Preview:  Into the Mist 

 

Cheyenne Tanner usually took her time leaving after one of her and Brent’s spats, in the hope that he would stop her, apologize, and all manner of doom would be averted. But not this time. Not pausing to pack a single item, she snatched her handbag off the bar where she’d left it, flew down the hall, down the stairs, and out the door.

She jammed her hand down into the cavernous bag Brent always made fun of and haphazardly raked through the contents for her keys.

She couldn’t believe this was happening. He couldn’t have. He didn’t.

But he had. Jesus. She needed to get out of there. And she didn’t know if she ever wanted to see him again. Either way, come hell or high water and come what may, they were through. She was done.

Rounding the side of the car, she registered a blur of movement off to the side and heard her neighbor Sandy call out, “Hey stranger!”

But Cheyenne wasn’t having it. Not today, lady.

A high-pitched buzzing intruded upon her shock as she flung open the car door and climbed inside. Blinking at the bright spots dancing before her eyes, she realized both her ears were ringing loudly and she might be in danger of actually passing out.

“Dammit,” she croaked, her voice breaking. Damn him. She sucked in a lungful of air.

Trying to control her trembling limbs, she took another breath, jammed the key in, and cranked the engine.

The sordid scene she’d just walked in on played through her mind again—undeniable, irrevocable. This is it, she thought. This is really it. Her face creased in anguish for a moment at what she knew it meant, then she couldn’t take it anymore and had to push it out of her mind.

“Just go,” she whispered, shifting into Reverse. Go.

Not even sparing a glance at the front of the house to see if he was coming out—it didn’t matter if he was; she would not be talking to him—she took her foot off the brake and, blinking tears out of her eyes, accelerated down the driveway.

* * *

 She drove aimlessly, making huge roundabout circles from one end of town to the other, and then headed toward the next one over, traveling mostly by back roads. She didn’t trust herself on the main streets. Though she hadn’t had a drop to drink, she was having trouble keeping her mind on her driving.

She couldn’t seem to think what to do. She had no home now. No matter what, she would never be sleeping under that roof again. And that left … nowhere. Her best friend Becky had moved back to her hometown of Harrisburg; her mother lived alone in a tiny one-bedroom apartment that contained only a loveseat and two chairs in the cramped living room; and her father had died two years before. She wouldn’t have wanted to stay with him anyway. His live-in girlfriend—he had never remarried after her mother—had been the reason for her parents’ divorce and Cheyenne had little love for her. She couldn’t go to her brother’s, either. He shared an apartment with three other guys, one of which slept on the couch.

Focus, she told herself, realizing she’d drifted over the center line. Easing the car back over, she came around a curve and spotted a side road up ahead. Good, I can let this guy get around me.

She turned onto the road and for a moment thought she’d succeeded in losing the truck that had been following close behind her, but then she saw it turn as well. Shit. Wiping at her eyes, she speeded up a little. A hotel was what she needed. Somewhere to go until she could figure out what to do. And tomorrow would be soon enough for that. For now she just needed somewhere to stay and get some sleep so she could stop picturing what she’d walked in on, a sleazy tableau that kept playing over and over in her mind.

With a start she realized she’d zoned out again and had been momentarily oblivious to the fact that she’d slowed way down and was being seriously tailgated by the man scowling at her in the rearview.

Pressing her foot down, she increased her speed as far as she felt comfortable with on the narrow, curvy road and held it there. The guy matched it for a while as if he could will her to go faster, or was maybe contemplating pushing her out of the way, then finally backed off.

He was no longer on her bumper, but she could see him back there, trailing at a steady distance. And to make matters worse, now that the sun had started its downward slide, a slight mist had formed, reducing the visibility.

She came around the next curve and started down into a dip, and the car was suddenly enveloped in a thick haze, nearly obscuring the road in front of her. She hit the brakes then let back off again, afraid the guy would rear-end her.

She thought when the road leveled out it would clear up, but, if anything, it only seemed to worsen. She peered through the windows, trying to see past the whiteness she was moving through, but only caught glimpses of bare winter trees.

Her nerves were so taught, she was ready to pull the car over and let the man go around her, but she knew it was too dangerous on such a curvy strip of road in these conditions.

Was it never going to end? All thoughts of Brent and what she’d seen had left her head and all she could think about was how badly she wanted that truck, which had reappeared behind her, off her ass. As if it were some physical manifestation of the monstrous knowledge she now had, it seemed to be looming back there, following her, and just as inescapable.

There! An opening just ahead.

She slapped on the blinker, hit the brakes, and whipped it in. She bounced in her seat as the wheels jolted over what she now saw was scarcely more than a buckled strip of asphalt nearly covered by the encroaching greenery. Clearly it hadn’t been used in a long time.

Lights reflected off the rearview, and she glanced up and got a quick look of the truck as it roared past. Lowering the window on her side, she listened to the dwindling sound of it as it moved away. And then it was gone.

And she was alone.

She slumped in her seat and let out a breath. After a second, she straightened up and clicked her beams to bright and then back to dim again in an effort to see. The mist seemed to be lifting, at least.

She pressed down on the gas pedal and started looked for a place to turn around in. All she wanted at this point was a cold drink and a nice hotel bed. She could have a hot bath and maybe a glass of wine. And try to forget. For one night, she could put it to the side, and forget.

Creeping along, she was just beginning to think she might have to attempt to back her way out, when she came upon a track leading off what was left of the old pavement, which had been steadily narrowing and becoming more eroded the farther she went. She veered to the right and found herself in a section so overgrown with vegetation it had climbed up overhead into a sort of canopy.

This might have been a mistake, she thought as the longer branches scraped their way down the sides of the car.

Then suddenly she was out of it and turning onto a gently curving section that had fared better than the previous part. It appeared to be an old driveway that would hopefully continue on around so she could get the heck out of there.

 * * *

 The mansion the drive led to was old and obviously abandoned, but still magnificent. It was fairly large and encompassed so many elements it was hard to take it all in. She brought the car to a stop and studied the complicated structure. The Victorian façade featured various-sized windows, cornices, triangular gable roofs above its main sections, actual turrets, an inset balcony, and a long verandah that ran the length of the home and wrapped around the side. White columns braced on rocky bases seemed to be holding up the elaborate roof of it fairly well, except for one section that was leaning a bit. Lengths of gingerbread woodwork hanging from the top matched the bigger columns and the posts of the second-floor balcony. And below the veranda, latticework covered the dark space underneath. She raised her eyes. In the center of each of the hexagon-shaped turrets, wrought iron embellishments pointed at the sky. Lightning rods?

All in all, including the basement, which she could see the windows of in the brick foundation, she counted four levels. The basement, two stories, and probably some attic space in between the turrets.

Just left out there all alone to fall into disrepair and be forgotten. What a waste. She turned her head, shifting in her seat, to gaze around at the land immediately surrounding the home. Except for the driveway, the areas between the larger elms and oaks and hedges had nearly filled in with undergrowth, but the bones of what must have once been a beautifully landscaped property were still apparent. Directly across from her something white, a fountain or some sort of statuary, was visible through the trees. To the right of her, at the side of the house, amongst rotting benches and tangled rose bushes, there was a muddy circle of water that had probably been a fish pond at one point. And a circles of rocks around some of the slightly less-overgrown spots, spoke of gone-to-weed flower beds with their few remaining blooms still clinging to life.

Shifting into Drive, she slowly drove on up, switched off the headlights, and rolled to a stop across from the front steps.

All was still. And silent, she noticed, listening. No animals rustled through the undergrowth; no birds chirped in the trees. It seemed odd. But maybe her arrival had temporarily silenced them. She sat there a minute longer and then tentatively cracked open the door and stepped out.

Set back off the main road like it was and practically hidden by the messy, wild trees, shrubs, and other woody invaders, the place was completely isolated. And though it was on its way down, the late afternoon sun was still bright enough to pierce the pines on the other side and cast dappled light onto the verandah floor.

Had she missed a No Trespassing sign? Possibly, but wouldn’t there be another one here? Clicking the car door shut, she peered up at the weathered front of the house, expecting to see at least the faded remnants of a “Condemned” notice, but there didn’t appear to be anything posted on or by the double doors.

Who would know if she looked around a bit?

It was abandoned, wasn’t it? She’d seen other houses she’d thought were empty over the years that upon closer inspection had proven to be inhabited. She started to walk around the back to see if a vehicle was parked there and then didn’t bother. It wasn’t just that the place was so obviously of a different era on an overgrown property with leaning columns, sections of sagging wood, and falling-down latticework—it was that the windows were completely dark and … so lifeless. The place radiated barrenness and neglect.

The windows above her were too far away to see in, though the curtains had been left partially open, and the ones on the lower level were completely covered by drapes.

But not the panes on the double front doors.

Before advancing any farther, she turned around and inspected the front of the property again. Unless someone came down the ancient road and then drove up the driveway, no one would ever know she was there. And there weren’t any signs warning people away. So how much trouble could she possibly get in?

For that matter, I can just say I was looking to maybe buy and restore it. They couldn’t fault her for that, could they?

Feeling marginally more at ease, she crossed the weedy dead-leaf-covered lawn and started up the pitted stone steps.

At the top she stopped and surveyed the planks that made up the verandah floor. They looked sound enough. But too be sure, she tested each step carefully as she walked forward.

Even though she knew it was irrational, before looking in she braced herself and gave three quick knocks.

Shifting around on the creaking boards, she waited, idly staring at a moldering trunk left inexplicably parked on the end by a rusting swing, then leaned in to peer through the pane of glass set in the righthand door.

She couldn’t see much, merely the shadowy outline of a chair and a table against the wall on one side and across from them a staircase rising up into the darkness. Her eyes traveled upwards, following it, then widened at the huge chandelier hanging down from the impossibly high ceiling—a massive, opulent light fixture that seemed to float over the largish foyer like a cluster of ornate balloons. It was made up of three layers of large white globes that matched the tops of the banister posts and seemed to gleam in the fading light.

Unable to stop herself, she reached out and tried the door, but of course it was locked up tight.

Pulling back, she blinked her eyes and walked over to the nearest window. She peered in through a crack in the drapes, but she couldn’t make out a lot.

She glanced back at her car, then moved over to the rusting swing, motionless now in the stillness.

Who were the people that once upon a time sat down and gently set it to rocking on sultry summer days, or chilly autumn evenings like this one in the last rays of the setting sun? Who had ventured out onto this verandah in the coldest months to gaze out at the winter wonderland it must have become when the land froze over and the snow fell?

She would have loved to have grown up here. What a different world it would have been.

She reached out to give the swing a gentle push and then froze, hand still outstretched, at the sound of a click behind her followed by a slow creaking noise.

Lowering her hand, she turned and stared over at the double front doors. One of them, she could see, now stood ajar.

A cold fingernail traced its way down her spine at the same time she noticed that the mist which had shrouded her arrival earlier had returned and deepened into nearly a fog that was creeping up from the overgrown lawn through the railings.

And the sunbeams, which had reached across the swing in yellow stripes, had faded, leaving the surrounding forest dim and full of shadows.

It was time to go.

She strode across the warped wooden planks, but then couldn’t help herself and paused by the cracked-open doors. Something attracted her to the home even as it repelled her.

As if her hand had a mind of its own, she watched as it slowly extended and pushed on the righthand door.

Why, it wasn’t some decaying, dreary ghost of the past at all; it still held furnishings and things in the rooms to her left and right. And was that portraits on the wall? And the stained-glass window above her had been set aglow by the sinking sun, lending everything a warm amber hue.

Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to go in and lie down right there in that sepia tableau of the past and let the real world recede. She was so weary. So very weary, from the shock and trauma of what she’d walked in on, and from everything she would have to face now.

A chill wind blew across the verandah, sweeping into her briefly, eliciting a shiver, and she became aware again of how gloomy it was becoming around her. While she had been staring mesmerized into the interior of the home, the sun had dropped even farther, leaving only the merest glimmer low on the horizon.

Full-on dark was coming on fast. She grabbed the doorknob, wincing at the sudden frigidness of it, yanked it shut, and hurried down the steps and across the crackling leaves littering the ground and walkway to the car.

Once inside, she locked the doors, then immediately started the engine, switched on the headlights, and took off down the cracked and weed-infested drive, which did indeed circle around to the old back road. At least the weather seemed to be clearing, she noted.

In no time she had made it back to the main road and was on her way to Woodville, where she hoped to secure a room for the night at the Days Inn, where no questions would be asked and no one would give a damn if she had any luggage.




End of excerpt