Snowbound (A Short Story)

Winter Car Emergency Kit: What to Keep in Your Car | The Old Farmer's  Almanac

Snow began to fall along the Pikeville Bypass.  Lightly at first, just enough to keep the windshield wipers set on low intermittent, then progressing into heavy downfall with quarter-sized snowflakes.  With the wipers now on high, they could barely keep a clear path of vision in front of her.  The defroster didn’t help much.  The snow fell faster than the heat could melt it.

Accumulation alongside and on the roadway was building fast, and if the snow continued to fall as rapidly as it did at the moment, within minutes, she wouldn’t even be able to see where she was going.

She cursed herself silently for choosing to take the bypass.  It wasn’t the road she’d initially planned, but since it provided a quicker route to her destination, and because the blizzard conditions weren’t supposed to have begun until well after she’d reached White Mountain, she’d opted at the last minute to take the road less traveled and get where she was going faster.

Hell, she shouldn’t be on the road traveling at all.  Instead of cursing herself, she should be cursing her brother, Bill, for manipulating her into taking the trip by laying a guilt trip at her feet.

“It’s his eightieth birthday, Haley.  You can’t alter your plans to come and visit your father?”

“Christmas is two months away, Bill.”

“But his birthday is next week.  The party is a surprise and having you there would make the surprise even better.  He’s been wanting to see you.”

Here it comes! she’d thought at the time.  The same old song and dance that Bill was notorious about delivering, reminding her that she was the one who had chosen to move away, that she wasn’t the one remaining close to home to ensure the safety and well-being of their aging father, blah blah blah.

“Bill, I was just there a few months ago.  It’s not like I can make a four-hour drive every weekend to visit.  I do have a job, you know, and gas isn’t free.”

“You wouldn’t have to worry about making a four-hour drive and spending money on gas had you chosen to remain closer.”

Rich words coming from a man who made a seven-figure annual salary and was chauffeured around in a black limousine while wearing two-thousand-dollar suits!  Through his eyes, he thought everyone should be able to afford the same things that he could all while forgetting that he didn’t come from a wealthy family and had gotten through college on scholarships and student loans.

“Why didn’t you let me know about this a month ago?”

“It wasn’t planned then.  The party was a spur of the moment decision.  Dad’s not getting any younger and I wanted to do something special for him this year.  But if you’ve got more important things to do, then by all means, do them.  I’ll explain to dad that you couldn’t spare the time, or money, to come and see him.”

“I’m not going to argue the point, Bill,” she’d told him angrily.  “I’ll either come now for his birthday or in December for Christmas, but not both.  You decide which one.”

Showing his frustration by exhaling heavily into the phone, they’d mutually agreed that she’d come for his birthday.

As she leaned forward in her seat, hands clutching tightly to the steering wheel as she squinted to see through the glass, Haley Fontana was beginning to regret her choice of roadways, wishing instead that she’d listened to Bill the night before when he’d phoned her to make sure she hadn’t changed her mind.

“Just wanted to make sure you were still coming.”

“I asked to leave early tomorrow,” she’d told him.  “I’ll be on the road within an hour afterward.”

“What time might that be?  I’d like to know around what time to expect you.”

“I’ll leave here around two or so.”

“Sounds good.  One more thing, Haley.”

“Yes?”

“I know that you usually take the bypass, but please avoid it this trip.”

“Why?  It’s a quicker route.”

“That’s true, but a blizzard is heading that way and the last place you want to be stuck is on that long, lonely stretch of highway.”

“Bill, the storm isn’t due to come through until way after I’m there.”

“Haley, you know as well as I do that these winter storms are unpredictable.  The meteorologists might tell you it won’t hit until six or so, but then it rears its ugly head several hours earlier than expected.  Don’t take any chances.  Stick to the freeway.  Promise me?”

“Alright, alright.  I’ll stay off the bypass.”

Except that she hadn’t kept her word, and once she finally did arrive at Bill’s and had to explain to him why she was so late, he’d rip her a new one, and with good reason.

She had driven the bypass many times, and because of that, she knew there wasn’t much there other than a house here or a farm there, but if she were forced to locate them in a snow covered landscape, she’d never find them.  All she could do was take her time, drive slowly, and be extra careful.  By her estimation, and under normal driving conditions, she had about an hour to go before the bypass would end and the roads would be clearer and more drivable.  However, with heavy snowfall, it was anybody’s guess exactly how long the drive would take now.

Haley drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Stay calm and keep your eyes on the road,” she muttered, glancing down at the large cup in the console between the two front seats, recalling the eerie conversation she’d had with the men at the general store where she’d stopped to buy the coffee.

Two elderly gentlemen were sitting at the end of the counter playing checkers when she’d entered the store, the screen door banging closed behind her. 

Without looking up from his game, a man wearing a black and red flannel shirt and suspenders asked, “What can I getcha?”

“Coffee.”

“Over yonder,” he said, pointing to the back of the store.  “It’s self-serve.”

“Your move, Gordy,” the second man said.  “We ain’t got all night.”

“King me,” Haley heard him say with a chuckle.  “You’re such a dumbass, Earl.  You ain’t never gonna learn how to play this game.”

“One more time,” Earl said.

Haley sat the coffee down on the counter, removing a five-dollar bill from the pocket of her jacket.

Gordy, who she assumed was the proprietor of that fine establishment, rose from his barrel chair and stood at the cash register.

“Where ya headed, miss?”

“White Mountain.”

“You ain’t drivin’ the bypass, are ya?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

“You do know a blizzard’s comin’, right?”

“Not for several hours.  I’ll be in White Mountain before it comes through.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that if’n I was you,” Gordy said, tucking his thumbs beneath the straps of his suspenders and pulling on the elastic.  Now that he stood in front of her, she could better see the affixed buttons and nearly laughed aloud.  On one strap was a large red, white, and blue “I Like Ike!” pin, and on the other, “Nixon For President!” with a photo of the disgraced man flashing his infamous peace sign.

“Storms are unpredictable.”

“You’d be better off not takin’ any chances and stickin’ to the Interstate.  Take my advice and stay off the bypass,” he said with a serious tone.  Noticing her puzzled expression, he said, “What I mean to say is that storms have a mind of their own and this one could hit when it wants to and not when the weatherman says it will.  ‘Sposed to be a full moon tonight, too.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Full moon and blizzard?” Gordy asked, scratching his whiskered chin.  “Never a good combination.  Does somethin’ to a person’s head,” he said, tapping his temple with a finger.  “Makes ‘em act weird and do crazy shit.”

Haley laughed.  “Then I’ll keep my eye out for crazies.  Even if the snow starts while I’m still on the bypass, I have snow chains.  I’ll be fine.”

Gordy threw his head back and chuckled heartily.  “Snow chains?” he guffawed.  “Them thangs are about as worthless as tits on a boar hog, ‘specially when the snow is ten feet deep!” he exclaimed.  “And unlessen you got skis on yer tires, ain’t likely to make it through.  Iffen it starts to snow heavily, I mean,” he finished.  “Besides, the Interstate is routinely cleared by snowplows to keep the flow of traffic going.  Won’t get that on the bypass.  Once the snow starts coming down, it’ll stay there ‘til it melts or ‘til a bunch of locals go out there and plow it themselves.”

“Ma’am?” Haley turned around to see a uniformed sheriff’s deputy standing behind her, a bag of potato chips and apple juice in one hand, a wax paper wrapped pickle in the other.  “I don’t usually make it my business to stick my nose into the affairs of others, but you really should listen to old Gordy here and stay off the bypass.”

“I appreciate your concern,” she told him, “but I think you’re all overreacting.”

“Perhaps,” the deputy said.  “Perhaps not.  We’ve received a few complaint calls recently from up and down the bypass.”

“About?” Haley prodded.

“Suspicious activity is the only way I know how to phrase it,” he answered, placing his items down on the counter.  “Destroyed or disturbed crops, animals going missing, a few of them found dead, that sort of thing.”

Haley glanced back and forth between Gordy and the deputy.  Earl remained bent over the checkerboard and hadn’t once looked up at her.

“Sounds like wildlife looking for food to me,” she said with a smile. 

“Can’t be sure of that, ma’am, because so far, none of the complainants have seen anything.”

“There’s all types of wild animals around here, right?” Haley asked with a grin. “Wolves, coyotes, bears.”

“Among other things,” the deputy said, taking his wallet from a back pocket.

“I may not be an expert on the subject, but if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say one of those that I just mentioned is the culprit.”

The deputy shrugged.  “There’s a stretch on the bypass that consists of fifty miles of nothing,” he explained.  “No farms, houses, stores.  Definitely no cell phone reception.  You really should reconsider your choice.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Haley said.  “How much for the coffee?”

“No charge,” Gordy told her.  “You stay safe out there.”

Before the door closed behind her, she heard Gordy say, “You should have told her, Gary,” but she wasn’t interested in hearing the rest of what the old codger had to say.  Probably more bullshit anyway.

Haley placed the coffee in the cup holder, then opened the trunk and removed her suitcase, placing it on the backseat.  “Better safe than sorry,” she muttered before climbing behind the wheel.

As she thought about why she’d chosen to move her suitcase, she couldn’t really come up with a good answer, except to say that in the event that something did happen and she got stuck in the snow, there were plenty of winter clothes and socks packed inside that she could use to stay warm, and her heavy winter coat was laid out on the backseat.  What she hadn’t brought were snow boots and the shoes she now wore would not prevent frostbite in case she ended up having to walk through the snow.  From the moment she’d received her learner’s permit to drive, she’d been taught to always keep emergency winter supplies in her trunk in the unlikely event that she ever did get stranded.  Blankets.  Food.  Water.  And normally, she did, but she’d removed them from the trunk before heading out for White Mountain because the blanket needed washing and the outdated food needed to be replaced, and since she was only traveling a couple of hundred miles on a major thoroughfare and not venturing deep into the woods for hiking or camping, didn’t think she’d need them for this trip.  Another choice she now regretted.

“Paranoid much?” she whispered.  “You really let those old farts get to you, didn’t you?”  She wondered if old Gordy was sitting on his barrel stool, staring at the checkerboard while waiting on Earl to make a move, laughing while stroking his white beard as he said, “See?  Toldja to stay off the bypass!”

The road was completely covered with snow, making it difficult for her to determine if she was still on asphalt or driving on the side of the road.  The solid white of the surrounding landscape was blinding and disorienting.  Not a single building or roof could be seen.  And even though she’d traveled the bypass on multiple occasions and had seen farms and silos along the way, without having a point of reference, she couldn’t even begin to guess where they were located.   Even with her dark sunglasses on, it was difficult to see, much less determine where the road ended, and the flat land began.

Keeping her eyes on the road ahead, she used a gloved hand to retrieve her coffee from the console, hoping it’s warmth would help to quell the nausea that the stretch of endless bright whiteness was causing her to feel.  The radio station that she’d been listening to had lost reception, and she wasn’t brave enough to risk popping a CD into the player to end the disturbing silence inside the car.  With the lone sound of snow crunching beneath her tires, she was suddenly struck with the thought that she was cruising along on a road leading to nowhere, forever lost inside a snow globe of endless snowfall and invisible structures, eventually melding with the snow, becoming as one in the marshmallow covered world that enveloped her.

“Get a grip,” she scolded herself, bringing the lid of the cup to her mouth.  “Shit!” she yelled, slamming on the brakes to avoid striking the figure that darted across the road directly in front of her.  The cup of coffee fell into her lap, soaking the denim of her jeans and making it look like she’d pissed herself.  Fortunately, the coffee wasn’t hot enough to burn her skin beneath, but the wetness of the liquid was extremely uncomfortable.  The rear tires spun wildly, fishtailing back and forth along the slippery road.  Haley fought to maintain control of the steering, but with no traction between asphalt and rubber, the steering wheel spun uncontrollably in her hands.  The car slid backwards down the right side embankment, coming to rest several feet off the road, its tires buried deep in the snow.

“What in the hell was that?” Haley exclaimed aloud.  The large brown figure came out of nowhere and sped by so rapidly that she hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but it was definitely too big to have been a dog.  A wolf maybe?  A coyote?  “Neither,” she said, shaking her head.  “Unless they’ve mastered the feat of walking and running on their hind legs.”  Then again, maybe she only thought she’d seen something, her tired and weary eyes playing tricks on her, producing some sort of a mirage from constantly staring into a whiteout.

“Shit, shit, shit!” she fumed, pounding her fists on the steering wheel.

In the few short moments she’d sat there cursing herself and questioning how in the hell she’d allowed herself to get in to such a predicament, the falling snow completely covered her car, preventing her from being able to see anything through any of the glass.

The engine died upon impact with the snowbank, enveloping the car in an eerie silence.  Other than the steady sound of her own breathing, not a sound could be heard.

She had no idea whether the animal had run off into the woods or was, at the moment, encircling her car, sniffing her out while forestalling the most opportune time to plan its attack.

Regardless of which scenario was actually playing out in real time, one thing was certain.

She had to get out of there before she became an evening snack for ravenous wild animals.

Haley turned the key in the ignition.

Rar-rar-rar click-click-click.

“Come on, dammit!” she cursed, trying the key again.

It was no use.  The battery was dead.

“What the hell did you think it was going to do if it cranked?” she huffed.  “Sprout wings and fly out of here?”

Unless she called for help, she’d never get out of the ravine because there was no way in hell she’d ever be able to drive out, and since she hadn’t seen a single vehicle on the road in the hour that she’d been on it, she doubted anyone would come moseying along just in the nick of time to rescue her.  And even if they did, they’d need to come with a tow truck because the only way it would ever be freed from the still falling snow was if it were hauled out.

Who was she supposed to call for an incident such as hers?  She’d never been in such a mess and truly had no idea.  Should she phone emergency services, a towing company, an auto club response team?  Would any of them even respond in such inclement weather, or tell her that she needed to sit tight until the storm let up?  By then she’d either be frozen stiff as a popsicle or shredded meat if that thing got to her.

Her hand trembled as she reached for her phone, unsettled by her near miss and by the dire situation she suddenly found herself in.

Overcome by the creepy feeling that she was being watched, Haley locked the doors.  “You may know I’m in here,” she whispered.  “But there’s no way in hell that you can see me.”

Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw something that she hadn’t noticed before.

What appeared to be the outline of a large handprint was pressed into the snow on the rear window, as if someone had leaned on it trying to see inside.  But it wasn’t necessarily the handprint itself that rattled her.  It was the size and shape of it.  It didn’t look human.  If it was, whoever had left it was a giant of a man, for the hand itself was twice the size of a normal hand, the slender fingers long and talon-like. 

There was something out there in the snowy cold, but because of the lack of visibility through all of the windows, she had no idea what, or who, it was.  Or if they were still close by.  Watching and waiting for her to make a move.

She felt like a pawn on a chessboard, blocked by the bishop and unable to make a move forward, forever trapped inside of a square.  Or in her case, inside of a car in steadily deepening snow.

A call for help would not be happening.  Like her car, her phone was also dead.  She could tell by the fading interior light that the sun was setting.  It would be dark soon, rendering her more vulnerable to the wandering hunter.  If she didn’t get help before nightfall, she’d be forced to stay inside her car, inevitably freezing to death within hours.  Of course, she could exit the car and start walking, except that she didn’t know where in the hell she was or exactly how far away the nearest house might be.  She wasn’t even sure how far she’d traveled since stopping at the general store.  The snow had begun to fall shortly after she’d exited the parking lot, and the faster and thicker it came down, the slower she’d had to drive.  Until she’d ran off the road to avoid hitting whatever had darted out in front of her.  For all she knew, she could be five miles away from the store, or fifty.  The coffee had still been hot when she’d taken a sip, but that didn’t mean anything, considering that it was in an insulated Styrofoam cup with a lid, so she couldn’t use the temperature of the coffee as a determining factor to estimate the distance.  There truly was only one way to know for sure.  It was a perilous risk, but one she’d have to take if she wanted any chance at survival.

Her current footwear wasn’t designed for trudging through ice, and with the current weather conditions, and shoes that weren’t waterproof, frostbite would set in before she could walk a mile.  The idea of attempting a walk back to the general store wouldn’t have been an appealing thought on a bright and sunny day.  But on a dark and cold winter night, not knowing what was lurking around in the darkness, was downright horrifying.  Yet, if she remained where she was, she’d be a sitting duck for sure, and who or whatever was out there would undoubtedly take advantage of her situation, knowing that she was easy prey.

“Shit!” she spat.  “Dammit!”

Haley climbed quietly into the back seat and gently opened her suitcase, careful not to make any noise.  She was in dire straits, so any choice that she made would be unwise, but she had to do something.  She couldn’t simply sit there for an indeterminate amount of time twiddling her thumbs while waiting for a good Samaritan to come along and help.  In a blizzard, the chances of that happening had about the same odds as winning the lottery.  Afterall, who in their right minds would intentionally be out driving in heavy snowfall on a dangerous highway?

Slipping out of her wet pants, she pulled on a pair of thermal underwear and jeans, donned two extra pairs of socks, and exchanged her ankle boots with sneakers after removing the shoestrings.  Dumping her toiletries into the suitcase, she covered her shoes with the Ziploc baggies, using the shoestrings to tie them in place and prevent them from slipping off of her feet.  They wouldn’t provide the complete protection she’d need, but they were better than slogging through knee-high deep snow while wearing only a pair of tennis shoes.  

She envisioned old Gordy and Earl sitting at the counter still staring at that damn checkerboard, having a good laugh at her expense.  And when they saw her walk into the store huffing and puffing from walking, she’d hear the biggest “I toldja so” she’d ever heard.  Which was fine by her as long as she was able to sit down, grab a cup of hot coffee, and thaw out.  Hell, she might even laugh with them for being stupid enough to ignore their warnings.

Haley stiffened when she heard the unmistakable howling of a wolf.  Though not right next to the car, it was certainly nearby, and sounded like it came from somewhere behind the car.

Was the baying that of a lone wolf, or was the animal calling out to its pack, summoning them to the dinner table?  If it was only one creature that attacked, she might get lucky enough to avert it, but if she was up against multiple wolves, then she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of warding them off.  Wolves were excellent hunters and more than adept at trapping their prey by first encircling it, then closing in for the kill.  On a good day with excellent weather conditions, she’d be outnumbered, unable to run away.  In the snow, she would be nothing more than a lamb being led to slaughter.

She had no weapons to defend herself, unless the tennis racquet in the trunk counted as one.  And what the hell could she possibly do with that other than swing it at them, which would only make them angrier and more determined to rip her to pieces.  Wolves had a keen sense of smell, and if they got a whiff of her at the moment, they’d know that she was ripe with fear, but she couldn’t let that deter her.

Haley chewed nervously on her bottom lip as she reconsidered exiting the safety of her car.  Her wild imagination conjured up images of her torn and bloody body being scattered in pieces along the roadside, or in a different scenario, her stiff and frozen body sitting upright and rigid, hands clasping the steering wheel in a death grip as her dead, glazed over eyes remained fixated on the white nothingness before her.  If she remained inside the car, at least it would provide her with some degree of shelter until the snow stopped or a rescue vehicle came along.  That is, unless the wolves had figured out how to open up car doors with their paws, which was highly unlikely.  Or was it? she thought, recalling the size and shape of the handprint on the back window.  If she chose to go outside, she would immediately become vulnerable to the elements and to the wolves.  In a wide open space, intruding on their predatorial grounds, she wouldn’t be near as safe.  Carefully assessing the situation and not seeing any careful way out of her predicament, Haley climbed back into the front seat and turned the key, hoping for different results than the first two times.

Her hope quickly faded when the turning of the key produced no sound at all.

The way she saw it, she had one of two choices.  She could either remain inside the car and undoubtedly succumb to hypothermia within a matter of hours, or she could take her chances on walking back to the store with a pack of wolves hot on her ass, stealthily evaluating every move she made, patiently awaiting the perfect moment to attack.  No matter what she chose to do, it was a lose-lose situation.  But at least she had to try.

“You can’t get back to the store if you keep sitting here second guessing everything,” she whispered to herself, reaching for the door handle, and swiftly recoiling when she heard a deep growl just outside the door.  Haley sat silently as she waited to see if the snarl came again, or if the wolf was going to try to claw and chew its way inside.

She could hear the creature huffing and panting at the window, fully expecting to see the snow melt away, wondering if she’d be too horrified to scream when the wolf’s large, woolly face appeared through the glass.

The car shifted slightly from the weight of the wolf as it leapt onto the roof of her car.  Determined claws dug and pawed at the metal as the animal grunted in anticipation.

From a distance, howling could be heard.

Outside her car door, an angry, throaty growl.

There was more than one wolf stalking her.  It was virtually impossible for the same one to be tugging at the car door while simultaneously attempting to tear the roof off.

She envisioned her car completely encircled by the canines, each one positioned at a different angle, with every inch of the car under watchful observation.

She was trapped.

There was no way out.

No walking back to the general store for help, warmth, and coffee.

No Gordy and Earl staring at a checkerboard.

No one was coming to her rescue.

“Damn you, Bill,” she muttered.  “Damn you to hell.”

The car began to wobble.  The wolves were trying to flip the car over, the pack strong enough to lift and pull it easily from the deep snow, desperate to find a way inside.

A massive, fur covered hand with elongated fingers pressed on the window, leaving an imprint in the snow.  Haley stared at it with puzzled amazement.  Since when did wolves have hands?  Another unpleasant thought crossed her mind.  Maybe she wasn’t dealing with canines afterall, but instead, was being pursued by lunatics, escapees from the nearest insane asylum who had set her in their sights, hellbent on destroying her for the pure hell and pleasure of it.

Yet, that couldn’t be possible.  No human being could survive exposure to freezing weather conditions for an extended period of time, and by her calculations, she had been tracked ever since her accident, which must have happened at least two hours before. 

And the hand she’d seen didn’t appear to be human, or at least not like any she’d ever seen.  It could be better described as a paw, but not that of a bear or a mountain lion.  And it wasn’t the hooves of a moose or deer, or any other wild animal that walked through snow on four legs.  So, what in the hell was after her?

The one on the roof was forcefully pounding the metal.  If it continued its assault, it would either cause the roof to cave in on her or would simplify the process of tearing the roof off as easily as removing a pull-tab lid from a tin can.  The one outside the door yanked and scraped on the door as it tried to rip it from its hinges.

Haley stared at the door, her eyes wide with fear as she anticipated the creature’s next move – which turned out to be something she had not expected and one that horrified and chilled her to the bone.  Haley released a blood-curdling scream when a bright red eye appeared through the handprint, unblinking as it stared angrily at her through the glass.

Haley covered her ears and closed her eyes, not wanting to see or hear the inevitable, brutal attack she was about to suffer.

Had the men back at the general store known more than they’d told her about the complaint calls that the Sheriff’s Office had been receiving?  Was that the real reason they’d warned her to stay off the bypass, and not because of the weather conditions?  Whatever the reason, it was too late now because she would never survive the teeth and claws of the creatures that awaited her outside her safe haven.

A shotgun blast echoed through the night air.

An animal yelped in pain, the sound of an injured dog, wounded by whoever had fired the weapon.

The wolves brayed in unison and took off running when the second shot rang out.

“Anybody in there?” she heard a man’s muffled voice call out.

Haley screamed as loud as she could while banging forcefully on the window glass with both fists.  “Yes!  Please, help me!”

“Hello?” the man shouted; his voice closer now.  “Is there anyone there?”

“YES!” Haley screamed.

“How many of you are there?”

“Just me.”

“I’ll have to break the window,” he warned.  “There’s too much snow on the ground.  I won’t be able to open the door.”

“Do it!”

“Cover your eyes!” he instructed, vigorously striking the window with the butt of his shotgun.  A spiderweb crack appeared in the glass, but it didn’t break.  “I have to give it another try,” he yelled, delivering a blow that finally shattered the glass.  Shards flew into the car, landing in Haley’s hair and lap, jagged pieces scattering across the dashboard.

“Oh, thank God!” Haley sighed.  “I thought for sure I was going to die out here.”

“You’ll have to crawl through,” he told her, extending a gloved hand.  “I’ll help pull you out.”

Haley sunk thigh-deep into the snow, shivering from the freezing temperature.  Her rescuer wore rubber fishing waders over his uniform, but she recognized him immediately.

“Well, well,” he said.  “You didn’t get very far, did you?”  It was Dave, the Deputy Sheriff she’d encountered earlier at the general store.  “Warned you to stay off the bypass, didn’t I?”

Ignoring his comment, Haley briskly asked, “What the hell was trying to get into my car?”

“Wolves,” Dave answered.  “Four of them.”

“Just regular, everyday wolves?” Haley asked doubtfully.

“I wouldn’t exactly call them regular, but wolves, nonetheless.  Take my arm,” he told her.  “Let’s get you out of this snow.”

“How did you know I was out here?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then why are you here?”

“This road’s part of my patrol route,” he answered.  “Dust yourself off before you get in my vehicle.  Don’t want you getting the seats wet.  The heater’s on, and it’s nice and warm inside.  You go thaw out while I change out of this gear,” he told her, slamming her door as he walked towards the back of his vehicle.  Haley watched him through the side view mirror as he removed his heavy boots and waders and tossed them into the bed of the pickup.  He’d swapped his cruiser for a mammoth truck with oversized tires and a removeable plow specifically designed for patrolling in winter weather.  And while he might be telling her the truth about the bypass being in his assigned zone, she didn’t quite believe his story about why he chose to patrol it at that particular moment.

“I’ll get you back to town.  You can rent a room for the night,” Dave told her as he climbed inside the truck.  “You can make arrangements in the morning to have your car towed.”

“How did you know I was in the car?”

“I didn’t,” he said, turning to look at her.  “But when I saw all those wolves digging around in the snow, I knew something must’ve been there.  Wolves only act like that when they’re hunting prey.  They knew you were in there because they could smell you,” he said, turning his attention away from her.  “Hell, even I can smell you,” he added.

“What, exactly, do you smell?” she asked curiously.  She hadn’t soiled herself and even though spilled coffee could be mistaken for the smell of urine, she’d changed out of those pants and they remained inside her car.  Had the stench followed her?  Did he think she’d pissed herself?

“Fear,” he answered, turning slowly to glance at her, then quickly looking away.

Haley opened her mouth to respond but fell silent when an odd and disturbing incident occurred.

“Hey!”  A man of about thirty waved his arms frantically in the air trying to get Dave’s attention.

“Who in the world?”

The man pulled up to the side of the truck on his snowmobile, letting the engine idle.

“Eddie,” Dave said, rolling down his window.  “What in the hell are you doing out in this weather?”

“Checking to see what all the commotion was about.”

“What commotion?” Dave asked in an irritated tone.

“I heard the gun shots.  Came to see what was going on.”

“Where do you live that you were able to hear the shots?” Haley asked, leaning forward in her seat, looking past Dave.

“Back yonder,” he said, pointing towards an open, snow-covered field.

“Back yonder where?” Haley asked.

“Not far.”

“Close enough to hear gunshots but not to hear wolves howling as they tried to rip my car apart to kill me?”

Eddie didn’t answer.  Instead, he gave Dave an inquisitive look, as if to say, “Are you going to help me out here or not?”

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Dave told her.  “Half the time, he don’t know whether he’s coming or going.”  To Eddie, he said, “Get back to your house and don’t come out again tonight.  Understand?”

Eddie nodded and took off on his snowmobile in the direction of the open field.  As he sped away, Haley noticed that he was wearing only a tee-shirt and shorts and was bare-footed.  Strange apparel to be wearing in sub-zero temperatures, even for those accustomed and acclimated to that type of weather.  On his right shoulder, fresh blood was visible on his white shirt.

Eddie stopped momentarily as he reached the snowy field, looking back at the truck.  When the glow of the headlights reflected in his eyes, Haley was certain that they glowed the same shade of red as the eye that had peeked in at her through the car window.

“Eddie’s wounded,” Haley said absently.

“Hunh?”

“You didn’t see the blood on the back of his shirt?”

“Nope.  Wasn’t really paying that much attention to him.”

“Wonder if he knows he’s bleeding.”

“With Eddie, who knows.  That man ain’t got the sense God gave a flea.”

“Did you notice how he was dressed?”

“If you’re talking about the shorts, that’s not unusual for him.  I told you, Eddie’s not too bright.”

Haley watched through the sideview mirror as Dave drove back in the direction of the general store, her car once again covered in a blanket of snow, leaving not a shred of evidence that only moments before, wolves had dug mounds of it away trying to clear a path to get to her.

“Did you flag my car?” she asked, wondering how the tow truck driver would ever find it buried under a thick blanket of snow.

“No need,” he told her.  “I know where it is.”

“Even though you can’t see anything out here?”

“I have an excellent memory,” he replied.

Although thankful to have been rescued, she still wondered exactly what had stalked her on Pikeville Bypass on a cold, snowy night.  Dave told her it was wolves, but not regular ones.  What did he mean by that?  What other kinds were there if not regular ones?

And speaking of Dave, why had he mysteriously appeared when he did, and in the nick of time to save her from what was surely to be an imminent and brutal attack?

What she wanted more than anything else was a hot shower and a warm bed.  But she also wanted answers, and the only way to get them was to ask the questions.

“Strange,” she muttered.

“What’s that?”

“Thinking aloud, that’s all,” Haley answered, recalling that Dave had told her she could rent a room for the night, but she couldn’t recall seeing a hotel, motel, or inn in Pikeville Junction.  In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in that tiny hick town other than the general store, a gas station, and a liquor store, and she doubted that any of those places rented out rooms.  Unless he was considering taking her to the next town over, which was at least twenty miles away and out of his jurisdiction.

“It is strange, though, don’t you think?”

“What?”

“All of it,” Haley said with a shrug.  “You showing up at the exact moment that I was about to be annihilated.  Eddie riding around in the freezing weather wearing summer clothes.  The wolves with strange behavior.”

“What’s so strange about any of that?  I told you Eddie is about half a dozen cans short of a six-pack.  Knowing him, he probably didn’t even realize he came out of the house improperly dressed.  Wolves are common in this area, so that’s not unusual.  And it’s nothing more than a coincidence that I came along when I did.  Sounds to me like you’re trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill when there’s nothing strange about any of it.”

“You said yourself that the wolves weren’t regular ones.  Explain to me what you mean by that.”

“Wolves are wolves,” Dave said.  “They’re predatory animals and can be quite vicious if provoked.  They hunt solely as a means of survival, not as a sport.  Unfortunately, sometimes the prey is human.  That’s all I meant.”

“If that’s true, can you explain to me why the ones trying to get into my car had hands instead of paws?  And don’t try to tell me that they didn’t because I saw it, up close and personal.  And the ones stalking me had red eyes.  How many wolves have you ever seen like that?”

Dave kept his eyes on the road ahead.  After several moments of thought, he said, “I think you may have been hallucinating at some point, either from fatigue or weather-induced.  Anyone with a functioning brain cell knows that wolves don’t have hands, and personally speaking, I’ve never seen one with red eyes.  Probably just a reflection from the light.”

“What light?  My car was dead, the sun was down, and I didn’t have a flashlight, yet the eye that I saw glowed like a burning ember.”

“From the moon then,” he stated with irritation.  “How the hell am I supposed to explain what you saw?  I wasn’t there.  Besides,” he said, lowering the speed of the wipers.  “We all tried to tell you to stay off this road because it wasn’t safe.  But did you listen?  No, you did not.  Do you know how loony you sound right now?” he chuckled with a shake of his head.  “Wolves with hands.  Red eyes glowing like fire.”

Haley remembered something Gordy had said to her that afternoon about the crazies coming out when there was a combination of snowstorm and full moon.  He had known then exactly what lurked in the darkness along Pikeville Bypass.  But for whatever reason, he’d chosen not to share that information with her.  Then again, why would he?  He probably hadn’t expected her to get stranded any more than she’d expected to herself.  However, in retrospect, knowing about the wolves could have at least prepared her for the possibility of an attack instead of surprising her with one.

“You’re right,” she said dismissively.  “It sounded less crazy inside my head than it did verbalizing it.”  Instinct warned her to drop the subject and refrain from speaking about it again, not knowing why she was suddenly overcome with a feeling of dread.  Dave’s demeanor, perhaps?  Or the obvious irritation he displayed towards her at the moment?  Some might call it intuition or possessing a keen sense to one’s inner knowing.  She chose to call it being smart and knowing when to shut the hell up and let it go before finding herself in a cauldron of boiling hot water with no way out.

For certain, he knew more about what had happened to her on the bypass than he was telling her, but it was best that she didn’t pursue it.

As she watched the plow shovel snow out of the roadway, an insane thought crossed her mind, one so inanely ridiculous and unthinkable that she nearly burst out in delirious laughter.

Although she knew they didn’t exist outside the realm of theatrics, she was still amused by the thought and at the possibility that her stalkers had actually been he-wolves!

Or perhaps it wasn’t animals at all.  It could have been Eddie and a couple of his friends playing tricks on her, trying to scare the shit out of her.  That was certainly possible, and if that had been their intentions, they’d succeeded.  Hell, all they would have had to do was howl like wolves, pounce on her car, and make it seem as if canines were after her.  They could have even worn gloves, or an old Halloween costume to simulate the hairy hand.

It all sounded feasible until she questioned how they would have known she was there in the first place.  The snow had been falling so hard that it hadn’t taken long to cover her car, unless they saw the accident happen and knew exactly where her car came to rest.  Had it been Eddie, or one of his friends, that had run across the road in front of her, intentionally causing her to run off the road?  Was that their idea of fun?  Maybe Dave was right about him when he said he didn’t have the sense God gave a goose.  Nothing like playing chicken in a blizzard on a snow-covered and slippery roadway, consequences be damned.

“At the store earlier today, as I walked out the door, I heard Gordy tell you that you should have told me, but I didn’t stay to hear the rest.  What didn’t you tell me that you should have?”

Dave shook his head.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.  I told you everything you needed to know.  It’s not like I could force you into changing your mind.  Maybe next time, you’ll listen.”

He was hiding something.  She could sense it.  He knew those wolves weren’t typical, everyday hounds.  Regardless of whether he denied it or not, there was definitely something different and extremely odd about them.  Whatever he was aware of, he chose to keep it to himself.

Changing the subject, Haley asked, “Where am I supposed to rent a room?  I don’t recall seeing any hotels nearby.”

“There aren’t any, unless you drive twenty miles out of town, and I sure as hell don’t intend to do that.  I’m sure Gordy will be happy to lend you one of his.  You’ll be fine there.”

“Inside a general store?”

“He lives upstairs.  He has plenty of room.”

“Does he know I’m coming?”

“I can guarantee you that he does.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean?  The only way Gordy could possibly know that Dave was bringing her there was if Dave had called him ahead of time and told him, and she hadn’t seen him make a phone call since pulling her from the car.  Unless he had mental telepathy and had beamed a signal to Gordy using the powers of his mind, there was no way he could know.

Haley suddenly felt uneasy, like a fly tempting its fate by flitting back and forth, teasing a hungry spider until it’s showy antics got the best of it and it found itself trapped in the spider’s sticky web.  Is that what was happening to her?  She was the fly, and Dave the spider, leading her towards her own viscous web of death, which just happened to be located inside Gordy’s store?

“You know what, Dave?” Haley said.  “Instead of taking me to the general store, why don’t you just drop me off at the gas station?  I’ll call my brother and ask him to come and get me.”

“Wouldn’t hear of it,” Dave replied.  “Besides, the station’s closed.”

“Isn’t there a convenience store around here somewhere?”

“Nope.”

“Then I’ll call a cab and have the driver take me to a hotel.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said, turning to her and smiling.  “No cab driver would take fares in this weather.”

“Won’t know unless I try.”

“You seem worried,” Dave said as he turned into the parking lot of the general store.  “Are you?”

Her stomach was tied in knots.  She didn’t feel so good about the situation she suddenly found herself in, and it was one that she wasn’t going to be able to talk herself out of.  “I’ll just stay out here,” she said.  “I’ll be alright in the truck.”

“Get out,” Dave demanded.

“No, really, I’m okay right where I am.”

“You’ll either get out willingly or by force.  Your choice.”

Haley swallowed back the lump that rose in her throat.  Her heart was pounding so hard that she was certain Dave could hear it.  Trying to remain calm, she said, “Alright, alright.  Geesh.”

For a split second, she considered running, but where could she possibly go?  She was in the middle of nowhere with a dead phone in her purse.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Dave told her, taking her by the arm and leading her to the store entrance.  “It’s me!” he shouted, banging on the screen door.

Within seconds, Gordy opened the door, quickly shutting and locking it behind them.  “What have we got here?” he asked, following Dave and Haley to the counter.

“A guest,” Dave answered.

“What the hell, man?” Haley glanced over her shoulder to see Eddie rushing towards Dave.  “You shot me, you jackass!”

“You didn’t give me much of a choice, did you?” Dave replied.  “Stop being such a cry baby.  It’s barely more than a flesh wound.”

Shot him? Haley wondered.  Eddie hadn’t even been there when Dave had shot at the wolves, so how could he have possibly been a victim?

“Aww, hell, Dave, we weren’t going to hurt her,” Eddie said.  “We was just having some fun with her.  Kind of like a cat playing with its food before eating it,” he laughed.  “I can’t believe you actually shot me.  It hurts like hell,” he said, rubbing his shoulder.

“You’ll get over it.  Thanks to you and your stupid brothers, she knows,” Dave barked.  “Sit!” he said, pushing Haley down onto one of the stools at the counter.

Earl remained in his normal place, still staring at that damn checkerboard.  Haley wondered if he’d even bothered to get up to go take a piss, or if he’d stay glued to his stool in all the hours that had lapsed since she’d last been inside the store.

“What is it I’m supposed to know?” she asked innocently.

“Don’t be coy,” Dave said.  “The question now is, what are we going to do about it?  We can’t have her going back home and running her mouth about us.  Before you know it, all kinds of city folks will be coming around here to see for themselves and find out if it’s true.”

“Find out if what’s true?  I swear, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You sure did ask a lot of questions on the way here for someone who claims to know nothing,” Dave replied. 

“Darlin,” Gordy said, crossing his arms and leaning across the counter.  “You really should have heeded our advice and stuck to the interstate.  It’s my understandin’ that you’ve done gone and got yerself a good eye full of somethin’ you shouldn’t have seen.  Is that right, Dave?”

“Yep.”

“’Course, she wouldn’t have seen nothin’ if three dumb asses had stayed inside like they was ‘sposed to, ain’t that right, boys?” he said, casting an angry glance at Eddie and the two other men standing next to him.

None of them answered, hanging their heads instead.

“I want the three of you to remember that however we choose to deal with this, it’s all your fault.  Her blood is on your hands.”

“My blood?” Haley shouted, jumping from the stool.  Dave forcefully shoved her back down.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Relax,” Gordy told her.  “And sit tight while I decide what to do.”

“Why don’tcha just ask her what she saw?” Earl said without looking up.  “Seems to me that’d be a good place to start.”

“You and yer logic,” Gordy said sarcastically.  Turning back to Haley, he said, “You heard the man.  Tell us what you saw.”

“What was I supposed to have seen?” 

“When you were out there,” Gordy said, thumbing towards the door.  “Trapped in your car in the snow.  What did you see?”

“Whiteness,” Haley stated.

“No, smartass.  I mean when the wolves attacked your car.”

“Nothing,” Haley answered, shrugging.  “My car was covered in snow.  I couldn’t see a damn thing through it.”

Gordy studied her carefully, unsure of whether she was being completely honest with him.

“Did you tell Dave that you saw a hairy hand and red eyes?”

“Yes,” she admitted, wondering how in the hell he knew that without being there to hear the conversation.  Mental telepathy was beginning to sound a lot less insane than it had when she’d thought it on the way there.  Things were getting weirder and weirder by the second with this group of peculiar misfits.  “The wolves were trying to get inside the car.  The one outside the door must have stood on its hind legs and pressed a paw into the snow.  Somehow, it managed to wipe away a swath of the snow on the window, and when it peeked inside, I saw its red eyes.”

“That’s it?” Gordy asked.  “That’s all you saw?”

“Wasn’t that enough?”

“I imagine you was scared, huh?”

“You could say that.”

“I just did.”

Who the hell were these people, and what were they intending on doing to her?  And why all the ridiculous questions about her experiencing a near attack by wolves?  She felt like she was inside an interrogation room being grilled by the police for a crime she knew nothing about.

“What do you think, Dave?” Gordy asked.

“That we shouldn’t take any chances.  She saw enough to cause a nasty stink around here.  We can’t have that.”

“Can I do it?” Eddie asked enthusiastically. 

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” Dave snapped.  “You’re the reason we’re in this mess.”

“Honestly, I have no idea what’s going on here,” Haley said.  “Exactly what is it that you think I saw?”

“The question is, what do you think you saw?” Earl asked.  For the first time, he raised his head and stared coldly at Haley, his topaz-colored irises glistening beneath the glow of the overhead fluorescent light. 

Regrettably meeting his stare, she was abruptly overcome by a feverish chill.  Odd as they were, it wasn’t the color of his eyes that disturbed her so deeply, but his pupils.  They weren’t round and black like they should be, but instead were bright red, horizontal slits.  She felt as though she were peering deep into the dark soul of pure evil and lunatic madness.

“I told you, I didn’t see anything,” Haley replied, a slight tremor in her voice.  Her heart pounded, her adrenaline rushing like a flowing river. 

Dave ran a hand across his face as he sighed heavily.  “Let’s get this over with.  I’d like to get home and get some sleep.”

This can’t be happening, she thought.  I have to get out of here!  They’re going to kill me!

“Let me!” Eddie eagerly requested.  “I deserve to be the one.  You did shoot me, remember?”

Perhaps staring into Earl’s eyes had made her go mad.  Otherwise, the idea that was swimming through her head wouldn’t be there.

Haley started putting the fragments of the day’s events together in her head, one piece at a time, from the moment that the figure ran out in front of her until she was rescued by Dave.  Upon the completion of the puzzle, the conclusive theory that she came up with was even more batshit crazy than the brief consideration she’d given it earlier in the truck.  Going against everything she believed in, it became clear to her why they were so curious about what she’d seen.

The furry hand.  The red eyes.  A gunshot wound on a person who hadn’t even been at the scene.  Not in human form, anyway.

“You figured it out, didn’t you?” Gordy asked as he stroked his beard, staring menacingly at her with the same eyes as Earl.

“Figured out what?” Haley replied, her voice catching in her throat.

“No need to try and hide it,” he smiled, revealing a set of sharp and discolored canines.  “I can smell it.”

Haley felt hot breath on her ear and turned to see Eddie standing right beside her.  “You smell delicious,” he whispered, running a long claw down her cheek.  “I can’t wait to devour your heart.  With all that fear running through it, it’ll taste sweeter than sugar.”

She was surrounded.  Even if she bolted from the stool, she’d be mauled to death before reaching the door.

Directly behind her came the husky, guttural growls of wolves.

A COVID-19 Fairy Tale (With Easy to Read Words and Descriptions)

How to Write a Fairy Tale: Writing Magical Stories

Once upon a time, there was a man named Richard, but all of his friends called him Dick.

Dick didn’t believe or have any faith in science.  Dick scoffed and laughed when he learned that the United States of America had been infiltrated by a killer virus from China, and made fun of those who did believe in science and trusted what the experts were saying about the dangers of the virus spreading and the projected number of deaths it could cause.  Dick laughed and laughed, telling anyone who would listen that the virus was no deadlier than the flu, and that more people die from that particular virus every year than they ever would from the new corona virus.  Dick bragged about how he had gotten the flu a couple of times already and hadn’t died from it.  He also boasted about being in excellent health because he was a vegetarian and a gym member.

When Dick heard that a mask mandate had been issued for his city, Dick got mad and ranted and raved about being controlled by the government, that asking him to do such a disgusting thing was an infringement of his rights as an American citizen.  He cussed and screamed and said there was no way he was going to wear a stupid mask no matter what because it was his body and his choice.  Because Dick listened to and read untrustworthy news channels, outlets, and social media posts that expressed the same feelings as him about wearing masks and being controlled, ones who ignored the advice of medical experts and refused to take the threat seriously, Dick felt comfortable that he’d made the right choice and continued to do what he wanted.

Dick was a party animal and loved getting together with friends, although warnings had been issued not only about wearing face masks, but also about maintaining social distancing.  Dick met several of his friends in various places on multiple occasions.  They danced, laughed, had a few drinks, and enjoyed themselves.  Alas, none of them wore masks or kept a safe distance apart.

Dick suddenly began to feel ill and decided to go to the doctor.  The doctor said to Dick, “I’m testing you for COVID because you have several symptoms.”  Dick laughed and laughed and said to the doctor, “that’s impossible because it’s a fake virus that was made up by our government to scare us into complying with their orders.”  Dick didn’t like that long Q-tip being stuck up his nose!  The doctor explained to him that since he was exhibiting symptoms of the virus, that meant he’d been carrying it around on him for quite some time because the incubation period was 7-14 days, and anyone that he’d been around was susceptible to contracting the illness as well and that Dick should notify them immediately and tell them to get tested.

During the period that Dick was unaware that he was pre-symptomatic, he reported to work in an office that employs fifty people; visited his elderly parents; bought groceries; went to nightclubs with his friends, and stopped at a convenience store to buy himself the biggest soda they offered.  Dick didn’t wear a mask to any of these places, and none of them knew Dick was ill.

All of Dick’s friends contracted the virus, as did his co-workers, the cashier that rang up his groceries, and the convenience store worker.  Now, how many more will become infected through Dick’s contact with all of those people?  They, too, have family and friends, all of them unsuspecting of what could be coming their way.

Unfortunately, both of Dick’s parents died in the hospital alone because visitors weren’t allowed; therefore, Dick never got to say goodbye.

Dick’s condition worsened, requiring hospitalization.  Because Dick could not breathe on his own, he was intubated and placed on a ventilator.

Dick died in the hospital all alone – with no one around to hold his hand and comfort him.  Why?  Because several of his friends, as well as his parents, were dead, all because of Dick’s refusal to believe the virus was real and follow guidelines set forth by medical experts, which resulted in Dick’s blatant disregard for human life.  R.I.P. Dick!

Author’s Note:

Being the wife and mother of RN’s who are on the frontlines every single day, my fears and worries about them both increases each time they report for work.  I wonder, “will today be the day that they contract it?  If so, will they survive it?  What long term health problems will they face if that happens?”

Just today when my husband came home, he told me that the facility where he works now has 28 cases of COVID amongst the patients, the 3 who were sent out to the hospital last week all died, and 15 staff members are also infected.  This means that my husband is now at a higher risk than he’s ever been, even though we have followed protocol since the beginning of this virus.  We even bought cute animal print face masks, knowing that we were in this for the long haul and that we may as well make it fun.  Unfortunately, my husband is likely one of those who would NOT survive.  He is an insulin dependent diabetic with Rheumatoid Arthritis and heart stents.  It goes without saying that I am deeply concerned.

Like a majority of fellow Americans, I remain appalled at those who absolutely refuse to wear a face covering when out in public, citing one excuse after another.  “I have a medical condition that prevents me from having to wear one.”  “It’s an infringement on my rights!”  “Ain’t no government gonna tell me what to do!”  “Why? It’s a hoax!”  “It’s no worse than the flu, so if I get it, I get it.”  For those who say they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing one, let me offer you a small bit of free advice.  THEN STAY HOME!!!  If you have a medical condition, then you shouldn’t be exposing yourself to a deadly virus in the first place!  If you don’t care enough about yourself to take care of you, then at least have the decency to think about others and don’t risk spreading the virus.

Requesting the wearing of face masks is NOT an infringement on anyone’s rights!  It’s about keeping you and everyone else you come in contact with safe and to help prevent the spread.  It’s an extremely small sacrifice to make for each other, don’t you think?

This virus is real, and it continues to kill people every single day.  We are nearing 300,000 deaths in the United States, and every single one of those victims have family and loved ones who are, right now, grieving their loss as they face the holidays with an empty chair at the table.

The virus is spread by droplets, either from spittle that comes from the mouth when talking or sneezing, or nasal discharge.  Think about this.  You see a person in a restaurant not wearing a mask.  That person coughs or sneezes into their hand and then puts their germ covered hand on the tabletop, where the virus can survive up to 9 hours even if the restaurant staff wipes the table down after that person has left.  Therefore, the next person to sit down at the table might become a victim.  That’s the point of wearing a face covering.  Wearing it properly includes covering your nose!  Of course, you can’t wear it while eating, but you can cough into your elbow or a napkin, and not in your hand.

Lastly, if all of these hardworking doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel who put their lives on the line every single day can work 12+ hour shifts while wearing masks, face shields, and other safety equipment, then you can damn sure wear one for an hour to go grocery shopping!  If the ones who provide us with the medical treatment we need all fall ill from the virus, then who’s left to take care of us if/when we need it?

Is that seriously too much to ask?

Until next time….

Take care and God Bless!

Glenda

Autopsy (a short story)

For all of the reading fans who enjoy my work, this is a short story that will be published in my next book, which is an anthology of short stories. As a show of my appreciation to YOU, the reader, I would like for you all to be the first to read and enjoy (hopefully) this story. Feedback and comments are always welcome. I’d love to hear what you think!!! GNP

My name is Zachary Greenlee.

The story I’m about to tell you, while hard to believe, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

Before I get into what happened to me, I think you should first know that before I looked death straight in the eye and survived the ordeal, I wasn’t a very nice guy.  In fact, there were some days that I did such wicked and evil things that I didn’t even like myself much.

Did Karma have a roll in my fate, or was I stricken down by God for all the wrong I’d done?  While some might say yes to one or the other, many more feel that it was a combination of both.  Several who were victims of my financial crimes told me that they wished that I had died, none of them too shy to express to me exactly what I should have suffered.  I don’t harbor ill will against any of them.  I deserved every hateful word they threw at me, every demeaning email and death threat, because I had hurt them in ways financially in which they would never be able to recover.  Fair is fair, I suppose one could say.

Either way, although I’m no longer a free man able to do, or come and go, as I please, I’m still grateful to be alive.

And it’s truly a miracle that I am.

Three years ago, as we do every year, my wife and I were entertaining a small group of our closest friends on Christmas Eve.  The house was decorated in a festive, holiday décor, lights on the tree burning brightly, tons of presents under the tree for our children.  I tried to make it seem as though the celebration were the same as any other we’d hosted, except that it wasn’t.

I did my best to stay focused on the laughter, conversation, and spirit of the evening, but my mind was elsewhere, and no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t bring myself to feel the joy that I normally do at that time of year.

Earlier that day, I’d received notification that my investment firm was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud and operating a Ponzi scheme, and that they would begin delving into my financial and client records the Monday after Christmas Day.  To prevent me, or my secretary, from returning to the office and destroying any documents, a lock was placed on the door and wouldn’t be removed until the investigators showed up to begin looking into the scores of crimes that I’d committed.

My priorities were also in the wrong place that night.  Instead of being worried or concerned about the hundreds of people that I’d screwed out of their life savings, I was pissed because one of them had the audacity to report me!  As a result, I was looking at the possibility of losing everything.  My home, wealth, expensive cars, maybe even my family once my wife learned what a true scoundrel I really was.  To be clear, she had no idea what I was up to or how I made the ludicrous amounts of money that I did.  For all she knew, I was the owner and operator of a fine and upstanding investment firm with an untarnished reputation.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her how wrong she was about me.

Once the investigation was completed and the multitudes of crimes made public, I was facing years in prison, which only caused me more worry and panic.  Who would watch after and take care of my family?  Where would my wife and children live once the house and all other personal properties were seized?  The pressure of how grim our futures looked was bearing down on me, causing more stress and anxiety than I was willing to admit.

Unable to share in everyone’s holiday cheer, I quietly slipped away from our guests and retreated into my study, the one room in our large house where I could truly find solace and peace by admiring my shelves full of books, some of them first editions.  The walls were adorned with expensive paintings, some by well known artists, others by up-and-comers.  I’d spent more on a single portrait than most people pay for a house, but I had no guilt and no regrets, no matter how much pain and suffering I’d caused others in order to acquire the finer things in life.  I figured I might as well embrace the moment and enjoy it all while I could, knowing that I was on the brink of being ruined, both financially and personally.

“You seem a little out of it tonight,” my friend, Rodney said to me as he appeared at the study door.  “Alright if I join you?”

“I’m afraid I won’t be very good company.”

“You know what they say,” Rodney replied, taking a seat beside me on the sofa.  “Misery loves company.”

After several moments of silence, Rodney asked, “What’s wrong?  Did you forget to buy that diamond necklace for the missus for Christmas?”

“No,” I smiled, carefully examining the Waterford Crystal glass I held, filled with my favorite brand of expensive whiskey.  “I wish that’s all it was,” I said, taking a sip, relishing the flavor, smoothness, and warmth as I swallowed, savoring the moment, knowing that the bottle I’d recently purchased may have been my last.

“Anything I can help with?”

“Thanks, but no.  I appreciate the offer though.”

“Seriously, Zach, anything you need, all you have to do is ask.”

Unless he had influence over the S.E.C., there was nothing he or anyone else could do to make things better.  I had made the mess that I was in and had no one to blame but myself.  The forthcoming ending I was staring down the barrel of was the direct result of being greedy for money, and hungrier for more once it started rolling in.  I should have learned when to stop and be comfortable with what I had, but I became addicted to being wealthy and owning material things that most people only dream of having.  Too bad I didn’t take the time to stop and see just how far in over my head I truly was.  But like any other addiction, I lacked the ability to quit my habit.

“Food’s on the table,” my wife called from the main dining room, which was located next to my study.  “Hope everyone’s hungry.”

Rodney clapped me on the thigh.  “You heard her.  Let’s eat.”

As I stood up from the couch, I felt lightheaded, the same feeling one gets if they get up too fast.  At first I thought perhaps I’d had a bit too much whiskey, so I didn’t give it much thought.  Until I tried to take a step – and couldn’t move my legs.

“Zach?” Rodney asked, a concerned look on his face.

My legs buckled beneath me.  I fell forward, clipping my forehead on the corner of the coffee table before collapsing face first onto the carpeted floor.

“Zach!” Rodney shouted as he knelt beside me, quickly rolling me over onto my back.  Shaking me by the shoulders, he shouted again.  “Zach!”

I could see and hear him, but I could not respond.  My entire body was paralyzed, rendering me unable to speak.  I couldn’t even blink.

“My God, Rita,” Rodney screamed at my wife.  “Call an ambulance!”

Rodney continued to shake and call out to me, once even slapping my face, all while my wife cried hysterically into the phone, yelling at the emergency operator to get an ambulance there immediately.  She slammed down the phone and within seconds was on her knees at my side, sobbing while gently stroking my cheek with her fingertips.

“Hang on, Zach,” she said softly.  “Help is on the way, baby.  Don’t you dare leave me.”

I don’t know how much time had elapsed between my wife making the phone call and hearing a man’s voice command everyone to “Step aside, please,” but I do remember feeling relieved to learn that medical help was there and that I was going to be okay.

All of our guests had gathered into the study, fretting, and worrying about me, wondering what had caused me to collapse without any given warning.  “What’s his name?” I heard the paramedic ask as he squatted next to me.

“Zach,” my wife answered.

“Zach!” he said loudly.  “Can you hear me?” he asked, placing a stethoscope on my chest.

Yes, I can hear you!”  I answered.  The only problem was that my lips weren’t moving, so it goes without saying that he didn’t hear me.

“Can someone tell me what happened?” the paramedic asked.  “Did he eat or drink something that he’s allergic to?”

“We were sitting on the couch talking,” Rodney offered.  “He was having a drink when we got up to go and eat.  Then he just passed out.”

“Did he hit his head when he fell?” the paramedic asked as he examined the right side of my forehead.

“Yes,” Rodney answered.  “On the corner of the table.”

“Zach!  Can you hear me, buddy?”

Yes!

“Does he have any existing medical conditions that I need to know about?  Is he taking any medications?”

“No,” Rita answered.  “He’s perfectly healthy.”

“Any chance that he may have been experimenting with recreational drugs?”

“What the hell kind of question is that?” Rita spat.  “My husband isn’t a drug addict!”

“That’s not what I was implying, ma’am.  I’m simply trying to rule out any and everything that might have been a contributing factor to your husband’s sudden illness.”

My eyes were locked on the ceiling, unblinking, but through my peripheral vision, I could see our guests as they all exited the study, either not wanting to hang around and watch the emergency crew as they worked to revive me, or to simply get out of the way.  Witnessing such an event tends to have the ability to spoil one’s Christmas spirit.

“I’m not getting a pulse,” I heard a female voice say, her fingers pressing firmly into the side of my neck.

“No heartbeat, either,” the male paramedic told her, shaking his head.  Removing the stethoscope from around his neck, he asked, “Who’s the next of kin here?”

“Me,” Rita said.  “I’m his wife.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs.?”

“Greenlee.”

“Mrs. Greenlee, I’m afraid there’s nothing me or my partner can do to help your husband.”

“What are you saying?” Rita sobbed. 

“I’m afraid your husband is expired.”

“Expired?” she hissed.  “He’s not a slab of meat that rotted in the sun, for God’s sake!”

“Rita,” Rodney said, pulling her up from the floor and putting an arm around her shoulder.  “That’s not what he meant.  He’s only telling you that Zach has died.”

“No!” Rita yelled, pulling away.  “You get my husband up off of that floor right now, put him in that ambulance, and get him to the hospital where somebody can do something for him since you don’t seem to be able to do anything.”

I felt horrible for the paramedic, being the victim of my wife’s acidic tongue.  Fortunately, that wasn’t her normal behavior.  Rita was one of the kindest, most caring, and loving people I’d ever known in my life.  Her unusual animosity towards the paramedic was the only way she knew how to react under such tragic circumstances; bitterness born from fear, dread, and the worst news she could have possibly received.

Blink, dammit!” I commanded.  “Wiggle a finger, lift a foot, but for God’s sake, do something to show them that you’re still alive!

“He’ll be transported to the hospital,” the paramedic said calmly.  “His death will be officially announced by a doctor there, who will in turn, release him to the medical examiner.  After that, well…” he said, his voice trailing off.

Let me finish that sentence for you, pal,” I screamed, employing the skill of ventriloquism that I never knew I possessed.  “After that, it’s the funeral home of your choice, ma’am.  Do you have one in mind?

“Rodney?” my wife cried.  “Please tell me he isn’t dead.”

“I wish I could,” he said, allowing her to cry into his chest.

I’m not dead, you bunch of ignorant fools!  Look at me! Check my heart again!  Listen for a pulse!

If I live to be a hundred years old, what I heard next is a sound that I will never forget and one that will haunt me for the rest of my life.  It was the most disturbing and unwelcome sound that I’ve ever heard in my life, and there wasn’t a damn thing that I could do to stop what was about to happen.

Zzzzzzzzip…the paramedics lifted me from the floor and laid me down on a black garbage bag.  Or, that’s what I initially thought it was because of the crinkling sound it made when the weight of my body came into contact with the material.

The two paramedics worked together tucking my legs into the bag, placing my arms firmly at my sides, and then pulling one black flap over the left side of my body, followed by another covering the right.

And that’s when it hit me!

“Holy shit!  They’re putting me inside of a body bag!  These clowns really believe I’m dead!”

Zzzzzzzzip…then total darkness.

Why can’t I move?” I screamed in my head.  “Why is my brain functioning but my body failing me?  What in the hell had happened to me that made it appear as though I had died?  Had someone poisoned my whiskey?  Did I have a heart attack?  A stroke, maybe?  Or had I actually died and just hadn’t realized or accepted it yet, and it was actually my spirit seeing and hearing the activity around me instead of me, myself, and I?

The drive to the hospital took less than five minutes.  I heard the paramedics get out of the ambulance and slam their doors.  Within seconds, the back double doors of the ambulance opened, and the stretcher that I lay on was pulled forward and placed wheels down for easy transport into the hospital.

“What a damn shame,” I heard the female say.  “He wasn’t that old, either.  Wonder what happened?”

“Who knows?  And it sucks that it happened at Christmas, too.”

The swooshing of the automatic doors told me that we’d entered the hospital emergency area, and I hoped with all of my might that I would be taken into a treatment room and examined by a real doctor, one who would proceed to tell the ambulance personnel that they’d made a grave (pardon the pun) mistake in pronouncing my death because I was, indeed, still very much alive.  All I needed was a competent soul to prove it.

“Got a code here,” the paramedic said.

“Name?”

“Zachary Greenlee.”

“Cause of death?”

“Undetermined, but myocardial infarction is suspected.”

“Ahh, medical speak for heart attack.”

“Guess we’ll know for sure once he’s opened up.”

Opened up?” I squealed; my question heard only by me.  “As in autopsied?  Dear God, I’m not dead now, but if you slice and dice me, I soon will be!

“Go ahead and take him to the morgue,” the paramedic was instructed.

“The morgue?  Good!  Maybe they’ll leave me in there long enough to allow me to regain my bodily functions before the medical examiner has a chance to carve me up like a Thanksgiving turkey!  No, wait a second.  What if they stick me inside one of those freezers where dead bodies are stored?  I’ll freeze to death!  Tell you what, you two jackasses.  Why don’t you unzip this bag and put me underneath one of those nice, warm lamps that I know are in here?”

“Hey, Doc,” the male paramedic said.  “Sorry to have to call you out on Christmas Eve.”

“You didn’t,” the man replied.  “I was already here.”

“Want me to put him in storage?”

“No, go ahead and put him on the table.  I’ll get him done tonight before I leave.”

“Tonight?  As in, right now?”

The body bag zipper rumbled open, and oh, sweet Lord, light!  Sweet, glorious light!  And air!  I could breathe!  It was a miracle that I hadn’t suffocated in that death bag during the ride!  I’d never been claustrophobic in my life, but I honestly believe that even the strongest and sanest of persons would suffer an episode of it if they ever found themselves zipped tightly inside a death shroud while still alive.

Hands beneath my shoulders, hands gripping my legs, lifting me off and out of the dark plastic…and lying me down on an ice cold, stainless steel table, my head resting on a hard rubber prop.  The low hanging fluorescent ceiling bulb positioned over the table was blinding me; but I couldn’t look away because I still couldn’t blink or move my eyes.  The mixture of heat and brightness caused my eyes to start watering, making my vision exceptionally blurry.

“Merry Christmas, Doc,” the paramedic said before exiting the morgue.

“Daniel?” I heard the doctor call out.

“Yes, Doctor Fox?”

“Can you please strip Mr. Greenlee and prepare him for examination?”

“Of course.”

Since I’d never witnessed or been the victim of an autopsy, I’m sure you can understand my surprise when, instead of unbuttoning my shirt and pants to remove them, he used a pair of scissors to cut them free, pulling the tattered garments from beneath me, and tossing them into a garbage bag.

“What happened to you?” Daniel asked kindly, leaning over to look me in the face.  “I’m so sorry that you were taken from your family at Christmas.  Rest assured,” he said, patting my shoulder lightly.  “You’re in good hands with Doctor Fox and me.  We’ll take good care of you, Mr. Greenlee.”

“But I’m not dead!  Please don’t do this to me!  You’re going to kill me!”

“Aww,” Daniel said softly.  “Are you crying?”

“Good!  You see the tears, now listen to my heart.  Check my pulse.  Poke me with a damn needle if you have to!  Just do something that will prove to you that I don’t belong in here!”

“I apologize for what I’m about to do to you, Mr. Greenlee,” Daniel said.  “But I have to give you a quick shower.”

“Do you always talk to the dead this way?  Or are you mocking me?  You know I’m alive, don’t you?  And you’re playing with me like a cat with a mouse!”

Jet sprays of water washed over me, starting at the top of my head, and ending on the soles of my feet, and holy shit, was it ever cold!  No soap for washing and no towel to absorb the excess water.  In the morgue, your only choice is air drying.

“Hmm,” Daniel said, running a latex gloved hand down my arm.  “I’ve never seen a dead body get goosebumps before.  Strange.”

“That’s because I’m not dead, you four-eyed dimwit!  You’ve seen me cry, you’re massaging my goose pimples, yet you still haven’t realized that I’m alive?  If I’m able to bring myself into producing a nice, stiff boner, will you notice then?”  Lying on that cold morgue table, I learned something very interesting that night.  No matter how desperately I commanded my brain to make my manhood work, no matter what sexual images or cunnilingus positions I attempted to conjure up, the electrical connection between my brain and my genitals refused to produce the spark that was needed to make Mr. Willie get up and dance.  Hell, I couldn’t even get the match lit, much less ignite a fire!  Poor Mr. Willie was as paralyzed as the rest of me, lying flaccid across my thigh like a dead snake! 

“Is he ready for examination, Daniel?”

“Yes, Doctor Fox.”

“No I’m not!  Look at me, dammit!”

Dr. Fox stood next to the table as he strapped on a headset and adjusted the microphone attached to it.  On the opposite side of the table was Daniel, a silver tray filled with tons of interesting looking objects that I knew were meant to be used on me.

“Dear God, no!  Please don’t let them do this to me!  I’ll do whatever you want me to do, but please don’t let me die!  Not like this!”

Daniel had turned the portable light over the table off and pushed it aside while he gave me my ice shower.  Now, Dr. Fox pulled it forward and readjusted the lamp so that its bright light beamed directly down on my chest.  Although it wasn’t shining directly in my eyes, the warmth and glare again made my eyes tear up.

“That’s strange,” Daniel said, bending over slightly to get a better look.

“What’s that?”

“His eyes were watering before I gave him a shower,” Daniel explained.  “As soon as you turned on the lamp, they started watering again.  Isn’t that a little unusual?”

“Daniel, in the twenty-five years that I’ve been doing this job, I’ve autopsied hundreds of bodies.  During that time, I’ve seen and heard some really weird shit.  I’ve had bodies groan, burp, and fart.  Hell, one time I even had one sit straight up on the table just as I was getting ready to make the first incision.  Scared me so damned bad, I thought I was going to end up on the table next to him.”

“Muscle contractions?”

“Yes, and the body releasing gases as the muscles relax.  Not unusual but it can be unnerving nonetheless.”

“Maybe that’s what I should do!  Rip the biggest and loudest fart he’s ever heard!  Make it rumble and roar across the metal slab and hope that it stinks so bad that they won’t have any other choice than to check my pulse and heartbeat!”  Unfortunately, I couldn’t even do that!  Never in my life had I wanted to fart as badly as I did at that moment, but like everything else, my asshole was broken as well.

“Today’s date is Sunday, December the twenty-fourth, two-thousand-seventeen,” Dr. Fox said, speaking into his microphone.  “My name is Doctor Samuel Fox, Chief Medical Examiner for Winston County, Indiana.  Name of the deceased is Zachary Dominic Greenlee, identified as such by Rita Greenlee, wife of the decedent.  Mr. Greenlee expired at his place of residence and was transported via ambulance to Winston Memorial Hospital.  Presumed cause of death is myocardial infarction.”

Dr. Fox laid the clipboard that he’d been holding beside my bare leg, the edge of it pressing into my thigh.

“I will now begin my external examination of Mr. Greenlee, careful to take notice of any injuries or other abnormalities.”

Daniel interrupted Dr. Fox’s opening statement.  “Dr. Fox?  Have you ever seen anything like this on any of the bodies you’ve autopsied?” he asked, calling attention to the thousands of goosebumps that had formed on my arms and legs.

“There you go!  That’s right, Daniel, make him look!  That should get his attention!”

“Odd, I’ll admit.  Could be he was cold when he died and his reaction to the cold hasn’t quite settled yet.  It’s nothing to worry about.”

Daniel continued to stare down at me, a look of concern on his face.  For a minute there, I was sure he was going to tell Dr. Fox to stop what he was doing because he was on the verge of opening up a man who was still alive.  Except that he didn’t.  Instead, he turned his attention to the medical instruments laid out on the tray at his side.

“Deceased is a thirty-five year old Caucasian male, measuring seventy-two inches and weighing approximately one hundred and nine kilograms.  Hair color is dark brown.  Eye color is brown.  All teeth are natural and healthy.”

“Of course, they are, you dimwitted moron!  Are yours?  Or do you keep them in a glass on your bedside table at night so that when you wake up every morning, you can start your day off by smiling at yourself?”

“The body exterior is unremarkable, with the exception of a small area of discoloration on the right side of the forehead, obtained when Mr. Greenlee fell inside his home, striking his head on a nearby coffee table, according to the notation made by the attending emergency personnel.  There are no signs of outward trauma, no contusions other than the forehead, no abrasions, and no lacerations.  The sclera of both eyes are white and appear to be healthy.  Mr. Greenlee did not present with any type of corrective lenses in his personal belongings, nor are there any contact lenses on the eyeballs themselves.”  Dr. Fox paused from his dictation, leaning in close enough that I could smell the peppermint he was sucking on.  “Hmm,” he grunted, standing erect again.

“What is it, Dr. Fox?” Daniel asked.

“Probably nothing, although I do find his eyes to be quite peculiar.”

“It’s about damn time you noticed something important!”

“In what way?”

“Take a look for yourself.”

“His eyes are wet again, even though I’ve wiped them three times now.  Other than that, what am I looking at?”

“What do you see, Daniel?” Dr. Fox asked.  “Better yet, what don’t you see?”

Daniel studied my face for several seconds before exclaiming, “His pupils.  They’re not dilated.”

“Exactly,” Dr. Fox confirmed.  “There’s also no petechial hemorrhaging, which is quite peculiar for someone who has suffered a cardiac arrest, wouldn’t you say?”  Dr. Fox sighed heavily.  “Guess I can chalk this one up to another strange occurrence and add it to my repertoire of bizarre encounters.  Like I told you, Daniel.  In this field, odd happenings are second nature.”

Dr. Fox picked up the clipboard, jotted something down, and then returned it to the table.

“Upon completion of my external examination, I have no reason to believe that Mr. Greenlee died of anything other than what is suspect in his case.  An internal examination of his organs, tissues, and muscles will either confirm or repudiate death caused by cardiac arrest.  Scalpel, please, Daniel.”

“No, Doc, wait!  I feel something happening.  I think I’m beginning to come around.  Just give me a minute and I’ll show you!”

The razor sharp, silver knife glistened beneath the light as Daniel passed it to an outstretched hand.

“Dr. Fox?” Daniel said timidly.

“What is it now, Daniel?” Dr. Fox asked with irritation, the scalpel pausing in mid-air over my left shoulder.  “I’d like to get this finished in time to get home and enjoy a mug of my wife’s famous Christmas eggnog.”

“Nevermind,” Daniel said, shaking his head.  “I thought I saw his hand move, but I guess not.  Dead men don’t wiggle their fingers, do they?” he finished with a nervous laugh.

“Listen to me, you two squid nuts!  I’m not dead!  And yes, Daniel, you did see me move my finger ever so slightly, but I moved it, nonetheless.  Keep watching.  I’ll do it again, only better!”

Funny the things that crossed my mind as I stared death in the face while having my life flash before my eyes.  For some odd reason, an old article that I’d read in a magazine years before came to mind.  The story focused on burial practices in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the deceased were buried in safety coffins with a piece of string wrapped around a finger and then the string connected to a bell beside the burial site.  It was standard practice during that time to prevent premature burials from occurring, or in other words, to keep them from being buried alive.  A close watch was kept on the grave for about three days to ensure that the person buried was indeed dead; however, if the bell started ringing, then the watcher would alert the authorities, the grave would be reopened, and the buried would be saved.

Of course, that type of thing couldn’t happen in today’s world with the advancement of science and perfection of embalming techniques.  Once a person was preserved by his or her mortician, there would be absolutely no doubt that the person was definitely dead.

“No, they don’t.”  The scalpel cut deep into the flesh below my left shoulder, slicing in a downward motion and ending just below my sternum.

“Dr. Fox, stop!” Daniel screamed.

“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Dr. Fox gasped, dropping the scalpel.  “They don’t bleed, either!”

“He’s not dead!” Daniel exclaimed.

“No, he’s not,” Dr. Fox stated alarmingly, holding my incision together with his hands.  “In my medical opinion, I’d say he’s a victim of an episode of Catalepsy.  The disorder has such a profound effect on the body’s nervous system that it makes it appear as though a person is dead, when in fact, they’re only temporarily paralyzed.  It screws with their heartbeat, their pulse, even their breathing,” Dr. Fox said, his voice shaky.  “Oh, dear sweet Jesus, I nearly killed this man.  Daniel, get on the phone and get a doctor down here STAT!”

Tears flowed from the corners of my eyes, a mixture of joy and a reaction to unbearable pain.  I had literally been sliced open while wide awake, conscious, and able to feel the cold and sharpness of the blade as it cut through my skin with ease and preciseness.  There are no words that I can think of to describe the excruciating agony I experienced.

“Mr. Greenlee,” Dr. Fox said.  “I know you’re alive and that you can hear me.  Please know how terribly sorry I am that this happened.  Don’t you worry.  A doctor will be down here shortly for you.”

More than two hundred stitches later, my wound was closed, and I was lying comfortably in a hospital bed, dressed, warm, and snug.  It was a pleasant change from the cold steel of the autopsy table I’d been on only a short time before.

About two hours after being hospitalized, bodily functions slowly began to return and I was able to move my hands and feet, and also able to communicate, albeit my words were as slurred as a drunkard’s at first, but the more I talked and moved my mouth, the better my speech became.

Imagine my wife’s surprise when she got a telephone call from the hospital informing her that her dead husband had returned from the grave.

Her joy and happiness were short-lived once the investigations into my firm began and my dark secrets began spilling out.  It didn’t take long afterwards for her to begin to despise me, and I can’t say that I blame her.  I had been living a façade for years and all of my wrongdoings had finally caught up to me.

My wife knew when to bail from a sinking ship, and she did exactly that by filing for a divorce, walking out on me, and taking our two children with her, refusing to be caught up in the crimes that I’d committed or facing social embarrassment once the repossessions and seizures commenced.

From what I’ve been told, she married Rodney, and her and the kids moved into his mansion with him and are supposedly quite happy.  She hasn’t visited me since my incarceration, nor allowed the kids to come see me, so I can only believe what I’m told.

As for me, I am where I should be, where I belong, and I blame no one but myself.

And the most important thing of all is that I’m alive.

Dream Weavers (Free Sample Chapters)

Chapter One

Through the oculus-shaped attic window, fiendish and inquisitive eyes suspiciously watched the commotion taking place on the sidewalk below, infuriated that strangers had the audacity to trespass onto his property, and wondering why they were all being so ridiculously loud.  This wasn’t the first time he’d had his privacy infringed upon, but after he’d exacted his revenge for their blasphemous encroachments, they’d soon afterwards run away with their tails tucked between their legs like the terrified cowards that they were.  These current pests would be no different than any of the others.  He’d send them packing and screaming, too.

This was his house and he had no intentions of leaving or allowing uninvited outsiders to cohabitate with him.

There were three of them.  A petite, fair-haired woman, a taller, blonde teen-aged girl, and a younger boy with hair the color of fire.  With them was a filthy, disgusting black and white dog that the boy called Conroy, who sat like a statue on the sidewalk by his master’s side, staring up at the window where he stood, unmoving and silent, not even wagging his tail.  He hated dogs almost as much as he despised humans and would extinguish this one exactly as he had the last one that had crossed over his house’s threshold.  Like their predecessors, he knew their intentions were to come in and completely take over his entire domain, clogging up his space and getting in his way, and would likely do everything within their power to drive him out of his own home if they were to ever discover that he was there.  He’d kill them all quickly and without an ounce of remorse before ever allowing that to happen!

Whatever it was they were doing was being done with some kind of gadget he’d never seen before.  Repeated bright, white light continually flashed as the three of them posed, smiled and stared at whatever the woman was holding in her hand.

He had no time to be bothered with such pathetic nonsense.

The girl was pretty, though, as was the woman with her.  What an exhilarating thought to imagine the fun he could have with them before completely annihilating them.  He’d have fun with the boy, too, if he were lucky enough to capture and keep his attention long enough to make it worth his time.  That atrocious dog would be the first one that had to go, and he would eliminate that problem the earliest chance he got.  He had no particular order for destroying the remaining three, but with the fleabag out of the way, access to them would be a lot easier.

As he slinked back into the confines of the house’s dark interior, he was already making plans to ensure that the humans’ stay in his home was short-lived.  But not before making them regret the moment that they’d ever crossed his path.

* * * * *

“Well, what do you think?” Joan Buchanan asked as she put her phone inside her purse when her kids started protesting about how many pictures she was taking.  This was a big event for them, and she wanted to ensure that she had an adequate amount of keepsakes to remember the special occasion.

“Kind of creepy if you ask me,” her daughter, Pietra replied.  “Hope the inside looks better than the outside does.”

“Don’t be such a negative Nellie.  I know it’s different than what you’re used to, but it’s home.  What do you say we make the best of it?”

“I think it’s kind of cool,” Chandler responded.  “It’ll be fun pretending that we live in a haunted house.”

With sagging trees and dead shrubbery in both the front and back yards, it did have a certain spooky quality about it, so it was easy to understand why Chandler would consider it haunted.  Only the wild imagination of an adolescent teenaged boy could concoct such a thought.

Pietra rolled her eyes.  “Of course, you’d like it.  Why wouldn’t you?  You’re a weirdo.”

“What’s that up there?” he asked, pointing.  “I’ve never seen a window like that.  Reminds me of a church.”

“It’s called stained glass, you idiot.”

Ignoring her daughter’s demeaning remark, she answered, “The loft, I guess.  Round windows like that are commonly used in attics, although I’ll have to admit that I’ve never seen one with such a strange looking design.” 

She’d inspected the inside and outside of the house when touring it with the real estate agent, but she hadn’t been heavily focused on the windows, other than to ensure that none were broken, and that all were in working order.  This was the first time the kids had seen the house, and there was a good reason for that.  Pietra’s obvious disdain for its unkempt appearance and not measuring up to the standards that she was used to or expected only confirmed that she’d made the right call.  If she’d been allowed to see it beforehand, it would have resulted in a verbal spat, and one or both of them would have made statements they’d later regret, and they’d already been through enough in the past several months to last them a lifetime.  Besides, nothing positive could ever come from pouring gas onto an already burning fire.

“Reminds me of a ship’s porthole,” Pietra stated.

“Yeah,” Joan agreed.  “It kind of does.”

“How do you know what the address is?” Pietra asked.

“The numbers are above the door.  Six-six-nine.”

“No, mom.  I mean, look at the door.  It’s facing the corner where two streets intersect.  I’ve never seen that before.  Half of the house is on one street, the other half of the house is on the other street, like it’s split down the middle.  Weird.”

“Didn’t even think about it.  Good thing the address was pre-decided before we got here.”

“Which is it then?  Nightfall Avenue or Shadow Street?  Both creepy names, by the way.”

“And either one will be great when Halloween rolls around,” Chandler added.

“Nightfall Avenue,” Joan confirmed, internally comparing the differences between her son and daughter.  Chandler, the horror movie lover who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, including snakes and bugs; and Pietra, the Diva, who would rather die than be seen in public without perfect hair, make-up, and clothes.  God knew how much she loved them and how badly she felt about their current situation because they didn’t deserve it.  Hell, who was she kidding?  None of them deserved it and they’d certainly not done anything to warrant being in the predicament they now found themselves in.

In only six short months, they’d gone from living in an upscale house in a gated community to calling a ramshackled, almost eighty-year-old rundown structure their home. 

It wasn’t until after the sudden death of her husband that all of the dark secrets he’d been hiding from her came pouring forth like a flash flood.  Rumors of multiple extra-marital affairs, falling behind on and refusing to pay the mortgage, allowing every insurance policy they owned to lapse for non-payment of the premiums, discovering that he was thousands of dollars in debt to bookmakers and loan sharks for gambling losses.

Looking back, she should have known that something wasn’t quite right when she’d received a phone call from the funeral director informing her that the policy she’d turned over to him the day before to cover expenses wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, prompting her to place a phone call to the insurance company, only to learn that the policy had expired six months prior.  By the time she’d found out about that little gem of information, Burt’s funeral and cremation had already been scheduled, so there was no way she could back out of the services.  It wasn’t like she could take his body home and bury it in the back yard, erect a cross made of sticks and call it a day.  But she could make some extreme changes to the arrangements, and that’s exactly what she’d done.

Thank God for the life insurance policy that she’d carried on him through her employment.  It could have easily paid for his funeral had she gone the traditional route, but because of the debacle with the lapsed policy and not knowing the status of the second one he’d carried, she’d opted instead for the least expensive plan available.  Money saved was money earned and she and the kids would be needing it a hell of a lot more than he would.  He damned sure hadn’t deserved a luxurious funeral, and in hindsight, she was glad that she hadn’t given him one.

Within a few short months after his death, the bank foreclosed on their home, the finance company repossessed both cars, and since there was no other policy that would have provided her and the kids with monetary support and she knew she’d need every dime she could get her hands on in order to start over, she’d kept important possessions that she knew she would need, such as the stove and refrigerator, beds, and a few pieces of furniture, sold what she didn’t need or want, and what was left over, she’d donated to a local charity just to get it off her hands.

Between the embarrassment and the town gossip, it was more than she could endure, and also more than she was willing to allow herself or her children to be subjected to.  Therefore, she’d packed what little they had left, stored the furniture and appliances, bought a decent used car, and hit the road with no regrets, and no looking back.

Her goal had been to put at least a hundred miles between their old town and new destination, but when she’d driven through the small, northern Kentucky town of Castleton only seventy miles away, she’d fallen in love with it and had decided that’s where they’d settle down.  With a population of less than fifty thousand, it was large enough to avoid small-town gossip, yet small enough to feel cozy.

The drive from Killene had been beautiful, and she’d found it amazing that although she’d lived in Kentucky all of her life, there were so many places she’d never been and multitudes of towns and cities she’d never seen.  Burt had never been one to take vacations or weekend jaunts, preferring instead to spend his weekends at home with a can of beer in one hand and a remote control in the other.  The few trips she had taken over the years had been with the kids and they were usually to theme parks or zoos.

Landscaping along I-65 abounded with rolling green hills and white picket fences surrounding acre upon acre of horse farms, their breeders hoping they’d be the one to produce the next winner of the Kentucky Derby, as if they weren’t already rich enough, considering the multi-million dollar mansions that sat atop hills overlooking their sprawling property.

“Must be nice to be that wealthy,” Pietra would chime in each time they passed another farm.

“Being rich doesn’t necessarily refer to money,” she’d told her.  And that was true.  She considered herself rich, not monetarily, but because of good health, an excellent education, and two great kids that she adored.  Those were special gifts that not everyone was blessed with.

“Can we get a horse, mom?” Chandler asked.

“Not likely, son.  First of all, we’d have nowhere to put it.  Secondly, none of us knows a thing about taking care of a horse.”

“Didn’t hurt to ask,” he replied, hugging his dog, Conroy, close to him.  “You’re all I need anyway,” he told him.

Main street of downtown Castleton was lined with older, brick-constructed buildings and store fronts with large-paned glass display windows.  A candy store, pawn broker and coffee house were just a few of the shops that caught her eye as she’d passed through town.

“There’s probably nothing to do here in Hicksville,” Pietra said as she looked out the window.  “I’ll bet there’s only one school here that houses every grade, just like it was back in the olden days.”

“Don’t be so judgmental,” Joan told her.  “Let’s check the town out before condemning it.  At first glance, I must say that the scenery is lovely.”

“Mom, what are we going to do?” Pietra asked tartly.  “We have nowhere to live, you don’t have a job, and we have no money.  How, exactly, are you planning on pulling this off?”

The first two of her statements were true, the last one, not so much.  She just hadn’t shared that bit of news with her kids.  If she did, then she’d have to explain where the money came from, which would then lead to a conversation about the cost of their father’s funeral, and that was a discussion she didn’t care to have.  In reality, the face value of the life insurance policy she’d carried on him was fifty-thousand dollars, double indemnity in case of accidental death.  Fortunately for her and the kids, Burt dying of auto-erotic asphyxiation in a hotel room while pleasuring himself (or being pleasured by someone else) was ruled as accidental by the county coroner, basing his findings on the possibility that he’d not been alone at the time of his death, although no evidence to the contrary was ever found.  However, she could have a say in how much of that hundred-thousand was spent paying for the funeral of a lying, cheating bastard who’d left her indigent, so she’d spent the least amount possible, opting for a rental coffin for his viewing and funeral, then returning it to the mortuary upon his cremation.  No way in hell was she spending ten grand on a coffin that would only be incinerated and reduced to ashes, not when that amount of money could be spent elsewhere and on much more important things – like getting the hell out of town and away from backstabbing people that she’d thought were her friends!  Such actions might seem cold and disconnected to most, but at the time she’d made the decision, she’d been unsure of the future for her and the kids, angry, and devastated.  Not only because of her husband’s death, but the manner in which he’d died, and the more she continued to learn about his secret life after his death, the more she knew she’d made the right decision.  She hadn’t expected to spend any more than she already had, but then the question of his ashes arose.  Out of resentment and disgust, she’d decided to purchase a small display case inside the funeral home’s mausoleum where his urn would be interred, telling the kids that it was the respectful thing to do because they’d never have to worry about accidentally breaking the urn and spilling his ashes.  The truth was that she hadn’t wanted them anywhere near her where she’d have to look at them every day and constantly be reminded of his betrayal.

Had she been wrong for keeping all of that information from her children?  Maybe.  But she didn’t regret it at all because life for them went on, and since she had no one that could help her out financially, she did what she’d thought was best for her and the kids.

“I’ll find us a place as quickly as I possibly can, Pietra.  I know this is hard on you, honey, but it is for me and Chandler, too.  All I’m asking is that you be patient and give me a chance.  Is that asking too much?”

“I guess not,” Pietra shrugged.  “What do we do in the meantime?”

“Find a motel for starters,” Joan replied.  “We may have to stay in one for a week or two.”

Pietra grunted and threw her head back against the seat.  “Seriously, mom?  I have to sleep in the same room with him?” she said, thumbing over her shoulder at her brother.

“Not only him.  I’ll be in the room, too.  It’s only temporary.”

“Can you at least make sure it’s not a roach motel or one of those pay-by-the-hour ones?”

Joan laughed.  “How do you know about anything like that?”

“I’m sixteen, mom, not six.  I know about sex and hookers.”

“Pietra!  Let’s not talk like that in front of Chandler.”

“It’s okay, mom,” Chandler called from the backseat.  “I know about sex, too.”

Joan glanced through the rearview mirror at her son.  “Exactly what are they teaching in school these days?”

“I learned from the Internet.  There’s all kinds of stuff to look at there,” Chandler said.

“Remind me to set parental controls on your computer, will you?”

“Sure, mom, whatever you say.”

“It’s not the Ritz-Carlton, but this one looks clean and safe,” Joan said, pulling into the parking lot of the Castleton Hotel.

“Can’t I have my own room?” Pietra asked.

“No, you can’t, not here.  When I find a house, I’ll make sure there’s enough room for each of you to have your own room,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt.  “You two sit tight while I go in and see if they have a vacancy.  I won’t be long.”

“Are you mad at mom?” Chandler asked as Joan entered the lobby door.

“Not mad, upset maybe.”

“Why?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Nope.”

“You’re not angry that we left Killene?  All of our friends are there.  So are our schools.”

“What was mom supposed to do, Pietra?”

“She could have chosen to stay there and find us another place to live.  How hard could that have been?”

“With all of her friends making fun of her and talking about her behind her back?  Why would she?”

“Whatever,” Pietra retorted, rolling her eyes.  “She could have worked it out if she’d wanted to.”

“This isn’t her fault, Pietra.  It’s not like she asked for dad to die.  If you want to blame someone, blame him.  He’s the reason we’re in this mess.”

She did blame him.  For everything.  But she blamed her mom, too.  How could she not have known what was going on?  Afterall, they had a joint checking account and she balanced it every month.  Wouldn’t she have noticed if bills weren’t being paid?  Why didn’t she confront their dad about it and make him explain? 

“Good news,” Joan said, hopping back into the car.  “Got us a room with two king-sized beds and a roll-away cot, on the third floor overlooking the pool.  Had to pay extra for Conroy, but I suppose the mutt’s worth it.”

The room was located on the backside of the hotel, away from the main road and the sound of passing traffic.  “What do you say we put our things away and go find a good place to eat?”

“I’m all for that,” Chandler said, removing his suitcase from the trunk.

“Can we at least go somewhere that we can go inside and sit down instead of eating hamburgers from paper bags?” Pietra groaned.

“I think I can handle that,” Joan answered, passing Pietra her suitcase.  “We’ll talk about it when we get upstairs and decide what we want.”

A sit-down, Italian meal had been a good start to their new lives, but it certainly hadn’t continued on the same path.

What she’d expected to be no more than a week or two of hotel life had turned into two months, being forced to spend money she didn’t have to spare, yet she had no choice unless she chose to live in the car until she could find them a permanent place to stay.

Rentals in Castleton were few and far between, and the couple of houses that had been available were outrageously overpriced and way out of her range.  All of the landlords wanted first and last months’ rent, and a security deposit that was the same amount as a month of rent; basically asking for three months’ worth in advance just to move in.  For what they were asking, one would think they were being offered palaces equipped with golden toilets instead of basic, unfurnished living quarters.  Apartment complexes either had two-bedrooms available, or three-bedrooms with no allowance for pets.

On the verge of giving up and moving on, she’d decided to visit a realtor and see if perhaps they had any private listings, which she knew some landlords did in order to prevent them from having to rent to what they considered to be unbecoming individuals.

“Are you looking for something in particular?”  An overweight woman with black hair fashioned in a 60’s style bouffant, curled up ends and a pink felt bow in the center, asked her as she opened her listing catalog.  Heavy on the blue eye shadow and black eyeliner, she looked like she was dressed for a costume party instead of working in a business office.

“At least three bedrooms, preferably two bathrooms.”

“Are you looking to rent or buy?”

“Rent.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any rentals at the moment,” she said, licking her fingertip and turning the page.  “I have several listings of homes for sale.  Is there a maximum price you’re willing to pay?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it to tell you the truth,” Joan answered.  “I came here with the intention of renting.”

“Buying is so much better,” the lady told her, looking up from the catalog and offering her a smile, her teeth smeared with red lipstick.  “When you own your own home, you can do whatever you want to do with it, fix it the way you want, decorate it in a way that suits you.  So many times, landlords have ridiculous rules and won’t even allow a tenant to put a nail in the wall to hang a picture.  Besides, when you rent, all you’re doing is lining someone else’s pockets.  Buying a home is a lifetime investment.”

“You’re right,” Joan agreed.  “Show me what you have available.”

“My name is Gloria Butler, by the way,” she said, extending a chubby hand.

“Joan Buchanan.”

“Nice to meet you, Joan.”  Gloria hadn’t been so pleasant and jovial towards her when her intention had been to rent a place.  Change the conversation to buying and, boom, instant gratitude.  Why?  Because she would make a nice commission off the sale.  Talk about lining someone’s pockets!  Hypocrite.

“This one is very nice,” Gloria said, pointing to a single-story, ranch-type house.  “It’s located not too far from town and is situated on five acres.”

“No need to go any further on this one,” Joan said.  “This is way out of my price range.”

“Alright, let me keep looking,” she said, humming as she turned page after page.  “How long have you lived in Castleton?”

“Not long.  A couple of months.”

Gloria looked up from the catalog.  “Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know anyone around here?”

“No.”

“Then you’re not familiar with anything about our small community?”

“Outside of a motel and fast food restaurants?  No.”

“Where did you move from?”

“Killene.”

“Never been there,” Gloria smiled, flipping a page in her catalog.  “I have another one similar to the one I just showed you.  It’s a tad bit cheaper,” she said, passing the book to Joan.

“You call this a tad bit cheaper?” Joan asked with a smile.  “Still too rich for my blood.”

“At the risk of sounding condescending, have you considered buying a trailer?”

“By trailer, you mean a mobile home?”

“Yes, or a pre-fab.”

“Not an option,” Joan stated.  “With children, I want something much safer than a mobile home.”

“There’s really not much left,” Gloria said, closing her listing book.

“Guess I’ll have to try a different realtor.  Maybe they’ll have something.”

“Unlikely, since we share MLS numbers.”

“MLS?  What is that?”

“Multiple listings on available properties.  In short, what I have in my listing book is the same as they’ll have in theirs, although one or two may differ.”

“I’ll have to take my chances,” Joan said, getting up from her chair.  “Thanks for your help.”

“I can make a call for you if you’d like me to.  One of my closest friends is an agent at another realtor’s office.  Perhaps she has something that I’m not aware of.”

Does your friend dress like she just popped out of a 1960’s time capsule as well? Joan thought.  “I appreciate that,” she said, sitting back down.

“This will only take a few seconds,” Gloria said, using the eraser of her pencil to punch in the numbers on the phone.

Joan sat quietly while Gloria exchanged pleasantries with her friend, watching light traffic pass up and down Main Street through the large store-front window.  Over two months living there, and she still didn’t know what all the town had to offer in the way of shopping or entertainment.  One tends to not focus so much on the non-essential things when they’re struggling to secure a permanent residence.  As Gloria continued her phone conversation, Joan caught the faint scent of freshly baked bread or donuts, making a mental note to check and see if there was a bakery nearby.

“That old thing?” she heard Gloria say, turning her attention to the realtor as she scowled.  “I had no idea it was for sale,” she said, jotting information down on her tablet with a pencil, occasionally glancing up at Joan.  “How many children do you have?” Gloria asked her.

“Two.  A son and daughter.”

“Shall I come and get the key, or do you want to meet us there?” Gloria asked her friend.  “I’ll do that, thanks,” she said, then hung up and tore the sheet from the tablet.

“Any luck?”

“She did have a listing that I don’t have,” Gloria began.  “But I have to be honest and tell you that the house is really old, and since I haven’t been inside, I can’t speak about the condition.  It’s been empty for quite some time.  In fact, I didn’t even know it was for sale.”

“Guess I won’t know unless I see it.”

“Um, yes,” Gloria said, clearing her throat.  If Joan didn’t know any better, she’d swear that Gloria was reluctant about taking her to see the house because she seemed a bit nervous.

“Is there a problem?”

“No,” Gloria said, shaking her head.  “No problem, but I do need to go pick up the key.  It won’t take long.  Her office isn’t far from here.”

“Shall we take my car?”

“Or you can meet me there.”

“Meet you?” Joan asked.  “I don’t even know where we’re going.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right,” Gloria replied, standing up, the sheet of paper fluttering in her shaking hand.  “Shall we?”

Built parallel to intersecting streets, the tri-story home sat on a corner lot, sticking out like a sore thumb among the more modern homes in the neighborhood.  The lower half of the house, including the two stoop pedestals and steps leading up to the porch, were constructed of red brick, the top half with faded white clapboards.  Joan had seen similar type homes as a child when visiting her grandparents who’d lived in the high mountains in northern Kentucky, except that her grandparents’ house, like many others in their surrounding area, had tin roofs instead of tiles like this one did.

“How old is this house?” Joan asked as she pulled into the dirt driveway.

“I can’t tell you exactly, but I believe it was built sometime in the early forties.”

Patches of brown grass grew from clumps of dry dirt, and the hedges lining the front of the house were bare of any type of growth.  On top of both pedestals were large, green flowerpots, their blooms long dead, withered limbs drooping over the sides of the planters. 

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Again, I’m not sure,” Gloria replied as she stared, unblinking, at the house.

“Take a guess.”

“A year, maybe.  I can’t say for sure.”

“Is there no caretaker to look after the property and oversee the landscaping?  Surely those dead plants haven’t been here since the last time the house was occupied.”

Gloria shrugged and shook her head as she chewed nervously on her bottom lip.

“You seem uptight,” Joan said, twisting in her seat to look at Gloria.  “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No,” she quickly replied, turning to Joan smiling.  “I’m sure you’re curious to see the inside, so let’s get this over with.”

“Is the back yard fenced in?” Joan asked, noticing the dilapidated gate to the left of the entrance.

“I don’t know.”

“Gloria, did your friend give you a spec sheet to bring with you that has all of the house’s information on it?”

“No, I’m afraid she didn’t, and only offered basic details, ones she thought pertinent enough for showing the house.”

“I’ll go take a quick look myself,” Joan said frustratingly.  “Care to come along?”

“I’ll wait here for you.”

The rusted gate latch was melded to the catch from lack of use and little to no maintenance, refusing to budge from its locked position.  After several failed attempts to disengage the lever, Joan gave the bottom part of the gate a swift kick, pushing the door inward and breaking the entire locking mechanism off the gate door, cringing at the shrill screech of the also rusted hatches as the door slowly creaked open.

“Guess I’ll have to pay for a new gate lock,” she called over her shoulder before entering the side yard.  It was a large stretch of property, more than two acres by her estimation, and completely fenced in with what appeared to be barbed wire.  A screened in back porch ran the entire length of the house, the door made of wood, all of the screening black with filth.  Beyond the back fence was nothing but foliage and overgrown weeds.  In the yard stood a child’s swing set, the slide brown with rust, the white plastic seats of the swings broken and dangling by single chains.  Tall, mature oak and maple trees grew along the fence line, but like all other vegetation on the property, had not been nurtured and taken care of, leaving them looking saggy and droopy.  Should she end up accepting the house, plant life would be one of the first things she attended to because the last thing she wanted was for her new neighbors to think that she was a dark and mysterious woman, caring little for the condition and appearance of the home in which she lived.  With a good degree of tender loving care and attention, she’d have the trees and shrubs back to health in no time.

Speaking of neighbors, she was being watched as she inspected the back yard.  Up the street to her left, a man stood in his yard with his hands resting on top of a rake as he eyed her curiously, likely wondering if he was about to get a new neighbor.  And across the street from him, an overweight woman stood on the sidewalk in front of her house, arms folded across her large belly, observing her as curiously as her male counterpart.  Joan could see that they were exchanging words, but she had no idea what they were saying, but she assumed whatever it was, they were talking about her.

“Don’t worry about the gate,” Gloria said to her when she returned.  “We’ll figure out a way to secure it.  Let’s take a look inside and see what you think.”

What she’d initially thought was brick flooring on the porch turned out to be red-painted concrete, many areas either worn or chipped away.  To the right was a wooden swing suspended from the overhang by rusted chains, the dark brown paint in much the same condition as that on the porch floor.  Gloria’s hand trembled as she inserted the key, finally able to unlock the door after the third try.

“Are you sure there isn’t something you need to disclose to me?  You seem awfully nervous.”

“Nothing that would be of any importance to you,” Gloria replied.  “It’s personal, nothing for you to worry about.”  Dismissing Joan’s question, she began her realtor spiel.  “This house has four bedrooms, two full baths, a dining area, kitchen, screened-in back porch, and an attic that could be converted into an extra bedroom or an entertainment area.  When considering the newer homes in the neighborhood, this house may seem less ordinary, but at the time it was built, it was considered to be high-end, the kind that only rich folks could afford.  When this home was originally constructed, it was the only one in this entire area,” she said with a wave of her flabby arm.  “The homes you see now didn’t come until several years later.  For the asking price, you’d be getting a lot of house for the money.”

“Recited all that information from memory, did you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You seem to know an awful lot about the house for someone who wasn’t provided a spec sheet.”

“Yes, well, I grew up here in Castleton.  I suppose I know as much about this house as any other resident.  Anyway,” she said, quickly changing the subject and stepping inside.  “This is the living room.”  Joan detected a slight tremor in Gloria’s voice as she spoke, the kind that develops when someone is either nervous or scared.  “The fireplace is natural, no gas required,” Gloria continued, nervously glancing at the wooden staircase that led to the second floor.  “All you need is firewood, and when the time comes that you need it, there are plenty of places around here that sell it.”

“Any idea how long it’s been since the chimney was cleaned?”

“No, I’m sorry, but I’ll write all of your questions down and get the answers for you.  Shall we move on?”

The vaulted ceiling in the living room made the already expansive area seem even larger and would look practically empty with the small amount of furniture she owned.  The floor in the living room was constructed of dark pine wood, but the one in the kitchen left a lot to be desired.  It had been covered with the ugliest shade of bright orange linoleum that Joan had ever seen.  Aluminum seams used for anchoring the rubber flooring were missing at the kitchen entry and back door, their corners torn, ragged, peeling away and curled up at the edges.  She had never cared for linoleum because she thought it looked cheap, and she hated the way it felt on her bare feet.  No matter how many times it was mopped or how clean it was, it always felt dirty and gritty to her.  She could already see herself ripping it up from the floor and tossing it into the garbage.

The stark contrast between the flooring and the scarlet red cabinets was nauseating.  What the hell were the last tenants thinking when choosing their color pattern?

Choosing to hang onto her kitchen appliances had been a smart move because the house didn’t come equipped with any.

“Where does that door lead?” Joan asked, pointing to an area to the right of where the stove would be placed.

“The cellar.”

“Any idea what’s down there?”

“Dust and cobwebs most likely,” Gloria said, quickly adding, “now to the upstairs.”

Not that Gloria needed to point out the dining room to her since she knew what one was, but that she walked right past it without stopping or mentioning it only made Joan more certain that for some reason, Gloria seemed to be in a hurry to get the tour over with and get the hell out of that house.

The wood creaked beneath their feet as they ascended to the second-floor landing.  “There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms on this floor.  One in the master bedroom, the other between the two rooms on the right.  Let’s start with the master bedroom and work our way back,” she said, continuing down the hallway.

It was a massive room, larger than her kitchen and dining room combined in the house back in Killene.  The entire wall overlooking the back yard was constructed of paned windows.  Red, black, and orange paisley print paper covered the walls.  The large walk-in closet would be more than enough space for what few clothes and shoes she owned, leaving room to store unopened boxes if she needed to.  The master bath had an over-sized, clawfoot tub situated in the middle of the room with a circular, metal shower curtain rod that, once closed, would provide privacy if showers were preferred over baths.  From the windows, Joan could see beyond the perimeter fence, but not much more was visible from there than there had been from standing in the back yard.  Nothing but trees, foliage and overgrown weeds, the house’s own private forest.

Across the hall from the master bedroom was another one half the size of the master and could be set up as a guest room, or as she preferred, a sewing and craft room.  The likelihood of ever having house guests that spent the night was slim, so she’d much rather put it to better use.

The main bathroom was also equipped with a tub and shower, but this one had sliding Plexiglas doors, as well as double sinks, each with their own storage cabinets.

A few feet from the head of the stairs, on the same side as what would be her sewing room, was another bedroom, its windows overlooking the front yard and surrounding neighborhood, and one she felt Chandler would be happy with.

“And the last bedroom,” Gloria said, opening the door.  “As you can see, all of the bedrooms are large enough to fit an entire bedroom suite into and still have room left over.  As a matter of fact, I think these rooms are bigger than my entire apartment,” she said with a nervous laugh.

The only thing different about the last room was that it had a cherry wood armoire built into the wall next to the closet.  Joan ran a finger along the intricate artwork carved into the wood, admiring its creative beauty.  Whoever had hand-crafted the piece of furniture had done so with painstaking care and acute attention to detail and had done so for someone with a great love for horses, if the artwork was any clue.

Pietra is going to love this, she thought as she carefully opened the double doors.  Inside the armoire were four empty shelves, most likely at one time lined with a girl’s favorite dolls or figurines.  The bottom part had two drawers, both also empty, leaving no remnants behind to indicate that it had ever belonged to anyone or that it had ever been used at all for that matter.  Joan detected a light scent of cedar as she closed the door.

“I noticed a closed door down there,” Joan said, pointing back towards the master bedroom.  “Is that another room?”

“No,” Gloria replied.  “It leads to the attic.  The staircase is beyond the door.”

“I’d like to take a look,” Joan said, walking down the hall.  “Afterall, if you’re going to show me a house, you might as well show me all of it and not just the rooms you want me to see.”  Four narrow wooden steps led up to a small landing, and to the left of that, four more steps that opened into a cavernous space.  Joan wasn’t sure what she expected to find there, but it wasn’t the proverbial leather chest filled with Grandpa’s old war medals and treasure maps.  Other than the specter of colors bathing the room through the stained-glass window, the attic was empty and surprisingly clean, except for a light coat of dust on the handrails.  Renovations had been made at some point.  With a walk-in closet and built-in bookshelves, the large space could easily serve as an extra room, den or recreation area.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Needs quite a bit of work,” Joan said.  “But it has potential.”

“Great,” Gloria said, descending the stairs.  “Let’s go back to my office and talk shop.”

“Not so fast,” Joan called after her.  “There’s a few things I’d like to talk about first, and if you can’t answer my questions here, then there’s really no need for further discussion.”

“Can we at least talk outside?”

“No,” Joan stated sternly.  “Let’s talk right here.  And you can start by telling me the truth about why you’re scared of this house.”

“But…but…,” Gloria stammered.  “I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.  I get the feeling you don’t like being here.  Something about this house makes you nervous and frightened, and I demand to know what it is before I discuss taking it.”

“It’s nothing, really, I told you.”

“Gloria,” Joan said, casting her a serious look.  “Stop lying and tell me the truth.  Did something happen in this house?  Something bad, like a murder?  Did someone die here?”

“Childhood rumors, you know?” Gloria answered, wiping sweat from her brow.  “Every town has that one house that every kid believes is haunted.”

“And we’re standing in the one that Castleton folks believe is the haunted one?”

“Yes.”

“What would give them that idea?  Afterall, hauntings can’t happen without ghosts, and ghosts don’t occur unless there’s been a death.  So which is it?”

“You know how kids are.  One starts the rumor and by the time it gets passed around, the details have changed drastically.”

“When I was a child, I thought the woman living in a house in my neighborhood was a witch.  I hated to even pass by her house.  In fact, I’d step off the sidewalk and walk in the street until I was past it.  As an adult, I now know how foolish that was.  You understand what I’m saying?”

“I think so, yes.  Don’t believe rumors unless you can prove them?”

“Something like that.  Are you aware of anything untoward that has happened here?  By aware, I mean is there concrete evidence or proof?”

“Not to my knowledge, no.  Other than the rumors.”

“Am I going to have any problems from anyone around here should I choose to take the house?”

“Problems?  Like what?”

“Harassing me and my kids for living here, passing judgments, making accusations?”

“I shouldn’t think so.  I hope not, anyway.”

“As do I,” Joan told her, refraining from adding that she had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and wasn’t afraid to use it should the need arise – like a physical threat against her or her children.  “It would be remiss of me if I didn’t add one more extremely important detail.”

“Such as?”

“If you are aware of any such information and you failed or refused to disclose that information to me, and if harm should happen to befall me or one of my children, the end results wouldn’t be in your favor.  Is that clear?”

“I told you, I don’t know anything definitively.  Just speculations, that’s it.”

“Rumors don’t bother me in the least,” Joan stated, recalling the many hateful and false statements that had been made about her back in Killene, some of which would haunt her for the rest of her life, yet at the same time, she’d grown so accustomed to it that she’d learned to dismiss them all as rubbish spat out by narrow minds and people who didn’t know the whole truth about what had transpired in her life.  “And since I don’t believe in ghosts, neither does the idea that the house might be haunted.”

“I understand.”

“Good,” Joan said with a nod.  “Then tell me how much the rent is.”

“Rent?” Gloria repeated.  “I think there’s been some kind of a misunderstanding.  The house isn’t for rent, Mrs. Buchanan.  It’s for sale.”

“For sale?” Joan asked, sounding disappointed.  “Is the owner willing to make the necessary repairs first?  The kitchen floor desperately needs to be replaced.”

“The sale terms are on an as is basis.”

“Then is the seller willing to lower the price to allow for the necessary repairs?”

“As is means exactly that, Mrs. Buchanan.  Besides, the asking price is incredulously low, so I doubt the price will go any lower than it already is.”

“And that’s the only option?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Buying a home had not been her intention, because by doing so, she would be obligated to pay a mortgage, which in turn, would bind her to the town.  And in the event that she decided she didn’t like it in Castleton as much as she’d thought she had, then she’d be stuck until another prospective buyer came along.  On the other hand, she hadn’t been successful at all in securing a rental property, and if she let this house pass her by, then her and the kids could be stuck in a hotel room indefinitely or move on to another town.

“What’s the asking price?”

“Probably much lower than you think,” Gloria replied, removing the spec sheet from her purse, and unfolding it.  “Sixty thousand.”

“Sixty thousand!” Joan exclaimed.  “For this huge house and all of this property?  Are you sure you’re looking at the price correctly?”  Although the home was in dire need of restorations, Joan imagined that it hadn’t always been that way, and had likely been immaculate and beautiful once.  And considering its age, chances were that it was much better built than the modern day homes were, sturdier and more resilient because of the quality of materials used at the time of construction when homes were built from the foundation up instead of coming in pre-manufactured pieces that snapped together like children’s blocks.  It definitely had the potential to be stunning again, with the right owner, and the right amount of love and care that it needed.

“I’m sure,” Gloria said, passing Joan the sheet so that she could see for herself.

“What’s the catch?  At that price for this much house, there must be something that’s not being disclosed.”

“No catch,” Gloria assured her. 

“Who’s the realtor selling the house for?”

“The bank.”

“Then the house is a foreclosure?”

“No.”

“I’m confused,” Joan said, folding her arms.  “Usually, the only way that a bank takes possession of a house is through foreclosure.  Am I right?”

“Yes, usually.”

“Then explain to me how this works.”

“You know what I think we should do?  Let’s go sit down with my realtor friend and have her explain everything to you.  She knows more about the property than I do.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Joan agreed.

Much to her surprise, Gloria’s friend was the polar opposite of her.  Petite, her brown hair cut in a short pixie, professionally dressed and wearing light makeup, she was eager to answer every question Joan had, promising to answer them as honestly as she could, and vowing to quickly provide answers to questions that she didn’t know the answer to offhand.

“Are you interested in buying the Borloff house?”  According to the identification badge that she wore on a placard around her neck, her name was Angie Holland.

“Possibly, but I’d like to know more about it before I decide.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Anything you can offer.”

“The house was built in 1941 by Josef Borloff,” Angie said as she read from the spec sheet that she had on the house, which obviously contained much more information than the one she’d given to Gloria.  “As a wedding gift for his new bride.  He lived there with his wife and their two children until 1957, at which time they disappeared without a trace.  Mr. Borloff continued to reside in the home even after his family vanished and remained there alone until his death four years ago.”

“And he died in the house?”

“Yes.”

“That’s how the rumors got started about the house being haunted?”

“Gloria told you, I see.”

“Only because I asked.”

“Gossip about the house began long before his death.  As a kid myself I can remember hearing townsfolk talk about it and every single one of them told a different story.  It was the kind of tale that got told around the campfire during cookouts, at slumber parties, and especially during Halloween.  The scarier the better, I suppose.  I’ve always viewed it as nothing more than an urban legend, much like the passing down of the scary story about the man with a hook for a hand that only hunted during a full moon, or some other crazy tale like that.  Is this a problem for you?”

“Not at all.  Tell me, how did the bank come to take ownership of the house?”

“Through intestate succession.  At the time of Mr. Borloff’s death, he had no will and no surviving relatives to claim his property; therefore, it was turned over to the state to determine what steps needed to be taken, which then resulted in the house being auctioned off and sold to the highest bidder.”

“And the bank won the bid?”

“Correct.”

“Four years after his death, why does the bank still hold the deed?  Have there been no other’s interested in purchasing the home?”

“No.  When the bank first took possession, the property was rented out, but it was costing the bank too much money in the long run because the renters never stayed for long.  Maybe a few months or so, but then they’d vacate the premises without giving notice, ultimately breaching their rental agreement and refusing to pay their outstanding balances.”

“Exactly how many renters are we talking about here that, as you put it, up and left and violated their leases?”

“Five,” Angie answered.  “After that, we decided that renting simply wasn’t worth the trouble or the cost.”

“Gloria told me the asking price of the house is sixty thousand.  Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“Doesn’t seem like much for a house that size and with all of that vacant property surrounding it.”

“Between you and me, I think the bank came way down on the price just to get the house off their hands because they’re tired of dealing with it.”

“Does that mean my chances of buying the house from the bank are good?”

“I’m not a banker and I can’t speak for them, but I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be.  If you’re seriously considering buying it, I can give you the name of the person who’s overseeing the sale.  I can even give him a call for you if you’d like.”

“Please,” Joan replied.

Within a few minutes of making the phone call, Joan had an appointment at the bank to speak with a loan officer by the name of Marty Baker.

“That was quick,” Joan said to Angie.  “Guess they really are eager to sell it.”

And eager they were.  Marty approved her loan within thirty minutes, even though she hadn’t yet secured a job.  Telling him that she was in the process of doing so was good enough for him.  Able to meet the low down payment and agreeing that monthly payments less than three hundred dollars were perfect for her budget, and thanks to her near perfect credit score, she’d walked out of the bank a homeowner.  Everything back in Killene that had been repossessed had been in her husband’s name, leaving her credit unscathed, of which she was now extremely grateful.

“Can I make a request?” Joan asked as she accepted the house keys.

“Sure.”

“Is it possible to send a cleaning crew to the house before I move in with my children?  It was quite dirty and dusty in there and it could use a good scrubbing.”

‘I wish I could tell you yes, Mrs. Buchanan, but I’m afraid that’s your responsibility,” Marty told her.

“Can you at least recommend a good one, then?”

“That I can do,” he replied, handing Joan a business card embossed with Klean Right, the One’s to Turn to When You Want It Cleaned Right!  “We use them quite often.  They’re good and thorough with their work.  I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.”

He’d been right about that because there wasn’t anything to be disappointed about.  After numerous reschedules, they never showed up at all, leaving Joan to do the cleaning herself.  On the bright side of things, she’d saved a couple of hundred bucks by doing so.

After three days of sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing toilets and sinks, the house was finally presentable – or at least as presentable as she could make it.  The floors and cabinets still needed to be dealt with, but those were things she could do after moving in.  She hadn’t brought the kids along to assist with the cleanup because one, she didn’t want to listen to Pietra bitch all day about how disgusting the house was, and two, because she wanted to surprise them, hoping that after a long stay in a hotel room, they’d be happy to finally have a place to call home.

The moment of truth had finally arrived.

Chapter Two

Conroy refused to go inside, plopping down on the welcome mat and staring blankly through the door and into the living room as he released low, guttural growls.

A Border Collie gifted to Chandler on his tenth birthday from his father, Conroy was a gentle, loving dog and a constant, loyal companion to her son since the day he’d joined the family.  He’d been a tremendous comfort to Chandler after his dad died, providing him with unconditional love and unequivocal patience during his time of grief, watching over him, protecting him, and licking away countless tears.  Oftentimes Chandler had told her that Conroy was the best friend he’d ever had, and that statement continued to be inarguable.  Chandler wasn’t necessarily an introvert, but it had never been easy for him to make friends because he was so painfully shy and the few friends that he did have back in Killene had been his friends since kindergarten.  He was the type of boy that was comfortable with one or two close friends.  Everyone else were mere acquaintances.  Only his four-legged fur buddy topped the list of best friends ever.  And Chandler was happy with that.

“Come on, Conroy,” Chandler coaxed, tugging at the dog’s collar.  “Come inside and take a look at your new house.”

“What’s his deal?” Joan asked.

Chandler shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Strange place, I reckon.  He’ll get used to it once he adjusts.  Come on, boy,” Chandler called, patting his thigh.  “It’s okay.”

Conroy rose to his feet and slowly lumbered into the house, his tail tucked securely between his legs, refusing to go beyond the living room.

“Stinks in here,” Pietra said, crinkling her nose as she looked around.

“How can you say that?” Joan replied with a scowl.  “I spent days in here cleaning.  You probably smell the pine cleaner I used.  Come on, let me show you around,” she said, waving them towards the kitchen.

“Where’s the stove and refrigerator?” Pietra asked.

“Everything is supposed to be delivered tomorrow.”

“And we’re sleeping here tonight?” Pietra complained.  “Without our beds?”

“We have sleeping bags.  We can camp out in the living room.  One night of sleeping on the floor won’t kill you.”

Pietra rolled her eyes as she opened the narrow door next to the empty space where the stove would eventually go. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, clamping onto her nose and slamming the door.  “It smells like something died down there.”

Joan hadn’t bothered to include cleaning the cellar in her list of important things to do before moving in, nor had she inspected it during the walk through, a decision she would later come to regret.  She figured once they got settled in, she’d make her way downstairs sooner or later, but she wasn’t in any hurry because she’d never been fond of cellars.  She had her grandmother to thank for that after she’d accidentally locked her in one when she was a young girl and her immature and overactive imagination had conjured up unspeakable atrocities hiding in the corners and inside the furnace.  Granny had apologized profusely, and although she knew she’d hadn’t meant to do it, it still hadn’t relieved her of the fear she’d felt as she’d sat there in the darkness waiting for Granny to open the door and let her out, nor had she forgotten the disgusting smell of rank mustiness, the combination of moist soil and rotting vegetables.

“It can’t be that bad,” Joan remarked, opening the door and closing it as quickly as Pietra had.  “I stand corrected.  A wild animal probably got in through a window or hole and couldn’t find its way out,” she offered, hoping to quell Pietra’s disgust.  “The smell won’t last forever.  Let me show the two of you your bedrooms.”

Conroy remained in the living room, attentively focused on the brick fireplace, ears perked, jowls puffing in and out as he tried to decide whether he wanted to bark or not.  “Is there a squirrel in there?” Chandler asked, taking him by the collar and leading him towards the stairs.  “You can chase him later.  For now, let’s go check out our new bedroom.”

“Here’s yours, Pietra,” Joan said, opening the bedroom door.  “You have a clear view of the backyard from here.”

“You mean a view of a forest,” Pietra replied as she glanced out the window.  “I guess landscaping wasn’t a priority for the last occupants.”

“Apparently not,” Joan agreed.  “They also failed to take their swing set with them when they left.”

“Gee, mom, and here I was thinking that you put that out there for us to play on,” Pietra said with a sardonic smile.  “I’m so disappointed,” she said, stepping away from the window.  “What is this?” she asked, slowly running her fingers along the outlines of the horse features etched into the cherry wood of the wardrobe.

“A built-in armoire,” Joan replied.

“What’s that?”

“Basically, a closet, although I’ve never seen one constructed into a wall like this one.  Usually, they’re a stand-alone piece of furniture.”

“This is beautiful,” Pietra said, pulling open the double doors.

“You can use the shelves to store blankets,” Joan said.  “Or books.  Anything you want to, really.  The two bottom drawers will provide you extra space without worrying about stuffing your bureau full.”

“I’ll definitely use it for something.  It looks hand-made.  Do you think it is?”

“Judging by the exquisite and intricate detail involved, I’d say yes.”

Pietra seemed entranced by the carpentry work as she admired the craftsmanship.  “It smells like those wooden balls you used to put inside our closets back home to make them smell good.”

“Cedar.”

“This cabinet has the exact same scent, but I don’t see anything in here that would make it smell that way.  Must be left over from the last time it was used.”

“Could be.”

“I really like this, mom.  It’s beautiful.”

“I thought you might like that, and I’m glad you do.  Time to go and show Chandler his room.”

“You go ahead.  I’ll stay in here,” Pietra told her. 

“Already planning what you’re going to use it for?”

“Something like that,” Pietra answered.

“What’s up there?” Chandler asked, pointing to the stairs at the end of the hallway.  Strange, she didn’t remember leaving the attic door open.  In fact, she distinctly recalled the door being closed when she’d finished cleaning the house.

“The attic,” Joan replied as she entered his would-be bedroom.

“Can I go see?”

“Don’t you want to check out your room first?”

“No,” Chandler replied, sprinting to and up the stairs, stopping at the stoop before entering.  “I want this room.”

“Chandler, this isn’t a bedroom,” Joan protested.  “It’s a stuffy, dusty attic.”

“Not anymore,” Chandler said as he stepped into the room and glanced around with Joan following closely behind.

“I’ve already cleaned the downstairs room for you, Chandler, and it overlooks the front of the house.  You can practically see the whole neighborhood from your window.  Wouldn’t you be happier in there?”

“No way,” Chandler harped enthusiastically.  “Look at all the room I’ll have.  And get a load of that window and how it makes a rainbow in here!”

Only a thirteen-year-old boy could get so excited over having an attic bedroom!  “What do you think, Conroy?” Chandler asked, turning back to the stairwell, but Conroy wasn’t there.  “Silly mutt.  He sure is acting goofy.  Once I get my bed and everything else in here, he’ll settle down.  He’s probably feeling a little misplaced right now.”

“Displaced is the word I think you’re looking for,” Joan said with a smile.  “I’m sure he is, just like the rest of us.  Chandler, are you sure you want to be up here all alone?”

“This room is really cool, mom,” he exclaimed, moving closer to the stained glass window, the bright prism of colors painting him in shades of orange, red and green.  “It’s not that far away.  Only one more floor up.”

It wasn’t the array of hues that caught Joan’s attention.

For the first time, she was getting an up close and personal view of the window markings.  She’d been aware of the stained glass pane when she’d looked at the attic with Gloria but hadn’t paid much attention to the detail.  And not expecting her son to choose the attic over a downstairs bedroom, she’d foregone cleaning it as well.  There were two vents in the ceiling, one on each side of the room, which meant that the attic would be supplied with air and heat, so it wouldn’t be stuffy or cold as she’d initially expected. 

“Are you sure I can’t talk you into taking the room downstairs?”

“I’m sure, mom,” he said with confidence.  “This is the one I want.”

Joan sighed and shook her head, glancing up at the window, not confident that she was comfortable with his decision.

On the day that she’d toured the house with Gloria, she’d mistakenly thought that the window was comprised of a red rose inlay adorned with intertwining green leaves.  Now that she had gotten a closer look, she realized exactly how wrong she’d been.

Whoever had made the choice for the mosaic pattern on the glass either had an extremely dark sense of humor or an overall disgusting taste in decorating.  Whichever it was, she found the beast depicted in the display to be quite disturbing and the window would have to be replaced as soon as possible because she refused to have such a grotesque scene exhibited in the window where her son would be sleeping.

Suddenly, she felt uncomfortable standing in the attic, almost as if unseen eyes were watching her, aware of her thoughts about replacing the stained glass.

“Let’s get back downstairs, son” she said, disinclined to spend another second inside of a room that had a red demon with large green horns crafted in frosted glass staring down at her with his crimson, accusatory eyes.

Chapter Three

Conroy’s incessant whimpering and whining awakened Joan from an already restless sleep.  Not because of the lack of comfort from having to sleep on a bare wooden floor tucked inside a thin-layered sleeping bag that failed to provide much support or padding, but because she had been riddled with bad dreams since falling asleep, haunted by one nightmare after another, all of them involving either her dead husband or the disloyal friends who’d had no problem whatsoever throwing her skinned hide to the ravenous wolves once she’d lost the two things that ranked high on their priority lists – status and money.

It had been quite some time since she’d dreamt of her husband, or even thought about him for that matter.  Putting all the bad behind her had not been an easy task, especially while continuing to live in their house in Killene, totally unaware of exactly how deep the shit was that Burt had left her and the kids to swim in until the collection calls started, foreclosure notices from the bank began coming in the mail, automobiles got repossessed, the discovery of an empty bank account and learning that every insurance policy they’d had was cancelled.  It wasn’t until then that she’d realized the man she’d been married to for twenty-one years had been living a double life right under her nose and without her knowledge.  Six months after his death, she was still left with unanswered questions, the biggest one being why.  Why had he made the choices he’d made?  Opting not to pay the mortgage or the car payments, knowing that sooner or later, the failure to meet his financial obligations would result in the loss of it all?  Where had all their money gone?  And what if he hadn’t died?  What excuse would he have come up with to explain to her why they were losing their home, their vehicles, the motor home?  So many lingering questions remained all these months later, and if they still remained unanswered this long after his death, chances were that they always would be.

She could punish and beat herself up from now until eternity trying to figure out where it all went wrong, what had happened to Burt to cause such a drastic change in him, how he’d gotten himself involved in such shady activities with even shadier people.  But the truth was – she had no idea when or how it had happened because the changes weren’t physical, therefore, not visible.  He’d gotten up and gone to work every day as usual, came home to dinner every night, devoted as much of his free time as he could to the kids.  As long as everything seemed normal, she had no reason to believe otherwise – until she did.  Unfortunately, by then, it was too late to do anything to help him.  On occasion, she found herself regretting the choices she’d made for his funeral arrangements, scolding herself for being so uncaring and cheap.  But the regrets were always short-lived, followed by an epiphany as she recalled why she’d made the choices she had in the first place, and once she did that, any feeling of melancholy or remorse quickly subsided.

The truth of the matter was that had she not had her own life insurance policy on him, and a small nest egg she’d built up over the past few years, she would have never been able to leave Killene because surely, they would have ended up on the streets, homeless and penniless.  Not even her decent salary was enough to meet all of the monthly obligations that would have been required in order to keep the house, even if it hadn’t gone into foreclosure.  Plagued with threatening phone calls from debtors attempting to collect the thousands of dollars that Burt owed, she’d refused to pay a dime, telling them all as much, and for the purpose of clarity, adding that there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it other than harass her because her name wasn’t on the mortgage, the car loans, or anything or anyone else he was indebted to.  When the calls failed to cease, she’d disconnected the house phone and changed the number to her cell.  As far as she was concerned, every one of them could wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one filled up the fastest.  The only ones that she was obligated to take care of was her children.  It had taken time and determination to finally be able to leave, but with willpower and determination, she’d done it.  Not without consequences, however.

Pietra had stayed pissed at her for one reason or another since her dad had died.  Perhaps she blamed Joan for his death, or possibly even for their current predicament.  If she did, she hadn’t come right out and said so, but judging by her attitude and behavior, it was evident that she felt that way.  In the mind of a sixteen-year-old, it wasn’t unusual to blame the surviving parent for the death of the other.  It was a coping mechanism, a way to deal with loss, even if the underlying factor wasn’t true.  The day would come when she’d have no other choice than to tell Pietra the truth about the circumstances surrounding Burt’s death, but that time had not yet arrived.  And when she finally did tell her, she may be forced to deal with a whole new level of resentment for keeping the truth from her in the first place.  With any luck, Pietra would soon have a change of heart, realize that her mother had no hand in her father’s death, get her butt off her shoulders and rekindle the close relationship she’d once had with her mother prior to the  category five shitstorm that had put them where they were now.

Joan groped in the dark for her phone, certain that she’d put it on the floor beside her so that she’d hear the alarm when it went off.  The last thing she wanted to do was be late for her scheduled job interview, especially considering how long it’d taken her to finally get one. 

Apparently, she’d left it on the kitchen counter because it wasn’t anywhere near, or under, her sleeping bag.

Conroy wasn’t sleeping beside Chandler, either.

Quietly tip-toeing around the kids, she made her way towards the kitchen, stopping short when Conroy began barking.

“What is it, boy?” Joan whispered, going to the dog and gently stroking his head.  “Did you hear something up there?”  Straining to listen, Joan stood silently and unmoving for several seconds but didn’t hear anything strange.

The dog, however, sat erect and still at the foot of the stairs, staring up into the darkness while producing the same throaty growl that he’d displayed at the front door when he’d refused to come inside until Chandler had forced him to.

“Shhh,” Joan said softly.  “Don’t wake them up.”

The silence inside the house was deafening – and unsettling, especially given the way the dog had been acting ever since he’d set sight on his new home.  It was also quite an eerie feeling to think that maybe he was seeing and hearing something that she couldn’t.

“There’s nothing there, Conroy,” she said, attempting to ease the dog’s nervous tension, as well as her own.  “How about a doggie snack to calm those nerves of yours?”

Hesitantly, he followed her into the kitchen and sat on the floor as he waited for his human mom to fulfill her promise, staring at her as he licked his chops in anticipation.

“Here you go, boy,” she said.  “Lucky for you that your snacks don’t need to be refrigerated,” she added, placing the box back on the shelf.  “Or else you’d be shit out of luck.”

The box wouldn’t fit back inside the cabinet.  Instead of sitting flush against the shelf, the box tilted forward, as if something were blocking it.  Removing the box, she ran her bare hand along the inside of the second shelf.  “How the hell did this get in there?” she muttered, retrieving her phone.  Maybe one of the kids had played a prank on her because she knew that she hadn’t put it there.  She hadn’t even opened the cabinet doors since putting Conroy’s snacks away, nor had she or either of the kids given Conroy any treats since then.  It had to be either Pietra or Chandler because there was no other logical explanation.  No way did her phone make it from her sleeping bag all the way into the kitchen and hide itself in the cabinet.

To ensure that turning off the alarm hadn’t been part of their practical joke, she turned the phone on just to make sure.  The only thing that had been altered was her background photo.  The white tiger that was normally displayed on the screen had been replaced with one of the photos taken that afternoon of her and the kids standing in front of their new house, which was no big deal.  At least Chandler hadn’t messed with the alarm.  If he had and it had caused her to miss her interview, she would have been extremely upset.

A loud thump! erupted from beneath the kitchen floor, startling Joan and bringing Conroy to his feet, his bone forgotten as he stared at the cellar door, ears alert, the fur on his back standing at attention.

“Shit!” Joan hissed.  “What the hell was that?”

Her ear pressed tightly against the wood, she hoped to God that a masked intruder didn’t suddenly burst through the door and knock her unconscious.

“The house is old, that’s all.  It’s probably air in the water pipes,” she said more to herself than to Conroy, because it was she that needed convincing, not him.  “Let’s go back to bed,” she said, checking the lock on the cellar door before turning out the light.  “I’ve got an early morning ahead of me.”

Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the links below.

E-Book Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FYV91XM

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FP25KMH

gnp

The Other Me (Free Sample Chapters)

ONE

My name is Diedre Olsen Blanchard – DeeDee to my friends, Dr. DeeDee to my patients.  I am a Child Psychologist with a small practice in my hometown of Pahokee, Florida, where I chose to return after graduating college.  My office is located next to the First Baptist Church and at one time was an insurance business but has since been renovated to fit my needs for medical space by replacing old, rotting floors and malfunctioning plumbing, and closing in a large open area to transform it into my main office where I see patients.  It was one of the many places I worked after school as a teenager so that I could save up enough money to get into a community college.  Purchasing the space was both satisfying and bittersweet as I recalled memories of my old boss and what a kind and gentle soul he’d been by giving a poor, project-raised girl a chance to prove that she had the ability to do the job she was being hired to do.

No drastic changes have been made to Pahokee over the past several years, other than the major upgrades made to the marina.  Many lifelong residents have moved away, leaving their small rural town behind, and opting for a bigger city with more opportunities for jobs and growth.  Personally speaking, I’ve never been an admirer of bright lights, big city life, preferring a smaller town over a large one.  They always seem to be more close-knit and friendlier because the residents know each other and genuinely care about one another.  That is not common in metropolises.  In my opinion, anyway.  Perhaps that’s why I chose to return and stay.  Home sweet home.

Although Donna and her husband left the Glades for mountain life in North Carolina, we remain good friends and either speak on the phone or video chat often.  Every time we do talk, she never fails to extend an invitation to come for a visit, but so far, David and I haven’t had the opportunity to make the trip.

Lake Okeechobee remains the fishing capital of the world.  Professional and novice anglers continue to flock around the lake every year for fishing tournaments, all with their eyes on the grand prize.  Local fishermen and fisherwomen set their lawn chairs up on the pier and will spend hours at a time hauling in blue gill or speckled perch.  If they’re lucky enough not to lose their stash to a scavenging alligator, their daily haul will make for one heck of a fish fry.

If you read my memoir, Seeing, then you should be familiar with who I am and the abilities that I possess.

For those of you who don’t know about me, or have never heard of me or my history, please allow me to introduce myself and tell you how I obtained my ability to see and communicate with the dead.

At the tender age of fourteen, I suffered a traumatic head injury while playing softball that resulted in hospitalization due to seizures that were followed by me having the distinct ability to see beings not of this world.  Sometimes, they reveal visions to me through a series of events that led up to their deaths.  Usually when this occurs, they are from spirits who died from an act of violence – particularly murder, and they request my assistance in revealing the truth and bringing their killers to justice.  Spirits also come to me for assistance in getting messages to their loved ones, and I always do my best to oblige them so that their lingering spirits can finally be put to rest instead of remaining in limbo forever.

It’s okay if you don’t believe.  You are not alone.  I have dealt with all levels of skepticism from the onset of my abilities.  I have been laughed at, made fun of, and called unimaginable names over the years.  But not believing doesn’t change the fact that ghosts do exist, regardless of whether a person can see them or not or feel their presence whenever they’re near.  A majority of the population believes that “seeing is believing,” because it’s somehow easier to accept that philosophy than it is to admit that perhaps there’s a possibility that worldly phenomena exists that is beyond their realm of understanding, or their scope of acceptance.  However, throughout our great and massive universe, there are multiple occurrences or happenings that simply cannot be explained, no matter how hard one might try.  I, too, felt that way at one time in my life, prior to my accident.  Now, I can tell you with insurmountable assurance that “believing is seeing.”

Spirits do exist.  I know that personally, and I have assisted hundreds of them over the years in multiple and various ways.  I’ve aided the local police department by offering them information that they wouldn’t be able to obtain under normal circumstances.  Information and facts that only the departed, or the guilty, would know about.

After the retirement of Chief Jerome Simms, my services were needed less and less, finally tapering off to not being needed, or wanted, at all.  I found that to be somewhat disheartening because of the good I could offer; yet knowing that I would most likely never have the same kind of relationship with any other law enforcement officer that I had with Chief Simms.  Not to say that ours didn’t start off on the wrong foot or on the ledge of a rocky cliff.  It wasn’t easy convincing him that I possessed unique capabilities, or that I knew the death of Stacy Amberville was a murder, as were the deaths of hundreds of innocent patrons who vanished in the Club Xanadu fire, one of them being his baby sister.  But when I delivered a message to him from his Nonny, everything changed.  In time, he learned to trust me, believe in me, offer me his support, and witnessed me in the throes of a horrifying vision that led to the arrest of one of his police officers for arson and multiple counts of first-degree murder.

My reputation around Pahokee and the entire Glades area is well known now and I no longer try to hide my abilities or keep them a secret.  To this day, I am still contacted by people who are willing to drive hundreds of miles for a private reading, but I continue to refuse.  I took a vow never to use my talents for monetary gain, and I firmly maintain my stance on that.

Even though my reputation precedes me, and although my name has been in multiple newspapers around the state, usually associated with the solving of a crime, there will always be skeptics, those who scoff at the mere possibility that ghosts are real, laughing at those who do believe.  Minds such as those can never be changed – unless they experience it for themselves.  And without an open mind and a willingness to accept the unexplainable, the likelihood of that happening is extremely slim.

My time and attention are now devoted to my patients.  Children who are hurting emotionally or are experiencing issues with behavior, especially sudden onsets that seem to come out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, are my first concern, and when they do become my patients, they always receive my undivided care.

I specialize in the treatment of children with psychological and behavioral disorders, and I have treated multitudes of children and young adults with illnesses in these areas.  Some of them have involved spirits, some of them haven’t, yet all unique in their own ways.

While I like to think that I’m usually prepared for anything that might come my way, considering what I’ve been through myself and the spirits and visions that I’ve encountered, occasionally I’m caught off-guard and taken completely by surprise with a case.

Such is the instance with Ethan Portman.

TWO

My first meeting with seven-year-old Ethan Portman occurred on a brisk, October morning, three weeks prior to Halloween.

He was brought to me by his mother, who expressed concerns about his seemingly sudden change in behavior.  In her words, “it was as though he changed overnight,” transforming from a happy, outgoing little boy into one who became quiet and withdrawn, forgoing playtime with his toys, instead preferring to sit alone in his room on the floor staring off into space, focused on nothing in particular.  Even more concerning to her was that Ethan had invented an imaginary friend and often overheard him conversing with him, and at times, yelling and accusing him of actions that could have only been carried out by her son because he was alone at the time of the incidents.  She was worried about his declining conduct and desperate for answers.

Based on the information that was received from Mrs. Portman when she made the appointment, I would be treating Ethan for audio and visual hallucinations.

Prior to meeting one on one with my young charges, I prefer having a private conversation with the parent, parents or legal guardians in order to hear their side of what they believe is going on with their child and the symptoms they’re displaying that led them to believe that there is a problem that requires treatment.  By conducting a meeting in this fashion, it gives me a chance to analyze the custodians and see what kind of people they are.  Whether they’re loving and kind, tense or impatient, or even possibly abusive.  I also don’t want to give the child a chance to parrot what they hear their parents say, which would only result in them repeating what they’ve heard instead of what they’re feeling personally.

Instead of having an assistant bring the parent or patient to me, I would rather meet them in the waiting area to observe how they co-mingle together, then begin my analysis.

“Hi, Ethan,” I said, extending my hand.  “I’m Dr. DeeDee.  How are you?”

“Fine,” he said, placing his small hand in mine and giving it a firm shake.  “Am I allowed to play with those toys over there?” he asked, pointing to a clown-painted box in the corner.

“Of course, you are,” I answered with a smile.  “Why don’t you go do that while I speak with your mom for a few minutes?”

“Okay,” he said enthusiastically.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Portman.  He’ll be closely watched out here.  Come with me, please.”

In my office, I motioned for her to have a seat on the black leather sofa as I sat down in the matching armchair directly in front of her.  Her expression was pained, a woman deeply concerned over the seemingly sudden change in her child’s behavior, one that she found serious enough to seek professional help for in order to resolve the issue.

“Thank you,” she replied.

“Let’s start with you telling me what’s going on with Ethan that you feel he needs my help with.”

“Dr. Blanchard,” she began, then started to cry.  Reaching for the box of tissues on my desk, I offered her one and waited for her to dry her eyes before continuing.  “I don’t even know where to start.”

“Has he displayed changes in his behavior?”

“Yes.”

“In his attitude?”

“Yes.”

“When did you begin to notice these changes, Mrs. Portman?”

Focused on the tissue she was holding, she replied, “About three months ago.  At first, I thought it was a phase he was going through, like any other kid would.  But as time progressed, he seemed to be getting worse, isolating himself, losing interest in his toys, not wanting to go to school.”

“Prior to this, had he ever displayed any type of similar behavior?”

“No.”

“Has Ethan suffered any type of losses prior to the onset of his change in behavior?  The loss of a friend, a grandparent, perhaps?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Any problems at school?”

“You mean with his grades?”

“Those could certainly be affected by inner turmoil, but I’m more interested in whether he’s being bullied at school.  Are any of the other kids picking on him, teasing him, calling him names, anything that would make him not want to go to school?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” she replied, glancing up at me.  “Surely he would have told me if something like that was going on.  Or the school would have notified me of a problem like that.  Wouldn’t they?”

“I should certainly think so, if they’re aware of it.”  Which is not always the case, I thought, recalling that the principal at my high school had no idea of how badly Blake Chutney had bullied me every day until I told him.  “Have you questioned Ethan about this?”

“I mentioned it to him, but he said nothing like that was happening, that the other kids liked him, and they all got along.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said, concluding that whatever was causing his abrupt change in behavior had absolutely nothing to do with school life.  “Give me some examples of the behavior you’ve witnessed.”

“Before all of this started happening, Ethan was a happy boy, outgoing, always laughing and playing,” she said, sighing deeply.  “Then practically overnight, he began to change.”

“How?”

“Ethan has a ton of race cars and tracks that he loves, or I should say loved, playing with.  He’d spend hours at a time in his room making racing and crashing noises as the cars made laps around the tracks.  And just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers, “he stopped playing with them.  When I asked him why, he said that Nathan broke the wheels off of all his cars and tore up the tracks.  I found pieces of yellow plastic all over his room, but I have no idea what happened to the wheels.  They weren’t in his room or his toybox.  I checked.”

“Nathan?”  I asked.

“His imaginary friend.  He talks to him all the time, unaware that I’ve heard him.  I haven’t bothered saying anything to him about it because I know that a lot of kids his age invent make believe friends, so I didn’t feel it was of any concern.”

Now we might be getting somewhere, because sometimes, those “imaginary” friends are quite real, yet unseen to the eyes that cannot see.

“Does Ethan know any other children his age by that name?”

“I don’t believe so.  I’ve certainly never heard him mention the name before.”

“Is Ethan an only child?”

“Yes.  Is that important?”

“Not necessarily,” I answered.  “It’s not unusual for an only child to create a playmate, especially if they’re lonely enough.  Earlier, you mentioned isolation.  Does Ethan shut himself off from you and his father?”

“He spends a lot of time in his room doing nothing but sitting on his bed or the floor.  That’s generally where he is when I hear him having conversations with his friend.”

“Any loss of appetite?”  Definitely an important question, because if what I had a feeling was going on truly was, it can certainly affect a child’s eating habits and can have a negative impact on their overall health.

“He eats, but he picks at his food now.  Even when I cook something I know he likes he acts as if he has no interest in it.  He stares thoughtlessly at the plate while taking bites as if he’s daydreaming.”

“As long as he’s eating, I’m not going to be too concerned at this point.  If he quits altogether, that’s a different story.  We’ll monitor his progress on that.”

“Ethan always looks so sad, Dr. Blanchard,” Mrs. Portman said, shaking her head.  “It seems as though nothing me or my husband do can get him to smile or make him happy.  We’re both at our wits end.  All we want to know is what is wrong with our son.”

“I promise you, Mrs. Portman, that I’ll do my very best to find out.”

“Thank you.”

“Now I’d like to speak with Ethan, unless there’s more you need to tell me,” I said, getting up from my chair and leading her to the door. 

“Nothing I can think of.”

“I’ll consult with you when we’re finished.”

“Thanks again, Dr. Blanchard.”

“Ethan?” I called.  “It’s your turn.”

“Can I bring this with me?” he asked, holding up a red fire truck.  “Sure,” I answered, remembering that his mother had told me he’d lost all interest in toys, but had discovered one he found satisfying and was, at least, expressing some of the former little boy that his mother felt was lost.

“Have a seat right there,” I said, pointing to where his mother had sat.

Ethan Portman was a beautiful child, with white-blonde hair and the roundest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen, and eyelashes so blonde, they were barely visible until the sunlight hit them.  If it was true that children were cherubs, then Ethan was the epitome of that description.

Within seconds of sitting down, Ethan nudged with his elbow as if pushing someone away, then scooted over closer to the end of the sofa.

When I’d first seen him in the waiting area with his mother, they’d been alone.

Ethan now had a visitor, the imaginary friend his mother had referred to.  Only he wasn’t make-believe or pretend, and I immediately knew why he had attached himself to Ethan.  What I didn’t know at the time was why – or how.  It was important at this point to ignore him and focus on Ethan in an effort to find out exactly how bothersome his attachment was, and what kinds of discussions went on between the two of them.

“Do you know why you’re here, Ethan?”

He shrugged.  “Because mommy said I have to.”

“Yes, but do you know why mommy wanted you to come and see me?”

“Not really,” he answered, running the fire truck back and forth across the black leather.

“We’ll talk about that in a few moments, but first I’d like to get to know you a little better.  Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Seven.”

“What grade are you in?”

“Second.”

“Do you like school, Ethan?”

“It’s okay,” he said with a shrug.  “I like art.”

“You like drawing?”

“Painting.”

“I’ll bet that’s a lot of fun.”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a lot of friends in school?”

“Yes, but I don’t like girls,” he said, rolling his eyes.  “They’re too silly.”

“You’re a very handsome young man,” I said with a smile.  “Perhaps the girls your age can see that as well.”

“Yuck,” he said, sticking out his tongue.

“Do you ever get into trouble at school?”

“No.”

“How about your teacher?”

“I like her.  She’s nice.  And pretty, too.”

“Do you ever get into any arguments or fights at school?  Does anyone ever pick on you?”

“No,” he answered, glancing up at me.  “Just that one dumb girl that’s always telling me I’m cute.”

He confirmed that he wasn’t having any problems at school, which his mother would be pleased to learn. 

“Ethan, your mother tells me that you don’t want to go to school anymore.  If you like your school, your teacher, and your friends, and no one’s bothering you there, can you tell me why?

“He said I don’t have to.”

“He?” I asked, although I already knew who he was talking about.  “Who are you referring to?”

“Him!” Ethan said loudly.  “Nathan!”

“Is that a friend of yours?” I asked, still refusing to acknowledge his presence.

“Nope.  He says he is, but he’s not because he’s mean.”

“Why doesn’t he want you to go to school?”

“He told me he didn’t have to go, and I shouldn’t have to, either.  Besides,” he started, then stopped, glancing sideways to his left.

“Go on, Ethan,” I prodded.

“He said if I kept going, he’d tear up all of my toys and not just my cars.”

“Do you believe he would do that?”

“Yes.  I told you, he’s mean.”

“Ethan, let’s talk about Nathan.”

He stopped rolling the truck around, sitting rigidly but refusing to look at me.  “Why do we have to talk about him?”

“Your mom is concerned about some of the conversations she’s overheard you having with him.”

“Oh,” he said, hanging his head.

“Ethan, can you look at me, please?”

Slowly, he raised his head, those piercing blue eyes meeting mine.

Scooting to the edge of my chair and leaning forward, I said, “You and I both know that he isn’t imaginary, don’t we, Ethan?”

He stared at me, his eyes unblinking, his mouth quivering as though he wanted to speak, but couldn’t bring the words forth.

“I see him, too,” I said.

His eyes grew wide with wonderment, a child seeing the Christmas display in a department store window for the first time.  “You do?” he nearly shrieked.

“Um hum,” I nodded, eliciting an inquisitive glance from Ethan’s companion.  “I see him as clearly as I can see you.”

“Whoa!” he exclaimed, tossing the fire truck to the side.  “Can you hear him, too?”

“I haven’t heard him say anything yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t,” I answered.  “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what you and Nathan talk about.”

“If I do, are you going to tell my mom?”

“She already knows you talk to him.”

“But she doesn’t know what he wants me to do.”

My heart quickened.  I had a feeling that whatever Ethan was about to say wasn’t good.

“Can you tell me?”

“I guess so,” he said, receiving an unfelt punch on his arm for agreeing.

“Does Nathan hit you a lot?” I asked, letting Ethan and Nathan both know that I had seen Nathan striking his host.  Again, Nathan scowled at me.  Unfazed by his threatening posture, I kept my attention focused on Ethan.

“All the time, especially when I won’t do what he tells me to do.  But it doesn’t hurt.  I can see him do it, but I can’t feel it.”

Nothing unusual.  Of all the spirits I’ve encountered over the years, I’ve only felt the touch of two.  Stacy Amberville and Amy, the little girl I encountered during my hospital stay immediately following my accident.  Both touches were so light that I barely felt them.  “Such as?”

“He keeps telling me that he wants me to come and be with him so we can play together all the time.”

This alarmed me.  The only way that Ethan would be able to join him was through death.  What I needed to find out was whether Nathan was encouraging Ethan to end his own life.

“Has he instructed you to do something that you know would cause you to get hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me exactly what he has said to you.”

“One time he told me to eat rat poison.  He told me it wouldn’t hurt and that it would be over quick.”

That was a lie.  Death by poisoning is excruciatingly painful and does not happen instantly.  “What else, Ethan?”

“He tried to get me to jump in front of a car.  He keeps telling me that the food on my plate is poisoned because mommy doesn’t love me and wants to get rid of me.”

“You know that’s not true, don’t you?  Your mommy loves you very much, Ethan.  That’s why you’re here to see me.”

“Nathan said he’s my brother but he’s a big fat liar, even if he does look just like me, because I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” he stated.  “Even if he was, why would he want to hurt me?”

“I’m not sure I know that answer yet, but I’m going to try to find out,” I assured him.  “Is there anything else you need to tell me, Ethan?  Something that maybe you feel I should know?”

He pursed his lips in thought.  “Not that I can think of.  What do I do if he keeps telling me to do bad things?”

“Such as tearing up your favorite toys?”

Ethan nodded.  “He knew I loved playing with my race cars, but he told me if I didn’t tear the wheels off and break up the tracks, he’d smother me while I was sleeping.”

“I’m sure that frightened you.”

“Yes.  He meant it, too.”

“He can’t hurt you, Ethan,” I stated flatly.  “No matter what he tells you or tries to make you believe, he’s incapable of harming you.  I think the best thing you can do at this point is to ignore him.  I know it won’t be easy, but you have to try.”  He can, however, manipulate you into harming yourself.

“You mean you want me to pretend like he’s not there?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do.”

“Will he go away if I do?”

“I don’t know.”  And I didn’t.  Chances were that the answer was no, but it was definitely worth a try.

“He’s not going to like that,” Ethan said, shaking his head.

I already knew he didn’t like what I had to say.  That was evident by the expression on his face, so I decided to try to soften his anger.  “You know, Nathan,” I said, speaking directly to him.  “By helping Ethan, I’d also be helping you.  If there’s something you need me to know about you, or something you want me to see, all you have to do is ask.”  What I didn’t say was that I’d be helping him to move on to where he was supposed to be in order to allow Ethan to live a healthy life and return to being the happy little boy he once was before Nathan came into the picture and changed him.  It seemed to me, although not yet confirmed, that perhaps Nathan had lived a not-so-happy life in the short time he was alive, and he wanted to ensure that Ethan was as miserable as he’d once been, possibly out of jealousy because Ethan had everything that he hadn’t, and I couldn’t allow that to happen.

First, in order to help Ethan, I needed to know exactly what had happened to Nathan that had resulted in his death.  In learning that, it might help me find an answer to my second question.

How in the world did Nathan know about Ethan if neither of them had known that the other existed?

“Alright, Ethan, grab your fire truck and let’s get you back out to the play area.  I need to speak with your mom for a few minutes more.”

“Are you going to help me with Nathan?” he asked, looking up at me as I led him to the door.

“I’m going to do my best,” I said with a nod.  Placing my hand gently on his shoulder, I said, “Don’t worry, Ethan.  I’ll help you get through this.  I know exactly what you’re going through.  Sometimes it helps just knowing that someone believes you and listens when you speak.  Remember what I told you, okay?  Try to ignore him.”

“Okay.”

“Mrs. Portman?  I need to speak with you, please.”

“Is Ethan going to be okay?” she asked as she sat down.

“In time he will.”

“Thank God,” she said, blowing out a breath.  “Do you know what’s going on with him?”

“I do,” I replied.  “But before I get to that, I need to ask you some questions.”

“Alright.”

“Mrs. Portman, does Ethan know he’s adopted?”

She gasped, shocked at the question.  “How…”

On the verge of asking me how I knew, I thought it best to save her some time and embarrassment.  “Mrs. Portman, prior to bringing Ethan into my office, did you do any type of research on me?  Ask anyone about me perhaps?  Are you aware of my background?”

“Research, no, but I did ask around.  You came highly recommended.”

“I appreciate that,” I said.  “During any of those recommendations, did anyone offer you any detailed information on who I am, perhaps the abilities that I possess?”

“Are you referring to being able to see ghosts?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard that, but it doesn’t affect me, Dr. Blanchard.  I don’t believe in them.”

Perhaps you will when I’m finished telling you what I have to say, I thought.  “No offense taken.  Plenty of people don’t believe.  I merely wanted to ascertain if knowing that is going to alter your acceptance of my diagnosis for Ethan.”

“Not at all.”

“That’s good to hear.  Again, does he know?”

“No,” she said with a shake of her head.  “We’ve never told him.”

“Are you aware of the fact that Ethan is an identical twin?”

“What?!” she shrieked, her mouth flying open, eyes wide.  “That’s impossible!”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Portman.  Not only is it possible, it’s a fact.”

“How could you possibly know that?  Ethan certainly couldn’t have told you.”

There was no simple way of saying what needed to be said in a gentle manner, regardless of whether she believed or not.  Straightforwardness was the only avenue to take.  “Nathan isn’t his imaginary friend, Mrs. Portman.  Nathan is the ghost of his twin, and he has attached himself to Ethan.”

Mrs. Portman threw her head back and laughed.  “Is this some kind of a joke?”

“I can assure you, Mrs. Portman, this is no laughing matter.  Usually when spirits hang around loved ones, they mean them no harm.  The living doesn’t even know that they’re there.  That is not the case with Ethan and Nathan.”

That got her attention.  “Meaning what, exactly?”

“The reasons for such dramatic changes in Ethan are due to the untruthful things that Nathan is saying to him, as well as what he is attempting to talk Ethan into doing.  Ethan is both nervous and scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“For instance, the reason Ethan has become such a picky eater is because Nathan told him that you’re poisoning his food because you don’t love him.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“You and I both know that, but to a seven-year-old, those words can be devastating.  More importantly is that Nathan has told Ethan several times that he wants him to come and be with him.”

“But if he’s dead, then…”

“Mrs. Portman, Nathan is trying to talk Ethan into committing suicide.”

She clutched at her throat and began to cry.  “My God,” she breathed.  “He’s not considering it, is he?”

“I don’t believe so, but he is frightened.  I can certainly understand why.”

“This makes no sense,” Mrs. Portman said, wiping tears from her cheeks.  “There’s no such thing as ghosts.  How is this even possible?”

“The fact that you don’t believe doesn’t make them any less real.  I can tell you firsthand, and with certainty, that they do exist, and one is haunting your son with the intention of causing him harm so that they can be together.”

Mrs. Portman sat still on the sofa, staring unblinking into space as she considered what I’d said.  After several seconds, she finally spoke.  “Why?  If they’re brothers, why would he want Ethan dead?”

“So that he can join him in the afterlife,” I replied.  “Together, you and I will not let that happen.”

“What can I possibly do?  I don’t know how to deal with a situation like this.”

“In order to help Ethan, I must first learn everything I can about Nathan.  That’s where you come in.”

“How?” she asked, throwing up her hands.  “I didn’t even know that Ethan had a twin.”

“You can start by telling me who handled the adoption.  I’ll take it from there.”

Mrs. Portman shook her head.  “No.  I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

“That’s the only way I can get to the bottom of this.”

She was adamant about refusing to tell me.

“Mrs. Portman, I’m not here to judge you, that isn’t my place.  My only concern is Ethan, and without the information on Nathan, he may never leave Ethan alone.  If that’s the case, he could very well succeed in convincing Ethan to join him.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, beginning to cry again.  “We were desperate, Dr. Blanchard.  My husband and I tried for years to have a baby of our own, but I miscarried every time I got pregnant.  Then I went through costly fertility treatments and that didn’t work, so we decided to adopt because we both wanted a child so badly.  Our first attempt at adoption fell through when the mother changed her mind at the last minute.  Even after we’d paid all her medical bills and set up the nursery for the baby.  My husband and I were both devastated.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Portman.  I’m sure that was a difficult time for you.”

“It was, and I swore I’d never allow myself to go through such pain and heartache again.  Until the opportunity arose to adopt Ethan and I changed my mind.”

“How did the opportunity arise?”

She was silent.

“Is Ethan a legal adoption?”

She shook her head.

“Was an attorney involved?”

“Yes, but not the kind you might expect.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“He was the go-between for the birth mother and us.  He arranged for us to buy Ethan.”

Dear God, I thought.  Ethan is a black-market baby.  No wonder she wasn’t aware that Ethan was a twin.  Instead of keeping the infants together, they’d been separated into two separate adoptions because doing it that way brought the attorney and whoever else was involved a lot more money than they would have made for the single adoption of a set of twins.

“Mrs. Portman, I need the name of that attorney.”

“Dr. Blanchard, my husband and I signed an agreement swearing that we’d never disclose that information.  If we do, he can sue us for breach of contract.”

“Ethan’s life depends on it, Mrs. Portman,” I stated firmly.  “Your choices are either to provide me with that information or continue to let Nathan be a risk to Ethan.  The decision is yours.”

Mrs. Portman closed her eyes and slowly shook her head back and forth.  “If I tell you, Ethan won’t be taken away from us, will he?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.  I also have no plans to disclose to him how I obtained the information.  That will remain between the two of us.”

“I have the information at home in a file,” she sighed, finally relenting.  “I’ll call you when I get home and give it to you.”

“Thank you.  You made the right choice.”

“In the meantime, how do I handle Ethan?”

“The same way you’ve been handling him for seven years,” I told her.  “With love, attention and support.  Try to keep him occupied with playtime or storytelling, anything that will keep his mind off of Nathan.  Let him watch you cook, show him that you’re not poisoning his food.  Allow him to help you with the food preparations so that he can see for himself that you’re not trying to harm him.  If he wants to talk, listen to what he has to say.  And if you need me for anything, I’m only a phone call away, day or night.”

“Thank you, Dr. Blanchard,” she said rising from the couch.  “I’ll certainly do my best.”

“I know you will.”

“How long do you think it’ll take you to find the information you’re looking for?”

“That’s hard to say,” I said honestly.  “It depends on how cooperative the attorney is willing to be.  Hopefully, not too long.  I’ll keep you notified of my progress,” I said, opening my office door.

Ethan was sitting on the floor next to the toybox still playing with the red fire truck.  Nathan was nowhere in sight.  Yet I knew that Ethan hadn’t seen the last of him, which left me to wonder if he’d step up his attempts at getting Ethan to join him on the other side, especially now that Ethan had revealed his existence to me, divulged who he was, and the fact that he knew I could see him and was aware of what he was trying to do.  If spirits grasped the realization that a living being was onto them and their devious intentions, then Nathan knew his time to destroy Ethan was limited, and if he understood that, it could only mean that he’d try harder out of desperation.  I knew that I must work hard and fast to find the needed answers that would help me to save Ethan’s life.

“All done,” I said, entering the waiting area with his mother.

“Hey, sport,” Mrs. Portman called to Ethan.  “You ready to go home?”

“Yes,” he said, standing up.  “Dr. DeeDee, can I have this truck?” he asked, holding up the toy he’d been playing with since he’d arrived.

“If I let you take it, what will the other little boys play with when they come in?”

“All the other toys,” he said, pointing to the box.

“How can I argue with that?” I asked with a smile.

“I can take it?” he asked, his blue eyes sparkling.

“You can take it, Ethan,” I said. 

“Thanks,” he grinned.

Bending down to meet him face to face, I whispered, “Don’t let Nathan talk you into ripping the wheels off.”

“I won’t.”

At the door to leave, Mrs. Portland turned around to face me.  “I can’t thank you enough, Dr. Blanchard.  I appreciate everything.”

“My pleasure,” I said.  “And don’t forget to call me with that information.”

“I won’t.”

THREE

As promised, Mrs. Portman called me later that afternoon and gave me the name of the attorney who had handled Ethan’s adoption, as well as the phone number that was listed on the paperwork.  I had never heard of him.  In and of itself, that wasn’t unusual because I wasn’t affiliated with the judicial system, but having an address in Belle Glade, which was only ten miles from Pahokee, I was somewhat surprised that I’d at least never heard his name.

After my last patient of the day was seen, I stayed in my office and began researching the attorney, interested mainly in the type of law he was listed as practicing in and to see if there were any comments on the quality of his services, good or bad.  There weren’t.  The address listed in the search was on Maven Avenue, an area I was familiar with, yet opted not to intentionally visit.  It was one of the seedier parts of town, known for gang-related and drug activity.  It was hard for me to imagine that a decent attorney would choose to operate a law office in such a shady and crime-ridden location.  Of course, his office could have already been there prior to the deterioration of the area.  Even so, with all that criminal activity going on around him, why hadn’t he relocated his office to a safer area?  It was after five pm, so I doubted anyone would be in the office that late in the day.  I jotted the number down on a piece of paper, deciding that I would place a call to the office first thing the following morning.

In the meantime, I knew exactly who to consult with and find out if he’d ever heard of him, and if so, what type of attorney or person he was.

Chief Jerome Simms was sitting in his old aluminum rocking glider on his front porch when I pulled up, dressed in multi-colored Bermuda shorts and a white tank top, sipping from a bottle of beer.

No longer the young man he was when I’d first met him, he remained in excellent physical and mental form, his mind still as sharp as a tack.  His hair and goatee were solid white, contrasting against his dark skin.  Now retired, he spent the greater portion of his days maintaining the large vegetable garden in his backyard or doing exactly what he was doing at that moment.  His trusted and constant companion, a large, reddish-brown mutt named Jaco, lay on the floor of the wooden porch beside his master’s chair, his long, pink tongue lolling in and out of his mouth as he panted in the afternoon Florida heat.

 “Chief,” I said, walking up the steps and taking a seat on the rocking chair beside him.

“I’m not the Chief anymore, DeeDee,” he said gruffly.  “Done told you to either call me Jerome or Jerry.”

“You’ll always be the Chief to me,” I said with a smile.

“How are the kids?”

“Fine.  Both enjoying college life.”  He asked the same question every time I visited, which was usually a couple of times a week, and I always gave him the same answer.  I knew he missed seeing them, missed their weekly visits and chats with Uncle Jerry.  He had been an integral part of their lives as they grew from children into teenagers, then into young adults, so it was understandable that seeing them go away to college had left a gaping hole in his life.  I knew how he felt.  I missed them, too.

“That’s good.  And David?”

“Ornery as ever, but I’ll keep him.”

“I’m sure you will.  You want a beer?”

“No, thanks.”

“I know you well enough to know this isn’t a simple social call.  What’s on your mind?”

We had stayed close friends over the years and talked or visited quite frequently.  To say that he probably knew me better than any of my other friends was an understatement.  He knew things about me that no one other than my husband knew.  I trusted him with my life as a teenager and that trust never ebbed or waned.

“Can’t fool you for a second, can I?”

“Nope,” he said, screwing the top off of another beer bottle.

“You ever heard of an attorney by the name of Wilbur Huntington?”

“Yep.”

“What can you tell me about him?”

“Other than the fact that he’s a scumbag?  Not much.  Why are you asking?”

“He was involved with the adoption of one of my patients,” I explained.  “I believe the adoption may have been, how shall I say this?  Not so legal.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.  “He’s a shady character.  Involved in lots of unlawful and underhanded deals, but never faced any consequences because he always got off on technicalities.  The man hasn’t got an ounce of integrity or conscious.  Can’t even be sure he still has a license to practice law, or if he ever did for that matter.  You best mind yourself going anywhere near him.”

“Is he dangerous?”

“Don’t know that I’d go that far,” he said with a shrug.  “But I wouldn’t put anything past him.  If you’re planning on paying him a visit, don’t go alone.”

“Is that an offer?”

“Nope.  Simply good advice.”

“You sure are getting crotchety in your old age.”

“Who’re you calling old?”

“Is this old codger giving you a hard time?”  Chief’s wife, Louise, asked as she stepped out onto the porch and handed me a glass of iced tea. 

“No more than usual,” I answered, accepting the glass, and taking a sip.  “Louise, I know I’ve told you this a million times, but I’m going to say it again.  You make the best iced tea I’ve ever drank.”

“You know it,” she said, taking a seat next to Chief on the glider.  “What’re you two gabbing about?”

“Nothing much.  Asking the Chief his advice on a certain attorney.”

“Which one?”

“Wilbur Huntington.  Ever hear of him?”

“Child, you stay away from that man,” she exclaimed, shaking a scolding finger at me.  “Ain’t nothing good ever come from him.”

“So you know him then?”

“Not personally, but I’ve heard enough tales about him to know I don’t want to.”

“Such as?”

“How crooked and underhanded he is, and that he’s the most unlawful and corrupt lawyer ever.  Why’re you asking about him?”

After a brief explanation, Louise shook her head.  “That man ain’t gonna tell you anything,” she stated matter-of-factly.  “’Specially if what he did broke the law.”

“Still, I have to try.  One of my young patient’s life may depend on it.”

“I know I don’t have to tell you this,” Chief said.  “But adoption records are sealed.”

“On legal adoptions, yes.”

“If he conducted a black-market baby adoption, the records will be near impossible to obtain.  Only way you’re going to find out anything is if he offers to tell you.”

“I can be persuasive.”

Chief shook his head and opened another beer.  “Not that persuasive, DeeDee.”

“Do you have any other suggestions?”

“Nope.”

“Come on, Chief.  How long were you on the force here?  Surely you know someone who might be able to help me out.”

“Maybe.”

“Then you’ll ask?”

“Didn’t say that.”

Louise and I both laughed.  “Old goat ain’t never gonna change, DeeDee.  You should know that.”

“I suppose I could try going to the new chief, but I get the feeling she doesn’t care much for me.”

“Wouldn’t do you any good anyway.”

“Why not?”

“Out of her jurisdiction.  She has no say or power over the Belle Glade force.”

“Perhaps she knows someone on the force that she could call and ask them to help me.  Maybe even escort me to his office.”

“I doubt it.”

Sighing deeply, I said, “This is going to be harder than I thought.  I desperately need to find out as much as I can about this adoption.  My patient, I believe, is in extreme danger.”

“How so?” Louise asked.  She knew all about me and my abilities; therefore, I never hid anything from her.  “He’s being haunted by his dead twin brother who is trying to manipulate him into committing suicide.  He’s only seven years old.”

Chief glanced over at me; his beer paused midair.  “A twin, hunh?” he asked.  “How’d he die?”

“I have no idea.  They were separated at birth and adopted out to two different families.  My patient’s mother had no clue that her son was a twin.”

“What an awful thing to do,” Louise said, scowling.  “Why in the world would anyone do something so cruel?”

“Money,” Chief replied.  “He got paid more for two separate adoptions than he would have with one.”

“My heavens, the things some people will do for money,” Louise said, shaking her head.  Patting my hand, she said, “I hope you find out what you need to know so that you can help that little boy.  If anyone can, DeeDee, it’s you.”

While I appreciated the vote of confidence, I wasn’t too sure that she was right.  It was going to be difficult moving forward without any knowledge.  And if Mr. Huntington refused to give me the answers I needed, which I was sure he would, then I would be facing a dead-end with nowhere else to turn.

“When’re you going to see this attorney?”

“I’ll give him a call in the morning and make an appointment.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Element of surprise,” Chief said, downing the last of his beer and tossing the bottle into the waste bin next to his chair.  “If you call him and make an appointment, you’ll have to tell his secretary why you need to see him.  Then she tells him you’re coming, and he’ll be sure not to be there when you arrive.  What you do is just show up and request to see him.  Sit there all day if you have to.”

“That’s actually a good idea.”

“I know,” Chief said, grinning.  “What time are you going?”

“Around eight, I suppose.”

“What if his office doesn’t open until nine?”

“Then I wait.  When I see him go in, I’ll go in right behind him and hopefully get to talk to him before he sees any of his clients.”

“Don’t go by yourself.”

“What choice do I have?  I have to go, Chief.  It’s the only way I can find out anything.”

“I’ll be ready by eight.”

“You’re going then?”

“Didn’t I just say I’d be ready at eight?  Wasn’t like I meant I’d be ready to play golf.”

“No, I suppose you didn’t.”

“Swing by and pick me up,” he said, opening his front door.  “I’m going inside to eat supper.  You coming?”

“No, I need to get home.  David’s probably waiting for me.”

“Tell him I said hi.”

“I will,” I answered, getting up from the glider.  “Thanks, Chief.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, waving me off as the screen door closed behind him.

Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the links below.

E-Book Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088F3Y7G6

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088BF2H46

gnp

The Punishment Room (Free Sample Chapters)

Chapter One

Two words.

That’s all it took to unlock the vault inside Joey Sheffield’s mind that held old, painful memories that she’d struggled for years to put away and keep hidden, finally succeeding after what had seemed an eternity and an endless number of attempts – plus years of therapy.  In the few short moments it took to answer the phone and hear her sister’s voice, every single scab from every single wound was picked away, reopening old sores and unleashing a flow of painful memories like raging flood waters crashing through a broken dam, resulting in the recall of deep, dark secrets that she’d rarely spoken of and had willed herself not to dwell on.

As a child, she’d been helpless in fighting against the wrongs imposed upon her, while her own mother stood idly by and allowed it all to happen without so much as lifting a finger to help or protect her because she’d refused to believe what she’d called lies coming out of her daughter’s mouth, dismissing the allegations as made up fairy tales and imaginative fabrications.  In a way, Joey supposed that the fairy tale part was certainly true because there was a beast involved, a monster that had robbed her of her childhood and her innocence, never regretting an ounce of the pain that he had caused her. 

As a teenager, she’d been stronger and brave enough to speak out against the personal violations against her, but not strong enough to ward off the evil that resided inside her home, an evil that had made her its main target and hardly let a day go by without reminding her of that fact.  To avoid having to face her tormentor or be in the same room with him, when not working she’d hung out with friends as late as she possibly could without suffering dire consequences for failing to adhere to a set curfew.  Her favorite hangout had been Nat’s Diner, a replica of what Nat referred to as “the old fifties burger joints.”  It was the one place where she could go and relax without dwelling on the lecherous activities that took place in her bedroom at night.  A temporary safe haven where she could laugh and have fun, but the joy and happiness were always short-lived and diminished the moment she stepped over the threshold and into that ice-cold mausoleum called home.

With money she’d saved up from working nights and weekends at the concession stand in the local movie theater, plus the part-time job Nat had given her after she’d begged him to let her work at the diner, she left home the day she turned eighteen, never looking back or lamenting her decision, vowing that if she ever had to face her tormentor again, she’d kill him.

She’d spent months on the road taking buses from town to town, staying only a few months in each one then moving on to the next.  Rat and roach infested motels served as home in each city, but even those conditions weren’t enough to make her rue leaving home.  Because for the first time in eight years, she could lay her head on the pillow at night without worrying about Mac invading her privacy or making unwanted and unwelcome visits to her room while she slept.  Waitressing jobs came easily wherever she was, thanks to the training she’d received at Nat’s, but serving patrons wasn’t always pleasant.  From experience, she had learned that no matter where she was or what size restaurant she worked in, there would always be a certain type of male who thought it was acceptable behavior to slap her on the ass every time she walked past his table, then hear him laugh about it to his friends while she gritted her teeth and fought against the urge to slap their faces in retaliation.  Yet, no matter how uncomfortable or vile she found their actions to be, she’d tolerated it because between her small salary and the tips she’d collected, it’d given her the opportunity to save up enough money to get even further away, finally settling down in a small town in southern Indiana, working a full time job during the day and attending college classes at night, determined to make a better life for herself.  After nearly four years of hard work and late-night studying, she’d earned her degree in nursing and was now employed in the cardiac care unit of the local hospital, where she was highly regarded and respected by all of her co-workers for her attentiveness and expert care of the patients under her charge.

She no longer had to live in disgusting, filthy motels, eating ramen noodles and crackers because that was all she could afford, or having to take buses or taxis to work and school because that was the only transportation available to her.  After years of struggling to land on her feet with a fresh start at life, she was finally comfortable and happy, living in peace in her small, one-bedroom apartment.

All those hardships could have been avoided had she chosen to stay at home and remain in daddy’s will, obeying and bowing to his every demand like a good daughter should.  But if remaining an heiress meant continuing to tolerate his abuse and sacrificing her own well-being for his demented pleasure, then she didn’t want a penny of his filthy blood money.  No amount he could ever bequeath to her would be enough to make up for the childhood he stole from her and as far as she was concerned, he could take all his money and everything else he owned and shove them all up his ass.  Her life, mental and physical health weren’t up for sale, regardless of the amount written on a check.

He was the reason she had little trust in men.  Over the years she’d dated, but had never formed a lasting relationship with anyone, always ending them before any serious feelings could get involved.  She’d been in love once, long ago, and had promised to marry him.  But instead of tying herself down to Mason Abernathy and remaining in a town where she’d likely continue to have to see her father, she’d chosen instead to leave and had done so without telling Mason goodbye, breaking his heart, and her own, in the process.  Hurting him wasn’t her intention but choosing to leave had been a decision that needed to be made because, the way she saw it, it was the only way she could ever completely rid herself of Macarthur Sheffield!

She had not been back home since leaving but had kept in phone contact with her two sisters.  Physical visits with them were few and far between, but when they did get the opportunity to see each other, it was always somewhere several miles away from home and without the knowledge of their parents.  As far as she was concerned, never seeing her mother again would be okay with her.  It would probably be better for them both if she didn’t because she had nothing to say to her and shuttered at the thought of what she might do should she ever have to face her again.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what her sister was asking her to do.

“Joey, did you hear me?”  It was Rosemary, her oldest sister, who had called her with the news.

“I heard you,” Joey answered groggily, glancing at the clock on the bedside table.  She’d heard everything her sister had said, but all that followed after her first two words was meaningless.  It was only her initial statement that was ringing in her ears, hanging over her head like a thick, black cloud.

“Are you coming?”

Joey hesitated for a moment, then finally spoke.  “Rosie, I can’t believe you’d even consider asking me to come back there, especially with all the bad blood between me and Helen.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

“He’s your father, Joey,” Rosemary stated flatly.

“I happen to know who he is and that doesn’t change my stance.”

“I really wish you’d reconsider your decision, Joey.  Robin and I are staying with mom temporarily to help her get through this, so we’ll both be there, and we need you.  Especially Robin.  She isn’t handling this very well and I’m afraid that the stress might cause her to digress and pick up her habit again, and I don’t believe either one of us wants to see that happen, do we?  We could use the moral support from our sister, but if you have more important things to do, then by all means, do them.  Let me know if you change your mind.”  And with that, she hung up.

Rosemary VanAllen, always the uppity one with the condescending tone who could make saying good morning sound like kiss my ass.  Even her last name sounded snobby.  She was her older sister and she loved her, but God knows the woman had always thought her shit didn’t stink.

Joey sat on the side of the bed, the phone still in her hand as she stared into the darkness of the room.  Rosemary, like her mother, was aware of the abuse she’d suffered, but also like her mother, refused to believe a single word of it, always citing the fact that daddy was a good man, an excellent provider for his family and would never do something so atrocious.  So much for familial support in a time of crisis!

And no, she didn’t want Robin to return to her opioid addiction since it had damn near killed her before she sought professional treatment for her problem.  But if she did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be her fault now any more than it was the first time around, and she resented that Rosemary had insinuated that it would be if she failed to go home as she’d requested.

Joey shook her head as she got out of bed, placing her phone on the bedside table before going into the bathroom.  Fresh memories flooded her mind once more as she stared at her pale reflection in the mirror, then closed her eyes tightly as she tried to put them all back inside the boxes of her mind where they belonged, swearing to never again allow them to rise to the surface and cause her any more agony than they already had.  If only she could be so lucky.

With a single phone call and two spoken words, her normal and routine life was upended and thrown into chaos as she again was forced to face the hateful demons of her past, memories put there by the very man she was being asked to honor.  On the bright side, if she did go, she might finally be able to bury the past and put it to rest once and for all, or at least that’s what she told herself as Rosemary’s words played repeatedly in her head.

“Daddy’s dead.”

Chapter Two

“I don’t know what surprises me more,” Ellen said, glancing over Joey’s leave request.  “The fact that you’re asking for time off or that you have a family.”

“Did you think I was hatched from an egg?” Joey asked, sitting across the desk from her supervisor, smiling as she watched her various facial expressions. 

She and Ellen Jacobs had been friends practically since she’d settled down in Jeffersonville, having met as they waited in the lobby of the same hospital for job interviews, but for different positions.  Ellen, already a nurse, had encouraged her to go into nursing as well, seeing potential in her that she didn’t know she had.  Next to leaving Cornish, it had been one of the best decisions she’d ever made because she absolutely loved the career path she’d chosen.

On the job, they remained professional, never letting their relationship interfere with duties or responsibilities.  Offsite, however, Ellen was fun to be around and had a comical sense of humor and was excellent at telling corny jokes.  Her charming personality and contagious laugh were an excellent duo.  Whenever they were together, laughter was always present.  Oftentimes, Ellen had told her it was good for the soul and a wonderful cleanser.

“Never really thought about it,” Ellen replied, glancing up.  “In all the time that I’ve known you, not once have you ever talked about your family.  Guess it was presumptuous of me to think that you didn’t have one.”

“Not much to talk about, really,” Joey said, never having shared any of her past with Ellen, other than trivial things like the popular town diner she’d hung out at with friends, that she’d left home at eighteen but withholding the reasons why because they were too shameful and embarrassing, and about her relationship with Mason.  Ellen also wasn’t aware that she’d come from an extremely wealthy family or that she had two sisters.  To divulge any of that information would lead to question after question about her home and family life, and even as much as she loved Ellen, there were some things that didn’t need to be discussed; therefore, she had remained silent.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father,” Ellen said, signing the form and handing it to Joey. 

“Don’t be.  I’m not.”

Ellen looked puzzled by her comment, her eyebrows questioningly raised.  “Care to elaborate?”

“No,” Joey answered, realizing how short and tart her response had been to Ellen’s condolences.  “Only that I’ve never been close to my father, that’s all.”

“I get the feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.  Am I right?”

Joey hesitated, not wanting to lie to Ellen but also not wanting to tell her why she’d made such a remark. 

“Joey, you know you can tell me anything.  I’m a good listener and I never judge.”

“I know you are, Ellen.”

“If you ever need to talk, I’m here for you.  No matter what.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Where is it you’re going?”

“Alabama.”

“Alabama?” Ellen asked with surprise.  “I thought you were from Georgia with that southern twang of yours.  I could have sworn you told me that’s where you were from.  Guess I was wrong.”

“No, you weren’t.  That’s where I’m originally from.  Mac relocated us to Alabama when I was a little girl.”

“Mac?”

“My father.”

Obviously, discussing her father was uncomfortable for her so Ellen didn’t press any further.  “Are you flying down?”

“No.  I’m going to drive.  It’ll give me some time to clear my head and prepare myself before I get there.”

“Are you expecting it to be that bad?”

“With my family, who knows?  Sometimes the drama gets so bad that it’s like living in a soap opera.”

“Do I detect a note of apprehension about making the trip?”

“Dread, maybe.  You’d know why if you knew my family.”

Ellen gave a short laugh.  “When do you plan on leaving?”

“Early in the morning.  I’m going home now to pack.”

“Other than attending a funeral, what other plans do you have while you’re there?”

“Right now, none.  I don’t intend to stay any longer than necessary.”

“Planning on looking up any old friends?” Ellen asked, smiling slyly.

“If you mean Mason, the answer is no.  If I happen to run into him, it won’t be intentional,” Joey said, returning the smile.

“Sure it won’t,” Ellen winked.  “Okay, come here and give me a hug.  You drive safely and let me know the minute you’re back.  And don’t forget to drop that leave form off at human resources if you don’t want your paycheck docked.”

“Thanks, Ellen, I will,” she said, hugging her friend goodbye.  “Sorry about the short notice.”

“Don’t worry about it.  It’s not as if we can plan death, right?”

“See you when I get back.”

Ellen stood in the doorway of her office watching Joey as she walked away, unable to shake the feeling of unease that suddenly washed over her.  It was apparent that Joey wasn’t thrilled about attending her father’s funeral or being around her family, which could explain the reason why she had a nagging feeling that Joey was in danger, but from what or who she couldn’t even begin to guess.  Surely her family would watch over her and protect her, keeping her out of harm’s way.  They were, afterall, family.

“Stop being so paranoid,” she whispered, returning to her desk.  Joey said she was leaving the following morning, so she’d give her time to arrive at her parents’ house and get settled in, then she’d call and check on her.

Until then, she knew the gnawing feeling she had wouldn’t go away.

Chapter Three

Joey slumped down onto the couch, staring at her packed suitcases sitting by the front door.  She was having second thoughts about making the trip, not at all eager to face her mother or listen to her bitch about every little thing that didn’t go her way or hear her preach about all the mistakes she’d made over the years and how ungrateful of a child she’d been.

Not once had Helen ever told Joey that she loved her, and certainly not the type of person to express any emotions, Joey had been surprised when she’d started receiving letters from Helen within a year of settling down in Indiana.  Every one of them were tossed into the trash bin unopened because she had no interest in anything Helen had to say.  By then, she’d started her therapy sessions and was on the road to healing, so the last thing she’d needed was interference from Helen that would surely lead to a relapse.

Pissed after receiving the first letter, she’d called the one she knew was guilty of disclosing her location.

“What the hell, Rosemary!  Did you give Helen my address?”

“Hello to you, too, Joey.”

“It was you, wasn’t it?  After I specifically instructed you not to.”

“Relax, Joey.  It’s not like I started the apocalypse.”

“You went against my wishes, Rosemary.  Why?”

Rosemary sighed heavily.  “You know how mother is.  Extremely insistent and persuasive.  I gave it to her to get her off my back about it.  What’s the big deal?  It’s only your address.”

“The point is that I asked you not to.  If I’d wanted her to have it I would have given it to her myself.”

“I don’t understand what you’re so upset about.  She’s not planning a trip to come see you.”

“I suppose you gave her my phone number, too.”

“No.”

“Good.  Keep it that way.  And tell her to lose my address.”

Apparently she’d kept it because the letters continued to come – until they didn’t.  Obviously, Helen had gotten the message.

Against her better judgment and after much consideration, she made the decision to return home, knowing that her sisters would be disappointed if she didn’t show up, and to ignore the death and funeral of her own father would likely drive an unwanted wedge between them.  As badly as she didn’t want to go, she also didn’t want to hurt her sisters or destroy their relationship.

Joey exhaled heavily, leaning her head on the back of the couch.  “God, give me strength to do this,” she said.

The drive was a little over six hours, but she had her CD’s and audio books that would make the trip bearable and both would help to keep her mind off where she was going and why.

She hadn’t packed much because she didn’t intend on staying long, knowing beforehand that she’d probably be ready to leave within the first few hours of getting there.  Hopefully, her sisters would keep her occupied so that her interactions with her mother were limited, because the less she had to deal with her, the less chance there’d be of her lashing out at her for all the years she’d let her suffer without doing anything to help her.  If confronted, she’d probably still swear everything was a lie or that she knew nothing about what was going on under her own roof.  Six of one, half a dozen of another, the result was still the same.  Complete and total denial, something Helen Sheffield was a professional at doing.  God forbid any type of scandal should upset her perfect, idealistic world and lifestyle.  Pity that her standing and reputation in the community, her afternoon Bridge clubs, her rich, socialite friends had all been more important to her than facing the truth about the horrors taking place inside her cherished mansion.

No matter how many times Joey had tried to forgive her, she couldn’t bring herself to do it – her heart wouldn’t allow it.

With a deep sigh, she rose from the couch and for the third time checked to make sure all the locks were secure and electrical appliances turned off, picked up her suitcases and headed out the door.

Chapter Four

She’d forgotten what a beautiful drive it was between Indiana and Alabama since she hadn’t driven it in the fifteen years since leaving her small hometown of Cornish.  On the few occasions she’d gotten together with Rosemary and Robin, she’d flown to their chosen location and then rented a car.

The rolling hills of Kentucky and mountains of Tennessee were stunning and picturesque as they proudly displayed row after row of trees; their leaves beginning to change into their Autumn reds, yellows and oranges, a true mountainside inferno basking in its splendor.  Pine cabins and houses were visible from the road, appearing to be barely clinging to the sides of the mountain, pinned there to create the ideal optical illusion for spectators.  Thin white wisps of clouds covered the mountaintops, reminding her of how the Smokies had gotten their name.  Her ears popped as she climbed up one hill and descended down another, continuously faking yawns to clear them.

Traffic on the interstate was moderate but moving along smoothly.  Some cars flew past her like speeding bullets, their drivers over-eager to reach their destinations.  Others, like her, chose to follow the posted speed limit, also eager to reach their own destinations, but choosing to reach it alive instead of early.  Several state troopers had cars pulled over, citation books in hand ready to issue tickets, while others parked off the road and out of sight conducting speed traps.

As a kid, whenever the family took a rare road trip, going no further than Gadsden to visit Helen’s family, she’d always enjoyed reading the roadside billboards, especially the ones with a message that was spread out over multiple boards placed several feet apart.  Those kinds no longer existed, replaced by advertisements for attorneys, insurance, or real estate.

For the most part, those had been the good and happy days of her life, when her little girl innocence was still pure and intact.  Reminiscing about those times inadvertently caused her to recall other times that weren’t so pleasant, incidents that, up until receiving the call from Rosemary, she’d succeeded in keeping hidden away, not wanting or needing to dwell on them. 

With the music off, silence enveloped her as she traveled the road that would inevitably take her back to where it all started.

Listening to the soothing sound of tires against asphalt, all of those long-hidden memories began spilling out, leaving her with no alternative but to remember.

And there was never a better place to start than at the beginning.

Chapter Five

“Hey, sweetheart,” she heard daddy say, his deep voice startling her awake.  “Can daddy lie down with you for a while?”

“Why?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.  “Are you scared?”

A quick laugh, then, “Yeah, maybe a little.”

“Is there a monster in your closet?”  It was the only thing in her young mind that made any sense.  What else could scare a grown man so badly that he would need to ask permission to sleep with his young daughter? 

“No,” he answered, crawling under the covers next to her and snuggling up close.  “You’re so warm,” he whispered in her ear.  “And you feel so good to daddy.”

The middle child of the three daughters, she’d been ten at the time and as innocent and naïve as any other girl her age who saw her daddy as a hero figure, someone she loved and admired, not understanding at the time that daddy crawling into bed with her was wrong, and only the beginning of what was still yet to come.  She hadn’t been mature enough, mentally, or physically, to comprehend that his actions were inappropriate, only that daddy wanted to lie in bed with her and she saw nothing wrong with that.

Until a week later, when the occasional middle of the night visits evolved into an every- night ritual, and the hugging and cuddling became more advanced, improper, and uncomfortable.

“Daddy loves you,” he said, kissing her lightly on the head.

“I love you, too, daddy.”

“You know you’re my little angel, right?”

“Yes.”

“Lying here with you makes daddy feel so good,” he said, slowly running his hand up and down the side of her thigh.  “Don’t tell the others, but you’re my favorite.”

“I am?”

“Um hum,” he said, moving in closer as he put his arm around her waist and slid his hand up under her gown, touching her cotton underwear.

“Stop that, daddy,” she said, pushing his hand away.  “That’s not nice and you’re not supposed to touch me on my private parts.”

“It’s okay,” he whispered, slipping his fingers under the elastic band of her panties, and proceeding to rub her.  “I would never hurt you.”

“You’re poking me in my back,” she complained, scooting away from him, but he quickly pulled her back.

“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to.  I’ll try not to do it again,” he whispered, gliding his hand slowly inside her panties.  “Doesn’t that feel good?” he groaned.

“No, I don’t like it.  Please, daddy, stop.”

After several seconds, he grunted, exhaled heavily, and removed his hand from her underwear.  “This will be our little secret,” he said, getting out of bed.  “You can never tell anyone, you understand?  If you do, I’ll swear that you’re lying and you know what happens to little girls who tell fibs, don’t you?  They get sent away to live with mean, ugly people that they don’t know in houses where monsters live under the stairs and eat little girls.  Remember that, my little angel.”

Speechless, she nodded as tears streamed down her face, confused and ashamed of what had just happened.

“Remember, it’s our secret,” he whispered, putting a finger to his mouth.  “I promise to buy you a special present tomorrow, something that will make you feel better.”

As soon as he exited the room, she jumped out of bed and locked the door but hadn’t slept a wink for the remainder of the night.  Instead, she’d spent it staring up at the ceiling, watching the stars from her nightlight dance across the walls, wishing she could be as far away as they were.

At the breakfast table, she’d been unable to look anyone in the eye, certain that if she did, they’d be able to see what she’d done the night before.  Not having much of an appetite, she picked at her food, barely eating, anxious to get out of the house and to school.  When daddy kissed her on the top of the head and said, “Good morning,” she cringed, disgusted by what he’d done to her.  But it hadn’t fazed him at all, for he was smiling and happy, whistling tunes and acting as normal as he would have any other day.

If anyone had noticed her behavior toward him that morning, they never mentioned it, which was a relief because she didn’t want to talk about it.  All she wanted was to forget and pray that it never happened again.

“What have you girls been told about locking your bedroom doors at night?” daddy asked as he sat down at the table.

“Not to,” Rosemary, who was four years older, answered.

“That’s right.  And why is that?  Robin, do you know?”

Eight-year-old, know-it-all Robin answered.  “So that you don’t have to break our doors down in case of a fire.”

“Right again,” he said, looking at Joey.  “So, can you tell me why your door was locked this morning, young lady?”

How did he know she’d locked her door?  Had he come back to her room in the middle of the night with the intention of violating her again, only to find he couldn’t get in and would probably have awakened everyone had he tried to force the door open?  She was up and downstairs before he exited his own bedroom, so how could he have known?

What she wanted to say and what she knew she should say were two entirely different things.  If she told the truth, she’d probably be laughed at, called a liar, and sent away to live with strangers who kept monsters as pets.  “I didn’t know it was,” she answered, staring blankly into her cereal bowl.  “I must have locked it by accident.”

“Make sure it doesn’t happen again, you understand?”

She knew why he wanted her to keep the door unlocked, and it wasn’t for fear of fire.  As badly as she wanted to defy that rule, she knew she couldn’t, because if she did, then daddy would get really mad and start yelling and taking his frustrations out on everyone else and be mean to mom.  Not wanting to cause all that unnecessary trouble, she knew she had to abide by the house rules and do as daddy said.

“Yes, sir,” she answered, realizing that what he’d done to her the night before wasn’t going to be a one-time occurrence, but likely only the first of many more to come.

He had promised to never hurt her, so perhaps she shouldn’t be afraid of what might happen.

Unfortunately, he was destined to betray his promise.

True to his word, he’d presented her with a gift that afternoon – a beautiful rag doll with long, blonde braids wearing a blue and white checked dress and blue buttons for eyes.  Fondly, she named the doll Molly.  She couldn’t hate her.  It wasn’t her fault that she’d been given as a gift to justify daddy’s bad behavior.  It also wasn’t her fault that she’d caused a major upset in the Sheffield household.

The purchase of the doll resulted in deep ire from Helen.  She was furious with Mac because he’d given only Joey a gift and not his other two daughters, accusing him of expressing favoritism and saying as much in Joey’s presence.  From that point, it wouldn’t be long before Helen’s anger shifted from Mac to her, inevitably causing her to suffer years of mistreatment, omission from mother/daughter outings, and being the one who spent countless hours in the attic punishment room where she was forced to sit for hours at a time in the dark with no food or water until Helen said she could come out.

Those had been some of the darkest days of her life and Molly became her best friend.  One she could talk to for hours and tell all of her secrets to, whose dress had absorbed countless flows of tears. 

Molly knew everything, and if dolls could talk, she would have had one hell of a story to tell.

Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the links below.

E-Book Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083D3C4PL

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1653938218

gnp

Hurricane (Free Sample Chapters)

Special Weather Bulletin

Tropical Depression Discussion

Issued by the National Hurricane Center

Miami, FL

0800 AM, WED 23 OCT 2019

New tropical depression has formed east of the Leeward Islands.

At 0800 AM, the poorly defined center of this tropical depression was located near Latitude 16.0 North / Longitude 60.4 West, or about 70 miles east southeast of Guadelupe.

The depression is moving toward the west-northwest near 12 mph and this general motion is expected to continue for the next 24 hours.

Maximum sustained winds are near 30 mph with higher gusts.  Some strengthening is expected during the next day and the tropical depression could become a tropical storm.

The estimated minimum central pressure is 1010 mb.

Rainfall accumulations of 4 to 6 inches are expected.

Forecaster Bates

Chapter 1

Friday, October 25, 2019 – Nanette, Palm Beach County, Florida

“You guys getting excited?” Kayla Woodbridge asked her two teenagers as she sat a plate of pancakes down onto the table in front of them.

Kelly, her sixteen-year-old daughter shrugged and mumbled, “I guess so.  Anywhere is better than here.”  Kayla wanted to think that Kelly’s recently developed attitude could be attributed to her age, the “know everything better than anyone else” stage of her life, but her gut told her it was more than that, and it was something that Kelly either didn’t want to talk about – or couldn’t.  She really needed to sit her down and have a heart to heart with her and get to the bottom of what was bothering her so much lately.

“I’m excited, mom,” Kyle stated.  “I love going to the beach.”

“I know you do,” Kayla responded, tussling his blonde hair.  “Are you packed?”

“Almost.  Only need to put a few more things in my bag.”

“Kelly, how about you?”

“Getting there,” she answered without looking up.

“Clint, I’ll start packing our bags today,” Kayla said to her husband, whose mind seemed to be somewhere else far away from the family conversation.  “Anything in particular you want me to include?”

Clint took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose.  “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” he began.

“Here we go,” Kelly said, shaking her head.  “Should have known.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, young lady?” Clint snapped.

“Nothing, dad, forget I said anything.  You never listen anyway.”

“Dad?” Kyle said, glancing at his father.  “Aren’t you going?”

Clint opened his mouth to answer but Kayla cut him off.  “You finished eating, sport?  If so, why don’t you go to your room and get the rest of your things together?  You, too, Kelly.  Please.”

“I should have known you’d do this?” Kayla stated sharply once the kids were out of earshot.  “Clint, you know good and well that I’ve been planning this vacation for over a month now and you wait until the day before we’re scheduled to leave to tell me you’re not going?”

“I never said I wasn’t going,” Clint replied.  “You’re putting words in my mouth.”

“What are you saying then?”

“Only that I won’t be leaving at the same time as you and the kids,” he answered.  “I have some last-minute things to do at the office before I can go away.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Yeah, I’ll bet he’s got things to do alright,” Kelly whispered to Kyle as they stood in the hallway listening to the exchange between their parents.

“Like what?” Kyle asked.

“Nothing you need to know about.”

“I hate it when they argue,” Kyle said.  “They sure seem to be doing that a lot lately.  Do you know why?”

Of course she knew.  She’d known for quite some time now, but she hadn’t told anyone, not even her mother.  The only person that knew was Chloe and that was only because she had been her taxi, chauffeuring her all over town so that she could spy on her father.  Surely her parents had noticed her change in attitude toward her dad but neither one of them had said anything to her about it. 

“No, but I don’t like it, either,” Kelly said, glancing down at her younger brother.  He was a sweet kid most of the time.  No sense in spoiling his good mood by telling him exactly why their parents had been arguing so much.  Even if she tried to explain, he probably didn’t even know what sex was yet because all he was interested in was baseball and video games.  “Better get started packing like mom said.”

“You think she’ll still go even if dad doesn’t, Kelly?”

Kelly shrugged.  “Beats me.  Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“Nothing that you can’t finish up today so that you can leave with us in the morning?” Kayla asked, frustrated with his timing on announcing his decision.

“I’ll only be there for a few hours and then I’ll drive over there.  What’s the big deal?  It’ll be more convenient if we have two cars anyway.”

“What’s the big deal?” Kayla blurted.  “I’ll tell you what the big deal is, Clint.  You knew we were taking this vacation to the beach and instead of spending it with your family you’d rather make up excuses by saying you have to go to work?  Not that you haven’t had a month to plan ahead and make sure you didn’t have to.”

“For God’s sake, Kayla, don’t start with me,” Clint said, rising from the table and placing his coffee cup in the sink.

“You always do this,” Kayla argued, tossing the dishrag onto the countertop.  “I don’t know why I expected this time to be any different than the others.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Making plans and then reneging,” Kayla answered.  “You seem to be doing that an awful lot lately.”

“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” Clint said, leaning up against the counter.

“Really?  How about Kelly’s awards program that you were supposed to attend last week?  How many of Kyle’s baseball games did you go to over the summer?  Do I need to keep going?”

Clint glared at her but didn’t answer.  “Even if you have nothing to bitch about, I can always count on you to find something.  Look around you, Kayla.  Do you enjoy living in a nice house?  Driving a new car?  Wearing decent clothes?  Know why you’re able to have all that?  It’s called working, remember?”

“Don’t you dare go there,” Kayla seethed, shaking a finger at him.  “I work, too, you know, so it’s not like you’re the sole provider around here.”

Clint slipped on his jacket, picked up his briefcase and headed to the door.

“Absolutely unbelievable,” Kayla said, shaking her head in disgust.  “Don’t expect me and the kids to sit around here waiting on you to make up your mind.  I still plan to leave first thing in the morning, with or without you.  I have no intentions of letting the kids down, not when they’ve been looking forward to this just as much as I have.  I thought you were, too, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Isn’t that basically what I just suggested you do?  Some things are more important than a trip to the beach, Kayla,” he said, walking out the door without kissing her goodbye.

“Obviously, there are also things that are more important than your family.  Glad you have your priorities straight, Clint,” she said to unhearing ears.

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Clint Woodbridge entered the lobby of the Chalfont Hotel, careful to make sure that the front desk clerk wasn’t on duty yet, took the elevator to the fifth floor and walked down the hallway, stopping in front of the last room on the left.  Furtively glancing around to make sure no one was in the hallway, especially anyone who knew him, he lightly tapped on the door.

“I thought you were going to stand me up,” Mona said seductively, grabbing him by the tie and pulling him into the room.

“I almost did,” Clint confessed.

“Well, Mona’s mighty glad you didn’t,” she said with pouty lips.

Dressed in a black lace teddy, one of Clint’s favorite pieces of lingerie, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately, leaving a smear of orange sherbet colored lipstick on his face.  Clint quickly wiped it off with the swipe of a thumb.

“You seem a little tense this morning, baby,” Mona cooed.  “Want me to soften you up?” she said, kissing him again.

“I love starting my day off with a fight,” Clint remarked, his tone tart with sarcasm.

“Want to talk about it?” Mona asked, running her fingers through his thick brown hair.

“Not really,” he replied, undressing, and laying his clothes across the back of a black leather chair.  Pulling Mona close to him, he kissed her lightly on the side of her neck.  “You smell so good,” Clint whispered, running his tongue gently down her cheek and across her lips.  “Let’s get you out of this thing,” he said, removing her teddy and letting it fall to the floor.

After an intense round of lovemaking, they cuddled close beneath the covers, Mona gently stroking Clint’s chest with her fingertips.  “That was different,” she said.  “A little on the rough side, but still good.  I liked it,” she purred.

“Sorry,” Clint said.  “Guess I’m more uptight than I thought.”

“What did you get into a fight with the bitch about?”

“I’ve asked you not to call her that.  Kayla’s not a bitch.  Besides, it wasn’t a fight,” Clint corrected.  “More like a heated exchange of words.”

“Over what?”

“Our family beach trip.  She’s pissed because I told her I have to work and wouldn’t be leaving with her and the kids.”

“That’s right,” Mona said, raising up on an elbow and looking at him.  “You were supposed to leave tomorrow.  You still going?”

Clint shrugged.  “I’d rather stay here in bed with you, but if I don’t at least show my face for a couple of days I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Mona was quiet for a moment, then laid back down beside him, gently gliding her fingertips up and down his inner thigh, intentionally allowing her fingers to brush against his manhood, lightly enough to tease, but not arouse him.  “I don’t know why you stay with her,” she said.  “If she makes you so miserable, why not leave her?”

“I’ve told you before,” he answered, kissing the top of her head.  “She would take me to the cleaners and leave me with nothing but the shirt on my back.”

“So,” Mona said.  “It’s only material things.  Nothing that can’t be replaced.  Isn’t your happiness worth more than that?”

“Not worth losing everything I’ve worked my ass off to accomplish,” he snapped.  “Besides, as long as she stays off my back it’s nothing that I can’t handle.”

Mona sat up and stared down at him.  “You should divorce her and marry me.  I would treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

Clint burst into laughter.  “Marry you?  Are you serious?”

“Don’t laugh at me,” Mona remarked angrily, getting out of bed.  “And yes, I’m serious.”

“Baby, if I get out of this marriage, another one would be the furthest thing from my mind.  Once bitten, twice shy, you know?”

Mona huffed, snatching her teddy from the floor and redressing.  “So what you’re saying is I’m good enough for a good old-fashioned fuck but not good enough to be married to?”

Clint threw the covers back and stood up.  “That’s not what I said.  And don’t say stupid shit like that because when you do, you sound just like Kayla and trust me when I tell you that one of her is more than enough.”

“Oh, so now I remind you of your wife?”

“Good God, Mona, give it a rest, will you?” 

She stared at him disbelievingly.  He’d never talked to her like that before and had certainly never compared her to his wife.  He seemed like a different man, on edge and ready to crack as easily as an eggshell.  “Tell you what,” she said, turning away and walking to the nightstand where the phone was.  With the receiver in her hand, she said, “I can make this easy for you.  Why don’t I make a call and tell your precious wife all about us?” she asked, dialing a zero to get an outside line.  “I’m sure she’d love to hear all about our hot, steamy love affair.”

“You stupid bitch,” Clint spat, snatching the receiver from her hand, and slamming it back down into the cradle.  “What is wrong with you?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” she remarked bitterly, turning away from him.

Clint grabbed her by her upper left arm, digging his fingers into the soft flesh and spinning her around to face him.  Mona slapped him hard across the face.  “Don’t you ever put your fucking hands on me again!” she yelled into his face.  “I’ll kill you if you do, you son of a bitch!”

Clint clutched onto both arms and shook her hard.

“Let go of me, you bastard!” Mona panted, struggling to free herself from his grip.  His fingernails dug into her skin and would most likely leave bruises, forcing her to wear long sleeves instead of trying to explain how she got them.

Tired of attempting to keep her from striking him again, Clint shoved her backwards with more force than he’d intended, causing her to stumble and fall.

Her left temple struck the corner of the wooden desk by the bathroom door with a loud thwack!, the force of the blow propelling her backwards onto the ceramic tile of the bathroom floor, again striking her head.

Mona lay motionless on the ground, a puddle of bright red blood beginning to form around her face and running into the cracks of the tile, turning the grout a dark shade of brown. 

Clint stood frozen in place, his mouth agape in shock, as he stared down at Mona lying motionless on the floor.  “Mona?”  When she didn’t respond, he called her name louder.  “Mona!”

“Oh, my God!” he gasped, kneeling beside her.  “Mona, wake up!” he called, nudging her, but she remained unmoving.  “Mona, please get up!” he wept.  “I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry.  I’m begging you to wake up!”

Clint walked rearward, away from the bathroom, until the backs of his knees connected with the foot of the bed.  He plopped down heavily, horrified at what had just transpired, and at the sight of Mona’s dead, bloody body lying on the floor in front of him.  He closed his eyes tightly so that he wouldn’t have to look at her, hoping that when he reopened them he’d realize it had all been a terrible nightmare, and that Mona would wrap her arms around his neck like she always did while kissing him deeply and passionately.   But she didn’t.  And she wouldn’t.  Never again.

Clint sprang from the bed, clutching his head with both hands as he paced back and forth muttering, “Oh, my God,” repeatedly.

How could such a stupid and petty argument have escalated so quickly and resulted in a sudden and violent death?  All he’d done was push her away.  Perhaps a little too roughly, but it wasn’t as if he’d struck her with the intent of killing her.  Is this what was meant by a crime of passion?  A regrettable act of violence from a normally calm and non-violent person carried out in the heat of the moment?  He’d never hurt anyone in his life, much less caused another’s death.  If only he could take it back – but he knew that he couldn’t.  What was done was done.

Should he call the police and tell them what happened?  Afterall, it was an accident.  Surely he wouldn’t go to jail for that!  Or would he?  All the cops would have to go on would be his account of what had transpired because Mona certainly wasn’t able to tell her side of the story.  Would they believe him or charge him with murder and throw him in prison for the rest of his life?  He couldn’t let that happen.  Kayla and the kids needed him.  They depended on him and he couldn’t let them down, which left only one thing he could do.

“I have to get the hell out of here,” he said, quickly dressing and gathering his belongings, checking, and double-checking the room to ensure that he hadn’t left anything behind that could lead the cops to him.  With a wet rag, he wiped down all of the wooden surfaces, doorknobs and anything else he thought he may have touched, took the glass he’d drank out of from the bedside table, stuffed the wet rag inside the glass and put it inside his suit coat pocket.  Later, he’d find a dumpster to dispose of them both.  Careful not to touch the faux leather of Mona’s purse, he used a hand rag to grip it from the bottom and turned it upside down, dumping the contents onto the bed.  He didn’t see anything that could incriminate him – no address book, no hand-written notes.  All that she carried was a tube of lipstick, most likely the shade she’d been wearing when he’d arrived, a travel-size bottle of perfume, a wallet, and her car keys.  Quickly thumbing through her wallet, he was relieved to see that it didn’t contain any information about him.  In fact, it barely contained anything at all except for her license and a couple of credit cards.  To be safe, he took the keys and dropped them into his pocket surmising that there couldn’t possibly be anything in her car belonging to him since he’d never been in it.  Still, in the event that the police did locate her car, without the keys the only way they’d be able to gain access would be by breaking a window.  Perhaps that might slow them down a little, then again, maybe not, but he wasn’t willing to take any chances.  At the door, he glanced back at Mona, shook his head sorrowfully, peeked into the hallway to make sure no one was there and then exited the room, closing the door quietly behind him and hastily made his way toward the exit.  Instead of the elevator, he took the stairs to the lobby and left the hotel through a side door so that he wouldn’t have to pass by the front desk, quickly made his way to the car and drove off, leaving Mona and the hotel in his rearview mirror.

He was in no shape to go to work and he couldn’t go home and face Kayla.  She’d immediately know that something was wrong with him and she’d start grilling him for answers and he was in no mood for an interrogation from his wife.  After placing a call to his secretary and informing her that he wouldn’t be in due to a family situation, he drove around for hours before deciding to find a hotel room for the night.  From there, he would call Kayla and tell her that he’d been called out of town unexpectedly for a business matter and wouldn’t be home, and that he’d see her and the kids at the beach in a couple of days, although he didn’t foresee that trip taking place at all.

As he’d told Kayla that morning, some things were more important than a trip to the beach, and this was one of those things.

He had important decisions to make and he needed to make them quickly and with a clear head, beginning with calling the hotel, disguising his voice and pretending to be an acquaintance of Mona’s and provide some lame excuse for why she hadn’t checked out personally, and then offer profuse apologies for her unintended oversight.  At least that way, the room would show up in the registry as available and when the housekeeping crew went in to clean, they’d find Mona’s body.  He had no idea how long she’d booked the room for, but he couldn’t imagine it was more than a day or two like she normally did.

With that out of the way, a more important decision needed to be made.

The way he saw it, he had one of two choices.  He could either turn himself in to the police and admit what he’d done – or he could run and get as far away from there as possible.

The latter seemed to be the smartest choice.

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Chapter 2

Saturday, October 26, 2019 – Chalfont Hotel, Nanette, Florida

Detective Zavier Crenshaw stepped out of his canary yellow convertible, tucked the tail of his red hibiscus-print Hawaiian shirt into the waist of his white gauze pants and made his way into the hotel lobby, flashing his badge at the front desk clerk without stopping, his huarache sandals squeaking on the freshly waxed tile, and took the elevator to the fifth floor.

Two uniformed officers were present, one inside the room and one in the hallway, posted there to ensure no rubberneckers or gawkers got in the way.  The crime scene crew was also present, each busy with their own duties.  One was collecting evidence and labeling the plastic bags, another was photographing the crime scene, and the third one was dusting the room for fingerprints.

“What have we got, DeSoto?”, he asked as he approached the officer inside the room.

“Deceased female, Mona Newbern, twenty-six years of age according to the identification found inside her purse, what appears to be blunt force trauma to the left side and back of her head.  Doc’s not sure yet if it’s a homicide or an accident,” he said, pointing towards the bathroom.  “So far, we haven’t located anything that could have been used as a weapon.  Doc thinks she might have slipped on the wet floor and fell, striking her head against the tile.”

“Is she local?”

“Not from Nanette, but not far away.”

“Has the next of kin been notified?”

“We don’t have that information as of yet,” DeSoto answered.  “No one’s reported her missing, but I’ll keep working on it and let you know what I find out.”

“They may not realize she’s missing yet, especially if she lives alone.  Do we have any other information on her?  Family? Job?  Anything?”

“No,” DeSoto answered, shaking his head.

“But we do have her address?”

“The one on her driver license,” DeSoto answered.  “If it’s accurate.”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

“You want me to check it out?”

“No, I’ll take care of it.  Just make sure I get a copy of everything you have for my investigative file.”

“Will do.”

“Thanks, DeSoto,” Crenshaw said as he headed into the bathroom.

“Got a cause of death for me, Tony?” Crenshaw asked, squatting down beside the victim, observing as Tony Prescott, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nanette, examined the woman’s wounds.

“Nothing definitive, other than to say that she died as the result of head injuries.”

“DeSoto said no weapon was found,” Crenshaw said.  “Any idea what may have caused them?”

“Direct contact with a hard-tiled floor would be my best guess.”

“So, she what?” Crenshaw asked, shrugging.  “Walked into the bathroom and decided to take a fatal spill onto the floor for no logical reason?  Did she faint?  Have a coronary?  What?”

“I don’t know that yet, Zee,” Tony answered, calling him by the nickname he’d given him because of the numerous times he’d heard him tell people his name was Zavier with a zee and not an ex.  “Those are things I won’t know for sure until I can get her to the morgue and complete an internal autopsy.”

“You usually at least have a theory.  Don’t you have one now?”

Tony nodded.  “It’s possible that she slipped on the floor while it was wet.”

Crenshaw rubbed his chin and stood up.  “Maybe,” he said.  “If that’s the case, where’s the water?  If she slipped on the wet floor as you’re suggesting she did, wouldn’t there be traces of water on the floor?”

“Not necessarily,” Tony answered.  “It could have dried up considering the amount of time she’s been here.”

“How long would that be?”

“Judging by her body temperature and lividity, I’d say somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours, give or take a couple of hours.”

“You’re right, that’s more than enough time, but in my opinion, it’s a little too dry in here, wouldn’t you say?”

“Meaning?” Tony asked, looking up at Crenshaw.

“The tub is dry,” he said, shaking the curtain.  “Which means she didn’t take a shower, and cloth drapes like this take forever to dry.  The sink doesn’t appear as though it’s been used, there are no glasses on the vanity, and there are no dirty towels on the floor.  Taking all of that into consideration, where did the water come from?”

“Maybe she spilled it.”

“Could be,” Crenshaw said, going to the door of the bathroom.  “Excuse me,” he called out.  “Did any of you see or bag any empty water bottles or drinking glasses?  Any kind of container that could have held liquid?”

“Only one glass,” one of the technician’s answered.  “But it didn’t look like it had been used.”

“And that’s all?” Crenshaw asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Thanks,” he said, returning his attention to Tony.  “Any other explanations?”

“Nope.”

“I think we can rule out the possibility of a slip and fall,” Crenshaw said.  “I also think it’s safe to say that at some point, she was not alone in this room.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Her clothing,” Crenshaw said, smoothing down his gray, walrus-style moustache.  “Or lack of it, I should say.  I find myself wondering why she would be wearing such a sexy-looking nightgown.”

“Not a nightgown,” Tony corrected.  “It’s called a teddy.  Women’s lingerie.  You’d know that if you had a life outside of the police force.”

“Whatever,” Crenshaw said, waving it off.  Tony was right though.  There wasn’t much in his life these days other than his work and he dedicated himself to that as much as he possibly could because if the truth be known, he hated going home to an empty house every day.  He had no interest in dating or having any other type of contact with another woman because it would be senseless to do so.  He would never commit himself to anyone else nor would he involve himself in any kind of relationship other than being a friend.  There would never be another who would take the place of the love of his life and he would never even consider trying.  After losing her, nothing else mattered to him anymore except for his work.  “Back to my point.  Based on my experience with situations such as this, a young woman only wears something like that for one reason, and it wasn’t to please herself, if you know what I mean.”

Tony smiled and shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Might have to ask the wife if she’ll wear one for me.”

Crenshaw shook his head.  “You’re a mess, you know that?”

“I do.”

“Anything else you can tell me before I go?”

“There are two wounds.  One here,” Tony said, pointing to the left temporal area.  “And one to the back of the head.  She most likely hit the corner of something, a piece of furniture maybe.”

“Like the desk right by the door?”

“In my opinion, yes.  After striking her head the first time, the impact likely caused a rebound action, propelling her in the opposite direction, then falling backwards onto the floor, which would explain why her body is half in and half out of the bathroom.”

“Did you toss your water theory out the window?”

“Not completely.  Something, or someone, caused her to fall.  You were right about her not being here alone, unless she did this to herself,” Tony said, pointing out the bruises and scrapes on both arms.

“Looks like she was forcefully grabbed,” Crenshaw said.  “Are those fingernail marks?”

“Seems to be.”

“What’s the likelihood of getting prints off her skin?”

“Not likely, but I’ll try just the same.”

“You’ll figure it all out, like you always do.  Thanks, Tony,” Crenshaw said, rejoining DeSoto in the outer room.  “Who found the body?”

“Lady from housekeeping.”

“Did you take her statement?”

“Yes, sir.  Want to read it?” he asked, holding out a memo pad.

“No, I’d rather talk to her myself.”

“That’s her right there,” DeSoto replied, pointing to a woman standing up against the wall across from the room.

“Name?”

“Rickie Sellers.”

“Miss Sellers?” Crenshaw said, approaching her with an extended hand.  “Detective Zavier Crenshaw with the Nanette Police Department.  I’d like to ask you a few questions if that’s alright.”

“I already gave a statement to the other policeman.”

“I know you did, and I appreciate it.  This won’t take long.”

“Okay,” she replied, folding her arms across her chest.  It was obvious that she was shaken by the incident and anxious to get away from the scene.  “Go ahead.”

“Thank you,” Crenshaw, taking an ink pen and small notebook from his pants pocket.  “What time did you come on duty this morning?” he asked, flipping the notebook open.

“Six am.”

“How soon after that did you find the body?”

“Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes,” she answered.  “Soon after I started my rounds.”

“Did you not know that the room was occupied before entering it?”

“No, sir.  The do not disturb sign wasn’t hung on the door and checkout time was three pm yesterday.  This room was on my list of rooms to clean.  It’s not up to me to determine whether someone has checked out or not, I can only go by my daily roster.”

“Did you knock before entering the room?”

“Several times.  I even called out to announce that I was here, but no one answered, so I went inside.”

“Did you use a key card to get in?”

“Yes, I have a master for all the rooms on this floor.”

“And you discovered the body immediately after opening the door?”

“All I could see were her feet at first, so I went on inside.  I thought maybe she was experiencing a medical episode, like fainting or a seizure, you know, and I was going to try to help her.  But once I got a good look at her I knew she was dead.”

“Did you touch her?”

“No.”

“Not even to check for signs of life?”

“No.  I could tell by looking at her that she was gone.”

“How so?”

“The color of her skin.  She was so pale.  And the blood on the floor had turned black.”

“Did you touch anything else in the room?”

“Only the phone.  I used it to call the front desk clerk to tell him to notify the manager, and then the manager called the police.”

“Did you stay inside the room until law enforcement arrived?”

“No, I waited outside in the hallway.”

“Did anyone else go inside the room before law enforcement arrived?”

“The manager, to confirm what I reported.”

“Did you go into the room with him?”

“Yes.”

“Did he touch anything?”

“No, sir.”

“Great,” Crenshaw said, flipping over the page.  “A few more questions and then I’ll be done.”

“Okay.”

“I know you were probably very scared and nervous when you found Ms. Newbern lying on the floor.”

“You could say that.”

“And you were probably more focused on her than anything else, right?”

“Right.”

“Now, Miss Sellers, I know this may be hard for you to do right now, but your answer is important, so I need you to think about it really hard before you give me an answer, okay?”

She nodded.

“Did you see, or find, anything in the room that might have indicated someone other than Miss Newbern may have been there?  Anything unusual or out of place, perhaps?”

“No,” she said.  “Nothing at all.”

“Did you do any cleaning at all in the room?  Maybe throw something away?”

“No.”

“That’s all I have for now,” Crenshaw said, closing the notebook and returning it to his pants pocket.  “Here’s my card.  After a day or so of clearing your head and getting your thoughts together, if you think of anything, you give me a call.”

“Did you guys check every nook and cranny in this room?” Crenshaw asked, addressing the forensics team.  “Pull out every drawer, check both closets, look under the bed?”

“Can’t look under the bed, Detective,” DeSoto told him.  “It has one of those solid baseboards that nothing can get under.”

“How about between the headboard and the mattress?  In between the covers?  I see they’re still on the bed.  Why hasn’t it been stripped?”

“I did all that,” one of the technicians said, raising her hand.  “But I didn’t find anything.  The bed was next on my list.”

“How about the toilet?”

“Checked.  Nothing there, either.”

“Give me a pair of those gloves, will you?” he said to the evidence technician.  “And come help me for a minute.”

Gently lifting the top spread by the corners, they gave it a shake.  When that didn’t produce any results, they tossed it aside and moved on to the next layer of bedding, a soft white cotton blanket.

“Hold on, Detective,” the technician stated, running her hand across an area near the foot of the bed.  “There’s something here,” she said, reaching beneath the blanket.  “Aha,” she said, retrieving an object that was caught on the inside fibers of the blanket.  She passed it to Crenshaw using a gloved index finger.

“Well now, this isn’t something you find every day,” Crenshaw said, taking the gold and diamond watch from her and examining it for a name or at least a monogram, anything that would help to identify its owner.  “This is definitely a man’s watch and it isn’t a cheap one either,” he said.  “I want this dusted for prints and examined closely for any trace evidence.  Maybe some arm hair got stuck in between the links.”

The technician placed the watch in an evidence bag, labeled it and placed it inside her silver suitcase with all the other evidence.  “I would have found that, Detective,” she said.  “Once I got to the bed.”

“I’m sure you would have since you all do excellent work.”

“Where are we on surveillance footage, DeSoto?” Crenshaw asked.

“Donovan’s downstairs viewing it now.”

“Is that maid still out there in the hallway?” Crenshaw asked.  There was one more thing he needed from her that he hadn’t thought about before but could prove to be quite pertinent.

“Yes.”

“Miss Sellers, I apologize for bothering you again, but I need to ask you one more question.”

“Alright.”

“Does your cleaning routine include polishing the door handles on the stairwell exits?”

“Yes.”

“Did you work this floor yesterday morning?”

She nodded.

“The same shift?  Six am?”

“Yes.”

“And did you polish them yesterday morning?”

Another nod.

“How about this morning?”

“No, I do it once all the rooms are cleaned.”

“Great, thank you very much.”

“Miss Technician,” Crenshaw called, poking his head inside the room.  “Grab your dusting powder and brush and come with me.”

He knew it was probably a long shot, but no murderer in his right mind would take the elevator down after killing someone and risk being seen.  Which left only the stairwell and whoever had been inside that room with Miss Newbern would have had to touch the handle to turn the knob.  All he had to do now was hope that the mystery man’s prints were the only ones on the door, or at least be present and discernible.  If so, then hopefully he could compare those prints to the ones on the watch, if any, to get a match.

“DeSoto, were statements taken from the front desk clerk as well?”

“Yes, sir, but he said he didn’t see anything or anyone that looked suspicious during his shift.”

“By that do you mean that there’s someone on duty at the front desk twenty-four hours a day?”

“Yes.”

“What time does the morning staff come on?”

“Eight.  But between seven thirty and then, staff meet for the shift change to discuss any ongoing events or activities.”

“Then whoever was here with Miss Newbern knew that no one would be on duty during that time period, meaning he entered the hotel at some point during that time frame.  I’m guessing that means this wasn’t the first time they’d gotten together for a sexually romantic tryst.”

And whoever that person was had made damn sure not to leave anything behind that would prove he was there.

Except for the watch.  Crenshaw wondered if the mystery man had yet noticed that it was missing and if so, would he return to the hotel hoping to retrieve it?  That possibility was more of a long shot than getting readable prints off the doorknob!

There was only one jewelry store in Nanette.  So, unless he ordered it off the Internet or purchased it out of town, it shouldn’t be too hard to find out if the local jeweler had sold such an expensive watch, and perhaps even who purchased it.

“Good work, DeSoto,” Crenshaw said, clapping him on the shoulder.  “See you back at the station.”

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Marcum Island, Martin County, Florida

Of the fourteen other hotels on the beach strip, Kayla had been more impressed with the Tahitian Paradise than any of the others, mainly because of all the amenities it boasted, including a gift and coffee shop, medical clinic, diner, and game room.  Comfort and convenience only a few steps away without having to leave the island.

All of the other hotels each had one or two of the same niceties, but none of them had all of them like the Tahitian did.  And the price wasn’t bad, either, especially considering that October was a prime month for beach vacations, which meant that the hotel costs usually doubled, exactly why she’d booked the reservation over a month before.

It was the perfect time of the year for enjoying the beach.  Not too hot.  Not too cold.  Water always pleasantly warm.

After crossing the causeway bridge, the only access road on and off the island, Kayla turned right onto Hotel Row Boulevard, drove two miles down the two-lane street then turned left into the parking lot of the Tahitian Paradise Hotel.

The exterior was painted a bright shade of hot pink, making it the most noticeable along hotel row, sticking out like a sore thumb in comparison to the others, coated either in neutral colors or lighter pastels.

Entrance to the hotel lobby was accessible from the parking area, but the only way to get to the beach was through double access doors on the opposite side of the hotel, located next to the check-in counter.  Anyone staying inside the hotel could only get to their rooms by using the elevators or stairs.  Directly beyond the double glass doors was a row of six small cottages painted the same color as the hotel, with a wooden pathway leading directly down to the beach area.  Lounge chairs and tables surrounded the Olympic sized swimming pool in the middle of the courtyard, which also happened to be right outside their door.

The suite she’d reserved was much bigger and nicer than what she’d expected and looked more like an apartment than it did a hotel room.  Furnished with two large bedrooms and a kitchenette with a stove, microwave, and refrigerator, it was perfect for her and the kids.  Not that any of those things mattered because she had no intentions of spending her vacation in a kitchen cooking!  The kids would be fine nuking frozen meals for a few days or being treated to restaurant food.  This was their vacation, too, and they deserved to have as much fun as they possibly could, with or without their dad.  The living room was furnished with a large beige, cloth fabric sofa and matching armchair.  Walls were painted a light shade of coral with lime green trim, typical colors for beach hotels.  Framed artwork of seashells and beach scenes adorned the walls.   Sliding glass doors opened from the living room onto a small patio, then beyond that, nothing but sand leading down to the shoreline.  Kayla watched as a flock of seagulls cawed and fought over some tasty morsel that had washed ashore, laughing when one of the feathered rascals grabbed the entire treat and flew off with it, leaving his foes to fend for themselves.

“Mom, will you please tell your son that I get the bedroom, not him?” Kelly requested, both hands on her hips.

“What makes you so special that you think you get it?” Kyle retorted.

“Come on, guys,” Kayla said.  “It’s not even ten o’ clock in the morning yet!  We’re here to have fun and enjoy ourselves, not fight with each other.”

“Well?” Kelly pressed. 

“Why can’t you share the room?”

“Because there’s only one bed, duh,” Kelly remarked with a shake of her head.  A natural blonde but wanting something different, with Kayla’s consent she now wore her short bob haircut in a light shade of blue.  She’d even agreed to let her get a small stud nose piercing, but when she’d asked permission to get a tattoo, Kayla had put her foot down and told her no, resulting in a debate over her answer.  Not wanting to bicker with her daughter over body ink, she’d called a truce and told her she could make her own decision when she reached adulthood, but as long as she was a minor and her responsibility, the answer would always be no.  After that, she’d never asked again.  Kelly had always been a good kid.  Witty, outgoing, and smart, popular among her peers with many friends, both male and female.  But lately, she hadn’t been her usual happy-go-lucky self.  She seemed distant and distracted, as if something were weighing heavily on her mind.  Kayla figured it best not to press too hard because she knew Kelly well enough to know that when she was ready to talk, she would.  “And I’m not sleeping with that little creep!”

“Spaz!” Kyle retorted.

“Booger eater!”

“Ewww, I don’t eat boogers you fart sniffer!”

“Jackass!”

“Hey, hey, guys, that’s enough, knock it off,” Kayla warned.  “Let’s not start our family vacation with hateful words and name-calling, alright?”

“He started it,” Kelly remarked, folding her arms across her chest.

“Did not,” Kyle said.

“How about I settle this right here and now?” Kayla asked.  “Kelly gets the room.  Kyle, you get the couch.  It folds out into a bed.  You’ll have the whole living room to yourself, including the TV.”

“But, mom…” Kyle started.

“It’s settled, Kyle.  I don’t want to hear anymore arguing about it.  Besides, you can see the ocean through the glass doors.  Kelly nor I have that luxury.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Kyle said, sticking his tongue out at Kelly.

“You’re such a dweeb,” Kelly replied, going into the bedroom, and closing the door.

“Kyle, you can keep your things out here but put them in the corner.  I don’t want to see clothes and shoes strewn all over the living room.  Got it?”

“Got it,” he replied.  “Can we put on our swimsuits and go down to the beach now?”

“Sure,” Kayla told him.  “That’s why we’re here, right?”

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Nanette, Florida

In his hotel room, Clint lay on his back staring at the ceiling contemplating his current dilemma.  He hadn’t slept a wink all night.  Every time he closed his eyes, he kept seeing Mona lying on the floor in a pool of blood, reliving that nightmare over and over.  Now that he’d had more time to think about his options, he’d decided that running away would be a bad decision.  Afterall, he had a job, a home, a family.  How would he explain why he left?  What reason could he possibly give that would sound believable and convincing?  At the moment, he was the only one that knew what had happened to Mona.  Even if the police were called in to investigate her death, there wasn’t a single piece of evidence in her room that would point to him, he’d made sure of that.  Just like he’d made sure there was no one in the hallway or the stairwell, had bypassed the front desk to avoid the clerk and any other guests who could identify him, and had kept his head down while walking to his car in the event he was seen by someone who knew him.  And in the small town of Nanette, that would be practically everyone since he was well known in the community because of his successful business in commercial real estate development and because he was a member of various clubs and organizations around town and also donated to multiple charities.  So, yes, it was safe to say that in the off chance someone had seen him exiting the Chalfont, they would most definitely know who he was and identifying him would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

Although he had never been in trouble with the law, his fingerprints would be on file in whatever system it was that law enforcement used to check and compare fingerprints because it had been required for his line of work.  In his mind, he replayed the cleanup many times over, each time reassuring himself that he’d left nothing behind that would implicate him.  For crying out loud, he’d even kept the condom on so that he wouldn’t have to flush it down the toilet, calling to mind some of the horror stories he’d been told by friends about how they either cling to the side of the porcelain like magnets or get stuck in the chute, never completely making it into the sewage system.

Turning his wrist over to check the time, he jumped off the bed in a sheer state of panic.  “Shit!” he yelled, ramming his hands into his pants pockets searching for his watch, but it wasn’t there.  “Shit!” he yelled again, looking inside his coat, shirt and even his shoes, then finally, his car.  His wristwatch was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t in the glove compartment, under or between any of the seats.  He even tore the trunk apart, going as far as removing the piece of carpet that covered the spare tire.  Back inside his room, he retraced his steps and searched drawers and the top of the television, but again, came up empty.  His heart pounded as he tried recalling whether he’d worn the watch to the Chalfont the morning before yet knowing that he had because the watch was a normal part of his daily apparel.  He never went anywhere without it. 

On the positive side, it wasn’t engraved and wasn’t remarkable in any other way except that it was a high-quality, custom-made, extremely expensive one.

On the negative side, how would he explain to Kayla that he’d somehow misplaced or lost a ten-thousand-dollar wristwatch?

If it turned out that it was found in the room, there were no identifying markers to prove it was his, so that was one less thing for him to worry about.  It wasn’t as if he could stroll back into the Chalfont and request to go to the fifth floor to retrieve a lost watch.  The place was probably crawling with cops by now because surely, Mona’s body had been discovered.

Clint blew out a puff of breath, relieved that he didn’t have to fret over cops finding a lost piece of jewelry that they could never associate with him.

From the small hotel refrigerator, he pulled a bottle of diet soda from the cardboard pack, screwed off the cap and took a long swallow, contemplating what to do next.  He couldn’t stay in the hotel forever, and until he could get his behavior and emotions in check, he wouldn’t be joining his family at the beach either.

For now, he would spend another night in the hotel room, lay low, and check out first thing the following morning, go home and call Kayla and tell her that his business trip had been extended for another day.  At least by doing that he wouldn’t have to face his family in his current state of mind, and it would give him more time to think.

Besides, they were probably having more fun without him there anyway.

Tropical Storm Phillipe Weather Advisory

National Hurricane Center

Miami, FL

1100 AM, SAT 26 OCT 2019

Phillipe has been upgraded to a tropical storm.

A tropical storm warning is now in effect for Puerto Rico, The U.S., and British Virgin Islands.

The center of Tropical Storm Phillipe is located near Latitude 16.6 North / Longitude 63.1 West, about 135 miles southeast of St. Croix.

Phillipe is moving toward the west-northwest near 12 mph and a general motion to the west-northwest or northwest is expected for the next 24 hours.

Maximum sustained winds are near 40 mph with higher gusts.

Tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 35 miles from the center.

The estimated minimum central pressure is 1006 mb.

Rainfall accumulations of 7 to 9 inches can be expected near the path of Phillipe.

Forecaster Sharpe

Chapter 3

Saturday, October 26, 2019 – Marcum Island, Florida

“Whoa, hold on, young lady.  Where do you think you’re going?”

“In the water.  We are at the beach.”

“Not wearing that, you’re not,” Kayla scolded, pointing to Kelly’s swimsuit.

“It’s a bikini, mom.”

“That’s barely covering your rear end,” Kayla replied.  “Change into something that covers a bit more skin.”

“Seriously, mom?”

“Yes.  At home, in our back yard behind a privacy fence is fine.  On a public beach with tons of people, not so much.”

Kelly shook her head in disbelief.  “What type of bathing suit do you want me to wear, mom?  The same kind they wore in the twenties?”

“Not that extreme, but one with more material than the one you’ve got on.”

Kelly grunted as she turned around and went back to her room.

Kyle opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside.  “Wait for your sister, Kyle.”

“Mom, I’m not a baby.”

“I know you’re not, but you’re also not an adult.”

“But, mom, the beach is literally right there,” he said, pointing to the ocean.

“Kyle,” Kayla said, giving him her mom stare.

“Is this better?” Kelly asked as she walked into the living room wearing a one-piece black suit with gold trim.

“Much,” Kayla said.  “Thank you.  You two can go on down there.  I’ll join you in a few minutes after I get my things together.  Stay close to the shore, you hear me?”

“Yes,” they both said as they walked through the sand and towards the beach front.

Kayla placed folded towels and sunscreen inside her canvas tote bag, along with the other items that were already packed inside, put on her sun hat and sunglasses and headed down to the beach, placing her bag on one of the wooden lawn chairs directly in front of an orange and white striped cabana.

Opening the umbrella that was attached to the back of the chair, she placed a long beach towel over the slatted wood to make it somewhat more comfortable.  At least the towel would provide some relief against the hard wood pressing into her back.  She had been wanting to read the book that she’d brought along for quite some time but hadn’t yet had a chance to get to it but intended to make that one of her top priorities while on vacation.  Without Clint being there, hopefully she could finish the book in peace without being interrupted every couple of chapters.

As she had requested, the kids were staying close to the shoreline, the water barely up to their waists.  Kyle was splashing around in the water while Kelly teetered and tottered against the incoming waves.  Satisfied that they were in no imminent danger, she opened her book and began reading.

When a man appeared and stood near the foot of her lounger, she expected to look up and see that Clint had changed his mind and decided to join his family afterall.  But it wasn’t Clint. 

“Excuse me, sir,” Kayla said, lowering her sunglasses to the tip of her nose.  “Can you please scoot over a bit?  You’re blocking my view.”

Dressed in khaki cargo shorts and a blue tank top that finely outlined his well-muscled physique, the man turned to face her.  “My sincere apologies,” he said, taking a step sideways.

“It’s okay,” Kayla replied.  “But my kids are in the water and I’d like to be able to keep an eye on them.”

“I understand.  Do you mind?” he asked, pointing to the empty lounge chair beside her.

“Not at all.”

“Thanks.

Kayla returned her attention to her book but didn’t get too far.

“You live around here?”

“Why?”

The man shrugged.  “No reason.  Just curious.”

“I can tell by your southern accent that you’re definitely not from around here.”

He laughed lightly.  “That is correct, but I think you’ve got it backwards.”

Kayla glanced over at him, taking notice that the shade of his green eyes was a near perfect match for the aquamarine water of the ocean.  “How so?”

“It’s you Floridians that have the accent, not me.”

“If you say so.”

“Boone Chadwick,” he said, extending a hand.  “Guilty of being from Tennessee.”

“Kayla Woodbridge,” she said, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here.”

“This your first trip to Florida?”

“This far south, yes.  It’s nice here.  I like it.”

“It is,” Kayla agreed.  “I don’t get to the beach much, but when I do, I always come here to Marcum Island.”

“Then you don’t live here,” Boone stated.

“Not here, but not far away.”

Boone chuckled.  “You’re not going to tell me where you’re from, are you?”

“I just did.”

“Only that you’re not from here, which leaves about a million other places you could be from.”

“Not that are close by,” she said with a smile.

“I get it,” he said.  “You don’t know me and as far as you know, I could be a serial murderer or a dangerous stalker.  Kind of the equivalent of telling kids not to accept rides from strangers.”

“Something like that,” she answered, somehow feeling that neither of those things were true.  “I live close to Lake Okeechobee.  How’s that for a morsel?”

“A start.”

“Ever hear of it?”

“The lake?  Who hasn’t?”

“You might be surprised, especially if you’re not into fishing.”

“I like it alright but don’t do much of it,” Boone said, glancing across the water.  “I understand why you like it here.  It’s beautiful, clean and peaceful,” he said, leaning back and resting on the beach chair.  “Are you here on a family vacation or just for the day?”

“More than a day, not quite the vacation that was planned.”

Boone shook his head.  “Meaning what, exactly?  You wanted to go somewhere else and settled for a tropical paradise instead?”

“It was supposed to be a family getaway, but only the kids and I are here because my husband got called out of town on business the day before we were scheduled to leave.”

“That’s a bummer,” Boone said.  “Looks to me like you didn’t let that get in the way of your plans, so I hope that you have fun anyway, with or without him.”

“I intend to.  Is that why you’re here?  Vacation, I mean?”

“Not necessarily a vacation per se, just needed a couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, you know?”

Kayla opened her mouth to reply but was cut short when Kyle came running towards her screaming and crying, holding onto his side.  Kelly turned around when she heard him yell, dashed out of the water, and ran to his side.  “What’s wrong?” she asked in a panicked voice, but Kyle didn’t answer.

Kayla felt a rush of pure adrenaline as sheer horror overtook her, expecting to see her son move his hand away only to reveal that a shark had taken a huge bite out of him.

“Let me see,” Kayla panted, tugging on his hand.

“It hurts, mom, it hurts so bad,” Kyle cried.

Kayla gasped when Kyle finally pulled his hand away, revealing a large red area covering his entire left side.  Long, thin welts had risen on the surface of his skin and there were so many of them crisscrossing that it looked like cooked spaghetti noodles.

“He’s been stung by a jellyfish,” Boone declared, scooping Kyle up in his arms.  “We need to get him inside right now.  Tell your daughter to go and run a tub of water, as hot as his skin can stand it, but not scalding.”

Kayla was puzzled by his demands, not sure if she trusted him enough with her child since she’d met him only minutes before.  “I’m a doctor, Kayla, I know what I’m talking about.”

With an approving nod from her mother, Kelly took off running toward their suite with Boone, Kayla and Kyle following behind.

Not until the third swimmer rushed out of the water screaming in pain did the on-duty lifeguard realize that danger was lurking just below the surface of the water waiting to claim more victims.  The loud shrill of his whistle took Boone and Kayla by surprise, bringing them to an abrupt halt only inches from their hotel room.  With his bullhorn and commanding voice, everyone was instructed to get out of the water immediately, even as swimmer after swimmer exited the water yowling in pain and holding on to various parts of their bodies where they’d also been stung.

“What the hell is going on?” Kayla asked as she stepped through the sliding glass door, shutting it behind her.

“Man O’ War is my best guess, judging by the looks of Kyle’s sting,” he answered.  “And lots of them for that many people to get attacked in one area.  Keep your swim trunks on,” Boone instructed Kyle as he lowered him into the water.  “Kayla, I need a pair of tweezers and some vinegar.  Do you have either?”

“Tweezers, yes, they’re in my makeup bag.  No vinegar.”

“Then you’ll need to take a quick trip to the nearest pharmacy or grocery store.  Vinegar is essential for treating Kyle’s wound, as is an antihistamine and antibiotic ointment.”

“There’s a gift shop in the lobby,” Kelly said.

“They won’t have the supplies I need to treat Kyle.”

Kayla stared down at him as he knelt by the tub.  “I can’t simply leave him here with you.  I don’t even know you.”

“Then leave your daughter here as well,” he replied, looking up at Kelly, who was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, eyes wide, as she watched her younger brother grimace in pain.  “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t get your name.”

“Kelly,” she replied, wiping away tears.

“Hi, Kelly, I’m Boone.  Kayla, you need to go now.  I’ll keep watch over him until you get back.  It’s important that he stays in the water for a while.  I promise you he’s in good hands.”

Kelly closed the lid on the toilet and sat down.  Kyle was a brat and annoying as hell sometimes, but he didn’t deserve this, and she couldn’t bear seeing him in such agonizing pain.  “Is he going to be okay?”

“I think so,” Boone replied.  “It’s probably going to hurt like hell for the next few days, but I think he’ll get through it.  Right, bud?”

Kyle nodded.

“What does it feel like?” Kelly asked her brother as she stared at the large red area on his skin.

“Like my whole body is on fire.  It’s burning so bad, Kelly,” he said, looking pitifully up at his sister.

“Alright, Kyle, what I need to do now is let some of this water out and run more hot water.  If it gets too hot, you tell me.”

“Okay.”

Kayla returned from the store with the supplies Boone had recommended and entered the bathroom.  “You okay, son?”

“I think so, mom.  But it hurts so bad.  I’ve never had anything this painful in my life.”

“Hand me the vinegar,” Boone told Kayla.  To Kyle, he said, “I’m not going to lie to you, Kyle, this is going to sting really bad, but it’s important to do this.  There are some tentacles stuck to your skin and I need to get them off.  That’s what these are for,” he said, holding up the tweezers.  “Once I get these off of your skin, the stinging should begin to ease up a little bit.  You ready?”

“Ready.”

“This will be cold,” Boone said, pouring the vinegar over the entire wound. 

Kyle gritted his teeth when the liquid made contact, squinting his eyes against the pain.

With the tweezers, Boone carefully began removing the tentacles one at a time and tossing them in the small garbage can.

“Ewww,” Kelly said.  “Those look like worms.”

“They do,” Boone agreed, removing the last one and pouring the remaining vinegar over the sting site.  “You need to soak in the water for a little while longer.  Between the water and the vinegar, the two should wash off any remaining venom.”

“How did you know to do that?” Kelly asked.

“I watched a video,” Boone teased.  “Or did I read a book?  I can’t remember.”

“Are you serious?” Kelly asked wide-eyed.

“He’s a doctor, Kelly,” Kayla told her.

“Oh.  Then you’ve treated jellyfish stings before?”

“Definitely seen my fair share.  Treated shark attack victims, too.”

“Gross.”

“When I first saw Kyle coming out of the water crying, that’s what I thought had happened to him,” Kayla said.

“You’re not alone on that thought,” Boone told her.  “I can honestly say that I’ve never seen or heard of that many victims of jellyfish attacks in one place at the same time.  Did you see how many people were coming out of the water screaming?”

Kayla nodded.  “Yes.  Weird.”

Boone stood up from the floor and dried his hands on the towel that hung by the tub.  “No more swimming today,” he said to Kyle.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Kyle answered.  “I’m not so sure I’ll ever go in the ocean again.”

“Don’t let this incident keep you from enjoying life’s pleasures.  Chances of it happening again are rather scarce.  Believe it or not, jellyfish attacks are actually quite rare, especially that close to shore.  And when it does happen, it’s generally because they’re passing by and people get in their way.”

“The pool is safer anyway,” Kyle said.

“Won’t argue with you there.”

“How long does he have to stay in that bath water?” Kelly asked.  “He’s going to shrivel up like a prune.”

“Another thirty minutes or so.  When he’s dry, you’ll need to apply the ointment,” Boone said to Kayla.  “No need to give him the antihistamine unless he begins to itch, and the itching becomes unbearable.  No since knocking him out if you don’t need to.  He can wear shorts but don’t let the material touch the wound site and let him go without a shirt.  No stressful activities.  In fact, he should lie around for the rest of the day and take it easy.  Like I told Kelly, it’ll probably sting or be sore for several days, but I think he’ll be okay.”

“It’s not stinging as much as it was,” Kyle said.

“Glad to hear it.”

“Thank you, Doctor Chadwick,” Kayla said, extending her hand.  “For taking care of my son.”

“Formalities aren’t necessary.  My name is Boone, not doctor.”

“Boone it is, then,” Kayla said.

“I’m staying in the same hotel as you, room two twenty-four.  If you need me for anything at all, you call me.  Give me a piece of paper and I’ll write my cell phone number down as well.”

After jotting down his number and handing it to Kayla, he called out to Kyle, “hope you feel better, Kyle.”

“Me, too!”

“Bye, Kelly.  Kayla.  Pleasure meeting you all.  I just wish it had been under better circumstances, say, a coconut falling on your head?  We could have at least drunk the milk from it,” he smiled, waving as he left their room.

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Nanette, Florida

He was starving, yet apprehensive about leaving the safety of his hotel room.  Paranoia was getting the best of him, especially since he’d realized that his watch was missing.  There was still a possibility that he’d left it at home, and he would search for it when he finally went there.  For the moment, he could only focus on his extreme hunger and he needed to remedy that problem.  If he saw any cops on the road while out and about, he’d probably be so nervous that he’d make a stupid driving error and end up getting pulled over and once they ran his name and realized who he was, he’d be hauled off to the hoosegow!

There was a convenience store next door, but he didn’t feel like eating a hot dog that had probably been on the rotisserie all day, or nachos with cheese that was so thick it could be used as paste. 

He would simply have to take his chances because he couldn’t stand the growling of his stomach much longer.  There was a burger joint not far away.  He’d drive slowly and carefully so as not to draw attention to himself. 

After pulling on a tee-shirt and donning a baseball cap that he’d kept stored in his trunk for trips to the gym, he took the car keys from the table and headed out the door.

Back in the hotel room with a sack full of food, he breathed a sigh of relief, tossed the cap and keys onto the table, and sat down on the side of the bed.

With the remote control, he flipped on the television to the local news channel and turned up the volume when he heard the weather man discussing an Atlantic storm that was expected to develop into a hurricane within the next several hours, and the current prediction path showed it heading in the direction where Kayla and the kids were.  If that location turned out to be the point of impact, then there would be no doubt that it would also affect Nanette and all of the other surrounding areas.

He wondered if Kayla was aware of the storm, or if she was enjoying herself at the beach too much to watch the news or listen to weather reports.  She was a fanatic about tracking hurricanes and kept a large tracking map on the wall of the den.  Every time a new forecast was released, she’d go to her map and make the changes, always convinced that no matter what the professional meteorologists said, the storm would end up hitting the east coast, then Nanette.  It never did but that didn’t stop her from mapping it.  From the moment hurricane season started until it ended, he could count on Kayla to be able to deliver full details about every aspect of the storm.

If she was aware of what was now a tropical storm, she hadn’t called him to let him know about it, which was unusual.  Maybe it’s because she was more than a little sore at him for not joining her and the kids at the beach.  He really should call her because even though he’d been called out of town before on business deals, never had it been a spur of the moment trip nor had he ever been gone for more than a day.   Perhaps he’d surprise them by showing up at their door.  Or maybe not.  Home sounded better.  It was quiet and private and exactly what he needed.  He’d never much cared for the beach anyway.  He’d only agreed to go because it’s what Kayla had wanted.  Might as well let her and the kids enjoy their vacation without him because the chances were, in his current state of mind, he’d ruin their good time.

When the news anchor turned to a different story, it was one that captured Clint’s attention.  He stopped chewing and listened as the anchorman talked about the murder of a young woman at the Chalfont Hotel, urging anyone with any information to contact Detective Zavier Crenshaw of the Nanette Police Department.  The suspect was still at large, which meant that they had zero evidence against him.  That was good news.  It meant that it was okay for him to go home without worrying about whether the authorities would be there waiting on him when he arrived.  But he still didn’t want to go to the beach.  Perhaps staying home would be the smart thing to do.  He could use his time off to put up the storm shutters on the windows and secure lawn and patio furniture – to be on the safe side, and to please Kayla.  Of course, there was always the possibility that the hurricane would turn back out to sea and pose no threat at all to land, but it sounded like a good excuse to give Kayla when he called her.  She might even appreciate his gesture.

He finished off his burgers while watching the news, subconsciously making a list of things he needed to do around the house to prepare for the oncoming storm.

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“I finished going through all of the hotel surveillance tapes.”  Crenshaw looked up from the paperwork on his desk to see Donovan standing in the doorway.

“And?”

“I’ve got a few clips set up that I think you need to see.”

“Meet you there in five.”  He was waiting on a return phone call from the only jeweler in town that might have sold the watch found at the crime scene to ascertain whether the jeweler had time to see him and examine the watch.  If it weren’t sold there, perhaps the jeweler could point him in the direction of who might have.  Not wanting to miss the call, he advised his secretary to come and get him from the surveillance room should the call come in while he was away from his desk.

Donovan sat before a bank of monitors, each showing a different angle of the hotel hallway on the floor where Miss Newbern’s room was located.

“What have we got?” Crenshaw asked, taking a seat beside Donovan.

“This first one here,” he said, pointing to the screen showing the hallway directly outside room five oh four.  “Shows no one coming or going into that room around the time of the murder.”

“Maybe he knew where the cameras were and how to avoid them.”

“It’s possible, especially if he’s been there more than once.”

“What else?”

“This is from the area where the stairwell exit is.  Watch this,” he said, pressing play on the recorder.  A man could be seen coming into view and opening the door, but his back was to the camera.

“Can’t see his face,” Crenshaw stated.  “Doesn’t give us much to go on, other than the fact that he’s wearing a suit.  Could be anybody that was staying on that floor on their way out to a business meeting.”

“True,” Donovan offered, zooming in on the still shot.  “But he’s the only person that shows up on camera around the time of the murder.  And why use the stairwell instead of the elevator?”

“To avoid being identified is my best guess,” Crenshaw said, smoothing down his moustache.

“I’d be willing to bet he’s our suspect, which is why I saved the best clip for last,” Donovan said, activating the third screen.  “Look closely.”

Crenshaw leaned in to get a closer view.  “What am I looking at?”

“You didn’t see it?”

“See what?”

“I’ll slow it down this time.  Pay close attention to the room directly across from the stairwell door.”

Crenshaw slapped his hand down on the top of the desk.  “Well, now, how do you like them apples?  And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts our suspect either didn’t see or was in too big of a hurry to get away to notice.”

Donovan nodded in agreement.

The hotel room door in the screen shot was slightly ajar, revealing a figure standing in the doorway, and whoever that person was most likely got a close-up view of the man exiting via the stairs.

“Can you zoom in on that?”

“I did, but it’s too fuzzy to make it out.”

“Do it anyway and let me have a go at it.”

Donovan magnified the photo of the door as close as the camera would allow.

“What room number is that?”

“Five seventeen, according to the floor plan.”

“Guess it’s time for me to revisit the front desk clerk and find out who is, or was, staying in that room.  That person may very well be the one who can give us a positive identification.  Can you print me a copy of that?”

“Sure thing.”

“Bring it to my office when you get it.  I’m waiting on an important phone call.  Good work, Donovan,” Crenshaw said as he exited the room.

Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the below links.

E-Book version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07X532Y5R

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1689033916

gnp

Seeing (Free Sample Chapters)

Chapter 1 – The Accident

Summer vacation of 1977 started out like any other but ended with me losing nearly every close friend that I had.  Not because of death or anything else tragic, but because they became afraid of me, of the uncanny abilities that befell me and the capabilities that I inadvertently came to possess.

Before getting ahead of myself and explaining what I mean by that, allow me to tell you a little bit about myself first.

I was born and raised in Pahokee, Florida, a small, rural farming community located in western Palm Beach County and on the east side of Lake Okeechobee.  With a population of less than twenty thousand residents, my hometown sits in the heart of an area known as the Glades – not to be confused with the Florida Everglades, which are much further south and a lot swampier.

The nutrient-rich muck used for planting sugar cane and sweet corn is known as black gold and is so revered by farmers that it is honored annually with a parade and festival that attracts residents from all over the state of Florida to participate in the multitudes of celebrations.

Sugar mills and vegetable packing houses are prominent in Pahokee.  Celery, radishes, and lettuce are processed and packaged inside regional facilities and shipped out to grocery stores and markets around the United States.

Anglers come from all over the world to participate in fishing tournaments on Lake Okeechobee, including prominent government figures and well-known celebrities.  Large-mouthed bass and crappie are the most popular for the tournaments and sport fishing, but the lake is also filled with blue gill, speckled perch, and the tourists’ favorite – alligators.  Visitors to the area pay substantial fares for an opportunity to go on a nighttime cruise on the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of the large reptiles, or hear them grunt and snort.  Their eyes glow red in the dark and look like dozens of rubies floating on the water’s surface.  I can understand the enthusiasm because it truly is a sight to see.  While alligators are fun to watch, my advice to everyone is to never attempt to approach them.  They are meat-eating, fast on their feet, predators that can, and will, leave their victims limbless – or worse.

It’s not uncommon to see airboats speeding noisily through the water or cutting through marshes, reeds, and grassy areas like a warm knife slicing through butter.

You may be wondering why any of this information is important, and the answer is because I want you to be able to fully understand how life was growing up in a small town where everybody knew everybody – and knew about their personal business as well.  In time, they would all come to learn about me regardless of whether I wanted them to know or not.  And also to point out that before everything in and about my life changed, I was an average, typical teenager with future dreams of becoming a veterinarian.  That, too, would come to change.

We had no large department stores, no mall, no shopping plazas, no multi-plex theaters, and only a couple of restaurants.  To enjoy any of those amenities, a fifty-mile trip to West Palm Beach would be required.

Even with the absence of all those big city luxuries, us Pahokee kids never suffered from a lack of fun or from boredom because we always found something to do to keep us entertained and occupied, and there were times when those “somethings” didn’t end well.  Like the one time that I jumped off the roof of my house with a towel tied around my neck because I believed I could fly like Superman.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t break my neck.  Fortunately, the only harm done was to my ego.

Typical summers for me consisted of a variety of activities that were sometimes shared with the company of friends and at other times, I preferred doing things alone, like using my cane pole to fish off the marina pier and not having to worry about a companion talking constantly and scaring the fish away.  I personally never believed that fish could be frightened to the point that they would pass up a delicious, fat worm, but there were plenty of older fishermen (and women) along the pier that would argue otherwise.  I also liked going to the city park and sitting alone in a swing while I gathered my thoughts and wondered about life in general.  Not that a fourteen-year-old had a lot to worry about, but I did do an awful lot of thinking.  Momma always told me it was good to exercise my brain as often as possible to keep it from getting rusty.  Of course, I knew that brains didn’t rust, but they can be like an empty stomach that isn’t completely satisfied until it’s fed, and I was constantly feeding mine.  I loved reading books of all kinds and learning whatever I could about anything worthwhile, because I knew that knowledge was the power that I would need one day when furthering my education was just around the corner instead of being what felt like light years away.

I spent many afternoons at the Prince Theater, the town’s one-screen movie house, where I paid a dollar for admission and was allowed to sit there all day long if I chose to and watch the movie, sometimes double features, over and over without getting kicked out.  Try doing that these days and you’re likely to get escorted out by an usher or told that you have to buy another admission ticket if you choose to stay.  Swimming parties at the public pool were always fun, although any amount of extended time in the sun always resulted in the same thing for me – a nasty sunburn due to my fair complexion.  After the burn healed and the redness faded, peeling would follow that resulted in even more freckles being added to my shoulders, nose, and cheeks.  One of my all-time favorite things to do on a Saturday night was make a pallet on the living room floor where I’d lay on my stomach eating popcorn and watching monster movies on television.  The blankets of the pallet came in handy if I got scared, because I could cover my head and not look at the gory creature that was about to devour me whole.  When I thought it was safe to uncover my head, I’d always look over my shoulder to make sure there wasn’t a vampire, mummy, or werewolf lurking in a dark corner of the living room.  If I needed to change the channel to continue my horror fest, I had to get up to do it because our television had no remote control.  I dare you to try that with monsters in the room watching your every move!

During the day, I stayed outside from the time the sun came up until it said goodnight, painting the evening Florida skies with magnificent hues of oranges and pinks.  If I got thirsty while playing, I took a drink from the water hose because there was no running in and out of the house lest you “let the flies in,” and we didn’t have bottled water back then.  One of the main reasons I loved summertime is because my birthday is in July, and that always meant having friends over for cake, ice cream and opening presents.  That summer I was on the cusp of turning fifteen.

I was small for my age, less than five feet tall, petite, and skinny as a twig, and a late bloomer with a chest as flat as a two by four.  Why mom ever made me wear those ugly training bras with the large triangle shapes on the cups I will never understand, because other than the two marbles barely poking through my shirts, there wasn’t anything there to train.  I kept my auburn hair cut in a short pixie-style because I didn’t want it hanging in my eyes, and I also wasn’t keen on being bothered with the monotonous chore of pretty hair maintenance.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I was a tomboy in every sense of the word.  Dresses were out of the question when it came to my attire.  All I ever wore were jeans, shorts, t-shirts and either sneakers or flip-flops.  It was a simple and easy style without looking too girlie, and perfectly comfortable for me.

While all these things were loads of fun, and something that I looked forward to every summer, what I loved more than anything else was playing softball.  A bunch of us project kids, (that’s what we were referred to because we lived in a housing authority), would get together in the afternoons to play in the large field behind our apartment houses.  Short, tall, skinny, or fat, we didn’t care.  If you could play ball, you would be picked for one of the teams.

We used personal items as makeshift bases – a pair of shoes for first, a shirt for second and so on, then proceeded on to picking team captains and making our choices for players, leaving no one out.  If there were more players than needed, they got scattered in the outfield.  If we were short a few players, then that meant that some of the others would have to cover more than one position.

I was a mean right fielder with a strong throwing arm, and I’m not too shy to say so.  You know the old adage about girls not being able to play ball?  Anyone who said such a thing probably would have changed their minds about that if they’d ever seen me play.  As I said, I was a hard-core tomboy and I was more than capable of playing with, and better than, most of the boys my age who played.

It was my great love for the sport that would make this the summer that would be different from any other, the one that would change everything about me and alter the course of my life forever, the reason why my friends chose to ostracize me because they couldn’t handle the new DeeDee Olsen.  Instead, they opted to stay away from me because that seemed to be the safest and most logical option, and the only one that seemed feasible to them at the time.

On this particularly scorching hot June afternoon, our first week out of school for the summer, it was the bottom of the sixth inning, and I was up to bat.  Bases were loaded, and my team was ahead by one run.  My intention was to get a walk because the worst pitcher out of all our players was on the mound, and I knew from experience that he tended to throw either high or outside balls.  And unless you were a tennis player attempting to return a lob, there was no use taking a swing.

My feet were dug into the ground at home plate, a piece of cardboard taken out of the neighborhood dumpster, an aluminum bat gripped tightly in my hands, knees bent, eyes forward and focused – I was ready.

As I mentioned, Ricky was notorious for throwing high balls, but apparently our umpire, Chubby, was blind.  “Steeeeee-rike one!” he called.  We assigned him to the position of umpiring because he was asthmatic and unable to run.  Not wanting to omit him from being able to participate, we compromised.

“Are you stupid or something?” I yelled, turning to face him.  “That ball was as high as an airplane!”

“I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em,” he said, grinning and pushing up his black-rimmed glasses, then taking his umpire stance once more.  His curly red hair looked like a fire atop his head in the bright glow of the afternoon sun, and his face was so red that I couldn’t see a single one of his dozens of freckles through his flushed skin.  Back in position, I waited for the next pitch, which went to the right of the plate by about three feet.

“Steeeeee-rike two!” Chubby called, holding up two fingers and casting out his arm like the umpires in professional baseball do.

“You seriously might want to consider a new pair of glasses!” I retorted.  “Obviously, the ones you have don’t work.”

Frustrated at his rotten play calling, I dug in even deeper and choked up on the bat, figuring that I might as well go ahead and swing because if I didn’t, Chubby would call it strike three anyway.

Except that it was a perfect pitch that came straight across the plate.  I swung hard, walloping the ball out past center field.  Jake and Timmy ran for the ball while my team players on second and third bases ran across home plate, scoring runs for our team.

For some reason that only he knew, Johnny made a horrible mistake in his decision to suddenly change course.  While I ran past first and second, and then touching third heading toward home plate, he changed his mind about crossing home and decided to turn around and make his way back toward third base, running as fast as lightning while looking back over his shoulder.  I suppose he was making sure that he wasn’t being chased by the catcher for fear that he’d be tagged out and cost our team a run.

Even if I hadn’t been so focused on making a homerun, I could not have prevented what was about to occur because we were both at full throttle in our momentum and it happened so fast that neither of us could have put on our brakes and stopped on a dime. 

We collided head-on with a forceful impact, his chin striking me on the upper left side of my forehead right above my eye.  The crash sent me flying backwards and to the ground, knocking me unconscious.

I have no idea how long I was out, but when I opened my eyes, I was lying in the grass flat on my back with all of the other kids bent over staring down at me.  Johnny held a bloody rag to his lacerated chin, which I later learned took six stitches to close.

“Are you okay?”  “How many fingers am I holding up?”  “Man, look at the size of that knot on her head!”  I had no idea who was saying what, because they all seemed to be talking at once and all I could hear was a cacophony of jumbled noises.

I groaned and tried to get up, but I felt a little nauseous, so I sat back down and waited for the queasiness to pass.  When it finally did, I stood up and said, “I think that’s enough ball for today.”

“DeeDee?”  It was Johnny, the boy that I had collided with.  “I’m really sorry,” he said, a deep look of concern on his face.  “I hope you’re not hurt too bad.”

Touching my head and feeling the lump, I said, “I’m okay, Johnny.  But I need to go show this to my mom.”

To say that the swelling on my forehead was a goose egg would be equivalent to comparing a twenty-carat diamond to a pebble.  It was huge and covered the entire left side of my forehead and was getting even bigger by the second.

My mom was sitting on the side of her bed talking to one of her friends on the telephone when I went inside.  Not wanting to disturb her, I stood in the doorway waiting for her to either turn around or hang up, but after a couple of minutes of waiting and she did neither, I quietly said, “Mom?”

In one swift move, she leapt from the bed, dropping the phone to the floor with a loud PING!  “Oh, my word!” she cried.  “What in the world happened to you?”

I was trying to explain when the nausea hit me again, and I knew that I was going to throw up.  Although I tried my best to make it to the bathroom, I wasn’t so fortunate.  The vomiting began in her room and I left a trail from there all the way to the toilet.

The next thing I remember after that is lying on an examining table in the emergency room waiting for a doctor to come in.  Mom stood beside me, worry furrowing her brow.  Never before had I seen such an expression on my mom’s face.  When I asked her how I got to the hospital, she told me that I had passed out in the bathroom and that she carried me to the car and an emergency room nurse had brought me inside on a stretcher.  To this very day, I do not remember any of that.

“How do I look?” I asked quietly.  My mouth felt as dry as cotton and my throat was sore and burning.

“Like you’ve been in a fight with a semi-truck and the truck won!”

Funny thing is it didn’t even hurt.  It stung a bit, kind of like a bee bite, but there was no bad pain.  I reached up to touch it and suddenly understood why my mom looked so worried.  It had grown to the size of a grapefruit and was soft and mushy in the center.

“Don’t touch it, DeeDee,” my mom scolded, gently pushing my hand away.  “How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” I answered.  “A little lightheaded, maybe, but I don’t feel sick anymore.”

The door to my examining room opened and in walked the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life – and I didn’t even like boys.  Tall and tanned, with wavy blonde hair and eyes so piercingly blue that I could almost see right through them.

“I’m Dr. Montgomery,” he said, taking my chart from the clear plastic door pocket.  “Diedre Olsen?” he asked, opening the file.

“DeeDee,” I corrected him as I continued to stare.  I did not like being called by my real name but hearing him say it somehow made it okay.

“DeeDee, it is then,” he said, stepping up to the side of my bed.  “Whoa!  What happened here?” he asked, softly probing my forehead.

“I ran smack into somebody while we were playing softball,” I answered.

“Judging by the size of this lump, I’d say you two collided kind of hard.  Would that be an accurate assumption?”

I nodded.  I was afraid to open my mouth because the nausea was coming back and the last thing I wanted to do was hurl on his pristine white coat.

“Can you tell me exactly how this happened, DeeDee?” he asked.  “And how you felt afterwards?  Did you pass out, feel sick, anything unusual?”

I knew Dr. Montgomery was speaking because I could see his lips moving, but his voice sounded muffled and far away.  Whatever he was saying, his words were incoherent, as though he was speaking a foreign language that I didn’t understand.

Then came a flash of bright white light, like looking directly into a flashlight beam, and then the smell of burning sugarcane followed by a horrendous wave of nausea.

When I woke up, I was no longer in the emergency room.  Dr. Montgomery had admitted me to the hospital, and I had been taken upstairs to a private room.

Mom was sitting in a green leather chair in the corner, her arms folded across her chest as she stared at me, appearing even more worried than she had before.  When she saw my eyes flutter open, she jumped from her chair and came to my bedside, grabbing onto my hand and crying.

I had no idea what had happened to me that would warrant the presence of two doctors attending to me, but there they were, both wearing their white lab coats with a stethoscope around their necks.  Dr. Montgomery stood directly beside my bed, and standing behind his right shoulder, an elderly gentleman with white hair and a thin white mustache, smiling at me.  He kept his arms folded behind his back, grinning, and nodding while Dr. Montgomery spoke, occasionally glancing at me, winking, and then returning his attention to the chart in Dr. Montgomery’s hand.

“Glad to have you back with us,” he said, bending over me and shining a light into my eyes.

“What happened?” I asked, attempting to sit up.

“Take it easy for now,” he said, lightly touching my shoulder and laying me back down onto the pillow, then writing in my chart.  “You gave us quite a scare.”

Mom nodded in agreement, as did the older doctor.

“Well?” I asked.  “Will one of you please tell me what happened and why I’m in the hospital?”

“You suffered a seizure while you were in the emergency room,” Dr. Montgomery explained.  “I admitted you so that I can keep an eye on you.  It’s only for observation, DeeDee, so it’ll probably only be for one night.  But you do have a mild concussion and I believe that’s what caused the seizure.  Not that it will happen again,” he said, patting my leg.  “But if it does, I’d rather you be here close to medical staff instead of at home.  If you do okay during the night, and by that, I mean no more seizures, then you can go home tomorrow.”

“It takes two of you to tell me that?” I asked, puzzled.

Dr. Montgomery looked bewildered by my question.  “You mean me and your mom?”

“No,” I said, pointing.  “Him.”

Dr. Montgomery turned around to look behind him.  Slightly cocking his head he asked, “DeeDee, do you see someone else here besides me and your mom?”

“Of course, I do,” I said, nodding.  “Don’t you?  How can you not see him when he’s standing right beside you?  He’s a doctor, too.”

The glances exchanged between mom and him were ones of total confusion.

“Probably double vision,” he said calmly to mom.  “It’s not uncommon with seizures and head injuries.  I wouldn’t worry too much right now.  It’s likely only temporary.”

That last statement of his would turn out to be one of the biggest falsehoods I have ever been told.

And I knew that I wasn’t suffering from double vision either.

While it was true that I was young, I was also old enough to know the difference between an old doctor and a young one.

The physician that had stood at the side of Dr. Montgomery was a totally different person in every way imaginable, and they looked nothing alike.

What I didn’t understand at the time was why mom or Dr. Montgomery couldn’t see him.  Afterall, he was standing right there beside my bed as clear and plain as they were.

However, it wouldn’t take long before I found out why – but not before being put through pure hell first.

Unfortunately, this episode was only the beginning of what was still yet to come.

Chapter 2 – Who Are All of These People?

My overnight stay in the hospital was anything but restful.  Between the nurses coming in and out of my room, all the talking at the nurses’ station and in the hallway, and the little girl continuously calling out for her mommy, I couldn’t sleep.  I turned on the television to drown out the noise, but there wasn’t anything on that I wanted to watch on the few channels that were available.  But it was fun getting to use the remote control, a gadget I didn’t have at home.

Why was no one helping that little girl?  Why didn’t someone answer her?  Didn’t they hear or see her?  She was absolutely driving me nuts and it sounded like she was standing right outside my door.

Tossing the covers aside, I got out of bed and stepped barefooted onto the cold tile floor.  The coolness was comforting and felt good against my hot skin.  When the sudden dizziness struck me, I held tightly to the side rail of the bed and steadied myself to keep from falling.

Once the lightheadedness had completely subsided, I wheeled my I.V. pole up to my left side, using it for support, walked to my door and opened it.  Exactly as I had thought, she was standing in the middle of the hallway, wearing a pink floor-length nightgown with white daisies and a lace collar, clutching a rag doll with yellow pigtails and red button eyes.  Her long black hair was in braids, one hanging over each shoulder.  “Have you seen my mommy?” she asked.  “I can’t find her anywhere.”

“No,” I answered, probably a bit too harshly for such a small child.  She couldn’t have been more than six years old.  Toning down my voice, I asked, “Who is your mommy?  Is she here in the hospital?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, peering up at me through tear-soaked eyes.

“You don’t know?” I asked with surprise, her remark confusing me, because how could she not know where her mother was?  The ward I was on wasn’t that large, so she couldn’t possibly be too far away.  But why wasn’t her mother in the hallway searching for her?  Surely, she must’ve realized that her child was missing!

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Amy,” she answered, wiping away a tear on the sleeve of her gown.

“Tell you what, Amy,” I said, offering her my hand.  “Why don’t I help you find your mommy?”

“Thank you,” she answered, placing her tiny, frail hand in mine.  Although I knew we were holding on to each other, her hand felt weightless and with no solidity to it at all, as though I were holding nothing more than a feather.

We began our walk down the hallway, but most of the doors were closed, and the ones that were open contained empty beds.  An elderly woman was making her way down the hall with the assistance of a walker, and beside her, an elderly man with his hands tucked inside his pockets, keeping a slow pace beside her.  They both smiled at me as they passed by.

“Let’s go try another hallway,” I told Amy.  “Maybe she’s down there.”

As we turned around to make our way in the opposite direction, still holding hands, I saw my nurse standing in the doorway to my room with her arms crossed, giving me a scornful look.  “Miss Olsen, what are you doing out of bed at this hour?” she asked, looking at me but totally ignoring Amy.

“I heard a little girl crying in the hallway,” I answered.  “I came out to see if she needed help with something.”

Nurse Simmons frowned, staring at me discontentedly.

“Didn’t you hear her?”

“Can’t say that I did,” she answered.  “There are no small children on this floor, Miss Olsen, and there hasn’t been for several years now.  At one time, this was the Pediatrics ward, but it moved upstairs about two years ago.”

So that’s why Amy was lost and confused!  She was on the wrong floor altogether.  All I needed to do was get Amy to the elevator and send her up one floor, back to the right ward and to her mother.  Problem solved.

“Come on, now,” Nurse Simmons said, placing an arm around my shoulder.  “Let’s get you back in bed,” she said, leading me away from Amy and towards my room.

Amy reluctantly let go of my hand as I was being led away, looked up at me and mouthed the words, “it’s okay.”

“What about her?” I asked.

“What about who?” Nurse Simmons asked, giving me her strange look again.

“Her!” I replied, turning back to face Amy.

Except that she was gone, seemingly vanishing into thin air.

“But, but…” I stammered.

“You probably had a bad dream,” Nurse Simmons offered.  “Would you like for me to call the doctor and get you something to help you sleep?”

“No,” I said, crawling back into bed and pulling the covers up snugly beneath my chin.  “I’ll get to sleep on my own.”

“Stay in bed, now.  We can’t have you roaming the hallways in the middle of the night.  If you need anything, use your bedside intercom,” she said as she turned out the lights and closed the door.

As I lay there in the dark, I couldn’t help but wonder if Nurse Simmons had been right about my experience being nothing more than a dream.  While I knew that it was completely possible, I didn’t really believe that because it had all been too real to be a delusion.  One thing was for certain, though.  Whatever it was had left me completely baffled, confused, and I’ll admit, somewhat frightened because I didn’t know how to explain what had happened to me in the hallway.

I knew that Amy was there because I saw her with my own two eyes, for heaven’s sake!  Not only had I seen her, but I had touched her.  Yet, Nurse Simmons saw nor heard anything.  How was that even possible when we were both standing right in front of her, hand in hand, at the exact same time?

I didn’t hear Amy calling out anymore that night, but I did hear my door open and the sound of soft footsteps crossing the floor.  I cracked open my eyes to see a different nurse standing beside my bed smiling down at me.  I figured that shifts had changed over, and she was the new nurse assigned to care for me.  She quietly checked the flow of the I.V. fluid that I was receiving, gently touched the lump on my forehead, grimacing as she did so, patted my arm and left the room.  Not giving it another thought, I fell back to sleep.

By the time Dr. Montgomery came in the next morning to check my status, and hopefully discharge me, mom had returned to the hospital, taking the day off from work so that she could take me home and spend the day with me to make sure I was going to be okay.

I could tell by his worried expression that something was bothering him.  And since he was reading my chart, I knew that whatever he was frowning about concerned me.

Instead of standing at my bedside to talk, he pulled up the extra chair that was in the room and sat down beside my bed with my file open on his lap.

“Would you like to tell me about what happened last night?” he asked.  “Or should I say, this morning at two thirty a.m.?”

Uh-oh,” I thought, swallowing hard.  “I’m in big trouble.”

“What do you mean?” I asked innocently, picking at a hang nail so that I wouldn’t have to look at him.

“According to the nurse’s report, she found you walking around in the hallway this morning.”

“Am I in trouble for that?” I asked, thinking that I was about to be handed my head on a silver platter by Dr. Handsome.

“No, you’re not in trouble,” he said.  “But I am concerned about what she wrote in her report.”

“What did she say?” I asked, looking over at mom, whose attention was focused on the doctor.

“I’ll read it to you,” he said, flipping over a page in the file.  “At two thirty a.m. while enroute to answer a call button, I discovered Miss Olsen walking in the hallway, going from door to door as though she was searching for someone.  Although Miss Olsen was alone, her arm and hand were poised in such a manner that she appeared to be holding someone’s hand, as well as conversing with them.  She reported hearing and seeing a girl child in the hallway and asked me if I had heard her, to which I replied no, and proceeded to explain to her that there were no children assigned to this ward.  I escorted Miss Olsen back to her room and put her to bed.  There were no further incidents.”

Dr. Montgomery closed the file and looked at me.  “This is extremely disconcerting to me, DeeDee,” he said, leaning forward in his chair.  “Especially considering the fact that you’ve suffered head trauma and a seizure.  I need to ask you some questions, and I can’t stress to you enough how important it is that you answer them truthfully.  Do you understand that?”

I nodded.

Mom had taken a stance next to my bed, anxious to hear what the doctor had to say.

“Is the nurse telling the truth about what happened?  Did you see or hear someone in the hallway?”

I didn’t know whether to tell him the truth or not because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me if I did.  If I told him about Amy, should I also tell him about the old lady with the walker, or the nurse that had come into my room that I hadn’t seen since?  Something told me not to lie, so I didn’t.

“Both,” I replied, relaying my encounter with Amy.

“Was that the only time you’ve seen her?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been seeing anything else strange?  Things that you can’t explain, or that don’t really make any logical sense to you?”

“No, only Amy.”  That was only a half-truth, not a lie.  “Maybe I was sleepwalking,” I offered.

“Is that what you really believe, DeeDee?  Are you prone to sleepwalking?”

“No,” I answered.  “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t this time.  Like you said, I suffered a serious head injury and maybe that’s why.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” Dr. Montgomery agreed with a nod.  “How about smells?  Any unusual scents that seem to appear out of nowhere and without a reason?”

“Just the one time in the emergency room,” I answered.

“What did you smell?”

“Burning sugar cane,” I said.

Dr. Montgomery studied me for a few seconds.  I wasn’t sure if he was trying to figure out if I was telling him the truth or deciding what he needed to do next.

“The good news is that the skull x-rays were normal, meaning that there are no fractures.  However, there is significant swelling and bruising, not only to the surface of your skin, but to the tissue beneath it as well.”

“Dr. Montgomery?” Mom interjected.  “Why did you ask her about strange smells?  What is the significance of that?” she wanted to know.

“There have been cases where patients who have suffered seizures have reported peculiar odors right before the onset of the convulsion.  Different patients report different scents,” he explained.  “Not everyone smells the same thing.”

“I see,” Mom said.  “Is that something we should be concerned with?”

“I don’t think so, not at this point.  Peculiar odors don’t always occur before a seizure.  In fact, most of the time a patient won’t even know they’re about to have one until it happens.  But since her x-rays were normal, I’m hoping that her seizure was a one-time thing, related to suffering such a serious head trauma.”

“Do I get to go home?” I asked, praying that he wouldn’t say no.

“Let’s talk about that for a second.”

My heart sank.  I didn’t even want to think about spending another night there.  I wanted my own bed, in my house, where I could rest and actually get some sleep without being awakened every five minutes.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said, looking first at me, then at mom.  “I don’t like the fact that you’re seeing things that aren’t there, DeeDee.  It could be something that’s only temporary because of your injury, or it could be something much more serious.  If that’s the case, then you will need further evaluation.  But here’s what we’re going to do for now,” he said, laying my chart on the bed and folding his arms.  “I’m going to let you go home,” he began.

I clapped my hands joyfully at those words.

“Not so fast, young lady,” he said with a serious look.  “There will be requirements and limitations for you to follow.”

“Okay,” I replied eagerly.  “Whatever you say.”

“First of all, absolutely no softball.  Actually, I don’t want you doing anything strenuous at all.  I want you to rest as much as possible.  If you continue to have these…” he said, waving his hand in the air.  “We’ll call them temporary hallucinations for now.  If they continue, you are to let your mother know immediately, then you are to contact me,” he concluded, looking at mom.  “This is not something that should be taken lightly, got it?”

“Got it,” I said.

“You get your things together while I go fill out your discharge papers.  Shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes or so.”

He didn’t have to tell me twice.  I was already changing my clothes by the time the door closed behind him.

True to his word, an orderly came in about twenty minutes later with a wheelchair.  “I hear someone’s ready to go home,” he said cheerfully.

“That would be me,” I said, taking a seat.  Mom picked up my things and walked out behind us.

Amy was leaned up against the wall on the opposite side of the hallway, clutching her doll and waving goodbye as I was leaving.

And she wasn’t alone.

The hall was filled with people I didn’t know, nor had I ever seen before, all of them either standing or walking around, talking over each other so loudly that I couldn’t make out a thing that any of them were saying.  The nearly deafening voices sounded like a roaring crowd cheering at a sporting event.

Some of them, I assumed, were patients because they were wearing hospital gowns.  But the others were dressed in normal clothes, probably visiting someone who was a patient.  The nurse that had come into my room the night before was standing just outside the nurses’ station with one arm propped up on top of the counter, smiling at me as I wheeled past.  There must have been at least fifty people there, but the hospital staff was completely oblivious to their presence.

Which meant that every single person that I could see was nothing more than a product of my own imagination, more hallucinations.  “Remember what Dr. Montgomery told you,” I kept telling myself.  “It’s from the injury.”

I wanted to plug my ears to quiet the dissonance of voices, but I was afraid if I did that, mom would stop the orderly right then and there and tell him to wheel me back to the emergency room instead of out the front door.

Instead, I closed my eyes so that I didn’t have to look and kept them closed until I heard the swishing of the automatic door opening and felt the warmth of the sun on my face.

When I opened my eyes to get into the car that was now parked at the front entrance, I came to the realization that seeing strange people hadn’t only been confined to the interior of the hospital.

I saw them everywhere.

In the parking lot, walking up and down the sidewalks of the hospital perimeter, sitting on benches drinking sodas and coffee from Styrofoam cups.  I truly didn’t know what to think of my condition, and to be totally honest, my mild fright from the night before had grown and developed into bona fide fear.

My mind started racing with thoughts, wondering if I would be plagued with these visions for the rest of my life, or if my illness truly was only temporary as Dr. Montgomery suspected. 

All I wanted was for them to stop and go away forever and never bother me again.

Then another thought struck me.  Should I tell mom about what I was seeing or let it go and hope that it was nothing to worry about?  Dr. Montgomery had made it perfectly clear how important it was to tell her if the visions persisted.

I decided not to say anything at the time, basing my decision on the fact that I’d only been released a few minutes earlier, and having more of them in that short span of time certainly didn’t qualify as persistent.

I did, however, promise myself that I would tell her if they didn’t go away, or if they got any worse.

One thought in particular kept resonating through my mind, a question really, and one that I didn’t have an answer to.

If what I was experiencing wasn’t visions or hallucinations or whatever other fancy word there was for it, then what was the real explanation for my sudden onset of phantasmagoria?

And exactly who were all these strange people around me, and why was I the only one that could see them?

Chapter 3 – Am I Hallucinating?

Within three weeks of going home from the hospital, and strictly following doctor’s orders, most of the swelling had subsided, but the green, blue, and black bruise was still visible, yet beginning to fade.  I didn’t worry too much about it because I knew it would be gone completely in time, and because vanity was never something I obsessed over.  Although the injury site itself didn’t hurt, it was somewhat sore to the touch, and the lump beneath my skin was still prominent.  Out of curiosity, I suppose, I couldn’t resist constantly touching it because it was so soft and squishy, like pushing on gelatin, and if I pressed on it just hard enough, my fingertip left an indentation in the skin which I found to be quite cool at the time.  But whenever my friends came to visit and wanted to touch my deformity to see what it felt like, I never allowed them to.  I think that decision was based on an unmerited fear that they’d press a little too hard and cause me to have another seizure, which in turn would put me back in the hospital and that was a trip I did not want to make.

None of my friends knew about my other problem because I had not told anyone.  Furthermore, I had no intentions of telling them.  The last thing in the world that I wanted was to drive away what few friends I had by making them think that I was cuckoo by letting them know that I could see people who didn’t exist to anyone other than myself.

Being home alone during the day did give me time to think, and I did a lot of that.  I replayed the day of the accident over and over in my mind, wondering how it could have even happened, why Johnny had suddenly decided to turn around and run back to third base instead of crossing home.  Numerous times I wondered if I could have prevented the accident by reacting sooner and moving out of his way?  And the answer was the same every time.  There was no way to prevent it because we were both running too fast to have been able to stop.  I’ve always been told that hindsight is 20/20, and although the accident did happen, and I suffered the consequences, I still couldn’t help but wonder about all these things.  I suppose it’s only human to ask why and I did a lot of that as well.

And why was I only seeing people in my so-called visions?  Why not other things like purple elephants, or polka-dotted trees, or little green men?  If what was happening to me truly was the result of my head trauma, then why were my hallucinations strictly limited to only seeing human beings?

Mom wasn’t aware that I was still experiencing visions because I hadn’t told her.  Nor did I tell her about the headaches that I was beginning to suffer on a daily basis.  They never lasted more than an hour before completely dissipating, and the pain was always present in the exact same place – in and above my left eye.  I dismissed any notion that they were related to anything other than my injury, and that they were likely being caused due to the healing process.  I saw no need in giving her a reason to worry over nothing when all of my symptoms would eventually heal in time. 

Another thing that I hadn’t told her about was the man I had begun seeing inside our home.  He was mostly present whenever mom was there, but I did see him a few times when she wasn’t.  He never said anything, never walked around, didn’t make any type of gesture.  He only stood in one spot or another, wearing his military uniform and looking as stiff as an ironing board.  In fact, he appeared to be nothing more than a cardboard cutout propped up against the wall.  I had no idea who he was, or more importantly, why he was in our house.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t freak out when I began to see people who weren’t really there.  The reason is simple.  Because they were people, and I’m not afraid of humans, and mainly because I knew it wouldn’t last forever.  However, if my visions had been of monsters from the movies I’d watched, or giant cockroaches or spiders, then I absolutely would have gone berserk, and probably would have never opened my eyes until I knew absolutely and without a doubt that I wouldn’t be seeing them any longer.

It was the second day of July and a little more than four weeks before my fifteenth birthday, and mom and I were sitting at the table eating dinner together.

“Do you have any plans for your birthday?” she asked.

“Not really,” I answered.  “Haven’t thought much about it.”

“Do you want to have a party?  Or don’t you feel like it yet?  If not, then perhaps you can invite a couple of your friends over to spend the night.”

Picking at the food on my plate because my appetite hadn’t returned to normal yet, I shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Can I think about it for a while?”

“Of course,” she said.  “It’s your birthday so the decision is yours.”

The uniformed man had returned and was standing on mom’s right side.  I glanced up at him to see him smiling for the first time, so I smiled back.

“DeeDee?” Mom asked, noticing my distraction.  “Are you okay?”

“Yes, why?”

“Are you seeing someone right now?” she asked, putting her fork down onto her plate.

Should I tell her the truth and risk getting swept up immediately and taken back to the hospital?  I didn’t want that, so I decided to play it off and pretend that nothing was happening.

“Can I ask you something, mom?”  I asked, taking another peek at the military man, who was now laughing and making funny faces.  I tried so hard not to laugh, but I simply couldn’t help myself.  The guy was being hilarious.

When I looked back at mom, she was giving me one of her strange looks, the one that says, “straighten up!”  Clearing my throat, I asked, “Do you know anybody that’s in the Army?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head after thinking about it for a few seconds.

“How about any other branch of the military?”

“Why are you asking me that?” she said, getting up from the table and taking her plate to the kitchen.  It was obvious that she was upset, but I didn’t know why.

When I returned my attention to the military man, his bottom lip was stuck out in a pouting gesture.  He then placed his right hand over his heart and patted it.

What was he trying to tell me?  To stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance?  That his heart was hurting?  Never having been good at charades, I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say.

“Are you seeing him right now?” mom asked quietly, turning to face me as she leaned against the sink.

“Yes,” I said, nodding.  I couldn’t lie to her, not anymore.

She returned to the table and sat back down, folding her arms across the Formica top.  “Tell me what you see,” she said.  “Describe him to me.”

So, I did.  “He’s wearing a military uniform.  I think it’s called camouflage.”  Military man was nodding, his way of saying that I was right.  “He’s kind of tall, maybe about six feet, dark hair and eyes, good-looking.”  Now his lips were pursed as he made a rocking “so-so” motion with his hand.  “He keeps touching his heart, but I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.”

Mom covered her mouth with both hands as tears streamed down her face.  “Oh, my God in Heaven,” was all she could manage to say.

“Do you know him, mom?” I asked.

Doing her best to speak without sobbing, she said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I think I do.”  She paused for a moment, dabbing at her eyes with the paper towel that she held in her hand.  “You just described your father.”

My father?!  But he’s…

Have you ever seen one of those cartoons that shows a lightbulb above someone’s head when they’ve suddenly gotten a bright idea?  I imagine that might be how I looked at that very moment.  Add in the wide eyes and gaping mouth and I probably did appear to be a cartoon character!

You see, my father died before I was born, so I never got a chance to know him, and had only seen him a few times in old photos that mom kept, so it was no surprise that I didn’t recognize him.  Now that I knew who he was, I understood what he was trying to express to me by tapping his heart.  He was telling me that he loved us.

With what I can only describe as feelings of shock and awareness, another thought abruptly occurred to me, and it was something that I would have never imagined in a million years.

If this man standing at our table was indeed my deceased daddy, and I could see him as clearly as I was seeing mom, did that mean that I wasn’t having visions or hallucinations afterall?  But instead, there was something much, much more different going on?

Now it was my turn to say, “Oh My God!”

I didn’t want to admit it because I knew that the thoughts running through my mind at that moment were ludicrous and so bizarre that to say it was true would be the equivalent of signing my admittance papers for a long-term stay in the nuthouse!

Whether I wanted to believe or accept it, I knew what I was experiencing.  I may have been young, but I was neither stupid nor immature.

The people that I had been seeing since my hospital stay were all ghosts!

Amy, the nurse in my room, the old couple in the hallway, the hordes of people outside the hospital.  They all had something in common – they were all dead.

No!” I screamed in my head.  “That’s impossible because there’s no such thing as ghosts!  I don’t believe in them so why would I be seeing them?”

Yet, there stood my dad, the man who had been killed while fighting in the Viet Nam war.  There simply wasn’t any other explanation.  And it would most certainly explain why no one else saw the other doctor standing beside Dr. Montgomery or any of the other people I’d seen, and why I only saw humans and not inanimate objects.  To say I was confused is putting it lightly.  How do you explain something like that to anyone, much less a doctor, someone who bases their beliefs on science and medicine and not the paranormal?  The mere thought of that word flashing through my mind was enough to convince me that I possessed a secret that could never be told to anyone without an extremely good reason, and even then, revealing it would be questionable.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t the least bit scared, maybe because it was my daddy and I knew he meant us no harm, so there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.  Plus, I thought it was really neat to actually see him in the flesh, so to speak, instead of looking at old photographs.  Never before had I been blessed with that opportunity.

I nearly jumped out of my chair when he suddenly spoke because it startled me so badly and I wasn’t expecting it.  “Tell your mom I’m okay and that I love her.  I love you, too, DeeDee.”  I clearly heard him say those words, yet his mouth never moved.  Strange.  “Tell her I said to remember Paris.”  He then saluted and was gone.  I never saw him again after that night.

“What is it, DeeDee?” Mom asked.  “Why did you jump like that?”

“Because he scared me when he talked,” I said.  “He has a very deep voice.”

“What did he say?”  I couldn’t believe that mom was taking this so casually.  I had been afraid to tell her anything because I didn’t want to find myself locked away in a rubber room, but there she was, wanting to know what her long dead husband had to say.

When I delivered his message to her, she smiled and wiped away her tears.

“What did he mean about Paris?” I asked.

“Maybe one day I’ll tell you.  But for now, let me hold that memory in my heart, okay?”

“Okay,” I nodded.

We made a trip to the grocery store the next day to buy food for our Fourth of July indoor barbecue, something we did every year.  I called it an inside barbecue because that’s exactly what it was.  We didn’t own a grill, so mom cooked barbecued hamburgers on the stovetop, and we ate inside.  Which was fine by me, because eating outside meant a battle royal with the flies and having to constantly swat at them to keep them off the food.

After dinner, we’d always sit on the front porch and watch the fireworks being launched from the Pahokee Marina, which was less than a mile away.  It wasn’t the best view, but it definitely beat having to battle our way through a crowd to get a lakeside seat.

Our trip to the store was the first time that I’d been out and about since being released and I was eager to go, if for no other reason than to feel the sunshine on my skin.

The market was full of shoppers filling up their buggies, purchasing their cookout items as we were.  I recognized some of the people from around town, but there were many others that I’d never seen before.

To prevent embarrassing mom or myself, I didn’t speak to anyone because I could not distinguish between who was real and who was not, and I surely didn’t want anyone to stop and stare at me while I conversed with thin air.

When Independence Day arrived, we enjoyed our hamburgers and potato salad, my appetite improving daily, and we both oohed and aahed at the colorful display of fireworks while we swatted away swarms of mosquitoes.

When the show ended, we gathered up our folding lawn chairs and went inside. We were both tired from the day’s events and neither one of us felt like watching television, so we went to bed.  It didn’t take me long to fall asleep listening to the constant whirring of my electric fan.

Around two a.m., a loud BOOM! awakened me.  I sprang up in bed, disoriented and thinking that the sound had come from neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers, but then I heard it again, only that time, it sounded like it was coming from inside my room.  Blasts kept firing, one after the other, filling the air around me with the smell of sulphur and gunpowder.  I was on the verge of sheer panic, terrified that the strange smells meant that I was on the verge of another seizure.  I covered my ears trying to block out the sound, but it didn’t do any good.  If I hadn’t of known better, I would have sworn that I had stepped into the middle of a battlefield.

Then I saw him, standing in the corner next to my closet with his back to me.  Every time a blast would ring out, he ducked as though dodging incoming bullets, or cannonballs.  When he finally did turn to face me, I felt my heart flutter, then it began pounding rapidly, keeping time with the never-ending rounds of ammunition being fired off.  I stared in horror, not believing what I was seeing.

He was a soldier, dressed in camouflage like my dad, but his were blue and white instead of the green that my dad had worn.  His last name was embroidered over the right pocket of his shirt – Cunningham.  I had never seen him nor heard his name before.  He was young, maybe twenty or so.  But it wasn’t his name, his uniform or even the constant sound of gunnery that made me scream.

As I watched in terror, he opened his mouth to speak, but never got the chance to say a word because he was struck in the side of the face by a bullet, ripping his left cheek to shreds, exposing the bone, teeth, and tissue beneath the fatal wound.

The scene unfolded before my eyes in a permanent loop, playing and replaying his death over and over again.

Paralysis froze me to my bed, incapacitating me.  I had never been so frightened in all my life.

Mom ran into my room when she heard me screaming, flipping on the light as she entered.  I was covering my face with my hands, crying, and shaking uncontrollably.  When I felt her sit down on the bed, I grabbed onto her as tightly as I could and sobbed into her shoulder.

“It was awful, Momma,” I cried.  “He was so horrible to look at.”

She sat on the side of my bed, consoling and hugging me.  When I finally did calm down and stopped weeping, Mom said, “It’s time to see Dr. Montgomery.”  I nodded because I knew she was right, and I couldn’t bear the thought of ever seeing another image like that one.

“Seeing your dad is one thing, DeeDee,” she said.  “But when you see something that scares you this badly, it’s time to get some help.”

That night, I did something that I hadn’t done since I was a small child.

I crawled into my momma’s bed and that’s where I stayed for the rest of the night.

Like what you’ve read so far and interested in reading the rest of the book? Purchases can be made at the below links.

E-Book Version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BBZL4TR

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1077743181

gnp

Animus (Free Sample Chapters)

Like all readers, I also prefer reading more than just a blurb on a dust jacket before deciding if it’s a book I want to buy and finish reading. Therefore, I will be offering free sample chapters for all 6 of my novels, with a shortcut to the link in the event you would like to purchase it. Animus is available in E-Book format and paperback. Comments and feedback are always welcome. In fact, I encourage it!!!! Hope you enjoy these few chapters!!!

PROLOGUE

Friday, October 11th – 9:15 a.m. – Kendall Funeral Home

Patrice Cavanaugh pulled her dark blue four-door sedan into the parking lot of Kendall Funeral Home and selected an empty slot with “VISITORS” painted in black block letters on the curbstone, parallel to the front entrance.  She was tired and weary, perhaps even a little sad, but not grievous.  Her eyes ached from lack of sleep, a luxury she’d been denied since leaving the hospital earlier that morning.  With the car still idling, she adjusted the air conditioner vent so that the cold air blew directly in her face, attempting to fight off the nausea that had suddenly swept over her, lying as heavy as a boulder inside her chest.  Just when she was certain that she would pass out, the sick feeling began to subside, leaving her feeling weak and sweaty.  Leaning back against the headrest, she exhaled a puff of breath as she stared at the front door of the building, dreading what lay ahead of her.  “God, I hate funeral homes,” she said.

Gabby, her older sister, sat beside her in the front passenger seat, staring blankly through the windshield.  “I know,” she said softly.  “So do I, and we both have a good reason for that.”

Patrice glanced over at Gabby.  “Thank you for coming with me,” she said.  “I know you didn’t want to, and you really didn’t have to, but I sure do appreciate you being here.  It means a lot to me, especially considering your feelings towards Brad.”  Patrice knew how much Gabby disliked him.  Hated him was probably a better way of putting it.  And she wasn’t alone in those feelings.  Everyone who knew Bradley Cavanaugh hated him, including herself.

“You’re welcome,” Gabby responded, squeezing her sister’s hand.  “Come on, let’s go inside and get this over with,” she said, opening her door and getting out.

They walked the short distance on the sidewalk, pausing momentarily beneath a green and white striped awning that overhung the front entrance, its scalloped edges flapping softly in the light fall breeze.  “You okay?” Gabby asked.

Patrice nodded.  “Yes,” she answered, pulling open the front door, bells chiming above them as they stepped into the lobby.

The waiting area of the funeral home looked like a pine tree had suffered a horrible upset stomach and vomited, leaving in its wake a blanket of multi-colored greens.  Forest green carpet, matching lime green sofa and chairs with tiny pink rose accents, grass green throw pillows with yellow fringe – everything around her was green!  Patrice supposed the colors were meant to be cheerful for this otherwise sad environment, something to help the grieving cope with their losses and soften the hard blow of dealing with the reality of death.  But she found the variety of colors more than overwhelming, and frankly, quite sickening.  Almost as putrid as the smell of gardenia scented room-spray that permeated the entire lobby.  Paintings of serene settings decorated the two lobby walls.  In one, a lakefront with calm, still waters and a fisherman casting his rod from a canoe; a country cabin with a dirt path and quaint white cottage in the other.  Both were autographed by artists she had never heard of.  In the corner next to the front entrance stood an upright metal bookrack filled with flyers and pamphlets offering self-help advice on how to deal with grief.  Various magazines and newspapers were scattered across the glass-top coffee table that was placed in front of the sofa.  Organ music played softly from overhead speakers, reminding her of old Miss Petty, the church organist from her childhood, whose long pencil-like fingers plucked away at the keys while she rocked back and forth to the sounds coming out of the pipe organs.  “For crying out loud, turn off that funereal dirge and put on some good old rock and roll!” Patrice thought, feeling a bit guilty for having such thoughts while standing in her current environment.  Even so, she had to stifle a giggle at the thought of hard rock blasting from the sound system inside of a funeral home.

“May I help you?” asked the elderly lady at the reception desk, whose short hair was a light shade of purple that could only be obtained from using too much color rinse.  Her cat-eye shaped glasses sat perched on the end of her beaked nose and she looked over them when she spoke.

“Yes, I have an appointment with Mr. Kendall.”

“Your name, please?”

“Patrice Cavanaugh.”

The receptionist, (whose name she later learned was Gladys), picked up the phone and punched in an extension number.  “Patrice Cavanaugh is here for her appointment.”  She paused, listening to the voice on the other end of the phone.  “Yes, sir,” she said, hanging up the phone.  To Patrice, she said, “I’ll show you back.”

Patrice and Gabby were led down a short hallway that contained three doors, two on the right and one on the left, which had a restroom sign over the top of the door.  A faint odor of formaldehyde filled the hallway, causing Patrice to shudder.  For a moment, she wished she were back in the lobby smelling gardenias.  She was more than familiar with the process of embalming and what it entailed.  Not that she had ever performed or witnessed one personally, because she knew she could never do that, but because it had been explained to her and Gabby, at their request, by the funeral director who had handled the arrangements for their parents.  There really was no need for the procedure to be described to them, other than the fact that they wanted to know exactly what their mom and dad would be subjected to.  It was a decision they had both come to regret, because once it is described in detail, it created mental images that would forever haunt them both.

At the end of the hall were double wooden doors with silver thresholds on the bottom and matching silver push bars with an “Authorized Personnel Only” sign posted on the left doorway.  “I can only imagine what’s beyond there,” Patrice thought.  “Is that where Brad is?” she wondered.  “Lying on a cold morgue table waiting to be dressed and put into his coffin?  Good!  I hope you freeze your ass off in there!”

Gladys led them to the last door on the right, stopping just outside the office.  “Here we are,” she said, smiling and motioning Patrice and Gabby into the office.  Patrice thanked her and stepped through the door, where she was immediately greeted by a munchkin of a man who was as big around as he was tall.  She half expected him to start dancing and break into a chorus of the lollipop guild, but instead, he extended his pudgy hand with its sausage looking fingers and introduced himself.  “Mrs. Cavanaugh, I’m Miles Kendall,” he said smiling, revealing tiny, doll-sized teeth.  “Please allow me to extend my deepest condolences for your loss.”

“Thank you,” she answered softly.  “Mr. Kendall, this is my sister, Gabby.  She’s assisting me in making Brad’s arrangements.  I hope it’s okay that she came with me.”

“Of course, of course,” he beamed.  “It’s always nice to have someone to lean on, especially at a time such as this.”

He shook Gabby’s hand as well, and then motioned for them to sit in the two brown leather chairs across from his desk.  Gabby grimaced at his sweaty touch, wiping her hand on her jeans before sitting down, wondering if he had noticed her reaction.  If so, he showed no indications of it.  Instead, he began his spiel with Patrice about finalizing funeral arrangements.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh…” Miles started.

“Please call me Patrice,” she insisted.  She felt no need to tell him the reason why.  Frankly, it was none of his business.

“Very well.  Patrice it is then,” he said, shuffling through some papers on his desktop.  “Have you given any thought as to what type of service you’d like for your husband?  I have several plans that I can go over with you,” he said, opening a black notebook, its pages separated by colored tabs.  “Is there to be a memorial service or a funeral only?”

“Neither,” Patrice quickly responded, causing Miles to raise an inquisitive eyebrow.  “Something simple and inexpensive will do fine.”

Miles remained silent, glancing back and forth between the two women, completely perplexed by her statement.

“What my sister means to say, Mr. Kendall,” Gabby offered, as though reading his thoughts, “is that she and Brad discussed this type of situation in the past, as I’m sure most married couples do, and both decided on what each would want in the event of the other’s death.  Brad made it perfectly clear to Patrice that he did not want a funeral.” You can put him in a cardboard box and toss him in the ocean as shark bait for all I care! she thought.  Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say!  “He didn’t want anything fancy, expensive or extravagant.  He told Patrice that he didn’t want all that attention lavished upon him or people coming to gawk at him while he lay in his casket.  He was extremely adamant about it.  So,” she said, turning to Patrice.  “My sister doesn’t need to go into debt to pay for something that Brad didn’t want anyway.  I’m sure you can understand that.”

Miles appeared to be disappointed by her remarks.  She wasn’t sure if it were because of all the money he wouldn’t be making, or because Patrice’s request was such a strange one to him.  Whatever the reason, his displeasure was evident by the scowl that had replaced his smile.

Patrice reached into her purse, took out an envelope and handed it to Miles.  “His life insurance policy,” she told him.  “The face value is ten thousand dollars.  That should be enough to take care of everything.  He already has a pre-paid tomb at Greenview Cemetery, so there shouldn’t be a cost for burial.  If there’s any money left over after expenses, you can send me a check.”

Miles stared at her momentarily, said nothing, and then opened the envelope and removed the policy.  Quickly scanning over it, he said, “Yes, I’m sure this will be enough.  But shouldn’t we at least discuss the type of coffin you’d like for your husband?  I can take you to the showroom and show you…”

“No, no,” Patrice said hastily.  “I’ll trust you to make that decision, based on everything Gabby has told you.  Again, nothing overly expensive.”

Miles wasn’t sure how to respond to this request.  Most people he dealt with wanted the best for their loved one’s final farewell, but hers was quite strange, and more than a little unnerving.  He had been in the mortuary business for more than twenty years and had never been asked to do such a thing.  Family members generally took pride in choosing the right casket for their dearly departed – the right service, the proper music, everything.  Obviously, Patrice Cavanaugh wasn’t like most people.  She seemed to be a mousy, timid woman, and fragile, as though she might shatter into a million tiny pieces at the slightest of touches.  “Yes, I suppose I can take care of that as well,” was all he could think to say.

“And Mr. Kendall,” Patrice continued.  “I’m not sure whether the hospital staff told you when they released Brad to you, but I want to make it perfectly clear that he is not to be embalmed.”

“But, Mrs. Cavanaugh,” he protested.  “That’s simply not…”

Patrice held up a hand, cutting him off.  “I know it’s probably unorthodox compared to your previous clients, but it’s his request, Mr. Kendall, not mine.  All I’m doing is honoring his final wishes, which is exactly what I would’ve wanted him to do if the tables were turned.”  She supposed she could have lied and made the request sound more viable by telling him that it was for religious purposes, but she feared that God himself would strike her down with a powerful bolt of lightning for telling such an extravagant falsehood because Brad had never stepped foot inside of a church in his entire life.  She knew as she spoke the words to Mr. Kendall how strange they sounded, but Brad had made her promise on more than one occasion that she would not allow him to be embalmed upon his death because he was terrified at the thought of having sharp probes punching holes in his body to drain him of his blood, although she had assured him that he wouldn’t feel a thing.  Yet he was adamant about it, and she had kept her word like any good wife would.

“I see,” he said, nodding.  But he really didn’t. This lady is nuttier than a fruitcake!  What kind of a person doesn’t want their loved ones to be embalmed?

“Is there a problem, Mr. Kendall?” Patrice asked.  “You seem somewhat unsure of my request.”

Miles stared fixedly at her, his mouth agape.  “It’s just…” he began, but Patrice cut him off before he could go any further.

“I can take my business elsewhere if there is.”

“No, Mrs. Cavanaugh.  That won’t be necessary.  I’ll honor your husband’s wishes.”

“Good,” Patrice stated.  “Then that’s settled.”

“Yes,” Miles stammered.  “I suppose it is.”

“I brought clothes for him,” she said, placing a brown paper bag on top of his desk.  “I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate being buried in bloody clothes.”

Miles stared thoughtfully at the bag.  Did this woman care so little about her husband that she couldn’t even take the time to put his burial clothes on a hanger?  A bag was all he was worth to her?  He didn’t want to think about it anymore.  All he wanted was to finish his business with this cold-hearted woman and get her out of his establishment.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh,” he began, refusing to call her by her first name any longer.  “I’m sure you understand that if there is to be no embalming, Mr. Cavanaugh will need to be laid to rest right away, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to explain.”

“I understand,” she replied.

Miles rose from his seat and picked up the bag with Brad’s clothes in it.  “Would you like to see him so that you can say your last goodbye?”

“No!” she snapped, realizing that she had probably stunned him with her sudden and abrupt answer.  “What I mean is, I saw him this morning at the hospital, and that vision was enough to last me a lifetime.  I said goodbye to him then.”

“Very well,” he huffed.  “I assure you that I will handle everything accordingly and in agreement with your wishes, and with Mr. Cavanaugh’s wishes as well.”

“I appreciate that,” Patrice said.

“Thank you,” Gabby added.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Patrice said, reaching into the left front pocket of her black Capri pants.  “Can you please put this in his hand and bury it with him?” she asked, placing a bronze coin into his palm.  “It’s a token of good will to guide him on his journey into the afterlife,” she explained.  Or Hell, which I guarantee you is where he’s going!

Miles took the coin and cupped it in his hand.  “Yes, of course, Mrs. Cavanaugh.  I’ll see that it’s entombed with him.”

At the doorway of his office, Gabby turned to Miles and said, “Mr. Kendall, I’m sure Patrice’s requests and behavior might seem somewhat strange to you, but they’re really not.  Everything she has requested is exactly what Brad wanted.  Nothing more, nothing less.”  Pausing for a moment, she then continued.  “My sister is having a really hard time right now trying to deal with his sudden death, then having to make all these spur-of-the-moment decisions.  She’s extremely stressed, so please forgive her for any improprieties.”  If you only knew about all the bruises he gave her, every bone he’s broken, every bloody nose – then you’d understand.  Because if you did know all these things, you’d probably want to dump him in the ocean yourself!

“I understand, Gabby,” he said as he ushered her away from the door and into the hallway, where Patrice stood patiently waiting for her.

But that was a lie, because he really didn’t understand any of it at all.

Present Day

Chapter 1

The Mistress was ready for this.  Hell, she was more than ready.  Afterall, she had spent the past year planning and preparing for this most wonderful moment to arrive.  It would be something spectacular, a kind of coming out occasion for her, and she had planned every step meticulously.  It would be something to see, alright.  It was just too bad that she and Bradley Cavanaugh would be the only two people that would know about it.

She was both nervous and excited; somewhat worried, yet not afraid at all.  The thought of going through with what she had planned for that piece of shit was a level of courage she would have never in a million years thought she had.  Butterflies danced in her stomach, flitting and fluttering in spasmodic arcs, their tiny wings tickling her insides and sending a thrilling chill up her spine.  The feelings she had could only be described as ecstatic and tingly, like she felt sometimes when she’d indulged in too much chocolate, or how a teenage girl might feel when that special boy she has a major crush on finally asks her out on a date.  It was totally arousing, a complete rush of adrenaline, akin to the same feeling as plunging down that first drop on a roller coaster!

She giggled delightfully, clapping her hands together, pleased with herself for concocting such an extravagant plan without anyone knowing about it, because if anyone did find out, they’d surely render her completely insane and would most likely lock her up and throw away the key – and she would never go back to that place again!  No siree, Bob!

What she couldn’t deny was the fact that there had been moments when she’d been a little apprehensive about moving forward with her strategy.  However, when she focused on all the hurt, anger, frustration, betrayal, and pure hatred she’d carried inside of her for years, those feelings of uncertainty had quickly dissipated, and in their place was born a gut-wrenching desire for revenge against a man that she absolutely and totally loathed.

To be honest with herself, she wasn’t entirely sure that this was going to work.  She had never tried it on a human before.  But she had performed the exact same ritual on a cat and had been successful – well, sort of.

The little gray ball of fur had come into her possession courtesy of the local animal shelter adoption program.  He was a cute little thing, too, friendly, and affectionate, eyes the color of topaz.  If he hadn’t been meant to fulfill a higher purpose, she may have considered keeping him as a pet.  She did let it enjoy three days of freedom before sacrificing it, though, which she thought was nice of her, since he could possibly have lived out the rest of his life trapped in a cage.  And when the time had come for her to say goodbye to Mr. Kitty, she’d shown him mercy by making his death quick and painless.  She recalled being mesmerized by the tiny bubbles that had erupted from his nose and mouth as she’d held him under water and had even felt a little sad as she watched the life drain from his tiny body, his bright, golden eyes going dim.

Running her hand down his limp body, she had squeezed the excess water from his fur, and then had lain him out on the ritual cloth, preparing him for resurrection.

It took less than an hour for his rebirth.  At first, he seemed dazed, as though he had just awakened from a catnap.  But then he became violent, hissing and snarling at her; not the same sweet kitten she had drowned in the bathtub.  When he had lunged at her, ready to attack with claws and teeth, she realized she couldn’t allow him to live, and had put him down with one stab from her ritual dagger.  She saw no need to bury him; so, she wrapped his tiny body in an old towel, tied them both up inside of a plastic garbage bag, and put the bundle outside in the trashcan for the sanitation workers to pick up.

At the time she had performed the resurrection spell on the cat, she had no idea that she’d need to perform it again in the future.  She had only done it then to see if she could, to grow in her experience and enhance her craft.

But all of that was about to change.

More than a year ago, she had made up her mind that she was going to kill Bradley Cavanaugh and had everything planned out perfectly – how she would do it, where she would do it, how she would dispose of his body, all in a way that no one would ever suspect it was she who was guilty of the crime.  If any questions ever did arise about his whereabouts, the authorities would simply think that he had up and left without telling anyone.  That’s what liars, abusers and cheaters always did, right?  Walk out of a relationship without giving explanations why or screw every woman that said yes to their advances, always on the prowl, searching around for their next unsuspecting victim, wooing them, and showering them with gifts until he caught them in his web of deceit.  All her life she had known men just like him, and they were always the same – users and losers.

But just as she was ready to make her move on him by kidnapping him at gunpoint and taking him to her cabin, the stupid son of a bitch went and got himself killed in a car accident!  The nerve of him!  Who did he think he was to spoil her fun like that?  He wasn’t going to because she wasn’t going to let him.

Discarding her original plans because she couldn’t kill a man who’s already dead, she was forced to think of another way to fulfill her desire to annihilate him and make him suffer as much as he had made her suffer, and she had to think, and move, fast.

Coming up with a replacement plan hadn’t taken long.  She figured out the perfect solution and it was one that no one would ever figure out, because to know it and believe it would be admitting that the dead really can come back to life, and that wasn’t something too many people would be willing to agree on.

She already had everything she needed for the spell, having collected potions, herbal ingredients, and even bones and other body parts, over the years to stay in practice, and up-to-date, as a self-proclaimed witch.  Perhaps she could kill a dead man, afterall. It truly was a brilliant plan.

Raising her glass of Merlot towards the ceiling, she said, “Let the games begin.”

* * * * *

“Come on, Riley,” Frank Rowan said to his Labrador.  “Let’s go make our final rounds before we lock up the joint for the night.”

Grabbing his key ring from its hook on the kitchen wall, he headed towards the front door of his one-bedroom bungalow that he shared with his dog.  It was only six hundred square feet, but hey, it was home and they lived there rent-free.  It was just one of the perks that came with the job.  Landing the position wasn’t much of a competition, either.  It wasn’t like applicants were knocking down the door to apply!  Nope, this job wasn’t for the squeamish or faint-hearted, and most certainly not for someone who scared easily, because not just anyone could be a groundskeeper at a cemetery!  Frank had no qualms about taking the job.  How hard could it possibly be to walk around and check on gravesites, keep the grounds clean, and make sure no one accidentally got locked in after closing?  It did take guts and nerves of steel to walk through a graveyard at night, especially when there was no moon and it was dark AND quiet.  He understood why some people might be scared, especially if they let their imaginations run wild.  If they did that, they probably would see a ghost or two, or imagine that the hundreds of towering, looming tombstones bathed in silver moonlight may just be stone soldiers, erect and ready to do battle.

Standing six feet, five inches and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds, Frank Rowan did not scare easily, nor was he scared of much…except for spiders.  Those eight-legged freaks gave him the willies, especially the gargantuan ones, with their long prickly legs and gazillion eyes staring back at him.  Geez, how he hated those things!  Most people were intimidated by his size and tended to steer clear of him.  He had overheard some of the whispers from town residents and the names they called him – Digger, Weirdo, the tall dude, to name a few.  He had even heard the occasional “wow, you’re a tall drink of water,” when someone did take the time to speak to him. Frank had never responded or reacted to the name-calling, giving only a slight nod as he passed them by.  He never could understand why they called him Digger though, for he certainly didn’t dig graves.  And even if he did, didn’t the bozos know they had machines for that now?  Truthfully, he had no clue why they called him names at all, since no one really knew him.  He had only been in this town for the past year and had taken the groundskeeper job at Greenview Cemetery just a few short weeks after arriving.  He figured it was exactly what he needed after suffering through, and unfortunately surviving, his worst nightmare.  Horrible and tragic losses that he neither liked to think or talk about.  A quiet and secluded place seemed like the perfect medicine for a broken man.  Somewhere away from everyone and everything, where no one would bother him.  He figured it was easier for the townsfolk to gossip about him and believe what they wanted to believe rather than to know the truth about the man he was.  A small town had been exactly what he was looking for when he found Peach City.  Located about fifty miles north of the Florida state line, it seemed quiet and peaceful enough to settle down in, so he had.  From the few minor interactions he’d had with the townspeople, it appeared as though everybody knew each other and always addressed each other by their first names.  But no one ever bothered him or called him by his real name.  That was precisely the way he liked it.

Frank didn’t believe in ghosts, either.  He’d certainly never seen one.  And if there were such a thing, wasn’t he in the perfect place to see them?  He thought so.  He had always believed that when you’re dead, you’re dead, plain, and simple.  No Heaven, no Hell, no Purgatory, and certainly no lingering spirits that had a problem moving on to their next realm because they had unfinished business on earth.  He would admit, however, that on a couple of occasions, he had gotten somewhat spooked.  Like the time he had been making his nightly rounds and heard what he thought was someone whispering.  But since the entrance to the cemetery closed at ten P.M. and cars had no other way in except through the front gate, he knew that he was alone, except for Riley, who stood loyally by his side (and Riley couldn’t talk, much less whisper), so he concluded that it was the wind blowing through the leaves.  However, as he arrived at that rationalization, he got scared so badly that he had nearly peed his pants!  The bushes directly in front of him began shaking and rustling, and from inside the bush came a low, deep growl.  Approaching the shrub slowly and carefully, he squatted and shined his flashlight through the gap between the branches, only to see two glowing silver orbs staring back at him.  He half expected a ferocious mountain lion or a rabid raccoon to jump out of the bushes and maul him to death!  That thought had caused a ripple of fear to crawl through his belly, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight on end.  His attempt to get to his feet, along with a sudden emergence from the bush happening simultaneously, Frank lost his balance and fell backwards onto his rear end.  It didn’t take him long to realize that he wasn’t being attacked by a mountain lion or a raccoon, but by a wild, feral cat.  It lunged straight onto his chest, burying its claws into his skin, hissing and growling, breathing its rotten, foul breath directly into Frank’s face.  The smell had been overwhelming and suffocating, nearly making him puke.  Grabbing the cat tightly by the nape of its neck, he yanked it from him, feeling his skin rip as the cat’s razor-sharp claws tore loose, taking out chunks of his flesh.  He quickly got to his feet, gasping for breath, his heart pounding, and hoping with all his might that the cat wouldn’t pounce on him again. It hadn’t.  Instead, it hissed at him, let out a guttural growl, and then took off running for its life into the woods, back to its filthy way of life and smorgasbords of decaying animal carcasses.

The puncture wounds in his chest had stung and burned like fire.  He had known he was bleeding because he could feel the wetness soaking through his shirt.  Picking up his flashlight, he turned to Riley and said, “Thanks for the help, pal.”

He could laugh about it now, especially when he thought about how he must have looked – a mountain of a man on the ground wrestling with a small, defenseless cat; however, it had certainly delivered some nasty injuries, and it wasn’t funny when he’d had to nurse all his wounds…including a slightly bruised ego.

Opening the door, he turned to Riley, who remained on the couch, glancing back and forth from Frank to the door.  “You coming or not?”

Riley licked his chops and answered with a whimper.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” Frank asked.  “You scared?”

Riley whimpered again, glanced momentarily at the front door, and then laid his head back down on his paws.

“You’re not going to make me go out there by myself, are you?” Frank asked as he knelt beside the couch.  Scratching the dog behind the ear, he said, “I don’t blame you, boy.  I don’t care for it much myself, but I must do it to make sure everything’s secure.  Come on.  I promise it’ll be over with before you know it.”

Without lifting his head, Riley cast a furtive glance at Frank, and then toward the front door.  Reluctantly, he left the safety of the warm couch and walked slowly toward the door, his tail tucked firmly between his legs.

“What gives?” Frank thought.  “Why the sudden strange behavior?”

* * * * *

The anticipation was killing her.  She hated waiting!  She was antsy and restless, eager to move forward, but she had to wait because the time to act had not yet arrived.  Patience was NOT one of her virtues and waiting for anything was a huge pain in her ass!  She felt like a kid standing outside of a penny candy store with a whole dollar to spend on anything she wanted but having to wait for the doors to open for business!

Looking at the clock for what seemed like the thousandth time, she saw that she still had a little more than an hour left before her ceremony would commence.  Downing the last of the red wine in her glass, she glanced over all the ingredients laid before her, naming off each one, conducting yet another inventory to make sure she had everything she would need.  She did.  There was a black candle for power; a picture of Brad for spiritual identification; gold dust to summon the dead; and Azan flowers for the actual resurrecting of his dead body.  Her own blood would be the final addition to complete the spell and seal her power over him.  She was satisfied.  Glancing at the clock once more, she discovered that only minutes had passed since she had last looked, although it seemed like it had been hours.   Mentally, she screamed “UGHHHHH!” at the top of her lungs, but aloud, she whispered, ““Patience, my dear, patience.”

As she waited, she reminded herself why she hated Brad so much, and to be honest, the reasons were endless.  It hadn’t always been that way, though.  There had been a time when she had cared a great deal for him.  When she had enjoyed being around him and hearing his laughter or hearing him tell his dull and corny jokes.  But her feelings had quickly changed when she had learned the truth about him.  About what kind of a man he really was, and the façade he had hidden behind all that time.  And learning what she had learned about him had not been an easy thing to accept.  She was heartbroken to learn of the things she had been told, to see the things she had witnessed herself.  To hold someone on such a high pedestal as she had him, only to have him fall from grace, so to speak, was a real gut-punch!  She believed that she had gone through the seven stages of grief, beginning with denial and disbelief, and ending with absolute, unadulterated hatred.

He was a strikingly handsome man, no doubt.  Tall, with wavy black hair and sea green eyes, he had been the envy of many men in town because of his good looks.  But the women loved and lusted after him.  The problem was, he loved and lusted them in return.  From what she had learned through town gossip, his infidelities were quite substantial.  Obviously, the institution of marriage and the vows that he had taken had meant nothing to him, and that alone was one of the main reasons she felt the way she did about him now.  But he was also a liar and a drunk, and he liked to physically abuse women when he was intoxicated, and sometimes when he wasn’t, and she knew that fact from first-hand experience.  Punching a woman in the face and stomach may have made him feel superior, but in her opinion, he was the worst kind of man on the planet, in a class lower than cockroaches.

Even with all his hatefulness and cruelty, there was another reason she harbored so much hatred towards him – and it was the most important reason of all.  He had taken her best friend away from her, someone who had been an integral part of her life since they’d been in elementary school!  A friend who had sworn that they’d be together forever, through thick and thin, no matter what.    He took all of that away, and Patrice stood by and allowed it to happen!  And because of that, she could never forgive him!

She didn’t completely blame Patrice for their separation because she knew that Patrice had no choice, given the threats that Brad had made against her.  And Brad didn’t simply make threats – he was known for carrying through on them.  It had taken several years to accept the demise of their friendship, to mend the pieces of her broken heart, and to put her life back together – a life void of Patrice.  But time had done exactly that.  The only thing that time had not healed was her deep-seeded hatred.  In fact, having the time to mull it all over through the years had only made her resent him more.

“I loathe you, Bradley Cavanaugh,” she said through clenched teeth.  “With every ounce of my being.”

With her eyes transfixed on the clock, she stated, “And it won’t be long now until you find out just how much.”

* * * * *

The hands on the grandfather clock were both positioned on twelve, confirming the moment she had been anxiously waiting for.  Midnight had finally arrived – it was time.

The blood red robe cascaded around her ankles as she stood before the makeshift altar, the cowled hood pulled over her head so that only her face was visible.  Her alabaster skin appeared pale and ghastly in the glow of the burning candles.  The ritual gown wasn’t necessary to perform the spell, but she preferred wearing it because it made her feel superior and important, as if she were the queen of the world!

All those long months of waiting were about to come to fruition, and hopefully, her deep desire for retribution sated and satisfactory.

She opened her book of Forgotten Spells and Magical Rituals to the page bookmarked with a blue sticky note and laid it down in front of her onto the round dinette table that she had converted into a shrine.  Resurrection Spell was at the top of the page, sprawled in large, black letters.  “Ritual must be performed at midnight on the third day following death,” was highlighted in orange.  And directly below that, also in orange, “If performed during the cycle of the full moon, the power of the spell shall increase thrice-fold.”  Although WARNING! was highlighted in yellow as well, she did not heed the advice and instead, crossed it out entirely.  Warnings were for novices and idiots…she was a pro and completely at ease.  Unlike some other mystics she was acquainted with, she knew what she was doing.  She had already performed the spell once.  What would make this time any different than the last?

A copper bowl filled with yellow Oenothera rested atop a black tablecloth with a red five-pointed pentagram painted in the center (compliments of her crafting paints).  The flowers were creatures of natural beauty, with four heart-shaped petals on each one.  She hated to burn them because they would make a lovely bouquet.  But, alas, duty called, and that meant that the flowers must be destroyed.  Atop them was a photograph of Brad, from happier times, when she had liked him.

Striking a match, she lit the five red candles that had been placed on each point of the pentagram, and then touched the burning flame of the match to the wick of the black ritual candle that she held in her hand.  As the candle began to melt, she dripped the wax onto the picture of Brad, allowing small black circles to cover his face, until they all ran together to form one large blob of melted wax.  Placing the black candle into a candlestick, she then picked up the sterling silver dagger from the table and drew the sharp blade across the palm of her hand, making a short, shallow wound just deep enough to draw blood.  She winced at the sting of the pain as she held her fisted hand over the mixture inside the bowl and squeezed, causing red droplets to fall on top of the hardened wax.  Lastly, she sprinkled diamond dust over the flowers, and then closed her eyes. 

Many years ago, she had trained herself how to meditate and put herself into a trancelike state.  It had been hard at first, because she could be so easily distracted by thoughts and the sounds around her.  But the more she practiced, the better she got, until she learned how to completely tune out all the noises and every single thought inside of her head.

Starting with deep breathing exercises, she inhaled and counted to six; exhaled – counted to six, repeat.  She then imagined herself at the top of a ladder, needing to descend to the bottom rung, then into the black abyss that lay beyond the ladder.  Inhale, exhale – take two steps down.  With each descent, her surroundings grew darker and darker, until she was engulfed in total blackness, her thoughts clear, her mind focused.

She began to chant.  “Ommm, Ommm, Ommm…Surgit, Surgit, SURGIT!”   With her arms spread wide, palms upward, eyes still closed, she began the incantation that would revive the body of the man she so desperately reviled.

“I call out to the prison walls that hold the body of Bradley Cavanaugh captive,” she intoned.  “I command you to listen to the sound of my voice.  I order you to crumble away and set him free.  Loosen your grip on him, mighty death chamber, so that he may be raised from eternal rest and live again.  Listen to the sound of my voice and obey my commands.  Spew forth that which you have confined.”

She paused for a moment and opened her eyes, then stepped closer to the altar.  “Surge sursus, iterum.”  (Rise up and live again.) 

Ego ad te, Bradley Cavanaugh…et resurgere a mortuis!” (I call to you, Bradley Cavanaugh, AWAKE and rise from your dead slumber!)

She touched the black candle’s flame to the flowers inside the copper bowl that were coated with diamond dust, instantly igniting them.  A hissing sound erupted from the flames as they grew higher and redder, licking at the photograph of Brad as though they were feeding on him.  The photo curled up at all four corners, devoured by the heat and fire, and then disappeared completely into the pile of smoldering ashes.

Ego proecipio tibi! Surge sursus, veni ad me!” (I command you, rise and come to me.)

“Surge sursus, Surge sursus, SURGE SURSUS!”  She commanded. 

Inhaling deeply; she breathed in the sweet aroma of burning flowers, photograph paper and dried blood.  The smell made her smile, because the scent was confirmation that she had followed through with the resurrection spell without any qualms or second thoughts.  Coming out of her trance, she exhaled with a sigh, blew out the candle and then placed it in the copper bowl across the pile of ashes that had once been stunning flowers.

The summoning ritual was complete.  Bradley Cavanaugh’s grave had been ordered to break away and loosen him from its death grip, and he had been commanded to escape from his burial vault and obey her commands and instructions to come to her. 

Changing from her ritual gown into a pair of jeans and black t-shirt, she knew that rest was what she needed now, but she also knew that sleep would likely elude her because she was too excited about the fun that lay ahead of her.  The joy she would feel when getting even with that prick for all the pain he had bestowed on her was overwhelming.  She recalled a favorite phrase of Brad’s, one that he used to say quite often to justify getting out of an engagement or an appointment, feigning tiredness for his excuses.  “Being an attorney in the corporate world is torture.”

“Jackass,” she said aloud.  “You have no clue what torture is, but you will soon enough.”

Thoughts about the tools and other devices she had purchased for the special occasion, and what she planned to do with them, danced around inside her mind.  All of them were downstairs on the worktable, concealed beneath a blue plastic tarp.  She didn’t want him to see all her toys right away and spoil the surprise.  How much fun would that be?

She also had Ketamine and other medical supplies, all of them either bought or stolen.  She liked to think that she “borrowed” them, but that would mean they’d need to be returned and she had no intentions of doing that.  Because then she would have to admit that she had stolen them afterall, and that might prompt another investigation, and she didn’t have the time to waste on such foolishness.  Much more important things were on the horizon now, things that would require her complete and devoted attention.  She did, however, intend to use all the supplies, but not all at once.  She hadn’t waited a whole year to exhaust all her fun in one day.  Oh no, no way!  Her plans would take weeks, possibly even months, to carry out.  She intended to get as much enjoyment out of it as she possibly could, no matter how long it took.  She was anxious to get started – but in no hurry to finish.

Because Brad had only been called awake from his not so eternal slumber several minutes prior, and the walk to get to her would take several hours, she had more than enough time to relax.  She imagined the trek itself would be quite a challenge for him, having only recently been reanimated.  It would be funny to see, like watching a toddler learning how to walk.  She couldn’t care less how difficult or painful it might be.  It didn’t matter to her whether he walked, crawled, or flew if he got there!  He was hers now, just the way she had planned it.

Yes, a short rest was exactly what she needed, because she would require all her strength and energy when he finally did get there.  For she had all kinds of good things planned for him and she would need all her vigor to deliver the goods and make everything extra special.

Lying down on the couch to take a nap, she fluffed and then placed a throw pillow beneath her head and shut her eyes, falling asleep faster than she’d expected.  With the nightmare still fresh in her mind, she bolted upright in a near panic, her dream a reflection of what had only crossed her mind one time as a fleeting thought, but now caused concern.

What if Brad wasn’t, well, Brad?  Would he arrive like a lion or like a lamb?  Would he be passive and obedient, or would he be aggressive and violent like the kitten had?  Getting up from the couch, she checked all the windows and both doors to ensure that they were closed and locked, just to be safe.

In the bathroom, she opened the medicine cabinet over the sink and took out a syringe and a small vial.  Turning the bottle upside down, she plunged the hypodermic needle into the plastic end cap of the bottle and drew out 2cc’s of Ketamine, then recapped the syringe and put the bottle back inside the cabinet.  The amount she had drawn out should be more than enough to sedate and sustain him.  If not, she had an ample supply and would keep injecting him until it did.

Returning to the living room, she placed the filled syringe down on the coffee table in a position that would be easily accessible.  If she needed it in an emergency, she didn’t want to have to struggle to obtain it.  She thought about putting it into the pocket of her jeans but decided against it.  All she would need would be for the cap to come off and the Ketamine to accidentally get administered to her!  She certainly had no intentions to take such a crazy chance as that!

Again, she checked the windows and doors, taking the time to peek out the front curtains and into the yard, but nothing, or no one, was there.  “Give him time,” she told herself.  “He’ll be here soon enough.”

She sat down on the couch, clutching the throw pillow tightly to her chest.

And waited.

* * * * *

Riley’s loud and incessant barking awakened Frank.  Rolling over in bed, he squinted at the digital clock on the bedside table.  12:30 A.M.  He had barely been asleep for an hour.  Throwing his head back onto the pillow, he groaned and shouted, “Riley, enough!”

Riley was agitated in a way that Frank had never seen before.  Not only was he barking, he was whining and whimpering, pacing back and forth in front of the door, standing on his hind legs, pawing, and scratching at the door frame, trying desperately to get out.  Something had him stirred up, and whatever it was, Riley wanted at it badly.

Getting out of bed, Frank crept to the front window.  Pulling the curtain back, he looked out, but didn’t see or hear anything.  “There’s nothing there, boy.”  But Riley wasn’t giving up.  He urgently wanted to get outside.

Frank could see the open-air mausoleum from his living room window, which stayed illuminated throughout the dark hours, thanks to a timer that kicked on when the sun set and remained on until daylight.  All was quiet out there.

“You probably heard a skunk or a possum or some other night scavenger,” he said to Riley.  “Guess I need to let you find out on your own,” he said, clipping Riley’s leash on.  “Or else you’ll never let me get back to sleep.”

Frank decided against the use of a flashlight, depending instead on the stream of light emitting from the mausoleum to guide his way.  He was only going there and straight back for the sole purpose of showing Riley that nothing was lurking in the dark.  The outdoor burial chamber was only a few hundred feet from his bungalow, so it would be a short, quick trip.

The dog nearly dragged him out the front door.  It took all of Frank’s strength to restrain him and keep him from running away.  But Riley wasn’t interested in anything around the house; he was heading straight toward the mausoleum.

“What the hell?” Frank shouted.  “Whoa, boy, not so fast.”  Riley was pulling hard against his leash, struggling to free himself, but Frank held fast to the handgrip, the plastic casing rubbing hard enough against the palm of his hand to form a blister.

They entered the catacomb through the entryway arch that was parallel to the front of the bungalow.  Although it was an open area, the sign posted next to the doorway clearly stated, “No Cars Allowed.”  Stone benches sat empty in the middle of the room, put there for visitors to come and sit with their loved ones, and for sitting space during graveside services.

Crypts lined the walls on both sides, twenty rows long by six columns high.  All front crypt seals were constructed of white marble and sealed shut with heavy-duty glue, concrete, and metal shutter plates.  All of them had miniature flower urns installed on the front, as well as brass nameplates.  Hardly any of them had flowers, fresh or artificial, but the nameplates of all occupied tombs had been engraved, courtesy of the funeral homes in charge of the burials, and because it was included with the cost of the crypt.  Only the most recent entombments were absent of the identifying grave markers.  The brass plates were there, but no names were on them.  Many times, Frank had thought how sad those images were.  It was as if they had been laid to rest and then totally forgotten about– out of sight, out of mind.  “This’ll be you one day,” he had told himself on more than one occasion. “Dead and buried, and no one to visit you, no one to care.”

Not all the crypts were occupied.  Some were waiting on their owners to move in and take up residence, like the one that moved in today.  His eternal abode had just been closed that afternoon.

“See, boy, nothing here.  Just you, me, and our shadows.”

Riley whimpered and looked up at Frank.  The dog was trembling, his shackles standing on end.  The glow from the fluorescent light spilling from inside the tomb made his black coat appear purple.  Ripples ran over his haunches as his muscles convulsed with spasms.  Clearly, the dog was frightened.  But of what, Frank had no clue.  Whatever it was must have been right here, near the walls of dead bodies.  And whatever it was could only be seen, or heard, by Riley.  His attention was focused on one of the crypts; the new one, in fact, the one that had only recently been sealed.

Frank slowly led Riley to the fresh tomb and let him sniff around to ease his curiosity, and to show him that he was having a hissy fit for nothing.  Suddenly, Riley let out a yelp, as though he had been struck and suffered great pain from the blow.  He turned from the vault and ran behind Frank, his head lowered, his eyes down.

Frank felt a cold wave of fear rush through him as he watched the dog’s behavior.  He had always heard that dogs had a keen sense of sight and smell, and that they could see and hear things that a human could not, which is probably what shook Frank the most.  Exactly what had Riley seen?  Or better yet – what had he heard?

“Come on, Riley, let’s go before we dosee something.”  Riley stayed on the side of Frank that was away from the crypt, keeping his distance, his head still down, refusing to look up as he walked.

As they reached the archway to exit the mausoleum, Frank froze in his tracks when a loud thump! startled him, causing him to flinch and Riley to whimper.  He spun around quickly, disturbed by the unknown noise, not knowing where it had come from.  He remained immobile as he scanned the entire area, up one wall of crypts and down the other, along the ceiling…nothing.  No bats, no birds, no monsters lurking in the dark.

When the next sound he heard came, he made a mental note to call the funeral home first thing in the morning and let them know that whoever had sealed that crypt had apparently sealed a rat or some other furry critter inside the tomb.

What else could have made scratching noises like that from inside an airtight chamber?

As he and Riley exited the mausoleum and stepped onto the dirt path that led to their bungalow, a bright flash of lightning spider-veined across the sky, followed by a booming crack of thunder that vibrated the ground beneath their feet.

“Let’s go, boy, before we get soaked, or fried extra crispy!”

* * * * * * * * * *

Even if Frank had not been sleeping, he would not have heard the commotion going on inside of the mausoleum over the torrential downpour of rain and continuous claps of thunder.

While he was nestled safely in his warm bed, the unthinkable was unfolding at the crypt located on row two, column six, along the wall that faced away from the bungalow.

As lightning ripped across the sky, a crack appeared in the top left corner of the marble plate that sealed the vault, zigzagging down the front until it connected with the bottom right corner, snapping in two as though it were as fragile as a saltine cracker.  Pieces of marble shattered onto the concrete floor, scattering in different directions, the bronze flower urn landing sideways atop the pile of rubble.  With the force of an exploding bomb, the shutter blew away from the chamber, making a loud cling! clang! clunk! as the sheet of warped and twisted metal hit the ground, rocked from side to side, then came to rest beside the debris.  The entombed coffin slid from the enclosure as if an unseen hand had pulled it out with the same ease it would take to remove a loaf of bread from the grocery store shelf.  The foot of the casket hit the concrete with a loud BANG! and then slid down and across the floor until the entire coffin was exposed.

From inside came the muffled sound of a man’s voice.  He was groaning and trying hard to scream, but all that came forth were grunts and pitiful whimpers.  Ripping and scratching noises emitted from inside, the sound of fingernails tearing at fabric and wood as they fought against the dark enclosure, trying desperately to get out.

The lid slowly began to crack open, the hinges creaking against the weight of the wood, now splintered, and cracked from the impact with the hard floor. 

Bruised and swollen fingers appeared in the thin crack, slithering from beneath like tiny snakes until they found the edge of the lid, grasping it tightly and pushing until the lid stood wide open, revealing what lay inside.

It was a good thing that Frank Rowan was fast asleep, or else he would have witnessed a nightmare that was much worse than any he had ever had. 

If he had been awake or still standing inside the mausoleum, he would have seen Bradley Cavanaugh rise from the dead, crawl out of his coffin, climb over the chain link fence, and stagger away from Greenview Cemetery.

But Riley knew that something bad had happened because he heard all the noises coming from inside the mausoleum, and the ruckus had terrified him.

Skulking, he returned to the bedroom and lay down at the foot of Frank’s bed, trembling uncontrollably.

Chapter 2

Dazed and confused, perplexed, and disoriented, he staggered like a drunkard, his mind a blank chalkboard.  Perhaps his brain had once been filled with tons of useful information, but his entire memory had somehow been completely erased, leaving a blank slate behind.  No thoughts, no memories, only nothingness.  He didn’t even know his name.

Some of the buildings and stores around town looked familiar, and although he didn’t exactly know why, they gave him a certain feeling of deja’ vu.  He felt totally out of sorts and out of place, a strange man in a strange land. 

Nausea overwhelmed him and a jackhammer was pounding at full speed inside his head.  Not a headache, but a constant swooshing and whirring sound, the kind that could be heard by putting a seashell up to one’s ear and hearing the ocean.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t walk without stumbling and each step he made took great effort.  Invisible lead encased his feet, making them heavy and hard to manage, resulting in him constantly tripping and faltering, so he slowed his pace and walked slowly and carefully, afraid that his next slight of step might send him sprawling face first into the concrete sidewalk.  He had no idea how long he had been walking, or why his journey had begun at a cemetery, because he had absolutely no reason to be in one.  And why had he been inside that box?  His shoes were caked with thick, red clay, with clumps of it stuck to both sides and the tops of his white sneakers.

A corner-placed street sign informed him that he was on North Cedar Avenue, surprising him that he was able to read it considering the emptiness of his mind and the fact that he could barely form a decent thought.  “At least now I know what street I’m on, but where am I going?” he whispered.

Various stores and other businesses lined both sides of what appeared to be the main street in town, their neon signs flashing rainbows of color onto the wet pavement.  Music echoed from a nightclub, got louder each time the door was opened, then returned to a vibrating hum when the door closed again.

As he passed an electronics store, he caught a glimpse of himself in the dimly lit window and gasped at the ghost of a man staring back at him.

His dark, wavy hair was wet and matted, small ringlets of dark brown curls adhered to his forehead.  His shirt and trousers were slightly wrinkled and stained with the same red clay as his shoes.  Dark bruises and cuts covered the backs of his hands.  His fingertips were shredded, his fingernails nothing more than jagged stubs.  Over his right eye, a jagged gash ran through his brow and was clotted with dried blood.  The entire right side of his face was bruised, swollen, and horribly misshapen.  The blackish discoloration beneath his eyes clashed against his pale skin, making him look like an evil monster.

The reflection staring back at him was a total stranger, someone he didn’t know or recognize at all.  Yet when he touched his hand to his face, so did the man in the glass.  With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, he knew that the man looking back at him was no one other than himself.

Suddenly struck by a wave of dizziness, he stumbled backward away from the ghastly man in the window, into a lamppost, and slid down the cold metal until he sat on the sidewalk.  With his legs drawn up, he rested his elbows on his knees, and then buried his head in his hands and sobbed as he desperately tried to recall something, ANYthing, that would help him to remember who he was and what was happening to him, but there was only a black emptiness.   

The door to the nightclub opened, followed by the sound of footsteps coming toward him.

He glanced up to see a Goth couple standing in front of him.  Both wore dark clothes and leather jackets, and each had the same equally black hair.  Apparently, they also shared the same love for multiple piercings and tattoos because both were covered in them.  The man had his arm loosely draped around the young girl’s shoulder while she stood with her arms folded, chomping loudly on a piece of gum.

“Mister, are you alright?” Goth Girl asked.

Glancing up at her, “What?” was the only thing he could say.  Speaking was a struggle.  His throat was dry and scratchy, and the word came out in a raspy tone.  He felt as though he hadn’t had a drink of water in days – or years.

Goth Girl flinched and took a step backward when she saw his face.  “Oh my God,” she proclaimed.  “You’re hurt!  Do you need me to call someone for you?  Maybe an ambulance?”

 “Dude, you must have really tied one on tonight,” Goth Man interjected, unfazed by his appearance.  “You look like you’ve been rolling around in a pig sty!”  He quickly added, “No offense.  I meant because of your clothes being so dirty.”

“Do either of you know me?” he asked them hoarsely.

They both stared down at him, bewildered by his question, as if he’d just asked them if they knew the directions to get to Mars.

“Can’t say that I do,” the girl answered.

“Me, either.”

Using the lamppost to pull himself up, he asked, “Can you please tell me where I am?”

The couple exchanged a quick glance, then shrugged.

“Dude, you really are drunk, aren’t you?  And judging by the way you look; I’m guessing you’ve been in a fistfight to end all fistfights.  I’d sure hate to see what the other guy looks like!”

“Yes,” he rasped.  “Can you please tell me?”

“Peach City,” the girl answered.  “You’re in Peach City, Georgia.”  The latter remark sounded more like a question than a statement.  Maybe she wasn’t so sure of the location herself.

“Home of the best boiled peanuts in the world,” her boyfriend chimed in.  “Or so they say.  I’m allergic to peanuts.”

Goth Girl offered her assistance once more but got no response.

Deciding that the bruised and injured man didn’t want any help, the couple walked away, whispering to each other as they did.  The girl took one last glance over her shoulder, then they disappeared around the corner.

Even more confused than before, he remained leaning against the lamppost, finding the support of the pole comforting and reassuring.  Without it, he was certain he would crumble to the ground in a heap.

He repeated the town’s name, Peach City, over and over to obtain some level of remembrance.  It sounded vaguely familiar, but he didn’t know why?  The reason totally eluded him.

He was abruptly overwhelmed with the feeling that he had somewhere he had to be, and he needed to hurry up and get there.

He could hear a woman’s voice beckoning him, calling out to him, “Come to me.”

Although he still had no idea of where he was going, he knew with certainty that her voice would guide him where he needed to go.

So, he began walking again, away from North Cedar Street and toward the opposite end of town, moving closer to the voice that beckoned to him.

* * * * * * * * * *

He was an automaton, a puppet, and somewhere, unseen, was the puppet master, pulling his strings, controlling his every move, guiding him into the unknown.

I must keep walking, I must keep walking,” he repeated over and over in his head. “I have somewhere I have to be, so keep walking…”

He felt as though he had trekked for dozens of miles, yet he still had not reached his destination.  However, he sensed, knew that he was close, drawing nearer and nearer to the voice that was calling him, closer to his puppeteer.

After exiting North Cedar, he walked to the outskirts of town, then onto County Road 130, a busy two-lane blacktop that led directly away from Peach City.  There were no stores out there, no businesses of any kind, and only a few scattered houses that sat far back away from the road, so it was unlikely that anyone living in any of them would see him, especially in the wee hours of the morning.  County Road 130 was a long and lonely highway, and the only road that led in and out of town.  Bright headlights of an oncoming car zoomed past him in a blurred haze, on its way into town.  He was careful to stay away from the road itself, either to avoid being seen by passersby or flattened by a speeding car, he wasn’t sure.  He was only doing as he was told and knew that he needed to remain in the grassy area and keep walking.

The jackhammer inside his head was still drilling and he felt like he was going to throw up, but every time he tried to stop and rest a bit, those invisible strings began pulling him, refusing to allow a lull in his journey.

Crickets chirped all around him, and somewhere in the distance an owl hooted.  “Who? Who?” it wanted to know, asking him the same question that he had been asking himself since waking up inside that dark box.  “I know my name is Brad,” he said out loud.  “That’s what she keeps calling me.  My name is Brad.”

Drones of unseen bugs continuously flew into his face and eyes as he walked through the tall grass, disturbing their nests.  Unfazed by the swarms, he didn’t even bother to swat them away.

Passing through a tall stand of dead grass, he felt a lump underfoot, then a pfffft sound, and realized with disgust that he had stepped on a frog, probably flattening it, just like the ones he had seen in the road that had been run over by cars.  “Don’t worry about the squashed frog, Brad, just keep walking and come to meDon’t stop…keep going.”

A horrible odor assaulted him, causing him to bury his nose into the crook of his elbow, but the smell was there as well.  The stench was atrocious, he could practically taste it on his tongue.  Spitting on the ground, he then wiped his mouth on the back of his stained shirtsleeve, but the smell lingered, adhering to his nasal hair.  No matter how far he walked, he was unable to escape it.  It was the scent of death, that same smell one gets when driving down a country road with the windows rolled down and the scent wafts right into the car, making one say, “What died out there?”  With dismay, he realized that the smell was coming from him.

He approached a dirt path and turned left into a heavily wooded area.  Trees covered all the land on both sides of the trail, which was barely visible from the road.  There was no street sign marking the location, not even a mailbox, so he had no idea what the name of the road was, but he knew he had finally reached his destination.

Ahead of him, a small log cabin stood in the clearing.  Smoke billowed from its chimney; pale yellow light spilled from its small windows onto the grass.  The voice was beckoning to him.  “Come to me, Brad….”

“I’m here,” he whispered.

* * * * *

A place for everything and everything in its place,” Brad’s mistress thought, humming as she tidied up the living room, fluffing cushions and placing them back on the couch, straightening books and magazines and wiping dust from the tabletops. 

She loved this little cabin.  It was so cozy and comforting and gave her such a great feeling of warmth and security.  She adored the sound of crackling wood as it burned in the fireplace, and the smell of the smoldering tinder as the logs sizzled and turned a bright shade of red.  The sound of birds singing their early morning choruses from the hundreds of trees that surrounded the property could only be described as harmonious.  Ducks and geese were a common sight in the pond behind the cabin.  Their quacking and honking never grew old.  She enjoyed watching them swim around, diving into the water in search of fish.  She found all of this to be quite soothing; nothing like the monotonous sounds of honking horns and sirens that city life brought.  Here, deer roamed freely throughout the wooded area, sometimes straying as far up as her quaint back porch.  She kept salt lick hung on a few of the trees for them and cut up fruits collected from her trees and left it in bowls for them to eat.  There were also bird and squirrel feeders, filled with morsels for the tiny little critters, but the squirrels constantly stole pecans and acorns from her trees.  She didn’t mind, though.  She certainly had no use for them, and they needed to eat like any other living creature.

Of course, the cabin wasn’t home, per se, but it felt like it whenever she was there.  She resided in a rented apartment inside Peach City.  People who knew her knew where she lived.  Not that it really mattered since she didn’t have many visitors.  And if casual conversation at work (before she got fired) ever brought up the question of what she did for the weekend, the answer was always the same.  “Oh, you know, hung around the apartment, ate popcorn and watched movies, read a book, napped.”  Which was totally a lie, since she spent every weekend here with absolutely no chances of being bothered.  The cabin was just a little something extra; somewhere to go to get away, to rest and relax, to be herself, her true self, not someone others thought she was or should be.  Here she could unwind, run around naked if she wanted to, and there was no one here to tell her that she couldn’t.  No one knew about the cabin, except for the real estate agent, which didn’t matter now because his business had folded, and the agent had moved away.  And, of course, the contractor who had built the underground room, but she had made sure that she hired someone from out of town to do the work because she didn’t want to take any chances of any Nosey Nellies meddling into her business.  Not that he’d asked, because he didn’t, but she’d told the contractor that she needed the basement as a safe room, in the event of a tornado or any other kind of threatening weather.  He hadn’t seemed to care one way or the other as long as he got paid for services rendered.   She had every intention of keeping the cabin a secret because she didn’t’ want anyone coming there, (well, except for one person in particular).  No one was going to invade her private space or disrupt the tiny paradise that she had created for herself.

She paid cash for the cabin from the moderate sized nest egg she’d built up over the years from working and the money she had received from her parents.  It hadn’t cost much, just a few thousand, because the interior had needed more than a small amount of work to restore it.  It had been filled with cobwebs, old and ragged furniture, and rusted water pipes. But with a little bit of hard work and a whole lot of love, she had transformed it from a dump into the perfect getaway.

Besides, even if anyone had known she’d bought the cabin, they certainly wouldn’t know about the secret room she’d had built in, an underground room that she used to concoct potions and practice her magic spells.  Hell, she practically had an entire lab down there.  She could probably conjure up anything if she tried hard enough.  But none of that mattered now because her secret room was about to serve a higher purpose – the one for which it had been built in the first place.

Surprisingly enough, she had fallen asleep and slept for a little over an hour, which was just enough of a nap to refresh her and give her a second wind.

The hot shower water felt good pelting against her skin, the pulsating jets relaxing the tension in her neck, the steam opening her pores and sinuses.  She felt more alive than she had in years – the past five years, to be exact.  It felt good to finally feel good again.  Losing Patrice had been devastating, leaving her feeling despaired and empty inside.  For the first time since their estrangement, she felt hopeful that she would again become a part of Patrice’s life and be as important to her again as she was before Brad came into the picture and ruined everything. 

Fresh coffee had brewed while she showered, engulfing the kitchen with its welcoming aroma.  After pouring herself a cup of the steaming brew, she grabbed a donut out of the box on top of the stove and sat down at the small dining table, thumbing through a fashion magazine while she enjoyed her breakfast.  It wasn’t anything she would normally read, but it was something to look at to help pass the time.  Quickly scanning through the pages, she laughed and made faces at the hideous clothes and stick-thin models with their fake boobs and heavily made up faces, all of them with eyelashes so long that it was impossible for them to be real.  Yet, the mascara ads wanted women to think that they could have lashes the same length simply by applying their brand.  “Bullshit!” she said, tossing the magazine into the trashcan.

Finishing off the last of her coffee, she rinsed out the cup and placed it in the drainer to dry.

In the living room, she sat in the old wooden rocker that she had inherited from her grandmother.  Green paint had chipped away over the years, leaving bare spots on the light-colored wooden frame.  The straw seat was tattered and sagging, but she still loved it, even if it did squeak with every movement she made, and even if her butt did nearly touch the floor.

A faint noise sounded from the front yard.  She stopped rocking and cocked her head, straining to hear.

There it was again…leaves crunching, a shuffling noise (he’s dragging his feet).  The sound was coming closer…closer…scratching…THUMP!

Startled, she jumped, surprised by the unexpected loud noise, and then listened quietly, ever so quietly.

The sound of shuffling feet on the front porch (he must have fallen), the squeaking of wet sneakers across the wooden planks…scratching at the front door (let me in).

Rising from the rocker, she tiptoed across the hardwood floor of the cabin.  Placing her ear against the door, she listened. 

Silence.

Then faint scratching, fingernails against wood.  She kept her ear pinned to the door.

BANG! BANG!

Fists pounded in her ear, startling her, causing her to recoil.

“I’m here,” he said hoarsely.  “Let me in.”

As she opened the door, she was taken aback by his appearance, a sight she had not been prepared for.  His broken, bruised, and distorted features startled her, and the pale glow from the full moon only exacerbated his macabre look, giving him an eerie aura.  It made her think about all those old cheesy B-rated horror movies she used to watch on Saturday nights as a kid.  The ones that scared her so badly that she couldn’t sleep without a night light on because she was convinced that one of the monsters was lurking inside her closet or under her bed, waiting for a chance to pounce on her and gobble her up. 

And now, one of those nightmare monsters had emerged from the deepest, darkest corner of her nightmares, and was standing right in front of her.

Clutching her chest, she gasped.  “Too late to turn back now,” she thought.  “Finish what you started.”

Swallowing back what felt like a golf ball in her throat, she opened the door wider.  “Come on in,” she told him.  “I’ve been expecting you.”

* * * * * * * * * *

He awoke sitting upright in a wooden chair.  Handcuffs bound his wrists behind his back.  Both ankles were wrapped with hemp rope and then tied to the lead that was wrapped around his waist, preventing him from being able to move at all.  A strip of black electrical tape covered his mouth.

Groggily, he lifted his head, looked around and moaned.

Wherever he was, it was pitch black and he couldn’t see a thing, not even a shadow or an outline.

A door opened and closed, the sound coming from above and behind him, followed by footsteps on stairs.  Turning his head towards the sound, he could see a small stream of light dancing across the floor as it drew nearer to him. 

A clicking noise sounded above his head, the sudden bright light blinding him.  He closed his eyes against the harsh brightness, and then slowly opened them again, squinting until his eyes fully adjusted.

She was bent over in front of him with her hands on her knees, smiling.  “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!” she said, and then slapped him hard across the face.

“You’re probably feeling a little sleepy right now,” she said, straightening up.  “That’s because I injected a sedative into your brain right about here,” she said, poking a finger into the fleshy skin at the base of his skull.  “Had to knock you out to drag you down here.  I have to tell you, Brad, you’re heavier than you look!”

The room had no windows, and the only door was the one at the top of the stairs that she had entered by.  Light was provided by a single, naked light bulb that was operated by a pull string.

He was seated in the middle of the room directly beneath the light, as if he were a work of art being put on display.  Other than the chair that he was sitting in, there was no furniture.  On the wall to his right was a pegboard filled with tools.  Multiple types of saws, wrenches, and screwdrivers were aligned in perfect order according to their size.  There was a long worktable beneath the pegboard, on which she had other things that were concealed.  Various shapes and outlines bulged beneath the blue tarp that covered them, but none of them were identifiable based solely on their form.

“Look what I did, Brad!” she said as she swept her arm across the room.  “And I did it all just for you!  Are you surprised?  Do you like it?”

He tried to speak but couldn’t.

She laughed and said, “Oh, silly me, I forgot.”  With a single yank, she ripped the piece of tape away from his mouth.  “Ouch,” she mocked.  “Bet that hurt.”

“Where am I?” he groaned.  “Who are you?”

The mistress clapped her open hand across her chest, feigning surprise.  “Why, Bradley Cavanaugh!” she replied in her best southern drawl.  “I’m appalled that you don’t remember me.  You will, though,” she said, returning to her normal voice.  “Because I’m going to be your worst nightmare!”  She slapped him again, hard enough to cause his head to roll sideways.  “Damn, that felt good!” she proclaimed, laughing.

“You and me,” she said, waving an index finger back and forth between them.  “We have a score to settle, and I’m just getting started.”

She hugged herself and twirled around.  “And we’re…well, I’m, going to have so much fun!” she cried with delight.  “Shall we begin?” she asked, taking a ball peen hammer from the pegboard, then standing in front of him with it raised over her head.  “I must warn you.  This is going to hurt like hell.”

Chapter 3

Frank stepped outside into the cool morning sunshine, a pleasant welcome after such a torrential storm.  If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that a hurricane had come through there.  “I sure don’t miss those things!” he thought, remembering all the ones he had gone through.  Living in south Florida had its perks, like sunshine, beaches, and fresh orange juice.  But it also had its share of nasty storms.  It had always amazed him how complacent some people could be about approaching tropical storms and the warnings that came with them.  Some simply refused to heed any of those warnings, proclaiming that they’d been through enough of them to know how to handle the consequences, so instead of doing the safe and right thing, many took special trips to the beach to stand on the shoreline so that they could experience the force of Mother Nature and feel the power and rage of the storm surge.  Dummies should have been swept out to sea – that would have taught them! 

Behind him, Riley sniffed through the screen door, barked once, then retreated.

Frank glanced around the cemetery grounds as he sipped his coffee.  Fallen limbs, leaves and paper were scattered all around, but there was no real damage to speak of.  The lawn maintenance crew was busily cleaning up the mess and would have the grounds back in shape in no time.

Frank waved to Billy, the backhoe driver, who was in the process of digging a grave for their most recent occupant, due for arrival that afternoon.  No need to worry.  Cleanup would be done in time for graveside services.

Yawning, Frank was reminded that he hadn’t slept well.  Between Riley’s odd behavior and the roaring of the treacherous storm, he had been extremely restless and had gotten up several times during the night.  First to the bathroom, then to get a glass of water, back to the bed, repeat.  He had even taken the time to look out the window towards the mausoleum, still feeling uneasy, but didn’t see anything (thank God!)  And if there had been anything to see or hear, he probably wouldn’t have heard it over the heavy downpour and constant crashing of thunder.  He recalled that he needed to make it a priority to phone the funeral home and tell them about the noises he had heard coming from inside the vault.  He hated the idea of having to unseal a crypt, but if there were a rat or some other small animal trapped inside, it would be the right thing to do for the corpse and for the critter.

Marcos, one of the lawn maintenance crewmembers, was walking rapidly toward him, waving his arms and shouting, “Mr. Rowan, Mr. Rowan!”

Frank knew instantly something was wrong.  He could hear it in Marcos’ voice and see it in the expression on his face.  It was a look that Frank was more than familiar with.  It was one of pure terror.

Placing his coffee cup down on the patio table, he met Marcos in the yard.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Mr. Rowan, you have to come see this!”

“Come see what?”

Panting, Marcos replied, “It’ll be easier to show you, because honest to God, I don’t know how to explain it.  You have to see for yourself!”

Frank entered the mausoleum through the same entryway as he and Riley had done earlier that morning….

And gasped at the sight that lay before him.

For the first time since taking the job, he felt something he hadn’t felt before, and he didn’t like the feeling.  He didn’t like it at all.  Ice-cold fingers caressed his spine causing the small hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.

His heart was pounding so hard that he could hear it thumping in his ears, loud and deafening; his mouth suddenly became as dry as desert sand.

Swallowing hard, he slowly took a step closer.

A crypt that only hours before had been tightly sealed now lay open, exposing its contents.

The front marble closure of the crypt lay on the floor, shattered into pieces, the flower urn lying on its side next to the rubble.  The casket was upended, half in and half out of the chamber, with the bottom of the coffin resting on the floor.  The lid was open, exposing the ragged and torn silk lining.  Strips of cloth hung by mere threads.

The casket was empty.

“What in the hell happened in here?” Frank asked in a surprised tone.

“Vaya con Dios,” Marcos said, crossing himself.  “I have no idea.”

“Who in the world would have done something like this?  And why, for God’s sake?”   Frank abruptly realized something else, something that he hadn’t noticed before, probably because of his initial shock at seeing such a macabre display.

The crypt that lay open was the same crypt that had piqued Riley’s curiosity and sent him into an agitated state and extremely peculiar behavior.

Was that just a coincidence, or were the two incidents somehow related?  Frank didn’t know, but he knew this had to be reported to the authorities.  Vandalism and grave desecration would not be tolerated at Greenview, not on his watch.  “Damn,” he thought.  “I must’ve slept better than I thought I did not to have heard this!”

Taking his cell phone from his pants pocket, he was surprised to see that his hand was shaking.  He hadn’t been this frightened or disturbed since…” Don’t go there, Frank,” he told himself.  “Don’t do it, now is not the time.”

Trying hard to push the memory of that horrible day and the series of events that followed to the back of his mind, he focused on the problem at hand and dialed 9-1-1.

* * * * * * * * * *

A brown and tan cruiser with Carter County Sheriff’s Office emblazoned on the side entered through the front gate and pulled up to the side of the mausoleum.  Frank walked over to the car to meet the officer.

He was surprised to see an overweight, robust man hitching up his pants as he exited the car.  The size of his belly made Frank think he might be training for a beer commercial, and doing very well at it, instead of being an enforcer of the law.   The buttons on his shirt pulled tightly against his size, looking as though they were ready to pop off and fly away at any given second.  “God help him if he’s ever involved in a foot pursuit,” Frank thought.  “Because the perp would more than likely outrun him, and without giving it much effort!”

Partially bald on top, apart from a round clump of hair above the middle of his forehead, he also boasted a thick and bushy brown mustache that looked as though it may have, at one time, belonged to a walrus.  Putting on his hat, the officer spoke into his shoulder mike, revealing a thick southern accent.  “Base, I’m at Greenview Cemetery.”

“10-4.”

“Mr. Rowan?” the officer asked, pulling on the waistband of his pants, and adjusting his gun belt.

“Yes,” Frank answered.

“I’m Sheriff Nick Dunn.  I’m here in response to your 9-1-1 call.  Can you show me what you called about?”

“Sure,” Frank said.  “Follow me.”  And I promise not to run.

Upon entering the mausoleum, Sheriff Dunn stopped as soon as he stepped inside, staring at the rubble and open casket with his mouth agape.  “Is this a joke?” he asked.  “Some kind of a prank, perhaps to get into the Halloween spirit?”

“I assure you, Sheriff, this is not a joke.”

“Good, because if it is…”

“It’s not,” Frank repeated.  “This is Marcos Sanchez,” he said, motioning.  “He’s one of the lawn maintenance guys, and the person that found this.  He came and got me right away after finding it.”

Turning to Marcos, Dunn asked, “You speak English, Amigo?”

Marcos nodded.

“Good,” Dunn replied.  “That makes it easy for me because I don’t speak Espanol.”

What a jackass,” Frank thought, slightly shaking his head.

“Is this EXACTLY the way you found it?” Dunn asked Marcos, hitching a thumb at the pile of crumbled stone.

“Yes sir,” Marcos answered, frantically bobbing his head up and down.  He held his green maintenance cap with both hands, nervously turning it back and forth, from the bill to the plastic adjustment strap, then back again.

“And you didn’t touch or move anything?”

“No sir.”

Glancing around the mausoleum, Dunn asked, “No security cameras, I see?”

“No,” Frank answered.  “Don’t really have a need for them here.”

“I see.  Any other damage besides this?  Any other…what do you call these things?  Crypts, tombs?” he asked, waving his hand in the air.

“Either.”

“Any others besides this one messed with, or appear to be tampered with in any way?

“No,” Frank said.

Dunn was steadily writing in his notebook as he questioned Frank, who noticed that the Sheriff had an uncanny habit of touching the tip of the pen to his tongue before writing a new entry.  “Did you see or hear anything last night, anything unusual?  See anything that seemed out of sorts, maybe someone hanging around, headlights or a car parked around the entrance, anyone trying to get in?”

Frank considered telling him about Riley’s weird behavior, but decided it probably wasn’t important enough to be mentioned.  “No,” he answered.  “Nothing like that.  We were…”

“We?” Dunn interjected, cutting him off.  “Does someone besides you live here?”

“No, just me and my dog.  I had him with me last night when I made my final rounds.  We walked through here, and everything was fine.  No people, no cars.”

“And what time was that?”

“Around ten thirty, a quarter to eleven.”

“Do you always come out here that late at night?”

“Yes, I do a final walk-through, you know, to make sure no one gets locked in.  I always double check to make sure no one’s on the grounds, and I also check the front gate to ensure it’s locked.”

“I see,” Dunn said, licking his pen, then writing.  “I know that the front gate is the only entrance for a car, but would you say that it’s possible for someone to climb the fence if they wanted to get inside.”

“I suppose they could,” Frank said.  “But why would anyone want to come inside a cemetery after hours?”

Raising one eyebrow and glaring at him, Dunn responded, “Well, the first thing that comes to my mind after seeing this mess is vandalism at its finest.  Probably a bunch of punk kids looking for something to do, trying to impress their friends, or doing it just for the pure hell of it.  Or it might even be an initiation thing, you know, like they do in college.”

“Vandalism?” Frank asked.  “So, what you’re telling me is that you think someone came in here and destroyed a grave for the pure hell of it?”

“I didn’t say that’s what happened,” Dunn stated matter-of-factly.  “I said it’s a possibility, especially with it being so close to Halloween.  Some kids have been known to pull stupid pranks like this for one reason or another.  You ask me, I think it’s a sick sense of humor.”  A large black fly landed on the tip of Dunn’s nose, flitted its wings, and then flew away before he could swat at it.  “Even a fly knows a load of bullshit when it hears it!” Frank thought.

Dunn continued.  “It’s also possible that it got struck by lightning.  We did have a bad storm come through here last night, you know?”

No shit?  “I have to disagree,” Frank offered.

“About the storm?” Dunn asked without looking up from his notepad.

“About your suggestion,” Frank answered.

“Why is that?” Dunn asked, cocking his head to one side.  “Are you a Meteorologist or something?  Know a thing or two about weather, do you?”

Ignoring his sarcasm, Frank explained.  “For starters, we are inside of a building.  I would have to say that it’s impossible for lightning to come through the open archway there,” Frank said, pointing.  “Then all the way up to the crypt here,” he said, indicating the now open vault.  “Unless, of course, it struck the ground first, ricocheted, and then turned in an upward arc.  I find that a little hard to believe, don’t you?”

“It could happen,” Dunn replied.  “Stranger things have been known to occur.”

“Okay, then.  For arguments sake, let’s say it did.  Then where are the scorch marks?  A lightning strike will most definitely leave behind a mark, either black or otherwise.  I don’t see any, do you?”

Dunn looked around the mausoleum, checking out all the other crypts on both walls. 

“Here’s something else for you to chew on,” Frank continued.  “Why is there no other damage?  Not to the roof, or the walls, or any other vaults.  Don’t you find that a little odd?”

“Perhaps,” Dunn said.  “We’ll see.  You got any other ideas or opinions, Mr. Rowan?”

“Not really,” Frank answered.  “None other than what I’ve already said.  I do have a question, though.”

“I’m listening.”

“If this was just a prank or vandalism as you’ve suggested,” Frank paused for a moment, making eye contact with the Sheriff.  “Then where’s the body?”

Dunn was ahead of him on that one.  He’d already been thinking about that, mentally assessing the situation as he questioned Frank.  If someone did, in fact, vandalize the crypt and steal the body, they would have had to climb over the high chain-link fence, dragging a corpse along with them, which meant there would have had to be more than one accomplice because that would be too much for one person to handle alone. And even if the perpetrator had a car, there’s no way he, or they, could have gotten through the locked gate, not without driving straight through it.  There was also no damage to the front gate or the brick trimming around it.  Which left only one unanswered question. 

“Mr. Rowan,” Dunn began.  “How certain are you that there was a body inside that casket?”

“What would be the purpose of entombing an empty coffin?” he asked, perplexed.

“Just answer my question.”

“I honestly can’t say with certainty because I’m not responsible for entombment or the sealing of the crypt.”

“Who is?”

“The funeral home.”

Speaking into his shoulder mike again, Dunn called his base station.  “I need two more units dispatched out to Greenview and make one of those units a K-9.  I also need a crime scene unit out here.”

“10-4, Sheriff Dunn.  Two more units and CSI will be enroute.”

“What’s that all about?” Frank asked.

“Standard procedure,” Dunn answered.  “I want this entire cemetery searched before I go any further with my investigation.  The CSI team will do what they do…take pictures, dust for prints, look for evidence that we may not see right away.  They have special equipment to do all that, you know?” Dunn stated, sounding like a child bragging about who has the most toys.

As he was explaining procedures to Frank, another cruiser and an SUV arrived within minutes after being dispatched.  The CSI van arrived several minutes later.  All the vehicles parked in a line alongside Sheriff Dunn’s car.

A German Shepherd wearing a lime-green vest with the word “POLICE” printed in black capital letters accompanied the K-9 officer.  His partner wore camouflage and combat boots, along with a matching camouflage long-billed cap.  He looked more like a soldier ready for combat than a law enforcement officer preparing to conduct a search.  The second officer was female, dressed in the same brown uniform as the Sheriff.  Her black hair was pulled tightly into a bun, her police cap sitting firmly atop her head.  She wore no make-up, and her posture suggested that she was badass.  Both officers joined Dunn at the scene inside the mausoleum, while the CSI team gathered their supplies from the van.  From where he stood, Frank could see them filling large silver cases with equipment.  He turned away, intentionally making himself not look, because the sight of them and the “CSI TEAM” embroidered on their jackets dredged up an extremely painful memory for him.

As they approached the rubble, the female officer asked, “What in the hell happened in here?”

Ignoring her question and reiterating what he had just told Frank, Dunn stated, “I want this entire cemetery searched, top to bottom,” he instructed them.  “Every nook, every cranny, every crack, I want them searched.  If there’s a rock to look under, lift it.  If there’s a door to be opened, open it. Do I make myself clear?”

“What are we looking for?” the K-9 officer asked.

“A dead body,” he replied.

Both officers glanced at each other, perplexed by his request.  “Sir,” said the K-9 officer.  “You do realize we’re in a graveyard, right?  It’s full of dead bodies.”

“Yes, smart ass, I’m aware of that fact, but thanks for telling me.  We’re looking for a missing dead body.  Or presumed to be missing.”

“Presumed, sir?” the female asked.

“Supposedly there was a body inside this casket when it was placed inside the chamber and sealed up,” he informed them.  “This,” he said, pointing to the ruins, “is what Mr. Rowan awoke to this morning.  I’m thinking it’ll turn out to be vandalism, but we need to make sure that the missing body isn’t somewhere inside this cemetery.”

Turning to Frank, Dunn asked, “Mr. Rowan, do we have permission to search your home?”

“Why do you want to search my house?” Frank asked.

“Do we have permission, or do I need to obtain a search warrant?” Dunn was obviously quite irritated.  He didn’t have the time, or the patience, for half-cocked remarks.

“Do whatever you need to do, search whatever you need to search.  I have nothing to hide,” Frank snapped, throwing up his hands.

“Thank you,” Dunn replied dryly.  “We will.”

Frank leashed Riley while his house was being searched and sat with him on the front porch.  From there, he could see the three CSI team members inside the mausoleum.  One was snapping pictures while the other two gathered evidence and placed it inside individual plastic bags, sealed and then labeled them with permanent marker.  Frank was curious to know just exactly what they were looking for, or what they expected to find.  

Once the search was completed, he and Riley were cleared to go back inside the house.  He knew the search wouldn’t produce anything, unless dirty dishes and laundry mattered, then they probably hit the mother lode!

Riley sniffed at the K-9 dog as he exited their home with his master, then went inside and laid down on the floor in front of the television.  He wanted nothing to do with the other dog or anything else outside.  “I don’t blame you, boy,” Frank told him, scratching his ear.

The officers’ complete exploration of the cemetery grounds turned up nothing, just as Frank suspected.

“Mr. Rowan?  Can you please join me and my deputies back at the scene?” Dunn asked, exiting the west side of the cemetery, and heading toward the mausoleum, motioning for Frank to follow him.

The K-9 dog was restless, pacing back and forth at the officer’s feet.  “Heel, Max!” the officer commanded.  Max sat, and then got back up, repeating his previous behavior, continuously sniffing at the inside of the casket, then pulling towards the archway that faced the front gate.

Carefully watching the dog’s actions, bewildered by his anxiety, Dunn said to Frank, “Mr. Rowan, can you tell me who’s supposed to be buried here?”

Because he had already taken the time to find out that information for himself, Frank immediately answered, “Bradley Cavanaugh.”

“And the funeral home in charge of arrangements?”

“Kendall.”

“I think he’s hit on something,” the K-9 officer said, allowing Max the leeway he needed.  “Go, Max!”  Sniffing the coffin again, Max exited through the archway and approached the front entrance.  There he began barking and jumping, wanting desperately to get over the fence and pursue whatever lay beyond.  “Good boy, Max!”  the K-9 officer commended.

“What’s he got?” Dunn asked.

“I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it starts over there,” he said, pointing back at the crime scene, “and ends here, at the gate.”

Dunn removed his hat and scratched his shiny, partially bald head.  Not sure what to make of the officer’s comment, he said, “Are you telling me that a dead man walked out of here last night, on his own? Is that what you’re saying that Max picked up a dead man’s scent?  Go ahead and tell me something stupid like that, something that makes absolutely no sense at all!”

The officer looked somewhat shaken, and more than a little nervous.  “What I’m saying sir, is that Max picked up on something around the coffin, and this is where it led him.  I won’t speculate on anything other than that because I don’t have an explanation.”

Dunn nodded and exhaled loudly, his red cheeks puffing out as he blew.  He didn’t have an explanation, either.  But something wasn’t adding up here, and he didn’t like it.  In his thirty plus years of being a cop, he had investigated many crime scenes, from homicides to car accidents to domestic violence.  Never had he responded to anything like this.  Who in their right mind would break into a cemetery, desecrate a grave, and then steal the body?  And for what purpose?  He had no idea what was going on here, but he intended to find out, one way or another.

“Sheriff Dunn!”  It was the K-9 officer.  “I need you to take a look at something,” he said as Dunn approached him.

From where he stood, Frank could see the K-9 officer pointing to different areas of the fence, but he had absolutely no idea what he was showing Dunn, who was shaking his head.  Obviously, he didn’t like what he was seeing.

“Mr. Rowan,” Dunn said, reentering the archway.  “Have you or any of your crew been anywhere near the fence this morning?”

“I haven’t,” Frank answered.  “Why?”

“What about you, Mr. Sanchez?”

“No, sir,” he replied.

“Standard questioning, that’s all,” Dunn answered.  “Nothing for you to be concerned about.” 

Red clay had been transferred onto several areas of the fence, ascending toward the top, as though someone had used it as a ladder to climb up and over the fence while wearing muddy shoes.  Which meant that whoever had done it had walked across the wet clay pathway that was located right outside the mausoleum; the same pathway that was used by cars coming into the cemetery.  And if footprints had been there before, they certainly wouldn’t be there now since he and the other vehicles had driven over it, erasing any evidence that may have been there.

Taking one last look around the mausoleum, Dunn turned to Frank.  “Let me repeat something, Mr. Rowan,” he said sternly.  “If I find out that this is a joke or a sick prank, and you had anything at all to do with it, there will be consequences.  Do I make myself clear?  Same goes for you, Mr. Sanchez!”

They both nodded, acknowledging his firm statement.

“I’ll be in touch,” he said, getting into his police cruiser and driving off, leaving a trail of dust behind him.  The K-9 officer and female deputy joined the three CSIs beside the van.  Heads were nodding and lips were moving, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying.  Frank figured they were probably comparing notes, discussing their findings, or complaining about what a total jerk their Sheriff was.  With their conversations and note sharing completed, all three vehicles left, one right behind the other.

Frank knew for a fact that he had absolutely nothing to do with any of this, and had no idea who might have, but he suddenly felt like he was a suspect, already deemed guilty for a crime that he didn’t commit.

Like what you’ve read so far and would like to read the rest of the book? You can purchase it by using the links below:

E-Book version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07TWFHW1S

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1077735723

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