Dakota stared lazily out the back seat window; the constant scrolling of pine trees put her in a half sleep stupor. Unlike her mother, Dakota never became car sick, which helped her deal with the six-hour drive through the Colorado Mountains.
The rental truck carrying all of their belongings was a full day ahead of them, and had probably already arrived at the family’s new estate.
Her father, a former real estate agent from Arizona, was considering the move away from his home town of Phoenix ever since Dakota had been born. He found their new property through professional connections; the asking price dropped considerably with the failing economy, and her father jumped at the opportunity. The brochure and web-ad really presented the house (a small mansion) amazingly, and Dakota would have been more excited if she didn’t have to give up all of her school and neighborhood friends. Where they were moving, there wasn’t even a neighborhood.
The house, according to the brochure, was built in 1947 for the poet Robert Banes and his secret male lover. The estate sat on three acres (one acre grass, two acres woodland) and was located about ten minutes away from the nearest town of Monte Sombra. It was three stories, not including a basement, with a giant wrought iron spiral staircase in the atrium that led all the way to the attic bedroom, which Dakota had already claimed in her mind. Her mind ran wild with all of the adventurous possibilities of living in such a bedroom.
The previous owner had been a metal-smith artist, designing statues for city parks all over the United States. He died without an heir, leaving the property and surrounding gardens filled with all his creations: lawn ornaments, patio furniture, garden gates, and fountains. Her father, a man of practicality, wanted to get rid of all the works of art, in an effort to enhance a more post-modern professional appearance; he intended on turning the former workshop into a home office. Luckily, Dakota’s mother, Mrs. Catherine Blake, had sided with her on the protest, and the art pieces stayed.
Dakota loved one aspect of the new house more than any of the rest, and that was the graveyard. The property line ran adjacent to the town’s original graveyard from the 1800’s. As far as she could tell from the website’s virtual tour, the only way to access the abandoned graveyard was a small footpath that ran from the base of the driveway into the woods. A plot of land filled with dead people wasn’t as appealing to her as everything above ground. She loved the cracked marble angels, the vines, iron fence posts, and the blanket of leaves. Rather than getting the creeps from standing above a bunch of dead people, Dakota found beauty in the peace of rest. Fond of games, she would try and find as many gravestones as she could that shared her name, or she would try and find the oldest marked grave.
At seven years old, Dakota was unusually perceptive enough to see through the ruse of their move. Her father, Mr. Edward Blake, claimed he needed a change of scenery, which was partially true, but was a solution, not a problem. The original need for the new town, new house, and new job, stemmed from the grief of a miscarriage her mom suffered a few months ago. Dakota was at an awkward stage in life when it happened. Old enough to understand death, she knew that her baby brother or sister, once alive, had passed away, but in her mind, he or she went to heaven, and that was that. It was sad for her, not having the chance to grow up with a sibling, but she had absolutely no idea the amount of heartache it caused her mother. Catherine was a strong woman, and refused to show the pain of loss, especially around Dakota, but the bottled anguish would transform into late night arguments with her husbands, and fits of sobbing. Such outbursts were hard to hide from her daughter. Both Edward and Catherine agreed the move was for the best. Though Dakota, a young and intelligent third-grader, complained about losing friends, her parents felt that the sooner they left, the easier the transition would be for her.
Though it was early afternoon, just a little after 4 o’clock, the sun had set behind the tall mountain peaks. They had at least two more hours of daylight, but the shining warmth had left them. All around, Dakota saw the fall colors as they were meant to be seen. The green pines were decorated with groves of aspens, giving her the impression that the forest around her was on fire.
As her eyes grew heavy, sagging to a close, Dakota suddenly let out a yelp, and jerked her face away from the window. From the shadows of the woods, she saw a tall figure, in an old tanned-leather duster, like what cowboys wore in her father’s movies. The man, also in a leather wide-brimmed hat, was chopping wood with an ax, and when the car passed, he turned and looked directly into Dakota’s eyes, with what she imagined was intense malice, almost hatred.
“What is it, sweetie?” he father asked, clearly startled himself. He leaned forward a turned around, afraid that his daughter had been hurt somehow.
“I saw something. It scared me, that’s all.” When the moment had passed, Dakota felt very foolish, and a little embarrassed, about becoming startled. There really was no need, as it was clear-
Mr. Blake slammed on his brakes, and everyone was thrown into their seat belts rather violently. The screech of tires sliced through the calm mountain air.
“Sorry, everyone,” Edward said, pulling the car into a driveway, “we almost missed our turn. We’re finally here.”
The trees bent over the driveway like an arch or tunnel, reminding Dakota of royalty, like she was driving toward a hidden castle far away from the safety of society. She noticed the beginning of the graveyard trail out her window, but the trail turned out of sight almost immediately.
When they approached the house, everyone was pleasantly surprised. The fall colors added a surreal beauty to the wood framed exterior. The moving truck was outside, and the empty truck suggested the workers were almost finished unloading the last of the boxes.
Dakota wasn’t nearly as concerned about unloading the packages from the car as she was exploring, and as soon as her father parked the car, Dakota ran upstairs to find the bedroom she would call her own.
The large iron staircase was ornately decorated in a stylistic fashion with which Dakota was unaccustomed. Gargoyle faces, gryphons, nymphs, and fairies were shaped into the railings, spiraling up to the metallic landing overlooking the atrium and living room. She saw a wooden door with an iron ring in the ceiling above the landing, and assumed that was the door to her future bedroom.
She raced toward the staircase eagerly but was rudely interrupted by a sudden fall to the floor at the foot of the first iron step. Dakota looked back at a short series of wooden steps leading to the spiral staircase, and saw she had tripped on the second step. Even curiouser, though, was that the wooden step had flipped up when her foot caught it. She examined the stair, and was delighted to find a hidden compartment, clearly intentional, as the stair opened with a pair of small hidden hinges. The possibility that the entire house might be filled with small compartments and hidden passages thrilled Dakota, and she ran up the stairs to start searching her room immediately.
Once on the landing, Dakota became distinctly aware of a problem she had overlooked: she was afraid of heights. Though the staircase and landing was structurally sound, the floor had wide slots in which she could see all the way to the floor. She looked up quickly, knowing that looking down would make it worse. On her tip-toes, she could barely reach the iron ring, dangling from the mysterious wooden door. She pulled hard, and with a mighty creak, it opened downward, revealing a pullout ladder that one might expect with entrances to modern attics.
She climbed into her bedroom, slowly. The emptiness was strange to her, as if she was expecting a room still fully furnished with a little princess bed, dolls, and a small painted chair.
The room was completely barren, except for a bureau in the corner. It was divided down the middle, with the left side containing small drawers, and the right side was a sort of cupboard. The mirror on top was so incredibly dirty, that she couldn’t see any reflection. Just a thin layer of dirt. She examined it closely, pulling out all of the drawers, and opening the cupboard. It was completely empty. She did notice something odd. The bureau seemed to be attached to wall, unable to move. Sure enough, looking inside the cupboard, she could that the back was the whitewashed wood paneling that made up the interior of her bedroom. Crawling inside, she pushed the wood panel, and felt it give slightly. She pulled her hand back, and the wood popped toward her with a little click. Behind the false back, built in the wall itself, was a little compartment, barely big enough to fit a small child such as herself. She peered into the darkness, but couldn’t get a good view with her body blocking the light from the windows. Something glinted, though, in the darkness, like a small piece of brass. Dakota reached out toward the gleam. Her hand brushed cobwebs and she became squeamish, but determined. She had to position herself partially outside the cupboard in order to see what she was reaching for, so the object was difficult to reach. Still she stretched, scrunching up her face and inching closer-
A spider ran across Dakota’s hand. She screamed, jumping back, and instinctively slammed the cupboard door closed. The echoing noise was harsh in the stillness of the empty room, and Dakota became embarrassed.
“The car ride has made me jumpy,” she said out loud in reassurance. She stared at the shadows on her wall, odd shapes cast by tree branches banging against her skylight. The shadows seemed to make a face on her wall; a face projected with a mocking clown-like grin. She stuck out her tongue at the mocking face, and ran downstairs to help her parents unpack the car.
At the bottom of the stairs, her parents were talking with a strange man. He was elderly (in Dakota’s mind), in his fifties, and wore a pair of overalls with a flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to above his elbows. Though older, the man was incredibly muscular, his arms tanned by the toils of outdoor labor. As Dakota timidly approached, he turned suddenly to look at her. Dakota’s heart leaped in her chest when she recognized the face belonging to the fierce man that was chopping wood in the forest. Immediately, though, the man’s face turned soft. He smiled warmly, and waved at her.
“Dakota, dear,” Mr. Blake called, beckoning her over, “this is Mr. Mancini.”
Dakota, no longer fearful of the man with the smile, approached him and held out her hand. “How do you do, Mr. Mancini?”
“Quite well, thank you,” he said, taking the hand gently. “And call me Henry, if you don’t mind.”
“Henry here will be our new groundskeeper.”
“What’s a groundskeeper?” Dakota asked.
“Gardener,” Henry replied, “mostly. I will take care of all the essential outdoor tasks, like weeding, watering the lawn, trimming the hedges, and planting the roses.”
“He took care of the last residents,” Mrs. Blake chimed in, “and when he heard we were moving in, convinced us that we couldn’t live without him.”
Dakota was staring at Henry’s arms; up close, she could see that they were completely covered in tattoos. On his elbow, she could see a sort of shield, covered by an eagle with its mouth open wide. There were letters in a banner underneath it: L CO 101st ABN DIV 1966-1971. She had no idea what they meant. Underneath the eagle were thick dark lines that twisted all around his arms, and even his hands. When she saw the flash of red on the back of his hands, she suddenly understood the lines to twisting thorny branches, with roses budding and growing.
“You must love to garden, Mr. Mancini,” Dakota interrupted, pointing at the tattoos.
Mancini’s face became smug for a second, then he said “I actually got those tattoos done a long time ago, before I became a simple groundskeeper.”
“You were in the military, is that correct?” Mr. Blake asked.
“Yes sir, I was a ranger in the Vietnam war…”
Their talk became very adultish and boring, so Dakota quietly wandered off to find a flashlight. She was determined to investigate the cubbyhole in her wall even further.
In her room once again, holding the flashlight, she shined the light into the darkness. The space was lined on three sides with brick, and if she had thought about it, it would have given her reason to pause, because the house was built of wood. The space was, of course, built into an old brick chimney, but she was more focused on a small jewelry box that had been tucked in the corner. The box was wooden, but the clasp was made of brass and glinted in the dim torch’s beam.
Careful to avoid any more spiders, she pulled the box out of its hiding place. Dusting off the lid with a blow, she opened the box with a near silent moan. Inside was a small silver locket, and a photograph. The picture, black and white, showed a family of three, standing outside a small wooden cabin. Dakota studied the family intensely. A man with his wife and daughter. The girl looked very similar to Dakota: they looked to be about the same age, they both had blonde hair, and they both were wearing white dresses. Behind the cabin, Dakota noticed a cemetery, and couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same as the cemetery that was supposedly near their property. On the back of the photograph, scribbled in ink, were the names of the subjects. Timothy, Olivia, and Clarice Woodrow– June 1925.
The locket held pictures of both the mother and the daughter. They looked like they were taken at the same time as the photograph.
Mr. Blake called out to his daughter that dinner was ready. Dakota placed the items back in the box, noticing an engraving in the bottom of the box: ·M·O + ·W·H. It was very much like tree engravings Dakota knew from her stories. She tucked it all away, hidden behind the secret wall, and ran down to eat supper.
Dakota spent the evening in her parent’s bed, but the next day they were able to bring all of her belongings into her bedroom. Mr. Blake was less than pleased at this difficult task, but he fashioned a pulley system to make the job easier.
While assembling her bed, Mr. Blake noticed his daughter wearing a strange piece of jewelry, one he had never seen her wear, and inquired as to where she found it. Earlier that day, Dakota had pulled out her hidden box and studied the picture once again. She slipped the locket around her neck, and in the bustle of moving, forgot to take it off. Not wanting to reveal her secret room, Dakota told her father that she had found the box in one of the drawers.
Dakota showed the photo to her father, who recognized it immediately.
“This cabin is here, on our property.”
“Still?” Dakota asked.
Her father nodded. “Henry is staying there now. It’s sort of a guest house, though it looks pretty small to house a family of three. I wonder if these people, the Woodrows, were the caretakers. You should ask Mr. Mancini about it sometime.”
Dakota shrugged, and put the picture back in its box. Afraid she might lose the locket, she removed it as well, and tucked the box under a pair of pajamas in her bottom drawer.
“Come one,” her father said, “I need to pick up a screwdriver to hold this bolt in place while I tighten it.”
“Mom said your tools boxes are in the shed.”
“Well, I’d like a break anyways, and I haven’t had a chance to explore the town.”
The two of them jumped in the car and headed toward the town of Monte Sombre.
Monte Sombre was expectantly small, and mostly made of small businesses. Most of the townhouses were down roads obscured by pine trees, giving the Monte Sombre a ghost-town feel. The old town business district was only three blocks in length, and consisted of eight diner bars, a liquor store, a hardware store, and the town’s newspaper office. Dakota noticed a few other places of moderate interest, but nothing really stood out. There were no toy stores, no book stores, no coffee shops (not that she drank coffee, but she was a fan of tea), and no playgrounds. In fact, it didn’t look like there were a whole lot of children at all.
“Well, school is in, honey, or did you forget?” her father explained, when she brought this up. “You have the week off to adjust to the move, but you will start school on Monday.”
As they parked, a familiar figure exited the hardware store. It was Henry, the gardener, and he had his hands full of tools: a shovel, a rake, a few trowels, shears, pruners, and garden forks. Edward waved, and Henry, after placing the tools in the back of his fading-blue Ford, waved in return.
“Just picking up a few things,” he called out, then climbed into his pickup, and headed back toward the estate.
“Dad? Why did he buy all those tools?”
“He’s a gardener, honey. He needs them to work.”
“Why doesn’t he already have tools?”
Mr. Blake frowned. What was obvious to his perceptive daughter had slipped right past him. It was true, the man was supposed to have been a groundskeeper for the previous residents. Why did he not have such obvious gardening accessories, like shovels? There were several reasons he could think of. Henry could have been working with outdated equipment and wanted to use the new job as an excuse to replace his old tools. Or the tools he used could have been the previous owners, and Henry may not have owned any himself. But then why hadn’t he wanted to negotiate for the Blakes to buy his tools as a form of payment. In Edward’s line of work, he had often dealt with independent construction contractors that demanded he buy them tools for their jobs.
“Maybe his tools were old, and he needed new ones.” He smiled at his daughter, but mumbled to himself, “Though it is odd.”
Odd, but not troubling, he concluded, and completely forgot about it.
The owner of the hardware store, a rotund man in his seventies which a pencil thin mustache, greeted them with a smile and a hello before they had even shut the door behind them. He had correctly guessed that they were the Blakes, and welcomed them to the town. Edward introduced himself and his daughter by first name.
“I guess Henry told you we were coming, did he?”
“Henry, the groundskeeper. He was just in here.”
“Ah yes, of course. Yes, of course he mentioned you. Mm hmm, yes. Would you like some licorice, Dakota?”
She looked at her father with a questioning glance. He nodded and smiled. She grabbed a piece from the jar, and nibbled on the end while wandering around the store. Her father had mentioned repainting her room, if she wished, and so Dakota browsed the book of paint samples, trying to imagine what sort of a room she wished to have. She imagined all sorts of themes: Jungle, Princess, Carnival, Woodland, and Underwater.
Lost in the fantasies, Dakota heard her father calling, so she grabbed a fistful of the paper samples and ran out of the store.
When they arrived back at the house, Dakota was eager to finally explore the trail to the graveyard. The sky had become overcast and the wind picked up since she left, so Dakota grabbed a light-purple hooded sweatshirt, and set off down the driveway.
She reached the trail head and walked down the dirt path. The trail wound around trees so often that she didn’t see the graveyard until she was at its gate.
The gate wasn’t quite what she expected. Dakota imagined large French-door style gates, depicting welded images of angels and demons fighting over the lost souls like the wall paintings in the Sistine Chapel. This gate came up to slightly above her waist, and consisted of vertical rusty iron bars. The fence surrounding the cemetery had dead weeds twisting around all the posts, and Dakota saw that inside the graveyard, most of the stones were hidden by tall brown grass.
The cemetery was smaller than she imagined; only about half an acre. Many of the gravestones were more eerie than calmingly beautiful, as she imagined. For some reason, the stones were devoid of angelic faces. Most had demonic scowls of sprites, gremlins, and gargoyles. A few held multiple interpretations of what the artist thought Hades might look like.
Dakota became squeamish, and realized suddenly how far away from home she had gone without telling her parents where she would be. She was about to turn back, but became intrigued by a marble building positioned all the way to the rear of the cemetery. The entrance to the building was a little steel slatted gate, overgrown with weeds. Something shiny and new stuck out from everything old and dead: a tan padlock sealed the gate up tight. Dakota found it odd, considering what she had read in the brochure, that the graveyard had been out of use for almost fifty years. The entrance was so low that Dakota would have had to stoop to enter, but steps led down into the ground at a deep decent once inside. Dakota had never seen a mausoleum before, and was curious of its purpose. She imagined it was where the shovels for digging the graves were stored.
A sudden burst of wind sent a shiver down Dakota’s spine, and she wanted to go home, but was further intrigued by a small cabin past the marble building. It was obviously the one from her picture. It sat behind the cemetery in a field. She couldn’t see Henry’s truck anywhere, but could see a trail where he had recently driven through the grass. There was no road or drive up to the cabin anywhere that Dakota could see.
Unable to help herself, Dakota climbed over the short fence, and walked toward the cabin. She expected to see Henry’s bright blue truck on the far side of the cabin, but it was not.
The cabin was built from wood, with a log base. There was a stone chimney in the far side. It looked as if it hadn’t been painted in centuries. The floor boards of the porch were falling apart, and weeds were growing through the cracks. Though Dakota was sure this was the cabin from the picture, she was equally sure it wasn’t the guest house. It looked completely abandoned.
She stepped onto the porch, which let out a loud moaning against her weight. The glass was dirty, and inside everything was dark. Dakota tried the door, but found it to be locked. She put her face against the window, and cupped her hands over her eyes to get a better look.
She saw old furniture, near the window, and an open space she guessed was a kitchen, or bathroom. Against the far bedroom wall, she saw shadows dangling down to the ground. She couldn’t make out the shapes, but could see them move as gusts of wind swept through the crack under the door. She held her breath, and could barely hear something like wind chimes, only less melodic. It was a very dull, clanking sound. Almost like-
“Can I help you?”
Dakota whirled around to face Henry. He was standing right behind her, once again wearing the large jacket and hat. In his right hand was a black trash bag, filled with something heavy. His face wasn’t menacing, but it certainly wasn’t the smiling man that had introduced himself to her earlier.
Dakota, too startled to say anything, just shook her head no.
“Would you like to come in?”
“No thank you.” They just stood there in the cold, staring at one another. Dakota was too afraid to speak, and the longer Henry remained silent, the more uncomfortable she became.
“I should be going,” Dakota was finally able to say.
“Yes,” he said, evenly, “you should.”
Dakota took off in an instant. She ran hard, afraid to look back in fear that she was being chased, and vaulted over the low fence. Once on the other side, she risked looking over her shoulder. Henry had gone inside, but she could see his watchful face staring at her through the front window.
Dakota was turned around to run, but smacked into the marble mausoleum. There were etchings on the back of the building that she hadn’t noticed before, because she had become so interested in the cabin.
There were six initials in a list, with dates following the initials, but scrawled over the top was one word, in all capitals: MANCINI.