“Good morning. I’ve brought you your breakfast.”
Reluctantly, I awakened. I’d been having the loveliest dream—something about warmth and sunshine, and some gleaming object in the palm of my hand. I fought to hold onto the images, but they slipped away from me.
I heard footsteps, the clink of glass and silverware, and the rustle of the bed curtains being moved aside. Before I’d even lifted my head, the window drapes were opened as well, flooding the room with pale winter light. I squinted at the silhouette of a woman against the glass.
Coming around the side of the bed, she helped me sit up. Once my eyes had had time to adjust, I saw that she’d set a bed tray down on a card table in the center of the room. As she went to retrieve it, the woman asked, “How are you feeling, my dear?”
Bemused, I said, “Tired. Cold.” I was even more bemused when she set the tray before me. “Is this all for me?”
“Of course. Good food to get you better.” The woman removed my napkin from its silver ring and smoothed it across my lap. “Eat up before it gets cold.”
Hardly knowing where to begin, I picked up a spoon. There was hot cereal with cinnamon and raisins, fresh English muffins, a poached egg in a silver cup, cheese, a dish of sliced fruit, coffee, milk, and orange juice, as well as jam and butter. The coffee, I decided. As I sipped it, the woman smiled approvingly, then busied herself re-lighting the fire in the fireplace.
As I ate, I considered my surroundings. I was in a bedroom—a rather richly appointed bedroom: fine furnishings and carpet, bronze light sconces, wainscotting. There was Sleeping Beauty wallpaper with an intricate pattern of red roses and tiny people slumbering among the vines and thorns.
I wasn’t sure where I was. It was the oddest feeling. It all looked familiar, yet I couldn’t be sure that all this was mine. But I must belong here. Why else would this lady show me such kindness? And if I were lost or something, shouldn’t I feel troubled? Frightened? Shouldn’t I want to leave? Instead, I was quite content to lie in this lovely canopy bed, eating this delicious meal. With a fire going and the scents of coffee and yeasty muffins, it was all very cozy.
The woman pulled up a chair at my bedside. She looked familiar too, but I couldn’t place her. Her dark hair was streaked with gray. Fifty or close to it, I thought, and clearly not a servant—like the room, she was expensively arrayed. Her dress was satin and shot silk, with a high collar and mutton sleeves. At her throat was an elaborate gold brooch shaped like a butterfly, its wings sparkling with citrines.
She just sat there, gazing at me. Ordinarily, I might have found it strange having someone hover around me while I ate, but I was too hungry to care. I gobbled everything down in ten minutes flat. Draining the last of the coffee, I set the cup down and wiped my mouth with the back of my arm.
“That’s what your napkin is for, dear,” the woman said. “Finished?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
She took the empty tray. “Let me just run this downstairs, then I’ll be back. Dr. Strand is coming to see you, then Phillip said he’d call on us this evening. God bless that boy! I don’t know how we ever did without him.”
I looked at her blankly. Phillip, Dr. Strand—these names didn’t mean anything to me.
“You remember Dr. Strand, don’t you? And Phillip? Phillip Carmichael?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Dr. Strand has been your doctor practically since you were born, and Phillip is your fiancé. He proposed right before—” she broke off.
Engaged? Bewildered, I looked down at my left hand. I was, indeed, wearing an engagement ring, gold filigree with diamonds and rubies. Was that what I had been dreaming about– the proposal? Was that the object I’d seen glinting in the sun? More confused than ever, I asked the woman, “And… who are you?”
She sighed. “I’m your mother, dear.”
“Who am I?”
“Your name is Mila.”
* * *
When the woman who said she was my mother returned, she’d brought a basin of hot water, soap, and towels. The man accompanying her had steel-gray hair and a beard.
“Dr. Strand?” I guessed.
Though he tried to hide it, the man looked pained. “No, Mila, it’s me. It’s Papa.” He spoke with a slight accent.
“Papa,” I echoed.
“I just thought I’d look in on you before I left. You’re looking well. Getting stronger every day, eh?”
I could tell he didn’t really mean it. “Where are you going?”
“To the office, of course.”
“Go on,” Mother said to him. “Her bathwater is getting cold.”
Papa kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll see you tonight, sweetheart.” To Mother, he said, “Give my regards to Dr. Strand, won’t you?”
After he’d gone, Mother helped me out of bed and over to a chair beside the fire. I caught sight of myself in the vanity mirror. I didn’t recognize the girl in the glass. She had long, loose, chestnut hair and brown eyes; a girl who’d been through some unspeakable ordeal– wraith-thin and wan, with circles under her eyes like smudges of soot. Even her lips were pale and bluish. I didn’t even know how old she was.
When I asked, Mother said, “Nineteen.”
She got me cleaned up and reasonably presentable for the doctor, a tall, gaunt, middle-aged man with thinning hair. He perched on the edge of my bed to examine me while Mother stood anxiously by. Despite his austere appearance, Dr. Strand’s hands were gentle, his voice low and soothing as he asked, “Still having trouble remembering who you are, Mila?”
Before I could reply, Mother cried, “She remembers nothing, Doctor! Every day, we remind her, but by the next day, the slate’s been wiped clean again! And that’s to say nothing of the nightmares, the sleepwalking–”
“Mm-hm.” He had me follow his finger, then look up at the ceiling while he peered closely at my eyes. “And no memory of the accident?”
“Accident?” I asked.
Mother’s voice rose. “You see? When is she going to get well? When will she get her memories back?”
“Mrs. Grunwald, I know how upsetting this is for all of you, but please, try not to interrupt.”
Mother shut her mouth and lets Dr. Strand get on with it. “Any pain?” he asked.
“Not at the moment,” I said.
“How are you feeling otherwise?”
“Tired. All I want to do is sleep.”
“And your appetite?”
“Well, I sure was hungry when I woke up. I ate all my breakfast.”
He smiled. “That’s good.” Taking my hands in both of his, he said, “Try to squeeze.” I found I could apply only the faintest of pressure. A child would have a better grip. Nodding, Dr. Strand patted my leg through the blanket and stood up. “Just keep it up, Mila. Sleep truly is the best medicine, so sleep away. Eat as much as you can. Your body is fighting hard to heal itself. I’ve contacted a specialist who’s agreed to come all the way from Minnesota to see you, Dr. Hans Nebel. He’s originally from Austria, like your father.”
Some of Mother’s anxiety had transferred itself to me. Seeing the look on my face, Dr. Strand added, “Now, don’t you worry about a thing. Your family’s looking after you.”
He and Mother left, presumably to discuss my condition outside of my hearing.
I settled back against the pillows, my mind whirling. An accident? A specialist? Nightmares and sleepwalking? Why couldn’t I remember? And Mila Grunwald. My name was Mila Grunwald. Why couldn’t I remember that either? Despite my agitation, my eyelids grew heavy. In no time, I was asleep.
* * *
Mother woke me around noon for lunch. She was quite relieved to find that I still remembered my name and that she was my mother and everything—at least, everything I’d been told that morning. After my meal, Mother gave me a dose of tonic from a brown bottle on the nightstand. Then I slept again until supper time.
* * *
The card table in the room had been set for two places. It had occurred to me before that the table didn’t go with the rest of the room, and I soon learned that it had been brought from the downstairs parlor so visitors could take their meals with me.
That evening, said visitors were Phillip, who Mother had said was my fiancé, and Julien, my older brother—no one had mentioned him to me yet, so that was a bit of a surprise. As with everyone and everything else, I had no recollection of either of them.
Julien was twenty-two, brown-haired like me, with a mustache that lent him rather a rakish air. He bent to kiss me on the cheek. “Hullo there. Mother said you were having a good day.”
Phillip was twenty-four, blond and clean-shaven. He kissed my hand, agreeing, “You do look better. There’s color in your cheeks.”
Mother had had me pinch my cheeks and bite my lips in preparation for my visitors, but all the same, I thanked them. Otherwise, I didn’t have the faintest idea of what to talk about. Fortunately, I was spared the initial awkwardness as the maid went in and out, bringing first my tray, then serving the men. I gathered that this was an abbreviated version of our usual dinners. Apparently, Mother was known to be an elegant hostess, and the men were dressed for a formal occasion, but when a member of the household is bedridden, allowances must be made.
Julien, who went by Jules, regaled me with stories of our childhood. I had attended the girls’ preparatory school, and now I was active in the Women’s Club. “Am I going to college?” I asked.
“That was the plan, yes,” Phillip said. “We agreed to forego the wedding until you graduated. You have another year to go.”
“How did we meet?” I asked. “And when?”
“I’ve worked for your father for two years, managing his railroad interests. We met soon after I took the position. Your parents invited me to dinner.”
“Was it love at first sight?”
Phillip chuckled. “Not especially, no. We were always friendly. I suppose we just found ourselves thrown together a good deal.”
I thought for a moment. “Dr. Strand asked me if I remember the accident. What accident?”
“Dr. Strand has advised us to let you remember on your own,” Jules said. “Some psychological thing. I’m afraid I don’t understand it all, but he said sometimes the mind protects itself—shuts out memories that are frightening or painful.” He paused. “You still don’t remember anything at all?”
I shook my head. “Did the accident happen while I was at school?”
Before he could reply, the maid returned to clear the dishes away. Phillip picked up a book from the mantle, a collection of works by Edgar Allan Poe. He said he’d been reading me a story whenever he visited. That evening, the tale was, “The Imp of the Perverse.” Phillip had a nice voice and he read very well, but the tale was disturbing. I was secretly glad when Mother poked her head in. “Phillip Carmichael! You are not reading her those awful stories.”
“But it’s the Christmas season, Mrs. Grunwald,” he protested. “The time for ‘scary ghost stories and tales of old glory’ and all that.”
“Oh, is it Christmas?” I asked.
“Well, nearly,” Jules replied. “It’s December 6.”
“Here.” Mother crossed the room, swept the Poe from Phillip’s hand, and returned it to its spot on the mantle. She selected another book. “How about some nice Tennyson?”
Dutifully, Phillip read a few poems while Jules and I listened. Then Jules declared Tennyson dull. There was a phonograph on a stand in the corner and we listened to some music instead, Nielsen and Strauss, then “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” and “Daisy Bell.” The boys were silly, singing and dancing jigs. I couldn’t help but laugh and clap along. I hoped I remembered all this when I woke up the next day.
It was past eleven when they took their leave. Mother and Father came to bid me goodnight. They were pleased to see me looking so well and happy. Still, once the rush of excitement wore off, I found myself more exhausted than ever.
* * *
Later that night, I awoke with a start. I’d been having a bad dream about a ghostly face at the window. The spirit or creature or whatever it was had been calling my name. But that was silly, wasn’t it? I couldn’t even see my window; the bed curtains were closed. Plucking up all my courage, I parted them and peeked out. The window drapes were drawn. No face, no sound. Nothing but the wind outside.
Relieved, I closed the curtains. I started to lie back when I heard it again—someone calling my name.
I froze. I wasn’t asleep now. Fearfully, I looked again.
I knew that voice but from where? Then I remembered my circumstances—an accident, memory loss. How Mother had said that each day, upon awakening, I would forget everything all over again and be a clean slate. But I wasn’t a clean slate now. Did that mean I was getting better? Did that mean I would remember my life?
Carefully, I slid down off the bed, grimacing at the cold. I didn’t want to wake anyone—it seemed I’d already caused everyone quite enough worry. So, pulling on my robe and slippers, I opened the door as quietly as possible.
The house was silent, the Oriental rugs absorbing my slippered footfalls. At the end of the hall, I came to a staircase. Over the railing, I saw a landing, and below that, a parquet floor.
I held onto the banister with both hands as I descended into a gallery. To my left was a doorway that led to the main foyer, and the adjacent parlor. Just then, a figure darted across the grounds outside, its shadow flickering across the front windows.
With a gasp, I shrank back.
MILA, the voice suddenly blared. It seemed to be coming from all around me. I kept backing away until I stumbled over the bottom stair and fell hard on my bottom.
There was a thunderous pounding that I thought at first was my heart. Then I realized it was someone pounding at the front door. MILA, COME OUT!
My breathing was shallow and panicky. The heavy oak door jumped and rattled on its hinges. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t get enough air. I turned, meaning to clamber back up the steps on all fours if I had to…
* * *
The next thing I knew, I was in the hallway again, and Mother and Father were there, in their own sleep attire, shaking me awake.
“Oh, my dear,” Mother enfolded me in a tight embrace. “You were sleepwalking again.”
They gave me a double dose of medication, so the next day, when I woke up, I felt groggy. But I remembered.
* * *
For the next three days, I scarcely got out of bed. How they all doted on me! Mother insisted on continuing to care for me herself, though she did suffer the servants to resume housekeeping duties in my room.
Father brought me books, a drawing pad, and pencils. They tell me I am something of an artist, and that I had been taking art classes at the university. They showed me other notepads that I had filled with sketches.
Phillip came every day, and Jules would accompany him to chaperone. We had plenty of games in the house, so three of us would sit, sipping coffee and playing whist or Chinese checkers. Jules always seemed to find excuses to step out of the room, leaving Phillip and me alone. I had already found Phillip to be kind, thoughtful, and reserved. It was easy to confide in him, confessing my worries that I might never remember.
“Does it trouble you that I don’t remember you from before?” I asked.
“Of course it does,” he replied. “I hope it all comes back to you. But if it doesn’t, you’re still the same girl I fell in love with. If we have to pretend that we first met a few days ago, then I suppose we’ll just have to start again. I just hope I can win your heart a second time.”
I ducked my head so he couldn’t see me blush, but his words pleased me, as everything about him did.
The next day, he brought me an early Christmas gift, a music box of carved walnut with a design of branches and flowers. When I opened it, it played the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
“It’s so beautiful,” I whispered.
His blue eyes twinkled down at me in a way that made my insides flutter. “I wanted you to enjoy it before the holiday.”
I set the music box on the nightstand. That night, I floated off to sleep, lulled by its tinkling notes.
* * *
My toes dug into the sandy soil at the edge of the creek, the summer sun beating down on my back. The water was low but still ran like quicksilver between these banks. I looked down to find myself stripped to my brassiere and bloomers. The fabric, cheap to begin with, was worn thin with age and repeated washings.
A boy was swimming in the creek a few yards away. He was perhaps seventeen, with jet-black hair. I didn’t seem to mind that I was practically in the altogether. Quite unselfconsciously, I bent over for a better look when something shiny caught my eye. There, among the rocks, was a piece of quartz not much bigger than a robin’s egg.
Quartz in hand, I waded out to show the boy, the water turning my undergarments transparent. I held the stone up so he could see how smooth and perfect it was. Then I put it in his hand and closed his fingers over it. For luck, I said.
He smiled. Pulling me close, he bent his head toward mine, and I could see his eyes were mossy green, like agates. Water dripped from his hair onto my face and chest. His body, slick as the river stones, moved against mine as our lips met…
I started awake. Just a dream. As soon as the disorientation wore off, shame rushed in. I would never behave in such a manner—would I? Would I remember if I had? What did it mean that I was dreaming about someone who was not Phillip? It made my face grow hot, my stomach tightened with guilt. It had seemed so real. A memory, then? If the dark-haired boy was real, who was he? Where was the creek?
* * *
As I grew stronger, Mother bundled me up in warm shawls and dressing gowns so I could go downstairs. It made me nervous—I was afraid I’d see the shadow again, and hear the pounding at the door. She dismissed my fears. “Phillip had been reading you those ghastly stories. No wonder you were unsettled.”
When Dr. Strand came to look in on me again, he agreed that it was just my imagination. “The medications may be partially to blame, but they may also be your mind awakening.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?” Mother asked him.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean the process won’t be… challenging.”
So Mother sat me down in a chair, facing the parlor windows. There’d already been a frost. Outside, the grounds were barren and dead, the grass like straw, the garden beds empty but for the hedges and holly bushes. The fountain had been drained, leaving the angel on top with nothing to preside over but the bare and icy stone. My easel was brought and I captured that stark landscape with charcoal, the white skies, and the light-like pewter.
All around me, servants bustled about, festooning the house with pine boughs, wreaths, and mistletoe. They brought me hot cider and milk-cream strudels, an Austrian dessert of which Father was particularly fond. The music box came downstairs with me as well. From the end table, it whirred and chimed, and I hummed along with its tune.
Once everyone was sure I could walk on my own, I did so, trying to acquaint — or reacquaint – myself with the house. The Grunwald House, as I heard the servants call it. How could I have forgotten such a grand and luxurious place? It had three floors. There was the dining room, the salon, the drawing room, the library, Father’s study, and the ballroom. There was a tower at the front of the house. I made the slow climb, pausing every few steps to catch my breath. I hadn’t told anyone I was going—I knew very well that Mother would never have allowed it. But I wanted a better view of the grounds, and when I reached the top, I was not disappointed. The house was on a cliff overlooking a valley to the south. A stone privacy wall separated the property from the road, which was also the old Shawnee Trail. I never saw any carriages pass by though.
Behind the house, the woods stretched east to west for miles, mostly oak and hickory, but here and there, a white birch seemed to rise like a ghost against all the darkness. Beyond the woods was the river, flat beneath the winter sky. From up here, I could see the house itself was redbrick, with wrought iron embellishments, the front steps flanked by two sandstone lions. There were all the outbuildings—the coach house, the garden shed, and a gazebo.
I was still in the tower when it began to snow. Flakes clung to the grass and walkways, to the top of the stone wall, dusting everything in a fine white layer. I circled the room several times, moving from window to window, watching it fall. I had just returned to the south side when I noticed a man below.
He was just standing there, looking up at the house. He must have come from the woods. At the distance, I couldn’t make out much of his features, but he was rather shabbily dressed in a shapeless wool overcoat and trousers, a flat cap on his head. As if sensing me, he looked straight up at the tower window and saw me there.
Our eyes met.
He seemed ordinary enough. I might’ve taken him for a groundskeeper, but for some reason, the sight of him filled me with—what? Disquiet, certainly, but with something else, too– a sort of yearning, which shocked me.
His lips moved, but they seemed strangely out of sync with the words. Mila… Mila, come out…
I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t be asleep now. I couldn’t be dreaming this. When I looked again, he was still there. Come out, Mila.
“Go away,” I whispered. “Go away!”
You don’t belong here.
No, I thought desperately. This is my home, my family. You’re the one who doesn’t belong.
My legs gave out from under me and I sank to the floor, trembling from head to toe. The way he said my name made me want nothing more than to run down to him.
With a yelp, I spun around to see Phillip in the doorway. “My God, are you all right?” Hurrying over, he knelt at my side. “Are you faint?”
“You’re early,” I managed.
“I thought I’d take the afternoon off. What happened?”
“There’s someone outside. A man.”
Phillip helped me up. “Where?”
“There’s no one there now.”
“But I saw him.”
“You’ve overexerted yourself. Come, let’s get you back to your room. We won’t tell your mama.”
“I’m telling you, there was a man out there—”
He linked my arm with his and patted my hand. “Perhaps it was just some vagrant. The railroad tracks are right down that way. Don’t be frightened.”
But I was frightened. The man outside looked very much like the boy from my dream, only older. Seeing him in a dream had elicited a dramatic response from me—all right, if I’m being perfectly honest, seeing him in a dream had excited me. Seeing him just now, in the flesh, had been almost overwhelming. And here was Phillip, as always, being so good to me. I didn’t deserve him.
Once Phillip got me tucked into bed, he turned, intending to leave me to my rest, but I grasped his hand. “Phillip, can’t you tell me what happened? I’m trying so hard to remember, but I can’t.”
“The accident, you mean?” he asked.
He hesitated just long enough for me to get my hopes up. Then shook his head. “Dr. Strand said we mustn’t.”
* * *
With Christmas so near, the house smelled perpetually of gingerbread, of nutmeg and oranges and cloves. The servants rearranged the parlor furniture to make room for the Christmas tree. Mother and I strung popcorn and dried fruit and cinnamon sticks into garlands. When the men brought the tree home, Jules and Phillip carried it inside, while Father ordered them about. They bore it good-humoredly.
Once the tree was erected on its wooden stand, we had a grand time trimming it, the five of us. As we worked, my music box played on the mantle. Presents were added and tied to the branches with ribbons. Candles were lit. Mother and I wrapped gifts for the servants– everyone got bags of nuts and candy, tins of cookies, and practical things such as gloves and slippers.
Mother said there was to be a Christmas party, that ever so many of our family friends would be there– Father and Phillip’s business associates, Jules’ and my school chums. There would be a midnight feast, with roast beef, turkey, ham, fruitcake, eggnog, mulled wine– all sorts of delicious things.
“I’ve had a new dress made for you,” Mother told me. “None of your old ones will fit. You need fattening up.”
It was true. Despite all the fine meals, I was still frail. It seemed that no matter how much I slept, I never felt rested. Every night, the dream was the same—the boy in the creek, the quartz stone, the kiss. Every night, I heard someone calling my name. I tried pressing a pillow over my head to block out the sound, but it was like he was speaking directly into my mind. I was afraid to look outside. The boy in the dream and the man in the woods were one and the same, I was sure of it. But who was he? What did he want from me? Was he involved in the accident somehow? How could he fill me with such abject fear one moment and such intense longing the next?
When we’d finished with the tree and gifts, a servant brought glasses of brandy. The others settled down to enjoy their handiwork while I lingered, arranging and rearranging some of the glass baubles, admiring their sparkle. Like the sparkle of a quartz crystal.
You don’t belong here. It came from out of nowhere—that voice that was becoming so horribly familiar to me. They’re not your family.
I froze. In the hearth, the fire died with a hiss. Along the walls, the gas jets went out one by one. Even the Christmas tree candles were snuffed out, painting the room in shadows. The only light was from the moon reflecting off the snow outside. A sudden, loud crack made me drop the ornament I’d been holding. It fell to the floor and shattered.
There was a series of creaks as if the house itself were shifting. To my left, the window spiderwebbed, and the curtain sheers turned yellow and disintegrated. The drapes curled up like flower petals, drying and shriveling until there was nothing but scraps left clinging to the cornices. Beneath my feet, holes appeared in the carpets, their fabrics blackening with what appeared to be years of grime. Wallpaper faded and peeled from the walls. All around me, everything in the room – perhaps everything in the entire house – sagged and rotted, groaning like an animal in its death throes. Even the Christmas tree was reduced to a heap of dry needles and sticks.
But worst of all was my family– Mother and Father on the settee, Jules and Phillip in the wingback chairs. They’d all turned when I dropped the ornament, and now, the four of them aged before my eyes. Their hair turned wispy and white; their flesh withered from their bones. Before I knew it, four skeletons dressed in moldering silk and moth-eaten wool were grinning at me.
“Mila?” Father asked, his exposed mandibles shedding dust. “What is it?”
* * *
Father carried me up to my room while Jules went to fetch Dr. Strand who came, despite the lateness of the hour. He gave me a dose of opium.
As I lay drowsing, I heard him in the hallway, speaking quietly with my parents. The specialist, Dr. Nebel, was expected to arrive before the holiday.
“She should probably avoid any excitation until then,” Dr. Strand concluded.
“But the Christmas party, the invitations have already gone out—” Mother began.
“You may still have your party, Mrs. Grunwald, but Mila’s attendance is out of the question.”
I remember only one other thing from that evening– Phillip. I thought I saw him at my bedside, holding my music box, looking down at me with uncharacteristic coldness.
* * *
I slept and slept. Waking felt like dreaming and dreaming felt like waking. People came and went. The music box played.
* * *
At least, I think it was night—it was dark, anyway. I rose from my bed. I don’t believe it was of my own volition. I went downstairs and threw the front door open wide.
A servant found me there later, slumped over the threshold and shivering in my sleep.
* * *
I’m not sure how much time passed. Three days, perhaps? The Christmas party was to be held on December 21. This time, it was the music that woke me, faint but unmistakable. It wasn’t on my nightstand. Confused, I looked around for it. It wasn’t in my room. I was even more confused to find myself fully dressed, stretched out on the bed—dressed in a crimson ballgown. My hair had been artfully styled, the sides swept back with gold combs. A touch of powder and rouge made my face shimmer.
Surely I was dreaming. Nothing felt real—not the room, not me. The fire and gas jets were burning low. The edges of things seemed hazy, indistinct as if my room were enshrouded in a fine mist.
I went downstairs, searching for my music box. I felt compelled. It didn’t feel like I was walking so much as being borne along on an invisible current. Everywhere, it was the same– in the hall, on the staircase, in the gallery, that same diffuse quality, all color, and sound muted. Everything except the music.
It had to be coming from the ballroom. A few men in tailcoats and white gloves stood near the doors, talking. There was something strange about them. Their movements seemed off somehow as if they were moving through water. They didn’t seem to see me. As I passed by, I found I couldn’t hear them. No sound at all came from their lips.
Inside, the ballroom had been even more lavishly decorated for the holiday than the rest of the house. There was a string quartet in the midst of their repertoire, the floor crowded with couples dancing. But like the men outside, everyone was moving much too slowly, and I could hear nothing from them—neither voices nor instruments. Mother and Father were on the far side of the room. I saw Jules chatting with a group of young men. Dr. Strand was there, too, in the company of a woman I could only assume was Mrs. Strand.
And I could hear none of it. It was especially eerie when people threw back their heads and laughed, and no sound came out.
Then, the dark-haired young man was right in front of me, shouting in my face, MILA, YOU’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!
I barely had time to recoil before he vanished. All around me, everything snapped back into place. Motion and sound returned to normal. Voices resumed laughter, footsteps, the swish of skirts. The string quartet was playing a waltz.
And there was Phillip, in the same spot where the dark-haired man had just been. He looked both pleased and concerned to see me. “Are you all right, darling?”
Had he ever called me an endearment before? If he had, I couldn’t recall it. I took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m fine.”
Consulting his pocket watch, Phillip said, “I think we have time for a dance before supper if you’re feeling up to it.”
He held his hand out, and I took it. When a new song was played, we danced. He whispered to me that I was beautiful, our faces so close together I could feel the heat of his breath against my forehead, the brush of his lips, sending a pleasant tingle through me. It all felt so real. I wanted it so to be real.
The last waltz ended. A bell was rung, signaling that it was time to repair the dining room. I expected to see tables set up, and place settings with fine china and silver. Instead, the room was bare. As everyone filed in, they gathered to either side, both guests and servants alike. They all turned to stare at me as I came in on Phillip’s arm.
At the front of the room, next to the fireplace, was a man I’d never seen before, of indeterminate age– he could have been anywhere from thirty to sixty. He was tall and whip-thin, sternly handsome. In his pale, long-fingered hands, he held my music box.
I looked around. “What is this?”
“Mila,” Phillip said formally, “meet Dr. Nebel.”
I nodded to the doctor. “How do you do.”
In return, he gave me a chilling smile. When he spoke, his accent was thicker than my father’s. “Quite well, now that you’re here.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The crowd tittered. Uneasily, I tried to tug my hand away from Phillip’s, but he held fast to me. “It’s all right, it won’t be long now.”
I opened my mouth, intending to ask him what he meant by that, but the memories hit me all at once.
My papa, my real papa, passed away. The train. The flight through the forest.
And William. My Will.
In the dining room, the faces around me seemed to change. Their features grew narrow and elongated, their eyes very bright, their teeth pointed and sharp.
“No!” I managed to twist away, but I was surrounded, seized. They lifted me bodily and carried me to the front of the room. “No!”
The people who called themselves my family were among those bearing me along. They laughed derisively, just as ghoulish as the rest. “Come, child!” my not-father said. “It’s nearly time!”
“NO!” It was no use to struggle. They dumped me at Dr. Nebel’s feet.
He spoke almost kindly. “Don’t you see, my dear? You are the light. You’ve gathered us all here.” I looked up at him, stunned, as he went on, “We wish to be flesh again. By feeding on your energy, you have made us strong—strong enough to be here, to perform the ritual. Tonight is the longest night of the year, the time to open a doorway between this world and that one which we inhabit.”
“That’s not possible,” I whispered. “No one can bring people back from the dead.”
The fiends around me laughed again. “No,” my not-brother said. “But that’s the trick, you see. We don’t come back as people.”
Phillip nodded. “Some would say it’s an abomination, draining the soul from a living thing. But that’s part of the price and we accept it.”
“The point is, my dear,” Not-Mother said, “we’ll be made flesh again. We wish to feel again, to taste, to walk in this world. We’ve been waiting ever so long for someone like you—someone with such a life, to come here at just the right time. Poor little orphan, who would miss you?”
Will would. I tried again to break free, but I was weak and getting weaker. My skin was emitting a faint glow. It flowed from me to Dr. Nebel and his horde. They basked in it, drank it in. By feeding on your energy, you have made us strong…
My head spun. The weakness, the dizziness, the constant chill—it was no accident I was recovering from. I wasn’t meant to recover. And the amnesia…
Nebel opened the music box and its notes filled the room, lilting, hypnotic. The sound filled me. It made my head go light, my body leaden. It tugged at me and dragged me down. Many arms caught me as I slumped forward.
On the floor before the fireplace, a circle had been drawn in ashes. It was filled with some sort of writing. As I looked at those arcane letters, they seemed to smoke and writhe. It was Phillip who placed me gently inside that circle, into that ring of infernal magic.
“I assure you, it will be quite painless,” Nebel said. “It’s nearly midnight now. We’re almost through.”
As he spoke, he and the other specters around me vanished. There was a terrible, dissonant sound, like church bells, but they were wrong somehow. The air around me felt alive, crackling, like a storm about to break. The music box was on the floor just outside the circle, but it no longer played a charming little ballet tune. The sounds it emitted were loud and monstrous, shrieks, howls, something like rending metal—I believed they were the very echoes of Hell.
Above me, a point of light appeared, growing in a vertical line. Two more points appeared above and below it, forming a rectangular shape.
A door. A door was forming, right here in the dining room.
Cracks in reality opened and a profane light spilled in. I saw figures moving around on the other side—dozens of them. Nothing separated us but a thin, semi-transparent membrane. I saw their hands struggling to punch through it.
But the light. It blinded me. I felt as if my soul were burning in its evil glare.
* * *
I remembered my name was Mila Imogen Gant. The year was not 1898, but 1934. I was engaged to William Jeffrey Jameson, my dark-haired young man. I’d known him my whole life. Our families had attended the same Methodist church together.
I was born in 1915, on a farm in Buckner Creek. Will and I had been swimming in the eponymous creek since we were little. One summer afternoon, I found a piece of quartz in a sandbar. When I gave it to him, he said he would carry it with him always.
My real mother died of the Spanish flu when I was four. My father passed only last year. The drought had come, and we’d already been struggling to hold onto the farm. So many people we knew were going to California to look for work, but we’d heard tales of how abominably they were treated. There were said to be jobs in Kansas City. I could work in one of the garment factories, and for Will, there were railroads, stockyards, and construction. Once things were settled, we could get married.
The house had been foreclosed on in November, but the bank men didn’t come to run me off till December. So close to Christmas, Will had said. How do you like that? He’d been working as a ranch hand, sleeping in barns.
Buckner Creek was on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Line. We hopped on a boxcar.
Somewhere along the Kansas River, the train had stopped. We heard them searching the cars and rousting people out. Will and I hid behind a stack of crates. He whispered to me, When you see that door open, run.
Seconds later, the door did open. We burst out. Will knocked over the railroad bull, shouting at me to go. Blindly, I ran. It was nighttime and snowing. I stumbled away from the river, up a hill, into a wooded area. Others were fleeing around me. I heard the bulls hollering, and shots ringing out.
Not Will, I prayed. Please, not Will.
I quickly lost my sense of direction and tripped over roots and undergrowth, but I had to keep going. I heard the lawmen’s crashing footsteps behind me, more shots.
The house seemed to rise up out of the darkness– a great, hulking husk of a house. I tore across the open yard, grown high with prairie grass, past a fountain covered in dead vines. Some of the windows were busted out. I crawled inside, thinking I could hunker down there until morning.
I hadn’t seen which way Will had gone. I didn’t know if he’d escaped the railroad men. I didn’t know if he’d followed me into the woods, or if he’d be able to find me.
* * *
It was Will I kept seeing in my dreams. It was Will I’d seen on the grounds. It was his voice I’d heard calling my name.
I heard it now.
“Will?” I whispered.
Phillip stroked my hair back from my brow. “Shhhhh. You’re having another nightmare. It’s all right, my darling, you’re safe.”
NO, MILA, DON’T LISTEN TO HIM!
“My name is—”
“Your name is Mila Grunwald,” Phillip said firmly. “Look, your mother and father are here, Jules is here. We’re all here with you. Don’t forget us.”
He re-wound the music box. As it played, I thought, Yes, Mother and Father, my brother, and the man I am going to marry.
The door rattled on its hinges, then flew open.
Mila, you have to fight them!
“There, there, Mila, you’re hallucinating,” Dr. Strand said. “Let me give you something to calm your nerves.”
The young man had something in his hand. It glinted as he raised it. There was a burst of light and the creatures cringed away, hissing.
I heard a crash, the sound of wood splintering, and metal parts scattered across the floor. Then the young man was standing over me, shaking me.
Will or Phillip? Mila the poor farm girl or Mila the rich society girl? Awake or asleep?
YOU HAVE TO FIGHT!
There was no music now. I could think a little more clearly. It took every ounce of strength I possessed to raise my left hand. With my right, I removed the engagement ring from my finger. There was a release of pressure, the expenditure of some unimaginable force, and my hands dropped back to my sides.
* * *
I was in Will’s arms, stretched out on the filthy floor of a broken-down old house. “How?” I whispered.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t get in. Then I remembered all that stuff Gran used to say, about her people being from the back east, and all them old ghost stories. She said that people used to draw these symbols called ‘devil’s traps.’ When I couldn’t get in, I scratched one on the door with my pocket knife. And I had that stone you gave me. Gran always said quartz protects against black magic.”
As he spoke, I looked to the side and saw the shattered remains of the music box. “You broke it. You broke the spell.”
“Well, part of it, but you took that ring off yourself. They didn’t have no more hold on you after that.”
“What day is it?”
“Uh,” he cocked his head, calculating. “Well, I guess it’d be December 22 now.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Couple of hours, maybe. I ran the other way at first, then came looking for you. I knew you’d be waiting for me somewhere. Then I saw this house and you inside, with all those things hanging around you.”
I struggled to rise.
“Easy.” He helped me to my feet. “You okay to walk?”
I nodded. “Please, let’s get out of here.”
The door was splintered, hanging askew, but I saw the circles he’d scratched into its weathered surface. Together, we walked out into the snowy pre-dawn hours, leaving Grunwald House and its occupants behind.
Lauren Scharhag (she/her) is an award-winning writer of fiction and poetry. She has eleven titles available, including Our Miss Engel and The Order of the Four Sons series (with Coyote Kishpaugh). She lives in Kansas City, MO.