Part I: Shadow People
She noticed the chandelier first. It was loud; an overabundance of crystals that glittered and fluttered overhead. A gust from the front door caused the gold-drizzled chains to sway gently, glinting in the low light. Rubies. Tacky, icky things.
Sam didn't like excess. She had never not had it, therefore she had the privilege of despising it.
"Well, what do you think?" the realtor asked, spinning on her stilettos. Her hair was ashy blonde, skin a leathery tan— probably from one too many hours on a beach somewhere far away from here, somewhere expensive. She held out her hands, palms up, in front of herself as she gestured to the enormous front hallway and double staircase. The pair of stairs ascended on each side, curving gently, to meet together at the second floor landing.
"It's beautiful," Sam's mother sighed dreamily. "Lovelier than any other house we've seen in this city."
"It's perhaps the oldest," the realtor said. "The man who built it had a taste for grandeur. The man who added onto it, even more."
"The craftsmanship is really something. They don't make houses like this anymore. I can't believe the asking price is so low," her father uttered, taking a few steps over to the wall to run a hand along the smooth, unblemished, wood panel. Mahogany. Or so they had been told. All original, nineteen twenties. If there was one thing her dad loved, it was being sold the promise of fine craftsmanship. Their old garage was full of brand new wood-working tools. He had a habit of starting things and never finishing them. "What do you say, Sammy?"
Sam glowered. "I don't think it's big enough," she cut sarcastically.
Her parents exchanged a knowing look, before they powered on as if she hadn't spoken.
She heaved a sigh that ruffled her bangs. Sometimes she felt like a ghost within her own family.
Great. Yet another extravagant place too large for a family of three, she thought. She crossed her arms and glared at each of the many details, as if they had personally offended her in their ostentatiousness. Intricate glass and metalwork chandeliers, musty runners that had dizzying floral patterns, walls and ceilings covered in frescos of nude women and beasts. The only redeeming thing was it's age. The whole place was dusty. Sam inhaled slowly. The scent of time. Like an old book. Despite being cleaned before this showing, particles hung in the air, a lingering haze, as if this house could never be— would never be— without a thin film of dust. It had history, and history meant there was—
A shadowed movement near the second story railing caught Sam's eye. She whipped her head around and gazed up, seeing nothing, but she felt as though something else was seeing her.
"So… anyone die here?" she found herself asking.
Her mother shot her a warning look.
The realtor paused mid-sentence. She struggled wordlessly for a moment, hand flopping, before she twitched her head over to the second story to follow Sam's gaze. She gave Sam a patronizingly polite smile, lips strained. "Why do you ask, dear?"
"It's just... a house this old...I'm sure it has some stories, right?"
"As a matter of fact, there was a death. Two and a half years ago. Suicide. Horrible thing," the realtor muttered. She gripped the papers in her hand tightly. For a brief second something flickered across her face, then she was all bubbles again. "You two don't seem like the type to believe in the paranormal," she laughed in her parent's direction.
Her mother pulled a face. "Of course not."
A death huh? Interesting.
The realtor braved on, "Anyway… It's in a great location. Five blocks west is the main entrance to the park, which has a playground and man-made pond…"
Sam remembered that park from the car ride. It was badly maintained, poorly lit, spanned five blocks, and was surrounded with a rusted gate. The only thing of note was the eclectic mix of businesses near the entrance: a 7-11, a frozen yogurt shop, and a cemetery.
Sam tilted her chin thoughtfully, combat boots clunking noisily around the front landing as she paused at each doorway, sticking her head inside each room. Beyond each lay a huge room with more wood paneling, more hand chiseled arches, more hand painted ceilings. At the left staircase she stopped and hooked her arm around the railing, leaned back, elbow interlocked, and spun idly around to gaze up at the empty second story landing. Above her a painting of lions devouring gazelles swirled. "I like this place," Sam decided. A rare smile crossed her lips.
Sam blinked and righted herself to glance back at her parents. Her mother was gazing at her, jaw unhinged, as if she couldn't believe that Sam and her agreed on something.
Her father raised an eyebrow. "You do?" he asked.
Sam's smile faded. She rolled her eyes and scuffed a bit at the old hardwood floor. "It's alright," she admitted with a boneless shrug.
"That's it then," her father said, addressing the realtor. "We'll take it."
Welcome to Amity Park: self-proclaimed most haunted city in America, and her new home.
Sam peered out her window at the dense pine trees and the hastily attached fire escape that looked like some kind of last minute addition. She picked this room because of it's quick escape route, liking the idea that she could sneak in and out of the house at will. Outside the sun was falling as night approached. They had been moving in all day. Sam stretched a bit, wincing at the tense muscles in her back and neck.
Her parents said they moved to be closer to her grandmother, but Sam knew the truth. They moved because of her and all her 'issues.' Her rebellion, her lack of friends, her self-isolation, black eyeliner, metal music, sarcasm, morbid fascinations… and, yeah, she might've been in a few fights. But she hadn't started any, despite what her parents thought. She had defended herself…. and got expelled.
Sam grunted and lugged a box full of photos and books onto her new bed. She glared down at it.
Moving felt like running away. She wasn't afraid of her peers. She was different and different was good. Different also stuck out in high school. The tauntings, the bullying... Casper High would be the same. Summer vacation officially ended tomorrow, and with it began a new school year, in a new town, with the same old cliques.
Sam paused, seeing her mother hovering in the hallway. "What?"
"Need any help unpacking?" Pamela pushed herself off of the doorframe and moved into the bedroom, looking across Sam's things with ill-concealed worry.
Sam gazed at her horror movie posters and black ruffled bed sheets. "I'm fine."
"I wish you had just let the movers do this for you," Pamela said quietly. She tugged at her silk robe, pulling it tighter across her body with a shiver. As she walked near Sam's desk her fingers reached out to graze several of Sam's sketchbooks.
"I like doing things myself," Sam muttered. "Besides, I hate when people go through my stuff." She sent a pointed look at her mother.
Pamela withdrew her probing fingers and crossed her arms, holding them around her middle. She gazed at Sam for a long moment before she sighed and took a few steps forward to brush some of Sam's black hair out of her eyes. A lock was tucked behind her ear. "This will be so much better for you, honey." She smiled, cupping Sam's cheeks. "You can start over, clean slate."
Sam frowned, twisting out of her mother's grasp to look back down at her records. She flipped through a few of them silently. She wasn't sure if she wanted a clean slate.
"You know, when you were little you were so optimistic, so happy, so… different," her mother continued. "Your father and I just want you to be our happy, little girl again."
Sam gritted her teeth, not knowing what to say. It seemed happiness was something that faded with age. "That's not me." She was a realist. The only hope she had abandoned was false hope. "That's just not me. Not anymore."
"I know, sweetie, I know," her mother hummed, petting the top of her head for a few moments. Sam forced herself to stay in the embrace. Touching wasn't her thing, especially touching near her neck. "Anyway, isn't this place magnificent? And the town is… charming."
Sam peered around. Her room: four walls covered in purple victorian wallpaper, filigree trim, a four poster bed with plentiful pillows, and a tall three-up bay window complete with a window seat that overlooked the side garden. The garden itself was unkempt, grown wild from years of neglect. Several enormous pine trees swayed gently in the chilly September wind. They loomed up the side of the house to form a natural wall. "It's definitely different," she said. And she liked different. Different was good.
"You're the new girl?"
Sam tore her gaze off of her locker and turned, schedule in hand, to look over at a short African-American boy. He had on a red beret, glasses, toothy grin, and loose baggy pants. All of these things combined made him feel warm and likable. Sam shut her locker with a bang. "I'm the New Girl," she confirmed.
"Oh." He looked flummoxed for a moment, before he tilted his head. "Is that nose ring real?"
Sam reached up to tap at the ring. It bounced several times convincingly.
"...You really like black, huh?" the kid noted.
Sam resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Instead she stared straight back at him, face emotionless. "No, I hate black. I'm only wearing it to be ironic," she deadpanned.
To her surprise, the kid threw his head back and laughed. It was a loud and rambunctious laugh, one that made several students pause and look at them, their eyes lingering curiously. She could feel the weight of their judgements already. Her shield flew up, her shoulders hunched. "What do you want?" Sam snapped.
"Oh, sorry. I'm Tucker, Tucker Foley." He extended a hand, but took it back with a nervous chuckle when Sam made no move to shake it. He tapped his hand a few times against his leg instead. "I'm— uh— I'm supposed to show you around. You know, welcome you to Casper High. Go Ravens, and all that."
Sam slumped a little, feeling her guard break down at the pouty face the kid was giving her. "Look, sorry. I'm Sam Manson." She held out her schedule apologetically. "Wanna show me where these classes are?"
Tucker perked up. He grabbed her schedule from her, straightening his glasses as he squinted to read the small print. "Right. Oh man— You have homeroom with Teslaff. This way."
Casper High wasn't as big as her last high school. There were two main wings, east and west, connected by a large middle corridor where the cafeteria and main office were. The gym was near the back of the eastern wing, down a narrow set of cement steps, next to the football field. An early-morning mist curled about the grounds making the school feel sleepy. Beyond the football field a dense pine forest walled off the boundaries of the yard.
Halfway through her tour Sam knew she no longer needed directions, but she kept her mouth shut and continued nodding as Tucker dragged her along. Her mother had sent her off this morning with one task: make a friend. She was trying. This Foley kid seemed nice enough, although he was a little strange and talked a lot.
"—and this is where the band practices," Tucker was babbling, gesturing towards a pair of twin doors. "It's empty most of the time. Kids use it to make out." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively at her.
Sam wrinkled her nose, unsure if he was flirting with her. Beyond the small windows Sam could see rows of seats. An auditorium. Although, it seemed empty. Empty except for… "Who's that?" Sam asked.
Tucker paused, following her gaze. "Oh," he stated.
"Oh?" Sam asked. She took a few steps closer to peek inside, curious. There was a young woman sitting at the end of the first row. Her head was tucked between her crossed arms, body bent, hair spilling across the table, obscuring her face. She looked… sad. Sam knew incredible sadness when she saw it. She felt the urge to open the door and ask her if she was okay.
Tucker sidled up between her and the handle, making Sam retreat, blocking her view. He held his open hands out in front of his chest. "That's someone you shouldn't bother."
"Why not?" Sam challenged. She bristled at the warning. She could talk to whomever she wanted.
"That's… That's Valerie Gray," Tucker whispered. He glanced around the empty hallway like just speaking her name would cause something to happen. Nothing did.
Sam frowned. Everyone here seemed paranoid, on-edge, as if they were tip-toeing atop a minefield. Sam craned her neck to try and see around Tucker. "So, what'd she do?"
"She didn't do anything," Tucker glared, voice tinged with ire. His face softened after a moment and he sighed. His hand darted to readjust his glasses and he looked down at the linoleum floor.
The doors around them slammed open as the bell shrieked and within seconds they were engulfed by a sea of high schoolers. Chaos and chatter, scuffling and shoving. Sam stumbled as she got knocked in the shoulder. Tucker pressed her schedule back into her hands and gave her a thumbs up.
"We have English and US History together," he said loudly above the noise, "Try not to get lost until then."
"I won't get lost," Sam shot back defensively.
Tucker laughed another one of his boisterous laughs. His eyes twinkled with mirth. "I know you won't. The great Tucker Foley taught you, after all. Who can forget a face like this?" And with that parting remark he faded into a sea of sweaty youth.
Sam found herself alone, once again, in a crowd of people. She looked back through the door to the auditorium, but Valerie Gray was gone.
Sam glanced up off of her plate. Her parents stared back at her expectantly. Her mother had on one of her trademark fake smiles. Sam looked back down at her plate and shoveled her broccoli around before trying to stab them over and over with the fork. "So, what?" she mumbled.
"How was your first day?" her father asked.
Sam shrugged, not really in the mood to talk about it. If she was being completely honest, she would rather just eat her dinner up in her room and avoid family time altogether, but instead she let out a slow breath and said, "Fine."
"You make any new friends?" her mother probed, while loading up her plate with salad. She smiled encouragingly.
Sam knew it must be hard on her parents, her being this way. Especially two gung-ho optimistic bright shiny parents who had too much energy to know what to do with. Both jobless after inheriting a small fortune, they flung themselves at every and any cause. Already her mother had begun a petition to clean up Amity Park's namesake: the three-block-long central park that was quickly becoming a landfill. It was a trait that Sam both admired and hated. Oftentimes their campaigning bled into Sam's personal life. They pried with the same vigor they gave speeches. Always digging for an answer; never satisfied with the ones Sam gave.
"You don't make friends in a day," Sam stated flatly.
"Of course, honey," her father said. "But you are making an effort?"
"I said I would," Sam answered noncommittally. That seemed to appease her parents. They smiled at each other before returning to their meal. She thought of Tucker and Valerie, two people that she could, potentially, be friends with. But the thought of getting close to anyone made her tired. The people she loved had a habit of disappearing.
"I'm glad to hear that, honey," her mother said softly. "It'll be good to make some new friends. To move on."
Sam felt a snap of anger rush through her. Her eyes narrowed and her grip on her fork grew tight. "I'm not replacing anyone. I'm not moving on and just… just forgetting about her."
"We know" —her father blinked— "But—"
"It's not that easy," Sam continued. Her throat constricted and she felt her cheeks burn hot with frustration and sadness. Her neck ached. She reached back and rubbed it several times. "It's not that simple."
After dinner, Sam sped up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. This house still didn't feel like her own. It had a dizzying amount of rooms. It didn't smell like home, it didn't sound like home. She stepped on the second step from the top and it creaked, loudly. She hadn't learned how to sneak about in this place, but it seemed like everything she touched creaked or moaned.
As she yanked herself to the top of the stairs, intent to lock herself in her room for the rest of the night, a movement from outside gave her pause. She whipped her head around and gazed out the large entry windows. A group of people walked down the street, bundled in close formation. A strange light bounced, as if someone was leading the way with a flashlight.
Sam frowned and padded her way down the hall until she reached the master bedroom, which overlooked the front lawn and the street.
A group of about fifteen people were huddled together on the sidewalk, stopped at the metal gate that marked the beginning of the house's cobblestone walkway. A man dressed in all black led the group. He had on a top hat and what looked like a genuine oil lantern. His hands gesticulated wildly as he addressed the group. Sam pried the window open, just a little, to try and hear what he was saying. A bitingly cold breeze shot through and ruffled the curtains, but Sam couldn't make out what the man was saying. She watched until he made a small motion and turned, gazing once over the house, before moving on down the street, the throng of people following, a few snapping pictures. Sam hid behind the curtain and shut the window. Weird. Bizarre.
A gong-like sound resounded and echoed up the stairs into the room. It was deep and reverberated in her chest. Sam jumped. The sound continued, hitting three or four notes. It was only when it hit that last discordant bummmm that Sam realized it was the doorbell.
Sam returned to the second story landing as her mother came whirling out from the dining area.
"Wow, that was something," her mother laughed breathlessly, although she looked frazzled. She peered through the small peephole in the door before she unlocked the deadbolt and cracked it open a bit. "Hello? Can I help you?"
"We hope so," a woman's voice laughed cheerily. "We're some of the neighbors. We thought we'd welcome you. So, you know, here we are. Welcome!"
Pamela opened the door fully. "Oh, hello. You gave us a scare. We weren't expecting anyone at this hour." The porch light illuminated two figures, one a taller African-American woman, the other, a lanky dark-haired teen with pale skin. The boy held a basket full of what looked like peaches. They stood awkwardly on the doorstep, even after Pamela motioned for them to step inside. "Come in, it's getting cold outside. You'll catch your death."
"Thank you," the lady smiled an enormous grin. The pair took a few steps inside and spun, once, around the entryway as if absorbing in every detail. Sam could see them clearly now in the light of the house.
The older woman looked about late-thirties, early forties. She was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a tan leather jacket, maroon scarf wound around her neck. Her hair was wild, spilling in tight ringlets about her shoulders, skin dark and smooth, unblemished. Her smile grew nostalgic. Her hand moved to rest atop the shoulder of the boy in wonderment. The kid looked like some sort of actor, although she couldn't place exactly who. He had a timeless quality. He had on a soft-looking gray sweater and black pants. His dark hair was parted and sculpted with gel. Sam fidgeted against the banister, and immediately a pair of the bluest blue eyes were upon her. She felt like she had just swallowed an icicle. He made her nervous.
"Sam, come on down and meet….?"
"Evelyn." The woman smiled. "And this is Danny."
Mr. Blue— no Danny— sent her a shy smile. Evelyn tightened her grip on his shoulder.
"Pamela Manson," her mother introduced, shaking each of their hands. She seemed to like these two with all their politeness and peaches. She glanced down at the basket in awe. "These are just lovely. I didn't know peaches were in season."
"Oh, if you know where to look…" Evelyn waved a hand. "I saw the moving truck. Your family moved in about a week ago?"
"Yes, it's been a fiasco. Boxes everywhere," Pamela chattered. "Come on in, we'll put these in the kitchen. This way." She wandered down the hallway.
Evelyn followed her mother, but the boy stayed behind.
Sam made her way down one of the staircases, managing not to trip. With a thud she landed on the last step and cast a wary gaze over at the boy.
He merely raised an eyebrow at her. "Nice boots."
"They're good for stomping."
"Sam's short for Samantha?"
"I prefer Sam," she said, clipped. She winced. This was exactly why she had trouble making friends. She was instantly suspicious of anyone that seemed to enjoy her company. She hated small talk, and had a biting sarcasm that scared away most prospects.
The boy merely grinned, unaffected. "Sam it is." He held out an arm and gestured at where her mother had trailed off. "After you, Sam."
Sam eyed him suspiciously, having never encountered a boy with manners. Immediately she wondered what his motives were. As she moved down the corridor she glanced over her shoulder at him, but he paid her little attention. He was looking up and down at the paintings, at the filigree, running a hand along the wood paneling. His fingertips traveled over the grooves of the hand-carved wood, knocking little pockets of dust free.
"...This is all…. new…" Evelyn was saying as the pair of them entered the kitchen.
"A lot of the old appliances were from the sixties, so we'll be replacing them. Don't want any accidental house fires now, do we?" her mother asked breezily. She placed the basket of peaches on the middle island. Already bits and pieces of the kitchen had been removed to prepare for the remodel. Most of the stovetops and the oven had been gutted.
"Oh certainly not," Evelyn agreed, although her face had lost it's rosy tinge. She was eyeing the torn up kitchen with ill-concealed distaste. "It's just, with a house this old one must be careful to preserve the original style."
Sam leaned against the counter and glanced over at the boy who was taking in the kitchen the way one took in their bedroom after a month long trip. She suddenly felt uneasy. Like, even though this was her house, she didn't belong here.
"Although we're all so glad your family moved in here," the woman continued. "Did you know they were going to demolish this house if no one bought it? A house such as this? What a waste."
Her mother paused in taking out two glasses for water and peered back at the pair of them. "Where did you say you two live?"
"Oh, just up the street," Evelyn beamed.
"Right," her mother breathed. "Would you like some water? Tea?"
"We're fine, thank you. So tell me, is it just you and your daughter? She looks to be, what? Fifteen? Sixteen? Almost the same age as you, Danny."
"She's sixteen. Sophomore in high school."
"She can talk, you know," Sam muttered.
"My husband's out running an errand but he'll be back any second," Pamela cut in smoothly, filling up her cup with tea, sipping at it nervously.
Evelyn blinked several times as she processed what her mother said. Realization dawned upon her features. She gasped. "Oh! Of course. I apologize. How rude of us to just barge in here and act like we own the place. We'll be on our way. It's getting late, anyway, and there's still plenty to do." She motioned for the boy to head for the front door. Sam wondered briefly who Evelyn was to him. A surrogate mother? Stepmother?
He pushed himself off of where he was leaning against the wall and followed Pamela and Evelyn as they made for the front entryway.
Sam took up the rear, watching their backs as they ducked through the dim lighting of the house. The lights glimmered off the boy's shoulders and cast strange shadows at his feet.
"I don't mean to rush you guys out, it's just that we weren't expecting visitors," Pamela explained, opening the front door.
"It was nice to meet you." Evelyn held out a hand. "I can't wait to get to know you and your family better."
As the two women exchanged pleasantries, Danny faced Sam. He tossed her a small smile. It was sweet. Sam couldn't help but return it.
"I'll see you around, Boots," he promised, then moved out of the house and onto the sidewalk before Sam could respond. The two of them vanished just as inexplicably as they had appeared. She peered beyond the curtain, unable to see their forms on the sidewalk or the street.
Her mother closed and locked the door. "Well," she announced, "they seemed nice."