Girls of Brackenhill – Kate Moretti

I didn’t mean to kill the girl. I found her skulking around the woods, hiding behind trees, darting behind the shed. Hey, I called. Dizzy with panic when I saw who it was. I waved the shovel in her direction. I’d been turning over the compost. I said, You aren’t supposed to be here. My voice wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d hoped. I’d hoped to frighten her away. I sounded meek, terrified. Oh, that’s right. I’m human garbage, she spat. I came to give you something! She had a folded envelope, shoved it roughly into the pocket of my jacket. It gave me a shock, really, that she would put her hands on me. Such defiance for someone so young.

But then, she wasn’t that young anymore. How old was she? Sixteen? Seventeen? She’d be striking out on her own soon. Too pretty for Rockwell, not quite pretty enough for the city. No human is garbage, I said. I tried to reason with her; truly I did. She carried so much anger inside her. Some people were just born angry. She said hateful things: You never cared for me. You treated me like I was nothing. None of that was true, of course.

After everything I’d done for her. How could she be so hateful? I’d done so much for her. I’d tried more than anyone. Even after. Well, not after—I’ll be the first to admit that. But who would? It’s time to go home, I yelled, and I was ashamed at how my voice shook. I was afraid of her. I tried to hurry her along, despite the swell of adrenaline, so consuming that my vision blurred. I tried to breathe through the anger. She wouldn’t leave me alone.

She rushed at me, a wild thing, hair a tangled sight. I wasn’t proud of the fact that my heart had hardened. I wasn’t proud that I’d run out of love for this lost girl. I took the brunt of all her problems, you see? That night was a culmination of all the things that had ever happened to her, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She yelled and ranted: You never forgave me. No one did. I was ruined. I stood there and took it all, shoulders squared, legs solid. Absorbing her hate and her hurt and her words. Until.

Say something. Anything! She begged me to talk. But I didn’t reply to any of it. Felt the mounting, growing rage deep in my gut. An anger I’d never known. A helplessness I couldn’t fathom. You know what? I did it, she whispered right in my ear. The rage overwhelmed me, and I closed my eyes and swung and felt the shovel in my hand connect with her skull, and she fell to the dirt, and oh God, there was a lot of blood, but it pulsed out onto the wet leaves, absorbed by the earth, and I watched her tremble and sputter out her last breath in a matter of seconds. I didn’t mean to kill her. But after it happened, I wasn’t sorry.

Not for a long, long time. CHAPTER TWO Now August 15, 2019 The call came in shortly before midnight, as they mostly did. Huck slept like he was dead, but the buzzing phone gradually woke Hannah, first becoming part of a recurring dream. Hannah held a garden shovel; she was digging a hole, the dirt sifting over the metal, a feeling of dread deep in her chest, her shoulders aching. The smell of something rotting, soil and death, leaves and worms. Then, suddenly, the spade was a cell phone. “Hannah Maloney?” the voice on the other end asked, soft and clipped. “Yes. Hello.” She woke instantly, the number unfamiliar, a 607 exchange: New York.

And she knew it all right away, like a vision. (Except not truly; she always had to clarify, if only to herself.) She nodded, her legs swinging over the side of the bed, before the voice on the other end even said the words: car accident. She shook Huck awake. “We have to go. I have to go.” They didn’t have a polite relationship. They had a bathroom-door-wide-open-while-reading-the-obituaries-aloud relationship. Huck felt, at times, like an appendage: firmly attached, essential. It was natural for her to wake him at the first hint of disaster.

It was equally natural for him to assimilate, even while half-asleep. The woman on the phone said, “You were listed in her phone as ‘in case of emergency.’” At the same time Hannah said, “I know.” Hannah thought, What about Stuart? Is he alive? She asked the woman on the phone about Aunt Fae’s husband. A beat of silence, the faint rustle of paperwork before she came back on the line. “There was only one person in the car, dear. Your aunt Fae.” “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Hannah’s voice, to her own ears, sounded breathless, like she’d run miles. Her brain ticked through a frantic to-do list.

The phone to her ear, she looked for her sneakers under the bed, then in the closet. She motioned to Huck to get up, and he nodded. Rink, their Irish setter, stood alert at the panic in her voice. She patted his head, then stopped moving. “Does Uncle Stuart know? Does her husband know?” She imagined Uncle Stuart, what she’d seen in movies of people dying of cancer: gaunt figures under bedsheets in dark rooms. Raspy breathing. She’d heard from her mother, a year and a half ago, that the cancer had spread. She assumed he was still alive, assumed she’d be informed if he wasn’t. But who would have informed her? Her mother was dead, and Aunt Fae hadn’t spoken to Hannah since she was fifteen. She imagined Uncle Stuart waking in the morning, no breakfast, no Fae, confused and hungry.

“We will send an officer to the house,” the woman said. “Is there a caretaker who has keys?” “No. Fae is the caretaker. There’s a nurse who comes daily for meds. Or at least there used to be. I don’t know what time, though.” Hannah stuffed jeans and T-shirts into a bag. Huck was just standing up and flicked on a bedside lamp. She sat down, light headed. Too much, too fast.

“How long will it take you to get here?” The woman’s voice had softened, become kindly. “I’m in Virginia.” She’d never driven to Rockwell from her new town. Their new town, as Huck gently reminded her every day. They were a “they” now. She stopped, took a few breaths. She wasn’t alone anymore. If you were lucky, fiancés were built-in assistants, therapists, and financial advisers all rolled into one. Hannah was lucky. She did the math: three hours from Pennsylvania, plus three more.

“About six hours, I’d guess.” The woman on the other end beat her to it. A pause. “You should leave now, dear.” Hannah realized she’d misjudged everything, hadn’t asked the right question, the only question: “Is Fae going to die?” She had assumed it wasn’t serious. She’d thought a broken leg, an arm, a concussion, maybe unconsciousness. “A car accident” could mean myriad things. There was a beat where the woman didn’t speak, and Hannah felt the silence down to her bones, the chill instant, the phone still in her white-knuckled grip, and Huck, without speaking, placed a palm flat between her shoulder blades, rubbing gently. His hand moved up to her shoulder, and she gripped it there. In the dim light her engagement ring winked.

“You should leave soon.” CHAPTER THREE The Ghost Girls of Brackenhill are an urban legend. Brackenhill was the name of a castle on top of a mountain deep in the woods in the Catskill Mountains. It was built in the 1800s by a wealthy Scottish immigrant named Douglass Taylor as a summer lodge. He built the castle originally for his wife, who was committed to a sanatorium shortly after the birth of her only child. Taylor himself then died young, and their daughter, Merril, inherited the land and the Taylor fortune. She married and lived in happy seclusion for years until she, too, was committed to a sanatorium shortly after the birth of her fourth son. Brackenhill was passed down from generation to generation in a family riddled with mental illness. It has been said that over ten girls went missing on Brackenhill grounds over the course of 150 years. Some were children living in the castle; some were residents of the village below.

Brackenhill stole the sanity of women and the bodies of children. The children, ranging in age from seven to eighteen, have never been found. Some people think they’re all buried on the expansive grounds. Sometimes, especially when it rains (and no one knows why), you can hear their laughter as they play. CHAPTER FOUR Now Grover M. Hermann Hospital was a half hour south of Rockwell, New York. Huck steered Hannah’s car into the brightly lit parking lot just before dawn on Friday morning. Huck, the saint, had driven the full six hours, letting Hannah doze in the passenger seat, violating Road Trip Rule #7: absolutely no sleeping. But those rules had been made for beach trips and summer getaways, not middle-of-thenight emergency trips to visit long-lost—and gravely injured—relatives. Hannah’s mother, Trina, had passed away a year and a half ago.

Huck and Hannah had been new, and he’d met and charmed her only once. He tried to come with Hannah to the funeral, make the arrangements, see the house she grew up in. That sad little box house in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. She’d stopped him. She hadn’t needed him then. She wasn’t even sure that she’d cried. “You’re so strong,” he told her then. Proud of her, like strength was an accomplishment, something to strive for. It never occurred to him to question where it had come from. But this felt different.

Heavier. They were engaged. It hadn’t even been a question this time: Huck was here. The thought made her hands clench. There was so much he didn’t know. Would he think she was strong this time? Unlikely. Hannah sat up, smacked her mouth. She dug around for a piece of gum and a dog treat. Rink slept soundly in the back, sighing softly, legs kicking at a dream. She turned around and tucked the treat between his nose and his front paws.

He woke long enough to eat it and drifted back off. Hannah’s eyes burned, reminding her that her car sleep had been spotty at best. She dialed work and left a voice mail for her director. “I should be back on Monday; there’s been a family emergency.” She thought of her boss, Patrice, a severe, private woman who would scoff at the excuse. It was a hot, sunny Friday. Surely Hannah had just taken off for a long weekend with that “hunky fiancé,” as Patrice called Huck. Hannah was in charge of brochures: ad copy and placement of pictures of happy couples frolicking on beaches. She loved the idea of making life look wonderful and glossy. But still, she had the odd habit of trying to imagine her life like the pictures on a brochure: perfect boyfriend, pristine apartment, small yet loyal circle of friends laughing around a campfire.

“Hannah?” Huck’s hand on her knee. She jerked her leg away and regretted it. She was jumpy, too little sleep, too much energy charging through her veins. Hannah reached out and gripped Huck’s hand. It was calloused, even in the summer— especially in the summer—because of his job as a landscape designer (the gardener, she sometimes called him, sexy and silly). Huck knew almost nothing of Aunt Fae and Uncle Stuart, aside from their names. He’d never met them. He didn’t know much about her childhood, and he knew nothing of the castle. He knew her mother had died. He knew very little of the summer of 2002.

He knew she had an older sister who’d died when she was young, but not why or how. Well, no one knew how, Hannah supposed. He knew that she and her sister had spent summers at her aunt’s house in New York, but surely he imagined something normal: a cabin, a ranch, a colonial. Hannah knew so much about Huck’s life before her: his idyllic childhood, his four brothers, parents who swelled with pride for their children and love for each other. His whole childhood had felt like a slap. Even after meeting the whole brood, she’d glossed over her own childhood with a broad, shiny brush. Huck’s family was loud, raucous, ribbing each other at holidays. His mom sat at the head of the table, cheeks flushed. His parents lived less than an hour from them in Virginia. Somehow Hannah still managed to find plenty of excuses to beg off visits.

Besides, they’d only gotten engaged three short weeks ago. They hadn’t progressed past the showing-off-the-ring stage of engagement. The word wedding had barely been uttered. They had time, Hannah reasoned. They should be enjoying this time. Not mucking it up with heavy pasts and childhood traumas. Would she have told him about Brackenhill eventually? Of course. Maybe. She’d rarely given it a thought in seventeen years. Except for the nights she woke up sweating, crying, the faint outline of a dream tugging at her subconscious.

Her hands clenched until they cramped, a deep ache across her shoulders. A heavy refrain, the memory of a sound. Click, click, thump, thump. Once and only once Huck had found her standing in the living room naked, her clothes strewed on the floor. Hannah didn’t remember it, but Huck had told her she had clawed at the hardwood, crying. Later, when she woke up and he recounted the story, he’d laughed. “Like you were digging something up. It was bizarre.” At the time, she pretended to laugh with him as her heart raced. He hadn’t noticed.

Sometimes Hannah thought what she loved most about Huck was his obliviousness. His willingness to not look too deeply. They’d met at a brewery in the next town over. Before Hannah worked in marketing for a PR firm, she’d tended bar in the evenings while she job hunted. Huck had come in with his rowdy friends, him in jeans and a T-shirt, them in suit shirts and loosened ties. His fingernails with their blackened crescent moons had struck her as odd among all the manicures. Bartenders noticed hands. The first words she spoke to him were “You don’t fit in,” and he’d grinned at her, thrown an extra ten on the bar top. Before he left, he slid his business card under the tip, scrawled neither do you on the back. “Are you okay?” he finally asked, the silence in the car wearing thin.

He’d been more patient with her than required, but Hannah suspected this trip would try him. Huck hated messes, despised melodrama. And now he was about to get his trial by fire and perhaps more answers than he’d ever wanted. Hannah wondered if he’d be there at the end of it. Would he stay if he knew the whole truth? That last summer, her sister, Wyatt. The knot in her stomach tightened, and she stopped, swallowed back the panic in her throat. She’d worked so hard to relegate her childhood, her sister, and her aunt and uncle to the background of her life. She never examined her childhood in direct light, only in periphery—dreams where Julia was still alive, racing her back through the forest, the sunlight blinking between the leaves. And now they were going back. Her shiny new life, handsome fiancé, everything she’d ever wanted.

She wanted to go home. “I’m fine,” Hannah answered quickly and pushed open the car door. “I haven’t seen her in seventeen years. I’m fine.” It was still cool, the sun barely cresting the horizon. They rolled a window partway down for Rink, who paced in the back seat, excited, whining. Huck let him out briefly to go to the bathroom, the leash taut as he sniffed around bushes on the hospital lawn. “I’ll come back if we’re in there too long,” Huck assured her when they locked the car door. He took care of things. He was the task man of their little team, always.

What was Hannah? The compliant one, the go-along girl. Girl with big ideas, he sometimes called her, his eyes crinkling at the corners. She walked into the hospital a good ten feet in front of Huck (briefly reminded of Josh tagging along behind Julia all those summers ago), but she couldn’t have articulated why. Inside, she was directed by the administration desk to a family-crisis center. The room was small, a few couches and a chair. A round coffee table and a sideboard with a Keurig. She touched nothing and did not sit. When a woman entered and introduced herself as a crisis counselor, Hannah didn’t flinch. Huck tried to touch her again, a gentle palm against the small of her back, but she moved slightly out of his reach, so his hand was left dangling in midair. “I’m Claire McKinney.

” The woman was older than Hannah, probably only by a few years, but her hair was streaked with gray. She took Hannah’s cue and also did not sit but instead held Hannah’s arm with both hands and spoke succinctly but kindly. “I’m afraid your aunt has passed away.” Hannah felt the punch in her lungs, heard the whoosh of air before realizing it was her own breath. Willed her brain to focus on the woman’s words. Claire McKinney told Hannah about the crash, the car moving too fast down the winding road, away from the castle, hitting a slick patch from recent rain, and pitching over the guardrail and into the ravine. Someone had come along and seen the lights in the car, the coiled smoke from the hood, and called 911, but Aunt Fae’s internal injuries were too serious. The rescue effort had been a bit of an undertaking. (Hannah remembered the steepness of that ravine on Valley Road, having flown away from the castle in a speeding car herself.) They were sorry, of course, but would Hannah be able to identify the body? No other family member was listed.

(They were all dead now, see?) All Hannah could say was, “Absolutely, of course, anything for Aunt Fae.” Claire McKinney pushed an eight-byten photograph across the table—Hannah couldn’t recall sitting down—but she turned it over without thought and wished she had taken a moment to prepare herself. The photo was a close-up of her aunt’s face, black and white. In a split second she saw the deep grooves in her aunt’s forehead between her eyebrows, the shadowy wells under her eyes, a light but familiar birthmark in the curious shape of a butterfly on her temple that had darkened in death. Or maybe it was just that her coloring had gone gray, almost white as bone. There was thick stitching around the crown of her head, a leathery incision devoid of blood. She’d been wiped clean. “That’s her,” Hannah said, feeling like she was in a movie or a detective show and grateful she wasn’t standing inside a sterile morgue the way it was portrayed on television. She tried to arrange her face into something like sadness, as she imagined she was supposed to feel. Or maybe shock.

Huck watched her carefully. She could tell he was trying to comfort her, that comfort was the normal, everyday reaction in this situation. That she should want his support. Later, maybe he’d tell her, You’re so strong, and she’d be pleased at that. It was over that quickly, and they were back out in Hannah’s car before Huck even had to check on Rink. There was an air of formality about the whole thing. Claire McKinney’s compassion had been an act, part of her job, nothing more or less. Hannah held a business card for a funeral home where Aunt Fae would be prepared for arrangements—which meant a viewing and a funeral, or perhaps a cremation. She supposed she should have known what her aunt’s wishes were, that the hospital would assume that as next of kin she’d spoken to her aunt during the past seventeen years. She’d call the funeral parlor in the morning.

But it was morning, wasn’t it? The clock blinked 6:52. They’d been in the hospital for less than an hour, too little time for her life to be entirely changed. And yet lives were upended all the time in minutes and seconds, not hours. Hannah knew that. Also, it felt too dramatic: her life would not be changed. She’d do whatever she’d come to do and go home, back to Virginia, her career, planning the wedding. She’d escaped Brackenhill once. She could do it again. “What can I do?” Huck asked, and Hannah recognized the despair in his voice. Huck hated helplessness.

He was an action person, a problem-solver. He admired this trait in her more than anything else: she was always fine. He’d complained of ex-girlfriends: needy, calling and texting at all hours. Her independence, even when it frustrated him, was attractive. “Nothing,” Hannah said, and it was true. She didn’t need anything from him, maybe never had. This time she almost asked him for one thing: Drive me home. He would have in a heartbeat. But she knew she had to head farther north, past Rockwell on the only road in, the switchback road her aunt had taken out. To her once-beloved uncle, who lay quietly dying.

It fell to her to tell him about his wife. Hannah let Huck drive, the car winding around steep curves, her arm gripping the handle at the window, white knuckled and breathless, the fear starting as a steady thrum in her legs, a jittery helplessness. From the back seat even Rink whined as Huck punched the gas, the car stuttering up the steep incline. At the top, the first of the stone turrets came into view, and the car slowed as Huck’s foot faltered. For the first time in seventeen years, it was time to go back to the castle.

.

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