Preview:  Into the Mist 



Barely pausing, Cheyenne snatched her phone off the kitchen counter where she'd left it, marched back through the house and out the door.

It would seem amazing to her later how quickly it happened. No more than three seconds of frozen silence at the sight that greeted her as, like Eve, her eyes were opened and she was given the knowledge, followed by maybe seven more before she was walking back out again. Ten seconds, and her life was over.

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

But she wasn't having it. Not today.

A high-pitched buzzing intruded upon her shock as she flung open the door and climbed inside. “Dammit,” she croaked as bright spots danced before her eyes. She sucked in a breath and jammed the key in to start the engine, trying to control her trembling limbs.

The sordid scene she’d walked in on played through her mind again—undeniable, irrevocable. This is it, she thought, face creasing in anguish. This is really it.

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

Not even glancing at the front of the house to see if he was coming out—it didn’t matter if he was; she wouldn’t be talking to him—she took her foot off the brake and, blinking away tears, backed down the driveway.


* * * 

She drove aimlessly, making huge roundabout circles, trying to figure out what to do.

One thing was certain, she was never sleeping under that roof again. Not after everything and not with the image of Brent and Serena now burned indelibly into her brain.

Absently she swerved onto a lesser-used road to head for the next town over.

Her best friend Jill's was no longer an option now that she lived two states away in Virgina. And her brother Caleb's place wouldn't work either with his spare bedroom being taken up by the guy he roomed with.

Which left her mother's one-bedroom apartment that was so tiny it contained only a loveseat and a chair in the cramped living room. A memory of her father—seated on the couch at his house during one of her visits before he passed away—flickered through her mind. But she wouldn’t have been able to stand staying there anyway, not with the girlfriend, who'd been the cause of her parents’ divorce, living there too.

Focus, she told herself, noticing she’d drifted over the center line. Easing the car back over, she looked up and spotted another road not far ahead. Good, I can let this guy get around me.

She turned onto the road and thought she’d succeeded in losing the truck that had been following close behind her, but then she saw it turn as well.

A hotel was what she needed. Somewhere to go until she could decide what to do. And tomorrow would be soon enough for that. For now she just needed to get some sleep and stop thinking about what she’d walked in on, a sleazy tableau that kept popping into her head over and over.

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

She increased her speed as far as she felt comfortable with on the narrow, twisting 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, and 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 begun to go down, a slight mist had formed, reducing the visibility.

She came around a curve and started into a dip, and the car was suddenly enveloped in a white haze so thick it nearly obscured the pavement ahead of her. She hit the brakes, then afraid the guy would rear-end her, let back off again.

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 fog 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 the conditions were too dangerous.

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 in the trees.

She slapped on the blinker, stomped down on the brake, and whipped it in. She bounced in her seat as the wheels jolted over what she saw was scarcely more than a buckled strip of asphalt in the process of being covered by weeds. Clearly it hadn’t been used in a long time.

Lights reflected off the side mirror, and she glanced up and got a quick look at the truck—black with huge tires—as it accelerated past. Lowering the window, she listened to the dwindling sound of it as it moved away.

And then it was gone.

She slumped in her seat, exhaling in relief. 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 rising from the ground seemed to be heavier here off the road surrounded by the trees.

Pressing down on the gas, she crept forward to find a place to turn around in. A decent room with a comfortable bed. That's all she wanted. She could have a nice hot shower and maybe a glass of wine.

Bumping slowly along, she was 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 an area so overgrown with vegetation it had climbed 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 she was out of it and moving along a gently curving section that had fared better than the previous part. It appeared to be the remains of a driveway that would hopefully continue on around so she could make her way out of there.


* * * 

The house 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 an eclectic array of windows—rectangular, arched, oval, and bay—a steeply pitched roofline with actual turrets, an inset balcony, and a long verandah that ran the length of the home. Short columns braced on brick bases seemed to be holding up the gabled roof of it fairly well except for one section that was leaning a bit. It had lengths of gingerbread woodwork, mostly intact, hanging from the top of it that matched the trim of the verandah railing. And below it, latticework covered the dark space underneath. She raised her eyes. In the center of each octagonal turret, 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.

Just sitting there empty, left to fall into disrepair and be forgotten.

What a waste. She turned her head, shifting in her seat, and gazed around her at the overgrown land surrounding the home. The areas between the larger maples, elms, 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.

Through the trees she could see something pale, a fountain or some sort of statuary. There was a muddy circle of water over by the house amongst decaying benches and tangled rose bushes that had probably been a fishpond at one point. And some of the less overrun spots, loosely bordered by rocks and containing a few plants tenatiously clinging to life, spoke of gone-to-weed flower beds.

Twisting back around, she shifted the car into gear and got going again.

Directly across from the front steps, she rolled to a stop and switched off the headlights.

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 climbed out.

Set back away from the road like it was and practically hidden by the gnarly old trees, sprawling vines, and other woody invaders, the place was completely isolated. And although it was on its way down, the late afternoon sun remained 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 exterior of the house, expecting to see at least a faded “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 had seen other houses she had thought were empty over the years that upon closer inspection had proven to be inhabited. She went to walk around the back to see if a vehicle was parked there and then didn’t bother. It wasn’t merely that the place was so obviously of a different era on an untended property, with leaning columns, peeling paint, and rotting 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 most of the ones on the lower level were drawn.

But nothing appeared to be covering the panes in the two doors.

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

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

Feeling marginally more at ease, she followed the weedy dead-leaf-covered walkway to the verandah and climbed the worn steps.

At the top she stopped and surveyed the floor. It had been covered with square tiles that had faded but were mostly undamaged and looked sound enough. But to be sure, she moved one foot forward and gradually rested her weight on it until she knew it would hold her and then proceeded carefully across.

Though she knew it was irrational, before looking in she steeled herself and grasped one of the iron rings and used it to give three quick knocks.

Shifting around on the old tiles, she waited, idly staring at a cracked flowerpot parked on the end by a corroding metal swing, and then stood on her tiptoes to peer through the glass.

She could see 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 and then widened at the huge chandelier hanging from the high ceiling—a massive, opulent fixture that seemed to float over the 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 glow in the fading light.

She straightened up and walked over to the nearest window. Leaning in, she peered through a crack in the drapes, but it was too dim to make out much.

Glancing back at the car, she moved over to the rusting swing, motionless now in the momentary stillness.

Who were the people that once upon a time sat down and gently set it to swaying 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 at the winter wonderland it must have become when the land iced 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 at the sound of a click behind her followed by a slow creeeaak.

Lowering her hand, she turned her head and looked over at the double doors. One of them now stood ajar.

Fear traced its way down her spine at the same time she noticed that the mist shrouding the property had deepened and was creeping up through the railings from the overgrown lawn. And the sunbeams that had stretched across in yellow stripes had faded, leaving the surrounding forest dim and full of shadows.

It was time to go.

She strode across the verandah, but then couldn’t help herself and paused by the doors. Something attracted her to the home even as it repelled her.

Stepping forward, she reached out and gently pushed on the door that stood ajar, and it fell open soundlessly.

Sparing only a brief glance behind her, she stepped over the threshold.

The stained-glass window above her had been set aglow by the sinking sun, lending everything a warm amber hue.

Why, it isn’t some decaying relic of the past at all, she thought, moving on in. It still held some furnishings and things in the rooms on either side of her. And were those portraits on the staircase wall?

She looked through the archway to her right at the desolate, dust-covered space and imagined how it could have been back in the day with other furnishings arranged around the single chaise lounge remaining atop the faded rug in the center—a crushed velvet loveseat, maybe, with a gracefully curved back, matching balloon chairs and other carved side chairs, doily-covered mahogany tables, softly burning candles, and hand-painted porcelain lamps.

Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to lie down in that sepia-tinged vignette of the past and let the real world recede. She was so weary, from the pain of the past year, from the shock and trauma of what she’d walked in on, and from everything she would have to face now.

If only she could go back to before everything happened and exist there for a time in those bygone days.

Had any of the people who had once resided there so long ago—those ghostly previous inhabitants who had truly existed and been made of warm flesh and blood exactly like her—ever wondered about the future dwellers that might come after they were gone? Had they wished they could meet them?

A cool gust of wind blew through the open front door, sweeping into her briefly, eliciting a shiver, and she became aware again of how gloomy it had become around her. While she had been lingering mesmerized, the sun had sunk even lower, leaving only the merest glimmer above the horizon.

Full-on dark was approaching fast. She swiveled around and walked out, grabbing the knob to close the door. She yanked it shut and hurried down the steps and across the crackling leaves littering the walkway.

Once inside the car, she locked the doors and immediately started it up, switched on the headlights, and took off down the weed-infested drive, which did indeed circle around to the old back road. At least the weather seemed to be clearing, she observed as she turned the wheel to pull out.

In no time she had made it to the highway and was on her way to Greenville, where she hoped to secure a room for the night at the Holiday Inn, where no questions would be asked and no one would care if she had any luggage.

End of excerpt