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I didn’t lose track of the days. I just stopped caring about counting them.

I feel like I’ve grown roots in this place. Maybe I have. Once or twice a day I get an itch, and when I scratch I feel something hard and brittle protruding from my skin. I’ve pulled branches from my thighs and stomach, twigs from under my fingernails, little pieces of bark from my ears. It doesn’t hurt, at least not in a way I have the capacity to describe.

I get the sense that it could hurt a lot more, if I fought it. What feels like an embrace could become a vice if I struggle. So I stay still and bide my time and talk to Castile. 

Here’s how it works. I write to him in my notebook, or on the typewriter, then leave it alone for a while. I haven’t seen a ghost or heard a voice. His skeleton in the passageway has never so much as twitched. 

But he writes back. When I open my notebook again the words are waiting for me like they’ve always been there. Or sometimes he scrawls between the printed lines of my notes. His handwriting was hard to read at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. I think he was trying from the beginning to reach me, but I wasn’t … close enough yet. I was out of earshot.

I know that makes no sense.

And I know this should scare me. But honestly, the first time he spoke to me — not in riddles or ominous messages but clearly, telling me in no uncertain terms that he was Castile Madigan, that he was dead, and that he wanted to speak to me — it was a relief. Not because I trust him. Honestly, I think he wants me dead. He’s definitely keeping secrets.

It was a relief because this is the first time anyone has listened to me since I got here. I was screaming and screaming but no sound was coming out. Quinn couldn’t hear me. Mark couldn’t hear me. Not even the damn EMS workers who treated me after the car accident could hear me. I was starting to think I was going crazy. I wrote in here before that I got stuck in a crawlspace for a day when I was ten. It felt like this. I was yelling my head off, but no one could hear me, and it slowly started to sink in that, unless I got really goddamn lucky, I wasn’t going to ever see the sky again. 

I’m still scared. I’m still trapped. I can’t leave the estate without getting sick, and I can’t leave the HOUSE without that fucking monster howling and charging at me from out of the woods. But I guess I have a cellmate, so I’m not completely alone. 

Castile won’t tell me much. He says speaking through the page is hard and he wants to use his few words carefully, and if I press him on certain topics he’ll say that the memories of his life are fuzzy and he doesn’t recall everything in detail. I don’t think I believe him, though. 

That’s your problem.

At least he has a sense of humor. I gotta be honest, I wasn’t doing so great before I started talking to him, but having some kind of company in this hellhole has really boosted my morale. Boosted it a little too much, maybe. I don’t feel like I’m losing it anymore. 

I’m trying to think my way out of this rather than just struggling blindly. Got to keep still and learn the rules before I figure out how to break them. 

What little I’ve been able to pry out of Castile about this — disease, curse, affliction, whatever — is that it progresses slower if you don’t struggle. That’s how he stayed alive so long and why Alethe succumbed within a few days. What I don’t understand is which things count as struggling. Castile left the estate for Hazel’s funeral. 

Struggle is observable.

What the fuck does that mean?

You can't be punished if your transgression goes unseen.

I'm not a doctor or anything but I’m pretty sure terminal cancer doesn’t give a fuck about whether you’re paying attention to it or not. 

I guess “illness” is the wrong word, then. Castile doesn’t have a name for it, but I know it has something to do with the woods. Those white trees, growing up all tangled and gnarled across the whole property, they’re sapient. I have a few theories, but they’re all batshit theories. Ghosts, vampires, whatever. Nothing would surprise me at this point. 

Castile, does it have anything to do with the doppelgangers? Alethe and Hazel saw theirs before they died, Jackdaw writes about seeing his double in his journal, and I keep waking up to mine staring down at me from the top of the stairs.

I don’t know what they are, why they come, or what causes a person to see his doppelganger. I’m sure you have read that I never saw mine.

I don't believe you.

                                                    He didn't reply.

          I don't believe him. 

I don't trust this fucker one single iota, but he’s all I have to talk to, aside from myself, so I have to make the best of it. Thank god this door has a lock on it. I’ve sort of commandeered one of the first-floor parlors, one that doesn’t have any windows. Locking the door doesn’t keep my doppelganger out, but I’m kind of getting used to him. He never says anything, he keeps to himself, and he only sometimes coughs up blood. Mostly he’s just unsettling, like a big spider that lives in the corner. 

What I am worried about is the gardener. I don’t know what else to call it, but it sure as hell isn’t human. I can only catch glimpses here and there. It moves like an animal and it usually stays well back from the house, in the woods behind the manor. That first night Castile spoke to me, the gardener was going ballistic, pounding on the walls trying to get into the servants’ passage. It only stopped when the sun rose. 

It’s unpredictable. Castile says it probably won’t bother me unless I try to leave the house, but the parlor I’m staying in has a hidden door into the servants’ passage and every few nights I have to use it. The gardener doesn’t come inside the house often, but when it does it comes straight for me. The pounding on the door wakes me up. It hasn’t ever broken into the parlor at night, but I’m not really keen on giving it the opportunity to eat me alive, just on the off chance that’s what it wants to do. 

Then again, maybe it doesn’t even want to kill me.

Something keeps leaving protein bars on top of the piano beside the winter garden. It could be my doppelganger, or it could be the gardener. Castile says he doesn’t know. But wherever they’re coming from, they’re keeping me alive. 

For now. 

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