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A Family Mystery Uncovered

This is the second story prompt from the book I got for Christmas and it took me several versions to get something I didn’t hate. The title was given to me and the words that had to be included are underlined throughout the text. I haven’t edited this story, either, so I apologize for anything repetitive, misspelled, or just plain idiotic. 

Enjoy!

Title: A Family Mystery Uncovered

Words: Sunday, secret, wallpaper, swap, sister, curiosity, island, notebook, marathon, demand


I laid in my bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, and held very still. Even breathing seemed too loud and made my heart race at the thought that I’d be heard and the ghost would come for me.

Every night for as long as I could remember, there had been unexplainable sounds that woke me up and kept me paralyzed in fear until exhaustion simply won out. I was only fifteen but I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t living in terror. When I complained to my mother about the moans, taps, and scratching I heard throughout the night she shushed me, declaring it all a bad dream. She even took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ‘night terrors’ which was absurd. Did you have to sleep to have those?

My sister, who had the attic bedroom, never heard a thing – or so she claimed. She was two years older and so close to graduating and leaving home that we rarely even saw her. But every now and then she’d invite me to her room to hang out or for what she called a sleepover. We’d roll sleeping bags onto the floor and lie awake, gossiping and making up scary stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Those were nights that I cherished and would miss when she was gone.

“Do you think mom will let me swap rooms with you when you leave for college?” We were sprawled on the couches one Sunday in the throes of a massive rom-com marathon. “I can’t sleep in that room at all and I’m worried that whatever is in there is going to finally come for me. It seems like your room doesn’t have the noises and stuff.”

Angie glanced at me quickly and popped a chip in her mouth. “Seems that way, huh? Did it ever occur to you that you just don’t notice it when we’re both in there?”

I paused the movie and sat up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I hear the same shit you do, it’s just not as loud all the way up there.”

Gaping, I tried to wrap my mind around what she was telling me. “Wait – so you’ve been hearing the same stuff all this time? I was forced to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to convince me it was all in my head and you’ve heard it too?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and started picking at her fingernails. “Come on, Mel, what do you think would have happened if I’d said anything? The folks would demand that I get my head shrunk, too. You were already going: if it was determined that you were insane it could be surmised that I was, too, right?”

Just then, our mom walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the island and pulling bobby pins out of her hair, letting it hang loose around her shoulders. “You were what, Ang? What are you two lazy bones talking about?” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms.

Angie and I exchanged a quick wide-eyed glance before answering.

“Oh, you know, Mel’s worried about getting accepted to college. I was just telling her that I was worried, too, but she doesn’t have to worry about it.” She tugged at my hair playfully. “She’s smarter than I am, anyway.”

Mom cocked her head and smiled at us with soft eyes. “Oh, you girls! It makes me all warm inside to see how close you are!” She dashed across the room and wormed her way to a seat right between us and reached for the bag of chips. “So what are we watching tonight? Are we on a romance or horror kick right now?”

*****

The noises were particularly upsetting and my hands were trembling as I clutched at my comforter. I couldn’t keep my eyes still; too afraid to move at all and possibly draw attention to myself, my gaze was constantly flitting from one shadowy corner of the room to the next, certain there was something crouching in the darkness.

Whatever was keeping me awake had moved on from taps and moans to bangs, thuds, and outright muffled screams. How was my mom not racing through the house right now, making sure we were safe? It sounded like someone was being murdered.

There was a creak outside my bedroom and my heart tried to jump out of my chest when the doorknob turned. I pulled the covers over my head and chanted in my head, Go away, just go away!

“Melissa?” my sister whispered from the doorway and I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

“Angie!” I hissed back, lifting the edge of the covers so she could jump in and we could huddle together for at least the illusion of safety. “Do you hear it, too? It’s so much worse!”

“We have to do something, Mel,” she said. Her hand flashed out from under the blanket and clicked on the lamp next to my bed.

“What are you doing?” I tried to climb over her to douse the light but she held me back.

“Whatever is going on isn’t going on inside your room. Don’t you think if movement or light drew it to us that I would’ve been caught on my way down here?” She pulled a notebook out from under the sheets and placed her palm on the cover. “I’ve been writing down every event over the past year, documenting what I heard, what time, what day, and I think there’s a pattern.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying, my nerves were shot and adrenaline was at an all-time high. “A pattern? What does that mean?” I pulled my knees up to my chest and tried to slow my breathing and my racing brain. With my eyes I traced the floral pattern on my wallpaper as the vines and leaves wound around the room, over and under, through and across.

“I mean, there are thumps and bangs nearly every night but things get really crazy every three weeks or so.” She tapped her finger on her chin. “What is going on every three weeks to ramp activity up so much?”

Before I could formulate a hypothesis, something caught my eye. The wall above my desk was moving, almost breathing. I watched a spot bow out and back flat, out and back until I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Angie was still thumbing through her notebook, trying to figure out what the pattern could mean so she didn’t notice when I climbed off the bed. My curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I advanced on the wall, walking on tiptoes until I could reach out and touch it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A hand settled on my shoulder and it immediately had a calming effect. I loved that my sister was right there, offering her support and letting me know I wasn’t in this alone. I straightened my spine and lifted my hand once more.

“I don’t know that you want to do that.” My mother’s voice sounded in my ear and I spun around to find her right behind me, a serene smile on her face.

Her blood-spattered face.

“Wha-what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Angie?”

I leaned around mom to see Angie lying across the bed, unmoving, her notebook flung to the floor. Mother waved a hand and said, “Oh, don’t you worry about her. Your sister will be just fine. I only gave her a small dose. She’ll wake up with a doozy of a headache, but nothing a little aspirin can’t sure.”

Pressing my back against the wall, I was horrified at the calm vision before me. My mom’s hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail that swung against the shoulders of a red track suit. After closer inspection, it wasn’t meant to be red. Her hands and her clothes were drenched in red, carrying with them that distinct metallic smell of blood.

“What have you done?” I barely choked the words out, fear gripping my chest as I stared at this monster who looked like someone I loved.

She clucked her tongue and stroked my cheek, saying, “Oh darling, I hadn’t intended on revealing our little secret quite yet; it’s far sooner than I had hoped. I didn’t think you’d be ready for another couple of years, to be honest.”

My mouth hung open even as I tried to escape her gentle touch. “I don’t want to know your secret!”

“Oh, it’s not my secret,” she chuckled. “This is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations of our family, from mother to daughter, for centuries. Once you see it in motion, actually get to perform the rituals with your own hands, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”

She reached for me as though to gather me in her arms but before I could slap her hands away, the wall behind me exploded outward, showering us all with plaster and dust.

“Save me!” a voice rasped out as a bony claw clamped onto my shoulder. I screamed and my mom’s eyes lit with a blood lust I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. She calmly stepped forward and peeled the fingers off me, bending them back until they cracked and the voice in the wall emitted an inhuman screech of pain, before the hand and the voice disappeared in a series of muffled thuds.

I dashed to my sister’s side as she began to wake up, groaning, and I could think of nothing but trying to protect her. Mother smoothed her stained hands down the front of her suit and took a deep breath.

“You two stay put and I promise I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She leaned in to peck a kiss to my cheek and winked. “But right now I’ve got a man to catch.”

END

A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

My older son’s girlfriend gave me a writing prompt book for Christmas and I’ve decided to use one each week just for fun. Each prompt comes with a title and a list of words to use in the story. It was a bit of a challenge, it’s largely unedited, and I had to do a little research – but it was definitely fun!

Title: A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

Words: carnival, sprained, mask, oxidation, awkward, apple, juvenile, controversy, twirl, sassafras


Sitting in the corner, trying to hide in the shadows, I watched him. He was handsome, a little awkward as he sipped a cola and tapped his fingers in time to the music. But he’d do nicely.

This hotel piano bar was one of the best places to find what I needed. People were always coming in and out of town, rarely staying more than a couple of days. And on any given Sunday night, this watering hole was full of the lonely, desperate souls looking for any form of affection.

He glanced around, looking at every face, perhaps trying to determine who he might approach for a little anonymous fun. Poor dear. Smooth skin, fidgety, he couldn’t have been more than 21, if he was even that old. Recklessness emanated from him in waves, giving off the stench of a juvenile delinquent. I tapped a finger against my chin. Was it worth the trouble he would undoubtedly give me?

I leaned forward just enough for the light to hit my eyes and his head whipped around in my direction, his aura glowing as he offered me a shy smile. Oh yes, he would be worth every ounce of headache that came with him.

Melting into the dark, I waited. He’d come to me – they always did. These children who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, thinking their stones were bigger than any who had come before them. I loved being the one to teach them a lesson and make a little money along the way.

“Ahem.” The voice yanked me out of my thoughts and I was surprised to see the bartender standing in front of me, brandishing a tall glass full of dark liquid. “This is from the…gentleman…at the bar.”

I peered around him and the young man lifted his own glass in salute with a waggle of his eyebrows. Ugh. Disgusting. But I accepted the drink and raised it, winking as I took a sip.

“Jesus, what the hell is this?” I spluttered.

The bartender snorted. “That, dear lady, is a bona fide sassafras root beer.” He glanced over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at me, wagging a finger. “Don’t be too rough with him. He’s young and stupid and naïve. Actually, you should just leave him alone.”

“Fat chance,” I murmured. Giving the bartender a glare, I waved him away, watching the young man approach. He rubbed his hands on his slacks, steps unsure as he drew closer. “Hello,” I called to him. “I’m Delphine – won’t you join me?”

The smile that lit up his face was darling and I had a moment’s pause about what I was about to do. My life has seen its fair share of controversy and many would call me a witch or a whore or just a criminal. Growing up, my entire family lived this way. Luring in unsuspecting men and women with a coy look and the hint of a promise of love – or sex, at the very least – just to enchant them into giving up anything we wanted. Sometimes it was cash or a vehicle, other times it was information and their deep, dark secrets. It was how we survived. We never devastated anyone, left him or her destitute or in danger. We weren’t monsters.

“I’m Jim,” he gushed, taking my hand and pressing his lips to the back of it. “I saw you over here and I swear on all that’s holy that I’ve never seen anything as wondrous. Do you believe in fate, Delphine?”

I raised an eyebrow. Very interesting. He was already enamored of me without a drop of magic being used. Perhaps this would be easier than I anticipated. As I fully took in his features – the blond curls, plush, soft lips, caramel colored eyes – I realized I would enjoy this much more than usual, at the very least.

“I do indeed believe in fate, Jim,” I cooed. “I see no other reason we would have both turned up at this dingy piano bar on this very night unless the stars were aligned in my favor. Thank you so much for the drink. It was quite unusual but very refreshing. Sassafras, it is?”

He scooted closer to me and picked up the glass, holding it to the light. “Oh, yes. Truly a magnificent plant, you know, and delicious to boot! Now, I know what you’re thinking,” he drawled. “Wasn’t this stuff banned in the 1979? It was, but don’t you worry a bit; you see, the safrole is the only thing that was potentially dangerous and this root beer contains a specific oxidation of the bark that is absolutely safrole-free. We are free to consume as much of the stuff as we want!”

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” I replied. He handed the glass back to me and raised his own, clinking them against one another. Taking an enormous glug of his drink, he seemed surprised when I only sipped at mine.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t you like it? I should have asked before sending it over.” Jim raked his hands through his hair and frowned. “I’m so stupid, always doing things like this. Not everyone likes this kind of drink. You’re so beautiful and sophisticated I should have ordered you something much classier, like a martini or a glass of champagne. I’m so terribly sorry.”

He looked so distraught I was afraid I’d lose him before I’d even had a chance to begin. Laying a hand on his knee, I tried to reassure him. “Oh that’s not it at all, I adore sassafras! See?” I choked down a big swig of the garbage but he still looked unsure I downed the rest of it in one swallow. It gurgled in my stomach but the brilliant light was back in his doe eyes so perhaps it was worth it.

“Oh, Delphine, I’m so glad you like it!” He looked down at my hand on his knee and his cheeks blazed pink, but he didn’t move my hand. Instead, he wriggled his chair even closer and threw his arm across the back of my seat and leaned in close. “Did you know that the sassafras plant has been used for centuries by many diverse cultures?”

His breath was warm on my cheek and although the topic of plant usage through time sounded boring enough to almost make me abandon this mark, I found myself being drawn toward him. “You don’t say? That sounds fascinating. How was it used?” What the hell? Did I actually say that?

Titling his head to the side, he narrowed his eyes as his smile grew broader. “You know, I think I’ll wait a little bit longer to share that information.” Glancing around he lowered his voice, asking in a deep, gravelly tone, “How’d you like to get out of here?”

Now he was talking my language. “What did you have in mind, Jim?”

He sat back and slapped his hands together. “Hoo, boy, have I got just the thing! Across the street, there’s a little traveling carnival that comes through here every few years.”

“A – a carnival?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve never been to one, my parents wouldn’t allow it when I was growing up. But I’ve always wanted to try it! The rides, the food, the games – it all looks like so much fun and I would like nothing more than to win you a prize, Miss Delphine.”

I frowned. What the hell was this nonsense? Throughout my life there had been many men that asked me to do many odd and degrading things, but a carnival? My initial assessment of this mark had been that he was adorable and young and taking him to bed to get what I wanted would be a distinct pleasure. Had I been wrong about him? I shook my head: I was never wrong.

“That sounds wonderful! Are there any games you think you’ll be particularly good at that you’d like to start with? Perhaps the milkcan toss or climbing the rope ladder? I was always a fan of the ones where you shoot water at a target to make you horse run faster than the others.”

Jim threw his head back and let out a guffaw loud enough to make all the other patrons shoot annoyed looks our way. “Gosh, no, Delphine! When I called it a carnival, that wasn’t really the right word. It’s more of a medieval fair than what you’d strictly consider a carnival. Oh no, these games are a bit different – and require a bit more skill than luck. There is one that I’m most excited to try out, if you’re up for it.”

A medieval fair? Well, shit. When I said I’d been doing this for a number of years, the number is much higher than one might expect. I look to be in my late twenties – early thirties at the very most. But the truth is that I remember the true medieval fairs of the world, the ones that involved true knights and deadly feats of strength and prowess. Those were also the days when many of her loved ones were lost to the fear and ignorance regarding witches. While there were those who had sold their souls and their bodies to satan, Delphine and her kind were more closely related to Wiccans. The difference was that they used their affinity for nature to punish the evil and stupid men and women who deserved a little retribution.

“Oh honey, I’m up for just about anything,” I told him. “You only have to ask.”

Now his cheeks started to burn a darker pink and he cleared his throat. “Okay, but it’s going to sound like a strange request…” He took a deep breath. “You’ve heard of William Tell, right? There’s a booth that lets you shoot an apple off your partner’s head with a bow and arrow and I’ve been dying to try it! I know I’d be good at it if I just had the chance! But so far, I haven’t been able to convince anyone to come with me. How about it, Delphine? Will you be my mark?”

Before I even truly registered what he’d said, I was nodding my head and laying my hand on his cheek. Wait – did he say mark? There was a pinprick of concern at the back of my mind but it was quickly overshadowed by something else, something lighter and joyful and accepting of anything he said.

“Oh Jim, I’d be delighted!” I threw my arms around his neck and pressed my cheek against his. Oh, he smelled so good. My fingers found their way into his curls and having him in my arms lit a fire in my belly that I hadn’t felt in…well, in centuries.

He stood, bringing my hand to his lips yet again as we made our way to the door. I was enthralled with the shift of his shoulders and the way the light played across his smooth skin and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had a vague understanding that we were going to do something dangerous but somehow I knew in my bones it would be okay if I was with Jim.

The lights of the carnival flashed and glowed as we approached hand in hand and I honestly felt giddy. He wasn’t lying about this being a medieval setting. There were wenches and knights, jesters, lords and ladies. A small group was gathered around a booth where they were throwing axes at a target. Badly. There were shops and stands selling everything from chainmail to swords to trinkets and the people milling about were eating it up.

“Oh, there!” I pulled Jim’s hand and tried to drag him to the line of archers I spotted on the edge of a lighted field to the right. The workers were dressed as you would expect Robin Hood’s merry men to be but the patrons were in shorts and sundresses, rubbing the skin on the inside of their arms as ugly purple bruises jumped to the surface from where the string landed in the wrong place.

Pulling me against his side, his warm arm wrapped around my shoulders, I felt rather than heard him chuckle as he steered me away. “No, no, sweet Delphine, that’s not for us. That attraction is for the weak and the childish. People like you and me are destined for excitement and deserve so much more.” Jim stepped back and raised his arm, leading me in a little twirl and bringing a giggle out of me.

Good lord, a giggle? I was nearly 400 years old and a powerful being; I was not supposed to giggle. Somehow, in the middle of the spin, I stumbled in a hole and painfully twisted my ankle. “Ow!”

Jim immediately stopped and scooped me into his arms. “Are you all right, Delphine?”

The lights around me began to waver and wobble and I thought to myself, That’s odd. There were wards and protections put on me to keep me from getting injured – or inebriated. But there I was, my ankle throbbing and swelling even as my head swam. “Do you think it’s broken?”

Pressing a kiss to my cheek Jim replied, “No, I doubt it. It may be sprained, but I think you’ll be just fine.”

“How am I supposed to be your mark if I can’t stand on it?” Were my words slurring?

Laughter rumbled up in his chest as we drew closer to a dark tent filled with flickering candlelight. “I wouldn’t worry about that, darling Delphine. You have been a delightful mark already tonight.”

Once the tent flap closed behind us, all other sounds ceased. It was almost like we were in a different plane of existence, separated from the real world by that relatively thin stretch of canvas. My head lolled back against Jim’s shoulder as he carried me to the center of the tent.

“Remember I was going to tell you more about the sassafras and how it was used throughout the centuries? I think now is a good time for that.” He set me down and with a gentle pressure leaned me against what I thought was a wall. I stumbled a little and gasped from the pain in my ankle. “Oh, of course,” Jim mumbled. Then he leaned down and wrapped his large palm around the wounded area. With a quick squeeze, there was a sharp pain then nothing. I rolled the joint around, testing it, and found that the swelling was gone. His lips were next to my ear and he whispered, “Better?” before kissing my cheek.

The daze I was in faded but, it appeared, just a bit too late. As my faculties returned and I was once again in control of myself, I realized that my wrist and ankles were secured to the wall, allowing zero movement. My hands were wrapped tightly in gauze so I couldn’t move my fingers. Well, that was inconvenient as I needed to move them to cast any spells.

“Sassafras was used widely to build ships and furniture, the twigs for oral hygiene, and the leaves have long been used in cuisine around the world. Did you know that you can cure meat and treat wounds with a certain concoction made with the leaves, too? Burning the bark has been known to protect and ward off evil and my family has used it this way for many, many years.”

I watched him back away, one side of his enticing mouth curled up. With surprise I noted that he no longer looked young and naïve, inexperienced and awkward. Those golden brown eyes had a wisdom deep in them that hadn’t been there earlier.

“Okay, that’s enough now, Jim. I agreed to come play your game with you but I’m not comfortable with being lashed to the wall. What kind of game is this, anyway?” I batted my lashes in an attempt to turn the tables back to my favor. “I know some other games involving bondage that we could play…privately.”

That made him pause, and I could see the idea taking root and starting to grow. I had no idea what he had planned, but I’d survived much kinkier and more dangerous incidents than this one. Before I could say anything else to encourage him to let me go, he shook his head and smirked, wagging a finger at me.

“Ah, you are very good, Delphine. I was warned about you but I had no idea just how enticing you could be.” He turned to me, tossing an apple in the air and catching it with one hand, a swath of fabric in the other. “My family used sassafras frequently, but most frequently it was used on and by the people of the villages we lived in. You see, it is a very potent ingredient in love charms and potions. While we were persecuted for being…magical…the same people who feared us also wanted to use us to their own ends. The recipe for the love potion was handed down through centuries and perfected through trial and error. You, my sweet witch Delphine, drank down a small dose earlier tonight, just enough to let your guard down so I could get you here. Alone.”

He stopped directly in front of me, his eyes searching my face with wonder before he leaned in and captured my lips in a searing kiss that left me breathless with my toes curling in my shoes. When he pulled back and I could see his face again, I gasped. No longer was I looking at the awkward young man with blond curls I had tried to pick up in the piano bar. Instead, I was staring into the violet eyes of an aged warlock, the aura I had spied much earlier blazing wildly around him.

“Shoot, has my mask fallen away?” He clucked his tongue and checked my binds. “I was never very adept at maintaining such a façade when my ire – or passion – has been riled up. And you, Delphine, have definitely tested my limits.”

My lips were on fire, tingling unpleasantly. That bastard! He’d had a potion on his lips when he kissed me, I knew it well. It rendered the recipient immobile and unable to speak. So I glared with all the hatred I could muster.

“We’ll have none of that, dear,” he grumbled. “This has been long coming, you must know that.”

I felt the apple as he perched it on my head and I willed my muscles to move and shake it off, but I had zero control over any part of my body. Jim – or whatever his real name was – turned away, no longer afraid to take his eyes off me and retreated to a table a good twenty feet away. With a grin, he knocked an arrow in the bow and took aim.

“Let the games begin.”

 

 

Return To Me: Part 7

Too terrified to move, Emma could only stare, mouth agape. She couldn’t make out any facial features, hair color, or clothing, but the outline of a man was evident. The shape didn’t move or make a sound, just sat perfectly still at the head of the table.

Where Justin always sat.

The exhilaration that coursed through her veins was unlike anything Emma had felt before. It had worked. Justin was here.

A sob escaped her before she could stop it. This was everything she had wanted, her most fervent wish come true! Her knees were suddenly soft and threatened to give out on her, putting her at risk of falling to the floor in a blubbering heap.

“Justin!” She called his name in a breathy laugh and took a step forward, ready to rush through the night into his arms.

As she watched, the figure silently began to stand. That wasn’t quite right, she thought. The motion more closely resembled a mist rising from the floor than anything a human body could do. There was no rustling of clothing, no squeak of the chair on the floor, nothing to indicate actual movement.

A small whisper of air blew past Emma, lifting the strands of hair that lay against her damp cheek. Her muscles tensed and she found herself holding her breath.

There was a palpable difference in the room. The air felt charged with electricity, crackling with latent power about to explode. Emma’s heart was racing but the pounding in her ears drowned out everything else. It was as though the whole world was holding its breath along with her.

Her stomach in knots, Emma took in a shaky breath and whispered, “Justin?”

She looked more closely at the shadow and realized something was wrong. Very, very wrong. The street lights were bright enough that the rest of the room was lit up, the furniture illuminated in stark relief. But somehow the light didn’t touch the figure. All the brightness seemed to be swallowed as soon as it touched the shape, like being sucked into a black hole. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t make out any features – there weren’t any.

A terrifying realization fell over Emma. Whatever this thing was, it was NOT her husband. It was shaped like Justin, as though his shadow was being cast into the room, but that was the only similarity. This was so much more than a mere shadow. It pulsed and breathed and moved in a way that was wholly unnatural and set her nerves jangling in alarm. Where her husband had been sunshine and love, this emanated darkness. All the warmth in the room was overrun by a chilling sense of dread.

She had been tricked.

The cold understanding of the manipulation took her breath. All the dreams had been visitations, there was no doubt. But the truth of who – or what – had been visiting her in her sleep was chilling.

Emma took an involuntary step backward and watched in horror as the shape stepped – no, not stepped: floated? drifted? – through the dining room table, advancing on her at a languid, relentless pace. All the air was suddenly sucked out of the room, the pressure in her ears making her wince.

What had started out as a desperate prayer for happiness had turned into a living nightmare. Every second brought the menacing figure closer and closer, the sense of impending danger growing. Emma cast her eyes around her, looking for an escape or a weapon or something to rescue her from the situation, but she was pressed against the wall at the end of the hallway. In a panic, she dodged to the side, intending to dive back into her bedroom. But before she had taken more than a step, the door slammed shut, nearly catching her hand in the process. Ice water filled her veins and she turned her gaze back to the entity’s imminent progression.

Her brain was a jumble of static and fear and she was no longer able to make sense of what she was witnessing. The shadow continued to glide through the space between them, insistent and unhurried. Emma wanted desperately to run, to try to dash through or around this dark figure and escape into the night outside but her limbs refused to obey her. On the verge of collapsing physically and mentally, a memory poked at the wall of fear surrounding her brain, begging to be seen.

YES. That Emma had prepared for exactly this scenario was a fact that had been forgotten in her state of pure terror. The cautions from the old crone at the shop prompted Emma to do a little research. She had come across numerous warnings about meddling with the afterlife, about the unpredictability of the spirit world and the likelihood of inviting in something unwholesome and possibly evil. While she had trusted Dream Justin, she hadn’t been entirely convinced the conjuring incantation was going to work in the first place. But she reasoned that it couldn’t hurt to have an idea of how to protect herself. Just in case.

Her hands flew to her hips looking for pockets that weren’t there. Patting down her backside and her stomach and her chest, Emma was somehow shocked to realize she was barely dressed. She was in her pajamas, the handwritten spell discarded somewhere else, out of reach.

Clutching at her hair, pushing down the scream that gurgled in the back of her throat, Emma racked her brain in an attempt to draw out the words she needed. The dark entity proceeded inexorably forward, but its substance had changed. Where it had started out as only a shadow, it appeared to have gained some substance, a roiling mass. There was depth to it now, like a billow of black smoke, writhing and twisting in on itself. The shape was swirling faster and faster as Emma watched, almost as though its excitement at overtaking her was manifesting in movement.

Words flashed into Emma’s mind, jumbled together randomly, nonsensical. She floundered, her overwhelming anxiety making it impossible to snatch anything useful from the whirlwind in her head. The darkness was closer now, churning and reeling, licks of shadow bursting forward, just feet from Emma. She pressed herself against the wall. There was nowhere for her to go, and watching the determined progression pulled a scream from deep inside her.

She raised her hands in a futile attempt to ward off the evil now close enough she could hear the swishing and buzzing its rolling motion created. With a burst of reckless urgency, she shouted the first words that rose to the front of her internal maelstrom.

“You are not welcome here, you have no power to cause me harm! I call upon all the powers of light and love to drag you far from me, back to the depths where you belong!”

The shadow stopped its forward movement, shaking and gyrating with more speed, getting louder and louder, a high-pitched keening adding to the noise. It began to expand, filling the hallway and blocking all light seeping through the windows. Emma clamped her hands over her ears, shouting the words over and over again, battling the roar of what could only be the entity’s rage.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE! YOU HAVE NO POWER TO CAUSE ME HARM!” A fierce wind blew through the hallway, making it hard for her to breathe, but she persisted. “I CALL UPON ALL THE POWERS OF LIGHT AND LOVE TO DRAG YOU FAR FROM ME, BACK TO THE DEPTHS WHERE YOU BELONG!”

Emma flailed one hand at the wall next to her, searching for something, anything, to save her. Her hand landed on a light switch, the incantation continuing to flow from her lungs with her last breath. The malevolent phantom redoubled its growth, raising the cacophony to unbearable levels, freezing air now whipping all around Emma. Certain that her death was upon her, she forced herself to face the attack with eyes wide open, knowing that the last thing she would ever see would be the sudden burst of forward movement just before the darkness swallowed her, body and soul.

She flipped the switch under her palm by instinct, shrieking from every cell of her being. As light flooded the space around her, she was hit with an ice cold explosion of air followed by a deafening silence.

Emma stood in the bright hallway, chilled to the bone, but unharmed.

And completely alone.

Join the ‘Christmas Book Flood’ with Indie Authors

In Iceland, there is a holiday tradition called Jolabokaflod (Christmas Book Flood) in which books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and the family spends the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate or a non-alcoholic Christmas ale.

I love this idea!

Not only does it expand the reader’s horizons and support authors, but it also gives everyone a moment to just relax. The holiday season is so fast and wild, filled with shopping and parties and traveling that you need to allow your family – and yourself – time to just slow down and enjoy the moment.

In encouraging all of you to try this tradition on for size, I’d also like to make a few suggestions on books to gift. Through the local and online writing community, I have met some talented authors from all over the world: Australia, Central Iowa, Chicago, England, California, Florida, Pennsylvania. Their genres span everything from saucy romance to horror to dystopian sci-fi to women’s fiction to inspiration and more. And I’d love to share them with you.

Here is a list of some of my favorite indie authors:

Taylor Hohulin: “Your Best Apocalypse Now”

Sarah Latchaw: “Hydraulic Level 5”

Laura A. Barnes: “Rescued By The Captain”

Michael Stoneburner: “He Was A Boy Who Smiled, Book One: Phoenix Rising”

Jeanine Lunsford: “Remembering First Love”

Kelly Fumiko Weiss: “The Cube”

Rev. Rebecca Holland: “Through My Good Eye”

Jethro Weyman: “Two Halves of the Candle: Volume One”

Ben Monroe: “Dying of the Light: A Short Story of Survival Horror”

Adam Wing: “Matriarch”

Some of these authors have series, some write poetry and novels, some write more than one genre, so be sure to check out each author to see their other work. Keep in mind that by purchasing one or more of these books, you’re giving two gifts: one to the recipient and one to the independent author through supporting their dream.

What is a favorite book you received or gave as a gift? Leave a comment below or send me an email!

Return To Me: Part 3

One year later, the pain was no less. The loneliness had only grown exponentially. And the isolation had become far more pronounced. Identifying Justin’s body had been the single worst experience Emma had ever lived through. She tried to erase that image with alcohol for the first couple of months afterwards, crying until she threw up then washing down all the pain and guilt and solitude with another bottle of wine.

There had been some even darker days that she had somehow made it through. She had a vague recollection of getting out of bed and showering every day, of leaving the house and nodding woodenly to friends and family as they offered their condolences but ultimately didn’t know what to say. Emma knew she must have eaten at some point. The only memory that stood out in stark relief was the night, six months into her life as a widow, that she had stared down the barrel of a loaded pistol.

Literally.

Emma lit the candles on the dining room table and looked over the settings once more. She had never told anyone about that night. It was the darkest moment she had ever experienced. The only thought in her mind had been that she needed to be with Justin. Without him, there was nothing in this world for her. Until the moment she realized he was really gone, Emma had considered herself an independent woman. She didn’t need a man to make her happy, to take care of her. She loved Justin and they had an amazing partnership in which they were happiest together, but she could survive alone if necessary.

At least that’s what she thought until being alone became her reality.

Thinking back as she checked the oven, she was surprised at how easy it had been to make that deadly decision. There was no weighing the pros and cons, no contemplating the ramifications to those she’d leave behind. It had been as simple as thinking there was nothing left in this world for her and she didn’t want to stay in it anymore.

She had been at lunch with her mom when it presented itself as the only solution for her, but she said nothing. Her mother had been relaying how Emma’s friends were always inquiring about her, sending their well-wishes and love. She had tried not to roll her eyes at that. Her closest friends had come to the funeral to show their support. They made donations to the local homeless shelter in Justin’s name. They brought beautiful cards with flowery poetry scripted on the inside. Some brought her casseroles – really, what was a now-single woman going to do with six pans of lasagna? – while others sent flowers or cookie bouquets. Her best friends even made a few tentative phone calls with half-assed invitations to get together when Emma knew that was the last thing they actually wanted.

Sadness and loneliness that couldn’t be alleviated hung like a lead weight around Emma’s neck every day, every night, every waking moment. Her mother encouraged her to get out, to do something, even if it was just taking a walk. Lois meant well, but Emma had been sunk so far in her grief there was nothing her mom could say or do to pull her out. Emma had let her mind wander over the last few months. The awkward lunch dates with her mother, her father’s clumsy hugs and stilted conversation because he simply didn’t know what to say. The long days and even longer nights that left her wishing for a gas leak or some other disaster to kill her in her sleep.

In that moment, at that thought, it all became so clear. Emma’s eyes were wide and clear for the first time in a long time. She felt a little guilty when her mom perked up, too, thinking her daughter was taking her well-meant advice to heart. In reality, Lois was witnessing the beginning of a plan that would ultimately end her daughter’s life. It was simple, really. Her parents were going out of town for the next week, a trip that had been planned even before Justin’s accident. If she used her time wisely, Emma could start the wheels in motion and be free of this nightmare before they returned.

Sure, her parents would be devastated for a while. She felt some remorse for that. But they would be so much better off without worrying about Emma every day. She would be at peace and that would bring them peace.

After a three-day waiting period, Emma picked up the small 9mm pistol she had selected. It wasn’t fancy. It was used and cheap, but she was assured by the salesman that it was reliable and easy to handle. She had lied to him, saying that she had just moved to town and, living alone, she wanted something to keep in the house, just in case. She had turned it over and over in her hands, admiring the compact size of the solution to her misery.

A concise note explaining her actions had been left propped up on the kitchen counter. She owed her parents that, at the very least. The house was clean and neat. The food from the refrigerator had been thrown out two days before. Emma wasn’t eating much these days anyway. All of her bills were paid, all of her services had been canceled.

She was ready.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she had once shared with Justin, Emma took a deep breath. This was the moment. Six months of missing the piece that had made her whole, made her who she was and gave her the strength to face anything, was long enough. Soon she’d be reunited with Justin and they would be together forever.

With a sense of calm she hadn’t known in what felt like eons, Emma contemplated the weapon, deciding what would be the most efficient way to take her life. She’d heard about some who shot themselves in the chest, right into the heart, but she wasn’t confident that would do the trick. Head, it was. Should she press the muzzle against her temple or place it firmly between her teeth? She frowned. There were stories of both methods going horribly wrong and only maiming the shooter. While she had never contemplated suicide before and certainly wasn’t an expert, she knew that if you were going to do the deed you’d better make sure it took.

She held the gun up and pointed it squarely between her eyes. The muzzle stared back at her, the black void promising her peace at last. This was it. She pressed the gun against her forehead, positioning it so there was no way to miss, and closed her eyes.

“Justin…” His name came out in a reverent whisper and she pictured him in her mind’s eye.

Soon.

Suddenly a crash sounded from the living room making Emma jump. She hadn’t put her finger on the trigger yet and the gun fell from her hands, clattering to the hardwood floor. Emma sprang up from her bed, her heart pounding loud and frantic in her chest.

Someone was in the house.

Return To Me: Part 2

“Uh, can I get you something to drink?” Emma was aware that she was stalling but she smiled at the officers and pointed toward the kitchen. “I can get some coffee going pretty quickly or I have iced tea or some different sodas…”

The officers glanced at each other and the male cleared his throat. “No, thank you. That won’t be necessary. Please, have a seat.”

Her head felt unexpectedly light, and Emma perched awkwardly on the edge of the armchair, facing the officers who were sitting side-by-side on the couch. A muffled voice could be heard somewhere close by and Emma cast her eyes around the room, trying to find the source. She was surprised to see a cell phone in her hand and stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do with it.

Stalling.

Stalling.

She lifted the phone to her ear and croaked out, “Mom? Mom, I have, ah, company. Can I call you right back?” She nodded at whatever her mother had said and disconnected the call without another word, finally turning her attention to the figures before her.

“Mrs. Baker, we have some very bad news to tell you,” the female officer started, and Emma began shaking her head involuntarily. She didn’t need to hear what the woman was about to say. She already knew. Somehow, she already knew it deep in her soul.

Emma wanted to run, to make them leave. Her stomach clenched, on the verge of expelling its contents and she needed to leave. But her body was frozen in place, unable to escape the nightmare that was about to begin.

The officers exchanged another glance and the female officer continued. “Your husband, Justin Baker, was in a car accident this afternoon and was killed.”

Emma blinked.

“I am very sorry this happened.” The male officer had kind eyes, Emma thought randomly as she stared at him, waiting for him to deliver the punchline she knew had to be coming. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

Her head still wagging back and forth in denial, she locked eyes with the man then the woman, back and forth, trying to understand the words she had just heard.

“I’m sorry – what? What are you telling me? No one died. You’re wrong. My husband is on his way home from work and we’re going to a costume party. You have the wrong house, the wrong Bakers. Justin is about to walk through the door any second…” Emma floundered with her phone, trying to check the time.

He should have been home more than an hour ago.

She felt like all the blood was evacuating her body, starting at her scalp and moving through her face, her chest, her stomach, to her toes. Her feet were suddenly freezing cold and stars began to form in the edge of her vision.

Her phone resumed its insistent vibrating, message after message filling her screen but Emma barely noticed. Her mind was simultaneously racing and immobile. She couldn’t move past the loop that was playing over and over in her head. Justin is dead. He isn’t coming home. You’ll never see him again, never kiss him again. Justin is dead. Dead.

 Justin. Is. Dead.

Lifting her head slowly, Emma realized the officers were still sitting on her couch. The woman was talking. She saw her lips moving, but Emma couldn’t hear anything over the buzzing in her ears. It was the strangest sensation. Her head was filled with static, her fingers and toes felt like they were encased in ice, her cheeks and lips were tingling with pins and needles.

“Ma’am?” The male officer’s voice cut through the other noise. “Mrs. Baker, are you okay? Do we need to call anyone for you?”

Emma shook her head. “I…What – what do I do now?” All the fight had drained out of her and her words came out in a whisper. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Have You Met…Jo McMillen

In a previous post, I asked for advice on deciding which project to focus on for NaNoWriMo and I’m thrilled with my decision. Finishing my work on Bradford Mansion has been a lot of fun so I’d like to introduce you to my heroine!

Have you met…Jo McMillen?

Hilarie Burton is exactly how I picture Jo!

Growing up, Jo found her calling in woodworking and home renovation, but struggled to fit in. None of her girlfriends were interested in getting dirty in wood shop and none of the boys knew how to talk to her, much less date her. Now thirty years old and independent, she’s grown to be a level-headed and stubborn woman who’s fought her way to the top of her industry. So when she comes across a dream opportunity to purchase and restore a local mansion, she doesn’t think twice.

It doesn’t take long for her to realize her rash decision may have been a huge mistake.

Strange things happen on her first night in Bradford Mansion, but she refuses to be scared away. In fact, the bizarre occurrences only make her more determined to stay put. She is forced to confront the mischievous ghost of the estate’s long-dead heir, Nathan Bradford, and the two immediately clash. He can’t reconcile his old-fashioned ideas in her, and she’s done trying to fit anyone’s mold. Both want solitude, both claim ownership of the mansion, but neither will give an inch. Instead, they fall into a rocky friendship that gives them strength to face challenges that could destroy them.

I adore writing this character and putting her in some pretty strange situations. While it sounds insane, I’m always surprised to find out how Jo reacts to the things I throw at her!

Bradford Mansion has been so entertaining to write. I can’t wait to finish this novel so I can share Jo, Nathan, and all the other players with you!

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about this story, feel free to comment below or send me an email.

Decisions, Decisions

Hello again, friends and followers! I know it’s been a while but I’m hoping to jump back in with a variety of posts coming to you weekly. If you have questions or blog post suggestions, I would love to hear them! Leave a comment or send me an email at [email protected]

My birthday is this month which is pretty anticlimactic anymore – except I get cake! I am not even remotely joking when I tell you I have to do minor math to figure out my age at any time. This year, the day itself is full of activities with my writing group, After Prom planning, and SPOKE business. And that’s okay. As long as I get some kind of cake and I don’t have to make dinner, it’s all good.

But the best thing about October is that it’s almost NaNoWriMo time!

Working under a deadline seems to be a great motivator for me. Knowing I have a goal to reach in a specified period of time lights a fire under me. Turns out I’m a little competitive. The trouble arises this year in the form of an inability to choose a project for the 50,000-word challenge. I’m leaning one way, but haven’t committed to anything. Yet.

My choices are as follows:

  • Finish What I’ve Started: My NaNo project from last year is very close to finished but is, in fact, NOT. It’s a light fantasy novel and a huge departure from what I normally write so my confidence in it is a bit low. I also have a ghost love story that I worked on over the summer that has a lot yet to say. There’s subterfuge, romance, and impossible odds. I’m fairly certain I could surpass 50,000 words between these two projects.
  • Oooh-Shiny! During the Drake Relays, Andrew and I worked out a story line based off a creeper in a pickup truck ogling co-ed runners, even slowing down as each one passed. From that sprang the idea for a crime novel with a middle-aged, worn down female detective who stumbles upon a serial killer. A brand-new novel is almost guaranteed to get me over that finish line.

While it’s very tempting to start an exciting new story, I haven’t done any planning so far this Preptober which is not good. Sitting down to write without a clear idea of where the story should go fills me with anxiety. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. Pushing at boundaries, stepping outside the box, stretching my skills, and expanding my comfort zone could be beneficial.

If I survive.

 

What should I focus on for NaNoWriMo: Finishing older works or starting something new? Please comment below or email me – I’d love to hear from you!

Dysfunction Takes a Holiday

For as long as I can remember, I have had a big imagination. I can’t think of a time in my life where I wasn’t playacting in some form or another. Sometimes it was Barbies with my sisters, sometimes it was movie reels in my head, sometimes it was me in front of my bedroom mirror. As an adult, it comes in the form of ‘what-if’ scenarios that play out as I clean or drive or, most often, walk the dogs.

The result of this big imagination is that I have a pile of story ideas jostling for attention.

My first story, posted on Channillo in mid-November of 2018 and in a Halloween anthology called Chills Down Your Spine, gave me the confidence to keep writing. After that, I wrote a few other slightly bizarre short stories and started three serials. One of them, The Path of Least Dysfunction, has been shared on this website weekly since it started in January 2019 and I have been so tickled by the responses I’ve received. A couple readers even picked teams, using #TeamJamie and #TeamChris on Twitter. Talk about an ego boost.

That’s why it’s bittersweet for me to say that Chapter 35, which went live on Channillo August 26 and will post here on September 11, is the last chapter of The Path of Least Dysfunction. At least for a while.

I haven’t stopped loving the story or the characters and I certainly adore the people who have been keeping up with it all along. But my attention was fractured and everything I am working on was suffering for it. At the beginning of the summer I sent my first completed novel, I’ll Call You Mine, for editing and haven’t touched it since I got notes back. There are three partial stories that I would still like to finish. November is fast approaching and I have yet another project I want to write for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

The inside of my head is a wild and crazy place and is getting a bit crowded.

For the next month I will be editing I’ll Call You Mine and working on only that. The last thing I want to happen is to leave readers hanging or give them boring stories and sub-par writing. This latest chapter gave me a place I could pause for a while without leaving a cliffhanger. I have loved writing about Alexis and Jamie and their crooked path to wedded bliss. At the beginning of the year I hope to continue their story. After all, they have a lot more story to tell.

Thank you so much for following along! I will continue to write and to post character bios, random thoughts, and story snippets.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below and stay tuned!

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

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