My fingers shook as I pushed back the long strands of hair that had fallen over my face.
I peered at the pale, shriveled ninety-six-year-old woman who lay in a coma in the hospital bed.
The sound--was it a whisper?--came again. This time I could see the colorless lips move.
Holding my breath, I edged forward in the wobbly plastic chair. I was ready to jump to my feet and run. I had better find Mom and Grandma. Great-grandmother Sarah was waking up.
I stretched out a hand to the edge of her bed, steadying myself. Slowly and quietly I began to rise.
Suddenly Sarah's deep brown eyes opened and she stared at me. Her knobby fingers clamped around my wrist so tightly that it hurt.
"Don't go, Anne." It sounded like an order. In a voice as raspy as a fingernail on a blackboard, she managed to utter, "I have something important to tell you."
I took a deep breath, my pounding heart banging loudly in my ears. "I--I'm not my mom--that is, Anne," I stammered. "It's--Lia. Anne's daughter. Mom's down in the hospital cafeteria with Grandma. They asked me to sit with you. Mom and I came to San Francisco because you've been in a coma, and . . .
I knew I was babbling and it felt as if, as usual, I was doing everything all wrong. I begged, "If you'll let go of me I'll run and get Mom. Grandma, too,"
But Sarah didn't seem to hear. Her gaze didn't waver as she stared into my eyes. "Be quiet, Anne," she insisted, "Listen to me.
I realized that Great-grandmother hardly knew me, so I didn't blame her for not recognizing me. But I didn't look like Mom, I didn't look like Grandma, I didn't look the way I was supposed to look at all.
I thought of the long line of strong women from whom I had descended, Tall, big-boned, and handsome, with dark hair and brown eyes, my maternal ancestors had stepped into the world with pride and courage and had accomplished amazing things.
Then there was me.
I couldn't count how often I'd heard Grandma Augusta say, "Speak up, Lia, so people can hear you. And for goodness' sakes get that hair out of your eyes. It looks like you're hiding behind a curtain."
Sometimes Grandma would sigh dramatically, sadly shake her head, and say to my mother, "Look at the child, Anne. She's no bigger than a minute and all that pale hair--where did it come from? She's not a bit like any of the women in our family. If I hadn't been on hand at the hospital when she was born, I might start believing in changelings."
My mom wasn't as blunt, but sometimes she agreed with Grandma. "It's good to be a reader, but, Lia, your nose is always in a book. Don't you want to do things? You need to meet people. Have more fun."
I always gave the same answer, wondering if Mom would even notice. "I am having fun. Reading is fun."
"You're fifteen. You need to have friends."
"I have a friend. A best friend. Jolie."
"I mean lots of friends so you can do some fun things."
"Why should I have lots of friends? I like being with Jolie."
Periodically Grandma and Mom would get so stirred up they'd start a What to Do About Lia project. I'd be signed up for lessons. The worst of all was when they wanted me to go to cheerleading camp. I found it easier to just go along, pay no attention to the other kids--who took the classes with great enthusiasm--and keep doing my own, untalented best. Within two or four weeks the lessons would be over and Jolie and I could go back to exploring the unlimited wonders of our Metairie, Louisiana, branch library. We'd have sleepovers at which we'd read awesome and horrifying ghost stories to each other.
My great-grandmother Sarah's grip on my arm weakened, and she lay back against her pillow. Her eyelids, like brittle, yellowed paper, slowly slid shut. "I have to let you know about Graymoss, Anne," she said. "And I haven't much time or energy to speak--listen to me.
Not knowing what else to do, I muttered, "I'm listening." With a scared, sick feeling, I faced the fact that there might not be time to go for Mom.
"You do know about Graymoss, don't you?" Sarah asked. Her eyelids fluttered open again, and she looked as if she were begging me to answer yes.
"Graymoss. Yes, I know a little about it," I replied.
Actually, I'd discovered the existence of Graymoss two years before, when I was thirteen and I had been looking through some old family albums. I'd held up a pencil sketch of a large, graceful two-story house with verandas upstairs and down. Its roof was supported by rows of tall, white Ionic columns.
"What's this place in the picture?" I asked Mom. "The one where someone's written at the bottom 'Graymoss Plantation, 1831.'"
Mom had leaned over my shoulder to study the sketch. "Graymoss was the Blevinses' plantation home. That date must refer to the year it was built," she said.
"This is where the famous Charlotte Blevins lived!" I said. I'd been told often about Charlotte Blevins--my great-great-great--who had lived on Graymoss plantation as a child with her parents and grandparents. In 1861, during the War Between the States, Charlotte's parents and grandmother died. Later, when Charlotte was only sixteen, a detachment of the Union Army marched through that part of Louisiana, looting and burning many of the large plantation houses. Charlotte's grandfather was killed, but somehow Charlotte was able to persuade a Union officer to spare her home. It wasn't burned or destroyed like most in the area.
Charlotte proceeded to grow up and establish a school to teach former slaves and their children to read and write. She was a strong-minded, courageous woman who headed a long line of strong-minded, courageous women.
"What happened to Graymoss after the Civil War?" I'd asked.
Mom had shrugged. "I have no idea. Like many of those old plantations, it probably deteriorated years ago.
I never liked that answer. It didn't satisfy me. In my mind I visualized a deeply green lawn rolling from the back veranda down to the Mississippi River, like the lawns at Oak Alley and some of the other well-kept plantation houses. Graymoss would be a quiet, peaceful place with big rocking chairs on the veranda, and when a light breeze blew, it would ruffle the pages of the book I was reading.
I waited for Sarah to continue with her words about Graymoss. I realized that if anyone in the family knew the answer to my question about the fate of Graymoss, she'd be the one. I asked abruptly, "Great-grandmother, what happened to Graymoss ?"
Sarah shuddered, and a strange, fearful look came into her eyes. She took a deep breath and seemed to be trying to gather strength, but her voice wavered as she answered, "Graymoss is there. It's waiting."
My heart jumped. "You mean it? Really? Graymoss is still standing?"
Sarah closed her eyes again, but she continued to speak rapidly. "Listen to me, Anne. I'm leaving Graymoss to you and not to Augusta. Augusta is headstrong and adamant about what should be done with Graymoss. If Augusta had her way Graymoss would be torn down. I can't let that happen. My attorney understands the provisions of Charlotte's will . . . and mine. We must continue to protect the house . . . and care for it. We have no choice,"
Sarah's voice grew so low and soft that I had to lean close to hear her,
"Someone has actually cared for the house all these years?" I asked,
"Yes, There is a trust that takes care of taxes, repairs, expenses, and the caretaker's salary."
"I don't understand," I told her, "If the house is still standing and is in good condition, then why hasn't anyone in the family ever lived in it?"
Sarah sighed. Her lips barely moved as she said, "Read Charlotte's diary. Then you'll know."
"Know what, Great-grandmother? What will I know?"
"Read the diary,"
"Where is the diary? Where will I find it?"
For just an instant Sarah's fingers tightened on my arm, "We must save Graymoss, but stay far away from it," she said, "The house is haunted by a terrible, fearful evil."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Haunting by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 2005 by Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.