The bird was dead, all right. Frozen stiff. Hanging upside down from the porch lantern like a gutted cuckoo clock. I knocked again, breath fogging the air. Was I at the right place? Shadows from the forest clawed the overhang, and the wind moaned through the floorboards. The poor thing’s eyes seemed to reanimate beneath the flickering bulb. I cinched my scarf. The brochure failed to mention such charming décor.
“Still dead, no matter how long you stare,” the door hissed.
I jumped, nearly tripping over a flowerpot. A wedge of orange fell over the welcome mat, illuminating its lettering: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
“Skittish, are we?” The old caretaker regarded me as though I’d come to collect his soul. Superstitions did clump thicker than peat in the north country.
“No,” I cleared my throat, “caught me off guard.”
He hmphed. “You’re late.”
“I know, I’m sorry—”
The screen door slammed shut. Mouth ajar, adrenaline-fueled anger flamed my chest. I drove eight hours on twisty roads and got lost twice for this?
“Unless you wanna join your feathered friend and freeze to death, follow me.” He limped off, cane cracking.
“Nice to meet you too.” I kicked—harder than necessary—the heavy, inner door, grabbed my suitcases, and squeezed through. Dim as the porch, the foyer was a crowded maze of dusty trinkets and books haphazardly hanging from their shelves. But it was warm, and roasted meat and veggies stewed the air, lifting my spirits.
The cane knocked against the wall. “Hurry up. Don’t recommend getting lost.”
Too hungry and agitated to rise to his scare tactics, I fought the urge to kindly tell him to piss off. A lantern buzzed in the cramped hallway, casting glimpses of paintings that mosaiced the wall. Every frame featured a different bird, but all hung upside down from the same lantern on the same porch with the same dead eyes, staring right through me. Listed as Aviary Manor, my mind had connoted something a tad different when I reserved my room.
“Here we are.” McCranky splayed open the room’s door with his cane. “The Marigold Suite.”
Going with the theme, I half expected dead flowers to droop from the ceiling. Stale air clung to me as I heaved my bags in. A four-poster bed, desk, rock fireplace, and a sofa draped with a ratty throw greeted me. A half-moon window took a greedy bite out of one wall. Good. Plenty of natural light for writing. A painting of a pond wreathed in orange flowers sat above the bed. Marigolds. So vivid and alive, it seemed out of place.
“What?” said McCranky.
“Was really feeling the dead bird motif. A shame it doesn’t extend here too.”
He smiled, eyes piercing me like his creepy décor, but didn’t say a word.
I swallowed hard. Should’ve saved the sarcasm for after I’d sweet-talked a late dinner.
“Lavatory’s across the way, but don’t venture past there tonight. Breakfast is at 0700 sharp.” He sauntered out.
“I got lost. That’s why I was late,” I offered, though that wasn’t the only reason I was tardy. “But the stew sure smells good—”
“I’ll send up a bowl,” he said over his shoulder. “Remember, no evening escapades.”
Like everything since the car accident last fall, the stew was bland. I’d lost my ability to taste, to write—words muddled like whisked river sediment, taking days to settle and clear—but I wasn’t complaining. I was alive. My sister, aka my best friend, my muse and biggest fan, wasn’t. Though I hadn’t driven since, I’d booked Aviary Manor, desperate for a cure. But every overhanging shadow resembled the bull I’d hit. It took me twice the time to get here.
I pushed my bowl aside and scowled at the empty fireplace, wrapping myself in a throw that stank of mothballs. Not for the first time did I regret my hasty choice. There’d been plenty of B&Bs listed, yet this one seemed to call to me: a cozy, remote manor deep in the heart of the north country. Hiking and birdwatching a must! Full of jokes, the caretaker.
Maybe the morning light would bring inspiration and clarity. Hopefully. I’d promised my editor a new draft in two months. We would see.
Different bed, different house. Same nightmare.
I’m driving, jamming out to the radio with Evie. The GPS takes us down the scenic route. Fields of corn, of sunflowers, sway in the breeze. We’re going to be late for my book signing, but I can’t stop grinning. Nor can she. It’s a gorgeous day, my dreams are finally coming true, and Big Sis took off work to celebrate with me.
A starling glides by. Enamored by its colorful wings, I stare.
Out of nowhere, a bull with flaming hair, horns like scythes, charges my beater. Evie shrieks. I yank the wheel. My car rolls. Once. Twice. Thwack! The screech of twisted metal, the stench of gas. A series of thumps against the roof. Evie’s still. Blood pools her ear. Head pounding, I shake her. Scream her name. No response. Yellow blobs mound my hood, pinning the starling to my windshield, upside down. Its dead eyes spear me. Smoke billows, burns. I check Evie’s neck. Again. And again. No pulse. Sobs rip from my chest. I killed my sister via pear tree.
Scraping woke me. I sprang up, cloaked in musty darkness.
More scratching, beneath my bed. I backed against my headboard and pulled the blanket to my chin like it would magically shield me—
Multiple blades on wood. Scoring, splintering. Near my nightstand. I flicked on the lamp. Or tried. My hand shook too much. Attempt two spilled pale, geometric shapes across the floorboards. I held my breath and waited, trying to hear over the pulse chiming my ears.
Seconds oozed into minutes, to hours. Eyes glazing over, I stifled a yawn, then sneezed. As I flipped the lamp off, white fuzzed by. Followed by a hiss. I snorted and jerked the comforter over my head. So far, everything this place advertised had fallen flatter than flat. To hell with my allergies. Let’s add a fucking cat.
Morning hit me like the car crash—too sudden, too intense. Blinding light poured in from the window, and I shielded my face. A gleaming circle skirted in lacy, red maples rose from the fog. Though frozen now, I’d seen that pond, clear as sea glass, somewhere else.
“You missed breakfast,” growled a voice behind me.
I started and swiveled around. “Didn’t sleep well.”
“Still skittish, I see.” McCranky placed a tray of coffee and biscuits on my desk.
I bit back a few choice curse words and thanked him. I needed a friend or an amicable acquaintance. Not an enemy. Not if I planned on staying. I sipped the coffee. Though it spiced the room with roasted hazelnut, I might as well have been drinking steaming swamp water. I grimaced.
“Not a fan of my coffee?” His eyes, hard and metallic as the frozen pond, fissured my memories. Did I know him? Nah. This cantankerous old coot would’ve been hard to forget.
“It’s not your coffee. I’ve lost my ability to taste.”
He frowned. “You can’t taste anything?”
I shook my head, hoping he didn’t pry. I didn’t want his judgment nor his pity.
He reached into his trousers and pulled out an amber bottle. A skull sprouting with wildflowers embossed a label that read ‘Lost Souls Tequila.’ The wrinkles around his lips deepened as he smiled. Genuine this time. “Infused with marigold and mint, it’ll open your sinuses right up. Works for me whenever I’m under the weather.”
If only I suffered from a cold, but this was his olive branch. “Thanks.”
He winked and, cane cracking, made his way out.
“Do you have a white cat?” I blurted, instantly regretting it. Accusations didn’t make friends.
He stopped but didn’t turn around. “A damned good cat, at that. But Ghost died last year.”
McCranky, later known as Az, gave me a tour of the sprawling estate. A repeat of my first night, murmurations of dead birds and dusty tomes filled every crevice, suffocating me with guilt. My deadline was fast approaching, and this book wasn’t going to write itself.
Determined to knock out two thousand words per day, the marigold painting served as my muse, and I crafted a story about a recovering writer who stayed at an eerie B&B. Every morning when he awoke, the marigolds in his painting wilted more and more until one day he didn’t wake up, for the marigolds had died. Evie would’ve loved it.
Time fluttered by, meshing into a blurry flock of light and dark. Az brought me meals, but I was never hungry. To spare his feelings, I’d hide the food under my bed, which served another purpose. Dead or not, Ghost had a healthy appetite, and as long as he had food, the scratching ceased.
I preferred Az’s tequila. I couldn’t taste it, but it warmed me, helped me write faster, fed my mania. I stopped sleeping. As I neared the finish line, call it exhaustion or delirium, my painting changed too. Minor at first, shifting shadows, reflections, but the deeper I delved into my story, the faster the marigolds faded, their petals curling, bleeding. The water iced over, and that’s when I realized—the pond outside and my painting were one and the same.
Someone in their right mind would’ve taken a step back at this point, asked questions, investigated. But the book was due in a week, and I’d written my magnum opus. Nothing could or would stop me from sharing it with the world.
Or so I thought.
Upon typing words that, coupled together, whirred with more rapture than even my best roll in the hay—THE END!—something rapped my window. But the sickle moon only whispered through the cloudy panes. I zipped up my jacket, tucked the tequila in my pocket, and padded through the back door onto the frozen pond. It sparkled like a sheet of diamonds beneath the twilight. A shadow broke loose from the manor, and I relaxed.
“Done then?” Az asked.
I nodded. “How’d you know?”
“Carry yourself like a man of victory.”
I pulled out the tequila, offering him a swig.
He shook his head. “Did you know that marigolds attract the souls of the dead?”
“No, but nice info.” I smiled. “I’ll add it to my next draft.”
“What do you remember of your crash?”
The wind smacked me as I fumbled for words.
“I know many things,” he whispered. “Please, answer my question.”
“All.” I scoffed. “The bull, the smoke, the thumping of pears, killing my sister.”
“Not all, then.” He squeezed my shoulder. “The car exploded with you inside. You never left.”
My pulse spiked. “But…I’m here.”
“Because the marigolds drew you here, to Purgatory’s Pond.”
“You’re mad!” I tried to storm off, but the slippery ice foiled my exit.
“Why can’t you taste anything? Why don’t you sleep? Why is the manor filled with your final memories?” he yelled after me.
The tequila thunked by my boots, skidding across the pond. The upside-down starling on my windshield? I spun around. The manor was gone. A mausoleum crowned in marigolds sat in its place. Az had vanished too. A bull of fire replaced him. The bull.
“I’m the Warden of Death,” he stomped his hooves, “and it’s time.”
The pond cracked, and I sank. Icy currents seized me, stabbed me. Darkness rumbled, then ignited to glaring white. I awoke on that fateful country road. The tree, healed now, handed me a golden pear.
“Can’t taste anything.”
I bit the buttery skin, and sugar bloomed across my tongue, juices trickling down my chin. I wiped my face, eyes wide.
“I’ve been waiting for a very long time.” The tree glimmered, thinned, willowing into Evie. Tears pricked my eyes, and she hugged me. “Welcome home.”