First Chapters – THE HAUNTING SEASON

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Be careful what you let in…

Siler House has stood silent beneath Savannah’s moss-draped oaks for decades. Notoriously haunted, it has remained empty until college-bound Jess Perry and three of her peers gather to take part in a month-long study on the paranormal. Jess, who talks to ghosts, quickly bonds with her fellow test subjects. One is a girl possessed. Another just wants to forget. The third is a guy who really knows how to turn up the August heat, not to mention Jess’s heart rate…when he’s not resurrecting the dead.

The study soon turns into something far more sinister when they discover that Siler House and the dark forces within are determined to keep them forever. In order to escape, Jess and the others will have to open themselves up to the true horror of Siler House and channel the very evil that has welcomed them all.

Here’s the entire first chapter of THE HAUNTING SEASON…

Siler House loomed before them, dark and inscrutable despite the late afternoon sun. Jess couldn’t take her eyes from the turrets and spires as her stepfather, Paul, guided the Ford Explorer down the private drive, which was flanked by shadowy old oaks curtained with moss.

In the brochure she’d read, the house had been photographed against a bright blue sky. Now, with the sun beginning to dip below the horizon, the house looked darker, more mysterious. It was as though it harbored something she could only explain as an essence or soul.

Of course, houses or manors, no matter how old, weren’t living, breathing things. At times, they only appeared that way—as if the souls of all who had wandered the halls left a bit of themselves behind.

Her younger sister, Lily, pressed her small face against the glass. “Is it really haunted?”

“Nonsense,” their mother snapped from the front seat.

“But all old houses are supposed to be haunted,” Lily protested as she sat back in her seat.

“Especially in Savannah,” her stepfather murmured, earning him what her real father used to call the stink eye from her mother. Paul wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, he’d done everything possible to earn Jess’s trust after marrying her mother a couple of years ago. It had been hard on Jess at first. Her parents had divorced shortly before Jess turned fifteen and her mother remarried almost a year and a half later. Until then, Jess had hoped her parents would get back together. But, in her way, Jess had also come to love Paul. Not like she’d loved her father, but Paul was definitely as cool as a stepfather could be. For one thing, he’d been on her side when she’d told her mother she wanted to go to Siler House. Of course, money had been an issue, too. The stay at Siler House was a paid study, which meant she could replenish what her mother had to take from her college fund to pay the mortgage and car loans.

Jess hadn’t begrudged what her mother had to do. The company Paul used to work for had laid off the entire engineering department, and it had taken nearly a year to find another job. Still, the money they had taken had wiped out almost half of Jess’s college fund. According to the study’s contract, the payments would be divided into thirds. One portion to be paid at time of acceptance, one to be paid halfway through the experiment, and the final check would come once the experiment was finished. Her mom had been skeptical since the total amount was rather substantial, but Jess had been adamant about signing up.

“It’s history, Janice,” Paul said. His tone remained upbeat and playful, which was so typical of him. “Savannah has been through war and a few other major tragedies, including a couple of bouts with yellow fever. They buried people in mass graves. Now, hotels, restaurants, and parking lots sit on top of burial grounds. Savannah is literally a community built on the dead. It’s why they call Savannah the most haunted city in America.”

Paul smiled at her mother, but she didn’t reciprocate. Jess and Lily exchanged shrugs. They knew when their mother’s expressions were all play and when they were a thinly veiled warning. And ghosts were a sore point with her. How many times had Jess been called out for going on about ghosts and hauntings? A hundred times? More?

Stop filling your sister’s head with such foolishness. You’ll give her nightmares!

“It’s beautiful,” Jess said as they passed more moss-draped oaks.

Her mother turned in her seat, looking stern. “Remember our agreement.”

Jess nodded, although she was eighteen now—even if it was only by a few months. Of course, the agreement she’d made with her mother still held since she had been seventeen when they’d first agreed on the deal. Jess had been raised to believe that promises and deals were something you followed through on. Part of the reason her mother had given in to Jess’s participation in Dr. Brandt’s study was to prove that ghosts didn’t exist—that anything Jess thought she had seen was nothing more than a young girl’s grief and an overactive imagination. The agreement? If the study produced no solid evidence, Jess would give up her fascination with ghosts. Jess found it both amusing and sad how sometimes promises and deals became more complicated the older she got.

Jess fumbled clumsily for the door handle as Paul pulled the vehicle to a stop. She pushed the door open and got out, still staring at the house.

Siler House was like the belle of the ball, dressed in elegant black, discreetly standing in the shadows and watching her guests. The place looked more like a plantation home or mansion than a regular house. It stood proudly—an expanse of well-kept brick and stone with an angular roofline etched high against the sky and an English garden at its feet. Not just proud, Jess amended. Siler House imparted a certain sense of arrogance. She supposed anything built more than a hundred years ago and still standing had a right to such an exaggerated air of importance. More so, if there was any truth to what Dr. Brandt, the parapsychologist and head of the study, had said. He claimed that Siler House, and the spirits within it, might be the real thing—a channel into the afterlife.

At last. This was it. For a whole month, it would be her, Dr. Brandt, and three other participants roughly her age. And, if everything went well, ghosts. Lots of ghosts.

It was like spring break, only for paranormal freaks.

Car doors slammed behind her. “Jess! Wait!”

Her mother’s exasperated tone barely registered. Yes, this was the place. Or, at least she hoped. Jess had been to places on an even grander scale—like the Biltmore Estate back home in Asheville. Even in Chimney Rock there were Victorian homes she suspected were just as old as Siler House. But none of them made a first impression like this. Excitement flooded her senses and she bit her lip. Please, please let this work.

“Why can’t you wait for the rest of us?” her mother said, the slightest edge of disapproval in her voice. “Why do you always have to be in a hurry?”

What she really meant was that Jess was too much like her father, which was fine with her. Especially since his recent death. Her father hadn’t remarried and he’d died alone. How could Jess explain that Siler House was hope, a chance to reconnect with her dad and Grams?

Her grandmother had been her first ghost sighting. After Grams died, Jess doubted that what she was seeing was her ghost. But soon afterward, Jess started to see other ghosts, too. People appeared in the crowd one minute and disappeared the next. Sometimes, they terrified her, like the two women who’d popped up in an otherwise empty department store bathroom. Once, Jess witnessed an angry ghost who was behind a restaurant bar. The ghost somehow caused a patron to spill his drink. But most of the ghosts she saw were perfectly harmless and often shy. A few were even afraid of the living.

Ghosts didn’t appear all the time, which was probably a good thing, or Jess figured she’d have been sent to the psychiatrist’s office a lot more often. Since Grams’s death a few years ago, the sightings came and went. Sometimes, weeks went by before Jess saw a ghost. Jess hadn’t minded. Ghosts were ghosts, and, by definition, creepy, no matter how social or well meaning.

When her dad had died back in January, Jess had waited, certain she’d see him again. Nights, weeks, and months had passed, but he never came to her. Not like Grams. Not like the others. No word, no sightings, not even a dream. When she’d grown angry and bitter, the rest of the ghosts had stopped showing up and Jess had missed them.

“Jess!”

“Sorry,” Jess replied absently. She waited until she heard the wheels of her American Tourister luggage skating against the concrete walk.

“What in God’s name did you pack in here?” Paul mumbled. “Feels like a dead body.”

Jess smiled, knowing Paul was probably getting the stink eye again. She looked up, searching the windows above.

The act wasn’t lost on her mother, who scoured the windows as well. “There’s no one there,” she said quietly. “Please, Jess. I know it’s been hard. Don’t do this to yourself.” She tentatively reached for Jess’s arm, as though she expected her daughter to lash out or break.

Or break down. Again.

“We could put your vivid imagination to good use. Maybe creative writing or something.”

Her misplaced imagination.

“We’ll go home,” her mother continued. “Right now if you want. Just say the word.”

Just say that ghosts don’t exist. Go back to taking your meds. Admit Dad and Grams are gone forever. We’ll return the check. You can get a full-time job and take classes at the junior college instead.

“I’m fine, Mom.”

No one peered out from the windows yet, but Jess sensed someone or something watching all the same. Maybe it was her imagination or just wishful thinking, but Jess wondered if the house itself was looking back, regarding her with reserved curiosity. She imagined it inviting her in, envisioned Siler House whispering its secrets to her, showing her how to reopen the passage to the other side.

I’ll find you, Dad. I’ll find the way like I did with Grams. Like I did with the others. I’ll prove to everyone that I’m not some crazy kid with imaginary friends.

Jess walked up the porch steps to the double doors and took hold of the doorknob, feeling the weight of it, the ridges of the tooled, oiled brass in her hand. If she believed hard enough, maybe she’d be able to see ghosts again.

I’m here. At long last, I’m here.

Taking in a breath and closing her eyes tightly, she turned the knob and gave the door a light push.

Please let ghosts exist here. If anyone’s listening, help me. Tell me you’ll help me connect.

She imagined she heard someone answering—maybe a former inhabitant of Siler House.

. . .We will.

In her mind, men and women dressed in turn-of-the-century attire and anxiously awaiting the new arrivals hurried to look out the windows from the upstairs rooms.

Other than a soft snick, the door had opened soundlessly. For a moment, she replayed her last visit with Grams. Jess recalled Grams standing before her, just as real as when she’d been alive. She’d smiled at Jess and issued a gentle warning as she slowly began to fade from sight.

Be careful what you let in, Jess. Promise that you won’t come looking for me anymore.

But why, Grams?

Because I’m not the only one who can answer.

Jess opened her eyes and stepped across the threshold.

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