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The Winters

Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again. It had been a while since I'd had that dream, not since we left Asherley, a place I called home for one winter and the bitterest part of spring, the dream only ever recurring when Max was gone and I'd find myself alone with Dani.

As always, the dream begins with Asherley in the distance, shining from afar in a bright clearing. There is no greenhouse, nor boathouse, just a stand of red canoes stabbed into the pebbly beach. In fact, the Asherley of my dream looks more like it might have back in its whaling days, when from the highest turret you could still spot tall ships dotting Gardiners Bay.

Overpowered by the urge to be inside the house again, I pass easily through the thicket of forest that surrounds the property. I want so badly to wander its wood-paneled halls, to feel its plush red carpets beneath my bare feet, to move my fingers in the play of sun through the stained-glass windows, but an invisible force keeps me out. I'm relegated to the bay, where I float like a sad specter, made to watch those who still haunt Asherley act out the same strange pantomime.

I can see Max, my Max, relaxing on an Adirondack, one in a line like white teeth dotting the silvery-green lawn. He's reading a newspaper, framed by the majestic spread of Asherley behind him, its walls of gray stones, its crowd of terra-cotta peaks, its dentils studded with carved rosettes, anchored by the heavy brow of its deep stone porch. Every lamp in every room of the house is lit. A fire roars in every fireplace. The circle of windows at the top of the high turret burns like a sentinel over the bay, as though the house were about to put on a great show for me.

I call for Max but he can't hear me. I want to go to him, to touch his face, to smell his hair, to fit my shoulder under his arm, our sides pressed together. My throat feels strangled with that longing.

On cue, she strides out the back door, carefully balancing a tray of lemonade. She's wearing a white lace dress with a red sash, her blond hair glinting in the sun, her face so eerily symmetrical she'd almost be odd-looking except for the singular perfection of each and every one of her features. Here is Rebekah making her way down to Max, changing her gait to accommodate the steep slope of the back lawn. Now Dani bolts from the house behind her, laughing, her chubby legs charging straight for the water and for me. She's three, maybe four, her hair, far too long for a child, is the same white blond as her mother's. I often wish I could have met Dani when she was this young and unformed. Things might have been very different between us.

My body instinctively thrusts forward to catch the girl, to prevent her from running too far into the bay and drowning.

Rebekah yells, "Be careful, sweetheart," which Max repeats. She puts the tray down. From behind, she wraps her arms around Max's shoulders and warmly kisses his neck. He places a reassuring hand on her forearm. They both watch as Dani splashes in the shallow water, screaming and laughing, calling, "Look at me, I can swim."

Then, as she always does in the dream, Rebekah becomes the only one who spots me bobbing in the bay, too near her daughter for her liking. She straightens up and walks towards the water, stalking me like a lion not wanting to disturb its prey. Still in her dress, she wades into the water, moving past a frolicking, oblivious Dani, until we are finally face-to-face. Her eyes narrow, forming that familiar dimple over her left brow.

I try to flee but my legs are useless.

"Who are you?" she asks. "You don't belong here."

Rebekah's mouth is close enough to kiss, a woman I'd seen in hundreds of photos, whose every contour I'd memorized, whose every expression I'd studied and sometimes unconsciously mimicked in my darker days, when my obsession was most acute and I had no idea how to live at Asherley, how to be a wife to Max, or a friend to Dani.

"I do belong here. She needs me," I say, pointing to Dani, my impudence surprising even me. I try to move but my feet are rooted in the sand below, arms floating beside me like weeds.

"She doesn't need you," Rebekah says, placing her hands on my shoulders in a reassuring manner. "She needs her mother."

Then she rears back slightly. Using all of her weight, Rebekah shoves me under the waves with a sudden violence, flooding my vision with air bubbles. I fight for the surface, to scream for Max to help me, but she's stronger than me, her hands a vise on my shoulders, her arms steely and rigid. In my dream, she's not angry. Rebekah kills me slowly and methodically, not with hate or fear. She's being practical. I am channeling vital resources away from her, rerouting Dani's feelings, altering Max's fate. My murder is conducted with dispassion and efficiency. And though I don't want to die, I can't imagine going on like this either, careful of my every move, looking over my shoulder, afraid to touch anything, break anything, love anything, worried his past will surface again and ruin what I've worked so hard for, what we've worked so hard for. Her task complete, my body painlessly dissolves into the waves and I disappear. I am dead and made of nothing. I am gone.

I woke up gasping for air, my hand at my throat. I kept reminding myself that everything is okay, we are okay, that we are alive and she is dead, cursing the fact that the dream had followed us here, our last stop, I hoped, for a good long while.

My back ached when I stretched that morning, unfamiliar beds the only downside to our decision to travel for the rest of the year to shake loose the recent tragedies. We found it helped to establish a routine. I would get up first and make us breakfast, for we only stayed in places with kitchens, a homemade meal the best way to start our wide-open days. We tried not to think too much about the past, about Asherley. It was gone, along with all of its secrets. We were building new memories, creating new stories, ones we might find ourselves telling new friends one day, finishing each other's sentences, saying, No, you go, you tell it. No, you-you tell it better.

Mostly our days were languid; sometimes I'd plan a museum tour or we'd take a long drive past ruins. Our nights were spent reading rather than watching TV, sharing the couch even if armchairs were available, our toes gently touching. There were few conflicts, though I was no longer naive enough to believe two people as different as we were, who'd spent as much time together as we had, would never bicker. But the truth was we were still getting to know each other.

Waiting for the omelet to thicken, I poked my head into the bedroom, resisting the urge to caress that thatch of dark hair that I had come to love in a quiet, calm way, a marked difference from how I loved just a short while ago. Hard to believe it had been less than a year since I'd met Max Winter, a man whose love seized me by the shoulders and shook me out of a state of dormancy, and who ushered in another emotion I had yet to meet in my young life: jealousy, the kind that grows like kudzu, vining around the heart, squeezing all the air out, fusing with my thoughts and dreams, so that by the time I understood what was happening to me it was almost too late.

I carefully closed the bedroom door, padded across the cool tile floors of the living area, with its dark armoires and overstuffed armchairs, and threw open the musty blackout curtains. I stepped barefoot onto the hot stone terrace, the sun so bright it hurt my eyes. In the distance, warm air steamed off the sea. From below, I could hear the Spanish-speaking shopkeepers already arguing over sidewalk space, and I was gut-punched by long-ago memories of a mother who sang to me in her mother's language and a father with sunburned shoulders, pulling fish out of the sea, their silver bodies violently jackknifing on the scarred deck of the boat we once lived on, our sleeping quarters the size of the smallest pantry you could find at Asherley. I could have fainted from an old grief. Here they were again, coming at me from afar, watery mirages of the people who once loved me, and I them, their long shadows cast by a low morning sun.

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Bram stares at the door.

Sweat trickles down his creased forehead. He brushes his fingers through his damp hair, his temples throbbing with ache.

How long has he been awake? Two days? Three? He doesn't know, each hour blends into the next, a fevered dream from which there is no waking, only sleep, deeper, darker-


There can be no thought of sleep.

He forces his eyes wide. He wills them open, preventing even a single blink, for each blink comes heavier than the last. There can be no rest, no sleep, no safety, no family, no love, no future, no-

The door.

Must watch the door.

Bram stands up from the chair, the only furniture in the room, his eyes locking on the thick oak door. Had it moved? He thought he had seen it shudder, but there had been no sound. Not the slightest of noises betrayed the silence of this place; there was only his own breathing, and the anxious tapping of his foot against the cold stone floor.

The doorknob remains still, the ornate hinges looking as they probably did a hundred years ago, the lock holding firm. Until his arrival at this place, he had never seen such a lock, forged from iron and molded in place. The mechanism itself is one with the door, secured firmly at the center with two large dead bolts branching out to the right and the left and attached to the frame. The key is in his pocket, and it will remain in his pocket.

Bram's fingers tighten around the stock of his Snider-Enfield Mark III rifle, his index finger playing over the trigger guard. In recent hours, he has loaded the weapon and pulled and released the breech lock more times than he can count. His free hand slips over the cold steel, ensuring the bolt is in the proper position. He pulls back the hammer.

This time he sees it-a slight wavering in the dust in the crack between the door and the floor, a puff of air, nothing more, but movement nonetheless.

Noiselessly, Bram sets the rifle down, leaning it against his chair.

He reaches into the straw basket to his left and retrieves a wild white rose, one of seven remaining.

The oil lamp, the only light in the room, flickers with his movement.

With caution, he approaches the door.

The last rose lay in a shriveled heap, the petals brown and black and ripe with death, the stem dry and sickly with thorns appearing larger than they had when the flower still held life. The stench of rot wafts up; the rose has taken on the scent of a corpse flower.

Bram kicks the old rose away with the toe of his boot and gently rests the new bloom in its place against the bottom of the door. "Bless this rose, Father, with Your breath and hand and all things holy. Direct Your angels to watch over it, and guide their touch to hold all evil at bay. Amen."

From the other side of the door comes a bang, the sound of a thousand pounds impacting the old oak. The door buckles, and Bram jumps back to the chair, his hand scooping up the leaning rifle and taking aim as he drops to one knee.

Then all is quiet again.

Bram remains still, the rifle sighted on the door until the weight of the gun causes his aim to falter. He lowers the barrel then, his eyes sweeping the room.

What would one think if one were to walk in and witness such a sight?

He has covered the walls with mirrors, nearly two dozen of them in all shapes and sizes, all he had. His tired face stares back at him a hundredfold as his image bounces from one looking glass to the next. Bram tries to look away, only to find himself peering back into the eyes of his own reflection, each face etched with lines belonging on a man much older than his twenty-one years.

Between the mirrors, he has nailed crosses, nearly fifty of them. Some bear the image of Christ while others are nothing more than fallen branches nailed together and blessed by his own hand. He continued the crosses onto the floor, first with a piece of chalk, then by scraping directly into the stone with the tip of his bowie knife, until no surface remained untouched. Whether or not it is enough, he cannot be sure, but it is all he could do.

He cannot leave.

Most likely, he will never leave.

Bram finds his way back to the chair and settles in.

Outside, a loon cries out as the moon comes and goes behind thick clouds. He retrieves the pocket watch from his coat and curses-he forgot to wind it, and the hands ceased their journey at 4:30. He stuffs it back into his pocket.

Another bang on the door, this one louder than the last.

Bram's breath stills as his eyes play back over the door, just in time to see the dust dance at the floor and settle back down to the stone.

How long can this barrier hold against such an assault?

Bram doesn't know. The door is solid, to be sure, but the onslaught behind it grows angrier with each passing hour, its determination to escape growing as the dawn creeps nearer.

The petals of the rose have already begun to brown, much faster than the last.

What will become of him when it finally does breach the door? He thinks of the rifle and the knife and knows they will be of little use.

He spots his journal on the floor beside the basket of roses; it must have fallen from his coat. Bram picks up the tattered leather-bound volume and thumbs through the pages before returning to the chair, one eye still on the door.

He has very little time.

Plucking a pencil from his breast pocket, he turns to a blank page and begins to write by the quivering light of the oil lamp.


The peculiarities of Ellen Crone. That is, of course, where I should start, for this is as much her story as it is mine, perhaps more so. This woman, this monster, this wraith, this friend, this . . . being.

She was always there for us. My sisters and brothers would tell you as much. But how so, is where inquiries should lie. She was there at my beginning, and will no doubt be there for my end, as I was for hers. This was, and always shall be, our dance.

My lovely Nanna Ellen.

Her hand always reaching out, even as the prick of her nails drew blood.

My beginning, what a horrid affair it was.

From my earliest memories, I was a sickly child, ill and bedridden from birth until my seventh year, when a cure befell me. I will speak of this cure in great length to come, but for now it is important you understand the state in which I spent those early years.

I was born 8 November 1847, to Abraham and Charlotte, in a modest home at 15 Marino Crescent in Clontarf, Ireland, a small seaside town located about four miles from Dublin. Bordered by a park to the east and with views of the harbor to the west, our town gained fame as the site of the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014, in which the armies of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, defeated the Vikings of Dublin and their allies, the Irish of Leinster. This battle is regarded as the end of the Irish-Viking Wars, a bloody conflagration marked by the death of thousands upon the very shore over which my little room looked. In more recent years, Clontarf found itself the destination of Ireland's rich, a holiday setting for those wishing to escape the crowds of Dublin and enjoy fishing and strolls across our beaches.

I romanticize Clontarf, though, and in 1847 it was anything but romantic. This was a period of famine and disease throughout Ireland that had begun two years prior to my birth and did not find relief until 1854. Phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as potato blight, had begun ravaging crops during the 1840s and escalated into an abomination in which Ireland would lose twenty-five percent of its population to emigration or death. When I was a child, this tragedy had reached its peak. Ma and Pa moved us inland in 1849, to escape hunger, disease, and crime; and the fresh air, it was hoped, would avail my poor health, but all it brought was further isolation, the sounds of the harbor sought by my young ears falling more distant. For Pa, the daily walk to his office at Dublin Castle only grew as the world died around us, a damp web of grief lacing over all that was left.

I watched all this transpire from my attic room high atop our home, known as Artane Lodge, as nothing more than a spectator, relying upon the tales of my family to explain everything taking place beyond our walls. I watched the beggars as they ravaged our neighborsÕ gardens of turnips and cabbage, as they plucked the eggs from our chicken coop, in hope of staving off hunger for one more night. I watched as they pulled clothing from the rope-strung laundry of strangers, still damp, in order to dress their children. Despite all this, when they were able, my parents and our neighbors opened their homes and invited these less fortunate inside for a warm meal and shelter from the storm. From my humble birth, the Stoker family motto ÒWhatever is right and honorableÓ was instilled in me and guided all in our home. We were by no means well-off, but our family fared better than most. In the fall of 1854, Pa, a civil servant, was toiling in the chief secretaryÕs office at Dublin Castle, as he had for the thirty-nine years prior, having begun in 1815 at only sixteen years of age. Pa was substantially older than Ma, something that did not resonate with me until I was an adult. The castle was the residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his office handled all correspondence between English governmental agencies and their Irish counterparts. Pa spent his time cataloging these communications, ranging from the mundane day-to-day business of the country to official responses on topics having to do with poverty, famine, disease, epidemics, cattle plagues, hospitals and prisons, political unrest and rebellion. If he wished to ignore the problems vexing our time, he could not; he was deep in the thick of it.

Ma was an associate member of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, a major force in the food drives and relief efforts of Dublin, a post previously reserved only for men. Not a day would pass when she wasn't haggling with a neighbor for milk, only to trade it with another neighbor for cloth. Her efforts kept food on the table for our large family and helped to feed countless others who crossed our threshold in these times of need. She held our family together-and as an adult, I see that now, but my seven-year-old self would have testified otherwise. I would have told you she locked me in my room, trading my happiness for isolation from the world's ailments, not willing to allow even the slightest exposure.

Our house stood off Malahide Road, a street paved with stone extracted from the quarry near Rockfield Cottage. I was confined to the attic, its peaked windows my only escape, but I could see much from such a height-from the farmlands around us to the distant harbor on a clear day-even the crumbling tower of Artane Castle. I watched the world bustle around me, a play for which I alone was the audience, my illness dictating my attendance.

What ailed me, you wonder? That is a question with no real answer, for nobody was able to say for certain. Whatever it was, my affliction found me shortly after birth and clung to me with wretched fingers. On my worst days, it was a feat for me to cross my room; the effort would leave me winded, bordering on unconsciousness. A mere conversation drained what little energy I possessed; after speaking but a few sentences, I often grew pale, and cold to the touch, as sweat crawled from my pores, and I shivered as my moisture met the seaside air. My heart would sometimes beat fiercely in my breast, irregular, as if the organ sought rhythm and could not find it. And the headaches: they would befall me and linger, day upon day, a belt tightening around my head at the leisurely hand of a fiend.

I spent the days and nights in my little attic room, wondering if my last dusk had just passed or if I would wake to see the dewy dawn.

I was not entirely alone in the attic; there were two other rooms. One belonged to my sister Matilda, eight at the time, and the other was occupied by our nanny, Ellen Crone. She shared her room with Baby Richard, my recently born brother and her most pressing charge.

The floor below mine housed the home's only indoor privy as well as my parents' room and a second bedroom occupied by my other two brothers, Thornley and Thomas, nine and five, respectively.

At the ground level could be found the kitchen, a living room, and a dining room with a table large enough to seat the entire household, with the exception of Ellen Crone, who preferred to take meals alone after our repasts came to an end. There was a basement as well, but Ma forbade me from ever descending those steps; our coal was stored down there, and exposure to its dust could consign me to my bed for a week. Behind our house stood an old stone barn. We had three chickens and a pig there, all tended by Matilda from the time she was three years old. In the beginning, she had named the pigs, but around her fifth year she realized someone was switching the larger sows for smaller ones at least twice a year. By her sixth year, she realized those same pigs went to the butcher and found their way onto our supper plates. She stopped naming them then.

Over all of this, Ellen Crone watched.


Where to start? There is so much to tell and precious little time to tell it-but I know when all things changed. By the time one particular week came to a close, I would be healed, our dear Nanna Ellen would be gone, and a family would be dead. It started innocently enough, with a little eavesdropping. We were but children-me, seven; Matilda, eight-and yet that fall season was never to be forgotten. And it began with only two words.

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