Moonlight Virtual Mystery presents a Worldwide FIRST: A reader’s choice virtual story, written in REAL TIME.
Join us for the next twelve weeks as we journey into the world of mystery, write and reveal a short story together––with your input. Each week, one of our twelve award-winning authors will take the lead, chapter by chapter.
Leave comments or questions, suggest the direction you’d like to see the story take, and share the journey with us. Your comments may win you entries in our $100.00 Quarterly Giveaway, so interact with us.
The more you share and interact, the more entries you can earn. So let’s embark, because…
By Casi McLean
“Stop. Dear Lord, please…make them stop.” Annabelle clenched her fists, pressing fingernails into her palms. She squeezed, tighter…tighter, until she felt sure the tips pierced into her skin. The pain distracted her from the incessant murmurs that hummed every time she had a thought of her own, and helped her validate some sense of reality beyond the strange phenomenon and eerie voices that had shadowed her for the last few weeks. Eyes shut, she sucked in a long breath then released the air in a slow stream, praying the whispers would disperse. When the room silenced, her resolve intensified. Again, she tapped on her keyboard, refusing to stop before her final chapter found its end.
Finally. Breathing a sigh of relief, she closed her laptop and ran a finger across the cool, streamlined case. A few days of editing and her manuscript would sail through cyberspace to Maddie. Her editor loved Darkness Awaits insisting the fresh storyline would hit the New York Time’s Bestseller list within days of publication. Annabelle agreed––at first. But for the first time in her career, she no longer cared. The book could fade into oblivion in some dusty old library, or wither with age locked inside a forgotten trunk in a neglected attic, preferably one far away. As long as she no longer sensed the anguish of the mysterious characters or felt trapped within the town limits of Mystic Harbor.
With every other manuscript she’d written, an odd melancholy befell her as she typed the words, “The End.” The feeling, a mixture of elation upon completing a novel and sorrow at having to leave a setting she’d grown to love, lingered until a new manuscript tugged her away into another world. Still, she missed her characters––her heroes, heroines, and even her villains––as much as she grieved over the loss of an intimate friendship.
But this story differed from anything she’d written before. At first she assumed the whispers a manifestation of her vivid imagination. She’d always lived inside the souls of her characters. So much so, she believed her muse to be her partner in crime. Annabelle wrote by the seat of her pants, never knowing where her tales would take her until the words streamed through her fingertips, tapped into her keyboard, and magically appeared on her screen. But Darkness Awaits had more than a mind of its own. From the first paragraph, the story tumbled forward like a waterfall rushing downward. The characters manifested as if they stood before her with vivid descriptions and clear-cut personalities. The words bubbled inside, assuring her of an easy manuscript with a storyline developing as if the events occurred in real time.
Maddie, her editor couldn’t get enough of the tale. “I love this. When can you give me a finished draft? We have to get this published before Halloween.” She insisted, and tightened the deadline.
It wasn’t until the manuscript reached a mid-point that Annabelle began to sense an unnatural presence pushing her forward. A love for writing had enchanted her for as long as she could remember. Evan as a small child, she dictated stories to her mother who would religiously chronicle every word her daughter uttered. The tales provided them both with endless bedtime stories.
As time went on, a writing career etched into her destiny with an enchantment reaching far beyond fairytales. When she learned to write the stories she loved, Annabelle kept a journal, taking note of each family excursion with intimate detail, real and imagined. Each destination spun passionate accounts then tucked them into the corners of her mind.
But in her sixteenth year, her father booked a trip to Mystic Harbor and since the first time she saw the tiny haven nestled into a mountainous backdrop of snow-topped peaks and lush, green forests, the vista beckoned her return.
The ambiance captivated her and provided a perfect setting for a teenage romance, but Preston Honeywell, a hot hunk working the docks, mesmerized her. His sweaty, sun-drenched biceps glistened as he tugged ropes and hauled sailboats to tether. For four glorious vacation weeks, their summer romance blossomed, only to be ripped apart when her father’s holiday ended and the family returned home.
When the opportunity arose to visit the enchanting inlet again, the prospect thrilled her. The past twelve years had changed her dramatically, and she felt sure her paramour had surely moved to some unknown destination, married, and settled into a comfortable life. But what if? Imagining him in his awesomeness, standing on the dock, waving to her sent a warm tingle trickling down her back to settle between her thighs.
Finding new fodder for her novels fed an insatiable thirst, but Mystic Harbor fulfilled more than a quenching of her creative desires. Preston. Could he still live in Mystic Harbor? And what if they’re seductive connection still lingered in him as well?
Finding Preston took little ingenuity. And the fact he remained in that tiny town, unmarried, and extremely interested in having a drink to catch up, beat the odds. But the moment their gaze locked, Annabelle’s heart pounded so hard she felt sure he’d notice her trembling. Not only was the inexplicable connection still tethered, the emotion escalated into a physical attraction that soared off the scales.
Only a few weeks into her research, their relationship flourished––the likes of which Annabelle only experienced in her romantic mystery novels. Hell, Preston had her feeling elation she never knew existed.
Was it destiny that brought them together, or fate that lured them into the clutches of pure evil? If Annabelle had never met Preston twelve years ago, would she have ever ventured back to Mystic Harbor? Maybe not, and she certainly wouldn’t have agreed with Preston to explore that spooky, old, deserted cabin halfway up the mountain.
“Security in numbers, Babe.” He smiled that infectious grin she could never resist. “Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ve never had the nerve before, but mysterious, eerie stories are right up your alley. What do you say?”
“Sure. Let’s go.” S U R E, the worst four-letter word she’d ever uttered, because that day everything changed.
By Maureen Bonatch
Glorious shades of red and gold trailed the sun as it set. Long quivering shadows cast across the still water of the harbor and descended with the flowing orb to the depths to rest for the night. Annabelle traced the crudely carved initials with her finger. Preston had whittled the jagged heart with the Swiss army knife he was never without to declare their binding teenage love in the old wooden bench on the dock during their summer romance.
Her seat facing the dock was familiar, but the memory of how she’d ended up at her favorite thinking spot was not. She remembered meeting Preston this morning to hike the mountain to the cabin. She’d brought coffee. The memory of the way her belly fluttered when his gaze found her and how he smiled wide enough to awaken his adorable dimples was strong. Nothing was clear after that.
The sharp splinter piercing her palm restored reality. Annabelle opened her hand to study the blood surrounding the tiny piece of weathered wood jutting from her flesh. A crumpled parking ticket and newspaper clipping fell from her clutch to rest on her thigh. Droplets of her blood further tainted the disturbing headline. The anniversary of the three women who’d gone missing over a decade ago coincided with the date of her return to Mystic Harbor. The normally serene townspeople were as restless for answers to the tragic mystery as the murmurs in her mind. They wouldn’t forget, and it seemed that neither could she.
Startling waves crashing together with a violent slap drew her undivided attention. Usually the rippling water soothed her frazzled thoughts, but not now. The serene waters bubbled and grew choppy even as the boats sat silent and still at the empty dock. The whispering she’d hoped to escape when she typed the last words in Darkness Awaits awoke to resume shouting in her mind.
She pressed her hands over her ears as if that could shut out the urgent murmuring. The whisperings grew more insistent and leaked out to surround her. They echoed back and forth from her mind to the animated water with only one recognizable word, Preston.
Annabelle lost interest in deciphering the desperate murmurings and focused on the shadow floating through the churning water to the surface. The strange phenomenon occurring since she returned to Mystic Harbor made her question her beliefs about everything and everyone. Although she’d never seen a ghost before, and despite writing extraordinary stories, she didn’t believe in them. But what rose from the water defied all rational explanation. The implausible image was more terrifying than anything the voices could utter.
A translucent woman rose from the water. Rivulets of fluid dripped from the tattered cloth sleeves covering her otherworldly form. Skeletal fingers reached toward her.
Had her story somehow released what had been confined to her mind?
Annabelle froze at the sensation of fingers intertwining with her own. Two other ghostly women shimmered from the depths to flank each side of the apparition. All three turned to point a shaky, bony finger past her.
She screamed and twisted to her right, tugging her hand for release. Instead of encountering another ghostly form, she met Preston’s concerned stare. The rapid beating of her heart assured her that she was still alive, for now, but she couldn’t say the same for whatever sought her from a watery grave.
A flicker of hurt flashed across his dark chocolate brown eyes and he released his grip. He ran a hand through his thick, wavy hair in his classic nervous gesture. “I yelled for you from the parking lot but you didn’t answer. What’s wrong?”
Gaining confidence from Preston’s presence, she pointed toward the water. The surface was as smooth as a mirror. “I, the…”
“Why did you run off today? I know the cabin freaked you out, but why did you go to Chief O’Brian? He was concerned about you.”
“Chief O’Brian?” The last remnants of the light of day faded and the pole light above them flickered and illuminated. It highlighted the angles of his striking cheekbones and the dark circles that had appeared under his eyes in the past few weeks. Although the women she’d seen, dreamed or imagined looked and felt almost as real, as Preston.
Had she fallen asleep and the three women were part of a waking dream? Was she even awake now? It was as if her past, present and future started and ended at Mystic Harbor. The thin line between reality and the stories she immersed herself in waivered and blurred when Preston squeezed her hand. She didn’t pull away this time and let his touch help ground her to reality. Though he was always gentle with her, his bulging biceps from years of manual labor confirmed he could easily crush a woman’s throat.
She gasped at the frightful thought that came with the memory her subconscious buried. The face of the woman in the water matched the one she’d seen this morning. The eerie image peered from the tattered remnants of the curtain fluttering around the broken glass at the cabin window when they stepped on the porch. Annabelle turned and fled just like all those years before.
She didn’t remember her visit to the police station today; instead she recalled the time she was there twelve years ago. The day she was going to meet Preston at the cabin all those years ago, but she never made it. She’d turned and fled when she heard a woman scream.
Why did Preston suggest returning to the cabin? Did he see the woman? She didn’t ask him today. Perhaps she was afraid of his answer. There was no use denying it any more. Returning to Mystic Harbor wasn’t her choice. Something else had drawn her here and sank its clutches into her mind once she entered the town, prohibiting her from leaving.
Perhaps it was the same reason Preston never left. She couldn’t keep running. Something needed her to discover what everyone else missed, even if it meant breaking her heart. Otherwise she might lose her mind, if she hadn’t already.
By Emma Kaye
“Hey,” Preston’s voice lowered to a soothing rumble. “You okay? What happened to your hand?”
Annabelle twisted her palm down to avoid his gaze, but he took hold of her injured hand and brought it to his mouth. After a quick kiss to the side of her thumb, he studied the tiny drop of blood and the splinter at its center.
She ignored him and scanned the water for any sign of the women who’d stared at her only seconds ago. Nothing. Just like any memory of how she got here.
“Sit still. I think I can get it.”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” What were the ghosts trying to tell her? Was it a warning?
Preston’s warm breath bathed her hand, raising goose bumps up and down her arm and snapping her attention back to him. He wasn’t going to… Yup. His teeth scraped the fleshy part of her hand below her thumb. How did he manage to make pulling a splinter into a sensual experience that she wouldn’t mind repeating?
With a wide grin that set off his dimples and did crazy things to her equilibrium, he spit out the little sliver of wood and then wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him as he leaned back on the bench. “Do you remember the first time I brought you here?”
She settled against the warmth of his chest with a sigh. Oh, yeah. She remembered. And suddenly she knew that whatever was haunting her, it had nothing to do with him. It just couldn’t. “I was so nervous.” She laughed. Their first date had been anything but smooth ’til that point, but man…the boy could kiss. “Did you know that I’d never been kissed before that night?” she asked, confident he’d had no idea. She’d put on a good show, no matter how freaked out she’d felt inside.
“Yeah, I knew.”
She smacked his shoulder. “What? No way. I totally pulled it off.”
“You puckered up like you were sucking on a lemon and squeezed your eyes so tight I was afraid you’d hurt yourself.”
“I did not!” She frowned as Preston went into a fit of laughter. He poked her gently until she gave in and joined in his mirth. “Okay, so maybe I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was only sixteen.”
“What’s important is that by the end of the month, we both knew exactly what we were doing.” His gaze fell to her mouth and she licked her lips in anticipation.
Before she could lift her chin to meet him for a kiss, the voices returned, their tormented whispers clouding her mind. She bent forward, head in her hands. This had to stop. She couldn’t take much more.
Preston leaned forward, one hand on her back, worry in his voice, “Annabelle? What’s wrong, babe?”
“Headache.” She forced herself to sit back and smile. “I-I’ve been so absorbed in my story, I think I forgot to eat today. Sorry.”
“I thought the book was done already.”
She forced a laugh. “The book isn’t done until Maddie tells me I can’t make any more changes. My editor,” she explained when he looked confused. “I was up half the night revising.” She’d known who the murderer was from the second she started Darkness Awaits, but certain clues had turned up in the actual writing that indicated his innocence. Her subconscious had picked a different killer, she just hadn’t figured out who yet. Maybe that’s why the voices wouldn’t go away. She needed to solve the mystery.
“And I dragged you out to the cabin at first light. Damn. I’m sorry. You should have told me you didn’t feel up to it. Lets go get you something to eat.”
She nodded and stood with him, stuffing the newspaper article and parking ticket into her purse as she rose. Those were worries for another day. She couldn’t deal with it tonight, whatever she’d done in those missing hours had worn her out. She considered skipping dinner and heading back to the little cottage by the water she’d rented for the summer, but Preston seemed bent on feeding her.
He kept his arm around her as they strolled off the dock and back up to Main Street. He steered them toward Sarah’s, a cute little café with outdoor seating. Twinkling Christmas lights hung in the trees gave it a romantic, festive feel all year round.
“Hey, Sarah,” Preston said when they reached the hostess desk. “Any chance we can get a table outside, maybe near the rail?” He tilted his head toward a likely table for two in the corner.
“Sure can, sugar,” Sarah responded. “Anything for you.”
Annabelle bristled. Was this lady for real? Her eyes popped open wide as Sarah leaned over the stand to pass Preston a pair of menus, displaying an almost obscene amount of cleavage.
To his credit, Preston didn’t stare. He took the menus with a smile and gestured for Annabelle to precede him to their seat.
Sarah sniffed, but led them to the table he requested.
“Perfect.” Annabelle smiled sweetly at Sarah, who tossed her hair and went back to her spot to greet another couple.
“I know how much you like to people-watch. I figured this seat would work.”
A few sips of water helped calm Annabelle’s nerves so she could indulge in her favorite pastime while they waited for their meals.
Thankfully the voices receded enough to let her enjoy her chicken salad. The sweet burst of grapes and crunch of almonds mixed with chicken hit the spot. The glass of chardonnay didn’t hurt in lightening her mood. She soon fell into a dazed stupor as the exhaustion of the day hit her hard.
Annabelle jumped. “Sorry, what?” She shook her head, trying to shake the fog from her brain.
“I asked what happened with O’Brian. You freaked him out so bad he came after me.”
“After you? Why?” What could she tell him, that she didn’t remember seeing her old friend? He’d think she’d lost it. Maybe she had. Seeing ghosts wasn’t exactly evidence of a sound mind.
He narrowed his eyes. “Oh, come on. You know why.”
The bitterness in his tone snapped her out of her haze. “No, really. What did he say?” What the hell did I do?
“He wanted to kick my ass for upsetting you. Not that he needs an excuse, he’s had it in for me ever since you chose me over him. He’s never gotten over you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re friends.” Sure, Max had asked her out that first summer, but she’d already started dating Preston and Max took the rejection in stride. They’d stayed friends and talked on the phone on occasion. On the rare occasion he came to her town, they’d meet for dinner. That was it.
He snorted. “Friends, my ass. You may be friends, but he most definitely isn’t.”
“Ever met his wife?”
“Yes.” She rubbed at her aching temple. “Well, never in person. But we’ve talked plenty of times.”
“She’s pretty. Long, light-brown hair. Hazel eyes. Just a bit over five feet…” He looked at her expectantly, eyebrows raised in that way he had.
“What are you getting at?” A chill ran down her spine. So what if Preston had described her to a T? That just showed that her looks were average—not that she needed reminding.
“You know what? Never mind.” He stuck the bill and a handful of cash on the table, using the bud vase and its one, perfect red rose to weigh it down. He stood and held out a hand to her.
She shoved her chair back and her purse fell off the back, her wallet and everything in it tumbling out. The newspaper article fluttered to the ground at their feet.
The faces of the three missing young women—all with long, light brown hair—stared up at them.
By Sharon Buchbinder
Preston bent down and picked up the clipping, its ragged edges stained brown. A cloud of sadness passed over the sunshine of the day. Those young women. “A damn shame about those girls.” He glanced up at Annabelle and snagged her gaze. “Nearly broke my heart when I heard they’d gone missing.”
The love of his life’s expression shifted. “You knew them?”
“Well, not in the Biblical sense. They came here with their families like you did, ya know?” He pointed at the girls one by one, going from left to right. “This one’s Lindsey—last name starts with a C, Carter? Cartwell?” He moved his index finger. “The one in the middle is Kelly Adams—easy to remember, first man and all that. This one, with the big smile, that’s Jessica Bonneville. I remember her last name because of the car. Great fun-loving girls. Gone. A real tragedy.”
Annabelle’s eyes narrowed and she asked in a low voice, “How did you know them?”
Whoa. I didn’t see that coming. She’s jealous.
“Hey, I confess, Max made the green-eyed monster come out in me, too.” He reached to pull her into a kiss and she stepped back. “Babe, what’s wrong?”
Her voice dripped with suspicion. “How is it possible that you were acquainted with all three of the missing women?”
Shaking his head, “Not women. Barely eighteen, fresh out of high school. The police called them the ABC girls. To me, that demeaned them, turned them into objects. They were vibrant, beautiful. I will always remember them laughing and joking with their families—that’s how I met them. Down on the dock, at the boat rentals. Same way I met you.”
“Did you date them, too? Make them think you only had eyes for them?”
Surprised at the ferocity in her voice, he reached for her ice cold hand. “Babe, you’re freezing. Honest, you have to believe me. You are the one, the only one for me.”
She frowned. “Did the police interview you?”
“For hours,” he nodded, recalling his time in the windowless room with the metal table. “I wasn’t even in Mystic Harbor when they went missing. I was at boat shows with Al, the owner of the boat rental company. He needed me to help him load and unload the boats and hand out brochures.”
“Lucky for you.” she said with a touch of sarcasm.
It wasn’t like his sweet gal to behave this way. She was never snarky, never nasty, always sunny and kind. What the heck was wrong with her? He had to get this straight with her, right now. He admired her determination and grit, but this time her stubborn perseverance on this line of questioning might get in the way of their relationship. Bad enough he’d been under a cloud of suspicion from the police. He didn’t need it from her, too.
“Listen to me, Annabelle. Please. I got enough of those comments from your not-so-secret admirer Max. He kept trying to prove I was actually in town, that the videos of the events had to have been doctored. He’s still got it in for me.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences, Preston. I have to ask. How is it that every time you were out of town, a woman went missing?”
“You’re right, way too coincidental. I was the easy target. Too easy. Max wanted to put me away and say he cleared the three cases.”
She licked her lips and locked gazes with him. “What do you think happened?”
He took a deep breath and blew it out. “Did you ever hear of the Divine Brilliance Cult?”
She frowned. “Aren’t they out west? In Oregon or California?”
“Yes, but they started under a different name. They used to be called PPC, short for the Polyamorous Polyglot Church.”
Her beautiful hazel eyes widened. “Weren’t they in the woods north of here in an old mining camp?”
“Exactly. They lured young women to the cult by sending good-looking guys into town. They’d chat the women up, tell them their aura was dark, a sign of impure thoughts. Then they’d invite them back to the camp for an evening of ‘deep spiritual cleansing’ by the cult leader.”
Her long fingers flew to her lush, kissable lips. “Omigod! I remember them. A movie star handsome guy tried to pick me up here.” She pointed back at the place they just left. “Before it was Sarah’s. When my parents showed up, he disappeared.” She shuddered. “I was so relieved. He gave me the creeps.”
“Not all the girls had your good intuition. Several families hired a cult deprogrammer to get their daughters back. When the IRS became interested in the so-called church, they pulled up stakes, left town, and changed their name. I suspect those missing girls are out west, still with the cult. A lot of lives were destroyed by that group, families’ devastated”
She squeezed his hand. “You sound as if you speak from personal experience. Did you lose somebody to them?”
“You could say that.” How could he tell her his mother and father had sold all their belongings and given everything to the cult leader? Preston had refused to go with them, but his little brother, Matt, that was another story. The kid had no choice. He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too upsetting.”
“Why didn’t the police go after the cult?”
“That’s the same thing I asked your buddy, Max. He stonewalled me and said he was asking the questions.”
She straightened her shoulders and tossed her hair back, the spark of determination back in her eyes. “Then maybe I should make a run at him? If he’s any kind of police officer, he should pursue all the clues—even in cold cases.”
“Oh,” Preston laughed. “Watch out, Max. Detective Poirot is coming after you.”
She grinned. “That’s Miss Marple to you.”
Grabbing her around the waist and pulling her close, he whispered in her ear, “If I’m a lucky man, you won’t be a Miss much longer.” He sealed her lips with a passionate kiss, hoping to lose himself in her arms. Perhaps just for one day, he could push the dark thoughts down, the ones that rose every time he thought of Lindsay, Kelly, or Jessica. Annabelle’s warm response helped him forget the whispers that haunted him from the shadows and woke him up nearly every night. No. That was all in the past. No good would come out of bringing up decades old family dirt. No good at all.
By Kathryn Knight
“Stay with me tonight,” Preston had murmured, his lips grazing her ear. A thrill of pleasure had shivered up her spine, and for a moment, she’d considered allowing him to convince her. Even now, as she tossed beneath the sheets in her own bed, a part of her wished she had, if only to lose herself in his arms for a while.
But escaping reality was not an option right now—too much was at stake, including, it seemed, her own sanity. The voices had started up again not long after they’d left the restaurant, not as demanding but still persistent, like tendrils of smoke floating through her mind. These women wanted—needed—to be found, and somehow, they seemed to think Annabelle was the one to do it.
Then there were the faint warning bells chiming in the back of her head when Preston had avoided her questions about the cult. She blew out a frustrated breath, staring out into the darkness. No way could Preston be involved in the disappearance of those women. He was kind and gentle. To her, anyway. But how well did she really know him? Sure, they’d been inseparable for those four weeks, wrapped up in their teenage romance, devastated at the thought of their impending separation. That had been twelve years ago, though, and because of the way everything had ended, she really had no idea what he’d been up to since then. And now, while their chemistry still burned bright, he was acting a bit cagey when it came to those intervening years.
On top of all that, she still remembered little after fleeing from the pale face in the cabin window. She needed to get some rest tonight, because tomorrow she was going to sort this out. First, she would return to the cabin—alone, this time—and find the courage to go inside. Clearly, it was somehow a part of this, and she was going to have to tamp down her fears and look for clues. After all, ghosts couldn’t actually hurt her, right?
And after that, armed hopefully with some kind of new information, she was going to see Max, and figure out a way to get him to tell her what happened during her visit this morning, without actually admitting she couldn’t remember. She didn’t want the entire population of Mystic Harbor thinking she was crazy. With a heavy sigh, she flipped to her side, willing sleep to reach up and take her.
The last traces of pink faded from the sky as she trudged up the mountain. A backpack bounced against her shoulder blades, its solid weight a welcome reassurance. She’d channeled her courage, but that didn’t mean charging up to the cabin unprepared. Inside the pack, she had snacks, water, a Swiss Army knife, a hammer, pepper spray, and her phone. She wasn’t sure any of the weapons would be of use against a violent spirit, but it couldn’t hurt. Plus, the members of that cult had been very real—and it was possible one of them, or some other unhinged predator—still lurked in these woods.
The trail opened up, revealing the abandoned cabin, and her breath caught. The old structure slumped into the mountain, tired and sagging, and yet somehow menacing as well. The windows were mercifully empty, but they seemed to watch her approach, the jagged shards of glass still clinging to the frames winking in the sunlight.
No screams filled her head, but her heart slammed against her ribcage. Adrenaline poured into her veins, begging her to turn and run. With a shuddering breath, she paused, gripping the straps of her backpack with damp palms. Go back, the voice in her head commanded, and this was her own voice, the authoritative rumble of common sense.
Pushing it away, she rolled her shoulders back and lifted one foot, her sneaker hovering over the swayed porch step for one tense moment. Then she climbed up to the porch, the ancient boards groaning beneath her weight.
Fear coursed through her as she stood before the door, rivulets of sweat sliding down her neck. Swallowing hard, she reached a hand toward the knob and closed her shaking fingers around the rusted knob. It turned beneath her palm easily, coating her skin with red flakes that reminded her of blood. Silence spun out, the only sound the rush of her heartbeat in her ears. Even the birds had ceased their musical trills.
The creak of the door swinging open seemed to echo through the still air, and she blinked as she peered inside, her eyes adjusting to the dimly lit interior. Nothing moved, and she took a few hesitant steps into the room.
It was just one large, crude space, filled with the remnants of broken furniture and piles of garbage and leaves. A filthy mattress lay in one corner, swollen mounds of gray foam bursting from gaping holes. Dented beer cans and faded food wrappers lined the floor, and a thick candle squatted on an overturned plastic milk crate. A charred circle filled with stones and sticks outlined the remains of a long-ago fire.
As her gaze traveled around the room, strange marks on the far walls snagged her attention. Symbols? Words? It was hard to tell from this distance. Squinting, she took a few steps forward.
A sharp slam rang out behind her, and she whirled, a scream tearing at her throat as she stared at the closed door. She scrambled backwards, away from it, tripping over a metal bucket and falling to the floor with a bone-rattling thump. With a whimper, she whipped her backpack off and clutched it to her chest, as though it were a shield.
Beyond the roar of her throbbing heart and her ragged breaths, another sound began to emerge: a chorus of frantic whispers, rising and falling in unintelligible torrents. Tremors wracked her body as she whipped her head around, searching for the source, fighting the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and curl into a ball.
The air in front of the door shimmered, and inky shadows began to stretch and lengthen. Dark wisps solidified to form a trio of murky figures with grasping fingers and long, gauzy hair. Empty black holes stared out of gray, agonized faces.
Their sinister pleas grew to screeching wails, and Annabelle moaned, rocking on the floor. Trapped. How could she have been so stupid? Panic stabbed at her as she searched for a way to escape. Keeping her eyes on the terrifying images, she pushed herself unsteadily to her feet. The windows. They were already broken, she would launch herself out of one. The glass would likely cut her, but the idea of plunging through the filmy specters to get to the door was unthinkable.
The one in the middle reached out an arm, and a clear sentence reverberated through Annabelle’s mind. Help us.
She gasped, hugging the backpack to her chest. Licking her dry lips, she whispered, “I’ll try.” The words seemed deafening in the dim room.
Annabelle nodded, unsure whether they could even see her with their sightless eyes. But maybe the message got through, because the apparitions began fading, tearing apart like smoke.
As their forms dissipated, a chill filled the space they’d inhabited. Ducking her head down, Annabelle thrust the backpack out in front of her and lunged toward the door. Icy air swirled around her, but nothing solid blocked her path, and she grabbed the knob and flung the door open.
She stumbled onto the porch, into the light, her chest heaving, one last phrase rising in her head.
Don’t trust him.
The smell of the water, the sounds of laughter, sneakers crunching through the fallen pine cones on the way to the beach mixed into a familiar, sensuous concoction Kelly Adams associated with summers spent in Mystic Harbor. Waking up to complete silence confused her. Looking out the wavy glass window in the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Kelly saw a brilliant, sunny day, the blue sky so bright it had to be late morning.
Bounding out of bed, the empty great room was at once lonely and welcoming. She’d never been left alone in the cabin before. A note taped to the coffee maker provided the explanation.
We’re headed to the loathsome flea market and decided to let you have your way this time. Don’t go to the beach alone. We’ll be back in time for dinner at the lodge. Fish fry tonight! Love, Dad
Smiling at the note, Kelly knew what it had cost her father to leave her alone. He was super protective of all his girls, but especially of Kelly, his oldest. There was a special connection between father and daughter, almost psychic, and from the time Kelly was a toddler, she could feel what her father was feeling.
“Uh oh, Kelly and Roger are having a brainwave conversation,” her mystic grandmother would say. “You can almost see them reading each others minds.”
“Ma, do you mind?” Roger Adams asked.
He didn’t want to feed into his mother’s hocus pocus hogwash, even though, frighteningly, it had proved to be true. His oldest daughter had a way about her – she let him know what she was thinking without speaking. The thoughts weren’t like spoken words. They were more like feelings he could hear in his head. Kelly confided in him that it was the same for her – she knew what he was thinking. They dealt with the possible weirdness by politely keeping their distance and not intruding on private thoughts. Only on matters of mutual concern did they use the ability.
Once Kelly reached puberty, Roger tried zealously to guard his daughter’s privacy. But from time to time, especially if she experienced fear or danger, Roger intervened. It was simply easier for the family to stick close together. Allowing her this one-time chance at freedom would be a test of sorts. If all went well, he’d back off in the future.
A bakery box with Kelly written on it, and a silver metal thermos stood off to the side of the coffee maker. Popping open the top of the thermos, Kelly smelled hazelnut flavored coffee, her favorite. She’d started to drink coffee last fall, and now that she’d graduated high school, was already hooked and couldn’t function without it. With a mug of coffee and an apple strudel on a paper plate, she sat at her usual place at the table, looking out over the water. A distant radio played familiar tunes, and a misplaced seagull, too far inland, cried out a sad song. Even the smells were heady – a slightly salty, fishy amalgam, with coconut oil and bacon frying made her smile.
A day of peace and freedom stretched out before her. Although Roger had suggested that a beach outing was acceptable if she could find a companion, Kelly had no desire to go. The beach was more fun with her sisters. They would lay side-by-side on an old blanket their grandmother had provided for sunbathing and watch the boys while reading teen magazines. The adults were amused, explaining they had done the exact same thing in their youth.
A picnic basket packed with cold sodas, bologna sandwiches, and little bags of potato chips helped to fend off hunger. There was always dessert, too: cupcakes or cookies, or peeled oranges. Their mother said she enjoyed packing lunches for her daughters. They were growing up so fast and would soon be out on their own. Roger shuddered when she said it.
“I don’t even want to think about the girls leaving.”
“We’re not normal,” his wife, Beverly replied, laughing.
“Why not? We love our family,” he retorted.
After she finished eating, Kelly got dressed for an afternoon on the porch. A used-book sale at the Mystic Harbor library provided stacks of books that would get the family through a lazy summer. She chose a mystery – her favorite, and a white cat, a cat ghost perhaps? graced the cover. The book, a tall glass of ice cold soda, and she was ready.
The porch was arranged for relaxation, providing log-constructed furniture piled high with overstuffed pillows, rockers for reading, and even a swing. Kelly loved the swing, also made of logs, suspended from the ceiling by heavy chains. She placed the glass of soda on the ledge of the half-wall surrounding the porch, and opened the book.
Immersed in an eerie tale of activity in an abandoned house, she didn’t notice that dark clouds had slid into place, obscuring the sun, or the cessation of laughter and music from the beach when everyone took cover from impending weather signaled she was really alone. It wasn’t until the familiar crunch of shoes on fallen pine cones that she looked up from the pages of her book and gasped when she saw him watching her.
“I’m sorry I scared you.”
Pinpricks of fear traveled across her face, trembling lips making it impossible to speak right away. Tall and muscular, the stranger didn’t get in that shape from working out at the gym. His body was that of a guy who did manual labor – she remembered her male cousins helping her father cut down trees and the banter about the difference between gym muscles and the kind achieved from swinging an ax.
He stood on the other side of the porch railing, his hand on the ledge near her glass, looking at her, waiting.
“What do you want?”
A crack of thunder made her jump, and then the inevitable rain drops, the first few coming down in spurts, and then a torrent. He ran around to the steps and climbed to the porch, uninvited, but she didn’t know how she could refuse him shelter.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, shaking the water from his hair, laughing.
In seconds, he had gotten soaked. She could smell him, something fragrant, perhaps the fabric softener he used, and something acrid that heightened her awareness. Maybe it was his deodorant, or something he put in his hair. The odors made her more conscious of his physicality, and the intimacy of it further served to petrify her. Something scratched at her from the inside, a warning perhaps, or just common sense. For a moment she considered jumping over the half-wall and taking off toward town. The impulse was buffered by her need to feel like she wasn’t a kid anymore.
“Do you have a towel I could use? I’m really sorry,” he said.
Heart beating faster, she didn’t want to go into the cabin with him lurking right outside of the door. She decided she’d close and lock the door, no matter how silly or paranoid it appeared.
Even thinking she could pretend to call for her mother might keep him in line, if there was a need.
Finally, standing from the rocker, she moved to the door, trying to appear more confident than she felt. She reached for the handle on the screen door, ready to jump inside and slam the heavy door shut, and just as she did so, in one step, he grabbed the door above her head.
The rain held off until the Adams had finished browsing the vast flea market, and were sitting in the café preparing to order lunch.
“We timed that perfectly,” Beverly Adams said, taking menus for everyone.
“You’re not kidding,” daughter Theresa replied, pointing out the window. “The driveway is already a river of mud.”
Handing a menu to her husband, a stab of fear cruised through her body when she saw the tortured expression on his pale face.
“Roger, what is it.”
“We need to get back to the cabin,” he said, standing up. “Now.”
Will be released Monday, February 26, 2018
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