“Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, Skye is living up to its Gaelic name today, the Island of Mist, so could the foot passengers please mind their step on the gangplank as it can get quite slippery out there. Welcome to the Sleat Peninsula, everyone, and enjoy your time on the island.”
The hand that clapped down on my shoulder from behind made me jump and I whirled round to see my uncle standing there with an umbrella.
The gangplank led on to a sloped metal walkway that rose up out of the sea on stilts. The moment I stepped on to it, the wind whipped my hair on to my face, and I could taste salt on my lips. By the time I reached the car park I was thoroughly soaked.
I stared around, wondering where Uncle James would be. I couldn’t see him anywhere and, for a horrible moment, I was afraid he hadn’t come. Maybe he’d forgotten or got the times mixed up. I felt a twist of panic and dumped my case on the wet tarmac so I could take my phone from my pocket.
The hand that clapped down on my shoulder from behind made me jump and I whirled round to see my uncle standing there with an umbrella. Tall and darkhaired, he looked nothing like Mum, but then they were stepsiblings rather than blood ones.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I wasn’t sure it was you to begin with. You’ve grown up since I saw you last.”
“It’s… It’s been a long time,” I said, not sure what else to say.
“Yes, it has,” Uncle James replied. “A long time. A very long time.” He was looking at me, but his expression was distant and I wondered if he was remembering the last time we’d met, when Rebecca had still been alive. Then he shook his head and seemed to see me again. “You’re soaked,” he said. “Let’s get you into the car.”
I got into the front seat and shivered, wishing we were already at the house so that I could change into some dry clothes.
“I hope you had a good journey, anyway?” Uncle James said, as he got in. “It’s a long way to come on your own and this weather doesn’t help. We don’t have the best summers in Skye, I’m afraid.”
“Is it always this foggy?” I asked. The fog seemed to be coming in off the sea in waves.
“Pretty much. The west coast is littered with shipwrecks because of captains who thought the fog was thin and that they’d be able to see the island in time. Entire crews have drowned as a result.”
The mention of drowning made me think of Jay again, but not the way I wanted to think of him, not the living, breathing, laughing best friend I’d always known, but a body sprawled by the side of the canal, soaking wet and stone cold and gone forever.
I felt suddenly tired. It was an hour and a half ’s drive to the house and I leaned my head against the window, meaning to close my eyes for just a second, but I fell asleep straight away and woke up some time later to Uncle James tapping my shoulder. The rain clouds and the fog made it seem very dark outside.
“We’re here, Sophie,” he said.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked up, expecting to see a house. But instead I saw gates looming up before us in the harsh glare of the headlights. They were huge – two metres at least, set in a brick wall that was just as tall. A heavy-looking chain bound them together, and I watched as Uncle James got out and unlocked them before getting back into the car.
A long, stone building huddled in the gleam of the headlights.
“I’ll give you the code for the combination lock, but you must never leave the gates open,” he said.
Daddy says never ever open the gate…
I sat up in my seat, suddenly wide awake. I was sure the Ouija-board app had said something just like that.
“Why?” My voice came out as a dry croak.
I saw Uncle James’s mouth tighten. “It’s not safe,” he said. “In the morning you’ll see – the house is on a clifftop. It’s not safe in bad weather. Or after dark.”
We drove through and he got out and locked the gates behind us. A long, stone building huddled in the gleam of the headlights. I thought I saw a twitch of movement from one of the upstairs windows, as if a curtain had been pulled back and then quickly dropped. A strange little turret rose up from the centre of the slate roof in the middle.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at it.
“The old bell tower,” Uncle James replied. “This used to be the schoolhouse. There’s no bell there any more, though. It’s too windy here for that. It rang all the time and I couldn’t concentrate on my paintings. Well, your cousins will certainly be keen to see you – Piper has talked of nothing else for days.”
Now that I had finally arrived, I almost wished I was back on the ferry. I ran my fingers through my hair, hoping that it hadn’t dried in too much of a mess. Uncle James parked the car and we got out, our feet crunching on the gravel drive. The sea breeze was cool against my skin and I could hear the distant crashing of waves somewhere out in the fog.
“What’s that burning smell?” I asked, suddenly becoming aware of it – a smell of smoke and hot ash. “I can’t smell anything,” Uncle James said and, weirdly, neither could I. The smell had disappeared all of a sudden, snatched away on the salty sea wind.
Uncle James took my case from the boot and I followed him into the house. We walked into a deserted entrance hall with a tiled floor and a steep staircase leading up to the first floor. I didn’t like the look of that staircase. Something about it made my neck prickle. It was too tall and too steep. An accident waiting to happen. A staircase to break your neck on. And it was too warm inside the house, a stifling sort of airlessness that made sweat trickle down my back.
“That’s funny,” Uncle James said. “I thought they’d all be here to greet us.”
At that moment a door opened to the left and a girl came out. She was my own age so I knew this must be Piper. I remembered her being pretty, but the girl that rushed forward to greet me wasn’t just pretty, she was incredibly beautiful. She wore jeans and a simple pink sleeveless top with a high neckline. Her gorgeous strawberry-blonde hair was pulled up into a thick ponytail and her eyes were a deep seagreen colour that made me think of mermaids.
I felt plain in comparison, and a little awkward, but Piper came straight up and threw her arms around me as if we were long lost sisters.
I’m afraid you won’t find Cameron quite as you remember him. He hasn’t been the same since … well… Our family has had its share of troubles, as I’m sure you know.
“Hello, Sophie,” she said, hugging me tight. “I’m so pleased that you’ve come to stay with us!”
“I’m glad too,” I said, wishing I didn’t sound so stiff and formal, and that my hair wasn’t such a total mess.
“Where’s Cameron?” Uncle James asked.
I saw Piper hesitate for a moment, as if she knew her dad wouldn’t like the answer. Then she said, “I… I’m not sure. He might have gone to his room. I’m sure he wanted to be here to greet Sophie but I think maybe he wasn’t feeling very well…”
“Don’t try to cover up for him, Piper!” Uncle James said sharply. “He seemed perfectly well when I left and I made it quite clear that he was to be here to greet his cousin when we arrived.”
I felt awkward about Cameron getting into trouble on my account and thought I ought to say something. “That’s all right—” I began.
“It’s not all right,” Uncle James cut me off. “It’s extremely rude and I can only apologize on his behalf. I’m afraid you won’t find Cameron quite as you remember him. He hasn’t been the same since … well… Our family has had its share of troubles, as I’m sure you know.”
I nodded and bit my tongue. I had to pick the right time to start asking questions about Rebecca and the second I arrived didn’t seem quite appropriate.
“And what about Lilias?” Uncle James asked. “Has she suddenly fallen ill too?”
“She’s up there, Dad,” Piper said. “On the staircase.”
I realized, with a start, that Piper was right – there was a girl sitting on the stairs, but she had been so silent and unmoving that I hadn’t noticed her. Now I looked at the dark-haired girl staring down at us, unsmiling, from between the balustrades.
“Lilias, come down here and say hello to Sophie, please,” Uncle James said.
Lilias got to her feet, but rather than coming down, she turned round and, without a word, ran back up the stairs. A second later, we heard a door slam.
“You mustn’t mind Lilias,” Uncle James said. “She’s a nervous sort of child, but she’ll soon get used to you. Piper, why don’t you show Sophie around the house before dinner?’
“Of course. Come on, I’ll give you the tour. We’ll start with your room and you can dump your bag.”
I picked up my suitcase and followed her up the stairs.
“These all used to be bedrooms for the schoolmistress and the girls back when this was a school,” Piper said cheerfully. “This will be your room.” She threw open the door nearest the stairs and we walked into a bedroom with big bay windows and a vase of purple butterwort flowers on the dressing table.
Her cheerful tone had disappeared for the first time since I’d arrived so I didn’t dare ask any more questions.
“I’m so pleased you’re here,” Piper said. “I could really use the company. Lilias is too young and Cameron … well … he’s not much fun these days, I’m afraid. Let’s see if he’s skulking in his room.”
I felt a bit nervous as I followed her down the hall, but when Piper opened the door to Cameron’s room, it was empty.
“I suppose he’s taken himself off somewhere.” Piper sighed. “You mustn’t pay any attention to him, Sophie, the only thing he cares about is his music.” I could tell as much from his bedroom, which was covered in loose piles of sheet music. “He really is very good, in spite of his … well, his injury. He’ll never be quite as accomplished as he was before, though, so you have to make allowances for him. I think that’s why he can be a bit … just a bit abrupt sometimes. He doesn’t mean it. That’s what I try to remember when he says cruel things to me, and you must do the same.”
I thought back to meeting Cameron when we were kids and remembered him as a fun, good-natured boy who’d made a real effort to include me in games with his sisters. I found it hard to imagine him saying cruel things to anyone.
“He won’t be like you remember him,” Piper said, as if reading my mind.
“What did you mean about him having an injury?” I asked. “I don’t remember that.”
“Oh, it was after we came to see you,” Piper replied. “He hurt his hand. In the fire. But don’t mention it to him, whatever you do – he’s terribly sensitive about it.”
She showed me the other upstairs rooms – except for the one in between my room and Lilias’s.
“What’s in there?” I asked, pointing at the closed door.
“We… We don’t use that room,” Piper said. “Not any more.” She glanced at me and added under her breath, “It used to be my sister’s room, you see. Rebecca’s.”
Her cheerful tone had disappeared for the first time since I’d arrived so I didn’t dare ask any more questions. We went downstairs and Piper showed me the rest of the house, the heart of which was a huge, long room with a lofty vaulted ceiling, full-height windows and an actual stage at one end.
“This used to be the school hall,” Piper said. “That’s why it’s so big. The pupils used to come here for assembly, and they performed their school plays on that stage there.”
It was both a dining and sitting room, with a dining table set at one end and a couch area at the other. I felt a bit unnerved by the tall windows running down its length. It still wasn’t dark outside but the rain clouds cloaked everything in shadow, and the effect of so many uncovered windows made it seem like the gloom was pressing in against the glass, trying to get into the house. I was used to curtains at home, and these bare windows made me feel like anyone could be staring in at us from outside and we would have no idea.
A teacher stood next to them, unsmiling, with her hands clasped primly in front of her. She looked plain and extremely serious. The children looked very serious too.
A massive black piano gleamed in the centre of the stage. Piper scrambled up on to it and I followed her.
“This is Cameron’s piano,” she said, running her hand over the smooth, polished surface. “It’s a Baby Grand. Dad bought it for him before his accident, back when we all thought he was going to be the next Mozart or something. It’s worth an absolute fortune – Dad had to remortgage the house to buy it. It’s Cameron’s pride and joy. Sometimes I think he cares about this piano more than he cares about any of us.” She laughed, but it came out kind of hollow.
Next, we went into a room that smelled of chalk, with a big blackboard attached to one wall and three old-fashioned desks lined up in front of it. “This was one of the classrooms,” Piper said. “Those desks are from the original school. Cameron, Rebecca and me used to do our homework here and Lilias still does during term time. Look, this photo is of the school in 1910.”
She pointed at the framed black and white photo hanging on the wall. It showed the house, looking exactly the same except that it didn’t have the high wall built around it, and you could clearly see the bell in the bell tower. A class of children were lined up outside the front door – there were about twenty of them, all girls, aged seven or eight. A teacher stood next to them, unsmiling, with her hands clasped primly in front of her. She looked plain and extremely serious. The children looked very serious too.
“I don’t think they had much fun in the olden days, do you?” Piper asked with a laugh.
There was one girl in particular who caught my eye. She was in the front row, beside the teacher, and she was facing the photographer but she wouldn’t have been able to see him because she had a piece of cloth tied over her eyes. It reminded me of the blindfolds they covered someone’s eyes with when they were about to be executed.
“Why is that girl wearing a blindfold?” I asked, pointing at her.
Piper shrugged. “I don’t know. She must have had something wrong with her eyes, I suppose. Maybe she was blind?”
There were other photos on the wall, family photos. And one of them showed Cameron, Piper and Rebecca. It must have been taken around the time they came to visit because they looked just as I remembered them. Cameron stood between his sisters, with an arm around each of them – he was smiling into the camera and so were the two girls. My eyes were drawn instantly to Rebecca. She had been incredibly pretty, with long black hair and violet eyes.
“That was one of the last photos taken of Rebecca,” Piper said at my side. She sighed and said, “We look so happy, don’t we? I often look at this photo and wish I could go back to that moment. That I could warn them all about what was going to happen to us.”
As she spoke she glanced at a photo of Aunt Laura that was hanging on the wall. Piper had clearly inherited her looks from her mum – they were very much alike, right down to the strawberry-blonde hair. “Do you ever see her?” I asked.
I didn’t know much about Aunt Laura, only that she’d had a nervous breakdown a couple of years ago and been committed to some kind of hospital.
Piper shook her head. “Dad visits her sometimes but the doctors don’t think it will help her recovery to see us kids right now so we don’t go. She just couldn’t cope after Rebecca died. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why Lilias is always so serious, you know? Mum cried every single day in the months before she was born. Cameron makes Lilias smile sometimes, but he’s the only one who can. And she never laughs.”
I stared at her again. “No one came here with me, Lilias.” “She was holding your hand when you walked through the front door.”
“Not that I’ve seen. I don’t think she knows how, poor thing. Anyway, I’d better go and finish dinner. You’ve got time to go and freshen up if you want to.”
I went back upstairs to my bedroom, where I changed into some fresh clothes and brushed my hair. When I opened the door to go back downstairs, Lilias was standing in the corridor. She was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved turtleneck top, which surprised me – it was so muggy and warm inside the house, I’d swapped my top for a T-shirt. In her hands she held a soft toy ostrich.
“Hello,” I said. Then I gestured to her ostrich and added, “What’s your friend’s name?”
I half thought she might run away again, but instead she held up her toy for me to see and said, “This is my ostrich. Her name is Hannah. She’s my best friend. She never says bad things to me. She never tells me to do horrible things.”
“Er … that’s good,” I said.
“Who’s your friend?” Lilias asked.
“The girl that came here with you.”
I stared at her. “No one came with me.”
“Yes, she did.” Lilias insisted. She pointed at Rebecca’s closed door and added, “She just went in there. She said it was her room but that’s not true. That’s my sister’s room.”
I stared at her again. “No one came here with me, Lilias.”
“She was holding your hand when you walked through the front door.”
I swallowed hard and, in my best, firm, grown-up voice, said, “That’s not true.”
She scowled at me. “It is true,” she said. “I don’t tell lies. You’re the liar. I think you knew she was holding your hand all along. I think you brought her to our house on purpose. I wish you hadn’t come! I don’t like you and neither does Hannah!”
And with that she ran straight past me, down the stairs and out of sight. So far I was doing a pretty rubbish job of trying to make friends with her. I stared after her for a second and then, slowly, turned my eyes to Rebecca’s closed door. I walked over and paused outside it. Then I reached out and brushed my fingertips lightly against its surface.
The next second I gasped and snatched my hand back. The door was icy cold to the touch, but it wasn’t just the coldness that shocked me – it was the sudden sense of stone-cold evil I could feel radiating from the shut-up room. I couldn’t have put the feeling into words, not properly, not in a way that would make sense to anyone else, but it was dark and horrible and malevolent, and it made me feel slightly sick.
I shivered and rubbed at the goosebumps on my arms. I felt a sudden urge to run – run as far away from this place as I could and never, ever look back. But, as I stood there staring at the door, I heard a thump, as if something heavy had just fallen on to the floor.
And I could have sworn the sound came from inside Rebecca’s room.