The girl in the locked r.., p.1
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3 Park Avenue
New York, New York 10016
Copyright © 2018 by Mary Downing Hahn
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to email@example.com or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
Clarion Books is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Cover photographs © 2018 Trevillion Images and © 2018 Getty Images
Cover design by Jim Secula
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Names: Hahn, Mary Downing, author.
Title: The girl in the locked room : a ghost story / Mary Downing Hahn.
Description: Boston ; New York : Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,  | Summary: Told in two voices, Jules, whose father is restoring an abandoned house, and a girl who lived there a century before begin to communicate and slowly, the girl’s tragic story is revealed.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018006980 | ISBN 9781328850928 (hardback)
Subjects: | CYAC: Ghosts—Fiction. | Friendship—Fiction. | Extrasensory perception—Fiction. | Fate and fatalism—Fiction. | Haunted houses—Fiction. | Family life—Virginia—Fiction. | Virginia—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Friendship. | JUVENILE FICTION / Girls & Women.
Classification: LCC PZ7.H1256 Gir 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018006980
For my young cousin, Kate, and my great-nieces, Ava and Charlotte
The girl is alone in the locked room. At first, she writes the day of the week, the month, and the year on a wall. She means to keep a record of her time in the room, but after a while she begins skipping a day or several days. Soon, days, months, and years become a meaningless jumble. She forgets her birthday. And then her name.
But what does it matter? No one comes to visit, no one asks her name, no one asks how old she is.
At first, the room seems large, but soon it shrinks—or seems to. It becomes a prison. The key disappeared long ago. No matter—she’s afraid to leave. They’re waiting for her to open the door. She feels their presence, faint in the daytime but solid and loud at night. Their boots storm up the steps. They hammer on the door. They yell for her to come out.
But how can she? The door is locked from the outside. Even if she wanted to, she could not obey their commands. She huddles in the shadows, her eyes closed, her fingers in her ears, and waits for them to leave.
The trouble is, they always come back. Not every night, but often enough that she always waits to hear their horses gallop toward the house, to hear their boots on the stairs, to hear their fists on her door.
She used to know who they were and why they came, but now she knows only that they are bad men who will hurt her if they find her. They say they won’t, but she doesn’t believe them.
So she huddles in the wardrobe, under a pile of old dresses, and doesn’t move until she hears their horses gallop away.
Every morning, the girl looks at a date written on the wall—June 1, 1889. She doesn’t remember why she wrote the date or what happened that day. Indeed, she isn’t even sure she wrote it. Maybe someone else, some other girl, was here once. Maybe that girl wrote the date.
Someone, perhaps that other girl, certainly not herself, drew pictures on the wall. They tell a story, a terrible story. The story frightens her. It makes her cry sometimes.
In a strange way, she knows the story is true, the story is about her. Not the girl she is now, but perhaps the girl she used to be before they locked her in this room.
But who was that girl? A girl should remember her own name, if nothing else. Why is her brain so fuzzy?
Near the end of the picture story, men on horses gallop to the house. They must be the ones who come to her door at night. Did they draw the pictures to scare her?
There are other paintings in the room, real paintings, beautiful paintings. A few hang on the walls, but most lean against the wall. The same people are in most of them. A pretty woman, a little girl with yellow hair, a bearded man—a family. She pretends she’s the little girl. The woman is her mother. The man is her father.
She must have had a mother and a father once. Doesn’t everyone?
She talks to them, and she talks for them. They have long, made-up conversations that she never remembers for more than a day.
If only she could bring them to life. They look so real. Why can’t they step out of the paintings and keep her company?
* * *
Years pass. The girl stops looking at the drawings on the wall. She wearies of the people in the paintings. What good are they to her? They’re just faces on canvas. Flat. They cannot see her or hear her. They cannot talk to her. They cannot help her. They are useless.
She turns their faces to the wall. She forgets they are there.
* * *
Seasons follow each other round and round like clockwork figures. Leaves fall, snow falls, rain falls. Flowers bloom, flowers wilt, flowers die. Snow falls again. And again. And again.
Birds nest under the eaves and sometimes find their way into the room. Trees grow taller. Their branches spread. Young trees surround the house. They push against its walls. In the summer, their leaves press against the only window and block the sunlight. The room is a dim green cave.
Brambles and vines climb the stone walls. Their roots burrow into cracks and crevices, and they cling tight. Tendrils manage to find their way inside. Every year, their leaves fall on the floor of her room.
Gradually the house blends into the woods, and people forget it’s there.
The girl stays in the locked room and waits. She no longer knows who or what she is waiting for. Something, someone . . .
She is lonelier than you can imagine.
One morning, the girl hears loud noises from somewhere outside. It sounds as if an army has invaded the woods, bent on attacking and destroying everything in its path.
Confused and frightened, the girl hides in her nest. Buried completely under the rags of dresses, she hears sounds she can’t identify, louder even than thunder. They come closer. The trees surrounding the house crash to the ground. Sunlight pours through the window. She squints and shields her eyes with her hand.
Outside, near the house, men shout. Who are they? Where have they come from? Why are they here? Have they come for her?
She smells smoke. They must be burning something. Suppose the fir
Men enter the house. They tramp about downstairs. They speak in loud voices. They come to the second floor and then the third. Their footsteps stop at her door. The doorknob turns, but without the key, the men can’t come in.
The girl burrows deeper into the rags. She doesn’t think they’re the ones who come on horseback at night. They don’t pound on the door or shout at her, but she doesn’t want them to know she’s here—just in case. So she remains absolutely still.
Just outside her door, she hears a man say, “This is the only room in the house that’s locked. Should we bust it open and take a look?”
The girl cringes in her hiding place. She’s sure the men will find her.
“Nah,” says another. “Nothing in there but trash and broken stuff.”
The men shuffle past the door and go downstairs, laughing about something as they go.
When she’s sure they won’t come back, she tiptoes to the window and looks out. A huge yellow machine with long, jointed arms lifts and lowers, lifts and lowers, scooping up things from one place and dumping them somewhere else. Its jaws have sharp teeth.
Not far from the yellow machine are red machines with scrapers attached to their fronts. They push mounds of grassy earth into piles of red clay. Other machines have rollers that flatten everything, even hills.
She’s never seen anything like these contraptions. They’re bigger than steam locomotives and much scarier. Trains stay on tracks; they can’t hurt you if you stay off the tracks. But these machines can go anywhere. Nothing is safe from them.
While they work, the machines roar and snort and make beeping sounds. They puff clouds of smoke into the air. The girl covers her ears, but she can still hear the noise they make.
A flash of movement catches her eye. A rabbit runs across the muddy ground. She holds her breath and prays the machines won’t kill him. He disappears behind a pile of tree stumps, and she lets out her breath in a long sigh.
But where will the rabbit live? The fields have been destroyed, the woods chopped down. The men and their machines are everywhere. She wishes she could go outside and bring the rabbit to her room.
* * *
Day after day, the girl watches the wreckage spread. The men and their machines cut down more trees and destroy barns and sheds. They haul furniture from the house. Sofas and chairs, their velvet upholstery stained, faded, and torn. Stuffing hangs out of holes. She sees a bed missing a leg, a bureau without drawers, a large broken mirror, fancy tables with cracked marble tops.
Did she once sit on that sofa, curl up in those chairs, sleep in that bed, look at herself in that mirror? Now everything is ruined. It’s of no use to her or anyone else.
The men pile up the broken furniture and set fire to it. The smoke drifts up to her window and stings her eyes. She feels as if she’s watching her life turn to ashes along with the sofas and chairs.
The men don’t stop with the furniture. They burn tree stumps, carts, wagons, fences, and stacks of boards. The fire smolders for days. After dark, the embers glow and the night wind teases flickers of flames from charred wood. The smell of smoke poisons the air.
When nothing’s left to burn, the men turn the fields to mud and plow roads through them. On the flat land below her window, they dig deep square holes. Their nightmare machines destroy everything in their way. Her world disappears before her eyes.
* * *
Then comes a quiet time. Machines still shake the ground, but they’re down on the flat land now, hard at work building houses. The girl’s home is empty again. Peaceful. She spends most of her time at the window, watching and listening, enjoying the summer breeze and the smell of honeysuckle.
She keeps her eyes focused on the distant mountains, blue and serene against the sky. She doesn’t look at the fields and meadows destroyed by the machines.
One afternoon she dreams of a picnic by a stream. She’s sitting under a tree with a man and a woman. She’s had this dream many times. But it always ends before she’s ready. She wakes up reaching for the man and woman, but it’s too late. They’re gone, and she’s alone in the locked room.
It was August, hot and humid. The air conditioner in the truck wasn’t working. My T-shirt stuck to my back, and Mom’s hair had changed from smooth and sleek in the morning to frizzy and curly in the afternoon. The three of us sat elbow to elbow in the front bench seat, Dad driving, Mom beside him, and me next to the open window.
After spending most of the day on the Interstate, we were now on a narrow country road that twisted and turned, uphill and down, passing house trailers tucked away in the woods, tumbledown barns in weedy fields, cows grazing in pastures, and farmhouses at the end of long lanes.
I’d gotten tired of asking if we were almost there, so I closed my eyes and concentrated on not getting carsick. The bumping and swaying were definitely affecting my stomach. Why had I drunk that disgusting milk shake?
At last Dad said, “We’re here.”
I opened my eyes and saw a sign welcoming us to Oak Hill—“A future community of luxury homes designed and built by Stonybrook.”
Ahead of us, a bumpy dirt road looped around the foundations of future luxury homes. On top of a hill above the construction site stood an old stone house. The land around it had been scraped down to raw red clay, rutted with tire tracks filled with muddy water. Waist-high weeds had sprung up everywhere. Piles of uprooted stumps, tree trunks, branches, and rocks waited to be hauled away.
I stared at the old house in dismay. Three stories tall and built of stone, it loomed above us, dark and empty against a cloudy sky. Sheets of weathered plywood hid its windows. A blue plastic tarp covered the roof. Its edges lifted when the wind blew, making an eerie flapping sound.
Dad specialized in restoring historic houses like this one, so for as long as I could remember, we’d lived like nomads, moving from place to place, staying in each one long enough for him to complete the job. Some of them had been scary. Their steps creaked at night, footsteps crossed their floors, their doors opened and shut without cause, but not one of them had been as frightening as Oak Hill.
Even from a distance, I knew something bad had happened in that house. Maybe it was the crows perched in a line on the roof, maybe it was the utter desolation of the scene, but the word foreboding came to mind, along with haunted, misery, and sorrow. It was the perfect setting for a ghost story.
“You weren’t exaggerating,” Mom said to Dad. “The house is practically in ruins. Are you sure it’s worth fixing up?”
“Stonybrook has big plans for it,” Dad said. “When the restoration’s done, the house will be an inn. I’m told it’s to be the jewel in the crown of the Oak Hill community. The perfect place for guests and potential buyers to stay.”
I looked at Dad. “Please tell me we are not living in that house.”
Dad laughed. “Of course not, Jules. The corporation built an addition on the back of the house for us. Modern kitchen, family room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms. New heating system, air conditioning, Internet, satellite TV—all the necessities.”
“Oh, Ron,” Mom said. “I thought we were staying in Oak Hill. I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house.”
I didn’t know whether she was serious or joking. With Mom, it was hard to tell, but if she meant what she’d said, I had even more reason to be scared. I shuddered. “Do you really think it’s haunted?” I asked her.
“No, of course not.” She laughed. “I was just being silly.”
“Ha-hah, some joke,” I said, only slightly relieved.
Dad patted my shoulder as we got out of the truck. “Don’t worry, Jules. The only thing wrong with Oak Hill is dry rot, termite damage, leaks in the roof, mold, and mildew—the plagues of every old building I’ve ever worked on. No ghosts, I promise.”
I felt a little better, but not much. It would take more than Dad’s prom
“Can we go inside?” Mom asked.
Dad smiled. “I’ll give you the grand tour.”
Mom and I followed him up the sagging front steps, she eagerly, I reluctantly. Dad pulled an old-fashioned iron key from his pocket and struggled to unlock the door.
“Maybe it’s the wrong key,” I said, hoping the door wouldn’t open.
Ignoring me, Dad continued to jiggle the key. After some pushing, pulling, and a little swearing, he finally got the door open. “Keys like this are works of art,” he said, “but not easy to use.”
The darkness inside the house exhaled dampness, old cellars, and decay, but Dad ushered us inside as if he were leading us into a king’s palace. “Try to picture this place as it was a couple of hundred years ago,” he said. “Polished floors. a curving staircase, sunlight falling through tall windows. I can’t wait to bring it back to life, to reveal its beauty.”
While Dad raved, I stopped on the threshold, overwhelmed by a sense that something hid in the shadows, listening, watching, waiting. I’d often had feelings like this, but nothing had ever come of them. I’d seen no ghosts, and as the days passed, I’d stopped looking for them. This time, my fear was more intense than usual.
“What’s wrong, Jules?” Mom looked at me with concern. “Is your stomach still upset?”
“I’m kind of queasy from that strawberry milk shake.” I made a face. “Maybe some fresh air . . .” I backed out of the doorway, into the warmth of the sun.
Mom seized my hand and stopped me. “We’ll just take a quick look. Then you can lie down for a while before dinner.”
“Come on, Jules,” Dad said. “This house is magnificent. I want you to see it as it is now so you can appreciate my work when I’m finished. It’s probably the best project I’ve ever had.”