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Buried Truth

 

 

BURIED TRUTH

By Caleb Whitaker

 

Table of Contents

Preface 4

Chapter 2: Three Days Earlier 9

Chapter 3: My Childhood Room 13

Chapter 4: Processing the Scene 17

Chapter 5: A Loving Family 22

Chapter 6: The Darkness 26

Chapter 7: The Bar 29

Chapter 8: Paranoia 33

Chapter 9: Ryleigh 37

Chapter 10: Colonial Park 40

Chapter 11: Lost 44

Chapter 12: City Anxiety 48

Chapter 13: Safety and Answers 52

Chapter 14: Reliving the Past 57

Chapter 15: Broken 61

Chapter 16: A Time to Remember 66

Chapter 17: Intuition of a Mad Man 70

Chapter 18: The Hidden File 74

Chapter 19: Cabin Fever 78

Chapter 20: A Trail of Confusion 82

Chapter 21: The Brewing Storm 86

Chapter 22: A Strange Encounter 89

Chapter 23: A Coward’s Plan 93

Chapter 24: Reality Check 98

Chapter 25: Unmasked 102

Chapter 26: The Knockout Round  106

Chapter 27: Aftermath 111

Chapter 28: A Week Later 114

Chapter 29: Checkmate 118

[]Preface

 

The Journey from an idea to actual novel sized work was much more challenging than I ever expected. But, it was also one of the more thrilling adventures I have ever experienced. It wasn’t completed in a night, and in fact, it took many wide-eyed nights to finally get it to the point that I felt comfortable enough to send it out on its own. So, for that I must thank my wife for her patience and encouragement.

I have always been interested in writing, but my other passions led me down a different career path. One day I finally made up my mind to start a novel based on a small idea surrounding buried truths, and the rest unfolded before my eyes. I tried to be as accurate as possible with my plot points while at the same time stretching the boundaries of reality to its breaking point. It involved both research and imagination which was quite fun at times.

Since I started writing out of literally nowhere, I needed some kind of help to get to the end. I did get some general advice for writing in the Thriller Genre from British author D.M.Mitchell. I have read nearly all his books, and his advice gave me the boost I needed to go all the way through with writing the novel. I hate doing stuff when I don’t know exactly how it needs to be done, so I’m extremely grateful for the advice. 

I self-edited the entire novel to the best of my abilities. Which meant obsessing over it until I was comfortable with the product, so I hope I caught most of it because it did take many hours. With that being said there will be slight errors until I’m able to go through it again at a later time. The longer its published the less errors there should be as I go through and resubmit it, but it should only contain minor mistakes as it is right now. Editing and proofing was a whole other challenge that I learned a lot from as I molded the text.

The novel is written in first person present from Ryan’s point of view. It definitely adds to the memory loss, but was one of the greater challenges when writing the story that I wanted to develop. If I achieved my goal, then the reader should be trapped in Ryan’s world seeking the answers as Ryan himself.

If anyone enjoys “Buried Truth” half as much as I enjoyed writing it then it was worth getting out there. I’ve learned a lot through the process, and I look forward to traversing the rigorous terrain of another novel in the future. I still have a lot to learn, and I’m sure with feedback and more writing I’ll better my style. With God’s grace, I hope to continue growing in the craft.

 The cover photo for the book was taken by “Justine Hand for Gardenista” on the article DIY: Plant Your Christmas Tree in the Garden: Gardenista

Chapter 1: Gate’s Mansion

 

As I drive up to the narrow, weed riddled, dirt walkway, I get my first glimpse of the secluded Gate’s Mansion. The old forgotten home of the Gate family looks as spooky as anything you could possibly find in the great state of Georgia or probably even the darkest depths of Hell itself for that matter. Instantly, the structure reminds me of Halloween nights and scary frights from a far better time in my life. A time when horror was only a guilty pleasure. But at this particular moment after everything that has happened, the mere sight of the mansion creates a nauseating reminder of my own recent nightmare of a life. Nevertheless, the mansion has this special something that just seems to hold my gaze and entice me despite the obvious fear and terror the mansion brings me.

The fierce wind blows through my hair as another storm threatens to ravage the area. “Wow! Of course, this thing would look exactly like a mansion right out of a horror movie. Why did I have to do this right before dark?”

This is the second old home that I have been up close and personal with in the last two days, which helps me muster some strength and overcome the fear that is slowly seeping into my mind. I stop the car at the end of the overgrown walkway, and examine the mansion as I slam my door shut.

From a distance, it is apparent the mansion is a grayish color, no doubt faded from its prime and covered with a layer of dust and grime. There are weeds and vines growing up from its base slowly engulfing the surrendered home. Based on the information in my file and my knowledge of architecture, it appears to be a wooden two-story structure built in the mid to late 1800s.

There is a balcony strutting out from the center of the upstairs level that gives off the impression of a pitchforked tongue sticking out to devour its prey. Two huge oak trees located on either side of the house act as battle tested bodyguards entrusted by the owners to protect the entire house from outside danger. Hanging from both trees are old, splintered, wooden planks dangling in the wind on a thinning rope, the forgotten residue of two swings that once probably added a calming influence to the site, but now only add to the gloomy atmosphere.

As I start walking along the narrow, wet walkway, I begin looking at one of the huge oak trees that stand along the right side of the home. It looks quite foreboding with its broad trunk and moss hanging from every branch in sight. The rope attached to the tree looks as if it might break at any moment.[_ _]As if, a spooky mansion isn’t enough. But no, that’s not enough because there would of course have to be creepy remnants of the past everywhere I look.

As my gaze traces the tree—from its base, all the way to its top, I see something behind the tree that grabs my attention. While I attempt to peer past the oak and concentrate on the window located behind it, I suddenly freeze in mid-step with an overpowering fear. What is that? I swear that looked like… or maybe it was just me seeing things. I really don’t want to do this. I know he has the advantage here. But, I can’t chicken out now. There is too much at stake.

 I let out an exhausting sigh as I regain my poise and return to my walk up to the house. The mansion is even more impressive from right in front of the old porch than it was from the walkway. From in front of the porch, I can clearly see that the wood, which makes up the outside of the house, is all splintered and rugged much like the swing in the tree—both of which are probably a result of years of sun damage, weathering, and lack of upkeep.

I bet this house was amazing in its prime. No inhabitant probably could have ever imagined back then that this house would get into such a horrible state, and the current weather isn’t helping matters. Although, the recent rain must not have been too heavy in this part of the countryside because dust and dirt cover the old wood that makes up the exterior walls and porch. There are also sinister looking vines snaking through the railings that help add to the ever-present fear that is slowly slithering through me. Here goes nothing.

I walk up the four steps onto the porch landing. As I brace myself against the porch rail, I notice the porch landing has a coat of untouched dust on it, which leads me to believe it has been undisturbed for some time. There is no way someone walking on the damp dirt could walk on the porch without leaving evidence, but I don’t see any. There are no apparent signs that anyone has thought about this house, let alone actually entered it in who knows how long. Then, what was that in the window? Maybe I was seeing things. I haven’t had much sleep lately. It’s probably just my nerves. I still haven’t recovered from everything, and I feel like I’m going crazy.

 As I walk across the porch up to the wooden door, the boards creak and moan with every step almost as if they are begging me to leave—pleading with every step I take for me to forget about her. While standing directly in front of the door, something unseen sends chills down my back, which freaks me out to the point that I turn from the door and glance back out toward my car. It is at this point that I notice three distinct footprints leading from the porch steps to the door of the home.

The angle of the remaining sunlight must have caused me to miss them earlier. One set of footprints is obviously mine because they are wet, meaning the dry sets have to be their prints. This new evidence leads me to believe they must have gone inside the mansion earlier than I thought and before the rain came down this morning. With no other choice, I turn back around to the door, placing my hand on the old wooden doorknob and twist it, not knowing what to expect next.

The door creaks open with one more desperate cry for me to turn around. I calmly ignore the door’s moan and look into the house from outside while I turn on my flashlight. Oh, I wish I didn’t have to do this.

As I cautiously walk into the dusty thrown away house, I cannot shake the feeling of cold, loneliness, and despair. The outside of the house and pictures from my file does not do the building justice. The interior is a gorgeous blend of early and mid-1800s building techniques. I can tell someone used to take good care of it, but now that person is apparently lost and nowhere to be found while the house slowly deteriorates. I close the door gently, but it screams out a loud screeching cry against me anyways.

There is only one way to proceed inward from the door and that happens to lead straight down a short hallway towards what appears to be some kind of foyer in the distance. I can’t help but notice spider webs running along the top of the wall from the ceilings[_. _]I hope one of those dreadful things does not bite me. I hate spiders! The walls and floor show signs of bumps and bruises which no doubt hold great mysteries and secrets from a time long ago.

The hallway does indeed open up into a foyer, which even through the layers of dust is quite breathtaking. Two old antique couches covered in film sit inviting visitors to take a seat. In the middle of the foyer, rests an elegantly carved fountain. Which even in its current condition looks amazing, meaning it once must have been truly beautiful. However, in its present state the fountain chipped and forgotten stands merely as a dried out husk of what it once was in a prior life.

The stand out feature of the room is a giant chandelier, hanging down loosely from the ceiling, that immediately draws my eye upward, and I have little doubt that anyone else that ever walked into the room would have had a similar experience. It is actually the only thing in the room that reflects any light through the dust. Somehow, it also seems to be in perfect condition, which is a feat of its own given the overall condition of the mansion. This chandelier somehow calms my nerves and gives me slight hope, but hope for what?       

At this moment, I realize how much I have in common with this old house. It wasn’t too long ago that I had finally reached my goal and graduated college with a master’s degree. It feels like forever ago in my mind, but actually it was only a few days ago. I was on the fast track to becoming a professor at a local college. How did I end up here? I was only 23 and had everything to live for, I was handsome, had a nice family, and people who cared for me.

Then the truth started to come out, which led to a terrifying event that ultimately shattered my world. A truth I still haven’t quite figured out, even though I’ve tried with all my might. Oh yeah, that bloody mystery is how I ended up here. The deep dark secret that had been hidden from me had finally found its way to the surface, and I couldn’t handle it. A curse so dark it nearly ruined me. Well, if I’m honest, for the most part it had ruined me—all except for putting me into an early grave. My physical features have slowly been eaten away over the past few days by scars and stress from my seemingly long journey into the unknown.

My friends, of which there were so many when I had a promising future, are now for all intents and purposes gone. I have always heard true friends are hard to come by and ain’t that the truth. Family members either don’t talk to me or can’t talk to me anymore. I am truly alone filled with regret and despair, wanting to die all alone. Everyone that had ever taken care of me or comforted me is gone and, the future that once was so bright has self-destructed. Why did all this have to happen to me?

Then something happened that changed everything. I met a girl and she gave me at least a sense of hope in a hopeless situation. Ok, so maybe I already knew her, but still… she gave me a reason to live and a way to make things right. That definitely counts for something even if I still don’t know how exactly I’m supposed to make things right. If I’m honest with myself, I probably never will know exactly how to fix this.

Trying to dismiss the thoughts of the events that led up to this point, I take a deep breath and turn my attention to the room. Knowing I must find a way to focus on the here and now, I set everything aside and go into thinking mode as I call it. Which is really just me pacing around while running my fingers through my hair as I talk aloud to myself. “I have to come up with a game plan. This place will drive me nuts and have me jumping at shadows all night. Not to mention the fact that if the footprints on the porch do happen to be theirs, then that means he is already here with her. Waiting for me!”

A chill runs up my arm stomping my thought into the dust. I survey the room while I become ever more cautious with every second I spend inside the mansion. However, there is nothing there, just the same creepy old foyer. Not knowing if I should be fearful for myself or for her, I take a deep breath.

  “Maybe I should go stand over by the entrance to the foyer that way I know nothing is behind me. I mean, since they are here, I need to be very careful. He wouldn’t hurt her because he still needs something from me. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t get hurt.”

By nature, I tend to be a very cautious, analytical man, which makes it even more shocking that this type of tragedy would happen to me. But then again, I also have trouble being a screw up that gets himself into precarious situations. The alcohol being my down bringing on more than one occasion. So maybe it isn’t as shocking as I would like to believe. Either way it still happened, and I’m still stuck with the misery and consequences of the event. I still can’t shake the feeling that somehow it is still all my fault. I could have and should have done something. But I didn’t and now she is in danger and that is my fault.

Leaning against the wall by the entrance to the foyer, I run my trembling fingers through my hair. I have found it hard to focus since everything went haywire in my life. Which makes trying to keep my focus on the here and now and not the past a very difficult task.

I begin talking aloud once more trying to soothe my aching soul. “Ok, he isn’t going to hurt her yet, but I can’t stay here fretting the past. I have to do something this time. I could save us. No, I am going to save us!”

I suddenly see something out of the corner of my eye dart out from behind an old wooden bookcase. It dashed into another hallway that exits the foyer. Having no clue what I did or didn’t see, I’m left with curiosity and fear, which in a way helps me retain my resolve for the moment. She said it would be dangerous, but it was the only way to move forward. What am I seeing? It has to be him.

I walk to the other side of the foyer where I had seen something dart out of sight. I approach the empty bookcase, which stands against the wall. I slip past it with slight concern and slowly creep along the wall to the corner of the hallway. Feeling chilled to the bone because of what lies in my past and future, I freeze. This is my absolute last chance to go back. Once I turn the corner there will be no going back either for better or for worse.

I peak around the corner. There is nothing except more old dust and spider webs. Whatever ran this way must have exited by running into one of the rooms attached to the hallway, or they might have gone up the stairs at the far end. This is it. I only have one choice and that is to move forward. I take one more glance back up at the magnificent chandelier with its glistening crystals, not knowing if I will see it again or not.

I choke down my fear and slowly start walking down the hallway. I pass one empty room, then another without seeing anyone. When I should be worrying about myself, all I can think about is my past and her. Out of nowhere, a throbbing pain originates from the top of my head, followed by a prick in my arm.

As my world slowly goes black, I ransack my mind searching for answers from the day my life unknowingly would be changed forever. The day my subconscious has tried so hard to forget, but could never break free from its chains within my mind. That horrendous day remains entrenched in my thoughts as I crash downward onto the wooden floor while the rest of my surroundings slowly dissolve away into nothingness.

 

[] Chapter 2: Three Days Earlier

                  

As my alarm clock goes off with a loud series of annoying beeps, I slowly and gingerly open my eyes. An extreme headache causes me great discomfort and impedes my vision. Things slowly come into focus as my eyes adjust from the darkness of my slumber. I roll over, quickly noticing there are aches throughout my whole body as I lift my arm out towards the alarm clock. With what feels like my last bit of energy, I slam my hand down on the snooze button. “Shut up! Aw, my… my head is killing me. What did I do this time? That must have been one great celebration last night, but jeez…”

The effects of the alcohol cause me to slowly get out of bed and walk to the kitchen in search of something to relieve my symptoms before my head blows. I quickly find some ibuprofen and a glass of water. My hands tremble as I open the bottle causing the pills to splatter out onto the floor. Too exhausted to bend over, I leave the pills that spilled out onto the floor and carefully pour some more out into my hand. I chug the pills down. Hoping that the quicker they go down, the quicker they will help.

Normally, I would go turn on ESPN and catch some of the highlights from last night. However, with my head splitting apart, I decide against the noisy television and choose to lock myself in my bedroom. I feel nauseous, but oddly not to the point of throwing up. So, I bypass the bathroom for now and head for my bed.

Once situated with my back against a stack of soft pillows, my fingers grind across my temple, attempting to relieve some pressure. When that doesn’t work, I give in to my stress by gliding my fingers through my sweat-oiled hair. I often find, in a time like this, it’s best to concentrate on the happy moments in life instead of my aching misery. The only problem is there has to be a happy moment to cling to when under pressure. Luckily, for me, one of those happy moments has recently occurred.

I can’t believe I finally graduated with my master’s degree. Yesterday was awesome. But, I can’t seem to remember much about last night. Huh, I must have a hangover or something. It wouldn’t be a first… On the bright side, I can now put my application in and take that teaching job at the university.

It feels good to finally be done with my degree. I made good grades in school and just had a knack for higher mathematics. Of course, I had my troubles as most people do, but the drive to be someone great set me apart from the rest, at least that’s what I’ve been told. Still, teaching wasn’t all I ever wanted to do, but it’s the one thing that I haven’t ruined with my selfish antics.

And to think some said I would never make it. Aw, you just have to love the small town life. Everyone thinks they got you all figured out until they suddenly don’t. Ok, so I have been a bit of a loose cannon at times. But, come on, who hasn’t. Am I not allowed to enjoy myself? After all the hiccups along the way, I still managed to stay the course and get stuff done.

 Feeling the sweat drip across my forehead and onto the bed causes me to realize just how disheveled I am for such an early hour in the morning. An unexpected pain shoots up my arm from my fingertips. I force myself out of bed and over towards the bathroom. My reflection in the mirror glares back at me catching my attention.

My hair is drenched in sweat as if I have been exercising all night. There are a couple scratches on my cheeks and a small gash located around my hairline. I sift my fingers through my brown wavy hair, trying to inspect the gash that is partly covered behind my hairline. It looks pretty bad, but it’s scabbed over with dried blood and sweat.

Never mind, apparently that must have been one hell of a celebration. Surveying the rest of my body reveals a white bandage covering my side. Under the bandage is a cut that continues to secrete small amounts of blood, so I leave the bandage alone. In obvious need of a shower and something else to soothe my headache, so I reluctantly turn on the shower faucet. The water washes away the sweat and dried blood from the night before until only the wounds of the mysterious night are left.

After returning to my bedroom, I pick up my phone to see if anyone had called or texted me. As expected, several people have texted me congratulations for my graduation from a tough program. I read them, soaking up the praise until one message in particular catches my eye. It is from an unknown number that is not stored in my phone, and the message was delivered at 11:48 last night. The message simply reads:

‘I saw what happened. Be careful. It’s not safe!’

Ok. That is kinda creepy. What isn’t safe? I haven’t done anything that I can remember anyways. Whose number is this?

The strange text rustles my pessimism into a frenzy. When the motives rolling around in my brain become far too absurd to be real, I rationalize the text away as nothing. If anything, it’s probably a prank.

In need of someone to talk to, I call up one of my friends who hopefully can fill me in on some things from the past night. The phone rings for a couple seconds until a deep drawn out country voice answers with a “Hello.”

“Hey, Matt. What’s going on?”

He says, “Nothing much, I did want to let ya know some of the guys wanted to go out for drinks again tonight in honor of ya becoming Mr. Bigshot today.”

I reply, “Well, I haven’t officially gotten the job. But, yeah! That’s fine; just call me later with the details.”

“Ya ok, Ryan? Ya sound a little strung out.”

I’m honest with him, “Yeah, I just feel like crap, and I got some scratches and a gash on my head. How much did we drink last night?”

He takes a second to respond. “Not too much. We got together around five and had a few drinks. Ya said you had something to do last night and left early, so we made plans with everyone for tonight.”

“I don’t remember any of that. It’s as if last night as just been erased.” I say.

“Ya did have a few drinks, and ya are a bit of a lightweight.” He jokes.

Not amused, I reply, “This is one annoying hangover if that’s what it is. I also got this weird text from some unknown number saying that they saw what happened last night and that it wasn’t safe.

With a chuckle, he replies, “Huh, did you kill someone? Or someone attacks ya… ya are somewhat of a big deal now.”

I can hear him laughing. “No, and that’s not funny. I would never actually kill someone and I don’t remember anyone unusual from last night.”

Then again, I don’t really remember anything from last night. But I could never kill… and why would anyone want to kill me.

Matt coughs on the line, then still with a chuckle answers, “Well, maybe it’s the girl from the bar playing with ya.”

My chest tightens, then relaxes as a weird indescribable feeling builds within me. “I doubt that. It’s never a girl.”

“Yeah, and whose fault is that? Always working or getting in trouble. Not exactly the catch of the year. Although y’all were hitting it off last night. Please say ya at least can remember her.”

“No, I don’t remember much of anything from last night.” Great. Just great. Can’t even catch a break when I have my life in order.

He says, “Man, that’s a real shame. She was a looker too. If I had known ya would forget her that easy, I would of stepped my game up last night. Oh well… I have to go Mr. Bigshot Professor. Ya know, people to see, things to do.”

Before I hang up. I say, “Yeah, I got to run too. Alright, I’ll see you tonight.”

I have to stop drinking. Well? Maybe, I just won’t drink as much. The alcohol has made me do stupid stuff in the past. Or, it could be that I’m prone to do stupid stuff, and the alcohol brings that part of me to the surface. Either way it has caused me to forget a whole night yet again.

How is it that I actually meet a girl and can’t remember her the next morning? It’s just my luck. I never have had much luck with the opposite sex. I don’t think I’m ugly by any means, but it just has never worked out. There have been a few that would hang around, but in the end, they moved on to better men. I was never more than something that gave them attention, then when better attention came along, off they went.

Now thinking back, I do have a strange feeling there might have been this one girl several months ago. I seem to remember the way she made my heart feel. The way she made me feel alive when I felt dead inside. For some reason, I can’t remember much more than the distinctions of those feelings. It only occurs to me because when Matt mentioned a girl, my heart jumped, and I felt something different. That feeling only lasted for a moment, but it felt familiar.

But the feeling, much like last night is a mystery to me. Perhaps, the girl was never real in the first place. I’m basing her entire existence on a feeling that occurred during a phone call that mentioned someone I met in a bar. Then now, I’m trying to tie it to a feeling I had months ago. It makes no sense. It would actually make more sense that I dreamt a girl because I could never sustain a real relationship with one. Maybe, I’m dreaming still.

Only Matt said there was a real flesh and blood living girl with me last night. So who is she? If I had met her before last night, I should remember her. But I don’t. So either, I just met her yesterday and can’t remember her because of the hangover. Or, I had met her before yesterday, which means she could be the girl of my dreams. The problem with her being my forgotten dream girl is that would mean my memory issue is much deeper than a symptom of too much alcohol. But, what would cause such memory loss?

A hangover makes the most sense. It would account for the memory loss and the scrapes on my forehead. That would mean I met her last night. So how am I supposed to find a girl I met yesterday with no memory and no clue of who she is? And why do I feel disappointed by this?

The harder I try to remember the past night the more intense my headache becomes. Feeling thoroughly exhausted, I rest my head back on my trusty old pillow and close my eyes. As I lay there completely still, feeling my head throb for what feels like an eternity, a voice materializes from somewhere.

The voice that reverberates throughout my room sounds like a muffled scream of a woman. It’s the type of scream that instantly makes you cringe, knowing something terrible has happened. The characteristic that promptly catches my attention is the way the scream sounded like that of a voice coming through a radio off in the distance. It’s unsettling because I clearly heard it in my room. The thought quickly registers, and then burrows itself within my throbbing head much like a song on repeat. Someone is in my house—screaming in my house.

My eyes flood open with a flash of fear and fury. One would think seeing my room empty would bring me comfort. Not for me. The empty room only intensifies my fear and growing concern. Then the weird text message from the unknown number invades my thoughts. What if it’s not safe? What if the text wasn’t a joke, and someone is here to harm me?

I gently walk over to my bedroom door, listening intently for any more screams. Pure calmness sets in throughout the house as I peer out into the hallway. The next few minutes are spent with me running through the house searching every room. I even catch myself opening the refrigerator at one point, as if the scream came from the leftover lasagna. But ultimately, to my dismay, there is no sight of anyone or anything in my house.

Once again, one would think an empty house would bring along a level of comfort. A comfort registering from the fact nobody is in pain or attempting to hurt me in my own home. But that just isn’t the case for me today. For today upon finding the house empty, the sense of bewilderment and fear flowing throughout my thoughts buries itself into my heart.

“I clearly heard a scream. There was a woman in pain. The scream had to of come from the house. I mean, come on… I could practically feel the voice echoing in my room. What is going on? First, I can’t remember stuff and now I’m hearing voices.”

I begin pacing in an effort to figure out a way to help put my morning back together. “What is going to happen next? Everything is all out of whack today. I have never felt more lost. This is supposed to be the day everything fell into place for me. So, why do I feel so terrible?”

As my fingers glide through my hair, it becomes clear that the more I think about everything, I only end up with more questions coming to mind. Not only are there more questions, but it feels as if the questions themselves are leading down a dark path. A path that could lead anywhere.

 

[] Chapter 3: My Childhood Room

                                                 

Trying to rest with a headache and an obsession with unanswered questions is apparently a lost cause. Because no matter how much I want to sleep, I can’t return to that semi-unconscious state where everything melts away. My alarm clock reads 11:17 a.m.

Didn’t I have something planned with mom and dad? Think. My headache that still hasn’t resided despite another batch of pills starts pulsing like waves through my brain. Wow, don’t think that hard. I think they wanted to have… lunch. At 12:30? Well 12:30 is when we always do lunch at the house. So yeah 12:30.

The sunlight piercing the room through the blinds speaks to my aching body, beseeching me to get some exercise, to take a nice run in the warmth of this calm spring day. That should get all these aches and pains out and help me clear my mind. My calculations prove I have just enough time to run instead of taking the quicker drive to my parents’ house. So, I throw on my sweat pants and prepare to run down the few blocks.

The streets are busy with traffic, but the sidewalk waits for me abandoned except for the occasional dog walker. A beautiful day greets my skin with a nice breeze, just warm enough to make me sweat, but not muggy enough to make it seem like I’m running in a swamp. The sweet fragrance of lilies from the park floats through the breeze into my running lane. My feet pound against the sidewalk as the sweet fragrances set me at ease until I slip away into the music from my iPhone.

A lady walking a dog nears me, and my shoulders brush hers as we almost collide head on. The dog snarls at me with its sharp teeth sparkling in the sunlight, showing that it’s ready to sink its protective bite into my tasty flesh. My head bows apologetically as the woman pulls on the leash. That was close.

My thoughts and ambitions clear as I continue running. I have always found comfort in nature. Everything has a purpose. There is both beauty and destruction, but through it all there is purpose. A certain clarity is found when spending time with nature; it’s pure and undefiled, unlike many human interactions.

Two houses on opposite sides of the street near as I slow my pace to observe the scene. One is a house built in the 90s with a modern structure, nothing special or different about it, but the other is a renovated home from the early 1900s. Every time I run, the beauty of the picturesque surroundings blows me away, and it always amazes me how our little town seems to bring together a clash of modern architecture with a splash of vintage Victorian. It’s as if this part of Georgia is stuck somewhere between the past and future, bringing to life the present age mixed with a little of everything. The irony is that our particular piece of paradise is called Everton, Georgia. It’s no wonder the local joke throughout out little town is we are a little bit of everything from Georgia. I never found it that funny, but it sure does fit.

All of a sudden, I am jolted from my admiration for the surrounding sights by a car pulling out onto the road. The car barrels right out in front of me nearly hitting me. The sudden encounter brings uncontrollable rage and anger to my consciousness that is just waiting to explode out like an atom bomb. I try with all my might to keep it down, but once this particular bomb is armed, it usually blows. Before I can defuse it, I shout out some obscenities that I don’t even realize I’m saying until they are already out.

Flustered by almost being bitten by a dog, then nearly killed by a grandpa behind the wheel, I try to concentrate on just getting to my parents’ house. I’m already getting close, so on any other day it shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, I should probably call and let them know that I’m almost to the house. I call their house phone as I run using my Bluetooth device. The phone rings and rings and rings, but no one answers.

That is weird they should be home. They are the ones that wanted to eat lunch and congratulate me. Maybe I should leave a message. “Hey, mom and dad. I’m almost to the house. Y’all wanted to make me lunch remember. See you guys in a bit. Love y’all.”

With rising concern, I decide I should call their cell phones just in case they are out of the house. Once again, it goes to voicemail. I start getting a little more worried as I come to a rest, beneath a tree branch that is hanging out over the sidewalk. This is not like them at all. They are probably fine. I’m just freaking out. They will get the message that I left. I’ll be to the house shortly anyways. Nothing to worry about.

I’m about five blocks away, so I pick up my pace a little. The music doesn’t carry me away this time, because I can’t shake a bad gut feeling. They are ok. They live in the middle of town in a crimeless neighborhood. They are ok. Nothing is wrong. Today is a good day, a great day. They are fine, probably just still in bed[_.      _]

I reach their block in no time at all, and the house comes into view. The childhood home where my parents raised my sister and me. The nice two-story house with a picket fence always reminds me of the popular saying about the American dream. As I make it to the fence gate, I take a glance up at my old room as I do every time the house comes into view. It is just a habit that I had picked up over the years that was probably forged because for much of my life that room was my life. Every day when I would get home, I would look up at the window at what my life was and yearn for what my life could be outside of that room. How childish was I? That childhood room is the only place of true safety I have ever been able to keep.

This time, unlike any other time, something feels off. I don’t want to know what I’m going to see when I look up. It could be that the recent big moment in my life has made me afraid to think about my existence without that room because even now it’s my shelter in times of turmoil. There is never anything up there. It’s just a habit. Calm down. Besides, the only person I have ever seen up there is mom changing my bed or putting away my clothes. And my life is good now; I have made a name for myself.

As I sneak a glance up at the window, I can make out the shape of a person or what I think is a person. Well, look at that—it’s mom. See they are fine, nothing to worry about. I walk toward the house still looking at my window. The figure becomes a little easier to make out, but for some reason the face is out of focus.

Wait, that doesn’t really look like my mom or dad. What’s up with my eyes? Why can’t I tell who it is? Why are they just standing there? Who is that, and why are they dressed solely in black? Damn, I can’t make out who is in the freaking window. It could be mom or dad. But, what if it’s not? Who is in the freaking house?

I climb up the porch steps at a brisk pace and dash to the door. I reach for the door handle, but I stop short because I notice the door is ajar. When has that ever been good, ever? I got a very bad feeling. I bump the door with my foot, and the door creeps open. Just as I cross the threshold of the house, my phone goes off.

The startling buzz makes me jump back. They are fine. However, the call is not from my parents. It is from the dean’s office at the university. I decide to let it go to voicemail. “Mom? Dad? Is anyone here?” There is nothing but silence. “Hey guys, this isn’t funny.” Where are they?

The kitchen comes into view, and I’m still half expecting to see them at the table preparing food for lunch. However, there is nobody in the kitchen and nothing but silence throughout the house.

Then I notice the lights are on and the table is set ready to eat. There is a roasted ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, and bread resting in the center of the table. The smell of apple pie is lingering throughout the room. The only thing missing is my parents.

The anxiety builds, and my chest tightens, I take a deep breath. Think. Where could they be? Think. Relax. They are fine. Chill out. But a voice from deep within me is screaming. You know this isn’t good. You know what this means. You know. Out of the painful silence of the house, a loud noise reverberates from upstairs.

I run out of the kitchen and head toward the noise. I let out another scream for mom and dad. There is no answer once again. I walk up the stairs two at a time listening intently for another noise. My eyes move from the landing back to the steps. I notice a pool of liquid covering the last step before the landing.

 Please, don’t be blood. Please, God, don’t let it be blood.[_ _]I approach the last step with caution, clinging to hope, but from a few steps away, I can already identify the liquid. I get to the final step and my heart sinks. My being is filled with heart-grieved fear. “Mom! Dad!”

I climb over the final step and onto the landing. There are four rooms upstairs. My sister’s bedroom, a bathroom, a small closet, and my bedroom. I sprint to my sister’s room and open the door. There is nobody in the room just a neatly made bed, and the things my sister decided to leave at the house when she moved.

The next room upstairs is the bathroom. There is nobody in the room, but the shower curtain is wrinkled and closed. I pull the curtain open while raising a fist ready to throw a punch. The shower is empty except for a loofah hanging on the faucet. However, a towel has been knocked off the towel rod and is lying on the floor next to the tub.

That’s odd everything is always so neat up here. You know what it means. You know. My eyes briefly glance at the towel, but in that glance, I see enough to tell me everything I need to know. It has a red stain that is of course blood. That makes two places with blood. That can’t be good! My chest tightens even more to the point that I can hardly breathe or move for that matter.

The door to the closet is also uncharacteristically open, and I make myself walk by it, knowing there will be nobody in the cramped room. Sure enough, the room is empty with only a few clothes and household objects scattered on the shelves. One room left. Are they dead in my childhood room? No, they are ok. They have to be ok. This cannot be happening. You know.

I walk to my door and notice a slight bloodstain by the doorknob that appears to be dry. I open the door, and my biggest fear comes true. I knew.

Time seems to stop as I take a step into my childhood room, but perhaps it is just myself breaking. I stand there paralyzed, my body in complete resistance to any expression. The room that always brought me safety and peace takes on the form of a casket in a graveyard. A room where I laughed, smiled, and cried becomes the room where my parents died.

The inceptive shock hits me in the gut like a ton of bricks dropped onto my groin. It doesn’t make any sense. My parents lying there on the floor almost as if they are sleeping, except they are drenched in blood, so much red, on the walls and on the side of my bed, grounded onto the carpet—everywhere.

My body continues to seize up in terror until I snap out of it and rush to my parents. “Mom! Dad!” Tears begin to swell in my eyes as the shock wears off and the raging fire of reality burns over me. My parents are dead and someone murdered them. Who could have done something like this? What monster?

I reach in my pocket and pull out my cell phone. I call 911 and report the murdering of my parents along with the address. The operator tells me to wait outside until the authorities arrive, and that they are on their way and should arrive in the next five minutes. I take one last look at my slain parents then turn and start walking out the bedroom door. Wait. Who was in the window? Someone else is here. It couldn’t have been my parents. So who was it?

I turn back into the room, surveying it for any signs of a hiding intruder. My heart is beating out of my chest, and I am scared out of my mind. I can make out something on the bed. What is that?[_ _]I walk over to the bed and see that it’s a crumpled up sheet of paper with writing, and a blood smear near the bottom. I pluck the note up and study it.

Written on the note is a list of numbers and letters. Something doesn’t feel right with this note. The hand writing… it looks familiar. It looks like dad’s shorthand script. Dad had to be the person who wrote this, could he had written it as a final message before his death?

I decipher the message using dad’s encryption technique he taught me as a kid. If he wrote it this technique will reveal his thoughts.

‘I know the secret. The truth lies in languish beneath the right guardian waiting to be set free. Don’t let them get our…’

 

[] Chapter 4: Processing the Scene

What is going on? None of this makes any sense. Why would someone kill my parents? And we don’t have any bloody secrets! Do we? The truth is beneath the guardian. What does that mean? I stand beside my bed, staring at the note transfixed and bewildered all at the same time. This note is nonsense. Why would he write this?

I glance down at their bodies, but my head starts pounding. My stomach convulses forcing me to puke on the bed. With my body doubled over, I can’t tell where they are lying in position to where I found the note. My stomach is becoming more nauseous by the second, so I bend over looking at the base of the bed preparing to puke again. Under the bed, a pen catches my eye, but my head and stomach prevent me from grabbing it.

 I don’t know how much longer I can take this room. I have to get out of here. I dismiss my thoughts and attempt to set the note back on the bed where I found it, but for some reason I can’t let go. Without thinking almost as if I am being driven to act out of instinct or stupidity, I fold the note and place it in my wallet. I have to get out of here. I cannot take it anymore. I calmly walk out of the room, too nauseous from the sight of blood to move at any other pace; I leave the room without even the slightest glance back at my parents.

I walk out into the hallway past the other rooms without even looking anywhere but straight ahead to the descending flight of stairs. Once I reach the stairwell, I remember the blood pool on the top step. A faint sense of mucus coating the back of my throat initiates my gag reflex. While looking down at the step trying not to vomit, a footprint in the blood sticks out from the rush of the moment. I instinctively check my shoe and find on the bottom of my right shoe there is a small amount of blood.

I turn around and look down the hallway carpet. Little blood smudges leading to my room that appears to be from the heel of a shoe. I must have stepped in the blood on accident when I exited the flight of stairs earlier. I’ll tell the police what happened.

As I get about halfway down the stairs, the sounds of sirens probably five blocks away penetrate the quiet house’s interior. I leave the stairs and head out through the kitchen, but what I find puzzles me even more. The food that had just been untouched in the center of the table was now half-eaten and scattered amongst four plates, while from the oven the smell of burnt desert permeates the downstairs part of the house.

Having no clue what that could even mean I head right to the front door, not caring to look or think about anything else behind me. Right before I reach the door, a strange feeling causes me to look to my left. It’s the same feeling that makes you check the stop light even though traffic is moving forward. An instinctive reaction that is supposed to keep you safe and aware because even though you know what you should see without looking, the consequences of seeing red hanging above you are intuitively know even when the mind is absent.

Nailed on the wall are a handful of our family pictures that we have taken over the years. My eyes lock on the most recent family picture we had taken, and I can almost hear my heart break with the world shattering truth. That is the last family picture we will have ever taken. I open the door and return outside into the beautiful day that had somehow turned into a far worse nightmare.

I make my way out to the middle of the walkway that leads to the house. My legs quiver as I bend down towards the hard surface that I once rolled toy cars and trucks down. But now while emerging tears threaten to break through my eyes, the surface turns into the place where I must wait for the police.

I sit—just sitting, not thinking, not worrying, but waiting as if I’m the only person in the world, listening and sobbing as the sirens grow in volume until the first of the many police cars arrive.

The police officer approaches me with his head down. He asks, “Where are they, son?”

I reply through my tears from the ground “Upstairs. The last room at the end of the hallway. They are… They are not breathing, officer.”

The officer tells me, “Ok. Stay here. I’ll check it out. There will be another officer over to take your statement shortly.” With that, the officer heads to the house along with two paramedics that just arrived moments earlier.

I watch the street with all the determination I can muster, and it does take every ounce of concentration that I have to peek back at the nightmare going on inside the house behind me. Two more police vehicles pull into the drive with sirens blazing. A middle-aged police officer exits one of the vehicles and walks straight toward me.

I gather my strength and stand up to meet him. He walks up to me and pulls out a notebook. I notice a patch on his shirt that reads D. Walker. He clinches the notebook in one hand and looks at me with a gaze of sorrow as the other hand comes to a rest on my shoulder. “I’m truly sorry about this. I know you are exhausted and these circumstances are just awful, but I need your statement.”

I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and take a breath, “That’s fine. I understand.”

He grabs a pen out of his pocket and looks down at his notebook. “Just begin with your name, and then the events leading up to the discovery of your parents.” He glances up at me, “Take your time. It’s ok.”

I pause to clear my throat, which is dry and irritating, before I begin my official statement. “My name is Ryan Johnson, and well, we… I mean my parents and I were supposed to have lunch today at 12:30. I just recently graduated college with my master’s degree, and they wanted to celebrate.” My voice trails off, but I gather my thoughts quickly.

“It was such a beautiful day, so I decided to take a jog from my house over here. I left about 11:15 and only live just on the other side of town. I got about five blocks or so from the house and decided to call and let them know I was almost here. There was no answer, so I left a message. I also tried calling their cell phones but there was no answer. When I got to the house, I saw… I saw the door was ajar. I went in the house and first to the kitchen. Nobody was in there. I… I went upstairs next and saw a pool of blood on the last step. I ran onto the landing, and I stepped in the blood. I have some on my shoe still. Then I proceeded down the hallway. I noticed a towel with blood in the bathroom and blood on my door. I went in my room and saw both… both my parents lying on the floor with blood everywhere. I called 911 and… left the house.”

Officer Walker stops writing and looks at me. “What about the scratches and wounds on your face?”

Knowing I can’t reply with the truth of an I don’t know, I respond, “Oh, last night me and some friends had a few too many drinks. I am a bit clumsy when I drink.”

He nods, “Unfortunately, I know your reputation Ryan. I would advise staying away from the alcohol while you deal with the trauma from today. Ok. So did anything strange happen in recent days to suggest something like this might happen?”

No, but strange has been happening all day. “No, nothing out of the ordinary.”

He jots something down in his notebook. When he’s finished writing, he asks, “Did you see anything unusual in the house, anything out of place, or missing?”

Yeah, a person in my window and a note on my bed. The note. I hope he doesn’t search me. “No, I didn’t see anything missing, but I wasn’t really looking for anything but my parents.”

He makes another note in his notebook. “One more question. Do you have any idea who could have done something like this? Do your parents have any enemies or anyone that would want to bring them harm?”

I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly know. This is just horrendous. How could I know? “I don’t know officer. They are such loving, caring people. I just can’t see someone intentionally wanting to do them harm.”

He nods his head and replies. “I knew your folks. They were good people. Your dad was good at his job, gave us a lot good fights, but he was an honorable guy through it all. All right, I’m going to need your shoes for evidence since there is blood on them, and your fingerprints since you were in the house. I can have one of my men drive you back over to your house once you are finished. I’m deeply sorry Ryan. This is just awful.”

I nod my head, keeping my eyes focused on the concrete walkway. Officer Walker walks back to his car and talks to another police officer who had been standing by the car talking on a phone through the car window. The two approach me while still talking between themselves. Officer Walker speaks to me first. He says, “This is Officer Boyd he will take your fingerprints, bag your shoes, and then give you a ride back to your house.”

I nod and look towards Officer Boyd. He motions for me to follow him while saying, “Right this way.” I follow him towards the police cars as Officer Walker heads towards the house. “I’m going to need you to take off your shoes and place them in this bag.” I bend down to untie my shoes as he holds the bag. He closes the bag containing my shoes as one of the paramedics approaches down the gravel walkway towards us.

The paramedic looks at me with sympathy in his eyes. “We are going to take your parents to the county hospital for an autopsy. We will get back in touch with you following the autopsy.” I nod, and the paramedic walks back toward the house where two carts are waiting on the porch with plastic covering them.

I clench my jaw as I turn towards Officer Boyd. He takes out a portable screen from the car. “I need you to place and hold each finger on the screen until this red light turns green.” I place each individual finger on the screen as Officer Boyd and I stand in silence.

I can’t help but notice that Officer Boyd is a little shaky. He hasn’t actually looked me in the eye, while his hands tremble ever so slightly as he presses my fingers against the screen. He is young, probably around my age, clean-shaven, and his hair is neatly cut close to his scalp.

I don’t think I have ever seen him before, but I sense something vaguely familiar, maybe he was in one of my classes or something during college. There is something in my thoughts that I can’t quite figure out, but of course, that is because I make a point of avoiding the cops. I’ve never had pleasant experiences when I encounter them.

As he places my middle finger against the device, I ask, “Is this your first case… you know like this?”

He looks at me with his eyes drawn close together, “It’s my first murder. I guess I’m just a little off. Not knowing what to expect. Why?”

I nod in agreement, and then shrug my shoulders. I’m not sure exactly why I wanted to know if it was his first. “Do you know my parents?”

“Yeah, your mom was actually the realtor that set me up with my house here in Everton. By all accounts, they were good people.”

I nod as silence returns over us until the last finger is pressed, and the last green light flashes. Officer Boyd is first to pierce the silence. “Alright, that will do it. I’ll take you home now. Get in.” 

Finally. Maybe I’ll wake up and all this will be a dream. I climb in the police car, which is facing the house. As I sit down, Officer Boyd puts the car in reverse while I stare out the window at the once beautiful house that now only brings a searing pain to my heart. Why did this happen? Why me? Once again, a voice from deep within echoes, you know.

As we drive down the lonely street in silence, I begin thinking back over the past day. I feel awful. My hangover should be over by now. I still can’t remember last night. What is with all this craziness all of a sudden, and what is the supposed secret? It’s probably just my exhaustion from me running and… Don’t think about it. Not right now.

As I fiddle with my phone, I remember the dean’s office had called while I was looking for my parents. I need to hear some good news even if it’s only to take me away from the deeper truth of the day and make me forget for a while.

I call my voicemail. “You have one new voicemail, and one saved voicemail.” Huh, I don’t remember having a saved voicemail. I press one and the new message plays. “Message Received at 12:20: Hey Ryan this is Julie Peterson from the Dean’s office. I’m calling to inform you that the board voted this morning and unanimously approved you for the upcoming school year. Give me a call back next week, and I will give you more details.” Well that’s good. All my hard work paid off.

“To listen to your saved voice message press one.” Let’s see what it could be. I press one, and the saved voice message begins to play. ‘Message received at 4:48 P.M.” “Hey, Ryan. We wanted to…” I hit the end and turn my phone off. Officer Boyd looks suspiciously over at me. “Are you ok?” He asks.

I reply. “Oh, yeah. Just had a missed call.” The saved voicemail was from my dad last night. I just can’t listen to that right now. It’s too soon. It would be like talking to a ghost.

The small metal box motoring down the highway traps me with nothing to do but replay my dad’s voice in my head. An unnerving coldness sweeps through me as I resist the temptation to punch the officer in the face for not doing his job. Someone should have been protecting my family. My mind is torn, and I can’t figure out if it’s just the horrible day so far or something else. My gut says it’s something else. But what?

I focus my attention back to the road and see that we are on my block. Almost home! A slight sense of warm comfort begins to flow through me, covering the coldness, but then the warmth is gone like so much from today.

Boyd says, “You might want to get in touch with any family members to let them know what has happened. I suspect the news will spread quickly throughout town. We can’t stop it once it gets out, but out of respect we will try and keep it under wraps for as long as possible.”

I look him in the eye as we pull up to our house. “Thanks, I will. Thanks for the ride.” Before I open the door to exit, he replies, “No problem. Take it easy and get some rest. And its procedure to tell you not to leave town, so stick around and you should be fine. We will probably need to ask more questions, but that can wait till tomorrow.”

I exit the car and head towards my sanctuary. There is something on the porch. What is that? Whatever was on the porch vanishes into thin air like a magician’s illusion. Where did it go? It was just here. Maybe I do need some rest since I’m seeing things that aren’t there. My head can’t process all the madness around me.

 

[] Chapter 5: A Loving Family

 

The walk up the porch stairs and into my house seems to drain me of the rest of my energy. I have no desire to look back and wave to Officer Boyd or look for whatever was on my porch. My mom would be disappointed because she was one of those polite ladies who waved at everyone, even if the person was her enemy. Polite or not, I still have no desire to wave in such a time as this.

I walk straight to the kitchen.[_ _]My throat is completely dry. I need something. Anything. I grab a glass out of the cabinet, put three ice cubes in it, and eye the top of the refrigerator. On the top of the refrigerator—where I always keep it—stands a half-empty bottle of scotch.

I reach for the bottle of scotch as I have so many times before. The bottle is practically weightless in my hands. The liquid sloshes around inside the bottle as I bring it to my glass. I think I should probably wait. Once I start, I won’t be able to stop. I really don’t want another hangover, especially when I’m like this. I don’t want another day like this one ever again.

My logic is flawless, but my thirst for the numbing liquid trumps logic. The bottle clanks against my glass while I pour myself a healthy dose. The scotch flows down my throat, making everything feel better in the process. I shove the bottle back on top of the refrigerator. It spins like a top and then crashes towards the floor.

My hands stretch out for it as it is falling, but like everything else from today, it slips just out of reach. The bottle crashes to the floor with a screeching bark. Glass and liquid scatter across the floor in every direction. Of course, that would happen wouldn’t it? I get the broom and sweep up the glass while being extra careful not to cut myself. Then I get a rag and take care of the scotch drenched floor. As I finish, I swear my eyes glimpse something dart out of the room. It is just a glimpse. I dismiss it because it was there for just a brief moment, and honestly what it could it be, really?

Since I’m too exhausted to chase ghosts all day and night, my mind slowly focuses back on the last bit of scotch in my glass. I press the glass to my lips, but don’t drink it. In frustration, I shake my head as I set the glass down on the bar. My zombie like body carelessly[_ _]opens the refrigerator door. This should be better than scotch anyways. Nothing can possibly go wrong with a coke. I learned my lesson.

My legs tremble as I walk to my bedroom, pop open the can of coke, and pour it into my cup. I take a large self-satisfying gulp. Ah, nothing can go wrong with a coke. Nothing at all.

I lay my head back on my pillow while I pull out my phone. I have to do this sometime. Ah, God help me.[_ _]I go to my contact list on my phone. I find my sister’s number. My one and only sister. The sister that I haven’t talked to in four months, partially, because she moved away from our little piece of southern Georgia paradise to live somewhere in Florida.

She actually managed to do what I couldn’t by leaving Everton and part me hated her for it. But now she is the only relative I have left in the world, and the only call I have to make. So, I have to do it.[_ _]I hesitate, knowing I have to make the call, but unsure of how I can possibly muster the strength to break her heart. I wait as the phone rings. Waiting and ready to deliver the worst news of my entire life to my very own sister.

She answers, “Ryan, what a surprise, I haven’t heard from you in months.”

“Yeah, Alice. Sorry. Uh, we need to talk. Are you somewhere we can talk? I got some bad news.”

Her voice cracks, “What’s wrong? Are you ok?”

Here we go.[_ “_]It’s Mom and Dad… They’re dead.”

The phone goes silent. The next sound that that comes through my speaker is some kind of scream or cry of pure agony. My body goes numb as I hear the agony on the other side of the phone line. The scream seems to haunt me echoing around inside my head until I realize Alice is calling out to me. “Ryan! Ryan! What happened?”

I reply, “I don’t know. I found them this morning at the house. It was awful. They were… murdered.”

In a tone of panic, she says, “This better not have anything to do with you Ryan. This better not of happened because of your crap.”

She catches me off guard. What are you talking about?”

“I know Ryan. Mom and Dad called me a few days ago saying they suspected someone was messing with them. I asked if it was you, but they wouldn’t answer. All they would say was that it had something to do with our family as a whole. So, don’t play all innocent. They said that there was a secret that someone was hiding, but they were close to figuring it out. I can only assume you are the someone they were talking about. They always were cleaning up your messes.”

I say, “I don’t know what you are talking about Alice.”

More crying and agony resonates in the background as Alice leaves the line. It occurs to me that the news seems to have completely broken her. I have never witnessed her this distraught. She is normally so mild mannered. I was always the tempered one not her.

Various cries continue away from the phone until Alice returns, “Sure. Whatever. Stop lying! You can tell yourself whatever you want, but don’t lie to me! Mom and dad said it was going to be ok. That they would call back and tell me everything after they talked to you. Now they’re gone. If you got them killed… I swear Ryan I’ll… I’m headed home and they better not be dead because of you.”

“How could they—”

She hangs up in the middle of me speaking. What in the world was she talking about? My head feels so fuzzy. I still can’t remember last night. Do I have a secret? Did my parents find something out about me? I don’t know anymore. Why does she think I’m lying? Could I be lying? Of course not. Why would I intentionally hide something from her that I don’t even know myself? Unless. Unless I did something and had too much to drink. Or had too much to drink and did something. Did I… do something?

So many dark questions. Why don’t I know anything? I’m always the person with the answers. Could it be my hangover? Probably. This has happened before hasn’t it? Where I drink too much and forget things. Things I don’t want to know.

A memory of a past event pops to mind that took place my senior year in high school. It is the night of my first drink. My friends and I are hanging out outside the school after some event. Someone said something about a field and some beer. Next thing I know I’m driving a group of guys to someone’s house to grab some beer. We get the beer and someone starts handing it out in the car. I take one and we drive off to someone else’s house.

We add to our stupidity by getting even more beer. I drink another and drive off towards the empty field. On the way, my vision gets blurry, and I lose control of the vehicle. In that moment, the vehicle spins out of control. Beer cans go flying around spewing brown liquid everywhere. We slam into a tree. Somehow, nobody is seriously hurt. I suffer only minor cuts and gashes to my legs and arms.

With nobody else to call, I call my parents. The conversation is not one of anger, but concern. They come to our aid and clean up my mess. My mom takes care of everyone’s cuts while dad tends to the wrecked heap of metal. My parents drive everyone home and inform the other parents of our negligence.

When we get home, the concern crosses the line into anger. The rest of my night consists of me taking the brunt of my parents’ wrath while still drunk. Not a good combo. I wake up the next morning with no clue as to how I suffered my injuries. It took a few days to remember the events of that night and by then it was the town secret that everybody knew but nobody wanted to talk about.

Is this something like that or something else? The doctor I went to in the days following the crash had said the memory issue was something to do with the amount of alcohol and my guilt. It has to be like that. That’s the only explanation. I drank and now I don’t remember. Did I get my parents killed? I couldn’t have—there’s no way.

I suffer through an endless amount of phone calls while shut up in my room. They all go the same way. Some friend saying, “I’m so sorry. This is just awful. How could something like this happen in our town? It just makes me sick. Your parents were such nice people. Let me know if I can do anything to help.” Then me “saying yeah I will. I can’t believe this is happening.” It goes on and on. Phone call after phone call. The day slips away and night begins.

My body is to the point that it’s literally about to shut itself off. In times of complete exhaustion such as this, I have a quirky solution. Take a hot shower. My parents always thought it was strange. But it has always been my way of dealing with mental or physical fatigue. I have never figured out if it’s the heat or the water gently massaging my body, but it does the trick.

I take my shirt off and go to throw it in the dirty clothes basket. Before I let the shirt go, another dirty shirt with a red stain on it stops me from releasing the one in my hand. It’s blood. It doesn’t have a lot of blood on it, but it does have a few noticeable streaks down the right side of the shirt. It also has a slice extending down the right side from the armpit to about where my belly button would be. I look up at the mirror and notice the cuts on the right side of my cheeks. Well, that would explain the blood. At least that explains something.

Once in the shower, the hot water soothes my aching body while another memory comes to mind. This memory was from freshman year of college. I am out with some friends and somehow a fight got started. Panic ensues because it is my first fight. But as the brawl intensifies, it becomes a fight with a tremendous price. My friends and I are up against some guys from a few towns over. Every indication is that alcohol is once again the instigating factor. I take some massive hits from a big hunky guy that crushes my face.

 

A searing pain near my scalp breaks up my thoughts. I had been washing my body and hair as the memory played out in my mind. Some of the soap roughly brushes into my head wound. The wound burns like fire as the irritant seeps into my skin. The water slowly washes the soap away along with the pain.

I do get some good shots in on one of the guys. My shots are almost too good because by the end of the altercation, I have beaten the guy unconscious with my fists and near about killed him. I got home that night took a long shower and poured me something to drink.

Upon awaking the next morning, I can’t remember a thing and have one of the worst hangovers of my life. A few days go by until I get a lawsuit from the guy I had beaten and the memories finally start to come back to me. Then the nightmares come shortly after.

 I still relive that night every so often in my dreams. Fortunately, I didn’t have to serve time for the incident. My good old dad, the lawyer, got me off. Not even a scratch on my record or any newspaper articles about the fight. There were rumors of course.

The shower’s heat only tires me out even more. I could have killed that guy that night. I lost complete control. My mind snapped and something else took over. Something deep inside me took the wheel and a man almost died. Feeling the weight of the world on my thoughts, I get out of the shower and head to bed.

I stuff the note from earlier in a pair of pants in my drawer beside my bed. Oh, how I need some sleep. My bed is soft and inviting, but I can’t fall asleep. I roll over and check the alarm clock. The clock reads ‘10:07 P.M’. This day has been hell. I just want today to end and tomorrow to begin. Maybe it will be better. It probably won’t be. Who am I kidding? Nothing will be better after today.

Thoughts of my mom and dad begin to run through my mind. Thoughts of them when I was a kid taking me to practice, stopping by for ice cream afterwards. Thoughts of Christmas when they would get me my favorite toys and candy. Thoughts of me as a teen when they would help me with my homework. Thoughts of them standing in my room early in the morning singing happy birthday every year. All the good thoughts in the world, but the last thought before I finally fall asleep is my parents’ bodies covered in blood in my room.

[]Chapter 6: The Darkness

 

As I fall asleep, my mind drifts off into pleasant unconsciousness until the nightmare occurs. The aspect that sends my mind tumbling into terror is the fact the nightmare is more about feel than actual sight. It’s dark-very dark. There isn’t any light anywhere, so the visuals of the dream are obsolete.

My brain amplifies my other senses in search of something to indicate where I could be. It feels as if I’m on my back on some kind of surface that is also sandy and rough, which causes my body to feel raw. It’s as if sandpaper is scraping against my skin. The outside of my head feels like something is touching it, but I can’t grab whatever it is because my hands are pinned beneath me. I try to move but my body is limp, having no energy to fight free.

After every few seconds, I can feel the slight touch of something wet dripping down onto my stomach from somewhere above. Suddenly, a flash of light followed by a hollow echo somewhere in the distance sends a tsunami of energy cascading around me. When the flash occurs, it creates enough light to transcend the darkness.

My eyes and brain recognize the shift from darkness to light around me, but I still can’t see. There is something over my head blocking my view of my surroundings. This realization takes a toll on my anxieties, which causes me to become claustrophobic. My breathing increases and I can’t control it.

As everything returns to darkness, my chest tightens and my breathing becomes even more labored. A fight within my thoughts ensues as try to push past my fears and focus on more details of my surroundings. A gut wrenching smell comes over me as I struggle to inhale more air. It smells musty, and gross like old moldy bread. I could gag if it is not that my throat is dry and sore. My head feels woozy and draggy. There is an intense migraine throbbing against my skull. A rhythmic pitter-patter sets in all around me. My brain pushes against my skull in a manner that could easily cause it to burst out of my head.

While being overwhelmed by the repeated noises around me, my ears latch onto two muffled voices. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the conversation or gender, but there are definitely voices somewhere in the near distance. The voices screech to halt as the pitter-patter around me intensifies. Then a series of thuds grow louder and louder from a distance. The thuds come closer and closer at a brisk pace vibrating the surface. Everything goes quiet. Then boom, a low, deep voice right beside me utters something unintelligible.

There is another loud hollow echo somewhere further in the distance as a prick of sorts penetrates my arm. I slowly am very light headed as my thoughts and feelings turn to mush. My senses become dull causing everything to fade away back into nothingness.

 

I am suddenly jolted awake around 4:30 in the morning. I just lay there unfettered by the bleak nightmare trying to fall back to sleep. But as tired as I am, I can’t get back to sleep. In a state of boredom, I begin fiddling with my phone. I fumble through my text messages, and then call my voicemail. It’s about time I listen to the message my dad left for me.

My heart pounds in my chest faster and faster. “Hey, Ryan. We wanted to make dinner for you instead of lunch tomorrow. We know it’s short notice, but if you get this try and let us know by five. We can plan to eat around eight if it’s good with you. If you can’t make it, we can stick to lunch tomorrow at 12:30. Mom is going to go ahead and cook the ham today. Oh, yeah. We looked into the situation you were telling us about, and we found something even more concerning. Don’t get all worked up about it. I’ll tell you more in person. See you soon. Love you, bye.”

Wow, what is going on? Was I at the house last night? What situation is he talking about? I should have received that call. There is no reason why it should have gone to voicemail.

Without any warning, I get chills all through my body Nauseous over powers my senses. Did I get my parents killed? I sit up in bed and replay the message repeatedly until the sun starts to rise. While I check my phone for the time and get out of bed, three questions continue to run through my mind. Was I at the house last night? What situation is he talking about? Did I get my parents killed?

The phone reads ‘6:03’ in the morning. Which is actually good news because my painful thoughts are interrupted as my eyes meet the sunlight streaming in through the blinds in the living room. My eyes adjust to the streaming sunlight. The light and warmth of the slivers of sun bring my thoughts into a better place. A place where there is a life for me despite this awful experience.

Seeking some sense of normalcy, I walk to the blinds and open them letting the morning sun gleam freely into the house. Just as the blinds roll open, my eyes meet a dark colored S.U.V speed off down the street. The S.U.V turns down the next road as a police cruiser comes into view from the opposite direction.[_ _]That was a little weird. Then again, everything is lately.

I watch as the police cruiser pulls into my drive. Two men get out of the car and approach my door. Standing on my porch is Officer Boyd and Officer Walker. Walker looks me in the eye while asking to come inside. I oblige and show them to my living room.

“Sorry, about showing up this early in the morning, but we thought it best to check up on you before the day gets away from us.” Walker says.

I reply, “Of course, I understand. Do you have any possible leads?”

Walker pulls out his notepad. “Actually, yes we do. We had someone call the office hotline under an anonymous name. They reported that last night they saw you and a young woman running out of the house. Were you indeed in the house last night?”

What do I say? I can’t tell them I don’t know. That would look extremely suspicious. There has to be a way out of this that they could actually believe. I’m sure if I was there they have other evidence, so I can’t get caught in a lie. “I stopped by last night for a little while.”

Boyd leans forward on the couch. “Were you there when the murder happened?”

This isn’t going to end well. I get out of my chair and pace in the living room. My fingers scratch through my hair. “I… I honestly am having some trouble piecing that night together.” Not technically a lie.

Boyd relaxes in his seat while Walker writes something in his notebook. Walker then says, “That is completely understandable. This is quite a traumatic event, especially if you were one of the last people to see them alive.”

“I didn’t kill them!” I say loudly. I mean for my strong statement to be an emphatic declaration of my innocence, but I’m left disappointed when it trickles through the room as a question.

Boyd’s forearms tense up slightly as he responds. “I believe you or whoever did this to your parents loved it. Honestly, you don’t strike us as the type that enjoys what you have been through. But if you were there, we need to know what you saw.”

Images of my bloody shirt and the bloody towel from the house entire my thoughts. Suddenly, I’m running out of my roomThere is a pain in my side as blood begins to seep through my shirt. Someone grabs me from behind as I’m running down the hallway. Gloved hands clamp down on my shoulder. The pressure builds on my neck as I struggle with my assailant. With one powerful motion, I’m thrown into the bathroom.

My bleeding side stings as I hit the bathroom floor. My body slides to a stop against the shower tub. I struggle to sit up. My hands grab for anything they possible can get a grip on.

My eyes focus on the man in the doorway that is clothed in black. He mutters something to me as my hand reaches a towel. I press the towel against my side to stop the bleeding. The wound isn’t too deep. It’s only two inches in length, but my thin blood pours out.

The man returns to the bathroom with a knife and a crooked smile. He mockingly jests me to get up and fight. I lay the towel on the floor as I struggle to my feet. Tears build in my eyes as I stare at the bloody knife. Only a few feet separate us. He cracks his neck and charges at me with the knife held high in his hand.

The images slowly fade back into images of my living room. I’m sitting back in my chair, and I’m looking down at the carpet. Officer Walker’s voice slowly increases in volume until I can hear him speaking. “… Anything from the house? We need to know.”

I shake my head no. There is no way I’m telling them about what happened. I don’t know who the guy was in my parents’ house, and until I do, I’m not telling anyone. I’m sure these two might not even believe me if I tell them. It would be like me blaming it on the invisible wind.

“Ok. Well, I think we are done for now. We will be in touch. There are still more questions that need to be asked, but right now you need to deal with the trauma and stay safe.”

No kidding there are more questions that need to be asked and answered. I watch out my front door as the Officers drive away. They acted nice, but I could tell they didn’t trust me. My story isn’t adding up well because I don’t even know all the variables. I have no clue what I’m even trying to make add up.

I walk into the kitchen and look in one of my cabinets. Staring back is the final bottle of scotch left in my stash. It’s early, but I could really use a pick me up. Who wouldn’t want to drown their sorrows after living through the hell of yesterday? I pour a glass and gulp it down without another thought. The liquid burns down my throat while I quickly pour another glass.

I retreat to my old trusty sofa and turn on the television. I don’t know exactly what I am hoping for, but the television probably isn’t the best idea. Everton news will constantly be cutting into programs for the next few days. Our town doesn’t have something this news worthy happen every day.

Sure enough, the morning news is reporting on the married couple of nearly thirty years that someone slaughtered in the couple’s home. I quickly turn the channel and settle on ESPN. I stare at the screen for about an hour without really watching anything. Still, I can feel the house and all the sorrow bearing down on me. I have to get out here, now.

I throw on some jeans and a shirt, grab my keys and head out the door racing to my car. My car is one of those half gas half-electric cars that get like 45 miles to the gallon. It is gray and is usually kept clean inside and out. I travel a lot as a hobby so this thing is practically another home to me. I get in and drive away from the house not knowing what lies ahead of me or remembering what all lies behind my wrecked journey so far. But I’m going to find out what’s going on, one way or another. Good or Bad.

[]Chapter 7: The Bar

 

For some reason, I start driving towards the bar from the graduation celebration with my friends. Gravity pulls me back to the last place my memories end and my nightmare begins. I send Matt a text asking him to meet me at the bar because I really could use his help. I’m under no illusions that I could very easily find myself under arrest for murdering my parents.

As the area becomes more familiar, I begin thinking about all the mess that happened the past couple days. Walking the stage at graduation after all the work I put into my degree. Finding my parents. Telling my sister the bad news. All of it right there in my mind constantly.

Nevertheless, I am still unsure what exactly I am doing as I drive. How is going to a bar or hiding the truth from the police is going to make anything better? I still can’t remember the bar or that night. There are no clues as to what my secret situation is or why my parents died. I have a text message and note that are freaking me out despite doing my best to not think about them. I’m losing my mind. The bar must be as good a place as any to start. It’s usually filled with people that have lost their mind. Maybe I’ll find mine.

Even though it is only a little before eight o’clock there are still quite a few people filing into the various markets and stores running along the street near the bar. In order to search the street for anything that might jog my memory, I have to get out of the car. The heat is already starting to slow roast the area causing sweat to build instantly around my brow. Upon seeing the bar, the nausea I am becoming more and more accustomed to returns to the pit of my stomach.

I know the bar is closed, but I’m still being drawn to it as if the building itself is telling me I should check out the entrance. I get the sensation that I couldn’t resist checking the bar out even if I try. The unseen force continues to pull my legs towards the building until I reach the covered arch of the entrance. Then the force lessens and a coolness breaks through the heat.

The locked door forces me to peer in through the smudged laden window. It is a typical sports bar with several TV’s and tables. It is one of our group’s hang out spots where we eat, drink, and watch a game. What could be so special about it? All of a sudden something within me answers by sending memories from that night at the bar flashing through my mind.

I’m sitting at a table drinking with my closest friends. My eyes fall upon a young lady at the bar all alone. I can’t make out what her face looks like because there is a haze distorting her entire figure, making it impossible to distinguish any of her physical traits. Maybe curly hair I guess.

I invite the girl over to hang out with my friends and me. The girl and I sit talking with some of my friends for a while. I’m very comfortable around her. I laugh a few times as we talk. It feels like I know her at one moment, and the next moment it feels like we are just two awkward people that met at a bar.

The way the whole encounter resembles that of a man caught between two lives makes my body tremble. There is always the possibility I could be just projecting the things I want to feel into our actual conversations. It has been a long time since I last was on a date. Matt says something to her as I turn to talk to Joanna. Joanna is one of my few friends of the opposite sex that I have kept from high school. For whatever reason, it never became anything more despite our moderate efforts. She was the first girl I ever truly loved, but I never expressed it.

A great wave of nervousness sweeps over me as I stare into Joanna’s eyes. Every time I look at her, something deep within me restrains itself from charging out into the open. Love or hate I can’t know for sure, but this time it is exceptionally awkward. The snare created by sitting between two beautiful girls is not as good a feeling as one might expect.

My conversation with Joanna turns from casual and friendly to heated fairly quick. She pulls me away over to the side of the bar away from the other girl. My hands wave reassuringly back at the mystery girl just to make sure she knows I’m interested. The conversation flows back and forth. In the blink of an eye, Joanna is calmly leaving the bar as I return to my newly found opportunity with the girl I just met.

I can feel myself running my fingers through my hair as I pick up my phone with the other hand. I fidget with the phone as I sometimes do when overwhelmed with anxiety, then I dial my voicemail. Then the girl walks out the door and both of us get into my car.

Then nothing happens. No new image pops in my head. No new feeling or emotion pops up from somewhere inside me. Nothing left to look at except the empty bar.

I move away from the glass window of the bar, scratching my head in frustration. There is nobody near the bar, so I lean up against the side of the building. I needed more than that. I couldn’t even remember her face or the conversations. Man my head hurts.

A bench a few feet away from the bar under a nearby tree allows me to sit down in some heavenly shade. Let’s look at this in a positive light. At least I remembered something. Why couldn’t I see her face though? Why did I leave with her and where did we go? Who is she? Pull yourself together. Come on stay positive!

There are many questions, but there are answers. Find the answers. Ok, so what do I know? I was at the bar with friends, and I met a girl that I left with in my car. We left sometime after I called my voicemail. The only voicemail I have knowledge of getting from that night was from my dad. I guess we could have been heading to my parents’ house for dinner.

I have a seat on the bench and think for a while as I claw at the wood of the bench with my fingernails. Matt drives up and walks over to the bench I’m sitting on. “How ya doing?” he asks.

I shake my head, “I’m not doing so well lately.”

He sits down beside me with a blank stare, “I’m sorry man. If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”

Sensing my opportunity, I reply, “Actually, I do need some information.”

“Information about what?”

 I take a deep breath, then say, “Information about that night.”

“Ok, I’ll tell ya what I can. What ya want to know?”

I think back over the memories that had just returned. “Do you know what the girl I was with looked like?”

He chuckles, “Ah, it’s about the girl. Yeah, I know what she looks like. Now ya know I’m not too good with descriptions. But, she is slim built. She had brown curly hair. Fairly pretty girl.”

 Thinking about what to ask next causes the conversation with Joanna to come to mind, “Do you know what Joanna and I were discussing before she left?”

He gets up off the bench, stretching his arms. “Not really. She did tell me, she needed to talk to ya about something important. I heard her mention something about ya needing to know what was happening. Then ya girl asked what y’all were talking about, but I told her I didn’t know. Ya and Joanna ended up moving over to the side of the bar, out of earshot.”

So what was going on that involved my parents having to tell me something and Joanna telling me something as well? More importantly, are the two connected? Did Joanna know about my secret situation? Joanna does know my parents well. She and my dad talked a lot because she was going into criminal law, and he is a well-known lawyer who has dealt with a few psychopaths. Did he confide something in her? “Do you know where Joanna went when she left the bar?”

He rotates his head, stretching out his neck. “No, she left after she talked with you. Didn’t say goodbye or anything. What is this all about Ryan? Ya acting really strung out, like ya hiding something.”

The question catches me off guard. I’m not prepared mentally or emotionally to explain my actions. “Umm, I’m having trouble remembering that night still and… I think I might have gone to my parents’ house that night. That’s why I’m trying to get more information about that night.”

His expression goes cold, “So, ya were at your parents’ house the night they died and ya can’t remember what happened?”

I look away in shame. As if he senses my guilt, he follows my movements trying to stay in my field of vision. “What did ya do, Ryan? Did you have something to do with their deaths?

Why would he say that? He’s supposed to be helping me! I stand up in a fit of anger, moving towards him so that my face is right in front of his. Punch him! The back stabbing fool thinks I could do that to someone well let’s see! “How dare you accuse me of having something to do with their deaths. I loved them!”

He backs up a step creating some room between us. “We all know what happens when ya drink too much. Ya get stupid. Ya always have, ever since your first drink. Ya have even been drinking already this morning. I can smell it on ya. Scotch is fun when ya are trying to wind down, but it’s not the answer to everything.”

He shakes his head in disgust. My grasp on the anger within myself slips further away as my hands clench together in a fist. Looking me in the eye, he continues, “Even if ya didn’t have anything to do with it that night. Ya better still go to the cops. This is sketchy man. Ya need help.”

Releasing my clenched fist, I say, “The cops probably think I did it. They know I was there at some point that night, and it’s only a matter of time until they find the truth. That’s why I have to find it first. There is no way I can tell them when I don’t remember anything. And I definitely can’t tell them I might have been there the second they died. I’ll be handcuffed before I finish the sentence.”

He takes an audible sigh, then replies, “Look, I know ya in a tough spot, but ya need to do what’s right. It ain’t worth it to be hiding stuff if ya didn’t kill them. Tell the truth.”

He slowly backs away, walking backwards to his car as I scream after him, “Some friend you are!”  

He yells back as he opens his car door. “Sorry man. I can’t have anything to do with this anymore. There’s no telling what happened if ya drank to the point ya couldn’t remember again. Ya need help. If ya won’t listen to me, I can’t be the one to help ya!”

I walk back to the car angry and confused. Why does everyone think I did something that night? This is crazy! Matt has been a friend since high school. Why would he accuse me? Ugh, he just pisses me off!

I get in the car and slam the door still feeling betrayed by the encounter with Matt, but I try to wipe the thoughts of him out of my mind by concentrating on the recent flux of memories. I turn the car on while staring at the bar that sent into motion something that ultimately led to my parents’ death. I glance at the clock in the car. Damn, I have wasted over an hour with this crap. Where do I go now?

 While pulling out of the parking lot, I take one more peek back at the[_ _]bar hoping it will give me more answers before I leave. A figure of a girl standing by the door of the bar stares out in my direction as people walk by not even noticing her. Due to her misty appearance, none of her facial structures are visible from the distance. Then, like a dissipating fog, she vanishes like all the other mysterious figures from the past couple days.

[]Chapter 8: Paranoia

 

The fatigue from all my varied emotions triggers a craving for a home cooked breakfast. My hunger twists my stomach inside out practically forcing me to find something to eat. I drive towards the local family owned Ma’s and Pa’s Breakfast Diner, deciding to take the back streets in route to the diner, a route which will take a little longer, but will also wind through some nice Georgia scenery. Boy, I could really use anything nice right now.

As I pass under a few oak trees with moss hanging down from them, I search my phone for Joanna’s number. I have to figure out what she told me. Since I can’t remember, I’m going to have to ask yet another friend to fill me in on the details. Hopefully this conversation will go better than the last.

I find her contact information and press dial. The Bluetooth devise in my car connects with my phone, initiating the audible dial tone through the car speakers. The dial tone end by cutting to an automated female voice. “I’m sorry. The number you have dialed has been disconnected. Please, try again later.”

I check my phone to make sure I dialed the right number. The number that I dialed is indeed the number listed under Joanna’s contact information. I dial it again in case the previous disconnection has been just an anomaly. But again, the automated female voice disconnects my call.

That is strange. I have never experienced a problem calling her before now. She must have a new number or something and forgot to tell me. I really need to talk with her today. I’m running out of friends. It’s still early, maybe she is still at home. I could stop by her house before going to the diner. She probably wouldn’t mind the intrusion too much. Joanna’s house is only a few blocks away from my current location. All I have to do is take a slight detour, and I’ll be at her house.

As I pull into her empty driveway, it becomes clear she isn’t home. She must already be out and about, living her normal uninterrupted life. I’ll just have to wait to ask her about our conversation.

I’m about to leave her house when the outside lights of her home catch my eye. It might simply be my exhaustion induced paranoid state, but something feels off. Joanna is one of the most particular people I know. Especially with her money and home. She never wastes her money on extravagant things, if she doesn’t absolutely need or want it. And she never leaves things out of place like a light wasting away.

I suppose I can give in to my paranoia just this once. I would be doing her a favor if I go check things out. I have never been a good friend to her. This could be my chance to be a friend to her like she has been to me. I have to check, for her.

I open my door being cautious in case something happens to materialize out of nothing. The house doesn’t give off a very powerful stigma. It’s a modern single apartment complex. Nothing about its appearance really stands out or calls attention to the home. Other than the exterior lighting being on despite the debilitating sunshine.

I approach the door, looking up at the lighted burning bulb hanging above the doorbell. My finger trembles as I place it on the button and press down. The faint sound of the cheerful melody of bells beckons from within the home. I bounce up and down on my toes as I wait for the door to open. Now, how do I describe my presence without looking like a homicidal lunatic? I have no idea.

I wholeheartedly expect Joanna to open the door despite her car being vacant from the property. So, when the door does not open, I find myself pressing the doorbell button repeatedly. After a few obsessive rings I come to the obvious conclusion, the light was just a careless mistake and she had already left the house this morning. I’m such an idiot. Why must I give into my delusions every time? It only ever produces more paranoia, which always leads to nothing good.

A loud sound erupts from within the house. I stare at the door in confusion before I rush to the window. The window blinds are down, but I can still see parts of the living room through the cracks. There is a broken vase lying on the floor in the living room.

There has to be someone in there. I’m about to head back to the door when something darts by the broken vase. It moves past the vase so quickly that I can only glimpse the slight changes in light and shadows caused by the movement. I put my face right up against the window, so I can get a better angle.

Wham! A black furious cat pounces at the window. I fall back onto the porch as the blinds shake against the window glass. Ugh, I hate cats as much as spiders. I stare back at the window as the cat’s devilish eyes lurk behind the blinds.

I slowly back off the porch while staring at the shadowy cat in the window. Once back in the car, I make a promise to myself to stop being a paranoid crazy fool that obsesses over every anomaly in life. Life is filled with chance occurrences that are nothing more than coincidence. Like the freaking cat knocking over a vase and scaring the hell out of me. After all, if anything can happen, it will one day happen.

So maybe my life right now is just one giant awful coincidence. My parents met an awful demise on the same day I had excessively drunk myself into no memory. Everything else I’m feeling is an effect of the alcohol abuse that unfortunately occurred around the time someone harmed my parents. Coincidence, it’s the only explanation. Logically finding what has to be the truth of the past few days doesn’t make me feel much better because coincidences are void of any meaning.

I return to my quest for a home cooked breakfast. I drive down the now log jammed main streets for a couple blocks before returning to the less congested back streets of Everton. I’m only a few blocks from Ma’s and Pa’s, and I can practically smell the bacon that I’m about to eat.

Cheerful groups of early risers pack the diner to its capacity. It’s sickening how pathetic life can be at times, here I am having my world blown up with a hidden stack of dynamite, and yet I’m eating breakfast in a room with a bunch of perky early birds that can sit and chirp about how safe and secure their life will always be in their neat little nests. Hell, I used to be one of them until boom! My parents murdered inside their own home and all these people can do is chirp. 

There is only one empty booth in the entire restaurant, and thankfully, it is by a window in the back, away from most of the livelier guests. An elderly woman greets me at the door with a warm country smile as she leads me to the empty leather booth while explaining the morning specials.

I don’t come here often, but the woman must recognize me because she begins chirping to me about my mother. Her smile turns into a frown as she expresses her sympathies. I know she is trying to help, but the way she talks about my saintly mom only points out the contrast in character between my mom and I. Mom just had a way with people that nobody else I know has ever had. Meanwhile, I tend to screw all my relationships up without even thinking of anyone else. Everyone loved her. Even the people that hated me loved my momma. What does that say about me?

Before the woman leaves, she says, “Get whatever you want. It’s on the house.”

I order a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and some hashbrowns. While I wait for my food, I stare out the window at the passing traffic. The silverware on the table shakes as my phone vibrates on the table. It’s a text message from my sister informing me that she got into town early this morning. I text her back, ‘I’m at Ma’s and Pa’s Diner waiting on some breakfast. Swing by if you can.’

After sending the text, my eyes move back to the window. My mother’s face lightly reflects back to me in the window’s glass. My chest tightens while a scream catches in my throat. I whirl my head away from the window right as a waitress sets a cup of steaming coffee down on the table. A blank expression forms on the waitress’ face. I lower my eyes from her condemning gaze as my fingertips grip the table’s edge. With no place to hide my embarrassment, I turn back around to the window. The image of my mother has disappeared. In its place, the waitress’ stern face reflects back at me.

My mouth opens to explain myself and thank the waitress, but she moves on to another table before I can speak. My hand quivers as I pick up the cup of coffee. A few drops spill over the rim of the cup onto the table as my head comes to a rest against the back of the booth. The warm, sweet elixir’s taste is as good as its smell.

The sound of plates and glass cups ring in my ears as my eyes shut. The people in the diner continue to blab about their silly day-to-day activities. My stomach turns, almost causing me to spew coffee all over the booth, as the man in the booth ahead of me whines about the playoff game last night. He has no idea what true loss feels like. No idea at all. The shaky voice of the waitress calls out, “Here you go, enjoy.”

My eyes open to the sight of a soft biscuit and crisp hashbrowns. In the process of me taking my first bite of the biscuit, my sister walks into the diner. I raise my hand as she searches the booths. Her shirt has wrinkles spreading out in every direction. A dried layer of smudged eyeliner accents her bloodshot eyes.

“You want anything to eat? I ask as she sits down across from me.

She mumbles, “I’m not really that hungry.”

We sit in silence as I squeeze some ketchup onto my hashbrowns and take a bite. Too ashamed to look at her, we both keep our heads down. What do I say to her? I haven’t seen her in so long and this is what it takes to get us in the same room.

“Have they said when they are going to release the bodies?” She asks with her head still down.

 “I haven’t heard anything, I would say sometime today, though. I know it’s a lot to ask, but can you take care of all that?”

She looks up from the table. “I’ll take care of it.”

The waitress brings me a new cup of coffee as she engages Alice with a short conversation about our mother. While they talk, I savor the last few bites of the juicy bacon that had fallen out of my biscuit.

“You doing ok?” I ask Alice as the waitress walks away.

 “Not really. It doesn’t even seem real. Even right now, it feels like I should call mom and tell her I’m in town.”

The pain she is experiencing is evident. I wish we were still as close as she and mom have been through the years. Growing up, we would do everything together. I remember when we were kids we would stay up late watching scary movies. We were once like best friends. “I’ve missed having you around.”

She invitingly stretches her hand out across the table. It is cool to the touch as I gently take it with both my hands. “It’s going to be ok. I’m going to make whoever did this pay.”

She replies, “I know. Just please tell me you didn’t have anything to do with it. Please!”

“Look, I wish I could tell you that I was nowhere close to being involved. The truth is I don’t know.”

Our hands separate as she pulls away from me. She strokes her bangs down onto her face in an attempt to cover up the few tears that had formed in her eyes. She has to be disgusted by me. Jeez, I’m disgusted by me. Who answers a question like that? I’m an idiot.

          In need of presenting a more innocent case for myself, I say, “I know I didn’t hurt them. There are just too many moving parts right now to know why or how this could have happened. But I’m going to find out.”

          She cries out, “Not knowing isn’t good enough, Ryan!” She slides out of the booth, as the entire diner looks our way. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. I wish things could be like they used to, but… anyways, I really should be going. Someone has to make funeral arrangements and talk to the lawyers. I guess that person is me.”

          She briskly leaves the diner, leaving me sitting alone in the booth. Seeing her leave reminds me of the void that has overtaken our relationship. A void that will grow even wider after she leaves town. Why do I have to screw everything up? I didn’t even need the money. It was just something to do. Something selfish.

          A man sitting a few booths away stares at me as I set a few dollars on the table. The man’s stare, like a razor blade jabbing into my skin, painfully calls for my attention. There is something villainous about the way the man shifts in his seat as I get out of the booth. My eyes lock on his as I pass him. His eyes are dark and hateful. This one isn’t the typical early bird.

          Without hesitation, he follows me out of the diner. My eyes roll from side to side in my head in an attempt to keep track of him. He is still following as I open my car door. I shove my key into the ignition. The burly guy sticks his hand into his pocket revealing a dark tattoo engraved on his arm as he fiddles with whatever is in his pocket. I pull out of the parking lot before I can see what he pulls out of it that could harm me.

I drive away with one eye on the road ahead and the other on the rearview mirror. The guy from the diner doesn’t appear to be following me, but I can’t be sure. In order to be completely safe, I loop through a couple of intersections before making my way back to my house. The last thing I need is a crazy guy following me home.

The last thing I expect to see when I turn down my street is a slew of police vehicles around my house. My foot slams on the brake pedal as my hands turn the steering wheel towards the side of the street. Police officers casually walk in and around my house. Crap! There’s a bloody shirt in the bathroom that probably has both my parents’ blood as well as my own on it.

What do I do? They must suspect me of having some part in the murder. I have to get out of here. I can’t let them see me. I turn the car around and start driving. I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know one thing. I have nobody left to turn to for help. No one at all.

[]Chapter 9: Ryleigh

 

Trying not to draw too much attention to myself, I carefully drive down a few of the barren back streets. I pass a park where presumably a mother is pushing her young son on a swing set. The kid has no idea how lucky he is to have a mother. She will always be there for him to give him a push in the right direction. That bond can never be dissevered. I should know.

There aren’t too many places in Everton to hide out, none that I can think of, so with each second it becomes more and more likely that I’m going to drive past a cop and wind up in jail. The only person I can call is Alice, but she would never understand or help me, not anymore. With things spiraling out of control, I don’t have the luxury to even catch my breath and analyze what I do know. My obsession to get answers is in overdrive, but at this rate, I’m losing all my means and there is no end without the means to get there. I need some place to go where I can energize my body and mind. My eyes have become dry and slightly blood shot from the lack of sleep and alcohol, which makes driving nothing less than torture.

Suddenly, an unexpected phone call causes my phone to vibrate in my pocket and unexpected isn’t really my thing, which is why the tingling of the phone vibrating against my thigh forces me to jump in my seat. I fish the phone out of my pocket with one hand, but I have to look down to find it. One irritated eye remains focused on the road until the wide gaze causes it to shut. Everything in my body goes numb as the car goes barreling over the curb onto a flimsy sidewalk. With a quick jerk of the hands, the car skids back onto the street, narrowly missing a garbage can that had been left on the sidewalk.

Not wanting to wreck my car or draw any more attention to myself with jerky driving, I pull the car off the road. A look of bewilderment comes over me as I find the name on the call reads Ryleigh. I don’t think I know a Ryleigh; nevertheless, the name and number are programmed in my phone. I answer the call with my car’s Bluetooth function just before it goes to voicemail. My fingers tap rhythmically against the steering wheel, while I wait a couple seconds for someone to speak.

The line remains silent until a female voice comes through my car speakers in a hurried tone. “Hey. Ryan, Are you home?”

“Who are you?” I ask.

“Stop playing. This is serious. Where are you?”

I reply, “I’m not playing. Who are you? Do we know each other?”

She takes a second, then replies, “I have been waiting for you to call me. It was awful what happened to your parents. I thought you would at least get up with me, so we could cope together.”

Not even spending the time to process what she is talking about, I ask, “Were you at the bar the other night? I really don’t remember anything from that night.”

“Yes, I was at the bar. Do you really not remember me? Because you will have to forgive me, but that’s hard to believe. We have known each other a while so that isn’t a good way to get rid of me.”

My hands softly massage my eyelids as I attempt to make sense of the conversation. Why did she call me sweetie? Are we together? “I’m sorry, but like I said, I don’t have the slightest memory of you.”

When she speaks next it sounds as if she is about to break into tears. “I, I don’t understand. After everything we have been through. If you don’t want to see me because of your parents, just say so.”

The whole conversation throws me into a panic. What is going on? Have I forgotten a complete relationship? After a few seconds of silence, which is probably longer than I should have waited, I reply, “No, you misunderstand. I’m not blowing you off. I have problems remembering stuff when I drink too much, and I can’t remember that night. I know it’s an insane stretch, but for whatever reason I honestly can’t remember you.”

While sniffling on the line she asks, “Where are you?”

I look around the street as a few cars meander past, “I’m on my way to Ma and Pa’s for breakfast.” I wait for her response, but instead sirens come through the dead phone line.

She returns after a few seconds. “Ryan, I’m driving toward your house and the road is blocked off just before I can get to your place. What in the world? Ryan, police are all over your property.”

          Why is she going to my house? This lady has some serious explaining to do.

She says, “They must think you have something to do with your parents. They have to know we were there. Did you tell them we were there?”

Why won’t she answer my questions? I’m about to lose my mind. “No! I can’t remember! Wait, you were there that night as well?”

In a hurried tone, she replies, “Yes! You must be telling the truth; you really don’t remember that night. I have to get out of here. Um… Meet me at Colonial Park. Nobody should be there, so it should be safe. I need to see you.”

I reply, “I don’t understand. What happened that night?”

She says, “I’ll tell you what I know later. First, we need to get to the park.” With that, she hangs up.

Somehow, my life has found a way to get even worse. Going to the police keeps coming to the forefront of my thoughts, so maybe turning myself in to the authorities isn’t such a bad idea. As if the voice deep within me hears I’m about to do something stupid, my thoughts change. They are searching my house. Why would they do that unless they thought I did something? I don’t know what to do. Who would believe my story? I don’t even believe this is happening to me.

The two minded approach is admittedly not the best way to provide a reasonable way out of this conundrum, but I’m finding it hard to think linearly without division happening. Pressure builds and my migraine threatens to return. I pull back out on the street as I punch the roof of my car.

I take a quick right turn and head toward the old colonial period park. The park is about a mile out of town back in the woods, which could definitely be useful in my current predicament. With the cops after me now, everything makes even less sense. What did I do and how is Ryleigh involved?

I take a few turns that usher me to a long dirt road that runs past the park. I veer off the paved road and onto the dirt. This less traveled road leading out of town should be safer than the main highway in theory. A few houses, both new and old, align themselves along the road every so often. For some reason the older, more scenic houses bring a calming influence over me. Then again, the calmness could be produced by the flask of scotch I pulled out the glove box and have slowly been drinking.

This part of the city and the land just outside the city limit is more historically significant than the more modernized city limits. In fact, it is like many cities in the area that spread out from plantation homes that eventually were forgotten as modern times and industry took over. At least it should be a good place to hide out. Hopefully!

I drive around a curve that hides the park entrance. Town lore states that a confederate general ambushed a union brigade around this very curve in the terrain. I hope I’m not playing the part of a soldier. The feature that stands out in the park is a well-maintained lake that despite the lack of visitation to the park remains a picturesque example of pure beauty. From what I understand, the city keeps the park open more for the land’s history than its recreational use.

As my eyes trace around the bank of the lake, I notice a car parked under the mossy oaks a few yards to the right of the lake. That must be her. I coast through the park with my eyes peeled in case of an ambush. I’m not sure I could live through any more surprises. Thankfully, life obliges and there is only the one car in the entire park.

I let the car come to rest a few feet from another parked that sits under a tree. The other car is black, considerably older, and more worn than my own. I pick up my phone and reread the mysterious text from the other day. My mind focuses on the words ‘be careful’ and ‘danger’. What if this is indeed a trap? I’m going to have to risk it. I need answers, and she is the only one that could have them right now.

Matt didn’t say anything bad about her. He’s an ass, but if he sensed she could do harm to me, he would have told me. If this really is that girl from the bar, everything suggests that she and I had a relationship of sorts. I can’t give into my paranoia. I have to do this.

At the same time that I slowly open my door, the black car’s driver side door opens. I still can’t see anyone, which causes me to question the person’s motives. It could be the guy from the diner for all I know. Before the driver comes into view as I walk cautiously around the car, a shadowy female figure appears this time beside a tree.

The face of the woman comes into clearer view for a split second then becomes fuzzy. That’s the woman from the bar. Somehow, I just know it is the woman, but then the figure disappears just as the person from the car cuts in front of my view of the tree. I quickly refocus on the person standing in front me that had just exited the car.

As I am trying to process everything, a soft nervous voice breaches the quiet park setting. “Hey. I guess I need to reintroduce myself.” A realization quickly sets in during this unnerving moment as all my senses reach the same conclusion. This person from the black car is no doubt the woman from the bar, the voice is without a doubt the voice from the recent phone call, and the face of this woman is precisely the same face I saw behind the tree a few seconds ago.

[] Chapter 10: Colonial Park

 

I swear I just saw her behind a tree. How is this possible? At least I. My thought is interrupted as the woman walks closer to me. From this short distance, the woman’s features are captivating. She is very well dressed in her beige shorts and floral shirt. She is slim built and has long dark brown hair. I have to give Matt credit on this one. She is definitely a looker.

The woman stops a few feet away and nervously speaks. “I guess you don’t really remember me, but I’m Ryleigh.”

I don’t really know what to say, so I just nod my head up and down like some kind of mechanical children’s toy. I never really expected a girl that looks like her would be the mystery girl from the bar. Someone that looks as beautiful as her being with a guy like me was never plausible; in my mind, it was actually impossible, until now.

Ryleigh continues in a timid voice, “I’m sorry for everything that has happened. Your mom and dad treated me like one of their own, I wish it didn’t have to end the way it did.”

          I nod again, glancing down at the grass that lies between us. It’s my way of trying to regain my composure even though it probably only makes me look more nervous. Then something she had said sticks out to me. She told me, my mom and dad treated her like one of their own. How does she know them, and why in the world would I bring a girl I just met at a bar to my parents’ house? I’m surprised that I’m not the one who ended up with the aftertaste of death that night.

In a gruff tone, I ask “How do you know my parents? I don’t recollect ever introducing y’all.”

Her forehead wrinkles as her eyes squint in my direction. She takes a few more steps forward, closing the distance between us to only a few inches. Her moist breath blows across my neck as she takes a slight exhale before putting her hand on my shoulder. Her eyes meet mine with a look that makes me question myself. I’ve never had such an intimate stare down before in my life that I can remember.

“Do you really not remember me at all?”

Her question causes me brief hesitation. I’m obviously missing something, but I can’t quite put it together. “Not really. I guess I remember meeting you at the bar, but that doesn’t explain how you know my parents, or why I would take you to their house after we met.”

The look she gives me next is the same stare down I would imagine myself giving an insane person running around acting ridiculous, except now I’m the one doing something totally illogical from her perspective. What is her problem? My hand slowly rises to my temple for no other reason than to be in a defensive position in case she tries to slap me. I can see her briefly contemplating something before she finally replies, “We didn’t meet at the bar that night. We met during college this past year.”

Ok, that was a little unexpected. My sweaty palm runs through my hair, then down my face. “That still doesn’t explain how you know my parents.”

She tries to cover up her flushed face by quickly turning her head away from my view. “Well, we kinda have been dating for a few months now. So I have met with your parents a few times. Is that a good enough explanation of how I knew them, or do I need pictures?”

I cut my eyes toward the ground again in disbelief. I have a girlfriend. Wow, I don’t remember any of that. Why don’t I remember stuff from months ago? Is she trying to trick me? She does know I’m having trouble remembering some things. She could be using that against me, but I don’t know why she would lie to me right now.

There is really no way around the memory issue, so my only option is to level with her about everything. “Ok. I don’t remember any of that. I only recently remember the bar and even it’s only a few memories. What I remember is my friends not really knowing you and me acting as if we just met. So I’m having trouble making all this fit. I guess we could be together, but you could also be playing me for a fool right now. I just don’t think I can believe I somehow have a girlfriend that my friends don’t know, but my parents somehow do know.”

She stands beside me for a few seconds with her arms crossed close to her chest. Neither of us wanting to say something crass allows eerie silence to seep through the park. The wind blows causing leaves from the tree limbs above us to rustle and fall towards the ground. My fingers brush a wayward leaf from my shoulder as she says, “Hold on I’ll be right back. I need to get my phone out of my car.”

 She gracefully walks, through a dense layer of fallen leaves, back around to her car. I shake my hair out of my face and walk toward a bench a few feet away. The bench is located near the tree that minutes ago shielded a person who had the exact appearance as Ryleigh. Out of compulsion, I carefully walk around the surrounding trees in an attempt to rationalize the mirage. One would think there has to be a natural explanation, or at least a rational one. My life is screwed up right now, but it can’t defy nature, could it?

By the time I reach the bench, Ryleigh is walking away from her car towards me. None of this makes any sense, and I still have more questions than answers. I don’t know if I can even trust her or not. On her behalf, I don’t know if I can trust myself either.

When she reaches the bench, she is carrying a cell phone and a notebook in her hands. Vanilla perfume hangs in the open air as she sits down close beside me and speaks confidently for the first time. “If it wasn’t for the awful circumstances, this would actually be an interesting issue going on with your memory.”

She notices my look of confusion, puts her hand on my shoulder, and then continues, “I’m sorry that probably sounded bad. I’ll just tell you some stuff about us and myself before I get into that. Maybe it will help jog some memories for you. Anyways, we met in college like I said earlier. I was finishing my RN degree…”

          I’m distracted from her conversation by the storm of perplexity that crashes onto my consciousness every time she gives me more details. My nails scrape against the brittle wood of the bench’s underside. “What month did all this supposedly take place?”

“Well, we met in early November, and then began dating shortly after. We visited your parents a few times, and Christmas was the first. Your mother and father immediately accepted me. When we could, we would go over and eat lunch with them in between classes.”

“I remember eating lunch with them over the past few months, but I don’t remember you being there.”

 With a smile she replies, “Well, I know given your memory all this might sound like a stretch to you, but it’s the truth.”

The irony of her using my words to respond to my statement makes me smile. While grinning, I nod for her to continue her tale of our relationship. “We enjoyed watching movies, eating at nice restaurants, and going to sport bars together, like we did the other night. It was sometimes hard but we made it work. You were quite romantic actually, when you wanted to be. Then all this happened, and we lost contact the past couple days.”

She hands me the phone that she had been holding, “There are some pictures on it from the past few months that you don’t have, since you don’t ever take pictures with anyone on your phone.”

I take the phone and flip through the pictures. There are several of us in an apartment, a few at a lake, a couple of me outside on the grass with a chess set as my hands raise towards the sky, and several others from a few places that don’t register with me. One photo does register, and it sends chills up my arms. It’s a photo just of Ryleigh. Sunlight is seemingly pouring out of her gorgeous smile. There isn’t anything overly special about the photo except that she is standing in front of a hauntingly familiar tree.

“Have we ever been to this park?”

She smiles, “Yes, you planned a surprise picnic for us.”

 My throat closes up on me, causing me to hack into my sleeve of my shirt upon her verifying my question. I push past the thoughts of premonitions and psychics, while I flip through more pictures. Finally, I reach a picture of Ryleigh, my parents, and me at Christmas. We are all huddled up around the tree. Dad is wearing an embarrassing red sweater that no man should ever be photographed wearing. I have one arm around my mom’s neck and the other around Ryleigh’s back. The only person missing is Alice. She came into town the next day to avoid me; I guess I could never forget some things. “Ok, you win. We are dating, and you do know my parents.”

She smiles and says, “Yep. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” But then her smile disappears, “But that brings me back to my original statement. See, you should remember that stuff. I don’t know why you have forgotten things from the past several months. I get the not wanting to remember the other night. That’s probably for the best, but not remembering me at all… that’s a little crazy.”

I let out a deep sigh contemplating how exactly to respond. For some reason, when she said the word crazy, it cut deep into me. I know it was just a statement of concern on her part, but the way she emphasized it was a little more nefarious than I was expecting from her. “Wow, ok. Um, that is a lot of information to take in. I don’t know how exactly to respond.”

She leans closer to me placing her dry hand in mine. “It’s ok. We will do it together. We just have to trust each other for it to work. I know with everything you’re experiencing that you might be skeptical, but we must be honest with each other.”

I’m overcome with emotion as I squeeze her hand. The emotions aren’t clear enough for me to truly decide how I feel towards her, but there is something. There is no hiding the strong bond growing between us, but the love I’m experiencing from seeing the photos feels surprisingly superficial for someone that just found their love. Yet I still find myself saying, “If we were together once, then we will do this together now. It is hard since I can’t remember everything but just be patient with me. My biggest concern is figuring out what happened that night.”

“I will be as patient as ever. We just need to be careful. Besides, each other, I don’t know who we can trust.”

Our arms fully embrace each other for the first time, my lips near her ear. “You’re amazing. I can’t believe I found a girl like you.”

She whispers back, “yeah, I’m pretty great.” Then she pulls away, “I just wish none of this had happened. I should have never let it get that far out of hand.”

What does that mean? My fingers glide anxiously through my hair. The recent change in emotions has gotten my insides so screwed up that I can’t tell what I’m feeling. Love? Guilt? Sorrow? Rampant hate? I don’t know. I try taking a few deep breaths, so that I can calm down and act like my world isn’t upside down.

I put my hand on her leg and speak softly, “So, what do we do now? I obviously can’t remember much for whatever reason. I think my memory is the key. I would say my memory loss has to do with my drinking except I can’t remember you.”

She looks at her phone, then back at me. “It’s probably because a lot of the mess from the past few days surrounds me. So, maybe deep down you just don’t want to remember me.”

What is she talking about? How could this have anything to do with her? I hope she takes this the right way. “What do you mean?”

She fidgets with the notebook in her hand as soon as I ask her to clarify her remarks. Then her eyes keep looking around in every direction as if she’s waiting for something to happen. She glances down at her phone, then out across the lake once more. What is she doing? She looks scared… “Ryleigh, you ok? I asked what do you mean by saying this mess surrounds you?”

She glances at me, but then continues to look around. Finally, she shudders, “Um, we need to go, it’s not safe. I’ll tell you more later.”

I recognize her mood change, which frightens me just as much as whatever is spooking her. I decide not to fight her to much over her involvement. “Ok, that’s fine. Why isn’t it safe though? You think the cops know we are here.”

She jumps up off the bench and grabs my hand, “No, it’s not the cops we need to be worried about right now.”

She forcefully grabs my hand as we start walking back towards the car. We are nearing our cars, so I veer off towards my car. She grabs my arm and pulls me towards her car preventing me from making it to my own. The force behind the yank of her hand reminds me of the push from the guy in my parents’ house, assuming he ever existed outside of my mind in the first place.

She says, “We have to be a little worried about the cops. They probably are looking for your car. I don’t think they know about me, yet.”

“I think they do, but your car is probably still safer.”

Standing together by the car with her gently holding my arm, it is clear what is going to happen next. Even though the signs are evident, it still catches me off guard. She pulls my arm once more until my body is touching her. She brings her lips towards mine and it happens. Our lips interlock in what feels like a genuine yet strange kiss. It’s almost the feeling I would expect to experience if forced to kiss my sister. Except this kiss has a taste of passion mixed in with the revolting stench of perversion.

What was that? My mind goes completely blank for the first time in forever as we stand there in each other’s arms. I don’t know whether to be disgusted or in love. She eventually pulls away without a word and gets in the car with a small yet noticeable smirk. It obviously meant something to her.

I take a deep relaxing breath upon getting into the passenger seat. After everything that has happened, there is an inkling of guilt floating on the surface of my conscious because despite my confusion, I’m actually happy. So I close my eyes for a few seconds, trying to hide my temporary happiness and prepare myself for whatever happens next. She drives around the lake to the exit of the park as we both sit in blissful silence.

 

[]Chapter 11: Lost

 

The car squeals as we pull out onto the dirt road. Some random country song plays on the radio while we sit in silence. With the mystery girl part of the puzzle solved, my thoughts and worries clear for the moment, which allows me to enjoy the peaceful countryside.

The country fields fly by as we drive down the highway leading out of town. Out my car window, high stalks of corn and cotton flow for acres. The thing about living in this part of Georgia is we are a bit of a paradox. Everton itself is a modern city of sorts mixed in with rich rural farmland. I have always enjoyed driving through the outskirts of the city because you literally have both city privileges and country life rolled into one like the farm we pass, which has a tractor plowing the field only about ten miles from where I was earlier in the day at Ma’s and Pa’s.

I take my phone out of my pocket and start looking through my messages. Ryleigh looks over at me with a look of disgust. “What are you doing? The cops can trace that.”

She opens up the middle compartment in the car while driving. She pulls something out and says, “Here, take this. I stopped by the gas station on the way to the park and bought us both one. We have to be extremely careful from this point on.”

I take the phone and inspect it. I go to the contact information, which already includes Ryleigh’s number programed into it. I click add new contact. Nonchalantly, I copy from my old phone the unknown number that sent the mysterious text.

I don’t really know why I do this. The text from the unknown number just freaks me out. Nevertheless, the number is programmed in my new phone as I put it in my pocket. “Good thinking. I don’t know what I would do without you right now.”

I take my old phone and throw it out the window as she does the same with her phone. Feeling much more at rest, I note that there is no sign of trouble or danger anywhere in sight. I relax in my seat, resting my head comfortable against the worn headrest. “Hey, Ryleigh. Where are we going?”

She looks at me and shrugs her shoulders. She bobs her head as if she is playing out different scenarios in her head. “I don’t really know. I would say head to my house, but it’s probably not safe,” she says.

She looks so unsure and so scared. There has to be more going on than she is letting on. The cops are after me, and I don’t feel as anxious as she looks right now. Her hair is visibly frizzing as the sweat accumulates and drips down across her forehead. Since we first began talking in the park, her whole demeanor has been shifting from calm, caring, and helpful to panic, anxious, and worrisome.

I break the awkward silence by saying, “Yeah, two police officers came to my house early this morning. They said someone saw me and a young lady run out of my parents’ house that night.”

While glancing my direction, she replies, “Do you remember the officers’ names.”

“Yeah, it was Walker and Boyd. You know them?”

“No, I don’t think I do, but we can’t make stupid decisions like going to my house because they will eventually know I’m the one helping you.”

It feels like she is still keeping something back, so I implore once more, “I guess. But why can’t we just go to the cops? It’s not like I killed my parents.”

She cuts her eyes at me in a look of dismay, then back to the road. In a hurried tone that I’m beginning to think is her normal way of talking, she expresses, “We just can’t it’s not safe. And there’s… there’s someone else we need to avoid.”

My neck seizes up while the man from the diner enters my mind. The man that had the same build as the guy I think was in my parents’ house. The man that is after us? The frustration causes me to bark “What! Who else could we possibly have to avoid? Why aren’t you telling me everything? Damn it, Ryleigh! You still haven’t even told me why you were at my parents’ house that night.” Seeing red, I kick the glove box in front of me.

My foot leaves a dirty shoe impression on the cracked vinyl. Ryleigh begins sobbing with one hand over her mouth. Tears run down her face and onto the steering wheel as we travel down the road. I’m beyond frustrated and her crying because I called her out only makes me even wilder. I shake my head in anger while my fist clenches the door handle.

Looking at Ryleigh’s frightened face only increases my discomfort, so in an effort to take back control of myself, I take deep labored breaths. My eyes close shut in defiance of my wicked urges while Ryleigh says in a sorrowful voice, “I wanted to tell you when we were safe. I don’t want you to get hurt, too.” Through tears she continues “I, I… can’t do this anymore. I don’t deserve to have this burden weighing me down and you don’t either.”

Seeing her anguish and the effects of the internal battle taking place inside her, sets off a deep range of sorrow within myself. Even while I’m sitting here acting selfish and only caring about my answers, she is thinking about me. Why must I continue to loath in selfish obsession? She loves me! She will tell me what I need to know when she is ready. It can’t be easy for her to know something awful while I constantly remind her of the pain. She is as broken as I am.

My eyes open wide as I fight a tear from forming, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just don’t know what is going on anymore, and I’m used to being in control of stuff. I know that is still no excuse to raise my voice and scare you.” My hands wipe away a few tears that fought past my suppression efforts. “Having someone else to care for is new for me. I’m sorry. We will get through whatever you are shaken up about. Take all the time you need.”

She follows my lead and wipes her eyes while quickly regaining most of her composure. The water dries from her face, but it is clear she is dealing with some nightmare of her own beneath the surface. She looks right through me with her wet brown eyes cutting through to my heart in the process. It is as if she is about to speak, but rethinks what she has to say.

Her gaze turns back to the road as I keep my eyes on her. It is in this moment that I realize there is a part of me that loves her regardless of whether I can remember all of her or not. There is also another part that almost resents her for something, but the love is a much more pleasant thought. Out of nowhere, my inner peace is shattered as she shrieks “Crap! What do I do?”

My eyes dart from her broken figure to the road looking for something that could explain her terror. We are about five or six miles out of town by this point, so it could be anything from a cow in the road to a drunken fool driving in the wrong lane, you never know in Everton. The fairly straight road leads out of town into the vast expanse of country farmland, surrounded by large corn stalks that stretch upward towards the heavens. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then I see what made Ryleigh shriek. About a quarter mile from where we are now there is a curve in the road that turns left out of our view. Near the last bit of the curve that remains in our view, there are two police cars sitting on the grass beside our lane.

Ryleigh takes a momentary look in my direction, and it becomes clear she wants me to tell her what to do. I only see two logical options. Drive by the cops and hope we aren’t stopped. Or, turn down a road before we reach the turn[_. _]Not really knowing which option to choose I offer, “Take this road up here to the right. But we need to figure out where to go quickly before we get trapped.”

I point to the road as she does what I suggest by taking the next right. It strikes me odd that she turns the wheel without hesitation or reconsidering that I could be wrong. She must really trust me. I don’t know if I would have even asked her let alone blindly do as she suggests. I would have made my own decision and dragged her along for whatever happened next, pretty much as I’m doing now.

Mossy trees surround the new road on both sides, making it impossible to see through the thicket. Before we get too far, I turn looking out the back window. To my relief, there are no police cars or any other vehicles following us that I can see. Satisfied that we had avoided the cops, I relax slouching down in my seat. Ryleigh likewise lets out an audible sigh of relief as my hand reaches over and comes to rest on her leg.

She removes one hand from the wheel and grabs my hand. While running her fingers across the top of my hand, she inquires, “Well, where do you want to go? I guess it should be somewhere isolated or at least somewhere no one would ask questions.”

I brush my fingers through my now completely sweat drenched hair. “Yeah, we need to lay low. If they really think I had something to do with my parents’ death, and you are right about not going to them then it has to be somewhere isolated. Um… Let me think about it, just keep driving for now. Unless you already have a place in mind?”

Shaking her head, no, she looks in the rearview mirror, “I just hope we can find someplace with a hot shower and comfy bed.”

She drives down the shaded road while I attempt to figure out a place to stay.[_ _]It has to be isolated. There are plenty of places that are isolated, but we really need a place where we can relax and regroup. I need answers, and she obviously isn’t going to open up until she can relax somewhere she feels safe. So where is somewhere she would feel safe? I would feel at ease in a hotel. Well a nice hotel anyway—one that isn’t on the police’s radar. Nice is probably out of the question considering the circumstances. But we might be able to make some sort of hotel work.

Confident that I have a working plan, I break the silence. “We obviously need someplace isolated like we said. But I’m feeling totally give out, and in no time at all the morning will be gone, and the heat of the afternoon will be in full effect. I think we should head for a hotel, one that’s not in Everton’s immediate jurisdiction.”

She nods her head, looking in my direction, “That should work. It would need to be a crappy hotel or at least one that police wouldn’t immediately think to search… I’m thinking the one in Burkeville. But even it would only be safe for tonight. They will start looking for you elsewhere when you don’t return home.”

I like the way she thinks! “You’re right. It would be somewhere they would eventually look, but I think we should be fine for tonight. And hopefully we can figure a way out of this, so that we would only need a night.” I pause rubbing her leg then continue, “However we have one minor problem. Do you know how to get to Burkeville from here because I don’t?”

She answers with a slight chuckle, “No. I don’t know how to get there from here. I don’t really know where here is, I was hoping you would know where we are.” I shake my head no as she continues, “Hopefully we will come across a familiar road. Or we can always double back to the main road and hope we don’t meet any more trouble.”

“So, basically we just have hope then, huh. I guess hope is more than most have.”

After she mentioned the road, my eyes have started wandering out the window seeking anything that looks the least bit familiar. All that is there are trees covered with dark green leaves. Every now and then, a driveway leading to a house or barn will appear as we drive down the bumpy paved road, which has seen better days. We pass a dirt road with a road sign naming both the dirt road and the paved one we are traveling. The sign addresses the road we are on as ‘Granger Drive.’

Ryleigh notices the sign as well and comments, “I think this is the road that runs into Highway 78. I haven’t ever come this way so I don’t know for sure.”

I look at her while responding. “I guess we will find out.”

We drive for a mile or two just looking out the window at the passing landscape. Then our hope suddenly comes to fruition. Granger Drive does indeed run into highway 78. The importance of this intersection is that Highway 78 leads into Burkeville.

As we near the intersection of Granger Drive and Highway 78, both Ryleigh and I let out sighs of relief and comfort. We might actually make it to the hotel. Which means we might actually make it out of this nightmare.

Now that we are traveling at 60 mph due west on Highway 78, we both not only know where we are, but know we will also make it to Burkeville in 15 miles. However, knowing doesn’t help a lot as the miles tick by slowly. Every car we pass sends chills down my spine. Each of the many passing cars takes on the form of a police cruiser in my deranged mind and every second that passes makes me pick at the seat cushion in a rougher and rougher fashion.

It gets to the point where I have to close my eyes to keep the fear at bay. The only logic being that I can’t over analyze and fear what I can’t see. Having my eyes shut helps some, but it doesn’t make the fear or sorrow go away completely. Nothing ever does.

Light comes and goes causing the darkness in my head to blink white every few seconds. Black, then white. Black then white, over and over again. Eventually, the light coming and going quickens to the point I can’t bare the incessant intrusions anymore. My eyes surge open like a powerful dam finally giving way to the multitude of torrent water behind it. The sunlight breaks through the evil trees that are thinning out as we enter the city limits of Burkeville.

[] Chapter 12: City Anxiety

 

The trees slowly merge into buildings as we ride into town. I catch a glimpse of something in my passenger side mirror that gives me cause for concern. There is a string of five or six vehicles behind us that have drawn closer as we entered the city limits. There are no police cars that I can see, but for some reason I can’t shake a feeling of danger. It doesn’t make any sense. Two cars are riding our bumper right behind us, a black Escalade and blue truck a little further back, then another car in the distance coming around a curve.

Ryleigh must sense my discomfort because she asks, “Are you ok? What is it?”

I continue staring at the mirror, and dismiss my hunch that there is danger as me being anxious. “I’m fine, just tired. Thought I saw a cop, but it wasn’t.”

She appears to buy it, her eyes remain solely on the pavement ahead, and it wasn’t really a lie anyways. My body feels like I have run a triathlon, and I have seen cops that aren’t really there. There is no need to scare the poor woman with desolate fears of a ravaged mind.

We are soon at the intersection in Burkeville that with a right turn would take us into the center of town. She looks more than exhausted with one hand on the steering wheel and the other resting against her head. She has already done so much for me. The least I could do is comfort her.

“I know I don’t remember everything that happened, and I’m a wreck right now. But I can’t help noticing you look absolutely worn out as well. Is there anything I can do?”

She removes her hand from her head and puts both hands on the steering wheel as we cross a rickety, old railroad track. “It’s that obvious, huh? I thought I was being discreet.”

“I know how you feel. But seriously, if you need anything I’m here for you. I just wanted you to know that.”

A faint smile briefly forms on her face before melting away back into an earnest look of worry. There is something about her that seduces me into growing closer to her, despite the unnerving quality in my gut. She replies, “I know. I’m fine. I’ll tell you everything I’m dealing with when we get to the hotel.”

Instead of continuing down the road, Ryleigh pulls into a market just off the highway. The market is bustling with people of every age that are carrying on their everyday lives as if it will always be that way. The car comes to a stop next to a woman scolding her kid in front of a pristine minivan. The little boy looks me in the eye while being whacked on the rear end by his mother’s deliberate yet caring hand. The boy’s eyes are filled with regret and sorrow, his mouth covered with smudges of chocolate.

A poke to my side, and my eye contact with the boy is broken. “We need to eat and get some supplies. I’ll go get some stuff, but you need to stay here. Just to be safe.” She kisses me on the cheek, and then gets out of the car leaving me no chance to argue. Before she slams the door, I scream after her. “Try and find some scotch.”

Trying to see if anyone suspects her of harboring a fugitive, I watch her walk away and head into the supermarket. The mother and little boy have already left, presumably headed home where they will be together, probably in a less than thrilled mood but happily together. Being disciplined by mom was never a short, happy experience. There was never just one punishment; instead, there would be several guilt-ridden hoops to jump through before I could escape my chains of perdition. But it was all for the best—without it, who knows what else I would have done that would have led to an entrapment within the lifestyle of dangerous desires and motivations.

My thoughts jump over to the tough task of figuring out who my traveling partner really is as a person. Which isn’t an easy topic to pick apart when I can’t remember anything for myself. I’m totally dependent on her even for discipline much like the little boy who was completely dependent upon his mom. That can’t be the way to start a healthy relationship, but I have no choice.

So what do I really know about Ryleigh? She is smart, caring, and pretty. So why is she sticking her neck out for me? We have only been dating a few months. None of which I can remember. She could easily abandon ship, leaving me helplessly alone while she looks for someone else. I wouldn’t hold it against her at all. I mean my life is upside down right now, and it might never be right again. So why is she still here? Is it because she does care? It does feel like she really likes me, at least for who I was before all this. Something still feels off. It’s like she feels guilty. But guilty of what?

She admittedly knows something that is very hard for her to confront. Even though I do trust her more than anyone else right now, I still wish I had more than this one option. But, who else can I trust? Matt is a dead end. I guess I could give Joanna or Alice another call, but they have nothing to do with any of this, making it sadistic torture to involve them in this late a lap in the race. The fact is none of my other friends would help me now that the cops think I played a part in my parents’ death, unfortunately smart friends aren’t the best for dumb situations.

I pull the new cell phone Ryleigh had given me out of my pocket. I go to the contact information and click on the number that sent me the nerve wrecking text. I scratch my head, weighing the consequences of what I’m about to do. I have to be the biggest idiot ever for doing this.

I send the text without a flinch. ‘This is Ryan. You texted me, and I need to know who sent me a text from this number.’

After a few seconds of self-doubt, my phone vibrates. There is a reply text. ‘It’s not safe. I can’t tell you, or we both would be in danger.’

What is going on? I text back, ‘What danger? Do I know you?’

A few more seconds go by until my phone vibrates again with a reply text. ‘Someone wants to harm you, but I don’t know who yet. Same person who killed your parents. I had the misfortune of being at the right place at the wrong time. Now, I’m just trying to do the right thing. Don’t tell anyone about these messages!’

This has to be a joke. How am I supposed to believe this? Was this person in the house that night, too? I shouldn’t be doing this. It was a stupid idea. For all I know this could be the person that killed my parents. What do I do?

A minute goes by before I decide to reply, ‘Were you at the house that night?’

The next message I get takes a couple minutes to come in, and it is much longer and much more confusing. It reads, ‘I know you don’t remember. You were in an awful state that night and somehow you just wiped it from your memory. I passed by the house that night. I saw you running with a girl and someone was after you. I followed you home and approached you after the girl left. You were already delirious and couldn’t remember what had happened. I can’t tell you much more right now. It’s not safe. So, don’t respond to this message again and delete my number and messages from your phone. Staying safe should be your priority.’

Who is this person? If they are telling the truth about being at the wrong place at the right time it could be anyone. A list of my parents’ friends runs through my head. I just don’t see one of their friends being this cryptic. And none of my friends would be this stupid as to stick their neck out for me.

Just when I thought things about that night were getting clearer. Maybe Ryleigh can help? Then again, Ryleigh is already dealing with her own issues. It’s probably better to keep this to myself for now. So, after doing my best to memorize the number, I do as the person advised and delete the number and messages from my phone.

Wait, where is Ryleigh? If this was the killer, it’s not safe for her. She could be in trouble. It’s only been about ten minutes since she left, but still something could be wrong. Anxiety begins to take hold of me like a spreading fire as five more minutes roll by and she isn’t back yet. Then, five more minutes come and goes whilst I consider going into the market looking for her. My hand clenches the door handle fearing the worst, but then she exits the building with bags in tow. I unclench my hand off the door handle and settle back in my seat as if nothing is bothering me.

She throws five bags onto the back seat, then we are off to find the hotel, like it’s just another day in which nobody with sinister motives would be closing in on us at this very second. “Did you get the scotch?” I ask as we pull out onto the highway.

“Yes, I got your scotch.”

She hands me a paper bag with the bottle wrapped inside. I take the bottle out and open it as she turns on the radio. I take a large gulp. She turns and stares at me. “Are you sure that is what you want to do?”

No, mom of course not! I take one more gulp and place the bottle back in the bag. “After the week this is turning out to be, I’ll take a few sips.”

I’m not an idiot. I know it’s a problem to have an excessive need for a drink. I also know this isn’t a solution to any of my problems. Sometimes what you know and what you end up doing just don’t line up. My headache and soreness is actually bearable at the moment. My head is clear and my thoughts are fluid. So, it’s not that I really need a drink to wind down. I need a drink simply because I really want it. I don’t know why I’m craving my old comfort companion right now. Maybe I really am in self-destruct mode as Matt thought or maybe I do need a drink. Either way, that was some awesome scotch.

The effects of the scotch do the trick. I sit back and forget about the recent texts. “What all did you get from the market?”

Her answer is “Some sandwiches from the deli, a couple 2 liter cokes, some cookies, some chips, a pack of batteries, a couple flashlights, some shower stuff and of course your beloved scotch.”

I remark back with a smirk, “I think you got us covered.”

We both laugh hysterically for a couple seconds. Our chuckles get loud enough that even the worst country song ever on the radio is drowned out, which doesn’t hurt my feeling at all. Turning my attention to finding the hotel becomes a treasure hunt now that the scotch is in me. We are in the outskirts of Burkeville heading into town. This part of the city is mainly little family owned businesses or fast food restaurants. There are a couple stores like the market, we just left, but it’s mostly still somewhat rural as far population goes.

As we drive, she speculates, “I believe we turn at the next light and head back out of town. Then it should be on the right side of the road before we leave the city limits.”

Not really knowing where the hotel is located, I shrug my shoulder in agreement and bafflement. If it were not for the alcohol in my system, I would probably be freaking out about the congested traffic. The bumper-to-bumper tightness as we travel into the center of the city could send anyone into a panic. Luckily, I don’t see any police vehicles, but right now, I probably wouldn’t even care. I take another swig from the bottle for good measure.

We are soon at the light, so she turns and heads back out of town down an old city road that will hopefully lead us to where we think the hotel is located. We have traveled into town heading towards the center of Burkeville, which is a higher populated area. Which is definitely not what we want right now. But before getting to the heaviest population density, we turned and are now heading back into a less populated area. Which is what we want.

As we travel out of town, the traffic thins out like mice scurrying away into various hideaways as a hawk soars overhead. I just hope our hawk doesn’t swoop us off the ground and bury me in the prison system until I die. About a mile from the city limit, Ryleigh is proven right as a sign for the hotel appears. The hotel is located off the highway behind a group of trees that block people motoring past from seeing it. The only identifier for the hotel is the one sign that reads ‘Burkeville Mansion’.

We exit onto the paved trail leading to the hotel. Once we curve around the group of trees that block the hotel, the so called mansion comes into view. Along with the frightful view of the mansion, the history and lore of it starts flowing through my head.

The hotel is three stories tall and what looks like room enough for seven or eight rooms across. It is well known for its historical significance, but not very well received as a lodging establishment. The hotel was, at one time, a town house for one of the first mayors of Burkeville.

The mayor lived in the house with his wife, three children and countless servants. Tragically, he hung himself in the building after he was publicly scrutinized for stealing funds even though it was never proven. That was in the early 1900s and ever since then it has had a reputation of being haunted by the mayor and his wife, who also died on site a few years later. That history makes it a perfect place to hide out because only the craziest of people stay here anymore.

As I eye the building, Ryleigh says, “I heard it is only kept open because the people in the mayor’s lineage want it kept open. It was even in the news last year, briefly, because the cops wanted it shut down due to hazardous living conditions. Long story short, the family sued the city and police departed and ended up with a huge settlement that was used to update the site. A little bad blood with the cops surely couldn’t hurt.

[] Chapter 13: Safety and Answers

 

The title Burkeville Mansion is an overstatement. The building while technically big enough to be considered a mansion doesn’t live up to the expectations. The hotel has been remodeled in the past year, so it has a fresh coat of dark blue paint that looks like the scales of a blue devil. However, it’s actually a mundane structure with no real standout features to captivate the visitor. It appears the structure was made for a simple life on a larger scale.

The parking lot is empty except for six vehicles. I eye each vehicle carefully. My vision has started getting a little blurry, which makes it hard to see the vehicles that are farther away. I look down at my bottle of scotch. I might be a little tipsy. Nah, I’m fine. A little eye trouble is definitely worth the way that stuff makes everything else feel. Forget the cars. Nobody would ever suspect us to be here.

We walk up the yellow tinted steps to the front door of the hotel. The interior of the house looks very much like a modern hotel. The smell of abundant lemon bleach and other cleaning concoctions fill the room. There is a long counter with a woman behind it. We stop after we enter the lobby as Ryleigh tells me, “I’ll go get us checked in if you can handle getting the bags.”

I nod in agreement, and then head back outside. I’m not that drunk. The five bags are in the back seat of the car. Once I get a grip on all of the bags, I return to the hotel without even dropping one item. When I make it inside, Ryleigh is taking a key from the woman behind the counter. She motions for me to go towards a hallway off the right side of the room. When we meet she explains, “We are on the second floor, room 11.”

As you would expect, there are no elevators in the hotel since it was once a house. However, we do find a unique floral carved spiral staircase that leads us to the second floor. The staircase is old and creeks with every step. The wood rails are carved with an assortment of interconnected flowers that give the impression of wild vines sprouting upward waiting for a hand to hold them. The spiral curls and numbed senses briefly impede my vision. I clumsily grab at the vine while bracing myself in case I tumble back down the stairs. How much did I drink?

When we reach the second floor, we find a hallway with what looks like entrances to seven rooms all on the same wall. There are two rooms to our right, three rooms in the middle of the hallway, then another staircase, and two more rooms to the left of it. The hallway looks somewhat intimidating to me. The lighting is low despite having several light fixtures throughout the narrow corridor.

We turn left off the stairs and go to the first room we come across. As Ryleigh fiddles with the door, I become aware of five pictures hanging on the wall opposite of the rooms. It would all but be a blank wall running the length of the hallway, except for the staircases, if the hotel management had not decided to put up pictures. There are also candleholders on the wall filled with electric lights that would help fill in space if the pictures were not there. All in all, the pictures do bring the hallway to life.

At a closer glance, the pictures that resemble photos are actually paintings of the mayor and his family. There used to be a famous painter that lived in the area back then, so if he got the commission, the choice to hang paintings does make some sense. We learned about the painter in school, but I don’t remember the painter’s name. The name could have been forgotten for any number of reasons at this point. It’s not really important though, so I let the thought pass.

The longer I stare at the different paintings the creepier the sensation gets. It feels like the portraits are staring into my soul, judging me for my past transgressions. I swear the mayor actually winks at me as the thought crosses my mind. Thus, when Ryleigh gets the door open, I don’t hesitate to dash into the room. Anywhere but the hallway.

The first thing we come across is a bathroom to our left as we walk into a short, narrow hallway. The bathroom is small with only the bare necessities. I stare into the bathroom for a moment as a longing for a hot refreshing shower comes over me. Then, as we continue inward from the bathroom, the small walkway opens up into a bedroom.

The room is a decent size, but it is bare and has a distinct mustiness to it. There is a queen bed centered on the left back wall. There are two small wooden nightstands on each side of the bed. An old bulky TV is located on the right wall directly in front of the bed. The last features are two windows directly in front of us and of course the door directly behind us.

While looking around the room, I remark, “Well, it definitely isn’t the grandest of rooms, but it will do.”

I take the bags over to the corner of the room located to the left of the bed. Ryleigh sprints to the bed and emphatically jumps with both arms spread wide. She lands in the middle of the mattress, the bed groans on impact and a pillow flies from the headboard. She mumbles something to herself as I walk over and plop down on the old bed. Our eyes meet, and in that moment, she kisses me on the cheek. After a few seconds of bitter passion, I can’t help but express “You kinda smell, sweetie.”

She jokingly replies, “You don’t smell so good yourself! And you called me sweetie. That’s what you usually call me… Oh, that reminds me. Before I left my house this morning, I packed a bag full of some of your clothes that you left at my place. It’s in the trunk of the car. I’ll go get it, so we can get showers. That way we won’t smell.”

She kisses me then heads off to get our clothes from the car. My stomach gurgles with emptiness prompting me to set out some food. I take out the bottle of scotch from the paper bag. What I find catches me a little off guard. The bottle is about a third of the way gone. Meaning I must of drank a little more than I meant to in the car. No wonder I feel so good right now.

I set the bottle beside the TV and return to setting up the food. Once I finish with the food, I wander over to the windows. The parking lot is just in view along with some trees and a small field at the end of the property. I can see eight vehicles now in the parking lot. I can’t be sure because seeing double is a distinct possibility at this point. Nevertheless, I inspect each vehicle looking for a police decal but find none that I can see. Ryleigh reaches the car and pulls a bag out from her car.

After watching her get the clothes, I return to the bed and turn on the TV. The softness of the bed feels amazing. My eyelids instantly feel weighted down in my skull, and my feet breathe as I kick off my shoes. I’ve never wanted to sleep more in my life.

It’s sometime after noon, so the local news should be broadcasting in full effect. I don’t know if Burkeville reports Everton news, but it’s worth a shot. Fighting my buzz and tiredness, I flip to the local news channel as I prop my head back against the one pillow that remains on the bed. A couple minutes later Ryleigh returns with the bag of clothes. She throws the bag of clothes down on the floor and hops up on the bed.

We each grab a sandwich and some chips. I pour us something to drink in some cups from the market. I decide against my better judgment and pour myself some coke instead of scotch this time. The sandwich is delicious and satisfies my hunger while we make small talk until the news comes on.

One of the first news stories is about my parents. I guess it’s a big enough story to travel out of Everton’s small station. It shows scenes of cops outside my parents’ house, and then a reporter explains the gruesome details of their murder. I instantly feel sick to my stomach as the reporter continues talking about their death and lives before their gruesome murder.

Thankfully, I have eaten most of my sandwich by now because the reporter ruins any remaining enjoyment the sandwich could bring me. I place my plate on the floor beside the bed so that it’s out of my way. Then the news report displays a slightly different angle of the murder story. My picture flashes across the screen along with my parents’ pictures. At the bottom of the screen, there is a box with the description ‘Breaking News: Son of the deceased determined by police officials to be a person of interest.’ The reporter goes on to explain that anyone with any information should call a special hotline.

I throw my head violently back against the pillow, and massage my eyes with one hand. “Great, I guess I’m a person of interest.”

Ryleigh whispers back. “Believe me, you were never that interesting.

“Well, I guess I am now.”

I sit up in bed, looking her directly in the eyes, I plead, “Ok, we are safe now so tell me what is going on.”

She turns, staring out the window, as I hold my breath. I’m hopeful that she will tell me what she knows this time. Turning back towards me she answers, “Fine, but promise you won’t hate me?”

I don’t know what to say, so I do my typical nod of agreement. She continues, “I met you at the bar to celebrate with you. Your friends didn’t know about me, so we acted like we just met. We were trying to keep our relationship hidden.”

I interject, “Why would we try to hide our relationship? That doesn’t make any sense. Plus, you said earlier my parents knew you. Why would they know you, if we were trying to keep our relationship hidden?”

Her eyes water as if she is on the verge of crying. She fights the emerging tears as she continues, “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t… they would still be alive.”

She finally breaks down and tears start flowing onto the bed. The sheets soak them up like a sponge leaving little wet spots speckled around her on the bed. Trying to regain control, she whimpers, “It’s my fault we had to keep our relationship a secret. When we met in college, my ex-boyfriend was stalking me. He followed me from the town I grew up in before college.”

Tears turn into a loud uproar of audible emotions. She tries to speak, but can’t get anything out in between the sobs. I sit in silence, regretting my decision to impair myself with alcohol while dealing with this subject. I have no idea what to think about an ex-boyfriend. At least it’s natural to have an ex, unlike trying to comfort her.

After a few seconds, Ryleigh is able to return to her explanation. “For months, he kept showing up at my house or following me. I was so scared and didn’t really have anyone who was there for me. So, when I met you… It was just so different than anything I had ever experienced.”

I wipe away a few tears from her face and ask, “Why didn’t you just go to the cops when he was stalking you?”

She answers, “I did! Nobody, not even one person would ever believe me. Well, nobody that is until I met you.”

So that’s why she doesn’t like going to the cops. She doesn’t trust them. Why would she think I would be mad at her for having a stalker? Who is this guy, and more importantly, why kill my parents?

After a brief pause, I respond “Ok. That explains why we kept our relationship secret. You didn’t want him stalking our relationship. I get it, but what happened the night my parents were killed?”

She sniffles, then says, “After we left, we headed to your parents’ for dinner. They had called and rescheduled for dinner instead of lunch the next day.”

With the pieces falling into place, I ask, “So, we did go to my parents’ for dinner? We were there?”

She looks me in the eye, “Yes, we were there.”

A nervous feeling of discomfort flows from within my very soul while I pace the shrinking room. My body begins to tremble as all the different scenarios run through my mind. If we were at the house, then we could have been there for the murder. The thought nearly makes me gag.

“Ryleigh, did we see the murder?”

The question stabs into her more than I thought it would. Her eyes water while her face constricts into a stony, grief stricken display of emotion. “I didn’t, but I think you did. It was awful. I thought he would kill us too, but we got away.”

I sit back on the bed, bracing myself against the headboard as the truth, I had suspected from the start, was finally unearthed. I was at the house the night my parents were killed, and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop it. How couldn’t I save my own parents? After everything I have strived to become, I still couldn’t even protect my family.

Deep down somewhere inside me, I have been thinking that ultimately finding some answers would help me remember. That’s what happened after visiting the bar. A barrage of memories from the celebration party practically belted me just by being in the vicinity of the wretched place. However, my conclusion appears to be faulty. Because, as I sit staring down at the bed, no memories crawl upward into my thoughts. Not to mention I’m the one that actually found my parents the next day. You can’t get any closer than finding their mutilated bodies. It seems the memories related to the actual night at my parents’ house are buried deeper than I have been thinking. Apparently, there is more digging yet to be done.

Searching for clarification, I ask. “Who killed them?”

She doesn’t answer the question right away. The extra moment of silence only increases the hatred that is seeping into my heart for the person that ruined my life. How could someone do something like this? Who would murder an innocent couple in their own home? When she finally looks up from staring at the bed, I can tell this is what has been burdening her heart.

“I’m so sorry. I never thought he would do something like this. He must have tracked me down somehow.” 

“So, your psycho ex killed my parents. Why?”

She fights the tears in her eyes, “I don’t know. I had gone to the bathroom. That’s when I heard some loud noises coming from the living room, so I cracked the bathroom door open. I saw him taking you and your parents upstairs. I was so scared I just shut the door and locked it. When I finally mustered enough strength to go look for y’all, you were at the bottom of the stairs all beat up.”

“Wait. So, you just hid out in the damn bathroom while my parents were killed by your screwed up ex?”

In a moment of unforgivable rage, I stand up and rifle the first thing I can see towards her head. Luckily for us both, the first thing I saw happened to be the pillow that was lying on the floor. The pillow strikes her in the chest. I expect her to throw something back at me, so I instantly back up a few steps. However, to her credit, she simply takes the hit and doesn’t retaliate.

Instead of pacing the room like a bumbling lunatic, I go to the bathroom, slamming the door in my wake. I kick at the bottom of the sink until my foot begins to become sore and bruised. Needing something else to lash out at, I pick up the bar of soap and throw it as hard as I can into the shower. The soap bursts into a thousand pieces as it crashes up against the shower wall.

I look into the mirror hanging above the sink. I have what seems like an uncontrollable urge to pound my fist into the smooth glass fixture. But in a moment of self-reflection, I let the anger and darkness slip away. This isn’t helping anything. If I keep this kind of behavior up, I’ll push away my only lead to finding out what happened that night. Or, maybe not remembering is better. I need another drink!

[] Chapter 14: Reliving the Past

 

While standing in front of the bathroom mirror, the cuts and gashes on my face grab my attention. Claw marks that are much bigger than I previously thought are beginning to crust over as they go through the stages of forming a scab, much like the scab covering my memory. Healing only occurs after enough time has passed from the original act of the trauma. I suppose the same is true for emotional trauma.

I must need more time for my memory to fully heal, to return all the bits and pieces of information to their proper place. It’s time to stop rushing myself, let it happen. In the end, everything heals when left alone to run its own course.

I turn the sink faucet, which in turn allows a stream of cold water to flow vigorously into the sink. I cup my hands, in an attempt to control the high-pressured water, and splash the cool water across my face. The water sends a coolness over me that penetrates all the way to my skull, acting as a temporary relief aid for my tempered thoughts and pain.

I cup my hands once more and splash even more water across my face. This time the splashes of water across my face send a rejuvenating tingle throughout my entire body. The coolness spreads down my arm, like a crawling insect, all the way to my fingertips.

After feeling the instant effects of the water’s healing energy, I bend over the sink and let the cool water flow through my matted hair. The water stings against my hair and scalp, beating away any thought of malice or hatred along with the sweat and muck. My heart rate slows and my body relaxes.

I raise my head and stare into the mirror at the water dripping down my face from my wet stringy hair. As I’m looking at myself, a small detail in the bottom corner of the mirror redirects my eyes. There is a bloody rag against the wall behind me. I quickly turn, slinging water with me. I stare at the wall, but there is nothing there. No rag. No blood.

I turn back to the mirror to find only my ghostly reflection and a bare wall and floor behind me. I brace myself against the sink as I stare into my own eyes. There isn’t even a flicker of acquiescence in the reflected person’s demeanor. The eyes are those of a bold stranger, unyielding in his pursuit and wary of everything. He doesn’t resemble myself in any way, or does he? “I have got to take this slow. I’m going to run myself into the ground if I don’t.”

I take a towel and dry off while trying not to tear any of the scabs. Then the door shakes from Ryleigh knocking on the door as the bouncing sound waves intrude the tiny bathroom. The door is locked, so she speaks through the wooden barrier from the other side. “Ryan, I know you didn’t mean to do that. Please, come out so we can talk.” 

I open the door and go to walk out of the bathroom, but she blocks me from passing. She wraps her arms tightly around me, the smell of sweat and vanilla captivating me in the process. Her body is warm and comforting against the coolness of my own. My arms follow her lead and wrap around her as a few rouge water droplets from my hair fall onto her shoulder.

I let out a deep exhale, “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I just don’t understand any of this. I want so badly to understand what happened.”

She kisses me on my wet forehead and gives me one more tight squeeze before we walk back over to the bed holding hands. “I’m sorry, too. You have to understand that I never meant for your parents to be harmed. I… I was just scared.”

I should cut her some slack for throwing a pillow at her and everything else. I wouldn’t even know what to do if someone was stalking me, for instance the guy at the bar was enough to rattle me. And for all know he could be her ex, but she is no shape to deal with that problem and neither am I. Who knows how I would react if he had wanted to kill me right there in the parking lot. Hell, I don’t even know what to do right now, so it makes sense she was scared. I’m the one who didn’t save them because I was probably too much of a coward. I’m still scared to death about even finding them. So, what could she have done? Nothing!

I say, “I know you were scared. We can get through this together. Let’s continue to go through what happened. Maybe, it will help me remember. Let’s just take it nice and slow.”

“Ok. Well, after I came out of the bathroom, I found you at the bottom of the stairs. You were all scratched up. I didn’t see the fall, but it looked like you had been shoved down the stairs and hit your head or something. Because, you were a little out of it.”

“Was I drunk?” I interrupt.

“Yes, between the bar and dinner you drank a lot. So you weren’t in the best state before the attack. And after, well…”

“Ok. So, what happened once you got to me at the stairs?”

She pushes some hair off her face as she thinks about it for a few seconds. “I got you up on your feet and we ran outside to your car.”

At least, that matches up with what the police and my mystery person have told me. “Did you see anyone outside?”

The question appears to catch her by surprise. Her body posture gets rigid. Her muscles in her arm tighten as her hand squeezes mine. Then just as quickly as everything tightened up, her body relaxes. “He chased us out of the house, but I didn’t notice anyone else. Why? Do you remember something?”

“Oh, no. I was just wondering if there was anyone else that was there that could help us?”

She responds. “Unfortunately, no one else was around. I think we are on our own. Maybe it’s for the best.”

My head begins to steadily pulse as another headache is on the verge of breaking out of its restraints, splitting my entire head in two. It’s like every time I take a step forward to regaining my memory or finding out the mystery of that night my body tries to stop me. The pulse against my scalp quickens its pace and the intensity rages into a full-blown frenzy, causing my eyebrows to constrict because of the growing discomfort.

Feeling the need to end the conversation quickly I reply. “One final question then I need to get some rest. What happened once we got to the house?”

Realizing my discomfort, she speaks a little quicker. “On the way over, it was clear you were beginning to lose it. You wouldn’t respond to me. When we got to your house, the first thing you did was pour a glass of scotch and change your clothes. It was as if you were sleepwalking. You had no clue I was even there with you.”

I hack into the open air as my body begins to shut down. My cuts begin to sting as if they had just occurred, the dampness of my forehead now taking the feel of blood instead of refreshing water. I miss part of what she is saying, but there is no way I can have her repeat it.

My ears latch back onto her voice as she says, “I stayed long enough to realize you had no recollection of what happened. I was scared he might come find us, so I left you in the bathroom. I left town and paid for a hotel room here in Burkeville at the Comfort Suites. I have regretted leaving you when you needed me most, ever since that night.”

“The important thing is you’re here now. I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well. I need to lie down.”

After I finish speaking, I dig my fingertips into the bed sheets and use them as leverage to crawl from the foot of the bed up to my pillow. My face hits the soft pillow as my hands clench the sheets. I try to fight the raging migraine by tightening my body, but the more I fight the pain, the more intense it gets, every muscle compresses into a hard ball formed by the unmitigated cramps. I can’t help thinking that without a doubt this is the most painful experience I have felt since I woke up with no memory.

The sheets rise up over my body as a sudden chill slices through me to my core. My hands slowly loosen their grip on the sheets, and without my permission, my body gives in to the pain and gradually relaxes itself. The full effect of my exhaustion comes over me as my eyes close shut.

I abruptly find myself in an in-between state. I’m not yet asleep, but I’m not really awake either. My body is limp, too exhausted to move. My eyes feel as if there are weights pulling them down, this time without restraints to keep them open. My headache still hurts, but it’s more of an annoying disturbance than anything. I can still hear, but it’s more like hearing background noise than actual sound. My mind wants to flutter into panic, but my heart wants peace. My breathing stabilizes as I wander away into my thoughts and memories.

 

The shot of Scotch glides down my throat as I slam the glass down on the bar counter in defiance of my drinking limit. Someone sits down on the bar stool next me, the smell of vanilla covering up the repugnant hint of vomit somewhere in the bar. A sweet, soft voice calls out for the bartender from beside me. I turn to my right setting my eyes on the person beside me.

It isn’t exactly love at first sight, but it isn’t nothing. I glance away, blushing because she catches me checking her out. She breaks the awkward moment by introducing herself as Ryleigh.

I introduce myself and we talk for a few minutes, drinking more and more as time rolls by, with each drink ending with a crash of glass upon the counter. Finally, after I drink more than my fair share I pull away and stumble out the bar. I start walking, my arms stretching like the wings of a bird, toward the street that heads to my buddy’s dorm. Before I get ten steps from the bar, a girl comes running out yelling my name. My head whips around, pulling my entire body with it.

My bird wings are no match for the quick unbalanced motion that works along with gravity to pull me down into the rocky gravel parking lot. Ryleigh runs out to me and grabs my hand pulling me upward from my grave of shame. This time, gravity and my weight act as leverage against her, sending both of us crashing down into the bits of rock.

We both burst out laughing at our clumsiness. Ryleigh brushes herself off and picks up my phone. “You forgot to ask for my number…”

 

I knock on the door to my parents’ house. My dad comes to the door and opens it with a smile. My hand stretches out to meet him as Ryleigh and I break the threshold of the home. My dad and I embrace with a hard handshake as he pulls me in for a hug.

As he wraps his arms around me, he whispers into my ear. “We need to talk privately. When the ladies go to set the table meet me in my Study.”

My hand pats up against his back in subtle acknowledgment. We release each other as I close the door, smiling at Ryleigh as it latches shut. My dad says something to Ryleigh then gives her a hug, while I walk into the kitchen to find mom. My mother is stirring a pot of mashed potatoes on the stove, my favorite dish from a childhood of splendid home cooking.

I hug her, “How long till we eat?”

She replies in her proper tone. “Dinner will be ready shortly, dear.”

Smells great mom. Can’t wait.”

Well of course. Only the best for my bright little boy. I’m so proud of your hard work. I knew you could do it if you set your mind to it.”

I give her another hug and thank her before I head into the living room. A few minutes pass as my dad, Ryleigh and I talk about this and that. Then at some point, my mom walks in and sits beside my dad. My parents are sitting on the couch opposite of me and Ryleigh, which makes me feel like a teenager all over again, never could get away from them when I did manage to procure a date. We talk for a few minutes, and then mom asks Ryleigh if she wouldn’t mind helping to set the table.

Once Ryleigh and my mom walk away into the kitchen to set the dinner table, my dad pushes himself off the couch without a word, for the silence is clear enough for me to decipher what to do. He slowly trots out of the living room and back towards his study. I get up off the couch and walk behind him, like many times before. Growing up, whenever my dad needed to talk to me about something or when I was in trouble he would take me to his Study for a chat. The importance of going to the Study creates a tremble within my consciousness. I’m feeling guilty for something. I know the feeling well, but I have nothing to feel guilty about.

We walk into the study and my dad motions for me to have a seat in one of the chairs. He walks over to his filing cabinet that securely holds all his most important copies of work files. As he picks through some files, I pick nervously at my pant leg. Finally, he retrieves a file and hands it to me. The file is titled Gate’s…

 

Something slides up from the outside of my leg, pulling me back from the memory. I try to roll over, but my body is still trying to milk every second of rest it can. My arm flexes as I’m trying to push myself up. The muscle balls up tight then relaxes. The effort I put into moving only brings more pain to the limbs, making my options minimal. Giving up for now, I return to sleep. But this time, no real sleep occurs and no new memories fight upward into my thoughts.

I lay there on my stomach for a while trying to clear my mind and go to sleep. I close my eyes tight, but nothing. I relax my eyes, but nothing. I try anything and everything I can while lying there, but nothing helps. After a while, it becomes clear there will be no progress, not tonight.

I open my eyes and with one painful jolt of concentration, I push myself up with both hands. I roll over on my back, cramps and all, to find Ryleigh is lying beside me reading a book. She looks over at me, saying nothing but clearly a little worried about something. Her face looks more rigid, than it was when I last saw her. Her eyes are dry and have a coldness to them.

It’s as if instead of being eaten by guilt and fear as she was before, she is being plagued by something totally new. Something down deep in her that she has yet to reveal. I crack a small smile as our eyes meet. In that moment, her features soften and return to those of the old Ryleigh from before I fell asleep. The Ryleigh from my memories.

[]Chapter 15: Broken

 

“How long was I out of it?” I ask.

She closes her book while slightly tilting her head, her dark hair flowing over her face. “Ah, probably a little over two hours or so.”

My eyes droop down in their sockets, so I gently rub beneath them with my fingers. A great big yawn billows upward as Ryleigh gets off the bed. “That was the best rest I have gotten since that night. And guess what?”

She picks up a cup and pours herself something to drink. She mumbles back to me, “What?”

“I remember! I remember—”

Her cup plummets downward, crashing against the old wooden floor, brown liquid splattering out from the impact in every direction. She turns around, facing me, exhibiting a mixture of confusing emotions. Joy? Anger? Fear? Sympathy? I can’t tell.

Her fingers begin tracing her neckline as she disregards the pool of liquid on the floor. “What do you remember?”

“Well, at first I remembered the way we met. I could feel my emotions. I could see everything that was in the bar. It was like I was reliving it again. I swear that I even felt the rocks jabbing into me when we fell outside the bar.”

She steps through the pool of liquid, sending coke up her pant leg as she moves closer to the bed. “What about the night of the murder?”

“I remember us walking into their house and talking with them before dinner. You and my mom went to set the dinner tables. Then… I woke up. I don’t remember anything else.”

She lets out a deep screeching sigh. “That’s great. You are making progress, but I wish you hadn’t remembered the way we met. I was such a klutz.”

“Yeah, you were, but I was too.” The memory causes us both to laugh at the thought of us falling all over each other. “The memories just kind of happened once I got settled and fell asleep.”

“It’s probably because you were relaxed.”

I use some toilet paper to clean up the liquid from the floor as Ryleigh tries to clean herself up. That was strange. She practically freaked out when I mentioned remembering. My memories are just as important to her as they are to me, and even I said they are the key to figuring out what to do. I hope they come back before her ex finds us. That part of the mystery could have deadly ramifications if we don’t get a handle on it.

The toilet paper soaks up the spilt coke with ease, but it takes several wipes before all the residue is removed from the floor. I don’t see Ryleigh in the room, so I walk back to the bathroom with the coke soiled clump of paper in my hands. She is looking into the mirror trying to rid her shirt from some wet stains. I throw the wet toilet paper in the toilet and flush it. “You ok?” I ask.

“Yes, I’m fine. I was just hoping you remembered everything. I still don’t know why he would kill your parents. I’m just worried he will find us and do the same.”

I place my hand on the back of her shoulder as the image of the burly man with a snake tattoo on his arm flashes before my eyes. “He won’t I promise.”

She smiles into the mirror. The reflection allows me to see the comfort in her eyes. “I think I’m going to get a shower. This coke isn’t coming out, and it’s making me feel gross.”

“That’s fine. I was thinking about taking a walk. I need to get out of here for a few minutes.”

“Ok, just be careful. The police are still after you so don’t be gone too long.”

She shuts the bathroom door as I return to the bed. My memory is starting to come back, in bits and pieces, and I have to figure out what to do. She’s waiting on me to come up with some kind of plan. So, that is what I’m going to have to do. Make a plan, and find somewhere else that we can hide out tomorrow.

My hands slide down the side of my pant leg searching for my phone. I find nothing, so I flip my pockets inside out. Nothing. Where is my phone? I haven’t taken it out of my pocket since the car ride, when I texted the unknown number. So, where has it gotten off to?

In order to look under the bed, I must bend down on my hands and knees. Dust and dirt coat the floor under the bed, but no phone. Spider! I yank my hand back out from under the bed, shaking it wildly. My skin on my arm begins to tingle which makes me stand up and run across the room flailing my limbs. I run my fingers across my skin from head to toe. But, I can’t find the spider.

Ugh, I hate spiders so freaking much. Where’s my phone? I turn around in circles checking the various places my phone could have wandered off to, like the spider. I could have left it in the car. As I’m about to head out, I look toward the television and my bottle of Scotch. There beside the Scotch is my phone.

Hmm, I don’t remember putting it by the Scotch, must have though. I grab the phone, and place it into my pocket. Since I’m here, I might as well get that drink. The bottle feels light in my hands as I lift it from the desk. The cool glass touches my lips as the warm liquid flows down my throat.

Ah, much better. I place the bottle back down by the television, alive once again, as I walk toward the door. My courage is rising and my senses are clearing. I’m ready to face whatever I need to face to get us through this. The door opens and the bleak hallway comes into view. The mayor’s painting stares back at me, with his beady eyes haunting me, for being an intruder moping about in his home.

For whatever reason, I’m focused on the lively painting to the point that I barely notice the door closing behind me. With a thud, the door bangs shut, up against my back, which makes me jump around with my fists up. “Aug! Oh my gosh!” I shriek.

It’s just a door. Come on! What am I doing? I could have hit Ryleigh if that were her behind me. The mayor looks at me in amusement with his smirk getting wider by the second. It’s just an old painting. A dead mayor isn’t going to hurt me. My focus is still on the painting when out of the corner of my eye, a shadow floats down the stairs.

Feeling myself getting off task, I dismiss the shadow as a person walking down the stairs. It could easily be a person who is staying at the hotel that doesn’t what to do me harm. I didn’t leave the room to fall into a trap created by my absurd feelings. I came out to get a new perspective.

Walking the dimly lit hallway doesn’t help put my mind to ease. Luckily, it is a short walk to the spiral staircase, but the killer could have tracked us to the hotel by now. I glare down at the lower levels of the staircase from above in search of a masked assailant. There is a person looking up from the bottom level. But the person looks like a woman with sunglasses and a coat on, which helps cover her figure. It seems odd to me that a woman would be wearing winter attire when it is probably almost 90 degrees outside today.

There’s something eerily familiar about the young woman, but her wardrobe makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what characteristic is tickling my subconscious. But there is definitely something. The woman exits the staircase as an elderly man brushes by here heading up the stairs. I dash down the steps towards the man that will soon meet me in the middle. Once I exit the staircase, I will have to quickly get outside in order to catch up to the woman.

The man comes around the spiral and his features, clear as day, slap me in the face. For a second, my heart and soul gleam with happiness. It’s my dad! My pace slows as we meet. His suit precisely matches one of my dad’s, even down to the tie and cuff links. But as we pass each other, his features morph into a balding man that shares only a slight resemblance to my father.

I pause, watching the man spiral his way to the top floor, before slowly continuing down the staircase, holding onto the spiral railing with a tight grip the whole way. I’m well aware that a common symptom of grieving the loss of a loved one is thinking you see them, but that was mind boggling. One second my dad was walking right in front of me, then the next second it was some stranger. The same thing probably happened with the young woman. My mind is now projecting familiar images upon complete strangers. But how do I decipher what is projection and what is clear danger?

I reach the bottom of the staircase still shaken by seeing the image of my dad. The only person in the lobby is a receptionist that sits behind a desk, his hand firmly gripping a pen as he scans a document, completely unaware of my presence. My knees begin to buckle as I stare at the unsuspecting hotel employee. My picture has been shown on the news, probably other media outlets as well, so one wrong move and I’m nothing but burnt toast. I calmly walk up to the receptionist’s desk with my hands in my pockets to hide my nerves. “Do y’all have a phone, and a computer I could use?”

The middle-aged man suspiciously looks up from his paperwork. “We have one computer in the first room down the right hallway. But, I’m sorry we don’t have any customer phones.”

“Thanks.”

As divine favor would have it, as I turn to walk away, he goes to answer a phone, but calls out to me before answering it. “Sir! If you really need to make a call, I will let you use the office phone.”

“That would be great, thanks.”

The computer room is filled with only a wooden desk, notepad, and chair to accompany the one computer. The simple layout makes it more than obvious that the room doesn’t get much use. This is a bad idea. I can’t trust her. She will go to the cops after we talk, if she even talks to me at all. Deep down, she hates me, but I deserve it for hurting her as I did. Why would she help?

I click on the internet browser and type in an email address. A while back, I downloaded all my contact information into an email file. It contains phone numbers, addresses, mailing information and pretty much anything else I could ever need to contact someone. I created it as a safety precaution because I have a tendency to break or misplace my phones. I don’t think the police would know about the email because I actually created it while I was drunk at a friend’s house, which is why the email is in his name. It was a joke that was a lot funnier when I was under the influence of alcohol.

When I sobered up, I decided to make use of it by creating the contact file along with a few other documents. For the first time, since I programmed the information into the email file, the email account will be used for a purpose, other than stupidity. You would think a man that made a living working with numbers would be able to compute one seven-digit number from memory, but that has never been one of my skills. Therefore, I find my sisters contact information and copy it onto a small sticky note lying on the desk.

I then return to the lobby where the receptionist shows me to the office phone, which will at least be safer than my cell phone. I dial the number before I rethink what I’m doing. My sister answers the phone.

“Alice… Don’t freak out. I need your help.”

“Ryan! What the hell are you doing? Why would you think I would want to talk to you right now?”

“Shh. I need your help sis. I didn’t kill them, but someone is trying to kill me. Please-”

Her voice spews out anger across the line, “How am I supposed to believe you? You are running from the cops Ryan. You might not have killed them, but you got them killed! I know it.”

Wow, she is taking this well. I turn, glancing at the receptionist, who waiting patiently by the desk with his pen tightly gripped. “Honestly, I don’t know. You might be right or you might not. It’s your call. But I need your help. Please-”

The phone line goes dead for a few seconds. Alice can still be heard breathing on the line, but she isn’t speaking. I’m an idiot! She is never going to help. I don’t blame her. I go to hang up the phone, but Alice returns to the line just before I end the call. “Ok. I’ll help you just this one time. But don’t call again, or I will tell the police. You got it?”

“Yeah, thanks sis.”

In a sarcastic tone she asks, “What do you need? Before I change my mind.”

“I remember when I got to mom and dad’s that night. Dad took me to the office and showed me a file with the name Gate on it. He was about to tell me something, but I can’t remember what he said. Do you have any clue what he wanted to tell us?”

She asks, “You said it had the name Gate on it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I went to dad’s office this morning to pick up some of his stuff to set up at the funeral. The office personnel said there was a break in a few nights ago, but that nothing of major importance was stolen. While I was getting some of his things, I found a notepad with his shorthand written on it. You know how dad was, always very particular about his special notes. I was curious as to what he was working on, so I deciphered one of the lines, and it said, ‘Gate’s Fortune’.”

I respond, “Huh, do have any clue what it means?”

“No, I have never heard of it.”

“Do you have the note?”

Her voice lowers, until she is barely hearable, “No the police searched the office and didn’t think anything there tied in with the murder. I didn’t even tell them about the note, so it should still be in his office.”

“Ok. Thanks. One last favor. Do you know somewhere I could go until I figure this out? I’m safe right now, but probably not for long.”

The line goes still as doubts begin to seep into my mind. Did I push her too far? Her voice returns to the phone even lower than before, “The only place I can think of would be the Wilkerson’s cabin, the one we would go hide out in as teenagers. But the police might know about it. It would be safer if you just turned yourself in Ryan.”

“I can’t. They think I did this, and there is someone else after me. I just can’t trust them.”

She replies in a gruff voice, “Then this is the end of the line for us. I don’t know what happened, but I can’t have any more to do with it. And Ryan, I swear if you did have something to do with our parents being killed, then I will be the one you need to be worried about.”

“I understand. Thanks, sis, for everything.”

I hang the phone up as a small tear rolls down my cheek. I should have never doubted her. I take my fingers and nervously scratch at my head. So, what is with that Gate file, and how does it tie into my parents’ death? And Gate’s Fortune? What does that mean? What does any of this mean?

[] Chapter 16: A Time to Remember

 

The air outside is thick and humid, wilting the few flowers around the porch as the sun beats down from high in the sky. For even the shade is no savior from the radiant fire of the cloudless day. The railing of the porch is in direct sunlight, causing my hand to burn at the touch of the scorching wood. After ending the call with my sister, I needed somewhere open to think. The safest open space is the porch of the hotel, so that is where I find myself.

I lean up against the blistering porch railing as I pull out my phone. If I think of this as a puzzle that needs to be pieced together, then the only way to finish the puzzle is to use all the pieces. Ryleigh’s ex is the big piece that killed my parents. But why? I have to use everything that is available to me. Maybe once I start using everything, my full memory will come back, and I can finally have peace through the truth.

Now, what was my mystery person’s number? It’s time to talk to the man behind the mirror. I had dismissed the involvement of the texts as paranoia, but the images of that night continue to eat at me. If anyone outside of the family knows what is going on, it would be whoever is sending these texts. I type in what I think is the correct number, but an animated voice comes over the phone line, telling me a voicemail has not been created for the line. What is going on with this number?

I guess I have to work the text angle. This is really starting to piss me off. I type, ‘Do you know what Gate’s Fortune means.’

Sweat begins to pool on my forehead as I wait for a reply. The heat slowly drains my body of the energy that I stored up while sleeping. The effects of drinking, bearing down on me as well quicken my rage. My arms sweat from the sultry weather as my throat tingles from the fervor within me. Finally, after waiting for what feels like forever, I get a reply.

‘Yes. I can’t tell you, yet. Trust me. This is more complicated than you could ever imagine. Keep these messages private and keep an eye on Ryleigh. It’s not safe. I’m close to figuring out who is behind all this.’

I stare at the message for a few seconds, letting it sink in. There is someone else out there that is trying to help me. Someone that knows about Ryleigh. Someone who won’t tell me more than I absolutely need to know. Why? Do they not trust me? Or are we in more danger than I think?

I need to tell her about everything, she needs to know. I just don’t want to upset her even more. She wouldn’t understand. She would think me contacting my sister was an unneeded risk, let alone approve of me texting someone when I have no way of knowing who is on the other end. She would think it is her ex trying to trick us, which it might be. There is too much going on right now for her to know everything.

But I can’t lose her too. She is most likely the only one that can actually help me navigate all the misfortune. So, why am I being so selfish? That’s it; I’m going to tell her about Gate’s Fortune. I’ll save the other stuff for later, until I can figure out a little more. I really should go check on her. It’s not safe for us to be apart for too long.

The recurring thought of danger causes the hairs on my arms to stand on edge. I’m spinning in circles, getting nowhere right now. The best thing to do is to make sure Ryleigh is safe. Her ex-boyfriend is the one after us. She has more at stake than anyone does right now. Maybe, she knows what Gate’s Fortune actually means. It has to tie in somehow, and it’s beginning to look like she is at the center of the knot.

As I open the lobby door, the rush of cool air greets my sweat-drenched skin. I casually walk to the spiral staircase and find a man, with a tattoo running down his chiseled arm, looking down from our floor. Upon seeing me, the man’s jaw line stiffens, before he leaves the rail of the stairs. Am I projecting again? That couldn’t be the man from the diner. We covered our tracks.

Not wanting to risk it, I sprint up the stairs with every step of the spiral making me dizzy. When I make it to our floor, the man has already vanished out of the hallway. In search of a helpful hint, my eyes dart towards the creepy painting outside our door, but the mayor doesn’t show any signs of giving my nemesis’ whereabouts away. If Ryleigh is ok, then I’m losing my mind. But if she isn’t, this might be a trap.

I burst through the doorway, causing the door to slam up against the wall, on my way into the room. I find Ryleigh, her eyes wide and face drawn, lying on the bed watching television. She screams over the actor’s monotone voice as her eyes settle on me, “What is your problem! I thought you were him!”

“Is anyone in here with you?”

She mutes the television, “No, of course not! You think I would be watching a soap if someone else were in here?

I find myself checking the bathroom, in case the embarrassing show has been just a clever rouse. Finding not one other soul anywhere in the room, I self-diagnose myself as a nut case. I sit on the bed near Ryleigh as she asks, “How was your walk?

“Good, I thought of some details I want to ask you about.”

As she replies, her voice peaks with what seems like genuine interest. “Ok, tell me more. What details do you remember?”

“I remember hearing something about Gate’s Fortune, but I don’t remember who said it or anything else about it.”

She goes quiet, and I can tell she is thinking through what the words could mean. After a few seconds, she replies. “I have never heard of it. I don’t ever remember him mentioning it, but if you heard the words, it can’t be a coincidence. Do you know what Gate’s Fortune refers to?”

“I don’t have a clue. I was hoping you could shed some light on it.”

She pauses again, in deep thought, “Sorry, like I said, I have never heard it before. To me it sounds like Gate is a family name or place and Fortune could be money or property.”

If Gate is a family name and Fortune does mean money, then how does that tie into my parents’ death? Our last name is Johnson, not Gate, and we don’t have a fortune that I know of. My ancestors at one time owned a plantation in Everton, but the enterprise fell apart. My parents have never talked about it, and they have always prided themselves on being a self-made family. We have never had any extra money that we haven’t had to work to get ourselves.

“That makes sense, but I have no clue what that has to with any of our problems.”

She replies, “Maybe it doesn’t, but it does seem like something my ex would latch onto.”

“I don’t know. The further I dig into that night, the more complicated it gets… ugh!”

I stare at the television, which displays a woman crying profusely because her lover ran off with another woman, as Ryleigh rattles off the latest newscast about the murder. The only part I really hear is when she tells me the police have now linked her to the house that night. At some point during the conversation, I leave, in a haze, to the bathroom to run some warm water across my face.

The warmth of the water comforts me and helps me cope with my lack of understanding. As the water beats down on me, I sift through my memories in search of something that can bring clarification to Gate’s Fortune. I have no recollection of ever hearing or seeing those words except for the night in my dad’s study, which means it was something I hadn’t heard of before that encounter, or I could have known about it, and wiped it out of my memories, as I did Ryleigh.

Getting nowhere with Gate’s Fortune, I concentrate on my own family. If her ex wants money, I don’t have any yet. My parents are dead now, so he isn’t getting their money. My dad has never mentioned any family money, and I have never thought to look into our family history in Everton because they always pushed me to make something of myself. They weren’t too keen on looking to the past.

The information wouldn’t be hard to look into; I just have never been interested in the past, until now. All of Everton’s family plantations are listed in the town ledger at the public library. There is no way I can get access there with the police tracking me. It would more than likely be pointless, anyways. If there were any family money, my dad would have told me about it. And since I don’t know about it, there is no way her ex had any way of knowing about it. So, that has to be a coincidence.

I turn the water off and dry myself off. The more important predicament is how we remain safe from an unseen enemy. How do we avoid both the police and her ex? Alice mentioned the Wilkerson cabin. But given Matt’s and my falling out, I don’t know if his family’s cabin would be the safest bet. I don’t see any other options, so I guess we will have to chance it.

Once back in the bedroom, I lay down beside Ryleigh as she reads her book. “How can you read after all this?”

“Why have you been chugging down the Scotch after all this?”

I look over at the bottle by the television. It’s nearly empty, and we just got it this morning. I’m lucky I’m not totally gone right now. I had better taper off. We don’t need me accidentally hurting myself. I let the conversation die and change the subject. “I think I got a place we can hide out at tomorrow. It’s my buddy Matt’s family cabin. Nobody should be there and it’s out of the way.”

“That sounds good. You have mentioned it before in conversations about your childhood, and it seems like the right place to hide out.”

I sit there watching the news as Ryleigh reads her book. The local station replays information about the case every thirty minutes, so I constantly see Ryleigh’s pictures and my own paraded across the screen. A police officer that comes on at one point speaks about the fact this could be the worst murder in Everton’s history.

I can’t believe it. The worst murder in Everton’s history, and they think I committed it. How can I ever live here again? I wouldn’t be surprised if the people at the hotel make the connection eventually. Maybe, they will. Maybe, the police will come while we sleep. I can’t take this much longer, the questions, the paranoia, not to mention the headaches and constant need to self-medicate with Scotch.

I get the sense that despite the fact the sun is still shining outside like a burning coal, our day is about over. All the conversations have plummeted to dead ends formed by pure madness. There is nothing new to discuss, and we both are fully fried by our constant emotional traumas. Surprisingly, the alcohol only partly debilitates my mind and body, but still exhausted from everything else. It could be that I have existed in an eternal hangover for the past few days, and now I’m building a tolerance. Whatever the case, I’m ready to sleep.

It doesn’t take long after we close the blinds and turn off the lights for me to fall away. I begin thinking about how weird sleep really is, and how it’s a place of both joy and terror. Where sometimes, I know I’m sleeping, and while other times, I don’t know I’m asleep until I wake up. Another thing with sleep is that I can’t ever tell how much time is passing. Sometimes it feels slow but really lasts only a short time, then other times it flies by but lasts for hours.

As my thoughts end and my dreams begin, it becomes clear that deep down I don’t want it. I know I’m dreaming, and I want to wake up, but instead my mind finds itself thrown into a complete and utter nightmare with no way out.

I’m in my room on my knees staring into my parents’ blank eyes. They are on their knees opposite of me. Their faces give off little expression except for terror and confusion. My eyes meet my dad’s as he mouths something to me. Someone stands behind them with a knife twirling in his fingertips like a baton.

My heart is beating out of my chest as the knife shines closer and closer to them. The person behind my parents is clothed fully in black, the darkness seeping out of his soul into the world. He is screaming at them while swinging the knife around, jokingly playing with them like a cat would with an injured mouse.

I sit watching the chaos, unsure what to do. My hands and feet free from restraint hang limp, cementing me in place. Time stands still as my entire body gives itself over to a pure relentless fear. The man in black turns his attention to me. The muffled voice screams out as his eyes widen with pleasure. The hatred in his voice heats my skin like a burning torch, the evil…

A moment later, he slides the knife down my father’s cheek. A few hairs from my dad’s beard fall from his face. My eyes close in hatred and horror. When my eyes reopen, my dad is falling to the side gasping for air. He pulls a notepad out of his pocket and scribbles something before someone kicks it out of his hand. As my parents lay motionless on my bedroom floor, not dead, but getting closer, I scream but no sound comes out.

For a brief moment, things seem peaceful, as they could be getting ready for a nap. I begin to creep forward as someone grabs my throat preventing me from reaching my parents.

I kick free as a knife slashes through my shirt, slicing my side like raw meat. The piercing pain from someone clawing at my face causes me to yelp as I reach for my parents. I get to my feet and scramble out of my room…

Someone grabs me from behind before I can safely make it onto the stairs. My spine seizes as a powerful force hammers against me from behind. I fight back, swinging my arms free so that I’m facing my attacker. I look straight into his eyes as he pushes me backwards down the stairs. The attacker mask comes flying off as I fall towards the floor. The murderer’s face is my own.

[] Chapter 17: Intuition of a Mad Man

 

My eyes shoot open just before I hit the ground in my nightmare. From head to toe, my skin swamped in sweat meets the open air, and my body pumped with adrenaline makes everything feel undeniably awkward. My limbs feel light and agile, while my mind feels like it is floating through space. The temperature of the room cooks my oiled skin like meat in an old furnace.

I stumble out of bed, falling to the floor with nothing to cushion my fall. My knee bangs against the rough wood floor, but I barely feel it. My flesh burns against the wood, as I crawl on the floor, no better than a rodent. Trying to push myself back up onto my feet, I let out an audible moan.

Without meaning to, I slam the bathroom door. I turn on the water and splash the cool water onto my face. What was that? I begin to hack and gag as my chest tightens at the thought of my parents. I cup some water in my hands and drink it. The water relaxes my throat as my legs fall out from under me, flopping to the bathroom floor with my limbs flailed wide.

My hands press harshly against my temple, while my back rests against the bathtub. Unwanted tears mix with the water and sweat as the tears flow from my eyes. Was that a memory or a nightmare? Whatever it was, it didn’t make any sense. It felt so real, but it couldn’t possibly be real. I saw myself; I looked right into my eyes.

There is a knock on the door that draws my attention. Ryleigh asks something that I don’t really hear. I yell back at her to go away while claiming that I’m fine at the same time.

After a few more minutes of tearful agony, I use my hands to propel myself up off the floor. I find myself staring into the mirror at my bloodshot eyes. There are bags forming under my eyes and wrinkles forming above them. My stomach begins to knot as a feeling of impending doom sets its grip on me. The feeling takes the form of an irrational voice within me telling me to leave.

I reach out for the bathroom door in a wild panic. The door opens letting me stumble out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. I find Ryleigh standing in front of the bed—her eyes squinting with a look of scared confusion. I run over to my clothes and throw them urgently back into the duffle bag. “Something ain’t right! We got to leave, now!”

She walks over to me as I hurriedly corral anything I can get my hands on, “Ryan, what’s going on?”

“I had a nightmare. I was there…”

She backs away from me as I grab the food and drink off the floor. “Wh…What did you see?” she asks in a frightened voice.

I stop gathering things and look her in the eyes as mine begin to water. “I saw them die! Someone killed them!”

I fight the tears while I return to gathering our stuff, “We have to leave, something isn’t right.”

“You saw my ex?”

“No! I saw myself… I saw myself!”

She backs away from me and moves across the room to the door. I finish grabbing our stuff and walk closer to her. “It had to be a nightmare. It doesn’t make any sense. It couldn’t be a memory.”

“What are you doing, Ryan.”

I look down and notice my hands are pushing down on her shoulders. I let my arms relax, and the pressure bearing down on her shoulders relaxes as well. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. We need to get out of here. I got a bad feeling.”

I move past her to the door with some of our bags in my hands. I swing the door open to find the dimly lit hallway empty. The bags drop from my fingertips as I attempt to regain control of my rampant emotions. I have to help her. She doesn’t understand.

I look back at her. She is standing in between the bathroom and bedroom with her back towards me. She appears lost in thought, like there is something plaguing her mind that she can’t quite get a handle on, in this frantic moment. I know what she is trying to do, because I myself am lost. “Ryleigh we need to go. I don’t know how to explain it, but we need to go. You coming?”

She stares into the bedroom without answering. Her posture remains rigid as a motionless statue. Finally, she walks over to the bed as I stand by the door waiting for her. She turns and with a stony face replies, “Yes, I’m coming.”

She grabs the remaining bags and walks out the door ahead of me as I stare back into the room. I think back, imagining everything we brought into the hotel. We can’t afford to leave anything we need. My eyes settle on the television, and the bottle of nearly empty scotch beside it. I take a step inward, away from the door. Instead of continuing inward towards the Scotch, I step right back outside the door. I stare in at the glass bottle as the door slowly comes to a close. I don’t need it.

I turn so that I’m facing the stairs. My feet feel heavy, but I force myself to chase after Ryleigh as the paintings hanging in the hallway scream after me. I catch up to her on the spiral staircase as we make our way down to the lobby.

The lobby is empty as we pass through it. I place the room key on the receptionist’s desk. Before I turn away from the desk, a portion of the receptionist’s computer catches my eye. There is a photo of Ryleigh and me. I glance around the room to make sure nobody is watching me. I take a closer look at the computer. What I find is an email containing our pictures and the warrant for our arrests.

I hurriedly begin walking out of the lobby to the porch of the hotel. I open the door to find the heat of the day has given way to a warm night. The darkness throws me for a few seconds. I must have slept a little longer than I thought.

There is little natural light out because the moon and stars are covered with a blanket of clouds. The darkness makes the anticipation of walking to the car quite dramatic. I focus on Ryleigh as she turns a corner, disappearing into the darkness.

There are no streetlights to brighten the surroundings, so in my mind, I picture her ex hiding in wait behind every shadow. Every car is an undercover police vehicle and every sound is from a demon after my guilty soul. My own footsteps send chills down my back, every breath registering as my last.

We find the car with relative ease despite the darkness. I throw our stuff in the back seat and take the keys from Ryleigh. I turn the car lights on as I prepare to pull out of the parking lot. In front of the car, stands a man in a hooded mask with a black tattoo slithering down his arm. He stares back at me with his dark beady eyes. I’m about to scream, but then he’s gone, leaving only a small tree where he once stood.

My hand presses against the gear shift as the car moves in reverse. We travel along the hotel’s entrance driveway as Ryleigh places her shaking hand against mine. We turn out onto the highway and start traveling back into Burkeville. We need to get back into Everton. The only way back is to travel into Burkeville the same way we did when we were searching for the hotel.

“Does your ex happen to have a black tattoo running down one of his arms?”

Her arm lifts towards her neckline, mildly shaking as she answers, “Yes, Yes, he does… Is that who we are running from?”

“No, but I think I saw him this morning.”

The traffic is actually dense as we make our way towards the center of town. I nervously clutch the steering wheel as we follow behind a large pick-up truck. Ryleigh’s hand tightens around mine as the disturbing lights appear in the distance. The cars ahead of us pull over to the shoulder of the highway as the lights and siren’s approach.

Time slows as my foot presses the brake, and my hand turns the car towards the shoulder. Ryleigh squeezes my hand even tighter as my free hand makes its way nervously to my hair. My entire body goes limp as the thought of being caught rolls throughout my head like a pinball. My veins fill with adrenaline as the first police car passes us as we sit on the shoulder of the road.

The lights flash brightly through our windows as more and more police vehicles pass us. We are going to get caught. This is it! My eyes close as more blinking lights roll by us. My ears fill with the echoing thunder made by the sirens. I don’t even realize Ryleigh is talking to me until she punches me in the shoulder. I open my eyes to the sight of the cars in front of me pulling off the shoulder and back onto the road.

I follow the other cars back onto the road and continue driving as I look in the rear view mirror at the hoard of police vehicles traveling to the hotel. “That was close.”

She says, “Good call on leaving the hotel. How did you know?”

“I didn’t know. I just had a gut feeling.”

We sit in silence as the city of Burkeville comes and goes without further incidence. I turn down a few old county roads that will eventually lead into Everton. “We can go to the cabin tonight, but I need to make a stop first.”

“Are you sure? We just barely got away. We need to get off the roads and fast.”

I think it’s over. “I know, but we also have to figure out what this is all about. It can’t be only about jealous rage, there’s got to be more to it.”

“Where do you need to stop?”

“My dad’s office.”

I have to find out more about what he wanted to tell me. Since I can’t remember, I’m going to have to take a chance. Alice said she found something with dad’s shorthand that referred to Gate’s Fortune. If he had something pertaining to it at his office, I need to find it. Maybe he has a second copy of the file he showed me in his study there as well.

It shouldn’t be that big of a risk since the police dismissed the break in. Was the person that broke in trying to steal the same thing I’m looking for? Only my family can decipher my dad’s short hand. He was always paranoid of someone trying to steal his confidential notes. The person who broke in would have no idea what he was looking at. He could have easily been looking at what he was trying to steal and never realized it!

I press down on the gas as we travel through the darkness of the highway. I might be able to get ahead of this thing for once. I look over at Ryleigh who looks even more tired and exhausted than early in the day. The clock reads a little after ten o’clock. This whole day has seemed to drag on, but now that I have a legit lead, it seems to be flying by. The heat and exhaustion of the day are but distant memories. I feel alive and in control. But for how long?

It isn’t long before we move out of the deserted country farmland and start to see the city of Everton growing closer and closer. We pass the city limit sign as my anxieties begin to grow. A turn down a back street that will run up a couple streets behind my dad’s law office. The road is empty and only the occasional head light from the main highway impedes the darkness as we travel.

I pull the car under a tree and in between two buildings at the entrance to an alleyway. I turn to Ryleigh as my palms begin to sweat. “Stay here. Call me if anything catches your eye.”

“Alright, be careful.”

We embrace for a moment, but the awkward attempt at goodbye becomes apathetic by the time I get out of the car. Heading away into the darkness, I walk down the alleyway until I come across the next road. I survey my surroundings, checking every direction before walking across the street. Luckily, my dad’s law office is tucked away in the middle portion of a street that runs directly behind the main highway in Everton. It’s close enough to the main highway that it has always deterred anyone from wrongful action, until the recent break-in. But it is far enough away from the casual passerby that it should be safe enough for me to sneak in without any trouble.

I duck under a tree branch as a car drives down the street. Instead of walking down the street out in the open, I walk down a gravel path behind the set of buildings that run parallel to the street. The buildings around my dad’s office are mainly residential, which means I must be careful not to let anyone inside the homes spot me. Someone prowling around outside of a home at night after the supposed worst murder scandal in Everton’s long history would land that person in jail easily.

Through the dim lighting, the dark façade of my dad’s office comes into view. The office is a regular residential home that we have remodeled into an office. I never really liked coming with my dad to work growing up because it was always scary to me. A defense attorney, even in little Everton, doesn’t normally draw the most cheerful clientele. Most of my dad’s clients were actually very much the opposite, not that they were all bad people, just a little screwed up by their twisted passions. After all, I was one of them.

I stare at the office thinking back over the several times I found myself running to the building, running for help when I screwed up. I carefully walk up to the back office door, hoping nobody sees me creeping in the night like a thief. A dog barks somewhere in the distance which causes me to pause. While shaking, I type the code into the electronic lock and twist the door handle. The door opens as the familiar smell of lemon lozenges greets me at the back entrance.

I stare into the dark office as I pull out the flashlight from my pocket. Here goes nothing. Maybe some truth will finally come out. I think about Ryleigh before I walk in. I hope she is fine. I hope this isn’t a wasteful risk and a waste of time. I gently shut the door as I enter into the office of darkness. “Let’s see what you have hidden dad.” 

[] Chapter 18: The Hidden File

 

I turn on my flashlight while grabbing a lemon lozenge off the table by the back door. The lozenge helps soothe my dry throat, but it doesn’t help my nerves. My arm moves back and forth, shining the flashlight’s narrow beam across the empty hallway. There are several rooms, offices of the other associates, which connect with the hallway, but I bypass all the rooms except for my dad’s office.

His office is located at the end the hallway, in what was originally the master bedroom. For some reason, the darkness of the hallway’s end makes the walk that much more nerve wrecking. The door to his office is closed, but upon further inspection, it is oddly unlocked. So, I slightly turn the doorknob, which opens the door a couple inches. I clench the flashlight tightly in my right hand as I push the door open with my left arm.

The door slowly creeps along, picking up some speed until it crashes against the doorstop, forcing the door to ricochet back towards me. The beam of light from my flashlight reveals a clutter filled office. I decide against turning on the lights and stick with the flashlight. His polished wooden desk sits opposite of the door awaiting me. There are two leather chairs sitting between the door and the desk that I have to maneuver around to reach his side of the desktop.

Once at the desk, I begin my search for anything that can possibly help me figure out what is going on. There are several stacks of paper lying scattered over the desk. Which, knowing my dad isn’t at all surprising because he was always juggling multiple court cases. A couple empty spots speckle the desk where pictures used to sit. Alice must have taken them off at some point during her recent visits.

I plunder through the stacks of paper, but I don’t see anything that would be useful. The only notable things on the desk are appointment notes and some research papers that my dad must have been using for a trial. The papers are cold and hard in my hands, which causes me to become increasingly irritated with each new stack. Each page is difficult to touch with my hand similar to the way the sound of someone’s fingers scratching against a chalkboard is hard on the ears. Every few minutes, I pause to check how many more stacks are left, because they seem to keep appearing out of nowhere, blossoming like weeds in a flowerbed.

As I’m finally flipping through the last stack of paper that had been lost beneath the pile, something helpful surfaces. Buried in-between three or four packets of bills, I find a notepad covered with dad’s encrypted shorthand, exactly like the note I found. Papers flutter to the floor, while I clear out a clean spot on the desk.

In respect for my dad, I set the notepad lightly down. My hands clench the flashlight as a new wave of anxiety comes over me. At first, my hand trembles so much that the light bounces in a way that makes it hard to read the notepad, but after a couple seconds, my hand steadies, and the notepad becomes easily readable.

My anxieties briefly subside due to an emerging awe of my dad’s encryption techniques. He came up with the idea as a kid and started using it for the most vital of information he wanted to keep hidden. The encryption isn’t that hard to break if you understand how it fits together. Thinking back, it’s actually one of the first things that spurred my interest in math.

The first line on the notepad reads ‘71t5—3 F-7rt—5n5’. I quickly decipher it using the technique and reach the same conclusion as Alice. The notepad has to do with Gate’s Fortune. I read the rest of the notepad, but it’s mainly just gibberish to me. Not because of the encryption but because of the content.

My dad does write a few details about the death of a Mr. Gate and his lost fortune. From what I can see, the notepad mainly outlines different theories of where the unaccounted for fortune could have disappeared. But none of the places or theories even make sense to me. Without more information, there really isn’t anything that can help me

“How does any of this tie into my family and more importantly, my parents’ death?” I need to either find or remember the file he showed me in his study. If he has a notepad here, he could have an extra copy of the file here as well. I’m about to start searching the room for the file when a smudged line at the bottom of the notepad causes me concern. The ending is too smudged to read, so I can’t be sure about what it says.

This doesn’t make sense. Why would he write any of this? I have to find that file. Where would he put it? Think. He would probably mix it in with his other work files where it would be safe and hidden.

There is an increasing fear growing within me as I scramble over to the locked filing cabinet. Dad would die if he knew I know the combination. I press in the four number combination and the lock opens with the sound of a click. The filing cabinet has six compartments that he meticulously cleans out every year. So, it only ever contains current documents from the current year with the exception of a few important documents from more precious clientele. I know this because I helped empty the stupid thing out nearly every year. The question is where would you hide such a secret as this?

The files are arranged in alphabetical order, so I try the obvious first and look up Gate. It isn’t a shock that there is no clientele file under that name. “Ok, that would have been too easy.”

Next, I search through the files looking at names, dates, or anything that might sound familiar or be a good place to hide something. I methodically work my way from the top compartment to the bottom one as best I can—given the time crunch. Feeling the need to deeper investigate the files, I randomly take out a few files at a time and search them, but outside of legal documents, I find nothing.

Now searching the last compartment, one file does bring a particular interest. The file isn’t interesting because of the Gate family connection; instead, it strikes a little closer to home. I take the file and walk back over to the desk, shaking with every step. Once seated at the desk, I open the file labeled with my name.

The file opens and an unnerving chill runs up from somewhere deep within me. I flip through the pages of police reports and session notes. My eyes scan over the words without really reading them while the battle of keeping the memories from surfacing wages within me, each turn of the page acts as a painful stimulus causing my former delinquencies to impede my search. “What am I doing? This isn’t helping anything. Now isn’t the time for reopening events that nearly ruined my life. Dealing with all this is enough.”

I slam my file shut and return it to the filing cabinet. As I go to place it back where I found it, I notice a thin file is jutting out from within my own. I place my file into the filing cabinet, but I take the thin file out beforehand. While holding the file in my left hand and the flashlight in my right, the rugged file with a smudged label feels even colder against my hand than the stacks of paper on my dad’s desk, but the smudged name on the label warms my spirit. The label unbelievably reads ‘Gate’s Fortune’. My anxiety nearly causes me to fall down when I realize what I’m holding.

Why would he hide it in my file? I guess it was a good hiding place, but still it can’t be coincidence. Ok, it’s time to see what Gate’s Fortune is all about.

Unfortunately, the file contains only a few pages and a few photographs, but it is still more than enough to get my pulse racing with excitement. The first page has five photos printed out onto the paper with handwritten notes underneath them. Each photo is black and white and contains people dressed in old-fashioned clothes.

The notes underneath the photos appear to give the names of the people pictured above. Based on the notes, it is evident that the people in the photos are family members of the Gate family. Every photo has the same man pictured and in most of them, he is the central figure. The last photo on the page has the man standing in a cotton field alongside another man. There is a grandiose house slightly in view off in the distance, but the men and cotton are the focal point of the photo.

Both men are probably in their thirties. For a second, the man that hadn’t been previously pictured looks exactly like a younger version of my dad. Remembering the guy from the hotel stairs in Burkeville, I shut my eyes in an attempt to push away the fantasy. My eyes slowly reopen as I refocus on the picture; to my dismay, the man still appears to closely resemble my dad. Who is this guy?

The description beneath the photo holds the answer. The man that resembles my dad has my dad’s last name, my last name. There is another note beside his name in my dad’s handwriting, which claims the man is his grandfather. I don’t know much about the man because our family has never really talked about our history, so it is a little bit of a shock to be staring at his picture. From what I can remember, my Great-Great-Grandfather’s name was Jonathan, but it isn’t written, and I’m not completely positive I’m correct.

This photo doesn’t label the other man, but he is labeled in the other photos as a member of the Gate family. So, my family does have a connection to the Gate family. But why keep it a secret?

I lean back in my dad’s office chair and look down at all the photos from a distance. In each photo, the Gate family members are dressed very well. There are three different men all dressed in slick jackets and two women dressed in elegant dresses. They appear very sophisticated in each photo, which presents a certain arrogance as well as the touch of charm. One photo even shows the family standing in a beautiful foyer. When I look at the page as a whole, I can’t help but get the impression that the family is extremely wealthy.

The photo with my Great-Great grandfather and presumably the Gate family patriarch shows a great contrast between the Gate family and mine. My great relative is dressed in a modest coat that appears rugged and worn. While the other man is wearing a pristine coat with a tie and top hat. One man is upper class while the other is only imitating an upper class wardrobe.

I finish looking at the page and flip it over. The next page is covered with handwritten notes. The paper is old and the writing is faded. The handwriting looks familiar, but I don’t recognize it. It’s not my dad’s handwriting that is for sure.

‘After much discussion, we have decided to break our contract with the Gate’s and challenge for an independent right to the cotton plantation. Our share in the plantation has been misused and our treatment has taken on the form of a common slave from the past. This we cannot allow any longer. We are prepared to take legal action in the courts to reclaim our share of the fortune that the Gate family has stolen from us!’

Upon finishing the letter, my body induces itself into a trance. My head pounds as something forces its way to the front of my mind. My hands grab hold of the chair’s armrest, bracing myself for whatever happens next.

The room morphs into my dad’s study and for a brief second we stare into each other eyes. He says, “The letter ignited a fuse between the two families.” As his lips move, the study transforms itself into a beautiful foyer. There are four people standing in the foyer, two men and two women.

The flickering of candles and small amounts of sunlight from another room light the foyer. The light shines perfectly on a man and woman holding hands near a marble fountain. The man holding the woman’s hand is clearly my Great-Great-Grandfather and he is pointing a finger defiantly at the Gate family patriarch who is standing on the other side of the foyer with the letter.

Suddenly, a subtle noise from within the office breaks my concentration. I slowly come out from behind the desk and shine my flashlight on the closed office door. The sound of footsteps speeding down the hallway sends my heart into a flutter. My body seizes up, stopping me from hiding or running away. The flashlight begins to shake in my hand, causing shadows in the room to come and go along with the shaking.

The footsteps stop causing everything to become quiet in the office. There is a slight rustling at the door as light shines in under the door from the hallway. I take a couple steps toward the door, but I am quickly brought to a halt. The door swings open with ease and crashes against the doorstop. A bright light shines back at me momentarily blinding me as I attempt to steady my flashlight.

My vision returns as the bright light moves away from my eyes. Ryleigh is standing at the door, holding a flashlight in one hand. “What are you doing? You scared me to death! I thought you were the cops.”

“Sorry, you have been gone a while, and I was getting worried.”

My voice steadies, “Yeah, it took longer than I thought it would. But, how did you get in here?”

“You didn’t close the back door all the way. So did you find anything useful?”

“I found the file. I haven’t been able to look through it all yet, but it looks like it could hold some answers for us. I’ll show it to you later. I think we have been here too long, so we need to leave before someone finds us.”

She nods and motions for me to follow her out. Before I leave my dad’s office, I take one more look at the cluttered room. As the door slowly shuts, my eyes focus on the empty spaces on the desk. The spaces used to be filled with my dad’s keepsakes and our family pictures. Valuables that have been moved from one of dad’s favorite solitudes. Treasures that would shortly make their way to his funeral.

[]Chapter 19: Cabin Fever

 

Once we exit the office, the tension inside me drifts away like a leaf in the breeze. The alleyway behind the office is quiet, almost peaceful. My dad’s office, which from the inside felt disturbing and unnerving, returns to being unoccupied and undisturbed, just the way he would want it to be during the middle of the night. The surrounding darkness doesn’t feel quite as dark or dangerous as we walk back towards the car. There is even a slight breeze that seems to lift up my spirit as it blows through my hair.

Any other time in my life, this walk with a beautiful woman would put me at complete peace. But at this point, peace is but a momentary release of pressure. We approach the car as the weight of everything settles back onto my chest, while I search the area for any signs of danger, even though I still have no clue what this danger looks like.

          However, there isn’t much to see as the darkness of the night covers much of the street and buildings around the car, which is why we parked here in the first place. There are a couple outlines of vehicles parked along the street, well off into the darkness. I can’t remember if they were parked there when I left or not. There is a slight familiarity and absolutely nothing appears dangerous. So, I get in the driver’s seat without much thought of impending doom.

          I slide the file onto the dashboard and face Ryleigh. When I look into her eyes, something plays with my emotions, but it’s like a bag of mixed chocolates, so many different conflicting emotions that it makes no sense. It seems like forever ago since we last embraced and yet the sight of her is both sweet and bitter.

My hand reaches out and finds comfort resting on her leg as I say, “We should head to the cabin. I’m not feeling too good.”

“That sounds good to me. I’ll look through the file while you drive.”

“I guess we have a plan. Just don’t take anything out of the file or mess it up. I don’t know how much help it will give us because it looks like only part of a bigger file. But I still don’t want to lose any possible leads it might contain.”

She grabs the file gently off the dashboard. “Of course… We are in this together, Ryan. I need answers, just as much as you do. We are looking into your family, but it’s my ex that did all this.”

I remove my hand from her leg and clench the steering wheel. “Trust me! I know of your ex’s involvement! And I know you need answers to. Just don’t screw the file up!”

Immediately after I finish my sentence, I regret saying it. I know she is just trying to help, but she makes me crazy. I don’t know why I keep snapping her head off like that. I sure am not going to apologize right now. I don’t have the energy to baby her anymore. If she is going to help, then she needs to get some thicker skin.

We sit in silence as I drive us out of the city. Ryleigh sits sulkily staring at the file while I drive. Luckily, it isn’t far to the cabin. The cabin is located just out of town, but it’s secluded enough to shelter us for the night. It will shelter us much the same way that it sheltered me from the outside world the other times I had visited the cabin.

I drive deeper into the woods, and the living atmosphere of society gives way to the deadness of night. There are no streetlights or houses and even the road gets thinner as we inch closer to the cabin. I steer the car around a few tree branches that partially cover a bend in the road. Almost immediately after the bend, the cabin appears out of nowhere.

The first time I drove to the cabin, I remember almost driving straight into the tree out in front of the cabin. I barely missed it and only stopped the car about seven feet from the building. This time I’m prepared for the sudden appearance and gently ease the car to stop under the tree in front of the cabin.

The sanded down wood that forms the exterior of the building glows in the darkness of the forest. As I get out of the car, it strikes me that Ryleigh hasn’t even looked up from the file yet. I walk around to her side of the car and gently knock on the window with my school ring. A bit startled, Ryleigh drops the file as her hand moves to her chest.

I open the door, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She replies, “No, it’s fine, I was busy reading the file and wasn’t paying attention to anything else. Interesting stuff.”

I reach for the file, but she picks it up from the car floor before I reach it. So, I turn and head for the cabin door. As I inch closer to the door, I realize I have forgotten about one key element in my hideaway cabin plan. I need a key!

A brief moment of concern overpowers me, but it only lasts for a moment. My mind focuses on the last time I was at the cabin. I’m walking on the porch heading directly for the door. Once at the door, I begin twisting the knob and find it locked. Just as I turn around, away from the door, Matt is reaching underneath the porch and resurfacing with a key.

I instinctively retrace the actions of the person in my memory. As I bend down to reach under the porch in the approximate area, my hand rubs against the dirt and gravel. The porch has a lip that protrudes from the walking surface at a right angle directly down towards the ground. Raised only a few inches off the ground, the lip gives me very little room to investigate for the exact location of the key. Add in the darkness of the night, and the task of finding the key seems almost impossible.

My hand slides left and right under the lip. The wood is course and a couple jagged pieces of wood scratch against my fingertips, causing me to jerk my hand out from under the lip. After the pain as resided, I place my fingers back under the lip and continue my search. Luckily, my fingers eventually, ever so subtly, come across a nail sticking out from the lip. My finger traces the outline of the nail and sure enough hanging from the nail is a key.

Ryleigh is already standing by the door, so I hand her the key. She unlocks the door with ease, and we head into the cabin. Ryleigh inspects the quaint interior of the cabin as I head over to the couch. “I’m just going to chill here for a little while there’s a bedroom just past the kitchen.”

She mutters something back, but I’m not really paying attention. The cabin grows abnormally quiet, and the weight of my emptiness bears down on me once again. My mind is trapped somewhere between logic and emotion. Embedded in my very nature are logic and reason, which my thoughts and actions crave. Nevertheless, in these moments of lonely silence since my parents’ murder, my body tightens as my hefty emotions move throughout my entire being like a ravenous virus.

Flashes of images of my mother and father seduce my mind away from logic and into terror. My body convulses on the couch, and my head throbs while the sounds of screaming fill the silent house. My eyes twitch as shadows jump from wall to wall. Eventually, my eyes shut and soon after my brain shuts down as well.

At some point, a vibration on my leg wakes me from my slumber. It takes some time for the vibrating to register as my phone. I pull the phone out of my pocket and check my messages. Once again, I have a message from the unknown number. ‘Where are you? Something may be about to go down’.

I have no clue who this person is and the more texts I get, the weirder it gets. I shouldn’t text back… should I? I’m finally in a secure location. I’m not going to jeopardize our safety once again by giving my location out to whoever is playing games with me.

I close the message screen out and check the time. It’s a little after five, so I decide to try to get a couple more hours of sleep. Before I close my eyes, I turn around looking over the couch through the darkness in the direction of the bedroom. I notice a faint light penetrating the darkness in and around the bedroom.

The text message has me a bit paranoid, so without hesitation, I push myself off the couch. My legs are a bit shaky as I stumble around the cabin in the dark. I make my way to the bedroom without falling over in the dark rooms. Ryleigh isn’t asleep either; instead, she is sitting cross-legged on the bed with the file resting on her lap.

“I couldn’t sleep.” She says once she notices me in the doorway.

“Yeah, me neither. You figured out anything useful yet?” I reply.

“No, nothing that can help us.” She sets the file on the nightstand as she gets out of the bed. “I keep staring at it but nothing is jumping out at me. You know what? I want to go for a jog, clear my mind. Are there any good trails around here?”

The question catches me completely off guard. Here I am freaking out at every passing shadow, and she wants to jog. Has she lost her freaking mind? Who wants to jog in the middle of the woods after everything we have been through the past few days? Apparently Ryleigh, that’s who.

She must sense my bewilderment and concern because she takes a few steps in my direction, until she is only a couple feet away from me. “I can’t just stay in the cabin all day without getting all this nervous energy out. I will be fine. Nobody knows we are out here, do they?”

Once again, the question catches me completely off guard. My heart begins to beat faster in my chest as a few seconds of silence fill the room. Should I tell her about the text? Here is my chance. “No, nobody knows we are out here. I still don’t think it is a good idea. Can you at least wait till later in the day?”

She takes a few seconds to think through my request before responding. “I honestly don’t think I can. I have only gotten a couple hours of sleep, and there is no way I’m going to be able think clearly in this state. Jogging is the only way I calm down sometimes and the longer I wait the crazier I get. But even if I could wait later in the day, it will be burning up by then. If I’m going to jog, I need to do it at sunrise while it is still cool.”

The struggle between logic and emotion creeps its way back into my thoughts. It’s a bad idea. We have no clue what we are even up against and that doesn’t even include the police, who we do know is after us. There are so many ways this could go wrong. There is also the text. Despite what I want to believe, there has to be something of value in the messages, they can’t be nothing.

Then again, it’s all probably a hopeless situation, so why shouldn’t she at least calm down the way she knows she will give her peace. Look, at all I have gotten her into, am I really the one to tell her not to do something that she knows will help her cope?

“I think it’s safer to stay in the cabin, but if jogging is what you want I’m definitely not in any shape to be giving advice on calming your nerves and staying sane.”

She smiles. “No kidding. You look awful.”

“I bet I do.” I reply with a slight grin. “There is a decent trail just behind the cabin, off to the right. I think it goes down to the river if I’m not mistaken.”      

“Sounds good. Thanks. You should try to get a couple more hours of sleep. You really do look pretty beaten down.”

“I think I will. Just be careful when you go. Take your phone and if anything suspicious happens, call me. I have no one else but you right now.”

Her body noticeable tenses up, “I know. I’ll be careful. I promise.”

I climb up onto the bed as she walks into the kitchen. The bed isn’t all that comfortable, but it does make me sleepy just by resting on it. Sounds of plastic scraping against the wood counters screech into the bedroom as Ryleigh fumbles around in the kitchen. She returns to the doorway with a cup in her hand. “I’m going to watch something in the living room to kill some time until sunrise. Do you want me to wake you when I head out?”

“No. It’s fine. Just wake me up when you get back from your jog.”

As she disappears back into the darkness, I close my eyes and attempt to find solace through sleep. I don’t know why, but even though I want to sleep, I can’t. This bothers me because it seems the barred cages of two extreme kinds discomfort have trapped my mind when it comes to finding rest. Either I all but pass out, or I’m restless to the point that I can barely even keep my eyes closed at all.

As time ticks by, I start to become increasingly agitated. I don’t feel mad or upset, but my body is on edge. My hands want to crush something, and my arms want to flail out against everything within a couple feet of me. I toss and turn in the bed, but nothing will suffice my body’s urges. There comes a point where I turn and face the nightstand with the file on it. Out of sheer frustration, I pick the file up and sling it across the room. Papers fly out in several directions as the file slams against the floor.

It isn’t long before the unmistakable sound of the wooden creaks from the opening and closing of the front door of the cabin disturbs the building’s morning rest. I assume that it is Ryleigh leaving for her jog. Should I go check and make sure? No. Everything is fine. Maybe I should go jog with Ryleigh. Running usually helps me with stuff too.

It is very tempting, but the thought of the jog that led to the discovery of my parents’ dead, lifeless bodies ultimately squashes the inclination to jog in the middle of nowhere.

All of a sudden, a filthy and rotten appearance saturates my body. My skin begins to crawl and crave purification. The feeling of rottenness intensifies to an unheard of level of stench. I have no choice but to relinquish my attempt at rest and get a bath instead. My only hope is that the water from the bath can wash away the filth that I have become.

[] Chapter 20: A Trail of Confusion

I plunge my head beneath the warm water in the bathtub. The reinvigorating water surrounds my body, creating a refreshing euphoria in my mind. My hope is that when I plunge upward to the surface, the anguish would flow away from me, allowing me to function as my normal self. The reality is that as I hold my breath beneath the water, waiting to resurface, all I can think about is my parents.

There is no hope, no revival for them or me. There is no shade of reality where mere water could extinguish my filth and return me to solid ground, for I have done nothing good while trying to figure any of this out.

As my thoughts grow into pure helplessness, the water seems to get hotter with each soul wrenching truth. My body convulses in the tub as my skin begins to burn down to the bone. I quickly shoot myself up from beneath the water. I take a giant breath causing the oxygen to burn my insides as the water continues to burn my extremities. Seeking relief, I jump out of the bathtub.

My wet feet hit the wood floor, sliding forward quicker than I anticipate, as I crash to the floor hitting my back and shoulders against the bathtub. The burning stops once I’m out of the bathtub, but the gut wrenching pain hurts just as much. My eyes shut as my teeth grind away the initial pain.

When I open my eyes, I’m staring at the ceiling next to the nightstand beside the bed. My body is dry except for the slight pooling of sweat around my hairline. What is going on?

In the confusion, I force my aching body off the floor and stumble into the bathroom. The bathtub is dry as a desert and there are no signs of me ever taking a bath. My fingers and palm of my hand run across my forehead and down my face. Did I fall asleep? I must have because I wasn’t in here.        

Burdened by the pain, boredom, and confusion, I head into the living room to check the news, but before I can turn on the television, a buzzing sound comes ringing from the bedroom. I quickly identify the buzzing as my cell phone vibrating against the nightstand. Now what does this stinking person want?

When I pick up the phone, instead of seeing the unknown number I see Ryleigh’s number. As soon as I answer the phone, there is screaming and chaos. Ryleigh’s frightened voice begins speaking, “Please, you don’t have to do this. I don’t know what you have done, but whatever it is, I won’t tell. Just leave me alone Jim… What do you mean? I never did anything to you. No, please just let me stay here by the water. I won’t…”

The line breaks up for a few moments, then more screaming reemerges before the line cuts out. I try to reconnect, but it goes straight to the voicemail, which hasn’t been set up. “I knew this would happen! Ugh! Why couldn’t she stay in the cabin? I swear!”

What do I do now? If I go try to find her, I might end up dead or worse, but I can’t leave her out there. I have to go help her. She said something about water, meaning she is probably down by the river. I’ll check there first if I can make it down there.

I rush out the cabin, my teeth grinding together, without even shutting the door. I sprint around to the back of the cabin and find the trail leading down to the river. The trail is jagged and rough in some spots, which, along with the pain, makes it hard to push my tempo. There are branches hanging over the trail in some places causing me to slow to a snail’s pace. I don’t remember it being in such bad shape the last time I was here.

There are no signs of Ryleigh or anyone else around the trail. I don’t remember how long the trail is, but after probably about fifteen minutes into my rescue mission, my composure starts to wane. My legs start to cramp, and my mind begins to drift to images of a dead bloody Ryleigh floating in the river.

As the trail conditions improve into a sandier surface, I notice fresh footprints heading in the direction of the river. Upon noticing the prints an immediate influence of sweeping fear and discouragement highjack any optimism. It’s not the footprints heading to the river that are discouraging because that is what I expected to see. It is the fact there are no footprints returning in the direction of the cabin that promotes the discouragement and fear.

Ryleigh is dead. I know it. Whomever this Jim guy happens to be, I hope he knows he really has it coming to him. He has taken my parents and now my forgotten girlfriend. I don’t know what I’m going to do if she is dead or hurt. She is my only ally, but at the same time, she was incredibly stupid and deserves whatever she got herself into, but I don’t know if I can make it through this without her.

The trail starts to go into a big incline, so I stop running. I’m completely worn out, but the more important reason that I stop is that I remember the river is just over this hill. I slowly walk up the hill trying to stay as quiet as possible.

I have to prepare for the worst. What do I do if she’s hurt or dead? I can’t exactly call the cops. I’m not prepared for this. What if the person that attacked her is still down here? Why does this crap have to happen to me?

I creep over the hill not knowing what to expect. The images of a bloody, lifeless Ryleigh are all I can picture, so when I make it over the hill and see nothing but the river and trees, it’s actually a relief. The relief of not finding her dead causes me to let my guard down even though there still could be danger. I follow the trail to its ending into the river, but find no sign of Ryleigh.

I stand by the water’s edge just staring at the slow moving current. The murky water covers up the riverbed with a coat of gray dirt and rocks. My sense of relief slowly dissipates as I realize the time it took me to get to the river; Ryleigh’s body could have been swept away by the current. Before I can follow that thought through, something lying at the edge of the forest to my right distracts me.

There sticking out of the grass is a Nike running shoe. It’s definitely Ryleigh’s shoe, which at least proves she was down in this area. But where did she go? And if there was a struggle that led to her losing a shoe, is she ok wherever she is?

If they didn’t return up the trail I came down, then there are only a couple plausible options. They could still be down here by the river, but I don’t see any signs of anyone still being down here. I guess they could have left by going down the river, but I highly doubt it. The only logical option remaining is that they left by going up a different trail. “But where is it? I only see one trail.”

The end of the forest is fairly thick in most places with vines, briars, and tall grass making it nearly impossible for anyone to escape directly into the woods. There are only a couple spots where it looks like the overgrown foliage thins out enough for someone to maneuver through the thicket while the overgrowth remains dense enough to hide a trail from a distance.

I pick the closest one and take soft, ginger footsteps as I walk towards the opening. Even though I dismissed the possibility of them still being in this area, I’m still completely unnerved by being down here alone while somebody possibly lies in wait to kill me. Especially, if they know the area well enough to escape down a forgotten trial.

The first break in the forest turns out to be a bust. There are only about fifteen feet of maneuverability before the forest completely takes out any attempt to push deeper. There has to be another trail. It’s the only way any of this makes any sense at all. With slight optimism, I spot the next possible area that could hide a trail. This one might be fruitful.

I’m about thirty feet away when the noise of wood breaking stops me from inching any closer. A few feet into the crevice of the forest a shadow darts behind a tree. “Ryleigh is that you?”

Unfortunately, there is no reply or further movement. The only sound is from the trees whistling in the wind. I would almost rather someone jump out and come running after me, if it meant I could stop this avid searching in the middle of nowhere. Since my wish doesn’t come, I progress towards the crevice, my fist clenched tight in case I need the use of an emergency punch. The tree that the shadow disappeared behind nears, but before I reach it, a family of birds flies out from behind it. So much for my lurking shadow.

The area is overgrown with thistles and vines that make it difficult to walk through without being scratched. At around the level of my knee, the growth hits a stunted height. I’m careful not to prick myself on any of the thorns protruding from the growth, and after I carve myself a few feet into the crevice, a narrow path cutting into the forest begins to form.

A glimmer of hope resonates from the sight of the trail. I take up more energy than my body really wants to exert as I stomp my way further into the crevice. I literally have to push the weeds and thorns down with my feet in order to walk. I check behind me to see what the path looks like, because it looked untouched before I set myself into its teeth covered grasp. After each step, the trampled overgrowth plunges upward to its initial position, hiding any evidence I had even taken a step.

With that observation, the possibility that I am on the right path remains just that a possibility. The image of Ryleigh being forced to wade through the thorns with only one shoe scrambles my insides. Although a painful experience, at least it would mean she isn’t dead. But I suppose not everything, is better than being dead.

The overgrowth gets thinner as I go, and I suffer only mild discomfort as a few thorns rip into my sweatpants. Upon making it through the overgrowth to the narrow hidden trail, I am surprised that not only do I find a trail, but I also find fresh footprints. The footprints lead my eyes down the trail to a shoe laying directly in the middle of the beaten grass and dirt path. It is the matching shoe to the one I found by the river. There is little doubt that Ryleigh had been taken down this path a short time ago.

The trail has tree limbs stretching out from various angles making it impossible to move at any pace but a walk. With the trail in this state, there is no way she could possibly get away. Then again, there is no way she could be pulled or forced down the trail because of the tree limbs. Whoever took her probably walked behind her as she walked in front. I wonder if whoever took her has a weapon? That would make sense given she would be walking on her own accord as she climbed over and under the tree limbs.

The trail takes a sudden, sharp bend to the right. Several trees prevent me from seeing around the bend. This sudden blind spot sends a wave of panic and anxiety throughout me. For a moment, I envision someone jumping out from around the bend with a gun. Thankfully, upon reaching the bend no such event actually occurs. All that is waiting for me around the bend is more trail, foliage, and footprints.

Branches and insects eat up my arms and legs as I steadily make my way down the trail. It’s hard to gauge the distance that I have traveled on the trail, because my body was already weak, and the slow creeping pace makes every few feet seem like an eternity. My back begins to ache from bending under the stray branches.

I pick up a broken tree limb and begin using it as a walking stick, without it my exhaustion would force me to stop. The mugginess begins to take its toll as sweat drips from my brow onto my shirt. The fact I haven’t had much to drink besides scotch also doesn’t help by condition any. “Shoot, nobody needs to kill me. I might simply keel over just by walking this darn trail.”

A branch comes out of nowhere nearly decapitating me as I finish my sentence. The only thing that keeps me from hitting the ground is my walking stick. Nature tries to kill me. Nature saves me. I can’t help but chuckle slightly at my own prophetic insight. As if, it would take much more than a branch to break me at this point.

The real reason the branch hit me is the trail has started to get even narrower. After avoiding a few more branches, the trail closes itself off into nothing but overgrown stalks of grass. It’s similar to the overgrowth from the beginning of the trail, except there are no thorns involved at this point. My poor eyesight, restricted by the overgrowth, impairs my ability to see where the trail will turn next. Despite the trail ending, the footprints or now foot indentions have kept going.

I follow the indentions through the high stalks of grass. It isn’t very far at all before I plunge out onto the road that leads to the cabin. I don’t know where I expected it to lead, but I sure didn’t expect it to lead back to the road. Although, the road is a logical place for an old trail to run into, but it doesn’t make any sense when it comes down to the abduction.

The cabin is just up the road. If someone knew we were out here, why not come after me at the cabin? Why go after her at all, when my parents are the ones that were killed? It just doesn’t make sense. How did they even know she was going to be down by the river? She could have easily stayed in the cabin.

Regardless of why, the reality is the trail has ended, and Ryleigh is nowhere in sight. Feeling once again at a complete loss, I’m left with only one option. I have to go back to square one. The problem is I don’t know what square one is anymore. If only I knew where to begin, then maybe I could figure out how it all fits together.

I begin walking up the road towards the cabin. She was looking at the file all night. It has to have some answers in it. It has to. “Who knows the file may be gone too when I get back. I wouldn’t doubt it. Everything else has left me.”

[] Chapter 21: The Brewing Storm

               

When I return to the cabin, the front door being wide open creeps me out more than a little. I know I’m the one that left it open, but still the thought of the cabin being openly accessible is frightening now. For all I know, I could be walking straight into a trap.

The cabin is silent as the grave as I pass the threshold. The only light coming from inside is located in the bedroom, but the cabin is lit enough for me to see by the sunlight seeping in through the doorway and windows. There doesn’t appear to be any signs of anyone in the house since I left it in a mad rush of panic. I close the door, but before I step away, I make sure to lock it.

My first order of business is to go make sure the file is still in the bedroom. If it’s not safely resting in the bedroom, then I really have no other move left that I can make. I’m almost afraid to check because part of me wants it to be gone. It’s the selfish part that just wants it all to end, and if that means not finding who killed my parents or finding Ryleigh or going to jail, then fine I’ll live with it.

It would actually be merciful if the file happens to be gone without a trace. Because in the end, it’s not going to matter. I’m not going to avenge my parents’ death or find Ryleigh. In all likelihood, I’m destined to spend my lonely nights in jail rotting for crimes I didn’t commit, but being just as worthy of the punishment as anyone else.

I’m left with no mercy or excuse because the file is still lying on the floor with papers scattered around it. There should be a glimmer of hope that resounds from the sight of the file but there is not. All possibilities of hope have been completely decimated with each dead end. A lone file that most likely holds no answers doesn’t change anything.

With a chuckle, I bend down to corral all the loose papers. It is almost comical that a few hours ago I let my anguish get the best of me and threw this stupid thing away like trash, now it’s all I have. Actually, it seems to sum up my situation perfectly. I make a mess like usual, except now there is nobody left to help me clean it up. Nobody, but me.

There is one piece of paper that has slid its way under the bed. I get down on my stomach and bend my head under the bed trying to reach it. I go to push myself out from under the bed with the paper, when the sound of buzzing followed by a sudden crash startles me, causing me to hit my head on the underside of the bed.

From the floor, I look in the direction of the crash in which buzzing continues to ring. There on the floor in-between the nightstand and the bed is my phone. The phone is still buzzing as if someone is calling, so I quickly crawl out from under the bed, then spring across the mattress over to the nightstand. Reaching down to the floor, I pull up my phone, which is still buzzing from a phone call from Ryleigh’s number.

“Ryleigh are you ok?”

At first there is no reply, then Ryleigh’s broken voice rings in my ears. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m so sorry; I should have listened to you.” The line goes silent again.

I ask, “Where are you? I went to the trail, but you were gone.”

“He wants me to tell you, that if you don’t tell me where the Gate’s Fortune is his will… will kill me. Like he killed your parents.”

“I don’t know where the Gate’s Fortune is… my parents didn’t even know. Ryleigh who is doing this?”

Ryleigh’s screams flood the phone line as she cries through heavy breaths. “Ryan, just figure it out. He said he would call back in a couple ours with a location. And if you haven’t figured it out by then, you like me and your parents would be dead next.”

It doesn’t take long for anger to find a home in my heart after the call ends. I pick a pillow up off the bed and slam it against the nightstand, sending the lamp teetering over the edge.

The lamp hits the floor, extinguishing the light, which sends the room into slight darkness. I grab the file and my phone and leave the bedroom, slamming the door as I walk out. Who does this guy think he is? What the hell did I ever do to him? “He better hope he kills me first, because if he doesn’t, he’s the dead man. I can promise him that.”

I swing my arms frantically in the air before carefully setting the file down on the couch, along with my phone. Needing something to do, I turn on the television. Using my fingertips as a comb, I brush through my hair while I sit and wait for the screen to brighten up. It’s almost nine o’clock so a news report should be playing soon. I generally never watch the news. But since I’m all alone, it’s the only source of outside information I have access to.

The news isn’t on yet, so I grab my phone. It’s about time I figured out exactly what this mysterious texter’s end game happens to be. Because right now, I have no clue what it could be. I guess the real question should be what is my end game when it comes to these texts?

I haven’t really committed one way or the other. I’m not really in any position to turn away help, but I also can’t afford to make a costly mistake by trusting someone I shouldn’t. “Ah, screw it. I’m going all in.”

I text, ‘Someone just kidnapped Ryleigh. They want to know the location of Gate’s Fortune or they will kill her and then me. I don’t know where it is though… Your Thoughts???’

I wait for a reply as the news broadcast starts. For the most part, the newscast simply reiterates what had been in the news over the course of the last couple of days. I’m still a person of interest along with Ryleigh. However, with a twist of good fortune for me, the reporter reports, “It is believed both Ryan and Ryleigh have left the city and are in the Burkeville area. They are not believed to be dangerous, but anyone with any information on their whereabouts should call the hotline.”

At least the police think I’m over near Burkeville. I was hoping to see a report about a third person of interest. If the guy that took Ryleigh really is the guy that killed my parents, then he must have left some evidence. Then again, I know nothing about him except that he is probably Ryleigh’s ex-boyfriend. So, who knows? For all I know, he could be a mass murdering psychopath that has killed several times before.

I check my phone, but nobody has texted me back. Leaving the phone on the couch, I walk into the kitchen and pour me a glass of water. I gulp the entire glass down and pour another to take back to the couch. My head rests back against the comfy headrest of the couch as I fight the urge to fall asleep by continuing to watch the screen.

After an extended period staring at a blank screen, I grab my phone. Apparently, I received a text message that I was unaware of receiving which reads, ‘I’m working on it. All I know is the guy has some kind of obsession with your family. Where are you?’

I text back, ‘I’m in a cabin just out of town. I thought it was safe… I guess it wasn’t. Now, who are you, I need to know.’

The next text I get back reads, ‘You can trust me Ryan. If you knew what I know, you would understand why I have to be discrete. He probably already has your phone bugged.’

There is no way he has bugged my phone. I wonder what this person knows, and why they can’t just tell me. The way they talk makes it sound like they know the psycho. Ryleigh knew exactly who it was that is after us. She wouldn’t tell me all the details, and now this texter knows but won’t tell me. I really hate having to be this dependent on other people for information. Ugh, I hate it.

‘Do you know who the person is that took Ryleigh and killed my parents?’

I wait for a response, but it’s clear whoever I’m texting doesn’t care to answer my question. I’m quickly running out of options, and my mind isn’t working quick enough to get past all the dead ends. I wonder how my sister is dealing with all this. I know relatively nothing, and that is still more than she knows about any of this. I wish I could call her. I really need someone.

At this point, I’m almost convinced to turn myself in to the police. They did treat me well, when they showed up at my parents’ house. One even gave me a ride home right after I found the bodies. I know they are looking for me now and probably think I killed my parents, but at least if I shared my side, they could possibly make some sense out everything, because I sure can’t. Of course, I still can’t even remember all my side, so they would probably just think I’m crazy.

I check my phone, but I still don’t have any new text messages. With no progress with my texting, I’m forced to return my attention to the file. After a few minutes of flipping through the file trying to figure out the mysteries of the Gate’s Fortune, my frustration and tiredness begin to get the better of my mind. The words blending and flowing into a page of scribbles causes an already confusing file to become almost impossible to read through.

My anger and frustration ultimately causes me to leave not only the file, but the cabin as well. The next thing I know—I’m standing on the dirt in front of the cabin, staring at the tree that is shading Ryleigh’s car. I pick up several rocks and throw them against the tree, not caring if a rock were to damage the car. What would it matter Ryleigh will never drive it again?

My arm rears back repeatedly as rock after rock chip away at the bark. When the last rock leaves my hand, my body falls to the dirt. My knees grind into the loose dirt while my hands rest in front of my body. My head lowers until my nose is but an inch from scraping against the ground. For whatever reason, tears begin rolling from my eyes. Tears for my parents and tears for Ryleigh?

The tears mix with the dirt, creating a wet mush to form under my face. My weak body succumbs to gravity as my face eventually comes to rest in the dirt and mud created by my tears. Upon self-examination, I find there is surely some sadness in my heart, but it’s not sadness for the death of my parents or for Ryleigh being abducted. The sadness is for my parents and Ryleigh ever knowing me. Instead of my tears and anguish being for the death that has overtaken those around me, my tears and anguish are solely for myself being around to bring the death.

Somehow, I just know that if I hadn’t been around my parents, they wouldn’t be dead. If I had never met Ryleigh, she wouldn’t be abducted. Yeah, it’s her ex-boyfriend, but he only wants her to get to me. This all is because of me. Every bit of it.

I close my eyes in frustration until I begin to feel slight taps on my back. I sit upright on my knees as the remnants of tears continue to drip down my face. I look up to the sky as a few raindrops fall downward. The skies have slowly gotten darker much like my heart. A few more raindrops fall in the midst of me walking back to the cabin, for I have no other place to go.

It appears it is just a passing rain shower at the moment. But who knows, nature has a way of setting things up for a mega disaster even when it only looks like a mild inconvenience from our viewpoint. It wouldn’t surprise me if these few drops, turn into a hurricane that builds out of nothingness and washes me away. Life and nature are very similar that way.

[] Chapter 22: A Strange Encounter

               

It is believed by some that in the developing and most powerful stages of a storm system, energy can be so compacted into the central locality of the storm that the veil between nature and the supernatural can briefly disappear. I have never believed in such superstition, but given my recent experiences and the sight of a forming storm, the thought actually seems to be extremely logical. What else could explain what I have seen throughout the last couple of days? Surely, nothing else could even come close to explaining what I’m witnessing right now.               

The slight drizzle from the developing shower outside pelts the house as I stare in amazement towards the kitchen. Trying not to interrupt the scene that is taking place, I hold my breath and stay completely still. The scene so defiles nature that I can’t even believe it. For a moment, my heart warms and my guilt-ridden thoughts float away.

In the kitchen, stands my mother cooking alongside my dad. I can even smell what appears to be bacon or ham frying on the stovetop. My dad is smiling with his chin just above mother’s shoulder with his hand on her waist. It reminds me of the better days, when I was but a child. The days when we were a happy, complete family.

Expecting them to disappear into a puff of smoke, I reluctantly take a few steps towards the kitchen. When my mother and father don’t vanish, I can’t control myself and call out to them. “Mom! Dad!”

The softness of my mother’s voice calls back, “Ryan! What a surprise. You are just in time—breakfast is almost ready.”

If I can hear her, I wonder if I can touch her? Without hesitation, I rush to my mother’s side and give her a huge hug around the neck. I’m oblivious to the fact my arm is right next to the pan on the stove until I recoil back as the frying pan touches the underside of my arm, leaving a small burning scar.

The pain is only minor in comparison to the joy of seeing my parents. I turn to my dad and shake his hand. “I thought I would never see you again, pops.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder and leads me to the dinner table. As he pulls out my chair for me, he replies, “We will always be with you, son. No matter what happens or what you do. We will always be with you.”

My mom is beginning to hum as my dad hands me the file. “We need to discuss some things about our family’s history. I know this may seem like a strange thing to discuss in such a blindsided manner, but I fear someone is trying to use our history against us and you best be informed.”

He clears his throat and points to the file. “In this file, hold all the keys to understanding one of the darkest points in our family’s long lineage. As you see by the title of the file and the first few pages, we jointly owned a plantation with the Gate family.” He points to a photo on the first page as I study it. “Back in those days, you were either born into a wealthy family or you probably were never going to find wealth. There weren’t many ways to make money if your family didn’t have connections with other people that well, made money.”

My dad tries to clear his throat again by coughing, but along with his cough come a few drops of blood that don’t seem to faze him at all. “Our family wasn’t so lucky as to be born into what was called old money, but that didn’t stop your ancestors. I don’t know if it’s in the file, but your Great-Great-Grandfather Jonathan married into the Gate family. Typically, in those days, the woman would marry into a wealthy family to escape her poverty, but in this scenario, the man married to escape poverty.”

Again, my dad is interrupted by a bloody cough causing him to get up and get a glass of water. When he returns, there are visible blood splotches on his shirt. I try to ignore it, but the sight of blood lingers in my mind while I shift uncomfortably in my seat. In order to distract myself, I stand up and stare into the file.

“To make a long story short, if you flip through a few of the pages, you will find a letter from our family to the Gate family. Through the marriage, the two families merged and together owned the plantation. Over time the Gate family siphoned off part of our share, so our family wrote the letter in response.”

I flip to the letter and read it to myself while my dad takes another drink. He then sets his glass down with one hand and with his other motions for me to hand him the file. Starting from the back of the file, he starts flipping through it until he settles on a particular page. He then hands me back the file.

I can’t help but be amazed at how real this whole encounter has become. My mother even brings over some bacon and ham for us to eat. It’s as if they are actually alive, but they couldn’t actually be alive, could they?

“So, our family wrote the letter hoping to get our share of the money back. But James Gate, which would be the brother to the woman your Great-Great-Grandfather married, took our share of the money along with a good portion of his own and hid it. Nothing that I could find, tells for sure why he would do such a thing.”

The page of the file that my dad had turned to has a picture of the Gate’s Mansion and a newspaper clipping. The newspaper clipping title reads ‘Two found dead at Gate Plantation.’ The heading instantly brings back the images of walking into my parents’ house and finding them bloodily lying on the floor in my bedroom. The shocking comparison is more than a bit unnerving, and as their bloody bodies sear the fringes of my mind, my dad’s cough draws my attention from the file and my memories.

My dad has blood leaking from his mouth. A red stain forms on his chest as a distasteful smell lingers around him. I turn to my mom in horror only to find blood seeping from her mouth and clothes as well. The images are confusing, because despite the blood, their mannerisms have not changed. My mom is cleaning up the stove and dad is chewing a piece a bacon. I’m the only one that sees the blood. Then again, my parents are supposed to be dead. I have no idea what the rules for this kind of encounter could be. It ain’t natural that’s for sure.

The only way to avoid the blood is to bury my head into the file. I find a page that gives more information on James Gate. He was the head of the Gate family enterprise. Both his parents had died young, leaving only him, a sister and what looks like an outcast of an uncle to run the family operation, so he basically did as he pleased without much of a fight from anyone.

There is a photo taken outside with James pushing a young boy in a rope swing hanging from a tree while a woman holds a baby in her arms. James has a joyful grin on his face, but his eyes are dark and empty. It could be the black and white color of the old photo, but the family’s expressions speak to me in a language all our own. It’s the face of secrets and sorrow.

Without any discernment whatsoever, my dad begins to speak, “When James’ sister, Isabelle, found out about the stolen share, she and Jonathan went to the mansion one night to confront James. Nobody in town really knows what exactly took place during the confrontation, both families distanced themselves from it and even left town. The mansion went into foreclosure because everyone who maintained it was gone. The bank divided the plantation into several lots and sold it to the highest bidder. The Gate family took the blame for the events that transpired that night and nobody wanted anything to do with the property surrounding the mansion even though it was built before the civil war. With no public or monetary interest, the bank washed its hands of the residence all together by selling it to the city, for almost nothing, about twenty-five years ago. There were rumors a distant relative of the Gate family that worked with the city in an effort to keep the mansion put together, but there is no evidence of it.”

I ask, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me about this.”

“Like I said both families distanced themselves from that night. Jonathan had a tough time dealing with it and eventually he left Everton altogether, along with his two adolescent kids. He never talked about that night to them or anyone else. So nobody within the family talked about it and nobody in the town knew enough to want to discuss it. In fact, I knew relatively nothing about it till I was your age when I started researching and digging through any documents and family lore I could get my hands on.”

“So what happened that night?”

He motions to the file as he says, “The letter ignited a fuse between the two families. This file is complete with everything I have researched, take a look.”   As I read through the documents and my dad’s hand written notes and assumptions, pieces of that unfortunate night in 1889 play out before my eyes.

 Jonathan stands by a fountain pointing at James with one hand. Isabelle is holding his hand while she screams across the foyer at her deceitful brother. The candle light flickers ominously across James’ stern face. He is holding the letter in one hand while his wife walks up from behind him and grabs his arm.

Jonathan and James get into a face-to-face altercation, which extends to an uncivil argument about where the money was hidden. James denies ever touching any money but his own. Isabelle takes exception to the blatant lies and rushes to Jonathan’s defense. The intense argument spirals out of control and someone from behind shoves Isabelle. Her head flies downward and crashes into the marble fountain. Jonathan rushes to her side and scoops up his wife’s limp body. He struggles to get her to a doctor, and by the time someone finally checks her head laceration Isabelle is dead.

My dad breaks the silence as I set the file on the table. “There are reports that suggest right after she was presumed dead he ran out of the doctor’s house in a mad rage. A few sources say he returned to the mansion to seek revenge on the Gate family, but there has never been any evidence that he ever actually returned to the Gate’s property. The local authorities were called to the Gate’s residence and apparently, found James strung up in a tree and his wife and kids were gone, sadly there was never a ruling on whether it was murder or suicide. Both Jonathan and the wife were suspected of murdering James and Isabelle, but nothing ever came of it. Regardless of who killed them, with James’ death the hidden fortune was lost, and the citizens of Everton cast a dark shadow on the Gate name. Why it came to be known has Gate’s Fortune I don’t know because most of it is rightfully ours. I guess that’s where the small town legend gets involved and luckily, our family has never had to relive the events of that night. My grandfather once said that the loss of his dad’s mother in such a fashion changed the very soul of Jonathan. It is clear Jonathan suffered through many delusions in the latter stages of his life which made it utterly impossible to even mention that night without sending him into a panic.”

“What does any of this have to do with us now?” I ask. “I do feel bad for all those people that suffered because of something so trivial. But that was years ago, and if the Gate family left and so did Jonathan… What’s the big deal? I haven’t heard of this until now, so it couldn’t be that vital to us. What’s in the past is in the past, right?”

He takes another drink as more blood drips down his neck. “Well, that brings us to today. I think I might have found the location of the hidden fortune. But just as I discovered the key, I also discovered someone lurking around my office. I have no doubts about it; someone else is trying to dig into the past, and I’m afraid their motives are far from pure. I think it could even be someone we trust.”

When he finishes talking, I try to get up, but notice I am now sitting in my dad’s study. I’m holding a file, and my dad is motioning for me to set the file on the desk and follow him out of the study. As I leave the study, the walls tremble and shake, and then I’m in my bedroom looking into the blank eyes of my mom.

There is blood everywhere, and my parents that were just alive are now dead. Fear takes hold of my heart and tears begin flowing from my eyes. I kneel down, in an attempt to embrace my mother. While on my knees, I take my hands and move them towards her face. Before my hands can reach her, I have to move them through a puddle of blood. The blood is thick and cool against my palms. Sweat begins to drip down my back and brow, drenching me in a bath of warm liquid.

I am about to touch my mother’s face when the ground and walls begin to tremble all around me. Immediately, I’m sucked away from her and everything blurs into nothing. I throw my eyes open. In a flash, my heart sinks as my eyes focus on my surroundings. What in the hell is going on with me? Why… Why?

My nose and chin seep into a slop of mud, and my eyes are looking up from the ground at Ryleigh’s car a few feet away. There is a light down pouring of rain slowly drenching my body. The thickening mud coats my hands and arms in a brown layer of grime, while my eyes glaze over with tears and mist. My mind searches for answers but finds none. The rain pours down as I raise my head towards the heaven, and the truth sets in. My mind had deceived me. At some point, what once was a mild inconvenience had become a mega disaster. 

[] Chapter 23: A Coward’s Plan

 

I run my fingers through my hair while I stare into the falling rain. The rain splatters against my face, which acts as a mental regeneration mechanism—each drop clearing away the numbing shock of talking to my dead parents—each drop pulling me back into what has to be reality. Wow, what just happened?

I should probably go inside, but I thought that’s where I had been. I’m losing my grasp on reality. Did someone drug me? That was a wild trip. It felt real—like it had really happened. “Wait!” I shout as I get up on my feet.

I begin to pace back and forth in the mud and mist. “Let me think about this. I was with my parents. There was a file, and my dad was explaining the events surrounding the file and the Gate family. Could that whole encounter possibly have been the memory of what he told me in the study? Before I woke up out here, I was briefly in the study. Did something escape the horrid depth of my mind or was it an illusion?”

My pacing leads me to the cabin door while water drips from my hair. I hesitate for, there could be anything on the other side. When I do open the door, what lies on the other side is both comforting and disheartening at the same time. There is not a single shred of evidence of mom or dad, not even the smell of bacon, meaning there was never a time where I was in the cabin with them.

“I have to stay grounded with this. Because once I give in to hysteria, there is no coming back. Let’s say it was a vivid memory playing out as reality. Why didn’t it start with me in the study? Why would I have a memory from one particular place happen somewhere else? Am I crazy—have I already given in? Surely not.”

I walk to the bedroom, leaving wet footprints behind me. I get my last set of fresh clothes out of my bag. Taking my wet clothes off stretches the cuts, bruises, and scars covering my body. The pain is hardly bearable and reminds me of a time when I was younger and burned myself on the stove, while helping my mother cook. “I burned myself on the stove!”

I turn my arm over and stare at the scar on my arm from years ago. It’s the same scar that I felt burn during the memory of my parents. I feel like I’m so close to making a breakthrough, but I’m still missing it. What am I missing? There has to be a reason for everything that has happened. If there is no reason, then there is no hope. There would just be a senseless, random, terrible mess that happened without purpose. There has to be a purpose.

In spite of my best wishes, I can think of no purpose for any of the chaos that keeps flying my way, or if there is any purpose, it is completely lost on me. In any case, it doesn’t matter right now because purpose won’t solve anything. It will only give meaning to something during and once its solved. I don’t need meaning right now I need a solution.

My new clothes cover my injuries and help dry any remaining rain from my skin. I could use yet another shower to wash away the drying mud from various parts of my body, but my last run in with what I thought was a bath shuts that thought down in an instant. Instead, I do my best to wash the dirt away with a washcloth in the sink. When I’m finished cleaning up, I return to the living room couch.

The rain has stopped and the sun has returned, which sends beams of sunlight throughout the house. The thought occurs to me that if rain can turn to sunlight in a matter of minutes, then maybe I can get out of this. The thought doesn’t really comfort me because I secretly know that it would be silly optimism.

The phone rings at a startling volume, causing me to flinch. I had forgotten that Ryleigh had said the guy would be calling back with directions of where to meet. I answer the phone without looking at the number. I assume it will be Ryleigh or the guy, so the person that speaks confuses me at first.

The voice of my sister rattles across the line, “Ryan, are you there?”

“Alice? How did you get this number?”

She responds. “Someone called me a couple hours ago threatening to kill me and you, if you didn’t give them the location of the Gate’s Fortune. They said to call you and convince you to give up the location.”

“Who called? Was it a man or women?”

“It was a man, but I think I also heard a woman screaming in the distance.”

I ask, “Did you call the police about it?”

“I’m sorry, but I had to. I made sure not to mention you.”

“That’s fine. Just stay safe. I’ll find a way to get us out of this, I promise.” I wait for a response, but before she can respond, the line goes dead.

 Once again, I find myself bringing misfortune to the people around me. This time the helpless victim is my sister, but the phone call points out one huge difference between how I have felt since the death of my parents and how I feel now. Threatening my sister, who has absolutely no connection to any of the possible motives outside of being in my family, generates an immense amount of anger towards the individual who is doing all this.

I’m going to kill him. I don’t know how, but he’s a dead man. Forget figuring this crap out, I just need to get in the same room as the guy. He will wish he never messed with me.

The rage within me is much like a frog in water that is slowly being heated to boiling temperature—except it’s my desires for revenge that are increasing slowly as time ticks by while I sit in the water, unaware—until all I can think about is finding the guy who has murdered my family, which is ironic because I spent the last couple days trying to avoid him. But I’m not avoiding him anymore, I’m going to save Ryleigh, keep my sister safe, and avenge my parents all in one swift release of calculated rage.

This person has been one-step ahead of me from the beginning. How do I flip the script on him? I don’t know where the hidden fortune is, but he thinks I do. What if I act in a way that makes him think I know where its hidden? By taking Ryleigh and then threatening Alice, he is obviously upping the ante and that leaves me no choice but to fight fire with fire.

I pick up the phone and call Ryleigh’s phone. The line rings and rings. I’m about to hang up when the line is picked up, heavy breathing at first, then Ryleigh answers. “He says you better have the location or your sister is dead.”

“Tell him to stop being a coward and get on the line himself.”

The phone goes quiet, the man undoubtedly shocked by the firmness of my accusation. Then the fear and pain of Ryleigh’s distorted voice break the silence. Her wails resemble the cries of a defenseless wounded animal being hunted, eaten, and killed by a ravenous beast. At this point, her pain is nothing more than collateral damage. In order to save her, she is going to have to take the brunt of the coward’s anger. It’s the only way.

After a few seconds of loud commotion on the line, Ryleigh returns, out of breath and whimpering. “He says all in due time. Ryan… please do you know where it is or not?”

“Yeah, I know where it was hidden. You hear that? I know where the bloody money is!”

Ryleigh replies, “You do?”

“My dad did tell me. I just want all this to end.”

“Ok, stop! He says to meet him at the place where it all started tonight and come alone or everyone you love will die.”

I’m expecting to hear the line cut off, but instead, Ryleigh’s voice can be heard away from the phone. “Ryan, you still there?” she asks.

I reply, “I’m still here.”

“He said I have two minutes, I’m alone. Are you still at the cabin?”

 “Yeah, it’s the only place I can stay. Are you ok?”

“I’m fine. I have a cut on my lip and some bruises, but I’m fine.”

I say “Ok. I’m going to get you out of this. I promise. No one else I love is going to die.”

“Do you really know where the fortune is hidden?

I can tell her the truth and risk the guy overhearing or I can lie, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. “Yeah, I remembered my dad telling me where the guy hid it.”

“So, you remember that night?

“Not exactly. I only remember some of the stuff my dad said in the study.”

In a rushed tone, she says, “Ok. I have to go. He’s coming back. He told me to be off the phone when he got back. Bye.”

I really hope this works, I’m betting everything that this will work. How do I find out where it all began, where what began? Did he mean, where my parents were killed? That is where it began with me. But, that doesn’t fit. I’m thinking he probably meant where the story of the Gate’s Fortune began.

Now, how do I find Gate’s Mansion? I hope there’s a map in the file or this might be the end of the line for my plan. I know it’s on the outskirts of town, but that doesn’t help much. The file is still on the couch where I last left it. I slowly turn through page after page, skimming the text for any possible reference of the mansion.

As I flip through the file, one thing becomes clear. In comparison to the file my dad handed me in my memory, dream experience, this file I’m holding has pages missing. So, the encounter had to be a recollection of a past event from his study. Deep down, I had really hoped the encounter had been something more than buried memories. It is hard to admit to myself, but I wish I had never woken up. If I could have stayed in the cabin with them even with the blood, I would have stayed. I would give anything just to stay with them.

Towards the end of the file, I come across a page that has some promise. It doesn’t have a map, but it does have multiple references to the Gate residence. It mainly describes the plantation operation and procedures. One particular description gives me a reference point for finding the mansion. When the fields needed new workers, they would use the Mt. Olive Church, just out of town, for a meeting point.

The file explains how the church that stands at a four-way intersection is close to the plantation. The intersection allowed people in every direction to meet and follow one of the plantation owners to the fields. From the church, they would travel north a few miles until they come across a very modest trail as it is described in the file. The residence had a simple entry hidden down the trail and could only be seen from a small portion of the plantation. Apparently, the Gates loved their privacy.

Luckily, for me, the Mt. Olive Church is somewhat of a historic building in Everton. One that is actually kept in prime condition. When it was originally built, back in the early 1800s, it was one of the most pristine churches in all of Georgia. Unfortunately, Everton’s dark side would eventually get the better of the church. There is some evidence that suggests it was used as a place to trade slaves to plantation owners before the civil war, and now I know possibly even to the Gate family. Sadly, it has only been in the past couple decades that the church has once again been used for holy worship.

I actually attended a few services there after I was involved in a few legal incidents. My parents thought it would help, and maybe it would have if I had kept going to service. At any rate, I know where the church is located. Which means, I should be able to follow the old plantation worker paradigm to find the mansion. The hard part is figuring out what to do once I find it.

I check the time and find it’s just after noon. The day has already stolen nearly all my energy away from me that I had left. I know I probably should be more in a panic, and blindly rush out the door to save the damsel in distress. But… I’m exhausted. There is no way I have enough energy to duel it out with a maniac.

I sprawl out on the couch, closing my eyes in the process, but I can’t really fall asleep. My eyes are closed and my body is at rest, and that’s close enough to sleep for me. I shortly find myself in that semi-conscious state. Not asleep but not really awake, mildly aware of my surroundings, but numb to them at the same time.

When my eyes open from my state of rest, I find that the room is bleak and there aren’t many streams of light coming through the window. I walk to the door and peer outside. The skies are getting dark, with stormy clouds, threatening more than a light shower like before. The sun is playing peek-a-boo with the horizon, letting me know the darkness is near. Ready to rid myself of this nightmare, I get the file and my phone and head to the car.

Once seated in the car, I text the unknown number ‘Headed to meet the guy at the Gate’s Mansion. I told him I knew where the fortune was hidden, but I don’t. Any suggestions would be appreciated.’

I crank the car engine and begin driving away from the cabin. The drive to the church is anticlimactic at best. No rain, car trouble, texts, or police interfered with my driving. I was expecting more of a fight, but I guess that will have to wait until later.

I pass the church only looking at the high arching shadow formed by the steeple. I suppose I should have stopped and said a prayer or something, but my mind is solely preoccupied with finding the mansion and killing the guy who ruined my life. I’m aware that my passion for revenge is blocking everything else out including love or sympathy for anyone else at this point. There will be a price to pay for my actions and mental ineptitude, but it’s nothing but collateral damage for me.

I head due north from the church. My eyes scan the side of the road for a few miles until I find a narrow road splinting off into the woods. The road appears to have at one time been bigger, but the weeds and grass have overtaken it from both sides. My car creeps along through the bumpy terrain until I reach a pair of old rusted iron gates.

The gates are open slightly in such a way that my car should be able to slip by them. I get out the car and inspect the gap to make sure my car would actually fit through. There are tree branches and overgrown vines, keeping the gate from opening all the way. It is apparent that nobody has regularly traveled this way in a long time. On the right gate, hangs an iron plate that reads ‘Gate’s Plantation and Mansion’. The words are faded and worn, but the lettering is still visible.

Before I drive through the gate, I pull out the file and read my dad’s shorthand. While I read the note, a small smirk finds its way to my face. I wish I knew the exact location of the fortune, but this should be good enough. It’s risky, but it might just work.

While I drive down the wet dirt road, I survey the surrounding landscape. If, I didn’t know a cotton plantation had once been there, I would never have guessed I was driving through a cotton plantation. Young trees and shrubs have completely overtaken any of the once fertile farmland. There are spots where the forest thins out and low grassy areas have formed, but for the most part, it’s nothing but budding trees.

The road twists its way past a swamp to the right and then back into a conventional forest. The road straightens out and the land to my left flattens out into high stalks of grass intermingled with a few trees. A runway created by two intersecting tree lines slowly begins to emerge.

In no time at all, I’m driving through the mouth of the runway. The two tree lines have edged themselves away from the road creating about ten feet of clear space on both sides of the road. The trees and road lead my eyes straight to the mansion. It is quite an intimidating sight. Fear and nausea circulate through the car vents into my nostrils.

I stop the car briefly to compose myself, before my bleeding wrecked body drives straight into the lion infested den. I look forward to the mansion and then look behind me. I pick up the file and turn the pages until I come across the photo of Jonathan and James in the field with the mansion behind them. I look behind me and try to picture the field looking like the field in the picture. Based on the view of the mansion there is no question the picture was taken from the field directly behind me, but the differences are striking. Tall stalks of grass have replaced the cotton in the picture, and trees have scared the once calm field. Do I even want to know what the mansion looks like?

As I drive closer, my mood darkens and my intensity rises. The mansion comes into full view and I can’t help, but stop again, this time just short of the gravel walkway leading to the mansion. I close my eyes, trying to gather myself in preparation for the evil I’m about to undertake while searching for the truth.

When I open my eyes, the car begins to shake and the mansion blurs out of focus. Like wolves howling at the moon, the wind whistles by the car puncturing my eardrums as it carries me towards the emptiness of space. Out of nowhere, my head begins to pound and my world dissolves away while the cold blackness of nothingness engulfs my vision completely. The little I am aware of is that my arms feel raw as tension builds around my wrists. Then, even those senses are lost in the darkness.

[] Chapter 24: Reality Check

 

I wake up to the sound of booming thunder. There is darkness all around me, forcing my head into mass confusion. What happened? Where am I?

My mind slowly sifts through the wave of information making the confusion and panic fall away like sand in between my fingertips. Does this mean none of it ever happen? It seemed so real. No! It… It had already happened. But maybe not all of it. I don’t know.

A flash of lightning illuminates my surroundings, but something covering my head prevents me from seeing. The feeling instantly reminds me of what I thought was a dream from a couple nights ago. For once, things start to make a little bit of sense. I was hit in the head earlier inside the mansion. My mind must have sent me into some kind of journey through my subconscious for answers. Except, the search through my dream world wasn’t like any dream or memory I have ever had before. What did I know before the mansion, and what couldn’t I remember before I was hit? It’s all mashed together with no way of knowing what was real.

Still, all I’m missing is the actual murder of my parents. I blocked it out for a reason, and it’s probably best I can’t remember it. Now, how do I get this thing off my head? Hopefully this will be only minor setback to the plan because getting knocked out couldn’t have been part of it.

The unmistakable sound of a creaking door, opening and closing, calls out for my undivided attention. My hands are bound behind my back, and I’m lying on my side. One of my ears rubs against the floor, preventing me from hearing well, but allowing me to feel the vibrations of footsteps approaching me. The footsteps mix with the sounds of something dragging across the wooden floor in a rough manner. The sound of muffled screams gets closer as the shuffling footsteps draw near.

It sounds like Ryleigh, but I can’t be sure. Her voice mumbles in a way that suggests something is covering her mouth. The footsteps stop and with a big thump something bangs against the floor next to me. The patterned footsteps slowly start walking back out the room without the added dragging and shuffling.

I don’t have to wait long until someone lifts off the bag that is covering my head. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room, but once they do, I become aware of Ryleigh staring back at me. Another lightning bolt sends a wave of light and energy into the room illuminating Ryleigh’s face. She has a minor gash just below her bottom lip, and her face caked in dirt looks pitiful, but other than the obvious signs, she appears to be in ok condition.

“Ryleigh.” I can’t say anything else but her name. My mouth is dry, and my tongue is thick and uncontrollable.

She answers, “Yeah, it’s me.”

Trying to create some moisture, I lick my lips, “Where are we?”

She replies, “We are in a room somewhere upstairs. Please tell me you really do know where the fortune was hidden. He won’t hesitate to kill us if you don’t give him the true location.”

“I need something to drink. I can barely talk.”

She limps over to the door and yells out in a screechy voice for some water. At first, it seems as if her pleas fall on deaf ears, but after a little door banging and more screaming, the door creaks slightly open. Flickering light springs forth from outside our isolated room while our captor throws two water bottles violently in our direction. Ryleigh picks up the bottles and returns to my side.

The bottle’s top has been damaged by its collision with the floor. She unscrews the top and water spews out of the condensed bottle. She has to put the bottle to my lips because my hands are still tied together behind my back. The water cools my throat and softens my thick dry tongue. Since my body is almost completely dehydrated, the effect of the water literally brings life to me.

Regrettably, the water disappears far too quickly, leaving me only thirsting for more. Ryleigh sits down beside me and asks, “Do you know where it is, or at least have a plan… anything?”

“Do have anything that can cut the restraints off my hands? They are cutting the circulation.”

“No, he was keeping me in another room until he threw me in here with you. I don’t have anything. But here let me see if I can untie them.”

She pulls on the rope like material around my wrists. The more she fiddles with it the tighter it gnaws at my skin. My wrists writhe in pain as the friction and pressure dig into and across my skin in a quick jagged motion. I have to get her to stop. I can’t bear it anymore.

Before I can verbalize my thought, she stops on her own. “I can’t get it. The only way to get it off is to cut the rope. Now no more stalling. Do you know where James Gate hid the money?”

What do I say? I can’t tell her that I lied and have no idea where Gate hid the stolen money. That could ruin any chance of actually having the upper hand against this guy. He could have the place bugged or even be standing right outside the door listening to our conversation. I can’t risk it. There are too many uncontrollable variables. I’m the only one that can know the truth.

“Yes, I found the location. I’m going to tell him where it is after he releases you. Then hopefully once he finds it, he will release me too.”

“Well… where did he hide it?”

My face contorts as I gaze confusingly at her. I scoot myself closer to her by using my tied hands against the worn wooden floor beneath me. In a low, soft voice I say, “Ryleigh? Come on… We actually have an advantage for the first time that we can use against the guy. I know something he doesn’t. It would be stupid to say something now that he could overhear. That would jeopardize both are safeties.”

She stares down at the floor, avoiding eye contact with me. “I understand. I just want to know how the story ends. After all, he has put us through; I need to know how this ends.”

“Hopefully it ends with your safety. That’s all you should be worried about.”

The storm outside relentlessly pounds against the mansion. The thunder shakes the foundation while the wind blows the tree limbs against the wood creating a repetitive scratching noise. The lightening continues to flash revealing the room every few seconds.

There is nothing in the room except the two of us and dust. I stare out the only window in the room, contemplating how fool proof my whimsical plan could possibly be. I’m concentrating on the rhythmic pelting of the raindrops hitting the window when the door creaks open. My head swings around as abundant flickering light from outside the room flows inward, dimly lighting our dungeon. Blinded by the unexpected change from darkness to light, I bury my head against the floor.

Standing in the doorway is the blacked out blurry image of a man. The image slowly moves closer as my eyes become acquainted with the light. He is about fifteen feet away from me when my full vision returns, allowing me to see him for the first time in unmitigated detail. The man is wearing a black polo shirt that highlights his broad chest and taunt arm muscles. Merging his lower half to his torso is a pair of black sweat pants that perfectly match the polo shirt. He’s probably six feet tall, and despite the muscle mass is moderately built. His face is covered with a black mask that reveals only his beady eyes and sinister grin. He could be almost anyone that in decent shape and is obsessed with black. I’m not sure what to think or how to react. Should I be scared? Nervous? Mad?

I don’t really feel any emotion other than a little agitation from the rough knot tied around my wrists. The man stops about five feet from me. I can see him, but I’m not directly facing him because I’m still facing the wall. My head is turned to the left towards the door, putting me at a distinct disadvantage. He turns his head from side to side, gloating at his handy work, until he walks behind me out of sight.

Ryleigh has slid all the way to the window on my right as far away from the guy as she can get. After a few seconds behind me, the guy circles around, cutting in between Ryleigh and me. He comes to a halt directly in front of me. There is an extended stare down between him and me in which neither of us make a sound. We size each other up in a very literal sense. I have no doubts that if given a chance I could take him in a brawl.

The tension in the room builds as more thunder and lightning bombards the plantation outside. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the light, the room doesn’t seem so bright. In reality, it’s only halfway lit by what resembles the light from many fire lit candles. The flickering is bright enough to clearly make out every detail of the room, but it still keeps the room dark enough that the flashes of lighting reflect my frosty gaze off the man’s dark eyes. If only we had guns, we could settle this like the days of old.

The man crouches down and with a vile grin says, “Well, Mr. Ryan Johnson we meet again. Am I to understand you have the location of the mysterious Gate’s Fortune? I have been searching and planning for this moment for such a long time that I can hardly delay this discussion any longer.”

The man’s voice puts me on immediate edge. There is a definite connection between the two of us. The voice doesn’t sound familiar in any real sense, but intuitively I know we have crossed paths. And ultimately, he was the guy that I watched kill my parents a few days ago.

My grisly voice calls out, “I know where it is, but I have to have certain assurances before I relay the lost whereabouts of my family’s fortune.”

He mockingly cackles as he springs himself back into an upright position. “There were so many misstatements in that one little response that I can’t help but wonder how it is you ever got named to a position such as a professor. Really… a respected professor would never ignore basic logic and probability.”

He walks over to Ryleigh, grabs her by the hair and pulls her over in front of me. I struggle to free my wrists so that I can maneuver over to her, but with every twist, the rope digs deeper into my skin. He pulls out a knife and points it at me with one hand while holding her with the other. “Un-huh, don’t you dare move! First, I’ll give you one assurance, but you aren’t going to like it.”

A sick grin forms on his face as he looks at Ryleigh’s petrified face. “If you don’t tell me where the GATE’S Fortune is then I’ll slice her up until you do tell me. Let’s say that your admiration for dear ole Ryleigh here isn’t quite on the level that I once had for her, and you let her DIE.” He turns in my direction, his dark eyes glowing with hatred and disgust. “Maybe I’ll find your sister next or perhaps I’ll just move straight on to you. You know… I haven’t thought about who I would kill after her because I thought you would be smart enough just to give me what I want before I had to kill again.”

A lightning bolt strikes near the house sending the monstrous sound of thunder throughout the room as the flash momentarily blinds me. As my eyes refocus on the knife, he continues, “Now I know… before you try to rationalize your decision. I’ll leave you with one more, fine piece of evidence that should scream to your heart just give him what he wants. The last time someone chose to keep the information hidden from me, I did kill them. And we all know who those two people were.”

The animosity within me peaks like nothing I have ever experienced before in my life. I am fighting the urge to shout out at him in disdain for everything the filthy vermin has done to my family. And all of it for what? Some measly money that might not even exist. I want to tell him to go to hell and a whole other list of obscenities, but I know that would only feed his wicked disposition. The man is a psychopath. You don’t give a psychopath what he wants because what he wants more than anything is to watch me suffer. If I gave him a reason, he would kill us just to watch the life leave our bodies.

He twirls the knife in one hand, “I’m waiting. Or should I go ahead and take a slice.”

I have to double down and push the limits. I have no choice. “Let her go, or I’ll make sure you never get the location of the fortune.”

“Ah, so much fire just like your dad. Do you remember all the details of that night yet? Well, if you don’t I’ll enlighten you on one detail. Your dad said the same thing about your mother before I…” He rubs the knife against the portion of the mask covering his neck.

I scream, “You’re lying.” He has to be or I’m dead! I have nothing else to hold against him.

He once again mocks me while he points the knife back at himself in reference as he says. “Am I? Hmm, I don’t know. Oh wait, I do know what happened that night.” He points the knife in my direction as he jests me by saying, “You’re the one that doesn’t know—doesn’t remember.”

How does he know so much? He must have had me bugged or something. He is downright playing with me. I’m going to kill him. “Let her go!”

He twirls the knife with fingers, and then looks at Ryleigh. He says in her direction, “I think not.” He pulls her close and holds her arm out grazing the knife about two or three inches across her arm, but it does not appear to be very deep.

Ryleigh screams while small amounts of blood start to seep out of the wound. It is only a minor wound near the surface of the skin, but many minor wounds can kill. I scream, “Let her GO!”

His dark eyes stare into mine as another lightning bolt strikes off in the distance. He loosens his grip on Ryleigh. “You know what? I admire your confidence and passion. After everything you have been through, almost anyone else would have cracked by now. I’m going to return to you the same confidence and passion you have shown me. I’m going to tell you the truth. Shed the darkness as it were and bring you into the light. I normally would keep you in the dark. But after all your hard-nosed determination, you deserve some truth. Don’t get me wrong, this probably means you will die tonight, but at least you will know why destruction has been set upon you and by whom has carried it out. Because you never had a chance, and don’t you want to finally know the truth?”

[]Chapter 25: Unmasked

         

The mad man in front of me releases Ryleigh, and she hurriedly moves away from him, back to the window. He then puts the knife back in his pocket. “Ok, I’m going to remove part of the veil from your eyes. In the process, I will let Ryleigh go. I won’t go after your sister, and I might not kill you if you cooperate. But you will tell me where the fortune is hidden, then you and I will go get it together, just to make sure you’re not lying.”

Ryleigh cowers up against the window while the rain hits the partly broken window behind her. The heaviest parts of the storm have slowly moved away, but a dense onslaught of rain and wind remain. Ryleigh nods her head in my direction, prompting me to turn to the man, and say, “Ok, if those are the conditions, I’ll tell you where the money was hidden.”

He points at me saying, “See, I knew you were a smarter man than your father.”

He takes his hands and pulls the bottom of the mask upwards until it comes completely off his face. He turns and throws the mask back towards the door. When he turns back towards me and the light hits his face, I’m truly amazed at who was behind the curtain. The face staring back at me is none other than Officer Boyd’s.

He reacts to my gasp by saying, “You know…part of me really did hate having to do the things to your parents that I did. Your mom really was the realtor that set me up in my house in Everton. And by all accounts, they were good people. Well, except for when they wouldn’t tell me where the fortune was hidden.”

I stare at him in utter disbelief. I rode in a car with the guy who killed my parents, and I had him in my home, and didn’t even know it. Oh my gosh, how didn’t I know? He was right there beside me, and I didn’t know he was the killer. What else have I missed?

He grins at me then at Ryleigh. “I know right. I have always been right there beside you even after you left the house in your loony state. I can’t take too much credit though, the art of manipulation and acting is a family gift, especially when it comes to using your family. What can I say? It’s in my genes.”

I look him in the eyes and ask, “What do you mean, especially when it comes to my family?”

He shakes his head in amusement. “Oh, my bad you only know me as her ex-boyfriend or Officer Boyd. But neither of those are the names I go by within my family. To my mother my name is James Gate the third, but since you and I are so close, you can call me Jim. I’m the Great-Great-Grandson of James Gate the first the man that owned this mansion and plantation. And in a way owned your Great-Great-Grandfather at one time.”

At least that explains why he wants the money so bad. “How did they ever let a crazy lunatic like you become a police officer?”

“That was the easy part. My family hasn’t lived here since that night years ago. Shortly after they left Everton, they changed the name to Boyd and the rest is history. I always wanted to be a cop, and it was the perfect cover. If someone was to search deep enough into my history, they could find the truth. But, who would suspect me. And pretty soon it won’t matter, I’m going to be out of here with my family’s money, and I already have a new identity set up in a place far from Everton, Georgia.”

This guy is nuts. I may be out of my depth here. How do I convince him I know where James hid the fortune? He knows more of the history than I do! I had better think of something or there won’t be much thinking going on ever again.

He crouches down in front of me and asks, “Do you have any questions? Here’s your chance to ask. I know you must have some with your memory loss thing.”

“How do you know I lost my memory?”

“I pushed you down the stairs and when you got up you were all over the place. Ryleigh here came running out of nowhere and got you outside. I chased you, but it was obvious by your demeanor and speech that you were in la-la-land.”

“But, how do you know I didn’t remember everything the next morning or the next day?”

He smirks. “Well, you told me in your living room. But the rest of the time, well, that’s another one of my family tricks. I’ll tell you what… I’ll let you in on that secret right before I kill you. You know… if I kill you.”

Ok, that was a dead end conversation. I have to find something I can use. “Why haven’t you killed me? You certainly had ample opportunities to kill me or at least take me.”

He moves closer to Ryleigh as he responds to me with his back turned. “You have me all wrong. I want my family fortune. The killing is just a means to an end. Sure, I relish it, but I’ll relish the money far more than the means of getting it. I was hoping your dad told you where James hid it because I know he recently figured it out. If I could have found his findings, when I broke into his law office, maybe none of this would have happened. But I didn’t and he wouldn’t tell me. I did find the file in the house, but it only had historical information that I already know. So, I was left with you as my loose end. As long as you couldn’t remember anything, I was safe from being anywhere near the radar of being caught. But if you couldn’t remember, you also couldn’t give me the information your dad passed on. So, I let it mostly run its course. So for your sake, I hope you really do remember what your dad told you or figured it out on your own. Either way, I think it’s time you told me where my money is hiding.”

The entire building goes silent. The rain has lightened up and the violent storm has moved out of earshot. Ryleigh is quietly clinging to the window while James stands quietly staring at me. The decisive moment is here. How do I navigate this one?

“First, can you cut these ropes off? They are killing me and we wouldn’t want that. Plus, it would allow us to discuss the fortune as men. I won’t bite. I promise.”

He thinks it over then pulls out his knife. He walks around behind me and cuts the rope. “I’m sure I will regret this, but before you think about trying anything, just know I’m good with a knife. And I got a track record to prove it.”

With the pressure gone, my wrists feel instantly better. I have bloody rope indentions in my skin from where it had dug in every time my wrist moved. I take a deep breath. This is without a doubt going to have to be my best story I have ever given while in a drunken stupor, at least I’ve given quite a few, so I might be able to pull it off. But, I doubt I’ll be able to string this one together well enough to escape unharmed.

“Ok. My dad did tell me he found the location of the hidden fortune. He also did tell me where it was hidden. When my memory went all wacky, those conversations were lost. Today, I began getting my memory back little by little. I still don’t have it all, but I do remember the location my dad told me about before you killed him. He said it was hidden here at the mansion—in a secret safe in the master bedroom floor. Only James knew about the safe because he put it in specifically to hold the money, and only he knew he was taking the money in the first place.”

I’m betting everything on the fact the story is half-true. Well, if my dad got the facts straight on his notepad written in shorthand, there should really be a safe in the bedroom floor. It’s doubtful the money is in it, but there should be a safe. Of course, Jim could easily know about it since he is in the family, and I’m not at all positive the family didn’t know.

He looks at Ryleigh then back at me while twirling the knife in his hands. “Ok, sounds good. I guess we will see how honest, you are being. Ryleigh, dear, you may leave. Give her the keys. She can take her car if she can make it out of here after all the rain.”

“They are still in the ignition.”

Ryleigh slowly walks past Jim, carefully avoiding the knife. She glances at me briefly before focusing intently on the exit. Once she leaves the room, Jim walks right up in front of my face. We stare into each other’s eyes, neither of us blinking.

He looks away first when he takes a step back and shakes his head. “You are such a bad liar.”

He pulls out some kind of an old book from the back of his waistband. He slides the small book over in my direction. “There should be a bookmark keeping the page. Read it for yourself, we have a little time. Maybe it will jog your memory a little better.”

The book is the diary of James’ wife, Sarah. The page is her account of the events leading up to that night. She had found out about the money just after James started taking it. She just didn’t want anyone else to know, and she was thinking of leaving James. But James was too much of a loose cannon for her to simply take the money and run, and Isabelle was weak and chose Jonathan over her own blood, so Sarah had to wait for the perfect moment.

I turn the page to the events of the night everything spun out of control. The writing is much more frantic and uncalculated, but it describes in full detail the missing pieces of that night.

Isabelle rushes to Jonathan’s side, shouting at her brother. She slaps James in the face while spitting on him in disgust. She turns her back to walk out the door as James’ screams out with rage. He shoves her with all his strength into the fountain. Isabelle cracks her head so hard against the marble that a tiny bit of the fountain chips away.

Jonathan rushes to his wife’s lifeless body and then stumbles out the door without even looking back. James and Sarah get into a heated altercation about the money. James demands Sarah to tell her the truth about her affair, but she smugly shrugs his demands away.

James begins to sob as the realization that his family is falling apart sets hold of him. Meanwhile, Sarah creeps up from behind him and strangles him to death in the foyer. Having the perfect opportunity to cover it up, she manages with a lot of effort to string him up above the swing in the tree, making it look like suicide. But when she goes to get the money, it isn’t in the safe. James has hidden it somewhere else.

Crap. How didn’t my dad know that? Now what do I do? Wait… “Why did you let Ryleigh go if you knew the money wasn’t in the safe?”

“Oh, that was just for fun and so is this.”

He twirls the knife in his fingers as I back away from him, leaving the diary lying on the floor. Every joint in my body hurts as I prepare for combat. This isn’t exactly fair. I’m already half beaten to death, and he’s in almost perfect shape. Plus, he gets a knife. Even the lighting in the room seems dimmer now that I have to concentrate on his precise movements.

He lunges at me with the knife. I quickly spin to my right and slightly backwards, causing him to miss by inches. The few inches that he misses by being enough to make him slightly unbalanced out on his front foot allows me to quickly siege the opportunity and use my body as a projectile to launch into him.

I’m not able to generate a ton of force because of the close proximity, but it is enough to be successful. I hit his arm, causing the knife to go flying towards the door. Our bodies become mangled together, limb under limb, as we flail about like dying fish on the floor. The combination of the impact into his body and then the unforgiving floor knock my breath out.

He is briefly stunned, but gathers his strength before I catch my breath. A powerful fist slams across my left arm. I push out my right arm in his direction, trying to block his arm, eyes or whatever else it can manage to cover up. Another blow hits me this time in my left side, the pain shoots up from my side to my brain, and I scream in agony.

Only one tactical maneuver remains that could give me an advantage in the fight. I have to get my left leg out from underneath him and spin over him. I can then try to take my body straight into his chest. It’s the only way to overcome his leverage and get myself into a fighting position.

I successfully remove my leg and spin over to him, which does weaken his leverage. However, he blocks my attempt to lodge myself into his chest by grabbing hold of my arm and forcing me to the left. At this point, neither of us can really get any blows in edge wise. We are both laying on our sides facing each other. I’m closest to the door while he is closer to the window. He has my left arm pinned against the floor and I’m struggling to keep his right arm pinned against his thigh.

During the struggle, the banging of feet heading towards the room flutter in the distance. I swing my head back so that I can briefly see Ryleigh racing into the room at a frantic pace. “Ryleigh get the knife. I can’t hold him much longer.”

My focus is solely on keeping Jim pinned when Ryleigh finally grabs the knife in front of us. She is staring down at us, frozen in time like ice. My mind races while my eyes lock on Jim. We both turn and stare at Ryleigh. I scream, “Do something!”

I loosen my grip on Jim so that I can reach for the knife with my right hand. Jim uses my loosened grip to carve out some space between us. My hand stretches ever so close to Ryleigh as she reaches down with the knife. I’m going to get it and stab straight down into whatever part of…

Before I can even fully process my next move, Ryleigh’s hand has drifted away from mine and towards Jim’s outstretched hand. Ryleigh gently lays the knife in his hand as she mouths, “I’m sorry” in my direction.

My only instinct upon seeing his hand with the knife is to kick away from him as fast and as hard as I can. Maybe he won’t be able to stab me right away. But he doesn’t try to stab me at all; instead, we both quickly scramble to our feet. Upon reaching his feet, he begins twirling the knife in his hand while looking at Ryleigh with a cunning grin, “Let’s see, if I were Ryan, how was it that he showed his gratitude towards a person with our unique bond? Oh, wait, I remember. He would say something like thanks sis. But I’m not him and I didn’t really need little sister’s help with this one.”

[] Chapter 26: The Knockout Round 

         

All three of us stare at each other in silence. I look straight past Jim’s smug grin and focus only on Ryleigh’s blank face, her eyes lower to the ground. A white bandage wrapped around her cut turns slightly red as she stands in front of me. I shake my head in disbelief.

“You had something to do with this, too?” I say in Ryleigh’s direction.

I’m waiting for a response from her when Jim replies, “Oh, yes! I told you my family had the gift of acting and manipulation.”

I say to Ryleigh, “So you were playing me from the start.”

She looks up, “No. I really did love you, and I never wanted it to get this out of hand.”

Jim coughs while throwing his arms up as if to say what are you talking about. He walks over to her and puts his arm on her shoulder. The ease at which he approaches her makes me extremely uncomfortable. What is happening?

Jim says, “He didn’t ask if you loved him. He asked if this had been planned from the start. Well?”

There is a moment of silence in which Ryleigh gives him a sharp stare before she says, “Yes. Meeting you was all part of the plan. I have been in consistent contact with my brother since I met you. We used the cover story of him being my boyfriend as a failsafe in case things got out of hand. But, I did love you… as much as I possibly could.”

The notepad in my dad’s office. The fact he thought someone close to our family was betraying us. It was Ryleigh! Without her, Jim would have never gotten close enough to do anything. “So, you were the one giving him the information about my memory.”

“Yes, that among other things.” She says with a slight grin.

“So, you were also the one that had been texting me and giving him my whereabouts so he could follow me.”

Jim looks at Ryleigh with a clenched jaw. “What text messages and who was following him? You were supposed to keep an eye on him.”

“I did! He didn’t say anything.” She screams.

If it wasn’t them, then who has been following me? I have to get out of here. This isn’t going to end well for me.

Unexpectedly, there is the sound of light footsteps running just outside the door. Jim and Ryleigh stare out the room in bewilderment. The footsteps are obviously as unexpected to them as they are to me. My eyes move from the knife in Jim’s hand to the doorway. As my eyes peer through the dim light into the hallway, the lights suddenly flicker out.

I don’t waste the sudden cover of darkness. Whoever is outside the door has to be better than these two. I rush through the dark to the door. The smell of smoke blankets the area around me. As soon as I step out of the room, someone grabs me by the arm. I fight the instinct to recoil as I’m pulled towards a set of stairs.

There are only about three feet of visibility in the darkness, so it’s hard to make out but a few details of anything. The person pulling my arm is short in stature, and the swiftness at which the person is navigating the dark corridor is like the elegant dance of a premier ballerina. The hand gripping my arm is soft and gentle despite my jerky movements as I struggle to keep pace during our getaway. As we near the stairs, rising smoke wafts over us from several torches sticking out of the wall.

The sound of Ryleigh and Jim running after us quickens our pace as we race down the stairs, in such a rush I nearly lose my footing. Upon stumbling off the stairs, I’m yanked down a dark hallway. After running past a few rooms, the person leading me stops and opens a door to a room that’s about halfway down the hallway.

I’m shoved into the room, banging my knee against some cluttered debris, as the door shuts behind me. The person then leads me to the back of the room, through the wreckage, to a pile of broken wood and motions for me to get behind it. In a soft whisper, a woman’s voice calls out to me, “I’ve called the cops. They should be here within fifteen minutes.”

The voice triggers something within me. The hatred inside me is giving way to something, a feeling of truth or comfort. But I can’t quite pin down the voice or feeling until the memory returns to me while we wait in the darkness.

I’m in a bar, sitting beside Ryleigh, Matt and Joanna. Joanna reaches down and gently pulls me by the arm over to the side of the bar. Her hands are soft and calm even though her eyes fiercely look deep into mine. “I think you are in danger, Ryan. I think your entire family is in danger.” She whispers to me.

What are you talking about? Are you jealous or something?”

She rolls her eyes in disgust, which is in stark contrast to her blushing cheeks. “Unbelievable! I’m trying to save you. Someone is going to come after your family.”

And, how do you know that?”

Her tone raises to just above a whisper as she emphatically replies, “I just know. Your dad has been trying to find a secret family fortune, and since I have been working with him recently, he asked for my help. I think someone else is trying to find it, and they will harm you to get it.”

Ok, I’ll bite. Who wants to harm us?” I ask.

All I know is someone broke into your dad’s office. Your dad had to be in court so I personally checked the security video along with a police officer, um, I think his name was Byron or Boyd, something like that. There was a man in a black mask looking for something in the building. There was also a woman…” My head turns towards Matt, who is chatting up Ryleigh. “Ryan, look at me. The girl you are talking to at the table looks a lot like the woman from the video!”

I shake my head, “If you’re jealous just say so. You don’t have to slander innocent people in a bar just because I’m talking to them.”

I’m not lying.”

Fine! I need proof. Where is the video?”

It’s at the office, your dad told me to bring it by sometime today. I’ll go get it and you can watch it with him, but be careful. I don’t trust the look of her even if she isn’t the one from the video. But, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt until I know for sure whether she was involved or not. There is still at least one other person looking to harm y’all. So be careful.”

My text messages, the bar, the missing pieces… It not only was Joanna, but it is Joanna. She has been there for me the entire time, just like high school.[_ _]My arms wrap around Joanna’s shoulders, which are hidden underneath a fur coat. “You were the one. Joanna, thank you so much! I can’t believe you figured it all out, and I couldn’t see it!”

She whispers back, “Shush, I wasn’t completely sure of Ryleigh’s involvement until she didn’t leave the mansion when Boyd let her go. I thought he might have other officers involved because I could never find the security tape, but it’s clear that it’s just him and Ryleigh working together. Now, stay quiet, we aren’t out of this yet. All I have is a flashlight. If they find us, we are both dead.”

The happiness within me takes a backseat to my growing desire to live and get revenge. I can’t dwell on anything other than what I need to do to get out of the mansion. I reach out for Joanna’s hand as she gives me the flashlight. By its weight, it feels like a heavy-duty flashlight that could easily knock someone out.

We sit in the dark waiting as distorted voices approach from the hallway. The voices become clearer as they get closer. The two evil doers’ voices shoot through the darkness like an arrow allowing me to make out what they are yelling. Jim shouts, “Ryan, I will find you. There is nowhere you can hide and whoever else is here is going to pay dearly for disrupting our family business.”

He goes on calling my name in various ways until his voice again distorts into nonsense due to his distance from us. I turn to Joanna, who is clinging to the wood debris. “Do we stay in here or what?”

“Don’t ask me, I’ve done my part.” She whispers back.

I say, “Let’s go. This room is too cluttered for us to escape if they find us hiding back here.”

I pull up the bottom of my T-shirt and place it over the lens to the flashlight. When I turn on the flashlight, the shirt dims the light to only a few feet around us. The light reveals a very debris filled room, more than I had even expected. It looks like the furnishings from other rooms along with broken or deteriorating objects have been thrown into the room without much thought or care. “Try to find something that can be used as a weapon. We ain’t getting out of here without a fight.”

I shine the light while she searches. The closest thing to a weapon she can find is a jagged splintered piece of wood. It’s better than nothing I suppose. We carefully step over a jagged rotten bookcase on the way to the door. I motion with my hand for her to stay in the room while I check outside. My raw wrist burns as I turn the doorknob.

The hallway is pitch black, resembling the deepest depths of an immutable cave. The darkness coaxes me further out into the hallway. The inviting calmness makes the entire building seem dead with inactivity. My pulse stands on edge as I reach back into the room for Joanna’s hand. She takes hold of my hand, shaking from her own anxieties and fears, while I ponder what to do next.

I find it stimulating that after Joanna has been protecting and leading me through the darkness of my mind the past few days, that now I’m the one protecting and leading us down the hallway in the dark. I hold her hand with my left hand while I hold the flashlight tightly gripped under my shirt with my right. The softness of her skin calms me, but the thickness and hardness of the flashlight make me that much more tense.

We walk right alongside the wall as we blindly travel down the hallway like two cockroaches trying to avoid the rubber soles of two monstrous shoes. Every so often, a spider web or dust will brush against my face as we walk. For one of the first times in my life, the thought of a spider falling on me doesn’t make my skin crawl because my skin is already tingling with the thought of Jim popping up out of the darkness, squashing any chance of us making it out.

We are approaching what looks like the end of the hallway, when we are forced to stop as murmuring voices from within a room a few steps ahead of us filter out into the hallway. I look back at Joanna, unsure of how to escape the watchful eyes of our exterminator. There is nowhere to go but forward, a retreat at this stage in the game would be an all-out forfeit.

We creep towards the opening of the door. My breathing labors as the intensity of the moment blossoms like the first punch in an epic boxing match. Adrenaline pumps through my veins, strengthening my body and honing my alertness. I let go of Joanna’s hand as she moves directly up against the wall behind me. I whisper, “Whatever happens, you just run and don’t look back. I’ll be right behind you.”

The tension builds into the middle stages of the boxing match while my pulse steadily quickens as I take on the role of a ninja assassin. I crouch down in an athletic position as my hand squeezes against the hard material that coats the flashlight tube. More tension builds within me, as I near the knockout round which in this arena means a fight to the death with the two people that ruined my life. Footsteps approach the doorway. There’s nowhere to go. My heart pounds in my chest. Joanna’s trembling hands press against my back as a shadowy figure appears under the doorway.

I’m only a short couple of feet from someone standing just inside the room. I can’t tell who it is but this is my chance. My instincts take over my body, forcing me to explode forward into the doorway. I am in no way in control of my actions as I raise my arm back and fire my rotator cuff forward along with all my momentum. The flashlight gently swivels along with my arm and wrist as they continue accelerating forward on a downward plane, until a crushing impact occurs.

The scurrying sound of Joanna’s footsteps bounce of the walls as she takes off running while the flashlight recoils in my hand. Someone makes a deep moaning sound just after the impact as my momentum carries me face forward into the room. The force of the impact causes the person I hit to fall backwards, deeper into the room. A loud metallic thud of something hitting the wood surface echoes just before both of our bodies’ crash onto the floor.

I quickly move my finger across top half of the flashlight tube searching for the on button. Finding the button, I press it sending a wide, bright beam of light into the previously dark room. In front of me, a woman begins screaming. I turn the beam of light to the body beside me. The beam illuminates Jim holding his head with bloody hands.

He flails his arms towards me as the light moves towards his eyes. His fist swings just out of reach of my face. I take my free fist and throw a punch in his direction, while using my hips to gain the necessary ground and momentum to make contact. I’m only able to see the initial contact of my fist because as soon as my arm follows through with the punch Ryleigh pounces on me.

Because I’m off balance from my punch that just landed, she is able to knock me backwards onto the floor. My head bangs against the wood, reopening my head wound. With her on top of me, I use all my strength to throw her over my head into the hallway. I only muster enough strength throw her about three feet into the hallway, which would be about six feet from where I am sitting just inside the room.

I fight myself for control of my body. The hatred heats within me, but I can’t let it take extended control of my actions. I grab the flashlight and sprint out of the room into the hallway, avoiding Ryleigh in the process. Instead of running after me, she returns to the room to probably check on James or get the knife. I don’t know which because I don’t look back to find out.

The beam of light jumps around along with my arm as I run. I bolt out of the hallway and into a large room. The light bounces around the room until it hits something that causes shades of light to disperse in all different angles throughout the room. I’m briefly awe struck until I realize the light has hit the chandelier in the foyer. My eyes briefly move upwards toward the sparkling chandelier as my thoughts shift to Joanna.

I am nearing the chipped fountain when police sirens burst into earshot. At the start of the day, the sirens would have meant disaster in the hands of Jim’s police officer persona, but now, thanks to Joanna the sirens are safety. I race down the entrance hallway towards the sirens. The door is standing wide open and the blinking blue lights of police vehicles glisten in the darkness. I rush out of the wretched Gate’s Mansion towards the safety of the night air.

I hit the porch running full speed. The storm that had ravaged the area has left the porch wet and slick. My feet hit the slippery surface and slide across the wet porch, my momentum carrying me directly into a police officer that has drawn his weapon. Thankfully, he doesn’t shoot me, but instead catches my fall.

I’m ushered off the porch to a mud stained police car where Joanna is already waiting for me. We watch as several police officers run into the building with flashlights and weapons drawn. The lights from their flashlights stream through the windows as they search the building, and their voices can be heard crackling over the various police radios.

Before I know it, both Joanna and I are being asked to get in a police car. The car pulls out of the gravel walkway as I look out the back window at the mansion. The two trees that guard the structure stand tall like jack-o-lanterns ominously lit by the flashlight beams trickling out from within the mansion. Joanna lays her head on my shoulder as we drive down the muddy road leading out of the plantation.

We don’t get too far before a black Escalade sitting out beside the road proves Joanna’s part in the puzzle. It’s the same S.U.V that I have spotted several times since my parents’ death. The one Joanna had used to keep a not so subtle eye on me. The road is passable, but the recent storm and increase in traffic make it difficult to traverse. When we make it to the iron gate of the plantation, a huge weight lifts from my spirit. For the first time, actual peace finds a home in my strained heart.

[]Chapter 27: Aftermath

               

The rest of the night at least one police officer keeps Joanna and I under constant supervision. They tell us that we aren’t suspects, but they want to make sure we are safe. However, their constant presence hasn’t made me feel in any way safe, because I once rode with a police officer that was supposed to be making sure I was safe, and he ended up being the murderer.

We catch a few hours of sleep in someone’s office at the police station. Joanna takes one couch and I take another, but we feel so much closer. I feel like I have spent the entire week with her, when I have really only just learned about her involvement hours ago. Can one traumatic experience really be the flame we were missing all along? If so, what a huge price to pay.

 

Ryleigh follows me to my bedroom, as I plummet down onto my bed. My head throbs with a fierce pain that makes me clench the headboard with both hands. In need of something sweet to focus on, I search for Ryleigh. But her face is glowering down at me as if I’m nothing but a nuisance to her.

She screams something into her cell phone before kissing me on the cheek. My eyes roll back in my head as I try to focus on my room. When I’m finally able to focus, I see a woman dashing into my room. Only the woman is not Ryleigh, but Joanna.

Are you ok?” She asks.

I nod my head from side to side. “Why are you in my bedroom?”

She ignores my question and asks, “What happened? Are your parents ok? I would check on them, but I think someone followed me here in a police cruiser. I don’t know what to do? Ryan, I’m freaking out.”

I think I’ve had too much to drink.”

She sits at the foot of my bed. “Ryan! I was on my way to your parents’ house when I saw you and Ryleigh running out of the house with someone dressed in black chasing you.”

My mind goes blank in a haze of darkness as I shout. “I’m with Ryleigh. Will you please stop trying to create drama?”

She asks, “Where is she? Is she ok?”

What? A night with me, and she is broken? She is fine.”

Joanna gets off the bed and paces the room. “She looked pretty frightened to me.”

My vision blurs, and my room shakes around me as my body quakes in gruesome torment. Joanna’s soft voice calls out near my ear, “I’m here for you. I’ll figure it out. I promise, you are not in this alone.”

 

When morning comes, the police rigorously question us before they update us on the investigation. I try to be as honest as possible, but many of the events that took place the last few days were locked deep in my subconscious, and that’s a shaky foundation at best. And really, everything since I got to the Gate’s Mansion can only be remembered from my strangely memorable dream experience.

The interesting development is when Officer Walker informs me on Jim and Ryleigh. We are sitting in the office on one side of a desk across from Walker and a detective that I do not recognize. Walker turns to me and says. “You busted Boyd, I mean Jim, up pretty good. He nearly died, but he is in stable condition at Everton General.”

Joanna jerks back in her seat, biting her nails. When I had relayed to her the knocking blows that I gave Jim, we had assumed I killed him. He didn’t run after me, so I must have at least knocked him unconscious. Man! Why didn’t I kill him? After everything he took from me.

Officer Walker must see our distress because he stands up from behind his desk. His eyes burrow, “Now, you don’t have to worry. If he doesn’t get the death penalty, he will be locked away in a tiny cell for the rest of his life. We’ll make sure of that.”

“What about Ryleigh?” I ask.

His eyes dart to the detective who nods his head, prompting Walker to respond, “We never found her. We searched the place thoroughly, but she was gone. There must be a back way onto the plantation, but that land is so vast and so overgrown that we probably will never find it.”

Joanna asks, “Do you think she is a threat to us.”

The detective shakes his head, “No mam. Based on our initial talks with Mr. Boyd, we don’t believe her to be a threat. From the start, her brother used her to advance his own end game and now she will want to start over. We already have several possible leads of where she might be headed.”

We shake hands with the detective and Officer Walker. Then we are led out of the police station to my car. Joanna’s flowing blond locks of hair hang just above her shoulder as she gets in the vehicle. The sunlight streams into the car illuminating her beautiful face. It might be my extreme exhaustion, but there is something different about her. Something I have failed to see for so long.

The rest of the day is a blur. I have no time to rest and only a few minutes to contemplate my twisted love life. Alice had made the funeral arrangements for my parents during my absence and today is the day. Alice is also kind enough to set a suit out for me before the funeral, reminding me of the days as a kid when she would set out my school clothes.

At the funeral, we use a closed coffin to hide the remnants of the attack. I haven’t seen the bodies since I found them in the house, but Alice said they did a fine job preparing the bodies, almost all the injuries were covered, but it still wouldn’t be right for everyone to remember them in that shape. Instead, she was able to find several family photos to set on the coffins, which is a much better final memory than the way I found them in the bedroom.

Tears sting my eyes as I stare into the eyes of my mom and dad in the pictures. This time my tears aren’t physical demonstrations of my self-pity, but actual heart felt love bubbling its way to the surface. Love for life and love through death.

Joanna is by my side the entire time to wipe away the tears. I do not know why she is doing any of this because I have been downright insufferable towards her in the past. I never really cared for her the way one should. We were friends, but it was a one sided friendship for most of my life. But that is all going to change, once I figure out how to remove the grip of Ryleigh’s sinister relationship from my broken heart.

The funeral is beyond insufferable after my parents are laid to rest. I’m suffocated on all sides with dull conversations from people who couldn’t have cared less for me a week ago. Our sleepy little town has woken up, and the gossipers want to know my story, but I can’t bear to explain it, and I won’t have my family name trampled on in the name of Everton lore.

My muscles tighten as one old batty woman pins me up against a car outside the cemetery. My jaw tightens as my patience dwindles until Matt charmingly swoops in to take me away under the guise of important family matters. He has lines under his eyes from little sleep.

As we walk towards my car, he suddenly stops in the middle of the sidewalk outside the cemetery fence. “Ya know, I didn’t really mean all that stuff I said.”

“Let’s put the past behind us, I know you’re there for me. It’s not as if you were the only one at fault. I messed up far worse than you.”

He fixes his tie, then leans towards me and whispers, “Under one simple condition, ya get a handle on the scotch.”

“Trust me, things are going to change.”

We shake hands and go our separate ways this time on good terms. When I finally get home, I collapse on the kitchen floor, my body broken with cuts, scrapes, and wear. My mind will be forever scarred by the memories that have returned and forever shattered by those forgotten. Joanna kindly ushers me to bed. We stare into each other’s eyes as I fall asleep pondering the possibilities of our newly sparked relationship.

[] Chapter 28: A Week Later

 

 My face in the mirror stares back at me, as I comb my hair in preparation to go out on an actual date with Joanna. At first, I was apprehensive about trying to start a relationship with her. But I have had a yearning to be with her every day since she saved me from the mansion. My life has changed extensively in the past week and a half. The girlfriend I thought I loved turned out to be an accomplice in the murder of my parents. Ryleigh’s manipulations have left a crater on the surface of my heart. I guess I always had my doubts about her, but someone doesn’t just shrug away the things she did to me.

Joanna has shown more than a little patience, but she wanted one dinner date, and I can give her at least one dinner date. I never knew how deeply she felt for me until she opened up a couple days ago.

Ryan, we need to talk. I need you to understand something.” I mute the television and look into her pale blue eyes. “I understand you might not be ready to hear some of this after being in a relationship with that woman for the past few months.”

She twirls her finger around a strand of hair as I scoot closer to her. She asks, “Do you remember the date we went on a few years ago?”

Yeah, we went out to eat.” Then I ditched her afterwards to go out with some friends. I didn’t know it was a legit date.

[_In a soft tone, she replies, “I never got over how it ended. I let you think it was a casual evening without ever telling you how I felt. We have been friends for so long, but I always wanted more. You just never seemed interested. I’m not going to make a mockery out of us; we need to figure out what we mean to each other. I love you.” _]

Now what do I wear. I reach into my dresser drawer and pull out a pair of blue jeans. As the jeans fly out of the drawer, a piece of paper soars out with them. My face cringes as I pick it up and read the encrypted note.

‘I know the secret. The truth lies in languish beneath the right guardian waiting to be set free. Don’t let them get our’

“Joanna! We are going to have to move our date back a few hours!”

She hastily walks into the bedroom. Her nose crinkles as she speaks, “You promised you were going to try—”

I put my figure over her lip gently to stop her from talking. I hold up the note in front of her. I’m expecting a bit of enthusiasm on her part as I read it, but she only shrugs her shoulder.

Her crystal blue eye’s stare into mine. “I thought we were going to bury this behind us. Just forget about it.”

Is she right? Should I just forget it? “No, we need to find it. I have learned a lot over the past week. Some truths are better left forgotten while others must be remembered for survival. I need this mystery solved because I have to know how it ends. I can live with not remembering the slaying of my parents. I can live with only a dream of the events that took place afterwards. But, I can’t survive knowing my parents died for a fortune that will remain lost because I didn’t complete what they started. It has to have purpose.”

After I’m finished speaking, she kisses me. Our lips slide past each other’s in the awkward moment. She recoils and tries again. This time we are synchronized, my lips are burning against her lips, not in a painful way but with a deep intensity. The time I kissed Ryleigh cannot even begin to compare themselves with this one. For the relationship that brings life is much stronger than the one of death.

“What about me?” She asks.

“Let’s find it together. I think I know where it might be. The final piece of the Gate family puzzle is ours for the finding. In fact, all the pieces of my shattered memory have led me to you. In the midst of the chaos, I found my own deprived truth… I love you.”

Her face turns pink as her nose crinkles with her grin. “I love you, too. Let’s find it together.” She slaps my face playfully, “Then let’s make sure there is more to us than chaos and adventure.”

She leads me into the living room where she tells me to wait while she gets something out of her car. When she returns, she has a folder. It’s not the folder from the office, but the folder from my parents’ house. She opens it up from the back.

“Your dad shared with me the information that he then used to write that note. He found the remnants of a journal in the town logs from when the city owned the mansion. Jim or Ryleigh must have stolen the file from the house, but the police recovered it. Your dad ripped out the page that spoke of the place he thought it might be hidden, but the context might help.”

The page is faded and has been worn by time. The letter starts with James’ name and then describes the mansion as a place of solitude and languish. It was built in 1856 and was the home of James’ parents for twenty years. The way he writes about the past is almost resentful, like how someone might describe the extraction of a tooth. The rest largely consists of his account and reasons for hiding the fortune. To my astonishment, his tale weaves together very different motives. He claims my family ancestors demanded an increased ownership of the plantation.

The dark tale even details a supposed botched murder attempt on James’ life. He suspects either Jonathan or his wife were responsible for the assassination attempt. The entire motivation of my family is in complete contrast to the narrative I have been told thus far. It even suggests that Jonathan forced James’ sister into marriage just to get a share of the plantation. But that his plan was never to only get a share of it, he wanted the vast majority of it.

When I’m done reading, Joanna says, “Your dad didn’t believe most of it. Other sources gave very different accounts, and all the documents from your family’s side negated James’ assertions. He was sure of one thing though; the fortune was hidden near or in the mansion. The portion of the letter he ripped off gave the clue you deciphered from his note.”

A huge grin forms on my face. “I don’t know if this letter tells the whole story or not, but I know where he hid the fortune.”

We immediately get in my car and drive once again to the Gate’s Plantation. We are engrossed by pure excitement, which makes the drive fly by as we discuss possible ways to spend the loot. We pull through the plantation gate. My heart begins to pound in my chest. I calm myself by taking several deep breaths. Joanna tries to keep me calm by taking my hand as I drive.

The car travels down nature’s runway as we near the mansion. My foot presses hard against the pedal as I wait for the mansion to explode into view. The daylight does nothing to curve away the menacing aura given off by the rigid structure. My skin tingles—the hair on my arms standing on edge.

We move closer to the gravel walkway and I floor the pedal as my hand grips the steering wheel. Joanna’s fingertips dig into my arm. We skid onto the dry gravel, and then I slam my foot down on the brake. The car tires slide over the loose gravel as friction slows the car. A pile of dust flies from behind us over the car.

Joanna starts laughing as I ask, “What? Might as well try and have fun.”

When we get out of the car, the mood is light as air and smiles stretch across both our faces, but as we walk down the rest of the walkway, our smiles turn to stone. The sight of the building makes me sick to my stomach. I can’t even glance at the structure without being light headed and nauseous, so I walk with my head down, staring at the dirt and gravel.

Before we reach the porch, we turn left. The tall oak smells of rotten wood, and the splintered swing sways ominously in the breeze as the unraveling rope threatens to give at any second. Weeds and vines fight for space along the base of the tree, while a few roots spring up from the ground like dry varicose veins.

My eyes dart from the tree to the mansion, then back to the tree. The right guardian perhaps? “Hmm. Well, let’s see what is lying beneath her.”

Joanna hands me a shovel she has been carrying. I slam the spade into the ground, which presents some resistance, but the rain from the prior week has moistened the soil enough to dig. As I dig, the shovel pulls up an assortment of weeds and roots with each scoop of dirt.

For some reason, the shoveling and excavation of dirt are very intimate for me. I’m careful not to sling dirt wildly or damage the tree. It’s as if as I dig deeper into the earth, I dig deeper into time and deeper into myself. I work my way around the base of the tree. My back tightens as the repetitions get harder to finish, the compacted dirt hard as rock in some places. My shovel pounds its way into the earth time and again until it hits something wooden.

The hole is about three feet deep when the impact occurs. I throw the shovel aside and bury my hands into the root infested soil. It could be a root or a tree limb covered by years of soil. My hands pass over something wooden and flat. It also has depth, but the corners are still buried in the soil, preventing me from removing it. “Come help me!”

Joanna feels for one side as I struggle to find the other. “I feel the bottom edge!” I say.

She grunts as she maneuvers her hand in the hole. “I think I got it.” She responds.

I say, “Lift it on three. One! Two! Three!”

Together we lift it, and the corners free up from under the roots and soil. We set it on the ground gently. We both stand up and wipe the dirt from our clothes before turning our attention to the unearthed object.

It’s a box about the size of two of my college text books placed on top of each other. The wood is coarse beneath my palms as I wipe the box in an attempt to remove any extraneous dirt. There is a little iron clip with a small rod sticking through it that locks the lid in place.

After some initial struggles, I remove the rusted rod. I shake my arms and rotate my neck around with anticipation as Joanna stoops down to open the lid of the box. My heart pounds. My thoughts clear. The box opens.

Joanna gasps in awe. We have found the Gate’s Fortune. I have finished what my Great-Great-Granddad Jonathan started many years ago. My family’s unraveling has been avenged.

Inside the box, lie several stacks of U.S Federal Government Notes from the mid to late 1800s along with an assortment of coins. I bend down and begin filtering through the stacks of crisp notes and smooth coins. “From my estimation, there, are twenty something stacks of bills with at least fifty bills in each stack. But that estimate could be off, and there’s no telling how many coins are scattered throughout the box.’

“How much would that be worth today? She asks.

“I have no idea. I don’t know what the exchange rate is on civil war period notes. But it’s a lot!”

Joanna pulls the car up to the tree and we get the box loaded, but before we leave I return to the treasures hiding place to refill the hole around the tree. As I shovel the unearthed soil back into its proper place, I can’t help but ponder the life of James Gate the first. Why would he betray his entire family? Why would he betray my family, if Jonathan never meant him harm? Why aren’t here any other sources to substantiate his side of the events that ultimately lead to his destruction?

The Gate family took everything from me. Yet, there is a deep felt connection between the Gate family and I. Even Jim or Officer Boyd as he will be known through Everton lore, had much more in common with me than I would like to admit. When we first met inside the mansion, his darkness called out to my own, his obsessions were my obsessions. I just didn’t kill anyone to fulfill my needs and wants.

Once the hole is filled, we leave the plantation, hopefully for a very long time. The past events fade into the deepest recesses of my mind. All I want to do is spend time with Joanna. The way she looks at me in the car cuts right into my heart. Her eyes, soft, full with compassion and love fill me with the raw power of love and not just the apathetic kind. The way she touches me when we get to my house makes me want to be a better man. The hope I thought I had found with Ryleigh amplifies to the nth degree with Joanna.

We do go on our date later in the evening as we had planned. But only after, we first put the box of poisoned fortune in a safe in my dad’s law office. Our date runs so smooth that we go on another date the next night, just to test our connection.

I learn so many things about her that in the past I had neglected. Like the way she twirls the locks of hair when she talks. Or how she says please and thank you every time to everybody regardless of the fact the person might be a sorry waiter who only brings one refill thirty minutes into our date. As gorgeous as she is on the outside, she is even more so on the inside.

Our love blossoms out of our weed riddled life with beauty. The fortune doesn’t matter to us because we found each other. But we aren’t stupid. We do set up a day to get the notes checked out by a specialist.

[]Chapter 29: Checkmate

 

An associate at my dad’s law office has set up a meeting with a specialist from the bank. The date of the meeting happens to be exactly two weeks after my parents’ death. The box has been locked in my dad’s safe at the office since we found it, so as I take it out, the shock of holding something that has brought so much death nearly knocks me down. As I walk the box through the empty building into my dad’s office, I find that the specialist standing at my dad’s desk is around my dad’s age with thinning white hair and a beard to match.

A news reporter sits in a chair, tapping her foot nervously against the floor anxiously awaiting her big break. I set the box on the desk, wishing Joanna could be here for this, but she is just getting out of class, and this can’t wait any longer.

The specialist’s cool hands shake mine as he says, “Your dad would be proud of you.”

I shake my head in agreement, as I open the lid to the box. Here goes nothing, there’s no telling how much could be in it.

I take a seat in the chair beside the reporter as the specialist puts on a pair of gloves and inspects the first few notes. At first, I meticulously watch his every move, waiting for the announcement, but it becomes clear by his methodical process that it could be a while before he says anything. So, I turn my attention to the reporter who is scribbling in a notebook.

She looks like a natural born reporter—her thin glasses covering the brim of her nose, while short red hair accents her pale complexion with a layer of bangs covering her forehead. Typical news reporter, they are all the same.

I watch the minute hand on the clock tick by as the man digs through multiple stacks of notes and coins in the box. Eventually, he looks up at me, “It’s amazing. This was in Everton the whole time and nobody knew about it. My first estimate is the contents of this box are worth a little over five million dollars today. But that’s the low end, it could be as much as ten, there are some rare coins and notes that need to be looked at more closely.”

The reporter gets up and walks over behind the desk while writing in her notebook, as I stand up, looking towards the ceiling with my eyes closed in amazement. Wow! Five million dollars, I don’t even know what to do with that much money. I should call Joanna.

Before I can open my eyes, there is a loud vibrating noise followed by a slight crash. My eyes open to find the specialist on the floor with his eyes closed while the red headed reporter comes dashing towards me with a stun gun. She forces me up against the filing cabinet as the faint smell of vanilla creeps up my nose.

I yell, “What the hell? Ryleigh!”

She stares into my eyes, her features looking nothing like the Ryleigh from a couple weeks ago. “What? I couldn’t let you run off with my money—off into the sunset with Barbie.”

“How are you even here? They said you left.”

A wicked grin comes across her face, “Sugar, I’ve been ten moves ahead of you from the start.” She kisses me on the cheek, “Have I ever told you how much I love chess?”

I shake my head no, as I take a glance towards the motionless man on the floor. She continues, “Well to understand how I’m here, you’ll have to understand how much I love chess. You see, it wasn’t my brother that concocted this scavenger hunt for our family fortune, although his weak mind probably thinks he did, but it was me.”

She brushes the stun gun against the side of my face. I can’t decide whether to sit by and let her talk or try to overpower her right now. One powerful jolt from the gun, and I’m on the floor like the specialist.

“I’ve been organizing my own chess match while everyone else has merrily played their part. Take your beloved police force, for example.  All it took was getting Jim on the force, and wha-la, they were but a pawn in my match, staying out of the way when I wanted them to and putting the pressure on when needed. Except for when they almost caught us in Burkeville. Jim almost messed that one up. He was supposed to have the search only centered on Everton.”

I interrupt, “Why would you do this? You’re a monster.”

She backs away from me a few steps, but she keeps the gun pointing in my direction. “It doesn’t matter why; the point is I did. But you wouldn’t know because you were a pawn the whole time, too. Becoming your girlfriend, befriending your parents, unexpectedly having to aid you with your memory, keeping an eye on you and setting up fake news credentials for today, the list goes on and on.”

“What about your brother? He killed my parents and dictated everything in the mansion.”

She laughs, spit hitting me in the face as she shakes her head. “You’re still not getting it. Jim played the part I led him to play, the king, and he did play it well most of the time. He acted as if he was in charge because that’s how I set it up, but he could only move one space at a time. Everyone was so concentrated on the pawns or trying to find the king and get him in checkmate that they forget about me, the queen. I was able to move and act as I pleased, lying in wait for my final move. CHECKMATE!”

My muscles tense up from agitation as she closes the distance between us. I want to fight, but I’m at a loss, cemented to the floor, trying to take in what has happened. She jabs the stun gun into my neck but nothing happens, she hasn’t clicked the button that releases the electricity.

Her lips brush against my ear as she whispers, “Don’t worry, it will only hurt for a moment. When you wake up, I’ll be gone. But I’ll leave you a parting gift, something highlighting James’ weakness that was left behind in the safe for our family, and I might even leave you something to share with Joanna.”

 She kisses my cheek once more before a shock of electricity runs down my spine. The pain starts in my twitching neck and ends with a crash to the floor. My eyes shut and the pain bleeds out of existence.

 

“Ryan, Ryan!” a voice calls out, my cheeks stinging from repeated impacts. My eyes open, finding Joanna’s glowing face hovering over me. As she helps me sit up, I notice the specialist is gone. Sensing my confusion, she responds, “He’s out in the lobby, calling the police. What happened?”

With my throat itching, I reply, “Ryleigh, she wasn’t an accomplice. She was behind the whole thing.”

She struggles to help me to my feet. I’m still disoriented as we walk over to the box sitting on the desk. The box is nearly empty except for a few coins and a small amount of notes. Maybe part of her did care for me or perhaps 4.9 million dollars was enough for her.

She wraps her arms around me, saying, “We will be fine. There are more important things than wealth.”

My lips press gently on her forehead. “I know, but it sure would have been nice. Maybe you were right, we should leave all this alone. Learn from it and cherish each other, but leave anything dealing with the Gate family in the past.” 

Joanna picks up the top note, and shoves it in front of my face. There is a red lipstick stain on the right corner. Her face scowls up at mine, “Guess this one is for you?”

Ignoring her sarcasm, I pick up some of the coins. Under the grouped coins, I find a letter folded up, crinkled and worn by time like James’ diary entry from the file. There are water drips staining the parchment as I unfold it. Like a cheap 3-D illusion, the name James Gate seems to jump off the paper sending my mind into a free for all.

It had been one thing to chalk Jim’s delusions up to insanity. Then Ryleigh’s manipulations broke through the fog sending everything into oblivion, but finding this sends my mind somewhere far worse. A place where delusions of grandeur are a part of human nature. The black and the white muddied together in the slop of life. The good and the bad fighting for control within man’s deceitful heart.

Are any of us actually clean? Am I basically good? I’ve had my share of shortcomings, but I’ve never questioned my heart and overall goodness. But my eyes have been opened, and the mirror is pointed straight at me. Sure, I might not act out every insane compulsion or be completely lost in my own crazed mind like Ryleigh and Jim, but I almost let the pain overcome me. There is something simplistic about the Gate family that I can’t separate from my own behavior. It’s the need to be the best and use everything to get there, even if it means giving into to paranoia and selfishness. Unfortunately, even while knowing the truth, Ryleigh and Jim followed the wrong footsteps of their departed ancestors and were given over to their black heart’s desires.

But it wasn’t just them; everyone buries truths within them that they don’t want to listen to for one reason or another. Some bury it subconsciously, as I did with the murder, while others bury it out of want or need, so that even while the truth is staring them in the face they can’t see it, like how I forget I knew Ryleigh, which inhibited me from seeing what she really was in reality.

Yep, from my experience, the truth is either light that will set a man free if he listens, which will lead to true life, or its darkness that can easily overpower him, sending him into a destructive world of his own creation, and that type of self-satisfying truth will ultimately lead to death. Through the trauma and heartache, the hard part is for someone to understand that there is both an honest and dark truth waiting to be uncovered. Then the key to staying alive is identifying that the dark truth isn’t truth at all but self-deception. I and James Gate the first learned that difference, our fates intertwined, but not the same, for I learned that difference with a full life ahead of me, while he learned it only just before death.

 

‘James Gate

I fear I have lost my sensibility. My mood is always one of fear and trembling towards everyone around me. I feel as though everyone is out to get me. Including my dear friend Jonathan and my very own wife. It’s as if my entire family wants me dead. I can’t trust my thoughts or my actions for I have for some time now been one man split in two. The better part of me remains only within my mind, ever since the night when I but a boy was left all alone. I have fought the darker half of myself, struggling for control. Now that fight has ended, buts it’s too late for me in this life. In this box holds my family honor and fortune. I don’t know who is friend and who is foe. My mind has been far too deranged for so long, that to struggle to my dying breath in search of knowing what is real and what is not would only feed my darker half. If this is all in my head, then I apologize to my family and Jonathan. But, there is a certain truth to it, for I know someone is after my wealth, a wealth born out of greed. I alone can carry the guilt of my life, and I alone will bury it, but I have a hope that a purpose much bigger than my own will accompany me after death. If anyone were to find the fortune, use it for good. It may all be but delusion within my own mind, but the mind is wicked and will lead you into sorrow. Stay in the light or death will prevail.’


Buried Truth

As a recent graduate, Ryan Johnson is on the fast track to having a prestigious career and prosperous life. Then Ryan wakes up one spring morning and everything he cherishes becomes jeopardized. He finds himself left with only fragments of the prior night's events and covering his body are numerous strange injuries that he cannot rationally explain. As he learns of the painful experiences that took place the night his memory was deleted, his world is exterminated of all purpose and is instead replaced with abundant chaos. Did his destructive habits finally ruin his family or is someone else hiding in the dark? In search of answers, he begins peeling back the layers that surround his tragic demise. But answers are hard to come by, and the murder that turned his life into a nightmare takes an unexpected turn. His search leads him to the rediscovery of a piece of family history, the tale of an event his own ancestors buried, so that their family could move on from the past by hiding any remembrance of the lost "Gate's Fortune" from the public. Who does a person trust, when he can't even trust himself or his family? While excavating the corrosive details from his wrecked world, he uncovers a hidden relationship that brings him clarity. A relationship that removes the carnage from his mind and breaths life into his heart. But to find any true peace, he himself must not only protect himself and those he loves, but also avenge those he has lost, thus hopefully repudiating his own transgressions within his distraught reality. But, all hidden truth comes with a price. Some of these truths can take a person into a bottomless pit of despair, where things are best left untouched and forgotten. While other times, the only way to survive a life of trauma and pain is to engage the truths that the mind tries to hide. For Ryan, this struggle for regeneration will either lead him into the light or banish him to a bleak life of darkness inside his twisted mind. Because there is but one way to decipher the events surrounding that horrid night, he must dive head first into the raging hurricane within his subconscious, in search of the buried truth.

  • ISBN: 9781370070978
  • Author: Caleb Whitaker
  • Published: 2016-09-01 20:50:17
  • Words: 73567
Buried Truth Buried Truth