Moonlight filtered through the windows, sending a pool of gray light over Beau Arson in his bed.
A sound in the hallway had woken him, and he strained to hear beyond the bedroom door. Footsteps rapped down marble tiles, past the oil portraits and toward the grand staircase and foyer below.
The back entrance. Had he heard those grand double doors opening, allowing a swell of cold air in from the terrace?
The fire in the stone hearth had gone out hours ago, the flames dying with the sound of drunken revelers two stories below.
He shifted in bed, the smooth weight of leather-bound pages resting on his chest. The digital clock on his nightstand read 12:00, and he realized he’d fallen asleep reading Great Expectations again. Pip had been in the graveyard, he remembered, searching among the headstones for the family he’d lost, the parents he’d never known.
He thought of his own parents, James and Marian Sutcliffe, buried beyond the doors of his ancestral mansion, parents he’d never known either. He was thirty-two years old, an orphan brought up in foster homes, his true origins were revealed only recently.
He held Great Expectations in his hands, marking the open page with a bookmark given to him on a fateful summer day long ago, by a little girl with dark brown braids.
You are Loved.
He ran his finger down the length then pressed it into the book’s spine.
He rose, not reaching for his robe. Though it was the third week of December and the winter wind howled beyond Briarcliffe’s limestone walls, he was not cold. Not here.
Los Angeles had been cold. He remembered the harshness of the streetlights, the gray expanse of asphalt stretching across endless desert, of camera flashes, of being surrounded by worshipful, beautiful people yet feeling entirely alone.
There was warmth to be found here, tucked into the folds of these ancient mountains. The blanketing silence of old growth forest quietened his soul. The Smokies seemed to embrace him like an old father, welcoming their prodigal son back into the fold.
Long hair fell in waves down his bare back as he lowered his feet to the Persian rug. Rising from the immense bed made of ancient walnut, his thoughts drifted to the twenty-five generations of timber barons who’d slept there, caressing the sheets and pillows with their trademark golden hair.
A path of moonlight led to the tall windows, and he flinched as his bare feet transitioned from plush rug to marble tile.
Snow crystals rattled against the panes, peppering the night sky and the expanse of lawn as it rolled toward the pinewood forest and the snow-capped Smokies beyond. Nestled in the valley below lay the sleeping town of Notchey Creek, the little houses dark, traces of smoke rising from the chimneys.
A brood of dark clouds eclipsed the moon, darkening the night sky, the lawn, the forest. Like a little match being ignited among the trees, a light appeared in the woods, flickering, disappearing, then reappearing once more with the sweep of the pines. It grew brighter, swelling like a heartbeat, as it approached the edge of the forest and the tree line.
He readjusted his eyes, wondering if his imagination was conjuring images, the remnants of a lingering dream, the spectral aftermath of late-night whiskey.
But the light breached the forest and entered the grounds, floating across the grass, making its way toward Briarcliffe, toward him, as if it knew he was standing there, watching it from the window.
He shivered, and a prick of dread crawled up his back, bringing the tattoo there to life, the angel’s wings expanding, retracting with a tremble.
He thought to look away, to return to his bed, to bury the ghost with sleep. But he found he couldn’t turn away, couldn’t bury it. The vision had transfixed him, paralyzing his attention to the window, to the spirit that beckoned beyond the paned glass.
Within the light, a figure appeared. Hair of raven black fell past her shoulders, like a dark stain against the prism as it carried her across the lawn. A length of rope hung about her neck and draped down her chest, the pale flesh indecipherable from her white dress as it flowed down her body, swallowed by the light.
She opened her mouth to speak, and the winter wind howled, and the trees quaked, rattling the window glass, seizing him from his terror, returning the clarity to his mind.
He grabbed the heavy drapes and pulled them to a close, welcoming the quiet dark of the bedroom. His heart pounded in his chest as shallow breaths escaped from his lungs.
A sense of foreboding fell over him, settling his breaths, the terror in his mind anesthetized by a new reality, a diminishment of hope.
He’d left Los Angeles, left the metaphorical ghosts there behind, only to find a new one here, in this place of promise and innocence.