When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to stay with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right?
Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind.
To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried…
Heartwood Box by Ann Aguirre will be available on July 9. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
That’s what I’m thinking as I step off the train onto the sparse platform. There’s absolutely nothing here, not even a ticket machine, let alone someone I can ask for directions. Few people were left on the LIRR when I got off here, though one woman did flash me a glance like she was asking if I was sure.
I’m really not.
The area gives off a strange vibe, rural but also industrial, with green fields interspersed with machinery and equipment. It’s a bit too far to walk to my great-aunt’s house where I’ll be staying for the next year, but I planned to get a cab when I arrived. I assured my parents I’d be fine—they could proceed to Venezuela without worrying about me—but now I’m having second thoughts.
It’s not late, just past four, but there’s nobody in sight. A shiver crawls over me, nerves and exhaustion. I’ve had a longass day, beginning with a tearful parting from my folks in front of an OXXO at Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City, then a six-hour flight to JFK, immigration, customs, baggage claim, then two more hours on two different trains. I’m so tired, and the quiet here is eerie. I’m so not used to being alone.
As I walk along the platform, MISSING posters flutter in the breeze, drawing my eye. The way I understand it, this is a small town. Why are there so many flyers up? It’s not just children either. Grown men and women, teenagers, little kids as well. I stop to read one of them at random. Ronell Leon Salazar, age 11, last seen …
The chill doesn’t go away as the wind kicks up. I’ve been warned about international data usage, but I have to turn it on long enough to use a ride-sharing app. There’s a driver ten minutes away who can pick me up, and I wait on the platform without seeing another soul, just the flutter of those missing posters to keep me company.
It’s funny how technology has changed the caution our parents tried to instill in us as little kids. Don’t get in the car with strangers! But I’m doing that as my driver rolls up and I ID him based on data from the app. He doesn’t say much, only takes me past a lumberyard and a lot where police vehicles are repaired. By car, I’m only fifteen minutes from my great-aunt’s place, but it would’ve taken me forever to walk.
The town isn’t much to look at, and it gives off a strange, old-fashioned air, like time stopped here fifty years ago and they’d rather keep it that way. The driver lets me out in front of a ramshackle Victorian monster house that stares me down with its dirty windows. I gaze up at the peeling violet paint and the chipped stained-glass windows, the overgrown ivy digging into the walls.
This is the kind of neighborhood where I shouldn’t loiter. There’s not much space between these historic houses, and a curtain is fluttering next door, a sign I’m being watched. Soon, somebody will ask what my business is here. To avoid that on my first day, I gather my courage, hoist my belongings, and mount the four steps to the sagging porch.
Before I can knock, the door flies open, and an old woman stands staring at me. I never cared for Charles Dickens, but this woman could’ve stepped straight out of Great Expectations. I almost say, “Miss Havisham?” but there’s no reason to piss off my guardian first thing.
“Um, hi,” I start, but she cuts me off with a Venus flytrap of a hug, just all snap and here I am, against her bony bosom, breathing in talcum powder and lilac.
She’s a tall woman, thin and gristly, with papery skin and lipstick bleeding into the cracks around her mouth.
“No introductions are necessary,” she says, pushing me back to arm’s length for deeper scrutiny. “You can only be Araceli, dear Simone’s daughter. You’re quite like your mother in your features, but you’ve got your father’s coloring.”
None of that is wrong, but it sounds strange, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a compliment. Still, I say, “Thank you,” just in case it is.
“Did you have any trouble getting here?” she asks, ushering me into the house that time forgot.
I don’t mean it in a cruel way, but everything is just so faded and dated that it feels as if I’ve stepped back in time. Not even to the fifties like I thought about the rest of the town, more like 1917, when the Victorians gasped their last breaths and ladies cut off their hair and learned to smoke cigarettes. I take in the worn carpet and the peeling wallpaper in discreet glances, hoping she won’t realize how creeped out I already am.
This is such a tall, narrow house, and the old wood has a distinctive, musty smell. I’m not used to that. We always lived in small two-bedroom places, whatever we could find for rent closest to the town center. The walls were usually solid, cement or block, built to stand against earthquakes or bombardment. I can’t remember ever living in a freestanding house. There will be no rooftop garden parties here, no barbeques that draw out the neighbors so that we grill whatever’s on hand and I take beer from the cooler without anyone asking how old I am.
“No. I took the train from the airport.” More than one, but she probably knows that, if she’s ever visited NYC.
That’s the most appealing aspect of living here. This hamlet has less than six thousand people, most of them white, but after a couple hours on the train, I can be in New York City. There will probably be all kinds of fun things to do on weekends, if Great-Aunt Ottilie gives me some latitude.
Now she’s staring at my luggage like she wants to hug me again. “Oh dear. Is this all you have?”
I glance at my single suitcase and backpack. Moving once a year is a wonderful way to streamline your worldly goods. “Yeah, that’s it. Could you show me where I’ll be staying? And thanks for having me.”
“It’s truly my pleasure. I’m a bit set in my ways, after living alone for so long, but I hope we’ll get along well.”
I’m curious how long she’s been alone—and why. She starts up the stairs slowly, showing signs that she has a bad hip, and I immediately feel guilty. “It’s fine, you can just tell me, you don’t have to—”
“Nonsense. My room is downstairs, so once I get you settled, I won’t be traipsing up here to bother you often. Let’s attend to the formalities and then be good housemates, shall we?” Great-Aunt Ottilie flashes a smile over her shoulder.
Okay, maybe I can deal with her.
There’s also one other bright spot. Though I’ve attended six schools in seven years, I’ve got some awesome online friends, and I’m about to meet one of them for the first time in real life. We first “met,” like, six years ago when I was starting junior high, and we were both fans of 7TOG, a K-pop band who debuted around then. I joined a fan forum to connect with people who loved their music. I got close to NotJustAnyWon, which was her forum handle, and just before I moved to the US, our chat convo went like this:
NotJustAnyWon: OMG, that’s so wild, you’re moving here? That’s where I live!
Me: GET OUT, does this mean we’ll be at the SAME SCHOOL?!
NJAW: Possibly? Reality is so wild, I can’t wait!
If it hadn’t been for the prospect of hanging out with NJAW in real life, I might have fought my parents when they suggested the Great American High School Experiment. At least I’ll have one friend here when I start over. Again. Belatedly, I realize my great-aunt is staring at me from the stairs, waiting for me to speak or follow, something.
Uh, what were we talking about?
“How long have you been on your own?” I ask, thinking this is a harmless question.
Her thin mouth tightens. “Twenty years. Before you ask, my husband didn’t pass away. He simply vanished. And no, I don’t wish to discuss it further. This way, please.”
Well, shit. That’s just enough information to get my imagination going. If ever a house could devour a person and leave no trace, it’d be this one.
Shivering, I follow Great-Aunt Ottilie into the shadows of the upper story.
Copyright © 2019 by Ann Aguirre