Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
“Gah!” I threw my hands up to block out the brightness, the intensity of which came up just short of surface of the sun.
“Sorry!” Leo called, not sounding at all sorry. “I thought it would be nice to see while we unload.”
Good plan. In retrospect, arriving at a supposedly haunted house at night wasn’t the smartest decision, but it was done and we could only go forward.
“Let’s just bring in our bags tonight. I’ll take stock and we can deal with the rest tomorrow.” As always, Neil made a plan of attack and was prepared to execute it.
I humped my overstuffed suitcase up the walkway toward the house with Atlas hot on my heels.
“Stay, “I commanded at the front door. As usual, he ignored me and trotted inside.
“Damn dog,” I muttered and followed him in.
It had been impossible to tell what the house look liked in the dark but inside was a different matter. Rustic log cabin motif—not the newfangled McMansion type, but real Little House on the Prairie action—with just enough outdated sixties flair to make the place a total train wreck. The entry was empty save for some dust and cobwebs. There was a spiral staircase that led up to a loft above, a hallway to the left, living room dead ahead. The kitchen was on the right and I decided to get that over with first. My hopes weren’t all that high but the heart of the house still managed to be a mangled disappointment.
I took in the peeling linoleum that had probably had a pattern once upon a time but had faded to mottled beige over the years. The tattered pale yellow and blue gingham window treatments hung limply from a bent metal frame. The cabinets were a battle-scarred brown that blended with the log walls but still managed to look ugly as sin. It smelled musty and abandoned, with a faint whiff of mouse.
“Is it all this bad?”
Leo shook his head. “I concentrated mostly on the bedrooms. Come on, I’ll show you.”
We met up with Neil at the foot of the stairs. “You guys are in here. I did the best I could to get it ready and the beds are new, the sheets clean.”
The bedroom he led us to was in the back of the house, but had its own door to the outside, which Atlas bounded to. I peeked into an adjacent room and spied a small avocado colored bathroom. Thankfully, the room was cleaner than the rest of the place, the floors swept and mopped, the corners cobweb free.
Neil opened the sliding glass door and the scent of damp air mingled with lemon-scented disinfectant and fresh sheets. The steady thrum of the roaring river filled the space.
“Much better than camping,” I decreed. “Thank you, Leo.”
“Anytime, laundry hag.” He shut the door behind him, closing us in this magical little space that was apart from the world at large.
“He hasn’t sneezed once,” Neil remarked casually.
I was so caught up in the view off our private deck that I only made a soft, “Hmmmm?”
Neil took my chin and urged me to face him. “Leo isn’t allergic to dogs, is he?”
Busted. “Well, not exactly.”
His shoulders slumped in a defeated gesture. He didn’t say a word, but he was thinking so loudly I could hear it all. Shit, this wasn’t how I wanted to start out.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t want to bring the stupid dog.”
The look he gave me was tinged with frustration. “It’s not about the dog. You just up and lie to me as a matter of course, like it doesn’t mean anything. You don’t trust me anymore, not with your thoughts or feelings or your body. That’s what hurts.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again without the half-assed explanation tagged on.
Without another word, Neil stepped out onto the deck and disappeared into the night.
“No coffee?” I gaped at Leo in horror. This had to be a cruel joke. But no whiff of hot java reached me.
“I’ve been going up to the diner.” He shrugged casually, looking ready for a photo shoot in his oatmeal colored linen shirt and pressed jeans.
Seriously, who irons his jeans?
I, on the other hand, could give the bean nighe a run for her money in the scary department. Though I’d left the door unlocked for his return, Neil hadn’t come back and I’d tossed and turned in the new bed all night, guilty, sick and scared. The fear had nothing to do with the ghost. She at least hadn’t popped up. No, I was afraid of what I’d do next to hurt Neil. But though my mind and stomach churned until the sun peaked above the rolling hills to the east, I still didn’t know how to clean up the toxic waste that had infected my marriage. Could I ever make things right with Neil?
And I was supposed to get on with the day sans caffeine? Hopeful that the coffee maker was hidden somewhere and Leo hadn’t found it, I dared to peek in one of the cupboards, spied a nest, and let it slam shut again.
“The exterminator’s already been contacted,” Leo offered. “He’ll be here at nine.”
I didn’t really want to know but had to ask. “What exactly will he be exterminating?”
“Oh, the usual. Mice, bugs.” A pause and Leo cleared his throat as though it were a backed-up drain and tagged on, “Snakes.”
no. “Snakes? Did you just say snakes?”
“They aren’t poisonous,” Leo said a touch defensively, as though I’d insulted his cheddar soufflé recipe. “And they eat the mice.”
“So what, they’ll be our mascots? Nuh uh, no frigging way, Leo. Mice and bugs are one thing, and I can even deal with the ghost, but no way in hell am I staying in a place that’s infested with snakes.” My voice turned shrill.
Neil joined us and I fought the urge to climb his tall frame like a tree. Could snakes climb trees? Lord, I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out.
“Maggie, are you all right?” Sylvia appeared, fresh as a daisy and calm as could be.
“I don’t know.” I felt dizzy and leaned against the counter.
“She’s deathly afraid of snakes.” Neil put a hand out to steady me.
Leo snorted. “I would never have guessed.”
“It means she was bitten by a snake in a past life,” our spiritual guidebook offered. “Maybe even died from a venomous bite.”
“Really?” Leo looked interested. “So, what does it mean if I don’t like turtlenecks?”
“That you have taste,” I muttered. They all ignored me except for Atlas, who gave my hand a lick of greeting.
“You were probably hanged in a past life,” Sylvia offered.
I swayed and Neil pulled me fully against him before he addressed the gruesome twosome. “This 1,000 ways to die conversation is so not helping her.”
Leo looked ashamed. “The snakes aren’t in the house. Just around it. Besides, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
Somehow I doubted it.
“How about Maggie and I go pick up breakfast?” Neil rode to the rescue with his customary heroic timing. “Where’s this diner?”
Leo gave us directions and they both put in their orders for food. A cheddar and bacon omelet with dry wheat toast for Leo, steel-cut oatmeal and green tea, if they had any, for Sylvia.
My head swam as we stepped out onto the path that led to the truck. Neil guided me, his touch concerned but distant, like he was helping an old lady across the street. Frigging Boy Scout. I was too busy scanning the walkway for snakes to come up with something to say.
As soon as we climbed into the truck, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. He turned the engine over and said, “Buckle your seatbelt.”
I did, still in search of the right words. Maybe the bean nighe had absconded with them during the night. If they’d ever actually existed.
The diner was about three miles up the road from the estate and easy to spot. The town itself consisted of t
he Wayward Son
diner, a gas station/garage, a small non-chain grocery store, a post office and a library/town hall/historical society/courthouse.
Neil parked the truck besides a rusted-out Ford and a battered station wagon. I opened my mouth, still not sure what to say to him. I had to say something, but he exited the truck and shut the door, a clear sign of a man who was in no mood to talk.
I flipped down the visor and did my best to contain the rat’s nest of my hair. My jeans were bleach stained, my flannel shirt thin, but I was presentable enough as long I didn’t stand between Leo and Sylvia. Neil looked like a surly mountain man, with rough salt and pepper beard stubble on his chin and his dark hair unkempt. Obviously, he hadn’t gotten any more sleep than me. I’d half expected him to walk into the diner but he waited for me by the front of the truck, intentionally not looking in my direction.
It’s probably better this way,
I told myself as I slithered down out of the truck. I needed coffee to be coherent, massive doses of it after the fitful night, although the snake scare was enough to get my heart up to its usual speed. Another shudder ripped through me.
“Do you want to eat here?” Neil asked without looking at me.
I considered it. Maybe we could dawdle at the diner, sit down over our own breakfast and then I’d just stay in the truck until the exterminator came and did his thing. No, that was selfish, to leave Leo and Sylvia with the burden of the work and hungry while we lingered over coffee. I might be none too proud of my recent actions, but I hadn’t changed that much.
“Let’s get it all to go. We have some planning to do.”
We sat at the counter and sipped coffee while the food was cooking. I took in our surroundings, surprised and pleased by the hidden gem. The diner was small but neat and packed full to overflowing.
“You must be the new owners of the old lock house,” a heavily accented German voice said. “I thought Alex said you were older?”
I looked up into a friendly weather-beaten face. He was as tough as old leather, cracked and creased with age, but sturdy. He wore a gleaming white apron and carried two plastic bags stuffed full with Styrofoam containers.
“It’s my parents’ place. We’re just here to help spruce it up a bit. Neil Phillips. This is my wife, Maggie.” Neil offered his hand.
“Gustav Shempsky. This is my place.” The German man gripped it and shook heartily. “Hey, Alex, come meet your new neighbors.”
A pretty woman with dark hair poked her head out of the kitchen. “I’ll burn everyone’s breakfast if I do. Unless you want to take over the grill, Gus?”
“Not on your life.” Gustav winked at her. “I’m retired.”
“Then you should find something better to do than loll around here all day.” Alex smiled to take the barb out of her words.
I liked her immediately and it would be nice to have a few inside sources to help us get the lay of the land. With any luck she’d have a few stories about the bean nighe. “Maybe we can talk later? We can drop by when you’re not so busy.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Alex tapped the small service bell as she put a plate on the counter. “Order up!”
The order happened to be ours. I drained my coffee, picked up two containers and followed Neil back out to the truck.
The coffee in my belly, plus the carry out tray scented with the promise of more to come, emboldened me. “Where did you sleep last night?”
“I didn’t.” He put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the truck. “I just sat down by the river until the sun came up.”
I pictured it, him sitting straight backed, his gaze trained out on the rushing water. The sun slowly caressing his dark hair as he waited for inspiration.
I sighed. “Neither did I. Neil—”
“Not now.” His tone was firm and unyielding. He started the truck and we drove back to the estate in silence.
Harsh daylight revealed all the flaws that the darkness had hidden. The place was pretty in an old-fashioned farm sort of way. Log cabin exterior to the main house. The windows glinted in the bright morning sunshine. There were two outbuildings, what looked like an abandoned barn, plus a large carriage house with white peeling paint and a half caved-in roof. The entire property had definitely seen better days.
And would again if we succeeded.
“Any sign of the ghost last night?” I asked Neil as we carried the food up to the house, my eyes trained for any telltale rustling in the overgrown lawn.
“No.” He was monosyllabically grim, but definite.
Leo greeted us at the front door. “Did you meet Gustav?” he asked as he took the food and set it out on the folding card table he’d erected in the living room.
I plopped into a folding chair. “Yes, and the cook too. I guess she lives nearby?”
Leo checked the contents of one container and pushed it toward Sylvia before he grabbed another. “That must be Alex Ruiz. I haven’t met her yet, but I heard she’s married to the sheriff. I ran into him at the town hall after the closing. Nice guy, not what I was expecting in this place.”
“How’s that?” Sylvia dunked her tea bag in the hot water.
“Well first off, he’s Latino. Don’t see too many minorities around here. According to the postmistress, he used to work for the National Park Service but then switched to the local municipality.”
“You work fast, all plugged into the local gossip mill already,” I remarked as I cut into my fluffy stack of pancakes. I refused to feel guilty about the mass quantities of carbs I intended to devour. The maple syrup provided by the diner was fresh and light and absolutely delicious. Proof that small towns’ lack of diversity didn’t mean lack of quality.
“Time is money,” Leo snapped in a believable imitation of Laura’s upper crust Bostonian accent.
I laughed and looked to Neil, surprised to find that he stared back at me. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. The second our eyes met he glanced away and my heart sank.
Not now, he’d said. I’d wanted to ask when but like a true chicken, had kept quiet. Was it fair of me to demand a conversation, or anything else, of him? I still didn’t know why I’d lied about the dog. Atlas lay under the table, his drool forming a little puddle on my sneaker, so it wasn’t as though it had gotten me anywhere. Had I done it just to put some distance between myself and Neil?
Okay, so I was completely neurotic and the baby conversation had freaked me out. It was well within the realm of irrational possibility that my brain had decided fibbing in such an obvious way would help me reclaim the much needed control I sought.
But at what cost? I longed to have Neil touch me, pull me against him and call me Uncle Scrooge. I missed him even though he was right there across the table. It felt as if he were further away than the times he’d been deployed.
“What do you think, Maggie?” Sylvia asked.
With a start, I realized the conversation about the property had continued without me.
“Sounds like a plan.” I had no idea what I’d just agreed to. As long as it didn’t involve snakes, I’d manage.
A car door slammed and Neil rose to peer out the window. “I think that’s your exterminator.”
“Fabulous.” Leo scurried off to greet him.
“Should we take my car?” Sylvia asked.
“You know where we’re going, right?” I figured one of us should.