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Two ten-year-old girls, Ari and Mandy, vanish from the grounds of Null House one evening. One is found the next morning, so traumatized she can't remember what happened or even who she is--the first ten years of her life erased. A barrette in her hair identifies her as Ari. Since her mother is dead, an uncle and aunt arrive and take her to live in another state. Her memory of the lost years never returns.
Twenty years later, Mandy's grandmother invites her back to Null House. Ari doesn't want to go, but the child's voice that sometimes whispers in her mind tells her she must--because it's time.
When she arrives she finds she's there because a woman claiming to be Mandy has surfaced and wants to come "home." Ari, lost memories slipping into her mind all the time now, can't be sure whether or not this women is Mandy, even though the woman seems to remember some of the things they did as children. But she doesn't remember what Mandy now does--the teenager they called "The Snake" who tormented them.
Assisting Mandy's grandmotther is a nephew of the old lady's doctor. He's a cop on administrative leave. Attracted to Ari, and certain "Mandy" is a fraud, he delves into the murky past.
Not until Ari is lured into the woods surrounding the grounds of Null House and abducted, does the heroine's memory burst through in full force. But is it too late?
"Home. I'm going home." Ari London called into the warm breeze from her open car window. There was no other traffic on this narrow black-topped county road, which surprised her. But this wasn't Illinois, after all. And her words weren't the truth.
Null House had never been her home, not exactly. Still, she'd lived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula until--the bad time. Until whatever it was had happened. The first ten years of her life were closed off to her, inaccessible. Uncle Matt had told her what he knew about those years, but it wasn't much. She really hadn't wanted to return. Maybe she wouldn't have if the child's voice hadn't whispered in her head so insistently the past few nights.
<>Time to go back. You need to go back. Now.
Ari's chest grew heavy. What could Henrietta LaBranche want from her after all this time? Mandy, Henrietta's granddaughter, had been dead for twenty years. True, Ari and Mandy were supposed to have been together when Mandy was killed. But surely Mrs. LaBranche knew Ari had no memory of the terrifying experience that had shut down her mind and wiped out the first ten years of her life.
She took a deep breath as she turned her beloved old Beemer off the county road and into a narrow drive between huge trees that looked to be virgin pine and hemlock. Glancing at the late June sunlight slanting through their branches, words popped into her head. <>Harpers hoar. She frowned. Forest primeval? Longfellow?
A sudden clear vision came without warning. She remembered being in fifth grade, of Ms. Gorney reading Longfellow's poem to the class Which had led to her own romantic idea of the Null House big trees as giant harpers using their branches as strings to play wind melodies. Had they been sad or happy ones? She waited for more memories to flood in, but that was all. Everything else about that time was still locked inside the dark closet of those missing years.
Obviously coming here, though, and seeing the old trees was the reason the harper memory had returned. Was it possible being at Null House might unlock that closed door and give her back more of those lost ten years? Ari swallowed to relieve a throat gone dry with apprehension. Uncle Matt had told her no one knew what had happened to her and Mandy. Did she really want to find out?
She swung around a final curve in the long drive and Null House loomed before her--three stories of Victorian extravaganza wrapped in what looked to be worn cedar siding. Balconies thrust out here and there, along with two cupolas at the top. She recognized the place from photographs Uncle Matt had shown her, sent to him by her mother before what Ari always thought of as the bad time.
Nothing about the house seemed familiar to her, even though Uncle Matt had said she'd spent much of her time here with Mandy because Ari's mother had been Mrs. LaBranche's cook.
She sighed, sad that she had no memory of her widowed mother, who'd died of a heart attack shortly after hearing Ari had been found alive. Uncle Matt, her mother's brother, had come to the hospital and taken her to live with him and Aunt Connie in Illinois. He'd shown her photos of her mother with Henrietta LaBranche, but if he hadn't pointed out her mother, Ari wouldn't have known which was which.
What did Mrs. LaBranche want from her? What did she expect? The letter inviting her to stay at Null House had said only that something had come up she hoped Ari could help her with. What?
She parked the car in the circular drive. Before she climbed the wide curving steps to the open porch, she muttered, "I'm here, for better or worse. I hope you're satisfied." Shaking her head at the folly of speaking to the disembodied child's voice that sometimes whispered to her at night, she mounted the steps to the massive front door. No doorbell. She grabbed the bronze knocker, belatedly noticing, half hidden in the twining metal leaves, a satyr face with mocking eyes. Grimacing, she let the knocker drop against the plate. The door opened.
Ari blinked at the man who opened it, only now realizing she'd expected him to be an old man, dressed somberly in black. Expected him to be Arthur, the LaBranche houseman, who always greeted her with a welcoming smile. Another bit from her childhood had surfaced, unsettling her.
While the dark-haired young man did wear black jeans and T-shirt, his unsmiling gray eyes were cold as November rain as he blocked her way in.
"You shouldn't have come," he said.