“He left me a house?” Summer stared at the solid silver container holding her father’s remains. She’d always pictured someone’s ashes preserved in a fancy urn. Something sculpted or carved, meaningful and dignified. Instead, Hope Memorial Services, following Ronald Thompson’s wishes, had sealed his remains in a six-by-eight-inch metal box, which now sat in the center of Joe Bernstein’s desk. “The McCready estate, yes,” the lawyer said. “Although calling it a house might be…” He stopped and cleared his throat. “A stretch of the imagination?” Summer was surprised the thing still stood. Kids in town had always called the place haunted and avoided it on their way to school. Teenagers broke into it, leaving behind empty beer cans and used condoms. Adults mostly ignored it, driving by its thick hedgerow without so much as a glance at the craggy black rooftop. Now she owned it? “Well, yes. He didn’t do much work on it. He had a lot of plans, though.” “This doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t lived here since—” She stopped. Summer hadn’t spoken to her father in ages. She’d never imagined he owned anything more than the clothes on his back. “Why would he leave me a house?” The lawyer didn’t answer. She blinked a few times, then shook her head. “Well, obviously I’ll sell it.” She’d left Whispering Pines ten years ago. She wouldn’t have any reason to stay once she put her father’s affairs to rest. She smoothed her suit jacket and brushed the edge of the engraved business card holder deep in her pocket. Summer Thompson, Chief Curator, Bay City Museum of History. Knowing the words were there, close to her skin, brought some comfort. She could do this. She could go through her father’s affairs and spend a few days in her hometown. Then she’d hop a plane back to San Francisco and be done with it all. Within the museum walls, her world made sense. She could return to the business of cataloging other people’s lives and studying long-gone civilizations. She could organize press conferences, plan exhibit openings, and design educational seminars for local schoolchildren. Outside those walls? She lost her voice. She lost her grip. Amnesia had created a world where Summer couldn’t puzzle together the last decade of her own life. Even this meeting was a kind of surreal, underwater dream. She could barely say the word father, because Ronald Thompson hadn’t been one to her in almost a decade. She mourned his death, in a detached sort of way, but she hadn’t spoken to him in years. All the plans and details his lawyer had laid out for her meant little. She didn’t belong in Whispering Pines anymore, and she wasn’t about to open old wounds by staying any longer than she had to. She took another look at the papers on the table. “You’re absolutely sure he owned the McCready estate? Free and clear?” She almost expected a cameraman to jump out from behind a door and tell her she was the star of a joke reality show. “I did all the paperwork for him when he bought it.” Summer refrained from asking when that had been. I would’ve come back. Maybe. If he’d asked me just once. But he hadn’t. “You might want to take a look at the place before you make any decisions,” Joe went on. “I know what you think. It’s always been a mess. Deserted since before any of us can recall. But it’s beautiful, despite being, well, a little worse for wear. Your father had vision.” Your father. Her lips pressed together, and her heart ached despite her resolve to remain cool and collected. It could have been different. But he hadn’t wanted it to be. “Summer?” “I’ll drive out this afternoon,” she said as pulled out her cell phone to check her messages. “But I can tell you already, I won’t be keeping the house.” She couldn’t imagine what it looked like inside. Even in good condition, it would be ten times bigger than she needed. And she’d never live in Whispering Pines again. Too many ghosts here. Too much heartache. “Can you give me the name of a couple local realtors?” Joe tapped his fingers on the table. “Of course.” He paused for a moment. “If you do decide to sell, there’s something you should know.” His cautious tone made her lower the phone to her lap. “What is it?” “There’s an old farmhouse on the back acre of the property that your father rented out. A family’s been living there for a couple of years now.” She glanced out the window to the mountains that framed the small town. “So if I sell it, farmhouse and all, I’m a schmuck who’s throwing someone out of their home.” “You could never be a schmuck. I just wanted you to know.” She pulled at her bottom lip. “Could I sell it with some kind of contingency? Let the renters stay on?” “I’m sure you could talk to the realtor about that. Might make it harder to find a buyer, though. I know you want to get this taken care of...” He cleared his throat again. “...as soon as possible.” Summer shifted in her chair. Ten years since the accident. Ten years of memories she couldn't put together, of friendships neglected, of loss she’d tried to forget. As soon as possible was preferable, yes. “Mac Herbert’s doing the repairs on the house,” Joe added. “You remember him? Went to high school around the same time as you.” She nodded. “He’s got a new guy in town helping him out. Well, not new, exactly. He’s been here for a couple of years. Damian Knight. He’s the one renting the farmhouse.” “They’re still working on it?” “Your father paid them through the end of the summer. He left a checking account to cover the costs.” Joe reached over and squeezed her hand. He still wore the thick gold ring she remembered as a child, encrusted with his initials and those of Yale Law School. “Sweetheart, you don’t have to rush. Take some time to think things through. To process everything.” He paused. “I’m worried about you, rushing in and out and…well, you need to mourn.” But she didn’t need time. She needed to move on, the same way she had years ago. Summer slipped her purse over her shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” The manila envelope went into her briefcase. She adjusted the clip holding her dark blonde hair away from her face, then tucked the box of ashes under one arm. He tented his fingers together. “How long are you staying?” “A few days. I’ll go look at the house now and start the process of listing it tomorrow. I can’t stay any longer than a week, either way. I have a return plane ticket booked.” She had museum exhibits coming in. A fundraising meeting the following Tuesday, and an interview with the local paper the Thursday after that. The Bay City Museum had a full-time staff of four and a handful of volunteers that ran it in her absence. Summer couldn’t put the rest of her life on hold just because her father had died. “You’ll call me before you leave?” “I will.” She stopped with one hand on the door. “You know I’m too old for you to worry about, right?” The sixty-five year-old rose, all knees and elbows inside a navy suit that hung loose on his angular frame. “Never. Your father would want me to.” My father is dead. She squared her shoulders. And I don’t feel any sadder today than I did all those years ago when he sent me away from Whispering Pines. For a moment, an eighteen-year-old with flyaway hair, bright blue eyes and a stomach full of grief reared up in her memory. “I’ll call you later,” she said and waved goodbye. “Take care, then.” Summer paused just outside the law office. In the distance rose Sunrise Mountain, the highest peak of all those that surrounded the town. Once upon a time, she’d loved looking up at it. Now it seemed ominous, as if pressing down on the tiny town at its base. She sighed. She didn’t really want to walk down Whispering Pines’s Main Street to the corner lot where she’d parked her rental car. She didn’t want to see the silhouette of the high school, or trip on the cracked sidewalk by Evie’s Parlor where the tree roots always came up, or pass by the Corner Sweet Shoppe where she’d spent so many afternoons over hot fudge sundaes. But neither could she stay here, talking about a man she’d said goodbye to long before he actually left this earth. Outside, the sunlight might blind her enough to keep the ghosts from taking up residence inside her head again. She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. The McCready house sat only a few miles away. She might as well drive across town right now and see what she was dealing with. She squared her shoulders and put on her sunglasses. “Let’s go get this over with.”
Eight miles away, Damian Knight and Mac Herbert stood on the front porch of the McCready estate, holding ice-cold bottles of water and looking out across the lawn. Mac took a long drink of water and glanced at his phone. “Summer Thompson’s coming over to check out the place. Ron’s lawyer just texted me.” Damian leaned against the porch railing and took a long drink of his own. “Guess you owe me twenty bucks, then.” “Guess so. You called it right.” “I knew she would. No one would be able to sell a place without even lookin’ at it.” Damian stuck his hammer into his tool belt, slung low across his waist. “So what’s she like?” He’d met her father only a couple of times. Nice guy, but solemn and tight-lipped. He wondered if the daughter would be the same. “Summer?” Mac shrugged. “It’s been a long time.” “Not that long. And this town isn’t that big. C’mon. The two of you probably went to homecoming or prom together.” Mac grinned. “Nope, never. Summer was too good for me. She was a couple years behind me in school, anyway. We didn’t cross paths much.” He cocked his head. “But she was cute back then, from what I remember.” “Yeah?” “Kept to herself a lot, but yeah. One of those smart types who’s good-lookin’ but doesn’t know it. Great body, cute face… Hey, quit hogging the chips.” He grabbed an open bag from beside Damian and dumped the crumbs into his mouth. “Why’d she leave town? California’s a long way from here.” Mac busied himself with collecting empty soda cans from lunch and tossing them into a cardboard box. “You didn’t hear?” Damian shook his head. “Her little brother died in a car accident right after she graduated from high school. Summer’s boyfriend at the time was driving.” He shook his head. “Terrible thing. Her father sent her off to live with an aunt somewhere near Chicago. I think he figured she’d be better off away from it all, but some people thought he blamed her for what happened. She never came back after that. Don’t know how she ended up on the west coast. College, maybe.” Damian whistled. “That’s pretty rough. No mom around?” “I think she died when Summer was young.” Mac stood with a grunt, one hand on his lower back. “Be too bad if she decides to sell this place, huh? You know that house of yours is part of this property.” Damian dug one heel into the ground. Of course he knew. The farmhouse was a rental, because they didn’t have the money to buy a place outright. They never had. And his mother had just finished decorating it the way she liked. “Maybe she’ll divide the property and sell the farmhouse to you.” “Yeah. Sure.” And maybe pigs would get up on their hind legs and dance. “Sorry, man.” Mac clapped a hand onto Damian’s shoulder. “Not a done deal, though. Talk to her when she gets here, face to face. If it doesn’t work out, I got a cousin with a couple of rental places over in Silver Valley. You want his number, let me know.” Damian nodded without answering. He glanced over his shoulder at the mountains that rose just beyond the roofline of the McCready house. About fifty miles west of the New York-Massachusetts border, Whispering Pines sat at the base of the Adirondack Mountains. To most travelers, it was only an exit off the interstate, a stop halfway between Albany and Syracuse where you could get some gas or a burger before continuing on to more interesting destinations. It had a movie theater, a grocery store, a school, and a handful of bars. Slow pace, sure, but the people were nice enough. Actually, Damian thought, the people were more than nice. Whispering Pines got too much snow in the winter and not enough sun in the summer. It wouldn’t ever appear in a magazine spread of the country’s most glamorous vacation spots, though Sunrise Mountain was pretty amazing to look at, especially on mornings that gave the peak its name. And the five thousand residents who made their blue-collar lives here were steady and strong, cut from good cloth. They helped each other out, and they didn’t talk much behind each other’s backs. Damian’s hand tightened on his tool belt. This town had given his mother and sister a place to escape, a chance for a new life, and for that he was eternally grateful. Summer Thompson couldn’t sell the farmhouse. She couldn’t pull the ground out from under them, not after everything they’d been through. He would do everything in his power to make sure that didn’t happen.
Summer turned onto Main Street. Fifteen years ago, Whispering Pines had installed its first and only traffic light out by the school. Now she could see they’d added another, just past the center of town. Slowing for the red, she braked and looked around. A few changes, not many. The town had a few new stores, the roads were in better shape, and the city limits reached out a little farther, but not much else had changed. In the distance she caught a glimpse of a new housing development dotting what she remembered as farmland with paved roads and sprawling homes. The light changed, and a pickup truck behind her tooted twice. Raising her hand in acknowledgement, Summer squinted into the rearview mirror. Sure enough, she recognized the face at the wheel of the blue Dodge Ram. Back in high school, Billy Watkins had been the leader of a group of kids who skipped every class except gym and lunch and spent their days smoking out by the baseball fields. True to form, the Billy of today clenched a cigarette in his teeth and puffed with a vengeance as he turned the wheel and headed away from her. She readjusted clammy hands on the steering wheel and wondered who else she’d see. She hadn’t left any close friends behind except Rachael Hunter. Everything and everyone else had faded over the years. But as she headed down Main Street and neared Whispering Pines Central School, memories flashed inside her head. A wide, white smile. Broad shoulders that filled out a football jersey. A laugh that turned heads. With little effort, she could almost see Gabe Roberts again—eighteen and handsome enough to bring a lump to her throat. Bare skin against hers. Lips murmuring promises into her neck. And then. His voice, strained and panicked. His hand tugging at hers. Shrieking tires and metal thundering against metal. Moonlight and blood and then, finally, darkness. Gabe had been there the night everything changed. Summer’s jaw snapped shut and she bit the inside of her cheek. Stop thinking about it. It happened forever ago. She couldn’t get lost in those memories. Nothing good could come of it. She turned from Main Street onto Red Barn Road. Here the houses spread farther apart and the sidewalks vanished. Another mile, and a handful of enormous old homes lined the road. Some had been renovated. Most were falling down. At the turn of the last century, they’d belonged to wealthy families from New York City, vacation homes for those who couldn’t quite afford Newport or Nantucket. But they’d been empty for years. Why on earth did you buy one of them, Dad? Beyond that, why had he left it to her? He couldn’t have expected her to return. And from what she’d heard, his cancer had taken root firmly and progressed steadily, so he couldn’t have thought he had years left to live. She took a deep breath as a wall of thick green shrubbery rose up. Spires shot into the air above the trees, and a lump grew in her throat. She didn’t want to see it. She surely didn’t want to own it. But as if someone else were guiding her, she put the car into park and slipped off her sunglasses. There stood the McCready house: terrifying, monstrous, and all hers.