Chapter One: Welcome to Mallory Estate Chapter One Welcome to Mallory Estate
There was no denying that a witch lived at Mallory Estate.
Grown-ups were fooled by the property’s manicured front drive and the mansion’s historic brick facade. Regal, they called it. Charming. But the problem with grown-ups is that they see what they want. They don’t really look. Not properly, at least.
The children of Blackburn, however, knew the truth. They biked onto the grounds. They spied with binoculars. They rapped the door knocker and ran like they’d never run before. They discovered, through keen observation and a healthy dose of nosiness, what the grown-ups hadn’t.
Things were not right at Mallory Estate.
For starters, it was always colder there. And damp. Even when the sun was shining, it felt as though the grounds were perpetually shrouded in mist and fog and early-morning dew.
Second, the gardens out back were dead. The grass was brown and the flower beds brittle and the row of grand oak trees stood like skeletons, barren no matter the season.
When you looked closely at the house itself, past the details the adults admired, you could see that it was dying too. Paint had peeled off the window trim, and the roof needed repairing. Ivy was eating away at the bricks. It climbed the front wall, converging above the portico, then turned sharply, every last tendril growing toward one window. The highest window of the lone turret on the eastern side.
A figure sometimes lurked there, peering down at the grounds from behind a sheer curtain. Sometimes the witch was alone. Sometimes the cat was with her. It was a white cat, which always threw off the grown-ups. But the children knew.
Because if you made eye contact with the witch—if you looked for too long—she’d put a curse on you. She’d lure you up the front steps and compel you to raise the knocker.
And when it fell, and the front door was opened, then you were trapped.
The children knew the witch’s secrets, and that was why she kept them. Once they entered Mallory Estate, they never came out.
Piper Peavey had grown up hearing stories about the witch of Mallory Estate.
Piper wasn’t from Blackburn, but even two towns over, where she lived in a small bungalow with her father, Atticus, the stories were told. The tales had grown roots, much like the ivy on the estate, and spread through the sleepy towns of rural northwestern Connecticut, fascinating and terrifying schoolchildren in the same breath.
Piper, however, shrugged them off. She read enough fantasy books to know that things like witches and curses belonged in books, and that the real world was a very boring, sensible place. It was full of reason and rules and logical explanations. It lacked magic.
It was because of her practicality that Piper approached Mallory Estate with the same skepticism the grown-ups did, finding excuses for all the oddities.
The grounds, for example, were damp and cool because the estate was situated in a valley. The gardens were dead because a fire had destroyed them years earlier. And the house was beginning to deteriorate because that’s what houses do when their owners fail to care for them. They slowly fall apart.
There was also the fact that the owner of the estate, Melena M. Mallory, was Piper’s grandmother. And if Piper’s grandmother were a witch, Piper would know it. She wasn’t extremely close with the woman, but she saw her often enough to be sure.
Her grandma drove a pearl-white convertible—perhaps the least witchy mode of transportation imaginable—and she had a perfectly sensible job as an archivist; if she was familiar with cauldrons or potions, it was only through historic documents. She’d also attended every single one of Piper’s childhood birthday parties, cheering as Piper blew out her candles with exactly the sort of enthusiasm you’d expect of a doting grandmother. When Piper turned ten and began having sleepovers with friends in lieu of afternoon parties, Grandma Mallory had started a tradition of taking Piper out to lunch the very next day. Wherever Piper liked. Friendly’s that first year, then the Cheesecake Factory when she turned eleven and twelve.
Piper had even been to Mallory Estate herself. Once. It was the Christmas after her parents had divorced, when her father still believed that holiday dinners as a family might be possible. Sure, she’d been only five at the time, but she recalled the estate being a very big and boring residence, without a single trace of trapped children like the stories claimed. Plus, Piper had walked safely out of the house at the end of the evening, hand in hand with her father, which threw a wrench in the entire “once you go in, you’re stuck there forever” theory.
No, nothing about Mallory Estate was very suspicious, and her grandmother was most certainly not a witch.
But, late in the afternoon on the first Monday of summer vacation, as the car turned onto the estate’s gravel drive, Piper felt a shiver run down her spine nonetheless. Maybe there was a very small piece of her that wanted her grandmother’s house to be brimming with magic and curses and spells. Magic—even of the wicked variety—would be a wonderful distraction. More likely it was the fact that her father’s latest round of chemo hadn’t brought the results the doctors had hoped for, and the thought of spending the summer at Mallory Estate as he underwent even more radiation, alone, made Piper tremble.
The ghost of the shiver still lingered when the mansion appeared through the car’s windshield. It was massive. Three stories tall (four if you counted the turret). Piper could see why adults used the word regal to describe it, but it was too intimidating to be charming.
“I don’t understand why I can’t stay with you,” she groaned from the back seat.
“I told you already,” Aunt Eva answered. “Client conflicts. I’ll be in Colorado for most of the summer, starting work on that big account I landed last month.”
Piper’s aunt Evangeline was in marketing. She lived just a few miles from Piper and her father and worked from a quaint office in the Farmington Valley. Occasionally she had to travel to New York or Boston for a few days, but spending nearly all summer halfway across the country? Piper blew out a disgruntled breath.
It wasn’t that she’d made grand plans for the summer. Piper hadn’t been invited to Bridget Caldwater’s pool party (and the entire town seemed to be invited); Piper was used to her classmates treating her like she was invisible, but she’d held out hope that her ex–best friend would stop ignoring her. No such luck. Even so, Piper would have preferred to be at the bungalow. She clutched her locket through her shirt, thinking of the packed bookshelf back home. It would have kept her plenty busy.
“You can come stay with me as soon as I’m back,” her aunt continued, glancing at Piper in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were stormy gray, just like Piper’s father’s. “And this might not even be for that long. If your dad gets better, you could be back home with him before August.”
Piper didn’t miss the distinction: if, not when.
The chemo wasn’t working, her father was growing weaker, and clearly no one thought he would recover—not even his own sister—because if they did, Aunt Eva would be saying when When he got better. Not if.
Piper’s aunt bit her bottom lip. “Aren’t you at least a little excited to see your mother? It’s been what—seven years?”
“Why would I be excited to see some snooty workaholic who’s never cared about me?”
Now it was Aunt Eva’s turn to blow out a breath.
Piper’s mother, once a renowned scientist, had grown obsessed with what she called a “series of metaphysical anomalies” at Mallory Estate while pregnant with Piper. The obsession continued—and strengthened—after Piper’s birth. Sophia Peavey spent nearly every waking hour there, falling deep into her research, neglecting her family, and eventually moving back to the estate when Piper was four. Fast-forward another year, and she’d published a paper on the estate that had made her the laughingstock of her industry and cost Sophia her career and family. She hadn’t even filed for custody during the divorce. Her obsession with Mallory Estate continued, and she was apparently fine with visitation rights only. Not that she’d ever visited.
“I guess I’m just not that excited to spend the summer with a parent who has forgotten every single one of my birthdays,” Piper said. “Would it have killed her to send a card?”
Meanwhile, Grandma Mallory always remembered, always arrived bearing an expertly wrapped gift—usually a new book for Piper’s collection—and always asked about Piper’s life. How’s school? What are you learning? Anything exciting happen this past year? It wasn’t riveting conversation, but at least she cared enough to check in.
The car rolled to a stop, gravel crunching beneath the tires. Piper peered out the window.
The house—no, mansion—was ridiculous. Nearly every window had a box of flowers beneath it, and if it didn’t have a window box, it had a balcony. Several steps led to a landing beneath a portico, where a golden knocker shaped like a butterfly was mounted below the white door’s peephole. Two potted decorative trees framed the entrance. Someone had pruned them into a swirling shape that looked an awful lot like an elongated green poop emoji.
Piper’s lip curled. She’d rather be at the hospital, which was really saying something.
She shoved the car door open and slid from the vehicle. It was cool for late June, and she shouldered her backpack and folded her arms across her T-shirt.
“I still think you should have packed more,” Aunt Eva said, lifting a small duffel from the trunk.
Refusing to accept that her summer plans were anything more than temporary, Piper had packed only ten days’ worth of clothing (and books). Within ten days, her father’s upcoming round of chemo would be over, and Piper had been certain he’d be returning home—and that she’d be able to return with him. Now, however, those assumptions seemed foolish.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, adjusting the brim of her beloved Yankees baseball cap.
“Do you want me to see you in?”
“I’m twelve, Aunt Eva. I can handle it.”
“Great. I fly out tomorrow morning, and I have so much packing to do still.” She planted a kiss on Piper’s forehead and handed her the duffel. “Love you, Peavey. You need anything, just give me a ring.” Aunt Eva slid into the driver’s seat, then lowered the passenger window and called out, “Just remember I might not pick up right away. This account is … well … I’m going to be busy. But I will check for messages from you, and I will call you on the weekends. Promise.”
Piper nodded, and the car rolled off.
Only after the car was gone did she check her phone and see that she didn’t have cell service. Maybe the estate would have a landline. It sure looked old enough to. And if not, she’d get on the Wi-Fi to text or e-mail if she needed to reach anyone. This place would have internet, right? She couldn’t imagine that her “obsessed with history” grandmother and “obsessed with metaphysics” mother would be able to do their jobs very well without Internet access. Not that her mother had a job …
Stuffing her phone into her backpack, Piper climbed the front steps. She stared at the knocker. A troubling sensation pinched between her ribs. Fear, maybe. No. Not much scared Piper aside from caves, total and complete darkness, and (obviously) cancer. This felt more like nerves. Despite what she’d told Aunt Eva, Piper was anxious—perhaps even excited—to see her mother.
Maybe some time together would change things. Her mother would see how much she’d missed and admit that leaving had been a mistake. Grandma could help convince her to move back to the bungalow with Piper and her father, and everything would be the way it was supposed to be: the three of them living together. Not separated and estranged and barely talking.
Piper realized she was playing with her necklace, and tucked the heart-shaped locket beneath her shirt. Then she lifted the knocker and let it fall with a cold, harsh thunk. Barely a second later, the door lurched open.
It was not her mother in the doorway, or even her grandmother.
It was a boy.
He had bronze skin and short-cropped dark hair, and he was wearing a gray zip-up hoodie, worn jeans, and a pair of beat-up sneakers. In one hand, he held a gleaming golden spyglass—the collapsing kind that pirates and privateers used.
“Piper Peavey?” he said with a grin. “We’ve been expecting you.”