By J.S Donovan
DBS Publishing LLC
Copyright 2017 by DBS Publishing LLC
Summer Night of ‘83
Torrents of rain punched the old upstairs window, rattling the glass and causing the 1892 Queen Anne manse to groan like a dying old man. Full of years and at an elevation of 4,117 feet, the pear-colored house stood alone in the deep woods of the Appalachian Mountains. A single seven-mile road separated the Hadley House—as the local’s called it—and the town of Highlands, North Carolina. The path twisted through dense walls of pine-oak trees and honeysuckle brushes, bridging society and the untamed wilds.
The house emitted yellow light through its windows. A beacon in the storm.
Sitting cross legged on the hardwood floor, Amanda Barnes, nine years of age, faced her seven-year-old brother, Benny. Marker stripes ruined his puffy cheeks after his hilariously desperate attempt to draw whiskers without using a mirror. Amanda fought her laughter until her face turned cherry red and her mouth burst open.
“Oh, shut up!” Benny squealed, flushed face and squirming. In his little sweater vest, grey slacks and classy combed blond hair, he masqueraded as an angry fat man trapped in a plump boy’s body.
Amanda rubbed her hands together, warming them in anticipation. “Okay, okay. My turn.”
“Truth or dare?” Benny asked, his flare of anger fleeting as quick as it came.
With dubious smile, Amanda looked at her little brother. “Truth.”
“No fair!” Benny squeezed his little sausage fingers into fists. “You did truth last time, and the time before that.”
“Fine,” Amanda complained, secretly glad her brother dared her. She could only laugh so much at his frustration before she had to share in the misery. The joys and struggles of being the older sibling. She twisted her brown hair and reluctantly said, “Dare.”
Benny readjusted his crossed legs and rubbed his chin just like father when he read the morning paper. “I dare you to…eat…” He’s big blue eyes found a cobweb under the wardrobe. “Eat a bowl of spiders!”
“But I hate spiders,” Amanda exclaimed.
Benny bocked like a chicken, head clucking and elbows flapping, the whole shebang.
“Can’t I just drink ketchup or put a fake snake under mom’s pillow again?”
“Nope.” Benny took a second rest before continuing his fowl impersonation.
With her furrowed brow, Amanda racked her brain. “Where am I going to find a bowl of spiders?”
“I don’t know. Bock, bo-bo-bock. I saw a lot in the basement yesterday. One was this big.” He parted his thumb and finger two inches.
Moping, Amanda stood and flatted out her cobalt suspender skirt. Her mother told her to change out of the leggings, skirt and white fully buttoned collared shirt after the boring old persons event. She didn’t listen, and she liked looking cute.
In the living room, Reginald Barnes smoked his pipe, watching the rain cascade down the window. The dim visage in the glass was a tired man with greying chopper hair swooshed to side, furry sideburns cut with a straight edge passed the ear lobe, and a tight mouth on a clean-shaven face. He looked old. Beaten down.
“Are you listening to me, Regi?” Lilith stood behind him, hands on her shapely hips.
“Yes, woman. For the third time, yes.” He would never strike her but, boy, there were days. More lately with the new contracts coming through. That, and the brick dashed through the window last week… If their relationship was sinking ship, it would be time to jump overboard. And he didn’t want to think about their love life. That fish was dead.
“Well, look at me.” Lilith commanded.
Letting the smoke seep from the corner of his tight lip, Reginald turned around. Eyes grey and apathetic, he faced his wife. She wore a dark violet side button dress and a black belt to accentuate her figure. With her short permed, authoritative blond hair style, and well-structured pissed off face, she looked like a sexy Nazi. The double barrel hinged over the fireplace behind her only added to the imitation factor. Nonetheless, Regi noticed breaches in her tough exterior. Meanly in her red rimmed eyes.
“The broken window last week. The note yesterday. The writing is on the wall, Regi. We need to go.” Lilith said.
Her words cut. Did she have any idea how long it took him to build his empire? A decade ago, he was nothing but stupid twenty-something old with four hundred dollars to his name. Now, he’s icon. A husband. A father. Billboard for the American Dream.
“Go where, huh? Back to Connecticut? To Boston?” Reginald said sarcastically.
“There’s no reason to bring my parents into this,” Lilith replied.
Reginald lowered his pipe, and tried to explain it as clear as he could. “I’ve invested too much into this ground. Everything we have is here. The business. The lumber. If we leave, the money stops. Our kids don’t go to college, and you’ll have to wear peasant shoes.”
Lilith chuckled angrily. “You think I care about my shoes? I care about my children, their safety. And, believe it or not, Regi, I care about my husband.”
Reginald paused for a moment, letting the ambers in his lowered pipe burn down. He opened his mouth to speak.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
Reginald and Lilith turned to the front door simultaneously. Regi checked the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. 9:48pm.
“It’s probably Carmon.” Reginald said, depressingly calm. “Another broken bandsaw.”
Lilith let out an exasperated sigh and massaged her forehead.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
“I’m coming!” Regi billowed and unlocked the door.
He opened to two men wearing translucent ponchos and ski-masks. Rain trickled down their plastic garb and the barrels of the pistols aimed at Reginald’s face. Carefully, Reginald raised his aims.
“Gentlemen,” he said, stepping back into the house. “How much do you want?”
Inside, Regi boiled. Who were these men to come under his roof and threaten his existence in front of his wife? Chumps, that’s all they were, resorting to scare tactics to get a rise out of him. “You got my attention,” Regi said. “Now what?”
The second gunman, a shorter, squat, fellow, pointed his gun to Reginald’s kneecap and blew it to kingdom come. Screaming, Regi toppled backwards and hit the floor like a bag of bricks.
At the wooden railed elbow that connected the second story hall to the set of rickety of stairs, Amanda Barnes watched her father howl and hold his trembling hands over his stiff and bleeding knee. The horror of eating a bowl of spiders was a thought of the past. What Amanda face now was real, petrifying dread.
Mother darted for the shotgun above the fireplace. A gunshot shook the walls, and Mother was face first the ground. A red rose bloomed on the back of her long-sleeved violet dress. The two men stepped inside. Water puddling at under their black boots as rain and thunder battered the Hadley house.
“Check upstairs,” the taller man said.
The short man stepped over Father like any other obstacle and marched Amanda’s way.
“Don’t go up there!” Father shouted, eyes clenched in pain. “Please! They’re only children!”
He grabbed the tall man’s ankle. “Tell take me, you bastard. Not them. Me!”
The tall man looked down at father, whispered something and unloaded a .45 caliber round into Reginald’s head.
Sliding his hand up the railing, the short gunman marched up the steps and towards Amanda. She twisted around and dashed through hall, her little feet clicking on the wood. Benny sat on the floor of his room, looking up her with doe eyes. “What’s that noise?”
“Hide, Benny.” Amanda whispered.
“But where’s mommy and daddy?”
Amanda didn’t have time for this. She grabbed her brother’s meaty wrists and ran to the wardrobe. They huddled inside, pushing past tiny outfits and her father’s spare scruffy sports blazers. Amanda shut the door and hugged her little brother. His moist, fake-whiskered cheek pushed up against her own as they looked past coattails and waited.
“I’m scared, Amanda.”
“Shh.” Amanda put her finger over her lip. “Don’t let him hear you.”
The sound of their breathing filled the wardrobe.
Wet footsteps entered the room. Benny wheezed. Amanda covered his mouth and her own. Through the thin gap where the two wardrobe doors meet, the poncho-wearing man could be seen pacing about the bedroom. He opened the closet, flashing the gun back and forth but finding no one. He knelt next the bed and peered underneath. He swept off the bed’s covers, letting them drift to the floor. He approached the bedroom door and checked behind it. Lastly, he turned to wardrobe.
Under Amanda’s hand, Benny whimpered. The man paused for a moment, listening. He stepped toward the wardrobe. Amanda’s nine-year-old heart raced. Keeping a hand on the pistol, the man grabbed a circular knobs wardrobe door and pulled it open.
The curvature of the woman’s jaw kept Rachel busy long enough, but it was sketching the palm and fingers that would prove most troublesome. As she had imagined it, the woman rested her chin on the ball of her hand with her fingertips on her lips. After that was finished, Rachel would have to decide how to kill her. A laceration across the neck? A swollen bruise on her long forehead? Perhaps, a blood trickling from her tear ducts. Her market was niche. The decision mattered.
“You’re missing out,” Brett said, teasingly, one hand on the steering wheel. The rays of the high noon sun glistened on the simple wedding ring Rachel bought him seven years ago. Those were the days when they spent all afternoon in their pajamas and ate cold pizza off the coffee stand in their barely furnished studio apartment. [_New York, may I never see you again. _]
Rachel slid her knees from the glove box and sat up like a normal person, keeping the sketchpad on her lap.
She looked out at quaint town of Highlands. Inviting mom-and-pop shops, cute colonial buildings, and historical museums rich with Appalachian Mountains culture lined their trek. With a population just over a thousand, miles untouched woods sprawled down the plateau’s sides. Autumn had touched the trees, and the surrounding mountains were ablaze with red, orange and burgundy leaves.
Brett turned his head, eyes following birds take off into the blue sky. “If there was only a way I could drive and use my camera.”
“That would be pretty impressive.” Rachel eyed her husband, a small, mischievous smile on her beautiful face.
Brett looked her up and down, pleased by what he saw. “You’re very distracting, you know that?”
“Speak for yourself,” Rachel replied and returned to her disturbing sketch.
Shaking his head and laughing to himself, Brett turned back to the road. He was man with dark hair, rectangular rimless glasses and a well-groomed beard. Though urban hipster by his looks, his affinity for the country couldn’t be understated. His trade, nature photography, had taken off two years back when the right person saw his blog and published him in National Geographic. After that, the man scarcely got a day off. Rachel, too. Her art wasn’t as streamlined as her husband’s but brought in a surprising good chunk of money, quite impressive for the current year of 2009.
Their Escalade cruised down the snaking single-lane street, driving further into the woods and higher up the mountain. Tall trees and lively bushes bordered the asphalt road: man’s industrial stamp on the wilds around them. Seven point six miles later, and the twin peaks of the ancient house grew over the orange, green and yellow treetops. This time, Rachel set her pencil and sketchbook aside and leaned forward in her seat, taking in the entirety of 1892 gem.
Standing two stories high, the house had large front porch with custom wood trimmings that elbowed around one side of the building. One of the two peaks jutted out from the rest of the house in a half octagonal shape thus giving the building the sharp of an “L.” It’s roof was shingled and the windows had wooden blinds. There was something charming about it’s simple rustic appearance.
“There it is.” Brett said, putting the car into park.
They stepped out of the car, crunching dry leaves under foot. The wind took Rachel’s black hair, brushing it against her pale cheeks. With a finger, she brushed it behind her ear and took in this foreign world. Stripped of over half their leaves, tall sentry oaks concealed the house leaving a little clearing for the front and back yard. Their skeletal branches waved at Rachel. Their pointed fingers crawled at the left and right sides of house, narrowly missing it by a few yards.
Rachel folded next to Brett at the vehicles front bumper, wrapped her arm around his torso and feeling the warmth of his muscular body. He relaxed his arm on her, drawing her closer to him. As the wind whistled and nature’s critters bickered, they stared up at their home.
“It’s kinda creepy,” Brett said.
The more Rachel looked at it, the more she noticed the creaks on its green paint, the chipping of the porch’s handrails and the dust gathered in the dark windows that seemed to give the place a sense of hollowness.
“It’s perfect,” Rachel replied and kissed her husband.
A bright red sedan grumbled up the road and parked behind the Escalade. The door opened and a small red heel stepped out, followed by an elderly woman with fluffy snow-colored hair, a large jade necklace and big ears, sagging under the weight of her earrings. She wore a lady’s business suit, leggings, and stood one inch over five feet.
“No trouble finding the place.” Mrs. Swinley chuckled and pattered over to them on her tiny feet.
“There were a few hick-ups down the way, but we managed,” replied Rachel.
Blue veins bulged on the top of Mrs. Swinley’s tiny cold hands and spotted forearms. She shook Rachel’s hand and beckoned Brett to lean down so she could peak him on his cheek. “Good. You couldn’t have bought the house at finer time. Come, come. I’m sure you’re anxious to go inside.”
Rachel and Brett followed the elderly woman. They hiked up the wide porch and pushed through the front door. Light pooled across the hardwood floor. A musty smell lingered in the air. The living room was largely vacant apart from the grandfather clock. Off to the right side, stairs hiked to the second floor and led to railed balcony before jutting back into the hall. To the left side of the downstairs was another hall that lead to a bathroom, bedroom and study.
“The Hadley House was built by a physician named Roy Hadley in 1892,” The realtor explained, strolling through the large living room. “He loved the Queen Anne-era design dearly and modeled his home after such. With the exception of the partial loft, of course. He added that addition so he watched the patients below.”
“Patients?” Brett asked. “He ran his practice out of his house?”
“Only partially. He had a small office in town but his informal nature caused many of the sick and needy to come directly to his home.”
Rachel studied the grandfather clock. A sheen of dust covered its circular glasses face. Within, the arms ticked on. “Does this come with the house?”
The little white-haired woman nodded. “Everything in the house is yours upon purchase. The local bank left it behind after they confiscated the house in ‘83. If it’s not to your liking, I can find you a mover, no extra charge.”
“We’ll sift through it, first, before making a decision,” Rachel declared, secretly excited by what treasures lay within. It’s always been a fantasy of hers to find some long, lost stash money or mysterious relic. By Brett’s pensive face, he clearly didn’t share the same sentiment.
Turning the copper, egg-shaped knob on the dark wood door, they entered the study. Its back jutted out into a half hexagonal wall. Like the rest of the house, squares of stained glass-- violet, indigo and amber--boxed in the windows. Dust tucked in frames lower corners.
“The house comes equipped with a study, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, dining area, ample closet space both up and down stairs, a basement, and ten acres of surrounding land.”
Mrs. Swinley led Brett and Rachel through them all, barring ten acre walk in heels. The rooms were large and filled with odd ball furniture left behind by the last owner. A wardrobe in one room, a rocking chair in the other, a shell-shaped lamp on the floor, etc. Rachel enjoyed every item, checking them for any unique features. My own treasure trove. Brett snapped pictures on objects.
“eBay,” He said off Rachel’s inquisitive look.
The realtor’s tour ended in the basement. White sheets covered old furniture, hat stands and other articles from a bygone area.
“Apart from basic maintenance, electric and heating upgraded by the last owner in 1983, the house is a true survivor.”
“I’m not trying to be rude, but why hasn’t it sold? Brett asked, snapping a picture with his Canon.
“The bank confiscated it in ‘84, intent on restoring the building into its original state.” Mrs Swinley said, pulling the string of a 1980s lamp near the washer and dryer hook ups. The incandescent bulbs flickered on under the beige lamp shape. “They discussed making it into an historic attraction to acquire additional revenue. After all, it is one of the town’s oldest buildings. Unfortunately, they never found the time to refurbish it and, after twenty years of sitting on the prime real estate, they decided it best to put the house back on the market.”
They stepped outside, greeted by the crisp fall air. Through the trees, the view of the surrounding mountains caused Brett to pause. He turned to Mrs. Swinley. “Do you mind if my wife and I discuss something?”
The elderly woman rubbed her cold, veiny hands together and stepped out of earshot.
Brett led Rachel down the elbow of the porch. He put his hands on the wooden railing and stared at the winding road vanishing into the woods. “I don’t know, Rach. It’s needs work.”
“You’re right,” Rachel admitted. She’d seen the parts of the walls that needed to be spackled, and the way the shower spits out water in a few quick bursts before heating up and steadying out. “But we always discussed building a house together. It’s not the same, but it could be good practice.”
Brett rested his bottom against the railing, crossing his arms. “I love area. The trees, the birds, the mountains. It’s flawless in that regard. My only concern is that we’ll get it, and something will go wrong and we’ll be stuck out on the mountain top in a big broken house.”
“Something will break,” Rachel said, taking Brett by surprise. “But that’s life. I mean how long have we been searching? Two years?”
“Four,” Brett sighed.
Rachel pressed up against him, locked her fingers behind his neck. Brett looked down at through his rectangular glasses and smiled with uncertainty. Rachel pecked him on the lips. “Maybe it’s time to commit.”
“Sorry to interrupt.” Mrs. Swinley appeared below the railing behind them. She held her hand over her cell phone. “I’ve received a call from another buyer. He’s placed a bid on the house. Would you like to counter offer?”
Rachel and Brett traded looks.
A month later, two moving trucks arrived.
With the help of dolly carts and rental movers, Rachel and Brett funneled all the objects of their lives into the Hadley House. Dressed in old stained shorts and wrinkled shirts, they killed hours by painting over smudges on the interior walls without compromising the historic significance of the building. They kept the old furniture they liked, like the grandfather clock and wardrobe, and shunned the rest in the basement. Outside, they pulled weeds and mowed the yard, even taking time to try the old tire swing in the backyard. It was injury waiting to happen, but Rachel couldn’t stop laughing. During the evenings, they would discover game trials to secret rock ledges that were perfect for stargazing.
They mopped and waxed the hardwood floor till it shined. They hung pictures on the walls. Some of Rachel, Brett and various family members. Other framed photos came from Brett’s National Geographic shoots and favorites collection. Rachel added a few pieces of her own disturbing artwork. She set up her sketch pad easel and bench in the living room accompanied by stands for her collection of numbered pencils. Brett put his laptop on the nearby dining table, making it his impromptu office.
On the third night, when the boxes were piled high in the living room, Liam Harroway, Rachel’s father visited, holding three stuffed bags of Chinese food. Just like in his pastoral days, he wore black slacks with a tucked in white button up that muffin out at the bottom. The three of them sat around the dining room table. Brett’s laptop and camera bags set to the side.
“This is just fantastic,” Liam said just like how he said it over the phone. “I can’t tell you how much having you two within driving distance means to me. There’s just so much I look forward to showing you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Rachel scooped rice onto her plate and the container of beef and broccoli.
Liam chewed on a dumpling. “With a house this size, when do you plan on having kids?”
Brett concentrated on diving out the food containers. Rachel shifted in her seat. It going to be another one of those nights. “Brett and I were actually going to use the extra rooms for our personal galleries.”
“Ah,” replied Liam, doing a horrible job to hide his disappointment. “…Good.”
“Work is starting to pick up,” Rachel changed the topic. “Even more for Brett. His readers are loving his new material.”
Liam nodded. His eyes, pools of blue, looked at his plate. “Your mother and I always wanted kids and tried for many years before having you. It was the biggest blessing. I know moving into a new house is scary enough, but young one can really help settle you into the place.”
“It’s not on the agenda at the moment,” Brett said bluntly.
Liam pursed his lips. He didn’t broach the topic again. After getting a brief tour of the house and yard, Liam said his goodbye. Rachel and Brett locked the door and headed upstairs to get ready for the evening. Brett sat at the corner of the bed and pulled off his shoe. “Your father doesn’t like me very much.”
“That’s not true,” Rachel replied, taking off her shirt. “He’s just a little traditional.”
Brett removed his other shoe. “He hasn’t liked me since we moved in together. It’s like nothing I do makes the guy happy.”
Rachel shimmered out of her jeans. “You two just haven’t got a chance to know each other. Besides, he’s still coping with my mother, the loss of the church, and his sobriety.”
Brett grunted. “I know that. It’s just… the standards he sets, I guess. It’s only been a couple of years since my career took off. What am I supposed to do? Put that aside everything for a child that either us don’t really want.”
Seeing his discontentment, Rachel kissed him on the forehead. “You’re thirty-two years old. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Rachel climbed into the shower. A few bursts of cold water shot from the showerhead before the steady stream of hot water filled the bathroom with steam. Dressing in their night clothes, they turned in for the evening. They curled against one another, cooed to sleep by the gentle creaking of house battling the autumn wind.
Rachel jolted up out of bed, drenched in cold sweat and hugging herself. She looked around the darkroom, teeth chattering with no recollection of her dream. On the night stand, 3:00 am glowed green on the digital clock. She mumbled a curse, letting her eyes adjusted. Brett snored lightly beside her. He had the cover pulled tightly to his neck and shivered lightly.
Careful not wake her husband, Rachel shimmied out of the covers. The soles of her feet touch the ice-cold floor. She curled her toes and walked to the dresser. The wood grinded as she slid out the draw. She turned back. Brett mumbled a sleepy nothing and rolled on to his belly. Dressing in lazy sweatpants, sweater and thick socks, Rachel tiptoed into the hallway. She squinted at the old analogue thermostat. The set temperature read seventy-three. The dial mark actually landed on fifty-one.
“Are you kidding me?” Rachel complained to herself. She really didn’t want to wake Brett, especially after how long it took him to go to bed, but how was she going to fix the thermostat? He probably won’t know either but two minds are better once.
The wind whistled and a soft scratching could be heard downstairs. Rachel brushed her fingers across the wall, allowing the hallway to guild her to the loft balcony. Arms crossed over her chest, she peered over the railing with glossy eyes. A tide of dry brown and orange leaves brushed through the open front door and tumbled across the hardwood floor.
Rachel trained her eye on the blackness beyond.
“Brett,” She called out, a little louder than a whisper. No reply from the living room. Her heart pumped. Cold air seeped through the threshold. Rachel jogged back to bedroom. Is someone in our house? She stood outside bedroom, keeping one eye to the stairs. “Brett.”
“Huh?” She heard from the bedroom. Eyes barely open, her husband shambled out with only his boxers and the black hair on his chest to keep him warm.
“Why’s it so cold?” He squinted at the thermostat. “What’s wrong with this?”
“Nothing,” Rachel whispered. “The front door. It’s open.”
Brett crinkled his brow.
He walked passed Rachel and looked over the balcony. He cursed under his breath and hiked down the stairs. Rachel felt a twisting in her gut. She jogged to lessen distance between her husband and herself. She stayed a few steps behind him. Brett crushed a leaf beneath his foot. “Son of a…” He shivered at the wailing gales blasting through the front door, violating the house with more leaves and twigs. He flipped on the porch light and walked outside. Rachel leaned over his shoulder. Eddies of wind brushed felled leaves against their feet. Trees swayed. There was only the Escalade and the inky blackness of night.
Brett twisted around almost bumping into Rachel. His expression was hard. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not going to let you go out here alone,” Rachel said defiantly.
“You’ll catch a cold. Come on.” They returned inside and shut the door. “Did you lock it last night?”
Rachel thought for a moment. All that stuff with her father left her scattered brain. “I thought you did.”
Brett warmed his hands under his armpits. “I don’t remember.”
The furnace raddled on in the basement. Warm air blasted from the brick sized ventilation grates on the floor and walls.
“Furnace works. That’s a relief,” Rachel replied.
Brett flipped on the living room light switch. Dead leaves flooded from the front door to the kitchen, taking up a third of living room. Brett grunted at the sight.
“I’ll get the broom,” Rachel said.
“You get some sleep.” Brett used the side of his foot to brush the leaves into a pile. “I’ll handle it.”
Brett didn’t reply. He scooted leaves. Rachel got a broom and trash bag from the kitchen. Together, they cleaned up the mess, tied off the bag and tossed it in the front porch. They double checked the lock and headed to bed. Rachel felt that sickening feeling in her gut until she fell asleep that morning.
After her morning shower, Rachel made hot tea and eggs. She found a few more leaves missed the night before and tossed them out the backdoor. Tired, Brett talked to a few clients over the phone while Rachel sorted through her boxes on the living room floor. She found a file box in the brink of collapse. It’s weight was disproportionate on one side and some of the cardboard seemed to rotting away. Stringy and aged duct tape wrapped a band around the top and bottom. Rachel twisted back to ask Brett if he knew what it was, but he’d left the room, talking over the phone about photo sales and publishing rights.
Rachel severed the tape with a X-ACTO knife and set the lid to the side. Rachel pulled out a small stack of pictures. They were old black and white photos of a little girl and two adults that Rachel assumed were the child’s grandparents. They were farmer folk with stern faces. There was something was familiar about this girl. Rachel flipped through more family photos. One had a note on the back of it. “Sarah Sanders, 7 years old, mom-mom’s ranch.”
Rachel’s eyes went wide. Suddenly, the box made sense. Her father gave Rachel her mother’s things when she moved out of the house in her twenties. Brett must’ve unpacked them from the moving truck. Rachel renived some dusty old poems and a King James bible. Inside the front flap, a penned passage read, “To my love. My life. From yours truly, Liam.”
A small smile creeped up Rachel’s face. She set the book aside. Beneath the books, a cardboard flap had been cut the box’s size, dividing it’s contents into two sections. Rachel used her fingers to pull pack the flap. It was glued in. Weird. The point of the utility knife scraped away the glue. Rachel set the flap aside. A number mason jars containing odd roots and dried plants sat the bottom of the file box. One of the jars had broken, and glass fragments lingered around a dried herb.
A flimsy leather-bound book rested on top the jars. There was no inscription or lettering on the journal’s face to allude to what it was. Rachel opened it. The first pages had blurbs written propery, flipped upside down, spelled backwards and in dozen different languages. French, Spanish, and German were just the dialects Rachel recognized. She flipped through pages. Each was disturbing as the last. Unknown tongues, odd sequences of numbers, and rough sketches of dead people and animals. Some looked to be drawn by a kid, others were masterful in their artistic style. All showed show a person killed in some horrid way. Rachel shivered involuntary. Her art was dark but something out this seemed… worst. Was this her mother’s journal?
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
Shaken, Rachel put the leather-bound book back in the file box and covered it with cardboard flap. She stood up as Brett walked through the front door with an inquisitive expression on his face and a phone at his ear.
Rachel opened the door.
A middle age couple stood on the porch. Like sea weed, salt and pepper hair calmed over the top of the Caucasian man’s balding head. He had deep sunken eyes, a crooked nose and chapped lips that his fat tongue slithered over when he looked at Rachel. Wrinkles roughed out his white suit.
“Shaw,” the man extended his hand.
Hesitant, Rachel shook the man’s soft and moist palm. “Rachel.”
The Taiwanese woman next to Shaw glared at Rachel. Short and squat, she wore a green dress with an emerald broach.
“Can I help you with anything?” Rachel ask politely as she could.
“We just want to have a gander at what’s inside,” Shaw said with a big smile.
The Asian woman kept glaring.
Rachel blinked. “Why? What is this for?”
“My own enjoyment,” Shaw said, stepping closer, leaning his head side-to-side, trying to steal a peak at lay behind Rachel.
“I’ll call you back,” Brett said in the living room. He slid next to Rachel, putting his hand on her shoulder. He smiled politely at the couple. “Is there a problem?”
“Nah,” Shaw replied. “Wanting to take a gander at what’s inside. That’s all.”
Rachel and Brett traded looks. Rachel shrugged.
The woman spoke in Taiwanese. Her tone was venomous.
“I’ll tell them,” Shaw said in an angry reply. He looked to Rachel and Brett with a wide smile. “We’re placed a bid on this house last month. You two stole it right out from under our noses.”
Shaw chuckled dryly, but his statement sounded like more than friendly jab.
“I’m sorry that, um, we did that,” Brett replied.
Rachel chimed in with a friendly demeanor. “I saw other listings around Highlands with fantastic views. Remember, Brett?”
Brett nodded. “Real nice.”
“I’m sure they still on the market,” Rachel said politely to the strangers.
Shaw licked his bottom lip. “It ain’t the Hadley, though.”
Both couples were silent for a moment.
“What was your name again?” Brett asked.
The man chuckled. “It’s just Shaw. Say you mind if my wife and I take a quick peak? Just one minute. We never got to see it when it was on the market.”
“It’s kinda messy right now. Unpacking, you know.” Rachel replied, unsure if the woman’s death glare was her natural look or she hated Rachel with a passion.
“I don’t mind. We just gonna to tour around. Won’t touch nothing. Scouts honor.” the man held up two fingers.
“This isn’t a good time,” Brett said. “We have a lot to do.”
Shaw shook his head. “I’m starting to get a little pissed of now. I’ve done nothing to y’all, and you’re not being very hospitable.”
“I think it’s best if you left.” Brett said.
“Screw you, man,” Shaw replied, face turning red with rage. “Let my wife and I see the house. You already stole it from us at least you can some courtesy and let us into the place.”
Brett stepped outside. “It nice to meet you, Mr. Shaw. Please leave before I call the cops.”
Rachel watched the dispute. She stood beside her husband.
The couples stared each other down for a moment.
“You should’ve just said no.” Shaw replied with a frustrated tone. “I would’ve left.”
He grabbed his wife’s arm to go but she didn’t budge. She a frown consumed her face and she spit at Rachel’s feet. Brett balled his fist as the couple slumped into their clunky cadillac and drove off.
Rachel returned inside, grabbing a pen and note pad. She began writing down the license plate number.
“You beat me too it.” Brett replied.
That night, Rachel awoke to find the front door wide open.
Rachel nibbled her thumbnail. Her tired eyes traced the disembodied flashlight in the front yard. In the darkness, the yellow beam swung back and forth, reflecting on the Escalades’ rims, the house’s windows and the damp asphalt road. Rachel felt a twisting in her gut. She wanted to walk out there with Brett and search, but he forbade it. He always had a commanding attitude when things went wrong, and Rachel thought of it as a two edged-sword. In one hand, it was romantic that her husband was willing to fight every battle. But, as someone who makes a living drawing dead people, Rachel didn’t consider herself the most romantic woman.
Brett hustled up the steps. A massive cowlick stuck up the side the side of his glossy dark hair. He wore cargo shorts and a green hoodie: the first articles of clothing he grabbed when they heard the door open. Without looking at her in the eyes, he hugged Rachel and shut the door with his foot.
“Nobody?” Rachel asked into his shoulder.
Brett sighed and pulled away from her. He locked the door. “It’s that Shaw guy.”
“You saw something?” Rachel felt her heart bump.
“No.” Brett adjusted his glasses with his finger. “But… either way I’m buying a safety bar tomorrow. Because the lock works, so someone is picking it or the realtor screwed us somehow.”
Grabbing onto the railing, he heaved himself up the stairway and stomped into the room. Rachel double checked the lock and followed behind.
She laid there, looking at the ceiling until Brett got up. He always got up before sunrise on the day of a photoshoot. Swaddled in his covers, he rolled over and kissed Rachel on her forehead. “You’re up early,” he whispered yet it was only the two of them in the house.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Rachel admitted. Staring at a ceiling all night, you notice every little spot on the paint.
“I’m sorry,” Brett replied. “We’ll try to do something fun tonight. Movie, dinner, whatever you want.”
“Going to bed early will be enough for me.”
“I’d like that.”
Rachel chuckled. “Look at us. We got a new house and we’re already acting like old people.”
“Maybe we just wiser.” He kissed Rachel again and climbed out of bed. “I’ll call you when I’m on my way back.”
He put on his comfy shoes, nice pants and smooth polo before heading out the room.
After her shower, breakfast, and morning tea, Rachel opened her laptop and checked her website. Its layout was simple and classy, similar to her sketches with monochromatic blacks and whites accented by dark reds. She scrolled through the sales record, finding a few hits. A severed head for seventy-five dollars. A four-foot by four-foot hanging tree with leafless branches and dangling bodies. Three hundred and fifty dollars. It wasn’t her best day of sales but it was still a good start to the morning. She sifted through her framed sketches in the tall cardboard box and removed the two sold piece of art. After packaging, labeling and walking out the front door, she remembered that Brett had the car. In New York, walking to the post office was never an issue. Here…
She stood out on the porch for a moment, listening to the birds, watching fall leaves drift off the trees surrounding her house. Odd. She thought, noticing that the trees nearest the house were mostly barren whereas the ones down the way were still puffy with orange, red and yellow leaves.
Disappointed that she won’t be able to ship her sketches right away, she returned to her easel. If anything, she could keep production going. She stared at the blank page the same she had her bedroom ceiling. She looked at the front door and began to sketch. She kept the vision in her head as the pencil moved across the page. It was noon when she checked her watch. Could’ve been faster. She studied her finished work. Through the shaded doorframe, stood a sketched version Shaw and his glaring Taiwanese wife. Rachel smirked at the creepy couple. She didn’t even have to add blood. She snapped a photo the sketch and uploaded it to the website.
In the kitchen, the backdoor’s knob jiggled and creaked open.
Rachel stared at her easel thinking about what to draw next. She heard the quiet sounds in the room behind her but pretended to ignore them. It was a game Brett and her used to play. When she was drawing, he’d try to sneak up and scare her. If was he successful, Rachel would have to find some way to reward him. It had been a long few days, Rachel didn’t mind playing along. She got comfy in her seat. Her pencil doodled mindlessly. A tugging, as soft as a child’s hand, pulled at the back corner of her shirt. Rachel masked her giggle. Kept on drawing. She felt the tug, this time harder.
She swiveled back in her back. “You’re going to have to try harder then…”
Her eyes scanned the living room, the unpacked boxes of mother’s china, and the photos hanging on the wall. There was no one. Feeling her heart rate quicken, Rachel slowly got up from her bench. “Brett?”
The house was silent.
Barefooted, Rachel walked to the kitchen. She looked passed the counter tops and at the sealed backdoor. She tried the knob. Locked. She peeked outside the window above the sink. The decaying tire swing swayed on the thick branch. A few dozen feet behind, the mountain sloped. Trees descended down it, vanishing out of view and seemly reappearing miles away on the surrounding orange mountain range. Was I dreaming?
Rachel lost her appetite to sketch. Fists on her hips, she faced off with piles of unpacked boxes. Some manual labor might be good for her psyche. Help her clear her head. She grabbed the first box from the stack and cut it open. Her mother’s China rested inside of crinkled newspaper and bubble wrap. Rachel picked it up, unable to keep herself from grinning. She’d had a lot of good memories eating off these expanse and ornate plates. When Brett stayed over at her apartment the first time, she served him undercooked salmon and asparagus. Brett ate every bite, followed it up with a gulp of wine and said how delicious it was. It was almost cute—his politeness—but when Rachel thanked him, he replied. “No, I meant the wine.” They two of them laughed.
Rachel brought out the China during their year anniversary, after they landed their first paid gigs, when they moved into the newer studio apartment, and when they got married. With the bed and furniture assembly, they haven’t had a chance eat a meal on it. Rachel knew, at once, their special plan for tonight.
She brought the box to the foot of kitchen sink, washed and dried the dishes by hand, and filled up the cupboard. When the plates were stacked six high, the bowls were resting in one another and all the rest of the dining ware had been stowed away, Rachel gave it a final look. Even though it was her mother’s China, she can’t remember ever sharing a meal with the woman. Her Episode happened when Rachel was five, and that entire day was blur of shouting, swearing, and broken glasses, ending with a searing imagine in Rachel’s young mind: the police shoving her mother—a towel dropped over her nearly naked body—into the back of the squad car to be taking to the local psychiatric ward. Through the car’s back window and with a hard face, her mother glared at her like she was the spawn of Satan.
Brett returned home around dark to find a large portion of the boxes to be unpacked and thrown into a corner.
“Someone’s been busy!” He shouted as he walked in the front door. He put his camera bags to the side and grabbed hold of the metal safety bar tucked under his armpit. The bar’s fork-like prongs fit under the copper knob. It’s angled base the touched down on the hardwood floor. “You wouldn’t believe what the clerk said when asked about the safety bar. Oh, you mean the Rape Bar? These people, babe, they are something else.”
He wondered into the kitchen and stopped. A soft smile brightened his handsome face. A red cloth rested on the dark wood table like a diamond. Two glass plates, two glasses of red wine and multiple antique brass candlesticks set the table. Rachel walked in from the kitchen, her mitten hands holding a dish of shepherd’s pie. She wore an apron over her dark red dress with a low cut neck.
“Nothing’s more romantic than a Shepherd’s Pie,” Rachel said with a smile.
Brett pulled out a seat. “Whatever happened to an early night?”
“I guess we’re not wiser after all.”
Brett chuckled. He looked at the empty plate before him and the covered dish in the middle of the table, practically salivating. “Would you like a hand with anything?”
Rachel shook her head, grabbed the salad bowl and lowered herself to her seat. Brett used the tongs to fish out a large portion of salad—a mix of spinach, lettuce, diced fruit and raisins—and put it on his plate. He doused it with creamy Vidalia Onion dressing and took a big bite.
“I don’t remember these candle sticks. They part of your mom’s stuff?”
“Nope,” Rachel replied, her fork piercing the lettuce. “I found them in the basement. There’s all sorts of treasures down there.”
They enjoyed their meal, discussing sales, Brett’s political rants, movies and stories from their apartment days. Who knew how much comedy could come from living in a single bathroom apartment? Names of old friends were tossed around accompanied by the shenanigans of their youth and art school. Too much drinking, too many missed opportunities. More so, for their friends then Brett and Rachel. They were on top of their work. Art and photography six days a week. As professor Yorkdale said in Rachel’s final semester, “The money stops when you stop.” It only took them nearly a decade of not-stopping before the money came and after that they worked even harder. Still, not every piece of art was created with the intent to sell. Rachel and Brett had their private collection and then their very private collection.
The meal ended. Faces as red as their wine, Rachel and Brett left the dishes on the kitchen table for tomorrow and raced up the stairs, nearly stumbling twice but laughing uncontrollably.
Rachel woke up at 4:18am and slugged out of bed. She shambled through the hall, probing with her fingertips as her eyes adjusted. Brett drunken snores echoed from the master bedroom. Rachel reached the edge of the railing, sleep not fully left her. The front door was shut. The safety bar held firm. Quietly, Rachel wondered back to bed, able to breathe.
“Honey, have you seen the keys?” Rachel shouted upstairs.
The piping in the ceiling rumbled as the second-floor shower came alive. With pursed lips, Rachel double checked the key dish. Again. Not there. She’d already been upstairs to turned out the pockets of Brett’s jeans from yesterday and found nothing. She unzipped every pocket of his camera bags, shoving her fingers within every crevasse of which there were many. She formed a cone with her hands the vehicle’s window and peered through. No keys. Inside, she glanced the dusty face of the grandfather clock. Forty behind schedule Great. Brett wandered down the stairs. He wore only his boxers as he dried his wet hair with a towelette.
“What are you looking for?”
Rachel smirked angrily. “The keys, Brett. The car keys.”
Brett shook out his wet hair like dog and combed through it with his fingers. “Did you check the, uh, bowl. The one where we store the keys?”
Rachel chuckled in frustration and continued her search in the kitchen. Maybe it got put in the cupboard with the dishes. Nope. Why not the refrigerator? Anything’s possible, but the keys aren’t there either. “I’m a day behind shipping, and there’s a local art museum curator who I’m scheduled to meet in…” She checked the time. “Twenty-two minutes.”
“Okay. Okay. Calm down.” Brett said sifted through his camera bag that was already unzipped. He headed to the lamp beside the couch, moved aside the utility knife and duct tape roll and picked single key. “Here’s my spare.”
Rachel caught it. “Thank you.”
“No prob.” He kissed her as she hustled out the front door, holding the two packaged sketches and multiple cardboard cylinders.
Brett leaned one of the porch’s posts as Rachel tossed the artwork in the backseat, waved him goodbye and speed down the winding street. She arrived at the local art gallery and showed the curator her art.
“Ah, oh, wow,” were a few of the sounds made by the long-legged blonde as Rachel rolled out the various sketches on the white table. After a few moments of studying the various works of grotesque yet intriguing art, the woman flashed a pitied smile.
Rachel stepped up. “Appalachia culture prides itself on local legends, some frightful, others uncanny.”
“Yes, that is very true,” the woman said. “In Highlands, however, we are largely beyond such superstitions. Most of the residence are… older and enjoy the classic works. I am sorry but there is just not enough of a market here for what you’re selling.”
Rachel returned to her car. She took a deep breath of mountain air and zipped up her leather jacket. The town was such a serene place the more she looked it. On a plateau over four thousand feet above sea level, it had a sort of whimsical appeal that was untouched by the troubles of the world. Its streets were off kilter ground, the buildings were a mix of classic brick walls and dark timbers, and the locals smiled at her whenever they walked by. Perhaps, the reason for her affinity to the place was not the Hadley House. It was the quiet.
Her phone rang.
“Hey, I got a call from client,” Brett said. “It may run pretty late.”
“Do you need a ride?” Rachel replied.
“I’m going to taxi over. I thought I’d give you a heads up first.”
“Thanks. See you tonight.”
Rachel hiked up the inclided sidewalk to the post office. She dropped off the sold artwork, checked her P.O. box and headed to the grocery store. Last night’s dinner had a diminished most of her refrigerator so she made sure to grab extra tonight. Her mind elsewhere, Rachel reached down to pick up a carton of eggs. Someone’s hand was already on it. Apologizing, she twisted to the stranger. Looking a back to her with cold, black eyes was the Taiwanese woman. She said some words that Rachel didn’t know, but the utter disgust on the old woman’s face was enough for Rachel to guess.
Rachel let the woman have the carton.
“Don’t mind Eva.” A familiar voice said from behind. Rachel turned away swiftly, sure that Shaw was looking at her buttocks. “She’s still reeling from the other day.”
“Can I help you?” Rachel asked, not very politely.
“No need for the lip, woman,” Shaw put his hands in his brown Cartagine Jackets.
“Have you been sneaking into my house?” Rachel asked, getting closer to him.
Shaw smiled, his teeth yellow and crooked. With his combed over hair, he looked like a junkyard car salesmen. He probably was. “You got a few screws loose in there, don’t you?”
Memories flickered in Rachel’s mind. Her mother fought off three police officers as they tried to subdue her. Her screams filled the air. Rachel shook the thought and stared the man down. “Someone has unlocked my front door two nights in a row.”
“And you’re accusing my wife and I? That’s rich. You made it clear what stance you’re on visitors was the first day we met.”
Rachel turned back and forth in the aisle noticing they were making a scene. Rachel whispered at the couple. “I don’t care if you did it or not, but if I see you anywhere near me or my house, I will call the police.”
“I’ll call the police.” Shaw mimicked her and grabbed his wife’s hand. “Let’s get gone before the miss has another temper tantrum.”
Eva stared at Rachel the way out of the aisle. Rachel pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the migraine. It didn’t work. She finished her shopping.
Miles later, her home came into view. Fists full of grocery bags, she fumbled with the house key and shouldered the door open. Closing it with her foot, she walked through the living room and stopped at the threshold for the kitchen. Every cupboard and cabinet door was slung open. All of the contains of the refrigerator spilled across the floor in a swirl of milk, orange juice and wine. Rachel lowered the grocery bags beside her feet and stepped gently into her desecrated kitchen. With a quiet squeak, the ajar backdoor opened under the wind’s gale.
Rachel gingerly stepped over the multi-colored puddle and to the backdoor. Her hand pushed against it. It opened to the back yard and miles of mountains. She withdrew her cellphone and put it up to her lips. She hit Brett on speed dial.
“—You’ve reached Brett Presley. Can’t take your call right. Leave a message. I’ll get back to ASAP.”
Rachel closed the door and dialed 9-1-1.
The police car zoomed down the street and skidded to a halt outside of the Hadley house. Arms crossed, Rachel stepped out of her car and greeted the officer. Officer Matthew Lynchfield stepped out. With a head of grey hair and a bolder-like belly, the man had the face of a sick dog and appeared to have his mind on a million other issues in his life, not the house before him.
“You have some kind of party?” He asked as he entered the kitchen.
Rachel smiled nervously. This is the guy they send in? “I believe someone broke into my house.”
The liquid concoction on the floor pooled around the officer’s boot. He stared at it for a moment before taking a step back. “Anything stolen?”
“I didn’t have time to check. Once I called you, I stayed in my car in case the trespasser was still around.”
The officer nodded to himself. He matched around the kitchen, looking at the open cupboards. He vanished out the backdoor. Rachel chewed her thumb nail until he returned.
“No one out that way. I’m going to look around the rest of the house.”
Rachel gestured for him to do and walked with him. They searched the living room, side bedrooms, and the basement. The officer said little to nothing. His eyes were seemly lifeless and the way he looked at Rachel when she talked made her feel like she was talking to a brick wall. When he reached the messy master bedroom, he stepped over clothes and Rachel’s dress scrunched on the floor from last night. Apart from the embarrassment, Rachel search seemed to be fruitless. The move had jumbled everything. Something she thought was missing would end being in a different box or different room she couldn’t remember putting it in. These items included earrings, books, pencils and various random clothing articles. There was a high possibility that Brett moved them around but something felt off like she was part of someone’s prank but no one was willing to admit their involvement.
Rachel checked under the bed. She felt Lynchfield’s eyes on her. Quickly, she stood and brushed herself off acting like nothing had happened. Lynchfield turned back to the dresser drawer and pulled it open.
“Oh,” he emoted more than he had his entire visit.
Rachel approached him silently and leaned over his shoulder, unsure what she’d see. His fat fingers held photos of Rachel laying on the bed, dressed in her undergarments or less.
“Those are private.” Rachel snatched the photos man’s hands and shoving them in her back pocket.
“Did you consent to those?” The man asked, casually handing a photo she failed to nab.
Rachel quickly snatched it. “Yes.”
“Lucky guy.” The officer mumbled.
Rachel’s anger flared. “What?”
“Huh?” The man crinkled her brow.
“What did you say?” Rachel said, instinctively glancing back to the exit.
“I asked if you consented to those,” The officer replied, sternly. “You said yes.”
Rachel opened her mouth to speak, but decided not to push it. There was too much going on to call out a pervy cop. They returned to the living room.
“From what you’re tell me, nothing’s missing,” The officer said.
“Thank God, but I didn’t destroy my own kitchen.”
“It’s messy. Not destroyed. Nothing’s broken.” The officer corrected.
Rachel didn’t know to respond to that. “It doesn’t change the facts that two nights ago and the night before, someone opened my front door in the middle of the night.”
The officer groaned. He pulled out a card and scribbled on the back. “If anything happens like that again, call this number.”
The man didn’t inspire confidence. Rachel thanked him and watched the squad car peel out of the driveway. She fished out the risqué photos from her back pocket. One of them was missing. She looked at the empty road.
She spent the afternoon cleaning up the kitchen. She scrubbed the floor, trying to get rid of the stench of wine and milk. The groceries on the floor were put away first, of course. But she couldn’t help but worried that some of the food had spoiled while she held the officer looking around the house. Thinking of Lynchfield made her shiver. Did he really steal a photo? Rachel was an attractive womanly in the right places, and knew that some men looked, but never had she felt so violated.
Brett arrived that evening. Rachel served him leftover shepherd’s pie.
“You’re not going to have any?” He asked with a full mouth.
Rachel sipped her cup of tap water. “No. Not hungry.”
Under the ceiling light, they ate in silence.
“I called the cops today,” Rachel admitted.
Brett lowered his fork. He swallowed his bite with a furrowed brow. “What? Why?”
Rachel popped her jaw. “I thought someone broke in. I called you first. You didn’t answer.”
“I never got a call,” Brett argued. “When did this happen?”
“After I got home. Our kitchen was… messy, like someone poured out all our drinks, looked through the cupboard and left through the backdoor.”
Brett cursed under his breath. He got up and rummaged through kitchen. Rachel finished her glass of water while her husband double checked everything she’d already searched through. He returned and sunk back into his seat. “It’s that Shaw guy. It has be.”
“No,” Rachel replied. “I saw him and his wife at the store. If the officer is right then that would’ve been the same that the invader got inside. Then again, the officer questions if there is an invader.”
“Why would he question that?” Brett said frustratedly.
“Nothing was stolen. We searched the whole house.” And the officer stole a nude photo of me. Rachel decided against saying that. Brett was up on the wood-chripper already. If she brought to the police, Officer Lynchfield could easily deny it. All he’d need to do is tell them that Rachel misplaced it. A legal battle about-who-did-what didn’t seem worth the stress. She’s been in her new home for less than a week.
Rachel looked up to the ceiling. “Did you hear that?”
Brett scanned the room with his eyes. “No.”
Part of Rachel’s curious nature wanted to check it out but her gut convinced her stay and eat with her husband. They went to bed early. Bret didn’t spoon with her that night. It took him hours to get to sleep. Rachel stared at the alarm clock. It’s green numbers reflecting in her glassy olive colored eyes. As the hour’s waned, the house groaned under the wind’s force. Wooden shutters chattered lightly like teeth against the pale outer walls. Around three-ish, she couldn’t take the noise anymore. She forced herself out of bed and dragged her feet into the bathroom. Flipping on the light switch, she realized how tired she really was. Her eyes had dark circles and lines curving out from under them, her skin looked sickly white and her short black hair seemed greasy instead of glossy.
Rachel felt a tugging at the corner of her shirt, yet her shirt wasn’t moving. She washed her face in the sink and looked back into the mirror.
A silhouette stood behind shower curtain.
She sucked air and twisted around. No silhouette. She blinked a few times. The rings on grinded on the horizontal post as Rachel pulled aside the curtain. Only a regular old shower. She made an uneasy promise with herself to get some sleep and wandered out into the hallway. She peaked into the bedroom. Brett wasn’t there.
There was movement downstairs.
Holding onto the handrail, Rachel walked down the steps and toward the kitchen. “Brett?”
The wind moaned outside.
Rachel felt her way to the kitchen doorway. “What are you doing in the dark?”
She reached her hand around the threshold and flipped the night.
Every cupboard open. Mom’s China, plates, tea cups, glassware were all dashed across the ground in jagged chunks. There was so much that it covered the entire kitchen floor.
“Babe?” Brett yelled, standing at the top of the stairs, half asleep. “I heard you from the second upstairs bathroom. Everything okay?”
Officer Matthew Lynchfield brushed aside the broken glass with the side of his boot and jiggled the doorknob. He bent down and checked the locking mechanism. After a moment of fiddling with the lock, he twisted back to Rachel and Brett with an emotionless face and signature drooping eyes.
“And you’re one hundred percent positive that all the windows were locked and the doors had safety bars?”
Rachel took a break from squeezing herself to bush a strand of hair behind her ear. “We’re positive.”
Brett stared at the chucks of shatter China that turned the kitchen floor into a deathtrap. “After the first invasion, we’ve been extra cautious. The only time we remove the safety bars is during the daytime when no one is home.”
Brett wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling Rachel close to his side. He wore a hoodie without a shirt, shorts, and slippers. After they called the police, Rachel slipped on a wrinkled white-tee and sweatpants. Office Lynchfield walked back towards them. A fragment crunched beneath the weight of his foot.
“Watch it,” Brett said.
The officer eyed him but didn’t respond.
“We might be able to save some glassware,” Brett elaborated.
The mess looked back at Rachel. It didn’t inspire confidence.
Officer Lynchfield rubbed the sides of his mouth with two fingers. “Sound travels in this house, yeah? What I’m trying to understand is how every one of your plates gets smashed on the ground you didn’t wake up.”
Rachel glared at him. “We didn’t sabotage ourselves.”
“Never said you did, but there are lot variables that don’t add up.”
They stood in silence for a moment. The sounds of woods and wind seeped through the walls. Rachel kept her eyes on her bare feet. She imagined her soles and toes slashed open and bleeding red amidst shards of milk-colored glass. She chuckled internally. Brett and her moved here for inspiration, and Rachel was fully confident that she’ll never have artist block again. She felt Lynchfield’s eyes on her. Something about them made her want to avoid contact. The stolen photo stayed in the forefront of her mind.
“This is what I’ll do for y’all,” the officer began. “I’ll keep my cruiser parked outside. If anything happens, I’ll be within shouting distance.”
Brett inhaled and nodded. “We appreciate that.”
“Let me get the boss’s okay. I’ll be back shortly.” Lynchfield walked passed them and out to the porch. He withdrew his phone and leaned out the railing. His sad dog eyes glanced out into the abyssal blackness of night.
“I don’t like this guy,” Rachel whispered to Brett.
“At this point, we take what we can get.”
They grabbed the brooms and swept mother’s China along with every other glass dish or bowl into dustpan. Reluctantly, they tossed them out, remembering all the meals they shared. At least they got a final supper in before calamity. They’d dine on plastic and paper towels henceforth.
Brett tied off the trash bag. Together, they walked outside and heaved the bag into the trashcan.
“Maybe it’s time for a vacation,” Rachel suggested.
Brett groaned. “I don’t think it’s smart for us to leave house and all our stuff until this prankster is caught. And when he is, we sue the living hell out of him. Tomorrow, I’m going to have a long chat with realtor about who has any spare key house.”
“Good idea.” Rachel said as they walked back. “This whole situation is driving nuts.”
For the rest of that night, Rachel lay awake. Her body told her to sleep. She shut her eyes but didn’t drift away. A fear pressed at her side like the point of a spear. What if the perpetrator is watching her right now? Moonlight poured through the window. A spider dangled outside the glass. Its legs worked at spinning a web; a home of its own where it trapped unexpecting guests.
Rachel watched the sky turn from black to indigo to crimson and then to gold before she sat up. Brett drooled on his pillow. His nose twitched. Rachel admired his ability to sleep. Envied it, almost.
The shower spat cold water at her. She leapt, goose skinned. Steady stream of scalding water struck her next and shrouded the bathroom in mist. Swaddled in a towel, she spit toothpaste into the sink and cupped her hands under the faucet. By the time she swooshed the mint taste from her gums, the mist had faded and she saw the stranger in the mirror. Herself but with hollow eyes and a constant frown. She rubbed her hand down her cheek. What once was soft felt coarse and bumpy. The silver strand of hair grabbed the light above the sink. Rachel twirl it around her finger and yanked it from her scalp. She discarded her first grey hair into the sink and watched the faucet water send it spiraling down the drain. She understood a new fear. One that seemed much farther from the mutilation of her body. Her own age. Her own mortality.
She spent the first hour of the day dolling herself up for her own peace of mind.
The smell of egg and cheese leaked from the kitchen. Brett set out a plastic plate for Rachel with scrambled eggs topped with melting shredded cheese. “Tea or coffee?” Brett asked.
“Coffee,” Rachel replied, yawning.
The two of them ate without saying a word. After, Brett dialed the realtor, having a long talk that required a lot of pacing.
“Well?” Rachel turn away from her easel, swiveling on her stool top.
Brett adjust his glasses and put his camera back on the dining table. “She says that she’s very sorry.” He withdrew his camera from the bag and popped out the SD card.
Brett slipped the card into its reader and booted up his laptop. “She doesn’t know anything. The bank confiscated it in 1983 after the last owner’s passed away, and the only keys that she knows of are the two she gave us. I’m just glad we have that officer out there.”
Rachel looked out the window and to the squad car parked on the front lawn. Lynchfield stood outside of it, dragging on cigarette and puffing rings of smoke into the air. He turned Rachel. She remained still. Can he see me in here? Lynchfield took another drag.
Rachel left her canvas blank and marked upstairs. She returned, hugging a dirty clothes hamper. After struggling to open the old door, she bounced down the basement stair. Her mouth twitched at musty aroma. She fought a sneeze and dropped the basket in front the washer and drier. After filling them up with nasty clothes, she scanned lamps, chairs, couches and more covered by dusty white sheets. Her skin crawled for no reason. She felt eyes on her.
“Hello?” Rachel called out. After a moment, she chuckled at her own ridiculousness.
A child’s laughter mimicked her own.
Rachel’s heart skipped a beat. Eyes wide, she stepped toward the antique furniture. The pipes in the wall rumbled as the washer took effect. She jogged upstairs. What are you doing? She asked herself. You’re just tired. Rachel slump down at her stool while Brett plucked away at his keyboard.
“Everything alright?” He asked.
“I just need to relax,” Rachel replied. She looked at the blank page for a moment. Across the room, her husband edited yesterday’s photos. His brow deep. His eyes focused. One hand gently pulled at his beard while he thought. Rachel smiled to herself, she maneuvered her easel so she could see the hunch of Brett’s back in the chair, looking like a twenty-first century rendition of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker. Rachel’s pencil captured Brett’s pensive expression, groomed beard, his glasses and dark brown eyes. A few black bangs strung down the front of his forehead. He brushed them aside. The rest of his hair was expertly cropped and layered.
Rachel allowed creativity to rule over her. She blocked out the soft hum of the water pipes and the clacking of her husband’s keyboard. Her hand took her beyond his image and two something in the background. Rachel didn’t know where the drawing was leading. It was almost as if her hand moved on its own.
After some undisclosed amount of time, Brett noticed his wife bouncing her eyes from the easel to him. Rachel nipped at the end of her pencil, studying the work. Brett stood up and walked over. He leaned behind her, studying the canvas. “That’s some spooky shuff.” He squeezed her shoulder proudly. “Good job, babe.”
Rachel heard his footsteps in the kitchen as he refilled his coffee mug. Tasting the wood her pencil, eyes studied her sketch of her husband, a black and white version of his real-life counterpart. Behind him but standing before the fireplace stood a man with greying hair swooshed to the side and thick sideburns. He wore an unbuttoned businessman’s suit. The chunky bullet hole at the center of his forehead trickled blood down the bridge of his nose, over his tight lips and down to the bottom of his square jaw. Beside him stood a woman, both beautiful and intimidating, who had short puffy hair, long legs and a side button dress from a bygone era. An exit wound blew out just below her breast.
Rachel studied the artwork. It was one of her best pieces, and she complete it in half the time.
A phone rang. Brett answered from the kitchen. “Uh huh… yeah… I can make that. Thank you. Be there soon.”
“Work?” Rachel asked when he stepped out back into view.
“Yes. There’s a few waterfalls National Geographic wants for their website, believe it or not. The Secrets of the Appalachia is what they are calling the segment,” He grinned widely.
“Sounds intriguing,” Rachel replied.
Brett’s excitement faded. “I don’t have to go if you don’t want me to.”
“Are you crazy?” Rachel exclaimed. “We moved here for these opportunities. A few breaking and entries aren’t going to change that.”
“I don’t know,” Brett replied. “They’ve changed a lot, actually.”
“I’m joking,” Rachel clarified. “Enjoy yourself and pick up some sleeping medication on your way home.”
Brett kissed her on the forehead. “Will do. Thanks, Rach.”
Hastily, he packed his camera and laptop and hurried out the door. “I left the phone number of the cab company on the countertop. Don’t worry about the price.”
He waved to goodbye to Lynchfield and sped away. Rachel was alone in the big four beds, three bath house. Well, not entirely alone. She looked at the squad car, shuttered and placed the safety bar beneath the doorknob.
The rest of the afternoon dragged. Her artistic rush waned after the first sketch, and she returned to cliché, women and their demises. Nonetheless, her thoughts hung on the couple in the previous drawing of her husband. Something about them felt so… powerful, like her creation wasn’t just marks on a page, but a font of, albeit sinister, inspiration.
She finished folding the laundry and marched upstairs, killing her boredom by washing dishes, sweeping and mopping the dark wood floors, and dusting the face grandfather clock. She moved to the guest bedroom upstairs and approached the wardrobe. It stood a head taller than her and half as wide. She stood on a chair and swept her yellow feather duster across the top.
She stepped down from the chairs, noticing that the one of the wardrobe’s double doors had tapped against the back of her chair. She moved aside the chair, allowing the door to swing the rest of the way. She peered into the wooden box. A dark stain smeared the bottom back corner. Rachel leaned down farther and brushed her thumb across it. It was dry and old, forever set into the wood. After shutting the door, Rachel finished her dusty, grabbed the chair and exited the bedroom.
Rachel stepped into the hall. She eyed the other bedroom across the way. She was torn between which one would make a better studio. There was office downstairs as well that they weren’t utilizing. The decision probably would have no bearing on her life, but Rachel stressed thinking about. Her father’s nagging about having a baby bubbled up, as well. She understood his concerns. Aside from her mother, she was the last of the Harroways. And it wasn’t like she didn’t like children but…
A tingling danced up Rachel’s spine. She put down the chair and quietly peered into the bedroom. The wardrobe door had creaked open. Rachel stared at it with concern, swearing she shut it. As she strutted towards it, the room twist and the floor inclined to side.
“What the…” She felt the blood rush to her head and her peripherals darken. Her palm smacked against the wallpaper, preventing her from falling. She clenched her eyes shut and took deep breathes. She opened her eyes, her sight clearing up and room returned to its original state. The wardrobe doors were firmly shut. The knobs didn’t budge, and Rachel noticed a keyhole she didn’t see before. Her stomach churned. She felt like she was going to vomit.
Rachel hurried downstairs and out the backdoor. A chilling breeze splashed over Rachel. Dry leaves danced by her feet. Rachel quickly shut the door and stepped away from the house. Her feet crunched through the blanket of fall leaves on in her backyard. All the surround trees were completely barren, and it was still two months out from winter.
She felt like she stood in the crosshair of some unseen force. The feeling in her gut was horrid. In the house, it was no better. What she would trade to get five minutes of sleep? Rachel plopped down on the old rubber tireswing. The ancient rope pulled taunts. The tire swing swayed under Rachel’s weight. She closed her eyes and saw her mother. She was tall and beautiful with the same nose and eye color. Rachel’s father Liam approached her, his arms out in a non-threatening manner.
“Honey, put down it down,” Liam said carefully.
Mother smashed the plate on the counter and held up a jagged shard.
Reality returned. Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her eyes away from the brown leaves. Laughter. A girl and boy peered out from behind a skeletal tree. They scattered, running in the opposite direction.
“Hey!” Rachel shouted. “Stay right there!”
She jumped out the tire swing and chased after the strangers. She ran through trees, hurdled over dips in the earth and ducked low hanging branches. Rachel slowed to a staggering, stop between four towering oaks. Birds took flight above leaves the color of fire. Mountains and trees dipped up and down, to the north, south, east and west stood hundreds of trees.
“Come out here!” Rachel’s shouted. “No more games!”
Her echo replied. “Games, games, games, games.”
Rachel rested her palms on her knees, awaiting a response.
Rachel hiked back to the tire swing, boiling with frustration.
Hand on his pistol holster, Officer Lynchfield lingered in the backyard. “See something out there?”
“Yeah. Two kids. One is wearing a blue skirt. I didn’t see other.”
“There’s no houses ‘round these parts for miles,” Officer Lynchfield pointed out almost as if was a good thing. “Lead me to where you saw them.”
“This way.” Rachel marched ahead to the tree where she saw the intruders. Keeping his hand on his pistol holster, Lynchfield studied the surroundings. “They ran..?”
Rachel pointed farther into the woods.
“Lead on,” Lynchfield said.
Hesitantly, Rachel retraced her path. She felt the officer’s eyes on her. Glancing back, the officer scanned the nearby trees. She told herself she was being paranoid, but the farther she went into the woods, the more control Officer Lynchfield had. There were miles of uninhabited land all around between her and another human. Rachel walked into an area unfamiliar to her.
“Stop,” the officer said behind her.
He groaned and knelt by a pile of leaves. He swiped away the leaves with his hand. Below were dozens of dolls, stuffed animals and other child’s toys. Most were rotted and discolored from prolonged exposure to the elements. Some of the dolls were missing one or both eyes. A teddy bear had fuzz poking out it’s right arm and left leg hole. Creepy stuff, through and through.
They spent the next twenty-five mutes shouting in the woods like idiots, calling the kids out, and telling them the consequences of avoiding a law enforcement officer. Echoes responded many times. The children, not at all. Rachel thanked officer Lynchfield and returned to her home with a new idea. She rummaged through the basement, kicking up dust and lint as she searched the far corners and near the furnace. There were no secret entrances or trapdoors to be found but that didn’t disprove Rachel’s theory. These kids were getting in somehow and if she couldn’t find the breach, she’d catch them in the act. A half hour of research, a forty-five-minute cab ridem and a long chat with the clerk, and Rachel purchased the cameras she needed. She hooked one up in the kitchen facing the door, one in the living room and one in the upstairs hallway. She bought cheaper models to hand in each of the bedroom and in the basement.
By eleven o’clock, Brett walked through the front door. “Hey, babe. I got the Nyquil.”
On her tippy-toes, Rachel stood on a chair’s cushion. She hooked in the final cable into the back of the security camera. “Tada!” She leapt down and hug her husband.
“Um, what’s this?” Brett stared at the small camera tucked in the upper corner of the room.
“Well, I thought that with breaks in, we’ll be able to see the person or persons in action,” Rachel looked at her creation, the long wire stapled into the around the top corner of the wall, above the doorway and upstairs. More cables joined this track from the study, kitchen, and basement. Brett gawk at it.
Rachel smiled, hands proudly on her hips. “Impressive, huh? I have more upstairs. One in every room and hall, but the bathrooms. I thought we’d keep that private. All of their footage is input into my laptop in the bedroom. I bought some extra terabyte drives so the computer’s memory wouldn’t crap out on us..”
Brett lowered her camera and laptop bags to the floor. “When were you going to tell me about this?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise. And you won’t believe how much safer I feel.”
Brett rub his hand up his hair. “Rachel. Look at me.”
Rachel did so.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Rachel stepped back at the comment. “Brett, I thought…”
“I don’t know what you thought,” Her husband said. “We have a police officer outside, a safety bar at every door, how much more do you want?”
“Nothing,” Rachel replied looking at the camera. “The camera should do it.”
“How much did this cost?” Brett demanded an answer.
“I bought it on bulk. Got a great deal.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
Rachel bit her tongue for a moment before speaking. “Three.”
Brett’s face turned blood red and he shouted the F word. Rachel stayed back from him. In the eight years they’d known each, she’d never seen Brett get this angry.
“Fhree thousand!” Brett shouted and cursed again. “That’s half our savings. This guy gypped you, Rachel. Can’t you see that? These cameras. They are worth half that amount.”
Rachel nodded. “If we order them online, sure. But, we need them now, Brett. Not in two weeks with chance of them being damaged during shipping.”
Brett gnashed his teeth and lowered himself to couch. He buried his face in his hands.
Rachel stepped toward him. “I know you’re mad—”
Brett’s brooding cut her off.
Rachel sat down next him. “After we catch this guy, we can return the cameras and get the money back. Besides, I took it out of my half of the savings so I don’t see what the problem.”
Brett turned to her. His eyes bloodshot. “There’s no such thing as your half of the savings and there’s no such thing as my half of the savings. It is our savings. We, together, decide what we spend it on.”
“You buy your cameras all the time,” Rachel counter argued. “That’s five or six grand each, plus your lenses.”
“Because they’re tax deductible!” Brett shouted.
“So are the security cameras,” Rachel replied back. “We have our house labeled as our business center with IRS. It all works out. I did my research.”
Brett refused eye contact. “That’s not the point, Rach. You went behind my back. First with the police officer and now with this.”
“You didn’t answer your phone when I called yesterday. Why wouldn’t I call the police?”
“Please, Rachel,” He said, standing from couch. “I checked my call logs. You never even tried.”
Brett vanished up the stairs. A moment later, the piping in the walls hummed. Rachel stared at nothing in particular on the floor for a long moment. She sighed and pulled out her phone. She scrolled through recent outgoing calls from yesterday afternoon. None to Brett. Only the police.
“There’s no way.” Rachel mumbled to herself, brain crippling.
Around midnight, Rachel turned off the TV and crept to the master bedroom. The red lights on the cameras watched her like monster eyes. She opened the door slowly to find Brett curled up under the covers and snoring lightly. She climbed in next to him, hoping that the pressure on the bed won’t wake him. It didn’t, thank God.
Her body. Her mind. Her eyes. All of it long for sleep, yet she could scarcely close her eyes. Millions of thoughts and fears ate her, and when she killed one the train would only pick up speed.
The next morning, she pretended to be asleep when Brett got out of bed. He kissed her like he usually did but there was no love in it. When he was out of the room and cooking in the kitchen, Rachel opened her eyes and pulled out her laptop. She opened the various camera feeds on a dozen different tabs and went through them one-by-one in fast forward mode. Even so, it took her hours to get through of the nothingness. She’d hit pause occasionally, rewind and play a segment. That “something” which quickly caught her eye at random times turn out to be the heater shaking up a curtain or a moth landing on the lens. When she sifted through the living room footage, something caught her eye at exactly 3:00am. She replied that five second segment a half dozen times. The living room in night vision. The grandfather clock ticks steadily. All is calm. Then, just for a moment, the front page of her canvas rippled.
Rachel saved a separate file with just that clip, got dressed and headed downstairs. Brett plucked away at his computer. His camera equipment sprawled out across the table. At Rachel’s seat sat some cold scrambled eggs and toast. Rachel grabbed her plate and headed to the canvas.
“Morning,” Brett said, only looking up from his screen for a second.
“Morning,” Rachel replied and sat down on her bench. She bit into her dry toast and looked at the canvas front page. It was blank. She flipped to the next page. Blank. She flipped to the next one.
Her toast fell from her teeth and onto the floor.
Brett turned to her with a cornered brow. “Rach?”
On the canvas before her was the phrase “TRUTH OR DARE” scribbled and dark sit nearly slashed through the sheet of paper.
Rachel could barely breathe. Her world started to spin. She was going to collapse. She could feel it. Brett put his hand on her shoulder, reassuring her, straightening out the world for an instant.
Rachel’s eyes watered. She pointed at the phrase with a shaking finger. “I didn’t write that…”
Brett studied the canvas, glancing over the words.
“Write what?” He asked honestly. “I don’t see anything, Rachel.”
“A joke?” Brett said, not amused in the slightest.
Rachel nodded, maintaining eye contact. “I thought it would lighten the mood after last night.”
Brett sighed and backed away from the canvas. “I still have a few waterfalls and nature trails to shoot for NG. Will you be good here with officer whatever-his-name-is?”
“I’ll be a-okay,” Rachel said. “The extra rest I got this morning is what I needed.”
That was the second time she lied to him, and it was the second time Brett look at the canvas that clearly said, “TRUTH OR DARE?” and saw nothing. Or acted like it. Then again, he wasn’t the type to play tricks on her like that. He knew the stories Rachel had told him about her mother, the few that were, and no matter how spiteful he may be feeling, he would never make Rachel believe she’s losing it. Right? Rachel watched him walk out the door and lock it behind him.
She stood up and walked away from the canvas, snapping a picture of it with her crappy phone camera. It appeared just how she saw it, phrase and all. To double check her theory she grabbed her hand mirror and reflected the canvas. The phrase was there. She could feel the pencil’s grooves with her fingertips. How could Brett not see it?
Rachel decided it was best to shun her easel for today. Under the kitchen sink, she picked up window cleaner and rag, touring through the old house. As she wiped down the glass windows, Brett took helm of her thoughts. Nearly a decade they’d known one another. Rachel hoped that the house meant to progress their relationship wouldn’t be it’s bane. After a time of cleaning, unpacking boxes, and package some sold artwork. Rachel felt woods calling her. She took a long hike out in the backyard, passed where she found the children’s toys and up to a ledge on the mountain side. Her skin crawled as she dangled her legs over the cliff’s edge, but the adrenaline rush comforted her.
For miles and miles, mighty mountains ruled. Their vast heights and immense sprawl seemed picturesque. Rachel rubbed her upper arms, feeling her goosebumps. The mountain breeze tousled her dark hair, and after only a moment, caused her to back inside. In the threshold of the hallway, she stared at the easel and the words “TRUTH OR DARE” scribbled across its face. She walked over it, studying it more intently than ever before. If was a figment of her imagine or an hallucination wouldn’t have the truth revealed itself by now? Rippppp! She tore off the front page and exited the house.
The sun was low and orange. It hung on the blue sky. Rachel squinted at it, wondering where the day had gone. She rapped her knuckles on the police cruiser window. Officer Lynchfield awoke quickly, eyes wide and face stern. He wiped away drool from the side of his mouth and rolled down the window.
“What?” He did little to hide his annoyance.
Rachel unrolled the canvas paper. “I have a stupid question.”
“Heh.” Lynchfield looked her over.
The canvas paper rolled out a scroll. “What do you see?” Rachel asked.
Lynchfield’s apathetic eyes scanned over the paper. “A blank page.”
Rachel’s heart sunk. She forced a smile. “Thanks.”
Lynchfield crinkled his brow and gave her a judgmental look.
Rachel opened the metal grate guarding the fireplace. She shoved the rolled canvas paper inside and clicked on the candle lighter. The mislay fire danced in Rachel’s green eyes. The corner of paper curled and blackened under the heat. The fire took. Rachel shoved it into the ashy fireplace and closed the grate. She watched the paper burn, catching a final glimpse of the harrowing words before the paper dissolved along with a portion of her stress.
She sighed and returned to easel stool. It felt oddly satisfying to look at a fresh page. Then she noticed something amiss. The pile of blank canvas paper was largely diminished. Rachel flipped back the large pile of paper already boasting sketches. The first few were of her latest artwork all the way to the portrait of Brett and bloody couple behind him. The pages after that thought caused Rachel to gasp.
A drawing of a kid holding his knees in the back of a closet, the sketch of the authoritative woman lying dead on the floor, and a dozen more death scenes. Once with Rachel hanging from the upstairs balcony with blackened face and noose. Rachel stepped back from the easel, instinctive thinking it would separate her from the horror. She knew two truths immediately. One: she didn’t draw these. Two: by the distinct artistic style, it was clearly her work.
Rachel hustled up and down the stairs, retrieving her laptop. She pulled it open, chewing her nail and reviewed the footage for the living room. She switched off the live feed and rewound back to the start of the day. In fast warded, she watched herself and Brett point at the canvas. Brett walking out the door and Rachel headed to the kitchen for clean supplies. She watched herself walk out of the kitchen and freeze. For a solid three minutes, Rachel in the footage scarcely breathed. A tear trickled down Rachel’s cheek as she watched the video unfold. Rachel in the footage approached the canvas and gently put down the blue bucket of cleaning supplies. She sat on the bench and started to draw. The fast forward video had Rachel flipping over a complete piece of artwork every thirty minutes without suffering quality. Flip. Flip. Flip. The paper rolled over the top of canvas adding to pile. Rachel checked the timestamp on the video.
From nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, she drew without ceasing.
Rachel paused the video and stared at the screen with slacked jaw. She no words. No thoughts. No explanation. She needed to get out of this house. She sat on the front steps with glazed eyes until the cab arrived. The middle-aged Romanian man with the thickest mustache she’d ever seen rolled down the window. “Nice place.”
Rachel didn’t reply. She climbed into the back seat and told him the restaurant’s address.
“You must think of me as a one trick pony,” Her father said jokily over the soft oriental chimes that filled the authentic Chinese restaurant. “I just love this place.”
Rachel smiled at him. She felt consequences of her sleepless nights in the aching of her muscles and the straining of her eyes. Around six in the evening, the place was largely vacant and moodily dim with orange lights casting comes up on the walls and Chinese artwork.
“You called me at such short notice, you seemed bothered.” Her father asked, pinching a piece of beef in his chopsticks.
You don’t know the half of it. “I want to talk about mom,” Rachel replied.
By the looks on her father’s face, she’d torn open the stitches of an infected wound. Rachel felt the same painful memories but she far better at hiding it then her pastor-turned-drunk-turned-sober-retiree father, Liam.
“Well,” Liam set aside the fork and clear his throat. “That’s an interesting topic. What makes you so curious about your mother?”
Rachel shrugged. Because I’m losing my mind. “Because I’ve been thinking about her lately. I realized I don’t know her that well.”
Liam smiled sadly. “She was one of a kind, that one. Smart, creative and beautiful like you. She had this outlook on the world that so… unique. Like hope with a healthy amount of cynicism. It made her very wise. I think that’s what I loved about her most of all. I could trust her advice.” Liam eyes lingered on his messy plate, lost in thoughts and memories.
“When did she… you know?”
Her father’s face turned pale white for moment. “Have her episode?”
Rachel nodded, hearing the hurt in her father’s voice. The memories turned him to the drink for many years. Rachel felt a bitter twisting in her gut as she asked.
“As much as I’d like to believe the episode was spontaneous, your mother’s insanity started a long time before her episode.” Liam pushed his plate aside. “First, she distanced herself from me, signing up for dance programs and art classes. Not unusual. She was a stay at home wife. But, then, I got his idea during my quiet time to surprise her at one of her recitals or classes and realized that she wasn’t there. She never signed up.”
“Where was she?”
Liam looked Rachel in the eyes and spoke with unapologetic honesty. “I still don’t know. I thought it was an affair but our love life was amazing. The church had nearly doubled in size. Life was good. No, great. So why would she have an affair? Was I blind? Instead of practicing what I preached and confronted her with love and understand, I said nothing. I thought things would just get better the more I prayed. And things did, but she still left most days and got home late. I vowed I wasn’t going to be a paranoid husband. I failed. One night, as I went to call her out on strange behavior, she interrupting me and pointed to the corner of the room, asking if I saw something. I didn’t. As the days progressed, she’d point out different aspects of the room and ask if I saw a person or some writing. I didn’t and I knew something was wrong.”
“How long did that last for?”
“All the way to the end,” Liam grunted in frustration. “She started to forget where she was. Said she was having blackouts. I got worried and begged her get some rest. Instead, she’d get up super early in the morning and drive away for long hours of the day. When she was home, I’d hear her talking to herself. Having two way conversations with air. One day, she lost it. She started screaming. The Orphans! The Orphans! Get out of my way. Only I can save them! When I tried to calm her, she threw plates at me, screamed, and ran around the yard with no regard that she was in her undergarments. The rest of the story you know…”
The soft plucking of a Chinese instrument filled their silence. Rachel’s leg tapped uncontrollably beneath the table. She had no appetite. “Did mom ever improve?”
Liam frowned. “She’s been in that mental hospital for twenty-five years, tried to take her own life multiple times and shows no signs of ever getting better. The last time I saw her, she was in a straitjacket, locked in a padded room and having seemly dozen conversations with the things she saw. The church elders and I tried to exercise whatever demonic force had done this to her. Your mother laughed at me and then cried. That was nearly five years ago.”
Rachel took her father’s hand in her own. He placed his other hand on top of hers and smiled with his eyes closed. They shared unspoken sympathies. Deep down, Rachel wonder what would happen to this man if Rachel shared the same fate as her mother.
The cab ride back was a blur of thoughts and mix emotions. Rachel shut her eyes and imagined standing in a padded room in a straitjacket. Scribbled in black across the all the cushioned walls were the words “TRUTH OR DARE.”
After folding up her easel and storing it in the cluttered downstairs office, Rachel read Brett’s text.
“Great,” She mumbled sarcastically. The client wants night photos and a few beers. Brett won’t be home for at least another two hours.
Rachel took a long, hot shower. Wearing her lazy clothes, she checked every window lock and shut every door, both up and downstairs. With a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream and a cup of black tea, Rachel clicked on the television and forced herself to relax. She watched hallmark movies, something she never did, and stopped herself from thinking negatively. I am not my mother. She chanted internally.
At the start of the second film, Rachel yawned and puffed the pillow under her head.
Rachel’s eyes shot open. The movie was halfway over. Feeling terrible, she sat from on the couch.
It came from the basement.
Rachel stood up, her eyes on the old door at the side of the stairwell. “Hello?”
Her voice echoed in the ancient house. She opened the door and stared down into the darkness. She toggled the light switch. The darkness remained. She grabbed a ruby red mag light from the key bowl and shined the beam to the depths of the stairs. Three steps, she told herself. Three steps and if she can’t see the problem, she gets the pervy officer outside.
The first step creaked. The second groaned. On the third, Rachel felt a pull at the front her shirt, and she toppled downward. The following stairs beat her all the way to the basement floor. Bruises Throbbed on her shoulders, arms and the back of her head. Grimacing, she pushed against the concrete floor to rise. Musty air bombarded her sense of smell. Like snow in a snow globe, specks of dust flurried the beam of the flashlight. The laundry area rested against the leftmost wall. Covered coaches, stands, chairs and fashion mannequins cluttered the rest. Rachel’s beam of light scanned over the lost treasures, casting long shadows across the walls beyond.
Rachel stepped forward, the flashlight held tightly in her hand. An object in the back of the room grabbed her eye. Her heart pounded. She closed the gap, navigating passed a nightstand with a dust-covered lamp. Behind her, light spilled from the upstairs into the basement. Rachel stepped over a plastic-wrapped rug. Farther than she’d ever gone in the basement, she found of late seventies and early eighties men’s blazers ravaged by moth holes and slumped over the back of a rocking chair. Women’s dresses spilled out of a gnarly tear on a black trash bag. A sequence of wooden buttons dotted the skirt of one. Rachel paid it little mind. Amidst the artifacts, she stood before the teddy bear. It’s tuffs of fur were caked with dirt. Darkened fuzz budded out of its right arm, and the stub where it’s leg was missing. Rachel blinked twice. She didn’t trust her eyes anymore. She touched the clumsy fur.
It was the same teddy from outside that her and the officer had found a day prior.
The basement door slammed violently.
“Brett!” Rachel shouted.
Her flashlight caught a glimpse of something scurrying by the mess of covered furniture. Rachel couldn’t track it with the light. It moved too fast. Out of darkness, a picture-less frame flung through the air, narrowly missing her face. It shattered into wood fragments behind her.
The thing moved again.
Rachel wasn’t alone.
Rachel dashed for the stairs. A brass lamp flung passed her head at scary speed. She ducked behind a couch, ruffling the white sheet cover it and taking a face full of dust. A 2×4 zipped by. It crashed a few yards behind her, knocking into the rocking chair with a loud bang.
“Brett! Someone!” Rachel shouted. Her voice bounced in the corners of the room as more trash and small dangerous things flew at her. Staying low, she scurried behind the mannequins. They crumbled like bowling pins as the chair crashed into them. Rachel hid behind a neglected nightstand and held her breath. She covered the flashlight beam in the palm of her hand, allowing darkness to quickly envelop her. Her heart thumped powerfully. What was happening? Soft feet pattered the concrete floor. Pat-pat-pat.
The footsteps moved closer.
Rachel pulled her knees up to her chest, making herself as small as she could behind the nightstand. Her eyes trailed to the red circle where the flashlight drilled into her palm. Clicking the mag light’s button seemed too risky. She wanted dreadfully to steal a peek at the person in the basement with her but he could be watching her right now, waiting for her to move.
The pitter-patter walked by her. Something tickled her spine. The hairs on her neck stood in attention. She didn’t move. Her lung fought for release. She won’t to do it. One breath could be the death of her. Over the thumping in her chest, she listened for the stranger. Only the patter of feet. Was he holding his breath, too? For a long moment, the basement was quieter than death. Rachel couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She peaked part of her head out from behind the nightstand. She could scarcely make out shapes in the few feet behind her. The journey to the stairs would require an exercise in memory.
Rachel’s lungs gave way and she gasped, drinking up the dusty basement air. Using the noisy opportunity, she clicked off the mag light and held the cold metal with her teeth. Coarse concrete bit into her hands and knees as she crawled from cover to cover, allowing instinct to guide her. She groped aimlessly at chair legs and old boxes. At one point, her finger tips broke through a web and multiple somethings crawled up her arm. She swatted them away, not even wanting to imagine their size.
With no other noise but the soft jets of her own uneasy breath, she almost believed she was alone. That lasted about a second before an unfamiliar sinking feeling pitted in her stomach almost as if her dread and fear were as tangible as the two inch something she felt crawl down the back of her shirt. It crawled down her ribs and toward the lip her pants before she was able squash it with her hands, feeling the burst of the egg sack and hundreds of tiny spiders scattered all over her body.
Rachel’s shirt was off in an instant. She scuttled across the floor, wiping her side and feeling the hatchings escape in between her fingers and up the top of her hand. Her shoulder hit the shaft of a tall lamp. It wobbled. Rachel froze in place for a moment. She was done with this basement. Staying low to the ground, Rachel beelined for the where she believed the stairs to be. She wasn’t going to fall down them again. Rachel clicked on the mag light. It illuminated a stranger’s face. Screaming, Rachel scrambled in the opposite direction. Her back thumped against a metal bedframe, bringing a sudden halt to her escape.
With fierce eyes, the strange nine-year-old girl glared at Rachel. Her copper-colored hair was brushed and combed. She wore a cobalt suspended skirt and a white button-up that held snuggling to her neck. Massive crimson holes burrowed into her collarbone, the bottom left of her ribs, and near her belly button. Rachel had research many wounds to authentic her art. These were the work of a high caliber bullet.
Rachel couldn’t pull the mag light away from the wounded girl standing before her. A second child stood a few feet behind her. He was younger and fatter, dressed like a little business man with horribly drawn whiskers on his cheeks and multiple wet bullet holes throughout his plump frame.
“What do you want from me?” Rachel said, surprised she could even say speak.
The little girl locked eyes with Rachel, staring directly into the deepest part of her soul and utterly unaffected by the flashlight pointed at her pupils. Rachel felt completely violated as if someone had forced themselves into her mind and intruded on every thought, feeling and emotion. Bile rose. That same tugging feeling pulled at her bare skin, though her flesh didn’t stretch. Like lightening to a rod, it wanted Rachel get closer. Fear kept her from submitting. Her mag-light beam wobbled in Rachel’s trembling hand.
Cloaked in shadow, the girl watched her with hollow eyes. Half of Rachel wanted to run. The other half wanted to fight. She found that she could do nothing. Her mind, her senses, everything she was and is felt trespassed upon in a way that felt like she’d never be alone again.
“Answer me!” Rachel shouted, her voice cracking.
The girl spoke. “Help us.”
All blood left Rachel’s face. I’ve lost my mind.
“Find the bad men.”
“Rachel!” A muffled shout bled through the basement door.
“Brett! I’m down here!” Rachel kept the light on the girl and boy.
The little girl put her finger over her mouth, gesturing Rachel to be quiet. She whispered, “Don’t tell.”
Rachel shifted her attention to the old steps. When she turned back, the children had vanished. All that remained before her was covered furniture and the laundry area. Rachel stood slowly, her knees buckling together. She shined the beam of light across the vast basement. The 2×4, picture frame and all the rest of the objects that had been hurled at her were back in their original position like nothing ever happened. Even the teddy bear was gone.
The stairs creaked beneath Rachel’s hurried steps. She burst through the door. Brett and Officer Lynchfield stood in the living room with worried expressions. The officer stared at Rachel’s brassier. She quickly covered herself.
“Geez, Rachel, where were you?” Brett asked.
“Basement,” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Laundry.”
Lynchfield looked her up and down in a way that was far too personal. “You’re bruised head to heel.”
Rachel studied the purple spots on her shoulder, hip and knees. “I fell down the stairs.”
“Oh, babe.” Brett hugged her and pulled her tightly. She didn’t realize how cold she was until she felt his warmth.
“We need to talk,” Rachel whispered.
“We’re good, man,” Brett said to Lynchfield.
The officer nodded skeptically, and exited out front door. An icy breeze marked his departure. Rachel fold her arms around Brett—her life raft—and sniffled.
“What happened?” Brett asked. “Where’s your shirt?”
Rachel opened her mouth but no words came out. She changed her chain of thought. “Let’s go away.”
“What?” Brett pulled away. Behind his glasses, confusion could be seen in his eyes.
“We can move or go on vacation or something. I don’t know, Brett. I can’t think straight in this place,” Rachel regretted saying it immediately.
“Are you feeling alright, Rach?” He put his hand on her forehead. “You’re freezing! Do you want to go to hospital?”
“No!” Rachel shouted. “I sorry, no. I’m… fine. I just need a few days to clear my head.”
“Okay,” Brett said cautiously. “We’ll call Liam.”
“I was thinking the Bahamas,” Rachel said to lighten the mood.
Brett brushed his hand down the side her cheek. Rachel winced. “I’ll get some ice and a clean shirt for you. Lie down.”
Rachel wandered to the couch. She closed her eyes and saw the children and their bullet ridden bodies. No sleep would come to her tonight. She feared sleep would never come again. Brett pamper her, asked all sorts of questions about the basement, the evening, the location of easel, etc. Rachel replied to him with half-truths and vague responses.
The next morning, they packed up small suitcases and toiletries. Brett’s hurried pace alluded to his displeasure, but he didn’t voice his complaints. He had three camera bags slung over his shoulder and picked up Rachel’s easel.
“You can leave it,” Rachel said, hauling her duffle down the stairs.
“It will help you relax.”
“I don’t want it,” Rachel said. Her sleeplessness was making her sassy.
Brett looked at her like she had blasphemed and then put down the easel. He fixed the strap of one of his camera bags. Together, they headed out the door.
They told their goodbyes to Officer Lynchfield.
“I’m surprised you stayed this long.” There was some truth in Brett’s joke.
Lynchfield’s face stayed neutral. “Welcome to Highlands. Nothing happens.”
Rachel cracked a smile at the irony.
“Y’all be safe now,” the officer said, not entirely sincere.
Rachel and Brett climbed into the Escalade. The Hadley House vanished in their wake. Rachel couldn’t take her mind off the little girl and her plea. It’s all fake. You’re only tired. She wasn’t lying to Brett anymore. She was lying to herself.
Rachel’s father welcomed them with open arms, and kept repeating. “This is great.” He lived in a two-bedroom house only two miles away from Main Street. The place was spotless and modern with nice countertops and hand painted Christian artwork/biblical quotes on the walls.
“We’re sorry about the short notice, dad.” Rachel said. “We thought it would be more relaxing to get out of the house.”
“There’s no need to apologize for anything,” Liam replied with a soft smile. “Quite honestly, I get lonely sometimes when here all by myself.”
He removed the house key from his key ring and handed it off to Rachel. She surrendered it to Brett. Rachel had few plans to leave the house. After they settled in, Brett hunched over his laptop and photoshopped the rest of the day away. Liam came and went, either attending Alcoholics Anonymous or a bowling practice, another vice he picked up after Rachel’s mother went off her rocker.
Rachel stayed in bed for the most part of day. It felt “safer” here. The Hadley House had made all sorts of weird noises throughout the day, like the sound of branches scratching a window, the rattling of a shutter or the wooden moans that echoed through the halls on windy nights. At her father’s abode, it was quiet and sincere. He had a bible in every room and a tiny fountain for his cat that’s easing trickle overcame the deafening silence. Outside the windows, cars drove to-and-fro, filled with hikers, locals and parents driving their children to the one school in Highlands. It was a sight Rachel hadn’t enjoyed since she had arrived into the Hadley House seven and half miles from civilization. The creepy aesthetic sold the house, now Rachel reminisced about her New York flat that was crowded, loud and altogether uninspiring.
While reading one of her father’s theological books, Rachel dozed off. An amalgamation of disturbing sights and sounds bombarded sleep. Everything she saw and witnessed turned to blur the moment she jolted from the covers. Cold sweat soaked her clothes. Asleep, Brett rolled over, pulling the covers over his shaggy chest. Panting, Rachel slung her feet over the side of the bed and rubbed her eyes. She felt worse than she did before she rested.
Rachel went still. Her eyes scanned the dark room. Two shapes watched Rachel through the cracked opened hallway door. The standoff lasted a long moment. Eventually the shapes vanished. Rachel pressed her hand over her racing heart. I can’t live like this.
The next day was far worse than any other. Even when Rachel shared the same room as Brett or Liam, she felt the presence of another, watching her, waiting on her to do something. She went on a jog through the town. In the reflections of a pastry shop, the children were there. She saw them again in the bathroom mirrors. The next night, at 3:00am, the hallway door slowly opened and Rachel stared into its blankness for an hour, knowing looked back but unable to see them.
“How are you doing?” Brett asked one morning.
Brett took her hand. “We don’t have the money right now, but once National Geographic cuts me a check, we’ll go somewhere nice. Would you like that?”
Rachel nodded. She found it a chore to speak without her morning coffee, as black and bitter as can be. Throughout the long and unfruitful days, her thoughts couldn’t stay away from the children. The more she thought about it, the more real it felt.. The children, the flying objects, the voices, and the writing on the sketch pad. If they were solitary instances, questioning her sanity made sense. But the unexplainable encounters were sequential and stimulated all the senses. She couldn’t be crazy. What are you thinking?! Her internal critic yelled. Rest, Rachel replied. I just want rest.
It was late one evening. Brett had fallen asleep. Rachel rested her back on the bed’s backboard and opened her laptop on her covered thighs. Feeling it’s searing effects on her bloodshot eyes, she dimmed the screen. Her fingers dances across the keyboard. The search results popped up. Hadley House, built in 1892 by Roy Hadley—Highlands only physician and pastor at the time. There was little about him on the web, barring the fact that he worked his practice from inside his home. That explained the inside upstairs loft next to the stairs. Roy wanted to watch visitors walk in and out. Rachel found no records of any deaths in his house. Besides, the children she encountered were not dressed appropriately with the timeline. If there’s anything learned from drawing different people all day. It’s fashion.
Thanks to the historical significance of the house in Highlands history, Rachel learned about its next three owners though the information was dismal. A local elderly couples owned the house after Roy Hadley’s death in 1923. A decade later, another couple owned the house until the late 50s. They were bought up by an outsider. The historical records ceased after that sale.
Rachel changed her tactics. She searched for murders in Highlands, North Carolina. After sifting through dozens of websites, she landed the name Reginald Barnes, a local lumber tycoon in the 70s and 80s. His name was mentioned in a forum discussing murders in the Appalachian. There was little detail about his death, only that the police believe it to be a robbery gone wrong. The participants in the forum made it clear that the murderer was never found.
The next morning, Rachel dressed, took a shower and told Brett she was going out to run some errands.
Brett looked up from the camera he was formatting. “You sure you don’t want your easel?”
“Positive,” Rachel said opening the front door.
Brett sat up. His concerned look made Rachel pause. He spoke, struggling to find the words for moment. “It’s not my place to tell you how to run your business, but, um, I’ve seen some emails from your clientele asking about a few portraits that were never delivered.”
Internally, Rachel groaned. He wanted the best of her, Rachel knew, but she had bigger fish to fry. “They’ll get what they purchased. I’m in rush right now. We’ll talk later.”
Highlands’ Main Street had many dips, slopes, and hills though it was built on top of the mountain’s plateau. The Hudson Library resided near the farther out of the main road and across the street from a strip mall that was two stories and made of lumber. It only took a few moments for the crone at the front desk to point Rachel to the preserved newspaper slides. The librarian lead Rachel to quant microfilm room, mumbled something polite and shut the door. Shelves of boxes filled three fourths of the room. Rachel hadn’t been in place like this since high school and that was only for a brief assignment.
She typed in the 1983, Murder, and Reginald Barnes into the database and was directed to box near the back of the room. She found the proper paper, pulled it up on the outdated microfilm kiosk and started reading.
July 17, 1983. Headline: Murder at the Hadley House. Four Dead.
Rachel jaw went agape at the sight of the family picture. Staring back at her were four familiar faces, the two children, Amanda and Benny Barnes, standing in the middle of Reginald, a man with sideburns and icy eyes, and Lilith, a woman with short haircut and well-structured face. The man and woman Rachel had drawn in her portrait of Brett. But this time they didn’t have bullet holes.
Rachel rubbed her hand over mouth, trying to process of the revelation. How does one process that you’ve seen the dead, standing before you, looking at you, talking to you? Rachel chuckled to herself. She wasn’t crazy, but everything in her world flipped. She was a pastor’s daughter. Her whole life she struggled with the idea of higher power and now she dealing with ghosts, spirits, or whatever the hell she saw in the basement or drew on her canvas. Why can she see them and not Brett or her father? Rachel racked her brain. She had no answers. Only more questions that spurred even deeper questions about life, the afterlife, evolution and intelligent design. Who do you seek these answers from? The internet, books, movies, or so-called psychic?
She buried her face in her hands and let her thoughts dissipate. Maybe the big questions didn’t matter. What she needed to focus on was her torment. The children want her to find the “bad men.” Rachel would do it. She had no clue how and the entire idea seemed horrible, but if it could return an ounce of normalcy to her life… Rachel sighed and sat up. She cursed under breath and continued reading the article.
The article discussed Reginald and his lumber yards, the business he brought to Highlands and the so-called spontaneity of his murder. Though the article alluded to this being a robbery gone horribly wrong, the journalist’s skeptical writing led Rachel to believing otherwise.
One portion stood out in the article. “Only a few small knickknacks were taken from the Barnes’ Residence. The robbery was overtly brutal as forensics believe that Reginald and Lilith were killed almost immediately, and the gunman marched upstairs where he gunned down nine-year-old Amanda Barnes and seven-year-old Benny Barnes hiding inside the bedroom wardrobe. Apart from shell cases from a .45 pistol and handful of jewelry taken from master bedroom, the police have found no trace of the killer.”
Rachel sought out newspapers from later years, in search of any development. She found nothing. Even stranger, the journalist, Hilda Kilgore, near stopped writing articles about two weeks later the murder report. Rachel jotted down some notes.
A quick web search and Rachel had the number to the local paper. She called them. After the greetings, Rachel told them what the needed. “I’m writing a research paper about Reginald Barnes and was hoping you would have Hilda Kilgore contact info. If that’s available.”
The woman on the other end of the line put Rachel on hold. A few moments later, the woman told Rachel Hilda’s address and phone number, making it very clear that this information is from the 1980s and most likely won’t lead anywhere.
She tried out the phone number first, of course. And it led nowhere. The address was only forty minutes away. Rachel sped over there, realizing she’d already burned a large part of her day in the library on a lot of research that didn’t progress her search for the “bad men.” She drove down the topsy turvy mountain road, worry punched her in the gut. These men killed children. Shot them three or four times apiece while practically mercy killing the adult. It was 1983 as well, these guys could be in Timbuktu for all Rachel know and how would she separate herself from the children then? She could burn down the Hadley House, but Brett would divorce her at that point. Besides, they’d both invested a lot money into Highlands. Moving away, the more Rachel thought about it, wasn’t a viable option. She could try to convince Shaw to buy it, but he dresses like he’s dirt poor and his money is probably funny.
Hilda Kilgore was not a ditsy twenty-year-old living with her parents. Rachel double checked the address she had jotted down.
“This is the place,” Rachel said with discouragement.
The girl leaned in the door frame. She wore a fashionable sweater and skinny jeans.
“Do your parents have the information from the previous owner?” Rachel asked.
“I could look, I guess,” The girl replied and meandered back inside. A good fifteen minutes later and Rachel was ready to leave. Finally front the door opened. The girl handed Rachel a phone number jutted down a sticky note with a cat on it.
Rachel climbed back into her car, and dialed the number. It wasn’t disconnected. That was a good thing.
A gravelly man’s voice answered. “Ello?”
“Hi, is Hilda there? Hilda Kilgore?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “No.”
“Ah, well, do you know where I may find her? It’s urgent.”
There was some shuffling on the end of the line. “What do you want from Hilda?” It sounded like the man was yelling across the room to his phone.
“I read article she published in the Highlands Tribune. The one about the Barnes family murder twenty years ago. I want to talk to her about it.”
The shuffling stopped. Glass clinked together. The man returned to the phone, taking a breath after a long swing of something. “What do you know ‘bout dem murders?”
“Only what I’ve read from Hilda. I’m on her side.”
The line went silent.
“Hello?” Rachel asked.
“… I’ll give you her address. She don’t like to use the phone no more.”
Rachel jotted it down. Before she could ask any more questions, the mysterious man hung up. Rachel scratched her head and re-read the address. Aiken, South Carolina. A three-hour drive from here. Rachel sent Brett a text, telling him she’ll be home late tonight. She tossed her phone on the front seat and set off, hoping that this would be the first step to ending her sleepless nights.
Rachel learned really quick that driving after a week of dismal sleep is no fun. She made multiple pit stops, to refill her coffee, stretch her legs and question her decision. The doubt hit her about halfway through the trip. There’s a good chance that this address could be fake. Worse, some sort of trap. That was highly unlikely, she knew, but her disturbed mind defaulted to the worst-case scenario. If it is and Rachel survives, at least she have new influences for her artwork.
The drab 1970s single story house came into view. Branches from massive tree drooped onto the gable trussed roof. Ankle high grass blanketed the front yard. Rachel parked next to the only car there—A dented minivan with a handicap tag hanging from the rearview mirror.
Rachel grabbed her phone from the front seat. One missed call. Brett. Rachel slipped into her back pocket and jogged to the house’s front door. Behind her, the sun set. Two locks unlocked behind the door and a sixty-year-old woman rolls out to face Rachel. Her body was short, pudgy and slumped in a wheelchair that had seen better days. Thick glasses that made the woman’s brown eyes comically large.
“Who are you?” The woman asked. Her hand held something beneath the quilt over her lap.
“Rachel Presley. Are you Hilda?”
The woman nodded. “I am.”
“Can we talk?”
Rachel fidgeted on the woman’s couch. The springs could be felt under the fabric. There was unfinished laundry and a pile books on the couch beside her. Ammonia assaulted Rachel’s nose yet she saw no animals. Nearby, a news anchor chatters inside the thirty-two-inch box television.
Hilda rolled herself into living room. She winced with every rotation of the wheels, almost as if existence itself was pain.
“The Barnes. It’s been long time since I heard about them,” The woman said, parking a few feet in front Rachel and then backing beside the couch so they could both watch the TV. “Why do you care about them?”
“I bought their house,” Rachel admitted. “Needless to say, I’ve taken an interest in the history. The realtor left out the family slaughter in the sales pitch.”
“She probably didn’t know much about it,” Hilda said with cold seriousness.
“Children were murdered. That seems like headline news. Did they catch the killers?”
Hilda large eyes stayed television set. Her lip quivered slightly. After a moment, she shook her head.
They listened to anchor chat about the upcoming weather. Storms mostly.
“In your article, you seemed convinced that this wasn’t a robbery.” Rachel refocused the conversation.
Hilda’s hands tightened on her arm rests. “The Barnes had serious money. Reginald bought out nearly every lumberyard in and around Highlands. One-by-one, he strong armed the owners by cutting the cost of his lumber to a stupidly low sum. So much so that Regi lost money. Most of the yard owners couldn’t afford such drastic cuts. When they were weak, Reginald offered to buy them out. They accepted, begrudgingly. The first thing he did at his newly acquired yard was replaced nearly have of the workers with his own people from the north east. Friends he owed favors to, workers he trusted, someone’s nephew. When he owned the majority of the lumber yards, he was already in major debt. But then his monopoly skyrocketed. He boosted the prices up two hundred percent. It angered a lot of people but made Regi a very rich man.”
“The man had enemies,” Rachel said, disappointed that her job just got a lot harder.
“More than you would think,” Hilda swiveled the chair to Rachel. “If he was killed by robbers, they wouldn’t have murdered those children.”
“It’s horrible,” Rachel felt sick, remembering their bullet wounds.
Hilda nodded a few times. She fixed her glasses with her finger. “They shot those kids up as warning… Such a waste of life.”
Rachel pondered for a moment. “With Reginald and Barnes dead, what happened to the lumber yard?”
Hilda grinned. Her teeth were yellow. “Now you’re asking the right questions. Most were bought back by the state and then by their original owners. They fired all of Regi’s people and brought back the locals.”
“Everyone wins,” Rachel said, understanding. “Could this be… ah, never mind.”
Hilda looked at her seriously. “Say it.”
“A hit?” Rachel replied, shakily.
“Now don’t go telling the world.” Hilda rubbed the thighs of her dead legs. “Else, you might end up like me.”
The old woman chuckle twisted into a wail.
Headlights sliced through inky blackness. Rachel squinted as the car sped by. Normally, she’d scowl after being bombarded by the stranger’s brights, but tonight her thoughts were on Hilda’s story. Rachel shuttered. Phantom pains spiked in her own legs as she imagined two men beating Hilda’s knees with baseball bats. All the reporter did was plant a seed of doubt, and they crippled her and scared her out of the state.
Rachel felt her heart rate quicken. Spirits of the dead, murderers, and conspiracies, she was in the middle of it. Out of the suffocating fear, Rachel felt… alive. More than she had with her art. Her marriage. It was terrifyingly amazing.
The lights were on her father’s house when she pulled into the driveway at eleven pm.
“I’m home,” Rachel said, unlocking the door.
Brett opened the door for her the rest of way and shut it behind her. “You were gone the whole day.”
“I lost track of time.” Rachel admitted
Brett crossed his arms. “I called you three times.”
Rachel checked her phone. “I know. I was meeting with someone. You wouldn’t believe what I learned—”
“Rachel,” Brett cut her off. “Tell me what’s going on. Your father has gone to bed. It’s just us. ”
Rachel crossed her arms over her chest. “I was about to tell you.”
Brett pursed his lips.
“I’ve been looking into the history of our house. Can you believe that a family of four was murdered there? Mother, father and two kids. The murderers were never found.”
“Does this have to do with the break-in?” Brett asked. “I know it’s scary, but you haven’t been yourself the last few days. You hardly sleep. You don’t finish your plate. You used to be inseparable from your easel and now you won’t look at the thing.”
“Brett, it’s only been a few days. I told you I’m taking a break from my art.” Rachel said, starting to get annoyed.
“That’s fine, but I had to FedEx all of your sold works today because if I hadn’t, you would have lost some key clientele.”
“When did this become about my money?” Rachel asked. “There’s a lot more important things going on right now.”
“Firstly,” Brett said keeping his voice down not wake Liam. “It’s our money and we have a house we need to pay off. Secondly, we need to be establishing ourselves financially, otherwise we’re going to be SOL for the next twenty years?”
Rachel longed to tell him about her encounter in the basement and all the unbelievable things that have happened but, by the look on his flushed face, he would hightail her straight to the mental hospital. Instead, she avoided eye contact and said nothing. She felt like child.
Brett cleaned his glasses on bottom corner of his shirt. “I’m not mad at you.” He said begrudgingly. “I want… I only want things to go back to normal.”
That’s what I’m trying to do.
“If you say that you’re fine and nothing is wrong, I’m going to trust you, Rach. But if that’s not true. Let’s be transparent. That was one of our wedding vows. No BS. We aren’t like the rest of them.”
Rachel locked her bloodshot eyes with his. She spoke calmly, clearly and confidently. “Everything is fine.”
Brett’s frown sunk his entire face. He whispered. “Okay,” and then headed to the bedroom for some sleep.
Rachel stood in the living room, all alone, unsure why she lied to the man she loved. And why it had become so easy to do so. Her mind went to Barnes murders and how she was going to solve them.
Rachel handed the cab driver a twenty and removed herself from the vehicle. Her dark hair brushed across her cheek and small nose at the wind’s cold touch. Dry leaves and locust husks littered the front lawn. The Hadley House stood ominously with its sickly pale green paint and gathering of barren trees on all sides. Wading through inches of leaves, Rachel approached the front door. Brett had gone out to his photoshoot, and her father was at the bowling alley. She’d had a few hours to do what she needed to do: find out those kids.
“Hello?” Her voice carried through hallway and up the stairs.
The soft clicking grandfather clock filled the first floor.
Rachel felt idiotic, talking to empty house. With a long creeeaaakk, she opened the basement door. Memories of flying furniture replayed in her mind. Taking one step at a time, she descended into the abyss with her hand firm around the mag light.
“I want to talk to you.” Rachel said into the darkness, bracing herself for another attack.
She walked back to where rocking chair, hoping and not hoping that the doll had returned. No. Why wouldn’t they show themselves. None of this made sense. The children would know their killer, right? Couldn’t they help her or is she doomed to restless nights for eternity. Rachel felt a tugging feeling, beckoning her to the darkest corner of the basement. She took a breath and armed herself with a nearby dusty croquet mallet. Cautiously, she slipped by covered furniture and relics from the long dead Barnes family.
One moment, the feeling would stand the hairs on the back of neck and the next, she’d felt nothing. It seemed like she’d been play a sinister game of hot and cold as she navigated the dark of the basement. She reached a place at the back wall where her skin crawled like she was the host to a thousand roaches. She checked herself a few times, making sure that there were no insects on her and then studied the surrounding.
There was nothing particular unique about the drab concrete wall. Still, Rachel stared at the wall like a gallery panting, trying to decipher it’s hidden meaning. Disappointed, she trailed a few feet down, casting the flashlight to and fro until she found a fissure down the running the concrete. It ended at a fist size hole. Taking a knee, Rachel aimed the light within. Dust, dirt, cobwebs and a sort of booklet rolled up like a newspaper inside could be seen inside. Sighing, she shoved her arms inside. Her fingers brushed against dry concrete and then the old paper. It slid out without a hitch. Rachel’s hand and forearms were covered in red scratches. Gifts from the jagged concrete.
With her palm, Rachel brushed away a sheen of dust on the booklet’s face. Barnes is all it read. She flipped through the yellow pages. Numbers, names, addresses. She turned about the basement. Is this what the children wanted her to find?
Upstairs, she booted up her laptop and typed in the addresses. Lumberyards. It’s Reginald’s sales ledger, she realized. Making a few phone calls listed on certain websites and business registries, Rachel confirmed that the yards listed were purchased by Regi and then later bought back by the bank or Lilith Barnes’s parents. According the obituaries Rachel found online, the parents have been dead for over a decade. At least Hilda’s story checked out. That gave her confidence.
Taking the time to sift through the numbers and letters, she caught a detail on a final page. Regi had labeled two lumberyard Sale in Progress. The money he had estimated to purchase was considerably lower than the sales at the start of ledger. Rachel researched the two names. Strong Wood Lumber and Earth Call. Both had become lumber tyrants in the last two decades, but Strong Wood had undergone a name change in 1983 to Prime Cut Lumber. Funny. That’s the same year the Barnes family was murdered.
“I’m going to the art museum today,” Rachel told Brett via a phone call.
“Alright.” He said with hesitance. “See you for dinner.”
“You too.” Rachel hung up. She arrived at the lumber yard forty minutes later. Loud machines, yelling men in hard hats, and walls of timber encapsulated the busy yard. She paid the cabdriver extra to stay while she conducted her amateur investigation. She headed into the main building, a simple rectangle with an A-frame roof, and approached the man seated at the desk. He was of medium build with a healthy grey beard and creased forehead. His hazel eyes had crows feet and his face was long with a strong nose. The man had aged before his time. He was perhaps in his 50s. He looked up from his computer.
“Can I help you?” He asked politely despite his look of suspicion.
“I’m Rachel,” She shook his hand. “I’m authoring a book about the North Carolina lumber trade, and was wondering if you had a fifteen minutes to talk?”
The man smiled, almost flirtatiously. “Wouldn’t this have been easier to do over the phone?”
“Probably,” Rachel joked. But then I wouldn’t be able to see your face. “I like to get my hands dirty.”
The man smiled agreeably. Rachel could tell he liked her. Good.
“You must be Allen Umber,” Rachel said, recalling the name from the online business registry.
“People actually know my name? I’m honored.” The man joked.
“Only nerds like me, Mr. Umber.” A match. Now it was time to see if this was same individual who owned Strong Wood during the time of the murder.
Allen swiveled his chair and minimized the spreadsheet on his computer, revealing the desktop picture of him hovered over a dead buck. “I suppose I can kill a few minutes.”
“You hunt?” Rachel asked.
“For many years, yeah,” the man said proudly.
Rachel sat down at the chair facing the desk and pulled out her sketchpad. She flipped it to a page labeled Book Notes. In the cab ride, she jotted down some random facts about lumberyards to help support her lie. If you’re going to do something, do it right, she thought.
“Tell me about Prime Cut. What made get you into the trade?”
“Family got me into the business, as they do around these parts, and Prime Cut wasn’t always Prime Cut. Strong Woods was the name my father preferred.”
Rachel nodded. “Your father still around?”
“No. Passed in ‘78.” Allen admitted. “One minute, you’re BSing with the old man. The next, you’re thinking about his legacy and your role in that. Been running it ever since.”
“I’m sure keeping the business alive means a lot to you. Why change the name?”
Allen stared at her for a moment, trying to figure her out. “Marketing.”
Rachel jotted down a useless note. “I know in the seventies and eighties, Reginald Barnes tried to monopolize the surrounding the lumber yards.” She let the statement linger, watching the Allen’s reaction. He was still water. “I’m sure that upset you. Especially since your father had passed away only a few years prior. Almost like you finally settled in and learned the business and then some pretentious stranger comes into town to tear the rug out from underneath you.”
“It’s not a good feeling,” Allen said politely. It was obviously an understatement.
“You had to fight back,” Rachel said. “Make some real sacrifices to keep the business alive.”
“Most of us did,” Allen scratched his beard and didn’t look her in the eyes. “It was a rough time. Is this part of your book?”
“Yeah. The Barnes family massacre particularly. There wasn’t much press on it, and from the records, it seemed like they were murdered before he could finalize the agreement to buy out. Strong Wood. Seems suspicious, don’t you think?”
Allen shifted his jaw. “That was many years ago. I don’t remember much about it.”
“The Barnes family and their children were slaughtered in their own home, Mr. Umber. Almost every lumber company who’d been screwed by Reginald just got their fortunes back in a massive stroke of luck and you know nothing about it?”
“Nothing,” Allen replied. “As I said.”
Rachel felt she was losing her grip on the situation. If she ever had grip to start with it. She had to keep pressing him. “It saved your business. Seems like something you’d remember, almost like you changed your company’s name to distance yourself from the murders.”
Allen glared at her. “I don’t appreciate being accused of something I know little about.”
Rachel stared him down. “I’m only writing a book here, Mr. Umber. I didn’t mean to offend.”
“I’m afraid you did, Rachel…?”
“Harroway,” Rachel replied, using her maiden name. If he looked her up, he’d get her address from eight years ago. Good luck tracking me to the Hadley House.
“I’d prefer if we discuss the lumber trade,” Allen said. “I only have a few minutes free.”
Rachel nodded and asked him some broad, improvised questions about timber, machinery, and his daily routine. It was boring and useless to her investigation. She needed to follow up her other clue. “Hunting is great past time,” She started. “But what do you defend yourself with at home?”
“That’s an odd question,” Allen replied.
“Many of my readers are blue collar gun owners. They like this kind of stuff. You seem like a high caliber type of guy.”
Allen chuckled. “Yes, I am.”
“Forty-five?” Rachel asked.
Allen nodded. “1911. Never let me down.”
Rachel jotted down the note. She remembered the bullet wounds on the children’s bodies. They were .45 caliber, or something similar. Was she really taking to their killer right now? The idea made her stomach churn. All things considered, the guy seemed so… normal.
Closing her notebook, Rachel exited the building and hurried to her cab. She felt a surge of adrenaline as Allen Umber waved her goodbye.
In the back seat of the cab, Rachel chewed her nail. Was she too forward with Umber? She didn’t know. She could only compare her experience to crime serials and serial killer novels. The man was defensive against her accusations. Then again, most people are to any accusation against them. This was going to be a lot more difficult than she thought.
Onward to Rachel next stop, Earth Call Lumber.
The yard’s set-up was similar but more disorganized. Instead of the massive operation Umber ran, there was a splinter team of workers sending lumber logs through massive saw blades. They were a chain smoking, catcalling, dog faced lot. Rachel paid them little mind. She found David Winsler pulling levers in a rusty red outdoor operating cab. Nearby, a shaft of lumber drifted down a loud vibrating conveyor belt into the rectangular lumber house where saws screamed in the wood dust coated the floor like Christmas morning snow.
Winsler was a short, muscular man with a bull-like upper body and a devilishly handsome face that had only gotten more attractive with age. The picture on his website was stoic and years younger.
He raised his index finger at Rachel and launched the last lumber log through the belt. Grumbling to himself, he marched out the cab and wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Blackish grey hair curled out of the sides and back of his trucker hat. He had a sour expression on his clean-shaven, handsome face. “It appears anyone can walk into my yard uninvited these days.”
The afternoon sun beat on Rachel forehead and caused her squint. “I don’t mean to intrude. I’m writing a non-fiction book about the local lumber trade and was hoping you’d have few minutes to spare.”
“Should’ve made an appointment.” Winsler hiked back his thumb to the conveyer belt and shouted over a screaming saw. “I got at least two dozen more logs to get through here by sundown and we’re behind as is.”
“I know my visit is spontaneous. But I think you’ll be interested to hear what I have to say.”
“Probably not.” Winsler replied.
“A large portion of story follows the Barnes’s massacre in ‘83.”
Winsler gave her an evil eye. “What do you know about that?”
“I know Reginald Barnes wasn’t making many friend with his business model. And I know that his passing was only beneficial for the local lumberyard owners.”
“That’s a bold claim.”
“It’s a fact,” Rachel retorted.
The industrial shriek of saw through wood sounded behind them.
“Let me tell you about the Barnes massacre. Regi was no saint. He made enemies in the North East and they came back to collect their dues.”
“Nothing was stolen from his home,” Rachel replied. “His family was slaughtered.”
Winsler stared her down. “Some dues are only paid in blood. Some sacrifices are there to warn us.”
“You sound like you’re familiar with such practices,” Rachel stated, not realizing until a second after how bold her claim was. Her breath quickened. What if Winsler attacked her right now? How would she defend herself? She is in the middles of the woods on top of a mountain. Her only witness would be a cabdriver who doesn’t know her name. He could’ve gotten bored of touting her around and driven away. From where Rachel stood, the road was completely masked by trees.
“I had this dog once. Beautiful Golden Retriever. Loyal but stupid,” Winsler said, out of left field. “She’d go sniffing around these woods and come back home with a dirty snout and wagging tail. One day, she stuck her face into nesting hole on the ground. The kind with Yellow Jackets in it. Needless to say, she learned real quick about where to stick her nose.”
Rachel pondered the story, but to be honest, the meaning was crystal clear.
Winsler climbed back into the operating cab. “Have good day.” He flipped the switch and set another log to the saw blade.
Rachel chewed her nail and watched at the woods blur by in mix of green and brown. The cabdriver said something about the AC, but Rachel ignored it. Her thoughts stayed on the investigation. If either one or both of these men were the killers, she could try to tail them, but the massacre was thirty years ago. The chance that they’d lead her to something new was dismal at best. Also, she had zero experience tailing someone. It’s as good a time as any to learn. The prospect didn’t inspire her. Similar to her art, she needed to provoke a reaction from the audience. The easiest ways to do that… controversy and publicity. As someone who draws fictional murder victims for a living, Rachel knew how to make her art catchy. To bring that controversy and publicity to the murderers, Rachel needed another Golden Retriever.
“Police station,” She told the driver.
The Highlands’ police bullpen was tightly packed, under trafficked and smelled sterile like a hospital. Hugging the ledger to chest, Rachel approached the older man at the front desk. His glasses had a silver chain at edge of their arms and a magnet that connect the middles of bridge of the frame.
Rachel took a breath. It was her first time in a police station. “I have information regarding the Barnes Murders.”
The receptionist cocked his head.
“In 1983. At the Hadley House,” Rachel clarified.
Rolling back in his chair, the receptionist yelled to a man hunched over a desk. “Peak, you’re up!” The receptionist turned to Rachel. “Go on in.”
Rachel walked back to the desk.
“Detective Jenson Peak,” The man stood from his desk, introducing himself. Peak was a tall man with dark eyes, a long face, sunken cheeks, and pursed lips topped by a head of thick copper brown hair combed to side. A black tie hung from his ash grey collar. He looked Rachel’s age, in his thirties, and had an intensity about him that made it hard for Rachel looked him in the eyes. She did so anyway and told him about the ledger and Hilda’s story. Remembering after she had finished that this was in regards the Barnes murders.
“I read the cold case file a few months back. I don’t have the most social hobbies,” Peak said dryly.
“I draw dead people for a living,” Rachel admitted.
Peak smirked briefly and flipped through the ledger. “This won’t be enough to condemn your gunmen. But I can chase a few leads and give Hilda Kilgore a call.”
“Whatever gets us closer.”
“I don’t want to give you false hope. In cases like these, the killers get away,” Peak said nonchalantly.
“That’s kind of cynical,” Rachel replied.
Peak nodded to himself. “Yeah.”
They stood in quiet for a moment.
“Anything else I can do?” Rachel asked.
“The police will take handle the investigation. Your involvement will be problematic.”
Rachel wasn’t sure why she felt so offended by that. “If you need anything, I live in the Hadley House down—“
“I know. Officer Lynchfield told me all about it.”
“Ah.” It was all Rachel could say.
After a few formalities, Rachel returned to her father’s home. She sighed and headed inside. Patters of lukewarm food set on the table. In the recliner, her father wiped his already polished bowling ball with a soft rag. He still wore his two-tone bowling polo. Brett adjusted the settings on his camera.
“I’m so sorry,” Rachel said. She smelled like sawdust. The three of them set aside their items and sat at the table. Liam said grace, and they ate. After an evening of small talk, Rachel took her shower and climbed into bed with Brett, who had been largely silent throughout the evening. They retired for the evening.
“Do your shoot go well?” Rachel asked as she pulled up the covers.
Brett put aside his glasses and stared at the ceiling. “Well enough. I went to the art gallery today to surprise you with lunch.”
“Brett, I’m sorry.”
He took a deep breath. “What’s going on, Rachel? Let’s not run in circles.”
Rachel paused to think about her response. “I… I have been looking into the murder of Reginald Barnes and his family.”
Brett rolled over to face her. His eyes had dark circles. “Who?”
“He was the previous owner of our house, and a local lumber tycoon. I believe that his competitors killed him and his children to warn to anyone wanting to monopolize the area.”
Brett scratched his head. “Why does this matter?”
“Because I literarily can’t sleep unless if the killers are found,” Rachel replied.
Brett scooted up to the bed’s backboard and turned on the lamp. “Look at me.”
Rachel did so. With a concerned look, Brett brushed his thumb down her cheek. He studied her bloodshot eyes. “When was the last time you slept?”
“This isn’t good for you. You’re an artist. Not a detective. That’s the police’s job.”
“I know. I turned in what little evidence I had today.”
Brett wrapped his arm around her and gently pulled her close. “I want you to stay at home for the next few days. Is that alright?”
“Brett, I told you that I’m done with the investigation.”
“I know,” Her husband replied. “But your father and I have been discussing your mother and her condition. We don’t want to see history repeating itself.”
Rachel felt like he’d jabbed her with knife, and it hurt worse because she knew there was some kernel of truth to it.
The next morning, after Rachel had slept two hours, Brett and her packed up and returned to the Hadley House. They didn’t discuss the conversation from the night before. Nor did they act like anything was amiss. From an outsider’s perspective, they were just another jolly married couple settling into to their new home. Rachel set back up her easel. She removed the sketches she had no recollection of drawing and tucked them into a cardboard cylinder. Brett and her raked leaves together, washed the car, and sifted through the antiques in the basement. Rachel didn’t fight him on what he wanted to sell. Over three/fourths, he marked up for eBay, but Rachel knew it would be more, by the end of the month.
When they were researching various online markets, they found site dedicated to the Hadley House Massacre. None other than Andrew Shaw, the creep who knocked on Rachel and Brett’s front door nearly a week ago, hosted the website.
“That explained his interest in the place,” Brett said. “Maybe we should sell this crap to him.”
“I’d rather not,” Rachel replied.
The first day back felt slow, despite all they’d gotten done. Rachel couldn’t shake this empty feeling inside. Brett set out in the morning for a photo op. Rachel worked at unpacking the remaining boxes and decorating their selves and dressers with knickknacks and sculptures they’d acquired over the years. As she moved between the downstairs and the master bed, Rachel took a detour into one of the side bedrooms. She opened the massive wardrobe and pushed aside dead Reginald’s moth-eaten clothes. Dark spots stained the back-bottom corner. A sudden chill caused her skin to rise.
“Stop them,” a voice said behind her.
Rachel twisted back.
Bullet riddled and pale, nine years old Amanda Barnes and her brother, Benny, watched Rachel with unblinking eyes.
Rachel stumbled back, knocking into the wardrobe. She let herself breath and forced herself to face the massacred children.
“Stop the bad men,” Amanda said, her arms slack at her side and tears of blood dripping form the wounds on her torso.
“Who are they?” Rachel asked, her head becoming light.
“They wear masks, but it isn’t Halloween.” the boy inclined to plumpness answered.
“I need more than that,” Rachel said.
“We never saw their faces,” Amanda replied. “Never saw anything.”
Rachel glanced about the vacant bedroom. “What about your parents?”
Amanda’s glossy eyes went wide. “They’re angry at you.”
“You haven’t stopped the bad men.”
“I don’t know who they are! How can I stop them?” Rachel shouted.
Amanda and Benny lifeless eyes stared deep inside of her.
“The police will take care of it,” Rachel said trying to calm down.
The shutters outside began to shake violently and clapped against the outer wall. The bedroom door slammed. The floor rocked and creaked and moaned. Rachel held on the wardrobe to keep her balance. With wide eyes, she stared at the kids for help.
“Father’s angry.” Little fat Benny said.
Rachel shut her eyes as tight as she could. It’s a nightmare. It’s all fake. You’re okay. Lies, lies, lies.
Suddenly, the house was still again. Rachel forced herself to look. The bedroom door was open and the shutters unmoved. Rachel lurched over, wanting to vomit. She gagged and spit on the floor. After a moment of rest, she left the room and locked the door behind her. Outside of it, she slid to the floor and hugged her knees close to chest. She wished she had someone to confide with.
Alas, she was alone.
An idea came. She forced herself to her feet and to stacked of unpacked boxes. She picked up the decaying cardboard one on top and pulled it open.
Sitting on the living room floor, she removed old family photo and poems from the old file box. She slid out the cardboard slab separating the her mother’s journal and herb collection from other sentimental items. Rachel picked up the journal and opened the old leather binding. The words of different languages and tongues. Some common, like Spanish and French and others completely incomprehensible. Rachel sifted through the texts of a mad woman, soaking up every understandable work like sponge. The word Orphans appeared many times, followed by the Sense, The Vision, The Gift. None of this made sense and doubt pushed into the front of Rachel’s mind as she read. Her mother was crazy, that was the simple truth of it. Right?
A passage stood out to her. It started in Latin and then became English. “And when the Orphan gazed upon me and our eyes met, I knew I had been Marked. The only way I could free myself was through their redemption.” The passage continued on in Latin.
Another sentence grabbed Rachel a few pages later. “The truth became harder to bare as the days dragged on. No one could see what I saw: the Orphans influences on our world. They’d smash a mirror and only I would see the creaks. They’d lead me to item and only I could touch it. Was I insane? I couldn’t be. It was all so real.”
Rachel paused toward the middle of one of the final pages. She didn’t want to read on. The words. They terrified her. “When my Gift develop. It was violent. The damage became real. Even Liam saw it, though he did not believe. Thankfully, the attacks subsided and I became their sole witness. This changed after She was born. I played coy. The good wife. The good mother. Then I could see the Orphans Marked Rachel. Her imaginary friends where the victims I sought to redeem. Therapy would help her forget. For how long, I did not know.
The rest of the ravings described odd locations like a twisting tree and a bottomless well. Beyond that were pictures of mutilated corpses and crude weapons. In the exact center of the book resided a recipe for an herbal concoction. Rachel recognized some of the ingredients as highly poisonous and extremely rare. Rachel’s world spun. She let the journal fall from her hands.
The memory of her mother’s episode replayed.
“Keep her far from him!” her mother shouted at Liam.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her father yelled back.
Her mother threw plates across the room. She picked up a shattered shard of glass and lunged at something near Liam. Liam avoided the jagged edge and grappled her. Her elbow knocked his tooth and caused him to spit blood. She ran to Rachel, grabbed her by the wrist and bolted outside, only dressed in her underwear. She screamed at someone Rachel didn’t see. “She’s not yours! She’s mine! Mine! Mine! MINE!” The cops came soon after and forcefully separated Rachel from her mother’s iron grip. They put a towel on her and put her in the back of the cop car. She glared at Rachel as she drove away. Glared at her like she was the spawn of Satan. But was that really her she was glaring at or someone else entirely?
Rachel phoned Brett. “I’m going to visit my mother in Charlotte. It’s only for a day.”
“I thought we talked about staying home for the next few days?” Brett complained. Though Rachel knew that his “we” meant her.
“I know. It has nothing to do with the case or the break ins or anything. I just think that seeing her will help me understand some things. Help me get better.” That last part was painful to say.
Brett was quiet for a good while. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, I need to do this alone,” Rachel declared.
“Okay. I love you. I’ll let you have the car. Liam can drive me back to the shoot.”
Less than an hour passed before the Escalade arrived and Brett handed her the keys. He gave her a kiss. “I never met your mother.”
“That makes pretty much both of us,” Rachel said honestly.
Brett gave her a pitiful smile. “Drive safe, okay?”
“I will. See you soon, Brett.” They kissed again. Almost as a final farewell.
The mental hospital wasn’t much different from any other medical facility, two stories, clean and objective in its design. Rachel arrived and stepped inside, recalling every horrific of a sanatorium she’d ever seen in works of fiction. Though this place juxtaposed those terrifying images of dark halls and screaming patients, it still provoked the same feeling of dread down in the pit of Rachel’s heart. The kind nurse led her the visiting area and had her find a seat. Through the fortified window, patients played in the fence in yard. An elderly woman tossed a basketball and missed horribly. A bald fat man giggled to himself while rocking back and forth. Rachel didn’t judge them. She pitied them and wondered what it must be like to spend the rest of your days in the walls of place like this. Whether the staff was nice or not, you were caged. At least that’s how Rachel felt. She wasn’t quite sure if that was wrong or right of her to think such things.
The nurse returned and, with her, the strange woman. Rachel stood from the chair at the round table and kept herself from gawking. The woman’s hair was frizzy and short, her nose was tiny and her eyes seemed empty. The patient scrub hung to her bony arms and legs like burlap sack. She shambled toward Rachel at the behest of the nurse and took a seat beside Rachel.
“She took her medication and may be a bit drowsy, she been very good these last few months. We no longer have to use the straitjacket” The kind nurse said with her tiny voice. She smiled softly at the woman. “Look, Mrs. Sanders. You have a guest.”
The woman’s hair was grey like the ash and charred wood. Rachel could see herself in the woman’s face. Their eyes were same shape and the same shade of green. They shared the same lips and nose.
“Mom?” Rachel said as the nurse stepped away, but stayed in the room.
Sarah Sanders said nothing. Drool trickled hung to the corner of her mouth.
“It’s me. Rachel.” Rachel fought back tears. Why I am crying? I don’t know this woman. “I’m your daughter.”
Sarah’s hollow eyes stayed on the white tile floor.
“Do you remember this book?” Rachel asked.
Sarah didn’t react to the letter bound journal place before her.
“Please. Look at it.”
Her mother turned to the journal, her face completely devoid of emotion. Rachel didn’t know if this was her medication or her normal demeanor. Both explanations frightened Rachel.
“Talk to me, mom. Say something,” Rachel commanded.
The woman turned her gaze from the book back to the tile floor. Rachel leaned back her chair and crossed her arms. She reminded herself what she was dealing with and that helped calm her.
“Please, mom.” Rachel begged. “I need your help. Something is happening to me. I’m seeing things. What you call Orphans.”
Sarah’s iron grip constricted Rachel’s wrist. Her dead eyes became suddenly full of fury. Just like the Barnes Children, she stared deep into Rachel in way that violated. The husk of the woman was gone and what stared at Rachel was something far more terrifying. Her voice was rough and dangerous. “You have it, cursed child.”
Rachel tried to pull from her mother’s grip. Her mother’s finger nails pierced Rachel’s flesh.
“You have the Gift,” Her mother said.
“Let go,” Rachel whispered, trying not to make a scene in front of the nurse.
Sarah’s eyes widened. “They’ve Marked you. I can see it.”
“Please, mom. Let go of me.”
Suddenly, the woman’s tight grasp released. Rachel pulled her arms back and rubbed her red wrist.
Tears trickled down Sarah’s face. “She has it. Yes… just like me.”
It took Rachel a moment to realize that her mother wasn’t talking to her, but someone else. Someone unseen.
“Who is it?” Rachel asked, unsure what else to say.
Sarah ignored her. Turned her ear up to ceiling and nodded in agreement to something Rachel never heard.
“What does it mean to Marked? What is the Gift?”
Sarah turned back to Rachel. She looked both ways and got low to table, gesturing Rachel to do the same. Hesitant, she obeyed. Sarah whispered, careful not to let the nurse hear her. “The Gift is a blessing. A curse. A joke. It feels the Orphans; feels their remains with the Sense. It tugs at you, when they are close. When danger comes.”
“I’ve felt that,” Rachel said, her eyes glossing over. “In the basement.”
Sarah ignored her or refused to listen, and kept on. “The Gift is three. The Sight. The Vision. That opens them up to you. Opens them up to Mark you. Yes… Then there’s the Reality— You witness their death. You taste it in your mouth just as the Orphan did and you join them in their special place.”
“I think I’ve used the Sense and Vision,” Rachel couldn’t believe her own words. She felt just as crazed as her mother. “How do I stop it?”
Sarah cried and sniffled. “You don’t, my dear.”
“There has to be way,” Rachel argued. “I can’t live like this.”
Sarah wiped her tears away and looked at Rachel like mother giving her daughter the most important advice in the world. “Find their killer. Give them rest. Then they leave. Only you can do this. Only you, Rachel Harroway. It’s your burden now.”
Just as fast as the life returned to her mother’s eyes, it left and Rachel sat before the hollow shell of a woman.
The woman Rachel feared she’d become one day.
Knocking at my Door
Rachel’s trip to her visit her mother left her with more questions than answers. What was this Gift? How did her mother get it? Was Rachel truly the only one capable of seeing the Orphans? Thinking about made her head hurt. Only one truth matter, she needed to solve Barnes murders and then she’d be free.
She spent the next few hours in the library archives, hunched over the microfilm kiosk and reading every news report regarding the 1983 massacre. The stories were the same: family of four killed in robbery. Barnes lumber purchased by bank. Life returns to normal. Rachel sat back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose. She closed her eyes, feeling a wave of sleepiness splash over her. The repetition of the same facts beat down on her. Nothing was moving forward. If Detective Peak had any leads, it wasn’t enough to stop the Barnes killers. Otherwise, the Orphans and the incomplete feeling Rachel had inside would’ve departed.
Rachel imagined the case like an artistic sketch. She had the framing but the details were lacking. Rachel typed in the database “Highlands Lumber” and started pulling microfilm from different boxes. There wasn’t much news to work with. After all, the lumber trade isn’t a part of everyday conversation. Finally, Rachel stumbled across a small 1985 article called Lumber Kings. The picture showed much younger David Winsler and Allen Umber with wide grins and a stack of timber at their back. With them stood another man, Ian Linx. Unlike the other two men, Ian seemed uneasy. Upon further inspection of the article, Rachel discovered that he was both of these men’s lawyer and was credited with bartering negating some profitable deals for Umber and Winsler. The journalist called it a “friendly but shameless” promotion of the attorney. The lawyer’s involvement seemed to stand out. Was his appearance only coincidence or did he have a larger role in the death of the Barnes?
After some research into Linx’s practice, Rachel was pleased to hear the attorney was local. She couldn’t deal with two out of state trips in such a short period of time. She dialed Ian and scheduled an appointment. On the off-kilter street, Rachel felt eyes on her. Is it an Orphan? Parked a block down the road sat an unfamiliar car with tinted windows. A cab pulled in front of Rachel. She climbed in and took off down the wavy street. The vehicle followed Rachel to lawyer’s office but kept driving on after Rachel exited. Rachel couldn’t shake the crawling feeling on her skin. She chalked it up to paranoid but her mother words about the Sense and its ability to feel danger bubbled in the back of her mind.
With a head of dyed blond hair, Ian Linx wore a three-piece suit and a cheesy smile. Like his office, his eyes were big and American blue. The uncomfortable expression on the newspaper article picture was nowhere to found. He guided Rachel into his semi-circle office, offered her refreshments and locked his fingers on his desk. “I didn’t pick up all the details on the phone. You said wanted to discuss a past crime and needed my expertise?”
Rachel nodded. “Something like that, Mr. Linx.”
The lawyer raised a brow.
“I’m looking into the 1983 Barnes’s massacre. I wanted to hear your take on what happened.”
The side of Ian’s lip twitched. He hid the feature with a smile. “Are you a detective?”
“I’m a novelist,” Rachel lied. If he had contact with Allen Umber and David Winsler, she needed to keep her story consistent.
“Why is novelist interested in that story?” Ian replied.
“Conspiracy. Murder. It’s a tale dying to be told,” Rachel smiled as cockily as she could.
“Well, I don’t know what you want from me.”
“You made your name by helping Allen Umber and David Winsler conquer the local lumber trade in ‘85. That’s something that would’ve only been possible with Reginald Barnes’s demise.”
“I didn’t realize I was in courtroom,” Ian replied. He stood from his seat, walked around Rachel and closed the door to the office.
“Children were slaughtered.” Rachel stated.
“I am aware of the robbery.” He returned to his seat and relocked his fingers on the desk.
“Does that not bother you?”
Linx’s lip twitched again. “I wish I could help you with whatever questions you may have, but I cannot share any information regarding my past clientele.”
“Even if they may be involved in a quadruple murder?” Rachel felt nothing like an artist today. She projected herself as a combination of her favorite TV detectives. “Besides, you only worked as a negotiator for them. Not to protest their involvement in murders they were never even suspected of committing. Everything you say should be completely legal. You would only want to hide that fact if you knew something.”
Linx leaned in. “Let me tell you something, Mrs. Harroway, and then you can be on your way. Stay away from this. Whatever story you’re trying to write or mystery you’re trying to uncover. It is not worth it.”
Rachel watched him intently. “Why?”
Linx locked eyes with her. “It’s dangerous.”
“I know,” Rachel replied. “But the dead are restless, Mr. Linx. Justice has been denied for too long. Tell me what you know and let’s put an end to that danger.”
“What are you going to do with the information?” He said in the most condescending way possible.
“The right thing. Tell the police, have them arrest the murderers, and move on with my life,” Rachel said honestly.
“Honorable goals,” Linx admitted. “The men you’re dealing with don’t share the same ethics.”
Rachel crossed her arms. “I know it’s about the money and scare tactics. At this point, I could care less about their reaction or motivations. I want results.”
“I admire your courage,” Linx said with a faint smile. “So I’ll give you this: you’re on the right track.”
Rachel chuckled in her frustration. “That doesn’t get me anywhere. If you know something, say it.”
“By doing that I endanger my life and my practice,” Linx argued.
“You’re going to live with the guilt then?” Rachel asked. Her face flushed red.
Linx’s lip twitched. They were at a standstill for a moment. “If I tell you this, there’s no going back. If you’ve been asking around, there’s a chance you’ve already endangered yourself.”
“Cocky is what you are,” Linx said.
Rachel smirked. “Possibly, but you haven’t thrown me out of the room so that means that part of you wants to talk.”
Linx separated his fingers and twisted his chair around. He began filling two scotch glasses. “We’re both going to regret this.”
“Not if it’s the right thing to do.”
Linx handed one of the glasses to Rachel. “Weeks prior to the murders, rumors circulated in town that Reginald had received multiple death threats, witnessed bricks being thrown his window, and had his tires slashed. I only knew about this because I represented a few of laborers Regi had fired unjustly. They’d talk a lot and invited me to sort of union meet they were having.
“I thought it’d be a good place to scout new clientele. I attended one evening, listened to their rants, networked with them, but when David Winsler got on stage, there was a shift in the atmosphere. What felt like work concerns turned to blind hated for Reginald. Winsler mentioned he’d do something about their problem. After the meeting, I saw him and Allen Umber talking lowly. The massacre happened soon after.”
“You really think it was them?” Rachel asked, wary of taking a sip.
“I had my concerns, but after that reporter was beaten bloody in her home, I knew they were involved somehow.”
“Why didn’t you contact the police?”
Linx frowned. “They came to me first, remembering me from the union-esc meeting and hired me to negotiate with other yard owners. I couldn’t say no, and remembering what happened those children, I didn’t want to say no. I helped them buy up the lumber yards from the bank and from those who re-purchased their properties from said bank. It was land grab through and through, and a lot of yard owners were too scared to deny selling. Unlike Reginald, Umber and Winsler allowed the previous owners to keep their company name and workers. They gave them management positions and healthy slice of the sales.
“During this time, I overheard them talking about burning down the Barnes house. Umber—always the more level headed of the two—said it would raise suspicion,” Linx finished his amber drink.
“You have hard evidence of this?” Rachel asked, feeling her heart race. Her freedom neared.
“I keep transcripts and audio recordings from all my client meetings. The audio clip about burning down the house should be in there. However, it’s been awhile since I dust off that old recorder. It’s hard to say how much survived.”
Rachel stood from her seat. “How soon can you deliver it to the police?”
“A week. Maybe two,” Linx replied. “It’s a lot of audio.”
I can last that long. Rachel felt to urge to dance, but stopped herself before looking like a fool. “Whatever you need from me. Whatever makes this easier, call me. Please,” Rachel said. “I know you don’t want to do this, but it’s right thing to do.”
“Heh, if someone told me this is how my day would go, I’d call them crazy.”
“I’m serious, Linx. I’m with you in this.” Rachel reaffirmed.
The lawyer shook his head. “I’m the one with the evidence. It’s me who has to deliver it.”
Rachel shook his hand. “Then I wish good luck.”
“Oh, and Rachel. If we’re wrong, the real killers will come after us.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Highlands is a small place. Word spreads quickly.”
Rachel smiled at him. “Then make sure we aren’t wrong.”
Linx raised his glass to that. “See, not all lawyers are evil.”
The Hadley House was a welcoming sight, even with the black clouds encroaching from its flank. Rachel parked the car and closed the door and that chapter of her life. That should be enough justice for the Orphans, she hoped. The courts will take care of the rest. Inside, Brett washed the dishes.
He didn’t hear her enter, so she tipped toed up behind him and constricted him with her arms. Brett twisted back, looking like he would strike her but then suddenly concerned. “Are you alright?” He asked.
Rachel nodded enthusiastically. Brett’s torso may have been damp from dishwater but that didn’t stop Rachel from pushing her body against his. She looked at his handsome rugged beard and disheveled onyx hair. “Let’s make something good tonight.”
Together, they unpacked their spaghetti noodles and rolled the meatballs. Rachel kept the topic of conversation on him and his work. She knew that the win was still on her mind and didn’t want to tell him everything. Not just yet.
The downpour began soon after they set the table. Strong winds smashed against the old walls and the house groaned in response. Fat and violently rain pelted the windows and pinged loudly against the rooftop. Lightening flashed on a nearby mountaintop. Rolls of thunder followed. It was Rachel’s type of romantic night.
“… After we got the tripods set up, the rest was history. I only wish my shorts didn’t need sowing.” Brett adjusted his glasses at the bridge of his nose. “How was your mother?”
Rachel stopped her noodle wrapped fork halfway between the plate and her mouth. “She’s… not who I thought she was. She taught me some things I never knew about myself.”
“Good,” Brett replied. His dark eyes looked particularly tired this evening behind his glasses and his dark hair was slightly disheveled. As the meal declined, he cleared his throat. “There’s something I want to talk to you about. I wanted to wait until after we finished eating before I went on.”
Rachel set aside her utensils. In the nearby hallway, she felt the presence of Amanda and Benny Barnes watching her just out of sight. “What is it?”
“I booked us on a cruise for next month,” Brett said with smile.
“Really?” A smile curled up Rachel’s face. “That’s… thanks, Brett. Truly.”
“Before we discuss more about that, there’s a few things I say and I want you to listen.”
“Are you blackmailing me?” Rachel joked.
Brett smirked. His tone suddenly changed to somberness. “You haven’t been the same these last few days. I reviewed the security footage and saw you sketching on our easel in a zombie-like state, and then I reviewed the sketches and… They were of the family that was murdered. But the dates on the footage were days before you started… investigating. I don’t get what is going on. Did you know about the murders before we moved in? Is that why you’re acting so weird?”
Rachel scrambled for words but couldn’t find any.
“It scares me, Rachel,” Brett continued. “The long hours you’re away from home, the secrecy, it all adds to this fear that… that you aren’t yourself anymore. Or you are, and I just don’t know you as well as I thought.”
“I’m still me,” Rachel said, almost instantly doubting her. “And you do know me.”
Brett looked her intensely. “Then what’s happening? And I don’t want to hear that you’re fine because that’s not true. Tell me the truth, Rachel. Please.”
“You wouldn’t like what I told you.”
Confusion swept over Brett’s face. It twisted to determination. “I’m ready.”
“I…” Rachel took a breath. The case is closed. I can lie to him. Once the Orphan’s leave in the next few weeks, life will be normal. Guilt hit Rachel like a train. “I want you to promise me that whatever I say stays between us.”
“Of course,” Brett replied.
Rachel thought for a moment about how she wanted to word this. “The family that was murdered here, I believe they’re responsible for everything that has happened.”
Brett stared at her intently. “Like… ghosts?”
Rachel shifted in her seat. “Orphans. They’re lost. They need to find their way home.”
Rachel detested the way he looked at her. “I know it sounds crazy, but think about it. The break-ins, my mother’s shattered China, it all make sense, right?”
“I don’t know, Rachel. This is a lot to swallow.”
“It sounds wacky but if you saw the things I saw…” Rachel rose from her seat and ran to her purse.
Brett watched her from his seat, not saying anything.
Rachel return and tossed him her mother’s journal.
Gingelly, Brett opened it. His brow crinkled as she scanned over the pages.
“That’s my mother’s. She calls it the Gift. It’s the ability to see, to feel the dead. See,” Rachel pointed out the passage about the Sense.
Brett didn’t look up from the page. “Rachel. Half of this isn’t even in English.”
“I know, Brett.” Rachel said frustratingly. “I don’t have all the answers, but the stuff in there describes exactly what I’m going through.”
Brett closed the book and looked up at her. His face was stark white. “I think we need to go to the hospital.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“I believe you, but…”
“Either you believe more or you don’t.” Rachel took his hand into her own. “Brett, please. I’m your wife. Give me the benefit of the doubt here.”
Brett opened his mouth to speak.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
Simultaneously, they turned to the front door. Rachel felt her skin crawl and sickening feeling form in her stomach.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK.
They knocked again.
Brett stood from his seat.
Rachel grabbed him by the arm. “Don’t open the door.”
“Why?” Brett asked, sensing her concern.
Brett pried loose of her grip.
The doorknob jiggled. Brett approached the door. Rachel turned the kitchen and the knife rack within. Brett peaked out the window and to the porch.
“Brett, listen to me,” Rachel pleaded. “Back away from that door.”
Brett turned to his wife and then the door. Sighing, he placed the safety bar beneath the doorknob. He whispered to Rachel, “Who is that is guy?”
Rachel felt her skin being nagged on every direction. “The Barnes killer.”
There was a loud thump at the backdoor.
Brett paused for moment, unsure what to do. There was another loud thump.
“Upstairs,” Brett commanded. “And call the police.”
Rachel pulled knife from the rack and sped up the stairs. Brett followed behind. They reached the master bedroom and closed the door. Rachel booted up her laptop.
Glass shattered downstairs. Rachel opened the live feed for her security camera. A masked gunman crawled through a shattered front window. He wore a transparent poncho that dripped rain across the floor. In his hand was a black .45 caliber pistol.
“Oh my…” Brett said, watching the footage with wide eyes.
“This is the Highlands police department. Please state your emergency.” The operator said into Rachel’s ear.
“There are two gunmen in my house.”
One of the masked gunmen craned his neck up to the camera lens. He shouted to the other man who’d bashed through the backdoor. The second man turned around and rushed outside. After a moment, the power to the entire house cut out. Rachel and Brett turned to one another. The laptop screen illuminated their faces. All the cameras were dead.
“Stay on the line. The police are on their way,” the operator said.
“How long?” Rachel asked.
“ETA. Six minutes.” The operated replied.
Holding the phone to her shoulder, Rachel turned to Brett. “If they get through that door, we’re dead.”
“What have you gotten us into, Rachel?” Brett withdrew the baseball bat from beneath the bed and tightened his hands around its grip. In the darkness, Rachel could only see his silhouette and ready club.
“We can’t fight later.” Rachel slid the knife into her belt. She clicked open the metal latches the window and heaved it upward. Wind and rain bombarded her. Water puddled at her feet and leaked through the floorboards.
“Go first,” Brett said, standing by the door’s flank.
Rachel nodded and climbed outside. The shingled incline took her by surprise. She caught the window frame to prevent from slipping off. The storm pulled at her, stronger than the persistent pulling of the Sense. She found grip on the house’s walls and made way for Brett who rushed the window.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Three gunshots blew through the metal door lock. Wide-eyed, Brett turned to Rachel. “Sorry.”
He grabbed ahold of the window and slammed it down, separating Brett and Rachel by the pane of glass. A boot kicked in the bedroom door. One of the gunman, a tall fellow donned in black and wearing a ski-mask and rain poncho, stood in its threshold.
Rachel pressed her back against the outer wall. She could her husband’s muffled voice as tears and rain raced down her face.
Brett dropped the baseball bat and back up to the window. “Listen, man. Whatever you think is going on, it’s just a big misunderstanding, alright? Put down the gun and let’s talk about this.”
Blood splattered the inner window. Something heavy thumped inside. Rachel covered her mouth. Her hand trembled. She heard Brett’s muffled cries through the wall.
“Where is she?” The tall masked man asked.
“Screw you!” Brett yelled over his pain.
The window pulled open. Gun at the ready, the masked man peered outside. Raindrops snaked down his disposable poncho. He pointed the gun at the left ledge and the right and then down to the backyard. The tire swing danced violently in the wind, constantly wrapping and unwrapping its old rope.
“You run away and your husband dies,” the gunman yelled out into the darkness. He pulled his head back inside.
Rachel took a breath, she peered around the corner of the building and at the window. Rain blew into the house. The nearby shutters rattled. Rachel lowered herself to her bottom and slid down the roof, landing in the front yard with an “Oof!” Dirt stained her knees. She pushed herself up.
She stared at the Escalade and long road ahead. Trees waved. She twisted back, seeing the blooded Barnes family watching her from the porch. Despite the rain splashing the wall behind, they remained completely dry, barring their rose-shaped bullet holes that endless leaked blood down their pale bodies.
Rachel jogged to them. They glared at her from over porch’s railing. “Help me,” Rachel begged.
The front door flung open from an unseen force. Rachel’s face sunk into pure horror. She staggered back. “You just gave me away.”
The Orphan’s looked at her expectantly.
A black handgun poked out the door frame followed by the shorter, stouter gunman. The wet and wooden porch creaked beneath his black tennis shoes. He exited to the porch, aiming his gun at the Barnes family but not seeing them. He walked across the porch, passing through Reginald Barnes and peering around the elbow of the porch. He turned back.
Rachel held her breath. The rain lashed at her. Her body trembled from free and cold. She heard the gunmen near. She pushed her back deeper into the pocket where steps and porch formed a corner.
The gunman marched across the porch, stopping right above Rachel’s head. Silently, she drew the kitchen knife from her belt and hid its glint in the muddy dirt.
Amanda and Benny Barnes bolted behind the Escalade and parked sedan. The gunman didn’t see them but he responded to their laughter. He cursed and marched down the steps, keeping the gun aimed at the road. Rachel, beside him, covered her mouth with her muddy hand, leaving a print on her face that the rain soon washed away. Her eyes found the back of the intruder’s ankle. She thought of Brett bleeding out upstairs and raised the knife.
The gunman scanned the driveway with his gun. He checked his watch. “Three minutes,” he mumbled.
Reminding herself of her disturbing art, Rachel extended knife through the handrail posts and braced herself for the gore. The muddy edge slashed across the back of the man’s ankle. The flesh opened like a filet of red meat. The man howled and tumbled forward, splashing into the mud. His gun discharged into the tree line. He rolled to his side and opened fire at Rachel. She dashed around the corner of the building, narrowly avoiding the deadly projectiles.
Without stopping, she ran around the back of the building, passed the busted power box and enter through the backdoor.
“We got to go!” The injured gunman yelled over the storm. “The police! They’re coming!”
Drenched, Rachel tiptoed inside. Tears of rain zipped down the point of her blade and to her white knuckles. Black bangs stringed down over her face and strong jaw. Her vision honed. She hunched behind the kitchen island and peered over the granite top. Seeing the coast was clear, she passed into the living room. Rain water soaked the couch from the broken window. Outside, the injured gunman crawled on his belly to his car, his right leg dead with pain.
Rachel ducked lowly beneath the window. Broken glass crunched beneath her feet. She darted by open front door and stole a peek outside. The gunman didn’t see her. She stared up the ominous stairs. One step at a time, she ascended into the dark, second-story loft. Heart raging, she turned into the upstairs hallway. Lightning struck outside, illuminating the silhouette of Brett curled up on the floor clutching his bleeding shoulder. Bait. Rachel knew.
Amanda Barnes stepped out of one of bedrooms and into another. Her cobalt blue dress tarnished by bullet holes. Rachel moved to the bathroom and then to the one of the children’s bedroom, opposite of the one where Amanda wandered into.
The tall gunman stepped around Brett and into the hall. His walk was silent. His demeanor, calm. “You know I’m not bluffing,” the man said into the quiet house. “I will kill him if you don’t reveal yourself.”
The wardrobe door closed with a click. The gunman followed the sound and stepped into the kid’s room. He faced the old wardrobe and moved his finger on the trigger. Rachel watched through a creak in the door.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Gunshots burrowed through the wardrobe’s face. The gunman rushed to its front pulled open the door. Old blazers. A faded bloodstain. Nothing at all. Holding a chair in hand, Rachel rushed across hall from the opposite bedroom and shut door behind him. She jammed the chair under the doorknob. Bullets blew through wood. Rachel went prone. The thump of the man’s kick shook the door but the chair held.
Rachel turned both ways in the hall. Chubby Benny and cute Amanda stood in the hall, holding hands. They smiled at Rachel. Rachel repaid in kind but, only for a second before she running to her husband.
The trapped gunman slammed into the door repeatedly.
The chair leg grinded against the floor.
Rachel slid on her knees next to Brett. He held the wound. A steady red flow seep through the gaps of his fingers.
Rachel cradled his head. “Brett? Oh, please. Don’t do this to me.”
Grimacing, Brett looked her in the eyes. “Rachel… I see them.”
Rachel twisted back. Reginald and Lilith loomed over her. The couples face as intense as ever.
“Come on,” She slung Brett’s arm around her shoulder and stood. Brett grunted through his clenched teeth and gained his footing. Limping, they moved passed the chair and thumping door, and waddled down the stairs.
Headlights slashed through the busted window and onto Rachel and Brett. The gunman’s car kicked mud and reversed out of the driveway. In the distance, red and blue lights flashed behind skeletal oaks and torrents of rain. The gunman’s car skidded backwards and slammed into a tree.
Siren blaring and lights flashing, a squad car sped into view. The gunman’s car screamed forward and smashed into the police cruiser. Muzzle flashes blipped inside of the gunman’s car and spider webbed at the police cruiser’s windshield.
Three more squad cars arrived on the scene. One smacked into the sedan’s bumper, spinning the car one hundred degrees while the other cars surrounded it. The sedan’s door opened and the gunman stepped out, arms raised high and ankle spilling blood onto the asphalt. The office exited their vehicle and trained their guns on him.
“On the ground! Hands where I can see them!”
The gunman obeyed and was swiftly handcuffed.
“Hear that?” Rachel asked Brett.
Brett shook his head.
“No more thumping.” Rachel looked to ceiling. She set Brett on the soaked couch. “Get help.”
“What?” he said weakly.
Rachel ran out the backdoor, seeing the opened bedroom window above. She scanned the backyard and wild tire swing. A soft pulling directed her to the woods. Everything inside wanted her to run back to Brett, but Rachel kept the knife close and vanished into the tree line.
She dredged through wet leaves and prickly bushes, following the Sense to lead her in the darkness. It tugging feeling grew fiercer with every step in the right direction until she came across a series of boulders jutting from rigid earth. Beyond was a cliff. Rachel found cover behind of the drenched rocks, pressing herself against its cold stone face and using the rain to mask her footsteps. A gunshot rang out, chipping off a small chuck of the large rock.
Rachel stayed low and moved closer. In the cold rain, her teeth chattered and knife felt slippery in her hand. She got to her belly and snaked through the dirt and leaves. Mud sloshed up her elbows and into the neck of shirt. Ducking behind one of the boulders, the mask gunman aimed his gun at the rock Rachel had come from. Slowly and steadily, she crawled up behind him. With every crunched twig, she thought it would be her demise. With every hastily breath, she thought she’d be made. But the storm muted her advancement. In the longest forty seconds of her life, she flanked the gunman, remembering the dead children. There was no mercy shown to them. Rising from the earth, Rachel held the knife up high and pressed it against the gunman’s throat. His posture stiffened and a red tear trickled into his turtleneck.
“Hand me the gun or I open your throat.”
Rachel began cutting until the weight of the pistol was her hand. She released the man and aimed the gun at him. The gunman staggered forward, his fingers on the slice portion of his neck.
“Mask off,” Rachel commanded. Her finger resting on the trigger. She’d never held a gun before, and something about the power to take life so easy frightened her.
Grumbling, the gunman peeled away his ski-mask and let it fall to a black heap on the drenched earth. Allen Umber turned to Rachel. Water leaked from the man’s beard. “Satisfied?”
The pistol trembling in Rachel’s slippery hands. “Was it worth it?
“Barnes would’ve killed this town.” Umber replied. “Though a little intimidation, I saved a lot of people’s livelihoods. My father’s legacy. My legacy.”
Rachel felt disgusted. “You killed those kids for nothing. It least now they’ll have some fucking rest.”
Umber frowned. Rachel gestured for him to turn around. At gunpoint, Umber entered the backyard as the police swarmed in. Rachel shoved Umber to them and surrendered the gun. Officer Matthew Lynchfield clicked on the cuffs to their tightest setting and quoted Umber’s rights.
The Barnes family watched from the second story bedroom window. Amanda put her tiny hand on the window’s glass. Benny smiled widely, his chubby cheeks and marker whiskers moving at the motion. Lilith, with her permed hair and upright posture, mouthed “thank you” while Reginald acknowledged her with a curt nod. A moment later, they vanish. Only the dark window remained. Suddenly, the Senses subsided and Rachel felt the rain washing away the stress. For the first time since she moved to Highlands, she was free. Truly free.
Rachel’s legs hung over one arm of a hospital’s chair while her back rested on the other. She nibbled the top of her pencil thinking about the best way to complete her latest sketch. Should the bearded man be smiling or somber? Bloody or clear? It wasn’t an easy decision. The TV mounted in the corner of the room switched from a football game to the local news. A few passing nurses halted in front of the screen and gawked.
The anchor spoke into the camera. “With Ian Linx’s audio transcripts, the Highland Police have linked Allen Umber and David Winsler to the 1983 murders of Reginald, Lilith, Amanda and Benny Barnes. The courts ruled that both gunmen will each serves five consecutive life sentences on top of two accounts of attempted murder and one account of assault and battery. For further developments, stay tuned.”
“Good work,” a familiar voice said nearby.
Rachel looked up from her sketch pad and at Detective Jenson Peak. “Just trusting my gut. What are you doing here?” Rachel asked.
“I thought I’d admit I was wrong,” Peak replied. “The killers didn’t get away.”
Rachel smiled to herself.
Peak finished out a business card and handed to Rachel. “We aren’t blind to your contribution in this case. Think about a career change.”
Before Rachel could reply, a nursed stepped in. “Brett’s ready.”
Rachel adjusted her legs to the proper position and stood up. “I have to get going.”
“Of course,” Peak said and they want their separate ways.
Rachel found Brett seated at the corner of the bed. She embraced him with a hug. He grimaced. Rachel pulled away, studying the bandage on his shoulder.
“Through and through.” Brett explained. “They said I was lucky. I don’t feel like it.”
“It’s over now,” Rachel reassured him.
Brett searched for the right words. He spoke. “Are they gone? The…”
“Orphans?” Rachel finished. “Yes. They’re gone.”
Brett leaned back. “Thank God. I’m sorry about… everything. For thinking you were…”
Rachel took his hand. She pushed close to him. “Don’t be. I’d think I’m crazy, too.”
“Let’s be glad life is going back to normal.”
Rachel pursed her lips.
They walked to the Escalade, and Rachel assisted Brett into the passenger seat. Rachel took the driver and turned the ignition. In gorgeous fall afternoon, she coasted through town of Highlands, North Carolina. From the sidewalk, pedestrians watched her drive. An old man with fractured skull, a teenage with a black tire mark across his midsection, and a middle-aged woman with two slashed wrists. Dozens of the dead. They walked among the living, lost and alone like orphans. Rachel felt their desperate gaze on her, silently begging her for a home. She was their only salvation.
That evening, long after Brett had fallen asleep, Rachel set aside her sketch pad and popped open her laptop. She winced at the screens bright light and she typed the web address on Detective Peak’s card. The mouse cursor lingered the word, “Apply.” She turned Brett, listening to his soft snores.
Rachel’s finger clicked the track pad and started her new life.