangular hole punched neatly in the ground, my grandmother’s nurse, Rose Valois,stood
with her teenaged grandson, he a full head taller than she. They were the only two dark faces in a crowd of pretty-much-uniform
wrinkled, pasty white. When I glanced at them, the boy looked away, like he’d been caught staring.

My cheeks flushed. I tugged self-consciously at the suitcase rumpled black sweater my best friend, Jecie, had lent me to wear over an old white blouse. Everything I had on was mismatched and ill fitting — humiliating enough in front of my grandmother’s friends, but it sure would’ve been nice if my mother had warned
me a couple of guys my age might be attending.

Mrs. Valois’s grandson glanced back at me. His eyebrows lifted. Now I was the one who was staring.

I forced my attention elsewhere, beyond the fenced-in cemetery. To the fields baked golden. The trees lifting their heads above the bluff from their places along the banks of the river. The distant house crouched behind the thick border of gardens.

Waiting, I thought. And shivered involuntarily.

The morning air spoke to me. A breeze blew my hair into my face, whispering in my ear. The woods gossiped in hushed voices. Fallen leaves skittered across the ground like furtive animals. I heard an echo of voices, perhaps rising from some boaters on the river.

Sammy and I were the only ones who seemed to notice.

Following the service, the group massed together and headed to
the house. All except the father-son pair — I saw them down on the driveway, climbing into a black SUV. I wished I’d gotten a better look at the younger one.

I slipped past the rest of the mourners, scooting out the gate and down the hill, putting some distance between me and the crowd. I wanted to be the first through the door of the family home I had heard about but never seen.

It was one of those places that actually had a name — Amber House. It’d been started in the 1600s as a stone-and-log cabin and had grown a little with every generation, almost like a living
thing. Thrust out a wing of brick, heaved up a second story and a third, bellied forward with a new entry, sprouted dormers and gables and balconies. The house was mostly white clapboard trimmed in green, with lots of small-paned windows, and chimneys here and there. Which sounds messy, maybe, but wasn’t. Everything came together into this beautiful whole. All of one
piece.

At the entrance, I turned the brass knob, the metal flesh-warm in my hand. With a little push, the door swung smoothly open.

Shadows pooled inside, cool and deep. The air was dust-heavy and silent, empty. I saw a sweep of golden floor, thick Persian rugs, a staircase climbing and turning. Antique tables, chairs, lamps. Oil portraits hanging among folk art of all kinds. I knew without being told that generations of others had lived in this place, and had touched and used and looked upon these same things. It felt somber. Like a place where something was meant
to happen. Like entering a church.

Then the crowd caught up with me, dammed into a pool on the front steps by the dumb girl rudely blocking the door, her mouth dropped into a small O.

“You’re in the way, Sarah,” my mother observed.

I pressed my lips together and stepped to the side.

My mother glided in — a black swan leading that flock of black-coated women. She did not look suitcase-frumpy. Even though we’d basically come straight from the airport, not a single wrinkle betrayed the sleek lines of her charcoal suit. She turned and positioned herself to greet the mourners, with maybe the smallest hint of a gracious-but-sad smile shaping her lips. Her guests shuffled past, pressing her hand, seeming a little baffled by her cold composure. They all stared around them at the house, commenting in low voices, sorting themselves into the
rooms that opened off the entryway. Most went through the second door on the left, where the unmistakable clink of china and silverware announced the location of whatever food was being served.

For a moment, I regretted that I hadn’t beaten the crowd to the lunch. My stomach was making those embarrassing empty noises. But I wasn’t hungry enough to wait in a line with twenty white-haired ladies exuding a toxic cloud of Chanel No. 5. So when I saw Sammy scuttling past, I set off after him — my halfhearted attempt to delay the inevitable moment when he would turn up missing, and I would be sent to find him.

He must have sensed I was on his tail, because he doubled his pace. He led me into the living room and the library beyond that, and then through a door to a glassed-in gallery with two archways opening to other wings of the house, closed and unlit.

“Sam!” I hissed as unnoticeably as I could, speed walking behind him. “Sam. Wait up.”

Without slowing, he veered left into the entry again. I next spotted him climbing the stairs. I followed him up, all the while trying to look at everything, trying to take in details. The eightfoot grandfather clock in the bend of the stairs, stopped at 10:37. The posts in the railing, each one different from the rest. The faces of every step, painted with a bible scene. A frame on the wall, covered in black cloth.

The stairs ended on a long landing, where a compass rose was inlaid in the varnished boards of the floor, as if a map was needed to navigate the house. I stood with my hand on the carved newel and looked in all directions. To the north was a wall of windows. South, the long railing overlooking the entry hall. To both the east and west, portals to halls that led off into gloom.

In the western wing, I glimpsed a shadow among the shadows.
The back of a stray guest, just standing there, motionless.
I wondered why she would be upstairs, nosing around by
herself.

“Excuse me?” I called to her. “Are you looking for someone?”

Without a word, without turning, she walked away from me.

“All right, then,” I said, mock cheerfully. What was I? Invisible? “Hey,” I called again, “ma’am? ”

She passed through a doorway out of sight.

A little offended at being ignored, I went after her. But stopped after a few steps, and stood there, wavering. Unwilling, unable, to go farther. And just completely surprised at my reluctance.

I shrugged. Shook my head. Let her snoop around. What did I care, really? After all, it wasn’t my house.

I heard Sammy then, before I saw him, materializing out of the shadows in the eastern hall. He ducked through a door. Forgetting about the nosy guest, I started after him again. He’d found a boy’s bedroom completely filled with nautical things — brass lamps, whaling paintings, a harpoon leaning in the corner. All of it orderly and dust free, but I could feel, when I entered, the biding stillness of the room’s disuse.

Sammy was pushing himself in circles in a swivel chair before a desk. The mechanism made small, unpleasant shrieks.

Movement on the floor. “Spider,” I informed him, and lifted my foot to smash it.

“Don’t,” he shrilled, and I hesitated just long enough for it to scurry under a slant-front desk.

“Gross,” I said. “Why’d you stop me? ”

“She’s a good mother. She lives here,” Sam said reasonably.

I sighed and shrugged. Another new nut-job notion Sam had got in his head. Whatever. “Listen,” I said, trying to summon some older-sister authority, “we’re not supposed to be up here, bud.”

He jumped down easily enough. “Okay.” I saw he was clutching some old stuffed animal.

“Put it back, Sammy.”

“This is Heavy Bear. He’s mine now. She don’t need him
anymore.”

I grabbed for the bear and missed. Like a pro, Sammy twisted around me, reached the hall, and was off and running. I shot after him. “Put it back!”

“Nope!” he shouted over his shoulder, as his head disappeared
down the stairs.

“Sam!” I hissed as I crested the landing — to find a sea of faces looking up at me, slightly aghast. I stopped short, flushing, and decided I was not going to make Sam my problem any longer. Holding my head as high as I could, I floated serenely down the stairs. Then I went to work, mingling. Listening.

My dad always told me that eavesdropping was a bad habit of mine. But it was really more like an instinct. Maybe it wasn’t entirely ethical, but I wouldn’t have learned what little I knew about the important stuff in life if I didn’t eavesdrop every once
in a while.

Mostly, the people around me were talking about my grandmother, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do at a funeral. “Such a sensitive soul,” one old woman told another. “I don’t think she ever recovered from the tragedy.”

I jotted that in my mental notebook — tragedy — and went
back to listening.

Some people talked about the house, as if they had been invited to a guided tour instead of a funeral. “Oldest home in the state, you know; I’m told the antiques are all family heirlooms and priceless.”

“Well, even so, Meredith wouldn’t come today — says she hasn’t set a foot in this house since she was twelve and saw something in the nursery —”

The last speaker spotted me listening to her and gave me a funny look. I smiled at her sweetly, and wandered on.

“I heard her liver failed, but with all poor Ida suffered, it was
no wonder she drank.”

Drank, I noted, and thought, That explains a few things.

“They say insanity runs in this family — did you see the little boy?”

I spun around at that, my hands reflexively shaping fists, but before I could open my mouth, my father put his arm over my shoulders and faced me back the other direction. “Stop eavesdropping.” He leaned in to whisper to me. “Sometimes you hear things you don’t want to hear.”

I glanced back and had the satisfaction of seeing red stain the woman’s cheeks as she watched me being pulled away. Dad gave me a tiny, tired smile and squeezed my shoulders before letting me go.

I turned my attention to the faces in the portraits of my ancestors. Mom didn’t know I knew, but I’d overheard her talking on the phone, making plans to dispose of my grandmother’s things through the best auction house on the East Coast. She seemed
like she was in a hurry to get rid of it all and be done with Amber
House. Not that I cared. Why someone would want a portrait of
some long-dead stranger was beyond me.

But these faces were family. Maybe, I thought, I ought to take
a look
.

The newest portrait was of Gramma. I recognized her straightaway. A lovely young blonde, about twenty. It looked like she was hanging in someone else’s spot, because there was a slightly larger rectangle of lighter-colored wallpaper all around the painting. I wondered who had been booted to cheaper real estate.

The oldest portraits were a time-darkened pair over the front table in the entry — a pretty good-looking man and woman, if you could
get past the primitive paint job. He had dark hair and dark eyes, with an interesting scar running along his cheekbone. She was auburn haired, with a widow’s peak, and eyes that seemed too big for her face. Hanging beside them, another blackdraped frame, like the one on the stairs. I realized there had been a draped frame in the nautical room too. I lifted the corner of the cloth. It turned out to be a mirror. Someone must have covered all the mirrors.

“Sam? ”

That voice belonged to my mom, remembering all of a sudden that she was a mom, and was therefore supposed to keep track of her child. If she spotted me, she’d ask me to do the track keeping. And I’d already done enough of that for the moment.

I dodged into the gallery behind the stairs. To my left was a long hall leading to closed, tall double doors. To my right, a second hall that took a bend out of sight. But instead of following my impulse to explore, I pushed through a swinging door just behind, to my left. The kitchen.

Where Mrs. Valois and her grandson turned to stare at me.

I couldn’t think why I had come in here. I made my mouth work. “Oh,” I said, backing out. “Sorry.”

“Did you need —” Mrs. Valois started, but her grandson interrupted her.

“Would you like to sit down, Sarah? ”

I stopped, startled and bemused by the invitation — in part because his voice sounded more combative than inviting. Had I done something to offend this guy? Was he trying to scare me off?

That last notion decided me. I walked to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat. I looked him in the eye and said, “You know my name? ”

He held my gaze, unflinching. “Your grandmother used to
talk about you.”

Gramma talked about me? When we hadn’t met a half-dozen times my whole life? I shook my head a little. “That’s kinda hard to believe. She hardly knew me.”

And instantly regretted it. I mean, what was I doing? Calling him a liar?

It didn’t seem to faze him. He said, coolly, “Would you like something to drink? ”

Mrs. Valois shot him a look, as if to ask why he was prolonging this uncomfortable conversation, but turned to me. “Can I get you a soda? ”

He corrected her. “I bet Sarah would like one of those cherry Cokes from the stash at the back of the fridge.” Then he smiled, just at the corners, and his eyebrows lifted. As if he was proving a point. As if he was daring me to contradict him.

And okay, so how did he know that? Had Gramma mentioned that too? How would she have known?

“Yeah,” I agreed reluctantly. “A cherry Coke would be great.”

Mrs. Valois went to the huge refrigerator — the only modern thing, it seemed, in the entire house. As she rummaged through its contents, I sized up this boy in front of me.

He was about my age, I guessed. This close, I could see he was
scarred — it looked like he had been badly burned when he was younger. At his left shirt cuff, and up above his collar, a shiny white web of lines and patches spread across the dark brown of his skin. The scars ran up his neck and over his chin to just under his cheekbone. High cheekbones. Slightly almond-shaped green
eyes. Looking into mine, watching me. I forced my attention to his hands — large and square, with long fingers. I’d always thought you could tell a lot about a person by his hands. Maybe because I admired my father’s: a surgeon’s hands, full of skill and intelligence. This boy’s hands were like my father’s.

As I stared, his right hand slipped to the cuff of his left sleeve and tugged it lower, over the scars. Mentally, I kicked myself again. I had a real talent for being thoughtless sometimes.

Mrs. Valois came back with the soda. Bottled in glass, no less. The boy took it, loosened the cap, and held it out to me.

“My favorite,” I said, giving him the win. “Thanks.”

“Your grandmother’s favorite too,” he said.

I took a few sips, wondering if a taste for sweet, syrupy soft drinks could be inherited. Nobody was talking. The boy continued to watch me, not rudely, just intently, like he was waiting for a conversation that had paused to begin again.

“I’m sorry,” I offered finally, “I don’t know your name.”

He shook his head the slightest bit, like he couldn’t believe it. Sorry, but Gramma never talked about you.

“I’m Jackson,” he said.

“Nice to meet you.” I nodded to include his grandmother. “Both.”

That seemed to startle Mrs. Valois into motion. “Likewise,” she said, “but I got to check on the food, clear away some dishes —”

“Oh,” I said, starting to rise. “I could help you, Mrs. Valois.”

“No, stay, sit,” she said shortly.

Jackson nodded. “Take a break from the old birds out there —”

“Watch who you’re calling old, young man.” She started out the door, but turned back. “And while we’re on the subject, Sarah, just call me Rose. Having someone call me ‘Mrs. Valois’ makes me feel every minute of my years. Anyone over the age of thirty’s just a step from the grave for you kids. . . .” The door swung shut behind her.

It was evidently my turn to talk again. “Why’s your grandmother doing all this work?” I asked. “I thought she was Gramma’s nurse.”

“Nah, not really. Gran’s retired. She worked intensive care up in Baltimore for twenty years. She was just helping Ida out with the nursing thing. They were best friends most of their lives. She put this wake together out of respect.”

“Oh. Well. Jeez,” I said. “They must have been really good friends — did you see the spread on that dining table? ”

He was amused by that. “Gran never does anything halfway. And she likes to cook.”

“I hope there’s some left over. Looked really good. Think I could
pack some up to take back to the hotel? ”

That startled him. “You aren’t staying? ”

“Here? ” I said. “No. Not even tonight. Mom hates this place. She’s selling it.”

He looked down to hide it, but I saw shock on his face. And I thought, Brilliant again, Sarah. Didn’t Mom say they live on the property? She’s probably selling it right out from under them. What could I say? “I’m sorry.”

He leaned back, his face composed. “I’m just — surprised. A place like this — you don’t expect someone to sell it to strangers.”

I shrugged a little. “I guess.”

His turn to shrug. “Well, too bad you’re not staying. I was hoping you and I —” He broke off, and I waited, wondering how that sentence was supposed to be completed. He looked uncomfortable.

“Hoping,” he said, finally, his voice dropping, so that I had to lean in a little, “we could find the treasure.”

Didn’t see that one coming.

Mrs. Valois — Rose — came backing through the swinging door just then, her arms full of dishes. I jumped and whirled around, and my arm knocked into the Coke bottle, pushing it off the table edge. Jackson’s hand caught it in midair, before it spilled more than a drop. My eyes widened. Those were fast reflexes.

“Getting crumbs everywhere,” Rose grumbled from across the room. “Gonna have cockroaches living in the sofa.” She unloaded the dishes into the sink. “None of them loved her. Why don’t they all just go home? ”

She pushed back out the swinging door and was gone again.

Jackson put the bottle back on the table, seeming embarrassed, not cocky like you’d expect a boy to be. But I was still focused on what he’d just said.

“Treasure,” I whispered. “You’re kidding, right? ”

“What,” he said, “you never heard about the Captain’s lost diamonds? Everybody around here knows about them. I always wanted to search for them.”

“So? Search. What d’you need me for? ”

“Are you kidding? It’s your house. I can’t do it without you.”

“Sounds to me like an urban legend. Sounds like it would probably be a pretty big waste of time.”

“Sounds to me like a full ride at Johns Hopkins, if we find them.”

“You going to Hopkins? ” I was impressed.

“That’s the plan, yeah. But it costs just a little more than Gran’s got stuffed in her mattress. I say it’s worth a look around.”

I was ready to tell him no — the whole thing was ridiculous. If there was some lost stash of diamonds, why hadn’t my grandmother found it? And if she hadn’t, how would we? When would we even look for it? Where would we look for it?

And yet, it would suck if Mom sold the house and somebody else turned around and stumbled over a chest full of diamonds. And just imagine if the whole thing turned out to be true. Just imagine the look on my mother’s face when I handed her a fistful of diamonds from this place she hated — A gift from Gramma, I could say. It might be worth a look around. For a couple days, anyway.

“Maybe,” I said, lifting my shoulders.

He nodded, satisfied, like he’d expected me to say that. And I realized I was getting a little tired of feeling like he knew me a whole lot better than I knew him. Gramma shouldn’t have talked
so much about me.

“All right,” I said abruptly. I stood. “I better get started looking for my brother. A place this big, I might die of old age before I run into him.”

“Hide-and-seek.”

“What? ” I frowned a little, startled.

“Hide-and-seek? A children’s game? One little kids play? ”

I didn’t like it. It was disturbing. Gramma couldn’t have told him that Sam and I —

But then I felt stupid. It was just an idle comment. He didn’t mean anything by it. He didn’t know about Sammy and me. Not even my mother knew about Sammy and me.

I nodded and left without another word.

Amber House
by by Kelly Moore, Larkin Reed, and Tucker Reed

  • Genres: Horror
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545434173
  • ISBN-13: 9780545434171