Shortly before ten, a nurse came in and told me that visiting hours were over. Several minutes later, when I still couldn’t make myself leave, James stepped beside me.
“Kate.” I felt his hand on my back, and I tensed. “The sooner you get some sleep, the sooner you can come back and see her in the morning. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“It’s not home anymore,” I said hollowly, but I allowed him to lead me away.
I stared out the window as he drove my car back to Eden, grateful he didn’t try to start a conversation. Even if he had, I wasn’t so sure I’d have been able to answer. It wasn’t until we sat in my driveway, the engine of the car still running, that James spoke. In the background, a song played so softly on the radio that I had to strain to make it out. I was stalling. I didn’t want to go back inside that house. I’d prepared myself for what was coming for years, but now that it was happening, I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. James smiled sadly.
“I’ll come by and pick you up tomorrow morning, first thing.”
“I’m not going to school.”
“I know.” He didn’t take his eyes off of me. “I’ll take you to the hospital.”
“James…you don’t have to do that.”
“Isn’t that what friends do?” It hurt to hear the uncertainty in his voice. “You’re my friend, Kate, and you’re miserable. What could possibly be more important than taking care of you?”
My chin trembled, and it was only a matter of time before the waterworks started. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned over the driver’s seat and wrapped my arms around him. I’d never had a friend like him, someone who would’ve given up their day to keep me company at my dying mother’s bedside. I’d come to Eden expecting to be alone when this was over, and instead I found James. If there was ever a reason to stay in Eden, it was him.
“At least take the car,” I said into his shoulder. “You shouldn’t walk home in the dark like this.”
He started to protest, but I pulled back and gave him a look, and he nodded. “Thanks.”
By the time I managed to pry myself away from him and exit the car, I was a tearful, snotty mess, but I didn’t care. Next to the sidewalk, I could see the bare patch of dirt in the garden and the pile of weeds still sitting on the lawn.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, his voice carrying from the driveway. I nodded, unable to speak, and waved goodbye to him, using the last of what little strength I had left to force a smile.
I stepped inside, my hands trembling, but I knew there was no point being afraid of an empty house, no matter how strongly my mother’s scent lingered. I would be living alone for a very long time.
Wandering listlessly through the halls, I ran my hand across each surface I passed, staring blankly ahead into the darkness. Tonight marked the end of the only chapter in my life I’d ever known, and I didn’t know how to live in the emptiness ahead.
When midnight came and the doorbell rang, I was curled up in my mother’s bed, still wearing my clothes from that day. It took me two rings to decide to answer it, and even then, I took my time rolling out of bed and making my way down the stairs. Clutching my mother’s pillow to my chest, I opened the door, expecting it to be James.
It was Henry.
My stomach dropped to my knees, and the fog that clouded my head evaporated.
“Hello, Kate.” His voice was like honey, and I was suddenly acutely aware of how awful I looked. “Do you remember me?”
How could I possibly forget? “Yeah,” I said hoarsely. “You’re Henry.”
“I am.” There was something sad behind his smile, something I related to all too well. “This is my valet, Walter.”
I eyed the second man, my hand still gripping the doorknob. He was older, his hair gray and skin wrinkled, and his pale face was drawn. “Hi,” I said uncertainly.
“Hello, Miss Winters.” He smiled warmly. “May we come in?”
There was no point in worrying about whether or not they were here to kidnap me. Ava was right; if that was Henry’s plan, I would have been in the back of a van with my hands duct taped together by now. Besides, it didn’t matter anymore. With a nod, I opened the door wide enough for them to enter.
I nervously led them into the living room. After flipping on the lights, I sat down in the armchair, giving them both no choice but to sit on the couch. Henry took a seat as if he’d been here a thousand times before, and in the light, it was easier to see his face. He looked as young and gorgeous as before. “Do you know what day it is?”
I wasn’t even sure what month it was anymore, but there was only one reason Henry would show up on my front porch. “It’s the—the autumn equinox, right?”
“Very good,” said Henry. “Did you read up on Perseph one?”
My mouth went dry, and I nodded.
“And are you prepared to uphold your end of our bargain?”
I looked back and forth between them uncertainly. Maybe they were here to kidnap me after all. “I’m not really sure what our bargain is.”
Walter was the one who spoke. “In exchange for the life of your friend, you have agreed to spend the autumn and winter at Eden Manor. Every autumn and winter, if things go as planned.”